Sustainable Backyards

Why grow our own food?

We always hear that we should be growing our own food – but why? Here are some of the ideas gathered from permaculture students who were given 4 minutes to think:

Earth Care

  • attracts beneficial insects
  • gets people outside … leading to increased appreciation of nature
  • knowing inputs and processes of the food system (including energy and chemicals used)

People Care

  • good for mental health
  • superior taste and nutrition
  • know the history of the food, include how it has been grown (e.g. if/which chemicals have been added)
  • gets people outside … leading to increased appreciation of nature

Fair Share

  • greater self-sufficiency in the case of disasters and in general
  • sharing food with neighbours contributes to greater sense of community and community resilience

20161210_112929

Using our space well

To get the most out of the garden/space we have (whether that is in terms of productivity, beauty, or any other function and/or use), there are some things to consider.

  1. Start by drawing a plan of the garden/space you have, including any existing features you do not plan on changing (e.g. buildings, trees, etc.).
  2. Identify north. This helps identify the path of the Sun, and also the direction of prevailing wind(s).
  3. Identify any areas that are very dry or wet.
  4. Identify any wind paths or corridors, and any sheltered areas.
  5. Consider the path of the Sun (including seasonal variations) and shade.  The Andrew Marsh 3D Sun Path shows sun paths for around the world and across the year.
  6. Identify frosty spots (they are good for killing some bugs, but also good for killing some plants!)
  7. Identify slopes and other topographical features.
  8. Understand soil type and fertility.
  9. Identify zones. Here are some useful links to understanding zones from a permaculture perspective: Zones and Sectors by Deep Green Permaculture, and Zones from permaculture.wikia.com.

Whatever the weather

Understanding and knowing what to expect (kind of, at least) from local weather can be helpful when designing your garden/space.

Some useful websites include:

  • yr.no – said to be very accurate
  • Ventusky – app for interactive maps of real-time weather systems
  • MetService – New Zealand specific and probably most well known
  • MetVUW – New Zealand specific, lots of detailed information
  • Earth.nullschool.net – mesmerising maps of real-time winds and currents

So, for example, in the Waikato Region there is highly changeable weather, high humidity, frequent frosts during winter (because we are in a basin), and not a lot of wind (leading to a lot of fog).

Wherever you are, it is worth considering your local weather and climate conditions. It is also important for us to start considering how different climate change scenarios might affect our local climate and weather.

Planning and designing a garden 

Tania Ashman (gardener, permaculturalist, inspirational friend, and more) has come up with some ‘top tips’ for creating a productive, biodiverse, resource-efficient, ecologically considerate garden:

Keep a diary so you can organise, observe and interact. You can look back on what you did when and learn from successes and failures. A gardening calendar can be useful so you know when to sow and when to harvest different plants.

20161002_134819Choose plants that complement each other. Different plants have different needs, so planting those that have similar needs together. For example, planting ones with similar watering needs together means you avoid over- or under-watering.

You can plant in guilds to help promote the health and productivity of the different species.

Practice crop rotation. Try not to keep growing the same thing in the same year season after season, as this is not good for the soil (upon which your whole garden depends). Check this page for really easy-to-follow information on how to crop rotate.

We are wanting to create ecological systems, so letting some plants go to seed means they can self sow for next season. Also, even if there are ‘weeds’ growing… unless you are going to put something else where they are, consider just leaving them there because anything is better than bare soil.

Don’t leave soil bare, as it strips it of nutrients and life. The only time soil is bare in nature is after an ecological disaster… we don’t want this in our gardens.

Tania Ashman

If you want to start actually loving ‘weeds’, you might want to check out this post by Tenth Acre Farm. Or if you would still like to get rid of weeds, but without dangerous chemicals, try salt, vinegar, or boiling water.

Closing the loop

Nature is amazing in that it naturally composts everything biodegradable for us. By having a compost heap/bin/system in our garden it means we can actually collect the compost and obtain a yield. It is a great way of managing our kitchen and organic waste so that it does not end up in landfill, where it causes many environmental problems.

Animals in the garden – why and how?

Bees are a keystone species. Our food systems, environment, and life as we know it is directly dependent on bees. So keeping bees is great for the Earth. And you get honey and more! In fact, read 16 Reasons Why Beekeeping is Awesome for a comprehensive and highly convincing article about why beekeeping is amazing.

Or if you prefer melodic creations by Flo and Jean (with some adult language)…

Chickens and ducks, on the other hand, offer weeding and waste management services, as well as giving eggs and making (sometimes) very loving pets.

Tania says that no matter how we design our gardens, it is good to remember that they aren’t just for us. Gardens provide nature spaces for us but also other species. So when we are creating these spaces, how can we encourage other species to enjoy them?

Here are some ideas:

How are permaculture principles expressed in your garden?

 

 

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Save Energy, Save Money, Save the Planet

Energy bills seem to be designed to be difficult to understand. That way, we just pay the bill and don’t ask too many questions! Understanding our energy bills are the first step to reducing them, and ringing your provider to ask them to talk you through it can be helpful. For New Zealand, Canstar Blue has prepared a resource to understanding energy tariffs and Powerswitch helps Kiwis find the energy provider that will be most cost effective for their household.

Below is a diagram from EECA that offers some useful first steps to reducing energy use.

Infographic with tips on saving energy in your home

Approximately a third of the energy a household uses is on heating (and/or cooling). To reduce your need to heat or cool your home, this post about Passive Solar Design and this post about making warm and dry homes can help.

Another third of our energy goes to providing us with hot water. To reduce this component of our energy use, check out Cool Ways To Save On Hot Water.

The final third of our energy use is associated with lighting and appliances.

The Lighting section of the EECA website offers great support for all things relating to lighting, including choosing the right bulbs, looking at down lights, and making the most of natural light.

EECA also have a brilliant section on Appliances, which looks at how to effectively use different appliances, and how to learn about how energy efficient they are.

Each programmable appliance (dishwasher, microwave, computer, etc) or appliance that uses a remote control (TV, stereo, etc) uses approximately $20 NZD a year in standby mode. That is for each appliance. Conducting a simple appliance audit (i.e. walk around your home and note how many electrical appliances you have, and also how many of those are on standby) can help identify sources of electricity inefficiency and wastage.

Tip: Stand up and walk around to do the audit, rather than sitting in one place and trying to do it from memory – it will be much more accurate this way!

And finally, if you want to learn how to monitor the electricity consumption of different appliances or your home in general, check out this video:

Remember: increasing energy efficiency and reducing waste is often about taking a lot of small steps, rather than a few larger ones. But the small steps accumulate into big effects!

 

 

Your Home: Cold and Damp, or Warm and Dry?

As someone who was raised in Germany and now lives in New Zealand, I’ve got to say I love this videoclip!

Most of New Zealand’s houses have poor thermal performance. In winter, most of them are cold and damp. The remainder are warm but expensive to run. Ian Mayes says the problem is most Kiwis have not lived in warm, dry homes; poor quality homes have been normalised. It is so common, that  parts of the Census is dedicated to asking whether your home is cold and whether these is mould growing in it.

Thermo-Hygrometer: Modell HM 16We should all have thermo hygrometers in our homes. If everyone had one, there would be riots as people realise they are paying so much for cold, damp, poorly performing homes.

Ian Mayes, 2018

Making our homes warmer

Our homes can be made warmer by heating them well and reducing heat loss.

Heating

There are different ways we can heat out homes, and EECA has created a great resource to compare the options, depending on the size and use of the space you want to heat.

Reducing Heat Loss

Tips on insulating and reducing heat loss can be found in this blog post but here’s a little bit of extra info about my favourite topic – windows!

A single pane of glass only has an R-value of between 0.15 and 0.19. Standard double glazing is around R 0.26 and the fanciest double glazing might reach R 0.6.

Because even the best double glazed windows still have low insulating abilities, curtaining is very important.

The 4 rules for good curtaining are:

  • Cover ALL glass. Windows. Doors. Funny glazed spots. The lot.
  • Always 2+ layers. It is the air around and between layers that insulates, rather than the material itself. A single layer doesn’t trap nearly as much heat as a double layer.
  • Energy saving curtains should close off airflow over the window glass
    Image from http://www.green-energy-efficient-homes.com/energy-saving-curtains.html

    Stop reverse convection currents. By having curtains touching the floor, or  pelmets, or both!

  • Good behaviour. Close curtains in the afternoon, to stop daytime heat escaping. Open curtains in the morning to allow heat in during the day.

Making our homes drier

Ventilation and moisture control can help us make homes drier.

