Everything you need to know to get started with home composting

Composting can seem a little overwhelming. There seem to be so many things to worry about; things that might go wrong. It can seem a bit technical and science-y. But actually, the basics are quite simple, and it is easier to get a compost bin cranking than you think.

If you’re composting at home, especially if you’re a beginner, you don’t really need to get bogged down in the details. Understand the principles, and you’re on your way.

If you love the idea of composting, but simply don’t have the option to compost at home (or where you live), this post on composting without a compost bin might be useful.

If you’re keen to get you own compost system set up at home, read on.

Choosing your composting system

There are a few different composting systems (and I’m only talking about composting today – not other methods like worm farming/vermicomposting or bokashi systems).

For the beginner, there are two great home composting systems: the regular compost bins we are most used to seeing (I call them in-ground compost bins), that sit on the ground or are slightly dug in, and rotary compost bins, which are an enclosed system mounted on a frame.

Compost heaps or compost bays aren’t great for beginners as they are more difficult to manage. Digging food scraps into the ground or in trenches (if you have space for that!) works too, but it’s not really a ‘system’.

In-ground compost bins

These are easy to set up and low maintenance, and usually cost less than the rotary versions. There are a lot of second-hand compost bins available, so it’s probably not necessary to buy a new one. It’s also possible to make them by upcycling plastic barrels, old bins or other old containers.

You’ll find different styles of bin, some with doors at the bottom and heaps of ventilation holes, others that clip together and some with no bells and whistles at all.

I’m a fan of the no bells and whistles type, pictured below (I call them Dalek bins). These work best for the climate I live in. These types of bin don’t have a base, and I dig into the soil (about 10cm deep).

In my hot climate, any ventilation holes are just gaps for moisture to escape and pests to get in. Plus they provide points of weakness (because we all know plastic breaks down when exposed to sunlight).

Doors at the bottom might look cute, but the reality is it is easier to wait for the entire contents to become compost and dig the whole thing out at once.

That said, it’s possible to make most compost bins work. My neighbour was recently clearing out her shed, and offered me this for free. My plan is to dig it into the ground so that the vents at the bottom are covered, and only use it for garden waste (no food waste) to deter any pests that might want to crawl in the sides.

Because of the gaps along the sides, it will probably need a bit more water added than the other type.

Rotary composters

These tend to be more expensive than the in-ground versions, but they are perfect for patios and balconies and spaces where it isn’t possible to dig one into the ground. I’ve seen DIY versions but you’re going to need to be a bit handy to make one, as the cylinder has to be able to rotate on a frame.

There are lots of different styles and sizes, too. Some are long and thin, others are short and squat – and the way they are mounted on the frame (and therefore how they turn) varies too.

When choosing which one is right for you, it’s best to think not only about your space but also your physical capabilities. A huge bin might seem like a great idea, but if you can’t turn it because it’s too heavy, that isn’t going to work.

Another great advantage of these bins is they are less likely to attract pests and are pretty much rodent-proof.

Where to position your compost bin

You’ll often see it written that a compost bin should be placed in sunny spot, but that depends on where you live. If you live in a hot climate, placing a bin in full sun means it dries out. (Compost bins need moisture to work.)

I think it’s more important to think about a spot where you’ll actually use it. At the end of the garden behind the shed might seem like a great idea… until you need to put your scraps in it when it’s dark and raining.

A well managed compost bin shouldn’t smell, so being near a kitchen window shouldn’t matter, but if you don’t trust your skills (yet) perhaps make sure it’s not too near any doors or windows.

If you do have a garden, under a fruit tree is great, as the tree roots will benefit from the compost at the bottom of the bin.

I’d say, choose a warm and accessible spot (in a hot climate, dappled shade / afternoon shade is helpful if possible). Don’t forget, you can always move it later if your first spot doesn’t work out.

Setting up your compost bin

Once you’ve chosen a site for your compost bin (and dug it into the ground a little if it’s an in-ground compost bin – 10cm is ideal), you need to get it set up and ready to accept food scraps.

Compost bins need air (oxygen) to work properly, so when you’re setting up a new bin, it’s good to start with something chunky as the base, that allows air flow. Twigs and sticks and egg cartons are great.

The biggest mistake I see (and yep, this was also me when I started) is to add ALL the food scraps, nothing else, and watch in horror as your compost bin becomes a stinky, fly-infested mass of yuck.

Compost bins need balance. In particular, they need a balance of fresh stuff (called ‘greens’) and dead stuff (called ‘browns’). On a more technical level, we are talking about nitrogen and carbon.

Too much nitrogen (fresh stuff) will make for a stinky compost bin as it will break down too fast, using up the oxygen. Too much carbon (dead stuff) and your compost will take forever to break down.

For a beginner, a good rule of thumb is one handful of green stuff, and two handfuls of brown stuff. Or even three handfuls of brown stuff.

Placing a tub of shredded paper, old cardboard toilet tubes, egg cartons, dried leaves, wood chips, sawdust or straw (all carbon rich) next to your compost bin, so that every time you add some food scraps, you can add some carbon easily, works well.

As you add things to your bin, the stuff at the bottom will get compressed, and eventually run out of oxygen. This will make for stinky compost. Turn your compost with a pitchfork or turning fork (like a giant corkscrew) – or by rotation if that’s the type you have – to keep the air circulating. Turning once a week or once a fortnight is fine, or more often if you start to notice any bad smells.

What can and can’t go in my compost bin?

Anything that was once alive will eventually break down to become compost. There are a lot of myths circulating that you can’t compost things like onions or citrus – of course you can! When it comes to plant-based food scraps, everything goes.

As for other food scraps, it’s not that they can’t be composted, but they are more likely to attract vermin, other pests (like flies and maggots) or harbour dangerous bacteria.

As a beginner composter, avoid putting meat, fish, dairy products, bread and large amounts of cooked food in your compost bin if possible.

Thinking about garden scraps, the only things I don’t put in my compost bin are persistent or nasty weeds – things like couch or Kikuyu grass roots, or those weeds that have the spiky seeds that stab you if you stand on them barefoot.

Although home compost systems tend not to get hot enough to kill seeds, most seeds aren’t really a problem. It can be fun to get surprise tomatoes or pumpkin plants germinating from compost. Common weed seeds like dandelions still go in – even if I didn’t put them in my compost bin, the seeds are going to blow in from elsewhere, and they are easy enough to weed out again if they do appear.

Common composting problems

A good compost bin needs variety, oxygen (air), moisture and microbes/insects to keep it working. When one of these things is missing, you get problems or it slows right down.

Stinky compost bin? Add more carbon rich material, and turn your compost to increase air flow. Make sure food scraps are buried. A well managed compost bin doesn’t smell (or smells earthy, like soil).

Dry compost? Add water.

Soggy compost? If you can squeeze water out of your compost with your hands, it is too wet. Add dry material – shredded paper, sawdust, dry leaves.

Insects? Most insects are fine, so don’t panic. Lots of one type might indicate an issue. Ants usually mean it is too dry, so add water. If flies or maggots are a problem, cover the top with mulch or soil, and make sure food scraps are buried rather than sitting on top. The odd cockroach might make you wince but it isn’t going to harm you or your compost. An infestation probably means you haven’t turned your compost for a while. Mix it up, and keep turning it and they’ll find somewhere else to live. Insects have short lives, and will be gone soon enough.

Not doing anything? Adding a handful of compost or manure will add some microbes to your compost to give it a boost. Turning it will also (literally) help stir things up.

Can I set and forget?

If you want ready-to-go compost in 2 – 3 months (in a warm climate), you need to balance your greens and browns, and turn frequently. But if you just chuck it all in and forget about it, it will break down eventually. Much more slowly, but it will happen. Winter (and colder weather) also slows things down.

If you do want to use your compost bin in the garden, two (or more!) bins can be helpful. If you’re constantly adding fresh food scraps to your compost bin, you are always going to have non-composted bits in your compost. Ideally, you’ll fill one bin to the top, and then continue to turn it whilst starting to fill a second one. That way, you’ll have fresh compost ready to go by the time the second one is full.

Once emptied, you can start refilling again and leave the other one to work its magic.

If you want to start composting at home, the best thing to do is to just start. Then, as issues pop up or you have questions, you can troubleshoot one by one. Most problems are easily fixed. Get a compost bin set up, and you’ll learn as you go.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you have any questions about composting? Any issues I didn’t cover? Any beginner tips you think others need to know? Any other thoughts at all? Please share in the comments below!

How to freeze food in glass jars (+ defrost it safely)

I freeze food in glass jars, and I have done for years (we’re talking at least 15 years). As a student I resented buying things like zip-lock bags to freeze food – they seemed expensive and unnecessary. Glass jars were something I always had to hand – and they come in all shapes and sizes, which meant there was always one suitable for what I needed to freeze.

So that’s what I used.

It’s a topic that gets a lot of questions. Some people are surprised that it’s possible at all, others have tried and failed and want to know why. And there are a few rules you need to follow if you don’t want broken glass in the freezer.

In all my time freezing in glass I’ve only ever had a couple of breakages, and both times were when I didn’t follow my own advice. Stick to the rules, and you’ll be able to freeze in glass jars without breaking anything.

Understanding the science of freezing in glass

First, a science lesson! It’s helpful to understand what’s going on. Glass breaks because of stress. It’s rigid and solid, so when pressure is applied it tends to crack. (Like, for example, when you drop glass on a hard surface. It can’t absorb the impact, so it breaks.)

