Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Blog closed


Got fed up with writing posts for this blog with no feedback! I'll keep the old articles online though in case anyone is interested.


Monday, April 29, 2013

An edible forest garden

Back in March, Susan and I did a weekend course in Melbourne with US edible forest garden expert Dave Jacke. A fun, informative weekend it was too: Dave's knowledge of all things edible and forest-dwelling is remarkable. His two-volume work Edible Forest Gardens must surely be the most detailed, informative book on the subject yet written.

But what is an edible forest garden?

An edible forest garden is an example of ecosystem mimicry. Observing a complex, self-sustaining forest ecosystem, understanding its key elements, interrelationships and processes and attempting to replicate them using plants which are human food crops.

At its most basic, a forest ecosystem might comprise:
  • canopy layer – tall trees that need full sun
  • understorey layer – smaller, shade-tolerant trees and shrubs
  • herb layer – herbaceous perennials
  • groundcover layer
The idea of edible forest gardening is to fill all of these niches with plants that are edible or otherwise useful to gardeners, and to do it in such a way that competition is kept to a minimum and mutually beneficial (symbiotic) relationships are maximised.

That's a very rudimentary attempt to describe the theory; now for the practice!

A year ago Jill and Mike removed four cypress trees from their garden, leaving a grass-covered space about 20 x 8 metres. That much real estate right next to The Patch was not something I could ignore, and so I came up with various ideas to fill it, including a large polytunnel and various animal husbandry schemes more suited to a 10-hectare farmlet, before hitting on the idea of … you guessed it: an Edible Forest Garden. Henceforth known as the EFG.

Jill and Mike have been good enough to indulge my new passion, and we're starting on the EFG this winter. Here's a plan showing what the EFG should look like after about 8–10 years:
Click image for a larger version
The coloured circles represent the trees and shrubs. Informal bark paths provide access for harvesting (and wandering around) and also break up the area into patches, each of which will be dominated by one or more combinations of herbs and groundcovers.

The choice of trees and shrubs was determined to some extent by what's already in Jill's and Mike's garden: they have a wide variety of fruit trees, and there seemed little point in planting more of the same. Carob is a stately, pyramid-shaped evergreen tree from the Mediterranean area and will increasingly dominate the site visually. The design mimics an open woodland rather than a closed-canopy forest, with the tree and shrub layers covering less than 50% of the area.

When selecting the species I also attempted to bring together plant communities that would work well together and to this end I compiled a table with the key characteristics of the species I was looking at.

It will be interesting to see how far the reality of this Edible Forest Garden comes to resemble the plan!
Click image for a larger version

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Patch update - 2 years on

It's been nearly two years now since we started work on the Patch - our 600m2 Landshare garden at Jill's and Mike's. I thought it was time for an update on what we're growing this summer.

The central part of the garden is 8 beds of annual veggies, grown on organic principles. We only have hand watering, so the beds need to be moisture-retentive and well mulched. The perimeter is much more permaculture based, full of diverse perennials, and will continue to evolve and grow in richness and diversity year on year.

Pumpkin bed

The pumpkins (var Anna Swartz) are growing strongly in a deep mulch of seagrass over home-made compost (mostly carpet weed from the Patch with grass mowings and horse manure).

Three Sisters bed

The Three Sisters are maize, a cucurbit and a climbing bean. Growing these crops together is a Native American method of preserving soil fertility and getting three useful crops from one patch of ground.

This year I'm experimenting with growing the maize in 1.5 metre cylinders of rabbit fencing. This provides support for the tall plants on windy days and also a framework for the cucurbits (lemon cucumber and rockmelon) to scramble over.

I've chosen small, less vigorous cucurbits: big bruisers like pumpkin and zucchini tend to go berserk and crowd out the other 'sisters'.

Potato bed

We grew Desiree and Dutch Cream under a deep mulch of pea straw. We're harvesting good crops from this bed. With the weather being so dry (only 50 mm rain since the start of November) we have been able to leave the potatoes in the ground and just harvest what we need. If it ever rains properly again (!), I'll need to dig up the rest pronto before they start to sprout.

Root veg bed

root veg bed in late spring
In this bed we mostly sowed Globe beetroot, Hollow Crown parsnips and a few carrots. There was also a row of long-keeping brown onions - root veg and onions make good companions as they feed from different depths in the soil, are both light feeders and the leafy tops of the root crops provide good shade for the bare soil (I don't mulch onions these days, to avoid problems with onion rot). The beetroot have been huge and sweet enough to eat raw.

Globe beetroot

Onion and carrot bed

You can never have too many carrots. Ours were a French heirloom variety St Valery, deep orange in colour, sweet and often 30 cm long. Yummo!
St Valery carrot
We also harvested a great crop of Early Creamgold long-keeping onions and Barletta salad onions and four varieties of garlic. Half of this bed is now growing Listada di Gandia eggplants and orange capsicums.

Early Creamgold onions
Part of our garlic harvest

I've left a few carrots and onions in the ground to flower. The ladybirds, hoverflies and bees love them and they look great too.

Carrot and onion flowers in the early morning light

Amaranth and cape gooseberry bed

Amaranth produces copious amounts of grain-like seed. The plants grow to two metres and are quite drought tolerant. The flavour is a little like quinoa but the seeds are much smaller. Apparently you can pop them as a breakfast cereal. I must try this.

Cape gooseberries are juicy, vaguely citrus flavoured sweet berries in their own little papery 'Chinese lantern' protective hulls. They're an undemanding crop and the fruit keeps well.

Watermelon bed

This year we're growing Moon and Stars watermelons. So far I've only found a couple of tiny melons, but they tend to hide away under the foliage until they're improbably huge. Last year we ended up with four monster melons with sweet, juicy, dark red flesh.

This bed also has climbing beans but they seem to have been hit by some kind of virus. The leaves are distorted and the affected plants have not flowered. Must get to the bottom of this problem but I frankly haven't had time to investigate further.

