Monday, 30 April 2012

A Beginner's Guide to Straw Bale Gardening

by Megan @ The Byron Life

Finally I can give Simple, Green, Frugal readers a run-down on what I have learned from my experiments in straw bale gardening over summer. So many of you encouraged me to give it a try, and I am so glad I did! Below is what I wrote on my personal blog last week, but I really wanted to share it here as another resource for the Simple, Green, Frugal Co-op. Please add your tips for straw bale gardening in the comments below for us all to learn from :)

Last year, when we were living up in the hills and I was feasting upon home-grown fruit, collecting eggs and making up compost, I started researching how I could recreate some of this experience when we came back home to our own very small, heavily shaded and water-logged suburban backyard.

Previous vegetable and herb gardens had failed because of the poor drainage on our site, so I thought I would have to build a raised garden in the one sunny part of our yard that isn’t shaded out by established palms and trees or buildings, or stick to container growing. As I was researching raised garden beds online I came across the idea of straw bale gardening and it ticked all the boxes for me. I didn’t need to buy, or build, an expensive or complicated garden bed and then buy a tonne of soil to go in it and the height and structure of the straw bales themselves facilitated a natural draining process.  Over time the bales would break down and I would have more compost for my garden.

Five months on I can vouch for the straw bale gardening method. It has had its successes and failures, like any method, but it is something I would recommend trying if you find yourself in a similar situation of not having the right soil or space. The straw bale garden could also be made as an addition to your established veggie patch: you can grow more food and at the same time create mulch for your garden.

This was my first attempt at straw bale gardening.

And pictured here is the start of my second straw bale garden

I’m onto my second straw bale garden now, although the first one is still producing bits and pieces. When I set up the second one I set it up a bit differently to the first and it is doing well so I thought I’d share how I went about it:

1. The literature I’ve read says use straw instead of hay bales as the hay is made from grass and will contain seeds and you don’t want grass sprouting in your bales... However, I have actually used rose grass bales because the local grower assured me they were organic and were cut before seeding. He even showed me an example of a bale that was 12months old that had begun to compost down, but had no grass sprouting – I was convinced and I’ve got no complaints so far.

2. The bale needs to be tied up securely – that is going to keep the bale from breaking apart over time.

3. Place your bales in the right position in your garden to start with before hosing them down. Once they get wet you can’t easily move the bales because they get too heavy. Experiment with placement until you’re happy, then hose.

4. Once you have them in position, thoroughly soak them with the hose – and I mean drench them. If it rains – bonus!  With my first lot of straw bales I just hosed and watered in some seaweed fertilizer and then planted into them with some compost potting mix. However, I recommend “feeding” the bales a lot more than this to start with so your plants have everything they need to thrive. You could buy an organic fertiliser and water that in or you could go with my method which combines straw bale gardening with the permaculture-style no-dig garden method... read on!

The first layers of manure and paper

5. Once I put the bales in place I hosed them thoroughly, then I spread out a layer of animal manure on the top (horse manure as that was what I was able to get hold of at the time) and then I drenched the whole lot again with the hose so that manure soaked deep into the bales.

6. I then did a “lasagne” layering on top of this using paper (I used plain newsprint I had and also recycled newspapers and cardboard), followed by more manure, followed by compost and food scraps, followed by more paper, followed by a layer of mulch from one of the composted-down straw bales I had been growing from earlier, more paper and finally a layer of sugar cane mulch. I had about six layers, you could do more depending on what you have available.

7. Then I let it sit and stink to high heaven for a few days! (This was in summer and the horse manure was crazy stinky) And over the days I watered it some more to keep it moist. All up I let the bales “condition” in this way for two weeks before planting in them.

8. After hosing down your bales you will feel the heat they emit within a few days – it gets really hot in there as the straw starts its chemical reaction toward composting  - forgive me for not being able to describe this to you more scientifically than that. Have you ever seen a pile of lawn clippings “steaming” or felt the warmth of your backyard compost pile? Well, it’s the same process happening in your straw bales – all you need to activate it is water.

9. Wait until it cools down before planting – you don’t want to burn your plant’s roots. My bales heated up then cooled down with around about a week. You can feel how hot it is just by pushing your hand into the bale.

10. To plant your seedlings, just make a little space in the straw, fill this space or hole, with some potting mix and/or compost and plant your seedling in. Voila! A garden in a straw bale.

