Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Costa visit

Costa Georgiadis (the main presenter of Gardening Australia) was in WA last week and paid us a visit. It was great to show him around the garden and have a chat. Here he is speaking into the Banksia microphone!

He was just how comes across on TV, very bubbly, animated and warm. And he really gets it, sustainability that is. He's really into behaviour change, Plastic Free July, etc.

 And the beard, what can you say except Respect. There's probably enough microbial activity in there to keep the whole planet going!

He really is a garden guru...

Mango planting

I planted a mango tree out the front this week. It's a Kensington Pride (aka Bowen) grown from seed. Here's how I've set it up. First I dug a big hole and watered it for 30 minutes to saturate the super sandy soil. Then I mixed in some cow poo, sheep poo, rock minerals and bentonite clay. Then I planted the tree with a bamboo stake.

Then I set up the retic. Mangos are tropical plants so they need lots of water so I've set up a 'thirsty' retic station using a disused station which we used to establish the native garden. The others plants I'll put on this station are the Macadamia, bamboo and yet to be planted Avocado. I've read in my fruit tree bible (Louis Glowinski's Complete Book of Fruit Growing in Australia) that bearing mango trees should not be watered for three months before flowering. So I put a valve in the line so that I can still water the other plants but not water the mango tree. I've also left a line available for growing sweet potato close by (another tropical plant).

Young mango trees like some shelter, so I’ve banged in four posts to support clear poly film for winter. This will provide a warm micro-climate for the tree in the cooler months and protect it from wind. In summer I’ll replace the plastic with shade cloth in order to protect it from the heat. After a couple of years of this the tree should be able to fend for itself. I’ve thought of laying some thermal mass (eg dark rocks) around the tree to adsorb warmth in winter, but this will have to wait for another day.

In about five years we should be harvesting our own mangos. Yum, I can’t wait. Whether I’ll be able to actually eat any before our very own fruit bat (Quin) gets them remains to be seen…

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Solar year 5

It's five years since we installed our solar PV system (a 1.1 kW Kaneka thin film grid connect system). Ever since then our goal has been to generate more power than we consume and after four years of achieving this we have not met our goal this year. The pattern of usage and generation was very similar to past years, with higher consumption and lower generation in winter, transitioning into higher generation and lower consumption in the warmer months.

We came pretty close to our goal, generating just 44 kWh less than we consumed (about 10 days worth of generation). Although we took a lot from the grid, we also fed in three quarters of the power we generated to the grid. We are lucky enough to qualify for the 48c feed in tariff (FIT) so this makes our bill really low (a credit of $67!). If we didn't have solar panels (BAU, business as usual) our power bill this year would be $552 which means we saved $619 this year. Since our panels cost around $6,000 five years ago this means the payback time will be roughly ten years, which isn't too bad considering we should get another 15-30 years life out of them. We saved a grand total of 46 cents with smart power this year. This is a system whereby you pay different tariffs depending on the time of day you take power from the grid. There is very little point in having it now if you get the FIT but we'd need to pay $60 to remove it so there's no point right now. 

kWh generatedkWh taken from
kWh fed into gridkWh
Average daily usage (kWh)Average daily generation (kWh)Year 5
$ saved with
smart power
% of power generated fed to grid

So why did we use more power than we generated this year? There are a few reasons. As solar panels age their production tends to drop off slightly and this is one of the reasons we didn't meet our goal this year. The chart below shows our average daily generation and usage in the last six years. Our generation has gone from 5 kWh in year 1 to 4.7, 4.8, 4.5 and 4.45 in subsequent years. As a matter of interest here are the average daily amounts of power generated by our system each month over the last five years. Being in the southern hemisphere means our summer is December to February and this is when we generate the most. Spring is the next best season, then autumn and winter last. The main reason for this is the number of sunny hours per day which is highest in summer. Perth has a mediterranean climate, with hot dry summers and cool, wet winters. This means that winter days are often cloudy which leads to low solar radiation (and they're also shorter of course). PV panels actually perform at lower efficiency above 26C, which we regularly get in summer. So this means that the longer and sunnier days in summer more than make up for the lower efficiency of the panels in high temperatures. We also get some shading of our panels in winter, which helps explain why June and July are so bad.  

