Green manure crops

Nature does not naturally like bare ground. If you have a quick walk outside you will always find ground that was bare – particularly over the summer –  will have a plant growing on/in it now that there has been rain. Usually we call these plants weeds but those same plants have the incredible ability to grow where other plants can not.

In our vegetable gardens minimising bare ground means you can continue to support the great work of all the critters we can’t see with our eyes. Active, growing plants keep the soil healthy, draw carbon into the soil from our atmosphere (which is brilliant) PLUS when you dig theses plants back into the soil you are adding more organic matter into the soil profile. Nothing but goodness here.

Each year I aim to give at least 1 of our vegetable beds are green manure crop. This year it is part of a bed.

I aim to sown a mix of seeds – the scratch mix we feed our chooks ticks the box for a mix of grains and legumes plus I always add some broad beans.

Seed mix read to sow.

Seed mix read to sow.

The amount of seed doesn't have to be huge. Just enough to get a mass of plant growth. The quantity passes inspection !

The amount of seed doesn’t have to be huge. Just enough to get a mass of plant growth. The quantity passes inspection !

Like any cropping farmers in the southern part of Australia now is the time to sow. There is still some warmth in the soil, plus the magic ingredient of moisture.

Prepare the area that the seed will be sown by gently ’tilling”the soil to create an open soil structure where, once seeds are sown, they will have good contact with the soil.

Garden bed ready for sowing

Garden bed ready for sowing

Once you have scattered the seeds over the area it is important to cover the seeds with soil. This can be simply raking the area or using a garden fork to “tickle”the soil. I also water in the seeds to increase the seed:soil contact.

 

 

 

 

sown seed

In a couple of months when the plants have grown to around 30cm I will cut back the growth then dig everything into the soil. The lush green growth will feed all the soil critters and then summer veg will have a brilliant thriving soil to support them during the summer to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mulching – what to use for mulch and why

When I think of mulching the garden I always think back to an autumn when one of my brothers and I did multiple trips filling the back of the ute with the trash left behind the harvester once the rice was harvested. It was scratchy and awkward work, but we knew how much Mum appreciated the gift of clean mulch. Rice straw was great because it was clean, had few weeds and because of the high silica content broke down very slowly. If only we had a baling implement for the tractor, we might have made some handy pocket money.

Today in our garden I use a variety of mulches. The type of mulch varies depending on the area in the garden I am planning to use it, the ultimate result I am hoping to achieve and also based on what I can get.

Every year I order 2 large round bales of straw which have been baled after harvest (usually a wheat or triticale crop) by a local farmer that he can deliver. I use this in the chook pen to create deep litter in the open pen and under the roost to catch the very moist droppings. This straw is nicely worked over by the chooks doing what they love best plus, when I clean out the chook pen I have virtually got the perfect mix to make hot compost (once all the scraps and straw from under the roost are mixed together). In Autumn I also add lots of large oak leaves to the pen, the chooks also break these into smaller particles. This makes the best base for a great compost.

I use this straw in other parts of the garden where I hope to add some softer organic material that will break down eg: under fruit trees, in the vegetable garden or new garden beds. The issue with this straw is there can be a high weed seed load of annual weeds, so I need to be prepared to keep on top of any weeds coming up.

Mulching under a grape vine with straw mulch to reduce weeds, keep in moisture and encourage worm activity under the top soil layer.

Mulching under a grape vine with straw mulch to reduce weeds, keep in moisture and encourage worm activity under the top soil layer.

Adding thick layers of straw to a  garden once the soil is nice and moist from rain or irrigation will help keep the moisture in the soil profile, can reduce weeds popping up and ultimately feeds the microorganisms in the soil as it begins to break down. This is not compost though so you aren’t adding nutrients – just food for the good soil community!

You do have to keep in mind that straw mulch is highly flammable so avoid using where you think this is an issue in our fire danger periods.

Straw like materials also include pea straw, Lucerne hay and sugar cane trash. All of these will help improve the soil and more importantly fuel the soil microorganism system. There are slight differences between each of the products with Lucrene hay generally container fewer weeds and higher nitrogen levels. Lucerne hay is usually more expensive so using it strategically where you really need an extra boost could be an option.

