Hello 2017!

Hello 2017 and all you wonderful people out there. We’re a bit quiet on this blog at the moment – here’s why.

We started the year with a flurry of much needed camping trips with dear friends. Because even though life is very full with work commitments none of that can happen *well* unless we, and are little family, are happy. So happy we were and are.

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Frida turned two, so we went camping (again) – this time in our mate’s blueberry orchard to which she was forever grateful for and very well fed.

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And now? Now we are fully focused on prepping for our summer permaculture design course which starts this Friday!

On top of the many, many small logistical details we have to sort out, we decided to build a hot compost shower system for the two-week course. It’s the first time we’ve done this – huge thanks to Very Edible Gardens for teaching us how via many emails. We love you for your generosity, brains and funny characters.

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We’ll write a comprehensive blog about this system in a few weeks once we’ve used it, learned what we did wrong and right so you can then learn from us. But right now, we think it’s one of the most beautiful things we’ve ever help create – 20 cubic metres of glorious organic matter!

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And our home garden???

Well our own garden is pretty much taking care of itself at the moment. As a result of having a lot going on with work and life, we made the conscious decision to only plant a small annual garden of tomatoes, pumpkins and greens and then transition other annual beds into our new olive grove with a thick understory of dandelion and comfrey. We’ll get back to annual gardening next season…

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The perennial gardens/orchard are proving once again they are far superior than any annual gardens – pumping out the fruit, berries and wild greens while we make sure they have enough water. Weeding can wait as currently they’re helping reduce evaporation and provide fresh greens for our chooks.

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BECAUSE NEXT SEASON WE’LL HAVE A WHOLE NEW SPACE TO GROW INTO. Sorry to shout, but this development has been four years in planning/wishing/hoping. And now it’s all happening. As I write, an excavator is moving earth strategically (keeping the top soil safe) to create a series of terraces for our long-term annual beds and additional fruit/nut orchard with animal systems integrated.

2017 – you’re a big year, one we’ve been willing for – wanting to hurry up and get here so we can make so many of our garden/home/life dreams come true. We’re so happy you’re finally here, a touch overwhelmed with the enormity of it all but ultimately just deeply grateful and stoked.

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See You On The Other Side

Hi there good people,

In honour of meeting some fast approaching deadlines (thank you patient design clients) and doing some *big* home projects, we’re going to let this blog go quite over the next few weeks. We’re stepping away from the computer and into our garden for some exciting and long anticipated developments (watch this space).

We’ll also be enjoying each other and the fruits of our labour – literally….. Specifically, we’ll be dedicating some solid time to loitering at the raspberry patch each day *and* checking up on our ripening currents, nectarines, apricots, plums apples and cherries.

20161209_164247Raspberry path = current favourite hang out spot

Thanks for this year, it’s been a big one as they increasingly tend to be.

This little blog started as an interesting side experiment and has ended up becoming a central element to what we do. Documenting our ventures has become an invaluable resource for us and the broader community. So thanks for your interest, questions, comments and contributions. We think you’re tops!

Catch you in early 2017!

hannahmoloney1Me and Scratch – looking like she’d rather not be in my arms!

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Nick Ritar: His Permaculture Journey

Nick Ritar: Director of permaculture power house – Milkwood, permaculture educator extraordinaire, lover of all things fungi, talker of many words (good ones) and guest teacher on our upcoming permaculture design course (PDC).

I first met Nick in 2012 when he invited me up to guest teach on one of their PDCs in Sydney. I was a bit/a lot nervous to work with him say the least, – but his support, professionalism and now friendship has been brain stretching, comfort-zone expanding and fun. I feel fortunate to have this talkative chap in my life and owe him (and his partner Kirsten) much for where I am now.

Have a read about Nick, his perspective on life, permaculture and the future.

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What do you think permaculture’s role is in creating a vibrant, sustainable and resilient world for our children’s children?

I see permaculture as a blueprint for how we’re going to live on this planet in future years, and by living I mean live a joyous & abundant life where we can thrive, not just survive. There is a lot of very scary things that are happening in our global society and hearing about them can be incredibly disempowering. Permaculture empowers us to take action in our lives and in our communities and that will become more and more important in future years.

