plant profile: honey locust

2016/03/23 deej 0

I’ve just ordered another selection of wattle seeds, to germinate and plant out. These are all varieties with edible seeds, so they’re a pretty good multi-purpose plant. The idea is to plant about half of them in our Zone 5, along with holm oaks, cork oaks, stone pines, and a variety of other semi-wild food plants and bee forage plant species – the other half will go in the pasture/woodland area as shade trees.

This pasture area is going to include a series of paddocks through which our poultry and the hypothetical future goats (and maybe cow!) will be rotated. There will be fruit trees in the mix, well protected from hungry ruminants, but also a lot of multi-use fodder trees and shrubs like wattles, carob, saltbush, mulberry, and honey locust.

Honey locust is an interesting one. Although it is controversial, there are indications that it’s a non-nodulating nitrogen fixer, and it certainly grows well even in nitrogen-poor soils. So well that in some areas (including agriculktural areas of Australia) it is a major weed, forming thickets that take over in pasture areas. This seems odd to me, because both the pods and the foliage are edible and highly palatable to livestock. The pods, or rather the pulp inside them, is also edible to humans, and the whole pods can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable when green.

The tree is a graceful & attractive deciduous one, often planted as an ornamental. It is 20 – 30 m tall at maturity, with feathery leaves that give dappled shade in summer. It is fast growing, and can live 120 – 150 years. The tree is extremely thorny, with thorns growing 3 – 10 cm long on average (and sometimes as long as 20cm). Apparently the thorns were used as nails in the past. The tree and be coippiced successfully, which is often done when it is grown as a fodder plant, and produces an unusual hardwood timber used for furniture, fence posts, utility lumber, and turned objects. Honey Locust trees tend to have deep taproots and fewer lateral roots, making them well suited to agroforestry systems and alley-cropping (where trees are planted in rows, with rows of crops or pasture between them). It is also a good pioneer plant, for reclaiming damaged landscapes or areas where the soil is degraded.


What honey locust needs:

  • Water – Honey Locust trees are tolerant of a wide range of conditions, including extended dry periods. They occur naturally in areas where annual rainfall ranges from 510 to 1520 mm.


  • Sunlight – Full sun preferred.


  • Soil – Honey Locust trees may (or may not) be nitrogen fixers. Either way, they thrive in poor soils. They grow best on soil with a pH of 6.0 to 8.0.


  • Space – For agroforestry plantings, the recommended spacing is to plant each Honey Locust in a 5 – 10 m square.


  • Warmth – This is a very hardy plant, capable of withstanding heavy frosts and also high temperatures. Late spring frosts may damage leaves and flowers.

What honey locust has to offer:

  • Edible seed pods. Alcohol can be brewed from the sugary pulp inside the pods.


  • Animal fodder (seed pods and foliage).


  • Landscape regeneration, through (possible) nitrogen fixing, shade, and erosion control.


  • Hardwood timber.


  • Nectar for honeybees. This is not a major nectar plant, but is visited by honeybees, and will flower reliably through the hot, dry, Perth summer.


  • New trees, from seed.


Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons:

hot and cold

2016/02/08 deej 0

The climate is something that a lot of people don’t really think about much, unless they happen to be involved in climate change activism or have friends or family who are. For my family, I am that person – although my family are generally better than average in terms of awareness of climate change and the science behind it.

Weeks like this – 41 degrees Celcius yesterday, and predictions of 42 – 45 degrees every day this week – make me painfully aware of these issues. The heat is unpleasant for me, but I spend my days in my air-conditioned office, at my day job. Even the cats spend their day inside the house, and while we don’t have aircon at home, we do have good insulation and passive temperature control designed in, so it stays reasonably cool inside until late afternoon most days. But I feel for the chickens and the guinea fowl; the best I can do for them on days when I’m at work is make sure they have full water containers and some shade for the day, and leave ice in or near their water.

Imagine if you had to sit outside for 8 hours, with nothing more than tepid water and a bit of shade as your defence against the heat.

My birds are pretty tough; I keep Transylvanian Naked Necks deliberately because they handle hot weather better than most breeds (the featherless necks give them more skin to lose heat through), and guinea fowl are naturally heat adapted. I’m a bit worried about the chicks, but there’s nothing I can do that I haven’t done. I’ll pick up a bag of ice on the way home, and any birds which are looking too heat-exhausted will get their feet bathed in ice water to cool their core body temperatures. (As an aside, this is a very effective treatment for over-heated birds – I’ve done it before, and the bird in question recovered completely and was eating again that evening).

To be honest, weeks like last week also make me think about the climate. Rainstorms and maximum temperatures below 30 degrees C aren’t “normal” for Perth in January. But weird weather is the new normal, and we all just have to adapt.

I’m hoping that planting a perennial food forest will give us a bit more stability in terms of food production than the standard annual cropping that most farmers in WA practice. Of course, the trouble with perennial production is that it takes time to get established; we won’t be producing the abundance of fruit, nuts and oils that I imagine for a good 5 to 10 years. So we’ll need to work out some short term production strategies as a compromise with reality.

Pasture Plans

2015/09/21 deej 0

The house is finished, except for a few minor items like the concrete for the verandah which hasn’t been poured yet, and only 2 of the 5 water tanks being in place as yet. We are days away from being able to move in. Days!

The valuer is booked for Wednesday morning, to come and verify for the bank that the house is actually there, complete, and connected to the power and water. Then (so the theory goes) the bank pays the builder, the builder hands over the keys, and we move in. Very exciting. But being here in this limbo of not-quite-finished is also very frustrating; it’s so very close now that every additional delay hurts.

