Guerrilla gardening

Will we get macadamias this year?

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Our 4 year old macadamia tree, still small at 3m high.
Our 4 year old macadamia tree, still small at 3m high.

The one request from the nuns when I started the guerrilla gardening of the convent land was to plant a macadamia tree. Apparently at a convent they stayed at in the country they had a wide range of fruit trees, and fresh macadamias were a particular delight.

The tree I planted 4 years ago is still small, perhaps 3m high. It’s had a rough time, with kids splitting the trunk early in its growth, plus various periods of drought conditions.

The fruiting spikes, hanging within the canopy of the tree.
The fruiting spikes, hanging within the canopy of the tree.

Nonetheless, this year has produced a good number of fruiting spikes this year. So hopefully this year will be our first macadamia harvest!

(The good news is that the shell of the nuts is so hard that even the rats can’t gnaw their way in…)

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Home-made olives

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On the back of our verge gardening, a neighbour from down the street asked if it would be reasonable to plant an olive tree next to their house. Of course I said: go for it!

A guerrilla-gardened olive tree in the verge.
A guerrilla-gardened olive tree in the verge.

Fast forward only a few years, and the small tree started producing olives. They sat on the tree, ripening, and eventually starting to fall onto the street. So you know me: I hate seeing something go to waste…

So we took a small ladder around, and harvested about half a bucket’s worth. Not a huge amount, but still quite a few.

A small harvest of olives, ready for pickling...
A small harvest of olives, ready for pickling…

Now olives can’t be eaten fresh, as they contain a very bitter substance that needs to be treated away. A bit of Googling found an excellent resources from the University of California titled Olives: Safe Methods for Home Pickling.

It outlines seven different methods, and I chose the kalamata-style approach.

Olives 'de-bitering' in a jar of water for 20 days
Olives ‘de-bitering’ in a jar of water for 20 days

This involves soaking/fermenting the olives in water for 20 days, changing the water each day.

Our home-made vinegar, produced from left-over wine
Our home-made vinegar, produced from left-over wine

After that, the olives were pickled in a mix of brine and red wine vinegar. (My home-made vinegar, by the way, created from left-over bottles of wine.)

Three jars of home-made olives...
Three jars of home-made olives…

Now I don’t actually like olives, but I’m assured that the results were excellent (a ‘very mild’ flavour, and ‘the best olives I’ve had’). Now I can’t confirm the veracity of these statements, but it was a fun process, and actually not very labour intensive.

All in all, it was a good proof of concept, and I think I’ll give it another go next season, if there’s a good crop…

 

Making progress with our railway plantings

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Mulch and forestry tubes are the friend of an exposed native garden.
A far better sight than a strip of scrubby weeds…

The key to guerrilla gardening is to be indifferent to the survival of any one plant, while remaining passionate about the success of the garden as a whole.

In the year since I last blogged about our guerrilla gardening along the railway line, there has been plenty of progress, and a fair share of setbacks.

First the challenges:

  • The railways folks decided to replace the electricity substation right next to the garden, leading to trucks being squeezed down the pedestrian pathway, crushing a pile of plants. (Their reworking of the security fence also killed off a bunch more.)
  • Pretty much all of the groundcovers were wiped out by the big hailstorm.
  • Local kids keep stealing the stakes used to hold the plant guards.
  • Plants are randomly damaged, by dogs or passing people.
  • Some plants simply don’t survive the harsh conditions.

But the good news:

  • The garden has been progressively extended, and it’s now 10+ metres in length.
  • The more established plants are now growing strongly, including all the acacias and callistomons.
  • I’ve grown most of the plants from cuttings, so the cost has been minimal.
  • Surprisingly few plants have been stolen.

The key is to keep planting each weekend, to replace the 2-3 plants that are damaged, and to then get slightly ahead. Over a year, this makes a big difference, and the pace should progressively increase.

Many of the more established plants are 0.5m high, going into a fresh growing season.
Many of the more established plants are 0.5m high, going into a fresh growing season.

I’ve had plenty of great comments from the locals, and it’s an enjoyable challenge. While it’s still early days, I think I’ve proved that one person can have an impact.

What can you do in your local area? 🙂

 

Second try needed: straw bale garden

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Our bedraggled first attempt at a straw bale garden.
Our bedraggled first attempt at a straw bale garden.

When I came across the idea of straw bale gardens, it seemed like the perfect way of getting greater productivity out of the guerrilla-gardened food forest out the back.