Tomato bed

This bed is producing quantities of Tommy Toe, Periforme and Amish Paste tomatoes. Those Amish sure do know a thing or two about tomatoes!

Tomato bed in late December, showing sturdy bamboo frame (2 metres tall)

Permanent plantings

We have perennials all round the perimeter of the annual beds. On the west there's the comfrey bed, which also has globe artichokes, goji and chokeberries, lemon verbena, Queen Anne's Lace, lavender, rosemary and a few tree onions. There are also some borage plants, which I'm hoping will self-seed everywhere, and a couple of echiums. Our Warré beehive is also in this bed and the bees seem pretty happy there.

Bee hive amid the artichokes

On the east is the lucerne bed, which we plan to increase to 60 m2 in the autumn, to provide nitrogen-rich mulch to the annual beds and great long-lasting summer forage to the bees. The lucerne receives only natural rainfall (precious little of that this summer) but keeps going strong through the hot weather. The weeds just can't compete. There's a tricky, sandy patch where even the lucerne hasn't taken, where I'm planning to try the drought-tolerant (and strangely named) barrel medic, a legume related to lucerne but allegedly even tougher.

On the south side there are a few flood- and drought-battered lavender bushes and a fig tree. This area needs improvement and a few creative ideas.

On the north side is our wattle windbreak which is starting to bush up now after a tough start in life. There will also be coastal rosemary and saltbush in the windbreak, and in the lee of that there will be a Hügelkultur mound which will hopefully be home to acid-lovers like blueberries and strawberries next year. A swale should help to hydrate this area and should become home to some of the frogs and lizards which are plentiful in the garden.

I just need the hot, dry weather to break so that digging a 12-metre long, metre-wide and half-metre deep swale by hand is less of a daunting prospect!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Summer recipes

It's great to see the recipe idea taking off at Harvest Basket, with new recipe sheets appearing each month. Here are a couple more recipes you might like to try:

Beetroot and carrot salad
2-4 beetroot (depending on size)
2-4 carrots (ditto)
several mint leaves (peppermint probably best)
juice of half a lemon
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp salt
generous glug of olive oil

Peel the vegies, bung all the ingredients in the blender. Turn it on. Job done!
This makes a lovely, tangy salad with a slight Middle Eastern flavour. Goes well with sausages or other barbecued meats.

Jill Pring does a similar one with apple and coriander and without the cumin and lemon juice. Also yum!

Honey and almond cookies
250 g rye flour
120 g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
250 g honey
250 g butter
1 cup coarsely chopped almonds (you could also try raw pistachios, hazelnuts, chocolate, dried fruits, etc. etc.)
2 standard eggs or 3 bantam eggs

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Melt the butter in a saucepan then allow to cool slightly. Fold the eggs, honey and butter into the dry ingredients, then fold in the almonds. Don't overwork the dough: you want it just to hang together in a big, slightly crumbly lump. Adjust flour as necessary to achieve this.

Empty out the dough onto a well-floured surface and gently roll into a sausage about 10 cm across. Handle the dough as little as possible. Wrap in baking paper and chill in the fridge for about 30 minutes. (You can also freeze the dough and bake it later.)

Meanwhile preheat the oven to 160˚C. Cover two baking trays with baking paper.
Cut the dough into 1 cm thick slices and arrange on the baking trays. Bake in the oven until lightly browned on top (about 25 minutes). Allow to cool on a baking tray.

Makes about 15 generous-sized cookies. Would be gorgeous as a dessert with sour cream or ricotta and fresh berries.

My thanks to Rose Newberry, the wonderful chef at Milkwood Permaculture for a version of this recipe.

Rose's cookies are in themselves probably sufficient reason to travel to Milkwood, 60 km out of Mudgee!

Friday, November 2, 2012

An unexpected bee bonanza

I got back from Germany on Tuesday evening - and on Wednesday morning I was straight up the Patch despite that fuzzy jetlagged feeling in my brain. I was walking past Jill's and Mike's garage at about 7 a.m., thinking about all the gardening chores I needed to catch up with, when I heard a familiar buzzing sound. Bees!! In the garage?? Yep.

As I got closer I could see that there was a largish swarm of bees clustered on the side of an old desk and spilling onto the floor. There were also quite a few bees flying around in the garage.

I then found Jill in the garden. it turned out she was unaware of the swarm of bees in her garage and they probably hadn't been there the day before, or possibly even at 5.30 that morning when Mike went off to work - using the car which had been parked in the garage that was now full of bees. It was a warm morning after a warm, humid night. Tuesday had been up to 31 C and Wednesday was forecast to be around 34 C with possible rain later.

The bees appeared to be trying to get into the desk. I assumed that there would be a lot of them already inside it. The situation was complicated by there being a whole lot of stuff on the desk - a table, a couple of sheets and some tools and other objects.

A brief phone conversation with Susan ensued and we agreed that we would come back with our bee kit later that morning to have a good look at the swarm and probably try to catch it and use it to start a second hive, up at the Patch (our first hive being back home in our own garden).

We had enough spare components to make up a second hive, as our original intention was always to have two hives. We hadn't expected a second swarm to come our way quite this easily, though!

At 11.30 we turned up with our bee suits and all our kit in the car, got suited up and set about tackling the swarm. The plan was to sweep up the bees as gently as possible using our bee brush and a dustpan.

I taped together two hive boxes with a temporary plywood floor. This formed a 40-litre container I could use as to collect the bees in. When turned up the other way (i.e. entrance at the bottom) and placed on a hive base it would be the core of the new hive. Eight frames with wax 'starter strips' were place inside the hive along with a pheromone lure to encourage the bees to stay. A 40-litre cavity that smells of wax and bee pheromone is the ultimate des res for a swarm of bees looking for a home.

We lit our smoker and gave the area a few puffs, but we were relying more on a spray bottle of water to keep the swarm calm. Very moderate use of smoke and fairly frequent misting with a fine spray of water worked very well.

