Oranges and Lemons…

Eureka and Lisbon lemons are joined by the more recent Meyer variety – great if you’re more interested in the sweeter juice and hate thorny trees!

Try fitting this into your Corona…a great example of a Lisbon lemon

There’s also a myriad of orange varieties and mandarins available, including my favourite at the moment – the blood orange.  A recent discovery, blood oranges have an almost strawberry/orange taste and look great in desserts and mixed drinks.

I’ve grown two tahitian limes in Geelong and they love our frost free urban micro-climates and I’ve also had good results from a so called native lime which I actually think might be a ‘Kassia Lime’ as its flesh was a yellow/orange colour – not the usual green flesh.  Citrus trees make great sustainable gifts for weddings, new family editions and look spectacular in pots and who wants to part with $1 every time they want an organic lemon!?

Location, location, location – getting the most out of your citrus trees.

Citrus work really well in pots, as well as the ground.  The most important thing to remember is that their fruit often takes twelve months to ripen.  So unlike our stone fruit which are quite happy to be in shade all winter, your citrus trees need FULL SUN over the winter.  Just take a wander around your neighbourhood with a compass and I’ll guarantee the healthiest looking lemons are coming from trees with lots of access to the northern sun.

Even better is siting them in a courtyard or against a north facing masonry wall.  Remember the reason these varieties are grown commercially in Mildura is because of the long clear sunny days which aid ripening and help them get to market earlier.

Here’s a very happy looking Valencia orange backed onto a north facing wall

Planting tips

With the below average rainfall we experienced in recent history, the idea of planting new trees was met with some trepidation.  Would it survive?  Can I be bothered keeping the water up to the new tree with prohibitive restrictions?  Well after almost two years of fantastic rain, sub soil moisture is back and water restrictions have eased.  Of course we need to continue to be careful about our water use, but I also think we need to take advantage of the much improved growing conditions and get some trees established while the going’s good!

A good technique before planting is to dig the hole to the required size (usually twice the width and at least the depth of your pot) and to fill it with water.  See how long it takes for the water to drain.  If it’s several hours or more then you will have drainage issues and your tree may not survive – especially as we have nearly 6 months of rain ahead!   You can mix in some gypsum sand, compost and see how that works.  If still no luck then build up the soil and essentially plant close to ground level.

Lemons are also beautiful ornamental trees with scented flowers and lush foliage

Troubleshooting with citrus trees

Ants are usually a sign you’ve got scale or whitefly as they’re chasing the sweet secretions from other pests – use the white oil recipe below and make sure you cover tops and bottoms of the leaves.  The ants will be grumpy but it won’t kill them!

Prune any dead wood at the end of winter and fertilise around now (Autumn) with an organic based fertiliser or manure.  Oh, and if it’s acceptable in your household and not going to upset your neighbours, yes wee on your tree.  It provides liquid urea fertiliser…why give you nutrients away for free!

Most problems with citrus can be fixed using a homemade white oil recipe:

1 cup of vegetable oil

1/2 cup of water

Teaspoon of washing detergent

Mix vigorously in a bottle until white and cloudy.  This becomes your concentrate which you mix 1 part to 40 parts water in a sprayer bottle.

Look after you citrus trees, plant a few varieties and you’ll have access to your very own fruit all year round!

Raise your pitchfork to the sky…

Well, I googled ‘compost definition’ and of the 2,290,000 results this seems to be the most popular.

“A mixture of decaying organic matter, as from leaves and manure, used to improve soil structure and provide nutrients.”   The word compost comes from the latin compositum which basically means a mixture of different things.

So unlike soil which is really the result of rocks being slowly ground down over huge amounts of time, compost contains lots of goodies that were alive and kicking just a short while ago so to speak.

As the definition suggests compost helps our soil structure which means it can hold sandy soils together while helping clay soils to break down…clever stuff huh!  It will also help to hold water in your soil, far more important than putting a layer of mulch over your patch and hoping for the best!

Another increasingly important reason to make sure your patch has regular compost added is because it increases soil biology/life.  What this means is that it makes major nutrients such as phosphorous, nitrogen and potassium available to plants.  That’s right, even if you keep adding fertilisers, if the soil has no life your plants can’t access it!  It’s another major reason for making sure you use organic methods that don’t upset soil life.

So now we know what compost is and why it’s so important, how do we make it?  There are basically two ways:

Anaerobic – this is also called cold compost, usually smellier (due to the methane produced) and harder to get the ‘right’ kind of bacteria involved.  This is a common method used currently by most Australians in the form of a static compost bin such as the famous Gedeye.  It’s been for as long as I can remember…check out the model’s clothes in the below picture if you don’t believe me!  You can greatly improve this type of compost by circulating the contents with a compost aerator.  Cold composting takes about 3 to 6 months to produce something you can use in the garden.

