Tuesday, December 28, 2010

This fortnight I've been grateful for...

I'm still on holiday but felt like a Maxabella-inspired Grateful Post- and aren't holidays the time to do what you want? :)

No surprises here, but I'm grateful for the kindness of family who've opened their houses, curried 4 kilos of prawns, served awesome homemade mustard, given the boys (and us) lovely presents (who've thought a toy checkout could bring so many hours of entertainment?), passed on outgrown books, and done all those family things that make Christmas special. And let us do a load of washing here and there, while we wait till January for a repair to ours!

And roses- surely the most forgiving of flowers? I finally got onto my Project to deadhead them, but if I hadn't then, sure, they'd have looked a bit scrappy, but come back good as new whenever I remembered to provide a bit of lovin'.

And I'm grateful for kind neighbours who, for the umpteenth time, have dropped by to let us know that our car battery is being drained by a light somewhere.

And I'm grateful for a bit of a rest from blogging- somehow when the pressure's off the juices start to flow.

A few interesting snippets

I'm still on blog holidays, but wanted to share a couple of things I read elsewhere:

1. Further on the problems faced by Indigenous Australians came this stark story from the World Today, with depressing bits of information like

- The average 10 year old Indigenous child in Alice Springs has attended 100 funerals.

- Alice Springs, population 27000, has two taverns which are amongst the largest purchasers of beer from Fosters. These taverns are open for 4 hours a day- from 10am to 2pm (the time after which alcohol can be consumed outdoors in Alice Springs).

2. On a lighter note- three articles to interest readers with an academic background (direct from my Facebook friends to you):

- the academic heirachy as a pyramid scheme from The Economist

- how Barclays tried to silence a PhD thesis.

- and why scientists deserve more sex and other rewards from the LA Times.

3. In the last 20 years there has been a lunch box revolution. I am trying not to get overly excited, but behold the plastic containers with built-in cooling gel. In today's forecast 40 degrees we're trying one out!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Holiday time

I didn't get ahead enough on blog posts to cover me while we were away- or even up until that point- and while the Projects A Day kept happening, as you can see the blogging about them didn't- and suddenly for every item I checked off the list, I was adding another on which to procrastinate.

While I was away I started reading the excellent Grog's Gamut (his Christmas letter post was my launching-in point, and worth a read on its own). It was there I struck his rationale for having a bloggy break over Christmas:

I reached the "I don't give a stuff" point.... "meh" overtook me.

And I realised I was at that point too. I usually look forward to posting, but at the moment there are a heap of other things I'd rather do- and I'm a bit sick of staring at my list of half-completed posts that I've lost momentum on. I blog for fun, so when I'm not having fun it's time to scale back. Consider it a sabbatical- I've just decided that for the time being I'd rather read other people's writing than write my own. Or maybe that's a holiday?

So, I'll see you when I see you!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

This weekend I am grateful for... a beach holiday

Another Maxabella-inspired grateful post, and this week I've been grateful for the chance to have a few days with B and the boys on the Mornington Penninsula. Good weather, child-friendly beaches, pick-your-own cherries and strawberries, a few mazes to solve, dolphins to swim by the Queenscliff ferry, some great places to eat and eat (and when all else fails, it's hard to go wrong with the occasional fish and chips), a back yard with a play structure, and those wonderful people at information offices and taking the tour of Cape Shanck Lighthouse who are genuinely enthusiastic about answering questions they probably face fourteen times a day: yes, I'm grateful!

And refreshed!

And very overdue with APrADa posts!! It's still happening!!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Day 15: small item, large procrastination



A Project A Day doesn't have to be about large and grand projects. I am ashamed to say it has truly been several years that I have been too lazy to get a power board from upstairs and tidy up those cords! I'm very pleased that it's done!!
A $690 donation to World Vision will help a village in the Solomon Islands to buy a solar panel- and improve their lives.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Days 9-10: home activities

I'm behind on posting my Project-A-Days so just a couple of quickies to show I'm still on the game:

Days 9-10 were sick days for Little Bro- a high fever and cough kept him velcroed to my side. It was going to be a carers' leave day from work but being stuck on the couch with him turned out to have a small silver lining- it was pretty easy to do heaps of uninterrupted computer tasks- enough to convince myself I was working from home. And, with a couple of quick nips to the shops, I was able to tick a few items off my to-do list:
- order the last Christmas book gifts from The Book Depository
- research and order personalized Christmas baubles (from Christmas 4 You) for Little Bro and my nephew (Little Bro's bauble has only taken me two years to order....)
- research and buy a ByK for Big Bro in response to his Christmas letter
- set up personalized Santa video messages for the boys from portablenorthpole.tv (winner!)
- buy Christmas chocolates for the Childcare carers (and ignore the fact that they probably get buried in chocolate at Christmas...)

