Friday, November 30, 2007

A burst of native colours in my garden

When we first moved here five years ago, we planted a whole lot of native shrubs and trees along the edges of the garden. Then the drought hit. Some plants survived, others didn't, and most just scrambled along, not doing much. This year, with the little bit of early summer rain we have had, they suddenly sprang into action. I hope that the La Nina weather phenomenon that has started to develop over the Pacific Ocean will deliver more summer rains this year, as the years of drought have left a dehydrated and struggling landscape. It certainly seems like nature is sensing a change!

Many trees have shot up, a lot of the bushes have grown to a reasonable size, and there are flowers on a range of native shrubs. I particularly like the varieties with bottle brush flowers such as the lemon bottle brush (left) and the more common red bottle brush (bottom image). The shrub with the smallish purple brushes and tiny spiky leaves pictured on the right turned out to be a real surprise. I had planted five of those bushes, and they all looked like they might die two years ago.

Given the size of our three acre garden, I simply cannot water everything extensively, so these little things just got a can of water every now and again to keep them alive. Boy, did they reward me for my effort this year! The shrubs are all about a meter fifty high and covered in delicate purple blossoms.

Then there are a number of shrubby things with smallish white flowers which look like the bush is covered in snow (very befitting for somebody like me from the Northern Hemisphere finally getting used to the blistering heat of an Australian Christmas!). The eucalypt trees around our place are also starting to show their true forms - many change the shape and size of their leaves when they grow out of their juvenile stages.

Throughout the drought, the most reliable native shrubs that would still deliver plenty of blossoms turned out to be grevilleas. They propagate easily through cuttings. I have also tried my hand at propagating wattles and eucalypts - both grow best from seeds which I have collected from trees around our place and in the area. A very informative website on native plants, where they grow best and how to propagate them is Corrine's Mallee Native Plants. I find it incredibly rewarding to grow and plant my own shrubs and trees, and after having had some success, I am hooked!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

It has been a busy fortnight

Before I knew it, almost two weeks have gone past since my last blog entry.

I got involved with GetUp's pre-election campaign and went to meetings, delivered information material to over 300 letterboxes in our village and spent some time at our local polling booth in an effort to "cut through the spin" and provide undecided voters with information on where the different parties stand in relation to particular policy areas such as climate change, education, broadband access for rural Australia, Iraq and Aboriginal affairs. Needless to say, I am thrilled with the election result and I am pleased that maybe, together with the many, many other volunteers around the country, I had a small part in bringing about change for our country.

I also spent a lot of time preparing and planting in the garden, and I have been to permaculture workshops and organic farming field days which provided me with lots of new ideas and insights, but unfortunately I was not able to sit down and write them up for my blog. Hopefully, over the next week or so, I will be able to find the time to share some of those thoughts and ideas with you.

Like many other Australians (in fact, there are now over 230,000 members), I had signed up to GetUp online at GetUp is a grassroots movement similar to the American organisation MoveOn. The organisation does not support any particular party but instead focusses on raising awareness on issues that are important for this country and that had for too long been swept under the carpet by the former Coalition government's spin and scare campaigns.

One of the highly successful GetUp campaigns was the organisation's climate change ad which challenged the Coalition governments' climate change policy whitewash. (I featured this ad in a previous blog entry .) Nevertheless, I had only been a passive online member until the day when I suddenly got a phone call from Dave, our local GetUp co-ordinator. Dave invited me to a meeting the next day. I went along and it all took off from there.

GetUp is not planning to wrap up only because the election is over. The organisation hopes to continue its valuable work of campaigning on political issues in this country and revitalise our democracy by giving ordinary citizens an avenue to voice their opinions and get actively involved in the political process. I was impressed with the professionalism of the organisation and I think this is also a great way of making new friends. I certainly got to know a range of interesting people who live in my area and I hope to continue my involvement with the group.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Climate Changing Faster than IPCC Worst-Case Scenario

I have just read another chilling piece of climate change news and it makes my stomach turn. The Australian Climate Institute has just released an independent review of the climate science post 2006 and subsequent to IPCC considerations. The IPCC report which will be coming out later this week only uses material published up to mid-2006. According to the Climate Institute research, many new important observations have been published since which were not considered for the IPCC report. The upshot of this report is:

- The IPCC assessment understimates the effects of climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions are rising faster than the worst case scenario considered by the IPCC. In addition, the IPCC has not taken into consideration some scenarios with "low probability, high consequence events" such as "rapid collapse of ice sheets or climate-ecosystem feedbacks".

- The report also highlights the massive acceleration in global temperatures and a massive increase in the use of fossil fuels which exceeds the highest emissions scenarios considered by the IPCC.

- Of particular concern is what has been happening in the Arctic. The rapid melting of the Arctic ice cap is happening thirty years ahead of what the models have been predicting.

- The IPCC assumed that there would be limited effect of melting Antarctic ice sheets on ocean sea levels but newer studies now say that sea level rises could be "several metres per century with eventual rise of tens of meters, enough to transform global coastlines".

- The capacity of the land and the oceans to absorb CO2 is declining. As a result, oceans (which are currently considered as "sinks") may release CO2 back into the atmosphere, causing a "positive" (i.e. reinforcing) feedback loop.

The sad thing is that we have known about global warming for at least thirty years. We also have many technologies readily available that could make a big difference such as wind, solar, geothermal. We know how to build energy efficient and solar passive houses. We could have supported and expanded public transport instead of our massive investment in private automobiles and road infrastructure. We know that take off and landing are the two most energy-intensive periods in air travel, making short flights particularly bad, yet I don't know of any government that actively undertakes to reduce the ever expanding number of short flights and the growth of regional airports. We have wasted all that time doing what? And has all our consumption, our expansion, our economic growth made us happier?