To distract myself – not that I need that much distraction at the moment, being mid-way through my first real research project for my Masters of Sustainable Agriculture course – I’m planning some landscaping.

The raw earth where the greywater system and leach drains were dug in and buried is going to be a heat-magnifying desert of red gravel this summer if we don’t do something about it soon. There isn’t time to put in any robust perennial groundcovers, never mind the longer term plan of leafy deciduous trees to shade the area near the house. There won’t be any more trucks driving over the area now, but we’re already seeing the warm summer weather starting. In the time we have left of spring, there’s really only one option which is likely to work: pasture.

Some sort of annual dryland pasture mix, which can hold the soil down and shade the ground a little. Build a bit of organic matter, and get some soil structure happening for the fruit trees I want to put in where the greywater outlets are. It’s close to the house, so I’m thinking stone fruit – all those delicious, juicy, summer treats which attract fruit fly if you don’t watch them constantly and manage it. Annual pastures are quick to establish, unlike perennial pastures and groundcovers, which can take months or years.

My problem is that I know literally nothing about lawns and very little more about grasses in general. I did some research a couple’ve years ago about legumes and symbiotic nitrogen fixing bacteria, but if you were to ask me what pasture plants are best for which soils and climate zones, I’d have no idea. My current plan is to get a range of varieties sold for the 400 – 600 mm rainfall band, for livestock farmers to seed their pastures, and see how I go. But the number of options is a little daunting.

There are dozens if not hundreds of varieties of clover, a handful of native grasses which look promising, and the various pasture grasses sold commercially – of which there are also dozens of varieties. If I could get lucerne established I’d be very happy, but I’ll take anything green at this point in the game.

I’ve contacted a couple’ve rural seed suppliers, and I’m hoping to pick up some seed at the end of this week. I’ll post updates as the project progresses.

plant profile: amaranth

2013/06/18 deej 0

Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.), also known as love-lies-bleeding or pigweed, is reasonably common in flower beds and nurseries around Perth. It’s an impressive looking plant, with tall spires of long lasting pink, purple, or orange flowers and often attractively variegated red and green leaves. Amaranth species prefer a tropical climate, but many species are frost tolerant, and they’re so hardy that they’re considered a weed in many places. I saw a few growing wild in the middle of the city this morning.

Almost every part of the plant is edible. The seeds were a staple food of the native people of Mesoamerica, until its cultivation was banned by the conquistadores. The seeds have a mild, nutty, malty flavour, and are high in minerals such as iron, magnesium, phosphorus, copper and manganese as well as offering a complete protein (containing all essential amino acids for human health).

They can be cooked like rice, either with rice or other grains, or alone; cooked on their own they cook up to a stickier consistency than rice or quinoa do, more like polenta. The seeds can also be cooked into a porridge, or used to add protein andinterest to stews or soups. They can be parched and milled into a gluten free flour, or popped like popcorn. Popped amaranth seeds mixed with honey make a very tasty breakfast cereal. Amaranth seeds can also be sprouted, in the same way as alfalfa, wheat, or other seeds.

The leaves, young stems and shoots can be cooked like spinach. They soften up readily, requiring only a few minutes cooking, which helps avoid excessive nutrient loss. The boiled leaves may be rubbed through a fine sieve and served as a puree. Young shoots and tender young leaves can also be eaten raw, as a salad vagetable.


Generally different species are grown primarily for the seeds (Amaranthus caudatus, Amaranthus cruentus, and Amaranthus hypochondriacus) and for the leaves (Amaranthus tricolor, Amaranthus cruentus, Amaranthus blitum, Amaranthus dubius), but both the seeds and leaves of all amaranths are equally edible and nutritious. Amaranths grown principally for vegetable use have better tasting leaves then the grain types.

Amaranths are mostly annuals or short-lived perennials, grown from seed or seedlings planted in late winter or spring (after frosts have passed). As they are tall, soft plants they need protection from strong winds. They use the C4 photosynthesis pathway, which means that they thrive in areas of high light intensity and heat, and can survive drought conditions better than many plants. With supplemental water, the yield of grain amaranth is comparable to rice or maize. Seeds can be harvested by hand or mechanically; leaves are harvested by hand.


What amaranth needs:

  • Water – Amaranth survives drought conditions, and will grow happily with 200 – 3000 mm of rainfall, or supplemental water. Leaf amaranths require more water than grain types.


  • Sunlight – Amaranth thrives in strong sunlight and high temperatures – it will grow and thrive at 30 – 35 degrees celsius. The ground should be 18 degrees Celsius or more before seeds are planted to ensure good germination.


  • Soil – Although amaranth prefers a rich soil, it will grow in virtually any well drained location short of pure beach sand. Clay soils can inhibit germination, as the young amaranth seedlings are quite delicate and may not be able to push through a clay crust on the soil.


  • Space – Amaranth comes in all sizes, shapes and colours. Commercially, optimum grain yields have been obtained at around 45 plants per square m.



What amaranth has to offer:

  • Edible seeds (which, when cooked, can also be fed to poultry & fish).


  • Edible leaves (which can also be used for animal fodder).


  • Attractive, hardy ornamental plant for landscaping.


  • New amaranth plants.



Further info:
Amaranth grain & vegetable Types
Alternative Field Crops Manual: Amaranth
Jefferson Institute: Amaranth
National Academies Press: Lost Crops of Africa: Amaranth
Ripe organics: Amaranth
Strengthening food security with grain amaranth
Tropical Permaculture: Amaranth
Harvesting Amaranth grain – Is It Worth it?


Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons:

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