Archive for November, 2009

PDC…..Week 12

November 30, 2009

Not much to report from the penultimate PDC class as we spent most of the day working on our final designs.

We did however, take a brief look at seed saving, propagation (sowing seed and taking cuttings) and an introduction to grafting.

During the week I found this great link at the Permaculture Research Institute site which features the permaculture garden at the property where we’ve been doing our PDC. Our teacher, Cam Wilson, has also started an informative blog which can be found here.

Meanwhile…….this is probably a good place to update what’s been happening around the home front while I’ve focussed on writing about the PDC.

I started planting out those tomatoes in the second week of September, because we’d had a few warm days and I thought, that’s it, spring’s here. But no, the weather turned cold again and the tomatoes began to look very sick. One died. I’d almost given up on them and was cursing my impatience, when finally, the weather began to turn around, and how! Ten days of over-30’s temperatures sure picked them up. They’ve been getting fortnightly doses of Seasol and potash (not tried the potash before, but doing so on Peter Cundall’s recommendation) and they’re now looking much better. I’ve put 4 varieties in wicking boxes to try—Roma, Black Russian, Green Grape and Green Zebra. I also bought 3 black recycled plastic tubs at Bunnings, billed as tomato tubs and have Black Zebra, Black Russian and Grosse Lisse in those, up on the deck, beside the house. So, after a bad start it might be a good tomato year after all.

The hot weather cured the first 2 batches of garlic so I picked those—60 nice bulbs in all—now hanging up under the house to dry. There’s still another 20 or so to pick, but they were planted later and haven’t started to cure yet.

A dozen capsicums have gone into 3 wicking boxes (4 to a box) and 3 more wicking boxes are planted up with butter beans. Another box was sown with golfball-sized carrots (Thumbelina variety from Edens) and they’re almost a pickable size. One day I’ll try long carrots in a wicking box.

I potted up 50 leek seedlings (this year I’ve tried the variety Blue Solaise from Phoenix Seeds in Tassie) and about a third have been planted out for next winter.

I’ve put out zucchini, cucumbers, button squash and pumpkins—2-3 varieties of each. Watermelons are still small; another couple of weeks till they’re ready.

Finally, I went to town with herbs and have dozens of seedlings still being planted out—sage, oregano, thyme, basil, tarragon.

I still need to get some shade structures in place in preparation for those 40 deg days we’re sure to be hit with later in the season. I’m copying Scarecrow’s poly pipe structures; they seem to work pretty well for her.

The unusually early hot weather we had has really coloured up the apricots. I’ve been watching to see if the rosellas find them. I don’t really want to go to all the trouble of netting the tree. So far, so good. I’ve picked a few to ripen inside, although I know tree-ripened is best.

Last day of November today and I picked the first zucchini of the season. It’s the Romanesco variety, one I haven’t grown before. Rather attractive—dark green skin with lighter green raised ribs (no photo, sorry—I cooked it for dinner!). As is usual with zucchinis, it grew from nothing to 20 cm long in (it seems) just a day.

November has been an odd month weatherwise. A week or two of 30-plus temperatures to begin with, then over 70 mm of rain at the end. Everything is lush and green. I wonder how long it’ll stay that way.

PDC…..Week 11

November 25, 2009

This week Cam was interstate, so his friend Dan Palmer took our class. Dan is the founder of Permablitz, runs Very Edible Gardens and has worked overseas with noted permaculture teacher Rosemary Morrow.

We started with a look at designing gardens in a couple of different climate types to the temperate climate we’re familiar with—the humid tropics and drylands (the way Melbourne’s rainfall is going, we may get to use dryland strategies yet!).

Soils in tropical regions are generally old and heavily leached. The nutrients are held predominately in the plants and animals, not in the soil as in temperate regions. A combination of warmth and soil fungi ensures that organic matter on the forest floor is broken down quickly and taken up by plants, before it can be washed away by heavy rains. Therefore soils should be covered at all times (mulch, mulch, mulch!) and tree systems are better than annual cropping systems.

The tree canopy in a tropical system may consist of avocado, mango or jack fruit. The understorey may have babaco, paw paw and dragon fruit. Coffee might occupy the shrub layer. Herbs such as comfrey and sweet potato are in the herb layer and clumping plants like ginger and arrowroot are scattered throughout. Vines climb everywhere. It’s a very productive system foodwise.

House design in the tropics concentrates on heat reduction—keeping things cool. The house is best oriented to the prevailing air movement. Breezeways to bring in cool air and white walls to reflect heat. Cooking areas are best kept separate from the house.

Growing food in dryland systems is a real challenge. Winds (rather than rain) are the predominant shapers of landscape. In the soil, termites and ants are more effective than worms as aerators and decomposers. Rainfall is episodic and every drop needs to be captured effectively.

There’s a very good short video of permaculture design in a desert situation. It’s called Greening the Desert and it features permaculture guru, Geoff Lawton. See it here. There’s now a longer follow-up version and it’s here.

Our final design project occupied most of the afternoon session. Only a week more to go on this and most of the final day of the course will be taken up with presenting our designs.

PDC…..Week 10

November 20, 2009

Getting even later with these updates, I know, but at least this time I have an excuse (other than sheer laziness). Earlier in the week I had an argument with a bullant about why I shouldn’t have been pulling up a weed growing on the top of its nest (which I didn’t know was there) and the bullant won! As a result I have a swollen and sore right hand and discovered that typing (normally not my thing) is definitely not my thing at the moment. So here we go, slowly, with one finger, left hand.

Community strategies was the PDC topic and the difference between self-sufficiency, self-reliance and re-localisation.

