Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A tale of two trees

This is a tale of two trees, or rather, two ways of managing trees in the landscape. We've had our citrus in the ground for around six years now, and they've had to fend for themselves after the first summer. I want to focus specifically on our Lemon and Lime trees, as they've had to cope with the harshest conditions.

They live mostly off natural rainfall, and the lime tree in particular, has had to cope with full sun in every summer growing season.


Lime Tree, planted July 2008


Both trees are planted near block retaining walls, so they drain really well (great for drainage) but they also dry out really quickly too - which is bad for fibrous roots. The lime tree above, recently got a hard prune for the first time in its young life. I wanted my trees to grow in the Jackie French way, where I didn't prune the tree - allowing nature to dictate how it preserved itself. Mainly because I wanted these trees to look after themselves too. I didn't want to mollycoddle them every year, in case I couldn't be there to rescue them every year.


Mysterious lichen


The Jackie French way, certainly made the trees survive the furness which is our summer growing season. Had I chopped back limbs, I'm sure the summer sun would have dried the earth underneath and killed these trees quicker - especially last summer. But the branches grew intertwined and gave the tree a thick canopy above. Enough that it could even grow Lichen on selected branches underneath.

I would not have been able to photograph the Lichen if I hadn't given the tree a sever prune recently. The branch (above) is facing the western sun. Which goes to show, the canopy of the tree grew specifically to protect the trunk from the hottest sun - the afternoon sun from the west. I was fascinated to find the Lichen growing on that side, because it demonstrates the supreme intelligence and adaptability of nature. Hottest sun of the day (no worries) intertwine the branches to prevent exposure.


Lower branches removed


As I was pruning the tree limbs, I noticed something else about nature's intelligence. It grew branches perfectly, to balance the weight in each limb. It took a while, carefully observing, where I should prune each branch to open up the canopy. I had to select branches that wouldn't unbalance the limbs by removing them. After six years growing the right way to protect itself, I didn't want to set it up for failure next summer. So each branch I removed, had to balance out somewhere else.

Which brings me to explaining, why, if I had such success with the Jackie French way of managing trees, I would revert to the Peter Cundall enthusiasm for pruning trees instead? First point is simply the ease of management, but more importantly, only because disease management became an issue. I need to show the fruit to explain further.


Healthy lime fruit


Here is the lime tree fruit, which despite the summer heat, bore heavily. For the most part, they were healthy fruit, but a few started to exhibit signs similar to the lemon tree, that was now in dire straits.


Lemon fruit with citrus scab


I've not had a decent crop of lemons since 2011 and mostly because of the increased shade, due to trees growing-up around it. Also, having too many branches crossing on the lemon tree, has not helped either. It set the conditions to become a pest haven for everything to attack, when it was (once upon a time) our best producer.


Lemon branches


This image is of the lemon tree, but also what I had to deal with, when pruning the lime tree. Intertwining branches aren't so bad at the top of the tree, but when its all over, its difficult to see what's happening until the fruit start exhibiting problems. I would have continued with the Jackie French way of growing trees, had my six year old citrus, not shown a decline in health.


Eureka lemon tree


I should mention, the two trees pretty much managed themselves for five years, so the Jackie French method works. But when intertwining branches become a problem to the overall health of the tree, they should be removed. That should be judged by each tree, every season. Some trees may not need interference at all. My two oranges and one mandarin, have not been pruned, and produce healthy fruit.


Lime tree, right


I'm attempting to improve the moisture prospects for the lime tree also, by using a swale like berm, made from tufts of grass I've removed from elsewhere. The lower image gives a better view of how the berm/swale will collect moisture in rainy periods, because its taken from the top. The lime tree looks very bare at the moment, but I've pruned in Autumn, so foliage will get a chance to grow back before the next summer heatwave.


Lime tree, left


I like to use the big tufts of grass in the garden now, because I see it as a valuable resource. In the past, I would have purchased bales of straw to mulch around my trees instead. But I don't see the point in using energy to acquire materials, which I already having growing around me. It's not a neat, immediate bundle I can purchase conveniently from the store, but it's just as good at doing the same job, once I collect the materials in my garden and mound them together.

I'm happy to have started with the Jackie French approach (my trees are alive because of it) but intervention is sometimes required once problems arise. I don't believe the method is flawed just because I ran into problems six years down the track. Nature is doing exactly what it should be doing - weeding out the trees that aren't vigorous enough to compete with other elements. Having invested so much time waiting for edible trees to produce however, it would be counterproductive, not to find different ways to give them a slight advantage.

Minimal maintenance, has now become a little more involved, but the focus is still for the trees to ultimately look after themselves.

