How many ways to 10 stars?

When it comes to building, I have an enthusiasm for recycling old materials and giving them a new life. This probably goes back to childhood days building cubby houses out of bush poles or scavenged materials… but it’s stuck with me and I get real enjoyment from taking something that might otherwise be thrown away and using it to make a beautiful useful building.

Sometimes friends have asked me about building things at their place, but I’ve seldom done such work because the cost of labour is such a big component and is what often makes recycling inefficient from an economic point of view. Spending time de-nailing a century old piece of hardwood can be therapeutic and satisfying, but you can’t charge your friends an hourly rate to recover a piece of timber that ends up a dozen times more expensive than a fresh new piece of pine. Consequently, much of recycling has to sit in the DIY world. That’s fine for me because I choose to use my time that way (plus I have a good set of tools & equipment so I’ve become more efficient over the years).

If you’ve ever worked with twisted old timbers or lost the tooth of a saw blade to a hidden nail, you’ll know there are other reasons why sensible builders like to use new materials!

Recycling is great but requires time, equipment, space to work on the materials and then store them until they are used… so it’s not for everyone. If you want to build a house, for instance, the storage space required to collect enough materials just isn’t available on your average block.

If you are thinking of building and want to use a local builder and new materials, but still create an environmentally strong house, there are other models. I recommend taking a look at the website Josh Byrne created about building his own 10 star home in Perth. It features a series of great videos taking you through the process.


You’ll also find lots of technical data, plans, etc on the fact sheets page – this will save you doing many hours of research!

Rocket Stove info

During the Covid 19 lockdown, I’ve had several people ask me for information on rocket stoves – and why not – rocket stoves are awesome and would make a great project if you’ve got time on your hands and have to stay home. I love my rocket stove and the fact that I can cook five pizzas simultaneously using a home-made oven that’s powered by scrappy sticks and building off-cuts can never be a bad thing!

There is often confusion about what makes a rocket stove, so let me respond to that up front. Firstly, they aren’t rockets and they don’t blow up and they don’t fly to the Moon. The name comes from the sound they make when they are fired up – it’s a crazy quiet ‘whooshing’ sound like a tiny rocket or jet engine.

A rocket ‘engine’ is a super efficient way of converting (scrap) wood into heat energy. The two key characteristic of a rocket engine are:

  1. the design is such that there is a secondary burn chamber (the primary burn is the flame of the initial burning of the wood – secondary burn is the ignition of the gases released by the initial burning – this secondary burn is where the majority of the energy is harvested. The burn chamber can get VERY hot – up to 1000 C according to my rocket stove guru, Joel Meadows)
  2. the device (stove, water heater, whatever) is highly insulated so that the heat is retained for use within the system rather than lost to the surrounding atmosphere as radiant heat or heat going up a chimney.

If you see a tiny tin can heater being described on the Internet as a rocket stove but notice that it’s not insulated and doesn’t seem to have a secondary burn chamber, then it’s NOT a rocket stove… it could still be a cool thing and a great ‘lockdown project’, but it’s not a rocket stove!

Here’s a link to a great article which will get you started:

Here’s Joel doing a test firing of my rocket stove at the end of a weekend build. My oven is undercover, so the final flu section (not visible in the picture) needs to be vented outside. Also, the final metal skin still needs to be wrapped around oven to protect and add another layer to the insulation.

Sustainability in the time of Covid 19

Our local climate action group BREAZE (Ballarat Renewable Energy and Zero Emissions Inc) asked me to do a talk about a permaculture perspective on how to increase household sustainability. The talk was scheduled months before the Corona virus hit us and morphed as the date approached. What would have been an hour long public talk turned into an online presentation. Rather than do a simple talking head rave to laptop camera, I got a bit excited and filmed little snippets around the farm then cobbled them together to make a 35 minute video. It’s very amateur, so apologies in advance, but if you look past the camera wobbles and sound ebbing and flowing, I hope you find something useful in it!

Framing skillshare

Here are a few shots of friends who have been helping frame up a new building. Thanks to Brian, Lucy & Gayle for helping and learning at the same time. It’s a great arrangement where everyone benefits. We share skills & social engagement, while the job quietly gets done!

South wall under construction
Lucy & Brian loving the saw!
Gayle signs off on the main section of the North wall
Jimmy’s sketch of the side wall elevation – magic!

Spring busyness!

It’s been a crazy Spring with the weather oscillating wildly from hot to cold. The poor tomatoes don’t know what to do – they’ve been sitting in the ground for a few weeks and hardly growing at all!

Meantime, I’ve had some great help from Nathan & Jess (in Oct) and Alex & Jasmine (in Nov) and we’ve got a heap of jobs done. Here’s a quick set of photos to give you an idea of what we’ve been up to!