Where has permaculture taken you in life?

Permaculture has allowed me to recognise what I really value in life. When I first started being a permaculturalist I was still living a relatively conventional life. The longer I’ve spent being a permie, I’ve realised I can be fulfilled with a lot less, especially from an economic perspective. The economic system can be a powerful tool to allow us to engage with society so I am still engaged with it. But in my personal life I try to live without it. My life now is very low income, even lower expenditure and full of amazing beautiful experiences. Strong community and amazing relationships with people have allowed this to happen.

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Where do you live now?

Melliodora – Hepburn Springs, Victoria – home of Sue Dennet and David Holmgren, co-founder of permaculture. This property is an 8700m² diverse, perennial polyculture with amazing annual gardens, goats, chickens, geese, fungi  and a few lovingly built homes.  We get to live in one of them – a mudbrick building built by family and community for family and community. 

We’re so fortunate to be able to be living on this incredible permaculture demonstration property. That opportunity came about via the strong community connections we’ve made over the years through permaculture. In a very true sense permaculture has given us this opportunity. When you engage with a passion for things that you really believe in other people end up really supporting you in that. The support that we’ve been given to live here comes out of the ethics of permaculture. Probably the single most important thing to us is that we have a community of people who we love and support and in turn, they love and support us. 

We don’t own our own property and haven’t got tenure over it. It’s through interpersonal relationships and the improvement of these that maintains this opportunity. It’s unique and rare, but perhaps that’s not unattainable. The amount of small farms with ageing owners who need and want help and company is abundant in our country. Perhaps shifting our cultural mindset is the more challenging barrier to making this a common option for people, young people in particular who are looking to access land, but can’t afford to join an inflated real-estate market.

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By living at Melliodora you’re living in one of the most established permaculture properties in the world. Besides a kick-arse garden, what other permaculture elements are you and your family loving?

We’re building stronger connections with this property all the time, but even more interesting/exciting is the connections we’re building within our bioregion. Included in this is the local Spring Creek community forest, this is a place where we spend time to grow and harvest fungi and the goats graze there regularly. It helps us close the cycle of this property where we give and take in a healthy way.  

It’s the dream set up where functional connections are self-forming (beyond the property fence line), resources are abundant and things are self-connecting. That’s what’s different to a mature permaculture system; you become a player rather than a director. Establishment of a permaculture systems is so different to maintaining one where your rhythm is heavily directive, in a mature system your rhythm becomes more responsive to the seasons and available resources.

What’s one of the most exciting and meaningful permaculture projects you’ve worked on?

Milkwood – our business. This includes the Milkwood farm we had in Mudgee, NSW (now sold) but alsor964775_10407800 Milkwood as the unaffiliated educational organisation. That’s been the biggest project for me, designing this and making sure it’s true to the permaculture ethics, that it provides meaningful livelihoods and promotes permaculture principles. Within this, a big project for us has been the 107 Projects roof top garden we designed and built in Redfern, Sydney. This is where we teach a lot of our classes and is one of our longer term projects we’re proud of – earlier this year it won gold awards from the Australian Institute of Landscape Designers and Managers in two categories.

What we haven’t done and would like to do more of is community design projects. We’ve mostly worked with corporate and individual design clients. This has limits to how close you can get to the project as it’s more of a financial relationship rather than a community project where you invest in a long-term relationship. We’re really looking forward to participating in the development of our son’s new school – a place where we hope to be invested in for the next 5 years.

Working on Melliodora is also incredibly fulfilling. We’re getting to design and implement crazy mushroom gardens, annual food production and parts of the tree and animal systems not to mention also getting to work on the amazing natural buildings and help Sue and Dave out with parts of their enterprise. By working on the place you live, you get to have a level of ownership over things and get to see the results.

But of course, the ultimate project for any permaculture designer is their own life and their families. You can start with yourself, then move out to your family, then your community and lastly the broader world – this is where you can design and implement permaculture on every possible level.  

Who should do a permacultue design course and why?

Anyone who wants to live a fulfilling life – a life that brings them good food, community, safe/happy houses and happy families – and anyone who wants to help others achieve this too, whether that’s directly through their work roles, in their community or within their family. 

Interested in learning about permaculture?

