Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Zucchini Fritter stacks

Zucchini must be the easiest vegetable to grow.  I'm only just putting mine in now but my neighbours were kind enough to give me a couple of large ones (marrow) and a handful of grape tomatoes.  Lunch looked so good I thought I'd take a photo of what I often eat during the warmer months.

It's a very cheap meal to make, particularly if you've grow your own and have your own chooks.

Ingredients (12 fritters)

2 eggs
1/2 a small zucchini (or a slice of marrow if you've left it grow too long)
A spoonful of vegetable or chicken stock
Plain flour to thicken (amount depends on how wet the mix is)
Pinch of Salt and pepper


Whisk the eggs into a bowl
Add the grated zucchini
Add the seasoning (stock, salt, pepper)
Add flower until mix is stiff

Heat a pan to medium
Add a splash of oil
Add 1-2 spoons of mix per fritter
Flip when bubbles start to appear in the mix
Flip again when brown


Friday, October 15, 2010

Gloom, doom and bad news

Every day the newspaper seems to be full of bad news and it was getting us down.  We thought we'd do something about it

Bad news is great mulch.

Bob Brown mulching my fruit trees.  Makes sense I guess.

Before - weeds out of control and moisture loss

After, bad news turned into good under a layer of more mulch.

Problem solved.  We feel better already.  Thanks newspaper companies, we think you're just great.

The Jonses

Note:  This gag is blatantly stolen from Bill Mollison's Global Gardener series.  You can check out the original footage on YouTube below where he talks about the difference in working in the sub-topics vs other climatic zones.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Be the Joneses you want to see in the world

We discovered this video a few months ago, and it's absolute gold.

Mr Jones likes to think that he's the 3rd guy in the video (because he's really cool).  We suspect the reality is we're just part of the mob somewhere, and if we're at the front of the pack in our local community and setting a prominent example, well that's just dandy.

One thing this video doesn't mention is the importance of a shared narrative (the music).  We suspect that a shared narrative is an important part of this, and is possibly more important than the acts of the dancers. Food for thought, time to collect some eggs.

The Joneses

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The weed opportunity

"We don't have a weed problem, we have a weed opportunity."  
The Joneses
Chooks like grain, and grain is not always practical to grow in a domestic situation.  Sure we're planning to plant some native grasses for seed along the edge of the chicken coop when we finally get around to building it, but in the interim we're buying in a sack of grain and pellets every few months to supplement the girls free range diet.  Buying in anything takes energy and money, so this is a good place to apply your mind to closing the loop in your own garden.

Well, remember our chicken / legume guild from a few weeks back?  The idea was to build up our soil in the front yard using the power of the almighty legume, while also using the plants as fodder for the chooks.  The chooks in turn would eat / scratch / aerate the piles of legume plants to build up our soil at the side of our property, while the discarded plants keep the dust down and gradually turn themselves into soil.  (This is covered in more detail  in this blog entry).  So far this experiment is going well.

Anyway it's been raining which means the soil is moist and weeds are easy to get out.  Our prospective vegie patch is still full of weeds, so it's been a good time to pull some out and add to our "weed / chicken guild".  We thought we'd post a few photos.

Weeds in bed with the lilli pillis and broad beans. Yum.

The girls at work in under 30 seconds.  Everyone's happy.
Our chickens (Marjorie, Penny & new edition Ethel) love weeds so there's none in our back yard.  In fact, if we didn't have the front yard fenced off from the girls, we'd have no weeds left for them at all.  How tragic that would be.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Potato tyre stacks - part 2

Attempt #2, Penny scratching around
Back in June (winter) I attempted my potato tyre stacks for all the reasons in our original post.  At first things went well, but alas after a period of rain the plants seemed to die off. The tyre stacks were on some concrete, and I assumed that they had become waterlogged and had rotted the tubers.   Moving the stacks slightly to allow drainage didn't seem to help - it seems I was too late.  Meanwhile my neighbours' potatoes dug into the ground seemed really healthy, so the whole experiment seemed to be a failure.  Key learning here - get your drainage right if you're in a high rainfall area!

