Thoughts on permaculture

December 20, 2017

For new readers who may not be aware, 8 years ago I did a permaculture design course (known in the trade as a PDC). It wasn’t the 2-week intensive course that is usually given; in my case it was spread out over 13 weeks—one full day per week.

I wrote a weekly series of posts about my experiences—for those interested, the first one is here and the rest follow on.

Standing and holding the hose while watering recently, I gave some thought to the future value of permaculture.

Anyone who is paying attention and does a bit of reading knows we face huge problems in the coming decades. There are those who think human extinction will be the end result; others are more optimistic—those doing permaculture seem to fall into this group.

Permaculture takes a certain way of thinking—a certain mindset—and while there are an increasing number of people putting in food gardens, using less energy and creating less waste, I suspect that most don’t have this mindset.

Bill Mollison, the co-originator of permaculture, had it of course; he wouldn’t have thought of permaculture if he hadn’t. You only have to read some of Bill’s more famous and well-known quotes to see it.

All of the people on my PDC had it; that was evident from the round-the-lunchtable conversation each week. In a sense, permaculture is made for people with this mindset—it is there waiting for those who are looking for positive solutions to the problems we face. That is evident in the comments you see from people after they’ve completed a PDC. My own comment was, “it just blew me away”. I’ve seen similar comments over and over again. I went home from each PDC class with a head brimming with new ideas and couldn’t wait to get started on implementing them.

Can permaculture save us and the rest of the living world we depend on?

I think is has a good chance of helping those who practise it to come through the short-term problems we face. Here I’m thinking about the end of the oil age and the collapse of industrial agriculture. Long-term problems I’m not so sure of. That will depend on the changing climate and how many people survive the inevitable dieoff to be able to carry on the species.

I can’t explain exactly what I mean by ‘mindset’ in this post. It is a way of looking at the world which is fundamentally different to the mainstream. Sadly, most thinking is mainstream—it is how our current culture teaches us to think. It’s what I call the ‘growth-is-good’, ‘world-belongs-to-Man’, mindset. There are other damaging messages our culture teaches, but these are probably two of the worst.

One of the major problems I see is that permaculture is still agriculture—still a way of providing more food than the environment would do naturally. It isn’t hunter-gathering, which is, and was, the only sustainable way for humans and all species, to live. All species except humans, live this way, because the system evolved for, and with, species living this way. It cannot survive if one species takes more than its fair share and by doing this, ultimately collapses the system. Permaculturalists have to be careful not to fall into the trap that the original adopters of agriculture set for all of their descendants—that of growing more food, which supports more people, which means more food has to be grown to feed the excess, which means unsustainable population growth and eventual overshoot, collapse and dieoff. That is where we are now. It has taken 10,000 years to get here, but it was inevitable that eventually we would.

This problem is covered by one of the 12 permaculture principles—#4—”Apply self-regulation and accept feedback”. Amongst other things, this implies keeping the population in balance with the resources available and limiting births to balance the death rate. Populations must not be allowed to grow beyond what the environment will sustainably support and human settlements must not be allowed to grow to the point where they compromise the health and function of the entire system. Can we do this?

It needs a new mindset—a new way of thinking about the role of humans in the system of life on this planet.

With that mindset, ‘permies’ might just do it.


New ways with beans

December 9, 2017

I’m sick of Melbourne’s anti-bean weather. We get a warm spell in spring and I think, “right, this is it” and I sow beans. Then we get a cold snap, the temperature plummets and it rains and the soil is cold and wet. Seeds rot, exit beans, stage left. Oh, and I forgot to mention all the little critters below the soil surface who just love to chew on a nice tasty bean seed.

So I’m trying something new.

