30 December 2006

Garden Update

"Fruit, Pansy, I must have Fruit!"

This is the first year we are getting significant quantities of fruit off the trees we've planted over the years.

We're doing best with Apples and Plums.

We've learned that Plum varieties that don't turn red are best, since red fruits of all kinds (including Chillis) attract vast hordes of thieving Mousebirds.

The Anna Apples pictured here are our best performer, despite the tree in the picture having been severely damaged by a Baboon last year; he took out the main leader brach and left a very large tear in the bark of the main stem.  We painted it with tree-seal compound, and the tree has recovered quite well, though it remains a bit misshaped.


For the first time I have had enough inventiveness, energy and bed-space for reasonable Cucumbers.  I am trying a variety I sneaked in from elsewhere called "Telegraph Improved", and they're doing really well.I also have Lemon Cukes and Chinese Yellow elsewhere in the garden, though they're lagging quite a bit behind the Telegraph Cukes. I'm hoping to save seed from all three varieties, so they're well separated from one another.

It remains to be seen whether all these Cukes fruit early enough before Fruit-Fly season sets-in. If not, I have managed to acquire some 12% shade-net which I will use to make cages for the plants. Its an experiment to see whether the mesh is small enough to keep Fruit Flies out, and whether the cloth will serve well enough to construct isolation cages when it comes to saving seed from insect-pollinated varieties.


All nine varieties of Tomatoes are doing really well, and the earliest -- a strain of Red Khaki I have been selectively saving seed for about 15 years now -- are starting to change colour.  Hooray!  Real Tomatoes again in a couple of weeks!  I just hope that we do not suffer too much humidity come February, otherwise we shall surely be struck by Blight again, and I really need to save lots of seed from some of the old heirlooms -- Brandywine and Cherokee Purple -- which are, of course, the most blight-prone of the lot.  I am being particularly religious about keeping other plants clear from around the Tomatoes so that the air movement hopefully keeps the humidity down.

In one sense, now is truly the best time of year in the garden.  The first fruits of our Spring labour is starting to come in, but we're not yet inundated with harvesting and processing, and the Hungry Gap is past.  All the plants are growing vigorously and look healthy, no diseases or pests have taken their toll yet.  The only serious pressure is to cull weeds, mulch and the ever-present water worries.

18 December 2006

Restore Your Faith

I don't even remember the context.  A (now defunct) Permaculture mailing list...  I must have lusted after a particular book that I could not then afford (nor can I yet).

One of the list participants struck me with a very great kindness:  out of the blue, a copy of David Holmgren's "Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability".

Thank You, Ian!

Your kindness and generosity restores my frequently-battered faith in us humans.

14 December 2006

Pigs to Fly by 2030

A WorldChanging article caught my eye, about New York City's endeavours to become a "sustainable city" by 2030. My immediate thought was
"Pigs To Fly By Flapping Their Pink Little Ears By 2030".
I think their efforts are admirable, but doomed.  I saw no mention of "Where's the food going to come from?" and "How is the food going to get here in the absence of cheap oil?"

So I'll stick to my piggie little guns: "sustainable city" is an oxymoron. Besides which, NYC, along with Cape Town and lots of other cities may by then already be faced with Seriously Rising Tides.

10 December 2006


Once there was a well known philosopher and scholar who devoted himself to the study of Zen for many years. On the day that he finally attained enlightenment, he took all of his books out into the yard, and burned them all.
I am often asked by people, "What do you do?".  As if the job defines the person, somehow made more mysterious by my living in the countryside, trying to be slightly self-sufficient.

A few weeks ago, on a whim, I answered, "I am a Research Gardener."

The look of confusion and perplexity on peoples' faces is worth it, since mostly they know me as a computer geek.

Last week I was in Cape Town, visiting friends, among them a Master of organic market gardening.  He was describing how he constantly questions the conventional wisdoms of the organic movement.  Applying simple logic, experimentation and observation to achieve astonishing results.  I said to him, "Ah! So you are a Research Gardener, too!"

Perhaps one day soon I shall burn my gardening books.

26 November 2006

The Ozone-Friendly Way of Gardening

Gardening in the Sun is getting scary.  Over the past couple of months I have had the feeling that the Sun is fiercer.  Its not that the weather is hotter, as such, but the Sun's rays burn harsher, sunburn comes easier.  I seem not to be the only one - numerous people are commenting on this.  Are we really feeling the effects of the worst-ever Thinning of the Ozone Layer, or is this just some sort of auto-suggestion effect?  The sceptic in me says, "Let's leave it at 'I don't know.'" though, honestly, I was feeling this before I started seeing news reports about how how bad the ozone layer is this year.

Three Strands of Thinking...

Fit the First: All this has got me thinking, and observing my veggie beds much more closely.  I'm becoming much more concerned with mulching the surface of beds, particularly at this stage of the growing season, where plants are still tiny, and much of the surface lies open and exposed to the Sun, Wind and Rain.  Expecting a dry, hot and burny Summer, I also need to implement soil-moisture conservation strategies - something I've simply been lazy about for too long, now.

Fit the Second: Then, too, as I have been clearing beds, resuscitating the Hex Project, the whole Hex scheme as really crystalised in my mind - outer beds feeding mulch and nutrients to the mid-ring and inner beds; inner beds providing seed, and so on.  I promise a full write-up - to do so now will just be a distraction from my point for this post.

Fit the Third and Final: Lately I have been stacking crops in time a lot - seeding or transplanting directly into a standing crop that is still a few weeks from harvest.  Having neglected garden-bed maintenance during the year in favour of various other stupidities, I am now paying the price in being very pushed for space for the Summer crops.  And there's nothing like necessity to get the creative juices flowing!  This sort of stacking was pioneered by Masunobu Fukuoka, and, though I have not read his books, I think I have a basic understanding of the principles - far too many ramifications and implications to go into here and now - very deep stuff!  I would love to read of his work and hopefully will be able to afford some of his books soon.


A click brought on by tripping across "The Road Back To Nature".  I feel that I am advancing to yet another stage in my gardening.  Yet a deeper level of understanding of soil biota, the rhizosphere and how they interact. Yet a deeper connectedness with the Earth herself.

It shows up in funny ways, too.  I find myself apologising to Earthworms I have accidentally disturbed; unwilling to kill obvious pests.  Better to leave them as food for the predators that protect my garden.

The more I learn about growing things, the more I have come to believe that the only limit to the productive capacity of our gardens, is our own knowledge, empathy, respect and understanding

25 November 2006

I'm Afraid You Have Cows, Mr Brown

Apologies to Gary Larsen.

A neighbour's cows broke free yesterday, and were most attracted by my luscious little Tomatoes and Chillis - or more likely by the lush Kikuyu growth. (Doesn't it sound like a great movie title? "When The Cows Broke Free." Directed by Hitchcock. Or perhaps Woody Allen.)

Eight cows of various ages and sizes wandering around a veggie garden is a fast recipe for disaster. Fortunately OB The PhD was wide awake and alerted us almost immediately, so we were able to chase them off without too much catastrophe. The neighbour who they belong to is very ummmm.... insular? Keep to themselves. Their families have lived here for generations, and, even after eleven years and sundry attempts to "make contact" we are still considered "uitlanders" (foreigners.)

We do have a gate to close our entrance, but it seldom gets used since there is (normally) no threat. I am pretty sure that a farm worker left their gate improperly secured, and, for cows, grass is always greener elsewhere! Especially in veggie gardens.

We lost a few plants that got trampled - unfortunately one of the just-starting-to-flower Cherokee Purple Tomato bushes among them :-( but otherwise got off quite lightly.

Never truer, the saying, "Good fences make good neighbours."  (Unless the fence in question is 2.5m high and highly electrified and reinforced with multiple layers of mesh of various gauges.  But that's another story for another day.)

22 November 2006

Evil Supermarkets and Organic Labelling

A fascinating story, "Wal-Mart, the Cornucopia Institute and Organic Labeling" unfolds over at Sustainablog.  Is Walmart deliberately misleading consumers?  Is the Cornucopia Institute simply on a self-serving mission of revenge?

When I did a  consulting gig to a major local supermarket chain some years ago,  I learned that people (shoppers, competing merchandisers, illiterate shelf-packers) shifting shelf-labels around, accidentally or mischievously, is always a major headache for supermarkets.

So this would tend to support Wal-Mart's claim...

On the other hand, a (different) local chain, focused on selling into the A-income (rich people) market, screwed a lot of small organic farmers.  Their tactic was to place organic meat close to non-organic meat, with both organic and non-organic products deliberately packaged in very similar packaging.

