Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Just a quick update on my bush orchard swales, dug recently. We received some rain so I was eager to check how the swales performed. The top swale above the native peanut tree, had the benefit of an overhanging tree branch, to collectively drip its water into the swale.

Upper swale

The lower swale underneath the same tree, collected water too. From both images I can tell it is definitely lower on one side, so the contour is not level. It is what I suspected as I was digging, but it was good to have it verified.

Lower swale

I would have dug deeper on the far side, except I had a few tree trunks that we chopped down getting in the way. I would have to chop away at them with an axe, which is not something I wanted to do. But I think these swales hold enough water, worth the exercise of digging them.

All that is left to do now is to mulch over the top and wait for the settling period. It will eventually even out on contour, when silt and debris fall into the lower spots.

There are more swales to be dug, but I'm happy with what I've done for now.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Another mattock mission

Something has bothered me since the 2011 floods, and this picture should sum it up quite vividly...

The Queensland floods impacted our yard

The area around the clothesline was enveloped with water and shot off around the chicken coop. I suspect this would have happened regardless, as there was just too much water for it to escape down the spoon drains we had provided. But it did help me to reassess what I had done to this area, to create such a bottleneck in the first place.

Just completed

I did this little project back in 2008. I had a lot of these hard-scape suburban solutions in the forefront of my mind, since we'd only lived on our property for 12 months. I wanted an attractive, yet functional area in which to hang my laundry. It certainly made it easier to keep the weeds in their place, but it failed in so many other ways because of it's singular design purpose.

Blocks sitting on crushed rock

Building a concrete barrier, which I thought would delineated my feet from water by elevating it above the spoon drain, really just increased the chances of erosion when the force of water was added. I had thought ever since, a new design was required. Something which would not deny the path of the flow of water,  but encourage holding some water back for moisture after the rain had passed.

Clothesline, on the right

So I removed the cement blocks recently, and used my trusty old mattock to create a very shallow swale. David cut some long grass recently, so I was able to collect grass and weeds (with seed heads) to sprinkle over the bare soil. Why did I want to propagate those pesky weeds for? Well, that is the only way I have seen the grass improve on our land. Grass grown with weeds, does far better through our dry spring, than the bare patches of grass alone. When the summer rains arrive, the grass overtakes any weeds growing around them, but when its not active growing season for grass, the weeds provide some shade over the grass roots.

I've learned to accept weeds provide a great service in the scheme of things, and by cutting them along with the grass, it keeps them under control in the areas I need them to be.

Different camera angle, looking up hill

When it came to finishing the swale however, I discovered I ran out of soil to level out the drop, so I resorted to using some old prunings to create a silt collector. With each rain event, the water will pass through, but drop silt and hopefully level out the area for me. I know this strategy already works with a little bridge which is nearby.

 Simple but effective

We call it our little bridge, but it's really just a plank! Essential though, to help us cross the spoon drain in the wet. Believe it or not, there was a large gap under the plank formerly. Being an obstacle to water however, it has gradually trapped silt and filled in the gap underneath. We actually had to dig the plank out of the silt after the floods, but hopefully we won't see that kind of deluge for a while.

A sprinkling of straw

I also sprinkled some straw over the swale, and hopefully the seeds from it will sprout too. We then placed our grey-water sprinkler nearby, to help all the seeds germinate. Hopefully by the end of the growing season, we'll have a lovely grassed area, designed to hold larger volumes of water.

Waiting for grass to grow

It looks a lot different to how it use to. A lot of permaculture design projects, tend to look a lot worse before they start to look natural and blend into the environment, as they were meant to.

You can still see some concrete blocks on the far right, which create a step down to the clothesline. I plan to remove them as well, because I want to mow all around the house with a manual, push mower. Those blocks get in the way of a strong stride, which is required to keep the manual blades spinning fast enough to cut the grass.

