Author Archives: gabriel

Spring time!

Spring is here, we’ve had some amazing sunny days  and preparing garden beds and sowing seeds is well underway. Last week I planted the first tray of seedlings in the greenhouse, they are coming along nicely and I’ve just planted a second one. We use a heat pad under the earliest seedling trays to warm the soil and get a head start. Earlier this week we had 3  interns/wwoofers arrive, including Matteo who was here earlier in the year.  We have got many garden beds ready for planting and some things planted already and I’m feeling very good about the state of the garden. In the picture above, holes dug, filled with compost and soil mounded back on top to plant pumpkins in. Mulch from green manure crop has been left between mounds but mounds left bare with cut glass bottles on top to warm soil before planting. Newly constructed bamboo trellis in front of greenhouse will have beans growing up it once the soil warms, lettuce seedlings planted in front of where the beans will be. The concrete blocks from the base of the greenhouse and open sun exposure will keep the lettuces warmer then other spots in the garden.

Daffodils are a great plant to go under fruit trees. They provide dense cover and shade out potential competition then die back when it starts to warm up and dry out, leaving a layer of mulch behind and minimal competition to the tree.

Broccoli, carrots and beetroot that were planted last fall are now starting to produce as the weather warms.

Appropriate technology

Appropriate technology is a word that can cover a lot of tools from scythes to computers, portable electric fences to grain grinders, generally an item that creates a big difference with minimal energetic cost and footprint. I consider chainsaws to be appropriate technology in many ways and we’ve just acquired a  second hand Stihl 192t pruning chainsaw. This saw, capable of being used one handed, is absolutely amazing and fits this property so well.   I got the saw in non working order and after an hour or two in the workshop I was off and away.

After getting used to the saw pruning an Acacia that was hanging over a garden bed from a ladder  I quickly moved on to some long awaited willow pruning. 3 of the biggest willow trees on the property needed their tops taken off and/or or major limbs removed, some to allow easterly light into the new building and one to free up light to some nut trees. This job will also keep new growth shoots within closer reach and make it easier to cut animal fodder during the growing season with loppers or a pole saw. The 2 things I didn’t have right the first time up that have made a huge difference are: 1. getting the Idle set right so that the saw can be started from a comfortable and safe position with the chain brake on, then move to sawing position and turn lock off with engine still running and  2. getting a carabiner attached to my belt with some rope so that a tree can be climbed with saw hanging from belt and then easily unhooked and re hooked when needed.

These saws are very useful on established properties with existing trees, especially capable of making a huge difference in modern suberbs, where huge trees tower over houses and gardens, taking away any ability for solar gain from houses or the ability to grow food in an environment with so much potential.

 

 

 

 

 

In other news, the root vegies and brassicas in the garden are ticking along (at a very slow pace) and the broad beans (favas) are just starting to shoot up after a weed with a hoe and quick complimentary hand weed at the base of the plants (handweed done after picture was taken) . Lots of big salads at the moment from a combination of planted greens and weeds and self sown cultivars. A few sunny days and about a week with little rain gave us some good time with dry enough soil to hoe in some green manure crops and do a lot of weeding, giving us a little head start on spring planting.

Tree crops for staple food

 

We’ve been experimenting with different uses of chestnuts. We had a big chestnut crop this year and managed to keep most of them from the birds. We had lots and lots for breakfast every morning (and sometimes for dinner)  for a couple of months while they were fresh, we stored them in plastic buckets with a damp cloth over them to keep the fresh ones from drying out but still give them some air so they didn’t rot. Then what we couldn’t eat fresh we dried, and that brings us to now. In midwinter we’ve got out the dried chestnuts and started figuring out the easiest ways to process them. We have approximately 20 kilos of dried ones and could dry more in the future once good processing methods are established. The best solution we’ve come up with so far for the home scale is this: thresh them in a grain sack, hit the bag on wood, flail it around, then move the nuts around with your hands from the outside of the bag and repeat a few times. Doing this removes most of the shells and some of the pellicles (the tannin filled skin under the shell) then a quick hand sort to remove all the shells and then put them in a pot and steam for a few minutes. After steaming the pellicle easily slides off with a quick rub of the hands. The pellicle is very hydrophobic,  not absorbing any water while the nut absorbs the moisture and swells, This both helps to remove them and means that with a short steam the liquid does not absorb tannin and stays sweet.  After removing the pellicle, a long boil softens them up and turns them into a delicious treat. Something about the starches and sugars of the chestnuts make them much sweeter after being dried and boiled compared to fresh roasted. They make an amazing dessert  served with bottled fruit, especially sour plums to contrast the sweetness.

