Going Organic

You may be surprised to hear that the agency responsible for testing the presence of these residual toxins – the United States Department of Agriculture – doesn’t actually suggest you stop eating this food, as it asserts that single doses of these chemicals are not dangerous.  Hmm…what about the combination of toxins from my non-organic three fruit and five veg, build up of mercury in my canned tuna, diesel particles in the surrounding air and the off-gassing from my Chinese-made Swedish furniture?  This so called chemical cocktail effect is something I suppose we all have to be mindful of and limits the usefulness of ‘reductionist’ or blinkered science.

So it’s simple right – only eat organic as it’s automatically better for you?  Well…it just isn’t that clear cut.  For every study saying organic food is better for you, there seems to be another that suggests it’s of no advantage.  The same can be said of blind taste testing.  In a recent episode of the long running River Cottage series, our host Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall sets up a chook challenge – his home grown organic birds vs store a bought.  The results where neck and neck…well a poor choice of words I’ll grant you, but I was certainly surprised to see people preferring the blander white meat.  Hugh’s look of shock said it all “maybe we’ve actually forgotten what chicken was supposed to taste like?”  It’s all a bit depressing.

So what do we KNOW about organic food and farming that does make it an attractive option?  Well we know that organic farmers have to set aside a certain amount (at least 5%) of their property for ‘nature’ or biodiversity conservation.  We know that the soil organic matter in organic systems is much higher and therefore more carbon and indeed water can be stored in the soil.  We know plants need lots of biology/life in the soil to access the nutrients.  We know organic food is produced with less/or no fossil fuel based chemicals and that it employs more people per-hectare than non-organic agriculture (a large reason why organic costs more).   We also know that something dramatic is going on with chronic health issues in Western and increasingly Eastern diets.  I’m not saying there’s a direct causal link between industrial farming and degenerative disease rates (many do) but when we consider more people under 30 are being diagnosed with cancer every decade since the ‘green revolution’ perhaps something’s going on?

But perhaps the most compelling case for organics is that mainstream agriculture is slowly taking up organic strategies and methods.  No-till farming, rotational grazing, cell grazing, increased use of perennial pasture and using tree shelter belts are all topics now seen on Landline that used to only appear in Permaculture magazine!    The Camperdown Compost Company are working with non-organic dairies in the western district to increase soil biology and to radically decrease the amount of artificial fertiliser required.  Last week I attended a presentation by Precision Agriculture where the accuracy of GPS guided farm vehicles means pesticides can be targeted only at the weeds, with less going onto the produce you and I eat.

 

What’s the difference between organic and biodynamic?

Here’s a passage from marketfresh.com.au that describes this well I reckon:

While organic farming is known for its avoidance of synthetic chemicals, biodynamic farming is even more stringent. Biodynamic farming aims to achieve “self sufficiency” by generating fertilisers for crops and food for animals through natural processes that regenerate the farm system.  Biodynamics grew out of a series of lectures by Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1924. “Biodynamic agricultural principles emphasise living soil, the farm as a wholistic organism, and note both the visible and invisible forces that create a healthy eco-system”.

Other references relating to the development and principles of the biodynamic movement may be obtained at www.demeter.org.au

Biodynamic farmers use ‘preparations’ such as ‘500’ as well as less conventional strategies such as burying cow horns filled with manure.  Sounds weird?  Who cares – just check out the soil a biodynamic farm compared to the chemical equivalent and you’ll be amazed.

I suppose the thing that separates both organic and biodynamic farmers from the rest is that they’re not just operating for a profit.  Often they’ve had to withstand lower yields and much higher operating costs than their chemical-using counterparts whilst getting established, and they’re generally motiviated by underlying belief that they’re producing healthier food from healthier farms.

