On the Importance of Autumn Leaves: a Guide to Leaf Foraging

Written by Manu

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Last week, Jacinta and spent the day foraging for dried deciduous leaves in Blackheath (in the Upper Blue Mountains). Autumn has been a very warm (or non-existent) and leaves are only now starting to fall down in spades. Their colours are wonderful: Japanese maples, red oaks, liquidambars with their shades of bright red, beech and chestnut leaves and their golden yellows, white oaks, maples and plane trees and their different shades of brown. It is a true feast for the eyes. 

Walking around in the Blue Mountains in Autumn, one cannot help but notice the abundance of deciduous leaves falling in parks and gardens, but also onto bare asphalt on footpaths and streets. One minute they are there, and the next, they have been swept up by council trucks and transported to who knows where. If you look around, you will find the odd forager, with her/his bags or buckets and rakes, sweeping the precious leaves off the asphalt into their containers and making excellent use of them in their gardens by adding them to their composts. 

This is what we were up to a few days ago. After all, dried leaves are a wonderful high carbon input for your compost. They are alive and teeming with beneficial microbes and, most importantly, completely free! There is, however, a leaf foraging etiquette. It’s important, if you see a fellow forager, to go and have a chat and make sure you are sharing the bounty in an equitable way. Seasoned leaf foragers know how important dried leaves are to gardens and parks, and do not forage in them. Instead, they choose asphalt surfaces in quiet streets, which have less or no petrol contamination. They also tend to rake any residuous leaves back into nearby verge gardens or parks, and leave the space tidy.

As a student training in soil microbiology, I can safely say that removing leaves from parks and gardens is a bit of a waste of energy and time. Leave them be, they are an essential part of maintaining soil healthy and alive with beneficial bacteria and fungi. Nature is doing all of the work for you by dropping leaves, which will act as mulch and then decompose into garden goodness. Leaf litter is the largest source of organic matter that enters mainstream ecosystems as it slowly turns into humus. It feeds a huge variety of beneficial organisms from microscopic ones to larger arthropods and earthworms. 

If you wanted, you could speed up the process of decomposition by going over them with your lawn mower, but, really, ‘leaf’ them be (pun intended). It has now been proven that old growth forests are by far the most productive ecosystems in the world, and the highest recorded rates of decomposition occur in cool temperate climates, in the winter, under the snow. Surprised? Well yes, it is surprising but true. This is largely due to autumn leaves, which provide insulation as well as a rich food source for decomposers.

Dried leaves are very rich in cellulose and lignin, which is predominantly decomposed by fungi. Fungi are (among many other things) responsible for the production of glomalin, the sticky glue that gives good soil its excellent structure and ability to retain water.

Many people know about the importance of bacteria in soil, but few people know that you need bacteria and fungi in equal parts to be growing annual vegetables. If you have more bacteria than fungi in you soil, you will be growing early successional grassy weeds as that is the environment they favour. Most vegetable prefer mid-successional soils with equal amounts of bacteria and fungi.

So how do you make sure you have enough beneficial fungi in your soil? Become a leaf forager, rescue leaves from the streets and add an abundance of leaf litter and woody materials to your compost. 

A quick note on eucalyptus leaves and pine needles: they contain anti-bacterial oils, so it is best to let them sit for a little while before using them. After these oil have leached out, use them in your compost! If they are fresh, you can still use them, but in moderation.

As a budding leaf forager, identifying different trees and their leaves is helpful. As with everything, the more variety in your leaf litter, the more variety of microorganisms you will have in your compost and soil. I have found http://www.tree-guide.com to be an awesome resource, and I am currently working on a poster to help you identify different leaves.

In the Blue Mountains, you will find an abundance of liquidambars, white and red oaks, and japanese maples. These are all fantastic foraging leaves. So, get out there and become a leaf forager!

 Freshly made compost in Lyttleton Gardens using foraged leaves.

Freshly made compost in Lyttleton Gardens using foraged leaves.

 Foraged leaves in onion bags next to Toby the Lyttleton compost tumbler. One part scraps from the shop, three parts dried leaves!

