An Exciting Spring Project: retrofitting a Local Back Yard

Plum tree waking up after its Winter slumber in Lyttleton Gardens

Plum tree waking up after its Winter slumber in Lyttleton Gardens

The August winds are still howling despite the arrival of September. Many exciting events are coming up. I will be giving a little talk on Thursday September 21st about our upcoming "Permaculture in Action: Backyard retrofit" project.

Ann is a local regular in the shop, and brings us her home grown mandarins to swap for produce regularly. When I went to visit her backyard, she mentioned that she had wanted it to be productive for her gorgeous family for years, but being a busy homeschooling mum, she could never get round to making it happen. I tried to think of how we could help, and realised this big back yard was a perfect space to teach and learn about permaculture design. So I thought and thought, and came up with the "Backyard retrofit" project.

It begins with a one day "Introduction to Permaculture" class on Saturday, September 30th. Then, I will be conducting a series of 4 affordable, hands-on weekly Saturday workshops in Ann's Lawson back yard from of October 14th to November 4th (inclusive).

The workshops will each cover different aspects of retrofitting a back yard for sustainability.

They include setting up annual vegetable garden beds from scratch (with minimal soil disturbance), setting up an effective home composting system, transforming an orchard into a food forest, and keeping back yard chickens.

I will be illustrating all of these practical aspects while putting them in a Permaculture design framework.

For those new to Permaculture, attending the Intro to Permaculture session is not compulsory but recommended. I will be talking about the ethics and principles, as well as basic ecology and design methodology.

What I love about this project is that it gives us a chance to share skills, and help a local, single income family retrofit their back yard into a resilient, productive space. Hopefully, people will come away with methodology they can use to observe and retrofit their own back yards.

I would love to expand this project and help more people retrofit their peri-urban spaces in the Blue Mountains. I will be talking about it at the next Backyard Grower Meet Up on Thursday September 21st evening from 6 to 8pm. Come along.

"Permaculture in Action: Backyard retrofit" project breakdown:

NOTE: There is the option of attending all classes in this series for $220, or sign up to individual ones.

Introduction to Permaculture Design
$120 includes tuition, workbook and refreshments.
Saturday 30th of September from 9-4pm
Please feel welcome to bring your own lunch or purchase an organic hamper for $20 to enjoy in the Lyttleton Gardens!

Setting up a veggie patch from scratch
$40 hands-on workshop, bring closed-in shoes, hat, gloves, sunscreen
Saturday, October 14th 9-12pm

Setting up a functional, effective, dynamic home composting system
$40 hands-on workshop, bring closed-in shoes, hat, gloves, sunscreen
Saturday, October 21st9-12pm

Turning a small orchard into a food forest
$40 hands-on workshop, bring closed-in shoes, hat, gloves, sunscreen
Saturday, October 28th 9-12pm

Integrating chickens into your back yard system
$40 hands-on workshop, bring closed-in shoes, hat, gloves, sunscreen
Saturday, November 4th 9-12pm

 

Nature's Ploughs

Linocut Print of Earthworms by Manu

Linocut Print of Earthworms by Manu

This is what Charles Darwin called them: nature's ploughs. Earthworms and composting worms are my all time superheroes. My research on these gorgeous wiggly beings has been quite extensive in the last month, and I have learned so much.

Worms have hearts. Up to five sets of them. Their blood contains hemoglobin like ours. Their skin is very sensitive to light, which is why they like to live under sun shades made of decaying leaves and organic matter. Their 'teeth' are sand and rock particles inside their super powerful, muscly gizzards, which grind up organic matter.

What do they eat? Bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa and organic matter: where there are earthworms, there are all of the above. Everything you need in a thriving soil food web. This alone makes it worth jumping up and down when you see them in your soil, but wait, there's more.

Soil passed through an earthworm has double the amount of organic matter it had before it went in. An acre of good soil contains two to three million of them, which can move about 18 tons of soil per year, over and over again. Doubling, tripling, quadrupling the amount of rich organic matter in your soil.

Worms also have special enzymes inside their gizzards which unlock chemical bonds chaining up nutrients. In other words, once these nutrients have traveled through a worm, they are finally in a form that plants have access to and eat. 

There are something like 7000 species of earthworms. Composting worms, such as the red Wriggler Eisenia fetida, prefer to live near the surface of soil, under leaf litter or mulch (or in your worm farm) in cool, moist, dark, oxygen-rich environments with a good amount of accessible food.

Deep-burrowing earthworms like Lumbricus terrestris are the ones that create horizontal or vertical tunnels going deeper underground, leaving space for oxygen, water and plant roots to easily penetrate the soil.

Their sensitive skin means they move out when synthetic fertilisers and glyphosate herbicides are used, subsequently leaving a gaping hole in the soil food web. No more worms, no more good microbes, a bit like the Brown Barbaloots moving out in Dr Seuss' The Lorax.

We need to look after these burrowing, shredding, wiggly, five-hearted beings with all our might.

