It’s early spring here in southern Tasmania; no doubt about it. The bulbs have pushed their green fingers through wet soil, the daffodils have thrust their cheerful faces towards the sky and the garden is gently unfurling itself, seeking the warming sun. The nights are still chilly but the days are lighter and warmer, and this weekend the first bees appeared, contentedly buzzing among the bright blue flowers of my borage.
It’s the lean season in the garden: winter crops of brassicas are going to seed and falling victim to the aphids that manage to appear out of nowhere. My spring greens, freshly planted, are little more than shoots and sprouts and the summer veg still lie in coiled potential within their seeds, sleeping in the warmth of my tiny greenhouse. The lack of local produce at this time of year can be felt at the grocery store and at the market. Winter root vegetables are past their best, with potatoes threatening to sprout in the cupboard and parsnips turning woody. There’s still kale about, but after 4 months of kale feast I’ve had my fill until next winter. At my local grocer the shelves are stocked with eggplant from north Queensland ($14 a kilo!), strawberries from Western Australia and green beans from somewhere in northern New South Wales. It’s all food that’s travelled a long way from market, by boat or plane, or spent months in cold storage, before it reaches our plates.
Me, I like to eat fresh local produce that reflects the seasons. There’s a whole load of good reasons to do this:
- Local food gets to you sooner, so the food is fresher, tastes better and has peak nutrient content.
- It’s more energy efficient, as less energy has been used to store and transplant the food.
- Seasonal growing also requires fewer resources as we’re working with nature: no lighting, no heating, less fertilizers, less pesticides and less irrigation.
- Seasonal eating allows us to taste the changing seasons and be more connected with the world around us.
- It supports local growers and brings local products to market, improving food security and helping to build community.
- It’s cheaper, as you’re not paying for the transport, storage, and other resources, plus you can grow a lot to eat yourself!
So what to eat in Hobart in September, when the pickings are slim and the shops full of imports? It turns out that there’s quite a lot! Between my little garden and Farm Gate Market I’m managing surprisingly well. You just might need to broaden your definition of vegetables to get the most out of early spring. A 10 minute forage in my still-establishing garden yielded the array of tasty goodies pictured above:
- The last tiny shoots of sprouting broccoli, surprisingly sweet and just bite-sized.
- Delicate fronds of salad burnet, rapidly unfurling new spring growth.
- The first pickable leaves of oak lettuce, a self self-sown surprise in the berry bed.
- The last few leaves of my winter crop of rocket (arugula), now in full flower.
- “Rocketini” – the whole seedling thinnings from the spring crop of rocket – densely packed with nutrients and flavour.
- Soft new leaves of the nasturtiams - such a lovely peppery taste.
- A few sprigs of salad-friendly herbs: coriander shoots, sea celery and deep green mint.
- a beautiful selection of edible blooms: bright yellow kale, maroon and cream rocket, borage blue and the cheery orange of nasturtiam.
Edible flowers are one of my favourite spring garden things, and this evening’s pickings turned my garden fresh salad into a delicious, nutritious work of art. With the addition of avocado donated by a friend with a bumper crop, some baby radish greens* from the incredible new season radishes I picked up at the Market (thanks Provenance Growers!), some Huon Valley smoked salmon and a splash of local raspberry vinegar for dressing, everything on my plate this evening came from this little isle and most of it came from my back yard, a new patch that’s only just beginning its kitchen-garden journey.
That said, I still find myself yearning for a glossy dark eggplant (aubergine) or a bright red capsicum (bell pepper). I grew up in Queensland where European veg grows through the winters and summers are full of south-east Asian flavours, but I have learnt that the well-travelled specimens that grace our southern shores are a poor echo of the flavours I’m dreaming of. Better off waiting for the long days of late summer, when the locally grown stuff appears and life is Mediterranean-flavoured. For now I’ll celebrate the flavours of Tasmanian spring in all its fresh green glory, and preserve the few excesses of the season to flavour the summer to come.
Want to know what’s in season where you are? There are lots of great, region-specific seasonal food guides available on-line, or wander down to your local produce market and see for yourself!
