No dirty secrets this Valentines

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Take your average supermarket rose. That bloom was probably grown thousands of miles away – Columbia and Ecuador are major exporters of cut flowers. The result is that your well-meaning bunch of flowers this Valentines comes with a significant carbon footprint.

Those pretty flowers have other dark secrets too. Many are not grown under Fairtrade agreements, meaning that workers may be exploited. The International Labor Rights Fund found that more than half of Ecuadorian and Colombian flower workers suffered work-related health problems such as eye and respiratory problems due to high uses of pesticides and fungicides. In high season, working weeks of over 70 hours were not unusual.

Your rose, when cut, is then doused in chemicals to keep it ‘fresh’ for the flight and wrapped in masses of plastic. It will arrive with you already a week old, with quite a past. All for something that’s sole purpose is to look pretty for a short while, to then end up in the compost.

Oddly, for a nation of gardeners, only 10% of the cut flowers sold here are actually grown in the UK. This is gradually changing, with more and more small scale producers entering the market. Cornwall is increasingly developing a flower production industry, but the East of England is blooming too, with Suffolk well known for roses and Colchester for its peonies.

The appeal of the vintage look has also led to natural flower arrangements growing in popularity for weddings, including wild flowers such as cow parsley, cornflowers, sunflowers, or apple blossom for a fresh, original ‘just picked from the hedgerow’ feel.

The success of Georgie Newbery’s book, ‘The Flower Farmer’s Year: How to grow cut flowers for pleasure and profit’ shows that there is an increasing interest in avoiding the shops by growing lots of beautiful flowers at home, or indeed setting up a small scale business. Many people who want to grow flowers have a target in mind, such as providing all the flowers needed for a family wedding or party.

With that traditional day of flower giving, Valentine’s Day, fast approaching, don’t give a bunch of roses with a dirty secret. Instead, choose British blooms from a local florist, or at the very least, seek Fairtrade roses. I’d far rather a bunch of cheery daffodils than imported roses (husband take note). And remember, British flowers last longer than imported ones, so whoever you are buying for, you’ll stay in their good books for longer.

KB, first published in the EDP and EADT

Taking the stress out of going green

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Photo by Phil Barnes

It was an identity crisis moment. Sitting sobbing on the bedroom floor with a crying baby and another soiled cloth nappy that had splurged all over the baby, carpet and me. I’d had enough. I was obviously a terrible mother and now the eco-warrior in me had died too. Pass the disposables, sod the planet I was just trying to get through the day.

My baby’s bottom shrank overnight as the bulky reusable sat in the corner glaring at me and the slim, weird smelling disposables changed the way my child felt to cuddle. It had just been too hard; the cloth nappies had not fitted properly and I’d run out of the cash and will to do anything about it.

Then that good old parental favourite, guilt, jumped on to my back like a big ugly monster, taunting me with phrases like ‘those nappies will never biodegrade you know’ and ‘you are condemning your child’s planet to be a landfill site’. Still, my baby was happy and I gradually found my way through those early crazy months. I did feel sad though, not to be in the green parent tribe.

Once the brain fog had reduced I realised it wasn’t so black and white. There are in fact at least 50 shades of green. Anyone who has ever written a birth plan knows that from the very start, parenthood is about compromise and constantly reviewing your expectations. So what if I wasn’t using cloth nappies, there was so much I was doing right.

I found a green lifestyle that would make my family life better, happier and healthier, not worthy, guilt-filled and exhausted. This meant changing things that would benefit us and letting fun and family activity be the guide. I learnt that with the right information, even cloth nappies could have been easy, but hair shirts and hand-knitted muesli would be strictly banned.

Here are my top seven ways to be greener, happier and healthier without the stress:

  1. Make intelligent swaps.

That means using British grown rapeseed oil instead of imported olive oil to save carbon, whilst enjoying the bonus that it’s also lower in saturated fat, higher in healthy omega-3 fatty acids and cheaper. Also, it is easy to ditch marine polluting laundry detergent and opt for the wonderfully freaky soapnut shells. They are the dried fruit of the soapnut tree and clean clothes brilliantly without polluting or upsetting sensitive skin.

  1. Don’t be afraid of using technology to lure children outside.

Whilst we need to create a balance of screen time and outside time, it can be helpful to harness the power of the app for a fun activity. Try treasure hunting with geocaching, star gazing with an app like Star Walk and using the Wildtime app for nature inspiration.

  1. Do a better job of reusable nappies than me.

I totally messed up because I didn’t know some vital information.  For example, it’s best to try out a few different types before you invest in the 20 or so that you’ll need. Some types just won’t be the right shape for your baby and having loads that don’t fit will be disheartening and expensive.

  1. Make your milk feeding green

Breast feeding is best for the environment and your baby but that knowledge doesn’t help you when it doesn’t work for emotional, physical or logistical reasons. Step away from the guilt and make sure your bottle feeding is as green as possible. For example, you can buy safe glass baby bottles and make sure you keep your kettle de-scaled for efficient boiling.

