Wicking pot maintenance and a recycling experiment

Over the last few weeks I’ve been gradually doing some “maintenance” on the wicking pots.  They have been a bit neglected since we started getting good rainfall at the end of last summer.  I had a lot of work to do to construct raised beds in the shade tunnels, and over winter these were generally more productive than the wicking pots as well as representing a much larger surface area for food production.

However the low rainfall over winter, and the lack of any signficiant rain for nearly three months has meant that we have to start managing our water supply (all rainwater in tanks) even more carefully than usual.  I’ve almost stopped watering the raised beds, and at least half of them are under a thick layer of barley straw, with nothing growing in them. It’s at times like this that the wicking pots come into their own.

The ongoing maintenance of the wicking pots amounts to regular fertilizing with alternating applications of worm tea (diluted to 50%), cow manure tea (10%), and (especially for leafy crops) diluted urine (10%).  They also get occasional surface applications of the sludge from the cow manure tea production, and of course regular topping up of their mulch to control evaporation.

Over time I find that the soil in the pots becomes somewhat “compacted”, and some crops establish such a dense root mass that it is nearly impossible to dig into the soil.  These issues are evident from a gradual decrease in their productivity and in the “health” of the plants.

Thai Basil_Wicking Pot_P1020245_20141119_small

Thai Basil and Spring Onions. The basil has already gone to seed after a long period of lush growth. After harvesting the seeds I pruned it to stimulate some new growth, so as to get more production before I am ready to replenish the soil.

Spring Onions_Wicking Pot_P1020244_20141119_small

I’m not sure how long these Spring Onions, Clumping Leeks and Clumping Shallots have been in this pot – it’s certainly more than 18 months. They’ve been harvested regularly by cutting the stems off at soil level. Now they’re starting to look a bit tired, so I’ll replenish their soil in the coming weeks.

For these reasons I like to take out the soil every 12-18 months and combine it with a mix of sandy loam from the drains on our access track, chipped horse manure, and fresh compost.

Wicking Pot_mint&kangkung_P1020239_20141119_small

This pot was rejuvenated in early September (about 12 weeks ago) and planted with Kang Kung (Ipomoea aquatica) and Mint (on the left, partly obscured by the asparagus). Both have grown rather extravagantly, the Kang Kung more so than the mint because it responds to harvesting by becoming even more productive. The Mint was a bit of a mistake because I just noticed that it is popping up throughout the whole top of the pot – that’s what mint does, I just forgot about it. I removed the mint after taking the photo.

The experiment mentioned in the heading of this post refers to an attempt to find a way of using discarded “florist pots”.  These come in various sizes and are like an overly tall plant pot without any drainage holes.  Florists keep their cut flower stock in them.  They are too tall to use as plant pots because the top of the soil gets dry while the bottom is still saturated.  So I thought I’d do a quick experiment to see how they go as wicking pots.  I just drilled four drainage holes around the sides about 250mm from the top, stuck a 500mm bit of offcut plastic water pipe down the side, filled up to this line with charcoal (leaving a depression so that the soil layer extends below the drainage holes) covered it with geotextile and added potting mix.

All I had available to plant in them was some Lemon Grass that I had to move out of a raised bed, so I put single stems of that into three of these wicking pots and also into three normal plant pots.  Four weeks later two of the wicking pots have thriving clumps of Lemon Grass (the third has been a bit slow to get going) whereas in the normal plant pots it is struggling to survive.  All have been given applications of diluted urine.

Lemongrass_Wicking Pot_P1020261_small

Lemon Grass thriving in a simple wicking pot. One of the four drain holes is visible. I won’t leave it in this pot because it isn’t wide enough to let the Lemon Grass grow into a large and productive clump, but it shows that the principle works.

The “funnel” makes it easier to fill the intake and also helps to reduce evaporation.  It’s a recycled thread spool from Reverse Garbage in Brisbane.

You can see my original long post on making wicking pots here and a modification of that design here.

Do you have any novel ways to share for making or using wicking pots?  What kinds of veg do you find grow well in them?

 

 

 

A different approach to renewable energy generation

An investor-owned power utility in the northwestern USA state of Idaho (population 1.6 million – South East Queensland has 3.3 million) could add 461 megawatts of solar-generating capacity to its system by 2016. If all of those plants are built, Idaho Power would have a total of 1,253 megawatts of new green power on its grid, said Brad Bowlin, an Idaho Power spokesman. Last year, Idaho’s peak load was 3,407 megawatts in July, which would make green power 37 percent of its system.And that’s not counting the 1,700 megawatts Idaho Power can produce at its hydroelectric dams.