 

 

Mr Potato Head

 

Given that potatoes have such an ubiquitous presence in cuisines all over the world it’s humbling to think they only made there way to England a few hundred years ago.  Like so many of our edibles, the wild version of our beloved spud originates in Peru and Bolivia.  Here it could be grown right up to the snow line, way beyond the realm of wheat and other staples.  Ireland enthusiastically planted potatoes in the 1700s, as a few acres could feed a family and their livestock.  This self sufficiency strategy worked a treat until in 1845 a fungal disease – potato blight – wiped the crops out and reduced the Irish population by 1.6 million people over the following decade.  A sobering warning that biodiversity relates to human cultivated plants – not just in nature…

The potato’s botanical name Solanum Tuberosum informs us that they’re part of the tomato, capsicum and eggplant family – something to keep in mind when rotating crops to avoid diseases building up in soil.  Of course if this surprises you, get ready to be completely blown away.  While hunting for some images for this article, I discovered a nursery in the U.S. that combines the potato and the tomato!  Imagine tomatoes in summer and harvesting your spuds in autumn!  I haven’t seen one of these in the flesh and will probably experiment a little later in the year at grafting them together Frankenstein like bwahahahaha.  In the mean time I’m left to ponder…is it a Pomato or a Topato?

Enough talk, lets get some dirt under our nails and learn how best to grow some of your very own spuds.  Potatoes are frost sensitive so if you sow them this weekend, the risk of frost will be drastically reduced by the time they start to produce foliage.  I’m describing the traditional hilling method as I’ve found it to give me the best yields year after year.   Potatoes like soil on the acidic side so ideally your pH should be around 6.0.  Being tubers, all of the potatoes grow underground so start by digging nice deep and wide trenches.

This helps to explain the old adage that growing potatoes as  a ‘pioneer’ crop helps to break up the soil for future cultivation.  As 80% of the potatoes grow above the original planting depth, I’m afraid it’s YOU that break the soil up, but a neat saying just the same. Here you can see I’ve already established one crop (on the left) which are approx 6 weeks old.  I’m planting new spuds so I have a continous supply all year.

Place your whole spuds (don’t cut them up – too much surface area for disease) in the bottom of the trench about 40cm apart and make your rows about 50cm apart.

Backfill over your potatoes with about 15cm of the soil previously removed.  And that’s about it!   Your spuds will start to shoot in a week or two depending on temperature and rainfall.  This time of year watering isn’t necessary however if you’re growing in the drier months give a good weekly soaking.  Continue to hill up the soil around the base of the plant which will encourage it to keep growing taller and providing more room below the surface for potatoes to grow.  This hilling will also stabilise your plants.

Your potatoes will be ready to harvest when the plant has matured and started to die off.  Depending on the time of year they may even flower.  Another cheeky technique is called ‘bandicooting’ where you sneakily dig down and take the odd spud from time to time.  In fact that was the inspiration for writing today’s article about potatoes.  I didn’t have enough spuds in the pantry for the below ‘pierogi’ recipe so I had to bandicoot a few even though the plant isn’t fully mature.  You’ll also find growing spuds in the no-dig method makes bandicooting even easier as you’re moving straw and compost, not soil.

How to make Pierogi.

Pierogi  can be loosely described as dumplings or ravioli.  While the shape is consistent the fillings vary and combinations include:  mushroom, pork and cabbage, cottage cheese and potato and even seasonal fruit.

The below recipe is ‘Pierogi Ruski’ or Russian Pierogi where the hero ingredient is of course, potatoes.  I’ve made these in Australia in Polish households and in Poland with only minor differences notable.  They are great at this time of the year when a rainy afternoon makes them an ideal comfort food to enjoy making and eating with friends.

Ingredients

Filling

1.2kg peeled potatoes, boiled and mashed or put through a ricer (desiree or dutch cream)

500g Polish mountain cottage cheese (available at european supermarkets e.g Foodworks or IGA in Bell Park, Geelong) Put this through the ricer too or grate.