It's the start of spring here, and everything's coming to life, including a few potato plants from tubers I'd planted in the grounds last season. The fruit tree area is probably going to have a chicken under story at some point, so while chicken manure is great, I'm not sure I want too much concentration in the potatoes in case of pathogens.  So with healthy plants establishing, and it being the right time of year, it's time to do the experiment again.
Not much of a yield, but not a complete failure.

So reusing the tyres from the last stack, I've put these around one potato plant with the aim to stack it about 5 tyres high over the growing season.  In theory the whole stack should fill with spuds, including some under the ground and the soil should be really healthy in the stack without any pathogens.

When grabbing the old tyres, I found a whole bunch of tiny new potatoes, so it seemed the original attempt didn't fail after all, and with patience we might have got there in the end.  We've dug these in elsewhere in the garden so they might surprise us at some point in the future.

Interestingly enough, also in the old stack were the fattest worms we've seen at our place - about twice the size, which is telling us that the little micro-ecosystem in the stacks is very healthy indeed.   Good to know.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Experiments in building soil - chicken / legume guild

Rough site map, rich soil in the SouthEast Corner only

When we bought our place it was high maintenance.  Things needed pruning, mowing, watering, fertilising or weeding weekly and if you didn't stay on top of it, things got out of control.  And it did get out of control for a while.  Mr Jones had to quit his job to find the 2 days a week to maintain the place.  This was way too stressful, too much like hard work and producing too little yield. So we let things go a bit to see what nature would do if you weren't constantly fighting with her.

Some things worked, but some got even more out of control.  The north east part of the site is the driest area with the poorest soil, and is also the animals' favourite area.  They really liked our newly established lawn and decided to dig it up and turn the area into a dust bowl.

Out the front (north side), we ripped out a lot of the high maintenance plants (rambling roses), covered the ground with wet newspaper and tee tree mulch to build up the soil and keep the weeds down.  This helped a lot, and now we've got lots of soil critters improving our soil for us, but with spring setting in, the weeds are back and prolific.

So the big question - how to turn the animal and weed problems into opportunities?

Coming into season
Dad's remedy - broad beans

Legumes are wonderful things.  They take nitrogen out of the air and put it into nodules on their roots while also producing a crop.  When they die off  or are pruned the nitrogen is left behind in the soil.

So in the front yard we planted broad beans and peas.  We've already had a good yield from the snowpeas while they're busily competing with the weeds and fixing our soil  The broad beans have been prolific and are now starting to give us a yield as well.

I was never a fan of broad beans (used to have them thrown at me / shoved down my throat as a kid), but we're giving them a go again (recipes appreciated).  The great thing about broad beans is you can buy a huge bag of seeds from the health food shop for less than two bucks, and they grow like crazy.
Hedgerow, shade, moisture, weed control.

We deliberately over planted the broad beans, and have pulled out a number of the plants once they got to 2-3 feet in height.  These go into the animals favourite area, providing a ground cover to keep the moisture in the soil while the chooks turn them slowly into organic matter.  So for 2 bucks and about 30 minutes of effort over the last couple of months, our dust problem is reduced and our soil is being improved in both plots.

Has bean - white nodules are nitrogen goodness.

Our chickens love weeds, particularly when they're starting to  produce seed.  We were putting these into the compost, but if you don't get your compost hot enough then you perpetuate the weed cycle, and our compost area is in an area where the soil is rich anyway which means carting it.  Besides, who really wants to have to turn compost every week?

Again, the solution, pull out the weeds, throw them into the chicken's favourite area and they'll keep the dust down and become food for the chooks.  If a few survive to stabilise the area, and be a pioneer for other plants, then that's just fine with us.

Yum, fresh produce in the dust bowl.
So this method solves a few problems, and gets plants and animals doing more of the work so we can get back in the hammock to hatch more clever plans on how to get nature working on our side

There's always a way to improve the system and make it more productive with less work required.  For us, this was a simple way to tweak the system and turn problems into opportunities with almost no incremental effort.
Change direction and nature starts working for you.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Everything you ever wanted to know about hot water and more

This is the story of the Jones family and our choices of hot water.  We've had a lot of people ask us about it, which means some people are thinking about keeping up with these Jonses.  The experiment is working!

