Thursday, December 11, 2008

Home-made strawberry ice-cream

250 g strawberries
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg (as fresh as possible, I only use eggs that have been laid that day by my own hens)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
250ml cream
enough milk or plain yoghurt to make up 1 liter in total

Put all ingredients into your food processor or blender and process until smooth.
Refrigerate for one hour.

If you have an ice-cream maker, pour the mixture into your ice-cream maker and process until the mixture reaches the desired consistency.

If you don't have an ice-cream maker, you need to freeze the mixture until it is semi-frozen (usually after a couple of hours), then take it out of the freezer and process it again in your blender before returning your ice-cream to the freezer. You may need to repeat this procedure one more time if the ice-cream becomes too hard.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Last year, I planted three dozen bare-rooted strawberries. I tended to them carefully and was rewarded with a grand total of about 5 strawberries in my first year (plus a few uncounted ones that went straight into the kids' tummies). It didn't seem like the best deal at the time... However, I continued to look after them, I replanted the large number of runners, mulched heavily, applied cow manure and sea weed brew and whatever else I could get my hands on, and aren't we being rewarded this year!

A local strawberry farmer asks $10.00 per kilo for strawberries you pick yourself. Given that price, I have now more than recouped my initial expenditure, and the kids just love it! We have been eating fruit salads with strawberries, home-made strawberry ice-cream, strawberry pavlova and whatever else you can come up with. Being a bit of a squirrel, I usually put a small batch of each harvest into the freezer so that we can still enjoy strawberries even when the harvest is over.

Strawberries love plenty of mulch, consistent moisture and not too intense sun. The ones I planted on the sunny side of the house didn't do all that well. I also noticed that the birds mostly peck on the strawberries that are planted as single specimen, whereas the mass planting in my main strawberry bed is virtually unaffected by birds.

Is it worth growing strawberries? Absolutely. Not only do they taste much better when freshly picked, growing your own also means you know what's gone into growing them. Earlier this year, the consumer organisation CHOICE conducted a study of pesticide levels on strawberries and made a number of disturbing findings: 17 of the 27 samples of conventionally grown strawberries (bought at Coles, Woolworths and independent retailers across Australia) contained residues of at least two types of pesticide or fungicide. One sample contained a pesticide residue at a level that exceeded the maximum residue limit (MRL); others contained a pesticide that the regulations don’t allow Australian growers to use on strawberries, and some contained residues of four different kinds of pesticides.

According to CHOICE:

Strawberries are unfortunately more likely to be contaminated with pesticides than other fresh fruit, as growers use pesticides to protect their strawberries from insect pests and fungal diseases. Without pesticides, strawberries would be more expensive because yields would be lower and there would be greater losses from them going bad before they get to the shops. [...]

The last time independent test results were published in Australia (in 2003), strawberries stood out as the fruit with the highest levels of pesticide residues [...]. They've been flagged in the US as of 'high concern' for pesticide contamination. When last tested in the UK, 67% of strawberries contained pesticide residues. In France a recent survey found pesticide residues above the legal limit in 20% of strawberries.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Advent Calendar

Advent, the time before Christmas, seemed to arrive faster than expected this year! Every year, we follow the German tradition of having advent calendars to count down the days to Christmas. Most years I have been a bit lazy and ended up buying a traditional chocolate-filled calendar. However, I have noticed over recent years, that the number of calendars with a Christmas motive (Santa, Christmas trees and the like) were gradually replaced by commercial motives. This year, ALDI for example, only had a choice of "The Incredible Hulk" (image above from the official website), "Spiderman" and "Bob the Builder" calendars with zero reference to any Christmas anything.

I cannot for the life of me see any connection between "The Incredible Hulk" and whatever the spirit of Christmas might be. To me, Christmas is a time of reflection on the values of life, family and community. We stick with old-fashioned traditions in our family. Some modest presents for the children, a focus on spending time together creating things such as Christmas craft or decorating the tree, and preparing traditional festive food is all we need to enjoy Christmas. And our Advent calendar this year is home-made, too:

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Make your own worm farm

Worm farms are great. The worms take care of your food scraps (although you need to go easy on acidic things like citrus peel and onions), they love coffee grinds and used tea leaves, and they make fascinating pets for the kids. A well-run worm farm does not smell and will even process your used paper, provided you rip it up and soak it in some water first.

I reckon that might be a good way to process letters with private information (eg from super funds or insurance companies etc) that could be used for identity fraud and therefore should not go into the recycling bin.

To top it all off, worms produce one of the best soil conditioners you can get. Of course you can buy one of the various commercial worm farm models (the one pictured above is available from Neco), but in the spirit of reusing things we already have we thought we might try to make one ourselves. The boys helped and we all had a great time making it.

This is how we did it:

You need:

2 styrofoam boxes of the same width and depth (one with a lid would be great, but we didn't have one either and came up with a different solution)
a couple of bricks (we only had one and will add another one when I find one...)
a piece of fly screen big enough to cover the bottom of one of the boxes
a carpet knife (or other sharp knife)
old paper, leaves etc

Styrofoam boxes are often used to transport vegetables in. They are good because they are easy to work with (eg to cut to size or put holes in), and the worms won't eat them. (Worms love cardboard boxes to eat!). I am not sure where ours came from - they have been sitting in the shed for a while, waiting to be used for something.

One of the boxes will serve to catch the worm liquid. Put a brick in and cut the box at about 1cm above the brick(s). This is to stabilize the worm farm and will help to support the box on top. You can add a little tap at the bottom of this box but we didn't have one for now - maybe this is something I will add later.

Make little holes in the bottom of the second box so that water can flow through.

Put a sheet of fly screen over the holes which allows the water to run off but keeps the worms in the upper box.

Make paper strips from old newspaper (or rip up an old phone book as we did) and soak the paper in water. Squeeze out any excess water and put in the bottom of the box. We also added some dead leaves and straw from the garden.

Put the box with the holes and the paper/straw etc on top of the other box.

Add worms. Unfortunately, your standard Australian garden variety of worms will not do. Composting worms are a particular kind of worms and you can buy them in packs of a thousand or more. In Australia, many hardware stores stock worms. We got a good handful of worms from friends to get started, but you do need a critical mass to really get going. I will buy some more next time I am in town.

Cover the worms with a couple of sheets of wet newspaper and some moist hessian. Add a lid. Your worm farm is now ready.