1 medium onion finely diced

50g butter (for cooking onions)

Season well with salt and pepper

Dough

600g plain organic flour

1 egg

Warm water (traditionally I think this was held over from the boiled potato water)

 

I’ve never measured the amount of water but I’d guess at about 300ml and you add it slowly.  Although the ingredients are almost identical to pasta, the dough should be a bit softer.

With the wonders of the internet I figured it best to leave the method to an actual Pole!  Sure it’s in Polish, but you’re clever folks.  Enjoy!  Or as they say in Poland “Smacznego!”

Raising your garden

 

So during the last decade-plus of well below average rainfall, we’ve stopped using a lot of the techniques that assist drainage.  The most effective one is what we’re going to explore today, the raised garden bed.

It’s not just the height of the raised bed that helps with drainage it’s your ability to modify the growing medium (soil) to ensure the right balance of drainage and nutrient holding.  This is of course the holy grail of gardeners all over the world and one that deserves a separate post all of its own.  Having said that, even without the benefits of improved drainage and soil, not breaking your back is a good enough reason alone to look at raised beds!

Materials for raised beds

Over the years, raised beds have become far more sophisticated.  Perhaps they started with off-cuts of fascia or other plank like timber, held in place by tent pegs, rocks or those very handy star-pickets.  Many of Australia’s European migrants built very sturdy brick edged gardens in the 50’s and filled them with as much cow, sheep and chook manure as they could get their hands on.  Brick and stone are of course very durable and can help maintain even soil temperatures.  The main downside is they are expensive and labour and skill intensive.  Additionally you’d better be sure you don’t want to move the bed in the future and pretty much forget it if you’re renting.

The Aussie equivalent of the Mediterranean masonry edging is perhaps the retired galvanised water tank which was too rusty to hold water but fine to angle-grind down to a round garden bed edging.

This ‘recycling an old tank’ idea has now evolved to see tank manufacturers designing raised garden beds with new materials.  Of course the edges need to be folded down or covered with protective stripping to make them safe.  The corrugated looks look good in old and new houses alike, and seems synonymous with Australian homes.

We then move onto timber.  Now I have to confess right from the start that I’m not a big fan of chemically treated timbers.  Everything I know about organic gardening involves increasing your soil biology and diversity to open up the best possible nutrition to your plants.  It makes sense if the soil biology is prevented from rotting the wood over time then your soil must be compromised.  Recently there’s been the introduction of ‘Eco’ type treatments on plantation pine which although seem to be an improvement on the old ‘treated pine’ (which was Copper Chrome Arsenic – CCA ) they still can’t be composted or burnt at the end of their life…and that’s the real test as to whether or not a material can be harmlessly reintroduced back into your garden.  Proceed with caution and read more here if you’re interested.

So what are some other timber options?   Well you can look at untreated plantation pine, such as these boxes which were used for the Grow It! project last year.

They’re cost effective and a great height to work with.  Red gum and rough sawn native hardwood are both excellent, long lasting timbers although knowing how sustainably they were harvested can be challenging.  Hardwood is also a little tricky to work with – heavy and particularly hard on drill bits and saw blades.  Which leads me onto what I think is the champion of raised bed timber – cypress macrocarpa.  Now this isn’t the same cypress you’re starting to see available at hardware stores.  Macrocarpa is an introduced species – a true cypress from North America.  It was used in Australia on farms as wind breaks, but as the trees reach over-maturity they’re being pulled down and often piled up and burned.  A couple of local millers have seen this opportunity and have started producing small quantities of this marvellous stuff.  I love the stuff.

There’s also vintage (or recycled, reclaimed) beds.  I’m a big fan of old apple/potato/onion crates which are about 1.2m square and 0.6m high.  They originate from the fruit and vegetable packing industry and despite being made from untreated pine, have quite a long life.  Here are some slightly lower ones I managed to get hold of from a retired spud farmer.