  1. Learn a few tricks to cut your food waste

Did you know, the banana is one of the most wasted food items which is made worse by the fact that they have come all the way from the Caribbean or South America. Here are my tips for being a banana saver!

  1. Care about carbon, but don’t be ruled by it.

Get the basics like insulation sorted, try not to choose clubs and activities that involve lots of driving, choose local products with limited packaging, but then be kind to yourself. There is much, much more to being a green parent than carbon counting.

  1. Make your outdoors space count for wildlife.

Plant a pot with lavender to provide nectar, put up some bird feeders and have a messy ‘nature reserve’ corner with a stack of logs and sticks and long grass. Now is also the right time of year to plant some wildflower plugs such as oxeye daisy, corn poppy, ragged robin. These will bring colour and life in even the tiniest space.

So don’t be an eco-worrier; forget the guilt, take some fun steps and be an eco-warrior instead. There are happy green days ahead.

Forget the commemorative mugs, here is a lovelier way to mark the birth of a child

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So Kate and Wills are in the midst of the pukey/screamy/nappy-changing wonder all over again, but meanwhile, thousands of other people in the UK will be marking the birth of a child no less important. Whilst Princess Charlotte will get bunting, commemorative mugs and endless column inches, there is a much lovelier way to celebrate the newest addition to your family.

Planting a tree for the birth of a child, or as part of their naming day ceremony or christening, is a wonderful way of linking them to the natural world. A tree that is theirs will make them feel special and they will grow older and taller together, recorded in a photo together each birthday. It is a way of planting the child’s roots firmly in the soil.

Every tree planted has massive benefits for the environment. A tree is a mini planet; a perfect eco-system for insects, birds, mammals. A mature oak tree is home to over 280 species of insect alone. Not only that, but it is removing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and turning it into oxygen for those new lungs to breath.

Ideally, choose a native tree, such as a rowan, silver birch or fruit tree. If space is an issue, then a small bay or rose in a pot is a lovely option. For fruit, try a patio plum tree. These can even be grown on balconies but you’ll need to remember to water them regularly.

When choosing a tree, you may be interested in the symbolism and folklore behind different species. The rowan is the Celtic tree of life and is traditionally planted to celebrate the birth of a new baby. Meanwhile, the oak is linked to strength, wild pear for loyalty, hazel for creativity and cherry for love and protection. Good luck to you if you plant a hawthorn… it apparently results in contradiction.

Of course, a tree so loaded with importance is a risky proposition. What if it dies or you need to move house? You could wait until Autumn for a planting ceremony to increase its chances of survival, watering frequently if you opt for spring or summer planting, or planting two (in the hope that at least one would make it).

If you need to move house and want the young tree to come too, make sure you water it well the day before moving and keep as many of the roots intact as possible. Then, wrap the roots in damp sacking for the move, and replant it as soon as possible into a hole that is bigger than the one you took it out of. And water often, while crossing your fingers.

If every new baby had a native tree planted in its honour, then our world might just look a little greener.

A similar article published in the EDP and EADT

Step away from the gym

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So you want to be healthy in 2014? Lose a little weight? Feel less stressed and more energised? ‘Ah,’ many of us think to ourselves, ‘well in that case, I simply must join a gym. Within days I’ll have a six pack and biceps to die for’.

Don’t do it, you have a choice. The January gym fad is unlikely to last. We do it because we are so desperate to take some action that indicates our intention to be different this year.

However, the reality is that you will probably go once or twice. The rest of the New Year’s resolution crowd will be there, incompetently clanking the weights or standing idly queuing for the Powerplate. It will feel like hell on earth and it will be easy for you to find excuses to avoid going in future. The direct debit will continue to leave your account and the chains of a year’s contract will feel heavier than the dumbbells you tried to lift.

Actually, I enjoy exercising in a gym, but have seen for myself how, after that initial January rush, so many new members’ workout cards end up untouched at the back of the pile. If you still want to join in March, then go for it. You’ll probably get a better deal too.

Instead, try stepping outside. Yes, it’s freezing, but that burns calories. Yes, it’s dark, but wear a head torch and go with a friend. The benefits of exercising outside are massive and Mother Nature makes no charge.

A report by the University of Essex explains that exercising outside may feel easier than doing so in the gym. When allowed to self-select walking speed, participants tended to walk faster outdoors than indoors. Paradoxically, they reported a lower rating of perceived exertion. You are likely to end up fitter without so much mental effort!

Green exercise is also strongly linked with improving self-esteem and reducing negative feelings such as tension, anger or depression. This is vital for children and teenagers too, so lead by example.

Chilly, gloomy January is undeniably the hardest time in the year to get out there, so do it now and, in just a matter of weeks, the gradual awakening of spring will keep you hooked. You will hear birdsong and see nature busy around you, not caring that your lycra is somewhat past its best. Snowdrops, courting birds and mad hares are all waiting to distract you from the fact that you are exerting yourself.

It’s so simple too – all you need is a pair of trainers or walking boots (and of course the all clear from your doctor if you’re not used to exercising) and a park, pavement, footpath or country lane.