We might think about a worm farm beautifying project next, given that the worm farm sits next to the kitchen entrance. But quite frankly, I don't think the shop-bought version looks all that much better than our home-made one.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Making sustainable living.... sustainable

When a dear friend of mine (single male, no kids) asked me quite innocently some weeks ago whether I was "doing any work these days?" I felt like I had been slapped in the face. I had been running on empty for a while, often feeling dizzy when working in the garden, forgetting what I meant to get when I went into another room, and with a general feeling of being rather overwhelmed. You see, I am a "stay-at home mom", so therefore - in the eyes of society - I am not working.

I felt this myself, despite the fact that I have three young children, one still in (cloth-)nappies, I am homeschooling my six-year old, I am in the process of planting a permaculture garden on our 3 acres block and grow almost all the vegetables we eat, I bake all our own bread, I cook from scratch every day, and I have no grandparents or other relatives around who might be able to look after the kids for a couple of hours so that I can get a break.

I was an academic in my former (pre-children) life, and the endless amounts of washing and cleaning, of wiping bottoms and feeding my insatiable boys (who seem to get hungry again as soon as they finish one meal!) simply don't seem to have the same kind of "work appeal" as typing away at the computer or lecturing a group of students.

Of course you can now say - well, that's your choice, so just stop whingeing and get on with it, or get a proper job! Believe me, I tried. For a while (when I had only two kids) I was teaching part-time at the university. Financially, this made no sense whatsoever - I ended up being worse off by the time I had factored in the cost of child-care, petrol and parking.

It also made no sense for my family. My younger boy absolutely HATED childcare - and actually, I did not particularly like the place, either, but I had no choice. The housework and the washing still had to be done even though I was spending less time at home. I was rushing out of the door in the morning and had to race back in time to pick the kids up. Every weekend was taken up with preparations and reading student assignments. The garden did not get done because I simply did not have the time. All that rushing around and driving all over the place also did not sit well with my ideas of a simple, environmentally sustainable life.

When baby number three arrived, I decided that I was not going to go back to work but stay at home full-time. Any parent who spends substantial amounts of time alone with their children knows that this is both hugely satisfying and extremely draining. Children, especially younger ones, need you all the time. They are always hungry, they want your attention, they don't have any concept of getting something done, and they truly challenge your own perception of yourself as a functioning adult. And when you mix with grown-up society, you have nothing to show for it, either - there is a limit to how much you can talk about mountains of washing; and the latest cute utterings of a 2-year old, while endearing to the parent, are not exactly of great interest to the "working" segment of society. Not that endless talk about cricket or office chit-chat is any more interesting, but it is certainly more acceptable.

I found myself subconsciously trying to make up for lost status. And of course I was yearning for intellectual stimulus, too, and I was happy to accept offers of "voluntary" (i.e. unpaid...) work such as writing for our local paper. What started off as an easy to do side-job quickly became a major occupation - research had to be done, the article had to be written in a certain style and have a certain length, there were deadlines to consider, in short: I was BUSY. But I also did not have the money to "outsource" any of the services I provide at home - the cleaning, the food production, the child-caring. And I was once again losing sight of my goal of a simple, sustainable life.

I felt tired all the time. I became more and more forgetful. I couldn't remember words or I would get them all mixed up. I felt like I was going mad. It was clear that something had to be done.

Just about around that time I heard our wonderful Governor General, Quentin Bryce, in an interview with Kerry O'Brien, talking about the futility of trying to be a "super woman". Here is an excerpt from that interview:

KERRY O'BRIEN: It's all there, get used to it.

You have had a stellar career, champion of women in a man's world, achieving real change, raising five kids, the embodiment of super woman in that sense in the '80s and '90s, as it was talked about then. But the reality of trying to be super woman can tear women apart, can't it?

QUENTIN BRYCE: It does, it absolutely exhausts them. For a very long time now I've been saying to young women, you can have it all, but not all at the same time. How important it is to take very good care of yourself, of your mental and physical and spiritual wellbeing, it's hard to do. It's easier to be a workaholic than to have a truly balanced life. It's very tough for a lot of women teetering on that tight rope of balance and balancing too many responsibilities.

KERRY O'BRIEN: You gave one insight as Governor when you spoke at a mental health conference in 2004 about your mid-20, when you had three children under four, you said, "I remember lying in my bed shrouded in fear asking myself how would I ever cope with my little baby, two toddlers, keeping my household running, my job, my marriage, my life, how easily I could have travelled down another road, I gained my first insight into mental health, how vulnerable we are, I had heard and read about breakdowns, suddenly I had a glimpse". Does it bring it back?

QUENTIN BRYCE: It does. It was a time in my life that taught me a very important lesson about the need for women in their families to put themselves on the top of the family agenda. That if a mother is well, a family is well. I became quite ill because I neglected my health and I ended up with quite serious pneumonia, and it's a lesson that I have passed on to many young women.

I decided it was time to stop and think. I learnt to say no. I resigned from my newspaper job. I stopped blogging for a while. I slowed down and re-focussed on what is actually important to me. I made time to read novels again, something I had always enjoyed but had not been able to do for several years because I had been too busy. I decided to re-label myself. I am not just a non-working stay-at home mom, I am a home-educator and permaculturalist. And I no longer think that being busy is a sign of a successful life.

A good life is a sustainable life. It goes beyond a greener lifestyle. It is also about balance and happiness and having time to enjoy the moment.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Is your town water killing your plants?

Last year I wanted to start growing various berries and I put in a selection of raspberries, loganberries and hybrid blackberries. Only the blackberries made it, and they didn't do too well, either, although they are still clinging on to life and are making a come-back. The raspberries died after a while without ever making any progress, even though they are supposed to be really hardy and do well in our climate. I thought I had done it all right - the right kind of preparation, well mulched soil, I had put in all the infrastructure, and quite frankly, I was very disappointed and couldn't quite work out what had gone wrong.

I think I now know the answer. Many berries like slightly acidic soil, which I had catered for. However, I had been watering them with town water.

What I did not know and only learnt today: our town water is not pH neutral but has a pH value of around 8.5. That makes it quite alkaline. Watering with alkaline water is bad for your soil and can severely affect your plants.

As the table above (quoted from Virtual Chembook, Elmhurst College) shows, a pH value of between eight and nine is equivalent to baking soda and sea water. Normal range of rain water is around five or six, stream water ranges from six to seven.

I killed my raspberries with town water!

I have planted new raspberries this week. Unfortunately, I have already watered them with town water once before I realised that his was not a good idea. Luckily we do have rainwater tanks, and after the winter rains, there is some water in them. As much as possible, there will be only tank water in the garden from now on!

