Sunday, December 27, 2009

Swale travails and nourishing times in Uganda

Mulched trees on swale
As the year draws to a close, there has been a lot of work to do on the swale to prepare for summer. My partner slashed the field peas on the mound, and this has provided some good mulch for the trees. While grass is growing vigorously on uphill and downhill side of the mound, the mulch provided by the slashed peas has managed to supress much of the growth on the top around the trees. We brewed up and applied another batch of compost tea and also installed drip irrigation to the trees (excluding the nurse trees) to get them through their first summer. And finally we mulched around them, laying down cardboard and then chip. We left a cardboard-free collar round the trunk where the irrigation feeder lines from the main supply line go. Chip has also gone in the base of the swale.

Cardboard round base of avocado tree
We sourced the cardboard from the local supermarket, as a large compacted bale. It was a mighty effort to heave it onto our mini trailer, with supermarket shoppers looking on bemusedly.

Baled cardboard
And finally we lined the base of the swale with straw and chip, with some help from the earthmover who came to install the driveway to the new house site.

Luna's been enjoying the dam on hot days and ducks have taken up residence, along with frogs (heard but not seen).

In the patch the Jerusalem artichokes, potatoes, and comfrey border are kicking on, as are two new trees planted near the patch - a mulberry and a chestnut. Very exciting to see the mulberries already ripening.
Peninsula patch - corner showing comfrey border, potatoes and jerusalem artichokes
Mulberry and chestnut
Inner city patch
In the inner-city patch, not much activity. Instead I've been preparing the beds for a two-month hiatus over Jan and Feb (see below for details) by clearing the beds, putting the crop residue on the surface, covering with newspaper and then mulch (chip, branches, straw - basically any dry material I have handy). However, we have been harvesting broad beans and harvest, and purple king beans planted in early spring are producing a bumper crop.
Broad beans from innercity patch
Purple King beans from inner-city patch
The sorrel is also doing really well, leading to some tasty dinners. The success of this perennial green, and its ease of maintenance makes me think that I'd like to focus more on perennial vegetables. Eric Toensmeier, author of the fantabulous 2-volume Edible Forest Gardens, has just released a new book on this subject, Perennial Vegetables: From Artichokes to Zuiki Taro.

Sorrel tart, with mizuna and broad bean salad
A glut of herbs has led to herb posies for family and friends, and to herb vinegar making for christmas presents. I included chive flowers in the herb vinegar - apparently it makes the vinegar go pink.
Herb posy making
Herb vinegar for Xmas presents
'Food Water Security' at Sabina Children's Home Uganda
Tomorrow my partner and I leave for Uganda. From Jan-Feb 2010 I'll be the Rakai district in the south of Uganda, doing volunteer work at a children's orphanage and school where I will be assisting the incoming managers of the 'Food Water Security' program, a large edible garden and orchard, designed along permaculture lines designed to nourish the children and staff of Sabina (my partner will be staying for 2 weeks). The design and initial implementation was done in 2007 by permaculture practitioners Rosemary Morrow, Dan Palmer, Amanda Cuyler and Mike Cloutier. An excellent blog documenting progress on the site is at:

The orphanage is run by a US-based charity, Children of Uganda, in partnership with a Ugandan NGO, Daughters of Charity, which owns the land. The Food Water Security project is a partnership with Permaculture International. In January, the orphanage will also host a two-week permaculture course, with attendees from neighbouring African countries, including staff from African and international NGOs as well as government officials, but will also some overseas students from Australia and the USA.

So over the next two months, check in to for progress.

Happy festivus to all

Marie Antoinette

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A swale of a time

It's been a long time, but there's been a lot going on, not least of which has been a swale, dam and tree plantings happening on the peninsula property. First came the the digging and the shaping of the dam and swale. This required big machines - very big machines. So big in fact that there was danger that they wouldn't fit down the driveway.

