Sunday, 26 July 2009

My home-grown lunch

OK, for the experienced veg grower I’m guessing, the following story may not have that much resonance. I say guess, because this is the first year I’ve grown things to eat in my garden and so I don’t know if I’ll feel this way every time I pick my lunch!

That’s exactly what I did yesterday – I picked my lunch of carrot, yellow courgettes, lettuce and beetroot. Well, if I’m totally honest, I added some asparagus that was on offer this weekend at Waitrose and added a dollop of shop bought mayonnaise. But the main event, as you can see from the picture, was my very own first crop of delicious vegetables.

The sense of satisfaction was immense. I mean anyone can buy salad and probably enjoy it. But a day later, I can still taste my lunch. Yes! The flavours were fantastic. I can’t remember the last time tasted such a carroty carrot and I simply grated the raw beetroot into a beautiful deep magenta little mound of the most intensely flavoured sweet beetroot I can remember tasting.

And these little golden courgettes I’m growing are almost creamy they’re so dense and un-seeded – absolutely no need for salting. It’s probably fair to point out that I’ve been cropping my Lollo Rosso lettuce for a couple of weeks now (leaf by large crinkly leaf) and mixed with finely chopped lovage, and lightly dressed with olive oil and cider vinegar they make a splendid salad to go with just about anything but especially pasta.

You see them here straight from the ground, but 15 minutes later and with the addition of steamed asparagus and mayonnaise mixed with a little ready basil from one of those squeezy tubes, the whole effect was sublime. Really.

Tell me, if you are a seasoned veg grower, do you grow immune to that extra sense of ‘I did it myself’ that must add at least another 100% to the taste factor? Do you?

Or do you keep it? I was reminded to ask this question listening to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on Desert Island Discs this morning, because to me, he seems perpetually enthused by food (and animals) that he’s grown himself.

Anyway I hope so, because I’m already planning what I’ll grow next year having put my toe in the water with courgettes, tomatoes (not yet ripe, so watch this space), pumpkins (watch for a separate posting on this subject), carrots, beetroot, potatoes (maincrop: Maris Piper), butternut squash, strawberries (Elan – so sweet!) and lots of herbs. I’m thinking broad beans, cauliflower, celeriac already. Any other ideas and suggestions?

In the meantime, if you’re looking to get started, July is definitely not too late. I’ve learned that now’s a great time to plant new potatoes for Christmas and Pak Choi for cropping in August. I’m sure there must be more. Let us know your tips for sowing now.

>> How to grow veg in mid-summer

>> How to grow your own vegetables

(Clare O'B)

Friday, 24 July 2009

Could you eat chocolate every day for a whole year?

Could you eat chocolate everyday for a whole year? If you think you can then you need to be contacting researchers at the University of East Anglia who are trying to find out whether chocolate can cut the risk of heart disease.

The university are looking for 40 menopausal women aged under 75 and have type two diabetes. All the women will have to eat two bars of chocolate a day. Half the group will have "super-strength chocolate specially formulated by Belgian chocolatiers" and the others will have to eat regular chocolate as a placebo. All participants will have to be willing to undergo several tests to measure how healthy their hearts are.

Study coordinator Peter Curtis said: "A successful outcome could be the first step in developing new ways to improve the lives of people at increased risk of heart disease."

>> For more about volunteering contact The University

>> To find out why chocolate is good for us

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Roses for grown ups

When I was a little girl, I used to collect enormous quantities of rose petals – very often from the large and healthy rose collection in our front garden (Mum and Dad must have been really impressed by my enterprise) – and then mash them into water-filled jam jars.

As every little girl knows, this is how you make perfume.

My Mum even put up with me dabbing brown slimy liquid behind her ears, telling me just how lovely my latest concoction smelled. I guess I was just too young to appreciate that extracting the true essence of rose from petals was the job of a specialist and that I simply didn’t have the tools or know-how for the job.

