Sustainable living case studies

Read about Ku-ring-gai residents making their homes and local areas more environmentally friendly. 

 

Native bees – Helena, Wahroonga

Since moving to Wahroonga, keen gardener Helena has been busy creating a thriving community of organic plants and insects in her backyard.

Once she heard about Council’s WildThings program which provides residents with a backyard hive to help boost local numbers of the stingless native bee Tetragonula carbonaria, she knew she wanted to be involved.

What made you get a beehive?

I have an organic garden and I aim for biodiversity. Tetragonula bees are so important for pollination and part of the whole cycle of life in the garden. When I heard about Council’s program I knew I wanted to do something to help support their population. Lots of people use chemicals for getting rid of weeds or fertilising and it’s not good for bees, so it’s comforting to know I’m supporting their sustainability.

It’s also great for teaching my son about life in the garden as well. He can identify lots of insects and plants and loves to help out planting things. The bees bring more life to the garden and it’s quite peaceful watching them.

Where did you get your beehive?

I got my beehive and the Tetragonula bee colony free from Council after being on the waiting list for over a year. The hive is in my back garden next to my veggie garden and chook shed in a nice northeast-facing spot.

Hives have to face north and you don’t want them getting the afternoon western sun. Our hive gets the morning sun and on a warm day the bees get active and excited. It’s lovely to watch them going in an out bringing in pollen and nectar.

Does it take a lot of work to look after?

No. The only thing you have to watch out for is very hot days. If the temperature gets over 44 degrees the hive can die. We shaded ours as you can’t move it very far either. Bees have a tracking system and after the hive is in place you can only move it small distances - about 10cm/day.

There should be about 6,000 – 10,000 bees in the hive by now. They are much smaller than the European honey bee and don’t sting or swarm, so they are a great ‘pet’ to have.

What have you learned?

My knowledge of their behaviour has certainly developed over the last year. When it’s cold they just don’t come out.

To sustain the population as much as possible I decided to plant a lot more flowering perennial herbs – Greek Basil, Pineapple Sage, Russian Sage and Echinacea. The pollens are all different colours and you can see them attached to their legs and know which plant they’ve visited.

What do the neighbours think?

They love it. We have a quite a few keen gardeners in our street and we share vegetables around. Lots of people ask about honey – but our hive is not set up for that. 

Flying fox conservation – Nancy Pallin, Gordon

A group of dedicated volunteers have been helping to restore habitat for a colony of Grey-headed flying foxes for nearly 30 years.

Nancy Pallin has been involved since the very beginning and continues to help out every week at the flying fox camp in Gordon, becoming a passionate advocate and practical expert along the way.

How did you get involved with flying foxes?

In 1982 a flying-fox baby fell from its mother at my children’s school here in Lindfield. I brought it home to take care of it until it could be returned to the wild. I’ve taken a great interest in their welfare ever since.

Tell us about the colony in Gordon

The flying fox camp at Gordon is one of many in the Sydney region and is recognised as nationally significant. Grey-headed flying foxes are a threatened species because of serious population decline. Yet they play vital roles in our ecosystems as pollinators of eucalypts, paperbarks and banksias and as well as dispersers of rainforest seeds.

In the mid-1980s, there was a lot of controversy with the land at Gordon occupied by the flying-foxes. It looked like it would be sold off. Following strong community pressure, Ku-ring-gai Council and the NSW Government stepped in to save the site.  Some of these people formed the Bat Colony Committee, which today is the Ku-ring-gai Bat Conservation Society.

The locals can be divided on the issue at times. There are those who don’t understand the importance of this colony and dislike the noise or smell of the animals and then there are others who are very proud and very protective of the colony and want to see it thrive.

It can also depend on the year. The numbers can vary enormously as the colony goes ‘on holiday’ to other locations. It can be as low as zero or as many as 70,000, so its profile as an issue varies accordingly.

What changes have you seen?

After the site was saved we started to look at restoring the native vegetation. It had been overtaken with weedy vines and the flying foxes would clamber around on the outer limbs of trees and break them. They need tall trees to roost in, a moist understorey and a shrub layer where they can hide from sea eagles and take shelter in extreme heat events.

Council has adopted a Management Plan for the 15.5 hectare reserve. It is a sensitive area, particularly in breeding season. Access is restricted and it is a serious offence to harm flying-foxes or their habitat.

Volunteers have been rewarded by seeing the flying-foxes survive and also a great variety of birds – pardalotes, thornbills, tree creepers, yellow robins, rufous and grey fantails, powerful owls, brush turkeys, even lyrebirds. It’s a very special location.

