Rescuing bees from a rotten poplar tree

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A bee hive at home in the hollow trunk of a poplar tree.
A bee hive at home in the hollow trunk of a poplar tree.

A week ago I received a call from Gavin, my bee buddy, about a wild hive in a local tree. The bees had made their home in the hollow trunk of a poplar tree, one of a row of trees that were all marked to be removed as part of a native revegitation activity by Marrickville Council.

The arborists were up for helping remove the hive, as long as some beekeepers were ready to deal with the actual bees.

Off comes the top of the tree!
Off comes the top of the tree!

The starting point was to take off the top of the tree, which the arborist did at the highest point he could reach. The hollow extended past the fork of the tree, and a small number of bees immediately started using their new hive access…

The tree now cut free at its base.
The tree now cut free at its base.

With the support of the on-truck crane, the arborist (equipped with a borrowed veil) cut through the base of the tree. It was then laid down on the ground, read for us to start work.

Yup, that's a hollow tree!
Yup, that’s a hollow tree!

It was amazing to see how rotted out the tree was, and apparently this is a common problem with poplars. (Of note, there’s research that says that bees benefit from fungi, which assists their immune systems.)

Once the tree was on the ground, I started vacuuming up the bees using a ‘beevac’. This is essentially the same as a sawdust collector that catches material before it gets to the vacuum cleaner, only in this case it’s a collector for bees. (Sorry, no photo of this, I was too busy using the beevac!)

Cutting open the tree.
Cutting open the tree.

With the further assistance of the brave aborist, we opened up the hive, by chainsawing off slices of the trunk. We were then able to cut out and remove the comb, which was a mix of brood and honey.

The remains of an amazing natural hive.
The remains of an amazing natural hive.

Once we’d worked our way along the full length of the trunk, it became fully apparent how large the hive was. It was a very healthy colony, with no signs of pests or diseases, and plenty of activity.

The bees transferred into a new hive.
The bees transferred into a new hive.

Once finished, we emptied the box of vacuumed-up bees into a Kenyan top-bar hive, along with the brood comb. We then left the bees to hopefully settle into their new home.

What surprised everyone was how relaxed the bees were. Despite attacking their home with a chainsaw over the period of an hour, they didn’t go on attack. The aborist received one minor sting on his wrist where his glove had pulled up, but there were otherwise no stings at all.

A truly amazing morning, and great experience for a new beekeeper such as myself.

(Postscript: the bees decided they didn’t like their new home, and the flew away the following day. Ah well, at least they were saved from the woodchipper, and hopefully they’ll find themselves another good home. Better luck next time for us beekeepers!)

Concrete slab in the chicken run versus rats

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Evidence of rats trying to tunnel into the chicken run
Evidence of rats trying to tunnel into the chicken run

As anyone who has chickens in an urban setting knows, the big enemy are rats. They’re cunning and determined, and given a chance they’ll eat all the chicken feed, and anything else they can find.

Three years ago we ran wire underneath the whole chicken run, in order to keep the rats out. The wire has held up very well, but there’s been a renewed push from the rats in recent months. This includes creating a number of underground tunnels and burrows, testing whether they can get access from underneath.

Concerned that they would become motivated enough to chew through the wire (which they can!), I decided to implement a more permanent solution.

Clearing back down to the chicken wire base.
Clearing back down to the chicken wire base.

The first step was to clear down to the layer of chicken wire running across the bottom of the chicken run.

Wire mesh in place as reinforcing for the concrete slab.
Wire mesh in place as reinforcing for the concrete slab.

I then laid down a grid of galvanised iron, to provide reinforcing for the concrete slab. This is held off the ground by a series of spacers.

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Fourteen bags of concrete

The day before I’d headed to the local hardware store, and picked up fourteen bags of ready-mix concrete (thank goodness I’ve now got a ute!).

The concrete slab, just poured.
The concrete slab, just poured.

I mixed the concrete in my wheelbarrow, 2-3 bags at a time. In total, the whole process took about four hours, from the initial clearing through to a freshly-poured slab.The total cost was about $160, including the concrete and wire.

It was also good exercise!