Chestnut Farm potting shed waiting for demolition
Potting shed no longer needed by a relative (It helps if your family know you are a recycler!)
Chestnut Farm potting shed partially demolished
Dismantled for later rebuild – thanks to Jess & Nathan! (We took the roof frame away as a single piece!)
erecting poles and rails on ute shed at
‘Ute’ shed posts & rails going up – with Alex, Jasmine and Joseph, who dropped in for the day.
cladding ute shed at
Cladding goes on – the old roof from the Ballarat Nth Snr Citizens clubrooms. Thanks to Ash for the donation of oil drums as temporary scaffolding. 🙂
roof steelwork at
Instant roof using steel Z and C section purlins
Inside ute shed view at
Insulation wrap to stop the condensation drips, and why not make it pretty? Jasmine painting the interior a lovely (mistint) pink to reflect light & make it look neat
Alex painting at
While Alex goes crazy on the colour I made by mixing 15 litres of black paint with 3 litres of red and a few litres of green – who knew that that was the formula for Mission Brown?
ute shed top cover at
To keep out a little rain, we dropped a bit of cover down from the front edge of the roof, and bolted a large plank across the opening.
sheds painted brown at
Alex painted both sheds the same colour – a good background colour to help them blend into the landscape rather than stand out.
ute in shed at
then the ute could finally get parked in the shed… yes, I know it’s not fully protected, but how much better than being in the weather for the last several years? 🙂
meantime, we reworked a few annual veggie beds
Pepper and I planted these peas a couple of months ago and they are really crankin’!
Capsicums, aubergines and lettuce hidden in here!
Tomatoes along a Sun-facing wall
This is the ‘before’ photo – the blackberries had gone feral in this tumbledown shade house…
Alex & Jasmine destroyed the blackberries and released a couple of figs & a Marqui berry to the world!
Old posts and wire fence removed, shadecloth gone and now the question is… how shall we shape this new garden bed, which will have a fig/Marqui berry centre piece? 🙂

Keep on munching!

Chestnut Farm permaculture goats eating gorse

As soon as I moved the girls over to this new area they pounced on the gorse flowers. I’m sure the flowers are sweet tasty treats for the goats, but what excites me is that another cycle of gorse seed isn’t making it to maturity! I know there’ll still be a million seeds on the ground, but let’s focus on the positive and enjoy the fact that this Spring’s crop will have a severe dent put in it.

While we were all going about our lives today, some very effective, highly sustainable, environmentally sensitive services were being provided by these most excellent goats. Thanks, girls!

People Growing Food

If you are on the Book of Faces, I recommend joining this group:

There are lots of really encouraging stories. Some are more about the practical side of food growing, but most emphasise the individual, social and community benefits of food growing; how it connects communities through local sale or exchange, keeps older people active, engages the young and increases food security across the board.

Top dam nearly full!

Just over 18 months since it was cleaned out and expanded, the ‘top’ dam near the house is nearly full. The new dam wall is a metre higher than it was so water is now diverted to a spillway at the south east corner of the dam. IF we have more decent rain in the next few days, I expect the spillway to fill!

Pumping the last water out before earthworks could begin

You can see from the above photo how shallow the dam was. It dried up nearly every Summer due to evaporation. Something needed to be done.

13 tonne excavator still working, with new dam to right

You can see the scale of the excavations when you notice the people on the new dam bank! How deep did we go? It was Dec 2017 so I’m frankly a bit fuzzy, but I reckon it must have been close to 6 metres.

June 2019 and nearly full
water creeping toward the spillway

We’ve had a little more rain since I took that photo so the water is right at the lip of the spillway. The local wood ducks are loving it! Once the water is in the 20m long spillway, I guess I’ll pull on rubber boots and go out with a mattock to fine tune the levels in the spillway. The plan is for the spillway to fill uniformly to a depth of 100 mm then overflow gently to the downhill side.

Semi-automated watering

Over the last few weeks of very hot weather, I’ve been investing in some simple watering equipment – sprinklers, soaker hoses and weeper hoses. I still like hand watering as a great opportunity to Observe & Interact with the plants. If I hadn’t been hand watering a month ago, I might have had a lot of scale attack on my potted apples, but the scale has been wiped out (crushed by hand) as I stood with a hose in the other hand.

However, as the garden expands, the watering becomes more and more time consuming AND you can’t justify the time it would take to really soak an area. With some sprinklers and hoses, you can run water onto an area for an hour or two. The duckpond forest garden has really been loving the extra water. The apples in pots have been treated to an aerial sprinkler for an hour or so each day. Simple set-up – metal sprinkler sitting on a milk crate.

