Archive for the ‘Wicking beds’ Category

Making a wicking box

October 27, 2016

It’s been a while since I posted my method of making a wicking box and with some re-arranging of things on the deck, I found I had room for one more box there, making five in all. I’ve slightly varied the method so thought I’d go through it again.

The boxes I use are black plastic crates from Bunnings. I went for black rather than clear plastic, because algae will grow in wet soil when it can get light and I didn’t want ‘green’ sides to all my boxes. I thought the black colour would be an advantage in winter (warmer soil) but might not be so good in summer, though they could be easily shielded from the sun. They’re 60 cm long, 40 cm wide and 25 cm deep; not quite as deep as I would have liked at the time, although there are deeper ones available now, but useful for shallow-rooted plants which most vegetables are. When I started making wicking boxes I stocked up on the crates and bought a large number to store away for future use. This latest one will make 34 in service (I think there’s just one left under the house).

It’s usual, in large wicking beds anyway, to put in some form of perforated pipe across the bottom of the bed, which opens to the surface, through which to add water. The water spreads out to fill the reservoir below the bed and this is where the water comes from to wick up into the soil above. By looking down the pipe or using a dipstick, it’s possible to see if there is water in the reservoir or not.

For a small box like I was going to use, this is unnecessary; all I did was stand a piece of pipe in one corner of the box and drilled drainage holes (one at each end) about one-third of the way up from the bottom :

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I soon found that adding water via the vertical pipe didn’t work, as it was just too slow a method to fill the lower part of the box (I get little frogs making a home in my pipes and they get pretty annoyed if I suddenly dump a load of water into the pipe). So I started watering overhead and have done so ever since. It’s what happens when it rains anyway. I use the pipe simply to check on water levels. If I can see water in the bottom of the pipe, I know the soil at the bottom of the box is saturated and I don’t need to water until I can’t see any water. The boxes will go several days more without water if the plants are small and not sucking much up. Poking a finger into the top few cm will show how moist the growing medium is.

I use home-made compost to fill the boxes. It’s made in a compost tumbler, using the litter and poo from under the perches in the chook coop and I bulk it out with mulched bracken, leaves and any other organic matter that becomes available. Note that I don’t have a water reservoir in the bottom of the box as some people do—my box is completely filled with compost and the bottom is simply saturated with water. Water-loving roots will grow into this layer and fine feeder roots will stick to the damper layer above.

Here’s the newest box on the deck, ready to go. The water in the bottom is from the recent rain—I don’t normally put the water in before I add the compost :

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Usually I would just fill the box with compost, but it’s at a premium at the moment, because I’ve been using it to top up all my boxes in preparation for the coming growing season, so to save on compost (and get some extra organic matter into the box), I put a layer of sticks and bark in the bottom. They will rot down eventually. This was the variation from my usual method that I mentioned at the beginning :

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I added the compost with some wood ash from the fire :

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Topped off with a layer of bracken mulch and we’re ready to go :

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I’ll probably plant a tomato at the rear and some climbing beans on either side to climb up the wire trellis I’ve put behind the box and maybe a cucumber or two in the front to scramble over the deck.

By the end of this growing season, it will all have settled down and I’ll top it up before the next crop goes in.

Here’s a line of 10 boxes I put in a few years ago :

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I put them up on polystyrene fruit boxes to prevent rabbits accessing them. I’ve since found that a large rabbit can stand on its hind legs and nibble round the edges, so I’ve now put wire around the top of each box. Having them up off the ground means less bending and that’s good for my back.

Individual boxes can easily be covered to keep cabbage white butterflies out :

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Sometimes its easier to direct-sow seed rather than go through the tedious process of sowing, potting up seedlings and transplanting. This is mizuna, an Asian green. I just clip off what I need with the scissors. The chooks get a handful every day and provided I cut above the growth point, it simply keeps on growing :

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One important thing to remember about wicking boxes is not to over-fertilise. Added nutrients won’t leach away into the subsoil as they would in a normal garden, so what goes into the box stays there until taken up by the plants. I top up my boxes with compost when the level drops and once or twice during the season I’ll fill each plastic tube with worm juice or diluted seaweed fertiliser and let it absorb into the soil at the bottom of the box. It seems to work pretty well. I also add a few worms from the worm farm to help break down the compost.

Wicking boxes are the way to go for a water-saving garden. They suit small gardens, decks and courtyards. They’re easy to put together and provide a decent yield of a variety of food.

 

February update

March 3, 2016

It seems safe to assume that summer is almost over, with less than three weeks to the autumn equinox, although 30º+ temperatures are predicted for the next week.

I added up my rainfall figures on the calendar and the total came to 5 mm. Surely there was more than that! Melbourne’s average for February is 46 mm. I can see the effects, in the dead and dying plants in the garden and also in the bush. I only water food plants, nothing else. The big 9000 litre tank is down to half and I’ve stopped using it, because it’s my drinking water (I won’t drink mains water with its load of toxic fluoride). The 2 smaller 4500 litre tanks are being topped up from the mains supply. I do this because it’s easier to water from them with a low pressure sprinkler than it is to water directly from the mains where the pressure is so variable.

I’ve been more than happy with yields from the garden this season.

Strawberries are still going strong in their wicking buckets, although the fruits are smaller now. They’ve been bearing for at least 6 months.

Cherries. The tree is in it’s second year and I got many more than last year. I can’t seem to find a photo of those. I expect most of them didn’t make it into the house.

Tomatoes have almost finished and I stopped weighing them when I reached 25 kilos. I cleaned some self-sown parsley out of one of the wicking boxes and topped it up with fresh compost. A few tomatoes germinated and have grown quickly :

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I’ve staked them and might get a few more fruit before they succumb to the cold. No idea which variety. It will be a surprise!

