Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Creating dappled light from nothing, to en-chant shady places

Hanging basket competition, Hibiya Flower and garden show 1st Nov 2008

When I look at this photo, something special happens, every time. Years of enchanted dappled moments echo, and for some reason, they are always associated with dreamy outdoor naps. Specifically, the delicious half-conscious moments, with the breezes and the sunbeams dancing over you, moments that are sweetly tormenting. Sleep is delicious, awake is delicious, so you cannot give yourself totally to either.
French Provincial river, primary school garden, back yard plum tree, Japanese summer mountain cool with blue hydrangeas...

But they have all been conjured up with trickery, because this leaf is MIMICKING dapples. It drew them on itself, like a kind of reverse freckling. To make it more convincing, it has given itself sparsely lit areas, intensely-lit areas. The overhead tree filtering the light is Imaginary.

Like love in a dark place, these plants generate this marvelous 'light' on their own. If breeders in Australia could replace the boring, regular dappled plants with these, the South-Facing (dark) balcony gardens would be transformed, enlivened. No sunlight, no electricity required.

This charming randomness makes me think of the lighting design above Melbourne's Federation square.
Federation Square photo by Tzu-yen Wang, a Taiwanese student in Melbourne

Similarly uneven, like clusters of stars in an outback sky, these lights always makes me proud to be a casual, asymmetrical, organically-arisen-not-factory-made Australian.

Here are more photographs taken at the show, the Hibiya flower and garden show, a hanging basket competition open to everyone. Look at the care taken in the choosing of leaf colors.

In the 12th Century Japan as depicted by novelist Murasaki Shikibu, a Courtier would fall in love with a woman by a mere glimpse of her sleeves - the sensitivity she displayed in her delicate selection of layered colors was a promise of her receptiveness to pleasures to come.
Those deftly-chosen colors and patterns, I wonder if they have any resemblance to these suburban hanging baskets, 800 years later.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

pink, purple and blue edible garden, and a front door to match

I chose the edibles for the dappled courtyard garden floor, to coordinate with the front door repainting:
There is Beetroot, Ruby lettuce, red lettuce, and some flowers of coordinating hues.

I could have been welcoming people with a manicured door for years, but put up with an uninspiring and rather ragged one. For no good reason (saving a few dollars is not a good reason , when you live in an economy like ours). If I could persuade the neighbors into getting a 'paint bank' going, we could all repaint our doors every year, as outlandish as we liked, and trade the leftovers. Its my guess there is a greater volume of paint lurking in the Garages of Australia, than all the hardware stores put together.
We did the pink rim first, then my German Housemate had a few manly words with me. I tried deepening it to wine, but it came out that lilac color Ive used in the panels. Even though I'm an illustrator, its impossible to predict the outcome from looking at chips in the paint store. You just have to take a risk, keep you mistakes small to start with, re-paint and re-pay for them - they will happen. Creating something worth it always takes a few drafts. Looking at my door fills me with hope, and gratitude to Myriam my WWOOFer voluteer assistant, and (lucky me) wallpainting restoration expert.
Here is Myriam. Yes, she really is doing
heavy duty construction work using nail polish.

Inconveniently, I've a parallel desire to plant an edible Japanese Garden in this front courtyard once the cool weather hits. What then for the gorgeous, garish colors?
If any locals want some discounted paint leftovers, let me know. If anyone is painting in a green-tea/rice cracker color combination later in the year, and has leftovers, let me know that too.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Heatwave improv: 10 quirky tips for a cooler house & a garden that survives - little things matter

It was a rubber spider key-ring that saved Garry Hughes and his wife from death in the bushfires on Saturday
In an article in The Australian, Garry tells the story of his escape, and how simple objects fail them: the roof-sprinkling hose that melts, the carefully-placed water buckets who's metal handles just pull away from melted plastic sides. When the house finally fills with acrid black smoke, he realizes he cannot find the keys to the car, their last chance of shelter from the firestorm screaming around them. Groping blindly in his wife's handbag, his hand lands on the rubbery spider and its key. A car with its air conditioner on can save you, we are told. And it did.

In this climate-changed world we have entered, a world where "40 is the new 30", we will be better off if we can learn to respond to new troubles with creativity. The good news is, you don't even have to learn to be creative. You just have to remember. Just ask your mum, you were amazing when you were little. You stacked a climbable tin-can tower to get you to the forbidden, interesting heights, you turned cardboard boxes into spaceships. We can (re)-learn how to make the most of things that are already at hand, learn how to take upstream action, and ward off troubles that are / heading our way.

