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March 2015

Have you thought about growing your own garlic?

Garlic bulbs being seperated into cloves ready for planting. Large cloves are planted. Small ones make their way to the kitchen. Little eco footprints

Autumn is garlic planting time. An old gardener once told me that garlic needs to be in the ground before St Patrick’s Day. St Patrick's Day usually falls around the Autumn equinox (in the southern hemisphere) - so it's a nice reminder of a good time to plant garlic. For those of us in temperate or warmer climates, plant any later and the bulbs may not have time to fully form. It's a rule I've stuck to for the past few years – and I wasn't about to break it. So just few days before St Patrick's day I was scrambling to prepare a new bed for garlic.

Soil preparation is the key to growing good garlic.

Choose a sunny location and make sure the soil has good drainage, is high in organic matter, and has a neutral to slightly alkaline pH. The “well-drained” is especially important – as garlic bulbs don't like being water-logged.

Garlic is also suited to growing in pots. 

In previous years I've planted my garlic in soil enriched with mushroom compost. Mushroom compost tends to be alkaline - so suits garlic which dislikes acidic soil. This year I didn't have any mushroom compost handy, so instead dug in worm castings and compost. I added a generous dose of lime to reduce soil acidity. If I was more organised I would have also proceeded planting with a green manure crop - dug in to increase organic matter. 

Straw bale style garden bed. Little eco footprints

I tried something different with my garlic bed this year. My garden was still drowning in pumpkins - but I didn't want to delay planting any longer. The only bare ground I could quickly and easily turn into a garden bed was in the chook run. I used some local cheap spoilt hay as an edge, and covered with some mesh I had. I ended up with an easy and frugal straw bale-style garden bed that the chickens can't scratch. 

Straw bale style garden bed mulched and planted with garlic. Little eco footprints

Garlic doesn't like to compete with weeds, so heavy mulching is important.

Mulch can be added before planting, or after once the plants emerge. Mulch with whatever is locally available. This year I mulched heavily before planting with aged wood chips. In previous years I've used straw or lucerne hay.

Garlic is grown from bulbs separated into cloves.

Bulbs can be sourced from garden supply stores, a gardening friend, or an organic greengrocer. Supermarket garlic won't be suitable as it's likely been treated to prevent it from sprouting.

I used cloves saved from last year's crop. I bought a couple of bulbs from Green Harvest a few seasons ago and have been gradually been building up numbers. I planted 100 cloves this year. 

Separate bulbs into cloves once you are ready to plant. Larger cloves will produce larger bulbs, so use only the large cloves for planting. The smaller cloves can be eaten.

Plant cloves at least 15 cm apart and make sure the tip of the clove appears just above the surface of the soil or mulch. The flatter or root end should be pointing down. Although don't worry too much about getting this right as commercial growers simply drop cloves in any which way and they eventually turn the right way up.

Water well - and don't water again until shoots appear. The garlic will shoot within days. Mine was up in just a few days and now a fortnight later is already 10 cm high.

Once planted, garlic is easy to look after. 

Keep weeds under control by topping up mulch when needed.

I apply seaweed fertiliser and worm wee in spring.

It's important to keep soil consistently damp (but not waterlogged) during dry periods.

Stop watering around a month before harvest once the bulbs are fully formed and the leaves have started to brown.

Garlic is slow food at its best and won't be ready to harvest until around eight months after planting. I usually harvest mine in late November.

Some of last years garlic harvest. Little eco footprints

There's still time for you to plant your own garlic. Grab a few pots or prepare a bed, plant some cloves, and you'll be enjoying home grown garlic before Christmas. That seems a long way away – but home grown garlic is worth the wait.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 23rd March 2015.


Simple living inspiration - A Plain Buddhist Manifesto

It's easy to be overwhelmed when contemplating how we can get ourselves out of the environmental mess we've created. I've found clarity and comfort in focusing my efforts on material simplicity and on nurturing my family and local community. The food we eat, the way we spend our time and money, and how we contribute – that’s how we can make a difference.

