No-dig gardening is ideal for kids

If you work with nature, she doesn’t fight back with weeds.

 That’s the view of horticulturalist Charles Dowding, the champion of no-dig gardening.

His new book, No-Dig Children’s Gardening Book, shows youngsters how they can work with nature using compost and mulch to create healthy soil, copying nature’s way of feeding plants through the soil. (Keep an eye on our Instagram next week for details of our Coronation Week Books Giveaway competition.)

 Charles believes the no-dig method is ideal for children because they come to gardening with an open mind and no preconceived ideas.

The no-dig method involves creating beds by covering weeds with cardboard, spreading compost on top, walking on top of the compost (a child-friendly activity if ever there was one) to create a bed that is ready to plant into.  

His book includes the following topics:

  • What makes soil healthy
  • How to make compost
  • The power of microbes
  • Upcycling in the garden
  • Attracting wildlife
  • How to be a garden scientist
  • Easy-grow flowers and vegetables
  • Gardening for children with additional needs.

 Charles says, ‘Nature wants plants to grow as much as we do ‘.

He says ‘no-dig’ is simple and quick and will inspire children to make beds any month of the year. They can then watch their plants grow, see how good they taste, and feel their knowledge and happiness growing at the same time.

The method eliminates ‘unnecessary jobs that until now have been done by so many gardeners’.

Anyone who has experienced the benefits of gardening will agree with Charles’s belief that gardening teaches us a great deal, whatever our age.  

The following is an extract from an interview with Charles Dowding in the current edition of The Green Parent.

How did your no-dig method evolve?

 I wanted to grow healthy foods. I started organic gardening in 1982 but realised that was only the first step. It was a gut feeling that there was a connection between soil, plants, animals and people. It led me to think about what was in the soil, what life; at the time nobody was talking about it. But it’s only recently I’ve started talking about it and presenting it to the world.

No-dig frees you up to spend your time in the garden more creatively; how do you like to do that?

You inherit this Victorian notion that plants have to be regimented, grown in rows. I like tidiness, that’s admirable, but what I really want is beauty. I like to introduce flowers here there and everywhere. It’s easier because the biggest bonus with no-dig is that you get no weeds! And the most creative thing you can do is make compost. That’s the ultimate creative act. 

Is no-dig especially suited to kids?

Yes. Older people might find it more difficult to accept that what they might consider the right way to garden is maybe not so clever after all. They have to unlearn, but children come to it fresh. But it all makes sense. Kids love the process; that you’re not disturbing the natural life and creatures below the surface, so that carries on working to keep the soil open and aerated and make nutrition for the plant roots.

What benefits does gardening have for kids?

It’s not just about being in the fresh air. It’s about the good bacteria that are floating around; we pick them up and use them to make serotonin. That’s why we feel good being outside. You find tryptophan in plants and vegetables and that makes your mood better. If you eat a bit of soil that’s got the same biome as a healthy gut, the same microbes.

Taking tea with milk, sugar – and plastic?

Every day 165 million cups of tea are drunk in Britain – and that’s just in our house.

Since today is National Tea Day (April 21), I expect a lot more facts will be shared and the ones I’ll be paying close attention to are those concerning plastic.

Like millions of other tea drinkers, I was alarmed a few years ago to learn that most tea bags contained plastic – polypropylene – used to heat-seal the edges of the bags.

This news sparked health concerns among tea drinkers as well as raising questions about the effect on the soil and wildlife when these tea bags were composted.

  Of those millions of cups of tea drunk every day, 96 per cent are made with tea bags. So if you were home-composting your share of those tea bags you might have been unwittingly leaving bits of microplastic (tiny pieces of plastic less than 5mm in size) in the soil.

As a result of the controversy, manufacturers started to remove polypropylene from their teabags. Naively, I thought that was the end of it and that now in 2023 we would all be taking our tea with milk and sugar but no plastic, thanks.  

While talking to a customer recently, the topic turned to composting tea bags. We both remembered early attempts at plastic-free teabags that led to the bags dissolving in the cup, but we didn’t know the current state of play. I resolved to find out more – more of which later.

 Like many Brits, I feel there are few situations in life that can’t be improved by a nice cup of tea. My day can’t start before at least a pint of Earl Grey has entered my system and the rest of the day is propped up at regular intervals by yet more tea. Sometimes I ask myself if this is a psychological thing. The very words, ‘I’ll put the kettle on’ appear to have a soothing Pavlovian effect on my nervous system. So why, on any given day, are there half-cups of cold tea littered around our house and office? It’s as though the thought of having a cup of tea always seems like a good idea even if I’m not that bothered about actually drinking it. Just thinking about it is enough.

 There’s probably a lot in there for a psychotherapist to unpick, but meanwhile my tea research has made me wake up to a blind spot I have when it comes to wasting tea. I take great care not to waste food but don’t give the same consideration to drinks; it’s as if because they’re liquid they don’t count. So many problems with waste are caused through us being creatures of habit.

Of course, I’m using energy every time I put the kettle on, not to mention wasting the tea, the water and soya milk that’s used if I don’t drink the whole cup. Every half-cup of wasted tea is a waste of the earth’s resources. It all matters.

So this is one robotic, wasteful habit that I’m in the process of breaking. From now on I will be mindful not mindless about putting the kettle on.

On my own personal tea travels, I stopped drinking my regular brand a few years ago because of concerns about plastic and switched to Hampstead Tea. I was particularly interested to learn about this brand’s commitment to biodynamic farming – an organic, ecological approach, employing the use of manures and compost.