Aerobic – or hot compost uses a different type of bacteria which require air.  This means the compost needs to be turned every few days to oxygenate the pile.  Much faster, nicer to work with and the only kind I use.  The downside is you tend to need to have all ‘ingredients’ on hand to make it work well. Grass is almost the perfect balance of nitrogen and carbon and will break down without much help.  I usually add about 10% extra carbon material though to stop it forming into cow pats!  Hot composting produces compost in around 3 to 6 weeks!

Personally I tend to put most of my organic waste through chickens and worms leaving only grass clippings to be composted.  I currently use a tumble style compost bin which allows no way for rodents to enter the bin and produces compost faster than any other method I’ve tried.  This is especially important to note as normally a cubic metre (BIG) is required to get a hot compost pile going.

Smelly compost?

Main problem is too rich in nitrogen, which makes it too wet and hard to move, smelly etc.  Usually occurs because households produce far more ‘green’ waste than dry matter.  So add plenty of  straw, shredded paper etc. to keep the balance right.  A sprinkling of lime will also help to decrease the acidity and make things easier on your nostrils.

How to use your compost.

Compost is ready to work into your soil when it has a sweet smell, has cooled down (in the case of hot compost) and the ingredients are almost broken down.  Turn your compost into the top 20cm of your soil and leave for a week or so prior to planting new seedlings.  You can also ‘top dress’ garden beds with compost, especially over winter where it won’t dry out.

Portable Gardening

 

Going potty

When I planted these strawberry guavas, I knew a couple of things.  Firstly, I had a house for sale and I wasn’t sure whether the new owners would be as enthusiastic about my little Chilean beauties as I was.  Second, I knew they’d take a few years to produce fruit hence the combination of those factors lead me to get them in some decent pots until they found a permanent garden in the future.  I’ve picked some classic terracotta pots for these as they’re less fickle than high fashion glazed pots.  One thing I’d wish I’d done was to purchase pots with an internal coating to help maintain the moisture.  The neighbouring geraniums are in pots with such a coating and I really notice the way they hold onto their moisture much better.

Pots are also great because you can move them during the year to follow the shade or the sun or the rain depending on what they need.  Citrus and olives love the sun, so they’ll love being backed onto a north facing wall which may have other plants gasping in protest.  Upcoming  heatwave?  Well pots allow you to move everything into the shade for a few days meaning you don’t risk losing them.  Of course they can be quite heavy so only attempt this will the right tools e.g. a sturdy trolley and someone that can manage it (especially during heat waves!)

Knowing when to water

The great thing about containers is the ability for you to control the growing medium.  Generally potting mixes are a safe bet – you’ll notice they’re made up of larger ingredients such as pine bark which make bigger gaps meaning better drainage.  Of course the flip side of this great drainage is that you have to water more often.  I like to include compost  in the mix to ensure there’s lots of organic matter in the mix, and this also helps to hold the water better.

In a normal garden bed I usually stick my finger into the soil up to the second knuckle and by seeing if the soil sticks to my skin I can tell the soil moisture.  Pots can be a little tricky so I’ve found the best way is to tip the pot ever so slightly to see how heavy it is.  The more moisture the harder the pot is to move.  It’s amazing how light a full pot can be if the soil has started to dry out and indicates they need to be watered more frequently.

Want an example of how not to container garden?  Well I purchased a couple of these recycled half wine barrels a while back and planted up a valencia orange and tamarillo.  All good I hear you say, but unfortunately I forgot to check the drainage holes in the bottom of the tamarillo’s barrel and wondered why it was looking pretty average a few months later, especially when compared with the lush orange.  The soil mix was fertile and revealed a stack of worms as I pulled it aside to check what was going on.  As I dug down I noticed water starting to pool…hmmm.  Yes, I was drowning my poor tree!

Remember containers need drainage holes!

Feed regularly

The excellent drainage of pots also means the fertility will flush quickly through the soil.  I combat this by adding a good sticky compost which will hang onto the moisture and therefore the nutrition.  I also tend to ‘top dress’ the potting mix with organic fertiliser such as pelletised manure (dynamic lifter) or blood and bone.   Plus of course worm juice!

If you’re interested in learning more I’ll be giving a free “Growing Veggies in Boxes” workshop on Thursday May 10 from 1pm at the Cloverdale Community Centre, 167-169 Purnell Rd Corio.