Foraged leaves in onion bags next to Toby the Lyttleton compost tumbler. One part scraps from the shop, three parts dried leaves!

The Art and Science of Composting: Debunking a Few Misconceptions

Written by Manu

  Above: Toby the compost tumbler in Lyttleton Gardens

Above: Toby the compost tumbler in Lyttleton Gardens

Let's face it, composting is a delicate subject. For seasoned composters, composting is a source of joy, satisfaction, but also pride, rigidity and strong belief that you've got it, you know how to compost, you hold 'the key recipe'. For people who are new to composting, it's a source of excitement as well as anxiety, as you constantly look for advice from 'experts' on how to get it 'right', not to mention the successes, failures, disappointments and a myriad other emotions. Ah the roller coaster ride of emotions that is composting!

Now that I am training in soil microbiology with Dr. Elaine Ingham and Dr Carole Anne Rollins, the two incredible powerhouses behind the Soil Foodweb Institute, I feel that I can now share info about what is actually happening biologically in a compost heap. This will help debunk a few misconceptions I have seen and heard.

I will have to break it to you though: there is no set 'perfect recipe.' Are you shattered... or relieved? People who are really good at composting seem to be the ones who know this, and go with the flow with no set recipe but a lot of knowledge on how to observe, adjust, smell, and even taste when things are right.

What goes on in your compost is heavily dependent on outside temperatures, moisture levels, ingredients, native microorganisms and a host of other external and internal factors. There are, however, a couple of things that apply pretty much universally. 

Firstly, whether you are hot composting, tumbling, cold composting or whatever else (except for bokashi), your compost needs OXYGEN to travel through it regularly. You need to aerate your compost regularly, whether it's in a pile or a bin. There are really cool, inexpensive screw-like contraptions you can use for bins these days. The good microbes you want to have in your compost and to apply to your soil are AEROBIC, which means they need oxygen to survive.

Secondly, you need a DIVERSITY of fresh, nitrogen-rich green materials (garden clippings or food scraps, composted manures, coffee grinds, bones) and dry, carbon-rich materials (like straw, dried leaves, wood chips and wood shavings). Remember to keep everything moist. Squeeze it in your hand, it should let out a maximum of one drop of water and feel moist. 

Thirdly, I find ratios a little hard to understand. I prefer Elaine Ingham's bucket method. Lets keep it simple. A good ballpark reference is at least three buckets of dry carbon-rich materials need to be added for every one bucket of nitrogen-rich materials. This applies to hot and cold composting! Many people keep adding food scraps to their bin thinking they will magically turn into compost. Although compost is indeed magical, it needs all players to be present. Otherwise the end product is rotten, putrified organic matter.

The nitrogen-rich materials are what generates bacterial activity which makes the pile heat up. If you have too many nitrogen-rich materials, your heap will heat up too fast too quickly and kill everything. Strong smells of ammonia, vinegar, vomit, poo in your bin or heap indicate that anaerobic microbes have taken over and are producing organic acids that are toxic to plants.

This is by far the most common mistake I have seen in home as well as large scale composts: too many nitrogen-rich materials, not enough carbon rich materials. Aerate it, add loads of dry, carbon rich materials to kickstart the process again in the right direction. Do not add lime as lime is (chemically speaking) a salt, and kills many beneficial organisms.

Hot or cold?

There is a little bit of confusion as to what constitutes 'hot' and 'cold' composting. In reality, all composts heat up to a degree. This heat has nothing to do with heat from the sun or outside temperatures. It is generated by microbial activity. In fact, I personally never put any of my composts in the sun as UV rays from the sun tend to kill beneficial microbes on the surface of your compost, or heat from the sun will 'cook' them in your bin.  

'Hot' composting involves buiding a big heap or bin all at once and letting it heat up in the centre. This heat (which can reach 70 degrees celsius or higher) has nothing to do with heat from the sun or outside temperatures. It is generated by microbial activity. Aerating the heap by turning it as soon as it hits the 65 degree mark, is essential because we do not want it to get too hot (no hotter than 65 degrees celsius), as this will annihilate all the microorganisms you need in your heap. I really suggest getting yourself a compost thermometer to take the guesswork out of the equation. Hot compost heaps tend to be more prone to drying out to water well when you build the heap and check the moisture each time you turn it. Remember a hot compost heap is all made at once i.e. no adding as you go. HOWEVER, if your standard compost bin is heating up, you are indeed hot composting, and it's time to aerate it. 

