Tuesday, 30 April 2013

In the garden.....

This is part of our very own suburban food forest

Rhubarb, sage, potatoes and parsley growing under and around pear, banana and apricot trees

Permaculture and a trip to South Australia

Several years ago we went on a tour of the Food Forest, near Gawler in South Australia.  Owned by Annemarie and Graham Brookman, the Food Forest is a permaculture farm and learning centre that demonstrates how an ordinary family, with a typical Australian income can grow its own food and create a productive and diverse landscape.

Our visit inspired us to want to return to this fantastic permaculture property to do the 10 day Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course run by Graham and Annemarie, and featuring lecturer David Holmgren, one of the co-founders of the Permaculture concept.

This year everything aligned to enable us to enrol in the Food Forest's PDC so we grabbed the opportunity. We headed off to South Australia for a bit of a holiday and to do the first part of the course. 

Here's a few photos from our journey....

Feeding the long nosed potaroos at Cleland Wildlife Park

Visiting some wineries in the Barossa Valley (where a bit of sampling was undertaken!)

Chateau Tanunda

Admiring the view at Grant Burge Wines

Walking in the Flinders Ranges National Park

Aboriginal cave paintings, Akaroo Rock

Wilpena Pound, Flinders Ranges NP

There was plenty of native wildlife spotting along the way

Last stop: the Food Forest

More about Permaculture and the Food Forest in later posts.....

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Backyard inspiration

I like these raised vegie beds with the bamboo trellis.


Making the edge of the beds into seating is a good idea, don't you think?

Children's garden at Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne


Thursday, 11 April 2013

In the garden.....

Bees on pumpkin flower

Composting at work

There are lots of ways to make a little difference every day towards reducing the amount of material that goes to land fill. We all do our bit by composting and recycling at home, but why stop there? Several years ago I decided to extend our recycling and composting activities to my work place. 
I started in the office kitchens by putting a large, clearly labeled, container with a lid in each kitchen to collect fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds from the coffee machines, tea bags etc.


By the end of each day these containers are pretty full. I empty them into a single, large  container, put the lid on and take it home to add to our compost bins. In this way we collect between 10-16 litres of compostable material per day, 5 days a week....which adds up to well over a tonne each year.

The kitchen waste becomes lovely compost which we use in our fruit and vegetable garden. This is just one practical way that we as individuals can help fight climate change - instead of letting things go to land fill to release carbon into the atmosphere, we can sequester that carbon and use it to make our gardens more productive.  
But why stop at kitchen waste? There are plenty of other things that can be recycled from our workplaces. The shredded paper from the office shredding machines is now put to good use as bedding material for friends’ chooks, or used as layers in making compost.  When the office got re-carpeted, did the carpet off-cuts get thrown away?  No way. They went straight home to be used in our no-dig garden where they worked a treat.
Given that my workplace is trying to be more ‘green’, my recycling efforts are encouraged. I'm even considering expanding 'operation compost' - the limiting factor being how much I can carry home each day on public transport. The point is we can all make a difference. At first it might not seem like much, but individual efforts really do add up. Plus you find that people become curious about what you do with the compost. This generally leads to discussions about composting, organic gardening and sustainability.  So it’s a good way of raising public awareness too.

You might find that similar opportunities exist at your workplace - all you have to do is ask!


The warm tradition of cozy feet

I come from a family of knitters. My mother knits, her mother knitted, and my mother taught me.  It’s relaxing and very satisfying to create something warm and cozy from a ball of yarn.  Once you have the knitting basics down, you can make all sorts of things: scarves, hats, mittens, jumpers, cardis.........and socks.
My nana used to knit a pair of socks for my father’s birthday every year.  They were beautiful and lasted for absolutely ages. Somehow sock knitting skipped a generation and my mother didn’t pick it up. So when my nana passed away, I thought I’d try and keep the tradition alive and learn how to make socks.  I had inherited my nana’s sock needles and sock yarn stash so I was ready... but I didn’t really know where to start.

Fortunately I had made friends with a great bunch of gals through the online knitting group Stitch ‘n Bitch.  Several of my knitting buddies had sock knitting down pat and were kind enough to help me out.  They also pointed me towards sock knitting tutorials on the web like this one which I found invaluable.
I’ll admit – making the first pair was kind of like wrestling with a porcupine as I got used to using the sock needles, but it has been smooth sailing ever since. 

Socks made for my father....by me!

Socks made for my mother

Having custom-sized socks made for you is a cozy luxury that my family and friends truly appreciate.  Now my father and my mother receive a pair of hand knitted socks each year on their birthday.  I also have a pretty fair stash of my own J And any leftover sock yarn is made into baby socks for friends using this pattern so nothing goes to waste.

Op shops can be an inexpensive source of knitting needles and yarn – a great way to get started.  Alternatively, a set of knitting needles and some yarn won’t set you back too much if you buy it from a wool shop.  Once you can knit, purl, cast on and cast off you’re ready to tackle socks.  Self-patterning sock yarns add to the fun – the range available is amazing.  There’s a multitude of free sock patterns online and places like ravelry are a great place to start looking.

