Posts from the ‘Gardening’ category

Urban Goat Keeping

We have two female toggenburg goats, Gerty (the mum) and her daughter Jilly Love Face.

Despite having some wonderful “goat friends” locally and in other parts of the country, I still found it hard to get information on how to set up our urban system which we did in September 2017. This is the blog I wish I could have read at the time – hopefully it helps a few folks out there looking to give urban goat keeping (and milking) a go.

Our context

Our main incentive to have goats is to be able to access ethical dairy. While we have just over 3/4 of an acre, we’re less than 3kms from Hobart city, so it’s very urban all around us. Our property is incredibly steep which meant we terraced it to form some functional spaces. Our two goats live on one of these terraces. They don’t free-range across the whole property as we have extensive vegetable gardens and large orchards they would destroy, instead we tether them around the garden at key points where they can eat grass and shrubs. We also take them for little walks down the local bush track to get some exercise.

The front gate leading into the goat yard. The chickens also share this space – that’s their blue house on the left. 

What goat breeds are good for small spaces?

The two breeds I know that are appropriate for this type of goat keeping are toggenburgs and saanens. I’m sure there are more, I just don’t know about them.

What do we feed them?

We feed our goats four main things, rolled barley, dry pasture hay, mixed oat/lucern chaff and a range of fresh fodder.

What fresh fodder? We have a lot of weedy bushland to the south of our property that’s on Council land. We harvest weeds from here and occasionally allow them to graze there (with us). We also chop and feed them fresh prunings from our weedy windbreak (featurning Cotoneaster and Pittosporum trees).

We also tether them around our garden on a 4m chain in key areas where they can eat grass, herbs and shrubs – but not our food crops.

Plus we’re growing fodder trees for them. This includes silver wattles and tagasaste (tree lucerne) that have self sewn on our land. We tansplant the baby seedlings to where we want them to grow and will prune them over the coming years to an appropriate shape for our garden. Here’s a list of plants you can and can’t feed your goats.

Mineral supplements: We also have a mineral lick permanently available in their shed, it has 16 ingredients ranging from copper, calcium, phosphorous, bentonite, iodine, iron and more.

I also have some seaweed meal I add into their feed bucket occasionally, however if they don’t want it, they’ll somehow manage to leave most of it in the bucket.

Interestingly, goats don’t eat everything. They’re incredibly fussy eaters and I spent a sh*t load of time working out their diet for our urban context. We’re now in a good rythym, but those first few months were hard work.

Frida with Jilly who’s being tethered near a comfrey patch for her munching pleasure. 

Gerty and Jilly eating the weedy banana passionfruit vine that’s trying to eat our house!

How big is their permanent yard?

Their permanent yard is approximately 70m2 which includes their shed.

Importantly, we make sure there’s always a thick layer of woodchips and/or straw on the ground so there’s never any risk of them being on bare soil or mud.

We’ve also arranged some timber pallets and logs for them to run and jump on – goats will get board if they don’t have an obstacle course they can play on.

Isn’t that a bit small?

It would be if that’s where they spent all their time. We also walk them and tether them around our garden, so they get a lot of diversity.

What about their fencing?

We don’t have an electric fence – just standard wallaby fencing with star pickets. This has been mostly fine – with one exception when Jilly was on heat* and somehow got out. We assume she jumped the fence, but we didn’t see it happen and it hasn’t happened again – fingers crossed.

*Goats turn into lunatics when their on heat – she’s since returned to her normal, chill – but perky self.

You can see the fence to the right – it’s a bit wavy as they like to scratch their backs on it. We just need to tighten it up a bit, otherwise it’s fine. 

What’s their milking shed like?

