Monday, December 31, 2007

Christmas in the Australian Bush

In a way, Boxing Day ended up being our real Christmas. Christmas Eve brought the presents, Christmas Day the lovely food, but Boxing Day was the day we found peace and enjoyment in the Australian bush. The heat was intense. It had an effect similar to the icy cold of my childhood Christmases. The extremes of temperature seem to turn nature serene and calm. I love the intense scent of a eucalyptus forest in dry blistering heat.

The air was filled with an orchestra of birds competing with the pervasive humming of zicadas. Beetles and butterflies hovered around the many tiny flowers on bushes and on the ground. We saw plenty of evidence to suggest the presence of kangaroos and wombats, and we even saw an echidna.

Unfortunately, I was not fast enough to take a picture, but for my international readers I include this picture from wikipedia. (All other pictures in this entry were taken by me on the day).

I particularly like this small piece of bush. It is in a travelling stock reserve, access is from a side road through a badly maintained and partially overgrown muddy path. As a result, there usually is nobody else there. There is some evidence that there once was a homestead or cottage of some sort, although nothing much is left, apart from a few strewn pieces of rusty wire, an old fence post and a small stand of neglected plum trees.

The reserve contains a number of unusually grown trees, such as this one which is regrowing multiple trunks out of a fallen branch.

Overall, the area seems in excellent condition. None of the pervasive weeds such as Patterson's Curse nor St John's Wort are anywhere to be seen, and there are also no fields of thistles as is common in nearby paddocks. Instead, there is a plethora of different grass species and a range of bush flowers.

A couple of years ago I started getting interested in native grasslands and I even joined the Grassland Society of NSW. It is amazing how many grass species you notice when you actually start looking, even in our own backyard paddock I was able to find at least ten different species in a small area alone. However, I suspect that most of those are introduced rather than native grasses.

Until I joined the Grassland Society, I had not realised how important native grasslands are for the ecosystem in our region. According to the Australian Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, temperate grasslands in the ACT and NSW are now an endangered species:

"In the Southern Tablelands of NSW it is estimated that 450 000 ha of natural temperate grassland occurred prior to European settlement (Benson 1994). About 2400 ha (0.6%) containing the ecological community in moderate to good condition on public lands and some private lands has been surveyed (Rehwinkel 1997). Possibly the same amount again occurs on private lands not as yet surveyed (Rehwinkel pers. comm.). This gives an estimated total of up to 1.5% of the pre-European distribution of this community remaining in moderate to good condition in NSW Southern Tablelands, and possibly another 5% in poorer condition (native pastures of relatively lower forb diversity and high exotic content)."

Unfortunately, I am still not confident I can identify corrrectly what is a native grass and what isn't. So it is possible that some of the grasses I liked so much during our walk were not actually native grass species. Nevertheless, we walked around with open eyes, and our boys were just as interested as I was in the beauty of our natural heritage which I tried to capture in these photos.

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Friday, December 28, 2007

How to create a backyard maze

The grass in the back paddock has had a chance to grow really well after a wonderfully wet November and December. It very much looks like the drought that has been with us for the last seven years may finally be on its way out. I wouldn't mind letting the grass grow, were it not for the snake hazard. Unfortunately, our ride-on mower broke down and we won't be able to get it fixed until early January.

After spending a couple of rainy afternoons (isn't it wonderful to have rainy afternoons!) with the boys drawing mazes, we came up with an idea... Why not create a real maze outside?

J got the whipper-snipper out and spent 30 to 40 minutes or so cutting a complicated path into the high grass, with many side-paths and dead ends. There are different shapes, straight lines and spirals. Our maze covers an almost triangular area of approximately 350sqm.

We all had a go at walking the maze. It was actually quite difficult to do, even for the ingenious creator!

The boys thought it was magnificent, including young T (in the backpack).

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

A ginger bread house that even tastes good, too.

The kids wanted to make a ginger bread house for Christmas this year. We tried a commercial ginger house package three years ago (which was easy to do but only marginally edible). Last year I tried to find a good recipe on the Internet, only to end up with a gingerbread house that really only kids could enjoy. So this year, I finally wanted to make something for everybody!

I noticed one particularly good bakery in Canberra selling ginger bread houses for a whopping $85.00 a piece. To be fair to the baker, he is a true master of his trade and his food is extremely good. Unfortunately though, that is way outside our budget. Luckily for me, the baker had added a little note to his merchandise, saying that his houses were based on a recipe called "Baseler Leckerli". I figured I might try one of those myself, and I was not disappointed.

