Saving the environment

Rescuing a wrought iron garden bench

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The rescued garden bench, as good as new!
The rescued garden bench, as good as new!

It’s constantly amazing to see the things that people throw away. A few months ago, we saw the wrought iron sides of a garden seat abandoned on the nature strip. The iron was a little rusted but still in pretty good condition, but clearly the wooden slats had rotted through.

Instead of fixing the seat, out onto the street it went! It seemed too lovely a thing to go to waste, so I collected it as the basis for a good weekend project.

The wrought iron sides, cleaned and repainted.
The wrought iron sides, cleaned and repainted.

The starting point was to clean the wrought iron sides. I could’ve done this with a steel brush, but used a fancy attachment to an electric drill instead. I then repainted them with a water-based paint that included rust inhibitor. Quick drying, this only took half a day of elapsed time.

I’d measured up the slats on a friend’s similar garden bench, and new ones proved easy to source. Heading down to the local timber yard, I discovered the size I needed was pretty much the same as standard hardwood decking.

That gave me a heap of wood options, and I ended up choosing ironbark, simply because I liked the deep red colour. These just needed to be cut to length, with three of the slats trimmed down to a more narrow width (for the first and last slats on the seat).

The slats laid out for oiling.
The slats laid out for oiling.

After drilling the holes for the bolts, I treated the slats with two coats of linseed oil. This is brilliant for outdoor use, and incredibly cheap.

Some general stuffing around to bolt everything together, and the result is the seat shown in the first photo. It now sits at the bottom of the side garden, and it looks rather handsome.

Total cost? Approximately $90 for the wood, $40 for the paint, and only a few dollars for the bolts. Call it $130 in total, which is a fair bit less than a new one, and the lovely wrought iron is saved for another generation.

Creating an insect hotel

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Our new insect hotel, in place on the fence
Our new insect hotel, in place on the fence

Creating an “insect hotel” has been on my to-do list for a while now. The idea is a simple one: create a habitat for beneficial bugs to hibernate and breed in. The result should be more of the good bugs, leading to less of the bad bugs.

The great blog post on insect hotels by Inspiration Green was my starting point. This showed the huge diversity of shapes, sizes and materials of insect hotels.

The raw materials.
The raw materials.

My starting materials were a few pieces of well-aged firewood, and some handy bamboo garden edging from Bunnings.

The outside frame was made from cut-down 90x45mm pine, still left over from the renovation. The wood and bamboo was cut to 90mm long to match.

The two slow bits were drilling all the holes (6-9mm in size), and then gluing it all together.

It makes for an attractive addition to the garden!
It makes for an attractive addition to the garden!

The result is not just useful, but beautiful (I think so at least). It looks great on the side fence of our house. And as it’s visible from the street, it’s yet another item of interest for passerbyers.

Have insects already made a home?
Have insects already made a home?

The really encouraging thing is that a few of the holes have already been filled — so hopefully this means some friendly bugs have already made a home!

Finally, we have a proper compost heap

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A proper compost heap, out the back
A proper compost heap, out the back

For a long time now, we’ve had two compost bins (Aerobins) and a worm farm. Which have been great, particularly after I gave them more solid foundations to sit on.

That still left me with a hankering for a proper compost heap, to supply organic material for our guerilla-gardened food forest.

Some space has finally opened up at the back, giving the me opportunity to construct the first of several compost bays (at least, that’s the plan).

Creating a square metre of compostable material wasn’t hard, between the piles of fallen leaves, weeds galore, and other green materials. I’ve turned it once already, and it’s starting to build up some heat.

Onwards to compost!

A wheelbarrow full of coffee grounds

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A wheelbarrow full of coffee.
A wheelbarrow full of coffee.

It’s not every day that you end up with a wheelbarrow full of used coffee grounds, but I’m looking forward to making it a regular occurance at Lewisham House.

A little while back, a new cafe opened up just down the road, The Pig & Pastry. Other than their passion for great food, they also have a real interest in environmental issues. This includes some lovely raised garden beds set up in their backyard, for vegetables and herbs.

A week ago I approached them with a strange question: “what do you do with your used coffee grounds?”. Nothing as it turns out!

Coffee grounds are much loved in the permaculture community, as a source of free fertiliser for the garden. Apparently they deter (or hopefully kill?) slugs and snails, and the grounds are a particular favourite of citrus trees.

Online there are a number of long conversations about the relative merit of coffee grounds, including whether they’re too acid, and their effect on chickens. The general consensus is that when they break down, they become more neutral, and they don’t appear to be too toxic for chickens.