Although it’s rigid, glass actually shrinks a little when it’s cooled and expands a little when heated. Nothing that you can see, but it happens. When the outside and the inside of the glass have different temperatures (such as putting a glass jar of frozen food into a bowl of hot water, or putting hot liquid into a cold glass) the glass is shrinking on one side and expanding on the other, which creates stress.

The glass cracks to relieve the stress.

Water expands when it freezes. Food contains varying amounts of water and so different foods expand to different amounts when frozen. Pure water will expand the most. (You might have noticed when you make ice cubes that the level of the cubes rises as they freeze.)

Stock, soup and sauces are all liquid, and so will expand more when frozen than foods like bread or wraps, that have a low water content.

As liquids freeze and expand, they need a place to go. The sides of a glass jar are rigid and so the only way to expand is up. If a jar is narrow, or has sides that taper inwards, the extra pressure placed on the glass sides as the contents freeze will make it crack (which relieves the stress).

This is why wide-necked glass jars, or those with sides that taper outwards, are better for freezing, especially when freezing liquids.

Filling a wide-necked jar to the brim and then screwing a lid on tightly may also cause a jar to crack, because now there is no space at the top for the food to expand. Leaving a lid ajar until the contents are frozen will prevent this.

Foods like chickpeas or frozen sweetcorn have spaces between them, so there is less pressure applied to the sides of the glass (the air gaps can be filled) meaning narrower jars can be used for these types of food.

How to freeze food in glass jars: choosing suitable jars

I prefer wide-necked jars for freezing, and ideally those that taper outwards. My absolute favourite is the Bonne Maman jam jar. Each jar fits a one-portion serve, and the tapered sides mean the frozen contents almost slip straight out when I’m ready to heat them up.

They are also free (I rescue from a local cafe, and neighbours who eat jam.)

I can also stack them in my freezer, which maximises the space.

For liquids, a wide neck is very important. For beans, lentils or chopped vegetables, it’s less important, but still preferable.

I always choose jars that would have been through some kind of heating process in a factory. Jars that previously contained jam, pickles or sauce will have been heat-treated, and are my preference. Jars from the reject shop won’t, and are often thinner glass.

Sometimes you’ll see jars that have a distinctive round circle at the bottom, which is a separate piece of glass fused to the jar. This join is another point of stress weakness, and it’s better to avoid these jars if you can. If you can’t, choose to use only with low water content foods. (Breadcrumbs yes, frozen chickpeas yes, sauces or stock, no.)

I found this out when the base of a jar I’d just used to freeze something fell out as I was washing it up. I didn’t know it was a ‘thing’ until then! Luckily the food was fine, but the process of freezing and defrosting must have weakened the seal, and the jar broke. Now I check for this before using.

If you prefer, you can stick with glass jars that are designated freezer-safe. These tend to be the brands also suitable for canning – they are designed to withstand extremes of temperature. Ball Mason, Fowlers Vacola, Weck, Le Parfait jars are all examples.

How to freeze in glass jars, step by step

Once you’ve chosen a suitable jar, fill it with whatever you want to freeze, following these rules:

  • Fill to the widest point of the jar, and leave a space at the top to allow the contents to expand;
  • Cool the food completely before putting the jar in the freezer;
  • If possible, chill the contents first. Recommended for liquids like stock;
  • Place the jar in the freezer, with the lid off or ajar;
  • Once the contents have completely frozen, screw the lid on tightly.

Don’t forget to label your jars unless it is very obvious what is inside! Your memory will not be as good as you think it is. A date is useful as well as labelling the contents.

The reasons most jars break in the freezer are putting hot contents straight into the freezer, overfilling the jar, using a narrow jar – or all of the above.

My biggest mistake was trying to freeze stock in a passata bottle. Luckily it didn’t crack until it was almost frozen solid, so there wasn’t a big mess to clean up. But it had to be discarded. Lesson learned – these things need room to move!

How to defrost frozen food in glass jars

Heating frozen glass (such as plunging into a bowl of hot water) will make it crack. Don’t do that.

If you’re super organised, you can take the jar out of the freezer and leave on the side for a few hours. Or, you can put in the fridge to defrost overnight.

(If you’re defrosting meat or fish I’d put in the fridge to thaw because they are higher risk in terms of food poisoning.)

A large and well-packed frozen Pyrex container can take a couple of days to thaw in the fridge.

Jars, less watery things, and pieces with more surface area, will defrost more quickly in the fridge.

If you’re less organised, and want to defrost something more quickly, take it out of the freezer and put in a bowl of cold water. It’s important that it’s cold, because warm water will crack your jar. Cold water is still warmer than ice.

Depending what it is, you can add cold water to the frozen item (pour cold water into the jar) – this is how I thaw my frozen chickpeas. It separates them, which means I can get them out of the jar.

It would work for frozen veg, like sweetcorn. You wouldn’t do it to a piece of cake. 

If you’re less organised and also impatient, your best bet is to freeze food in containers or jars that taper outward. Pyrex tapers out slightly, as do Weck jars, as do my all-time favourite, Bonne Maman jam jars. What this means is, as soon as the food starts to defrost, which will happen from the edges inward (the centre will be the bit that thaws last), the frozen food will slide out of the jar.

Take out of the freezer, sit in a bowl of cold water, wait 10 mins or so and then empty the frozen lump into a pan or bowl, or whatever you are going to use to heat up your food. I don’t have a microwave, so I use a saucepan.

I use a low heat and a lid on the pan, and stir to separate the thawed bits from the frozen core. Gradually it reduces down, and eventually its piping hot, and you’re good to go. 

Readers have told me that they put frozen glass jars in a microwave to defrost. I’d be extremely careful doing this, as microwaves don’t heat evenly – if part of the glass is touching hot food and another part is still frozen, the glass will be under stress and may crack. But (apparently) it can be done.

I hope this answers all of your freezing-in-glass-jar related questions! As always, any thoughts, suggestions or ideas that you have, please share with us in the comments. Ask away, I’d love to hear from you!

My garden transformation project: why I’m digging out my lawn by hand

When it comes to transforming my garden into an edible and productive food space, there’s one task that’s taking up most of my time currently: digging out the lawn. And if there’s one question I’m answering most often from the garden updates I post it is this: why are you digging out your lawn?

Which actually has two meanings: why aren’t you keeping the lawn? and why have you chosen digging out the lawn as your method of removal?

It’s not a short answer, so I thought I’d explain it here.

Why I’m digging out my lawn (why I’m not keeping the lawn)

I would like to grow edible food in my garden. I would like fruit trees and vegetables. I’d like native plants too. To grow these, I need to remove the lawn.

Lawn in Western Australia is not like lawn in Europe. If I leave it, it won’t grow into a beautiful field of wildflowers. In summer it will be dead without a lot of inputs. What does grow will be non-native grass species and weeds like castor oil (which is toxic to dogs – it’s the source of ricin).

My climate doesn’t naturally support meadows.

Growing lawn in Perth is hard work and takes a surprising amount of resources. It needs a lot of water to keep it green. I have a bore (which is a pump that draws water from the ground, as opposed to using drinking water from the tap) but even so, our groundwater levels are dropping and in my opinion, it is a waste of water to keep so much grass alive.

Anyways, I’m only allowed to use my bore reticulation three times a week. Any other watering needs to be drinking water.

The reticulation that’s in place to keep the lawn green is plastic and the parts break all the time. It breaks, and the trickle is replaced with a jet stream that gushes gallons of water down the road at the front (or floods the garden at the back). After replacing a few broken bits (luckily with second-hand freebies I was given, not new plastic) only to end up with more broken bits, I decided to just switch it off.

Then, it needs fertilising to keep it green. Lawn fertilisers cause a lot of problems in our rivers, because they are soluble fertilisers than run-off into the water and contribute to algal blooms (which kill the fish).

My non-fertilised lawn is yellow and patchy. Which is fine, because I’m digging it out.

Yes, lawn feels nice underneath the feet (well, when it’s not dead). Although our Australian grasses are not as soft as the European grasses, so it isn’t quite the same. But there are parks close by with lots of grass that are properly maintained and accessible to lots of people.

I know that a lot of non-Western Australians will look at a garden full of coarse wood chip mulch and think it looks ugly and weird. It took me a bit of getting used to when I first saw it, too. But if meadows are what happens to grasses in Europe, this layer of dead tree matter is what nature does in our natural bush areas.

It acts to protect the soil from the harsh sun, retains moisture underneath – and eventually breaks down to add carbon to the soil.

Although it looks extreme now, eventually I’ll cover most of my mulch with plants so it won’t be so obvious.

Why I’ve chosen digging out the lawn as my method of removal

There are lots of ways that people choose to get rid of their lawn. Digging mine out by hand (well, I did contemplate a turf cutter, but I’ve stuck with the spade) was the only option I really considered. I know there are plenty of ways, but I have my reasons for choosing this. Let me explain them.

Perth grass is TOUGH.

Even though I told you grass dies here in summer, it doesn’t actually die. Every autumn when the rain returns the dead patch of yellow grass resurrects itself. It dies, and yet it is almost impossible to truly kill.

There are a few species of grass used for lawns in Perth, and I have a few, definitely included these two.

Kikuyu grass: a tropical grass speces Pennisetum clandestinum, native to the highland regions of East Africa. Grows rapidly and aggressively. Categorized as a noxious weed in some regions. Has underground runners and its root system can grow to 3 metres deep.

