Sunday, 17 May 2015

In the garden .....

We were doing a spot of work in the garden today when a few visitors dropped in....

A large flock of little corellas descended on the trees in our street. These are just one of the parrot species that visit our yard. 

Like many native bird species, they are happy to make use of what exotic plants offer them, in this case Liquid ambar. This is the street tree species mentioned in our earlier post on very low firewood miles.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

The Lost Trades Fair

Held in Kyneton Victoria, the Lost Trades Fair promotes manual and traditional trades and crafts that are considered rare and unusual in our modern age. The shift to mass production using inexpensive fossil fuel energy and cheaper, generally less skilled labour has meant that many of these traditional skills are in danger of being lost or forgotten. The fair connects skilled craftspeople with the public, not only by providing an opportunity to purchase their beautiful wares, but also by enabling us to find out more about these trades, and in some cases even to learn them.

Attending the fair was a great opportunity to see skilled makers in action and to be able to talk with them about their craft.  Given that 15000 people attended the 2 day fair, I think it's fair to say that the trades and skills of the artisans were of great interest to the public.   Why?  I guess there are plenty of reasons. Apart from a general curiosity about these trades, perhaps it's a backlash against mass produced, cheap 'stuff' produced by people who may work long hours for the privilege of being underpaid for their efforts? (I hope so). Is it because there is something special about seeing someone craft an item of beauty and function from raw materials? Or an appreciation of the skill of the artisan and what it has taken them to reach their level of skill?  Or the fact that most of us don't actually make much with our hands anymore?  I'm sure the answer is yes to all of the above. 

First up we visited the stalls of the spoon carvers.  Mr PragSust, interested in all things wood, was keen to know what sort of wood they favoured. We were able to chat to  the carvers while watching them at work. 

We love the idea of being able to find high value uses for smallish pieces of timber so we both signed up for a spoon making course. Can't wait!  I would love to be able to make my own wooden spoons.  I reckon that having lovely, hand crafted items for everyday use adds an extra layer of pleasure to life.

The Rundell and Rundell stall was a beauty, showcasing Glen Rundell's beautiful handmade Windsor chairs, stools and Shaker boxes. The attention to detail in every item he makes is just amazing and the chairs are beyond comfortable. I've sat in one and was amazed. Glen runs classes from his workshop - you can check them out on his website.

George Smithwick's coopering stall was also a big hit. George is a 6th generation Cooper so he knows a thing or two about the craft. According to Wikipedia, coopering is the craft of making wooden, staved vessels, bound together with hoops and possessing flat ends or heads. These vessels include wine barrels, wooden buckets, butter churns and casks.  Mr PragSust had done a day-long wooden bucket making course with George and testifies to his skill and patience as a teacher. I was pretty darn impressed with his bucket - not only did it look great, it really did hold water.

The scything blokes from the Southern Scythe Squad (an entertaining and informative WWW site; sustainability needs more WWW sites that get information across without proselytising or preaching) had been hard at work demonstrating the wonder of the scythe. The grass area around their stall was almost at lawn bowls level - testament to the efficiency of their instruments, and of course their skill.  We have our own scythe but were a little hazy on how to sharpen it. Not to worry, the guys gave us a sharpening demo and we were able to buy the tools to do it at home.

There were lots and lots of other stalls - blacksmiths, handmade wooden clocks, stonemasons, cob oven makers, wooden boat and musical instrument makers, bow makers ....and the list goes on.  

Oh yeah, the food at the fair was pretty good too.

So if you have an interest in the handmade, or in useful and beautiful things in general, then the Lost Trades Fair is definitely worth a visit. I'm sure the next one in 2016 will be a ripper.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Trees rock!

If tomorrow someone said they'd invented a self-reproducing tool for atmospheric carbon sequestration, improving water catchments, oxygen production, air filtering, low-carbon building materials, stock shelter, riparian zone protection, erosion management, food, bioenergy, firewood, biodiversity, habitat, paper manufacture, salinity control and recreation they'd be the Bill Gates of the 21st century. We don't have to wait for this invention as trees already exist!

