Don’t be fooled by the coal seam gas industry’s advertising

I love The Conversation.  There isn’t a morning goes by that I don’t find at least one enlightening, fascinating, or just plain interesting article in their daily serve of articles – though I do suspect that it could be bad for my health.  Sitting with the laptop on my knees over breakfast for two hours can’t be good.  Memo to self: get up more often; and spread reading of The Conversation over the day.

Today’s “must share” story is about the three myths that the coal seam gas industry wants to have us believe as part of their campaign to sell the idea that it’s in Australia’s national interest to allow a massive expansion of coal seam gas activities.  These are:

Myth 1: The gas industry is a big employer

Rather than the 100,000 jobs that they claim were created in their industry last year, CSG employment is too small for the Australian Bureau of Statistics to measure as a separate category.  Even the combined employment in the whole oil and gas industry as at November 2013 was only 23,200 – whereas Bunnings employs around 36,000 people Australia-wide.

Myth 2: More CSG will stop the gas price rises

There is a considerable difference between the Australian domestic gas price and the price in international trade.  The domestic market will be competing more and more with that international price as export volumes increase.  Any of you who use gas in your home will have seen very significant rises in gas prices over the last five years – well, the impact of international trade contract prices hasn’t really begun to bite yet.  CSG will only bring down domestic gas prices if there is such a glut of gas in the international market that prices crash, leading to flow-on effects in the domestic market.  This might happen eventually, but not any time soon.

Myth 3: CSG can act as a low-emission “bridge” from coal to renewables

This is a longstanding argument from the CSG industry, along the lines of “Don’t worry, it’s just a transition phase, and luckily it has a lot less emissions than burning coal”.

But is it just a transition fuel – what would the lifetimes of CSG-burning power plants be, and would they be likely to be abandoned before that lifetime expired (or while there are still supplies of CSG available)?  Wouldn’t the resistance from industry and government to moving to renewables be just as great in relation to CSG resources and infrastructure as it is to the transition from coal?

As for the lower emissions from burning CSG – yes, natural gas, including CSG, does have lower emissions when it is burned to produce electricity.  However the process of extracting CSG turns out to substantially reduce its emission reduction benefits.  Fugitive emissions, including those resulting from leaks out of the ground associated with hydraulic fracking, have not been properly assessed in the approval of Australian CSG operations.  In the United States, studies on shale gas have found that fugitive emissions rates are substantially higher than from extraction of conventional natural gas.

Anyway, this is a rather long-winded introduction to the article in The Conversation, where you’ll find a whole lot more information, as well as links to further sources, including a just-published report, Fracking the Future, which sets out a lot of background information on this issue.

Avoiding spam comments

I’ve been getting quite a few comments lately along the following lines:

“Hey there,  You have done a fantastic job. I’ll definitely digg it and in my view suggest to my friends. I am confident they will be benefited from this website.”


“Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I have really loved browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing in your feed and I am hoping you write once more very soon!”

I clicked on the email address associate with a similar comment a week or so back, my browser shut down.  Coincidence?  Maybe.

When I checked the IP addresses of these latest vague comments on, they were associated with a Venezuelan company, CANTV Servicios.  I’ve sent them an email, but I suspect that their site has been hijacked for nefarious purposes.

So I’m afraid that in future all comments which are similarly vague and do not make reference to the content of a post will be deleted as spam.  I just hope I won’t be deleting any genuine comments – your thoughts on this blog are precious.

Pruning fruit trees demystified

I love pruning fruit trees – when it works.  I think I understand the theory and mechanics of it, but I have one lemon tree that totally defies my pruning objectives.  Now Erica over at Northwest Edible Life has put out a blog post that explains pruning, from the essentials on up.  I didn’t know as much as I thought I did.

Here’s how she approaches it:

What The Backyard Orchard Culture Grower Wants

  • Healthy, long-lived, productive trees.
  • A long harvesting period of family-appropriate quantities of fruit.
  • Great quality fruit.
  • Backyard-appropriate size (small – think fruit bushes, not fruit trees!).
  • To never have to get out a ladder for any tree maintenance.

