Soils ain’t just soils – and compost isn’t just compost

Sorry for the long gap between posts.  I’ve mostly been off touring around national parks and permaculture places in northern New South Wales and southern central and southeastern Queensland with my daughter.  Some great walks in spectacular country, and some interesting comparisons between different permaculture demonstration sites.

Not long after we got back I discovered the great blog Living at Gully Grove via a guest post that its author, Chris, wrote on Farmer Liz’s Eight Acres blog about how their family uses permaculture.

When I clicked across to Living at Gully Grove, I found to my delight that, like us, they live in the hilly margins of the Lockyer Valley and clearly face some of the same issues.  It’s always great to find someone who lives in your region who is willing to share their knowledge.

That happy discovery led to an exchange of views via comments on Chris’ blog and the start of a “conversation” about sandstone soils.  As you may know if you’ve been following this blog, our place is steep sandstone country, with many rock outcrops and soil that is made up of sandstone in various stages of decomposition, and generally not more than 60-70 cm deep.  Even that shallow layer of “soil” often has at least half its volume made up of gravel and small rocks.

What passes for soil on a sandstone ridge

What passes for soil on a sandstone ridge

Early on we recognised that one of our main food production challenges was going to be the need to create suitable soil.  To that end we have done all kinds of things, including sieving the rocks and gravel out of huge quantities of the native “soil”, green manuring, mulching, terracing, etc.

So when Chris said:

Have you ever let a garden bed go (ran out of time to keep up to it) and noticed the good soil revert to something like dry potting mix?

The hardest challenge for us hasn’t been building the soil, but rather maintaining it. I notice where we have swales, the soil doesn’t need much of our attention, except where it crosses a sandstone shelf. It only takes a season of hot dry weather, to cook any good soils we don’t maintain.

I knew exactly what she meant.

For us, the challenge hasn’t only been to create good quality soil (and I can’t claim to have satisfactorily cracked that one), but to keep it in good condition.  An apparently well prepared garden bed can start the growing season with lovely fluffy, moist soil that holds together exactly right when squeezed in the hand and produces a good crop.  Then, unless it is constantly maintained, a few months later it is dry, loose and apparently lifeless.  Chris’ description of “dry potting mix” soil hits the nail on the head, particularly if one interprets it as the crap bagged potting mix that supermarkets and garden supply places sell. The plant material in these mixes is generally at best only partly broken down, and there is no evidence that there is, or ever was, life in them.

I’m no expert on soil processes, but I suspect that the coarse material in our “dry potting mix” soils is compost “residue” that has not been broken down. This is probably because (a) the soil was not sufficiently healthy initially, and in particular did not contain sufficient humic matter and soil organisms; (b) when we let the bed go there isn’t sufficient ongoing moisture in the system for biological processes to continue creating and maintaining humic matter; (c) if there isn’t a continuous cover of thick (but air and water permeable) mulch then soil temperatures rise and water content decreases; and, on a sandstone base, there is likely to be significant leaching of nutrients when major rainfall events occur. I have to say though that I have had this problem in some beds that I was actively managing, not just in ones that I’d been ignoring for a few months, but that may have been due to the leaching mentioned in the last point above.

Does the above explanation seem to match your experience / observations?

My way of tackling this problem is still evolving, but it includes:
# keeping a fluffy straw mulch cover on the soil that allows air and water to penetrate, and at the same time significantly reduces drying and insulates from overheating;
# adding green manure to the soil and digging it in. This isn’t the usual “green crop dug in” approach, but a mix of moist and drier (but still living) plant material put through the chipper / mulcher sufficient to make a 25-50mm layer on the surface, then watering it and digging it in;
# adding sieved compost “fines” (containing the humic material) to the soil;
# adding dry horse manure that has been put through the chipper / mulcher to the surface layer.  Processing it this way produces a fine, light fluffy material that holds moisture and gives the soil a great “texture”; and
# to the extent that our water supply allows (we have only tank water), keeping the soil moist, even when the area is not in production.

Good compost of course contains humic material, but can also contain a lot of woody material if you use coarse chip mulch as part of your carbon source.  This is part of the reason it’s a good idea to sieve your compost and put the finer, humic, fraction into the soil, reserving the coarser material for mulch or for feeding the next batch of compost. Unless you already have a healthy soil, there’s not a lot of point in incorporating coarse, only partly broken down, compost material into it.

If you want a good guide to how soil “works” and how to maintain its health, the best book I’ve come across is Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden (Chapter 4: Bringing Soil to Life). This is by far the best and most practical permaculture text I know. The other good source for soil matters is, perhaps surprisingly, Harvey Ussery’s The Small-scale Poultry Flock (pages 137-144 for soil matters). We have a pretty comprehensive permaculture / organic library but these are the two books I go to first when I have a question, and I seldom need to go past them.