Studying the subject again recently has made me rethink the following:

I have decided to switch to loose leaf tea.  Then I don’t have to think at all about plastic particles, bag materials or questions of compostability.

Tea bags only became freely available in the 1950s, meaning that many generations before me had to contend with tea leaves and old-fashioned teapots. And they all seemed to cope just fine, along with other challenges such as having to slice their own bread. When I think of family members talking about how hard life used to be, there were memories of poverty, short life expectancy, outside toilets and tin baths, but I don’t recall anyone ever saying, ‘And on top of all that, we didn’t have tea bags!’

(I think I may still need an emergency tea bag stash as back-up while I transition.)

Other advantages of being a loose (leaf) woman:

  • Less package waste
  •  The tea itself tends to be less processed and retains more of the original flavour
  • You can adjust the strength and even blend your own.

Modern teapots have built-in infusers, meaning it’s easy to get the tea leaves into the compost and wash out the pot. I know this because I have such a teapot already but it’s used mainly as a colourful decoration. As well as being soothed by tea itself, I am also cheered by tea paraphernalia of any kind, including dainty tea cups and saucers that I accumulate but never use and pictures of tea pots on my kitchen walls.

But enough about my weirdness. If you’re reading this, I’m assuming that you want to home compost your tea bags.  Tea leaves are ideal compost material, providing high levels of nitrogen (even higher than manures) and small particles so compost bacteria have more surface area to work on.

On my internet trawl to find out more about plastic in tea bags, I found confusing and conflicting information, with experts arguing about the merits of bioplastics.  And that’s before you start reading comments underneath articles. The word biodegradable is also bandied about by many interested parties as though it’s an ecological holy grail when all it means is that material will break down eventually, but you won’t know how long that will take and under what conditions.

Online information also quickly goes out of date because some tea brands are still working towards their plastic-free goals, which might have been achieved after articles have been published.

 I’ve spent several hours that I’ll never get back reading through studies and articles; my advice to a home-composting tea drinker would be to contact your favourite brand and find out where they are on the plastic-free/compostable journey.

Points to consider:

  • Many tea brands are still using polypropylene. If tea bags contain plastic, you can compost the leaves but throw the bag in general waste. Plastic in tea bags sent to landfill will still enter the soil.
  • Be aware there may also be hidden plastics in sachets or string-and-tag bags.
  • Many brands that don’t use polypropylene use polylactic acid (PLA). This is a plant-based polymer (sometimes referred to as a bioplastic). It can also be called Soilon.
  •  Plant material sources include corn starch, which can come from genetically modified (GM) maize – but this cannot be used in organic teabags.
  • While PLA is biodegradable, it requires industrial composting to break down because most ordinary garden composters might not get hot enough (44 – 60 degrees Celsius) to break down the bags.  It is thought teabags containing PLA could take several years to degrade, and it is not known exactly how harmful it might be to organisms in the meantime. If your council has a separate food waste collection, teabags made with PLA can be placed into your food waste bin to be industrially composted.
  • Like oil-based plastics, if bioplastics end up in the ocean they can present a danger to marine life.
  • The origins of the tea bag might have been accidental – in 1908 an American tea importer who shipped silk tea bags around the world found that customers, instead of removing the leaves from the bags as he intended, found it easier to brew the tea with the tea leaves still enclosed in the porous bags.

Among comments following an online BBC report from 2019 are some from people who had been putting tea bags in home compost for years until they realised they were having to pick plastic remnants out of the soil – even 15 years later. One reader commented he had stopped composting tea bags for use as garden mulch when he saw birds picking up the bag remnants and using them in their nest building.

At home, our Green Johanna’s contents reach regular temperatures of between 40 – 60+ degrees Celsius; we measure the temperature every day. According to the Carry on Composting website, Composting –, the corn starch Soilon can hot compost in 6-8 weeks. The site recommends cutting a couple of holes in tea bags so composting bacteria can easily access the leaves, accelerating the rate of decomposition.

The Ethical Consumer website Is there Plastic in my Tea? | Ethical Consumer features a chart based on information from Feb/March 2022 that lists the following as ‘best brands’: Clearspring, Essential, Hambledon Herbs, Hampstead tea, Heath and Heather, Higher Living and Dr Stuart’s, Pukka, Qi, Postcard, Teapigs, Yogi Tea.

The site also lists middle companies ‘who are using some PLA, or are in the process of switching’, as well as the worst. But bear in mind that the situation might have changed since then.

I’ll end with some ideas for homegrown tea that I read in the comments section of one article.

 Easily sourced throughout the year from your garden:  
(dried) rosehip tea
(dried) chamomile tea
Fresh peppermint/spearmint tea
Fresh nettle tea

For winter (all easily sourced from one’s larder)

dried/root ginger tea
fennel seed tea
liquorice root tea
cardamom tea

Also recommended: cinnamon stick/star anise/vanilla pod tea.

I’m tempted to try some of these. Maybe my Earl Grey will meet competition.

(NOTE: Several cups of tea were consumed during the writing of this article.)


Hot composting in the kitchen

Whether you compost – and how you compost – depends on your needs and situation.

 Different issues influence all our choices – space, household size, council collections, soil conditions, climate and the time we have available.

For those lacking the time and space for traditional composting, a new product claims to bridge the gap. The Lomi Smart Waste Kitchen Composter (£500) is a countertop unit that turns food scraps into garden compost in 16 hours.

 Some customers have asked our views about the Lomi following an article in the Sunday Times  (16.04.23) when journalist Louise Eccles, who describes herself as ‘an impatient gardener’, tried one out.

 The Lomi, which is about the size of a bread machine, speeds up decomposition by heating the waste, circulating air and grinding it.

