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?


  1. Oh I can feel the excitement of Spring in your garden! Everything waking up and deciding whether this is the year it will feed you LOL!
    I currently have some kale which was so prolific through winter, not my favourite tuscan kale, but it gets extra points for toughness and perseverence, and now the same plants are growing me broccoli !!! (possibly going to seed but probably cross pollinated think the folks at ALS) Thats a winner in my garden. You are right, its about what works for you in your garden, so I'll try to get seed from that for sure.
    Your cabbages are winners! And we have the same practice- anything mediocre or pest-eaten goes to the chooks, nothing wasted :-)

  2. This is a wonderfully written post Chris. I see more success than failures at this point in your garden.
    Sage is my most hardy plant as is lemon balm. The bees love these when they flower. Chamomile would work for your area....roman chamomile is a ground cover that might interest you. Downside is that it doesn't like drought. It reseeds itself every year here.
    You can most definately cut cabbage heads, leaving the root and outer leaves intact for a second crop of mini cabbage.
    Iagree on the clover.If you turn it into the soil you'll build up your soil quality pretty fast. We use it as living mulch.

  3. Sometimes we do have to succumb to what nature intends for us. And work with the land, not againist it.
    My isabelle grapevine, lived through winter, despite no water or love from me.
    Come spring it burst into life - only to be tipped from the pot by little hands and found a day later - I am hoping it will come back again!
    If you need any vegetable seeds, drop me an email, I have way too many and am happy to post you some!

    Happy Gardening - Emily

  4. Kale and broccoli crossing, I can believe that MW. We had broccolini cross with Asian greens this year. The leaves were peppery tasting (like Asian greens) but the broccolini tasted like regular broccoli.

    The wonderful world of cross polination, hey? ;) Definitely keep your seeds to see how it grows again. As long as you like the taste, you can grow two different greens from one plant!

  5. You've mentioned another two of my fav hardy plants LindaM, Sage & Lemon Balm. I grow pineapple sage and steep its leaves (along with lemon balm) to make a lovely relaxing tea.

    Is there a favourite Sage varieity you like the most in your garden?

    Funny you should mention Chamomile though, as I tried it in the garden (after I thought it died) and it took off again, once I relocated it to a cooler area. I want this for tea too, and to try as a rinse for my hair. Extra points for being bee food. :)

    We're also in the same mind for the benefits of clover. Glad to hear it's found a useful niche at your place too.

    One more groundcover/living mulch/bee food/herb I just remembered I'm having success with too, is yarrow. I think it's the fine leaf variety which doesn't become as invasive as the other variety.

  6. Great to read you've got some tough nuggets in your garden too Emily. I've got a feeling your isabelle grape will pull through.

    I have a globe grape I plan to finally plant this year, after surviving two growing seasons in the same pot with minimal water, LOL. What's the saying - "tough as old goat's knees"?

    Thanks for the lovely invitation for seeds Emily. I'm such a pathological propagationist, I won't be able to refuse!! What a mouthful, LOL. I have a truck load of pigeon pea seeds if you ever need any too. :)

  7. I've long lost the label to my sage. Its the ordinary garden variety that is used for culinary and herbal concoctions. Silvery leaves and purple flowers. I'll look for its name and let you know. I steep it in cider vinegar for medicinal use. A weaker version could be used in cooking. Yum.

    I wouldn't mind if yarrow became invasive. Its a great medicine that I make salves with for serious wounds. It can help stem bleeding and unlike comfrey, it won't heal over and allow a wound to abscess. It can also be used for natural dye. I keep meaning to plant it here!

    If you get red clover, you can make wine with the flowers too. We have both growing around here. I simply encouraged it to grow as a mulch but will buy seeds next year to get more of its benefits.

  8. P.S.
    About the chamomile...yes, it can die off if it gets too hot and dry. My granny used to grow it in inland San Diego where she lived on the edge of the desert. She watered it diligently and I must say that her's was much more potent than anything I have managed to grow myself. On the other hand, she made us drink the stems and leaves, not just the flowers. That could of been the reason.
    She grew it in a patch all its own by the side of the house which probably gave it occasional shade daily but it does need sun.

  9. Took me a while to reply, sorry about that. :)

    I'm wondering if the sage you have is commonly called Grandfather Sage? I tried planting seeds of this variety but nothing germinated. Still learning the ropes of good seed germination, LOL.

    I didn't know you could make a salve from yarrow. I've heard it makes a good compost activator too, and is good planted in orchards. The idea is you mow it once or twice a growing season and it feeds the fruit trees.

  10. Excellent ideas! I read this summer that some plants that are cover crops cannot allowed to go to seed. They will deposit lots of nitrogen. But, when they go to seed, nitrogen will be pulled from the soil. Of course, I cannot remember tha plants in the article. So, this may just be useless advice without the particulars.

    I lovingly tended several plants, thinking at first they were tomatoes. The guy who mowed my yard told me they were potatoes...oh shoot! And, I had watered them. Okay, the plants were pulled up and there were potatoes smaller than the tip of my little finger.

    Since I read tomatoes and potatoes don't make good companion plants, I pulled the potatoes. But, I was so proud for awhile.

    It's Nov 1, and I have missed your posts.

  11. Hi Linda. :)

    We get potatoes popping up all the time, from the compost we make, but we've never been able to grow a proper crop! We hope to one day, LOL.

    I agree with your sentiments, cover crops are better slashed before they seed - allowing it to feed the soil rather than draw nutrients from it.

    Your garden sounds like a wonderful place for experimentation though. Keep letting those mysterious plants pop up to surprise you. It's great to walk into the garden and realise free surprises from vegetable peelings and the like.

    Thanks for popping up yourself, LOL, and reminding me of the joy of sharing with others too. :)


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