As can be seen in the photo above, the garden didn’t work out well in practice. There were two main reasons: the hailstorm, which wiped out most plants; and the local birds who ate the rest.

I had a second attempt by planting a new round of seedlings, but we were then deep into winter.

So I decided to call it quits — but this is where straw bale gardens deliver their second benefit — by providing free mulch to spread around the garden.

Composting down straw, spread around the fruit trees.
Composting down straw, spread around the fruit trees.

It was easy to break off ‘cakes’ of the straw, and to layer them around the fruit trees. Fifteen minutes of work, and it was all done.

The hay now spread evenly across the whole garden, thanks to the chickens!
The hay now spread evenly across the whole garden, thanks to the chickens!

Of course, the chickens thought this was great! So within a day, they’d re-spread the hay so it was evenly covering everything. With a bit of rain, this is all breaking down nicely.

The idea of straw bale gardens remains sound, even if the first attempt was a dud. So I’m going to give it another go, this time earlier in the season. I’ll report back…

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!

Fifty plants now in around Lewisham Station

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A pile of seedlings and tube stock, all going well.
A growing collection of seedlings and tube stock, all going well.

Since my early native plantings around Lewisham Station, I’ve been steadily adding to the collection, mostly by planting a few of my hand-raised cuttings each weekend.

I’ve now reached the milestone of fifty plants. These are planted closely together — typically about 30cms apart — to create a dense “bush pocket” effect.

While that might seem like a crazy amount of over-planting, it’s all to a plan:

  • At the back of the strip, a canopy of small trees, including acacias (wattles) and callistomons (bottle brushes).
  • A mid story of native bushes, including westringias (native rosemary), correas (native fuchsia)  and prostantheras (mint bushes).
  • A bottom story of strap-leaf plants at the front of the strip, and a mix of hardy groundcovers throughout the rest.

I reckon there may be 30-50 more plants required to fill it all out, but I’ll continue the slow-and-steady approach.

So far only two plants have died, and they were struggling as cuttings even before I planted them out.

Fingers crossed the rest will keep on going strong!

(Not) guerrilla gardening around Lewisham train station

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Gymea Lilles planted underneath the established palm trees
Gymea Lilles planted underneath the established palm trees

The area around Lewisham train station is a desolate wasteland. Other than a row of large palm trees, there’s a disintegrating raised garden bed, and a long strip of browning weeds. Hardly a joy to behold.

Following a casual suggestion from a neighbour, I guerrilla gardened in a number of gymea lilies, underneath the palm trees. These are extremely tough, and will grow to a size large enough to visually fill in the gaps along the fence.

That got me started, so I continued on to plant a small patch of native plants at the start of the pedestrian walkway that runs alongside the train line.

I’ve since expanded this a little, and it now consists of a mix of acacias (to start enriching the soil), hardy native shrubs (westringias, etc) and strap-leafed plants (lomandras, dianellas).

The start of what will hopefully become a patch of mini-bushland.
The start of what will hopefully become a patch of mini-bushland.

This has not been without some challenges:

  • The railway put in a huge new vandal-proof black fence, and the workers trampled some of the plants in the process (although most survived!).
  • The regular railway workers tend to roll their trucks over the garden every once in a while.
  • Kids keep stealing the stakes, so the plant guards blow away.
  • It’s only rained once in the last 3 months, so hand watering is critical in this early stage.

Despite this, many of the plants, particularly the bushes, are already growing rapidly. I’ve also got a heap of cuttings that should be ready for planting out soon.

Why do this?

A few people have asked me “why bother doing all this, it isn’t your problem?”.

There are a few reasons:

  • It’s nice to live in a lovely local environment, and the current station environment is far from lovely.
  • It’s also good to increase the local biodiversity, encouraging more birds, insects, etc.
  • This land belongs collectively to us, as the local residents. The Council is just the steward of the land, looking after it on our behalf.
  • This gives us a responsibility to participate in sustaining and improving the environment.
  • Someone should be doing it! The Council, even with the best of wills, can’t do everything for us.
  • It’s enjoyable and satisfying to see something grow and prosper.

It’s now official

I also struck up a conversation with the lovely folks at Marrickville Council, who have endorsed the use of the land as a low-maintenance community native garden.

So it’s no longer guerrilla gardening … it’s official gardening. Where’s the fun in that! 😉

Watch this space for updates as the space (hopefully) starts to bush up and spread out…