Thursday, January 21, 2010

The crunch year of 2010

Christmas presents from my family - which I adore

It's coming up to Australia Day soon, which means two things! It's nearly the end of January already - crikey, where has it gone - and school starts back, the day afterwards.

For us this year however, we won't be returning to school as we know it. Although I must confess to being extremely undecided in the last few weeks. I've been tossing and turning over our decision to home school - in fact, it wasn't too late to enroll in a public school. To this end, I started researching other schools in our district and then looked at the on-line bookstore, which has many school lists for the various schools. I normally purchased school books for her previous school, through this on-line store.

I did something different however, I decided to look at what other schools were putting down as relevant text books and materials for grade 2. Some had calculators - others didn't. Some had maths, spelling and writing texts - others didn't. Some had a combination between the two ends of the spectrum. It then dawned on me, if every school does it differently - what was I so afraid of?

To start with, I'm going to buy some of the recommended texts for maths, spelling and writing - then gradually work our way through it. Dave will be in charge of excursions - which he's enthusiastically accepted! I'll let him know the themes of what we'll be studying, and he can organise and implement excursions around those themes.

Many of the outings, we'll go as a family, but sometimes if I feel like a break, the two of them can attend on their own. Excursions will be planned on Dave's rostered days off from work.

But also this year, is our "no spend" year. Wondering how that's been going? Well, there has been many surprises I wasn't expecting. So far, we've been really strict on not spending. We've decided to ditch the pocket-money idea, as we felt this was kind of cheating. And the harsh reality of NOT SPENDING is rearing itself in many interesting and unexpected ways.

For example, I always thought I didn't spend money. I was the one who could go weeks without spending one cent on myself. My purse could be empty and I'd only take what money I needed to pay for essentials. So I figured not spending was going to be easy for me, right?


I was spending money - only in ways I didn't truly appreciate at first. Every chicken coop project, every trellis, every fruit tree - stuff we would buy to maintain the property - that's where my consumeristic habits were hiding!! I've only just realised it, after three weeks into our no spend year.

Laugh if you will, nod in agreement if you recognised it before me - but it's really serious how physical a consumeristic desire can show itself. I was getting really anxious, pacing around the house for something to do - looking at everything which wasn't done yet, and my "to-do" list was growing longer with each passing day. I WAS starting to feel unhappy. I WAS feeling like I hadn't achieved anything.

More unfortunately (or fortunately) our regular ABC channels were losing reception lately. So we had to defer to commercial channels, to watch some children's shows. After a few days, I started to realise what those little advertisements were doing. They were feeding my sense of anxiousness even further. I thought I was fairly clever when it came to advertising campaigns. They wouldn't fool me. I'm too smart for them!

But the point is, you don't have to believe in what they're advertising. You just have to doubt what it is you're doing, long enough, so you'll go out and buy something to appease it. Of course, no spending means exactly that. I had a very valuable lesson in how much of a consumer I still was. Or more to the point, how quickly I could doubt myself and my abilities.

On the expenses front, we've had a few unexpected bills arrive. A dentist for Dave's teeth, for example. We pay cash, as we don't have health cover. It's not just a one-off bill though. Dave's in for several trips to the dentist this year. In his mid 30's, some of his original fillings received as a youngster, are starting to decay. They need replacing.

We anticipate at least $2,000 minimum at the dentist, this year. And that's just for Dave! I'm sure I'm due for a visit soon. I've only got two fillings, but I'm sure there's room for more. I just don't visit the dentist enough, for them to be found. No pain in my teeth is a good sign, and I brush daily. Still, I can see both of us going through at least $4,000 at the dentist. Which should do us for another 20 years, before our next service, LOL.

So welcome to the crunch year of 2010, folks. It's now getting very serious.

Monday, January 11, 2010


I read a blog entry from Sonya about permaculture recently, and it made me think it's probably time to share my relationship with permaculture. In the beginning, I thought it was just another way to market books and sell plants at nurseries. In truth though, it was probably just confusing information (to me) because it dealt specifically through "relationships" to systems.

I've been reading more about permaculture over the past few years, and I can now understand why it was so confusing to begin with. In our culture, we're told something is either true or false. We propogate absolutisms in other words. Permaculture however, asks you to consider how you relate to people, places and natural systems - then design an approach which will utilise as much as possible, with minimum waste and effort.

Our culture = absolutism.

Permaculture = observe and interact. So it's a more fluid approach.

