Making Birdseed Feeders

Making Birdseed Feeders

How to make Birdseed Feeders

During the winter, birds don’t always find enough food. To help them through these times of scarcity, why not offer them some ‘birdseed feeders’. They are really easy to make and much appreciated. All you need is birdseed (you can use pre-packed supplies, or mix your own, using a blend of edible seeds, nuts, and dried fruit, such as sunflower seeds, buckwheat, oats, millet, linseed, wheat, cracked peanuts or hazelnuts, raisins, etc, some hardened vegetable fat, suet or tallow.

Birdseed Cookies

To make ‘Birdseed cookies’ you can use Christmas cookie cutters.


  • 250g of hardened coconut fat
  • 500g of birdseed mix
  • string


  • Melt the fat in a saucepan
  • pour in the seed mixture until the fat is almost completely saturated
  • Stir well.
  • Allow the mixture to cool until it hardens to the consistency of peanut butter.
  • Line a baking tray with baking paper and arrange your cookie cutters or shapes
  • Now you can spread the seed mixture into the cookie cutter with a spoon or spatula
  • Use a toothpick to poke a hole through which you can thread the string once the cookie has completely hardened.



Flowerpot feeders

These are also easy to make. You’ll need small terracotta flowerpots with a hole in the bottom


  • 250g birdseed mixture
  • 500g suet or hardened coconut butter
  • a swig of sunflower oil
  • small flowerpots
  • forked twigs
  • string


Take a forked twig and pull the straight end through the bottom of the flowerpot.

Fasten with a piece of string and pull the string ends through the hole as a hanger for the flower pot.

I used a second, short twig to fasten it securely. The forked end of the stick should stick out at the open end of the pot.

Make the seed mixture as before, but add a little swig of sunflower oil (not too much!) to keep the seed mixture a little bit softer.

Allow the mixture to cool until it has the consistency of peanut butter.

Fill the pot with the fat/seed paste and allow it to harden some more so that it won’t drip out of the pot.

Now find a tree or better still, a bush that is not accessible to cats (e.g. hawthorn tree or elderflower tree) to hang your ornaments and flowerpot feeders.

flowerpot feeder

Earth Charter Initiative

Earth Charter Initiative

Earth Charter Initiative

When I first came across the Earth Charter Initiative in 2004, I was elated to find a worldwide network of hundreds and thousands of people working as individuals, or grassroots organizations and NGOs, all sharing a common vision: appealing to the highest common denominators and values of our shared humanity to draw up a charter that could serve as a guideline for a sustainable, just and peaceful future.

At a time when major changes in how we think and live are urgently needed, the Earth Charter challenges us to examine our values and to choose a better way. It calls on us to search for common ground in the midst of our diversity and to embrace a new ethical vision that is shared by growing numbers of people in many nations and cultures throughout the world.

I feel that initiatives like this, and this one especially, are important and deserve to be spread, far and wide, so that its spirit takes wings and inspires us to try harder and do more to save our beautiful home planet, I am publishing it here in full.

What is the Earth Charter?

The Earth Charter is a declaration of 16 fundamental principles for building a just, sustainable, and peaceful global society in the 21st century. It seeks to inspire in all peoples a new sense of global interdependence and shared responsibility for the well-being of the human family and the larger living world. It is an expression of hope and a call to help create a global partnership at a critical juncture in history.

The principles are grounded in the four pillars of Respect and Care for the Community of Life, Ecological Integrity, social and Economic Justice, and Democracy, Nonviolence, and Peace.

The Earth Charter



We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.

Earth, Our Home

Humanity is part of a vast evolving universe. Earth, our home, is alive with a unique community of life. The forces of nature make existence a demanding and uncertain adventure, but Earth has provided the conditions essential to life’s evolution. The resilience of the community of life and the well-being of humanity depend upon preserving a healthy biosphere with all its ecological systems, a rich variety of plants and animals, fertile soils, pure waters, and clean air. The global environment with its finite resources is a common concern of all peoples. The protection of Earth’s vitality, diversity, and beauty is a sacred trust.

The Global Situation

The dominant patterns of production and consumption are causing environmental devastation, the depletion of resources, and a massive extinction of species. Communities are being undermined. The benefits of development are not shared equitably and the gap between rich and poor is widening. Injustice, poverty, ignorance, and violent conflict are widespread and the cause of great suffering. An unprecedented rise in the human population has overburdened ecological and social systems. The foundations of global security are threatened. These trends are perilous—but not inevitable.