What do you do at the site?

I’ve been turning up on Tuesday for almost 30 years. We’ve removed weeds especially vines, privet and lantana, and trad - a pesky succulent that escapes from gardens. Bit by bit, the vegetation has come back.

In recent years the Bushcare volunteers have done a lot of work on fencing to prevent the swamp wallabies from destroying young trees like turpentines and eucalypts which have germinated on site or others we have planted. Within the fenced areas native ground covers and shrubs are forming moist refuges. We have been greatly cheered by the natural regeneration of native trees inside enclosures. 

Ku-ring-gai Council provides funds from the Environmental Levy to employ qualified bush regenerators to tackle the most difficult weed threats in various parts of the reserve beyond the capacity of our Bushcare volunteers.

The aim is to restore roosting habitat for the flying-foxes on the lower slopes of the reserve further from the residential boundary as well as maintaining a diversity of habitats for other wildlife.

What’s the best part of being involved?

Getting to know the colony and the site and seeing the changes over time. I can visualise what the space will look like when we’ve done the work and that vision keeps me motivated. I’ve learned so much over the years and we have adapted our approach accordingly.  It is necessary to adapt to the weather as well as the time availability and skills of the Bushcarers.

It keeps me fit and I really enjoy the other volunteers. People who help the environment are always good company and always interesting.

Over three decades, more than 150 people have helped, but the group is smaller these days and we could use a few more pairs of hands.

Learn more about the Ku-ring-gai Bat Conservation Society

Bushcare – Shannon, West Pymble

Residents in Minnamurra Ave, West Pymble, get together every month to look after their ‘oasis of greenery’ at Blackbutt Creek.

They’ve regenerated the bush and prevented erosion, making solid friendships along the way. Shannon from West Pymble has been involved since she moved to the street ten years ago.

How does Bushcare work?

We have a lovely and social group - there’s about six locals, of different ages and backgrounds, and we meet on a Sunday morning once a month. 

Council gives us a trolley and tools and sends out a trainer every couple of months who helps us identify the plants onsite and advise what to do. He’s fantastic but we are pretty lucky as we’ve got a few local volunteers with environmental skills, and a botanist, who helps us out when we need it.

Is it hard work?

The site is really too large for our little group to manage given we only meet for a couple of hours each month. We’ve been lucky enough to secure a Council grant to pay for a professional bush regeneration crew to do some of the harder clearing work from time to time.

We aim to only work where it’s safe and comfortable. We pick the sunny areas in winter and the shady ones in summer.

We do about two hours of weeding or planting and then we usually have a cuppa and a chat on the street or at someone’s house.

What made you get involved?

I joined when I moved here. It was a good way to meet the neighbours and do something worthwhile. I grew up in Blue Mountains so I think I’ve always felt at home surrounded by bush. It’s good to be ‘earthed’ and get outside for a few hours too.

What keeps you involved?

Blackbutt Creek Reserve is a little piece of paradise, right here on our doorstep. We’ve seen echidnas, tawny frogmouths, brush turkeys and possums – it’s a bonus when we spot them onsite.

The work is good for my physical and mental health and it’s simply a nice, sociable thing to do. The kids come and help and play while we work and it gives a positive community feel to our neighbourhood.

Biggest challenge?

The site itself is challenging site because of the steep slopes and the creek. In intense storm events the creek level and flow increases quite quickly, leading to erosion and that can be tricky to work with.

I guess our really big challenge is trying to build a resilient site for the future given the increasing development in the area and our proximity to Ryde Road.

 

Garden harvest – Lydia, Wahroonga

Sloping block? Rocky ground? Bad site layout? Lydia from Wahroonga experimented with her challenging block until she successfully created a fertile and abundant garden.

Tell us about your garden

It’s a constant work-in-progress! It’s mostly fruit trees and raised beds of vegetables plus some carefully placed flowering plants.

I have all kinds of fruit trees – bananas, figs, grapefruit, nashi pear, loquat, brown sapote (chocolate pudding fruit), apples, nectarines, mangoes and peaches. I’ve been experimenting with the bananas. They are shallow-rooted and needs lots of water so I planted them on the lower slope where water collects after a downpour. I’ve got ladyfingers, sugar, goldfingers, Cavendish and blue java.

What sort of challenges have you faced?

The site itself! The house is at the bottom end of a sloping bloke and the backyard rises steeply behind the house. We have a massive gum tree dominating the middle of the yard and most of the ground is natural bedrock. When I started out there was hardly 10cm of soil cover in most parts of the garden.