I think I had to be ready to use permaculture, it's not something you can buy as a mindset to adopt "as is". That's because it will change with every different application. What will work on my property, for example, may not work for the person next door. The contours of the land will be different, the structure of the soil will be different too - but most importantly, the people will be different. So of course, permaculture must be fluid in order to work.

That's the part I didn't really get. Permaculture asked me to observe and interact in a culture that constantly "set" parameters of understanding. So if you're struggling to understand what permaculture is, drop any preconceptions of what you think it is. Read more about it, continually question and try practicing some of the applications. Then whatever you reap from it, is the practice of permaculture.

I started with skepticism and have gradually worked my way through to practicing what I have come to understand permaculture is. I'm sure my understanding will evolve further too.

For example, I'm constantly intrigued by the material David Holgrem puts into the public arena for discussion. In particular was a paper called, Bushfire Resilient Communities & Landscapes, which talks about the approach Australia has traditionally taken towards bushfire reduction. Rather than the slash and burn approach to reduce the potential fuel load of a bushfire, he proposes we focus on greening the fuel load instead. The wetter the soil and plants are, the harder it will be for them to burn. Trees will also act as a windbreak to slow the movement of embers in high winds.

It's quite a radical concept to use the potential fuel load to slow bushfires down instead. Bear in mind, this was a paper written specifically for the region David Holgrem resides in, and a region specific analysis should be adopted for different locations.

The more I read and practice the permaculture principles however, the more I respect how it mimics nature. For where nature produces the problem, it also produces the solution - if we care to observe and interact outside our cultural definition of life.

For more detailed information on what the permaculture principles are, click here. My favourite is the first principle, observe and interact. For this is what makes the other eleven principles possible. Other free downloads to do with permaculture, click here too. Flywire House is particularly interesting if you live in a bushfire prone area.

Lastly, I cannot talk about permaculture and not link to the writings and persentations of David Holgrem. Explore the linkbar menus, especially the "Writings" button. If you live in the burbs, you may find, Retrofitting the Suburbs for Sustainability an interesting read too.

Happy reading and experimenting!

Sunday, January 10, 2010


We have been digging swales in the place of our original narrow trenches, at the front of our property. These trenches proved too small to deal with the heavy loads of rain we were receiving with summer storms. They would overflow quickly and send gushes of water towards the house.

So we decided to make large, wide trenches instead. Or in permiculture terms, we're incorporating swales.

Below, we began to widen the trenches which run between the compost bins and the back of Hilltop chicken coop. They still need more work, but it's a start. In the picture, you can also see the expanse of land we still have to dig the swale into. Dead ahead Captain!

This will help divert rainwater that comes down from the road and our driveway - but we're also going to be planting an orchard in this area. Fenced off, we should be able to run the chickens from Hilltop to freerange for insects and fallen fruit. To make use of the passing swales we've dug a small (shallow) pond for two recently planted pear trees.

The pond still has water in it 3 days after a significant rain event. Compost we've dug under the pear trees have sprouted yet more volunteer vines - tomatoes and borrage too. We still have to broaden the trench in the lower corner of this photo, plus extend the trench towards our white driveway in the background.

I'm hoping to get grass to grow in the swales eventually to reduce soil erosion further. The other essential part to this strategy though, is vegetation. Without adequate roots to suck-up the moisture, we're only losing nutrients and a good water source.

With all our projects around here the swale and orchard will take time to complete. Not just the hard physical yards, but the time for plants to grow as well. It's actually quite difficult to draw strength from what you're endeavouring to do - knowing it will be at least 12 months before you get to see if it's working or not.

Time seems to pass regardless, so we'll endeavour to do our best. Hopefully it will all come together as a working system.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The great shading experiment

To refresh my memory, here is a picture taken of the trellis erected on the western side of the house.

The sole intention behind this trellis was to shade it from the harsh western sun. It was heating up the house, even with a 1.8 metre verandah around it. You can see from the image above, how far the sun actually comes in under the verandah. The concrete is acting as a heat sink if anything. Great in winter - terrible in summer!

After much trial and error with the luffa seeds though, we finally got them to start covering the trellis.

I think I'll put it down to a false spring, which prevented the germination of the seeds originally. False spring, meaning we got warm temps during the day but night-time temperatures still dropped low enough to chill the seeds again. Luffa seeds only germinate in temperatures around 20 degrees Celsius, consistently.

But how did it achieve at shading the western side of the house after all? See for yourself...

This picture was taken at approximately 1.30pm, yesterday afternoon. Clearly, the sun is still getting through to the verandah. I have noticed a slight change in temperature however, but only when a breeze passes through the leaves. Perhaps even the shaded and moist bed itself, is acting to reduce the heat the concrete absorbs initially?

