Experimenting with soil blockers

I have previously (here and here) talked about soil blockers, neat little machines that make stand-alone soil blocks that you can use to start vegies in a greenhouse.

We made up an experimental mixture. There are various recipes, but some use expensive commercial ingredients or things that are unsuitable for an organic farm.

Our recipe was equal parts sieved compost, worm castings, river sand, finely shredded paper, and commercial potting mix.

This worked pretty well. Our compost wasn’t of great quality – I suspect not enough water when it was cooking. The finely shredded paper I can get in bulk for free, and it replaces commercial fibrous matter. The potting mix really needed to be sieved too, so we might try doing that next time, or we might omit that as there can be some dubious substances in that stuff.

We made some big blocks and sowed some golden beetroot, roma tomatoes (for use in the greenhouse), carrots, leeks (4 to a block), kale and nasturtiums. I love the leaves and flowers of nasturtiums in salads, and they are a useful groundcover to keep weeds out.

We also made up some tiny blocks with borage, heartsease (another edible flower), onion and red mustard.

Both types of blocks fit nicely into commercial plastic seed trays, which can be reused forever.

I plan to water them with a fine spray gun. I couldn’t find it, so I just used the spray on the watering can, which was far too rough. But the blocks stood up well. I’ll report on how they progress, and we’ll make more trays with different soil mixtures in the coming days.

Some thoughts on global warming

Recently a friend sent me some information on an initiative involving electric cars. Great idea, and I’m very keen on a number of levels.

But I did remark that I have long been a Global Warming sceptic, which surprised him. Being permaculturists, we *should* be concerned about our imminent toasting.

Allison and I are medievalists, and we re-create costumes and food from across many centuries. England is not as warm now as it was in the 1300s, when tights were in fashion and they grew grapevines there. Then things got very cold again, furs were back in fashion and the food got much heavier.

My university degree had two majors. One was in Psychology, which teaches you lots about statistics, and how we consciously and unconsciously manipulate them in support of certain beliefs and agendas. The other was in the History and Philosophy of Science, which teaches you that science is anything but an abstract mechanistic process. People have often believed crazy things, based on the best evidence, and the few doubters have regularly been shown to be justified.

I follow the scientific argument quite closely, and I’m yet to be convinced that there is any serious warming to worry about, or that CO2 is a significant cause of warming. A good introduction to the discussion is here.

Along with the Medieval Warm Period, and the Viking Warm Period when they colonised Greenland, there are smaller peaks and troughs too. The 1990s were a warm decade, very similar to the 1930s. The world seems to be cooling again in the past five years. Depending on your starting and finishing point, you would either be seriously alarmed or completely underwhelmed — or you could conclude that the earth is cooling rapidly, as they did in the 1970s when I was young. A new ice was imminent.

We had very serious bushfires in Victoria this summer — trumpeted as all the proof you would need that Global Warming is real. At the same time, London was freezing. There have been much bigger fires in Victoria before, but now there are more people living in heavily timbered areas, in big houses with timber decks amongst the beautiful trees. So is it a warming issue or a failure of planning controls?

Recently there was an article in Nature magazine about warming in Antarctica. It was quoted in all the newspapers with a big map showing the continent in red — proof again of Global Warming?

If you read the article carefully, there was a very small warming in western Antarctica, roughly balanced by cooling in the east. And the warming actually happened in the 1950s, with nothing much since then. That’s hard to reconcile with the global warming models.

I have been following this discussion at Climate Audit, a “denialist” website run by a Canadian statistician. It can be rather dry reading, but there are some gems. It turns out that the data for Antarctica is of poor quality, and the weather stations showing the most warming have turned out to be mistakes. Even where the data exists, some weather stations have been covered in snow for months on end, which makes them record warmer temperatures than if they were exposed. There are very few data points, and the methodology for interpolating between sites makes some key assumptions which are nonsense.

The scientific argument is still going, but as far as I can tell most of Antarctica has actually been stable or cooling for decades, perhaps with some minor warming on the peninsula near South America. Even there, it may just be recording heat from the expanding scientific settlements. Nothing to worry about.

Permaculture is quite comfortable with the idea of natural cycles, and we are still overdue for the next ice age. So it may all become a moot point over the next couple of thousand years.