Thankfully these days you can buy herb and floral essences direct from specialists and by-pass the whole messy business of scent extracting and instead concentrate on making products that will nourish your skin, protect you from over-dependence on commercial chemicals and save you a serious amount of money.

Making your own skincare and cosmetic products is a bit like having a go at cooking great food – by following simple recipes, you can make stuff that’s literally good enough to eat.

We love trying new things at and from the simplest oil & salt rubs (fantastic hand and foot therapy to rub in a few drops of olive oil with some good quality sea salt) to more complex blends of oils and creams, you can create products that will give even the top brands a very long run for their money.

And speaking of money, if you check out our DIY beauty products article on our main website and pick up some astonishing facts and figures about what our collective devotion to cosmetic products costs us in terms of chemical exposure and hard cash – the figures are quite frightening.

Did you know it's possible to apply up to 175 different chemicals to your skin every day if you rely on commercial products?

We’ve recommended some really interesting books and sources for ingredients and even thrown in a few recipes to get you started.

Come on – let’s start making skincare and pampering products that we can trust. And if you’re interested in knowing how to make real rose perfume, here’s a recipe I just found on eHow

Let us know how you get on.
(Clare O'B)

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Cash in the Attic (and Twitter too)

Just read about the soon to be opened Townhouse Hotel in Maastricht Holland.

The people running this certainly have a creative approach (and a canny knack for publicity). As well as offering inhouse communications via Twitter, they have actually furnished the hotel make it and mend it style.

How so?

They put out a request to their neighbours and fellow townsfolk to sell them antique furniture and nick-nacks to furnish the new hotel. They wanted chairs, tables, ceramics, art, and all mannner of 'stuff' including boardgames. The underlying concept for the place is "style, sex and soup" (stijl, sexen, soupe) meaning design, attraction and authenticity.

As a result, they now have a hotel kitted out nostalgically in interesting antiques and curios at a fraction of the price and effort it would have taken otherwise, as well as pre-publicising the hotel into the bargain.

As for the townsfolk, they've got their old unwanted gear off their hands, knowing that it will get years of good use, enjoyed by the guests - and they'll have made a bit of cash into the bargain. Pretty damn good, eh?

>> The hotel website - they're taking bookings
>> The hotel Twitter page - they post frequent videos and photos from their Flickr stream of exciting things such as the installation of the broadband cables and the wiring of the ceilings!

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Digging for Victory....again!

Wouldn’t you just know it…No.10 Downing Street have started their own vegetable garden! Apparently the first harvest from their veg patch has just started to appear on the menu of the No.10 staff canteen and staff are also allowed to buy fresh vegetables to take home. Apparently they are little pricey at £1.98 for a lettuce, but as one official said
How many people can say that their salad comes direct from the Prime Minister’s back garden?”

The Browns aren't digging for victory themselves (the patch is actually tended by staff from the Royal Parks Agency), but they are said to take a ‘keen interest’ in how their vegetables are doing (well they would say that wouldn’t they!) and staff are encouraged to post photos of their produce on the No. 10 website or their No 10 Veg Flickr gallery.

The Prime Minister is allegedly very keen to show off his patch to the ‘all party gardening group’ and is hoping to encourage others people to try their hand at growing their own vegetables.

Admittedly it is unlikely that people will jump on the bandwagon of growing their own organic veg just so they can be like the Browns (There aren’t many people I know that are desperate to emulate our Gordon), but it is at least raising awareness and getting the message into our newspapers.

So whether this is just a desperate attempt to keep up with the Obamas (and the Queen) or a cynical ploy to endear themselves to the voters, let’s give them points for at least trying and for getting veg onto the political agenda for the first time since our wartime efforts of Digging for Victory.

Related Links

>> Dig for Victory - look at the original wartime film

>> Our tips on growing veg

>> Top tips on making your own compost

>> How to grow your own strawberries

>> Ten Downing Street

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Poor Trudie - there's a better way!

Mrs Sting, Trudie Styler is releasing an exercise video. Nowt wrong with that you might say and we'd agree – good luck to her, she looks great. But she credits her dramatic change in body shape to her personal trainer and the 4 hour workout they do everyday – 4 hours a day!

