Sustainable dressing for a big fat Greek wedding

When my son and his girlfriend announced they were getting married, it didn’t take long for idle speculation about what I would wear to become a problem that did my head in.

I don’t buy that many new clothes these days and try to make sustainable choices when I do.

According to consulting firm McKinsey and the World Economic Forum, clothing production has at least doubled since 2000, while the average garment is kept for half as long.

 I ran through a sustainable hierarchy for an outfit:

  • Wear something I already have
  • Borrow
  • Rent
  • Buy new from an ethical company.

I’ve read that Greta Thunberg never buys new clothes, borrowing instead from friends for special events. This option works if you’re young, slim and pretty, but most of us have more complex needs.

So began my mission to find a big fat green Greek wedding outfit.

The first option was out because I don’t already own an outfit that’s special enough for a wedding. I know it might surprise some readers to learn that, as someone who writes about compost, I don’t have a bulging wardrobe of glamorous gowns for glitzy red-carpet events. (Perhaps the composting world is indeed full of such events but I just don’t get invited to them.)

My dressiest dress is black so that’s not an option.  Yes, I know that black may well be a very modern stylish choice in some circles, but there is a complication here in that the bride is Greek and the wedding will take place in her home village. I don’t yet know her family and any cultural or religious traditions that may need to be taken into consideration. So I’m wary of committing some cross-cultural faux pas that could possibly echo down the ages, with me being forever referred to as ‘her who wore black to her son’s wedding.’

I looked into renting and also considered my favourite sustainable retailers. I sent off for a beautiful floaty dress from one company but returned it when my husband said I looked like I was wearing a nightie.

Being the mother of the groom, or MOG to use the official industry term (mother of the bride being the MOB), is obviously a big deal. And I can’t be the only MOG/MOB who feels pressured into becoming someone I’m not. (At this point, let me say that if you get irritated by first-world problems you should stop reading now, if you haven’t already.)

In pursuit of an outfit that ticked a long list of boxes, I must have looked at hundreds of outfits over several months. None of them were right. I thought of a friend who spends her life in trousers and loafers but went to her daughter’s wedding in a stiff dress-suit and heels that made her look and feel uncomfortable. I didn’t want that. But there is a kind of blackmail attached to weddings – you have to look as though you’ve made a big effort in order to show that you love the couple. Don’t ask me how it works. But it’s there, this equation between bling and love. Is it the class system, the fashion industry, media pressure? I don’t know. But it’s there, this pressure to adopt a wedding uniform and leave your personality at the door. For some reason we feel funnelled into becoming Joan Collins when we might be more Whoopi Goldberg.

From my experience I can report that most designers assume you have the tall, super-slender figure of the Princess of Wales and that you require the kind of stately dress-coats favoured by members of the royal family at coronations.  

As the days became weeks, I started to lose all perspective and reason – it was like getting the new kitchen all over again.  A sign of how desperate I became is that I asked my husband’s opinion. This is something I usually avoid because I know what I will get. He will say, ‘What are you asking me for? I’m not an expert.’ He will then name an expert in the said field to emphasise just how far away from that person he is and therefore how spectacularly unqualified to offer an opinion.  Depending on the topic in question, I will be informed that he is not David Hockney, Gordon Ramsay, Jeremy Clarkson or Monty Don. In this particular case I was told he is not Gok Wan.

And yet, despite very obviously not being Gok Wan, he managed to weigh in with what sounded suspiciously like some very opinionated opinions.  Apart from the ‘nightie’, other dresses were dismissed as: too boring, too loud, too much, too frumpy and ‘something my nan would have worn’.  Inevitably, when I questioned his verdicts, he complained that he couldn’t win; he got in trouble for not giving an opinion and in trouble if he did.

‘I don’t know why you’re even asking me,’ he said. ‘I don’t know what you want to look like.’ This must be, in a very crowded field, one of the most ridiculous things my husband has ever said.  What I want to look like? I’m going to my son’s wedding, I want to look nice.  I’m not going to a fancy dress party where I might be wanting to look like, say, Elvis Presley, or a hobbit.

The trouble was that I was trying to compensate for everything I’m not – young, svelte, tall, tanned, stable in high heels – and that’s before I even begin to consider how my delicate Anglo-Irish constitution will cope with Greece in high summer. Since I don’t know my daughter-in-law’s family, I’m obviously anxious to make a good impression, and as a fairly casual person I don’t want to look as though I haven’t dressed up because that might look as though I don’t care about the wedding when the truth is I care too much.  But does making an effort mean I have to be got up like Hyacinth Bucket at a Buckingham Palace garden party?

