Tuesday, 22 December 2009

How to make soil / Como fazer o solo?

How exactly do you get food to grow in depleted or poor quality soils? I've tried with little success in Scotland, Kenya, Liberia and now Portugal. What's the trick?

Now settled in one place for more than a few months, a village where people grow vast quantities of amazing-looking things in their gardens, I have seen a few seasons pass and have listened to their stories about what they do to make it all work. Also, we have Paulo on site much of the time: our very own walking permaculture encyclopedia, who's always keen to see the theories into practice.

Although permaculture design covers far more than the growing of vegies I can't help notice the huge differences between the two systems (local's gardens and permaculture growing). Here are a couple of major ones:

Normal gardeners dig their soil over each year, usually use this opportunity to add in some manure of other fertiliser. Heaps of work, happily avoided in permaculture's no-dig method: just cover the soil with loads of mulch (described below), avoid walking or compressing the soil and ecourage loads of soil life to develop: bacteria, fungi/mycellia, insects, worms, and millions of other mini-actors we barely understand but are responsible for making great soil if they have the right conditions. Digging the soil wrecks their world (and is way too much work too).

Weeding: another reason I always avoided gardening - loads of boring work. Instead, put down sheet mulch (shown below) and the weeds are denied light and can't live. Replace them with plants you want. Easy. OK, supposed to be. I'm sure there is more to it, but it has worked for us so far.

Couple of test sites here.

This is a South facing terrace that bakes in summer. Trying to build up soil there to plant berry bushes and small trees and kiwis to shade the whole area.
Neighbour's dog, Pinnochio (our dog's best friend by far) tramping all over it already the swine. We had just pruned a large bit of the mimosa (acacia) tree planted last year, for nitrogen mulch...

This is the next terrace up, the "chicken terrace". Here we want to build up an edge, to keep water on the terrace a bit longer, but also build up soil quality to grow things in. So we started with cardboard, then some nice looking soil with old manure on top, then forest leafy stuff, then newspaper, well soaked. then straw. We found 35 tiny strawberry plants in the shop and punched holes through the damp mulch bed and popped them in. Oh, we installed some micro irrigation pipe below the cardboard too, to avoid the drudgery of summer manual watering...

Teuru, admiring our handiwork. Next stop: strawberry heaven.

And here is the first garden patch we started this Spring (09). We chunked it full of tomatoes and squash and green peppers. As they started withering into winter, we planted in some lettuces, cauliflower, brocoli, onions and any other winter thing we could find. Where we found weeds we covered them with more cardboard and straw. It seems to go OK, and the soil is imroving a lot, but slugs have chowed through a good share of those new leaves. So next up is how to deal with slugs. Any ideas anyone?

Star of this show: Teuru all the way over from Cook Islands

Paulo in his element with new trainees (James from Tasmania and Teuru)

Friday, 18 December 2009

Copenhagen climate conf: best videos so far

They say it's the most important meeting in history, so much at stake, tens of thousands of people there, millions like me here and can't go. How do we keep up with what's going on?? BBC and all the usual media sources provide slim pickings, not much radio or video worth mentioning, or just interview the senior politicians or advisors (eg Nicholas Stern).

However, the Stupid Team (who made Age of Stupid) have the best show ever, covering each day, intereviewing heaps of key people and dealing with the rising tide of climate change sceptics. Why is it that more and more people are starting to believe the rubbish dished out by the climate deniers camp? Anyway, these videos say it all.

1. The Stupid Show

2. Desmond Tutu's speech to the crowd (that guy rocks)

3. President Nasheed of the Maldives (what a President to have?!)

4. Ambassador Lumbumba chair of the G77 group of nations (this one a bit longer and more serious, but his points are classic)

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Thesis on watermills to generators

I just realised that I can share my thesis with anyone if they are interested. Here is a link to google docs for:

abstract, contents pages, etc.

the introduction

the conclusion

Let me know if these even work... And if you want to see any of the actual chapters - these are just opening and closing sections.

Photo: Senhor and Senhora Gonçalvez, by their functioning grain mill on the river Mouro. Interviewed for the thesis - which also gives a rough idea of how much electricity could be produced from their mill, while maintaining their flour milling service.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Peak Oil - recent reports need translating

Some recent publications about when peak oil is likely to change our lives for, pretty much ever, need to be shared, and translated around here into Portuguese and Galego...

Novos relatorios sobre pico de petroleo / devemos traduzir-los...

A report by the UK Energy Research Centre was presented to the APPGPOG in London this month, see here in condensed presentation format.

This study attempts to bring together the findings of over 500 experts' reports from around the world about oil production forecasts - how long we can maintain our current output, and even increase it to meet anticipated increased demand. It finds:

- the rate of decline (of oilfield output) is accelerating. To meet our oil habit in 2030 we would need to replace around two thirds of existing capacity, or, in other words, find a lot of new Saudi Arabia's by then.

