Thursday, 11 December 2014

Christmas trees

My favourite day of the year is, in our family, known as "tree day". This is the day in December when we would put up our Christmas tree and would be considered the beginning of Christmas in our home. Since Ian and I bought a home of our own this tradition has evolved to include a trip out in the morning to choose and buy a tree. We also go for a walk in a local wood to collect greenery, although not necessarily on "tree day" itself.

After buying our tree we come home and put on the Christmas music - usually Andy Williams and Michael Buble and then begin to decorate the tree whist eating mince pies and chocolates. I adore the transformation that takes place, when the house becomes filled with fairy lights, candles and greenery.

As a child my best friend and I often discussed the ethics of having a "real tree" at Christmas. This year I've decided to investigate the subject a little more and also to find out a bit more about artificial Christmas trees.


Around 8 million real Christmas trees are sold in Great Britain during the Christmas season. In Europe (including the UK) the demand is approximately 50 million trees, with a further 35-40 million sold in the US each year. I haven't been able to find any figures for other parts of the world, but I'm guessing that live trees are not as popular in warmer and/or poorer parts of the world.

As with any other farmed crop, Christmas trees are only planted with harvesting in mind, so if everyone were to stop buying live Christmas trees (whether they replaced them with artificial ones or not), fewer trees would be grown. It's difficult to understand the impacts of this as whilst most of the places that Christmas trees are grown would originally have been forested, the forests would not necessarily have consisted of the same species or even of conifers. The trees would also have existed in a balance with other plants and animals which are largely absent from the intensively farmed Christmas tree farms.


If real trees were no longer sold then I suspect it's unlikely that Christmas tree farms would be replaced with other trees, so less carbon would be removed from the atmosphere. Estimates are that there are 3.8 billion trees in Great Britain and 400 billion trees worldwide. The following numbers are just my estimate and are probably wildly out due to a lack of information, but I'm guessing that to satisfy demand in Great Britain (assuming that none of our Christmas trees were imported) would require a minimum of 64 million Christmas trees to be planted at any one time (trees being harvested, on average, at an age of 8 years). This would be around 1.7 % of our total trees. However, I've also read that each tree harvested is replaced by three more so this may be a significant underestimate.

The majority of Christmas trees are sprayed with chemicals. Unfortunately I can't find much information on this on the web, but I assume that whatever they're sprayed with is detrimental for the soil and local water systems as well as for wildlife.

Without knowing more about the chemicals used on Christmas tree farms it's hard to weigh up the impacts of the farms, but it is entirely possible that whatever would replace the tree farms (farming of shorter-lived crops, industry, housing...) would be even worse for the environment.

Personally my feeling is that fewer trees in Britain would be a 'bad thing'.


Christmas trees are grown from seed, but I hadn't anticipated the problems that begin with this very first step - seed collection. From the Guardian website:

"According to the Fair Tree project, founded by Danish tree producer Marianne Bols and Teresa Owen of, 90% of seeds from the Nordmann Fir (5m are sold in the UK each year) hail from Georgia's natural forest, as its seeds cannot be farmed. Each spring 20 tonnes of these seeds are planted by European nurseries, especially in Britain. But danger and corruption are endemic to the supply chain. Cone pickers in Georgia are paid so little that they cannot support their families. They scale 30m trees to retrieve the cones, without insurance or safety equipment. Death and serious injury are common.

Bols has fought to secure a licence from the Georgian government to source her own seeds. Her project pays pickers a fair wage, trains them and uses safety equipment. They're insured and a proportion of the tree sales goes into community projects."

I haven't been able to find much information on the source of seeds for other species of Christmas tree, but both the noble and fraser firs are native to the US, so they might be a more ethical species of tree to buy. Norway Spruce, are of course native to Norway, but also to Eastern Europe so may have similar issues to the Nordmann fir.

Buying locally grown trees will reduce your carbon footprint. Our options for buying a live Christmas tree include buying from the nearest garden centre (Otter Nurseries), B&Q, Haldon Forest Christmas Tree Centre or Exe Valley Christmas trees. The latter both sell locally grown trees, but I'm not sure where the others get theirs. Haldon Forest Christmas Tree Centre get all their trees from Dartmoor Christmas Tree Farm and of our local suppliers they provide the most information. They have about 80,000 to 90,000 Christmas trees on their 20 acre farm and for every tree they harvest they plant at least one more tree. Unfortunately they don't grow organic trees. In fact, according to the Soil Association website our nearest supplier of organic Christmas trees is 174 miles away (by road) in Lampeter, Wales.

