31 January 2011

The icing on the cake

Thanks to everyone who helped with the house affordability question last week.  I was heartened to see that many people thought living on one income (even if there are two) is a great frugal strategy, and it is possible to buy a home on one income as long as the house price is low enough and you're prepared to put in some hard work renovating.  I agree.  I hope that post and the comments it drew help not only the girl who wrote to me but many other people as well.  My own children want to buy homes and I know it's not easy.

It feels like the year is really beginning in earnest now the are school holidays over.  Hanno and I are starting to think about our vegetable garden again and next week I hope to get some time to plant up some seeds we have here.  I have some Portuguese cabbage, sent to me by Andrew in Melbourne, that we'll try, we have luffas in, some corn to harvest and fruit growing, but we need a lot more than that.  I have six tomato seedlings in pots as well, grown from seeds of the excellent large cherry tomato that came up wild last year.  That tomato was healthier than any we planted, it was big for a cherry tomato, prolific and absolutely delicious. If it ends up being as good this year, I'll sell some of the seeds in the Etsy shop.  I doubt our shop will open before Easter but we are working towards it.  I was told recently that if I intend selling soap, I have to pay a $400 fee to the government as I'm classified as a "chemical producer".  Pfffffffft.  We're not sure if it's worth it.

More nectarine jam!  We have enough for a year and to give away.  : - )

We had a fairly busy weekend, I worked on the book and other computer related things but didn't have time to go to the Bunya Festival on Saturday.  My friend Beverly, organiser of the event, brought us a message stick last week so I was disappointed we didn't get there.  We'll make sure we go next year.  Hanno worked on the roof replacing screws and he mowed the lawn.  I was exhausted yesterday and although I had every intention of working, I ended up cooking biscuits and a meatloaf, and relaxing with a bit of knitting and cricket in the afternoon.  I wonder how I can become so tired working as I do, with every comfort and Hanno's support.  I guess it's my age and the intensity of the work, whatever it is, a quick sleep is a good pick-me-up and I'm right again.

Today is the start of another busy week.  I have the second part of my soap making workshop to deliver tomorrow and there are just four more weeks before the completed book manuscript is due.  After that there will be two months editing with my Penguin editor, Jo, and the book will be finished. It will be wonderful to have it done, it's been so long in the making, but I think that after a couple of weeks putting things right here, sewing and knitting for the babies and visiting my sister in her new home, I'll be thinking about settling into writing again.  I have been a writer for many years now and it seems to be part of me.  It suits my nature as it's solitary and reflective and it helps me understand the world and how I fit in it.  Even from this tiny dot on the map, writing enables me to connect to you and be a part of a large and significant online community; and that, for me, is the icing on the cake. 

I hope you have a productive and wonderful week ahead.  Thanks for visiting me.


28 January 2011

On my mind ...

This is a Friday photo feature that anyone with a blog can join. It opens the door to us sharing our lives with these photos and gives us all a new way to discover each other, and maybe form new friendships. Your photo should show something at home that you're thinking about TODAY.  If you're in another country you should join in when you read this, even if it's still Thursday.

To take part in this, all you have to do is post a photo, write a short caption explaining it, and link it back to here. Please write a new post, don't link to an older one.  When your photo is published, come back and add a comment below, with a link to your blog photo. Please visit the blogs that appeal to you and leave a comment.  It's a way of becoming closer as an online community and a way of establishing friendships.

Today, and for the past few days, I've been thinking about this book.  It was sent to me by a lovely friend and it's already become my favourite cookbook.  This book is me.  It's how I cook, so it's wonderful to have it in my hands - a source of some great new recipes.  There are chapters on cooking with leftovers, entertaining on a budget, baking,  weekend meals to cook and keep, lunchbox food and breakfasts, along with many tips and food hints.

If you're Australian, you'll recognise a face on the cover - Margaret Fulton.  It's is written by her daughter and granddaughter.  I love this book.  Any cookbook with recipes for baked peach pancakes, slow roasted lamb shoulder and green pea hummus deserves a space in my home.

27 January 2011

Can we afford to buy a home?

I had an email this week from Rebecca who wrote:

I'm about to turn 30 and I live in a rented smallholding in the UK. My husband and I live as simply as possible, rearing nearly all of our own food and spending as little as possible. We are very happpy and love our lives. We're both well educated and work in environmental jobs, which we both enjoy, feeling that they are worthwhile and really contribute something to society. They pay fairly poorly (as is the case with all environmental work) but we don't need much money as we live simply and money simply hasn't been too much of an issue for us in our way of life. The problem is more of a long term one. We are trying to start a family, which will inevitably involve a salary reduction. ... However, ideally we would like to buy a house at some point in the not too distance future. I hope this doesn't just sound a spoilt list of 'wants'. ... We live in a fantastic rural community which we are very much part of and never want to have to leave; but renting is by its nature insecure and obviously we never know when our landlords may want their house back. This is also coupled with the fact that we don't really want to be paying rent in our old age, and have to carry on paid jobs until we die, just to meet rent.

