The calm before Storm Daniel hit Greece

Hours after this photo was taken at a wedding on an idyllic Greek beach, with not a cloud in the sky, catastrophe struck.   

The wedding in early September was that of my son and his fiancée. For months we had been joking about our Big Fat Greek Wedding. I even wrote a light-hearted blog about trying to find a sustainable wedding outfit. How shallow that article seems now.

 I will always be grateful that the wedding went beautifully, because just hours after we went to bed that night we were woken by torrential rain, howling gales, thunder and lightning. We thought it was a storm typical of hot countries and that it would soon pass. But it didn’t pass. The next day as the rain and gales continued, we joked that our Big Fat Greek Wedding had narrowly avoided being a Big Wet Greek Wedding.

The storm appeared to abate only to gather reinforcements and return worse than before.  On the second night I stood by the landing window in the early hours – it was impossible to sleep – gazing in fear at nature’s power, wondering if the trees and power lines would hold.  I had been in storms before on holiday but this felt different, it was truly frightening.

The first we knew of the wider situation was when friends and family at home started messaging us asking if we were OK, sending footage of landslides, bridge collapses and severed water supplies. This was the first we knew of the devastation that Storm Daniel had brought. Until then we had been thinking we were unlucky to be experiencing torrential rainfall when the locals told us apologetically that it hadn’t rained since the 10th of June.  Seeing what had befallen others however, we realised we weren’t unlucky at all, we were actually very, very lucky. As our son and daughter-in-law set off on honeymoon, we heard about another couple of newlyweds on honeymoon in Greece who had been swept away in their holiday home by floods.

‘Nothing new’

Most people see the link between devastating weather patterns and global warming. So I was shocked on our return home when talking to someone who expressed the view that there had ‘always been storms and always been forest fires’ so the extreme weather of the summer was nothing new.

 Surely there are very few people now who believe this. The Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis described the storm, which followed a summer of devastating wildfires, as ‘a phenomenon unlike any other we have seen in the past.’

Climate scientists warn that global warming means more water evaporating during summer months, leading to more intense storms. Storm Daniel has been described as the deadliest Mediterranean tropical-like cyclone in recorded history. It was Greece’s costliest recorded storm, wreaking damage estimated at two billion euros. As it spread through Turkey, Bulgaria and Libya, it left many thousands dead, missing and injured, not counting lost livestock and agricultural land.   

It’s yet more evidence of the urgent need for change.  It’s frustrating and depressing when people deny climate change because we all need to act together doing what we can where we can.

The data on climate crisis can be overwhelming to non-scientists, so climatologist Ed Hawkins came up with this graph to portray global warming visually.

The Warming Stripes graph uses a series of coloured stripes arranged chronologically to illustrate long-term temperature trends as a way of showing global warming.  It shows the progression from blue (cooler) to red (warmer) showing the long-term increase of average global temperature from 1850 (left of graphic) to 2018 (right side).

It’s an image of global warming that is hard to argue with.  The worst mistake we can make is to deny the climate crisis is happening. The second worst is to think there’s nothing we can do about it.   

 As the saying goes: It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can do only a little.

The little that each of us can do every day adds up to a lot.


The Compost Guy behind Hot Composting Week

The kids in the Johannes household have a ripping time on Saturday mornings – that’s when they join their dad tearing up cardboard for the family’s compost bins.

Their dad Adam Johannes is best known to his customers and Instagram followers as Compost Guy.

Adam had long been a keen gardener and composter when he realised a few years ago that he could help other people by offering advice to newbies starting out on their own composting journey, as well as selling products that he believed in, including the Green Johanna.  People message him with their questions and he aims to respond to 99 per cent of queries on the same day.

Adam – a regular Compost Guy

He finds that most people who contact him have already convinced themselves to start composting but just need a bit of advice.

‘They argue themselves into it, they know they want to send less to landfill, be more sustainable, and get compost,’ he says. ‘If someone is not completely sold on it, I normally list out the practical benefits, then the issues with not doing it!’

In a bid to spread the word, he decided to start an annual Hot Composting Week – the first one begins on Monday (September 18 – 24). He got the idea because he realised there were other weeks dedicated to general composting, but nothing focused on hot composting ‘- and that is the best way!’

He uses hot composters himself – a Green Johanna and Hotbin – and has also used Aerobin, wormeries and Bokashi bins in the past.

 ‘I thought it would be good to highlight the benefits to more people. Everyone is surprised when I tell them how hot it gets! The aim of the week is to show people that hot composting is a good investment for them, and the planet.’

 Concern for the environment

Compost Guy started life in the winter of 2019, a few months before the pandemic hit. Adam found that customers were initially motivated by concern for the environment; then when garden waste collections stopped during lockdown, there was an additional reason for people to get into composting – to get rid of the garden waste they were stuck with.

He stresses that his small team are not scientists or professional gardeners, just enthusiasts who believe in the value of what they’re doing and know there are people out there who would benefit too. Composting started as a natural extension to gardening for Adam but quickly became a hobby. As an allotmenteer he originally wanted to find out how to enrich his soil for best results.

‘Composting is a great hobby for anyone,’ he says. ‘Sad as it sounds, I love getting out there and aerating my compost. I like the hands-on nature of it. Perhaps I love composting far too much!’

Compost Guy’s enthusiasm seems to give people the confidence to reach out and ask him all sorts of questions.  He loves trying to help and points out that everybody’s compost bin will be different, depending on various factors, such as the bin’s contents, position, local climate etc.

The main questions he gets asked are about how to speed up composting and the differences between the various hot composters.

Carbon content

When he first started on Instagram he only expected a few followers but to his astonishment quickly got far more – to date he has an impressive 6,700.
He sorted out a potential problem for his own in-laws recently when they were just starting out with their Green Johanna. On inspecting their Johanna, Adam saw that food waste had not been mixed with much garden waste and was sitting on a large amount of grass clippings which had matted together. So he set about ripping up cardboard boxes, with his children of course, and added this to the bin along with shredded waste paper. They tore up more carbon-content waste than they needed and put the excess in a handy lidded container to store it for when needed later.

