Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Rainfall 2010

The first rainfall of 2011 has prompted me to add up the rainfall for 2010. We only started recording rainfall in March, 2010 and our records have already trumped previous years. 971 mm has fallen on our property in the last 10 months. In 2009, the annual rainfall at the nearest weather station was just over 500mm. We've had almost double the rain last year as in previous years. I've had quite a bit of fun over at the Bureau of meteorology looking at their graphs of climate data. I'm very glad we got our new roof on just before those big spikes in November.

Our swales have been almost constantly full since we dug them in late March, drying up for the first time three weeks ago. Have you ever seen such green grass in an Australian summer?

Playing with tilt-shift generators to make our place look mini.
There's been no rain around here since before Christmas and a run of hot days have seen everything drying out very quickly, except the soil in our orchard below the swale, which is still moist. Looks like the swales are doing what we'd hoped - the fruit trees are looking very healthy. 30mm in the last two days and everything is full of water again. Nothing like a storm to take the edge off summer.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Food resolutions and a new year linkfest

I began this post as a quick new year linkarama to some of the great online holiday reading I've been indulging in and some quick thoughts on food resolutions, inspired by this slideshow. The post quickly grew into a congolmeration of several current thoughts and inspirations about food. Surely this is a testament to my love of food growing and eating. Food: what's not to get excited about?

The cumulative result of the last decade of food resolutions has resulted in some changed eating habits for the better. There are more vegetables in my diet (particularly raw ones), less sugar, less fried food, and I've made it a habit to reach for the healthy takeaway option most of the time. I plan well, when I can, and recognise the situations that see me sliding back into food choices that do no favours for my waistline. So for, 2011, I've made a list of food resolutions that are practical, diverse, and dare I say exciting. 

1. Design a food uniform for stressed, sad and sick times. 
I like the idea of creating a clothes uniform for oneself. A basic wardrobe of 20 or so items that suits your clothing needs and lifestyle and helps to keep spontaneous clothes consumption under control. One of the things I love about travelling is only having a few clothes to choose from. I want to apply this thinking to comfort food. When I apply time and thought to what I eat and cook, all the people in my house eat really well. When I am out of time and preoccupied I eat vegemite on toast and chocolate, two reliable and ubiquitous comfort foods. In 2011, I resolve to create a nutritious, easily prepared comfort food for hard times.

2. Find more things to do with eggs.
I have chickens, who lay more eggs than I can eat for breakfast each day. This year I perfected the parsnip frittata. I have a hunch there is a secret to food texture that involves the structural magic of parts of the egg. In 2011, I resolve to do more things with whole eggs, yolks and whites.

3. Create food theatre
I usually cook for two people and on a nightly basis we revel in flavours and textures. Theatre, with taste and smell added is an experience that defies description. I would like to train my tastebuds, with or without blindfold. The best food experiences involve a sense of theatre. Sometimes it verges on the pretentious, but food should be fun and creative. In 2011, I resolve to create food theatre for a crowd of people, cooking them a meal to remember to be served in our paddock.

4. Celebrate food carts
Last year's travels in India spoiled me with street food, ingenuity and creative reuse. A Jaipur meal of Indian mashed potato patties and baked beans will stay in my memory a long time. So much simple joy from a Saffron lassi served in a disposable ceramic mug. Bowls made of leaves and magazine bags for the deep fried edibles. A hand-pulled cart laden with fresh bread in an empty street in the early morning hours. In 2011, I resolve to explore the concept of the mobile food cart and creative packaging at local markets.

5. Foray beyond the orchard and vegetable patch
2010 saw the realisation of a long-held dream, a patch of dirt to call my (our) own. Orchards were planted, vegetable gardens developed. But there is a world of farming beyond fruit trees and vegetables called grains and animals. In 2011, I resolve to grow grain and set up a rotational grazing system and add more animals to our small flock.

