Sunday, December 25, 2011


Christmas lunch was a relaxing affair interrupted by a few heavy showers. We spent the day in Wandin - about 20km's away from where we live. We watched the lightening and thunder rumble over and around us and after consulting the weather radar it looked like we did get a good downpour in our valley.

As we drove home we saw the increasing debris covering the roads, and driveways which had washed out their loads of gravel onto the main road. In fact we were seeing debris to a degree we had never seen before on the road. Then i thought i saw banks of foam. Then lots or leaves and twigs completely covering the road.

It soon clicked that the foam was in fact banks of hail stones, piled high. Our hearts sank as we saw the neighbour roof intersections and gutters piled with hail stones and their houses surrounded by a white blanket.

Beans are battered but will recover
The driveway was awash and my first job was to unblock drains and gutters before i assessed the damage to the garden.

Large hail caught in the netting above the Vege garden.

The netting was the saviour of the garden  it seems, as the larger hail was either intercepted or deflected, and smaller hail deflected.  

The morning after revealed that the damage was indeed much less under the netting. Still under the netting salad fared worse,

 followed by young cabbages, cucumber.

Outside the pumpkins with their large leaves were trashed and even some of the fruit has been damaged.

The fruit trees suffered the least. They had some leaf loss but there was not much fruit dropped.
My heart goes out to any primary producers who rely solely on growing things for an income. For them the impact would be devastating. Most of my crops will recover and still produce well, but this storm emphasised the usefulness of netting - other than to protect crops from birds.

 Unfortunately our council (Yarra Ranges) restricts how much of a property may be covered in netting - i assume for aesthetic reasons. Yet another restriction which clearly makes producing food a less attractive proposition in a well watered and fertile area close to Melbourne.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Spring planting, Potato dramas and bug juice

A planting frenzy happened quite many weeks ago when i  I decided that it was spring, and although we were probably going to get some more cold spells , some planting was in order. I direct sowed, carrots (All seasons), Beetroot (Early wonder), Parsnip (The Student), Swedes (German swede turnip & Gilfeather), Snopeas, Peas (tender tendrils), Lettuce, Tat tsoi, Paak Tsoi, Rocket, Coriander and probably a few other things. All of these vegies are a bit tolerant to frost and grow reasonably in cold weather.

In the hot house i sowed more Tomatoes (Mary Italian, Red pear, Black cherry, Wong Bak, Cabbages, Broccoli, Parsley, Basil, Echinacea, Fennel. I'm sure there are a few others i have forgotten.
Potatoes went in one bed about 10 weeks ago and have had their first hilling. I waited for others to sprout and eventually planted quite a few of them with minimal sprouts.  I'm not convinced that potatoes can be forced to sprout by putting them in a bit of sun. I am of the belief (based on what I read somewhere, and my observations) that they sprout when they are ready (according to their internal clock) - other opinions appreciated. Several more sowings have taken place including a good number of Dargo goldfields' purple potato.

Several weeks ago i noticed some wilting in the potatoes. "Oh no", i thought "Wilt!" However on closer observation i noticed that there was a small plague of Green vegetable bugs. I have always had some of these on the potatoes. Perhaps this time because the soil was so fertile they are really having a feast, or i suspect that they were over-wintering somewhere and have emerged in numbers to make your eyes water. Upon researching the subject i found that there were no effective organic sprays mentioned and only biological and cultural techniques recommended the manage their numbers.  Myself and the WOOFER Christine, got together with some shallow trays and proceeded to give the plants a light beating which resulted in getting hundreds of the little blighters, which were then fed to the chickens.

Later on, young lad and i decided to make a bug spray (yes made of crushed up bugs). We collected several hundred bugs in a shallow bucket of water. We blended these up and strained them through an old T shirt and made about a litre of bug juice. No other additives were included.

 When we sprayed it on there was no major reaction from the bugs (i was expecting them to writhe in disgust and fall off the plants). However a couple of days later i went to check a few plants and i could not find any bugs! Finding bugs was previously a very easy task. I checked again and i kept checking. There has been a total evacuation of Green vegetable bugs due to the bug juice. So my potato crop has gone from heavily infested to totally free of green vegetable bugs in the space of a few days. Miraculous but true.

