Thursday, May 21, 2009

Comfrey bed

The Transition Housewife and I recently spend some time at Chris Dixon’s permaculture designed place in Wales. In return for a tour of his smallholding we volunteered a few days of our time.

I first heard of Chris’s work when he replied to a letter I wrote to Permaculture magazine (issue 59) about the viability of hill farming. Shortly after that the BBC2’s Natural World program - A Farm for the Future aired, in which he was interviewed by Rebecca Hosking about his permaculture designed smallholding.

The tour was very informative. Chris and his family have been converting the land since they bought it in 1986, from traditional hill sheep farm lawn to the integrated, complex and useful ecosystems that is it now. There is a full history of their land site on I particularly enjoyed listening to the way that the land changed in the early years and the pioneer species of plants and birds that brought essential plant nutrients back into the environment. Gorse (nitrogen), bird droppings (phosphorus) and Bracken (potassium), all of which combine to make an NPK fertiliser in natural, organic, no-work way which enabled the ecology to evolve and become more complex. It was difficult to remember that the areas we were walking through used to be sheep grazed lawn.

The second day in Wales I spent at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) attending a thesis workshop for the MSC I’m studying. The Transition Housewife returned to the smallholding and was set to work on the comfrey bed. Comfrey is an excellent source of nitrogen and potassium. In this instance Chris had been using the plants to make a liquid fertiliser and it was time to make more, but I’ll let the Transition Housewife tell you about her comfrey day.

We have some comfrey at home, but it’s struggling at end of the garden in a very hard patch of land. I’m keen to use it in our compost bins and by laying the leaves on the ground to provide essential nutrients to food forest front garden.

Comfrey waiting to be plantedChris very kindly gave us some comfrey to take home. We divided the roots and got just over 20 plants. When they were in the ground, we covered the area around each plant with cardboard (free boxes from the local supermarket) and mulched with compost from one of our compost bins at the back.

Newly planted comfreyWhile we were working on the front garden, we mulched around the hazel trees with grass from mowing the remaining parts of the front lawn. We both quite liked the daisies and grasses that were growing, but as the Transition Housewife says too much change in one instance might be a little difficult, all the other lawns are very nicely manicured so it’s essential that ours looks maintained too. (The back garden? – that’s another story!).

I’m pleased with the transformation so far.

Comfrey patch in the food forest front gardenAlthough it’s difficult to tell from the photo, the hazel trees are in leaf and all doing well apart from one, but there is no sign of insect or other damage, so hopefully it will pull through.

If all the new comfrey plants grow, there will be plenty for liquid fertilisers and mulch.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

1 month and 9 days

April 2009 rubbish weigh-in235grams for April. Considering that this month it looks like we 'ave been mostly eating Doritos and we are nine days into May, I think we did okay.

One thing this month, we had a few items delivered in bags made from polythene that is "oxo-degradable" stating "please dispose of responsibly through landfill" - a statement that looks like an oxymoron to me. I'll need to investigate these plastics further. If anyone has found any good reference sites, I'd very much appreciate you posting the links.

The Transition Housewife insists that she can make keyrings out of the crisp packets but that, she says, will have to wait until she has a baking day. They're in the bin for now though.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Reforestation in Borneo

A website I visit fairly regularly is, The Permaculture Research Insitute of Australia. The home page is regularly updated with interesting articles written by people from all over the world.

A short piece about the reforestation on an area in Borneo caught my eye. It linked to a 20 minute presentation by Willie Smits, a Dutch forestry scientist. He emigrated to Indonesia 20 years ago to help the country grow trees, but a chance encounter with a dying baby Orangutan changed the direction of his work - culminating not only in his creating the biggest orangutan rehabilitation center in the world, but also in restoring large tracts of rainforest in a community-based endeavour that is bringing work and prosperity to the people too.

I watched the presentation. This guy is great. Truely inspirational.

We hear so much about the deforestation of Indonesia because of the demand for palm oil. It was good to hear about Samboja Lestari - "the greatest reforestation project on earth".

If the You Tube video doens't work, you can catch it at or on

If you live in the UK, you might have seen some of the rescued orangutans on the BBC's Orangutan diaries.

