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French Intensive: La culture maraîchère downunder

I is here. Yesiree.


After a very intense period of exploration and research I'm thinking that I have discovered my preferred gardening 'model'.

What I mean by that is that I have narrowed in on the 'system' that suits my environmental context and my habits...my journey.

It has a name and history and it's  called French Intensive Market Gardening.
La culture maraîchère referred to the intensive methods of gardening developed in the urban areas of Paris from about 1850 to 1900, and often referred to in English as "French intensive gardening." It was a series of techniques developed over the years by experimentation for gardeners to produce large quantities of fresh vegetables for city dwellers. It also dealt with a major urban problem at the time - what to do with all the manure from the horses used for transportation. French intensive gardening was designed to grow the maximum amount of vegetables on the minimum area possible, since urban plots were invariably small and noncontinuous...The average Parisian market garden was between one and two acres in size, with plants grown on eighteen-inch beds of combined straw and horse manure from the stables. Although the plots were relatively small, the techniques used to attend to them were highly detail-oriented and labor intensive. In the words of one grower, "always tend the smallest amount of land possible, but tend it exceptionally well." In order to get the maximum amount of produce from a small area, many techniques were used in concert. Crops were planted so close together that when the plants were mature, their leaves would barely touch. The close spacing provided a mini-climate and a living mulch that reduced weed growth and helped hold moisture in the soil. Companion planting was used - growing certain plants together that enhance each other. [Source]
French Intensive Gardening is often referred to as 'Double Dig' but I don't do that. There's no point because I've only got sand to dig up under my shallow loamy layer. I'm finding instead that with my trusty Ho-Mi  Hoe and my  handy sieve, I can fashion a version Francais that suits Terra Australis.

French Intensive Gardening is also linked with  'Biodynamic'  gardening because it was adapted, tweaked and repackaged by people like Rudolf Steiner,  Allan Chadwick et al.  I don't respond to these later quirks much at all, so I'm very much a French classicist and my interest is anchored in 19th Century Paris.

I'm also still caught between approaches so I'm no purist. I'm eclectic. While I may be trying to talk  French, my dialect is local and 21st Century. 

For the sake of context, I'll try to list why I prefer  La culture maraîchère to other systems:
  1. It relies on friable soils...and mine are sandy ++++.
  2. Its primary input is horse manure ...and mine is cow and horse dung. So there's no intense investment in making (aerobic) compost as an arduous supplementary activity.
  3. It is focused on making the best use of a small gardening space...and I'm gardening with marketing ambition in a suburban backyard.
  4. It merges my long time interest in English Cottage and French Potager  gardens with some core, and very dedicated, polycultural  -- mixed vegetable gardening -- preferences . I'm no formalist, so mix and match suits me just fine. 
  5. It is ruled by market gardening precepts so it isn't distracted by  countervailing 'food forest' and strict Permaculture shibboleths.
  6. It is driven by, and committed to, the growing of annuals rather than perennials.Any perennials are espaliered or coppiced.
  7. It is primarily a gardening system ruled by what's to hand and available -- horse manure -- rather than idealising inputs and paying big bucks for them. Très pas cher.
Nonetheless, I'm proceeding with a few adaptions in mind and the primary one is that the 'digging ' over of my soil is left to the critters -- like worms -- that inhabit it. I merely seek to 'scrape the surface'.

'Double Dig' be dammed. 

I also use, and rely on, sheet mulching when the French did not. But my mulch is grass clippings which begin life very desiccated anyway and break down quickly.

So I'm thinking it's coming together, so to speak, underfoot.

Before me I have this sharp learning curve as I get to know my plants in this novel Gallic environment. 

The principles in play do, however, lend themselves to adaptations. For instance their raised beds built atop manure cores remind of my own mounds built on mulch mixes...and I imported that edge, not from Paris, but  from the South Pacific.

I'm also reliant on terracotta pots for irrigation when they relied on watering cans.

They long-trench mulched vigorously with manures, when I prefer  single holes -- as I don't want to 'disturb' the ecological integrity of the beds. They used pure manure(+straw) fills when I use grass clippings, paper and manure. My French forbears and I do, however, agree that manures can be buried when still  young.

And while I'm polyculural, I'm more polycultural, in a mayhem sort of way, than they were.I can so indulge myself  because the scale of my project is smaller.

Unlike them, I keenly engineer shade as a hot weather element in the design mix.

That said there are a few attributes of  La culture maraîchère  that I still need to understand and work through.

