Friday, November 6, 2009

Oh bugger!

I just wandered down to the vegie patch to plant another row of carrots and put the corn in and discovered that when the Cunning Plans Dept was doing his slug patrol last night, he forgot to close the vegie patch gate properly. Which means the dogs got in...

This is all that remains of the broccoli:
Every plant has been pulled out and chomped. There are only the remnants of leaves and roots. They also ate the top off the lettuce that I was allowing to go to seed, flattened half of the onions, ate the parsley that was in a pot down to the stubble and because the beds were wet from the rain, left inch deep paw prints through most of the beds.

On the plus side, the carrots look okay, as do the onions that were along the lower edge of bed 3. I think the bean seedlings will pull through as they only look a little knocked, not ripped out. The strawberry plants are okay, though there is not a red strawberry in sight. They also appear to have left the rhubarb alone.

So on a positive note, it could have been worse. But still...BUGGER!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Free Tomatoes

This year's tomato raising resulted in around 90-100 seedlings. Around two weeks ago, natural attrition had reduced this to 86 seedlings. I planned to only keep around 10 for our plot, so 70+ seedlings needed to find new homes.
  • 14 plants went to Dad
  • 10 or so were set aside for friends
  • 16 where swapped at the Community Garden Vegie Swap (I took along 44 and brought home the excess)
A stock take revealed I still had 28 plants I didn't want to keep. The solution? Put them out the front with a sign saying "Free Tomatoes" and see if anyone will take them.
Sign writing credit goes to the Cunning Plans Dept who thought it might be wise to put some kind of limit to remind people that taking all of the seedlings at once may be greedy (trying to encourage community sharing etc..). We also made sure that the boxes we put them in were old cardboard boxes we wouldn't miss if they were taken or damaged.

We put the seedlings out on Saturday 31st, thinking that perhaps if there was anyone out trick or treating for Halloween they may wish to add some tomatoes to their booty. By Sunday evening, 4 seedlings had gone. When we got up on Monday morning and went out, the whole lot had gone. Boxes and all. At least they left the sign!

While the point of putting of the tomatoes out the front was to give them away, I'm a little disappointed that someone took 24 seedlings, and the boxes, in one go. I'd like to think it was an enthusiastic gardener, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it is more likely someone who will probably try and sell them at the markets to make a quick buck. I guess even then they'd still eventually end up in someones garden.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Community, fresh produce, and education

Today is the International Day of Climate Action and we've marked it in our own small, local way.

This morning I headed over to the community garden for the monthly Waste Not! Fruit and Vegie swap, loaded with my excess tomato and capsicum seedlings.
Which I exchanged for 2 grapefruits, 4 oranges, some carrots, rhubarb, parsley, and ginger. I also bought a loaf of bread that the Port Kembla Men's Association had baked in their wood-fired oven.

It was a great day to be out in the garden and I enjoyed catching up with people and enjoying a cup of coffee courtesy of the Men's Association.

After heading home briefly for lunch, I went over to Futureworld Eco-Technology Centre to join the Cunning Plans Dept who had headed over in the morning to help with their open day. The open day ran from 10am to 2pm and I understand that they had a really good turn out with over 100 visitors through the doors. They also had an Ideas Tree at the centre for people to write down their ideas about what we can do to move towards a future of 350ppm.

In the evening, we looked at the website and were amazed at the number of actions and photos flowing in from around the world. Over 5200 events across 181 countries. It feels awesome to have been a part of that and to see so many people being passionate about this.

Update: The Futureworld action photos can be found on the flickr site here. Wish we'd remembered to take some photos at the vegie swap with the 350 motif.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Tomato seedlings

I just counted 86 tomato seedlings on my front doorstep. This is actually less than was planted due to a bit of natural attrition.

I am resolved to only plant 6-8 tomato plants in the vegie patch this year (10 at the most), partly due to space limitation and partly so we're not drowning in tomatoes in a few months. So why do I have so many seedlings? A few reasons:
  1. I'm giving some to family and friends who didn't have time for raising from seed.
  2. I have a number of different varieties (mostly heirloom varieties) and loads of seed
  3. I knew some would either die or be a bit pathetic and this allows me to pick the healthiest looking ones.
The excess seedlings are not going to waste though. Once I've sorted through the seedlings and picked the ones I'm going to plant and set aside some for family and friends, the rest are going to the Waste Not! Vegie Swap tomorrow.

This year I'm following Peter Cundle's advice and being very cruel to my tomato seedlings. He recommends planting them into small tumbler sized containers (or put several in a punnet) and only giving them enough water to stay barely alive. Apparently this will make for tough plants. Molly-coddling is expressively forbidden.

I've planted mine into yogurt pots and a few 3-4 to a punnet/round chinese container. I sprinkled a little sulphate of potash around them, as recommended, and I've been trying to only water them when they are dry or starting to wilt a bit. I must admit that being cruel to my tomatoes does feel slightly counter intuitive, but hopefully the reward will be nice sturdy plants that produce loads of fruit. I'm holding off on planting them out until they start to show signs of flowering, though at the rate they're going this could be a while yet.