You can grow most veggies in the straw bales, but I’m not sure how you would go with very tall plants like corn, or root veggies like potatoes... I’ve had success so far with little tomatoes, beans, cucumbers and a variety of herbs including those enormous basil plants which have taken over this summer (and that is a good thing as I love basil). Now I have eggplant, Asian cabbages and lettuce growing... And, I have a surprise pumpkin! It sprouted after I put the compost and food scraps down on the bales and I let it grow. Very exciting.

Eventually your straw bales will compost down and you will need to start a new straw bale garden on top – or do what I’ve done and “recycle” all of that delicious mulch to use on top of the next straw bale garden.
As it composts, the bales will sink and darken and look a tad untidy.  If you don’t want the wild, messy look then maybe you could build a bed from timber or tin or stone etc and use the straw bale method inside the garden bed.  I’m thinking that will be my next move – to keep using the straw bale method, but do it inside a more permanent structure.

Once they do break down they provide such rich mulch, and mine were full of earth worms when I pulled a few bales apart – yay!

Hope this “how to” gives budding gardeners some ideas on how easy it is to start a veggie patch. I’m a complete beginner to this veggie-growing bizo, and I’ve got a lot to learn, but we have been enjoying fresh food from our tiny patch all summer. If I can do it, so can you!



Saturday, 28 April 2012

Help! Simple Recipe for Tomato Paste?

By Eilleen
Consumption Rebellion

Hello everyone!

Well, we are finally at the end of our tomato season here at ONC*.  Readers of my personal blog will know that I'm no gardener.  Having said that, I have been blessed by tomatoes growing in my garden anyway. I didn't plant them there, they just pop up every year at random spots in my garden.  Its been really lovely.

But now that I'm at the end of the tomato season, I have heaps of cherry tomatoes that must now be used up quickly!

I need some tomato paste so I thought I'd try making some from scratch.  So I need your help! Can you please recommend a good simple tomato paste recipe using cherry tomatoes for me?

Thank you! 

*ONC = Our Nation's Capital (Australia)

Friday, 27 April 2012

Chicks on the Coffee Table

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
We keep a small flock of 12-15 chickens. We like the fresh eggs, and usually have enough extra to sell or barter. I have a chicken bucket in my kitchen instead of a garbage disposal, and their manure heats up my garden compost pile. The girls are pets, really, so we keep even those too old to lay until they die of old age.

We keep our egg supply going by buying a few baby girls almost every Spring from the local Feed Store. Since we're only raising a few babies annually, we don't have the need for a big expensive brooding set-up. Our chicken coop is unheated, and the floor has big gaps the babies would fall through, so we can't put the babies outside. An upside-down dog crate, on top of the coffee table in front of the wood stove, works for us.

Chicks are shipped, either to you or to the Feed Stores, the same day they're hatched. The hatcheries will only ship in large groups so they'll keep each other warm in transit, but once you get the chicks keeping them warm is the most important. They survive without food for a couple of days after hatching (if a hen is hatching out a clutch of eggs this allows her to set on the late-hatching eggs a couple more days without having to get up and find food for the first-hatched) because they're still nourished by the remains of their yolk sacs.

My feed store sells chick feed by the pound, so depending on how many chicks we get I'll buy 2-5 pounds - aiming for enough to last for 10 - 12 weeks. I line the crate with paper for bedding (chopped hay or wood shavings could also be used, but that would be too messy in the house. You want to use bedding material too big for them to eat, especially at first, so sawdust isn't a good idea). For their first week, newspaper is too slick for the babies to stand on and could lead to leg problems, so if I've got day-old chicks I'll use paper towels for the first week to 10 days. You also have to check their butts for the first week - cleaning them off with a damp towel if they get pasted up with dried poo.

I put a few more layers of newspaper down each evening, making sure they have a clean and dry place to sleep. A couple of times a week I'll roll up the old layers, put them into the compost bin, and put down a fresh layer. By the time they're about 6 weeks old, they start using their perch. I found a little feeder designed to be used with a canning jar in a second-hand store, but before I got that I'd use a clay plant saucer. The main thing is to use something low enough that they can eat out of and heavy enough that they can't tip it over. The feeder is great! It keeps them from getting inside their feed dish, and scratching food out all over the place.

This year, I'm using a heavy-bottomed water dish designed for a reptile terrarium. In the past, I made a waterer they couldn't stand in from of a soup can with a couple of holes punched near the rim, filled with water, and then flipped into a glazed plant saucer, a pointy tippy rock on top of the can to keep them from trying to perch on it. Once they go outside, I make a bigger one using the same method, out of a coffee can flipped into a cake pan.