How many of us have that much time to devote to our bodies? Selling a 40 minute DVD workout on the premise that you too could get a body like Trudy's is a sham. There's no way the occasional 40 minute workout is going to equate to a body that's honed for 4 hours every day. Trudie is on a win/win - she's losing the pounds and making them as well.

We've taken a few pops at celebrities here on Make it and Mend it - but our problem is less with the Slebs themselves than with the way society has become obsessed with them. We are raising a generation of children to believe everything they see and hear about celebrities, to think that they need a size zero body and to go into debt to buy the same designer outfits and bags.

Most celebrities earn a darn site more in a month than many of their fans will earn in a lifetime. And they're paid to wear these designer outfits and are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives. We're selling our kids a myth of perfection that they can never hope to achieve or afford. Celebrities' bodies are their business and they have to invest in them. We don’t!

This doesn't mean we shouldn’t bother to look after ourselves, but looking at Trudie in her Tuscan villa, selling us this myth of perfection, one can’t help but think how much happier she'd be with a more balanced lifestyle. Few of us can afford 4 hours a day to exercise and even if we could, what a waste of a life that would be. Think of all the things that you'd miss out on if you did? It's like a form of celebrity slavery! Poor Trudie!

It can be a struggle for us mere mortals to find the time to visit the gym, but do we really need to? There are other ways of keeping fit. Housework is one of the best ways to burn off the fat. Cleaning is a necessary evil, but it won’t seem nearly as tiresome if you crank up the volume, throw yourself into it and think about all that fat you're burning off.

Still need more exercise? Buy a dog and get out into the countryside. Not only will you get loads of fresh air, but dog owners are usually slimmer and fitter and have lower blood pressure (patting a dog can apparently lower our heart rate and blood pressure).

Or get out into the garden. The benefits of gardening are manifold. There are the physical benefits of digging holes, pushing a mower, weeding and carrying soil; all of which use the same muscle groups as lifting weights in the gym and can increase heart rate, oxygen intake and energy expenditure.

Then there are the psychological benefits of gardening. Growing things makes us feel good and increases self esteem; the process of planning your garden can strengthen neural pathways and increase your memory and hand-eye coordination. Even the actual soil is good for us – there are microbes in the soil that have been found to alleviate depression.

So don’t be disheartened if you find it difficult to fit in a daily workout. It's time to get a little perspective and accept yourself for who you are.

Next time you have to do the vacuuming, instead of huffing and puffing and wishing your were doing something else, think about how much good you're doing your heart and how much fat you're burning off! And you'll also have a clean house and a beautiful garden to enjoy.

Poor old Trudy might as well be a hamster in a treadmill
>> Gardening is a tonic
>> Cleaning is the new therapy
>> Take a breath of fresh air

Blooming bras and pants

It seems that our ideas for unusual plant containers have been taken up in the most influential circles – the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) no less.

A little while ago we wrote on our website about turning bras into unusual plant containers (see link below).

Now the RHS has created the ‘Hanging Bra-sket’ as part of its drive to encourage sustainable gardening and food growing. (The bras were apparently donated by ‘enthusiastic gardeners’ and Marks & Spencer.)

They have since upped the ante and come up with ‘plant pants’ which are, yes, you guessed it, pants with plants in and what we’ve christened ‘window boxers’. (Think horticulture’s answer to Linford Christie.) The RHS has gone for a combination of blooms and veggies. Something for the lunch box, so to speak.

The containers were on display at the recent Hampton Court Flower Show.

>> Watch a video about the RHS bra-skets and plant pants

>> See our orginal bra container article - as well as lots of other ideas for creative containers

According to Georgie Webb of the RHS: “Due to their conical shape, bras are ideal containers for turning into hanging baskets, and if you sew two together, you have what is best described as a ‘hanging bra-sket’.

