Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The story of stuff

Amongst the news of the success of various stimulus payments and the rebirth of our national economies from the rubble of the financial crisis comes a report by a team of international authors led by Nobel-price winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and commissioned by French President Nicolas Sarkozy that questions the very basis of how we measure our wealth. A link to the full report can be found at the Globalpost website.

This reminded me of the wonderful animation "The story of stuff" with Annie Leonard which explores the modern cycle of production (posted below). The website for "The story of stuff" has further links.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The age of stupid and who is going to pick up the bill

In this four-minute movie produced by Peter Wedel the CO2 intensive lifestyle of an urban dweller (played by Benno Fürmann) is put in contrast to the people in developing countries which are affected most by Climate Change. (more info at

Australian per capita emissions top even those of most other developed nations, including those mentioned in the movie. For the most up-to-date information on Australian emissions see Australia's National Greenhouse Accounts.

The new documentary "The Age of Stupid" by McLibel director Franny Armstrong looks beyond this immediate scenario and shows that in the end, climate change will affect all of us, no matter how sheltered we in the developed world deem ourselves from the effects of global warming. The message is clear: the time for change is now.

The Age of Stupid will be screening in Australia later this month.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Winter vegetables

Image above: North-Eastern corner of our garden

Winter is truly upon us. We have had some freezing nights, and more cold weather may be on the way. I really like the early mornings, when the fog is still settled on the mountains, and everything is covered in white frost.

People in Canberra often wonder whether you can grow anything edible in winter, and many won't even try.

However, despite the temperatures, there is an amazing number of vegetables that will happily grow and keep us well fed, as long as they get a chance to "defrost" during the day. In fact, given our increasingly hot summers, I have come to wonder whether winter may even be a more productive time than summer when it comes to growing food.

We have been eating the most beautiful purple sprouting broccoli (from seed I saved last year, image left in its "frozen" state early in the morning) and various leafy greens suitable for cooking such as Tuscan kale, a range of different kinds of silverbeet, spinach, collards, Chinese kale and mibuna.

There are red and green cabbages that are coming along nicely, and my "living salad bowl" (image right, image again taken early in the morning, when the leaves are covered in frost) supplies us with a daily bowl of all sorts of beautiful lettuces, arugula and Asian greens such as mizuna and tatsoi.

I have also planted various root vegetables which are still growing strong, ready for harvest sometime in the near future, including turnips, swedes and carrots. Some of the alliums, such as bulb onions, garlic, spring onions and leeks are also in various stages of growth, ranging from very immature (onions) to close to harvesting (leeks, spring onions).

I believe the success to my winter garden has its root in a few things that I have learnt over the last few years:

The better you prepare your soil, the more likely you are to be successful.

If you didn't get around to preparing the ground as well as you wanted to, or you didn't have enough manure or organic matter when it was time for planting, try top-dressing the soil around your plants.

I tried it this year, using a mix of straw and chook manure, and found it to be very beneficial. In fact, even those parts of the vegetable garden that I had prepared well benefitted from extra mulching half-way through the season, as most of the winter vegetables, particularly the brassicas (cabbages, broccoli etc) really like loads of nutrients.

And last but not least: make sure your plants get enough water. It is easy to assume that because it is cold, you don't need to water, but many plants in winter fail because they are thirsty. To check whether the soil is getting too dry, stick a finger in. If it feels dry below the knuckle, it is time to give them some water, ideally at the beginning of the day rather than in the evening.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Make great bread in your own oven

The other day I was in the supermarket, looking for my favourite strong flour (baker's flour), when I overheard a couple in their fifties discuss whether the "bread mix" on offer could also be used in a normal oven or only in a bread maker. I couldn't help myself and chirped in, and we ended up having a very friendly conversation about the lost art of baking bread.

I used to make a daily loaf in our bread maker (see my universal bread maker recipe here). This is an easy way to get started, although you may find, like I did, that a bread maker is not enough to feed a growing family. Plus, while the bread certainly tastes better than many kinds of shop bought breads, the texture really isn't all that great and more substantial kinds of bread don't always turn out so well, either.

I have since changed my method to making a batch of six loaves of bread in the oven. I have a normal sized fan-forced oven, not one of the super-sized ovens I have seen in some newer homes. Six loaves can just fit into my oven and can be baked at the same time which makes it an efficient use of energy. I have two heavy expandable oven trays that can be adjusted to fit the full width of the oven. I use one tray at the bottom and one in the middle.
I freeze the surplus loaves whole. They defrost easily on the bench top or in the fridge, or they can be defrosted (whole) in the microwave in about 2-3 minutes at high.

I start in the morning with making the dough. The most important ingredients for really good bread are baker's flour or strong flour (not the normal "plain" flour you may use for making cakes or muffins), yeast (I use dried yeast), water and salt. Baker's flour is a bit more expensive than plain flour but it makes a huge difference to the taste and texture of your bread - and it is still substantially cheaper than buying decent bread. You can add oil which gives the bread a nicer colour and keeps it from drying out too quickly.

This recipe is enough for two 800g loaves of bread.

* 1kg baker's flour
* 600 ml luke warm water
* 2 teaspoons of salt
* 1 tablespoon of dried yeast
* some olive or vegetable oil (around 2 table spoons)

* heavy baking tray (the heavier, the better, but if you don't have a proper tray, use your cookie tray instead),
* baking paper
* water spray can with clean water

Carefully mix all ingredients with a wooden spoon then put into an electric mixer with a dough hook for around five minutes or knead by hand (this can take up to 15 minutes) until the dough is all smooth and well combined. (Make sure your mixer can handle the amount of dough. I inherited a mixer which is probably around 40 years old. It is very heavy and can just manage the dough. By contrast, my smaller, more modern kitchen machine gets overwhelmed.)

Let the dough rise under a wet towel/ lid for about 4 hours until it has at least doubled.
Carefully push the dough back a bit using a wooden spoon. (Don't push too much, as we don't want to lose all the air the yeast has created already).
Let the dough rise a second time.
Carefully take the dough out of the bowl and divide into two parts. You don't want to knead the dough too much at this stage, just enough to form two even loaves.
Put the loaves on a sheet of baking paper large enough to fit onto your oven tray. Let them rise again under a wet towel.

Pre-heat the oven to hot (210 degrees Celsius). It is important that you put the trays you are going to use into the oven because they need to be as hot as possible when you put the loaves on. Once the oven is hot and the loaves have risen, quickly get the baking tray out of the oven, put the baking paper with the loaves onto the tray, push back into the oven and quickly give the sides of the oven a squirt of clean water with your water spray can.

Bake the loaves at 190-210 degrees Celsius (that depends on your oven - mine is ok using lower temperatures) for about 30 minutes. To test whether the loaves are baked through, knock on the bottom of the loaves. If it sounds hollow, they are ready.

Now you can experiment. I usually make at least two loaves with whole meal flour (800g baker's flour/200g whole meal flour works best for me, but you can use more whole meal flour if you wish), and two mixed sour dough loaves (800g baker's flour/200g rye flour, caraway seeds to taste plus some sourdough starter for taste and texture), and I often add other ingredients as well, such as sesame seeds, linseeds, pepitas and sunflower seeds.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

It's the soil, stupid.

It is hard to believe after the intense heat wave earlier this year that winter is almost upon us. The nice thing about living in this part of the world is that despite the very cold winter nights we can still grow a surprisingly large variety of winter vegetables. I started planting about six weeks ago. The first crop is coming along nicely - red and white cabbages, silverbeet, rainbow chard, spinach, bok choy, tatsoi, snow peas, broccoli and kale. Some of the plants, including the broccoli and some of the chards, are from my own seed!

The following picture was taken in late March after I put the first plants in. I have been experimenting with both direct sowing and growing seedlings in large polystyrene boxes for later transplanting. I have to say that so far, I have had more success with transplanting seedlings. It is easier to plant them out as I don't have to try to space the seed (which I am not good at) and I don't have to worry about seeds all pooling in one spot after a heavy rainfall or birds digging in the seed bed. The plants get "intensive care" for the first few weeks of their life and do well in the polystyrene boxes where they are a bit sheltered and receive good and even moisture. Once I transplant them, I can space them the way I want them - and I realised that a bit more space (but not too much) actually does help the plants grow better.

These pictures were taken early last week. I am pleased to see how much everything has grown!

Leafy vegetables need a lot of nitrogen to grow well and I put a lot of effort into preparing the beds.I noticed that the soil was in many areas pretty much devoid of life, apart from the odd beetle grub which I collected in a bucket and fed to the chooks. I dug up the heavily compacted soil and added masses of chook manure and created slightly raised beds about 1 meter wide, enough for four rows of plants. In addition, I have been feeding the plants with a mix of blood and bone, seaweed and cow manure, and I can finally see some real results: not only are the plants doing well, but now I find earthworms, too!

This time I also added a soaking hose so that I can water the plants some of the time without actually having to stand there holding a hose. However, winter crops need the odd watering over the top, particularly in areas with limited rainfall, as this will help reduce the number of aphids that simply love cabbages of all kind (most annoying!)

I have also dug up the 80m2 summer bed and put in a cover crop of mustard and clover for winter. The mustard helps fight various pathogens that may build up in the soil, the clover makes an excellent mulch once it dies down in spring/early summer. There are various ways of using a cover crop once spring time comes - you can either let the clover die down and plant straight into it, using the clover as a mulch, or alternatively dig the cover crop in and then plant the new seedlings.

A third vegetable bed with another variety of winter crops is also in preparation. Unfortunately, I don't have enough chook manure left to give it the same productive boost as with the first one, but I am planning to try regular top dressing with a mix of manure and straw and see whether that will work as well.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Crash Course

I came upon Chris Martenson's "Crash Course" site a little while back and I found it rather useful in understanding what is going on in the financial world. In fact, I think this is a "must see" for anybody trying to get their head around what is happening around the world at the moment.

However, Martenson not only focuses on the economy but also brings the other two major issues of our time, energy (peak oil) and the environment (climate change, shrinking resources, loss of biodiversity) into the picture and shows how all three feed into a crisis beyond anything we have ever witnessed in modern times.

It is worth watching the whole series at

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Droughts and food - are we heading for a food crunch?

The nexus between climate change, peak oil and food production has been one of my interests for a while. Is it really possible we could see a "food crunch" sooner rather than later? Part of me finds this hard to believe. The shops are full of beautiful produce, and while food prices have been going up, they are still quite moderate.

On the other hand, as those affected by the floods in Queensland can attest to, the plethora of produce in our supermarkets can be a bit of a mirage which will vanish very quickly if there is a disruption to supplies. In our "just in time" culture, few people have food reserves at home or know how to preserve food. Are we more vulnerable than we imagine?

Parts of Australia, which is a major food producer and net food exporter, have been in drought for a long time. Even in my carefully tended to garden I am experiencing a significant crop reduction due to the heat wave. However, food is a global commodity, and the whole idea of international markets is that if one part of the world experiences difficulties in production, another part will supply the shortfall. Prices may go up, and that would be catastrophic for the many poor people in the world who are already struggling to survive. But could there really be a "food crunch" similar to the current "credit crunch"?

This morning I came across this article on global food production on Market Oracle. The following two graphics (quoted from the above mentioned article) show how most of the world's main food producing areas are currently affected by drought. It should make us all stop and think.

According to Market Oracle, the credit crunch, low commodity prices, drought conditions and low food reserves now all point towards a dramatic fall in global food production for 2009. The author predicts that many countries will respond to a jump in food prices with currency appreciation:

"Appreciating a currency is the fastest way to control food inflation. A more valuable currency allows a nation to monopolize more global resources (ie: the overvalued dollar allows the US to consume 25% of the world's oil despite having only 4% of the world's population). If China were to selloff its US reserves, its enormous population would start sucking up the world's food supply like the US has been doing with oil. "

That sounds very serious to me. Obviously, there is not much any individual can do about grain output and major crop failures, but I think I will go back into my garden and try to grow more food. I hope you will, too.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Victorian bushfires

My heart goes out to the victims of Victoria's horrific fires.

So many lives lost, so many homes destroyed.

The Victorian bushfire appeal is one way of doing something to help.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Gardening at the coalface of climate disruption

The temperatures have been soaring over the last two weeks, lingering around the 38 to 40 degrees Celsius mark in our area, and going even higher in some other parts of the country. The heat wave in South-Eastern Australia has not speared my garden, either - and it is disheartening to see the damage a number of days of intense heat can do. The potato plants are pretty much gone. I have harvested a few kilos of potatoes, but I suspect the total harvest will hardly justify the cost of putting the tubers in and looking after them for months. I have strung shade-cloth over my two main vegetable beds - which is sort of keeping plants alive, but only just. The zucchini stay small and shrivel up, the tomatoes almost seem to get boiled on the plant, as do the cucumbers. The corn is turning brown and the cobs remain only partially developed. My passion fruit vine which I had planted on the Northern (sunny) side of the house to protect it from frost literally looks boiled - I don't think it made it through. (This is kind of ironic, given that its predecessor died in minus 8 degrees Celsius last winter).

