Archive for April, 2017

Home, home on the range…..

April 17, 2017

….but no deer and antelope playing here.

I’ve been wanting to put up a post for ages showing a plan of my particular ‘home on the range’ and the various growing areas, but have been defeated by trying to manipulate the installed drawing programs on the computer. I’ve finally decided to save a Google Earth shot and use that with additional photos.

So here it is :

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The property is one hectare (2.5 acres) in area and there’s a gentle slope from the top left corner of the photo to the bottom right (south-west corner to north-east corner). When we bought it 17 years ago, the areas labelled 1 and 2 and the house site had been previously cleared of understorey vegetation (with a few trees left) and were covered in weedy grass. The rest was remnant natural bush, mainly what is classified as heathy woodland in this locality, with a bit of grassy woodland on the north side. The natural, undisturbed soil in the bush area is deep grey sand supporting the heathy woodland and with a clay subsoil under the grassy woodland. The cleared areas 1 and 2 were mostly heavy clay infill, introduced after a previous owner removed the natural sandy soil and sold it for topsoil (we didn’t know that at the time—a neighbour told us later).

Areas 1 and 2 were the natural choice for the vegetable garden as there were minimal trees and it was in full sun for most of the day (the horrible, sticky, infill clay soil only became apparent after I tried to put a spade into it!). It also sloped slightly to the north, which meant good drainage.

We wanted to protect the bush section and arranged with the Trust for Nature Victoria to put a protective covenant on it, to prevent it ever being cleared. The covenant is binding on present and future owners. Of course, I now realise that there’s no such thing as ‘in perpetuity’, and it will eventually be cleared. I don’t expect an organisation like the Trust for Nature to survive the end of industrial civilisation, and the land will probably be wanted by a future owner to grow food during the collapse of industrial agriculture when oil seriously begins to run out. Nevertheless, I do my best to keep the bush intact and follow the management plan written by the Trust for the property.

We began clearing the weedy grass in area 1 for the vegetable garden, which started out by being 2 big wooden boxes, 2 m x 1 m x 90 cm high, into which was thrown anything and everything that would compost. I decided built-up beds would be easier than trying to dig that clay (and the rabbits which were starting to appear by then couldn’t reach up into the boxes). On the higher part of the slope above the boxes, we began planting 2 rows of fruit trees in zig-zag formation.

I grew quite a lot in those 2 boxes initially and as more home-made compost started to mount up I formed it into a long sausage shape on the ground. I thought it would be a good spot for pumpkins, having already learned that rabbits didn’t like pumpkin leaves.

The trouble was that the blackbirds loved the compost sausage and constantly dug into it, scattering it everywhere, exposing the plant roots and generally making a mess, as blackbirds always do. So I formed the compost into round piles and surrounded each one with a circle of wire about 80 cm in diameter. The wire circles mutated into what I called my ‘olympic rings’, but which a friend more aptly called ‘crop circles‘. They looked like this :

Eventually I ended up with 5 sets of rings, all in a row, making 35 individual growing areas—15 full rings and 20 half-rings. The growing medium in all of them was built up with composted material. The rings are 45 cm high and the compost, when I can get enough of it, is built up to about 20 cm.  The underlying soil wasn’t dug into at all. The wooden boxes were eventually abandoned.

Initially I watered by hand using water from the 9000 litre tank beside the house. The slope was enough to get a reasonable pressure by gravity alone. Later on, I made watering circles with fine sprays that I could just click the hose into and leave for half an hour or so. Sometimes I just prefer to stand there holding the hose. Hand watering is a favourite time for just observing, thinking and planning.

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Area 2 wasn’t developed as a food garden at all. I planted fast-growing wattles there to harvest for firewood, because cutting live trees from the bush was out of the question although there was plenty of dead stuff in there and branches were always falling. Areas 1 and 2 weren’t covered by the covenant—they were considered as the ‘domestic area’—where conservation isn’t the primary object.

When I did the permaculture design course six years ago, I realised that everything was badly designed, or rather, not designed at all and I set about trying to rectify it. The main food-growing area was too far from the house (zone 1), where it should have been, so, having discovered the wicking bed concept by then, I began establishing a series of wicking boxes and tubs around the house, for the more intensive growing typical of a zone 1 area. The ‘crop circles’ have been retained but mainly for winter crops, like garlic and leeks, where constant watering isn’t needed so much. All around them I’ve planted more fruit trees and other perennials to create a food forest.

Zone 1—wicking boxes and tubs near the house :

The 3 oval shapes to the right (north) of areas 1 and 2 were originally covered in weedy grass. I wanted some pools, so we slashed the grass and had a chap with an earth mover come in and dig out three pools (the 3 ovals). The overflow from the water tank runs down beside the path and into the first pool. It’s very shallow, only just above my ankles when full. Because of the slope, the water overflows into the second pool and then into the third. The second is a bit deeper, almost knee high and the third probably up to my thigh, although they have all become shallower over the years as debris accumulates on the bottom. The first pool usually dries out in summer and in a very dry summer the second will as well. There have only been a couple of summers when the third has dried out completely. Usually there’s a still a boggy puddle in the middle by the end of the season.

The first pool :

Stupidly, because of not knowing much about water plants, I planted reeds and rushes at the edges of the pools. Of course, they migrated towards the centre as water levels dropped and now there are no areas of water free of growth. The most prolific is the native Water Ribbons (Triglochin procera), which is supposed to have edible tubers utilised by the aborigines, but I’ve dug down almost to China and have never found anything remotely tuber-like to eat.  It has spread profusely from seed. At least the ducks like fossicking in amongst the strappy leaves. But it’s good nutrient for composting, so each summer as the water disappears I cut it down with hedge clippers and add it to the compost. When the rains come and the pools fill again, I get a couple of months of seeing actual water, before it all regrows again.