After 18 months ( a year? two? - memory fails) or so they cancelled all contracts with the organic farmers, putting a lot of farmers out of business in the process.  They also did not bother to mention to consumers that they were dropping the organic meat products, and, although their labelling and packaging was technically legal, many, many consumers continued buying way-overpriced meat in the belief that they were buying organically-raised meat.

So this would tend to support a "deliberate obfuscation" theory...

I wouldn't like to guess what is really going on in the case Jeff wrote about, but it sure looks suspicious to me.

21 November 2006

Compost Calling

Sorry no updates recently - here's what I'm up to.  Shovelling a ton of horseshit a day (twice - once to load, and then again to unload) doesn't leave much time for blogging.

14 November 2006

Nothing Lasts

broken bootsYou would expect that boots would last longer than a paltry ten or so years, wouldn't you?

Gumboots were among the very first purchases made when we moved to Braamekraal almost eleven years ago, when we realised just how muddy this place can get during heavy rains.  They have served well, but disaster has struck:  One of the boots has developed a crack or split on the side, rendering them useless.  I don't see why this should have happened; the "rubber" is not particularly worn or perished, and the boots have not seen particularly hard use.

I guess I'll try and repair the split with the glue-gun.

Bah!  Ill-made rubbish!

10 November 2006

New Yummy

I've been in Johannesburg for much of the week, working for money, instead of paying attention to self-sufficiency issues. On the other hand there are a couple of things I'd really like to do that require some money – help our son pay university fees, install solar-power stuff in the house, get some more extensive Zone 4 stuff going down the
slope of our land...

On my return, catching up on my reading, I have discovered something new, courtesy of the folk at farmlet.co.nz – Garlic Scapes.

We tried them for the first time last night, on Pizza, after cooking them lightly with a bit of garlic butter.  Wow!  What a delicious and wonderful discovery.  They will certainly feature on the menu here as often as possible!

Thank You Rebecca for teaching us a new trick!

05 November 2006

The Cutworms Have Landed

Yup!  It's that time of year again.

A couple of days of great rain, followed by a warm, humid day, and out come the Ravening Cutworm Hordes.  I must have lost about 40% of the baby lettuces so far, and the soil is so wet that actually finding the little bastards is extremely difficult.

As far as I know, every organic farmer faces this problem.  You build up the soil - years of backbreaking composting - only to create the perfect conditions for Cutworms.

tomato plant in a collar, in amongst lettucesI know of only two successful approaches to managing the Cutworm Problem:
  1. For widely spaced, high-value plants - Tomatoes, Chillis, Eggplants, Artichokes and similar - cardboard collars to protect every individual plant.
  2. For denser plantings, mass-planted and direct-sown varieties like Carrots, Mustards, Beans, co-planting a decoy or sacrificial crop.
The first method, pictured here, is quite labour and material intensive, though it does provide a good use for toilet-roll inners, which are otherwise a "waste product".  Never truer, the dictum, "One person's shit is another person's gold."  Collaring works pretty well.  The collars are pushed into the ground, so that what you see in the picture, is only about half the length of the collar.  This stops the cutworms from getting in either under or over the fence, and seems to have a better-than-90% success rate.

Decoy, or sacrificial planting is a method I have not had a lot of experience with.  The trick is to plant your decoy crop a couple of weeks before your real crop.  Buckwheat is a good decoy, since it seems to be very attractive to Cutworms, and is good for the soil besides.  The idea is that there is a forest of Buckwheat, which the Cutworms are more likely to encounter than your precious crop plants.  The Cutworms chow down on the decoy plants, giving themselves away, and satisfying their hunger on plants that don't matter to you, leaving most of your crop plants (hopefully) untouched.

The difficulty I have with this is that my veggie beds are in such intensive use that there really is no gap between one crop and the next.  Frequently I find myself planting a new crop in amongst another that is approaching harvest - such as in the picture, where baby Tomatoes have been planted among teen-stage Lettuces.  This makes it very difficult to get a trap-crop into the bed in the correct timeslot.

I would love to hear of any other Cutworm Management Strategies that you use - successfully, or un...

01 November 2006

Money Pollution

Working in the garden today - transplanting some Eggplants, putting cutworm collars around the baby Artichokes and Tomatoes - I was thinking about Work and Money.

Although we live in a part of the world where labour is cheap, and where many people hire gardeners and maids - often as full-time staff - we don't.  The only exception is Pieter, our 60-something peripatetic gardener who pitches-up about once a month, more-or-less at random as he gets the urge.  But back to the point...

Whilst busy placing cutworm collars around the baby plants, I, quite naturally, without thought, am snicking out little weeds that are popping-up in the beds, dealing with the odd cutworm I detect, helping a stray Pea plant find its support stick here, getting rid of a snail there...  All of this is very easy; very effortless; completely without stress or consciousness.  My focus is on the whole garden, despite my single overt purpose.  The work is quite natural and flows easily; the Earth and I work together, meshing our energy with the plants and the elements.

And this is the reason we don't hire outside labour.  Imagine doing the same job for money.  You're handed a bagfull of halved toilet-roll inners, shown how to place them around the vulnerable plants, and left to get on with the job.  Your energy and attention is certainly not on the whole garden.  Your focus is purely to get the job done.  If you're being paid for your time, the the urge is take as long as possible doing a pretty undemanding task, lest you be required to do something more strenuous when that task is finished.  If you're being paid "piecework", the urge is to get as many plants collared as quickly as possible.  In consequence, many plants are likely to get their roots severed, leaves damaged.  These are very young and vulnerable plants; many will not survive, or will suffer significant setback.

The difference?  Money entered the picture.

So often we hear and read the advice "Seek your passion and find a way to get paid for it." - or words along similar lines.  But, in truth, is this really wise advice?

Even those things we feel most passionate about, most committed to, do they - can they - stay as pure when money enters the picture?

I think not.

As a very wise friend once put it, "I love to work.  I like money.  I hate to work for money."

28 October 2006

Shit Happens

One of the joys of self-sufficiency is dealing with your own shit.  After considering all (and I do mean all!) alternatives, we installed a septic-tank system, followed by a reed-bed system for secondary and tertiary treatment of our blackwater.

Invaluable in our research and design were the book "Sewage Solutions: Answering the Call of Nature", the Centre for Alternative Technology's pamphlets "Constructed Wetlands and Reed Beds" and "Making Use of Grey Water in the Garden".  I see that these last two are now available from CAT as PDF downloads!  If ever you have the chance to visit CAT (in Wales) it is very well worth spending a day.  I would love to go there again, since there were many new developments still in the works when J and I visited in about 2000.

Septic-tank systems do have a significant downside, though.  A septic tank is, after all is said and done, nothing more than a settling tank.  About 4% of what goes into them is insoluble, and cannot be washed out or broken down by bacteria, so after some years of usage the septic tank tends to silt-up.  More fastidious waste-system designers recommend pumping the tank out every year - probably simply to avoid running foul of local waste-management regulations.  Actual mean-time-between-pumping depends totally on the number of people using the system, size of the septic tank and frequency of toilet flushing.

It has now been about 6 years since last we had our septic tank emptied, and it has reached the point where the inlet tends to easily block, particularly if we have guests staying, as we have had for the past several weeks.  Eventually I have the delightful job of opening the tank and prodding the errrr...  mass?... with a stick until the inlet unblocks and everything runs normally again for a while.

Ultimately I have to face the fact that we need to get the "sucking Suzie" up here to pump the contents out.  The very real problem, though, is that the municipality charge R1200 (at last enquiry, some years ago) for this service, and this is, not to put too fine a point on it, more than we can presently afford.

Of course it is possible to empty the tank "by hand" - using a bucket, but one is still faced with the problem of disposing of the contents whilst keeping the peace with one's neighbours, and avoiding polluting downslope water.

I will have to toss the entire problem into the laps of the municipal bureaucracy.  Can't wait!

23 October 2006

Loafing About

Bread-making is easy and fun.  Once you get the hang of it, you'll never willingly eat store-bought bread again.  We've been baking our own bread for (probably) a couple of years now, and yesterday was a crowning moment when we cut into a warm,Sourdough Rye Bread stuffed with Olives, Rosemary and Garlic.  So good it needs nothing else.
About a year ago we were still using bought-in dry yeast, but the price had almost doubled in less than a year, and we still had a nagging feeling of not being as self-sufficient as we could be with the whole deal.
So we learned how to make our own yeast starter and to keep it going.  As a result we nowadays eat only "sourdough" breads.  A short business trip toJohannesburg last week that reminded me just how tasteless, lightweight and unsatisfying commercial breads are.  After all, the goal of a commercial bakery is to sell you as much air as possible.
I figure I'll write a few articles on bread-making, but before we can get into some of the more interesting recipes, we need to get going with creating a sourdough starter.

Care And Feeding of Your Very Own Yeastie Beastie.