In the UK, as I'm sure is probably the case in Australia and many other countries, house prices have gone through the roof in the last ten years and salaries haven't. You need two reaosnable salaries for a bank to give you a mortgage on the average priced house. As I said, money hasn't been an issue because we live frugally, and have saved a big deposit, but how on earth do you get a round the mortgage issue? Even with a large deposit, it is the mortgage that makes up the bulk of the house value. We work hard, and quite a lot of hours as our work is seasonal, and hard work isn't an issue. However, I don't think moving to take a highly paid, corporate job is an option for either of us - there is no work like that in the area and I think it would go against what we believe in. 

I know that you can't have everything at once. If we want to start a family, we have to accept a reduced income. We can possibly cut back a small amount, but we live very frugally, preparing all our meals from scratch, making as many ingredients as possible and rearing all of our own food. We work form home as much as possible, use the car as little as we can and don't really buy anything.  I know that there are lots of people my age struggling with similar issues and I'm sure there's a sensible way ahead. I'd love to hear what you think.

Hello Rebecca.  Yes, it's a problem here too and probably in many countries.   I hate to keep harping back to the old days but I think we can learn a lesson from our past. Back in the 70s, I lived in Balmain, a suburb in Sydney right on the harbour.  It was definately working class then but now it's been gentrified and a house that would have cost $19,000 in 1970 would now cost between $1 and $2 million.  But back then, $19,000 was an awful lot of money and we didn't think about buying, we kept renting.  I eventually left Balmain but I have friends who stayed and bought a house.  The way they got around it was to buy in an area they liked but the cheapest house they could find.  They then spent the next few years fixing as much as they could on weekends and at night.  Eventually, when the house was in better condition, they sold it and bought another, better, house.  They did that a few times until they had the house they wanted and could afford.  It took a lot of work and time but it was the way it was done then and they were happy to be in their own home, working for their future together.

If you do that, you have to be prepared to work on the house and improve it as you live in it.  It's tough and I'm not sure many people would like doing it but it would be a real challenge and it's a way of getting into the housing market.  Don't aim for the top house, aim the worst house in the best street instead.  When we started out it was common practice to start at the bottom, buying whatever you could afford - that might be an apartment or an old house, and you'd renovate and paint and work your way up. I have heard quite a few young people complain about baby boomers having it all and keeping them out of the property market, but this is how we got what we have.  We didn't think of buying the top of the market, we always started at the bottom, or wherever we could fit in the housing market that was within our budgets. 

In Australia now, ordinary houses in Sydney are selling for $600,000 - $1 million, although here where I live they're half that.  In smaller towns you can get a good house for $150,00 - $200,000.  Can you move to an area where the house prices are lower?  Can you take in a boarder where you are now to help with the rent while you save for a house?

There is an interesting article here about the current over average housing prices in the UK.  Maybe you should keep and eye on this, hold off for a while and see if the prices come down in the next few years.  In Australia, the government pay a first home owner's grant of  $7,000.  Do you have something like that?

I wish I could offer you a definite direction Rebecca, but this is one of those problems that is not so easy to solve.  As you know, our readers offer excellent advice and so I'm hoping we might get some helpful suggestions for you to try.

And now it's over to you.  If you're young and have moved into your own home, how did you do it?  Please share your experiences and thoughts on this as I'm sure Rebecca will be one of many who will benefit.


26 January 2011

The thrifty way to preserve your jams and sauces

Let me start this by saying there are many ways to sterilise food by water bath.  This is how I do it and having been doing it for many years. I'm still here to tell the tale, but be warned, you need to do this carefully.

If you're a keen home cook and have ventured into making sauces, relish, chutney, bread and butter cucumbers or pickled beetroot, there will come a time when you might want to sterilise your jarred products so you can store them in your pantry  for eating later in the year.  I've written before about how we in the warmer climates tend to do less preserving/canning than our northern hemisphere friends - our gardens produce food almost all of the year, and here where I live it is quite easy to keep a kitchen garden going all year.  So instead of putting up our beans, carrots, soups and stews, we tend to eat our vegetables fresh, or if there is an excess, we freeze it.

Tomato relish and ginger beer.

Preserving/canning plays a part for us when we make a great pasta sauce or excellent relish, that is much tastier, healthier and cheaper than the store bought varieties, and we want to make a lot of it to use in the following months.  This is when we need to preserve/can what we cook.  Sauces, chutney and relish, in fact most foods with herbs and spices in them, will improve in flavour when preserved and left to develop flavour for a couple of months.  If you've never done it before, or only do a small amount each year, it's probably not financially sound to buy special equipment.  Here is a good way to sterilise your preserves in a water bath, without special equipment and by using what you already have in the kitchen.

Use modern recipe books for preserving|canning, or recipes from a trusted source, don't rely on very old canning books - some of the old methods of preserving|canning were unsafe.   When you first start doing this, use small quantities and small jars; when you know what you're doing, go bigger.  

You'll need a large saucepan like a stockpot, if it's not a stockpot, it has to be a pot big enough for all the jars to sit under the water.  I use recycled jars that have already been used for jam or honey.  You'll need metal lids that have plastic coating inside the lid to stop the food acids reacting to the metal.  Most of these lids have a little metal indent button that will indent when it's sealed correctly. Take a bit of time with the jars, they could be the difference between success and failure.  Check the rims by running your finger around the opening.  Make sure there are no chips or cracks and the lids are not dented or rusty.  Wide mouth jars are best because it's easier to fill them.