The lesson from this - find out from your local Council (or a knowledgeable friend!) what pH your water supply is before you use it on the garden.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

My father's garden

My father's garden is an example of what you can achieve with organic growing methods even if you have the worst possible soil. Situated on an ancient sand dune left over from a time in the ancient past when large parts of northern Europe were covered by sea, my family has been feeding the soil with whatever organic material was at hand - with great success.

The land has been in the family for many generations. My great-grandparents ran a large flock of hens at the beginning of the 20th century which significantly helped boost soil fertility. The land was then left without cultivation until my parents moved there over 35 years ago.

After clearing out a lot of rubbish (including an old car that somebody had buried) my father set out to create a beautiful productive wilderness. As part of that process he used to get large piles of horse manure and other organic matter delivered from people who more often than not were rather glad to get rid of it.

On a number of occasions and to the great embarrassment of my mother, these valuable deliveries co-incided with significant family events, so that extended family and friends were greated with steaming piles of manure on the front lawn!

Even to this day, many of my parents' neighbours offload their tree clippings, dead leaf matter and other wonderful soil food at my parents'.

Add to that mix a good deal of work and that most wonderful of all ingredients, copious rain, and you can not only feed yourself, but your whole neighbourhood as well. And there is no need for artificial fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides!

I am trying to re-create a little bit of that paradise here in my patch in NSW. I am still working on my soil - dealing not with sand, but with solid clay. Luckily, the recipe for success is the same - add plenty of organic matter and keep mulching!

Unfortunately, though, we only get a fraction of the rain my father's garden is blessed with. Working with less water is a challenge, and one that I will again tackle as we go into spring and summer this year.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Christiania bike

Trying to get around town with three little children in tow has sometimes been a bit of a challenge. I have been avoiding taking the car - quite apart from the environmental and financial cost of driving, getting three young kids into the car, strapping them all into their seats, then doing the same in reverse in front of the shop or the library is more time consuming than it is worth. So we ended up staying at home much more than I really wanted to.

We now have the solution - a Christiania bike! Technically speaking, this is not a bike but a trike, and it is fantastic. The box in the front can take up to 100kg of cargo. I have a little fold-up bench in it for the two younger boys. The seat comes with a seat belt and a three point harness for my youngest. My older boy sits on a cosy blanket in the front. The three shiny metal frames on the side can be plugged in to make a frame for a roof. I have made a rain cover from various materials I already had at home and we have been travelling around the village every day this week. It is so much fun!

We get to places quickly, the kids love it, there is enough space in the box to add some shopping or library books (today we got bare rooted grape vines which we later planted on the pergola!), and I got used to riding the bike quite quickly. It felt a bit different to a normal bike at the beginning, and I also realised I wasn't quite as fit as I thought I was :-) - but just a few days of riding the bike around is already having an impact both on my fitness level and my confidence.

This really is a wonderful way of getting around - and I hope that at least some of the people who stare at us when we zoom past might think this is a good idea and something to copy!

Funnily enough, just when we got back from our first outing, I heard on the radio that Australia Post is considering changing their delivery fleet from motorbikes to cargo bikes and trikes, so maybe we will soon be just one of many rather than a slightly odd curiosity.

The Christiania bike comes from Denmark. The other great cycling nation, Holland, also has a range of cargo bikes and trikes, known as "baksfiet". The sole Australian importer of Christiania bikes is psbikes.

I am particularly impressed with the quality of the bike - every bit is beautifully made to last. No cheap plastic bits that will fall off in a couple of months. Proper pedals made from metal. The steering works incredibly well, and it is not difficult to ride at all - despite the weight in the front!

Apparently, there are more than 20,000 such bikes in use in Copenhagen. I have read about trikes with longer boxes for child care centres and pre-schools which fit six or more kids. Christiania also offers bikes with a little ramp to put a wheelchair into the box. Then there are some with straight boxes with lids, useful for delivery businesses such as catering etc.

The psbikes website also has some great photos, worth having a look.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

How safe are CFLs?

Any green-minded person will tell you that we should all replace old-style incandescent light bulbs with energy saving compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). In fact, I wrote about his only recently on this blog. But after a couple of rather disturbing incidences at my house I am now wondering - how safe are they?

The benefits of CFLs over old-style light bulbs are obvious. They are supposed to last much longer than traditional bulbs, and they use up to 80 per cent LESS energy while providing the same amount of light. Over the average life span of a CFL (6000 hours usage per globe) this will save 1.6 tonnes of CO2 emissions and about $176 in energy costs (assuming a price of 10.95c/kW - in fact, we pay more than that). It is no wonder that the previous Howard government decided to phase out incandescent light bulbs over the next number of years.

And you guessed right - all light bulbs in my house are CFLs. Unfortunately, I found that some of the cheaper generic CFLs seemed to dim rather quickly - they were still going after a while, but the light output diminished to a point where it simply felt rather gloomy in the house. Inquiries with some people "in the know" revealed that there are major quality differences between different brands and that the market is not as well regulated and controlled as it should be.

I then gradually replaced the cheap ones with brand name CFLS, such as "Osram" and "Philips". I also received a pack of "Mirabelle" brand CFLs through the NSW carbon reduction scheme.

However, a couple of weeks ago I noticed the typical acrid smell of an electric fire in the sitting room. I couldn't see any fire but the stench was getting stronger and it seemed to be particularly bad just under the light. I thought we must have some problem with the wiring. I turned the lights off, checked outside whether there was smoke coming out somewhere, even crawled up into the attic space - but I couldn't see anything unusual.

The following day I noticed that one of the light bulbs in the sitting room was "dead". When I tried to unscrew it, it cracked at the base, just where the glass goes into the plastic encasing - not good, given that CFLs contain nasty mercury. We quickly evacuated the kids, opened all the windows, I made sure the thing didn't break completely, carefully sealed it in a plastic bag and got rid of it.

Then last week I again noticed this awful smell, this time in the bedroom. I looked up and saw thick black smoke coming out of our ceiling light! By now I was convinced that there must be a major fault in our wiring and I was worried we may end up burning the house down by turning the light on.

So I disabled the power to the lights and got our very nice local electrician to come and have a look at the problem. He unscrewed the lamp, took everything apart - all fine, no problem whatsoever with the wiring. What we did find, however, was that two of the three CFLs in the lamp were partially blackened inside and there were signs that the plastic base had started to melt and burn.