Cold composting involves adding as you go, which means it should not heat up anywhere near as much as a hot compost. Remember, for every one bucket of food scraps, you need to add three buckets of dry stuff. One cautionary note: anything that was cut when it was green is nitrogen-rich, even if you then let it dry. For example, dried up grass clippings are still a nitrogen rich material. Remember to check the moisture by squeezing it in your hand. Cold composting takes more time, but the end product has a wider diversity of beneficial microorganisms.

What about compost tumblers?

Technically, if you have a large enough tumbler, you can make hot compost (all at once) or cold compost (add as you go). I personally like to cold compost with my tumbler because it makes the cold composting process much faster through more frequent turning and, as I mentioned, the end product is incredibly rich and diverse in beneficial microorganisms.

I hope this helps debunk a few misconceptions and myths on composting and encourages you to delve into its magic!

The Lyttleton Stores 'Backyard Grower' System: Moving Toward Local, Circular Economies

Written by Manu

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I never tire of marveling at the incredible diversity of climates and ecosystems here in the Blue Mountains. It is an incredible asset, as it means we can grow a diversity of foods within a relatively small area. Our backyard growers from the lower Mountains will be bringing us ginger and turmeric soon, mid-Mountains growers are providing us with citrus, whereas upper Mountains growers will be keeping us stocked with apples throughout autumn. Our local farmers, including Erica and Hayden at Epicurean Harvest in Hartley and Aaron at Harvest Farms in Bilpin, also supply us with wonderful, nutrient-rich, organic local produce. What a wonderful, resilient space we have the potential to create, just through cultivating this diversity of growers, scales and climates!

Our 'Lyttleton Backyard Grower' system allows local backyard growers register with us, bring in their excess produce and swap its cost price for store credit. This allows growers to buy anything they may require within the shop, be it a loaf of bread, some veggies or a workshop. I organise regular meet ups every couple of months, where backyard growers can get together and discuss their successes and turbulations, share seeds, knowledge and experiences.

The financial, environmental and social benefits of growing and eating local organic food are quite substantial, namely through eliminating food miles and providing individuals with a greater sense of responsibility towards their immediate environment. We must, however, also see its value in building social relationships. Our 'office cubicle' way of living is making us lonely, depressed, and anxious, and people in our peri-urban environments are slowly reacting to this. Things are slowly changing. Social media groups have re-established local swap and barter systems through Facebook groups such as 'Pay it Forward', and some of us are keen to take this concept back to our streets and local spaces.

I see this at Springwood Community Garden, as older members, who walk up the hill from the local aged care facility, bump into young mums and/or dads, who feel they need to be out and about. The inter-generational relationships I have seen come out of a simple communal garden space are immense and important. We have forgotten how important inter-generational contact is for our own well-being.

In our little veggie patch and shop, we are striving to empower people to grow their own food, come to our meet ups and exchange knowledge and experiences. We do our best to entice you to come to your local produce shop rather than shop in a supermarket. So come and visit, make connections, hang out in our community hub, read from our reference library, have a chat, and, of course, eat yummy, local food together.

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Californian Poppies are Much More Than a Gorgeous Edible Flower

 Californian poppy,  Eschscholzia californica

Californian poppy, Eschscholzia californica

 

written by Sarah Mann, Naturopath

I was visiting Canberra recently and driving through the suburbs had the wonderful surprise of passing rows and rows of pavement and front lawn and gardens bright with the orange glow of the Californian Poppy. It was a beautiful sight to see so many happily at home in people’s gardens.

The Californian Poppy is part of the Papaveraceae family and used in Herbal Medicine. Unlike it’s opiate fellows, Californian poppies contain non-narcotic opium alkaloids amongst it’s medicinal constituents.

An insight into the Californian Poppy’s therapeutic nature is seen in watching the way they move with the wind. It is as if the flowers absorb the impact of the breeze and channel it into a smooth, consistent, buffered, calm sway. Californian Poppy when used medicinally is calming. It is a calming sedative and an anodyne, relieving pain.