To my surprise some of my spring plantings (planted around September 1) bolted to seed because it was too cold at the time of sowing. These were Wong Bak, Paak tsoi, Mizuma, Celery and most surprising of all Rocket. I'm told silver beet will also do this o i have learned my lesson there.
I have already put my tomatoes in and now we are having a bit of a cold spell. Looking at them yesterday they appeared to look quite healthy, and much better than the plants still in pots in the hot house.
Broad beans, planted in May
The strawberries are doing very well, as are the cabbages. The Strawberries were planted last spring and summer and are currently providing an amazing bounty.
Strawberries planted last summer

Savoy cabbages booming away

Savoy cabbages last month.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

RIP Buttercup

Much loved 7 year old - plus Buttercup passed away not long ago.
She had a lot of kid cuddles in her time, and probably ran many kilometers in her life trying to escape the attentions of children.

She travelled many miles to move with us, and was one of the constants for the children during their big move.

She now rests beneath a lemon tree, where the yellow lemons will remind us of her.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Green manure and garlic replaces tiger snakes and blackberry

There are things living everywhere. For every modification something benefits and something loses out.

Even a clear looking patch of pasture can be home to quite a few critters as I discovered while digging up a new vegie patch in the orchard. When the Wwofers and I had finished the patch, four baby tiger snakes had been dug out and relocated to another part of the farm. Luckily the day was cold and they were not at all active.
Garlic and green manure crops

The garlic went in the ground in mid march and came out of the ground very quickly. I obtained a variety called “Italian hardneck” from a local grower who has been growing it very well for many years. I have already done several rounds of hoeing  to kill off germinating weed seeds. Experienced growers around here recommend growing 1 or even 2 green manure groups before you plant your garlic. Part of the reason for doing this may be to reduce the weed problems in your crop. However I know other people who have grown very admirable garlic using compost.  These garlic will be due for harvest in Nov – Dec and will hopefully supply our family and animals with a year’s supply of yummy garlic.

My green manure crops are also thriving. I sowed an autumn mixture from Eden Seeds because that’s what I had on hand. I am still tossing up what to plant in the beds after I dig the crop in late winter. The first crop was dug in about 3 weeks ago and today i put in the first lot of potatoes.
Mixed green manure crop

I have also planted some Oats a month or 2 ago and i also hear that Rye established well in cold weather - much better than other grain crops.

Picking from the garden - Cauliflowers, Fennel, Carrots and parsnip, Broccoli and the occasional cabbage as well as green like Kale.
Cauliflowers have been supplying us with veg for many weeks.
The Caulis were an unexpected mid winter treat as i thought i had planted Paleface  - instead i had planted snoball or something similar. Although in the past i have regarded them as a waste of space - these ones are a welcome addition to our winter diet and the kids love them.

Florence Fennel

I always grow Fennel. It seems to love winter and bulb up beautifully. This crop is no exception. I have noticed that up here at 400m, some of the leaves get burned off by cold weather. Generally they are frost resistant so it would not have been frost alone that caused the leaves to yellow. The bulbs are still brilliant despite this minor damage.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Winter swap-meet: A colourful collection

We met on a cold rainy day last weekend to swap some vegies, cuttings, canes and bulbs. Some things turned up that i had wanted to get my hands on for a while. David from Olinda supplied some Oca, a wild variety of Quince, R2D2 potatoes, Tamarillo fruit (grow new plants from seed) and some Yakon, while Graeme George generously supplied a box full of Jerusalem Artichokes (2 varieties). Graeme mentioned that there were also a purple and a light yellow variety of Oca, with the purple one being most similar to potatoes.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Seedsavers swap meet

Seedsavers Yarra Valley is having a get together this Sunday to swap bit and pieces of edible food plants such as bulbs corms, canes and tubers - all those things that are dormant over winter.  Joining Seedsavers Yarra Valley is free. See for details.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Mixed poultry flock - how is it going?

I do like novelty. As i child i kept aviary birds and sat and watched them for hours. I'm sure i learned a lot about bird behaviour in those many hours  perched on a chair. New birds were always extremely interesting. You could see how they interacted with the current birds and what their habits were. What they liked to eat?

