First step towards an edible forest garden

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As blogged about previously, our long-term goal for our South Coast property is to create an “edible forest garden“, following the books by Dave Jacke.

This week we took the first steps towards this big vision, with the planting of our first fruit trees.

The trees were all transplanted from Lewisham, with the bulk being citrus trees:

  • Ruby grapefruit (dwarf)
  • Cumquat x 2 (dwarf)
  • Meyer lemon x 2 (dwarf)
  • Kaffir lime (dwarf)
  • Pomegranate (full-sized)
  • Aniseed myrtle & Cinnamon myrtle
  • Acacia (various, all shrubs rather than full-sized trees)

The plantings were carefully designed in advance to ensure that we get the most out of the trees, with the least maintenance work:

GCADPlus drawing

The design was laid out accurately on the ground using triangulation, to ensure that reality matched the plan.

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Triangulating the position of each plant, with two tape measures

After planting, the patch was sheet mulched, with a layer of cardboard covered by hardwood chip mulch. This should keep the weeds down long enough for the cover crops to do their work.

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Sheet mulching the patch with heavy cardboard and wood chip

A few notes on the approach, with references back to Jacke’s book:

  • The planting is done in patches, with are then combined to create the overall garden design.
  • In this instance, it’s a polyculture patch (design pattern #44 from the book), which is a set of complementary plants that support and assist each other.
  • As outlined in our post on citrus guilds, there’s a big focus on nitrogen-fixing plants to support the hungry fruit trees.
  • The diagram above shows the eventual size of the trees (which will be some years off), and to achieve this an approach of instant succession (pattern #31) has been taken. This involves interplanting the gaps in the short term, to direct the eventual outcome.
  • There are at least three layers in the patch (pattern #38), from ground covers, to the dwarf citrus up to the pomegranate (which while full-sized, is deciduous).
  • A lumpy texture (pattern #39) of larger and smaller plants gives better light access, and confuses the pests.
  • I’ve used a number of native species (pattern #43), including acacias (for nitrogen-fixing), plus aniseed and cinnamon myrtles (for culinary purposes).
  • Underneath all the plants will be a thick ground-cover layer (pattern #49) that will be a mix of flowering plants to attract insects (pattern #42), and further nitrogen-fixers.
  • The patch was fenced, with five strands of tensioned wire. This should deter the wallabies and wombats (note I didn’t say stop the animals, as that would be optimistic!).

All the preparation and planting work was knocked off by dad and myself in three days, making it about a man-week of work in total.

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The finished patch, in the last of the afternoon light

Phew! It’s been hard (but rewarding) work this week to get our first patch in place. I’m sure there will be huge successes and crushing failures to come, watch this space!

Pickling large cucumbers

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Late in the season I planted two cucumber plants, with no great hopes for them. In Sydney’s hot and humid climate I’ve found that cucumbers, zucchinis, etc are killed off by powdery mildew long before they produce any real crop.

This time was different, and we were quickly overwhelmed by a glut of cucumbers, some of which had grown quite large.

Sandor Katz to the rescue! His book Wild fermentation — which really kick-started the recent fermentation movement — provided a useful recipe for sour pickles.

Undeterred by the fact I didn’t have lots of tiny “pickling cucumbers” I instead cut my big cukes into thin half-discs. The recipe suggested including grape or oak leaves to keep the pickles crisp, so I scavenged some oak leaves from the convent next door.

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A big jar of cucumbers, with an airlock to keep out the air

Into a big jar went the cucumbers, along with peppercorns, garlic cloves and dill flowers. I added an airlock, and left it to blip away for 3 weeks. And they behaved themselves perfectly: they didn’t bubble up and out the airlock, no mould grew on the surface, and the cucumber slices kept their shape.

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Three jars of piquant cucumber slices

We ate some slices today on a ham sandwich, and they are delightfully tart. Another win for Sandor, thanks!

Giving breathing room for two of our fruit trees

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It always amazes me to see trees planted by themselves in a sea of grass.

Not only does the grass compete fearsomely with the trees, but the grass encourages a bacteria-dominated ecosystem in the soil rather than a fugal ecosystem, which trees require. Trees also prefer to live in a tightly-bound forest of their peers, where their roots are interconnected, making it possible for them to share resources.

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This is one very sad fruit tree!

No wonder then that the two lonely fruit trees planted at Lewisham Farm have been struggling. We think they might be peaches, but we won’t know until we’re able to get them to a point of being healthy enough to fruit!

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The grass is easy to lift up around the tree

The starting point is to cut away all the grass directly around the tree. We then sheet mulched with cardboard, and then weighed down with wombat poos (which we have many of, which is another story!).

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Sheet mulching, with left-over moving boxes. Recycling in action!

(As a side note, there is a danger that the sheet mulching could stop water getting to the roots of the tree. In our case, the farm gets heaps of rain, the ground is well and truly moist.)