If it supposedly uses less water than other methods of gardening, how is that water 'held' in the garden bed? What's the sponge? While the method makes weeding easy, the business of churning up the soil surely activates weed seeding. Because the soil is loose and friable, weeds may indeed be  at a disadvantage, and are easily pulled up by their roots, but there's sure to be more of them, right? Especially since I mulch with cut grass and use manures.... But then I know my own weeds and the only problematical one in this context I can envisage is the low growing chickweed. Runner grasses, the ones I abhor, won't stand a chance.

So this is  'intense' also in the sense of labour intense. If the mulch regime fails I'll be weeding more.

C'est vie

There's also these considerations to deal with, given my conditions:
The hotter the climate, the more you should consider whether or not raised beds are truly beneficial, especially with sandy soils. Sandy soils are likely to be low in nitrogen and organic matter; too much intensive digging may only exaggerate these problems. The hotter the summer climate, the faster organic matter is consumed. The more frequently you dig soils in hot summer weather, the more material you will need to add to compensate for oxidation. However, once the living mulch covers the bed, it will help to moderate high soil temperatures. In a hot, dry summer climate, the soil in a raised bed may not only heat up too much but also be vulnerable to drying out--thus negating one of the benefits of BFI. [Source]
Some useful online resources about French Intensive Gardening:

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Waffles, Sponges, Cornmeal and other delicacies.

A friend was talking about the Three Sisters (corns/beans/squash) and indigenous agricultural practices in arid regions of North America. Some of these approaches are covered in Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond by Brad Lancaster. Inspired I was trying to replicate the Zuni waffle garden practice. It really suits our aridness.

However, my sandy soil is so friable that I couldn't build the walls so that the grid stayed put. So I've used galvanised edging which I had and  cut it roughly into 2 metre lengths(see image bottom right and centre left) and direct seeded within that.
The metal gives me any shape I want, not just squares.When the seedlings come up, the plan is to remove the wall and reuse it elsewhere. Hypothetically the metal reflects sunlight onto the bed and protects young plants from wind.

I thought, great! So I got myself another roll of some of this stuff so that now it's a gardening essential. I either enclose the seed bed or just wall it on three sides. 

My 'soil' is so sandy that even digging holes in new land  the sand simply falls in on itself.While I previously built my beds on top of these grains, I'm now experimenting with sifting and mixing manures through the sand to give it texture.The manures hold water in place and counteract erosion.

I'm also experimenting further with Vertical Sponges and I'm impressed with the results.I'm making the paper/manure mixes really pithy and soggy so that when I ram them into the freshly dug hole they really take a basin shape as I extend the lip wider than the hole to engineer a broader billabong. Rather than mulch over & mark, the exposed paper mix on the surface flags the sponge's presence. I've also used the same approach for elongated trenches, when building new beds. They act like an underground  skeleton.
Any new planting of perennials I make sure a sponge hole is located nearby.Once you master the mix  the technique it really is like sculpting with papier mache.  
Soaked and torn up paper + water + sifted manures + anything else you may have on hand and you'd like to add...with gloves on: mix and churn it up. Let marinate  then use. Yum.
This comes back to keeping garden worms happy and feeling at home.Worm requirements (moisture + pH + food, etc) are specific it seems and it took me a few years to attract them to my garden in any census numbers.Now I'm trying to get the in-house population to move about and settle new lands.So my next trick is to sprinkle cornmeal about. It's a form of baiting. 
Thinks: maybe I could add cornmeal to the sponge mix as well?
This issue came up because a neighbour, recently moved here, could not get over the fact that her new plot had not one garden worm. I said,"sure -- it's a fact, a brutal fact, that worms aren't in residence."She has some clay but still...So I went looking for the DIY of worm accommodation. But in sand -- which is constantly drying out --there isn't enough moisture to enable the worms to breath.Pretty basic lifestyle stuff, right? So that's task #1 -- water.Then you look at the menu. The worms moved in soon after I solved my irrigation challenges...and now I'm seriously worm farming and Butcher Birds alight nearby every time I turn a bit of soil.I have chooks but I can never bring myself to share my worms with them...they're my hard working peasants, my angels, and I dedicate myself to keeping them healthy and happy.
While I'm experimented with a few earth moving approaches to harvest rainwater, when I widened the beds recently and built my mounds I dug down, so that now you step down into the garden when you walk through it. Given that my land is flat, this geography is novel. This is not something to try at home if you have clay underfoot but these narrow walkways between the beds and mounds are impacting such that, if we ever get any rain, they'll slow its run off and seepage. I've experimented with mulching materials before -- especially old rags and plastic -- to cover these footpaths, but managing these materials was painful.  In some areas I've simply covered these walkways with scrub cuts , like with banana circle fill, but I suspect that maybe a variation of the sponge mix may suit if I can get enough paper.  Sheets of paper not only look unsightly but they blow away.  But a layer of papier mache -- paper mash + sand mix? -- could work? Any mulches I get go directly onto the beds.