Pears. I’ve been really happy with yields from the two trees. A Bartlett with a Josephine for pollination—both planted in the same hole. I’d let them get too big (visions of huge old pear trees dripping with fruit) and so too big to net and the birds/possums have always got them all. Last year I cut them back really hard, so now they’re not much taller than I am. They flowered and set fruit, but instead of netting them (my biggest net was over the apple), I put the little apple pouches on each fruit. It has worked and nothing has attacked the fruit :

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I checked out Louis Glowinski’s book on fruit growing to see when I should pick them (pears ripen inside, off the tree) and the trick is to grab the hanging fruit and pull it up into a horizontal position. If it’s ready to pick the stem will snap at the abcission layer (the layer of weaker cells at the top of the stem). So each day I go down and tweak all the fruit. It’s working and this is the yield so far from the Bartlett :

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The fruits of the Josephine are smaller and maturing a bit later, but so far I have these :

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Pepino. There are huge fruits forming on the pepino in the wicking box. This box is at ground level so the wire is to keep hungry rabbits at bay :

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Beans. A slow start when most of the early-sown seed rotted, but it’s picked up and I’m eating beans with every evening meal now. Beans are one thing I never buy (along with tomatoes), so I really look forward to bean season.

Cucumbers. Lots of success with those and there are 16 jars of bread & butter pickles in the fridge. There were more cucumbers than I could eat fresh and I discovered that the chooks loved them sliced down the middle. They eat out all the seeds and flesh and leave only the paper-thin skins.

Berries. Raspberries and blackberries fruited for the first time and although the yields weren’t large, it means two additions to the diversity of food from the garden.

Apricots. A reasonable yield from one seedling-grown tree and about a dozen from the named variety, Moor Park (only in it’s first season). These are the apricots (and cherry plums from the self-sown tree) :

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Zucchini. A disaster. I got two. I pulled them out early. Male and female flowers just didn’t manage to co-ordinate themselves.

Pumpkins. Pulled out most of those, too. They were in a hugelkultur bed where the underlying wood hadn’t broken down and the ants kept bringing up the sand around them. It doesn’t hold water and I couldn’t keep enough water up to them to maintain growth.

But….there’s still one left in a recycling crate and it’s doing well. It’s the variety called Naranka Gold which is commercially grown exclusively for Coles supermarkets. I grew it last year but it went in late and didn’t produce any fruit. This year it’s climbing all over the wood heap (the leaves are meant to be that variegated yellow colour; it’s not a deficiency) :

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and hidden under the leaves is this :

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Quinces. The quince tree was grown from seed. From memory I think I planted three seedlings close together and they have all suckered into a large clump. It’s huge now and has flowered and fruited each year. I don’t really bother about it and last year the parrots got all the fruit. This year, since it’s next to the pear trees, I put apple socks on some of the quinces as well, so it looks like I will get a few :

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The remains of a couple that didn’t get ‘socked’ :

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Under-ripe quinces! Bleahh! Parrots apparently have no taste buds!

I’ve had more problems with roots entering the wicking tubs. Regular readers might remember this post where a grapevine found its way into the drainage hole at the bottom of a tub. It happens because there are zillions of ants here. They bring the sandy soil up to the surface around the base of pots and because it’s moist around the drainage holes, roots slide their way in. I don’t notice because the base of the tub eventually gets part buried in the sand. But I did notice that there was one tub that I could never seem to keep moist even though I watered it every day. It was nowhere near the grape vine and over 10 meters from the nearest tree. I thought the plastic in the bottom was probably perforated and it wasn’t functioning as a wicking tub any more. It’s a 51 cm diameter tub and very heavy. There’s a capsicum in it at the moment. I yanked it forwards from the back and it came away from the ground easily. No root problems there, so I cleared away the sand from around the front. See that thing that looks like a giant worm :

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That’s a tree root that has come out of the soil, done a 360º about face and entered the tub! What a cheek! I cut it out and sniffed it. Eucalyptus! From now on all the wicking tubs will be raised up on bricks, well off the ground!

Around the middle of last year I was given a small pot with one sick-looking leaf in it. I think the owner thought I might be able to bring it back to life. The label said ‘turmeric’.  I was rapt. I’ve been wanting to grow turmeric for ages, but couldn’t find any greengrocer selling the rhizomes to plant. I tipped it out of the pot. The ordinary roots looked white and healthy; there was no sign of a rhizome. I hoped it wasn’t sick but just heading into winter dormancy, so I potted it into a slightly larger pot, left it in the polyhouse and kept it just moist.

In spring, to my delight, a little green shoot appeared. I fed it some Dynamic Lifter and began to water it regularly. The green shoot grew and another appeared. Eventually I repotted it into a much larger pot. This is it now :

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If it grows any bigger there won’t be room for both of us in the polyhouse. Even if I wanted to put it outside, I can’t lift the pot. I’m hoping it’s making lots of turmeric rhizomes because I’ve promised to share with the original owner. Has anyone grown it away from its normal tropical home? Should I put it outside for the autumn/winter? I thought it probably wouldn’t like a low-humidity Melbourne summer, that’s why I left it in the polyhouse and misted the leaves every day. Here’s hoping for some nice rhizomes I can dry and crush.

My blueberry seedlings are growing and reaching the stage where I want to put them in their final growing spots. There are four left out of the six I had in October :

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I bought some large plastic pails and drilled a drainage hole a third of the way up from the bottom (so they’ll be wicking pots) and used them this season for tomatoes :

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They worked well, so I think I will use them for the blueberries. Not sure whether I’ll put them on the deck (it’s looking like a forest up there now), or stand them in the garden somewhere. They’ll be too tall for the rabbits and they’ll be easy to get a net over when they’re fruiting. One thing I’m going to do is buy an acid potting mix (for azaleas/rhododendrons) and use that, as blueberries like an acid soil and the chook poo compost I use for veggies tends to be alkaline.