Socks are a fun, small project and are a great way to pass the time if you travel on public transport.  Everyone needs socks so why not treat yourself to some homemade luxury?

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Natural Beekeeping - Why not?

You'd have to have been living under a rock for the last few years not to have heard about the worldwide decline in honey bee populations and how Australia is only remaining country in the world not to have the dreaded Varroa mite.  The loss of honey bees has direct implications for our food supply and this, of course, affects everyone.  It's not just honey we're talking about here, it's the large number of fruit and vegetable varieties that rely on bees for pollination.

It seems that this worldwide decline in bee numbers is due to many factors.  One thing it has done is raise concerns about the use of chemicals in relation to beekeeping -  those that are used on the plants that the honey bees visit, as well as those used in the hive itself to control pests and disease.  Here at PragSust HQ, we are certainly not experts on any of this and don't profess to be so, but the decline of honey bee numbers and its flow on effects, got us thinking how we could do our little bit to help.  

When we heard that a natural beekeeping group  was being established as a sub-group of Permaculture Melbourne, we joined up straight away.  Led by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable convenor, we soon realised that we could indeed keep bees in our backyard in a low cost, sustainable way.  We've had a hive for a couple of years now and it has been a fascinating  experience.  As people who have kept bees for decades will tell you, there's always something new to learn about bees and beekeeping.

Our hive

We endeavour to keep our bees in a natural and sustainable way as described here.  The more we read about beekeeping, the more this approach resonated with us.  The US beekeeper, Michael Bush, provides a convincing argument as to why natural beekeeping is the way to go in his excellent book The Practical Beekeeper.  The following statement really hit home:

"The other side of helping bees with treatments of pesticides and antibiotics is that you keep propagating bees that can't survive. This is the opposite of what we need. We beekeepers need to be propagating the ones that can survive. Also we keep propagating the pests that are strong enough to survive our treatments. So we keep breeding wimpy bees and super pests."
Makes sense, doesn't it?

If keeping bees appeals to you there is lots of information available, both online and in print, on what is involved. Check it out and find out what you're getting yourself in for before jumping in. Some books we found very useful were:

Lastly, if you live in Victoria, Australia, you must keep your bees in accordance with the guidelines in the Apiary Code of Practice. This  document is free and can be downloaded here.

So there you go.  We're keeping bees!

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

How to best use rooftop PV's

People who install solar panels may have a range of goals. Some people want to reduce  their greenhouse emissions, others want to reduce their electricity costs and others would like to do both. Urban customers will usually be connected to the electricity grid. You can think of the grid as like a big battery to which at times you might send power and from which at other times you take power.

Your solar panels can make electricity when the sun is shining. With the net metering scheme offered by retailers in Victoria, if you are using electricity in your house when the panels are generating electricity you will need to buy less electricity from the grid. Effectively you are paying yourself for the electricity that you generate at the retail rate that the electricity company would otherwise charge you. A typical rate charged by a electricity retailer might be up to 30c/kWh. If you make more electricity than you consume, the excess will be exported to the grid. If you have a feedin tariff arrangement with your retailer you will receive the feedin tariff for this excess. In Victoria, new solar panel installations can receive a feedin tariff of 8c/kWh. So if your electricity consumption coincides with when you generate electricity you will save more money with your new solar panels than you will receive from exporting extra generation. Some uses of electricity can be timed to coincide with when your panels are making electricity. This is a bit like doing the washing on a sunny day so you can dry your laundry on a clothesline outdoors. We can use our electric lawnmower, electric chainsaw, dishwasher and washing machine when it is sunny. With a big enough array you can power a substantial amount of equipment. I heard second-hand the other day about a guy who downsized his joinery business to work from home, plonked 5kW on his roof and now home-powers when it's sunny. Due largely to massively increased manufacturing capcity in China in turn driven by large-scale subsidised installations in Europe, the installed cost for residential PV's in Australia has dropped dramatically over the last few years. Advertised costs in Melbourne are now less than $10k for a 5kW system. At these prices, electricity from PV's is about half the peak price of retail electricity. A useful saving!

But if you have an off-peak tariff from your electricity supplier and you use this to do your washing or use the dishwasher then from a financial perspective you may be better off continuing to run these appliances off-peak. (Albeit using fossil fueled power.) The exact calculation would depend on individual circumstances such as what electricity tariffs you are paying, how much someone is at home during the day, how many appliances you have such as refrigerators that run during the day, whether you use electric heating or air-conditioning during the day and so on.

Some people aim to make as much electricity from their solar panels over a year as they consume. Using standard figures on the average sunlight received in your area allows an estimate of how many panels you will need to meet the current electricity usage on your bill.

Some folks would like to install as many solar panels as they can afford and fit on their roof. The Victorian legislation applying from the start of 2013 allows up to 100kW of solar panels to be connected to the grid from a home.

Rooftop renewable energy goodness at PragSust HQ