Archive for ‘September, 2015’

How to Prune Woody Herbs

We’ve got an extensive collection of herbs for culinary, medicinal and garden health purposes and while they mostly need nothing from us, I do give the woody herbs a drastic haircut around now (spring’ish) to bring on fresh, abundant growth. Left alone, herbs like sage, rosemary, curry bush, oregano, chamomile will become leggy, sparse and woody at their base. To manage this, you can literally cut them back to the ground (or close to), allowing them to grow a whole new plant above ground – here’s how…

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Meet our curry bush (Helichrysum italicum). It’s been quietly cranking in our herb garden and was well overdue for a big haircut.

IMG_4476 As you can see above and below, the stems where becoming leggy and unproductive and if you look at the base of the plant you can also see fresh growth starting to grow, searching for sunlight.

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All you need to do is get a sharp pair of secateurs and cut the bush back close to the ground. You can also do this before you see fresh growth coming from the base, in which case you can cut it back to pretty much ground level.

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While it initially looks a bit shocking, this little stump will shortly be bushy up nicely, promise.

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What should you do with all that leaf? Usually we make small bunches of all our herbs and dry them for using in the kitchen, however we don’t use a huge amount of curry bush so we put it back into the garden as mulch, plus we do dry some. If you want to, you can also take some cuttings to propagate more plants.

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IMG_4485One bunch of curry bush amongst some already drying calendula flowers and mint.

In the same garden we’ve also cut back our sage plants, salvia officinalis and salvia elegans a few weeks earlier and you can already see their fresh growth coming on strong. To reduce the shock from going to having a very bushy, large herb patch to one full of small “stumps”, you can stage the pruning sessions like I’ve done – it can help the visual side of things a bit if you have some fresh growth amongst the other stumps.

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IMG_4472Pineapple sage, salvia elegans, coming back strong after a big pruning session.

If this is your first time, just remember – it’s really really hard to kill these types pf perennial herbs, so there’s no need to be shy or nervous. And if you’re wondering what herbs you should include in your herb patch, have a look at some of the ones we think are essential.

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Compost Tea

Compost tea is a brown liquid which has been actively aerated, it’s produced “by extracting bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes (all members of the soil foodweb) from compost.” However, compared to compost, it’s an incredibly efficient method of injecting valuable nutrients into your soil (and plant foliage) and creating and/or maintaining the soil foodweb in your soil across small or large areas of land.  Dr Elaine Ingham, founder of the Soil Foodweb Institute, is responsible for flying its flag in a major way, traveling the world educating people and working with farmers to integrate it into their land management systems.

Now, I’m no compost tea expert. Sure – I’ve completed a short course with Dr Elaine Ingham and am in love with all things compost, however this stuff’s deep and despite years of experimenting, I still consider myself a novice. What’s that saying, the more you learn – the less you know. Anyway, here’s an overview of compost tea, some recipes and insights from various folks around the globe…

What’s the difference between compost tea & plant/manure tea?

Pant/manure tea is the age-old practice of soaking manures or a range of plants in a vessel of water where they leach their nutrients into the water.  This can include compost, beneficial plants (comfrey, borage, dandelion to name a few), fish guts and animal manures. It’s then left to ‘stew’ for up to one month in which time it becomes incredibly stinky, indicating that it’s gone anaerobic. I remember working on a farm and having to spread very mature plant tea around the market garden… No matter how many swims I had in the dam I stank for days.

In contrast, compost tea is an aerated brew which doesn’t smell bad (at all) and is usually ready between 24-48 hours depending on the weather and ingredients. The liquid is aerated through an air blower (or fish pump), or if you have no power by stirring it vigorously regularly. By getting air into the liquid, the right environment is created for diverse soil foodweb to form.

So while both provide nutrients, the compost tea also provides *life* to the soil – and that’s what we’re after.

What’s the soil food web?

It’s a complex collection of a trillion or so life forms including bacteria, protazoa, fungi, nematodes, cilliates etc. It describes the relationships between them and how they form a whole system which cycles nutrients through the layers of the soil, making them available to plants and other life forms, above and below the ground. You can read more about it here.

