Saturday, July 20, 2013

Rain water harvesting year 4

It's been four years since we installed our 14,000L rain water tank, so here's the annual wrap. It was another dry year in WA, with 571mm on our block. Perth's average is supposed to be around 750mm, but the new reality is much lower. Here is the rainfall in the last four years, recorded by me on a daily basis. You can see we have a very seasonal pattern, with most rainfall in the cooler months (April to October). The average for the last four years is 634mm and we've only reached 750mm once.

Despite this we harvested and used a record 81,241L of rainwater this year, which represents 30% of our total use. This is pretty good going I think for a 14,000L tank. It means we've got through almost six tanks worth in the year. The key to this is the fact that everything is plumbed in to the tank (house and garden), so we minimise our losses to overflow by using rainwater whenever it's available. The water switch switches back to mains water when the tank is empty and switches back when it fills up.

This chart shows weekly rainfall (scale on the right axis) and our daily consumption (left axis) split into the proportions of tank and mains water (green and red). It shows the long dry period through summer when there is little rainwater available and when our consumption rises to keep our fruit and veg going in the intense summer heat. We go about 6 months of the year using predominantly rainwater.

The next chart shows how the tank level fluctuates with rainfall and usage patterns. The level stays high in winter with good rainfall and low usage, but as soon as rainfall drops and we turn on the retic the level drops sharply.

The last chart below shows our daily consumption of both rainwater and mains water for the last four years. You may think that for a sustainable minded family we use too much water (734L a day this year). I know it sounds like a lot but it's actually lower than the Perth average. In our defense we use little in the house (about 200L a day) and lots on the garden. Perth has extremely hot, dry summers and this means it takes lots of water to keep the garden going. We have 20 fruit and nut trees, lots of veges and a small lawn on our 700 sq.m block. Also, we've cut our water usage despite adding more retic to more plants recently.

Next year we hope to use a lot less too. We have just bought a new front loading washing mashine to replace our old top loader. It uses 62L per wash as opposed to about 180L, so we could save 25,000L here. And our new grey water system should save us lots, especially on the lawn. Another big saving here and we could use 50,000L less next year. I'm predicting water use of 600L a day next year. Watch this space...

Thursday, July 18, 2013

A very virtuous meal (and plastic free to boot!)

My sister and her family thrive in a slightly crazy house. Kids, dogs, knitting, books, cellos, and cats licking the breakfast dishes...and yet it all works beautifully and when you walk in to their house you just feel good, comfy and loved - we love it at there house! This school holidays we decided to add pasta making to the mix. It was great fun, 100% plastic free and totally virtuous (apart from the flour coming from Italy).

I'll let the photos tell the story:

 The girls made the mixture of flour and eggs - the eggs were from our girls.

Quin thought it looked like messy fun so joined in pretty quickly.

 This bit was great fun! We made some spaghetti and some ravioli. 

Mixing up the mixture for the ravioli - this consisted of plastic free ricotta, herbs from Hilton Harvest Community Garden and home grown pumpkin.

 The finished, slightly oversized, ravioli! 

 And the spaghetti out to dry on the cloths airer - don't let the dog in!

 The finished product with a drizzle of Hilton Harvest olive oil.

 Delish! And it only took us five hours to make!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Planting the Choko

Another garden update: the Choko. We let one sprout recently and now have planted it. This is what it looked like before we planted it - amazing how much it grew. Freaky actually.

We took out this old passionfruit that in three years has never given us a fruit (we have to be ruthless in the burbs - not much space and all).

And in it goes. It will get morning sun and lots of grey water so fingers crossed we will have heaps of wonderfully ugly chokos that we give to all those choko haters to try. By the way I saw them for sale in our local fruit and veg shop for $1.50! They must be delicious!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Home brew's best

I love beer (wine pales in comparison on most fronts for me). Being from England and growing up with a real ale drinker and home brewer (my dad) I know a good beer from a bad one too, so home brewing has been a natural  thing for me to take up.

The pros are many:

It's cheaper
It tastes better than the 'industrial' rubbish most brewers make
It's more sustainable (lower air miles, packaging, lower energy and water use)

The cons:

It takes a bit of time (2-3 hours the way I do it)

Here's how I do it. My method is a hybrid of the basic method and a full mash. I buy craft brew kits from my local home brew shop TWOC Brewing Supplies. My favourite kits are Paddy McKenna stout, Sierra Nevada pale ale, Ruthless Rye IPA, Czech This Out pilsener and Wee Stephan lager. I also buy a basic beer concentrate, usually Deliverance. This mix gives a good quality beer without the time it takes to do a full mash. The brew kits are made up of grains, sugar and hops in separate bags. First thing on brew day is to rehydrate the dry yeast. I do this by adding about 200ml of water to a pint glass, heating it in the microwave for about 20 seconds, dissolving half a teaspoon of sugar and adding the yeast. I cover this and leave it to activate. When you come to add the yeast to your wort it will be really cranking, the brew will start fermenting sooner and you'll be less likely to kill the yeast if your wort is on the hot side.

Next step is to bring the grain to the boil in a large stock pot, turn it off and sparge the grain bag (poor boiling water over the bag in a colander). Then you add the sugar and boil for another 10 minutes, then you add the hops and boil for another 1-5 minutes. You leave the wort for an hour or so to cool down in a basin of cold water, changing the water every now and again.

