Archive for April, 2011

Chooks Ho!!….update #1

April 27, 2011

It’s going to take me some time to get the chook house and yard up and running, so I thought I’d do a series of update posts. This is #1.

Here’s where the yard and chook house will be going:

Bit of a mess at the moment!

The structure at the right, with the green shadecloth is the polyhouse where I grow all my seedlings and cuttings. It’s about 180cm square and it will form one wall of the chook yard. In front of that is a fibreglass fishpond which I’ve been using to grow azolla (not fish). I scooped the azolla off (you can see some of it in the box in the foreground and on the round bin in the rear) and siphoned out most of the water, but not before discovering that the pond had been full of tadpoles. Getting them out and safely ensconced into the natural wetland pools at the rear of the property was a gumboot and bucket job.

Next job will be shovelling out a few bucketfuls of crud (rotted leaves, etc) from the bottom. That will go into the compost heap. And then another spot has to be found for the pool and it’s layer of azolla. I’m told chooks like it, so already I have one of their food items on tap!

I’m planning a polypipe arch structure for the chookyard—star pickets with polypipe arches over the top and the whole lot enclosed with wire. After initially deciding to put the chookhouse outside the yard, with the entrance door leading into the yard, I’m now going to put it inside the yard, the main reason being that the wire on the chookhouse is a bit flimsy and I read at one backyard poultry forum that a pet dog actually ate through this type of wire. If a dog can do it, so can a fox. So the chookhouse will be totally enclosed in heavier wire.

You can see the type of polypipe arch structure I have in mind at Scarecrow’s Garden blog.

Putting together wicking tubs & boxes

April 18, 2011

Judging by the stats I get for this site, there’s a lot of interest in the whole concept of wicking beds & boxes, so I thought I’d show just how I put these things together. Of course you can use any type of container you fancy; the principle’s the same.

The general concept of water-wicking can be found here. I don’t have the level ground for a wicking bed and didn’t want to do all that work anyway, so the tubs & boxes are ideal for me as they can be poked into any small space.

Here’s a tub and a box (actually sold as a storage ‘crate’). Also in the photo are a circle of heavy duty plastic and a couple of plastic tubes (more on those later):

I get these from Bunnings (for non-Aussie readers that’s our local big-box hardware store). The crate is 60 litres in volume, 60cm long, 40cm wide and 25cm deep. I’d have preferred something a little deeper, but couldn’t find it, so that’s where the tubs come in. I don’t know the volume of the tub, but it’s 50cm in diameter and 40cm deep. It’s a typical plant pot, so it has drainage holes in the bottom; something needs to be done about that. The crates have no holes (you make your own, where you want them).

You’ll need a supply of good friable compost. Ordinary garden soil is not good enough. Some compost worms from a worm farm would be useful too.

For the wicking-box: I drill 2 holes, one at each end of the crate and about a third of the way up from the bottom. The holes are about 1cm in diameter. Initially I made them too small and they blocked up with soil, so I increased the size. These are where excess water drains out. The short plastic tube pictured is stood up in one corner of the crate and the crate is filled with compost. Water is added through the tube. Make sure you put the crate in it’s final position before you do all this because you’ll never lift it when it’s full (unless there are two of you, of course—even then it’ll be an effort).

If you want the crate up off the ground a bit then you can put it on something. I use those white polystyrene fruit boxes from the local greengrocer. I need my boxes up high because I have wild rabbits which browse everything they can reach down to the ground. Make sure it’s solid. They’re heavy;  you don’t want the whole lot collapsing on you (or on the cat, which would be worse—for the cat).

Put a few compost worms in the box for aeration and you’re ready to go. They will eventually turn the compost into worm castings and this will enrich the mix even more.

Here’s a photo of the corner of a box with the watering tube in position. I’m showing this because there’s a frog at the top of the tube. He seemed to like living in the tube and stayed there for several weeks. I watered the top of the box during that time instead of adding water down the tube as he wasn’t partial to the sudden cold drenching. He seemed to like to sit at the top of the tube during the day when the sun was out. After all, who doesn’t like to feel the warmth of the sun on their back? I never found out what species he was. He seemed a bit big for a tree frog (we have the Whistling Tree Frog and the Southern Brown Tree Frog here, and he was always hunkered down, so I couldn’t see his tiny toes) and a bit small for a Pobblebonk. I never heard him call, so ‘he’ may have been a ‘she’.

