Fifty plants now in around Lewisham Station

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A pile of seedlings and tube stock, all going well.
A growing collection of seedlings and tube stock, all going well.

Since my early native plantings around Lewisham Station, I’ve been steadily adding to the collection, mostly by planting a few of my hand-raised cuttings each weekend.

I’ve now reached the milestone of fifty plants. These are planted closely together — typically about 30cms apart — to create a dense “bush pocket” effect.

While that might seem like a crazy amount of over-planting, it’s all to a plan:

  • At the back of the strip, a canopy of small trees, including acacias (wattles) and callistomons (bottle brushes).
  • A mid story of native bushes, including westringias (native rosemary), correas (native fuchsia)  and prostantheras (mint bushes).
  • A bottom story of strap-leaf plants at the front of the strip, and a mix of hardy groundcovers throughout the rest.

I reckon there may be 30-50 more plants required to fill it all out, but I’ll continue the slow-and-steady approach.

So far only two plants have died, and they were struggling as cuttings even before I planted them out.

Fingers crossed the rest will keep on going strong!

A swarm of bees travels from Castle Hill to Lewisham

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The swarm of bees, hanging off a tree branch
The swarm of bees, hanging off a tree branch

On Sunday I received a call from a Daniel, fellow beekeeper, to say that a swarm had been reported in Castle Hill.

Since I’m in the market for bees, I dropped everything and headed out North West. (Luckily I’ve been keeping a complete “swarm kit” in my boot for this purpose.)

The property is owned by Ron, who has a single Lansgstroth hive in his front garden. He actually saw the swarm leave his hive, and fly up into the adjacent tree.

Not the most convenient place for the swarm to land...
Not the most convenient place for the swarm to land (you can see Ron’s hive in the background, painted green).

While the swarm was a good size, it was 10′ up the tree, making logistics a bit challenging. With the help of Ron, we pulled the branch down a little with rope. I then went up the ladder, and sawed off the branch.

The swarm was shaken into my waiting boxes...
The swarm was shaken into my waiting boxes…

My hive was setup on the ground, with frames in the bottom box, and the top box empty. I shook the bees from the branch into the hive, but a heap of bees were still flying around.

We waited. After 10mins, the number of flying bees was visibly less. After 15mins, pretty much all the bees were in the hive, and I declared victory. The lid went on, and the hive was strapped up for the drive home.

When I got home, I took the bees up on the roof, and opened up the box. Within minutes there was a huge cloud of bees around the house, which was very odd!

As it turned out, the bees swarmed again the moment I opened up the box. And then decided that the bait hive sitting just 50cms away would be much better, and they swarmed into that.

So all’s well that ended well, and I’m the proud owner of two hives of bees :-)

Now I just need some bees for my new top-bar hive, and for a hive at a friend’s house…

Completing the set: we now have solar hot water

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A shiny new set of 30 evacuated tubes on the roof
A shiny new set of 30 evacuated tubes on the roof

When the feed in tariff for solar electricity was put in place, we were one of the early movers, installing a 1.6kw solar PV system on our roof. With the limited space on our roof, we had to pick between solar electricity and solar hot water, and we chose the former.

Once we finished our renovation, however, we had 99m2 extra of flat roof to play with.

Nonetheless, we’d already purchased a super-efficient instantaneous gas system to replace our 1988-era electric hot water tank. We’d hardly be saving the environment if we threw that away, so solar hot water remained on the long-term to-do list.

With the likelihood of rising gas prices over the next few years, I recently looked back into solar hot water options.

What I discovered is that it was possible to reuse our instantaneous gas system as part of a solar hot water installation.

It’s simple really: the evacuated tubes on the roof heat up the water in a storage tank (shown below). The output of the tank goes through the instantaneous gas system. If the water is already hot, the gas system does nothing. If it’s only warm, it boosts it as required.

So no manual boosting or fiddling around, with a 100% guarantee of hot water.

We ended up purchasing a system with 30 evacuated tubes, plus a 300L storage tank. This is far in excess of what we need for two people, but with the roof partially shaded in winter, the extra tubes were chosen to ensure we take maximum advantage of the morning sun.

We’ll be getting back $1300 from the government for the STCs (solar credits).

