Thursday, 31 December 2015

Slow School Holiday Fun - Seed Art

School holidays are a fabulous time to slow down with the children and enjoy simple arts and crafts, outdoor adventures, cooking together, making up games, telling stories and turning them into a play or puppet show, and so much more.

Here is a super easy idea...

Today we had a wonderful creative time leading a seed art workshop with children at the 2015/16 Woodford Festival.

I gathered a diversity of seeds - different colours, shapes, sizes and families, and chopped up a lot of my old boxes - I'm so pleased to see them turned into beautiful creations.

Maia getting started on her design.

The boys were so intense in their concentration - so wonderful to watch.

I encouraged all the children to create any picture they liked - to draw it first, then glue on the different coloured seeds using a paper funnel, gently shaking off the excess each time. Here are some of their creations and the children's descriptions...

"a big one-eyed monster ... grrrrr"

"a huge beautiful flower"

"a big tall tree"

"a fruit tree with love"

"a flower"

"for my door"
And one young girl worked so long with such focus to create this lovely new year's message.

Happy New Year!

Wishing you all the best for 2016.

Simple homemade natural fertiliser

Making a simple liquid fertiliser at home is a great way to maintain the fertility of the soil and directly feed the plants with a natural fertiliser that has readily accessible nutrients - easy for the plants to integrate. 

My favourite brew is comfrey tea.  Comfrey is a well-balanced natural fertiliser that really helps to boost plant health and vitality. All you need is comfrey, water and a bucket with a lid - that's it.

I grow comfrey, Symphytum officinale, in many parts of my garden - particularly around the chickens and compost systems, under fruit trees and around the edges of the garden.

Simple Comfrey Tea Method

This is the simplest method I know to make comfrey tea. I have a large barrel of it at home and encourage each of the community gardens and school gardens I work with to have one too.
  1. Harvest comfrey leaves and roughly chop (the smaller the piece, the more surface area and the more quickly the leaves break down)
  2. Place comfrey leaves in a large bucket or barrel with a fitted lid (often I use a large plastic garbage bin).
  3. Add water - just enough to cover the leaves (may need to put rock on leaves to keep under water).
  4. Stir regularly over next 6 weeks (keep a stake near the barrel).
  5. Water vegetables every week or two with this brew . I simply scoop a bucket in and fill a watering can with one part of comfrey tea to 10 parts of water.

Bubbling Liquid Fertiliser

When you first make the tea, you will notice that after a couple of days, bubbles will appear when you give it a stir indicating that the leaves are beginning to ferment. After a few weeks it can be used, but I prefer to leave it for six weeks before spreading it out - it will be stronger and will go further.  As different seasons and climatic regions have different timings for the fermentation of the leaves, I usually look instead at the change in colour - I like to wait for it to turns from a yellow/green colour to a brown colour. 

The key thing to know is that at the initial bubbly stage, the brew really stinks!  It is important - no, imperative - to have a tight-fitting lid. Both you and your neighbours will appreciate this. Don't worry, after the fermentation stops the smell diminishes.

Comfrey and weed tea fermenting in a large barrel above my vegetable garden.

Using a bag

Some people suggest putting the comfrey leaves in a hessian bag, stocking or something else that is permeable. This is particularly useful if you want to have a tap at the bottom - it prevents the tap from becoming clogged, although you could also install the tap several inches from the bottom (above the sludge line). Since I scoop my comfrey tea from the top I don't worry about the bag.

Adding weeds and other ingredients

In addition to comfrey there are many leaves from the garden that are beneficial to add for example yarrow, nettle and chickweed. 

I most often add weeds from the garden - plants with seeds I do not want to add to the compost. I love making all sorts of composts, but I am not a master composter who ensures my compost stays above 55 degrees celsius (130F), so it is likely that the seeds will still be viable and as the compost is spread out, the seeds will be redistributed through the garden. In the liquid fertiliser however, the fermentation process breaks down the seed, and the weed plant has been turned from a being part of the problem into being part of the solution. 