The beans in the milk bottle planters are doing well. That’s because, when the first lot of seeds rotted, I took the bottles into the polyhouse and filled them with clean potting mix, with a bit of dynamic lifter and blood and bone mixed in and sowed the beans in there. Warm, protected environment, clean soil, and watering just enough to get germination happening, but not enough to rot the seed. When they were up and growing strongly I hung them back on the side of the deck. No problems :

For the beans I usually sow in wicking boxes, I’ve sowed the seeds in 3″ round pots, again in the same medium and left them in the polyhouse until germination and they’re robust enough to plant out :

I’m mostly doing climbing beans this way and all I need to do when I plant them out, is provide a stake or framework of some sort for them to climb on. I’m not separating the individual plants, just planting the whole pot. These have gone into one of the large planter boxes with a tomato for company. As it gets bigger they’ll start climbing through it :

I think this will be my way of dealing with beans in the future.

November update

December 2, 2017

It warmed up for the last two weeks of November and we had several days in the low 30’s, fortunately punctuated by a couple of thunderstorms. The combination of moisture and heat has really pushed the plants into vigorous growth.

The redcurrants fruited very well this year. I can’t imagine why, but the birds never touch these, even though they’re highly visible on the bushes. I collected about a cupful and I’m putting a spoonful on my mueslii each morning. I must remember to save a few seeds. They’re easy to grow from seed and the smallish bushes can be poked into any odd space. I’ve found that they do like a bit of shade and some summer watering :

I’m in the process of making a new bed for veggies. As I leave the carport beside the front of the house and walk down the path, past the big water tank on the left and around to the back of the house, there’s been a nondescript sort of garden bed to the right of the path. It contained a native Midgin Berry, which never did much and a Scaevola ground cover which the rabbits would never leave alone :

This is looking back towards the small tank. I can’t remember offhand what the grey bush is, but it has curry-smelling leaves :

I considered removing the lot and just leaving the area gravelled, then thought…..a spot right next to a water tank is too good to waste, so I’ve installed one of those corrugated steel beds which matches all the tanks. I did think about a simple wire ring like the ones I’ve made down in the food forest, but because of the openings in the wire they tend to dry out too quickly around the edges. So :

Because of the slope I had to dig it into the ground at the rear and build it up slightly at the front. I’ve camouflaged the built-up front with some native daisies and local flax liles. I’m filling it with weeds and prunings which will eventually turn into soil, and when it’s ready to be planted I’ll rig up a watering system from the tank behind. It’s still low enough that the rabbits will be able to jump in, so I’ll need a higher ring of wire round the inside edge. I’ll use it for small herby things like parsley and chives and Asian greens in winter. It will be too hot in summer for lettuces :

I planted 22 tomatoes, all in either wicking boxes or large tubs. Species I’ve used are Green Zebra, Reisentraube, Grosse Lisse, Black Russian, Debarao (a tall-growing Roma type), Red Pear Cherry and Black Cherry. This year I gave them all a tablespoon of potash after planting and watered it in. This is the advice given by Aussie gardening guru, Peter Cundall and boy, does it make a difference. They don’t have stems, they have trunks! This is a Reisentraube in a wicking box (the name means small bunch of grapes). It produces masses of large cherry sized fruits which are good for drying or freezing for winter casseroles :

The milk bottle planters on the side of the deck are still going strong. I thought the plastic would have broken down and disintegrated by now but this is their third growing season and they’re not showing any signs of breakdown. Last year I put climbing beans in them and trained them up strings onto the deck wires. This year I’ve used fibreglass rods which a friend gave me. So much easier than fiddling with strings and they’re a stronger support for the tendrils :

I found room for two more on either side of the gas bottles. Snake Beans are just germinating :

Last year I grew eggplant for the first time. It was so successful I put in more seed this year. These three plants are in a wicking box. It’s possible I’ve overplanted, and should have been satisfied with two, but we shall see :

I’ve grown lots of endive this season. It’s more robust than lettuce as a summer crop (doesn’t run to seed and will grow right through into the winter) and the chooks love it :

I’m determined to grow good celery. I potted up a lot of seedlings and have planted them in various wicking boxes :

I also potted up a lot of silver beet :

I thought I’d try some unprotected in the food forest and see how it goes with the rabbits. They’re not eating the sorrel that has self-seeded, so maybe they’ll leave the silver beet alone too. Some will go into protected sites just to be on the safe side.