This image shows the edge theory well and shows some layering.  On the right is the top orchard row with apple trees (the closest, most visible tree is a recent addition) interplanted with acacias for nitrogen fixation and goat fodder. To the left is a seedling plum hedgerow, cut back frequently and used primarily for goat fodder  though we do occasionally eat the plums and make preserves with them. They are not of the same quality as some of the cultivars elsewhere on the property. In the foreground is a metal stand used to hold goat fodder.  On the high side of the plum hedgerow is a path (not visible in photo) and above that olive trees and the vibrant green towering loquat trees. The house is uphill from the loquat and olives. This image is taken facing south of the slope, to the west of the house. In the distance you can see the eucalypt (blue gum) shelterbelt.

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Winter and rainy day jobs

The glorious spud. We grow a lot of potatoes here, this season we’ve harvested over 200 kilos so far and still have a few in the ground. Spuds are a great  staple food to grow at home because they are easy to grow, highly productive and take minimal processing work compared with grains and legumes.  We started digging the first potatoes in late summer and continued digging through the fall. We decided to to leave one patch in the ground in a well drained garden bed which is what is pictured. This particular bed was not planted with potatoes it just had self sown potatoes come up between the pumpkin plants that were there and we decided to let them be and mulch and water them. Though we did have some rotten ones from leaving them in the ground so many months, the biggest setback was green potatoes. Potatoes go green when exposed to sunlight. Having been left so long, the mulch mostly decomposed and the tops of a lot of the potatoes turned green. We will still use most of them, the outer green portions of some will need to be cut off though. We still have over 100 Kilos of potatoes stored, hopefully to last us until next season. We store them in brown Hessian sacks. They were stored in the workshop with an extra layer of bags over them to keep out any light but we just moved them into the cellar, where  it is completely dark. They are hanging from a metal rod placed between the wood floor joists of the house giving them good airflow.

Chipping is a good rainy day job as it can be done under cover of the barn. We produce a lot of prunings too big to readily break down and too small for firewood. The nitrogen fixing inter-plantings, hedges and windbreaks that need frequent cutting make exceptionally good mulch and compost to feed back to trees, berries and vines. Because of the dry fire ecology climate here, woody material tends to dry out rather than decompose when left on its own and become scattered fuel. Chipping this material is part of reducing fire hazard on the property as well as the ecological roll wood chips provide as a mulch and fertiliser.

Winter is a good time to get around to all those maintenance items that never get done in the business of summer. Earlier this week I gave a little attention to the garden tools. All the wood handled tools got cleaned, splinters and rough bits sanded off and a coat of linseed oil applied.

Orchard management and outdoor cooking

This image of the cellar shows the boiled down (pun anyone?) result of lots of work put in over the summer.  We are just about at the end of bottling season and just getting into using the bottled fruit. Ive been working on cutting up and bottling the last few damaged apples. We produce a lot of fruit and a large portion of it is damaged from pests and diseases in one way or another: codling moth and scab on apples and pears and brown rot on stone fruit are the big ones.  Bottling is great because it is so flexible, simple and forgiving: just cut off the bad bits, cook it up and pour it into a bottle.

On that note, we are trying to manage the orchard as best we can to decrease to the amount of damaged fruit from pests and diseases. Though those of us living here have no problem cutting off a little damage or eating around a worm there are lots of reasons why it would be really great to have better quality fruits all round: they last longer (the granny smith apples I’ve been cutting up are great keeping apples in undamaged form and could be stored all winter, instead  almost all of them had scab or codling and had to be bottled) they are saleable,  easier to manage when stored and disease free trees are healthier and happier.