This is the recipe:

You need:
300 g honey
100 g brown sugar
400 g flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon (or less) ground clover
1 pinch nutmeg
150g ground almonds (or alternatively ground hazelnuts)

and for the royal icing:
2 large egg whites
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
3 cups (330 grams) icing sugar, sifted.

Make a paper model of your house. Remember that you will need two of everything - front and back, side walls, roof.
The dough will roll out to an area of slightly more than an A3 sized page.
Our house had the following dimensions:
front and back - width about 21 cm,
height to roof gable - 14.5 cm,
height of side walls - 7.5 cm.
Cut the side walls and the roof accordingly. We also added a Christmas tree and a few tiles from left-over dough for a "footpath".

Slowly warm the honey together with the brown sugar. Put flour, baking powder, cinnamon, ground clover, nutmeg and ground almonds in a large bowl. Add the honey-sugar to the dry ingredients. Mix well. Roll out the dough about 1 cm thick on a slightly floured surface.

Cut the shapes out of your dough and bake them at 200 C (180 C if using a fan forced oven) for about 15-20 minutes. Keep an eye on your shapes, they should not become too dark.

Once the baked pieces are cooled down, the fun part begins. Prepare the royal icing by beating the egg whites with the lemon juice. Add the sifted powdered sugar and continue to beat until combined and smooth. The icing needs to be used immediately as royal icing quickly becomes hard.

Stick your house together with royal icing and decorate. The ginger bread house will be quite hard and have a lovely crunchy structure when you first make it. It will gradually become soft when exposed to air. It tastes best when fresh but it is still quite ok after a couple of weeks. We have been grazing on ours throughout the pre-Christmas season as a special treat after dinner.


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Friday, December 21, 2007

Permaculture in Canberra

I have been to a number of courses and workshops over recent weeks, starting with my visit to Jackie French's wonderful garden, followed by a field day at Mulloon Creek Natural Farms and an outing to another inspiring organic farm in our district.

I also attended a three session permaculture course run by the Canberra Environment Centre, which has recently moved to its new location near the National Museum in Canberra (photo left). In her book "Earth user's guide to permaculture", Rosemary Marrow defines permaculture as "the science of applied ecological design". This sounds rather grand, and I was a bit worried, especially as a friend of mine remarked that "putting in place all those ideas is just so expensive!" Nevertheless, I figured it would be worth going along anyway.

I was very pleasantly surprised! The course was run by Barbara Schreiner (pictured on the right below), who gave an introduction to the philosophy and application of permaculture principles. I quickly realised that in many ways, I am already applying some of those ideas and principles, but I also learnt many new, useful skills. I also learnt a bit more about the two co-founders of the permaculture idea, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.

During our first session, Barbara outlined the design principles for a well-organised permaculture garden. This kind of garden is a Garden of Eden, devoted to producing food for people, timber for firewood (space permitting) and food for native animals. There are several "zones", starting with the energy-efficient house, then going out to herbs, moving on to less frequently used vegetables, the chook yard, fruit trees, a woodlot for timber and finally a wilderness area for native plants. The idea here is to have the most used areas closest to the house. As one has to walk past these areas every day to feed the chooks, it is easy to be aware of what is happening in the vegetable garden and whether it may need some water, more mulch or whether something is ready to be picked. Less frequently visited crops, such as fruit trees, or native plants can be located further away from the house.

Of course, most of us don't start from scratch but have to work with what is already there. As "homework" we were to do a "site analysis" of our own garden plot, looking at what was where, which areas where used a lot and which ones were not etc. I quickly realised that while my herbs are in a good spot right outside the kitchen window, the vegetables are not at all in a practical area - they are way out there and require a lot of walking both to get to them and to carry water to them. But then again, I enjoy the beautiful view from my kitchen and I need to be able to supervise my boys outside, so under those circumstances, I guess the vegetable beds are in the best possible spot. I just have to make a conscious effort of going out there every day.

Barbara also stressed that one of the ideas in permaculture is to use what is already there - reuse, reduce and recycle, in that order, and to look around our own yard and the wider neighbourhood to find things that other people have discarded but that may still have some useful life in them. That is certainly a principle I fully subscribe to! It was very refreshing to realise that this particular kind of gardening does NOT require expensive new-fangled gardening tools and a complicated set-up, quite on the contrary.