I had to do a lot of research (she recommends books by Annette McFarland and Jackie French) and planning and monitoring weather conditions just to know where I could plant. There’s been a lot of failures along the way but I’ve learnt from each one.

What have you learnt?

So much! I now bury my potted plants about three-quarters deep into the ground. The pots help keep out invasive weeds but they were just getting cooked in the sun. In the ground they don’t need as much water. I also have shading that can be rolled down to protect cucumbers and other plants in the raised vegetable beds depending on the time of day and season.

The top end of the garden was a particular struggle. The soil used to be so poor even grass wouldn’t grow. I enriched the soil with lots of liquid fertiliser which I make myself. My best mix is chicken manure with water - the plants seem to absorb nutrients better in liquid form. Nothing goes to waste. Even the fish tank and kitchen waste water go in the fertiliser. I’ve got dwarf macadamias, guava and basil growing well here now.

My other tip is to use plants for multiple purposes. I have iris and agapanthus around the steep edges to shade soil and form an erosion line barrier. The agapanthus also stop the brush turkeys - they can’t seem to stand on the edge.

What’s your gardening motto?

My motto is simply to work with what you have. If part of the garden is prone to flooding and poor drainage, plant pomegranates, mulberries and bananas. I used flexible garden edging rolls to reclaim and enrich the soil. I could have added gypsum but instead of fighting the natural conditions I tried to work with what’s there.

I make my own vegetable beds with paper, food scraps, garden waste and cow manure and let nature create great soil. I put worm towers in my raised beds to keep on building and aerating the soil.

Water efficient garden - Paul and Julie, West Pymble

When a diseased pine tree in their backyard had to be removed, a West Pymble family decided to use the opportunity to try xeriscaping. Julie and Paul and their two boys are now relishing the new life in their energy and water efficient garden.

What is xeriscaping?

Paul: It’s a way of landscaping which minimises water usage through design. It’s perfect for arid and semi-arid climates and is a way to drought-proof your garden.

Tell us about the changes you made

Julie: It’s now a native garden and that means there is always something flowering which makes the dry look interesting. The plants attract all kinds of birds and insects and my oldest son has been attempting to propagate some of the more vulnerable native species like the leafless rock wattle.

Paul: I enjoyed repurposing some of the unused materials we had around the house to make decorate the garden and create interesting focal points.

We used an old kitchen sink to make a pond, turned a pallet into a vertical garden, and used an old electric cooktop and a wheelbarrow like pots.

Did you always have so many ponds?

Julie: The ponds soften the xeriscaped dry look so they have been added as part of the change. The gurgling water of the koi fish pond also has a cooling and calming impact that I really love.

Paul: We added a raingarden now in the front yard. Its job is to slow the rush of rainwater from our property into the stormwater system. This allows the polluted first flush from the driveway and front yard to seep slowly through stone and gravel beds before it goes on its way.

Working with a hot house

Paul: Our house is more than 60 years old and due to design and orientation received little winter sun, and can be too hot in parts during summer.

We wanted to make it more energy and water efficient too, so we installed retractable awnings, both manual and motorised, and a home ventilation system that senses the temperature in rooms and the roof space and automatically adjusts heating and cooling.

Julie: Old houses like ours can get musty but we don’t have much of coughs and colds since this has been installed. The air is cleaner as it goes through a HEPA filter system. We can replace the filter easily. We also installed vent fans under the house that run on a transformer. These keep the air underneath dry to discourage termites.

 

Indoor air quality – Diana and Ivor, Pymble

Despite facing north, Diana and Ivor’s two-storey double brick home in Pymble suffered from dampness and mould on the lower level.

Concerned for the health of their two children they decided to look at sustainable options for improving their indoor air quality.

Tell us about your home

Diana: We love our house and garden - we have a large backyard with tall gum trees that provide a haven for bird life and plenty of shade in summer. The big yard has allowed us to keep two free-ranging chickens which fertilise the lawn and keep pests under control. The kids love collecting the eggs and looking after our worm farm and compost bins.

The main drawback is that it’s on a steep slope. As a result the rooms on the lower level suffered from condensation, dampness and mould and required a lot of heating in winter.

What did you do to change the air quality downstairs?

Ivor: We installed a solar air module system which is a home ventilation system powered by solar energy. The sun warms the glass panels on the roof and the hot air is sucked through a pipe and pushed into the lower storey of the house. This is all powered by a solar panel to minimise energy costs.

It removes the moisture and warms the room. The mould issue does not exist anymore and the air quality is cleaner.