Californian Poppy’s pain relieving actions assist many types of pain especially neuralgia, period pain, tooth ache, and pain from trauma, accident and injury. It is especially suited to pain where there is clenching, upset and agitation, and for pain that causes difficulty sleeping.

Californian Poppy is used for insomnia and sleep troubles, it’s calming and relaxing action supporting the let go needed for easing into a restful sleep. Californian Poppy is indicated especially where sleep trouble is caused by over stimulation or nightmares.

Californian Poppy is used particularly when there is agitation in it’s many forms and faces , like hyperactivity and agitation with pain. Californian Poppy is helpful where there is fixed and unyielding mental perspectives, helping the person to make shifts and changes from a calm and centred point, relieved of agitation with space for new thoughts and ideas to emerge.

Californian Poppy is bitter and cool in quality. Like we see with it’s action in the wind, Californian Poppy buffers stimulation and aggravation, streaming it into a calm and collected response. 

Blue Mountains Urban Growers Co-Op: Joining Forces to Grow Local Food

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Today I (Manu) visited Joe and Jo, the two powerhouses behind the Blue Mountains Urban Growers Co-Op: a wonderful initiative bringing together backyard food growers, selling beautiful fresh organic produce at the Lawson Magpie Markets.

Before setting off on this adventure, Joe and Jo ran the super successful Crop & Swap in Faulconbridge for many years. It was a true institution and a lovely gathering of food growers, a few of which went on to join their Urban Growers Co-op.

Joe and Jo's garden is, as you can expect, truly inspiring. The front yard is populated by rows and rows of beautiful vegetables and a number of fruit and nut trees. Their backyard is home to more edible perennials and their beehive. They have also set up a communal vegetable plot on the adjacent verge, and by communal vegetable plot I mean a fully functioning mini communal market garden that really, truly means business. 

They keep chickens and quail. They are trialing quails as an integrated element in their bio-intensive growing system, using them as 'cleaners' after a crop has run its course. They use locally sourced horse manure, wood chips and of course chicken and quail droppings to add organic matter to their soil and feed their plants. Their front yard market garden is the most healthy and productive I have seen in the Blue Mountains (and I have seen many).

I left with gifts of one of their beautiful garlic plaits, delicious heirloom tomatoes, a handful of pigeon pea seeds, and a warm heart. Truly inspirational. Here's to lovely people growing local food and community.

 A beautiful row of carrots and a row of tractored quails.

A beautiful row of carrots and a row of tractored quails.

 The mini communal verge market garden that really, truly means business.

The mini communal verge market garden that really, truly means business.

Yarrow Gardens: Building a Food Forest From Scratch

 Yarrow Gardens: Manu's back yard in the Lower Blue Mountains. In this shot, you can see Tuscan kale, yarrow, mugwort, rosemary, chamomile, dandelion, statice, broccoli, nigella, french sorrel, valerian, loquat tree, dwarf avocado, carrot and sweet potato.

Yarrow Gardens: Manu's back yard in the Lower Blue Mountains. In this shot, you can see Tuscan kale, yarrow, mugwort, rosemary, chamomile, dandelion, statice, broccoli, nigella, french sorrel, valerian, loquat tree, dwarf avocado, carrot and sweet potato.

In this post, I wanted to speak a little bit about my process setting up Yarrow Gardens: my home food forest in Lapstone, which sits on a standard, quarter acre block. I'm hoping this post will help those of you in suburban and peri-urban environments get started growing regeneratively in your back yards.

I live in the lower Blue Mountains, which has a warm temperate/subtropical climate, very different to Lyttleton Gardens, which sits between warm temperate and cool temperate.

When we first moved into our standard quarter-acre block, the sloped back yard was composed of three tiers of impacted, eroded, sandy, shallow soil covered in couch grass. Couch grass seemed to be the only plant resilient enough to grow in this depleted, eroded soil. A beautiful, twenty meter Eucalyptus tree stands tall in the middle of the yard, and friends and family assured me I would never be able to grow anything successfully because of it. I didn't know much about growing things at the time and my dreams of a veggie patch and fruit trees seemed close to impossible.