Louise’s verdict was: ‘It has produced a slightly moist pile of chunky compost that smells of fruit cake. It is a large and expensive piece of equipment to produce a rather modest pile of soil but, if you have the room, it is better than binning it or perhaps sending it off on a truck.’

We have never used a Lomi, but as we were curious we sifted through dozens of Amazon reviews from Canada, the US and Australia. These were the most common verdicts:

  • No smells
  • No flies (in some areas kitchen flies had previously been a major issue)
  • It means you don’t have to go out to the garden composter in bad weather (ie, in Canada, that means digging through snow)
  • Great for residents who live in apartments with no space to compost and are unhappy about putting food waste in general rubbish
  • Great for areas with poor soil as the compost boosts soil quality (plants love the compost, apparently)
  • Great for customers who felt too old to compost or had ‘no patience’ for it.  

Other points:

  • The Lomi uses electricity but the company (Pela) says the amount of power needed is minimal. A 16-hour cycle costs 34p.
  • The noise level is described in the Sunday Times article as a ‘quiet rumble’. For some customers this meant moving the unit to a garage or utility room.
  • Many customers felt the benefits outweighed the expense.

 Some customers said in reviews that they used the Lomi alongside their garden composter, adding the ‘dirt’ that is produced to their compost bin to act as an accelerator.

One reviewer felt the bucket wasn’t sufficient for larger families; in such cases using it alongside a standard kitchen caddy and adding the contents of both to a Green Johanna or Compost Tumbler sounds like a good working partnership.

One customer described using the unit on a short cycle to break down food waste, then adding this pre-compost mixture to a compost bin to continue breaking down into mature compost.  

A review on the Epic Gardening website describes the compost produced by the Lomi as more ‘pre-compost’ than the finished article, but concludes the unit is good for:

  • those living in regions where harsh winters make regular composting difficult
  • those living in apartments
  • introducing people to composting.

In the UK, if your local council is still a long way from introducing separate food waste collections, your food waste as general waste is currently going to landfill or incineration. So, if you lack the space or motivation for garden composting but are unhappy about food waste going in general waste, this could be something you want to research further.

  • The Sunday Times article also refers to councils which subsidise garden composters in order to reduce the amount of food waste they have to dispose of, such as the Surrey Council campaign which means residents can buy a Green Johanna for £80. Just this short mention led to a dramatic increase in orders of Green Johannas from Surrey and other local authority campaigns.

Joy and grief on my Covid garden journey

You’ve probably heard of Imposter Syndrome – that nagging feeling of not being good enough.  Well, I reckon there’s also a thing called Composter Syndrome and I’ve got it.

Composter Syndrome is when you think you’re good enough to compost but not to garden. Yes sir, I can compost; throw stuff in and stir, job done. But there’s no way I could get anything to actually, you know, grow.

  From a young age I could memorise facts and regurgitate them, which led to a reputation in my family for being academic but not practical. It was a case of, Oh yes, our Julie can tell you the German for combine harvester but don’t ask her to change a lightbulb! Over time I formed the idea it would be better for everyone if I never got my hands on a hammer, trowel or steering wheel.

Yes, I know gardening is good or you, but am I good for gardening? I convinced myself the earth would be a better place if I kept as far away from it as possible; let those with green fingers get on with it, I’ll just keep my head in the clouds.   

And then a pandemic happened. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, everybody lucky enough to have a garden sat outside and looked at it. But our garden was not much to look at. We had moved in to our newbuild home in the late ‘90s, brought up three sons there and done nothing at all to the garden. So in spring 2020 we found ourselves sitting on the six paving slabs that the builders had thrown down 20 years earlier (euphemistically called a patio) and stared at the plain rectangle of grass that ended in a football net.  We were the ‘Before’ part of a garden makeover show.

For a while we took comfort from the fact that, as we live next door to Yorkshire’s answer to Monty Don, we only had to invent a reason to stand on a chair and talk over the fence to the neighbours to get a fix of beauty from Tony’s garden. There we would see roses rambling up the house walls, clematis climbing trellises, cheerful flowers bursting from pots,  shrubs and bushes of various sizes and textures, a vine-covered archway, tomato plants thriving in the greenhouse, a cat statue sitting at a pond’s edge, a bird-friendly wildlife zone, wind chimes blowing gently in the breeze….I could go on but you get the picture. Everywhere you looked there was something soothing and beautiful to gaze at. We felt like The Simpsons to next door’s Ned Flanders. But there’s only so much garden-gazing by proxy you can do, and eventually I got tired of standing on a chair.

Garden centre overload

One day a gardening brochure came through the door promising the colour that was missing from my life.  Leafing through the Sarah Raven catalogue, I felt it could have been designed with me in mind. The fact that I knew nothing didn’t matter because somebody who knew a lot had put selections of flowers together. I had always avoided garden centres because I was overwhelmed by sensory overload the moment I walked through the door. Garden centres seem to be for people who already know exactly what they’re doing. But here you didn‘t have to know or guess – information was everywhere, even down to how many plants would fill a pot.

So I dared to dream. Surely, I thought, even I might be able to do this.  I started small with one container and some established plants – nemesia in a colour scheme of purple and burnt orange (Summer Fruit Salad Container Collection). I would never have put those colours together but they worked on the photo and, lo and behold, they worked IRL!

 For us – coming from a very low place of paving slabs, gouged grass and football nets – it was a joy. My husband and I sat out with cups of tea or glasses of wine and gazed at our nemesia. Butterflies and bees came to them. The dog weed up them.