To make your very own Sourdough Starter, just bake a loaf of white, brown or rye bread, using whatever yeast the recipe recommends.  Wholewheat will do, too, but you'll end up with a lot of chaffy bits in the starter.  Note that commercially-produced wholewheat flour is but a pale and pathetic imitation of the Real Thing, having been torn apart, bleached, "fortified", purified and then put back together in some way that maximises the mill's profits.

Make a little more dough than the recipe calls for - perhaps an extra cup of flour - or just accept that your bread is going to be a little smaller than usual.  When you've finished kneading the dough, break of a lump of dough the size of your fist, or a bit bigger, and place it in a bowl.  Cover with a cloth, and leave this in a warm (not hot!) place for three or four days.  Bake the remainder of the dough into a conventional bread.
After your lump-o-dough has sat around for some days acquiring wild yeasts from the air, add a couple of cups of white-bread flour and enough warm (body-temperature) water to make a stiff batter.  This is your first starter.

You should also add a couple of tablespoons of sugar - brown sugar is better, simply because it tastes better.  Or use molasses, honey or malt-extract instead of sugar.  What you choose here will have an influence on the taste of your sourdough starter in the long term.  Sugar or molasses is sucrose; malt extract is maltose; and honey is a complex mixture of stuff.  What you use will influence which sorts of yeasties thrive in your starter, and which varieties of yeast are discriminated against.  Some yeasts prefer maltose, some sucrose, and so on.  Then, too, the kind of flour you use will also exert a small influence.

Bung this lot into the refrigerator until you're ready to bake your first sourdough loaf.  When you do bake, scoop out a couple of cups of your starter into a bowl, add two cups of flour and enough lukewarm water to make a stiff batter again.  This lot you keep for next time, and the remainder of the starter you use to make your bread.

For the first several generations your starter probably won't taste very "sour".  It takes time for the starter to acquire a distinctive yeast ecosystem.  It also means that every sourdough starter is absolutely unique.  Nobody will be able to imitate your breads!  Very, very occasionally you may get unlucky and find the starter acquiring an "off" taste.  Chuck it and start again.  Mostly this won't happen though, because you've started with a very strong yeastie population from the commercial yeast in your first starter, and these yeastie beasties will outcompete any of the unpleasant wild beasties that may stray into the mix.

After four or five generations of starter you should have a fine, distinctively sour starter, and you'll never need to buy yeast again.

People who are exceptionally more organised than we might like to try keeping several strains of starter - one lot fed on (say) malt and rye flour, another lot fed on honey and wheaten flour, and so on.  Please let us know how it turns out.

Remember and give thanks to the little yeastie beasties who leaven our bread and beer.  Without them life would be much less palatable.

17 October 2006

If a Tree Falls...

If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?

We are not able to answer that question definitively (though some claim to.)  However, we can definitely state that if a tree falls across the road, and there's no one there to hear it, you're sure to get an early-morning phone call from irate neighbours who are going to be late for work and school.

A tree at the bottom-end of our property has been leaning further and further for months, now, ever since the heavy rains softened the soil.  Really there are about four of these trees, stacked like dominoes waiting to be knocked over.  They are a formidable challenge to bring down, since any disturbance would set off a chain reaction.  Dangerous stuff.

An early phone call from our next-door neighbour let us know that one of the trees had finally made it down to ground-level, blocking all traffic on the road.  Off I went, chainsaw and slasher in hand, to clear the road.  A good, energetic start to the day, and we'll have plenty of firewood when I finish clearing the mess.

It's incidents like this that highlight the differences between our community of relatively-self-reliant people, and townies.  In a town or city people would be less inclined to jump in and sort out the problem; more likely to wait for the Council to send a team to sort things out.  Really the problem was quite a minor one, and it took us no more than 15 minutes to clear enough of the fallen tree that vehicles can pass normally.  If we'd waited for the Council to send someone, we'd probably still be waiting 6 hours later.

Similarly, when the road was being washed away by heavy rains, we were all out there, sodden, helping to clear a drainage ditch.  Or when potholes appear in the (dirt) road, someone eventually gets sufficiently irritated to dig some gravel from the roadside and fill the hole.  Much healthier for our own state of mind; much healthier for our relationships with our neighbours; much healither for community-building.

As soon as the rain stops I'll get out there and clear things a bit better and collect my firewood.

15 October 2006

Tomato Transplant

Perfect weather today for transplanting: Light drizzly rain.  Not enough to make the soil wet and sticky, not too cold to make outside work unpleasant.

The first Tomato seedlings - Tigerella, Ida Gold, Black Krim and a few Cherokee Purple - are ready to go into the ground.  I'm dubious about the timing of the Cherokee Purple, though.  CP is a medium-large heirloom variety, with a beautiful, purply-browny-red colour, shading to green shoulders, with a wonderful, rich flavour.  Last year was my first trial with them, and they suffered badly from sun-scald.  Later in the season, when the sun was less fierce, they faired much better, so I decided to use them as a late-season harvest, but a few volunteers popped up early this Spring, and I didn't have the heart to weed them out.  Now I have these few very-early plants, and it looks like the coming summer may bring particularly harsh sun.  Not good news for Cherokee Purples.

I have planted another batch for late-season harvest, but I doubt we'll see much fruit off the earlies.

We will have to deal with much more of this sort of uncertainty as the globe warms.  Species that have traditionally been well-adapted to an area may find themselves unsuited to their homes as climate change progresses.  Our only defence is diversity - lots of species, lots of different varieties from different parts of the world.  Especially since we can't predict the direction and severity of change.

I know this goes against the grain for many conservationists.  I grew up in the Cape Floral Kingdom, the geographically smallest, but most diverse per unit area of the world's six floral kingdoms.  Large areas of the Western Cape's indigenous vegetation, and unknown numbers of species, have been lost to alien plants, so we are deeply wary of intriducing strangers into the area.  But, where food plants are concerned, I can see no reason to introduce new varieties of species that have been imported a long time ago.  Then, too, our cultivated food plants tend to be so much less vigorous than wild plants that they stand little hope in competition with endemic species.  Not universally true: Cosmos, Canna, and St Johns Wort have become invasive alien nuisances - but a reasonable generalisation for vegetable species.

Still, with the uncertainties of climate change, variety is our best strategy for coping.   Variety, and accepting that we are likely to suffer some weather-induced losses each year.

14 October 2006

Blasted by Bugs

Damn and Blast!  Last weekend saw us hit by a double-whammy.  A berg wind (very hot, adiabatic wind coming off the escarpment) coupled with a no-doubt-related outbreak of Cabbage Beetles.  I don't know if they have a "real" name - its a species of Shield Bug - that attacks the Cabbage tribe of plants almpst exclusively.  They're about the size of Ladybugs, black with distinctive orange dots patterned on their carapace.

These little buggers suck the sap from the plants, which, coupled with the very hot, dry wind, has caused major havoc.  Chinese Cabbage that have made it all the way as far as seeding have been destroyed.  Bok Choy, Tat Soy, Red Mustard and Rocket that were 5 days from harvesting -- nailed.  Radishes that just came up a couple of weeks ago -- trashed.  Golden Globe turnips that I am growing for seed have taken a severe beating, but should survive.

The trouble with these little bugs is that they exude some Noxious Stuff, so nothing (as far as I can determine) eats them.  The only solution I can come up with is caging the plants with an insect-proof netting.

Caging is my latest Bright Idea for several things.  Not only will it keep the Cabbage Eating Bastards at bay, but will also work as isolation cages for Chillis so that I avoid a repeat of The Great Cross-Pollination "Experiment" of 2002.  Additionally, I think it may work quite nicely to keep Squashes from being stung  by Fruit Fly (well, I guess that they're roughly the same thing as Pumpkin Fly).  I am quite late for planting Squashes this year, which means that all the fruiting will happen during the Fruit Fly Season.  Normally this would mean 100% losses, but I am optimistic (eternally?) that caging will prove to be a good solution.

04 October 2006

Things that go Bump in the Night


Around here Honey Badgers are a protected species.  My beehives are strapped onto metre-high posts to avoid the risk... well... the certainty of having them ripped to shreds by a Honey Badger.  Nevertheless, Honey Badgers, or Ratels, are quite common in the area, and a bloody nuisance when it comes to Chickens and other small livestock.

When we first got Chickens, we made several mistakes in our Chicken housing, resulting in a couple of near-total losses of our flock.  So Chicken House Design has eventually evolved to a Badger-Proof plan.  With oneFatal Weakness.

We humans have to close the door to the Chicken House every evening once the Chooks have gone to bed, and we have to remove the ramp that leads up to the entrance.  And every morning, we have to let the Chooks out (and feed the breakfast) and put up the entrance-ramp.

Last night we forgot.