What A Fruit Tree – Any Fruit Tree! – Wants

  • To reproduce by making seeds.
  • To maximize captured sunlight and grow.
  • To balance its root mass with its leaf canopy (this is so important I’m going to talk about it in depth below).

After reading through the rest of her post I now understand that my lemon tree is trying to meet these three objectives, but a the same time is trying to deal with restrictions imposed by being hard up against the end of a shadehouse.  I have been pruning it without recognising the struggle it is going through.  To find an image that would illustrate this problem, I just went through my collection of photos of the development of the garden – pretty huge and extending back over about ten years – there’s not a single one that includes the recalcitrant lemon tree.  Sort of suggests how frustrated I am with my lack of pruning success with it .

Have a look at Erica’s post, it’s well worth not only reading but maybe making notes in your garden book, or dropping the post into your favourites list or database.  I’ve just clipped it into DevonThink Pro so I can refer to it whenever I need to.  Happy and successful pruning.

An urban agriculture website that has lessons for us all.

Urban agriculture is receiving growing attention in permaculture circles, whether it is highly productive permaculture backyards (or balconies!) or rooftop farms on city buildings.

Urban agriculture can take many forms (click on the image to read the article on the importance of urban agriculture in developing countries)

I know that the Lockyer Valley isn’t exactly “urban”, but in fact there is a significant proportion of the population of the Lockyer Valley Region living in urban or suburban environments – and there are followers of this blog who live in urban areas outside the Lockyer.  And if we are concerned about food security, whether at present or under more difficult circumstances in the future, urban agriculture is, and will continue to be, an important element in maintaining food security and social resilience.

All of which is a long-winded way of introducing the website of the RUAF (Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Food Security).

If you check out their home page it’s likely you’ll find something of interest, whether it’s in their publications, Urban Agriculture Magazine or bibliographic database on urban agriculture, or in the Hot News section on the home page.  Take a look – one of the things I’ve learned about implementing permaculture is that lessons come from the most unexpected places.

Bioregionalism – and a taste of Italy

A rather bland definition of bioregionalism is “the belief that social organization and environmental policies should be based on the bioregion rather than on a region determined by political or economic boundaries.”

Others would describe it more practically as “a fancy name for living a rooted life. Sometimes called “living in place,” bioregionalism means you are aware of the ecology, economy and culture of the place where you live, and are committed to making choices that enhance them.”

It’s a concept I have been vaguely aware of without really thinking about it, even though it clearly links to my recognition of “connectedness with place” as a significant factor in the mental health of many people, including (but definitely not restricted to) the original Australians and families living for many generations in the one location.  I’m sure many of us in the Lockyer can recognise this.

Now a friend has brought the latest edition of the journal PAN: Philosophy Activism Nature to my attention, for its focus on fungi, and it happened also to contain a report on the Italian bioregional movement.  I can’t think of a better way to “get” the concept of bioregionalism than to read this delightful report – and at the same time to soak up the mood of Italian enjoyment of life and place.  Enjoy.

Soils ain’t just soils – and compost isn’t just compost

Sorry for the long gap between posts.  I’ve mostly been off touring around national parks and permaculture places in northern New South Wales and southern central and southeastern Queensland with my daughter.  Some great walks in spectacular country, and some interesting comparisons between different permaculture demonstration sites.

Not long after we got back I discovered the great blog Living at Gully Grove via a guest post that its author, Chris, wrote on Farmer Liz’s Eight Acres blog about how their family uses permaculture.

When I clicked across to Living at Gully Grove, I found to my delight that, like us, they live in the hilly margins of the Lockyer Valley and clearly face some of the same issues.  It’s always great to find someone who lives in your region who is willing to share their knowledge.

