Tuesday, October 25, 2016

'Amy, what is permaculture?'

A couple of months ago my good friend Shani (from Ecoburbia) revved me up to finally do my Permaculture Design Course. It had been on my bucket list for ages and I felt like I needed some inspiration. It would also be a good chance to binge on exclusive Shani time - we are often busy and when we do catch up there's usually a million other things going on. So we took the plunge and booked our course, booked our AirBnB, kissed the family goodbye and headed over to Sydney for two weeks. Eep! Two weeks away from home! It was the longest I'd ever been away from my boy - flying all that way for all that time was a big deal for me. Was it worth it? Oh my. Yes.

We were just a bit excited on the first day.

The good folks at Milkwood really know their stuff. Our facilitators were Hannah (from Good Life Permaculture) and Brendon (from, well, I don't really know, just the world I think). They were not only fantastic facilitators but they taught us deep from the depths of their experience and generously dished it out for us day after day.

The first few days covered the ethics and principles of permaculture and for that bit we were lucky enough to have David Holmgren (co-founder of permaculture) teach us. When he walked in the room there was a hush and it was a bit like Jesus had just entered to bring us the good news that could save us. It was very exciting. David is just simply a lovely guy - humble, generous, wise and fun.

We went through the design process where we really learned how important observation is. We learnt about different systems to be aware of (climate, water, soil, etc). We then touched on some different elements you could include in a garden/farm system like bees, compost, aquaponics, annual garden (veggies), trees, and more. During all of this we all worked on our individual design projects, then our group project.  I loved it all, especially our group project. We were a great team - hilarious, kind and productive.

After the first few days Shani and I started playing the 'What is permaculture?' game on our walks home from the community centre to our AirBnB. It was to prepare us for questions from our partners and friends when we returned. It goes something like this:

Amy: Shani, what is permaculture?
Shani: Thank you for asking, Amy. Well, it's a design process. Um. And there are ethics and principles you follow to make your place efficient and so it provides what you need. And it's about the function of elements and how you use them. Or something. Augh! Your turn Amy. Amy, what is Permaculture?
Amy: Thank you for asking Shani. Permaculture is... uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuummmmmmmmm. It's a way to design your space with elements that interconnect and are multi-functional so you're more resilient. And it's also about your life and your lifestyle and your community. No, that's not really it either!

This conversation went on for two weeks and we never really nailed the definition. But for the record, here is David Holmgren's definition of permaculture: 'Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs'. I won't go through the ethics and principles. You can google that. But for my own purposes of revision I'll try to remember all the interesting and practical things I learned about and want to implement here at home and in the community:

More perennials - we mostly have natives out the front, but slowly we've been adding food plants like olives, soft fruit trees, and a macadamia. I'd like to add sweet potato, asparagus, ginger, rhubarb to make a lower story, ie more food forest style. If you have space and water, perennials are good because they are low maintenance, deep rooted and give you food.

Community composting - I was so inspired by Hannah's work on her various community projects and the idea of community permaculture I wanted to start community composting at Hilton Harvest. So I've chatted to the local cafe who are happy for us to take their food waste and I've applied for a grant from our Waste Authority for heaps of compost bins. So fingers crossed!

Composting toilets - because it is barbaric to pollute clean water with our poo.

Bees - I had thought this would be a bit of a longer term project, but a friend asked if we could host his hive the other day so maybe we can learn the skills a bit more quickly!

Trenches - to stop water runoff in our front garden. Slow, store and sink the water.

Mulch pits - for fungusy soils between the fruit trees. This one is already done, both at home and at Hilton Harvest.

So, you can see we have heaps of jobs to be getting on with. But the best things I took away from the course were hope, inspiration and wonderful memories of spending two weeks with a beautiful bunch of people who are all on their own exciting journeys. It was a little bit of magic when we all crossed paths and walked together for that two weeks.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

It's been a while but we're back

Hello, yoo-hoo, remember us!?

It's been a while but we're back. Where have we been? Just around, doing our regular thing but with a little less time.  Despite our previous commitments to downshifting Adam started working full time at the start of this year. We enjoyed a charmed existence through most of 2015 when Adam was working (very) casually. We had heaps of family time and time to pursue other interesting projects around the house and in the community but the time came for Ads to get a bit more structure and a little more income in his life. He applied for a few jobs then came his dream job - Carnaby's Black-Cockatoo Project Coordinator with Birdlife WA. He coordinates the Great Cocky Count - a mammoth citizen science project plus coordinates surveys of nesting hollows and other side projects. Look, this is him cuddling a Carnaby's chick near Badgingarra. That thing is so ugly it's adorable. Only it's mother and Ads would love it!

