Sunday, July 27, 2014

In a week...

Last Sunday, I got this brilliant idea to change an area which needed a face-lift. No problems, I thought, just a few rocks and we'd have it finished in a day. Ha! We tried to remove some stakes by hand (holding some of the logs in place) but ended up having to cut them off at ground level. Most of the day was gone by then...alas.

All new nursery plants

This was the area nearly three years ago. It looks as fresh as a daisy back in 2011, but most of the plants in this area died. After the grasses at the base eventually went, I required a new retaining wall solution. But I was to learn how dry it would become in our winters, when we normally have little rainfall. This year, particularly so.

Yucca (left), eremophila (right)

This is what it looked like seven days ago.  Dry and overgrown. The yucca and eremophila (native fushia) are what you can see in the image. They are plants which have adapted to desert conditions, and the only reason they have survived. Another prostrate eremophila, nearly didn't make it though.

Eremophila ground cover

Since I have mulched and made an effort to water it recently, new growth has formed on its bare branches. I was happy to save this particular plant, as its rather beautiful with its silver-grey foliage.

Prostrate eremophila foliage

Eremophila has to be one of my favourite plants to grow here, and it typically does very well on natural rainfall alone. The honey-eaters and bees especially love the flowers. Another hardy plant I had to rescue (only planted last year) was a lomandra grass.

Native grass

This is "Tanika" lomandra, and survived our incredibly hot summer last year. But it was starting to die back with the extended winter drought. With some new mulch, water and removing a lot of the dead stalks, I think its in better shape for next summer.

 Old mulch (left) new mulch (right)

This is our jelly-bean plant (next to the yucca) and ideally it wouldn't be this red. It's supposed to be light green, but living in such an inhospitable area, it dons the red protective colour to retain moisture. With the new revamp, I'm hoping to help it out a little more.

David took this photo without me knowing

I decided to build another rock retaining wall, and it meant a lot of standing back and evaluating the level, by eye. Not very scientific or mechanical I know, but I'm an organic worker. Actually, I'm lucky to be any kind of worker, with my little fella in-toe. I couldn't have him on site, in case he tipped a barrow full of dirt on himself, so I was limited to working on the wall when David was available to baby-wrangle.

That's why it took me a whole week to do such a small wall, mostly by myself. David helped collect some rocks around the yard and did some weeding in the beginning, but it was a small area to work in so was best to have a single worker.

Yucca (background), eremophila, lomandra and prostrate eremophila

I have mostly finished the wall now and the new area has come alive again. I'm happy to have some mature plants (survive) to give an instant effect of foliage, in what is an incredibly dry area. I have added some new friends to the wall garden however...

Lavender Avonview, now in revamped area

Would you believe, the spark of this whole idea last Sunday, was a humble little lavender plant? A lavender out the back, threw 3 little seedlings which I was able to transplant into pots. I thought a lavender plant with its colourful purple flowers would look nice in this area, and decided to start moving rocks.

Mostly finished

It's not the only reason I was inspired to revamp this area however. When I decided to re-work the swale above, it naturally drew my attention to the overgrown and dying area below. I always notice areas that don't work as originally intended, but when you're living on acreage and raising a family at the same time, it takes a while to get around to fixing things.

It was certainly a long week of work, but I'm content with the results. At the halfway mark however, I was tempted to believe it was a bunch of sweat for nothing when David said, the wall reminded him how I like to bring my ideas into being. From one little lavender plant which happily sprung up by itself, to a weeks work of rock moving and baby wrangling.

At the time it feels like the work will never end - the muscles ache, the baby cries for mum to come inside and the project is left incomplete (again). I kept hoping for rain that never came either. It's easy to think in those moments, what difference does building a wall make anyway?

Some inspiration

Building a wall doesn't make much of a difference to the rest of my responsibilities in life, or the weather for that matter, but it's an act of adaptation nonetheless. Embracing the environment I have, using the natural resources available is attempting a balance between extremes. That is my responsibility and (surprisingly) pleasure; finding something in the environment I can marry to my concerted efforts. I look at the wall now and see adaptation at work, something which will probably never be finished.

So in a week, I didn't manage to change the world for the better, but I'm content with the labours I chose for myself anyway. Is there anything you have struggled with over the past week?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Landscape rework

I warn you, this post isn't going to be pretty, and for good reason too. We're trying to improve a piece of land above the house, which also incorporates our large swale. It works okay as a swale/pond in wet weather, but we never were happy with how we left it. We didn't get a lot of plants in, and what we did get in, was kind of haphazard.

So in between our long dry periods, only the hardiest of weeds survived. It's overgrown and I don't really mind that, but its the fact we haven't improved the soil structure which is the most disappointing.

A level strip of land on a slope

This is the Swale presently. We haven't had a good drop of rain for several months, only the occasional drizzle. This is on a north facing slope, so without adequate tree cover, is subject to continual evaporation when the sun is out. The soil is a combination of red clay and sandstone, which we learned while digging the swale by hand.

