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PDC Blog: Day 12

Jump to: Household greywater, Using artificial wetlands, Composting and biolytic toilets, Growing mushrooms, and the Attitudinal Principles.

After the morning’s breakfast and beanbag session, we stood in a circle with linked hands and sang: “we circle around, we circle around, the boundaries of the earth”. This involved us dancing around in the circle and then coming in to the centre doing something vaguely resembling New Zealand’s Haka.

Micro-organisms and the Calico Test

The day’s discussion began with micro-organisms.

We then went to see them in action, in something called the Calico Test. Calico is a type of cotton which is unbleached and not fully processed. The test involves planting pieces of calico in different parts of the farm to find out whether the soil is healthy. Healthy soil, being soil with a large amount of micro-organisms.

So we went and dug up the calico, to see what had happened to it over the two weeks it had been buried. We see that the calico is riddled with holes, a clear sign of life beneath the soil’s surface!

The calico test result

Calico, riddled with holes

Our next excursion was to unearth the results of a fungi experiment at the dam. Basically the experiment entailed putting a portion of steamed rice in a wooden box, covering it with plastic to protect it from rain and then burying it under mulch, to see who moves in. Andrew dug it up and we all peered in to see what had happened.

Fungi experiment

Fungi experiment results

Covered in the mould and fungal bacteria, it was a prime example of the decomposition power of micro-organisms.

Leaving the jungle-like location, Leon somehow manages to find another truffle!


Walking back with Avice and Andrew is like having two personal nature experts. Every plant has some significance and I’m amazed how Avice seems to know them all!

Avice Hindmarch walking back from the dam

She stops to point out some sage, which was used by Bushmen (San) to cleanse negative energy. She explains that it is dried and bound, set on fire and, accompanied by prayers, it is smudged in corners to clear trapped energy.

Avice Hindmarch talks about the benefits of sage

Household greywater

It’s common in modern households for greywater to be sent out of our houses (and our minds) through the drainage system. This goes through the sewers into an expensive treatment plant, and is then dumped into the world’s rivers and oceans.

Meanwhile, effective use of greywater ensures far less energy and infrastructure use. Household wastewater from kitchen sinks, dishwashers, bathroom sinks, tubs and showers is sent into the soil or backyard wetland, to be processed by microbes, which render nutrients available to plants.

Managing household greywater at Wild Olive

Hazel has installed a system that taps into her greywater outlets (separating it from toilet wastes) through drainpipes, which pipe it out of the house and direct it into trees, shrubs and mulched swales where a variety of plants such as comfrey, tomatoes, lilies, red hot pokers and lemongrass grow.

Household greywater feeds flourishing garden

Naturally, using eco-friendly detergent and products like the Biowash ball ensures an even more efficient greywater system. Hazel explains that she’s planted Arum lilies and a banana tree, which take the brunt of the graywater and help cleanse it.

Hazel explains household greywater system

Lemon tree grows in filtered greywater

By the time the water flows to her lemon tree, its already filtered. This is accompanied by a little ditch and some stones in case of too much water (it then drains out slowly) and this is where the banana tree has been planted.

Using artificial wetlands

In Gaia’s garden: A guide to home-scale permaculture, pg 115, Toby Hemenway describes a system which consists of four ponds, complete with water plants, fish and ducks. Laundry and bath graywater first flow through a small marsh that brims with bog plants and ornamental marshes. This artificial wetland removes most contaminants and converts them into vegetation.

The mostly clean water trickles over rocks through three small ponds, where it is joined by rainwater collected from the roof. The final destination is the duck pond. You’ll soon know if the water isn’t clean enough as the ducks simply won’t swim - residual soap removes the oil from their feathers resulting in sinking ducks!

Composting and biolytic toilets

hand-drawn diagram of composting toilet

Avice explains that composting toilets follow the same principles as a compost heap. Firstly, you make a chamber with a back area which you can take off. Then you place a metal grid with small holes on bricks and load it with sticks or hard wood that won't break down (to keep air moving).

This is followed by a layer of good compost, which is what your excrement goes onto every time you use the toilet. Avice related how they used this system (2 composting toilets) at the Spier Wine Estate in Stellenbosch, South Africa, for over 40 workers with no problems.

Surrounding the toilet are two buckets, one filled with mulch such as straw (sawdust takes longer to break down), while the other bucket is filled with sand mixed with a little bit of clay, lime and ash.

A handful of each goes on after you do your ablutions. This mulch and excrement then layers upwards. Once a week a litre of water should be sprinkled in (using a watering can) to ensure enough moisture for your worms.

Green comfrey can then be added or any kind of mulch, and a handful of compost puts bacteria in and eliminates smells.

At the bottom you can create a little air vent, with lots of small holes to prevent access to rats and snakes. The pipe is painted black and on top of pipe is a little whirly bird. The sun shines on the pipe, and as heat rises it sucks the air in and any smells are eliminated.

Avice explains that they also a shade cloth on top so that if flies get in, they'll be trapped. Every night, the earthworms colonise to the amount of waste produced. When the toilet is full (usually after about 3 months), you can take a stick and spread it a bit, use the toilet a few more times and then close it and seal it.