We built the shed from recycled timber, timber flitches and other materials inlcuding relocated slabs of concerete the excavator pulled up from our garden – this forms the floor (which has straw on top). The shed has three sections;

  1. The general hang out section which includes the milking stand,
  2. The food storage section (that they can’t access), and
  3. The pen, which is  a small room we put Jilly (the younger daughter) in while we milk Gerty to stop her from jumping all over us. When she was a baby. Jilly would spend each night in this pen – read next section for how this worked.

Our goat shed plan – not to scale

While we’ve planted lots of trees all around the goat yard, there’s currently no natural shade – hence the shade sales. Over this next year I’d like to make them another shade shelter as the summer’s are so hot here. 

Two 44 gallon drums for storing feed – keeps the rodents out of it. 

Jilly with the milking stand to her right

You can see the mineral lick and hay feeder to the right of the goats

How do you milk for yourselves and still have enough milk for the baby goat?

We keep Jilly and Gerty together all day, meaning when she was still feeding, Jilly could help herself to milk as needed. Every night around 9/10pm, I’d place her in the small pen (with straw and water) so she wouldn’t drink all the milk over night. Early each morning (at sunrise) I would then milk Gerty for our own use. Directly after this, I’d let Jilly out of her pen and they’d be together for the next 16 hours of so. This worked well up until Jilly was weaned…

How did we wean Jilly, the young goat?

We didn’t. We let Gerty (her mum) make this happen. Recently (in Autumn 2018) they were both on heat, as Jilly was only 7 months old (and we want to rest Gerty) we didn’t mate them with a buck. Interestingly, once they came off heat Gerty would no longer let Jilly anywhere near her teats.

This was great for us as we really didn’t have a way of weaning Jilly in such a small space. A common way of weaning kids is to put them in a separate paddock than their mums. They can still see each other and kiss noses, but nothing else. We don’t have this option in our space – so we’re quite releaved it happened naturally.

How do you treat worms and other health issues?

These two goats came off an organic goat farm where they were treated with herbs, minerals and good pasture/food. When they arrived, Jilly was just two days old and in perfect helath, while Gerty was a bit run down from being pregnant and living through a rough winter on pasture. She had a small section of staff on her udder which was spreading, was a bit under weight and had signs of worms. This is what we did…

Staff: After doing an enormous amount of research, spending too much time on goat forums and trying every natural rememdy we could, we ended up treating her with zinc cream and lavender oil which our good friend and naturopath, Thea Webb, actually recommended. Within hours this treatment started working – to my absolute relief!

Weight: You can actually buy a product called “weight gain” for livestock, it’s a rich mix of high protein grains you add into your chaff mix. For unknown reasons Gerty would eat around it and not consume any. In small amounts (no more than .6kgs per day per goat) oats and barley are highly effective options as well. I initally ended up spending a bit too much money of organic oats (I panicked) and eventually learned rolled barley is a fraction of the price and just as effective. These days I mix in a small amount of barley (rolled) in with their chaff each morning and night.

Worms: I ended up getting a vet out to check out Gerty as her poo which was forming big clumps instead of small pellets and her eyelids were a pale pink when they should be a vibrant pink colour – both potential symptoms of worms. The vet tested her poo which showed she had small levels of barber pole worm – blood sucking parasites that cause anemia and even death. While they had previously been treated only with essential oils, minerals and fresh pasture, I chose to drench Gerty this one time (at least) as I was sooo out of my depth and wanted to get her back to top health asap. It worked really well and I’m relieved we went down that track. She started putting on weight easily, was a lot more perky and generally “happier”.

These days I’m on a preventative treatment program with worms. Every month I add organic oregano oil mixed with some water into their feed for one week on and one week off – I repeat this for two cycles. So far this appears to be working well. I’m still on a steep learning curve with goat health, so watch this space for more preventative approaches.

How economical is having a milking goat compared to just buying dairy products?

Buying organic, ethical dairy from farms we believe in isn’t overly cheap – and neither should it be. We would easily spend around $50 per week on milk, yoghurt and some cheese.

