Posts from the ‘Animals’ category

Flowers For Bees

More and more, it’s becoming important to plant for bees so that we can have reliable pollination for our food crops. In a time where our landscapes are rapidly changing with large monoculture farming practices, forests being clear-felled and the impacts of climate change, we need to counter this with how we garden in the city and out bush. By choosing plants which have good flowers for the bees to eat from, you can provide an abundant and reliable food source for these important little friends.

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A snapshot of one of our gardene we allocate to flowering plants for beauty and bees. Thyme, sweet alice, coastal daisy, lemon balm, pyrethrum and anise hyssop are just some of the plants in this space.

Bees will fly up to 5kms to source their food, so even if you don’t have a beehive on your property, you can still establish plants which will attract them onto your land where they’ll pollinate your crops and increase your yields. We have one beehive on our property and our neighbours who’ve been here for almost 30 years have said that since we’ve had the hive (around 2 years) their yields on their crops has drastically increased.

Bees are fascinating creatures. Did you know that to communicate a good source of food to the other bees, the ‘scout’ bee will do what’s called a ‘waggle dance’ for the whole hive. This dance informs the others where a good food (flower) source is its exact location. They use the sun as a reference point to guide themselves there – incredible. You can watch this 55 second video of it in action here.

Bolder+waggle+danceThe waggle dance as a diagram – image from here.

Depending on where you are in the world and the climate you live in will determine what plants you should choose, there’s a huge range you can choose from. Here’s a snapshot of a few for each season, ensuring that you have something flowering all year round.

Spring Flowers

Sweet Alice (Alyssum): This sweet smelling clusters of tiny flowers is a hardy groundcover which self seeds easily. T attracts a plethora of small insects – not just the honey bee and is drought tolerant. We grow ours in dry slopes with minimal watering – it thrives in temperate and sub tropical regions.

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Clover (Trifolium sp): Both white and red clover plants are bee attractants. This is a nitrogen fixing vigorous ground cover which you’ll often find in pastures and your lawn. We grow clover in our edible forest garden as a groundcover and along some of our paths (instead of grass).

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Thyme (Thymus vulgaris): We think this is probably one of the bees favourit flowers in our garden, there’s always a massive gang of bees feasting out on this little gems. As a creeping plant, we grow it on the edges of our paths (instead of grass) and in a designated herb garden. We can’t get enough of this common herb!

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Fruit trees: Any fruit tree will provide valuable Spring flowers for bees. As much as possible we try and make our flowering plants food producing plants. Whether that’s herbs, salad flowers or fruit – choose plants which can provide multiple functions.

Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.comImage from here

Sage (salvia officinalis): There are a huge range of sage plants and they’re all great for the honey bee. We have a few varieties we grow for culinary and aesthetic purposes. A vigorous bush and drought hardy – it’s a stable in any herb garden.

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Summer Flowers

Queen Anne’s Lace (Ammi visnaga): This annual cottage garden plant grows to 1.5m and its tiny flowers attract everything from assassin bugs, lacewings, predatory wasps and of course, the honey bee. Fantastic on the edges of garden beds or throughout our orchard, it’s front tolerant and goes well in temperate and sub tropical areas. As it has a close resemblance when harvesting in the wild as it looks similar to poison hemlock.

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Buckwheat (fagopyrum esculentum): We grow buckwheat in our urban garden as a summer green manure to replenish our soils. In larger spaces it can be grown as a grain crop – the bees can’t get enough of these little beauties!

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Calendula (Calendula officinalis): We have calendual *everywhere* in our gardens. This self sowing annual is a great salad flower, has medicinal properties and the bees go nuts over it.

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Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus): This little beauty is a must-have plant in and around the veggie garden, grow it throughout your orchard or around the edges of your garden beds. It grow to around 1m high in a range of colours and is popular hang out for a range of beneficial insects. 

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Autumn Flowers

Borage (Borago officinalis): This self seeding annual is a vigorous small bush to 1m with gorgeous blue/purple flowers which are also edible. We use them in our salads or as decorations on cakes.

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Sunflowers (Helianthus): There’s not much to say about the sunflower, except the bees love it and if you have chickens you can also feed the sunflower seeds to them as a treat once they’re ready. We throw the whole head into the chicken run and let them peck the seeds out of the head – they loooove it!

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Coastal Daisy (Erigeron glaucus): One of our all time favourite edging plants, this little daisy plant is incredibly drought hardy, will spread readily and is easy on the eye. We use it to stabilise slopes and attract bees of course!

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Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum): A seasonal, self seeding ground creeper or climber, you can eat all parts of the nasturtium fresh in your salads. We happen to think it’s one of the most beautiful plants in the universe and plant them throughout our orchard and edible forest garden abundantly.

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Winter Flowers

A quick note. In cooler parts of the world, Winter is the time where the bees are hibernating, curled up in their hives – keeping warm and eating their honey supplies from earlier seasons. However, weather permitting, some bees will still forage – here are some of the plants they can eat from…

Wattle (Acacia pycnantha): An Australian native, this nitrogen fixing, quick growing hardy tree is a real beauty. In the depths of Winter it shoots out its bright golden blossoms and all is well in the world again. Whole hillsides change colour in and around Hobart (our home town) – a sign that Winter is drawing to an end and a welcome food source for any foraging beeds.