Garlic harvest


the garlic crop in May this year

In early September we harvested the first of the garlic, a hard-neck variety called Monaro Purple. That’s the garlic bed in the photo above.  At this stage the Monaro Purple (the right-hand half of the main crop in the photo) aren’t easily distinguished from the Glen Large on the left. The three in the foreground are Elephant Garlic.

the harvest in September

the harvest in September

From 30 cloves of Monaro Purple we got 30 bulbs (thanks Green Harvest).  They aren’t  huge (but the flavour is great).  I planted them a little late, and we have had hardly any winter at all, followed by Summer in Spring, and hardly any rain for months, so you can’t expect too much.  Last year the tops died off in late September, but they were two weeks earlier this year.  Green Harvest say that Monaro Purple is mainly suitable for cooler areas, but as I haven’t been able to find a hard-neck garlic suitable for the sub-tropics that was what I grew (can anyone suggest a better variety for Southeast Queensland?).

I thought I’d done something really clever by green-manuring the bed a few weeks before planting with a mix of lemon grass, pigeon pea and mulberry prunings (there’s a post on it here).  It certainly achieved an almost miraculous improvement in the soil texture, and I was expecting a similarly spectacular improvement in the garlic harvest.  However, 12 hours after harvesting the garlic I read a  post on Root SimpleTips on Growing Great Garlic.  Here’s an extract from the post:

When I asked a garlic farmer I met yesterday how to grow garlic he said, “It’s like giving a credit card to your wife . . . you’ve got to give her all she wants.” When I asked him to clarify, he told me that garlic requires as much compost, nutrients and water as you can spare. [Garlic expert, Jeffrey] Nekola said he doesn’t even plant garlic unless he’s prepped his beds for at least two to three years and noted that one of the best heads of garlic he ever grew took root accidentally in a compost pile.

Pull the garlic cloves apart (leave the skins on) and plant them in the ground with the pointy end up. Nekola suggests planting them with a tablespoon of soybean meal (found at feed stores as animal feed). Nekola also recommended mulch. Let the garlic sprout first, but then pack down at least an inch of straw. Lay your drip tubing under the straw.

the harvest - minus quite a few already used or given away

the harvest – minus quite a few already used or given away

So my green-manuring should have been just the start of the bed preparation.  Right after reading that I put a load of chicken manure onto the bed that the garlic came out of, as the first stage in getting ready for a really good garlic harvest next year.

I had expected to be harvesting the Glen Large garlic from the same bed some time in October.  It’s a soft-neck variety, with large cloves and a fantastic garlic flavour, and keeps well when frozen in olive oil.

There were also a few Elephant Garlic, planted as a trial in the same bed – this is the first year I’d grown it.  Up until late October the Glen Large were apparently doing well, if what was above ground was anything to go by.  However we got some heavy rain before they were ready to harvest, and when I pulled up a couple of bulbs around a week after the rain they were slimy and stinking.  Heavy rain is the last thing you want when a garlic crop is near ready to harvest.  All of the Glen Large were the same, as were the Elephant Garlic.  Oh well.  But in fact when I checked on the Glen Large bulbs, all were small and unformed.  I suspect it may have been the inadequate rainfall over several months, as the soil was definitely in a better state than last year, when I got a bumper drop of Glen Large.

As a footnote, Root Simple is one of the many blogs I follow and it is well worth subscribing to.  Oh, and I use NetNewsWire as my “feed reader”.  Great app.

Strawbale gardening trial: April to September 2013

Earlier in the year I’d been reading a lot about what great success some people were having with strawbale gardening (e.g. here, and here, and here), and came across the detailed instructions prepared by the Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources at Oklahoma State University, available as a pdf file here.

So I thought I’d give it a go, even though I couldn’t immediately see a need for strawbale plantings on our patch.  We aren’t short of space.  Having made the decision to limit our footprint on our 35ha to the area uphill along the ridge-top from the house, we have the potential to occupy a couple of hectares.  And we don’t have a soil contamination problem.  However we do have soil issues – for the most part we don’t have what you’d call “soil”, but rather decomposing sandstone with some soil-like features.  So maybe from that point of view we resemble those with concreted over yards who see strawbale gardening as one of only a very few options.

1 April 2013 – Putting the bales in place

I decided to use a more or less flat area which was scheduled to become our fourth shadehouse in due course, but certainly not for many months.  So as not to get in the way of ongoing work constructing shadehouses numbers two and three, I limited myself to just six straw bales.  They were arranged in pairs with one of each pair on its wide side, and the other on its narrow side (i.e. with the straws running vertically).20130401_P1050510_blogBarley straw is what I had on hand, and is what I use by choice.  Lately it has been costing $10 per bale, no matter what the season, so the original cash outlay was $60, not counting the relatively minor cost of the blood and bone.  It isn’t actually blood and bone; the pure blood and bone meal that used to be available 60 years ago when I was growing up on a farm doesn’t seem to be available any more, so it was the “blood & bone based fertilizer” type of product.

7 April 2013

The bales were thoroughly soaked twice per day for three days, then had urea applied daily for a further three days.  Since urea is an industrially produced compound, and it has to be bought with real dollars, I decided to use urine, since the main ingredient in urine (after water) is nitrogen (15-18%) most of which is present as urea**.20130407_P1050540_blogThe bales were moved closer together, but still in their original pairs, to save space, but then I realised that I could make an arrangement that had a rectangular hole in the middle which would be a good place to plant some potatoes which had started sprouting.  I put a base of flood-deposited creek sand in this middle space, and just covered the potatoes with this.  The space was approximately 0.5m x 0.8m – that measurement becomes important later on.