Buying food for our two goats for one month is *roughly* around $150, so a bit cheaper than buying organic, ethical dairy. However we (happily) spend between 30mts – 1 hour a day with our goats, so it takes a lot of time – as they should. If we were to price our time in looking after them, then it isn’t economical at all.

But I don’t believe economics should be the only way to measure whether something’s worthwhile doing. Conventional dairy is cheap because it has nasty practices that have negative impacts on the environment and disasterous ramifications for animal wellbeing.

Should everyone keep goats if they want ethical dairy?

No. I don’t think everyone should run out and get dairy goats as it’s not for the faint hearted. They’re very real, big, beautiful animals that need a lot of attention. I think for most people, they should just spend a bit more and buy organic, ethical dairy – in Tasmania, that’s Elgaar Dairy.  We chose to have goats for a few reasons;

  1. I couldn’t think of a more ethical way to access dairy. On this micro level – our goats get a lot of attention and care. 
  2. We work from home, this means we can really invest in our landscape and the animals that live here. 
  3. I love goats and want to spend a lot of time with them. They’re not just milk suppliers for us – they’re wonderful, caring, smart animals to hang out with – better company than a lot of humans.

A few other things

  • We only milk once a day – in the morning.  Currently we’re getting around 2 litres each morning – this will slow down over winter.
  • With the milk we get we make yoghurt, feta cheese, halloumi cheese and ricotta.
  • We feed our goats an oat/lucerne/barley mix twice a day for breaky and dinner.
  • Every 6 – 8 weeks we clip their hooves, it’s such an awkward, hard job that’s our least favourite thing to do (just a little heads up for you).
  • Now Jilly is almost adult size, walking them takes two people as if they get spooked by a car – they can *really* run. They’re stronger than me.
  • If you have small kids of the human type, watch them around the goats. Our goats like to head but our 3 year old Frida as she’s smaller than them (and really loud).
  • You can never have just one goat – you have to have at least two, otherwise they can get depressed (seriously). And no, having chickens or other types of animals doesn’t replace the company of another goat – it has to be another goat.
  • Unlike the goat milk you buy from the shop, fresh goat milk doesn’t taste “goaty” at all. It’s quite sweet, clean and darn tasty. The goaty taste comes after around 5 days (ish), it’s not a bad thing at all – but I personally don’t like it very much.
  • Will we have goats forever? It’s highly possible, but we’re very realistic about it all. If our goats obviously weren’t happy and needed a different context we’d give it them, i.e. find a farm for them to live on. We only want a wonderful life for them.

Want to know more?

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DIY Worm Farms for Tiny, Medium & Large Gardens

At our recent Real SKills for Growing Food workshop at Fat Pig Farm, Nadia (their head market gardener) joined our teaching team and gave us all a tour of three worm farms for tiny, medium and large gardens. While we currently haven’t got a worm farm set up at our own place (we will soon), we’ve kept them quite a lot in the past and have written about their many benefits here. 

But just quickly, compost worms are different to the common earthworm you see in your 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.

Compost worms in mature worm castings – soooo good!

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

(‘Earthworms in Australia’, David Murphy, pg 26)

Pretty impressive! The good news is that pretty much anyone can keep worms – whether you have a balcony garden or a paddock. Here’s how. 

The worm farm tower

The smallest type of worm farm we know of is dead easy to make yourself. There are quite a few methods, this is one of our favourite. All you need is a 20 litre bucket with a lid. Drill holes in the side (covering around 2/3 of the bucket), the bottom and a few in the lid. These holes are there to let the worms come in and out, as well as air and small amounts of moisture.

Bury the bucket into the garden bed, or into a raised bed on your balcony/courtyard. You want to have at least 2/3 of it buried – basically the area which has all the holes drilled into it.

Add some moist straw/mulch and a big handful of worms (with mature worm castings) into the bottom of the bucket and then add a small amount of food waste (not shown).