August Winds

Most Blue Mountains locals are familiar with 'August winds': intense North-westerlies that sweep through the Mountains, tunneling down sides of houses and alleyways.

Lyttleton garden is currently suffering from a nasty case of August winds. Our little veggie patch has garden beds contouring a downward slope along the side of the shop. Strong winds tunnel down the hill, eroding the soil, drying it out, reducing it to powdery dust.

We luckily have a load of beautiful ready compost started by Cam a few months ago. I find myself adding a nice thick layer of it every week in August on the most affected garden beds at the top of the hill. I cover it with an aged, heavy woody mulch, as sugarcane or straw would instantly be blown away.

I began working on this garden exactly one year ago, and worriedly asked some locals if it was always this windy up here in Lawson. "Aaah, the August winds," they replied. Cam and I were eager to start growing things in this slopey garden, but also realised we needed to observe and interact with it first. Luckily the winds subsided in September.

I'm still learning this space one year on, and am plotting to take some lavender cuttings from my garden plants for us to strike tomorrow during our propagation workshop. We will be making our own propagation mix by mixing our sifted home made compost with sand, coir and worm castings from our worm farm. My lavender cuttings will be super happy in this mixture.

When ready, they will act as insect-attracting, fragrant windbreaks on the North Westerly side of Lyttleton garden. Hopefully in time for the next August winds.

Life webs

A rain-soaked spider web in Lyttleton Gardens.

A rain-soaked spider web in Lyttleton Gardens.

After you've been looking after a productive garden for some time, a wonderful thing happens: you get to the point where you are confident enough to sift through the myriad of information (and misinformation) out there, and realise that you have understood living systems enough to trust yourself.

My personal "aha" moment happened after reading a book by Jeff Lowenfels entitled Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web. I was intrigued by the term soil food web. I'd heard of food pyramids and graphs, but was drawn to the idea of a food web. It makes so much more sense. After all, all living things are inter-connected and inter-dependent. We've lost sight of that a little bit, often choosing a more symptomatic approach to many issues.

I looked into the person who initially came up with this term. It was Elaine Ingham, Doctor of Soil Microbiology at Colorado State University. The Soil Foodweb Institute, founded by her in 1996, has been helping conventional farmers 'rehabilitate' their soils, and switch to growing organically and regeneratively. She worked extensively in this field in Australia, and started the Australian branch, Soil Foodweb Institute (Australia).  The Soil Foodweb International website contains a huge amount of free information and research in the field, which I really recommend to anyone interested in the science of growing things.

Without getting to scientific about it all, it's important to remember that soil is populated by squillions of living things, which directly or indirectly depend on plants and plant roots to obtain food. In turn, plant roots depend on them to eat. Bacteria and fungi make nutrients bio-available to plants by converting them to a form plants can eat. It's a swap system!

Synthetic nutrients are plant fast food, as they are already in a bio-available form. So, what happens when we feed our plants synthetic fertilisers? Well, essential living things like bacteria and fungi move out. They are no longer needed by the plants and don't like the salts in fertilisers. In turn, there is no food for earthworms, and their predators, and their predators' predators, and so a mass exodus happens. All life in the soil disappears. The web of life is broken and plants become junkies, fast food junkies. The soil becomes "dirt" as Elaine Ingham puts it. Lifeless, erosion-prone dust.

This is why growing regeneratively is so important. You are a custodian of all the living things in your soil. Feeding your soil homemade compost, worm castings and aerated compost teas makes sure there is food for everyone in the web, with very little need for external inputs. Try not to disturb it too much, as the earthworm will aerate it for you. Pitchforks are relatively worm-friendly if used appropriately.

Let's get something straight though, the process of building living, healthy soil takes time and patience. Keep piling on that organic matter and remember you are feeding many living things, which in time will multiply. After quite some time, all that work pays off and you will have to do less and less, as the web will be complete and self-regulating. What a wonderful, joyful prospect that is for a budding grower of things.

Soil food web diagrams from the Soil Foodweb International website.

Soil food web diagrams from the Soil Foodweb International website.

 

 

The Real Dirt on Nitrogen Fixation

This broad bean plant is fixing nitrogen in the soil right? Well...... probably not. Here's why.

This broad bean plant is fixing nitrogen in the soil right? Well...... probably not. Here's why.

You may have heard that peas, beans and other leguminous plants fix nitrogen. This means they have an innate capacity to absorb nitrogen from the air and convert it to a plant-available form in the soil. Right? Well... not quite. Shattered? I was, when I first found this out, so I thought I would finally reveal the best kept secret on nitrogen fixation.

The harsh reality is that if you sow a patch of broad beans in your vegetable patch, they are very unlikely to be fixing nitrogen in the soil. But why?

Only specific types of bacteria around plant roots have the ability to convert nitrogen to a form that is 'bio-available' to plants (ie. a form that plants can eat). To complicate things, there are many different types of nitrogen fixing bacteria, each only fixing nitrogen for a select few plants. The likelihood of having exactly the right type of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in your soil for your specific plant is very low. This likelihood is further diminished if the soil has been tilled, plowed, or brought in from elsewhere.

