Saint Ambrose

Saint Ambrose
Photo: Journey Worker Productions, CC SA 3.0 (C)

Friday, 13 December 2013

Some Random Thoughts From a 'Rental Gardener'

Photo: Journey Worker Productions CC-SA 3.0 (C)
You don't have to own a quarter acre block (or, rather be owned by it--Rick) in the suburbs to be a real gardener. You can be a 'rental gardener'. I've been having a great time doing so and am quite enjoying the habit. The gardening habit that is.

I was looking at a suspect plant and mused to myself, why do I think this is a weed? And, I am using the word in a pejorative sense. But, before you kill a weed, ask yourself a few questions. Is it (a) edible, (b) attractive when flowering to native birds & bees, (c) does it provide a distraction for pestilential insects (for anything smaller than an infestation of Biblical proportions), and (d) worth keeping as an easy energy, erosion prevention intervention (OK, Cal, you got me on this one--Rick; Can it effectively turn sunlight into richer soil that is not washed away in the rain--Cal; Gotcha--Rick) that can be chopped later?

Another thought: Why dig up a perfectly good garden. Digging in gardens is an unnecessary activity. It disturbs soil structures, and it irritates earthworms (Huh?--Rick). Better to clip weeds and let their roots rot and compost rather than dig them up.

Digging up all the time just creates a piece of fresh earth for weeds (not the good weeds which are edible; but, the evil weeds that spoil your salad) to pop up. Weeds are the earth's band-aid (now who sounds like a hippie?--Rick)--the way it starts to stop erosion and keep itself intact by allowing new vegetation and, then, forestation to start up. (Reforestation! I thought you were renting, Cal--Rick).

You don't have to bother with raking leaves either. Just let them rot in situ, or put them somewhere to compost. (Right...raking and weeding are officially off the 'honey-do' list from now on--Rick).

More on not digging:

ABC Fact Sheet: Step-by-Step No Dig

Another thing that I've been thinking about is dry stone retaining walls. They look good and also provide habitat for reptiles, spiders and other animals. Many of these are predators which feed on unwanted insect types. These walls are also valuable for micro-climate creation.

I can't do a stone wall at home (Did you notice my modest dry stone wall in the suburbs, Cal?). But, I do have some raised pots with 4-6 inches of space beneath the pots. I am wondering, if I will put some stones in the otherwise dead space, could I slowly build up some stone spaces for eco purposes?

It's also got me slowly collecting old 19th century bluestone that I find occasionally around the streets (Find?!--Rick). Rick, at some point, I will write something on bluestone. We don't see it as our own colonial era modest-gentry stone, the way you Americans do your brownstone.

Here's a description from a UK-oriented page on dry stone walls:

Dry Stone Retaining Walls

Thursday, 12 December 2013

A Corking Good Idea From Cal

Another garden problem, and rediscovering preexisting wisdom: I had read in various gardening advice works** that one should not water at night to prevent mould/fungus growth on the leaves.

I ignored this, and water often at night. Over the last three month, I've got fungus on the otherwise-thriving pots of sugar-snap sweet peas, which are in a row, elevated, about 6 in. height x 4 in. diameter black pots.

I also grow pretty intensively in these pots, as elsewhere, and have generally the following sorts of things in each pot: kale, sweet pea, bok choi, carrots, feral basil, feral mint, garlic shoots etc. Very concentrated-planted pots, with everything planted together.

(I should write something on garden design, or non-design in my case - there are no real rows and minimal species partitioning. Partly I want a food forest effect, partly I want concentration, partly I have so little space I want to put in as much as possible in the small space).

 Anyway, relevant point is that I water using a watering can with a shower-head style-head, and this mould is only appearing on the sweet peas, among all the other vegetables in each pot. So I thought: for these established pots, I need to move to a watering head that is flow and not shower-sprinkle, and wet the ground of the pots, and miss the foliage.

ChampagneCorksLargeI seem to have solved it by drilling holes in a scavenged champagne cork, which I put on the nozzle. Cheap, easy and effective, and another consumer item I didn't have to buy. After a bit of experimenting, I found that cork doesn't like little holes all that much.

I started with a 2.7 mm drill piece drilling four holes, and got mediocre results. I then drilled one single hole through them with a 5.5 mm bit. This seemed to work well, when I tested it. If one was going to drill only one hole to start, I'd use a 6 or a 6.6 mm. I think that a normal champagne cork would probably tolerate 1-3 6 mm-bit holes.

Remember that it is seriously contracted when put into the nozzle. So a 6 mm hole ends up with a flow like what you might expect for a 3-4 mm hole. So - next time I won't walk past an abandoned cork on the street. 