 A video on the website shows Adam enthusiastically aerating the Johanna’s contents to bring back ideal conditions in the bin. He also used a garden fork to aerate deeper in the bin to break up the matted grass and added bark chips, which provide valuable air pockets.

Adam is keen that Compost Guy should be a force for good in the world. A good portion of the profits go to sponsoring three children in poverty and each new customer means trees get planted with Just One Tree – up to July 2023 more than 2,073 trees had been planted.

In addition, Adam is a trustee and contributor to the Veg Box Donation Scheme, a charity which accepts surplus produce from gardeners for the benefit of others, and he also supports Transform Trade.

A few people who will surely never need to consult Compost Guy for advice are the Johannes juniors, who are learning valuable lessons every day – in life as well as composting.  

Digging into myths about gardening

Did you know:

  • Using a petrol-powered lawnmower for 30 minutes produces as much air pollution as a 50-mile car trip?
  • Chemical fertilisers that are washed by rain into water sources suffocate marine life?

These are statistics unearthed by Dr Stuart Farrimond, in his latest book The Science of Gardening: Discover How Your Garden Really Grows.

 Dr Stu is a medical doctor turned science writer whose books explore the science behind everyday life. You may know him as the food scientist on the BBC show Inside the Factory.

His aim with The Science of Gardening was to write a book about the basics from the perspective of an outsider in the gardening world.

He says, ‘For something as beautifully simple as sowing, planting and watering we humans have made gardening terribly complicated.’

With this in mind he strips away the gobbledegook, strange rituals and debunks popular myths.

The sections on sustainable gardening look at the environmental impact of the choices we make in our homes and gardens. For those gardeners who compost already or would like to start, the chapters about composting explain the process in a straightforward, fascinating way.  

To return to the point above about petrol mowers, Dr Stu asks gardeners to consider whether instead of using petrol-powered mowers, leaf blowers or hedge trimmers they could switch to hand tools or electric alternatives.

He points out that:

  •  The use of synthetic fertilisers can pollute waterways, whereas soil that is enriched with mulches of organic matter can supply plants with all the nutrients they need.
  • Chemicals used to control weeds, pests and fungal diseases can have unintended consequences as they are by definition poisonous to life. Less harmful ways to limit damage by pests include using methods such as ‘integrated pest management’. 
  • You can plant and manage your plot in ways that maximise its ability to store and retain carbon dioxide.
  • Covering soil with woodchip, compost, straw or rotted manure (mulches) in late autumn protects it from pummelling winter rainfall (each bullet-like drop travels up to 20mph).
  • Soils that are fed annually with organic matter and where digging is minimised will store more carbon than those that are regularly tilled.

Topics covered also include why gardening brings joy, comparisons of different techniques and how to encourage first shoots.

Dr Stu describes gardening as ‘the perfect antidote to doom-scrolling through today’s news, it reconnects us with the perpetual cycle of life, death and renewal of which we are all a part. In fact I can think of no other pursuit that offers more.’

Here are just a few of his Myths v Science findings:  

Pruning cuts should be made at an angle

 Flat cuts heal faster; angled cuts leave a larger wound and do not prevent rot by stopping water pooling on the stem.

A layer of crocks or stones at the bottom of containers improves drainage

 The popular advice to prevent fungal root rot in plants in water-logged soil is to place pieces of broken pots (termed ‘crocks) or gravel into the pot before topping up with potting compost.

However, plants in pots with crocks fare no better than those without. The small pores between soil particles hold onto water like a sponge, so that it does not easily flow into the much larger spaces between crocks or gravel. Instead water clings to the lowest layer of soil, where it can accumulate and cause drainage problems. The best advice to avoid water logging is to use good quality potting mix, a pot with drainage holes and to not overwater.

Talking to plants benefits their growth

Science shows that plants feel the air vibrations that cause sound and grow faster when placed in front of speakers playing a continuous tone or music. This is possibly because they have evolved to sense the wind and contact from animals and insects, and this stimulation is a natural part of their development. It seems unlikely that occasional words would boost growth, although it has never been conclusively proved one way or the other. Human breath also contains high levels of carbon dioxide, which plants use to make food via photosynthesis but whether this fleeting increase affects growth is unknown.

The staff here at Great Green Systems have found this book a great read and source of reference. It would make a perfect present for any gardener, whether newbie or old hand, especially when the gift-hunting season which shall remain nameless comes around in a few months’ time.  

Letting Johanna and Bokashi do their thing

This week we caught up with Adam and Hayley who are first-time users of a Green Johanna.

They set up their Johanna in their back garden back in April. The couple had been keen to compost for years and had tried a couple of times with different composters but been disappointed with the results.

 Their reasons for composting were that they wanted to recycle their food and garden waste as well as produce their own compost to grow their own vegetables.  

Adam said:We have quite a big garden and a lot of garden waste to put to good use, such as branches, leaves etc. We also wanted a good place to put our food waste. We grow potatoes and other vegetables in the garden in large planters.’

They’ve been using the Johanna with an insulating jacket and in combination with a Bokashi bin. Bokashi bins are waste containers that ferment – rather than decompose – food waste thanks to the addition of beneficial anaerobic microbes in a spray or bran. Once full, the bin is sealed and left to ferment for around two weeks to become a pre-compost mixture which is then added to a composter or buried in soil in the garden.

  ‘It’s become a really useful part of our composting process,’ said Adam. ‘We put all our food waste straight into it and give it a few sprays of Bokashi spray, then once it’s full and has been left to ferment we transfer it to the Johanna.’

ABOVE: Contents of the kitchen caddy added to the Johanna.

 ABOVE: The Bokashi bin’s contents added to the Johanna. The contents of a Bokashi bin after two-weeks’ fermentation don’t appear much different; there will usually be a pickled smell. When added to a compost bin the pre-compost mixture acts as an accelerator – heat increases and the composting process speeds up.

Adam and Hayley are a household of two, both vegans, and it takes around one to two weeks for them to fill the Bokashi bin. Their waste is mainly vegetable scraps along with some beans. They then use their  smaller kitchen caddy to take food waste to the Johanna ‘whilst the Bokashi bin is doing its thing.’