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Daffodil (Narcissus): We plant a range of winter bulbs (include daffodils) throughout our orchard. They provide a much welcomed splash of colour and life when everything else is pretty dormant. Plant a range of bulbs so the flower is slightly staged over a couple of months.

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Dandelion (Taraxacum): Most people see dandelion as a weed to ignore or get rid of, but we love this plant! It’s a ‘volunteer’ in our garden, it’s deep tap root helps break up our compacted soils and we sometimes harvest the root to make our own dandelion coffee which is delicious.

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Hardenburgia: An Australian native, this climber or groundcover comes in purple, pink or white flowers and is bee heaven. It also fixes nitrogen and will grow in very average soil which is always a bonus!

Hardenbergia violacea purple mauve flowers creeper native

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623b2dc0d5459e94b153011c1f62d187Some of these plants may not be appropriate for you to grow due to climate or they may be considered a noxious weed in your region – always check with your local authorities if you’re unsure. Otherwise, go forth and plant – the bees need us to raise our game in this department and you whole garden system’s health and integrity will drastically improve. Long live the bee!

 

 

 

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The Chicken Tunnel

We learned about the chicken tunnel a few years back from our friends at Very Edible Gardens and have managed to squeeze it into every appropriate design for our clients and our own gardens ever since. It’s one of those life changing techniques you learn, and then wonder how you got through life before hand without it – it’s that good… Seriously.

What exactly is it?

It’s a tunnel system that hugs your fence lines (or relevant area) to pipe your chickens across your garden and to help keep weedy plants away from your food gardens. Here are a few examples…

We recently did a design for a property with extensive food gardens backing onto a series of paddocks used for grazing animals. The grass was a significant issue in terms of maintenance and they had used round up to keep it under control, which we completely understand – no one wants to spend hours on the end of mattock weeding again and again and again. Thankfully this is where chickens can step up and do the job for us, and keep poisons out of the garden.

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A chicken tunnel built by some of our design clients in southern Tasmania recently. It has been built on the external side of their food gardens which back onto their paddocks used for grazing animals.

There a a range of ways of building a chicken tunnel – we generally go for the simple options as they’re quick to build and 100% functional. We build something resembling the sketch on the right (in diagram below) and use chicken wire as the tunnel, tie wire to connect it to the boundary fence (or nails if the fence is timber) and some type of landscaping peg to secure it to the ground. You can use tent pegs if you have an abundance of them, but they tend to pop out as they’re too small. I’ve also made my own pegs out of strong high tensile wire used for fencing.

Chook tunnel options

For this particular design, we worked with the existing fence line and integrated a chicken tunnel along all relevant edges, turning a negative (weedy grasses) into a positive (food for chickens). You’ll notice, in the diagram below, we have different coloured sections, this indicates how it’s possible to rotate between sections so the chickens are never permanently grazing one area only. It’s important to be able to provide different and fresh ground for your animals to keep them healthy.

Chook tunnel system

Another example is from our last rental home where we made a much small chicken tunnel to create two runs for our chooks which we could then alternate them between. We also made the tunnel function as a seat for us to sit around a camp fire (which hadn’t been created yet in the photo below). So this particular tunnel is one of my favourites due to being so multifunctional.

As this tunnel was up against a concrete wall, preventing weeds from creeping in wasn’t its main job. Instead, it’s key function was to pipe the chickens across the yard without taking up too much space – essentially doubling the area available for our chickens, increasing their health and happiness.

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Finally, a concept sketch I did back in 2011 (and which wasn’t actually ever implemented) for a project is seen below where a chicken tunnel is integrated into a mini market garden to prevent grass from creeping in from the boundary fence line. For such a simple thing the impact is ever-giving and wonderful, no matter how small it can literally save you from many hours of weeding.

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Do you need to train the chickens to walk into the tunnel?

We’ve found that food works wonders in enticing the chickens in to the tunnel the first one or two times. After that they quickly work out that the tunnel = a world of fresh food and newness, so they learn super quick.

Want to see more chicken tunnel magic?

Check out this fantastic blog by Very Edible Gardens blog here.

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The ‘Right & Wrong’ Way of Doing Things

There’s an acronym, W.A.S.P.A, which is really popular in permaculture circles. It stands for Water, Access. Structures, Plants and Animals and lays out the order in which you should implement your design for ultimate ease and flow. Let me step you through the thinking and considerations…. And then confess a bit of a stuff up on our behalf when implementing our our design (an ongoing process).

1. Water

Implementing water first up can include large scale earth works (i.e. dams and keyline systems) where you have big machinery coming through your property, you can see our own earth works we’ve completed  here. As we’re on an urban block there are no dams, buts lots of terracing, and passive water harvesting systems, including swale paths. You really don’t want to be trying to do this work once you have other things in place i.e. fencing, as you’ll end up having to rip it out and put it back again, a whole world of pain which is best to avoid.

Of course, water systems can be happen on a much smaller scale and involve installing taps, drip line irrigation (something we’re still planning to do), rain tanks or simply digging a trench with a mattock and shovel to direct water flow. Regardless of scale, it’s best to get this all sorted first up so you can then support what’s to come – cause lets face it folks – water is life. No water no life.

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A snapshot of the major earthworks we did on our place within a month of arriving. The blue lines indicate where the key access paths/swale paths are now located. 

2. Access

Access is super important and determines how you move around the site on foot, with your wheelbarrow, on your tractor or car. If you get it right, good access paths can improve efficiency drastically as well as double up with water harvesting systems.  Implementing access paths can often happen at the same time, or very closely after water systems are put in place. When working with large machinery, you can double up by carving in water harvesting methods and access roads/paths at the same time – this is what we did with our swale paths (below) and it’s working a treat.

2014-02-05-08.13.12-1024x768The early days of one of our key swale paths, providing both access and passive water harvesting

3. Structures

Structures can include tool/machinery sheds, fencing, animals shelters and your house (if building from scratch). At our own property there was an existing house (yay) with a downstairs space which currently functions are our workshop/tool shed. We do plan to build a glass house, however this is lower on our priority list compared to other structures such as fencing (which still isn’t 100% complete) and animals shelters such as our rather beautiful chook house.

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Without a doubt the floppy fence is my favourite structure on our place, it allows us to grow and harvest crops without feeding all the local wildlife. Well worth the investment in time, money and energy.

4. Plants

Now, and only now, should you be looking to plant vegetation – edibles and otherwise. In our area, if you plant your crops before you have put your fencing up you might as well declare your garden a wallaby, possum and rabbit feast – they’ll be in there before you can say ‘bugger bugger bugger’. Your plants will also benefit massively from having good water systems set up and access paths for easy harvesting and maintenance. It all fits together beautifully. The first plants we put in was a stack of annual green manures to improve the soil which we’re still as the soil needs a lot of love. This particular growing season it turns out we’re growing 50:50 of vegies and green manures which we’ll do into winter as well as we’re thinking long term here.

10639512_836798769687703_8220657592843300869_nWe’ve had some bumper crops in our 2 years of being here, none of which could have happened without our water, access and structure systems in place (photo from October 2014).

5. Animals

Last, but not least – animals enter the system. For animals to thrive and not just survive they need a space which is well suited to their needs, otherwise it’s simply not ethical or appropriate to have them in there at all. We have chickens, ducks and honey bees at our own property.

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The bees are beautiful and happy in their top bar bee hive (above). Our chickens have what we call the ‘stage one’ run which is more than enough space with good shelter – we’re actually going to be extending and integrating them more into our food gardens this year. But it’s still a good, healthy space for them right now.

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And our ducks.? Well now this is where we smack ourselves on the wrists.

Our ducks were always in our design, but we weren’t planning on getting them as soon as we did. The idea was that we’d simply have two female ducks for egg production and slug control and that would be that. However – just over a year ago I happened to be in the vicinity of a bunch of cute-as fluffy ducklings and I wanted them right then and there – there was nothing more to it. So, despite not having a home or a pond set up for them, four ducklings came home with me. I chose four as I thought that at least two of them would be girls and the boys could be re-homed or eaten. I was told they were pure khaki campbells which are good breed as they don’t fly, are quiet, don’t destroy your crops so can free range in the vegie patch and are great egg layers.

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However, a few things happened… It turned out they weren’t pure bred khaki campbells, but ‘bitzers’ as in a bit of this and a bit of that, so they liked to fly and eventually some did… Away from us. The ones that stayed turned out to be boys, bugger – and four was simply too many to have, even for a short while in our urban space. So we sorted out the numbers, bought in a pure bred lady khaki campbell and had some baby ducks with the intention of just keeping 2 girls. Today we have 5 ducks (2 adults, 3 teenagers) and a simple but great pond/fertigation system which is tops. However 5 is too many for our space, for the first time they’ve started eating our crops, specifically all our lettuces which is not ok. With just two ducks it was fine, they happily free ranged throughout our garden and had a little nibble here and there, but the increased numbers means there’s more hunger and more stress on our system, which we simply can’t support right now.

IMG_2017Exhibit A – the lettuces (and nothing else) have been getting hammered.

And this is where we come back to W.A.S.P.A… If we had followed this to the book our ducks would still be another year away and our lettuces would still be here. We need more time to finish installing the needed structures and plant systems which would support the ducks and us. But real life doesn’t always work like that, we’re an impulsive lot us humans and no matter how much we learn we will more often than not regress to instinctual ‘wants’. We’ve just made the decision to re-home our little duck family at a friend’s house and use this next year to complete some of our foundational structures before the ducks can come back, cause they’ll definitely be back. This means we want have to work as hard to have them here, and we all know that permaculture is all about with nature rather than for or against it.

We’re looking at it as a good and humbling reality check. A healthy reminder that we must always self regulate and admit when you may have got ahead of yourself. The great, fantastic thing about permaculture is the design framework – this is what sets it apart from other methodologies and gives it huge strength. It’s this framework that keeps us in check and provides a clear tool for us to use when we pause and reflect on the work we have done so far and are yet to do.