Keep the lid on top to control moisture (from possible rain) and to help create a mostly sealed bucket (with the exception of those holes) which will help prevent rodents getting to the food scraps. And that’s it – so easy and so effective in making delicious compost for your garden insitu. The worms travel in and out of the bucket, spreading the nutrients to the area immediately around it.

Once you’re bucket’s full of food waste, let it rest so you allow the worms to eat it all. In this time, you can start a second worm tower, or use another type of compost system as well.

The bathtub worm farm

For those that have a bit more space and food scraps, you can make your own worm farm from a bathtub and timber frame. I’m quite fond of this method as its rodent proof (with the addition of a lid), you can catch the worm wee out of the drainage hole which is beautiful fertiliser for the garden (dillute it 10:1 with water before watering), and if you want to, you add a timber lid which can then double as a work bench! You can also store pots and other gardening materials beneath the tub. So good.

To get started, biuld a timber frame that can support your bath and then create a false floor as seen below. This will help the whole farm drain liquid into a waiting bucket.

Next up, add a layer of straw, followed by a healthy layer of worms and mature worm castings. You can then start adding food for the worms, including leafy greens, coffee, animal manures (not cats) and food scraps (go easy on citrus, onions and meat).

Put a blanket of hessian or ink-free cardboard on top and water it in. Once water starts coming out the drainage hole, that’s enough. The hessian helps maintain an even temperaature and moisture levels inside the farm.

Finally, add a protective lid on top to keep out rain and rodents. Nadia uses some corflute on a timber frame for her lid.

As I mentioned earlier, you could built a timber lid into your frame which can then double as a bench top. *OR* you can lower the height of the whole thing and turn it into a seat for your garden as we did below on one of our past permaculture design courses. Cool hey! You can read all about it over here. 

The windrow worm farm

This is one we’re really excited about as it’s sooooo low-tech and sooooo effective in processing large amounts of food waste. As Fat Pig Farm have an onsite restaurant, there’s a lot of food scraps coming back into the garden to be composted. Recently, Nadia and friends built what I call a windrow worm farm and we’re thoroughly impressed with the speed of scraps being processed (8 weeks) into nutrient-dense worm castings.

It’s simply a pile of hay or straw in a small, long mound. Food scraps are added to one end of it with moisture and a tarpoline on top. Every few days, take the tarpoline off and – using a garden fork, casually mix the food scraps in to make sure they’re getting processed evenly.

Slowly, you move along the windrow, adding more food scraps and letting the “full” area behind you be processed by the worms.

The worms will naturally follow the food, so most of them will move along the row as you move along the fresh injection of food scraps.

Nadia also makes sure that she puts in some crushed eggshells to provide grit for the worms – this helps the worms digest organic matter and adds calcium to the system.

After 8 weeks, Nadia harvests mature worm castings for her garden. There are still some compost worms in there, but it doesn’t matter if some find their way into her *beautiful* market garden, they’ll be more than happy there.

The only down side to this system is that you can’t harvest the worm juice. But really the benefits far outway this, and of course, you could build this system uphill or a productive garden which would benefit from the natural leachate – which is what Nadia has done.

If you’d like to see more examples of worm farms, have a read of one of our older blogs here. 

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CalPhos Nutrient Solution

CalPhos nutrient solution for your garden. This is a new thing for me, so new I haven’t even tried it yet. A very talented and lovely grower, Nadia Danti who manages Fat Pig Farm’s market garden shared this receipe and photos with me recently after I visited her and I think every keen grower needs to know about it.

In the words of The Unconventional Farmer… 

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CalPhos  is a nutrient solution for plants just entering the flowering cycle. There is an overlapping activity of Phosporous and Potassium during flowering. In natural farming, we apply calphos before the flower initiation to support the eventual fruit. In simplistic terms, we use Phosphorous to address the root system, which will enable the plant to access better water and nutrients from the soil to support the critical changeover as manifested by flower initiation. We use Calcium to strengthen the plant in preparation for heavy flowers/fruits. Thus, natural farming emphasizes Phosphorus and Calcium during the changeover period from growing to flowering/fruiting, and this provides for that need.