** For example, this issue is addressed in Jackie French's informative-enough but tonally-cloying and somewhat rural hippyish Natural Control of Garden Pests, 2nd ed.; Melbourne: Arid, 2002, ISBN 9780 947214555. I can't recall what exactly she advises on the issue, and I can't seem to find it on the shelf at the moment. Despite its style issues, I'd recommend this book - grit your teeth and mine it for tips once, then consult as a reference work--if you can find it again.

(I wonder where the corks really came from--Rick.)

Attribution of image:

 By Libation U.N. Limited (Champagne Resources - Libation U.N. Limited) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 9 December 2013

Our Weapon Against the Dalek Snails

Photo: Journey Worker Productions CC-SA 3.0 (C)
In our fight to defeat the Dalek Snails that have vowed to exterminate our seedlings, we have a mighty weapon. Actually, we have two of them. They are Dolly on the right and Loretta on the left (I did not name them folks; but, I do listen to their music); two ISA (Institute de Selection Animale) Brown hens.

ISA Browns are hybrid chickens that run on petrol and electricity. Just seeing if you were awake. They were originally produced by crossing Rhode Island Reds and Rhode Island Whites (you can see it in their plummage). As with dogs, cross-breeds tend to have fewer of the problems associated them.

Our pigeon fancying friend and his family very graciously built our chicken coop in the backyard (thank you and blessings on your heads!). Then he found us the ISA Browns...I think a nephew was involved at this point. It is simply amazing how much good will there is in the world around the act of growing food in your backyard! So far, the ISAs have been great layers.

They should be; they are living in deluxe accommodation and get fed very well. We are learning though. They put in an order for expensive feed which we acceded to as new farmers. We've been told more recently to use the low cost feed in the hopper and scatter the better seed for a treat or a bribe when they are reluctant to return to the hen house.

They do like to be out. Loretta will make a lot of noise, literally, if she feels she does not get enough time in the exercise yard. We've got a high fence around the coop; but, Dolly has managed to fly over it several times. We've clipped some of her flight feathers; but, that hasn't helped much. She is one very strong bird.

When Dolly goes AWOL, she heads over to where the Dalek Snakes congregate near the succulent plants. Loretta puts up a squawk, as she really does not like being left behind. So, I have to grab Dolly and put her back over the fence. Soon we will be a proper run for them to be protected from the local foxes. That way they can be out longer without us having to be on the look out for them flying the coop. It is also useful to have a Corgi like our Rooster. If I tie his lead up to one of the fence posts, he stands guard and the ISAs mind their Ps & Qs.

Back to the Dalek Snails. We have a pretty good system. It works at two levels. We put some home brewed beer into a tub and leave that out for the dipsomaniac Dalek Snails. We have to chase down the ones with less of a thirst. When they are found hiding in the bushes, under various objects or high tailing it across the lawn, they are escorted to the local tub.

Every so often we filter out the Daleks and reset the tubs. The DSs are then presented to the ISA Browns who begin the dinner proceedings. In this way, we close that big circle of life. The snails eat the succulents (without our permission), the hens eat the snails and we eat the eggs. The hens get the added bonus of a little buzz from the home brew.

Loretta does not squawk as much under these arrangements.

Isa Browns at Wikipedia:

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Bee Sustainable, A Great Resource Actually

P1cela1Recently, I went on a crash course in bee-keeping. Well, it was really more of an introduction. I've done well out of the day. The eldest daughter phoned in and bought me a 'smoker' while I was at my lessons (thank you). She also bought me a small little book called Brilliant Beekeeping. People get excited with you and for you when you start new adventures.

I will probably not start keeping bees until next year. Robert, the owner of Bee Sustainable at 500 Lygon Street in Brunswick (see iframe below), gave a very good introductory session. I am more than enticed. But, I really must do two things first: (a) check with the council and (b) prepare to put up the hives.

There will probably be two hives. Robert says you can compare the hives this way and check to see if anything with one when it is not faring as well as the other. One of the threats is the small hive beetle (SHB) from South Africa. It is a real nasty pest whose life cycle includes a dousing of dust on the ground. I am no entomologist (I did study forestry management); but, I think, if you can break the cycle, you can control the pest.

So, that means positioning the hive facing the sunrise. On our suburban lot that puts the back of the hive facing the prevailing wind. I know this because a dear friend who is a pigeon fancier helped us to set up our chicken coop which faces the east for the same reason. More on that later. I would like to have a cement pad put down, or perhaps paving stones and grave atop a weed-mat as the footing for the hives. Hopefully, this will stop or slow the breeding of the beetle.

Is it worth the effort? Well, if one hive produces 50 kilos of honey a year it is. Two will give us more than enough honey to share with our neighbors. But, perhaps most importantly, we will be contributing to the viability of the honey bee in Victoria. If we loose this insect, we have lost an important pollinator and not just a source of honey. These insects are like the canary in the cage down in a coal mine. When they fall over, it is already too late to keep digging.

Attribution of image: 

By Pachko (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons