Archive for February, 2012

Global phosphorus security

February 29, 2012

There’s a conference going on in Sydney at the moment addressing issues of phosphorus scarcity and food security. You can read about it here.

Phosphorus supplies are limited and we’re not using it sustainably, in other words we’re not recycling what we use.

Australian soils are low in phosphorus, but this doesn’t bother the native plants, because they’ve evolved all sorts of ways to maximise and recycle what little there is. The plants we grow for food aren’t so adapted—they need good supplies of phosphorus—so in order to grow most crops we need to add superphosphate to agricultural soils.

How can you prepare for ‘peak phosphorus’—the production peak and decline in global phosphorus supplies?

You need to increase phosphorus levels in your food-growing soils to the point where the plants get what they need for healthy growth. Then you need to recycle every bit of food waste and your own body wastes back into that soil. As well as a compost heap, this means, ultimately, a composting toilet. You need to make sure no phosphorus leaves your land.

In the meantime, quietly stash away a few bags of superphosphate in the shed. The price is bound to go up, long before it becomes unavailable (there was an 800 per cent price spike of phosphate commodities in 2008).

In the later stages of collapse it will be valuable to barter with those who didn’t bother to prepare.

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Keeping the Girls cool and dry

February 27, 2012

I had the secure chook run covered in a couple of those blue pastic tarps from the $2 shop, but they weren’t really satisfactory as they didn’t cover enough area and the rain still got in, so I replaced them with a larger, more robust one from Bunnings.

It’s providing plenty of shade and keeping the rain off the coop now (this was taken from the back deck, looking down. The post with wires, on the left, is the clothesline):

Beside the long, outer side of the run, I’ve planted a narrow garden of various things. There’s a lot of parsley (I just threw the seeds in), and several mints. Also comfrey, nasturtium, climbing beans, a passionfruit and a grape which I’m trying to encourage to grow along the wire. It’s probably over-planted, but the more there is, the more chance that something will survive. The Girls can eat whever they can reach through the wire:

This area gets well-watered and even in the slightest drizzle, water runs off the tarp into the garden. The soil on the inner side is always cool and moist and on hot days, the Girls love to dig out a trench and lie there in the shade of the plants. It also seems to attract whatever edible goodies they get out of it and they’re constantly digging out the soil along the edge and throwing it into the centre of the run creating a mini mountain range, which I dutifully rake back every so often (I get indignant looks when I do this, but I tell them: “you dig it out, I rake it back and it keeps us all off the streets!”).

The main thing I’m pleased about is that their water container, which is hooked onto the wire at the far right hand end is now shaded by the plants (you can’t see it) and the water keeps cool in summer. It also gets topped up when rain runs off the tarp.

So this part of their home is working well. I now have to do something about the adjacent netting-covered area (which I call their playground) and which isn’t really secure or satisfactory.

I let them into the playground each morning and they’re free to go between the secure run where the food and water is, and the playground, all day. I lock them in the secure run overnight and when I go out. They don’t like being locked out of their playground during the day and a lot of wingeing goes on when they see the lift-up door come down, so I really need to get my act together and fix the problem.

R.I.P. sunflower

February 27, 2012

My sunflower dropped dead—literally. It came up in a wicking box from mulch I’d raked from the Girl’s run. The seed obviously came from their food mixture. It grew to over 2 metres, the dinner-plate sized flower was well above my head (and the wicking box was already 50 cm off the ground), and was still alive, but had started to droop down to where I could actually see the hundreds of seeds in the head. Then, at the end of a hot day, I came out and found the stem had snapped in two and it was lying flat on its face in the dust. Poor thing:

The seeds in the head are black so I hope they’ll be mature. I expect the Girls will eat them—mature or not. I’ve hung it up under the house to dry out properly. I’ve never grown sunflowers before, but since it grew so readily with little input from me, I’m going to be growing more next year. It will be good to provide some more of the Girl’s diet from the garden:

The seeds I planted into the seedling trays are going well. Since they’re nearly all brassicas, I’m keeping them in the polyhouse until all the white butterflies have gone. I have 3 full trays, 48 seedlings per tray and 18 species in all:

Chicken blogs

February 24, 2012

I’ve been searching out chicken blogs.

Two of my favourites are Scratch & Peck and HenBlog.

Scratch & Peck is written by Lauren Scheuer. She’s a children’s book illustrator, so her blogposts are a delighful combination of photos and drawings. Lauren’s family inclues Lucy, Fern, Daisy, Lil’ White, Pigeon and Marky the dog.