Well, those bees were everywhere. On the leg of the table, on the side of the desk, hanging from the sheet and - what I think was the main part of the swarm - hanging from a piece of timber on the garage wall. I cleared all the things off the desk, working slowly and carefully so as not to agitate the bees, then just proceeded methodically with sweeping the bees up and tipping them into the upside-down hive. When I was eventually able to open the drawer of the desk, I found about 50 bees inside. I guess this was where they were all heading, but there was only a narrow gap and it was taking them a long time to get in. The drawer would have been about 20-30 litres capacity. A bit small for a good-sized swarm of bees.

Eventually we had most of the bees in the hive. I hadn't seen the queen but I thought she was most likely in the big ball of bees hanging from the wall of the garage. I then put a hive base on top of the hive, taped it in place and turned the hive the right way up.

The bees seemed quite calm and not aggressive throughout the whole process, which took nearly 90 minutes. A few of them buzzed around my head or banged into the veil, but there was no attempt to sting me. They seemed to take to their new home immediately.

Important note: bee swarms are usually not aggressive, however you should never interfere with one if you don't have appropriate training and equipment. If you anger the bees by mishandling them, you can expect to be badly stung.

We then left the bees to their own devices for the afternoon. Our hope was that the rest of the bees would find their way into the hive, which we left in the garage next to where the swarm had been. During the afternoon I selected a site for the hive in the Patch, then levelled the ground for four concrete blocks to make a hive stand.

When we returned at dusk the bees seemed settled, with just a few hanging around the hive entrance. We waited until they were all inside, then taped up the entrance. We also put the quilt* and roof on the hive at this stage, as we didn't want to open it again out in the cool evening air.

I then carried the hive 150 metres up the garden to the Patch. It was pitch dark and not at all easy to see where I was going, despite Susan's flashlight, as I was encumbered by my bee suit and a hive in front of my face! Also two hive boxes plus quilt and roof got quite heavy quite quickly. Anyway we got there without mishap and installed the hive in its site, untaped the entrance and beat a retreat.

I went back this afternoon to check out the situation and was pleased to see the bees busily foraging. Looks like the operation was a success and we have a second beehive!

* Quilt – a box full of woodshavings to control humidity in the hive. This is one of the important features of a Warré hive which distinguishes it from the Langstroth hives used by commercial beekeepers. Other key features are the characteristic pitched roof (regulates the temperature) and smaller boxes (more bee-friendly and easier to manage). The most important difference however is the low-intervention management method which focuses on the bees' needs – not on maximising the honey yield. Warré is in my view a far easier, more enjoyable and environmentally friendly method for the backyard beekeeper.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bee Day!

Earlier this year Susan and I attended a Warré beekeeping course in Sydney run by second-generation professional apiarist Tim Malfroy. It seems like a long way to go for a weekend course, but I had read about the Warré beekeeping method and wanted to learn more. It was worth the trip.

I have since become convinced that this is an ideal method for backyard apiarists in Australia, and it would be highly beneficial to bees and beekeepers alike if it became more widely practised. (Yes, I do tend to get evangelical when talking about Warré.)

Two days ago the great day arrived and a swarm moved into our hive. A big, vigorous swarm it is too. The power of a swarm of bees is a remarkable thing. I don't think I'll ever forget the way the air vibrated with that all-pervading hum, as a massive cloud of bees came barrelling up the road and parked itself over our front garden. I felt that we had summoned a force of nature. I actually felt a little scared at what we had unleashed.

You should be able to view the video on my flickr page here. It really doesn't do the experience justice!

It was particularly satisfying because we had done everything ourselves – learned about bee biology and behaviour and hive management, built the hive according to Émile Warré's design (slightly modified for Australian conditions), set out the bait hive and attracted the bees.

It has been quite a journey so far, and our life with bees has only just begun; there is so much to learn.

Here are a few photos we've taken along the way.

Tim Malfroy's course, April 2012. Because Warré is a low-intervention beekeeping method, most of the course is classroom based, but one of Tim's students kindly allowed the 20 of us to visit her backyard apiary. Here Tim is demonstrating the use of the smoker and opening the hive. The bees remained wonderfully calm throughout. In previous classes Tim has encouraged participants to gently stroke the bees! (Don't do that at home, folks!)

Hive building. The dimensions of a Warré hive are carefully attuned to the bees' requirements. The aim is to provide them with the best home (other than a hollow tree!) that we can, so that we have a healthy, happy, unaggressive colony. I decided to build my own hive from Warré's specifications, adapted by Tim Malfroy for Australian conditions. The joinery is basic but needs to be quite accurate, built to a 1-2 mm tolerance. Inaccuracies will result in ill-fitting frames, which the bees will stick to the sides of the hive box, making your hive illegal. (DPI inspectors are obliged to destroy hives that do not have removable frames.)

I built 8 Warré boxes initially, with four flat roofs and two pitched roofs, meaning that I could set up four 2-box bait hives and then convert them to two full-size Warré hives. The pitched roofs don't just look pretty, they allow maximum thermal insulation for the hive, enabling the bees to control the hive's internal climate.

Bait hives. When bees swarm they send out scouts to check out the surrounding area for nest sites. Bees will nest pretty much anywhere that offers them shelter, but they actually rank the available sites according to suitability and reach consensus on the best one! This is a remarkable example of collective intelligence and has been thoroughly researched and documented by Thomas D Seeley, one of the world's eminent bee biologists, in his book Honeybee Democracy.

As it happens (and of course this is not coincidence but design) a two-box Warré hive is the optimum size, shape and configuration for a bee colony. That makes it easier to attract a swarm. This is a great way of getting a genetically diverse, strong colony - and taking a feral swarm out of the environment, which might otherwise nest in someone's roof or wall.

The bait hives need to be in an elevated position and contain some beeswax. We also used a pheromone lure to attract the bees - but only an attractive site can persuade them to stay, this is not a mechanical process.