In this article we'll take you through how we made our decisions, why these may or may not be the right decisions for you and what our life's like with a solar evacuated tube system on our roof.

Energy options, constraints & greenhouse gases

The Jones family lives in an area where there's no natural gas connected, so for energy here we've got several options:
  1. Use coal fired power which is relatively cheap but is a huge contributor to global warming
  2. Pay a bit extra to buy Greenpower from the grid, but also knowing that a lot of energy gets lost between where it is generated and our front gate
  3. Have natural gas delivered which is less CO2 intensive than coal, but has to be trucked to our gate in diesel trucks
  4. Generate as much as we can on site.
Naturally we liked option 4, but needed also to be realistic with living within our means.

When we first arrived at Jones Manor, there were two off-peak electric storage systems, totalling just under 200 litres.  This would have made perfect sense at the time. Off-peak is cheaper and can be delivered within existing capacity of the grid, and at the time, global warming wasn't well understood and energy saving options weren't as viable as they are today.  Great case for a retrofit.

So you can imagine our delight when our building report told us our old electric systems were nearing the end of their useful lives, were at risk of failing and would need to be replaced.  Solar water rebates were also available which was going to help a lot (these are still available, but not as generous as they were).  Considering that hot water is the largest single source of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions for most homes (around 20-25 per cent of household emissions), this seemed to be a great place to start and solar was the obvious choice.

Choosing a hot water system

We did our research - the usual places: ask your friends, ask Google, ask your Dad, talk to some providers, try and cut through their spin and bias and then try and find some authoritative sources and buyers guides.  In our case the most useful sources were the Your Home Technical Manual, the Alternative Technology Association and Mr Jones' Dad.  (Yes Jones Sr, we did ask you first and all our research proved you right, but don't get a big head about it).

We did some comparisons between solar flat panels (the types that have been an Australian icon for many years) and the new fangled evacuated tubes which hit the market in the last few years.  What we consistently heard from a number of sources was the solar evaluated tubes were nearly twice the price of flat panels, but were worth the extra money because:

  1. They are nearly twice as efficient, which means you don't have to run your coal powered electric booster as much on cloudy days
  2. The tubes handle hail better and can be replaced one tube at a time if they get damaged
  3. A stainless steel tank with the system should last for a good 25 years, which could be twice as long as normal.

Knowing that the flat panel system on Mr Jones dad's house was a disappointment because it's booster seems to be running most of the time, and also wanting something to last until the rest of Mr Jones beard turns grey, we decided to give this new fangled contraption a go.

Our phone calls and background checks seemed to indicate Apricus was the brand to go with, so we gave them a call and they introduced us to our new mate Stephen from Viabuild who was the local agent and experienced guru on the product.  Now you've got to be careful with a bloke like Stephen, because you'll quickly realise that perhaps you don't know everything about sustainability, and next thing you know Mr Jones will be doing a Permaculture Design Certificate and wanting to know how to build an earthship and live in the desert, but that's another story.

Fit for purpose
Anyway, Stephen took us through it all and looked at our limiting factors.  There were four in particular:

  1. A ridge line and huge Lilly Pilly tree to the North-East which gives us about 1 less hour of direct sun in the mornings
  2. A ridge line and large trees to the North-West which give us about 2 less hours of direct sun in the afternoon
  3. Heritage limitations which mean the tubes must be flat, and slightly sub-optimally placed
  4. Practicalities which mean the tank needed to be on the ground instead of in the roof.
Our new fangled solar tubes. mid-afternoon, winter.
As a result of this we decided to go with a 30 tube array and a 250L stainless steel tank, which is enough for a reasonably sized family with minimal boosting, even in winter. And for a couple it should require nearly no boosting at all, even on cloudy days in winter.  

The reality - what's it actually like?

We've had our system nearly 12 months now and we love it.

Our configuration means we've got a pump and a controller, which is really clever.  The controller measures the temperature in the tank, and also in the tubes on the roof.  When the tubes are 8 degrees hotter than our tank, the pump turns on and sends water from the bottom of the tank (coldest part) to the tubes on the roof and brings back hot water.  If there is only a 2 degree difference, it turns itself off, and waits for the tubes to get hot again.

