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!


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.


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.


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!


Backyard Harvest organic gardening 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

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.

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!


guerilla norlane before



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.


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!


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 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.


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.


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!