Feeding time

So when i started up my poultry flock i was determined to have a few things. I kept Turkeys in Alice Springs and noticed how much greens they consumed compared to chickens. I thought they would be a great free range bird to have if you had a lot of grass. The more grass they eat the better their meat would be. We have plenty of grass, and when they hatch out new babes in the spring we'll have a meat supply that will be delicious and healthy.
Turkey hen in her youth
Turkey male in his almost constant display mode

back to the collection:
Chickens of 4 varieties, Indian runner ducks and Guinea fowl.
Amongst the chickens i have a pair of White Orpingtons'. The plan is to breed a few more Orpingtons' as well as cross them with the Rhode Island Reds. The offspring will be fast growing and probably very suitable for meat birds. The Hamburgs' were a very welcome gift and were our first layers.

This mixed flock are all Hamburg's

The ducks were a bit impulsive but i knew we had a major snail problem - one which the ducks have largely solved especially around the house garden. Now they are laying an egg each a day in the middle of winter which is great.
The Guinea fowl were sought out to be hunters of grasshoppers. We have a lot of little grasshoppers in the paddocks and they get in very high numbers. I figure that i can get rid of a lot of them around the garden as well as turn grasshoppers into eggs and meat. The plan was for these birds to free range and roam in the paddocks but they tend to hand around the house and out buildings. They keep to themselves and have a loud cackle to warm of intruders. It is extremely loud and surprising if you have not heard it before.
The guinea fowl perch in the orchard, but fly out every morning with no trouble.
Guinea fowl at the feeding station

So how do they go together? The ducks, Turkeys and chickens roost together. That works OK but the Turkeys are a bit harder to train to roost in the chook house. They still need to be chased in at the end of the day on most days.
The Ducks were raised with the Turkeys and they often stick with them but lately they go with whoever seems to be foraging more widely. The ducks muck up the water for the chickens but we have got around this a bit by placing the water containers on bricks which makes it a bit harder for the ducks to put dirt in the bowls. Any more than 2 or 3 ducks might be a bit too mucky. However the ducks get along well with the other poultry and certainly forage on stuff that the other birds don't. I think they are a useful addition and they lay great eggs.

As for free ranging; I thought the Turkeys would be big free rangers, then i thought the Guinea fowl would be. I wanted them to venture out into the paddocks and use the pasture. Instead they tend to hang around the house where they might see some people who give them food. They don't hang around all the time but enough to be annoying sometimes.  Surprisingly it is the ISA browns that seems to be taking the flock into new areas they have never been. Maybe because they are so hungry (egg laying machines that they area).

We lock up the birds in a secure pen at night and let them out daily to free range. In winter this amounts to most of the day while in summer we tend to let them out for half of the day. The free ranging , as well as providing the birds with freedom to move and think, provides them with green grass as well as bugs, slugs and snails. It also think that the birds are able to self-medicate when they are sick by eating different plants which provide them with different nutrients. So far we have had no adult birds die due to sickness, but we have a few more months of winter to go!
On the health front, we do provide them with chopped up beach kelp in their mash for general health and garlic mash once a month to control worms.

At the current size, this strange mix of poultry works well together. I didn't buy all the poultry at once. That happened slowly so i could learn about their habits and where and how they might fit into the farm. After i though we had worked out one species, we added something else to the flock.
I have learnt a lot about poultry in the last 9 months and still continue to learn. However we are near capacity with our current housing so any new additions may have to wait a while.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Pragmatic composting

In my old place of residence cow poo was readily available, convenient and gave excellent results. Because of the lack of rain, when cows dropped a turd, that turd dried out and preserved all the goodies until it was scraped up and wetted down for making compost.

Around here in the Yarra Valley, cows poo in paddocks and the manure rapidly disintegrates through rain, insects and fungi. Good for the paddocks but not so good for the keen gardener. Some small dairy’s use straw which is mucked out , while most (it is my understanding) hose out the poo into large poo pools. Not so easy to take home in a trailer. I have tried horse poo, which is readily available here, but by the time I got hold of it, it was somewhat aged and had lost some of the goodies that are needed for composting. Without composting weed seeds are not killed and I am not all that keen to introduce new weeds to the property.

I could perhaps persevere with horse poo and try to source it from a place where I can obtain it quite fresh, but I only have so much time in a day to find this source.

