Waxing lyrical

The winter solstice is looming and for the third year in a row it has caught me on the hop because it simply doesn’t feel like the December I know. Not that I’m complaining; this mild weather with its generous sunshine, high light levels and soft, soapy air suits me just fine. I have been busy in the garden, stripped down to a t-shirt, digging over the empty patches and spreading oodles of manure and homemade compost around, feeding our soil while it rests before seed time comes round once again. Give me that over Christmas shopping any day.

Along the lanes, the verges are studded with primroses, violets, clover and knapweed and there is plenty of floral beauty and scent in the garden, too.

The honey bees have no thought for a winter cluster yet; they are still busy filling their pollen baskets in the rosemary.

Despite the bare patches, the vegetable garden continues to bless us with a fresh and nourishing bounty of seasonal delights.

Some not so seasonal, too . . . I think the asparagus is a little confused!

With trugs full of veggie gorgeousness like this one – carrots, Florence fennel, leeks, parsnip, salsify, rainbow chard, kale, calabrese and a bunch of herbs- there will be no need for a festive Brussels sprouts bunfight.

Of course, our winter is yet to come here (and it will) but as we head towards the longest night and that tipping point where the days slowly but surely begin to stretch and lengthen, I feel this is an appropriate time to reflect on the past year and start to make plans for the months to come. After two and a half years of hard graft and upheaval, the house renovation is practically finished which means we will have time now to concentrate on some major outdoor projects. Time, too, to really get to grips with our commitment to zero waste and sustainable living; we don’t do too badly but there is still so much scope for improvement. The ancient Iroquois philosophy of giving thought to a sustainable world for the next seven generations almost seems like an impossibility in today’s society; I fear greatly and passionately for the world we are leaving our children and their little ones, yet alone our great-great-great-great-great grandchildren. However, we are committed to doing our bit, no matter that it is a tiny drop; the smallest, simplest gesture that helps us  to reduce our carbon footprint and tread lightly on the earth is worth every effort. Our main approach is to buy less, consume less, make do and make our own. This doesn’t mean we go without. Far from it, in fact: I would argue we are ‘richer’ now than we have ever been.

Plastic waste is hot news at the moment; it’s not the only thing to consider in a zero waste lifestyle but it is a biggie and one that taxes my green-living brain a good deal. In May, I made beewraps and they have proved to be brilliant things; it’s amazing how quickly we shifted to using them and I can truthfully say we haven’t bought any cling wrap this year. Result! Pushing on further, then, this week I have been making cloth bags for food storage. We bake sourdough bread two or three times a week, always making an extra loaf or rolls to go in the freezer. Although we wash and re-use freezer bags as much as possible, how much better not to be using them at all for ‘dry’ foods like bread where there’s an alternative? I used a strong cotton gingham fabric left over from a curtain-making project from several years ago and it was the easiest sewing activity ever. I simply cut a rectangle of fabric and folded it so I only needed to seam the bottom and one side (some might say lazy here, I prefer efficient! 🙂 ).

I zigzagged the non-selvage edges to prevent bits of cotton fraying into our food; the whole point of these bags is that they can go through the laundry so they need to be robust. Next, I turned a double hem at the top to make a casing for the drawstring. A heavy cotton piping cord would be ideal but I didn’t have any to hand so used up scraps of elastic from my sewing box – not as aesthetically pleasing, but actually perfect for the job. I whizzed up five bags in well under two hours, including at least one coffee break!

I’ve made three different sizes and time will tell which are the most used so I can make more in the future. I had thought the smallest bag would be perfect for freezing things like root ginger but it also turned out to be just right for half a dozen mince pies to go into the freezer for a picnic . . . pressed into action within minutes of being finished (this was a necessity as mince pies have always had a habit of disappearing at speed in our house when my back is turned) . 

While my sewing machine was set up, I decided on a second simple activity: making hankies. I always used to carry a cotton handkerchief when I was younger and I’m really not sure when tissue culture became so prevalent. I know tissues aren’t plastic, but they’re a good example of ‘single use’ packaged products and even if ours end up on the compost heap, they’re still not very green. It can be argued that hankies aren’t very hygienic but as long as they’re changed often and laundered properly, they are no less hygienic than tissues and far less wasteful. So, I cut squares from a lightweight cotton fabric remnant and stitched narrow hems along the edges, each one taking a matter of minutes. I plumped for seven in the end – a clean hankie a day! – with plans to make another batch before too long.