Then came the digging, and the digging, and . . . . well, you get the idea. Our dam is not so big - not even a megalitre, but while it was being excavated, it seemed we had embarked on a mission to dig to the centre of the earth. As the excavator dumped more and more earth around the sides, we watched nervously.
We spent a lot of time admiring the skill of the earthmover, Rick Coffey, who used the blades of his machines like chisels, making precise fine cuts and moving the machines up impossible angles. As the earth he was working with became wetter, he shifted to the wider-tracked machine. The final track-rolling of the dam wall was heart-in mouth stuff: Rick would move up the steep sides becoming almost vertical, and then when he reached the lip, the machine would tip slowly onto the flat. At various points, my partner and I followed him around with the laser level, helping him to check his cuts, but he was so precise that corrections were rare.

And then finally, after two long days, the earthmoving stopped, and we were looking at our new dam and swale. In the image below you can see the way that Rick has placed topsoil around the lip of the dam and stabilised it by smearing it with the back of the bucket. Very schmick.
The swale runs across the paddock in roughly a south east to north west direction, interrupted by the dam. On the downhill side of the swale is a soft (uncompacted) mound. A wing drain is also part of the system, to take swale overflow. It is really a watering system for the fruit and nut trees planted on the swale mound.

Permablitzing the swale
A bunch of hardworking permablitzers helped us plant out the swale. Susie, Liz, Alastair, Jacquie and family, Gillian, Jo, Jessie, Adam and Christine worked like troopers and planted out a total of 80 trees on the swale mound. 20 fruit trees went in - avocadoes, hazelnuts, almonds and pecans. Around each tree, three nurse trees were planted: 2 tagasastes (Cytisus palmensis) and 1 Acacia melanoxyln. A length of polypipe was buried about 30cm into the earth beside each tree for efficient water delivery to the root zone.

The blitz team also mulched the swale with pea straw and sowed 25kg of field peas over the swale mound. We used a compost tumbler to mix the innoculant and field peas, and it worked a treat. Sowing by hand was, I reckon, the best job of the day. It is very satisfying to fling a seed-filled fist out over fresh dirt with gay abandon.

Eastern wing of swale, three weeks after the permablitz. The field peas have germinated well in the mulch.
The troops ate like royalty, with homemade delish food, as well as platters of baked goodies from A1 bakery on Sydney Rd, kindly provided by Susie and Alastair.
The trees were watered in with compost tea, brewed using the new 200 L brewer rigged up the week before. Christine made the arduous trip up and down the hill with the watering cans, as we didn't have a way to get the tea to the swale in larger quantities. We all had the opportunity to smell the brew, and like the good compost with which it was made, it smelt damn fine: sweet and earthy.
Compost tea brewing.

My partner rigged up the brewer, which is made from: a 200L plastic drum, a powerful aquarium air blower (400 L per minute), black irrigation polypipe with holes drilled in it. a connecting hose to connect the blower to the polypipe, and an aquarium heater. A mesh bag containing compost (homemade for quality control!) and a few other ingredients (we used molasses, worm castings, and seaweed concentrate) is suspended in the drum, which is filled with water. Aeration is then delivered using the blower connected to the polypipe. The whole solution is heated with the aquarium heater, which attaches with suction cap to the sides of the drum. The aerator is run for 24 hours. The tea must be used soon after the brew has finished.

The brewer
The aerator
The aftermath
A month later, and things are looking good. The dam is almost full. The field peas are going strong, and there is good growth on the fruit trees, with the exception of the avocadoes, which are suffering from the wind. We even have our first nut - an almond.
Good growth on a hazel
An almond, already!
I have had to replace a few of the tagasastes which didn't survive their first few weeks as tender young seedlings, and the success of the field peas has meant that I have spent an hour or so each weekend weeding around the nurse trees. We've been unable to plant out the dam wall (the aim is to plant it out with native shrubs, grasses and groundcovers) because its been so wet that Rick can't move the earth around. That will have to wait until December.

In the base of the swale, you can see yabbie holes, and lots of bird tracks - probably ibises going after all the cockchafers uncovered with the earthworks.

Yabbie hole and bird tracks in base of swale
Thankfully the rain has meant I haven't had to water the trees yet, but we are looking down the barrel of a long hot summer so that isn't far away.