Jason Chan's plain and simple belongings. Little eco footprints

My friendship with Buddhist monk Jason Chan has helped me relax into a more local and simpler approach to inspiring change.

Bhante Jason practises Plain Buddhism – a "deep integrated spiritual approach to simple living" that is based on the early teachings of the historical Buddha.

Jason's Kathina celebration at our little farm. Little eco footprints

A Plain Buddhist Manifesto - public talks

Jason is delivering a series of eight public talks over the coming two months. The talks will be held from 6.30pm every Saturday from 4th April until 30th May (except 9th May) at Purple Pear Farm, Anambah. Admission is free and talks will be followed by meditation and chanting.

Glancing at the list of topics covered – food, clothing, shelter, medicine, family, community and education – it’s easy to not get a sense of the revolutionary change Jason is suggesting. But don’t let the everyday nature of these topics mislead you. It’s at the heart of our lives that Jason believes we should focus on.

"We cannot afford to plod on to the same old tune of life through debt, over-consumption, material things and sensual pleasures. We are destroying ourselves, corrupting our societies, trashing our environments and debasing our spiritual potentials. It is time to wake up. It is time to change," Jason Chan. 

Plain Buddhist Tent Village.

For those of you wishing to delve deeper into Plain Buddhism, you can participate in a two-week Plain Buddhist Tent Village. The village will be "for those who wish to learn how to live in material simplicity and deep co-operative community through the teachings of the historical Buddha".

Feeding a monk. One of the meals I served Jason during his rains retreat. Little eco footprints

I'm expecting it to be somewhat like an extreme simple-living boot camp with a good dose of spirituality. I won't be attending the whole camp - but plan to pop in every now and then to help prepare food. 

At the heart of the village will be a huge seven-metre high tepee, complete with a central open fire. Jason suggests the simple relocatable structure demonstrates perfectly that "just enough is more than plenty".

The first tent village will be at Purple Pear Farm from 4th July.

So far there’s about "30 people, both Buddhists and Buddhist sympathisers of all ages – ranging from a three-year-old toddler to a 78-year-old elder".

Participation in the tent village is free. There’s a handful of places left. To apply email buddhist.tent.village(at)gmail.com. No need to worry if you miss out this time – this tent village will be the first of many.

A crowd-funding campaign has been established to support the first tent village. To contribute – "and gain good kamma in return" – visit dana.io/plain-buddhist-tent-village.

Bhante Jason is currently walking from Sydney to Purple Pear Farm via Newcastle. If you notice him by the side of the road, stop and say hello. If he’s on his alms round (collecting food in his bowl) you have a perfect opportunity to practice generosity.

Sourdough bread served at Jason's Kathina celebration. Little eco footprints

Hot tip: Jason values fresh food full of life energy: sprouts, leafy green vegetables, and freshly made vegie burgers. I know he’s not allowed to have a favourite food. But if he did – I’m quietly confident it would be home-made sourdough bread that was mindfully kneaded by hand.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 23rd March 2015.

 


Disconnect for a day of happiness

Happiness is the first proper harvest of honey from our little farm. Little eco footprints

This Friday, March 20, is International Day of Happiness. The day recognises the importance of happiness and wellbeing for all humans across the globe. In their resolution for the day, the United Nations acknowledged the need for a more equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that places greater importance on happiness.

Happiness is three generations working together to harvest our honey. Little eco footprints

Wanting to celebrate such a worthy idea, I visited a few websites set up in aid of the day for inspiration. There’s no shortage of them – 24hoursofhappiness.com, dayofhappiness.net and dayofhappiness.com.au, just to name a few.

I was disappointed to discover that these websites suggest I celebrate the day in front of a screen.

They suggest that I can have a #happyday and spread the word about #InternationalDayofHappiness on Facebook or Twitter, or contribute to "taking over the internet with happiness for 60 minutes". I can subscribe to more email clutter and have a happiness activity emailed to me each day for a week. There’s even a list of 24 tweets I can tweet every hour on the hour throughout the day and a 24-hour music video I can watch.

I doubt any of these online activities would nurture happiness or wellbeing – in fact they are more likely to contribute to our overwhelm and disconnect.

