Friday, February 10, 2012

A fallow year

I haven't been doing much posting about our property at Gully Grove. The simple truth is, we haven't been doing a whole lot that's new. Other than building a drystone retaining wall - yet to be completed (when our rainy season catches a break) and other regular maintenance like mowing - we haven't embarked on our usual typhoon of projects. There are several reasons why, but let's start with the most obvious. We're just plain tired!

Ha-ha, yeah that's right. After 4 years hard slog, building gardens from debilitated scrub land and that little train wreck with the floods last year, well, we're spent. Not just physically and emotionally, but financially too. We're not broke, we have our bases covered but for the first time ever, we aren't presenting our payload of projects with an open cheque book. This year we said that's not going to happen. We're just going to have to be more inventive with our solutions - if we decide to embark on anything at all.

Which brings me to the enlightenment of the fallow year. In organic gardening, a fallow year comes to represent a whole growing season where the ground isn't tilled or planted, mulched or fertilised. It just sits there letting nature weave that special magic of replenishment. I like the thought of that. There isn't a more perfect time for a fallow year in our lives, than this year!

So we aren't running around with our mower every weekend, even though the grass desperately needs the hair cut. The grass and weed seeds are returning to the soil as nature intended. We aren't running around saving seeds from our garden either. Things like the spring onions and leeks are growing little fluff balls, that will be released before winter arrives. Again, that's fine with us, we're letting nature replenish the stores this year. All it means is, nature will grow things where it decides is the best place and how.

Kind of like this never-die luffa vine we've had for several years. This particular specimen fell off the parent vine and got kicked around a little with mowing. Once the rains arrived, whulla, instant luffa pot plant! Not to worry though, I don't mind it's appearance in a place I never would've planted it myself. Nothing has ever managed to grow in that particular spot before anyway. It's almost pure sandstone with a splash of clay and weeds like cobblers pegs.

I love how nature found the solution, in a decaying luffa fruit and the summer rainy season. In a harsh, exposed location such as ours, nature has to be creative! I'm going to leave it to grow there, and do whatever it was nature intended.

It's exactly the same strategy I've always used for these three year old, Kent pumpkin vines. The winter has never managed to kill them off, neither the occasional heatwave before the summer rains set in. They simply hang on for grim death, and then explode into life when the rainy season comes. All it requires is to ignore their unkempt state, when they only look fit for the compost heap. The reward is getting a steady supply of pumpkins every year, with no effort but to pluck them off.

I suspect gardening was meant to be this easy, once we can live with the messiness of seasonal change. We don't get bumper crops gardening this way, but we always get survival crops that taste just as good as their pampered counterparts. By allowing nature to do most of the work here, we're conserving energy and resources when we most need to.

Seeing some of these Pink Thai, cherry tomatoes adorning the ground, are you beginning to wonder if we look after our produce at all? This year, you'd be right to assume we're not. But if the birds, marsupials and hares aren't dragging these little seed bombs all over the place, we somehow manage to. I pulled these off the parent plant, to get them off the ground. This was several weeks ago when they were still green. Naturally, I forgot about them and so they ended up dwelling on the barren sandstone wasteland we like to call the front of the house, LOL.

They may just propagate themselves yet!

Do you want to know the secret to how anything changes around the garden in a fallow year? Humus made from decaying plant matter. This is just the remnants of soil in an old wheel barrow. It fell over recently and got pushed back under the pigeon pea trees. Old shriveled leaves meet new green ones. Microbes love this kind of soil banquet - especially during the rainy season. I know I keep banging on about the rainy season, but it's only just dawned on me this year - the rains are the signal for a new growing season. It's not until they arrive, that anything starts to grow in earnest. The ground needs to be saturated in order for the soil microbes to kick off their breeding cycle.

Soil microbes get some assistance traveling around the garden, from fungi and mushrooms. They always emerge with the wet humid weather and seem to disappear just as quickly and mysteriously again. In my garden they will always be considered magic mushrooms, as they bring change with them. I know when they start popping up, we're doing something right to the soil. Maybe not perfect soil condition, but at least adequate enough for something as delicate and sensitive to change as fungi is, to start growing them.

These mushrooms/fungi were underneath a pigeon pea tree. I would have to say this is our favourite kind of pioneer plant at Gully Grove. Wherever these peas are planted, the soil starts to come to life again. Good soil is a rare commodity in the bush. It's great for growing natives, but not a great deal else. That's when you need some clever plants with clever tricks up their sleeves. The pigeon pea tree has many.

Before our fallow year this year, we started digging our small ponds to catch water run-off. On the edges (love those shady edges) we planted a row of pigeon peas. In their first year, it was still the tail end of our drought, so I had to pamper them with visits with the watering can. But only a few years later and they're creating their own soil in a former clay-pan. That's why these ponds hold water without a plastic liner - it's clay.