Join us and special guest Nick Ritar this Jan21 – Feb 3 in Tasmania for our permaculture design course. 

nick-ritar-and-family_full-bleedNick with his very awesome partner, Kirsten Bradley and their son Ashar. Image from here

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Chopping And Dropping Comfrey Leaves

I’ve written a fair bit about comfrey and its many uses, including how to propagate it and making comfrey fritters. At one point, I wrote an extensive blog called “everything I know about comfrey so far” just to get it all out there and clear up a few myths. As an extension of that blog here’s a more detailed look at using comfrey leaves as mulch, aka “chopping and dropping”.

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We’ve got a big bank of comfrey downhill of our young espalier orchard which is on a small terrace carved out of a steep slope – you can see the design below and some of its  development story here.  The design matches reality around 99%, it’s now all there and thriving – we just decided to not run our chooks there for the time being.

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This particular type of comfrey grows *big*, well over one metre – providing a whole lots of biomass that can be cycled back in our garden. At least twice a season I’ll go through and chop the leaves off at the base and drop it straight back on the ground or move it to an area that needs mulch. This time round, I mulched the bank it grows on and the neighbouring currants and globe artichokes. Coming into summer, this is such a valuable resource – it means we don’t have to buy in mulch at all, our soil is protected and nourished for free.

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Comfrey has a reputation amongst keen gardeners as a “dynamic accumulator”. While there isn’t solid scientific data on this, you just can’t ignore the countless gardeners who swear that by adding comfrey to your garden, you end up with healthier soils and crops -we’ve observed this ourselves.  You can read up on this here and here. 

And after a solid hour of chopping and dropping – our bank now looks like this….

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While it looks like I’ve completely devastated the plant – rest assured I haven’t, new growth will start to pop back up within 1 – 2 weeks and the whole process will repeat again. You can’t kill this plant – or at least it would be really, really hard to.

img_7231Our currant bushes with a comfrey mulch

Our bank of comfrey is approximately 20m long with somewhere between 40-60 plants and counting. We subdivide and plant more each season to crowd out the grass, stabilise the bank and grow mulch for our orchard. If you can, grow your own multi-functional living mulches – you and your garden will never regret it!

img_7239One of our espaliered apple trees with a comfrey mulch on one side and calendula on the other – lucky apple tree. 

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Our Property Design In Process

We’ve been at our property for almost four years – you can see some of the work we’ve done on it here, here and here – it’s been a busy four years. Recently we bought the bush/weed block next door to us which more than doubles the size of our block. So we’re now redesigning our whole property to integrate it with this new patch of land. Thankfully, we always planned on buying this additional bit of land, so designed our place with this in mind. Our original design looked like this…

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We mostly stuck to this design when creating it all. Only “mostly” because as soon as you start implementing a design, reality kicks in – you learn new things along the way so respond accordingly. This is a good thing, a great thing actually as it means you’re working with the landscape, letting it unfold naturally rather than enforcing your fixed ideas onto it. When we work with clients we try and emphasise this – that the design we provide them will almost certainly change as you create it – embrace that.

Back in September we started drafting up our new “whole of property” design – it looked like this.

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We let this sit for a while – talked extensively with our excavator driver who’ll be doing all the terracing and building our driveway and quickly knew we had to make some changes to make the design “smarter”.

By smarter I mean we had to find a way to keep all the soil onsite, get ride of the retaining walls as they’ll blow our budget (we’ll build earth berms instead and grow useful plants on them), make the passive water harvesting system more elegant and make every terrace accessible with a wheelbarrow so you don’t have to do awkward carrying/lifting across our steep slope. The new draft looks like this….

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We fully expect to change this design *again* before we start implementing it this January. We also fully expect to tweak it *during* implementation as our landscape is a living entity that we work with and not against.

I’ll provide a second (and maybe third) chapter to this blog to show the design and implementation developments as they unfold. The key emphasise we’ll continue to demonstrate is the responsiveness and flexibility we try and embody when working with land. It’s already perfect as it is, and while we’re introducing some massively significant changes we know we can still do this within the natural integrity of the landscape. Watch. This. Space.

