Friday, November 9, 2012

Dublin Zoo - Teacher Training and Summer Camp Madness, Summer 2012

I was invited in to work with Dublin Zoo this summer on their teacher training course and on their summer camps. They have a purpose built school garden now in the zoo with a vegetable patch, fruit area, composter and pond for dipping in, as well as a purpose built classroom and a kind of urban farm next door complete with cows, sheep, goats and pigs.
I spent 2 days teaching primary teachers about how to set up their own organic school garden, I covered garden design elements and how to re-design your school grounds, seeding seeds, planting potatoes and science in the garden experiments.
The summer camps were run over 5 weeks during the summer, I was only doing one day a week on them, and fair play to the rest of the staff in the zoo for doing them full time during that time, don't know if I would have had the energy! I did some veg tasting, seed in a pot, mini-gardens,pond dipping and bug hunting in the school garden, it was a busy day in the zoo.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Team Willow rocking it at Body and Soul Festival June 2012

I returned for a second time to the Body & Soul Festival at Ballinlough Castle in Co. Westmeath with an increased Team Willow in tow this time! Myself and Cathy Eastman (good friend from days working down at Kerry Earth Education Project - see link below!) led team willow. Our main project was building and decorating the main entrance into the main stage area, see piccys below. We combined tissue and willow discs with a simple criss-cross willow fence at the base, and our saviour Rob built us the basic archway on which to erect all our art work! We also made large dry willow and tissue trees which decorated the main stage area, the usual ground lanterns in the woods, a few other small projects, oh and most importantly, there was a festival baby born to our decor boss while we were there! very exciting!

Woodland Heritage Project in Wicklow

Early in 2012 we received LA21 funding from Wicklow County Council to run a  Woodland heritage Education Programme in Hollywood Woods,, Hollywood, Co. Wicklow. We worked with four different primary schools in the local area, bring them to the woods for a complete woodland immersion day. We played tracking and hide and sneak game, we deprived the kids of their sight by blindfolding them and leading them through the woods, we hunted for the bugs of the woodland, we tasted all the tasty edibles there are to be found in the ditches, looked at the trees talked about plants and their uses, we packed loads in and the day just flew, with the kids going home exhilarated and mucky and totally immersed in the woods! Job done!

For this project I linked up with my good friend and colleague Ciara Hinksman at Earthforce Education, you can check out what Ciara does here:

Monday, September 10, 2012

Herb Spiral in St.Finian's NS, May 2012

In May, we continued with our ongoing school garden programme at St. Finian's NS in Finglas. This time we  built a herb spiral in place of the old herbacious border that the school wanted removed from the front of the school. With 4th class we built a very magical spiral bed into which we planted a huge variety of herb plants, from medicinal to colourful to culinary herbs, rosemary, sage, thyme, marigolds etc.

April 2012, The Outdoor Classroom, redesigning the school garden!

It had been a while, but I went across to Tullamore today to work with Geraldine O'Toole from Sonairte. We did a school garden design day for the school. We worked with 4th class for the day, bringing them through the whole process of redesigning their school grounds from the perspective of making it into an Outdoor Classroom. so we went through the possible elements - vegetable patch, woodland, pond, orchard, fruit area, wild area etc, then we went outside and mapped the grounds, measuring the buildings and green spaces and auditing the site so we knew what the school already had onsite. Then in the afternoon we returned to the classroom and together with the kids we came up with the design that you see here in the picture, a fabulous 10-year plan for the school to work towards. We already made some preliminary plans to come back and start building the vegetable patch in a few weeks!

Progress being made at Piper's Hill, April 2012

The ladies are making huge progress in the new school garden we're building for the students down at Piper's Hill School in Naas, Co. Kildare. I'm working with a parent's group to develop the garden, and it has turned out to be an all women's group, but let that not deceive you, there has been trojan work done by the ladies, during April we built the beds for and planted up the herb and fruit areas in the garden. We planted raspberries, currants, strawberries, and rhubarb to name a few!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Low Carbon House Renovation

Given my energy background, it was natural that I would set about improving the energy performance of my house when I moved in over 18 years ago. It is a detached bungalow built just before the first  the reductions in energy use I have achieved (about 75% in the last 14 years) have come in several phases.