I’ve just sprayed all of the apple and pear trees in their dormant state with Lime Sulphur. Lime  Sulphur is a commercially used  fungicide/insecticide that is acceptable under most (if not all) organic certifications. It is used for a wide range of different insects and fungal diseases on different plants and trees at different concentrations. It is commercially available but we made our own, by boiling sulphur and hydrated lime together until they bond which is a simple process and much cheaper then buying the spray from a garden shop. Though not very pleasant to apply, it is relatively benign environmentally, made up of small amounts of elements useful and beneficial to most soil types. Spraying is not the only solution, and should not be the only thing one does. Healthy plants and trees living in minerally balanced soil with good structure and balanced microbiology are the essential foundations to disease resistance, just like healthy humans who eat good food are less prone to illness. There has been lots of work done here using grazing animals (goats and geese) to build soil structure and microbiology, soil re-mineralization processes, as well as encouraging  beneficial insects and birds.

I want to say a few words about this outdoor cooking drum, I just love it.  It is a small metal drum that once contained bulk olive oil. These drums are thrown out all the time by restaurants and are easily obtained. It simply has the top cut out and a half round inlet cut out of the side at  the bottom. It is very fast and easy  to make with an angle grinder or could probably be made with tin snips and a punch. Though not as efficient as a rocket stove, I’m amazed at how efficient it is, and how much you can do with a small amount of wood. Its simplicity, both in making and in use is its selling point.  It has a really nice air draw, creating a good hot fire that rarely smokes except when first lit. Its great for roasting chestnuts and eating outside as well as outside jobs that are smelly and/or messy that you don’t want to bring inside, like making dye from black walnuts (above) burning bones to release phosphorous or cooking up bad potatoes for the chooks. Some scrap metal can make a series of great attatchments to go on top and improve and diversify of use, a grate on top holds the pot and allows better air draw around the pot.

Bent grass and reading landscapes

Though the list of benefits of a diverse, integrated systems are many (broad range of produce year round, disease control, etc)  nothing is perfect and there are challenges with a high level of integration on a small scale.

Bent grass (Agrostis spp) , known for its creeping and crawling root mass, Is one of the species that gives lots of difficulty here. It is very hard to get rid of once it establishes anywhere because any broken piece of root left in the soil can regrow. It is a fine grass to have in the orchard, the geese love it, I just watched them hang around a large patch of it in the orchard and eat it right down. Its positive ecological roles are its ability to break up the toughest clays with its sharp pointed, tough roots and to hold together soils prone to erosion. In the garden its a real problem, its vigorous growth and speed to send up new shoots make it harder to control than many of  the other common garden weeds. Once an area has had bent grass removed, keeping on top of that area and not letting it get re-established makes management much easier than waiting for it to get dense again.  Having lots of areas with edges between perennial and annual, garden beds bordered by trees and along paths, though efficient use of otherwise marginal space create ideal environments for bent grass to creep back into the vegie beds. Larger annual beds make less work from this perspective as they provide less perimeter area for bent grass to enter. Of course the “edge theory”, of increased productivity where two systems meet or overlap, easily observed on the roadside or along a stream, is a key principle of permaculture, but it seems to me that one has to ask questions like: how many edges are worth maintaining? how intensive should a system be? how much integration? all these questions need to be weighed against what the land is capable of, how much labour there is to go in etc as well as factoring in that a certain amount of weeding is part of a productive vegie production system.  Where appropriate, establishing other ground covers with more desirable traits under perennial fruit trees is a good way to outcompete and succeed the bent grass. Experiments with different techniques in the garden itself have been tried as well, some more successful than others. Dense planting has the potential to outcompete weeds or at least slow down their growth during the cycle of an annual plant. Things like pumpkins/squashes or brassicas that are widely spaced have the potential to be planted in holes amongst a dense ground cover of something more desirable and beneficial in a sort of hybrid annual/perennial system. We have a patch of dense lucerne that acts like this; it has brassicas planted in holes in the ground filled with compost and the lucerne is cut  down regularly and mulched around the brassicas.