Chicken basics!

Seriously though if you have health concerns about eggs and cholesterol it’s probably worth looking at the work of Chris Masterjohn who is currently pursuing a PhD in Nutritional Sciences with a focus on Biochemical and Molecular nutrition.  He has an interesting story of his own which rattles some of our mainstream understandings about saturated fats, cholesterol and their link with heart disease.  He’s published several peer reviewed articles, is widely read and a great researcher, which is great because cholesterol is such a complex area – just look at its molecular structure!

Cholesterol Structure

Another positive is the manure by-product which chickens leave behind.  When composted with straw or wood shavings this becomes a highly fertile addition to your soil.

Chickens are also a great garbage disposal units.  While they can’t thrive on kitchen leftovers alone, it does help to keep their diet varied and things we don’t eat such as outer leaves of lettuce and cabbage will highly valued by your new feathered friends.

Pets! Yes chickens can be great companions in the garden.  It’s not always recognised but animals that have evolved to provide for humans (chickens are descendants of guinea fowl) have a need for human interaction.  My chooks have a whining cluck when they’re being ignored but spend a little more time with them and they set about scratching and dust bathing very happily.  I’m not sure whether it’s the security of having humans around but chooks love busy backyards and will get into less mischief when involved with their two legged companions.  Here’s an example of hens that decided that life outside their enclosure was more interesting…

chooks escape web

 

Negatives?  Well you’ll have a food bill.  Of course this can be offset by getting your own eggs, and manure.

Chooks need to be looked after, so if you regularly go away for more than a few days at a time then you’ll need a chook-sitter.  Fortunately they’re pretty low maintenance so often the appeal of free eggs and friendly feathered faces is enough to get them looked after.

Housing chickens will also cost more than say a dog kennel and if you live in an area where foxes frequent you’ll need to make sure it’s fully enclosed with an additional barrier buried around the base of your yard as foxes are capable excavators.

What to feed them

You can buy a complete ‘layer’ type pellet but I tend to go for mixed grains and dilute it with some wheat from a local farm.  The mix grains I buy come with ‘shell grit’ which ensures your eggs will have solid shells.  Unfortunately having all that premium grain available in an open feeder attracts all the local birds so think about using a foot operated feeder.  You will also notice your birds craving green feed such as grass or leafy vegetables – this is important as it helps to develop those desirable fatty acids I mentioned earlier.  Below you’ll see I’ve grown some green feed, even chooks like takeaway!

chooks-green-feed-web

Avoid giving them eggshells and raw chicken.

Chooks also need fresh, cool water available all the time – especially in hot weather where it may need to be refreshed a few times a day.

Breeds

Too big a subject for this post, but I’d encourage you to get in contact with local breeders rather than buying cheap ex-free range layers such as Isa Browns.  While Isa Browns are good layers they tend to live shorter lives and are prone to complications as they really are egg producing machines, the poor girls. Poultry breeders operate for the love of chooks and will help you to pick a breed suitable for your tastes (poor choice of words) and needs.  This girl is a Hy-Line Brown, but she thinks she’s the Lone (free) Ranger.

the-lone-free-ranger-web

Council Regulations

When talking to people around the traps they’re often surprised to hear that the City of Greater Geelong allows you to have up to 12 hens and 1 rooster in a backyard.  Surf Coast Shire allow for 10 birds in total while the Borough of Queenscliffe is a little more involved – best you call the council direct.  The main issue councils worry about is annoyed neighbours, so maybe give the rooster a miss until you’ve won next door over with a few dozen eggs.  Your local municipality may also have specific requirements around types of houses and flooring – I’m a big fan of ‘deep litter’ systems where around 30cm of wood shavings or straw is used and replaced when necessary.

Point of lay birds are usually available around Spring, so now is the time for planning and constructing your very own chicken run!

content-chooks

Backyard Harvest organic gardening workshop

FREE GARDEN WORKSHOP!

This Wednesday evening at Danawa Community Garden in Torquay, Backyard Harvest will be running an introduction to sustainable and organic gardening workshop.  We’ll be looking at water saving strategies, alternatives to chemical herbicides and pesticides, composting etc. 5:30pm to 7:00pm and proudly supported by the wonderful folks at the Surf Coast Energy Group!

 

Smart-living-Ad-SCT-4x19-Final-workshop web

Pimp my pavement!

Guerilla Gardening is not as sinister as it sounds, with ‘guerillas’ generally focusing on gardening in public spaces in need of some tender loving care.  Who knows where it actually started, although I have sketchy memories of Permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison planting tree seeds randomly in public spaces in one of his early videos in the 1980s.