 I read an article that said the essence of style is to simply be yourself. Stylish people always say this, of course, and it’s alright for them because who they are is a person who is stylish. I asked myself the question: if I went to this wedding as ‘me’ what would that look like?

Hmmm …..difficult to know the answer to that question when you’re a woman of a certain age with  grown-up kids. I thought back to past versions of me. As a child I liked dressing up; my style was very much ‘more is more’.  I loved adding stuff to my hair, for example. There are photos of me aged three or four going about my business with flowers, scarves, jewellery and any hat I could find plonked on my head. My parents obviously thought it was hilarious, hence the photos. As a teenager in the punk era, my friends and I got clothes from Oxfam and customised them. Memories came flooding back. I remembered buying a man’s beige bomber jacket and painting a portrait of Johnny Rotten on the back. I paired my dad’s brown and orange striped dressing gown with the belt from my younger brother’s cowboy outfit. I tied my mother’s necklaces round my legs in what I hoped mirrored bondage fashion, but had to remove them so blood could continue to circulate round my body. An old school blazer got decorated with dozens of cheap chains sewn across the front. And many, many accessories went in my gelled-up hair.  The vibe at the time was very much about making outfits from whatever you could find and not being told how to dress or be. Obviously, this could not be allowed to continue because there was no profit in it, so like everything else this free spirit was eventually crowded out by conformity and commodification.

I’m not about to hit Oxfam looking for leopardprint and raid my sewing box for safety pins, but I did wonder where that girl had gone. The many parallels with Shirley Valentine did not escape me. Perhaps I might rediscover the real me in Thessaloniki and never come back to Leeds?  

In the middle of this identity crisis, my son sent me a text informing me that as the MOG I would be  required to do a dance at the wedding – a dance of transition – with the bride. This would not be a problem, according to my son, as he would send me a video so I could practice.   

So now, in addition to the cascade of concerns my outfit had to address (including, in no particular order:  middle-aged spread, cross-cultural anxiety, heatstroke, sustainability, wobbly ankles, Greek Orthodox etiquette, and bingo wings) I also had to factor in Zorba’s Dance.  

Potential dance by the Mother of the Groom?

My husband stepped in to remind me what really mattered – that our son is marrying a wonderful girl we’re delighted to welcome into our family. We’re going to love the wedding and getting to know our new extended Greek family. It’s all about joy. Everything else is small stuff.

 I know, I know….but can’t I have the joy and something that covers bingo wings?

In the end I bought new – but there is a sustainable angle. It’s something I will wear and wear and wear – thanks to a wonderful, local dressmakers I discovered (big shout-out to Danielle McGilloway of Roberttown). The outfit was a navy chiffon layered dress. I was very happy with it (bingo wings sorted, since you ask) but it bothered me that I wouldn’t wear it often because I much prefer trousers. Getting the dress shortened into a long top meant I could wear it with palazzo pants, so it’s now an outfit I will wear forever. I plan to get other clothes altered now I’ve realised that if something’s not quite right it can be very cheaply perfected. Women often say they have nothing to wear when their wardrobes are bursting. Perhaps it’s because a lot of those clothes don’t fit properly. Using a dressmaker did not even enter my head at the start of my search but now it’s right up there on my list of sustainable living options.

Back to the wedding – like the little girl I once was, I’ll be rocking a hot pink, twisted silk headband from Etsy and I’m planning to make my own clutch bag out of a navy furry beret and a yellow plastic bangle, both from charity shops. I might be a MOG but I can also be me.  

When did wedding dressing get so out of hand?    

For my wedding in the 90s, both my mother and mother-in-law wore beautiful dress-suits and hats that they rarely wore again, if ever. What a waste, in all senses of the word.  I doubt that for their own weddings in the early 60s their mothers had bought brand new outfits. And I remember my grandma saying that for her wedding in 1934 she chose a crepe dress that she later dyed forest green and wore many times after the wedding.

Let’s resist the pressure that leads to fast fashion and landfill.   

So now, with my outfit sorted – big fat Greek wedding here we come!


Are you a creative composter? Try this competition

As this week is International Compost Awareness Week, anyone with a creative streak and passion for composting should think about entering the event’s video and poster competitions.

There are annual contests to find an inspiring video (open to youngsters aged 10 – 13) and a poster (open to anyone 14 or older) to promote the event. The aim is to find fun and educational ways to promote compost use and organics recycling.

The contests run every year from September 1st to November 1st so there’s still plenty of time to think about designing an entry to promote the event next year.

The winner of the video contest this year is 11-year-old Magna Iacomella Paz from Argentina.

She says: ‘I participated because I realised that composting is something interesting.

‘I had not realised that throughout my life I have been composting a lot because since I was a little girl I have been separating waste. My dad talks to me a lot about compost and he tells me that when he was little he didn’t separate the organics or prepare the compost.

‘It seems crazy to me because then fruits and vegetables were less healthy. I think it’s weird to throw a banana peel in the trash.

‘The concept of my video is that composting is a circular thing. It starts and if you continue it never ends.’

Magna received help for her fabulous 30-second video from an 11-year-old friend and her little sister, aged 6.

This year’s poster winner is Jun Qi Tan, from Singapore, who is an illustrator with a passion for regenerative gardening and composting. She tends her family’s garden but also helps out at community ones, as well as donating surplus produce to her local community when she is able.

Through her art she hopes to raise awareness of the integral role that soil and compost play in healthy food systems and a healthy planet.

 The beautiful plant at the heart of Jun’s poster is the ancient grain amaranth, commonly grown in Southeast Asia.

The theme of this year’s event is For Healthier Soil, Healthier Food…Compost! The intention is to show how compost can play a role in feeding the world. By recycling organics into compost and using it on farmlands, healthier soil is created that produces healthier food and higher yields. Compost also reduces the need for fertilizer and pesticides, improves water quality and conserves water, as well as storing carbon in soil – helping to mitigate climate change.

Saving the earth and feeding its people – compost truly has superpowers!

 Jun and Magna’s winning contributions will be enjoyed by a huge international audience this week. Perhaps next year that could be you?

 For details see ICAW Poster Contest (

Why gardening’s a hobby fit for a king

Those of us well acquainted with the King’s years as the Prince of Wales know he is a committed environmentalist whose ideas were often ahead of his time.  

Some commentators have questioned whether he will now refrain from speaking out on the subject as the monarch is meant to steer away from political issues, but others have argued that this isn’t politics, it’s the future of humanity.

It’s interesting to consider how far from the mainstream the King’s ideas once were.    

The Observer Magazine recently recalled an edition of the same magazine from July 1965 which reported on how gardening had become a chemically-enhanced big business. Science was seen to have taken the place of old-fashioned expertise with a huge increase in the numbers of chemical fertilisers and products available to tackle pests. The report even suggested that frozen foods were making vegetable gardens redundant.

This was the background to the then Prince Charles making his first big speech in 1970, aged 22, when he talked about the dangers posed by pollution and indestructible plastic containers. Many of his speeches focused on topics that were not everyday concerns at the time and he had to put up with mockery from the media as a result.

 For years the tabloid press mocked his interests as ‘fringe’ and ‘loony’ and in 1986 he was ridiculed for telling a magazine journalist that he talked to his plants. Issues that he spoke out about, such as organic farming, recycling, food production and waste management, are now considered essential to the future of the planet. We’re all ‘loonies’ now.

Damage to the soil

The King has called his work on the gardens and organic farm at Highgrove House, his Gloucestershire home, ‘one very small attempt to heal the appalling short-sighted damage done to the soil, the landscape and our souls’ by our contemporary way of life.

Highgrove has a reed bed sewer, extensive composting systems, biomass and pump-fed heating and partial solar-powered lighting. The farm was converted to organic practices more than 30 years ago and the King’s Aston Martin DB6, which is more than 50 years old, was converted to run on out-of-date English white wine and cheese whey.

At the COP26 climate summit in 2021 he urged world leaders to redouble their efforts to confront global warming saying, ‘Time has quite literally run out.’

He also said: ‘One of the things that motivated me more than anything else is that I didn’t want to be accused by my grandchildren or children of not doing the things that needed doing at the time.’

It’s to be hoped that King Charles III still carves out time for his gardening passion as the benefits are remarkable.

A life-improving hobby  

Around 40 per cent of the UK population describe themselves as active in gardening – that means many more of us could reap the benefits of this life-improving hobby.

Many studies have proven that gardening is good for your mental and physical health, offering both immediate and long-term benefits.  

Gardening has been shown to:

  • reduce stress
  • increase life satisfaction
  • promote relationships in families and communities

Therapeutic effects have also been seen, alongside other treatments, in cases of depression, substance abuse and schizophrenia.

Scientists have found that soil contains a natural anti-depressant which stimulates the production of serotonin. Gardeners inhale the bacteria, mycobacterium vaccae, and have contact with it when touching soil. No wonder so many people call the garden their happy place.

The physical activity involved in planting, weeding, digging, raking and mowing means keen gardeners can expend the same amount of energy as running or going to the gym.

