Baby Blue Popcorn

Baby blue popcorn (Zea mays) is a miniature heirloom variety of corn. It’s quite hard to find any information about it online, so I’m sharing the little I know here to help you get orientated around this little gem.

Like all corn, it’s a heavy feeder, so likes lots of compost and water. And even though it’s a dwarf variety, it’s quite prolific with between 4 – 5 cobs per plant. If you’re able to, you can plant it out with the three sisters guild to get more yield from the space you’re growing in.

This corn isn’t for eating fresh, rather for drying and popping later – so after you’ve harvested, you need to let it dry. I do this by pealing back its “coat” and ideally hanging it up, as it makes for good decorations. But usually I just peal the coat off and pop it in an airy cardboard box under the kitchen bench.  Because, alas, I’m not that type of person who makes spare moments for decorating (often).

As it dries the colour can darken to a dusky, midnight blue. So pretty that I arrange it in lines and then in a mandala shape – cause it made me happy.

Now, the important bit – the popping…

To pop the corn, heat a pot on the stove with 1-2cm of oil on the bottom (we use olive oil). To make sure the oils hot enough, put one bit of corn in – it should pop quickly. If it doesn’t, wait for the oil to heat more. Once it’s all in, shake the pot every now and then to make sure all the corn gets popped. And after a few minutes or so it’ll all be done.

You’ll notice, the corn turns white once popped – slightly disappointing, but still darn tasty.

Where can you buy seed in Tasmania?

  • I got given seed by someone many years ago and haven’t been able to source it commercially. BUT I just noticed that Southern Harvest in Tasmania are saving some seed to sell. It’s not yet on their website (at the time of writing this), but get in touch with them to let them know you’re keen.
  • Seed Freaks (also have other types of heirloom corn which you can find here.
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Mab Ueang Agri-Nature Centre in Thailand

The Mab Ueang Agri-Nature Centre is an educational, diverse farm located one hour out of Bangkok, Thailand. At 30 years old, this mature farm is predominantly a giant food forest with small rice paddies and strategic water systems integrated. It’s amazing.

It’s based on the late King Bhumibol’s many decades of research and advocacy in agriculture and culture to create the New Theory Sufficiency Economy. King Bhumibol initiated this theory to help Thai farmers who suffer from the impacts of economic crisis, natural disasters and other unproductive natural conditions.

The New Theory suggests that farmers apply moderation, due consideration and self-immunity to their practice of farming to shield them from the risks and impacts of globalisation and other uncontrollable factors in their farming.

“…I ask all of you to aim for moderation and peace, and work to achieve this goal. We do not have to be extremely prosperous…If we can maintain this moderation, then we can be excellent…” His Majesty the King’s Statement given on 4 December 1974

After visiting quite a few farms throughout Thailand, THIS one was by far the most sophisticated, resilient, clever and successful that’s in line with what we look to create with permaculture design. Here’s a brief tour of some of the key elements…

The water systems

Throughout the food forest are many strategic channels guiding water from pond to pond. While I was there it was the end of the dry season so these channels were mostly dry (as they should be). I can imagine them in the wet season all full and flowing beautifully.

This small bamboo structure above is designed to slow and sink water into the soil as it moves through the system.

These depressions above are designed to grow small rice crops in once. Out of shot uphill is a “header tank” where water can be released into these areas (or other gardens) to irrigate as needed.

And everywhere there are demonstrations on how to use slope, contours and terracing to manage water and vegetation as can be seen below.

The structures

Throughout the food forest are small homes for staff and volunteers. They’re cleverly integrated into the landscape, providing comfortable places to live. In the extreme heat of this area (it was 42 degrees when I was there), inside this forest was significantly cooler.

Impressively there’s an example of how, even if you don’t have land, you can live and grow on water. The example below shows how you can build a floating house and garden on a fresh water pond where abundant fish are also available as food.

In the 30 seconds it took me to take this photo, 5 fish jumped out of the water. It’s so abundant. 

A solar panel demonstrates fo solar energy can be harvested for lighting.

Shadecloth with a surprisingly small amount of soil are held in bamboo frames to grow vegetables, rice and fruit trees. Fish eat the bugs and worms that thrive in this system, meaning no other food needs to be provided to the fish.

Energy

As well as food, this farm demonstrates how you can make your own energy for cooking. Specifically with bio-digesters which use buffalo poo and water in an anaerobic environment to create methane gases. This gas is harvested and piped to the nearby kitchen for cooking. Low-tech and highly effective.