6. Build a solar cooker
So many to choose from! In 2011, I resolve to build and cook with my own solar cooker.

7. Explore food culture
Mobile business inspiration. Image from randomspecific
The history of desserts and the "cheap sugar revolution" described here is enlightening. Food traditions are inspiring and constantly developing. I miss eating Ethiopian food, and Footscray is too far away to satisfy my regular cravings. In 2011, I resolve to grow and learn to prepare two essential ingredients in Ethiopian food culture, teff grain and coffee.

Hope 2011 gives me, you and all of us occasion for a proper food celebration!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Wild harvest - bird poo

I was riding my bike down the Yarra to Southern Cross station recently, when this strange structure caught my eye. Closer inspection confirmed my suspicion that this was a pigeon loft. The description on the sign (abridged) states:

"This pigeon loft has been placed here in Batman Park as part of the City of Melbourne's pigeon management program. It is intended to provide an alternative home for the city's pigeons...Pigeons in the CBD have been a nuisance for decades and their droppings cause uncleanliness generally and also damage to city buildings...It houses two hundred nesting boxes for pigeon breeding. Eggs laid will be replaced with artificial eggs intended as a humane way to control and reduce pigeon numbers. Bird feeding around the loft base is permitted to attract birds out of the CBD to this area. Bird feeding is not permitted in any other area around the CBD."

If pigeons roost in here, there must be a lot of droppings. What does the City of Melbourne do with them? I hope they compost them. Pigeon poop is high in phosphorus and nitrogen, making it an excellent fertilizer when composted or brewed into compost tea.
Below a railway bridge

The easiest way to get pigeon manure into your food system is to get the pigeons to fly it in for you. Pigeon coops are used in desert food systems to bring in nutrients for the soil. There's a short descrpition of this on the update to the Greening the Desert video (starts at 6:10).

My eye is now finely tuned to spot these piles of wild compost ingredients. Birds have their favourite roosting spots, and beneath them there is usually a pile of poo.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Pitchfork Projects Christmas offer

I've posted a few specials over at pitchforkprojects.com. Permaculture consultations or online lessons available until end of December at $50 per hour, and gift certificates are available for any value $5 and over, calculated pro rata. Permaculture consultations are a great gift for both the person who has everything, and the person who has not much at all!

Shorter consultations are ideal for answering quick questions by Skype or email...what do I do about these flies in my compost?...what should I plant this time of year?...how do I care for this chicken?...what is happening to the leaves on my fruit tree?

One hour consultations enable a focused discussion of permaculture applied to your project, including as opportunities to harvest water, siting infrastructure and designing for as efficient a project as possible.
All gift certificates valid for the rest of 2010 and all of 2011.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Managing gorse (Ulex europaeus) - a permaculture approach

If you're a first generation farmer and you manage to find a dirt cheap property to begin your farming endeavours, there's a good chance there'll be some kind of weed that you'll have to deal with. In our case, it was Gorse, ulex europeaus, a weed of national significance. In permaculture terms, gorse is a pioneer plant. It colonises disturbed ground, and is often seen in erosion gullies, which is the niche it occupies on my property.

Gorse with flower and seed pods
Like most weeds, gorse provides important ecosystem services. A member of the pea family, it fixes nitrogen, its prickly, bushy growth habit provides habitat for birds and animals and its dense root structure helps combat erosion. Given that it is a weed of national significance and in order to maintain good relations with our neighbours, managing the gorse was a priority. Most advice we received was to "cut and paint" - cut back gorse bushes and paint with the appropriate herbicide. Chemical management is not an avenue I was willing to pursue due to the potential effects of herbicide on soil and animal life. A permaculture approach requires an analysis of the species to understand its growing needs, potential harvestable uses and its interactions with other parts of the system.

I initially turned to the Weeds Australia website, which provides a comprehensive manual on the biology and management of gorse. Gorse is extremely hardy and fast growing, and young shoots resprout from stumps and sticks that remain in soil. It was clear that any management required a range of strategies, including grazing, mechanical removal, slashing and competition. By far the most useful and easily understood description of gorse was found at this instructable, and if dealing with gorse, I'd recommend reading about the experience of gorse management there. It has been recommended as a nurse plant to establish forests in the UK, and is eventually shaded out as the trees establish.