Using the comfrey tea sludge

As the comfrey liquid is drained off, an accumulation of leaf sludge remains at the bottom of the barrel. This is a great resource - for example, it is a compost activator, can be added as a soil activator in a no-dig garden, or dug into a trench below potatoes.

Liquid Fertiliser for Balconies and Small Yards

A small garden or balcony can make a mini-version to feed potted plants. Again, make sure the container has a highly fitting lid, like on a nappy bucket, to contain smell while it ferments. 

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Building an eco-cubby

We set a challenge today for kids at the Woodford Children's Festival to design and construct an eco-cubby that was big enough for three people, was structurally sound, provided protection from the sun and wind, and was beautifully decorated.  

Evan and I led this workshop as part of Nature Kids - an Ethos Foundation program we have developed. On Thursday I am offering another session at Woodford Festival - Arty Seeds, then back at Crystal Waters in February we'll be running a Nature Kids session called Design and Build an Ecovillage which we are really looking forward to.

Over 30 children attended the session today. Evan explained the challenge and explained the materials at their disposal. They had an equal set of large bamboos and could also access thin bamboos, banana leaves and fabric and other offcuts to help them create their designs.

Four teams of children worked cooperatively to create some wonderful cubbies - each unique.  They really did spend time discussing and testing the design of the structure to make it strong, and the bags of fabric, string and wood offcuts, and seed pods were completely scavenged.
The lean-to model against a large fallen log.
They were sure they could fit five kids in there.
The double-tripod method with decorative panels
Weaving walls for shelter using fabric offcuts and lightweight bamboo.
The tipee model with banana leaf walls.
Our kids helped with the cubby workshop, but also enjoyed the other wonderful opportunities within and beyond the Children's Festival today.
The annual Woodford Chess tournament took place this afternoon.
Dozens of children played with such focus playing 6 games over two hours
Meanwhile Monty finally was able to fulfil his painting craving.
...and once he started, there was no stopping!

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Maintaining a rainwater tank

We rely on tank water as our source of drinking water, so it is important to have a regular schedule of maintenance and care for this critical element in the design of our permaculture home system.  We drink, cook and shower in this clean unfiltered rain water.  

For laundry and gardening we have an allocation of water from the ecovillage's reticulated system drawn from two tributaries of the Mary River. We live in the very upper reaches of this river system.  

I aim to use as little of this river water as possible because I want to impact as least as possible on the natural ecological system. There are playtpus, the vulnerable Lungfish, the endangered Mary River Turtle and Australia's most endangered fish species, the Mary River Cod, living in these waters.

Kilcoy Creek bounds Crystal Waters and is a tributary of the Mary River. This is the source of half of the ecovillage's reticulated water. Everyone is expected to provide their own potable water from rainwaters tanks.
We have managed to reduce our household consumption of river water to about 10% of the standard use in the ecovillage - particularly through having a dry composting toilet and designing our edible garden to be less water dependent. Our main use currently is in the laundry.

I select species for my edible garden that I know can withstand dry spells, and I focus on building my soil's capacity to catch and store water.
We have three large tanks to collect as much water as we can - one on each of our main structures. Our capacity is around 50,000 litres. The highest tank is used by guests and WWOOFers (willing workers on organic farms), the middle tank is emergency water and for gravity feeding to the lower tank should we need it (never have yet!). 

Having several tanks also builds resilience into our system. The permaculture principle of multiple elements encourages us to incorporate several design elements to meet our basic needs (water is of course one of these). In our system for example, if one tank becomes contaminated, we still have ample fresh water to drink and implementing the permaculture principle of energy planning we have stored much water high up on the property so we could gravity feed to replenish the main tank.

Although we have had a few storms here in subtropical Queensland lately, the wet season has not really started. Usually by now we have had rain events that have filled our three large tanks to overflowing. Before the rains start it's really important to check that your tank system is in good order. 

Evan and Hugh checked up on our tanks the other day. Firstly they cleared off fallen leaves from the tank top and mesh sieve. They checked and cleared the gutters, leaf guards and downpipes of leaves. This is really important to do before a big rain, otherwise the downpipes can become clogged and all that lovely water cannot reach the tank.

