Saturday, April 22, 2017

Plugging away!

I'm still here, even though it's almost been a month between posts. We just finished the school holidays, and it's birthday month in May, for our two kids. So I've been busy, making presents.

There's plenty of news to share, I just haven't had the time to commit to blogging this month. I look forward to resuming in May, I hope! I've got a little more to finish on my daughter's quilt in the meantime...


 Click to enlarge


This part is taking longer than the actual piecing of the wolf, because I've got no pattern to work from. I'm making it up as I go, by laying it out. Then I had to decide what colours to introduce. Orange had to go in, of course, because it features heavily in the "Twilight" realm. The time between day and night!

I've actually finished the lower section of the quilt now, and just have four more strip panels, to go up top! It sounds doable, only there's another public holiday, next week, which means she'll be home, and I can't work on it. In effect, I've only got 4 more days to finish!


 A piece in the quilt puzzle


I designed these little squares, within squares, which I had to pull out of my head. No Youtube tutorials. The theme in the background is based on the Twilight Realm, too - so they're pixels. As the main character in the game, regularly gets sucked into a pixelated portal, to travel to different realms. I thought it would make a relevant background.

So, that's where all my spare time has been going. I hope to be back to blog more regularly, sometime in May.


Friday, March 31, 2017

Natural sequence farming

My thoughts today, are with those who were caught in the crossfire of cyclone Debbie. Those who bore the direct brunt of it, and those who suffered the flooding in Queensland and New South Wales, afterwards. There will be a lot of cleaning up, to put people's lives back together.

I started to write a post yesterday, about Natural Sequence Farming, and wondered if it would be insensitive to post, due to the flooding people are currently experiencing. After all, Peter Andrew's revolutionary way of farming in Australia, uses natural sequences. Specifically, how our land traditionally hydrates itself.

As the classic poem, "My Country", by Dorathea Mackeller says:

"I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains." 


That is our natural sequence...of droughts and flooding rains. I will publish my post in the interests of learning about the forces which shape our landscape. First, a picture of what we started with, back in 2006. A huge sandpit. Or as Peter Andrew's would term it - a recharge area.


 Visiting the property before the house was built


I learned about Natural Sequence Farming, after watching the ABC's Australian Story documentary, on how Peter Andrew's managed to hydrate his horse property, through one of Australia's recent droughts. Then I read his two books, "Back from the Brink", and, "Beyond the Brink. It opened my eyes to the unique sequences, which were already happening on our property.

Andrew's work, centres around water hydrology, first and foremost. Without water, Australia would be more of a desert than we already are. I hope to demonstrate how Peter Andrew's hydrology opportunities work, due to the interventions we've made on our property:


Upstream, of the sandpit - other end of property


Thanks to the generous rain which has fallen lately, it's easy to capture the effects of blocking our waterway with organic debris. We mostly use smaller branches and leaves, with a few larger ones to help lock it together. Like a beaver dam, but not as expertly built!

The path of water hits the debris plug, causing it to back up, then escapes again, on either side. With each rain event, more debris gets caught from upstream. Silt starts to be dropped behind, and eventually creates a plateau, rather than a deep channel. Somewhat like a natural swale.

Important to note from the above image, is how the water is now split into 3 different forces. Straight through (what does manage to get through) and overflow out both sides.


In miniature


In the image above, you can see on a smaller scale, where the water is being held up, in various stages of debris too. This is the main channel, where the water flows the slowest, due to the debris it passes through first.

Notice how the larger body of water is held back by the debris, forcing it to spread out. It overflows at the lowest point in the debris - generally in the middle. Then another pond, smaller than the last is formed, in exactly the same way. This process continues for as long as the water is held up, and there is water to escape. It's a slow and steady release of water.

The aim is all about diffusing the power and velocity behind water. Because with that power, comes erosion. Andrew's theory is, and the evidence of ancient aboriginal paintings (series of connected circles) demonstrate that, water flowed and was stored in an extensive, connected pond system. Not like the traditional, European rivers - which tend to be singular, wide and deep; with the fastest route to the ocean.