Couch grass: a drought-tolerant grass described as ‘high maintenance and invasive’. It has an extensive root system with fine roots that is difficult to remove. Can grow through concrete. Also called Wintergreen couch – I wonder if this is because it dies back in summer and returns with vengeance in winter?

I don’t want to use chemicals (which is often recommended)

Because our grasses are so hard to kill, many gardeners and organizations recommend using glyphosate (you might know it as Roundup) to kill lawn. It’s a controversial chemical that’s been banned in many European countries due to safety concerns.

Whilst verge gardens tend to be non-edibles (well, for humans only) I’m not interested in using chemicals to kill any of my lawn that will remain in the soil and enter the food chain.

Smothering/solarising doesn’t work well in Perth

Lots of readers have suggested I just cover the grass with cardboard and mulch, or use black plastic to solarise the grass and kill it. I know that these methods work well in other places with other types of grasses, but they aren’t great in Perth.

If it has worked for you, brilliant (and I’m sure it can be done). But when it doesn’t work, all that happens is you create a cosy, warm, wet environment for the grass which means it expands its root networks, and eventually busts through the mulch/plastic.

An earlier guide to verge gardens by the Water Corporation specifically advised against these methods, recognising that they rarely work.

I’ve seen many, many examples of mulching/solarising grass failing in Perth, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen an example of it working successfully on the types of grass that I have.

Putting the work in up-front

Even if I thought that mulching/solarising was a great idea, and wanted to give it a go, I’d need to wait several months for the grass to die before I could plant anything in the ground. And I don’t want to wait.

The sooner I can plant trees the better, and the sooner I can plant vegetables the better.

Also, I think putting in the work up-front means not playing catch-up later. I don’t want to spend the next six months digging out regrowing grass – especially not grass that has grown through raised garden beds and now has 1+ metre deep roots.

I expect there will still be some regrowth, but it should be a lot less than if I’d just tried to plant on top.

The level of the land

One other reason why sheet mulching with cardboard and then heaping on the mulch wouldn’t work for me – at the front at least – is that the ground level is already a little high. It’s higher than the driveway, which means when it rains all the water (and mulch) will run off onto the concrete and down the drain.

In a place that’s short of water, this is a huge waste. I need to ensure any water that falls stays in my soil.

Adding an extra 10-15 cm of mulch on top would create a mini mountain, and just exacerbate the problem.

By removing the lawn I’m reducing the height of the land slightly, so the new surface is flush with the kerb/driveway.

Knowing my land

I did contemplate getting a turf cutter, and a few friends suggested just getting a bobcat in to blitz it in a couple of hours. But I decided to do it by hand.

Out the back, I don’t need it all done at once, so I’m chipping away as I’m ready to plant trees or put in beds.

At the front I am removing the whole lot, but I’ve found the by-hand approach useful.

There is a huge tree on my verge, and I don’t want to trash all of its roots with heavy machinery.

There are gas pipes, water pipes (and PVC reticulation pipes!) under the lawn, and I don’t want to damage anything.

It’s been useful to go slowly and see exactly where the roots from the big tree, my neighbours’ trees and my hedge extend, remove random bricks I find, and also see the condition of the soil (which varies from extremely bad to pretty bad. But I did find a worm. Just the one. Yeah, Perth soil is really not great).

Because I want to put in-ground beds at the front, its useful to know if there are networks of roots or blocks of concrete under the soil before I plant anything out.

Removing the lawn – progress to date

The one advantage of living on a sandpit rather than heavy clay soils is that it is fairly easy to dig out grass. It isn’t back-breaking work… but there is a lot of it.

My superstar neighbour has given me a hand out the front (I think she is impatient for it to look good!) and it is quite amazing how much can be removed in a day.

Currently, the front looks like this:

(The plants are a native Geraldton wax I transplanted from the back garden, a lemongrass bush and the beginnings of my broad bean patch).

I’m going to have another blitz at the weekend, and I’m hoping it will almost all be gone when I’m done.

Here’s the back, with the new beginnings of my citrus ‘grove’ and my raised garden beds beginning to fill up:

So that, my friends, is the extremely long answer to the question: why am I digging out my lawn. It’s fairly boring work up front, but the long-term rewards will be worth it.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Any more questions about lawn or lawn removal? Any experiences of removing lawn yourself – both successful and unsuccessful? Any other thoughts at all? Please share in the comments below!

9 ways to get the most out of your freezer (+ reduce food waste)

My freezer has saved many a food item going into my compost bin. Overripe bananas, leftovers I’ve eaten for five days straight and really can’t bear to make it six, onion peels that I’ll use to make stock – the freezer is great for both reducing food waste, and treating future us to a ready-made meal in the form of something we prepared earlier.

Many of us are doing bigger and less frequent grocery shops than we might normally do, and cooking more than we might normally do – and this is putting extra pressure on the freezer.

Which let’s face it, for many of us is also a bit of a stick-it-in-there-and-forget-about-it zone.

My freezer is fairly small, which means that there’s always less room in there than I’d like. But it also means that I’ve got good at keeping my freezer organised, and making the most of the both space and the utility.

If you’d like to use your freezer more efficiently, here are my tips.

1. Ensure your freezer is a frost-free zone

If your freezer resembles a small iceberg, it’s not running as efficiently as it could be – and that ice is taking up valuable leftovers space. If this is the case, you need to defrost your freezer.

Defrosting it will melt the ice – then you just need to ensure the melted water is removed and it’s wiped dry, and turn it back on.

Whenever I defrost my freezer, I put my freezer contents in a neighbour’s freezer temporarily. You can also put frozen food in the fridge or use an esky/cool box to slow down defrosting. Any meat, fish or dairy products are better not refrozen, but vegetarian leftovers will probably be fine to go back in the freezer.

Make sure your freezer is set to (and running at) -18° C (0° F) before you fill it back up.

2. Audit your freezer

It’s really useful to go through your freezer every few months and see exactly what is in there – because there will be something you had forgotten about. Hopefully something tasty!

(With me, its usually extra jars of onion scraps for stock making. Sigh.)

It’s best if you can pull everything out and have a good look. That way you won’t miss anything, and you’ll spot half-empty containers and other things you might have missed.

Once you know what’s in the freezer, here’s some ideas to organise it better:

  • Make a plan to use anything old, or anything you have lots of, in the coming weeks;
  • Ensure anything you have lots of isn’t on your shopping list;
  • Put the oldest stuff at the front so you are more likely to notice (and therefore use) it;
  • Make sure everything is labelled (or at least the suspiciously ambiguous stuff);
  • Pop a reminder in the calendar for 3-6 months time, so you remember to do it again.

(I label my jars with a wax pencil – it’s easy to rub off. You can by them from art supply stores. You could also use a marker pen, or stick labels on.)

3. Prioritise what you keep in the freezer

If you’re like me, with a small freezer, you’re probably constantly juggling things to make space. When I need to make space for something else, there are a few things I think about.

What’s most valuable to be in my freezer?

Without a doubt, the most useful thing for me in my freezer is ready-cooked meals, ideally in 1-person or 2-person portions.

Generally speaking, the more prepared something is, the better. So frozen banana cake, or a frozen smoothie, is better than a frozen banana. A jar of stock is more useful than a jar of onion peels.

These are all things that save me time in the future (convenience) – which is what I value.

Value is also related to the cost of the item (what it would cost to replace), and the space it takes up.

Remove non-essentials.

I don’t keep ice in my freezer all the time (no space!) so if I have an ice cube tray in there during a sort, this is the first thing to go.

I also tend to have a bunch of ‘saved’ items in the freezer. I often have a jar of lemon zest, and maybe orange and lime zest too. That’s three jars. if I’m having a cull, these will go.

I don’t zest every citrus fruit I ever eat, so I don’t feel too bad about putting these in the compost if I’m short of space for something else. (Plus, it’s easy to make more down the track.)

Try to keep the contents balanced.

The more you rotate the food in your freezer, using up things and replacing them with new (different) things, the more you’ll get out of your freezer – literally.

I like to have a few slices of bread, a few portions of leftovers, maybe a jar of stock and a couple of jars of sauce, some frozen bananas – and then some snack items like falafels, fritters or hummus.

Rather than long-term storage, I use my freezer as a way to extend the life of leftovers, and make my meals more interesting – especially when the fridge is running low.

Prioritising doesn’t have to mean throw away.

If you do have to remove some things from the freezer, you don’t have to throw them in the bin. You can pop in the fridge where they will last a few days (they will defrost pretty slowly in there).

If it’s something that you know you won’t eat, but someone else might, you could try listing on the olioex app (it’s a free food sharing app).

4. Learn what you can freeze

In short, you can freeze almost everything (one important exception is meat and fish that has previously been frozen, and then defrosted).

When food is frozen, the water expands, which can change the texture. You’ll notice this with raw fruit and vegetables, which go mushy once frozen because the frozen water breaks the cell walls.

But this isn’t a problem if you intend to cook with them (using berries in baking, or veggies in soup) because cooking also breaks the cell walls.

Vegetables often freeze better if blanched (heated briefly in boiling water, then submerged in ice) first. But it’s not the end of the world to just freeze raw.

I always freeze my onion peels, leek ends and other bits I’ll be using to make stock raw, because they will be boiled later, so texture doesn’t matter.

You won’t notice much change in texture if you freeze cooked food. I often roast vegetables, and then freeze them this way. It also means that when I defrost, they are cooked and ready to go.