Sometime around a quarter-to-midnight, a massive, panic-stricken squawking woke me from my deepest slumber.  Realisation of my folly hit me immediately.  Both J and I had forgotten to shut the Chickens in.  For the first time in 5 or 7 years.

Leapt out of bed, grabbed to torch ("flashlight" to speakers of American,) down the stairs as fast as sleepy legs allow.  OB the Very Clever Doggie and I to the rescue  (salvage!)  Left to their own devices, a Ratel will (and I speak from experience) run amok and kill every chicken in sight.  At the Chicken Run, several chickens running around helplessly in the semi-dark (half-moon behind the clouds.) Chickens are virtually blind in anything darker than dusklight.  I managed to catch a couple of them and put them back in their Safehouse.  Unfortunately one hen, recently gone broody, was one of those closest to the door, and I missed her, so she spent the night out, off her clutch of eggs.  Anybody care to bet whether any of those chicks survive?

Mid-morning this morning, OB the Dog (did I mention that she really is veryclever?) came to call us; she had found one of the young roosters, fatally damaged by the Ratel.  His neck was clearly broken, but not all the way through, and he was still barely alive.  Poor bugger.  I quickly and painlessly put him out of his misery, and that pretty-much determined the remainder of my morning: Plucking and Cleaning Chicken.

OB, PhD, got her favourite treat: chicken head and feet.  And we have a delicious chicken tenderising in the freezer.  I've been meaning to cull those roosters anyway!

A Job Title

In other news: Dug up the Winter Garlic - around 200 bulbs, which should see us through the year.  Some are disappointingly small. :-O  I am planning to try a Spring planting of Garlic for harvest in May/June.  I see no reason it should fail, and, if successful, means that we can easily do two Garlic plantings a year.  Yay!

Which brings me to a final point: I have recently had several people ask me "So what do you DO?"  A question I face with the utmost trepidation and hesitation, being entirely unsure how to answer it.  Why all this focus on what we DO?  Why no interest in what we ARE?

Anyway, I now have an answer to "What do you do?": "Research Gardener".

Update 5/10/06:I just tripped across a very similar story to our Honey Badger incident on one of my favourite sites - Pocket Farm: A Bump in the Night

01 October 2006

Veggie Garden Update

Things are taking shape for Summer in the Veggie Garden.  I finally finished clearing the top bed in the new area of the garden, and have taken a break from that in favour of clearing beds in The Hexes.  It is all a question of the most effective use of my limited energy – its quicker to clear Hex beds than to clear Kikuyu from new areas.

Most of the seed-trays are showing signs of life.  The quickest of the Tomatoes are almost ready for setting out: a locally-common variety called Red Kaki – an ordinary-ish, red, medium-large Tomato, but selectively bred over the years by yours-truly for improved flavour, so I guess I could start thinking of a new name for it one of these years.  Always good to have a hardy backup in case disaster strikes with the Brandywines or any of the other exotics.  Perhaps in another ten years or so I will have selected decent strains of all those imports to be better adapted to the local soils and climate (whatever climate we may have a decade from now!)

I keep intending to plant more Basil seed.  I've had rather poor germination this year – perhaps I used particularly old seed, or maybe I was just too optimistic in my timing.  Either way, its one of those cases where I keep looking at the spotty little seedlings in their tray, and think, "I must plant more," but somehow haven't got around to it yet.  Could be my "disaster-of-neglect" for this year :-O

The Big Happy Surprise is the appearance of some Sweet Banana Chilli seedlings.  The seed is really old, and I failed to produce any of them last year.  Barring Slug, Snail or Cutworm disaster I shall cherish the few plants carefully to ensure fresh seed for the future.

I'm way behind on planting dried-beans and Squashes, and there's heavy rain forecast for the next few days...  Oh well, we need the rain!

24 September 2006

Leaping Off A Cliff (Again)

Almost eleven years ago we Made Our Move; Left the city and moved to our half-built House At Braamekraal.  More accurately, the journey started something like 12 or 13 years ago with the decision to drop out of the corporate city lifestyle, and the subsequent search for land, but I digress...

The first several years were taken up with finishing the house, getting established as a teacher of programming and as an OO-design consultant, all as a way to get debt-free.  What Permaculture calls "looking after Zone 0".  A basic principle of Permaculture is that you get control of the most immediate zone before expanding outwards into the next.  I confess that I broke the rules.  I could not restrain myself, and work on Zone 2 – specifically the veggie garden and Chicken run – began almost from Day One.

Getting Out Of Debt was, in retrospect, absolutely the correct, and most powerful thing to do.  I leave to your imagination the looks on the faces of the bank clerks when I went in there to legally cancel the bond they held on the property and close the mortgage account.
"Ummm....  We don't actually know how to do that.  We'll have to phone Head Office and get back to you."
If you dream of escaping the clutches of corporatised, urbanised life, I cannot emphasize enough the importance and power of getting rid of all your debt.  Remember that "mortgage" literally means "death grip". Another subject for another day...

Previously I thought of this decade past as the fruition of my lifelong dream, and that left me going "Now What?" in some sense.  I have begun to see it as merely a transition period. For all of that time I have still been essentially hooked into the software industry in one way or another.  The past year or so has been the story of "Trying to Fund an Internet Startup".  My TechBlog has some of the details – a little sketchy, as I was trying to protect potential IP details to avoid scaring possible venture investors.  All has more-or-less come to naught.

So I am left with the "problem" – or challenge, if you will – of living in the 21st Century.  That means: To some extent I am still tied into the Money  System (despite being debt free).  Arguably that extent stems from my own addiction to certain Modern Conveniences like The Internet, Medical Insurance, Non-Local Music, Hot Running Water, Flushing Convenience and Toilet Paper, and that ubiquitous evil, the Motor Car.  The kids are pretty-much past the point where I need Life Insurance, and my life-insurance broker is shortly in for a surprise...  To sum up, I need some income.  Its a pretty small amount, by most standards – almost at the "poverty line".  But then, my wants are quite modest.

Now there are numerous ways I could generate that income, especially since I have Arcane Knowledge of Advanced Software Stuff.  I've given a lot of thought and energy to the prospect of organising workshops on advanced software-development topics, or becoming one of those dreaded (by American programmers) Offshore Workers (I'm still not as cheap as someone in India!) or of kicking-off some more modest Software Venture (I conceive about 3 viable ideas-with-a-real-business-model per week!)  But every time I approach a software project, I wilt like cut Lettuce on a midsummer day.  The thought of forging a way back into the software industry makes my energy level sag to the point of catatonia

In contrast, every time I venture out into the garden I feel great.

Ten (eleven?) years ago, when I was about to resign from my eight-and-a-half year corporate job, I had a vision of it as standing at the edge of a cliff, about to leap off.  A leap of Faith.  Either you'll fly, or you'll crash.  Either way, you'll finally experience freedom, whether for just a short, short while, or forever.

Today I feel the same way.

I can keep on hovering – dipping back into the Pond of Corporate Software Development – hating and cursing every moment (well, many moments, anyway) – or I can Get Serious with the Self-Sufficiency thing.

I am already scaling up the veggie garden to be able to supply Veggie Boxes locally, though its a lot of work getting beds double-dug in this soil.

I also have in mind to start an Organic Seed Supply business (and I would welcome input and feedback on this idea!)

A bit of background:  The legal situation in South Africa is a bit complicated.  Legislation seems to be set up to protect the Big Three seed companies.  One may not (legally) sell seed without a permit, and, in the past, permits have been unobtainable as a practical matter.  So I would have to attempt that process.  Then, too, the markets for organically-grown fresh produce are quite undeveloped, and consumers quite unsophisticated in these issues compared with their counterparts in the First World.  This means that prices for organically-grown produce do not command the premium that they would elsewhere.  Some premium, to be sure, but not that great.

My land is pretty small (1.7 hectares/4 acres) so, realistically, Fresh Produce has limited potential as a money-maker.  I also have to deal with my own emotional barrier to selling the abundance of the Earth.  I do so little – the Earth and my friends the Soil Creatures do most of the work.

Seed, on the other hand, is Very High Value.  Think about it: a packet containing maybe a teaspoonful of seed retails for about R10 (about USD1.30/EUR1.00/JPY150/CNY10.34 at today's exchange rates).  My seed cupboard currently harbours 1/2-litre containers of Carrot seed I grew last year, that I have been using to grow Carrots for all time since then.  It must contain a couple of hundred packets of seed, in retail home-grower quantities.

It is also a fact of seed-saving that it is easier (or at least "just as easy") to grow and process larger quantities of seed than smaller.  Consider Beans (Bush Bean, Runner Beans, whatever...)  To grow just enough for yourself for next season (plus a Safety Factor) is pretty easy, but the qunatity is so small – a few dozen Beans – that you end-up shelling them by hand. A large quantity, on the other hand, get stuffed into a bag, pummelled with a stick, and the Beans poured out.  Takes about a fifth of the time and effort for 100 times as many beans!

