Garden &Global Warming &Lighting &Pool20 Feb 2013 12:03 pm

Discovery Magazine

GreenerHouse in the post box

The latest issue of Discovery magazine has arrived in my post box, and I was pleased to see that my insurance company has been perusing GreenerHouse. A cover article titled 31 Ways to Make a Difference to our Earth quotes liberally from GreenerHouse, especially in the section giving suggestions for what you can do to make your home “more ecofriendly.” It’s clear and compact, so I have reprinted it here. If you want more detail, the information is extracted from more comprehensive posts on composting, LED lighting and pool pumps.

Garden &Global Warming23 Apr 2010 03:24 pm

After two weeks of municipal strikes, the wheelie bins lining the roads are starting to bulge . . . and smell. There’s one plus to this, however. Since the surplus of refuse is literally lifting the lids of the bins, I’ve been able to get an easy look at what people are throwing away. To a large extent, they are throwing away greens. And there’s nothing green about that.

One of the most dangerous myths about the environment is that it is better to send something biodegradable to a landfill than something that will last a hundred years, like a plastic bottle. Quite frankly, that’s a load of garbage.

The last thing you want to happen in a landfill is biodegradation. Deep in a landfill, in the absence of oxygen, bacteria break down plant material into methane. This gas is 21 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. If garden waste is composted or left to decompose in the garden, it will give off some carbon dioxide, but not more than it absorbed when it was growing. So sending plants to the landfill is at least 21 times worse for the atmosphere than composting them.

Grass clippings are the worst, since they decompose much faster than, say, twigs. It is impossible to precisely calculate these things, because of the many variables in landfills, but a reasonable estimate based on a thorough scientific report, is that 1 kg of garden waste in a landfill will give off 77 grams of methane. This means that a full, standard black refuse bag (750mm x 950mm) containing  14 kg of grass clippings will give off as much greenhouse gasses as burning 9.5 litres of petrol by driving nearly 100 kilometres. Recycling the equivalent quantity of plastic—the same bag filled with 3 kgs of empty PET plastic bottles—would save less than a sixth as much greenhouse gases as composting that bag full of grass.

Our lawn space is considerably smaller than many suburban gardens. But my gardener says that in the summer, he mows about two bags worth of clippings twice a week. So in some months, our grass clippings would be causing as much damage to the atmosphere as the electricity consumed by our house, if we were throwing these clippings out with the garbage.

But we don’t. I don’t have much energy for composting, so just a fraction of the clippings go into a somewhat neglected compost pile, which nonetheless manages to produce some good compost in time. The rest is stored in reusable large woven polypropylene bags until we have a carload. Then I haul them a couple of kilometres to the nearest Pikitup garden refuse transfer site, so the municipality can compost for me. It’s a small inconvenience to keep my grass truly green.

Garden &Uncategorized &Water Use/Greywater13 Nov 2007 10:44 am

For many of us in South Africa who are fortunate enough to be able to employ people to work in our homes and gardens, saving electricity and water must be a cooperative effort. I have installed the dual-flush toilets, the low-flow shower head and the indigenous garden. But when the garden water taps and kitchen appliances are largely in the hands of people who don’t pay the utility bill, how can we fully control consumption?

Six months ago, I launched an experiment to address this conundrum, and I am happy to declare it a success.

First an anecdote to illustrate how far apart my gardener’s mindset was from mine. Last summer, when we went away for two weeks, I took a chance that good rains would continue and shut off the sprinkler system. (I always shut it off in the summer whenever we have had 25 mm of rain in the past week.) When I returned to Johannesburg, I was delighted to see the city looking lush and green; I knew that my gamble had paid off. As I arrived at my house, however, I was appalled to find my sprinklers spraying full-blast. The next time I saw my gardener, he cheerfully reported that the day I left he had discovered that I had left the sprinklers off “by mistake” and that he had “fixed it” for me.

So when he later borrowed a couple thousand rand to buy materials to build his mother a house, I knew how I could help him pay it back. I showed him my water bills from 2006, and told him that we would follow the 2007 water bills and compare them. As long as the garden remained reasonably green, we would share 50/50 any money we saved on water.