Eggs. Bonny is still going strong with an egg every second day. She’s been laying constantly for just on a year now; surely she will take a break soon. She’s full of beans, eating like a horse and charges at me, pecking my foot, every time I go into the run. The other three stopped laying and moulted after Christmas. I’m not expecting any more from them until spring.

Well, I think I’ve just about covered most things. All I need now is some rain. A lot.

Strawberry wicking buckets

February 10, 2016

I wrote about how I made these in this post.

They’ve been in service now for two growing seasons. This season (spring/summer) they’ve been producing so many strawberries, I was amazed. Fresh strawberries every morning on my mueslii was almost too much for anyone to bear (I bore it well, though).

But the plants were originally planted into semi-rotted chook poo compost. In two years it had fully broken down and the mix had sunk in the buckets, so that the growth points were a good 10 cm below the rim of the bucket. They needed topping up with new compost but to do that would have meant burying the growth points which could have caused the whole plant to rot.

So the only thing to do was to lift the whole plant out of the bucket, add new mix to the bottom of the bucket, then put the plant back. Normally they die back in winter, which would have been the best time to do it. They’re still producing plenty of fruit anyway, but one wasn’t, and being impatient, I decided to do just that one. What I was keen to see was the root system and whether it had grown right down into the permanently boggy area below the drainage hole, or whether the only healthy roots were in the area above the drainage hole. In a wicking bed system you can’t see what’s going on below the ground. Are the roots happily growing in the wet soil or are they shying away from it and only growing in the top section where it’s just damp?

I let the bucket get as dry as I dared so the plant and its root ball wouldn’t be so heavy to juggle and tipped/pulled it out carefully. In the photo of bucket next to plant you can see how far down the plant had sunk and the location of the drainage hole in the bucket. Below that level are healthy, white roots. That was satisfying to see. Strawberry roots at least, will  grow in saturated soil :

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I put fresh compost into the bottom of the bucket and tamped it down well with another bucket. I wanted to compact it so that when it rotted there wouldn’t be so big a drop in level. Of course when I put the plant back, there was a gap of a couple of centimetres all around the top, which I filled in with some friable potting mix.

All done. Ready for another couple of seasons of strawberry production :

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I won’t feed this plant again till next spring when it will get a small handful of Dynamic Lifter and some seaweed fertiliser. The new compost in the bottom may even promote some more flowers before then.

The thing I really love about wicking buckets is that they’re so easy to move around. Just pick them up by the handle. The ideal thing to give someone for a Christmas present—a bucket laden with ripe strawberries cascading over the edge. And if you really want to be stylish you can colour co-ordinate bucket colour with strawberry colour. I went for utilitarian black because I’m not stylish (it does warm up early in spring though).

The New Year

January 3, 2016

I don’t ‘do’ New Year resolutions. It’s too easy to let them go. But one I have made is to try and do a regular monthly update to this blog, with at least a few smaller posts in between. The small ones will probably be of not much consequence, as I’ll probably just be desperate to write something, but I hope some readers will get some information of value from them.

So here we go with the first for 2016.

I staggered out of bed on New Year’s Day after a hot night of non-sleep to let the chooks out and see what had suffered due to the heat the previous day. The temperature had reached 39 Celsius in Melbourne.

Luckily I went down the back past the bath full of water in which I grow azolla fern for the chooks. A little sugar glider was flailing about in the water. I don’t know how long she’d* been there but she was wet and exhausted. I lifted her out and took her inside. She was still pretty feisty—yelling loudly in protest—so I dried her off as best as I could, trying to avoid the sharp little teeth—I’ve been nipped by one previously—and found a pillow case to put her in. Sorry, it’s not a very good photo. Look at those tiny feet. She gripped my hands really hard with them, maybe thankful to have something solid to hang on to at last :

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I’m fortunate there’s a very good wildlife carer not far from me. It was 6.30 am, but I hoped she’d be up and she was. So there I was, at (almost) the crack of dawn, driving the 10 minutes to her home. I didn’t see another car on the roads.

The glider will be in good hands. The carer will keep her there, giving her nourishing feeds with an eye dropper until she’s ready to come home and then she’ll ring me and I’ll go and pick her up. Probably around dusk when her nest mates will come out of their tree hollow for the night’s feeding routine. I know which tree they’re in so will put her on the trunk and let her be off to join them. An interesting start to the New Year!

(*note: I don’t really know what sex she/he was but I can’t refer to something so tiny and beautiful as ‘it’, so I’m assuming  the most important sex).

I picked my first tomato a couple of days before the end of December. Cheating really, because it’s a very early variety anyway—Silvery Fir Tree, with pretty divided foliage :

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Since I never buy the tasteless cricket balls that pass for supermarket tomatoes, I’m going to relish eating this, the first home-grown tomato I’ve had since last autumn.

The lettuces in the milk bottle planters had reached their use-by date so I removed them and replaced them with Purple King climbing beans :

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The planters are on the side of the deck and I’ve attached strings so that the beans can climb up and onto the deck railings :

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I’ve added more planters since I wrote about them previously, so it’s looking like a feature wall of sorts :

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I’m growing endive now, instead of lettuce. I find it easier to grow; it doesn’t run to seed in hot weather like lettuce and the chooks prefer it to lettuce. It doesn’t have the sweeter flavour of lettuce, but put it in a mixed salad with a decent dressing and you wouldn’t know the difference :

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There’s more here, in a wicking box with capsicums :

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And in another wicking box with basil :

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You can see from the photos that with small plants like these, I can get six to a wicking box. The boxes are 60 cm long x 40 cm wide x 25  cm deep. Sometimes a bit of thought is necessary to decide what plants will go together. The basil and capsicums will grow taller than the endive, which grows flatter, and they’ll shade it from the sun. That will keep the leaves soft and lush and tastier.