Happiness is learning how to weave a traditional basket. Little eco footprints.

Despite being more "connected" than ever before, we're becoming "disconnected" from our homes and our communities.

Happiness is Little Eco learning how to weave her first basket. Little eco footprints

Halfway through researching this column, some of the websites switched their content from 2014 Day of Happiness to 2015. I was relieved to see a slight shift away from an online focus and greater recognition of the contribution of real-life to our happiness.

Happiness is finding cherry tomatoes in our abandoned summer garden. Little eco footprints

A desire to nurture her real-life connections is what motivated Christina Cook, author of The Joy Of Missing Out: Finding Balance In A Wired World to give up the internet for 31 days.

"I knew the internet was allowing me to emotionally disengage from myself and my loved ones. I was living in a constant state of information overload and a vacuum of joy. I had too much information and not enough wonder," wrote Christina.

Christina suggests "our energies, creativity and time – perhaps the best of us – are being spent committed to screens ... And with the help of these devices, we are living in a kind of medicated stupor, muted gray: happy, but not too happy, sad, but not too sad".

Happiness is a friend gifting us an armful of figs. Little eco footprints

I appreciate technology and love that within seconds I can download detailed images of the life cycle of a queen bee, or connect with like-minded people on the opposite side of the globe.

But I want to put technology in its place.

I want to use it as a tool.

I want to connect with the online world for a specific purpose, and then switch off and return to the real world.

"Our digital devices dominate our every day – affecting our work, impacting our intimacy and shifting our thinking. For all the affordances of our new communication technologies, we haven’t established healthy norms or habits as a culture, and it’s costing us our time, creativity, energy and relationships," Christina wrote.

Kicking off my efforts to establish a healthy screen-life balance seems a worthy way to celebrate International Day of Happiness.

Happiness is a loaf of home made sourdough ready to go in the oven. Little eco footprints.

My first step is to detox.

Starting tomorrow**, I’ll be staying away from screens for a week. No television, no computer, and I’ll be turning off data on my mobile phone so that it’s just a phone.

I'm guessing I’ll find far more happiness than I would if I’d continued staring at screens all week.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 16th March 2015.

Happiness is not collecting the eggs for a day and feeling rich when collecting two days worth of eggs. Little eco footprints

**I had intended to start my screen detox on Monday. But then I realised that trying to detox from screens is similar to embarking on a food detox - it's not sensible to jump in without preparation. My inbox was neglected and overwhelming. My physical space was cluttered. So I paused, took a few deep breaths, tidied, and tackled my neglected inbox. I'm almost ready (I think).

I was looking for recent images that captured happiness for me. These images remind me that creating and being an active participant in life is what makes me happy.

Happiness is ....

..harvesting the honey from our little farm. 

..three generations harvesting together. 

..learning how to weave a traditional basket - yolngu style. 

..Little eco learning how to weave her first basket. 

....Finding loads of cherry tomatoes hiding in our abandoned Summer garden. 

..A friend giving us an armful of figs. 

..A loaf of sourdough ready to go in the oven. 

..Not collecting eggs for a day - and feeling rich when collecting two days worth

Passively staring at a screen is a good place to find inspiration - but it's not a good place to find a life. 

See you in a week. Perhaps you could switch off for happiness too? 


Bunya nut bounty: How to process and cook Australian native bunya nuts

How to shell bunya nuts. Little eco footprints

Bunya nuts would have to be one of the most under-appreciated Australian bush foods. I’ve been enjoying an abundance of bunya nuts and have been surprised by how delicious and versatile they are. I’ve eaten bunya nuts every day for more than a week and thanks to a stash in the fridge will continue feasting for a few more weeks.

The fruit of the Bunya pine tree is full of edible and nutritious nuts. Little eco footprints

Feasting on the fruit of the majestic Bunya Pine (Araucaria bidwillii) is nothing new. Thousands of Australian Aboriginal people would gather in the mountains of south-east Queensland during bumper bunya nut seasons. Tribes came together from afar to feast on the nutritious nuts, exchange stories, trade, socialise, and resolve issues.