Even the trees are struggling, losing leaves and being weakened in the heat and thus more vulnerable to insect attack. All my vegetables need twice daily watering just to stay alive. A challenge in times of water scarcity and water restrictions! Luckily we had some decent rains before Christmas so there is still a good amount of water left in my water tanks, making me less dependent on public water supplies and giving me the ability to water when the plants need it rather than only on even-numbered days. But the intense heat is sucking all moisture out of the ground, despite the application of thick mulch.

Of course, those who have lost lives or property in the terrifying bushfires currently raging across Victoria are so much worse off than me with my wilting corn and drooping silverbeet that I feel I should not complain. I still have a roof over my head and my family is safe, even if I will have to buy some of my food instead of eating my own produce. And hopefully we will soon have a change of weather and at least some of my plants will survive long enough to start producing again.

But it does beg the question - how will we manage if widespread climate disruption and heat waves such as the current one become more prevalent? Climate experts predict we may get these kind of heat waves every couple of years in the future, rather than once every few decades. And the current heat wave is breaking all past records, too.

Even if we turned around our economies immediately, stopped emitting CO2 emissions altogether and went totally green, we would not be able to avoid some level of climate change. We are already too far gone to stop it completely. Unfortunately, it does not look like we are going anywhere near fast enough in the right direction. Add to that a looming oil crisis, water shortages and the destruction of our soils through industrial agriculture, and we will be in for a very rough time indeed.

I worry that in all the angst surrounding the credit crunch, we may not pay enough attention to the real crunch that is coming our way - the real prospect of a global food crunch which will make the credit crunch look like a walk in the park.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Summer garden

Late last year I visited another inspiring organic farm, Allsun Farm near Gundaroo in NSW. I was interested to see that this was already the second farm I had seen recently where vegetables were grown in long rows of raised narrow beds. I decided I might try this in my own vegetable garden this summer. So far I have been very happy with the result. The commercial growers don't mulch these raised beds, but I decided in my garden to add a thick layer of mulch, using certified organic sugar cane mulch around the plants and grass hay on the paths between the raised beds.

I prepared the beds by getting rid of all weeds (which I fed to the chickens), incor-porating as much organic matter as I had, including composted chook manure, homemade seaweed brew and cow manure brew. I then created raised rows and prepared the necessary "infrastructure" - bean poles, a fence with wide mesh for tomatoes etc.

My main vegetable bed has a rabbit proof fence around it. The fence was installed a few years ago when a rabbit plague made vegetable gardening a rather frustrating enterprise.

Once the seedlings appeared, I applied a thick layer of sugar can mulch around the seedlings and added a layer of hay on the "paths" between the raised beds. By the way, this year the rabbits are back in force and I was worried about my second (unfenced) vegetable bed, but there is very little damage so far.

That has left me wondering whether maybe rabbits don't like sugar cane mulch? Or maybe there still is enough green grass to eat for them so they don't bother with my vegetables? It would be nice if it was the sugar cane mulch, as the fence is a bit of a hassle and I would rather do without more fences.

This year I am growing tomatoes, corn, a range of climbing beans, zucchinis and various other summer squash, different kinds of pumpkins (including Queensland Blue, Turk's Turban, Pottimaron and Japanese pumpkin), a range of Asian greens, silver beet, amaranth, beet root, red cabbage, Chinese cabbage, capsicums, hot chili, carrots, snow peas, lettuce, Tuscan kale, many different kinds of herbs, broccoli (from my own seed), potatoes, and of course perennials such as asparagus, jerusalem artichokes, globe artichokes and yacon. I have probably forgotten a few things, too.

Everything had come up nicely and was growing well. And then we did, what so many Australians do - we went for a summer vacation and left the garden to its own devices. I was a bit worried about how my vegetables would fare while we were away! My dear neighbour very kindly fed the chooks and looked after our cat. She also watered once during the week we were away, and thanks to all the mulch, the garden survived well.

Luckily, though, summer had waited until after our return before really turning up the heat! At the onset of this week's heat wave (according to the weather report, we reached 36 degrees Celsius this week), I added some shade cloth over the more vulnerable plants such as lettuces and the green leafy vegetables. Even the most vulnerable lettuces survived the heat in the shade.

I am also having another go at growing melons. I have had no luck in previous years, as my melons remained tiny and pretty much inedible due to the limited growing season. However. This year I decided to plant them in tyres (seen here next to Turk's Turban pumpkins), hoping that this will give them some extra warmth and better protection and maybe also improve the amount of water available to the plants (by watering into the tyres I can avoid any run-off and ensure that the plants get all the water I give them). So far it is looking good, but of course I am still a long way from harvesting.