Home Biogas system – a BIG step forward (part one)

We have been trying very hard to move away from using gas to sustain our daily life. We have historically used gas for running the fridge and for cooking and heating water on the gas stove. Recently we have upgraded our gas fridge to an electric fridge (solar powered) and now we are adding a biogas unit to the mix. This means that we will no longer have to buy gas bottles (yay!!), this is the final step away from using bottled gas.

Bottled gas or LPG (Liquid Petroleum Gas) is produced during oil refining and given the temporary nature of our supply of oil on this planet, we need to be looking at ways to move away from our reliance on it (not to mention the huge environmental cost of using it). LPG contains propane in Australia, in other countries LPG can be a mix of propane and butane.

Biogas captures methane and carbon dioxide (methane mostly) as a result of decomposition of organic matter. That is why the discovery of methane on Mars was such an exciting thing; where there are dead things there were once live things (usually, although not always and probably not in this case). I became interested in biogas many years ago (after watching an episode of The Good Life) and decided to work towards setting it up in our humpy. The idea that we could use our waste (of all descriptions) to generate some of our energy needs was very exciting.

The idea has been sitting on a dusty shelf at the back of my mind for years. Other, more attainable, goals have been on the work table of my mind. Six months ago (approximately) I stumbled upon a post advertising a biogas system designed for home use and the idea suddenly moved to the front of my mind again.

We eventually decided to go with a Home Biogas unit from Quality Solar and Plumbing

They are the only company selling these units in Australia and they are relatively close to us (only about three hours drive way). We saved up (in tiny increments) and finally, with a windfall of back pay, we ordered the unit. We also managed to add a toilet unit to the order. As soon as this unit is set up we can start to generate our own cooking gas (although the Year three student who lives in my head can’t help making jokes about cooking with farts).

As soon as the order was placed we realised we needed a site for the future toilet/gas generation unit. Then we need a shed or some kind of building to house the toilet and a pad for the gas unit to sit on.

A gratuitous ocean shot from our long journey to Mullumbimby to pick up our biogas system.

The first part of our biogas adventure was picking it up and touring a working unit while we were there. The very helpful Brian at Quality Solar and Plumbing gave us a tour of the biogas unit he has set up at his house.

This is the working unit. It was really exciting to see one working.
You put the food scraps or animal manure into the black pipe at this end…
and gas and fertiliser come out this end. How amazing is that?
This is the stove unit that comes with the kit. There is no smell at all to the gas and this burner obviously gets a lot of use.

We have our unit home. It is sitting in it’s two little boxes, waiting for us to make it a home and set up the toilet. I can’t wait to get it going.

The two boxes in the car constitute the entire kit. I was amazed at the small size of the whole thing and how light it was to haul around. It will be much heavier once the bottom of the digester is full of water.

The kit is supposed to include everything we need to put it all together. We will see…

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Use gum leaves in the garden- part two

The gum leaves on the path idea seems to be working so far; my plants are still growing and the weeds on the path are mostly suppressed. I have been slowly raking up leaves from around the humpy and spreading them on the path over old newspapers and cardboard boxes. The weeds at the unfinished end of the path have grown to be the same height as the plants in the bed, but I am making progress slowly. I start by slashing the tallest weeds down with a shovel then lay newspaper over them as thickly as possible. Finally the raked up gum leaves are dumped onto the top and spread out with the shovel.

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You can see where the path ends at the moment and the height of the weeds in the remaining bit of path. This photo was taken from the doorway to the garden.

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This photo was taken from the other door (to the north)

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A close up of where the leaves end and the weeds begin

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It’s hard to tell, but there are vegetables in there; tomato, beans and basil

Despite the messy looking garden, I am still picking food from the space. The gum leaves seem to be slowing down the weeds enough for me to stay ahead of them on the path I have already covered. It isn’t really clear whether the leaves are allelopathic or not because the weeds are suppressed by being covered (no light) and having restricted water (the leaves make a water resistant mat) as well as any possible allelopathic effect.

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Walking onion, basil, silver beet and zucchini from my messy garden

 

My seedling raising area is powering along too. Initially I didn’t cover the seedling with a sheet, but I  soon found out that wet sand, hot sun and no shade led to cooked seeds and no seedlings. Now I have an old sheet draped over the whole thing the seedlings are just jumping up.