I spend a lot of my time off hiking and/or camping in the bush, sometimes with friends, WWOOFers or by myself. This gives me a lot of time to reflect, read landscapes and be inspired by nature. This picture, of a native cherry (exocarpos cupressiformis) in a eucalyptus dominated forest, exemplifies the soil and fertility building charactaristics of the native cherry. The circle of bright green grass around the tree, going right up to the base is easily spotted from the trail I was walking on, on closer inspection the soil under the tree was thick, black and filled  with organic matter, unlike any soil nearby.

 

Free Barley, Greenhouse for winter heat and food, Kiwis, cactus as a food source

About a month ago we had some spontaneous excitement when we got word that a semi-truck filled with barley had tipped over just  south of Daylesford the day before. They had to bulldoze it off the road so

that the traffic could get by. By the time we got there the bulk tonnage had already been salvaged, by someone with a truck and loader we heard. There was still plenty left for our use, with a large area covered in a thick layer of barley; in some spots 1 or more feet deep. So we raked

some up and and shovelled it into bags to fill the station wagon and boxes to fill a ute (pickup truck), and did a few runs. Though it looks a bit dirty in the picture it is actually pretty clean, just some eacalypt bark mixed in; easy to separate. We estimate that we collected 1.5-2 tonnes in total and had a lot of fun doing it. The salvage job was a bit of a community event in a way; 2 different people were there filling bags for their chooks when we arrived and more came and went, some with children, while we were there. This was beyond “produce no waste”. We were “obtaining a yield” from what others couldn’t be bothered picking up.  Into the energy descent future I imagine we wouldn’t see a grain wasted when things like this happen, people would collect everything they could and then bring in animals to finish the job. I’m sure in many other parts of the world right now it would carry out like this already.

 

Our two last WWOOFers, Matt and Oscar, did a great job clearing out the greenhouse of old summer crops and cleaning up the glass so that we can get maximum solar gain over winter to keep the house warm and grow a little food as well.

 

I than raked in some compost and planted a bunch of salad greens to complement all the stored and preserved food we’ll be eating this winter. The greens are a mixture of things planted in seed trays earlier as well as some more mature plants from the garden.

 

 

I’ve just harvested the Kiwi crop. It is a symbolic sign of the change of seasons to me. The kiwis are the last fruit to get harvested. The last keeping apples were done last week and the persimmons and figs before that.  The Kiwis are an important part of our perennial fruit system because of how late they are harvested and how well and long they store. We will be eating them right through the winter, hopefully

until the first berries of spring.
And now some more info on Nopales ( Prickly pear cactus)  as promised.  Nopales make a great drought and winter food  as they grow when there is sun and moisture and they just sit there waiting the rest of the year.  They are extremely tough plants and very nutritious too. Start by picking some paddles. What’s best depends on the variety thats on hand. We have a good eating variety growing on the property that has very small thorns that are easily removed. The wild varieties in this  area are also very good. Some varieties have larger thorns which end up with woody material going all the way through the paddle from where the thorn is. I think the younger paddles from these varieties may not have this problem but I do not have much experience with them. I will focus on the type we have here, which I know the best. You simply pick some paddles by breaking them off, small ones are nice but mid sized ones are good as well. They appear to not have thorns but instead little tufts of hairy stuff. You need to avoid touching these as they are prickly and nearly imposible to remove, if you just put your fingers where the prickles are not you will be alright. (If you do get a prickle, don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt much, especially if you don’t agitate it and will be gone within 24 hrs.) Then just slice off the outer bit where the prickles are and cut them into strips. They can then be sauteed, by themselves or with onion and/or chilli, if you cooking them longer (10-15 minutes) you will cook off a lot of the sliminess but they are also good to eat sooner. Serve with beans and tortillas, or just about any meal for that matter. I apologise, I didn’t get any pictures of the finished product, I’ll have to  take and upload them next time we cook Mexican (hopefully very soon).

 

Apple pressing, Green Manure, Building and more

We recently did a joint apple pressing with our nieghbor and friend, Maureen, her WWOOFer and our WWOOfers. Apple pressing is a great way to turn a surplus of fruit into juice or other products and can be a great community event.  In our area there are a few different presses, some manufactured and some home made, which are shared throught the community.

