Monday, September 26, 2011

Working the land

When hearing about "working the land", many different images come to mind. As they should because no piece of land is ever the same. Although regions can share similar characteristics (for example, climate zones) how individuals work their piece of land has to be unique to their need of it, what it can provide (natural limitations) and also access is another significant player too.

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.

Black Mulberry

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.

Strawberry heaven!

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

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?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Spring into action

So Spring is here, I know this mainly for two reasons. Firstly, I'm cutting up fruit salad for the fridge again. We love crisp, fruit salad after a hard day's work in the yard. It's a "must-have" in the fridge when the temperature rises.

The second reason I know spring is here, is when the bed gets an overhaul. I did this, before lunch and all the winter blankets are now drying on the line. I also decided to do something special this year, and I may do it every year from now on - and that's removing the mattress and bed slats in order to access fully under the bed to vacuum. With all that dust gone, the room smells cleaner than ever! I also gave the wood a wipe over, with a clean cloth and eucalyptus oil.

All the windows and doors are swung open today, with a lovely spring breeze coming through the entire house. It feels like winter is well and truly done for another nine months or so. My bones are warming and I'm ready for Spring - along with the Carnival of Flowers, starting this weekend up the hill in Toowoomba.

How quickly time passes, as it was only last year we enjoyed the Carnival too. There are so many wonderful things to get up to at this time of year: work, play, re-discovering the garden and seeing what new animals visit this year. We've seen an increase in wattle birds and rosellas, plus I think the flocks of tiny finches have figured out we're a safe omnivore. We notice how they flock near us when we're out in the garden, because the larger butcher birds (which prey on smaller birds) give us a wide berth.

Anyway, I hope your gardens are warming too and the birds frolicking amongst the bushes!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Liebster is German for favourite (I think)

I was kindly nominated for an award by LindaM at her blog, Hello it's me... It's was a lovely surprise to find us there with some wonderful new blogs, I've been introduced to, thanks to the gesture of the Liebster Award.

I did a little internet research and discovered this particular award has German origins, and was designed to shed light on blogs with less than 300 followers. Kind of inspiring for the little guys, which I would definitely classify as - although technically, my clothes would disagree!

The rules are simply to link to the blog which nominated you for the award, then nominate three other blogs of your own. I wanted to focus on a group of blogs which I don't technically fit into any more, but nonetheless I'm very inspired by. When I left suburbia to live on small acreage, I said goodbye to one life and hello to another. Those who continue to live simply in suburbia however, do so against a backdrop of consumerism that is hard (as I can testify) to live simply by.

Nonetheless, these particular blogs do it so well, and I'm really happy to nominate them for the Liebster Award.

Life in the Dome: Jacqui lives in the Blue Mountains, which I think is a beautiful part of Australia, and she loves chooks! So much so, that I cannot help but love her chooks also. They are gorgeous. I also love that she's a bit of a Dr Who fan too. Sorry for outing you like that Jacqui, I hope you can forgive me. :)

Mountain Wildlife: Still in the Blue Mountains region, and there's a family of four who've just found a new place to call home. I've enjoyed following their adventures in home ownership and how they try to grow as much as they can from their backyard. I also love their chooks! Do I have a theme developing I wonder?

Little Farm in the city: A lovely local I've had the privilege of meeting in real life, Emily and her family, grow as much as they can in their backyard. I love their wicking beds and have seen them in action towards the end of the drought. And yes, I also love their chooks - and a wandering duck that decided it was so great in their backyard, it would stay. :)

That's my three nominees for the award. I do have one last blog I'd like to mention however. I'm not sure if they have under 300 followers, as (like me) they don't have a widget to show. But I'm going to mention them anyway, Little eco footprints, because Tricia and her family do a great job of bringing environmental issues back to the burbs.

A special thanks again, to LindaM for nominating our blog for the Liebster Award.

Happy reading everyone. :)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Glass is durable

What I miss since the introduction of mass produced plastic bottles, is the durability of glass. It's solid and easy to clean over and over again. So whenever I do the grocery shopping now, I strive to buy what I can in glass. It often means spending a few dollars more, but I look for the longevity of the investment, because I can re-use glass in my kitchen.