We've never had a potted Christmas tree and have always been concerned that it wouldn't like being indoors for a month every year. We also don't have much space for a potted tree in the garden as they're bound to get big quite quickly.


In Britain, the trend is moving away from buying real trees to artificial ones. Artificial trees are often seen as a more eco-friendly alternative, but most are produced in China and, even ignoring issues relating to working conditions, will have travelled a very long way. The old artificial trees had foliage very similar to tinsel, but the modern ones are remarkably realistic and made from a different type of plastic. I've only enquired about one source of these trees and to my disappointment they were neither made from recycled plastic nor produced in the EU.

An artificial tree is supposed to last many years and we have family members who've had their trees for decades, but apparently most are discarded after only a few years and soon end up in landfill. Perhaps the more realistic ones, being ten times the price, will be less likely to be discarded so soon.

In the future we would love to grow our own real Christmas trees (organically of course) and either cut them down or bring them indoors in a pot for the festive period. Until then I suspect we'll be sticking with a locally grown real tree, although I'd much prefer to find a source of organic trees.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Rain water harvesting


Our new allotment is completely off-grid, there are no amenities provided on site. For people who dream of being self-sufficient in the future, and took on the allotment to hone our self-sufficiency skills, this is really great news.

One of the key issues we will face is ensuring that we have water. It's difficult to know in advance how much water we will need since the amount will vary depending on the number of raised beds, type of crops and the conditions each summer.


Exeter receives about 1,000 mm of rainfall each year, anywhere between 30 and 130 mm per month.

Annual Rainfall / Precipication Exeter at Airport (EXT): 972 mm

If we collect 1,000 mm (1m) of rain per year from a area that is 1metre by 1 metre then we will have collected one cubic metre of water (1,000 litres)

So, initially that is exactly what we intend to do.

Intermediate bulk containers

Conveniently, Intermediate bulk container (IBC) are designed to hold 1,000 litres.  An IBC is a "reusable industrial containers designed for the transport and storage of bulk liquid". A suitable food-grade IBC may have been used to transport fruit juice for packing and sale in the destination country.


Even though we're only intending to store water on the allotment for garden use (and not for a home grey water system), we'll still be following BS8515:2009.  In practice this will mean collecting water from a greater area to ensure that we regularly flush out the tank and ensuring that the tank is insulated so that the temperature does not rise too high since this would increase the risk of bacteria growth.

  • It may be worth reading the FAO's Introduction to irrigation
  • More to understand on Annual Rainwater Yield (ARY), Annual Rainwater Demand (ARD) and risks like Legionnaires Disease

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Unethical by default

We know that there are problems in the world, but what if we are driving those problems more than we realise by perpetuating the status quo and failing to make necessary changes?

In the information age it's much easier to be well informed and to discover that our trust in some institutions is being grossly abused. rates HSBC's honesty, ethics etc at 18/100 and Barclays' at a staggering 4/100.

"HSBC holds the record for the largest ever fine levied against a single bank and engages in practices including knowingly laundering money for drug cartels and terrorist groups. HSBC is also one of the world’s biggest investors in illegal deforestation and tar sands extraction."

"Barclays' portfolio shows a complete disregard for the environment, human rights and arms proliferation, giving the bank the lowest possible mark for ethics."

In sharp contrast there are amazing institutions out there that are worthy of our trust and support, e.g. Ecology Building Society (rated 100/100), who only give mortgages where environmental improvements are being made.  Instead of growing irresponsibly they currently have to have a waiting list for people depositing savings (imagine one of the main banks refusing your money because they currently did not have enough projects to make use of it ethically).

We're now subscribed to Ethical Consumer Magazine - a publication that has been running for over 20 years that offers a similar service to Which Magazine, but rates products and services on their ethical and environmental qualities.

We've been very happy customers of Good Energy for several years, so we're trying to make other positive changes including moving our mortgage.

Zero food miles

Being vegan, our meals are generally composed of vegetables, grains and either nuts/seeds or pulses. Since we're trying to cut down on grains we're eating even more vegetables and fruit than we used to. As a result, we buy a lot of veg, some of which we buy organic from Abel & Cole and the rest of which we buy at the supermarket. We used to get locally grown veg delivered, but the quality was very poor and we got sick of throwing half of it away.

We've always wanted to grow our own food, but have struggled with vegetables due to a lack of space in the garden. Not that our garden is small, but it's full of perennials and I've always been loathe to give up my flowers to make space for veg. We've been on the allotment waiting list since Ian moved to Exeter and last Friday we got one. It's on Hospital Lane - just across the main road from our house and only a three minute walk away.

