3 great organic pest solutions

If you’re keen to cut down on those chemical nasties in your veggie patch, while still protecting your precious crops – then keep on reading!

Petroleum Free White Oil

Off the shelf white oil stinks and to be honest it feels like a bad idea covering your edible citrus crops with it. If you have problems with insect pests such as scale, white fly, leaf miner and aphids, then take five minutes to whip up this concentrate. It will last for ages.

1 cup of vegetable oil

1/4 cup of dishwashing detergent (I used Eco brand)

Citrus scale

Mix this together by shaking in a jar or bottle. This makes the concentrate – you only need to add 2 tablespoons of this concentrate to your spray bottle for every litre of water and away you go!

Caterpillar Soap Spray

Caterpillars are pretty harmless…until you find those beautifully camouflaged green buggers hiding in your home grown broccoli. You only need to eat one before changing to blanching or other cooking methods…yuk.

Anyhow, they unfortunately go with the territory when trying to grow cabbage family crops anytime other than the middle of winter. Try this soap spray to reclaim your greens:

1 Litre of warm water

2 tablespoons of Lux soap flakes (you’ll find it in the cleaning section of your supermarket near a bunch of other stuff you haven’t seen for 20 years)

Lux

Add the soap flakes to the water and stir until dissolved. This is ready to use and as well as dealing with your caterpillars, it will also help with aphids.

Short Black Spray

Yes, even snails and slugs are learning to embrace our cafe culture. With a bit of luck they won’t be embracing much at all after this great home made remedy…

espresso

1 cup of water

1 shot of espresso (or brewed stove top coffee from a mocha pot etc)

Mix together and spray this over the soil, around and onto the leaves that snails and slugs can’t resist. Great for delicate seedlings.

Important!

Although these are less nasty than your standard chemical pesticides, always remember to keep them in properly marked spray bottles and jars WAY out of reach of little people and pets. You’ll find they don’t hang around as long as commercial sprays so be prepared to spray after rainfall etc.

Baring all this winter!

Deciduous fruit trees are at their most dormant stage right now.  This means they can be removed from the ground, bundled up and kept in moist saw dust by your local nursery.  But it’s a relatively small window we have to get planting.  After August you’ll notice buds starting to swell indicating the tree is out of its winter slumber and preparing for Spring (see below). This drastically increases the chances of transplant shock and is best avoided.

Bare rooted trees are relatively small and it’s easy to forget how big they may eventually grow.  Most fruit trees will get to around 4m x 4m by the time they’re 20 years old so if that doesn’t appeal check out if there’s a dwarf variety available.  Additionally you want to make sure you plan for the lateral (sideways) growth of the tree.  It’s often you’ll see a garden path made redundant because the once small fruit tree now has an established vase shape and threatens to bump the head of anyone passing nearby!  Of course you could just whip up an organic helmet…

Soil preparation and planting

I always dig holes for my new bare-rooted fruit trees a week or so before I plant them.  This allows me to see if the water will drain freely or whether there’s going to be an ongoing issue of root rot etc.  Simply fill your hole up with water and note how long it takes to drain.  If the water hasn’t subsided by a day then you can either mix in some gypsum with the soil or build up a hill above the original surface.   Gypsum won’t work on all clays (it’s not just adding sand, it actually causes a chemical reaction with certain clays that breaks them up) so it’s worth re-filling the hole with water again to check drainage.

Also worth noting that in recent years our increased rainfall means you have to be more mindful of drainage than 5 years ago.  Make your hole a little deeper than it has to be and about twice the width of the roots of your new tree.  You can tell the original depth the tree was planted at by the different colour on the trunk/stem i.e. the below surface stem will be darker.   DON”T PUT ANY FERTILISER IN THE HOLE!  Your tree has gone through quite a shock with a large amount of its fine roots removed.  The new root growth will not take kindly to any fertiliser so resist the temptation to give your new tree a thriving start by putting a shovel load of chook manure in the hole with it!   Wait until spring when you can apply some organic fertiliser on the surface and let it gradually reach the root zone.

