Saturday, March 29, 2014

Restoration work

When we first stepped foot on our property, close to seven years ago, we naturally radiated towards the flattest land. It was where the water ran off the main street, and the two gullies on our property drained to. Only at the time, it was at the tail-end of a drought, so it looked like a dry sand bed.

Water entering property, about a metre wide

Thankfully, it has rained a lot since then, so we've gotten to know our dry creek bed rather well in the wet too. Above you can see the water run-off, 24 hours after a lot of rain recently. This water is coming from our neighbours land. They have a concrete culvert, cutting across the creek bed so they can drive to their house. Being concrete however, it creates a lot of turbulence and velocity when the water flows through it.

If the rainfall is steady, like it was a few days ago, it will drop silt in a sheet (above) where the water drains away. In heavy rain though, the water can cut up the creek bed and even eat into the slopes at the sides. We knew it needed some restoration work, if we are to return stability to this particular area of the property.

Soft landscaping

So whenever we had tree branches or lantana to pull out, we placed them across the creek bed, to act as a silt trap. Above you can see a thicket we constructed, which has been there for about twelve months or so. Grass has grown through it in the dry weather, and then it gets pushed over when the water passes through in the wet. The grass dies, but creates even more matting to catch silt with.

We had some pretty bad erosion from the flood in 2011, it created a deep saucer that kept scouring deeper whenever we had more rain. Since placing the thicket here however, the deep saucer has gradually filled with silt. What's even more interesting, is seeing how the water flow has changed through our property.

Reduced water flow

This is water flowing after the thicket. It has a reduced flow compared to the sped of what was entering. You can also see how the width of the water has changed. It went from about a metres width, when the water first entered the property, to 30 centimeters now. Grass is also able to survive closer to the water, because its not being pushed over and starved of sunlight. This strategy has reduced erosion throughout the creek bed.

Staying put

After the water has passed through yet another thicket we constructed, it has virtually no flow at all. This water has been retained 24 hours after rainfall has ceased. These are very small modifications we've made, but over the seasons it gradually changes how the water flows.

We will continue with this work, because it's important to help drought proof and reduce erosion on our property. In the full circle of things, it will also help lower bush fire risks. By taking the dead wood and strategically placing it to capture and retain water now, it will help to grow plants less likely to ignite in a fire. Less likely, doesn't mean bullet proof, but its still a step towards not living in a tinder box either.

Bare patch where lantana formerly was

In other restoration work, we've (er, David) cleared some weedy lantana, to make way for a native plant I finally managed to track down. It's called Bursaria spinosa, and shares similar properties to the lantana. There is a special reason for wanting this.

When we first stepped foot on our property, all those years ago, and stood in our dry creek bed, we suddenly noticed we weren't alone. There was a chorus of birds, calling to one another; darting from lantana bush to lantana bush. They were tiny flock birds: finches, wrens, robins and the like. We fell in love with this place from that moment on.

So when it came to removing weedy lantana bush, which is mandatory under law, I wanted to give these remarkable flock birds something similar to nest in. I could never imagine evicting them from their homes, just because we decided to purchase the land they live on. You have to nurture a love affair, not erode it with possession.

It's one of our greatest joys, doing this slow restoration work. Every season it changes a little more.

Friday, March 21, 2014

New discovery

Back when we thought we might have to move, I started rescuing fruit trees which never flourished where I planted them. If they lived, they would move with us, if they died, such was their fate in the ground anyway.

Much to my surprise, when several plants were dug up and placed under the verandah (in a pot) they really weren't the same trees at all. I had a pineapple guava, at least four years in the ground, which had barely grown. I gave it water in the beginning but then let it fend for itself. The plant never died, but then it never seemed to flourish either.

Pineapple guava
new growth (left) old growth (right)

The remarkable thing which happened after spending several weeks in ideal conditions, the guava's leaves, started to change. Instead of being tiny, grey and a little fuzzy, they put on new growth that was green, shiny and substantially bigger.

I had noticed these spindly traits on a lot of the plants I had in direct sunlight with no micro-climate. I just thought they were meant to look like that - despite all the lovely photos I saw on the internet of other peoples lovely specimens. Perhaps I just got a dud variety?

I almost wish I'd rescued it sooner, but then I never would have made this new discovery in the field, about how important micro-climates are. Plants need other plants - layers, or they just make it through the summer without any new growth and definitely no fruit. The difference between four years growth and a few weeks in ideal conditions, is remarkable.

That's how quickly a plant can grow in our area during summer, when it has an agreeable micro-climate. Needless to say, my focus this autumn is to get a lot of support species into the ground to create better micro-climates around the garden. I'm glad to have planted pigeon-pea trees in pots, just for this cause. I got cracking with planting today, but there are many more to go.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Dodging bullets

Living here is a great privilege. We get to wake to bird songs every morning, and witness many life-cycles playing out. But there are also times I start pacing around the yard (or metaphorically in my head) because living here can also be like dodging bullets.

