summer holiday tree planting

2016/01/05 deej 0

This has been a lovely, idle, summer holiday. To be honest, you could replace ‘idle’ with ‘utterly slack’, and not be far off. I’ve read books, gone to the beach (twice already this year, which is impressive given that it’s an hour’s drive each way), played with my cats, and barely checked my email. It’s been wonderfully relaxing.

The regular household chores have continued to be done though – pot plants watered, kitty litter cleaned, the chickens and the guinea fowl fed. The guinea fowl are hardly keets any more at all, they’re almost completely feathered out. We did put up their run (a dog run, bought off of ebay, with a coop inside it) just before Christmas, so they’ve been outdoors for just over two weeks now. The run is still enclosed, with a heavy duty bird net over the top to keep them in; at the end of Jan they’ll theoretically be accustimed to their run as “home” and we’ll take the lid off so they can range around and eat bugs. Hopefully they come back at night, so we can lock them in the coop, safe from foxes. Haven’t done this before, so we’ll see how we go.

We put a few trees in the ground, even though it’s the height of summer and not an ideal time for planting. I decided that they’d have a better shot in the ground where their roots could stay cool, rather than in pots. So, two fig trees have gone in, and the Fuyu persimmon and D’Agen plum that I got for my birthday, as well as a dozen young jacarandas along the driveway, and a couple’ve the bigger frangipanis. We’re hand watering them every day, and so far they’re responding well. The jacarandas have grown substantially in the month they’re been in the ground, and two of the frangipanis are flowering. The lemon trees which the grasshoppers had scourged are putting out new growth, and we’ve sprayed them thoroughly to keep the new growth from being eaten. In spite of the heat, all the trees are doing really well.

The other thing I’ve been doing over the last few days is re-potting all the baby trees. I counted, and I have 176 seedlings and saplings which needed to be in larger pots so they can grow over summer and go into the ground either this autumn or next autumn at the start of the rainy season. Soil for that many pots is a bit problematic, but we’re going with a mix of compost and rehydrated coir fibre blocks. The bigger problem was pots. 176 plants, and I already had around 50 pots large enough to re-use.

Anyone who’s done much gardening will know the pain which your wallet feels just at the idea of buying more pots. Even for the not-amazing black plastic ones which break down in the sun and start to crack after one summer aren’t actually cheap when you’re looking at large ones (5 – 10 L capacity). The minimum I could find was $4 per pot, which adds up when you’re in the market for 130 pots. On the other hand, I thought, 130 pots is a valid bulk order. Smallish for a wholesale purchase, but still. So off I went to Aliexpress and Alibaba. Where I found that unless I wanted to order 2000 of them, the pots still cost about $4 each. Go figure.

After a small grumble to myself about the maturity of 3D printing technology, which would sort this kind of issue out completely, I went looking for alternatives.

My solution, in the end, was grow bags. Not custom made-to-purpose grow bags, because those are (weirdly) even more expensive than plastic pots, but re-purposed polypropylene shopping bags. If ordered in bulk form Aliexpress, they cost anywhere between $0.30 and $1.50 each, in lots of 30 – 100. Perfect. They arrived within 2 weeks of ordering (Aliexpress has actually been really good with just about everything I’ve bought there, I thoroughly recommend it if you want anything made in a factory in China or Korea).

So I’ve been potting up my honey locust, guava, blue lilly pilly, apple, paulownia, sweetgum, and jacaranda seedlings into the bags. It has only been a couple’ve days, but they look good so far. And there will be more; I’m collecting the seeds from every delicious fruit that I eat and trying to propagate them – peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots, mangos, oranges, apples, pears, everything. The polyembryonic ones will probably grow true to type, but the others have a lot of potential too. After this much time domesticated, most of our fruit tree species don’t have the genes for inedible fruit any more; the worst you’ll get is something unexciting, or closer to the wild type (e.g. a crab-apple-ish apple, or a small, sloe-like plum). Some of the best varieties we have were chance seedlings grown in someone’s back yard.

Polyembryonic Seeds

2015/12/22 deej 0

Plants grow from seeds, but what many people do not know is that not all seeds contain just one plant embryo. Many varieties of mangos, for example, have polyembryonic seeds, as do most citrus.

A polyembryonic seed is one which contains multiple embryos. Poly-embryonic seeds produce a number of shoots, one of which originates from fertilisation. The fertilised seedling is often weak and stunted and should be discarded. The other seedlings are clones of the mother tree. Yes, clones – just like a cutting, only from seed.

This means that if you grow a polyembryonic mango (such as Kensington Pride or Bowen, which is pretty much the only variety that we can buy in supermarkets in WA) or citrus (Valencia orange, Lisbon lemon, West Indian lime, Thompson or Marsh grapefruit, Murcott, Kara mandarin, amongst others) variety from seed, it will be true to type. If only the same were true of stone fruit and grapes – although even there, there aren’t really many genes left that aren’t for amazing delicious fruiting capacity, so it’s worth trying to grow those from seed too. You might get a gorgeous new variety, or something very close to the parent.