So what have I done to make my compost here?

Well – chook poo. From a large and intensive chicken growing farm. I am told this is not so good because of possible hormones, antibiotics and food additives, but I also know that composting destroys a lot of these things. So although it is not altogether the most desirable source of composting material- I am being pragmatic. I do need to grow vegies to feed the family now, and as there is neither ready made compost on offer (which is not also made from the same chook poo) or readily available composting material from other sources, this is the decision I have arrived at.

Over time I should be able to source more and more of my composting materials from the farm but at this stage I just need to get things moving and I need large amounts of compost to do this.

I always like to have a lot of finished compost ready and waiting for the vege garden. This lessens the likelihood that I will be tempted to skimp on how much I add to garden beds. I have discovered here that although the soil is pretty good, it definitely needs a good feed of compost to grow a productive crop of vegies.

If you have the room, a trailer load of manure is desirable, and this can be combined with other plant materials from the garden in the right ratios. I have recently purchased a garden mulcher which I have wanted to do for years. This machine reduces woody prunings (source or carbon) and branches into fine chips of a size that are perfect for composting. For chicken manure which has a high nitrogen content, this is the main material I use to mix with it – so far with good results. When you use these fine wood chips, the pile is easy to turn (because there are no big stringy bits inside) and more air is held in the heap which is desirable for aerobic composting. For instance, if you use straw it can rot quite quickly and the heap can collapse into a more compact, and more anaerobic heap which is not so good.

Thanks to help from the wwoofers I have two big heaps cooking at the moment which will make for some great growing come spring. I find that when the heaps are Winter is the perfect time to do all this compost preparation

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Quick! Pine Mushrooms

A short walk along the hills surrounding the Yarra River has provided another seasonal gift.
Pine mushrooms or Lactaria deliciosa  are found beneath - well pine trees. Thankfully they are found commonly under the most common pine tree - Pinus radiata. This is the pine most commonly used in plantations in Southern Australia.  They can be seen in the photo above center left and dark green.

Pine Mushroom.
A small reminder that it was pine mushroom season was a couple of old fellas fossicking around some pines on the Warby hwy about 2 weeks ago.
Pine mushrooms are upwardly concave when mature, pale orange to pink on top and bright orange when cut open. The gills may be stained with bluish bruises, especially if they are older specimens.

I think the old fellas were right on time because many of the fruit i saw were past it but i still gathered quite a few kilos of reasonable mushrooms in a very short time.

notice bluish staining on gills
Note that i am not writing a guide to the identification of these mushrooms. Go for a walk with someone who knows these critters or take a specimen to someone who knows what they are.

They cook up well and keep their shape better than a field mushroom. Stephanie Alexander even has some resipes in the "Cooks companion". The flavour is not as intense as a ripe field mushroom and they are very good done with garlic and butter!
I couldn't resist preserving some under oil

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The amazing Potato

I have had relatively little experience in growing potatoes over the last many years. Even though it was quite possible to do it in Alice Springs (and i did grow a few crops at the garden plot), in the break down of competing priorities and limited gardening space the potato lost out. After all a lettuce transports much less well than a potato.

Potatoes putting in growth in January
So discovering the wonders of the potato has been quite enjoyable. They are an amazing plant.
 Easy to grow
They are a big producer.
 In places that are generally too wet t o grow grain crops, the potato is the starch source that you can rely on.
Unlike grain there is virtually no processing and harvesting is super-easy
They put on very good growth in the cool of spring when there is plenty of soil moisture and less evaporation. They can be stored in the ground until you need them.
few pests problems Grasshoppers don't seem to bother them and nor do bower birds so they can be grown without too much protection.

Potatoes are their first hilling
These are just some of the things that have occurred to be but I'm sure there are many more good things to be noted.
I obtained a range of potatoes this year to try out. The varieties i grew were:
King Edward (must check this as theu look like a picture i saw of Kestrel potatoes)
Tasmanian Pink eye
Dargo goldfields
Pink fur apple

All of them grew quite well but i could probably increase their productivity with better prepared soil next spring.