Mulching with wood chips in the areas dominated by native plants.I add what may be call wood chips or sometimes a forest mulch to the main bulk of our garden. These areas are dominated by native plants and trees. I have added so much of this over the time we have been here that I am starting to  make top soil. The advantages of this material for our garden (in these garden areas) include the much slower rate of decomposition. Loads of various sized woody material (diversity is the key here as this will also result in diversity of tiny critters involved in the decomposing process) plus finer leaf trash that also comes in the loads have help reduce weeds, kept in soil moisture when it has rained and provided endless hours of digger for the beautiful White Browed babblers that live in our garden. I do often feel a bit nervous in summer that we have a fuel load close to the house so am very careful just where I use this mulch.

Finally – given that it is Mulching with autumn leaves under fruit treesAutumn I have to mention how excited I get about the fallen leaves. These are such a gift each year. I love raking them up, putting them onto the garden beds knowing that all that deep goodness from the tree and deeply drawn up nutrients is cycling back to the earth to help the plants again for the next season. The leaves break down really quickly and are like a boost juice for the soil ..yep you guessed it..soil microorganisms (you will be sure to find worms in these piles). they are also free. I have been know to sweep urban streets collecting them.

Mulching also helps give your garden a nice tidy finish at times – a bit like adding a bit of definition. It is a great thing to do just before you display a garden or finish off a new area – maybe a bit like eyeliner?? For more information try the Sustainable Gardening Australia web site here.

Using mulch to help give the garden a complete and tidy look.

Using mulch to help give the garden a complete and tidy look.

 

Luffa – growing your own scrubbing brush

Over 10 years ago I grew a luffa vine. This vigorous climber produced so many fruits that I haven’t grown it since and have been using the dried “sponges”for cleaning dishes ever since. My stock of dried luffa was running low so this last summer I grew it again to replenish the stores.

There are many web sites describing how to grow, dry and prepare the luffa fruit. In our local climate the main tip I would like to offer is around timing of when to sow the seed. I have found that the seed really needs a lot of warmth to successfully germinate and thrive.  The most success I have had with seed sown in the ground is when seed is sown in late November – early December OR germinated in a glass house then planted into warm soil.  I have also created in-situ hot houses by putting an upside down glass vase over the seed to encourage some very localised heat.

Mature luffa fruit ready to harvest

Mature luffa fruit ready to harvest

Once the seed has germinated and beginning to grow the vine will become incredibly vigorous. I tend to tip prune growth that is taking over. This also encourages the plant to set more flowers and therefore more fruit.  Like the pumpkins, squashes, zucchinis  and cucumbers in the garden the flowers open in the morning and close at night. The pollination is aided by bees and other native pollinators.

The cucumber-like fruit I leave on the vine to mature. The fruit looks like it is rotting by it slowly dries until the skin is easily peeled away to reveal the luffa as we know it. Having said this I recently read this article and I will harvest some the fruit early – peel and see what happens.

What I love about growing this plant is the closed loop of growing a product that I use in the house and when it doesn’t work so well anymore can just go into the compost and back to the earth. It’s a thought process I try and apply to many aspects of our lives – what happens when I no longer need this item?

The last dried luffa from my supplies and a recently harvested fruit to dry.

The last dried luffa from my supplies and a recently harvested fruit to dry.

So next summer if you have a spot in the garden that can support a vine perhaps this could be worth trying.

Saving Seed for next summer (beans)

The response by many gardeners – both the old, new, hopeful and optimistic, to the isolation conditions we have been asked to follow, had many interesting flow on affects.  The demand for seeds, seedlings and infrastructure to support food growing at home was very high – to say the least. Seed supply companies have depleted a lot of their stock (which is exciting as so many more households have a go growing food) – however this extraordinary demand for seed does means that there is extra pressure on the current seed growers for future seed supply.