The next stage was to transfer the occupied bait hive to its permanent position. At night and as it happened, in the rain. I don't recommend standing on a slippery stepladder in the dark clutching a box of 10,000 or so bees, but it was the only way to get them down. You only have a day or two to move the hive, otherwise the bees will imprint on their location and always go back there, not to the hive if you move it elsewhere.

The next day our bees were busy getting used to their new surroundings and sending out foragers. By the afternoon we were seeing bees returning with pollen, indicating that the queen was already laying eggs in the newly built comb.

Today we are going to move the hive on to its permanent base and add the quilt (a box of woodshavings above the hive to control humidity) and the pitched roof, which fits over the quilt and prevents rain from entering.

By around Christmas our colony should occupy three or four boxes, so it will look like this.

More on Warré beekeeping from my friends Kirsten and Nick at Milkwood Farm, NSW.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Edges, boundaries and paths

Cultivating the Patch is throwing up interesting questions about edges, boundaries and paths. It's a rectangle of land with minimal boundaries: a large-mesh wire fence on the north and east separating it from the neighbours' properties; a 2 metre wooden fence on the south separating it from the school oval and no boundary on the west other than Jill's and Mike's vineyard.

On the minus side, that means that there's little to block the passage of wind, rabbits and the occasional errant dog. On the plus side, there are none of the issues with shade that we have to deal with in our home garden, caused by mature trees in our and our neighbours' yards, and of course our 2-storey house. The Patch was really a horticultural blank slate.
The Patch - June 2011
Faced with a nice big block of land to grow stuff on, my tendency (and I suspect I'm not alone in this) is to think of growing space, not access, and to begrudge any land dedicated to paths and barriers.

But paths and barriers are necessary. Foot and wheelbarrow traffic compacts soil, so you don't want to walk on land you're going to grow plants in. Aggressive running grasses and other tough running weeds (we're 'blessed' with kikuyu and blanket/carpet weed) would quickly overrun the cultivated land without well-defined borders that can be 'patrolled' for incursions.

I've tried to build some Permaculture principles into how I tackle the issue of barriers – the Patch is defined to the east and west by borders of deep-rooted, perennial plants – primarily comfrey and lucerne, which resist the encroachment of running weeds, provide useful nutrients and mulch to the garden and require little maintenance or irrigation.

To the north, a wattle border will eventually be about 2 metres high and diversified with sheokes, blueberries, etc. to provide shelter from hot northerlies, mulch and enrichment for the garden and some fruit for us.

I'm happy with how those solutions are evolving, but within the garden I feel the need for permanent paths, borders and subdivisions, and I'm not entirely happy with what I've done so far in that regard. One of the issues is the tension between the Permaculture approach I've recently learned – which values edge, diversity and curvilinear forms – and the traditional European organic gardener's approach, which wants straight lines and rectangular beds. There are advantages to both approaches and I haven't yet found a balance which works for us.

The two weeks I spent at Milkwood Permaculture in NSW brought home to me that there is scope for both approaches within an enterprise which is inspired by Permaculture principles. On the one hand they have a nascent forest garden which in years to come will probably be intensely productive with little ongoing maintenance; on the other hand most of their food in these early years is produced in a very traditional looking, labour-intensive organic market garden.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Food for thought

One of the things I took away from my Permaculture Design Certificate was a long list of books I wanted to read.

Milkwood Farm, where I did my PDC, has an extensive library in the converted woolshed that is its classroom, common room, dining room and well, room for all occasions. But somehow during two weeks of intensive learning and discussion I never found time to settle down and read any of the books properly. There were always fascinating conversations to take part in or just listen to around the campfire, or thoughts to digest from the day's presentations, group tasks and workshops.

So in the last five months I've been working my way through that list, with some additions I came across along the way. Here are some of the books, grouped thematically:


Introduction to Permaculture, Bill Mollison with Reny Mia Slay, Tagari Publications, 1991
This is a readable introduction to permaculture by its co-founder Bill Mollison, covering the main principles and plenty of practical examples. A great place to start.

Permaculture: A Designers' Manual, Bill Mollison, Tagari Publications, 1988
This permaculture classic is the curriculum for the Permaculture Design Certificate. It's nearly 600 pages of densely packed information. Not a light read in any sense, but a must-read if you want to get serious about permaculture.

Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability, David Holmgren, Holmgren Design Services, 2002
A wide-ranging exploration of the 12 permaculture principles by co-founder David Holmgren. I found this book thought-provoking and highly enjoyable. More theoretical than the Designer's Manual - you won't find any plans for herb spirals in here. More like plans for a new civilisation.

There are several books offering detailed explanations of how to apply permaculture techniques in your backyard or on your farm, but I haven't read any of them. I'm not really interested in 'how to' books at this stage.

Soil food web

One of the key thoughts I took away from the PDC was that soil isn't just brown crumbly stuff. I've written on this in my previous post. These books are helping me to get to grips with the complex answers to the simple question 'What is soil?'

Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web, Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis, Timber Press, revised ed. 2010
This book completely revolutionised my understanding of soil and what we gardeners should be doing in the garden. Please read it.

Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, Paul Stamets, Ten Speed Press, 2005
What are the biggest and oldest organisms on our planet? What is the key component of a forest ecosystem, connecting the others in a web of life and death? Trees, right? Wrong. Fungi.
This is a beautifully illustrated, engaging and thought-provoking book. I got a little uneasy when, about five pages in, the author informed me that fungal webs are sentient. Stick with it: this guy knows his mushrooms.

Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David R. Montgomery, University of California Press, 2007
The fascinating and horrifying story of what we have been doing to our topsoil ever since Neolithic humans invented the plough. Have you ever wondered how civilisation grew up in the rocky and barren soils of Greece and Turkey? Why the Roman Empire came to an end? Why there is chronic famine in Africa? Have you ever wondered what goes into our agricultural soils? This book provides some answers.


