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On silence, slipping/slumping and oh….spring!

September 16, 2008

If there are any readers left…….my silence is due to really not knowing what to say.   I had/have plenty to say but really what is this blogging about? What is this blog about? I still don’t know the answer to those questions but here I am.  I think my non-blogging was the result of a winter funk… overcome by the cold and the clouds. My sister, Ms B, tells me that my love of a blue sunny sky means I could never live in London.  Fortunately, I don’t wish to.  The garden, too, is slow in winter…slower here due to the trees.

I had embraked on a carbon accounting challenge but that soon gave way to accounting of the dollar kind as we made an offer on a new house.  This was somewhat unexpected (at this point) but the lure of half an acre  of flat-ish sunny land in our town (walking distance to the train, closer to my sister’s place etc.) and a run down modernist house (oh that 50’s flat roof!!!!) all at an exceedingly good price was too much to resist and…..well, as the vendor wanted a quick settlement…it was less than 5 weeks from the time the offer was made to closing. Quick, indeed! It doesn’t quite feel real yet.

The garden was once loved by somebody….lots of camellias, rhodos, azaleas, prunus, maples and cypress but it has been neglected.  There are some towering Radiata Pines  (weed alert) that we have permission to cut down which will give us much more light….solar access, in planning speak! The timber will be milled for garden beds, a chook house, shelving etc, chipped for mulch and the rest used to bulk out hardwood for the wood heating. They will all be replaced with more appropriate trees- probably fruit and nut trees and some acacias that will fix nitrogen into the soil. Our early plans include chooks, an orchard, lots of vegetable beds, herbs, and a greenhouse. We will keep the camellias etc. because they are probably the original plantings from the 1950’s and the rhodos, as they emerge, look to be some of the showiest, blousiest numbers I’ve seen – a lime (when the sun hits) yellow one is slowly working it’s way into my heart. It is so gaudy.

As exciting as all this is, the reality is that we have to sell our existing home and we know the market is bad but a fair price and a speedy sale is all we hope for. So between organising this house to be ready for sale, starting to plant over at the new place and getting some more work to help pay for it all, I’m just glad it’s (almost) spring and the blue skies, longer days and warmer temperatures mean there is always more daylight to squeeze in some gardening and enjoy the sun.


R4A – 90% reduction: The reckoning (action pt 2)

July 3, 2008

This is all common sense stuff but here’s the rest –

Petrol – My husband car pools to work with 3 other people. It is a 65km round trip, most week days. We walk to almost all local (in our town) stuff and if I do drive to work (1 or 2 days a week which is about 15kms away) I do our grocery shopping on the way. We would drive to Sydney ( 100kms away) about once a month and usually do errands along the way. I prefer to catch the train to Sydney but it’s not always practical. Along the way, when I was studying, I switched to correspondence/distance education to cut down on both fuel use and time spent travelling.

The only thing to add is that out car is small 4-cylinder hatchback that uses between 4-5 litres per 100kms (same as a Prius though not as comfortable) on the open road. The car is ten years old. We use the highest octane petrol available because it is more efficient, gives you more kms for your money and prolongs the life of your car. This is all better for the atmosphere too. I should add that my husband does the maintenance services for the vehicle himself. He changes the oil every 5,000kms not 10, 000 kms because more frequent oil changes also prolong the life of your car engine and promote better fuel efficiency. We take the oil for recycling to our mechanic. Since we are travelling much less now than when we worked (and commuted) in Sydney, the need to change the oil etc. has also been reduced.

Gas – Heating is our major area of reduction problem as our efforts still do not make the deep cuts necessary. To minimise gas heating use, we have insulated our wooden floor with concertina foil batts (this has reduced temperature loss by 20%) and I am in the process of making calico ( part of my stash) window quilts to put up over the blinds at night to minimise heat loss. We have alot of glass for a small house; 80 sqm including the front deck/verandah and according to our postman live in one of the two coldest streets in our town.

With regard to the central heating, it is used for about 2-3 hours per day and turned on/off manually and only the rooms in use have their radiators turned on. We don’t heat the house at night and really have no need to – it’s not that cold. Blankets and hot water bottles are very useful.