Day-old chicks need 90F temperatures for the first week, and then can handle 5º less each week. For their first few weeks, I rig up a red Christmas bulb to hang down close to the floor of the crate. By 3-4 weeks of age, they're ok with temperatures in the middle-70's. By loading up the wood stove each night before bedtime, it stays warm enough for them through the night. They'll be huddled together for warmth in the morning, but quiet. As soon as I start a fire and open the shade to let in the sun, they're up and scrabbling about, happy little cheepers.

Chicks will let you know if something is wrong - they let out a loud, sharp alarm call. When they're content, they make a soft twittering noise. Having the dog crate upside-down puts the windows down at their level, and gives me a place to wedge a perching stick down close. They can be a bit messy scratching about, so I have a big sheet of plastic underneath, wrapped up over the top on the couch side of the crate to catch any bits of food or paper they may toss out. I have to vacuum underneath the table every day, as I leave the room side open. I like watching them watching me when I'm sitting in my chair, listening to them twitter.

This afternoon it was sunny and almost 60º outside so I loaded them into the cat carrier and put them out in the dog run for a couple of hours. They got a chance to sun themselves, scratch about, and dust-bathe. The rest of the flock got the chance to check them out, and I got the chance to give the crate a good cleaning (can't have the house smelling like a chicken coop). It'll be at least another month before they're feathered out enough to go out in the dog run full-time. By mid-July, they'll be big enough to join the rest of the flock in the coop.

I ♥ stoneware

 Aurora @ Island Dreaming

Two Christmases ago we were given a stoneware pizza stone; and it has proved one of the most useful presents we have ever been given. Our oven has a bottom heating element that creates a column of heat that turns the base of anything you are trying to cook black before the rest is even warmed through. This especially spells disaster for anything going in at a high temperature - bread for example. If you consistently fail at baking, it may not be your technique, but your tools. Glass, metal and Teflon (which we avoid anyway) just don't compare if you have an oven like mine.

Our pizza stone has changed all of that. It distributes heat evenly, but insulates the edges of the food from very high heat, giving the bread the best chance at rising and cooking evenly. It also 'seasons' to a smooth, genuinely  non-stick surface that requires very little oiling or lining. As well as loaves, we have also made pizza at least once a fortnight - quick, healthy (if you are frugal with the cheese) and easy to eat on the go if need be. We have since invested in a stoneware brownie tray, not that we eat a lot of brownies (though that might change!), but because it is the perfect size for baking and roasting small quantities of vegetables. I also envision a lot more trays bakes coming from our kitchen in the near future.

New stoneware is a fairly pale, unglazed variant of stone coloured. If it is to perform its non-stick duties well, it will need to be seasoned. An initial seasoning can be achieved by either brushing the new pan with oil and baking it empty at a high heat for an hour or so, or by making sure that the first few times it is used to cook actual food, that that food is quite oily. The latter method is the route we took, the initial result is not as even, but it soon evens out with repeated use and this method also saves energy. The stoneware will initially turn golden, becoming a deeper shade of brown with every use:

Once well seasoned, stoneware can be cleaned with soap if absolutely necessary, although by this time it will be so non-stick that a wipe with a warm damp cloth or short soak in hot water should suffice. Burnt on residue can be scraped off with an old debit card. You can cut food on stoneware, but be warned it will likely blunt your knife, not damage the stoneware itself. The only thing that will truly damage your stoneware is extreme changes in temperature - therefore it should not go from the fridge to a hot oven or vice versa, or be exposed to direct heat. Care should be taken to ensure that stoneware pieces are not dropped or knocked. They may remain intact, but will be weakened and may instead break whilst in use at a later date, when you least expect it.

If you want to invest in stoneware, as always, buy the best you can afford and buy the unglazed variety. You can buy everything from casserole dishes to muffin trays and we are gradually adding pieces to our collection as funds allow. Be prepared to show it a little TLC in the beginning and it will serve you well.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Yet The Band Played On....

by Gavin from The Greening of Gavin

A topical rework of an article I wrote back in 2009.

Who feels like we are all on the RMS Titanic, sailing full steam ahead, not knowing that an iceberg was about to appear on the horizon?  I know I do most of the time.

