A dessert of Dianella and mixed berries

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Dianella caerulea (blue flax-lilly) produces bright blue/purple berries.
Dianella caerulea (blue flax-lilly) produces bright blue/purple berries.

We’ve extensively planted Dianella Caerulea (Blue Flax-Lilly) throughout our native back garden, and in our verge gardens. It’s tough, drought hardy, and fast growing.

It also produces delicate blue flowers, which then grow into bright blue/purple berries.

These are a native bush food.
These are a native bush food, with an enjoyable flavour.

These are a native bush food, with a pleasant, if not overly strong flavour.

One afternoon's modest harvest of berries.
One afternoon’s modest harvest of berries.

I picked a good harvest of them one afternoon, supplemented by takings from our raspberry and blueberry plants.

Delicious berries with yoghurt and  honey from on own hives.
Mixed berries with yoghurt and honey from on own hives.

Together, they made a delicious dessert, when combined with greek yoghurt and our own honey.

A feast for both the eyes and mouth!

First honey harvest for the season

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10 frames from my main bee hive, bursting with honey
10 frames from my main bee hive, bursting with honey

In Sydney, honey bees never go completely dormant over winter. With not even frost where we live, they can keep foraging on the native plants that flower during winter.

With the two weeks of solid rain at the beginning of spring, absolutely everything is in flower at the moment. That makes for a very strong ‘honey flow’, and abundant early harvests.

Last week I was therefore able to take the first harvest from my main hive. On a very warm Saturday morning, I had the help of a bunch of other local natural beekeepers (organised via the Natural beekeeping in Australian and NZ mailing list.)

The whole top box (8 frames) were totally full of honey, some laid down over winter (dark in colour), and some fresh from recent flowerings (light in comparison). We also harvested two frames from the box below, making 10 frames in total!

The honey press, filled to the brim with honeycomb, ready for extraction.
The honey press, filled to the brim with honeycomb, ready for extraction.

Making use of the Sydney bee club‘s honey press, I was able to harvest 13.75 litres of honey. That’s a good start to the season!

Honey pouring out!
Honey pouring out!

That makes for plenty of jars, so give us a yell when you see us about and about, and we’ll sell you a jar or two :-)

Why you shouldn’t plant citrus trees in the verge

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Yes, that's a lemon tree buried in amongst the nasturtiums...
Yes, that’s a lemon tree buried in amongst the nasturtiums…

Before Lewisham, we lived in a unit in Chippendale. Surrounded by the local guerrilla gardening of the verge, we were equally enthusiastic when we moved into our new house.

We remain strong supporters of the principle of gardening the verge (nature strip). We’ve learned along the way, however, a bit about what works and what doesn’t.

What works in the verge

There are many possibilities for gardening the verge, while staying in local council guidelines.

“Pick and come again” mediterranean herbs work particularly well. They’re tough, attractive, and useful for office workers heading home to make their evening meal. Olive trees and bay trees also work well, acclimatised as they are to tough conditions.

There are plenty of native plants that work well in the verge, from low-running ground-covers and strap-leaf grasses, through to hardy bushes and small trees. (We’re quite pleased with our native verge.)

What doesn’t work in the verge

Our biggest lesson is that citrus trees don’t work well in the verge. Since this is the hardest learned lesson for us, it’s worth sharing a few specific reasons:

  • Citrus trees are gross feeders. That is, they require a lot of food, throughout the year. Without this, they remain stunted and fruit-less. (For example, for us to get lots of limes, we greatly ramped up our feeding regimen.)
  • Citrus are attacked by bugs and diseases. There’s practically nothing that they aren’t attacked by, including citrus leaf miners, stink bugs, aphids, thrips and citrus gall moth, to name just a few.
  • Citrus aren’t set-and-forget. For the reasons listed above, citrus need constant monitoring and care, for their entire lifetime.
  • They get stolen. Mirroring the experience in Chippendale, three of our four citrus trees were stolen in the first fortnight, the last being left only because it looked so poor.
  • People are impatient. While the whole idea of edible plants in the verge is to share the bounty, we’ve found that the fruits get taken well before they’ve even ripened.
  • People are careless. More often than not, a whole branch will be ripped off, rather than a single fruit twisted free.

In short, don’t plant citrus. Beyond this, each local council will have guidelines about what not to plant. Large street trees are typically seen, for example, as the sole domain of the council to plant.

But there are plenty of other options! May your verge live well and prosper.

Swarms and more swarms

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A small wild hive in the bushes at a friend's house.
A small wild hive in the bushes at a friend’s house, caught after a bit of tree trimming…

This blog has been a bit quiet because it’s been full-on swarming season in Sydney. This has made a mess of my plans, as I drop everything and rush off to catch bees.

With such a warm winter, and plenty of early Spring rain, the bees have all decided to spread out to new homes.

So far I’ve caught six swarms:

  • Castle Hill: as previously blogged, an easy going swarm in a tree, caught by cutting off the tree branch and shaking into a box.
  • Maroubra: also up a tree, but high enough to make it quite a challenge, with success only coming by nightfall.
  • Ashfield: a prime swarm (the first big swarm from a hive), from a nearby wild beehive in a tree trunk (more on this one later).
  • Beaconsfield: a small wild hive  — complete with comb — in a bush (see above). This was in the front of a good friend’s house and after trimming the bush, I was able to shake the bees into a box, then take the remaining comb.
  • Next door: a win for my bait hive (see below), catching a good strong swarm.
  • Drummoyne: a wild hive high up in a tree — got stung a lot trying to catch it, and still didn’t get the queen — will have to go back for another try.
  • Ashfield (again): another swarm from the same tree trunk, this time smaller and very conveniently located at chest height.

