Seven ways to become an Ebay bargain ninja!

Ebay is one of the best places to find secondhand and preloved bargains. Buying secondhand reduces waste and carbon. It used to be easy to find the secondhand and preloved stuff on Ebay but now it’s a bit harder. This article will give you the seven best tips to become a bargain ninja and find exactly what you want on Ebay (if it can possibly be found).

First, if you’re looking for something generic (e.g. “black skirt”), make sure you’re only searching for things that are “used” not “new”. Otherwise you’ll be presented with a million mis-priced badly-made “new” items from abroad with 30-45 days delivery. If you’re looking for something branded, this shouldn’t be an issue as 99% of real brands don’t sell on Ebay, and Ebay is very good at clamping down on fakes.

Ebay doesn’t actually work to give you the search results in the best order for finding what you want, and hasn’t for about ten years, since they changed the way they showed their results. Back in the early days of Ebay, items were automatically sorted by “time: ending soonest” so if something was about to end, you’d see it right away and be able to jump on a bargain.

Now, however, they automatically sort by “best match” which is usually neither best nor a match for your search term. I did complain to them when they changed this and I got a patronizing mansplaining nonsense reply which basically said “we don’t care what customers think we’re doing this anyway”. The default sorting of the search results is basically the worst way to try to Ebay. It’s disorganized and means you’ll miss items that might be exactly what you want at the price you want to pay. There are two MUCH better ways to sort search results and I suggest you do one at a time.

Buy it now

Filter the results so you’re only looking at “buy it now” then sort by newly-listed. Things that have only just been listed sometimes are available at a lower price than the rest of the “buy it now” items. As people buy secondhand items, they disappear from sale, so seeing the newest listings is the best way to find the good stuff before someone else gets it.

Auction

Filter by “auction” then sort by “time: ending soonest”. Things that are available at auction sometimes get to the end of their allotted time and no one (or only one person) has bid on it. Snap it up when it has only a minute or two left to run (this is called sniping, by the way, and some people think it’s bad form, but HONESTLY it’s a f**king auction site not an etiquette party, there are no points awarded for letting someone else win your child’s Christmas present).

Don’t waste your time bidding on things with more than an hour left to run unless you’re going to be in bed or at work when the item ends. Everything before that last hour is effectively meaningless posturing because the real price the item will end at won’t become apparent until the very end of the auction.

Bidding far in advance is also a bad plan for another reason: Artificial inflation of the price from fake bids. Basically, some unscrupulous sellers on Ebay will get their friends or family to bid against you on the item to try and get you to increase your bid. Ebay has taken steps to clamp down on this over the years but it’s still happening.

Save your searches.

This can speed up finding the items you’re looking for when you’re spending more than the one day looking for something. Just hit the “save search” button. If you can’t see it, be sure you’re logged in properly. However, if you want the gift to be a surprise, don’t do this on a shared computer (probably best not to let your children have access to your Ebay account anyway).

Vary your search terms

Be sure to change your search terms. Just because you know an item by a specific name doesn’t mean that’s what other people call it.

A prime example of this is any branded handbag or shoe. You might know a specific pair of shoes as Irregular Choice Cookies for Santa, but someone who bought them secondhand or threw out the box might only know they are Irregular Choice shoes (or not even know the brand name). Also, they might have listed the size in European sizes or UK sizes.

So in this case, start with a narrow search for exactly what you want. “Irregular Choice Cookies for Santa size 39”. This will show you any exact matches. If nothing comes up, widen your search. A search for “Irregular Choice size 40” (without the name of the shoe’s style) would give you a long set of results to trawl through, but it means you’ll catch all the shoes which have been correctly listed as Irregular Choice under your EU shoe size. IC shoes are sold in EU sizes so this is the most logical second search. Then, if that shows nothing, change the term to “Irregular Choice size 6”, which is the UK size closest to a 39.

Lastly, if you still can’t find them, try describing them by their most distinctive feature. “Cake heel shoes” might give you something. By this point, however, you are unlikely to find anything, so the best move is to save your search and try again later or tomorrow. Using this search method, you can find pretty much anything you want, no matter how rare or unusual, on Ebay. However, it is very time-consuming.

Time your searches

The vast majority of people list their items at the weekend, so Friday evening until Sunday evening is when you are most likely to find newly-listed items and items that are about to end. If you only want to spend a couple of hours on Ebay looking for something, Sunday night between 4pm and 8pm is when most items end. This all means that if you pick the right time, you will have more choice and potentially get the item for a better price. However, the flip side of this is, more people are buying on Ebay between Friday and Sunday night, so you may have to compete harder if you’re buying something at auction.

Check out the seller’s other items

If you’ve lost out or if you’re looking for a complete set of something (e.g. Teletubbies dolls), click on the seller’s username (not his feedback number) then hit “view other items” or “visit their store” and scroll through their other items for sale. They might have more varieties of the thing you’re looking for (they might have nothing). Don’t spend time doing this before you bid on a last-minute item or before grabbing a buy it now bargain, however, or you could miss out on the original item!

Pay promptly

Always pay sellers as soon as possible so they can send you the item quickly and leave you positive feedback. Customarily, sellers should leave feedback first because your part in a transaction is over as soon as you’ve paid. I don’t waste time leaving feedback for sellers unless I’ve received feedback from them first because some sellers don’t bother and it’s annoying. If you’re always returning items or if you open Paypal disputes for stupid reasons, sellers can and will blacklist you from shopping with them in the future. Remember, there are plenty of online seller forums and groups where Ebay sellers can talk to each other, and they will share your username with each other if you’re a bad customer. You should treat Ebay sellers with the same respect you’d use in a charity shop or other face-to-face setting dealing with real people.

This is part of a series on buying ethical Christmas presents. Find the others here:

How to find ethical gifts for children and teens

Complete guide to buying designer clothes from charity shops

Complete guide to buying designer clothes from charity shops

Have you ever wished you could find designer goods in charity shops? This guide covers how to do just that! From an environmental standpoint, the more things we reuse and recycle, the better it is for the resources of the planet. And buying a secondhand vintage designer piece is also better for your wallet!

With such a big fashion revival right now, secondhand designer clothes have never been so on-trend! Keep reading to find out how to identify designer clothes in charity shops, how to avoid fake designer clothes, how to assess the condition of the piece and why you should only buy things that fit/suit you.

Find something that you actually like/suits you

This is rule number one, and I learned this the hard way. Don’t just buy a designer item for the label. Remember, no one will see that label except you. But a designer item because it is a work of art. A stunning reminder of the very best of fashion. A piece that inspires you to be something bigger than the boxes other people try to put you in. Because that’s the point of good fashion. Don’t be a fashion victim. Buy something you love. Buy something that flatters your shape and size. Enjoy your vintage fashion.

When we moved to China, I had to pack our lives into two big suitcases (one each) and a carry-on each. We were such inexperienced travellers that we didn’t know about sending your belongings around the world as freight (thank God we didn’t, I dread to think what rubbish we would have kept) and we didn’t know about paying for extra bags.

My designer collection now only includes items that I completely adore, which still fit me (sniffle, my favourite Vivienne Westwood shoes had to go when they started being painful to wear because I’d worn them too much), and which make me happy. But it wasn’t always that way.

Back in 2006, when I first started investing in designer pieces, I bought some minor disasters. My worst buy by a long shot was my Givenchy silk suit. It was £20 on Ebay which seemed like the bargain of the century. Except it wasn’t. First, it was a size 10 and I was an 8. Now, that shouldn’t have been a problem as it was vintage (80s at least) and everyone knows sizes have changed since then. However, when I actually tried it on, the skirt’s waistline was so low on my waist that my shirts barely tucked into it and left an unsightly silhouette around my boobs as they rode up over the course of a work day. The jacket, on the other hand, didn’t have a flattering neckline (this neckline was wayyy too wide to look good on my DD-cup boobs) and instead of making me look pulled-together, it just looked awkward and shapeless.