The passengers and crew of this mighty vessel were unaware of the fate on its maiden voyage, as are most of the 7 billion passengers also unaware of the fate that awaits the Mothership Earth.  This post is not meant to offend the memories of the Titanic tragedy, but to offer a simple comparison against the events of that voyage, and the plight of our current civilisation and vessel that holds and nurtures us.

There is a strong connection to the RMS Titanic story within our family.  My wife Kim's Great Grandfather, William James Major, was a fireman on-board this ship, and luckily happened to be off-watch at the time the great ship struck the iceberg. Had he been at his post and in one of the boiler rooms fulfilling his duty, his chances of survival would have been slim indeed.  He was one of the crewmen allocated to lifeboat #13, and out of the 2,227 passengers and crew members who set sail, only 705 Titanic passengers and crew survived, him being one of them.  That is a 31.6% survival rate.  There were many factors that lead to the sinking of the Titanic on her maiden voyage, and I shall attempt to compare some of these events to the apparent chosen path of the passengers of Mothership Earth, if we to continue to maintain our current course and speed.

The Titanic was deemed by many to be 'unsinkable' which instilled a false sense of security amongst the passengers and crew.  The captain,  Edward Smith was a capable seaman and this was planned to be his retirement voyage.  Also on-board were Bruce Ismay, Chairman of the White Star Line.  Mr Ismay had a point to prove, and wanted to be the first trans-atlantic liner to set a new record crossing time.  The bridge crew and the helmsmen were never really in control of this behemoth of a vessel, but mere puppets as you shall read later.  So it was inevitable that the order from Mr Ismay to the Captain upon setting sail from Cherbourg, was to increase power, and therefore speed for the entire voyage.  So with the course set in, and power and speed increased, with no regard of the safety of the vessel. Yet the band played on.

So, imagine the bridge crew as western governments around the world, and liken the Captain, Mr Ismay, and the powerful owner of the White Star line, Mr Ismay's father as some of the greedy corporations of our current time.  We, my friends, are the passengers and crew of this mighty Mothership Earth.  We have increased power for the corporations, relaxation and comfort for all those who choose to sail on her, and everything we would ever need even if we don't know we actually need it yet.

To the unknowing passengers of the Titanic, some of the lifeboats had been removed to make way for a gymnasium for first class passengers.  This left the ship without a full capability of lifeboats should the unthinkable happen to the unsinkable!  I compare this to our current fossil fuel situation.  Very soon or maybe already peak oil and natural gas production will be reached and there will not be enough supply to meet demand.  Many on Mothership Earth will start to miss out, and indeed many already do, and panic will prevail, just as it did on the Titanic.  Yet, the band played on.

Many ice warnings were sent to the ship during the voyage, in fact 21 warnings including 7 on the day of the tragedy.  As ordered, the Titanic steamed onward at top speed towards the reported pack ice that was drifting down from Greenland.  The two radiomen on-board passed the warnings to the bridge officers throughout the day, and these in turn were passed on to Captain Smith who ignored them, due to the insistence of Mr Ismay.  The radiomen were mostly kept busy during the day sending stock market messages from the wealthy on-board and receiving quotes back from the NYSE.  Even when the radiomen received a signal at 11pm from the steamship Californian, who was 10 miles to the Northwest, to inform the Titanic that she had stopped for the night by ice blocking her way.  One of the radiomen on the ill fated ship sent back a snappy reply, "Shut up old man I'm busy."

So to compare the two, the science community have given us all, including governments, many warnings about climate change and so far have done little to prevent its occurrence.  Governments, corporations and economists are infatuated by continued economic growth to the detriment of the resources supplied on loan to us by Mothership Earth.  We are ignoring our own form of ice warnings including melting global ice caps and the most glaciers around the world.  Quite an ironic comparison really.  It was an iceberg that sank the Titanic and it will be melting ice, heated by our thirst for fossil fuels, that sinks and disrupts the climactic patterns of the Mothership Earth!  We are all so busy trying to get to where we think we should be, we are forgetting about the vessel that carries us on our daily voyage.