Evan and Hugh check the water level of the main tank for our house.

I was impressed, even after a considerable dry time, our main house tank is still two thirds full, the top tank the same and the middle tank is untouched. You can feel where the level is without having to look into the tank. Simply by running your hand down the side of the tank you can feel the temperature change, or you can tap and listen for the change in sound from solid to echoing.  

A few good rains now is all it will take to refill our water supplies and keep us going for several more months. Part of our resilience strategy is to use as little as possible in the house, but also to clean what we use through our reedbed system and return it to the land. 

I'll write more about our reedbed system another day. I love it. It is so simple and effective yet so cheap, but also approved through the local council.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Making mini-wicking garden beds

This afternoon in the Children's Festival at Woodford Folk Festival, Maia and I led a Permaculture gardening workshop.  I am running these workshops as Ethos Kids - part of the Nature Kids program of the Ethos Foundation.

Today we up-cycled milk bottles to make mini-wicking beds to plant an array of edible and medicinal herbs and perennial vegetables. 

In the morning I freshly harvested Brazilian Spinach, Chocolate Mint, Japanese Mint, Sacred Basil, Aloe Vera, Pineapple Sage, Weeping Rosemary, Lavender, Choko, Garlic Chives, Tarragon, Pelargonium from my garden for the children to choose from.

We showed the children how to propagate these plants and discussed how to grow and use them. They mulched and watered them with worm tea too. The children (and some parents) each took away at least one decorated mini-wicking pot with multiple cuttings.

This is the method we used - very simple:
  1. cut the plastic milk bottle in half - 1L, 2L or 3L work fine.
  2. take the bottom half and poke a hole about 2-3cms from the base (overflow hole)
  3. fill this bottom section up to the hole with sand (the water reservoir)
  4. place the top section inside the base and fill with soil
  5. plant in the cuttings or seeds
  6. mulch
  7. water until the excess starts to come out of the hole (adding worm castings here helps to encourage strong initial growth)
The benefit of this mini-wicking system is that as the soil dries out and the plants get thirsty, the soil wicks water from the reservoir in the sand below. You only need to water these pots every few days, or when you notice the reservoir is dry. It is a great way to get cuttings going because there is less chance of the soil drying out. I have found it a very useful strategy in my nursery at home, because I often find I run out of time each day to get up and water, but in these pots they'll be fine for days!

Maia is such a fabulous workshop assistant. She ably helps other children creating these gardens and selecting plants. I am so proud of her, and so thankful for her help.

My lovely assistant - creating demonstrations to show the other children.
After our workshop we headed into the main festival site to climb some trees and listen to some great music, explore the amazing newly-installed sculptures, fossick in the streams and meet many old friends. We saw yoga on the green, street theatre, and much more. 

Listening to the music for a nearby venue from the comfort of a tree limb.
Fully pedestrianised streets are full of great stalls, food places and venues for music, dance, art and conversation.
This event is such a safe and friendly place for children, and so inspiring for them - musically, creatively and also intellectually. There are wonderful talks happening throughout the festival which we go listen to together. They always launch great dialogues in our household afterwards.

Look at that mummy! (An amazing bamboo structure up on the hill)
'Near Kin Kin' is a sculpture now permanently installed by Cave Urban at the Woodford Festival site. It was originally commissioned by City of Sydney and exhibited outside Customs House. 
Bamboo sculpture entrance.
From the centre of the structure looking up - at least 15 metres high.
The structure draws you to stand in the centre marvelling at it's amazing form.
Monty also loved the kids bamboo cubby. We'll be working with the kids to build mini-bamboo cubbies on Tuesday.
At major pathway intersection, the rock sculpture will be transformed over and over during the festival. People stop and add their own little bit. It was day one today so it still largely resembled a pile of rocks, but with sculptural elements emerging.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Woodford Festival Workshops