 Horticulture police

Emboldened by success, I ordered more – a very pretty combination of Grandaisy Pink Halo and Artemisia along with an elaborate Butterfly Pink Pot Collection. When this lot arrived it was raining so I left them outside and took the labels off. Then I didn’t know which was which and ended up planting the wrong plants together. But you know what? They still survived and looked nice and the horticulture police didn’t come knocking (they couldn’t, we were still in lockdown).

It came as a great surprise that nature could survive me; it turned out that mother nature wasn’t the delicate little flower I had supposed.

Then I got a bit cocky. I went off-piste from Sarah Raven and ordered some geraniums from a newspaper advert which arrived as roots. Unfortunately these strange alien objects had no stickers telling you which way was up, and I must have planted them upside down. I challenge anyone to know which was the right way (OK, Tony/Monty/Ned would have known). I know this sounds like a bad workman blaming his tools, but truly there was no obvious top or bottom. Inevitably, they failed to launch. And I was annoyed – with the newspaper, with nature, and, oh all right then, with myself. What was I even thinking venturing into this green universe of which I knew nothing?

But then, watching Gardeners’ World, I heard Monty Don (the real one, not our Yorkshire version) say that even if you planted something upside down it would still grow because it wants to grow. This was a kind of epiphany for me – stuff wants to grow! I had always thought you had to trick it into doing your will.  Of course, it made sense; throughout history, mankind has managed to survive by growing stuff. They can’t all have been green-fingered geniuses. (Geranium update – they grew the following year, once they realised they were heading to Australia.)

The geraniums return

This gave me confidence. A friend with an allotment told me that sometimes things don’t grow and you don’t know why, you just plough on. Maybe this was a lesson for me, to let go of outcomes and stop being a control freak. My new confidence and scant bit of knowledge gave me a basis for venturing into garden centres once they reopened.

Get me! I think, as I step further out of my comfort zone, watching gardening shows, reading gardening books, following tips from people like Poppy Okotcha, Charles Dowding, Nancy Birtwhistle, Arthur Parkinson.  There’s now a reason to go outside; there’s something to look at, wildlife to watch, things to notice. Things that take me out of my own head, which is no bad thing.

 There’s nothing fancy but it’s lovely to look at our clematis, honeysuckle, tulips, crocuses and the most beautiful cheery yellow rose bush called Tottering by Gently from David Austin that everybody asks me about. People asking me about roses – unbelievable!

Tottering by Gently

My home compost now gets used for purposes other than mulch and it was especially handy when there were shortages of peat-free compost in garden centres during the pandemic.  

 Don’t get me wrong – no one’s going to pay to take a tour of our garden, but we are taking great joy from the little we have created.  

This joy was to provide comfort in the face of sorrow that was to come. Many families lost loved ones during the pandemic and ours was one of them.  My dear uncle was taken into hospital in January 2021, caught Covid there and never recovered.  

It’s a familiar Covid story; he spent three weeks in hospital with no visitors allowed; my desperate auntie spent hours every day trying to get through on the phone to get news. When she got the call to say he would not last the night, she was told that only one of their three children was allowed to join her at his deathbed. In what must have been an agonising discussion, the two sons decided to let their sister be the one. It was to her that they gave their last messages for their father – that he was their hero, that everything they had achieved in life was thanks to him. A short funeral was attended by only 15 of the closest family members. No reception, no way for people to come together to console the family and each other.

As is the case with so many families, this grief remains frozen because the processes that civilised societies have formed over thousands of years to help us deal with death and grief were taken away.

So when, a year later, my auntie had a big birthday coming up, I wanted to get her something nice but felt that any present was pointless.

My uncle had been a miner. I can imagine that it was his years spent working underground in darkness that gave him a love of gardening. Together they were a gardening dream team – Auntie Pauline the designer, Uncle Peter the grafter.

 Remembering my own nemesia from the previous year, I thought of getting my auntie the same collection and planting them in a pot for her. I told her that within weeks they would bloom into gorgeous colours, and they did; she sent me this photo (below).  We both knew Uncle Peter would have loved them.

Compared to grief everything is little. But if watching a bee land on an orange flower brings a moment of grace, that moment is worth having.   

 It’s a feeling I’ve never had before in my garden, but now as spring comes round again and I see green leaves growing where there used to be nothing, it feels as though in some way a part of me is growing alongside them.

If this rings any bells for you, perhaps you should try it too.


Dessert sorted for Easter

I thought I had my pudding sorted for Easter lunch until my Abel and Cole organic delivery arrived and with it was a recipe for Jassy’s Easter Egg Cheesecake. The blueberry and lime cobbler will have to wait.

 I’ve never tried this recipe before but the photos look so great I immediately knew these were what I wanted to bring to the table. They look really easy to make too. Thanks, Jassy!

Jassy’s Easter egg cheesecake


5 digestive biscuits

25g butter

1 x 225g Easter egg

250g mascarpone cheese

15g icing sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

A handful of mini eggs

2-3 tbsp caramel sauce.

  1. Break the biscuits into a mixing bowl and use the end of a rolling pin or a pestle to crush them. Melt the butter in a pan set over a medium heat, or in the microwave, then add to the crushed biscuits and stir until they’re well coated.
  2. Split open the Easter egg so you have two halves and remove any chocolates from the middle. Spoon the buttery biscuits into the two halves, dividing them evenly. Smooth down with the back of a spoon. Chill in the fridge for 30 minutes to firm up the biscuit base.
  3. Meanwhile, spoon the mascarpone into a mixing bowl. Sift in the icing sugar and add the vanilla extract, then beat to mix.
  4.  When the biscuit base is set in the Easter egg halves, spoon in the mascarpone mix to fill the egg. Chill for 1-2 hours or overnight to set the cheesecake layer.
  5. To decorate, crush a small handful of sugar-shelled mini eggs and scatter them over the cheesecakes. Add a few whole mini eggs to decorate. Warm 2-3 tbsp salted caramel sauce in the microwave so it’s runny and drizzle over the cheesecakes. Serve straight away.
  6.  These cheesecakes are best eaten within 2-3 hours of being decorated. You can make them 24 hours ahead but leave them undecorated until you’re ready to serve.