First Wind, a Boston energy company recently purchased by a bigger solar firm, has signed contracts to sell power from five solar-generation projects in Idaho. Pictured here is the company’s first solar project in Warren, Mass. [link to original article. Photo by First Wind]

Developers have signed contracts to sell electricity to Idaho Power from the 16 projects in Idaho and Oregon under a federal law that requires the utility to buy power to encourage small and alternative energy producers at the same rate it would cost the utility if it had to build its own, new natural gas plant.  That is, instead of getting a subsidy, the renewable energy projects are seen as helping to avoid the construction of new gas-fired power stations, or to put it another way, they are forced to compete on price with a notional new gas-fired power plant.

This results in the renewable energy companies being paid for the electricity at what is called the “avoided cost” rate. Even with the low cost of natural gas, solar-panel prices have dropped so much that developers can make money by earning the avoided-cost rate, even while paying to connect to Idaho Power’s grid and paying the utility the cost of providing backup power sources when the sun goes behind clouds. They also can make the projects work without counting on the sale of renewable energy credits.

Why can’t this work in Australia?  Are we lacking in imagination?  Are we being told lies about the competitiveness of renewable energy generation?  Is there a concerted attempt at State and Federal levels to look after friends with fossil-fuel fired generation plants?  Is it because too many of our governments own electricity generation or power distribution assets?

What about coal-fired power plants in Idaho?  Well, Idaho Power, the utility that has signed up for the solar powered electricity, owns two coal-fired power plants in Wyoming and Nevada in partnership with other utilities, but it is phasing out the coal plants gradually, so as not to risk the stability of its system and to avoid extra costs to its ratepayers.

Source:  Barker, R. (2014). Idaho Power: Ready to become a green giant? Idaho Statesman November 19, 2014Idahostatesman.com. Retrieved November 20, 2014, from http://www.idahostatesman.com/2014/11/19/3494880_idaho-power-ready-to-become-a.html?sp=/99/1687/&rh=1  Click on the link for the whole article.

Studies on health and environmental concerns related to hydraulic fracturing

My apologies for the gap in posting.  I’ve been flat out on a number of fronts, from going to Sydney to catch up with two Lao friends who were at the Parks Congress, searching for data to support a friend’s immigration case, getting our place (more) fire-ready in the face of the crazy hot weather over the last weekend (43degC here on Saturday, with very low humidity and high winds), setting up a greywater diversion system, and getting my Dragon Fruit cuttings potted – among other things.

One of the things I’m working on is a post on the Texas town of Denton which voted in a municipal ordinanced banning fracking within the city limits early this month.  Still some work to do on it, but it seems like a nice case study to give people an idea of what could be in store here.

On the Frack Free Denton website I found a small bibliography of studies in health and environmental issues associated with hydraulic fracturing (fracking).  I can’t vouch for its completeness or accuracy, but it is worth a look for anyone wanting to amass material to fight coal seam gas activities in the Lockyer Valley Region.

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Stranded Government = Stranded Assets

Two of the articles in this morning’s edition of The Conversation fit rather well together. The first, by Kerry Brown, Executive Director, China Studies Centre at University of Sydney, is entitled US–China emissions deal will put pressure on Australian growth. The second, under the heading Narrow G20 agenda must go ‘structural, social and green’ is by Charis Palmer, Business Editor at The Conversation.

I hope the authors won’t mind if I run parts of their stories together.

[From Kerry Brown’s article:]
>>While most of the world is celebrating the US–China pact on climate change, the deal puts pressure on the Australian government and resources companies to rethink relations with China.

The deal, signed at the APEC summit in Beijing this week, includes agreement to cut emissions and work together to mitigate the impact of climate change. For the first time China has set 2030 as the year in which its emissions are expected to peak. The deal creates a common framework with the United States, the other largest greenhouse gas producer in the world, to take action.

Chinese President Xi Jinping started the APEC summit hoping for blue skies in the capital. With this deal, he is showing he is prepared to take action to achieve this.

For Australia this means that environmental compliance costs in China will rise. Australian companies will have additional costs of doing business there. Meanwhile Chinese companies will drive a harder bargain as their cost base lowers.
Australian resource companies, which are already suffering a dip in their relations with their largest clients, will experience more of a squeeze on their profits. This will impact Australia’s overall growth rate.

News of the agreement comes as India announces plans to stop thermal coal imports in three years. Australian coal companies will not even have a significant alternative export market to China.

This means the Australian government needs to rethink our economic engagement with China. This is not just about refocusing our export emphasis from resources to services. It is about truly partnering with China in its environmental challenges, rather than adding to them.<<

[then from Charis Palmer’s article:]
>>Professor Kirton [University of Toronto G20 Research Group leader] said since the very first summit the G20 had repeatedly, at every summit, dealt with climate change.