To sterilise your jars, wash them in warm soapy water, rinse, then place them in a low oven - 150C|300F for about 20 mintues.  You want to fill hot sauce into the still hot jars so do this while the sauce is cooking.

When you fill the jars, you fill it almost to the top, without spilling over the side.  You want a bit of what is called head space because some foods swell and bubble when they're heated and need this space to expand.  If you don't allow enough headspace the food might force the lid up and you won't get the jar to seal properly.  The general rule is  7mm|¼ inch for jams and jellys and 12mm|½ inch for tomatoes and fruit.

Before you fill the stockpot|saucepan, place either a round cake rack that fits well on the bottom of the pan, a folded tea towel or folded newspaper on the bottom of the pan so the jars don't sit directly on it.  Instead of using a wide mouth canning funnel, scoop the jam up in a medium sized jug to fill the jars.  Instead of canning tongs to lift the jars, you'll have to use the same jug to scoop some of the hot water out of the pot and when the jars are uncovered, pick them up with a tea towel folded a few times.

These are just some of my jars and bottles.  I never throw out wide mouth jars or interesting bottles and I buy some larger preserving jars.

When you finish filling your jars wipe them to make sure they're clean then, with the processing pot sitting on the stove, place the jars in the pot so they fit well without touching the jar next to it. Fill the pot with cold water, using a saucepan filled at the tap, then bring the pot to the boil - this will take 45 to 60 minutes. When it's slowly boiling, hold it at a slow boil for another 45 minutes for small jars and 1 hour for large jars. When the time is up remove the jars to sit on a tea towel on the bench to cool slowly for 24 hours. The prolonged heat will form a vacuum in the jars and you'll notice the lids will be slightly inverted, or you'll hear them pop as they cool down.

And that's it!  You don't need to buy all sorts of equipment, but like most things, if you really get into this you might want to expand on your utensils and equipment if you do a lot of preserving.  The important thing here is to try it and if it's a good fit for you, it's another useful and productive skill you have in your move towards a more sustainable life.

PLEASE BE AWARE: Low acid foods like meat, beans, carrots, peas, soup etc are not suitable for this type of preserving|canning.

Go here to read an older post of water bath processing.

ADDITION: Here our tap water isn't really cold and it's fine to use tap water on hot jars to fill the pot.  If you're in a colder place, you'll have to heat the water in the pot first, then place the jars.


25 January 2011

Be a jam maker - nectarine jam

Here in our neck of the woods, summer is a time for stone fruits and jam making.  Hanno found a good bargain at Aldi during the week - premium yellow nectarines for $2.99 a kilo (2.2 pounds)  He bought three trays.  I didn't have time to make the jam so when Hanno said he'd make it, all it took was a quick lesson and now we have the most delicious nectarine jam.

I don't know why more people don't make jam.  It's something all our grannies and great grannies knew a lot about.   If they didn't make their own jam, they went without it.  Unlike us, they didn't have shelves of jam waiting to be bought at the local supermarket.  But I think that jam is inferior to what you make at home and if you look at the ingredient panel, many jams are full of additives and not just the few simple ingredients that make up homemade jam - fruit, sugar and lemon; sometimes, depending on the type of jam, there is pectin as well.  I wonder what it's made from, where the fruit grew, how old it was when it was processed, was it fine fruit or leftovers that couldn't be used for much else, how far did the fruit travel to the jam processor, how far did the jar of jam travel to get to me.  If I can improve on any of those things, I'm ahead.

To make our nectarine jam, Hanno washed the fruit, including quite a few that were under ripe, and cut them into chunks.  He discarded the seeds but used the skins.  You need a wide saucepan for jam making because you want maximum evaporation.  All the fruit went into a big stockpot and weighed - four kilos (almost 9 lbs).  We knew then we had to add half that weight in sugar.  He washed two lemons, cut them in half and threw the half lemons, squeezed of their juice, into the pot with the fruit.  The pot was set on the stove and while he prepared his jars, the jam started cooking.  Frequent stirring is needed because you don't want burnt jam and you want to squash the fruit.  We used the potato masher to get the consistency we wanted.  Thirty minutes later, the jam was ready, the lemons removed and the jars filled.

That four kilos of fruit made two litres of jam - or eight normal sized jam jars.  Now, lets see.  The fruit (4 kg) cost $12, 2kg sugar cost about $2.50, two lemons about $1 and the gas to cook it on and to sterilise the jars, about 50 cents, which comes to $16.  We got eight jars, so $2 per jar for top quality jam.  That's about $3 - $4 less than the premium jams at the supermarket, and we know exactly what's in ours.  We still have a couple of bowls full of nectarines for eating fresh and another tray for more jam.  That will probably happen on Wednesday because today I'm going back to the neighbourhood centre to do a soap making workshop.

Look at the colour of that jam.  Good jam always holds the colour of the original fruit, without added colouring.

We didn't process our jam in a water bath because it will store very nicely in the fridge for at least six months. Had I wanted to keep it longer, I'd have processed it further.  And that's what we'll discuss tomorrow - processing jam in a water bath the frugal way - with no special equipment.