The flood which deposited the sand occurred when we had a major rainfall event just after a bushfire (forest fire) that burned out the whole of the catchment above our creek crossing (and 5,000 ha in total across the Hills – you can see details of it on the Smokespotter website).  As a result, there was no vegetation to slow the runoff of the rain to allow it to soak into the ground.  Pretty much every drop that fell ran off into the creeks, causing a flash flood that carried huge quantities of sand, charcoal and humus which was deposited wherever there was the slightest backwater, such as the approaches to our creek crossing.  I shoveled two large trailer-loads of this rich and free resource off our track and stockpiled it for making potting mix.

17 April 2013

Following the urea treatment the bales were subjected to three days on which watering was followed fertilizing with the blood and bone product. At the end of this period the bales were given a very light dusting with the creek sand – intended to prevent the seeds from falling too far into the spaces on the “edge-on” bales (or even washing right through them).

20130417_P1050588_blogAfter this they were seeded in strips across the top of each bale with lettuce, flat-leaf parsley, pak choi, corn salad, silverbeet (swiss chard), coriander (cilantro) and kangkung (water morning glory).  Both bales in each pair had the same plantings.

Unfortunately, just after the seeds were planted we had a heavy rain that washed some of the sand off the bales, and quite likely some of the seeds as well.  This may be why there was no germination of kangkung, and little of the silverbeet, as they were on opposite ends of the bales.

31 May 2013

By the end of May, some five weeks after seeding, there was only limited growth of some seedlings.  In general all species showed uneven sprouting, with some seeds coming up well in advance of others.

20130531_P1050876_blogYou can see two stalks of a Coprinus fungi in the foreground.  At about this stage these fungi became very numerous, and persisted for a couple of weeks.

20130531_P1050875_blogEverything is looking fairly healthy at this stage, and no insect damage.  More stalks of the Coprinus fungi are visible to the right, and in the foreground of the photo below you can see a black area which is typical of the residue this fungus leaves when its cap decomposes into a sticky black mass.  We were wary of eating any of the plants which were affected by this.

20130531_P1050878_blogThe corn salad was among the slowest to come up and germination was rather patchy, but it isn’t known for its high germination rate.  In the end the corn salad proved to be the second longest producer, after the parsley, but the volume was not great because they didn’t grow to their full potential.

At this stage I first noticed some tunneling into the bales by rats or bandicoots.  I tried trapping them, but without success.

29 June 2013

20130629_P1050991_blogIt’s all looking very healthy here, but that was only achieved with daily doses of nitrogen in the form of diluted urine (1:10) carefully applied under the foliage.  You can’t see it in the photos but snails were a major problem, particularly on the lettuce, and it was unusual to pick any lower leaves without at last two snails attached.  I’m sure that the damp and decomposing straw provided an ideal habitat for snails, and this seems to me to be one of the drawbacks of strawbale gardening.  The tall leafy growth to the left of centre in the shot above is the potatoes.

20130629_P1050992_blogSome insect damage was beginning to become apparent, but this seemed to be restricted to the pak choi and the potatoes, which can be seen here, on the right, beginning to overwhelm things planted on the bales.  I hadn’t realised how tall the potato plants would grow, and it is possible that they had more leafy matter than usual because of the high levels of nitrogen in the water applied to the bales.

29 August 2013

20130827_P1060075_blogFour months in, we’ve been harvesting for nearly three months and I’ve discontinued the daily nitrogen application (mostly because I was too busy, but also it became impossible to keep up a sufficient supply of nitrogen, particularly as the bales disintegrated and water tended to flow right through).  The pak choi is fairly dominant at this stage, and we are harvesting leaves, stems, buds and flowers for use in stir fries and salads.  Pak choi has two distinctly different leaf types. The first leaves are wide, slightly hairy, and have a slight “peppery” flavour that becomes stronger as the plant ages.  Once the flower stems grow they develop different leaves which are thicker, have no hairs, and are sweet-tasting.  At this stage, before the flowers open, the stems are tender and sweet, as are the bud clusters.

20130829_P1060093_blogThe lettuce are in the middle of the right edge.  It is clear that some are yellowing as a result of nitrogen deficiency.  What isn’t obvious is that all of the lettuce are “stunted”; I had transplanted about ten lettuce seedlings from the bales to a normal garden bed, and within two weeks they were more than twice the size of those left in the bales.  I tried to remedy what was clearly an overall nutrient deficiency by making up compost teas with worm castings, and adding both the tea and the rich “sludge” to the bales, but though individual plants made significant gains, this didn’t result in any overall improvement.

The curly parsley in the middle was planted into the bales with its potting mix, as were some spring onions.  Both did really well, no doubt partly because of the nutrients in their accompanying soil, but in my experience both parsley and spring onions are incredibly hardy.

The potatoes had pretty much died off by this stage, leaving the bare soil in the middle.  I didn’t attempt to harvest any potatoes because of not wanting to disturb the collapsing straw bales.

17 September

Time to take stock, and to harvest the potatoes.  The above ground stems had been dead for a while, but I didn’t want to disturb the pak choi which had fallen across the potato area until its seed cases were ready to harvest.  However today curiosity got the better of me.  So I pushed the pak choi aside, noting as I did that where they had collapsed onto their own bales there was still harvestable corn salad underneath.

It didn’t take long to find the first potatoes, though they were rather small.  Not encouraging.  But as I dug deeper they became bigger.  In the end I got 2.5kg of very nice Dutch Cream potatoes out of this “pocket” between the bales.  Not bad for something that was planted as an afterthought.

P1060125_smallRemember the dimensions of this area?  0.8 x 0.5m – or 0.4 square metres.  Now if I could get the same production out of a hectare of potatoes, I’d have ….. 72.5 metric tonnes of potatoes from a one hectare field!!!  Not that I think I could easily replicate this over one hectare, but

The amazing thing is that I put nearly zero effort into this potato area, though I did water it daily as part of the straw bale watering, and it no doubt benefited from the thermal insulation provided by the straw bales and from the blood and bone and urine applied to the surrounding bales (though this run-off represents very little fertilizer in broadscale agricultural terms).

But … getting back to the strawbale gardening.

What were we still harvesting from the strawbales after five and a half months?  Here’s the list: corn salad, flat-leaf parsley, curly parsley and spring onions (both transplanted into the bales back in June), silverbeet (small leaves from three or four plants), and leaves and flowers from the pak choi stems.  And the potatoes.  And in the end there will be a huge crop of pak choi seeds, plus the rotted down straw bales to use as a soil supplement.

Was it sustainable?

On a quick assessment I’d say it was pretty sustainable. The straw bales were from the Toowoomba region where there is a significant production of barley for malting.  That’s only 40km from here.  The minimal input of blood and bone based fertilizer came from much further afield (I’m not sure where), and the urea was produced very locally, being derived from our urine.  The creek sand for the potatoes came from our creek, only 1km from the garden, and wasn’t taken out of the bed of the creek but was flood debris (sand, humic matter, charcoal) deposited on the creek bank.  The water was collected on our roofs and stored in stainless steel tanks (recyclable at the end of their life, which galvanized tanks seldom are).  A minimal amount of pumping using a petrol driven pump was used to get the water up to a header tank, from where it was gravity fed to the garden tank. From there it was pumped to the strawbales using a solar electricity-powered pump.  The seeds for the crops were either from our collection or from Green Harvest in Maleny, around 100km away, and delivered by post.  The seed potatoes were organic potatoes that had started sprouting in our kitchen.

Is it worth doing again?

On a cost basis I’d be inclined to say that the production hasn’t been worth the $60 for the bales.  But then when I think about the ongoing organic production we have had in a number of crops and the fact that the remains of the bales can be used as a soil additive in a new garden, the equation starts to look better.

On the time/effort side of things, I had been thinking for quite some time that the harvest wasn’t worth the effort that I’d put into the preparation of the bales and the continual (for the first two and a half months) watering with diluted urine.  However, in preparing this blog post I realised that, while there was a considerable initial investment in effort to “condition” the straw bales and to prepare the diluted urine application in the early stages, the ongoing watering and fertilizing pretty much fitted in with the same treatments of other areas in the garden.

So, all things considered, it was surprisingly productive, if not totally cost effective.  For someone with no good soil and plenty of time it would be a good way to grow leafy vegetables.

I’ll certainly do it at least once more, but with a different setup: four bales forming two parallel lines and one bale across each end, so as to have a long narrow potato production area in the middle and production of other crops on the tops of the bales.

In part this will be to see if the potato production can be duplicated, and in part it will be to test the strawbale approach in the hottest part of the year, given that the original trial was over the winter.  I doubt that this will become part of our production process, but it may yield more lessons that can be incorporated into our approach.

** Jenkins, The Humanure Handbook Table 3.2; Steinfeld, Liquid Gold.

Here’s an element of sustainability that should be a major election issue

Do you keep a three-month stockpile of food in your house, including a freezer with frozen foods, or perhaps you are a keen permaculture gardener with a well stocked backyard?  Is there a stockpile of petrol in the backyard (this might be illegal where you live)?

Do you depend on having an essential prescription filled by your local pharmacy when you run out?  If you had a sudden medical emergency, would you assume that you could receive immediate treatment in a hospital that was well stocked with pharmaceutical supplies?

According to a report  on Australia’s Liquid Fuel Security, prepared by Air Vice-Marshal John Blackburn (Retired) and released by the NRMA in February this year, if Australia’s oil supply was cut off:

  • dry goods could run out within nine days;
  • chilled and frozen goods could run out within seven days;
  • retail pharmacy supplies could run out within seven days;
  • hospital pharmacy supplies could run out within three days; and
  • fuel available to the public could run out within three days.

This is because Australia is one of the few developed nations that lacks a standard stockpile of fuel reserves.

The report highlights the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and fuel.

NRMA Motoring & Services Director Graham Blight said 85 per cent of Australia’s transport fuel comes from overseas crude oil or imported fuel.

This is a major sustainability issue, not just at the national level but also at the individual household level.  We can’t do much about the national issue, apart from raising it as a factor in the current election campaign.  However, at the household level it is one that we can prepare for.