Dodo the orangutanAfter watching the video, going to the Red Apes site and listening to Bonnie the whistling orangutan, the Transition Housewife and I just had to adopt Dodo the newest member of the Orangutan Outreach centre.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Rubbish record

March 2009 Rubbish weigh-inThis month we remembered to check out the A - Z of recycling on our local council's website before we started sorting out our bins.

The things we know to recycle, compost and re-use get put in the relevant place during the month, but by the end of the month the kitchen bin (in particular) was still getting pretty full. Mainly plastics, some spent indelible pens, a disposable razor and some broken rubber bands.

Plastic bags, we've found out, can be taken to the local Household Waste and Recycling centre - that's why this month the rubbish isn't nicely shoved in a plastic bag and it is on the weighing scales in all it's rubbish glory.

So the rubbish weigh-in for March is a new Transition House record of 190 grams.

So far this year we haven't put any of the bins out to be collected. So theoretically we can go back to January and Februarys landfill waste and, with our new recycling knowledge, see if any more can be recycled. That might be a step too far for the Transition Housewife. We'll see.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Carbon Footprint

Following on from seeing the Age of Stupid premiere at the weekend I decided that it was about time we worked out our carbon footprint.

I googled "Carbon footprint calculator" and there were a lot of choices, I also remembered that the Energy Saving Trust had a calculator.

With my electricy and gas bills to hand I clicked the "household" options for each of the following.

Energy Saving Trust - Carbon Cutter
Easy to use calculator in three sections, Household, Appliances and Your travel. The Household bit is all about energy bills and energy saving measures like double glazing, loft insulation. I decided to fill in the details for energy use in KWhs rather than amount paid.
The Household results for a year:
Household: 3.27 tonnes of carbon
Applicances: 8.3 tonnes!
Travel: 1.02 tonnes.
Total: 12.59 Tonnes.
I strongly suspected that the appliances section was wrong, so completed it again to see if I've filled anything in incorrectly. It came out with the same result which is over 4 times the national average. I was furious. I don't leave any appliances on standby (the electricity use was already accounted for in the first section), and we don't have half the appliances they were asking about. The Transition Housewife emailed the Energy Saving Trust (EST) team. It turns out that there is a major programming error in that part of the calculator which they are now going to fix. Not good EST, but good that they reacted quickly to our feedback. I'll update this post when they've put it right.

Direct Gov - Act on CO2
This calculator has exactly the same questions as the EST one, but is an interactive "flash" version.
On that site the household results (for a year) were:
Household: 3.26 tonnes of carbon
Applicances: 0.61 tonnes
Travel: 1.28 tonnes
Total: 5.11 Tonnes.
Act on CO2 results for the Transition House

WWF Footprint calculator
The World Wildlife Fund's calculator is slightly different. When you have completed it, it works out how many planets the world would need if everyone lived in the same way as you (not the household).
WWF Footprint calculator results for the Transition HouseThe first sections can be completed quite quickly and cover; Food, travel, home and stuff. You can then go on to refine your answers and (hopefully) lower your footprint score.
My score for the year was;
Food: 1.04 tonnes.
Travel: 2.09 tonnes.
Home: 2.09 tonnes.
Stuff: 1.74 tonnes.
Total: 6.96 tonnes or 1.63 planets.
A commercial site, that would like to sell you ways of off-setting the carbon that it calculates. The 8 sections are quick to complete and include: welcome, house, flights, car, motorbike, public transport and secondary (buying organic, local produce etc). The transport section had the option of including "radiative forcing" in the calculation for flights.
The results for our household for the year were:
Household: 0.45 tonnes.
Flights: 0.6 or 1.73 tonnes.
Car: 0.83 tonnes.
Public Transport: 0.05 tonnes.
Secondary: 2.96 tonnes.
Total: 4.89 or 6.02 tonnes.

Most of the sites say that for a UK household the average carbon footprint is around 10 tonnes per year. Depending on the calculator, we are between 5 and 7 tonnes. Of course none of the calculators are exact and the questionnaires are designed to be short enough to glean some info, but not so long that you become bored and give up.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Food forest front garden

Our front garden is a north-west(ish) facing slope with very little growing in it. It used to have a laburnum tree but it had been suffering for a few years and last year didn't produce any flowers so we've taken it out. Turned out the roots were completely rotten. The front garden was looking even more bare than usual - just grass, a small pyracantha, a pot containing lily-of-the-valley and some lupins. That is until a few days ago.