But by far the worst problem with it was the colour. In the Ebay pictures it had looked a beautiful deep grey-blue colour, but when it arrived, it was pale grey. None of my shirts or shoes matched it.

Did I send it back? No. I was 24 and too determined to hold onto something because of the label. I kept that bloody suit for 6 more years and only got rid of it when we moved to China, at which point, you’ll be glad to hear I at least sold it for the price I paid.

Another early disaster was my Armani jacket. I’d thought it was black. It was brown. And from a time in the 80s when shoulder pads were the same size as the wingspan of a jumbo jet. The waistline was… generous. The silhouette was very androgynous. And, again, a size 10. I looked lost in it. This year it would have been so on-trend it would have been a massive classic as oversized blazers are the biggest thing ever at the moment. But fifteen years ago, I had a jacket I was (mostly) embarrassed to wear. Did that stop me from wearing it? NOPE.

I’m stubborn.

If you don’t remember 2006, it was one of a few years in the early 2000s when Victoriana was the big trend in workwear. Everything suit-based was fitted. Skirts had fishtail hems and generally came down past the knee. And since we were still living with the hangover from the 90s to some extent, no one in the 2000s wore anything that looked like workwear outside of a formal office setting. It wasn’t like today, where you can chuck a blazer over a pair of skinny jeans (we didn’t have skinny jeans yet) and go out.

My big mistake of the following year was not understanding that designer sportswear is never, ever going to be a classic piece. And that designer brands all have sub-brands which are more affordable but not “proper” high fashion. I had this gorgeous Armani Jeans tracksuit (this wasn’t a shell suit, don’t worry), which comprised a hoodie and jogging bottoms in pale blue. I loved them and wore them on slouch days for about two years, but those sports lines are never made to be as durable as the expensive main clothing lines so buy them, enjoy them, but don’t expect them to last.

How to identify a designer item

Familiarise yourself with the names and logos of the brands you are looking for. This will make it quick and easy to recognise labels. Be aware that some brands have changed their labels/logos over time so if you’re looking at true vintage stuff, the label might be a little (or very) different. However, be aware this could also be the sign of a fake.

Avoid the really obvious fakes

You won’t always be able to avoid fakes, the thing about a really good fake is it’s indistinguishable from the real deal. However, you can learn to spot signs that something isn’t as it seems, especially if the item costs more than you wanted to pay for a secondhand charity shop item.

I’d avoid any secondhand Louis Vuitton bags and purses unless you can get it verified independently. Those Louis Vuitton brown bags with LV all over them are literally everywhere. I could easily pick up about a hundred fakes in the markets in Italy for the price of one genuine bag without batting an eyelid and they were rife in China, too. I actually tune those bags out now if I see them, and when I see people with them, I’m more likely to think you bought a fake than that you paid full price for one, unless you’re obviously dressed at the same price as your bag. The multicoloured LV bags suffer from the same issue. I feel very sorry for Louis Vuitton as a brand as the sheer amount of fakes is shocking.

If you see something like this (or a high street brand with a very similar design to a well-known fashion piece) my advice is to steer clear. Copyright infringement in fashion is rife everywhere, and you can actually get into legal trouble in some countries if you’re walking around with a fake item (notably, Italy, where many of the fakes are being sold, and where the police are trained to spot them).

Fakes are less well made and made from cheap imitation materials, so they damage easily and don’t last very long compared to the real deal. People bringing these things back from a holiday then tire of them and give them to charity shops, so always check inside.

Here are some tips for avoiding fakes:

Check the lining. Usually in a genuine product, the lining is attached in a way so you see almost none of the inside stitching. This is true of coats, skirts and bags.

Look at the stitching around the edge of the product. Is it neat, even and straight? A true designer piece will not have any mistakes in the stitching.

Check for loose threads and “imperfections” in the piece. Loose threads on any item, a weird black blob on a leather bag, purse, or belt, or a place where the edging doesn’t quite match are all giveaways that this piece isn’t genuine.

Smell it. For leather goods, if it’s supposed to be real leather, it should smell like quality leather. If it smells like plastic (a sort of oily smell), nothing at all, or very strongly of tanning dyes, it’s a fake.

Look at the sheen. If it’s supposed to be real silk, the sheen is slightly less shiny than satin (which is usually part-silk, part polyester, cheaper to produce, and used more often on fakes) and definitely less shiny than polyester. Silk is usually quite thin and delicate, and may show damage more readily than other fabrics, so take extra care buying anything made of this fabric.

Don’t rely on labels that say “100% silk”, or “100% leather”, or “made in Italy” (the amount of marketplace items I saw in China that said “made in Italy” on the label was unbelievable. Italy is NOT importing designer goods to Chinese markets, I’m sorry to break it to you). Always use your senses to check for yourself, because the best fakes won’t put their real materials on the label. Why would they? They’ve lied about the brand already!

Assess the condition of the piece

Check for bobbles, especially around the armpits, where you also might find stains. Some people have ways of getting stains out. I don’t buy anything with stains because I find it a bit disgusting. Bobbles, however, are just areas of fabric that have rubbed against each other too much. They can be removed with a cheap bobble remover.

Many high-end items are dry-clean only. However, charity shops often have a protocol dictating that they have to steam clean every fabric item that comes into them. Check the piece for steamer damage and washing machine damage (in case someone got confused and put it through a wash at any point in its life).

You’re looking for shrinkage. This usually manifests as lining poking out at the bottom of sleeves/hems on skirts, items being a little mis-shapen or tight in some areas while the correct size in other areas. If any shrinkage of the fabric has occurred, I don’t recommend buying the item because it won’t hang correctly or flatter your form.

Check the labels.

Always take a good look at every label on the piece. There should be a brand label in the neck (or back of the waist in skirts/trousers) and a care label somewhere else in the piece. If the brand label is cut down the middle, this is “seconds” quality, which means it didn’t pass its final inspection at the factory.

With a cut label, it’s still a genuine piece, but it may have mistakes. The tolerance for mistakes depends on the brand. Some brands will reject a piece if the stitching is more than 1mm away from where it’s supposed to be. Other brands will might have a 3mm or 5mm tolerance for where the stitching should be. Items with holes or snags that were caused during the production process may also be classed as seconds by one brand, where another might send items with such severe faults straight to destruction, never to be seen by a consumer. Some companies don’t have seconds at all.

Seconds tend to have a much lower resale value later down the line, even if they’re a second of a very rare item, because it’s understood that the quality isn’t the same. However, they can still be worth buying as long as you’re happy with the item and it fits and flatters you, as you can get a great bargain compared to buying a first-quality piece.

If a piece has no label at all, it probably isn’t even “seconds” quality. Whether you decide to buy it anyway or not is up to you. I would probably look for a better quality piece.

Which areas of the UK are likely to have designer clothes in their charity shops?

I don’t know every area in Britain so comment on this article if you have suggestions, to help out other readers! Basically, you’re looking for a reasonably affluent residential area that doesn’t have a (proportionally) huge tourist/student footfall. This is because you want a shop that gets a good supply of designer stuff but without so many shoppers snapping it all up.

You also want an area that doesn’t have grabby charity shop managers. I’ve known a couple of managers and several volunteers at various shops in York tell me that they get the first pick on the best stuff, leaving none for the actual customers!

Google Maps Reviews of the shops in question are a good way to spot which ones often have designer wear and also which ones are selling overpriced Primark tat.

These reviews are also a good way to get the measure of the manager at any given shop. If they’re only responding to positive reviews, or if they’re arguing with negative reviewers (or accusing reviewers of lying or not being genuine customers), you know they’re a bad sort and that it’s not worth wasting time visiting their shop. If they’re not responding at all, you know they’re probably busy running their shop.