Empty glass bottle

Enter a bottle of blackcurrant cordial syrup. It's finished now but it's been laying around my kitchen bench top, reminding me it could have a purpose. I had actually cleaned a few more bottles I was sourcing cork stoppers for (there's always a back-log of activities behind my ongoing projects) all because I decided to ditch the "plastic" bottle I was storing oil in. The reason I hadn't ditched this particular plastic bottle yet, was it's convenient size.

Metal canister

I buy oil in bulk, in large metal containers - 4 litres worth. It's economical and I like the fact it's not stored in plastic. While it meets a lot of my criteria (it even looks attractive on display) but it's terribly unforgiving on the wrists if you have to drizzle a small amount in a frying pan. That's why I was keeping the smaller plastic bottle for. I don't have a picture of it because it's long gone now and good riddance to it. I kept it way too long.

For months since however, I've been trying to find a suitable glass bottle for storing the oil instead. I wanted something to stop the oil dripping down the side of the bottle once it was poured. I looked and I looked, I even looked in second-hand shops for oil pourers people may not have wanted any more. Nothing was presenting itself as a solution...I guess not the instantaneous sort I suppose, for I had the solution all along. The blackcurrant cordial bottle...

No drip top

It already had the plastic top with the dripless curved lip. Why hadn't I thought of this before? To be honest, I hadn't looked too closely at the top of the bottle, as I was going to do with it what I do with all my bottles - ditch the original tops, for cork or plastic screw tops. You can buy either at a home brew shop. Did you know you shouldn't keep re-using metal screw tops on your glass bottles? They can grind the glass and the glass can harbor moisture that stains the metal. That's why I ditch most of the original tops.

Patience pays in dollars and sense

But now I feel much relieved, as I have my smaller glass bottle stored beside the stove, ready for cooking again. Being made of glass, it's not only durable but easy to clean the outside with a damp cloth - because we all know how fat loves to spit when you're frying something!

What's more, I well and truly got the value from the higher price I paid for the cordial in a glass bottle. So next time you go shopping, don't just think about what you need to buy, but consider the storage it comes in. You could be buying two solutions for the price of one.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

New season with old memories

Garden progress 2010

Welcome to Spring was this season last year, I remember sharing pictures about our garden and how well it was coming along. Then in December I had to duck out between bouts of rain to get pictures of the vegetable patch. There were more rainy days than there were dry. Which was a first for us, since the previous 3 years saw us through the last of the drought. Only no-one knew it was going to be the end, until the floods came in January. Things changed a lot after the floods.

Winter here is traditionally without rain, so I knew I wouldn't have to worry about floods then. And we certainly wouldn't have generated the heat for thunderstorms. That changed recently and we've experienced a few storms again. It brought up a lot of memories and anxiety from last January. But it's not even heavy rain yet, just a few days where it didn't stop. Then a crack of thunder woke me in the wee hours of the morning and I couldn't go back to sleep.

Ponds are filling again and still working on the swales

I feel like a worry wart and silly for freaking out - yet I know it's a natural response too. I knew this new growing season would bring with it mixed emotions. Part the joy of experiencing the warmth again and watching plants grow, the other, fear of the unknown and concern if we'd done enough remedial works to protect the front retaining wall from washing out again?

It's something only time will remedy - I'll have to experience a few more storms to work it through my system. It's a hard process, sometimes I struggle to talk myself down and I can feel the effects for days afterwards - I find it difficult to sleep because my brain is constantly ticking over. I've received the counseling required to get me through this process, but it's not an easy journey.

January 2011

So I thought to mark the transition in a positive way, I'd give an update of "Bluey" our pineapple! After the floods, I remember being surprised by the appearance of a pineapple fruit. It was a wonderful sign that life continues after destruction. And now Bluey is almost ready to be picked!

September 2011

We called him Bluey, because compared to our other pineapples, it's leaves had a slight blue sheen. I still haven't gotten around to propagating that sucker, but I will when the days start to heat up again. There have been a few warm days and even the nights see us kicking off the blankets again. It won't be long until the heater can be stored in the cupboard.

So there's much to look forward to and much to overcome, but then isn't that what makes life interesting? I hope your season transitions, are bringing a positive sense of achievement too.