As the roots have been trimmed in bare rooted trees, you need to take of about a third of the above ground growth to compensate.  This is fairly easy, although many nurseries will do this for you when they pack your trees.  Keep in mind the final tree shape you’re after as this first heavy prune will decide whether you keep a main central leader (pyramid) or promote the lateral growth (vase).

Avoid staking unless your tree is really exposed and simply don’t buy it if it doesn’t look robust!

Backyard Harvest’s Top Five bare rooted recommendations

Ultimately your tree choice comes down to personal fruit and nut preferences.   The five I’ve listed will fit in most compact urban yards and either pollinate themselves or rely on one of the others.  If you’re renting don’t forget you can also pop them in large pots.

Apricot (Moorpark)

Surely the king of stone fruits, most of us have fond memories of apricots you could smell before you could taste.  I grew up near Mildura where a massive apricot tree used to produce fruit by the bucket load every summer and gave me an early appreciation of home-grown fruit.  Moorpark is a variety not favoured by the commercial growers as it just doesn’t travel well.  It’s just too bloody succulent!  So it’s not just nostalgia that made the apricots of your childhood taste better – they were most likely a backyard cultivar that never made it anywhere near a supermarket.

Almond

Also known as the peach that’s gone a bit nutty, the almond is a great way to show your kids how nuts actually grow.  Make sure you ask for a self pollinating variety.

Apple #1 (dwarf Granny Smith)

You know there actually was a granny Smith.  About 130 years ago she threw a crate of rotting apples by a creek bed like magic some of the seeds germinated and morphed into the world’s best cooking apple.  Nice one Granny.

Apple #2 (dwarf Gala)

Like the dwarf Granny Smith, this Gala will grow to about 2.5m x 2.5m keeping the fruit within reach.  Of course if you’ve got the space go for a full sized ones as they are truly beautiful trees.

Peach (Elberta)

There’s few things that top picking a ripe peach straight from the tree and eating it.  Commercial peaches have to be picked way before they’re ripe so it’s rare to buy one that can go close to matching the home grown experience.

Fig (Black Genoa)

One of the most underrated fruits in Australia.  During the last drought I saw fig trees happily producing fruit using virtually no water while eucalypts a few blocks away turned up there toes and died.  Beautiful shade trees, great for kids to climb and why pay $40kg for organic figs when you can grow them in your backyard!

 

Crop Rotation 101

Why bother?

When starting a kitchen garden, we focus a lot on plants and yields.  What do I like to eat?  What do I want to grow?  As time with dirt up your nails increases you tend to get more focused on the soil and its needs – then the plants take care of themselves.  Part of this acknowledgement is realising it’s actually a pretty amazing thing to grow such high nutrient food year after year in plain old ‘dirt’.  But it’s not all a oneway street.  Soil gets depleted of elements and especially the three majors: nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus.  We can work around this natural cycle though, by planting in tune with the soil’s fertility.  Additionally, by moving plant families around, you’re less likely to have problems with soil borne diseases and other pests.

We are family

To effectively use crop rotation we have to understand the different plant families.  Some of our veggies are fairly obviously related e.g. carrot and parsnip.  Some are less so…think potatoes and tomatoes or beetroot and spinach.

Here is a quick run down:

Onion Family (Alliaceae)

Garlic, Leeks, Onions, Shallots

Cabbage Family (Brassicaceae)

Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Kale, Kohlrabi, Mustard, Bok Choy and other asian greens, Radish, Swede and Turnips

Carrot Family (Apiaceae)

Carrot, Celeriac, Celery, Fennel, Dill, Parsley, Parsnip

Potato Family (Solanaceae)

Eggplant, Capsicum, Chillies, Potato, Tomato

Marrow Family (Curcubitaceae)

Cucumber, Zucchini, Melons, Pumpkin, Squash

Bean and Pea Family (Leguminosae/Fabaceae)

Alfalfa, Beans, Clover, Fenugreek, Lupin, Peas

Daisy Family (Compositae/Asteraceae)

Lettuce, Chicory, Endive, Jerusalem Artichoke, Salsify

Now we categorise our veggies according to the parts we eat (basically).