They used some Bokashi bran in the Johanna when they were starting out to give the contents an initial boost but haven’t felt the need to use more since. Some people use it throughout the year to keep giving their compost an accelerating boost thanks to the presence of beneficial microbes in the bran.

While they haven’t used a thermometer to check the compost temperature, they’re having a lot more success with the Johanna than with other composters they tried in the past.

 ‘The Johanna is much better built and seems to be working faster at breaking down all the waste,’ said Adam. He added there had been no problems with flies or rodents.

Their garden waste provides them with more than enough carbon content (Browns) but they have also added shredded waste paper.

If you lack garden waste it’s a good idea to store shredded paper or cardboard, wood chips or sawdust in lidded containers nearby so that they can be added at the same time as adding food waste to get a good balance of nitrogen-rich Greens and carbon-rich Browns as compost materials You may be able to find a local tree surgeon who is willing to drop wood chips off for free.

So far, Adam and Hayley are happy composters and are waiting for the big reveal – accessing their first batch of compost! Watch this space…

Tips to see you through summer in the garden

Take your pick from a bunch of suggestions from two of our favourite gardeners.

Nancy Birtwhistle recommends this plant feed with added benefit in her book The Green Gardening Handbook:

Plants love this liquid feed even though it smells awful to us. When I decided to add a little clove-bud oil I thought it smelled even worse! Plants are able to absorb essential elements through their leaves (foliage). After reading that plants love a nettle feed, and that clove-bud oil is an insect deterrent, I made this mix because I wanted to give my veggies an organic feed while at the same time trying to keep butterflies off my cabbages (it not only repels butterflies and other flying insects, it also controls aphids).

Makes about 500ml spray


Rubber gloves


60g nettles, leaves and stalks

Clean, old plastic tub with a lid

Old fine tea strainer

1-litre bottle with spray attachment

1-2 drops eco-friendly washing-up liquid

6 drops clove-bud oil

Wearing gloves, harvest the nettles with scissors. Select the young leaves because they contain more nitrogen that is quickly broken down in water. The leaves need to be 5-7cm long. Pop them in a plastic tub that has a lid. I buy my bicarbonate of soda in 5kg tubs and this container, complete with handle and lid, is perfect. Pour over the cold water (or rainwater), stir and push the nettles into the water using a gloved hand. Pop the lid on and leave outside and forget about it for at least a week (two weeks is even better), stirring maybe once or twice during that time.

When ready to use (and I suggest you do this outside), take off the lid, give it a stir and the smell will send you reeling – it really is awful, but plants love it! Strain off the leaves, using simply the lid as an aid, then strain again using an old fine tea strainer (the nettles will be a welcome addition to the compost heap). Fill the spray bottle with the foul-smelling liquid, then add the eco-friendly washing-up liquid and clove-bud oil. Give it a good shake then spray away!

  • Late summer tends to be party time for caterpillars so if you have sprout plants and cabbages now is the time to keep an eye out. Little round clusters of pale cream eggs often about the size of a drawing pin can be spotted on the underside of large leaves. These can easily be rubbed off without the need for harmful sprays.
  • If you’re going on holiday – ask a good friend or neighbour to do watering and general care in your absence – the offer of free fruit and veggies is always welcomed by the garden caretaker.
  • If you have a greenhouse, it is essential in warm weather that the windows can open allowing cooler air to circulate. In very hot weather, dampen down the greenhouse: as well as watering and spraying the plants I water the floor too, which creates a humid rather than dry environment for growing plants. If you’re going away, leave full cans of water in your greenhouse so your garden caretaker can quickly and easily do this for you.
  • Even if there have been heavy downpours of rain, which is hugely helpful and beneficial to veggies growing in beds, it is still important to head over to your supply of rainwater (from the biggest water butt you have room for) to water pots, containers and hanging baskets daily, even twice daily on very hot or very windy days.

Edible flowers feed a need for colour

We’ve also taken inspiration from Sarah Raven’s A Year Full of Veg and her suggestions for edible flowers to add colour to your summer in salads, drinks, icecubes, and cakes. We’ve picked five of her choices here:

Chives – ordinary chives provide purple flowers (A. schoenoprasum) and garlic chives (A. tuberosum)  starry white pompoms; both are favoured by butterflies and bees. The flowers of both taste like a mild version of the leaves: the ordinary purple chives are mildly oniony and the white garlic chives a little more reminiscent of garlic.

Courgette flowers – all varieties provide plenty of flowers, but ‘Defender’ and ‘Nero Di Milano’ are the most prolific flower producers. Pack plants tightly at about half their usual spacing, so at 40 cm or so as under stress the plants flower more prolifically.

Rose – Every rose petal is edible, so pick your favourite colour and a variety with a good scent. Use them to decorate cakes and puddings, crystallised or not.

Runner bean flowers – beautiful flowers with a bean flavour.

Viola – these are classic edible flowers to sow and grow all year, including winter. The more you pick, the more they flower. They’re easy to grow from seed and can be in bloom in eight weeks from sowing, almost whenever you sow them. The small-flowered violas are better as an edible flower than the large-flowered pansies, which feel as if you’re eating a wad of felt. I love the stalwart British native Viola tricolor (or heart’s ease). This and V. ‘Phantom’ Sorbet Series both make fantastic winter-into-spring croppers. For spring into summer, add ‘Antique Shades’ and ‘Tiger Eye Red’. I sow them inside, widely spaced into seed trays and transplant into the garden straight from there. You can also sow direct from April to September, and they then self-sow. These are happy growing in very poor soil or even in the cracks of a terrace.

Can you compost in communities? Anthea shows how

When Anthea Rossouw tried to get people into composting years ago, they thought she was crazy.

‘I just got blank stares,’ she recalls. ‘At the time there weren’t studies that proved what composting could do. People just wanted to throw things in the bin. Composting was a controversial idea.’