Would you recommend solar-powered ventilation?

Diana: I think all split-level houses where the ground floor is colder could benefit from a system like this. It is now much better in winter but in summer it can make the room slightly hotter. However the ground floor is never too hot and you can control the timing so at certain times of the year you can turn it off or use the thermostat.

Ivor: I’d recommend anyone with a north-oriented house to install solar panels. Once they’re in the electricity is free. The payoff is very quick.

What else did you change?

Diana: Sustainability is an issue we are pretty big on as a family so involve our kids in trying to reduce our environmental footprint.

But anybody can make the simple and free changes - like closing doors and windows and draw the curtains on hot days. Open them in the evening to let in cool breezes and flush out the hot air. Simple actions like these can really make a difference rather than switching on air-conditioning.

Energy efficient home – Peter and Ailsa, Wahroonga

When it comes to being sustainable, Wahroonga couple, Ailsa and Peter, show that it’s the little things that count. Over many years, choice after choice have led to a low impact lifestyle and an energy efficient house.

How do you keep your house so cool in summer?

Ailsa: We fitted awnings and blackout curtains to the western windows and whirligigs in the roof to keep the roof cavity cool. We also have a “thinking cap” on the roof, which opens up when the air in the roof gets too hot and vents heat out.

Peter: We’ve lived here 27 years and every time we renovated some part of the house, we put more insulation in the walls and ceilings. There are a lot of trees around the house and the shade helps keep temperatures manageable. In winter, a duct system distributes warm air from our heated lounge room to other parts of the house. 

How else have you reduced energy use?

Ailsa: We have solar hot water and solar panels on the roof which keep our electricity bills low. For what we do use, we purchase 100% Green Power. We do not have a clothes dryer – we installed a retractable clothesline undercover in our back courtyard for rainy days. We also do not have a dishwasher - when we have friends for dinner washing up can be quite a nice part of the socialising.

Peter: There are no down lights in our home because they are very inefficient. The compact fluorescent lights are quite efficient but in future when they fail, we will change to LEDs.  We put in three Solar Tubes which capture sunlight on our roof and send it down reflective tubes into the dining room, kitchen and laundry, which were all a bit dark before. Each little thing makes a difference over time.

Do you have advice for others who want to reduce their environmental footprint?

Ailsa: I think it’s about habits. You can swap plastic bags for green bags when you shop, swap your cleaning products to biodegradable garden-friendly ones, and use washable micro-fibre cloths instead of sponges or paper towel. We try to buy Australian-made to reduce travel miles, and check the energy/water efficiency ratings. It’s not particularly hard to do once you decide to make the switch.

Peter: We have invested in some bigger items – rainwater tanks, low maintenance recycled plastic decking, a large compost bin and a hybrid car. Not everyone can afford to buy these items, but if you compare the upfront cost with the long-term savings and factor in the environmental cost, then I think we’re well ahead in terms of dollars and impact. But there’s always more you can do – next on our wish list is a Vegepod, a raised bed to grow vegetables protected from local wildlife.

From pool to pond - Carol & Ian, Turramurra

Turramurra couple, Carol and Ian, put in a pool 26 years ago when their children were young. As the children grew up and left home, the pool turned into a ‘money pit’. In 2010 with support from Ku-ring-gai Council, the couple converted their pool into a natural pond which has saved them money and is now home to an amazing variety of plants and animals. 

Tell us about your pool/pond

Carol: We’ve had it for seven years now and it is full of plants and fish. The first year was almost black with tadpoles and that means we’ve created a really great environment and it’s a wonderful thing to have.

We’ve got native silver perch in there and we see lots of beautiful damsel flies, dragon flies and a variety of frogs. Native ducks visit and our resident water dragons, Montgomery and Cedric, love living beside it.

What made you decide to turn your pool into a pond?

Ian: We got the pool 26 years ago when our kids were little. When they grew up we found we weren’t really using it – it was just something that was a lot of work and money to maintain. It’s saved us a fortune on chlorine and electricity and it’s great that I don’t have to have to clean the pool on a daily basis.

Carol: We were away travelling when our son called to say the filter pump had gone – again. Our neighbours have big deciduous trees and the pool filter always struggled to cope. We weren’t due back for several weeks so we decided to let it go green till we got back. I’d heard about Council’s Pool to Pond program and I was keen, but Ian wasn’t. So we went to a workshop together to find out more.

It didn’t cost much to convert it. Council donated some aquatic plants and native fish. We found a few cheap aquatic nurseries and bought more plants. It’s saved us a lot more than it has cost.

