Lewisham farm

Second citrus patch planted

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GCADPlus drawing

Following on from our first patch of dwarf citrus, a family work gang has helped us plant out our second patch. This is of full-sized citrus, with supporting guild.

A few notes:

  • With full-sized rather than dwarf citrus, patch 2 is a little under twice the size of patch 1.
  • The ‘spine’ of the planting are three Elaeagnus Ebbingei a nitrogen-fixing plant that increases the fertility of fruit trees, and is highly-recommended for permaculture gardens.
  • There’s a mix of native citrus (eg finger lime), introduced citrus (eg navel orange) and a few that are hybrids of the two (eg sunrise lime).
  • I’ve snuck a few berry bushes into the understory on the Eastern side (currants and gooseberry). I want to test how they perform in increasing shade, as well as seeing whether all the fruit is eaten by birds, etc. Consider it a living experiment 😉
  • As before, everything is sheet mulched, with a bunch of ‘in-fill’ plants to go in shortly to shade out any weeds.

With Spring coming, lets see how this patch goes!

 

Our vision for Lewisham Farm and its edible forest garden

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The transformation of our 22ha property overlooking Nowra will take several decades. A core part of this journey is creating an “edible forest garden”, as described by Dave Jacke in his books with Eric Toensmeier.

One of the starting points is to document a clear vision or goal statement. There’s a few reasons for doing this:

  • it’s hard to get somewhere if you don’t know where you’re headed!
  • an edible forest garden requires long-term planning
  • there are many different ways of creating a garden
  • there are often multiple people involved, with different goals, but with the need for a common vision

In our case, Priscilla is all about country gardens & flowers, and I’m all about big-scale transformations. So we sat down, did some brainstorming, then some wordsmithing.

I’m sure this vision will change hugely over the coming years as we learn a heap, but this is where we’re starting. (Note that Jacke recommends writing the vision as we’ve already achieved the outcome)

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At the centre of the property, the country-styled house is surrounded by a delightful cottage garden. Laid out in neat shapes, it provides a relaxed environment and a year-round supply of cut flowers.

Surrounded by vibrant rainforest on all sides, the broader property is devoted to an Australian ‘edible forest garden’ that provides an abundance of fruits, nuts and native bushfoods. Arranged as interconnected fields and ‘garden rooms’, the local micro-climates have been exploited to allow a great diversity of spaces, each with a very different feel and mix of plants.

There is also a tranquil pond with ducks, productive bee hives, a vegetable patch and a greenhouse for propagating plants.

Our friends and family have also enjoyed the escape from the city, as well as helping with every stage of the transformation. The small eco-cottages set in the more distant fields are rented out to provide a modest income.

This has been a decade-long journey, with the learnings shared with the wider permaculture community. We’ve been able to show how much can be done by part-time farmers, and how Australian rainforest plants can be integrated into a food-growing system. (1 August 2017)

 

Our new off-grid solar goes in

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One of the things we liked about our farm when we bought it was that it was truly off-grid. That means managing our own power, water and sewage. Truly living the eco dream!

What we weren’t so excited about was the terrible state of the solar generation system. It hadn’t been serviced in the last decade, meaning the lead-acid batteries had been allowed to go dry, the generator was failing, and the lights dimmed every time the water pump when on.

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The old batteries, hugely heavy (50kg+), which had been allowed to go dry

So a brand new PV system was required. Our immediate challenge was finding someone who could sell and install a solar solution.

Our farm is located in a rural setting surrounded by rainforest and fields. But it’s also just 10 minutes away from the nearest town, making it semi-urban.

The net effect is that very few of the local PV systems are off-grid, and few of the local installers had experience with off-grid setups. We wanted someone nearby to do the work, so we could get good post-installation support.

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Installing the new panels on the roof

It’s worth  highlighting at this point that there are power lines that run across a corner of our property. Connecting to the grid, however, would cost $20-30k, and then we’d have to pay electricity bills.

We ended up getting one good quote for a new system, for a total cost of $30k. So the same up-front cost, but with a lifetime of free power. That was an easy decision.

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The heart of the new system, a Sunny Island controller, and a Sunny Boy inverter

The key components of the system are as follows:

  • SMA 6Kw Sunny Island, which is a beautiful bit of kit that charges the battery and manages the local grid
  • 5Kw of solar panels, on the north-facing roof of the house
  • Sunny Boy inverter for the panels
  • 17Kwh of battery storage, utilising lead-carbon gel batteries
  • 7Kw Honda petrol generator, with auto-start
  • web-based interface for monitoring the system

It took the team three days to strip out the old system and to install the new one. Right from the beginning it’s been working well, and getting enough sun even in mid-winter (where the sun hits the panels at 11am, until 3pm when the sun dips behind the mountain).

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The new lead-carbon batteries, quite a difference from the old monster batteries!

A few notes:

  • The general rule of thumb for off-grid is to have 3 days of usage in the batteries, to cover off the occasional rainy week.
  • The generator has been configured to kick in if the batteries reach 30% of capacity, and to then take them back up to 70%.
  • We didn’t use lithium-ion batteries (like the Tesla Powerwall) because they’re not yet designed for off-grid, and the price is still too high.
  • The system operates as a “local grid”, allowing me to re-install the old PV panels on the new shed, connect them to a small inverter, and then just to wire that into the grid. T’he Sunny Island then manages the load across the system as a whole, which is a very elegant solution.

It’s early days for our solar setup, and we’ll report back as the months unfold.

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The new panels in place, three rows for a total of 5Kw

 

 

Home-made wax fire lighters

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When browsing Pinterest I came across instructions on how to create home-made wax fire lighters.

With a fair bit of unprocessed wax on hand at the end of the beekeeping season, I was very interested. Particularly for the wood fire down at the farm, in these colder winter months.

I started by melting down a big lump of wax, which you can see contains a fair bit of gunk.

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The messy pile of left-over wax at the end of the beekeeping season

A good friend of ours provides us with big bags of free wood shavings, to use in the chicken coop. I used these to fill up a number of paper muffin cups.

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Muffin cups filled with wood shavings

The hot wax then went into the paper cups, the result being (once cooled), a set of unusual-looking fire lighters.

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One of the final products — and it works!

Now I won’t claim that these are as quick and easy as the fire lighting blocks that you can buy. They take a bit of convincing to light, but once they’re going they work well.

They’re particularly effective at restarting the fire each morning, as the coals are still warm from the night before. This primes the wax to light more easily.

If nothing else, these are a great way to make use of available materials that we get for free, namely: wax and wood shavings. Happy days.

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!

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…

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 🙂