Greenhouse up!

Finally managed to get the greenhouse put up this afternoon. This 4’x2′ greenhouse is a standard aluminium framed greenhouse with plastic glass that you buy as a flat pack. It cost me just short of £100 off the internet but you can buy the same one from B&Q for a similar price.

Douglas the cat project managed the installation from inside the kitchen window, but did come out on site to inspect the quality of the work from time to time.

I’ve moved my seedlings in there from the kitchen windowsill, they were OK but were getting a bit ‘leggy’ – they will get a much better all-round daylight in the new greenhouse.

Hunter’s Vodka

I’m having a go at making ‘Hunter’s Vodka’ – not actually sticking too much by the traditional recipe but hopefully it will turn out ok!

I started it off with a couple of plums which were left over and just starting to go soft a bit, to save wasting them. I’ve also chucked in some cloves, nutmeg, ginger and lime. Going to leave it for a few weeks to soak up the flavours. Hopefully this one will have a bit of bite!! 😉

Being Green . . . or not

Think you’re Green? Think again.

You may well have some low energy light bulbs, and use your dishwasher on the ‘eco’ setting. And drive at 60 in the slow lane on the motorway, and walk to the shops and the school sometimes to pick up the kids when it’s not raining. You might use eco-washing powder and only fly away on holiday once a year. You may recycle and you may have chosen a ‘green’ electricity tariff. You might even have some solar panels, or a wood burning stove. You may be vegetarian, or even vegan, and you may grow veg in your back garden, you might even have a greenhouse.

Now think about your parents, or your grandparents, and how they lived when they were young. They would never have heard of the concept of ‘being green’, and yet compared to any of us living in a rich Western society these days they were positively photosynthesising. If they were really lucky they might have had a car, and sure they burned coal in open fires to keep warm. But they would have had no TV, maybe a radio, and although they would have had electric light, they wouldn’t have had a fridge or a freezer, just a cold pantry. Chances are they wouldn’t have gone abroad on holiday, and if they had wanted to go abroad they would have had to go on a boat. They would have grown their own food and kept chickens, or maybe even pigs if they had a decent amount of land, but not because they wanted to look after the environment, but because it was cheap and gave a ready supply of food.

And even with that relatively spartan lifestyle, industrial society still consumed a lot of coal, and oil, and still produced enough pollution to turn buildings black and kill rivers. Things don’t seem quite as bad these days – well, not here in the West anyway. We have managed to export all the bad stuff to places where they can make the things we want to buy really cheaply.

Maybe there are some ‘green’ people still left in the West – people who have given up the creature comforts of the Western lifestyle to live on the land, farming organically, burning wood to keep themselves warm and with maybe a couple of solar panels running a few LED lights or compact fluorescents. But their lifestyle is not replicable – we can’t all do it, can we. And most of us are a million miles away from that level of ‘greenness’. Our circumstances dictate that, through no fault of our own, it seems.

But for some people, ‘being green’ has become a kind of game that they play with themselves, a kind of binge-purge fetish of abstinence and reward. Vegan recyclers who take several long-haul flights a year. Organic eaters who go shopping for it in the 4×4. Gardeners who think their solar garden lights are helping the environment. How about not buying any garden lights at all?

‘Being green’ has become such a cliche that it probably deserves to be ditched as any kind of valid term. Green consumerism is the order of the day – greenness is just a consumer choice, a flavour of living, a style to be worn to parties. Fly abroad on holiday? No problem, just pay to get some trees planted. Like a steak? No problem, just make sure it’s organic and grass-fed. New 4×4? It’s OK, you can pour cooking oil into the fuel tank.

Don’t get me wrong – I do it, you do it, we all do it. And surely making these kind of choices is better than not making them. Isn’t it?

Well yes, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we are actually ‘being green’. We are just being ‘less bad’. We will never be green, not unless we sell our cars, stop going on holiday, dig up the local park and turn it into allotments, get rid of all of our electrical appliances, computers, mobile ‘phones, videogames, TVs, music systems, and start wearing jumpers instead of turning on the central heating. And honestly, who really wants to do that? Not me, and not you. And not most people, to be blunt. And if being green is not something that most people want to do, then what hope is there? Not much, to be honest.

But maybe there is a way . . . because every little thing does help. Every ‘green’ consumer choice is better than the alternative, because it funnels money into the development of new ingenious ‘green’ ways to be. Buying solar panels, although they don’t really produce very much electricity compared to what most of us use, will help to fund the development of better solar panels, and the money spent cannot now be spent on things which might harm the environment, such as holidays. In fact, you could argue that being a consumer – sorry, citizen – in a rich Western economy actually brings with it a responsibility to direct the way the world is going by being very careful about what every penny is spent on.

Ultimately the only way to be really green is abstinence from consumerism altogether. But what to do with all that money?

