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?

Monday, 2 May 2016

Flow frame harvest at Collingwood Children's Farm

In April the VAA Melbourne section volunteers who run the Collingwood Children's Farm (CCF) Apiary organised a Flow frame harvest day.  To cater for the interest in this free event and to make numbers manageable, registration was required. Needless to say, spots filled up fast. 

The day was organised as 2 sessions  - morning and afternoon. Each session included:
  • an information session on the history of the Flow frame hive at the CCF and experiences managing it
  • an explanation and demonstration of harvesting from the Flow frames
  • honey tasting and a final information and Q&A session

Here's Mike in the apiary describing to the group (all on the other side of the fence) how he modified an already constructed langstroth hive to hold the Flow frames:

And showing everyone what an empty Flow frame looks like:

Here's the hive containing the Flow frames (in the top box), with the harvesting equipment  in the foreground, ready to set up.

There weren't a lot of bees in the box but some honey was capped:

 After checking each frame, a frame to harvest was selected and the plug at the bottom of the frame was removed:

The hose was then attached to the frame. The other end of the hose went straight into a honey container with an opening sized to match the tube.

Next step was to insert the special Flow frame 'allen keys' into the top of the frame, ready to open it. Opening can be done with one key but from previous experience it had been found that two keys worked better.

 Then it was time turn the keys to open the frame

It took a few minutes before the honey started to flow, but flow it did.

 Straight into the honey container:

While the honey was being collected, the group headed back to the shed for the final information part of the session.  Other experiences using the Flow frames and harvesting were shared and lots of questions were answered.

People were keen to taste the honey that was harvested:

It was a very well run and informative day and a credit to the people who organised it.  The frames had gone in late in the season so they weren't full, but there was enough honey in them to demonstrate how to go about harvesting.  Those in the audience who had Flow Hives, and those still waiting to get their Flow Hive, now have a much better understanding of how to manage this sort of hive as well as how to harvest from it. 

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Mini sewing project - Repurposing

In an effort to reduce plastic in our home, we're trying to prevent bringing home unwanted plastic bags and food-related packaging.  Shopping in bulk is a one way to do this and fortunately for us a bulk food store called The Source has opened up nearby. The shop provides paper bags for shoppers to use but I decided to go reusable and sew some calico bags we can use as produce bags. 

Trying to re-purpose something we already had, I remembered I had a bunch of calico bags that came as shoe bags for various shoes I'd bought over the years.  Never having used these bags, I'd stashed them away thinking they might come in handy. Bingo!  A perfect project for the next sewing day with my crafty friend.  I look forward to these sewing afternoons - apart from being a great excuse to catch up, they ensure that planned sewing jobs actually get done. Like ironing board covers and pillowcase repairs :)  Plus two minds are better than one (well mine at least!) when it comes to working out the best way to tackle a sewing project. 

My destined-to-be produce bags had a single handle and looked like this:

To make them more suitable for carrying produce without spillage I decided to add a drawstring opening.  I had a small collection of salvaged ribbon and cloth tape, and fortunately there were a few pieces of suitable length for the job. I simply folded the top edge of the bag over and sewed along the bottom to make a casing for the ribbon, leaving one side open so the ribbon could be threaded through.

In order to make the casing and keep the handles, the handles were folded back and sewn over when the casing was made.

By a crazy coincidence, my friend's plan for the day was to make cotton drawstring bags to use to store different varieties of potatoes in her pantry.  So it became a produce bag making day - talk about being on the same wavelength! 

We had a break for lunch - yummy black bean soup and homemade bread:

 Then it was back into it and before too long I had a set of produce bags - 4 large and 1 small.

The last step was to weigh each bag and write the weight on the bag itself with a waterproof texta. That way the weight of the bag can be deducted from the total weight at the checkout. Armed with these reusable bags and my Onya mesh bags we are now ready to shop more sustainably.