The self-sufficiency movement of the 70’s began with people heading off into the bush to escape from the machine and do their own thing. But it wasn’t really successful for most. It was hard work, they missed other people and soon burned out.

Then there was a shift to self-reliance within the broader community—finding a group of people with similar ideals and setting up an eco-village or intentional community. However many of these didn’t work either—problems with finding good land; problems with people; problems with land tenure and ownership.

The communities that were successful had to put a lot of work into creating structures that dealt with problems as they arose and so long as this is done, intentional communities can work.

But within the context of climate change and peak oil, there is an obvious and urgent need to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. So we need new ways of doing things and these need to be on a local scale, hence the move to re-localisation.

This is the basis of the Transition Movement which began in the UK and which seems to be spreading worldwide at a pleasing pace. There’s an excellent website here and Rob Hopkins (the founder of the movement) has a very good blog here. The important thing about Transition is that it’s a community-led process that aims to encourage people to build resilience in the face of change, into their everyday lives. As Rob says, if we wait for governments to take the initiative, we’ll wait forever. Amen to that.

We looked at strategies for providing food—including backyard gardens, community gardens, city farms, community-supported agriculture (CSA), farmer’s markets, school gardens and permablitz.

After lunch, we looked at money and finance and strategies for developing economic systems that serve local communities and not the global system.

LETS (Local Exchange Trading System) is a good example of such a system. As an introduction to it, Cam wrote all our names down on the board and we were asked to choose some service we could provide for the community.

Since I’m reasonably good at propagation and I’d already run a small backyard hobby plant nursery in the past, I chose ‘nursery’. There followed an entertaining ten minutes while we milled around buying and selling services to one another. We’d chosen ‘guineas’ as our local currency unit (short for guinea pigs and not to be confused with those gold coins of years past).

As we sold a service, we wrote the amount we’d earned in the credits column against our name, and the person we’d sold the service to wrote that amount in the debits column opposite their name. I managed to sell about 400 plants at a guinea apiece and bought some bread from the baker and some jam to go on it from the jam-maker. I decided against aikido lessons but did invest in a course of yoga. After five transactions each, we summed our debits and credits. Some were in the red, some in the black. The idea of a local currency is that it stays in the system; it can’t be used outside the system and therefore the local community benefits from all the transactions that take place within it. The Totnes Pound is a prime example.

Further reading: The Future of Money (Bernard Lietaer) A look at how money works and the many positive outcomes of creating local currencies

We spent the last hour or so of another interesting day working on our final design project—the community garden.

PDC…..Week 9

November 11, 2009

After a week’s break, we began week 9 with a look at energy-efficient housing. In a temperate climate (e.g. Melbourne), it’s cold in winter and hot in summer, therefore in winter we need to keep the cold out and the warmth in, and in summer we want the heat out and the ability to let the cool evening breezes in.

So, in the southern hemisphere, the house should face north and length should be about one & a half times width. Bedrooms and other little-used rooms are placed on the shade side while high activity areas face the sun. Materials with high thermal mass (slab floors, internal brick walls) store heat through the day and release it in the evening. Windows on the (hot) west side are minimised. Drapes are important; floor-to-ceiling, and with pelmits.

A glasshouse on the sun side can provide winter warmth and a shadehouse at the rear provides cooling breezes to enter in summer.

Insulation is important to keep heat in. Bulky stuff like wool, fibreglass and foam are ideal. Reflective insulation (sisalation) provides a radiant heat barrier and prevents heat radiating down from the roof.

Vegetation can also be used to good effect. Deciduous trees screen out the summer sun and allow the winter sun in.

We looked briefly at house design in the humid tropics and desert (I’m not likely to be shifting to either of those in the near or distant future) before moving on to alternative and appropriate technology, which generally means things that don’t use or need fossil fuels to run them.

Pumps for moving water around are many and varied; diesel, windmill, solar, and here’s a fascinating one—the ram pump. This little beauty can actually use gravity pressure to send water higher than its original source.

Electricity can be generated using micro-hydro, wind or solar. The latter two are expensive and need battery storage for night-time use or when the wind isn’t blowing. Micro-hydro is cost-effective where a constant flow of water is available.

Heating water can be done in a solar heater where water is heated in copper tubing and rises to a collector tank. Evacuated tube heaters are newer and more efficient, but also more expensive.  A wetback stove consists of special piping attached to the back of a wood heater or stove which heats water which can then be stored. A low-tech version is simply to install black tubing on a hot roof.

Cooking. An efficient wood-burning stove is the rocket stove. It burns small kindling and can be maintained on garden prunings. Solar cookers cook slowly, using the sun’s heat, which is reflected onto the cooking pot by a parabolic collector. A box lined with something reflective like aluminium foil does a good job, too. Insulated boxes cook slowly and are great for cooking grains, pulses and stews. Cooking is started on a conventional stove and the pot is placed in the box where the contents simmer slowly.

Preserving is a way of keeping food from glut times through to scarce times. Solar dehydration is the best low-tech option. A solar dryer can be as simple as a piece of flywire on a wooden frame, or as involved as a number of frames in a cabinet with a rising warm air current.

Low-energy refrigeration can be achieved with a cool cupboard. Air is drawn up through an underground pipe and through an insulated cupboard. Food is kept in a series of baskets so that cool air can circulate around the food. Not suitable for meat or dairy, though. The old coolgardie safe does a good job, too.

So, there are lots of ways in which we can still do things when fossil fuels run out. We might not like it, but we’re going to have to get used to living the way people did before the fossil fuel age, with all its associated problems, hit us. I think we just might be the better for it in the long run.

After lunch we spent a couple of hours coming to grips with our final design project. We’ll spend more and more time on it in the final few sessions. Into the home straight now!