Friday, 23 September 2016

Recent crafty activities

Recent crafty activities at Prag Sust HQ....

These socks:

A moss-stitch cushion cover - for a cushion that was missing a cover

And some knitted dishcloths

I'd heard about knitted dishcloths but always wondered if they actually worked.  After reading Down To Earth and learning of Rhonda's love of knitted dishcloths, I decided to knit us up a batch to try. I had some 100% cotton yarn in my stash which was just right for the job. 

We'd been using something akin to 'Chux' cloths bought at the supermarket for wiping up in the kitchen. They got washed in the machine along with the regular washing and re-used until they fell apart. They actually lasted for quite a long time. But definitely not the 5 years that Rhonda's knitted dishcloths last her.  I decided it was definitely worth giving them a go. I used Deb's waffle weave pattern which is a quick and easy project. If made in a nice quality cotton, this pattern can also double as a face washer.  Just make sure you colour-code your dishcloths from your face washers so you can tell them apart when they come out of the wash :)  

I'm looking forward to trying out my knitted dishcloths in the kitchen and seeing how they work out. I love the idea of making something so sustainable and long-lasting that does the job and looks nice too. And they'd make a lovely gift with some homemade soap ....

Saturday, 3 September 2016

In the garden .....

After a cold (by Melbourne standards), wet winter, there are sure signs in the garden that Spring is finally here....



Plum tree in full flower

fennel, silverbeet and borage, with olives in background

minature peach starting to flower

Silverbeet doing what it does best - growing wherever it likes!

New growth on the carob

New growth on the yellow guava


baby figs


one of our flowering orchids

Has Spring arrived in your garden?

Monday, 20 June 2016

Homemade toothpaste

Making our own sustainable versions of everyday products is something we're pretty interested in here at PragSust HQ.  It's nice to know and control what's in the products we use on our bodies and those we clean our homes with.  

Homemade toothpaste is something that's been on our radar for a while.  There are lots of recipes online but we liked the sound of the one posted by Morag on her blog Our Permaculture Life, so we thought we'd give it a go. Here's the recipe:

Homemade toothpaste

  • 1/2 cup bentonite clay (food grade)
  • 1 tablespoon activated bamboo charcoal (food grade)
  • 2 tablespoons baking soda (sodium bicarbonate/bicarb))
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 1/4 cup coconut oil (warmed to be liquid for mixing)
  • 2 leaves of stevia (dried and crushed) or 1/4 tsp stevia or 2 drops (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon himalayan salt
  • 4 drops peppermint oil (food grade)

Homemade toothpaste ingredients

As the charcoal powder is very fine and easily flies about, it's best to add the charcoal powder to the water, not the other way round.  The information sheet that came with the charcoal suggested using stainless steel equipment and doing any mixing in a stainless steel sink to avoid splashing the charcoal as it could stain. 

 We gently melted the coconut oil in stainless steel bowl over a saucepan of boiling water. Once melted we placed the bowl in the sink then added the water, followed by the charcoal.  The other ingredients were then added in the order listed above.  A stainless steel spoon was used to mix everything by hand.  The ingredients combined easily and we soon had a dark grey mixture with the consistency of........toothpaste. 

The mixture was transferred to a glass jar for storage. The toothpaste has been in use for a while now and I can honestly say that my teeth feel nice and clean after using it.  So we'll chalk that up as a win and something we can cross off our grocery list from now on.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Moving the hive, temporarily

We got our backyard hive almost 5 years ago.  Prior to installing the hive we'd leveled and paved an area with bricks on which to place the hive.

Unfortunately, 5 years on, our hive location needed a bit of renovation.  The nearby stand of clumping bamboo had decided to make an appearance directly under the hive.  It's tough stuff - see how it has raised the bricks, the heavy concrete slab and the hive? That's quite a bit of weight that has been lifted.

The hive was no longer level and action needed to be taken quick smart. Unfortunately there are no other suitable spots in our yard for a hive so we needed to fix its current location.

This meant we had to move the hive elsewhere in the garden for a day while we dealt with the bamboo.  Moving a hive is not a small job and in our case we needed to keep the bees contained within the hive for a day, while we worked on fixing the hive location.

