Sunday, 31 January 2016

Nature play and the summer rains - storm watching, frogs and muddy puddles.

Summer in the subtropics is meant to be the wet season, but until today the rains have held off and soil has become so dry - even with all the mulch and organic matter.  Exciting muddy puddles have been few and far between.

I have watched from my verandah, in the rising humidity, as storms have formed then passed, waiting for the rains with great anticipation. A thunderstorm would form, but skirt around us leaving just a disappointingly few drops of rain - nothing to give the soil the good deep soak it needs.

Over the past couple of days, thick clouds have gathered on the hills across the valley and the sunsets have been spectacular. 
Finally today, the rain came.  It was a great day for frogs, and ducks, and .... mud-loving kids!

Two enormous green tree frogs were living in the door cavity of our car - an enormous surprise this morning.
"I love muddy puddles!"

The boys were too muddy to get to the bath - they needed to be hosed off first.  Thankfully when it's wet and muddy here it's also hot.

Up-cycling plant pots and homeschool photography

Sitting in a local cafe yesterday, my eyes were drawn to the interesting potted plants on the tables in their curious pots. The kids were so intrigued they started taking photos - even Monty.

Time to go and check out the second hand shops in town, and the shop at the rubbish tip to find some interesting vessels to repurpose. Although I think I might look around home first and in my kitchen cupboards. I'm sure there's plenty there - perhaps this can even help me in the process of decluttering.

The photographs the kids took of the pots could perhaps be the beginning of our homeschooling photographic project this term - to enlarge some images for our walls, and to gather a portfolio of images to submit into the junior photographic section of the Maleny Show. A couple of years ago both Maia (then aged 6) was awarded First Prize in the under 12s section for her picture of a peach farmer selling his wares at a farmers market in Paynesville Victoria. Hugh (then 4) was awarded a High Commendation for his B&W image of ropes and shackles on a yacht in Akaroa, NZ.

Monty's photograph of the interesting pots. He somehow found the setting for B&W which makes it look even better! Monty is 2 years old!

The colander pot - has the bonus of good drainage.
The boot pot. I have a few boots I can repurpose - my old ones have holes in the soles which will be good drainage too! 

Maia's close-up of the succulent.

Friday, 29 January 2016

'Live simply so that others may simply live'

'Live simply so that others may simply live.' 
“You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
Mahatma Gandhi

When I first came across these quotes from Gandhi as a teenager, they had a huge impact on me.

I have always considered the first saying to include other species, and the earth itself - that in order for other people and other species to live well and for life on earth to flourish, we all need to live more simply - to embrace voluntary simplicity.  The second quote compelled me to take responsibility for what changes I wanted to see - to live it, not just talk about.

Mahatma Gandhi - 'my life is my message'

Permaculture appeals to me because it is practical, about living simply and about designing with nature - aiming to create low-impact resilient communities that are in harmony with the natural world. However, in order to live with nature and design with nature, we need to understand how nature sustains life.

To explore how nature actually does sustain life, over the years I have explored Fritjof Capra's systems view of life. He has recently co-authored a text book on the subject and is now offering a 12 week online program which I have enrolled in to develop a deeper understanding of how life works. I am enthralled.

Fritjof Carpa -  scientist, educator, activist, and author. The focus of his education and activism is to to help build and nurture sustainable communities.  His thinking has been extremely influential on mine over the years -  I studied with him in 1992 and 2000 at Schumacher College in England.

Last night I listened to Fritjof Capra explain the systems view of evolution in part 4 of his course.  It changed my understanding of how life evolved - from what I had learned at school, from what is still taught in most schools of biology.

The first big change he highlighted, brought about by recent discoveries in microbiology, is that evolution is not just about random mutations followed by natural selection, as Darwin explained. There is a third way of evolution, one which Lyn Margulis  (1938 - 2011) describes as co-evolution or symbiosis of bacteria - things don't evolve in isolation, but together. 

Lynn Margulis has changed the way we think about evolution - that it is a creative process of co-evolution.

Margulis explains that in the world of bacteria, genes are exchanged so rapidly that it is actually difficult to identify the different species of bacteria. She suggests that bacteria actually forms one microscopic web of life across the whole planet - a global communications network that has been around for billions of years (well before the internet!). 

This process of co-evolution and has created all life's basic systems - fermentation, photosynthesis, nitrogen fixation, respiration...  Margulis says creativity is the new focus of evolutional theory.

Another key point Fritjof made was that human evolution is not just a physical, biological process, but that humans coevolved in social relationships and with technology. People's ability to cultivate good community and the use of tools determined their ability to survive - it is not just survival of the biologically fittest.