Three different routes of travel


A little further past the debris plug, is how these three different levels of water, act differently. Andrews spoke of how water flowed on the high ground. Which is exactly what happens with our gully, thanks to our interventions.

The main channel flows the slowest, because it acts like a swale. It fills completely and stays still, until the water level finds a small overflow point. Most of the high velocity water, however, is escaping quicker on both sides. So it's flowing the fastest, on the high ground.

Which seems counter intuitive, but that's how levels of water work. The greater the water being held back, the higher up, the water will flow to escape.


All pictures taken, after the rain stopped
and the water levels dropped


So where is the fast water running to? It has found a gentle slope, away from the main channel. This is our people traffic route, and no doubt, what the kangaroos use also. We tend to keep it clear of debris, so we can access it. We're just another group of animals, nature uses to create paths for water to travel.

This water is travelling towards a pond we strategically built, to capture this periodic bounty. Of course, the flow met a few obstacles on the way, with another nod to Peter's Andrews interpretation of the landscape.


Old tree stump


Andrews recommends, that tough trees be planted in waterways, to make the water divert around them. It splits the water in two, then collides at the other end. Which effectively, neutralises the two forces against each other. Slow rising water, it better than fast.

This was not a tree we planted. It was a natural bounty, as a result of a former bushfire. It was burnt out and the land developers must have scraped up the top half, and burned it before we purchased the land. Because we've seen hide nor hair of it, since. The blackened, hollowed out tree stump remains, however. It even survived the velocity of water, that was the 2011 Super cell flood.

It's a good velocity breaker, before they merge together again, and drops down to the pond.


Pond


The pond acts as a circuit breaker for water velocity too. Although not as effective as a full circle, some water does escape to one side, and meets back with the main flow - going straight through. The kind of rain we have been experiencing lately, is consistent, steady rain. If only we had the luxury of spreading it out, between drier times.

That's where Peter Andrews' interpretation of how water should be treated on the landscape, bares learning about. It uses debris from the landscape, to help capture water from the landscape. In many ways, it resembles permaculture's principles of obtaining a yield, as well as capturing and storing energy. By capturing the periodic abundance, it can be used when it's no longer around.


Overflow from pond


We haven't quite finished with the flowing water on high ground, yet. Because water from the pond, has been backed up, through so many processes before it even reaches it - what water does overflow from the pond, tends to be quite widespread. There are no narrow channels with high velocity water here. The water is now trickling in a wide area.

This is where the grass is exploiting the natural resources - the water is slow enough, to allow it to germinate without being pulled out. Which is why Peter Andrew's next part of the natural sequence strategy, is about the intrinsic relationship plants have with the water.

Grasses, reeds and bullrushes, will rise up around any source of newly captured water, to start filtering the nutrients. Which then get stored in them, until the water levels drop or disappear completely, again. They go to seed and die, on the very ground which brought them to life. Waiting for the next rain event, to kick the cycle back into motion again.

This is how our landscape naturally hydrates itself. Australia needs a lot of flat, open areas, to capture the amounts of water, at the rates it falls. Dorathea Mackeller, wasn't just being poetic. She was recording the droughts and flooding rain pattern, that was endemic to this continent.


Leaving property boundary, in the distance `
bypassing the main sandpit (first image)


Now the water exiting the pond, is flowing at the same rate as the main channel. Which is barely at all. And it's held in another human and animal highway. Another natural swale, not built by us. If water finds it's own level, then so will the silt it drops.

The yards which follow after our property, are always green for months after the rains have gone. Unfortunately, while we like our neighbours upstream, they don't retain water on their land, so we might receive the benefits, we give our downstream neighbours. Maybe one day.

It's why I share on my blog, the importance of understanding how our landscape works. If we have a set of natural sequences, and an indigenous continent formed by them, to protect our future and each other, we need to understand how they operate. What are the influential components? How can we understand them, so we are benefited by the extremes of nature, rather than thwarted?


 Another large rain event, June 2016
Note: different routes of travel, water takes


While local Councils go to great expense to build levees, and State Goverments spend even more, on building dams: they are somewhat of a one-hit wonder. A necessary one, but also a very limited one. If Australia's topography was fashioned by the way rain falls, then we ought to contemplate our strategies, to work with that pattern. We all have to jump on board, and start holding the water back, where we have the influence to.