But Anthea is passionate about the environment and has a way of bringing people with her. Using workshops to show how to use the Green Johanna, she introduced composting to the housing complex in West Sussex where she was living at the time. This was so successful that it spread to other housing developments and businesses.

Anthea had been a keen recycler for years and pursued her interest by enrolling on the West Sussex County Council Waste Prevention Advisor programme delivered by the University of Brighton. So then when she was living in Walstead Court extra-care housing facility and saw piles of bin bags in the ‘rubbish room’ destined for landfill, she knew something could be done about it.   

With the support of the housing manager, Anthea showed residents and staff how to recycle food, garden and paper waste using three Green Johanna composters.

Her tutor at Brighton, Dr Ryan Woodard, had told her about Green Johannas and she thought they sounded ideal.

‘It was essential to get everyone on board though,’ she says.

 Anthea, front right, with other keen composters and the Green Johanna.

The workshops worked a treat. Waste disposal routines were transformed, as was the rubbish room, now that it was clear of bin bags containing food waste.

 Before long the residents were making their own compost and growing their own food and flowers. ‘We grew the most beautiful tomatoes,’ Anthea remembers.

Anthea approached the task methodically, weighing waste and tracking residual waste.  Waste to landfill was reduced by 55 per cent, black bin bags were reduced from three to one per flat per week. Over a six-month period 280 kg of food waste was diverted from landfill.

The communal gardens were not the only things that blossomed. Residents and staff reported that personal well-being and community spirit also flourished. The projects helped to keep people mentally alert and physically active, through taking waste out to the Johannas, crunching up cardboard containers etc. It also gave neighbours an added reason to chat to each other, acting as a conversational ice-breaker.

Anthea was then asked to introduce similar schemes to other housing associations and businesses. She also ran trials for DEFRA (Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and won the Gatwick Diamond Green Champion award for her environmental work.

She then decided to try the same method of community food waste recycling in a very different place – her native South Africa. Here she introduced composting to struggling townships as part of her work with the Dreamcatcher South Africa Foundation that she had set up in 1991 to alleviate poverty by creating employment. In the community, waste was historically burnt at the dumpsite having a devastating impact on the environment and public health.

Anthea, second left next to Sir Trevor McDonald, receiving the Gatwick Diamond Green Champion award.

On a trip back home, she took three Johannas as luggage instead of suitcases, wrapping her clothes around the Johannas’ circular sections. Using the same training methods as in East and West Sussex, she installed three Johannas in a communal garden managed by local women known as Kamammas (a term meaning matriarch, or community leader).

Anthea says the Kamammas quickly took to working with the Johannas.

 ‘They found the composters didn’t attract dogs or vermin and they were delighted when they saw the quality of compost that was produced and the food they could grow with it.’ This trial was then scaled up to introduce another 25 Johannas.

The food that is grown with the Johannas’ compost is used in the women’s work providing tourists with traditional South African cuisine.  

A Kamamma introduces tourists to traditional South African cuisine.

Anthea divides her time between the UK and South Africa, and she is still in contact with the people she got composting back in the South of England. She is delighted – but not surprised – that the schemes she helped to implement are still going strong.

‘Any system must be sustainable, otherwise there’s no point. To bring about real change you have to go truly local. You need the people to make it work.

‘It takes around three months to introduce a composting project. After that people can stand on their own two feet.

‘Once you give people the skills, knowledge and confidence they become compost evangelists!’

After all these years, Anthea is still a big Johanna fan.

‘We used many other composters before settling on the Green Johanna. I underpin everything with baseline research and I knew the Green Johanna was the one.’

She still loves introducing beginners to composting.

 ‘They might know nothing now but you know they soon will. People become fascinated to know about all these little creatures in the composter doing their work.’

She firmly believes that if you pay attention to what’s happening in your composter you will learn  how to ‘speak compost’.

‘You soon learn to tell if you need to do something to bring good conditions back. If you haven’t enough garden waste, you can use paper product waste, such as toilet rolls, cardboard, shredded paper. If the contents look dry sprinkle a little water on top.’

The Johanna may have been designed in Sweden to cope with harsh Scandinavian winters, but it has happily adjusted to the South African climate, often turning ‘psychedelic green’ in the sun.

Whatever the shade, it’s still doing a great green job for the planet, wherever on earth it happens to be.  

Why August is the greenest month – for recycling

Returning from holiday can be hard – and not for the obvious reasons.

 Last year I was fed up when we came back from the Lake District, and it wasn’t just the fact that I could no longer see Lake Windermere from the bedroom window. It was also because I missed the neat tidy air of the holiday cottage we’d stayed in. It was so serene and uncluttered. If I put a book down on the coffee table, I would still be able to find it the next day because it wouldn’t have been submerged under papers, junk mail and post-it notes.

Simplicity, clarity and peace reigned in that little cottage. I felt as though a loudspeaker had been turned off in my head and I could hear properly for the first time. And what I could hear was the voice of Marie Kondo (author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying) saying, ‘Does all that stuff in your house really spark joy?’

Because if it doesn’t, you’re meant to allow it to pass on to spark joy in someone else’s. A great recycling manifesto.

So that’s why I launched the very first Awesome August Clear-Out in our house (a designated annual event).

Like many people we worked from home during the pandemic lockdowns and despite officially going back to the office many moons ago, not everything seems to have made it back there. In many ways the house is still a home-office hybrid. Remember those days when every surface had to multitask? You’d wonder why the hairdryer wasn’t working only to realise you’d picked up the stapler instead. And vice versa. Our house hadn’t fully recovered from that and it needed to because I wanted that holiday cottage vibe. I wanted to open a cupboard and immediately find what I was looking for. I’ll never be the mad-clean type who whisks away an innocent person’s half-drunk cup of tea before they’ve finished, but I do crave clear surfaces and curated shelving. If you’re there already, I salute you. Move along, people, there’s nothing for you to see here.  

For the rest of you, here’s why you too could benefit from an Awesome August Clear-Out.