Looking back through my photos from this time last year, it was about this time that we bought a couple of tomato seedlings, which then put on a huge amount of growth through November. The photo above was taken mid November last year showing the first fruit forming.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sustainable living: Tank water

The plumbers came yesterday to do the final stage in our project to get tank water connected to the house. Our two 7000 litre rain water tanks are now connected to a pump, some filters, and plumbed into the house water system. The tanks have a float switch which will switch us back to town water if the water in the tanks run too low. We can also manually switch back to town water if we want to, for example in Summer, if we are getting low on tank water, we might decide to use the tank water for the garden and the town water in the house (as rain water is better for the garden than town water). We don't have a flow meter on the tank system yet, but will be looking to get one soon so that we can still keep track of our water usage.

The Cunning Plans Dept did some calculations and reckons that based on our average rain fall and the collection area of the roof, tank water would be able to cover about half of our annual water usage.

Does it feel any different? Well the taste is definitely different. Rain water tastes much milder and doesn't have that slight chlorine after taste. The water pressure in the house is also less than we had with town water. This doesn't seem to be a problem, but I have noticed that obviously things like the washing machine take longer to fill. It does enforce less water usage in the shower! Also psychologically, I think being aware that you're using water from your own tank does make you think more about your water usage.

The next step will be to get the maximum usage out of our water and get a grey water system running under the backyard to water the trees and shrubs. And we'll also be looking at other ways we can reduce our overall water consumption so that tank water becomes a larger percentage of our total usage.This is the photo of us in our backyard, next to the vegie patch (with the two 7000 litre tanks on the right) that we submitted to the Alternative Technology Association's online event for the Global Day of Climate Action (this Saturday, 24th October). The ATA is aiming to get 350 photos of real people living sustainable lives. You can check out their gallery here. I like how the photos capture a wide range of things from big projects to small steps.

This saturday, if you're in the Wollongong area, why not check out the Waste Not! Vegie Swap at the Wollongong Community Garden and pop into Futureworld Eco-Technology Centre in Warrawong.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Garden Challenges: Strong Winds

Wollongong can be a bit of a windy place, especially at certain times of the year. We're fortunate that we don't tend to be as exposed to the wind as other places due to being on a hill and the backyards on either side of us are higher, giving us a little bit of protection.
However the two days of strong winds last week were certainly exceptional. First was the red dust storm on 23/9 and then the buffetting winds on 26-27/9.

We only suffered one main garden casualty with the winds, which was the snow peas. They simply couldn't hang on to the vegie patch fence with those strong winds. Most of the upper stalks snapped and fell over. I went down to the patch yesterday and trimmed off all the broken stalks. One plant had broken right down to the ground. The other four plants appear to still have some new shoots forming lower down below all the breakage, so I'm hopeful we may still get a bit more life out of them.

Surprisingly, the broccoli seedlings survived, despite no real protection. The young fruit trees also seem to have survived, though the leaves on one of the apples have all wilted and shrivelled, but I think it was doing that before the dust and wind. Hopefully it will come good. And the apple that I had suspected was dead as it showed no sign of life while the other four were growing leaves and flowers, it has a tiny bit of green showing in the top bud.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Operation Potato Patch

We love spuds, so there was no question that our vegie patch plan would include spuds and lots of them. In anticipation of great mounds of spuds, I eagerly bought a "gourmet combo" of seed potatoes. The pack included six varieties, each with around 8 tubers. The Kipflers and the Nicolas went to Dad as we was keen to give those a go. That left us with the remaining 4 varieties (Desiree, Kind Edward, Royal Blue, and Cranberry Red), or 32 tubers.

Now here is where doing the maths before getting too carried away would have helped. According to a variety of sources, our seed tubers needed to be planted in rows 40-80cm apart with 25-40cm between the spuds along the rows. The packets the seed tubers came in recommended 40cm x 40cm. Now 32 tubers at those spacings meant we were pretty much looking at not only an entire bed, but a bed larger than any of our existing ones. Since we've been thinking about extending the vegie patch down the hill and adding an extra bed anyway, we figured that a no-dig potato patch would be a great way to start.

Preparation and materials
Because gardening in our backyard involves lab-proofing, we needed to figure out what we would use as a barrier around the new patch. The long term plan is that we would use the 2 pool fence panels from the old vegie patch to extend the new vegie patch. However, we're not ready to move those yet so we needed an interim measure. We decided to go with chicken wire.

The no-dig method involves layers of straw, manure, and compost, plus a bit of blood & bone. We already had a good amount of compost and some blood & bone, but needed to buy straw and manure. A trip to Bunnings later and we had 8 bags of pulverised cow manure, 3 bales of sugar cane mulch, and a 10m roll of chicken wire.

Constructing the potato patch
A no-dig patch, as the name suggests, involves no digging. Given our horrible heavy clay soil that is full of rocks, we're a fans of no digging. However, we did need to mow the grass and weeds down, which also served to mark out the area.
While the patch will mostly be a "mound", due to the slope of our yard, we needed something along the lower edge to stop the whole mound slowly sliding down the hill. We re-used some edging from one of the old vegie beds.

To try and keep the kikuyu and weeds at bay around the edges of the bed, we laid down wet newspaper. Unfortunately we didn't have enough to cover all the bits we wanted to, so we will have to add to it later.

The fence was the next thing to go up. The Cunning Plans Dept made some stakes out of branches from the old tea tree and we stretched the chicken wire around the patch, leaving a "gate" at one end.

Next was the layering. Normally with a no-dig patch, you could put the seed potatoes straight on the ground and pile the layers on top. As our ground is hard clay, we figured we'd give our spuds could use a layer between them and the soil.

