Archive for January, 2014

Lessons from the meltdown

January 18, 2014

I took the camera around the garden this morning (loving the coolness!) to assess the damage.

The most important thing is to learn from this. If this sort of weather is going to be the new normal, we have to learn and adapt or die. Natural selection eliminates the unfit and preserves that which adapts and survives. That goes for us, our gardens and our animals.


Most important, three happy chooks who survived:

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It was upsetting to see that both Green Gavin and rabidlittlehippy each lost a hen to heat distress. In my case, the Girl’s secure run and playground is close to the house on the morning sun side. Once the sun goes over the house there’s shade at least on the secure run. There’s also a large tarp over the top and a row of greenery along one side. I covered the floor there with leaves and kept them wet. The Girls made themselves a hollow in the wet leaves and sat there during the hottest part of the day. I pegged a heavy old curtain over the playground and sprayed it every half-hour with the hose. Eventually going out into the sun to do it started to stress me out, so I used the hose which I always connect to the cold water outlet of the washing machine on fire risk days and with that I could stand in the laundry doorway and spray all over the chook’s area, without going outside.

In the garden, the first thing to notice was that everything in wicking boxes was unaffected. Frogdancer has also commented that her wicking boxes were OK. I think it’s the way to go. I lost some cucumbers planted in the garden down the back, I’m guessing because they were lacking sufficient water at the roots. These cucumbers in a wicking box were unaffected. Not even any burned leaves (no, I didn’t cut them off for the photo!):


So long as there’s plenty of water in the root zone, plants won’t be too badly affected. Even if I think I’ve watered the garden well, that sort of weather really rips it out of the plants and if there’s no adequate reserve in the soil, the plants suffer. In a wicking box the soil below the drainage holes is always saturated. I could have watered every second or third day and still not have lost any plants. The only thing I did was cover the beans in wicking boxes with shadecloth. Those large leaves lose water faster than they can take it up and even though there’s plenty of water in the root zone, the leaves will fry.

Down in the food forest there was a lot of damage. Unfortunately, it’s on a slope (the only place on the property that was cleared of existing vegetation), and the soil is heavy and compacted. It’s hard to get water into it. If I stand there holding a hose, within a couple of minutes the water’s running off, so I water by gravity from the tank using a fine spray, which means it takes ages to water the whole area. The furthest parts were really dry and plants there suffered.

The loquat’s large leaves really burned:

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The comfrey just lay down and (almost) died:

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That’s not a problem, though. I’ll cut it back and stuff it into a bin of water and make nutrient tea. I’d been going to do it anyway, but just hadn’t got around to it.

I’d picked all the Satsuma plums, but there were a few on the Mariposa that were still green. They’re not green any more:

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Anyone for stewed pears?:

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The rhubarb plants in the hugelkultur mound were OK as they had dappled shade from eucalypts, but this one was out in the open:

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I’d been giving the tamarillos plenty of water, but those dinner-plate sized leaves were not going to like the heat regardless:

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The developing fruits were mostly OK but a few got a bit of a tan:

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Here’s one surprise…the asparagus fern. It hasn’t had any water except rain since I stopped picking the spears in November, yet it was untouched. Since it’s about 2 metres tall, it makes me think a row of asparagus might be a good shelter for a row of something smaller, say strawberries:

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The corn was fine. I’ve been pumping water into it and it had a tamarillo for afternoon shade:

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Another surprise was the quince. It’s next to the loquat, so is in a dry spot, but look at the new tip growth. Green and unburnt. Those dark spots on the older leaves are the fungus disease it always gets—quince rust, I think—not burned areas. Maybe this is another plant that can tolerate dryness and be used as a shade tree:

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You know it’s hot when bracken will burn. This frond was out in the open, but even so:

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Redcurrants won’t tolerate hot sun. I knew this from last year and should have protected them:

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Burnt apples:

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And right in the middle of it all, tomatoes in a wicking box, untouched:

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What have I learned? Wicking boxes are the way to go for vegetables. They’re small, so individual shade can be erected, if necessary over a single box. Plants with large, soft leaves, like beans, need shade even in a wicking box. Site them so that they receive morning sun only. Poke the boxes  in behind a tall plant that shades them from the afternoon sun. I have a row against the side of the deck, which gets only morning sun.They were fine.

