Bottle garden

In a city, one doesn’t always have access to a vegetable patch. But vertical gardens are a great way to grow food on hot, sunny walls.

Here is a 4min video of how to make this fully functional drip-irrigated vertical vegetable garden using recycled 2L plastic milk bottles.

On the Internet there are many different ideas and designs for vertical bottle gardens. Some of them are quite complicated, and need lots of hardware. My aim is always to spend as little time, money and energy as possible, and to recycle junk that is lying around anyway. Plus it must actually work. Tried and tested.

I started experimenting back in 2019. The first design was a flop. Ok I managed to grow a crop of veggies, but (a) each bottle had to be watered individually (groan!), (b) the water simply dripped out the bottom (leeching the soil), (c) the soil shrank in the bottle as it dried leaving a gap, so the water would just run around the soil without getting absorbed, (d) … anyway, there were other drawbacks that are not worth listing.

This arrangement was ultimately not successful.

The only part that really worked was the idea to use wire and square metal brackets hung loosely over the top of the wall, to hold up the bottle racks, instead of drilling and screwing anything permanently into the bricks. This system was quick and easy to put up, move and importantly – remove. On house walls one could hold up the rack by wires attached to roof rafters or window sills.

As for the bottles – after much head-scratching and fiddling, I came up with a much better system: a row of bottles, connected to each other and set up at an angle, like so:

The end bottle is the reservoir. Simply fill up this tank with water. The lid has holes punched in it. The water gently irrigates the first bottle, then dribbles slowly from one bottle to the next. Reduce the flow from the tank by blocking some of the holes with toothpicks.

A container at the bottom collects the overflow – a nutrient-rich tea, which can be poured back in the top, to recycle nutrients.

Watering is quick and easy, but the actual irrigation is slow, and the soil gets a thorough soaking. As a result it stays wet longer. You can even control the moisture level: the steeper the angle of the rack, the better it drains. If you lower the rack, more water pools in each bottle. This helps fully grown plants to cope in the heat of summer. (But avoid water logging.)

I have successfully grown several crops of vegetables: lettuce, spinach, various herbs (parsley, dill, chives, leeks, basil), celery, also green beans, radish. Even cauliflower – though the monkeys got to them first.

Cucumbers also grow very well in bottles: set up two racks about 2m apart, and zig-zag a string between them. This works for runner beans too. Just help each plant to find the right path.

Soil quality is something I am still learning about. Diluted urine, bone meal, wood ash and Epsom salt are organic alternatives to artificial fertilizer. But I have found it is easy to overfertilize, because nutrients cycle around this self-contained unit. It is probably best to replace the soil once a year, mixing in fresh compost, and rotating crops. The plastic bottles also become brittle from the sun and don’t last longer than two seasons.

On 1 November is World Vegan Day. We are not vegans, but I respect the choice. This blog is my salute to you, Douglas, Glenda, Shannon, Chloe and others. I share your love for veggies.

by Marlies Craig

Solar home

As I write, our neighbourhood is wrapped in darkness. At Stage 6 national load shedding, electricity cuts out several times a day. But we hardly notice. We enjoy the benefits of energy that shines down from the sky, for free, every day.

In August we installed a solar power system. After fretting for a while over the cost, we saved up and just did it, knowing that this investment will pay itself back in a few years. After that, electricity will be free.

Installed and pumping electricity!

Best of all, we reduced our family’s carbon footprint, making a major contribution from our side towards solving the climate change crisis.

The best location for solar panels was the garage roof, as it is the most nearly North-facing, with the least shade.

The solar panels convert sunlight into electricity. This power is variable, and it comes in as DC (direct current) while the home uses AC (alternating current). So the current has to go through an inverter.

The inverter receives electricity (from the panels, from the grid or from a battery), converts it as required, and sends it as required to the home or the battery or exports it to the grid. Beware: the inverter is noisy.

Batteries supply power at night. Without them electricity would only be available during daylight hours. They act as a storage tank, ensuring a steady supply while power production peaks and dips. The inverter also needs a battery to start up during power outages (it is a computer after all). This took me a while to understand. Without electricity from the grid or from a battery, the inverter cannot power up in the morning, and the solar panels are useless.

The Watt ratings on the panels indicate the maximum power produced per square meter. I don’t know if one ever reaches that maximum, but today at lunch time (a blazing sunny spring day) our panels produced 85% of their total rating.

An online app records and makes pretty graphs of everything – the energy being harvested from the sun, our electricity usage, how much we import and export from and to the grid, even an estimate of total savings – in Rands (our monthly electricity bill) and in carbon dioxide (1.8 tons in under 3 months, or more than half a ton of coal). Wow!

Electricity production (green area) depends on the weather, the length of the day, and other factors.

At this time of year the weather is extremely variable, swinging from blazing hot sunny days to grey fog and drizzle, and back. Despite this, our solar system has supplied our needs, on average. On some days we import from the grid, on others we export. Even on the darkest days with heavy cloud cover, the panels produce at least enough electricity to keep the fridge and freezer going 24/7 (with two batteries). But this is good to know.

Back to question of money: these past few years the cost of solar power has come DOWN, to the point where it is now getting cheaper than electricity from fossil fuels (like coal power stations). At current electricity prices our system (which we paid for cash) would take about 10-11 years to pay off.

