Monday, 7 July 2014

Eye candy

We love wood here at PragSust - wooden homes, interiors, furniture, household items - we love it all. If you do too, then here's some eye candy :)









Friday, 13 June 2014

Becoming more sustainable: things you can do around the house

There are lots of ways to be sustainable around the house and many save you money too.  Here are some of the sustainable features and practices at our place

1.  Rooftop PV panels
2.  Solar hot water system
3.  Insulation installed in roof
4.  Insulation installed in sub-floor
5.  Home heating unit replaced with efficient wood heater. Waste wood collected from local arborist is used to heat the house. Wood ash saved and used on the garden.
6.  Signed up for 100% Green Electricity with energy supplier for the residual electricity used after what we generate
7.  Signed up for 100% Green Gas with energy supplier. The Green Gas scheme uses offsets from voluntary carbon emission reduction programs but at the very least sends a message
8.  Replaced incandescent globes with compact fluorescent and led lights
9.  Switch off appliances at the wall when not in use
10. Hills hoist "solar clothes dryer". During winter we also dry clothes on a rack in front of the wood heater. We do have a dryer that we use occasionally but we're on Green Power so no emissions.

11. No air conditioner. Close blinds when hot, installed flyscreens on all window so they can be opened up to let house cool
12. House is painted a light colour, absorbs less heat
13. Single car household
14. Walk and take public transport in general

1.  Installed two 9300 litre water tanks

2.  Grey water from laundry used to water garden. Landfax Labs recommended detergent is used so wash water is safe for garden use.
3.  Mulch garden to prevent moisture loss. The mulch is sourced from local arborist waste so this reduces landfill
4.  Water from shower and kitchen sink saved to water garden during periods of minimal or no rainfall
5.  Front loading washing machine purchased when the old machine died. This reduced water/load from around 200 litres  to 50 litres  

1.  Grow organic fruit and vegetables
2.  Planted 43 fruit trees, 8 fruiting shrubs (e.g. guavas etc), 7 kinds of berries (raspberries, boysenberries etc)
3.  Buy organic foods
4.  Make our own honey, jam, marmalade, preserved fruit, bread, beer, vinegar and soap

5.  Cook from scratch - e.g. making our own muesli, trying not to buy much in the way of processed foods
6.  Composting system consisting of 5 large compost bins. Collect on average 8 litres of compost each day from workplace to add to our bins, in addition to the compost generated at home. Also use large barrels  (ex-pickle barrels) to kill persistent grasses by submersion (which would survive composting) and produce liquid manure
7.  Reduce waste, try not to buy overly packaged food and other goods
8.  Happy to buy second-hand stuff and repair existing things, thus reducing embodied energy
9.  Use environmentally friendly washing products
10. Tools such as chain-saw, lawn mower are electric (household is on green power) rather than petrol engined
11. Buy in bulk to save money and trips
12. Always have a pile of re-useable shopping bags in the car, and one in the handbag

13. Thinking twice about what we want and if we really need it, saving up for stuff that really lasts, instead of cheap things that won't
14. Knitting jumpers, socks and other items of clothing for ourselves, family and friends
15. Using a sewing machine to repair and alter clothes
16. Displaying a "No Junk Mail" sticker on the letter box. This saves us around 40 kg of junk mail each year.

Reuse and Recycle  
1.  Store food, lunches in reusable containers - no need to use gladwrap!
2.  Asking our friends to save glass jars and beer bottles for use when we harvest honey, make preserves and home-brew
3.  Saving Moccona coffee jars - they make excellent jars for storing dried foods and spices

4.  Save newspapers and cardboard for use to suppress weeds under mulched paths and in creating no-dig garden beds
5.  Buying goods in second-hand stores, and checking ebay to find pre-loved furniture, clothes and other items
6.  De-cluttering and donating things we no longer use
7.  Bartering goods (eg produce, home-brew, preserves and honey) with neighbours and friends

None of the above things are rocket science and most are super easy to do. In fact, you're probably doing a lot of these things already!

Sunday, 8 June 2014

In the garden ....

A few pictures from our winter garden ...

Our Meyer lemon has a good crop

As do the orange trees

The pepino is fruiting

We've had a good crop of feijoas (pineapple guava)

Silverbeet is springing up everywhere, including taking over a patch of the lawn

The jonquils are already starting to flower................and winter has only just started!

What's happening in your garden?


Monday, 2 June 2014

Cleaning really dirty wax

Borrowing from the Warre style of beekeeping, at the beginning of spring when the hive starts to put on weight, we place a new box at the base of the hive to give the bees room to expand.  Adding boxes this way results in the older boxes gradually moving up the hive, eventually becoming honey boxes, which are then removed and harvested. 

We use the 'crush and strain' method to harvest the honey and then purify the wax from the leftover crushed comb. We do this for a variety of reasons - crush and strain is low tech and easy, but it also helps to reduce the chance of disease occurring in a hive by not reusing comb. This harvesting method results in a lower honey yield, as the bees have to direct more resources into building wax rather than storing honey, but that's okay with us.