Cover any developing fruit. If you can’t keep water up to everything, prioritise. I’m letting one orange tree go, the Lane’s Late Navel. It’s never been a good bearer and I have a Valencia and a Washington Navel which are better trees and get priority. It’s under the drip line of a eucalypt and even though it gets afternoon shade (it wasn’t burnt) it competes poorly for water. When I take it out I’ll put a couple of wicking boxes in it’s place. They’ll get shade from the eucalypt and the plants in them won’t have to compete with its roots.

Look after your animals. That goes without saying. The chooks were my biggest worry. I’d have taken them inside if I could. I bought a half-watermelon at the beginning of the week and gave them some every day. They love it and it helped to keep them hydrated. I didn’t get any myself!

I’m still making notes about what did well and what didn’t and how I can change things for a better outcome next time. I think it’s safe to assume summers like this are going to be the norm from here on.

Melbourne Meltdown

January 17, 2014

This morning’s paper is calling it the Melbourne Meltdown. Four consecutive days of 40-plus temperatures (and the previous one in the high 30’s).

It hasn’t been pleasant. I don’t have air conditioning. The trees in the bush section of the property do a marvellous job of cooling the atmosphere, though. I’ve been working in a friend’s garden nearby and there is mostly lawn and no vegetation higher than the boundary fence. Even on mild days, with temperatures in the mid 20’s, I’m amazed at how hot it gets out in the open, compared to my place.

There are some interesting comments and articles in the morning’s paper.

Electricity network and economic specialists say the security of Victoria’s energy supply will depend on what people are prepared to pay for power. They always throw this cost thing at us while they’re putting up prices. Maybe it’s true. I’m not an energy expert, but I did learn some interesting facts.

Peak demand occurred on Thursday at 10,300 megawatts. Typical weekday demand at this time of year is about 6600 megawatts. Pretty much all of that increase, I’m thinking, would be from air conditioners. If demand exceeds supply, parts of the system will be turned off. No power, no air conditioners. It’s nicely self-limiting, except that those of us without air conditioners have to suffer, too.

It’s too much of a leap to say that using an air conditioner is irresponsible (some of my best friends have air conditioners after all), but when you’re lucky enough to have one, and you don’t have solar to run it, using it wisely is, well….wise. That applies especially to businesses as well as individuals.

Someone on the letters page complained about unwise use. He went to the Australian Open (tennis) and some of the foyers in the areas were airconditioned to arctic temperatures, yet had their doors open. Dumber than dumb! Mt Franklin, one of the many sponsors, had erected an inflatable air-conditioned dome in an outdoor space. Not responsible. If I was a buyer of their mineral water (I’m not), I would stop buying it and write and tell them why.

He also overheard one fellow tennis-goer saying he had left the aircon going at home just for the dog. That is truly irresponsible and stupid and ignorant. I hope he told the dog-owner so.

Someone else on the letters page asked how much longer will local councils allow people to build houses without eaves, cross-ventilation and sufficient garden space to grow shady trees. Amen to that. I can remember seeing whole estates of new homes going up; all the houses without eaves. In a climate like ours, totally stupid.

There was something about solar use as well. South Australia is not in such a position of power failures because it has proportionally more rooftop solar. It’s estimated they’re meeting 7-8% of total demand. In Victoria, it’s much less, only about 2%. In 2012, the Victorian government cut payments for solar energy (feed-in tariffs), from 25 cents per kWh to 8 cents—which reduces the incentive to go solar. In my view, this doesn’t matter; it’s what you save by NOT drawing from the grid that makes it profitable. There’s a huge feel-good factor, too.

In another article the wholesale price of electricity was quoted as $60 per megawatt hour. That’s 6 cents per kWh. It’s what the retailers pay the generators to provide the power. It’s set by the balance between supply and demand; when demand goes up the price goes up. I’ve seen elsewhere, in defence of the current low feed-in tariff, that the tariff is set by that wholesale price. So 8 cents per kWh gives them a profit of 2 cents. OK as far as it goes, but they’re selling it on at 20-30 cents per kWh and hitting the consumer with a supply charge as well.