It's the perfect time of year to get an allotment, especially one that needs a lot of clearing as ours does. Currently it's full of grass and brambles (we cleared most of the ragwort, teasels, nettles and dock last weekend) and the ground is extremely uneven, but the soil is beautiful. At home we have heavy clay soil and that is indeed the underlying soil at the allotment (we can tell because Hospital Lane is much lower down than the allotments and the 3 m banks on each side of the lane are clay), but there's a lovely thick layer of crumbly brown soil on top. I'm not sure if it's simply from repeated use of the allotment or from decaying leaves from the nearby trees, but whatever the reason we're not complaining. It's so much easier to get a spade in than our garden it's going to make it much easier to clear than we had originally anticipated.

We've seen lots of wildlife at the allotments already. It makes us feel rather guilty for clearing ours, but we'll have to come up with a plan to provide shelter for things. At least the edges of all the allotments provide a refuge for wildlife and there are quite a few long grassy areas about too. So far we've seen two species of dragonfly, several species of butterfly, grasshoppers, a frog, several slow worms and on Monday Ian unearthed a huge toad. I couldn't resist picking him up.

According to our neighbour the foxes that we see on Hospital Lane also come up to the allotments (and keep them free of rabbits). 

We're really looking forward to growing lots of fruit, herbs and especially vegetables on our plot. It'll be great experience for us (we've always dreamed of growing our own food) and good for the environment too.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Wheat-free Wednesdays

At Frog End we have initiated "wheat-free Wednesday's". Like dairy products, wheat contains addictive opioid peptides that make you want to eat more and more and indeed that does seem to be the case with me. I love bread and could happily eat it with every meal. I am a bread addict - there I said it!

Unfortunately wheat isn't all that good for you for a number of reasons:

1) Firstly, wheat isn't colourful - generally the less colourful a food is the less nutritious it is (see What Colour Is Your Diet). Unfortunately most staple foods around the world lack colour (the only exception that I know of is sweet potatoes in Okinawa - one of the reasons that Okinawans are known for their incredible longevity and exceptional health in old age). There's a growing body of evidence that it's much healthier to get most of your calories from vegetables, pulses, nuts and seeds than from grains and other sugary foods.
2) Wheat causes inflammation throughout the body. If you think of any of the medical conditions ending in the suffix "itis" then these are all related to inflammation of a particular organ - appendicitis, arthritis, dermatitis, meningitis, tonsillitis etc and wheat causes inflammation! It doesn't take a genius to realise that a diet full of wheat (even wholewheat) is going to cause a multitude of problems.
3) A substance contained in wheat called "phytic acid" can bind minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc, thereby preventing them from being absorbed by the body.
4) Wheat consumption is associated with several brain diseases including autism, epilepsy and schizophrenia.
5) Gluten intolerance can lead to coeliac disease - a result of the body seeing gluten in the digestive tract as a foreign invader and attacking not only the gluten, but also the digestive tract itself.
6) Modern wheat is completely different to the wheat that we used to grow. Even ignoring all the chemicals used during the production process we have to take into account that modern wheat is genetically modified, less nutritious (lower in protein and in many essential minerals than it was only 100 years ago) and prepared in a completely different manner (i.e. no longer soaked and sprouted or baked with slow-rising yeast). I'll hopefully write another blog post on sprouting grains in the near future.

There are probably many more good reasons for reducing our wheat consumption, but grains are an area that I'm very much still researching. In fact whilst finding information for this blog I've just read that it's best to cut out wheat altogether rather than reducing the amount that you eat because of the withdrawal symptoms. All I can say is that I will think about it. I do love my bread!

Sunday, 27 April 2014

20th Donation

The NHS have recently updated their blood donation website.

For some reason some of the earlier donation records are no longer shown, but the site does show the date that I first joined (7th October 2006) and records my total number of donations.

The records also show my brief attendances at the platelet donation centre in Bristol.  I'd like to have another go at platelet donation, but the centres are quite a long distance away and therefore it's not ideal for frequent donations every couple of weeks.

On 1st August 2014 I'll reach my 20th blood donation.

What's my target for total number of donations? Let's just say that I have a number in mind and I haven't hit it yet.


Helen and I have been volunteer litter pickers since early February.  We're registered as Frog End Litter Action (FELA) at

We generally go out litter picking on Sunday mornings. There's always plenty to do.  As of today we've just reached 20.5 bin sacks (rubbish and recycling) and contributed 15 hours and 30 minutes of community service.