 

 

Using gum leaves in the garden

It is really hot at the moment, so the fire danger level is high. I am raking up leaves from around the house at a rate of one or two 20 litre buckets a day (and fighting a losing battle). Summer solstice (or Litha) is when gum trees drop a lot of leaves and shed their bark like a Hollywood actress shrugging out of her overcoat to reveal she is naked underneath. All that newborn bark is exceedingly beautiful to look at and I love walking  in the bush and letting the cicada song wash over me like a sound ocean, but…extra fuel on the ground leads to extra fire danger.

Common knowledge says that gum leaves are no good for compost; they are allelopathic (don’t play well with other plants), highly acidic, slow to compost and hydrophobic (don’t soak up water). In fact the only thing they have in their favour is we have a lot of them, but what to do with them?. I always struggle with where to put leaves once they are raked up from the constant drifts around the house. I usually rake them away from the house and leave it at that. This year I thought I’d try something different.

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The path in my Hugelkultur bed area is constantly sprouting weed seedlings, which I try to keep up with by pulling a handful or two as mulch  every time I go in there (not a very effective method) but missing one day means the big weeds are taller and harder to pull out and there are just too many of them. Every year I try to cover the path with cardboard as boxes come into the house, then I cover the path with something; wood chip, sand, mulch hay, etc, anything that will keep the cardboard down and can be shoveled onto the beds the following winter. This year I have decided to try gum leaves and bark.

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You can see the multitude of weed seedlings on the path in this photo

My reasoning is that most people say the leaves will break down eventually, given a year on the ground and it is best to have the allelopathic qualities of the leaves spent on the path where I don’t want plants. Also the leaves will be broken up by the mechanical action of me walking on them often which will speed up their decomposition somewhat. I can add a high nitrogen source like urine to the path to further speed decomposition (pardon the indelicate reference) and dampness provided by the infrequent watering of the garden and rain will also speed the process. When I add the resulting leaf mold to my garden beds I will have to remember to add some lime with it to counteract the acidity of the gum leaf mold. This is an experiment to see if gum leaves can be useful in soil building, I am not sure whether it will work out well or be a failure, but we will see in six months or so.

In other news;

My Hugelkultur beds are growing well. Here are some photos to prove  it.

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The zucchini are flowering

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The tree tomato is growing new leaves (it isn’t really this pale, it’s just the camera)

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The chia is growing so fast you can see it

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I am picking lettuce and a tiny bit of silverbeet from this bed

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The beans are up at last and the tomato is ready to be tied up (I’m not sure I will do it though)

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I  have continued to build up the beds that were very low on organic matter by adding anything that comes to hand; horse and cow manure collected from beside the road, the contents of the rabbit litter box and any weeds I pull from the garden.

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Building up the bed ready for planting…probably in winter now, unless I can get some late corn in soon

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The rabbit litter tray; the litter is compressed paper pellets which soak up water and break down very fast, also rabbit poop, pee and hair

Mowing the lawn with sheep

The lawn has become a bit wild over the last storm season; with waist high grass in some places. In contrast outside the home yard is mowed like a bowling green to a distance of 30 metres or so. The reason for this is sheep. My girls (and now three boys too) mow the fire breaks for me by simply doing what sheep do; eat, poop and do complex mathematical equations in their head while chewing cud. The sheep have not been allowed into the yard for months because when they are in there they eat everything they can get their hooves on; the vege bed in an old trailer, anything in pots, fruit trees and I have even caught one licking the rabbit (she looked very guilty when I caught her). However, the lawn needs mowing…so I have put wire covers around the trees, moved the pots and let the vege bed go to seed, something may survive.

This is the edge of the driveway outside the yard. You can see how low the girls keep the grass (except bladey grass)
Kraken hiding by the pond

Yes, it’s a mess. No excuses, I just got lazy

Using sheep to mow the lawn is hardly a new idea; lawns were around long before mowers were, in fact lawns were created by the grazing of animals around a building. There is even a landscaping feature designed to prevent livestock from straying onto the garden while they mow the lawn, called a Ha Ha wall. Paris (the city in France, not the socialite) began the move back to sustainable lawns last year by introducing rare breed sheep as lawn mowers in some parks, if it proves efficient, the system will be extended into the city (and beyond).

Woodrow Wilson used sheep to mow the White House lawn during World War 2

The girls look a bit ragged at this time of year, they are in the process of shedding their wool.

So I am continuing, or rediscovering, an ancient practice which feeds the sheep, trims the lawn and fertilises the ground. If only I could train them to stay away from the garden plants all would be perfect.

Carrot and Potato towers; growing potatoes in small spaces.