The thornless blackberries are colouring up :

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I can’t wait to try these. Meanwhile their little apple pouches will stay on until they’re fully ripe :

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This Naranka Gold pumpkin is doing well in an old recycling crate (not a wicking box—it has drainage at the bottom—but about the same size). I wrote about this variety here. This season I made sure I planted seed early so it would have time to flower and hopefully set fruit. It’s starting to trail and since the crate is beside the wood heap, I’m going to train it over the top :

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The passionfruit climbing over the chook run has finally flowered and is setting fruit. It’s been there long enough; maybe it can read my mind—I was thinking of removing it :

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Funnily enough, a lot of food plants that haven’t flowered well previously, did so this season. Does the (changing) climate have something to do with it? Do they know something I don’t? As long as I get more food from the garden, I’m happy.

October update

November 6, 2015

I was expecting to begin this post by saying we’d not had one drop of rainfall for the month…the first totally dry October since I began keeping records when we moved here 16 years ago, but lo and behold we had a thunderstorm on the last day of the month that delivered 14 mm. Melbourne’s average for October is 65 mm, so it was still well below that, but I got a useful 2000 litres in the big tank and all the swales filled so I was happy, even if it did wreck my plans to burn off. With tiny fruits swelling on all the trees, this is the time when moisture in the ground is really needed. Even better was yesterday’s fall—22 mm—a bit less than half November’s average. So things are a bit rosier on the rainfall front.

The dwarf Stella cherry is in its second year and is being well-watered and netted. There are many more fruits than last year. I counted at least thirty tucked in amongst the leaves. I want to get all of them! :

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My new thornless blackberries surprised me by producing pink flowers instead of the familiar white of the wild blackberries :

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I scored a useful compost bin from a friend and I’m going to use it for food scraps and the stuff from the composting toilet. I’m hoping the contents won’t dry out so much over the summer like they do just sitting in an open wire cage. I have 2 worm farms under the house, but I want to de-commission one and so I’ll have extra food scraps to deal with. This new bin has come at just the right time :

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I’ve had problems with introduced black rats eating tomato seedlings planted in wicking tubs and boxes near the house. Never before has anything ever touched a tomato seedling here, so I was gob-smacked, not to mention furious, to find just leafless sticks the day after I planted them. I’ve managed to get some planted in other spots well away from the house, but planting in Zone 1, near the house, is temporarily on hold. I’ve baited and 6 rats have gone to god so far and the scuffling noises in the ceiling have gone too.

I’ve established a bed of nettles under my plant benches (these are the stands that hold over 600 tubed plants). The nettles don’t invade the path beside the benches, because the soil is more compacted there and they get water and fertiliser runoff when I water the tubes. I just have to remember not to get too close in summer when I’m wearing shorts :

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A classic example of permaculture design where the outputs from one part of the system become the inputs for another part of the system.

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The foliage in the strawberry wicking buckets died right back over winter and I was afraid I’d lost them, but they’ve burst into new growth and flowers and fruits. I topped the buckets with chook poo compost which has obviously helped :

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I’ve written before about mini tomato cuttings using plants thinned from pots where I’ve sown 2 or 3 seeds. I snipped off a few seedlings at the base and stuck them in some water till I could get round to putting them in as cuttings. I was busy and they sat there for a couple of days. They couldn’t wait and started growing roots in the water :

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Tomatoes definitely have a will to live!

This beautiful ferny foliage belongs to the tomato variety Silvery Fir Tree :

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It’s a determinate variety, so doesn’t need staking, and is one of the earliest varieties to bear fruit. I’ve been growing it for about 4 years now. The fruits are large and slightly flattened and have a good flavour.

Looks like I might get a good crop of dill seed this year. I use a lot of it in pickling cucumbers and my local supermarket doesn’t carry it, so I like to have a crop of my own each year. This is in a wicking box :

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I’ve been eating asparagus almost every second day. The trouble with asparagus is that if you don’t check the bed every day they have an inordinate desire to reach the moon :

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The two small ones in front are about the size you’d get in a bunch at the supermarket. It’s not a lost cause, however. Snapping up from the bottom, to remove the woody bits, still leaves two-thirds of edible stem and I can chop up the woody bits in the Thermomix, blanch and freeze them for winter soups. Valuable fibre shouldn’t be discarded!

These 6 little seedlings are worth more than gold! :

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They’re blueberries. I’m indebted to rabidlittlehippy for showing how to propagate them from seed. She put the berries in the freezer….actually no, I think she used purchased frozen blueberries. Anyway, I put berries from my own plant in the freezer. I didn’t record how long they were in there, but I took them out in March (at the equinox actually), extracted the seeds from the fruits and sowed them. They took nearly 60 days to germinate and then sat there all winter doing nothing. They started to grow in early spring and I potted them up at the beginning of October. There were 8 but 2 died. In the environment where they grow naturally, they probably drop from the bushes in late summer or autumn, then sit on the (?frozen/snow-covered) ground  until spring and then germinate. Which makes me think they took so long to germinate for me because I should have had them in the freezer over winter and sown them in spring. So I’ll try that next time. It has been a real thrill to succeed in growing blueberries from seed as plants are expensive to buy. Thanks RLH!

And that, as far as I can remember, was October. Oh, but I forgot the Girls again. Two eggs a day (and sometimes three), from the four of them. Enough for me and some to share. Self-sufficiency is alive and well.

