Let me tell you our strategy for working the land - um, read books and websites. In truth, that's all we had to begin with. After 4 years of learning through experience however, we've come to appreciate that our biggest teacher was going to be experimentation! Now with this wonderful teacher, comes a few golden rules:
1. Expect failure - this is mandatory.
2. Accept failure - this is how you learn to observe.
3. Innovate failure. This is how you adapt!
Experimentation involves multiple levels of failure before you find the success worth building upon. Because each piece of land has a different means of success, each land owner has to be willing to find that niche of success. It often lays dormant and unnoticed, because we have our noses in books and websites, trying to find the magic clue. Books are wonderful and I wouldn't want to live in a world without them - but we have to be willing to put the books down at some point, and make a personal investment of natural curiosity.
Our experimentation phase is on-going, however we've uncovered a few gems to share at least for our patch of land. This is predominantly sloping bushland, recovering from drought, bushfire (approximately 9 years ago) flood last year, and continual weed infestation. Now if that sounds a tad depressing, take a look at what has emerged this growing season...
Brown Turkey Fig
These are our first figs at Gully Grove. They started sprouting from the wood at the same time the leaves appeared. We counted three fruit in total. That's not going to feed us, but it's a reminder of what will come in the future. It's why we planted a fig tree in the first place. At the moment, we're not getting what is deemed a "successful" crop, but remember we're also living on slopes and in a bushfire region. Not only is this fig tree going to deliver bigger crops in future, but it's holding the slope we planted it on, together. Plus it's deciduous nature means it feeds the soil every autumn/winter by shedding it's leaves, to keep it moist for bushfire season.
This is what I call, working the land on a passive level. We have to be prepared to wait longer for our windfall crops, but we're also addressing multiple needs at the same time. This process will gain momentum the more plants we get in the ground. Like our black mulberry tree, which has adorned it's new leaves and starting to fruit.
It's deciduous nature works the same as the fig tree. It allows sunshine in during winter to help break down the mass of leaves it drops. Nature is a very passive, inter connected structure that will farm better than any crop man can plant. That's because nature farms bio systems, the by-products are billions of crops which benefit each other.
Then there's our extremely modest strawberry patch. We watched the berries emerging around Autumn, only to be dismayed by the nocturnal marauders who ransacked them all through winter. We had no expectation of getting any strawberries, even in Spring - but then they turned pink then red, with no marauders in sight. We got one each (not present in this photo) as they were far too sweet and delicious to wait any longer!
Not only will these strawberries feed us in future, they also make a natural green mulch to keep on slopes too. Is there anything more exciting than visiting the strawberry patch? Maybe climbing the mulberry tree and getting purple fingers, LOL?
At the moment our soils are quite difficult to farm, without a load of bio-mass (aka compost) plus mulch and water. We have limited resources, which has become the perfect environment for experimentation. The past few years we've noticed how growing vegetables in traditional raised beds, was a fight against nature we couldn't win. We bought what we wanted in punnets from the nursery (last year) then planted them in our soil - watered, mulched (the usual suspects) then promptly watched a lot get eaten by insects or suddenly go to seed. Rather than being a failure however, it was a lesson in what doesn't work here.
This year we didn't pull out the pest ridden vegetables, we let them go to seed instead, and watched the predators arrive early. We let the weeds stay there and only cleared the patches we decided to plant fruit trees. Because we're turning the old vegetable bed, into a perennial garden instead! It will have some fruit trees and some vegetables, sharing an environment together. This is not going to be a quick garden. It is deliberately tailored to our conditions and our means.
Coffee & leeks
This is one of two Dwarf Coffee plants, planted in a bed of leeks. We want the leaks to stay to feed the insects and help protect the new addition. Because if we've learned anything about farming here, lone trees immediately get infested and eaten! I've got two very sick citrus trees I'm hoping make it thorough, until we finish digging the swale and can get more plants in.
The other Coffee plant is located near our nearly invincible cabbage patch however. These cabbages were bought for 50 cents a punnet, on special, because they were half dead. We had low expectations to start with - in fact they were destined to be a sacrificial crop.
I think this is a sugar loaf cabbage
We planted them close together, some struggled many died (we got a few) but we left them in for ground cover, not expecting a great deal. Suddenly a new bunch of little heads appeared. We occasionally plucked the leaves for a stir-fry or for the chickens to eat. I think the trick they had to surviving, was instead of producing a single head of cabbage, they decided to branch out!
Innovate or die!
I imagine this is what happens to cabbage plants when you either de-head and leave them in the ground, or they decided the main head isn't going to make it, so they send up a lot of little heads from the stem of the plant. I found this quite a fascinating little development. These cabbages shade the ground and keep moisture in. One of the heads are about to set seed, so we're definitely going to keep seed from this little miracle plant!
The plan this year is not buying any new veg in punnets. Instead we're going to work with the ones remaining in the garden that went to seed. A lone corn cob survived during winter, one we didn't pick and one the marauders ignored completely. It was small but we're going to work with what is present, rather than buy lovely punnets that aren't suited to our conditions.
Could be sweetcorn, could be corn sprouted from chicken feed?
Punnet plants are a great way to start growing your own food, but they come with the responsibility of raising them in the same environment they're use to (water on demand and controlled sunlight) in order to get them to deliver the kinds of crops your expecting. We cannot do that every year here, so we've accepted we're going to have to plant from seed that performs well.
But vegetables aren't the only seeds we propagate. I often walk through my garden for signs of fertility - what is flowering, going to seed or producing a crop? I want to know what's happening, so I can learn the seasons and help the propagation process along. Just yesterday, I plucked some of the nasturtium seeds and popped them in other places around the garden. I did the same for the borrage seeds. This is how I've chosen to garden. I observe what is working and I duplicate it somewhere else.
Clover, hung to dry
I even found a wild patch of clover and decided to save some of those seeds as well. My first memories of clover was at school, making daisy chains during lunch. More than those cherished memories however, they make great bee forage and mine nutrients from the soil - protecting it from exposure to the harsh elements too. All in all, Clover is a wonderful plant for the garden! I'm planning to get these clover seeds onto bare patches of ground around the place.
On the whole however, I think what we've learned working the land here is that (a) you have to start somewhere, and (b) don't pamper your garden to the point you miss the success niche designed specifically for your patch of ground. The greatest teacher is experience, so our backyards should be miniature laboratories filled with exciting (often cheap) experiments. Seeds are so cheap nature grows them for free!
Pelargoniums citrosum in flower
excellent leaf material for mulch and compost
excellent leaf material for mulch and compost
We never thought becoming gardening failures would be so exciting and full of learning potential. But we've learned so much in the process!! We have our success stories brewing for a future, that will be more sustainable on our land. Because it isn't duplicated from a single book, or brought in with masses of bio-input. The natural elements get used first and foremost because they're indigenous. Hopefully they will always be here - if not, we'll adapt to what remains.
If we want to have sustainable systems into the future, we have to let our systems stand against the elements. If they don't stand the test, then they shouldn't be adapted as best practice. Sometimes we just have to accept, nature knows best and learn.
Do you have any hardy plants or vegetables that rose again from the dead?