Growing our own food

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.

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 ūüė¶

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

They’re treated like spinach leaves, steamed, fried or saut√©ed. 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!

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.

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 ūüôā
(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

 

A permaculture citrus guild (in Australia)

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At Lewisham House, we love growing citrus. But it’s a hungry crop, and high maintenance.

Now one of the core concepts in permaculture is that of a “guild”. The idea is¬†that instead of just planting a tree by itself, you plant¬†it with a community (a “guild”) of other plants, which provide supporting services. This might include extra nutrients, attractants for beneficial bugs, and the like.

If you search the net, you’ll find plenty of diagrams for apple tree guilds, hazelnut guilds, and other northern hemisphere deciduous trees. But not for citrus trees (that I could find).

So I did a fair bit of reading and thinking, and these are my draft citrus guilds, for Australian warm temperate conditions. All feedback welcome!

Design principles

  • Citrus trees are gross feeders. So the guild has to produce a lot of nitrogen, and other fertilisers, to support the citrus.
  • Design for full-sized and dwarf trees.¬†Dwarfed citrus trees are widely available, and can be very useful in a permaculture context.
  • Minimal maintenance.¬†Ideally, once setup, the guild runs itself.
  • Plants have to be available in Australia. There are plenty of great permaculture plants (like goumi), which I just can’t find in Oz.
  • Australian natives wherever possible. Rainforest plants are particularly useful, as they’re acclimatised to shade and competition.
  • Warm temperate or sub-tropical. Some of the species I’ve chosen would likely struggle in colder conditions.

Citrus guild (full-sized trees; version 1.0)

Citrus guild, drawn to scale (version 1.0)
Citrus guild, drawn to scale (version 1.0)
Linear arrangement of citrus guild (version 1.0)
Linear arrangement of citrus guild (version 1.0)

Citrus guild (dwarf trees; version 1.0)

Dwarf citrus guild, drawn to scale (version 1.0)
Dwarf citrus guild, drawn to scale (version 1.0)
Linear arrangement of dwarf citrus (version 1.0)
Linear arrangement of dwarf citrus (version 1.0)

Notes and questions

  • I’ve packed in as many nitrogen-fixing species that I can, with a mix of native and introduced species.
  • Acacia (wattle) are great nitrogen-fixers, and they thrive in most conditions. But the big question from what I’ve read is: do acacias release that nitrogen into the soil for the benefit of other trees, or just keep it for themselves. An answer please! (I’ve done a lot of looking, and I’m still uncertain.)
  • A linear arrangement is just one possibility, and it happened to match some other design work that I was doing at the time.
  • Does this guild work in practice? I’m just starting to experiment in the real world, so all feedback and suggestions welcome.
  • Have I missed any good plants that can serve a productive purpose in the guild? Again, all suggestions encouraged.
  • Are there other citrus guild drawings that I’ve missed? Please post links in the comments below.

 

Pumpkin and choko dauphinoise

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Sliced ingredients, ready for the baking dish
Sliced ingredients, ready for the baking dish

In another of our series of choko recipes, this is a variation on the classic potato dauphinoise, only with pumpkin, choko and radishes.

The method is simple:

Slice the ingredients thinly, using a mandolin or knife.

Layering up the vegetables
Layering up the vegetables

Then layer the vegetables in a small, high-sided baking dish. Alternate the ingredients, adding small knobs of butter as you go. I also added some dried sage (home-made of course!), salt and pepper.

Then pour in cream, to come up the level of the vegetables.

Bake in a 180¬įC¬†oven for 45mins. I then added a layer of grated cheese (why not!), and baked until golden brown.

Delicious!
Delicious!

The result was delicious with pork sausages and peas ūüôā