The Challenges Ahead

The choice is ours: form a global partnership to care for Earth and one another or risk the destruction of ourselves and the diversity of life. Fundamental changes are needed in our values, institutions, and ways of living. We must realize that when basic needs have been met, human development is primarily about being more, not having more. We have the knowledge and technology to provide for all and to reduce our impacts on the environment. The emergence of a global civil society is creating new opportunities to build a democratic and humane world. Our environmental, economic, political, social, and spiritual challenges are interconnected, and together we can forge inclusive solutions.

Universal Responsibility

To realize these aspirations, we must decide to live with a sense of universal responsibility, identifying ourselves with the whole Earth community as well as our local communities. We are at once citizens of different nations and of one world in which the local and global are linked. Everyone shares responsibility for the present and future well-being of the human family and the larger living world. The spirit of human solidarity and kinship with all life is strengthened when we live with reverence for the mystery of being, gratitude for the gift of life, and humility regarding the human place in nature.

We urgently need a shared vision of basic values to provide an ethical foundation for the emerging world community. Therefore, together in hope, we affirm the following interdependent principles for a sustainable way of life as a common standard by which the conduct of all individuals, organizations, businesses, governments, and transnational institutions is to be guided and assessed.

Respect and care for the community of life

Respect and care for the Community of Life

Respect Earth and life in all its diversity.

  1. Recognize that all beings are interdependent and every form of life has value regardless of its worth to human beings.
  2. Affirm faith in the inherent dignity of all human beings and in the intellectual, artistic, ethical, and spiritual potential of humanity.

Care for the community of life with understanding, compassion, and love.

  1. Accept that with the right to own, manage, and use natural resources comes the duty to prevent environmental harm and to protect the rights of people.
  2. Affirm that with increased freedom, knowledge, and power comes increased responsibility to promote the common good.

Build democratic societies that are just, participatory, sustainable, and peaceful.

  1. Ensure that communities at all levels guarantee human rights and fundamental freedoms and provide everyone an opportunity to realize his or her full potential.
  2. Promote social and economic justice, enabling all to achieve a secure and meaningful livelihood that is ecologically responsible.

Secure Earth’s bounty and beauty for present and future generations.

  1. Recognize that the freedom of action of each generation is qualified by the needs of future generations.
  2. Transmit to future generations the values, traditions, and institutions that support the long-term flourishing of Earth’s human and ecological communities. In order to fulfill these four broad commitments. it is necessary to: (continue to Pillar II).

Ecological Integrity

Protect and restore the integrity of Earth’s ecological systems, with special concern for biological diversity and the natural processes that sustain life.

  1. Adopt at all levels sustainable development plans and regulations that make environmental conservation and rehabilitation integral to all development initiatives.
  2. Establish and safeguard viable nature and biosphere reserves, including wild lands and marine areas, to protect Earth’s life support systems, maintain biodiversity, and preserve our natural heritage.
  3. Promote the recovery of endangered species and ecosystems.
  4. Control and eradicate non-native or genetically modified organisms harmful to native species and the environment, and prevent the introduction of such harmful organisms.
  5. Manage the use of renewable resources such as water, soil, forest products, and marine life in ways that do not exceed rates of regeneration and that protect the health of ecosystems.
  6. Manage the extraction and use of non-renewable resources such as minerals and fossil fuels in ways that minimize depletion and cause no serious environmental damage.

Prevent harm as the best method of environmental protection and, when knowledge is limited, apply a precautionary approach.

  1. Take action to avoid the possibility of serious or irreversible environmental harm even when scientific knowledge is incomplete or inconclusive.
  2. Place the burden of proof on those who argue that a proposed activity will not cause significant harm, and make the responsible parties liable for environmental harm.
  3. Ensure that decision making addresses the cumulative, long-term, indirect, long-distance, and global consequences of human activities.
  4. Prevent pollution of any part of the environment and allow no build-up of radioactive, toxic, or other hazardous substances.
  5. Avoid military activities damaging to the environment.

Adopt patterns of production, consumption, and reproduction that safeguard Earth’s regenerative capacities, human rights, and community well-being.

  1. Reduce, reuse, and recycle the materials used in production and consumption systems, and ensure that residual waste can be assimilated by ecological systems.
  2. Act with restraint and efficiency when using energy, and rely increasingly on renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.
  3. Promote the development, adoption, and equitable transfer of environmentally sound technologies.
  4. Internalize the full environmental and social costs of goods and services in the selling price, and enable consumers to identify products that meet the highest social and environmental standards.
  5. Ensure universal access to health care that fosters reproductive health and responsible reproduction.
  6. Adopt lifestyles that emphasize the quality of life and material sufficiency in a finite world.

Advance the study of ecological sustainability and promote the open exchange and wide application of the knowledge acquired.

