slow starter

2017/01/16 deej 0

New Years has come and gone, and I’m still just starting to settle in to 2017. It feels like a really slow start to the year somehow.

 

The hot weather has arrived, and we just went through a 24 hour power outage because the lines gather dust during dry weather and then a cool spell or a drizzle of rain (water falling from the sky! Weirdly, that does happen sometimes, even in midsummer) can cause fires on the lines or in the transformers. Which seems bizarre to me, but that’s how it is. It’s prioritised our desire to get a nice, big solar install set up, so we’ve got quotes coming in for that. Also my desire to build a solar cooker – so watch this space, and I’ll post the project when we make it. If nothing else, we’ll take it with us to Blazing Swan, and do some festival baking.

 

It might seem late in the year to talk about New Years Resolutions, but like I said –  it’s been a slow starter.

 

I’m not much for making annual promises to myself to change my life, although I know it’s a positive experience for lots of people; I’ve always figured that if I want to make some sort of change in my life, I shouldn’t really need to wait for the end fo the year. Mostly it works pretty well for me (although I do have to keep a goals list, so I don’t forget about any of the good ideas I’ve had and haven’t quite gotten to actioning yet). I do see the appeal, though – the changeover to a whole new year is a kinda magical time for me, a holiday and a time for thinking and for personal renewal and self-care.

 

So instead of a resolution as such, or even a word to characterise my aims and ambitions for the year, I have a new tradition: learn a skill each year. It’s something K used to do, and has decided to take up again, thus inspiring me to do the same. We each choose our new skill in the Dec – Jan period, and then learn and practice over the year. K is learning card magic, and the associated sleights of hand. I was tempted by a new language, but instead I’m thinking that this year I’ll learn to use my potters wheel properly, to throw a pot.

 

I did pottery classes as a kid, and I have used a potters wheel before – but not for a very long time, and I don’t think I was very good at it when I did it then. I have a beautiful potters wheel, bought for me as a present a couple’ve years ago, and now I have space to use it now. So I’m going to get some clay, and watch some YouTube tutorials, and learn me a skill. Expect a great deal of frustrated whining when it doesn’t just work straight away 🙂

 

What about the rest of you? Does learning a new skill for the year appeal? What skill would you pick?

starter trees

2017/01/10 deej 0

We’ve hit the new year with all the right energy, planting trees. There are all these sayings about trees, like “the best time to plant a tree is ten years ago; the second best time is now” and “a society grows wise when [people] plant trees in whose shade they will never sit” (implying planting trees for the benefit of future generations), and it all boils down to: trees taker a long time to get established. Start them as soon as you can.

 

Trees (and shrubs, and other deep-rooted perennial plants) are essential for a food forst, or any forest-like permaculture system. They’re also really useful for rehabilitating damaged or degraded landscapes, especially where salinity is a problem (deep-rooted perennial plants lower the water table and reduce salinisation of surface soils by salty groundwater). Many trees are also highly productive, giving a higher yield per area in terms of food value produced than most annuals, often with less care, maintenance, and irrigation.

 

But trees are harder to get established than annuals. They are longer lived and therefore slower growing, slower to mature and reach productivity, slower to get established. And fruiting (or otherwise productive) tree species are often quite delicate in a WA context, and don’t handle the heat or the dry weather very well. There are exceptions, but usually permies will want to start out by planting some nurse trees, to get some soil bacteria established and shade the ground a little to stop all the moisture baking out of it in the summer. If they fix some nitrogen, or have some other use, all the better. Some of these phase 1 trees will continue on in the final forest system, while others may die natural deaths (fast growing short-lived trees will naturally be senescing when your main canopy starts to mature) or be removed (and mulched or used for timber) to make space in the canopy for the productive trees to grow into.

 

After three years of trial and error, and research, we’ve got a pretty good handle on what trees work well in the context of the Perth hills (600 – 800 mm rainfall per year, mostly over winter, temperatures ranging up to 42 degrees C in summer and down to zero degrees C in winter, possible light frosts in winter, sandy laterite gravel soils with some clay content, high fire risk in summer) with minimal additional irrigation. So here are some of our top picks for the stage one planting on a degraded site.

 

  • (1) Wattles. Not all wattles are native to the area, but they seem to behave as if they are. They’re fast-growing, nitrogen fixing, and shade-providing, making them excellent nurse trees for later planting fruit trees. We’ve put in all species with edible seeds, meaning that they’re also a food producing plant: jam wattle (Acacia acuminata), prickly wattle (Acacia victoriae), mulga (Acacia aneura), silver wattle (Acacia dealbata), coastal wattle (Acacia sophorae), and dogwood (Acacia coriacea). Grow easily from seed; fast growing.