Also ancient cave and rock paintings from 30-40,000 years ago show amazing sophistication. This shows that art was part of human evolution from the beginning. From this, Fritjof explains that the emergence of modern human species is the emergence of the storyteller and artist - and that we cannot understand the evolution of humans without understanding art, language and culture. A purely scientific  explanation is insufficient - we need a whole systems view of life.

By Thoams T. ( [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Finally, Fritjof reminded us that we humans are the newcomers to the web of life and so we must respect life, and the rules and traditions of earth's household - oikos.... Live simply and lightly on the earth, live in harmony with nature.

To illustrate just how recently we have arrived, in Fritjof's lecture he referred to David Brower's* story of the history of life on the planet:

Our planet was formed as a fireball of molten lava around 4.5 billion years ago. The first cell formation, the beginning of life, took place 3.5 billion years ago.   
Imagine however, the Earth is just 6 days old: 
The beginning: Sunday midnight - Earth is created in the big bang. 
Day 2: Tuesday 8:00am - Life created (first bacterial cells) 
Day 4: Thursday midnight - the microcosm becomes fully established and now regulates the planetary system 
Day 5: Friday 4:00pm -  micro-organisms invent sexual reproduction 
Day 6:  Saturday - all life forms emerge
  • 1:30am - first marine animals
  • 9:30am - first plants on land
  • 11:30 am - insects and amphibians
  • 4:50 pm - great reptiles (die out by 9:45 pm)
  • 5:30 pm - mammals arrived
  • 7:15pm - birds evolved
  • 10:00pm - tree mammals evolve into first primates
  • 11:00pm - monkeys
  • 11:40m - great apes
  • 11:52pm - first Southern apes stand up and walk on 2 legs (disappear at 11:57)
  • 11:56 pm - first human species evolves (Homo habilis)
  • 11:56:30 pm -  Homo erectus
  • 11:59:30 pm - Homo sapiens
  • 11 seconds before midnight - the modern human species finally appears (and in Europe only 5 seconds before midnight)
  • Two thirds of a second before midnight - written human history begins.

David Brower founded Friends of the Earth, Earth Island Institute, was CEO of the Sierra Club from 1952 - 1969. He was instrumental in the passing of the Wilderness Act in 1964. He saved the Redwoods in California, stopped a dam in the Grand Canyon and was instrumental in 11 National Parks being created. Brower died in 2000, but the Brower Centre continues and houses some of California's leading environmental organisations including the Centre for Ecoliteracy.

“We don't inherit the earth from our ancestors, 
we borrow it from our children.”
David Brower

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Yarn bombing - colouring the streets with knitting and crochet

Yarn bombing's popularity has spread across the world over the past decade and reached our little town. Knitters and crocheters will take over Maleny from June 10-12 and the whole town will be yarn bombed.  This is part of the Yarn and Fibre Arts Festival of Maleny.  It's going to be amazing!

A couple of years ago at the Gippsland lakes I saw curious signposts covered in knitting, fence tops crocheted, trees with jumpers on, bicycle racks decorated - it was so colourful, so eclectic, so unusual - just wonderful. I had idea it was a global movement.

I am so delighted to learn that the yarners in Maleny have initiated this event. The only problem is I can sew, but I am a very slow knitter, and even slower at crochet.  Maia wants to join in, and I'd love to too.

To learn, we've decided to join the Yarn and Fibre Arts Group that meets at the local library every Thursday morning. Today was our first visit and Maia got started.

Here are some examples from around the world....

I have been noticing more and more referenced to knitted and crocheted facewashers and dishcloths.  So, as well as making pieces of bunting for Maleny, I am going to aim to make a whole set of cotton washers and cloths at home to replace any need for paper towelling or non-biodegradable wipes. Each time, I hope to refine my skills and techniques. There are so many free patterns online - and I'm sure the ladies at the fibre arts group will be able to show us lots of tricks. This is going to be fun.

It's really been a textiles kind of week. On Tuesday morning many of the community clubs in Maleny had an expo to showcase the projects and activities available to locals. This is where we met the yarn bombers, but also the Maleny Arts and Crafts Group. Unfortunately  they don't currently have any programs for children.  There'd be so so many children around here that would love all the types of making and creating they do - from pottery to spinning, to weaving, painting and more. I am hoping they may offer some sessions soon.  They were very encouraging of the kids and were very patient teaching Maia and Hugh how to spin.  I loved the portable version they had from New Zealand.

Hugh produced a really lovely length of yarn on this portable spinning wheel. 

 Maia really wants to get a couple of Alpacas. This week has been a great introduction to the kinds of skills she'll need to cultivate to use their wool.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Worm Towers - a quick and easy way to turn food waste into garden fertiliser - without digging or turning.