It doesn't matter why you make jam - because it's cheaper, better quality, you know what's in it, it's local or because you want to make as much for yourself as you can and keep your skills up to date - it's a lovely thing to do and it's really easy.  So start collecting old jam jars to recycle for your own jam and when you see fruit that's cheap and so good you can't walk past, grab it, take it home and be a jam maker.  You won't regret it.


24 January 2011

Growing elder flowers for drinks

In his books, the late John Seymour tells us that in addition to the many foods found in fields and pastures, like rabbits, berries, nuts and fruit, some weeds are also edible.  In the UK, elder trees grow in the wild, are often thought of as weeds, but the berries and flowers are collected to make drinks and relish.  They're not common in Queensland but we have an elder plant and yesterday I pruned it. 

I have never seen an elderberry plant in a plant nursery here and I was surprised to see one being sold, about a year ago, at our local organic co-op shop.  Sitting in there among the unusual herbs they generally sell, I picked it up when I saw the label and brought it home thinking I had found a rare, fragile jewel in a six inch pot.  Well, a year later, I know it's a jewel, but fragile, it is not.  I thought it would take years to grow, and definitely a long time to flower and set fruit, but I didn't care, the thought of elder cordial and champagne kept me going.  A year later this rare and fragile jewel is taller than me and has been covered in flowers for the past six months.

The only thing that disappoints me is that so far it's not set fruit.  There are many flower heads but they just die without setting the dark red berries I was hoping for.  Maybe over our winter, when the weather is much cooler, we'll be lucky.  Then I'll make red elderberry wine about which John Seymour wrote: "Elderberry wine is one of the kings of country wines - it matures well and can almost pass for a claret after 3 or 4 years in the bottle."

When the flowers fade, these reddish-purple skeletons are left.  They're very attractive but I'd prefer the berries.

In the meantime, when I have a bit more time, I'll make the cordial and champagne, which only needs the flowers.  The secret to a good elder cordial, according to John, is to pick the flowers on a hot day, from high up in the tree, and don't put too many flowers into the mix.  I cut our plant right back yesterday, it's still taller than me but I reckon in a few months those flowers, and hopefully some berries, will be just right for picking.

John Seymour's Elder Champagne
12 heads of elderflowers in full bloom and scent, picked on a hot day
1½ lbs|0.7kg sugar - white sugar is best
1 lemon
2 tablespoons wine vinegar

Put the blooms in a bowl with the juice of a lemon.  Cut up the rind of the lemon and put that in (no pith).  Add the sugar, vinegar, one gallon|4 litres water [cover with muslin] and leave for 24 hours.  Strain liquid into bottles, cork, leave for a fortnight and drink the following week.  

I also have Hugh Fernley Whittingstall's recipe and he leaves his  mix until he sees it's fermenting, then he strains it into bottles.

All this talk about fermented drinks - I'm going to start another ginger beer plant today.  Ginger beer, here we come.  Who is making fermented drinks here?  Who is scared of doing it?  Is anyone making elder drinks?


21 January 2011

On my mind ...

This is a Friday photo feature that anyone with a blog can join. It opens the door to us sharing our lives with these photos and gives us all a new way to discover each other, and maybe form new friendships. Your photo should show something at home that you're thinking about TODAY.

To take part in this, all you have to do is post a photo, write a short caption explaining it, and link it back to here. Please write a new post, don't link to an older one.  When your photo is published, come back and add a comment below, with a link to your blog photo. We will all be able to follow the breadcrumbs in the woods that lead to each new photo. Who know where these trails will lead us.

I'm thinking about my knitting today.  As you can see I have a number of projects underway.  The blue is a jumper for Hanno (Merino pure wool) that was supposed to be finished last winter; the green is one side of a tea cosy (organic cotton); the black is the beginning of a second mitten (Merino pure wool); and the pink is the start of a baby hat (bamboo and cotton).  I have promised myself not to start another project until all of these are finished.


20 January 2011

Get the full measure of your money - using leftovers

Thank you all for contributing your ideas on how to save money.  I have to confess, we already do most of the things suggested and seeing them as comments validated our frugal choices. I think we'll have to start thinking about our Etsy shop soon or I'll have to find some more writing work.

 I'd like to continue on this theme with some thoughts on being frugal and then I'll go to to using leftover food.

First let me say something about being frugal.  There is a debate in the English newspapers at the moment about penny pinchers and tightwads as if it's a bad thing.  Being frugal with some things so you can buy the things you truly need and want, or to live in a way that is unusual by today's standards doesn't make us mean, cheap or miserly. It simply means we have gone outside what is "normal" and we dare to use our money on what enriches us and not what others think we should have.  If you've been frugal for a long time, or if you're new to the neighbourhood, you're doing a wonderful thing for yourself and for the planet.  Keep doing it.  The peace of mind that comes from paying off debt, living debt-free, and not wasting time in shops so you can spend more time with family or doing what you love, far outweighs any pleasure gained from spending money.  It's sad that most people don't know that but don't let it put you off your path.  Be confident in your frugal choices and march to the beat of your own drum.  It's the only way.

