Wild Bird Feed – Quality Does Matter

Bird FeedingAs organic techniques go, there can be few more rewarding than encouraging birds into your garden.  Not only do they consume plenty of pests (aphids, slugs, snails and so on), they are also a pleasure to have around.  It’s a sad fact that many of our native species are in serious decline, the main cause almost undoubtedly being habitat loss.  As towns sprawl ever outwards, disused land, green public spaces and even our gardens are snapped-up by developers (if ever a profession was misnamed!).

While the seed heads and fruits of autumn make it a bountiful season for birds, as we move towards winter the natural supply of food becomes more scarce.  This is unfortunate for birds because the falling temperatures require them to expend more energy keeping themselves warm, so it’s pretty obvious that any help from gardeners will be greatly appreciated.

Winter is a good season for watching birds however, as many bushes and trees have shed their leaves.  Hunger also makes some birds bolder – look out for robins, and for thrushes foraging on your lawn.  So what can you do to attract these useful allies?  Water is hugely important, and you should try and maintain a reliable supply of clean water in a shallow container – try putting the lid of your water butt on upside down; if it fits, top it up straight from the butt each day.

Food is also vital, and quality is a very important factor.  I have on occasion bought cheap, end of line feeds thinking ‘every little helps’, but in fact they generated little interest from the birds.  One batch, bought from a major DIY chain, was infested with meal moth grubs which proceeded to break out of the packaging and eat through most of the dry food in my kitchen cupboards!  I now stick to reliable brands, and try to buy little and often from a good supplier so I can be sure the food is fresh.  Have a look at Original Organics’ new range of Kingfisher bird feed for a little inspiration.

Until next time!

All things green: The 3 R’s and Freecycle

There’s a section of society (which, if you’re visiting a website like this one, probably includes you) that has known for many years how important it is to reduce the amount of waste we produce. Just lately though, I’m starting to feel like it might actually be taking root in the wider public consciousness.

I’ve been doing a bit of spring cleaning recently; clearing out a garage, moving the junk left on my allotment by the last tenant, that sort of thing. It used to be the case that you would take the fruits of such a task to the local tip, where it may or may not be recycled. These days however, I’ve discovered most ‘rubbish’ will be collected free of charge and taken to a new home. The Freecycle website is a wonderful tool in this regard – just post details of anything you no longer require (for example, Offered: 30 old copies of National Geographic) and you will probably have a number of people keen to collect. Even broken furniture will be snapped up by someone with a wood burner. What’s more, I have twice left a pile of faulty electrical items and scrap metal in public view (waiting to be loaded into the car) only to have them eagerly removed by enterprising (if slightly scruffy) chaps in a (more than slightly scruffy) white Transit. The value of scrap is clearly making their daily circuits of residential streets worthwhile. Interestingly, they declined my offer of two rather nice wooden chairs. Either they like to stick to their niche or they know that there is more embodied energy (and thus value) in a broken hi-fi than a hand-crafted chair.

Perhaps a less personal indicator of this ‘zeitgeist’ is that most of the supermarkets have taken the long-overdue step of keeping plastic bags under the counter until you ask for them. Just by repeatedly reminding us of the issue they are clearly having an effect on our habits.

Of course before we Recycle, we should be aiming to Reduce and Reuse (in other words, buy less stuff and try not to throw it away!) but there are very few products that cannot be saved by one of those three ‘R’s. The question is, with many decades of reckless consumerism behind us and a potentially lean time ahead, how soon will we stop filling landfill sites and begin to mine them for their wealth?!


All things green: Wild Birds of my Allotment

Wild Birds of my allotmentEvery time I turn up at my allotment with my digging fork, the cheeky robin who’s resident on our plot appears out of nowhere and I can’t help thinking how lucky I am to have a little patch of my own in one of the few green areas left in my town. The robin does a great job of keeping me motivated and he eats as many grubs and ants’ eggs as I can uncover.

I’m happy to report that my site is a true haven for wild birds – so much so that the rustic arbour my neighbour built for his grapevine is riddled with woodpecker holes! In fact, across the UK allotments and back gardens make up most of the remaining safe places for breeding birds. Allotments tend to be more cat-free than back gardens, which is why we so often get the benefit of birdsong as we tend our plots.

There are lots of things we can all do to make life a bit easier for our feathered friends, and this year in particular they need all the help they can get. The late, wet and cold start to spring, preceded by a bitter winter, has led to a real shortage of food. Let’s hope the weather picks up quickly!