This evening I'm going to hear US writer Michael Pollan speak at The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. Pollan is a wonderful combination of raconteur, journalist and food theorist. I've only read two of his books so far but am looking forward to reading the rest.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Michael Pollan, Penguin, 2006
Pollan uses the preparation and consumption of four meals to show exactly where our food comes from. I'm just never going to look at maize the same way ever again. Hell, I'm never going to look at food the same way again.

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World, Michael Pollan, Random House, 2001
Based on the apparently whimsical premise that plants have cultivated us as much as we have cultivated plants. This lovely book is actually a profound essay on co-evolution of species and a provocative commentary on agriculture and horticulture. Loved it.


Given that 70 of the world's most important 100 crops are pollinated by bees, and every third forkful we put in our mouths is the product of pollination by bees, bees are pretty important to humans. As gardeners, we love them. However, I didn't know much about them until I did a couple of beekeeping courses and read these books.

Honeybee Democracy, Thomas D. Seeley, Princeton University Press, 2010
This book gives the reader a fascinating insight into the life of the hive, written by one of the world's greatest authorities on bees.

Beekeeping for All, Abbé Warré, translated by Patricia and David Heaf, Northern Bee Books, 2007 (also available online as a free pdf)
This little book explains in detail a beautifully logical and simple system of beekeeping, developed by a French master beekeeper in the 1950s after a lifetime of experiment.
This is the system which Susan and I are going to use in our hives. Having done natural beekeeping courses in Sydney and Melbourne, I'm convinced that the Warré system is far more suitable for hobby beekeepers than the 'conventional' Langstroth hives used by commercial beekeepers.

The Bee-friendly Beekeeper: A Sustainable Approach, David Heaf, Northern Bee Books, 2010
Explores various approaches to beekeeping and explains the natural beekeeping approaches used in systems such as Warré and Kenyan top bar hives.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The soil food web

I'm reading a fascinating little book at the moment called Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web, by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis. It's all about the complex interrelationships between organisms in the soil and the plants in our gardens.

I learned for example that plants form partnerships with particular bacteria and fungi. The bacteria and fungi feed on carbohydrates manufactured by the plant (through photosynthesis) and exuded by its roots. In return, their excreta provide nitrogen and other nutrients to feed the plant, and they coat its roots in a protective film. Individual plants actually control which organisms they attract, according to their needs!

Then the keen gardener comes along with crude chemical fertilisers and knocks the whole system out of balance. No longer reliant on the microbes, plants grow fat on the readily available nitrates poured into the ground. The microbes consequently die out. From then on, the gardener has to keep feeding the plants artificially or they won't thrive – remember, the microbes are gone.

When the microbes leave, the larger soil organisms such as earthworms leave, to the great detriment of soil structure and soil health. As the soil structure degrades, more and more of the synthetic fertiliser goes straight through into the groundwater, where it becomes an environmental pollutant.

(As an aside: ever wondered why we have toxic algal blooms in our rivers every summer? Yeah, right, it's 'natural'.)

With unbalanced nutrition, the plant is more susceptible to pest and disease attack. What to do? Spray it with various '-icides' to rectify the problem. Trouble is, they make the soil an even less hospitable environment for its natural inhabitants.

In other words, a quick fix solution has put the gardener on a chemical tread mill. From now on, gardening will be more labour intensive and expensive. It will rely on inputs which can't be manufactured within the garden, but are products of the petrochemical industry.

To my mind, it's just one more example of how organic methods are not just more effective than chemical methods, but easier and cheaper.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Busy, busy ...

No 'proper' post this month as I'm not going to be around much to write one. We're off in a few hours for the usual family Easter gathering in Ballarat. Hopefully this will include a long overdue visit to the garden of St Erth to stock up on Digger's Club plants and goodies.

After that, Susan and I are off to Sydney to learn about Warré bee-keeping on one of Tim Malfroy's courses. We're planning to have a hive up at the Patch and are very excited about the prospect of our own bees and honey.

Speaking of the Patch I've been using the scythe a lot recently to tidy up and would love to give a demo and informal workshop on scythe mowing if anyone is interested. Let me know at the May swap.

Happy Easter!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Perma-thoughts, 2

Here's an example of how my Permaculture course has changed my perspective on elements of the Patch:

On the northern boundary we're establishing a windbreak against hot, drying winds. At the moment, this consists of 15 Flinders Ranges wattle saplings. All but one are doing well, and should start to be effective in the next 24-36 months. I was quite pleased with this idea when I first thought of it: 'Good idea to create a microclimate, Steve!' I thought.
Will eventually be a windbreak: 15 tiny wattle seedlings , Aug 2011

Now, applying some Permaculture principles, I can see ways to make it a whole lot better:

Principle: Build diverse, stable ecosystems.

OK, a 15 x 2 metre windbreak (eventual mature size) isn't exactly an ecosystem. But what if I planted sheokes on the leeward side of the wattles, and grew a small-leafed (because not rampant) hardenbergia up the sheokes when established, and dug a swale to catch water runoff, and sowed the bank of the swale with dichondra and native violets, and planted blueberries in the lee of the windbreak? And put logs in the swale to provide habitat for lizards and amphibians?

Would this be an ecosystem, or just a collection of plants and landscape features? Let's have a look:

The wattles and the sheokes together will make a more effective windbreak; both are nitrogen fixing. When they are cut back (mulch for the veg beds), some of their root mass will also die off, making nitrogen available to the soil. Hardenbergia is also nitrogen fixing, so we have three plant species improving the soil. Blueberries on the leeward fringe of the windbreak will benefit from the added nitrogen, and also the acidic environment provided by the mulch of sheoke needles.

All of these are flowering plants and will provide forage for bees and nectar-eating birds. In addition the swale should become an ephemeral wetland, attracting the numerous frogs from the surrounding area - we're lucky to have two established wetlands to the northeast and northwest of the site.

So this begins to look like a functioning ecosystem, with beneficial interactions between the various species. In time further species would be introduced (or colonise by themselves) and it would become more diverse.

Principle: Every element of a design should function in many ways.