“And its performance has increased. It’s done a lot of good.”

He said even if the G20 leaders kept to their 2009 agreement to phase out fossil fuel subsidies in the medium term, they could solve one-tenth of the climate change problem in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

“They could save the hard-pressed taxpayers about three quarters of a trillion dollars – that’s how much fossil fuel subsidies cost.”<<

So, following the Abbott mantra that coal is Australia’s future, we are going to bet our future on selling coal to China where they are intent on slowing their emissions so that they peak in 2030 and reducing them thereafter, and where in 2013 more renewable electricity generation was installed than fossil-fuelled generation. And our alternative market, India, plans to stop thermal coal imports in three years, and is moving toward renewables.

This seems like the scenario you’d invent if you wanted to demonstrate how a country like Australia, rich in renewable energy resources and with a highly innovative research and industrial capacity, could become the home of a massive collection of stranded assets – coal mines, coal railways, coal processing plants, coal ports, …

It’s a scenario whose impacts could be softened by immediately putting into action the 2009 G20 commitment to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, something the Australian government has resisted despite pressure from a range of internal sources. (I wonder if we will hear more about subsidies at this G20?)

Looks to me like we are heading toward a government with a globally stranded policy position in the short term and a nation of stranded assets in the medium term, unless Abbott (or his successor) is prepared to turn current policy 180 degrees and get on-board with seriously addressing climate change.

Coal Seam Gas and the Gatton Star Poll on Mining in the LVR

LVR Mining Poll in Gatton Star - results 13 NovWOW!  This is the score at 9.30pm on 13 November.  Three days ago, when I wrote the last post and pointed readers to the poll the ‘No’ vote was 84%.  Well done people.

If you know of anyone who might not have voted on this, please ask them to use this link to register their opposition to coal seam gas exploration or extraction in the Lockyer Valley Region:

http://www.gattonstar.com.au/polls/2014/11/06/do-you-support-mining-lockyer-valley/

Let’s keep these destructive activities out of the Lockyer Valley Region – not just the productive farmland in the valley bottoms, but the ridges and forested areas as well.  This industry is far too impacting to be allowed anywhere near our farms, homes, schools, businesses, or natural environment areas.

You can check on the latest poll figures here:

http://www.gattonstar.com.au/polls/2014/11/06/do-you-support-mining-lockyer-valley/results/

The Coal Seam Gas Meeting in Grantham on Sunday 9 Nov.

We went to the Lock the Gate / LVRC  /LVRC Ratepayers meeting on coal seam gas at Grantham yesterday.  A very well organised event, with a large turnout from the community and some very good speakers and a broad range of topics covered..  This can be seen as the first major step (I know there have been other initiatives) on the path to galvanising public opposition to coal seam gas exploration in the Lockyer Valley Region.  The organisers deserve our congratulations and thanks for their efforts to bring people together to hear the message.

There’s certainly not only already a large local opposition to the idea of even exploration for CSG in the LVR, but also existing connections to anti-CSG campaings elsewhere. Both are sure to grow rapidly.

Just an idea: maybe a local group could be called Lock Yer Gates?

One of the things that we found out at yesterday’s meeting was that there’s an online poll running on the Gatton Star website.

The question being asked is:  “Do you support mining in the Lockyer Valley?” which is kind of a dumb question in the sense that in general usage the term “mining” covers a whole range of activities from quarrying road base through architectural sandstone extraction to open-cut coal mining.  However I think that in the current climate we can take it as a proxy question for “Do you support coal seam gas activities in the Lockyer Valley Region?”

From the latter point of view I think that the current tally for the poll (84% No and 15% Yes) is likely to be unrepresentative of the views of the community.  But the poll isn’t closed yet.

Since there are likely to be those (conservative politicians and mining companies spring to mind) who will tout the result as reflecting community views on coal seam gas if it seems that we are divided as a community, I think that it is really important that as many as possible of us with strong “no” views to vote.  Other communities throughout the country have polled 90%+ against (probably with better-worded poll questions). We can do the same here.

Here’s the web address for the poll:

www.gattonstar.com.au/polls/2014/11/06/do-you-support-mining-lockyer-valley

The coal seam gas industry (and our political masters) need to be told loud and clear that there is no social licence whatsovever for CSG operations in the Lockyer Valley Region.

Please, spread this message among your friends.

Is there no end to the pasture grass assault on the Australian environment?

