Friday, 20 December 2013

Shading the hive on hot summer days

Believe it or not, Melbourne can get pretty hot over the summer months. The temperature hit 40 degrees celsius the other day.

Our backyard hive gets a fair bit of afternoon sun during summer.  There's a large water tank to the right of the picture below (about 1 metre from the side of the hive) which provides some shade but when the sun is high in the sky the hive is in full sun from around 11 am.  It's completely shaded by 3 pm but that still leaves 4 hours in the middle of the day where it catches a lot of sun. Relocating the hive elsewhere in the garden isn't really an option as we don't have another suitable spot. There is always plenty of water available for our bees, however on hot days we also install some temporary shade to assist the 'girls' in their efforts to cool the hive.

It's nothing fancy. On the night before we place 2 bricks on top of the lid, then a large piece of cardboard, followed by 2 more bricks to secure it. This makes a kind of cardboard umbrella.  The first layer of bricks allows air flow between the lid and the cardboard which assists in cooling. You'll have to excuse the dark photo below - it was taken in the evening after the cardboard was installed.

It's certainly not a pretty setup..........but it helps, and that's what matters. 

Monday, 16 December 2013

Logs as tables

I like the trend of using logs to make side tables or stools.  It's something that we plan to have a go at with wood that we have collected.

Some lovely examples are quite rustic:

While other examples are more refined:


I think they all look great.

Images 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 56 | 7 | 89 | 10

(I can't find the original source for images 3 and 7 -  if you happen to know, please tell me so I can attribute the image accordingly)

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Backyard Inspiration

Espaliered fruit trees are a great way to grow fruit in small spaces. Trees can be trained to a variety of attractive shapes and grown against a fence or wall, as a free-standing tree or even as a potted plant.

In addition to saving space, espaliered fruit trees have other benefits. These include good light to the fruit (which helps improve development), ease of picking and ease of protecting the tree against frost or birds. It's much easier to net an espaliered tree.

If you are training your tree against a north-facing brick wall, you may be able to grow varieties that would normally require a warmer climate.

Here are some lovely espalier examples:

espaliered apple tree forming part of a fence

espaliered apple

espaliered pear

Belgian fence style espalier

candelabra style espalier

espaliered fig
horizontal espalier

espaliered lemon

fan shaped espalier

potted espaliered orange

And how's this for handy picking? Just lean out the window and grab your pear .....

Hallstatt, The Austrian Lakes District

If you are interested in having a go at espaliering fruit trees you'll find plenty of how-to information on the internet - e.g. instructions for espaliering apples can be found here

Maybe you have a spot in your garden for an espaliered fruit tree?

Images 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 67891011

Monday, 2 December 2013

In the garden .....

A while ago we started edging some of our garden beds using rocks that we'd gathered for free.  It's still a work in progress - some of the results can be seen here.   

Here's our latest haul of rocks which we scored for free via gumtree.  We got them locally from someone who just wanted to be rid of them - a good example of reuse and recycling in action, wouldn't you agree?  

Incorporating this lot into the garden is going to keep us busy for awhile.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Sustainable building, Austrian style

Our friend Josef's beautiful home is a great example of sustainable building techniques. Josef and his wife Petra have combined sustainable building with traditional, low impact practices to build their home in Austria.

Josef and Petra's beautiful home

The house is built from natural materials using a timber frame with a ready-to-coat outer face made of soft fibre timber plates.  The ceilings from the basement upwards are made of solid wood panels. This restricted the use of concrete solely to the construction of the basement.  

The open timber frame inside the house was filled with 36cm thick straw bales. Excellent insulation! The straw bales were made at Josef's brother's farm 2km away and collected by the family. You can't get much more sustainable than that!

Here are some shots of the straw bale walls going up.

The walls were then covered by oriented strand board, an engineered wood particle board. Parts of the interior were covered by a clay/sand render with reeds as a filler.


Due to the quality of construction and the insulation from the strawbales, the only heating required is a wood pellet heater using sustainably sourced wood pellets. The pellet heater also supplies hot water during winter. For the remainder of the year hot water is mainly from 10 m3 of solar collectors connected to a 1000 litre buffer storage tank. Rainwater collected on the roof is used for watering the garden.

In the garden, Josef has started building retaining walls using traditional dry stone wall techniques. 

the building materials

the finished wall

garden above the retaining wall

In the background of the above picture you can see Josef's mulching lawn mower.  When the grass is mowed this mulches the cut grass and leaves it on the ground. So the nutrients in the grass go back to the soil rather than being exported in a green waste bin. Josef says this mowing method has done a great job of building up the earthworm population ... and encouraging visits from blackbirds!

Isn't it a beautiful home?