It's funny how your priorities change when you change your environment. If I can get grass to grow here, I can keep the area around the house cooler, plus feed our guinea pigs and the visiting wildlife. If I'm getting kangaroos through my garden on a regular basis, it means I'm doing something right. And I figure if the kangaroos are happy with the environment here, there's a chance the humans will find it a nice place to live too.

Friday, October 18, 2013

PERMACULTURE & PEAK OIL: Beyond 'Sustainability'

Here is the link to an interview with David Holmgrem I mentioned earlier. It sets the scene for my analysis of people with mobility issues, looking for solutions utilising permaculture, in an energy decreasing future. The interview goes for 25 minutes.

While the interview itself doesn't specifically deal with people with mobility issues, it does discuss the design process of recognising the means to proceed forwards. There is an emphasis on close networks which effectively cut out the "middle man" in today's economic model. In nature, conserving energy is efficient, so when something isn't necessary, nature will simply evolve without it.

Ironically, limitation is something people with mobility or developmental issues, have to negotiate on a daily basis. Their struggle is in part due to the fact, in today's society we run at a pace which is unsustainable in nature. It would never set individuals within a species to run so uniquely by themselves, let alone at such a frantic pace. Tapping into fossil energy, makes that possible for our species today.

But as the future generations have to start negotiating without that concentrated form of energy, it is perhaps best to start with those in our society who are adept at living within their limitations. They can teach us a lot. Not too surprisingly however, the "Middle Man" in our economic model has captured the market on those with mobility issues too. It has found ways to charge money to take care of them. In a fossil energy depleted future however, no one will be able to afford what it costs and our society will have a lot of people stuck in a helpless situation.

Thankfully, there are examples of individuals within a species, encountering mobility issues in nature too. They aren't discarded, they are merely amalgamated into the species and even inter-species relationships of survival. Pods of dolphins and herds of buffalo, as a whole, band together around the young, the pregnant and those who are the weakest. The strongest hold the outside, while the weak are pushed into the centre - and this is how the group survives as a whole. Alone, they can be picked off but banded together, it takes a lot more energy to take them down.

This is why I find it surprising (although understandable, as we're still in the early stages) why the permaculture design process, has developed a system which doesn't include specific weakness of our own species, at its fundamental core. It recognises care of people, care of the earth and fair share, at the core of the other twelve permaculture principles, yet I struggle to find any working models today, which incorporate those with disabilities into that new permanent culture.

Perhaps this is part of natures evolutionary process within our species, as we transcend into an energy depleted future though? It makes sense to send the strong and physically capable in to break new ground first. They can then hold the outside, as we send our more physically challenged into the centre. But how then, will those relationships look? We don't want a repeat of history, where women, children and the elderly are treated as second class citizens, while the strongest are glorified and given the most rights.

Raising this subject today, is mostly about engaging the conversation - getting it out there into our thoughts. Because we've been fed by the economic middle men for so long, we've forgotten our responsibility to those who need the centre of our group the most. As a whole, in our new energy depleted future, we will need each other. This includes the most weakest. Because if we cannot take care of them, the strongest will be left to fight it out amongst each other. That is rarely an efficient use of energy and bodes poorly for survival of a species as a whole.

So contemplate if you haven't already been forced to, what your future would suddenly look like if a weak member (or a few) suddenly entered your life. What would you have to change, being more able-bodied, or perhaps used to a certain luxury of time to enjoy your leisure activities? Things would have to change, otherwise you risk endangering your own survival. This is what an energy depleted future will look like. We are going to have to change how we relate to others, in order to survive as a whole.

I notice in many of the permaculture models we have working well today, it concentrates on animals helping us to maintain a healthy environment, and potentially reducing our workload. Of course the emphasis is on "healthy" animals. This is great if you're consuming them, because they should be healthy to get the maximum benefit. But I'm concerned that we're placing too much emphasis on being capable 100% in our human counterparts too.

As we step down from fossil hungry, to a fossil reduced society, we're initially going to have an imbalance of slightly more incapable people. I don't mean those able-bodied people who never learned how to grow their own food, but rather, those billions of people who make up the statics of illnesses which are dominating our society today. We will need to find a respectable place for them.