Tribes would leave nourished and connected after feasting for many weeks.

The last great bunya gathering was in 1887. The tradition was revitalised in 2007 and the Sunshine Coast Bunya Dreaming festival is now an annual event. I love the idea of feasts being used to build community and revitalise culture.

Despite growing naturally only in Queensland, huge old Bunya Pine trees can be found in parklands across the east coast Australia.  The ornamental qualities of this majestic giant, which can grow up to 45 m tall, saw it planted in many parklands and botanic gardens.

Jorge Tlaskal shelling bunya nuts from a tree he planted 25 years ago. Little eco footprints

Twenty-five years ago, Jorge Tlaskal planted a couple of Bunya Pines in his garden at Bulga in the Hunter Valley. He waited 24 years for his trees to produce nuts. I was fortunate to help Jorge collect and process the last of this season’s cones. 

Foraging australian native nunya nuts. little eco footprints

In late summer Bunya Pine trees drop huge cones the size of a bowling ball – and almost as heavy. So it’s best not to loiter under trees when gathering cones.

Gathering bunya nut bush tucker. Little eco footprints

How to open bunya nuts

To get at the nuts you need to pull the cone apart and peel the tough husk away from the seed. It’s best to do this as soon as you can as the husk becomes harder to remove as it dries.

The nut is encased in a super-hard shell. Nuts within intact shells can be stored in the fridge for weeks. The longer you store, the sweeter they become. Aboriginal people would store them in dilly bags placed in running water and would also ferment or sprout them by burying them in holes covered in mud or dirt (a nice overview of Australian aboriginal storage and uses can be found here).

Bunya nuts opened by boiling in water until the shell softens and splits. Little eco footprints

Opening the hard shell is a challenge. You can gently crack the shell with a hammer or rock and roast in the oven or on coals until the shell splits in two. Or you can boil in water until the shell softens and splits (pictured above).

Or there’s Jorge’s ingenious method:

Opening bunya nuts using a pair of garden loppers in a vice. Little eco footprints

Jorge quickly and easily cuts the shells in half using a pair of garden loppers held in place using a vice.

Bucket of bunya nuts. Little eco footprints

Within minutes we cut through a bucket of nuts.

Bunya nuts being removed from their cut shell. Little eco footprints

The nut can then be easily removed from the shell with a teaspoon.

Opening bunya shells with a pair of sharp garden secateurs. Little eco footprints.

A pair of sharp garden secateurs works just as well, but is a little more time consuming.

Bunya nut cotyledon. Little eco footprints

I've read one mention of the cotyledon in the centre of the nut (pictured above) not being edible. Most sources claim the entire nut is edible - which makes sense as there is no mention of the Australian aboriginal removing the cotyledon during preparation. Indeed, they presumably preferentially ate the cotyledon (which becomes the first first leaves of a seedling) when they sprouted the nuts. 

I removed the cotyledon the first few times I ate bunya nuts. Then I ate them with the cotyledon - and noticed no noticeable difference. I no longer bother removing the cotyledon. 

The nuts are safe to eat raw but are much tastier cooked. 

They have a unique flavour and texture, similar to white sweet potato or chestnut.

There’s a myriad of ways to cook bunya nuts

Stir-fried bunya nuts cooked with garlic. Little eco footprints

I like eating them simply stir-fried in olive oil with loads of garlic and a sprinkling of salt. Or boiled and served with a dollop of butter.

They can be baked in pancakes, biscuits, breads and cakes.

Bunya nut flat bread pikelets. Little eco footprints

I made delicious flat breads - influenced by how they were traditionally eaten by aboriginal people: ground and made into a paste which was roasted in hot coals to make a bread. To make these mini flat breads I processed raw nuts to a fine paste, added a little yoghurt, and fried small patties of the mix in a cast iron pan. Served with loads of honey they were delicious.

Buckwheat and oat groat porridge with bunya nuts. little eco footprints

Bunya nuts are also a delicious addition to porridge. I soaked the nuts overnight with buckwheat, oat groats, dates and spices and cooked briefly in the morning. Delicious. The bunya nuts reminded me of macadamia nuts. 