The Transition Housewife and I have been discussing what to do with the front garden for a while now. She wants to terrace it on contour to create a series of lavender planted steps that will retain rain water and "look gorgeous". I want to plant a forest garden.

Hazel treesSo we're going to do both. We found some hazel hedging plants at a local nursery that were only £1.25 each, much cheaper than buying standard hazel trees, so we bought 10. We've planted the trees out on contour so that the terraces can be cut into the garden when we've worked out how to make sure the "steps" don't collapse.

I also have to find out what food plants are shade loving and can grow under the hazels.

I suspect in this suburban area our plans will raise a few eyebrows, there is a bit of a culture of mowing the lawn on a sunny afternoon. We'll see.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Ash forest

Ever since I took my wife away on a weekend green woodworking course she has cornered just about everyone we know to find out if they have a piece of ash she can have to make into the pole part of a pole lathe.

We have two ash trees at the bottom of the garden, unfortunately none of the branches are straight enough or long enough for the desired pole. The trees do, however, have a lot of seeds left on them from last year. So I've been wondering how long and how many seeds we would need to create an ash forest.

Ash seedsAccording to Ray Tabor's book "The Encyclopedia of Green Woodworking" for ash there are approximately 13,200 seeds per kg and you can expect a 50% germination rate.

I collected 1.675Kg of seeds from the lower boughs of our trees. If 50% of them grow we will have just over 11,000 trees, enough for 4.4 hectares (10.9 acres) of land (based on a 2m spacing)!

At the moment though the seeds are in a container in the kitchen. I'm going to plant them in a mix of compost and sand in cardboard boxes (the kind that fruit is packaged in - free from the local co-op), I just need to collect enough boxes. Then the boxes will be stored at the bottom of the garden.

It takes up to two winters for the seeds to germinate, so this time next year I will expect lots of ash seedlings. At least it gives us time to find suitable land to plant them out on.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Rubbish rubbish weigh in

February 2009 rubbish weigh-in
800grams for February. How did that happen?

Even more plastic in the bin than last month. A lot of pitta bread plastic packaging. I perhaps need to rethink my work packed lunch (generally something in a pitta rather than a more traditional bread sandwich), or find a way of re-using or recycling the packaging. The transition housewife says it's not suitable for plarn.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

How long before mushrooms?

My wife (Transition Housewife) has been vegetarian for years. She was really pleased when, a few months before Christmas, the local co-op supermarket started to stock different mushrooms to the ubiquitous closed cup button variety, what's more they were locally produced. Great. However, she bemoaned the fact that they were overpackaged and sporadically stocked.

So I bought her an Oyster mushroom growing kit for Christmas - the kind that involves recycling a book - which she loved and had found a suitable book to recycle before Christmas lunch.

Little did I know that her presents to me consisted of:

A definate hint. (Actually the Mycelium book is brilliant and the Mushroom guide, comprehensive).

Mushroom spawn dowel before tapped into Silver Birch logThe problem was that the mushroom spore grain for the logs didn't come with any logs. What's more, the logs needed to be a specific size, type of tree and felled within 6 weeks. So the hunt was on for logs.

Eventually we were given some freshly felled silver birch by our local RSPB volunteer woodland management group (we volunteer during the winter months for a few hours every other Sunday).

Last Sunday (a day off from volunteering) I created three mushroom logs, one of each variety. So in 6 - 18 months we should be harvesting our own gourmet mushrooms.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Permaculture on BBC 2 - must see

I've just had a note from Apparently permaculture will feature on the BBC 2 Natural Word series. The programme "A Farm for the Future" will be broadcast on Friday the 20th of February on BBC 2 at 8pm (and repeated Sunday the 22nd). They hadn't seen the film but understand that it will cover the basics of peak oil and permaculture. Contributors to the film include;

It looks like a good line up of people, the programme should be interesting.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

First rubbish weigh in

January 2009 rubbish weigh-in
Today I put the rubbish in the black bin for the first time this year. The rubbish (from the kitchen bin) all fitted into one small white plastic shopping bag and consisted entirely of plastic wrapping material. My local council does not recycle this type of plastic.
The rubbish weighed 550 g (1.21 lbs).