So I’ve left several plastic buckets down at the cafe, and I’ll drop down every week with a wheelbarrow to pick up the grounds. This saves them rubbish fees, and keeps my compost bins happy. A win all round!

Is this Sydney’s smallest green roof?

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The small green roof, fully installed and planted on the end of the chicken run.
The small green roof, fully installed and planted on the end of the chicken run.

A green roof is where a garden is installed to cover a roof, typically to a depth of 150mm on top of a strong waterproofing layer. It’s a great way of getting extra greenery into a property, and the roof also asborbs water run-off.

About a month ago I stumbled across the book Small Green Roofs, on Amazon. It’s a wonderful book that has 40 different inspiring case studies, all covering small, non-commercial green roofs (full book review to come).

Feeling inspired (and running short of projects around the house), I decided to construct a green roof at the end of the chicken run.

At 1.2m x 1.6m (1.9m2), this may be Sydney’s smallest green roof.

The corrugated iron that previously covered the end of the chicken run.
The corrugated iron that previously covered the end of the chicken run.

When we created the chicken run, I installed several left-over sheets of Colorbond at the end of the chicken run, to give cover for the chicken feeder (and the chickens!). This is now replaced by the green roof.

The structural ply installed, along with extra structural support.
The structural ply installed, along with extra structural support.

The starting point was to install a sheet of 25mm exterior-grade structural ply. This is very strong (and heavy), and it provides the base for the green roof.

The next challenge is to deal with the extra weight of the green roof. For a soil depth of 150mm, a green roof weighs 250kg per sq. m. That’s a lot!

Thankfully the chicken run was constructed strongly in the first place. To provide extra support, I installed a new vertical post (front left corner of the new green roof in the picture above). This was concreted into the ground. Extra rafters were installed, along with bracing back to existing posts.

Other than the structural ply, everything else used wood and materials salvaged locally, or left over from the house renovation.

The sides of the green roof go on.
The sides of the green roof go on.

The sides of the green roof were constructed out of left-over roof beams, 200mm high. Because the sides of the wood were very uneven (from sitting in the weather for 10+ years), I put in an extra layer of ply to assist with waterproofing.

There’s a 20mm gap along the bottom edge of the green roof, to allow water to drain away.

The waterproofing complete, ready for the garden itself.
The waterproofing complete, ready for the garden itself.

I had some left-over “pond liner” paint, so I used three coats of that to seal the base and sides of the green roof. On top of that I installed a layer of 20mm Atlantis flo-cell (left over from the reworked raised garden beds). A layer of geotextile then keeps the soil out of the drainage system.

The green roof planted out.
The green roof planted out.

As a stroke of luck, just as I was ready to fill the garden bed, a friend rang to ask whether I needed any soil, as he was clearing out his back garden. A ute load’s worth of soil later (courtesy of GoGet), this is the final green roof.

Green roofs would typically be planted with sedum (a low growing succulent), to cope with the extreme conditions and low water levels. In this shaded position, however, that isn’t an option.

Instead, I’ve put in some water crystals, and have planted out the garden with a mix of:

  • lomandra
  • dianella
  • ferns
  • native ground covers (native violet, white root and northern cranesbill)

Already it looks great from the back verandah, and I’ll blog new pictures in six months after (hopefully) the plants have all grown up.

This is what bees do in a natural setting

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If you wanted to know what bees do in a natural setting, watch this video! It’s extraordinary to see how quickly bees fill up a vertical log with comb, just 11 weeks after the swarm initially arrives. Truly inspiring.

Gaiabees says this about the vertical log hive:

The vertical Log Hive allows us to observe the growth of comb and the downward gesture of the “Bien”. It “descends” from the aerial ocean towards the earth, leaning itself downwards, from within the space of “in-between”. The objective was to imitate feral nest conditions and observe the initial incarnation & growth. Further, the set up and log design provide feedback information for instinctual preferences of Honey Bees and future nest designs.

How our electricity usage compares to others

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EnergyAustralia, the electricity supplier we use for our house in inner-city Sydney, has been doing a big promotion of their eWise online tool. To quote:

eWise is a free and exclusive online tool available to EnergyAustralia residential electricity customers. It compares your electricity usage to similar homes in your area and shows you where you could save money.

It’s great to see these kinds of initiatives. While they’re not perfect (more on this below), they help to the issues more mainstream, and hopefully give people constructive suggestions on what they can do.