I will continue to allow as many trees as possible, to go without much intervention from me, beyond the first year. But I also know, I don't have to let a mature tree die just because it runs into some trouble either. I prefer the wilderness garden approach, but I can handle some extra work when its justified.



Saturday, April 26, 2014

New arrangements

I've been quiet on the blog recently, but my days have been filled with activity. We got to celebrate Easter with a picnic in the park (such a great idea, others thought of it too) and as we enjoyed the long weekend together, we came to some rather large decisions as well.

I'll write more about those decisions in another post, but it involves staying here for the long term.


Cleaning up


In the meantime, we're busy preparing for Sarah's 11th birthday next weekend, and hoping for a big turn-out. The yard has been judiciously prepped by David and his small crew of mowing apparatus. I have been doing a long overdue job too (above) that involved clearing out the debris and weeds dumped after the 2011 floods.

There were long tufts of grass, growing about a metre tall and once I cleared them, I decided to use the space for my potting area. Because it's changed from Summer to Autumn, the sun has now moved away from the original position I had them under the verandah. Moving some of the plants to the Eastern side of the house, ensures they will receive some morning sun at least.


Easily visible now


I had to be careful removing the grass with my mattock, as I had these two utilities to watch out for. One is the "earth" for the electricity in the house, and the other was an overflow pipe for the rainwater pipes. Back in 2011, the black grid was blown off from the force of the water spewing out from the torrential rain. I only discovered this when I went searching for it in the long grass. Now to look at it, you wouldn't think it was any worse for wear.


a blend of old and new


I transplanted some lovely foliage plants, I took cuttings from one of the many parks we have in Toowoomba. I only took small tip cuttings, but they've grown since. The red plant is on the left and the lime-green one is on the right. The other sprawling plant between them, has colonised the bricks under the pot, and was originally a cutting from my mum or one I took from the Brisbane Botanical Gardens (I honestly can't remember). That large terracotta pot, and bricks underneath, has been there pretty much since we moved here.

But those plants should grow well in the semi shaded position they receive behind the large terracotta pot. The sandstone sculpture next to them, was originally carved by David, and has only moved 15 metres from where he took it from the ground. I was glad to find it a permanent home, where we can appreciate it every day. It reminds me of that stubborn sandstone corner we had to dig into, to erect our front retaining wall. But the face has a smile, so its an enduring friend now with it's own story to tell.


Finch nest made with dry grass


I intend to move my ginger into that large terracotta pot, but for now, there's a finch family nesting in the branches of the jade tree which is planted there. That particular plant has been with me since I was a teenager and I'm glad to see it being put to good use. Once the finches abandon the nest however, I will transplant the jade tree into the garden and move my ginger in.


Potting stand on the right, against the brick wall


I've also utilised the potting-stand I purchased recently, which is now full of plants. In-fact there are quite a few things I've put to good use in this new area - like another old wheelbarrow, but I'll wait for the plants to fill them before I start sharing in detail. I haven't had great success with growing in wheelbarrows, so I need to know it will work first.


Eastern verandah


Here are the two potting areas, side by side. It makes for quite an idyllic walk and has brightened up what was otherwise, a very utilitarian area. You can see our two rubbish bins, gardening hose and the power box attached to the house a little further up. It's been quite a messy area in the past, but we hope to keep the greenery brightening it up into the future. Next summer will be the real test. I have plans for adding shade, should it come to that.

In the meantime, it's back to party planning and egg collecting. That's my next job on the list today, after finishing this post.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Where am I?

My name is not Wally, and I don't have a red 'n white skivvy on. But there has been some serious mojo withdrawals going on lately. Perhaps it had to do with the fact, David and I planned to have a sloooow two days off together. Sarah is on holidays so no school-hour rush, and we're stocked with food, so no trips needed into town for groceries. We were going to spend those two days, David had off work, planning how we'd spend Easter.

Well, David's car got a flat tyre on his first day off. No problem, we'll deal with it the next day - when we also had an appointment with a solar specialist at home. We're not getting panels installed, just doing research. But then our cat got attacked by another cat in the afternoon, and David had to now get his car tyres replaced, take the cat to the vet and I had to try and cancel the solar specialist appointment.

Of course, I wasn't given a contact number and I forgot to ask for one. Nothing showed up on the google search I did on the company, until 10 minutes before they were due to arrive. I had to search for about an hour on the internet, while juggling a rambunctious baby and a cat that was demonstrating more distress, as David and Sarah tended to her before rushing out the door together.

David's one flat tyre, became 4 new ones. Our cat was mercifully treated and able to come home, and I managed to juggle a rambunctious baby (will he ever sleep through the day again) while trying to pay attention to the solar specialist I couldn't cancel the appointment for. Oh and there was the major clean-up of sawdust shavings Peter managed to get all over the floor and himself, from the guinea pig cage, whilst I was distracted with the aforementioned specialist. I looked like a petting zoo keeper, as I saw the lovely visitor out the door, with my sawdust covered skirt and baby animal clambering at my shirt.