If you haven’t got a large pantry (or even if you have) what about setting aside another cupboard – maybe clear some shelves in your linen cupboard, or get rid of the junk in those bottom drawers to make space – and set up a stock of dry goods, with each category arranged in use-by date.  You’d be surprised how far off the “best before” date is for a lot of dry and canned foods.  You can then rotate these into your pantry as needed and make a note on your shopping list to fill the gap in your stockpile the next time you go shopping.

How about starting a permaculture garden in the backyard; or joining a community garden; or asking if you can start a garden in that unused lot down the street.  And start growing staples first, not exotic herbs or fruits that you seldom eat.  That way you have a garden you not only can rely on in an emergency, but also one which makes an ongoing contribution to better nutrition.

Of course if you are in a suburban situation it is unlikely you will be able to grow significant quantities of a wide range of foods, but you might be able to link up with other gardeners to exchange excess produce of one type for something that you don’t grow.

From a permaculture principles point of view, the problem contains solutions – the fact that we have had a series of shortsighted national governments resulting in no liquid fuel reserves – contains the solutions to a whole lot of issues (emergency shortages, inadequate fresh foods in our diet, need for more outdoor exercise, not enough community linkages).  Addressing all of these through stockpiling, growing some of our own food, and establishing links within the community also increases resilience.

[Update Edit 9/8/13:]

For an idea of how little it can take to tip countries into an emergency situation based on the lack of liquid fossil fuels have a look at this report by Kathy McMahon in August 2006, on her blog Peak Oil Blues.  She provides a detailed account of the impact on the UK in 2000 when oil supplies were cut off by public action.  It all started when some French fishermen blockaded the English Channel as a protest against high fuel prices.  They were joined by truckers and farmers who were similarly angry about fuel prices and blockaded refineries and distribution centres throughout Europe.

England was possibly the most affected country and within nine days of the first protests:

  • Enormous lines appeared at gas stations as panic buying spread across the country on day 4;
  • Over half of Britain’s gas stations were closed by day 6, 90% by day 9;
  • Food stores experienced the same wave of panic buying, forcing supermarkets to close or impose rationing;
  • Hospitals suspended all but emergency care and began to run out of blood and essential supplies;
  • Mail delivery and public transportation operated on reduced schedules;
  • Heavy industries — auto manufacturers, steel plants, aerospace plants and the like — began planning immediate cutbacks, layoffs and closures as they ran short of fuel, parts, raw materials and workers who could get to work [quoted from: Transition Voice]

This summary gives only an indication of the nature and extent of the impact.  For a more nuanced description read Kathy McMahon’s material.

Reading her material should lead you to greatly expand the list of measures that you need to take to be ready for interruptions to the fossil fuel supply.  Such interruptions will not necessarily come about through the actions of terrorists, and certainly will occur well before the oil actually “runs out” (it never will, but the price will become prohibitive for all practical purposes).
In nine days, from 5 September to 14 September 2000, a small number of angry people brought one of the major developed economies to its knees.  This needs to be remembered when governments are considering their policies in relation to peak oil.  It is not safe to assume that people will “adapt” to rising fuel prices brought on by diminishing supplies.  As Kathy McMahon says:

“We are facing a life or death situation that creates both an intellectual and emotional strain. Even this brief look into the British Petrol Sedition tells an interlocking and devastating tale of what an oil shortage looks like. It tells a frightening tale of the power held in the hands of a small number of emotional, angry people who feel that their very livelihoods are being challenged by high oil prices and want their governments to do something about it.”

I am grateful to Tom Lewis at Transition Voice who re-posted from original article at The Daily Impact (which includes a podcast version), for bringing Kathy McMahon’s excellent article to my attention.  Her article is fully referenced, so it constitutes a rich vein of material on the topic.

Preserving Food – and how to avoid botulism

Preserving excess food is one of the cornerstones of a sustainable lifestyle.  I used to do a lot of preserving of stone fruit when I lived in country Victoria, but those days are gone, along with the antique Fowlers preserving set.

Now that we are trying to establish a permaculture lifestyle I think the time has come to get back to preserving food, not least so we have a more varied back-up larder to increase our food independence.

There was a good blog post by Farmer Liz over at Eight Acres the other day, with consideration of the pros and cons of preserving fruit, vegetables, and meat.  Farmer Liz concluded that with our climate (Southeast Queensland) allowing us to produce vegetables pretty much all year round, there’s no reason to preserve vegetables.

Meat isn’t usually preserved (canned) in Australia, possibly because it’s always available (if you are getting yours from the butcher or supermarket) and can always be dried or smoked.  Personally I’d rather store my meat by keeping it on the hoof (or claw) till it’s needed.  If we buy meat in bulk we tend to freeze it, and when we finally get some chooks, if we ever have to kill more than one then they’ll go in the freezer too.

Speaking of meat, we just bought a quarter of a Low-line Angus and it’s in the freezer now, all bagged up in daily serves.  We have friends who raise this breed of beef cattle in an ecologically sustainable (pasture fed on cell grazing) and humane way, and market them by the quarter.  Not that you have to buy a front quarter or a back quarter, but you get a quarter of all the cuts from the animal.  It’s a nice feeling to know where our meat comes from and how it was raised, even to the point of having seen the paddocks that it grazed.  The fact that we are supporting friends who are members of our community is an additional consideration.  More and more farmers seem to be changing over to specialty marketing of sustainably produced bulk meat.