Legume

Bean and Pea Family

Root

Onion Family

Carrot Family

Leaf

Cabbage Family

Daisy Family

Fruit

Potato Family

Marrow Family

Let’s get started

Know we’re armed with all this knowledge we can start to plan our beds.  To start with a four-bed system is a good idea and if you don’t have separate garden beds you can simply divide a large patch into four.  It’s also a good idea to throw a little lime on the soil after the ‘fruit’ season as this will sweeten the soil for root crops.

 

  Season One Season Two Season Three Season Four
Bed One Peas or Beans Leaf Fruit Root
Bed Two Leaf Fruit Root Peas or Beans
Bed Three Root Peas or Beans Leaf Fruit
Bed Four Fruit Root Peas or Beans Leaf

We sow the seeds!

A little about seeds

Seeds are made up of two major parts.  Firstly the embryo which includes the roots and the shoots.  Secondly the food source.  Seeds are so bloody clever they pack their own lunches!

It also explains why seeds and grains are energy-dense sources of food for us big brained mammals.  To grow, seeds need to absorb around 60% of their body weight in water.  Additionally they also need access to air. So when growing seeds it’s a balance between moisture holding growing mediums while also having excellent drainage.  You can assist the water absorbing process by pre-soaking your seeds before planting for a day or so.  Soaking below are some purple king climbing beans.

I tend to only pre-soak large seeds as smaller seeds are too fiddly.

Direct in garden or seed raising mix?

For root vegetables (carrots, beetroot, parsnips etc.) I’ll always sow directly as the large tap root is susceptible to damage when transplanting.  Peas,  beans and corn I’ll also usually sow direct – the large seeds making it a straight forward process.  Most other herbs, brassicas (think cabbages, broccoli asian greens) tomatoes, capsicums, cucumbers…well pretty much everything else, I grow into seedlings before transplanting.

How deep to plant?

It is very tempting to plant seeds deeper than they need to be.  While working for the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, I found kids always wanted to plant the seeds far too deeply.  It certainly seems to be our default setting.  Generally speaking seeds are planted to the depth of their width.  So broad beans around 1cm while lettuce and cabbage seeds barely need covering.  I dare you to simply spread some lettuce seed across the surface of some seed raising mix and just water without covering.  In around 10 days they’ll germinate and anchor themselves nicely.  We all know how wonderfully weeds grow, and nobody is sowing them at a specific depth.

Caring for seedlings and feeding

Seeds germinate well in dappled light (especially in summer) and this will also prevent the seed raising mix drying out too much.  You will know it’s too shady if seedlings grow ‘leggy’ i.e. thin and tall.  Temperature is the other necessary factor in germination, with most seeds only coming to life when the soil temp is close to 20 degrees.  Professional seedling producers use heat pads to artificially raise the temperature of the soil, leading to subtropical growth in temperate climates.

Use a fine spray of water initially as you don’t want to move the seeds with large drops of water while they’re trying to take root.  A hand-held pump sprayer is perfect.  As mentioned above the seed provides the required nutrition to germinate but once growing a weak liquid feed is a good idea every 10 days using worm juice or a seaweed concentrate.

Where to source seeds

Here are some links to seed providers who specialise in heirloom or old variety open pollinated varieties.  This means you can save the seed year to year and your plants will turn out true to type – something not always possible when saving seed from hybrid plants common in nurseries.

www.diggers.com.au

www.thelostseed.com.au

www.edenseeds.com.au

www.greenpatchseeds.com.au

www.theitaliangardener.com.au

Seed raising mix recipe

Most of these ingredients are readily available at good nurseries or landscaping suppliers (river sand and loam) and will save you lots of money if you’re propagating a lot of your own seeds.

One part river sand

1/2 part vermiculite (this is a naturally forming mineral that is a great insulator and holds moisture)

1/2 part weed free garden loam

1/2 part compost

Handful of blood and bone fertiliser

Mix together and keep in a sealed bucket.  Moisten before use.

Remember you can re-use this seed raising mix after planting out your seedlings by adding it to your next batch – don’t throw it out!