Im pretty pleased with that haul! Little Bro is on the mend now, but I must say I didn't mind my few days of cuddles and "seatwork".

And yep, IOU a Christmas unwrapped gift idea... Coming soon...

Sunday, December 12, 2010

This weekend I'm grateful for... excursions, Wiggles and Santa

I'm away from my photos so you'll have to be grateful for a Maxabella-inspired Grateful Post without illustrations. Little Bro would not be impressed- he flicks through my books asking "where's'a pictures?"

So this week I've been grateful for...

1. An excursion into the corporate world, if only for two hours. I'm sure the grass is always greener and the cubicles are probably smaller, and academics like to think the work is boring, but having a waitress for your meetings and a staircase between floors 18 and 19... not something i've seen in my blue-stockinged existence! When the coffee shop at the bottom offered me a frequent-shopper card I didn't say no.

2. The Wiggles- not only did they get my kids ready in record time last Saturday, they put on a fab concert! For performers who must sing Hot Potato more than 365 times a year, they put on a good show of still enjoying it! Three little boys and two mums had an awesome hour of bopping, twinkling and the rest.

3. Santa- ok, I'm a bad mum, but the Santa-is-watching threat has been used this week. I even taught Big Bro Santa Claus is coming to town so he could hear for himself "he sees you when you're sleeping/he knows when you're awake/he knows if you've been bad or good". And there's nothing like a reminder that Santa likes helpers to get some focus in a four year old. Am I bad or bad? ;-)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Days 7-8: Christmas Decorations

Before we had children, B and I never bothered about Christmas decorations. Our two US Christmases were spent away from home, so we enjoyed other peoples' decorations. Or, in 2005, we enjoyed Mother Nature's:

Maroon Bells, from Aspen Highlands (if you look closely there is a ski sign in the bottom right corner). It was an awesome day for skiing- and apart from a few probably-Jewish families, we had the ski fields almost to ourselves. Who needs turkey?

Now that we share our family with certain people with a vested interest in Christmas, we've started to decorate a bit. Of course there are important receptacles to be hung by the chimney with care:

And the all-important tree. Last year we had a plastic one (with built in fibre optic lights, no less!) given to us which, amongst post-Sweden craziness I decided "would do". But... it wasn't quite me. I had grown up with a living Christmas tree- the perennial sort, in a pot- so I had been keen to go down that path. After realising Sunday afternoons in December aren't a good time to look for a tree any bigger than your hand, we found a specimen about a metre tall- just right for little people to decorate.

As we decorated, Big Bro enthusiastically wanted "more!" but thankfully listened to the principle of "less is more". I managed to keep the tree to our meaningful ornaments- mostly things we've collected on our travels.

There are a few Swedish mementos, like the Dalarna horses, the glass balls we saw being blown at Skansen, and the stockings, and a gold Aspen leaf, to remind us of our Aspen Christmas.

On the topic of trees, you can donate a tree to the Murray Darling through Carbon Catchers. For $8.80 you receive GPS coordinates for your tree, and can follow its progress for the next 30 years.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Day 6: Letter to Santa

No, I haven't been consumed by the voracious locusts: just trying to shake off a chesty bug, so rest has had a higher priority than reporting on A Project A Day. This was one of the items on my list:

Getting Big Bro to write his first Santa letter (we discussed what he wanted to say, then I dictated the letters which he wrote). It wasn't too hard- he likes both the idea of Santa and he likes writing letters- especially with a purpose! I feel a little bad that I suggested he say "I have tried hard to be a big helper" rather than the more positive "I have been a big helper"- I was feeling rather frazzled at the time- but there we are. So now "new bike research" is on the list!

We posted a photocopy of the letter (well, Big Bro thinks the original went...) to Santa, North Pole 9999 so we're looking forward to a reply...

Today I wanted to mention children in Australia whose family situations are such that Santa may miss their house- with a $40 donation, the Wesley Mission can provide provide these children with a gifts to make their Christmas brighter.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Hungry locusts descending on Melbourne?

Hungry locusts are descending on Melbourne, "migrating south by the trillions" according to The Age today. It includes this picture from 730am..... eww!

There is not a lot available about small-scale destruction of locusts- from what I've gleaned
- they don't like chilli or garlic (so I will be drenching my garden in Beat-a-bug spray)
- chooks and boots are the best defence
- they're attracted to green, so protecting vulnerable plants with green shadecloth or netting shouldn't be green (could you temporarily paint vulnerable plants a different colour?)
- they're attracted to yellow, so that's a good colour for traps. Or yellow objects floating in swimming pools is a good way to drown them (cancel that pool party...)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Days 4 and 5: changing seasons

It was a hectic weekend with lots to do that didn't quite fit with my Project a Day rules: Wiggles concert (watching excited kids=heaps of fun!), play group Christmas barbecue (watching excited kids=heaps of fun!), plus the usual run around of weekend activites. But in between all that I managed to pull out the broad beans, salvaging 1.5kg of pods.