Nonetheless, may be foot traffic will suffice to compact the paths' surface enough so that seepage is delayed after any downpour. To hold up the sides of the garden beds so that they don't erode into the paths, I'm planting directly on the bed verge --and since I eat a lot of the stuff -- the best thing I've found for this so far, are spring onions! They're deep rooted -- and rather than deploy my seedling supply, I also plant the root ends of bunches I buy at the fruit & veg shop to supplement my consumption. That and chives take root in the friable edges.It is a bit of a potager effect. Since I try to harvest spring onions via a cut-and-come-again approach without uprooting them, I'm hopeful the spring onion borders will work.
I've used lemongrass in similar mode before but lemon grass can be too big to garden around.
Another traditional American practice I follow is ollas -- terracotta pots -- for irrigation.The pot lids are the parked flying saucers in the photoes. That's magnificent and has been a game changer because with sand you need to water often. 

But then-- another Indian trick also followed in north west China -- is using sand as mulch.This time of year I can't get green mulches until the grasses start growing again.While I use junk mail bits on the soil surface, sand I have a plenty. And I'm experimenting with that as a mulch cover. Hypothetically sterile sand should make an excellent mulching material. All I have to do is dig for it and scatter it between the plants.

I'm finding after using trellises and other apparati that any old long piece of wood can be supported upright or on a lean to carry climbers like beans.  I don't grow corn, because I don't eat it -- so no '3 Sisters'. That doesn't solve the choko issue -- its climbing requirements -- and I grow a lot of chokoes -- but any old branch can be put to use. so long as I keep up a supply of metal rods (old tent poles and such) I get from the tip to anchor any upright. Thats' how the poles stay aloft in the gallery.Many are feral bamboo harvests left over from old builds.You can never have too much bamboo.

Tomatoes I just lean brushes around the plants but I'm running out of branches.

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Market Cart

It wasn't a great day at the markets yesterday (they're monthly) but I'm proud of my snazzy market cart which is being renovated.
Looking gooood.

It used to be a bike cart and I'd carry my community artz workshop wares around from school to school with me peddling up front.

Since it has been used to ferry my canoe to the seashore.

Now it's a perfect produce market artefact.
What style, eh?
And, of course, there's no show without Punch!

For those who pursue the market route I tell you the challenge of picking and presevering the stuff is a big one, even by day-before standards. I made a mistake yesterday and wrapped the greens in wet paper as an experiment. Thinking: I'd get horizontal display.
Did not work and wilting was a big problem, esp with the young greens
Best practice so far (from my limited experience) is to:
  1. Pick early in the day of harvest.
  2. Immediately place the cut stems in water -- just like flowers in a vase. &/or refrigerate/cool storage overnight.
  3. Always shade your produce. 
  4. Use an atomiser spray to water the plants when on display.
Rather than weigh out and such I sell in $2 lots -- so I have freedom to decide on what goes in the batch or bundle.
Since harvest is such a fickle schedule -- I'm trying to promote drop-by market days from home. Market one Saturday-open garden day a fortnight later....'pick while you wait'.
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Sponge Hole Irrigation

I've been experimenting with the mulching technique I've previously called a Honey Hole or  Fertility Trench.

It is a very simple method that is a useful for  irrigating and introducing  fertility into the soil. I refer to these holes as 'worm takeaways' because they concentrate a lot of organic matter in the one spot, and once settled, garden worms will move in and feast up.

But these holes' primary function -- while their contents breaks down -- is as a water sponge.

So they serve two functions:
  • a vertical fertility mulch
  • a water reserve/irrigating sponge
The trick is in the mix that you fill the holes with.

The Sponge Mix

After some experimentation I'm currently working from this recipe:
  1. Throw old newspapers, junk mail, old phone books, cardboard, etc into a large container -- I use a wheelbarrow -- and steep  them in water.
  2. When thoroughly wet, shred the papers and cardboard by  tearing the pieces apart with your hands. You should end up with lots of shredded paper and cardboard strips, something like papier mache
  3. Put on some rubber gloves and with a sieve or just your hands break up a quantity of manure and sprinkle it into the paper mix, tossing, stirring  and blending the manure in as if you were making a muffin mix. The paper strips should all be  well coated with the manure. Delicious-- but don't lick the spoon.
  4. Depending on your soil, the nature of your manures and so forth a good rule of thumb is a mix of 30-40% manure to 60-70% wet paper.
  5. If the mix is too dry -- add more water -- and let the manure/paper mix marinate for 5  to  7 days, stirring occasionally so that you brew a dense manure tea.
Once you have prepared your sponge mix, you can dig your holes.