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Growing Your Own Apple Tree Rootstock

Last winter our neighbour gave us two apple rootstock saplings and some advice for our developing orchard plans. She said:

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Save yourself money and grow your own rootstock. Just dig a long trench the same height of the tree and bury them (each in their own one) – they’ll sprout multiple times from their trunks and grow more trees.

Our neighbour is one of the best growers around, so we do whatever she tells us. We dug two shallow trenches, popped them in and forgot about them. The sketch below outlines the key steps to do this whole process – super easy.

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We now have ten young apple trees that we’ve since grafted onto with our desired apple varieties.

What varieties did we choose? The sturmer for its good storing abilities and the red galaxy – an older variety with pink flesh. We couldn’t find any reference to this variety, but how could we go past it with a name like that! Thanks to Fat Pig Farm for letting us lovingly raid their old orchard.

img_7049The young graft line, healing beautifully. 

img_7044Our ten apple saplings

We’re storing all the trees in one trench on the edge of our young olive grove until next winter, when we’ll transplant them into their permanent home in some new ground we’re prepping this summer. Until then, they’ll put on good growth so they’re ready for fruiting the following season.

If we were to buy all the plants we wanted to grow in our property, it’d add up to many, many thousands of dollars. Learning these life skills isn’t only empowering and deeply satisfying they look after the piggy bank too. But mostly, they’re just deeply satisfying – that’s what drives us – developing *useful* skills that all add up to having a good life.

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A Small Strawbale Home: 44m2 of love

Did you know the average Australian household is 214m2. To put that in perspective: Denmark’s average size is 137m2, America comes in at 201m2 , France is 112m2 and Hong Kong is a modest 45m2. So yep, Australia is “winning” in the worse way as the bigger your house, the bigger your consumption levels. As you generally need more energy to run the home, more things to put in it – more of everything.

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In the midst of the tiny house movement, we’d like you to meet Yani and Ben. We first met Yani as a student on one of our permaculture design courses and have kept in touch ever since. They’ve recently finished building their own small strawbale home in southern Tasmania – not quite a tiny home but tiny compared to the average Australian house, coming in at just 44m2.

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In Yani’s own words…

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After two and a half years as owner builders of our little house, we now live in the most beautiful space we could imagine for ourselves. With the help of many builders and experienced people we were a part of constructing the build every step of the way with the clay render definitely being the most hands on. We love every bit of our place and have achieved all the key elements we dreamed of.

Our home is around 44sqm and includes kitchen/living, bedroom, enclosed bathroom and we have a composting toilet outside. We are completely off grid with solar power, gas hot water and cooking, a wood heater (that also has oven and cook top) and collect all our rain water.

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The insulation that straw provides is superior to anything we’ve come across, the rendered walls give great protection against bushfire and the straw itself is a by-product of grain harvest. We are on about 5 acres of bush with a vegetable garden, food forest, two ducks, two ponies and two dogs.

Recently, we started making our own bread after realising just how many plastic bread bags we were going through! We will continue to aim towards a low waste lifestyle and think that a small home is a big part of that.

A well designed small home doesn’t feel cramped, funnily enough – it can feel spacious and an absolute delight to be in. Yani and Ben’s place does this – check it out…

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Obviously other benefits in building a small home is that it’ll cost less, which is always a helpful bonus! I think about small homes a fair bit – what is it in our culture that often makes people think bigger is better? When is enough, enough?

Our own house was built by someone else in 1925 and is 110m2. Its always felt big to us, admittingly having a little toddler makes it feel smaller, but not enough that we could ever consider having more. If anything we dream about living in something smaller – especially when we see folks like Yani and Ben create well designed homes that meet their needs in the most beautiful, functional and soulful way!

*Big thanks to Yani for providing all the photos.

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Our Maturing Edible Forest Garden

Around three and half years ago, we excavated our hillside – shaping the very steep slope into a series of terraces.  We knew we couldn’t afford to build retaining walls to stabilise each terrace, so our solution was one that many people have used before us – use plants to stabilise the earth berms. The berms are angled at around 45 degrees (the legal steepness is 60 degrees where we live), are a hell-of-a-lot cheaper and turns out more productive and beautiful than retaining walls.