I haven't yet found broad beans in shops or markets that look as good as the home grown version, so it was definitely a sad farewell to an old friend- the broad beans had been planted way back in autumn, so for an annual plant they have stuck around for ages, touching every season. But as Pen said about her broad bean crop, its demise is bittersweet- they need to move on to make room for the summer crops. And certainly we did seize that opportunity- today Little Bro and I started to plant out our tomatoes that have been patiently waiting in the seed house. Welcome, summer.

Images to come...
Providing the training and resources for a community to establish a vegetable garden to supply its own needs and sell the surplus can lift that community out of poverty. A donation of $45 to World Vision can do this, or for $125, a community can establish a market garden as well as receive the skills and tools to maintain their environment for future generations.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

This weekend I'm grateful for.... choosing my own path

I'm back! The double-header party last week left me without the energy for a Maxabella-inspired Grateful Post, but believe me that I was grateful for lovely people- minor and major- who helped the party run smoothly. Aren't friends great?

I sometimes get the guilts about skipping posts I was planning to do. But you know what? It's my blog and I can choose when and what I write... I just can't choose who reads it! :)

The other thing I'm grateful for this week are real bookshops. Y'know, the ones you have to walk into? I thought I was a complete online convert, but Lucy at The Hill of Content Bookshop on Bourke Street made me realise that when I don't know exactly what I want, having someone in the children's section who apparently remembers the details of every book is worth the extra cost of the book , plus the extra books I was incited to buy. ("Apparently" not referring to her memory, but the fact that I can only judge on the basis of the 4 or so books she suggested that I had read) And she knew the difference between the real Enid Blytons and the modern spin offs.

Oh, and I'm grateful to the Wiggles, whose 930am concert was enough incentive for the boys to eat and get dressed with enough time to spare that I had time for an early Grateful Post!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Day 3: moving on

Today's Project was to prepare our high chair, folding change table and solid (unfolding? fixture?) change tables for passing on to a pregnant colleague. It wasn't really one of those tasks I have been procrastinating about for ages, because it came about because the recipient was passing by this way. Either way, it was a project in itself to get things looking a bit less used with only a day's notice.

Fortunately, my cleaning assistants were as willing as ever.

The change table is a bit of a Melbourne Research Institute heirloom, requiring a quick modern history lesson to explain its genealogy. When I started my PhD I took over the desk of a former student, L, sharing my bay with a scientist, H. H played soccer with another scientist, C, who had worked next door to us. When I started in my current position, C and his wife both worked with me. Where this all relates to the change table is that it was made by L about 20 years ago then passed to H, who passed it to C, who passed it to me, who now passes it to the next link in the chain. I told her that the only deal in receiving the change table was that it has to be passed to another researcher!

Somewhere on blog.crojack.org (sorry, can't find the specific post) is the observation that economics courses always cite blood donation as the only completely altruistic industries of modern society*- meaning the donor receives no benefit- yet the hand-me-down system of baby clothes and equipment is just as altruistic. Except that, in this case, the donor (=me) received the double benefit of decluttering and a topic for APrADa!

*except if you live in the USA where in places like Denver homeless people queue for $20 to donate their blood plasma....

While there are plenty of things we "need" to get during pregnancy, pre-natal education is one of the few which is positively correlated with improving outcomes for mothers and children. A $55 donation to Oxfam can support the training of community members who will provide pre- and post-natal education for women living in rural Cambodia.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Day 2: Christmas cards

Today's project was one of those Christmas tasks I always procrastinate about... but not this year!! A Project a Day reaps rewards!! I polished off about 90% of my Christmas card list with an evening home alone with Nigella and two sleeping boys. As you can see from my stocks of last-year's 50c Christmas stamps (and even a good stash of 45c stamps from who-knows-when), I don't normally live up to my card hopes. I'm sure there will be a few last minute remembers, but I'm definitely over the hump.


Thinking of writing links up with thinking of families who can't afford to buy writing materials for their children- and how can you learn to read and write without having the basic tools?

A $5 donation to World Vision can buy pencils for a family, while $15 will add books to the package. Closer to home, with $20 the Wesley Mission will provide children with a stationery set so they can complete their schoolwork like everyone else.

Thanks for your comments so far! I will be donating $1 for each comment in December to a gift that will help another family.

A plug for Suburban Sonnet

I have been quietly enjoying my cousin's private blog on babies, gardens and miscellany for quite a few months now so I'm pleased that she has gone public with A Suburban Sonnet, and I can finally mention things she is saying!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Advent Calendar

As well as being Day 1 of A Project A Day, it's the first of December, which means the first day of our Advent Calendar- a beautiful Made in Germany creation from J. (Thanks!)
Big Bro quickly got the idea- today we open Door Number 1, tomorrow it's Door Number 2. We only open the door for today. Door 1 was the little girl at bottom right- who is now holding a drum. Yep, holding a drum, not a chocolate. The way it should be on an Advent calendar.