If we don't start the conversation on that front, we'll be caught in a future where the economic middle man, suddenly drops the sick and incapable. What if they were one of your loved ones, or that of someone you knew? If you have abilities, shouldn't they be put to more use than simply putting food on your own table today?

I know every time I'm out in the garden, digging a swale or planting a tree, these activities count more than just for me. They will touch some other living creature in due course - be that flora, fauna or a generation of people I will never meet. And yet I don't talk about that. I talk about me, "doing" an activity. That's all well and good, but I'm starting to notice the absence of a bigger picture in my frame of reference. And I wonder if this is something we have to be aware of, in our future societies conversations. What we talk about the most, will be adopted as mainstream practice.

Having the notion of care of the earth, care of people and fair share is wonderful in theory, but we have to start practicing it, as if it means our very survival. Because sometime in the future, it will.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Outside of paradise

Country living

It's the ultimate dream - move to the country, keep a few animals and live closer to nature. There is nothing wrong with having a dream, it's just a little different when you have to actually live it! That's when you learn all the details you never knew existed before.

Enter our five acres we've affectionately dubbed, Gully Grove. This was our dream we chose to pursue, and it has given us so many opportunities we wouldn't have experienced in suburbia. But we did have to move further away from essential services, like hospitals, dentists and mechanics. It's manageable for us while we have our health, but it would be a different matter if one of us got seriously ill or needed a lot of specialist treatment.

I've been noticing a trend in many of the blogs and websites I read, which espouse a more simplified approach to living and ways to go about it. Very little is written from the perspective of those with health challenges or outright physical disabilities. And why would you write about it, if disability isn't something which has touched your life?

Wall building ~ 2008

One particular blog I read occasionally though, announced they were starting to write a book about a future with little of today's luxuries - they wrote things like medicine will become less available, but not to panic as there are ways of coping. As someone who requires daily artificial insulin, in order to live, I thought that statement about medicine a little naive. It does become a big deal when its not optional. It's not something you can address with finding substitutes in nature, making by hand or simply learning to do without.

I started to contemplate much of the thought-provoking material I like to read on a regular basis, and it suddenly dawned on me, how much of it presumes you are able-bodied. While I have my health, I can be empowered by reading such material. I can go about my property, digging swales, planting edibles and providing a more simple life for our family. What happens if you're not able bodied though?

I guess I'm wondering where the living simply material is, for those with health challenges? Or indeed, where is the material for anyone who has come a cropper with their life circumstances, which forces them to deviate from living simply.

Earthworks by hand

My reality on our five acres, is that it's a lot of hard work. I like the work, as it suits my driven nature. But given a different set of circumstances which didn't allow me to negotiate those available options today, what would I do in that diminished capacity? I would want to do something of equal merit, even if it did look enormously different!

If you know of any such material out there, please point me to it. I would love to read about a simple living future, where we include those with disabilities and diminished capacities. How will they participate in a diminished energy future?

Friday, October 11, 2013

Handmade swales

This time of year is traditionally the driest for our area. Winter is gone and Spring is warming the days nicely. Before our crucial summer storm season arrives however, we can have up to a month of hot, dry and windy conditions. It's terrible on the soil and we don't have extra water to go around. So the answer has to be swales...

Native peanut tree planted 2 years ago

I started to dig a long, shallow trench by hand yesterday, with a mattock and rake. While it's incredibly slow and hard work, there is little chance for mistakes to be made. I gently chisel away at the earth until a shelf is formed to catch the rainwater when it does arrive. It's the basic cut and fill principal, but the shape of the swale has to run exactly on contour, or it will drain water down hill again, rather than capture and hold it - which is what we're aiming for.

This is just the first swale I've dug for this area...I plan at least two more.

North facing slope receives full sun - picture taken in AM

Above, is what the slope looks like without swales. It gives perfect drainage, which means a lot of "constant" water is required to keep this area moist - not present at the moment. The poor plants I've been attempting to grow, always struggle during this period. With the implementation of regular swales down the slope however, it will prolong the natural irrigation it does receive with each rain event.