Just quietly, I have a love for saving seed. I don’t buy a lot of seed except when there is a need to try a new variety or I am not happy with the quality of the plants growing from my seed any more. Saving seed gives me the chance to save seed of the plants that have performed well in our garden – given our local conditions. It can take a few years for plants to adapt to your local conditions so it makes sense to keep saving the seed from plants that have the characteristics that suit your own local climate.

I don’t save seed every year from all vegetable plants as I usually have enough for a few seasons worth of growing. The excess seed also goes to the local Seed Savers group (Seed Savers Albury Wodonga) where we swap and share seeds (plus so much gardening know how).

This last summer it was the dwarf bean “Gourmet Delight”that really performed brilliantly. We harvested so many beans – the last collection to place only at the end of this month. The cooling days and evenings have seen the plants start to sulk, so now it is time to collect what ever seed I can for next summer and to share with Seed Savers and friends.

The following is a quick guide to saving bean seeds – for a more information you can’t go past the The Seedsavers Handbook or visit Seed Saver Albury Wodonga’s information sheets.

Collect mature bean pods (the pods will be large, can still be green but the seeds will be changing colour within the pod) and put them in a sheltered location to continue to dry out.

Bean pods drying out before cleaning, freezing then storing for next summer

Bean pods drying out before cleaning, freezing then storing for next summer

Bean dwarf "Gourmet delight". Sown in Dec 2019 and still producing at the end of April 2020

Bean dwarf “Gourmet delight”. Sown in Dec 2019 and still producing at the end of April 2020

 

 

Dry the seeds pods until the seeds are hard and the pods really brittle - they should crumble when you rub them.

Dry the seeds pods until the seeds are hard and the pods really brittle – they should crumble when you rub them.

Once pods are dry the seeds will pop out easily from the pod and should be quite hard. Remove the seeds from the pods, cleaning away the “trash”- the old pods can harbor insect pests so it is always important to remove any of this.

When I am confident the seeds are completely dry (you can test this by trying to push a thumb nail into the seed – you shouldn’t be able to) – I freeze the seeds overnight. This kills off any insect eggs possibly hiding on the seed (Green Vegetable bug is a good one for this).

Once beans are dried and any pod trash cleaned away, store the seeds in a dark and dry location until summe

Once beans are dried and any pod trash cleaned away, store the seeds in a dark and dry location until summer.

You can easily collect plenty of seed for a few seasons to come and to share with many friends and neighbours.

Autumn 2020 – Constraint can sprout creativity

Like everyone we are navigating our new normal. The garden, the season and our wild places continue on their cycles unaware of the human species madly treading water around them.  Thank goodness for these places of calm.

Just like in a garden and in nature when a gap is created new opportunities arise. I love a new gap in the garden and with this open mind set the increased time at home opens up the chance to again share what we do in our garden during the seasons. It has also opened up an opportunity to work with our eldest daughter whose big gap year plans to work and travel screeched to a halt. Bella is helping with some major garden projects and  helping me share with you what happens in the garden (with the help of social media – gulp). I am happy to have her around for as long as possible.

prefered image lou & Bella

When I last  wrote in November 2019 we had bought water for the first time. It didn’t rain after that and once again we really rationalised all the water we used. This meant scaling back food growing in our vegetable gardens, saving any water used inside to keep important plants alive (orchard trees, grape vines shading our north facing pergola and other recently planted young trees). The upside, what I like to think of as creative problem solving included:

  • reassessing where we buy our vegetables from,
  • what we cook and eat weekly,
  • what plants and trees were surviving despite the extreme heat days,
  • how we use our space outside,
  • the infrastructure to support us being able to grow some vegetables (wicking beds folks) and what we needed to change.

Pride is a virtue that is bound to be challenged and the pride of growing a fair proportion of our veg was a badge I definitely wore! Letting go of this was brilliant and offered the chance to subscribe to a weekly veg box from the amazing RADgrowers. Possibly some of the stress of growing great food was transferred to Erin – however the community of subscribers, Erin’s commitment to her growing system and the joy of the weekly box of totally in season veg was liberating. I love it and then another constraint popped up. Cooking only what is in season and in the veg box. We didn’t back down and this was yet another creative opportunity to dive into the many cook books I own. In fact I completely rationalised my cookbooks  to those that really focus on seasonal cooking.