Don’t forget to compost any compostable Easter egg packaging.

Along with the recipe were these lovely ideas to care for wildlife right now:

  • Leave natural materials outside for nest-making.
  • Create resting places for bees just waking up.
  • Plant quick-growing flowers for pollinators.
  • Deep clean any bird feeders, drinkers and baths.


Bokashi bins boost hot compost

When it comes to boosting the composting process, we have found a Bokashi bin to be the perfect partner for the Green Johanna.

We recently carried out trials involving additions of fermented food waste from a Maze Bokashi bin to a Green Johanna and found that temperatures in the Johanna rapidly increased as a result.  

For our trials, we re-started a Johanna more or less from scratch, having previously removed large amounts of compost.  Using a permanently installed insulation jacket and large amounts of Bokashi bran and carbon-rich materials, compost temperatures were around 30 degrees Celsius. 

 We added the contents of a Bokashi bin that had been fermenting for 21 days, followed by a full 1kg bag of Bokashi bran.   We then added some mulch and stirred well with a garden fork, before completing the process with a thin layer of mulch. 

 The Johanna was then left for 48 hours.  Temperatures rose to 66 degrees Celsius whilst outdoor temperatures were in the 0-10 degree range.   After 48 hours we re-stirred to spread heat more widely through the Johanna.    Using two Bokashi bins in rotation we repeated this cycle roughly every three weeks and got the same results.

We used the Green Johanna in combination with a regular kitchen caddy (as the Johanna needs regular feeding to maintain the hot composting process), twin-bin Bokashi system, Insulating Jacket, Bokashi Bran as an accelerant and plenty of mulch.

Photos show starting temperature at 30 degrees Celsius/adding fermented waste from a Bokashi bin/ adding Bokashi bran/temperature at 66 degrees Celsius.

The Bokashi process was developed in Japan in the 1980s; the term means ‘fermented organic matter’ in Japanese.  It involves adding all your food waste, cooked and uncooked, to a specially designed airtight Bokashi bin, with the addition of Bokashi in the form of a fermented bran or spray. The food waste is compressed with a compactor to eliminate as much air as possible as this is an anaerobic process.  Once the bin is full, you close the airtight lid and leave for 2-3 weeks.  Many people use one or two bins to keep the process going.

The bacteria (lactobacilli) in the bran or spray will create lactic acid which will effectively pickle the food waste rather than letting it decompose as it would in a regular food waste caddy.  After a week or so, liquid should start to form in the Bokashi bin which should be drained using the tap.   This ‘Bokashi tea’ can be used as a drain cleaner or diluted for use as plant food.

 At the end of the fermentation period the waste food is a pre-compost mixture that can be added to a composter or buried in soil to become a soil enhancer. Its composition is such that virtually all its original nutrients, carbon and energy enter rapidly into the soil.   No greenhouse gases are released to the atmosphere as they are during regular food waste decomposition in landfill.

Bokashi composting has traditionally proven particularly popular in urban environments where traditional garden composting is difficult. 


Climate crisis – what we CAN do

How do we find the balance between horror and hope when discussing the climate emergency?

Last week’s warning by scientists that rising greenhouse gas emissions will cause irrevocable damage if we don’t act dominated the news.  

It was interesting to watch the reactions of people watching this news story on Gogglebox. Listening to the scientists’ apocalyptic language, such as ‘final warning’ and ‘ticking timebomb’, the audience were clearly terrified.

One viewer commented, ‘Let’s hope they come up with something’, as if talking about a vaccine. But another responded, ‘No, because if people think that will happen then everyone will carry on as before.’

People’s reactions to climate crisis seem to vary according to whether their personal response to danger is fight, flight or play dead.

This is the dilemma – people need to be shocked into action but not shellshocked. It’s counterproductive to leave people thinking, what does it matter what I do?

The Gogglebox viewers were left in despair. Little wonder that so many people say they no longer watch the news. It’s a great shame that media reports on this subject don’t end with a reminder of, for instance, three practical things that people can do in their everyday lives.  

Every purchase matters – ethical consumerism

The climate change panel of scientists knew they had to end on a message of hope, so they urged world governments to reduce emissions by investing in renewable energy and technologies that capture and store carbon dioxide. Of course, this is the minimum that governments must do but we all need to be engaged in our daily lives too.

 Mike Berners-Lee, author of How Bad Are Bananas?, says that in the first edition of his book he didn’t want to tell people what to do. But this was precisely the question he was asked at every book talk: What can we do?

Apparently there have been more than 30 years of warnings from the scientists behind this latest climate change report. I felt a stab of guilt when I read that their first report was published in 1990. In 1990 I was embarking on adult life in my first job and first home of my own.  As I remember it, the focus at the time was on banking crises, home repossessions and the poll tax. I admit that if the scientists’ report was big news at the time, it didn’t grab my attention. But if it had and I’d banged on about it to friends they probably would have thought I was being over the top. That perception has certainly changed.   