Cute post script: Big Bro was especially difficult to rouse the next day- not even the usual subtle tricks like hollering "breakfast time- who's having cereal?" 5 cm from his ear were enough to wake him. I decided he must really need his sleep and left him. Three seconds later, out raced a little pyjama clad fellow. "It's time to open the number 2 door!!" Advent Calendar AND alarm clock!

Day 1: make a bed

Day 1 of A Project A Day, and I made a bed. At this stage, folks, let's establish two things:
1. I may be lame on the motivation front, but pulling up some sheets with a hospital crease does not a project make.
2. I don't mind a nicely made bed, but it's not actually one of my high priorities in the house cleaning schedule. So don't expect that sheets and hospital creases will be on my APrADay List.

My making a bed was the real deal- from flat-packed bits to the finished product, ta-da!

Big Bro had been happily sleeping in his side-less cot for ages, at least for the first part of the night. He claims that it's lonely in the dark, and has perfected the art of sneaking into a vacant patch of our bed without waking us... until sometime later we receive a heel in the eye socket from our slumbering firstborn. With a two-and-a-half year record of fighting Big Bro on the sleep front, B and I have both run out of energy for that battle. So do we think the comfy new bed (king-single, no less) with its spiffy Target linen will solve Big Bro's desire for midnight company? Not at all. The idea is that it can be a refuge for whichever parent cops the most heels to the eyesocket in one night... Lame, I know, but like I said, we're battle-weary.

This whole evolution to co-sleeping is quite bizarre for me. As a good disciple of Robin Barker's Baby Love, four years ago I was quite certain that I didn't want a co-sleeping baby. Bed-sharing was restricted to moments of extreme illness or desperation, and there was no reason to change, given that Big Bro wasn't the sort of kid to snuggle down for a cuddle and a snooze. I'm sure I had the occasional secret- and superior- snigger at people who shared beds with their kids. Something changed for all of us in the last year, and all of a sudden we have a co-sleeper. One thing parenting teaches has taught me is to never judge other parents (well, I try...), because I'll be doing whatever they're doing the next week...

The whole co-sleeping thing is a one of those middle-class dilemmas, though. I finally got around to reading the completely depressing Angela's Ashes a few months ago, and the fact of four boys sharing a bed was certainly not a novelty for Ireland of 70 years ago. Even a former colleague, now in her mid-40s, had told us that in her childhood in Scotland, she shared a bed with her sister until she was 16. So what's the big deal now?

Anyway, back to the bed upgrade, seeing the old cot empty was a little bittersweet.

Sure, it's great to see Big Bro growing up, but it's yet another step away from my little bundle at the end of the cot...

Pen and I were keen to think up sone fundraising aspect to our Project a Day Projects. Here's my version: I'll donate $1 for every comment posted in December, towards a charitable gift along the lines of Oxfam Unwrapped or World Vision's Smiles Catalogue's Donate-a-Goat.

Sticking with the theme of today's post, a $30 donation to World Vision would buy a blanket for someone affected by a natural disaster, illness, or just ("just") cold nights.

A Project A Day

Ilipilli is running "A Project a Day" for December, so I decided to hang out my procrastination in public and sign up.

Hello, I'm V and I am a serial procrastinator.

So the deal is that every day in December I tick something off my "to do" list. My very long "to do" list. For me it's about clearing up the house and garden (I'm not as crafty as Pen), with the incentive that I might feel mentally clearer when I launch into Career #2 next year. My goal is to have 30 minutes a day doing something I might otherwise put off. So far the list includes:

- clearing out a few dumping-ground cupboards around the house
- weeding or clearing various bits of the garden that I have been ignoring
- deadheading the roses
- creating albums from our zillion photos from the last four years
- putting up pictures after only 3 and a half years here
- sorting out Little Bro's outgrown clothes. And his outgrown baby equipment. And all the other remnants of having had two babies in the house.
- doing my long-promised eBay selling of this, that and the other. I buy on eBay but I've never sold... until now...
- clearing out the garage
- clearing out the freezer. There are babyfood purees somewhere in there. I know. I pretend not to, but they're there. And I'm sure I am not saving them for the grandkids.

If you have a few unfinished jobs hanging over your head, why not join in with Ilipilli's Project a Day? We're also trying to work out how to tie it in with a bit of fundraising- will have to ponder this a bit more. If nothing else, drop by to keep us honest and keep the accountability pressure on us!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The construction and rocket birthday

November's birthday festivities peaked last Saturday with The Party. 24 kiddies plus associates, in a local park. Not too hard... until the weather set in.