Our usage has gone from 6 kWh in year 0 (before we went solar) to 4.7, 4.4, 4.3, 4.5 and 4.6 in subsequent years. We've done really well in past years to use less power despite adding new power users (eg solar hot water booster, rain water tank pump, electric bike charging) but this year we simply couldn't do it. We bought another electric bike (the Fr8) and recently installed a grey water system which uses a small amount of power to pump the water out. These two additions coupled with lower generation this year made it too hard a task. We still did very well considering the average usage for WA is around 18 kWh a day, four times what we used.

But never mind, we're hoping to turn this around next year. Our 15 year old washing machine just died so we've bought a new super efficient front loader to replace it. This may make the difference next year so watch this space.

Friday, April 26, 2013

A tsunami of olives!

Olive fever has hit town! As you know I had organised a communal press for Hilton Harvest peeps and Earth Carers. We did it in 2012 and took up a combined total of about 300 kgs. It was great and a few folk who didn't do it said they would have a go next time. Well turns out folk round here stick to their word!

The deal was to either drop the olives at my place before Monday 9 am or at work in Cottesloe by 10 am. Olives started to roll in on Sunday arvo. By 8 pm Sunday evening I suspected we would have a good haul - our veranda and front room were chokas with bags, boxes, baskets of olives. I was glad to turn the lights out for fear of more deliveries by enthusiastic pickers. By 9 am I was getting a little worried. I had packed the work Rav 4 to the brim when two more deliveries arrived! We managed to squeeze them in... But I was now freaking out about what I would find at work! I called my wonderful colleague Gabs and said 'please tell me we do not have a mountain if olives on our veranda'. Her reply 'let's just say I can't wait to see the expression on your face when you get here. Don't worry we can pack my car and I'll come with you.' The way Gabs said it made me feel a little more relaxed.

Quin and I squeezed in the Rav and off we choofed. I had to yell to Quin to hold the box which was balanced on the bucket every time we turned left so he didn't end up with olive concussion. On this leg of the journey I remembered that I had only booked in 400 kgs for pressing. I reckoned I had about that already. Hmm...

The expression on my face when we arrived at work was, well, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. There was at least double what I had in the car sitting on the veranda at work. And they were still rolling in. It was a tsumami of olives. How would we get them to the press? Would they even be able to press so many?

Luck was on our side. We had the Urban Tucker Women! Two lovely women who are soon to launch their website about urban gleaning were filming the event and had brought a car each! They were my olive angels - fun, super helpful and glamorous to boot (literally in their little black dresses, diamanties and gum boots!! I have never seen anyone pout over urban tucker before - gorgeous!)

So after Gabs crunched the numbers and concluded that we had 1.3 tonnes of olives we proceeded to pack up the cars. We headed off convoy style, each car groaning under the weight of our cargo. I was just praying they could manage to press them all.

After a long drive we arrived at Jumanga Olive Grove. We were greeted by the grandma of the house who drew breath when we told her how much we had: 'Oh my, that's a good pick!'. The lovely man who operated the press was also impressed and laughed when we confessed the weight of our haul. He said they were really booked up pressing 7 days a week but when he said they would do their best to fit us in I could have hugged him. The world was a bright and happy place again: I would not be letting down all those enthusiastic pickers, they will have their oil!

We unloaded and were invited to look around. The press was amazing; olives in the big hopper at the top, leaves and debris into the basket, oil out one end and waste out the other. The oil was a beautiful bright green.

They use the waste by either just spreading it back into the grove or by drying it and using it in their pot belly stove as fuel.

I was pretty exhausted by the end of the day. My anxiety had eeked away on the drive home and was being replaced my a strong sense of relief and satisfaction. When i got home i noticed a post on Facebook from a garden friend: ''today collected my 10 kgs of olives from the olive grove in my local park, met a lovely family doing the same thing and had a glorious day. God I love community'. Well that just makes it all worthwhile, doesn't it?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Oil to nourish your soul

In the interest of honesty when blogging I have to tell you that our first lot of olives that Ads preserved are headed for the compost bin. Poop. We have noticed them gradually getting browner and softer despite changing the water religiously. Yuck!