I need to either buy less in plastic packaging, or find a way of reusing/recycling this type of plastic rubbish.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Age of Stupid trailer

The Age of Stupid is due to be released in cinemas on March 20th.

The Age of Stupid: final trailer Feb 2009 from Age of Stupid on Vimeo.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Carbon weevils

I found this YouTube video this morning and thought I would share it with you.

If for some reason the video isn't working the carbon weevils can usually be found at:

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Washing-up with soapods

One of the, so-far unwritten, rules of our Transition House experiment is, if you run out of something find out if there is a better alternative before mindlessly rushing to buy the same thing again.

On Saturday, we ran out of washing-up liquid.

We usually buy a biodegradeable product in a 1 litre plastic bottle and recycle the bottle in the fortnightly bin collection. When the washing-up liquid started to run out, I investigated alternatives.

We've been using soapods in the washing machine to clean our clothes for over a year. They do a good job.

(Soapods (or soap nuts) are the pods from a tropical tree native to India and southern China the Sapindus Mukorossi. The pods contain a high level of saponin - a natural detergent).

So we decided to find out what soapods are like when made into a washing-up liquid. There are full instructions on

The results

Not as many bubbles as I'm used to (actually hardly any - which was surprising, as when used in the washing machine there are plenty of bubbles), but then most products add "foam boosters" which have nothing to do with cleaning power (although my original brand claimed not to add them).

I'm reserving judgment on the cleaning power, it cleans, but then so does water on it's own, perhaps I need to just get used to the lack of bubbles. In any case, I need to do more experiments to see how it compares to just water.

I'm not sure I simmered the pods for long enough, I suspect a stronger liquid can be obtained as the soapods felt quite soapy after the second simmer.

On the plus side, after washing up my hands are less dry and the expired pods have been composted.

Must remember to check thoroughly for soapod seeds before boiling. I found a seed. My wife has planted it anyway to see if it grows.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Straw Bale Urinal

Well, I admit it's not the usual thing to do on New Year's Day, but I set up a straw bale urinal. Why? Because, quite simply urine is Liquid Gold!

This is what a typical adult produces a day:

Urine produced per adult per day:
Quantity - 1000 - 1,500g/day wet weight
Water Content - 93 - 96%

Contents, Typical daily yield:
Nitrogen (N)- 8g
Phosphorus (P)- 2g
Potassium (K)- 2g
Calcium (Ca)- 2g
Carbon (C):N Ratio - 1:2
Pathogens - None in normal circumstances
(Source: Harper, P. and Halestrap, L. 1999, Lifting the Lid - I've been reading it as part of my MSC)

All that Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium and Calcium is ideal for growing crops. And believe it or not, in healthy people urine is sterile. Plus, pouring that urine down the toilet can cause problems to river water.

Good garden compost needs a ratio Carbon:Nitrogen ratio of about 30:1. You can see from the figures above that urine has more nitrogen than carbon. A straw bale on the other hand is almost all carbon. So the solution is get a straw bale and pour (or directly apply) urine you've collected onto it. The fresher the urine the better - don't let it stand in a container for more than a day. I'm collecting mine in a 6 pint plastic milk container - empty.

I bought a couple of dry straw bales from my local farm shop Hollow Trees in Semer for £2.50 each and a couple of reusable plastic bags to carry them home in. Then I covered one of our small 1 metre by 1 metre raised beds with cardboard, put the straw bale on top and have been generously applying urine on a daily basis. I'm keeping the bale covered with one of the plastic bags between applications.

The straw bale weighed 2.5 stone - just under 16 kilos, with a Carbon:Nitrogen ratio of 80:1. At the moment I don't know how much Carbon by weight. I don't actually know the Nitrogen content of my urine, but as I have a good diet high in protein - plant protein only now of course (except for free range organic eggs and milk) - I should be putting out at least 8g Nitrogen a day. Note: I'm not getting into molar mass stuff here. Carbon's atomic weight is (usually)12 and Nitrogen's is 14 so they pretty close enough for this type of experiment. But I won't always be at home when I urinate, I may be at work or out, and some the nitrogen in the urine can oxidised in ammonia gas and drift away. But as I haven't got figures for the Carbon content of the bale yet I'll continue to pour my urine on the bale and hopefully watch it break down into rich humus that I can spread on my vegetable plot - or maybe grow oyster mushrooms in - but that's another experiment.