Monday, February 18, 2013

Purposeful Permaculture

My garden vision: a resilient, beautiful sanctuary for creative work and deep connection 
So I'm a student again which I've always enjoyed, not just learning new things, (which I do all the time as a compulsive autodidact), but also Being a Student: the structure of learning alongside others, engaging with tutors and completing assignments.

For the Permaculture Design Certificate we have to develop, and present a design project of our own choice.  I mulled a variety of enticing options for permaculture art and/or community projects but have settled on a permaculture design for the property where I live now. The first assignment is to develop a project brief  which means I've been thinking hard about what I want from the garden.

My primary purpose for this garden design is resilience, both for the ecosystem and for me personally.   I live in a rental, albeit fairly secure, so I may not be here to enjoy this garden in its maturity. My landlords are enthusiastic about my vision for their property so I have the freedom to put in place a long range vision.

I'm gardening as though I will live here for decades, yet know that I probably will not.  I'm investing the effort despite the risk because practicing this kind of gardening gives me experience and skills that will make any future garden that much easier to establish.  And better to make my inevitable mistakes here and now, while my well-being is not dependent on the results, than in circumstances where the consequences could be more serious.

A polyculture of tomatoes, rainbow chard, celery, mint, sweetpeas, sunflowers and cucumber, leeks, radishes and lettuce 
Climate change is well underway, and every month I read another report where some expert says that even recent projections were too conservative.  The most noticeable effects seems to hit particular places in pulses: big storms, big fires, big floods. One of several reasons I chose to live in Hamilton, New Zealand  is because its relatively safe from earthquakes, tsunamis, forest fires, hurricanes etc. They reckon the most likely natural disaster to affect us would be ash from a major volcanic eruption a few hundred kilometers away.

Meanwhile like frogs in a kettle, we get used to the gradually hotter and drier summers and rainier winters, but Hamilton doesn't really do extremes of temperature. So developing a resilient garden here means one that can survive summer drought and and constant winter rains, as well as human neglect (and possibly a blanket of volcanic ash some time).

Herbs and flowers to attract beneficial insects
Peak oil has probably passed in the last year or two and now we are setting off into an unstable decline of our fossil-fuelled culture. It seems extraordinary to me that most people continue to behave as though they think nothing will change, except more-better-faster technology.  The immanent food shortages, or rather food distribution failures, that are anticipated for swathes of the global population will probably manifest here in New Zealand only as higher prices at least for the next few years. I don't foresee food riots and famines for us, but last week a neighbour came to my door twice asking for help because she can't feed her family.  People are going hungry in my part of the world.

So, I'd like my garden to nourish me in every season, from year to year. I'd like to be able to share homegrown food with my neighbours in need and friends in fellowship. I'd rather spend money on food as treats than as staples of my diet.  In an emergency involving food shortages I want to be able to feed myself and others well enough not only to survive, but to allow us to respond usefully and creatively to the crisis.

Although establishing a resilient and productive permaculture garden will require a lot of effort and resources at first, my intention is that within a few years it will require minimal effort and external inputs to maintain.  Permaculture is attractive because it offers the possibility of a self-sustaining complex system that can survive almost anything.

Drying heirloom borlotto beans  for winter protein and for growing more next year

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Rocket Stove: Two

Rocket Stove II made with an enameled tin bucket and some cans (see the scorch marks where the tape caught on fire)
My friend Chris Fairly made another rocket stove, this time trialling a quick and inexpensive design. He brought it round for me to test and I retaliated with an invitation for him and his partner, Anna, to come over for a dinner made on it.  I've been complaining that a limitation of the first, beautiful ceramic rocket stove he made is only being able to cook one pan at a time, so this seemed an ideal opportunity for some two burner action, using both the original Rocket Stove and RS:Mark II.  Having a couple of extra pairs of hands to help with feeding two fires was a useful bonus.

Rocket Stove I is the tiled cylinder in the centre background, Rocket Stove II is the smaller and lower bucket to the right.
Even with help keeping the stoves stoked and getting the food prepped it was still a very intense and all-consuming meal to prepare and I completely forgot to stop and take some photos of the stoves in action. The big original stove cooked a sort of saag paneer made with silverbeet. The new small stove cooked aromatic rice with ginger, cardamon and cinnamon. Both turned out delicious, if not food-blog-beautiful. Both dishes required manipulating the temperature from a speedy sizzle to a steady simmer.

Looking down into the tin can rocket stove
The new rocket stove is not my favourite. For one thing it smelled yucky, not just woodsmoke but a metallic smell with a hint of burning plastic (probably from the pretty blue paint).  Worse, at one point the aluminium tape holding it together caught on fire and flames licked up the outside of the bucket in a worrisome way until I beat it out with a stick.  Its only superior feature is the feeder tube which is bigger and longer than on the original  but I'm afraid that isn't going to be sufficient incentive to get me cooking on it again.  