Planning a kitchen garden

We certainly live in times where the perception is to achieve something you have to be moving at a furious pace; report writing, renovating and making sure you respond to friends’ Facebook comments within 15 seconds.  Even relaxation time has to be booked in and analysed: “is this yoga class really giving me spiritual enlightenment?”.

1) Observation

Anyway, give yourself an afternoon off on the next sunny day and get into that comfy chair to simply pay attention to what’s happening in your garden.

In only a few minutes, birds will start to ignore you and you can begin to note the following:

Which way is north, east, south and west?   (Free compass apps are available on most smart phones)

Where are the sunny and shady parts of the garden?

Note any breezes and the direction they’re coming from.  (You can also check for wind damaged trees e.g. missing foliage from strong/salty winds)

Bugs, bees, birds and butterflies.

Where are the eyesores or ugly views?

Take a wander and note dry or wet patches of soil.

Look for trees that may cast a shadow over areas or offer competition for water a nutrients.

Take note of the slope of the ground and where this will direct water during heavy rain.

Pay attention to the types of weeds that have grown over winter.  Tough, woody weeds usually mean poor soil.  Lush green leaves (that you’d probably eat if someone told you it was okay) are signs of fertile soil.

2) Elements

This is the fun bit and often where people start without the knowledge gained in step 1 – Observation.  Think about what you’d like; raised garden beds, a big patch for potatoes/pumpkins, compost heap, worm farm, fruit trees, chook house, asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries or other dedicated perennial bed/s, bee hives, herb patch, sensory garden, edible maze, berries, water tank, potting shed, green house – and the list goes on!  REALLY clever design is where you start to help these elements work together.  For example, including your chook run amongst your fruit trees fertilises the trees, minimises pests and provides shade for the chooks.  Your pumpkin patch may be down hill from your compost heap so its receives lots of nutrient rich run-off during wet weather.  Your potting area may look out over the rest of the yard or kids play area so you can safely garden while still keeping an eye on everything!

3) Right thing in the right place

This is where we use a Permaculture design technique called Zoning.  Basically it means thinking about how often you’ll use the above elements in your day to day living and placing them accordingly.  We start with Zone 1.  This is stuff you access every day such as herbs, picking greens such as lettuce and annual veggies.  You know, stuff you pick and cook or eat straight away.   If you’ve included a chook house, you’ll want part of your zone 1 to include a trip to fetch the eggs and check on your hen’s water and food.  You can see how this zoning exercise will influence your chook house design as wallowing through a muddy chook run to get eggs can soon lose its novelty!  Depending on your needs a clothes line may be a requirement in Zone 1 if you have a big (or young) family and need to hang washing daily.  Again your keen powers of observation from step 1 will let you know which north facing position will allow you to dry your clothes in the sun throughout the year.  I also have my worm farm in Zone 1 as it means food scraps are disposed with as conveniently as just throwing them in the bin.

Slightly less convenient is Zone 2 where you may include fruit trees, berry vines, a potting shed or greenhouse.  Other vegetable beds such as carrots, beetroot that need less TLC than heavy feeding lettuce etc. can be located in Zone 2. In an urban house block, you may have no further need any further zones and indeed a small courtyard or balcony will mean you only need Zone 1!

When designing larger properties the same logic follows with Zone 3 and 4 used for grazing, managed forests or woodlots, bees and other areas not visited every day.   Typically Zone 5 is ‘left for nature’ on large acreage although in an urban setting I often think of the rural land outside the suburbs as my Zone 5.

This idea of Zoning can be used in any from of design when aiming for maximum efficiency.  You can use it to design an office building, a house, a kitchen, and life in general!

4) Work to a timeline 

This is a really valuable step as it acknowledges that creating a kitchen garden isn’t like building a swimming pool, where you have a definite start and finish date.  As food gardeners we really do follow the seasons and that means for example that the time for planting bare root fruit trees has really passed.  Simply note it as a job to do in June/July next year and start working on the soil preparation now.  However now may be the best time to install a greenhouse as it will allow you to establish summer seedlings.  Chickens are often available at point-of-lay currently, so a chook house is another great spring activity.