For cold feet, when you feel particularly chilled to the bone, a ginger foot bath will warm you up. Place either a few drops of oil or some grated ginger into a small tub filled with warm/hot water. Soak away. Take care, if the water is too hot, the combination of the warming ginger and hot water will be unbearable.

Food – Accept seasonality but also preserve foods when they are plentiful, so that they get you through the lean period. For example, between August and October, is a lean time for local fruits; apples/pears have ended and summer fruits haven’t started… to avoid buying fruit from elsewhere, we will be preserving more fruit this year. Bottling and drying are my only options as I don’t have much freezer space.

We eat a diet based primarily on vegetables, grains, fruits, eggs/dairy with small amounts of red meat and chicken that is local and pasture raised. We grow some food here (herbs, potatoes, garlic and root vegetables do well)- summer being much better than winter. My sister’s garden is nearby – I’ve got some sweat equity there and my mother’s Sydney garden provide a lot of seasonal, perishable vegetables like greens, beans etc. are covered. The productivity of these gardens is increasing. My mother’s garden also provides citrus, figs and papaya. We are very, very fortunate that her garden is already highly productive and that she is generous!

Other sources for local food includes our food co-op (for bulk items and spices too) and local markets. I will buy locally grown produce over organic that has travelled, milk being the only exception. We cut things like maple syrup from our diet because local honey is just as good (better?)- different but just as good. Like the TV, I don’t miss it.

Finding local sources for food, has at times been frustrating especially on the dairy front. Discovering the growers, the networks and so on, intially takes time but has been a great thing to do and it’s been surprising how much food is in your local area. The other thing you discover is that there used to more food production in most areas but land speculation and development has killed it off.

R4A – 90% reduction: The reckoning (action pt 1)

June 26, 2008

These are the details of what we did in our attempts to achieve the reduction targets. It is the first part of a what is a long post. It seems like a strange thing to tabulate but with the use/price/availability/cost of energy an ever escalating issue, it may amount to more than a fringe experiment or some middle-class, bleeding heart hand wringing.

Electricity – If an item is not in use it is switched off. The exception to this is the fridge and the cordless phone answering machine. I was turning the phone off too and using an ordinary phone but there were complaints from interstate relatives not being able to leave messages and so on. Everything else is switched off – heating controller and gas hot water units when I remember, modem, the electric gas igniter on the kitchen stove…all of it. All lights that we use are CFL’s.

We stopped watching the TV (have given it to one of my sisters) and also sold the dryer which we hardly used anyway.

So what can you run on 2.2kWhs?

An energy efficient fridge which is about 2 years old. Also to improve its power efficiency, it sits about 15 – 20cm away from the wall to allow for better air circulation. I bought a fridge thermometer at a garage sale which sits in the fridge and has enabled me to turn up the thermostat but still maintain the food at a safe handling temperature. I did also did this to the freezer. Most people have their fridge thermostats set at unnecessarily low levels which does little to prolong food shelf life but uses more energy.

4 loads of a small (5kg) capacity front loading washing machine which is about 10 years old and quite energy efficient but not as water efficient as more recent models.

The vacuum cleaner once a week. We use a broom at other times and we take our shoes off at the front door to minimise dirt. This has been very necessary with all the rain we’ve had – sections of our yard that were hard, you now sink into.

Answering machine phone thing, stereo – amplifier and cd player whenever we feel like listening to music, modem, wireless/airport and laptops….I would use the computer for about 2 hours a day. When I was studying this could be up to 6 hours or more but that is not the case now. My husband uses his laptop irregularly but can have spurts of increased use which are work related. All the computer equipment is switched off when not in use. We were doing this anyway, as we have power blackouts in storms and the like.

In the kitchen, we use a toaster daily and about once or twice a week I will use an electric mixer to knead the sourdough until I can handle it and to also to make butter. We would use the food processor and juicer infrequently. We use the dishwasher infrequently as it uses a lot of power ( compared to our other use) although it is water efficient. I would guess that we’ve used it about once every 3 weeks over the last year mainly if we’ve had guests and needed to clear space in the kitchen.

Garbage – To reduce garbage and recycling, I have tried to stop all mailed catalogues and advertisments. We have a no junk mail sticker on our letter box and this stops almost all unsolicited catalogues. However, most paper that does make it into the house, is re-used if it can be, or feed to the worms or composted. All vegetable scraps are also feed to the worms or composted. We plan to add chickens this year, which will give us eggs and manure for the garden.