Here I would like to introduce some humble, on-hand objects that made a big difference, as I prepared to get through the 46 degree Melbourne day on Saturday.
Prevention is better than cure, and any tricks that allow you to keep heat out will mean you can depend less on air conditioning. Depending on something you cannot always be sure of is just not cool. Every time you use your ingenuity and resourcefulness rather than fossil fuel, you are performing an act of kindness, lessening the burden somewhere on people and creatures who are destined for trouble as our small planet gets warmer and wilder.

The 'Inspector Gadget' list of house-cooling equipment:

1. screw-in hooks & bedsheets
2. Cardboard boxes
3. Two thermometers
4. Clear tuppaware
5. Mosquito Net
6. Spray bottle

And for the garden:

1. Bridal Tulle
2. wet towel
3. Picnic table
4. Wheelbarrow
5. Wetpot watering system

3. Screw-in hooks, safety pins and a sheet.
Venetian blinds on the cathedral ceiling were doing a half-hearted job of shading us. This old flannel bed sheet happened to be the exact size to shade them. Until I find another, I'm swinging it across at noon, to shade the Western side.

Because the improvided blind (what a lovely Bush-ism) gets close to the light bulbs at the apex, I've put sticky tape over the light switch, so there is no chance of starting a fire. Creative solutions can give birth to new troubles, so a pessimistic mind is extremely valuable to balance the optimism that conceives every creative act.

4. Cardboard.
On the 46 degree day, even the shaded windows became glass hotplates, radiating the outside heat to the interior. Taping cardboard to them would help keep the house cool, so long as you aren't opening and closing the doors too often. When you are done, don't recycle the cardboard, its too precious for that. Soak it, compost it, and finally return it to the soil, where it will hold the moisture and support next years heatwave battling plants.

5. Two thermometers.
Last Christmas I came home from holidays to wide open doors on a 40+ day, with my Asian house guests saying they were 'getting a breeze'. I guess they don't have cool-retaining 120 year old terrace houses, and we humans often let our (faulty) brain override information our body tells us. Nagging is definitely not a Permaculture strategy, so I let them gather their own evidence by having one thermometer for outside, one for inside, and letting them work out how important it is to "Shut the door".
The Japanese, who often have no ovens and constant airconditioning in their flimsy houses, get the idea that cookie-baking is a great way to pass the time on hot days. Just go and buy them some cookies.

6. Clear Containers

The fridge is a heater all year round, but especially in summer, when it has to work so hard. Every time you open the fridge, the cool air 'falls' out - you can feel it on your feet. The fridge, which singlehandedly consumes 20% of the typical home's power, then has to turn on its engine to re-cool, breathing out more hot air as it does so. Clarity will help you.
Cecilia's fridge

If you (and your housemates) can see at a glance what is in the fridge, you will be in and out before the cold air gets around to escaping, or anyone gets around to nagging. So put food in clear containers, and only buy what you are about to use. Giving things their own territory in the fridge helps too - Dairy together, snacks together, the esky. Make heaps of ice the night before.

7. Mosquito net
Especially if you have no air conditioner, and a string of hot days are expected, the house must have the day's stored heat 'washed' from the walls with a stream of cool night air, so the 'start' temperature of the next day is lower. Melbourne's 60L Office building uses this "no-tech" solution to great effect. To sleep with open windows may require a mosquito net, and maybe a security guard-dog at the door.

8. Water Squirter

We were designed so that no matter what the outside temperature is, we will sweat or shiver to stay at 37 degrees. Evaporative cooling happens when air moves over you damp body, taking the heat with it. But you need three things for this to work - a breeze, water (or sweat) and dry air. If the air is already laden with moisture, it doesn't work. So to maintain your natural evaporative cooling effectiveness, turn on a fan, and remember that heatwaves, with doors closed during the day, are not the time to boil pasta, wash the floors, or indoor laundry drying. A tea towel and squeegee would be useful additions to this list.

Saving the Garden
If you've got water, you soak the garden thoroughly the night before, to help the plants survive sunburn. . If you don't,this list of odd objects will help you out.

My balcony garden fig, viewed from my work desk as I write.
Its near-nakedness is due to lack of water on a hot day before Christmas.
With all that fruit to support, It cannot afford to loose even one leaf to sunburn.