 

Recently OH&S regulations have seen the move away from timber bins to plastic ones.  Apparently the risk of splinters for supermarket contract staff is too high. Hope my cabbages survive…

 

Anyhow, be sure to grab hold of these vintage timber bins before they all disappear.  I know I’m having to look further to source them…

All hail King Kale!

Well you can grow it in your very own garden at home – it’s called Kale and one cupful can do all the above plus more!

 

Maybe it was really kale in that tin?

Where’s it from?

Kale is a Mediterranean member of the brassica or cabbage family which dates back a couple of thousand years.  In fact it was a staple vegetable of the time as it proved frost hardy and could survive

much harsher winters than it’s origins would suggest.  In the Netherlands it’s known as ‘farmers’ cabbage’ with the main variety we see called Cavolo nero or ‘black cabbage’.  The dark blue and green leaves

are the first hint to the health inducing carotenoids contained within.  My fiance knew about kale before I did, as she used to be a florist and some varieties are stunningly ornamental.

 

How do you grow it?   

Like other cabbages, Kale is a hero winter vegetable that can be sown in Autumn and harvested a few months later.  Alternatively sowing established seedlings around now (early July) will ensure your enjoying

Kale well into spring.  I don’t bother growing it during the hot summer months as the white butterflies are too numerous to compete with, plus the leaves are sweeter when grown in the cooler seasons.  As with

cabbages, prepare the soil in advance with lots of compost and/or rotted manure.  They are heavy nitrogen feeders so top dressing with pigeon manure and liquid feeding during their growth will ensure success.

Pick the older outer leaves first (as you would with silverbeet) to keep the plant producing again and again.

 

Eating Kale

Kale is a little tougher than it’s cabbage cousins but don’ let this put you off.  I first learned of Kale from Stephanie Alexander as she described it as being the original addition to minestrone soup.  So it can be

cooked long and slow and still hold its shape and texture which is a bonus in many dishes.  It can be boiled (apparently if you drink the liquid afterwards you will, in fact live forever) or sautéed with butter or

olive oil and of course garlic.  Young leaves are great raw and will ensure you get all of the vitamin C as described above.  I find it to be a great addition to simple oil based pasta dishes that need something to cut through other rich flavours, where spinach simply doesn’t make the grade.  Same goes for risotto.  Below is  a recipe for Kale Chips and while I can’t guarantee they’ll take the place of your beloved salt and vinegar varieties,

they do feel a lot more grown up and taste awesome.

 

Ingredients

A good salad spinner full of tender young Kale leaves (use the rest for other dishes as they’ll be chewy rather than chippy!)

Olive oil, ghee, coconut oil or whatever you use for healthy frying

Sea salt or Murray River flaked salt

Method

Pre-heat your oven to 180 degrees using a fan setting if available

Soak the picked leaves in water to remove any bugs (especially in home grown or organically purchased)

Cut the leaves of the kale away from the stems and then chop into bite sized pieces

Spin in a salad spinner really well a couple of times (until it’s well and truly dizzy!)

 

Place in a clean dry bowl and drizzle with olive or your favourite oil

 

Mix thoroughly and place onto a baking tray (don’t sprinkle with salt just yet as it will bring out moisture and make the chips soggy)

Place in the pre-heated oven for 15-20 minutes checking they are crispy but not brown or still floppy

 

Sprinkle with salt and or sesame seeds and enjoy!

 

Breathe Easy!

Why this stuff matters

Astronauts in both U.S. and USSR space programs had been experiencing symptoms such as itchy eyes and skin, chest pain, breathing problems and loads of other allergy-like symptoms.  At the same time due to the energy crisis of the 1970s buildings had become far better insulated whilst also including far more synthetic chemicals in their construction.  Think of benzene in plastics and rubbers, formaldehyde in particle board just to name a couple of nasties which lead to disease, asthma and even cancer.

Importantly, energy efficiency is a hot topic these days and if anything we’ve increased the amount of chemicals in our homes as we choose materials made of synthetic over natural again and again.  The CSIRO currently estimates that this ‘sick building syndrome’ costs us around $12 billion annually!