Northern Ireland: Holywood

Scotland: Edinburgh Morningside area or Leith (gentrification, y’all).

The North: Hebden Bridge, Harrogate.

Midlands: Lichfield, Ashbourne.

South East: Aylesbury, Ascot.

South West: Chipping Norton, Bath.

London: Kensington. The charity shops here are absolutely designer central. There are some outstanding ones in walking distance around South Ken underground station. I’ve also heard similar about Covent Garden but I haven’t seen it myself.


This is part of a series on buying ethical Christmas gifts. Here are the others:

How to buy ethical Christmas gifts for children and teens

Seven ways to become an eBay bargain ninja

Dishwasher full of weird red stuff? Fix it!

Two years ago, I was staying with some friends who, incidentally, had our old dishwasher. It was a cheap slimline model which perfectly suited my husband and I as a couple with no kids (I think these days I’d go for a full-size model as we now cook with more plates and bigger pans).

I opened it up and was surprised to see that all the inside of the dishwasher, all the parts that should be white, were covered in this weird red stuff. It looked like the whole dishwasher was coated in those tea stains you get at the bottom of cups, it was the same reddish-brown colour but all over the dishwasher (except the metal bits). In the 6 years I’d known this dishwasher, I’d never seen anything like this before.

It turns out there is a special type of mould that affects dishwashers in one very specific situation. I was stunned to learn what had happened! My friends’ plates were too clean when they put them in the dishwasher! Can you believe that could be a problem?

So, yeah… The red stuff was a mould that grows in dishwashers if the dishes you put in them aren’t dirty enough. Here’s why:

When the dishwasher tablets don’t have enough to clean, they make the inside of your dishwasher more alkaline. This red-brown mould thrives in the damp, alkaline environment and is an absolute nuisance to remove once it sets in.

I found out how to get rid of the red mould in the dishwasher and here’s how I did it:

I started by doing the trusty “run the dishwasher through an empty load with a cup of white vinegar standing in the top rack”.

It didn’t work.

I was stunned. This always works.

The mould wasn’t shifting.

The first thing to know is that you can’t wipe this stuff off with a cloth. You need a hard scrubbing brush.

The second thing to know is that soaps and bleach are alkaline, like dishwasher tablets. If you try cleaning this stuff with any of those, you are basically feeding it, and it won’t go away.

So what you need is lemon juice or white vinegar. These are acids, which you might remember from high school science (or your biochem PhD… I’m not assuming anything, here) are the opposite of alkalines. When you have a mould that thrives in alkaline conditions, you need an acid.

However, it can’t be a strong acid because it could damage the dishwasher. So don’t use max strength toilet cleaner, even though it’s tempting to want to fight the mould explosion with something nuclear (or, more to the point, ionic).

Dip your hard scrubbing brush into your bowl of neat lemon juice or white vinegar and literally scrape the red mouldy stuff off each part of the dishwasher it has affected.

To accelerate the process, you can add salt (not bicarb) to the mixture for more scrubbing power.

Given how badly affected the dishwasher was, this took about an hour to scrub off every last bit of red mould, and I still couldn’t perfectly remove it from all the corners, but I was 8 months pregnant and very, very tired (also: nesting. I mean, who actually visits friends then obsessively cleans their dishwasher? Basically just pregnant people). I think partly I did it out of guilt, too, that this had been my dishwasher and I felt a bit responsible for it still. I didn’t want them to think I’d left them with a duff dishwasher.

Then run the dishwasher through an empty cycle with a cup of white vinegar, as above, and do this every week for a month to be sure the mould is really gone. Long-term, though, you need to stop washing your plates in the sink before dishwashering them. They need to be a bit dirty.

So that’s how to get rid of the red stuff coating your dishwasher shelves. It’s not a quick or easy fix, unfortunately, but if you find yourself in this situation, it’s absolutely worth doing.

You might be tempted to leave it as it looks more like a red staining than a mould growth, but here’s some of the health hazards of mould in your dishwasher:

  • Respiratory problems
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Exhaustion and excessive tiredness
  • Constant upset stomach (mimics IBS)

Mould can also be an irritant, especially if you have sensitive skin like I do. And you need to take care when cleaning your dishwasher out for the same reason. When mould is disturbed it can produce spores (which is how it reproduces).

Inhaling mould spores can cause an allergic reaction, with symptoms like sneezing, runny nose, red eyes, a skin rash, and it can also trigger asthma attacks (source: NHS website). So be sure to wear a mask if you’re working with a very mouldy dishwasher (I wish I’d done this) and wash your hands and arms thoroughly after working on your mouldy dishwasher, to remove any mould residue or spores that might have landed on your skin during the cleaning process.

Mould can be toxic and people have died from household mould exposure, so once you’ve identified mould in your dishwasher, you should absolutely take steps to get rid of it!

The other problem with mould is that it can spread really quickly. What was a bit of a brown stain (maybe you thought it was a tea stain) in the filter or blades of your dishwasher one week can completely overtake your whole dishwasher in as little as a few weeks! So keeping on top of a good dishwasher cleaning schedule is really important when you start to notice it getting a bit dirty!

40 things you can clean in a dishwasher

Got a dishwasher? Did you ever think its powerful cleaning capabilities could be used on other things than plates, cups and pots? Here are 40 things you can clean in a dishwasher:

Bin lids

Put them on the bottom shelf at the highest temperature for maximum cleaning.

Small plastic rubbish bins

If you have those little bathroom or bedroom bins (the 8 or 10 litre ones, or smaller), you can wash it in the dishwasher, if it fits. Just check the dishwasher’s cleaning blades still spin once it’s in.

Your kitchen compost collector

If yours is anything like mine, it gets completely disgusting with mold. Run it through the dishwasher regularly to sanitise it.

Fridge shelves

If the glass shelves of your refrigerator fit, you can clean them in the dishwasher regularly to keep them spotless.

Fridge drawers

For some reason, my vegetable drawers in the bottom of the refrigerator regularly get food residue on them. It’s easy to clean them up by placing them in the dishwasher, on either the bottom or top rack. Remove the dishwasher’s cutlery holder if you need a bit more space to fit these in!

Hobs

Those metal things that hold your pan off the heat on a gas cooker can usually be done in the dishwasher carefully. Check your manfacturer’s manual if you’re concerned about damaging your hobs. I’m more concerned with having a hygienic home and removing that impossible-to-shift grease that builds up. If that means the finish on the hobs gets a little less pretty, I can live with that. Put them through with half a tablet for peace of mind, and don’t do them more often than twice a year.

Grill tray

See the advice about hobs. The shiny metal part goes into the dishwasher no problem, but the grease-catching tray may rust if it’s not made to withstand intensive cleaning.

Oven rack

The shiny metal oven rack on which you put oven trays and casserole dishes can go in the dishwasher too. Position it on the bottom shelf carefully and check the dishwasher’s blades still spin. Don’t put cheap flimsy replacement oven racks in unless you don’t mind them getting a little rusty. Only use half a dishwasher tablet for oven racks.

Plastic laundry pegs (bag them first)

If your pegs have cobwebs or algae build-up on them, or just dirt from being outdoors, put them in a mesh bag and leave on the top shelf of the dishwasher to get them clean!

Safety child plugs

Those plastic plugs that stop toddlers sticking their fingers in electrical sockets? If they get dropped in treacle or paint, don’t worry, it’s easy to run them through the dishwasher. Just place under a cup to stop them moving around or getting lost.

Some lampshades

If your lampshade is plastic, you may be able to clean it in the dishwasher (carefully). I’d only use half a tablet and I’d also put the temperature to its lowest setting (such as a “quick wash” at about 50 degrees celsius. In theory, a lampshade should be able to stand higher temperatures (because they are next to light bulbs) but with modern energy-saving bulbs, some lampshades might not be up to the standards they used to be.