We've dodged quite a few in our six years, like the time David lost his job unexpectedly and we didn't know how to pay the mortgage; or when the flood churned up our yard and David was cut-off from reaching home for a whole week. They were a couple of the memorable ones.

Water erosion on old driveway

There has been a double-barrel aimed at us recently however, and unlike the first two examples, we've seen these particular ones coming for a while. The first was our eldest child starting high school. The nearest school, will require three hours bus travel, per day. We moved here when she was only four-years old, so "high school" was somewhere in the distant future. But now it's next year. How did that happen?

Attending high school for our grade-seven student, will be the equivalent of a 40 hour working week.

If that were not enough, the second barrel is being loaded as I type. We couldn't live here without our two vehicles, as the only public transport available is a school bus. One vehicle is now leaking a container of oil a week, and the other has intermittent electrical problems. We'll get the full diagnosis from the mechanic in a few days.

1998 Ford - purchased 2007 (intermittent electrical problems)

They're old cars however, and served us extremely well. To replace one car would cost around $10,000 and that's for a cheap one. Replacing two, could run between 20-40k. We'd have to borrow the money, which would sink us further into debt.

These tandem issues, forced a serious review of our situation recently. We have entertained the idea of leaving before, but it felt more like a choice then - now it felt inevitable. In our six years of living here, we've learned to dodge the bullets and become quite adept at it. If nothing else, country living makes you more resilient. But how could we avoid these two legitimate issues?

If we moved back into town, however, we'd have public transport so we could have one car, and possibly be able to spend more time with our eldest.

January 2012 ~ one of our many retaining walls

In the week I paced through the garden, instead of enjoying it, I had to learn to accept our lot. I started to imagine what I could do in suburbia, that would be as remarkable as here. David and I spoke about it, and we came up with some pretty good ideas. Maybe we will go back to suburbia (one day) but not without one last commando roll, dodging bullets first.

March 2014 ~ same retaining wall
dressed with marigolds and carpet roses

It was while discussing what we would do back in suburbia, I realised something we had failed to do here. We hadn't treated the land as if we could earn a living from it. Gully Grove was our "dream" and we didn't want to taint it with capitalism - it felt like we would be cheating nature. But if we didn't start earning a second stream of income, the chances of selling Gully Grove to a couple of day-dreamers like us, would be very high. Only they may dream of dirt bikes and pulling out trees to mow lawn.

When it actually came to going through with leaving, we realised it was necessary to both invest in nature, and ask the land to help pay our bills. If we had planned every stage of development (the top swale, for example) with the intent of making a fiscal return, we would've been working towards sustaining our dream for the long haul. All development was done as a labour of love however, and while that meant a lot to us at the time, capitalism was the harsh reality slowly bleeding us dry. We were forced to work harder off-site and feel more frustrated with the fruits of our labours.

Maybe it doesn't have to be that way forever?

Trees are an investment for life

The next step is making a plan based around what we already have invested money into. We think it would involve utilising the swale and chickens - the swale, because its our main source of water retention in the land, and the chickens because that's what we have most experience keeping. I need to do some research on local laws and get some tax advice, to guide our decision making process.

While I'm sure it will take a few years to make a decent return on the money invested, hopefully we'll be able to stick around Gully Grove to see a more sustainable development. We're not chasing a lot of money - just enough to help the property evolve. Otherwise we may as well spend our time more efficiently, back in the burbs. Nothing wrong with that, but we came out here with a vision to change something about our lives...and this is it ~

It's taking responsibility for being a producer and not just a consumer. Only on acreage, you have to take more responsibility because there is more to manage. By failing to add that into the equation, we've suffered for it.

Pineapple poking through the sweet potatoes
nearly ready to pick

As for our eldest and high school, if we receive a financial benefit for driving into town, selling our produce, then she won't have to spend every day on the bus. David may also have days he can collect her after school, once he's finished his shift. Is it going to be harder sending her to high-school from here? Yes, absolutely. But when you learn to dodge bullets as readily as we seem to do, it can become a way of life.

Come this Easter, it will be our seventh year at Gully Grove. There is an old Jewish tradition (at least in the old testament) where all debts owed would be forgiven on the seventh year. I feel that's what we're doing this year - a clean slate. Debt may still be present in our lives, but we've forgiven ourselves for not really knowing what to do with our gifts for the past six years. We will invest in the seventh year, with a clean slate.

There is so much I could write about this subject, but I'll save it for other posts.  As for now, we're making plans to stay and make our dream more of a reality than just words.

Any other acreage dwellers want to admit to the challenges that saw them contemplate selling up?

Friday, March 14, 2014

Someone else's dream

A lot of the gardening information I share, has to do with living in the southern hemisphere, where snow in winter is something I can only read about on other people's blogs. One such blogger I know of however, does garden in the northern hemisphere, and also happens to own five acres (and a dream).

They've recently published a book about it, and after selling over 500 copies, Leigh is having a giveaway of her book, posted anywhere in the world.

Book cover illustration
read about the book here

Even though we live world's apart with completely different climates, I'm still interested in what Leigh has to say about gardening on five acres and pursuing their dream. Because that's our family in a nutshell too.

