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.