On the bright side, it was a pretty clear decision to relocate the party to our house. It was loud, but everyone stayed happy and ate lots. What more could I ask for?

In the planning side of things, I realise that I made the mistake of heading for a double-theme. Big Bro wanted a rocket cake (and so did I after seeing one with "blast off" sparklers in Donna Hay), whereas for Little Bro, a construction-site cake seemed the most appropriate. It was a bit messy, but these were the centrepieces.

A bit hard to see here, but the candles on the construction cake were these witches hat/construction cone candles from It's All About Kids. They sneakily pointed out to me that they had construction-theme section, where I picked up a few hanging decorations, and bought a bit of yellow cardboard to make some "warning" signs (and forgot to take photos. Just think of the pictograms for "balloons ahead" and "party hat zone".) Didn't go as far as to get yellow and black balloons.

Rockets lend themselves a bit more to themed food, so out came the Biskart star cutters and the star-shaped foil containers from Aldi ages ago. Add jelly or mango pudding (made with agar agar for the vegetarian guests) and there are plenty of stars to go around.
The best moment of the day was of course singing happy birthday to my two little fellows- their official graduation into their next year, and the best thing about the day was that lovely sense of "I am so lucky to be surrounded by so many wonderful friends". (Oops, I missed my Grateful post this week...)

The funniest moment was busting Big Bro and two little friends tipping out the party bags. It was too cute, and too much a sense of disaster-averted, given they were only onto bag number 4, to be cross.

I'm still catching up on a bit of sleep from a week of late nights cooking, but all in all we had fun. More importantly, I'll do it again next year!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A quick plug- Sticky Mosaics

The lucky Bros received lots of cool presents for their birthdays, and in the interests of easy posts (rather than no posts) I'll try to mention a few. Like Sticky Mosaics, for Big Bro. This came from the awesome Entropy online toy store (for those in the know, their slogan is "it's all about energy"- how cool!).

Entropy is based in Townsville, but don't let that put you off (no offence to Townsville, but I never realised it was a mecca of educational toy shoppers!). It's full of "different" toys- not what you find around Melbourne shopping centres and the website has an easy to spend use layout with gift ideas sorted by price or age. And heaps of cool toys!

Big Bro has been busy in the last week sticking up his five vehicle mosaics. With a bit of guidance, Little Bro has managed to help, and the results are not too bad. They're certainly worthy of the kitchen art collection. And more importantly, Big Bro needed minimal parental assistance to get started and get going- a gift for the parents as well as him!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

This weekend I'm grateful for... just about everything

Cartoon by Nicholson, originally published in The Australian: www.nicholsoncartoons.com.au.

For this weekend's Maxabella-inspired Grateful Post, I had started building a list early in the week. Then on Thursday and my list was blown apart by a seminar by Professor Jonathan Carapetis from the Menzies School of Health Research in Darwin. He presented a lot of facts to describe the challenges faced by Indigenous Australians, especially those living in remote communities in the Northern Territory. In some ways I knew the rough gist of the facts, but to have them presented in a clear, single package in a format I understood, and without obvious political undertones, was sobering.

Completely sobering, and depressing. Especially because the problems are so big that it's hard to see many immediate fixes.

To think about how being a mother with two small children in suburban Melbourne differs from being a mother in a remote Northern Territory community makes me extremely grateful for just about everything. And I suspect that anyone with the means to be reading blogs can feel the same. Not preaching, just suggesting...

I was most affected by one of the first pictures- small children, like my kids, joyfully playing in water in a remote Northern Territory community. All very nice, until we realised that the water was an open sewer. And the hard facts weren't any easier to take.

I've had trouble finding a single source for all the facts I remember from the seminar, so I'm just going to repeat what I remember- with an apology if there are glaring inaccuracies- and refer you to the ABC Indigenous Health site and the Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet for more information.

How can I be anything but grateful for what I have when there are Indigenous families facing:

- a child death rate TWICE that of non-Indigenous children (and not much better than adults). And a sobering fact that in any Australian population, the less education a mother has had, the higher her children's risk of dying. Completely scary fact.

- overcrowded housing where in some communities the average number of people sleeping in a two bedroom house each night is SEVENTEEN.

- diseases like rheumatic fever and parasitic infections which have been eliminated from non-Indigenous populations.

- a substantial proportion of babies being born to already-malnourished teenagers, resulting in long-term health problems for both the mothers and the babies.

- the standard growth curve for children in remote communities being fairly normal growth to around 6 months, and then weight gain in the average child STALLS until around one year, presumably because of the inavailability of appropriate infant food. Forget about worrying about when to introduce wheat or dairy, or whether you're feeding your kids organic or not- it'd be insignificant if you had to decide whether you have any food suitable for your baby.