I'm not complaining, but piled up like that, life can sometimes suck the mojo right out of you.

I think I'll try curling up in the corner to recuperate with the cat. She probably had the worst day of all.


Click to enlarge image, if you're not squeamish


Love you lots, Muesli, our miracle cat with a thousand lives. Now schooch over for some cuddles.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Trouble in paradise

I spent some lovely time in the yard yesterday, planting and getting a new garden bed ready. I started with an overgrown mess, as we haven't touched this bed for several years.


Abandoned


There is an invasive grass which spreads by fibrous rhizome. I tried removal, but expect it will be back in some form. After an hours work, the sun slowly moved overhead. I knew the soil (which was a gorgeous chocolate loam) was going to cook the longer it was exposed to the elements.


Lovely chocolate soil


True to our recycling practices, we didn't waste the weeds and chipped them along with some wooden branches to cover the soil again. I left the spreading grass I pulled, to dry in the sun, and will use them as a cover mulch in another area.


Now waiting to be planted out


After a lick of water, it should be ready to use in a week or so. While it may have looked like an overgrown mess to begin with, all that sprawl was protecting the soil. It was absolutely beautiful soil too, which is something I've found underneath a lot of our sprawling mess. Pull back the jungle, and you'll find moist soil even when it hasn't rained for weeks.

By the afternoon, I planted another shrub in the back yard and then saw white flecks floating on the air. I knew straight away that it was ash, and it wasn't long until I could smell the smoke. It was coming from our neighbours backyard. They had recently cleared some of their land with heavy equipment, and as tradition would have it, decided to burn the debris they gathered up.

They lit the fire in the cool of the afternoon, and it had rained a lot about a week ago, but I still thought they had too much burning at once - a good twenty meter stretch. Some of the rural fire brigade neighbours thought so too, when they drove over to see everything was okay. The fire didn't spread but it was a big fire - too big for their single domestic hose to bring under control anyway.

After my wonderful day in the yard, pulling mess and appreciating its value as a soil protector, I could only stand by and watch the large fire burn next door. The birds who are normally at their most vocal in the late afternoon, weren't making a sound now. The kangaroos who normally come for their afternoon feed in our yard, were nowhere to be seen either. All living things which are in partnership with the environment, knew fire was not something to be invited in.

And yet many people invite it in, as a misinformed notion of preventing wild bushfires, or as a quick way to tidy up the yard. When people live in the residue of fire, they live in an unstable environment that will become more brittle and fire prone in the next heatwave. When people live in the residue of fire, they breed successive generations of plants that are designed to go "whoosh" quickly, which means more intense fires next time.


Lantana is declared a noxious weed ~
but grows the best soil before we can get to removing them


When you live in the residue of decaying matter on the ground however, you invite living things to thrive, reproduce and create successive generations of moisture-filled living tissue. Harder to go "whoosh" when it burns, and thus reduces the temperature of the fire. I've seen the difference in our yard, to those in the area which are periodically burned. They are dry, baron and constant work for their owners - either in dealing with the soil erosion or mowing the endless grass, which is a day away from turning brown afterwards.

Our yard is constant work too. In fact, just recently when the neighbour used equipment to clear their yard, I was tempted to feel it would save us a lot of work if we used heavy equipment too. David and I have talked about it before, but the main issue preventing us is the homeless animals we will create, by shifting so much of the environment at once. Manual work is harder and takes longer, but the impact we create on the environment is reduced as a result.


Pumpkin vine prunings, moved aside to rot ~
nature's original disposal system


It also allows the environment to heal after we've effected an area. Unlike the way the neighbour burned yesterday, and was at it again today. It saddens me to think we've created multiple generations who think their environment will simply repair itself and look after them, the more they rip it back and ignore its needs. I used to think like that too. Until we moved into a tinder box and saw how nothing would grow in the landscape.

Things didn't grow in poor soil, with minimal rainfall in extreme temperatures, unless there was vegetation. If that vegetation was weeds, so be it. Leave them. Slash if required, but never burn. Take out trees if you have to, but leave them on the property to decay. It's food for the termites which in turn, becomes food for the echidnas. Countless insects will use deadwood for shelter and nests too, which will feed the next generation of birds and lizards. All this activity sequesters carbon into the soil, instead of sending it up into the air.


Man-made areas, need constant attention ~
natural landscapes look after themselves


Messiness is nature's order, to build stability back into the landscape. Degraded areas are therefore, prone to a lot of messiness. If we understand this is how it was meant to be, maybe we won't be so quick to tidy up. Every area in the garden we've disturbed, and then let nature take over again, has done far better than the areas we've tried to maintain an order to ourselves. Mowing and slashing was far better than pulling and removing - although its okay to remove, if the vegetation sits on top of the soil to decay.