To ensure genetic diversity, one wants to grow as many plants as possible for a given batch of seed.  This, too, means you end up with a Hell Of A Lot Of Seed.  More, really, than you can ever use before it gets old and loses viability!

Am I just talking myself into something? Or is there a realistic possibility here?

I feel like it is time to embark on the next part of this Self-Sufficiency Journey.  Once again I am filled with doubts, fears, and the sense of expanding possibilities.  Once again its time to Leap Off The Cliff.

21 September 2006

Snakes in a Tin Can

Just had a close encounter with a Puffadder (snake).  (Unfortunately no picture – everything happened too quickly.)  The Puffy was nesting in a rusty old tin can next to my Garden Tool "cupboard" and the garden tap – a place I am in and out of all day long, moving things about, shifting hoses, plant stakes, tools and seed trays.
OB the PHD (Pointy-Headed Dog) alerted me to the snake; she is always very puzzled by snakes, and wears a very different expression to her Rat-catching face.  I guess they are interesting to her, since they move about, but probably smell strange, or perhaps lack a distinctive odour. It must be incredible to have a sense of smell like a dog's.
Being terrified of snakes, I was lucky that the snake was feeling very sleepy and mellow.  It stayed in its tin can while I fetched a bucket and lid, and flipped the snake, tin and all, into the bucket with a long stick.

Brett, my snake-catching neighbour, kindly came and took the snake away to release it in the wild.

Now I wonder where the Boy snake is... :-O

12 September 2006

Global Climate Change

Earthtimes.org has a story on the EU-funded Antarctic ice core project, "Air bubbles from Antarctica ice core tell a scary environmental story".

"we know for sure that carbon dioxide has increased by about 35 per cent in the last 200 years. Before the last 200 years, which man has been influencing, it was pretty steady."
– Dr Eric Wolff, British Antarctic Survey
the natural level of carbon dioxide over most of the past 800,000 years has been 180-300 parts per million by volume (ppmv) of air. But today it is at 380 ppmv.
In one of the universe's divine jests, on the same day we have our Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, speechifying:

[Africa will] see "an increased incidence of extreme weather events; substantial reductions in surface water resources; accelerated desertification in sensitive arid zones; and greater threats to health, biodiversity and agricultural production"
Now, my opinion is that van Schalkwyk is a halfwit. He has absolutely no clear understanding of the urgent need for strong protection of the environment.  He has been handed what is seen as a sinecure post in Cabinet – his reward for screwing the voters of the now-thankfully-extinct New National Party by delivering their votes into the hands of the ANC. 

One of his first actions as Minister of Environmental Affairs was to ease requirements for Environmental Impact Assessment in constructing cellular phone masts.  His department has recently granted carte blanche to golf course developers in the local area to do as they will, in clear conflict with provincial attempts to ride herd on these megabuck millionaire retreats that trash local environments, returning nothing but lies and broken promises to the affected communities.

That aside, I am very happy that he acknowledges the fact of global climate change, unlike some of his counterparts in other countries, who remain steadfastly in denial.

The question remains, though: What is government doing about it?  As a nation we are one of the worst polluters of the environment on a per capita basis.  We produce more pollution per South African than almost any other country on Earth.  The state-owned electricity utility, Eskom, largest electricity supplier in Africa, runs the dirtiest coal-fired power stations in the world.  That is why our electricity is among the cheapest in the world.  At least in the very short term.

Environmental pollution limits, lax as they are, are seldom enforced.  Simply getting chemical suppliers and toxic-waste management companies to comply with regulations commonly takes years, and seldom results in permanent and effective solutions, even after the courts have spoken.

The saddest indictment is that the post of Minister of Environment Affairs and Tourism is considered unimportant-enough by the ANC government to award it to an ex-Nat!  (And guess which part of his portfolio gets the significant porion of his limited attention; Environment or Tourism?)

So: The South African government believes that climate change is before us.  That is, at least, reassuring.  We might have to say goodbye to Cape Town, goodbye Knysna Forests.  Are we doing anything about it, yet?  No chance.

09 September 2006

"Sell" isn't so Bad; Selling is!

In "Why is “Sell” Such a Bad Word?", Brian Clark muses
Sell. Selling. Sales.
Not very popular words, are they?
Quite frankly, I wasn’t initially sure whether I would be banished
from the blogosphere for daring to use the word “sell” in my tagline.
Hmmm.... let me see if I can tackle this from the other side of the fence.

It's not that I have any problem with the word "sell" or the idea of "selling" at all.  What I object to is the absolute requirement imposed on us to sell whatever we do, failing which society will punish us in the severest possible ways.

I grow veggies to a very high standard of organic practice.  I love to grow veggies.  I always grow far too much for our own use.  I am happy to give them away, because I know that people will be getting the best, tastiest, most nutritious food in the world, and because giving away beautiful, sun-ripened veggies is  a way of gifting the gift that the Earth has given.

But if I want to stay alive, to keep a roof over my head, I am forced to sell.

I'll say it again: I have no problem with the concept of sales.  I just don't want to do it.  It's not my thing.  I can "sell" if I have to, for a limited time, but in the long run I am deeply uncomfortable and unhappy doing it.  That's why, in any business venture, I make sure I seek out team members who are good at selling and love doing it.

I also love to teach people about organic gardening, programming, Java, software design, sustainable living, peak oil, alternative energy and self-sufficiency, but I have no desire in me to "sell" these things.

I know, I know; someone is going to tell me that my enthusiastic preaching on these subjects is just selling.  Nonsense, I say! Nonsense!  Selling is when someone actually pays me money for those things.  Up to that point there's no "sale", and my point is that, in the world as it is, I have no choice but to sell.  If I just keep doing things for the love of them, I'll...   well, I won't starve, since I have all those veggies, but I certainly won't be able to afford many of the necessities and pleasure of modern life - stuff like electricity, connectivity, computers, transport.

So.  Its not "sell" that's the problem, but "coerced into selling" that is.

04 September 2006

The Hundred Year Lie; The Ten Day Fix

Dave Pollard raises a very interesting issue in his How to Save the World blog – the nutritional value (or lack of it) in our food. I urge you to read his review of the book "The Hundred Year Lie" before continuing, since the rest of this post won't make much sense otherwise. Dave goes on from reviewing the book to contemplating the use of probiotic supplements to combat the problem.

I would say there is a simpler way: Food Gardening.

Growing your own food – need I say "using organic methods"? – means you can very simply eliminate the whole Industrial Food Complex, and feed yourself and your family whole, wholesome, fresh, untainted vegetables. You can choose varieties that taste good, rather than those that transport and store well. You can be sure of avoiding frankenfoods by growing open-pollinated varieties, and enjoy marvelous flavours that you will never find in any supermarket by growing heirloom varieties.

It is a truism that we only preserve the things that we use. Heirloom varieties are usually ignored by the Industrial Food Complex, because they may be a little more trouble to grow, and that translates to added cost of production, and thence to reduced profits. Or they may not have the super-long shelf-life that the supermarkets require. Or they may not look as appealing – where "appealing" has been defined by some market research group, and only applies to the visual appeal. Or they may not be as hardy to mechanical harvesting and packing. These factors that Industrial Agriculturists, Food Processing companies and Food Retailers seek in vegetables usually result in veggies that

  • Grow fast
  • Respond "well" to intensive artificial fertilisers and pesticides

  • Look good on the shelf
  • for a long (sometimes unnaturally long!) time
  • cope well (i.e. don't rot or discolour) when chilled or frozen
  • have thick skins to withstand the rigours of mechanical harvesting and long distance transportation

You may notice that nowhere in this list do we find mention of flavour or nutrition.

If you grow even just a little bit of your own fruit and veggies, you create a huge supplement to your diet.

But That's Not All

There are the other beneficial aspects of Food Gardening. It gets you out in the open air, doing mild, low-impact physical exercise. Pretty much what our bodies evolved to do! You sweat. Exercise and sweat are one of the best ways to reduce stress and the by-products of stress in our bodies.

Gardening is a meditation. It gently occupies the mind with not-very-taxing tasks, and allows the dross of modern life to drain away.

Gardening brings you in direct, literal contact with the Earth. You quickly stop feeling "disconnected" when your hands get grubby with Earth. And gardening by organic methods means that you are actively engaged in fostering all life forms – particularly the soil biota – rather than running amok in a Death Rampage trying to kill things.

