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Using microbat roosting boxes to manage mozzies

Microbat_roost_box_milkwood

The mosquito season is about to begin. I'm one of those fortunate people that mosquitoes don’t like the taste of. My husband isn't so lucky. A husband bothered by mozzies isn't much fun – so I'm preparing our natural mosquito control arsenal.

Mosquito coils aren't part of our mozzie control kit.

Smoke from mosquito coils contains carcinogens and fine particles that can damage your lungs.

Studies investigating the harmful components of mosquito coil smoke suggest that sitting in a closed room with a burning mosquito coil is equivalent to smoking anywhere from 51 to 137 cigarettes.

Popping a mosquito coil by your table while enjoying a barbecue is as hazardous as having a chain smoker sit at your table.

Thankfully there’s a less toxic way to reduce mosquito numbers – tiny, cute microbats.

In contrast to their larger fruit-eating cousins (flying foxes or fruit bats), microbats eat only insects.

They have a voracious appetite.

One microbat can eat thousands of mosquitoes in a night.

The benefit of microbats doesn’t stop at mosquito control – they also eat many garden pests including moths, beetles, aphids, weevils and crickets.

You can encourage microbats by providing them with roosting habitat.

Most microbats roost in trees – in cracks, fissures, hollows and under bark.

Trees with cavities suitable for microbat roosts are typically old or dead.

If you have an old hollow-bearing tree in your neighbourhood consider yourself fortunate because it’s likely to house any one of Australia’s 80 species of microbats.

The trouble is, old or dead trees are often removed from residential areas for safety and aesthetic reasons.

Combine targeted tree removal with large-scale clearing of native vegetation, and microbats are running out of places to roost.

Thankfully, many microbats don’t mind living in artificial roost boxes.

How_to_Build_a_bat_box_Milkwood

We've made one roost box so far and plan to make many more.

It’s a good idea to install multiple boxes because microbats prefer to move between multiple roosts to confuse predators.

Microbat_roost_box_entrance_Milkwood

If you want to specifically encourage mosquito-eating microbats (rather than larger microbats that eat larger insects like moths), you need to ensure the entrance to your microbat box is no more than 12 millimetres wide.

Microbats prefer entrances that are only just big enough for them to squeeze through – larger entrances are also likely to let predators inside.

Different-sized entrances will attract different species. The smaller microbat species are more likely to feed on mosquitoes – whereas larger species feed on larger insects like moths.

 

Microbat roost boxes are relatively easy to make for someone with a little woodworking experience.

I share how we made our microbat box over on the Milkwood blog. 

They can also be purchased. But a word of caution – some commercially available bat boxes are simply ornamental and are not suitable as microbat roosts. Typical faults include being too small, not being made of durable timber or hardware, and having entrances that are too large. I share links to a few suitable commercially available microbat boxes in the Milkwood article

There are three things that can potentially undo all your good work encouraging microbats: pesticides, electric insect buzzers and cats.

Pesticides and electric insect buzzers don’t just kill annoying mosquitoes or garden pests – they also kill beneficial insects and leave microbats with little to eat.

Microbats are easy prey for household cats. They are stationary during the day and in winter they can go into torpor (like mini-hibernation). Even those cats that owners claim "could never catch a thing" can easily catch a microbat in torpor. Keeping your cat inside night and day, or in an outdoor cat run, will help protect microbats and other wildlife.

More information on microbats and building a microbat box.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 26th October 2015.

 


How to use wood ash in the garden and beyond

How to use wood ash in the garden and beyond. Little eco footprints

A large bucket of ash – the result of cleaning out our wood stove – had me searching for ways to use wood ash. A byproduct of burning hardwood, wood ash is far more useful than I expected. It can be used to decrease soil acidity and sweeten smelly worm farms. Chooks love to bathe in it, and it can even be used to make soap.

What is wood ash? 