Glass mirrors (be careful)

Some glass mirrors can go in the dishwasher, but they need to be a) a sealed unit that can dry out b) non-electrical (don’t ever put illuminated mirrors in the dishwasher) and c) The backing needs to be protected. You can do this by covering the back with foil. I’d only do this as a last resort to try and fix a VERY dirty mirror (e.g. it has crayon or paint on it) as the best way to clean normal household dirt/dust off a mirror is using window cleaning spray such as Windowlene or Windex. There is a chance this could still ruin the mirror’s backing so do take care!

Glass from picture frames

Again, take a LOT of care and only put the glass in (not the frame). These can be laid flat on the top shelf. Small picture frames might not be heavy enough to stay put so I’d avoid putting in any that are lighter than an egg cup as I wouldn’t like to clean broken glass out of the bottom of the dishwasher. A better way to clean very delicate glass picture frames for ordinary household dirt/dust is to use window cleaning spray (see mirrors, above).

Toothbrush holder

Does the bottom of your toothbrush holder get a white or faintly yellow residue building up sometimes? Sort it out by chucking it in the dishwasher on the top rack with your cups.

Plastic cars

If your toddler has been feeding biscuits to his plastic cars, run them through the dishwasher to get them squeaky clean. Don’t put toys with very small parts (such as Matchbox-sized diecast cars with tyres) in the dishwasher.

Lego

Put dirty, sticky and chocolate-covered Lego (and derivatives) into a mesh bag such as the ones for washing powder tablets and put on the top shelf of the dishwasher or in the cutlery compartment if yours has an open area where you could put this.

Mega Bloks/Duplo

Bigger than Lego, I’d still put these in a mesh bag if they’ll fit, or place each individual block under a cup on the top shelf to get them clean.

Breast pump (cleanable/non-electric parts)

This can go in with your usual wash. Don’t put the tubing in. The basic rule is: if you can clean it in a sterilizer, you can safely put it in the dishwasher. Regarding hygiene, I would probably wait until your baby is about 6 months old before using the dishwasher, as before that, you need to use the sterilizer to properly obliterate the bacteria that your baby has no immunity to, yet.

Vases

Some vases can go in the dishwasher, if they’re either crystal/cut glass or glazed/fired pottery (such as Emma Bridgewater). Don’t run them through too often, but if a plant died in your vase while you were on holiday, this is a great way to properly clean it out.

Glazed pottery ornaments

Be very careful, especially if these are expensive. Small ornaments can be quite light and might get washed around the dishwasher, potentially damaging them. You need to be sure they are held down e.g. under a cup or in a (dishwasher-safe) net bag that’s anchored to something. I’ve had good results using the dishwasher to clean up cheap second-hand Jasperware I bought on ebay.

Plastic phone cases

If your phone case is plastic (not fabric or leather etc) you can spruce it up in the dishwasher. I put mine in the top rack, laid flat, and I put a cup on top to stop it escaping.

Dummies/pacifiers

These can go in your normal household dishwasher load. I hold them down by putting them under a mug so they don’t get washed around the dishwasher and end up in the bottom and dirty.

Children’s potty

If you’re toilet training your little angel, you might want to freshen up the potty every so often instead of rinsing it out all the time. Pop it in the dishwasher on a high temperature (follow the directions for the toilet brush, below, and remember the potty and toilet brush can go in together safely).

Toilet brush

Gross, right? Some people swear by it! I’m not entirely brave enough to try this one as I’d be scared of getting poo on my cups in the next wash, but if you’re going to try this, be sure to rinse off any brown bits in the toilet and put this through the dishwasher on a separate wash to anything you eat off. Use a wash temperature that’s over 65 degrees celsius to be sure to kill any bacteria (this is usually the 70 degrees celsius intensive wash option and has a picture of a pot with a lid).

Dish brush

All scrubbing brushes can work well in the dishwasher. Just don’t put them in with lots of pots and pans covered in thick sauces or other food residue, or the bristles will catch the residue. These could work well going into the dishwasher at the same time as the lint filter of your tumble dryer (see below).

Washing machine’s powder drawer

Have you ever pulled out your washing machine’s powder drawer? Were you horrified to discover that it was mouldy at the back? Maybe yours just has a build-up of powder/detergent residue in the compartments? Put the drawer in your dishwasher and watch it magically become clean! Be sure not to do this if you use a highly foaming detergent (most washing machines don’t) or you may end up with a dishwasher full of bubbles.

Tumble dryer’s lint filter

Put it on the top shelf of the dishwasher after removing as much lint as you can, to get rid of fabric dust and other ingrained yack. The dishwasher will clean it like any other fine-meshed sieve. Don’t put any papery filters in the dishwasher, or they will pulp!

Vacuum cleaner’s dust collection compartment (if no electrics in this bit)

If you need to get rid of all the dust in your bagless vacuum cleaner, put the dust collection compartment in the dishwasher; it will be sparkling in no time! Avoid putting paper-based vacuum filters in the dishwasher as they may turn to pulp.

Crocs

They’re plastic, so if you’re trying to remove ingrained dirt from your Crocs, you can run them through the dishwasher (not at the same time as your dinner plates, you don’t want cross-contamination). Remove any of those charms that you can stick to them, you wouldn’t want them getting lost!

Garden trowel

If it’s quality stainless steel or plastic, it can go in the dishwasher. Be wary of wooden handles, however, as these can be damaged if they’re left in water for too long (just like wooden spoons)

Empty plant pots

It’s easy to clean out your old plant pots (plastic or ceramic) ready to re-use for next year, just plonk them in the dishwasher together (in a separate load to your kitchen ware), add a tablet and hit “start”.

Beauty blender

Put it under a mug so it doesn’t wash away. Don’t put it in with an exceptionally dirty load of stuff because it’ll absorb the grease and grime instead of being cleaned.

Artists’ painting pallettes

Water and oil-based paint should come out in the dishwasher (dishwasher tablets are designed to cut through grease, after all). Acrylic is a bit trickier and cleaning dried-on acrylic paint in the dishwasher is less likely to produce a perfect result as acrylic paint is plastic-based.

Food trays (not ones which are cushioned)

These can go in your usual dishwasher load if there’s room.

Empty glass jars for recycling

Remove the labels first, or you’ll be scraping them out of your dishwasher filter later. If you want to reuse the jars for another project, running them through the dishwasher is a great way to clean them up. On the other hand, if you’re just putting them out to recycle, a quick rinse in the sink is far less effort.

Plastic fly swatter

The water jets in the dishwasher can get into all the crevices and get rid of those disgusting dead flies.

Paint roller drip tray

The dishwasher can remove water-based paint such as Rust-o-leum Chalky Paint but it can’t remove gloss or emulsions as these are usually designed to be resistant to water.

Paint roller handles (but not the fluffy part)

If they’ve gotten dusty or are otherwise manky from being left on a shelf for months, run them through the dishwasher.

Blender jug

Only if the jug separates from any electrical components, nothing electrical can go in the dishwasher. I find it’s particularly useful for cleaning the lid of my Kitchen Ninja (the rest of it can’t go in) which has the most awkward shape and is really uncomfortable to clean in the sink.

Hairdryer diffuser

Remove the diffuser attachment from the rest of the hairdryer and put it in the cup rack to get rid of product build-up

Hairbrushes (non-cushioned ones)

Plastic vent brushes, most combs, Tangle Teezer-type brushes (not travel ones) can all go in the dishwasher to get them effortlessly clean.

And some important exceptions:

Take care putting anything metal in the dishwasher. Cutlery is usually treated and alloyed to make it resistant to cleaning products and rust. Many other metal items are not. Metal oven cooking trays seem particularly susceptible to this.

Avoid putting anything electrical in the dishwasher. If your blender jug is like the Kitchen Ninja where the electrics are all attached to the jug, it cannot get wet so it can’t go in the dishwasher.