We have in our part of the world had rain and our Autumn has been just delightful. We continue receiving the weekly veg box as we still don’t have full tanks and unlimited water (just like our internet really). What we focus on growing are the veg that are either not so market garden friendly eg peas, beans (which are a pain to pick in volume), carrots (can never have enough of these) and more winter greens – again because we eat a lot of these.

As for the other unleashed creative opportunities, we have planted some more shade trees to our north west of the garden, are paving an area of lawn that never was really lawn and are planning another wicking bed.

So constraints can be opportunities for creativity if we are open to this mind set. It is of course OK to totally freak out for a bit and feel overwhelmed –  but it will pass. Just like the seasons, sun, moon and all those other cycles.

As with any of the writing I have done, I look forward to sharing more.

November 2019 – after the rain came the long dry

Since last writing in 2016 (oh dear) a lot has changed in our landscape. Like most of eastern Australia we have experienced continued dry conditions with summers that have tested everything and everyone.  Compared to many we are lucky in our little part of the world. Around Albury in southern NSW it is definitely dry, but not as desperate as other areas – yet. Many crops have been made into hay or silage. Some farmers are hopeful that some  wheat and oat crops will yield a bit of grain. Water storage levels in dams and tanks vary considerably depending on whether you ended up under a rain cloud. We only have water we catch from our roof. We did buy water for the first time – 30,000 litres. It felt a little like defeat but was also a relief. Our 120,000 litre tank is still a long way from full and we will still be very careful with every drop. It just buys a little more time.

In our garden the extended dry and extreme heat events of the last few summers has resulted in us making many changes to the way we garden. I have  presented a couple of talks on the theme of Gardening in our changing climate as we have to consider how we need to adapt. Gardens, however,  in urban areas, on farms and in peri-urban areas can be vital biodiversity refuges for our local wild life plus providing a host of other positive benefits. At times it can feel very overwhelming but it is in times of constraint that we can often be the most creative. This is an opportunity to really look at how we have been living, how and where we work, what we grow and nurture in our garden and question what changes we need to make so that we can continue to live here.

If this is a journey that sounds familiar to you I would be so curious to learn about your thoughts. If this is sparking some questions and helping you take stock, make a cuppa and see if anything that we are doing might be of help.

Over time I would like to share the changes we have made and how they are holding up.

To come back to the theme of seasonality and the month of November, I am anticipating  the ripening of Mulberry’s. This is a tree that has stood up to the summers, still managed to give us some fruit (and the many foraging birds – some a little less desired) and provided amazing shade during the heat.

I have also enjoyed salad leaves, greens and peas in a vegetable garden that we have scaled back significantly and to only the wicking beds. Summer vege has started to gain strength with the gradually warming weather (or the bursts of heat and snaps of cold which is our spring). I have focused on growing plants we eat a lot of and don’t necessarily get in our veg box from our local market gardener (beans and saucing toms, more salad greens, cuc’s,  zuch’s which we do get in the veg box but we eat A LOT of salad).

To increase water catchment my husband built a shed for all our bikes –  on top of the rain water tank. It looks lovely and has had one rainfall event so far. This is one of the steps we have taken to increase catchment in our tank. There are other actions we have done around the garden that I will elaborate on later.

A multipurpose shed to store bikes, play table tennis in and to catch more water - when it falls.

A multipurpose shed to store bikes, play table tennis in and to catch more water – when it falls.

delivery of water (2 tanks worth) and mulch (15 cubic mts to be distributed around the garden.

Delivery of water (2 tanks worth) and mulch (15 cubic mts to be distributed around the garden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So a beautiful shed and delivery of water, plus a load of mulch were how we started our spring. I look forward to sharing more soon.