Woodford Festival just opened for the 30th year!! I feel so lucky to have this international festival just 25 minutes down the road. Every year we aim to be there to immerse ourselves and family in an amazing wealth of creative talent and be inspired.
This year, Evan and I will be leading 3 workshops in the Children's Festival as part of our community work through the Ethos Foundation. Come and say g'day if you are planning to be there. We are billed as Ethos Kids. This is the blurb from the festival brochure:
Morag and Evan are passionate permaculture people. Their focus is local food, ecovillages, community gardens and greening education, having taught permaculture in 20 countries.
  • SUN 27 DEC Big Ideas 3:30PM - Making a mini-wicking garden
  • TUE 29 DEC Far Out 2:30PM - Eco-cubby building
  • THUR 31 DEC Edge 1:20PM - Arty Seeds
This is the program description for our Mini Wicking Bed session tomorrow:

We spent the day preparing resources for our workshops and dropping them off at the site. We use local natural and recycled materials. 

We gathered bamboo for the cubbies from a friends garden at Crystal Waters, and I washed and prepared milk containers for the mini-wicking gardens. I've been collecting them from the community over the past few months. Tomorrow before I go I'll harvest and take in fresh herbs and perennial cuttings for the children to plant.
Evan carrying in the little bamboos for the children to decorate their cubbies.
Hugh was a great helper bringing in some of the bamboo for the eco-cubby workshop.
The giant turtle water mister will be a very popular spot in the heat tomorrow.

Our stash of materials tucked away for use in Ethos Kids sessions over the next few days.
The children were super excited to be at the festival site - the amazing spaces that have been created, and the musical vibe that is starting to hum, the gathering of new friends to be met and played with.
I love how the festival food stalls offer such great food - so many organic, fair trade, raw and healthy food options. The kids look forward to the summer fruit slushies - a welcome cool treat on hot festival days - in biodegradable cups with  biodegradable straws.
The paints and crafts are waiting for the kids - Monty wanted so much to delve in today.
Brightly coloured hand made decorations are everywhere. The whole festival site looks amazing.

Summer Harvest for Christmas Lunch

Thanks to my family for a delightful Christmas day here at our home playing in our permaculture garden. It was so relaxing and low-key.

We perhaps ate a little too much, but the food was so delicious, fresh and healthy and much of it directly harvested a few moments before we ate. I'm so pleased we created very little packaging with our shared meals today.

My christmas breakfast - Maia's jaboticaba jam on Les's choc-cherry sourdough with fruit...mmm
Evan's fruity face on rye, chia and cinnamon porridge
Sourdough pumpkin and choc-cherry bread

Breakfast platter
Collecting eggs for lunch

Evan's sisters help with the lunchtime harvest
A selection of ingredients for the eggy bake and salad.
I love collecting a leaf from this and a leaf from that. Our lunch bake included pumpkin leaf, red hibiscus spinach, brazilian spinach, comfrey, garlic chives, sorrel, vietnamese mint, perpetual spinach, kale, rosemary, thyme, oregano, parsley, sacred basil and asparagus

Hugh loves eggy bake, but with out the 'stuff' on top! I always make a special section just for his 'tongue-taste'.
The dairy free version also tasted delicious, I just added a few more herbs for extra flavour instead of cheese.
Maia's collection for the salad.
These little cherry tomatoes were bursting with flavour and had such great firm texture. They made this very simple salad. 
Sitting down to share our simple garden lunch, followed by Nanna's Christmas Pudding from her Nanna's traditional recipe.
The simplest home-made lemonade. Our own rainwater with bubbles and a splash of lemon juice from our tree.
Melting the beeswax for the salves.
Making personalised blends of the salves as Christmas presents. 
Hundreds of bright blue dragonflies hovered close to the water's surface and circled around us while we were testing out the kid's new kayak and row boat today on the lake below our house. 

The perfect end to a wonderful day - heading out to ride through the valley.
Maia reflected that she wanted Christmas everyday. Although she loves the gift-giving, she really just loved having everyone around.  Hugh was surprised at how much rubbish we created from even the simple and practical presents we shared. He suggested next year we only have one or two special unwrapped presents. I like his thinking.