As well as this write-up on our humble blog, Josef's house was also written up in a European Union publication "The Voices of Life: 20 years of getting things done".

It's wonderful to see so many great examples of pragmatic sustainability in one house. Josef, Petra and their children now have a comfortable home, made mostly from natural, sustainable materials with energy from renewable systems. Strawbale construction makes a lot of sense in Australia as well as Austria. Very good insulation for hot summers and drastically reduced heating requirements in winter. The large grain growing areas in Australia have millions of tonnes of straw after harvest. In Australia's mild climate a well-designed and built house needs very little heating. And the excellent insolation across much of Australia means that rooftop solar hot water systems can easily make much of the domestic hot water used. With rooftop photo-voltaics at $2/W it's cheaper to make electricity than buy it from the grid. Add some batteries - which are also dropping in price - and electricity from PV's can be stored for later use.

Monday, 18 November 2013

More Than Honey - an amazing film

During the Melbourne Environmental Film Festival I was fortunate enough to attend the screening of Swiss filmmaker, Markus Imhoof's award-winning documentary 'More Than Honey'.

If you have an interest in the environment, food security or bees, then this film is an absolute must-see. The photography alone is captivating.

Here's the synopsis of the film from the official film website:

Over the past 15 years, numerous colonies of bees have been decimated throughout the world, but the causes of this disaster remain unknown. Depending on the world region, 50% to 90% of all local bees have disappeared, and this epidemic is still spreading from beehive to beehive – all over the planet. Everywhere, the same scenario is repeated: billions of bees leave their hives, never to return. No bodies are found in the immediate surroundings, and no visible predators can be located.
In the US, the latest estimates suggest that a total of 1.5 million (out of 2.4 million total beehives) have disappeared across 27 states. In Germany, according to the national beekeepers association, one fourth of all colonies have been destroyed, with losses reaching up to 80% on some farms. The same phenomenon has been observed in Switzerland, France, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Austria, Poland and England, where this syndrome has been nicknamed “the Mary Celeste Phenomenon”, after a ship whose crew vanished in 1872.
Scientists have found a name for the phenomenon that matches its scale, “colony collapse disorder,” and they have good reason to be worried: 80% of plant species require bees to be pollinated. Without bees, there is no pollinization, and fruits and vegetables could disappear from the face of the Earth. Apis mellifera (the honey bee), which appeared on Earth 60 million years before man and is as indispensable to the economy as it is to man’s survival.
Should we blame pesticides or even medication used to combat them? Maybe look at parasites such as varroa mites? New viruses? Travelling stress? The multiplication of electromagnetic waves disturbing the magnetite nanoparticles found in the bees’ abdomen? So far, it looks like a combination of all these agents has been responsible for the weakening of the bees’ immune defenses. 
Fifty years ago, Einstein had already insisted on the symbiotic relationship binding these pollen gatherers to mankind: “If bees were to disappear from the globe,” he predicted, “mankind would only have four years left to live.”

The film is a fascinating look into the world of bees, focussing on the relationship between mankind and honeybees. It features beekeepers from around the world who range from small family beekeepers to large industrialised honey farms. I particularly liked the part featuring the American beekeeper who had switched to keeping Africanised honeybees. He's the guy in the picture below:


You can view the official trailer for the film here

The film was also released for sale in dvd or bluray formats on the 21st October 2013.  I'd love to see it again and I'd like to be able to show it to others, so I'm definitely grabbing a copy. 

Saturday, 16 November 2013

In the garden .....

Here's some of what's happening in our garden right now...

This small bed was made using the no dig method and is edged with rocks that were being thrown out by other people.  There's quite a lot packed in there, including a babaco, tahitian lime, fennel, golden nugget pumpkin, strawberries, tomatoes, rhubarb, marjoram, oregano, lemon thyme and garlic.

Here's the same bed viewed from a different angle

These are the fruits growing on the babaco tree. They go yellow as they ripen.
In the jungle of greenery in the picture above there is a cape gooseberry bush lurking. The fruit of this plant is a smooth berry which looks a bit like a little yellow tomato, encased in a lantern-like structure called a calyx. You can see the calyx in the picture below.  As the fruit ripens the calyx dries out, becoming quite papery, and the yellow berry inside becomes visible.

Another one of our fruits coming on at the moment is the pepino. The fruit is yellow with purple markings and grows to around the size of a large avocado.  It has a lemony melon sort of taste. We like it because it fruits over winter when there's not much else happening in the garden.

The strawberries and raspberries are also doing well....but you need to be quick to beat the birds.

A while ago we planted a pineapple top. It seems to be growing, albeit extremely slowly. It's an experiment - it'll be interesting to see what happens.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Becoming more sustainable - things you can do in the garden

There are plenty of ways to become more sustainable in your garden. Here are just a few ideas:

1) Grow some of your own food.