The kitchen with the bio-digester in the background.

Bamboo

Bamboo is grown extensively as a building material for homes and garden structures. The image below shows how bamboo can be used to help establish Vetiver grass (Vetiveria zizanoides) in steep banks to stop erosion.

And for building structures and garden edging as seen below…

Bamboo used as garden edging. 

Rice

Amongst the food forest are rice paddies. Rather than large rice paddies, they have more of them but at smaller dimensions amongst the trees with strategic water channels to let water in and out as needed. This is more inline with “dry land” rice production – using less water to fit in erratic rainfall.

Seeds

Seeds are harvested and stored to preserve diversity and to share with other Thai farmers. While seemingly modest, saving seed has always been a key part to a country’s cultural independence. Having control over seed varieties and distribution means you have control over the food system.

While permaculture was developed by two white men in Australia (Bill Mollison and David Holmgren), I believe it stands on the very broad shoulders of traditional cultures everywhere. There are many design and ethical similarities between the New Theory and permaculture. Not for the first time, I’m struck at how traditional cultures *all around the world* have already worked out how to live well intuitively and through observational science.

If you’re working in a foreign country in permaculture, the best thing you can do is look to the local people with healthy landscapes and communities – they’ll have all the strategies and techniques appropriate for that environmental and cultural context.

This place will forever stay with me as an incredible example of good design in action. I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s happening there, so encourage anyone in that part of the world to have a visit…

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How To Grow Beans For Drying (& Eating Later)

This past season we grew enough purple bush beans to eat fresh and save a bunch for drying and eating in winter. As we’ve got limited space, it’s not enough to supply all our needs, but we like trying new things each year and thought we’d experiment with how much we could do.

We grew purple bush beans, we’re fond of the bush variety as they require no staking – a major bonus in the time saving department. We planted two long rows with beans 15cm apart and transplanted them out to 30cm – 40cm once they had germinated. That’s not necessary – but I wasn’t sure on the viability of the seed as they were a bit old. Turned out their was nothing wrong with the seed, so we got lots!

We ate plenty of young, fresh beans in their early stages and then let the rest dry out on the bush until they were 90-100% mature. You can see the leaves below left starting to yellow and brown off. Ideally you want to leave the beans on the bush until you can shake the pods and here the beans rattling inside.

We left them in the ground as long as possible, but had to pull them to get the winter garlic crop planted, so some of the beans were more purple than I was planning. But not to worry – I simply left them in an airy brown box for a few weeks inside to dry out thoroughly before shelling them.

Halfway through the harvest

For a small batch like this you could simply pop them into a pillow case and bash it around to shell the majority of them quickly. Or, like me you can do them one by one each night as a form of mediation to slow my busy brain down over a few evenings.

The next thing to do is a grading process to make sure there are no rotten or mouldy culprits slipping through. We ended up having a pile for the chooks and a small bowl for eating right now – these ones were cracked or slightly damaged, but will still taste delicious.

And then into a glass jar they go for winter soups and stews.

Wondering whether it’s not worth your time to grow and dry your beans? Well considering how cheap organic beans are to buy from the local shop, it doesn’t really make sense. However it *is* worth your time if you’re interested in learning new skills and having beans that don’t take as long to cook and knowing where your food comes from. All the good things. Would we do it again? Absolutely – next season we’re thinking of growing the borlotti bean for drying as it’s larger size appeals to us.

Here’s to many wintery bowls of bean soup and stew!

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Dirty Hands Composting Cooperative

Recently I interviewed Tom Crawford from the Dirty Hands Composting Cooperative about exactly why he spends so much of his time harvesting food scraps from the urban landscape. Based at the Hobart City Farm, this enterprise is helping to turn a problem into a nutrient-dense solution!

What is Dirty Hands?

“Dirty Hands is a cooperative based business that collects food scraps from cafes and restaurants around nipaluna/Hobart and processes it into compost. We operate in collaboration with a few community gardens and provide compost in return for their use of space.”

Who’s involved and what are their roles?

“Currently we have three people involved in the business. Tom is the founder who started through a Hobart City Council grant in 2016. Gabriela has been involved for the past year and helped Tom evolve the business into a financially sustainable operation. We also have Marissa who has been helping with collections and processing for the past three months. All three are involved in the weekly collection and processing of food scraps into compost.”

Tom Crawford and Gabriela O’Leary – photo by the ABC.