  • Coming back from holiday usually means you’re motivated by how pleasant it was to live a simpler life for a week or two. This was because you weren’t surrounded by stuff. We can’t all decide to renovate our homes, but we can make it easier to find things.  
  • Thousands of you have August off. School staff, pupils, students – you know who you are. You also know that when the month beginning with S comes around, you won’t have the time or motivation to engage with the great recycling push that comes with Recycle Week (September 19-25). September has the feeling of a fresh new start along with the crisp new notebook and academic diary. It’s also a much better month for resolutions than January so get ready for it now.  
  • The mild weather means you can dump all your stuff outside to sort through it all, like they do in the TV decluttering shows. Obviously you couldn’t do that today because it’s pouring down. And it couldn’t have been yesterday for the same reason. But you know, one day, in theory, that would be nice.

Maybe not the best August day for spreading out on the lawn…

  •  One message that comes through loud and clear from the TV shows is that many parents can’t let go of their children’s childhoods. Guilty as charged. But I’ve now reduced the piles of memorabilia to one box per child. Parents, stop the insanity. I hate to be harsh, but – it’s gone.
  • Children are at home in the holidays to help choose which things they want to keep. They  will be fine with moving on. It’s you who’ll be clinging to a tatty rag, wailing, ‘But we can’t let go of Goosey!’

  • Will you really read those books again? During the first Clear-Out I asked myself that question and realised I would have to live to about 140 to read not only all the books waiting silently to be read, but also those I intended to re-read.  There is only one book I’ve ever read twice – To Kill a Mockingbird. So the evidence points to my not being one of life’s re-readers. Accepting this meant I could let go of dozens of books. Now when I pass my Agatha Christies on to friends and they say they’ll return them, I’ve learnt to say, No, it’s OK, I know who did it.
  • My mother is a great fan of Death Cleaning – this is the Swedish custom of sorting through your lifetime’s possessions before you die, so sparing your loved ones the task later. It’s become her favourite hobby. Most people might visit their 80-something mothers and find them weeding, knitting or watching Bargain Hunt. Mine is to be found among piles of crockery, Tupperware and spare lawn mower parts. She death-cleans with such gusto that I suspect if she’d heard of it years ago she might never have accumulated anything in the first place.  ‘I’m doing this so you don’t have to,’ she says. But recently I’ve noticed what seems to be happening is she’s passing things on to me so I’ll make the decisions about what to keep and discard. What she means is – ‘I’m letting you do this now so you don’t have to later.’ But I don’t mind. I’ve seen friends struggle to cope with these heartbreaking clear-outs after their parents have passed away. Now feels like the better time. My husband used to say things like, ‘We appear to have a large bag full of your mother’s retirement cards in the garage.’ Now he accepts it too. Her stuff has been annexed into our clear-out.  
  • According to Jen Gale in The Sustainable-ish Living Guide, once you’ve gone through the hassle of decluttering you become far more selective about what you bring into the house that might need decluttering again down the line. Once you start this process it becomes easier to live by the ‘Buy Less, Buy Better’ eco mantra.
  • Try this hardcore technique showcased by the Minimalists: Pretend you’re moving and pack up all your stuff into cardboard boxes. Label them so you know what’s in each one and then store them in a room in your house. When you need something over the next month, go and get it out and find a home for it. The theory is that anything left at the end of month isn’t something you use much and can be eradicated from your home.
  • When it’s time to get rid of documents such as bills, receipts, statements and personal letters, it can be a big but satisfying job. Some people burn them after shredding or dunk them in water, but the most eco-friendly method is to compost them. Paper is rich in carbon, which provides balance with materials rich in nitrogen, such as food waste. Avoid composting any paper that might contain high levels of toxic chemicals such as glossy paper. You can cut down on the volume by only tearing out the parts that contain sensitive data. Many letters contain a lot of standard official jargon with no personal references. These parts could simply be added to your recycling bin.

 A compost bin is the safest of all bins for personal papers. As one of our customers said, ‘Good luck to anyone who wants to go rummaging through my Green Johanna!’  

The golden rules of clear-outs

  • The number one rule is this – respect what’s important to other people. For me this means accepting that to certain family members thousands of West Bromwich Albion, Leeds United and St Helens RL programmes have the historic value of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It also means my husband will never again try to throw out the battered flight bag that is priceless to me because my Auntie Margaret bought it for me when I ‘went away’ to university. I actually only crossed the Pennines but I was leaving Yorkshire so…
  • Do not be fooled into thinking this is merely a physical exercise. This is a mental, emotional, and, yes, spiritual (if that’s the way you roll) activity. We are letting go in all senses of the word. If, like me, you are a fan of shows about hoarders, you’ll know that hoarding is thought to be psychological in origin, apparently related to feelings of loss. But don’t let this put you off. Take it slowly and gently, one room or even cupboard at a time and get a sympathetic (but not too sympathetic) friend or relative to help. Plan some treats, like taking a coffee break in a cafe. Go for the easiest room to tackle first – the bathroom.
  • Don’t leave the house while a clear-out is taking place.   My cousin managed to get her husband to clear out their garage. But then she went out, while he got busy taking all the ‘junk’ to the tip, along with a lifetime’s accumulation of precious Christmas decorations.  I know. It makes no sense, what was he thinking? Childhood ends but Christmas is for life.
  • Children are often motivated by the kind idea of giving something away so another child can enjoy it – but don’t force this spirit of philanthropy.  When the great comedian Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everage) died earlier this year I read that he blamed his bibliomania on the time he returned from school as a boy to find that his mother had given away all his precious books to the Salvation Army. Her argument was that he had already read them. To compensate for this loss he went on to collect 30,000 books over his lifetime. So encourage but don’t push too hard – it could backfire.  
  • There are wonderful schemes to redistribute books to children who have none of their own.  Abel and Cole’s organic delivery service is running a Give Back with Books scheme working with the Children’s Book Project. They are collecting books as they make deliveries until August 18th.

Give Back With Books

Passing your things on:

  • Charity shops are always crying out for donations of decent quality – that means clean and undamaged goods with no missing parts.