Milk and yoghurt can be frozen but freezing can change the texture of these – particularly of non-homogenised full-fat milk, which can go lumpy. It’s still edible, but may be better used in cooking rather than in coffee or tea.

5. Choose suitable containers

I prefer to freeze in a mix of glass jars, and Pyrex containers. I’ll occasionally freeze something in a stainless steel lunchbox, but they are less useful as you can’t see what’s inside (and frozen metal hurts my fingers when prising the lid open).

(Yes, you can freeze in glass. Instructions here.)

Bigger glass containers are more efficient in terms of space, but you’ll need to defrost the whole thing at once. Which is fine for traybakes or leftovers you made specifically for freezing, but less good for item you’d like to separate, like chunks or frozen berries.

Tip: if you want to freeze berries, or anything cut into chunks, you can freeze on a tray, and once frozen, add to a big container. That way they don’t all stick together, and you can scoop out just what you need.

Smaller containers are great if you just want individual portions, but the containers take up more space, particularly solid ones like glass or thick plastic.

For small containers, I love Bonne Maman jam jars. They are readily available and free, and to be delight, I discovered that there is enough space in my freezer to stack them, which makes the most of the space.

The tapered sides means it is easy to freeze in them (they are unlikely to crack, unlike narrow jars) and it is easy to slide still-frozen leftovers out to reheat in a saucepan.

I’m sure you all know that I’m not a fan of single-use plastic. If you simply don’t have room for solid containers, you could consider investing in some reusable silicone storage bags. And I do mean invest, because they are not cheap – but look after them and they will last a lifetime. Buy the best you can afford – if you have the budget, I recommend the Stasher bags (expensive, but you do get what you pay for), and can guarantee that they do not leak.

If reusable storage bags are out of your budget, and you’d prefer to use single-use plastic ziplock bags or similar, remember that you don’t have to use them once only. Wash and reuse them as many times as you can.

For freezing bread, I used a reusable cloth bag for years. After a million recommendations from readers I now have an Onya bread bag, purpose-made for freezing bread.

It’s not a necessity, but it will help keep your bread fresher for longer in the freezer.

6. Reduce freezer burn

Freezer burn happens when the fan that moves air around the freezer sucks out the moisture from the food, leaving pockets of air that discolour the food, and taste weird. Food that has freezer burn isn’t unsafe but it isn’t tasty, either.

The longer something is in the freezer, the more likely it is to develop freezer burn.

The more you can exclude air (and air circulation) from your food, the slower this will happen. Keeping food in containers helps, and packing containers tightly.

For really sensitive (or expensive) items, wrap with paper within in the container, which can help reduce the exposed surface area.

Make sure you’re rotating your food, eating the oldest things first, and don’t leave anything in the freezer too long. Whilst a few months will probably be fine, ultimately time is not on your side!

7. Label what you freeze

I am very bad at this, but it really is a good habit to get into. You might remember what the item is when you freeze it, but that doesn’t mean you’ll remember in six months time.

One label is better than no labels (it’s a start)…

And as the weeks/month pass, you’re less likely to remember the date – or even the year – you froze something.

So get into the habit of labelling what an item is (if it’s not obvious) and when you froze it.

8. Keep your freezer running smoothly

If you’ve gone to the trouble of defrosting your freezer, you don’t want it icing up again any time soon. There are a few things that speed up ice creation in freezers, so here’s a list of do’s and don’ts.

  • Don’t put hot food (such as leftovers) in the freezer. Let the food cool down, and ideally chill it first;
  • If you’re putting frozen items from the store in the freezer, wipe off any condensation or water that may have formed on the packaging;
  • Try to minimise how long you leave the freezer door open;
  • Check the freezer door seal, and if it’s not sticking properly, invest in a new one (it will also save you paying more than you need on electricity);
  • Don’t stuff your freezer so full that air can’t circulate;
  • Don’t block any fans or vents that say ‘do not cover’ on them.

9. Love your freezer and it will love you back.

Freezers are a pretty epic modern invention. By freezing, we can extend the life of our food, provide future us with tasty snacks and pre-prepared meals, and bypass the problem of ‘there’s nothing in the fridge’.

Keep your freezer frost-free, (relatively) organised and filled with things you like to eat, and you’ll be rewarded time and time again.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Are you good at making the most of your freezer, or could your freezer do with a bit of love and attention? Any tips you’d like to share, or questions about freezing? Any successes or fails when it comes to freezing food? Any other thoughts? Please share in the comments below!

How my zero waste habits have changed since Covid-19

The coronavirus pandemic has certainly changed a lot of things. From the things we are actually not/no longer allowed to do, to those habits we’ve been forced to rethink and then those we’ve decided to change, there seems to be very few aspects of daily life left untouched.

When it comes to zero waste, low waste and plastic-free living, it’s been interesting to me to see all of the changes. Some businesses have stepped up their game to ensure they continue to create less waste, others have had no choice but to soften their approach. The same goes for individuals and their habits.

I wanted to share how my own habits have changed (and stayed the same) since the pandemic arrived. We’ve all got different ways of dealing with things, and differing priorities, and it’s not to say that my way is the best way, nor am I encouraging you to do what I do. Depending where you live, it might not even be possible right now.

Zero waste – or low waste, at least – might not be a priority for everyone now, but it is still a priority for me. I think I’m hardwired to have heart palpitations at the thought of throwing something into landfill! Of course I’ve had to make changes and compromises (I think we all have, right?) but I’m still trying to navigate these choices whilst keeping my values in my heart.

My zero waste habits that haven’t changed

Shopping at bulk stores

Most of the bulk stores here in Perth are still open, and many are still accepting BYO containers. (I heard of one that was ordered to stop by the council Health department, and I know of a few that have closed to customers and are offering a pick-up/collection service only).

I’ve been lucky to be able to head to my usual bulk store and stock up using my own jars. When the infection rate was at its peak I did use a collection service where I pre-ordered and picked up a few things in paper bags, but for the most part I’ve been able to buy my groceries packaging-free.

Getting (or not getting) takeaway

Personally, I see dine-in and takeaway as two different things. I dine-in when I want to take my time, enjoy the food and the company of the people I’m with. I get takeaway when I’m tired, it’s late and there’s nothing in the fridge. Because I refuse to buy takeaway in anything other than cardboard, my options are limited to pizza and (veg) burgers. Which aren’t things I want to eat particularly often.

Before Covid19, I’d maybe get breakfast, or coffee and a cake a couple of times a month, and maybe dinner with friends once or twice a month also. I’d probably eat takeaway pizza once or month or so (usually at the insistence of the person I live with). With the restaurants closed, I can’t dine out – but I don’t see takeaway as an equivalent. In my mind, they are very different things. Replacing dine-in with take-out doesn’t work for me.

Plus, with the fridge more full than it’s ever been, there’s no ‘there’s nothing in the fridge’ excuse. So my takeaway habit hasn’t changed. Pizza, once a month.

The sharing economy

You’ve probably heard me rave about the Buy Nothing project a million times – it’s a network of hyper-local community groups allowing people to swap and share rather than buy new. Many Buy Nothing groups have closed down temporarily due to the pandemic, however ours has remained open for requests and ‘essentials’ (I live in a lower socio-economic area, and sometimes our members need support of food and other items to make ends meet).

Fortunately, although ours is still operating on a limited basis, I’ve been able to connect with so many neighbours in the past that I have a fairly good network to be able to borrow, share and give outside of the group structure.

And so I borrowed a tarp from one neighbour for a soil delivery, got a sourdough starter from another neighbour (to make crumpets), and dropped off some excess spinach plants for a third neighbour.

If there’s one thing I miss most during this lockdown, it’s my community. Normally there is so much swapping, sharing and banter, and I sorely miss it. I’m grateful that our community is still ticking along and connection is still possible, even though this is not a patch on what is was.

My zero waste compromises for Covid19

Buying new stuff

Well, so far I’ve purchased one new thing – but it broke pretty much all-the-rules that I follow. I needed a cable to connect my monitor to my laptop. For the past two years I’ve been using a cable borrowed from a friend, who had always said it was a long-term loan and he might need it back. Well, working from home came around and he needed it back.

I tried Buy Nothing, but no-one had a spare. I couldn’t find a local computer store. I didn’t want to just head to the mall on the off-chance – and I was conscious that office supplies were selling out as so many people were starting to work from home.

So I used click-and-collect – something I never do. I like to support local stores who don’t have these services, avoid big chain stores, and ideally find stuff second hand. This wasn’t an option either, and so I went to the big-chain store to receive my cable – all ready-packaged in a plastic bag.

I did think about kicking up a fuss and returning the plastic bag, but this was when uncertainty around Covd19 was at its peak and I didn’t want to stress the store guy out any more than he probably already was. Plus I assumed they wouldn’t reuse the bag anyway.

So I sucked it up and took my first plastic bag home in about 7 years.

(I photographed the moment for prosperity, and I’ll take the bag to Redcycle for recycling.)

I haven’t needed to buy anything else, although I dearly want a mortar and pestle (I currently try to flatten my coriander seed with a knife, because my food processor is not up to the job)… but I’m holding out.

Buying items in (home) compostable packaging

My personal low-waste rule is to avoid as much packaging as possible. I’m not perfect, but I always try to bring my own jars/bags/containers, and dine-in rather than get takeaway. Or go without.

It’s easy to go without when there are other options, but when these are taken away, your choices are very limited.