I want to quote one last stanza from Dorothea Mackeller's poem:

"Core of my heart, my country.
Land of the Rainbow Gold,
For flood and fire and famine,
She pays us back threefold"


We are clearly a land of extremes, more than we are a land of stability. But beneficial resources that come out of those extremes (Rainbow Gold) are threefold, and probably even more so nowadays. If you have a garden on your own land or renting, I encourage you to do a few things.

First, get to know the larger story behind that landscape. Research history, borrow books from the library, and learn the regular patterns that have shaped your region. Second, redesign your garden, landscape and even structures like houses, according to what you learn about the history. It doesn't have to cost a lot of money or be fancy - just practical.

A lot of what we have today - taught to us as "options", comes down to what was most cost effective for the generation before us. Rather than, knowing and weighing-up what does influence a particular region, to make specific design decisions from.

Have you noticed anything about your landscape, which connects to a bigger story?



Thursday, March 30, 2017

Use it up

It's been one of my goals this year, to use up a lot of my crafting supplies. Doesn't it all start with good intentions - dutifully collecting materials in order to be frugal? Only it defeats the purpose, when they hardly get used.

Nothing gets done, until you set your mind to it! Making my daughter's quilt, was one way to dip into my supplies. I found, as I went, other projects I could put together as well.

Like this ironing board cover...


New cover


I love this bright yellow fabric, now I've brought it out of hiding. So much brighter than my old grey cover, which had more than done its duty. The best part is, I tailor made it. So it fits perfectly. Those generic covers never fitted this board well.

I reused the top and foam, in my old cover, as the pattern for the new fabric. But I wasn't going to discard perfectly good foam for my board, so incorporated it into the new liner. Unfortunately I didn't have any selvage left to sew the old liner to the new material, so sandwiched it between two pieces of material instead.


Flannel backing


Using this old flannel sheet, was just the fit. I had originally purchased it from a second-hand store, several years ago. It had some worn areas in the middle, but I don't like to see flannel go to waste. It's good stuff! I had never envisaged though, how it would become part of my new ironing board cover.

See that elastic...


Under board


I wasn't going to use elastic at first, as it tends to wear out, in a year or so. And you end up with it sagging anyway. I contemplated using a series of manual ties, instead.

However, when I fitted it on the board (sans elastic) it just didn't look neat enough. A few ties would tuck in some areas - but not all. I didn't want a higgledy-piggledy, looking board. Not when I had gone to so much trouble to tailor it.


Neat finish


I was so much happier, once the elastic was added. Because I used my elastic stitch on my sewing machine, for the very first time. My trusty, "Brother". It's been with me, as long as I've been with my husband. It was the first Christmas present he ever bought me, and it was under request!

I've never been an expert sewer, but I love the freedom a sewing machine gives me. I love knowing its tucked away in that cabinet in the background, just waiting for me to imagine new ways to create practical things. I also love that it has lasted, nearly 20 years. How's that for mileage?


Matching set


My old iron lasted even longer - only by a few more years. However, it met an untimely death - yes, untimely - when it went to army camp with my husband, last year. He dropped it from his locker, and knocked-off the steam control knob. I could no longer control the steam. It didn't really bother me, until I started making my daughter's quilt recently.

With that project, I had to be able to control the steam. So imagine my surprise when my husband brought home an Olliso Pro iron. It stays in the laying down position, on little legs that pop out, once your hand leaves the handle. 

I never intended to colour co-ordinate the cover with my new iron, it just turned out that way. A lovely surprise! So I'm mixing up a lot of old, with some new. I hope I get as much mileage out of this iron, as I did, my former.

Is there anything practical, you've been busy creating lately?


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Nursery Trees

We've been doing something for years now, which barely feels like mentioning. Only because it's pretty basic stuff. But it occurs to me that anyone who wants to start planting a food forest, should know about it.

We had problems initially, getting fruit trees established in our clay soil, lack of rain and oppressive heat. That's when we got lazy, and decided to borrow a leaf or two, from the native trees. Literally.