The CFLs had self-destructed! Both were from the "Osram" selection of bulbs. The Philips and Mirabelle lights are still going but I am not holding my breath. Maybe I was just unlucky and this was simply a bad batch. Or maybe this is a major problem of quality control, given that all the CFLs, no matter what fancy brand, are made in the same country that last year produced toothpaste contaminated with highly toxic diethylene glycol and children's toys covered in lead paint.

I intend to write to Osram and let them know about their quality product. But I am also furious with our government for not implementing better quality control measures. This is outright dangerous.

Thankfully, we may not have to live with CFLs for much longer. LEDs (light emitting diodes) are even more energy efficient than CFLs, they last longer, shine brighter and, according to my electrician, they are only a couple of years away from becoming widely available as a standard lighting option.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Frost in my garden

It is the middle of winter, and we are experiencing some very cold nights.

I love getting up early and walking around the frost-covered garden to admire the tiny icicles that have formed on eucalypt and wattle leaves over night.

The vegetables get a decent chill, too, which improves the taste of some winter cabbages. Many people don't realise that you can actually grow vegetables all year round, even in the coldest parts of Australia. And we are talking of temperatures down to minus 8 degrees Celsius over night!

However, too much of a good thing can also be bad, and that also goes for frost. I have planted my winter vegetable garden in a spot that will quickly thaw once the sun comes up.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Cake in a bottle - Update!

When I first looked into the ins and outs of bottling fruit and vegetables, I came across the somewhat unusual concept of bottling cakes, which was described in a German canning book called "Weck's Einkochbuch." (Weck is Germany's oldest bottling company.)

I know this sounds bizarre, but it is possible! Obviously, this is not as essential as preserving surplus food from the garden. Nonetheless, I did give it a go just for the fun of it. It is actually kind of handy to open a jar of cake to serve to unexpected visitors, and it allows you to bake several cakes in one sitting and keep them fresh for up to six months without the need for a freezer.

However, you do need to make sure that the jars you are using are either perfectly straight or better still, conically shaped with the wider end at the top, otherwise you will be serving a jar of crumbs (in which case your visitors will think you are not just slightly unusual but downright mad).

I used straight Fowler's Vacola jars (as seen in the picture). However, as the quality of the glass used in Fowler's jars varies substantially, you need to check carefully for little knobs or uneven surfaces on the inside of the jars, otherwise it becomes close to impossible to get the cakes out. The instructions below assume you are using a system similar to Fowler's or Weck's, consisting of jars, rubber rings, lids and clips. If you are using a different system (eg Mason jars), adjust accordingly.

This is how to do it:

Choose a recipe you like (any mix using baking powder as rising agent should do).
Fill clean glas canning jars half-full with the cake mix, making sure that the bottle rim remains perfectly clean so you won't have crumbs stuck to it later on.

Bake your cakes at moderate heat (160-180 degree Celsius) in the oven for 60 minutes or according to your recipe. Check with a wooden skewer whether the cakes are done.
Remove cakes in jars from the oven. If a cake rose above the top level of its jar, cut the excess off with a sharp knife.

Put on the bottling ring and lid, attach the clips, put jars in a hotwater canner, fill with water up to 2/3 the height of the jars and process at 100 degrees Celsius. It is important that the temperature of the water you add to the canner is the same as the temperature of your jars, otherwise you risk breakage.

Processing time is 20 minutes if the jars were still quite hot when you put them in the canner. It is 30 minutes if you allowed the jars to cool down.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Households asked to slash energy consumption

This article was published in the Palerang and District Bulletin in July 2008. When I first looked into household energy consumption, I was struck by two things - the incredible increase in energy consumption overall, and the contribution of lighting and entertainment to our energy usage. Once I realised the running cost of halogen downlights (something I had not been aware of as I never had any), I noticed that most of the newer houses seem to have halogen lights as the default option. Clearly, we need to better educate architects and builders when it comes to household energy efficiency. The other major culprit in our household energy expansion are the new widescreen televisions that Australians are so keen on. Many of these new televisions use more energy than the average household fridge.

NSW households are under pressure. Petrol prices are going through the roof, food is getting ever more expensive, water restrictions are still in place, and now the NSW state government has unveiled a new $150 million plan to cut energy consumption growth to zero. This will affect both households and businesses, as everybody will have to make significant cuts to their energy use.

Based on a business as usual scenario, residential household energy use is projected to increase nationally by 56 percent between 1990 and 2020. The latest ABS data show that in 2006, the vast majority of energy in NSW came from non-renewable sources, with black coal providing 89 percent of the total NSW electricity generation. This compared with only 7 percent for renewable energy from wind, solar, hydro or biomass.

It is clear that if we are to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent or more by 2050, business as usual is not an option. We need to both reduce our overall energy use and change to a different energy mix by replacing coal with lower emission resources such as natural gas and renewable energy. While households only have limited influence over the structure of our energy supply, the good news is that it often does not take much to improve the energy efficiency of your household and reduce your energy use.

This can be a win-win-win situation – good for the environment, good for national energy security and good for your wallet. And if you use the savings you make to opt for 100 percent Green Power, you will also contribute to changing our economy to a lower carbon future.

The easiest way to achieve an energy efficient house is to incorporate all significant features right from the start, such as solar orientation, insulation in walls, ceilings and floors, thermal mass and double-glazed windows. The savings in running costs for energy efficient houses will very quickly pay back the initial outlay in extra spending, as an average of 39 percent of energy consumed in typical Australian homes is used for heating and air-conditioning.

Unfortunately, most existing buildings are nowhere near that ideal, and many homes leak energy at an alarming rate through lack of insulation, cracks in the walls or gaps around windows or doorframes. Insulation should be a number one priority for all homeowners, particularly in our climate.

Energy use for residential lighting almost doubled in Australia between 1985 and 2005, and one of the major culprits has been the popularity of halogen downlights.

Contrary to popular opinion, halogen downlights do not save energy. Most halogen globes are as inefficient as traditional incandescent light bulbs, and several halogen lights are needed in the place of one standard light bulb to achieve even lighting levels in a room. As a result, energy consumption increases significantly.

Replacing inefficient light bulbs with compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) or micro-CFLs (for halogen light fittings) is a simple solution. Turning lights off when leaving a room further reduces energy consumption.

Stand-by power is also a major contributor to household energy use and can account for as much as ten percent of your electricity bill. Many electrical appliances continue to use power even when they are turned off. In an average Australian home, items on standby power together generate over 750 kilograms of unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions each year. The easiest way to ensure you are not paying for phantom power is to turn appliances off at the wall when not in use.