  1. Support international scientific and technical cooperation on sustainability, with special attention to the needs of developing nations.
  2. Recognize and preserve traditional knowledge and spiritual wisdom in all cultures that contribute to environmental protection and human well-being.
  3. Ensure that information of vital importance to human health and environmental protection, including genetic information, remains available in the public domain.

Social and Economic Justice

Eradicate poverty as an ethical, social, and environmental imperative.

  1. Guarantee the right to potable water, clean air, food security, uncontaminated soil, shelter, and safe sanitation, allocating the national and international resources required.
  2. Empower every human being with the education and resources to secure a sustainable livelihood, and provide social security and safety nets for those who are unable to support themselves.
  3. Recognize the ignored, protect the vulnerable, serve those who suffer, and enable them to develop their capacities and to pursue their aspirations.

Ensure that economic activities and institutions at all levels promote human development in an equitable and sustainable manner.

  1. Promote the equitable distribution of wealth within nations and among nations.
  2. Enhance the intellectual, financial, technical, and social resources of developing nations, and relieve them of onerous international debt.
  3. Ensure that all trade supports sustainable resource use, environmental protection, and progressive labor standards.
  4. Require multinational corporations and international financial organizations to act transparently in the public good, and hold them accountable for the consequences of their activities.

Affirm gender equality and equity as prerequisites to sustainable development and ensure universal access to education, health care, and economic opportunity.

  1. Secure the human rights of women and girls and end all violence against them.
  2. Promote the active participation of women in all aspects of economic, political, civil, social, and cultural life as full and equal partners, decision-makers, leaders, and beneficiaries.
  3. Strengthen families and ensure the safety and loving nurture of all family members.

Uphold the right of all, without discrimination, to a natural and social environment supportive of human dignity, bodily health, and spiritual well-being, with special attention to the rights of indigenous peoples and minorities.

  1. Eliminate discrimination in all its forms, such as that based on race, color, sex, sexual orientation, religion, language, and national, ethnic, or social origin.
  2. Affirm the right of indigenous peoples to their spirituality, knowledge, lands, and resources and to their related practice of sustainable livelihoods.
  3. Honor and support the young people of our communities, enabling them to fulfill their essential role in creating sustainable societies.
  4. Protect and restore outstanding places of cultural and spiritual significance.

Democracy, Non-Violence, and Peace

Strengthen democratic institutions at all levels, and provide transparency and accountability in governance, inclusive participation in decision making, and access to justice.

  1. Uphold the right of everyone to receive clear and timely information on environmental matters and all development plans and activities which are likely to affect them or in which they have an interest.
  2. Support local, regional, and global civil society, and promote the meaningful participation of all interested individuals and organizations in decision making.
  3. Protect the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly, association, and dissent.
  4. Institute effective and efficient access to administrative and independent judicial procedures, including remedies and redress for environmental harm and the threat of such harm.
  5. Eliminate corruption in all public and private institutions.
  6. Strengthen local communities, enabling them to care for their environments, and assign environmental responsibilities to the levels of government where they can be carried out most effectively.

Integrate into formal education and life-long learning the knowledge, values, and skills needed for a sustainable way of life.

  1. Provide all, especially children and youth, with educational opportunities that empower them to contribute actively to sustainable development.
  2. Promote the contribution of the arts and humanities as well as the sciences in sustainability education.
  3. Enhance the role of the mass media in raising awareness of ecological and social challenges.
  4. Recognize the importance of moral and spiritual education for sustainable living.

Treat all living beings with respect and consideration.

  1. Prevent cruelty to animals kept in human societies and protect them from suffering.
  2. Protect wild animals from methods of hunting, trapping, and fishing that cause extreme, prolonged, or avoidable suffering.
  3. Avoid or eliminate to the full extent possible the taking or destruction of non-targeted species.

Promote a culture of tolerance, nonviolence, and peace.

  1. Encourage and support mutual understanding, solidarity, and cooperation among all peoples and within and among nations.
  2. Implement comprehensive strategies to prevent violent conflict and use collaborative problem solving to manage and resolve environmental conflicts and other disputes.
  3. Demilitarize national security systems to the level of a non-provocative defense posture, and convert military resources to peaceful purposes, including ecological restoration.
  4. Eliminate nuclear, biological, and toxic weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
  5. Ensure that the use of orbital and outer space supports environmental protection and peace.
  6. Recognize that peace is the wholeness created by right relationships with oneself, other persons, other cultures, other life, Earth, and the larger whole of which all are part.

On the earth charter website, the earth charter is available for download in different languages. There are also a number of other educational materials available to all who wish to share its message. 


Visit the Earth Charter Initiative online at

Get involved

Educational Ressources

Climate Change – what can we do?