So here’s to learning, stuffing up, and learning some more. A non-stop ever evolving process!

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Fertigation

Have you heard about fertigation yet? It’s the happy coupling of fertilising and irrigating, where you harness a nutrient dense element, mix it with water and then spread it as one across your garden. It’s pretty cool. We do this in our garden with our ducks, who’s main purpose in life seems to poo, specifically in their pond (an old bathtub). As you can see from the photo below, it can get pretty manky really quickly, so it’s important to know what to do with it, otherwise it can turn into a very smelly problem. But as the famous permaculture saying goes “the problem is the solution”. Fertigation is a beautiful, elegant example of this saying – turning excess polluting poo into a valuable resource for the garden.

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IMG_1895The ‘dregs’ of the bath, thick, slimy, nutrient dense poo

At least once a week, we flush the pond out to keep it fresh and have recently installed a pipe/hose combination so that this fertilised  water can be directed to various parts of our young edible forest garden, rather than only one spot which would get problematic very quickly. There are some simply yet important design considerations with the pipe and hose system. As you can see from the photo above, a lot of poo and muck builds up which can very quickly clog a pipe. So we chose a 50mm pvc pipe to ensure that poo and other stuff (feathers, twigs etc) can be flushed through easily.

Up until this point we’d scrounged all the materials from our local tip shop and were keeping an eye out for the ‘right’ hose and pipe connections. But my impatience got the better of me and I went and splurged at the local plumbing shop for brand new bits to finish off the job. These bits included a couple of threaded convertor ‘things’ so that we could connect the pipe to the hose properly. I chose a hose called ‘black marine hose’ which is super heavy duty, UV stablised and flexible.

IMG_1877Using ‘blue glue’ (a plumber’s glue) we attached a threaded convertor directly onto the 50m pvc pipe.

IMG_1879This photo’s actually taken upside down, but you get the idea…

IMG_1876All the bits fitting together to make sure the duck poo gets where it needs to go

IMG_1888The black marine hose is strong and flexible so we can direct it anywhere we like

We made the black marine hose around 5m long (choose the length that’s right for your garden) which allows us to fertigate a range of spaces in our edible forest garden as well as some of the beds below this area. If you decide to fertigate annual vegetables, be really careful about getting any poo water on the leaves and only direct it at the soil to eliminate risk of sickness, i.e. you manage to eat lettuce leaf with duck poo on it. This is a minor risk and one which we’re completely fine with, but a risk nonetheless – simply wash your vegies well before eating and if concerned, don’t fertigate your annual crops.

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Above you can see the happy recipients of the poo/water combo – a baby feijoa fruit tree, current bush, comfrey and clover ground cover. Below the happy duck family relish in fresh water, which turns a dark poo coloured brown in around, oh, 5 mintues. As we’re on a steep slope, we’re able to simply use gravity to empty the bath, so no pump needed which is one of the perks of living on a crazy hillside.

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Wanna see it all in action?

You can watch a little tour of me (Hannah) talking and showing you through the process of emptying the pond here. 

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khaki Campbell Ducks

Back in December, I was admiring 30 ducklings at a friend’s place and was quite taken by their fluff and squeak, so I took 4 of them home. Ducks were not in our short, or medium term, plan – but it’s funny how quickly you can justify something, ‘just because’. I was told they were khaki campbells, however they turned out to be ‘bitzas’, as in a bit of this and a bit of that.

Unfortunately (for them) they ended up being mostly boys so two were eaten, then one was taken by the local grey goshawk and the last one (who we thought was a girl) turned out to be a boy. But we kept him, named him Song and got him a mate called Bruny, named so as she’s brown and ‘browny’ was a tad too obvious as a name. She’s a beautiful pure bred khaki campbell from down the road. We’re hoping they have babies so we can eventually just have two girls for eggs and company.

IMG_1174Our two ducks, Song and Bruny… Running away from me

The low down on the khaki campbell breed

Khaki campbells were our desired breed as they’re known to be homebodies (so don’t try and escape), are prolific egg layers (yum) and most importantly, don’t trash the vegie garden so can free range permanently – snuffling for bugs and slugs and depositing their poo across the garden.

Khakis were originally bred in England and are a combination of mallards, rouens and runner ducks. They generally come in three colour varieties – khaki, dark and white. The drake (the boy) is usually mostly khaki colored with a darker olive green head lacking the white ring of its Mallard ancestors. The duck (the girl) has the usual underwhelming colour scheme and is khaki (brown) all over. I think our drake must be more mallard than anything else as he has the white ring around his neck.

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Their Character

One of the key reasons we wanted khaki campbells was because we were told they were very gentle, wouldn’t destroy the garden, are great with kids and are pretty chilled out. While ours are all of these things, they REALLY don’t like people. This is because they weren’t hand raised, instead they roamed free in their exclusive duck gang. The fist time they encountered a human closely was when they were around 4 weeks old and I picked them up and took them home. In complete contrast, if you hand raise them they’ll ‘imprint’ themselves onto you and in some cases think that you’re their mother/father or mate and want leave your side.

Eggs Galore!