That happy discovery led to an exchange of views via comments on Chris’ blog and the start of a “conversation” about sandstone soils.  As you may know if you’ve been following this blog, our place is steep sandstone country, with many rock outcrops and soil that is made up of sandstone in various stages of decomposition, and generally not more than 60-70 cm deep.  Even that shallow layer of “soil” often has at least half its volume made up of gravel and small rocks.

What passes for soil on a sandstone ridge

What passes for soil on a sandstone ridge

Early on we recognised that one of our main food production challenges was going to be the need to create suitable soil.  To that end we have done all kinds of things, including sieving the rocks and gravel out of huge quantities of the native “soil”, green manuring, mulching, terracing, etc.

So when Chris said:

Have you ever let a garden bed go (ran out of time to keep up to it) and noticed the good soil revert to something like dry potting mix?

The hardest challenge for us hasn’t been building the soil, but rather maintaining it. I notice where we have swales, the soil doesn’t need much of our attention, except where it crosses a sandstone shelf. It only takes a season of hot dry weather, to cook any good soils we don’t maintain.

I knew exactly what she meant.

For us, the challenge hasn’t only been to create good quality soil (and I can’t claim to have satisfactorily cracked that one), but to keep it in good condition.  An apparently well prepared garden bed can start the growing season with lovely fluffy, moist soil that holds together exactly right when squeezed in the hand and produces a good crop.  Then, unless it is constantly maintained, a few months later it is dry, loose and apparently lifeless.  Chris’ description of “dry potting mix” soil hits the nail on the head, particularly if one interprets it as the crap bagged potting mix that supermarkets and garden supply places sell. The plant material in these mixes is generally at best only partly broken down, and there is no evidence that there is, or ever was, life in them.

I’m no expert on soil processes, but I suspect that the coarse material in our “dry potting mix” soils is compost “residue” that has not been broken down. This is probably because (a) the soil was not sufficiently healthy initially, and in particular did not contain sufficient humic matter and soil organisms; (b) when we let the bed go there isn’t sufficient ongoing moisture in the system for biological processes to continue creating and maintaining humic matter; (c) if there isn’t a continuous cover of thick (but air and water permeable) mulch then soil temperatures rise and water content decreases; and, on a sandstone base, there is likely to be significant leaching of nutrients when major rainfall events occur. I have to say though that I have had this problem in some beds that I was actively managing, not just in ones that I’d been ignoring for a few months, but that may have been due to the leaching mentioned in the last point above.

Does the above explanation seem to match your experience / observations?

My way of tackling this problem is still evolving, but it includes:
# keeping a fluffy straw mulch cover on the soil that allows air and water to penetrate, and at the same time significantly reduces drying and insulates from overheating;
# adding green manure to the soil and digging it in. This isn’t the usual “green crop dug in” approach, but a mix of moist and drier (but still living) plant material put through the chipper / mulcher sufficient to make a 25-50mm layer on the surface, then watering it and digging it in;
# adding sieved compost “fines” (containing the humic material) to the soil;
# adding dry horse manure that has been put through the chipper / mulcher to the surface layer.  Processing it this way produces a fine, light fluffy material that holds moisture and gives the soil a great “texture”; and
# to the extent that our water supply allows (we have only tank water), keeping the soil moist, even when the area is not in production.

Good compost of course contains humic material, but can also contain a lot of woody material if you use coarse chip mulch as part of your carbon source.  This is part of the reason it’s a good idea to sieve your compost and put the finer, humic, fraction into the soil, reserving the coarser material for mulch or for feeding the next batch of compost. Unless you already have a healthy soil, there’s not a lot of point in incorporating coarse, only partly broken down, compost material into it.

If you want a good guide to how soil “works” and how to maintain its health, the best book I’ve come across is Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden (Chapter 4: Bringing Soil to Life). This is by far the best and most practical permaculture text I know. The other good source for soil matters is, perhaps surprisingly, Harvey Ussery’s The Small-scale Poultry Flock (pages 137-144 for soil matters). We have a pretty comprehensive permaculture / organic library but these are the two books I go to first when I have a question, and I seldom need to go past them.