The report in The Guardian of the story quoted two experts. Richard Allan, a professor of climate science at the University of Reading, said: “Every bit of warming avoided due to the collective actions pulled from our growing, increasingly effective toolkit of options is less worse news for societies and the ecosystems on which we all depend.”

 Peter Thorne, the director of the Icarus climate research centre at Maynooth University in Ireland, said the real question was ‘whether our collective choices mean we stabilise around 1.5C or crash through 1.5C, reach 2C and keep going.”

The key word used by both experts is ‘collective’.

  Millions of people worldwide don’t get to have choices in their daily lives, so it’s vital that those of us who do try to make the right ones.

Talking to children

And if this subject scares adults, how must it make children feel? The way to discuss it with youngsters is by showing them what they can do, by harnessing their instinctive love of nature and desire to be useful.  

At Great Green Systems we come across many schools that are teaching children how to compost, which is a brilliant way to empower them. Even the youngest pupil  can throw their apple core in the right bin – one that will be emptied into compost.

To take our own advice about ending on a positive message, let’s conclude with three small action points from How Bad Are Bananas?

  • Try to build up your knowledge of more and less sustainable brands and products. One good source of information is Ethical Consumer –
  • An aerated showerhead makes less water feel like more, saving water and carbon.
  • Use a lid on pans when cooking, cut potatoes into smaller pieces and boil gently rather than at full throttle. (Efficient cooking can halve the carbon impact.)
Carbon impact of a pan lid

There are much bigger action points as well, of course, and it might seem ridiculous to mention pan lids and showerheads amid talk of final warnings and ticking timebombs, but one of my favourite quotes is this: ‘Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.’ (Edmund Burke). Multiply this attitude by enough people and change happens. 

 I can only vote every five years but I use pans every single day.

If you need cheering up, watch the documentary Kiss the Ground on Netflix.  It’s not a worthy snorefest or despair dripfeed. Quite the opposite. It leaves you with a dynamic feeling of hope. Who doesn’t need that right now?


Which bin will the core go in?

Eco gifts start kids on a wormy journey

It’s hard to buy presents for a friend’s children or grandchildren, especially if you don’t see them all that often. You know how it is – you ask Mum if Sam still loves dinosaurs and get the response – not so much since turning 17.

I exaggerate but it really is difficult to know what to get a child if you don’t know what they already have and what their current interests are.  You don’t want to waste money or add to the mountain of discarded junk by buying pointless gifts.  

I thought long and hard a few months ago before getting Christmas presents for my best friend’s grandchildren – Reggie, 6, and Magdalena, 2. I always like to get practical, useful things – I’m not bothered about being popular (‘Oh great, another swimming cap/duvet cover/homework bag from Auntie Julie.’)

But this time I upped my game.

Eco gifts are gifts that keep on giving. It would be easy to drive children to despair about the climate crisis, but how much better to show them instead what they can do to help? Yes, tackling the climate emergency is a big job, but it’s one that each and every one of us – no matter how young – can play a part in.

And so I gave Reggie and Maggie a worm farm.

Why? Because worm farms (also called wormeries) are a great way to introduce children to small-scale composting and the marvellous way that nature deals with waste. Not only does vermicomposting (from the Latin ‘vermis’ for worm) keep organic waste out of landfill, but also shows how easily worms can turn our food scraps into a highly nutritious food for plants

Yes, there were quizzical looks from the kids as they opened the box – it was clearly not a fort or a unicorn castle – but they were very keen to set it up and probably very relieved that it wasn’t a pack of thermal vests. As it was the coldest time of year, they set the worm farm up in the greenhouse, which provided warmth and shelter for the winter, and waited excitedly for their worms to arrive. The worms come separately through the post from a supplier of specially selected composting worms.

The children’s reaction when the worms arrived was a mixture of ‘Eurgh’ (Magdalena) and ‘Ooh’ (Reggie).

Reggie was keen to show how brave he was and gently introduced a worm to his sister, who also became brave but was happy just looking. They made a cosy home for the worms, providing a blanket of newspaper (hessian is also good) to keep them warm and safe in the dark.   

Reggie introduces Magdalena to a new pet

Reggie and Magdalena noticed the worms were not very active for a few weeks, probably because of settling in at such a cold time of year, but then they soon started tucking in (the worms, not the kids).

The young vermicomposters were careful to follow the rules of not overfeeding. If you give worms too much food it will be left uneaten, which will obviously start to smell. Like most young children they were expecting fast results, so were surprised to learn it can take two to three months to get worm casts (poo, since you ask). You can’t rush these things…

Children start a wormery
Magdalena and Little Bear wait for worm casts

But when you do harvest the casts you realise why gardeners call this stuff ‘black gold’. One tablespoon of worm casts provides enough nutrients for a plant to thrive throughout the growing season.

Ten weeks in and Reggie and Magdalena were the proud harvesters of some of this black gold.

Harvesting worm casts

Wonderful things about worm farms

  • They make great projects for children as this subject can grow in complexity as the child grows – it can be super simple for pre-schoolers but gradually takes in chemistry, biology, ecology, the food cycle and carbon cycle as well as gardening and growing your own food.  
  • Children will develop respect for these humble but mighty creatures. Through tunnelling, worms aerate and improve the soil, providing nutrients for plants to flourish. Without them the earth would become cold, hard and sterile.
  • Studies have shown that the simple act of introducing worms to degraded soil in poor regions of the world has increased plant yields by 280%.
  • Worms are easy to feed on vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags, and crushed eggshells.
  • Convenient to set up indoors or outdoors in a sheltered spot.

Inspired by how well Reggie and Magdalena have taken to vermicomposting, I’ve decided they don’t really need yet another boring Easter egg from Auntie Julie this Easter.