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When you think about the type of compost tea you’d like to make, think about what crop you’re trying to grow, this will determine the ingredients you need to put into your brew. For example all annual vegetables naturally thrive in a bacteria rich environment, whereas orchards and other tree crops naturally evolve when fungi dominates. If you check out the basic ecological succession chart below you can see the stages of succession and the areas where bacteria and fungi naturally flourish.

sfw Image adapted from here

There are a hell-of-lot more complexities and overlaps going on than this chart shows, but it gives you a general sense. When making compost tea, you can tailor the tea to suit the crop you’re growing. So if you’re growing annual vegetables, make a compost tea with more bacteria and if your growing tree crops, favour the fungi. Ingredients which foster bacteria are nitrogen materials including manures and plant foliage, to attract fungi include carbon ingredients like wood chips. However, a good compost will have a healthy balance of bacteria and fungi suited for any crop. And fungi is the ultimate soil life form for any crop – in our own garden we actually put a significant amount of carbon into our annual crops by using ramial wood chips to attract fungi… I told you it was complex.

To simplify it, here are two recipes and some great resources for you to go through.

Elaine Ingham has a basic recipe on her website which is centred around having *really* good compost, and a microscope. If you’re after something a bit more approachable, Hobart market gardener, Suzi Lam, has shared her recipe with us below.

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Suzi brews her  compost tea in a 20 litre bucket for up to 48 hours and dilutes it to (approx. 10:1) to water her 1/4 acre market garden. It’s important to note that you need dechlorinated water, if you’re on town water, simply leave a bucket of water out for 24 hours for the chlorine to evaporate before you make your brew.

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A good looking brew in process, those bubbles are a good indicator that things are going well, the other main indicator is the smell – it should smell sweet and earth.

An important tip is to clean all the materials thoroughly after you’ve finished so there’s no ‘scum’ left on the bucket for air blower, otherwise there’s risk of contamination for the next brew. Everything needs to be clean and fresh, you can use hot water and elbow grease to clean.

Can you put too much compost tea on your garden?

No, however there’s no need to do it every week, make and apply compost tea strategically to help get a crop started or just before fruiting.

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Is compost tea the answer to all soil problems?

Some people say yes, but we think no. Specifically, it does not resolve mineral imbalances, it may help – but as far we understand things, it cannot fix it. We recommend approaching soil remediation by first doing a soil test to determine the mineral/nutrient content and then using a range of methods which can include compost, compost tea and possibly (depending on scale and context) applying some minerals to help bring everything back into balance. A good book to read about using minerals and growing nutrient dense food is The Intelligent Gardener by Steve Solomon.

Other good resources

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Learning The Art Of Growing

Good things happen when people come together around food, so our ‘Real Skills for Growing Food’ workshop on the weekend was particularly great, as people got to learn how to grow their own food (and eventually eat it of course).

We love these weekends, it’s a time where we can bring together some of Tasmania’s most talented growers to share their skills, passion and deep knowledge on all things productive and edible. Here’s a whirlwind tour of what went down.

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We started the weekend in Suzi Lam’s urban market garden. This woman, I tells ya – she’s more than good, knows soils inside out and her passion for gardening and life in general is contagious.

Suzi took the students through the importance of soil health and approaches to achieve this, including making complete organic fertiliser, using ramial woodchips and making hot compost.

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image2Building a compost pile with Suzi

We then moved the workshop to the Hobart City Farm which is a project very close to our hearts and hands. Here we explored propagation and seed saving with James Da Costa who’s one of the co-founders of the City Farm.

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IMG_4141Sand, coco peat and compost, three key ingredients for a propagation mix.

IMGP0079Broad beans, one of the easiest seeds to save and grow.

Day two of the workshop saw local grower, Jonathon Cooper take folks through an overview in market gardening.

IMG_4147Jono showing folks a broadfork – a popular tool for any market gardener

He took everyone through the fundamentals including must have tools, the importance of good design, managing weeds, crop planning and extending your season – which can be critical in our cool temperate climate.