I think both Chris and I learned a lot from cooking together on the two stoves at once.  My practical experience has been informed by theory and I will be tweaking my approach and hacking a brick stick propper-upper for the ceramic rocket stove.  Chris got to see the demands of complicated cooking first hand and proved at dab hand at controlling their temperatures at my request.  He also witnessed the value of the taller chimney for more efficient heating and I'm sure will be more circumspect with aluminium tape in the future.

Delicious dinner of home and local grown produce cooked outdoors on free fuel
As always, I had (almost) all my ingredients prepared before lighting the fires.  Rocket stove cooking is not very spontaneous.  I'd also prepared lots of little 'go-withs': a Thai cucumber chutney, a carrot coconut lentil-sprout, sesame oil and raspberry-vinegar salad, my favourite watermelon-feta-avocado-red onion salad, and aubergine mashed with yoghurt and lemon. I also cracked open the first jar of plum chutney from  my New Year's preserving marathon and put out home made sprouts, microgreens (Fiji Feathers pea shoots) and soaked/toasted pumpkin seeds to garnish.  For dessert we had apple and homegrown-blackberry almond crumble with two kinds of homemade ice cream (vanilla and double chocolate).

Chris and I are going to be demonstrating rocket stove making and using at On the Road to Resilience on 24 February at the Sustainable Backyard at the Hamilton Gardens' Summer Festival. This going to be a fantastic day touching on bee keeping, wind turbines, composting toilets, time banking, earth oven and solar cooking, and demonstrations of pruning and scything. Something for everyone! Come along if you can.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Handmade wedding

Bethwyn and Steven just married 
When my dear friend and 'Frugal with the Bruegel' collaborator, Bethwyn, got married last weekend to her sweetheart Steven, it was a completely unpretentious affair. Not small, not plain, but a charming expression of her creativity and that of her many creative friends.  Some of my own contributions surprised me- many of the things I've made and given to Bethwyn since we became friends featured in the wedding, giving me a little frisson of pleasure every time I noticed another one.

Handmade paper garland
My wedding gift to the couple was a book I made a few years ago for the poem I wrote called Do the Dishes.I loaned my bunting which hung alongside the bunting shared by at least two other friends. The many metres of handmade bunting (each maker's character making the different strands distinctive)  first decorated the trees shading the ceremony, then appeared again at the hall for the reception.

Handmade lace garter
My two main (intentional) contributions to the wedding were worn by Bethwyn.  I spent many months crocheting the lace for a garter, then stitched it onto a vintage velvet ribbon. The lace pattern is one I invented called Denniston Lace after a white frothy plant I admired on my visit to Denniston Plateau last year. Making lace is really hard on my eyes and this garter may sadly be the last lace I make. I love to do it, I love the idea of it, but I'm not willing to sacrifice such an essential sense for it!

Bethwyn trying on the garter on the morning of the wedding, with freshly henna'd hands

As it comes off the hook, the lace is naturally scrunched up on itself and doesn't look much until it is starched and blocked.  I worked though a few iterations to get the starch right for wearing against skin.

Blocking Denniston Lace
My go-to home made starch recipe is designed to stiffen hand made lace for exhibition   The garter would have been as scratchy as bark to wear and I wanted the barefoot bride to feel completely comfortable in it.  It spent most of the wedding day hidden beneath her long dress, but every chance I got I made her lift her skirts to show me again!

Show me that garter again please
She also wore a garland in her hair, made by us together in our altered book collaboration.  I suggested using cut up books when she said she wasn't going to wear a veil and didn't want fresh flowers either.  Bethwyn kept saying she couldn't visualise how my proposal would turn out, but she trusted me enough to spend about 5 hours two weeks before the wedding working with me to make it.   She was so relieved when it turned out well. I wasn't completely sure how it would work but I also trusted my skills and imagination to try something new.
Planning the layout of the cutouts
Together we cut out images of leaves, flowers, birds and insects from two copies of An Edwardian Lady's Country Diary and attached them to florist wire to make a wreath.  A few coats of sealant made a very resiliant headpiece which complimented Bethwyn's cream and brown gown perfectly.

Half finished garland
I was just one of many friends and family  members with whom Bethwyn shared the pleasure of making the wedding.  So many weddings seem to be bland displays for which a couple starts their life together deeply in debt.  This one was a celebration of community and creativity as well as Bethwyn and Steven's love and committment to eachother.

The garland in action