Aren’t we worried about blackouts and losing all the food in the freezer?  Not while we are off the grid and on solar power – and own a generator that can take over from the solar batteries if the need ever arises (it hasn’t).

When the floods hit in 2011 (remember the disastrous Grantham/Toowoomba floods in the early part of that year) we were cut off for days, and when we eventually got out to the supermarket pretty much all the shelves were bare.  All of the people on the electricity grid had experienced days of no power, but our solar power kept right on going.  We didn’t even have to run the generator to top up the batteries (I thought about doing it, just to be on the safe side, but a mouse had made its home in the alternator and it and the wiring got fried when I turned the generator on).  Anyway, we had a quarter of a cow in the freezer and about three-months’ supply of non-perishables in the pantry, so being cut off wasn’t a problem.

The subject of preserving meat always starts a discussion on botulism.  Botulism is caused by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, which can occur in the soil, the bottoms of waterways, or in the intestines of mammals such as humans, cattle and horses.  The spores are not killed by boiling.  However botulism is uncommon because special, rarely obtained conditions are necessary for botulinum toxin production from C. botulinum spores, including an anaerobic, low-salt, low- acid, low-sugar environment at ambient temperatures – the kind of habitat you might find in a container of badly preserved meat, for instance.

While I was thinking about preserving, Northwest Edible Life (another of my regular reads) came out with a post on “How Not to Die from Botulism”.  It’s a must-read if you are doing any preserving, and is useful generally if you are regularly preparing or storing food.  You can find the blog here  and you can download a full-size pdf file of the poster below here.

Avoiding botulism

Yams instead of potatoes?

Following on from yesterday’s post about the need to focus more on producing our staple foods, I just came across a couple of posts on Jerry Coleby-Williams’ blog about growing yams as a potato substitute.

You are probably aware of Jerry from his writing in Gardening Australia and The Organic Gardener magazines, or as the presenter for the national gardening program Gardening Australia for over twelve years.  Hanneke and I were lucky enough to be guides at his home “Bellis” in a Brisbane bayside suburb when he opened it to the public on Sustainable House Day a few years ago – we weren’t really “guides” (Jerry did that), our role was to greet people when they arrived and to keep them entertained until Jerry had completed the previous tour of the back garden.  It is amazing what we could find to say about even his front garden.  Jerry is an inspiring person and his backyard garden is one of the most prolific I have ever seen.

Jerry recommends yams because they are “adaptable, space and energy saving, productive and easy to store [and t]hey taste and cook like potato, but the starch is far more sustaining”.

He grows Winged Yam, Dioscorea alata, and Aerial Potato, D. bulbifera, and in his latest post on the subject reports a “low yield” this year for his Winged Yams of only17.2kg per square metre, instead of the 20 – 30 kg/sq. m. that he normally gets.  This compares to his average potato harvest of 3.5 kg/sq. m.

In another post he provides a lot more detail on the characteristics of each species, their cultivation, pests, storage, etc.

If you are thinking of growing the Aerial Potato, please take into account Jerry’s warnings on keeping them under control, and the comment on one of his postings from an ecologist on the Sunshine Coast about “escapes”

We are now on the lookout for both of these yams.  If you know of anyone in Southeast Queensland who has these available please let us know.

Producing the staples

What do you eat?  I don’t mean a literal list of all the different varieties of plant and meat that you consume, but rather the main elements of your diet – the staples, as they are traditionally known.  These are food “eaten routinely and in such quantities that it constitutes a dominant portion of a standard diet” (Wikipedia).

Here on Black Cockatoo Ridge we can divide our main food items into six groups, not all which are staples in the normal sense, but we eat them at least every week, if not daily.  In rough order of volume consumed they are:

  • starchy roots (potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin – I know it’s not a starchy root, but we often use it as a substitute);
  • grains/seeds (rice, beans, gluten free grains/seeds used as flour or in muesli – corn, rice, buckwheat, quinoa, chickpeas);
  • fruit (bananas, apples, melons, pawpaw, avocado);
  • meat (kangaroo, or when we can get a bulk order from a sustainably and humanely raised and slaughtered animal, beef, fish);
  • dairy products (milk and yoghurt);
  • leafy greens (pak choi, lettuce, broccoli); and
  • onion family (onions, garlic, spring onions).

Which of these do we produce ourselves?  Potatoes – very infrequently.  Sweet potatoes – just started harvesting our first (poor) crop.  Pumpkin – seasonal, and depends on whether the bandicoots and possums get to them first. Beans – seasonal, and I’m bad at succession planting, so the supply is intermittent. Pawpaw – we have one amazing tree that has kept us in pawpaws for the last few years. Garlic – seasonal, and not enough to last more than a few months.  Spring onions – constant supply using cut-and-come-again approach.  Pak choi – more or less continuous supply. Lettuce – very occasionally, due to pests and poor succession planting.

