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April Family Month – Our Green Home & Lifestyle

Azara boosting her immune system by eating sand while gardening

I live with my wife, Jacqueline and our 9-month old daughter Azara in a quaint and unusual two-bedroom house in Rosebank. The first thing I noticed when I began thinking about this article, and what inspired me to put fingers to keyboard is our little veggie garden. Although environmentally, and nutritionally it doesn’t provide much, and it’s a really tiny space, it is a great reminder to me that every bit counts. And although it is nothing fancy, it’s a little haven on our property where I go to relax and unwind. Without even realising it I find myself at any time of day sitting on the kitchen step watching the progress of our latest configuration of plants, herbs and veggies. Doing even the smallest bit of gardening also helps us unwind, and Azara loves eating the sand so she’s always game for gardening.

We moved to Rosebank 4 years ago to be closer to work and to avoid any obligatory driving, reducing our travel-related carbon footprint. The garden space was a bare uniform patch of lifeless gravel stones. First we put pots with herbs and plants on top of the stones, then gradually removed the stones, only to find paving bricks underneath. We pulled up and sold the paving bricks, brought in a bit of soil and compost, and slowly began transforming the space into something full of life, earthworms, snails, insects, geckos, and various other prey for the first addition to our family, Maki the cat. We have a compost heap we share with our neighbour. Incidentally, that heap is located in the neighbour’s garden which we have open access to, and where all our vegetable and fruit waste goes. We are vegetarians, so the contribution is substantial. We built a raised flowerbed which is home to a few plants, and various herbs, a tomato plant and some rocket etc. Although we’ve not had much luck with the herbs, there is always something in the little garden to contribute to our meals. Making bread is one of my hobbies, and one of our favourite dishes is roast vegetables, so we have a constant supply of rosemary for those. Last season, a random gem squash seed (probably from the compost heap) sprouted in the bed, quickly taking over the entire outside area and providing us with a few months’ supplies of delicious gem squash! We found the plant growing into the house through the cat flap after we’d been away from home for a couple of weeks.

Stephen in his little garden space, putting the finishing touches on a baby cot (all from recycled offcuts from Jacqueline's old theatre sets)

On the roof is our proud investment: the single largest amount of money I’ve ever spent on one household item: our solar water heater, installed by Green Power. We funded this through monetary gifts that we received at our wedding, where we asked people who wanted to give us a gift for a contribution to greening our home, and the total contribution was just enough to purchase the system taking into account the Eskom rebate at the time. It has been running for 3 years, and has cut our electricity in consumption by roughly 50% over the entire year. Our summer electricity bill is around R120, and in winter about R200. From around October to April, we have “free hot water”. We’ve recently improved on this set-up by installing an Oxygenics low flow showerhead saving both water and electricity, especially in winter when we program the back-up element to kick in on the solar water heater. Our geyser has always had a snug blanket, and we looked into installing ceiling insulation but it’s not easy given the odd design of our roof and ceiling.

So while we’re on bathing matters, bath-time is one of Azara’s favourite times of day (on par with her 5 am wake-up time). The extra water we use bathing instead of showering, we share the bath, but we usually leave the water in the bath or transfer it to buckets, which we use to flush the toilets or to rinse nappies. Our water consumption is below the maximum free allowance, so water never costs us anything. Then there’s the nappy situation, which has been much more challenging than I first imagined. We have done our best to attempt various nappy-avoidance strategies. Disposable nappies are nasty for the environment, especially the common brands, so we use a combination of cloth / bamboo nappies, and partly biodegradable ones (both disposable and non-disposable kinds are available at Wellness Warehouse. They obviously cost more than the conventional kind, but are healthier for Azara and the environment). Azara only wears a disposable nappy in the evenings, so we limit ourselves to one a day. The other part of the strategy is toilet training, which was more successful in the earlier months of her life, and now she fights a little, but at least understands where all those activities are meant to take place.

One of the perks of working at Project 90 by 2030 is that last year all staff received a greening subsidy for their homes. We invested the money in a beautiful ceramic fireplace , which we run on alien fuel wood (such as Blue Gum or Rooikrantz). It pretty much heats up the whole living space, eliminating the need for using electricity for space heating in winter.

Heating our home in winter using a cosy Earthfire ceramic firepot, which uses alien wood for fuel

We cook efficiently, only leaving the electric plates on for the minimum time needed, switching off long before the food is actually cooked, allowing the residual heat to do its magic, and avoiding burned pots and food. We use a Salathiso hotbox to cook pulses, keep food warm, and for cooking rice and stews, which also saves a heap of electricity. We’ll switch to gas when our electric stove reaches its useful lifetime.

Lighting is a bit of an issue as we have fittings that do not lend themselves to CFLs or LEDs, but we use the dimmer switches to make sure we only use the lights at the minimum level we need, and most other fittings have CFLs. We also bashed down a northern wall when we first moved in to the house to create a decked outdoor area in the unused alley next to our house, and installed French doors to let more light in the house, so we don’t need to use as much electricity for lighting. The other basics actions are a given: we switch off our ADSL internet router at night, and all other appliances turned off at the plug when not in use.

For food and household consumables, we rarely use supermarkets, and we obtain our fruit, veg and grain mostly through organic and ethical cooperatives, or privately supplied organic farmers. We never buy bread, as I’m an excellent baker (!), and we love the smell of freshly baked bread in our home, for which we use organic and stoneground flours. I have also started baking bread for friends and neighbours so that each time I bake I maximise the use of the oven time, baking up to four loaves at a time. We only use plant-based or eco-friendly cleaning products, and bring no chemical cleaning products into our home. We have painted our outside walls and ceilings with eco-friendly Breathecoate paints, and Pronature varnish for the wooden deck and window frames. Everything that can be recycled (which isn’t much as the cooperative food suppliers don’t package their veggies too much) I take to the Woodstock drop off about once a month – they accept just about anything, as long as it’s clean waste. Our weekly garbage contribution collected by the municipality is no more than a shopping bag’s worth (even with the disposable nappy addition), it actually feels silly having such a large bin for such minimal refuse.

We have two cars, a fact we are not proud of, but they are old and reliable. We rarely use them as I mostly cycle to work or catch the train if I’m going to town, and Jacqueline and I both work from home at times. The car is mainly for evening trips or weekends. There is usually a lot of traffic on the roads leading in and out of our neighbourhood, so cycling, walking or “training” is always more convenient than motoring. We also have given up flying all over the world for our kicks, preferring to find adventure in the extraordinary natural surroundings on our doorstep and in the country, and sometimes venturing into our neighbouring countries.

So we don’t exactly have a big garden to run around in, and our home is small but cosy. We have felt very energised by all the behavioural changes we’ve made and found that deliberately keeping things simple and doing our best to be as green as possible feels good. If I’d been pedantic and succumbed to rationality (for example about the fact that the solar water heater would only pay for itself in 7 years), I may have spent that money on a flight I didn’t really need, or some unnecessary consumable), but as I write this I realise how much more joyful it has been doing what feels right, even if it costs a bit more. And our overall our expenses are actually lower than they used to be, and we definitely feel aware and conscious of our actions.

And who really needs a huge house and garden when you are lucky enough to have one of the seven natural wonders of the world up the road as your back garden?

Stephen Davis

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