 If we give them things they can’t sell, all we’re doing is passing the work of sorting it out on to someone else. Check with charity shops as to what they accept – most won’t take electrical items as they need PAT testing (Portable Appliance Testing) to ensure they are safe to use. Many shops also won’t accept car seats, bike helmets, medical appliances and safety devices.

  • Check out and

Acknowledge that your family’s needs change as your lives change. The small second-hand dining table that had served my family as our children were growing up was no longer adequate when our sons grew up and got partners, meaning a bigger family table was needed. I put the old one on freegle along with the five small Ikea chairs that had served us for years. The young mum who came for them was overjoyed. I felt delighted, if a little nostalgic for times past, at the thought that her children would now be eating and crafting at that table just as my sons had done. Time to move on.

  • Don’t forget to donate – and shop – at church fairs. There are some interesting and unusual donations depending on the lives lived by parishioners. On our book stall a few years ago an elderly lady asked if we had any Nietzsche. I don’t know what surprised me most – the request or the fact that I was able to say yes, we did indeed have some Nietzsche, and not just one but two! Waterstones, eat your heart out.

Job done. Now when Recycling Week comes round you can sit back and polish your green halo.


Rain or shine, why a water butt’s a wise choice

Did you know that domestic water use grew by 600 per cent over the past 50 years?

When you also consider that about 70 per cent of the earth’s surface is water, but 97 per cent is salty seawater and 2 per cent frozen polar ice, leaving only 1 per cent as fresh water available for human use, it makes you determined to do your bit to conserve this precious resource.

Although the UK is regarded as a wet country, regional variations in rainfall are dramatic, with some areas in the South of England receiving less rain than some African countries.

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) and Cranfield University have combined to send out a Mains to Rains message (Mains To Rains ( that encourages the use of water butts. Even in dry districts, an estimated 24,000 litres could be collected from the roof each year.  Rainwater can be collected from any roof as long as there is a gutter and downpipe that enters the drain at ground level.

The great thing about having a water butt (or two) is that whatever the weather, you’ll always be glad you got one.

In a dry spell, when hosepipe bans and water restrictions are announced, water butts sell out everywhere. And if it’s bucketing down, you feel good knowing that lots of free rainwater is pouring into your water butt for use later when there are three consecutive days of sun and a drought is declared.  Knowing that you can always water those fresh plantings that need it most takes avoidable stress out of gardening.  

Why water butts are winners:

  • Water butts with a rain diverter collect water from the downpipe and still let the overflow enter the drain.
  • Plants prefer rainwater as it has a lower pH. Minerals that are found in mains tap water, especially in hardwater areas, can raise the pH of the root zone, which affects nutrient availability. Chemicals added to mains water that are safe for humans can be harmful for plants.  Plants are most vulnerable to shortages of water when they are first planted and their roots have not yet established into the deeper, moister layers of soil.
  • Water butts help to reduce flood risk. Urban areas struggle to cope with heavy rainfall as there are not enough porous surfaces to absorb downpours. Water butts capture water that could contribute to surface runoff – a major cause of flooding.   
  • As well as the house, water butts can also be attached to sheds, garages, greenhouses and outbuildings – useful if you have a large garden that requires a lot of water. If you have a smaller garden and low-maintenance plants, you won’t need as much water so a mini butt would be better; storing more water than you need can lead to stagnation – see below.
  • Using rainwater on your garden saves on water bills.
  • Rainwater is better than tap water for watering dry compost to maintain the moisture levels necessary for successful composting. Chemicals that are added to tap water can kill some of the beneficial micro-organisms that you want to nurture in your compost bin.
  • A vast amount of energy is used to provide safe water to homes, so using stored rainwater or grey water (domestic wastewater) in your garden lowers your carbon emissions.

As with everything a degree of maintenance is involved in order to store and use water safely.

Follow these precautions:

  • Over time, water that is left in the butt can stagnate, causing bacteria to breed and creating bad smells.  To avoid this, use the stored water regularly.  Replenishing the stored water with freshly collected rainwater helps to dilute it and keep it clean.
  • Keep gutters clean – debris such as bird droppings, moss and leaves can be washed into butts and rot, creating bad smells.
  • A tight-fitting lid is essential to prevent debris falling in. Check or replace the lid if it doesn’t seal properly – a loose or broken lid can attract bugs and cause bacteria to grow.
  • If the water smells, it is still safe to use on established plants but use a watering can instead of a spray hose to minimise the risk of inhaling any airborne bacteria.   
  • Remember good hand hygiene when using collected water.
  • Sunlight and heat speed up stagnation, leading to the growth of bacteria, so choose a shaded area for your water butt. If you find the water butt is getting hot, give it a deep clean and move to a cooler position.
  • If you use hoses for any source of water, disconnect them when you are not using them so that the water will drain out; bacteria grows in water that is left to warm up in the sun.
  • If multiple water butts are used, rotate the use of each one to keep stores of water fresh. They can be joined together by a water butt connector kit.
  • It’s easier to access the water if the butt has a tap at the base and sits on a stand so a watering can will stand on the ground under the tap.

How to clean your water butt

Clean your water butt once a year, preferably in autumn when you don’t need the water.

  • Open the tap and let any stored water drain out completely.
  • Lay the butt on its side and empty out any sludge or debris.
  • Clean the outside with a hose and brush.
  • Clean the inside with detergent and a long-handled brush.
  • Add freshener if required and let the butt refill.

Ways to keep water fresh:

  • Emptying and cleaning the water butt and gutters is the best way to keep water clean.
  • Be Green water butt freshener is a non-toxic treatment that keeps stored rainwater free from algae, scum and smells.  
  • Great Green Systems are currently trialling a Water Butt FreshaTank microbial disc (Aquamidas) after it was recommended by a customer. This uses the same industrial silver found in drinking water. It is placed in the water butt when empty.
  • Charcoal has long been known as a natural water purifier. Charcoal infusers leave water  suitable for plants but not for human consumption. 

Loving your lawn

In its Mains to Rains campaign, the RHS encourages less lawn watering. If one in 10 households pledged not to water their lawns this summer that would save the equivalent of 383 million baths.  Longer grass means deeper roots and more drought resilience so it’s a good idea to raise the mower blades too.