There’s always so much to learn isn’t there! Nadia shared her recipe with me (and you), so you too can make your own out of ingredients you probably already have in your kitchen – it’s that easy.

Step 1

Gather eggshells. Usually chicken eggs are used, but you could also use oyster shells or bones – anything with high levels of calcium.

Step 2

Roughly grind them up in a mortar and pestle, or the bottom of a cup in a large bowl.

Step 3

Toast the shells in your fry pan or on the bbq until some of the shells start turning black. The charred black shells are the phosphorus and white/brown shells are the calcium.

Step 4

Put shells into a glass jar along with apple cide vinegar, 1 parts shells to 5 parts vinegar.

Step 5

The mix will start to bubble (this is a good thing), once this stops, seal the jar and leave it to ferment for 20 days.

Step 6

After 20 days, strain and filter the liquid.

Step 7

Use on your flowering/fruiting plants! 1 tbs calphos to 4L of water.

In a world where the general approach to growing food is to spray it with this, that and everything (think chemical fertilisers), useful tools like this one that ensure optimum plant health and nutritioun levels are gold – solid gold!

Want to know more? Have a good rummage around The Unconvetional Farmer’s website for some highly useful info!

 

 

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Deep Breath Out

It’s been a busy December. Life is always full, but with the end of the year it’s been particularly brain-squishing, use all the hours in the day and borrow some from the night type of busy. Hence, not quite making it to this blog – sorry about that.

But here we are. Slowly breathing out and relishing some quality time tending to our gardens and animals. Because at the end of the day it all comes back to land, life and love for us. Today I have no “how to” blog for you, just a deep sigh, breathing out

To get grounded we garden. This past weeks there have been numerous jam making sessions, fresh berries picked, cordial made and bread baked. There have been beans, greens, garlic, eggs, goats milk and honey harvested, preserved, eaten and gifted. It’s such a rich time of the year here.

Nasturtium seeds are harvested, on their way to becoming capers. They’re delicious.

This morning while picking black currants, I momentarily lost my daughter in the orchard – our comfrey is so tall she can get lost in there. What a good thing – soon this comfrey will get slashed down as mulch for the surrounding trees and within weeks, news comfrey will pop up, continuing the cycle.

Our orchard of medlars, apples, apricots are all getting big and teasing us with their imminent greatness.

As you can see below, baby Jilly Love Face isn’t so baby any more. She’s growing beautifully, is hilarious and can go from standing still to jumping over a metre high – she’s very impressive, as is her amazing mum who provides milk every morning for our sustenance.

The five baby chooks Anton and Frida picked up from the side of the road stall are thriving, so far we think we have only one rooster, which would be a miracle!

Squashing berries and currants (below) for summer wine and champagne (it was amazing) is a glorious activity – highly recommend it.

And surprise deliveries of japanese turnips form the Hobart City Farm, means we get settled into the kitchen and chop, chop, chop – making kim chi galore for numerous gifting.

And as the last day of 2017 comes to an end I am grateful that we have such amazing projects and people in our lives and that are only trouble is keeping up with it all. And I’m hopeful for a 2018 that’s full of healthy challenges and good land, good people and ultimately more good life.

 

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How To Landscape A Steep Slope

In mid 2016 we bought the neighbouring patch of weedy/bush land we’d been drooling over for 4 years; and at the beginning of 2017, we started shaping it to include a driveway and more garden/animal space. We’d been drooling over this steep landscape as up until early 2017 the only way into our property was by walking up a very steep, 100m rocky staircase from the road. We had always wanted to buy the neighbouring land to improve access – it just took 4 years to get it done.

When we started earthworks, the view from our house overlooking the new land looked like this.