Note: Ventilation is different to draughts in that the former is a chosen air exchange, while draughts are uncontrolled air exchanges and heat leakages.

We want less moisture in our homes because it makes them healthier and less prone to mould. Good ventilation combined with other moisture control practices can reduce relative humidity.

Once again, EECA have created a great resource for tackling dampness and reducing indoor moisture, which can be found here: www.energywise.govt.nz/at-home/dampness.

 

Passive Solar Design – Building an Eco Home

Bigger Picture

In Aotearoa New Zealand, the majority of homes perform to a very poor standard. They are cold, damp, expensive to run, and making us sick. Each year there are 1600 deaths caused or contributed to by poor housing conditions.

New homes are usually also poorly designed; constructed to minimum Building Code standards.

‘The worst house you are legally allowed to build’

In addition, we are building these poor quality homes on some of the world’s best farming land. And not with diverse people and households in mind:

BRANZ is an independent and impartial research, testing, consulting and information company providing services and resources for the building industry – www.branz.co.nz. They have created a resource ‘Measuring our sustainability progress: Benchmarking New Zealand’s New Detached Residential Housing Stock’.

According to the World Health Organisation, the following temperatures lead to health implications:

  • Less than 16oC affects respiratory system
  • Less than 12oC affects cardiovascular system

(These values are for healthy adults. Children, elderly and people with illness or disabilities require at least 2 degrees warmer than these values.)

Living areas should not fall below 18 degrees and bedrooms should not fall below 16 degrees. Yet in New Zealand, 17.9% of living rooms are colder than 18 degrees during winter months (despite active heating), and 13.6% of bedrooms are colder than 12 degrees. In addition, 55% of our homes have visible mould.

building-joy-planning-plans.jpg

This is making people sick, but we can do a lot to avoid it.

For example, it has been calculated that for every $1 you invest into insulating your home, you save $6-10 through direct cost savings (e.g. power bill) and indirect savings (e.g. lower medical bills, better school attendance and education, etc.).

When designing or retrofitting a home, it is important to consider the three factors:

QUALITY, TIME and (LOW) PRICE.

If you try to cut on one, you will end up cutting on the others as well. We spend 55% of our lives in our home, so it is important to make sure we make it good.

pexels-photo-280221.jpegPassive Solar Design

 

There are 5 key principles to Passive Solar Design:

* Orientation

* Insulation

* Thermal Mass

* Airtightness

* Shading and venting

Orientation (inverse North and South if you are in the Northern Hemisphere!)

By getting the shape and size of the building right, and by facing it to Solar North, we are able to harvest ‘free heat’. This is because windows are energy loss and gain points. Some windows lose more than they gain. Too much glazing leads to too much heat loss. Most glazing should be to the North, with moderate amounts to the East and West. There should be as little glazing as possible to the South.

glazing.jpg

Surface area is also a factor to consider. The greater the surface area, the greater the heat loss; the more compact the shape, the less heat will be lost. We can think about this in terms of volume: perimeter ratio.

surface area

It is also important to be aware of corners, as they are difficult to insulate. Every external corner is a weak point in the structure, and the more corners, the greater the thermal weakness of the building.

Insulation

energy use

There are 3 sources of heat in the home:

  1. Solar heat that is harvested
  2. Occupant load (heat generated through people living, e.g. bodies, appliances, etc.)
  3. Added heat (e.g. heat pump, etc.)

In New Zealand, our main aim (for most of the year) is to keep warm air inside. To do this, we need to insulate.

In an uninsulated house, heat can be expected to be lost in roughly the following ways:

uninsulated.png

Insulating different places (e.g. ceiling, underfloor, etc.), reduces the overall heat loss speed. However, it is important to think about the whole thermal envelope of the house. It does not make sense to just insulate one area of the house as the heat will then just escape somewhere else. It can be likened to being naked in the cold: it helps if you put on a jacket, but to get truly warm you will also need trousers, socks, hat, etc. 3 jackets but no trousers/socks/hat is not as useful as one of each.

When insulating, another important factor to consider are thermal bridges. Thermal bridges are materials that connect from the inside to the outside of the house. It is very easy to lose heat through thermal bridges. As with house design, edges are often the weak point of insulation, as well.

Curtaining windows is important because windows allow a lot of heat loss. There are 4 rules to good curtaining:

  • Curtain all glass (or cover it in some way if it is not possible to put a curtain on)
  • Have 2 (or more) layers
  • Stop convection currents through pelmets and having curtains to the floor
  • Good curtain behaviour – close curtains before heat is lost, around 4pm.