When did you start?

“In May 2016 the idea of a community composting hub was first submitted to Hobart City Council when applying for a grant with the support of Hobart City Farm and Source Community Wholefoods. As of August 2016 the grant was successful. The first collection began in November 2016, and continued ever since. And after over two years of running a free service to businesses, the operations have managed to transition to a fully paid service for the past six months.”

Just wanted to pipe in here and say that this is such an achievement! Making these types of projects financially viable and sustainable is always a bit tricky – so Tom and co are doing an amazing job in this regard. 

What are you looking to achieve?

“The main aims of the business are to reduce waste to landfill; utilise the resources of organic materials and returning it to the soil; and creating employment with a social and environmental focus. Building community awareness around waste reduction through composting is also a big focus.”

Is it hard work to set up and manage?

“The work is at times challenging but rewarding due to the aims being achieved. The collection can be frustrating due to logistics of organising buckets and “tetrising” the buckets into the vehicle, and getting stuck in traffic is less than ideal. The composting is a physical job but satisfying when you get to see the amazing final product: rich dark compost. Cleaning buckets can also be a job that lacks inspiration, but it is part of the bigger picture, and we’re sure that the customers appreciate it.

One of the hardest things for us to do was switching from a free service to paid as paying extra to do the right thing doesn’t always work out. It can be really challenging for businesses as composting is an added pressure for the hospitality sector. But we have a fantastic group of businesses that we work with, and we are always keen for more to join.”

Some of the many food scrap buckets!

What’s your favourite thing about running Dirty Hands?

“We love that the business is set up on cooperative principles, meaning that we all have an equal say in what goes on, as well as equal pay. We also really appreciate working with Hobart City Farm and gaining all of their insights. And WORMS!!! Worms are the most incredible animals, turning food-scraps into gold! The worms have made our operations so much easier due to less physical turning of the compost.

An example of just one of the large worm farms that are built from rodent-proof corrugated iron

What’s your hope for the future?

“We hope to continue building our operation, evolving with the changes and hopefully reach the point where we can transition to an actual cooperative business that can provide a quality composting service to a larger community of people and businesses, whilst staying true to our aims and getting our hands dirty!”

See more about this project here…

Learn how to compost at home…

*All images are provided by Dirty Hands, ABC or The Mercury Newspaper. 

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Do Cold Frames Actually Work?

The short answer is yes – but let me elaborate….

We built a cold frame in late 2018 to create a warmer micro-climate to grow early season tomatoes and eggplants with ease. You can see below how we built it here.

Some of you have asked how it’s gone in its first season. Very good thanks – it went (and is still going) very, very good. Below is some evidence of this.

We ended up harvesting/eating tomatoes 6 weeks earlier which is the best treat ever and eggplants?  In the past growing eggplants usually involves a bit of pampering to make sure they have enough warmth – but this season I’ve only paid them attention when harvesting bowls of them. That’s a nice turn around.

The only minor downside is that this cold frame ended up being a bit short for the eggplants (the tomato plants were a bush (short) variety so didn’t have this issue). But as this only became an issue later in the season (when it’s warmer) we have simply left the lid notched up as you can see above.

Prolific fairy tale eggplants

Likewise with basil – we have much pesto in our fridge and freezer and fresh basil on everything. Abundance!

The cold frame is now slowly coming to a natural end. Over winter we’ll grow a mixed green manure crop to rest and feed the soil so it can get ready to do it all again next year.

In addition to the cold frame, we planted 12 tomato plants (in normal outside beds) which are still pumping away. There’s been so much pumping we’ve almost filled our pantry shelves. And that’s what we call winning!

Usually we’d buy some tomatoes to preserve in our fowler vacola jars – but not this year. This year it’s 100% toms from our garden (plus other fruits and veggies). A maturing garden and gardener (with more skills) is the most beautiful thing.

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Grafting Tomato Plants & Native Kangaroo Apple Shrubs!

The world of grafting plants is wonderful and wacky. You can start with just one pear tree and graft a range of other fruits onto it that are also in the pome family – so you could end up with a pear, apple, medlar, quince *and* nashi tree (plus more). Wow. So even if you only have room for one tree in your garden you can still have a range of fruits.

Sometimes the plants you can graft together are less obvious. This season we grafted some common tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) onto the native Kangaroo Apple shrub (Solanum laciniatum) which are both in the Solanaceae family (aka the nightshade family).