Following the large reduction in gas usage in 2007, and the subsequent installation of solar systems in 2008 and 2011, I have begun to focus more on my carbon footprint rather than just energy reduction. Now that my carbon emissions are barely 300 kg/year (most houses are measured in tonnes), I think it is reasonable to refer to my low carbon house and since I've passed the 90% renewables contribution landmark I've even allowed myself to start thinking of the Holy Grail of Zero Carbon! The graph below shows the contribution of the different renewables over the past 12 years.

Prior to 2009 I had reduced the heat losses through roof, walls, doors and windows substantially over a period of years. The large reduction in gas usage in 2007 came from a combination of disconnecting the underfloor heating in my conservatory (and sacrificing some tender plants) and pumping foam insulation into the 9" hollow block walls. The reduction in gas usage in recent years is due to the fact that I have been decommissioning my central heating system room by room as I have worked my way through the house putting in underfloor insulation and sealing off each floor with Intello airtight membrane (  Only the sitting room now remains for this treatment in 2013.  Each of these rooms now has a Süka wall-mounted electric heater which is thermostatically controlled and I have each one on a timer suited to the usage pattern for that room. 

Installation of underfloor cellulose insulation and Intello membrane

In March 2011, I had an air tightness test conducted by Christ Spoorenberg of EcoScan. The results were a slightly disappointing 7.68 Air Changes/Hour @ 50 Pa and a Permeability of 6.17 m3/h.m2. However, as I was less than halfway through the sealing process outlined above at that time, it may not have been too bad and, in addition, the thermal imaging also carried out showed up a number of weak points where I was losing heat such as hall door, hot press, fireplace/stove and attic door. I have subsequently dealt with all of these now apart from the attic door.

Extract fan in back door
Cold air (blue) around attic door
The reduction in electricity use has been achieved by means of a detailed audit of all appliances, and their usage, and systematically going about tackling each of them. Whenever I'm replacing an appliance I choose the most energy efficient option available - the most recent example of this being an amazing induction hob in my revamped kitchen. LED technology has advanced rapidly in recent years and I now have an LED option in almost every room which has more than halved my electricity usage for lighting in recent years. A dramatic reduction came in 2008 when I installed SOLARFOCUS solar panels for hot water and in the process did away with both summer electric immersion and electric power shower in one fell swoop - anyone used to a power shower might find my gravity fed shower a little tame but I find it more than adequate!

It may seem counter intuitive to be putting in electric heaters but the heat loss for the house is now so low (less than 3kW) that they are only needed to supplement the solid fuel stove I installed in 2006.  In addition, I am now generating my own electricity from my solar photovoltaic (PV) system (see my separate post on this for more detail and latest data) and, as I am exporting almost 80% of output to the grid, my net purchase of electricity is running at just over 500 units in a 12-month period at a net cost of about 200.  It seems to me very last century to pipe a fossil fuel halfway across Europe into my home to burn it in a boiler and then pump the hot water all around my house!

In December 2013, I replaced the existing solid fuel stove with a dedicated Charnwood C4 wood burning stove. I choose it for its clean-burn and air-wash technology designed specifically to re-ignite volatile by-products emitted by the initial burning. As wood is composed of 80% volatiles this is critical and I am amazed at how little ash is being produced which indicates to me that I am getting a very complete combustion. This series of stoves also features an integrated inlet for ducting external air to the combustion area rather than sucking it from the room and combined with the flue liner connected to it (rather than going straight into the chimney as with the old stove) I now have a closed airtight system.  Pat

Ready for Winter!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Getting your school garden started...