If you prefer to plan on a laptop rather than paper check out here for a free 30 day trial of a garden planner…although I prefer to work on paper.

Approaching a kitchen garden design needn’t feel like project management.  However taking the time to think things through means you’re less likely to waste time and money, while increasing your chances of having an enormous backyard harvest!

Broccoli – like apple trees for giants.

Like it’s Brassica cousin kale, the bright colour in broccoli lets us know it’s filled with free radical fighting goodness.  Free radicals are not just a folk band based in Surrey England, they are very nasty little guys which is obvious if you have a powerful microscope and can see them up close.

 

Let’s just agree broccoli is good for you.  It helps to regulate blood pressure with its high amounts of magnesium and calcium, plus ample amounts of potassium help optimise your brain function – making me wonder why the term “Broccoli Brains” never really took off.

Growing broccoli can be amazing simple or equally frustrating depending on the season.  As seasoned gardeners know, life in our patch is seldom perfect.  Broccoli grows wonderfully quickly in warm weather and uses its water repellent leaves to direct every sprinkle of rain to its roots.  However, those warm days and nights also bring out white butterflies, who love to lay eggs on broccoli plants.  These eggs turn into green caterpillars which judging by their colour are probably also filled with free-radical fighting goodness.  Having accidentally eaten a few in my time I can confirm they test will test the gag reflex of Mick Dundee and are best removed before cooking…

Having seen the pest issues with broccoli when I’ve been growing it, I’d really recommend it’s one vegetable you only purchase organically – especially in summer.

My personal growing strategy it to grow all year around, but cover the crops from late spring through to late autumn with an appropriate barrier draped over hoops.

Otherwise you can spray using an organic based spray (or make your own by steeping crushed garlic in water overnight and straining into a spray bottle).  Other less toxic controls include Dipel power which is mixed with water and sprayed onto the foliage.  It’s an internal bacterial poison for caterpillars and will kill them in a few days of spraying.  This will need to be repeated for follow up infestations.

Soil preparation

LIke the rest of the brassica family, broccoli is quite a heavy feeder so make sure you choose rich, well draining soil which has been enriched with composted manure.  Sprinkle some pelletised manure over the surface after planting seedlings and water in well.  Liquid feed weekly with worm juice or a high nitrogen seaweed product.

Varieties

I like the readily available ‘green dragon’ as it produces side shoots which are perfect for stir-fries.  It also gives you more reward for a plant that takes several months to produce over winter.  This year I’m going to try some purple sprouting broccoli which seems quite popular in the UK but less so here.  It looks amazing.

How to eat it.

My late autumn planted crop is producing beautiful heads now, so I’ve been trying to include it in a few different dishes.  I’ve also starting eating it raw with dip or pesto – just avoid the lower stems as they can be a bit stringy (use them for cooking).

Spanish broccoli and potato Tortilla

This is a great way to use left overs and I think the spanish idea of adding potatoes takes it to a place where frittatas fear to tread.

 

Cook in a heavy based pan with a generous lug of olive oil.  I use a cast iron pan so I can finish the tortilla in the oven.  NB: if you’re using raw potatoes, finely dice and add now too.

Gently cook the onion for a few minutes and then add your broccoli (one head of florets)  It’s best to pre-steam the broccoli or blanch it.  Even better would be using left overs from the day before.

Pop on lid to keep the moisture in and keep cooking on gentle heat.  I also add a splash of water if things are looking dry.  NB: If your broccoli isn’t pre-cooked this will take a lot longer.

I had some left over baked potatoes so I diced these and added them once the broccoli stems yielded to a sharp knife NB: you can use raw spuds, just dice them finely and add them with the onion at the start.  Just make sure they’re cooked – crunchy potatoes will ruin your day!

With a fork beat 6 or so eggs (depending on your pan size really) season and grate in a good handful of parmesan cheese

Making sure all the other ingredients are cooked, pour in your egg mixture

Let it cook on the bottom for another five or so minutes

Place the whole pan into a medium (180 C) oven for about 15 minutes to finish cooking.  Don’t do this if you’re pan has any plastic components on it!  And remember the handle is very hot – use an oven mitt!  