The wicking boxes are ideal for most vegetables. I’ve had huge successes with dwarf beans and if you put some sort of  trellis behind the box you can grow climbing beans as well. Capsicum, broccoli, kale, bok choy, silver beet, small bush tomatoes like Roma or San Marzano, lettuce, celery (celery loves wicking boxes because of the constant water supply)—all these do well. I haven’t tried carrots or leeks (because I blanch leek stems with deep mulch and there’s not enough depth), but this year, for the first time, I’m trying garlic. Herbs, like basil, chives  & parsley do well, too.

Watering is supposed to be done through the tube. Initially it works, but as the compost in the box starts to turn into soil and becomes a bit more compacted, it takes longer for the water in the tube to soak into the mixture, so often I just water overhead. The tube is still needed to see where the water level is in the box (use a dipstick of some sort). I only need to water about once a week, sometimes even less frequently. When there’s no water showing in the tube and the surface of the mix is still moist (don’t forget to mulch well), I still don’t water. I only water when the soil at the top is starting to dry out. It depends on the size of the plants in the box, too. Advanced plants will have a higher water requirement than just-planted seedlings.

There will be a gradient in wetness through the box, with very wet, boggy soil at the bottom grading to drier, but still moist, towards the top. Roots will find their desired moisture level. Water-absorbing roots will go right to the bottom. Fine feeding roots will stay nearer the surface.

The whole concept is great for water conservation.

For the wicking tub: I wanted to try the larger tomatoes in a wicking box, but felt that it wouldn’t be deep enough for their bigger root systems. Hence the tubs. The tub is just a large planter tub with drainage holes in the bottom, so these need to be covered in some way to create the water reservoir. I cut a circle of heavy-duty plastic (trial & error for the diameter) and push it into the bottom of the tub making sure that it comes up the sides and forms a reservoir  at least 30 cm from the top (if you’ve read the link above, you’ll see that water will ‘wick’ up about this distance before gravity takes over and holds it back). When the reservoir is full, excess water just flows over the edge of the plastic and out the normal drainage holes.

The plastic watering pipe needs to be a bit longer in this case, so I just tape 2 together and cut a bit off one end (see photo). Add compost and worms as before and you’re ready to plant.

Tomatoes did really well in the tubs last season, so I’ll definitely be doing that again.

Note: for the plastic watering tubes, you need to buy a length of poly pipe about 5cm diameter and cut it to length. The ones I use were scrounged from the local greengrocer. They’re from the centre of those rolls of plastic bags you tear off to put your fruit & veggies in. I have a huge boxful under the house. The local g-g put them aside for me until they went back to rolls with cardboard inner tubes (even they were good—nice and thick and burned like little logs in the fire).

So there you have it. Wicking boxes in a nutshell. Give it a try. Hope this has helped.

Grand totals

April 12, 2011

I’m still getting a few ripe cherry tomatoes but not bothering to weigh them now. The rest of the spring/summer harvest is finished, so I’ve finally totted up my yields (to the nearest 100g).

  • Tomatoes  41.9 kg
  • Potatoes  14.7 kg
  • Zucchini  13.1 kg
  • Apples  19.2 kg
  • Beans  8.7 kg
  • Cucumbers  5.7 kg
  • Plums  7.4 kg
  • Nectarines 1.7 kg
  • Pears 2.0 kg
  • Carrots  1.9 kg

That’s not too bad!

Most of the cherry tomatoes have been sun-dried. Here’s what 5 kg of dried tomatoes looks like:

I’ll use these through the winter in soups, casseroles and rice & pasta dishes; or even just as plain nibbles.

I’ve eaten the last of the fresh tomatoes; no more now till next summer. I refuse to buy the tasteless, hard-skinned supermarket offerings. There are 3 boxes of frozen ones in the freezer, so all is not lost. Plenty to cook with over winter.

I netted the Red Delicious apple this year and had no trouble with parrots so I was really pleased with the yield. I’ve stored most of them, individually wrapped, in a box in the coolest part of the house. I’m told they’ll last for months like this.

The pears were another story. I netted the 2 trees and looked like getting a good crop. The net didn’t go right to the ground, because I’ve never had any trouble with possums in the past, only parrots. I picked a few, experimentally, to see if they’d ripen inside (which they did, later), then got caught up with other things and didn’t go near the trees for a couple of days. In that time, possums (I assume, unless rabbits can climb trees), helped themselves to all that were left. Damn! Next time the net will have to go right to the ground.