‘The Year Round School Organic Garden’, A Guide to Designing, Creating and Using an Organic School Garden’

Lucy Bell, Niamh Ni Dhuill, Áine Ni Fhlatharta of Kerry Earth Education Project and Irish Seedsavers

The Year Round Organic School Garden’  is a practical guide for teachers and other education practitioners.  It aims to help with the planning, design, creation and use of an organic school garden with children and teenagers. It demonstrates the huge possibilities of using the school grounds as an educational resource, to learn about organic food production & the importance of bio-diversity. 
The guide incorporates cross curricular activities such as Science, SESE, Maths and Art into the garden. It sets out practical projects on growing local food, creating biodiversity and native habitats in the school grounds; encouraging healthy eating, doing nature based activities and getting children active.  It aims to highlight for the children, that important link with where their food comes from, and above all is a fun and rewarding project for children to undertake.

Email me about purchasing the book at, it costs 15e, with 2e for p&p.


Rhubarb Fizz...the perfect spring refresher!

Making Rhubarb Fizz with TY's at the Acre Project Celbridge, they even drank it!

Rhubarb Fizz

1 kg rhubarb
3 cups sugar
6 teaspoons white vinegar
4 litres water
2 lemons

Method:  Cut rhubarb into small pieces; add to large bowl/container.  Slice lemon in strips with rind on it.  Add lemon slices and rest of ingredients to the rhubarb.  Cover and leave for 48 hours stirring occasionally.  Strain 3 times.  Bottle(plastic only) and label.  Leave for two weeks to mature. be careful, it builds up a lot of fizz! I speak from experience!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Willow Haven in the city

We built these willow half domes and fence with a group of willing 4th class from St. Finians Nat. School in Finglas, they are to be a little haven and chill out spot for the kids, when they need some time out from class. We're going to get pieces of wood to sit on, and hopefully when spring finally fully bursts out it will become a living structure. We also found shield bugs, a bird's anvil and lots of other interesting finds on a wander along our nature trail we've built at the school.

You can book us through the INTO Heritage in Schools Scheme to do this type of work in your school. Check out

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Solar photovoltaic milestone!


My solar photovoltaic (PV) system has been grid connected just over a year now and yesterday I reached the landmark of 1500 units of electricity generated of which 1113 units (74%) have been exported to the grid. I am now almost 70% self-sufficient with regard to my electricity needs and so the next task is to work on that last 30%! The system was installed by Elementary Energy from Corofin and my case study on their website contains more technical details.

(See my separate post for more on my home energy project)

September 2012. On 11th September, total output passed the 2400 kWh mark of which 1848 units were exported (77%). My strategy is to maximise exports for optimal financial benefit and I have been achieving over 80% during the Summer months. It has been a good start to September- here's hoping it can reverse the run of 14 consecutive months below forecast - the poor end to September resulted in missing the forecast target but at least, for the second month in a row, I exceeded my 2011 figures.

October 2012. Since my inport-export meter was installed by ESB Networks in February 2011, I have imported 2242 and exported 1918 units (kWh). This would indicate that I am 86% self-sufficient. However I think this is a bit flattering as this is at the end of summer and I prefer to use a rolling 12-month indicator = [output/(import + own use)] where (import + own use) represents total home electricity usage. The actual figures currently are 1234/(1644 + 253) which is 65% - still not bad!  As I log PV output and export data daily in a spreadsheet, 'own use' comes from this and is simply output kWh less exported kWh.

February 2013. A strange thing occurred this week, several days of cloudless skies. This afforded me an opportunity to measure the variation and trend in PV output over a day without the interference of cloud. The fact that this happened in the middle of February is surprising but less onerous than having to get up at the crack of dawn in mid Summer! I was not surprised at the basic results - I always assumed that the output over a day would be non-linear and I also expected my peak output to occur in early afternoon as my panels are facing SW. In the event, I was pleasantly surprised at the perfect curve I got and the peak output came about 2 hours after true noon. The falloff in late afternoon was more sudden than the slow build-up over the morning.