First we sprinkled a generous amount of gypsum over the ground, which will help break up the clay. Next was a layer of one bale of sugar cane mulch and 4 bags of cow manure mixed up.

The seed potatoes were laid out on this layer, which was ~6-7cm deep. Due to a slight glitch in my mathematical abilities, we had to adjust our layout a bit, but ended up with 3 rows with 9 spuds in each row, with spacing ~40cm x 25cm. I did at least remember to make a note of what we planted where in my garden diary. This, you will note, is only 27 spuds. As it turned out, we only had 30 tubers and I'd previously bought 3 "grow bags", so the leftover 3 spuds went in those.
We then continued with the layers. Sugar cane mulch, then the rest of the cow manure, blood & bone, then more sugar cane mulch, then a layer of compost, and finally a bit more sugar mulch on top. We'd been progressively watering in the heap as we went. Fortunately, the weather decided to be helpful and just as we finished the final layer, the skies opened and we got a brief downpour. I still gave it a bit of Seasol after the rain for good measure.
The final step was to stake the bottom edge of the chicken wire and rig up a bit of plywood (re-cycled from the old dog kennel) as a gate. Voila! One potato patch.

Recap and lessons learnt
We didn't really have an idea of how much manure and straw we would need, but as it turned out we needed more than we got. Ideally, we would have liked to have had the heap at least 30cm deep, but it's probably more around 20-25cm deep. As we will need to keep adding to the heap as the potatoes poke up through the top, we're going to need to get much more straw and manure. Total depth will need to be 50-60cm.

While we like growing our own food for the joy of it and also to grow varieties you can't get commercially, we also like to look at the cost breakdown of growing our own vs buying from the local fruit & veg store. For reference, the rough costs:
  • 8 bags of cow manure - $44, will need more so add another 10 bags @ $55
  • 3 bales of sugar cane mulch - $36, will need more so add another 3 bales @ $36
  • 10m roll of chicken wire - $25
  • Seed potatoes - $22
  • Grow bags - $13

That's a total of ~$230. If we have good yields, that will be ~1kg per plant, so 30kg of spuds. Current spud prices are ~$2-3/kg for bog standard spuds, and ~$4-5 for "gourmet" varieties, so we could grow maybe $90-110 worth of spuds.

However, much of the costs are because we're starting a bed from scratch, which we won't need to do in future seasons as this bed will become part of the rotation. Next season, we will only need maybe 1/4-1/3 of the straw and manure and can use potatoes from this crop as seed tubers for the next (providing no diseases strike the patch). Next year, we could only be looking at ~$50 on materials for $90-110 worth of spuds. We're also not going to get varieties like the Royal Blue or Cranberry Red at the local fruit & veg.

In terms of time, the whole exercise took the two of us from around 10am to 3pm (with an hour break in the middle for lunch). The absence of digging meant that than heaviest labour was really moving the bags of manure and strewing them over the bed.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Powdery mildew

I recently discovered that one of the snow peas was not looking very well. It's leaves had become yellow and mottled. Not knowing what it was, but guessing it was some kind of disease, I pulled the plant out hoping that it would save the other 5 snow peas from the same fate. A week later I could see that the neighbouring plants have developed odd white-ish spots on their leaves, with some of the lower leaves starting to yellow.

From reading some of our gardening books, I took a guess that this could be a fungal problem. A bit of googling later and I believe we have powdery mildew, which can affect plants like snow peas and is probably the result of my late afternoon watering, a few humid evenings and the way the lower parts of the snow peas are dense in foliage which restricts air movement.

I had a look for some organic options to deal with powdery mildew and found a few home remedies. The main one is a milk spray, which is 1 part full-cream milk to 10 parts water. Unfortunately, I didn't have any milk, so I decided to try another recipe, which used 7 teaspoons of bicarb soda, in a bucket of water with enough soap to make a lather. I mixed this up and put it in a little spray bottle.

The other advice on powdery mildew was to remove the worst affected parts of the plants. I removed most of the lower sections of the snow peas. This will also help air circulation around the plants. The lower halves looked a little naked, but I hope it will help. The rest of the foliage was sprayed with the bicarb & soap spray. I did this in the afternoon once the patch was in shade. I've also made a note to be careful watering in the afternoon. While I water at ground level, the spray tends to wet the bottom 10cm of the plant.

The other thing I did notice on the snow peas, which clued me in to the fact that it might be a fungal problem, was the presence of a number of yellow and black ladybirds. I remember from doing my first year biology bug project that these ladybirds feed on fungus. A quick look on the CSIRO entomology website and I found these little ladybirds are Illeis galbula and feed almost exclusively on powdery mildew. Definitely good bugs to have in your garden.

A few days later and the spray seems to have stopped the powdery mildew from worsening or spreading further. I think I'll leave the plants for a bit to see how they go and let the ladybirds feast on the remains.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Operation Apple Orchard

Having received our five little apple trees a month or so ago, it was time we actually got them into the ground now that they're definitely dormant. We ordered a selection of dwarf varieties from Digger's Club which includes Rome Beauty, Snow, Jonathan, Gravenstein, and Vista Bella, which should mean that we have enough for cross pollination and a range of early through the late harvest.

Like all of our backyard garden projects, phase one involved lab-proofing the area where the new trees were going. We managed to pick up two lengths of wooden lattice from Whyte's Gully for $40. These were cut in half lengthwise to give us double the length and enough to fence off the bottom corner of the yard as a mini-orchard.