The original investigator of the NASA report – B.C. Wolverton Ph.D. has gone on to publish and entire book on the subject, which I imagine is a little more readable than the original report and highly recommended if you want to know more.

BC Wolverton

So without further a due here are my top five plants for detoxing your home and supplying fresh oxygen!

Areca Palm (chrysalidocarpus lutescens)

A natural humidifier

areca palm

Golden Pothos or  Native Monstera (epipremnum arum)

Removes formaldehyde, benzene and xylene

golden pothos

 

Boston Fern (nephrolpis exaltata bostoniensis)

Most efficient at removing benzene and formaldehyde

BostonFern

Peace Lily (spathiphyllum)

Excellent at removing benzene

peace lily

Mother in Law’s tongue (sansevieria trifasciata)

Produces oxygen specifically at night time – great for bedrooms and small talk with the inlaws…

MotherinLawTongue

Tips for getting the most out of your indoor plants

  • Don’t overwater – you want to avoid encouraging mould forming in the extra humidity of pooling water etc.
  • Use a quality potting mix and slow release fertiliser
  • Wipe the leaves regularly to remove dust and indoor pollutants
  • Take the plant outside for half a day, once a month
  • Ventilate your house regularly for optimal indoor health for you and your plants
  • Check if plant is toxic if eaten by curious pets before purchasing

So while some things from the 1970s should be left behind (think matching his and hers jumpsuits) indoor plants are a great idea that should be embraced!

matching jumpsuits

Unleash Your Passion! (fruit)

Firstly I hear you ask, why passionfruit?  Well nothing to do here but quote from my favourite fruit tree book The complete book of fruit growing in Australia by Louis Glowinski, a Melbourne based urban gardener:

“…the missionaries who accompanied the conquistadors to South America saw this flower a sign to the native peoples of the truth of Christ.  The ten petals and sepals represent the apostles present at the crucifixion, the halo of filaments represens the Crown of Thorns, five anthers the five wounds, the three stigmas the nails that pierced the hands and feet, the coiled tendrils the whips”  

Blimey!  See how imaginative tourists were before Lonely Planet told us what to expect!?

passionfruit flower

So if you’re still with me you’ll now realise the passionfruit comes from South America – like so many of our edible wonders in Australia.  The main change to the original vines in the sub tropics is that in around 1945 Moorrabin Nurseryman Clarence Kelly started using a European Blue Passionfruit root stock to graft onto.  Clarence then went on to trademark ‘Nellie Kelly’, the hardy black passionfruit most familiar to us all.  Here’s a stack of them in a nursery igloo.

nellie-kelly

So if you’re purchasing any grafted passionfruit, remember the trunk below the graft is root stock and will generally shoot finer leaves that won’t produce much in the way of fruit, instead taking energy from the rest of the plant.  So if you see non glossy, finer growth on your vine, track it back to the source and make sure it’s not from below the graft of a sucker in the ground.  As per last week’s pruning post…cut them off like a bad act at Eurovision!

passionfruitband

Getting the most out of your passionfruit

Lots of water.  Yes now we’ve had a few seasons of excellent rainfall, it makes sense to plant these relatively thirsty vines.  Don’t get me wrong, they’ll survive dry weather, but your fruit will be lacking in pulp.

Feed them well.  I’ve been told to bury a rabbit at the bottom of the hole before planting, or an ox liver.  If you don’t have these handy, try an organic fertiliser such as blood and bone or dynamic lifter.  Remember we’re growing flowers not just leaves so don’t overdo the nitrogen component of the fertiliser (think tomato plant suitable fertiliser as a guide)

–  Pruning.  Spring is the time to take around a third of the growth off the vine once established.  Unlike fruit trees, the new season’s growth is the only way to get fruit so you want to encourage as much as this as possible.