I knew we had to keep the hive well ventilated so the bees would survive inside for a day, so I did some thinking and asking around for advice. I decided to use plastic flyscreen to block the entrance and then add a an additional box onto the hive with the top covered in flyscreen for additional ventilation.  

Here's how we went about the hive moving process:

Around midday on the day of the planned move I secured the flyscreen to the top of an empty super and put this on top of the hive so that the flyscreen side was directly under the lid.

Then we waited until dark, suited up and taped a piece of flyscreen over the entrance to keep the bees inside. Sounds easy, right?  Well not exactly.  As soon as I started taping the flyscreen to the entrance the bees started trying to come out.  It might have worked better if I'd been using stiff wire flyscreen instead of plastic. The entrance of the hive was almost as wide as the box so it was difficult to tape it on quickly while trying to hold it in place so the bees couldn't pour out.  And being dark, Mr PragSust had to hold a torch above so I could see what I was doing ...and of course that light also got the bees active. I started off wearing gloves but they were too cumbersome to be able to manage the tape and scissors so off one glove came. And yes I got stung on the hand but it could have been a lot worse.  Some time and a lot of sticky tape later the entrance was closed. Then we had to move the hive.  That went surprisingly well and the hive was soon in its new, temporary spot. We hoped that not too many bees came out so that we wouldn't have to suit up to do the garden works tomorrow.

The next day I was pleased to see that the stickytape was still in place and few bees had returned to the old location.  I was glad I'd added the extra screened box because the bees were piling up at the entrance and blocking any ventilation in that way.

Close up of flyscreen covered entrance

Hive in temporary position, shaded from sun and lid partially open to allow ventilation

Close up showing empty top box with flyscreen ventilation

Because I am a bit sensitive to bee stings, I suited up to do the garden work, but Mr PragSust didn't bother.  Our plan was to remove the brick pavers and the edging and dig up the area underneath and remove all the bamboo roots.  Then we would dig a trench and put in some root barrier to stop the bamboo roots spreading back towards the hive. 

The only root barrier we could get at short notice was 60 cm which was a bit higher than we needed. As we were under a bit of time pressure to get the job done we took what was available as we knew we could trim it back later.

Pavers removed, bamboo shoot poking up showing where main root mass is

Removing the roots wasn't too much of a drama. I should have taken a photo showing the large amount of root mass we removed, but I was too busy digging. We dug up the whole area, making sure we'd removed all the roots. There were a few bees flying around but they were more confused - as in 'where's my house gone?' - rather than aggressive.

What took most of the time was digging the trench for the root barrier. After our very dry summer the ground was like concrete. We had to use a round fencing bar to break it up.  Mr PragSust did the hard work of pounding up and down with the fencing bar while I used the trenching shovel to remove the loosened earth.  It took ages to dig the trench.  Although the bamboo roots seemed to be fairly shallow, we didn't want to be doing this again so we dug the trench to well below the level of the roots. After much hard work the trench was deep enough to install the root barrier.

The root barrier went in and we back-filled the trench with earth.  Mr PragSust went off for a well-deserved break while I finished off the process. I smoothed the earth over the area, replaced the wooden edging and spread woody mulch (obtained for free from the local arborist) over the whole area. We weren't planning to replace the brick pavers even if we did have the time (which we didn't). The concrete paver on which the hive sits was put back in place and leveled with a spirit level.  Then the wooden stand for weighing the hive was put back on the paver, raised at the back with a long thin piece of paving stone. All ready for the hive to come back. We carried the hive back and gently placed it on the stand and Mr PragSust knocked off for the day.  I removed the top box and replaced the hive mat and lid. Then I gently removed the tape and flyscreen from the entrance.  I thought after being cooped up all day the bees would have been pretty agro but I was pleasantly surprised.  I quickly moved away from the hive but I wasn't chased. An hour or so later and all was calm again.

Here's the hive back in position:

You can see the black root barrier curving around the corner of the stand of bamboo. We haven't trimmed it down yet.