What can be done? Good question- Closing the Gap is a start, but the message I got from Prof Carapetis was that there is no doubt that even more money is needed (even though we are already spending huge amounts of money), and this money needs be spent in carefully considered and monitored ways to ensure the most benefit per buck rather than political gain per buck. More than that, it's too easy for all of us in the comfortable suburban blog-belt (and our neighbours) to forget what's happening in other parts of our country, making it easy for the inequities to persist.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Inspiration comes in all shapes and sizes

If I were a good blogger I'd do NaBloPoMo and post every day in November, but two Novembers in and I've fallen into the same black hole both times where life catches up with me and sucks out my blogging impetus. It's birthday parties, it's Christmas, it's the garden picking up speed, last year it was our Swedish trip, this year it is the whole career change bizzo. November just doesn't leave much room in my head.

So excuse me if I do the occasional (or more) cheaty post, which tonight is just showing you something I bought, not even looking any better than when I opened the box.

Cookie Cutters from Bisk-Art.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The three sisters garden

I've been meaning to post for ages about my crop rotation system- and hopefully writing this will give me the guilt impetus to put fingers to keyboard- but for the meantime accept that a lot of my vegetable garden design is based on the principles of companion planting. This means putting plants together by matching their needs (eg, acid-lovers), where possible putting two plants with complementary features together (eg, basil and tomatoes), and also considering the order in which plants occupy a bed (eg, putting nitrogen-hungry brassicas after nitrogen-fixing ("making") legumes).

For a couple of years I have been reading about the idea of a Three Sisters Garden, most recently at My Little Vegetable Garden. It's a great example of companion planting, and has its origins in Native American farming. The three elements, squash, corn (maize) and climbing beans were the three major crops of cultures such as the Anasazi. These were not the nomadic "Indians" of the "Cowboys and..." stereotype, but in fact had sophisticated villages, some of which still exist, like these cliffside constructions in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Mesa Verde is a plateau, and is it thought that the Anasazi inhabitants who lived there between 1400-700 years ago (before the majority of European historic buildings were built) made their homes on the cliff sides to maximise the use of the arable land on the top of the plateau for farming. Up there they even had irrigation systems, and the remains of squash, beans and corn have been found in the ruins. It appears that Mesa Verde was abandoned suddenly- in the space of 1 to 2 generations- and its people migrated south, perhaps because of drought.

Anyway, coming back to the Three Sisters, the traditional view is that the three plants- corn, squash and beans- are the sisters, each bringing something into the garden to support the other plants:
- the corn stands tall, and provides a scaffold for the beans to climb on
- the squash cover the ground, shading the ground to keep it cool and smothering weeds
- the beans fix nitrogen from the air into the soil where all the plants' roots can use it
(I read somewhere that sometimes a fourth sister, a flower to attract pollinators, was included)

As you cruise the Three Sisters literature online you'll find various designs of how to lay out the plot. I think a lot of the design has to come from trial and error. I half tried last year, and my corn ended up being smothered by the rampant zucchinis. This year, in the hopes of a more harmonious sorority, I have curbed the enthusiasm of the "squash" sister by demoting it from zucchini to weaker cucurbits like melons and cucumbers (which are not without their own trials). The corn are Digger's Dwarf (so may fail on the tall front, hence the frame below) and the beans so far are Purple Dragon and Sex-without-strings (what a name!) that I picked up from a local school fair. The vibrant green shoots in the background are logan berries which believe that they should be the fourth sister.

So far things are looking ok- though I won't count my sisters until they've fruited!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

This weekend I am grateful for.... opportunities

Another week gone (and phew! What a week!) and time for another Maxabella-inspired grateful post. And this week I have a heap to be grateful for, much coming under the heading of

Being able to work (the paid flavour).
Having the option to work or not work.
A funding system that believes in me more than I do.
Friends and friends of friends who have the kindness to help me brainstorm.
Having enough momentum to formulate plans that get me out of my career crisis.
People who believe in me enough to give me a chance at my dream job.

How could I be anything less than grateful?

(And you readers may be grateful that this should draw an end to all my cryptic career-crisis-centred grateful posts!)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Kids say the darndest things

What a week! In good ways. Lots to be grateful for, which I'll save for tomorrow's Grateful Post, but in the meantime I will relay a few things I had recorded for time immemorial in Facebook

I only have kindy inmates classmates to blame for items 1-3 of Big Bro's latest quotable statements:
1. This is going to hurt a bit (said when prodding Little Bro)
2. Here's my business card. This is Alex- she's a nice girl. You can make an appointment
3. I'm so cool I'm 20 degrees.
4. Little Bro, can I flush your head please?
5. (When we were leaving for our lovely dentist) You can go, but leave the alarm off so I can stay here and do some work (like father, like son...)