HenBlog is the work of Terry Golson. She has a flock of Girls, 2 goats and a floppy-eared rabbit called Candy. One of the unusual aspects of her site is Hencam. It features a webcam actually inside the chicken shed. Because it’s in the US, times are all upside down, but if it’s night-time over there a message tells you what time sun-up is and you can connect back then. I always seem to be online at the wrong time, but I did actually once connect just as the sun was rising. Quite awesome to see the chickens gradually moving around in the gloom and becoming clearer as dawn appears. There’s also a GoatCam in the goat’s barn and ChickCam where newly-hatched chickens are kept.

She’s a mine of information about chickens. I liked this post about how the colour is applied to an egg as it moves down the reproductive tract.

If anyone knows of any other blogs devoted entirely to chickens, please share. They’re as rare as hen’s teeth (sorry).

Black gold & black birds

February 20, 2012

Black gold is oil—that energy-rich goo upon which we have built a whole way of life which will end within the lifetimes of most people alive today.

A couple of days ago, I came across the best peak oil video I’ve ever seen. It was made in association with the Post Carbon Institute and has Richard Heinberg as its technical adviser (no wonder it’s the best).

It’s in animated format, which makes it easy to watch and understand. Watching little cartoons is better than watching a boring commentator endlessly spouting. It’s in four parts—oil discovery & production are covered first, then energy, next growth and finally food production.

The most important facts about oil depletion are covered—EROEI, Hubbert’s predictions, why ethanol or renewables won’t allow us to continue with BAU (business as usual) and all the usual stuff that peakists know off by heart. The section about exponential growth and why it can’t continue is good (even has Prof Albert Bartlett’s bacteria-in-the-test-tube example—love those ugly bacterial faces) and for the musically inclined, some nice Vivaldi in the background.

I’ve downloaded it to watch again and (possibly) copy to a DVD to give to people (especially my hairdresser, who thinks there’s enough oil left to run industrial civilisation for another 400 years!!!)

If you don’t know about the peaking of global oil production and the ramifications of decline, please watch this video. It runs for 34 mins. I can’t stress how important it is to understand what’s coming down the line and to start preparing for it.

The black birds are the infamous Blackbird (Turdus merula), an introduced species and a pain in the neck and everywhere else. They dig up seedlings, throw mulch all over the paths, run off with whole cherry tomatoes in their beaks and generally reduce me to a state of apoplexy.

(I once watched a native Grey Butcherbird trying to drag a dead male Blackbird up into a tree. I don’t know if he killed it—they’re about the same size, so good effort if he did).

I’ve been pulling out my summer veggies and topping up the wicking tubs and boxes with fresh compost in preparation for the winter plantings. Every day I find it all tossed on the ground. Every day I scoop it all back up again, cursing loudly.

But…problem solved:

That stuff on the top of the wicking boxes is shredded newspaper. They don’t like it. Won’t go near it. No digging. No tossing the compost around. I’m rapt!

I can make a small opening and plant my seedlings into it without any problems.

If my Thermomix is the best thing I’ve bought in the last 6 months, then my $20 paper shredder from Officeworks is the second best thing.

And actually, I have Frogdancer to thank for that. When she bought her garden group down to see the garden last Spring, she presented me with a bag of shredded newspaper impregnated with chook poo from her Girls. What a great idea, I thought…use up the papers…bedding for the Girls…let them turn it into compost. Unfortunately, like the blackbirds, they didn’t like it either. When I put this great mountain of white spaghetti into their coop, they freaked out and wouldn’t go in there (and it isn’t even Murdoch trash).

Not to worry. I can use it to light the fire in winter, layer it in the compost bin with the grass clippings from a friend’s garden (I bet the worms won’t say no), and use it as mulch.

(It needs to be kept damp, so it doesn’t blow away. It mats down and  can be rolled back like a carpet—no good for small seeds, but I’m going to try planting some pea seeds and roll it back over them. As long as it’s not too thick, I think they’ll come up through it).

Sowing, picking, drying

February 13, 2012

Years ago I was given a stack of cell propagation trays by a former nursery person:

I’ve used them for growing seedlings off and on (mainly off) and they’ve sat under the house gathering dust. I was mostly using them for growing native grasses for revegetation.

I thought I’d get them out and have another go at using them for veggie seedlings. I’m using ordinary (cheap) potting mix, but sieving it through a quarter-inch sieve to get out any large chunks of pinebark.

I potted up a tray of leek seedlings which were initially sown in an ordinary seed punnet:

What I’ll also do is direct-sow seed into the cells. It will save time pricking out seedlings from a separate punnet and also reduce transplant shock. And I’ve just remembered that I have some plastic lids that fit neatly over the top. I can put seedlings of brassicas out in the sun and those dratted white butterflies can sit on the top, drool over the goodies beneath them and eat their tiny hearts out:

Having small seedlings like this makes them easier to plant, especially into my shallow wicking boxes, so avoiding having to dig a deep hole. I remember when I used the trays to grow seedlings some time ago, I used the pointy end of a garden stake to make the hole.