There is a big display on the controller which shows these temperatures, which means most males and anyone techy / geeky will be out looking at it every few minutes for a month or so and probably keep doing this for the first year or two.  It's a bit like watching the display on a Prius and getting excited about braking... actually, now that I mention it...  {Mr Jones wanders outside to take photos as an excuse to look at the display and see what the system is doing} 

Controller 12 months on with a few cobwebs
Sorry about that, back now, but here's a two photos.  It's 2pm which means we've got another hour or two of direct sunlight to go.  As you an see, the temperature on the roof is 57 degrees, and the ambient temperature on the back verandah (below) is 15 degrees.  It's a sunny winter's day here, and the bottom of the tank was at around 15 degrees this morning because we deliberately ran the system down.  The bottom of our tank is 54 degrees, which means the whole thing is toasty warm and an ideal temperature, all free from the sun.  

Ambient temperature in the shade
So the important thing is whether we actually saved all that electricity or not.  The answer to this is yes and no.

As we indicated before, our placement is suboptimal.  The unit is laid fairly flat which means we're getting around 8-10% less input than we'd normally get.  Also because we're on the low side of a ridge, we're getting around 5-6 hours of direct sun instead of 9-10, so deduct another 40% for that.  And lastly this is a very cloudy place, so it's overcast regularly which brings most things to a slow churn, so it seems the gods are against us our little experiment and we should be doomed to failure.

But, we didn't fail, it's been a great success.  Take today for example, it's a winter's day, and our hot water for the day will be free apart from running the pump (which is negligible energy and cost). Free. No booster like Mr Jones' dad.  Free.  Woohoo.

In spring through summer and autumn, we turn the booster off entirely when there's just Mr & Ms Jones at home and only turn it back on on really cold cloudy days or when we've got guests.  The system can keep up with sort of behaviour except when we get a few cloudy days in a row.

So if every day was like today, the system would pay for itself in 5-10 years, and still keep giving for another 15 or so, so that's not bad for a system which is severely handicapped by where it's located.  It's also worth noting that electricity prices will double every 5-10 years and continue to heat the planet, so it starts becoming an obvious thing to do.

Also it's good to know that because the tank is stratified and shows the coldest part, which means even when it's really cold in the tank (say 15 degrees), you've probably still got enough for two hot showers from the top half.  And on a warm day, we've clocked 146 degrees on the roof (the pump shuts off to protect itself above 83 degrees).

So these are the tangible bits, and the stuff you need to know so that you're not kidding yourself.  But for us there was something much more important.  

The moment we installed the tank, was the moment we became the Jonses.  

We live on a street with a lot of foot traffic on it, and at least a dozen people have stopped to ask us about our disco tubes on our roof.  We also put a few pictures on Facebook and people asked us questions. We were able to tell them all about it and now some are looking into it closely, and are doing it too, or had already done it.  It was at this point we realised how much impact you can have by being the new Jonses or following some other Jonses.  One day we might even be able to spell Jonses.

Lessons and what we'd do differently

If we had our time again we'd probably consider a thermal siphon, which is basically a fancy name for having a tank on/in your roof that self-circulates without needing a pump.  Simply, hot water rises and if your tank is above your panels you don't need a pump.  If your tank is below your panels, you do need a pump, which means moving parts and a small amount of energy to run the system.

Why would we do this?  Well our pump died after 11 months, just gave up the ghost, and we wouldn't have noticed if our power bill didn't look unusually high, so it might have been dead for a while.  Having said that, we still had hot water because the off-peak booster kicked in, but we generated a few black balloons without realising it.  The Apricus team were great, replaced and installed a new pump in less than a week at no charge and it seems we're one of their only pumps to ever have failed, so hopefully this is an isolated problem.  This is all pretty impressive for new fangled technology.  

Now if we had a tank on/in the roof, there would have been no pump, and nothing to die on us, which is nice to know.  But it also might have meant reinforcing the roof to carry the extra 250 kg of weight, and there wouldn't have been a cool gadget to look at {Mr Jones leaves the room again...}.  Quick update from Mr Jones, the tank has increased in temperature by 3 degrees in the last 30 minutes.  How cool is that?