Australian's typically throw away 20% of the food they buy - that' one out of every 5 shopping bags full.  In one year, Australian's waste $8 billion of food. Sadly much of this food waste ends up in our bins. I was appalled to hear that up to 40% of our garbage bins are filled food.  The financial, social and environmental costs of this are high.

My boys are starting to get bigger now, so I don't often have leftovers at the dinner table.  Leftovers however don't ever go to waste - they are lunch the next day or incorporated somehow into the next dinner.  Every single scrap from my kitchen is in high demand. I separate the food scraps - some for the chooks, some for the compost and some for the worms.

There are lots of ways to easily process food scraps into compost, but the easiest way I know, for even the most squeamish and reluctant gardeners is, to turn the food scraps into fertile garden soil using a worm tower .

Compost worms are VIPs at our house  - turning food scraps into fabulous fertiliser - creating healthy soil, for healthy plants, and therefore for healthy food for the family.  

A simple worm tower is a pipe buried 400mm into the ground with holes drilled into the underground section for the worms to move through. The food is posted down the tube to them. A bonus is that the worms can retreat if it gets too hot.

The bonus of worm towers is that they don't require turning, digging, or actually any need for handling the worms and castings.  The worms process the scraps and take their casting directly to the roots of the plants.  A worm towers is a simple way improve fertility without double handling - the worms do the work where you need them to be.

I space my worm towers about 3 metres apart. They are excellent too in raised garden beds. It is important to put in a few handfuls of compost worms (blue, red, tiger worms) into the tower to really get the system powering.

Our three worms towers receive a bundle of food every couple of weeks. I always add a couple of handfuls of mulch or shredded paper on top to prevent flies, then replace the lid (an upturned pot).  I also regularly add in coffee grounds.

A newly installed worm tower.

The same worm tower many months later - working away silently in the middle of the garden.
Worm towers work well too in herb gardens
Some other ways to reduce food waste: 
  • check the cupboard before going shopping
  • use leftovers
  • keep a good list
  • don't shop when you're hungry
  • try not to cook too much

Monday, 25 January 2016

Quick and Easy Healthy Choc-Banana Cake

Homeschooling for 2016 started today. One of our first projects was to create some thank you and celebratory cakes.

To thank our neighbours for taking care of our chickens while we were on holidays, the children made a card and baked a cake. Hugh and Maia collaborated to create this recipe for an upside down choc-banana cake using the new tin Maia received at Christmas.

I think I turned it out too quickly and the top fell apart, so Maia suggested we ice it to cover up the cracks.  As soon as it was finished, the kids raced across the the neighbours with it - they we so delighted and impressed with the effort the kids had gone to to say thank you.  The kids felt so happy to do this too.

I turned the upside down choice-banana cake out too quickly.

Maia collected a lemon from the garden and made some icing to disguise the cracks - looks great!

The recipe is simple and quick and it uses the things I usually have available in the cupboard.

Hugh and Maia's Choc-Banana Cake Ingredients:
  • 2 eggs (from our chooks)
  • 2 local bananas 
  • 1/4 cup organic coconut oil
  • 1/3 cup raw organic cacao powder
  • 1 cup organic sunflower seeds - ground in the coffee grinder (almonds would also be nice)
  • 2 cups organic wholemeal SR flour
  • 1/3 cup raw honey
  • 1 tsp organic vanilla essence
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • organic milk - enough to make the consistency smooth
  1. Blend eggs, bananas, oil, honey, vanilla and cinnamon together in food processor.
  2. Add freshly ground sunflower seeds, flour and cacao and blend till smooth adding milk until the mixture is a cook cake consistency (not runny, not stiff).
  3. Bake at 170 fan forced oven setting for 30-40 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean.
The icing was a blend of the juice of 1 lemon, 1.5 cups of icing sugar, 2 tbsp coconut oil, water to blend, coconut to sprinkle on top.

While Hugh and Maia were baking the cake for the neighbours, we received a call confirming a big new project. The kids were looking for an excuse to bake a cake for us too - that was it.

The proud cake chefs with the cake they were about to enjoy for morning tea.

This cake came out perfectly. I waited a little longer, and it also didn't have the banana pieces in the bottom - phew!
It is a lovely and moist cake that we enjoyed for our morning tea celebration. No need for icing on this one.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Hardy summer plants

Since the start of January we have been away from our garden - at the Woodford Festival and visiting family interstate. Considering that over that time, the garden has not been watered and there has not been much rain, I am so impressed at how so many of the plants are just thriving.

The plants are thriving - my first job will be to manage that abundance.  My first attempt was trimming back some plants over the pathways - these cuttings I took to the children's workshop on Saturday.

Before I went on holidays, I added extra mulch and opened the soil a bit with a garden fork to allow moisture to percolate more easily.  In a previous post, Holiday Garden, I talked about how I prepared the garden. It worked.