To give an indication of what it looks like in wet weather, I have to refer back to late 2010, a few weeks before the 2011 Queensland floods.

Full swale

As you can see, the area is quite effective at retaining water when it *does* rain, but our incomplete design didn't cater for better resilience in the opposite conditions of dry. To give an indication how important shade is, there's another part of the swale, directly behind me, where I was taking the pictures above.

This picture was taken on the same day as the first image, but the difference here is, where the canna lilies cast shade onto the grass, it retains moisture longer than the grass exposed to full sunlight: hence the visible green strip of grass. This image is taken in winter, so the canna lilies are capable of casting a long enough shadow to effect the growing conditions of the grass underneath. This is despite the lack of rainfall.

So this living example proves the importance of shade in this particular area. If we want to retain moisture to change the soil structure, we need trees.

Clapps Favourite pear, with falling leafs

We did end up planting trees at the same time we dug the swale, but several have since been removed or died. The grapefruit died, the kumquat was transplanted to a completely different area to save its life. The pineapple quava was removed and put in a pot on the verandah this year. The only two remaining trees were two pear trees (one shown above). Just to show how inexperienced we were in the beginning, we chose two pears of the same variety, with no pollinator. No surprises why we've seen no buds, apart from the abysmal conditions we've raised them in.

Pigeon pea stumps, pear at rear (4 years old)

Pigeon peas did really well here though, self-seeding and then successfully protecting the pear trees. The pigeon peas also became a food source for the kangaroo mamas and their various offspring. Which is why it was very difficult to cut down the trees from this area recently. It had to be done though. I left some stumps in hope they would re-shoot and give them some nourishment. I did plant extra pigeon peas lower down the slope, in anticipation I would remove this lot from the swale.

I laid down all the pigeon pea branches on the walkway, and then David and I carted bark mulch over the top. In the wet season this will break down, then we will have to add more mulch. We anticipate having to do this for several seasons.

Mulching walkway

What's all this in aid of though, but to bring in a better design to connect the areas which are slowly degrading. You'll have to forgive my rough paint skills in utilising GIMP, but this is the design we are hoping to aim for.

A green corridor - click to enlarge

This image is taken at the opposite end, to the very first image. We've got room for a pollinator pear on the berm (closest to the swale) and we'll be planting a row of hardy natives along the walkway, which we've already begun. In winter the natives should cast a shadow towards the pear trees, preserving moisture on the walkway. Which is important, as we seem to be missing the early spring rain more often than not.

Freshly mulched

Behind me, in the image above, is a carob tree. I didn't choose the best spot for it, but I thought it was hardy, so plopped it in the ground. Obviously, it requires more TLC so while I was dealing with branches and the like, I decided to give it a hugelkultur mulch treatment - small broken twigs, followed by bark mulch. It got a good drink and the leafs look less dull now.

Behind the carob is a mixture of natives and ornamental shrubs we've planted to help shield us from the street, and from south, south-westerly winds. To give an indication why its so important to tackle this slope, I need to demonstrate the existing degradation.

 A poorly landscape

This is the north facing slope, above the swale. At the skyline is the street. It gets sprayed once a year by Council. to control the grass near the road. But it's also a sheer drop, so has perfect drainage. Without regular rain, this area becomes brittle and lifeless...

Water repellent clay

This is the red clay which needs some work. We haven't had any rain, so the grass is dying back. It's very susceptible to erosion. Sticking mulch on top isn't the answer, we've found - it just rolls down the hill eventually. It requires a living network of connected systems, to turn this balding red patch into a layer of brown hummus.

I look forward to updating our progress as it happens. I've already got three quick-growing natives on the edge of the walkway. Hopefully we'll get a decent amount of rain in spring and summer too. At the moment, they're predicting an El Nino, which means dryer than normal conditions. But I'm still ever the optimist, and will keep working on this area.

Do you have any land degradation issues to tackle, and do you have a plan?

Monday, July 7, 2014

First light

I was up early the other day and decided to take a meander outside. It was crisp but not too cold, causing clouds whenever I breathed. This was the view from the verandah which greeted me. The morning's first rays of sunlight.

Facing East - click image to enlarge

Although I couldn't see any indication on the ground, we must've had a light frost, because as the sun hit the leaves of practically everything around me, there was a chorus of drips hitting other leaves and then hitting the ground. It was like living in a rainforest - a completely different environment to when the sun is up and everything is dry. For now though, there was raindrop music to listen to.

Pigeon pea caked in dew

Just off from the verandah, I saw my small vegetable bed growing leeks, cauliflower, beans, herbs, luffa, chickweed and tomatoes. None of the veg is ready to eat yet, but it was a comforting sight to greet a full bed of green, nonetheless. I have more luck growing vegetables in winter, than in summer, because the conditions are milder.

A promise of something to come

I walked down to the lower level of the backyard, and saw more sunlight breaking through to light the ground. As I'm below the house and below the street, it started to feel more like a secluded garden. The early birds were zipping between the bushes, doing their morning chores and occasionally dipping into the water we put around the yard for them and the kangaroos.