The Jonses
Be the Jonses you want to see in the world

Useful references for digging deeper

Your Home guide - what type of system should I get?
Your Home Technical Manual - Hot water
Hills fact sheet: solar tubes vs flat panels

Monday, July 12, 2010

Will the real Joneses please stand up?

""Keeping up with the Joneses" is a catchphrase in many parts of the English-speaking world referring to the comparison to one's neighbour as a benchmark for social caste or the accumulation of material goods. To fail to "keep up with the Joneses" is perceived as demonstrating socio-economic or cultural inferiority... often causing conspicuous consumption and/or overconsumption."  Wikipedia

This blog plays on the idea that there is a new version of the Joneses who realise that consumption or financial wealth doesn't always make you happy, but quality of life and other things like giving back to society and having time for family and community do.  For those who didn't immediately get the joke in the description of our site, our tag-line tilts our hat at the notion of being the change you want to see in the world.  And this is a very big movement we're part of.  Look at the success of the Prius for example, compared to the Honda Civic.  A post-mortem on why the Prius dominated the market, was it didn't look like their existing similar model (Carolla), so people could drive around showing that they were keeping up with the new Joneses and wanted to do something about climate change, without having to wear tie die shirts, grow a beard, attend a protest rally or be ostracised by their neighbours.  Nearly everyone likes the idea gardening, socialising, spending time outdoors, or chickens, but not everyone likes a hippy.  If you're reading this, you'll be well aware that green is the new black.  Hippy is so 1960, eco-friendly is so 2010 and you get to buy all this new stuff too! (irony intended).

Anyway Mr Jones (the fictitious dad caricature of our abun-dense project) decided to go a permaculture art project on Saturday to see if he could learn another thing or two about how to be the Joneses from other people who were doing the same thing in Surry Hills.

So we rocked up and introduced ourselves and our concept of the Joneses.  The response by the project director PJ, "Oh, cool, is your last name Jones as well?"  

"Oh, cool, is your last name Jones as well?"  

And so we met Patrick Jones, his partner Meg, and son Zephyr - the REAL Joneses.  Our name isn't even Jones.  How embarrassing is that?

In the day that followed, we got our hands dirty a bit, realised that our companion planting list has some very big gaps in it (we were asked to help out on that bit), but the big thing for us was watching the people - those walking by with puzzled looks on their faces, those jumping the fence to find out what was going on, those jumping the fence to get their hands dirty, those bringing plants, and some other Joneses doing inspiring stuff and acting as a beacon for new Joneses, like our new mates Costa, the crew from the Museum of Contemporary Art.  Probably 200-300 people got involved on Saturday to finish the project, all of whom now have some sort of connection with it.

If you're ever in Surry Hills, I'd recommend having a walk through the site to see how little space you need and how densely you can plant an abundant food forest.  And if you're ever driving through Surry Hills to the Eastern Suburbs down Albion Street and stop at the lights at South Dowling, look out your left window and you don't even have to get out of your car.

To find out more about that project, and to meet the real Joneses, have a look at their site, The Artist as Family.  Quite possibly, these Joneses are the Joneses we want to be in the world.

Oh, and if you want to see what our fake Mr Jones looks like, he's in their photo gallery from Saturday with his head down planting.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Marjorie and Penny

It's really hard to appreciate how entertaining chickens are as pets until you get some and let them free range at your place.  Don't get us wrong, Mavis the blue collie is a laugh a minute and a favourite with kids, but put her together with our two chooks and it's far better than anything you'll ever see on the cartoon network.

We've had Marjorie and Penny for nearly a year now.  If I recall rightly, they were around 18 weeks old when we got them, and cost us less than $20 each, vaccinated and ready to go.  Within a few weeks of getting them they were producing two eggs a day each, and apart from the occasional broody patch, they've been flat out producing two eggs every day ever since.

Apart from entertaining the kids, entertaining the dog, and helping me weed the garden beds, they produce manure, aerate the soil, break pest cycles, accelerate compost and don't ask for much in return other than somewhere safe and warm to sleep, fresh water and the occasional bit of grain. And no matter where you are in the garden, they're never far away just in case you need a hard pulling out a weed or two.  They REALLY like human company, and are possibly more loyal than some dogs I've known.