As our land is very steep, we knew straight away that we wanted to terrace it, inline with what we had already done in our existing garden. So the whole site was cleared, with the green waste taken to the local tip site where the Hobart Council composts it in large hot piles and sells it back to the community.

While we would have LOVED more flat ground, we couldn’t afford to build retaining walls everywhere. Instead, we designed large earth banks with an angle of approximately 30 degrees. Like our current garden, we planned on using these as edible forest gardens and the flat terraces for annuals crops and animals.

After the machine had shaped these terraces, we used hardwood timber from a local sawmill sight to help define and stabilise the edges…

…And a hell-of-a-lot of heat treated pallets to stabilise the earth banks. This techniques has been a real game changer for us in steep slope gardening, as the pallets provide lots of ledges to plant into, making it easier for plants to get established. It’s also easier to irrigate and passively harvest rain, as water is slowed down (a little bit), instead of quickly rushing down each bank.

Around this time, Anton’s day (Gote) sailed his boat down from NSW, parked in the local bay and would come up every day to build a rock wall, dig holes and just be his marvellous, eccentric Swedish self. All the rock came from onsite and was simply rearranged to build our one and only retaining wall :-).

Gote on the far right reclining on his rock wall. 

We then very quickly broadcast a mix of green manure seeds directly on the banks in late Autumn to get things growing. This included red clover, mustard, lupins and rye grass.

Early winter with green manure crops thriving

A couple of times throughout Winter, we’d slash the green manures down – delaying them going to flower/seed so we could get more root growth and more benefits for the soil.

In early Spring, we let the banks go to flower for which the bees thanked us (they loooooved it in there) and covered the future annual beds in non-toxic, UV stablised black plastic to break down the green manure crops without having to dig *at all*.

The black plastic was left on there for around 6 weeks in which time all the green growth died back and the soil biology ate it up.

Today (Oct 31 2017), the view from our window onto our new patch of land looks like the photo below…..

There are thousands of annual veggie plants on the flat terrace you can see and another above this (out of shot).

We have two toggenburg goats, Gerty and Jilly Love Face who moved in just over 2 weeks ago. Gerty provides 1.5L – 2L of milk every morning and Jilly Love Face (who’s 3 weeks old) provides enormous entertainment.

The chook house has been moved to be with the goat run and we’ve planted 20 hazelnuts and 10 mixed trees into the earth banks. Currently the earth banks still have remnants of Winter’s green manure crops. We’ve started cutting and dropping them in place as mulch and will be planting floral and edible shrubs, plus perennial herbaceous layers into the bank over the next year to form an edible forest garden.

Baby hazelnut trees popping up amongst the green manures. 

In between each nut and fruit tree, we transplanted tagasaste (tree lucerne) seedlings that self-seed in the local bush/weedy land behind our property. These nitrogen-fixing small trees are quick growers and will provide benefits to the soil and fodder for our chooks and goats. Eventually they’ll be chopped down once the nut and fruit trees mature and need more space.

Baby tagasaste seedling

And the goats are truly glorious. You can see them below on one of their daily walks and amongst the many daily cuddles we have. Obviously there’s still a long way to go with our property, and more time required before we see mature trees, but today (or this morning at least) I’m just pausing and reflecting on the past 10 months and *really* enjoying the change of view from our window.

 

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No-till Soil Prep For Crops

No-till soil prep is a way of growing crops from year to year without disturbing the soil through tillage – meaning you improve soil health over time rather than consistently degrading it.  It’s a method quite common in the market gardening community and something we’re starting to use at our own place now that we have nice, long straight’ish beds.

On the new patch of land we recently bought we did some significant earthworks in Autumn and have been growing green manures ever since. We’re letting 98% of the green manure crops grow until late winter, but we did put in a small garlic patch and used the no-till method to help us do it.