There is much advice about the need to grow certified seed potatoes rather than just grabbing any from the supermarket shelf. Although this is not necessary all of the time, you may want to do this if you cannot obtain seed potatoes from someone who knows potatoes and their diseases and has been growing them for many years. I ended up with some potato scab in one variety from growing off the shelf potatoes . A lesson learned.

My favourite potato i grew this year was the last on my list - Dargo Goldfields. The plants were still quite green when in harvested them while all the other varieties had died off above the ground. However the potatoes were fine, reasonably large and ready to harvest. The history of this potato is that it was found by  Ralph Barraclough in a Lyre bird scratching in an old gold mining area is Gippsland, Victoria. I have had it passed onto me from a local seedsaver.

I have found that it boils well roasts beautifully, and is just very stunning to look at.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Autumn riches

The variety of produce that continues to come into our orbit makes me feel very rich to live here. Our climate here is pretty perfect for growing Chestnuts and Hazelnuts and both of these are now dropping their amazing booty on the ground. Despite the clouds of white cockatoos that have been visiting the trees over the last couple of months, there are still too many Hazelnuts to be harvested by our neighbours alone. Thus we (Our very talented WOOFers and myself + small child) decided to give them a hand.
One of the Hazelnut varieties available
With buckets in hand we sat, kneeld, crawled, squatted and reclined amongst the dark soil, leaf litter and abundant fungi while deftly picking up whole, bright new seasons nuts. There are many varieties of Hazelnuts and we could recognise at least 5. This year with all the rain and lack of heat has been great for these Hazelnut trees and the nuts are full and sweet.

This variety has a large wide nut
The taste of the nuts in this fresh state is quite refreshing but to store them longer term (up to 2 years) the nuts must be dried.

Adding nuts to the drying racks
Luckily it is cold enough at night here to warrant a fire so with a bit of adaptation we managed to throw together some drying racks around out heater.
The bigger picture
According to our neighbour they may take about a week to dry, so we are still in the process of seeing how long it takes. The first hazelnut dessert is currently being planned!

Monday, March 21, 2011

photo record - garden beds

This is a record of what is growing where at the moment - at least at one end of the beds.

Carrots, Endive, Fennel. Carrots have struggled with imperfect soil conditions and a re a bit stumpy.

Beetroot, Parsnips and Mizuma
 The Beetroots have been pulled now and replaced with Tat tsoi and lettuce seedlings.
Broccoli, Silver beet and Kale
We skipped over the Tomatoes and Rhubarb beds as they are in the last blog post. The Tomatoes are still producing lots of fruit - 3kg picked yesterday. Strawberries are producing lots of leaves and runners.
Zucchinis, Shallots and runner beans in view.
While the Zucchinis have mildew on the older leaves , they have a good set of newer leaves and are still producing when the weather warms up.

Potatoes ready for harvest

We have already harvested a couple of 10 litre buckets of potatoes. Kipfler and Tasmanian pink eye so far. The "Dargo goldfields" variety at the rear has quite a lot of leaf still.
Cabbages, Brussel sprouts, Bush Pumpkin (Bush buttercup) and Borlotti beans
A new trellis has been erected beyond the cabbages and this has been planted with Delta Louise Sno peas, which are a mildew resistant variety.

Maturing Zebra beans and Dutch pole beans - empty beds were peas.
 The Zebra beans are still producing well while the Dutch pole dried beans are yellowing off and have had most of their crop removed.

I now have hard decisions about what will go in all the beds next, keeping in mind that i need to remember to leave space for spring plantings. I'm sure i need more space.
On top of that dilemma i am waiting for my latest compost pile to mature ( i still have some of the old heap left but it will probably only do one more bed.

The is one more bed at the bottom of the garden with Cauliflower and one more at the top with young Asparagus. The Asparagus struggled to do much this year - probably because of the lack of soil prep. It should take of next spring when the worms have done lots of aeration over the winter.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A time to reflect

I was struck today by how far we have come on this bit of land since we arrived in early November.
From buying all of our vegetables weekly ( a forein concept to us) to almost self sufficiency in our vegetables in about four months.

Some photos illustrate the transformation well.

The Rhubarb and Strawberries

The Tomatoes.
Our baskets are filled daily with stuff from the garden and our meals are almost all garden produce apart from grains and pulses.