Climate Change – what can we do?

“The climate emergency is THE defining issue of our times.”

It is the beginning of August, the time of ripening fruits. The year is progressing rapidly and the sun is already past its peak. It has been a stormy first half of the year with weather extremes throughout the world. Temperatures nearing 40°C which in my neck of the woods is unheard of, especially this early in the season. July and August can always bring swelteringly hot days, but this appears to be a new kind of normal. We urgently need to rethink the squandering of our planetary resources and what can be done to address this burning issue.


Climate Grief


As the intensifying seriousness of the situation is burning into my skin I find myself cycling through the stages of grief. Denial is no longer possible. Some days, I am overcome with grief and inconsolable sadness. I long for a state of reliable normalcy but know in my heart that nostalgia is futile.


Some days, I am almost numb with shock and disbelief. The seemingly wilful destruction of our beloved home planet is simply incomprehensible.


Some days, I just get angry as hell.


But, deep within me, there is still a beacon of reason reminding me that these feelings are the drivers of change, that the way forward starts exactly right here, where I stand. All I have to do is to take a step outside of the ‘normal’ complacency of my comfort zone. All I have to do is to challenge myself with questions about the changes I want to see in the world. What can I do to make a difference in my own life and in my immediate social surroundings?  Such questions empower me and transform sadness, frustration, and anger into determination – powerful energy for change.


We each are the ‘gardeners’ of our worlds and choose, at each step of the way, the seeds we want to grow and that there will be to harvest when the season comes. Instead of just concerning ourselves with fulfilling only the short-term demands or temptations, perhaps it would be a good idea to take the long-range view and ask ourselves that crucial question: how do we want to shape the world? What will be the fruits of our action or inaction? What will we harvest, when the time comes? And what kind of environment and seed store will we leave for our children and children’s children?


Our time here on this planet is short but our effect on the lives of future generations is huge.

In Norse mythology, Mid-summer inaugurates the time when the fiery God Lugh takes over from the bouncy Bel.


Bel warms the earth and quickens the seeds, Lugh ripens the corn and sweetens the fruits. But Lugh can also bring almighty thunderstorms and heavy monsoon-like rains. In recent years these phenomena are spinning out of control at alarming rates.

To be sure, even in the past, August could bring short but intense rains that refreshed the land. Maybe even an occasional hail storm, which farmers feared, but rarely did it bring complete devastation. Nowadays, hail comes in the shape of ping-pong balls, destroying crops in a matter of minutes. The amount of rain that normally falls over the course of a month now often deluges towns in just a few hours. Cities are flooded and little streams turn into raging rivers at very short notice. New weather records are broken every year. We can’t deny it – climate change is here.


We have seen it coming, yet few have been ready and willing to act. People are looking for guidance from authorities, but that is in short supply. Given that politicians are in office for only a short period of time, their priorities lie with short-term goals. Bureaucracy is slow to change and unpopular messages reduce the chances of being re-elected. Fear may help to sell even the most unpopular draconian policies, but it is not a useful tool for attracting votes.


People want simple answers to our woes. Unfortunately, there are no simple answers to climate change. It is a hugely complex and new phenomenon that we are only just beginning to understand fully.


It seems, without guidance from ‘above,’ we must find ways to help ourselves.


So, what can we do?


Perhaps it is time to reflect on what has helped us to get this far on our evolutionary journey.


Human beings are nothing if not curious and what has helped us the most is our keen sense of observation and experimentation. Observing the phenomena that are happening around us and paying close attention to what works and what does not. The task seems daunting. There are so many fires, so many issues that are screaming for attention. Whole ecosystems are affected by the changes that are taking place. How can we possibly address them all at once?

The world around us is a system. Whatever we do, the effects are never isolated but will affect the whole. The crucial aspect to realize is that WE ARE ALSO A PART OF THAT SYSTEM! Therefore, whatever we do in the world out there also has repercussions on US.

That realization can be even more depressing. But it shouldn’t be, because it also is the key! It is the key to understanding that we must start with ourselves and all that we do. We may not be able to fix the whole world by ourselves, but we can each fix our own world by taking responsibility for our lives and our actions. We can start by reflecting on how our own habits affect the world and make changes to minimize that impact

Some habits and practices are harder to change than others, but we each can start somewhere! 