Kangaroo Apples are a hardy, quick growing, evergreen shrub that grow to 2.5m. They have blue/purple flowers followed by poisonous green fruits but that turn edible when ripe. Importantly they’re incredibly tough and will happily grow in average soils with no, or little moisture – whereas tomatoes need lots of compost and water to thrive. This means you can grow delicious tomatoes in areas where you have less fertile soils. It’s a bit magic.

Kangaroo Apple shrub thriving in the foreground and Frida and goats thriving the background. 

Here’s how we did it…

There are many types of grafting techniques, we did what’s called a bark graft. For more detailed instructions on bark grafting, see our previous blog on bark grafting our wild plum here. You basically chop the tree or shrub down to a stump (or just chop a branch off) and seen below.

You then gently peel back the bark and green cambium layer and place a number of tomato branches inside it.

The tomato branch is cut at an angle that means it can slide into the large branch of the Kangaroo Apple. 

You always add more than one branch of the desired plant species you’re fostering – this is so there’s more chance of getting a yield as it’s common that not all grafts will “take” and be successful. Below is one of the finished products (we did two branches) with graft tape holding everything in place and some Tree Stac which protects wounds from unhealthy bacteria or disease moving in.

A few months later and the graft is looking completely different. Two out of three of the tomato “branches” were successful and we’ve been eating tomatoes off them for weeks.

That black surface is the aged Treesac goop and the graft is growing over it. 

The particular variety of tomato is a local one simply called “George”, named after a Greek market gardener who’s since passed away. He grew and sold this amazing tomato which is large in size, but is more of a  shrub – so requires no staking (awesome). Hence, it sits at the bottom of the Kangaroo Apple shrub as seen below. We had some seed gifted to us from Fat Carrot Farm and it’s now our favourite tomato to grow as each plant has huge yields and requires less inputs (mainly staking).

In closing, I’d just like to say that plants are awesome, nature is the best and I love gardening!

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Our Pet Rabbits

After many months of asking and negotiating, Frida Maria convinced us to welcome two female rabbits into our home. The things us parents do.

Rabbits have reeked havoc on the Australian landscape. I remember visiting relative’s farms in western Queensland as a young kid devastated by rabbits, so there’s something in me that doesn’t want anything to do with fostering them. And if I’m honest, I haven’t fully resolved that. But I have resolved that a small person taking responsibility for animal love and care is a very good thing. Also, Grace and Sophie (the rabbits) are mostly located under the giant trampoline we’re looking after for a friend (for multiple years it seems), so they’re doing a fab job of managing the grass that we couldn’t access there. They’re working for us, while going about their own business.

Doesn’t the jumping up and down on the trampoline scare them?

Yes and no. They appear to be incredibly ok with it. We’re also going to build a rabbit tractor (similar to our old chook tractor below) to move them around the grass as our lawn mowers.

We have Dutch rabbits which will grow to up to around 2kgs. When I asked Frida what might happen if one day she doesn’t want rabbits anymore, she said “we’ll eat them”…  Hmmmm, well see.

Anyway, part of the arrangement is that Frida has to help with all the jobs. We drew/wrote up an agreement below which she signed her name against each job, promising to do each one daily. The “F” and love heart is her signature on the right.

It turns out Anton and I are quite fond of little rabbits, here’s a few of the dozen photos I took with Sophie and us this morning…..

  

While Sophie’s up for cuddles, Grace is a speedy, independent, not interested in cuddles type of rabbit. I admire her for that.

Frida’s face says it all really. The love is real. Time will tell if she was telling the truth when she promised to do all the jobs she signed her name against on the “bunny agreement”. Regardless of that, we’re up for the challenge and willing to welcome these little fluff balls into our property where they’ll help mow the grass, teach our kid responsibility and care and provide cuddles to those that can catch them.

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The Self-Cleaning Chook House

If you’re about to build yourself a chook house, we highly recommend a self-cleaning version where there’s no build up of poo at all inside the house. As well as saving yourself time, this creates a healthy environment for your chooks.

We built our chook house from salvaged pallets over 4 years ago and it’s still perfect. Since then we bought the neighbouring patch of land and have shifted the chooks and their house to flat ground and given them more space. It works *so* well.

The key features to this design is that;

  • It’s raised off the ground and its leg’s length can be adjusted,
  • It has an external egg hatch meaning you can harvest eggs without having to go into the run, and
  • The floor is made from strong wire mesh, allowing all poo to fall straight through to the ground beneath.