The swale plan is this..

Earthworks are carbon friendly, as they're dug by hand

It may take a while to dig by hand, but the best part is free labour with no associated fuel costs. Unless food counts - but I was planning on eating anyway. I've noticed the cut and fill on contour, makes for navigating the slopes a lot easier too. This will be very handy the older we get! David has already killed two domestic mowers in six years, cutting the grass on these unforgiving inclines. Hopefully we'll be able to put in more trees (this is our bush-tucker area) so the canopy shade will gradually out-compete the grass.

One of the complimentary ideas with swales is planting trees below them, so they'll be fed nutrients and watered from the swale above. It's kind of like an irrigation pipe made out of sculpted earth. No plastic hoses or extra water tanks required. That makes my bank account, much happier!

It just goes to show that even when you do have slopes, they can be tamed. Not only is it good for the owners, but it's also sensible land management - giving nature a helping hand along the way. All you need is some hand tools, a basic plan and a little (okay, a lot!) of sweat.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Operation: downpipe

When you're not connected to town water supply, rainwater tanks mean everything. We only have a single 5,400 gallon tank, so every little drop counts. Cracked downpipes are not welcome here, but we have been living with several over the years. The problem really began 6 years ago, when the original plumber first fitted our house to the rainwater tank.

Click to enlarge

On a cut and fill site, the ground has to settle on the fill side. If it's not given a flexible join at ground level, the downpipes can crack. Just look at the picture above. This is cracked downpipe number three, on the fill side. The problem is the concrete footing which the pvc pipe just snapped on, as the ground settled. Of course, it took a savvy local plumber to explain exactly what we needed...

Smart plumbing design, but ignore the grass

Here is the pipe he fixed a few years ago. It was actually the first pipe to crack and the one we were to learn how the rest of the pipes on the fill side should go. The savvy plumber explained how you needed the 90mm downpipe, to sit in the 100mm ground pipe, with a couple of 'O' rings which can handle a gradually settling ground. He even asked us to jack-hammer the excess footing away, so we knew a little about the process under ground too.

Rubber 'O' rings

That is why we felt confident enough to fix our latest downpipe casualty. I'm writing this post because I did a lot of research on plumbing for Australian consumers, and didn't find enough detail about specific parts. There were plenty for the US, but we have a vastly different system here. I wanted to know what products to look for at the hardware store, so I hope this post helps someone else out there!

First things first though, you have to be prepared for delays and potential trips back to the hardware store, if the joints underground aren't exactly what you need. It took us six days to complete, from start to finish. David broke ground on Thursday morning, opening about a metre of ground around the pipe.

It's impossible to get a picture in focus~ 
when the jack-hammer and operator are constantly vibrating

Later that afternoon (as he had a few things to do in town) he started jack-hammering the concrete footing. Don't worry about the foundations of the house - this was just the overhang. It needed to go, so it wouldn't interfere with the new pipes we were going to install. And here are the types of downpipe for most common plumbing situations....

PVC downpipes

The inner PVC pipe is 90mm (in diametre) and the outer is 100mm. The larger pipe sits under ground, so needs to cope with the weight of soil on top. What makes these two pipes sit together and be completely watertight, are two strategically placed 'O' rings. You'll see the image on the label below, describe the fixture a little better. They are like the ligaments which allow the rigid pvc pipes to move without cracking.

Click to see diagram

Next comes the joints, The ones above ground were two, 90 degree elbows to fit the 90mm downpipe, but you need a M/F and a F/F. What that basically means is, one male (M) to female (F) fitting, plus one female (F) to female (F) fitting. You need this configuration to make the lovely swan neck join.