If you’ve bought yourself some solar panels, don’t reward yourself with a holiday abroad. And if you don’t eat meat, don’t reward yourself with a new HD plasma-screen. If you need to reward yourself in this way for ‘good deeds’, the chance is that you have missed the reward which is intrinsic in actually doing the ‘good deed’ in the first place.

Go out and buy the carbon offsets for your honeymoon in the Maldives, and then go to Scotland instead. Go out and buy all the ingredients for your chicken carbonara, but forget to get the chicken. Go out and buy the most energy efficient tumble dryer you can find, and then dry your washing by putting it out on the washing line. Light bulb gone? Don’t replace it, just use a desk lamp instead, or a little LED on the wall.

We’re not green, but it’s fun trying to be. Dare to be different – think out of the box. Nobody will thank you for it, nobody will give you anything that will make up for that lost holiday abroad, or that nice big comfy 4×4, or that fillet steak. But YOU will know what you have done. And who knows, maybe it will make a little difference which turns out to be all the difference for someone, some creature, some civilisation, somewhere.

And who knows – as fossil energy supplies decline, and energy and food prices rise, maybe those skills which you acquired whilst you were ‘trying to be green’ will make the adjustment to an energy poor way of life that much less painful, and easier to bear. Being happy with little is a sublime skill which we in the rich West have all but lost. And just maybe, friends, family and community are more important and satisfying than all the labour-saving and entertainment gadgets we have put together.

We can’t drop out, but we can live on the edge. 😉

Wood Fuel: What If . . . ?

I sometimes get asked – and it is a fair question – ‘what would happen if everyone did what you are doing?’. One of my main aims with the Green Cottage eco-renovation project is to find solutions which are replicable at different levels. Solutions which can only ever apply to a few people in special situations are not really going to help us achieve the kind of transformation we need to, although of course everyone’s situation will be special to a degree.

When it comes to the use of wood as a fuel, the issue is quite complex and there are quite a few different factors at play.

At the time of writing, there is a reasonably plentiful supply of wood fuel available. This comes mainly in the form of seasoned logs which are sold typically by farmers and tree surgeons sourced from waste wood from their own arboricultural operations. Most local authorities’ parks and countryside services produce large quantities of waste wood annually, a lot of which is still chipped and used as a mulch or covering for paths etc. Some is even taken to landfill.

So at present there is some slack which remains to be taken up in the wood fuel market.

However, the wood fuel supply is likely to begin to come under pressure in the not-too-distant future. Not only are more and more people buying wood stoves – for ecological reasons, for warmth security reasons (they work during a power cut) or for financial reasons (the rising price of fossil fuels) – but across the country, planning permission is currently being given for dozens of biomass power stations and smaller Combined Heat and Power plants. These plants burn a LOT of wood, so much in fact that many of these new power plants are planning to import their biomass feedstock from abroad.

All this means that at some stage, log fuel may well become either a lot more expensive, or unavailable at any cost. This would be a real shame, and this is where the principled ‘green socialist’ for want of a better phrase comes out. I am normally fairly apolitical when it comes to these things, but a number of principles are at stake here:-

– log fuel is by its nature a low-energy, low-carbon renewable fuel. It takes very little energy to prepare (chopping and stacking for seasoning) and most of its energy footprint is in the harvesting of the logs and the distribution of the log fuel. Other forms of biomass fuel such as wood pellets and wood chip have a much higher embodied energy, because they need to have a quality grade for use with high technology furnaces.

– log fuel is typically produced and distributed locally, whereas higher grade biomass fuel typically is not.

– log fuel is ideal for tackling fuel poverty, a condition which is commonly found in 100 year old solid walled terraced brick town houses. This type of property has a chimney, a good thermal mass, is typically insulated by two more properties on either side, and in short is perfect for the installation of a modern, clean-burning, high efficiency wood stove room heater, if not a stove which also heats the hot water and runs the radiators. Experience has shown that even a simple room heater can cut gas heating bills by two thirds.

– wood ash is a perfect fertiliser for growing fruit in an urban setting, as it contains potash which is the main ingredient in any ‘fruit fertiliser’ which you can buy.

Other types of house such as detached and semi-detached may be more suitable for other types of alternative heating such as heat pumps, which are more expensive than wood stoves and so more appropriately suited to the socio-economic status of such householders . New houses should of course be built to require little or no heating.

I do fear that there is a danger that locally produced wood resources may be diverted to feed large biomass power stations, which in my humble opinion would be a Bad Thing. There is certainly a place for fast-growing energy crops such as willow, poplar or even miscanthus grass to feed biomass plants, but local log fuel should have its own supply chain and used to heat local, relatively fuel poor homes.

A rise in the price of log fuel would not be all bad, however: at present most local authorities have areas of woodland which are currently unmanaged due to lack of funding fir proper woodland management programmes. Proper management can not only result in a woodland becoming productive in terms of wood fuel and other wood products, but thinning and other management techniques are also better in terms of biodiversity opportunities. A higher price (and therefore value) for wood fuel and other wood products could provide the necessary funding streams to enable proper business plans to be formulated for the sustainable management of currently marginal woodlands.