From the above picture though, it's clear that I need an overhead trellis (or pergola) to do the kind of job I'm after.

Now this brings up another two important questions. Firstly, do I risk growing a vine from the ground which contacts the roof, in a termite prone area? Secondly, do I risk an increased fire risk which contacts with the roof, in a fire sensitive area?

Either option doesn't seem like a safe risk, so I'm in a bit of a conundrum at the moment. What strategy do I try next?

Lattice attached directly to the verandah posts - without contacting the ground, does seem like a better option. But then again, it won't be easily moved in winter to allow the sun in, and made of either wood or plastic, it still becomes a fire hazard attached to the house.

Lay your ideas on me people. I'm ready for any suggestions...

Friday, January 8, 2010

Summer garden update 2010

Wow, it's the second week of January already, and it's amazing what a bit of rain does for the garden. While we missed out on the Spring rains after our traditional dry winter, they certainly came back with a vengeance at Christmas time! It will be our third year here, and we're just coming to grips with how the weather patterns work.

Summer is our monsoon season in South-East Queensland. Lots of storms with deluges of rain! For us it presents a particular problem with soil erosion, but we're developing strategies to minimise it. On the garden front though, we're cultivating an increasing jungle!

This picture of our veggie patch, was taken from above (near Hilltop chicken coop):

It's a tangle of pumpkin, watermelon, rockmelon, zucchini, sweet potato, corn, beans and sunflowers! I didn't really plan how things went in, as our design is constantly evolving. We did manage to grow some sweet corn cobs, but something ate it before we could! Oh well, the chooks loved the leftovers.

Speaking about Hilltop chicken coop though...

Some volunteer pumpkin vines from the compost have taken over! It's creating a cooling effect around the coop, along with the shade-cloth I was given recently, which covers the exposed areas of the run. I have another choko vine to plant here, and I hope with the pumpkin vines for protection this time, it will end up growing. Maybe by next summer, I'll have a choko covered run instead?

At the moment though, many of our retaining walls are being covered by vines!

In the background are the watermelon vines and in the foreground are the rockmelons. I hope by the end of summer, we have some yummy fruit to eat. The sunflowers are always a bonus! These were planted from the sunflowers I grew last year. They always add such a lovely splash of colour in the garden.

And finally, to show what a bit of rain does to a garden - here's an earlier picture taken in Winter/Spring. We hadn't planted out the batter of our newly constructed wall, but you can see the veggie patch in the background.

And here is the same perspective a few months later!

See how everything seems to green up! Yes, we have even MORE rockmelon (or watermelon) vines which sprang up voluntarily from our compost. There's a persimmon tree in that tangle of vines, planted on top of a mound - where the compost was used. Thankfully, we've managed to plant extra trees this year: a black mulberry, astringent persimmon, 2 pears, avocado (fuerte) and a kumquat and pummelo tree to go in soon. Just trying to find the right space to plant it!

We've identified several problems this year however, which need addressing in our garden.

1. We need to mulch all areas of exposed soil, whether we are finished moving dirt or not. It's a strategy to reduce erosion by improving the structure of the soil. Moist mulch allows for increased microbial activity, where exposed, compacted soil only repels moisture.

2. Digging swales and a series of small ponds to slow down the flow of water. In addition we're planting trees close to these water stores to soak up moisture. We've already started digging the swales by hand, as the summer storms have enforced the need for better run-off strategies.

3. Integrating animals into our planting systems. These most obviously are our chooks, but recently our daughter also received some guinea pigs as a Christmas present. Our neighbours also have goats which we can share our "weeds" and overgrown grass with. This requires fencing however, something we need to work on this year.

Anyway, more on the garden in my next post. I want to share how my luffa trellis went.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Striated pardalote

I'm bringing back an old post of mine, regarding a burrowing bird we had visit our fly-screen one day. A reader (Hi Sue) asked recently if I ever found out the name of this interesting little bird. Ironically, I was given the answer by email a long time ago, but promptly failed to update the entry.

Naughty I know, but all is fixed now. Many thanks to the person who did provide me with the answer all that time ago.

As way of helping Sue with her research, I thought I'd link to some interesting facts about the Striated Pardalote (Pardalotus striatus, in Latin). It has a beautiful call and it's nesting habits have interrupted many a retaining wall project here. But as this gorgeous native bird is an insect eater, it's always welcome in our veggie garden.

This is what Wikipedia had to say. And follow what Birds in Backyards bird finder had to say.

Thanks for your patience Sue.