On current estimates, we all waste thirty percent of the food we buy.  Just think!  That's like taking $100 to the shop, throwing away $30 and coming home with $70 worth of goods. It's insane.  Most of us cook too much but that's not a bad way to cook.  I usually cook enough for four meals most evenings, even though there are only two of us living here.  The leftovers are either frozen for the following week or eaten the following night, saving time and money.  If there is only enough leftover for one meal, use it for lunch the following day, or add vegetables or rice to it and serve it up for two. Don't let it sit in the fridge to turn into a science project; don't throw good money away.

I remember my mother baking a leg of lamb for Sunday lunch, that night we'd have toasted lamb and salad sandwiches for tea.  Monday night we'd have lamb curry and if there was any lamb left over, it would be shepherds pie the following night, made by mincing the lamb with one of those manual metal grinders attached to the kitchen table.  I loved that job.  With that in mind, last week, after we had our half lamb leg roast, we had lamb sandwiches and then lamb curry the following night.  This is the recipe for it.

This can be made with any leftover meat, chicken or fish, or freshly boiled eggs, or just vegetables.

1 large onion, chopped
1 large carrot, sliced
1 stick celery, sliced
plus whatever other vegetables you want to use
1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons curry powder or paste
salt and pepper
1 can coconut milk, or stock or plain water if you have neither
a portion of leftover meat or fish cut into cubes. If you have no meat, or are vegetarian, boil some eggs and serve them with the curry sauce.

* Place the onion, carrot and celery in a frying pan with a tablespoon of oil and cook until the onion is transparent.
* When the onion is cooked, add the garlic, salt and pepper and tomato paste and stir for 30 seconds.
* Add the curry powder|paste and stir to allow the curry spices to release their flavours.
* Add coconut milk|stock and meat and stir throughly.
* Bring to the boil, simmer for 30 minutes or until the coconut milk|stock has halved in volume and the sauce is thick.
* Serve with boiled rice.

You could use any cooked vegetables that were in the fridge as well in this and if you had no rice, serve with potato, polenta|cornmeal or a piece of toast or bread on the side.  It's delicious and filling and will make sure you get the full measure of the money you spend on your food.


19 January 2011

Cutting back and looking for savings

We have to tighten our belts.  Like many of you, Hanno and I live on a limited and usually fixed amount and with prices rising and new babies on the way, we're looking for ways to save.  We've already skimmed back to the bone on many things: we gave up cable TV, our second car, magazines and newspapers, eating out and buying clothes every year; we stockpile, cook from scratch and make do with what we have; now we're looking to fine tune our savings and make sure that what we have to spend still covers everything we need.

Generally, between the vegetable garden and the eggs our chooks lay, we save quite a bit on the grocery bill.  But we didn't plant any crops over summer and with the floods in this area wiping out many of our vegetable crops, fruit and vegie prices are skyrocketing.  Hanno said he saw tomatoes at $8.90 a kilo the other day!  We'll start planting our main vegetables soon a bit earlier than usual. We'll grow a lot of tomatoes, potatoes and vegetables to store in the cupboard and preserve just in case the prices don't go down again soon.  We'll buy frozen vegetables instead of fresh if the frozen are Australian and cheaper, and when we do buy fresh it will be at a little road side market stall that sells local avocados, pineapples and strawberries, along with other vegetables, not the supermarket.

Luckily we have a fair bit of fruit swelling to luscious ripeness out in the backyard.  At the moment we have lemons, oranges and madarines, a few pink grapefruit, paw paw|papaya, an over abundance of passionfruit, a few blueberries and if we're lucky, some grapes and bananas.  We might even get the first fruit from our avocado tree this year.

We're already baking bread, making soap and laundry liquid, we don't buy shampoo and we make our own dog food. We get by on very little but for the next few months, until our vegetable garden is in full swing again, we'll look for every other small saving we can make.  Don't feel sorry for us, this kind of auditing of our spending and making do is good for us and it helps us stay on track.  We still have a lot of pleasure in our lives and we wake up each day happy for the opportunity to work for what we need rather than buy it.  We have productive work to keep us engaged and to give a purpose to our days and we have ample time to rest and relax.  Life's good and it's getting better this year with two little people to meet and hold for the first time.  You cant get better than that.

But I'm interested to know how you cut back when you need to.  Do you have any good ideas because I think many of us are in this boat with us and it would good to sail into a safe harbour together.


18 January 2011

Roaming around the neighbourhood

We had a busy day yesterday with Hanno harvesting lawn clippings for the compost (mowing) and me working on the book.  The grass has grown fast with all the rain and the heat but it's all nitrogen or organic matter that will be returned to the soil and will help us grow more vegetables in the coming season.  In the afternoon I took a break from writing to make a half apron from an old dress of mine.

Since I gave up work at the neighbourhood centre in November, I've been out four times.  Some people might be shocked by that but I am by nature a solitary creature and it feels right to me.  My fourth trip out was on Sunday to our next door neighbours' for a BBQ and little rock concert.  Hanno and I were invited, along with other neighbours in our street, to one of the first public appearances of a band.  Lincoln, our 15 year old neighbour, formed a band with a group of boys who have been practising next door for about a year.  The BBQ was a thank you from the boys and their parents to the neighbourhood for "listening".  I quite liked listening to them progress from a few self conscious  plucked strings in the beginning to the full on concert they did on Sunday.  There were about 50 of us there, sitting in the shade around the pool, with the boys up on the back veranda which they used as their stage.