Wood ash is the fine grey powder left behind after burning wood. Its composition varies but it typically contains lots of calcium carbonate – a compound that naturally occurs in limestone. It also contains potassium, magnesium and many trace minerals.

It's a useful frugal alternative to garden lime

Given its high calcium carbonate content, wood ash acts as a liming agent, raising soil pH levels and decreasing soil acidity. This makes it a frugal alternative to garden lime.

I'm now storing our wood ash in a lidded bucket and will use it throughout the year just as I would garden lime.

It should only be used in small amounts and when a decrease in soil acidity is desired.

Australian soils are typically acidic – so adding wood ash will make our soils more favourable for plants that like neutral to alkaline soil.

Wood ash is also a good source of potassium (promotes flowering), calcium (helps build strong cell walls) and numerous other useful nutrients.

Plants that are likely to appreciate a little wood ash include...

..lavender, citrus, flowering annuals and many vegetables such as tomatoes, peas, beans, spinach and garlic.

I’ll be tossing a handful of wood ash into each hole when I plant my tomatoes this spring. I’ll also be digging wood ash into my bean bed.

Wood ash shouldn't be used on plants that prefer acid soils such as..

...blueberries, strawberries, rhododendrons, camellias, azaleas, Australian native plants, potatoes or sweet potatoes.

When adding wood ash to your garden, mix it with compost or dig it into the soil to prevent it from blowing away.

Use it to sweeten compost bins and worm farms

Wood ash can also be added to smelly compost bins or worm farms to decrease acidity.

I've noticed worm farm and compost conditioners for sale. I’m guessing these are merely overpriced and over-packaged garden lime. Save yourself the money and instead sprinkle a handful of wood ash into your worm farm or compost bin now and then.

Use it as a dust bath for your chickens

Wood ash can also be used as a dust bath for chooks. Apparently they love it. Giving chickens a container of wood ash to dust-bathe in will help deter mites and lice.

A cat litter tray of wood ash would be a safe alternative to dust-bathing for urban chooks where there may be a risk of lead contamination in the soil.

Wood ash soap

I was surprised to learn wood ash can be used to make soap. Soaking ashes in water makes lye, which can be mixed with animal fat then boiled to produce soap. It doesn't sound very appealing – but this is how soap was made before we had palm oil and petrochemicals.

Smelly shoes? 

And finally, if you have smelly shoes, wrap a handful of wood ash in a piece of cloth and pop it into your shoe and apparently the smells will disappear.

My bucket of wood ash seems far more valuable than I ever could have imagined.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 3rd August 2015.


How to make natural citrus and beeswax firelighters

Natural citrus peel and wax fire starters. Little eco footprints

Searching for creative alternatives to toxic and non-renewable products is something I enjoy. The research and experimentation is part of the fun. I recently explored alternatives to commercial firelighters and ended up creating sweet-smelling natural citrus and beeswax fire starters.

Not only do these natural firelighters work far better than their toxic and highly packaged counterparts, they cost nothing and are made entirely from natural and renewable ingredients.

My husband snuck a box of fire starters into our home. I had a little grumble about them being a waste of money and resources – and then started looking for alternatives. I've used dried citrus peel to start fires as its high oil content makes it flammable. I dry the peel on a tray in the sun or by the fire and a few weeks later have a pile of sweet smelling fire starters. But they aren't as effective as commercial firelighters – so I continued my search.

I discovered tutorials for firelighters made from candle wax, dryer lint and egg cartons. I loved the idea, but I don’t have a clothes dryer and I rarely have spare egg cartons. But the idea was a good one and I started thinking about making something similar using waste materials I had in abundance.

Then I stumbled across a bucket of dried peel from last winter. The peel cups (left over from juicing) looked like a perfect alternative to the egg carton mould.

Searching for an alternative to the clothes dryer lint – I considered hay, dried leaf litter, shredded paper – then settled on wood shavings.