Our stats

The at-a-glance comparison of our hose to 'other similar houses'.
The at-a-glance comparison of our house to ‘other similar houses’.

In the latest bill, we’re using an average of 10kWh per day, which is actually pretty good I think! During the year, our usage varies between 8 and 10kWh, depending on the season (more in winter than summer).

Some observations

In no particular order, some observations:

  • Who exactly are these “more efficient” homes? 29% less energy equates to 6-7kWh per day, which is impressively low!
  • While the comparison is good, the tips are weak. Turn off the lights — this isn’t exactly going to make much of a dent in the 29% difference.
  • Considering all the eco changes we’ve done (LED lights, no aircon, massive insulation, double & triple glazing, efficient appliances, etc), is there any practical way of closing the gap between us and the supposed best case?
  • EnergyAustralia is obviously only looking at electricity usage, leaving gas usage out of the picture, which doesn’t really make sense from an eco perspective.
  • Solar panels (which we have, and get the rebate for) aren’t considered at all.
  • While it is possible to fill in extra details about our house (do we have aircon? a pool?, etc) it’s still not clear how eWise determines the like-for-like comparisons it offers.

In short, the tool is broadly a good idea, and I’d encourage people to sign up, just for interest.

Can and should it be further improved: definitely yes. Hopefully they’re not planning to now just sit on what they’ve launched…

What do you think?

Are these types of online tools useful?
What could be done to make them more effective?

Is this a free range organic egg?

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Is this the egg that it's supposed to be?
Is this the egg that it’s supposed to be?

With a greater focus on sustainability, many consumers are shifting to higher quality, more ethical products. This includes free range and organic eggs, instead of the horrifically cruel cage eggs.

But are consumers getting what they paid for?

As the recent horsemeat scandal has shown, there’s every incentive for producers, wholesalers and retailers to cheat. In the case of meat, they do this even when DNA testing can catch them out. For organic vs cage eggs, it’s potentially worse: no test can tell between the two.

Thankfully the majority of suppliers will do the right thing, but it only takes a bad egg, as they say …

To be confident about what we’re buying, we need to know where it’s come from, and to have confidence in the supply chain.

The most direct approach is to grow the food yourself. Our backyard eggs are a perfect example: we know exactly what they’re eating, and the conditions they’re kept in. When we sell eggs to friends (to pay for chicken feed), they too can have confidence.

Alternatively, one of the community supported agriculture sources would be the next best option.

After that, we’re really relying on the reputation of the provider, which may not count for much.

This is a problem that needs a solution if ethical food is to have a real future…

Organic gardening has changed since 1972

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"How to grow food organically" by Gary Null & Staff, published USA 1972
“How to grow food organically” by Gary Null & Staff, published USA 1972

We were recently given a pile of 2nd hand books, about organic gardening and healthy eating. They mostly date to the 1970’s, published in the UK or the USA.

One of the books was “How to grow food organically”, shown above. There’s a bunch of good stuff in it, although not presented in an easily digestible way.

But this was the real surprise lurking within:

It's an advertising insert ... for cigarettes!?!
It’s an advertising insert … for cigarettes!?!
... and over the page.
… and over the page.

Yes, that’s an advert for cigarettes, within an organic gardening book. “Stop poisoning yourself and your environment!” says the cover of the book. Except for the cigarettes, of course. Times have changed since 1972.

(I’m giving the Gary Null, the author, the benefit of the doubt here. I’m sure it was mindless publishers at the time, but it’s still pretty damn weird.)



Giving street trees more space

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Dianellas planted around the base of a Council street tree
Dianellas planted around the base of a Council street tree

One of the topics that came up at my first Marrickville Council Environment Committee meeting was the Council’s recent (?) policy of widening the cut-out around street trees, as shown in the photo above (taken a block away from our house on Old Canterbury Rd).

Hardy natives, such as Lomandras and Dianellas are then planted around the base of the tree.

This is a great idea, for a whole pile of reasons:

  • the trees get more space to grow, including better access to rainwater
  • damage to the pavement is reduced
  • the arrangement looks great
  • it increases the biodiversity of the area
  • plants such as lomandra and dianella both produce berries much liked by birds

Of course, it’s not a new idea. In the streets around us, hundreds of trees have had  plants guerrilla gardened in underneath them. The variety is the great bit, from natives to exotics, grasses and flowers. Perhaps the Council is just catching up with the local residents!

Gardening around the base of street trees -- have residents been leading the way?
Gardening around the base of street trees — have residents been leading the way?