Have you thought of future-proofing your lawn?

You can do this by planting a carpet of clover (or herbs such as chamomile and thyme in less-trodden areas).  Clover is a perennial weed that is drought-tolerant, needs less mowing, offers a year-round green lawn and is a source of nectar in summer for bees. It also smothers rival weeds such as dandelions. Pure clover lawns are best for areas with low footfall so families with children might prefer a mixed grass and clover lawn. Clover acts as a natural fertiliser and fixes nitrogen-deficient soil by taking nitrogen from the air and converting it into plant-friendly nutrients.

What is grey water?

Plants don’t need perfectly clean water. As well as using stored rainwater you can also use grey water in your garden.

Grey water is domestic wastewater from the kitchen, washing machine, bath, basins or showers. But don’t use it on salads or produce that is eaten without cooking. (Water from the toilet is considered ‘black water’ and should only ever enter the sewerage system.)

While household soaps and detergents are harmless to plants, water containing bleach, disinfectant, dishwasher salt and stronger cleaning products should not be used as they can harm plants and damage soil structure if used long term on soil.

If plants are watered entirely with grey water during a long dry spell, there is a danger that dissolved substances will build up in soil and affect plant growth. These will drain from the soil once there is a rain shower or if you alternate watering with stored rainwater.

Grey water should not be stored but used immediately to prevent harmful organisms from multiplying and causing smells.  

Summer tips to avoid food waste – and Bananagate

One summer several years ago our house was besieged by an infestation of fruit flies, the source of which was eventually tracked down to a rotting, black banana under my teenage son’s bed.  It is known in the family as Bananagate and is still referred to even though the son in question is now nearly 30.

This is not the worst example of my son’s slack ways inflicting chaos on the house – that would be the time he let his Australian carpet python (Kylie) escape and we destroyed the kitchen trying to find it (Snakegate). Unfortunately, I can’t burden you with that story here since, try as I might, I can’t link it to composting.

Back to fruit flies. If they happen to you once, you will make sure they never happen again. Fruit flies may appear at any time but are most common in summer and autumn because they’re attracted to ripe and rotting food, especially bananas, melon, tomatoes, squash and apples. Tis the season to be wary of leaving fruit lying around.

Should you be lucky enough to have teenage children who eat fruit, it is worth telling them the cautionary tale of Bananagate.  Even the most chilled teenager will not appreciate battling through clouds of thousands of tiny fruit flies – each female may lay as many as 500 eggs and they proliferate quickly.

It is advised that certain fruits are stored at room temperature in a fruit bowl and left to ripen but do remember to keep an eye out that the fruit does not start to rot as the smell attracts fruit flies which lay their microscopic eggs in the fruit skins. If you then put the rotting fruit or peel in your food waste caddy and then into your garden composter you might be unwittingly transferring fruit fly eggs to the compost to hatch out later.

Keep an eye on that fruit bowl

Another fruit tip – when composting, if you add large amounts of fruit waste to your composter be aware that this will be high in water content. To avoid making the compost too wet (which attracts flies) it should be well mixed with equal amounts of dry carbon-rich content (i.e. ‘Browns’: woody garden waste, such as shredded twigs and dead leaves, or shredded paper/cardboard and wood chips or sawdust). An equal addition of sawdust, for instance, would be an effective and easy way to absorb some of the moisture in fruit waste.

To avoid attracting flies, reduce the smell of fruit by wrapping it in newspaper and burying it in the existing compost, then cover with carbon-rich content and add mature compost or soil over the top. 

Frequent aeration also helps to break up flies’ breeding cycle, which with some types can be five days.

 Good composting techniques are your best bet in preventing fly nuisance. For more tips on deterring or dispatching flies read our blog Tips to deal with fruit fly nuisance (

TLC for summer fruit

Summer fruit and veg can require a bit of special care to avoid creating unnecessary food waste.   It’s not only annoying but shameful if you find delicate fruit turned to mush at the back of the fridge. So I was glad of the reminders in the Abel and Cole Summer Storage Guide that came with a recent delivery.

Summer storage guide

  • Citrus (oranges, lemons, limes, clementines, grapefruit): store in the fridge. Green skins don’t affect the taste of your citrus. They’re just a sign of the season. Bring your fruit to room temperature before enjoying.
  • Tomatoes (cherry, vine, plum): store in a cool shaded spot. Tomatoes don’t belong in the fridge. Enjoy red, slightly soft tomatoes as soon as possible. If they’re firm pop them somewhere to ripen.
  • Legumes (broad, runner and French beans, garden peas): store in the fridge. Remove from paper bags and put in a plastic bag. If you’re short on space pod them into an airtight container.
  • Berries (blueberries, raspberries, strawberries): store in the fridge. Enjoy straight out of the punnet. If you put them in the fridge, make sure they’re front and centre so they don’t get missed.
  • Greens (lettuce, rocket, salad mixes, spinach): store in the fridge. Tear leaves off whole lettuces and store in a container with a lid. Your leaves will last longer and be ready to use when you need them. Keep heavy items from squashing your salad. Enjoy as soon as possible.
  • Bananas: store in the fruit bowl at room temperature (NOTE: not under a bed). If they’re still green they’ll ripen faster in a paper bag where it’s warm.
  • Soft herbs (basil, dill, parsley, chervil, coriander): store at the top of the fridge door – soft herbs can be sensitive to the cold, especially basil. Keep in the warmest part of your fridge – the top of the door.
  • Med veg (aubergine, peppers, courgettes): store in the fridge. Enjoy sooner rather than later and don’t let them get forgotten at the back of the fridge.
  • Tender fruits (pears, melons, peaches, nectarines, avocados, cherries, mango): store in the fridge/fruit bowl – test ripeness with a gentle squeeze. If they give a little, eat straight away or store in the fridge. If firm, pop them in your fruit bowl to soften up. Place next to bananas to help ripen faster.
  • Miscellaneous (apples, grapes, cucumber, celery, broccoli, carrots): store in the fridge to prevent them wilting and wrinkling. Give broccoli florets a good wash before use.
  • Remember that paper absorbs moisture so remove items from a paper bag and put them in a suitable container to stop them from drying out.
  • Stone fruit – don’t be fooled by the colour of stone fruits. Test ripeness with a gentle squeeze. If they give a little, eat straight away or pop them in the fridge. If they’re firm, add them to your fruit bowl.
  • Bunched carrots and radishes – did you know leafy tops pull moisture from roots after harvesting? Just chop their tops off before they go in your fridge. (See recipe below)


  • Here’s a great recipe for using up carrot tops.