Never, ever, ever put anything aluminium in the dishwasher. This includes those continental coffee pots that heat coffee on the hob. I ruined a brand new one of these recently by trying to wash it in the dishwasher before using it. The inside is blackened and no amount of scrubbing gets it clean. Sigh.

Got any more ideas for things you’ve cleaned using your dishwasher? Let me (and everyone else) know in the comments!

Caution

Follow these tips at your own risk. The author takes no responsibility for damage to items washed in your dishwasher. Results could vary based on make/model/age/state of the things you’re trying to wash. Always follow manufacturer’s instructions.

A beautiful peacock butterfly came to visit

Following on from my posts about attracting pollinators to the garden and which plants are good for pollinators, my buddleja has been sitting outside the patio doors for the last couple of weeks waiting to be placed in its final spot (once the flowerbed has actually been laid) and we’ve had two lovely flying visitors!

Both of them are peacock butterflies which is super exciting! They were so lovely. I spotted them on one of the buddleja’s flowerheads enjoying some pollen. Quickly, I reached for my phone to photograph them and… disaster! My phone wasn’t in the house! I’d left it in the car!

I tried to hurry (not easy at 6 months pregnant) and managed to grab it, then I went around the side of the house hoping to sneak up on the butterflies at the back. This was a mission because my dear husband has a habit of laying all his wood out on the concrete path that leads around the back of the house instead of putting it away somewhere, so I was wobbling around on the uneven drainage ditch in flip-flops trying to get a snap of these butterflies!

I got into the perfect position, a few feet away, and tried to open my phone, but the unlock screen glitched! Arrgh! My iPhone 7 often refuses to recognize my fingerprint so I had to put in the full passcode. I tapped it out. Got the camera open. Started to zoom in on the butterflies. And they decided they weren’t hungry anymore so they flew off!

That was yesterday.

Today, one of them came back. I snapped some pics through the glass of the patio doors but I wanted a clearer image.

I managed to open the patio doors without scaring the butterfly away, and here are the pictures I managed to take!

The peacock butterfly is widespread across the Island of Ireland. It’s easy to recognize by its beautiful markings which range from yellow and blue to black. It’s quite a big butterfly compared to some of the others (such as the white butterflies you often see). When its wings are closed however, they look completely brown!

I hope our new butterfly friends visit again soon!

You may also like to know about the black frog that visits our garden.

10 Plants for Pollinators in Ireland and UK (and how to plant them)

When we first viewed our new home, I was surprised that the back garden was just grass. There was no fencing on one side of the garden, either, and next door’s back garden (and the one after them) were also just grass. It seems like people on our street just don’t really bother about landscaping.

Mowing the lawn seems to be a pastime here. Most of our neighbours have either a petrol mower or a ride-on petrol mower! I know our garden is large (compared to most of the ones in our price range… still not large enough to accidentally plant the wrong type of willow tree, see below) but seriously, I couldn’t imagine using petrol to mow! Most people do their front lawns weekly and their back ones every two weeks.

When I think about it, I wonder how many “new build” estate houses (ours isn’t that new but it was built in the 21st century) just have a big green blob of grass out back which people mow because heaven forbid any grass actually grow to its full height out there.

I’m looking at our grass-covered garden as a blank canvas. We’ve already completed some big projects this year, such as drainage, but mostly there’s so much that needs doing, we’re basically just getting it ready for next year.

One thing we’re both in agreement on is turning the final metre of garden into a wildflower haven to attract pollinators. One of the best things about high-pollen plants is they are usually very beautiful to look at, too.

Obviously, if you have allergies you need to plan your pollinator garden more carefully but there may still be ways to do it. For example, if you’re allergic to night pollen, plant flowers which produce more pollen during the day and avoid things like night-scented jasmine; if you’re allergic to tree pollen, give your garden height with shrubs instead of trees.

Pollinators are the insects such as bumblebees that pollinate all plants. Pollen-heavy plants attract them, but once they’re here, they will also pollinate your vegetables, fruit trees and other plants as well. And their numbers are decreasing. For more ideas about how to attract pollinators, check out this article.

With that in mind, here are ten plants that attract pollinators and how to plant them:

Buddleia (aka buddleja)

This lovely shrub grows to about 1.5 metres cubed (actually it won’t be cube-shaped, but you know what I mean) and attracts butterflies and bees. I’ve talked about it before in this article.

In many parts of the world, it’s a weed, and you might recognize it if you commute to London on the train as it really likes TfL’s railway embankments. I’ve also seen it thriving in the wild in Belfast, Donegal and Aberdeen so it can definitely cope with everything Britain/Ireland have to offer in terms of temperature/weather!

Buddleja Davidii seems to be the most common buddleia available at the moment, and it comes in several colours/sizes, but there are actually lots of other varieties of buddleia available to buy/plant. As it’s a shrub, it’s usual to buy a ready-grown shrub from a garden centre then plant it in a nice spot and watch it grow, rather than cultivating from seed. I got mine from Letterkenny Homebase and it was about 30cm when I bought it but in the past month it’s already grown to about 45cm.

How to grow buddleia:

Plant out: May-Sep

Flowers: July-Sep

Buddleia allegedly needs full sun and well-drained soil, but in my experience, it’s a very forgiving plant and can tolerate some shade and imperfect soil. If you don’t have good drainage, add horticultural grit or sharp sand to your soil and mix it in. The amount of grit/sand you need depends on the original state of your soil. Buddleia can thrive in partial shade, too, so don’t give up if you don’t have a full-sun spot for it!

Verbena

Growing up to 2m high, verbena can add height and structure to your garden, creating a layered effect when planted along with plants of other sizes. Verbena has purple flowers at the top of long, thin stalks. Visually, it can work well with lavender, sea holly and rosemary.

How to grow verbena:

Sow/Plant out: Apr-May

Flowers: Jun-Sep

Verbena needs well-drained soil that is watered regularly. It prefers full sun but, due to those long thin stalks, it needs to be sheltered from high winds–a difficult twin requirement to pull off unless you have a south-facing garden with a short-ish fence at the bottom. The best way to plant it is by the fence that gets the most sun in your garden, then plant something shorter in front, such as lavender, to protect the verbena’s stalks without obliterating your view of the flowers.

Salvia

The main variety is salvia officinalis, commonly known as the herb sage. But there are tons of other salvias available in all sorts of beautiful colors and sizes. With over 900 subspecies to choose from, some salvias can be quite fussy while others are very hardy. Some other salvias aren’t as attractive to pollinators as they don’t produce enough pollen, so do your homework before placing an order with a nursery.

How to grow salvias:

Sow/Plant out: Apr-Jun

Flowers: Jun-Nov

Salvias need to be in full sun. They also require well-drained soil. If you have heavy soil (such as clay soil) you need to add sand or horticultural grit to your garden and potentially put in a drainage system such as a French drain (named after a Mr. French, not the country). The fussiest salvias are not frost resistant, so plant those ones in containers that can be put in a greenhouse or a potting shed over winter and during cold snaps.

Lavender

With its characteristic fragrance, it’s easy to identify lavender. There are varieties in purple, bluey-purple, pink and pure white, making it easy to match lavender to the rest of your garden’s planting scheme. Most varieties don’t grow too tall, making it an ideal choice for borders. And the visual effect of lavender works extremely well when you plant a section of about 2 metres or more.

Lavender has a reputation for being tricky to grow from seed, but I’ve found it wasn’t, certainly compared to some other plants, such as echinacea. The main two varieties of lavender are English (lavandula angustifolia) which has smaller heads and overall is a more compact plant, and French lavender (lavandula stoechas), which is taller and has these odd long petals that make it look like it grew a ponytail! The French version is more fragrant but the English one is not lacking in scent, either! I’ve grown English lavender from seed this year (see picture above).

How to grow lavender:

Sow/Plant out: Sow indoors March-June; plant out June-Aug.

