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22 April 2014

Learn to say "no"


The weather is close to perfect at the moment. The evenings are cool, the days sunny, the humidity is low and it makes me feel happy and optimistic. I spent some time yesterday morning planting granny's bonnets (aquilegia) in the vegetable garden. I love seeing flowers in with the tomatoes and cabbages, it's something you don't expect. Flowers bring the bees in too, and that makes it even better. Hanno has been working in the garden too. He's trying to remove the stumps of trees felled a few years ago that are now providing a problem with his ride on mower. Soon we'll organise a day together, when it's a bit colder, when we weed and prune the front garden and plant out a few cuttings I've been growing in the bush house.


Whether in the front or back garden, this time of year is our busy time in the garden and when we're not out there, we're thinking about being out there. But there is one thing we must remember at this time of year, when the weather makes being outside such a sublime pleasure, and that is to go out there, enjoy it and just soak it all in. No work, just sitting or walking or sipping tea. We make these spaces to be beautiful and serene and it at times like these that they should be appreciated, looked at, thought about, enjoyed and celebrated.


Simple life is as much about slowing down and enjoying your surroundings and your home as it is about the thrifty management of household funds and low impact living. We live in an age where many people are permanently busy and although I am busy at times, I take time out of every day to relax, think and appreciate what surrounds me. Those times, sometimes brief and some not so, help me get through the harder times.


Would it surprise you to know that when I'm not giving talks around the libraries I only go away from my home about two or three times a month? Here is where I want to be, I've moved away from wanting to driving around or shop or even to be where a lot of other people are. Here at home is my place and I'm happy here. Always. I'm not saying that you should be that radical in your relationship with your home life and the work you do there but I do encourage you to drop the "busy" mantel, to start saying "no" and make a slower life.


Recently I read this newspaper article about busy lives and the scenario of busyness was so far away from my personal experiences when I was in the garden yesterday, that I had to link to it in the hope it would resonate with you as well. I loved: "Learn to say no": it's such a cliche, and easy to assume it means only saying no to tedious, unfulfilling stuff. But "the biggest, trickiest lesson," as the author Elizabeth Gilbert once put it, "is learning how to say no to things you do want to do" – stuff that matters." We all need to say yes to ourselves.

So am I saying to stop doing all your work and just enjoy? No, that would become boring very quickly and we all need to work. But I am saying that in the middle of your work take a break, to plan downtime into your schedule, and to slow down and appreciate what you're working for. I hope you're enjoying life as you live it and not saving up that enjoyment for later - the weekend, retirement, or whatever. Enjoying the ordinary things in life and having simple down time to relax is what helps us carry on and live life to its potential. But no one will come along and tell you to stop working, no one will tell you to not be busy all the time, you have to give that gift to yourself.

21 April 2014

Growing food for the non-gardener

Everyone should taste produce they've grown themselves at some point in their life. It's a skill we should all have - that ability to plant a seed, seedling, vine or tree, manage it, watch it and eat it when the time it right. However, some people can't do it. They have either no time or they have no land. If you're in that group of people because you're either out at work during daylight hours and have no energy when you're home, you're raising a young family or looking after an elderly relative, or you simply just don't have the land because you're renting, I might have a solution. 

My solution won't give you an abundance of food, nor will it allow you to give up shopping for fresh food at the market. What it will do though, is allow you to grow one thing well so you can experience the taste of real food and start to develop food growing skills.


This project can be carried out indoors or out in the backyard. The options are, outside, to plant a fruit tree or vine or, inside, to grow mini salad lettuce. If you're renting and you're going to plant the fruit tree, you may need to ask your landlord for permission to do this. Once you've got that, you're set. Most landlords, even those opposed to a garden going in, would probably be okay with a tree of suitable size. But there will be some readers who own their own land but haven't yet fully utilised its opportunities. Please include yourself in this.


Hanno and I travelled to Germany in the late 1970s so I could meet his family. We intended to stay for a couple of months but ended up staying a couple of years. I often went food shopping by myself, and although I went to German language classes, I picked up a better understanding of the language when I was out shopping. One day I bought some peaches from Greece. Unlike Australia at that time they imported food from other countries and it was really interesting to me to taste these fruits. Those peaches from Greece were the best I'd ever tasted and I was convinced that it was the climate there, coupled with the soil the peach tree grew in that made this magnificent and remarkable difference in taste.