Signing off for now
Marie Antoinette

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ole oleracea

Cabbages in the MPYE patch
My mother used to tell me that her violent dislike of all things cabbage arose from being subjected to meals of murdered (overcooked) cabbage as a child. I inherited her prejudice against Brassica oleracae, with the exception of stuffed cabbage, which is a family speciality on my dad's side. But over the last few months, as I harvested cabbages from the MPYE patch, I found myself wondering if there might be unexplored pleasures hidden in those, admittedly snail-ridden leaves. There is not much else by way of large veggies coming out of any the patches at the moment, so it was time to roll up the sleeves and trawl though the cookbooks.

Kohlrabi and cabbage from the MPYE patch

One of the things I've found in my travels in through cabbage recipes, is that it lives in wintry recipes that the older folks love, or at least the anglo older folks. Cabbage and cornbeef, for example, go hand in glove. As does cabbage and vegetable soup. A good cabbage and cornbeef combo came in the form of an Adrian Richardson recipe for cornbeef. It is one of those one-pot winter winners, replete with greens (cabbage from MPYE patch), starch (potatoes from the Peninsula patch), and some satisfying spices (fenugreek, mustard, bay). The relative cheapness of the cornbeef cut is also a plus.
Cabbage, chickpea and fetta salad
I also invented a tasty take on the traditional coleslaw, a cabbage, chickpea and fetta salad. Chop up the cabbage roughly, and add chickpeas and crumbled fetta. Dress with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. You could substitute parmesan for fetta. I reckon some parsley and other herbes fines would go well with this too.

Sign on to herbs

Signs for the MPYE veggie patch
Now that the herb collection on the MPYE patch is respectable, I decided to make some signage for it. A trip to the excellent Reverse Art site in Ringwood, with Sue as a guide, yielded wood and paint. Veggieman, who has made an occasional appearance in this blog, contributed the lettering. The decorative touches are Sue's.

In the inner-city patch, the tamarillos are looking mighty tasty.
Tamarillos in the inner-city patch
With the warmer weather on the way, I planted some pineapple sage (Salvia elegans). Not sure what to do with it in cooking, but I just love the idea of a pineapple herb.
Pineapple sage in the inner city patch
Immediately outside the kitchen, hardy winter staples of chard, spinach, rocket and parsley are going strong.

Greens in the inner-city patch
And my first attempt at carrots seem to be coming along nicely, backed by some broadbeans and hemmed in by wormwood.
Broad beans, baby carrots, and wormwood in the inner-city patch
I really hate to weed, and try to design my patches to avoid it, but I do end up doing some. I've been very pleased to find some parts of the garden that used to be colonised by unwanted plants are being voluntarily occupied by species that are most welcome: warrigal greens, vetch, red clover and such. These are all species that I planted at some time in the past so the seeds have laid in reserve in the soil, hopefully encouraged by my no-till gardening.
Volunteer warrigal greens in the inner-city patch
With spring in the air, I'm sowing seed of coriander, beans (purple king), and cucumber, and chervil.

As part the Integrated Pest Management component of my ag science degree, I've been insect hunting and insect-damage hunting. Looking at lettuce aphids down the lens of dissecting microscopes is an uncommonly fine thrill. My father gave me this lemon, from a tree on the peninsula, to investigate. What animal caused this?

Marie Antoinette

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Rat a tat tat

Capsicums in the inner-city patch.

For a long time, we have lived with rats in the inner city patch. We hear them in the roof and at night we sometimes see them using the trellis against neighbour's wall as a highway. Up until recently, we haven't been overly concerned, figuring they are all over the inner city. We also had built what we thought was ratproof compost bay.

However, one morning in May I woke to find my cauliflowers eviscerated, my broccoli seedlings munched to the ground, and my sweet pea seedlings all but reduced to green sticks. It was clearly the work of rats. Talking to neighbours and locals confirmed that our area is in the midst of a rat plague. Since then I have considered renaming this blog to 'Land for rats'.

First step was to redesign the compost. My partner and I figured that it had become an easy food supply. This big job, undertaken by my partner, meant completely dismantling the otherwise excellent bay. Originally built to be rat proof, the weather and some determined investigations by the rats had rendered it rat accessible. All our compost is now stored in three closed bins, set on a new raised paved platform. When I want to build a new tumbler batch of compost, I move it from the bins to the tumbler.