Click to enlarge


Above, you can see the mulberry tree, which (when first planted) sat under the shade of those native eucalyptus trees. Only they were a tad smaller then. There were other natives which sprung up, on the other side of the mulberry too. Popped up, just as nature had selected them to do.

We didn't have to mollycoddle the native trees. They were somewhat like weeds in fact. We were tempted to pull them out, as we didn't want them close to the house. However, we noticed how they made a lovely shade canopy for the new mulberry. So we kept the natives in place, with a plan.

Now look at the mulberry tree! Dwarfing the native trees which used to shade it.


March 2015 - Mulberry in background


We also helped this particular mulberry along, 2 years ago, when I installed a new swale. The idea was to help capture water on the slope, to hydrate the mulberry. Otherwise, I think it would have survived, but struggled immensely to produce fruit. And really, that's the best thing about a mulberry tree!

Only now we have another fruit tree in need of some assistance. Our Brown Turkey, fig tree.


Fig


Can you see that white twig on the right? That's our fig, and would you believe it went in the ground, not long after the mulberry? Now fig are traditionally hardy, and this one has done well to survive. But it's not exactly thriving. It's produced fruit once.

Can you see that mass of leaves on the left of the fig? That was another nursery tree, which got too big. Our plan with nursery trees, because they are normally eucalyptus and grow to 30 metres high, is to take them out, once they get to 10 metres. It's dangerous to have them near the house, any taller than that.

So those tufts of leaves, now indicates the tree stump we left behind. That was back in spring. Now it's re-shooting again.


New shoots


Somewhere in there, is a stump. This is what normally happens when we cut down a nursery tree. A lot of new branches shoot from the stump, and hope to become trees. Unfortunately, that's not what we have planned for it.

After all, this is free mulch! And it's conveniently located right next to the fig tree.


Tender new growth


Normally, eucalyptus leafs and woody material, don't make good mulch. That's because they're laden with oils, which make them difficult to break down.

However, when it comes to new shoots, it's not the case. It hasn't had enough time to collect a lot of oils in its leaves yet. So they should break down, pretty quickly. Which is just what I had planned for under the fig tree.


Recently mulched


I've edited the above image, so you can tell the difference between the recently chopped shoots, and the grass. Because the recent rain has brought abundant growth!

I chopped most of the new shoots off, using my secateurs. Of course, I piled a few buckets of coffee grounds under the fig first, then covered it with the shoots of the native eucalyptus.


Old tree stump


I left some smaller shoots on the stump, because I'll chop them back once they get more size. So what used to be a nuisance problem, with eucalyptus seedlings popping up everywhere, and pulling our hair out, trying to get fruit trees established - well the problem soon became the solution.

Anyone who is attempting to establish fruit trees in a predominantly native area, I would recommend to use the natives as temporary nursery trees. Use them for shade, and when they get too big, chop them down. Then keep chopping back the shoots, and use it as mulch for your fruit trees.

Now nitrogen fixing trees, like pigeon pea are even better nursery trees, but they couldn't compete with the natives, for hardiness. This was a clay slope, and it needed something with a substantial root system to hold the slope together. That's another reason, we're not quick to remove the native seedlings that pop up. They preserve the soil for us, until we get the fruit trees established.


New project


That red soil, is another swale we've been installing, just bellow the fig. It runs parallel to the mulberry swale too. Only the weather has stopped that particular project from going forward. Even the short length we have managed to add, is beneficial to the fig. It's more captured water, than it had before.

The grass is getting tall with all this rain about. We'll slash it into the swale, and on the berm, so the soil will be covered again.

We don't have a lot of money to buy mulching material, in the amounts we need. But nature has an abundance, most of the land produces. We just have to time everything correctly. Once the rains arrive, our pruners and brush-cutter, quickly follow behind. It all gets put back on the surface, to protect the soil and retain the moisture. Because soon enough, that sun will come out again and we've missed our window of opportunity.

It takes so long to implement these projects, but it's incredibly worthwhile too. I hope to have a new system up and running, that was better than before. All using (mostly) what was already here.When gardening in difficult terrain, use what naturally grows there, and protect your weaker, establishing plants.