There was another article about the heat-island effect. Melbourne City Council has found temperature variation of up to 4 degrees between the city centre and suburbs. Cities pull in the heat because of the prevalence of heat-absorbing materials such as dark-coloured pavements and roofs, concrete, and a lack of shade and green space. Cities don’t cool down overnight either; they trap and store heat. There’s a thermal image of a large tree at the corner of a city intersection on a day when the maximum daily temperature was 32 degrees. Under the tree, the temp was 38; out on the roadway it was nearly 81 (ouch).

A sustainable cities expert from the University of SA says we need to increase urban green spaces by 20% by 2020. Roof gardens, green walls and building materials that reflect heat. I’m all for that!

Melbourne has the highest number of heat-related deaths of any of the capital cities according to the federal government’s 2013 report State of Australian Cities, estimated at 200 per year. By contrast the state’s 2013 road toll was 242. The greatest number of deaths occurred in those over 75. The number of heat-related deaths is expected to double by 2030. It didn’t say whether this figure has been adjusted for population increase.

Anyway, after I’d finished reading the paper I went shopping. What a joy to drive whilst being blasted with cold air! I momentarily thought of pootling round the countryside all day with the car aircon on, but of course I wouldn’t do it. The shopping centre wasn’t as cool as I’d hoped it would be, so maybe the management sensibly thought to ramp up the aircon temp a bit. More credit to them if so. It was so pleasant around the usually cooler meat section in the supermarket. I wondered what they’d think if I took a chair and a book and spent the day there? I might have done it if I could have taken the chooks there, too.

Speaking of which, the poor Girls have been suffering mightily these past days. Their secure run has always had a tarp over it to keep out the rain (remember rain?), and I’ve thrown a heavy ex-curtain over their playground which I hose down every hour. I’ve put a barrow load of leaves, which I keep wet, into the run and they’ve been spending some time sitting on them in the shade. On Tuesday, I thought I would lose them, they were so stressed, panting like dogs. The two that were still laying stopped a week ago, and now Molly is moulting, like the sensible girl that she is. If you’re wearing a hot coat, take it off. Lady hasn’t laid for over two months and has been poorly, with downcast tail and lethargic habit. Since none of them have ever let me pick them up, I can’t even begin to find out what’s wrong with her. She’s still eating and drinking, loves her treats, puts herself to bed early and looks at me sadly when I ask what’s wrong. It could be an impacted egg mass or a tumour or something else entirely. Cheeky is still, well…Cheeky. Eating like a horse, not laying, not liking the heat, but having a whale of a time otherwise. I’ve promised them this will be the last day of heat.

I hope I’m right. In a future post I’ll tell what happened to the garden. It’s not pretty.

He told us so

January 14, 2014


Back in 1896 the Swedish chemist Arrhenius warned that if we continued to burn fossil fuels we would heat the Earth.

And we didn’t listen. We never listen. We continued to burn fossil fuels with a vengeance. And because of that, in Melbourne at the moment, we are experiencing 4 consecutive days of temperatures above 40 °C. The weather bureau claims that in 150 years of recording, we haven’t even averaged one 40 degree day a year. Now there are four in a row.

I thought I was watering adequately. This morning I covered up some of the more tender-leaved vegetables with shadecloth. I watered all the others. I stayed inside all day, only venturing out to hose down the soil in the chookyard and to keep up a supply of iceblocks in their drinking water (it’s said they won’t drink water that’s above their body temperature and if they don’t drink they’ll die). The Girls were stressed out, panting. I apologised to them for the human stupidity and ignorance that had caused their discomfort.

After dinner I went down the back to check on the food forest. The leaves on the five tamarillos were hanging limply beside their stems. I can’t afford to lose them. They’re covered in developing fruits.

The leaves on all the citrus trees were curled up and burnt. The redcurrant leaves were crisp and crumbled away when I touched them. The developing apples were all showing burnt spots. They will rot away on the trees. Luckily I had the foresight to pick all the plums, even though they weren’t properly ripe.