The concrete slab in action.
The concrete slab in action.

At first the chickens weren’t sure about the slab, and were hesitant to walk on it. They’re over that now.

I’m also expecting the concrete slab to be re-buried underneath soil and mulch within a week, once the chickens get scratching. (The wire was previously buried under a foot of accumulated material.)

The plan is also to progressively pour further slabs, working up the chicken run.

Update: within 24 hours the rats gnawed a hole through the wire above ground to get in to the chicken run. Doh! Further reinforcing has been done, and I’m going to pour a little more concrete in some key areas of weakness.

I may have won this battle, but the war against rats continues…

Making things with bamboo

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Bamboo poles, lashed together to form useful garden structures
Bamboo poles, lashed together to form useful garden structures

As part of a book order last year, I picked up a copy of Bamboo Rediscovered by Victor Cusack. This wonderful book draws on decades of experience to show that bamboo doesn’t have to be an invasive monster, and that bamboo poles are tremendously useful, in the garden and elsewhere.

So when it came to protecting our apple harvest against fruit flies and other pests, I turned to bamboo. I sourced a bunch of 3m long poles from All Stakes Supply, who had them delivered to me in just a few days.

Now, how do I actually tie bamboo stakes together into useful structures? Youtube to the rescue, with several handy tutorials on tying square knots. These are the instructions I ended up following:

The first use was to create a support structure for my tomatoes. (It’s enormously high, by the way, so I didn’t have to cut the bamboo poles, thus retaining them for later uses.)

A frames for my tomatoes, made using bamboo poles
A frames for my tomatoes, made using bamboo poles

I also created box frames around my key apple trees, covered by insect netting. The result is rather impressive looking, I think.

Protecting my apples trees against fruit fly, using a bamboo structure and insect netting.
Protecting my apples trees against fruit fly, using a bamboo structure and insect netting.

Full disclosure: my knot skills are still pretty patchy, so some of the frames held up, and others slowly slipped apart. Practice makes perfect!

I now have a good collection of robust bamboo poles, which should last many years, and be useful for a dozen different projects.

(Inspired by the book, I also planted out a number of clumping bamboo varieties in the land behind our house. These should grow to give us better screening from the railway line, and I’ll blog about them at a later date.)

 

 

Our first proper harvest of apples

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Our first real crop of Jonathon apples ready for harvest.
Our first real crop of Jonathon apples ready for harvest.

Four years ago we started planting out our guerrilla-gardened food forest in the land behind our house. This included nine different varieties of apple trees, alongside a mix of citrus and other fruit trees.

While we had a tiny harvest two years ago, this is the first year that we’ve had a reasonable harvest.

The Jonathon variety is by far the strongest tree, and the most prolific producer of fruit. We’ve also got a good crop of local Granny Smith apples on the way.

The trees have been very hit-and-miss so far. Some years it’s been the weather, with a lack of rain during key spring growing period. Fruit fly attack is also a constant problem (I’ll post shortly about our bamboo-and-netting solution.)

Still, we’ve harvested two full bucket loads of apples so far this year, with more to come. That’s a lot of apples for two people to eat.

While a many of the apples are blemished or marked externally, they have wonderfully pale green flawless flesh. Not to mention a crispness and depth of flavour that you just don’t get in supermarket apples that have been sitting in a cool store for upwards of six months. Yum! :-)

Expect more posts shortly on apple-related preserves :-)

A full bucket of apples, ready for a wash -- and then eating!
A full bucket of apples, ready for a wash — and then eating!

Kicking off a straw bale garden

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Six bales of straw, plus two bales of lucern hay (for good mesure)
Six bales of straw (plus two bales of lucern hay, for good measure)

For a long while now I’ve wanted to do two things: grow sweet potato (kumera), and have vegetables in the guerrilla gardened land behind our house. When I stumbled across the book Straw Bale Gardens, it seemed like the perfect answer to both desires.

Straw is the bundled stalks of harvested wheat, and it acts like, well, straws, sucking up and holding onto moisture. I sourced six bales from the friendly folks at Kensington Produce, piling them into my ute.