New gorse sprouting from pruned branches
As a fuel it burns hot, and living gorse burns readily due to the high concentration of oil in its branches. This makes it a fuel for bushfires in southeastern Australia. Burning is not a useful means of management, as both heat from burning and hot weather encourage seedpods to pop and seed to disperse widely. Gorse seed can remain viable for as long as 70 years. It has some use as winter fodder during cold winters in Europe where it is native, and I have used its spiny branches as a fire starter. The Plants for a Future database indicates some uses for gorse such as soaking the seeds in water to use as a pesticide against fleas, and pickling the flower buds in vinegar to make a food reminiscent of capers. The flowers have a fragance of coconut oil and can be used to make gorse wine.

Gorse occupies an area of about 1000 square metres on our property of one hectare. The gorse forest was at least 15 years old when we turned up and was almost impenetrable as gorse is so prickly. The area it occupied was at the bottom edge of our property, far from the house and bounded by two neighbouring properties. We designated this area a permaculture zone 4/5, with potential development as a woodlot or wildlife zone. The land is fairly flat with some steep banks leading into a stormwater gully. This meant that it would be possible to get into most of the area with a tractor to slash the gorse back. Our management plan would begin with slashing, and we intended to promote competition by planting fast-growing and productive local indigenous species. In this way we could utilise the features of gorse that promote forest establishment, including their nitrogen fixing capacity, while providing competition and eventually shading them out once our trees and shrubs are established. We got our local machinery man on the job, with the instruction to try to maintain as much of the wattle and other plants that had self-established amongst the gorse.

Wattle emerging through the gorse
Slashing the gorse forest
We bought a couple of goats to graze some of the areas that we couldn't get to with the slasher, particularly the steep banks of the gully. The goats have been mildly successful at keeping the gorse down, but they tend to prefer eating other things when available. They have been most useful for eating back the new gorse shoots before planting occurs, but once new plants have gone in, the goats have to be kept out of the area. 

New plantings along edge of gully where gorse has been slashed
The steep banks of the erosion gully have also been cut back by hand. It was decided not to attempt to pull out gorse by the roots here, as they were doing a good job holding the soil to prevent erosion. After cutting back the branches, the banks were planted with prickly wattles, including Acacia verticillata (Prickly Moses), Acacia genistifolia (Spreading wattle) and Acacia paradoxa (Hedge wattle), to provide a similar habitat for native wildlife.

Where gorse has been slashed, deep mulch of gorse needles remains.
I've been regularly checking the progress of plants and keeping an eye on the gorse resprouting. Where the gorse has been slashed, the gorse needles are providing a thick layer of mulch for the new plants. There are some areas where gorse is vigorously resprouting from the root system and others where the plant seems to have been killed. During mid-winter as the ground was so damp, it was not too hard to pull up the entire root of some of the larger plants by hand. In spite of the long tap root, the plants would squelch quite easily up through the mud. I removed about three large plants this way, but began to regret it, as manual removal of the entire root system greatly disturbs the soil.

Where the root system was entirely pulled out, the soil is very disturbed.
Gorse has long tap roots. The length of root shown was entirely underground.

During Spring, Yorkshire fog, a pasture weed, came up everywhere that the gorse had been slashed. Rosemary Morrow describes Yorkshire Fog in the Earth User's Guide to Permaculture as being caused by increased light and ground disturbance after tree removal, which is indeed what we have done by slashing the gorse.
Yorkshire fog growing where the gorse was slashed.
It's evident that no matter how you approach it, gorse management is a long-term process. Having the large stems and branches slashed to ground level has allowed us to keep any new growth trimmed with the mowing attachment on our small tractor. Following advice for most weed infestations, we are following up the initial work by moving from areas of least to greatest infestation and beginning upstream in the gully and moving down. All the same, it's frightening to see how quickly some of those branches resprout. I'm interested to try soaking the seed for flea control for some of our animals but need to find further information on how to safely go about this. It's ironic that you can end up developing the closest relationships with the plants that cause you the most trouble. The crash course in local indigenous species has been most beneficial however and I'm glad to say that these are growing very well indeed.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Solar Cookers and Grass Roots Education at the Barefoot College

It's hard to believe that a year has passed since we visited the Barefoot College in Tiloniya, Rajasthan. Desperate to break off from the tourist trail, we travelled by bus from the Pushkar camel fair, onto a train from Ajmer to Kishangarh, then jumped into a jeep for the last leg to Tiloniya. Tiloniya is a tiny town, and the train stops only once a day. There is no problem finding the Barefoot College, especially if one of the residents has jumped off the jeep with you.