It was then that I embarked on my Permaculture studies, learning about ecology, microbiology, climatology, soil restoration, regenerative farming, holistic management and regenerative design. I slowly gained enough of an understanding of natural systems to be able to make conscious decisions about where to plant, what to plant, when to plant it, how to regenerate my soil and care for my little patch of topsoil.

My perspective had changed. I no longer saw plants as 'good or bad,' as I could finally understand the function of each plant within an ecological system. 'Weeds' were no longer evil, annoying plants to be pulled out, but rather resilient pioneers in charge of quickly protecting and attempting to restore bare soil after a disturbance. In a natural forest ecosystem, there is no bare soil, and that is largely thanks to their hard work.

The great big majestic gum tree was no longer a nuisance, but rather a canopy tree to be incorporated as such into my design. Being a medicinal plant lover, being able to pick medicinal plants straight from the garden to chuck into my kettle was one of my goals, along with having a good continuous supply of fresh fruits, berries and vegetables.

My partner Steve and I rented a rotary hoe and used its shallowest setting to uproot the couch grass. I got hold of about ten cubic meters of good aged mushroom compost (always check the pH as it can be way too alkaline) which I generously covered the soil with (about 15cm), followed by a good layer of locally sourced wood chip. This allowed me to begin planting and kick-started the process of restoring the soil by adding some organic matter.

 Stage one

Stage one

 Six months later

Six months later

 Twelve months later

Twelve months later

The tree you can see in the top photograph is mugwort, a medicinal bush that I shape into a tree. It was a tiny seedling when I first put it in and grew very vigorously. I also bought some dwarfed or small trees to form an understory layer such as loquat, avocado, banana and pawpaw. For shrubs, I bought seedlings of fast growing plants like golden fruit of the Andes, wormwood, native ginger, Mediterranean herbs, perennial basil, midjim berries, acacias,  native mint, lemon verbena, comfrey, yarrow, and nettle. I broadcast seeds of nigella, roman chamomile, cornflowers, brahmi, silverbeet, echinacea, parsley, valerian, parsnip, carrot, daikon, chives, wild rocket, red sorrel, radish, warrigal greens and planted bulbs of potato onion, perennial leeks, Egyptian walking onion and garlic.

I installed drip irrigation last spring to make sure the soil was always kept moist enough for fungi, bacteria and earthworms throughout dry summers. Worm castings, seaweed solution, homemade compost and wood chips we my sole inputs for about a year. I also started inoculating my seeds with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (powder mixed with a little water) just before broadcasting and inoculated all my legume seeds with the appropriate bacterial inoculant (see my previous post on Nitrogen fixation).

We finally incorporated chickens into our system in the middle tier, where they are rotated to a different area every 8 months. They are fed grains and medicine from our garden as well as some bought organic feed. Their poo feeds and accelerates my compost, their eggs are a nutrient powerhouse for us. The system is thriving with minimal external inputs. We have nuts, fruits, berries, green veggies, eggs, potatoes, sweet potatoes and much, much more, providing us with a diverse, balanced diet. I occasionally foliar spray my plants with fish emulsion (fermented fish guts) and whole cows milk to keep them strong and healthy, but barely need to add anything to my food forest soil.

I feel good knowing that all of my perennial edibles and medicinals are storing carbon in the soil for the long term, while annuals growing among them are harvested regularly. Peanuts, potatoes, sweet potatoes, herbs and veggies now pop up on their own. If anything were to happen, we would have the ingredients to a balanced diet and fresh rainwater at our doorstep. An important element in hindsight was building paths throughout our food forest and maintaining them, for easy access and harvesting. I would say the process of building a balanced, productive system takes more or less 4 years, but as you can see in the pictures above, you can do a great deal in just 12 months with careful observation.

I want everybody to experience the joy of building their own little thriving ecosystem, providing refuge for wildlife, insects and microbes, whilst harvesting a bounty of produce. I hope this little blog post will provide you with some inspiration and tools to carefully observe your site and work with its specific conditions to design a healthy little food forest of your own.