Meanwhile, Little Bro has discovered the joys of questions: Whassat? Where's...? Where we goin'? What you doin'? What music is this? And the utility of "don't want to..."
This evening he also came up with two statements you don't want to hear from a nearly-2-year-old:
1. (holding a USB thumb drive) Puttit inna dishwasha?
2. (Standing at the top of the stairs) Humpty Dumpty had a great fall! Big jump!!

The best of all was our discussion of where to go on holiday.
Little Bro: go in Dada's car!
Big Bro: to crison!
Us: to Brisbane?
Big Bro: no, to crison, where bad guys go!
There may still be jobs for travel agents in 20 years time, I suspect...

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Cross-cultural anecdotes #2: bon hau/ni jour?

Big Bro (in an approximately correct pronunciation- let's be realistic!): un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq.... I can speak Chinese!!

And this is the education we are paying for? ;-)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Cross-cultural anecdotes #1: Anglo-Indian Breakfast

A soft boiled egg and last night's garlic naan (cooked on the barbecue, no less).

Cut the naan into fingers and dunk.

I had added some salt to the butter-garlic topping for the naan, and it blended perfectly with the egg.

And yes, we have an egg cup shortage (and yes, Christmas is coming, hint hint)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Cup Week in the Garden 2010

Melbourne Cup Day is one of those points in the gardening calendar that has mystical properties- it's meant to be the time to plant out summer crops. It also reminds me to take stock of the roses, and compare their blooms to those at the Flemington Race Track.
The columbines aren't shy, either.

With all the lovely rain (did everyone else realise we're into a La Nina weather pattern? I only just did...) there has been plenty of chance for plants to grow. Including weeds, like this persistent ground cover (not sure of its name).
I thought this was a weed- and maybe it is- but it's turning into something interesting.
We had a Cup Day feast of broad beans and carrots- not huge, but my largest yet!
Not wanting to count my berries before they ripen (last year I lost the entire harvest to a heat wave) but if nothing else, I have a great crop of green loganberries.....

One of my goals is to have a daisy border around the lawn. This was one of those satisfying views where you suddenly think "I can see my plans working".

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The night of the long pincers, or Double Standards

Funny how I try not to let the boys watch anything involving physical violence on the tv, yet I am happy to step outside for some murderous vengeance after their bedtime.



Very clever of you to climb into the plastic bottle shielding the melon...

It was actually earwigs I was after- the little blighters are voracious!
There was no shortage :(



Hasta la vista, little insect....

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Bean round the full circle

Just as Chez Ilipilli have finished their broadbean harvest, ours has started. Over a month after last year's, I note- why? Did I plant later? Maybe; must get better at keeping records... Because the weather has been cooler- definitely a possibility. Because I planted different varieties- perhaps: last year was Coles Dwarf and Early Long Pod. This year was Coles Dwarf and Aquadulce*, thus removing the "early" element, and so far just the Coles Dwarf have produced. Looking around the plot, there are plants at all stages from flowering through to harvest-ready:

First harvest: 350g total weight, 100g of edible beans. (About the same as last year's first harvest)

Like last year, I can't think of a better recipe to start the season than Consuming Passions' Bean Feast (recipe here). The first taste was sublime :) Hello spring!

*there's a prize for anyone who remembered that last year I considered getting crimson flowering broad beans this year. They turned out to be way more expensive than Aquadulce, so I stuck with frugal white. Maybe next year...

Monday, November 1, 2010

Oat cuisine: how much would you pay for muesli?

Not long ago, a friend posted on Facebook that she had just spent $90 buying 3kg of muesli (granola) online. I was more than a bit stunned- why did she need to buy muesli online when there are heaps of mueslis on the shelves at the supermarket? And what did they put in $30-a-kilo muesli that wasn't in my apparently adequate under-$5-a-kilo muesli from Aldi?

After a quick Google, I discovered that in Australia there are almost as many muesli varieties available online as there are on a given supermarket's shelves. There are even companies that make custom muesli mixes to order (eg here, here and here...). Evidently many Australians take their breakfast seriously!

It got me thinking- what makes muesli taste good? And more importantly, does muesli become better the more you spend on it? And so my Great Muesli Taste Test evolved.

A few tentative enquiries to friends and cousins revealed that I could assemble a crew of curious tasters (Thanks!). A trip to the supermarket got me a range of mueslis that all fitted the "natural muesli" description, and a few enquiries brought me three donations of gourmet muesli (This Growing Life's budget doesn't stretch to minimum-spend-$75 purchases!) And an evening in front of Four Corners game me time to de-identify my ten candidates into ziplock bags.

The tasters were asked to give each muesli a rating from a standardised scale where, for example, 0= "This was so bad I couldn't eat it" , 4="I didn't really like this muesli but I would buy it if the price were right", 9="this muesli is great and I would definitely buy it", etc. They were also asked to specify anything they particularly liked or disliked about the mueslis. The tasters ranked their anonymous muesli samples, and the results between tasters were surprisingly consistent.