There are things that we can do

  1. Organize
    The most important thing all of us need to do right now is to bring climate change into the conversation. If possible, group together with friends, family, and your community specifically to discuss how you have been affected and what, as a group, you may be able to do about it. A group can always achieve more than any one individual. Skills, know-how, and tools can be sourced and shared. Instead of feeling like a lone soldier fighting a losing battle you can tackle issues together, support each other and empower one another in doing so.
  2. Plant trees
    Encourage your community to plant more trees, and if you have the means and space, plant some yourself. According to a recent report, trees are the single most effective way to combat the rise of CO2. Even communities in poor countries, such as Ethiopia and India, have embarked on massive tree-planting campaigns. They are literally planting MILLIONS of trees. To optimize such an effort it makes sense to plant a variety of species and not just one fast-growing type. Diversity will build resilience as different trees react differently to various climate conditions.

Trees not only function as massive CO2 sinks, but they also create shade for other, more sensitive species, and help to conserve water by creating shade. Trees are also a vital component in the water cycle that regulates our climate. They are absolutely key to almost any ecosystem. They clean the air and produce oxygen, which we all need to breathe. Air pollution is currently one of the biggest environmental health hazards, according to a WHO report. It claims the lives of some 4.2 million people each year.

Extra kudos if you can plant trees with edible fruits and nuts that can provide food for people and wildlife.

wild flower meadow

  • Conserve water
    A lot of water is simply wasted – not just on sometimes obsessive hygiene routines but also because it just gets drained into the canalization. In places where the water system is not well developed, some of it may drain directly into streams or rivers, adding to the pollution.


Most people won’t have the opportunity to build a compost toilet in their back yards or find ways to easily separate grey water from solid waste. However, you may be able to save some greywater from the sink and ‘donate’ it right to your garden. But, make sure that you are using biodegradable detergents, otherwise, the toxic substances can build up in the soil.

An easier way to conserve water is to collect it from the drain pipe. Instead of letting it wash down the drain, divert it into a tank or water barrel to be used for watering the garden. Make sure the container is covered, otherwise you will provide a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

Gardens are notoriously thirsty. This is especially true of lawns and vegetables. A good way to help conserve water is to mulch your veggies. Irrigating plants with a slow trickle watering system may also work well. Take a container (some people use plastic bottles but un-fired earthenware is better) and puncture several times to make some small holes. Dig a hole in the veggie plot and submerge the container so that it is level with the ground, fill it up with water and cover with a stopper. That way water continuously seeps into the ground. If your garden is large and you can dig in several such containers this is a good way to reduce the time and effort it takes to water.

Another good way to save water is to abandon the idea of a perfectly manicured English lawn. Instead, aim at a perfect wildflower meadow or plant more fruit trees or veggies. Or consider replacing your water thirsty turf with a more water conservative variety,  which is now offered at garden stores (e.g. Bluestem Enviro-Turf). Fleur de lawn includes low growing herb species such as white clover that fixes nitrogen in the soil and provides nectar for bees.


  • Composting
    The earth is covered by a thin layer of fertile soil. Due to erosion, this layer is continuously reduced. Farmers have to add tons of fertilizer, most of it inorganic, in order to sustain their yields. Heavy machinery further destroys the soil structure and compacts the soil. The negative effects of this type of farming practice are cumulative and turn into a vicious cycle. The only way to break this downward spiral is to change the way we look at the soil.


We derisively call it dirt and regard it as a rather lowly element. Yet, even a couple of handfuls of soil contain more micro-organisms than there are humans on earth. The soil is alive and constantly working to make this planet habitable for ‘higher’ species. The micro-organisms do this by breaking down organic materials that plants can assimilate. They also aerate the soil so that rain can penetrate the deeper layers instead of just running off the hard, impenetrable surface. But micro-organisms need one thing to do their job:  organic material on which they can work their transformative magic.

This is where compost comes into the picture. Compost is what your organic waste turns into when it is broken down by worms and other creatures that live in the soil. Some may think that composting is gross. But what is truly gross is to dump organic and inorganic waste all together into a bin which eventually ends up as toxic sludge in a landfill. By composting your organic materials and using it in your garden you will actually improve the fertility and soil structure of your plot, which not only helps it to retain more moisture but will also make your veggies more nutritious.


There are many other measures we can take to make a difference. Some may need a bit of organizational effort: carpooling for school or shopping runs, or forming buyers co-ops so as to make high quality, organic foods more easily and more cheaply available in low-income neighborhoods. Others may require an investment that will actually save money over time. such as exchanging energy-hungry appliances for more efficient ones or installing solar panels or wind power generators.


The climate emergency is THE defining issue of our time. It does seem daunting – almost too big to even contemplate. But once we stop to think about our own behaviors and habits and what we individually can do to make a difference, we realize that many little steps can eventually bring about the change we so desperately want and need.


Collectively changing our consumer habits and voting with our conscience will eventually ring the bell at the government level. We must make it clear that we do not want to go down the road of certain planetary destruction. In democratic countries, governments depend on our approval and cooperation – and that is where our power lies.