IMG_4173Stacey and Megan weeding the garlic patch with stirrup hoes, with the very wonderful Bridget supervising.

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To finish off the weekend, Anton tool the class through a range of techniques for growing food including the biointensive method, companion planting, no-dig gardening, and planting fruit trees.

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IMGP0074   IMGP0089Happy students!

Students had a go at laying out beds for crops using the biointensive method with close spacings to make the most out of the area available.

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IMG_4195Planting out and watering in the no-dig garden

IMGP0020 2Megan working on the no-dig garden bed

Thanks so much to all the wonderful people who came along, we wish you a life time of growing, inside and out…

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Thanks also to our special teaching team – (from left to right) Jonathon Cooper, James Da Costa, Suzi Lam and Anton Vikstrom. If you ever have the opportunity to work with, or learn from, any of these people – grab it, they’re gold.

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Our next ‘Real Skills for Growing Food’ workshop will be in 2016, join our monthly newsletter to make sure you hear about it.

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Pasta From Scratch

Despite what some people think, making pasta is actually really really easy. All you need is egg and flour, sure you can add herbs and spices, but you don’t need to. I love making it because yes, it tastes good but also because it’s plastic free, no packaging at all – which is how food should be. Here’s how we do it at home.

Crack some eggs into a bowl, use as many eggs as there are people who’ll be eating – we’ve got two people eating, so we use two eggs.

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Roughly mix them up.

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Start adding flour and mixing it in until you have a good dough consistency. We don’t use actual measurements, just keep adding until it feels right. We mostly use white or wholemeal wheat flour (sometimes a mix of spelt and buckwheat), however you can use most – some gluten free flour will have trouble and fall apart, there a re lots of recipes out there, like this one.

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Towards the end of the mixing, ditch your mixing tool and use your hands to finish it off.

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Make sure there’s a nice layer of flour on it so it’s not sticky to touch.

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Wrap it in a plastic bag and pop it in a cool place or the fridge for at least 20 minutes. You can actually leave it there for days if you like, it’s simply helping it to ‘become one’ so it stays together nicely for the next steps.

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I got given a pasta machine around 10 years ago for a birthday present – it’s tops. We use it to make pasta (surprise, surprise), lasagna sheets and ravioli. However, you don’t need it, you can use a rolling pin (or a bottle of wine if you haven’t got one of those) and a knife.

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Get your dough out of the fridge and shape it into a sausage and then cut it into pieces to make it easy to roll out.

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Using just your hands, roughly massage each piece into a basic small oval.

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Now you’re ready to pop it through the pasta machine (or roll it out), start at the ‘thickest’ setting to give them the once over. You can then jump straight to the thickness you want to make it as thick or thin as you desire. I never go to the thinnest layer as it can sometimes fall apart (depending on your flour).

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IMG_4111My long and strong sheets and little Frida in the background, wondering when I’m going to go play with her.

You need to make sure you add more flour onto each sheet before you work with them so they’re never sticky, otherwise they can easily clog up the pasta machine and rip easily. You can now choose your style of pasta (flat or skinny worm is what I call the options) and pop the sheets through as below.

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Perhaps the best hot tip I ever learned was that from here you can just throw them in a bowl of flour (so they don’t stick together). You don’t need to sting up clothes lines everywhere in your house to dry your pasta. This was a bit revolutionary for me and adds to the easiness of the whole process.

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Usually I cook it straight away, however if you need to dry it out for later, just throw it out onto something like a cake rack so air can flow around it to dry it evenly. Once completely dry, you can pop it in a paper bag (so it can breath) and store it for a few weeks and probably months in cooler climates (it never lasts that long for me).

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When you do cook it, make sure you hang about. Unlike stuff from the shop, it’ll only take a couple of minutes in boiling water so don’t walk away from the stove, otherwise you’ll end up with something resembling clag glue.

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And as you can imagine, it tastes bucket-loads better than anything you’ll buy from the shop… Enjoy!

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