We buy what we can in bulk or take our own containers/cloth bags to the food co-op. We buy very few food stuffs that are processed elsewhere. This means that I have started making mustards, vinegars, butter,some cheese, more syrups/jams than I used to. I already baked bread ( cakes and biscuits) and we have always cooked from scratch (as the Americans like to say). There are health and financial benefits to this as well and a certain freedom from the supermarket.

I wash any plastic bags that make it into the house (except the ones that had meat in them) and re-use them. We have used rechargeable batteries for years and repair items when needed including shoes, bags and clothes.

Also, I use a keeper and cloth pads when I’m menstruating. TMI, maybe but it’s not gross (that’s for the benefit of my sisters should they be reading!)

Water – We have rainwater tanks for the garden. Since it has rained almost constantly since November 2007, we haven’t really had to water the garden much.

Showers are short and we have a low flow shower head fitted. We had already put a brick in our lowish flush toilet cistern and adopted the “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” mantra.

While we wait for our water to heat up (for a shower), we collect it in a bucket and use it for washing laundry, cleaning, to flush the toilet or before it started to rain I used to water the garden.

I’m still working on ways to cut the water used in the laundry. This is ongoing. I have been re-using the last rinse water to wash the next load. This has reduced the water use in the laundry by 30%. Interfering with the wash cycle of a front loader is not an easy task. A combination of soaking and agitation in the tub and a rinse spin in the machine is more water and power efficient, produces better results but does take more time.

The remaining categories will be detailed in the next post.

R4A – 90% reduction: The reckoning (numbers)

June 17, 2008

It goes like this – we gave it a go and didn’t make the targets in all areas but we made significant reductions in most areas. And to reprise what my dear father said to me when I came home with a 99% test score and topped my class, “Great result but there is still room for improvement.” And so in honour of my dad, we will keep trying.

One of my fellow rioters put together this post as a guide. I really think and agree with him that whilst you may not succeed in or be able to do all things, do what you can. Not much of an ask really! I will (separately) post what we did to achieve the reductions in each category and perhaps a final R4A post on what I really learned by doing this.

And so to the numbers:

Electricity- Our average use is 2.2kWh per day (it will rise in winter to about 2.8kWh – I think) Without the Green power, this represents a 90% (88% on the winter figure) reduction on average use. We do buy green power so if that is factored in we are carbon neutral….what ever that really means?

Gas – Average Summer use is 25mjs per day, average winter use is 140mjs per day. This is for cooking, heating and hot water. The summer daily average is 76% below average, winter use is 30% above average.

Let me just say, I regret swapping to gas powered hydronic heating….I love the radiators but we could have had this system with a wood stove (that you could cook on too!) Our decision was made when we were still commuting to Sydney for work and a gas-powered, press a button system seemed more convenient. How do you account for a shift in thinking?

Water – 90 litres per person per day. This is a 49% reduction from starting point of 175 litres per person and 75% reduction on the state average.

Garbage – 95% reduction. We started at about 86% of the national average – I had hoped that we’d be have no waste but alas escaping small amounts of plastic seems to be my continuing nemesis.

Food – This is the area I loved the most. It was difficult, at first, to try to source local food (in the Southern Hemisphere June 1 2007 was autumn/winter) but it got easier. During the summer and autumn, we did make or better the targets of 70% local food, 25% bulk and 5% wet/transported.

Trying to improve my own food growing efforts is what I will be focusing on and if I can grow food ( however modest ) in my steep, semi-shaded back garden then so can others. Some neighours have made noises about removing the radiata pines that partly shade us and others….fingers crossed.

Petrol – We used about 60 litres (total) of petrol per month. This includes public transport. This is a 70% reduction on our state average and a 50% reduction on our starting point. If I include the air -travel to see my husband’s family (Did I try to get out of it? Oh yeah! Air travel/flying is not my forte!) our total reduction in fuel is 57% of the state average.

Consumer – We achieved an 87% reduction on the national average of $15,000 in this category.

