Archive for March, 2014

Problems with roots

March 30, 2014

When I started growing small vegetables in wicking boxes, they were so successful that I wanted to extend the concept to something that would take the deeper and more extensive root system of a tomato.

Enter wicking tubs. I’ve written about how I made them here. Just for the record, I now have a total of 31 wicking boxes and 8 wicking tubs. It’s almost pathological!

One of the wicking tubs is beside the steps that lead up onto the deck. There’s also a grapevine planted beside the steps which is trained up the railing and onto the deck. That becomes relevant as you’ll see.

Of all the wicking tubs, the plants in this one struggled. I watered regularly but the soil on top always seemed dry. After watering, water appeared in the bottom of the inspection tube (using a dipstick to check), but didn’t seem to last. The other tubs behaved as they should have.

I concluded that somehow the plastic in the bottom must have become perforated and water wasn’t being retained in the reservoir. It still didn’t seem to be the cause of the dryness, even allowing for the extra watering, but there was nothing for it—the whole thing had to be emptied and checked.

As I started removing the soil, some fibrous roots appeared. I thought they were just the remains of the plants that had been growing there, but as I got further down, the roots became more numerous and bigger. As I got closer to the bottom, I tried to move the tub. No way would it move. Then I discovered why.

Ants had heaved up the soil around the base of the tub, which meant that the original drainage holes were covered with soil. That sneaky grapevine next door had decided to take advantage of the moister soil in the tub and had put a root through the hole without me seeing it. This is what eventually came out of the bottom of the tub:


The plastic had been perforated too, but only a few small holes. I replaced it and put back the soil, but not before putting the tub up on bricks to keep soil away from the holes. I checked the rest of the tubs and they were OK. Just shows how enterprising plants can be when there’s water to be had. No wonder they can uproot roads and houses.

Storing potatoes

March 27, 2014

Potatoes are so easy to grow and I always seem to have more than I can eat at any one time. As a result of which, in the dim depths at the back of the cupboard under the sink, this often happens:

saturday 002 (2)

Sometimes it’s even more embarassing and this happens:

saturday 002

So I need some other method for storing them where they won’t sprout. I investigated freezing and found that it’s possible but they need to be blanched first. So…peeled and diced, dropped into a pot of boiling water, then removed when the water comes back to the boil. Dropped into iced water to cool quickly and stop the cooking process. Drained and frozen in batches:


I’d hoped that when defrosted, they’d be suitable for potato salad, but I found that when I tried to mix them into the dressing they were too soft and broke apart. However they’re just great for mashed potatoes. Into the microwave for a minute or so, add butter, S & P, chopped parsley, a dash of milk and mash. Quick and delicious!


Handy hint corner

An old spice container full of fine sand, makes a great shaker for covering fine seeds after sowing:


Here endeth the summer

March 24, 2014

Well…I hope so.

The autumn equinox has been and gone, we’ve had an inch of rain, the days are cooler and the plants are making new growth.

I’ve planted my garlic and potato onions from Yelwek Farm. Some went into the garden and some in a wicking box. I had success with one potato onion bulb (just one!) in a wicking box last year and I want to see if that was a one-off or whether they will tolerate the extra moisture in a wicking box. The drainage will still be good and if I need to, I can shelter the box from excessive winter rains. I’ve grown garlic successfully in a wicking box before, so no worries there.

Potato onions in the garden:


Garlic in a wicking box:


I’ve also planted asparagus in the first of the hugelkultur beds I made.  By spring, this bed will be in its third year and the underlying wood is starting to break down, at least enough for me to get the treeplanter into it without hitting any resistance:


I’ve staked and tied up the ferns for the time being to keep them tidy and to dissuade the rabbits from investigating them. I’ve had to protect each side of the bed with wire to stop the blackbirds tearing it apart. The ferns will die back over winter and I’ll side-dress each plant with chook poo compost before the spears emerge in early spring. I doubt they‘ll be big enough to harvest this year but should be OK for the next:


In the spaces between each asparagus plant I’ll sow cucumbers next spring/summer and let them ramble over the mound. By that time the asparagus will have stopped bearing and will be at the fern stage. The ferns, which grow to over a metre tall in mature plants, should provide some shade for the cucumbers during the summer. So the asparagus will do two things—provide me with a yield in spring and shade for other plants in summer. An example of the permaculture principle which says that each element in a permaculture system should perform more than one function.

Garlic chives are flowering. The bees love them. I’ve got a couple of dozen new plants in pots and will plant them everywhere:



Tamarillos are ripening. I made sure I kept the water up to the plants in summer and it looks like a bumper harvest this year:


New batch of potatoes coming on. These are Kipflers:


Dandelions for use in casseroles and soups this coming winter:


The last of the tomatoes ripening. This one is called Nicoleta and the seed came from a member of the Ozgrow forum. It’s a good size and shape and has a beautiful flavour. I’ll be growing this one again:


Still getting a few strawberries from the wicking box on the deck. The blackbird has found them so I’ve had to put a net over them in addition to the ring of wire around the tub. Did I mention I hate blackbirds?