As a bee keeper, I have an abundance of bees wax, so used that instead of candle wax.

How to make natural citrus and beeswax firelighters. Little eco footprints

To make the firelighters, I melted the wax in an old pot.

I poured a little wax over each peel cup filled with shavings. The hot wax bubbled up when it came into contact with the shavings – ensuring only a little wax was needed to coat the shavings. The wax doesn't need to fill the mould. It simply needs to coat the shavings, preventing them from burning too quickly.

A natural citrus peel and beeswax fire starterlighter. Little eco footprints

I lit one the following day, expecting it to burn for a minute or so. It burnt brightly for 20 minutes.

The packet of fire starters is long gone. And my husband hasn't considered buying more because there’s now a basket of even better firelighters sitting by the fire.

How to make your own firelighters from waste

To make your own fire starter you need a mould, wax and kindling.

Rather than rush out and buy something, look at what you have on hand.

  • For the mould you could use toilet rolls, egg shells, egg cartons – or citrus peel like I have.
  • Instead of beeswax you could use old candles or broken crayons.
  • For the kindling you could use sawdust, shredded paper, rags, peanut shells or dried herbs (how good would that smell).

Fill your mould with kindling. Pour in a little melted wax. It's as simple as that. 

Experiment and have fun.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 8th June 2015.


Building a sustainable house of hemp

Mixing hemp hurd, lime, sand and water to make hemp masontry. Little eco footprints

I've fallen in love with the idea of building a home from hemp. I recently visited Shepherds Ground Farm and Village here in the Hunter Valley while some of the members were learning how to build a wall using hemp fibre. The sustainable attributes and beauty of hemp masonry has me eager to learn more about this construction technique.

Industrial hemp is a hardy and fast-growing crop that is easy to grow organically – requiring no herbicides or pesticides.

Klara Marosszeky, managing director of The Australian Hemp Masonry Company, tells me that growing hemp is an "incredibly effective way of sequestering carbon and restoring farmland". Hemp absorbs carbon from the atmosphere as it grows and building with hemp locks the carbon up.

Growing hemp has a net positive impact on the soil. "Hemp grows to four to five metres tall in just a few months and drops its leaves to the ground, adding nutrients and carbon to the soil," Klara said.

Hemp Hurd used to make memp masonry. Little eco footprints

The hemp that the Shepherds Ground homes will be built from is being grown at nearby Dungog by a recently established hemp growers’ group. An old timber mill in Dungog has been converted into a hemp processing facility.

Hemp masonry, also called hempcrete, is made using hemp "hurd" – the woody material found in the centre of the hemp stalk. "The mill in Dungog has been without power since the flood" Klara said. "But once their power is restored, the mill will extract our hurd from the already harvested hemp."

Adding hemp hurd to the mix to make hempcrete. Little eco footprints

The hemp hurd is mixed with a lime binder, sand and water and then packed into a framed wall that is temporarily clad in formwork.

Mixing the ingredients for hemp masonry Australian Hemp Masonry Company workshop. Little eco footprints

The process is surprisingly simple and quick.

Pouring the hempcrete mix into formwork. Little eco footprints

I watched as the workshop participants mixed the raw ingredients in a large mixer and pressed it into the formwork.

Their wall was half finished by the end of day one.

Shepherds Ground member Angela Rath with a hemp masonry wall that she helped to build. Little eco footprints

Shepherds Ground member Angela Rath with a hemp masonry wall that she helped to build. 

Klara tells me that the ease of building with hemp is one of its main appeals. The hemp mix is lightweight and easy to handle.

Member Karon Lindner is looking forward to living in her hemp home. "I love the beautiful natural texture of hemp walls," she said. Karon also likes that hemp is so easy to build with that she will be able to help the builders construct her home.

Natural texture of hemp walls. Little eco footprints

Unlike most building products that come with a carbon cost, hemp masonry has a very low embodied energy and can be used to build carbon negative homes.