While we were at the concert, I noticed Hanno had a red eye.  It looks like he might have had a bleed into his eye so we're off to see his specialist today.  He's on Warfarin so the likelihood of a bleed is ever-present.   I'll go with him to the doctor and while we're out we'll look at baby things.  We hope to buy a cot for one of the babies on my fifth trip out.  After this, I'll lay low for a while. :- )

There is no doubt that after the south east Queensland floods fruit and vegetable prices will go up.  The Lockyer Valley, one of the main areas hit by flood waters, is the fruit and veg growing area for Brisbane and the south east.  Walking around the garden yesterday I was really happy to see our lemon, orange and mandarin trees full of fruit that will feed us well this winter.  Hanno just planted some loofahs too and I'm hoping they aren't too late in the season to give us a good crop.  The flood and the increasing food prices has made us rethink our vegetable planting for the new season too.  Many of the long term readers will remember that we plant our main vegetable crop in March but this year we might bring that forward a bit.  Our only problem will be the weather because more heavy rain has been forecast for our region and while most crops cope well with continuous light rain, not much survives torrential downpours.  But we'll take our chances with the rain because the alternative is to buy fruit and vegetables at inflated prices from far away places and we'd like to avoid that if possible.

So now that vegetable crops are on our minds again, we've got the chooks working in the garden for us.  They're in there every day now, eating weeds and bugs and scratching in the soil for insect eggs.  They're also turning over the compost.  What good little chickens they are.

How have your vegetables coped with the weather this year?  It seems it's not just this area that is getting weird weather so I'd be interested in reading your experiences.  We're going to grow some vegetables in containers this year so we can move them around if it does rain a lot.  If you have any other tips for growing vegetables in uncertain weather, I love to hear them.

Thanks for your visits and comments.  When we discuss the joys and problems we face living as we do, it shows me that we're not alone in our quest for a more simple life.  I am amazed at the number of new readers who have joined us here lately and it makes my day when someone new says hello.


17 January 2011

Preparing for the unexpected

This time last Monday everything was wet, it had been raining for days, but no one could have foreseen the events that were about to unfold in Toowoomba and many small towns to the east of it.  We live about two hours from Toowoomba and I've been there many times.  I never thought I'd ever see the scenes of the city centre that I saw on TV last Monday, just after a "flash flood, "an inland tsunami" "a wall of water" hit.  Call it what you will, it's been described as all of those, but what happened was something that we all thought could never happen.  Not here, not in Queensland.

There were many heartbreaking stories but the one that stays with me is that of an elderly couple who stood under trees, leaning on the front gate, with their home in the background, being interviewed by a TV reporter.  They were smiling and joking about having the flood water up to their knees.  They were wet but they were fine.  The reporter went back later to find them and there was nothing left.  No trees, no front gate, no house and no people.  Nothing.  It was like they'd never been there.

Last Monday started just like every other wet day for those people in Toowoomba, Grantham and Murphy's Creek, they didn't know their lives would change or end that day.  They couldn't have been prepared for such a catastrophe. No matter how much time they had, no amount of first aid equipment or safety gear would have protected them nor saved their lives. The only thing to help would have been to get out of there but no one knew, until it happened, that the water would sweep away all in its path.

The floods in Ipswich and Brisbane were another matter.  Those people were warned the floods were coming and many prepared for what they thought might come.  Nevertheless, the damage was so wide spread and absolute, it too just took your breath away to watch it unfold.  And when the waters drained off to reveal the oozing muddy damage in thousands of homes, shops and schools, and it all looked hopeless, people started to make it right again.  Lead by our PremierAnna Bligh, the SES, police and military personnel, the rescues and the cleanup started. Ordinary people who felt so helpless watching the waters rise and fall, formed into huge teams of cleaners, cooks and nurturers, and armed with buckets, brooms, mops, rakes, shovels, BBQs, sausages, bread and cups of tea took action and started cleaning up and feeding people they'd never met before. When they called for volunteers to help, they hoped for 5000, but well over 20,000 turned up ready to work in the stinking mud.  They were reaching out to fellow Australians and it didn't matter that they didn't know them, it only mattered that they needed help NOW.  There are many cliches tossed about these days about the Aussie spirit and what it means to be an Australian, but to all those who think it means us winning at cricket or being the best swimmers, I reckon you just have to look at what happened in the aftermath of Brisbane to know what it really means.  

So what can we take from this?  I think that it's essential to be as prepared for a disaster as you can be.  Nothing will help in certain types of disaster, like Toowoomba or 9/11 - they are too catastrophic and unexpected. In other circumstances, preparations that are well thought out and tailored to suit each different family situation, will help, there is no doubt about it.  If there are children in your family, it's also wise to practise evacuation plans and to tell children where they should go and who they should call if they're separated from the family in an emergency.  Work out, well before time, what you'll take with you if you must leave your home, plan where it is you'll go and when the time comes, go early, don't hang around thinking you might be able to stay. There are hundreds of sites that will give you ideas for your own particular emergency plan and how to prepare your family for a disaster, the job you have is to convince yourself that you need to act on this now and to customise the generic "do this" plan to your circumstances.  And I am talking to everyone who reads this, not only Australians.  The unexpected, the unthinkable and the unspeakable do happen.