They are also delicious snacked on as pesto or with dips.

Or used in pasta sauce, casseroles, soups and stir-fries.

Bunya nuts served as a pasta alternative gnocci style. Little eco footprints

Bunya nuts are particularly good boiled and served as an alternative to pasta - juts like you would serve gnocci. 

Pan roasted vegetables and bunya nuts. little eco footprints

Eggs with a side of bunya nuts. Little eco footprints

They are also a great addition to a quick meal of pan roasted vegetables or as a side for eggs. 

Planting Bunya Pines as a perennial food tree

The bunya nut is so versatile I’m considering planting a few Bunya Pines - kind of like an extreme permaculture perennial food forest. I can imagine the family feast 24 years from now.

Bunya pines can live for an amazing 500 years.

I like the idea of my descendants 17 generations from now – enjoying fruit from a tree I planted. My great great-great-(you get the picture)-grandchild could collect nuts from my tree.

That’s a dream worth having.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 9th March 2015.


How to have healthy and happy indoor plants

How to care for indoor plants. Little eco footprints

Indoor plants can improve our mood, purify the air and even nurture our creativity. But to enjoy the benefits of indoor plants, it’s important to keep them healthy.

A wilting, brown plant is not going to be very effective at improving mood or air quality. 

Houseplants only need a little love and attention to thrive. Little eco footprints

Indoor plants only need a little love and attention to thrive.

I'm in the midst of collecting a few new indoor plants. We’re prettying up our city home for sale, but own a lot less stuff than we did when we lived here two years ago. So I'm filling empty spaces with plants. They don’t cost much and make me feel a little closer to nature.

With so many new plants to care for, I've refreshed my knowledge of indoor plant care.

The fist step is to get to know each plant.

Find out its name – read the tag or browse an indoor plant book from your local library. Each plant will have different preferences for light, water and nutrients. Once you know its name, you can go in search of more information that will help you meet its needs.

You can’t avoid getting to know the requirements of each individual plant – unless you are happy to learn from your mistakes.

I've killed many maidenhair ferns. I even managed to almost kill a friend’s maidenhair fern when house-sitting for only a week. Maidenhair ferns don’t like to dry out, even for a few hours. So it’s important to water them regularly. On the other hand, most indoor plants don’t tolerate waterlogged roots and prefer their soil to dry out between watering.

I water my ferns regularly, at least once a week, ensuring their soil remains damp. I water the other plants far less often. I judge soil moisture by poking a finger into the soil and only water if the soil feels dry.

Indoor plants in preloved frugal pots. Little eco footprints

How you water is also important.

For most house plants, it is better to water less often and more deeply than to offer light frequent watering. I like to soak my plants in a bucket of water, submerging until air bubbles have stopped appearing – indicating that the soil is saturated. I then place pots in the bath or shower to drain.

Location, location, location. 

Location is important for indoor plants. It’s important to match the plant to the light level. A well-lit position near a north-facing window (for those of us in the southern hemisphere) will suit most plants.

In other locations where there’s less light (for example a small south-facing window) or too much light (such as the sill of a west-facing window), you’ll need to choose your plants carefully.

I’m adding plants to a relatively dark room with only a small south-facing window. I’m choosing shade-tolerant plants like the peace lily, ferns, philodendron or a Rex begonia. They should do fine in the dark conditions for a while, but I’ll need to move them to a lighter area occasionally for them to thrive.

You can’t avoid getting to know the requirements of each individual plant. Little eco footprints

Fertilise regularly

Most indoor plants will do best with regular applications of fertiliser. I add liquid fertiliser or worm wee to my watering bucket around once a month.

Annual check-up

Once a year, usually in spring, I add a layer of worm castings on top of the soil.

I also repot any plants that look like they have outgrown their pot or need some extra love. It’s important to use a good quality, lightweight potting mix.

Singing or talking to your plants apparently does help them thrive. So don’t forget to play them music or sing them a song.

 Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 2nd March 2015.