The cherries under their net are ripening :

I’ve tasted a couple but the full flavour isn’t there yet. This year I’ll save and sow the seeds again. Last year only one germinated, but that’s an extra cherry tree I didn’t have to pay for. It’s already been planted out :

Fortunately I had good germination of both red and yellow tamarillos this year, as the mature plants now look like their best years are behind them. They tend to be short-lived anyway. These are seedlings of the red variety. I’ll be planting out as many as I can find room for :

I have two baths now, filled with compost and growing more food. This one will eventually be a dedicated potato bed, but until disease-free tubers become available in winter, I’ve planted a pumpkin and a zucchini :

The box at the rear contains water chestnuts. I’ve put them up there as a temporary measure because I didn’t have anything to put them up on at ground level to keep them away from the rabbits. By the time they’re ready to harvest, I’ll have found a more suitable spot (they’re not doing as well as yours, Fran):

The second bath has cucumbers, a pumpkin and a zucchini. The cucumbers and pumpkin will eventually trail over the side, but that’s OK. The rabbits don’t touch them :

I replanted some of the turmeric tubers back into their original pots and they’ve just started to appear :

I’m still keeping them in the polyhouse because I’m not sure how they’ll go outdoors in winter. However I put a couple of small leftover ones in one of the baths and they’ve started growing also. If they survive the winter I’ll put them all outdoors in future.

And finally, I managed to get a yield of garlic this year after two failed years. The bulbs are small but I’m happy :

And now……onwards, to see what summer brings.

Whichever hemisphere you live in, I hope the weather is kind to your garden.

October update

November 6, 2017

Well, it finally warmed up somewhat and I managed to get one lot of beans (butter beans) to germinate. They’re in a wicking box with a tomato at the rear :

I bought 2 thornless blackberries at Bunnings and put one in a large tub beside the deck. It’s taken off and is heading upwards to the deck wires, where I want to train it. Hope it doesn’t decide to take over the house :

The other one went down the back into a wire ring of compost from the composting toilet. There’s nothing to train this one on, but I’m going to try pruning to keep it as a shrub :

Last year I grew Red-veined Sorrel in one of the wire rings down the back. It flowered and self seeded on the ground beside the ring. Boy, did it self-seed. Plenty there to dig up and repot :

The dwarf Stella cherry is setting fruit. This might be a good year. Better think about getting the net over it :

I’ve planted all my tomatoes—about 25 at last count—in various wicking boxes and tubs. They’re looking well. I took Aussie gardening guru Peter Cundall’s advice and gave each one about a tablespoon of potash and watered it in around the roots. It certainly makes the stems thicker and more robust and greens the leaves. These two Black Russians are in one of the corrugated metal beds :

The grapevine I’ve trained onto the deck wires has put out new growth :

It’s a purple muscat grape I grew from seed, so I didn’t expect it to flower for a couple of years or more. Last year it produced 3 small bunches and this year there are many more flower bunches :

The dwarf pear I planted in winter didn’t flower but it produced a nice crop of healthy new leaves :

I love the clumps of comfrey when the new growth comes in spring :

Last year the rabbits developed a liking for it and devastated most of the clumps. So far this year, they’re leaving it alone. I’m learning that each year we get a different crop of young ones and their tastes aren’t necessarily those of the parents. Much of this will go to the chooks who love it and it will replace the silver beet they’ve been getting for the last few months and which is running to seed now.

The strawberries on the deck, some in pots and others in wicking buckets, are putting out new growth and flowering. Looking forward to another bumper crop this year :

Bunnings have certainly improved their range of perennial food plants in recent times. I checked them out recently and bought four new varieties :

From left, a thornless loganberry, a lemon guava, a kiwiberry and a maqui berry.

I’ve never eaten loganberries, so looking forward to that one fruiting.

The lemon guava is related to the strawberry guava, which I’m already growing. The strawberry guava has small, red grape-sized fruit and the lemon guava has larger yellow fruit. I haven’t tasted that one either.

The kiwiberry is a related species to the well-known kiwi fruit, but has small berries, supposed to be similar in taste to its better-known cousin. It’s a climber too, and looks like being a rampant one, as it took me ages to disentangle the tendrils of my chosen plant from all the others in the display.