Our neighbour said this happened to her lot last year and she had to compost hers too. It's so disappointing, particularly when we have no idea why they worked last year and not this year.

Not to be deterred, we set off this morning to pick olives for pickling and for our Hilton Harvest / Earth Carers communal press.

We picked 67 kgs in two days. Not bad hu? We think the key is to find small trees that are laden. That way you don't need ladders and its good and quick.

This is Quin's artistic impression of us picking complete with in themed t-shirts: me with a worm shirt and Ads (on a ladder) with a bike shirt. Cute!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Good bugs

On Sunday we had another awesome busy bee at Hilton Harvest. It makes me feel all happy and satisfied to see lots of folk chatting, working and dreaming together at the garden.

We mulched paths, edged garden beds, weeded, planted and Simon got the compost shelter to 'lock up'!

We have been really trying to get the skills sharing thing happening by having little morning tea share time during the busy bees. This month we had some special guests. Emma Jack and her lovely Living Smart group come along to lend some hard yakka and Emma had also organised two guest speakers to share there wisdom on good garden bugs. Vicky works at Dawson's Garden Centre and has a blog that features good critters. We also had Gerald from the Organic Growers Association Freo who I suspect knows more about gardening than all of us combined. He said he was a bit old for the manual work, but it was his wisdom we were after!

The take home message for me was don't panic about aphids or other bad bugs because you need them to attract the good or 'predator' bugs who eat them. The other thing I remember about Vicky and Gerald's talk was to check your garden every day to make sure you know exactly what's going on, and then observe and be patient...the good bugs will come! I struggle with patients in the garden. Often I sew seeds in a tray then that very day go and purchase a punnet of the very same veggie to plant 'TODAY!'. Ads had noticed a few aphids on our wonderful orange tree and was making noises about spraying with white oil. Lucky we didn't because, when we got home from the busy bee we checked our garden and...as if on cue, look...ladybirds everywhere!

...and I'm pretty sure this is a ladybird larve - the ones that to the actual chomping of the offending aphids. Cool hu? Gardens are amazing and wonderful places!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Luscious honey lip balm

Lip balm is a fabulous quick and easy gift. I tried it because I wanted to make some to sell at our Hilton Harvest Twilight Fair and because my friend gave me some beeswax and honey from his hive...so I had to find something to do with it. Its so special to use local, natural, unprocessed ingredients.

It honestly took me about 20 mins to make seven cute little pots of natural lip balm. basically all you do is melt bees wax and a carrier oil and add essential oil or honey if you fancy it.

This is what you need:

The recipe I used is from Martha Stewart but I increased the volumes:
4.5 tablespoons grated beeswax
7.5 tablespoons jojoba oil
1.5 teaspoons honey

1. Grate the beeswax (or purchase pelletised bees wax)
2. Melt the beeswax and oil in a double boiler (a small pot in a larger pot with boiling water)
3. Remove from heat and stir in honey thoroughly
4. Pour into little pots or jars

Easy. Well in truth I didn't stir in the honey well enough so there is a layer of darker honey at the very bottom of the pots, but that's no big drama! Whack on a cute label and hey presto, a boutique batch of 100% natural, local kissing potion!

I think this kind of stuff is important - its cutesey wootsie AND important for two reasons. Firstly it means that you can pretty much totally avoid the smelly isles of the supermarket (we only purchase loo roll, panadol and kids toothpaste down that isle). So you save money, save packaging and save 'cosmetics miles'. You realise it is not Maybelline or similar. No maybes about it. Secondly, I don't mean to sound alarmist but...COSMETICS AND STUFF CAN GIVE YOU CANCER! Well maybe anyway. I don't want to risk it. Check out this very interesting short doco by the makers of the fantastic and life changing Story of Stuff. It's the Story of Cosmetics.