Friday, April 26, 2013


I have been a WWOOF host before, when out in a rural circumstance. See 21 September 2005 on this page for information.

Very pleased now to have been accepted again as a host, this time in a country town small block situation, practising organic growing and seeking to head towards greater self-sufficiency.

There seems no end to the tasks on hand for some time ahead, as I improve things. There is great value for the WWOOF host not only in having help for several hours a day but also in meeting people from other cultures. AND ALSO, in my experience, if you have to explain what you want to do, and what you want done, to someone from a very different background, over a barrier of limited common language, chances are that in the process you might actually, yourself, begin to understand what you are trying to do and whether it makes sense. 

Some very good friends made among WWOOFers, including Rocky and Jongpil from Korea and Belinda and Suzanna from Hong Kong

Sunday, April 21, 2013

..into autumn: sobbing after a death, lots of rain, pecking orders

An Indian friend commented on how wonderful the weather looked in my first blog entry, with the baseline photos. It was indeed beautiful, with mild temperatures, though with only very scattered showers, the ground was starting to dry. I was pleased to see that there was (according to my inserted finger) good soil moisture in the raised bed gardens.

With a rush, the cooler weather has arrived. First with misty mornings, in this photo from in front of my house you are not looking at snow but at fog falling off the nearby hill early in the morning.

Now, suddenly, cold weather whirling in from the sea, and early yesterday 80mm (over 3 inches) of cold hard rain. 

I have been away and yet to see if any damage from the heavy storm. In any case a good follow-up: the day before I had planted seeds of rocket and snap peas in the garden and raised bed, and brussels sprouts in a seed tray. Of these, the rocket my own collected seed, the other purchased. I hope to use a higher percentage of own seed over time.

That day, Friday, was marred by hearing, as I went into the garden, sounds of weeping from the chook house. Where I found one sobbing hen beside the other of two, cold and dead below perch. The deceased went into the compost (my experience of this is that the hen vanishes completely over a time as worms multiply). The compost is closed to all but air. 

The survivor was very much alive and spent the day sobbing and digging. I can only describe it as sobbing, it was different from usual clucking sounds. She dug as if possessed, perhaps heading for China. This was, to me, something in the way of evidence [a] that chooks have feelings [b] that chooks have memories which last longer than 5 seconds.  See this wonderful article about these clever creatures.

I went to the excellent produce store in town and bought two cross-Leghorn (the English 'grand tour'-ists could not pronounce the name of the Italian city of Livorno, so town and the local gracious chooks get to be Leghorn in English). See Wikipedia. These birds bred by the store owner. They may not produce as many eggs per year as the Isa Brown they replace (also available in-store), but the egg productive Isa Browns are relatively short-lived and unfortunately if they take in too much protein they can produce eggs of a size that get stuck in the cloaca. I did not perform and autopsy to check that (I have done so in the past, it provides a view of the succession of eggs growing in order, eventually when full -size each egg given a shell, in the tubework inside) but there was no sign in the chook (or partner) of disease. My suspicion of excess protein mixes with some sense of guilt. I had gone into the large chook run and put a quantity of blood and bone around a banana tree and a cherimoya. To discover later that this industrious hen had had a rich feast from this fertiliser. Some people feed their chooks blood and bone, but this may have been the cause: I am not trained in stomach pumping fowl, which might well cause death if tried. And would certainly achieve a hostile attitude on the part of the chook. Chook stomachs contain lots of bits of rock, etc, for grinding what they eat. Try to remove at peril. Anyway, enough of the guilt trip...

In the afternoon I left the newcomers in their cardboard box near the chook house, within ear- and nose-shot of the incumbent, calling the latter over to hear and smell... but even with separation of heavy netting and cardboard she was standing off. I then waited till after dark, when chooks become very easy to handle, and placed the newcomers with She-Who-Will-Seek-to-Remain-Chief-Chook together in roost. I left a good supply of water and food and locked their house (photo first blog entry) so they could have a couple of days sorting out their 'pecking order'. They seem all to be of fairly gentle disposition and good health, so hopefully when I get home to see them, having been away since, they will have the social order settled without too much bloodshed or flown feathers. 

As regards metaphorical pecking orders, someone reported research last week, derived from riding elevators, with findings about how men and women (at least in those buildings in Adelaide) behave in elevators. I have a spare mirror in the garden, I will have to place it among the chooks and report.