This is also referred to as 'stacking' functions. How does our windbreak fit in with this?

As envisaged above, it now serves the following functions:

• reduces the impact of hot, drying winds
• provides mulch for veg beds
• provides forage for bees (pollinators, suppliers of honey)
• provides habitat for insectivorous birds, reptiles and amphibians (pest control)
• provides fruit
• improves soil nitrogen
• improves water infiltration
• removes the need for mowing (saves labour)

Now, not all aspects of the plan will turn out as envisaged. For example, it may be that blueberries just won't flourish where I want them, so I would have to use other berries. That would tie in with other Permaculture principles:

Apply self-regulation and accept feedback.
Use small and slow solutions. (Otherwise referred to as incremental design.)
Creatively use and respond to change.

Friday, February 24, 2012


For some time now I've been grappling with questions like the following:

  • What do I want from all this food-growing activity? Is it just a hobby or a way of life?
  • How can I get better at this and what does 'better' mean?
  • Isn't backyard vegie growing mere escapism when we're laying waste to our entire planet?

Then I did an intensive two-week Permaculture course at Milkwood Farm near Mudgee, NSW. For two weeks I was thrown together with some really bright and knowledgeable people from many different walks of life (from cattle farmer to market gardener to software engineer), under the gentle guidance of two inspiring teachers.

I was rather sceptical before the course, and did worry about it being a massive waste of time and money. Not to mention the fossil fuels to get me to Mudgee and back. I don't like systems of thought that provide pat answers to difficult questions. I also had a whole heap of preconceptions about the course content, ranging from herb spirals to mandala gardens.

I now realise that Permaculture isn't like that; rather it's a set of methodologies, attitudes and principles that I can use in the design of productive systems - like a vegie garden, for instance. It has deepened my understanding of what a garden (or a productive landscape) is and can be. It has even given me some damn good answers to my three questions.

If you want to know what they are, you'll just have to do the course ;)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Learning from my mistakes

I read somewhere that the main benefit of experience is that it enables you to recognise your mistakes when you make them again. That certainly holds good for me, but I do try to learn from my gardening mistakes. Here are a few recent ones:

Onions, what onions?

Last winter I planted some of my heirloom onions in a bed which doesn't get a huge amount of sunlight. I've been growing great onions (if I do say so myself) for a few years and I knew that they needed a good, sunny spot. But I wanted to grow more heirloom varieties and couldn't resist trying them in a bed that was marginal. That proved a complete waste of time: the seedlings remained miserable, scrawny things and when I came back from Europe at the end of October I dug in the lot.

Moral of the story:
Don't be greedy, only plant what you have room to grow.

Rotten garlic

One of my beds is affected by onion basal rot, caused by a fusarium fungus. I thought it might be worth the risk of growing other alliums (leeks and garlic) in the bed anyway, as I didn't have anywhere much else for them. The leeks were OK but I lost about a third of the garlic to rot.

Moral of the story:
Don't allow optimism to triumph over experience.

Bitter cucumbers

I've had reasonable success in the past with growing cucumbers in 45-litre bags filled with compost, when the garden beds are full. This spring I did the same, however the fruit has been bitter and it has proven difficult to keep the water up to the plants. I think this is because I used commercial potting mix rather than my own compost, which is a lot more water-retentive.

Moral of the story:
Sometimes the stuff you make yourself is better than anything you can buy.

That's a prime reason for growing your own veg in the first place, isn't it?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Patch update

It's been a little over six months since Susan and I started work on the Patch - our Landshare garden at Jill's and Mike's place. Here's a pictorial update on how things are going.

June 2011 December 2011
All in all, we're pretty pleased with the transformation from former horse paddock to productive vegie garden. The main problem was that I was away in Europe for the critical period mid-September to end October. Won't do that again.

Potato bed
Potato bed
The potato bed has produced a good crop of Pontiacs and the Dutch Creams are still going strong. This bed hasn't been watered since September and yet it's full of lovely, moist, worm-filled humus made from seagrass, mushroom compost, pea straw and home-made compost.
A second batch of Pontiacs has just been planted out and covered with compost made on site. The pea straw bales are breaking down quite fast (with the help of some hungry mice) - by the end of the summer I think some will just be shapeless mounds of straw.

Grain bed (not!)
The next bed was intended as a grain and pulse bed: amaranth, chia, quinoa, chickpea and linseed were sown in November. This was an experiment as I thought conditions might already be too warm, at least for the quinoa and chia. Looks like I was right: only the amaranth came up in worthwhile numbers, with a few chickpeas. An additional problem was watering: with only one or two visits a week and only hand watering, it was impossible to keep the seed bed moist. Lesson learned: any sowing of fine seed needs to coincide with decent rain. We got a nice crop of self-sown mallow, though!
I'm trying again with sunflowers, having enriched the soil with our home-made compost. Unenriched parts of the bed will be used for buckwheat and another green manure crop.

Watermelon and solanum bed

Eggplants, capsicums and watermelons
I divided this bed in half for ease of access - all watering at the Patch is by hand with a watering can. After a green manure crop, this bed was further enriched by the addition of 1.5 m3 of mushroom compost: I'm aiming for a rich, moisture-retentive soil. I think I walked 20 km with that wheelbarrow, as it's a couple of hundred metres from the driveway to the Patch.
Two rows of eggplants will hopefully provide shade for watermelon foliage and roots in hot weather.
I've never grown watermelons before but thought I would give them a try in this sunny position. I'm fairly sure we won't be short of eggplants come autumn - 16 plants may have been slight overkill. Not sure what else I'm going to put in here, possibly some autumn brassicas or leeks.

Three Sisters bed

Three Sisters: maize, beans, pumpkin
The Three Sisters system of symbiotic cultivation comes from South America: maize, climbing beans and cucurbits (in this case, Anna Schwartz pumpkin) are grown together. The beans enrich the soil with nitrogen and bind together the maize stalks, preventing wind damage; the large cucurbit leaves shade the soil, helping to keep it moist for the maize; the maize provides a frame for the beans to climb up. I've been sowing the maize in 1-metre blocks every 2-3 weeks and 4-5 beans a metre on the south side of the blocks.