Flowers: It doesn’t flower in the first year. After that, it should flower Jun-Sep.

Lavenders prefer full sun but they also enjoy growing in partial shade. Their main requirements are excellent drainage alongside a constantly moist soil. In pots or planters, lavender can easily dry out if not watered frequently enough. As far as soil type, they prefer sandy soil, so if you have heavy clay, consider creating a raised bed and adding a hefty amount of sharp sand to the soil to accommodate lavender. They don’t really need extra plant feed or fertiliser. Lavender will die in waterlogged heavy clay.

Campanula Rotundifolia

One of the most beautiful sights along the Donegal coastline is the wild, natural campanula rotundifolia (Scottish bluebell, AKA the harebell) which grows in clumps alongside the sandy paths on the way to the beach.

There are a few other varieties of campanula which you can grow (and 500 worldwide varieties in total). The Scottish bluebell variety is edible and can be used to decorate cupcakes (although the picked flowers will shrivel if left more than a day, of course). I’m not sure about some of the others, but there are other varieties such as campanula rapunculus which are also edible. You can buy the campanula rotundifolia (Scottish bluebell) variety in packets of seeds, but check the full Latin name of the seeds you’re buying before eating, in case you have one of the other types of campanula.

I’ve noticed Homebase and Tesco in particular are bad at not giving the full genus/species name for plants they’re selling (I have a plant from Tesco that’s just called “aloe” with nothing on the label stating whether it’s aloe vera or aloe barbadensis or something else enirely). This article from Gardener’s World outlines 10 of the most interesting campanulas to grow in the UK/Ireland.

I bought my campanulas. The RRP was €6.45 but I got mine for 50¢ as they were “looking a bit dead”. As you can see from the photo they have perked up a lot over the past two months and are now flowering!

How to grow campanula rotundifolia:

Sow/Plant out: March-June

Flowers: June to first frost, so usually October in most parts of UK/Ireland

Campanula rotundifolia (Scottish bluebells/English harebells) grow best in well-drained soil, they don’t thrive in waterlogged conditions, but they also don’t enjoy 100% sand soils, because they like a bit of fertility to their soil. They are a coastal plant in Donegal and native to some of the rest of the Irish west coast, too, which tells you they like it wet and well-drained! They don’t require any pruning/maintenance, although you might need to thin them out every so often if you planted a lot of seed close together.

Erica (heather)

If you’ve ever been to the Scottish Highlands, you can’t miss the way the landscape changes from grassy, human-cultivated fields to a magical wilderness where heather takes the place of grass and suddenly the ground is a riot of colour.

Heather can work well in an ericaceous garden (surprisingly, since all heathers are ericas), alongside hydrangeas, rhododendrons and azaleas, although none of these others are especially attractive to pollinators. An ericaceous plant that does appeal better to pollinators is the blueberry bush.

How to grow heather:

Plant out: Depends on type (see below).

Flowers: Depends on type. Some flower at Christmas, due to being accustomed to the colder temperatures of very high latitudes/altitudes, while others are summer-flowering in the UK/Ireland.

Heather thrives in peaty, nutrient-packed soil with a high organic matter content, with high moisture and acidity. It won’t enjoy most clay soils, because clay is generally alkaline (not all clays are like that… test yours with universal indicator paper cheaply available from any soapmaking supplier, or a pH meter if you have cash to splash), so you would have to put heather in a specially-adjusted area of your garden, or grow it in a planter. Planters are difficult for heathers because you have to fertilise regularly to maintain the level of fertility they require, which can be effort for the busy gardener.

Snowdrop

Another plant with a billion different species, the snowdrop (genus galanthus) is a winter-flowering plant. The most common one is galanthus elwesii, and this is the one you might have seen quietly blossoming on the forest floor during a crisp winter walk.

Snowdrops are perennials, and more will grow each year. Thinning is required once a year in March or April (dig them out and plant the extra ones somewhere else) to ensure they’re not competing with each other for nutrients, water and space.

How to grow snowdrops:

Plant out: October/November

Flowers: December-March (depending how far north you are)

Snowdrops like shaded areas such as beneath trees in wooded areas, and they dislike full sun. Most pollinators are hibernating in the winter months, but those who aren’t will surely appreciate your efforts to provide them with some delicious pollen! They require fertile soil rich in organic matter (ideally humus from dead and decayed plants, so compost is a much better choice than manure for snowdrops… think of them as vegetarians). Snowdrops tolerate wet soil, but like most other plants, they don’t like being drowned during heavy rain, so a soil with at least passable drainage is best if you want year after year of snowdrops (remember that when they’re not flowering, the bulbs lie dormant in the ground for the rest of the year). Mostly, if you get the growing conditions right, they’ll take care of themselves (aside from requiring thinning as mentioned above).

Borage

A bright blue plant with distinctive, star-shaped flowers, borage is an edible plant whose flowers can be used as a garnish for dishes, although the leaves can also cause dermatitis if you’ve got sensitive skin, so be careful. Because it’s edible (and non-toxic), borage is a great choice to plant in a child-friendly garden or near your vegetable patch to attract pollinators.

Borage is an annual, so it lives and dies in one lifecycle, but it’s also self-seeding, so when it dies, its flower heads drop seeds that will grow again next year.

How to grow borage:

Sow/Plant out: Sow March-May, plant out May-June

Flowers: June-November (may stop flowering earlier depending on when the first frosts are)

Borage prefers full sun or very partial shade, but it will still survive in a bit more shade and less sun. It also needs well-drained soil. Borage doesn’t grow well in containers as it has a taproot (like carrots and dandelions) that needs at least 30cm of well-drained soil to enable it to grow to its full size, but it’s doable with a very deep container.

Willow trees

The willow tree is one most people have heard of. But did you know there are a lot of different varieties, and there’s almost certainly one which will suit your garden! The fluffy catkins attract pollinators.

Depending on what sort of garden you have, you might want to grow a salix chrysochoma, aka the weeping willow (loves waterlogged soil, but has a huge root network so needs to be about 20m from your house at its full height), or you might prefer a salix alba, the upright white willow, so-called because of its pale trunk, branches and twigs. It prefers a slightly less wet garden but still drinks a lot of water and grows very tall.

If you have a smaller garden, the more compact salix caprea (which grows to only 2m high at its tallest) or salix purpurea pendula (which reaches 2.5m high), both of which will require regular pruning to keep them from looking like a giant birds nest.

How to grow willow trees:

Plant out: All year round. Don’t plant in the middle of a hot sunny day, wait until evening or risk scorching the roots. Likewise, don’t plant out during a frosty spell, the roots might freeze in the cold soil.

Buy a sapling from a garden centre. Check the full Latin name of the tree you are buying to make sure you are getting the right type of willow tree for your garden. If you have a small garden, take care not to buy something from a supermarket that’s just labelled “willow tree” because it’s likely to be one of the tall ones (they’re cute when they’re babies but be sure you have the room for when they reach 20 metres tall).

Willows will mostly take care of themselves but you do need to ensure they have enough water, either by watering them yourself or (better) only planting them if you have a soil that’s damp most of the year around. Prune them in October (it’s illegal to prune trees during bird nesting season which lasts March-September).

Poppy

Another plant with many different varieties to choose from, the poppy is a beautiful wildflower native to the UK and Europe. The most recognizable poppy for anyone who grew up in Great Britain is the red Flanders poppy, which the cardboard November 11th Remembrance Day poppy sold widely in Britain is modeled after. Poppies are easy to grow and some seed companies even do children’s grow-your-own varieties.

Aside from the Flanders poppy, there are also poppies in different colours and sizes to choose from, such as the Himalayan blue (which has the hilarious Latin name meconopsis), the great scarlet poppy, or the bridal white poppy, which in recent decades has become an increasingly-popular symbol of peace in the UK. There’s also the orange Californian poppy and the yellow Mongolian poppy. Really, look at the range on a seed site like Thompson and Morgan and you’ll be amazed at just how many different poppies you can buy!