 

 

 

After dry comes wet

Wayyyy back in March I wrote with such longing for rain.  It came! It came and fell so generously in southern Australia we had..you guessed it, floods. When I wrote about waiting for rain so I could prepare a new patch I had no idea just how wet this site could and did become.  I have garlic that I am a bit scared to go and look for in long grass. I am so grateful that my clever hubby insisted on raising the garden beds as the water just pooled and pooled.  I will will take a photo and get brave to show you just how the site has progressed.

Meanwhile our gardens around the house have flourished. In our 10 years here this is the best it has looked.  The weeds have got a bit of a head start on me at the moment but I am gradually weeding and mulching to retain what moisture remains and hopefully smoother any future seed source.

Something I did today that was quick, will ensure a great stock for the next 12 months and feels productive was harvest a big bunch of oregano and dill.

fresh oregano and dill

fresh oregano and dill

I like to harvest in the morning after any moisture has dried up and before too much warmth hits. Oregano is a herb I am using more and more.  It flavours so many different dishes including home made cracker biscuits (combined with sesame oil..I would never have thought of that combination). It is that classic pizza flavour and last years jar is almost empty – so time to restock.

I haven’t grown a lot of dill but as summer comes and the thought of jars of pickled cucumbers surface I remembered to grow some this spring. If the dill runs to flower – lucky pollinator insects in the garden and if the plants go to seed – even better, more flavour to pack in a jar with the cucumbers.

I have hung the oregano up on the new clothes drying rack that was VERY well used this winter.  The dill I have just spread out on a tray. If we have a run of warm weather I should have some good dried leaves in about 2 weeks. The most critical (technical) consideration with drying is ensuring it really is dry.  Super crunchy dry. You don’t want any spongy bits lurking as the whole jar will go mouldy and that would not taste good in a cracker.

drying oregano on the clothes drying rack

drying oregano on the clothes drying rack

So back to that weeding and choking down the brave pills to search for the garlic.

 

Scaling up what we grow and summer survival

Like many of you with gardens and farms – I am hanging out for rain and relief from the current late summer weather. It seems amazing that any plants persist with no rain for this amount of time and in the conditions they have been given. Each year plants that don’t survive this type of weather pattern, disappear from our garden and the plants that survive and even look reasonable stay. I am also grateful that we have the ability to store water. This is really important in our garden as we are not connected to town water and don’t have surface dams. It is usually about now that I feel a bit nervous about water use and check the Bureau of Meteorology way too regularly for any sign of rain to refill our tanks. It does mean we don’t have a lush green lawn (it always grows back), we water food plants first, we REALLY value our grey water (this is the patchy green of our lawn!) and new plants must be well established before the summer seasons kick in.

As the intensity of summer disappears the produce from the garden shifts. In our garden this means the much loved Golden peaches, pears and apples start to ripen, tomatoes rush to ripen and fill our freezer and cupboard, the zuchinni looks quite shabby as does the incredibly generous cucumber. I have already harvested a few pumpkins and late beans are shooting for the top of a trellis (good luck).

I have to admit I always get a little excited by now about winter veg. Despite the late heat I have planted the first lot of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, wombok and kales. The warm weather hasn’t held them back at all and we have already had a meal of the Red Russian kale. The key to them looking so good is the shading created by using fruit fly netting.  This has also meant the white cabbage butterfly caterpillar hasn’t been able to attack the leaves.  I found one and it didn’t stay for long!

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Winter veg nicely tucked up under fruit fly netting.

I will be planting 3 successions of winter crops with the aim of putting in the last planting before May. All going well I hope to be eating some of the February plantings before then.

I am scaling up this year as our family eat a lot of vegetables.  To achieve this scaling up I have been given access to a patch of dirt on my parent -in -laws.  This will mean more garlic, carrots, beetroot, parsnips and cauliflowers. The patch is still very hard dirt at the moment waiting some rain and a deep rip. I have spread lime and gypsum and after deep ripping initially the 10X15mt site will become a productive market garden style patch! The most important aspect of this site is access to water.  At our home site we don’t have access to dams.  Even though this will be winter vegetables which will require little watering they still require it now in the establishment phase.