I support the fact Leigh chose to self-publish, and is using the good old-fashioned grapevine to market her book. By asking other people to blog about it, or use other forms of social media, we get to take part in spreading the word about something which is very difficult to do without an instruction manual. And that is to dream a dream, take a leap of faith and go do something completely different to the mainstream.

If you think you can relate to that in any way, feel free to enter the giveaway for yourself. You can do so by clicking here. I've left it a little late, as entries will close by Saturday - which for Australian time, may actually be the early hours of Sunday. But it's worth spreading the word anyway.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

How does your garden grow?

The best guide for teaching how to garden in your specific climate and region, is by observing your own garden. I did this with a beautiful persimmon I planted, about three to four years ago. Reading how hardy they could be, I thought this would be a tree for success. It hadn't bore any fruit in all that time however.

Persimmon tree, variety, Nightingale
in background - pigeon pea tree

What it did do rather quickly, was grow tall with  sparse branches. When it didn't grow many leaves I thought perhaps this was how a persimmon was meant to be - even though I'd seen pictures which showed otherwise. I tried planting some yarrow as ground cover and it did well when it rained, but otherwise the grass soon took over. Not luscious grass either - the brown, brittle variety.

pest damage, I suspect borers

I also noticed over the years, it being attacked by some sort of pest on the main trunk. I didn't do much about it, as I was busy building other parts of the garden. It was left to its own devices, until finally I decided it was time to cut my losses and plant something more appropriate today. So imagine my surprise when I went to visit it with the secateurs, I found a single fruit.


This grew despite the intense summer weather we saw recently. It wasn't enough to convince me to keep the tree however. As I inspected the trunk more closely, I found a surprising discovery.

fighting back

New, vigorous shoots were fighting back under the borers nest, to save the trees life. It was the first time I saw thicker foliage being produced. I couldn't cut it down now. Something which can fight back after summer extremes and pest attack, could well be my best producer. Armed with a new plan, I decided to try a few things to help it along. Starting with the ground cover.

wilted yarrow

This was the state of the yarrow I found underneath all that grass. It was not meant to look like this either. I had fern-like yarrow growing in a semi shaded position in another part of the garden.

new yarrow growth in appropriate conditions

There has been one particular ground cover I have stumbled upon, which is super tough in our weather conditions however. It's the pelargonium citronellum (or lemon scented) variety, and can put out lush growth on minimal rainfall.

One of my propagation attempts ~ quick to strike and grow

That's what I want in a ground cover - rapid growth with minimum fuss to help create the kind of micro-climate, under the tree, to help minimise evaporation. The pelargonium leaves are hairy and designed not to lose moisture with intense temperatures.

Lady Nightingale

So I cut back all that straggly growth, including the pest damage, and left the new shoots to do their thing. I won't get to eat that lone fruit, but I would have saved the tree. Pelargonium ground cover was soon planted underneath, then dressed with compost and mulch. I gave two watering cans worth of hydration, plus a seaweed tea. That should really do it for the rest of autumn.

Winter isn't too far away, and then its leaves will turn bright red and fall before it goes dormant. But it should burst to life again, in the next growing season. I want to encourage a bushier structure, so will be pruning again, next year.

The lesson I got from this hardy survivor was to (1) find a ground cover able to grow in weather extremes, and (2) don't be in a rush to discard something before observing carefully. This persimmon may yet prove to be a very abundant producer.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A garden surprise

I'm astonished after the grueling summer temperatures we received, that our garden is producing pineapples and passionfruit. The whole pineapple didn't make it into the picture, as it was too sweet and delicious to wait. We have another almost ready to pick and it will be gobbled up, just as quickly.

Incredibly sweet fruit, on just natural rainfall.

The passionfruit is in abundance this year. Absolutely the best crop we've ever had! Do you want to know my secret? Wait for it...good old-fashioned neglect.

Mandarin leaves (foreground) ripening passionfruit (background)

We normally trim this passionfruit vine back in summer, to allow access to the front of Hilltop chicken coop. With pregnancies and babies getting in the way however, the vine just ran amok this season. It even managed to tickle its way up the mandarin tree nearby. We thought about cutting it back, but we just never got around to it. What a wonderful experiment it turned out to be.

Victims of 44 degree (C) summer temperatures

The mandarin tree dropped its fruit in the summer extremes, but out of all our citrus trees, this one has managed to put on another flush of fruit which will be ripe for winter. I credit the passionfruit vine, which kept this entire area around the chicken coop (including the mandarin tree) free from the vaporizing sun and the enemy of evaporation. It wasn't enough to save the first fruits, but allowed a second flush in autumn to come on.

We just have to make sure the vine doesn't strangle the whole tree, or we'll have sooty mould and all sorts of problems. Nature has demonstrated however that our low rainfall needn't be a hindrance to producing fruit. We just have to experiment a little more, based on our observations and the feedback we're getting from the environment.

This successful harvest after some pretty shoddy weather conditions, has given me a few ideas in other areas too. We're determined to keep trying to grow stuff with the climate and resources available.