The egg production of the khakis is awesome with the breed laying an average of 320 eggs a year, so having a couple of ducks laying over winter (when the chickens stop) is a wonderful thing and something we’re aiming for. Apparently they’re not the most desired meat bird as they’re not as ‘fat’ as others, but Anton swears they’re pretty tasty.

Fertigation

Fertigation is where irrigation meets fertilisation – think poo in water all mixed up. As ducks need water to be happy, we gave them a pond, i.e. an old bath in the ground. Being ducks they LOVE to poo in the water so it quickly turns dark brown and will stink if you don’t empty it regularly. We empty ours weekly and have it placed high on our slope so we can use gravity to direct the flow onto our young edible forest garden and other perennial crops. As it’s a strong mix of poo and water I wouldn’t go splashing it on your lettuce leaves, unless you remember to wash them thoroughly.

IMG_1170Song and Bruny hanging in one of the favourite places, you can see the water is ready to be drained onto our garden

Do they fly?

Theoretically, no. However Song (the drake) likes to take daily flights across the valley, just like a ‘proper bird’. We were shocked at first, but he comes back every time as I think he’s got the hots for Bruny big time. In contrast, Bruny doesn’t budge, I assume this is because she’s a pure bred khaki campbell so lives up to her breed description.

Ducklings

If you want baby ducklings then you may have a problem. While they lay heaps of eggs (usually 1 a day), they don’t actually like to  sit on them. Generally, mechanical incubators or broody chickens are used to hatch eggs instead, this takes around 23 to 28 days.

In the vegie garden

Our ducks free range around our vegie garden and young orchard which we love. However, we’ve had to protect our young seeds/seedlings from them (and the garlic patch) as the ducks just want to snuffle right at the base of the plants or areas we’ve just cultivated, presumably because there’s increased bug/slug activity. Happily, a really short fence (around 40cm and only 10cm for the garlic) which we can still easily step over (or individual seedling protection) has stopped this. Overall, compared to other breeds (I’m told the muscovy duck is ruthless and leaves no survivors in the vegie patch), the khaki campbell is an angel and we’re stoked we can pretty much let them roam free and express their “duckness”.

IMG_1181Unlike our chickens (seen in the background) our ducks get to roam free amongst the garden

We love our ducks and often find ourselves pausing and watching them waddle around, snuffling and quaking. Slowly, ever so slowly, they’re learning to like us, or at least tolerate us, which is exciting. They’re a fantastic multi-purposed animal to have in your food system with numerous benefits and a huge amount of character to keep you smiling. So yup, we’re on team khaki campbell!

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Floppy Fences

The floppy fence is a type of fence designed to primarily keep possums, wallabies and rabbits (and other undesirables) out of your food garden. We’re a fan of this low-tech, effective system which can be easily replicated in most contexts.

What materials do you need?

The material list is fairly straight forward and easy to source, it includes chicken wire (rolls at either 1.8m high or two rolls at .9m high), star pickets (at least 1.8m high), tie wire, high tensile wire and vermin mesh or small chicken wire (optional). As a general rule I try to avoid using any timber posts as possums can climb them much easier compared to steel posts. If you have particularly vigorous possums you might want to consider eliminating 100% of any timber from your fence line. In our current home we’re using timber corner posts as the possums in our area are pretty tame.

Is it expensive?

Depending on the area you’re fencing the cost will vary – fencing isn’t cheap and it can quickly add up. However you can salvage a lot of the materials or find them second hand which helps keep the costs down. Just remember that long-term, it’s well worth the investment in time and finances as it results in a safe and productive food garden.

floppy fence diagram

How do we keep out rabbits, wallabies AND possums? Well there are a few key elements behind this design which specifically targets each of the three animals: Here’s how…

The rabbit

At the bottom of your fence dig in an additional 20-30cm of chicken wire straight down into the soil, this will create a barrier to the rabbits digging under/through the fence. Alternatively you can put a 20-30cm ‘skirt’ on the bottom of your fence where, instead of being dug into the ground the wire is fanned out along the soil’s surface. Something to be mindful of is BABY rabbits who can squeeze through extra small fencing wire. You’ll see on the diagram above that additional wire has been added to the bottom strip of the fence to deter these babies from waltzing into your garden. This is where you can use either vermin mesh or small chicken wire to keep them out.

The possum

The element which prevents possums from rampaging in your garden is the top floppy section. Possums hate climbing on unstable, shaky branches – so we’re imitating this with the floppy top. They’ll climb up the fence like normal, but once they reach the top floppy section they’ll turn around and retreat. Simple!

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You can see the high tensile wire in action here – creating a beautiful curved shape

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The high tensile wire is spaced approximately 1m apart to ensure a consistent and strong floppy top

The wallaby

The wonderful thing about wallabies is they don’t jump very high – yay! Technically all you need is a standard fence up to approximately 1.5m high – that’s it. No floppy top or skirt required. Currently most of our garden is only fenced with this standard fencing approach which is keeping the “hoppies” out brilliantly (touch wood).

To see this all in action: You can watch a short video I helped make for a floppy fence I co-built at the Source Community Garden which shows you what this all looks like.

