Farm Club

2018/05/06 deej 0

The first rule of farm club is..  please do in fact talk about farm club. Tell anyone you know who might be interested. Encourage other people to start their own versions – maybe we can make it into a movement.

Farm club is a combination of a (hopefully) practical co-op for food sharing and an attempt at a real-world version of a gifting/barter economy. The idea is that members offer “shares” in whatever they produce, along with what they need back to keep producing the thing, and other members sign up for those shares.

So in our case, we produce eggs. We’ve tried selling them directly, either for eating or hatching (we have roosters, the eggs are fertilised), but it’s hard. Working full time and trying to do a weekly or fortnightly egg delivery run is hard; working full time an hour to an hour and half commute away from home and trying to maintain social connections, and spend time with my kitties and my geese and my chickens, have a little bit of time to myself to write or read or play, AND doing a weekly or fortnightly egg delivery run is well nigh impossible. I just don’t have time, or the energy.

Plus, chickens aren’t machines. They don’t lay an egg a day all year; they molt, or a fox comes past and tries to get in (and fails, but still, it does them a frighten), or the weather turns cold or gets too hot, or something happens in their little chickeny brains and they stop laying. Or they find a cache of delicious bugs or something, and they go berserk laying like they’re mental (2 eggs a day from some of the hens, for no apparent reason). To reliably produce enough eggs to sell, we need to actually over-produce, which means we then have an excess to try to sell (but then we have the same problem of supplying the demand once we generate it) or to use up ourselves (our diet is already egg-heavy, we really can’t effectively use any more).

Thus: farm club. It’s a variation on the idea of people jointly buying and owning a cow or goat, and all taking a share of the milk produced by the jointly owned animal (this idea has been used by people wanting raw milk, because while it’s illegal to sell raw milk for human consumption, it is legal to use the raw milk form your own animal).

In this version, we’d offer a number of bird-shares for eggs and farm club members could sign on for one or more of these egg shares. Each share is equivalent to a half dozen eggs a week, and the ‘cost’ of your share covers the feed for producing those eggs (either directly as chicken feed, be that commercial grain-based feed or fruit & veg e.g. excess fruit from a loquat or lilly pilly tree, or in $$). We’d set a day and time (and frequency) that farm club members could come and pick up their eggs (thus sorting out our distribution issue) – for us it would be one Sunday afternoon per fortnight (Fresh eggs will last up to 3 months in the fridge, a fortnight won’t hurt them or you). If the chickens aren’t laying, or are laying less than usual, we’d post an update saying that there are no eggs that week, or that there are limited eggs.

 

farm club spreadsheet

* One standard 10L bucket  of fruit/veg scraps is approx 2 kg, but feel free to bring more if you want. Best options are greens (celery tops, cabbage, cauliflower, spinach, lettuce), fruit (lilly pillies, loquats, strawberry tops, bruised bits of mango or peach, the seedy bits from the middle of melon, watermelon rinds,apple cores) or chook-friendly vegetable scraps (cooked beans, corn cobs, the seeds from pumpkin or cucumber, peas or green beans, cooked potato or sweet potato). Leftover cooked rice, barley, couscous or pasta is also okay. No citrus or onion please, and nothing mouldy (those should all go into the compost).

I haven’t worked out all the bugs from the idea, but I think it has possibilities. For example, as we start producing more things, farm club will get different types of shares that members can sign up for – and maybe even some different types of shares that other members produce.

Check out the Farm Club page – it’ll be updated as we work the idea out further. 🙂

Fruit Trees from Seed

2018/04/16 deej 0

The received wisdom of gardeners and horticulturalists everywhere (I’m generalising, go with it for now) is that it’s pointless to grow fruit trees from seed because they don’t come true to type. (True to type means that the fruit of the daughter plant will be the same, or very nearly the same, as the fruit of the mother plant.)

There are exceptions – mangos and mot citrus produce what are called polyembryonic seeds, which means that there are multiple embryos in each seed, and only one is the result of sexual recombination – the others are asexually produced, and will grow into clones of the mother plant. And of course there are the fruit trees that don’t produce seeds at all anymore – bananas, some citrus, some grapes, and fruit breeders are working on creating reliably seedless apples (yes, this is possible)..

But broadly speaking, we don’t grow fruit trees from seed anymore. Unless we happen to be fruit breeders, in which case – we do exactly that. Which begs the question: why don’t the rest of us (at least the more patient among us) try it?

The heritability of flavour profiles, colour, and storing qualities are actually quite well studied for most major fruit species. There are a few obvious ones; for example the pale aril colour in pomegranates is, as far as we can tell, a simple recessive – with the standard deep red or pink colour being dominant; darker reds and the red-black colour of some fruit results from a complex of other genetic factors affecting levels of anthocyanins, but the white/pale pink arils are easy to breed for. Most traits, though, are complex and have a low % heritability. Apples, for example, have a 10 – 15% heritability for characteristics like acidity, juiciness, crispness, and sweetness, and only about a 30% heritability for astringency (useful in cider apples, but a negative for dessert or cooking apples). Fruit breeders use fairly high tech methods to test for useful characteristics, including looking for molecular markers for traits known to be useful (such as disease and pest resistance traits) but a lot of the mroe useful flavour traits are too complex to effectively test for using molecular markers and genetic analysis. Even fruti breeders are often reduced to crossing two likely parent trees and growing out the seeds to see if they produce good fruit – but fruit breeders aren’t just looking for pleasant tasting fruit, they’re also looking for something different from existing varieties.

The home grower isn’t generally going to be that picky. If your seedling apple tree produces fruit which is really very much like (but not identical to) a gala or fuji apple, that’s a net positive if you don’t need ot market the tree as a brand new distinct and different variety.