Then there's a row of capsicums which were left over seedlings from our other garden. I guess they'll have to be the fourth sister.

Lucerne and wildflower strip

Lucerne and wildflower strip - decorative and useful

This 20 x 1 metre strip of lucerne interspersed with Queen Anne's Lace and California poppies has turned out really well. So much so that I've decided to make it 2 metres wide in the autumn. The flowers attract beneficial insects and the lucerne will provide mulch for the vegie beds. Looks great, too.
This bed hasn't been watered since early September.

Comfrey strip

Comfrey (Bocking 14)

20 comfrey plants were planted in a 20-metre strip back in July. All are doing well. I try to give them some supplementary water in hot weather, but they largely fend for themselves. I chose the non-weedy Bocking 14 variety from Diggers Club.

People have been puzzled why I'm producing semi-industrial quantities of comfrey. It mines the subsoil for minerals, then makes these available as its leaves break down. It's great as a compost activator, as a soil-enriching mulch and as comfrey tea (now brewing) - a nutritious but extremely smelly liquid fertiliser. The flowers will be good for bees (when we get some, but that's another story), and I see ladybirds and assassin bugs hanging out around them too.

Compost bays

Next batch of green stuff ready for composting

The four-bay compost system (such opulence! such luxury!) was built from old timber from Jill's and Mike's woodshed. It's working really well, but had to be lined with heavy-duty weedmat and old carpet, as the thuggish kikuyu grass from the neighbouring school oval was determined to get in on the act.

Lovely compost - once was weeds, cardboard and chook poo
We've just produced and used our first batch of lovely crumbly compost using the cold-composting method. Now the blanket weed I dug up in July is being hot-composted. Despite dire mutterings from locals about the stuff being indestructible, this is going a treat. If it once lived, you can compost it.

That's about it for now. I'm hoping a Permaculture Design Certificate in February will give me some more inspiration. Also we're doing a bee-keeping course in April as we think our Patch is a bit of a bee-desert, being surrounded mostly by acres of well-mown grass. If we want pollination, we'll have to provide the pollinators and plenty of bee tucker.

Happy New Year and happy gardening in 2012!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

German red cabbage

Our red cabbages are a little late this year, but they're ready now. They've formed nice tight heads, which are bug-free once the outer leaves have been stripped off. I use them for three main dishes: coleslaw, pickled red cabbage and German red cabbage (Rotkohl). Here's an easy way to do Rotkohl.


  • half a red cabbage, finely sliced
  • 1 apple, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 rashers bacon
  • 1 glass red wine
  • 1 glass apple juice
  • bay leaves
  • half a dozen cloves
  • seasoning
  • sugar (optional)
  • olive oil

Make sure the cabbage is clean and bug free. Quarter the cabbage and cut out the stalk. Slice the cabbage thinly. Chop the bacon, onion and apple.

Take a heavy cast-iron casserole or saucepan with a lid. Fry the bacon quickly in the oil, then add the onion and fry over a low heat for 5 mins. Add the chopped apple. When the onion is translucent, add the red cabbage, bay leaves, cloves and the wine and juice. Stir and simmer over a low heat with the lid on for 2-3 hours. Check from time to time to make sure there is still sufficient liquid, adding more juice or wine if necessary.

You may add 1-2 teaspoons of sugar, depending on how sweet your juice, apple and wine are. Personally I prefer not to. When cooked, your Rotkohl should be glutinous, sweet and sour and caramelised. It goes really well with roast or barbecued meat and can be frozen. You could also use it as a filling for a jacket potato with a blob of sour cream.

The original German version would use goose fat instead of olive oil, would use good quality German Speck rather than bacon back rashers and would be heavier on the sugar and may add a small amount of flour to make a more glutinous dish, but my version is a little lighter.

Monday, November 28, 2011


For the past couple of years I've been paying more attention to the soil in my garden – 'soil' is a short word, but what is it exactly?

Soil is an amalgam of tiny particles of rock with humus (decayed vegetable matter), fungi and bacteria. This provides a substrate for plants to anchor themselves in and a sponge to capture water, making it available to the plants' roots.

Soil contains a wide variety of nutrients which are essential to healthy plant growth, including the big three – potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus. Then there are the secondary nutrients calcium, magnesium and sulphur. Thirdly, there's a range of micronutrients: boron, copper, iron, zinc, chloride, molybdenum and manganese. 'Micro' because they are only present (and needed) in tiny quantities. They're also called 'trace elements'.

So far, so complicated. But we're not done yet. Not only do plants need all these nutrients in varying quantities, it appears that they also need the help of a type of fungus to enable them to digest their food. This symbiotic relationship is called mycorrhizal (fungus and root).

So there's a lot more to 'soil' than just some brown crumbly stuff. But how can I apply this knowledge practically in the garden?

Well, I monitor soil pH (acidity/alkalinity), because I know that it affects a plant's ability to take up nutrients. A pH test kit is quite cheap and easy to use. An excessively acidic (under 5.5) or alkaline (over 7.5) soil can be corrected by the addition of lime or sulphur respectively. I check the soil pH about once a year.

Other than measuring pH, soil care is fairly unscientific in my garden. I adopt a variety of approaches, hoping that they will all help.

  • I try to get as much organic matter into the soil as possible, through the use of green manure (a crop which is grown, slashed down and dug in to feed the soil) and home-made and bought-in compost.
  • I boost micronutrients through the addition of rock dust.
  • Now that my worm farm is flourishing I can also add worm castings and worm 'wee' to the soil, hopefully boosting its population of beneficial bacteria.
  • The organic mulches I apply, such as lucerne and pea straw, protect soil microbes and plant roots from overheating and desiccation, and add some carbon and nitrogen as they break down.
  • I try to avoid deep digging, which brings sterile subsoil to the surface.
  • I'm experimenting with the use of comfrey and lucerne - deep-rooted perennials - to recover lost nutrients from the subsoil.
  • I don't sieve soil unless absolutely necessary, because it disrupts the soil structure and can produce a hydrophobic surface.
  • I'm very careful about what I put in and on my garden soil. No detergents, no poisons like glyphosate (Roundup or Zero), which may harm beneficial bacteria.