So I hope you might enjoy following the development of this patch as it goes from a grassy patch to a productive haven.

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Camp dam garden waiting to be prepared.

Did adding biochar work on the onions?

It happens, just gardening and living your life is easier to do than write about the garden happenings (for me that is). However, I do love a good New Year’s Resolution and sharing what has and hasn’t worked in the garden is something I am going to work on being more consistent with.  Given the last thing I wrote about was adding biochar to where I was planting onions it seems fitting to report back on what I thought about it.

I am happy to admit that growing onions at our home hasn’t been hugely successful in years past.  The 2015 crop was a huge improvement on the 2014 crop (it may have been only 3 poor little onions so you can tell that an improvement was very achieveable).  The hiccup has been my stubbornness to grow our onions from seed.  This always takes a long time in the middle of winter and the seeds have so often had very poor germination success. So last year I spread the risk and bought beautiful, uniform, upright, healthy onion seedlings – plus sowed seed. The purchased seedlings were a joy to plant, my seedlings less so (and what are the odds – seed raising success this time around!!).  The seedlings were planted into the prepared ground that had the biochar mixture added to it.

The result :

Some of 2014 onion harvest. a mix of red and white/brown onions.

Some of 2014 onion harvest. a mix of red and white/brown onions.

You know that this was  improvement!  You can see that there is quite a bit of variation in the sizes.  We have eaten many a number of the onions already. So did the biochar help?  The soil that these plants grew in is terrible.  These onions I do think were helped by adding the biochar.  Generally the soil they were in doesn’t retain water at all, can be hydrophobic (where the water just runs off it) and any sign of added organic matter such as compost and mulch disappears very quickly.  There was an improvement in all these areas.  The size variation is also due to trying a mix of planting onions in clusters verses individuals.  For our site I will keep the plants as individuals (some commercial growers often plants in sets of 3-4).

So – I will continue to add biochar to new beds over the coming seasons. I will also aim to improve on the 2015 onion crop (I think I will propagate the seed much earlier in the season) and I STILL have plenty of biochar in the shed.

Happy Summer harvesting.

Biochar in the Garden

To garden is to constantly learn something new I feel.  I recently flicked through some old copies of the Organic Gardener Magazine and re read an article by Peter Cundall on using biochar in the garden (Issue Mar/Apr 2015).  I have also noticed that this is a product being sold by nursery and garden businesses. What struck me was the way Peter was using it to add and supply nutrients to his vegetables (in the articles case cauliflowers).  The charcoal is like a sponge that can absorb moisture and fertiliser to then leach or release slowly into the soil profile and therefore to plants.  The coal itself has no real nutrient value  – it’s importance is in it’s ability to hold minerals and nutrients.

So, after a family hike up the hill behind our home where we discovered a very large pile of charcoal I decide to give this a go.  To buy biochar is quite expensive, I figure a 30 minute work out to collect several large buckets of charcoal was a bargain! The large chucks of charcoal need to be pulverised to a finer crumble – you can do this easily enough with a block splitter dropped onto the coal in a bucket.

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charcoal partially pulverised in the bucket

 

 

 

 

 

 

For this batch of biochar I was wanting to add it to the onion patch I was about to plant. So to the bucket I added worm juice, some dolomite lime and some seaweed extract.  I mixed it all together and then poured over the prepared garden bed.  I mixed the top part of the soil with the biochar and time will tell how the experiment goes!

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the biochar brew reader to go onto the onion bed

Another  batch I added it to the soil blocks I made for the seedlings.  I was thinking this might mimic the use of slow release fertilizer.

Peter Cundall had also added compost/coco -peat, pelleted manure and some micro nutrients specifically for what he was wanting to grow (cauliflower) then added a handful to each planting hole for the cauliflowers he was growing.  I feel you could create the mix you want for the different plant groups.  I will continue to play with this as I have a good supply in the shed!

It is worth noting that ash from your fire place is different to the charcoal. The ash can be used in your garden as well but can be quite concentrated and alkaline.  Spread it very finely over the garden or read this wonderful writers suggestions for other uses.