- there is a "significant risk of "a peak in conventional oil production" by 2020. Many observers / oil industry geologists believe that peak production was actually July 2008 (at around 85m barrels per day). Regardless, anytime between now and 2020 is far too close for comfort means we need to be preparing communities and adapting technologies, entire infrastructure arrangements if we are to weather this storm.

The International Energy Agency's reassuring predictions is gave in last year's World Energy Outlook are still seriously detached from reality. However, we need to use this report as an useful reference: the voice of energy strategy for most Governments in the world.

Do people, local communities, city councils, regional and state Governments not know what is at stake if global oil production peaks? Surely they will have run the numbers and felt that chill going all over their body as they realize how desperate the situation could get. Especially for food production. Especially for people in developing countries who rely partially (sometimes completely) for our spare cash in aid funds to keep basic services and often food supplies flowing. Spare money for aid will be history. There will be no spare money. Developed economies will crash far harder as people loose jobs around the world, another recession following harder and deeper than the current blip. As their economies contract, it is hardly likely they will increase spending on aid in response to the multiple crises unfolding around the world as global food prices soar.

George Monbiot, as usual sums it all up eloquently in his recent article about peak oil and our food supply. He raises some great points, but rightly comes back to the issue of UK / EU / World food supply, about 90% of which is made, processed and shipped around with oil and gas. Reduce the amount of fuel, and the price will rise.

We need to get ready

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Rocket stoves

A major development in efficient and way more healthy cooking systems the world over.

This film shows a massive production line of these things which could be great for selling to those that can afford them, or for humanitarian agencies to distribute in emergencies.
But for most communities in low income countries, buying a stove is out of the question. They just wouldn't have that of cash. So it would be better to bring the knowledge of how to make them from local materials, recycled metal from old cans, sand and local earth, etc. Very easy to make in fact.

This next link, shows step by step how it is done. These guys also have films on institutional stoves for camps and schools, etc.

The only problem in this film is that they say you need to make bricks first, in an oven at 900 degrees C. How many people have access to this kind of heat? I suppose anyone baking trees to make charcoal could try a few bricks in there, but the point is it adds a complicating factor, which we should avoid.

Paulo just built one on our land here(photos soon)without any bricks, bust using vermiculite insulation balls on the outside of the chimney (between chimney and outside container). OK, that's available cheaply here in Europe, so what could work in Robertsport, Liberia, for example?

Sunday, 8 November 2009

The wood shed

Mary is studying architecture in England and likes to draw. And have ideas about building things. One day while trying to avoid any new projects she suggested a new wood store, an extension to the garage - to store the bits of wood we had cut from Donald's place a few weeks earlier. (Here's her dreaming up wood store designs stage left).

I like ideas like these and am suseptible to distractions of this nature at any time. Anyway, we do need somewhere to store wood, bikes and wetsuits when they are drying - out of the rain and out of the sun.

We started clearing the area - which took hours: more mega-brambles, tree roots, rocks. Why does moving rubble have to occupy so much of my life?

Then we realised that it was going to take weeks of labour to bring the level of the ground down a little, to be even, and so that you wouldn't whack your head every time you reached in to the shed on the lower end.

So we capitulated and called in the digger. We needed him anyway to dig a trench between garage and house (so water and power could be laid to garage. Mainly so we could wash our wetsuits at garage, before we dry them, but there are of course lots of other worthy reasons).

While we had him on site, we decided he might as well clear a huge pile of rocks and earth from the bottom of the quarry/climbing wall. Little did we know this would mean trucks upon trucks of rubble being moved out, and hours of costly gear on site. This wood store lark was becoming a monster! In the monster's defense, however, I would add that we have now reduced the huge pile of sticks and stones which once occupied the whole area to the right of the garage (see Nikita standing on this pile about a year ago, when we first started clearing the land)

Moreover, just about where Nikita is standing in that picture, we intend to build a dojo, tea room, training and stretching zone from bamboo and oak. One day.

Tired of waiting for the digger crew, Mary had long since returned to England to get back to school. But before she left we built up the structure on the garage to rest the new roof on. So it's half way there.

So Mary, now you can see we've got the level down and the site is ready. Come back - we'll build a wood/wetsuit store!

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Moving mountains

Before we build our house we have to take the ruin that's already there to pieces. People have been telling me for years that it's more work -and more expensive - to renovate rather than build a new place. I could never quite believe them, kept thinking it would be different here because we would be doing much of the work, and all that. We are learning slowly but surely that "they" were probably right.

This is one story about just one element of de-construction we have had to do recently so that we can even think about building our house. This is one part of the main building, where we are going to build a new (first) floor, on the existing walls. You can see in the pictures above a part of the old building, and where João, the stonemason and builder is standing on a bit of bedrock that would sit above the level of the new floor. If we left this rock the way it was any rain or water would pour down and into the "new" wall - Not good. Also, we want this to be the rear entrance way to this part of the house, the kids rooms.