90mm joints - M/F and F/F

Below ground, you will need as many joints required to get the horizontal ground pipe, as close to the vertical downpipe, as possible. Our plan was to go with a straight 100mm joint, to give us that little extra distance we needed underground, but at the last minute decided to try a 45 degree joint instead. It was to see if we could get better alignment with the verandah post, but it turned out to be a negligible difference, so stuck with the straight joint we originally planned. See below...

100mm joints, straight and 90 degree elbow
These rigid joints do not move, but connect long sections of PVC pipes

We were delayed an extra day because of purchasing extra joints. Thankfully the weather was with us for 95% of the time. On Saturday morning however, we were woken at 4 am by a crack of thunder. We heard the rain on the roof and ran outside in our PJ's, to roughly cobbled together some weather proofing.

Tarp held down with concrete off-cuts

We had a piece of tin we placed over the hole, to stop the tarp on top, from caving if too much water pooled. But it was really the cracked pipe which caused the most concern. Thankfully, with the concrete footing chipped away, we had clearance to run a roll of gaff tape around the cracked pipe.

Gaff tape to the rescue! Not much water got through

Underneath the gaff tape is a plastic bin liner, which we also wrapped around the crack first. By the afternoon, when the rain went away, there was minimal leakage in the pit. We were fortunate it wasn't heavy rain, as the crude cover would not have withstood the pressure. With that minor emergency over however, we began the fitting process the next day.

Can we fix it? Yes...we can!

We started by running a garden hose as far as it would go down the pipe, to siphon off any water underground. It got most of it out, but it still required a little extra draining with the encouragement of a wet rag - once we cut down to the ground level pipes. David had to bash away at the concrete footing with a metal mallet most of the day, because we had returned the jack-hammer previously, but still needed to go back an extra inch. See where all the time goes! David did some measuring and cutting of the pipes, but we ran out of daylight again and it looked like we wouldn't be finished.

 What it looked like underground, before we fitted new pipes

Sadly I didn't get any pictures of the pipe fitting process, which was a real shame. We were waiting for another day David had free to start again, but he had a full work roster. Then a late thunderstorm warning came on Tuesday, so I made an executive decision to get it finished that day. All the physical work had been done by David until that point. But we were now looking at a pit full of water, if that thunderstorm came our way.

Thankfully Peter (with a little help from his big sister) let me do what I needed to, so that it was finished by Tuesday - 6 days after breaking ground.

Ready for the rain now

Not a bad job, if I do say so myself. It still needs a little clean up but the best part now is no more worrying about leaking pipes, every time it rains. We didn't get that thunderstorm after all, but it sure put the emphasis on getting it done! A few points I wanted to raise about DIY plumbing however, and I think it's fairly obvious by what I've already written. Plumbers get paid to devote their time to fixing pipes fast! If you need a job done fast, call a plumber.

David and I wanted to do this job as a learning exercise, so we'd know a little more about plumbing. We'd definitely call a plumber if we didn't have the schedule to commit to such an undertaking again. It's a massive job opening up the ground and messing with chemicals to fit the pipes. We seriously underestimated what it would take. On that note, I wanted to give a few pointers on fixing pipes:

1. Dry fit the pipes first (no PVC cement or primer)
2. Mark in black, both sides of pipes and corresponding joints so they meet perfectly when refitted

3. Make directional arrows so you know which way the pipes (and joints) face
3. Always start joining pipes, from the bottom, upwards
4. Apply primer with a single even coat, but give two generous coats of PVC cement
5. Apply primer and cement to both the joint and the pipe before fitting
6. When fitting, leave about 1cm between alignment markings, then push and twist to match up

Don't forget to push down at the same time as twisting

7. Youtube is your friend when it comes to video tutorials

I wish I was able to take photos of the finished pipes underground, as it was so visually instructional. I had plans to, but then needed every precious second without baby to get it done. I only had to leave "the pit" about three times to attend to Peter that day. Remarkably, on the final push, he cried right on cue as I finished sweeping the verandah!

I'm not so stressed about the approaching storm season now. It's a relief to have a flexible pipe that can now move (without cracking) as the ground settles. Booyah! Some times you win.