Sunday, March 26, 2017

Edible integration

When I wrote about what survived in my garden, through the heatwave recently, there was something I forgot to mention. Can you see it?


Hugelkultur bed #1 ~ avocado in background


This side of the hugelkultur bed, has always grown the lushest. I theorise, it has to do with the avocado tree, next to it. I control the growth of the avocado, so the shade doesn't overpower the bed. What is given in return however, is protection from the harsh afternoon sun - and much, much more.

We often think of plants as requiring moisture, and they do. But we don't always comprehend as readily, how they create moisture through transpiration, through their leaves. Studies have shown that transpiration from plants alone, accounts for roughly 10 percent of the moisture, in the atmosphere. So this little group of plants, worked together, to retain what moisture was drawn from the soil.

Bare patches in the garden, only grow larger, in the heat. Which is why food forests make a lot of sense! There's not a lot of bare patches in a forest.


 Avocado tree - between two hugelkultur beds


I don't strictly have a food forest, but in my vegetable patch, I'm experimenting with introducing trees and shrubs for buffering. We know how the tree, helped the plants in the hugelkultur bed, but the door swings both ways too. Having raised hugelkultur beds, on either side of this avocado tree, helped protect its roots from the harsh sun. 

Can you see the damaged leaves, above? The avocado, suffered from sunburn through the heatwave. Some leaves are still on the tree, but many simply died and fell to the bottom. All part of the natural cycle. What was interesting to observe, was how fewer leaves dropped in comparison to prior years. Plus, how quickly the tree recovered with new growth, when the weather normalised again.

I've had this tree sustain more damage, just from a regular summer, when it had flat, mulched, soil around it. So the tree has benefited from the raised hugelkultur beds, and the plants have benefited from the afternoon shade of the tree. This is clearly the sweet spot, in this edible garden.


Hugelkultur bed #1


Same hugelkultur bed (opposite side) and the only other plants to survive, were the Arrowroot and Basil. Arrowroot is another perennial, which I grow for mulching material. It's thick rhizome roots, can adequately protect them from weather extremes. The basil, evidently survived in the shade of it.

The patterns I am noticing is how the annuals only survive, in the wake of the perennials. Annuals quickly get wiped-out, otherwise. They just don't have the biological means, for coping. Everything I have demonstrated in my garden, didn't have shade-cloth erected, or much additional water added. Not enough to replace, what the heat withdrew, weeks on end. So what has survived, is almost everything nature could throw at it.


 Hugelkultur beds, back in Spring (before the heatwave)
~ installing beds: part 1 and part 2


I'm starting to view my edible areas in a different way. When it's not strictly a vegetable bed, and not strictly an orchard, but an integrated system instead, the plants work together to protect themselves. Of course, you can introduce shade-cloth for mutual benefit, and install irrigation. Perennials are an extra buffer though, and a natural life saver if you don't have artificial interventions.

Elementary really, but I grew up in the land of edible segregation. Glad I'm revising that position, more so, every year.

Do you integrate your annuals with perennials?


Saturday, March 25, 2017

Planting again

You've probably noticed an absence of property posts lately. That's primarily because of the heatwave, we experienced at the end of summer. It literally killed a lot of plants, and I didn't want to write, until I knew the full extent of the damage.

On the opposite end of the spectrum though, we've had rain for the past few weeks now. We've had very few days, it hasn't been raining. Some plants that were on their way out, were given a sudden reprieve.


Wicking box #3
cops the western afternoon sun


Not surprisingly, most of the plants in my wicking boxes, were fried during the heatwave. They had access to water in the reservoir underneath their roots, but their leaves just couldn't cope with temperatures over 45 degrees Celsius. Adding shade would have helped, but we didn't get to that job before the heat prevented us from going outside, and the damage was done.

It's not all bad news though. I made some clear observations of what made the grade through these extremes.


 Wicking box #2
protected by both boxes on either side


That star- picket is meant to deter the brush turkey's, but of more interest in this box, is what is surviving. The rubarb and the spring onion. Both have moisture filled stems, and in the case of the rubarb - roots. So they had a pre-existing coping mechanism, enabling them to survive through an extreme.