Adam is really happy and motivated in his new role. As for the downshifting lifestyle, well, anyone who works for a not-for-profit can probably understand that we've got the earning less bit covered :) but that's fine. We can afford his pay cut and the upside is that Adam is learning a whole new set of skills and is enjoying his career more than ever. The full time work hours are a bit tough but he hopes to reduce his hours slightly as of next year. 

As for me, I'm still busy at work part time. This is me giving a worm farming workshop a few weeks ago at my second spiritual home Earthwise Community Garden:

And me volunteering at my first spiritual home, Hilton Harvest Community Garden giving a composting and gardening talk in May. Spot the difference!

Together with the other wonderful committee people, we have been really busy at Hilton Harvest (and do check out the website - I've been managing that and am pretty proud of how it looks at the moment). I'm there every Monday morning with a little rag tag group of gardeners whom I love. We compost, weed, plant and generally potter about. We also have a work for the dole crew who are hard working and lovely, plus we run the Buds n Blooms interegenerational gardening group. All our activities are listed here, just in case you want to join us! We've got an amazing vision and helpful City of Fremantle people supporting us. I get so much out of volunteering at the Garden - way more than I put in. 

So as you can see we have been working hard and are just about to choof off on a well deserved little holiday for some luxuriating in the warmth. I look forward to writing more posts soon as there is more to catch you up on including the wonderful Permaculture Design Course I did a couple of months ago and Ads is keen to share some geeky deets too. We are also mulling over a few interesting home projects including bees and special compost systems...stay tuned. We're back. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Our Green Christmas Tree

I know, I know. Miminalism and decluttering are the things to do at the moment. I can dig that. We just got rid of a mattress and a bookcase on Gumtree this week. We're into it. But it's not my religion. The classic minimalist aesthetic is not my cup of tea. I love Bea Johnson's work on bringing minimal waste to the mainstream, but there is no way I could live in a house like that! The inside of my bathtub has more character. And anyway, sometimes a bigger and better, new and improved thing doesn't have to be bad.

Introducing our new, relatively enormous CHRISTMAS TREE! It's beautiful, isn't it?

My little Quincey is 9 now. He is in the twilight years of his childhood and I want to make those years memorable and wonderful and warm. Will a new Christmas tree achieve that? No. But when we pulled the old one out of the bag and he said it looked scrawny and had probably shrunk since he was little and please could we get a new one, well, he did have a point. 

This is our first and until recently our only family Christmas tree. We got it in the UK in 1998 at
Poundland. Yes, for one pound. You have to gaffa tape the feet to the desired surface (or prop it up against the couch as pictured) for it to stay upright. It's shedding. It looks like an anorexic version of Oscar the Grouch. It's time.

So where do you head for a new Christmas Tree? Gumtree of course. Our new one was 15 minutes drive down the road. Perfect size. Pick up immediately. Cost $25. Bargain.

I was a little worried that we'd need more decorations to make our new one look good, but turns out we had enough with a few home made extras. An added feature of the new tree is the lack of fairy lights. We haven't had lights for years now and we still feel cheery when we gaze upon it. But I think that's because of the Angel Quin made in Kindy.

As for Oscar. I'm going to take him to work so he can brighten our days there. He's the perfect desk top size.

I really think I'm on a winner here with the advent calendar situation. All the cards came in just one cardboard box wrapped in plastic. So not bad waste wise, and definitely better sugar wise!

Happy Festive Season everyone!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

PV upgrade year 1 results

It's been a year since we upgraded our PV system. We re-roofed our house and I thought it would be good opportunity to review the pros and cons of upgrading. We had a 1.1kW Kaneka thinfilm system with a 1.7kW SMA inverter, with some room for more panels. We are lucky enough to be getting the 40 cents Feed in Tariff (FIT) on top of the miserly 8 cents Synergy pay us for any power fed to the grid. So, my main thought was what will our power bills be after the FIT ends in mid 2020? Based on the current power prices (+5% price rises) they actually worked out to be quite high, mainly because of the low price for power fed to the grid. It would be nice to think that common sense would prevail in this area (eg parity with prices we pay them), but I doubt this will happen any time soon. Anyway, I'm not a big fan of paying bills, especially thinking of the future when I'm retired. So we looked into an upgrade.