The earth berm below (circled in yellow) was our largest, most problematic slope to stabilise – our solution? Plant it out as a small edible forest garden (EFG). You can see the full process we went through to establish this patch here.

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558615_639447366089512_23328198_nDirectly after the earth works, we quickly covered the steep earth berms with jute mesh to help stablise the soil and hold the clover seeds we broadcast (in hindsight, jute mat would have been better). We then put in some basic timber shelves, back filled them with good soil and planted them out densely.

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While we still think of this little patch as our young EFG – it’s starting to produce food, provide habitat and food to small insects and critters, plus it’s beautiful. We now sit in our seat (below), have a beer or a cuppa while fresh mint and nasturtiums drape over our shoulders. It’s transformed and we love it.

IMG_6002Photo from April 2016

Contrary to most design approaches for EFGs, we’ve arranged our key plants in rows in order to help stabilise the steep bank and to create easier access in a relatively small space. Below you can see these lines reasonably well with currants at the bottom left, feijoa trees in the middle, a strip of comfrey and then myrtus ugni berries at the very top. There’s also rambling clover, mint, nasturtiums and many herbs in between all this as well.

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As an ever-evolving space it’s always changing from season to season. We’ve made some changes here and there, like replacing the tamarillo tree with a fig, but only because we like figs more and due to limited space had to make a choice.

While I was out there this morning cutting and slashing the comfrey, using it as mulch around the fig and feijoa trees, I had a happy moment – realising that we never have to bring in mulch for this patch any more. It produces *so much* bio mass, plenty to cycle back into its own system, plus feed the chooks.

20161025_103400The baby fig tree *flanked* by a serious wall of flowering comfrey and a cape gooseberry.

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Being a perennial system, the maintenance is *significantly* lower than our annual garden beds. While we’re currently busy weeding our spring veggie beds and keeping them under control – our EFG only needs only occasional attention. Our main jobs are pruning and harvesting to keep this tight space productive. For example, two or three times a year I’ll go through and “clear-fell” patches mint to dry for tea, plus give the neighbouring plants a break from being swamped by it. Below you can see a freshly harvest patch which will bounce back with fresh mint in no time.

20161025_103806A clear patch where the mint has just been harvested for tea. Image form October 2016

We’re approaching a very big summer/autumn of change for our property – expanding our gardens into the neighbouring block we’ve just purchased (with the bank). While there’s still a whole stack of details to finalise, we’re 100% clear on one thing – and that’s having more perennial, instead of annual gardens. The high productivity, improved soil health and lower inputs required make it a no-brainer!

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Holistic Decision Making Workshop

We’ve just wrapped up hosting our first Holistic Decision Making workshop with Dan Palmer from Very Edible Gardens – it was a good one.

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Developed by Alan Savory  holistic management is “a framework for making deeply sound decisions. Deeply sound in the tangible sense of honouring the whole situation, minimising unintended negative consequences, and taking you where you want to go”.

Decisions are the steering wheel for our lives, whether you go left, right, straight ahead or turn abruptly around, their impact is profound. Best to get them right. That’s where holistic decision making steps in to make sure your decisions are in line with your inner truth, your calling, your dreams – whatever you want to call “it”.

The late Bruce Ward explains holistic decision making beautifully…

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It’s actually very simple. Form a goal for yourself that describes everything that’s important to your life. Test every one of your actions towards that set of words and assume you could be wrong. Monitor (whether it’s financial, ecological or social) for early evidence that it could be wrong and if it’s wrong, make another decision towards how you want things to be – not to solve the problem, but to get towards how you want life to be.

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Life is busy – we know this feeling well. Our brains and bodies are often frazzled moving sometimes erratically with the speed of our modern world, compared with the steady, level pace of ‘earth time’.

Holistic decision making is a tangible tool that can be applied to you, your family, your business, workplace – anything – to help reign it in, keep it focused and on track to reaching the goal/s you/it needs to. There’s nothing wishy-washy, magical or fluffy about – it’s just a solid, well thought through method that will help you live the life you need to. That’s all. You can see how we’ve started to apply it to our own little family here. 

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Every time we hang out with Dan our brains stretch a little bit more and we walk away with new thoughts, tools and some good laughs. Thanks Dan…

You can read more about this approach here.