If you are living a simple life, this is part of it.  Being prepared to look after yourself and your family in a emergency is another way of being self-reliant.  If you can safely stay in your home, with enough water and food for your family and any neighbours who need your help, then not only are you being true to your values, you're also allowing emergency personnel to get on with the rescue of those who need their help.  But the difficult thing here is to convince everyone they need an emergency plan, even when they think something like last Monday could never happen to them.


Little Jenny Wren's Flood Relief Raffle  Jenny is doing her bit to help with this sweet and kind gesture.

Dixiebelle's Be Prepared Challenge.

14 January 2011

On my mind ...

This is a Friday photo feature that anyone with a blog can join. It opens the door to us sharing our lives with these photos and gives us all a new way to discover each other, and maybe form new friendships. Your photo should show something at home that you're thinking about. 

To take part in this, all you have to do is post a photo, titled On my mind ..., write a short caption explaining it, and link it back to here. When your photo is published, come back and add a comment below, with a link to your blog photo. We will all be able to follow the breadcrumbs in the woods that lead to each new photo. Who know where these trails will lead us.

Today I'm thinking about new lives.  The picture tells half my story - babies, but I am also thinking about my sister, Tricia, who is moving from her huge old home today, to a very cute 1940s two bedroom cottage.


12 January 2011

House and yard maintenance

Before I write today's post I want to let everyone know Hanno and I, and our family, are all fine.  I received an avalanche of emails overnight, so I want to put your minds at rest.  We've seen many of the flood reports on TV and it must be terrible wondering about someone being involved in them.  We've had so much rain here, it's something I've never experienced before, even in the tropics.  We had rain on and off since the beginning of December but when this heavy and relentless rain started last Saturday morning, it just didn't stop.  It was common to have nine or ten inches in a day and as the creek in our backyard drains much of the town of Maleny, and they were having even more rain than that, it started to worry us.  Luckily, all our natural systems worked perfectly, the water drained out into the Pacific Ocean, and the only mishap we had was when one of the steps down to the creek gave way when Hanno walked down to check it and he fell.  He's sore, but okay.  Overnight the rain eased off and I just checked the radar and the cell that's been there since Saturday has finally broken up.  Today everything will start drying out here.  However, an hour away, in our State capital, Brisbane is expecting severe flooding as all that water flows down from the west towards the sea.  Then the search for those missing can start and the clean up will begin.  Families are still searching for loved ones and many thousands of pets and wild animals have been lost.  Please keep those people and the emergency service workers in your thoughts and prayers.

Just before all this rain hit us, I think it might have been around Christmas, Hanno started looking into a leak we had in our kitchen skylight.  When it rained, a small amount of water drizzled down into the plate of the light.  He got up on the roof and checked it all out.  Luckily he isolated the problem, fixed it and before the heavy rain started, he'd changed most of the screws on the room, replacing some that had rusted or were damaged.  That chore saved us from a wet kitchen and possible damage to the space under our roof.

Like housekeeping, home maintenance is an ongoing story.  Hanno has made himself a regular schedule of cleaning out roof guttering, cleaning the solar panels and the roof, checking fences, checking that water tank drains are clean and flowing properly, checking drains are flowing in the backyard, and the roof on the front and back verandahs are sound and not leaking.  That is on top of his yard work, lawn mowing, chicken keeping and gardening.  There may only be two of us here most of the time, but it's a full time job for both of us to run our home as we wish it to be.  Of course, we've both slowed down quite a bit so while we do what we have to do, we take our time.  It's our payoff, we can work at our own rate and if something is not finished in a day, well, there is always tomorrow.

There is a bit of a forest out the front and Hanno has been eager to remove a few of the weed trees out there.  There is a camphor laurel that should be removed and a couple of paper barks that are weak and keep losing branches.  But just after Christmas, one of the older tree dropped a huge branch with no warning.  The next day, Hanno got out the old chain saw and removed the tree.  When summer is over, my friend Beverly and her husband Michael will spend a day here helping Hanno thin out the trees.  Beverly hates it when I tell her that Hanno is climbing trees again, so with her and Michael here, I'm sure we'll be able to clean up the front garden and make the area safe again.

Having a capable and willing partner to carry out all these tasks is a real blessing.  Not only does it save us money, but we have the satisfaction of being self-reliant and knowing that we can look after most things ourselves.  We know we can ask family, friends and neighbours to step in and help with the really big jobs, and maybe in the future that will happen more frequently, but in the meantime, we're happy to be pottering around here doing for ourselves.


11 January 2011

Empty nest, or is it just another change?

All this talk of being a grandma has brought in a couple of emails from ladies who want me to write about empty nests.  I think this might be connected to being a grandma, so for what it's worth, this is it.