A  basket of produce on a random day in March
Our pantry, fridge and freezer are getting incrementally fuller by the day - something is being preserved on most days. Drying apples has been all the rage in the last few days thanks to some prolific roadside trees.
Pantry full of goodies
Although we are now swimming with produce and look forward to an even better year in the coming spring, it was not all plain sailing. There were many points along the way when, after observing something was not quite right, that an intervention was required.

There have been hundreds of litres of liquid manures spread all over the garden this year because i noticed that the fertility of the soil was not quite up to scratch - and that buried wood chips in the soil were most likely robbing nitrogen from the soil.

Caterpillars were rife and i would have lost many crops if not for prudent timing of control.

I have learned that although Bracken (Pteridium esculentum) is high in potassium and abundant - it is not the panacea for fabulous compost that i was hoping. It has a very waxy coating on the leaf and resists breakdown even in the extended high temperatures of a compost heap.  I am now including some shredded bracken with lots of other material that has been put through the mulcher.

I have observed and learned what plants look like sitting in bad quality potting mix with no fertilizer and how much they don't grow.

I have learned that Bower birds will devour tomato leaves and bean leaves but not peas or potato leaves. I have also learned that they disappear for much of summer and are only now making a sporadic appearance.

 I have learned that Turkeys' are fun to keep but are a bit naughty at times.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A garden perve

I don't know about other folk but i love looking at other peoples' gardens and if the owner of the gardens are around so i can pick their brains, then all the better. It really is a way to fast-forward your process of experimentation in your own garden. You often see things you didn't think were possible or just better ways of doing things. That is also why i think community gardens are great - you can learn just by looking.

So this brings me to Kate Herds' book "Kitchen Gardens of Australia"

A mixture of 18 gardens around the country with food growing at their centre. Some of them are very formal and well designed - while others like our Alice Springs garden are thrown together with recycled bits of wire and wood and make no claim to being pretty - at least not in the dead of winter!

Kates' introduction to food gardens is all about the benefits that they can bring to individuals, families, children as well as the biosphere. Growing food is one of the most "real" activities we can engage in. We all need to eat, but increasingly we are finding we need to inoculate ourselves and our families from the pressures of the modern world and media in particular. Time in the garden is a tonic, an education, a slow outward breath when we are in the moment and the other pressures of the day disappear.

But I'm sure i am preaching to the converted about the benefits of gardening.
Another thing Kates' book may help to do is to to expand the area of vegetables and fruit grown in more formal settings. Through her chosen gardens it is obvious that vegetables can be beautiful and a desirable part of any garden (each garden has an overview design page). If we can bring food plants back into the main stream gardening mixture then we are one step closer to a more grounded suburbia, where people preserve, swap produce and share something of substance. 

A timely book and another tool in the arsenal to encourage sustainable gardens.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Funghi in the forest

Apparently mother nature has decided that it's time for the field mushrooms to come out. Something to do with copious rain (250mm) and humidity this month. These mushrooms are however more forest than field and are liable to be found in the lovely mulch beneath silver wattles (Acacia dealbata) on the edges of paddocks. They seem to have a particular aversion to growing under Eucalyptus around here - whereas in South Australia they could be found commonly under Red Gums (E. camaldulensis).

Mushrooms day 1

As i am a lover of mushroomy flavours in soups and stocks I'm drying mobs of the field mushrooms in the food dryer and filling the larder. I added the fresh fungi to a risotto tonight which was delectable - but dried mushrooms can also be used.

Mushrooms day 2
My second mushroom preserve which as turned out to be extremely delicious is mushrooms preserved in oil. The recipe comes from an excellent book called "Preserving the Italian way" by Pietro Demaio. You boil the mushrooms for 3 minutes in a mixture of 1 part white wine vinegar and three parts water. Squeeze the juice out of them by leaving them over night with a weight on top, and put them under oil the following morning with herbs etc. Use a light Olive oil to get the most out of the mushroom flavours.

mushrooms day 3

The good part of this recipes is that you can eat them on sandwiches or biscuits and they don’t have to be mixed into a meal. We have had issues with certain young people complaining about mushrooms in their meals so this recipe keeps adults and children happy. And who knows the children may even be tempted to try one?

Mushrooms preserved under oil and dried mushrooms