Hand pollination.  Insects are required to pollinate passionfruit flowers, however if their not visible take matters into your own hand. Check out the clip below where a small paint brush is used.

 

Other Varieties

More recently gold and red varieties have become available that are suitable to our southern temperate climate – check out your local nursery and only buy plants that can handle a light frost.

panama red

Pruning Time

A common pattern you’ll see with all the productive plants humans have been poking around with for the last few thousand years is that they need us!  We’ve evolved these UBER productive plants by helping them perform to their peak.  So we prune for the following reasons:

– It keeps the tree size manageable and allows you to access the fruit.

– By clearing out the over crowded internal branches, you allow more light and airflow.  This means less disease and allows fruit access to more sunshine meaning it will ripen more quickly.

– When you reduce the amount of vegetation, you encourage you tree to produce larger and sweeter tasting fruit – perfect for home use.

Knowing what to chop

Not sure which branch to unleash your new loppers onto?  Try the five D’s:

Dead – no sign of life?  Get rid of it

Diseased – look a bit different to other branches, seeping gum, missing bark? Chop it!

Damaged – strong winds or lots of heavy fruit can break branches – remove these once you’ve harvested any fruit

Daggy – remove these branches if they look out of place and cross other branches, are too low to the ground etc.

Dark – by this I mean remove branches if they’re hidden in the middle of the tree and in summer are unlikely to see the light of day

Best times to prune

Speaking pretty generally here, but prune in Winter when you’re after more growth i.e. it’s a young tree and not yet the size you want.  Prune apples and pears early in winter and leave stone fruit until late winter.  Prune old trees before young ones.  Summer-prune trees that have reached the size you want.   Simply remove new vegetative growth.

Don’t cut off next year’s fruit!

A very important point to note is that you don’t chop off parts of your tree that are going to produce fruit!  Very few trees produce fruit on the CURRENT year’s growth.  So that means you need to leave some older laterals or branches on the tree.  You can tell the age of the wood by the colour and how close it is to the trunk.  Look for fat little flower buds on spurs (kind of little twigs of main branches) as these are signs where flowers will eventually become your fruit.  See the example below from an apple:

Tools of the trade

If you’re going to be doing your own pruning for at least a few seasons, then it’s worth investing in quality gear.  You pretty much get what you pay for, PLUS quality tools make pruning a lot simpler.  And unlike most things these days, quality garden tools will last and become something you can pass on to someone else one day.

Secateurs.  These are usually of the bypass type where the two blades pass each other.  Most models out there are a copy of the Swiss Made Felco brand.  I’m yet to hear a bad word about Felco’s products and they back everything up with spare parts etc.  Also it’s worth checking out Barnel from the USA.  Yes, there are still some old school quality manufacturers around so support them I say!

If you have trouble with arthritis or struggle to use normal secateurs, then you can get models to suit.  I purchased a set of these for my Dad and he’s been very pleased with them.  Fiskars are a Finnish company who like Felco make stuff to last.

Long handled pruners also often use a bypass cutting method or an anvil type – again choose a quality brand and you’ll never need another pair.  These will be good for branches up to 40mm across.  Larger branches can be taken care of with a pruning saw.  These are designed to get into small spaces and are available in hand-held and pole models for all heights.

Of course if you’re this guy – well just use your hand…

Something eating your garden?

What a joy it is to place my (whoops I mean their) hand in mother earth’s soil and plant a luscious seedling just like nature intended.   A few days later, keen to see how high the newly planted leafy babies have grown our excited gardener is met with the backyard equivalent of a napalm attack.   Quite simply, nature isn’t playing fair.

Okay, so I’ve written about Permaculture before and working with nature rather than against, but by growing human quality food you’re making some VERY attractive offerings to the local bird, bug and slug populations.