From day one I always believed my job as a mother was to raise my children to be decent people who would work hard and contribute to this great country we live in. Hanno and I worked on that together. I'm proud of our sons and the men they became.  I was a very independent teenager and looked forward to the day when I could leave home and make my own way in the world and I had no doubt Shane and Kerry would do the same.  So I made the most of the time we had together, I knew it would be relatively short and I wanted them to have happy memories to look back on, to know that they were loved unconditionally and encouraged to work to their abilities.  As the teen years came and went, I knew our time was coming to a close.  My boys, were no longer boys and as is the custom nowadays, they moved out when they had jobs, moved back in several times, moved out again and eventually found their true loves. I think it was easier for me because we never knew whether this would be their last time at home.  

When we knew it was, the closed doors to their rooms were stark reminders they were no longer here, but I knew they were doing what they wanted to do and what they had to do, they both had good jobs and my job as caregiver, was over.  The house started changing again.  I didn't lay awake listening for them to come home, the kitchen stayed clean, I stopped listening to the Foo Fighters and Tom Waits through closed doors.  The house that held four for over two decades became a place for two and eventually their doors opened to allow rooms to be used for emerging interests.  The boys grew up and along with that, we, as parents, changed again.

We started doing things we enjoyed.  We stopped planning around them.  We welcomed them as treasured guests when they came home.  Phone calls started, just because they wanted to talk, they asked advice, moved around, changed jobs, went overseas and returned.  Each step of the way we were there, walking invisibly.

Then we met the girls.  What a thrill that was!  And then "we're getting married." and  "we're having a baby."  And now, here we are, waiting for two precious babies to be born. Soon, in addition to daughter, grand daughter, sister, cousin, aunty, wife, mother and friend, I'll add grandmother.  None of those titles explains who I am, I am the total of all of them.  No single stage of life defines you and after your active mothering is over, a wonderful new era opens up, even if you can't see it yet.  So if you're sad about seeing your mothering role come to an end, let me tell you, it never ends.  You'll stop being the caregiver, but you'll always be a mum.  Those closed bedroom doors will stay closed, but before too long they'll open again and start to be used for the many things you'll become interested in.  Nothing will ever replace you as caregiver and role model, but your children aren't children for long and as they grow, you have to as well.  When they leave your next stage will start and that, my friends, is a time for self development, trail blazing and, maybe, if you're lucky, grandchildren.

My job as mother goes on forever, and now that grandchildren are on their way a new opportunity to love babies and help raise them in my new role as grandma is here.  I am really looking forward to seeing my sons hold their own babies for the first time. That day will be the pay off in a way, and I will know we've come full circle.


10 January 2011

This grandmothering business is a fine thing

The rain fell all day and the longer it poured and the louder the thunder sounded, the safer and cosier I felt.  I was doing grandma things - I was sewing for the babies.  A lot of people have emailed worried about Hanno and I.  We are safe and sound, thank you.  We aren't where the main floods are but we've had two days now of torrential rain, on top of the almost continuos rain since Christmas - the ground is sodden, and the rain continues.  In December we had 700 mm|28 inches of rain, since new year another 200mm|8 inches and probably another few inches overnight.  When I walked out to check the creek late yesterday afternoon, I was in ankle deep water in the back yard.  The creek had reached our steps yesterday morning and it rose further during the day.  We're pretty sure it won't flood, even though it's  four times wider than it usually is and the water is rushing along it.  We're currently in the middle of a super cell that started about 3pm yesterday, so the rain is heavier than normal, but still, we're okay. 

Inside everything was dry and cosy and I started working on being a grandma.  I got out the small amount of fabric I have for the babies and started looking for patterns.  During the afternoon, I made a light receiving blanket, a fleece blanket, some wipe cloths, a pair of pyjamas pants - mainly to test out the pattern, and I finished a bamboo and cotton hat.  It will be just the thing for Kerry and Sunny's baby boy, due late March, at the end of summer.  I'm now knitting another bamboo hat that is about half way there.

It's a long time ago now but the photo below is of Kerry and Shane when they were about 4 and 5 years old, they're now 29 and 30 and getting ready to have their own babies.  They were born in July, just one year apart, and now their own babies will be born close as well.  It's heartwarming work to be making little bits and pieces for them and as I work away in my little room here, I'm thankful they have wonderful wives who will make the best mothers.

I haven't had any luck with my call to barter nappies|diapers for a year's free advertising on the blog so I'm going to concentrate on making prefolds with bamboo and cotton or hemp and cotton fabric.  If you're a young mum and have already gone along this route, can you share your information with me.  I'd like to build up a resource here for new babies so whatever you can give me, and whatever links you can share, will be appreciated. I'm interested in sewing and knitting tutorials as well as how to care for the nappies|diapers.  I'm thinking that prefolds would be excellent for everyday wear with a few fitted nappies|diapers to have on hand when going out.  Does that sound sensible?  When my sons were babies, I used terry squares and plastic pants, so I'm familiar with the concept of cloth nappies but need to sharpen up my skills so I do it well.

This grandmothering business is a fine thing, even the anticipation of it is sublime.  I think I'm going to like it a lot.

And finally, on the weekend there was an excellent post over at my other blog - the Simple Green Frugal Co-op.  One hundred ways to save money in 2011 was written by Notes from the Frugal Trenches; it is the second part of a two part post.  Anyone who is saving, or trying to save, should take the time to read both posts.

PS: I had a few requests for a Down to Earth button that some readers wanted for their own blogs.  I've finally made one and it's one the left column.  Please feel free to use it if you wish.

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