I do have a social science degree, but this kind of ephemeral stuff offers some insight into why angry conservatives acted to take money away from social science in the cutbacks to the United States budget. This piece of research, indeed much of what many students seem to have to do in the endless search for niches unresearched, demonstrates well Edward O Wilson's use of the term hypertrophy, beginning in On Human Nature 1978:
I interpret contemporary human social behavior to comprise hypertrophic outgrowths of the simpler features of human nature joined together into an irregular mosaic.
Butterfly wings, birds of paradise, the pope's getup, the curiously not-privatised funeral of Margaret Thatcher, glamorous birds in elevators in smart cities: all exhibit hypertrophy in their elaborate forms, gone beyond function to glory. My dowdy brown hen has gone not to glory but compost. The last hen to go into my compost was a barnevelder, which never was at home with the two browns. Little do they know, those who enjoy my tamarillos, how many ex-barnevelder atoms they contain.

More from garden soon. I plan news, chook pics and issue reporting.  This is getting hypertrophic... but then, I'm only human!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

why a food forest at home

Many reasons for getting rid of the grass and having a food forest!

We each have to act in our own space, if we don't act in our own spaces, no change occurs. Social change and environmental change do not occur simple by meetings, web clicking or bushwalking.

Among reasons:

  • It's a much greater creative challenge. You are dealing directly with, and included in, nature, rather than on the outside, seeking control. Your ecology changes and develops, day to day, month to month, year to year. New observations, new ideas, new adaptations, new ways of deflecting natural order to produce food. 
  • I incorporate art into the garden, with some included objects, but also the layout. In other gardens, not just my own, I have observed that the more you divide your suburban patch into rooms, the bigger the garden seems to get. And you have wonderful experiences of surprise, coming around a corner to something unexpected.
"It's data driven. We [the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment] were gracefully moving into the environment, save these animals and habitats, and all these good things, then the data on resources - starting about four years ago – made me realise that some of these were really urgent. That we were already entering a food crisis, for example. This time last year I thought it was clear from the data that we were already five years into a food crisis and it is highly unlikely to go away. And unless we get our act together it is likely to become a cascading problem."
  • It may be that those people I see so often, pushing a mower up and down their grass, enwreathed in petrol and rye grass fumes, enjoy doing such repetitive things, but I do not. It seems to me that in a world of diminishing resources, a lawn is an anachronism. Consider this information about gasoline and lawnmowing in the US
"According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a new gas powered lawn mower produces volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides emissions air pollution in in in one hour of operation as 11 new cars each being driven for one hour."
  • I eat better. I will write some other time on simple pleasures and advantages in going out and getting stuff for a meal, to contribute to a meal.
  • I am physically and mentally better. There is work for brain and body.
Warnings/notes (mind preparation)
  • You have to be prepared to deal with change.
  • Your place may look a mess at times while it develops. You will have to live with attitudes of people who cut their grass every five days, their hair every day and their imagination every moment. 
  • You need to be on the watch for how the developing forest alters access to light and water for plants under trees. To maintain productivity you will have to make decisions to prune hard and remove some plants. Day-length is critical. For example, winter growing vegetables will simply bolt to seed if they are in shade (of fence or wall or tree) for too much of the day. 
  • If you plant everything that might grow at your place (which is a good idea, if you can afford to get the seeds and seedlings) be prepared for failures of some plants, if the climate is not right, if it is too susceptible to pests or diseases. If something is struggling, check the soil relative to the plant's requirements, noting that high humus allows almost anything to grow if the climate is right. And give the plant time, water and light. And then if it is not going to work, remove it. Don't make the plant do things it can't do well. Turn it into mulch or compost.
  • Have a plan: make it a conceptual plan, rather than some kind of map. You won't know the map until the plants advance, until you know who is most vigorous when. And the map will undergo big changes as plants grow and as you grow and change. Over time, your garden will develop microclimates, you say 'aha!' and change things!

Friday, April 12, 2013

a baseline - photos on 12 April 2013

I set out to provide a baseline of photos but an essay about thought-baselines has crept in first!

I've postponed, doing too many other things, keeping a proper record of my home garden. I have been in this house since 2008, not always focused on the garden.