There are quite a few variations of the floppy fence which people do, it all depends on the materials available and the context in which they’re working. For example Pindari Herb Farm have incorporated corrugated iron into their fence structure to act as a wind/seed break. I’ve also seen this used to keep out wombats, but you have to dig the iron into the soil a good .5m as well.

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One very important this to realise is that the height of a floppy fence will vary drastically depending on the vigor of your possums/wildlife. For example we live in urban/peri-urban Hobart and our floppy fence is around 1.5m’ish high, however we know people living in the country who build theirs well over 2m high with an electrical wire on top of that to keep out the possums. Please have no illusion about possums – there are some hard hearted ones out there who will stop at nothing to get to your crops. It seems the possums in our neighbourhood are just a bit more relaxed and casual… For which I am eternally grateful.

The main thing to remember is that fencing is your friend, get over any ‘oh, but fences create a bad vibe’ feelings you might have. Do what you need to do to make sure you can grow food without a constant battle with the wildlife. I’ve seen too many half-hearted attempts at fencing which has resulted in huge amounts of energy, time and resources being wasted and ultimately people decided that growing food is ‘too hard’. Generally it’s not too hard you just need to consider the right fencing design for your situation and get into it!

Handy Resources

*Your blogger is Hannah Moloney, co-director of Good Life Permaculture and lover of all things fun and garden-esk.

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Molting Chickens

Molting chickens can look really bad and, as an animal carer/owner, can inspire feelings of guilt in that perhaps you’re not looking after your feathered friends well enough. So as the weather turns cold and our ladies stop laying, I’ve been doing some research to understand this process better and to help rid myself of unfounded guilt. Here’s what I’ve found.

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Why do chickens molt?

Well firstly, it’s not just chickens, roosters also molt. There are a few reasons why it all happens including less daylight hours (as the days shorten in Winter), their laying cycle has finished (most chickens will take Winter off for a rest), or they’re experiencing some abnormal stress. The thing to remember is that molting is actually a regenerative process as they get a whole new coat of feathers which helps protect them from the elements and, apparently once they’ve molted, they’re more resistant to disease. So it’s a good, healthy thing – no matter how bad it looks.

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What is actually happening?

Just like our teeth, the new feathers that are coming in will push the old ones out. Generally there’s a clear pattern in the order this happens with feathers dropping off the chook’s head and wings first, quickly followed by the rest of the body. Some birds will only loose small amounts of feathers and just look a bit scruffy, while others will drop all their feathers and look like a plucked chook – not a good look. When the new feathers do arrive, they’re called ‘pin feathers’

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The ‘pin feathers’, their job is to hold the new feathers until they can break through

The Molting Experience

When molting, chickens can look a bit sick and sometimes lose weight, it’s important to keep a close eye on them to make sure they don’t actually GET sick. If they start to behave sluggish or irregular, this isn’t normal ‘molting behaviour’ and you should seek further advice. Other physical changes which can occur include their combs appearing more dull in colour and their eyes can get a bit droopy.

This is all very understandable when you realise that feathers are around 85% protein while eggs only 13%, so our feathered friends are putting a huge amount of energy into growing feathers. In the process they give up the egg laying and divert that energy into feather making – fair enough I say. For roosters, fertility usually lowers in this time. As some birds will loose a large amount (or all) their feathers, their exposed skin can get irritated and bright red due to increased contact with objects (straw, the ground etc) or other chickens pecking them. If other chickens/roosters are picking on certain chooks, make sure that no skin is damaged (and starts bleeding) as infection can occur. If bullying is going on you may need to separate some of them for a period of time.

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Does their diet need to change when molting?

While your chickens are molting it’s nice to be able to feed them food with higher amounts of protein in them to help keep them healthy. You can buy pellets or grain mixes with higher percentages of protein for this time (around 20% protein content). Of course, if you’re able to give them fresh bugs, worms, black soldier flies this would be fantastic. Sunflower seeds are a big time favourite with our chooks – they can’t get enough of them, this season I’ll be upping their quota of these seeds, plus bugs and slugs.

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One of our ladies, ‘Scratch’

Our chickens haven’t started molting properly yet, however I know it’s coming soon as they’ve gone off the lay, their combs are looking rather dull and their eyes are a bit droopy. And don’t worry, Scratch does have two legs, she was just practicing some yoga moves during the photo shoot.

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You can see the red, irritated bare skin on this bird. Simply keep an eye on it and make sure other chickens/rooster don’t pick on them.

Other useful things to know

To help prevent any unnecessary stress in the chicken’s lives, avoid bringing new birds into the flock if possible. This is a stressy process in the best of times, so definitely avoid it while molting. Another hot tip is that you should limit/eliminate handling your chooks as it’s painful for them when molting.

Resources

Photos are all gathered from various webpages from Backyard Chickens, except ‘Scratch’.

*Your blogger is Hannah Moloney, co-director of Good Life Permaculture and lover of all things fun and garden-esk.

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Backyard Story

A while ago we lived in Melbourne for a bit. During that time we lived in a few houses including one in Brunswick West – a rambling, old, falling down (seriously) house with relatively cheap rent and a decent sized garden, a rarity in Melbourne town.