I put a thermometer on my workbench in the shade. It went straight to 44 °C and stayed there. I connected the hose to the tap (the tank is too slow) and watered everything. There are two more days of this to go. It is unprecedented. It is the future.

I’m angry.

Thirty years ago I learned about the connection between fossil fuel burning and climate change. I went out of my way to use less energy and tried to encourage other people to do the same. I was called ‘ratbag greenie’ for my trouble.  I won’t ever forget or forgive those stupid, ignorant morons for that. I hope they’re still around, still living in Melbourne and that their gardens are burned to a crisp like mine. Not that they’d care. They’re probably living in air-conditioned luxury and shopping at the supermarket. Why trouble to grow your own food when the shops are full of it and you can drive there (wasting fuel) just for a litre of milk (like my neighbour does).

I watch the people around me still using energy stupidly, still either unconcerned or too stupid to make the connections. I don’t own an energy-guzzling air conditioner or a plasma TV.  I keep driving to a minimum, I’ve just installed solar, I will never fly again.

What’s the point? Why not just join the masses in their energy-guzzling lifestyles. It may cause the human race to drive itself extinct just that little bit sooner.

And that will be a good thing.


I’m off to bed. To try and sleep in a room where the temp is 36 °C.

December solar update

January 12, 2014

I‘m going to keep reading the electricity meter and the inverter on a daily basis until I’ve had solar for a full year. That way I’ll be able to see just what it’s doing for me throughout each of the seasons. So I thought I’d do a monthly solar update here for anyone who’s interested.

It’s been two full months since the meter was reconfigured to show how much electricity I’m exporting to the grid. I’m not counting what was exported before that because I was only calculating it, as I had no meter readings to go on and it turns out I was calculating it wrongly (it’s involved so I won’t bore you with the details). You definitely need those meter readings.

I’ll put all the previous month’s data in with the current month so that comparisons can be made easily without looking back to previous posts. Easier for me too, as it will all be in the one place, although I have it all on a spreadsheet as well.

So….off we go.

November 2013
Note: these are daily averages for the month

Power imported from the grid = 5.4 kWh

Import cost @ 25.14 cents per kWh = $1.37

Generated power = 18.1 kWh

Exported power = 15.1 kWh

Credit for exported power @ 8 cents per kWh = $1.15

Generated power actually used in the home = 3 kWh

December 2013
Note: these are daily averages for the month

Power imported from the grid = 5.1 kWh

Import cost @ 25.14 cents per kWh = $1.27

Generated power = 18.6 kWh

Exported power = 16.2 kWh

Credit for exported power @ 8 cents per kWh = $1.30

Generated power actually used in the home = 2.4 kWh


Power imported from the grid = extra power I need to take from the grid when the panels aren’t operating or when they’re not providing enough.

Import cost @ 25.14 cents per kWh = what I pay for imported power.

Generated power = what the panels produce each day.

Exported power = power produced by the panels which is not used in the house.

Credit for exported power @ 8 cents per kWh = what I’m paid for the excess power I generate.

Generated power actually used in the home = the difference between what the panels produce and what goes to the grid.

More notes:

I don’t use much in the house. Most of what the panels generate goes to the grid. This is OK if you get paid a decent whack for it. Eight cents is not a decent whack! Blame the government, as always. They set the credits. Power retailers would give you nothing if they could get away with it. I should be using more in the house. That way I’m saving 25 cents per kWh, i.e money I don’t have to pay out for imported power.

These are the summer months, so I expect generation from the panels to be pretty good. I’ve always said winter will be another story. But it occurred to me that if I’m only using 3 kWh or so in the house, then that’s all the panels have to produce in winter, too  (a bit more perhaps). So maybe it won’t be such a difference after all.

Understanding collapse

January 4, 2014

Gail Tverberg over at Our Finite World has another really excellent post about Why a Finite World is a Problem.

I wish more people, particularly the world’s brain-dead  politicians, understood this stuff.

Meanwhile, those of us who do, can only continue to prepare for the coming crises as best and as quickly as we can, by becoming self-sufficient in food, water and energy and encouraging as many people as will listen, to follow suit.