Next step was trapping. I bought a spring-loaded cage trap recommended to me by a veggie gardener from Olinda. Initially this was reasonably successful, garnering about a rat a week. However, given the rate at which rats reproduce and the obvious ongoing activity, it was clear that we needed to do more. So we laid bait and put out more traps, some of them less humane than the cage. While I think we've reduced the numbers, we haven't won the war, and I think the final step will be thoroughly baiting the roof cavity. And if that doesn't work, we may have to reconsider our longstanding dislike of cats.

Unfortunately, this has meant very little gardening activity as there is not much point planting seedlings out if I'm just feeding the rats. Thankfully, they do seem to leave some mature things alone - rocket, beetroot, chard, for example.

Tomato goodness

Tomatoes from the MPYE patch becoming tomato sauce, recipe courtesy Jeff Jansz

Oxheart and Beefsteak tomatoes from the MPYE patch lasted into May. I made some into tomato sauce, using herbs from the inner city patch, and froze it for use during winter in pasta and other dishes. The very simple recipe is in the May 2006 post.

Tomato sauce ready for freezer
I saved some the seeds from the tomatoes I used in this dish. I used the fermentation technique described in Jude and Michael Fanton's Seed Savers Handbook. A good explanation of this process is published on the Bega Valley Seed Savers website.

Saving tomato seed: seeds are fermenting here. Leave for three days. A foam will form on the top and fermentation will occur. According to The Seed Savers Handbook, this is caused by the microbe Geotrichum candidum acting on the sticky gel that surrounds the seeds. Fermentation produces an antibiotic environment that mitigates against diseases such as bacterial spot, spec and canker.

The passata proved to be a good base for soudough pizza - extending our ongoing love affair with this homemade fast food.

Homemade sourdough pizza with tomatoe passata base and capsicums from the inner-city patch

What the rats left
In the inner city patch, the rats left this lovely eggplant alone.
Thankfully, they don't seem to be fans of herbs, chillis, jerusalem artichokes, or pak choi, so we have had the opportunity to enjoy the last flush of French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), admire the flowers on the rosemary, and spice up our chicken pho soup with chillis from a prolific little bush that's growing in a sunny spot towards the back of the patch.
French tarragon, enjoying the Autumn sunshine. This dies back over winter and will need repotting or a good feed of compost in spring.
Potted chilli plant. This put on a flush of growth and recovered from a mystery illness when I moved it into a sunnier spot and fed it with compost.
Rosemary in flower
Pak choi
Other bounty that the rats have left us includes jerusalem artichokes and potatoes (from the the peninsula patch).

I leave you with an image from the pond in the innercity patch (otherwise known as the pink bathtub) where there are some new aquatic natives sourced from MPYE, including the elegantly drooping Slender Knotweed (Persicaria decipiens), which flowers all year round, and Upright Water-Milfoil (Myriophyllum crispatum).
Slender Knotweed (Persicaria decipiens) in the inner-city patch pond
Marie Antoinette

Monday, March 16, 2009

Of mangroves and amaranth

Mangrove seedling growing at MPYE

At MPYE where I volunteer on Mondays, ten thousand mangroves are being propagated for use in a mangrove revegetation project at Coronet Bay in Westernport. MPYE is in partnership with retired scientist Dr Tim Ealy, who has been awarded an Order for Australia for his work in replanting mangroves to stabilise eroding cliffs, restore water quality and allow seagrass to grow again. The disappearance of seagrass has implications for the local fishing industry as it is a breeding area for fish. The mangroves stabilise the suspended sediment that otherwise smothers the seagrass. Mangroves have all but disappeared from Westernport due to development, dredging, and so on - the usual suspects.

At MPYE, the mangrove seedlings are growing in milk containers, set in salted water.

MPYE is built in the site of a former sewerage plant. This photo is taken from inside one of the decommissioned concrete tanks. The mangroves are in the background at right.