Given that our objective is to be as self-sufficient as possible, this is a pretty poor showing.  Not that this is by any means all we grow – the total list would probably be more than 30 species – but most could not form staple elements of our diet.  If we suddenly had to rely on our own production for our food supply we would probably be starving within a six months.  Even lasting that long would be mostly because we have a policy of keeping up to three months’ food supply on hand and this could be eked out with production from the garden.  That would give us a bit of a buffer during which we could try to ramp up our production of staples.  However given the work involved in bringing new garden areas into production and the need to find seed/breeding stock during a period when lots of other people were doing the same, it would be at best a precarious situation to be in.

How would you go if you suddenly found the supermarket shelves empty and unlikely to be re-supplied for an unknown period?

You don’t think that is a likely situation?  Supermarkets rely on a just-enough and just-in-time inventory system.  They generally have a 3-5 day stock of items on hand, and if there is an emergency situation the shelves will be cleared out of staples quicker than that.  If supplies cannot get through (roads blocked, fuel unavailable, civil unrest making roads untrafficable), then you could find yourself reliant on your own food stocks/production very suddenly and for a prolonged period.  Those of us who experienced the Lockyer Valley floods in 2011 will know what this feels like.

But for most of us, being self-sufficient in food isn’t mainly about emergency situations; it’s about having a supply of unadulterated food with a known history – e.g. no harmful chemicals, no exploitative or inhumane practices involved in its production, low food-miles to limit green-house gas emissions.

How does your garden stack up in terms of producing your staple foods, and how do you think you could improve the situation?

Permaculture Design Certificate

Sorry about another long gap in blog posts.  I just got back from doing a twelve-day Permaculture Design Certificate course in Kin Kin (on the Sunshine Coast between Noosa and Gympie) with Tom Kendall at Maungaraeeda, the permaculture centre that he and his wife Zaia run.  Fantastic experience.  After doing some research on available PDC courses (see below), I went to Maungaraeeda with high expectations – and they were exceeded.  Tom is a wonderful teacher, very warm, very knowledgeable, and very committed to ensuring his students get the most out of the course.

The course sessions are based on Bill Mollison’s book Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual  – Bill Mollison, one of the founders of permaculture, was one of Tom’s PDC teachers (the other was Geoff Lawton).  The sessions run for 72 hours over 12 days, and are given credibility by examples drawn from Tom’s long agricultural experience.  He grew up on an 11,000 acre wheat and sheep farm at Grasspatch, north of Esperance in Western Australia, which he took over after his father retired.  In 2000 he sold the farm and moved to the Sunshine Coast, where he bought the property that is now Maungaraeeda in 2005 and developed it as a permaculture-based operation

An outdoor class in the food forest

An outdoor class in the food forest.

Classroom sessions were frequently interrupted for practical activities, including several walks over the property while Tom explained specific permaculture features of the management.  It is a delightful setting, in a small valley just outside Kin Kin, with the house and food production areas down near the road, the grazing areas above that, and rainforest along the ridge-tops.

Tom in a fairly new food forest, surrounded by mostly support species.

Tom in a fairly new food forest, surrounded by mostly support species.

But Maungaraeeda isn’t just about Tom.  Zaia is in charge of Administration and Marketing, but in reality her role goes far further than that, and every aspect of the running of the place, from the first contact one has about enrolment to the mouth-watering meals, shows evidence of Zaia’s warmth and attention to detail.  From the moment I set up my tent on the lawns near the student dining area there was a strong feeling of “home”.

Tom and Zaia are supported by two long-term volunteers whose personalities and contribution to the running of the course added to the warm atmosphere.

Part of the kitchen garden at Maungaraeeda.

Part of the kitchen garden at Maungaraeeda.

And then there were the other students (there were nine of us in all). All I can say about them is that I think I had the extreme good fortune to find myself among a group of amazing individuals from whom I learned a lot, and whose company I still miss now, five days after the course ended.  We parted with promises of keeping in contact and setting up a “class wiki” to share our permaculture experiences and I really hope that happens.

The class and Tom, posing behind a fruit tree we planted and surrounded with about 30 "support" species.

The class and Tom, posing behind a fruit tree we planted and surrounded with about 30 “support” species.

There was a choice of accommodation – byo tent, a dormitory bus, or cabins.  I took my own tent, and even though it rained for part of the time, and was often pretty cold at night, it was really comfortable – particularly after they lent me a camping mattress to keep the ground chill out.

One of the lovely cabins, or you could bring your own tent.

One of the lovely cabins, or you could bring your own tent.

I promised above to comment on how I came to decide on doing the PDC with Tom.  In fact I had been thinking of doing a permaculture course for a while, and realised about six weeks ago that there would be a window in my commitments around late June/July, so I checked out the courses that were available and not too far away from Southeast Queensland.  The three I found were: the one taught by Tom; one led by Geoff Lawton (but presented by seven named instructors plus unspecified others) at Geoff Lawton’s Zaytuna Farm; and another at Northey Street City Farm in Brisbane, also with multiple instructors.  Costs ranged from $1,230 to $2,585, with Tom’s falling in between.