Back to mangoes.

I have one mango tree, about two years old now and planted out in the ground, which I grew from seed. Mostly by accident to be honest – I put the mango pip in the worm farm, and a month or so later when I emptied that level to put some worm castings into a garden bed, the seed still hadn’t started to decompose. It had, in fact, sprouted. So I planted it in a pot with some worm castings and potting soil, and watered it every day, and it turned into a tree.

Mangoes are really very easy to grow. The recommended process is to keep the seed after eating a mango, and remove as much flesh as you can, then let it air dry for a day or two (in dry weather, such as we often have in Perth, probably err on the side of less drying time, or dry it in a humid environment like a worm farm). You can plant the whole seed in a warm, moist place and wait for it to sprout – at which point you remove all but one of the seedlings, or gently separate them and grow them all on individually. Alternatively you can separate the embryos out to plant individually; to do this, you have to very carefully open the mango seed. Cut a small corner off the seed, and then break it open. You should see several small, bean shaped seeds, which should be white (ratehr than grey and shriveled, which would mean that they’re not viable). Plant each of these bean-shaped seeds in a warm, mopist place; they should sprout in about ten days. The same technique works with citrus seeds, but they’re smaller so you have to be more careful if you want to separate the embryos out to plant individually.

The Ag Department says that there are three varieties of mango available in WA: the Kensington Pride (polyembryonic), R2E2, and Edward. Other varieties suitable for the Perth area include Haden, Namdok Mai, and Kent. Seedling trees should produce their first fruit at 3 – 4 years old, but will not produce a good crop until they are around 7 years old. Young trees can be killed by frost or cold weather, so don’t plant them out until they’re at least a metre tall.



Plausible marketing options – initial thoughts

2015/06/30 deej 0

I’ve been thinking about agriculture – well, for some time now, actually. Thus the currently-in-progress Masters of Sustainable Agriculture. But I’ve been thinking of it in our specific context for the last few weeks.

I would like our farm to be more or less self sufficient. I don’t mean in the homesteading survivalist sense, although producing as much of our own food as we can would be cool and is one of the goals. I mean in the overall part of the local economy sense, that the things we produce can either be sold directly or used by us to offset our living costs enough that they are effectively cost neutral. The benefits we get either in money or bartered goods, or in using the things we produce ourselves and so not having to buy their equivalents is at least equal to the cost of producing them.

It’s a fairly ambitious goal. I know that. I’ve probably done more market research on price points for various products and what the costs of production are for those products than is normal.

I have no definitive conclusions yet, but I have some ideas. There’s Farmhouse Direct, a virtual farmers market set up by Australia Post to allow producers to sell direct to the public while sharing the marketing benefits of being on a single, well-maintained website. Physical farmers markets are an option too, but since I’m counting the notional cost of labour in the costs that these products have to offset, the time required to sit at a market stall all day on a Saturday makes the offset difficult – even calculating it based on minimum wage, and I would like to pay myself more than that for my own labour.

My latest idea, based on the number of people who have enquired about buying some of our eggs from us due to concerns about commercially available eggs and poultry management practices, is a sort of co-op / CSA notion. I genuinely love my chickens, and I intend to get more, as well as some other farmyard poultry – but there’s no real way I can use the number of eggs that they’ll produce. And I really want a miniature cow, and a couple’ve milk goats, but again – there’s only so much cheese I can make or milk I can use in the time I have available. So I thought, perhaps I could ask some friends and family and co-workers if they’d be interested in paying a monthly subscription fee to pay for the upkeep of the relevant animals and receiving a share of the produce in return. If we set it up well then as the olive grove and the orchard start to produce, the shares would include fresh fruit (and maybe jam, seasonally) and olives (pre-pickled, not raw inedible ones).

I don’t know if it would work, but I know a lot of people who care about the provenance of their food enough to keep animals but don’t have the space, time, or mental bandwidth to do so. Even chickens do take a certain amount of time and energy, and they don’t work in apartments or with very tiny back yards.

There’s more research and thought to be done, I’m sure. But – those of you who have my contact details, drop me a message if you’d be interested and after the house is up we’ll talk.

On that note – the earthworks have started! The builders have told us the house will be on site my the middle of July, and we should be in by late August. Which is super exciting 🙂

the fall of advertising

2013/03/14 deej 0

I don’t know what the crossover is between permaculture and plant nerds (and gardeners, farmers, sustainability seekers, etc.) and technology nerds, but I fall into that demographic.