So unless you’re prepared to garden simply for the exercise and without the expectation of having it produce food for you then here are my top 5 ways to protect your harvest:

1. Let’s get physical

Birds and white butterflies can’t eat when they can’t get to.   In Geelong’s productive gardening mecca – Bell Park – I once saw elderly locals using old lace curtains covering cabbages to protect them from the green caterpillar producing white butterflies.  Copper tape is available to deter snails but I confess I haven’t actually tried it…here’s a clip showing 1) It works and 2) I need to get a life!

 

2.  The labour of little people

If you’ve got kids or your neighbours do, try offering $5 for every 50-100 snails and/or green caterpillars found.  The same goes for butterflies although you’ll need a net and the price per butterfly will have to go up considerably!

3.  Carlton United Bug catchers.  Simply bury a plastic dish (jar lids are not quite deep enough I reckon) or bottom of a soft drink or milk carton.  Fill with beer and the local snail population will be attracted to the yeasty goodness and promptly fall in and drown!

4. Pellets.  Pellets have come a long way, with iron based ingredients taking the place of more nasty chemicals that harm pets and wildlife.

5. Habitat destruction.  Not much you can do about birds and butterflies, but by keeping bags of potting mix and lose timber in a dry area they’ll be less reasons for snails and slugs to hang in your patch.  I mean how would they like it if we moved in with them?

The chemical brothers…understanding acidity and alkalinity (pH)

http://youtu.be/hPym09LQfnc

Anyhow if you’re still with me, I’m hoping you’ll soon have a better understanding of pH in your soil and maybe even think  about regularly testing your own soil one day.

Back in 1909 in Denmark at the Carlsberg Laboratory the focus (believe it or not) wasn’t on beer.  A chemist called Peder Sorensen had discovered the importance of ‘potential hydrogen’ and thus pH was born.  I’m assuming he kept his findings in his awkwardly named Peder file.

I like to think Peder relaxed after his great discovery and had a quiet beer.

Mr Sorensen produced a logarithmic scale which starts at 0.0 and goes to 14.0.  Zero is the most acidic, while 14.0 is the most alkaline.  All importantly 7.0 is neutral and pretty much where we aim for with soil for our veggie patch.  Unlike a temperature or volume scale like most of us are used to, each step up or down on this scale is actually a ten fold increase.  To illustrate the power of this let’s say your soil pH is 6.0.  It means it’s 10 times more acidic than a pH of 7.0 but 100 times more acidic than a pH of 8.0!  So the take home message is your pH chart doesn’t work like the volume on an amplifier – small numerical changes are actually BIG!

In your soil, the pH has a huge influence on the availability of nutrients to your precious vegetables.  It seems crazy, but can keep pouring on phosphorus, but if you’re soil is too acidic, you’re plants can’t access it.  You can see by looking at the below chart that a sweet spot is between 6.5 and 7.5.

Testing your soil’s pH.

There are a couple of kits available in nurseries and hardware suppliers that cost less than $30 and will last for years.  In the kit you’ll find a colour card, a small bottle of liquid and some powder.  Take a sample of your soil and put it on a small plate.  Add the liquid to make a paste, then dust over with the powder.  Almost immediately you’ll see the soil turn a colour that you can match on the colour wheel to discover your soil’s pH.  As I’m doing a lot of pH testing for clients, my own garden and testing the Backyard Harvest bio-compost product, I’ve invested in a professional lab model which can be calibrated for ongoing accuracy.  This was several hundred dollars, so it may pay to see if cheaper hand held models are available.

How to change your soil’s pH.

Generally soils in productive gardens will need to be made more alkaline, however there is an exception in the case of blueberries and if you’re growing ornamentals then hydrangeas and azaleas also prefer acidic soil.

To raise soil pH (make more alkaline) we need to add calcium in the form of dolomite (calcium magnesium carbonate).

To lower soil pH (make more acidic) use elemental sulphur.  This stuff forms with the water in the soil and produces sulphuric acid which lowers the pH.