Okay, this one is a bit of a no brainer.  Growing your own food organically means you have control over how it is grown. You have the ability to grow healthy, chemical free food, and to have it on hand when you want it.   A home-grown tomato or strawberry tastes great and gives a real sense of accomplishment. Growing some of your own food is cost effective too - a packet of lettuce seed costs very little and will produce a large amount of lettuce. For the price of a bag of lettuce from the supermarket you can buy a packet of heirloom seeds and grow lettuce all summer long. If you let some lettuce plants go to seed and save some of the seed from them you can keep growing lettuce indefinitely. Same goes for cane fruit like raspberries. They can be big producers - we often get a bowl of raspberries a day in the growing season. Goodness knows how much that amount of organic raspberries would cost to buy!

Silverbeet and perennial spinach growing at base of nectarine tree

Growing your own fruit and vegies also makes a huge reduction in the energy used to grow and transport food. Walking out to the garden to get a home-grown lemon is more food feet than food miles. Compare this to buying a lemon that may have been trucked in from interstate, and stored for an extended period in a cool room...... or worse - a lemon that has come from all the way from the USA. Garlic from another continent - why buy that when It's super easy to grow your own?

If the idea of growing your own food seems a bit daunting then the best way to get going is to start off small - try growing herbs in pots. Then, bit by bit as you build up confidence and experience, you can expand your activities into your garden.  Just take one step at a time.  Don't worry if some things don't grow so well at first. It happens to everyone - just don't give up!

2) Catch and redistribute your own water

Installing rainwater tank is a good way of sustainably managing your garden.  Remember the days of water-restrictions?  It was our 18,600 litres of stored water that got our extensive garden through those hot summers.  The price of water tanks has come down and down,  so they are no longer an unaffordable option and are a good investment against rising water prices.

Our water tanks being delivered

3) Someone else's waste can be your gain

You can often find local sources of free stuff for your garden that is someone else's waste. In our case one of the things we get for free is woody mulch.  We source some of our woody mulch from an arborist in a neighbouring suburb. They leave the chipped mulch on the nature strip outside their business for people to help themselves to. All you need are some sturdy bags (free at the local produce store) and some transport, and you can help yourself to as much as you need.  We also have a few arborists who will sometimes drop off a load. Other sources of free mulch are street trees. Many of the trees in our suburb are deciduous so Autumn is the time for leaf collection. Rake up the leaves, maybe give them a bit of a run over with the lawn mower...and you have more mulch, or substrate for your compost bin. And we all know mulch is good for the garden - it helps keep the moisture in the soil and reduces the need for watering. Helps control weeds too.

Free woody mulch from the arborist

In our suburb people sometimes put unwanted goods on the nature strip for someone to take for free. Often these items are garden related - landscaping rocks, pavers, trellis, pots, plants, even old bathtubs that can be turned into worm farms etc. We've found a lot of useful garden items this way. It can also be a good way to obtain firewood. Keep your eyes peeled - you never know what you'll find.

We miss the good old days of the yearly hard waste collection. That could be a great source of garden and household items. Good way to meet the people in your neighbourhood too! We would swap all sorts of things with our neighbours. Now, in our suburb, the hard waste collection is a thing of the past. We have an individual household collection scheme that is arranged through the council :(

4) Make your own compost

This is another no brainer.  Turn all of your food scraps and garden waste into soil enriching compost.  It's not hard. You're saving stuff from going to land fill and your garden is the winner.  The addition of compost over several years has made our soil unrecognisable from what it used to be. It's dark, crumbly and full of worms - a far cry from what it was when we first moved in. The improvement in the soil translates directly to increased productivity in our garden.  All due to the power of home-made compost. You can also use the weeds from your garden to make weed tea. This is a great plant tonic - we posted about making weed tea here.
5) If you need to buy things, try to buy second hand

With ebay, Gumtree, trash 'n treasure markets and other places, it can be easy to buy second hand garden/landscaping items.  It's cheaper than buying new and you're doing something good for the environment. You might even get items for free on Freecycle if you're quick.  Recycled timber is pretty widely available these days and can be the perfect option for raised garden beds (just make sure it's not treated pine if you plan to grow vegies in the beds)

6) Join a local permaculture or garden group

This is a great way to swap seeds and plants. People in these groups grow an amazing variety of things and because they are grown locally they should cope with your local growing conditions. These groups are also often great source of knowledge about all things garden-related and you can get some great tips.

These are just some of the ways you can become more sustainable in your garden - it's not an exhaustive list, just something to get you started. If you have some other examples then we'd love to hear them.