It has long struck me as a bewildering paradox that faces Industrial Agriculturists (I refuse to call them "Farmers"; they long since stopped deserving that title). Industrial Agriculturists on one hand try to grow food – and remember that only living things can grow – food that is supposed to, in its turn, sustain life – and yet they run around killing everything they can. Remember that the "cide" part of the words pesticide, herbicide, insecticide, bactericide, fungicide, means "death". How does fostering death support life? It's completely insane, and this insanity is built deep into the modern food chain. Is it any wonder that things seem out of kilter?

I do foresee one argument: "I don't have space for a food garden". Nonsense. Even in a high-rise apartment you can create some small space – a window box, a few containers on a balcony. If you have the will you can find space. Depending where in the world you are there may community gardens, allotments, public land that the local council is happy for you to use, roof-space that can support containers. Get creative! Find someone who has garden space, and swap use of a little piece of their garden for a portion of your produce.

A Warning

If you start gardening, you may find it addictive. You may start wondering about thequality of the water you use in your garden. Where does it come from? If you turn to using rainwater, you may begin to ask questions about the air-quality, since the rain falls through that air and picks up contaminants on its journey from the clouds. You may begin to wonder about the seeds you plant, and who is trying to control that seed-supply.

In short, gardening may turn you into an environmental activist.

01 September 2006


Spring has Sprung
Da grass has riz,
I wonder where
Da boidies iz?

I don't know if its official, or not, and I care less. My hayfever has kicked in, right on cue, so it must be Spring. That means time for the serious Work to begin in preparation for the coming Season.

Thankfully it looks like we're in for a few sunny days which should give the ground time to drain a little after all the (lovely!) rain we've been having. I managed to clear and compost one bed this afternoon, though the soil really is too wet to want working, but I can wait no longer, and, as its an established bed, already well composted, so draining better than Untouched Ground.

Much to my surprise, Chillis are starting to appear in their seed-trays, as are Tomatillos, and signs that we may see Eggplants within the next day or two. I've been very happy with the Chinese Cabbage - at least with the speed with which they grew - the Chickens have certainly enjoyed them, so I've planted more, along with Chicory, which I know the Chooks love. We should also be eating Cabbages (Cape Spitz) within the next ten days or so. Yumm!

I have a very positive feeling about the veggie garden this year...

23 August 2006

Killing Kikuyu

In response to someone's query on strategies for eliminating grass on the permaculture-oceania mailing list, I bemoaned the difficulty of getting rid of Kikuyu, to which April Sampson-Kelly <email-elided> wrote:
what does kikuyu need?
My strategies for replacing kikuyu are based on these observations,
I stop cutting it, i stop light access by covering it with cardboard sheets and mulch (which also serves to cut ventilation and risk of fire, and reduce risk of soil erosion by water or wind)
A Thousand Thanks to April and Jedd for prodding my few remaining neurons back to life...

A walk around the garden with my eyes open was all I really required. Places where we've planted Keurbooms (an indigenous Acacia forest pioneer - no data on N-fixing, though I suspect they do) show that the trees have been successful in out-competing the Kikuyu to the limit of their drip-line.

However! I am in a big hurry. I don't have/want to spend 10 years at this - I need to clear the area to get my self-sufficiency level up and back on track.

I also notice that Cape Gooseberry (Phaseolus something) has been extremely effective at shading-out the Kikuyu in an area where they were allowed to go rampant - they freely self-seed, helped along by the otherwise-bloody-nuisance Mousebirds. So: as soon as the rains stops, and with Spring on our doorsteps soon, I shall be planting a couple of seed-trays of Cape Gooseberry. Along with all the volunteers that usually get weeded out of the veggie garden I'll pop them into the (very long, rank, unmowed and ungrazed for over 10 years) Kikuyu. Once they've killed off the grass they are relatively easy to clear.

Should be rid of the grass in about 18 months to 2 years... Yay!

19 August 2006

Irish Perpetual Motion Machine

An Irish company, Steorn, claims to have invented an energy-generation technology that operates at greater than 100% efficiency.  In other words, a Perpetual Motion machine.  They are seeking validation from respected physicists.

Now, I don't mind fools being parted from their money.  But its a bit sad that some permaculture proponents buy into this sort of bullshit.  As a long-time practitioner of permaculture design principles, I firmly believe that the basis of permaculture design is a firm and clear understanding of the fundamentals of thermodynamics.

Even if one does not have a clear grasp of energy principles, pure logic tells us that all the "free energy" machines and theories have to be a load of bollocks:  If I could build a machine that generates "free energy" (or, at least, more energy than it consumes) I would not need to "convince" anyone that it works; I would not need to "seek validation" from physicists or anybody else.  All I would need to do is build just one, and start generating energy.  Then, with the money I earn from teh first one, I would build another one.  Then another one, and another, and another.  Investors would flock to fund me because I would be showing a positive return.  In short order I would take over the world.  (Not that I want to - sounds too much like work - but I could!)

So the moment a company "seeks validation" of their Perpetual Motion machine, I don't suspect, I know: Some con-artist is looking to fleece some unwary investor.

Investor Beware.

08 August 2006

Early Start to Summer Planting

So, based on the general mildness of the weather this Winter (despite last week's flooding) I've put a bunch of seeds into seed-trays a bit earlier than I normally would.  Yesterday I planted a whole wad of Chillis - Jalapenos, Serranos, Red Hats (really called Bishops' Hat, but in this household renamed for obvious reasons,) Ancho, New Mex, Pasilla, Tabasco, Cherry Peppers, plus a weird one that showed-up last year that I'm going to try to get breeding true - Hot Bananas - a cross (likely) between Sweet Banana and something hotter.  They really were very nice, though.  I'll have to grow up enough plants to select seed from those that seem true.

Then, too, I am still planting Cabbages and Leeks.  The young Leeks out in their beds are just reaching pencil-thickness, and are so tender and delicious that we're using them fast, so more are called for.

Still wondering whether to give early-early Tomatoes a go...

03 August 2006

Heavy Weather

We received over 200mm of rain in total over the past 48 hours.  Fortunately it has stopped now, and the sky seems to be clearing in the West.  (Update: Its raining again!)  All we need now is for the power to come back on.  Power dropped last night almost exactly at 7p.m.  and is still off.  At first we thought it was just part of Eskom's rolling blackout program, but, at 8:30 the next morning, clearly this is something else.  Trees down on powerlines, perhaps.

The veggie garden seems to have come through it pretty well, though I see the little hoofprints of a bushbuck who took advantage of the dog sleeping inside.

02 August 2006

It rained, and it rained, and it rained.

And the Piglets are entirely surrounded by water.

Checking the rain-gauge brought only heartbreak.  >100mm is all I can record.  The chicken-run is a river; all the neighbourhood dams are overflowing in torrents.  I guess the water-tanks are full, but I'll be buggered if I'm going out in the rain again to check.  The veggie garden is awash, though coping quite well - I did not see any serious damage, despite the dam near the house overflowing through the veggie garden.  It was quite carefully designed so that the overflow goes through the middle where I planted only permanent herbs, avoiding any of the veggie beds.

The road out is flooded - local farmers are tractoring out the cars of people foolish enough to attempt the crossing.  And here's me without a supply of Scotch laid in :-O

29 July 2006

New Seed Varieties

A couple of weeks ago I once again ordered seed from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.  My parcel arrived today (well, yesterday, probably, but we only checked the postbox today) - much excitement and renewed enthusiasm about the coming season.

I cannot say enough good about the Baker Creek folk.  Apart from the key role they play in keeping heirloom varieties going, their service has been impeccable every time I have dealt with them.  There's a little "something extra" in the pack, and I am wondering how the hell they got the order here so quickly.  I can't get stuff through the SA postal system for local delivery that fast.  The seed has been excellent, the only disappointment being a packet of Golden Beet seed taht had very poor germination.  Nothing daunted, I have ordered it again this year, having heard such high praise for this variety. I am aiming to save seed from it over next Winter.

If we have another Winter.  The weather is so unseasonably warm that I am thinking of starting Chillis and Tomatoes soon, though I (still!) haven't got a greenhouse built.  I have Tomato plants popping up all over from last year's beds, so maybe I won't need to worry too much with doing seed trays.

Along with the Golden Beets, I got some old-time Mammoth Red Mangel Beets.  These were highly valued as fodder crops in times past, and I wonder whether they might be useful as sugar Beets.  Its old varieties like this, that I feel an urgency about having handy as we start down the slippery slope of the oil crash.  Just the slightest bit of oversight and - oops! - we've lost them forever.

I also got in a couple of new varieties of Turnips to try.  Probably a bit excess, since Purple Top is so commonly available here and still a nice turnip, and I also have Navet des Vertus Marteau that someone brought from France, and whose seed I saved successfully last year.  (Note to self: Time to plant more of them!)

