Archive for December, 2012

The last post

December 30, 2012

Well, for this year, anyway. And it’s just a brief one to show you the nifty little egg frying pan I found in my Christmas stocking.

It’s called ‘Small Fry’ and it’s so useful for just one egg:

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I love the little egg/chicken face on the handle:

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Thank you, Mother Christmas!

Happy New Year to everyone. May your seeds all germinate, your cuttings all strike, your chooks keep laying and your veggies grow beautifully!

Lemon/lime verbena cuttings.

December 28, 2012

This post is for Frogdancer who has asked how to do cuttings of lemon verbena, which strike (grow roots) very easily.

Cut some pieces from the parent plant…about 15 cm or so long. This plant is flowering so I will cut off the flowering tips. I don’t want to let it flower—I want it to concentrate on growing roots :

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The pieces you take for the cutting should be neither too soft nor too woody. Strip off the lower set(s) of leaves and cut the piece just below the node (where the leaves were growing) :

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If the plant is growing in a dry situation (i.e. it hasn’t been watered or it hasn’t rained recently), then the cuttings can be stood in water for an hour or two just to re-hydrate them. This can be while you’re preparing the cutting mix. I’ve been known to forget cuttings at this stage and leave them in the water overnight…it doesn’t hurt them :

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For a cutting mix I use a mixture of perlite and peat*—about 4 parts perlite to 1 part peat. Mix it in a container and dampen it slightly with a spray of water.

What you put the cuttings in is up to you. The easiest is probably a small pot with a plastic bag over the top to retain humidity. Even better, cut the bottom off a plastic drink bottle and use that. Leave the cap off the bottle to allow some air circulation.

Lemon verbena strikes so readily that it probably doesn’t need to be dipped in rooting hormone, but I always use hormone regardless for all my cuttings. This can be bought from any good garden centre in powder or gel form. I use powder (Rootex brand).

Dip the ends of the cuttings in the hormone…

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…and push them into the cutting mix in the pot. Water them in gently with a spray bottle or a plastic squeeze bottle. Let the pot drain and put the plastic bag or soft drink bottle over the top. If you use a bag, a wire frame will help keep the bag from touching the cuttings. This pot is too small for a drink bottle to fit over the top, but I didn’t have a bigger pot (or a drink bottle for that matter, but you get the idea). Notice that I’ve cut the lower leaves in half just to reduce their area, so they don’t lose too much moisture. I’ll usually do that with large leaves, but not with small ones :

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Put the pot in a shady, cool spot where it will get plenty of light, but not direct sun. Check the cuttings regularly to see that the mix is still damp, and give them a gentle tug to test if they’ve rooted. If the pot is shallow you may see roots emerging from the bottom (always a heart-stopping moment—I’ve been growing from cuttings for 20 years or so and the thrill of seeing those roots poking out the bottom never goes away).

You’ll know the cuttings have rooted when:

# you can see roots (duh!)

# the cutting feels resistant to tugging (gently!)

# new growth starts to form from the leaf axils

At this stage you can give them some weak liquid fertiliser. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to pot them up. Wait till you think a good root system has developed (patience is a virtue and so is years of experience).

Serendipitously (good word!), I just happened to have cuttings of lemon verbena already in. This one has new growth coming out of one of the leaf axils, but it’s still a bit loose in the mix, so I’ll give it a bit longer :

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* the peat I use is actually cocopeat and it comes (from Bunnings) in compressed bricks which you soak in half a bucket of water till it expands and forms the brown, water-retentive fibrous stuff called…er…well…peat. Instead of perlite, I sometimes use propagating sand which is cheaper (also from Bunnings…gee, that’s a useful store!). Here’s peat, perlite & propagating sand :

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If you’ve never used perlite before, be careful with it. Keep it damp to avoid getting a lungful of the fine dust that comes from it. It isn’t pleasant.

So there you go Froggie. Hope this has been useful!

Oh, and I said lemon verbena cuttings root readily…and quickly too. For me the time has ranged between 10 and 30 days.

Preparing a wicking box

December 27, 2012

A wicking box is a box for growing plants, which has a water well in the base such that water ‘wicks’ up from the well into the growing medium above. A bit like the self-watering pots you see for sale in nurseries. I’m putting a couple more together, so thought I’d document the process.

The idea of a wicking box is that you don’t have to water the plants in the box as frequently as you would plants in a normal garden, thus saving time and water (as all the water gets used by the plant and doesn’t drain away).