Next we planned out the spacing of the apple trees and dug the holes and put in a stack of clay breaker. After these had a few weeks to settle, we started work the last phase. The plan was to sheet mulch the ground of the orchard with newspaper and mulch to conserve water and also to give our new trees less competition from weeds and the ever invasive kikuyu. We had recently helped our neighbour seriously prune and remove some bottlebrushes that had gotten too big and were taking over his clothes line. All the prunings had been thrown through a chipper we hired so we had a nice big pile of mulch.

The clay breaker was struggling with our heavy clay soil, so we decided to backfill the holes with some "vegie soil" (leftovers from the load we bought to top up the vegie patch) and plant the apples into small mounds and built up the area in between them with mulch.

For each apple tree we made a small mound, hammered in a stake (made from branches pruned from other trees that had dried out), up-ended the trees from their pots, teased the roots a little, then spread them over the mound and covered with more soil until all the roots were firmly covered and there was a small "well" at the top of the mound. We trimmed the trees to 30cm about the graft, as per the instructions that came with them, and loosely tied them to the stakes with bits of old pantyhose. The trees were then watered in with some seaweed solution to help ease the transition.

The area in between we covered with wet newspapers. We had about three wheelbarrow loads (courtesy of my parents saving their newspapers, thanks!). It didn't quite cover the whole area, but was enough to start with. We then covered the newspapers with a thick layer of mulch. Later, once the newspaper and mulch have had a chance to rot down a bit, we're going to put in some ground cover plants between the trees.

The end result, as the Cunning Plans Dept put it, looked like some sticks, tied to some other sticks, surrounded by lots of little sticks, but come spring there will hopefully be some new green growth.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Bottled water vs tap water

I was listening to Triple J on the way home and Hack was doing a piece on the town of Bundanoon, which is just up on the highlands from us, and their plan to ban bottled water. And now it looks like the NSW Premier is following suite and phasing out the use of bottled water in NSW government departments and is planning a public campaign to discourage people from using bottled water.

I really support discouraging the use of bottled water if there is an easy to access supply of tap water. Our office tea room has always had a chilled filtered water spout for filling bottles and I would certainly prefer to fill up my glass for free as often as a like during the day than have to buy bottled water. I'm not sure if a ban is the way to go, but in the case of workplaces where it is fairly easy to install chilled filtered water fountains for staff use, then I think that's actually a nice policy that sets a good example.

I support encouraging people to drink water for both hydration and as a healthier alternative to soft drinks. I certainly don't like the unsustainable aspects of bottled water production. To me, it's excessive processing, packaging, and transport to provide something that for most people they can get for a fraction of the cost from the tap, and it hasn't had to travel anywhere near as far. I don't have as much of a problem with the concept of bottled water as essentially a boutique drink (i.e. you're purchasing the unique characteristics of water from a particular place) than I have with it being used as an alternative to perfectly acceptable tap water purely because of convenience. That is more typical of the "want it now" convenience attitude that disregards unsustainable processes and production in favour of something that requires little or no effort on the part of the consumer.

I think there are three main reasons that people drink bottled water:
  1. the tap water is not potable
  2. the tap water is drinkable, but you prefer the taste of bottled water
  3. you don't mind tap water, but when you're out, there aren't always convenient places to fill a bottle up or you don't have a bottle with you, so the only option is to buy water if you want to drink water instead of soft drink (probably because you're health conscious).
My guess is that in Australia, the biggest group would be the third lot, where the issue is more that of availability and convenience than a distinct aversion to tap water. I'm in the third group. I don't like soft drink. If we're traveling and I get thirsty, I'll buy bottled water. However, at home and work, I drink tap water. I also tend to have a bottle of tap water in the car with me. When that runs out, I buy bottled water and am often annoyed that I have to pay more for it than some sugar, colouring, and preservative loaded soft drink.

I think the key is providing an alternative. In cities that have perfectly drinkable tap water, providing places for people to fill up with filtered, chilled tap water, for minimal cost, is going to be the key to getting people to switch from bottled water. I think if the choice started to become available, most people would take the cheaper option over bottled water. Once that is set up, a ban is probably not necessary as the main consumers will be those people who are purchasing the water for its taste (same as someone would buy a bottle of coke because they like the taste) and those who are purchasing it because they don't have drinkable tap water.

I can see this becoming a bit like alternatives to plastic bags. It took a bit for the idea to take off, but once the major supermarkets started supplying "green bags" for purchase at the checkout it was easier to buy reusable bags, and then it is just getting into the habit of bringing the bags to the supermarket. The plastic bags are still there, but there are places that now charge for plastic bags (e.g. ALDI) and I don't think it will be long before paying for plastic bags is required. There will always be some people who will use plastic bags, and pay for them, because of the convenience factor (and we can glare disdainfully at them as we fill up our reusable green bags).

If you could convince major outlets like supermarkets, fast food chains, and service stations to have a filtered water refill station (for a small refill fee), then I think it won't take that long for people to get into the habit of having a reusable bottle with them. And if you can purchase a reusable bottle along with the refill, then that makes it all the more easier. Once a pattern is established it is a strong incentive for cafes and other stores that would normally stock bottled water to consider a filtered water fountain. Most office-type workplaces should also be able to provide filtered water without much difficulty. I would also love to see how the Bundanoon proposal of having filtered water fountains in the main street goes as that would be great if Councils could consider free filtered water fountains. Outdoors ones are probably targets for vandals, but perhaps having them in Council facilities such as swimming pools, libraries, halls etc.. would work.