One thing I am going to change next year is the way I plant my vegetable beds. So far I have been planting in squares (due to having to put chicken wire around everything to keep the rabbits away) with reasonably straight lines. Many permaculture designs instead suggest planting in curves, for example in the shape of "keyholes" which allows better access to the plants.

We also learnt a lot about pollination and plant propagation, about manure, compost and no-dig gardening methods, about how to protect young seedlings and what to plant when. At the last session, Barbara showed us some pictures of her own suburban Canberra garden, the way it had started out and how she had gradually turned it into a garden of plenty.

There will be more courses held next year. The website for the Environment Centre can be found at

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Amory Lovins' plan to wean the US off oil

Thanks to the Australian news site kwoff I came across this interesting video of a talk by American energy guru Amory Lovins from the Rocky Mountain Institute. Lovins' book "Winning the Oil Endgame" can be downloaded for free from his website.

Lovins clearly has some great ideas. The video was actually filmed almost three years ago (February 2005) but only posted online a couple of days ago. I hope very much that in the wake of the Bali Climate Change Conference we will see more governments and companies start taking note of the many good ideas and great opportunities that are out there to change the situation around. Conferences without follow-up action will remain nothing more than a great talk fest, and even the best ideas will not achieve anything if we don't actually start DOING something now.

If you have difficulties watching the video embedded in this post, please go directly to the TED website. TED stands for the annual "Technology, Entertainment, Design" conference which was first held in 1984. The TED has many more interesting talks which are available for free downloads under a creative commons license.

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The cost of work

A year ago, I went back to work part-time after receiving a call from my university that they needed a tutor for one term. I leapt at the opportunity. I had been away from teaching and research for several years now, having left paid work after my first baby was born. At the time, with two young children at home, the chance of going back to a university classroom for one day a week seemed like a wonderful opportunity not to be missed. I love teaching. I love the intellectual challenge that comes with being in a classroom full of bright young people who are keen to learn and able to question what is being put to them. It was a good experience. Yet, it was also an experience I won’t repeat any time soon.

Being a “casual” employee at the university means you only get paid for the time you are actually in the classroom. You do not get paid for the many hours of preparation, nor for the time you spend marking students' essays and exam papers. The course I was teaching was exciting, with a lot of new material to be worked through. I found I spent many hours every weekend with reading and research, and preparing my classes. This resulted, to put it mildly, in a bit of strain on our family life. Two young children, then aged two and four, need a lot of looking after, and having Mummy stuck in her office all day was not particularly helpful. Household tasks that usually get done over the weekend remained undone and had to be picked up during the week. There was no time for relaxing family outings. Nobody in the family got a break.

Eventually I started wondering how much I was actually earning per hour if taking into account the amount of time I spent working outside the classroom. I sat down and looked at the cost for going to work (childcare, petrol, parking), and the total amount I earned. The result came as a shock. By the end of six months of working between two and three days a week, most of that during weekends, I had earned a total of minus $60.00. I had not only not made any financial headway, I had actually lost money by going to work.

Now we have three children aged one, three and five. I am home full-time. Being at home allows me to do a lot of things myself such as growing almost all our vegetables, making bread, and doing repairs around the house as soon as they come up, resulting in massive savings.

Nevertheless, getting by on one income is a challenge in a two-income world, so once again I was wondering whether I should be trying to find a job. Not that I wanted to – the children are far too small, the older two never really enjoyed their limited childcare experience and I actually like being at home with the kids. Still, there remained that nagging feeling that maybe I needed to contribute more to the family income.

So I sat down to work out how much I would have to earn to pay for going to work full time. I have been keeping a budget for the last number of years, and I know that we have spent over $6000 a year less on household and food items compared to two years ago, when I first started growing vegetables. (And that is despite the fact that we had another addition to the family during that time!) I took this amount into account, plus an annual inflation rate of approximately three per cent. In the case of food, this may well be too little, as many fresh food items have gone up by double-digit percentage points, but I was trying to keep my calculation simple.

We have no extended family living close by and no access to informal childcare. I looked up typical childcare costs and contacted before and after school care facilities plus holiday programs to find out how much it would cost to care for a school aged child. I also calculated the cost of petrol but not parking, clothes or any other such expenses.