A record becomes important as something grows and changes — just as children grow, we can forget the simple beginnings. I will have to retrieve old photos to show earlier history. Oh wait, here are some photos taken December 2011 (summer here) and placed in my main blog.

Also been the case that for health reasons and other distractions the garden has been somewhat less elegant than an untidy construction site.

It remains and will continue to be a construction site. I am not one of those gardeners who lays out a plan, smacks it all down on the ground (so often as a margin to vast grass) and proceeds to keep whipping the thing into line. Down garden, down garden!

My garden is a complex ecology. I seek the complexity because nature likes it.

People like to remember the Second Law of Thermodynamics as saying if you leave things alone they get in a mess. But in the past few years the kings of rules have decided that this is wrong, what happens is that things shift from Homo sapiens shaped order towards nature's order.

The business of farming, or producing food in a suburban environment, is about shifting natural order in favour of things we want to eat. The big issue is how we do it.

Fukuoka, in One Straw Revolution (see pp118-9) made some interesting observations on the differences between conventional agriculture and different forms of organic agriculture. I prefer the end of the spectrum with minimal departure from nature.

I have a Permaculture Design Certificate. In the 1990s I had a small orchard which was certified organic by the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture - Australia. I bring those concepts and history to a suburban garden now. This garden is huge for personal needs. These thoughts I expressed on radio in 2006 are relevant.

I combine that 'farming-gardening' perspective with a view that if it's worth doing, it's worth doing aesthetically well. You have to pursue beauty and happiness and fun or it's not worth doing.

This fits comfortably with the permaculturist's perspective, in fact, if one gives the aesthetic sufficient space in mind. Here are key principles:
• stack plants, in mixture, be concerned to get more per cubic metre of life than individual plants... and from the organic farming perspective, a muddling of plants, rather than straight rows of the same reduces disease prospect
• every element (plant, wall, microclimate, animal, fixture, bloke, art object) should serve multiple functions
• every function should be supported by multiple elements.

From this thinking about elements and functions comes complexity of thought, discovery of imagination, perhaps even fun... all to be fed by the most powerful necessity of all: observation.

• My garden evolves and changes, and my ideas about it change, my understanding of how to get results and happiness from it change... so the observation is critical to an ongoing process of enjoyment.

• I turn 70 in July 2013, and it is very important to me to make it possible to enjoy it for as long as possible. This makes an energy budget essential. Well, really, I have more free time than many others for the garden, so energy budgets are surely important for all. For me it means understanding, as in martial arts, where energy is going, and moving with that.

It is odd, to my mind, that among gardeners the instinct to segregation continues: "Flowers here, you vegetables get round the back out of sight!!" No segregation in my garden.

So to some photos. Midday April 2013, approx 34 degrees south, 150 degrees east. 24 degrees celsius.

My front garden excites different people in different ways :-)  It remains a construction site. On the left, you see the driveway has shadecloth (mounted on Corinthian columns (from eBay of course) with pediments still under design, bird cages at the top, with faux birds and solar powered lights. Solar panels on the house face west. This garden is a heat trap, a very warm microclimate. Thus a I have put a banana among the rhubarb. The rhubarb started in compost from several cubic metres of grass cuttings dumped at my asking by contract lawnmowing men. Behind the banana see my wood carved Ceres guarding the raised beds, currently salad gone to seed (to be nurtured and grown) and potting up site, so many things come from the home compost, especially tamarillos this season. A bit more detail below...

Shadecloth (below) not only covers cars but modifies the climate and air flow at this north west corner of the house (if reading this in the northern hemisphere, think southwest corner. The oranges do well in the gap by the fence. The rocks - well, they haven't found a home elsewhere in the garden yet...

This photo below shows some more of the garden, but (especially when enlarged (click on photo) this wide angled shot offers things you don't realise are before your eyes when 'just looking', including the shadows of the shadecloths. Photos provide insights.

This next is the entry to the backyard. Things take time. From 2008 until a few months ago, the lemon happily espaliered on the lattice on the right, was knee high. Now heading for the roof. Time... and more recently, a better diet, more to drink, and more attention to the snail nests that build in the bottom of the lattice. Note the lack of grass. A small raised bed in the shade of a Callistemon on the left. Dining/etc-ing table beyond.