But electricity prices in South Africa have gone UP, faster than inflation (15% annual increase on average since 2008, which is 3x faster than inflation). If this trend continues (very likely) we will get our money back in about 7 years, after that, profit. So this is an investment that makes business sense. No wonder more and more businesses are installing solar power. In theory one can start small and add more over time.

I just discovered that 13 October was International Day for Disaster Reduction. On 11 October 50% of Durban city was without power after an explosion at a major substation. Half a large city! The Durban flooding disaster damaged electricity infrastructure and caused major power outages. Sometimes we lose power for several days due to local faults. And have I mentioned the load shedding?

In every way solar power makes sense. It makes sense for today, it makes sense for the future, it makes sense financially, it makes sense for disaster readiness and for peace of mind.

by Marlies Craig

Climate Action Programme

On Youth Day (24 June 2022) the South African Youth Climate Change Coalition (SAYCCC) ran a workshop in Durban to strategize how to ramp up climate change action and activism, now that Covid-19 restrictions have been relaxed.

It was a timely opportunity for EASTERaction to hand out copies of What I Can Do About Climate Change booklet, and to present our brand new Action Programme that goes with it, which we hope to roll out over the next few months.

Participants included representatives from SAYCCC-affiliated climate action groups such as Durban South Peacebuilders, Durban Youth Climate Council, eThekwini municipality, Green Anglicans, Ray Nkonyeni Municipality, uShaka Marine World Education, Vascowiz, and our lovely local beauty pageant, Miss Petite Globe SA, Zoe Nyandeni, who wants to help spread the word on climate change and sustainable living. Go Zoe!!

The booklet was originally written to inform eThekwini municipal councilors about personal climate action. One day before our workshop, the booklet was distributed at a climate induction workshop run by the Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department.

Thank you SAYCCC for this opportunity and for your enthusiasm! We very much look forward collaborating on ‘the biggest challenge facing humankind ever’.

World Environment Day 2022

The theme of this year’s World Environment Day is “Only One Earth“. Over the past year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, a United Nations organization) has released three key climate reports, that have one single, resounding message: We are in crisis. Or in the words of the UN Secretary General: this is “Code Red for humanity”.

As one of the IPCC support staff, I have read and re-read several drafts of these reports, as well as the Special Reports released in 2018 and 2019. “Every year matters!” the first one said. But a year ticked by. And another. And another. And another. The crisis is upon us, and still we are dilly dallying, carrying on as before. It scares me how much is known, and how little is being done. It is surreal.

This year Durban got flooded – one of the worst floods on record. But… we mopped up the mess, made (or started to make) repairs, and carried on. Six weeks later it happened again! Disasters like this will keep getting worse and happen more often.

Today, on World Environment Day, EASTER Action would like to thank and congratulate the hundreds of scientists who contributed towards the IPCC reports, who spent so much of their time and energy, often under extremely difficult situations, to bring together, assess and summarize the latest, up-to-date information on climate change, and to map out the options. Thank you, thank you, all you dear people! And well done! Thanks to you we know what to do next.

May the world listen to your warning, and do what needs to be done, to save this one and only earth, our home, and all its children.

We highly recommend these brief 2-3min trailers. They are beautifully made and give a fantastic overview of the current state of climate science.

The latest reports (2021/2022):
The Physical Science Basis
Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability
Mitigation of Climate Change
The Special Reports (2018/2019):
Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C
Special Report on the Oceans and Cryosphere
Special Report on Land
About the IPCC and the current assessment cycle.

See the IPCC channel for more videos on the various press conferences etc.

Also see the channels of other related UN organizations: UNEP, UNFCCC and WMO.

Exhibition at Durban Natural Science Museum

It was a bitter-sweet experience, seeing (yesterday, for the first time!) the temporary insect exhibition at the Durban Natural Science Museum. Charles (aka Andrew) Carter and I had spent so much time working on this back in 2018 and 2019. In January 2020 he was still putting the finishing touches on it… when Covid-19 struck.

Entitled Insects: the silent extinction. Do we know what we are losing?

It will still be up for a week or two. For directions click here.

One of the world’s largest insect: the Goliath beetle.
Content from the book What Insect Are You? and specimens from the museum’s insect collection.
Covid-19 restrictions prevent group events

The information came to a large extent from the book What Insect Are You? and from follow-up educational events offered under its banner. The specimens came from the museums’ amazing insect collection. (It so happens that the curator of this collection used to be Kirstin Williams, one of the experts who reviewed the book.)

T. rex wonders “Why did those things survive and I didn’t?”

The exhibition went up without warning or fanfare in 2020. It was mentioned briefly in Thola magazine Volume 21 (page 23), but due to Covid-19, visits to the museum by school groups slowed to a trickle. It would have been great to run educational events there, for school children and the public. But alas!

Marlies Craig (of EASTER Action) and Charles Carter (of Durban Natural Science Museum)

By the end of this month (August 2021) the exhibition will be removed, to make space for the next. Perhaps we can find a new home for it? Thanks again Charles for your hard work bringing it to life. And thanks to Durban Natural Science Museum for spreading the word that insects are our life support!