What to sow in January

What to sow in January

If you are one of those impatient gardeners (like me), who are itching to get going with the garden year, you’ll be wondering what you could possibly grow this early in the season. In the northern hemisphere, January is one of the coldest months of the year. But don’t despair! There are actually a few things that you can sow, even as early as January. But of course, not out in the open while temperatures drop below freezing.

There are ways around that limitation though – like, discover a new use for your window sill, or you can make a cold frame – or maybe you are the proud owner of a greenhouse or poly-tunnel.

Here are some veggies you can sow (indoors or under glass) at the end of January (about 4 weeks before the last expected frost):


There are many different varieties, so pick one that is hardy in your area. Lettuce prefers cooler weather. Once it gets too warm it will quickly bolt.



There are purple and green varieties. The purple one is a bit more flavourful. Kohlrabi is pretty tough and winter kohlrabi can stay in the bed until needed. Summer kohlrabi should be started under glass, but need the cold temperature to trigger germination. They should be hardened off before transplanting them outside. Remember, though, that like other members of the cabbage family, kohlrabi does not like the company of other crucifers in its neighborhood.



These crunchy, peppery fellows are a lovely early spring crop since they are very tolerant and are quick to grow. Best to sow in intervals, every 2 weeks to optimize the harvest. But make sure you pick a spring variety as radishes are daylight sensitive.


Pick open-pollinated heirloom varieties so you can save your own seeds for the next growing season.

Before they can go out into the regular bed they should be hardened off. Don’t plant them out as long as temperatures fall below zero. The ideal temperature range is

For heirloom seeds see:


Topiaria gaudium fever

Topiaria gaudium fever

Have you heard? There is a strange fever going around. Strangely, it only affects gardeners. I call it ‘Topiaria Gaudium Fever’. It is a special condition marked by high levels of excitement caused by the anticipation of the new gardening season. Round about now you can find gardeners up and down the land working up a sweat as they are feverishly studying long lists that look like pages of the phone book (phonebook? Who the hell still uses these?) It is impossible to catch their attention. Their eyes glazed over, they are almost drooling with febrile excitement as they utter strange sounds and incomprehensible words that make no sense to most other mortals.

It is an annual condition and immunity does not seem to build up over time.  Despite the fact that the land is buried under a thick layer of snow, gardeners are getting excited about future possibilities, exotic varieties, rare beauties, and even over bog-standard varieties of garlic or potato. They are not the same, you see. There is a world of difference between a Butte Russet and Russian Banana, wouldn’t you know?!

Our gardening friends are studying their seed catalogs and they can agonize over such lists for days. With so many varieties, what should one choose? Which variety is best suited to their specific climate and will it get on with the neighbors? Decisions, decisions…

What pains them are all the seeds that they have to say ‘no’ to for lack of space or adverse climatic factors. And yet, it is amazing how much even a relatively small area will give you if you know how to make the most of the available space.

A good plan is half the work

Garden planning is the ‘unseen’ work of the gardener, but if you want success, it is one of the most important stages. A good plan is half the work. And it is such fun, too! Skilled gardeners optimize the available space by intercropping, companion planting and vertical gardening. That way you can make the most of each season. Some early crops, like spinach, peas, rocket or radishes are ready to harvest before the main summer crops just get going. But timing is everything, so you have to be on the ball!

‘Intercropping’ means to grow several crops together or in close proximity. But planting willy-nilly won’t do. Some plants compete more than others and some need a lot of space once they get beyond the seedling stage. Ideally, you should aim to grow plants together that don’t go after each other’s resources, both in terms of space and in terms of nutrients. In horticulture, this practice is also known as ‘companion planting’ and you can actually grow a lot of different veggies all in the same bed as long as you give them enough space.

In colder climates, it is important to start seeds off early, indoors, to give them a head start. By the time it gets warm enough for them to go out they will be strong little plants. But starting them off too early can also be problematic. Every window sill eventually runs out of space. And also, some plants have a tendency to get dangly if they are kept indoors for too long. Instead of growing strong, they grow feeble. Thus, studying the seed catalogs, which provide information about the optimal growing conditions, planting and harvesting times, is time well spent. If you limit yourself to those varieties that are hardy in your climate and can withstand the odd weather adversity, you are doing great!

To visualize what your garden will look like, and to get an idea of what needs to be done at which time of the year gives you a huge head start. You will be reward with a steady harvest for the most part of the year.

P.S. And while you are contemplating seeds, think about the bees and the butterflies as well. Use open-pollinated seeds and don’t forget to put some out for the birds!