Set up in 1972 by Bunker Roy, the Barefoot College is a home-grown NGO with a beautiful philosophy and effective world-changing approaches. The barefoot concept was best summed up by resident, Ram Nivas, who told the story of the beginnings of the Barefoot College radio station. A local man, Raju, had discovered upon rewiring his transistor, that it was able to pick up the signal from his cb radio. Experimentation led him to set up a local radio station, Raju Radio, which featured local news, reports of missing water buffalo and musical requests from the community. When the media bureaucracy got wind of Raju Radio, operating without a licence, they shut him down. Raju now works at the Barefoot College radio station, in a studio lined with recycled egg cartons for soundproofing. He is the classic example of a Barefoot engineer, with minimal schooling, a head for innovation, using what he has available to create useful tools for his community.

Situated in the Rajasthan desert, Tiloniya receives an average of 400mm of rainfall annually, all of which falls in a period of four days. In the last few years they have received little more than 200mm annual rainfall. Across Rajasthan water issues are at crisis point. With years of drought, well water is increasingly brackish and the water table is rapidly sinking. Barefoot College is working on this in a number of capacities. The entire college is situated on underground water tanks which collect thousands of litres of water annually. This was the only place in India in which we drank the water directly from the well, with no further purification required. They are implementing education programs on rainwater harvesting in villages through puppet shows and theatre. The puppet workshop was a sight to be seen. There were puppets of animals, political figures, there was even a puppet of the founder, Bunker Roy in the mix.

One of the most impressive of their projects is the solar barefoot engineer program. While we visited, a group of women from African villages without electricity were spending six months training as solar engineers. They would return home to set up solar electricity workshops to run solar lanterns for their villages, with the capacity to wire and repair any part of the system that broke down. This is all funded and run by a home-grown NGO in India and it works. It works because the people setting up and maintaining the systems have both the skills and the interest to keep it going. Impressed yet? There are a number of other programs running across the College. A recycling workshop uses paper and other recycled materialss to create toys, tools and bags for the Barefoot College gift shop. I particularly liked this simple maths tool that was used in one of the evening school programs.

My favourite program by far at the Barefoot College was the manufacture of solar cookers. Three times a day I sampled the meals cooked with the solar cookers, experiencing the joy they created through sight, smell and taste along with an appreciation of their engineering. The solar cookers are constructed from materials that are readily available at the local marketplace. The mirrors are individually cut from glass and painted with reflective paint before being wired onto the frame. Recycled bike cogs are used to create a clockwork system that allows the cooker to follow the path of the sun from morning to night.

The parabolic shape of the cooker focuses the sun's energy onto the cooktop for cooking rice and stews in pots or frying in a pan. Every now and again I'd walk across the path of the focused rays, forgetting their power. Ouch, hot! Sensibly, the specifications for building these cookers was written to scale on the floor of the workshop, (see pic below right).

These cookers are manufactured for sale by women at the Barefoot College, creating both livelihood and an alternative to cooking using wood-burning stoves.

Not much food is grown locally, due to the dimishing rainfall in this area. All grey water at the Barefoot College is put into groundwater recharge, and the overflow from the well is channeled to a small pond for water buffalo. A local tree, Babul, which I later identified as Babul Acacia Nilotica also has medicinal properties. A very spiky tree, I saw the branches wrapped around trees in the college to protect them from grazing goats.