And then I grew peaches here in our backyard and I knew then that the mysterious element was time. Many fruits and vegetables grown now don't taste of much at all. Tomatoes don't taste like tomatoes, apples are bland and don't taste like they used to. I think that's because they're grown fast, usually fed with all sorts of man-made fertilisers and then they're stored. They grow true to the look they should have, true to the smell, they feel the same, but they do not taste the same. They've lost the taste of real food. When we grew our peaches, they started off small but even then they had the most delicious, intense peach aroma and flavour. Our tree grew in the middle of the vegetable garden and it was watered when the vegetables were and fertilised with comfrey. Those harvests, wow, they were magnificent. It was like we were eating the sweetest, most carefully tendered peaches, sold at the best shop in town. But the truth was we had tendered them in our little backyard, along with all the other food we ate. We gave it no special treatment, no extra water; it was just allowed to grow at its own pace and to develop the unique and extraordinary flavour of traditionally-grown, organic peaches. Sadly we pulled out that tree when the fruit fly found us a few years later.


But now we have our oranges that the fruit fly don't bother with. Hanno was in the kitchen yesterday while I was writing and in he came with a slice of orange - "taste this," he said.  Well, it was like the peaches all over again - that intense orange flavour that commercial oranges don't have. That orange was perfect, although it didn't look like much. It was still tinged with green on the top of the orange, it had a couple of bumps, but that flavour, the flavour of a sun-soaked, organic orange was there to make us forget all about the look and just remember that taste.


So if you have room and the right climate I encourage you to plant an orange. You'll be growing some of your own food but the work required will be a small fraction of what you'd be doing if you had a vegetable garden. A tree is a real investment - unlike most vegetables that have to be resown every year, a tree will take a few years to start, then you'll have oranges galore. You'll still have to learn about what the orange tree needs to thrive, you'll have to water it - that's nothing. And then once a year, you'll get a crop of the sweetest oranges from your backyard. You will have produced fruit; real food. An orange tree needs an open sunny spot to grow, dig a large hole to plant it in, add compost and manure - both can be bought in bags at the produce or hardware store or at the garden centre. If there are any flowers on the tree when you plant it, snip them off. I know it seems counter-productive to do so but it will allow the tree to establish its roots in the first year instead of concentrating on producing fruit. Do it the second year too. After that it just needs fertilising with the manure a few times a year and a deep watering once a week, maybe a bucket full. When the flowers and fruit appear, increase the watering to two buckets a week.

Luckily it's not just an orange you'll be getting. With your oranges, as well as eating them fresh from the tree, you'll have juice, fruit for jam, flavouring for cakes, biscuits and your savoury dishes and if there is some left over, maybe a bottle or two of cordial.

We have a Washington navel orange tree - we have a couple of them and they're a good tree in any backyard. If your climate is too cold for citrus, or you don't like oranges, try a cold climate apricot, pear or apple. Grow what you love and what can be grown where you live but do give it a try. You'll be gardening and producing some of your own food but without the fussing of a vegetable garden.


Just pull out these tender little lettuces when you have a salad and sow new seeds to replace them.

And if you have no room, time or permission, try the indoor option. Get a long trough pot, similar to those used as window boxes, fill it with potting mix and compost and plant lettuce seeds of your choice. Sit the pot on a warm window sill, or outdoors if the temperature is right. Lettuce need bright light to grow but they don't need full sun, so a light window sill would be perfect. You'll have to water them and care for them, and when they're two or three inches high, pull them out, cut off the roots and replace those you pull out with a new line of seeds to continue the lettuce throughout the season.  What you've have are little mini lettuces, with all the nutrition of a well grown organic lettuce, and it will be fresh. You can't buy freshness - you have to grow it yourself. But if you do this small project, not only will you be starting to learn abut food production, you'll be eating some of the best lettuce or oranges you've ever eat. And that is priceless.

What other ideas do you have to help non-gardeners with food growing skills?


19 April 2014

What are your food goals?

Baked eggs in spicy tomato sauce.

I've been reading a few threads at the forum this morning and came across an older thread I hadn't seen before. It's by one of our mods, Tessa, and she's asking about food goals for the year. So whether you want to read a list of month-by-month goals or read about many specific things our members are going to concentrate on, it's all there. I found it very interesting, and quite motivating, to read what other's have in mind.  You can find that thread here.