I got some quotes and advice on upgrading. It turns out you can keep the FIT as long as you keep your original inverter. It also turns out that you can overload most inverters and we decided to upgrade to a 3.1kW system. The panels are REC 260PE's, with six facing due North and six facing due West. Spreading them in two orientations means that we will also use more PV power in the home, which is best post FIT. The system cost $4,650 installed with new racking, etc. We were lucky enough to sell our old Kanekas for $900 to someone who wanted to expand his system and needed the same panels to be compatible with the existing ones. All up this took the price to $3,750. Here are the first year's data:

To sum it up we had a yearly bill of -$612 (credit), the Business as Usual (BAU) bill (ie no PV) would have been $630 so we saved $1,242. This makes the payback time roughly three years, after that we'll have three more years of FIT and then we'll still have small to negative bills for the next 25-40 years. Apart from the economics, getting more PV is better for the planet too. Remember, business as usual is not an option if we are to keep the planet from cooking...

Here's the N facing set:

And the West facing set (on the garage roof):

Overall we're chuffed with the new system. Comparing the old system's generation to the new one is interesting. Theoretically a 3.1kW Kaneka setup would have generated 11.9kWh/day (based on last 6 year's data) compared to the 9.7kWh of the new system (although our roof would not be large enough!). I think the reason for this is threefold. Firstly, I think there is something the experts call clipping happening. This is when the panels generate more power than the overloaded inverter can handle and some power is wasted. Secondly, the West facing panels would be generating less power than the North facing ones due to low morning generation. Thirdly, I think the Kaneka panels are better suited to Perth's heat and produce more power than mono and poly crystalline panels. I have seen this effect at our local Primary school where two systems side by side are located. The smaller thinfilm system (2kW) produces significantly more power than the larger (2.3kW) monocrystalline system.

That's all folks. Food for thought if you're in the same boat as us.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Home grown chamomile tea

A miracle has happened in our garden. I know, another one! A chamomile plant self seeded in the veggie patch. I've been wanting to get one for a few years now but just never got round to it, so now ones got me. I asked google and facebook who have both confirmed that it is indeed a chamomile plant - probably a Roman Chamomile. It must have self seeded from my tea going into the compost.

It has cute little daisy flowers on a small shrub about a foot tall. If it is indeed a Roman it should be perennial, I'll take a few cuttings and see.

So to make tea, all you need to do is pick and dry the flowers (not the leaves or stalks). It's easiest to kind of rake them off the plant between your fingers. Do this when it's sunny and the flowers are dry. Ideally they should be at their peak, but if they are a little old, that's okay too. There are few things more satisfying in life than sitting in your own garden, picking your own tea.

I then dried them on paper towel under a net cover to keep off bugs and dust. (Not sure why I used paper towel, surely a clean cloth would work just as well).

Its taken a few weeks for them to dry and they look and taste amazing. The flavour is a lot stronger than the tea I buy in bulk but I think that must just be because it's so fresh.

The plant itself is wonderfully productive for such a little thing. I collect about enough to cover the large cake holder in the picture and I've harvested it four times and I suspect there will be much more to come! 

In the evening after Quin is in bed and the dishes are done we often share a little pot of chamomile tea together as our wind down ritual. It's something to chat over and relax with. And now this lovely little section of our day has just got better with the satisfaction of zero food mile, home grown tea!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Fruit fly control

We had about 500 people visit us for Sustainable House Day and about 200 asked me about fruit fly control (mostly due to this article in the local paper).

Fruit fly are a huge problem in West Australia and many other parts of the world and people struggle to control them. These days few people want to use nasty chemicals which many commercial growers still use. People are also busy so they don't want time consuming methods. So, here's my solution: a chemical free, set and forget method I call 'Net and Forget'.

We have two types of fruit fly here, the Queensland and Mediterranean types. Here's an example of public enemy number one.

First things first. This method works best for stone fruit and apples, for citrus see lower down. The first thing you need to do is prune your tree to a maximum height of 2-2.5 metres. This makes everything you do on the tree easier: pruning, harvesting, pest and disease control, netting, etc. Fruit above 2.5m will rarely be harvested anyway and will fall to the ground and spoil. Using ladders is dangerous and not even I want to risk a fall for a few fruits. Fruit trees are very hardy so don't worry about hurting the tree when you prune. The best time of year is after fruiting in autumn.

So, now you've got your compact tree you can start on infrastructure.

You'll need the following:

Four 2m lengths of re-bar (steel reinforcing bar), 12mm gauge. Sold at your hardware store (cost $28).

Poly ethylene 25mm pipe, approximately 8-10m per tree. This is high density poly pipe which is strong and flexible. Sold as Vinidex PE pipe here in WA at hardware stores in the plumbing section (not retic). Costs $2/m in 25m rolls =$20/tree.

One nut and bolt larger than 50mm. Cost $2.

Fruit fly netting with 2mm mesh. These come in a variety of sizes and you'll need to measure your tree to find out the size you need. The best I've seen are from Green Harvest online, the 2.5 x 2.5m ones are great (cost $80). They're also sold locally at Dawson's and Bunnings.