Water-wicking beds and boxes

April 27, 2015

The knowledge of what are known as ‘water-wicking beds’ seems to be growing, with more and more gardeners putting them in place.

I first came across the concept at this webpage. There’s plenty to read there. The first three articles on how water moves through the soil and using stones (not) as a base for the bed are very important.

Following that I found a site where the writer had used white polystyrene vegetable boxes as small wicking beds. Since I have heavy clay soil in the area I wanted to put my vegetable garden, back-breaking digging was out of the question, plus it was on a slope, so the idea of small individual ‘boxes’ appealed.

I couldn’t access the number of poly boxes at the size I wanted, so searched in the local hardware store for plastic crates, of which there are a huge variety. I went for black rather than clear plastic, because algae will grow in wet soil when it can get light and I didn’t want ‘green’ sides to all my boxes. I thought the black colour would be an advantage in winter (warmer soil) but might not be so good in summer, though they could be easily shielded from the sun.

I came up with these :

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They’re 60 cm long, 40 cm wide and 25 cm deep; not quite as deep as I would have liked at the time, although there are deeper ones available now, but useful for shallow-rooted plants which most vegetables are.

Water will ‘wick’ up about 30 cm against gravity so any soil depth greater than this will mean the layer above that depth will remain dry.

With the boxes I chose, at 25 cm depth, that wasn’t going to be a problem.

It’s usual, in large beds anyway, to put in some form of perforated pipe across the bottom of the bed, which opens to the surface, through which to add water. The water spreads out to fill the reservoir below the bed and this is where the water comes from to wick up into the soil above. By looking down the pipe or using a dipstick, it’s possible to see if there is water in the reservoir or not.

For a small box like I was going to use, this is unnecessary; all I did was stand a piece of pipe in one corner of the box :

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And drilled drainage holes (one at each end) about one-third of the way up from the bottom :

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Finally I filled the box with good quality compost, not bought stuff, but stuff I made myself, with plenty of organic matter.

I soon found that adding water via the vertical pipe didn’t work, as it was just too slow a method to fill the lower part of the box (I get little frogs making a home in my pipes and they get pretty annoyed if I suddenly dump a load of water into the pipe). So I started watering overhead and have done so ever since. It’s what happens when it rains anyway. I use the pipe simply to check on water levels. If I can see water in the bottom of the pipe, I know the soil at the bottom of the box is saturated and I don’t need to water until I can’t see any water. The boxes will go several days more without water if the plants are small and not sucking much up. Poking a finger into the top few cm will show how moist the soil is (I’m calling it soil because it’s quicker to type than ‘compost’ or ‘growing medium’, but you know what I mean).

So that’s essentially my method and I have about 35 wicking boxes around the garden at the moment.

I began reading other blogs where people were putting in large wicking beds and noticed that most were using sand or gravel in the water reservoir and covering it with a layer of some sort of cloth to stop soil getting into the gravel. I couldn’t see the sense in this; roots will go right through this and into the water below (making holes) and if there’s no watering from above this layer will be largely free of nutrients (of course rain will wash nutrients through so that’s really not a problem). I note that the person who developed the concept (see the link in the second paragraph above), seems to think likewise. My boxes are full of compost in which every root can access nutrients. The water-seeking roots will live in the saturated layer at the bottom and the feeder roots liking the medium just moist, will stay in the top section. Too much work and materials are required to do all that other stuff! Plus, I can lightly fork fresh material into a box to top it up, without the fork becoming snagged on anything below.

I also add worms from the worm farm (compost worms, not garden worms) and they continually aerate the soil and eventually turn it all into worm castings, which hold a phenomenal amount of water. I’m monitoring those boxes to see if growth is affected (the texture is like mud!) and will remove and replace at least half the medium with fresh compost if needed. If there’s a problem it will probably be due to low oxygen levels.

Another thing to note is that nutrients can’t leach away as they do in a non-wicking garden bed. What goes into the wicking bed or box stays there until the plants take it up, so it’s important not to over-fertilise or get the nutrient balance out of whack by adding too much of anything. That’s why a good, nutrient-balanced compost is essential. Being able to identify nutrient problems just by looking at the plant is an essential skill.

During the growth of a single crop, the soil level in the wicking box will drop a few cm, so in between crops I top up with fresh compost. I mulch the top of each box as well, so that direct sun isn’t pulling water out of the soil faster than it can wick up from below.

I’m happy with the boxes and even if I had a flat area to make wicking beds, I wouldn’t bother with all that work and extra materials. A wicking box or crate can be poked into any small space, on a deck or sunny porch or hidden amongst a collection of more traditional flower pots. They’re ideal for rental properties where you can’t do major gardening works and you can take them with you when you leave. For less than $20 and 3-4 buckets of good quality compost and a punnet of seedlings from the garden centre, you can get a veggie garden going in half an hour and build on it from there.

Once you understand the wicking process, almost anything can be turned into a wicking container. Old fridges, second-hand baths…..I’m currently growing my strawberries in plastic wicking buckets.

Here’s a line of 10 boxes I put in a few years ago :

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I put them up on polystyrene fruit boxes to prevent rabbits accessing them. I’ve since found that a large rabbit can stand on its hind legs and nibble round the edges, so I’ve put wire around the top of each box.

They can be individually covered to keep out cabbage white butterflies or whitefly :

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You can grow one type of crop per box and if necessary, adjust individual growing requirements, e.g. pH, just in that one box. This is wombok chinese cabbage in a wicking box :

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Sometimes its easier to direct-sow seed rather than go through the tedious process of sowing, potting up seedlings and transplanting. This is mizuna, another Asian green. I just clip off what I need with the scissors. The chooks get a handful every day and provided I cut above the growth point, it simply keeps on growing :

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I think individual wicking boxes are the best thing since sliced bread. I wouldn’t ever bother with the work and quantity of materials needed to make a full-sized wicking bed.