This site explains the basic water-wicking principles. I hadn’t looked at it for some time, so when checking it out to see if the link still worked, I found that there are a lot more links and info than I remember. It’s well worth a look.

Before I go any further I should mention that what I’m describing here is my way of doing it. I’ve read enough blogs about water-wicking boxes and beds to realise that everyone does something different—what is common to all is the principle of water soaking up (wicking) into the soil above the reservoir, so do check out what other people do and find the method that suits you best.

Water will wick up vertically against gravity, about 30 cm. Any more and the surface of the soil won’t ever get wet (unless it rains or you water it), so the depth of soil above the water well shouldn’t be greater than this. The well can be any depth.

I went to my local hardware centre to check out suitable boxes (that’s Bunnings if you live in Oz). I found these black plastic crates. They’re 45 cm wide x 65 cm long x 26 cm deep and hold 60 litres:

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I would have preferred them deeper, but the deeper ones (at that time…they have a bigger range now), were clear plastic and my experience of clear plastic planters is that the light promotes algal growth around the sides. I bought quite a few at the time (more experience has taught me that if you find something good, buy more and put them away, because when you eventually go back to get another one, they won’t be stocking them anymore) and there’s still quite a store of them under the house (hence the cobwebs on the one in the picture). At the moment, I have 25 in service!

First thing I do is drill 2 drainage holes, one at each end, such that there will be not more than 30 cm of soil above them (since my boxes are only 26 cm deep anyway, you can see why I would have preferred them deeper).  By the way, I’m calling it ‘soil’ but as you will see, you don’t fill them with ordinary garden soil. In my boxes, I drill the holes about a third of the way up from the base and they’re about 1 cm in diameter:

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I settle the box (level) in it’s final position, because there’s only one of me, and once it’s full of wet growing medium, it’ll take two to lift it! I put mine up on polystyrene fruit boxes to keep them above rabbit-browsing height and then discovered that a big rabbit can stand on hind legs and reach up to keep all the greenery nicely trimmed around the edges! There’s no problem with this one on the deck, though (at least until a rabbit learns to negotiate the steps):

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I put a plastic tube into the corner of the box. This is where the water is added (initially…see below). I have a stock of tubes which came from the local greengrocer. They were the centres of the rolls of plastic bags you put your fruit and veggies in, and they just happened to be the right depth for my boxes:

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I fill the box with water, up to the drainage holes and start filling the box with organic material—raked leaves, prunings, lawn clippings (not too much of those), anything that will eventually rot down. These two new boxes have the remains of the broad bean plants I cut down and casuarina needles raked from under the trees:

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I keep adding material (stomping on it to compact it) as it rots down. The water in the bottom will help. I add good compost if I have it. Of course if I had enough compost to fill a box entirely, I would do that. I just never have enough of it, but I do put in what I can spare. I add compost worms. That’s important. They will chew their way through the material, aerating it and turning it into worm castings. Ordinary garden soil is not good enough. It will be too heavy and will compact down and hold too much water. I want a nice, well-aerated, nutrient-rich growing medium. This will shrink down as the plants utilise it and will need to be topped up regularly with more compost and mulched to stop water loss from the surface.

I’m now about ready to plant something. I’ll either plant seedlings or direct-sow. Here are butter bean seeds just germinating:


These are my observations from my particular system which I began about 4 years ago.

# There is no actual water well in the bottom of my boxes. I want the soil (I’m going to keep calling it soil, but you know what I mean) in the bottom third of the box to be pretty well always saturated with water. Water-loving roots will grow into this area. Above that, the moisture levels decrease towards the top. When the soil is saturated, water will wick up into the less moist layers above. Fine feeder roots will prefer this area. If I look into the tube at the side and I can see water in the bottom, I know the bottom soil is saturated. Sometimes I use a dipstick to check on the depth, although this needs care! I’ve found that frogs love this moist shady tube and make it their home, which is good because they probably help to control any plant-eating predators. This little tree-frog spent several weeks in the tube and used to come up and sun itself at the top of the tube each day:

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# Initially, I just added water through the tube. After a couple of years of growing, the water was taking too long to soak into the soil, so now I water from above, just lightly, and anyway that’s what happens when it rains. Water drains into the bottom and keeps the soil saturated up to the level of the drilled holes, then excess water drains out the holes. Sometimes the holes get blocked by worm activity, but it’s easy to push in a stick and work it around to clear the blockage. I check on soil moisture by sticking my finger into it. At one stage I was going to put in a dripper system for the line of boxes near the water tank, so that water was constantly and slowly fed into each tube, but I just haven’t got around to that yet, because hand watering is so easy.