I’ve loosened my rules to include completely compostable and biodegradable packaging. Which means I can now buy ice-cream from the local gelateria – they use compostable sugarcane containers, which successfully break down in my compost bin.

I’ve hardly gone nuts – I think I’ve used about 6 in the last two months. I really believe that the zero waste movement is about using less packaging and embracing reusables and returnables, not just switching the material of single use packaging.

As soon as reusables and dining-in is allowed, I’m tightening up my rules. Until then, I will enjoy ice-cream.

Some zero waste wins

Takeaway coffee

I rarely buy takeaway coffee (I prefer to dine in, or make my own at home – I have an excellent manual press and stovetop steamer that makes amazing coffee). Personally, using disposable cups for anything other than a life-threatening emergency is a no for me. I just can’t do it!

I’ve noticed a few people on various zero waste groups about the place saying that they are happy to use disposable cups to support their local cafes. Whilst I like the sentiment, this is somewhere I’m not willing to compromise – and I really don’t think that my buying a $4 coffee once in a blue moon is going to keep a cafe (that’s had to close its entire restaurant down) afloat.

But after settling on my choice, I discovered that cafe closest to me is offering a returnable refillable cup service run by Renome – reusable cups that you pay a deposit for, and return for cleaning once you’re done (if you want a refill, you simply return your cup to the box, and are served with a freshly cleaned one).

Now this is something I can get behind.

The scheme has existed for a while, but until now I had no reason to use it. The great thing is that the cup is ultimately refundable, so I don’t need to ensure I use it 17 times (which is the case with a plastic KeepCup) to offset the carbon footprint. As long as the cup is used that many times, it doesn’t matter by who. And it’s not more ‘stuff’.

(There are a handful of cafes around Perth actually still accepting KeepCups, but none close to me.)

Supporting local

I think all of us feel a real draw towards supporting local businesses in these times. I don’t have the budget to suddenly start ordering takeaway every day (plus the packaging would give me heart palpitations, and I don’t think my arteries would be too pleased either).

I only buy ‘stuff’ that I need, which isn’t much stuff, and I’m not going to suddenly start shopping for ‘things’.

What I have been able to do is to support local food producers. I’ve been ordering extra in my local veg box (which I’m thankful that I already used, as a lot of these schemes have closed to new customers after a surge in demand).

I found an amazing mushroom grower – The Mushroom Guys – that usually supplies to restaurants, but with the lockdown has turned to selling mushroom boxes to customers. And they are things of beauty.

(I have a bit of a weakness for mushrooms and it’s one of my goals to eventually have a setup where I grow my own.)

A friend sells microgreens and I started a weekly order with him.

It’s meant my grocery spend has gone up, but as there is no spend on eating anywhere else, and as it’s a short-term thing, I’m happy to support local growers and have fresh food delivered to my door.

I’m lucky to have the option, and I’m taking it.

Some zero waste misses

Sneaky plastic

Oh, the sneaky plastic! Yep, I’ve been caught out with this a few times. When you shop at the same places and buy the same things you learn how to avoid the sneaky plastic, but when you’re going to unfamiliar places or buying different stuff, it happens.

A local cafe started stocking bread from a bakery and I placed an order only to find it came in a plastic bag. I asked for bulk risotto rice with my veg box (they run a bulk store also) and got a shiny plastic packet of the stuff instead.

It makes me more aware for next time – sometimes I forget that this is how most places do things!

Can you be zero waste during Covid19?

In Australia, so far things have not gotten as bad as they have in other places, and restrictions have not been quite as tight. We’ve been lucky, and hopefully we will remain this way. I’ve been able to shop at the bulk store and use reusables, and loosen my rules a little to allow for a little fun (or ice-cream, as it’s also called).

I know not everyone has been as fortunate. It helps that my day-to-day routines have not been disrupted too much – I regularly work from home, and I don’t have to navigate homeschooling.

This isn’t a competition. I just wanted to share how I’ve been navigating the choices, and what my experience has been. I’m sure yours has been very different. The thing I’m most sure about, is that whatever your current situation is, whatever you’re having to do to get by, it doesn’t not mean the end for zero waste.

We’ll get through this, and I think our resolve will be stronger for it. Right now, staying safe is the most important thing of all.

Now I’d love to hear from you! How has the pandemic changed your low waste habits? What has stayed the same for you? What things have you been forced to change, and what things have you chosen to change? Have your priorities shifted, and how? There’s no wrong answers and I’d love to hear about your experiences and get your perspective on this, so please share in the comments below!

Reducing food waste: store cupboard crumble (+ ideas to use up old fruit)

With the current lockdowns and restrictions on movements, I’ve been rethinking how I use my (rather small) freezer. Now that I really need to optimise the space, I’m removing and using up some of the less useful items that take up space (a few random sticks of rhubarb, and a jar of stock) and filling it up with more useful items – ideally meals, or parts of meals.

One of the things I find really handy to keep in the freezer is crumble topping. Whenever I make crumble I always double the topping, and freeze half. (After all, making double – or triple – the quantity creates exactly the same amount of mess and washing up, but twice the food, and I’m all for that.)

It means down the track, when I discover some sad fruit in the fruit bowl, or a glut of something that I want to use up, I can grab the topping outta the freezer, and voila – almost instant crumble.

Growing up, the crumble I ate was made of refined white flour, refined white sugar, and butter. These days I prefer to make my crumble a little bit healthier.

And as long as you follow the rule of some sweetness, some crunch and some fat, it’s a pretty great idea for using up random ingredients from the pantry.

Making crumble topping

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups rolled oats
  • 1 cup ground almonds (you could replace this with plain flour – wouldn’t be as tasty but kinder on your wallet. Other options are oat flour, rice flour, buckwheat flour)
  • 1/3 cup solid sugar (I like rapadura sugar, but any white or brown sugar that you have is fine)
  • 1/4 cup melted coconut oil
  • 1 cup nuts/seeds (use what you have: chopped almonds, mixed nuts, hazelnuts or pecans, shredded coconut or coconut flakes, pumpkin or sunflower seeds, even buckwheat kernels will all work great)
  • Pinch of salt

(A note if you’d prefer to use butter instead of coconut oil: the traditional way of making crumble is using cubes of cold butter, and rubbing into the flour to make ‘crumbs’. But my guess is, if you’re using chunky ingredients like oats rather than just plain flour, you can just pour melted butter in – it’s the same consistency as melted coconut oil.)

Method:

Mix all the dry ingredients into a bowl, pour melted coconut oil on top, and mix well.

Whatever you’re not using straightaway, pop in a container (I use a glass jar) and store in the freezer. If you don’t have space the fridge is fine. I’d keep in the fridge for a month or two, and the freezer for three to six months.

Reducing food waste: using old fruit for crumble

Crumble is the perfect way to use up old fruit. Apples that have gone floury, pears that have started to go squishy, stone fruit that’s gone wrinkly, blackberries or mulberries that have been sitting in the freezer for months – they are all perfect for crumble.

If you don’t have enough fruit to make a crumble, you can simply chop and freeze what you have until you’ve got enough. Or, you could just make a one person version.

Tropical fruit like bananas and mango will work too. I’ve never seen a crumble for citrus, but I’d love to try 50/50 with orange and rhubarb, for sure.

It can be helpful to stew the fruit before you make crumble. You don’t have to, but it will ensure the fruit isn’t hard in the crumble, and also reduce the cooking time considerably. All ‘stewing’ means is roughly chopping the fruit and chucking in a saucepan with a small amount of water (or orange juice), and cooking for a few minutes until the fruit starts to break down.

I don’t add sugar, because I find the fruit sweet enough, and there is sugar already in the topping. I usually add a sprinkle of cinnamon – and sometimes ginger – to the stewed fruit. Zested orange would be great, too.

Another option is to roast the fruit. Stone fruit are great roasted. Slice, place on a tray, brush with a little oil, sprinkle with a little cinnamon and bake in a medium-hot oven for 15-20 minutes. Takes longer, but tasty.

I like my fruit still a bit chunky, but you can cook it until mushy if you prefer.

How to cook store cupboard crumble

I don’t tend to weigh out fruit, or even the crumble topping. I prefer to measure it visually. Spoon the fruit into an ovenproof dish (I use glass Pyrex) so that it’s a few centimetres (a couple of inches) deep. Then, sprinkle on the crumble topping until it’s the thickness you like. No need to press it down.

Any excess crumble topping can be placed in a glass jar or other container, and frozen until you want to make crumble next.

Bake in the oven on a medium heat (I’d go for 150 – 180°C / 300 – 360°F) for about 15 – 20 minutes. If you’ve stewed the fruit beforehand you don’t actually need to ‘cook’ the crumble so much as warm it through. If you’ve used pecan nuts, opt for the lower temperature as they are prone to burning at higher temperatures.

(Better to cook for slightly longer at a lower temperature than end up with a blackened top.)

It’s ready when the top is browned and the fruit is bubbling.

Although crumble is traditionally a dessert, I often make it for breakfast (cooking the night before and either eating cold, or warming through in the morning). It’s got less sugar in it than a lot of cereals. I think if it as inverted muesli with fruit at the bottom rather than on top.

To store, allow to cool and then refrigerate and then eat within a week, or freeze and use within 3 months.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What ingredients are sitting in your pantry right now, and how are you planning to use them up? Any pantry ingredients you’re wondering how to use right now? What staples are you keeping in your freezer? Any other thoughts? Please share in the comments below!