Be aware that not all poppy seeds are edible, and some can be toxic. Poppies are where the old-fashioned drug opium came from and some countries ban them completely because of this (you cannot get poppy seed rolls in China, for example), so be sure not to try flying with a packet of poppy seeds!

How to grow poppies:

Sow/Plant out: March-June

Flowers: May-July

Some poppies are a little longer-lived than others, but like most summer-flowering plants, they’re best sowed between March-June (although if you live in the Highlands of Scotland or Ireland you might get away with planting them into July). They thrive in almost any soil type (except waterlogged) and prefer full sun or partial shade depending on the variety.

Allium

A tall, gangly plant with a long, thick stalk (like a daffodil’s) and a globe-shaped flowerhead, allium is actually a flowering variety of onion. In fact, if you’ve ever tried growing your own onions, you may have had a couple that flowered instead of becoming onions. If you plant a supermarket onion that has sprouted, it will flower, too (I tried this once).

Alliums are gaining popularity amongst gardeners because they are a structural, geometric-looking plant which is great for pollinators. They’re also fairly easy to grow and can tolerate most soil types.

How to grow allium:

Plant out: Sow directly into the ground in Oct-Nov.

Flowers: May-June

Alliums will grow best in a well-drained soil rich in organic matter, but they’ll tolerate almost every soil type. They are planted in autumn to “overwinter” which means the bulbs will lie dormant in the ground until springtime when they will finally start to grow (much like autumn-planting onions, shallots and garlic, which they’re related to).

Alliums are annuals and I haven’t yet managed to get them to self-seed. The usual advice is to dig them back into the garden (mulching) once the leaves have died.


Read next:

5 ways to attract pollinators to your garden

Bees have been in decline for about the past 15 years. I believe it was 2006 when David Tennant uttered the immortal line on Doctor Who: “Why are the bees disappearing?”

It was a question they never answered. Because no sonic screwdriver, no TARDIS, no noisy battle with the Daleks could fix the problem. The bees ARE disappearing… [read more]

Recycled sensory wall for babies

This was a great fun project to do and you probably already have everything you need for it as it’s 100% recycled. I did this project in September 2020. We were living in rented accommodation last year and one of the issues is you can’t attach anything to the walls (pretty standard rule in rented houses in the UK, where we lived at the time).

Senses: Touch, vision, sound.

Skills: Helps refine baby’s motor skills.

Baby age at time: 13 months old.

Cost: £0

Time to make: About 30 minutes.

Start off with a big piece of cardboard. We used one of the boxes that Jellyfish’s cot (US English: Crib) came in. We had been using the box as a fireguard (we didn’t use the fire at our old house as it was a real smoke fire and I don’t think they’re great especially around babies).

For a few months I’d saved empty packets of wet wipes with the plastic clasps (rather than the flimsy sticky lids many of them have). These are great for a peekaboo wall. Using a pair of scissors, I cut out the clasps, leaving a decent-sized square of the packaging around the clasp so there was something I could tape down.

I taped the clasps to the cardboard on all four sides. Next, I got some old leaflets and packaging out of the recycling. I chose ones with brightly-coloured pictures and I cut them out. I taped the pictures behind the wet wipe clasps and also put pictures on top to ensure Jellyfish knew these were something interesting.

I also got some multicoloured rainbow washi tape from Amazon and used it to attach empty toilet roll tubes to the sensory wall so he could have fun pulling them off again.

Baby’s verdict: He saw the pictures of cars on the clasps and immediately went to play with them. He pulled the clasps open and found more pictures behind them! He had a lot of fun with these little “mystery doors”. It took him about two or three weeks to rip all the pictures off the wet wipe packets. I stuck them back on a few times. When we moved to a new country, however, the sensory wall was no more, but his motor skills did improve from playing with this toy regularly and he was able to open other things more confidently.

It’s a super-simple toy but he’s had a lot of fun out of it! I was sad to finally consign this to recycling when we moved to our new house in Ireland.

Preserving the onion harvest: 3 easy ways

I have been growing onions as one of my main crops this year. Finally, over the past few days, they’ve been showing signs that they are ready to be harvested. Onions can last about 7 days in the ground once they’re ripe, so I tried to time the harvest to avoid the abundance of stunning rainstorms we’ve had this week (I love watching the rain).

Since I lifted such a good amount of onions from the raised bed this week, it seemed like a good time to talk about what we actually do with them after they’ve been dug up. Onions are very easy to grow and they tolerate very poor soils, as I’ve learned this year from experimenting with where I planted them.

You don’t need to make much effort to grow onions, they are zero-maintenance, and not especially vulnerable to any of the major garden pests. Once they’re ready to harvest (when the stalks go floppy and fall over), it’s also quite easy to store them so you can have a decent supply of onions throughout the winter.

Onions are a good choice for self-sufficiency as they can be used to make French onion soup which is a traditional meal to help fight off colds during the cooler part of the year. They can also be used as a very versatile way to add depth and flavor to a variety of dishes such as spaghetti bolognese or lasagne (aka lasagna in the US).

You can plant onions in Spring or Autumn but the difference between harvest times seems to only be 1-2 months so your decision to plant autumn onions should depend on whether you have any other overwintering crops (such as broccoli) that need the space or whether you need to replenish the soil (such as by planting green manure crops e.g. clover).

Onions require regular rotation so don’t just plant them in one area every season or you’ll mess up your soil.

You can just store them in a cool, dry, dark (very dark) place on wire racks and they will last a couple of weeks, just like store-bought onions.

However, if you’re homesteading, you probably want your onions to last a bit longer than that, because you’ve probably grown rather a lot of them, to see you through winter. So here are three easy ways you can get them to last longer:

1. Canning

Canning works best for tiny onions. To can onions, you need to take care to treat the onions so they stay preserved. You can’t just put them in a can with some brine and expect them to store.

First, you need to peel the onions. Soak them in boiling water for 20 seconds, drain, rinse with cold water and the skins should come away easily. They should be showing their white all the way around the onion before you start preserving them, and they should be clean.

Next, place them on a plate or on a tray and sprinkle the onions with salt. Every onion needs to be salted so don’t pile them too high. Cover with Saran wrap (cling film) and leave to work for about 24 hours.

The next day, rinse the onions well to remove all the salt, and put them in a big glass canning jar. Cover the onions with hot vinegar, leaving the minimum air gap possible, put the lid on and seal the jar using a pan of boiling water.

Let the onions mature for at least 6 weeks before eating.

2. Freezing

If you have a freezer and a reliable electricity supply, freezing your onions probably makes the most sense. It’s also the easiest method for preserving onions.

Simply peel your onions, chop them (I tend to dice mine) and put them into freezer bags. Write the date on the freezer bag and seal, then place into the freezer. The freezer will smell… pungent for about twelve hours, until the onions have reached the correct temperature and fully frozen.

The beauty of freezing onions specifically is that, if your electricity supply is disrupted later down the line, you can always remove them from the freezer, defrost them, and dry them following the steps for method 3, below. Even with a prolonged powercut, frozen onions can be easily saved.

3. Drying

You can easily dry onions using a dehydrator and they will last a very long time. Drying your onions removes all the water from them, so there’s nowhere for bacteria to live or reproduce. You can then reconstitute the onions at a later date by soaking them in boiling water before cooking with them. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for your dehydrator as temperatures and timings may vary between machines.

If you don’t have a dehydrator, you could lay out the diced onions in a thin layer on baking paper on a big oven tray, and heat at 65 degrees Celsius (150 degrees F) for 4-5 hours. It should be obvious when they’re done, they’ll have turned papery.

Once your onions are fully dehydrated, decant them into a storage container such as a Tupperware-style sandwich box (the ones with the clips around the sides are especially good) or a sealable ziplock bag. Write today’s date somewhere on your container of onions so you know when you dried them.