I can also see the reusable bottles being a great marketing tool and potential fashion item, as it would be easy for companies to come up with funky designs. Just look at all the "green" bags out there that are used to promote all kinds of things and also as trendy fashion statements.

So I think this idea has merit and it certainly has my support. I look forward to seeing how Bundanoon go with their proposal and the proposed public campaign that the Premier has suggested.

    Monday, June 8, 2009

    One man's trash is another's treasure

    While we were out and about today we decided to pop into Whyte's Gully, the local resource recovery centre (aka the tip). We weren't looking for anything in particular, more just seeing if something would inspire us.

    We did score two relatively long lengths of wooden lattice fencing (capped on all edges), which will go towards vegie patch fencing for $40. Also spotted a pile of 34cm square floor tiles, in a white/offwhite colour. We've been meaning to replace the floor of the ensuite bathroom and at $1 a tile, these were a bargain. We took all 40 of them. We'll probably only need around 15 for the ensuite, but we could then do the floor of the toilet to match.

    Normally I skip past the various homewares as they're usually broken or otherwise no longer useful for their original purpose. However I stopped a large punchbowl was sitting on a table. It had the cups all piled in the middle and was half full of rainwater and various muck. I started taking the cups out and they all looked in good nick. The little plastic hooks that allow the cups to hang from the bowl were also there. The bowl itself looked fine and had a matching smaller bowl inside it. As I emptied it there was broken glass in the bottom, but not from anything from the set. I'm pretty sure it is identical to a set my Mum has. So for nostalgia sake I thought I'd take it home. We asked the guy how much and he said it had been sitting their for so long that we could take it for free! Score!
    We got it home and gave it a clean up. All the glass is in good condition. No cracks or chips. Only one of the little plastic hooks is missing. One cup has an interesting manufacturing defect were it is a bit wonky on one side. But all in all, a gorgeous set. And to think that someone took this to the tip! I mean, I can understand taking stuff to the Salvos when it goes out of fashion or selling it on eBay, but the tip? The stuff people throw out continues to make me boggle. Still, I've gotten a gorgeous punchbowl set for free so I'm calling that a win for today.

    Monday, June 1, 2009

    Waste Not! What to do with excess produce

    On Saturday, we went to the Waste Not! Vegie Swap held at the Wollongong PCYC Community Garden. It was our first time and the second time it's been run locally. We first read about it at Happy Earth and thought "what a fantastic idea". One of the things we've realised through our gardening adventures is that you tend to get a glut of produce and there is only so much you can eat, preserve, freeze, and offload to unsuspecting friends and relatives. Sadly our vegie patch didn't have a whole lot in it right now that's ready to harvest, except for the abundance of basil. However, we were interested in seeing what it was all about so armed with many bundles of basil, and some rosemary and thyme thrown in for variety, we headed over.

    There seemed to be a reasonable turn out, despite the chill in the air and the intermittant drizzle. There was an interesting selection of produce that people brought along to share. The swap arrangement was pretty relaxed. We picked up some bush limes, brazilian tree cherries, tumeric, a lettuce seedling, and some cucumber seeds. But most of all, we had a lovely time meeting the people there and having a look at the community garden. There was also coffee and freshly baked bread courtesy of the Port Kembla Mens club.

    We'll definitely be back, even if we don't have much in the garden. We're also hoping to get along to some of the community garden working bees to learn some more about gardening from the old hands.

    Green comfort

    We decided a while ago that a spa was not only a cool thing to have but would help with some health maintenance issues. Fortunately a spell of intense work provided the funds for it and after some back-verandah-meets-chainsaw action, we have a spa sunk into the back deck. How decadent. Now for the green accounting side of it:

    • New timber for deck mods - locally treated waxwood from plantation timber.
    • Spa itself - australian manufactured with exception of pump and electronics
    • Support pedestal - spare bricks and a paver lying around the house plus 1 bag of mortar
    • Water - 1500L from our rainwater tank
    • Heating - Currently electric system using 100% Greenpower from JackGreen.
    The first heat-up took a whopping 77kWhrs of electricity, which is more than a week's worth of our normal power consumption, or in other terms, enough to run the fridge for 2-1/2 months. Holding it at 34degC overnight took 13kWhr and for the daytime 6kWhr (outside temp a rainy 8~16 degC).

    As the fibreglass body only has a ~3mm coating of expanded foam coating as insulation, I stapled some sheets of plastic to the underside of the edge supporting timbers and pulled them all together. While I was doing this it was noticeable how warm the air was under the enclosed but not sealed deck. After the plastic was installed it was noticeable the temperature difference inside and outside the plastic, so it appears to be working. I also took the time to seal the corners where the curved spa sits in the square framed deck, as it was possible to feel the hot air rising from these small gaps. In time I'll put some thermometers around to measure exactly what's going on and how much effect it's having.

    Ultimately I hope to majorly reduce the power consumption by connecting to a solar tube water heater which I picked up at 50% off while buying some tanks. This will get plumbed in as a recirculating closed loop system to provide heat to the spa, via a heat exchanger (as soon as I find or make one!)