11 June 2013. The forecast output was reached in May after 22 consecutive months below forecast. There's also been a good start to June - the mini heatwave of the last 6 days produced 63.6 kWh (of which 58 was exported); this compares with the mini heatwave at the end of May last year which produced 61.6 kWh (of which 55 was exported). Postscript: the aforementioned good start provided the basis for my best June yet and target output reached again. 
July 2013. This was the warmest July on record in many stations and produced my highest monthly output yet of 211 kWh. Casement Aerodrome, the nearest station to me, had 150% of average sunshine (for the period 1981-2010) and touched 28.5 degrees C on the 12th July! 

February 2014. I was playing around last year with some of the data in my spreadsheets and came up with this indicator which I think gives a good picture of average monthly intensity of solar energy especially when graphed. I simply multiply the output for each month (kWh) by 1000 and divide it by the number of hours clocked up by the system in that month so obviously the unit for this indicator is Watts.

January 2015. Here are the output data for the last four years:
2011        1360 kWh
2012        1235 kWh
2013        1275 kWh
2014        1179 kWh
Target      1452 kWh

12 June 2015. Despite the fact that we had the coldest May in twenty years there was reasonable sunshine and I've had the best start to a year since 2011. Nevertheless, for the second year in a row the output for May was less than that for April - not what should be happening. My system has now generated 5650 units of electricity of which 4422 units (78%) have been exported to the grid and I am about 68% self-sufficient with regard to my electricity needs.  Pat 

(click to enlarge)

Friday, March 16, 2012


EDIBLE HERITAGE LAB by Lucy Bell, an exhibit at the EDIBLE exhibition at SCIENCE GALLERY, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland in 2012

Agricultural biodiversity can contribute to a robust and secure food system, and increases the colors, shapes, textures and flavours available to eaters. The FAO states that 'since the 1900s, some 75 percent of [agricultural] plant genetic diversity has been lost.'1 In Ireland, preserving the genetic diversity contained in heritage varietals has been championed by organisations such as Irish Seedsavers, who to date, have collected over 140 native apple trees, 50 potato tubers and 600 plant seeds.

This exhibit is a living laboratory that allows for up-close interactions with 12 heritage potato varieties, including the infamous 'lumper', blamed for causing the Irish famine, and the resilient 'bute' that survived the blight. These potatoes are joined by a range of edible greens, edible herbs and wild plants that raise questions about value and responsibility when it comes to preserving and promoting genetic diversity in our food systems.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

For Food's Sake...GROW goes to Science Gallery

Late post about the night in the Science Gallery. Myself, Mick Kelly from GIY Ireland and Ollie Moore from Cloughjordan. We were there as speakers about the future of food in Ireland.
The room was packed with over 100 people there. All agreed that growing your own would be a larger part of our lives. It should not be that difficult to get Ireland growing. A swift cultural change. Just because you grow your own does not mean that you are poor but that you like to taste healthy vegetables!

Check out,

Sunday, March 4, 2012

"In Search of the Two-tailed Pasha"

This article on my Portuguese trip last October has now been published in Butterfly Conservation Ireland's 2011 Annual Report. One of the highlights of this trip for me was the surprise discovery of a wonderful Borboletario or butterfly house in Lisbon's Botanic Gardens where I was surrounded by beautiful Monarch butterflies. The migration cycle of this butterfly in North America is one of the most fascinating phenomena in Nature. They overwinter in Mexico and then move northwards in Springtime in a wave that goes all the way up to Canada - a journey of almost 3000 miles! I was talking to someone last Wednesday night who lives in Toronto and he was telling me how they await with joyful anticipation the arrival of the Monarch in their garden every year. It has greatly extended its range since the middle of the 19th century, colonizing New Zealand in 1840, Australia in 1870 and Canary Islands in 1880. It was first noted as a resident in Southern Iberia in 1980 and this photograph is courtesy of Simon Wates.


We have our own remarkable migrant in the Painted Lady which comes all the way from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. I didn't see any last year, in fact their last big year was 2009 which was when I took the photograph below of a Painted Lady on a Corn cockle in my garden. This flower used to be a weed of cornfields before the advent of herbicides but it is now virtually extinct in the wild. I sow it in my own miniature herbicide free 'cornfield' or annual bed and I have a small quantity of self-saved seed if anyone would like some. The 10 butterfly species I recorded in my garden last year is also referenced in the Garden Survey Findings in the 2011 Annual Report. Overall, I have seen 13 different species in my garden and my immediate aim is to get this up to 15 or 16. This will require planting specific larval foodplants and providing the right conditions.