Click image to enlarge


I did this recently, when planting in the front batter. I pulled a lot of grass and heaped it like a berm. A week later, I pulled back a small hole in the dead grass to plant into, and it was moist. Nothing I've planted in this particular area (directly into the soil) has managed to live through our long, hot, and often dry summers. I'm hoping by planting into a thick mat of straw, it will improve the moisture/soil content somewhat, and it's doing a terrific job already.


Luffas and Gourds can live in the garden for years, slowly rotting down


The trouble with this particular part of paradise, isn't fire, weeds or a lack of rainfall. It's people's attitudes towards their environment. They consider the lack of rain for making it so dry, as they light another fire to keep the grass and weeds under control. What they don't realise, is they're sucking the water right out of the ground, by their own hands.

Not a lot of people would set their homes alight to "tidy up", so its not a very good idea in nature either. When gathering debris in our yards, we should leave it to rot and collect moisture as much as possible. We can do that in a tidy, more useful way than merely setting a flame to it. Not all fires are bad (BBQ's, wood stoves in winter or moderately sized pit fires) but the wholesale use of fire as vegetation control, is counterproductive to creating a stable environment.


Muesli, the cat


Vegetation is essential to climate control and land stabilisation. We need it, whether that vegetation fits in with our vision of tidy, or not. When we filled our dry-stone retaining wall with soil, at the back of our house, we disturbed the area quite a lot. The weeds and grass quickly invaded, when we stopped work to have a baby. It's a nearly completed project, which looks rather messy now...but its still very productive mess. I'm grateful nature keeps working when I've taken a sabbatical.

If all this sounds like a bit of a lecture, stop to consider if each and every one of us has given the issue much thought? Maybe we need to revisit how we look upon our gardening spaces, to be more in line with nature. I know I never warmed to having a messy garden, straight off the bat. I was forced to do it by sheer size of the property, and changing circumstances. Now I know the benefits however, I'm more mindful of what's important - the view, or whether I work towards nature's best interests?

Does it really matter if people burn every year? I personally haven't found it very beneficial on the parcels of land, it's been done to in this area. They're degraded, hotbeds and constantly thirsty. Why not just try the recycling experiment however. Put everything grown on the property, back onto the property. If weeds invade, don't break your back trying to control them - plant what you want to amongst them instead. Or use them to mulch under a tree - they make excellent mulching material.

Trouble in your particular part of paradise? Try letting nature take over and show you what actually works. It will be very enlightening and incredibly productive.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Rustic shade solutions

Plant propagation is something I've gotten a little better with over the years. I've learned that new cuttings ought to get premium space. They take up all the areas I have available, until they strike roots, and then I have to either pot them on to bigger homes, or plant them into the garden directly.

Because I've had more success than ever this year with cuttings, I've come across something I haven't experienced before - where to put the plants which have struck, but need dappled shade or morning light to harden them? I do have a shade house which has chickens in it at the moment, and until we move them on (shortly) I had to look for other areas I could place these successful cuttings.


Vertical space


I went to ALDI recently, and found a lovely plant stand. It only cost $30 and is constructed of metal. I liked the different teirs, because as the morning sun hits the wall for a few hours, the top shelf gets less light than the remaining two. I put the shade loving plants up the top and then move down plants as their needs require. The lower they are down on the shelf, the more morning sunlight exposure they get.

The plants are doing really well and I'm tempted to buy a few more stands. I've been avoiding the shop however, because I really wanted to look for other areas (or things I already had) that I could give my cuttings better conditions with. Why spend extra money if I don't have to? I can't believe I hadn't thought of this before - maybe because I didn't have the amount of successful plants to raise before - but there was my solution, as plain as day, begging to be used...


Solution


It was an old wheelbarrow I attempted to grow plants in a while ago. I've never had much luck with growing things in wheelbarrows. I remember even placing it under the tree because I wanted dappled shade. The plants died a while ago, but it still had soil, so I just put the pots directly on top. They get perfect drainage when I water them once a day, and the soil underneath means the pots themselves don't overheat in the afternoon, when they get a small amount of direct light.

It has a lovely micro-climate happening as a result.

What I love most about this solution however, is the canopy tree was absolutely free - it sprung up all by itself, so we didn't even plant it. But I also get to re-purpose the wheelbarrow again. I was beginning to think I'd have to bury the wheelbarrows around the yard, to get rid of them, but now I don't have to expend that energy. They just needed a more creative solution.

Needless to say, I'm scanning my yard for other prime positions, utilising existing shade cover.