Lawn is mostly chickweed

A little bit further down from the lawn, I caught a glimpse of the native ginger I planted. It seems to have survived in this spot for several years, although I hear they don't like the frost.

Large green leaves of Native Ginger

This pocket is very close to the gully, which collects all the frost which flows down into it. Yet miraculously, my native ginger survives. One day I will work on this area more, but for now my efforts are focused on the top swale above the house (more on that in another post).

Sun is getting higher

I walked down to the gully next, which is the lowest part of our garden. It was rather beautiful and I see why the birds utilise this area a lot. It seems to be the most protected part of the garden, with plenty of trees and shrubs to hide in. There is a different kind of energy in this part of the garden to any other. There's a north and south facing slope which terminate at this gully, so all the natural energy merges here. It was a very peaceful place to watch the sun rising in the East.

Orange fungi

Making my way back to the house, I came to the footbridge David made out of felled logs. It was the first time I saw fungi growing on it - but in truth, it was the sunlight hitting the log which drew my attention to it. When I go on an early morning walk, the sun seems to direct my senses, and I can now understand why plants find the perfect spots to grow in nature. They are following the path of the sunlight too.

After admiring the fungi on the log bridge, I slowly crossed it and then looked up to see...

Our house on the hill

Our house was being bathed in the morning sunlight, and I knew that is where my next destination would be. It was nearly time for breakfast, and a warm hug from my family.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

A winter interlude

Being a nearly teen, Sarah can spend hours in her room at a time. But then she can suddenly appear again and do something spontaneous. Like volunteering to take her little brother outside. They like to sit on the grass together, taking in the sunshine. It must be a winter thing.

Three little garden gnomes

There's plenty of time during the school holidays, for cheeky smiles and plucking the lawn. Peter loves to pull the grass and throw it around. Sarah watches him quietly. Even the cat joins the circle of lawn appreciation.

Piggy in the middle

That is until Peter decides to get closer. He's really gentle with our cat, except when he starts screaming at her. It's a game. He screams and the cat runs - Peter then laughs. Muesli ignored him for the most part, until he got too close...

Hasta la vista, baby

She decided to take-up a more comfortable position, and looked back at her lawn plucking, and occasionally screaming, friend. When I saw them all together on the lawn, I just had to get the camera. A lovely winter interlude of distraction.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

My life as a gardener

Its difficult to know how to describe my life as a gardener and make it simple. Because gardening is simple when you think about it, but the learning process is not. My mum was a gardener, and so were both my Nan's. Watching them and loving to be outside myself, impressed me to continue the gardening tradition in my own backyard.

 Tools of the trade

We're not fancy gardeners though, it was mostly born out of necessity for food - the older generations being from a farming background. My gardening journey however, hasn't just been limited to food acquisition, thankfully, as I don't grow food very well (yet) because I'm still learning how to.

Everything I put in the ground nonetheless, requires a practical purpose. Shade, shelter, food, wood, windbreak, mulch accumulator, nitrogen fixer, ground cover - it all has to fit together like a layered cake or it doesn't work.

Cover the soil with ground covers

I've had my fair share of failures too. So many failures! They're my learning pegs though, and has made my life as a gardener all the more interesting for it. Failing made me pay attention to other elements more than just the usual suspects of climate, soil and moisture. Failing made me experiment with different types of plant combinations, and where to plant them outside the norms! Failing made me look at permaculture more seriously too, which had a lot of valuable information to contribute.

When all else fails, garden in pots

I still wouldn't consider myself a successful gardener, but I haven't given up and that's the main thing. I take sabbaticals, when my life gets too full of obligations elsewhere, and that's when it really tests my garden. How it survives and produces without me, is something I learn from too. See, I'm not sure we should become slaves to our gardens. It should be a relationship where the gardener and the garden have equal expression. To dominate completely, means you miss out on half the conversation and take on all the work.

French marigolds

I've probably missed the most obvious point about having a garden, and that's the beauty aspect. They awaken all your senses. But that's not why I build a garden - the best part of my temperament is expressed when I can pour myself into nature. It centers me. Something about the energy, the simplicity and the diversity all merging together, subdues me. That's what I love about having as many plants as I can. It's what inspired me to keep at propagation, even though I failed consistently for several years. I wanted more of this centered contentment, which wasn't fleeting like everything else.

New plants from old

Once I learned to propagate successfully, I haven't stopped! We all need a driving force in our lives, and I guess gardening is mine. I'll grab my secateurs and take some cuttings, or I'll pop some seeds in the ground and wait for the rain to arrive. It's the promise of something to come. Something to germinate. Something to surprise me later on.

Fallen frangipani

So even though my life as a gardener hasn't been perfect, its still been very worthwhile. I look forward to the seasons, the shapes and the smells. I'll look at that bare patch of earth and imagine what I'll plant there.  What's more, I hope all this activity and experimentation will lead to growing more food successfully. That is my ultimate goal.

Kent pumpkins on the brew

What is your present goal, or what would you like to do more of as a gardener?