There are sound practical reasons for helping birds too. They provide an extremely useful form of pest control; eating slugs, snails, asparagus beetles and aphids to name just a few of the critters I’ve spotted this month. What’s more, the waste that birds produce is not to be sniffed at – I use the deposits beneath my bird feeders to enrich the soil, helping to provide bumper crops.


All things green: Meat and the environment

Part of my time over the past weekend was spent, as is only right, in the local pub with my chums. After a pint or two, I found myself involved in a discussion about the most effective things you could do to ‘be green’ – a rather high-brow subject for the Kings Arms crowd.

A few daft suggestions were discounted (killing yourself, killing the heads of the oil companies, killing the heads of the oil companies and then yourself, etc) and a further set were ruled out for being too hard to sell (not having children, returning to prehistoric life). The sensible suggestions included not flying, not owning a car and someone (well, me actually) mentioned the touchy subject of not eating meat.

The fact is, the meat and dairy industry is the world’s single biggest producer of greenhouse gas, apart from nature’s own well-balanced systems. This is down to a number of contributing factors; the gas produced by the animals themselves, the energy-intensive way in which they are raised, the food that has to be grown and transported to feed them, the transport of the animals themselves (live or as meat) and so on. What’s more, modern farming methods are morally very dubious if you look into them, and I’m sure all visitors to this kind of website will be concerned about that.

While I’m all for vegetarianism, I appreciate this might not be easy for everyone. However if we all chose to eat less meat, perhaps being veggie for one or two days a week, then we’d shave a huge chunk off our carbon footprint. What’s more, with meat being one of the most expensive items in our shopping trolleys, the money we’d save could mean we might splash out on better-quality, ethically-produced meat when we did buy it. Better for us, better for the Earth and better for the animals.

I’d love to hear from any readers who have other ideas about how best to be green, and anyone with any thoughts on how our diet affects the environment. Could you cut meat out of your diet?


All things green: ‘Not enough space’ is not an excuse!

My Patio Growing Plot!

As my writing depends on it, I am fortunate in that I have three allotments, all shared with my girlfriend Jeannine.  Thanks to the local council’s policy of splitting plots in half (to please twice the number of gardeners) the reality is that we have three half plots – which strikes me as half a plot less than we are entitled to!  Nonetheless, allotment waiting lists in most parts of the country now seem so long that you have to sign your grandchildren up, let alone yourself, so I count myself blessed!

We aren’t all lucky enough to have allotments or a large garden, but provided you’re not set on attaining complete self-sufficiency there is plenty you can do to grow your own in even a small space – perhaps a typical terraced-house garden, or even a patio or balcony.

Last summer I tested this theory by setting up an ultra-compact patio garden outside my kitchen door (you can see it above).  The area measures something like two metres by 80cm, and I carefully arranged planters, pots and old packing boxes to make use of the space.  These were filled with good quality compost, both home-made and shop-bought, because one trick to growing in small spaces is to make sure your plants are well fed.  The quantity and diversity of the food I managed to produce really surprised me, although of course such an intensive little plot needs some looking after.  Key to my success was the use of height – low-growing crops were interplanted with taller ones, and canes and support frames allowed climbing plants to double my ‘productive volume’.  I even had some tomatoes growing in hanging baskets – although the watering regime was at times inconvenient.

Apart from growing veg, you can also include other aspects of a well-rounded garden in a smaller plot.  Beneficial plants like marigolds and nasturtiums can be squeezed in, as can a rainwater harvesting system if you look out for a compact water butt (there are many such now available).  And at the end of the garden cycle (or is it the beginning?) don’t forget a composter.  Wormeries take up the minimum amount of room and will process your kitchen and some of your garden waste faster than any other design.

Perhaps the smallest possible growing area is a kitchen windowsill and, while no doubt limited, there are quite a few possibilities here.  Herbs should be your first option, as they are so expensive to buy fresh in shops but take up relatively little room – just one pot each of rosemary, mint, coriander and basil will transform countless dishes.  Another small-space star is a trough of cut-and-come-again salad, including some fast-growing Chinese leaves and rocket.  These will re-grow several times provided you don’t harvest them too hard.

Let me know how you get on.


All things green: A greener Christmas?

Christmas BaublesIt’s four in the morning, the end of November. Not a cheery time to be lying awake worrying, but this morning I had good cause – I’ve realised Christmas is coming. This year at least my worries take an unusual and original form. My girlfriend and I have decided to boycott the whole thing, which means no presents, no family, no fancy meal, and hopefully no stress – just the two of us and the dog in the camper van somewhere in a wood in Norfolk. So why am I worrying? Because I can’t help feeling guilty that we’re not ‘playing along’ with the rest of the world!