 

  • (2) Empress Tree or Princess Tree (Paulownia tormentosa). These need a bit of babying for the first year or two, but once established they’re virtually unkillable. They coppice well (i.e. resprout from the roots), and they create beautiful deep shade with their large, soft leaves. They’re fire retardant (i.e. they’re hard to burn, and fires will generally stop at them as if at a firebreak), and their flowers are a very good nectar source for bees. Grow easily from seed; fast growing.

 

  • (3) Jacarandas (Jacaranda mimosifolia) are hardy, tough, and beautiful. Their only real use (other than shade and soil stabilisation) is that the flowers are a good nectar source for bees, but I love them. Flowering jacarandas have always been my marker for spring. Grow easily from seed; fast growing.

 

  • (4) Illawarra flame trees (Brachychiton acerifolius) need a biut of support through their first summer, and they suffer quite badly from defoliation by grasshoppers, but they’re pretty tough. Their seeds are theoretically edible (were used for food by some Aboriginal groups), but the seed pods contain irritating fine hairs similar to the glochids on prickly pear cactus. They can cause blindness if they get into your eyes, so be careful handling the seeds and seed pods.

 

  • (5) Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) are similar in appearance to jacarandas, with feathery leaves, but they don’t have the showy flowers of the jacaranda. Their seed pods (and leaves) are useful as stock feed, though; high in sugar and minerals. There is some indication that honey locusts may be nitrogen fixing, although they are non-nodulating – it’s controversial, but they do show many of the characteristics of nitrogen fixing trees, including thriving in low N soils. Grow easily from seed; fast growing.

 

  • (6) Olives (Olea europea) are not fast growing trees, but they are very hardy. They need very little support after their first year in the ground (although extra water and fertiliser will encourage them to grow faster), and are a commercially productive tree. Propagate from cuttings of known varieties.

 

  • (7) Casuarina or Allocasuarina species – I’m not actually sure what species the ones we have are, as they self-seeded from local stands. Could be Allocasuarina decussata, or possibly Allocasuarina huegeliana. Whatever exact species they are, they produce copious quantities of pollen for the bees, and the foliage can be used as livestock feed for ruminants. Given they volunteered (self-seeded), they must grow easily from seed, and they do grow fast. I’ll try deliberately planting some seeds this autumn and see how that goes.

 

  • (8) Frangipani (Plumeria spp.) are surprisingly tough, and can be grown very easily from cuttings. They give good shade, and drop a lot of leaves in winter, providing some good soil-building biomass. I can’t find a corroborating link right now, but the petals of the frangipani flower are edible, and can be added to salads. I have not done any toxicity testing, so eat at your own risk, but I have eaten them with no ill effects.

 

Amusingly, fig trees don’t make this list. People think that figs are tough and hardy, and they are – once established. Getting them there though.. they have to be babied through their first 2 – 4 years in the ground with extra water and a lot of care. We have killed four baby fig trees learning this.

 

Pomegranates should be a good option, as long as they are in full sun. So far our pomegranate experiments have not done well, because we mistakenly thought that full sun in Europe would = some midday shade in WA. Not true. After 2 years of not growing and barely surviving, with permanently yellow leaves, we gave in and dug the 2 baby pomegranate sup, and moved them to a full sun location to see what would happen. One didn’t survive the transplant, but the other is thriving for the first time ever and actually growing. I’ve ordered some more young trees, which will go into the ground when they arrive in nice, sunny locations, and I’ve planted some seeds from a supermarket fruit to see what happens. If they germinate reasonably easily, I may import some new genetics from the US and the middle east in seed form and start playing with pomegranate breeding.

 

Apples, pears and quinces do remarkably well if provided with a bit of additional water in summer (not much water is needed to keep them alive, but they need it regularly – twice a week). They do summer complete defoliation from the grasshoppers though, so either spray them with insecticide (neem oil is great) or net them. Guinea fowl do help keep the grasshopper population down, but they don’t provide sufficient control to keep the trees alive without spraying or netting.

 

The next experiments (currently in seed trays, hopefully germinating soon) include moringa (Moringa oleifera), graceful honey myrtle (Melaleuca radula), and bottlebrush (Callistemon spp. – locally collected seed). We also have poplar (Populnus nigra) and willow (Salix spp.) cuttings growing, to plant out this autumn, and some lilly pilly (Syzygium smithii) seedlings in the ground to see how they go.

 

The experiments never end though. I want to try putting in some tagasaste (Cytisus proliferus, also known as Chamaecytisus palmensis) and leucana (Leucaena leucocephala), and some black mulberry (Morus nigra) seedlings. I’d like to try some riberry (Syzygium luehmannii) plants too, if I can find some.

