Growing our own food

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 🙂
(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°C 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 🙂

Yes, we have wildlife challenges in the inner-city

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This used to be a head of broccoli
This used to be a head of broccoli

The photos above and below show what were heads of broccoli, almost ready for harvest.

Until the possum decided to have a midnight snack. They were consumed in a single night, so there wasn’t much we could do. (Add to that the ongoing challenges from rats, which will give most things a nibble.)

So yes, even in the inner-city, we have wildlife challenges when growing vegetables…

Another former head of broccoli
Another former head of broccoli

Sauteed choko with tarragon

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As posted earlier, we have a lot of choko, kilos worth. Thankfully we’ve discovered that it’s actually delightful, not the horrible make-do vegetable of reputation.

To demonstrate this, I’ll share a few recipes that we’ve used to get the most of choko, starting with sauteed choko.

Sauteed choko, delicious with sausages.
Sauteed choko, delicious with sausages.

Sauteed choko with tarragon

Cut the choko into thin “chips”, discarding the outside skin if tough.

Heat up olive oil in a frying pan, with some butter.

When the oil and butter starts to foam, add the choko, along with a sprinkling of dried tarragon.

Toss in the oil, and cook until the choko is tender, when tested with the point of a knife.

Add salt and pepper to taste, and serve!

This works wonderfully alongside meat, such as a steak or sausages. Yum!

 

Our first (and only) avocado

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Six years ago I established our guerilla-garden food forest, which included a wide range of apples, plus citrus, avocado and macadamia.

We’ve had a good crop of apples, and an ongoing supply of citrus of various sorts.

Our first (and only!) avocado
Our first (and only!) avocado

And finally, we’ve now had our first avocado. It being our only avocado, we treasured it, and spread it on toast for breakfast. Yum!

Delicious!
Delicious!

Hopefully we’ll have a good crop next season, now that the tree is finally mature enough…

A giant windfall of choko

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That's a lot of chokos!
That’s a lot of chokos!

This is what 22kg of chokos look like, 56 fruit in total.

Two days ago, we had a day of very strong wind as a cold front went through. This dislodged the ripe fruit in our choko vine that had grown all the way up into the trees. A single vine, that is, and there’s still fruit on it!

I needed to get a left-over grain bag to collect them all, and a bunch of them had cracked when the landed on the convent driveway next door. No matter, we’re steaming the broken ones to feed to the chickens, which they love!

The rest we’re eating. Expect to see a bunch of choko recipes posted to the blog over the coming weeks… 😉

Buying a box of bugs

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Whitefly (and a caterpillar) on the underside of our cucumber leaves
Whitefly (and a caterpillar) on the underside of our cucumber leaves

Sydney’s warm weather promotes the spread of a hundred types of bugs, most of which seem to love our pumpkins, cucumbers and zucchini.

This includes whitefly, which can multiply to plague proportions, covering the underside of every large leaf in the garden. Whereupon they proceed to suck the life out of the plants.

This tube contains 10,000 beneficial bugs (!), delivered in the mail
This tube contains 10,000 beneficial bugs (!), delivered in the mail

So with the refrain of “whitefly, begone!”, I ordered a box of bugs. Montdorensis to be specific, which feed on whitefly and thrips (of various sorts).

The thrips are too tiny to see in the vermiculite mix
The thrips are too tiny to see in the vermiculite mix

A small cardboard tube contains 10,000 of these good bugs, and I’m hoping that they’ll establish a permanent presence in our garden (apparently they feed on mites and pollen when thrips are absent).

Good hunting little bugs!

The 1,000 label milestone

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We thought a box of 1,000 labels would last us a lifetime...
We thought a box of 1,000 labels would last us a lifetime…

Three years back, we started creating branded labels for the products we produce, starting with some jars of pickled bur gherkins. At the time, I bought a box of 1,000 labels, and Priscilla laughed. A lifetime it would take to get through these!

Well, fast forward three short years, and the box of labels is finished. I’ve done countless jars of honey, chutneys and pickles, not to mention numerous boxes of eggs.

While a fair bit of the produce has been sold to friends and neighbours, more than half has probably been given away. So that’s 500 jars, bottles and boxes of eggs that have come out of our small patch of land, and have gone on to make someone else happy.

Onwards into the second 1,000 box of labels!