The nectarine yield was low because most of the flowers didn’t set fruit. I didn’t lose any to possums or parrots. I didn’t net the tree because I could see the fruit set was poor. Was it lack of bees at the crucial time? Don’t know.

The only disappointment was pumpkins. They just didn’t grow and I didn’t get a single one. But my neighbour had a monster of a vine so we’re swapping apples for pumpkins.

All in all, I learned quite a bit over the summer growing season, but that will have to be the subject of another post.

Privates or generics?

April 10, 2011

Interesting article in today’s Sunday Age about the increase in private labels in supermarket items. Private label = home brand = cheap(er) product.

Remember when ‘plain label’ meant just that? Plain white background with red or black writing. When you felt rather embarrassed if you turned up at the checkout with a trolley full of them?

Nowadays they’re all attractively packaged and look just like the brand names and that’s causing concern amongst local companies whose products are getting squeezed off supermarket shelves.

Ten years ago ‘home brands’ made up just 10% of grocery sales. Now it’s almost 25%. In the UK it’s 43%!

I used to buy home brands—not exclusively—but a lot.

Now, since becoming more aware of energy decline, (read Peak Oil), I go for products made in Australia or close by (New Zealand, for example). That means reducing food miles and hence energy use. I don’t want oil to run out in my lifetime.

Sometimes I’m amazed at where some supermarket items come from. Tinned asparagus from Peru, for example. For a long time I bought plain label sultanas, stupidly assuming that because we have a large dried fruit industry here, that they’d be Aussie for sure. Recently, it occurred to me to actually look at the label. Product of Turkey!!!!  Ye gods!  So I’ve switched to brand name Aussie sultanas. I’d long since given up buying dried apricots, because they’re all from Turkey.

I accept that the cheaper plain label items are great for large families stretched for cash, but since I’m growing a lot of my own fresh food, I reckon I can put the money I save by doing that into buying the more expensive brand names, supporting local companies and keeping food miles down.

And anyway, if you shop intelligently, keeping an eye out for the  specials  and stocking up, it’s possible to avoid paying full price most of the time.

Chooks Ho!!…..

April 8, 2011

I’ve mentioned previously that I’m helping a nearby friend put together a vegetable garden. She’d spoken casually but (I thought), not seriously, about getting some chooks, so I was surprised when, a couple of months ago she rang to say she’d bought a chook house.

I went round to have a look and despite it being made of treated pine (a bit of a concern), I was suitably impressed. We Googled treated pine + chooks and found opinion was divided about 50/50 on whether it would be OK or not. In the end it was given a coat of paint, hopefully to seal in any nasties.

It’s only small, a couple of metres long and a metre high and wide, so her neighbour straightaway offered to make her a larger yard to go next to it. That duly appeared and soon so did the chooks, a Barnvelder (Barnie) and two White Sussex (Bridie and Molly).

I made them a nest box (see photo in my previous post) and now it’s a waiting game. They’re about 4 months old. In the meantime, they’re funny to watch. I take a bag of greens from my garden and they tear them to shreds in minutes. They run around, colliding with each other, trying to catch flies on the wing.

I’ve always promised myself I would get chooks some day, but with a free range egg farm at the end of the street, producing ginormous eggs, there wasn’t any hurry. My friend has been gently pushing me in that direction, however. My real need is fertiliser for the veggie garden. I don’t want to keep buying bags of blood & bone and mixed manure. I want to be self-sufficient in all things.


I went out earlier in the week and bought myself a chook house!

It’s a put-it-together-yourself job and it came in a convenient flat pack which fitted neatly in the station wagon. It’s imported from China (what isn’t nowadays) and the wood is lightweight, but I hope it’ll be robust enough to last a couple of years at least, during which time I can make a stronger one, to the same design, if needed. It’s stained a reddish colour, but I don’t think that’s going to be enough to weatherise it, so I bought a can of marine varnish and will give each piece a couple of coats before I put it together.

Here’s what it will look like when I’ve done screwing & glueing:

It looks big, but it’s only 2 metres long, a metre high and 75 cm wide. It has a nice feature which you can see protruding from under the open door on the side. It’s a shallow tray which slides in under the night-time roosting perches, to collect the droppings. I’m already thinking I can line that with newspaper and simply fold it up and put it in the compost.

I’ll incorporate the house into a larger yard which will have a deep litter system and some landscaping to provide places to encourage soil-dwelling critters for the chooks to dig up.

And that will be another piece of the permaculture system in place.

Getting there!