 

summer

2016/12/14 deej 2

No matter how much I like the longer days (getting home when it’s still light!) and warmer weather, I also dread summer a little. While the long, hot, dry days and the coastal breezes may be perfect for a holiday or a day at the beach, they’re not so good for growing anything. The dry summer season is as harsh in its own way as the cold winter of the temperate areas of the northern hemisphere.

 

The theory is that our forest orchard will be reasonably self-sufficient once established, requiring minimal irrigation or care. That theory has a downside though – it takes years for a forest (or an orchard) to become established. The trees are going in, gradually but steadily, but for their first few years they’ll need a lot of support. Daily watering through summer, wire cages to protect them from rabbits and kangaroos, spraying for insect pests, and more. I’d prefer not to spray for insects, but there is only so much you can do without poison. The guinea fowl seem more interested in eating my hibiscus plants than they do in eating ticks or grasshoppers, and there are too many trees already to hand pick bugs off them all. We have plans to try traps for the grasshoppers this season, half filling bright yellow buckets with molasses-enriched water to attract and drown them, and spreading bran sprayed with a bit of molasses-water around the trees (the grasshoppers & locusts eat this, gum up their digestive systems with it, and die – in theory), but we’re inevitably going to end up spraying as well.

 

We’ve acquired some Muscovy ducks to free range across the baby orchard as well, in the hopes that they’ll be more motivated to eat bugs than the guinea fowl. I haven’t seen them eating any flies yet, but apparently they do. The surviving juvenile guinea fowl are going to be free ranging soon as well, bringing us up to a total of 6 (4 babies and 2 adults, out of a total of 4 bought as chicks and 18 hatched). They do seem to be keeping the tick population down, but they aren’t having much of an impact ont he grasshoppers.

 

In the meantime, irrigation is a big ticket item on the to-do list. Last summer we hand-watered every day, carrying 10 L watering cans back and forth. This summer we’re trialling a gravity-fed dripper system, fed from the small water tank, for the apples. It seems to be pretty successful so far, so we’re aiming to put in similar systems (fed from 200 L barrels or 1000 L IBCs of water) for each group of trees. With luck that’ll cut our workload down to weekly check-ups, although it increases the workload now as we get the irrigation set up. There are more trees to go in this autumn, so automated watering systems are essential.

plant profile: rosemary

2016/11/30 deej 0

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) grows brilliantly in Perth. It’s commonly planted as a hedge, and can easily be collected (in Perth, it’s a great urban foraging target, because it’s planted so widely, and grows so enthusiastically). Rosemary is very strongly flavoured, but it can be used in salads as well as for flavouring food, and can also be used to make a caffeine free tea (technically an infusion). Rosemary is also a fantastic bee plant, with a long flowering period.

 

Although often used to flavour lamb or mutton dishes, rosemary works equally well with goat, pork, rabbit, fish or chicken. I haven’t tried it with other poultry (duck, goose, quail, squab, …) although I suspect it would work. It can work really well with beef too, as long as you don’t over-salt the dish. Try using the long stems of the rosemary shrub, stripped of leaves, as skewers for kebabs – meat or vegetable – for a summer BBQ. The leaves can be infused in oil or vinegar, which then makes a great salad dressing.

 

We have several rosemary plants around the house, both in the herb garden and other spots. I love the smell of it, which is released whenever you brush past it or run your hand through the foliage. I also put rosemary sprigs in my cupboards to (a) scent the sheets, blankets, etc., and (b) discourage moths. I don’t know if it actually does discourage moths, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Ours are all the traditional blue-flowered variety, but I’m trying to grow some cuttings of a variegated blue rosemary, and a pink flowered type.

 

Rosemary grows very easily from cuttings. It’s one of the easiest plants to root, along with hibiscus, pelargoniums, willow and frangipanis. Cut a piece of rosemary at least 10 – 20 cm in length, and trim the leaves off the bottom half to two thirds of the stem, then stick the end in some good compost or potting mix and keep it moist. The remaining leaves will mostly die, but the stick will start putting out new leaves in  a week or two. You can use some rooting hormone powder on the base of the cutting, but it isn’t necessary with rosemary.
 

What rosemary needs:

  • Water – Newly planted rosemary needs to be watered every day in hot weather, or every few days in cool or rainy weather. Once established, the plants are very drought hardy and can survive an entire WA summer without supplementary water if they have to. A good soak (2 – 5 L per plant) every week or two does help though.

 

  • Sunlight – Full sun. These pretties evolved in the dry hills of the Mediterranean; they don’t like shade. Established plants can handle part shade, but they thrive in full sunlight.