Alternatively you can flip the tortilla onto a plate (just make sure the top is not too runny first) flip it onto another plate and back in the pan so the former top is now in the bottom of the pan.  Well I’m confused but this guy makes it look pretty easy.

 

Amazing Parsley

I’m less inclined to believe that one (especially as I’m a bloke) however legend has it that parsley will ‘strongly affect men’s sexual powers’.  Maybe if these guys had gone for parsley instead of olive wreaths, they wouldn’t be described as the coxless four.

 

 

I’ll continue onto some other less controversial facts about parsley…

It’s super high in potassium with over 700mg per 100grams of leaves.  This combined with the herb’s high iron, copper and manganese content means it’s great for building healthy blood.  Parsley is also quite high in vitamin C and as with citrus fruits, our leafy green friend is at its best in winter, right when we need it.  I also found references to parsley being infused and applied to puffy eyes and even steeped into red or white wine with some other choice ingredients to produce ‘heart wine’ – great for any cardiac problems!  Parsley is from the same family that we find celery, carrots, dill and fennel – the easiest way to tell is to see their flowers forming and seeds.

‘Tis the season.

My summer basil is a distant memory, and despite growing in a vertical garden against a north facing wall, this year’s winter has all but defeated my coriander.  On the other hand I look at my parsley.  I remember Bill Mollison describing an ’embarrassment of parsley’ in one of his early Permaculture videos.  Yes, I have an “embarrassment” of parsley and what a nice feeling it is.  Parsley is biennial meaning it generally lasts for two years after which it will go to flower and produce a stack of seed.  You can simply let this seed fall in your garden beds and there’s a good chance new plants will pop up.  Alternatively if planting seed deliberately, be prepared to wait a while as the seedlings are renowned for long germination.

Varieties

Whether I’m cringing over memories of curly parsley from my childhood or not, I now only grow the flat leaf or ‘Italian’ variety of parsley (Petroselinum crispum .var. neapolitanum).   It’s hardy, vigorous and produces wonderfully tender flat leaves that are also easier to handle on a chopping board.

Parsley in the kitchen

I have to warn you, if you want to get the best out of the culinary value of parsley, you’ll have to look beyond our Anglo-Australian history.  My childhood memories of parsley were as an awkward accompaniment to fish and chips if the local pub was feeling fancy, or if Grandma was in an adventurous mood it would be chopped finely and added to a béchamel/white sauce.  As a general rule you can use it in place of basil and it deserves to be the hero of simple oil based pasta sauces where it goes so well with chilli and a good quality hard cheese.  Today I made parsley pesto, and while I love basil pesto I reckon this “picked and prepped within an hour” dish is superior to any Italian made imported pesto.

Parsley Pesto

2 cups of loosely packed fresh parsley, washed and dried well (pat dry with tea towel or use a salad spinner)

3/4 cup walnuts (I used some local, sweet beauties from Bannockburn)

1/2 cup finely grated parmesan (Parmigiano Reggiano if possible)

1 clove roughly chopped garlic (it will be chopped further by the food processor)

Good local extra virgin olive oil – cold pressed (sorry didn’t measure this, just drizzle it in slowly but probably about 3/4 cup)

sea salt to taste

Process the walnuts first, then the parsley and roughly chopped garlic.  You may have to keep stopping the processor to push the ingredients down the wall of the processor bowl and back onto the blades.

Once you’re sure the parsley is well chopped and the ingredients are mixed together, drizzle in your olive oil while the processor is mixing.  Add the oil slowly and in batches, mixing in between.

Place your finished mix into a bowl and add the grated parmesan.  Add salt as necessary making sure it’s really fine (I crush my Malden sea salt in a mortar with a pestle)

As with basil pesto this goes great with pasta, as a dip, spooned on top of poached eggs and as an accompaniment to grilled meat/fish etc.

Another way to take full advantage of large volumes of parsley is by making the middle eastern salad tabbouleh or tabouli.  Apart from tomatoes (and burghal) all the ingredients to this salad are available locally right now.

Here’s a you tube recipe which seems pretty good if you can get passed the North American pronunciation of herbs and oregano!

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…