The maqui berry is new to me, so I had to Google. It’s a rainforest tree from Chile and Argentina. That one might be difficult to grow in my area. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say.

Now I’ve got to find somewhere to plant them. Climbers are difficult because they need somewhere suitable to climb, while still being accessible for picking and netting from birds and possums. I don’t want to go to all the trouble of building a special trellis.

The lemon guava should be easy. My existing strawberry guavas are hardy and grow anywhere. The maqui berry, in the absense of a local rainforest, will need a bit more thought.

I checked the root systems. They should be able to stay in their pots for a while yet, while I do some thinking.


I did some more Googling on the maqui berry and found to my dismay that it’s dioecious, i.e. male and female flowers are on different plants and presumably, I need one of each sex to get any fruit. I was angry at Bunnings for selling a fruiting plant without proper labelling, but probably they’d say it’s not their fault as they are only retailers, although I think they should be aware and able to offer proper advice on the products they sell. We didn’t always have Google, after all.

Three of the new plants are in the Pick n’ Eat range and their website is listed on the label so I took a look. They certainly have a large range of plants available.

I decided to email through the ‘contact us’ button and ask about the maqui berry. No use asking Bunnings. I doubt whether anyone there would know what dioecious means.

I filled in all the details….name, email, phone number and wrote a message. Hit the send  button and got, ‘this email could not be sent.’

Bother! (I actually said something a little stronger).

So I phoned up the grower and asked.

That’s right, said she on the other end of the line, you need one of each sex to get fruit.

So, says me, I won’t get fruit with just one plant and I don’t know which sex I’ve got?

Oh yes, says she, as long as there’s another one in your neighbourhood.

I refrained from pointing out that the majority of my neighbours aren’t into growing their own food, and the ones that are, stick to easy things like lettuce. I doubt that few would be into rare and/or unusual fruiting plants. And I’m seeing very few bees now for pollination. And I still don’t know what sex I’ve got.

Oh, that’s OK she said, they will work it out.

I thought for a second and asked, what do you mean THEY will work it out?

The plants can change from male to female if they need to, she said.

There was a longer (sceptical) pause from my end.

I won’t keep going. I mentioned that although I knew certain species of fish can change sex mid-stream as it were, I didn’t think plants could. Do they talk to one another and decide who’s going to be which sex? Do they waft sex pheromones into the air? What if they both want to be girls?

I gave it up but I did mention, in the nicest possible way, that I thought the fact that the plants are dioecious should be on the label.

Oh, we’ve changed the labels, she said (well, she would, wouldn’t she?) Sigh!

I’m not going to pay another $12 to get a second plant and hope that they can work out the sex issues between themselves. I found the relevant Bunnings docket in the wpb. I’m going to return the plant and exchange it for something more reliable in its sexual orientation. One of those old-fashioned, non-fancy things that has male and female flowers on the same plant.

And next time I come across a plant I don’t know, I’ll leave it there and come home and Google first.

Birds & water

October 29, 2017

A quiet Sunday afternoon on duty at the bird hide at Edithvale-Seaford wetlands.

The entrance :

Upstairs viewing area :

All that lovely water :

And birds :

This little fella (a baby Chestnut Teal) strayed from Mum & Dad. A Purple Swamphen bore down on him. I was told it would attack and kill him. We held our breath. Mum intervened and all was well :

(My little camera does close-ups but not all that close)

Sugar Glider release

October 22, 2017

Back in March I wrote this post about finding a little native Sugar Glider caught in the barbed wire on the top of one of the fences. I took him to our local wildlife carer and as the weeks went by and I heard nothing, I assumed the little glider hadn’t made it. I didn’t ring; I didn’t really want to know the worst.

Some weeks ago the carer contacted me to say the glider (it had tuned out to be a little female) was doing well and cavorting around the curtains in her living room. She said she’d be releasing her back into my property sometime soon.

I was rapt. Then I didn’t hear anything for a few weeks more, but she finally rang during the week and the release was fixed up for yesterday afternoon. Not only that, but she asked if she could release another two gliders as well. Who could say no?