I had hoped of course for a little bit more summer rain to help the salad seedlings to thrive - some have some haven't. Enough survived.

What also worked was the weed suppressing ability of my no-dig gardens.  I have very little weeding work to do after a month - mostly a bit of trimming around the paths and edges.  It's great!  Not having to weed saves a lot of time in the garden. Of course there's the odd weed that comes through, but these seem weakened and easy to pull out.  If you want to give it a try, I posted the instructions earlier this month - My Simple and Successful No-Dig Garden Method

Eggplant in the new no-dig garden area - hooray, no weeds!

Here are just some of the plants that are looking great after a month of no care and no watering. Building soil fertility, integrating water harvesting features, mulching very well and choosing hardy plants really do make a difference.

The spectacular flowering amaranth - very drought tolerant.

The structure of Brazilian Spinach prevents wilt.
The incredibly hardy Society Garlic growing here amongst the Brazilian Spinach.

Japanese Mint is thriving under the shade of the Navel Orange
The Lemonbalm is flourishing too in the semi-shaded positions.

The Lemon Myrtle has grown so well it needs a haircut.
I like to keep the new growth low where I can easily harvest it

Madagascar Bean - an immature pod. I wait until these are brown and dry, then harvest the lovely purple spotted dry bean inside the pod and use it like a lima bean.

The vine of the Madagascar Bean - so abundant it grew too heavy for the trellis.  This needs attention!

New pumpkins are emerging. That's good - I recently finished eating the last crop. These self seed. The vines are offering some nice young green leaves and flowers for dinner too (but not these female flowers).

Welsh Onion is such a hardy plant. It almost always is upstanding! This Welsh Onion plant I first started growing 23 years ago. I keep dividing and spreading it.  I have it all over the garden and have given away so many. In this spot, it is surrounded by parsley.

Pelargonium in the really really dry spot - I appreciate it's ability to grow in such harsh conditions.

Pigeon pea flourishes in the dry spots too. It has after all grown in India for over 3000 years and providing a dried pea that is used in dahl.

Red hibiscus spinach is starting to bush out nicely. I enjoyed this thoroughly in a stir fry tonight.

The Rosella bushes are coming along too - also a drought-hardy hibiscus. I am looking forward to making some rosella tea.

The Mexican tarragon is thriving. A lot of this will be going to a daylong herb workshop I am doing at Northey Street City Farm in a couple of weeks.

I am so impressed by this tuscan kale - it is perfect!  It's roots were covered with a lot of mulch. Another kale in spot that was too dry and had less mulch is almost all bug eaten. 

The hardy Peruvian ground apple - Yacon. The young leaves are edible while we wait for the root to form. In winter, the top will die back and we can harvest the sweet roots.

I am so keen to get in and start work, but I think it's really important first - before getting in with a flurry of activity - to stay in observation mode for a little while longer. I am assessing where the garden is - how all the plants are doing, how the system has evolved, what gaps are there, what problems are happening, what are the priority tasks, what new structures are needed, where could I put in my new herb crops, what needs changing, where will the children's new gardens go, where can they build their treehouse...

I love the process of keeping the design alive - evolving and adapting to the changing conditions and needs.

Happy gardening everyone!

Children's permaculture workshops

Leading children's permaculture workshops at the Mt Cootha Botanic Gardens was my adventure yesterday.

There was wonderful creative excitement as around 75 children parents and grandparents (in 2 sessions) explored the world of perennial permaculture plants and how to propagate them in their own handmade up-cycled and decorated mini-wicking garden beds.

We nibbled, smelt, felt and planted a range of interesting plants and explored the role they play in our food, our medicine and our garden system - chocolate mint, Japanese mint, Vietnamese mint,  Brazilian spinach, Red Hibiscus spinach, Mexican tarragon, cosmos, sacred basil, pelargonium, oregano, weeping rosemary and society garlic. The workshop room in the Botanic Gardens Library smelt incredible!

Red Hibiscus Spinach

The children made wicking pots from old 2 or 3 litre milk bottles and juice bottles and when we ran out of those we made some smaller temporary biodegradable pots from newspaper.  I''ll post soon with a full explanation about how to make these different pots.

Thanks to the library staff for organising and setting up, thanks to the parents for bringing their children and getting so involved in the session, and thanks of course to the children for being so amazingly enthusiastic about planting and sustainability.

 I love doing workshops for kids - just so much fun!  Every school holidays the Brisbane City Council supports me to offer free workshops for kids throughout libraries in the city.  During the year I also organise Nature Kids programs on the weekends to get out in nature to explore, learn and connect.

Here are just a few of the beautiful faces of the children and their creations yesterday.