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Living Mulches

In our cool temperate climate, we make a point of not mulching our annual garden beds over winter as the soil’s so cold we want the sun to be able to hit it directly – warming it up as much as possible. Plus, mulching in winter creates the perfect habitat for slugs that’ll ravish your plants. However, come summer time we’ll happily mulch our annual crops to prevent evaporation, slow down any weeds and provide organic matter for our soil food web.

But in our perennial gardens (herbs, orchard and perennial veggies) it’s generally a different story. Having the soil covered permanently (or close to it) prevents evaporation, fosters a stable soil food web and will generally improve the health of all plants. So in our garden, rather than only relying on buying mulch we also grow living mulches that have multiple benefits… They reduce evaporation, can provide nutrients to the soil, attract bees, fix nitrogen and help stabilise steep slopes.  Here are four examples of living mulches we use in our own cool temperate garden…

Vetch

Vetch (Vicia sativa) is a nitrogen-fixing ground cover that (to our delight) actually volunteered in our garden. We foster it in our herb garden where it fills in any gaps between plants and adds to the colour of the area with its purple flowers (not flowering at the moment).

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img_6743Vetch filling in the gaps between our purple sage and curry bush

Comfrey

We’re big fans of comfrey (Symphytum) and plant it amongst our orchards and globe artichoke patch where it also helps stabilise the slope.   It’s deep tap root can “mine” minerals into its leaves which we then chop and drop beneath our fruit trees where they release these minerals into the top layers of the soil. We’ve written extensively about comfrey and its uses – see our past blogs and photos here.

img_6740Comfrey helping to stabilise our slope and acting as a living mulch for our globe artichokes and fruit trees.

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Clover

We use white clover (Trifolium repens) throughout our small edible forest garden. This quick growing, nitrogen-fixing ground cover is super hardy and popular amongst the honey bees. They’ll flock to the flowers, which of course ensure the fruit trees nearby benefit from pollination.

FYI – never plant this in your annual veggie patch as it’ll become invasive and you’ll never get rid of it!

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img_6749Clover (plus yarrow and plantain) flanking one our feijoa trees

Mixed floral

Easy on the eye and a hot spot for the bees, a mixed floral living mulch system is a great way to go for both the soil and often your tummy. A lot of these flowers are edible, including the nasturtium and calendula flowers – add these to your salads (and more) and you’ll end up eating rainbow dishes!

img_6738Nasturtiums, calendula and sweet alyssum all acting as a living mulch and looking fine in the process.* 

We use nasturtium (Tropaeolum), sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) and calendula (Calendula officinalis) as our main living mulch options as they self seed *prolifically*, are tough and the bees love them. We’re big fans of plants that can handle the ‘tough love’ approach to gardening. You wont fine anything that needs constant pampering on our property – we’re all about minimal input and maximum output.

* Please excuse the rain tank’s overflow pipe not being connected to anything (yet). We’re in the process of connecting it into an overflow system that will pipe it through our orchard (to its benefit) with all excess water then going into the storm water drain. 

img_6734A nasturtium creeper beneath our young medlar tree

What about native plants as living mulches?

Good question. We currently have two native plants we use in our garden as living mulches – the creeping boobialla (Myoporum parvifolium) beneath our young grevilleas and tea trees and creeping saltbush (Rhagodia spinescens) which we’ve planted beneath our young olives – this last one is recognised as a local bush tucker plant as well.

img_6728Creeping boobialla (Myoporum parvifolium) smothers out grass beneath a young grevillea.

The boobialla grows incredibly close to the ground, while this particular variety of salt bush will grow to around 30cm before spreading out – they’re both beautiful and vigorous plants.

img_6732Creeping saltbush (Rhagodia spinescens)

Obviously there are many more plant options available to you depending on your climate and context. The key thing to aim for is to choose plants that benefit, rather than compete with one another.  As a general rule, most ground cover plants will have shallow root systems, meaning they’ll be suitable as a living mulch around fruit trees or larger plants that generally have a deeper root system.

At the end of the day, maintaining bare soil in your perennial crops is a lot of work (think weeding and watering). Why bother when you can grow a living mulch – the benefits are many and while it still requires input from you, it’s significantly less and the rewards and more!

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