Monday, December 30, 2013

Veggie Patch Upcycling

This year in the patch we are trying out some new ideas in the ongoing search for ways to improve our vegetable growing on the cheap, so in this post we want to share some simple methods that you can use in your patch on a low budget. we've been up-cycling, recycling and occasionally upside down cycling with things that we have found here at home to make the garden grow even better.

In ground Worm farm composters

the finished worm composter in action
prototype 1 - DIY in ground worm composter

We are rather excited about this little experiment to try and improve our soil by placing in ground worm farms made from PVC pipe throughout our patch. we made these from some left over pipe (20cm diameter) by drilling loads of holes into lengths of about 40cm, then burying them upright in the veggie beds. Add some wet paper to the bottom, a handful of red wrigglers (compost worms) and some vegetable scraps, some more paper and last of all a lid. (just make sure it is sealed off from fruit fly). Even after a couple of weeks it is surprising how quickly the scraps are being digested.

Worms are like the intestines of the soil. Compost worms tend only to inhabit the top soil layer, breaking down leaf matter and other dead vegetation. Earthworms (the big fat guys) burrow much deeper, and help to transport the nutrient rich humus of the compost worms deeper into the soil and around the root zones of our veggies. What a great team! They are jam packed with good microorganisms that enrich the soil into a bustling micro metropolis of healthy humus... at least that's the theory behind this idea, and I am busting to see if it works as planned.

Worm farm seedling tray in one.

a great way to reuse your water

I got this idea from a permaculture farm that used old bathtubs as worm farms in their nursery. their seedling trays rested on top of their worm farms. As they watered the seedlings, the water seeped through the wormy tubs and the worm juice siphoned into a storage tank which was later filtered and pumped through their irrigation system. We have adopted the same principle on a micro scale with our own worm farm. We simply removed the lid, laid down newspaper and a folded hessian mat which the seedling trays rest on. Its working a treat.

Drip irrigation with Venturi pump

This spring was very dry, which contributed to the terrible fires that we have had up here in the mountains. To conserve our water use in the garden this year we are trialling a drip irrigation system on our main vegetable patch. Its a fairly simple setup that we connect to a small secondary water tank near the patch. We purchased some cheap black irrigation pipe and punctured it with small holes every 10cm or so,  and arranging the lines to run across our grow beds.

 We have also added a simple venturi pump system that feeds into the main irrigation line which allows us to add liquid fertilisers to the water as needed. So far we have been pumping our plants with filtered weed tea,  and worm wee and the results are starting to show already. Its important to filter liquid fertilisers to make sure the lines don't get clogged up. We are using some wool insulation in a milk carton to filter the organic fertilisers.

The venturi pump works on simple suction. As the water runs through the main line, it creates suction, which draws the liquid fertiliser from the milk container into the irrigation line. The higher the water pressure, the higher the container of fertiliser needs to be, otherwise, you will get water going in the wrong direction and back into your liquid fertiliser container. A little trial and error and you'll have it down pat in no time. The pump is very easy to install to an existing irrigation set up. all you need it a t-join, a tap, and some extra hose. you can adjust the flow of fertiliser into the irrigation line by adjusting the tap.

For the areas in our garden that don't have drip irrigation installed yet, we are making use of our old milk bottles as slow release irrigation units. We are using them on our pumpkins at the moment to give them plenty of juice. Its a simple matter of filling the milk bottle with water, adding liquid fertiliser and whacking the bottle in upside down nearby the roots of the plant. Over the course of the day, the water and nutrients is slowly released into the soil. Its great for plants like pumpkins which are heavy feeders as you can pump nutrients directly to the plants root system. It also means no need for overhead watering, which reduces the likelihood of powdery mildew and weeds. by adding a tiny pin hole on the bottom of the milk bottle, it allows air into the bottle, aiding the water flow. the larger the bole, the faster the flow of water.

beer bottles for seedling holes
Being spring time, we have been planting out our new seedlings. We have found that a great way to speed up the process is to use an up turned beer bottle to make the holes for the seedling to go in. Its a perfect fit! Its also a great excuse to crack open a beer before planting out... or maybe 3 or 4, to get the job done even faster. hmmmmm...

Water the seedlings and the planting site with some worm wee or sea-sol before planting.

Chooks and weeds get the (hessian) sack

We are lucky to have a great local coffee roaster in our community, who has loads of spare coffee bags to dispose of regularly. We have been putting them to good use in the garden as covers for some of our veggie beds. They are excellent for stopping the chooks from digging up the dirt and plants, and also help to keep the soil moist and stop the weeds. Being made of natural fibres, they break down naturally as well. If you are after some sacks, look up local coffee roasters in your area. They will have loads of sacks and may even be happy to simply give them away.