Why coronavirus does not mean the end of zero waste

You may have heard stories or even seen local businesses in your area make the decision to ban reusable coffee cups, or reusable containers. I first heard about this when Starbucks made the decision at the beginning of March to not only refuse reusable coffee cups but also switch all dine-in reusables (cups, plates, cutlery) to single-use disposables.

(Although interestingly they will – at the time of writing – still accept your pre-handled money, unlike other stores which are now also banning cash and allowing only contactless payments).

Around the same time I heard that Bulk Barn, the largest bulk foods store in Canada, is no longer allowing single-use containers. Now, more and more places are announcing similar policies. And I started seeing people ask – is this the end of zero waste?

No, coronavirus is not the end of zero waste. Here’s why.

Coronavirus and the rise of single-use disposables

Before I even begin, I want to emphasise that we are in a unprecedented situation, and it is hard for any business owner to know how to react or what to do to reduce the spread of disease and keep their business running. I think many stores want to do ‘something’ and without clear guidelines as to what this might be – other than shutting doors, which isn’t an easy business decision even if it’s great to prevent the spread of disease – they are trying to take action however they can.

So we might have our opinions on what is inconsistent and what is overreacting and what is sensible and what is necessary. But they are just our opinions, and even the experts are in unchartered territory right now.

Something I read at the weekend that really stuck with me was this: “When you’re dealing with exponential growth [which is what experts are saying we have with infection rates] the time to act is when it seems too early.”

So let’s save our judgement, because we really don’t know.

But what I know to be true – whether we see more and more businesses switching to single-use disposables over reusables because of coronavirus, and even if those businesses decide to keep policies in place after the threat has passed (assuming that it does), is that it doesn’t spell the end of zero waste.

As so often happens in the media, it is being framed all wrong.

Coronavirus can’t touch what zero waste really is

We could have a conversation about what ‘waste’ really means, and whether single-use disposables are truly a ‘waste’ if they are helping reduce the spread of disease.

(After all, almost all of us would argue that hospitals are a great place to use single-use plastic, for exactly this reason.)

But we are not going to have that conversation. Because that keeps the conversation around reusables, and anyone who has been trying to live low waste or zero waste for more than about five minutes knows that the choices we make and habits we form are so much more than reusable coffee cups and takeaway containers.

Zero waste is not – at its heart – about reusables. Zero waste is a mindset. It’s an attitude, a philosophy, a goal, whatever you might prefer to call it. Reusables make zero waste living easier, but they aren’t a make-or-break.

The idea that zero waste is over because we can no longer purchase takeaway coffee from a multinational corporation in a reusable cup is missing the bigger picture. Takeaway coffee generally – there are bigger issues, when it comes to waste. Yes, as a society (well, in western parts of the world, and for the more privileged part of society) we might drink a lot of takeaway coffee, but it’s a small part of the global waste footprint.

Regardless, it is disheartening to see businesses take a step backwards (in terms of sustainability) and make these choices – even when they are justified for other reasons.

Rather than feel frustrated, I wanted to remind you of all the ways that we can try to live with less waste. Because there are plenty of things we can still do, and I like to focus on the positive (and the practical).

Zero waste things you can do in spite of coronavirus

Think creatively about the packaging you need to use. You might not have a choice about being able to use your own containers to the store. You might not currently have a choice with which store you buy your groceries from (if your preferred or regular store has run out of what you need). But maybe you can think creatively about what you buy or how you buy it to reduce your packaging (particularly single-use plastic).

Could you choose the unwrapped produce? The bigger pack sizes? The options without individual packs inside packs? The brands packaged in cardboard? Could you by in bulk (rather than from bulk) and split a larger amount with friends or family? If you can’t do it all, go for the small wins. It all helps.

Make something from scratch. Whether you simply haven’t been able to get something you usually buy pre-prepared, or your simply faced with more at-home time than you’re used to, now is a great time to learn to make something from scratch. Been wanting to try DIY nut milk since forever? Wondered about making bread, or crackers? Fancy giving DIY moisturiser a go?

Perhaps you can use this situation as an opportunity to try ‘one more thing’.

Reduce your food waste. You might not be able to choose whether or not you can BYO packaging, but you can work to ensure you’re not wasting the food that you buy. With the panic buying we’re currently seeing, it makes even more sense to ensure we are using up what we actually buy before it goes bad.

Make sure you are storing food properly so that it lasts, clear out your freezer to make room for leftovers, make a ‘use me first’ shelf in the fridge so everyone in your household knows what needs eating first.

(I’ve got a free resource coming soon all about reducing food waste, so keep your eyes peeled.)

Compost your food scraps. This is different to reducing food waste. This is ensuring that those inedible bits (cores, pips, stems, outer leaves etc) are not put into the landfill / general waste bin. Whether you can set up a system at home – I’ve written about composting, worm warms and bokashi systems if you’d like to know what your options are – or whether you make the most of community composting services, this is a great way to reduce waste.

Now is a great time to set something up – or at least start doing the research.

Buy less stuff. The best thing you can do to reduce your waste is to buy less stuff. Even ‘sustainable’ stuff has a footprint. A big part of the zero waste lifestyle is making do, and making things last. Maybe that means getting stuff fixed. It’s extremely unlikely you’ll never need to buy anything again ever – but as a general rule, the less you buy, the more sustainable you are and the less waste you create.

If you need something, see if you can borrow, or find it for free on Freecycle, Freegle or Buy Nothing. Libraries don’t just lend out physical products, they lend out ebooks, online movies and electronic versions of magazines too – so even if you can’t get to your physical library, you might have options. If you need to buy something, check out the second-hand options first.

(Whether this is possible will depend on what it is and where you’re living – and what the isolation restrictions are – but it is still a consideration).

If you do need to buy something brand new, don’t feel guilty about that. There are better ways to use your energy. Just try to make those purchases mindfully.

Learn more about the issues you care about. You might not be able to take action now in all the ways you’d like, but you can use this time to read up on topics that interest you, try out some new skills, and connect with like-minded people (even if only online, for now).

There are so many great books (or ebooks and audiobooks) and useful blog posts. And courses and videos. And social media pages and groups.

Take the time to get informed.

Write letters and apply pressure to those in power (or make a plan to). It might seem like an inopportune moment to be hassling your supermarket about their single-use plastic packaging policy, or asking your local government member to support a plan to divest in fossil fuels, but these issues aren’t going away, even if they are buried under more pressing needs.

(In fact, some governments and companies are using the fact that others are distracted to push through unpopular decisions, such as the announcement this week by the Victorian government to lift the moratorium on onshore drilling for gas.)

If you have the time and headspace, you might want to use it to start (or continue) to apply pressure on businesses, organisations or government officials to demand change, or ask for answers on policy and decision-making.

You don’t have to send any letters or emails you write straightaway. If the timing seems insensitive or you know it won’t be looked at, you can prepare for when things are settled, do your research, and be ready to go.

Keep supporting your local zero waste store, or independent local businesses, even if they temporarily have to change their policy and disallow reusables. You’ll want them to be there when things get back to normal, so keep supporting them whilst things get tough.

It’s a lot easier for big multinationals to weather disruption than small stores. They need our help.

I don’t want to sugar coat anything – we are in the strangest of times. There are lots of things to be concerned about. But multinational companies opting for disposable coffee cups isn’t one of them. We are better placed focusing our energy elsewhere.

Now I’d love to hear from you! How are you feeling about waste and sustainability issues – have they slipped from your radar, are they there in the back of your mind, or are they at the forefront? Are you coping or are you struggling right now? There’s no right or wrong answers here and definitely no judgement so tell us how you’re feeling and where you’re at, and share any ideas or thoughts in the comments below. We’re in this together.

How to grow a pineapple from scratch (from a pineapple)

This year, I’m working hard to transform my little patch of lawn into a productive food forest – or the beginnings of one, anyways. (They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I’m pretty sure they say a forest doesn’t grow in a year – but the foundations can be laid, for sure!)

If I was to buy a heap of plants to fill the space, I’d be bankrupt pretty quickly. Where possible, I’m trying to fill the space with plants I’ve grown from nothing – or rather, from cuttings, seeds, roots and runners.

It’s not possible with every plant I’d like to have, but there are lots of options.

I love the idea of using ‘waste’ to create something new. And I love watching nature do its thing. One of my favourite things to grow right now is pineapples. They are magical.

I thought I’d talk you through the how.

Pineapples are a tropical plant, but they will grow successfully and fruit in Perth (where I live). They’re also quite a fun plant, so they look good regardless of whether they fruit or not – but having plants that could potentially also feed me in the future is a winner.

If you’re not in a Mediterranean or tropical climate, you can still grow pineapples, but they’ll need to be kept indoors during the cooler months. I’ve read that it’s possible to get them to fruit, but I imagine it’s a lot more work.

Nevertheless, they make a fun indoor plant if you’re in colder climes. A cool experiment. A good conversation starter. An excellent gift.

Here’s how you grow one.

Step-by-step guide to growing a pineapple

You’ll need a pineapple with its green spiky head attached. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a pineapple with a more than one head, or possibly a main head and side sprouts. For every head, you’ll be able to grow a plant, so the more the merrier.

This pineapple has a main head, and a little side shoot to the side. Two future pineapple plants for the price of one pineapple.

Next, chop off its head – or rather separate the fruity part from the green spiky part. You want to try and cut between the fleshy pineapple part and the head so that there is no fruit attached to the green head part. (The fruit will rot which won’t be good for the plant.)

