The Sydney Morning Herald

Greener at the grassroots

Author: Erin O'Dwyer
Date: 12/10/2011
Words: 588
Source: SMH
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Page: 18
The foundations for an environmentally friendly city start at ground level, writes Erin O'Dwyer.

Visitors to Annie Werner's house can virtually fill their bellies even before they reach the front door.

In the front yard, the mulberry tree is heavy with dark berries and there are waist-high clumps of green beans and fennel. Brussels sprouts, rhubarb and kale are ready to pick. Beneath the lemon tree are fragrant herbs and leafy greens. A brown hen scratches in the woodpile next to an ecological beehive that will soon produce wild honey.

"I made a wedding dress for a friend out of vintage tablecloths and her partner built me the beehive as a trade," says Werner, whose collection of second-hand linen is stock-in-trade for her bespoke clothing boutique Pearl & Elspeth. She custom-makes skirts from old curtains, with vintage tea-towel detail.

"People say, 'Do you have another tea towel with a galah on it, I really like the galah'," she says, laughing.

With every step, Werner, 33, treads lightly on the planet. She holds a PhD in English literature but works as an environmental educator. She runs workshops in environmental baby care, no-dig gardening and wardrobe "upcycling" for councils.

At home, she and her partner, Genevieve Derwent, 35, make their own yoghurt, brew their own beer and raise chickens for meat and eggs. They grow a large proportion of their food themselves and supplement it from growers' markets or the organic food co-operative Alfalfa House.

Werner got serious about sustainability when her first child was born and she began researching the devastating environmental impact of disposable nappies. Now the family's fortnightly budget comes in at just $1070 - including all organic food, rent, bills and petrol. She says she is raising her children - Olive, 5, and Oscar, 18 months - to understand that environmental sustainability is a way of life.

"My grandparents lived on a farm and were self-sufficient and we spent our school holidays with them," she says. "I was inspired by their simple way of life, so close to the land."

This month Werner and her family will take the full environmental plunge, moving to Bega, on the NSW south coast, to build an energy-efficient straw-bale house. All building materials - apart from the bales and timber frame - have been sourced through eBay, Freecycle networks or roadside clean-ups. The house will be off-grid, with its own water and sewage treatment.

"The more you learn about it, the more you want to do it," Werner says. "It depends how far down the path you want to go but even a little way down the path is good. If it's important to you, you'll find the energy for it. It becomes less of a chore and more of a lifestyle.

"The rhythm of making things becomes a joy."

The senior environmental officer at The Watershed Sustainability Resource Centre in Newtown, Megan Bennett, says going green is neither difficult nor costly. She suggests starting with a small balcony garden and a worm farm.

"Often people start with one interest, like how do I set up a worm farm, and then they get excited about other things," she says. Worm farming is The Watershed's most consistently popular course.

Bennett says she is also seeing a "cultural shift" as people become more innovative and adventurous with recycling.

"It could be clothes or furniture or a whole range of things and people are saying, 'Let's make it into something else; let's make it trendy'," she says.

"We're seeing that integration into people's lives and it's becoming second nature."

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