Wicking beds

April 7, 2015

I was just searching through my bookmarks for the original site where I first learned about wicking beds and discovered that the link was now going to a new site,  although still written by the same person.

I checked out the wicking beds link at the site and discovered a whole lot of new information has been added since I last looked and which I’m now going to peruse with renewed interest.

If you haven’t investigated wicking beds yet, check it out. It’s a great way to grow plants using water-saving techniques.

March update

April 4, 2015

After my last update, when I showed my raspberry bed with nets over it, a reader pointed out that it didn’t look very secure because there were gaps a bird could easily get under. Well…um…I did know that; I’d hastily thrown some netting over the top in order to take the photo, hoping no-one would notice it wasn’t perfect!

I found a terrific net in Bunnings—4 m x 4m—which fitted beautifully, going right to the ground. Much better :

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It’s exciting to see the berries ripening underneath, even though there aren’t many of them this time, because it’s only their first year :

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I bought a couple of extra nets and when I create another bed for thornless blackberries, which I’m going to buy and plant this winter, I’ll make it the same size so the net will fit perfectly.

 

This year, I’m having a go at growing red cabbage in a wicking box :

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The seedlings were ready early and I wanted to plant them out, but Cabbage White butterflies were still around, so the wicking box had to be netted too. This is just cheap mosquito netting, draped over a couple of pieces of plastic pipe and tied at the ends :

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The March equinox is when I plant my garlic. I bought bulbs again this year from Yelwek Farm, because my bulbs from last year were just too small to bother with.

Ready to plant :

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And planted :

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Potato onions were also planted at the equinox. These were the ones I grew last year and were also small, but I decided to go with them rather than buy more. One is sprouting already :

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Another brassica I’m having a go at growing is wombok chinese cabbage, which I use to make kimchi. Again, the seedlings had to be netted to keep out the white butterflies :

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The New Girls finally came good at 29 weeks old and started laying and I got a dozen eggs in the first week and 16 in the second, an all-time record. This is Bonny, who made up for the late start by presenting me with a whopping 78 gm egg, which turned out to be a double yolker. The three Old Girls only ever averaged 60-65 gm between them over the three years they’d been laying and never managed a double yolker. The other two New Girls are still in the 50-55 gm range. Bonny developed the biggest comb and wattles of the three. I thought initially I’d never be able to tell them apart, but they’re quite different now. She really is a bonny girl :

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Sadly, I lost the second of the Old Girls this month. Cheeky succumbed to digestive issues, with an impacted crop, anaemia and unspecified lumps in her abdomen. I took her to an avian vet but there was nothing that could be done and she was euthanased. She was a few months short of four years old and had only laid four eggs last spring.  Molly is the only one left of my three original girls now and I feel so sad for her as she sits alone in the sunny spot where she and Cheeky usually sat together each afternoon. They always did things together, the two oldies, ignoring the three boisterous newbies.

Farewell Cheeky :

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While I’m on the subject of chickens—the Chicken Behaviour and Welfare course I wrote about in the previous post has started and already I’ve learned something about behavioural motivation (which can be either internal or external) :

“The motivation for a hen to find a secluded site, build a nest and lay eggs, is under internal control. It’s the ovulation of the follicle that results in a cascade of hormones that drives these behaviours. It’s not the sight of a nest or another hen sitting on eggs that motivates the behaviour”

So that means the common notion that if you want a hen to lay, you should put a couple of phony ceramic or plastic eggs in the nest is all bunkum! No doubt spread by the people who sell phony plastic eggs!

I’m loving the course so far, although disappointed that the videos are fairly short—I powered through the dozen videos in Week 1 in less than an hour—but I will watch them several times and make some notes.

 

I’ve written about this attractive Naranka Gold pumpkin previously. It’s not going to flower now; it’s too late in the season, but it’s still growing and I haven’t pulled it out because I wanted to see how it coped with the cooler weather. The older leaves are a bit brown around the edges, but there’s no sign of downy mildew. I’ll definitely be sowing this variety again next season. I would have sown it much earlier last year if I’d known how good it was going to be :

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That yellow colour isn’t due to a nutrient deficiency. That’s how it’s meant to be. You can see the variegated colour on the young leaves in this photo of the pumpkin from the Coles website (it’s grown exclusively for Coles).

 

I pulled out all my tomato plants; they were looking woeful, with late blight and sooty mould on the leaves, but I’m pleased with the season’s harvest—I picked just over 26 kilos of fruit. Most of that is in the freezer for cooking over winter (I’ll use them where a recipe calls for canned tomatoes); there are 2 huge jars of dried tomatoes and a third smaller jar in the pantry and I’ve eaten as many fresh as I could. The end of the tomato season is always the saddest time in the garden, because I never ever buy the tasteless, hard lumps that pass for supermarket tomatoes.

Sun-dried goodness :

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The major pest problems for me this past season have been aphids and whiteflies….gazillions of whiteflies. They’re hard to spot because they collect on the underside of leaves, and only when the plants are disturbed do clouds of them take to the wing. I’ve used a natural garlic-based spray or otherwise blasted them off with the hose. It’s French beans they seem to favour most. I need to do a bit of homework on them before next season—learn about their life cycle, why and when they appear and what eats them.

 

I put in two new wicking boxes next to the wood heap, raised up on polystyrene foam boxes to prevent rabbit access and with a rainfall catchment bin beside each one. These are just 60 litre plastic rubbish bins with the lid placed upside down and a hole drilled in the centre to allow rain to enter :

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I did a head count and there are now 31 wicking boxes in the garden. I plan to use these two new ones for pumpkins next spring. There’s plenty of room for them to cascade over the sides and spread (even over the wood heap) and the rabbits don’t like pumpkin leaves!