In the beginning it fills quite quickly, then reaches its critical mass when the earthworms are digesting whatever goes in every day. Avice tells us that earthworms are perfectly happy so long as you put in grass and comfrey as well. We learn that this system is in use at most of the eco-villages. You can even use a bucket instead of a chamber.

Compost toilet

Meanwhile biolytic toilets are used in many eco-friendly developments such as South Africa's luxury resort in Kynsna, Pezula. All greywater and sewage water comes in to a tank, like a rainwater tank, which has layers of plastic or brick with lots of airspaces.

Then comes a mesh of bidem (grey cloth made from fibreglass which allows anything to go through), followed by a layer of coir, which is the hair or fibre of the coconut.

Everything then flushes in here and there is a build up of what is called a matrix, which is innoculated with your earthworms. This matter breaks down, goes through the bidem where the bacteria further breaks down. Water collects here until such a time as its sufficient for the pump to switch in. This water can then be used to irrigate your windbreaks, wood lots, shelter belts and indigenous areas.

The advantage of the biolytic toilet is that it works almost like a normal toilet and flushes minimally.

In most countries, you can purchase one with a service contract. However, you know about earthworms and can make a compost heap, you can make it yourself.

Growing mushrooms

Leon gets another chance to shine with a demonstration on how to grow mushrooms. He explains that if you have a bit of mysellium and you know it's going to fruit edible mushrooms, you can use this type of system to grow your own mushrooms.

To show how versatile mushrooms are, Leon grows from cardboard. Because spores and pollen have fallen while it has been standing, he creates a mix of hydrogen peroxide (35% food grade), roughly 1 cup for 70 litres of water, and lets it soak in a well-shaded area for 15 minutes to expose it to oxygen.

This keeps bacteria and spores in hibernation, allowing aerobic fungi, which benefit from oxygen, to activate their own cellular structure.

He then makes a circle of logs and fills in the gaps with rocks. After which, he puts the culture in the middle of the cardboard, and rolls it up. This is for blue oyster mushrooms, which is very easy and quick to grow.

Circle of logs for mushrooms

Leon wets this again to activate the spores, and adds more culture.

Adding comfrey to mushrooms

Up next comes a layer of dry sticks (wood chips), which is then wet with the mixture of water and peroxide. Comfrey is added, some dry culture and this is wet again. Topped with straw and bark. It takes three weeks for the mushrooms to grow.

Fungi experiment, ready to propogate

Growing button mushrooms

Growing button mushrooms follows a similar process. Firstly, you add compost at the bottom of the logs and straw. Then you dig around the edges, add the spoor and cover it with soil. This is watered well until its saturated. Leon uses all the leftover water and then covers it with sailcloth.

A group of chefs

For lunch everyone dispersed with separate tasks to make food for that days lunch (and give Karen a rest!). So I was sent off to find salad ingredients in the garden.

Finding lettuce was easy, while deciding what herbs to put in proved to be more tricky. I couldn’t find basil no matter how hard I looked (even though I knew it was there somewhere!) but managed to find thyme, parsley, mint and dill. With fresh avocado and chickpeas, organic tomatoes and cherry tomatoes we had a salad to be reckoned with.

My mom meanwhile made a butternut and sweet potato soup, Hazel made fresh hummus and small pizza’s and Nizreen made pasta with arabiata sauce. With so much food we struggled to get through it all, but kept the leftovers for dinner. After lunch we met again at the vegetable beds to further see the mulch experiment.

Attitudinal principles/Mollisonisms

Then we discussed Mollison’s attitudinal principles, sometimes called Mollisonisms, which can be used to guide, design and live a sustainable lifestyle.

Attitudinal principles/Mollinisms

  • Work with nature rather than against it – Nature knows best!
  • Everything gardens – every living thing naturally creates the environment it needs, and everything has effects on and in the system
  • The problem is the solution – the route to creating a solution starts by understanding and accepting the problem
  • Work where it counts – understanding systems to ensure minimum effort for maximum effect
  • The yield of a system is theoretically unlimited (or only limited by the imagination and information of the designer) – you can adjust your system to increase its yield
  • Harvest only sunshine – ultimately all energy systems on the planet come from the sun’s energy
  • Find out what is not illegal and do it
  • Start at your back door and work out – use zoning to maximise efficiency
  • Cooperation not competition – permaculture ethics of caring
  • Create a niche and something will move in

Getting a good understanding of Mollisonisms really brought to life the fact that permaculture is just applied common sense!

The soil play

After tea, we met again to perform the Soil Play, which comprised each of us getting a card at random, which we put in a string around our necks.

Soil play

The setting is a microsite, and the card is the character we’d act out, each character ranging from aerobic and anaerobic bacteria, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous etc. I somehow ended up with Potassium, a funny coincidence given the amount of banana’s I eat!

Our PDC group, performing the soil play

The point of the play is to give us a greater understanding of micro-organisms and how they relate within a microsite. An effective learning tool (and team-building exercise), I suddenly understood what goes on under the soil’s surface a whole lot more!

And it was time for dinner, a delicious meal of vegetable kebabs and salad. We all lingered long over our meal, reluctant to leave what would be our last dinner together.

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