And the secret that geneticists and plant breeders don’t tell anyone is that the chances of getting reasonably good fruit from a random cross between two parent trees that produce good fruit is quite high. It might not store well, or ship well, and it might not be unique and distinct from any existing variety; it might not fruit earlier or later than other common varieties, and the tree may well be susceptible to disease (or it may be resistant). But the chances of edible fruit are really quite high. And every seedling tree which is allowed to grow to adulthood and join the breeding population enhances the health of the species (clone trees don’t add much to the species, since they’re all copies of the one individual and don’t add any genetic diversity to the gene-pool – which is one of the reasons that people try to preserve some of the older varieties, to keep that genetic diversity in the gene-pool).

So why don’t we grow more trees from seed? It’s not hard to do. Apple seeds will often germinate in the fruit, and will otherwise germinate quite happily if you put them between some pieces of damp cotton wool on a saucer in a sunny spot. Stone fruit pits should be put in the fridge for 6 – 8 weeks, sealed in a plastic baggie or a container with some damp sand so they don’t dry out and then planted out once the weather warms up. I haven’t had much luck with pomegranates (only 4 germinations out of nearly 100 seeds), but in theory you just plant the seeds directly into soil or potting mix in warm weather and keep them damp but not soggy. Citrus like the damp cotton wool or damp sand in a saucer and a sunny windowsill to germinate, but you can also plant them directly in a pot of soil or compost. In my experience, mangos like to germinate in the compost heap or worm farm (warm, humid, moist conditions), so just throw the pits in there and rescue the plants once they sprout. Loquats and guavas will self-seed if you let the fruit fall (which i don’t recommend, because of fruit fly – but you can plant the seeds in some good compost for the same effect). I don’t know about grapes yet, but I bet they grow easily from seed; most Mediterranean plants do.

Go forth and plant 🙂

Planting for Pascal’s Wager

2018/03/25 deej 0

For those who don’t know, Pascal’s Wager is a philosophical thought experiment about preparing for the worst case scenario even if you don’t think it will turn out to be true. The original argument was made about religion and the existence of the Christian God (and has some fairly serious flaws), but the general idea is more widely applicable. It’s a good shorthand way of talking about risks, and about worst case scenario preparation as a rational response to a low probability but high consequence event or situation.

For example, the current global socio-political and ecological situation.

I mean, I don’t really think that civilisation is going to fall over and collapse. I don’t. But there are a lot of factors that might mean that basically, we’re in for a bad time over the next few decades. Climate change is the big one, of course, but there’s also massive, ongoing ecological damage and the Anthropocene extinction event, which are linked to the still-rising human population. We also have the potential for global conflicts over increasingly scarce essential resources; we start wars over oil and gold and iron, but what happens when we realise (as we’re starting to now) that we’re running low on available clean water, arable land, and minerals essential for agriculture (phosphorus is crucial to all agriculture, and it’s starting to run low). We’re almost certain to see disease and starvation as the climate shifts and we start getting more and more extreme weather events (commonly named “ruin storms” in science fiction which has been predicting this shit for years), and climate refugees as well as refugees from various localised (and not-so-localised) conflicts.

Not everything is doom and gloom; humans are very good at pulling last-ditch fixes out of our collective ass. We didn’t even realise we were tearing a hole in the ozone layer until it was almost too late, but we caught on and made some changes, and thirty years on it’s actually starting to heal. Because of changes we implemented (yes, to fix problems we caused, but still). The drive for resources will probably (finally!) get us into space in a useful way, to mine the moon & the asteroids. And population growth is decreasing, especially with an increase in living standards and in education for women around the world.

So I am, broadly, confident that we aren’t going to destroy the planet or crash civilisation in any irrecoverable way. But I’m also aware that if I’m wrong and we do topple civilisation (even temporarily, as in the case of a third World War), the consequences could be catastrophic. Which is why I’m using the idea of Pascal’s Wager in my planting plan for the farm – hope for the best, but prepare for the worst case scenario.

Our precursor trees are mostly edible-seeded wattles, because the seeds can be used as a staple food for humans as well as being commercially desireable as a spice or condiment, and making very good poultry forage. We also have honey locust trees, which have edible pods like carobs – and we’re planting a swathe of carobs, too. This winter I’m going to put in several Moringa oleifera trees (which provide human-edible greens that don’t need to be babied the way most green vegetables do in this climate) and start some more mulberries and hibiscus from cuttings (the young leaves of mulberries and of hibiscus are also edible to humans, by the way, although not amazingly tasty). We have lilly pilly seedlings in the gorund to provide shade and forage for the poultry, and we’ll put more in this winter – but the fruit is still useful to humans as well, and apparently high in calcium. And of course we’re going to put in a variety of nut trees (pecan, almond, pistachio, walnut, chestnut, hazel) as soon as I can get watering systems in place to keep them alive while they get established.

I’m also going to put in semi-wild type forage trees – holm oaks and cork oaks for edible acorns, stone pine for pine nuts,  and more mulberries and lilly pillies and carobs. And loads of bee forage plants like tagasaste, rosemary, cape wedding bells (Dombeya tiliacea) and so forth. I’ll plant a few jelly palms if I can get them, or get them established from seed, too.And of course there are the grand plans for the main orchard, with citrus and plums and apples and pomegranates, and the date palms (which haven’t grown much, and are going to be moved into a better, more sunny location as a result).

Anyway. I could go on at great length about the plans for the orchard. But my point is, my choices of tree and shrub are based not only on what I like to grow and what I like to eat, but also on what I think will be most useful if I ever need to rely on my garden to feed me (and my family, chosen and genetic). It’s a planning strategy that anyone can use, for any garden (large or small): think about what would be most useful to you day to day – and what would be most useful if the supermarkets closed down for the week, or the month, for whatever reason.

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.

 

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