So, promptly at 5.30, the carer turned up with a young lass who was going to be doing the tree climbing. The gliders were housed in nest boxes which were going to be attached to trees. Another girl turned up and then another carer who had been looking after the three gliders temporarily. My local carer went home; it was ‘feeding time’, she said (she can be looking after 30 or more small marsupials at once!).

For the next 2 hours, I hovered in the background, taking photos and watching these amazing people—all volunteers—at work.

Some time was spent looking for a suitable tree (not so much for the gliders, but suitable for attaching the box and safe to climb). The first box is in that white plastic bag :

Getting the ladder in place :

Getting into harness (the climber ropes herself to the tree trunk) :

Up the ladder :

Not my idea of fun. She’s right at the top of a 3 metre extension ladder. That’s 6 metres up the trunk  :

The box entrance is sealed and opened once it’s up the tree (I was told one of the males is a feisty little fellow who would escape if he could). I asked if I could see them in the box and take a photo before they went up. No problems, just raise the lid. My little female (who had been rescued here and was returning home), had acquired a boyfriend in the form of one of the other males—they were together in the first box to go up.  Not the best photo, I’m afraid and they were both sound asleep on a bed of wood shavings :

The box is hoisted up :

Much of the work involves getting the box fixed to the trunk. There are chains top and bottom, enclosed in hose to protect the tree from the chain :

And finally, it’s in place and the entrance hole is opened :

The process was repeated in another location for the second box, containing the single male. He was the feisty one and didn’t get on with the other male, it seems. Not surprisingly, as the female had not chosen him for her friend.

I didn’t take any photos of the second box going up and even though dusk was falling as the girls finished, I didn’t stay outside to watch the gliders exit and discover their new home. The whole process took 2 hours and it was already well past my dinner time and getting cold. I’ll go out for the next couple of evenings at dusk with the spotlight and see if there’s any activity. It’s possible they will eventually abandon the boxes and find one of the many natural tree hollows around the property more to their liking.

I remain full of admiration for these young volunteers who selflessly give up their time to look after our precious native animals and return them to the wild.


Asparagus from seed

October 4, 2017

Somewhere on this blog I wrote about growing asparagus from seed. I can’t find that post, so maybe it’s time to do it again.

Asparagus plants come in two sexes and the female plants eventually produce red berries containing black seeds :

I collected a handful of berries back in April and sowed them  (as is, i.e. not taking out the seeds) in a 150 cm pot of ordinary potting mix. I covered them with a layer of potting mix and left the pot out in the open all winter. I didn’t record the date when the first germination occurred, but this is what they look like at the moment :

Time to do some potting on :

I potted up 32 tubes. Fiddly job. I was sick of asparagus by the time I’d finished. In the end I was potting them up in groups of 3 and 4. I’ll enjoy them more when they’re in the ground and bearing. There were still plenty of tiddlers left growing—just a bit over a centimetre tall. I gathered them all together into one pot. If they grow a bit bigger, I might pot them on as well.

Those in the tubes will sit there for a year or so before planting out. Then, they’ll take a year or three to start producing spears of useable size and then I’ll be picking these (tonight’s dinner—from previous plantings) :

It’ll be worth the wait.

Out of hibernation

September 23, 2017

With all the fruit trees blooming, it looks like it might be spring and I can come out of hibernation at last :

So….I wandered around the garden to take a few pics.

I left the comfort of the wood fire in June to go to the local nursery to buy a few more fruit trees. This time I bought dwarf varieties—a peach, a pear and a nectarine, to go with the other dwarf nectarine I bought a couple of years ago. The new nectarine is flowering at the moment :

Bear in mind that this plant is only about 40 cm high. These dwarf varieties are very compact little plants with short internodes giving them a truly stunted look. My first dwarf nectarine has borne well in the last 2 years and it’s still only half a metre in height. I saw a fully grown one of the same variety a couple of years ago in a garden and it was only a metre high and wide—easy to get a net over. I’m thinking dwarf fruit trees are the way to go.