The apples get quartered, ran through a crusher and then piled in the press. The press pours juice into a back which gets decanted into bottles which are put in a big metal pot that holds about 10 bottles   and heated to 65 degres C, just warm enough to preserve them.
As the crops of different garden beds finish, the ones not  planted out with winter vegies, get sown with a green manure crop. Green manure is a crop that is grown solely for the purpose of increasing soil structure and fertility and commonly consists of a fast growing grass to build organic matter and a legume to fix nitrogen.  The main green manure we are using this winter, and the one shown in this picture, is a mixture of oats and field peas. We are also trying some other green manures on small patches, including quinoa. The quinoa weve planted is growing vigorously right now and looking promising. The wide leaves in a dense planting should work well to shade out weeds and be a strong healthy stand. The main question is how the quinoa, normally grown as a summer grain, will hold up in the frosts. David has seen quinoa grown overseas over winter, but in a slightly milder climate. We dont have very severe frosts ( -2, -3 degrees C is common in the middle of winter, but there is potential for heavier frosts) so it should have a good chance.

As far as rotation of Vegies goes here, we do our best to use good rotation practices to break disease cycles in plants and to use nutrients in a balanced and thorough way. We do not have a strict planned rotation but we do plan things out as the seasons change and adapt those plans based on how season turns out, if a crop finishes earlier or later than estimated, etc. The unpredictability of season in the southern hemisphere make versatility and flexibility very important. We have two main garden areas separated by a good distance of buildings and paths, inside each of these main garden areas there are numerous individual beds following shapes and sizes that fit into the lay of the land. we intentionally move crops between these two areas as well as between the different specific beds. There are also a series of permanent trellises in both garden areas as well as in other small beds on the sides of buildings and fences. Our rotation system is  a big shuffle of all of these factors as well as many more like water supply depending on the season. We currently have a brassica disease called clubroot in one garden area so we’ve made sure that we are no longer growing brassicas in this section, all of our winter brassicas are in the other garden area.  Hopefully with a break in the disease cycle we can eliminate clubroot from the garden.

Over the past week I’ve had the opportunity to spend a few days on the building site, working with James Henderson, our local, very experienced earth builder.  We put up a small section of Light earth wall on the end of the greenhouse which will contain a Clivus Multrum composting toilet and a shower. Light earth construction is fairly new to me and this was my first hands on experience. Light earth made by mixing a clay slurry with straw and ramming it into temporary plywood formwork that is screwed into a stud frame. As the wall goes up the formwork can be undone and moved up a level. Once dry the wall will be coated with a render. The result is a material similar to cob but very heavy on the straw providing great insulative properties. I was very impressed with the speed of this building technique and structural qualities.

These two walls took James and myself one full day and a couple extra hours of another day, not including the time to build the stud frame. Im sure that it would go much faster with a more experienced builder in my place.

And of course its always good fun playing with mud.

Summer turns to Fall

A few weeks before the fall equinox we had a very clear change from hot, dry summer to cool and wet fall. The rains came earlier than usual (if there is a usual here, the southern hemisphere, especially australia is known for unpredictable weather) and with it came a lasting cool change.

Though its dried out a bit since then we are clearly into fall now, theres been lots of autumn   grass growth, germination in the garden and the irrigation has been minimal.

In the garden weve been planting all the winter vegies: brassicas ( cabbage, broccoli, cauli), carrots, beetroot, radish, daikon and lots of greens among other things.

 

Using some extra sheets of glass, some scrap screws, bolts and bits of tin strap I assembled a quick,  temporary greenhouse over a row of capsicum and eggplant  to extend there season.  In addition to the extra warmth in the day, the cover removes the risk of damage from light frost.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Axel and Pedro grading grapes. Grapes are just about finished now but the figs are ripening and the fall raspberries have started in addition to the continuous incoming stream of different apple and pear varieties so were still ‘right for fruit.

 

 

A mexican dinner with Beans, corn, nopales (cactus) and salsa all from the property. Cactus is a fantastic food source, and well adapted to much of Australia, but most people dont have the cultural knowledge and it is mostly viewed as an invasive species instead of a climatically appropriate food producing plant.