Why our festive boycott, you may well ask. Well, mainly, it’s not exactly green is it? All the unwanted gifts shoved to the back of the cupboard, the packaging and transport of said gifts, the tonnes of wasted food and (call me scrooge if you will) those eye-wrenching, kilowatt-burning neon displays with which some people choose to adorn their homes! What’s more, far from being a happy family occasion, Christmas has become a time of emotional and financial stress for many of us. I would never suggest that an all-out ban is a good idea for everyone – this has the potential to be a very happy and rewarding time of year, particularly for kids. That said I do wish the public at large would stop and think before indulging themselves (and their egos) on the few shopping days they have left.

Before we ‘went the whole hog’, our household experimented with the idea of a green Christmas and it worked pretty well. The idea was that every aspect of the season be considered from an environmental perspective – in particular we were careful about the type and number of presents we bought each other.

We went so far as to prescribe four options for our seasonal generosity, which I present here for your consideration!

Option one – give the gift of time. Whether it be a couple of day’s labour on dad’s allotment, or just taking auntie for a Christmas walk, people will appreciate this kind of thoughtful effort every bit as much as they would an expensively-wrapped (but still generic) gift.

Option two – give a zero-carbon gift. This takes a little imagination, but can either take the form of a ‘real’ item (a fruit tree for the garden, credits for music or film downloads rather than a CD or DVD) or can involve a trip or excursion – perhaps a ticket to the theatre, with train fare included.

Option three – give something they need. If one of your family members is starting a new course, buy them something from the reading list. If they’re a keen gardener, offer to pay for next year’s seed order, and so on. It doesn’t take a genius to point out it’s better to receive something you really need, rather than something you would never buy for yourself.

Option four – make people think. An environmentally conscious gift (such as a wormery!) might be just the nudge some people need to make a few eco-friendly changes to their lifestyle. If friends and family are already pretty good at being green, they will value the sentiment (and the gift) all the more highly.

Paul Wagland

All things green: Mushrooms!

Parasol Mushroom

Parasol Mushroom

Environmental issues are often so labeled with buzzwords and clichés that they become annoyingly over-familiar to the general public – I’ve noticed that the eyebrows of one or two of my friends have a habit of raising slightly when they hear the words ‘global warming’, for example.

That said, there are a few issues about which people seem to be disturbingly ignorant. Perhaps the most profound of these is peak oil – the fact that we are now (or soon will be) using up our oil reserves faster than we can discover new ones. This probably means the end of cheap energy and it has far reaching effects on every aspect of our lives. It’s not the end of the World say some (and they’re right), but it is (and you can sing this bit) the end of the World as we know it.

Here in Britain we’re uniquely well-placed to adapt to the challenges – we have unparalleled resources when it comes to alternative energy; we have a well-educated population with a history of resilience, adaptation and invention; we even have the ideal climate for growing food. What we need to develop is some kind of public will to see the changes through – a Blitz mentality if you like, and I really don’t think the comparison is over-egging the pudding. I don’t think such a thing will happen spontaneously, unless a very significant event takes place – something on the scale of Norfolk disappearing under water. So what we all need to do is to start putting into effect small changes, manageable steps and positive, sustainable solutions. As these become familiar we will move further and further away from the oil economy and ‘business as usual’, and we’ll develop a resilient society where quality of life is a more important measure of our success than gross domestic product.

I’d like to invite you all to think about small changes you can make to your lifestyle with this in mind. Can you walk to a local baker in the morning, rather than shopping at a supermarket out of town? You’ll get better bread from a local source, and the exercise is no bad thing. Or perhaps you can think of new uses for old things, rather than throwing them away?

On a similar note, in one of Joy’s posts to this blog last year she mentions the Turtle Bag and how versatile it is. She even asks readers to suggest alternative uses, and I have to say I think I have a pretty good one. Each morning, at about seven o’clock, I go out onto a little local nature reserve with my dog, Stig. Obviously this is primarily for Stig’s benefit, but this year I have been taking the opportunity to learn a bit about mushrooms. I’m now at the stage where I can confidently ID several tasty varieties and bring them home for breakfast. While it’s easy enough to stick my harvest into a normal bag as I pick them, I’ve always thought it slightly wasteful of all the spores the mushrooms release as they jiggle and shake all the way home. If only I had some kind of mesh bag, I could be releasing those spores all over the grass, ensuring good foraging for future seasons… you see where I’m going?

So there you are; an example of how easy it is to provide something for yourself (and a few parasol mushrooms are well worth the effort, believe me), and also to find a new and practical use for an existing resource.

Paul Wagland