Some of the swarms I’ve kept, and others I’ve given to local natural beekeepers who have all the boxes, but no bees (good karma in a future life). I’m sure these won’t be the last swarms of the season…

PS. The next few posts will also be about bees, but I promise we’ll get back to wider eco and permaculture topics shortly! :-)

One of my new bait hives, established beside the former convent, next door to our house. Within a fortnight it caught a swarm!
One of my new bait hives, established beside the former convent, next door to our house. Within a fortnight it caught a swarm!

Fifty plants now in around Lewisham Station

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A pile of seedlings and tube stock, all going well.
A growing collection of seedlings and tube stock, all going well.

Since my early native plantings around Lewisham Station, I’ve been steadily adding to the collection, mostly by planting a few of my hand-raised cuttings each weekend.

I’ve now reached the milestone of fifty plants. These are planted closely together — typically about 30cms apart — to create a dense “bush pocket” effect.

While that might seem like a crazy amount of over-planting, it’s all to a plan:

  • At the back of the strip, a canopy of small trees, including acacias (wattles) and callistomons (bottle brushes).
  • A mid story of native bushes, including westringias (native rosemary), correas (native fuchsia)  and prostantheras (mint bushes).
  • A bottom story of strap-leaf plants at the front of the strip, and a mix of hardy groundcovers throughout the rest.

I reckon there may be 30-50 more plants required to fill it all out, but I’ll continue the slow-and-steady approach.

So far only two plants have died, and they were struggling as cuttings even before I planted them out.

Fingers crossed the rest will keep on going strong!

A swarm of bees travels from Castle Hill to Lewisham

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The swarm of bees, hanging off a tree branch
The swarm of bees, hanging off a tree branch

On Sunday I received a call from a Daniel, fellow beekeeper, to say that a swarm had been reported in Castle Hill.

Since I’m in the market for bees, I dropped everything and headed out North West. (Luckily I’ve been keeping a complete “swarm kit” in my boot for this purpose.)

The property is owned by Ron, who has a single Lansgstroth hive in his front garden. He actually saw the swarm leave his hive, and fly up into the adjacent tree.

Not the most convenient place for the swarm to land...
Not the most convenient place for the swarm to land (you can see Ron’s hive in the background, painted green).

While the swarm was a good size, it was 10′ up the tree, making logistics a bit challenging. With the help of Ron, we pulled the branch down a little with rope. I then went up the ladder, and sawed off the branch.

The swarm was shaken into my waiting boxes...
The swarm was shaken into my waiting boxes…

My hive was setup on the ground, with frames in the bottom box, and the top box empty. I shook the bees from the branch into the hive, but a heap of bees were still flying around.

We waited. After 10mins, the number of flying bees was visibly less. After 15mins, pretty much all the bees were in the hive, and I declared victory. The lid went on, and the hive was strapped up for the drive home.

When I got home, I took the bees up on the roof, and opened up the box. Within minutes there was a huge cloud of bees around the house, which was very odd!

As it turned out, the bees swarmed again the moment I opened up the box. And then decided that the bait hive sitting just 50cms away would be much better, and they swarmed into that.

So all’s well that ended well, and I’m the proud owner of two hives of bees :-)

Now I just need some bees for my new top-bar hive, and for a hive at a friend’s house…

Completing the set: we now have solar hot water

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A shiny new set of 30 evacuated tubes on the roof
A shiny new set of 30 evacuated tubes on the roof

When the feed in tariff for solar electricity was put in place, we were one of the early movers, installing a 1.6kw solar PV system on our roof. With the limited space on our roof, we had to pick between solar electricity and solar hot water, and we chose the former.

Once we finished our renovation, however, we had 99m2 extra of flat roof to play with.

Nonetheless, we’d already purchased a super-efficient instantaneous gas system to replace our 1988-era electric hot water tank. We’d hardly be saving the environment if we threw that away, so solar hot water remained on the long-term to-do list.

With the likelihood of rising gas prices over the next few years, I recently looked back into solar hot water options.

What I discovered is that it was possible to reuse our instantaneous gas system as part of a solar hot water installation.

It’s simple really: the evacuated tubes on the roof heat up the water in a storage tank (shown below). The output of the tank goes through the instantaneous gas system. If the water is already hot, the gas system does nothing. If it’s only warm, it boosts it as required.

So no manual boosting or fiddling around, with a 100% guarantee of hot water.

We ended up purchasing a system with 30 evacuated tubes, plus a 300L storage tank. This is far in excess of what we need for two people, but with the roof partially shaded in winter, the extra tubes were chosen to ensure we take maximum advantage of the morning sun.

We’ll be getting back $1300 from the government for the STCs (solar credits).

On current gas prices, the payback period is 8-10 years, which isn’t great. But I’m expecting the gas prices to rise, which should seriously shorten the payback period.

Anyway, it’s good to complete the set of environment-saving technologies :-)

PS. after 3+ months of no rain, we had 2 solid weeks of rain immediately after putting in the solar hot water. Not great for our solar generation, but good for the garden I guess ;-)

The 300L tank gets squeezed into the side passage of the house.
The 300L tank gets squeezed into the side passage of the house, alongside the instantaneous gas system.