For the record, I am very much in favour of solar power, innovations in batteries, and energy conservation in particular. There are heaps of good reasons to do this stuff, even without worrying about Global Warming. I am somewhat concerned about CO2 increasing seawater acidity, but that’s another issue and I’d love to see more data.

PS – if you’re wondering what’s happening on the property, we have Hanna and Allisa here from Germany, and David and Caroline from France. We have heaps of projects underway, but nothing to show off right now. Our wwoofers finished their work early today, and headed off to Batemans Bay for the beach and some kangaroos to pat.

A roast

A lamb roast last night, to honour wwoofer Adrien’s last night with us.

Allison did the roast with rosemary and other herbs, and it smelt and tasted great.

Our wwoofers Sam, Sabrina and Ophelie used our cherry tomatoes (we have a glut) to make an Italian sauce — delicious.

Ally did some really light and crisp potatoes, and I did some beans with almonds and verjuice.

Best of all was the fresh corn, straight from our garden to the pot.  Magnificent.

This year our garden has been a fairly conventional organic one.  Our soil is pretty ordinary, and we’re building it up with mulch and horse manure and compost.  So our soil and our vegies should get better every year.

Next year, we’re going to implement a crop rotation system, use of green manures as cover- and under- crops, and succession plantings over the season.

I do now have some of the soil blocker equipment that I’ve previously described (bought from Allsun Farm) and I’ll report soon on some experiments with block materials.  We’ll start plants in our greenhouse, extend our growing season and minimise the time that plants spend in the vegie beds.

Goulburn is hot stuff

It’s the National Blues Festival in Goulburn this week, and we took our wwoofers out to the Goulburn Club for the night. Great music, great company, great evening.

Opposite the Goulburn Club is Belmore Park, and there was an acrobatic Fire Show there by the youth part of the Lieder Theatre, Goulburn’s and Australia’s longest-running community theatre group.

Here’s a still that I pinched from their website:

There were about 20 performers, a huge variety of techniques and props, heaps of energy. Kids of all shapes and sizes, working together with great skill and confidence. What a town.

The distinguishing thing about Goulburn is that everybody is so friendly, and a trip to the supermarket always takes six times as long as it should because people, including complete strangers, are so keen to chat. Everybody who moves here makes the same comment.

One day we read in the Goulburn Post a letter from some people who visited Goulburn and were upset because people had been rude to them. For weeks afterwards, lots of people wrote in with complete disbelief. Eventually one woman wrote in to say that Goulburn was the friendliest place she’d ever been, and the weekend the disappointed visitors came was the same weekend her extended family had visited from Sydney, and the visitors must have met them!

The arts community here is vibrant, and there are clubs for everything you can imagine, from the “Goulburn Bowmen” to the “Goulburn Horse Drawn Club”. The catch is, they don’t put out press releases and they don’t have websites. Goulburn is Australia in the 1970s. Word of mouth is everything.

It’s just possible that Goulburn is the most exciting place to be in Australia at the moment. Nobody realises that they’re living in a golden age until afterwards. Goulburn 2009 is a shining light, to which we bring our small candles to add to the glow.

Beating the heat

We made it through the weekend.  We started our work very early, before the worst of the heat. It got to about 40 deg C each day.

Adrian and Khaled did a full hour on the dreaded serrated tussocks each day, and then worked on our new garden bed.

Jeremy, now mostly recovered from his illness, worked on some repairs for our verandah.

Ophelie, Sam and Sabrina (all girls) were not so keen on the tussocks, but they gave us huge assistance in our housework, which had got sadly behind during the heatwave.

We erected a marquee tent for the first time — Allison had bought it cheaply at a farm clearing sale, and we are hoping to decorate it medievally.

By Sunday afternoon, we were all sick of the heat.  Khaled and Jeremy wanted to stay at home.  The rest of us went to the fine metropolis of Goulburn (along with Paris, Rome and London, one of the great shopping centres of the world) and spent some time looking around the Centro mall.  Then we went to a club for a while, again just for the air-conditioning, and headed home.

Somehow it was decided to have an impromptu medieval feast in the marquee.

Khaled, Sabrina and Sam setting up the tent

Allison and I made a brave attempt at singing Green Grow the Rushes Oh.  Allison then asked our French guests if they could sing anything, except Spice Girls.  Of course, this had the opposite effect, and we got lots of Spice Girls — and the scary thing was that they all knew the words!  So a fun end to a sizzling weekend.