Now we are in a situation where we not only have to reduce our emissions, we have to stop our emissions altogether and take CO2 out of the atmosphere. As George Monbiot said in a recent speech: "[R]ich nations must cut the emissions much further than anybody else, you realize that we are talking at a minimum of a 100% cut, and it looks like it might have to go to 110% or 115%. You laugh but we're talking about sequestration and we're talking about such things for example, as growing biofuel and burying it, simply for growing as much bio mass as we can and sticking it back on the ground....something.....anything to stave off this catastrophe." (a full transcript can be found at the beyondzeroemissions website).

And what are we doing? Australian Prime Minister John Howard only recently found that climate change is real (mostly a result of opinion polls that showed that the Australian public is increasingly unimpressed with his stand on the issue) but still calls Labor's modest 60 per cent emissions reduction target by 2050 "radical" and "extremist". On October 20, 2007, the Australian newspaper reported that New South Wales Farmers Association (NFA) executive councillors Howard Crozier and Ian McClintock still deny that there is any "possible link between this drought and man-made climate change." Mark Vale, the leader of the National Party, last month said that "there was "conflicting evidence" on the concept of climate change but later clarified his position, saying it did in fact exist." (Sydney Morning Herald, 13 November 2007).

I can only hope that the opinion polls in the lead-up to this election are right and we will get a change in our national leadership, and that we will finally do our part in taking all the real, necessary and urgent steps we need to take to tackle this challenge.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

John and George talk about Climate Change

Isn't it a great relief that we have intelligent and future-oriented politicians in the US and in Australia who have been doing their best to address the issue of climate change? Here is a take on George Bush's approach to dealing with global warming:

And here is a parody of John Howard's climate change announcement:

The difference between the Australian and the UK Government

There could not be a starker difference than between the attitudes of the British and Australian governments towards climate change. According to a report in Scopical, Prime Minister John Howard said on 9 November 2007 that climate change "was not the end of the world", and that the economy was a more important issue. Howard then continued: "I don't think the world is about to come to an end because of climate change. I think we have to have a balanced approach.' Mr Howard was responding to a caller who had questioned the Prime Minister's motivations and election priorities. This is quite a remarkable attitude at a time when scientists around the world sound the alarm bells loud and clear that climate change is changing the world to an extent unseen in human history.

Contrast this attitude with the UK government's stand on climate change: "Climate change is one of the most urgent issues of our time. The first step towards tackling the problem is to make sure everyone understands exactly what the challenge is and what we all need to do to make a difference. [...] We need to educate, excite and inspire others so that we can start working together to tackle climate change." The following movie clip is from the UK's climate challenge website.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A visit to Jackie French's garden

Last weekend I had the pleasure of visiting Jackie French's garden in the Araluen Valley, approximately an hour and a half south-east of Canberra. It was like a visit to the garden of Eden. In our own garden we currently delight in the first few strawberries that are starting to ripen. In Jackie French's place, the trees are laden with oranges, lemons, limes, avocados, medlars and a whole lot of other fruit I have never seen before and have no names for. The climate is very similar to ours, what makes the difference are her gardening methods.

Jackie French's 1992 book "The Wilderness Garden" was the first Australian gardening book I bought when we started out on our previous suburban block almost ten years ago. In her book, she seemed to throw all the conventional wisdom overboard and called for messy, natural gardens that would look after themselves. At the time I tried some of the ideas with varying success. It just sounded all too good to be true.

Over recent months I raided our local library and borrowed every Jackie French gardening book I could get my hands on. Grow tropical fruit in our climate of frosty winters and hot, dry summers? Have a garden that only takes a couple of hours each week of looking after? Grow fruit and vegetables all year round? How on earth do you do that? It still sounded all rather fanciful until I saw her actual place.

The first impression when you walk onto Jackie's property is a sense of peacefulness. Following a dirt track through beautiful silvery green Australian bushland, the home garden opens onto a green oasis. "Open" is maybe the wrong word, as there are only some smaller areas with open grass. There is plenty of welcome shade around under the large deciduous trees that dominate the entrance area in front of the house. Not that you can really see the house - it is hidden behind rambling roses, trees, bushes, a flowering and fruiting wilderness which extends far beyond and halfway up the hill behind the house.

In her books, Jackie French comes across as a quintessential no-nonsense Australian, friendly, warm and down to earth. This impression was quickly confirmed by the real life Jackie who talks the way she writes (or rather, writes the way she talks!).

It is a highly productive garden in tune with nature. It is a garden that has no place for poisonous sprays or artificial fertilizers. Jackie spoke passionately about her belief in creating gardens that entitle all creatures to some of the garden's riches ("10 per cent for the birds, the rest for us!"). In return, the birds provide pest control services and beauty.
The astounding range of birds was clearly audible, and the odd dropping confirmed the presence of the more publicity-shy wombats and wallabies.

One key to her gardening success is growing trees in groves, a concept she has also explained in detail on her website. The other is to plant lots and plant thickly to reduce evaporation from our drought stricken gardens. But I think the ultimate key is simply her sheer love of the place and its human, animal and plant inhabitants, her generosity (we were all invited to take some fruit home to grow our own trees from their seeds!) and her infectious passion. This is the kind of garden that can feed us all without petrochemicals and genetic engineering. I believe this is the kind of garden for a better future.

When I got back home I went straight back into my garden. I can see a number of trees that are already established and which will make great starting points for some groves...