Is it hard to look after?

Ian: We still have to comply with swimming pool regulations – which means I cut back plants - you can’t have trees too close to the fence that children could climb up.

Carol: It’s been a learning curve. We’ve tried glass shrimp and billabong mussels in there – various things have worked but not all. Fish we’d put in would disappear and then reappear and we’d have to solve those mysteries. Kookaburras sometimes take the fish and sometimes they hide for ages. We had algae at one point and got water fleas but then we got more fish to eat them up. I’ve got plastic shoes and I go in to move the plants and pick things up if they’ve fallen over. The water is very clean, it’s just that there is plant matter on the bottom so it doesn’t look clear.

Any surprises along the way?

Ian: The animal life is wonderful. Along with the fish, we get all these different coloured dragonflies that lay their larvae in the pond – there are blues and greens and they are beautiful. The frog calls are great too. We’ve had the Peron’s tree frog, which makes an incredible noise, and the brown-striped marsh frog. Now we’ve also got green tree frogs. We’ve had hundreds of frogs and I can recognise all their calls. The neighbours have actually love the sound of all the frogs. It’s like living in the country – peaceful and calm.

Carol: I’m probably in the pool more now that it’s a pond! We’ve convinced some of our friends to do the same with their pools.

A sustainable journey – David and Samantha, St Ives

David and Samantha dream of making their home the most sustainable in Ku-ring-gai Council and have been taking slow, well-planned steps to make this a reality. With a substantial amount of progress made they would like to share their journey. 

What was the house like when you moved in? 

David: “The house was run-down but liveable when we moved in as a young family. We decided to adopt a ‘systems approach’ to improving the thermal comfort and sustainability of our home. “Every house is a system that takes in resources such as food, water, energy and materials and produces waste water, carbon emissions and rubbish. In our wealthy society, we now have an ability to change this. We can generate our own resources such as energy and reduce or eliminate our waste”.

Insulation 

The family started work as soon as they moved in. Situated at the bottom of a hill it is cold in winter, so insulation was the first and most important priority. Patchy old ceiling insulation was replaced by R4 wool batts, as well as additional underfloor and wall insulation. The 50W halogen downlights throughout the house were replaced with good quality 7W dimmable LED lights. Though family baseload power use is low, a 5kW solar PV system was installed at first, soon upgraded to 9.3kW. 

David: “The battery storage game will transform the energy system. We will get batteries and an electric car, when it is more affordable, though the issue isn’t so much about financial paybacks as about reducing environmental impacts.” 

What is your advice on Solar PV?

 David: “Use only Clean Energy Council accredited installers and make sure you get a monitoring system. Having solar without a monitoring system is much like driving a car with no fuel gauge and speedometer. The energy monitoring system helps me understand if how the solar PV is functioning, the amount of power I’m drawing and sending back to the grid and also the immediate impact of cranking up the AC, among many other facets of energy use.” They would like to stop using LPG in a bid to electrify the house completely and power it only with renewables.

David: “We have gas bottles delivered for cooking and instant gas hot water. Eventually we want to move to induction cooking and heat pumps. Natural gas is touted as a transitional fuel but renewables have now reached a price point where they are way more economical than gas.”

How do you find your house retains heating and cooling?

The house has a good north-facing aspect and lots of glazing which is great to let the sun in, but such single-glazed units also contribute to heat loss in winter. With good insulation and solar, they easily survived the exceptionally hot days this summer. 

Samantha: “We cranked up the AC at the times when we were generating a lot of solar power and cooled the house for short periods and found the house remained cool for longer. Thick ceiling to floor curtains in bedrooms were found to work much better at keeping the house cool and retaining heat than roller blinds. But such choices are a matter of individual aesthetics.”

How have you made changes outdoors?

The family has been slowly transforming the landscape of their yard. The weed-infested lawns and bush are now planted out with over 200 native plants and fruit trees, and a series of impressive raised beds for vegetables. 

David: “We built the garden beds with eco-timber and water them using a drip irrigation system set on timers. This also waters other plants around the garden with water from two rainwater tanks with a capacity of 15,000L. Trees are planted along boundaries so that animals can follow the wildlife corridor near the house. We also have a native beehive and tumbler compost in the garden which provides organic produce for the family.” 

What’s next?

Future plans include setting up a grey-water system to re-use water, and a greenhouse in the front of the house to make the most of the solar aspect. They also would like to add another 18,000L of water storage to collect subsurface stormwater. 

This family is proving that by taking one small step at a time you can have a big impact on the sustainability of your home, lifestyle and even local community.