    So who says going green rules out some of the nicer things in life?

    Oh, and I may tap some of the water off to spoil the dogs with hydronic floor heating for winter...

    Wednesday, May 13, 2009

    The war on slugs

    Just when I thought our vegie patch was rather blessedly free of garden pests, we have had an invasion of slugs and the rotten buggers have targetted our strawberry patch.

    Around a month ago, one of our strawberry plants started to fruit prolifically, producing what looked like they would be big luscious fruit. Then to our great disappointment, just as the fruit was ready to pick, we'd discover that some rotten little pest had gotten to it first! At first we couldn't see any traces of the culprit and suspected birds, but then we found the tell tale silvery trails.

    First we tried pouring coffee grounds around the patch, having read that the caffeine is enough to make slugs and snails keel over. That didn't seem to deter them though, so onto plan B - Beer!

    We decided to try two different traps. One is the standard chinese container buried to ground level. The other the CPD came up with, which uses a cranberry juice bottle that is partially buried with an openning cut into the side. This one has the advantage of being relatively rain proof. That night, the CPD decided a spotlighting mission was in order to check the effectiveness of the traps.
    The mission uncovered slugs that were indeed going for the beer...having a drink and then crawling back out! The beer was about a day old by this point so the CPD tried some fresh VB, which seemed to have the desired effect (i.e. slugs turning themselves inside out). So, mission accomplished, the CPD packed up the spotlight and headed back the house...and forgot to close the gate to the vegie patch, leaving it open for our two beer-loving puppies.

    The next morning, there was no beer, no traps, no slugs, and worst of all, no strawberries! After all of that we've decided that a few spotlight missions and two bricks will do just fine for slug control.

    Sunday, March 22, 2009

    Hey Pesto!

    Since the last update, the vegie patch mk II has been going well. The strawberries, tomatoes, capsicums and basil have all taken off. Even the parsley I thought had surely fried to a crisp on those hot summer days is making a comeback. Unfortunately the rainwater tank has run dry again so the patch is now dependant on my ability to lug the watering can up and down the yard.

    The most productive plants have been the basil. They are all around 50-60cm high and full of lush big green leaves. I keep pinching off the flowers to spot them going to seed too early. And what does one do with an abundance of basil? One makes pesto, of course!

    Phase 1 - Collect basil
    There is something immensely satisfying about wandering into the garden with a basket and a pair of secateurs for a spot of harvesting. This collection made hardly a dint in the crop.

    Phase 2 - Mix with other fine ingredients
    Throw freshly picked basil in the food processor with some pine nuts, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and salt. Whizz to a coarse mush. Stir in some freshly grated parmesan cheese. Scoop into jars. Cover with a layer of olive oil.

    Phase 3 - Pesto!
    I now have three jars of home made pesto. I didn't use up all the basil I collected (there is only so much pesto one can use and my folks are blessed with equally productive basil plants so they don't need any). The leftovers will be destined for bruschetta or pizza. I'm looking forward to having some simple dinners of hot pasta with pesto stirred through.

    I'm really enjoying the harvest end of the gardening cycle. It's lovely to be able to eat fresh produce, straight from the garden. I've been enjoying our carrot crop, one carrot at a time. The rest get left in the ground until we're ready to eat them. The broccoli heads are getting to a reasonable size, albeit most of them are a tad mutated from pests getting to them.

    My fig tree (Black Genoa) arrived a week ago. Silly me didn't transplant it straight away so it started to look a bit poorly. I've now transplanted it into a bigger pot, but it still looks poor (mostly because all the leaves dropped off!). I picked up some Seasol from the nursery today and will give it a good feed tonight and hopefully it will rally. Should it survive my appalling mishandling of it, it should grow to be a lovely bush with lovely plump juicy figs. It's staying in a pot as I don't want to end up with a 10+ metre high monster.

    I've also ordered five apple trees and a cherry tree from Digger's club (I should really not be allowed near their catalogues). They're all on dwarf root stock so they won't get huge. They should arrive in a few months (Digger's only ships them when they're dormant to minimise damage). The local nursery has a good range of citrus and other fruit trees so there will be lemons, limes, mandarins, mangoes and whatever else looks good coming as well.

    Wednesday, February 25, 2009

    Reducing our carbon footprint

    A few months ago, the Cunning Plans Dept worked out our carbon footprint using some thingummy on the web, and to be blunt, we suck. The web thingy did break it down into areas and while the house and general living wasn't too bad, our air travel and two cars were seriously in the "not good" category. Between this and generally become aware of a lot of great sustainable living options out there, we've been more motivated to make change to our lifestyle to live more sustainably.