There are some downsides of course - they like to explore and do their own thing, so don't be surprised if they go next door for a visit if your fences aren't up to scratch, poo on your verandah, or dig up any lawn or seedlings which aren't fully established yet.  Still, these are problems easily solved with a bit of temporary fencing, and are pretty small inconveniences in the grand scheme of things.

Yes, of course we've got spare eggs to give away.  Don't you?

One thing you might be prepared for is what to do with all the eggs.  14 eggs a week is a lot of eggs, which is great because you can use them and give them away to unsuspecting neighbours who don't realise how good it is to be the Joneses.  The problem of course is getting egg cartons.  If you don't buy eggs you don't get any cartons.  However this is simply solved, if you tell your friends and neighbours to bring around a half carton occasionally, you can send it back to them full of organic free range eggs.  I can't remember the last time we didn't have a spare half dozen waiting to be given away, which is always a great thing to do.

Or you can swap them.  Jack from my permaculture course was kind enough to give me a lemongrass plant in exchange for half a dozen free range eggs.  Bargain!  Bring on those Moscow Mule variations.

No Penny, that birdbath isn't for you!

No Junk Mail

For some reason, direct marketers in our area seem to think that the Joneses really like catalogues.  We get heaps of them.  Catalogues for white goods, consumables, obscure and weird products, and most strangely, specials catalogues for supermarkets which are more than 15km away from our place, despite the one local supermarket being a short walk away.

Given that we're trying to move away from rampant consumerism, into more durable goods, reduce our footprint, produce more of what we need on site, and also given there's only so many colour catalogues which are useful as mulch, at some point it's all got to stop.

We tried putting a no junk mail sticker on our letter box (took us a while to find one), and within 2 weeks, someone had taken the sticker off (at considerable effort  - you can see where it was), and the junk mail was piling up again.  We tried a hand written sign with sticky tape, it faded.  For a short period of time, we just gave up and just took the catalogues from the mailbox to the recycling bin every... single... day.  Shame on us, bad Joneses!

And then a few weeks ago, a nice surprise happened.  We renewed our subscription to the Australian Conservation Foundation, and in our first magazine was a free "no junk mail" sticker, which sits in pride of place on our letter box. And the tide of junk mail has stopped, while also helping a very worthy organisation.  Hooray.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Potato tyre stacks

I'd heard a number of times that old tyres are really useful for growing potatoes in. It was hard rubbish day here recently (where you put out all your bulky stuff and it gets taken away). The rubbish got picked over and much of it reused / re-purposed by the locals, but all of the tyres got left behind, so I figured it was time to put this potato tyre theory to the test at my place.

The idea is really simple - you get a few old tyres and plant a seed potato or two in the bottom of the first tyre. (You can use a normal potato, but your chances of having diseases in them in the regrowth is higher).

Once the leaves start growing out of the top, you can add mulch / compost / soil / whatever you have around the plant right up to the very tip. Once the stem is immersed, the potato plant will grow roots out of the side of the stem of the plant. Off those roots will grow new potatoes (and of course, there are still potatoes growing off the roots in the first tyre).

Once the plant grows some more, you add another tyre, and organic matter (making sure the top of the plant is not buried), and you can keep on doing this until you run out of tyres.

When you're ready to harvest, you simply remove the tyres one at a time, empty the dirt on the ground and every tyre should be full of fresh potatoes. This is a no dig method requiring minimal effort, and for someone who used to trawl potato fields as a kid, this is a good thing as digging them by hand is back breaking work.

Old tyres are great for a number of reasons. Firstly they are a good insulator and heat sink, so they keep your spuds at a good temperature. Secondly they're free. Thirdly (hopefully) with all the hard wear of driving, worn tyres should have most of the toxins in them in an inert state, or perhaps gone altogether.

Our stack has been started with some potatoes from last season which were growing (not very well) in a cardboard box which have just sprung into action recently, so we'll see how they go. The tyre stack is stacked on newspaper, which is on top of concrete down the side of our garden shed. The lane is not otherwise useful, but is oriented North/South so gets nice winter sun.

We'll update with pictures and comments in the coming weeks, and through to harvest.