As well as these basic measures, I've recently started to experiment with two new products which have come on the market: biochar and Bactivate, a bacterial fertiliser.

Biochar is the 'black earth' that is supposed to have given the naturally poor Amazonian soils great fertility, supporting intensive agriculture in pre-Columbian times. Basically it's charcoal, in a form which binds water and nutrients, making them available to plants and improving soil structure. Bactivate is also carbon based: it's pellets of coal dust coated with beneficial soil bacteria.

By the use of all these methods, I'm hoping to transform the rather poor, sandy and hydrophobic soil I inherited for my vegie patch into a rich, fertile growing medium. Comparison with other parts of the garden suggests that I've already made quite a bit of progress.

What I'd really like is the rich, dark soil of my mum's and stepdad's garden in western France. Come spring, the vegies in the Limousin leap out of the ground at an astonishing rate. However, it's taken probably 3,000 years of organic cultivation to make that soil, so I may have a way to go yet!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Growing summer veg from seed

Tomorrow I'm giving an informal workshop on this subject at Harvest Basket. I was dubious about the need for it, but on talking to Jill and other keen gardeners, it seems that this is still regarded as a bit of a 'black art' by some. Actually it's dead easy once you get yourself set up.

I thought it would be good to do a step-by-step description of the process here, with photos.

Now I tend to be quite methodical about my gardening and have been known to spend more than is strictly necessary on getting the 'right' gear, so do bear in mind that you can do this more simply and for virtually no outlay except a bit of potting mix …

Step 1

Assemble the stuff you need. At a minimum: seeds, potting mix, pots, water, a container with a transparent lid to act as a controlled environment. That can be as simple as half a plastic bottle to put over your pot.

I use Jiffy coir peat pots because you just plant them out, pot and all. The seedling roots grow through the pot and there is little or no transplant shock (IF you wait until the garden soil is warm enough; see below).

I also use a few extras: a potting sieve, a propagation thermometer, plant labels, a propagator with a vented lid, a heated propagating tray with a thermostat.

Step 2

Soak your Jiffy pots. You must get them completely wet at the outset.

Step 3

Arrange your wet pots in your tray with no gaps. The square pots are much better for this than the round ones.

Step 4

Fill your pots to the rim with your growing medium. I use a general organic potting mix, as seed raising mix doesn't have enough nutrients to keep the seedlings going for the two months they'll be in pots. Then give the pots a good water; the growing medium will compact slightly, giving you a few millimetres of space to sow and cover your seeds.

Step 5

If you're as forgetful as me, write your plant labels NOW and arrange them in the same order as you're going to sow the seeds in the pots. All the solanaceae (tomatoes, eggplants etc) seeds look very similar.

Step 6

Sow your seeds. I usually sow three per pot. Two of them will be culled later.

Step 7

Cover your seeds with a fine layer of potting mix. I use a sieve for this - seeds won't grow too well if they're weighed down by a big lump of potting mix or bark! Water in gently. I find these little watering can tops for plastic bottles very handy for watering seedlings.

Step 8

Get your plant labels in before you forget what you sowed where. (You may begin to see a pattern emerging here. Yes, I really am that absent-minded.) You'll notice there's also a thermometer in one pot. More about that below.

Step 9

Set up your heated propagator tray if you have one. It wants to be somewhere out of the sun and the rain - this unit is weather-resistant, but not water-tight. Also, your seedlings may dry out or get too hot in direct sunlight. When they get their first true leaves, you can start to put them out in the sun. But I'm getting ahead of myself …

This propagator tray has a felt blanket which must be kept moist, otherwise it will not transmit the heat effectively to the pots.

Step 10

Put your lids on your propagators and close the vents. Put the propagators on the tray and turn it on. You want a soil temperature of about 20C. To achieve that, you'll probably have to turn the thermostat up to about 28C. That's why there's a thermometer in one of the pots: the temperature of the heating unit will be higher than the temperature of the soil, and it's the latter that counts. You can use the thermometer to monitor the soil temperature and adjust the thermostat accordingly.

Step 11

Sit back and wait … and wait …

It can take about 2 weeks for tomatoes to emerge, and the warmth-loving eggplants and capsicums may take up to 4 weeks. In the meantime, the pots shouldn't need watering - unless you let the sun get to them. You will however need to wet the felt blanket every couple of days, more often in hot, dry weather.

What next?

Your seedlings will first put out a pair of cotyledons ('baby leaves'), then a week or two later their first true leaves. At this stage, cull two of the seedlings in each pot, leaving only the sturdiest one. Your pots will need watering regularly now and you can give them a very diluted seaweed solution and/or worm juice. Just a few drops of the concentrated stuff in their watering bottle is sufficient. Make sure they get plenty of sunlight now, but not baking heat. If you have a sheltered spot (such as a cold frame with the lid off), you can take the plastic lid off of the propagator during the day. You don't want too much humidity now or your seedlings could damp off and die.

When the soil temperature in the garden bed is around 18C, it's time to plant out your seedlings. On the Bellarine Peninsula, this will probably be around the second week of November. You can warm up the soil by stripping off any mulch for a couple of weeks beforehand.

Transplanting tomatoes, eggplants and capsicums into cool soil is a waste of time and plants. Your plants will be set back, more vulnerable to pests and diseases, possibly permanently stunted, and you won't get fruit any earlier, so unless you have a hothouse, be patient.

It's all to easy to get 'garden centre-itis' and bring home luxuriant tomato seedlings in mid-September. The poor little buggers will turn up their toes when you stick them in your 10C soil. You have been warned …