# After a crop is finished, I usually find the soil level in a box has dropped by a few cm, so I top up with fresh compost. Now that I have chicken manure compost available, the plants are really loving it.

# I check regularly to see that a box still contains worms by pulling aside the mulch on the top. That’s where they’ll usually be. If there aren’t any, I dig down a bit and if I still can’t find any, I add a few from the worm farm.

# When plants have finished I don’t pull them out, just cut them off at the base and leave the root systems in situ. Peas and beans will shed their nodules and put nitrogen into the soil and the worms will feed on the rotting root systems.

I’ve also created deeper wicking tubs from large plastic plant pots which, because of the greater depth, I use to plant tomatoes. The post about that is here, if you want to check it out.

The boxes and tubs are ideal for small spaces like patios or decks and perfect under trees where root competition would make traditional vegetable beds impossible.

I’m really pleased with the whole system. The plants grow well and watering is only necessary a couple of times a week in summer and usually not at all in winter.

It must be Christmas

December 24, 2012

I rescued a Christmas Beetle from a bucket of water today.

He didn’t want to stick around to have his photo taken.

He looked like this:


*Merry Christmas everyone*

More Thermomix ice-cream

December 17, 2012

It’s funny that this is primarily a blog about growing food (I couldn’t possibly claim to being any sort of a cook), yet the post that gets the most hits and searches is this one on Thermomix ice-cream.

With summer coming on I thought it was time to make another batch. This is ‘real’ ice-cream, not the wishy-washy el cheapo supermarket stuff, so it has to be savoured and not golluped down in haste and without thought.

In the supermarket, I’d forgotten how much cream to buy for a batch and ended up buying 3 x 200 ml cartons; enough for 2 batches and then some (a dollop in my next few cups of coffee!). I get Bulla pure cream, 45% milk fat, not a brand with thickeners or stabilisers. This is where I disregard my cholesterol levels!

So I thought I’d make one batch of vanilla and one of chocolate, but instead of using straight cocoa powder for the chocolate as per the recipe, I decided to use Thermomix milo powder.

Thermomix milo powder is a blend of nuts and cocoa and is meant to be a Milo look- & taste-alike.

It goes like this:

Milo powder

3 tbsp linseed
2 tbsp sesame seed
2 tbsp sunflower seed
2 tbsp pepitas
1/2 cup almonds
1/4 cup brazil nuts
1/4 cup cashews
1/4 cup pecans
1 cup cocoa powder

In the Thermomix:

Chop 5-10 seconds on speed 9 to a medium-coarse powder.

Now I’ll say right away that as a Milo (milk drink) substitute it fails miserably. That’s because none of the ingredients actually dissolves in the milk. They’re all insoluble, so you’re going to end up with a sludge at the bottom of the cup, albeit a healthy one.

What it is good for, is Thermomix milo biscuits.

Like this:

Milo Biscuits

125 g butter, cubed
200 g sugar
140 g self-raising flour (wholemeal if desired)
50 g milo powder
1 egg

Pre-heat oven to 160º C

Cream butter and sugar 30 seconds on speed 5.

Add egg, flour and milo. Mix 10 seconds on speed 5 to combine.

Set the dial to closed lid position and knead 20 seconds on interval speed.

Roll into balls and place on a tray (about 2.5 cm/1” diameter—they spread).

Bake 10-15 minutes or until slightly browned.

As I said, I’m not a cook, but these go down a treat with visitors:

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OK, back to the ice cream. The recipe is at the link above.

Since it’s so rich and not something to pig out on (!), I decided to ration my servings by freezing it in individual 100 ml containers. One batch makes 6 of these:

I’d class this as gourmet ice cream, so I checked out the price of the most expensive brands in the supermarket.

One brand cost $9 per kgm. It didn’t have any hint of egg and still had gums, glucose syrup and artificial colours and flavours like the cheap brands. It seems that if you put it in a black container and call it ‘gourmet’, you can charge what you like! The ultimate was Maggie Beer brand—Burnt fig (who’d want to burn a fig?), Honeycomb & Caramel—at $18 per kgm. Not for anyone on a budget!

Thermomix ice-cream costed out for me at just under $8 per kgm and that included eggs at $4 per dozen which is what I used to pay at the free-range egg farm at the end of our street, before I got my three Barnevelder Girls and a dozen beautiful, fresh eggs a week.