While you're there, check out the long thread about homemade Gumption. It's been a hit with many of the members.  

It's a beautiful day here, Hanno is out in the garden and I'm just about to join him with a cup of tea. I hope you're enjoying your weekend. xxx

18 April 2014

Weekend reading

Early morning in the garden.

How cooking can change your life - Michael Pollan, Youtube
Inside urban green - modern methods of growing food
This is a radio interview I did with ABC radio in South Australia yesterday. The host is Stan Thomson

If you're in northern NSW, or in Sydney and would like a weekend away, go no further than Nundle. This little town is hosting an Easter festival and everyone's invited to two days of live music, games, magic shows and great food.  Go here for more information.

It's a long weekend in Australia - four days when it's usually thought to be the last time you can go camping before the cold weather sets in. We won't be camping but we'll have plenty of interesting things to do in our garden.  This afternoon we're going to Jens and Cathy's for a catchup. I hope you enjoy your Easter weekend too. See you next week. :- )

17 April 2014

Setting yourself up for simple life

An email arrived last week from a reader in Canberra. For those of you who don't live here, Canberra is situated half-way between Sydney and Melbourne. It's our national capital and it contains our parliament buildings, the mint, war memorial, the national gallery and library. The city is home to thousands of public servants and people who own and work in the businesses that support them. Our reader, Sarah, writes:

"We have been on a quest for a simpler life since we left Vancouver with one small child. My boss demanded full time work, I had no childcare space (despite a 1.5 year wait list), a long commute, etc. We have greatly improved our lives in coming to Canberra but I want a whole lot more. Life is so serious here in Canberra. It does not make sense to me that our generation has to squeeze ourselves into cities or suburbs with super high mortgages, commuting, childcare, rushing around, etc. just so our children can go to good schools and continue this pattern themselves. I would love to read about your ideas for people with young families looking to escape that treadmill."


It never occurred to me when I was younger that the majority of us sell our life hours for money. It was only when I was older, and much more concerned trying to balance work with life that this strange reality dawned on me. The way we live in Western society is so deeply entrenched most of us never question it. But it is what it is, the majority of us have not been born into great wealth. We have to earn our keep by selling what we've got - our intellectual and physical capabilities and the life hours that go with them.

I am a worker bee, have been all my life, so you won't be surprised to know that I think work is a good thing. I firmly believe that we all should work for what we get in life. But I don't think we should work an entire lifetime. We aren't here just to keep our country's businesses going, we are here to find love, happiness and contentment and to build strong families. Doing that will keep our species and our nations going. So if you were to ask me how to set up a strong simple life that would function well right through until old age, I would say to work hard to buy a home and when the mortgage is paid off, to move to a blend of paid work and home work in a town you want to live. Though I imagine there would be some who would want to give up work altogether when they're established and debt-free, and there will also be many folk who live in the same place all their lives. When you are debt-free and working towards it, your focus would be to reduce the cost of living as much as you can, to make your home a place of production where you make as much as possible, and to keep the traditional skills of homemaking and small farming alive while you live your simple life in, but separate from, the mainstream.


Remember, that you don't have to wait until you pay off your debts to start living a much simpler life. You can start right now if you want to.  You need to think about what you want in your life, what your own values are and decide to step back from buying everything you want. Then, by living frugally and paying off debt as you go, you have time to develop the skills you will require when you dive fully into this life. Some of you will pay off your mortgages faster than others but that really is the key to this. To be free of debt and to live frugally, producing some of what you need, while working enough to pay for your lower cost of living.

We all know that life doesn't always go by any rules. If you've never been able to buy a home and are a lifelong renter, you're still well and truly included in this, although your path might be a bit more unstable if you are in a situation when you have to leave a loved home because the landlord has other plans. Buying a home puts more power into your hands but not all of us can do it, or we do it, then lose it.  But if you can live frugally then it might be possible for you to go to part-time work too but you'd have to have a good emergency fund to cushion you from the unexpected. We all need that.

From the time you decide to live a more simple life you need to be more prudent and thrifty, you'll  learn what you need to know in your particular situation, you'll plan and budget. You have to look after what you own and make the most of what you have. If you have land, use it to grow food. You'll be getting the full value of your land if you can live on it and grow food on it as well. Don't be tempted by fashion or updating what you own to keep up with the neighbours. Make your own cleaners, dispose of all the disposables, make do, cook from scratch, stockpile, and pay every cent you save on your mortgage. And while all this is going on, find the best in every day and be content with what you've got. 


Simple life has many offerings but you have to look for them, nothing is handed to you on a silver platter. Yes, your life will be full of activity but there is nothing wrong with that. The work you do for pay and at home will give you the life you want, and it will build character. Most of the work you do at home is worked at your own pace, it's gentle work and it gives you what you need. And as the months turn into years, I hope you'll find the contentment and happiness that can be found living this way.

So to answer part of Sarah's question specifically: I think it does make sense to work to set yourself up in life, buying a home and what you think you need to live well. After setting up with a partner you should be focused on earning enough to buy a home. I think it's best to do that fast with both of you working, and certainly before children are born. But that only has to be done in cities and suburbs if that is the only place you can find work. You may be one of those lucky people who can work from home and not be tied to a specific location. When the kids are born, if you can continuing paying off your debt as fast as possible, while enjoying life as well, you'll have a good chance of being able to transition to part-time work in about eight to ten years, depending on your mortgage. Those early years of hard work and sacrifice pay off when you own your home. Then, if you want it, you could sell your town or suburban house and buy somewhere less expensive, maybe in a semi-rural location where the houses are cheaper, but your still have access to city life when you want it. By selling a city house you'll have enough to buy a rural home and a nest egg to keep you going while you establish yourself.


Many people know from an early age they want more than what city life offers, others get sick of the rat race in mid-life, sell up and go and live in the country. I'm reminded of Duncan and Megan at the Odgers and McClelland Exchange Stores who gave up city life with two young boys and set up in the country town of Nundle. Now they operate a homewares store and if you read Megan's blog, you'll see they're living a busy but very rich life. You can read about Duncan and Megan's story in Slow magazine here:  http://www.exchangestores.com.au/nundle/resources/slow_magazine_0214.pdf

Sarah, you must live true to your values and if they don't include paying off a high mortgage, private schools or commuting then you have to work out a plan to move away from that scenario. You don't have to live in any particular place, but you need to have the means to live the way you want to live. Start planning your escape. Work out a plan to pay down your mortgage, put the children in good public schools when you need to and work towards a life that will enrich you. I think it all starts with buying a home. When you have that asset, you'll be able to structure the life you want but don't forget to live simply from today.


15 April 2014

Another milestone day

If you'd asked me when I was fifty, when I would start to feel old, I would have told you 80ish. I turn 66 today and I'm starting to feel old. Feeling old to me means I'm starting to slow down, I'm less inclined to take on new things and while I feel I've seen it all, I also have an optimistic view of what is coming and my ability to meet whatever it is with confidence. BTW, I don't think growing old is a bad thing, it's what we're all doing every day. I think life often gets better as you age. When I was 50, I wanted to live till I was 110. I'm not that selfish now and whenever my time is up, I'll be grateful that I had an interesting life and for the great majority of it, I was happy.

And just to prove I'm not a glamorous 25 year old masquerading behind these words, here is my birthday photo - the Queen and I do them every year - taken yesterday afternoon when I was 65. ;- )

Living to a really old age is not part of my plan now. I don't want to die tomorrow or in the next few years, but I don't want to live passed 90 either. I am happy knowing that my family is settled and that grandchildren have been born. I have had a few successes in my life, but having the family I have has been the greatest of them.

Today Hanno and I might go out for a seafood lunch. It depends on Kerry though because he flies back in from his job today and Hanno has to pick him up. If we're too late for lunch, we might have afternoon tea up the mountain at the French cafe. It will be good to have a day off too, I'll do some knitting, wander around and no doubt I'll talk on the phone to various family members and friends. It's a day for pottering, not working.

I want to thank you all for being here today and for reading what I write. It's not often a woman my age gets to have an audience and that's something that I think about almost every day. So thanks for giving that to me, for reading, for commenting and for walking this path alongside me.

- - - ♥-♥-♥- - -

Over at the forum today there's a very interesting thread about how various folk started their simple lifestyle. It's well worth a look.