The trees will need much more help than this, and they’re also heading into winter dormancy. Still, it will hopefully give them some breathing room, while we find them a better home on the farm…

Constructing our first compost pile at the farm from pallets

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If there’s one thing that gardening produces a lot of, it’s green waste that needs composting. So while we have a small compost bin for the farm’s kitchen scraps, a proper compost pile is needed for the garden, even at this early stage.

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There’s no shortage of free pallets from the local retailers in Nowra

One of the easiest ways to create something fairly solid is to assemble a compost bay from pallets. What’s nice is that pallets are a free resource (the unbranded ones that is), which can be obtained (with permission!) from the loading bays of many shops.

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One of the back corners of the compost bay, screwed together and lined

The pallets are quite easy to screw together, to create a bay that’s two pallets wide, and two deep. Cover the inside of the pallets with shade cloth (or equivalent) to stop the compost falling out.

A half-size front makes it easier to add to the pile, and this is just wired on, allowing it to be easily removed when the compost needs turning (or harvesting!).

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The completed compost bay, already half full with garden waste

We’re only a few months into our farm adventure, and already we have a good-sized pile that should be ready by spring or summer. Happy days.

Our first harvest of dragon fruit

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It’s been a while since we’ve done a “first of” post. We did many during the first heady months of establishing our first proper veg patch, when every harvest is new and exciting. After time, of course, it all becomes very routine and not worth mentioning.

Still, dragon fruit is a pretty spectacular thing! We were given a piece of this succulent by a friend, over five years ago. Since then it’s clambered up our fence and into the tree, but only now has it started to fruit.

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Three yellow and white dragon fruit flowers

The flowers are distinctive, and they bloom for only a very short period. A few weeks later, we had three bright red fruit standing out against the green of the plant, and the grey of the fence.

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Ripe fruit ready for harvesting

A possum eat one, but we still ended up with two fruit. We cut them up to use in a fruit salad, combined with a harvest of mangoes and some yoghurt, yum!

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The unique black and white flesh of dragon fruit

This is just one of the sub-tropical plants that I’m starting to grow in Sydney, as we seemingly shift inexorably away from a temperate climate.

The first beehive arrives at Lewisham Farm

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The plan for our new farm includes a having a number of beehives, to complement the three we already have in Sydney.

So when I heard through the grapevine that a Canberra-based beekeeper was looking to downsize their collection of Warré hives, I jumped on it. Beekeeping does end up taking quite a bit of time, so its no wonder that many beekeepers end up trimming down the number of hives they keep.

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The original home for the hive in Canberra

The hive was in a community garden, where it was happily surrounded by vegetables and fruit trees.

Preparations were made the night before the move, putting on a ventilated lid, sealing up the entrance, and strapping everything tightly. It was then just a matter of getting the hive onto the ute, for the 2.5 hour drive down to the coast.

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Moving the hive was a lot easier with a trolly and ramps for the ute!

Within ten minutes of opening the hive back up the bees were busy flying around, surveying their new location. While there isn’t a huge amount flowering on the farm (it’s mostly rainforest), we do have several hectares of weeds that will keep them going!

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We’re looking forward to sitting on the verandah, watching the bees at work

The plan is is to add a second Warré hive, and a Kenyan top-bar hive, and then see how we go from there. And once we get our plantings underway, they will be very happy hives 🙂

Cleaning the gunk out of our water tanks

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It’s coming up on eight years since we installed our first 5000L water tank, put in during drought conditions. Since then we’ve added two more tanks as part of the renovation.

Over Christmas, when we had three dry months, our tanks dropped to nearly empty. They also started to stink, clearly the results of anaerobic decomposition of the plant material washed off our roof. Smelly water feeding into the washing machine, not good!

Our setup has first flush diverters, designed to capture the first lot of dirty water that flows into the gutter. They’re not magic, however, and gunk still gets in to the tanks, and builds up over time.

In the country, where households have to rely exclusively on their water tanks, it’s routine to get them cleaned out every while. I haven’t heard of it being done in the city, however. This might be because most of the tanks were put in at the same time as us, or later, and the problems are only now starting to emerge.

When we were out at a country show, we collected a business card from Leigh’s water tank cleaning, who we talked into dropping by our place when he happened to be heading into the city. We also talked to the Water Tank Cleaning Company who operate throughout Sydney (their website was down at the time of posting).

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Leigh, showing off his tank cleaning setup

Leigh was very friendly, the the process is surprisingly simple. It’s basically a hand-manoeuvred version of a pool cleaner, which is steered around the base of the tank where the gunk has accumulated.

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This is the dark brown water flowing out, at force, from our tanks

It’s somewhat horrifying to see how much dark brown water gushes forth. No wonder our water filters kept getting clogged up, trying to deal with all that!

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This is the view down into one of the tanks: the white area is the bit that’s been cleaned…

It’s a quick process, and within half an hour, our two main tanks were done. That should keep them going for a few years…