I’ve also laid some soaker hoses in the veggie garden – these guys put out small sprays along their entire length. By reducing pressure (backing the tap off), the sprays become smaller. I tried a few ways of arranging the hose and trying to get the spray right… in the end I’ve settled on putting the hose upside down so the sprays point to the soil.

Soaker hose running in front of tomatoes, behind row of handsome basil plants

This morning, Yang Yang and I worked in the berry tunnel from 7 am until lunchtime. We weeded, pruned Jostaberries and Brambleberries, then lay soaker hose down the length of the raspberry bed (RHS in photos).

Working our way down the ‘tunnel’, weeding and pruning.
Minty kept us company -mostly sleeping in the shade of the jostaberries.
Northern walkway pruned and weeded, ready to run weeper hose along the raspberry bed

We unrolled the weeper hose on the lawn then fed it through the end of the berry tunnel, weaving it between the stalks of the raspberry bushes. It connects directly to a standard 12 mm hose fitting and has a filter to deal with the particulates found in dam water (which is what we use for garden watering).

Weeper hose with water droplets emerging from it. Warranty for 3 years, claimed as UV stable. We will cover with mulch anyway, so that should extend life.
That’s what we’re after!

Seedling tidy up

The Forest Garden weekend course starts on Friday and while thinking about propagation, I decided to have a little tidy up of some of the seedling trees & shrubs I’ve grown. I brought a lot of seed back from the UK last year, from the Agroforestry Research Trust (Martin Crawford) and an online site called Tree Seeds Online (love a name that says what it does, eh?).

Sambucus nigra, Aronia melanocarpa

The Sambucus nigra (European elder) was from TSO. We’ve had elders in Australia since European settlement, but it doesn’t hurt to mix up the gene pool, so these little guys will help do that. I feel an elder-dominated hedge coming on, don’t you. I guess I’ll have to make more cordial each November. Nice. 🙂

Aronia melanocarpa is the North American Black Chokeberry. Seed from the Agroforestry Research Trust. Aronia melanocarpa grows to a couple of metres high & wide and is also a prime hedge plant. It can spread through suckering so a little observation and maintenance is needed there – possibly from a mower! The berries are black when mature and highly astringent (hence the name chokeberry!) so are often used for jams and jellies rather than eating direct. I planted about 24 seeds and have 6 healthy plants – there is definitely an attrition rate when growing from seed, but that does make it all the more satisfying when you get good results.

Hippophae rhamnoides, Amelanchier lamarckii, Cornus mas – plus some stray tomatoes!

Hippophae rhamnoides (front of the LHS box) is commonly called sea buckthorn and is a common coastal plant in northern Europe. I have a couple of very healthy specimens growing near the spoon drain that feeds the top dam. Those came from John Ferris’ Forest Garden Nursery in Melbourne and are cranking along. I’d like to put more in, though, and also having different genetic material can only be a good thing. As well as fabulous bright orange fruit (which grows directly on the branch), sea buckthorn is a Nitrogen fixer from the Elaegnaceae family. The fruit contains high amounts of Vitamins C and E, carotenoids, flavonoids and more Vitamin B12 than any other fruit. So far, I’ve only grown two from seed. They are dioecious (separate male and female plants) but you can’t sex them until they flower, which can take up to 3 years. Fingers crossed for a boy & a girl, right? Meantime, I’ll keep trying to grow more!

The tall guy at the front left of the RHS box is Amelanchier lamarckii – originally from North America but now widely naturalised in Europe. It is one of the more popular members of the diverse Amelanchier family and is variously known as Juneberry, Serviceberry or Shadbush in different parts of North America. Did I mention why using common names is fraught with problems and we should learn a few scientific names so we can be sure we’re all talking about the same thing? A. lamarckii can grow to 5-6 metres in ideal conditions, and can be used as a screening or hedge plant. The berries are black when mature and very sweet. They are usually ripe in June in the US; hence the Juneberry moniker.

The other little guys in the RHS box are Cornus mas – Cornelian Cherry. I bought one from Diggers years ago but it died, so I’m started from seed this time. Cornus mas is widespread across Asia and Europe and grows up to 4 m high. Fruits are astringent on the tree and only fully ripen when they’ve fallen. They taste like a cross between sour cherry and cranberry and are used across Europe for making jams, jellies & liquers. They are also an important Chinese medicine plant.

Want some plant trivia? The wood of C. mas is so dense that it sinks in water! Yep – wood that won’t float. It is therefore great for use in handles, tools, etc and the Greeks preferred it for spears, javelins and bows. Cool. 🙂