“Once filled with compost you can grow salad leaves, herbs, alpine strawberries and even tumbling cherry tomatoes in them; the bigger the bra the more you can grow. But the serious message behind the ‘bra-skets’ is that you do not need a lot of space or even a lot of money to start growing your own food – just a bit of imagination.”

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Recycled fine art

I've just read a piece about two women from Anchorage Alaska, Jacqui Ertischek, an artist and Georgia Blue, a former museum gift shop manager, who have set up an art gallery with a twist, selling art that is recycled from people's unwanted collections.

The gallery is called 2 Friends and Ms Ertischek said the idea came to her when she was fighting through piles of paintings in her closet "Art needs to be seen, shared, loved. That so much art is out of sight is just horrendous."

The women have an interesting approach to commission, dividing the proceeds of each sale between the owner and themselves, with each party passing on 10% to a different local charity each month. The majority of artists are Alaskan, but the pair also take on other works if they fit with their personal vision. They operate from an out-of-town shopping mall, but are planning to expand into online sales as well.

One of their stated aims is to make art more affordable for young people and many pieces are priced below what they would command elsewhere. As well as paintings they sell craft items from Africa, South America and other countries, such as bracelets made by a women's co-op in Burkina Faso from recycled plastic prayer matts.

Does anyone know of any similar schemes?

Picture credit to Anchorage Daily News

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Get your plastic bags out!

So you now use reusable cloth bags when you go to the supermarket.

You keep a foldaway bag in your handbag and some spare bags in your car.

But what happens on the odd occasion when you are out and about and buying some last minute groceries and discover you've left your bags at home so you have to resort to suprmarket plastic bags?

Well don't beat yourself up - just make sure you reuse the bags.

Here's some suggestions:
We'd love to her from you if you have any other ideas for using your spare plastic bags.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Get your own Karl Lagerfield style bag - for peanuts.

We love Dylon dyes and also the inspiration that comes out of this brand. We’re particularly struck by their latest idea.

Designer Karl Lagerfield was recently pictured at an airport with a tote bag with the words Karl Who? on it. Clever old Dylon decided that if it was good enough for the great couturier it was good enough for the rest of us.

Here’s Dylon’s recipe for a little designer chic:

  1. Take one plain canvas bag with long handles (available at Cost: about 86p plus delivery
  2. Take one pot of black DYLON® fabric paint (visit for your nearest stockist). Cost: about £2.25
  3. Let your inspiration take over.

Dylon recommend that you wash canvas/cotton bags before painting, as finishes can affect fabric paints.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Green Britain Day

Green Britain Day is an opportunity to get together, have fun, and begin the journey towards a lower carbon future. It's the brainchild of Team Green Britain, whose aim is to encourage us to lead a greener and more sustainable life and to leave a lasting green legacy after The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

And it all kicks off this Friday.

10 July 2009 is the first ever Green Britain Day, an opportunity to get together and do one simple green thing for the team.

Five teams currently make up Team Green Britain (with more on the way) and, once you've signed up, there will be lots of team activities to get involved with. Such as persuading your mates to turn off their TVs and come round to watch yours instead, to grabbing some neighbours and throwing together a great big lunch with local-grown food.

One team that has particuarly taken our fancy at Make it and Mend it is Team Swap.

Team Swap is about swapping your old stuff for someone else’s old stuff. Both of you end up with something you want, you both save money and you cut out the energy it takes to produce something new. At the same time, there’s less pressure on those landfill sites.

Just remember, if it’s usable, it’s swappable. That old coat you haven’t worn for two years may be just the hot ticket item your friend has been looking for. Spare pieces of furniture, unused toys – the stuff you don’t need any more can have a new lease of life.

What can you do to get involved?

Easy really – you could go to a local swap party, or if you can’t find one throw your own. These don’t have to be big affairs, they can be as simple as a coffee morning with your friends or colleagues at work, or a full blown affair at a local village hall. Simply choose a venue and decide what you want to swap and let your friends know.

Or if you don’t feel like going out, you can swap online too, on sites like Swapstyle and Switch in Style.

