Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Why are we doing this?

Seasonal salad in December
We're often asked why we have chosen to live the way we live. Occasionally followed by: You're not ill, are you? Or: You have to admit it's kind of weird. We're both well educated and could be working highly paid jobs somewhere, living a 'normal' life.

We don't think it's weird at all. To our way of thinking, it's one of the few sensible things to do in this Anthropocene age: growing food, creating wildlife habitat, reducing consumption and waste. While it seems clear that we need to change our economic model globally - give up the unsustainable economic growth model and embrace a circular, localised economy - and change our diet to local, seasonal, organically grown food, we want to find out what that actually means and whether that is realistically possible. Rather than blocking streets in London, we want to find solutions that could be scaled up. We want to know the answers to questions like:

Our store cupboard 

  1. What can we grow organically where we live?
  2. How does that change throughout the seasons?
  3. What kind of plant-based protein can we grow?
  4. What kind of seed for oil pressing can we grow?
  5. Is it possible to have a balanced, healthy and varied diet on only locally grown food?
  6. How do we save seed from (or otherwise propagate) the plants we like to eat?
  7. How do we best preserve the food that we grow?
  8. How do we feed livestock and pets in a sustainable way?

The answers so far:

  1. We can grow far more than we thought possible, an incredible diversity. Every year the list of what we grow grows longer. If you think you can only grow neeps, tatties and kale in Scotland, think again.
  2. While in the summer we can grow some Mediterranean crops like tomatoes, chillies and cucumbers under cover, our maritime climate also allows us to grow lots of leafy salad crops through the mild winter, both under cover and out in the open. Some crops are available most of the year (like oriental greens, mustard, radish and lettuce) or can be stored to last most of the year (like potatoes, beetroot, broad beans and onions), while some have a short season (most of the fruit, though they can also be frozen or dried for use during the winter).
  3. Protein crops: Not very many. Beans, peas and quinoa, that's pretty much it.
  4. Oil seed: Still working on that one. So far only oil pumpkins have produced a reasonable yield, but we're trying linseed and camelina this year.
  5. Varied diet: Oh yes! We have never eaten so well and had such a diverse diet as now.
  6. Seed saving: We're on a major seed saving drive. It's a lot of knowledge and skill to propagate plants and save seed, but luckily there are good books out there. Let's hang on to these important skills!
  7. Storing food: Basically preserve your produce in ways that you like to eat. In our case, this involves a lot of fermentation (kimchi), drying (fruit leathers, herbs for the winter), pickling, making jams/jellies/chutneys/relishes, lots of ice cream and, of course, booze.
  8. Fodder: We're trying to cut out soy and other imported food stuffs from our animals' food. This involves sprouting/fermenting grains for the chickens and cooking up crops like oil pumpkin and tiny tubers (Jerusalem artichokes, potatoes) for them. For the cats, this means feeding some fresh meat (usually rabbit, venison or pheasant roadkill) and sourcing soy-free British-made pet food.

Cleaning and waste
Soapwort dish soap

  1. What alternatives are there to chemical cleaners, soaps and toiletries?
  2. Can we make our own cleaning agents, soaps and toiletries from plants we grow in the garden?
  3. Can we hot compost human manure and safely use the resulting compost?
  4. Is there anything organic we can't compost?
  5. How can we cut out single use plastic from our lives?
  6. How can we reuse materials we already have?

The answers so far:

  1. Cleaning agents: There are some. We are now mainly using vinegar and bicarbonate for cleaning the bathroom and floors and soapwort liquid for doing the dishes. Soapwort is a plant we can easily grow lots of and we're planning to use it for washing our clothes and our bodies in the near future. That's natural saponin. For our hair, we've been using rye flour as shampoo for several years now and it's better than any shampoo we've ever used, especially mixed in herbal infusions of garden herbs and flowers. We make a tooth powder of salt, betonite clay and dried powdered fennel. The remainder of our toiletries are homemade products: lip balm, skin lotion/ointment and sun screen. All use bees wax and herb-infused oils. For our baths, we run the water through a mesh bag containing herbs and flowers.
  2. Home grown herbals: We use soapwort, calendula, comfrey, broad-leaf plantain, rosemary, lavender, rose petals, mint, lemon balm, chamomile etc.
  3. Humanure composting: It works well. Why would we contaminate our waters rather than using our manure as a resource?
  4. Non-compostibles: Not much, if we use thermophilic composting.
  5. Plastic reduction: Probably the easiest way is not to buy so much and to avoid shopping at supermarkets. Small businesses and shops are usually miles ahead when it comes to biodegradable packaging or reuse of containers. Growing and making things cuts out the most, of course, but you can also buy from farm shops or have a veggie box delivered to avoid packaging.
  6. Reuse: We're always working with reclaimed materials, especially wood and fabrics, but also things like metal fittings and glassware.  Rags from old T-shirts make great wet wipes, for example (boil wash after use). It's all about being flexible and thinking first about the alternative designs for a job rather than going with the same old.

Our PV array


  1. Is it possible in a domestic setting to live on solar panels and battery in Scotland?
  2. What habits do we need to change to live within the energy we generate?
  3. How can we lower our energy use to the bare minimum while still keeping warm, having hot water and food and light during the hours of darkness?

The answers so far:

  1. Solar energy: Yes, if you have an alternative source of heating for the winter, like a wood burner. But only if you really really reduce your electricity usage.
  2. Habits changed: Lots, especially when, how often and how we shower and when we run our appliances.
  3. Energy saving: Lots of ways. Using wash cloths or bucket and scoop instead of having a shower or bath, for example. Not washing clothes (other than underwear and socks) after one use only. Switching to all LED lights and A+++ appliances. Sweeping rather than hoovering. Using hand tools rather than power tools. Putting on extra layers rather than heating the whole house. Keeping the bedrooms at a lower temperature. And so on.

Fauna and flora
Wildflower bed

  1. What habitat can we create?
  2. What plants should we plant specifically to help local wildlife?
  3. If we plant hedges, trees and wild flowers and make wildlife ponds, will animal numbers and diversity increase?

The answers so far:

  1. Let's give over some of our land to wildlife habitat. This can take many forms: wildlife-friendly hedges and trees (like willows), wildlife ponds, wildflower meadows, 'untidy' areas with lots of herbs and flowers.
  2. Selecting plants: Do some research to see which plants your local butterflies require for food, for example. Planting early- and late-flowering plants is a good policy, letting things go to seed also provides a lot of food for wildlife.
  3. If we build it, will they come? Yes, they will! Our garden is buzzing, chirping and ribbeting. After dark in the summer it's hard not to step on a frog or toad. Newts, frogs, toads, dragonflies and damselflies have moved into our pond since we re-established it. Bird numbers have risen dramatically since our hedges filled in. Bumblebees, hoverflies, solitary bees, butterflies and moths are enjoying the many herbs and flowers.

All these things are achievable at the level of private individuals. We don't have to wait for governments and industries to get their act together (by which time it'll probably be too late anyway). If enough of us take these simple steps, the benefits will be realised by all.

1 comment:

Comments and questions are welcome.
If you've tried something after reading about it here, or have suggestions, please tell us about it!