 

Rainfall for March  35 mm.  Melbourne’s average  44 mm. February and March were both drier than average. The citrus trees looked a bit stressed at times and I filled the swales behind them on a weekly basis. I’ll be really glad to see the autumn rains. They seem to be getting later every year.

 

I don’t tend to bother too much about the site statistics that WordPress provides, mainly because I can never remember where to find them, but I just did, and realised that I’ve passed the 500 mark, with 508 posts here and (this is the amazing bit), I have 104 followers! (I know that’s not a lot, compared to some blogs, but quality counts with me, not quantity). So thank you, all 104 of you, whoever and wherever you are.

The other amazing thing to see is where all those people looking at the posts come from. As I would expect, Australia leads the list, with the UK, US and New Zealand also predominating, but there are 70 other countries represented! This blog has been as far afield as the Cayman Islands and Bosnia & Herzgovina! How about that!

January update

February 5, 2015

The best thing about January was the weather….only a few days with 30+ temperatures and rainfall (64mm) which exceeded Melbourne’s average for the month (57mm). I was well pleased…living on a bush block in a bushfire zone, with a warming climate, I tend to get rather paranoid in summer now.

Tomatoes were the biggest bearer. I seem to have a lot of cherries this year, but that’s alright. They’ll be sun-dried :

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The goal is to fill this jar with dried tomatoes :

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San Marzano, a Roma type. Most of these will be frozen for winter cooking :

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There are still Black Russian, Green Zebra and Debarao to come. This is my first time growing Debarao (sometimes called De Barao). It’s a Roma-type too, with egg-shaped fruit with less watery pulp and will also be useful for cooking. I freeze a lot of tomatoes and use them over winter for making relish and pasta sauce. Rather than juicing them and bottling and storing the juice, it’s much easier to just defrost the quantity of whole tomatoes that I need, when I need them.

 

Pepinos are forming. This plant is in a wicking box on the deck. When I plant them in the garden, the rabbits demolish the fruit. I wish I could fit the whole garden up on the deck! (then I suppose the pesky rabbits would learn to negotiate steps!) :

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It’s amazing how much growth can be fitted in a wicking box. Not only is the pepino in this one…:

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but there’s gotu kola…:

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self-sown lemon balm…:

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a cucumber…:

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and what looks like a self-sown tansy…:

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but wait, there’s more…:

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…a self-sown alpine strawberry.

An example of what permaculture guru Geoff Lawton likes to call, ‘abundance’.

 

I forgot to mention in the December update that I had a visit over the Christmas period from Maree, who writes Around The Mulberry Tree blog, and who brought me a healthy-looking elderberry plant :

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I’ve sent away for elderberry seeds so many times and have never had any germination, so I was delighted to get an established plant. I can see elderflower cordial and elderberry wine somewhere in the future. Thanks Maree!

 

I’m disappointed in the cucamelons. The plants have climbed skywards and wound themselves around the deck railings, but there’s no sign of fruit. There are plenty of female flowers with little pre-cucamelons behind them and some male flowers, but it seems no pollination is occurring :

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The plants in the strawberry wicking buckets have done well after a poor start in which the first fruits were badly deformed, due I think, to poor pollination :

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I’ve picked a steady supply of strawberries, not a huge amount, but enough to have a few on my breakfast mueslii each morning, so I’ll plant a few more buckets for next year. I haven’t even had to net them because they’re up on the deck where birds don’t usually come. The plants are putting out new runners at the moment and it’s easy to pot up a few. Runners grow a tuft of new leaves along their length :

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At the base of each tuft of leaves is a collection of roots-to-be :

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I peg the runner down into a pot of potting mix with a piece of bent wire, but leave the runner attached to the parent plant :

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Once the roots have grown down into the new pot, the runners can be cut away from the parent plant. I wish all plants were as easy to propagate as these.

 

The New Girls are 24 weeks old and there’s still no sign of eggs. The Old Girls laid at 22 weeks, so I’m anxiously checking daily. The Newbies are so full of beans; any unsuspecting butterfly stupid enough to get through the wire is snatched out of the air with a huge leap; they rocket up and down the 7 metres of connecting corridor between the two runs like mad things; they come when called (well, most times); they love the green grubs off the kale (Molly and Cheeky won’t touch them), and they’re into everything—a perfect trio of lively, alert, naughty kids. That’s two of them on the left (looking good, eh, Julie?) :

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And the remainder of the trio. She’s wondering if the camera is something to eat. (Cheeky behind on the right and Molly bringing up the rear) :

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If I can ever tell them apart, which seems unlikely, their names will be Bonny, Missy and Clover (the last after the rabbit in Watership Down….there’s no connection, I just like the name), but until then, they’re just the Newbies, or Newbs, for short.

I’ve been giving Molly & Cheeky a daily treat of grated carrot and yoghurt, which they love. At first the Newbs weren’t interested—they didn’t understand ‘treats’—but lately they’ve taken an interest. Of course, M & C won’t allow them anywhere near, but Molly is moulting and a bit off-colour so less aggressive and Cheeky has become a bit indifferent to them (only whacks them occasionally), so they’ve managed to elbow their way in and steal some and they like it. So I call them down to their own quarters and give them a bowl on their own. The squeals of delight as they wolf it down and peck splattered yoghurt off each other’s faces has me in stitches.