There’s nothing silver beet likes better than nitrogen. These 2 plants are growing in an old bath and were watered with the liquid from the bottom of the composting toilet :

The native Bendigo Wax is fully out in flower, but there are NO bees. Years ago this plant would be covered in them. It’s very worrying :

This Red-veined Sorrel has come up by itself. Seems it’s not popular with the rabbits :

Bunnings have improved their edible plant range and have lots of blueberries in flower for sale at the moment. I bought another one to add to the 3 I bought a few weeks ago. Two of those have been planted in wire circles and the third in a tub :

Not sure where I’ll put this latest one. They’re very healthy-looking little plants :

The 4 blueberries I grew from seed a few years ago were planted in 20 litre plastic pails, which I made into wicking tubs. They’re flowering for the first time this year :

This was them as seedlings in March 2016:

So far that makes 9 blueberries in all in the garden. I’ve just sowed seed from last year’s plants. I put the berries in the freezer for a few months to simulate cold chill. With any luck they will germinate like the first lot I tried.

This bath is going to be a dedicated potato bed. At the moment, it’s a dedicated wheat bed. The chooks don’t eat the wheat in their poultry grain mix and everywhere I put chook poo compost, I get wheat germinating. I’m leaving most of it to collect the seed. The (stupid) chooks will only eat wheat if it’s sprouted first, so growing a bit means less I have to buy. The vet says it’s better for them when it’s sprouted, so maybe they’re not so stupid :

Asparagus are starting to appear :

I might actually get some decent garlic this year. The white rods are to stop the rabbits jumping into the ring :

Direct-sown Red Russian Kale in a wicking box. When I have plenty of seed, direct-sowing is the way to go. It saves all that tedious potting-up of tiny seedlings and then planting later :

It’s still far too cold for planting seeds outside so I started tomatoes on the kitchen table. They spend the day in the sun on the floor beside the sliding door :

I’ll have to start thinking about cucumber, pumpkin and zucchini seeds soon, too. We’re overdue for some warm days. We didn’t get a lot of winter rain, but it was just a persistent few mm a day. Enough to make the ground soggy and squishy wherever I walk. Surely it has to get warmer soon.

Postscript: It really must be Spring. A Cabbage White butterfly just flew past the window, heading for the kale.

Broccoli rice

September 8, 2017

Cauliflower rice was all the go a while ago. I tried it, thought it was a good way to eat a vegetable I didn’t really like all that much and when it was on special I bought extra, blitzed it in the Thermomix (a food processor does just as well) and froze it in portions to add to soups, casseroles and stir-frys.

I tried broccoli after that and it went just as well. At the moment, it seems to be plentiful and this morning it was only $2.50 per kg in the supermarket. I bought 3 large heads and gave it the same treatment as the cauliflower:

All ready, in individual portions, for the freezer:

In the past, when broccoli was cheap, I bought extra, broke it into bite-sized pieces and blanched it before freezing. It’s never been really great like that—the pieces are soggy when they defrost and always seem to have that yucky freezer taste. So this is a great way to incorporate it into meals. I don’t blanch it; don’t even defrost it; just throw it straight from the freezer into whatever I’m cooking.

I did the stems too, a more chunky chop, and they’re going into a slow-cooker casserole tomorrow.

Just love those ‘oh, sh*t’ moments……

September 7, 2017

…….when you set off down the main path early in the morning, with a barrow load of stuff to take down the back, and……

Luckily I have my trusty, battery-operated chainsaw (recharged by the solar panels) and within half an hour I was up and running with a clear pathway…..

… a pile of kindling…..

……..and some useful firewood……

Fortunately, it missed my little espaliered Granny Smith apple and a recently-planted bamboo. The tree the branch came from is a big old eucalypt which hasn’t been a happy tree for a long time. It’s been regularly dropping big branches, but I’m happier for it to end its life in stages, rather than come down in one fell swoop and leave me with a huge trunk I have to get someone else to deal with. With any luck, it will lose all its branches and leave the bare trunk still standing (although that will fall eventually, but I might be gone by then!). One broken branch is still hooked up on other branches. I’m always wary when working under it—the rule is, if you hear a crack up above….run!