    Here's what we've got so far:
    - good roof insulation and the house is double brick so it's go reasonable insulation, especially downstairs.
    - electricity is 100% greenpower (i.e. all from renewable sources).
    - energy saving light bulbs in all light fittings.
    - dual flush installed on the downstairs toilet (upstairs already had it)
    - grey water from shower now watering the backyard lawn (hose runs into a buried piece of ag pipe so it waters underground). Unfortunately we can't easily access the laundry grey water and we'd have the problem of what to do with it since you can't store it and we can't just have it run out into the back yard where the dogs can get to it and make themselves sick.
    - 2500L rainwater tank installed down the side of the house and piping connected to water the back vegie gardens. We also have the "wine barrel" rainwater tank at the front of the house and it waters the front garden.
    - garden is watered predominantly with rain water. So far this year I have only had 5 days where I needed to use mains water. When we use mains water, we use a watering can and limit usage. We also use water crystals in the soil and mulch to help minimise water requirements.
    - All food waste composted (either compost heap or worm farms). We also use newspaper with mulch.
    - growing some of our own vegies (not enough to avoid the shops completely, but a start)
    - using organic gardening practices (no pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilisers etc..)
    - recycling anything that can be recycled. Also making use of recycled materials around the house (e.g. turning bottoms of plastic bottles into seedling pots).
    - using predominantly organic or at least "minimally processed" food, preferably locally sourced. I do still get torn between supporting organic farmers or local business (food production method vs food miles debate).
    - using grey water safe cleaning and laundry products and not overusing these products (slight problem is that we have a cleaner and I don't know what he uses)
    - clothes and linen from sustainable fibres like hemp, bamboo, or organic cotton.
    - No plastic bags. In addition to the ubiquitous "green bags", I am a real fan of Onya weigh bags. They're small nylon net bags for loose fruit & veg like beans, peas, cherries etc.. They come in a little pouch that you can clip to your green bags. Actually, if you're crafty, you could probably make some. I also love those lightweight nylon bags that fold in on themselves into tiny bundles that can be easily carried in the handbag for emergencies.

    Here's what we're working on:
    - solar panels for the roof. Maybe solar hot water as well, depending on the outcome of our solar assessment.
    - Magnetite window insulation (alternative to double glazing, which seems impossible to get) on the upstairs windows and master bedroom downstairs. Got a quote, just need to arrange a time to get everything measured and installed.
    - another rainwater tank, preferable a big one on the lower terrace of the back yard to collect off the entertainment area roof.
    - replacing the incredibly un-environmentally friendly Rodeo ute with something else. Since we're not doing SCA and therefore are not lugging copious amounts of stuff all over the country, we probably don't really need a ute. We do need a vehicle that the CPD can easily take onto work sites and preferably something that can transport the dogs when required. A station/sports wagon sort of thing would probably do. The CPD wants to go electric and possibly build his own fully electric car, since there are no fully electric cars on the market in Australia. If that turns out to be a longer term project, we may just go for something more fuel efficient like a Volkswagen Jetta Sportswagen TDI.
    - in the next few years, replace the Elantra with something more fuel efficient. It actually isn't too bad, but we're hoping that in a few years, the electric technology will have improved and we can replace it with an electric car. I am tempted by the Honda Civic Hybrid if a fully electric option isn't available.
    - fly less. Again, with us not doing SCA and therefore not flying interstate or to NZ every month, this should reduce. I know some airlines provide an option to purchase carbon credits with your flight, so maybe that's something to look into, because I would still like to get the odd holiday in every now and then.

    Things that are a bit of a challenge:
    - the two vehicle thing. The CPD needs a vehicle for work as he travels to a lot of sites that are inaccessible by public transport. Theoretically, I could use public transport to get to work, but I run into the problems of a) Wollongong public transport is abysmal, b) it would constrain my work hours in terms of when I arrive and leave and I need some flexibility here, c) lugging stuff to and from work on public transport would be an issue given my current feebleness. I know, lots of excuses. I honestly do think that if I lived somewhere with great public transport (like Melbourne), I'd happily be a public transport convert. Sadly Wollongong has a long way to go (well, NSW in general if you broaden it to include Cityrail). Cycling is not an option as I'm afraid of cars and lack the physical strength.

    So that's where we're at. I'd be interested to hear what other folks are doing on the sustainable living front and any tips and tricks.

    Monday, February 23, 2009

    Garden update

    With the hot weather finally breaking and some decent rain, things have started to take off again. About 5 days before the rain started, our 2500L rain water tank ran dry. Within 3 days of rain, it was full again.
    The centre vegie patch is now looking like it has some life in it. The tomatoes are growing fast and the largest is producing fruit. The capsicums are starting to flower. The strawberries have been putting out runners like crazy and I've been nailing a few down so they'll put down roots.
    This weekend I decided (somewhat belatedly) to stake the tangled mess of tomatoes in the front garden. I'd been letting them ramble, but with the wet weather they were starting to get manky.
    The sunflowers have been producing a glorious display. Each plant has one big central flower, about 30cm in diameter, but also a bunch of smaller side flowers. They've been brightening up my house on the cloudy days.

    Time to plant more seeds and this weekend I put in a row of leek seeds and a row of celery seeds into the seed raising trays. In a couple of weeks I'll put in another row, and then another lot a few weeks later. This should hopefully been I don't get inundated with celery and leeks later. I also planted a entire tray of marigolds and an entire tray of pyrethrum. The first planting of marigolds are still going well, but the first batch of pyrethrum didn't survive the heat. Speaking of marigolds, I've been collecting the seed from the dead flower heads. Anyone want any marigold seeds?

    And just for Ms D, our first borage flower (bit blurry because it was from my phone camera)

    In the side vegie patch, it looks like we've lost the corn crop to lots of tiny green bugs that have gotten in between the sheaves surrounding the cob. I have no idea what they are. Looks like they got into all the cobs and the kernels looked shrivelled and dry. Ah well, you loose some crops. On the plus side, the broccoli is finally starting to produce heads. Most of the plants are riddled with holes from cabbage white butterfly grubs (rotten little buggers) and I haven't managed to get down there with some Dipel to deal with them. I'm hoping that the damage is mostly to the leaves and they'll still produce decent heads. Reading my new gardening book, apparently I should have sown brassica seeds early this month and be planting out seedlings next month. I'm still getting the hang of this "what to plant when" part.