Not when there are other fabulous presents to be had, such as membership of the Earthworm Society!

 I like to think they’ll thank me one day.


Saying ‘I love you’ with cake on Mother’s Day

 It’s incredible to think that next week we mark three years since the first pandemic lockdown (March 23) – a time when we were advised to stay away from our mothers on Mother’s Day. During that dark time, when we were trying to cheer up loved ones we could no longer see, a friend sent me this postcard that made me smile – and made me make a cake.

Since my mother is a Sustainable Mum who doesn’t like ‘more stuff’ (i.e. presents) and prefers a bottle of bokashi spray (for her bokashi bins) to a bottle of perfume, I know I’m on safe ground on Mother’s Day with homemade gifts, such as a cake I know she loves. Mum calls it Feather Cake but I’ve nicknamed it Caveman Cake because it’s so basic it must be the first cake in human history. It comes with a little backstory too. What more can you ask from cake?

My favourite Mother’s Day gifts when my children were young were those they made themselves. Children wanting to make Mum something for Mother’s Day on Sunday can make this cake in five minutes. Decorating it is optional, depending on the mum it’s intended for. Personally I never met a cake that wasn’t improved by dollops of chocolate ganache but my mum likes it old-school – totally plain.

Recipe books as they used to be

This cake first came to my attention ten years ago when my mother was inspired to compile a recipe book of food she remembered from her childhood that her own mother used to cook. Also included in the book were recipes my mum had accumulated from booklets acquired from local churches and women’s organisations such as the Townswomen’s Guild and Women’s Institute during her 50 years as a journalist on her local paper, The Dewsbury Reporter.

As she’s also a fan of local history, she included old photos of the town too. The purpose of the book, called Dewsbury in Food and Photos, was to raise funds for the Forget Me Not Children’s Hospice in Huddersfield. She had no idea if the book would sell well and was afraid of having unsold books left over, so restricted the number of copies that were printed. Needless to say it was a huge success, raising £16,000 for the hospice, and could have sold many times over.

 Mum assumed that only local people would be interested, but once word got out people from all over wanted a copy. One of my son’s student friends in London, a keen foodie, asked for a copy as he was fascinated to see recipes that had been ordinary fare in the forties, such as sheep’s head broth.

My favourite photo from the book – children playing marbles

Former residents who had emigrated got relatives to buy them a copy, keen for a slice of nostalgia. People with no connection to the time or the place that featured in the book were fascinated by the insight it offered into a way of life long gone – that of working people in a busy Northern mill town in the early to mid-twentieth century. People still ask Mum now if she has any copies salted away somewhere. If only she’d had the confidence to get more published!

 Feather Cake is the first and most important recipe in the book as it’s the one that reminded Mum most of her own mother.

My grandma never knew her own mother, who had died of mastitis (then commonly called milk fever) after giving birth to another baby when Grandma was still a baby herself.  

My grandmother was very typical of her generation in that she found it hard to say ‘I love you’ or show affection. She said ‘I love you’ with cake.  

Extract from Dewsbury in Food and Photos

The first cake I can ever remember tasting was my mother’s Feather Cake, baked on a Sunday afternoon after we’d had our Sunday dinner. That is why it takes place of honour as the first recipe in this book alongside the photograph of Caddy’s ice-cream cart, because for me these two are synonymous.

They remind me so much of those glorious Sunday afternoons when my mother baked her Feather Cake, and not long after a Caddy’s ice-cream cart would come rumbling down our street.

When I started writing this book, I decided to make a Feather Cake myself. What a powerful experience it was tasting something I hadn’t eaten for over 50 years. Just like the narrator in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, who found his memory unlocked by the taste of a madeleine cake, so too I found myself that day back in my childhood.

Taste and smell are apparently the senses with the strongest link to memory. How true that is. The taste reminded me so much of those happy days of childhood when simple things like a piece of home-made cake, with no adornments, gave so much pleasure.

Most of all it reminded me of my mother. Lost Time indeed.

Feather Cake

150g self-raising flour

150g sugar

50g lard – 50g butter (or 100g butter)

2 eggs

2 tablespoons milk.

Cream together butter, lard and sugar, beat each egg in separately and stir in the flour and milk until it becomes a light mixture.

Pour into a greased 20cm cake tin. Bake at 180 C for around 45 minutes.

Is there such a thing as leftover cake?

In keeping with the waste-free aspirations of this blog, this next recipe provides a solution for using up leftover cake that’s going dry and at risk of being thrown away.  I would like to say I have tested this recipe but in our house there is never such a thing as leftover cake.

With the fabulous and mysterious name of Wet Nellie, it comes from Lancashire during (I’m guessing) the 1930s.

 When my kids were young and I was struggling to come up with meal ideas, my auntie gave me a recipe book featuring good old-fashioned, no-nonsense cooking – Favourite Family Recipes by Mildred Smith, the cookery star of Granada TV’s The Main Ingredient.

Mildred got this recipe from her mother, who had worked in a bakery – it was the bakery’s way of using up unsold Madeira and sponge cakes at the end of the day.

Wet Nellie

225 self-raising flour

110 lard and margarine (or butter)

Pinch of salt

Cold water to mix

Make up the pastry and line a 18cm shallow square tin with half the pastry

For the filling

225g cake crumbs

150g mixed dried fruit – any combination – and candied peel.

1 tbsp lemon juice

4 level tbsp golden syrup or jam

4 tbsp milk

Caster sugar and milk to glaze.