For more details on swapping and swishing parties go to

>>More tips on swishing and swapping parties

For more details on Green Britain Day visit

>>>>More details on Team Green Britain

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Vive la difference - bring on the misshapes

Finally something sensible has come from the European Union. Last week they lifted the ban on misshapen vegetables. From now on, shops and supermarkets will be allowed to sell oddly shaped vegetables. The days of only being able to buy a perfect straight cucumber are gone – and about time too I say.

Decreeing that we can only buy perfect vegetables is like saying that you can only participate in society if are a beauty queen or at least willing to have a bit of botox. We all agree that this would be quite ridiculous because more often than not, the beautiful people are the most boring. Beautiful children learn at a young age that beauty opens doors and consequently don’t bother to acquire any of the skills and attributes that lesser mortals need to survive.

So often the not so beautiful people are usually interesting and funny, because they have to be. They have not had the leg up that beauty provides. They have had to learn the hard way. Take Britain’s Got Talent’s Susan Boyle. We were fascinated by her because she failed to live up to the societal ideals of both looks and behaviour and yet still had the ‘voice of an angel’. She was newsworthy because of the juxtaposition of her looks and talent. She charmed the world despite her lack of polished looks because she had something different to offer, other than just bland beauty.

Around my hometown we have a phrase used to describe a certain type of wealthy woman – the burkha blonde – why? Because, for all her pampering and preening (and she does look fantastic for her age!) she looks like any other woman of her type and may as well be wearing a burkha. Her hair is coiffed and cut in a certain style, She wears the best designer outfits and has a body to die for, but despite all this, she blends into the background, because she looks just like the rest. She could be anybody.

Forgive me if this sounds bitchy and mean, I mean these pampered women no ill and would love to look so well preserved, but what I am trying to get at is that by focussing on a pre-ordained value of beauty we are stripping ourselves of our individuality and differences. It is our quirks that make us unique and should be celebrated.

So when it comes to my veg – I say bring on the ugly and mis-shapen, because regardless of the fact that they will cost on average 40% less than they beautiful counterparts, they are more often than not the tastiest vegetables in the field.

Mark my words: as we return to a taste for rustic/nursery food, I predict that misshapen veg will become the designer vegetables of choice and will be appearing on the plates of the chicest dinner parties.

Remember this when you sit down to a contorted carrot at your favourite restaurant – you read it here first!


Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Top Ten Perrennial Flowers

A list like this is always controversial and is de facto based on personal prejudice, but I have tried here to include plants that I think the novice could be fairly safe with and that are suited to most soil types. Despite the photograph here of the lovely Delphinium I have not included it as they can be very difficult for the beginner.

Apologies to our international readers if some of these are not suitable or available, but I have focused here on the British garden and climate. Any suggestions for other regions welcomed.

All the plants here should do well in a mixed herbaceous bed and are intended to be enjoyed in their variety. This does not mean they will all automatically go together and you should consider other factors such as available space, your chosen colour scheme and the sight lines from your chosen vantage point.

1. Agapanthus. These also work well in containers and offer up a profusion of bluebell-like blue or white flowers at the end of long elegant stems. They have plentiful foliage and can give accent colour or height to a border.

2. Phlox. This is delightful in a country garden setting. I used to grow them in a very large garden and they gave an abundant supply of cut flowers and a vibrant pink splash of colour to the garden, with their big fat blooms. Apparently they enjoy a little shade, although in my garden they managed well in the full glare of sunshine. Phlox can be propagated by taking root cuttings in winter.

3. Red hot poker. This is a sentimental choice, as when I was a small child I was fascinated by their name, their flamboyant red colour and defiant stature, rising above the smaller plants of the border so I chose them as my favourite in our small Liverpool garden. Red hot poker is actually a better choice for a bigger garden as it can act as a wonderful accent in a bed of more muted tones and shapes. They should be planted in spring rather than autumn.