Still picking from the garden. Here’s a sinkful of goodies just picked:

And still trying to catch up with tomato drying after a coolish week and not enough sun. Here’s a tray of Black Cherry tomatoes ready for the Excalibur dehydrator:

Oh, you beautiful Thermomix, you.

February 11, 2012

Summer is seed collection time—meaning the seeds on the plants in the natural bush part of the property.

I like to do a full collection every couple of years just to keep the seedstock fresh. I use the seed for growing new plants if I need to revegetate any areas. Most seed is easy to collect; the main problem is extracting the seeds from the capsules or pods or whatever. At this time of year the dining table is usually covered in plastic cups and sheets of paper containing seed pods and capsules.

Eventually, when I can’t find enough room to sit down and eat, I have to start extracting seeds and putting them into paper envelopes to store. Not my most favourite job.

Wattles and pea-flowered plants bear their seeds in a pod (they’re in the legume family like peas and beans). The pods dry out and split open tossing the seeds to the four winds, so pods have to be collected when they’ve browned off, but not when they’ve actually split open. So the tedious, boring job involves ‘shelling’ dozens of pods to remove the seed.

Bossiaea cinerea (Showy Bossiaea) is a plant that has its seed in a short, flat grey pod. It’s a real pain to split them open.

Enter the ever-so-versatile Thermomix.

The special set of 4 chopping/mixing blades are really cunningly made. One side of the blade is sharp, for chopping, and the other side is blunt, for mixing. It’s possible to reverse the direction of rotation, depending on what you want to do.

I wondered if it would break open the seed pods and release the seeds when on the reverse (non-chop) setting, but not damage the seed.

Oh, boy, did it ever do a good job!

Seed pods opened; seed released. A little bit of winnowing and Bob’s your uncle.

Green cancer can be good sometimes

February 10, 2012

Today I did something I thought I’d never do.

I bought a bag of lawn seed.

I hate lawns!! Lawns are a waste of good growing space. Bill Mollison of permaculture fame, calls them ‘green cancer’.

I’m going to sow an area a couple of metres square next to the Girl’s playground  (by now some of you will realise what’s coming).

Once it’s grown, I’m going to fence it off round the outside and remove the fence that will separate it from the Girls while it’s growing. I’m going to install a piece of wire mesh over the top so that the Girls can stand on the mesh and peck the grass through it but can’t dig it up by the roots. I’ve seen it done and it seems to work well. Time will tell.

Come to think of it, I’m going to have to put the mesh down first, otherwise the native pigeons will help themselves to the seed.

New header

February 9, 2012

I don’t really need to announce it as regular readers can see for themselves.

The pepinos have gone, to be replaced by more important things—my three gorgeous Girls, Cheeky, Lady and Molly.

How much am I growing?…3 month update

February 6, 2012

I wrote this post back in November about how I was going to record all the food I bought and all the food I grew, for a whole year. I want to see what percentage of my food I’m actually providing from the garden.

I’m writing it all in an exercise book and I’ve also put it on a simple spreadsheet which adds up the totals and calculates the percentages.

So far, in the first 3 months, the average is 25%. In other words, of all the food that’s come into the house in that time, 25% of it has come from the garden.

Not too bad, but it’s summer—the best season of the food-growing year, with tomatoes, zucchini, beans, cucumbers & carrots in abundance and fruit (not a lot this year) from the trees. I know I won’t be able to keep that up over the winter. There’ll be peas, leeks,  plenty of greens (silver beet, chinese cabbage & kale), but my broccoli leaves a lot to be desired (I really must do something about keeping the Cabbage White Butterfly off the plants and I must learn to grow better broccoli). Right in the middle of winter there will also be oca & yacon and asparagus in the spring.

So it looks like I’ll finish up with something less than 25% for the year. The only thing that might boost the % is that I may not need to buy much over the winter. The fridge is bursting at the seams with bottles of pickled veggies, pesto, tomato paste, pasta sauce and marmalade. There will be tomatoes in the freezer and jars of dried tomatoes in the cupboard, plus potatoes under the sink and pumpkins, if I’m lucky. I have enough bread flour and wheat to make a year’s supply of bread and enough pasta and rice for at least that time, too.

Oh, and I forgot eggs. A dozen eggs a week will help boost the totals, too (speaking of which, top egg weight this past week was 53 g—going up!).

In no way am I self-sufficient in food and I doubt whether I ever can be, especially where meat protein is concerned, but it’s an interesting exercise anyway.