If I include some infrastructure expenditure (water pump, floor insulation, re-wiring) and not to be repeated expenses (sewing machine shared with my sister) and tuition ( however my studies went on hold whilst I grapple with what to do with my life!!!!!) then our total reduction is at the 75% below average which was our starting point.

About stuff

May 28, 2008

For a while now, I’ve been struck by how people refer to their possessions as stuff – a collective noun (?) to describe the amorphous, unarticulated collection of objects they own. Not important enough to be able to name, too large in quantity to be able to catalogue and account for or is it that there no connection to warrant the naming? The stuff may be loosely defined by some use, purpose or other object – car stuff, house stuff, work stuff but it is still not really articulated.  Odd, considering the hours of work, striving and debt that is represented by stuff.

The word stuffed is used to denote when we’ve had enough or are sated (think festive, celebratory lunch) and colloquially in Australia we use it to say we have reached the limit; we are really tired – with some regularity I say after gardening and limping back to the house, “God, I’m stuffed” – or that something has reached a point of no return – “That motor is stuffed” – but a “stuff up’ also says, that a mistake has been made.

So what I’m wondering is, if we’ve reached the limit, does that mean we’ve had enough?


May 6, 2008

Well, for a real treat, this home-made bread tastes even better with olive oil. Bread and butter is lovely but if I had to choose one fat, above all others, it would have to olive oil. Olive oil has the advantage, excellent for Australia’s climate, of not needing refrigeration. It’s amazing that it’s taken so long for olives to become popular-ish here.

Last Sunday, I drove down to a local olive grove to help them pick their olives. Leccino and a small quantity of Frantoio – Tuscan varieties of oil olives. It was a great learning experience and just a fantastic thing to do in the autumn sunshine. Silvery green leaves, just beautiful – yes I’m obsessed with olives. Lots to learn but isn’t that always the way.

As a child I really disliked olives and olive oil. The imported oils were often heavy tasting and I suspect, not altogether fresh but that wasn’t it. Olives marked you out as non -Anglo….of course, being called Nada did that too; so although I couldn’t avoid my name, I could avoid olives. To add to the olive issue, on Palm Sunday, my observant Catholic mother would take olive branches (that someone had given her) to church, not palm branches, to be blessed. This is how they did it in the home country and in the home country, the only palm trees were on the Split foreshore and who was going to climb those!!! Now the olive branches were only a real problem, if we were going to our local parish church; at the Croatian church most people had them so it wasn’t an issue but all the kids cringed – “It’s PALM Sunday not OLIVE Sunday”. Over the years, people planted palm trees in their yards and so began to take those leaves in for the occasion instead. Olive branches are symbols of peace, as are palms in Judaism. Palms also symbolise triumph, victory and the tropical paradise thing too.

How this has come full circle – my mother is removing her palm trees to plant olives…..with some prodding from my sister and me. I’m on a planting mission. (I think I’m too angry to be on a peace mission!!! but maybe that’s what this is.) To fulfill my altogether selfish dream, however, I may need to find a nice piece of north facing slope somewhere and plant a small grove. Would that be a sufficient mea culpa for my prejudice?


April 16, 2008

On the weekend, I started my beekeeping course. It was the two-day practical component; there is also written work to submit. The bees were absolutely mesmerising. The pine needle smoke from the smoker, the buzz of a hive and the Sydney autumn weather combined to be hypnotising….I had to snap myself out of the dream-like state, to listen to the lecturer…Mr Bees NSW. Whilst we were all fully suited, he worked the hives without protective clothing….”To give us (students) confidence!”.

Now for the work of organising some hives (2…so that if anything goes wrong with one, the healthy one can help you save the one with problems), where to put them etc. etc. To keep bees in NSW (and I’m assuming in other states) you need to register with the Department of Primary Industry and join a bee association to get public liability insurance but you know, red tape – I’m used to.

Pollination of the garden and honey for home use is what initially interested me….. and the eucalyptus that tower over my vegetable garden produce some of the best honey flora…….negatives into positives and all that.

Now for some bee miscellany:

1. They don’t like rhododendrons.

2. If stung by a bee, do not pull out the sting – that only pushes more venom into your skin. Instead, scratch out the sting with a fingernail.

3. Bees don’t like dark colours, wool or anything fluffy.