* Yes, radish leaves are perfectly edible! So are beetroot leaves. Both can be used as salad or lightly stir-fried but the youngest, freshest leaves are best.
Wood heaters, eh?
In the month I’ve been living here in the Cottage I’ve developed a complicated relationship with mine.
I’ve learnt, now, how to get a decent blaze going with minimal fuss and there’s little nicer than curling up in front of a toasty fire on a cold night, glass of red in hand. The heat it produces is lovely, and when it’s working properly I can set it before bed and the house will stay toasty warm all night. Poking and prodding the fire into cooperation is fun and it’s immensely satisfying to get a good burn going on a cold night.
It’s less fun, however, on nights like tonight when the weather’s foul and I work late, and at 9 pm it’s still a little chilly even with the fire going. It’s been raining all day so the firewood is damp and the baffle plate on the flue has bent (yet again), jamming the flue wide open and significantly reducing the efficiency of my burn and heat transfer.
Heh, a month ago I had no idea what a baffle plate was, let alone what it did. I’d not spared much thought to wood moisture content or burn efficiency, and I’d never considered the price of firewood by the tonne (between $150 and $200, for the curious).
I still feel a little guilty about lighting the fire. In a State where my power is hydro-electric (not exactly environmentally benevolent, but a darn sight better than coal), lighting the fire is both less efficient (in terms of energy cost by yield) and generates a lot more emissions (CO2 and particulate emissions) than using electric heating.
On top of that, the wood I’m burning has to come from somewhere. The current fuel for my fire comes from a beautiful old eucalypt tree that had to be felled over at the House of the Gumtrees (mmm, free firewood!), however my ex-landlord only let me take what I could fit in my Corolla (a surprisingly large amount when you’re determined…) and I’m about to run out. Firewood sales in Tasmania are unregulated, with many sellers setting up trucks on the roadside with cheap loads for sale. Problem is you don’t know where that wood has come from or what condition it’s in:
- Is is green, wet or rotten?
- Was it illegally taken from State Forests, National Parks or trespassing on private land?
- Were old hollowed trees felled that provide important habitat for wildlife (including several endangered species)?
And that’s without considering if it’s actually the tonnage they’re saying it is!
There’s no hiding from the truth: the wood heater is not an environmentally friendly way to heat my home! It’s what I’ve got, however, so it’s up to me to make the best of it.
I’ve been researching wood heaters and firewood recently and I’ve learnt that:
- The moisture content of your timber needs to be below 25% for an efficient burn.
- Burning green or wet timber increases particulate emissions (as well as being much less efficient).
- Even stored under cover, firewood has an amazing capacity to absorb moisture on rainy days.
- Burning pine needles is fun.
- Baffle plates significantly improve the heat exchange from your wood heater (and having it bend and jam open – again – is a bad thing. *sigh*).
- Burning old painted fence posts is an environmental no-no, no matter how much free timber it is or how much your lovely new neighbours assure you it’ll be ok.
- Accidentally throwing in an envelope with a plastic window results in noxious fumes: don’t do it.
- You can’t add the ash and charcoal to your compost, but a small amount mixed with other things is ok in mulch.
- There’s no regulation of the firewood industry in Australia, and there are a lot of dodgy vendors in Hobart (if the internet is to be believed)
- There is a voluntary industry code of practice that sets out standards that wood will be sustainably harvested, in accordance with all laws and protective orders, stored correctly and sold with moisture contents below 25%, with weighbridge tickets provided.
- There is one supplier in the whole of Tasmania who is signatory to the voluntary code, and they’ll deliver to my suburb.
- The cold metal of my bed frame is very nice to rest my blistered skin on when I inevitably burn myself on the wood heater door/frame/handle
- So. Many. Splinters.
So, after a little research and environmental guilt I’ve come to the following positions:
- The wood heater only gets lit if (1) the temperature is below 10oC and (2) I’m going to be home all night (no fire on taiko training nights!)
- Use discarded newspaper from work and household waste (loo rolls, paperwork from the last lease, letters from politicians) to get the fire started
- Pay the extra to buy firewood from the lone code signatory supplier; it’s not that much more than other suppliers and I know it’s as ethically sound as I’m going to get.