At PragSust we think trees rock. We're developing an agroforestry or farm forestry site on a small block in Sth Gippsland with trees planted for multiple outcomes including many of the above. Ten years ago there wasn't a tree on the place except for some aging, exotic, remnant shelterbelts, a few paddock acacias and a few acacias on steeper slopes where the cows hadn't grazed as intensely. The previous owners planted some trees and we're planting a load more. We're particularly interested in durable timbers, fat logs for slabs and boards, high-value fine timber, roundwood construction using coppiced trees, bee fodder and craftwood for woodturners, garden use and rustic furniture. And we want to continue grazing cattle on the block.

Families owning woods for multiple outcomes is common in some of  the Scandinavian nations, parts of the US and Canada and increasingly in the UK. And farm forestry has become very popular in New Zealand. The length of time required to grow trees to a harvestable size is considerably less in Australia than in many parts of the northern hemisphere. It's quite realistic (in higher rainfall areas) with the correct site, species, outcome and management to start seeing some returns after ten years or so. Although a 20-40 year planning window does open things up a lot.

Some local landowners are also interested in these smaller-scale applications. So we thought we'd put together an initial checklist of some points to consider as part of planning trees on land. While written mainly for landholders this can also be useful in an urban setting. We've planted trees in our garden for bees and food but we do use prunings for other purposes.

Here's the list. Let us know what you think.

i/ What are the site characteristics? Soil, rainfall and temperature across the year, aspect, prevailing winds, slopes and contours.

ii/ What are your objectives? Construction timber? High value timber? Posts? Poles? Food? Onfarm use? Selling off-farm? Firewood? Bioenergy? Wattle structures? Rustic furniture? Bee fodder? Stock shelter and shade? Erosion management? Biodiversity? Habitat?

iii/ Do you want to have a go at practices like coppicing and hedge laying?

iv/ Timeframe. How soon do you want a return? Will you leave the property - and trees - for your children?

v/ How much area do you want to use for trees? Will you plant fence to fence, scattered in a paddock or in small coupes/woodlots?

vi/ Do you want to plant exotics, natives or a mix?

vii/ Do you want a monoculture plantation - some species occur naturally in largely single species stands - or to employ analogue forestry or another mixed species approach?

viii/ Budget. Will you grow some seedlings yourself? It's cheaper to raise trees from seed but it does require time and some skills. Specialist tree nurseries are good at growing trees and will save you time and effort.

ix/ Will you prune yourself? This will involve ladder work. Watching NZ videos of people pruning 12m high is sobering. Pruning for 6m clearwood logs is a common aim.

x/ How will you exclude stock and manage opportunistic browsers such as deer, wallabies and rabbits ?

xi/ Weed and fire fuel load management plan. Once stock are excluded grass and weeds will grow. Once the canopy closes in a densely planted coupe, grass and weeds will be suppressed but that will be some time down the track and may not occur for some weeds, such as blackberries, depending on the type of planting. Blackberries are a tough, successful plant that wants to grow in woodlands and forest edges. As well as rank grass and weeds, once the trees start dropping bark, dead branches, windthrow etc this is potentially a fire risk.

xii/ Will you harvest and thin yourself? This raises issues about safety and training in felling and chainsaw use. Forestry is about the most dangerous rural activity.

xiii/ Will you want to clear-fell - again well-suited to some species natural response to events like fire and cyclone - or use a technique like continuous cover forestry?

xiv/ How much time do you want to spend on forestry per annum?

xv/ What tools will you use? What do you own, what will you buy or hire and what will you get contractors to do? This will depend on whether you want to fell, buck and limb yourself or contract a harvester, use farm equipment to move logs or contractor trucks on farm tracks/roads (which will need to be a suitable standard for trucks to use), mill onsite or at a sawmill (which will require transport to the mill) and so on. Harvest is easier for  the farmer when done by external parties but there is less return to the grower. And for some sites it is prohibitively expensive to get contractor equipment to the coupe so the only option is smaller scale harvesting

Black cockatoos tucking into pine cones in a shelterbelt.

Cows in shelter on a warm summer day. These trees are under ten years old.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

In the garden .....