Sourcing truly natural, sustainable products and materials isn’t always easy so I was very thrilled to be given a large amount of beeswax recently. This was the ‘real deal’, wax straight from beehives melted into a cake; it’s wonderful stuff but full of propolis, pollen and various undesirable bits and bobs so my first job was to render it along with a pile of shattered wax foundation well past its useful life. When The Beast is lit, we have a constantly hot hob and oven which is perfect for this sort of activity and very satisfying as we are still burning the old roof timbers – free energy indeed!

The easiest way to clean up this much wax at a time is to place it in a pot of barely simmering water (beeswax melts at about 65 degrees Celsius and overheating can destroy its antibacterial and anti-fungal properties); the melted wax floats to the surface and the impurities sink below.

When the wax is cooled and hardened, the rind of impurities can be shaved off with a paring knife.

I decided to repeat the process once more, then broke the cake into smaller pieces for storage while it was still soft. It looked just like fudge, almost good enough to eat!

I used a very small amount of the cleaned wax to re-coat our beewraps, giving them a few seconds’ blast in the oven which is a good idea from time to time anyway as it helps to sterilise them. I want to save most of this wax for making toiletries but as there was plenty I decided to make a couple of small candles, too. I love candlelight but can’t bear scented candles and to me even the plain white paraffin ones aren’t wonderful. Beeswax candles, on the other hand, smell lovely- just like the inside of a summer hive (there are claims that they purify the air through ‘negative ionisation’ but this is open to much controversial debate). You can make very artistic candles using moulds but I don’t have any so I opted for the simple container type, using some dainty Japanese tea bowls we were given a few years ago. Beeswax can be tricky stuff as it burns hotter and faster than other candle waxes so the advice generally is to mix it with other things (coconut oil, for example) to ‘slow’ it down and also to pay very careful attention to wick size. Mmm, needless to say I ignored all that: I do have coconut oil but it’s so pricey I’d prefer not to burn it and as I had a few wicks left over from previous candle projects I wasn’t about to buy more. I put some lumps of wax in an old tin and sat it in a pot of simmering water, weighed down with an old flat iron to stop it bobbing about and popped the bowls into the oven for a few minutes so the hot wax wouldn’t crack them. When it comes to wicks with metal bases, it’s possible to stick them to the container with a hot glue gun or use a special ‘stickum’ thing but as my life has thus far been complete without owning either, I simply dipped the base in melted wax and used that as glue. Strangely enough, it worked.

I then carefully poured melted wax into the bowls, leaving the first bit to set a little before topping them up.

As there was a bit left over, I poured it into a small bowl lined with parchment paper so it would cool into a block I can use again; no worries about cleaning up the tin as I shall keep it for future wax projects. The wax didn’t crack as can sometimes happen, there was a little bit of shrinkage away from the sides but with their wicks trimmed and combined with a small posy of greenery from the wood, these candles will be the perfect decoration for our Yuletide dinner table.

Green cleaning is second nature to me, the more chemicals I can ban from our newly-renovated home the better and I love the fact that it is so easy to render everything clean and sweet-smelling using small quantities of a few simple ingredients, many of them perfectly edible. For example, lemons literally fall off the trees here; they are fantastic for cleaning the bathroom and kitchen and as a pre-wash soak for whites, they come in their own ‘packaging’ and what’s left is fully compostable. You don’t get more zero waste than that! I’ve been making my own laundry powder this week, mixing equal quantities of grated Marseille soap, washing soda and bicarbonate of soda with a few drops of lemon essential oil (more for its disinfectant properties than fragrance). It’s done in a flash and although the quantity in the photo doesn’t look much, there is enough there for a couple of weeks’ laundry at least.

No need for fabric conditioner, a splash of white vinegar in the dispenser drawer balances the pH and leaves everything feeling soft and lovely; our clothes smell simply of soap and fresh air and most importantly, are beautifully clean. Whilst grating the soap – one of those little therapeutic moments I love- it occurred to me that here is another area where I can experiment with pushing things further. Why not make my own laundry soap, using all natural products? How about body soap for the bathroom and a solid shampoo? No plastic bottles or packaging, no toxic nasties or artificial colours and scents? Is this another way to reduce our impact a little further, to try and leave a beautiful world for the seventh generation and beyond? Mmm . . . sounds like an exciting solstice challenge to me! 🙂