Combine all the filling ingredients and spread in the lined tin. Brush the edges of the pastry and cover with the remaining half, pressing the edges firmly together. Glaze with a little milk and caster sugar and mark with a pastry cutter in a diamond pattern. Bake near the top of the oven at 190 degrees C. When cold, cut into fingers.

On Mother’s Day, here’s to mothers – and to cakes.


Spreading the word about ‘living compost’

It’s been a year since we interviewed Michael Kennard of Compost Club about how Maze Compost Tumblers were helping him with his work. As this week is Compost Week UK, what better time to catch up with this wannabe earthworm, who is on a mission to get us all saving our soil.

 Compost Club has gone from strength to strength in the past year and Michael shows no sign of slowing down. He is interviewed in this month’s edition of Gardens Illustrated, recently featured in House and Garden and is also due to give a talk at Gardeners’ World Live at Birmingham NEC in June.

Michael in this month’s Gardens Illustrated

If you haven’t heard of Compost Club before, this is how the scheme – a social enterprise based in Lewes, East Sussex – works: Michael collects members’ food waste every three weeks in his electric van and returns nutrient-rich compost for their garden in the spring. The surplus goes into community gardening projects and is also available to buy.

But this is not just any common or garden compost. Michael has studied the subject, learning from American pioneers such as the microbiologist Elaine Ingham and the molecular biologist Dr David C Johnson. The compost he produces is teeming with biological life; perfect for improving soil structure and making nutrients available to plants to ensure healthy growth.

Great Green Systems bought some of the club’s surplus compost last spring and can vouch for the fact that this really is ‘black gold’, top-notch compost.

The GGS bag of living compost delivered last spring

Michael came up with the idea for Compost Club when he discovered he needed much more compost than he could produce from his own green waste to feed his no-dig allotment.

 He started asking people for input and was soon being offered more than he could use on the allotment.

 ‘People were asking me to take their food waste, because Brighton & Hove Council doesn’t collect it. In the UK, millions of tons of food waste still go into landfill. For every ton of that, there are over 600kg of carbon equivalent emissions – methane, nitrous oxide and all those nasties. If we compost that waste aerobically, the figure goes down to 8kg, which is virtually nothing. So that’s my incentive to do more.

‘Composting is about maximising the diversity of beneficial micro-organisms,’ he explains. ‘They do all the work. I’m just facilitating the process, creating the conditions for the naturally occurring life.’

He currently collects from 180 homes and hopes to set up similar schemes in the area by training other people to compost in the same way. He is also looking to set up a community-based composting system at Great Dixter House and Gardens, near Rye, as well as working with Human Nature, an eco-driven development company who are planning a carbon-neutral neighbourhood in Lewes.

Nutrient cycling

‘My vision is to start Compost Clubs within some of the most densely populated city areas,’ says Michael. ‘The excess compost can go out to the farms, so they can grow naturally pest- and disease-resistant plants that don’t need biocides. The nutrient density will come back to our food again, we’ll all be healthier and there’s a beautiful synchronicity of nutrient recycling that just makes complete sense.’

He is still a fan of his 245 litre Maze Compost Tumblers: ‘I find in-vessel composters like these to be ideal to be able to compost all your food waste in a timely fashion, without concern about rodents and also to produce a really good quality of compost after a good maturation process.’

In Gardens Illustrated (see photo) Michael is shown sitting on top of some of the reclaimed 30 litre buckets he uses to collect food waste. He adds a handful of bokashi, a micro-organism that pre-digests and ferments food waste, to each bucket he hands out. Collected waste is left to ferment in its sealed bucket (with more bokashi added) for three weeks before it’s transferred to a Compost Tumbler for another three weeks mixed 50:50 with woodchips supplied by local tree surgeons. The compost then spends time in a Johnson-Su bioreactor, before curing for two to six weeks.

He says that he used to think the best we could do for the planet was to be ‘the least bad’. Then he dived into the world of permaculture, regenerative growing and soil health. Now he sees sustainability as a minimum requirement for any business. ‘We can actually make things better if we live well,’ he says.

Michael’s on a mission to change the way people see waste and introduce them to a natural nutrient cycle whereby their food waste becomes compost, which helps them grow more food, which becomes more food waste. And so the cycle continues. ‘Waste is a human idea, and it’s a terrible idea.’

He started learning about the soil food web and bought himself a microscope.

‘I found that although the commercial compost is made of organic matter, it’s basically sterile – there’s nothing living in there. That’s the case across the board. ‘

He realised that to get the quality he was after, he would have to start making his own compost, although as he points out, he doesn’t actually make it – ‘I just create the conditions that allow the micro-organisms to do their work.’

His work energises him and has fostered a sense of what he calls ‘joyful service.’ He’s particularly keen to spend more time running workshops to spread the Compost Club ethos of healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy people.

Saving the planet

‘By empowering individuals and communities to make compost for themselves, I can have a bigger reach.’

 Michael’s recent appearance in House and Garden was part of a series by Clare Foster about people passionate about saving the planet.

He talks about how soil is the foundation of our health and, if we destroy it, it’s to our own detriment. Improved soil structure also means soil can absorb more water from rainfall to mitigate flooding.

 ‘Healthy soil will filter water, whereas soils that haven’t had organic matter added are insubstantial and the topsoil just gets washed away. As a planet, we’re losing topsoil at an alarming rate – some people say we only have 50 or 60 harvests left if we carry on as we are.

‘Everything is a reflection of the soil. If the plants have that natural cycle going on, they’re really healthy. When we eat those plants, that’s what informs our gut health.’

As Michael says, healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy humans. It makes perfect sense.

Spare Parts