Jeremy, Adrien and Ophelie at the "Quasimodo Feast"


Late in the day, we heard about the terrible bushfires in Victoria, with over 100 lives lost.

I was a volunteer firefighter during the awful Canberra fires of 2003.  These fires sound even worse, and they are not yet over.  This has been a fantastic effort by many thousands of volunteers, and they will be working for weeks.

Around here we have been very lucky.  We did not get the high winds that they had in Victoria.  Hopefully, we are heading for a period of cooler temperatures now.

A very hot time

Right across Australia, it has been stinking hot for a couple of weeks. Truth to tell, probably cooler in Goulburn than most of Australia.

This weekend is the culmination, and it’s going to be a killer, about 40 degrees both days. On Sunday, we’ll probably have high winds too, making extreme fire danger.

Anyway, on Friday night we had volunteered to make dinner at the Goulburn Club. This is a small social club that owns a lovely building in the middle of Goulburn, overlooking fabulous Belmore Park. Unlike most social clubs in Australia, this one has no income from gambling, and exists completely on the volunteer efforts of its members.

The club sells dinners for $5 each on Fridays, and this attracts patrons along, who then enjoy the live music and relaxed atmosphere. We take wwoofers there often, as it’s a cheap night out, with an interesting crowd.

So we had volunteered to cook dinner, which we’ll do every six weeks. We were planning to make kangaroo stir-fry, which was such a hit with our wwoofers.

BUT:- we got a call from our wwoofer Adrien, to say that another wwoofer Jeremy had a serious kidney infection and needed early medical attention. So we left work in Canberra early, and Allison took Jeremy to a couple of doctors (all booked out) then to the Goulburn Hospital’s emergency ward.

In the meantime, I got the cooking gear together, with the help of two wwoofers, and we headed into the club. The kitchen is quite antique, but we managed. The stir-fry was a huge success, so now we have established a reputation and were able to donate $100 to the club from the profits – as all the vegetables came from our garden, and kangaroo is a cheap meat. We use our beetroots in the mix, heaps of different greens, and our jewel-like cherry tomatoes cut into quarters and stirred through just before serving.

Somewhere in there, Allison collected two more wwoofers from the train station, Sam and Sabrina from France (it seems we only get French wwoofers now!) and took Jeremy back to our place after his transfusion of antibiotics. Wwoofers in all directions, and helping in the kitchen when they could … a madhouse. Allison made it back to the club late in the day, exhausted and just in time for the last of the stir-fry. And some wonderful singing by our friend Gretchen and a lady with a guitar. Despite the heat, there was a real buzz at the club on Friday.

Remember that this was all happening on a scorching hot day. When we finally got home, Allison and I went off for a quiet swim in the dam. There is something deliciously cool about a skinny-dip by moonlight, with the occasional fish leaping, and our lovely dog Cara delighted to be joining us.

Cutting a pipe

A little drama last night.

Allison and I were driving back from Canberra, and stopped in at Goulburn for some supplies and some vegetable seedlings.

We got a call from wwoofer Adrien. They were digging a new vegetable bed, and somebody had put a pick through a pipe. Water was gushing everywhere.

The wwoofers had closed off our big rainwater water tank, but the water was still flowing. What to do?

I was able to explain that this pipe probably belonged to our irrigation system. I told Adrien how to switch off the valve from the separate damwater tank.

When we bought the place, we didn’t know that the previous owners had installed quite a cunning set of pipes all around the property. You can pump between most of the dams, though our neighbour Shayne tells me that he knocked one out while ploughing to remove serrated tussocks. These pipes are buried quite shallowly.

So we can, and do, pump from a dam to a high tank (10,000L?) above our house paddock. This will then gravity feed in a loop around the house, with a couple of sideshoots. It was one of these that was damaged.

So our watering system for our vegie gardens is out of commission for a few days. These things happen. Our current wwoofers (Adrien, Jeremy, Khaled and Ophelie, all French) may have to use watering cans.

The irrigation system needs a little maintenance anyway. Many of the taps are metal, and over the years have cracked in heavy frosts. I have started replacing these with special frost-proof ball joints, at $20 a pop. And we will drain the system of water each winter.