When we moved in the backyard looked like this, green lawn with a few mature fruit trees (yay) and some good sheds.

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We promptly started converting the lawn into something more productive and moved in chickens, veggie gardens, bees, compost bins and a campfire spot – we love campfires. Within a few short months we were getting all our veggies from here (except carrots) honey, eggs and some fruit.

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A couple of shameless posers

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A basic chook tractor means we could keep the chooks happy with fresh greens (without getting into the veggie garden) as well as help keep the lawn down.

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Our fox proof straw house and chook house, all made from pallets and found materials.

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Having bees in an urban garden is the best thing ever, there is always something flowering in the neighbourhood and they provide invaluable pollination for the crops.

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We harvested just over 20 litres from one hive, our harvesting process was a bit messy, but it did the job.

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While our garden was fairly small (around 60 square metres) we had surplus everything so preserved produce through drying and chutnifying.

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The garden became a wonderful place to be in and sleep in.

Around 7 months later we decided to pack up and move to Tasmania, so we said a sad farewell to the now pumping garden. We loved this wonderful space, so productive and a true oasis from the big smoke we were working, living and playing in.

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But what happened to the garden? We passed it onto our good friends, Sam and Kat, who continued (then and now) taking it to the next level, Anton’s just back from visiting them and took some photos of what it looks like now…

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It is FULL of life – edible, medicinal and ornamental plants all live side by side as do the chickens, bunnies, cats, dogs, bees and worms. The rabbit poo goes straight into the worm farm which they apparently LOVE, the kiwi vine they planted is thriving and the bees, well…. Sam and Kat are part of what’s called a ‘bee share’ where someone else keeps their bee hives in their garden, maintains them and then shares the honey harvest with them – what a sweet deal (pun intended).

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Rabbits and chooks playing peacefully. 

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 White sussex ladies

 DSC_0259They’ve also created beautiful spaces like this – a small pond surrounded with plants, creating valuable habitat for benefiical bugs and small critters.

Urban gardens are an under-utilised resource. We can do so much with them, feed ourselves with them. Hand in hand with our rural farmers, we can actually create real, local, strong food systems. I truly believe this is the way of the future in terms of developing a sustainable and abundant food culture.

Having started A LOT of gardens in rental houses over the years, it warms the heart to see gardens you start take on new life and continue to bring sustenance, joy and colour to the world. So even if you don’t own your own home and are renting you can still grow some of your own food and enjoy the deep satisfaction that comes from doing so.

*Your blogger is Hannah Moloney, co-director of Good Life Permaculture and lover of all things fun and garden-esk.

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What Worm Farm Is Best For You?

Worms. we love them and actually really need them and so, we foster them. Not the type that crawl under your skin (gross), although they’re probably playing an important role I just don’t know about. We’re talking about the types that live in our soils – keeping busy aerating and cycling nutrients making them more available to other members of the soil food web and to the precious plants which we happen to depend on for a good portion of our survival .

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Did you know that…

In one worm, there is around 474, 075 million bacteria – wowzers. These bacteria do an incredibly important job – mainly making minerals available – more on this below.

When compared to the parent soil (the original soil), worm castings (the worm’s poo) have approximately:

  • 7 times the available phosphorous
  • 6 times the available nitrogen
  • 3 times the available magnesium
  • 2 times the available carbon
  • 1.5 times the available calcium

(Both these facts are from ‘Earthworms in Australia’, David Murphy, pg 26)

The key word used above is ‘available’. The worms do not magic these minerals into existence, they were already present in these quantities, however the worms have changed their form by digesting them (which involves all that bacteria). This process makes them available to plants as the minerals have been changed from being an insoluble form to a plant-available soluble form.

So this is why people keep worm farms – the castings and diluted worm juice (the liquid that comes out of it) are an invaluable fertiliser for food crops. A quick and important note, worm farms can only house compost worms, not your common earth worm you see in the garden or lawn. Compost worms are red wrigglers and tiger worms – you can buy these from nurseries, but you can usually find them at your local school/community garden if you ask nicely. Do not put the common earth worm into a worm farm – they will die.

So what type of worm farm should you have? It all depends, where do you live, i.e. apartment or farm, do you have a big or small garden, do you have lots or only a small amount of of food scraps coming out of your kitchen? Here are some options for you to ponder…

The Wheelie Bin Worm Farm

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CERES Community Environment Park in Melbourne make their own wheelie bin worm farm which can house thousands of worms and a whole lot of food scraps. The great thing about this design is that there quite easy to move, having wheels and all – so perfect for people who are renting or for the busy cafe/workplace who may need to move it around every now and then.

The Bathtub Worm Farm

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The bathtub worm farm is a true beauty and, when designed properly, can double as a table for potting up or doing garden jobs on. A few years ago I worked with the Urban Bush Carpenters in Melbourne to build local NGO, Cultivating Community this fancy worm farm you can see above left for a community garden. As well as doubling as a table, you can also use the space below the bath as storage (as well as having a permanent bucket to capture any worm juice.  You can see more info on this one at Urban Bush Carpenters

The Shop Version

binsOf course you can just go and buy a commercial worm farm from most nurseries or hardware shops, you can even add compost worms to a standard compost bin.