Six bales, laid out in their final position.
Six bales, laid out in their final position.

The concept is a simple one: lay out a number of straw bales, with the ‘spiky side’ facing upwards. These act as the base of a no-dig garden bed.

For the first two weeks, the straw bales get a few handfuls of fertiliser each day, and plenty of water. This kicks off the breakdown of the bales (straw by itself has very little nutrient).

A sweet potato (kumera) nestled in the straw.
A sweet potato (kumera) nestled in the straw.

Before planting anything else, I nestled a number of sweet potatos (kumera) into the straw (these babies are the main reason I created the garden). In theory I was supposed to let them shoot first, but I couldn’t wait — fingers crossed it works!

A soaker hose laid across the straw bales, with the start of a layer of planting mix.
A soaker hose laid across the straw bales, with the start of a layer of planting mix.

A soaker hose was then laid out across the bales, and then the bales are covered an inch-thick layer of potting mix. I then planted seeds of a mix of different quick-growing vegetables, including lettuce, green beans and amaranth, plus some strawberries.

The straw bale garden fully set up -- now I just have to wait for the seeds to sprout.
The straw bale garden fully set up — now I just have to wait for the seeds to sprout.

The straw bales are already encouragingly warm, so hopefully this will encourage seed germination. I’ll report on progress over the next weeks and months.

As a final note, I’d strongly recommend the Straw Bale Gardens book. It’s a simple concept, but clearly and powerfully communicated. Joel’s garden design is more evolved that the simple version I’ve created, so I’d encourage you to get a copy and start planting!

Starting a new strip of guerrilla gardening alongside the railway line

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Bare earth and hardscrabble weeds, begging for transformation.
Bare earth and hardscrabble weeds, begging for transformation.

About six months ago I started planting natives beside Lewisham train station, taking the initiative where the council and railways hadn’t. That patch is growing well, although it’s constantly under threat from work vehicles which tend to drive down the pedestrian path.

So to diversify my risks, I’ve started guerrilla gardening the other end of the pedestrian way, where it meets West St. As can be seen from the photo above, it was hardly a delight for those walking by.

Having removed the grass and weeds, the soil is dug over and boosted with compost.
Having removed the grass and weeds, the soil is dug over and boosted with compost.

The starting point was to mattock over all the ground, breaking it up, and pulling out the grass and weeds. A full barrow-load of my best compost then went it to add some life back into the soil, along with a few handfuls of native-friendly fertiliser.

It's handy having a ute when it comes to collecting mulch!
It’s handy having a ute when it comes to collecting mulch!

Marrickville Council nursery kindly maintains a pile of mulch, for free use by locals. Now that I have a ute, I took full advantage :-) What wasn’t used on the new strip went to supplement the existing plantings.

A well-prepared strip of garden, ready for planting.
A well-prepared strip of garden, ready for planting.

The result is a new strip of guerrilla gardening ready to be planted. It’s also a great way to get some exercise, as it took a fair portion of a day to get everything done.

The start of a brand new native garden, for the enjoyment of all.
The start of a brand new native garden, for the enjoyment of all.

With a week of grey rainy days ahead (in contrast to the recent heat and humidity!), I got the first plants into the ground. Most of these were cuttings from my previous plantings, but I also added a few new things that I picked up at the council nursery. This included Indigofera Australis (native indigo) and Pomaderris Intermedia, both of which should grow into attractive mid-sized bushes.

Our mini green roof is getting greener

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Our mini green roof is finally, well, green.
Our mini green roof is finally, well, green.

Eighteen months ago we created a mini green roof over the far end of the chicken run. The main goal was to learn more about the practicalities of building a green roof, as adding a bit more visual interest to that corner of the garden.

It hasn’t been the easiest of journeys. Within a fortnight, the local possum ate our green roof down to the ground. The Australian weather was also punishing, even in this relatively shaded and protected spot.

The turning point was switching our planting strategy, narrowing down to two incredibly hardy plans: dianella and bracken fern. Both were transplanted from other areas of the garden, and they settled in quickly.

While it’s still got a little way to go, the photo above shows that the green roof is finally … green. Phew.