And, like most people who spend any amount of time online, I hate online advertising. I despise uutoplay video and audio on websites (even non-advertising video and audio, to be fair). Ads prepended to my video feeds so that in order to watch <cool new music video> I have to sit through <boring and irrelevant advert for something I don’t want or need> are obnoxious. Even the banner ads on most sites irritate me, with their blaringly loud colours and inclination to use up to 60% of the screen. So I use ad-blocker software. Lots of people do – increasing numbers of us in fact, 50% or more of the users on some sites.

A story linked on Slashdot a few days ago highlighted the problems that ad blockers cause for a lot of journalists and news sites – if they don’t get any revenue from ads, where will they get enough revenue to survive? Advertisers are becoming disillusioned with the whole web advertising thing as a way to target potential customers, because even if some people do still allow ads, at least non-invasive ads, enough people disable them completely to make the advertising not really financially viable.

It puts  journalists in the same boat as visual artists, authors of fiction, animators and musicians. How do you get paid to do what you do? The traditional ways for artists to get paid were patronage (which, these days includes distributed patronage – e.g. Kickstarter) and busking, i.e. donations.

Paywalls are a dead-end alley, in that there is so much information and entertainment available online for free that asking for payment to even visit a news site in case there’s something interesting or important there just sends a lot of users to another site. Patronage is an option, but most direct patrons these days are corporations and we all know what happens when journalists or scientists have their salaries paid by corporations. Distrubuted patronage works best for one-of things – a documentary, an album, an invention going to market, a specific novel or graphic novel. It isn’t such a good model for ongoing work like day to day journalism and reporting.

It is possible that a journalist could ask for payments for individual articles, paywalling the articles rather than the entire site on which they reside. I think that’s a good model – let us read the first paragraph or a summary, and then ask for a micropayment to read the full article. But doing that requires a reputation for high quality content, and a niche in which the free content is not as high quality as the content you provide. In other words, it’s hard, especially for news organisations which would then have to deal with how much of the micropayment went to the writer, how much to the photographer or videographer, and how much to the site itself, not to mention the less visible employees like administrators, proofreaders, and typesetters.

Which leaves you with donations. The poor cousin of income generation schemes.

Donations are hard, but they might work. A lot of sites now include ‘Donate’ or ‘Flattr‘ buttons to allow micropayments from users. But it’s tough to know how well it works – are those webcomic authors making a decent living on donations and merchandising, or are they subsidised bya  day job or a partner with a day job? Without knowing how viable it is, journalists and news sites are unlikely to try it.

Which brings us to the actual, original point of this post: someone is running an experiment with voluntary micropayments, which is linked on Slashdot. No actual money is involved, it’s just theoretical. You add an app to your bookmarks toolbar, and then when you find content you enjoy you click on one of those links (1 to 3 cents), depending on how amazing you thought the content was. Your “tip” is recorded, and that’s it. There’s a summary page that tells you how much you would have spent, and the experimenter will be releasing anonymized analyses of the data to see if this sort of system is viable in the wild. I think it’s a pretty neat experiment. If you’re game, go sign up.

Our First Winter

2012/05/23 deej 0

Winter is here, and the rains have started. Or at least – we had two weeks of rainy weather, and now we have Melbourne winter weather. Cold and dry. It’s lovely for going out in, but my poor baby trees need the wet. K commented the other day that being a permahippy has the unexpected consequence of making you respond to a rainy day with excitement and happiness. So much precious water, so many things that can grow as a result.

The current objective is to extend the tree cover as much as we can before next summer, to provide shade for planting fruit trees, and to start building soil. With that in mind, we’ve been planting seedling trees, which are doing beautifully so far, and we’ve seeded the swale mounds with broad bean (Vicia faba), green lentil (Lens culinaris), and lupin bean (Lupinus spp.) seeds, which are all sprouting. It’s very exciting.

We’ve made (or attempted) a first generation of seed balls, containing some tough, drought tolerant tree seeds (mainly wattles and black locust), pioneer shrubs and groundcovers, and flowers. Flowers for our soon-to-be-established bees, to bring birds and insects onto the property, and just for the joy of flowers – which is, I think, a highly underrated motivation.

The seed ball making wasn’t a complete success. It’s difficult to get red clay powder, or in fact any powdered clay, here so we used bentonite clay which is sold to be dug into garden beds to assist with water retention. It works, but it isn’t ground up very finely, and when you add minerals to it in the form of rock dust it ends up being quite gritty. On top of that, our compost was a little bit gritty as well, with wood fibre in it that hadn’t completely broken down. As a result, our mixture was reasonably granular, and didn’t nucleate as well as I’d hoped. We did make seed balls, but it didn’t go as smoothly as expected.

Lessons for next time? Don’t add rock dust – just sprinkle that out separately on the ground when we broadcast the seed balls. Use the finest clay powder available. Use a more fine-textured compost. I should relax and not be quite such a perfectionist about it.

UPDATE: And after all that, the seed balls worked out fine. We broadcast them last weekend, as well as digging some more swales and starting the Polish swales, and planting another load of tree seedlings.

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