After I’d looked at what information I could find about the three organisations and particularly the backgrounds of their instructors, there really wasn’t any option for me other than Tom’s course.  Courses with multiple instructors didn’t appeal at all.  Permaculture is a “package” and needs to be taught and understood as that, not as a series of topics.  Cost was an issue, but not nearly as much as value-for-money, and with Tom’s practical background and his very hands-on ongoing experience in setting up his own permaculture farm, plus the small class size (they limit classes to 15) the value was definitely there.

Did the course change my life?  Yes, and a lot more than I had expected – not in the sense of an epiphany or even a change of direction, but in giving me more confidence that I now have a good theoretical and practical grounding for achieving the goals we have set for our property; and the knowledge that I have someone I can turn to for advice in the future.  Not only that, but now, whenever I see any agricultural area, my brain immediately starts mapping out swales – I guess you could say that my “permaculture eyes” have been opened.

Now that's a swale - Tom has swales on his property ranging from this down to hand-dug swales through the kitchen garden

Now that’s a swale – Tom has swales on his property ranging from this down to hand-dug swales through the kitchen garden.

A couple of interesting web sites

In my meandering around the sustainable parts of cyberspace, from my seat near the fire on a damp and overcast day, I came across a couple of web sites that may be of interest.

The first was on urban farming.

MY HOME HARVEST copyAs the header says, My Home Harvest is about providing motivation and inspiration to the urban farmers of Australia.  But from what I’ve seen of the content it is going to inspire a wider range of people interested in sustainable food production that just urban farmers.

For example, the Expert Advice and FAQs tab currently leads to posts on:starting your own food swap; preserving kale, silverbeet and chard, a factsheet on edible weeds, and a pest-profile of the cabbage white butterfly.  There’s also a library of articles and resources, a range of discussions on the forum, and much more – including a diary of upcoming food, seed and produce swaps (ranging from Victoria to the Margaret River in WA.

This web site first launched as Swap Shuffle Share in January 2012 and the change to My Home Harvest was undertaken in April 2013 to better reflect the purpose of the project and to take into account the feedback received from members during the project’s first year of operation.  So it’s relatively new in this format and content is being developed and expanded all the time. Well worth registering to become a member and being involved in the journey.

The other interesting find was on the Liverpool City Council’s web site – two very good tutorials, one on composting and one on worm-farming.

TUTORIALS copyThe tutorials are arranged in a series of simple steps, with each step presenting fairly detailed information, but in a format that makes it easy to take in.  Whoever designed these on-line tutorials really knows their stuff in terms of designing instructional materials.

New ideas for things to plant in the vege garden

Susan Kwong has set up a new database/wiki on perennial plants or plants that can be “perennialised” in Australia’s temperate climate zones. She takes the view that the plants we currently grow as annuals were probably originally “domesticated” by selecting for individuals which produced edible crops quickly, and which were either already annuals, or were made annual by a process of selection.  From her point of view, growing annuals as basic food crops introduces an element of uncertainty into every year – if the annual crop fails there not only isn’t any food from it, there aren’t any seeds for the next year’s crop.

Some annuals can be “perennialised” by selecting more long-lived, longer producing individuals so that, once established, they carry over their production into second and subsequent years.

So far there doesn’t seem to be much focus on the process of perennialising specific annuals, but the database is a wealth of information that isn’t just relevant to Australia’s temperate zones – a lot of the plants are grown in the sub-tropical zone (includes the Lockyer Valley) as well.

Here’s the article where she sets out the concept and the thinking behind it (someone should tell her about using shorter paragraphs for legibility and maintaining reader interest).

It turns out that a lot of the plants documented in the database so far are things that you might not have thought about as food plants at all, or might not have been aware of.  Here’s an example from the first set of plants, published in September.

Tree OnionsThe second data set is here:

What I find most useful about this database is that it introduces me to new food plants, and gives me additional information about the ones I already know.

For example, a while back I was looking to identify something we’ve been growing successfully for two seasons now (in the post about wicking pots in November).  It’s the plant in the foreground.

Well, in the latest monthly issue of Susan Kwong’s perennialising database I found it listed as non-heading Chinese Cabbage (Brassica rapa, subspecies chinensis). Definitely the same plant, but I was a bit surprised about the common name.  Here in Australia Chinese Cabbage is usually used for wombok (Brassica rapa ssp. pekinensis) and I didn’t know there was a non-heading variety. This is a plant that I’m really familiar with as my parents used to grow this as a commercial crop on our farm at Eight Mile Plains (which at that time – early 1950s – was well outside Brisbane).  I have no idea where they marketed it, being too young at the time to take an interest in such things.

A bit of digging on the internet and I ended up with an informative article about Asian versions of Brassica rapa on Google.  In Australia chinensis is known as pak choy or pak choi, and in fact I found it in my Evernote database where I’d clipped it from the October issue of the perennialising database as Brassica chinensis (Bok Choy).

Problem solved.  It is a non-hearting Chinese Cabbage (because it is the same species as what is commonly called Chinese Cabbage), but it is a different sub-species (chinensis) and is best known in Australia as Pak Choy.

And I still have to get myself some seeds of gai laan, which is what I originally thought the pak choy was, and which looks like a very interesting vegetable – one of its other names is Chinese broccoli.