A few shots of the hard workers in the garden....

bee on perennial basil

bee visiting apricot flower

Getting stuck into a sage flower

Covered in pollen

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Landcare brings together beekeepers, landowners and agroforestry

The South Gippsland Landcare Network (SGLN) is a very active Landcare group with a keen interest in the important role bees play in terms of food security.  To highlight the role bees play in agriculture, SGLN recently organised an event called "Do you want bees in your bushland? Opportunities for landowners and beekeepers" at Berry CreekWith an interest in bees and land in the area, we were keen to attend. Although we arrived on time, we were lucky to get a seat - a crowd of over 100 turned up!

One of the guest speakers, Mark Leech, author of the book "Bee Friendly: A planting guide for European honeybees and Australian native pollinators" came from Tasmania to present at the event. We have a copy of his book and can highly recommend it if you are considering planting for bee forage. Mark set the scene for why we should care about what's happening to bees and the problems they're facing. He then talked about how we could all help bees be strong and vital by planting abundant, quality pollen sources.

Mark taking the audience through why bees are important. (Photo SGLN)
Plants planted for a variety of outcomes such as pasture, crops, food, decorative plants, farm forestry, revegetation and restoration, can all be useful sources of pollen for bees. By taking that into consideration farmers, landowners and home gardeners can make planting choices to benefit bees. Mark is a forester with a strong interest in agroforestry. He is very enthusiastic about growing high-value timber on farms for multiple beneficial outcomes including encouraging bees for honey and pollination.

Another of the speakers, Howard Stevens from South Gippsland Beekeepers, gave a talk on local beekeeping and honey production. This was a great opportunity for farmers and landholders to get an idea of what beekeeping involves, how farming practices affect bees and the potential for beekeeping to act as an additional income stream. Local beekeepers, some of them farmers, spoke about how they got into beekeeping. They all stressed the importance of being able to hook up with an experienced mentor - something helped by joining a local beekeeping club. The synergy between bees, honey production and Landcare was also highlighted.

Howard Stevens (left) with local beekeepers
(Photo SGLN)

At the risk of making you all groan, there was a real buzz in the air at the end of the night, with farmers, landholders and beekeepers chatting about future possibilities.  As a direct result of community interest SGLN will soon be launching an online match-making service linking beekeepers with farmers in Gippsland.  Wouldn't it be great if this level of interest was nationwide?

This was the first of SGLN's events to focus on bees - stay tuned as there will be more events to come. 

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Learning to crochet

Years ago I bought a book full of crochet projects with the intention of teaching myself how to crochet.  Somehow I always got side-tracked with knitting and never seemed to find the time.

Over the Christmas break I dug out the book. Called Simple Crochet by Erika Knight, it really did have some nice things in it to make.

I thought I'd try and make the circular cushion on the cover:

Checking in the stash I found some 8 ply natural coloured cotton yarn and a crochet hook.  I started off by making a simple square in the 'double crochet' stitch - the same stitch used in the cushion pattern. The book has good instructions for each of the stitches:

 It took a me a few goes to get the hang of it. 

Once I was happy with the square I started on the cushion. It is made up of 2 circles that are 40 cm in diameter, joined at the edges by a row of crochet.  On those days where it was too hot to go outside I worked away on my circles.  Eventually I got them both done:

Now all I need is a round cushion insert so I can complete the project. That has proved pretty tricky to find so I think I'll end up having to make one.  Oh well, it'll get done...........eventually.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Coppicing silverbeet

We had some volunteer silverbeet pop up in our lawn area.  We figured it wanted to grow there so we left it. And grow it did - big and tall. We had silverbeet over 2m high in some spots this year. Plenty of silverbeet was produced. And it was good. Achieving silverbeet security is one of the less challenging tasks for the urban homesteader in Melbourne.

We let the lawn die off over summer (with some help from intensive guinea pig grazing) and so did the silverbeet. In an easy way to clean up productives past their prime we ran the mower over them. This left some stalks that we thought were dead.

But the plants have re-sprouted from the sides of the stubs just like a tree coppicing from the stool.

We are developing a nice little silverbeet crop again.

The perfect low maintenance crop :) Some evidence suggests there are coppiced forests in Europe have been managed in this fashion for thousands of years. Perhaps our coppiced silverbeet will be a cut and come again crop for many seasons to come!