When we packed down our hive into 2 boxes for winter this year (see here) we removed the top box.   Not all the frames in this box were filled with capped honey - parts of the comb were empty.  The frames towards the centre in the harvested box contained very dark comb - not surprising considering that this was the original brood box and had been on the hive for 3 years.  If it had been earlier in the season we'd have left the box on the hive and harvested it later. However we were packing down for winter so the box needed to come off. The box below had nectar and enough capped honey for the bees over winter. We'd noted that the hive had not really been putting on much weight over late summer and autumn - it had been holding steady for the most part. Being novices we wondered (rightly or wrongly) if as the nest moved down the hive over summer (we don't use an excluder), the bees would be less likely to continue to fill the uppermost box if there was ample room above the nest in the boxes below. I think they may have also used some of the stores in the top box.  Whatever the reason, there was some empty comb in the box we removed. 

We cut out the honey-filled comb from each of the frames and crushed and strained that.  That left us with some empty, very dark coloured comb.  This was the first time we'd had empty comb to deal with - in previous years all the frames had been filled out with honey.  So what to do with that rather dirty looking comb?  Well, after asking around here's what we did.

Firstly we mashed it up and added it to some water, then put it all in a double boiler on the stove.  Here's what it looked like:

And here it is a bit later when the wax had melted.  As you can see there was still lots of lumpy stuff in there that didn't melt.

Next step was to make a funnel-shaped strainer out of some metal flyscreen and suspend it over a clean plastic bucket with some water in it.  The hot mixture was poured into the flyscreen funnel. The lumpy junk was caught in the strainer and the wax and water mixture dripped through.

We left it for 24 hours to enable the wax to properly solidify. There was a surprising amount of junk left in the strainer. 

The wax separates out from the water as it cools. What you end up with is a disc of wax floating on dark coloured water in the bottom of the bucket. Being plastic, the bucket is nice and flexible so it's easy to get the wax disc out.

The wax had a bit of gunk stuck to the bottom, most of which was easy to scrape off. 

It's now ready for the solar purification step...........when the weather warms up again. 

Wednesday, 28 May 2014


What's been happening at PragSust HQ lately? 

Well, amongst other things.........some socks have been finished 

And a new knitting project started

The hive has been packed down for winter 

There was honey to harvest

Soap has been made

And we helped harvest potatoes that were part of a biochar trial (more on that topic in another post)

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Insulating the hive over winter

To help keep our bees warm over winter and reduce condensation in the hive, this year we thought we'd trial a method of insulating the hive recommended by Eric Smith at the Victorian Apiarists' Association (VAA). Eric is a very knowledgeable commercial beekeeper who runs the 'Beginners Corner' session at the VAA Melbourne section meetings.  His sessions are a great way to learn about beekeeping and get your beekeeping questions answered. You can see Eric on YouTube here

To prepare our hive for winter we packed it down to 2 full-size boxes. 

As part of the pack-down process we added some insulation as recommended by Eric. To do this we bought some wall insulation sheeting, called SilverWrap. The product details are shown below.

It's silver on one side and blue on the other. You can get it at hardware shops like Bunnings.

A piece was cut to match the footprint of the hive box.  This was placed silver-side down directly on top of the frames in the top box. The hive mat was placed on top and the lid put back on.

Eric uses this method on all his hives during winter. He checks his hives by peeling back part of the insulation and seeing how active his bees are. Without the insulation they huddled in a cluster. Now that he uses the insulation he says the hives are much warmer and the bees are quite active.

Our hive doesn't catch much sun during winter so this insulation should help to keep things warmer and drier. It'll be interesting to see how active the hive is over winter....

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Current reading list

We love our books here at PragSust and always have a few on the go.  Here are a few from our current reading list we thought we'd share:

Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutsen.  Kelly and Erik are the LA couple behind the terrific Root Simple blog.  If you haven't come across it you should definitely check it out. They have an engaging, no-nonsense approach to urban sustainable living that we find incredibly appealing. They just get on with it and show others how they can too.

The book is a collection of sustainable do-it-yourself projects, ranging from very simple ones to more complex.  To give you an idea of the scope of the book, the table of contents is shown below.

Written in a clear and engaging way, the projects are inexpensive and very do-able. They will also give you new skills while saving you lots of money. What's not to like about that? We're already doing some of the things covered  - such as growing food, bread baking, brewing, preserving, soap-making, making some of our own cleaning products and keeping bees, but the book is full of heaps and heaps of other projects that we'd love to have a go at. 

Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley. This is a fascinating book. Thomas D. Seeley, a world renowned animal behaviourist, has spent decades studying bees. Bees reproduce by swarming. The swarm of bees leaves the original colony and finds a temporary spot to alight, such as a tree branch, while it searches for a permanent home. The survival of the swarm depends upon being able to find a suitable new home within a limited time frame.  In this book Seeley brings together all the research to describe the collective and democratic process in which bees choose and travel to a new home. He describes the fact-finding process, the debate and the consensus process that the bees undergo to find a new home, as well as the navigation process that takes them there. Seeley also considers the similarities between bee swarms and how primate brains work and how this pertains to effective decision making.

The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower's handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming by Jean-Martin Fortier. Jean and his wife run a productive and profitable micro-farm consisting of 1.5 acres in Quebec. Using a low-tech strategy and a focus on growing better, not bigger, their market garden now produces enough vegetables to feed over 200 families (that's not a typo!) and generates enough income to support them. In this book he outlines how they have achieved this.

While we're not planning to start our own CSA, this book is a great insight on how to get high productivity on a small piece of land in a way that minimises costs. We're reading with a view to increasing the productivity of our suburban plot.

Any good books you've read lately that you'd like to share?