October 2012. I'm not long back from 10 days in the Algarve and although it was a few weeks earlier than my 2011 trip, the variety and numbers of butterflies I saw were very similar. My new Samsung phone enabled me to get some photos of the main species such as the Spanish Brown Argus, Lang's Short-tailed Blue, Speckled Wood (European variety) and Crimson Speckled moth. A new discovery was the False Mallow Skipper which I was able to get quite close to, on my last day in Lagos, as it was sunning itself on a footpath. I discovered later surprisingly that it is quite rare in the Algarve where it seems to have a small presence separate from its more widespread relative the Mallow Skipper with which it cannot interbreed. The real joy for me however was to discover an area outside Lagos where I was able to sit and watch some beautiful Clouded Yellows flitting around. It was quite an open scrubby arid area and I couldn't believe it one day when a Two-tailed Pasha flew past me. It was unmistakable - as big as a small bird, a powerful flyer and was so close to me that I could clearly see its striking colourings and patterns - search over!

Lang's Short-tailed Blue
False Mallow Skipper

Small Tortoiseshells on buddleia
November 2012. The Clouded Yellow, along with the Painted Lady, is our other great periodic migrant but hasn't been seen in any significant numbers in Ireland since 2006. A couple of Painted Ladies actually turned up in my garden in early September when I had something of an explosion of butterflies, most spectacular of which was up to 50 Small Tortoiseshells on my autumn flowering buddleia - a late and welcome reprise to what was in general another poor summer for butterflies - this photo is courtesy of my friend Tom Buckley from Kildare Bat Group who is an amazing wildlife photographer. I didn't see any Orange Tips on the wing in my garden this year (although their larvae were on the Lady's Smock) but the return of the Ringlet and aforementioned Painted Lady brought my number of species up to 11 this year.   

Holly Blue on runner bean

Orange-tip larva on Lady's Smock


I also carry out a weekly butterfly count on the Royal Canal here in Maynooth as part of the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme which is co-ordinated by the National Biodiversity Data Centre. There are about 150 volunteers all over the country and I've just sent in my data for 2012. I recorded 14 different species compared to 12 last year - Wood White and Small Copper were the new ones - but overall numbers were down which is not surprising I guess given the bad summer. The picture is somewhat complicated though as some species had increased numbers while others were down. However, the really significant development was a near collapse of the colony of Common Blues which was my most numerous species last year. I took both of these photos this year though so there is hope for next year - the one on the left is a male and the female on the right is on its larval foodplant Bird's-foot Trefoil.


April 2013. After the coldest March on record butterfly activity is very slow to get going so here's a couple of vido clips, taken in my garden, to keep us going (this is my first YouTube effort - click on the captions!). 


June 2013.   I was lucky to get a place on a dragonfly workshop earlier this month which was held in the Clara Bog Visitor Centre under the auspices of the National Biodiversity Data Centre. Our course tutors were Eugenie Regan and Brian Nelson, two of the leading experts in the country. The weather was beautiful and we managed to identify all the early season species of damselfly and dragonfly in the field. Subsequent to this, by coincidence, I discovered that there are two species of damselfly resident in my garden - the Blue-tailed Damselfly (left) and the Common Blue Damselfly (right) - which are a delight to observe.


