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)

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…

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!


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!


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!

Why you just MUST have a worm farm Part 2

Here you can see the multiple tray system of my worm farm.

worm-farm web-1

Now I’m not allergic to dirt, but if feeding your worms becomes a messy ordeal then I reckon you pretty much won’t keep it up.  For this reason, my worm farm is located right near my front door.  It’s also an area that gets almost full shade in summer, helped along by the evergreen passionfruit climber which blocks the afternoon sun.  This means I have only two steps to get to my worm farm and it’s under cover so even on a cold and wet night I can make the pilgrimage in socks if necessary!

Just under the front of the worm farm is the drainage bucket to collect the FANTASTIC worm juice.  This model originally came with a tap, but I’ve removed it so the farm can drain free all the time and there’s no chance of the worms drowning.  The only downside is if you forget to empty the bucket regularly, you may find it overflowing.  This has never been a problem for me as the concrete slopes towards my passionfruit vine…in fact it may explain why I’ve had a bumper crop this year!

Okay now it’s time to look inside…

wormfarm 1st-tray-hessian-web

You can see I’ve used a hessian bag to cover the food scraps and to keep the moisture in.  Eventually the worms will eat through the hessian and it will be time to replace it – I picked this bag up from a local coffee roaster.  You could also use a thick slab of newspaper or one of the purpose built worm farm covers.  Feeding your worm farm can be a messy business so a feature I’ve really come to like is the self holding lid on this model.  It means you only have to lift the hessian and put the scraps under and can all be done with one hand.

Lifting the hessian you’ll see the scraps recently put down.  This is a fair amount, but after 12 months my worms will make light work of this in a few days.  Start with small amounts of scraps and if they’re still visible largely untouched in a week, you’re adding too much.

worm-farm 1st-tray-hessian-back-web

So now I’ve removed the top tray and you can really start to see the chocolate pudding-like worm castings.  There’s still a few worms in the top part of this tray as you can see.

wormfarm 2nd-tray-web

The 3rd tray reveals 10-15kg of prime soil conditioner made up entirely of kitchen scraps that would otherwise be rotting in our municipal tip.

wormfarm 3rd-tray-web

This one will be emptied shortly with the castings used for planting with my winter veggies (cabbage, broccoli and cauliflowers).  After that this tray will become the top feeding tray and on it goes!

In the very bottom of this worm farm is the base which collects and directs the worm juice to the outlet.  Note the raised section which allows the worms a dry place to rest if the more adventurous of the bunch find themselves down here…

wormfarm bottom-tray-web

Apart from feeding your worms, you need to make sure they remain moist at all times – especially during hot weather.  I use a normal watering can over the hessian – usually a litre of two of water a week.

wormfarm watering-web

This will start to fill your worm juice bucket.  Obviously the more water you put through the farm, the more diluted the juice will be.  Here I’ve used a litre of concentrated worm juice diluted with 8 litres of water to liquid feed fast growing asian greens and lettuce in my vertical wall garden.