So those are my three very easy methods for preserving your onions throughout the winter. Now I just need to figure out if there’s any use for the onion stalks, or whether I should just throw them into the compost.

How will you preserve your onions? Do you have a method I haven’t thought of? Let me know in the comments!

5 Foods to Forage in August: Ireland

One of the most wonderful things about living out in the country in a large village is the abundance of wildlife all around me. I love seeing the birds every day as the coal tits come to my bird feeder followed by the ravens, who usually grab some of the pest bugs from my vegetable garden while they’re here.

I get excited when the blackberries appear, green at first, then red, before turning that barely-black shade that means it’s time to pick them. And I always smile when I see the rose hips starting to form at this time of year, looking like dewy pink rosebuds again, as nature gets ready for the transition into Autumn.

August is the month that many berries are ripe for picking. These are usually full of vitamins (especially vitamin C which boosts your immune system among other things) and preserving these berries through making jams, jellies, wines or cordials is a traditional way to ensure you have a healthy winter.

The earliest of the nuts appear at the end of August, too, although most taste best when harvested next month or even October. If you can find hazelnuts to pick, you’ve hit the nutritional jackpot this month!

Here are my top 5 foods to forage in August if you live in Ireland:

Blackberries

ripe blackberries
Ripe blackberries… totally different to blackcurrants (but everyone thinks they’re the same thing).

These are native and you’ll find their distinctive brambles all over the place.

My grandma used to say never to pick blackberries from by the road because the toxins from petrol cars would get into the berries and make you ill. She was a district nurse/midwife so probably knew what she was talking about. She lived in an era where car fuel contained lead, but she also grew up in rural Ireland at a time when there were significantly fewer cars on the roads, so I’d still heed her advice because we know a lot more about the toxicity of other petrol fumes these days.

I wanted a reliable source of blackberries as I adore blackberry jam, so since April I have been growing my own blackberry bush in a container (to stop it taking over the garden… it’s already trying haha). If you’ve a blackberry bush, it should fruit in the second year.

Ironically, it turns out there are also blackberry brambles in the little spinney at the bottom of my garden, and they have grown through the fence, so it looks like we’ll be inundated with my favourite berries next year! I always had a great crop of wild blackberries growing in the hedge at our old house in York, England (despite my mother in law’s attempts to remove the bramble “weed” when she visited), so I can’t wait to have them in my garden again.

Choose ripe blackberries which are a dark purple (almost black), and avoid ones which have been pecked at by birds or eaten by insects. If they have brown damage to the berries, leave them for the birds, too. Absolutely never pick mouldy ones (these will have green fuzz on them).

Remember, it’s better to leave some behind than to pick everything then throw it away, because other animals depend on naturally-growing fruits for their survival.

The best thing to do with blackberries you’ve foraged is to make my grandma’s blackberry jam recipe. If you don’t have time to do it immediately, freeze your blackberries until you can make them into jam.

Raspberries

My other grandma was Scottish. She lived near an abandoned railway line where canes of raspberries grew in late summer and her freezer always had a little supply of them ready to be made into her delicious pies with homemade pastry. Aside from the berries, raspberry leaves can be harvested, dried and made into tea which tones the uterus and helps stimulate labour contractions for pregnant women (avoid when pregnant until the end of your pregnancy).

To harvest the berries: Pick them when they are a pinky-red colour. The berries are delicate so store in Tupperware-type containers. You can either eat them as-is (or as an ice cream topping), freeze them, or make them into pies or jam. Avoid fruit that is damaged or looks like old lady skin, or has gone a strange colour. Also avoid unripe fruits.

To harvest the leaves: Pick them when they are green. Avoid ones with holes in them or ones which have aphids or other insects living on the back (or front, but usually insects colonize the backs of leaves). At home, wash them thoroughly then put on an oven tray. Bake at 65 degrees Celsius (150F) for 4 hours to dry them and put them into small muslin bags or tea filters when you want to make raspberry leaf tea.

Elderberries

Elderberries are a versatile natural fruit berry growing in Ireland in August. The berries are small and round, a deep purple that looks black, with a shiny surface.

There are a few other plants that have berries that look similar, including deadly nightshade (not a tree, but it can be parasitic around trees and I’ve seen it reach heights of 10 metres or more when entangled around a tree), so if you’ve never picked elderberries before, do consult a plant or tree identification guide to be sure you’re picking elderberries.

Elderberries can be used to make jam, cordial, or wine, depending on what you prefer.

Hazelnuts

Finally, a source of protein! Hazelnuts are supposedly native to Ireland in some areas, although I’ve never seen any myself. I’d keep an eye out because they’re the jackpot when it comes to foraged nutrition.

They’re hiding in little papery structures on hazel bushes, and they’re reddish-brown when they’re ripe (don’t pick green ones)

You can roast them and salt them, or even pickle them to preserve them!

Crab apples

Crab apples are a lot smaller than regular apples. They look a bit like rose hips, and are a similar size, except crab apples are perfectly round, not rosebud shaped. If you’re familiar with the plant where you’re picking them, you should know if, earlier in the year, it had dog rose/wild rose flowers (either white or purple with a yellow centre) or whether it didn’t, and that’s a good clue, too. Don’t worry at all if you get them confused. Both are edible.

Crab apples are best used to make crab apple jelly to be served alongside chicken as a condiment (like cranberry sauce for turkeys, but more European).

There’s a frog in our garden!

We’ve been trying to solve this mystery for about a week.

Last week, while we were busy laying the drainage to ensure our heavy clay soil can be used for anything other than very soggy lawn, my husband spotted a little creature behind our oil tank (the oil tank is for heating, if you’ve never come across this).

The first time he tried to approach, the creature fled through a gap in the bottom of the fence. All we saw was a flash of black then we heard this crashing and banging. For about a week, we wondered if it was a water rat or similar. My husband estimated from the noise it made that the visitor must have been this big (holding his hands apart so wide I was led to believe the mystery creature was about the size of a rabbit).

Fast-forward to yesterday, we were laying more drainage (between the downpours) and our little friend appeared again, looking a bit put out when we interrupted his lunch. Mystery solved: It was a huge black frog.

He just stood very still and waited for us to leave. This fellow has more neck than a giraffe, he didn’t even flinch when my husband stood inches away, moving some wood so he could get out through the fence.

Again, today, he made another appearance and I think he has decided to take up residence at the back of our garden. Probably because it’s so damp and soggy. Poor chap is going to be a bit put out when we drain all the land. We might have to put in a water feature for him (except we have to proceed with extreme caution re: water due to us having a toddler).

So here’s a picture of our mysterious intruder:

I was unsure whether this was a special species of frog native to Ireland, but when I looked it up, there wasn’t really any information about black-coloured frogs online, so I’m guessing it’s a common frog (in an uncommon colour). It’s definitely not a toad because it doesn’t have the warts, and anyway, the face is too pointy. Apparently, frogs can turn darker colours when they are cold, but that doesn’t make sense for this frog, because both times I’ve seen it, the temperature was between 18-22 degrees Celsius, which is quite warm (T-shirt weather).

Have you ever seen a frog in an interesting colour? Are these native to Ireland? Do we have a rare species of frog in our garden that’s never before been discovered? What a mystery!

Oh and on the topic of hilarious stories to do with land drainage, on the way back from Buncrana at the weekend, I saw a tourist pull into the side of the road and refill his drinking water bottle from the outlet pipe from a farm’s land drain! He threw his head back and chugged it. Eurrrrrgh! He was drinking cow poo! If you’re on holiday in a rural area, please don’t do this, you could get dysentery or all sorts. If it comes out of a big pipe and lands in a grid or river, it’s NOT a natural stream of drinking water.

You may also like to know about our beautiful butterfly visitor!