Budget mueslis: Under $2/500g
Coles Smart Buy Muesli- this no-name, no-fuss muesli with sultanas, dried pineapple and banana chips didn't do much to arouse the tasters. One commented that it was surprisingly fruity for something that looked grey, while the "evil banana" sealed its fate for two of the five tasters. Average score 5.2.

Golden Vale (Aldi) Fruit and Nut Muesli- this is my every day muesli, but the tasters found it bland, boring, and were unconvinced by its "tropical theme". Average score 4.2.

Low cost mueslis: $2-3/500g
The Muesli Company Premium Muesli- the consensus on this muesli was summed up in the comment "lots of fruit and seeds- a nicely balanced blend". Its average score 6.8 belies its popularity, and it would have scored 7.75 (and been outright winner) if we ignore the date-hating taster's big thumbs down to its sliced dates.

Lowan Swiss Muesli- this was described as a "good basic muesli", though some objected that it was too sweet or had a strange taste. Average score 6.

Mid-range mueslis All $4.99/500g
Carman's Natural Bircher Muesli- Carman's is a brand that seems to get a lot of word of mouth promotion- I was put onto it by several enthusiasts. The tasters all enjoyed its cinnamonny flavours- a trademark Carman's aroma- though there were comments that it was too rich for every day and a bit goopy in the mouth from all its sesame seeds (denture-wearers beware!). With an average score of 7.5, it was equal most popular.

Just Organic (Aldi) Cranberry and Almond Muesli- this muesli uses finer oats than most of the others, and also stands out with a large volume of puffed wheat. The tasters' consensus was that while there was a large volume of additives, they were very limited in variety. Average score 5.8.

Specially Selected (Aldi) Continental Natural Muesli- the third competitor from the Aldi stables was the most popular with "heaps of fruit, nuts and seeds", and was only criticised for containing whole almonds ("a bit of a mouthful") and too much banana for a banana-hater. Average score 7.5.

"Premium mueslis" $10-11/500g
Whisk and Pin Leura Natural Muesli- this was easily the most visually appealing muesli, with a range of oversized chunks of dried fruit and nuts, including mango slices, whole wild figs, dried oranges and cashews. However, these impressive elements were also this muesli's downfall, with it being declared a mouthful, tough and too chewy. Our tasters were certainly keeping breakfast time practicalities in mind, and with an average score of 4.2, Whisk and Pin's muesli was the shock loser of the night (equal with Golden Vale).

Willow and Stick Natural Muesli- this gourmet muesli was repeatedly praised for its fruit and nut mix, and cinnamon flavour, though there were less favourable comments related to its fruit being a mouthful and it being a bit rich. Still, with an average score of 7.2, it was joint runner up in the popularity stakes.

Brookfarm Natural Macadamia Muesli- our tasters liked the macadamias and cranberries, but criticised this muesli for being soft, flaky, sweet and rich. With an average score of 7.2, it was a close second-favourite.

Putting this information graphically to show the spread of scores for each sample:
The budget mueslis were the worst performing category, but mueslis from the other price ranges fared equivalently. The two most popular mueslis overall were the mid-range Carman's and Specially Selected, ranking just ahead of Willow and Stick and Brookfarm, all of which received universally positive rankings. Interestingly, though, Carman's and Brookfarm both received comments along the lines of "nice, but too rich for every day". The rest of the mueslis had their scores split between the "like and dislike".

The surprising dropout of the day was the premium muesli from Whisk and Pin. It was certainly the best looking product, with large chunks of dried mango, whole dried figs and wedges of dried orange. But these impressive inclusions were Whisk and Pin's downfall, with the consensus being that it was too hard to eat.

So what do I conclude about muesli?
Firstly, if our results are anything to go by, while budget (<$2/500g) mueslis skimp on taste, above this price range there is little to be gained in the pure taste by paying more. The two mueslis topping the overall scores were from the mid-range Carman's and Specially Selected, scraping ahead of two of the three premium mueslis, Willow and Stick and Brookfarm.

Of course, average scores don't show whether a muesli was liked by all but one of the tasters (as was the case for The Muesli Company's Premium Muesli). The highest individual score of 9, meaning "this muesli is great and I would definitely buy it" was awarded by two different testers, to two mueslis- Willow and Stick Natural Muesli and The Muesli Company's Premium Muesli.

Of course, our results also don't say anything about the value of factors other than taste, like organic ingredients or appearance. But at the end of the day, I don't feel inclined to rush out to shop online for gourmet muesli. The mix-your-own mueslis sound like a fun gift, and I may yet venture into the mid-range priced mueslis, but that will do me.

What about you? What is your favourite muesli, and would you shell out online for breakfast?

Declaration: mueslis from Whisk and Pin, Willow and Stick and Brookfarm were generously donated by the companies on request.

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