- Keep my garden prunings to burn next winter: at least the damn invasive vine I cut down will be useful!
- When the fire’s lit, actively enjoy it.
Hence I’m writing this sitting on my couch, watching the flames over the top of my monitor instead of working with the lap-top docked in the study. If I’m going to commit environmental crimes in the name of keeping warm I may as well keep the most of it, and once Winter properly arrives and the fire is going during the day on weekends I intend to try my hand at cooking on the coals. I’m thinking coal-roasted foil-wrapped eggplant (that’s aubergine for the northern-hemispherians) is going to be a beautiful thing. Baba ganoush for all!
This weekend I’m going to buy my first load of firewood and spend far too much time hauling and stacking the stuff in the little space under the house, and I’ll be talking to my landlord about getting that warped baffle plate replaced this time instead of another attempt at repair. Right now though I’m going to finish this post then put another piece of tree on the fire, sit back and watch the flames while I finish the glass of red that’s mysteriously appeared in front of me.
Have you ever lived with a wood heater or fireplace? Got any firey tips for this recovered teenage pyromaniac?
Come sit with me and tell me all about it. There’s enough red wine to share and though my couch may be fat and bulky it’s pretty comfy.
Last week I was lucky enough to score an invitation to tour the new Sustainability Learning Centre, under construction here in Hobart (thank you, day job!)
Developed as a partnership between the Department of Education, Greening Australia, the Catholic Education Office, the Association of Independent Schools of Tasmania and the CSIRO, the Centre will be a mixed educational, research and operational facility, attached to Hobart College. That’s pretty cool and all, but what makes the Centre so exciting and the reason for our tour is that the construction is a showcase of sustainable design in action.
The architects (morrison & breytenbach) are aiming for a 6-star Green Star rating from the Green Building Council of Australia, which would place the building in the “world leadership” category for environmentally sustainable design. To get this certification the building uses a range of clever designs and materials. Being able to get a look at the construction process to see how it’s done was fascinating!
Here are a few of the design aspects and construction techniques they’re using for the project:
- Recycled building materials – all steel including the roofing, major structural timbers, bricks, crushed glass (as fill, aggregate and in concrete) and some insulation. Even the office desks will be made with recycled floorboards!
- Passive solar design – floor-to-ceiling north-facing windows (double-glazed) with Trombe walls and other convective and radiative heat transfer structures, coupled with clever insulation (ceiling, under-floor, window frames, etc.) and venting systems to allow good thermal control (openable windows – how sadly novel in a modern building).
- Alternative energy infrastructure – solar photo-voltaic cells, solar evacuated tubing water heating, underfloor water-based heating (powered by used cooking oil) and maximised sunlight.
- Alternative building materials & techniques – clinka for insulating aggregate and ‘concrete’, PVC-free materials (polyethylene plumbing and e-cables), using screws and nails in place of adhesives, minimal steel and concrete use (mostly recycled)
- Water saving – rainwater, greywater and blackwater capture, treatment and re-use, including water-garden filtering and small-scale drinking water treatment.
Sadly I forgot to grab my camera (first thing Friday morning is not my sharpest time) so I don’t have any photos to share. More disappointingly, there isn’t a web site for the project, so at present there’s no way yet to share all the great information and resources from the project with the wider public. Greening Australia are planning to put a site together soon though, and students at Hobart College have been able to study the design and construction as it progresses: a great hands-on way to build interest in and understanding of sustainable design.
I really hope this project gets some more promotion and the partners involved work to get information out about the techniques and materials used and the resources available for those of us interested in applying sustainable design principles to our own homes and projects. The people I spoke to seemed surprised that I thought it so important as “the information’s all out there”. Yes, there’s a lot of information out there, but without serious research or expertise it’s impossible to know what will and won’t work in a specific city or climate, or what is suitable and efficient to apply at domestic scales. It’s also hard to find information on what’s actually available in terms of resources, materials skills and knowledge in your local area, and to build those networks between designers, suppliers, builders and ourselves.