Place the rebar half a metre into the ground so you have 1.5m protruding. These need to be placed around the tree in a square approximately 2m apart.

Then slot the PE pipe over one length of rebar and over to the other corner diagonally. Do this again with the other corners and you have a dome a bit like a tent.

Drill holes in the centre of the pipes to attach the pipes to each other with the nut and bolt.

This is your frame finished and you can leave it up all year if you want.

Then you throw the exclusion net over the frame and weigh it down at the bottom with some stones or branches. Now your tree is fully protected from fruit fly! You should put the netting on when all pollination has finished of course and do it soon since fruit fly can lay eggs when fruit is as small as a pea. When you've finished harvesting you should remove the net and store it ready for next year. Below is our apricot tree in the front garden.

If you think you may have fruit fly larvae in the soil under your tree place a trap inside the net for the first year, after that you should be OK. You can also do this for a week or so if you've trapped any flies inside your net. My favourite traps are Cera Traps and you can buy them locally at Dawson's or Bunnings or online at Green Harvest.

The cost of this system is hefty: up to $130 per tree. But the frame will last forever and the netting should last 5 years if you take care of it. So, over 20 years that's less than $20 a year. Think about the money you'll save on buying fruit too, how much do fresh organic apricots cost these days? Probably $20 a kilo, so if you get a kilo of apricots then you've made your money back.

One note: double grafted trees are not great for netting. One half often flowers at a different time to the other and it's very hard to net half a tree! For this reason I do not recommend buying multi graft stone fruits or apples.

A quick and easy method is to just buy the net and throw it over the tree canopy. Then tie it to the trunk and you're done. Any fruit which falls is caught by the net too. You will find that branches and leaves grow into the net and get distorted using this method.

What about citrus I hear you ask. Well, citrus are tricky because often you'll have flowers at the same time as mature fruit due to the slow ripening of citrus. This means you can't net them because pollinators need access to the flowers so you'll need to go for trapping. Again, I recommend Cera Trap, an organic and very effective type. Place a few of these around your garden for maximum effect. You can make your own traps with old plastic bottles with holes drilled into them and there are plenty of homemade trap recipes on the web.

Now, sit back and relax while your fruit ripen!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Sustainable House Day - We're OPEN!

For some strange reason we are opening our house for Sustainable House Day again this Sunday. It's a lot of work in preparation but we love it. We've opened before in 2011 and in 2013 and we remember the fun of chatting to people about gardening, PV, chooks and bikes all day. What a wonderful way to spend a day! What we tend to erase from our memory is the weekends full of weeding, planting, sweeping... but what the heck, I actually enjoy that kind of work anyway and our garden needs a good spring clean every few years so it's good motivation. We're exhibitionists, so we're just embracing it!

Looking through all the amazing houses that will be open this year I have stopped to wonder why we should open ours. Many of the other houses are new builds, all 100% solar  passive and 9 star rated. Their houses look like Ikea magazines (minus the disposable furniture I hope!) and are all neat and shiny. Our house, by comparison looks like granny knitted it, what with our fridge worm farm, our chooks and our scruffy native garden (yes, that is a knitted wheelbarrow below).

Our house is a 1960’s brick veneer house which provided many challenges to retrofit to be more sustainable and energy efficient. We are located on the south side of a hill with a beautiful gum tree to our north (which we can't bare to chop down) and to start with we had no north facing windows. So there is no way we would even be on the star rating scale. Since we bought the house in 2001 we’ve made heaps of changes. But the main change has been with us, as in, our behaviour.

We are firm believers in behaviour change as a significant part of the solution to our current environmental crisis. One of the most inspiring person I've met, Colin Ashton-Graham (a behaviour change economist) starts his presentation like this:

See these light globes? Tell me, which one uses the least amount of power.

And of course everyone votes for either the LEDs or the CFLs and Colin goes, 'Sorry folks, the one that uses the least amount of power is the incandescent globe. It's the only one that is switched off.' Ha! That's how clever Colin is! He then goes on to explain that a sustainable house with unsustainable people in it is less sustainable overall than an unsustainable house with sustainable people in it. Our everyday choices like turning lights off when not needed, opening up the house to let in cool sea breezes in summer, only having one fridge, cooking more at home with local, organic produce, riding more, getting into community and purchasing less crap are central to sustainability. Having the latest sustainability gadget isn't really our thing (unless its bikes, that's Adam's weakness!).

So, while we do have some interesting stuff to show, especially our garden, we also hope the behaviour stuff will rub off too. Anyway, come and visit. We're open from 10am to 4pm this Sunday, September 13 - be lovely to meet you!