MYPE veggie patch: tomatoes in foreground, corn and sunflowers in background

The veggie patch at MYPE is producing a bumper Autumn harvest: tomatoes, cucumber, corn, lettuce, parsley, spring onions, and silverbeet. Much of it goes to the volunteers and workers. I hope one day when the planned cooking classes are up and running that it can be used in the MPYE kitchen.
MYPE veggie patch: view to the west

The patch, which is huge compared to my inner-city courtyard garden, is set out in a grid with wide mulched paths. In the past it's been cultivated in blocks of plants, but I've started mixing things up a bit by interplanting sunflowers and trying out some combinations for microclimates: cucumbers grown under the filtered light provided by sunflowers has worked well, and lettuces interplanted with parsely are doing fine under bean trellises. A big container of manure tea goes on beds before planting out, along with chook-poo enhanced soil. I've started a couple of compost bins, and am fertilising with worm wee that's been languishing in a storage shed until recently.

Petits pois a la Francaise, courtesy Nigella Lawson

I couldn't think what to do with the gigantic cos lettuces coming out of the MPYE patch, until I remembered watching Nigella Lawson put together a dish she called "petits pois a la francaise" - principal ingredients are lettuce and peas.

Rhubarb muffins, recipe from Stephanie Alexander's Cook's Companion

Two fine rhubarb plants at MPYE yielded rhubarb for two batches of rhubarb muffins, recipe courtesy of Stephanie Alexander's Cook's Companion. No pre-cooking of the rhubarb is required: you just chop it fine and put it in the muffin batter and it cooks with the muffins.

Peninsula patch
Amaranth nearly ready for harvest on the peninsula patch

Harvesting and processing grain amaranth (Amaranthus hypchondriacus) has led me to do a bit more research on its nutritional features. A bit of information on the protein component of grain to start, lifted straight from my undergraduate botany course! When the nutritional content of grain is discussed, protein and amino acid content are usually at the forefront. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein (and are proteins themselves). There are 9 "essential amino acids": these are the ones that we get by consuming protein in our diet. The other 11 are "nonessential" in the sense we can make them ourselves from other amino acids.

Amaranth harvested from the peninsula patch, drying at home

Although the cereal crops we commonly consume (wheat and corn) are high in protein, the proteins in both grains are low in the essential amino acids lysine and tryptophan. Legumes complement these grains in our diet as legumes are high in lysine and tryptophan. How does Amaranth compare? With a protein content of about 16 percent, it sizes up well against conventional varieties of wheat (12-14 percent), rice (7-10 percent), maize (9-10 percent), and other widely consumed cereals (see Amaranth: Modern Prospects for an Ancient Crop). However, the white flour that's milled out if Amaranth grain only has 7% protein, which is not substantially different from the protein content of wheat flour used in white bread.

Amaranth protein has nearly twice the lysine content of wheat protein, and three times that of maize, and in fact as much as is found in milk-the standard of nutritional excellence.

As it contains very little functional gluten, Amaranth must be combined with wheat flour if you're baking loaves. But in fact flour is not the main use of grain Amaranth. In Mexico and Central America, bundles of baby weed amaranth known as bledo (which grows liberally in farmers’ fields) are sold as pot herbs. According to the Rodale Institute, "Vegetable amaranth has been rated as equal or superior to spinach in taste and has substantially more calcium, iron and phosphorus."

Amaranth grain can also be popped, and is used widely in this form in baking flat breads and crackers, but also in sweets. In Mexico, for example, popped Amaranth seeds are dried, mixed with honey and baked to make a popular candy bar called alegria.
Winnowing grain amaranth harvested from the peninsula patch. Winnowing separates the grain from the chaff. The fan blows the lighter chaff off the top, leaving the grain.

Inner city patch
Squash and zucchini are coming out of the inner city patch, but as it's now late in the season and we've had rain and humidity, there is powdery mildew on the leaves, which means there's not long to go for the plants. My partner and I have been using the squash and zucchini in quiches, tarts and in (sourdough) pizza toppings.

Squash and mushroom tart: the fine food stylings of my partner account for the beauty of this tart
Despite lush early growth, the tomatoes against the western wall have failed, yielding very few fruit. I'm pretty certain it's lack of sun - the wall only gets about 4 hours of morning sun. It's a good lesson. Beans don't do well on that wall either. The only thing that's worked so far is climbing cucumbers, and this sits with my MPYE experiment of growing them in filtered sunlight, under sunflowers.

A small tomatoe crop from the inner-city patch

Solar-powered farming equipment

I just love this. The idea that you can harvest and mill wood on a small farm with solar energy makes me very happy.

Marie Antoinette