14 April 2014

Pickled cucumbers from the garden

It's that time of year again when many of us are starting our gardens so we can eat the freshest and tastiest of vegetables, fruits and herbs. Hanno started preparing the soil here on March 3, and over the following weeks, home-sown and bought seedlings started going in slowly. Last week some of last year's garlic was planted along with kohl rabi, turnips, lettuce, kale, Amish paste tomatoes and more ruby chard. Already planted and growing well are green beans, tomatoes, passionfruit, bok choi, peas, silver beet, onions, broccoli, cucumbers, cauliflowers, cabbage, capsicums/peppers, Welsh onions, sage, borage, parsley, pumpkin, daikons, thyme and yesterday I repotted an avocado and a bay tree. I wonder what you're planting.

For those of you who emailed asking whether Hanno will continue to do our lawn or will we get someone in to do it, here is your answer. A close up photo would reveal a smiling face. When we discussed it, Hanno said he wanted to continue to look after his own place, and that sealed it for me.

It was raining here yesterday, the remnants of a cyclone up north. That steady, gentle rain makes the plants grow like nothing else can. It feels good knowing the soil is wet and the tanks are full. Most of the hard settling up work is done now, we only have a bed of potatoes to plant and then the follow up plantings whenever there is a vacant spot. Of course there is still the occasional weeding and watering but that's not a chore, I think it's relaxing.

A few tomatoes are growing and we've just added some Amish paste tomatoes for sauce. These are the French tomato Rouge de Marmande.

Ruby chard.

I call this petticoat lettuce, I'm not sure of it's real name. We added a couple of these solar light to the garden when we noticed bandicoot holes in the lawn and a few eaten plants. They did the trick. No more holes.


The chooks were all corralled into the corner of their run when I went out yesterday to take these photos. There is Patrick on the far right, he should be showing the frightened girls what to do but he's still too young and silly.

 And this is why the chooks were scared. A young peacock from over the back fence.  I soon got rid of him.

The last pumpkin left on the vine.


Borage ready to burst into flower.

 There is an abundance of passionfruit.

Sprouting broccoli.

Peppers and daikons.

A bag of last year's garlic, just out of the fridge.

Garlic being planted.

From the vine ...
to the basket ...

to the kitchen ...
 and the fridge.

When you grow your own vegetables you tend to collect recipes for things you didn't make before, such as pickles.  We had so many cucumbers last week, far too many to eat fresh, I decided to pickle some in spicy vinegar. Those I made up yesterday could sit in the fridge for months, although they will probably be eaten much sooner than that. 

You don't need any special equipment and recycled jars will do to store them. Take your clean jars and either boil them or put the jars in a slow oven (150C/300F) for 15 minutes to sterilise them. Keep them all warm until you're ready to pack the cucumbers in the jars. The jars should be warm for that.

I think I used about 12 cucumbers but you can pickle any amount, just adjust the quantity of spiced vinegar you make. The night before, peel and slice all your cucumbers and place in a large bowl. Pour over about a tablespoon of salt. Don't worry, you won't eat the salt. If you don't drawn the fluid from the cucumbers it dilutes the vinegar too much in the jars.  Mix the cucumbers around with your hands, making sure the salt is well distributed, put a clean tea towel over the top of the bowl and leave it overnight. The following morning there will be a lot of fluid in the cucumber bowl. Pour it all into a colander and let the salty water go down the drain. Run clean cold water from the tap over the cucumbers to make sure all the salt is removed. Leave the cucumber in the colander for about an hour to drain. 

You can make your own variation of this spiced vinegar. Depending on whther you like it very vinegary, or sweet, or spicy, add more or less vinegar (make up the volume with water), sugar, spice. Make it to suit your taste. You don't have to include any spices if you don't like them.

This is how I made it:

  • 2 cups good apple cider vinegar or white wine vinegar
  • 1½ cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds or pickling spice
  • a few peppercorns
  • a good pinch of chilli flakes
Place the above in a saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring to make sure the sugar dissolves.

To make up the pickles, pack the cucumbers into the sterilised jars and add enough vinegar to cover them. Put on the lid and allow to cool overnight before storing in the fridge.

I hope all my friends up north came through the cyclone with no flooding or other problems. It looks like we'll all be able to dry out a bit today. Take care, everyone.

12 April 2014

Paying off the mortgage

If you're struggling to pay off a mortgage and feeling a bit isolated because of it, read this wonderful thread at the forum. These are ordinary people, just like you and me, and they write about how they work towards being mortgage-free. I usually feel a bit glum when I think about mortgages but this thread made me smile.

If your interest is in the kitchen, have a look at this thread about making bacon at home.
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