Hessian mats a success

Our new and improved DIY Black-soldier-fly Composter

You may remember that last year we experimented with growing black soldier fly (BSF) as a way of composting and generating feed for our chooks. Our first prototype was successful in so far as it attracted plenty of black soldier fly, but when it came to harvesting them, many of the grubs didn't find the pipes to crawl up. this year we improved on our BSF composter by using a plastic 10 ltr watering can. Its cheaper, easier to build, more contained and hopefully works much better. With this design the grubs crawl up the spout of the watering can (there's no where else for them to go) down some hose and into a plastic bottle. We add food scraps by unscrewing the t-bar and put them down the shoot. I used some liquid nails to fix the t-bar in place. The chooks are already very happily eating black soldier fly larvae from our new system.
bsf fly in the t-bar pipe and lay their eggs. Larvae crawl up the spout and into the plastic bottle.

New plants in the Patch
Last summer, we planted some tamarillo seeds from some fruit given to us by our neighbour Grant. He has an amazing fruit orchard and edible garden! Our kids loved his tamarillos, so we decided to give them a go ourselves. Not only do they taste delicious, but they grow incredibly fast. We planted this one from a seed last summer (Not even a year ago) and it's setting fruit. Tamarillo's are a short lived subtropical fruit tree, but grow well in temperate climates too.

nearly one year old
ripening tamarillo's

We have also planted two feijoa trees (pineapple Guavas) on account of how fantastically delicious they taste, and also to make feijoa wine, which I hear is very easy to swill. If you haven't tasted one of these delicious fruit, do yourself a favour. Another new addition to the garden is a tropical guava tree which has taken the place of our mandarin (God rest its roots) after it was savagely mauled by a heartless and possibly drunk mob of cockatoos. We discovered (albeit too late) that they are terrified of red underpants hung on a pole. We are not sure if this is a universal rule or if it is uniquely my underpants that did the trick. If so, and you are in need of a pair, be warned, prices will be exorbitant.

Finally our apple trees have fruited this spring, with a bounty of promising small apples hanging on their branches. If they can duck and weave the possums and cockatoo's, rosellas and bush rats, maybe we might even get to eat one in the summer.

Happy gardening gang.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Making our home-made Pizza Oven!

Joe has a problem, he is Mediterranean... and lurking deep within those Mediterranean roots, emerged the inevitable Mediterranean yearning, that wells up within the psyche of every Mediterranean man.: the need to build a pizza oven.

"Darling, I've been thinking about that corner in the backyard; You know the one where you wanted the Balinese daybed retreat. I thought perhaps we could go with something a little more... Mediterranean, how about we build a pizza oven!"

And so it was.....our pizza oven journey began.... and the Balinese daybed retreat with spa and flapping white sails in the cool summer breeze, suddenly ended.


Of course, the yearning to build a pizza oven is not exclusive to Mediterranean stock, and so, its quite possible that one day you may find yourself experiencing a similarly sudden urge, so we thought it only fair to share our oven building experiences with you.

Some preliminary notes on building a Pizza oven

Building a pizza oven with friends can be great fun... (I've heard). Making an oven with children can be a freeking nightmare. But if you are like us and your children have scared all your friends away, then children will simply have to do. In actual fact, we had a great time making it with our kids... ok I'm lying, but they enjoyed it... and it will endure as a lasting family memory, and that's what counts. If you make an oven with your kids, remember, while your hosing clay out of your children's eye, or mopping up hardened clay footprints from your polished floorboards, it will all be worth it when you take your first bite of your delicious home-cooked traditional pizza.

MIXING THE COB... with friends.

So, what do you need to make your own?

The structure of our oven is made entirely from clay, straw and sand. It's what is better known as a cob oven. Cob is a mixture of clay or soil, straw and sand. The quantities of which will vary according to the size of the oven you build. We used approximately 8 bags of powdered clay, a bail of hay, and a cubic metre of sand.

We also purchased some proper fire bricks for the cooking base, and constructed a platform for the oven using bessa-blocks and railway sleepers.

Step 1: Choosing a spot

We chose to build our oven under cover, to protect it from the weather. This said, you can build it in the open if you like, or even build a canopy for it.