1. Bridal Tulle
Nylon Tulle (netting) is mostly air, so its hard to imagine it having any substantial effect on protecting plants from Sunburn. But it did.
As soon as they start fruiting each summer, I cover my balcony figs, peaches and asparagus with frothy tulle, to stop the possums nibbling. This weekend, the leaves that were poking out are the ones that got frazzled. The tulle is light enough to tie or peg onto to the plant itself, and because the winds go right though it, it doesn't flap and carry on like shade cloth or a rigged-up blind.
But now that its February(High Summer), my North-facing Balcony Garden is mostly shaded. Your plants in full sun all day will need the full-on shadecloth, which is just $20 or so from the hardware store, much less than replacing plants.

2. Wet towel
Composting worms cannot live over 30 degrees. Like the old 'coolgardie safe', a wet towel over your worm farm will keep the inside temperature low as the water evaporates. Keep a container of water beside it to top it up.

Keeping the worm compost cool worked the first time.
I'm not telling what happened the second time.
As a professional worm-composting teacher, its too embarrassing.
All I will reveal is that my kind neighbour is giving me half her worms

In the morning: make sure your worm farm is in the shade. Take out any high nitrogen food scraps - it seems to rot at a higher temperature (I'm not sure of this. Can anyone cluey explain?).
In the evening, open up each compartment, so they can ventilate. You will be surprised at the amount of heat that rushes out.
Note: Be careful to put the lid on before morning. I awoke once to find a party of early-birds feasting at my uncovered worm farm. Lucky birds, poor, traumatized us (Cecilia and worms).
Consider giving the worm farm a wipe, and bringing it inside the garage or house for the day.

If you worms have already gone to heaven, just use the liquid on your garden, keep the fine solids cool, and wait, without feeding. Baby worms may soon hatch, and you will once again be someone sequestering carbon, someone doing something real to create a cooler, safer world.

3. Coffee Table.
The high winds, dry air, and blazing sun are a menacing combination. The best rigged-up shade for vulnerable garden plants is something sturdy.
Decorate your garden with every stick of shade-creating unused furniture you can find. As the dusk settles in, it could be the start of a unique after-dark garden party.

4. Wheelbarrow.
The heatwave was Saturday, but our allocated watering day(Melbourne watering restrictions) fell on a Sunday, meaning lots of grey water bucketing, and serious mulching was needed to keep every scrap of moisture in the soil.
We all awoke to an eerie, Autumn-like scene, as dropped leaves swirled on the streets. I collected barrows-full of leaves discarded by poor, heat-stressed trees.
Meanwhile, my other wheelbarrow was standing under a tree, with filled with compost and a thriving salad garden. I 'invented' it to chase the sun, before the neighbors removed the colossal bay tree that had cast gloom over the whole garden. Now the barrow and its mini-garden chase the shade.

5. Wetpot watering sytem.
Misty asparagus, watered with buried terracotta
Wetpot watering system , essential that day.

This passive, gravity fed watering system is not exactly on-hand, but if you decided to order one, Like that rubber spider key ring, it would make a big difference in an emergency. Its an array of unglazed terracotta pots, buried near the plants and connected to a water container, which seep water when the plants need it. People were just too hot to go outside and check on their pot plants, which is why many were lost. This will do the watering when you can't.
A warning to any unnecessarily black garden object, irrigation hose included: I have pink paint and won't hesitate to use it.

Share the Surplus. If you house is air conditioned or well-designed, invite your less-fortunate friends to share it with you for the day.Cecilia's doves, taking refuge where its cooler.

Consider sharing it with other creatures too.

These 'Intimate Permaculture' actions probably cannot be done without a the Permaculture attitudes: choosing positive action over excuses and blaming, using observation of what is really going on, using prevention and preparation, rather than expensive fixes. Most importantly, have fun. There will be 20 obstacles to doing anything new, 'Hole in the bucket dear Liza' style. You can chase and overcome them, like a champion tennis player chases the most impossible of balls, leaving us thrilled. Thrill yourself, and so something really interesting.
And if all that fails, remember 'hold on tightly, let go lightly'. You gave it a good shot.

I would love to hear (and try out) your creative cooling suggestions - Melbourne has a lot more hot days looming. Just click on the 'comment' button below, and make a hot woman happy.

You may wish to give a secure Donation to the Red Cross Bushfire appeal. We can all give help, hope and love to people who have lost so much.