Also trying a couple of varieties of Eggplant - some of the smaller Eastern varieties, as well as a few squashes, in the eternal search for squashes that better resist the dreaded Fruit Flies of Late Summer.  I am aiming to sow some Squash seed within the next few days/week in the hope of getting them going very early to try and beat the Fruit Fly season.

So here I am, as usual not enough beds prepared in the veggie garden, so feeling "Spring Pressure" already, and its not yet August!

25 July 2006

Fourth Reich is Rising

So there's this halfwit, right-wing American senator who believes that "People who believe in global warming are like the Third Reich."

Lets look at what he is saying:
  1. Hitler claimed that the Jews were guilty of spreading "The Big Lie".
  2. Global warming is a Big Lie.
So..... what?  The Jews are guilty of Global Warming?  :-)

No.  From his axioms the only logical conclusion one can draw is:  Sen. Inhofe, by claiming that people who believe in Global Warming are perpetuating a Big Lie, is a modern analogue of Adolf Hitler. Please note that this is the inescapable logical outcome of his own axioms. I did not make this up.

Well, I don't really believe that he's in Hitler's league.  But his logic is equally twisted and faulty.

I'm off to listen to Stratovaius's "Fourth Reich"... (highly recommended band!)

21 July 2006

Monsanto Pigshit

Monsanto files patent for new invention: the pig

Trust the megacorps! (Hint for humour-alternatively-abled)

Well, before overreacting, we have to understand something of how the patent process works: you start out with some incredibly broad claim, which will likely get struck down, then follow up with something ever-so-slightly narrower, which is ever-so-slightly-less-likely to get struck down, followed by some ever-so-slightly anrrower claim,.... ad nauseam until you get something you hope is still defensible.  Only a lawyer could love it.

Basically it is a strategy that relies on the fact that Patent Offices all over the world are overburdened with bogus claims. Particularly the USPTO. So, in the torrent of patentable-but-shouldn't-be shit, some of these ridiculous patent applications will slip through, especially since the patent examiners frequently lack the technical expertise to evaluate the detailed claims of a given patent application.

Of course once a patent has been granted, someone "just" has to come along and prove prior art or obviousness (which shouldn't be hard in this case :-) to get the patent tossed, and that's quite hard, expensive, and carries little or no reward.

It looks to me like Monsanto are really seeking a patent on some genetic quirk that has the effect of speeding the normal selective-breeding cycles, and they're throwing a lot of extra mud on the wall because, who knows? some may stick!  They're almost certainly right!

At the root of the problem is the broken American patent system that is allowing non-material "things", like ideas, mathematical expressions and descriptions of processes, to be patented, and the laws (American in origin, but now pretty universal) that give corporate entities the same legal status as real people - but that's another rant for another day. I strongly recomend the writing of Lawrence Lessig, who is not only far cleverer than me, and happens to also know a near-infinite more about patent law than me, but also explains the issues in a very digestible manner. Don't be put-off by the fact that he's writing mostly about patent (and other intellectual-property) law as it applies to software - exactly the same law and arguments apply to the world of genetics, and our food supply, with far, far more dire consequences.

17 July 2006

Noises in the Night

Well, around 4a.m., anyway.  The Baboon troupe are spending their nights close by, just in the fringes of the forest.  Baboons are diurnal creatures like us, and they tend to stick to a safe sleeping-place for a while before moving on.

Last night there was a huge shouting match between the alpha, his sidekick and some other creature.  A Leopard hunting them?  Very likely, since there is a resident Leopard in the area.  We've often heard the Baboons screeching in the night in the past, and it usually result in them moving off into another part of the forest if they feel insecure here.  Last night was the first time that we've heard noise from their nemesis - a low, "hhhnnnh, hhhhnnnh".  Calling it a "coughing" or "grunting" noise would be totally inaccurate, but the closest word we have in English.  I surmised it was the Leopard, until I heard a crash!  A tree, or very large branch breaking.  Not a breath of wind.


12 July 2006

What to Feed the Dog

And now, something more to the core theme of this blog: Surviving the Next Ten Years and Beyond. For some time now I've been thinking about, and working out something more substantial to offer on Transition Strategies, and I promise to start sharing it soon. Meanwhile, let me start you on some of the questions that prompted all the heavy thinking in the first place.

Assuming that we pass the oil peak sometime in the 2008/9 timeframe (which seems to me the most plausible prognostication) and that the Olduvai Theory is roughly correct in its predictions and timescale

  * How do we make fire without easily-available Matches?
  * What will I feed the Dog?
  * What should we use for Toilet Paper?

Sometime between 16 December last year and 2035, we humans will pass the point where oil is abundant and cheap.

If even the oil-industry experts are unable to say with any real degree of certainty when that is likely to be, how can ordinary people like us plan, prepare and begin to transition ourselves out of our current lifestyle and production/consumption patterns?

11 July 2006

Shine on You Crazy Diamond

I just read that Syd Barrett, founder of Pink Floyd, died last Friday of "complications related to diabetes" and, just thought that the sad news deserves a little wider circulation.

Gone is another of the pepper-corn in the stew of life. Shine on...

09 July 2006

Real Surfers Get It

A UK-based organisation of environmentalist surfers (the real kind, not the web kind) - Surfers Against Sewage - have come out in support of the Wave Hub, a project for generating electricity from ocean wave energy.  In their report they're clear that, even the worst-case effect on surfable waves would still see them supporting the project, because
"The occasional larger reduction in wave height at some locations of up to 13% (i.e. worst case scenario), would still be viewed by us as being within acceptable limits, considering the nature of the proposed project."
I guess it only shows that surfers have never lost touch with the Earth.  When you spend hour upon hour in intimate contact with the oceans; when you have more contact in a month with wild creatures like dolphins, seals and sharks than most people have in their entire lives; when the rhythm of your days and weeks is deeply influenced by the wind, weather and tides; then there is little chance you you losing the Big Picture, not much room for small-minded partisanship like you would find with most special interest groups.

08 July 2006

Noise Pollution

Mainly to update you on my letter to the Civil Aviation Authority.  I have not heard a peep out of them yet, but, and I say this with all due pessimism, the volume of air traffic seems to have dropped dramatically!  Perhaps they have taken note and their response is still wending its way back to me.  (Ha!  Vain hope!)

On the other hand, the neighbourhood dog packs still hold forth at full volume, including, once again, BaoBabe's abandoned dogpack yowling and howling at around 4 this morning.  And again at around 6.  And then from about 7 until almost 8:15.  Oh well; the letter went to the council dog-control officer last Thursday, and I don't imagine he's had time to take action yet, so I guess we're in for another noisy Sunday afternoon.

30 June 2006

Telkom Disconnected

Telkom, the state-owned (and still monopoly) phone company is one of my favourite crowds to rag on.  They make it so easy!

The phone is sort-of-dead this morning.  Loud crackling noises; people unable to call in - the phone bleeps briefly and the caller gets cut off; crossed line with neighbours down the road.  The problem has been the subject of numerous fault callouts over the past 6 or 8 months, and has never been solved.

Tried several times to log the fault by phone.  First had to discover that, because it is a DSL line, the fault must be reported to a different call-centre whose phone number utterly fails to appear on any documentation.  Several attempts to call needed, because I keep getting disconnected from the call-centre mid-conversation due to the fault.

Inspiration: At least the DSL is still working, so let's see if I can log the fault via Telkom's website!  Fill in the relevant details on the fault-reporting page; click "Submit".
OnlineFaultReporting web exception
We appologise for the inconvenience,
but the page that you requested can not be processed correctly. Please report this to the system administrator.
Copied from the Telkom website: misspellings all their own.

But!  There's no "Contact the webmaster" link to be found on their website. Oh well, back to trying to phone the fault in.

Please, God, give these buggers some real competition and put them out of business soon.

Air Traffic Control

Over recent months we have seen a large increase in light-aircraft traffic overhead, using local farm-fields for take-offs and landing.  So here is a letter I have just sent-off to the Civil Aviation Authority - lets see how they respond...  I'll refrain from ranting about the abysmal design of their website :-)

I am writing to express my deep concern with a recent marked increase in air-traffic (light aircraft) in our area - the Rheenendal area north of Knysna.

Over the past few months I have noticed a very marked increase in air traffic in the area, evidently taking-off and landing using local farm fields, as I am unaware of any licensed airfield in the area.

I particularly strongly object to such traffic due to:
  1.  Noise nuisance
  2.  Invasion of privacy, as these aircraft frequently take-off directly overhead my dwelling, and
  3.  Hazard to a source of my income: I am an organic vegetable grower, and the pollution caused from hydrocarbon emissions from aircraft has, in several cases around the world, resulted in organic growers losing their organic certification.

Please advise me

  1.  Whether any airfield has been licensed to operate in the area,
  2.  Who is responsible for authorising the use of farm-fields for
      light-aircraft traffic, and
  3.  What can be done to stop such overflight.