Not only does the hemp absorb carbon while it is growing, the hemp masonry continues to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it slowly cures.

Hemp homes are also highly energy efficient. Hemp masonry is highly insulative and, despite being lightweight, behaves similar to materials with high thermal mass. The breathable walls also manage humidity efficiently and provide excellent indoor air quality.

Hemp buildings are also fireproof and very durable. The lime-based binder coats the hemp making it highly fire resistant. The combined hemp and lime petrifies over time, making the masonry harder and stronger as it ages.

And if you should ever want to demolish a hemp home (which I imagine is highly unlikely given their beauty and performance), hemp masonry is entirely biodegradable. Simply break it up and plough it under the ground, rather than truck it to landfill.

I'm looking forward to watching the hemp village at Shepherds Ground grow.

You can check out this hemp wall at Shepherds Ground Village and Farm's first open day Saturday, June 6. Details here

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 25th May 2015.


How to have healthy and happy indoor plants

How to care for indoor plants. Little eco footprints

Indoor plants can improve our mood, purify the air and even nurture our creativity. But to enjoy the benefits of indoor plants, it’s important to keep them healthy.

A wilting, brown plant is not going to be very effective at improving mood or air quality. 

Houseplants only need a little love and attention to thrive. Little eco footprints

Indoor plants only need a little love and attention to thrive.

I'm in the midst of collecting a few new indoor plants. We’re prettying up our city home for sale, but own a lot less stuff than we did when we lived here two years ago. So I'm filling empty spaces with plants. They don’t cost much and make me feel a little closer to nature.

With so many new plants to care for, I've refreshed my knowledge of indoor plant care.

The fist step is to get to know each plant.

Find out its name – read the tag or browse an indoor plant book from your local library. Each plant will have different preferences for light, water and nutrients. Once you know its name, you can go in search of more information that will help you meet its needs.

You can’t avoid getting to know the requirements of each individual plant – unless you are happy to learn from your mistakes.

I've killed many maidenhair ferns. I even managed to almost kill a friend’s maidenhair fern when house-sitting for only a week. Maidenhair ferns don’t like to dry out, even for a few hours. So it’s important to water them regularly. On the other hand, most indoor plants don’t tolerate waterlogged roots and prefer their soil to dry out between watering.

I water my ferns regularly, at least once a week, ensuring their soil remains damp. I water the other plants far less often. I judge soil moisture by poking a finger into the soil and only water if the soil feels dry.

Indoor plants in preloved frugal pots. Little eco footprints

How you water is also important.

For most house plants, it is better to water less often and more deeply than to offer light frequent watering. I like to soak my plants in a bucket of water, submerging until air bubbles have stopped appearing – indicating that the soil is saturated. I then place pots in the bath or shower to drain.

Location, location, location. 

Location is important for indoor plants. It’s important to match the plant to the light level. A well-lit position near a north-facing window (for those of us in the southern hemisphere) will suit most plants.

In other locations where there’s less light (for example a small south-facing window) or too much light (such as the sill of a west-facing window), you’ll need to choose your plants carefully.

I’m adding plants to a relatively dark room with only a small south-facing window. I’m choosing shade-tolerant plants like the peace lily, ferns, philodendron or a Rex begonia. They should do fine in the dark conditions for a while, but I’ll need to move them to a lighter area occasionally for them to thrive.

You can’t avoid getting to know the requirements of each individual plant. Little eco footprints

Fertilise regularly

Most indoor plants will do best with regular applications of fertiliser. I add liquid fertiliser or worm wee to my watering bucket around once a month.

Annual check-up

Once a year, usually in spring, I add a layer of worm castings on top of the soil.

I also repot any plants that look like they have outgrown their pot or need some extra love. It’s important to use a good quality, lightweight potting mix.

Singing or talking to your plants apparently does help them thrive. So don’t forget to play them music or sing them a song.

 Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 2nd March 2015.