This is purslane. It self-seeded in a wicking box and I’m hoping it will flower and seed there again. It has high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, a crunchy texture and can be eaten in dozens of ways:


The oca has kicked on with the recent rain and should form lots of tubers by winter when the plants will die back:


It wasn’t the best of summers from a food-growing point of view. Yields were woeful compared to past years. The most important things I learned were that I have to make provision for shade on 40-degree-plus days and that plants in wicking boxes will do better than plants in ordinary garden beds.

It also wasn’t the best from a personal-keep-cool point of view either. Before next summer I’m going to have an evaporative cooler installed. I don’t need to worry about electricity use, because the solar panels will run it through the day. No more do I want to try and sleep in a house where the temperature is in the high 30’s.


March 19, 2014

Swales are a permaculture thing. A swale is a water-holding ditch dug on contour, usually on a slope but not always. The contour bit is very important. If you remember your high-school geography, a contour line on a map joins places at the same height above sea level. In a ditch dug on contour, water stays level in the ditch. Not on contour and it will run out the lowest end.

Huge rainfall events on a slope means water runs off faster than it can soak in. Swales trap the water and allow it to permeate slowly. Water permeates into the soil and facilitates plant growth where it would not be as successful otherwise. Remember the three S‘s of water harvesting: Slow; Store; Soak. Slow it down; store it; let it soak in.

When a swale is dug across a slope, the soil removed is mounded up on the low side of the slope and the mound is planted with suitable plants to hold the soil in place and provide a yield of some sort. In Australia, we call them swales and mounds; in the US they’re often referred to as berms (the mound) and basins (the ditch).

When we bought this property, I didn’t know anything about permaculture. The only spot that was cleared of natural bush was on a slope. The only spot in full sun. The only place to put a vegetable garden and fruit trees. Good drainage, I thought. Yes, but the soil had been introduced. The original sandy soil had been removed (and sold) by a previous owner and the site had been filled with clayey rubbish that water wouldn’t penetrate. If I’d only known—I would have had the whole site swaled and mounded before planting, and be in a far better position than I am now.

So I did a Permaculture Design Course, learned the hard way and had to retrofit. That meant digging individual swales behind each fruit tree, by hand.

The swale behind the orange. It holds about 80 litres of water:


I remember the first major rain after digging the swales, dashing down the back in the pouring rain and being overjoyed to find each small swale full of water.

The swales saved the fruit trees during this past hot, dry summer. Once a week, I filled each of them a couple of times over with the hose.

I used an A-frame to mark out the contours. It’s only small, but just right for the size of the swales I’m digging. I wrote about how I made it here.

There’s an article about water harvesting & storage at the Permaculture Research Institute here.

Garlic time again

March 8, 2014

It’s nearly the autumn equinox and time to plant garlic. I’ve ordered again from Yelwek Farms in Tassie—four bulbs of garlic (they sent five—they’re nice people) and also some more of their potato onions. They’ve just arrived. Look at the size of that garlic!:


I’m trying potato onions again although they weren’t overly successful last year; I don’t know why, unless the spot where I planted them was a bit too shady. I bought both white and brown potato onions and planted them in well-drained beds where they sprouted readily and grew lots of leaves. Then, over winter for some reason, the leaves began to die back and eventually all the plants rotted away. Not one single bulb from any of them. Was it something in the soil? Note to self: Google and see what attacks onions.

For some long-forgotten reason I pushed one bulb into the corner of a wicking box, not really expecting it to grow because I thought it would be too wet for it. Lo and behold, it grew and flourished and produced these:


Two dozen bulbs from one. Imagine if they’d all done that! I’d now be knee-deep in potato onions. And they weren’t small either—the same size as the new ones I’ve just ordered, so I’m keen to try again.

Yelwek garlic was successful for me last year, although my harvested bulbs were small. I’ve prepared the beds with more fertiliser this year. I’m wondering where to plant the potato onions this year. I think I’ll put some in the ground and some in a wicking box. I really want to be successful with them, they have such a lovely delicate flavour.

Well…in the process of writing this post, I’d written to Yelwek to say the onions and garlic had arrived and to thank them for refunding some of the postage (I told you they were nice people), and received a response from Lynn with some really useful info about growing potato onions. Here’s what she said:

They don’t like overwatering and once the tips of the leaves begin to die back (around mid November on) they don’t want water at all. The bulbs need a dryish  soil to harden and dry out. The occasional shower is okay, but if harvest is nearly ready and heavy rain is predicted, we harvest early rather than let the bulbs swell with the rainfall. The bulbs will not be good keepers at best. 
Having the bed raised even by 10 to 15 cms helps winter rains to drain quickly. We make walkways a spade’s width between beds and shovel the soil from the walkway up onto the beds. Mushroom compost mixed through the top 5cms of soil keeps the soil from becoming too compacted. We have a mushroom farm close by so it is economical for us to use it. 
Side dressing with fertiliser in Spring gives them a good boost along as does weeding so the roots don’t have to compete. Sometimes if we have time, we put a little mushroom compost around them again once Spring weeding and fertilising has been done, but the last couple of years we haven’t had the time and they have still done very well.