Still cheap at twice the price and I could add any amount of burnt figs.

Good ka(r)ma

December 10, 2012

This is one of my favourite garden tools. It’s called a kama or Asian sickle and I bought it from Green Harvest. In fact I’ve bought three:

It’s great for cutting out bracken stems and pruning back anything tufty, like grass clumps. It has a serrated edge which means it can saw and cut. I grab the clump of whatever I’m cutting and saw across just above the base. If it’s a weed I don’t want, then I simply slice into the clump just below the growth zone, across and through the root zone and lift the clump free without disturbing the soil.

I’ve even attached one to a long melaleuca sapling so that I can reach into the centre of the pools and slice the water plants (which are taking over), off below the water line:

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Another useful tool is this small hand rake which came from Bunnings:

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It’s useful for getting in close and raking fallen litter out of the bush. I also use it to hand dig small swales behind the fruit trees and to keep them from silting up with debris.

One other tool I couldn’t do without is my Hamilton Treeplanter. I’ve planted thousands of tubestock with it over the last 20 years or so. It’s made to fit the 5 cm square x 15 cm deep pots we call forestry tubes over here in Oz:

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It’s pushed into the ground using the footrest and the plug of soil is removed. The hole is filled with water, the plant is tapped out of the tube and snuggled into place. Two people, using one of these, one digging and one planting, can plant 60 tubes an hour. In soft sandy soil, I can almost do that many on my own. They’re used extensively in revegation programs, where huge numbers of tubestock are planted.

Memo to WordPress

December 3, 2012

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!!!

So how come you’ve changed the way media is uploaded (as in images in blogposts)??

Haven’t you got anything better to do than tamper with the system? It was working OK before.

Now I find that instead of being able to select from my files which image I upload, you’re showing me every darn image I have in my system, whether I want to see it or not. And sometimes it’s not even the right way up!! And I can’t rotate it like I did before. Stoopid!!! How much memory is that taking out of my poor struggling Firefox!!

Maybe it’s time to move over to Blogger.

My compost system

December 3, 2012

It seems to be working pretty well now (at least there’s some ‘system’ to it), so I thought I’d share.

It consists of three bins formed from steel mesh panels (90 cm x 70 cm), which I bought at Bunnings (for overseas readers that’s our big-box hardware store). They come in sets of four and were about $25 when I bought them. They’re a lot cheaper and easier than making bins out of timber if you don’t have access to second-hand timber. They come with little corkscrews which you wind around, top and bottom to hold the panels together. I’ve put stakes at each corner as well:

There’s also a compost tumbler…..:

…..and a couple of worm farms under the house, where it’s cool and dark. They get all the kitchen scraps.

…..and also under the house, the composting toilet. Information and photos here.

In the first bin I put the stuff from the composting toilet. For a detailed description of how it works go here.

Every 6 weeks or so, a bin of composted material comes out of the toilet and goes into the left-hand bin of the three. To that I add a tray of worms and worm castings from the worm farm and cover the lot with mulched bracken.  The worms love it and by the time they’ve finished with it, it’s nice and friable with no smell or hint of its origins. I let it sit there for another few months until I’m ready to use it. By that time there might be 3 or 4 month’s worth of toilet compost ready to go.

The second compost bin takes the stuff from the compost tumbler. That consists of lawn clippings from a friend’s garden and the chook poo collected every couple of days from under the night roosts in the coop. All that gets tumbled until it’s too full and heavy to turn and then it’s into the second bin, again with a tray of worms from the worm farm.

The third compost bin takes all the rest of the garden greenery—weeds (no seeds) mulched prunings and bracken and…..more worms.

All three bins are kept moist and covered with plastic sheets, to prevent drying out in summer and leaching of nutrients by rain. If it looks like they’re getting too dry in summer, I give them a spray with the hose.

The compost is used to top up wicking tubs and boxes and the wire rings in the food forest where I grow more annual vegies. I can’t get enough of it. If I had more I’d use it under the fruit trees as well. I’d love to be able to make the cubic metre hot compost heap as it’s taught in permaculture, but I simply can’t amass enough materials all at once.

I make liquid fertiliser in 60 litre plastic rubbish bins by soaking weeds, comfrey, yarrow and anything else green until it rots down. There’s also a supply of worm ‘wee’ from the two worm farms and any excess liquid which is run off from the composting toilet. It’s all working pretty well and I don’t think I’ll ever need to buy bags of manure again. In effect, all the nutrients produced by the system are being continuously recycled through the system.