Pull off some of the bottom outer leaves. You may see roots when you do this, or you may just see little stumps that will grow into roots. Pull off enough that there’s a small ‘stem’.

Sit the pineapple on top of a jar filled with water, ensuring the stumpy root part is submerged. The leaves can help prop the plant up on top of the jar.

Suspending the pineapple rather than sitting in a saucer ensures the roots have space to grow downwards.

Wait.

The pineapple may sprout roots straightaway, or nothing may happen for ages. (I’ve tried two varieties: one sprouts straightaway and the other takes forever.)

Ensure the water is topped up so the root part stays submerged. I haven’t found it necessary to change the water.

Eventually, roots appear.

I wait until the roots reach the bottom of the jar (we are talking a few weeks at least), and then I repot in some well draining soil. Eventually I plan to put mine in the ground, but they can be grown in containers.

You have a pineapple plant!

More things to know about growing pineapples

Pineapples do not grow or fruit quickly. Growing a pineapple this way will take 24 months to fruit, and another 6 months for the fruit to develop. Plus one plant grows one pineapple, so you won’t be inundated in pineapples.

Another thing to know about pineapples: they take most of their nutrients through their leaves, not the soil. Feeding with worm castings, soluble seaweed solution or another natural feed is better than synthetic fertilisers which may burn the leaves and damage the plant.

Finally, you might come across information that tells you that you don’t need to bother getting the pineapple head to root before planting, and you can simply stick the freshly cut head straight into a pot or in the ground. Personally, I love watching the magic of roots appearing right before my eyes.

That would be lost if I simply stuck the head in some soil, which is why I prefer this method.

Here’s the beginnings of my pineapple plantation (all grown from pineapple tops)…

Now, doesn’t that just make you want to head to the shops to buy a pineapple?!

Now I’d love to hear from you! Have you had any success growing plants from scraps? Have you had any fails? Anything on the to-do list for one day soon? Any questions about growing plants from scraps in general? Anything else you’d like to add? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

How I changed my mind about living zero waste and plastic-free (a story in 5 stages)

A friend of mine volunteers at a local food rescue organisation, which collects mostly pre-packaged out-of-date (well, out-of-date as described by the packaging), damaged and excess food, and redistributes to charities around the city.

Not all the food that is rescued is edible, but some of what isn’t edible for humans is still good for chickens. Yesterday, she dropped around some rescued food for my girls.

Like most of what they rescue, it came wrapped in plastic. I gave the contents to my ladies (who gobbled up the beetroot slaw, tolerated the broccoli, picked at the snow peas and snubbed the watercress completely), and rinsed out the packaging ready to take to redcycle for recycling.

Wet single-use plastic packaging has a really yuck feel to it; it was literally making my skin crawl as I washed it out. It got me thinking about how my feelings for and perception of plastic has changed over the years. At one point I’d have thought nothing of a fridge full of this plastic (oh, and I wouldn’t have been washing it out, nor recycling it); now, having just four pieces on the draining board makes me feel uncomfortable.

There was also a time, in the middle, where I’d have refused point blank to even allow this plastic into my house.

So why has my view on plastic and the way I live zero waste changed over the years? For each of the stages, I can pinpoint a reason why I made the choice, and a reason why that changed. After all, trying to live sustainably in never black and white, and there’s a lot of nuance around different issues.

Over time, I’ve changed my mind a few times. Perhaps you’ve come to different conclusions and made different choices. Or perhaps you can relate to some of these stages, too.

Just starting out (the learning and ‘making mistakes’ stage)

I decided to give up plastic in June 2012, after watching the documentary Bag It. Pretty much overnight, I changed my perspective on plastic completely. I went from the person buying all the plastic whilst complaining that ‘somebody should do something about that’ – and thinking I was some kind of sustainability superhero because I had reusable shopping bags – to realising that there was so much more I could do.

Changing your perspective doesn’t mean knowing all the answers, or doing all the things. For me, it meant starting out by working on changing my habits.

My first focus was avoiding single-use plastic and packaging, particularly when food shopping and buying bathroom and cleaning products.

One of the first changes I made was buying a (plastic) KeepCup, and I didn’t see any irony in buying a plastic cup to refuse plastic (although at the time, KeepCup was the only brand on the market and they hadn’t invented a glass version yet).

I did buy a few other things, but I was lucky in those days that there weren’t a lot of products to entice me with clever marketing. Someone making the same choices today could easily spend a small fortune!

(Which is fine if you both have small fortune and will use everything you buy – and often. But it is an expensive way to learn what you do and don’t actually need.)

There were a lot of mistakes, in the early days. Packets with sneaky plastic, forgetfulness, little awareness around greenwashing and so taking claims like ‘eco-friendly’ on products at face value.

But the more I learned, the better at refusing plastic I got.

From ‘plastic-free’ to ‘zero waste’ (the understanding waste stage)

About 6 months in, I visited a recycling facility (or more technically, a materials recovery facility – which sorts materials but doesn’t actually recycle them).

It made me realise that switching out plastic for other materials (paper, cardboard, glass and metal) didn’t make much sense if these things were also used only once too.

So I committed to reduce all single-use packaging, not just plastic.

I also started thinking about all plastic, not just the single-use stuff. I began to choose non-plastic replacements for items, and non-plastic reusables.

Plastic things – even reusables – still tend to break or wear out (compared to their plastic-free alternatives), and the less I used plastic, the less I wanted to use plastic.

I wondered if I’d done the wrong thing by buying plastic reusables. I purchased plastic-free reusables, but then felt conflicted because buying new stuff (even plastic-free stuff) uses resources and creates waste.

The plastic-free zero waste purist (the ‘uncompromising’ stage)

By this time, all of my habits were embedded, and those who knew me knew that I didn’t use plastic and was serious about reducing my waste. More and more solutions were appearing – from more people writing about waste and sharing ideas, to online and social networks allowing people to share stuff, and more bulk stores and companies focusing on waste reduction with their products and services.

Living with no plastic and no waste was getting easier. I was also testing my boundaries, refusing to let plastic through my door and really pushing myself to create as little waste as possible.

This was the time when the media started talking about zero waste, and there was a lot of focus on fitting your annual waste in a jam jar. I did it myself for a year.

This was definitely the least pleasant stage to be in – both for me, and probably those close to me.

So why was it unpleasant?

Well, I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself. Don’t get me wrong, I love a challenge and I love working out ways to solve problems and reduce my waste. But the ‘waste-in-a-jam-jar’ year meant focusing on the minutiae in a way that never really felt comfortable with me. It just didn’t feel like the best use of my time or energy.

I felt like a fraud for those things I didn’t put in the jar – like the glass bottle of washing up liquid I smashed on my concrete floor, or a label I tossed in a bin whilst out in a moment of forgetfulness.

I also had a few instances where people I knew told me that I made them feel guilty. Not by necessarily even doing or saying anything (although I’m not always known for my tact) – sometimes just my being there made people feel guilty about their choices. Which was rubbish for all of us.

And there were definitely times here when I was more…robust…with my expectations of others. It wasn’t deliberate – sometimes when you’ve come so far you can forget where you were, and that others are still there.

Honestly, it might have been sustainable for the planet, but it didn’t feel sustainable for me (or those around me).

Everything is interconnected (the ‘joining the dots’ stage)

The more I learned about waste, the more I discovered about the waste that happens before stuff comes through our front doors, and the more I understood waste as something bigger than packaging or plastic.

I let go of chasing the ideal of being perfectly zero waste, and started thinking more broadly about the issues.

Waste is about much more than glass jars or plastic bags.

For example, buying food packaged without plastic that then goes bad in the fridge (because the plastic is what helps keeps it fresh) is just creating a different kind of waste.

Or buying a brand new ethically made and ‘sustainably sourced’ thing from overseas (with brand new materials and a big carbon footprint) creates more waste than making do with the less-shiny thing available in the second-hand store.

It’s a hollow victory when you can cram your annual waste into a jam jar, but the majority of society is carrying on as normal. I became less interested in my personal waste ‘achievement’ and more interested in how to create change in my community.

It seemed – still seems – like a better use of my energy to share what I know and help others make changes than sit back and feel like my job is done.

Not sweating the small stuff (the ‘bigger picture’ stage)

I’ve realised that I care too much about too many different aspects of waste to focus single-mindedly on one issue.

I care about plastic waste, but I also care about food waste.

I care about supporting ethical and sustainable businesses producing responsible products, but I care about keeping resources in use by choosing second-hand, and reducing consumption by making do.

I care about my own personal waste footprint, and I also care about making waste reduction more accessible to others.

I’m keen to reduce the waste that I create, and I’m also interested in reducing waste further up the waste stream.

So now, I try to let the small and inconsequential stuff go in recognition of the bigger picture.

I’ll refuse a plastic bag at the store, but I’ll take a plastic sack filled with spent coffee grounds from a cafe (to put in my compost bin) that might otherwise go to landfill.

I won’t buy plastic-packaged food for myself, but I’ll accept it rescued from the bin (to feed myself or the chickens).

I’ll reuse plastic containers in existence rather than buying a brand new metal (plastic-free) version.

I‘m not saying that these choices are the best or right choices, they are simply what work for me, at this moment. The way I feel about plastic and waste has changed over the years, and I’m sure it will change again in the future.

Navigating waste is often complicated, and there tend to be trade-offs one way or another.

I wanted to share this because I really don’t think there’s one way to tackle waste. It can feel like a minefield because there are so many choices and so much conflicting advice. It’s an imperfect world and whilst it isn’t always possible to know what the best choice is, the important thing is that we try.

My advice is: don’t sweat the small stuff. Just do your best.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Have you changed your thoughts around plastic and waste as you’ve started making changes? Have your priorities shifted or stayed the same? Do you prefer to focus on one aspect of waste, or try to navigate the different aspects? Have you experienced these stages… or different ones? Any other thoughts? Please leave a comment below!

Why I’m Keeping Chickens (for Zero Waste)

I’ve loved the idea of having chickens since my days of renting an upstairs apartment. I was hopeful in my last place that it might be possible, but being a strata (7 units on a single block with 7 owners and opinions – plus tenants in the mix) there needed to be consensus, and alas – there was not.

Since I moved, chickens have been back on the plan, and three weeks ago, they moved in.

Now clearly I’m no chicken expert (!) – although side note, I did read a lot of books on the subject first, more on that in a second – but I thought it might be interesting for you if I explained why I’ve got chickens, how chickens fit with a zero waste lifestyle and what you might like to do if you’re thinking of getting chickens, too.

Why chickens?

Lots of reasons, actually! Chickens have a lot going for them.

Reducing food waste.

Chickens are great munchers of food scraps. They can’t eat everything – they won’t eat rotten or mouldy food (and it is dangerous to feed them this) – but they’ll eat cores and seeds and rinds and stems and bits that might otherwise head to the compost caddy.

Pest control.

Chickens are omnivores and will eat all kinds of insects: grasshoppers, cockroaches and caterpillars, for example. They will actually also kill and eat mice. Because I want to grow food in my back garden, chickens can help keep the bad insects under control.

They are also great for managing fruit fly, which live in the soil for part of their life cycle (the larva and pupa stages) and can wreck fruit crops. Not that I have any fruit trees producing fruit yet, but I will.

Lawn control.

Chickens eat grass. A flock of chickens can easily destroy a lawn – which in my case, is exactly what I want. Much better that it gets eaten than sent to landfill. As well as nibbling the tips they dig around and scratch it up (and poo on it) so it doesn’t stand a chance. Hurrah!

(The bit of lawn I do plan to keep is definite chicken no-go zone. For obvious reasons.)

Chicken manure.

All this eating has to end up somewhere! Chicken poop is high in nitrogen and good for the garden. It needs composting before adding to plants (it can burn young roots).

Chickens make great pets.

I love the idea of having chickens around, rustling around the garden and foraging for insects and eating my weeds. They are much more self-sufficient than dogs or cats.

Eggs.

I left this until last because although it might seem to be the most obvious, there are plenty of other reasons to keep chickens. I’m not particularly fussed about the egg part, as I don’t buy eggs as part of my grocery shop (I occasionally eat eggs from friends with chickens, and sometimes if I order breakfast out).

Most of the eggs I get I intend to give away to family and friends that might otherwise buy eggs. I’ve eaten some too. I’d rather use them than waste them, but I still don’t eat that many.

I know vegans who keep chickens and eat their eggs only (because they know how the chickens are fed and treated ). I also know vegans who keep chickens and leave the eggs for nature (chickens will actually eat their own eggs), but this works better if you’ve got more space. Broken stinky egg in the coop isn’t going to be fun for anyone.

Just to be clear, unless you have a rooster as part of the flock (which isn’t necessary and isn’t allowed in most urban areas), the eggs are infertile. A chicken’s shelled menstruation, as a vegan once told me. So eating eggs doesn’t kill unborn chicks.

Getting started: do some chicken research

Personally, I’m not into ‘winging it’ (no pun intended) when it comes to keeping live animals. I’d rather have a good grasp of the basics and have an idea at least of where to look and where to go if I run into problems. Of course we can’t learn everything beforehand, but having a basic understanding goes a long way.

Read chicken books

I literally borrowed every book in the library to do with keeping chickens (and one of keeping quail) as well as borrow another from a friend. There was lots of stuff in there that was irrelevant for me, such as raising chicks, showing chickens at competitions and – no thanks – how to eat your chicken (I don’t eat meat anyway, but eating your pets seems a little wrong).

But there was lots of useful tips too, and it was helpful (honestly!) to read conflicting opinions on things.

If you’d like to read up on keeping chickens, I found these three books to be the best:

Backyard chickens: how to keep happy hens, by Dave Ingham (Australia)

Chickens: the essential guide to choosing and keeping happy, healthy hens, by Suzie Baldwin (UK)

Keeping chickens: getting the best from your chickens, by Jeremy Hobson (UK)

(All were available at my library.)

Find people in your neighbourhood with chickens

I have lots of friends who keep chickens, so this was easy for me. One in particular (who has been keeping chickens for 5 years, and has a flock of 12) lives two streets away.

It’s handy to have people in your nieghbourhood to ask questions, and also to pop round and look at their setup (they can give you advice about predators, sourcing things like food and advising on good local vets in a way that a book never could).

If you’re not fortunate enough to already know someone with chickens (and even if you are), there are also online communities.

Join an online chicken community

There are heaps of forums dedicated to keeping chickens, and also plenty of Facebook groups so connect with people this way. (If you don’t have local friends with chickens yet, try connecting with local owners here.)

Forums and groups are a great way to ask questions and find knowledge; however it’s not always obvious which advice is right or who to trust. It also depends on the question and the consequence of wrong advice. Particularly with sick chickens, the advice of a vet will be better than trying a homemade remedy from somebody you don’t know whose chickens you’ve never seen.

Talks and workshops

It goes without saying: if you can get to a talk or workshop by a chicken owner, you’ll learn heaps. I went to one by a vet, and it was really helpful – there was a big focus on chicken welfare with lots I hadn’t considered before.

Getting ready for chickens: setting up home

There are a more things few things to consider before actually getting chickens and bringing them home. Including their home!

Rules and regulations

You’ll want to check with your local council whether chickens are allowed, how many you can keep and if there are any other restrictions (such as being a certain distance from the house, or away from fences).

The fences rule might seem arbitrary but actually, a lot of fences in Australia were sprayed with toxic chemicals such as Dieldrin right up to the 1970s. It’s worth getting eggs tested if you intend to eat them to check that your soil isn’t contaminated – whether with Dieldrin or something else. If it is, there are remedial measures (removing and replacing the soil, or building a concrete base for your coop).

Choosing a suitable home

It’s important to choose a home that’s suitable for the climate, and predator proof.

I’m in the fairly unusual situation of living in a suburb that doesn’t have foxes. Fox-proofing my chicken coop isn’t necessary, but for most people, it’s an absolute must. Some people may have to think about snake-proofing, too, and also birds of prey.

The only threat where I live is hawks, and they tend to only take chicks and maybe young ones, but not full-grown hens.

Ideally, chickens need shelter from the elements, a dark space to lay eggs, and somewhere secure and well ventilated to sleep. The need shade, access to dirt for dust bathing and also space in the sun.

I’ve read that chickens can manage on 1m2 per chicken. Manage maybe, but when you factor in all these things, plus the fact they will poop in this space too, more space is really better. Allowing them to graze somewhere else during the day makes for more sanitary conditions and happier chickens.

It’s possible to buy coops or make your own. I was very stressed about this, not having any skills to make my own but really wanting to find something second-hand over buying new. Even with plans, I think a DIY coop would take me months to build.

My prayers were answered when one of my readers (Alison) saw I was reading chicken books, and donated her second-hand but unused coop.

This is Alison’s Retirement Home for Second-Chance Chickens:

Another friend lent me some fencing so that I could create a run for during the day to extend the space. She also lent me a couple of feeders to use, and gave me some crumble (a type of chicken food) to get my flock started.

Honestly, I think she was impatient I was taking so long! I don’t like to rush these things…

Bringing chickens home

The books all write about going to reputable breeders, but I only want to rehome or rescue chickens (I don’t want to add more animals to the world). Factory farmed (battery) rescues aren’t recommended for newbies like me (both the books and an experienced friend told me this) and so I rehomed some chickens from a family who had a change in circumstance and could no longer keep them.

I took my friend with me when I got them (honestly, I’d never have caught them without her!) and she gave them the once over so that if there was anything that needed treating, we could deal with it. I wouldn’t know what to look for. One came with lice and mites, but we’re working on that and she has a clean area to dust bathe (which suffocates them).

I only planned on getting three, but there was a cute little teenager there who I couldn’t resist bringing with me…

She’s called Alison, and she is an araucana. The other three are all different breeds.

One is an ISA brown called Billina, who is the boss of the flock, mostly because she is the bravest. The others run for cover when I come, but not Billina. She trots up to see what’s on offer.

The black chicken is an Australian breed called an Australorp. She is huge with a black beady eye and she is called Dark Emu. Despite her size she is scared of everything. Half the time I think she has escaped because she blends in so well with the shadows.

The chicken with the collar is a welsummer called BossyBoots, mostly because she is bossy even though she is not the boss. She pecks at poor Alison (definite mean streak, this one). She is also extremely loud, announcing when she (or anyone) has laid an egg – and sometimes announcing even when there is no egg. People can hear her on the next street (I wish I was joking).

And that’s the flock! They’ve been here three weeks, and so far so good. It’s amazing to discover all their personalities and I’m very fond of them all already. Looking forward to more chicken adventures as the months unfold…

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you have chickens? Tell me more! Are you thinking about getting them? Do you have any questions about keeping chickens, or any advice for newbie chicken keepers like me? Let’s get the conversation started: share your thoughts below!