25 June 2006

Time-out in the Garden

Finally got to spend a little time in the garden.  We had some decent rain (25mm) the other day, so the soil has had time to dry out a little, and is quite workable, though still quite damp.

Cleared out one of the beds - a Chilli bed in my 7-year rotation scheme, but, since no Solanums are going to grow through the Winter, I've planted some Swiss Chard seed and transplanted some Leeks into the South end, and I'll put more Onions into the North end.  I really don't have enough space for all the Onions sitting in trays.  I know J thinks Onions are a waste of time, being so cheap in the shops, and taking up valuable garden space for such a long time, but I like them.  They do a lot of good for the soil, fumigating it, and are pretty undemanding.

Time permitting I will finish clearing one of the new beds tomorrow, and put some more Cabbages into it.

I'd really love to have a week off for the garden.  I've been so tied to the computer for the past 5 months, and I'm sick of it.

21 June 2006

Cold Front

Looks like a cold front on its way - and fast, too.  Good.  We need a decent rain.

So outside to chop some firewood - on the optimistic assumption that the wind won't be too strong for a fire.  (Our chimney doesn't work worth a damn in wind, and ends up sucking all the smoke back into the house.)  Need a new axe-handle; the handle has split lengthwise inside the axe-head, so the head is wedged none-too-securely. Then my chopping-block split.  Oh well, more firewood, says the Optimist.

Just one of Those days.

14 June 2006

Coming Back to Life

Finally getting this blog thingie back online, now under my shiny new personal domain...  I guess this means I start from scratch again with Technorati rankings and such - oh well, no great loss.  I now feel in position to try a few theories I've been harbouring for a while.

03 June 2006

And the Sins of the Fathers...

A recent essay at The Survival Acres blog touches on many of the terrifying issues that confront us – global warming, peak-oil, overpopulation, the deep degradation of the environment necessary to sustain all life.

If there's any conclusion there, then it would seem to be, "What is going to kill us off first: Global Warming and its consequences for the global food supply that the over-abundant human population relies upon, or Peak Oil and the resulting collapse – starting potentially within 2 to 6 years – of industrial/technical society?"  Either way, the results would seem to be eerily similar – mass starvation, coupled with lawlessness, roving hordes searching for food, burning the last of the trees to keep warm...  The stuff of so many D-grade sci-fi movies.

Let anyone who doubts the sort of behaviour outlined above go to a squatter camp anywhere in Africa and count how many trees remain, how much vegetation, how many animals are left.

The heart of the question is, "Is it at all possible to maintain any form of technological society in the face of the impending human disasters before us?"  Or are we doomed to a collapse back to Stone Age technologies and Stone Age human population levels &ndash; perhaps only a few hundred-thousand human beings on the planet?

The author of Survival Acres seems pessimistic.  Or perhaps that's just "realistic".

Perhaps I am just a little too unwilling to give up a fantasy.  The fantasy that we can keep something of our modern technological ways.  Perhaps even improve on our present society, creating something more humane, more attuned to our needs and the needs of the rest of the ecosphere about us.  But we certainly cannot do it at current human population levels, and we certainly cannot do it at First World levels of energy consumption, even assuming much-reduced human numbers.

How many people can the Earth sustain?  For a long time the conventional wisdom seems to be that a population of about 1 billion (that's the American "billion" –  1 000 000 000) though recently I have seen some writing suggesting that 2 billion might be sustainable.  Personally I doubt the higher figure, but either way we are in for a hell of a ride as the population crashes from the present levels of somewhere betwee 6.5 and 7 billion!

Can we live on much lower energy levels?  Certainly!  Concensus among experts I have read seems to suggest that the most energy we could reasonably expect to sustainably generate would be around 20% of current First World consumption.  (Not sure if this is purely at a household level, or whether it includes the massive industrial and industry-agricultural inputs.  Anyone?)

The problem and the challenge is how to manage a transition from our present societal structures and dependence on Big Energy to something that will simultaneously allow us to go forward retaining the good bits of our society (and I would call the Internet one of the Good Bits) whilst also surviving the terrible, tragic process that surely faces us.

25 May 2006

Lies of Duration

Guy Kawasaki, in "The Top Ten Lies of Guy Kawasaki", describes his lie no. 8 as a "lie of duration".
We don't have a position at Garage or in our portfolio, but I'll keep you in mind.” This is a lie of duration. At that instant in time if I can think of a relevant position, then I help. But I don’t have the bandwidth/disk space/chip speed to keep the candidate in mind very long."
Reminds me very much of one I caught myself using some years ago:

"If you do X for me, I'll be eternally grateful"

Really?  Bullshit!  At the very least I'll be dead sooner or later, and I'll almost certainly forget to be grateful then (modulo any positive karma I might rack up for the next life.)

In fact, if I'm honest with you, I'm unlikely to be grateful for as long as 3 minutes.  Not that I'm an ingrate, mind you - just trying to be completely honest about this.  The world is just too busy for me to honestly keep gratefulness in mind for very long.  Sure. I'll probably be positively disposed towards you for quite a long time; but actively "grateful"?  I doubt it.

When you really think about it its a stupid phrase.

I replaced it with "A Thousand Thanks" as my stock expression of gratefulness.

28 April 2006

Transition Strategy

I had a visit yesterday from my wonderful friend and neighbour, Debs.  We connect on many levels, and share much common thinking on the coming energy-collapse popularly being called Peak Oil. We spent quite a bit of time discussing the Olduvai Theory (pdf), and the surprising number of people we've both met recently who have become aware of the Peak Oil/Energy Descent debates, and are actively implmenting plans to cope with a looming energy, economy and possibly population crash, with the attendant social problems that may possibly ensue.  It surprised both of us at the unlikely suspects who were among the names mentioned.

A common meme seems to be "how to manage a transition strategy". On the one hand we live in the ordinary early-21st-century Western "market-economy" materialist-lifestyle world - or, as I have long termed it, "The Golden Age of the American Empire" - with all the things that it means.  On the other hand, we wish to prepare for a very different future that we believe likely to unfold.  The status-quo is harshly unforgiving of alternative lifestyle and economic choices.

According to the Olduvai Theory, we should expect rolling blackouts to become a permanent feature of life throughout the world starting in about 2008 and getting worse as time goes by.  Of course in the Western Cape we've been experiencing quite a lot of rolling blackouts recently, and we expect more this coming Winter.  Some will argue that the current blackouts result from unusual circumstance and should not be connected with hypothesized energy-descent blackouts.  They're wrong.  The theory makes no statement or prediction on the source or reason for blackouts.  The theory further predicts that some day some blackout will simply become permanent.

The only real questions about the energy descent are "how fast"  and "how far".

And these are precisely the questions we have to grapple with in planning and implementing a transition strategy, whether at a personal level, community level, regional level, national or global level.  Taking the personal case, how do I remain functional in the current status-quo while at the same time getting structures and systems in place that could make me, my family, friends, neighbours and community self-sufficient in a very short space of time, and with little or no warning or lead time? In truth, self-sufficiency is a concept that is only realisable at the community level. It is unattainable by an individual or family group.

We did not come up with any good solutions (yet), except for some tentative discussions of how to begin sensitizing and preparing our own community.  But at least the debate is broadening.

13 February 2006


Woke up to find the offshore (UK) server down again. This after having spent the best part of yesterday playing exactly the same game. No response from the datacentre for two hours! Eventually it took a phone-call to my provider to get some action going. Eventually we got the server back around 1 o' clock, but not before I had everyone screaming. I've asked the provider to replace RAM and PSu in an attempt to stabilise the thing, but we really have to look for a fail-over server. Trouble is that the cashflow right now just doesn't cover the costs. As it is, I am getting absolutely nothing out of this deal -- zippo! -- and am beginning to wonder if its worth it.

I mean, its all really very nice having your own server to play with, hosting your own wikis, blogs, etc., but I ask myself, "Is it really worth the bother?" I could probably move everything that I personally want and use onto a small/cheap VPS machine for a relatively small cost that I can carry myself as a hobby cost. Particlarly as I am likely to be able (Telkom-willing) to be able to get ADSL connectivity in a month-or-so, which will about halve my connectivity costs, so I could spend a little of that on a purely private VPS.

Just to add to everything, it looks like someone broke into the shed last night and made off with a bag of old clothes. They must have been disturbed by OB the PHD (pointy-headed dog.) I did hear a noise and her barking, and investigated sometime around 10:30 last night, but saw nothing -- not that I looked very well. We're so used to OB barking at bushpigs, bushbuck, porcupines and other night-wanderers that its a far-from-unusual happening.

What happened to all those dreamers who thought that 2006 was going to be the Turning Point? A Great Year?

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