 

  • Soil – Well drained, sandy soils are best. Rosemary doesn’t seem to care if the soil is a bit acid or a bit alkaline, and they have some salt tolerance. They’re a good coastal plant, really. Don’t plant them in heavy clay, as they don’t like wet feet or boggy ground.

 

  • Space – An adult rosemary bush will, if left unattended, sprawl across about a square m, and grow about 1 m tall. They take pruning very well, though, and can be kept contained by pruning to size or even clipping to make a hedge. Rosemary will grow happily in a large pot as well, and can survive indoors as long as it gets lots of light.

 

  • Warmth – Rosemary likes the heat, but can handle the cold. Damaged by heavy frosts.

 

What rosemary has to offer:

  • Edible leaves and flowers.

 

  • Decorative, hardy landscaping plant.

 

  • More rosemary from cuttings or seed.

 

  • Good against soil erosion; it roots strongly and deeply without being invasive.

 

Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons:
File:Bee_on_rosemary.jpg

self sufficiency and community

2016/11/28 deej 0

A friend of mine asked yesterday how long it would be before the farm was self sufficient. It’s not as simple a question to answer as you might think.

 

One answer is: never. We aren’t planning to grow grain, and although I do have some tubs of potatoes and a sweet potato patch, and plans to put in chestnut trees, we aren’t really focusing on growing what the biodynamic gardening people call ‘calory crops’. Those are the foods which make up the majority of your diet – the carbohydrates that give you a baseline energy hit and leave you feeling full and satisfied. For most of humanity the main calory crops are various grains (wheat, maize, teff, millet, rice, barley, etc.), mainly because they are high yielding and fast growing, although potatoes, plantains, and a few tropical starch-producing root crops such as taro are also important.

 

On the other hand, we will be growing some calory crops. Dates, Bananas, a variety of nuts, and a wide variety of fruit are all in the plan, and it is possible to survive on these sorts of foods without the addition of high density carbohydrates. Our modern (and even heirloom) fruit varieties are so high in sugar that they can easily provide us with the energy we need as well as providing vitamins and other nutritients. My not exactly back-of-a-napkin but not fully researched and verified calculations indicate that if we put all the trees in that I want, and if they all survive and produce more or less as well as the literature indicates they should, then once they’re intot heir adult production levels we will in fact produce enough food to entirely fulfil the energy and nutritional needs of somewhere between 8 and 18 people. And there are the animals as well, chickens and geese and ducks (we have muscovies, too, now), and bees producing honey. The fruit and nut trees take between 3 and 10 years to reach full production, and not all are in the ground yet, but.. call it ten years. In ten years, we could be self sufficient if we wanted to, and we were willing to give up any type of food we couldn’t grow ourselves. And we’d have it pretty good too – we’d be giving up most of our wheat & rice intake, and making that up with fruit and fresh vegetables and nuts. Instead of having a sandwich, we’d have dried figs and dates, maybe some cheese, or fresh berries.

 

The third answer is that no one is ever truly self sufficient. Self sufficiency is by its nature isolationist, and that just isn’t how the world works now (if it ever did). Community sufficiency is a much better aim, where instead of pulling back and focusing on your own needs you move forward and form relationships with your neighbours and the people around you who have similar interests. The community you form can act as a miniature village, and between that group of people it’s much easier to make sure that there’s enough to go around – enough food, enough clean water, enough social support. Enough help on the days when running a farm is hard, and an extra pair of hands to get the firebreaks done or fix the fences is the thing you need. Enough shared objectives to check out random banging and crashing in the middle of the night if your neighbour’s away – and hey, it was just kangaroos making a racket, but knowing that someone will check still makes you sleep easier if you have to be away overnight. Enough to share with friends and family, and not just your own friends and family either but the friends and family of your entire community. That’s what this is about. That’s what self sufficiency should look like, and I think it’s what we should be aiming at.

 

On that note, this summer we’re going to start slowly ramping up our workshop capacity. I’m running a trial cheese-making workshop in mid December, with plans to run more if it goes well. We’re going to break out the seed-ball machine in the new year and have a seed ball making workshop (please hit us up on Facebook if you’d be interested in that – it’s kid friendly too), and I’m going to see what I can do about a grafting workshop towards the end of summer. In between times, there’s potential for some food preparation along the lines of jam and chutney making, and fermentation, and possibly some walk-through tours with info about keeping urban livestock. So if you’re keen to get involved and join our fledgling community, watch this space (and the facebook page, which is where events are posted when the dates are finalised). Feel free to request a workshop if there’s something you’d like to see, or if there’s something you’d be keen to teach people – we have a venue, and it would be great to learn something new.

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