The diagram below illustrates the difference between a well and poorly performing curtain:

curtains

Shading and Venting (inverse North and South if you are in the Northern Hemisphere!)

shadingNorth facing side needs to have shading that is moveable and non-permanent, because it has to be able to let sun in in winter and shade from sun in summer à otherwise it will be too cold in winter and too hot in summer.

Deciduous trees are not the answer to shading in this climate, as even with no leaves they still shade at least 50% of light and heat.

The ways to keep the home cool in summer are:

  • Insulation (keeps home cool in summer, as well as warm in winter)
  • Shading
  • Ventilation

Airtightness

Generally, we over ventilate New Zealand homes, plus many homes are draughty. Draughts are uncontrolled air exchanges, while ventilation is when it is controlled (i.e. we have taken control over when and how the air change takes place).

We need to change air in the house every day to ensure good health. We want to do it quickly, not trickling (e.g. through draughts and by leaving a window open a little bit). By opening a window in one part of the house and another on the other side, we can create a path of air movement so that the air exchange is quick. This is especially good in winter, as fast air exchange means thermal mass will not cool down, and so the home will remain warm.

Thermal Mass

 

Further Resources

“Remember, we don’t have to do everything; we just need to do as much as we can. And if more of us do more, that will be enough; we don’t all have to do it all.” – Ian Mayes

Future Living – Reduce your Energy Bill and Live Better

This article will be most helpful for people living in Aotearoa New Zealand, or areas with similar climatic conditions.

If you live in Aotearoa New Zealand, you can have an Eco Design Advisor come to your home and carry out a free and impartial Home Performance Assessment. It supports people reduce their resource use (energy, water and waste) and improve their home’s performance.


Bigger Picture

In Aotearoa New Zealand, the majority of homes perform to a very poor standard. They are cold, damp, expensive to run, and making us sick. Each year there are 1600 deaths caused or contributed to by poor housing conditions.

According to the World Health Organisation, the following temperatures lead to health implications:

  • Less than 16oC affects respiratory system
  • Less than 12oC affects cardiovascular system

(These values are for healthy adults. Children, elderly and people with illness or disabilities require at least 2 degrees warmer than these values.)

Living areas should not fall below 18 degrees and bedrooms should not fall below 16 degrees. Yet in New Zealand, 17.9% of living rooms are colder than 18 degrees during winter months (despite active heating), and 13.6% of bedrooms are colder than 12 degrees. In addition, 55% of our homes have visible mould.

This is making people sick, but we can do a lot to avoid it.

For example, it has been calculated that for every $1 you invest into insulating your home, you save $6-10 through direct cost savings (e.g. power bill) and indirect savings (e.g. lower medical bills, better school attendance and education, etc.).

When designing or retrofitting a home, it is important to consider 3 factors:

QUALITY, TIME and (LOW) PRICE.

If you try to cut on one, you will end up cutting on the others as well. We spend 55% of our lives in our home, so it is important to make sure we make it good.

energy use

Our energy use is divided roughly equally into

  • Spatial heating
  • Lights and appliances
  • Water heating

If we can reduce the cost involved in any of these, we simultaneously reduce our energy bill and impact on the planet.

 

Lowering energy needed for spatial heating

There are two ways to go about reducing energy needs for heating:

  1. Heat the home more efficiently,
  2. Make sure heat is not lost

Heat the home efficiently

There are many different ways to heat homes. Below are some common home-heating methods ranked according to cost effectiveness. Cost effectiveness refers to how much warmth you get for how much money it costs to run.

MOST COST EFFECTIVE

  1. Heat pump (converts 1kW of electricity into 5kW of heat)
  2. Wood burners (they emit a lot of heat and are relatively cheap to fuel. They are even cheaper to run if you collect some of the fuel yourself)
  3. Gas heaters (flued!)
  4. Electric heaters (ones you plug into the wall, such as fan heaters, oil column, panel/ecopanel, etc.)
  5. XXX Unflued gas heaters XXX – these should be avoided, as they burn oxygen, release toxic gases (including carbon monoxide) and emit moisture (which makes homes damper). They have been banned in most Western countries, though unfortunately not yet in New Zealand.