How about that for useful info. Thank you, Lynn. So I think my problems last year were due to overwatering and not something eating the bulbs. I don’t know why the bulb in the wicking box did so well then, but I will try some there again.

More on the strawberry wicking buckets: I’ve put them on the deck. It’s been so dry that the blackbirds are digging wherever there’s moisture and mulch, which happens to be in every garden bed and wicking box that’s being watered. I loathe them! They dig up seedlings and throw mulch everywhere. I’ve had to put nets over everything. They’re even coming up onto the deck where there are pots and wicking boxes. The handles on the strawberry buckets have come in handy:


Just right to throw a net over:



I’m insourcing

March 5, 2014

Just a quickie to share this wonderful post from rabidlittlehippy. Insourcing is the new Me.

(What a great definition of permaculture!)

February solar update

March 5, 2014

Here’s the latest solar update. As noted previously, I’m going to include all the previous updates in every new post so that all you solar nerds out there can make comparisons.

Note: these are daily averages for the month

Power imported from the grid =  3.8 kWh

Import cost @ 25.82 cents per kWh = $0.98

Generated power =  17.5 kWh

Exported power =  15.5 kWh

Credit for exported power @ 8 cents per kWh = $1.24

Generated power actually used in the home =  2 kWh


Power imported from the grid = extra power I need to take from the grid when the panels aren’t operating or when they’re not providing enough.

Import cost @ 25.82 cents per kWh = what I pay for imported power.

Generated power = what the panels produce each day.

Exported power = power produced by the panels which is not used in the house.

Credit for exported power @ 8 cents per kWh = what I’m paid for the excess power I generate.

A few other things to note:

Price increase—cost per kilowatt hour went up from 25.14 cents to 25.82 cents. Supply charge went up from 92 cents per day to $1.04 per day. I foamed at the mouth! Bl**dy electricity companies! The daily supply  supply charge is now greater than what I pay for power, but at least the credit for what I export to the grid is covering it.

Also, I’m still waiting for an amended bill to show the correct usage and exported solar power. I’m not paying anything until their figures agree with mine.

The new instant gas hot water service was installed 3 days before the end of the month, but already it has cut power from the grid to less than 2 kWh per day. Add to that 2-3 kWh from the panels and I’m using about 5 kWh of power per day now. This is about half what it was before the solar install. Total cost of power, including supply and credits, is now less than $1 per day. As far as energy goes, I’m learning to live on the smell of an oily rag!

Here’s the previous updates:

January 2014
Note: these are daily averages for the month

Power imported from the grid = 4.4 kWh

Import cost @ 25.14 cents per kWh = $1.10

Generated power = 20.1 kWh

Exported power = 18.1 kWh

Credit for exported power @ 8 cents per kWh = $1.45

Generated power actually used in the home = 2.3 kWh

December 2013
Note: these are daily averages for the month

Power imported from the grid = 5.1 kWh

Import cost @ 25.14 cents per kWh = $1.27

Generated power = 18.6 kWh

Exported power = 16.2 kWh

Credit for exported power @ 8 cents per kWh = $1.30

Generated power actually used in the home = 2.4 kWh

November 2013
Note: these are daily averages for the month

Power imported from the grid = 5.4 kWh

Import cost @ 25.14 cents per kWh = $1.37

Generated power = 18.1 kWh

Exported power = 15.1 kWh

Credit for exported power @ 8 cents per kWh = $1.15

Generated power actually used in the home = 3 kWh

Strawberry wicking buckets

March 3, 2014

I’ve planted the first of my strawberry buckets. The three existing strawberry plants that produced this season have done so well that I just had to have more. So when they started producing runners, I pegged each runner down into a separate small pot and waited till the new root system was established:


After only 2-3 weeks I was able to cut the new plants away from their parent. I was amazed at how quickly the new root system established. Keeping them attached to the parent plant ensures they have enough water and nutrient to feed the new root system and I suppose that accelerates the process:


I bought some cheap plastic buckets and drilled a drainage hole about a third of the way up from the bottom:


This ensures that the soil in the bottom of the bucket will stay saturated and water will wick up into the root zone above. Water-loving roots will grow into the saturated soil and always keep the plant hydrated. I filled the buckets with chook poo compost* and planted the new plants:


These will be the first of many. The next batch of runners is pegged down and waiting. Next season I’m hoping for enough strawberries to make some strawberry jam.

*Chook poo compost is made in the compost tumbler:

saturday 005

The floor of the chook coop under the night-roosting perches is covered with a mixture of wood shavings and mulched bracken. Every 2-3 days I rake this out (and the poo within), put it all in the tumbler and give it a few turns each day whenever I’m passing. It breaks down into a friable, rich compost which the plants love.