This is another view of the backyard, from the back veranda area. Yes, there is a Fisher-Price caterpillar with its coloured feet in that peach tree, applying traction to a branch. This seedling tree (fruit quality yet unknown) shades a north facing window at dining table, during summer.

That table is under white genoa fig (have to work hard to get to them before birds!), tamarillo and one of three Bangalow palms which will change the whole garden again when they are tall. To the left a pond of water chestnuts

Ten steps from the back veranda, the compost bin. black plastic in sun, cooks quickly, if enough water. Sitting on its lid is my compost stirrer, an invaluable corkscrew device that lifts and mixes and speeds up the compost process: if you have the right things in there: water, air, nitrogenous waste (20%), carbonaceous waste (80%) and a zillion macro and micro creatures. In our climate, you have to work to keep it moist. Leaving the lid off if rain coming in the night is good. Adding water (especially hot water wastes) to the kitchen compost bucket begins the decomposition inside, keeps down possible odours from the bucket and rinses all the new additions down through the bin when you add it.

I keep two hens in this fine henhouse. The curtain dumped on the end is to insulate the egg-laying compartment from the sun. The curtain plonked over the door keeps the food from sparrows. The wire mesh fence is easily moved: the chooks*** are not just there to lay eggs and look pretty, they are my fertilisers and ploughs and they rotate though different areas of the garden. The manure collected from their house sometimes goes directly to plants of big appetite, like bananas, but mainly it goes into the compost bin.

*** chook is a delightfully gender-free Australian word for domestic fowl: hen, rooster, chicken, chick.. all are chooks. Also as in: "how are you my old chook?" — an expression of endearment to be used judiciously. Also as in the expression of a highly controversial former state premier in a deep northern state as it then was, Joh Bjelke-Petersen. announcing that he was going to hold a press conference: "Excuse me, I've got to go and feed the chooks."

When I was on my way to China as ambassador in 1984, I called on that Premier, who seemed, in the behaviour of his minions, something of a demigod. Joh was delayed. I waited in his grand office, he swept in and said: "China, eh, China. I like it. I like the way they crush the unionists!"

That story not entirely relevant here, but I've not put it on the record anywhere else.

I made this feeder from 100mm (4 inch) pvc pipe (load food from top, chooks feed from side spout) to be rodent proof.

The chooks have only had the run of this back corner garden area (below) in the last month or so. I planted asparagus and strawberries and herbs a year ago or so. Overrun by grasses in the summer, see the work the chook tractor has done in a short time to clear the grass away. While dropping some manure and scratching generally. The soil in this garden recently treated with dolomite (magnesium-calcium limestone) — the eggs shells are now very very strong and doubtless the two hens are strong in bone and muscle too.

Mostly the things the chooks have left are the things they want. However, there is a problem in that they really like worms which abound in the well-watered and fed ground around valued plants. So I've put a couple of pavers around the base of a newly planted Cherimoya (cooler tolerant custard apple). The seed heads in the foreground are mainly parsley, which grows in abundance (including cracks in the concrete drive).

Back corners tend to the wild. Permaculture design considers zones. Zone 1 is the things you must have daily. Zone 4 on a farm is where cattle roam. But zones are very relevant to a suburban garden too. I have had to learn again from getting things wrong here that you start close and work out. A design must have a centre. This is where 'lawn in the middle, plants at the edge' thinking doesn't work. One thing I've had to realise about this garden area is that with that fence running east west, winter vegetables don't like the back corner because there is so little sun light, their days are short, the vegetables bolt to seed.

I have begun to used raised beds recently for several reasons: they are operator friendly, easy to go pick salads for dinner (all this lot gone to seed in summer heat despite having shade over them, I now await seedlings), they are far above snails (my style anyway, containers on legs, in this case a very large old dog bed from garage sale, on two old saw horses) AND the chooks patrol under them.

Well, I was too close to this tree below to get a good photo, but it's one of four tamarillos I have (they only live a few years). It was planted only a year and a half ago but I have to use a ladder to get to the fruit. It sits next to the chook house, the chooks sit under it. Well fed! And exactly the same age as the one in the front yard (photo 4, click any photo to see all photos together)

Well that's the end of my argument for integrating animals into an organic enterprise. It's about ecological complexity and health.

That will do for a start, I think!