Sketch showing a profile of the chook house. This particular drawing is for a client’s garden, not ours.

Peak hour in the nesting box!

The inside of the chook has includes a number of branches (roosts) that the chooks sleep on and drop enormous amounts of poo from. 

Under the chook house we’ve placed a “poo catcher” (we use an old bread crate found on the side of the road). This catches some of the poo and makes it nice and easy for you to simply drag it out with one quick motion.

But of course, the chooks poo everywhere and we still end up scraping out a decent amount into a wheelbarrow, as well as what falls into the bread crate. So technically, you *do* still need to participate in the cleaning process – but you don’t have to get into small spaces and scrape poo off timber. It’s approximately one million times better this way.

As there’s a nice mix of dry straw and chook poo (mostly dry and old), I then put it straight onto one of our many fruit and nut trees. Today the mulberry and hazelnut trees got it.

A happy mulberry tree (and Frida in the background).

I then put the bread crate back under the house with a sheet of cardboard in it (to cover all holes) and wait for more poo.

But surely that pile of poo smells under the house?

No. There’s a significant amount of straw in there which prevents any smell from happening. It’s a nice blend of carbon (straw) and nitrogen (poo). Perfect. I only harvest poo from here every few months or so.

Don’t the chooks get cold with that mesh floor?

Chickens are hardy birds and we’ve found no negative impact on their health or egg laying, so I say no.

Do they fall through the mesh?

Chickens are originally jungle birds. This means they’ve evolved to sleep in trees on branches or within shrubs. Their feet are designed to curl around and hold onto different “roosts”, so this mesh floor is 100% fine for them to walk on. Saying that, this is on the larger side – usually we’d find mesh with smaller holes when building them for other people. But overall this is completely fine.

There you have it, go forth and create self-cleaning chook houses in peace and relief of never having to scrape poo off awkward spaces again. You’re welcome :-).

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How To Make Your Own Deodorant

There are some things in life that are hard but making your own deodorant is not one of them.

Some say that you should only put things on your skin that you’d be willing to eat, this is one of those recipes where it’s likely you already have all the ingredients in your kitchen.

But does it actually work?

Surprisingly yes! I’m a healthy sceptic so was slightly dubious – after a day of bike riding, digging in the garden or bush walking I can get some pretty impressive body odour going on! But this stuff works – even on those highly active days.

What do you need?

  • 1/2 cup cornstarch or arrowroot powder (I just used cornstarch as that’s what I had)
  • 1/2 cup bi-carb (aka baking soda)
  • 5 tbs unrefined organic coconut oil
  • 20 drops of lavender oil which has antibacterial properties – and smells nice.

The ingredients (minus the cornstarch which I’ve since ran out of… And the finished product in the glass jar. 

Get mixing

  • Simply place the corn starch (or arrowroot) and bi-carb in a bowl and mix thoroughly.
  • Add the coconut and lavender oil and mix really well until it’s all creamed together.
  • Pour or scoop it into a clean glass jar where it’ll last up to 6 months.

To use it…

  • As we live in cool temperate Tasmania the mixture sets fairly firmly. I use a teaspoon to scoop it out into my hand, once on your fingers your body heat will melt it into an easy to apply cream.
  • For people who live in a warm climate the consistency will always be a nice and creamy so no spoon’s required – your fingers are perfect for the job.

That’s it – go forth and feel like you’ve got two little bunches of fresh flowers sparkling out of your armpits :-D!


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Home Compost Booklet

We are pleased to finally be able to share this little bit of news with you. This year we were lucky to work with the City of Hobart and local illustrator Rachel Tribout to create this free booklet all about Home Composting!

As part of their Zero Waste Strategy, we’ve been collaborating with the City of Hobart to run free compost workshops for hundreds of Hobart folk this year – 420 folks to be exact over six workshops. Half way though these, we decided to turn my student notes into a proper awesome book to make them more accessible and beautiful. This is the result which you can now download for free from the Council website.  

And here’s a little peak inside some of the pages…

It’s our hope that this free resource helps people get started, or keep going in composting some (or all) of their food scraps at home. Because turning kitchens scraps into garden gold (i.e. nutrient-dense compost) at home is easy and darn effective in building soil health, preventing methane gases harming our atmosphere and helps store carbon in the ground. Plus it’ll give you enormous satisfaction in participating in the wonderful world of food and nutrient cycling – it’s a good feeling, trust me.

 

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