All in all the whole process went pretty well.  The only stings received were the ones to my hand when I was trying to tape up the hive entrance.  The work did take most of a day so I was glad we had provided adequate ventilation for the hive. The empty box was definitely required as the bees blocked up the front entrance trying to find a way out. Without the additional ventilation they would most likely have over-heated and we could have lost the hive.

Lessons learnt:
  • We need a better way to quickly and securely block the hive entrance while still allowing ventilation. Maybe something like flywire with a framed wooden edge that could be quickly slotted in place with the framed edges flush against the hive, preventing the bees from escaping, and with some quick way of securing it in place. 
  • Plan as much as you can beforehand for the job and be prepared with all necessary equipment. We really needed the fencing bar and the trenching shovel for this job.

  • Things always take longer to do than you think!

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Preserving the harvest - Cumquat marmalade

Our little cumquat tree fruited well this year. We like to give home produce as gifts so this weekend we turned the harvest into cumquat marmalade.

Here's the recipe we used. It's based on one published in The Age newspaper, many moons ago.

Cumquat Marmalade

1 kg cumquats
5 cups water
2 tblspn lemon juice
5 cups sugar

1.  Wash the fruit and cut them into quarters, removing seeds and placing them in a small bowl.  Using containers with lids, soak the seeds overnight in 1 cup of the water, the fruit in what remains.

2.  Transfer the mixture to a large saucepan and stir in the lemon juice.  Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes until cumquats are tender.

3.  Add sugar, stir over heat without boiling until sugar dissolves.  Bring to boil over high heat , then continue to cook, uncovered, without stirring for about 20 minutes or until marmalade jells when tested.

4.  To test if the marmalade is ready place a teaspoon of it onto a cold saucer and place in freezer for 2 minutes. Remove from freezer and press your finger gently against the marmalade to see if it wrinkles and has formed a skin. If not, keep cooking the marmalade for another 5 minutes, then retest.

5.  When ready, remove from heat and allow to settle for 10 minutes. Scoop out any remaining pips at this point and discard. Pour into hot, sterilised jars and seal.

To sterilise jars: Wash in hot soapy water. Rinse. Place upside down on tray in warm oven (120 C) for 20 minutes. Useful to keep in oven while making the marmalade. Sterilise lids by putting them in boiling water for a couple of minutes. 

Friday, 20 May 2016

Bee tongue!

It's been a while since we've posted a backyard bee picture...

I've never noticed a bee flying with its tongue out until I took this photo:

For a better view here's my zoomed in version:

 Neat huh?

Friday, 6 May 2016

Current reading list

Some of the books we're currently reading....

Food52 Vegan by Gena Hamshaw. Being a vegetarian with strong vegan leanings, I love a good vegetarian or vegan cookbook. I've been following Gena's blog for awhile now and it is full of recipes I want to try. Her creamy curry quinoa is a dinner favourite around here. So when her latest cookbook, Food52 Vegan, came out I knew I wanted a copy.  Beautifully photographed, the recipes are healthy, delicious and easy to follow.  Plenty of meals will be coming from this gem.


The Simple Home by Rhonda Herzel. Rhonda is the author behind the blog Down To Earth, as well as the book of the same name. She is a thoughtful and practical woman who has simplified her lifestyle to suit herself and her family, and in the process saved money, enjoyed greater health, happiness and self-reliance, learned new skills and built the life she wanted. The book shows that living simply is a real and fulfilling alternative to a consumerist lifestyle. It is divided into 12 monthly chapters showing how tasks can fit into the year.  Rhonda shows that living frugally is not about being cheap or miserly, but that it is a mindset that will help you achieve your goal of living well and being content.  I'm enjoying this book and would definitely recommend it to others. Her first book, Down to Earth, is definitely going on the reading list.

Simple Matters by Erin Boyle. Still on the subject of living simply, this book is by the author of the blog Reading My Tea Leaves. It approaches living simply from the perspective of a family living in a tiny apartment in New York.  

This book approaches sustainability through conscious choices such reducing consumption, making your own natural cleaners and beauty products and using your purchasing power in a thoughtful, ethical and sustainable manner.  It's practical tips for living in a tiny space are also relevant to those of us who live in larger homes. Definitely worth reading.

What books are on your reading list?