The first change I noticed was that he was using a broom to sweep a brick walkway that he used to hose down. When he washed the car, he used a big bucket, instead of a running hosepipe. And where I had often found him watering parts of the garden that didn’t need it, he now asks first.

My water bills for the last six months have come down by an average of 38 percent, and my gardener’s debt has been cut by R670. I know that some of this is because the garden is more established now and needs less water. The good rains in October also helped. But I am convinced that a major reason is that we both share the same mindset now when it comes to water conservation.

I still have control over the sprinkler system, so the garden won’t go brown, and I know that he is too proud to let plants wither. But I have a hunch that the next time I shut off the sprinklers for a holiday, he won’t be fixing my mistake.

Garden &Uncategorized25 Apr 2007 02:42 pm

black-throated canary

Black-throated canary on Eragrostis,
as seen from my office.

Today I looked out of my office window and saw a sight I never expected to see in Johannesburg: bronze mannikins. Just about the tiniest birds in South Africa, these little seed eaters were perched on wild grass stems without even weighing them down. I know some very serious birdwatchers who have never seen a bronze mannikin in Johannesburg. This is just the reason that I have turned the small space outside my office into a patch of bushveld.

At one time, this section of our garden featured kikuyu grass and pom-pom roses. Fortunately the roses were moved before I arrived, so I didn’t have to deal with the guilt of plowing under such pretty flowers. Arthur Mennigke, a.k.a. The Naked Gardener, chose and planted a selection of aloes, acacias, native bulbs and shrubs and wild grasses for the space. My goal was a garden that would require very little water once established, that would feel wild, and would attract birds. He promised bronze mannikins. I didn’t believe him.

In the first year, I was delighted to find black-throated canaries feasting on my wild grasses. These, too, were entirely unexpected, but stayed for weeks and returned again this year. In year two, the mannikins have arrived. Next, Mennigke predicts, I will have blue waxbills. At that stage, I can cancel all further trips to Kruger National Park.

The key drawing cards for these little seedeaters are Eragrostis capensis, or heart-seed lovegrass, and Setaria megaphylla, sometimes called broad-leaved bristle grass or ribbon bristle grass. I won’t pretend that these grasses are particularly beautiful, at least not up close. They tower over my head until they start to bow under the weight of their seed heads. My wife refers to them as “mealie grass.” But imagine the flocks of mannikins, finches, canaries and waxbills that would make Jo’burg their home if more gardeners would restore a patch of the highveld grasslands that once stretched to the horizon.

Garden &Uncategorized &Water Use/Greywater15 Oct 2006 05:53 pm

Bathroom AtriumGreywater siphon in bathtub
It’s mid-October and we’ve had just one decent rain in Johannesburg in the last five months. I’m feeling desperate, but the atrium garden outside my bathroom is looking lush and green. Not because it’s been irrigated; I haven’t run the sprinkler in the atrium this whole year. The plants are living on bathwater. Two or three times a week, I open the window, plunge one end of my handy-dandy siphon pump into the water, and give it about five squeezes. The siphon effect takes over, since the garden is lower than the tub, and in 10 or 15 minutes, the bath is nearly empty and the garden is watered.

The entire cost of this fancy greywater system was R24.30, including 2 m of tube. The pump itself costs just R11.10. I bought it all from F A B Water Engineering in Randburg, but I’m sure these hand siphon pumps are available many places.
My only modification was to use a rubber band to strap a piece of metal (a small, throwaway spanner that came packaged with some DIY furniture) to the end of the intake tube. This weighs down the tube so that it sucks the water from the bottom of the tub. One day, I might buy a longer piece of flexible tubing for the outlet (I wish I had bought 4 m to start with), plug the end and cut various holes along its length to distribute the water around the atrium without ever having to move the hose.

Admitedly, the system only works if you have a bath, window and garden in a usable alignment. And it does require a bit more effort than just draining my bath. But it gives me great pleasure to share my bathwater not only with my wife, but with my garden.