As the Titanic sailed through the night, the wealthy upper class dined in opulence before retiring for the night, and the steerage class passed time, reassured by the noise of the engines and flow of seawater upon the steel hull.  A new country and life awaited many of them, all hoping for better opportunities.  Little were any of them aware that the ship was not unsinkable and there was a design flaw in the watertight compartments.  If a certain number of the watertight compartments flooded, there was a good chance that the ship would sink.  What does that mean in our current time period?  We drive our cars, thinking that petroleum products will be available at the service station, that there will be food in the supermarket shelves, and water will run when we turn on the tap.  We live in a disposable culture, only recently discovering the value of recycling in the western world.  Opulence in the west, and dreams of a western way of life in developing nations reminds me of the different classes on-board the ship.  The Mothership Earth also has a design flaw of sorts.  A limited carrying capacity and not enough lifeboats!  We have overshot the planets carrying capacity due to the abundance of cheap oil to grow massive amounts of food, and and now are confronted by limited natural resources.  Both issues are similar to the capacity of the ship and the limited lifeboat capacity of the Titanic on that dreadful night.

At 11:40pm in calm weather and on a clear night, the mighty vessel struck an iceberg that ripped a hole in the ships side that was long enough to fill many of the watertight compartments, thus forcing the 'unsinkable' to indeed become sinkable.  The crew of the ship attempted to avoid a head on collision, however due to the vessels speed and a flaw in rudder design, the ship still scraped the side of the massive iceberg.  Yet the band played on.

The passengers and crew were not aware of the impending danger that awaited them, in fact it wasn't until at least 30 minutes later that the crew were aware that she was taking on water.  Many of the passengers slept through the entire incident and had to be woken up to begin abandoning the ship.  From 12:15 am, the radiomen began sending their first distress signal, only to get a reply 10 minutes later from the Carpathia.  Within two hours the Titanic was sinking bow first, with the watertight compartments flooding one after the other, and the radio failing due to lack of power from the flooding engine rooms.  The crew, who were totally unprepared for this type of event struggled to launch what lifeboats they had, and struggled to convince many bewildered passengers that this was necessary for their safety.  Many passengers must have thought that if the ship were so unsinkable, why where they being forced onto the lifeboats.  Many would drown, especially from third class and steerage, simply because there were not enough lifeboats and the ones that were launched were not filled to capacity.  Plus the fact that many were locked behind steel meshed doors preventing them from escaping.

The radio message sent at 1:45 am was the last message and it read, "Come as quickly as possible".  It was sent in hope, as the last of the lifeboats pulled away from the sinking ship.  Still the band played on until the deck was so tilted that they couldn't sit and play.  Those not safely on a lifeboat stood little hope of more than a few minutes of survival due to the freezing temperature of the water.  The Captain went down with the ship, as did the first officer, however Mr Bruce Ismay was one of the first onto a lifeboat. 

So, with all the scientific warnings, and with many dire new discoveries of approaching tipping points regarding climate change, with our population having gone from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 7 billion in 2011 due to the abundance of cheap oil, and with our resources dwindling whether they be fossil fuels (stoking climate change and overpopulation) or precious minerals and natural resources including a mass species extinction, are we about to hit the a proverbial iceberg?  It paints a pretty grim picture when compared to a real life event that could have been avoided.

As with the Titanic, instead of steaming ahead at top speed, we need to reassess, and slow to avoid the impending disaster that soon await the fate of all who are passengers on Mothership Earth.  Is our rudder too small, and that we may not be able to turn away soon enough, with the speed of progress, growth at all costs, resource depletion, and increasing carbon emissions hold back our inability to act in time.

As for the bridge crew, who I liken to current day governments, are failing to act decisively, because of the pressure exerted upon them by the corporations like Mr Ismay and the board of the White Star Line.  Will this pressure be too great, with vested interest lobbying our poor, misguided crew at every chance?  What will happen the the passengers of Mothership Earth?  Will there be enough lifeboats, or will there be a mass die-off as in the case of the Titanic with the lower classes bearing the brunt of disaster?  These questions go unanswered as yet, but there are signs that we may be approaching the "iceberg", with the majority of the passengers of Mothership Earth blissfully unaware, and still dressed in their finest clothes dinning, or in this case, consuming until they drop, egged on by governments and corporations.  As with the Titanic, there will be survivors, how many are unknown as yet, but there have been estimates that our carrying capacity may be reduced to as little as 500 million to 1 billion passengers without cheap and abundant energy.  A sobering estimate indeed.

I am not saying that disaster is inevitable, we just need to slow or steer away, by reducing consumption, reducing emissions, and living a more sustainable lifestyle. As the passengers of Mothership Earth are loaded onto what ever form of lifeboat is available, will they still be wondering "Why?  I thought we were unsinkable!"