One of the things that really depresses me when I think seriously about the mangement of our 33 hectares of native bushland is the problem of pasture grasses gone feral.  Green Panic is the major problem here, but we have a number of others, including Rhodes Grass.  Both were introduced into Australia as pasture plants.

The Green Panic (Panicum maximum var. trichoglume) is still touted as a good pasture grass.  The story when it was introduced was that it would not spread and become a pest because it needs plenty of moisture and will not grow under shade. Did the agronomists not know about evolution? Did they not know that a grass often has weedy characteristics because it is inherently capable of rapid adaptation to different environments.

Just in case there are agronomists or botanists who were involved in the introduction of this wonder grass among my readers: We have a new variety of Green Panic – Lockyer Valley Green Panic.  It has adapted and evolved (surprise!) and now grows even on dry ridges and under semi-closed woodland trees.  And, like all Green Panic, it grows dense and tall when it isn’t grazed, so that it crowds out the native grasses and by the middle of summer when it has dried out it forms a near explosve compact mass of cellulose that will send flames into the tree canopy.  Where previously there was a carpet of low green Kangaroo Grass on the woodland floor, now in parts of the Lockyer Valley Region we have dense tall brown monocultures of Panic.  Kangaroo Grass is unusual because it has green growth at the height of summer, and with this and its short tussocks it not only makes for some of the most beautiful Australian woodland that I know of, it also burns cool and recovers fast. [sorry for the lack of photos, for the moment I can’t find any pics of our Kangaroos Grass areas].

One of my fondest dreams is that I will see the day when communities across Australia come together in a class action against government agencies and agricultural companies, claiming massive damages for the harm done to the Australian environment by non-native pasture grasses.  So you can see why I was very heartened to see an article in todays Australian edition of The Conversation about the harm pasture grassed do.

Here’s an excerpt:

Feed or weed? New pastures are sowing problems for the future

Weeds cost Australian farmers around A$4 billion every year — and they are likely to do a similar amount of damage to the environment.

In a new global survey published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we show that new pasture plants, such as grasses, present a substantial weed risk.

And despite the risk, new varieties of plants that are known to be invasive are still widely developed and sold in Australia, with little regulation from government.

So, how can we tighten control to prevent the future spread of invasive plants?

Grasses out of control

African lovegrass was used to “improve pasture” in Australia for almost 100 years, but now it is a declared weed in four Australian states and the ACT. African lovegrass has been of little value in pastures, poses a substantial fire risk and threatens a range of native species.

Similarly, Gamba grass was widely promoted by the cattle industry and government in northern Australia, but is now listed as a Weed of National Significance. Gamba grass increases fire intensity five-fold, which transforms native woodlands into exotic grassland and increases the cost of fire management by an order of magnitude.

Introducing these pasture species was a big mistake that Australians will continue to pay for indefinitely. We face increased fire risks, increased management and weed control costs, as well as ongoing loss of our natural heritage.

Have we learned our lesson?

Not yet. Agribusinesses still develop and promote new varieties of species, which are known invasive weeds.

Our new survey of pasture plants reveals that over 90% of taxa developed and sold by agribusinesses are weeds somewhere in the world, and on average 30% are weeds in the country in which they are promoted.

In Australia, these species include Orchardgrass (Dactylis glomerata), Canary-grass (Phalaris species), Tall fescue (Schedonorus arundinaceus), and sub-terranean clover (Trifolium subterraneum). These species are all recognised weeds in Australia, and all promoted by agribusiness for pasture.

Inadvertently breeding super-weeds

These species have already spread throughout much of Australia. But new varieties of the same species can be just as bad, if not worse.

Although they belong to the same species, these varieties can be quite distinct from their parents – just think of the differences between dog varieties like Chihuahuas, Dalmatians and wolves.

The impacts of new pasture varieties in the environment can be substantial, as emphasised in a report “Weed risk set to rise”, to be published this week by the Ecological Society of Australia.

New varieties can be created by cross-breeding different varieties or different species. Another trick to create better performing plants is to manipulate the symbiotic bacteria and fungi that live inside the plants. Engineering plants in any of these ways can lead to varieties with higher reproduction, higher growth rates, better resistance to disease and higher tolerance of environmental extremes.

Unfortunately (but perhaps not surprisingly), these are the same characteristics associated with invasive species. New varieties of pasture plants are bred to grow great pasture, but at the same time, they are inadvertently bred to be super-weeds, perfectly-matched to their environment and planted widely across the landscape.

Producing enormous amounts of pollen and seeds, these new pasture plants can spread quickly and over vast areas, making them very expensive to control if and when they become invasive. So it makes sense to nip the problem in the bud.

You can read the whole article here.