 Even small doses such as five minutes of nature is considered to improve self-esteem and mood. Simply contemplating nature helps to rest and recharge our brains.

In children and adolescents gardening has been shown to:

  • improve educational performance
  • create a sense of achievement and empowerment in children who struggle academically
  • provide quiet time for reflection
  • reduce stress and anger

In older people, gardening can help to:

  • promote bone health
  • reduce falls
  • improve general wellbeing
  • delay dementia symptoms

Those new to gardening can start small, growing in little pots or tin cans. Salad greens such as lettuce, rocket and chard can be grown in small spaces.

Take inspiration from people who have proven that gardens can be everywhere – by the front door, on steps, on a balcony and in community spaces. Horticulturalist Alys Fowler even grew plants on her apartment fire escape in New York and joined a gardening community which reused discarded objects found in the city’s streets.

People who don’t have a garden of their own can volunteer in community gardens. There are also schemes where people with the gardening space but no time or inclination can make their gardens available to those with the passion but no plot.  Contact your local authority or check online for details.

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.)


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.


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?

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

There’s double cause for celebration coming up with St Patrick’s Day tomorrow (March 17) and Mother’s Day on Sunday.

 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 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 this weekend 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.


A journey to becoming a green gardener

With compost again in the spotlight (Compost Week UK runs from March 13-19) it’s timely that Nancy Birtwhistle’s green gardening book has just been published.

Nancy first came to national attention when she won The Great British Bake-Off in 2014 and she is now a best-selling author on green issues.

She’s also an inspiration to anyone wanting to live a more sustainable life; the tips in her books and on her Instagram feed are simple but effective, with something for everyone.

We had pre-ordered a copy of her latest book, The Green Gardening Handbook, and we’ve been busy this week reading and learning.

Here’s how Nancy sums up her life’s green journey:

‘Several years ago I began my green journey and this way of thinking has permeated every part of my life, from the way I clean my house to the way I resist single-use items, recycle and upcycle where possible, am mindful about the use of valuable energy and utilities, and also how I have been able to apply this way of thinking to my garden. I became more informed through researching and reading while considering the plight of our natural world and am now converted to methods that, once the penny drops, actually make utter and complete sense, and are logical and sensible. Once we learn how to work with Mother Nature and understand how the seasons work, how plants behave and how we can harness the wonder of it all, the reliance on any destructive chemical, synthetic or harmful methods for home growing are utterly superfluous.’  

 She also talks about her respect for the tiny creatures that make this soil food: ‘I found that once I embraced a greener approach to living – in the garden and in relation to my food – I was ever more appreciative and amazed by the wonder of nature, especially the creepy crawlies, and because of this will continue to do my very best to cherish and preserve it wherever and whenever I can.’

Summing up how all compost enthusiasts feel, she says, ‘I take huge satisfaction each time I add something to my compost bin, knowing that it is one less item going to landfill.’

We’re still reading the book – and noting down our favourite tips – but here are a few quick points Nancy makes about her journey in composting.

  • Finding the traditional Browns and Greens compost terminology confusing, because not all green items are Greens (i.e. nitrogen-rich) and not all brown items are Browns (i.e. carbon-rich), Nancy prefers to think in terms of Wet and Dry contents. (Michael Kennard, of Compost Club, makes the same point in his booklet Hot Compost – The Basics. He encourages beginners to think in terms of nitrogen and carbon content to help get the ratios right.)
  • When gardening, use biodegradable jute twine and wooden plant labels so that any oddments that fail to be removed before composting will decompose along with everything else.
  • Invest a few pounds in a compost thermometer – it will keep you entertained for hours and is a great talking point with enthusiastic gardening friends.
  • Use your compost to fill planters, top dress rose bushes and fruit trees, lay a good thick layer over veggie plots in the autumn and early winter and the worms will do the job of taking it below the surface – no need for digging it in.
  • Make your own compost scoop out of a plastic milk container:  Cut the bottle in half – the top half to be used as a compost scoop or planting funnel and the bottom half to be used as a simple seed pot or planter. Make a starting hole in the centre of the bottle using a hot skewer and use this as an entry hole for the scissors, making it possible to make a neat cut. To use one half as a compost scoop – leave the cap in place and use the handle with the bottle neck in the upside-down position to scoop your compost to take to your pots or tubs. With a scoop there is less spillage than using your hands or a trowel.
  • If you buy compost make sure it is a peat-free variety – peatlands are hugely important for plants, wildlife and humanity. They also store vast amounts of carbon which must be kept in the ground to avoid contributing further to climate change.

(Sales of peat to amateur gardeners in England will be banned by 2024.)

Spare Parts