On current gas prices, the payback period is 8-10 years, which isn’t great. But I’m expecting the gas prices to rise, which should seriously shorten the payback period.

Anyway, it’s good to complete the set of environment-saving technologies :-)

PS. after 3+ months of no rain, we had 2 solid weeks of rain immediately after putting in the solar hot water. Not great for our solar generation, but good for the garden I guess ;-)

The 300L tank gets squeezed into the side passage of the house.
The 300L tank gets squeezed into the side passage of the house, alongside the instantaneous gas system.

We’re opening our house for Sustainable House Day 2014

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One of the best things about our eco efforts is the way it helps us connect with locals from across Lewisham, Leichhardt and beyond. We’ve had many conversations across the front fence, about our vege patch, the solar panels, bees and more.

This year, we’re opening the house for even more conversations, as part of Sustainable House Day 2014.

On Sunday September 14th, 10am – 4pm, you’re most welcome to drop in for a house tour, and an opportunity to connect up with other folks interested in urban sustainability. (Note: we’re only opening on the 14th, and we won’t be opening on the 7th.)

Our house will be up on the SHD website shortly, which will give you the address a few days before we open the house. In the meantime, add the 14th into your diary.

See you soon!

Digging up the last of our nature strip

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The last patch of grass in the nature strip alongside our house.
The last patch of grass in the nature strip alongside our house.

Soon after we moved into our house in Lewisham, we dug up a section of the nature strip, and planted citrus trees and herbs. While three of the citrus were immediately stolen, we continued to build up the strip in front of our door, until it was lush and vibrant.

A year ago, we pulled up another section of the nature strip, and native plantings quickly took over.

As it turns out, the local council would actually prefer us to pull up little sections of grass, rather than leave them squeezed in amongst other plantings. This makes life easier for the council staff who do the mowing, and helps to reduce the cost of maintaining the streets.

So with just one piece of grass left between the two sets of plantings, we sorted that out this last weekend.

Nothing but bare earth now!
Nothing but bare earth now!

The process of pulling out the grass is easier than it looks. The roots are shallow, so some mattock work lifts out chunks of grass. It’s then just a matter of digging through the soil to get out as many remnant grass roots as possible.

I then topped it up with some spare soil, and added a little native plant fertiliser.

I’ve been growing a number of native plants from cuttings, so these provided the start of what should become a thick bushy area. Plants include mint bushes (prostanthera), correas, dianellas, and a number of ground covers (including pigface). (We planted the grevillea six months ago.)

The start of what should become a thick and bushy strip of native plants.
The start of what should become a thick and bushy strip of native plants.

I collected some free mulch from the local council nursery, and the end result looks rather good I think. Over the next month I’ll finish off the plantings, and by then I’m expecting the seedlings to start putting on some serious growth.

Another piece of grass replaced by native plants, yay!

Making bee hive boxes: getting ready for a busy spring

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New finger-jointed boxes, ready for painting.
New finger-jointed boxes, ready for painting.

Spring is a busy time for beekeeping, so it pays to be prepared. And with a warm winter, and a week of much-needed rain, there’s every sign that things will be taking off early this year in Sydney.

So for the last few weekends, I’ve been making bee hive boxes, hive lids, plus extra bases. (All for Warré hives, otherwise I could just buy new boxes.)

For the boxes, I’m finger jointing them, using the new jig that I’ve purchased for my router table. As first attempts, they’re not great joints, but practice makes perfect! The bees will plug up any gaps with propolis in any case… ;-)

My plan is also to scale up this year, so I have enough honey to meet the needs of our two local cafes.

In addition to a few more hives at our house, several friends have expressed interest in having a hive in their backyard. So I’ll be doing all the setup and management, and we’ll put in place a produce-sharing arrangement. :-)

Onwards to spring!

Another natural beekeeping Q&A session coming up in Sydney (September 2014)

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Most of the natural beekeeping folks in Australia were originally trained by Tim Malfroy (including me). He is without a doubt the leading local expert in this space.

So it’s great to hear that Milkwood have organised another natural beekeeping Q&A session, in Sydney on September 6.

The last one was great, for the networking opportunity, as well as the chance to learn more about the wonderfully complex field of beekeeping.

I’ll be there, hope to see you there too!