    Friday, February 13, 2009

    Can't wait to plant these!

    Look what arrived in my seed order from Digger's club this week:
    Okay, I had planned to get some beans anyway, but how could I resist a name like this? Downside is their planting time is Spring, so it could be a long wait before I get to find out what "Sex without strings" tastes like. Unless I just go ahead and plant them now, given that we tend to have mild enough weather on the coast they may just make it. Tempting.

    Sunday, January 25, 2009

    Vegie patch - now with plants!

    Last weekend I finally got around to transplanting plants from the multitude of pots cluttering the back veranda into the vegie patch. And voila!

    The top bed (which is the one on the left) has all the strawberry plants. I tried planting out a couple of the runners. One survived, one didn't, but the surviving plants are doing well. One is currently flowering and fruiting.

    The next bed has most of the more established tomato and capsicums that I had in pots. I've also planted the basil seedlings between them. They seem to be going okay, but the leaves are going a bit yellow. Ms D has mentioned this is probably because I've mulched with lawn clippings and a bit of blood and bone should do the trick.

    The next bed has some of the tomato and capsicum seedlings that were still in the seedling trays, plus the parsley and coriander seedlings.

    At the end of each bed I've transplanted the pyrethrum and borage seedlings. I'm hoping these will be good companion plants and help deter bugs. Unfortunately, they're still tiny so they aren't doing much yet.

    Of course, there has been one minor hitch in that the days after I planted everything into the vegie patch have turned out to be among the hottest and driest all month. I did mulch everything with lawn clippings to help reduce water loss. The smaller seedlings seem to have suffered the most. C'est la vie. I have more seeds.

    However, the Cunning Plans Dept has rigged up a pretty nifty system to get rain water from our rain water tank to our garden without exposing parts of the system to unintentional "lab testing" by Hudson and Gracie (they eat hoses, hose fittings, anything really...).

    The 2500L rain water tank sits down the side of the back veranda (Fig.1). The CPD then dug a trench on the top terrace to sink a pipe that runs from the tank and pops out the side of the terrace retaining wall. A length of hose then runs from the tank, through the pipe (Fig.2) and pops out the retaining wall, which is contained within vegie patch MkI (Fig.3). The hose is then threaded through the top of the weld mesh fence of vegie patch MkI (Fig.4) and at the end of the fence there is a hose attachment (Fig.5)to we can attach a hose to water vegie patch MkII. Because the tank is uphill, there is no problem with water pressure.

    This weekend we bought some weeper hose to put under the mulch in the vegie patch as the main irrigation system. This will probably involve burying a pipe between vegie patches 1 and 2 so that we can leave the irrigation hose connected and just turn it on and off from the tank.

    The other plants are doing well. The first sunflowers have finally opened. The marigolds are in bloom. They are incredibly cheerful looking flowers. The bonus compost tomatoes out the front appear to have both romas and regular tomatoes.

    Sunday, January 4, 2009

    Vegie patch - now with soil!

    While I know it seems a rather obvious statement that a vegie patch has soil, but up until a week or so ago, mine didn't. There was not enough dirt from the terracing to fill the beds and what was there was mostly clay and rock. The gypsum had worked a treat on the clay, but I simply needed more soil and the compost heap isn't THAT big.

    So the Cunning Plans Dept went and got a truckload of soil, which was dumped on our front lawn. This needed to be moved down to the back yard. Given my feebleness it was fortuitous that my brother needed some extra cash in hand and was willing and able to do some manual labour. So he and the CPD spent a day using a small tipper to load soil into the trailer, attach trailer to tipper, drive down the neighbours driveway to the side fence of our backyard (after removing a panel of fence), dump soil into our yard, repeat. Once all the soil was moved to our back yard, the tipper was then used to transport soil to the vegie patch beds.

    They also got the mulched the dead tree branches that had become overgrown with grass and weeds from sitting in a heap for so long. Plus some mowing and edging and the back yard is actually looking not to bad.

    Now all that needs to be done is the edging of the ends of the beds, putting down plastic and gravel for the walkways and we'll be ready to start transplanting some of the potted vegies. I've drawn up the plans for the four beds. One will be for perennials (strawberries, rhubarb, asparagus, and garlic) and the other three will be annuals with rotating crops.

    Meanwhile, vegie patch mkI is going berserk!

    The corn have flowered and the first ears are starting to grow. Broccoli is getting huge, but no heads yet. There are bloody cabbage white butterflies everywhere and the leaves are riddled with holes, but they still seem to be growing okay. Carrots are still going well. The bonus compost potatoes and tomatoes are also growing fine.

    We've also picked our first tomatoes! Some had a bit of blossom end rot, but that didn't really affect them. Nice and tasty and so red in the middle that the shop bought tomatoes literally pale in comparison. The tomato plants themselves have started to get yellowing in the leaves. I looked up some gardening books and google, but there are a apparently a lot of things that could cause yellowing of leaves ranging from the harmless, don't worry about it, to all is lost, please destroy your plant and the soil it grew in. They still seem to be growing okay and the fruit is ripening, so I'm just going to see what happens.