Having said that don’t forget to add compost, compost, compost!  Good quality compost has a neutral pH of around 7.0  Adding compost helps to bring either acidic or alkaline soil back to more veggie-friendly conditions by helping to make nutrients available to plant roots.

Different pH for different veggies?

As a broad principle, green leaf based veggies (spinach, lettuce, cabbage, kale etc.) prefer a pH in the more alkaline range, say 7.0 to 7.5.  Vegetables where the focus is on eating the fruit (tomatoes, capsicum, cucumbers, pumpkin) prefer a more slightly acidic soil around 6.0 to 6.8.  This helps to explain why tomatoes and pumpkins happily pop up in compost heaps where conditions are typically more acidic. Check out the below chart and promise yourself you’ll explore you soil’s pH this weekend!

 

What is Permaculture?

About 15 years ago I was participating in after-hours management studies at Deakin Uni.  During a coffee break I found myself talking about veggie gardening as a hobby with one of the other students.  He mentioned that I may be interested in ‘Permaculture’.  While the word was vaguely familiar I had no idea what it meant and was actually a bit put off by the word ‘cult’ in it!

So what’s it all about?  Permaculture was originally the marrying of two words: permanent and agriculture.  The concept evolved out of an intense working relationship between a young Perth student called David Holmgren and his teacher and mentor Bill Mollison, from Tasmania.  They were brought together during a radical environmental design course – radical because it was nearly 40 years ago – in Tasmania.  At the time there was plenty going on to suggest things couldn’t continue at the exponentially frantic pace; an international oil crisis and the hugely controversial Club of Rome report called Limits to Growth.

This course provided fertile ground for the then twenty-something Holmgren who penned the Permaculture concept, which along with Bill’s encouragement and experience became Permaculture One.  Agricultural in the true sense of the word, the first book provided ideas and blueprints that would ensure a culture could sustain itself without fossil fuels and chemical inputs.

Essentially, the pair came up with an idea that we would now call ‘design for sustainability’ – almost 20 years before that term took on its current meaning.

After the first book, David moved to Hepburn Springs (where he still resides) and set about creating a real-life example of Permaculture in action while continuing the intellectual development of Permaculture.  Bill with his big personality and unmatched life experience took Permaculture to the world, publishing several more books and becoming the ‘face of Permaculture’ until recent years.

Far better known overseas than in Australia, Permaculture ideas and concepts continue to filter into the mainstream; think worm farming, no-dig gardens, water tanks, chicken tractors/domes, food forests, passive solar house design, eco villages, no till cropping, herb spirals, bikes and of course organic veggie growing.  Check out these ‘chook domes’ from Africa!

Of course Permaculture didn’t invent these things, it simply provides a framework to link them all together and to help make the most efficient and ethical decisions in the first place.

During the time I’ve been involved in Permaculture education I’ve often had people tell me that “it’s all just common sense!”.  It’s truer than they think.  The origins of Permaculture thinking were largely influenced by pre-industrial long survived cultures.  You see, common sense used to be more common!

But perhaps the most appealing thing I find about Permaculture is that it encourages us to look at positive solutions for what may otherwise be depressing situations.  A very hands-on example, I have a minor leak with a garden tap.  No biggie but given the age of the tap I can see any backyard plumbing is going to cascade (pun intended) into bigger problems.  The alternative of a three figure plumbing bill also doesn’t appeal.   Approaching it with my Permaculture hat on turns the problem into the solution.  Hence I’ve planted mint under the tap which is growing wonderfully thanks to the occasional drip irrigation.  Sure I’ll have the tap fixed when there’s enough work justify getting a plumber to visit but in the meantime I’ve averted problems of unused water pooling, turned waste water into food and beautified a soggy looking part of my yard.

So whether it’s building a classic herb spiral or choosing a bike instead of car, I invite you to explore the evolving world of Permaculture, safe in the knowledge that it’s nothing to do with a cult! Oh, and apologies to anyone called Moonshadow out there…