Sweet potato as a source of greens

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That mound of green is one of our current success stories in the garden, but not in the way we expected.

It’s sweet potato, and it’s the best example of my pivot from temperate to sub-tropical plants, matching the shift in Sydney’s climate. It isn’t eaten by slugs, snails, caterpillars or other bugs. It’s not affected by powdery mildew, rusts or other fungal diseases. It’s not even slightly stressed by 40deg heat.

Last season, however, it completely failed to provide edible tubers. Doh 😦

And then I saw on Gardening Australia that sweet potato leaves are edible. Eureka!

They’re treated like spinach leaves, steamed, fried or sautéed. They’re delicious, and we use them in salads, as a green alongside meat, or in stir-fries.

They’ve become all our all-year, all-weather source of greens. But let’s hope that this season they also give us actual sweet potatoes!

Weedy resources from the Department of Agriculture

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Whether you’re in the city or the country, you have to wage a constant war on weeds. Many are hard to kill, some are poisonous.

Others, however, are hard to identify. And if you don’t know what it is, how do you know whether to pull it out (and how)?

When down at the recent Small Farm Field Day, I visited the stand manned by the Department of Agriculture. They pointed me to an excellent phone app, called NSW WeedWise.

This contains a comprehensive collection of weeds, including photos and descriptions. It also indicates how serious a weed is, and whether you’re required to destroy it.

A lot of the weeds I already knew about, but I was pleased to learn about Moth vine. This looks quite like choko, and it’s growing on the back fence of the convent.

Far from being edible, however, it has sap that’s poisonous, and it spreads itself liberally when the seed pod bursts open.

Another day, another weed. Download the app from the Apple Store or Google Play.

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One of the many weeds listed in the NSW WeedWise app.

Drying our own (uncommon) herbs

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Dried herbs are a pantry staple, used in everything from roasts to pasta sauces. While they’re easily obtainable in every supermarket, it’s nice to make your own.

Particularly when you’re drying herbs that simple can’t be found in shops.

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On the left, a jar packed full of dried pineapple sage; on the right, normal sage

Pineapple sage, apart from being loved by bees, makes a delicious tea. Infuse a teaspoon’s worth of herbs for 5mins, and then drink with delight.

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Dried branches of lemon-scented tea tree

Lemon-scented tea tree (leptospermum peteronii) has a lovely lemony taste, as the name would suggest. Distinctly different from a lemon, the dried herb can nonetheless be used as a replacement for lemon in soups, etc.

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The tea tree leaves, plucked and ready to store

All of these herbs were dried in our cool cupboard, and the biggest effort is plucking off the leaves to store them.

What herbs are you drying from out of your garden?

Converting to a wicking bed

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Tree roots are a constant challenge for inner-city vegetable gardeners, particularly when they’re from camphor laurel trees. Over the years, I’ve taken various steps to protect the beds, including replacing some of the existing raised beds with entirely enclosed tanks. Because of the cost and effort, I only re-engineered the lower beds that were closer to the trees, hoping that this would be enough.

Sadly this was not the case. My top bed, closest to the road, had been steadily dropping in productivity, so I had a poke around. And sure enough, the bed was filled with tree roots, coming up from underneath.

So I decided to rework this as a wicking bed. Deep Green Permaculture has by far the best description of how wicking beds work, including a description of both advantages and disadvantages (something I haven’t seen anyone else cover).

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The starting point was to dig out all the soil from the bed, tacking it down to a flat surface free of rocks or other sharp objects.

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And this is just a fraction of the roots that I dug out of the bed, which wound themselves around the entire perimeter of the bed, reaching almost up to surface level. No wonder the bed was struggling!

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The bed is lined with pond liner, which I obtained from Clark Rubber. (I noted that some instructions suggested using much cheaper  builders plastic, but the Deep Green Permaculture notes strongly discourage this, as the thinner plastic just doesn’t last.)

A thin layer of scoria (rough volcanic rock) then goes down underneath the ag-pipe. (I obtained the scoria from BC Sands, and had it delivered in a 1-tonne bag.)

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A 20cm deep layer of scoria was then laid down, covered by a layer of geo-textile. I also drilled an overflow valve at the top of the scoria, with a tank outlet screwed in.

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I then re-filled the garden bed, adding a lot of home-made compost, fertiliser and trace elements.

All up, about a day’s labour was required, but the new bed is now back to being highly productive. I have enough left-over scoria to do another bed, which I’ll do when the season ends.

Checklist for placing a beehive in urban locations

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When you drive into the countryside, you often see hives placed in fields, or beside the road. By themselves, or in a cluster, these hives seem perfectly suited to their location.

In urban settings, there are no wide open fields. Hives can’t be placed in forest clearings to catch the honey flow. There is no space to use mechanical aids to lift or move hives.

In many ways, however, urban areas are ideal for bees. There is a constant supply of flowering plants — even during dry times — thanks to the constant watering of household gardens.

Urban hives often prosper, and many inner-city residents are delighted to see more bees in their area.

The challenge remains to put the hives in a practical location, working within constraints and limitations. This post starts with a few guiding principles, and then outlines a checklist of factors to consider.

Use these to assess potential locations for your hive(s), to make your life — and your neighbours! — easier.

Guiding principles

  • it must be safe to work on the hive
  • there must be sufficient space to work efficiently
  • the hive will prosper in its environment
  • problems with neighbours or other locals will be avoided

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Site selection

❏ It’s possible to get a full, heavy hive in and out of the location (on a trolley for example)

❏ Ideally the hive can be accessed without going through the house (beekeeping is a sticky hobby!)

❏ Ideally, the hive is placed on a flat surface (level ground, or a flat roof)

❏ There’s a solid foundation or platform for the hive to sit on (hives can get heavy!)