The rubarb leafs were also large enough, to shade the soil at it's base. Rubarb is a perennial plant, so not surprising, nature built it to survive more seasons than one!


 Wicking box #1
cops morning sun, but protected from the afternoon


Another thing to survive in that unruly mess, are cabbage and broccoli stalks. You can see a few tiny leaves which managed to emerge, before the heat put them in stasis. They have a fibrous, thick core, which kept it alive when the searing sun and high temps stuck around.

When the rains returned, and more importantly, the day-time temperatures normalised, those sticks are the first to kick-in, and start producing.


Hugelkultur bed #2


This kale is the perfect example. I took this photo today, after a week or more of rain. It's in my hugelkultur bed. The outside leafs are what were left of the old plant (eaten by grasshoppers) and the new leaves are emerging from the centre.

I thought this plant was on it's way out. Not much survived in this particular hugelkultur bed - but it was all planted in annuals. Plants which are bred by mankind, to be pampered and not live beyond one season. Therefore, annuals are probably not a safe bet, with dicey weather extremes on the cards, for the future. 


Hugelkultur bed #1


This kale is a little more developed, than the former. It's in a different hugelkultur bed to the other, and had more protection from the afternoon sun. When the heatwave was on, the soil was shaded by another perennial crop - our sweet potato. More about that particular plant, soon.

We were able to pick the leafs from this kale, within a week of the rains arriving, to make a green smoothie. They were so tender, I could eat them straight off the plant. Had we planted a seedling though, we'd have to wait several weeks for something similar.

So the lesson here, is wait to see what can survive in your garden, before you start pulling things out. Anything with a thick, fleshy stalk and/or root system, will be quick to produce, once the weather normalises again.


 Hugelkultur bed #1


Here is that sweet potato vine, I said protected the kale. I had several plants of kale in this bed, but the one to survive, was the one closest to other plants. There's a chilli plant in the middle, which is about to set flower too.

Observing what survived in our recent heatwave, I can nail it down to a few contributing factors:

  1. They were a perennial plant, with thick, fibrous material
  2. They had some form of buffering from other plants or structures
  3. They were in beds (hugelkulture & wicking boxes) with access to moisture underground
Those three factors, are what determined the survivors, from the compost. I'm going to start planning my edible plants, from a more perennial basis. That is what stands the best chance, of surviving weather extremes. I will speckle some annuals, but by increasing the perennial ratio, I increase the buffer zone of actually getting to eat something from my garden.

What is often considered an annual vegetable, such as cabbage and broccoli, can actually be treated like perennials. They just produce smaller heads, next time around, and you can always eat the leafs in stir-fries. Or just feed the leafs to the chickens.


Future food


This is what wicking box #1, presently looks like. I revamped it a few weeks ago. I removed all but the cabbage, added some more compost, a purchased basil plant, and seeds. Wet weather is perfect for planting seeds. I went mad planting seeds in the wicking boxes, and hugelkultur beds. I hope to have something to show for it, in a few months time.

Weather extremes can hit gardeners hard, but getting back into the game, is what it's all about! Observe what worked during a weather extreme, and seek to duplicate it.

Has your edible garden taught you anything new, recently?



Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Quilt Q & A

I've been sewing the pieces of my daughter's quilt together, for two days now. It took a week, prior, just for preparation. First I had to enlarge the image, then trace the individual pattern pieces out, just so I could add a 1/4 inch seam around all of them.

Then I had to go through it all again, to cut the fabric out. Lot's of triple handling, but worth the effort.


Dining chair on left, for size comparison
{click to enlarge}


So this is the result, after a week and two days work! It doesn't look like much, but there was a lot involved. I constantly have to refer to my original blow-up, to check for alignment. I've gotten to know my seam ripper, well. Overall, it has been fun though, learning a new skill.

Now a question for all those experienced quilters out there. What kind of batting is best? I'm leaning towards the polyester, given it will be my daughter's quilt, and the most forgiving for washing. What is your experience with batting?

Also, how do I get high loft? Do I sandwich two, low loft battings together? The polyester batting I've been looking at, is advertised as high loft. However, if it's anything like the polyester quilts purchased from the shops, they flatten after a few years. Any, and all feedback welcome.