Eager to find out what you could sow this month? Check out ‘What to sow in January‘.

Let them eat…beans?

Let them eat…beans?

Beans belong to one of the most widespread and diverse botanical families, known as the Fabaceae, or Leguminosae. They occur throughout the world as bushes, herbaceous shrubs, herbs, and trees. It is estimated that there are about 619 genera with about 18815 species (depending on who’s authority you accept). Of course, not all members of this large family are edible, but many are used in one way or another, as food, for medicine, as a dye, or for their oil. As a further boon, these plants are able to fix nitrogen in the soil (with the help of bacteria). This atmospheric gas is extremely important for plant life, but they can only absorb it from the soil.


Edible members of this huge family come in an infinite variety of colours, shapes, and sizes: peanuts, carob, lentils, chickpeas, green and yellow peas, kidney beans, runner beans, broad beans, black beans, mung beans – and, economically probably the most important of them all: the soybean.


Pulses, such as peas, chickpeas, and lentils are some of the oldest domesticated plant species. According to the archeological record, the history of their cultivation both in the Old and in the New World goes back 5000 – 6000 years (some claim even earlier dates).


Of special importance are the genera Vigna (Old World) and Phaseolus (New World). They have become so well adapted to our needs that they have lost the ability to disperse their seeds naturally. Originally, seedpods evolved to ‘explode’ upon ripening and drying. But if you have ever grown peas or beans, you will have noticed that modern varieties no longer do this. This is convenient for us but means that the plant/human relationship has become so tight that these species have become completely dependent on us for their survival.


What makes the pulses so important  as a food is their high protein content. Plenty of plants provide carbohydrates in the form of sugars or starch, but few provide protein in useful quantities. In regions of the world where other sources of protein such as meat or fish are not easily available, or are not used on religious or ethical grounds, pulses fill the gap. In combination with a staple, such as wheat, corn or rice, beans provide practically all our protein requirements.


But, because they are seen as a ‘lower value’ protein compared to meat, they have been stigmatized as ‘peasant food’. While the rich can afford to feast on meat, peasants have to make do with beans and rice. Another reason why they are not welcome in polite company is their ‘musical’ (and smelly) note. Interestingly, green beans are innocent of this effect and do not suffer the same kind of disapproval. Au contraire! They are much sought after in haute cuisine, while in ‘ethnic’ cuisines, rice and beans, refried beans, dhal, black-eyed beans, etc. feature as ‘soul-food’.



string beans


Considering our growing problems of food insecurity, climate catastrophe, and population explosion, beans may yet save our species. At present, most of the grain (and soy) is produced as animal feed, but this is a highly inefficient way of fulfilling the world’s protein requirements: it takes 7kg of grain to produce just 1kg of meat. Many more people’s nutrient requirements could be met if the land was used to grow food for direct rather than indirect human consumption.


It would go beyond the scope of this article to discuss each edible member of the Fabacaea separately. Suffice it to say that there are enough varieties to try a different one for every day of the year.


But, this would mean cutting back on cattle farming just at a time when more people than ever can afford to buy meat on a regular basis. If trends in Japan can be regarded as indicative, the demand for meat will grow rapidly, especially among the middle classes of the emerging economies. In Japan, (traditionally a fish-eating culture) meat consumption has increased by 360 percent (!) between 1960 and 1990 (Shah and Strong 1999:19). Due to religious taboos this trend is less pronounced in India, but not elsewhere. 


Fortunately for our planet, vegetarianism and veganism are spreading, along with a general reduction in meat consumption among ‘flexatarians’. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what is driving this change, but health concerns are one likely cause, while the other might be a growing awareness regarding the impact of a meat diet on climate change. Even the UN has called for a change in dietary habits in an effort to reduce CO2 emissions. Livestock produces 14% of greenhouse gases, second only to energy production and more than the emissions produced by all means of transportation put together.  Besides, methane, which is produced by cattle ’emissions’ (burps and farts, basically), has a far greater impact as a greenhouse gas than CO2).

America, Oceania, and Europe are still the top meat consuming regions of the world, on average consuming 3 times as much meat as Asia.




The problem with soy


Pulses are becoming increasingly popular and none more so than soy. They have been riding a wave of success. Along with wheat, maize, rice, and potatoes soy are one of the 5 top crops worldwide. Soy is also one of the most likely crops to have been genetically engineered. It is difficult to find any truly organic sources. The reason that the food industry loves soy so much is because of its versatility. Soy proteins and oils are used in an incredible range of things (not just food), which makes it a sure fire, immensely profitable crop. However, apart from the GM prevalence, there are a number of other concerns that suggest soy may not be the solution to all our woes.