Hopefully Greening Australia Tasmania will get a suitable website going soon and we can all share in what’s been learnt through this project; meanwhile I’m happy to be sharing the many things I learnt last Friday. Most of all I’m very pleased to know that we have the knowledge, skills and determination to get a project like this happening in Hobart: little city on an island at the bottom of the world, far away from the environmental leading lights of Europe. If we can do it, with our small population, apparent skills shortage, shitty economy and the tyranny of distance, then most anywhere can. The key ingredient is finding the people with the drive and leadership to steer the idea to reality.
We need more people who believe that projects like this can be done, and finding that they exist might just have been the most exciting part of my little tour.
Have you thought about building ‘green’? Please share your projects, inspirations, experiences and resources!
Hello. It’s been a little quiet around here, and it’s going to stay so for a little while longer. Life is busy: big plans are afoot.
Last week I found myself a new home: a tiny cottage tucked away in the inner-Hobart suburb on Lenah Valley, neglected gem among ageing flats and renovated grandeur.
The cottage is old, though a thoughtful make-over about 15 years ago has made it comfortable. It’s small, basic, and is going to be a great exercise is living simply, as there’s no other way to make the place work. Aside from a few kitchen cupboards there’s no built-in storage and little room for furniture. There’s a cosy lounge, a workable but modest kitchen, an enclosed porch that’ll be my dining room (under lovely north-facing windows), a crowded bathroom-cum-laundry, a big-enough bedroom, and a teensy “second bedroom” that will just fit my desk and become the study.
I succeeded in getting my northerly aspect and efficient-to-heat spaces but didn’t do so well on insulation. The enclosed porch cannot be insulated and I’m pretty sure the main part of the cottage isn’t either. The floor has been tiled too, which may be a little chilly on winter mornings! Despite this, I don’t think I’m going to be too cold, for the lounge room houses a wood heater, built into the old fireplace. With a fire going the cottage will be toasty warm.
I was a little hesitant about taking a place with a wood heater, I must admit. It is more work and expense, buying and preparing firewood and collecting kindling, and the fire will need some time to get going before the cottage heats up. On top of that, burning wood for heat really isn’t the most environmentally-sound option when your power supply is hydro-electric. Of course hydro’s not a perfect option, but it’s a damn sight better than coal and green enough to make me think twice about lighting the fire.
In the end, the cottage ticked so many other boxes that I decided I could cope with the wood heater. The location is perfect: walking distance to shops and friends houses, a nice cycle to the office and my favourite coffee haunt, on a major bus route and in a surprisingly quiet little cul-de-sac off a main road. Although the kitchen window faces south, the rest of the cottage opens to the east and the north, making the most of the winter sun. Best of all though; it comes with a surprisingly large garden, ripe with potential!
It’s going to take some hard work to realise that potential, but I’m already dreaming about potato patches, beds of leeks, reams of beans and peas and a raft of sunflowers. The yard is fenced, so perhaps I could convince the landlords to let me have a couple of chickens to help keep the bugs down and give me fresh eggs. Oh, my mind is so full of ideas my hands itch to put into action!
I get the keys next week, on Friday the 13th (What better date to start a new adventure?), but there’s much to do between now and then. I’m sorting through and culling my possessions, reducing the amount of stuff I have to manage the lack of storage. The things I don’t need are being sorted into lots to sell, store, throw or give away, with attempts made to re-home as much as possible (I hate throwing out useful things!). I’m tidying the gardens here in preparation for leaving, digging up plants I plan to take with me and collecting seed. I’m refusing to shop, using up the food in my cupboards and cooking up all sorts of unusual but tasty things. Then there’s the inevitable paperwork associated with moving… Oh, and I’m broke. Paying bond plus double rent for a month will do that.
It’s Easter this weekend and the associated days off would be perfect for getting started on packing, but I won’t be here. Instead I’m travelling up to the sunny southern Gold Coast to spend time with family I haven’t seen in over a year. A trip booked in January, long before I’d thought about moving, to soothe the sting of not going home for Christmas. Yep, life is busy.
Wish me luck!