This method uses silage tarps as a form of weed/crop control, meaning instead of digging in your green manures (or crops) you temporarily cover the bed in non-toxic, UV stabilised plastic to do the job for you. I know – it sounds whack and it actually took me a while to get my head around it. But after seeing it in action at the Hobart City Farm, and seeing how darn well it worked I was sold.

Here’s how we did it for our little garlic patch…

Firstly we cut the green manure crops down to the ground, as they were already pretty short we left all the green waste on the bed. If your crops are really tall you’ll want to remove some of them as too much fresh, green matter can create an anaerobic environment which isn’t great for soil life and health.

Then we planted directly into the bed with no digging except to make a small hole for each garlic. We also sprinkled a small amount of gypsum as our soil needs this. This is where you might want to spread a layer of compost, it just depends on your soils and crops.

Planting, planting, planting


Once fully planted, water in the crop (if needed) and cover with your silage tarp. We actually used non-toxic black builders plastic as this is what we had available. While we’re a bit unclear whether this is acceptable for organically certified farms we do know some market gardeners who use it in this way who grow chemically-free and grow well! We’re comfortable using it as our research tells us this particular type is non-toxic and UV stabilised.

What’s the plastic actually doing?

  • It’s killing any fresh growth currently there (the green manures), keeping their roots in tact for the soil life to thrive in and around,
  • Suppressing/killing weed seeds,
  • Heating the soil up – increasing the rate of germination, and
  • Drawing up soil life (earthworms galore) to the top layers of the soil where it’s still dark and moist thanks to the plastic.

How long does the plastic stay on there?

This varies depending on the season, weather and crop rotation system you have in place. We left ours on the garlic for around one month, checking it every now and then to see if it had germinated.

Once you can see fairly even germination it’s time for the plastic to come off.

The garlic you can see above and below is pale green/white, this is fine as it’ll green up in 2-3 weeks. The main thing we like is the lack of competing plants that garlic has to deal with (garlic hates competitors) and the fact we didn’t have to do the usual manual weeding to get it to this point.

As we’re having a unusually dry winter we’re now watering the garlic a bit to kick it along – otherwise our work here is done. We’ll water as needed (c’mon winter rains!) and do some light manual weeding here and there – but the next key job we’ll have to do here is harvesting later on in the year. Yesss!

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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.

orchard-sketch

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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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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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.

IMG_6006 Photo from April 2016

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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Stabilising Slopes With Pallets

We’ve used a large range of techniques to stablise our steep slope, you can read about some of them here, here and here. Yet another way we’ve used recycled materials to keep our slope from sliding down the hill is using timber pallets.

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We salvage these for free from the side of the road, building sites and warehouses. They’re treated with heat, so are chemical free – this means they’ll break down sooner rather than later, but before they do, you can use them in *countless* ways. If you’re searching for some yourself, look out for the “HT” stamp on the pallet as seen below.

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We had never tried this technique before and seeing as it’s a super hot and dry slope,  were unsure which plants would really thrive in such a compromising position (without heaps of pampering). Because of this, we initially planted a range of herbaceous, edible and native plants to ‘test’ which one/s would work. The winner (by far) was creeping boobialla (Myoporum parvifolium). We’re big fans of this vigorous native ground cover and have planted it in some of the hardest spots in our garden where not much else survives (except invasive grasses). One of these plants will happily cover up to two-three square metres densely which is absolute gold when you live on steep slopes. Check it out!

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You can see some of the pallet structure peeking out in the top left hand corner. Creeping boobialla puts down roots along the length of its “branches”, so while we planted each plant at the top of the bank it’s now put down roots from top to bottom.

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At the top of the bank is where the creeping boobialla meets a solid planting of garden thyme, an edible herb that is also a ground cover – we love the way they merge into one another seamlessly.

So in solidarity with all of you slope dwellers out there (it’s hard work, hey) we offer up yet another approach to working with steep, steep slopes to foster landscapes which are accessible, productive and beautiful. All power to you!

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