July 2013. It's turning out to be one of the best summers in years. Lucy and I spent an afternoon in Hortland (N794357) recently surrounded by a wealth of wildlife. Here's a few pics:


After a slow start to the year, I'm getting record numbers on my two butterfly transects; I now have a second official transect at Stacumny (N997318) where Lucy and I have our allotment. There's lovely natural meadow full of wild flowers adjacent to the allotments and I counted 161 butterflies there last week on my designated transect walk - this included 83 Meadow Browns and 41 Ringlets. Meanwhile my Royal Canal transect yielded an all-time high of 54 which included 29 Ringlets and 11 Meadow Browns. These two butterflies are single-brood midsummer stalwarts which have been doing well despite the recent bad summers.
February 2014. I didn't know it at the time but my mother had suffered a heart attack that sunny summer afternoon last July so I'm afraid I have bittersweet memories of that day now. When two of my brothers found her semi-conscious in her yard her faithful dog and cat were sitting one each side of her head and remained there until the ambulance arrived. Although she also suffered a subsequent stroke, she made a good recovery and is now in a nursing home. I think I got my love of wildlife from my mother and father and I have wonderful memories of magical days in Pollardstown Fen with my father who had grown up nearby - the fen was being drained at the time (and in danger) but it was much easier to move around in than it is now.
I couldn't continue my night-time activities with Kildare Bat Group last summer but I did manage to keep my butterfly counts going.  My garden sightings get a mention in the Garden Survey Report of Butterfly Conservation Ireland's recently published 2013 Annual Report.
I am presently participating in Birdwatch Ireland's Garden Bird Survey for the 11th time. As I therefore have 10 complete surveys, and this is usually a minimum period for statistical significance, I carried out an analysis of my data over the Christmas period. I'll put a link to what I've written up as soon as I figure out how to do it so for now here's a graph of four species which I find interesting.
January 2015. Butterfly Conservation Ireland's Annual Report 2014 is now available online. It includes an article of mine entitled 'My Butterfly Garden' and I get a few mentions also in the Garden Survey Report. There was no room in either the printed or online versions of my article for these two graphs which are produced by the Transect Walker software package into which I put my garden butterfly counts. In the 2013 graph on the left, the first peak is strongly influenced by Small Whites and the later peaks in September by the build-up of Small Tortoiseshell numbers. The first peak in the 2014 graph on the right is dominated by an early surge in Small Tortoiseshells in July and they are complemented by Red Admirals to produce the second peak in September.
(click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)
A piece on my plum feeding Red Admirals was posted on Butterfly Conservation Ireland's website last September including this YouTube video clip.

30 June 2015. Lucy and I were out on the high bog at Ballinafagh yesterday at a location north of Prosperous suggested by Tadgh of IPCC. Our main target species was the Large Heath - this is the only Irish butterfly on the European red list. Its larval foodplant is Hare's-tail Cottongrass (which I think is also called single-flowered bog cotton). The temperature was about 20C but it was quite cloudy. So there were no butterflies on the wing but as we walked across the remarkably dry bog we put up four Large Heaths. Lucy chased one down and netted it just to confirm identification (see pic).

We moved on then to Timahoe. There was no sign of its unique resident the Small Skipper but there was plenty to keep our interest even though it was still cloudy. We like the Peacock caterpillars shown here and it would be fun to come back in a few weeks time to look for their pupae. It should be noted that Jesmond and Andrew Harding recorded the first Small Skippers of the year here today - I was busy counting my two transects, the temperature was in the mid-20s in Stacumny this afternoon!

Things have been fairly quite in my garden so far this year which is pretty normal. However, the ragwort in my back garden and the buddleia in my front garden are close to flowering and the first second-brood Small Tortoiseshells have just appeared on my catmint so I'm hoping that numbers will take off soon.

Peacock caterpillars
Large Heath butterfly

2 July 2015. Temperatures in recent nights have been in the mid to high teens - great conditions for moths. So Philip Strickland set his trap in my garden last night. We got a good haul which will take a while to process but it included some exciting new firsts for me such as a Poplar Hawkmoth literally hanging on the ragwort adjacent to the trap, a Swallow-tailed Moth also caught outside the trap and a beautiful Peppered Moth to add to the Elephant Hawkmoth which I found in my long grass last week. Pat

Elephant Hawkmoth
Poplar Hawkmoth
Peppered Moth

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Guzzler at The National Museum!

Energy saving and exploding science experiments with guzzler at the National Museum this week:-)