Carrot top pesto recipe

Blitz carrot tops for a speedy pesto to toss through pasta, spread over toast or stir with olive oil to dress salads.

  1. Trim the tops off the carrots and wash. Roughly chop.
  2. Pop the carrot tops into a food processor with the juice of half a lemon, 1 peeled garlic clove, 75g cashews, walnuts or almonds and a handful of grated cheese. Whizz until you have a coarse paste. Add salt and pepper as required. Loosen with a little olive oil or splash of water.
  • Add strawberries whole to smoothies – the green tops are completely edible.
  • Blend any overripe nectarines with milk and a scoop of vanilla ice-cream to make a milkshake.
  • This tip from the Kitche website makes use of chillies that are going soft:  freeze them then finely grate a frozen chilli to add flavour to dishes.
  • This tip is great too, from Nancy Birtwhistle’s The Green Gardening Handbook:

TIP: I used to pop tomato skins into the compost bin, but not anymore! I dry them on kitchen paper, lay them on a cooling rack and simply leave them on a sunny windowsill until dry and crisp. Blitzed to a powder in a food processor, then stored in a reused spice jar, I have another layer of flavour to add to soups, stews, casseroles and pasta. Use 1 teaspoon in place of 1 tablespoon of tomato paste to thicken and add flavour to your recipes. Try this with pepper skins too.


The many marvels of mulch – and other water-saving tips

Summer is the time when you are handsomely rewarded for your composting efforts. Mature compost laid as layers of mulch is your garden’s best friend in dry spells.  

 Hosepipe bans in Kent and Sussex and water use restrictions across Cornwall and parts of Devon are seasonal reminders of the need to conserve water.  This year the UK experienced its driest February in 30 years.

 If you have a dry garden you’ll be glad of the protection that mulch offers plants in retaining water and cutting down on evaporation. This means you don’t have to water as frequently.

Mulch the soil after a spell of rain with mature compost to retain moisture. Lay the layers at least 5cms thick after first removing weeds. As it decomposes and is taken into the soil by worms and other organisms, the compost feeds plants and micro-organisms in the soil. Gardeners also appreciate the neat weed-free appearance that mulch creates.

 Mulch provides year-round benefits – as well as retaining moisture in summer, it also helps rain to penetrate the soil in winter as well as protecting the roots of plants. It also prevents weeds and deters pests.  

 Mulch can be applied at any time around established plants or new plantings. At the beginning of the growing season mulches serve to warm the soil by helping it to retain heat which would be lost at night.

Apart from compost, other popular organic mulches are shredded wood or bark, leaf mould and pine needles. For drought-tolerant plants, non-organic mulch such as crushed stone, slate or gravel is ideal.  

Many of our customers tell us they plan their composting year so they’ll have plenty of ready compost in the spring. Some have two (or even three) Green Johannas so that one can be left for its contents to mature for longer, turning into nutrient-rich humus, while the other Johanna is kept active receiving fresh waste.    

The difference between compost and humus is that compost is still actively decomposing, whereas humus has almost completely decomposed.  Humus is rich in nutrients essential for plant growth and also improves compacted soils by making them looser.

Other drought-proofing steps in the garden:

  • When it does rain make sure you catch every drop with a water butt coupled up to a drainpipe on the house, shed, garage and/or greenhouse.
  • Create water collection points around your garden by digging buckets or bowls into the ground to collect rainwater. You can then fill up your watering can on the spot.
  • Don’t waste precious water by sprinkling it on foliage – focus instead on the roots so you get water right to the base of the plant. Use a watering can rather than a hose or sprinkler.
  • Allow plants to go some days without water so they become resilient and able to weather dry spells. They will send their roots deeper into the soil, tapping into moisture underground. *
  • Giving plants a good soak once a week is better than a light watering every day and also saves time.
  • Always water in the cool of the early morning or just as the sun goes down, giving it chance to soak into the soil without it evaporating in the sun.
  • Don’t fertilise when it’s hot and dry as this can make conditions worse. Plants will need even more water to be able to absorb and process the fertiliser. An influx of nutrients also makes the plants want to grow, putting them under more stress.
  • Keep plants in hanging baskets and containers alive by moving them to shaded areas temporarily.  
  • If plants are scorched don’t over-water as this can drown a struggling plant from the roots up. Move struggling plants to a cool sheltered spot, watering gently and mulching. Cut off heat-damaged parts as these can encourage pests.
  • Remember to remove weeds from planted areas as they will compete for soil moisture. Weeds thrive in hostile environments, such as drought. When you’re planting, plant thickly – this helps to reduce moisture evaporating from the soil and creates ground cover so there are fewer opportunities for weeds to root.
  • Cultivate drought-proof areas with plants such as orange and yellow Californian poppies, salvias, lavenders, pelargoniums and grasses. If it doesn’t rain after the first months of planting, most drought-tolerant plants will need watering so that they settle in.
  • Create areas of shade by adding walling, fences and hedges. These will offer shelter from the sun but also in winter protect plants from frost and snowfall.
  • Focus on watering the plants that need it most – such as edible crops, anything you’ve planted recently and plants in containers.
  • Terracotta pots will dry out more quickly than ceramic, metal and plastic, so line the sides with old compost bags before planting.
  • Place drip-trays beneath pots to collect drainage (remove in winter to avoid water logging).
  • Use self-watering pots or baskets.
  • Swap paving for plants – de-pave an area and fill it with plants and mulch to slow down runoff and encourage water infiltration into the soil.

Spare Parts