But pigeon peas have deep tap roots, so not only can they survive in the dry, they can also push through clay layers in the wet too. Great trick for adaptability and does wonders for the soil. This is truly our most beloved (exotic) plant that will be responsible for considerable soil improvement over the years. If you have really awful, and I mean Sahara desert type soil, this amazing plant is a miracle.

But what we love about the pond development, is how it's become a favourite spot for all the birds and local wallabies to drink. I'm just sitting back and taking it all in during our fallow year. We did the hard yards first, now we get the reward of watching. Grab your patient cap though because it won't happen in the first year you work, or maybe even the second. By the third and fourth year though, all those hard miles and worn shoes will reward you.

Of course, there's always a flip side to such an energetic pace. Before you know it, there's a jungle in your backyard! The passionfruit vines have managed to smother the rosemary bush again. What rosemary bush, you ask? Well, I know it's in there somewhere. It's that round bulge in the middle. Hilltop chicken coop is behind there too. You can just make out the roof line. Crazy growth rate here, but pruned passionfruit vines make good mulch for fruit trees in autumn.

Not even Middle Ridge nursery was spared. Amongst all that vegetative growth, there's a narrow path for me to check the seedlings aren't drying out or being strangled in their sleep. I won't weed it though. Apart from the fact I don't want to, it's generating a marvelous micro-climate. The soil is moist and cool, therefore any sun exposure creates humidity. It's perfect for some of the palms I have in there. Can you make out the pineapple hoard in the middle of the table?

While I won't be planting more pineapples this growing season, I always propagate the tops when they come into my possession. Dave scores pineapple tops from the kitchen he chefs in, we buy the occasional pineapple on special, or like the plant above, I propagate the suckers. Three have already been plucked and planted from this particular specimen. Once we harvest the pineapple to eat (before winter) I'll break the two crowns up and propagate them also. It's really not that much effort and I've seen pineapples grow in really awful soil.

In fact, when we get back into the rhythm of gardening, pineapples are going to be one of our main features. If something really works in your garden, duplicate it. Or just let nature do it for you and live with the unkempt mess of a seasonal garden. You'll be amazed at what a fallow year can teach you. There are plenty of clever tricks nature can surprise you with.

Of course I can't leave without touching on some of the negative consequences of our fallow year either. We may have lost a red delicious fruit tree, due to collar rot. We hadn't mowed and some of the grass was over a metre tall. With the constant moist conditions the summer rains have caused, the base of the trunk was growing white fungus.

The leafs have died and the two baby fruit are hanging there, waiting to drop. At this stage we don't know if we will lose the tree. Maybe we got to it just in time - the wood on the branches are still very flexible and green? We'll have to wait. It has air flow now, so that will stave off the fungus growth.

I actually don't mind the loss, if that is the case, as I've been curious to try planting apple seeds instead. I enjoy how nature can be quite abundant like that; a grafted dwarf tree might cark it, but a seedling may just endure. Each little seed represents a possibility regardless, and precisely why nature is in the habit of throwing so many around! Perhaps you can understand why I'm pleased in a fallow year, nature takes over completely and sets the agenda. So many possibilities flying around the ecology, waiting for inspiration to rise up out of the ground. If I'm not messing with it, I get to see how nature does it.

I have some pretty amazing before and after pictures, to demonstrate a tidy and an unkempt garden. But that will have to wait for another post. I know in the past I haven't shown many of my messy garden pictures, because I figured success meant big patches of green production! Turns out I was wrong. A garden is still growing even if it looks unkempt and unruly. In fact, the most productive gardens are the ones that feed the soil out of natural provisions.

Ours still has a ways to go in development, but I'm confident despite our temporary hiatus, our garden will benefit from our fallow year. We won't be tilling the soil, except where we need to re-direct water flows. Everyone will benefit. So next time you visit your old garden, consider any fallow beds invaded by weeds, your respite - not your nemesis. ;)


  1. Your land looks so lush right now! We came here to land that laid fallow for three years so are still trying to gain some control of certain areas.

    I wish it coukd be that easy for us but that would be disasterous. I think I have volunteers to help me this year but If we do nothing, I know nature will spare us for just one season!

  2. Gosh I'm slack, it's taken me a while to reply.

    I'm looking forward to seeing what your garden does with the next growing season. I'm hoping you'll be on the mend by then, and able to take trips in the yard with your camera.

    I know messy gardens don't make for the most photogenic pictures, but they are what they are - gardens doing what they do naturally and that's growing! ;)

    Thanks for commenting and sorry for being so slow to reply. :)

  3. Chris, thanks for pointing me back to this post. I see I have been here before. lol. I will try to make sure that my luffa vine this year stays well aerated and hot.

  4. If we had to remember everything we've commented on, we'd need a photographic memory, lol. Luffas love good air flow, warmth and moisture at their roots. :)


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