No matter how it started it has certainly gained some serious momentum.  How serious?  Take for example the world famous Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show which now includes ‘Chelsea Fringe’ an open access version of the exclusive show, complete with guerilla gardening map of London!  The Brits even have an International Sunflower Guerilla Gardening day on May 1st!  Of course by ‘International’ they really mean northern hemisphere as we’re a few seasons off planting sunflowers down here!

sunflower guerilla day

The idea has even been picked up by companies such as Adidas to promote their more eco friendly range of footwear

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ECG4YfgY9jI

This no doubt influenced the local production of the television series Guerilla Gardeners which despite being on a big commercial network, managed to step on lots of local council toes and promptly disappeared. I’ve noticed episodes are back up though now if you’re interested.

http://ten.com.au/guerrilla-gardeners.htm

Closer to home I’ve observed early evidence of guerilla gardening down the Bellarine Peninsula where forward thinking folks of European decent planted olive trees in nature strips over 30 years ago.  While being a radical act at the time, the trees have provided useful feedback for the City of Greater Geelong, in showing themselves as a nature strip species which holds its fruit (therefore preventing slippery fruit littering footpaths and creating public liability woes) and can be under-pruned for driver vision etc.

Here is a couple of examples of the Council trialing some nature strip olives in Bell Park.

olive trees bell park

Recently Backyard Harvest pimped some pavement near the Urban Bean Cafe in Labuan Square, Norlane.  We think our vintage potato boxes from a local farmer certainly help to improve a sad looking car park!

Before:

guerilla norlane before

 

After:

guerilla norlane after

Bet you didn’t think you could grow this…

My first experience of this was not an unknown fruit to me but certainly one I was surprised to see – an avocado.

bacon-avocado

It was growing in the backyard of a property right next to Corio bay in North Shore and despite having salty, southerly breezes to contend with it still gave an amazing crop.  At the time the house was vacant, hence the crop was shared with a few savvy neighbours as no-one else seemed to know what they were.  Unfortunately the house and Avocado tree have since been removed.  The best variety to grow down south is the Bacon and Fuerte which will both survive frosts to -2 degrees.  The other thing to be mindful of is that this will be a tree that is going to take years to flower (and therefore) fruit – probably around 6 to 7 years in our climate, so not a great choice if you’re planning on moving soon!

tamarillos

Perhaps less known is the Tamarillo or tree tomato.  Another sub tropical plant from South America and growing commercially in New Zealand, these big leafed but modest sized trees produce a delicious fruit a few years after planting.  They grow quickly when planted in rich well draining soil and will like a north facing position to take advantage of our winter sun.

feijoa

Feijoa is another variety that’s highly underrated in Australia.  As per the Kiwi Fruit the New Zealanders have got a jump on us so you’ll see Feijoa wine and all sorts of things in production over there.  They are a beautiful evergreen tree, best planted with a few others to aid pollination.  The fruit is fantastic and sweet.  They’re also known as Pineapple Guavas.

strawberry-guava

The final edible must have is a smaller shrub known as a Strawberry or Cherry Guava.  Again originating in the South American region they are a great productive substitute for a less formal hedging plant.  The fruit is amazingly sweet and the hard seeds are best swallowed or spat out.  The hard seeds are the main reason I believe this variety hasn’t become a commercial success as the fruit is delicious, unlikely to be attacked by birds and very high in vitamin C.

Only a few years back it was hard to get your hands on these more unusual edibles, but I’ve recently seen them in many mainstream garden centres and nurseries.

Save your own tomato seeds!

These fine examples are destined to make sure next year’s crop is even more successful and disease free than the one just finished.  This process of propagation is called seed saving and it’s allowed us to improve our fruit and vegetables year after year since we started agriculture in its current form over 10,000 years ago.

So why bother saving seed when you can just pick up some seedlings at the nursery next year?  For starters you’ll be amazed at how many seeds come out of just a few tomatoes, and if you follow the below steps on saving them, you’ll have enough seedlings next year for you and your neighbours.  Plus you’ll be growing plants that are evolving to perfectly suit your soil and your specific climate.