LEAST COST EFFECTIVE

Make sure heat is not lost – Insulation

Insulation slows down the movement of heat. Good materials to use for insulating have low conductivity and air pockets (as still air is highly insulating). R values are used to reflect the thermal resistance of different materials. Thermal resistance is the ability of a material to keep cold things cold and hot things hot.

Heat loss is motivated by temperature differentials. The larger the difference in heat, the faster the heat will move. In an uninsulated house, heat can be expected to be lost in roughly the following ways:energy-use1.png

Insulating different places (e.g. ceiling, underfloor, etc.), reduces the overall heat loss speed. However, it is important to think about the whole thermal envelope of the house. It does not make sense to just insulate one area of the house as the heat will then just escape somewhere else. It can be likened to being naked in the cold: it helps if you put on a jacket, but to get truly warm you will also need trousers, socks, hat, etc. 3 jackets but no trousers/socks/hat is not as useful as one of each.

Below are R values according to the Building Code and as recommended by Ian Mayes:

energy-use2-e1496022652481.png

Make sure heat is not lost – Curtaining

Curtaining windows is important because windows allow a lot of heat loss. There are 4 rules to good curtaining:

  1. Curtain all glass (or cover it in some way if it is not possible to put a curtain on)
  2. Have 2 (or more) layers
  3. Stop convection currents through pelmets and having curtains to the floor
  4. Good curtain behaviour – close curtains before heat is lost, around 4pm.

The diagram below illustrates the difference between a well and poorly performing curtain:energy use

Lowering energy needs for lights and appliances

The way we use appliances majorly affects their energy performance, and the average household can save several hundred dollars each year by taking the following steps:

  • Switching off appliances at the wall. Appliances that use a remote or are programmable each use $20 of electricity a year by being in standby mode (this includes TVs, DVD players, internet modems, game consoles, microwaves, dishwashers, washing machines, and more).
    Image result for power strip new zealand
    multiplug/powerstrip

    Each appliance that gets switched off at the wall when not in use will save $20 of electricity. TIP: Organise the appliances you want to keep on vs the ones you would like to switch off using a multiplug/powerstrip. 

  • Switch to LED lightbulbs. These are more expensive to buy, but they pay for themselves within the first year and lead to hundreds of dollars worth of savings in their lifetime. TIP: You don’t have to replace all bulbs in one go. Switch the bulbs you use most often first of all(kitchen and living room, then bedroom). You might want to check out this tool to calculate your savings when you replace different light bulbs, created by the EECA.

Lowering energy needs for hot water

  • If you have a hot water cylinder, insulate it with a cylinder jacket.
  • Insulate the hot water pipes leading out of the hot water cylinder as well.
  • Reduce the amount of water used in showers (as showers use the bulk of a household’s hot water). This can be done by:
    • Image result for egg timerShortening shower length. Depending on how long your household currently showers for, and how long shower time is reduced by, there is potential for hot water usage to halve (or more) by shortening shower time. Each minute added to a person’s daily shower adds up to about $70/yr. TIP: Put a 3 or 4 timer in the shower to help keep track of shower lengths. Even switching off the water while lathering and/or shaving helps reduce hot water usage.
    • Reducing water flow. You can check the flow rate of your shower head. If it is greater than 9 litres per minute, it may be good to reduce the flow rate. The video below shows how to do this with a flow restrictor, or you may wish to replace the showerhead to a more water-efficient one.

The Energywise website has many useful resources and tips to making your home energy efficient: www.energywise.govt.nz/at-home


[All statistics from BRANZ and EECA.]

56. & 57. Found a home for a couple sleeping rough & home-starter pack

For the last couple of weeks I have been trying to help a young couple that have been sleeping rough each night to find a home. It has been so much more challenging than I imagined. With poor credit and payment records, renting has proven to be an almost impossible option at this point. I managed to find a place where they could live and pay board, but because of communication and organisational issues I still struggle to comprehend, their moving off the streets took extra days. Yesterday everything was finally ready and I dropped them off at their new home, where they will be living with a lady who is trained as a psychologist and seems eager to offer them a comfortable and stable home environment.

As a little gift, I made the couple a home-starter pack, to last them for their first few days. In it I put pasta and tomato sauce, cereal and milk, bananas, some washing powder, soap, shampoo, a sponge, tampons and a few more items. I spoke to them again today and they said all is going well, as did the lady that is hosting them. I really hope this is can be a new beginning for them.