 You guessed it…..as I am largely immobile due to my knee injury I decided to go through my photos for the last few weeks and update all the posts I planned but didn’t get to.

Carrot towers
The carrot towers have been disappointing so far; the carrots haven’t grown at all and many have died. I’m not willing to give up on the idea yet though. Some of the possible causes of the failure are;

  • Transplanting the carrots (they don’t really like to be moved) or transplanting them too young.
  • Over watering (I admit I went overboard on the watering because they were right beside the door)
  • No morning sun.
So next time I will either plant advanced seedlings, or seed into the tubes and I will move the whole thing to a spot that gets morning sun.

The carrots have not grown at all.

The marigolds around the bottom look great though.

Potato towers
I have had some success with potato towers though. The basic theory is the same as the carrot towers except all the growth comes out of the top of the tower and the height allows the plant to form many more potatoes than it could in the ground.
The potatoes surrounded by compost which is kept inside the wire tube by a newspaper lining.

The potatoes are planted into cardboard boxes full of compost to reduce grass invasion.
Each tower is planted with two potatoes, I have Desiree and Kipfler  potatoes in this year.

Dry days of spring and Hugelkultur update number two

The hot, dry, windy months of spring are here. I am using lots of water on the garden and there is no rain in sight to refill the tanks. I water the garden with the water from the washing (about 160 litres a week) and from the chook and sheep water buckets when I refill them (about 30 litres); I also use about 20 litres a day straight from the tank to water the seedlings and potted plants. I am happy to be re-using the water from the washing and animal waters but I think I need to start putting a plug in the bath when we shower too, so I can scoop it out and water more. This drying wind really affects the vegetables.
In an effort to save my seedlings and tender plants, I have been covering the seedling hardening off area with old sheets to conserve water and provide a little shade. 

My seedling raising area.

Happy seedlings in pie trays to give them time to soak up the sprinkle I give them every day.

In the Hugelkultur beds everything is growing well. I still only water these beds once a week with the washing water (about 80 litres). This bed badly needs re-mulching to further conserve water (that is my goal for this week).

I know it looks dry, but the soil under the plants stays reasonably damp.

In the hugelkultur beds I have……
zuchinni

Roma tomato, just little fruit at present.

Cabbage

brocolli, just starting to bud.

And good old silver beet.

The trailer bed has broad beans and some really late snow peas; so I covered it to provide some protection from wind and sun. We might get lucky and get a crop.

The heirloom lettuce in the trailer bed is going well and we eat off it every day.

We are looking forward to beetroot soon, but in the meantime the leaves are added to stir fry and salad (when my partner isn’t looking)

Hugelkultur update

The Hugelkultur beds (stages one and two) have been in for a month now, so I thought it was time for an update.

The beds themselves look great; there has been minimal sinking and the soil below the mulch layer is moist despite only having been watered twice and rained on several times. So the moisture holding capabilities of this gardening method are proving to be exceptional.
The seeds of beans, peas, tomato, lettuce and cucumber have failed to come up so far, that could be the age of the seeds though. The seeds of grain amaranth and fenugreek that were strewn over the beds as a green manure crop (and to clear them from the seed packet container) have sprouted extensively so there will be a carpet of green on the beds within the next month, which should help to hold the soil together and prevent too much erosion if we get the wild spring storms common to our area.

You can’t tell from this distance..but things are stirring in there

One tiny plant coming up….possibly a tomato

I also bought some seedling in from our local nursery; broccoli, cabbage, zucchini , tomato and lettuce. I planted these out in the Hugelkultur beds too and so far they are doing Ok.

Zuchini in the Hugelkultur beds
Cabbage in the Hugelkultur beds

I have also had some success with planting in the trailer bed; with everything I have planted in there growing wildly.

Strawberries are going well in the old trailer bed

The broad beans are trying to make up for a slow start by growing really fast

Some late calendula is growing well, destined to be ointment one day

 So that is the extent of my garden at the moment.
Work continues on stage three of the Hugelkultur bed and on the half tank herb bed; both of which are still at the ‘collect a heap of old wood’ stage. I try to collect at least one wheelbarrow full of wood every day I have at home, but have been sadly lax lately. The beds will be built, even if it takes until next school holidays.

More reading while you wait

I have been doing more reading about Hugelkultur and I am getting quite excited by the possibilities.

The Half assed hugelkultur bed 
got me excited with its reference to raised soil temperature.
I work as a garden coordinator in a primary school and I can see some experiments coming up in term three.

Now all I need is some kid friendly links to show the kids where, how and why.