The Styrofoam Worm House

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You make make your own worm farm from styrofoam boxes. Images from here and here

This version is a great way to start if you’re on a low budget as it’s free or very cheap to start. It simply operates on the same system of having layered boxes with holes in the bottom for drainage and for the worms to travel in between. The bottom box has no holes and captures all the worm juice for you to use later as a fertiliser (dilute it so it looks like the colour of weak tea) for the veggie patch.

The Worm Tower

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 We love this one as it’s integrated INTO your garden so the benefits for your food crops are immediate and fantastic. You can buy them commercially, but they’re so easy to make we think you should just do it that way. All you need is some large pipe (ideally no smaller than 200mm wide), a pot plant to fit on the top as a hat and a drill to put holes into it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is what it looks like once installed into your garden. Image from here

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Drill a number of holes of various sizes that the worms can travel in and out of. Image from here

But will your worms run away? Not if you continue feeding them fresh food scraps, as long as you do this they’re not going anywhere. It’s a great system for the forgetful  as you can’t kill your worms through neglect, they’ll simply leave and find food elsewhere.

And Then There’s This!

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We haven’t actually seen this in action – but we like it. A chook house / worm farm / mini garden / rain harvester, talk about integrated and spunky – I’d love to see this in real life!

There’s literally a type of worm farm for any context, this is just a taster. Have a fun time exploring the options, just make sure you get one, they’re the bomb.

Worm Resources

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A home for chooks

Building a new chook house?  That’s what we wanted to do.

Apart from being beautiful and joyful to behold, our new chook house is also fulfilling some important functions – shelter, a nesting place and a roost for our feathered friends. We need to be able to easily access the space to remove manure and eggs and clean it in the event of any disease problems.  What’s more, we are on a very steep block of land and need a chook house that can be moved to different locations.  So we present you with our super duper guide to our wacko dacko chook house.

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A word of encouragement: Just about anyone can build a chook house.  Our chosen materials are low cost and reused, the construction techniques simple and the tools required are minimal.  If you are having doubts follow the Urban Bush Carpenter’s motto: “Close enough is good enough”.

A word of warning:  I (Anton) have a pallet fetish- I love them, hoard them and use them to create functional and beautiful things from them. All our shelves in the house, kitchen bench, tables, garden seats and now, our flashy new chook house are all made from pretty much pure pallet.  Being a ‘waste’ product, we salvage them from around town from building sites and warehouses for free, as soon as you start looking, you’ll see them everywhere. We only harvest the heat treated pallets which are chemical free, you can recognise them by the “HT” stamp they have.

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“HT” stands for “Heat Treated”  avoid pallets marked “MB”

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A classic “house” shape design – half built with an undercoat of paint. Photo by Kirsten Bradley

The only tools required to build such a thing are a paintbrush, saw, hammer and drill. The two sidewalls where made from pallets (with their base removed).  A sturdy rigid base was made by screwing large section timber perpendicular.  A “roof truss” made of 3 x 2 timbers joined at right angles was attached to the corners of each pallet.  A roosting box was attached to the rear of the structure and all of the parts infilled with light weight pallet timber

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Inside isn’t quite as fancy as the outside, but here you can see a couple of the best features.  The cross pieces are some prunings from the garden, these are the roosts for the chooks to sleep on.  Below that is a mesh which allows the chook poo to fall straight through to the ground where it gets collected for our compost pile.  Without something like this a chook house can get pretty messy, stinky and potentially cause disease and/or sickness.

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As well as looking good, we painted the lightweight pine to protect it from the elements. The lid for the egg hatch is a bit of sheet metal cut to size which we scrounged from the local tip shop, it’s 100% rain proof and built to last. The corrugated iron roof sheeting is also from the tip shop and finished with a nice ridge cap.

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Here we can see the laying box in action.  It has this handy hook which conveniently holds itself up while you harvest eggs.

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“Rocky” walking the plank from the chookhouse to the yard.  On the left of the chook house you can see some hinges, this entire side of the house is one big door so we can easily get inside if needed.

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My favourite bit! This chook house also has legs – and buggy legs at that. Each one of the legs can be adjusted in the metal guides.  This way we can set it up in any location/slope around the block (although we don’t want to move it very often).

Fox or fort knox?: Since we are in Tasmania the dreaded fox problem doesn’t exist (yay) so we don’t need the extensive lock up facilities others do on mainland Australia.  If you do have fox (or other predator issues) we recommend you invest in creating a “straw yard” as seen below. A small section of the chook run that encloses the chook house that can be completely sealed from Mr and Mrs Fox.  This allows you to go away for a night or two without requiring a neighbour to lock and unlock your little ladies each day. Our friends from Very Edible Gardens taught us this trick while we were living in Melbourne.

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An older chook house we made with a fox proof straw yard (all from pallets of course), Melbourne rental 2012

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This is by far our best chook house yet, we love it’s functionality AND its capacity to stun and inspire people when they see it for the first time. Function should always come first when designing anything – but gee, it sure does help engage people when things are also beautiful!

*Your blogger is Anton Vikstrom, co-director of Good Life Permaculture and a total renaissance man.

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