With both parents in fulltime work, we would, of course, lose the single income family tax benefit. I also quickly realised that I would have to earn so much just to pay for childcare that we would definitely lose any other family tax benefits, too. Childcare tax rebates are only available to families receiving family tax benefit, which means that I would have to pay full childcare fees. Plus, of course, I would have to pay tax on my income.

The single biggest cost item clearly is childcare. For three children under and up to the age of five in full-time childcare, I would have to fork out close to $55,000 in annual childcare fees. Add to that the other costs listed above, and I would have had to earn slightly over $100,000 this year only to be at exactly the same point financially as I am now.

In 2008, when my oldest will be the right age for school, child care costs would go down to slightly over $44,000 a year, meaning that the amount I would have to pay for going to work before actually earning any extra income will be reduced to $85,000.

Now, to me that is good news. I can confidently say that I am earning $85,000 by being at home, without having to rush out day after day, dropping my kids off at three different childcare centres, pre-school programs and primary schools, racing to work and doing a double shift at home in the evening.

Of course there are drawbacks. I am losing out on career time and that will be difficult to recover. In our case, a dual part-time arrangement for my husband and me didn’t work out. It may work for others, and that may be one way to get around this issue.

But for me, the positives far outweigh the negatives. My children get to spend all the time in the world with me, and we are having a lot of fun together and enjoy each others’ company. We are able to substantially reduce our environmental footprint because we have the time to think about what we do and make changes to our lives. There is time to enjoy life and even do some volunteer community work. The only thing that we are missing out on is the ability to borrow more money against a greater nominal family income if I were at work. But maybe that is a good thing, too.

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Saturday, December 8, 2007

Land clearing makes droughts hotter - let's plant trees!

A large scale research project undertaken by the University of Queensland shows how the clearing of native vegetation in Australia in the last 150 years has made droughts hotter in Australia. According to University of Queensland News Online, the researchers found that "mean summer rainfall decreased by between four percent and 12 percent in eastern Australia, and by four percent and eight percent in southwest Western Australia. These were the regions of most extensive historical clearing."

Equally significantly, "Australian native vegetation holds more moisture that subsequently evaporates and recycles back as rainfall. It also reflects into space less shortwave solar radiation than broadacre crops and improved pastures, and this process keeps the surface temperature cooler and aids cloud formation."

The research makes it clear that we not only have to protect our existing native forests but we also need to increase our efforts to restore previously cleared areas. Unfortunately, it is always much easier to chop down trees than to replant agricultural wastelands where the topsoil has blown away, the rains are failing and ground water levels are dropping away. Anybody who has tried to plant lots of trees in this dry part of the world will have had the heart-breaking experience that many seedlings do not survive, particularly in drought years - and we certainly had plenty of those recently!

So what is the secret to keeping trees alive? At a recent field day I attended at Mulloon Creek Natural Farms, Matt Kilby from Trees for Earth (pictured on the left above) outlined a number of principles that will significantly improve the survival chances of young trees. Matt said that his aim was to "plant as many trees as possible" and that he plants on average 500 trees a day on his own. He claimed that his system achieves 97 per cent survival rates in commercial timber plantations and regeneration projects. Here are the main steps for a successful planting regime:

- Let the grass grow around your planting site and when you mow it, leave the clippings so that they can turn into mulch.

- Deep rid the ground 6 months prior to planting to aerate the ground and overcome compaction. It is a good idea to rip the whole area along the contours to catch all possible rain. It is also important to allow the soil to settle as airspace in the ground will dry out the seedlings.

- Remove all grass around the tree planting site. Matt explained that trees need fungi to thrive, whereas grasses are driven by bacteria, making it harder for trees to get established. While this is often done with herbicides, it is also possible (and in my view by far preferable) to do this through heavy mulching.

- Digg a big hole, twice the depth of the roots. In degraded and marginal sites, add a cup of tree starter which needs to incorporate a range of minerals and structures that "open" the soil and maximise water and nutrient holding capacity.

- Dip the roots of the tree into some tree tonic, then plant.

- Use a weed mat made from waste paper to retain moisture and keep weeds down around the tree.

- Water each tree with 3-10 litres of root tonic.

- Add a good quality tree guard which needs to stay around the tree for 12 months or longer. Tree guards protect young seedlings from wind stress. Matt suggested using pink tree guards. Apparently, the colour pink increases the CO2 uptake of the tree and thus improves the trees growth and survival rates.