The popularity of game consoles, set-top boxes and plasma televisions is another factor in the rapid increase in power consumption. The energy requirements of televisions, for example, have risen rapidly with the increase in screen size, and large screen televisions can use up to four times as much power as older style televisions.

Refrigeration, on the other hand, is one area that has seen a massive improvement in energy efficiency of 40 percent over the last decade, making it more environmentally friendly to replace an old fridge rather than getting it repaired. If you are buying a new fridge, make sure you retire the old one.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

St Martin's Bread (Weckmänner)

You can tell it's winter in our part of the woods. It is cold outside and baking bread warms the kitchen and fills the house with a lovely scent.

These little bread men are called "Weckmänner" (sweet bread men). Traditionally, in my Rheinland home town of Cologne, they are eaten on St Martin's day, which is in November. However, June and July in South-Eastern Australia have a kind of November feel for me, and so we eat them now! They are, in fact, delicious any time of the year.

This recipe was developed by my mother, who is an excellent cook. It reflects very much the cultural mix of the modern Rheinland, as she developed it from a combination of a Turkish and a German recipe. The result is delectable.

Here is the recipe:


500g plain flour (plus extra flour for kneading)
7g yeast (or 2 teaspoons of dried yeast)
12g baking powder

approximately 250ml warm milk
1 cup of plain yoghurt
6 tablespoons of vegetable oil

70-80g of sugar
2 teaspoons of salt

Mix the flour, yeast and baking powder in a large bowl. Add all other ingredients to the bowl and mix to a batter-like dough. You need to continue beating it until the dough starts to develop bubbles at the edges.

Cover with a dish towel or a lid and leave to rise for at least 30 minutes in a warm spot. The dough needs to double in size.

Add a tablespoon of flour to improve consistency before tipping the dough onto a floured benchtop or table. Knead the dough (and add flour as necessary) until the dough is no longer sticky.

Divide into nine or ten segments, then form little men. It is a Cologne tradition that one of their arms is folded over - don't ask me why or what it means! Add raisins for buttons and eyes. In Cologne bakeries, you can also buy Weckmänner holding little clay pipes - to our great excitement when we were children. (I wonder whether today's children would find this exciting?)

Lay the little men onto a baking tray and let rise again.

Mix some egg yolk with a tablespoon of yoghurt and apply with a brush to give a nice warm colour.

Bake for 12-15 minutes at 210 degrees Celsius.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Creating a no-dig garden bed

It's almost child's play...

The idea is to smother the weeds and grass under the newspaper, and to keep the newspaper moist under the mulch to encourage earth worms.

Lay newspaper.

Lay out watering pipes (in this case, some of the pipes had to go under a footpath). You want the pipes on top of the newspaper and under the mulch.

Water well.

Top with mulch and compost.

Ready to be planted!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Winter mornings

Early fog rising from the ground, clouds above - winter in my garden.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Solar cooking

I have become increasingly interested in the concept of solar cooking. This video has a number of interesting solar cookers - I think I will try making one myself.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Stop the Madness - Stop Coal Mining

This picture from Google Earth shows Garzweiler, Europe's largest open cut coal mine. It is a deeply personal image for me. My forebearers came from the villages that lie in the path of a giant monster, set to destroy centuries of German history and architecture.
During my last trip to Germany, I went to visit my grandfather's birthplace. It is still beautiful. A quiet rural village in the heart of some of the best farmland Germany has to offer. Lush green meadows, rich paddocks. One would think that in times of climate change and a growing food crisis, all would rush to stop any further coal mining and the destruction of this beautiful and productive area.
Several of the buildings you see here are centuries old. They will all be destroyed within a few years. Some of the villages that have already made way to the mine went back to Roman times. Two thousand years of history sacrificed on the altar of greed. My forebearers' graves will be dug up and crushed under with no respect to the dead.

The mine operators Rheinbraun believe their "clean up works" will remediate the damage done to the landscape. Current plans are for a giant lake which will eventually fill the hole left behind by the mine. But of course no matter how serious Rheinbraun takes its remediation efforts, it cannot bring back the historic villages.
And the monster does more than "just" destroy villages and valuable farmland. It is digging up coal. Brown coal. Dirty coal. Coal is the most potent contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. 97 per cent of the coal from Garzweiler ends up in coal fired power stations in Germany. Germany likes to see itself as a global leader in fighting climate change but has consistently refused to look at the link between its own coal use and climate change. If we are to have any chance in stopping global climate change, we need to stop using coal. The crazy thing is that it does not even make economic sense. Germany pays large subsidies to support coal mining. This is money that would be better spent on renewable energy projects, more affordable public transport and better energy efficiency.
Environmentalists and local residents tried to fight the monsters that were threatening their villages, their farmland and their history, but eventually many residents ended up working for Rheinbraun and have been re-settled to new village developments. Green groups trying to stop the procession of the monster through the Court system have failed. The last attempt by German environmental group "BUND" was thwarted when BUND members were forcibly removed from a paddock with fruit trees owned by the BUND that was in the way of the mine expansion. BUND vowes to fight on, but there do not seem to be too many options left. The trees are gone, the mine continues. It breaks my heart in more ways than one.

Images: google earth, photos of village scenes taken by me, photo of large digger (apparently it is the biggest in the world) downloaded from Wikipedia.

More images of the destruction wrought by Garzweiler mine are here.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

German-style rye bread

My German sourdough rye bread recipe has made it into THE GOOD LIFE BREAD BOOK published by Earth Garden Books in 2008.

For those who don't have access to the bread book, here is my recipe:

German-style Mixed Rye Bread

Makes one large loaf or two smaller ones. I usually make double the recipe and bake two large loaves or three medium-sized loaves on two baking sheets stacked above each other in the oven. This lasts us about a week and means that I only have to use the oven once to bake all the bread for a week! You may want to prepare the dough in the morning so the bread has enough time to rise before you bake it.

Note: Sour dough bread tends to dry out in the fridge. It stores well in the freezer (cut in slices for convenience before freezing). You can also keep the unsliced loaf in a clean cotton bag or an earthenware pot (a “Römertopf” or a large casserole dish with lid are perfect) in your cupboard. Half a peeled potato will prevent your bread from drying out. If you feel adventurous, you can replace some of the flour with other seeds or grains such as pumpkin seeds, pepitas, sesame seeds, linseed or rolled oats.