Most soy is produced for animal food, and just as worryingly, for use as biofuel. This is marketed as a ‘green’ product, but nothing could be further from the truth. Much of the world’s soy is produced at the expense of rain forest, which is cut down to make way for the soy. (see The Perilous Progress of the Soya Bean)


Medicinal and nutritional aspects

 In addition to their excellent protein profile (17 – 25%), beans are also rich in fibre, which can help to reduce cholesterol levels. In themselves, they contain very little fat and no cholesterol at all. Thus, they are an excellent choice for a ‘heart healthy’ diet. Many types of beans can be sprouted and produce fresh, crunchy greens that can be used to top soups, sandwiches or salads.

Black beans are rich in anthocyanins, a powerful antioxidant. Researchers have found that the darker the bean ‘coat’ the higher the proportion of antioxidant compounds. Thus, black beans lead the pack, followed by red, brown, yellow, and white beans.

They are also rich in vitamin B1, folate, molybdenum, manganese, tryptophan, magnesium, and iron. Soy is rich in calcium. However, there are some concerns over unfermented soy. Another health concern regarding soy is the fact that what ends up in processed foods are mostly isolated soy compounds, such as isoflavones. These act as endocrine disruptors and are considered detrimental to thyroid health. Caution is advised.

Medicinally, the husks of the Phaseolus species rather than the beans themselves are used. Dried bean pods are strongly diuretic and are said to be able to dissolve small gravel and stones in the urinary system. The decoction is recommended for edema, especially where this is due to general kidney or cardio weakness. Old herbals claim this to be the most effective remedy to release excess water from the body. It is thus recommended as a remedy for flushing out uric acid crystals and other metabolic waste products. This is interesting, as beans contain purines, (also found in meats and other foods), which the body breaks down to form uric acid. The shells, therefore, provide a remedy for one of the health hazards associated with excessive consumption of beans.

Such a decoction is also said to be useful for controlling blood-sugar spikes associated with diabetes and hypoglycaemia. Beans themselves are beneficial for diabetics as their energy is released slowly and steadily (low glycemic index due to high fibre content), rather than in one big rush as is common with simple carbohydrates.


mucuna pruriens


Mucuna pruriens, also known as cowhage or velvet bean, is not commonly used as food, although the young shoots and seeds can be eaten if prepared correctly. This interesting bean contains L-DOPA, a precursor of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It is occasionally used as a natural remedy for Parkinson’s disease, in which reduced dopamine levels play a major role. However, self-medication is not recommended, as dosing can be difficult.

The plant also contains dimethyltryptamin and has been used as an additive for ayahuasca preparations.

In traditional Ayurvedic practice, it is known as an aphrodisiac, a claim that is supported by a study involving rats. Apparently, their consumption of mucuna resulted in raised testosterone levels.

Indian medicine uses it to treat cholera, delirium, impotence, spermatorrhoea, urinary troubles, and to expel roundworms. An infusion of the ‘hairs’ that cover the pods is said to aid in the treatment of liver and gall bladder diseases. Externally,  it is applied as a local stimulant and mild vesicant (Parrotta:2001).

In magical herbalism, it is occasionally used in the practice known as ‘lucid dreaming’.




Although mostly harmless, there are two diseases that are associated with the consumption of beans: favism and lathyrism.


Lathyrism is a condition that causes paralysis of the lower limbs as a result of excessive consumption of Indian Pea (Lathyrus sativa). This is not usually a problem when the pea is consumed as part of a normal diet. But in times of drought or scarcity when other foods are less available, it can become problematic. Indian pea, is extremely resistant to drought, and may be one of the few things around that are still edible. The paralysis can be permanent.


Favism is an acute anemic condition, which results from eating partially cooked or raw broad beans (Vicia faba). Even inhaling the pollen can cause this condition. Curiously, it only affects males of Mediterranean origin.

Pythagoras may have suffered from this condition as he vehemently rejected beans as a source of food. On the other hand, his objections may have had religious reasons. In Orphism, an ancient religious belief of the Greeks, beans are considered sacred to the Goddess and it was believed that each bean contained a soul. Or, Pythagoras might have considered beans too lowly a food, as even in his days, beans were regarded a peasant food.


The flatulence associated with bean consumption only occurs with dried beans. This is due to the fact that the human digestive system finds the oligosaccharides (a complex carbohydrate, which form during the drying process), hard to break down. The effect can be reduced by soaking the beans in two changes of water before cooking them. (soak, drain, soak again, drain, add more water, then boil ). Adding certain herbs and spices, such as epazote (Mexican favourite), fenugreek, cumin, coriander etc. can also help to minimize the flatulence effect.


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