Start by cutting your tomatoes in half and scooping out the seeds.  I like to do this as you then get to save the best and eat them too!

tomatoes 2-web

 

tomatoes 3-web

Scoop the seeds into a nice clean jar and add a dash of water

tomatoes 4-web

Loosely pop the lid on or some plastic film with a few holes in it, place the jar in a warmish place and wait a few days…

tomatoes 6-web

tomatoes 7-web

Yes, yes, it now looks really disgusting and will have other household members wondering what kind of sick science experiment you’re playing with but trust me, this bit is important.  You see the tomato seeds are designed to rot prior to germinating which is why they just love popping up your compost heap from time to time.  By putting the seeds through this fermentation process we prepare the seeds for a proper germination and also reduce the incidence of disease.

So next we scoop of the nasty stuff (just ignore the funky smell) and discard it. Don’t worry if you take a few seeds with it as the more viable seeds tend to sink to the bottom anyhow.

tomatoes 8-web

Then clean the rest of the seeds through a sieve, gently scrubbing the jelly like surrounds from the seeds.

tomatoes 9-web

Leave to drain, then spread out the seeds in a single layer on a non-porous surface to dry.

tomatoes 10-web

This usually takes at least four days in normal indoor temperatures after which time you can press firmly on a seed with your fingernail.  If the seed just dents it’s not dry enough, if it breaks then the seeds are ready for storage.  Store in an envelope in an airtight container or in an old vitamin bottle or glass jar.

Green Manure

Now bare with me because I know this sounds like a kind of pointless exercise, I mean why grow something when you just dig it up again?  The thing is when it comes to growing food organically, our focus tends to be on the soil rather than just the plant.  So by planting out a green manure crop we’re really just ‘feeding the soil’ and making sure it’s in the best shape to deliver nutrition to our veggies.

By digging in your green manure it will add fertility, aid with soil structure and encourage earth worms to pay your garden bed a visit.  Plus with all that organic matter now in your soil, your revitalised veggie patch will be much better at holding water.

So what can you plant as ‘green manure’?  An old favourite is Lucerne – probably better known as alfa alfa.  Yes believe it or not those little sprouts that polarise culinary tastes in sandwich bars world-wide are the same seeds that grow into the most popular feed for horses and cattle on the planet.  Belonging to the legume family, lucerne will enrich the soil with nitrogen, but any other unwanted pea or bean seeds will also do the same.

Perhaps a more accessible seed to use is simply a mixed bird grain which you’ll find at any supermarket or pet food supplier.  For the beds I’m I’ve been using the grain mix I feed my chickens, plus adding any old pea and bean seeds that I’ve stumbled across so I get the advantage of nitrogen ‘fixing’ to the soil.   Just make sure you don’t accidentally sow a nice bed of kikuyu or other running grass or you’ll forever be stuck with it in your veggie patch!

Of course one of the other advantages of having something growing in a otherwise empty bed is that you’ll be less likely to suffer weed invasions.  Green manure crops can be planted very densely and grow vigorously making it a difficult for unwanted seeds to germinate.

So to give your vegetable beds the equivalent of long service leave, try planting a green manure crop this weekend and reap the rewards come spring time!

Autumn activities!

Of course putting in another crop also helps to keep you in your garden and out of the supermarket’s fluorescent glow for just a little longer…

The lack of really severe heat waves means we can start to have more success with Asian style veggies such as pak choy and bok choy.  These guys love to be grown fast in highly fertile soil with lots of water.  As pretty as they are to admire, don’t let them get too big or they’ll get stringier than a dental floss convention.  You can see I’m growing pak choy and some coral lettuces amongst other things in a wall garden where I’ve got lots of control over the soil fertility, snails and watering.  If you put asian greens just anywhere they’ll be on the top of the menu for your local slug and snail population, trust me.

autumn-tips-asian-greens-web

Mixing it up with the Asian greens, it is also a good time to plant traditional winter vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli.  With soil temps still high you’ll get fast growth while the milder weather will cause the white cabbage butterfly populations to settle down.  In a future post I’ll discuss some strategies for dealing with these in a way that doesn’t involve poisoning your harvest!

Now the cabbage family are BIG feeders.  That means if you just remove your tomatoes, tidy up the soil and plant your new seedlings you’ll be no doubt disappointed with the results.  Make sure you FEED THE SOIL ideally with compost, well rotted animal manure, worm castings, blood and bone etc.  Here’s some homemade compost using only grass clippings.  This stuff is so good it puts hair on your arms!

iautumn-tips compost-2-web

Remember, the vegetables we eat today didn’t just happen.   They really are MONSTER PLANTS that we have evolved to meet our nutritional needs as big brained mammals.  So while we’ve been teaching ourselves to garden more appropriately in our dry and depleted Australian soils over recent decades, we can’t expect highly bred and evolved plants such as this crop of a ripper cabbages to just grow without any help!

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