250 g sour dough starter (recipe link here)
approx 500 ml lukewarm water
550 g rye flour
450 g plain (wheat) flour
5 teaspoons of salt
1 tablespoon of caraway seeds (whole or ground)
1 tablespoon of ground fennel
1 tablespoon of ground coriander seeds

Mix all ingredients and knead into a smooth dough. Adjust the amount of water so that your dough is neither too sticky nor too dense. The dough then needs to stand in a warm spot (26-30 degrees C) for at least two hours until it starts rising visibly. Do not use too early or your bread will not rise properly! (If you leave your bread dough to stand for too long (e.g. overnight) it will still bake fine and be perfectly edible but it will develop a much stronger sour dough taste.) Knead the dough again with your hands for about 10 minutes. Form your bread. Let stand for another two hours until it has risen well. Bake in a hot oven (225 degrees C) for about 60-70 minutes. There is no need to preheat a fan-forced oven. The bread is ready if it sounds hollow when tapped against the bottom. Let the bread completely cool down before cutting.

Sourdough starter

If you like sourdough bread and have no access to commercially produced sourdough starter, you can also make your own. Warning: this is a process that will take several days and cannot be rushed. However, once you have made a batch, you can keep using it for a long time. This is how to:

Day one: mix 100 g of rye flour and add enough warm water to make a thick batter-like dough (100 ml or more). Keep in a warm spot for a day until the mixture develops a slightly sour smell and possibly some bubbles.

Day two: add 100 g of rye flour and 100 ml of water and mix well with a spoon. Keep in a warm spot for another day or so. The sour dough starter should be gaining in strength and begin to show some bubbles.

Day three: add another 100 g of rye flour and 100 ml of water. Your sour dough starter now needs to sit until it begins to bubble up and has developed a strong sour smell. This may take another day or two. It is now ready to use.

Keep a couple of tablespoons of sour dough starter in a small jar in the fridge. You can use this next time to make a new batch of sour dough.

For the next batch of sour dough, take most of your sour dough starter, add 100 g rye flour and 100 ml water and add the same amount again the following day. Your sour dough starter should now be active again with lots of bubbles. Take a spoonful of this mixture and add to the remainder of your starter in your jar. Use the rest for your next batch of sour dough bread.

If you continue feeding your starter in that way you can keep it indefinitely. Sour dough starter can also be dried and keeps well in the freezer.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Bill McKibben: First, Step Up

American environmentalist Bill McKibben has been writing about environmental issues for two decades and was one of the early voices to raise the alarm over climate change. This article by McKibben was first published in Yes! Magazin in early 2008. McKibben not only raises the alarm, he wants you and me to join the revolution and tackle climate change together. I republish his article here under the create commons licence in accordance with the requirements set out by Yes! Magazine.

First, Step Up
by Bill McKibben
Asking people to make sacrifices to stop Global Warming is political suicide, right? Evidently not.

At any given moment we face as a society an enormous number of problems: there’s themortgage crisis, the health care crisis, the endless war in Iraq, and on and on. Maybe we’ll solve some of them, and doubtless new ones will spring up to take their places. But there’s only one thing we’re doing that will be easily visible from the moon. That something is global warming. Quite literally it’s the biggest problem humans have ever faced, and while there are ways to at least start to deal with it, all of them rest on acknowledging just how large the challenge really is.

What exactly do I mean by large? Last fall the scientists who study sea ice in the Arctic reported that it was melting even faster than they’d predicted. We blew by the old record for ice loss in mid-August, and by the time the long polar night finally descended, the fabled Northwest Passage was open for navigation for the first time in recorded history. That is to say, from outer space the Earth already looks very different: less white, more blue.

What do I mean by large? On the glaciers of Greenland, 10 percent more ice melted last summer than any year for which we have records. This is bad news because, unlike sea ice, Greenland’s vast frozen mass sits above rock, and when it melts, the oceans rise—potentially a lot. James Hansen, America’s foremost climatologist, testified in court last year that we might see sea level increase as much as six meters—nearly 20 feet—in the course of this century. With that, the view from space looks very different indeed (not to mention the view from the office buildings of any coastal city on earth).

Pandora’s Icebox

Climate’s Vicious Cycles
What do I mean by large? Already higher heat is causing drought in arid areas the world over. In Australia things have gotten so bad that agricultural output is falling fast in the continent’s biggest river basin, and the nation’s prime minister is urging his people to pray for rain. Aussie native Rupert Murdoch is so rattled he’s announced plans to make his NewsCorp empire (think Fox News) carbon neutral. Australian voters ousted their old government last fall, largely because of concerns over climate.

What do I mean by large? If we’d tried we couldn’t have figured out a more thorough way to make life miserable for the world’s poor, who now must deal with the loss of the one thing they could always take for granted—the planet’s basic physical stability. We’ve never figured out as efficient a method for obliterating other species. We’ve never figured out another way to so fully degrade the future for everyone who comes after us.

Or rather, we have figured out one other change that rises to this scale. That change is called all-out thermo-nuclear war, and so far, at least, we’ve decided not to have one. But we haven’t called off global warming. Just the opposite: in the 20 years that we’ve known about this problem, we’ve steadily burned more coal and gas and oil, and hence steadily poured more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Instead of a few huge explosions, we’ve got billions of little ones every minute, as pistons fire inside engines and boilers burn coal.

Having put off real change, we’ve made our job steadily harder. But there are signs that we’re finally ready to get to work. Congress is for the first time seriously considering legislation that would actually limit U.S. emissions. The bills won’t be signed by President Bush, and they don’t do everything that needs doing—but they’re a start.

We need a movement. We need a political swell larger than the civil rights movement—as passionate and as willing to sacrifice. Without it, we’re not going to best the fossil fuel companies and the automakers and the rest of the vested interests that are keeping us from change.

And the international community meeting in Bali in December overcame U.S. resistance and began the steps toward an international treaty that will be ready in 2009. The talks are going slowly, largely because of American intransigence, but George Bush won’t be president forever, so there’s at least a chance we’ll re-engage with the rest of the world.

If we do, there are steps we can take. Because the problem is so big, and coming at us so fast, those steps will need to be large. And even so, they won’t be enough to stop global warming—at best they will slow it down and give us some margin. But here’s the deal:

Who’s Willing to Step Up?
Asking people to make sacrifices to stop Global Warming is political suicide, right? Evidently not.
We need to conserve energy. That’s the cheapest way to reduce carbon. Screw in the energy-saving lightbulbs, but that’s just the start. You have to blow in the new insulation—blow it in so thick that you can heat your home with a birthday candle. You have to plug in the new appliances—not the flat-screen TV, which uses way more power than the old set, but the new water-saving front-loading washer. And once you’ve got it plugged in, turn the dial so that you’re using cold water. The dryer? You don’t need a dryer—that’s the sun’s job.