Besides, I never want to have to resort to burning coal, that would most definitely be a retrograde step 😉

Stealth Food

Guerilla gardening is fun!!

A few posts back I was talking about the areas of derelict land in our neighbourhood which we are going to try to do something with. Well, one of the smaller parcels of land has now been tidied up and a few raised beds installed for anyone to use.

As this is the first project of its kind round here, people won’t immediately know what to do, so today at lunchtime I strolled into town in the spring sunshine and bought a variety of stuff to start these beds off with.

I planted them up variously with blackberry, blackcurrant, redcurrant, raspberry, gooseberry, strawberry, cranberry, rhubarb, onion sets and spuds.

It was great, as I was planting quite a few people who were wandering past stopped to chat with me, asking what I was planting and who the land belonged to. I explained and they laughed, wishing me good luck with it all. There were quite a few comments along the lines of, ‘your food will get nicked!’, but after I explained that it would be there for the taking, people seemed quite impressed. It was great to chat to, and have a bit of a laugh with, people I had never met before, and hopefully it brightened their day too and I hope that they might keep an eye on me veg every time they wander past. I can hope!

I had a few seed potatoes left, so on the walk back home I did a bit of ‘proper’ guerilla gardening, planting the spuds in a couple of planters I found which were looking neglected. That’s the great thing about spuds, if you want to get rid of them from your land, the only way to do it us by digging them up and eating them!! 😉

Energy Vampires

Well yesterday I received in the post a real-time energy use monitor which I had ordered free of charge from British Gas (you can download the order form from here:

I thought as it was free I would get one, but I didn’t honestly expect it to find anything untoward about our energy use, as we are pretty meticulous about it.

I noticed that when there was nothing really actively running, the house uses about 300w constantly. I thought, well, that’s probably the fridge and various little LED clocks on the cooker, microwave etc.

But this morning, just to see what happened, I flicked the wall switch off that our induction hob is plugged into. Now normally it just sits there on standby with a little red LED to indicate power. But to my amazement, as I switched it off standby, the energy monitor display fell from about 300w to about 120w!! I couldn’t believe it!! The ‘blessed’ high-efficiency induction hob gobbles about 180w just sitting there on standby!!

Energy vampires . . . they are everywhere. You can’t be too vigilant.

So the energy monitor has paid for itself already (ok ok I know it was free).

Silent Running

Just been down to a conference in London on the glorious electric vehicle future which awaits us.

It was quite interesting actually, some very striking presentations including one from Mitsubishi who are developing the ‘Leaf’, a family saloon EV for mainstream production in 2012 and mass production in 2014. They seem pretty confident about the future for EVs actually, but it does all depend on someone installing the charging infrastructure. They reckon they have fast charging technology right now which will give a 80% charge in 25 minutes, with a 100 mile range, which does make long-distance journeys by EV feasible, with a few half hour coffee stops for ‘refuelling’.

The actual car itself was pretty snazzy, you can program it from your iPhone to switch the heating or aircon on ten minutes before you set off, for comfort and to avoid draining the battery unnecessarily during the journey. It also has an all-singing, all-dancing sat nav and onboard computer, cocktails replicator, diluthium crystal polisher etc.

Reuben Power will install you 3 adjacent charging bays (the practical minimum from a single high-capacity grid connection apparently) for £15k so could be worth thinking about for company fleets, especially operating in London where the congestion charge makes them a better proposition than elsewhere.

The Reuben Power presentation reckoned that after about 2020 nobody will be using ICE technology any more because oil will be unaffordable by then, which was interesting – their business model relies partially on peak oil for success.

At the moment you can get £5k towards the cost of an EV, but part of the event was a debate between three politicians from the main parties, and none of them seemed to think that it was especially important to spend public money on this subsidy, in fact they all seemed to agree that it would be better spent on public transport and cycling infrastructure.

There wasn’t really anything interesting to take a photo of at the event, but here is some kind of industrial thing I took a picture of from the window of the Pendolino train on the way down. 🙂

Strawberry Fayre

Had a few pots lying around which fit nicely inside each other, so I decided to make a bit of a ‘strawberry tower’ to sit against the South-facing wall just outside the back door.

I do have strawberry plants in the middle sector of the garden, but they are not in the sunniest of locations and tend to get a bit shaded out by the blackcurrants and apple tree and other stuff. They also get eaten by slugs, so I have decided to use any strawberries from the garden in my autumn wine making, and to have the ones in this new tower for eating.

I bought half a dozen plants, each one a different variety, in order to give a cascade of different tastes, shades and ripening times.

More Fuel Me

Cripes! It just cost me nearly £25 to fill up my Mini! What’s the world coming to?!

Until recently I didn’t need to take more than a £20 note to the garage.