Step 2: Making the platform for your oven

Before you begin mixing your clay, you need to construct some kind of platform or base for your oven to rest on. What you choose to make this out of is up to you, so long as it is able to support a heavy load and is reasonably level.

Once you have a sound platform to build on the fun begins.

step 3: Insulating base layer

Mix a combination of straw, clay and sand at approximately 3 parts sand to 1 part clay. Add as much straw as you can without the cob mix loosing its stickiness.  We placed a tarp on the ground and mixed it with our feet. The kids loved it. It's easiest to sprinkle handfuls of straw on as you go, mixing it with your feet and rolling the tarp over  regularly to keep the mix in the centre. Once its mixed, roll it into large balls about the size of softballs.

Roughly mark out the diameter for the base of your oven on your platform. We made ours about 90cm in diameter. Use the clay/sand/straw mixture to create a base like the one shown below. This acts as an insulating base, keeping the heat in the oven. You will notice a lip around the perimeter, this is to hold a layer of sand, about 5cm deep.

the cob base
Level the sand and carefully lay the fire bricks on the sand, taking care to make them as level as possible. We cut the bricks using a masonry angle grinder blade.

the fire bricks on a bed of sand, on the insulating cob base

Step 4: Sand castle form.

Using wet sand, it is time to build the form for your oven, by basically making a big sand castle on top of your fire bricks. Our sand mound ended up being about 60cm high. Once you are happy with the shape, lay wet news paper over the sand castle form.

Step 5: building the thermal layer

Time to get mixing again - 1 part clay to 3 parts sand, just like before and rolling into large balls, as before. But this time don't add any straw. Begin packing the balls of clay/sand around the base of your sandcastle form, working around the base, then working your way all the way up to the top in a coiling fashion. The thermal layer should be about 10cm thick. This is the layer that retains the heat and keeps the oven hot. The thicker it is the longer it stays hot.

We built our oven door beforehand and pressed it against the sand form so that we could build around it as we went. The edge of the door is bevelled to make it easy to take in and out. This is probably easier than cutting a hole out of the cob wall at the end and then trying to make a door that fits. An important note about the door is that it must be 2/3 the total height of the oven interior. This provides the proper air flow for the fire to breath and let out smoke at the same time. We made our door out of wood and we soak it in water before using it on the oven to stop it catching alight.

Step 6: Outer insulating layer

Its back to the tarp for some more mixing, but this time we also added straw again. The basic rule of thumb here is to add as much straw as you can without the cob loosing its structure. In other words, you should still be able to roll it into balls and drop it without it falling apart.

Mixing with your feet can be hard work and its definitely worth while having some friends to help. It makes it MUUUUUUUCH easier... doing this solo, may break your spirit.

Once the cob is mixed, its time to add the final layer, much in the same way as before; working around the base first and then working your way to the top. This layer acts as an insulating layer, the straw eventually burns out, leaving air pockets in the dome, which acts as insulation. The smaller the hay pieces, the better. Make this layer nice and thick, around about 10cm.

step 7: let it dry... be patient... not like me

We learned this the hard way... and dug ours out after 4 days...

...and yep, it collapsed a few minutes later. I was a broken man, and so was my cob oven.

After several days of counselling for PCPOS (Post collapsing Pizza Oven Syndrome), we resurrected our collapsed cob from the ashes. Jo called her brothers on my behalf, and a few other mates, who came around to help with attempt number 2. This time around, we attempted a slightly less ambitious design, opting to go without the chimney, and also slightly reducing the scale of the oven.

We left it to dry for about 3-4 weeks. We removed the door, cut through the newspaper, and dug out the sand, (which we used to make the kids a sand pit) ... Success, it didn't fall down!

We had a fully functional, home-made, hand build, authentically Mediterranean (with a touch of Greek tragedy) pizza oven! I hugged the kids, and thanked them for their help, and mentioned that if they even laid a feather on our new, 2nd pizza oven, I would kill them!

We let it air dry for another week, and then prepared with great ceremony for our very first pizza night with the kids. It was fantastic! We fired it up and let it heat for about 3 hours to get it nice and hot. (about 300 degrees Celsius). The pizzas were Amazing, cooking in under 5 minutes, and tasting  incredible.

In hindsight, we are so glad we made our oven... twice. Since it has given us many wonderful nights with friends and our own little family, and it looks great. So far we've made oodles of pizzas,  but we've also cooked our sourdough and slow-cooked lamb shanks for a dinner party for 10... and each time we're more impressed by our amazing cob oven.

If you are keen on the idea of making your own, there are some good videos online which are worth watching for those finer details.