Sterilise your keg and other implements next. Then add the beer concentrate to your brewing keg and dissolve it in boiling water. When the first wort is cool enough add it to your keg, straining through a sieve. Fill the keg with water up to about 22L, preferably filling from a height to oxygenate the wort. If the wort is below 30C you can now pitch the yeast.

The brew will take 5-10 days to finish the primary fermentation. I usually leave it two weeks and then bottle it. This is where having a few good gadgets comes in handy. A bottle tree is a must to drain the bottles; a bottler to get the beer from the keg into bottles; a sugar measure; a bench capper to cap the bottles and of course some bottles! You can buy them at brew shops but I think a better way is to buy beer in suitable bottles, drink it and then reuse the bottles. In Australia Cooper's king browns are good and I love Little Creatures pint bottles too. Look out for non screw on types, since screw on caps don't seal as well. Last but not least you'll need some sterilising powder. Remember, the three most important things in home brewing are hygiene, hygiene and hygiene! If you've ever had a brew go sour then you'll know what I mean, all that hard work goes down the drain...

To bottle the brew clean your bottles, triple rinse with water and leave to drain. Then add the priming sugar and bottle up. Try to avoid moving the keg too much before you bottle or you'll stir up the sediment. Then cap the bottles and leave in a warm place for a week for secondary fermentation (to carbonate the beer). Leave the bottles for another 3 weeks to condition and then get stuck in.

A note on timing. In WA I don't brew in summer, it's just too hot and too hard to keep the brew at the right temp. It's much easier to warm a brew up than cool it down. I have a heater belt but I don't use it these days. What I do is brew stouts and ales in autumn and spring, checking the forecast for mild temps (these brew best between 20-25C). I brew pilseners and lagers in winter using special yeasts which brew at lower temps (Saflager W34/70), between 9-22C. This way I'm not using energy to keep the brew warm. It works out well too because I drink mostly ale and stout in winter and pilsener and lager in summer.

I know what you're thinking, it sounds like a lot of work. It's really not and you can always do it the quick and easy way (just add beer concentrate, water and yeast to your keg). It is worth the time and once you're set up it's pretty cheap to do. Have a look out for brew kegs on the verge too, so many people do one brew and give up! Give it a go though, you won't regret it.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Netting Brassicas - the verdict

I just thought I'd show a quick follow up of our experiment in netting our barassicas. So I think the first lot I netted already had caterpiller eggs hidden underneath the leaves and this was the result:

So I've unetted them and picked off the caterpillars for the chooks - of course, its heaps easier to do this without the net. The other thing is that there were some aphids and I wanted to allow predators to get in and take care of them for me. I'll still get some good cauilies out of this patch. Its hard to know if there would have been worse damage without the nets.

The second patch worked better. The broccoli was smaller when I netted them and now they look great and taste even better:

So the conclusion is that yes, I'll do it again next year and try to net them earlier.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Eight acres chook interview

We've just been interviewed about chooks by the Eight Acres blog, if you'd like to make any comments or have any questions, fire away. We're not really chook experts, but we'll do our best!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Plastic Free July!

It's here! Welcome to Plastic Free July!

I'm doin' it for the third year and its a really thought provoking challenge. It motivates me to be a little creative and make some noise about stupid disposable plastic. The challenge was invented by the wonderful Rebecca Prince-Ruiz who I'm fortunate enough to work with (yes, I feel I need to make a full conflict of interest statement and say that Plastic Free July is an initiative of WMRC Earth Carers - my work). So Rebecca came to work one day three years ago and said, 'Hey, lets have a challenge where we don't use any plastic next month' and we all said great idea. Then the reality of how tricky that is hit home. Well what I've found is that its pretty easy to avoid about 80% of the disposable plastic you'd normally use and pretty tricky to get rid of the last 20%. It started off with around 40 people doing it in 2011, and now thousands are doing it. The challenge is on Facebook and there is a website to get lots of ideas.

But this blog is about us and our challenges - so I'm going to be brutally honest about our successes and our failures. First of all the admission that to get Quincey on board for PJF I've had to bribe him with...plastic, in the form of Lego. Now I actually don't take issue with Lego itself because it is wonderful stuff and has been for generations. It teaches kids hand eye skills and allows them to be very creative. Like my friend Rebecca said, you can tell its good plastic because you never find it in bulk rubbish or doing a beach clean up. And Quincey just loves it. But why, oh why does it have to come in plastic in cardboard. Just in cardboard is fine. Here is a pic of our last Lego purchase - good and bad plastic.

I'm going to attempt to post on the Sustainaburbia FB page one plastic free alternative every day - lets see how that goes! First one will be my home preserved pears with honey, lemon and vanilla. I found out recently that cans are lined with plastics that contain the chemical BPA (bisphenol A) that are (among other things) endocrine disrupters. Like lots of things to do with sustainability there is often more than one reason to make some changes in behaviour - in this case there are environmental and health reasons to avoid plastic. So in order to avoid them I'll be doing a lot more home preserving! Home preserving is fun and pretty easy once you get your gear and have a go. Yum!

The peeled pears that Ads picked up on his way home from a field trip (low food miles!)

 Pears, sugar, lemon, honey and vanilla in the pot.

Tools of the trade.

 The finished product!