So João brings out his big guns: The Compressor + Marcio. Marcio is one of the few people around who is willing and able to spend days on end drilling through rock with an enormous drill that would rattle a normal mans bones to jelly within an hour. He started in the rain, which lasted a day or two, then carried on, hole after hole, hour after hour - with no earmuffs, goggles, gloves or dust-mask - and this work produces terrible granite dust, as fine as dust can be, probably leathal if inhaled in the wrong way. Marcio initially shunned my offer of all these protective bits of kit: what's the point using them now - after all these years, he shrugged. But he liked the ear muffs!

The drilling went of for 3 or 4 days. I can't remember now, it seemed interminable and the noise could be heard clearly miles across the valley. God knows why the whole village didn't come across to complain...

Next up was João with his magic "produto" a modern alternative to dynamite: something to put in the holes freshly dug to almost a meter depth by A-Team candidate Mighty Marcio. Anyway, this product is fiercly expensive (this bit pains me a lot, of course) but is quite impressive. You pour it in liquid, it expands within a few hours and whatever chamber its in splits. In Scotland I've heard they used water and wait for winter for the ice to do the same job. (Hey, cheaper too!).

Next day, the rock was giving up its grip, and had split like a melon. Lots at a time. More drilling, more produto, the process was well under way...

Safffy (our newly adopted family member) and Narissa, another short term adoptee from Australia survey the field of cracks...

By creating space in one corner, we produced a vast amout of material to move around. Rock. THis is most of what I do here: moving rubble. Oh, and dig holes, then move the earth. This time we had Team Rock, joined by local strongman Machado, to level about 20 tonnes of this nicely sized granite blocks down into the Adega room. As if by magic, by 1030 the next morning, most of it had already been moved onto a nearby terrace.

Nikita popped round on his Thursday afternoon he gets off school, and helped João with his water level (nivel de água) - the old Roman way of using water's propensity to always find level, making sure things were on an even plain. In this case, they're measuring approximate spaces where the floor beams will site, within the bedrock. From here we'll measure upwards to include the depth of floor beam + rafters + floor boards (inc. some insulation along the way) to define our final floor level, after which we'll decide exactly where to finish the newly carved stoney path...

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Our 350.org action

So, 24th October has finally been and gone - the big day for what they are calling the "biggest climate action ever" for 350.org. Together with José and Bugui, and other friends from both sides of the Minho we helped out with a small event at the old bridge between the Portuguese and Galician towns of Valença and Tui, though we failed to attract the hoardes to fill the bridge with balloons mexican waves of people holding up enormous signs about climate change and all that.

Great to be part of such a global action nonetheless: pictures of the thousands of events that took place that day are here, and were beamed to folks somewhere in New York city, we are told. Not exactly sure where our pics are. Must be a glitch in the system...

You may be asking why is everyone on about 350? Bit of an obscure number possibly? Why not say something like "fight climate change" and so on. Maybe, but it makes sense when you read a bit about it. So here is a link about the climate scientist, James Hansen, who first raised the alarm bells, and the science behind 350.

And a short film (take ten minutes out for this one) that explains what climate change is all about without any numbers, graphs or technical stuff. If you don't do anything else, watch this...

Saturday, 10 October 2009

The Pizza Oven

Shawn is a one man bread oven making band. He once saw an old oven in the South of Portugal, was so inspired he figured out how to do it. And started building them for friends and local communities in Germany. Since then, he travels around Europe when his work permits showing people how it all works. We are his most recent beneficiaries, a rare honour!

So we started with the granite base AJ helped us build a while back. If you don't have a waist high base about this height, you'll have to gather a bunch of rock and rubble or earth or whatever to bring the base up, or else you'll be bending down to get anything in and out of the thing.

Photos: Shawn laying oven's base. About 80cm diameter. The stone in the centre is used to anchor a piece of string with a straight stick at the end. You use this to make sure each new layer of bricks, and each individual brick, is in the right place: the string makes sure each brick is the same distance from the middle. This creates a perfect dome shape.

The walls start to curve in... Nikita gets involved. It's actually fairly easy. Shawn showed us how to put little bits of stone of broken tile or whatever on one side of each brick to keep the curve going.

getting the key stones in the right place...

All set. Time to plaster it all with a nice little cob mix and enter Sophia, Heather and Kira to get the first coat on

Shawn gets up early when nobody's looking and pops a door in, then a few hours later and a couple of cob coats later and the fires in.

Then we realise that we should try and capture the heat to warm up some water. Enter Paulo and Huci and the copper pipe. Probably not long enough, but let's see how much water it heats, then we can adjust for future models. The pipe runs down a chimney to a hob beside the oven: somewhere to cook with pans - with some stylish mosaicing by Monica there.

Time to fire it up. Hector and Nikita on cooking duty. With the oven pre-heated a bit pizzas bake in minutes, potatoes do in half an hour. Roast veg in 20. Bread goes in later. The taste - oh - the taste!

We decide it's time for a chimney. Enter Logan and Nikita with another cob mix. We made chimney shaped bricks and stacked them up.

Everyone should have one