I mentioned that there is no charge, but I forgot to tell you about the contract imposed by the great outdoors. It will make the gym’s commitment of 12 months seem paltry. This is a lifetime arrangement, because once you build a little time into your routine for green exercise and start feeling the benefits, you will be addicted for life. 

First published in the EDP and EADT

Walking the walk – are you walking to school?

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October is ‘International Dodge Speeding Car on Narrow Lane’ and ‘Get Rained on While Wearing Grey Trousers Month’. Luckily, at the last minute the organisers pulled in a new marketing team and decided on the catchier name of International Walk to School Month.

Living close enough to school to walk there with your children is a fantastic opportunity. Even if you live too far, you can park safely ten minutes from the gate and make regular exercise part of your daily routine – benefiting both you and your children.

Walking also reduces the hideous congestion of vehicles that develops around school gates. This haphazard parking can leave residents feeling like they live in a badly regulated car park and children are at risk as they weave their way through the traffic.

Environmentally, walking is a no-brainer. Reducing the number of people on the school car run slashes carbon emissions and reduces air pollution. Indeed, it is the short car journeys when the engine is cold and inefficient, that create most damage on a mile for mile basis. You’ll save money too – did you know that driving the average school run for a year costs over £400?

However, the reality is that less than half of all primary school children walk to school. The reasons include the weather, a shortage of time, having children at separate schools and the stress of walking with younger siblings in tow.

Speeding traffic in villages and outside schools is also a major concern. In my village, parents have worked with the Parish Council to reduce the speed limit outside the school and create a white line demarked space for walking within on a bendy country lane with high banks each side. It’s still not perfect though.

Even where there are pavements, cars go past so fast that your heart is in your mouth every few moments when your child runs to meet a friend or your learner cyclists wobbles ahead of you. Children are not automatons that stick firmly to the centre of the pavement, despite you shrieking at them. They scamper and frolic as well they should. The traffic around them makes no concession to this. It can feel like there is zero room for error before your beloved child becomes a statistic.

I have to keep telling myself that although there is a small risk walking to school, the risk of not doing so is even higher. Overweight, unhealthy children, streets that are out-of-bounds and a trashed environment are not a future we should be willing to accept.

We need to reclaim the streets this month and be as noisy as a troop of seven year olds who have eaten too many Haribos. Speak up and ask your school how it is getting involved in Walk to School Month. Lobby your council about 20 mph zones and traffic calming measures. But above all, get out there with your hi-vis jackets on and walk to school.

Find out more about the Walk to School campaign here.

Meaty matters

ImageLadies and Gentleman, please step away from the tongs and novelty aprons, the barbeque season is now officially closed. We’ve had a fabulous BBQ summer, but it has been virtually impossible to accept a social invite without encountering chargrilled sausages and cremated burgers.

Now is a great time to reduce your meat intake before rich winter foods are on the menu. Thanks to the McCartneys, the trendy way to do this is with Meat Free Mondays.

A meat free day is nothing new. Historically, it was often followed for religious reasons, such as a Friday fast, or because of rationing in times of shortages. Today, the aims are different; to improve human health and the environment.

So how would going veggie for one day a week help you and the planet? UN’s top climate scientist Rajendra Pachauri explains that, “People should consider eating less meat as a way of combating global warming.” Indeed, UN figures suggest that meat production puts more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than transport.

As is so often the case, what is good for the environment is often beneficial for us too. Many of the world’s leading health organisations now encourage a reduction in the amount of meat people consume. It could help you avoid cancer, heart disease or a stroke. According to a study carried out by Oxford University, if we ate red meat no more than three times a week it would save the NHS £1.2 billion each year.

Meat Free Mondays have other benefits too. You are likely to reduce your weekly food bill, lose weight and escape a food rut with the discovery of yummy new recipes.

However, I wonder if Meat Free Mondays aren’t a bit like smoking heavily most of the week but saying ‘its ok I never light up on a Tuesday’? Surely if it is so important we should commit to quit our carnivorous habit 24/7?

Not in my book. I was a vegetarian for many years, but now I’m not. This is largely for moral reasons (although my Mum’s Sunday Roast lured me back too!). It is because I am a passionate advocate for British farmers and want to support the best of them by spending my money on ethically produced meat. I also know that livestock is important to our countryside and can even help maintain habitats for rare wildlife – a landscape without sheep and cows would be an empty place indeed.

Meat Free Mondays is a similar concept to the wildly popular 5:2 diet (two days of fasting, five of eating normally). Having a set time when you eat more mindfully can impact your habits across the whole week, without the normal fatigue and failure that sets in with more radical regimes. How many wannabe vegetarians have lapsed on week two, when the smell of a bacon butty cuts through the fog of a hangover and becomes absolutely essential?

In my family, we’ll be embracing several meat free days a week. But even better, what about Seasonal Sundays – a day where everything you eat is seasonal and locally sourced? So long as no one suggests Cake Free Wednesdays, I’ll be there.

First published in the EDP and EADT on 20th September 2013