4. Geranium - I mean here the true geranium or cranesbill, not the bedding plant pelargonium which seems to have run away with the name. These are very easy to grow, but can prove invasive so you may need to split them up and share them with your friends if they get too large or spread too far. They are great for planting under trees and are very tolerant. If you dead-head the old flowers they will keep on flowering for ages.

5. Salvia. The salvia or sage is a great addition to a herbaceous scheme, giving spiky blue spears of flowers and lots of foliage. Not to be confused with the red salvia bedding plant so beloved of seaside formal gardens or hanging baskets.

6. Achillea or yarrow. I'm not a big fan of yellow flowers myself, but the achillea is a really good contender for the list if you are looking for a very tall, sturdy plant that is easy to grow and offers up vibrant gold plates of colour and interesting silvery foliage.

7. Rudbeckia or to give this member of the daisy family its irresitable other name, Black-eyed Susan, is another golden flower, this time with a dark centre. This or the Echinacea daisy can give some vibrant colour to a large herbaceous border and is very easy to grow.

8. Poppy. These are spectacular when in bloom, adding a vibrant splash to any border. The problem is when the flowering is over they can look a mess so it's best to site them where their foliage can be hidden by other plants after they have had their day as it would be a shame to forego the loveliness they offer when in bloom.

9. Lupin. I love this old fashioned country garden flower, which can also be grown from seed. As well as offering vibrant spires of colour it has a very distinctive and attractive leaf. The lupin is a legume and was apparently originally brought to Britain by the Romans. Lupins come in a variety of heights and colours including vivid pinks and blues so can be accommodated in most border schemes.

10. Aster. The aster comes in a range of heights from dwarf varieties to towering Michaelmas daisies that can be over 6 feet tall, so be careful to check which variety you have before planting. Asters provide plentiful blooms and lots of colour.

(Clare F)

Monday, 6 July 2009

Children's Art Day

This week sees the start of Children's Art Day, an event that, depsite its name lasts from today until the weekend. The CAD consists of a number of events throughout the whole of Britain, intended to get children more involved with art. Programmes are available to both individual families and via schools.

From special exhibitions to classes and workshops, children can have the chance to learn about all sorts of things from making an army and building a castle from cardboard boxes in west London to creating a crazy collage in Rochdale or making art from recyling rubbish in Birmingham. There are exhibitions everywhere from the Tate to the Baltic - definitely something for every child and in every area of the country.

>>More information at

Friday, 3 July 2009

Make your own summer soft drinks

The hot weather we're enjoying at the moment in the UK is just begging for long cool drinks in the garden, but that doesn’t have to mean long bills from the supermarket as you purchase increasing quantities of what are, more or less, bottles of flavoured coloured water.

Home made soft drinks, on the other hand, are far tastier and cheaper. Here are just a few great soft drink ideas that we found searching through the blogs and websites that we rate (plus one of our own). We’ll be offering a wider selection of soft drink links on our new website, which will launch later this summer. More about that soon.

Ginger beer – we'd completely forgotten about this almost lost craft, until we came across a great step by step guide to ginger beer making from Simple Green Frugal a writers' cooperative for sustainable living.

>> Ginger beer from Simple Green Frugal

Iced tea - we're also grateful to the Stocking the Larder blog for reminding us about iced tea. Any tea you can make hot you can make cold. You may want to brew the tea in a little hot water first before topping up with cold and popping the glasses in the fridge.

Experiment with flavours by adding lemon and orange slices, spices such as cinnamon and cloves, or herbs like mint. Tip Fresh green herbs like mint, which can bruise and go soggy, are best added just before serving.

>> Stocking the Larder on iced teas

Sherbets – The Victorians used to make sherbets, which involved mixing flavourings with ground sugar. This mixture could then be dried and stored.

We’ve also been exprimenting with making up small quantities of the mixture and then storing this moist in the fridge, for fresher flavours. Try pounding castor sugar with a combination of fresh mint, lemon and orange zest. This mixture is then diluted with iced water. (You can also use it to flavour a standard iced tea.)