The Barefoot College also runs a small hospital which places great value in preventative homeopathic medicine and a shop selling handcrafts by local artisans. We heard a lot about Neem and its medicinal and dental uses. The Barefoot College provide accommodation and three meals a day, along with chai in the evening. There is a comprehensive library on site which is the perfect place to laze around on those hot Rajasthani afternoons. They'll show you around all their workshops and there is much cricket and fun to be had in the evenings if you seek it out. For 2000 rupees per person per night. See more at their website.

Babul branches protecting tree from goats

Thursday, October 14, 2010

APC10 - and the Atherton Tablelands Permaculture Bus Tour

Where do you usually have lunch? I pondered my regular lunchspot, an alternately frosty or dusty stoop off my front porch, while sipping on tropical fruit smoothies and snacking on flowers at the Botanical Ark. Three weeks ago in the wee hours of the morning, I flew into Cairns for the Tenth Australasian Permaculture Convergence. What followed was four jam-packed days of presentations, design processes and meeting the elders and newbies of the permacultural movement in Australia and overseas, set to the backdrop of tropical rainforest in Far North Queensland. Alternately inspired, exhausted and enthusiastically manic, I spent four days refining my introduction to strangers from "I run a permaculture consultancy business in Central Victoria", to leaping from from a haybale stating "I'm committed to excellence in integrating permaculture, literacy and numeracy, running workshops from my place and interactive theatre", during Robin Clayfield's Leaps of Faith session. I made good on the interactive theatre soon after, see below...

It's not easy to coherently write about all the mind flutterings that overtook me during the Convergence. I was regularly scribbling good ideas in my notebook as they came to mind. One idea, however, kept coming back to me, in the form of a permaculture principle, "Use edges and value the marginal". The people that I was most drawn to were working on the edges of permaculture, following their passions and integrating permaculture into the things that got them bouncing out of bed in the morning. From Cecilia Macaulay's balcony gardening and share house permaculture, to April Sampson-Kelly's online Permaculture Design Courses to the Garden at the End of the World, I got most inspiration from those people working through different media, in far-off places, or finding their own niche within the movement.

One of the major issues leading up to and during APC10 was the call for a national representative permaculture body for Australia. Robina McCurdy, Robin Clayfield and Rowe Morrow, some of the best facilitators I know of, ran a participatory workshop to develop a needs analysis for the nation. The results are posted here. I came away from the Convergence, disappointed that there wasn't more of this. At APC9 in Sydney in 2008, there was ample opportunity to participate in workshops. Rowe Morrow's Water Workshop had hundreds of people brainstorming solutions for water issues for a number of types of human settlements, including small towns, cities, country/urban fringe, drylands, etc. In all, at APC10, I spent too much time sitting on my backside watching powerpoints, a common problem with conferences, but from a permaculture convergence I expected more. The first opportunity I had to participate in a presentation saw me bouncing off the walls. I made a personal commitment that next convergence I will only attend if I also present a workshop.

APC9 Water workshop: Source unknown
I made good on an earlier personal commitment involving what I called, for want of a better term, 'interactive theatre'. I had decided before the convergence to take advantage of any future opportunities to facilitate dance events. The final night party of the Convergence was scheduled, with Costa, TV's gardening guru, as MC I put my hand up to run the Interpretive Permaculture Bush Dance. Loosely based around a traditional bush dance, with some permaculture principles thrown in for good measure, it culminated in a spiral of dancers being dragged into a vortex screaming, "This is so much fun!". Suffice to say, it went off, and I am now addicted to the power of telling people what to do on the dance floor.

Lastly, one of the most exciting features of a Permaculture convergence is the tour that inevitably follows. The APC10 post-convergence tour took us through dry savannah of Mareeba and back to the tropical paradise of the Atherton Tablelands. So many things I haven't seen before, eggplant trees, green ant highways and creative approaches to cracking coconuts (see below right).

My deepest gratitude goes to permaculture elders Rowe Morrow and Phil Gall for their graciousness and effusive generosity. It's always humbling to meet those for whom you have so much respect and for them to be willing and happy to give so much of their time. Further opportunities to rub elbows with heroes, Robina McCurdy and Robin Clayfield on the bus tour, sounds captured below.