❏ The hive won’t flood during heavy rain, or have its foundation eroded away

❏ No tenancy rules are broken (for example, a hive may not be allowed on a balcony of a block of flats)

❏ House lights don’t shine on the hive at night (otherwise bees will fly in through open windows and doors)

❏ Windows and doors overlooking the hive entrance should be protected by flyscreen, wherever possible

❏ The hives isn’t  adjacent to any sensitive locations (such as a childcare centre next door, busy dog park, etc)

❏ The neighbours have been told about the hive and are happy for it to be there (promises of free honey often help!)

Access and working area

❏ There is at least 9 square m of working space around the hive (3m x 3m)

❏ The space around the hive is solid and easy to work on (ie no bushes, loose rocks, slippery surfaces)

❏ There is space to stand and work behind the hive (the safest location)

❏ It’s possible to get a hive lifter (or other necessary equipment) behind the hive

❏ There should be sufficient space for 3 people to work on the hive (one owner, and two helpers or novices)

❏ There are clear escape routes if — heaven forbid! — something goes wrong, and you are faced with a hive of very angry bees

❏ There’s no height restriction (a particular consideration for Warre hives, which can get very tall)

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Hive considerations

❏ Ideally, the entrance to the hive should face East (although the bees seem to cope fine if this isn’t the case)

❏ There must be a clear flight line in front of the hive, of at least 3m

❏ Any fences in the flight line must be far enough away, or low enough, not to impede the movement of the bees

❏ In cold areas, the hive should receive winter sun

❏ In hot areas, the hive should be protected from the full summer sun

❏ Ideally, it should be easy to monitor the hive entrance throughout the year (eg a sight line from the balcony, deck, window, etc)

❏ Hives should ideally have a relatively placid temperament, to avoid the situation of angry bees attacking the neighbours

❏ There should be a reasonable number of hives in the location, so as not to cause nuisance or safety issues

Bending the rules

In urban areas, hive owners face many practical constraints. The balcony might be quite small, or the back yard heavily sloping. The courtyard may be flat and sunny, but surrounded by high walls. Plantings may impede the working area around the hive.

Rules can be bent or even broken, but with care and due consideration. Every compromise must be understood, and always go back to the guiding principles.

Safety must always be a prime consideration, not just for the apiarist but for neighbours and visitors.

Three of my hives are on the roof of our house, for example. This has restricted access (ladder required!), but there is 100sq m of flat roof to work on. This would not have been my first choice, but our backyard was too small for hives. Having implemented a few safety improvements, this location is entirely workable.

If you really don’t have a good location for bees, don’t despair! Many people would love to have bees in their gardens, and be a host for your hive. The general rule is that the honey harvests are split 50/50, but that still leaves plenty for everyone. More importantly, it allows you to be a true beekeeper, and to benefit from an amazing experience.

Happy beekeeping!

 

Creating an edible forest garden: the start of a 20 year journey

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The big plan for our rural property is to create something called an “edible forest garden”, as described in the book by the same name by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier.

This is like the “food forest” concept described in permaculture, but on steroids.

The overarching idea is to create a forest-like ecosystem, but with as many of the niches filled with food-producing plants. For example, this could consist of a:

  • canopy of fruit or nut trees
  • a middle layer of food-producing bushes (rainforest plants should be a good fit)
  • ground layer of supporting plants, adding nutrients or attracting beneficial bugs

Contrast this to a typical orchard: the trees are carefully spaced to maximise production, but underneath there’s nothing but grass that needs to be constantly mowed. The trees themselves need constant feeding and management.

The orchard produces the most fruit, but only the fruit. The edible forest garden has more competition between plants, so the canopy produces less. But when you add up all the food produced at all the layers, it wins hands-down. Better yet, by mimicking a normal forest, only a little management is needed, and hopefully no maintenance.

Has this been done in Australia?

The original ideas come out of North America and the UK, and this is where most of the real-life examples come from. I’ve heard of a few small-scale gardens in Australia, but I suspect there’s not many in total.

So my goal is to fully explore this concept in temperate Australia, utilising native bushfoods and rainforest plants wherever possible.

The books are very heavy-weight, and the approach requires a huge amount of planning. It may be 6-12 months before even the first plant goes into the ground.

I’ll write up our journey as it progresses, starting with our goals for the edible forest garden, and then working steadily down into design details.

Give us 10-20 years, and voila, there should be an edible forest! Lucky for us it’s the journey we’re looking forward to 🙂

PS. the pair of Edible Forest Gardens books are excellent, and I’d highly recommend you get a copy if you want to take food forests to the next step…

 

We’re now officially farmers!

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The house with a backdrop of rainforest, and a wombat hole in the foreground

Over the years, we’ve implemented an tremendous series of improvements to our house in Lewisham. We’ve been growing all our greens, collecting eggs from our chickens and harvesting honey from the beehives on our roof.

We’ve also guerrilla gardened our verge, the convent behind us and alongside the railway station.

But our ambitions haven’t stopped there, and I’m pleased to say that as of today, we’re now going to be farmers!

After much searching, we’ve purchased a 22ha (56acre) property in the hills overlooking Berry on the South coast.

The lovely two-story cottage sits on the side of a hill, with a backdrop of lush rainforest. Amongst the trees, there are six main fields which total about 4-5ha (8-10acres), with a rural zoning.

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Surveying just one of the lush fields on the property

Fear not, we’re not leaving Lewisham! For the next while, this will be a weekender for us, with our main residence remaining in Sydney.

We have big plans for the property, however, with a 10-20 year permaculture project in the pipeline. More on this soon…

In the meantime, we’ll start shopping for a tractor, and a shed to put it in 🙂
(We get access to the property at the end of March.)

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A small sample of the rainforest that makes up the majority of our land