This is the second pool, looking towards the third. There is water in it, but it’s not exactly visible unless you’re standing right beside it. It is good frog habitat though (I’ve recorded 6 species), and a White-faced Heron comes regularly and stands quietly in the water, making frequent darts at edible goodies :

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The path on the right runs the full length of the property, from the house to the rear fence. On the right (south side) of the path is the food forest and on the north side of the pools is remnant bush, so it divides the property into 2 areas—conservation and food-growing.

I’m now thinking about what to do with area 2. Most of the woodlot trees have either died and fallen over, or fallen over while living and I’ve been removing them and tidying up the area. This is what it looks like at the moment :

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I’m thinking of extending the food forest into area 2. I’ve started to dig a few swales, with a view to planting fruit trees and I allowed edible chickweed to take over as a ground cover through the winter and spring. It has all died back now, but has left a useful legacy of millions of seeds. That’s self-sown Warrigal Greens (New Zealand Spinach) on the left and I’ve raked sticks into a hugelkulture mound with swale behind, on the right.  As a food forest it won’t get any watering, so I need to think about what I plant that will tolerate what are probably going to be drier and hotter summers. It means doing some research about plants that will survive with an average rainfall of 640 mm annually (about 25 inches). That’s the next big project.

What I’m going to do now is take a walk from the house down the path to the back fence (about 150 metres) taking photos all the way on the right hand side of the path. The bush will be on the left. So here we go.

I’m standing with the house about 2 metres behind me. First up, in the background, are some Manna Gums, not close enough to ever fall on the house, but big enough to flatten anything they did fall on :

Just some native plants underneath at present :

Past the first lot of Manna Gums and some more native plants and a couple more Manna Gums. There’s feijoa, redcurrant and tamarillo on the left. They’re planted in the drainage line that takes the grey water from the house. Never any watering needed there :

The gums aren’t very healthy and have already lost some huge branches. Further down the path—there are some hugelkultur beds just visible on the left of the path, with asparagus, rhubarb and an espaliered Granny Smith apple :

The seat is where I cut my kindling wood, with a bow saw (lay the branch on the seat, hold it down with a foot and cut—no, the branch, not the foot) :

Beyond that is a bath where I’ve been collecting rainwater and then comes the compost tumbler :

The bath is going to be converted into a dedicated potato bed and I’ve been filling it with weeds and prunings to compost down in preparation. There’s still water in it and I’ll have to reach down through the gunk and find the plug to pull before I can get the potato bed going. That’s a pumpkin sprawling over the top of the kindling heap.

Behind the tumbler are 2 compost heaps inside wire cages and an elderly compost bin, acquired from a friend who didn’t want it. The bin takes weeds and shares veggie scraps with the worm farm, which is under the house. One of the compost heaps (with the blue tarp), takes the material from the composting toilet and the other takes just weeds and other debris. Slow composting. I’m not into tossing stuff around with a pitchfork. Haven’t got the energy anymore :

We’re now coming to the main food forest area and the row of crop circles in the foreground. Behind are citrus trees—Japanese Seedless Mandarin, Valencia Orange, Washington Navel Orange and Lisbon Lemon. Behind them, an Imperial Mandarin that doesn’t do well. Oh, it produces lots of mandarins, but they’re only golf ball size, if that. I generally don’t bother picking them. I read that Imperials don’t do well in Melbourne. I think it’s more a case of it doesn’t get enough summer water for its liking and it’s at the top of the slope, so probably a bit too well drained. I’ve dug individual small swales behind each fruit tree and I fill these with water once a week during summer. I’ve planted 5 tamarillos within the crop circles, thinking that when I watered the veggies in the circles the tamarillos would get watered too. They survive OK but those big floppy leaves need a lot of water and they eventually end up as trunks with all the leaves at the top (the one in the foreground is newly planted) :

A bit further down and there’s a lime in the back row and in front an apricot (Moor Park variety), a self-sown plum, a couple of d’Anjou pears and a seedling Red Delicious apple (hasn’t set a lot of fruit—it’s due for the chop). The thornless blackberries are under the net on the left. This section on the right is at the bottom of the slope, there are no swales for each fruit tree and they seem to do well enough without a lot of summer watering. I suspect water is moving down through the soil from the swales on the slope above :

Further down the path (the 3 pools are now on my left) and there’s a quince, loquat, plums further back and asparagus (gone to fern) in front. Somewhere in there as well, there’s a dwarf Stella cherry, 2 pears, 2 apples and a seedling-grown apricot :

Now we’re coming to area 2 which is what I want to open up as another food forest. There’s a couple of huge wattles beside the path (a Black Wattle and a Blackwood) and a seat that has seen better days which, if you sit on it (don’t try it until I’ve hammered all the nails back in), you will be facing the third pool in front of you:

Now we’re past the seat and another shot of the area I want to add to the food forest :

We’re almost at the end of the path—it curves round to the left here and runs along the rear of the property, but since a huge branch of a Swamp Gum (half the tree, in fact), fell across it, there’s no access. The neighbour behind me says he will come and cut it up for me when I’m ready. He’ll get the big logs (which I can’t split) and I’ll get the smaller stuff. There’s a gravel path under all those leaves—just haven’t raked it for a while :

Finally, a couple of photos of the bush section. There are numerous walking and maintenance tracks through it.

From the deck :

Further in :

Along one of the walking tracks :

And that’s about it. It’s a lot of work, looking after the food-growing areas and managing the bush, but I couldn’t go back to living in quarter-acre suburbia again. It is so quiet here; the neighbours are far enough away to not be visible or audible (yet they are friendly and helpful when you do see them) and it’s amazing how the presence of so many trees moderates the climate by creating coolness on hot days. I am incredibly fortunate to live here.

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