Let us remember that the way we traditionally grow veggies in rows is a very 'unnatural' system: they do not form the complex inter-relationships plants form in a forest ecosystem. 

Most organic, regenerative, biodynamic farmers, and some permaculturalists know this and inoculate their seeds and/or soil with the correct bacteria and fungi. These days, it is possible to buy specific natural inoculums for your cover crop seeds to ensure they will be fixing nitrogen in the soil. This is something I would suggest if you are constructing a Permaculture food forest, as this will ensure your nitrogen-fixing forest layer is actually doing just that: fixing nitrogen. Green Harvest sell fantastic cover crops and green manures with corresponding inoculums.

Biodynamic agriculture does this by including specific plants in compost preparations. For example, yarrow roots secrete substances that attract a type of nitrogen-fixing bacteria called Azotobacter. When yarrow is composted and used in your garden, this bacteria will be present in your soil. All plants used and composted in biodynamic preparations accumulate specific nutrients, fungi and bacteria in their roots, leaves and flowers. These are essential elements to have in your soil to ensure a healthy food growing system.

But how do you know whether or not your plant is fixing nitrogen? Gently have a look at its roots. If your plant has little white nodules on its roots, you're on the right track. However, to make sure nitrogen fixation is occurring, break open the nodules. If they are red inside, your plant is fixing nitrogen. Hurray! In the field, small nodules can be seen 2-3 weeks after planting, depending on legume species and germination conditions. When nodules are young and not yet fixing nitrogen, they are usually white or grey inside. As nodules grow in size they gradually turn pink or reddish in color, indicating nitrogen fixation has started. The pink or red color is caused by leghemoglobin (similar to hemoglobin in blood) that controls oxygen flow to bacteria.

So there you have it. The real dirt on nitrogen fixation.

 

To Weed or Not To Weed?

Chickweed: delicious salad green, medicinal tea plant, photosynthesizing living mulch.

Chickweed: delicious salad green, medicinal tea plant, photosynthesizing living mulch.

In my years of growing food, I have always been conflicted with the issue of 'weeds.' I am always amazed by how much passion, anxiety, and even fear we attribute to some of these plants. According to the Oxford dictionary, a weed is "A wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants." I often find fellow gardeners and growers obsessing over the possibility of weeds "taking over" as though I would walk out to my garden one day and find that the chickweed monster had gobbled up everything.

My Permaculture background has given me quite a different outlook on many 'weeds'. In Permaculture, we look at natural succession in a forest ecosystem, and where different types of plants sit within it.

Most plants we commonly refer to as 'weeds', such as grasses and ground creepers, are regarded as 'pioneer plants.' Their function is to step in right after a disturbance (such as a bushfire for example) and quickly colonise the area, covering, protecting the soil, quickly filling it with stabilising roots, encouraging beneficial microbes and earthworms back, and preventing further erosion.  'Weeds' such as dandelion, have long taproots that mine for nutrients deep in the soil profile, stimulating bacterial, fungal, and earthworm activity, which ultimately creates more organic matter. So why on earth don't we want them around?

Cameron and I examined our vegetable garden this morning, and looked at the chickweed growing around our kales. Our soil is quite sandy, and we have been doing everything possible to build organic matter and stabilise soils. So we asked ourselves the following question: do we pull the chickweed and mulch with sugarcane, or do we leave the chickweed as a 'living mulch'? The answer came quite quickly. This living chickweed is sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, has roots that stabilise sandy soils and promote microbial activity. Its root system, like that of many pioneer plants, is very shallow and will not compete with the kale around it. It can easily be harvested gradually when needed (chickweed is delicious in salads), and therefore has many, many more functions than any dried mulch.

Chickweed is quite an amazing plant, botanically named Stellaria media and also commonly called Starweed. Eaten fresh, it is a mineral and vitamin rich herb, like our dear nettle and parsley, and builds strength and wellness especially in the convalescing, elderly or people with multiple food allergies or sensitivities and nutrient deficiencies. Its leaves are mucilaginous and heal and sooth inflammation especially in the respiratory tract and tummy. Chickweed can also be drunk as a fresh or dried herb tea or decoction daily as a tonic when you’re feeling depleted or inflamed. chickweed also aids the bio-availability of nutrients into the cells and help to break down unhelpful bacteria, toxins and mucous in the body.

Externally chickweed is antipruritic, meaning it relieves itching. It is useful as a poultice for treating wounds or ulcers, as well as skin conditions that are inflamed, itchy and painful.

Could our obsession with 'weeding' and 'weeds' be fueled by the commercial gardening industry, who want us to buy their sprays and products? Personally, I've adopted a more relaxed approach to unwanted plants, and see removing some of them occasionally as simply part of the wonderful activity of gardening. Apart from the amazing functions they perform mentioned above, most of them are also highly nutritional and medicinal, and there is very little chance of weeds 'taking over' as long as you keep a regular eye on your garden.

Our chickweed/kale bed (back)

Our chickweed/kale bed (back)