- Mulch, mulch, mulch. Mulching is critically important, and you cannot have enough. Mulch at least 1 metre around the tree and at least 15 cm high.

- At the 12 months stage add half a cup of complete carbon fertilizer about half a metre around the tree.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

How to get kids to eat their vegetables?

I have just read about the release of Jessica Seinfeld's new cookbook, Deceptively Delicious, which encourages parents to con young vegetable haters into eating their greens by hiding spinach in their cupcakes.

I have to admit, I do not have that problem. My kids eat their vegetables. They demand apples for desert. They eat my home-made wholemeal, sourdough, and multi-grain bread, including the crust, without any complaint. They even often wander through the garden and pick their own vegetables and eat them on the spot.

Are they different to other kids? Of course not! In fact, if they get a chocolate treat or a muesli bar in the afternoon, I can guarantee that they will be fussy eaters in the evening. It’s just that in our house, there is no such choice. I have no lollies or sweets or commercial biscuits in the cupboard, so there is no temptation to snack on those. If they are hungry, they can always have a piece of fruit. As a result, we go through enormous amounts of fruit each week.

My kids grow up eating family food right from an early age. No mashed pap, mixed in with inedible rice powder “cereal” glue. And if you have ever tried the stuff, you will quickly know why your baby chucks it all up over the floor. If I don’t like it myself, I won’t give it to the kids! Not that I didn’t try otherwise with my first baby and again with the second, but my kids simply rejected the commercial jars and the “no taste food” for babies promoted in baby books.

Instead, I breastfed them exclusively until six months old, and then they quickly began to eat pretty much what everybody else is having, apart from a few foods that are to be avoided in the first year such as honey (because of the botulism risk) and eggs (because of allergy risks). I also avoid most kinds of nuts, particularly peanuts, partly because of the allergy risk, and partly because of the choking hazard. But I definitely use herbs and selected spices in our food, although I do go easy on the salt. My one-year old loves curries, chutneys, casseroles and gets particularly excited over mixed salads and green vegetables.

Of course they all go through stages where they don’t want to eat their main food and would rather feed themselves exclusively on dessert. Well, there is a simple rule in our house. Nobody needs to finish their plate of meat and vegetables if they are full. But clearly, if you have eaten enough, you are also too full for dessert…

I have read recently that some nutritionists warn against forcing kids to finish their plate as that would make it harder for children to develop a sense of when they have eaten enough. The key is to give them only a small, manageable amount to start with, or make compromises if you have misjudged their appetite – I tend to insist that they do eat the salad or the green vegetables, which they usually happily comply with. And the amount of dessert on offer is really only for the purpose of finishing the meal with a nice sweet taste, not to fill you up again. And if they are still hungry after dessert... well, they can have some more dinner then!

Quite frankly, the solutions promoted in the Seinfeld book sound disgusting. Vegetable mash covered in sweet batter? That would be enough to turn me off vegetables for life. How about some common sense instead?

Monday, December 3, 2007

Unexpected beauty - vegetables in bloom

This year I have been letting many of my vegetables go to seed.

This has proven to be an incredible bonus to my vegetable garden, as the flowers have attracted many beneficial predators such as tiny wasps and a range of other insects, including masses of bees, which are, of course, vital for the pollination of vegetables and fruit trees.

But there is another unexpected side effect to letting the garden go a bit wild - some of the plants are incredibly beautiful, and I never knew about it before I let them go about their natural cycle.

This page shows some pictures taken in the garden this morning.

Above on the left is elephant garlic (Allium ameloprasum) which is really a kind of leek rather than a true garlic variety. It produces giant bulbs which are somewhat milder than ordinary garlic.
On the right is a spring onion which has lived in my garden for at least four years now - we just keep picking on the edges and it keeps growing back. Very handy to have as a stand-by when I have run out of onions. There was a bee visiting just when I took my photo this morning - they are very attractive indeed, not only to us humans!

Probably the biggest surprise for me was the green curly endive that I had been growing as a salad green over winter and that came out in lovely blue aster-like flowers, seen here to the left. I guess after realising that endives are in fact members of the Asteraceae family, the shape and colour of the flowers are less of a surprise!

I have also been growing lucerne for mulch but I have not yet had the heart to cut it down, I find the flowers (pictured on the right) rather attractive, and once again, the bees just love them, too!

And even the potato patch is giving me unexpected delight, with delicate purple and yellow flowers above dark green leaves.

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