We need to generate the power we use cleanly. Wind is the fastest growing source of electricity generation around the world—but it needs to grow much faster still. Solar panels are increasingly common—especially in Japan and Germany, which are richer in political will than they are in sunshine. Much of the technology is now available; we need innovation in financing and subsidizing more than we do in generating technology.

We need to change our habits—really, we need to change our sense of what we want from the world. Do we want enormous homes and enormous cars, all to ourselves? If we do, then we can’t deal with global warming. Do we want to keep eating food that travels 1,500 miles to reach our lips? Or can we take the bus or ride a bike to the farmers’ market? Does that sound romantic to you? Farmers’ markets are the fastest growing part of the American food economy; their heaviest users may be urban-dwelling immigrants, recently enough arrived from the rest of the world that they can remember what actual food tastes like. Which leads to the next necessity:

We need to stop insisting that we’ve figured out the best way on Earth to live. For one thing, if it’s wrecking the Earth then it’s probably not all that great. But even by measures of life satisfaction and happiness, the Europeans have us beat—and they manage it on half the energy use per capita. We need to be pointing the Indians and the Chinese hard in the direction of London, not Los Angeles; Barcelona, not Boston.

Building a Movement
Most of all, we need a movement. We need a political swell larger than the civil rights movement—as passionate and as willing to sacrifice. Without it, we’re not going to best the fossil fuel companies and the auto-makers and the rest of the vested interests that are keeping us from change.

Some of us have spent the last couple of years trying to build that movement, and we’ve had some success. With no money and no organization, seven of us launched StepItUp in January 2007. Before the year was out, we’d helped organize 2,000 demonstrations in all 50 states—and helped take our once-radical demand for an 80 percent reduction in U.S. carbon emissions by mid-century into the halls of power.

We haven’t won yet—but we’re way beyond what we could have expected when we began. Last November, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stood at a podium in front of 7,000 college students gathered from around the country at the University of Maryland and led them in a chant: “80 percent by 2050.” I’m as cynical as the next guy, but it feels like our democracy is starting to work.

It will need to work much better, though. We’ll need to see a whole new level of commitment—to nonviolent protest, to electioneering, to endless lobbying. We’ll have to be committed to an environmentalism much broader and more diverse than we’ve known—younger, browner, and insistent that the people left out of the last economy won’t be left out of the new one. And we’ll need to see it not just here but around the world. Because they don’t call it global warming for nothing. If we’re going to have a fighting chance, we’ll need every nation pitching in—which means, in turn, that we’ll have to understand where we all stand right now.

What about China and India?
Here’s the political reality check, just as sobering as the data about sea ice and drought: China last year passed the United States as the biggest emitter of carbon on Earth. Now, that doesn’t mean the Chinese are as much to blame as we are—per capita, we pour four times more CO2 into the atmosphere. And we’ve been doing it for a hundred years, which means it will be decades before they match us as a source of the problem. But they—and the Indians, and the rest of the developing world behind them—are growing so fast that there’s no way to head off this crisis without their participation. And yet they don’t want to participate, because they’re using all that cheap coal not to pimp out an already lavish lifestyle, but to pull people straight out of deep poverty.

Which means that if we want them not to burn their coal, we’re going to need to help them—we’re going to need to supply the windmills, efficient boilers, and so on that let them build decent lives without building coal-fired power plants.

Which means, in turn, we’re going to need to be generous, on a scale that passes even the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild post-World War II Europe. And it’s not clear if we’re capable of that any more—so far our politicians have preferred to scapegoat China, not come to its aid.

I said at the start that this was not just another problem on a list of problems. It’s a whole new lens through which we look at the world. When we peer through it, foreign policy looks entirely different: the threats to our security can be met only by shipping China technology, not by shipping missiles to China’s enemies.

When we peer through the climate lens, our economic life looks completely changed: we need to forget the endless expansion now adding to the cloud of carbon and concentrate on the kind of durability that will let us last out the troubles headed our way.

Another Way to be Human

Our individual lives look very different through these glasses too. Less individual, for one thing. The kind of extreme independence that derived from cheap fossil fuel—the fact that we need our neighbors for nothing at all—can’t last. Either we build real community, of the kind that lets us embrace mass transit and local food and co-housing and you name it, or we will go down clinging to the wreckage of our privatized society.

Which leaves us with the one piece of undeniably good news: we were built for community. Everything we know about human beings, from the state of our immune systems to the state of our psyches, testifies to our desire for real connection of just the kind that an advanced consumer society makes so difficult. We need that kind of community to slow down the environmental changes coming at us, and we need that kind of community to survive the changes we can’t prevent. And we need that kind of community because it’s what makes us fully human.

This is our final exam, and so far we’re failing. But we don’t have to put our pencils down quite yet. We’ll see.

Bill McKibben wrote this article as part of Stop Global Warming Cold, the Spring 2008 issue of Yes! Magazin. Bill McKibben is the author of The End of Nature, Wandering Home, and Deep Economy, and a founder of StepItUp, which has recently joined forces with 1sky.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Cut your household greenhouse gas emissions and save money in the process

Following my visit to the inspiring solar passive home at Naripinda, I was wondering how the rest of us could achieve a better environmental footprint for our houses. Many of us are stuck with older houses, and even new homes in Australia are still being built with little attention to their environmental footprint. Given sky-rocketing energy prices, concern for the environment is increasingly underpinned by a strong financial incentive to cut energy use.

The easiest way to achieve an energy efficient house is to incorporate all significant features right from the start, such as solar orientation, insulation in walls, ceilings and floors, thermal mass and double-glazed windows. The savings in running costs for energy efficient houses will very quickly pay back the initial outlay in extra spending, as an average of 39 percent of energy consumed in typical Australian homes is used for space heating and cooling.

Unfortunately, most existing buildings are nowhere near that ideal, and many homes leak energy at an alarming rate through lack of insulation, cracks in the walls or gaps around windows or door frames. Insulation should be a number one priority for all home owners, particularly in the cooler parts of the country.

In addition, some simple changes can keep energy bills and greenhouse gas emissions down. Changing all incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescent lights immediately cuts household energy consumption by around ten per cent. Turning lights off when leaving a room further reduces energy consumption.