Not a happy Moulting Molly :

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I’ve finally got my act together and planted kale and broccoli seeds early. I always seem to leave it until autumn and then have to wait as they grow too slowly through the cooler winter. I was reading someone’s blog where they said they sowed their winter brassica seeds at the summer solstice (21st December), so I did the same and now I’ve actually got kale in a wicking box growing well. Of course, Cabbage White butterflies are still around, but if I inspect the plants every few days and rub off all the eggs before they hatch, I’m able to keep on top of the problem :

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These are Tepary Beans. I have to thank Fran of Road to Serendipity blog for sending the seed a couple of years ago. The first year I grew them I just left them to set seed. I forgot to grow them the following year and thought I’d better put them in this season and collect more seed. I’ll probably leave them for seed again this season then finally grow them to eat. They’re said to be extremely drought tolerant :

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Pods are forming :

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Basil & endive going well together in a wicking box :

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And what’s that in the back left corner? Looks like a seedling plum :

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You wouldn’t believe it, but under all that growth on the left, there’s a planter box just like the one on the right :

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In the left-hand box there are two cherry tomatoes and some beans that didn’t have a label (looking like climbers). This box had a liberal dose of chook poo compost before planting, hence the rampant growth :

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The other one has Purple King climbing beans at the back and basil, kale and silver beet in front. These aren’t wicking boxes, so they need watering every day :

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Well, that’s about it for the January wrap-up. I hope February will be as good temperature-wise, but next week is forecast for over 30 C every day, so all I can say is, “roll on autumn”.

Before I go, here’s a really useful post from the Permaculture Research Institute about tomatoes. And check out the link to fix.com given in the article. Another useful site worth bookmarking.

October update

November 16, 2014

I’m a bit late with this owing to activities on the chicken front taking precedence, but anyway here it is—better late than never and just to prove that things other than chook things do happen here.

The passionfruit climbing over the old chook run has finally decided to flower… :

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…and produce fruit :

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The redcurrants are colouring up. I suppose I’m going to have to think about netting them, although last year I didn’t, and the birds left them alone (although that ant seems to be interested) :

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I put three cucamelons into a wicking tub and they’ve been slow to establish; maybe the weather hasn’t been hot enough yet. Their thread-like tendrils have finally found the wire support, so maybe that will jog them along a bit :

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Last year was a poor year for the persimmon, with only three fruit and the blackbird got all of them while they were still green. There are only three buds on the plant again this year, but this time I’ll get in ahead of him with netting :

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I planted out all the tomatoes during October because they were big enough and it looked like all the cold weather had gone. I did a quick tour & count and there are 36 plants out, most in wicking boxes or wicking tubs and just a few in the garden. This one, in a wicking tub, has trebled in size in just a couple of weeks :

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These are in a wicking box :

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The comfrey re-appeared with a vengeance :

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These three chokos in pots are looking for something to grab onto. I don’t know where I’m going to plant them as I don’t have a trellis prepared. Maybe I’ll see if they’ll climb up a tree :

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Well, I finally put one next to the wire corridor connecting the two chook runs. I have a feeling I’m going to regret it if it takes over the whole area :

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The raspberries are in their first year of growth. Looks like I might get some fruit :

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Basil futures. I froze pesto last year and it worked so well, I’m aiming for plenty more this year :

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This is Wild Rocket. I think it has a stronger flavour than the common variety and the foliage is more attractive :

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I go through 3 litres of milk a week. While I know the bottles can be recycled, it still pains me to have to throw out something I could maybe use. So I came up with this:

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I’ve put 4 tiny holes in the bottom and I fill them from a bin that contains water with seaweed fertiliser, worm juice and comfrey tea, then sit them on a wicking box or wicking tub and let the contents trickle out slowly. It helps when I don’t have time to stand and water with the hose and it adds a bit of extra nutrient along the way.

I picked all my garlic. There were three batches, one (supermarket purchased) in a wicking box and two in the garden (one from Yelwek and another from a local source). The garlic in the wicking boxes didn’t form single bulbs, but separated into cloves, each with a single stem. Not worth eating, not worth replanting. I composted it. Was it because it was supermarket garlic or because it didn’t like the wicking box? I’ve grown it successfully in wicking boxes before, so I’m blaming the supermarket. It wasn’t that stark white Chinese stuff. I know better than to plant that! :

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The local garlic in the garden was OK, but the bulbs were very small :

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The Yelwek garlic produced the most robust plants, with the thickest stems, but that still didn’t translate into large bulbs. I think lack of fertiliser may be the problem. I really need to do more research into growing garlic :

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The potato onions, also from Yelwek, aren’t doing well. After planting the bulbs way back in April, some in the garden and some in a wicking box, they sprouted and seemed to be growing well. Then in winter, they grew backwards and some died. Now it’s warmed up, the leaves are growing again, but the bulbs are small and I don’t know if they’re going to get any bigger. The batch I put into a wicking box all rotted away in winter. Too much water probably :

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I’ve put pumpkins in the hugelkultur bed, in between asparagus which are only in their first year. In the other hugelbed I’ve put zucchini and button squash. I’ve made a huge hugelmound from raked leaves and twigs and put 3 extra pumpkin in there.

Pumpkin :

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Zucchini & button squash :

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Pumpkin on the hugelmound :

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The strawberries in the strawberry wicking buckets are bearing, but a lot of the fruits are deformed. They look awful. I’ve never had this happen before :

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Google tells me it could be caused by inadequate pollination or lack of calcium or boron, or attack by certain types of mites. I inspected, and there are aphid-like insects on them so I’ve removed all the trusses of developing fruits and given the plants a good spray with a garlic-pyrethrum spray. I wouldn’t be surprised if pollination was a problem, because they’re up on the deck against the house wall, where insects might not find them.

I always like to have a patch of calendula somewhere in the garden. The bees love the flowers and I can pick the petals for salads :

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That’s all I can remember for October. I won’t write anything about chooks because you’ve had that ad nauseum by now and anyway that all happened this month. I’ll bore you with more on that in next month’s update.