Contrary to widely held views, halogen downlights do not save energy. According to Sustainability Victoria, “Halogens are considered an energy intensive lighting option because several halogen lights are needed in the place of one fluorescent light bulb to achieve even lighting levels in a room. Most halogen globes used as downlights consume 50 watts each and an additional 15 watts for the transformer. A 50W halogen downlight used 3 hours a day will cost around $10 a year to run. If you had a room with 8 halogens and ran them for 8 hours each day, it would cost you over $200 every year!”

Another way to immediately reduce your carbon footprint is to turn appliances off at the wall when not in use. The Global Warming Cool It! website lists some surprising facts on standby power. For example, did you know that over one year, some microwave ovens generate more greenhouse gas running the digital clock than cooking food? Or that large-screen televisions, when used 6 hours a day, generate around half a tonne of CO2 emissions each year — more than a family fridge? In an average Australian home, items on standby power together generate over 750 kilograms of unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions each year.

In my own house, we were able to reduce our overall energy use by over 30 per cent simply through changing our light bulbs and modifying our behaviour. The savings were more than enough to pay for 100 per cent Green Power and thus reduce our household greenhouse gas emissions to zero.

For more information you can download the Australian energy efficient building guide.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Energy-efficient passive solar design - a visit to Naripinda

This article, which I wrote after an interview with Phil P and Jan P at their inspiring energy-efficient solar passive house in May 2008, was first published in the Palerang and District Bulletin in June 2008. The photo on this website (showing part of the house and the vegetable patch near the kitchen) was taken by me and is different to those published in the Bulletin version.

It took two years of planning and many long hours of discussions before Phil P and Jan P decided on the final design of their award-winning solar passive house in Bywong. Located on a small rural-residential holding, Naripinda (the word means galah in the now extinct Nhirrpi language of South Australia) combines all features of solar passive building design.

Both owners are passionate about reducing their environmental footprint through good planning and sensible use of their building. As Jan P explained, rather than spending money on elaborate fittings or unnecessary décor, they focussed on getting the solar basics right – good orientation, double-glazed windows throughout the house, dark floor tiles and thermal mass inside the building.

Instead of a standard house design with rooms on all sides, this house only has single-room depth with north and north-easterly orientation for all rooms. A double row of windows on the higher northern walls maximises sunlight exposure. Smaller windows in the lower walls on the southern side allow views of the courtyard and the surrounding bush. The eaves are specifically designed to cut out excessive heat in summer while allowing the winter sun into the house to warm up the rooms on cold days. All western walls are without windows and have extra insulation to protect from the intense afternoon sun.

Jan P said that in preparation for their building project, she and Phil did a lot of research into solar passive design features but they had no pre-conceived ideas of what the house should actually look like. This open-minded approach resulted in a strikingly unusual building. Rather than constructing an elongated row of single rooms to achieve optimal solar exposure, the owners decided to go for a more interesting design whereby the house is “cut into two halves” which sit at a slight angle towards each other on different levels on a slope.

The silver-coloured corrugated tin exterior with its large window fronts and the split design give the place a feel of lightness which defies the fact that this house incorporates a significant thermal mass. Phil P explained that the interior trombe wall, which connects the two sections of the house, used up as many bricks as one would find in an average brick veneer home. In addition, all outside walls are made from ‘reverse brick veneer’ where the brick is on the inside of the building rather than the outside. Brick is a good heat store and helps to retain heat inside the building on cool evenings and in winter, while the light coloured exterior walls reflect intense summer heat away from the house.

To answer my question of what advice he would give to prospective home builders, Phil P took me outside. “You need to look at the landscape,” he said. “We were first advised to build on top of the hill to get a good view. That would have meant destroying the beauty of the environment by running heavy machinery across to get to the top. It also would have meant exposure to wind, heat and a heightened fire risk. Where we are now (on a plateau lower down surrounded by gentle slopes on three sides), we are well protected. Walk around your property, get to know your place well, and then make decisions. Everybody will have an opinion, so you need to watch out. If something sounds like bad advice, it probably is.”

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Winter vegetables

This is the first year that I have a really "serious" winter vegetable garden which will eventually supply most of what we need. I was surprised at the amount of things I can grow here over the frosty winter months. We are currently harvesting kale, silver beet and the more colourful rainbow chard (picture above), lettuce, broccoli, snow peas, mibuna, chinese cabbage, pak choi, carrots, various herbs and sellery. I have also planted cauliflower, red and white cabbages (the latter for making Sauerkraut!), more broccoli, more peas, broad beans and kohlrabi.
I tried to follow some permaculture principles here - mixing up plantings (at least to a degree) and a "keyhole" access path in the middle, and lots and lots of compost and mulch in the bed. I have also included a watering "system" with a seeping hose running a few centimeters under the soil. I only water when the soil is dry below approximately five centimeters down. So far this is working well.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Dig up the front lawn!

Another step towards greater (self-)sustainability: I have added more fruit trees to our garden. This time I dug up the front "lawn" (if you can call it that after countless years of drought - maybe I should call it the balding front weed patch instead?) to plant pears, plums, apricots and a cherry tree. (I had placed the chairs on the lawn to get an idea of where I would plant the trees)

These are all standard sized trees and will eventually reach approximately four meters in height and diameter. This should give us some nice shady spots in summer!

The week before I had already added some miniature apple and pear trees (they grow "only" up to three meters) to our existing small "orchard" which is rapidly running out of space. I am planning to espalier the apples and have set up posts and wires to train the trees onto those.

Unfortunately, I also have a few trees in the orchard area that may not be fruit trees - no idea whether the previous owner had planted them and they got broken off and have only now come back (in which case they might just be root stock and no good), or whether they put themselves there (they are rather small so it is possible that they are either woody weeds of some kind or "self seeded" fruit trees). If they turn out to be weeds, they can be harvested for their wood, so nothing is lost.

Following Jackie French's advice, I am also trying to grow more trees from seed. So far I have managed to grow several peach trees (luckily we love peaches...) and some plums. I am just wondering whether the plums will bear fruit as I have no idea what they are and therefore don't know whether I have the right pollinator.

Since my earlier tree planting efforts I have learnt a few things. Some of the most important lessons learnt are:

- You need to dig a hole of at least about 1 meter in diameter to plant the tree. Keep the area around the tree free of grass.

- Fruit trees need some watering in winter (even when they are deciduous) and regular water in summer, at least until they are well established. I now plant all my trees with a plastic water bottle stuck upside down (bottom cut off and without lid) next to the tree, so that I can water deeper down and minimise run-off.)

- Get onto cherry and pear slugs quickly, they can and will kill your tree (I lost several trees due to these slimy black little critters).

- A good mulch is vital. Mulch regularly but not too close to the stem to prevent rot.