The Hole
  1. With a hand spade dig a hole roughly half the depth of your forearm. I dump the soil I dig up into a 3 litre plastic pot so that I can keep each hole I dig the same depth and volume. Using a pot also keeps the soil off the garden bed, and any plants,  nearby.
  2. Fill the hole with a generous amount of sponge mix and ram the mix down into the hole with your (gloved) fist or/& a mallet. You want to really stuff the mix into the hole so that you end up with a convex depression on top with the mix rising up on the sides of the hole. That's your mini-billabong.
  3. Now place a stick or rod in the centre of your hole  and tip your bucket of dug up soil on the top of the hole. Pat the soil down and wiggle the stick to create  a crater --something like a hole on a putting green.
  4. Mark your crater with a stick or label rod so that its location is flagged in your garden bed.
When watering the garden, direct a spray at the flagged crater you have marked so that the the mix below engorges with water and pools on top, like a miniature pond. If you dug each hole approximately the same depth and diameter, you should be aware how large is your sponge bowl.

Location. Location.

I use these sponge holes as a supplement to my terracotta pot irrigation system.

I position them in sections of the garden bed where I think the water from the pots isn't reaching. Since water is its own conductor, these sponge holes can act as channeling stations for water across the distances between the pots.

The large paper content serves as a sponge that absorbs water when  wetted and, as the sponge mix breaks down, the elevated carbon in the soil increases its water holding capacity, protecting the soil from  future arid conditions.

Sponge holes are also very effective when dug next to newly planted trees and perennials. They are also much less disturbing to soil structure than the excavation required to  dig elongated mulch trenches. While the manured  'goodness' is concentrated in one spot, soil biota and worms will do all the work of distributing the sponge mix more widely in the bed neighbourhood.

As the sponge holes sweat moisture into the surrounding soil the water merges with the fluid content emanating from the terracotta pots, thus promoting greater holding capacity and broader spread per litre of irrigation. In my sandy soils both methods ensure I keep moisture in my top soil longer rather than have it quickly drain away.

You need to be aware that the hole's contents are initially manure 'hot' so you need to consider what you plant nearby. Heavy feeders should do alright.

I treat these holes as a shadow version of my terracotta pots. They are roughly the same volume and depth  while serving a similar function. So when I come to fill the pots every 3-4 days, all I need do is direct my hose spay at the marked sponge holes as well...at least for the following few months. Rather than hose the garden beds -- wasting water and encouraging weed growth -- I concentrate my water usage in spots that store it underground.

In my imagination I envisage these sponge holes as a key element in my worm neighbourhood. In hot weather I discovered that garden worms will gravitate around the terracotta pots because of the coolness and moisture in the soil. These properties are replicated by the sponge holes with the added feature that they are also serve as a restaurant and takeaway. 

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To market, to market....

Major renovations...

I've been digging...and planting because I've been driven by a new commitment: market gardening. As I plan to do the local monthly community markets selling some of what I grow, the garden now has a entrepreneurial purpose. So it has to deliver a quotient of vegetables. 
Be productive. Be predictable and reliable. Be niche oriented.
I'm thinking through my 'business plan' options and as well as selling at these monthly events I may run market days from  home on the other fortnight. People can drop by and shop.

Yesiree...I've been doing my homework. Reading up. Studying experiences of urban agriculture and micro farming,etc.

I'm convinced that it's do-able as various scenarios are possible...and work elsewhere.
Not that I plan to commit to  a new profession at my age, but my retail savvy flags the options.
I'm also thinking of offering to grow-to-order and ring+drop-by-+-harvest without taking on the responsibilities of something like Community Supported Agriculture.

In the genre of contemporary market gardening there are many retailing models.

But it's still early days and I am a hobbyist.I look to the marketing aspect as a means to network in my community and supplement my income while promoting environmental vibes.

But the focus is a delight and draws me to the garden more assiduously as though I have a part time occupation. A routine. 

This means that I have become more demanding of my patch.I'm asking more of it...and I expect more.  So I got busy and remade some of the layout.
  • I narrowed the paths and widened the beds in order to get more growing space. The soil shifting has indeed expanded my planting area. The much narrower paths are now trenches because they are dug deeper than before so that they act like valleys. Foot traffic compacts the earth and water is slower to dissipate. That's a plus for me.
  • I expanded my mounds and planted them out with a mix of vegetables as well as the tubers. This is still an experiment  but now I have 3 gardens: (1) garden beds (my original garden--number:5); (2)garden mounds (my recent experiment);and the new ground (3) mounds and ridges constructed from dirt thrown atop  twigs and branches half way to  Hugelkultur mode..
  • I incorporated waffle  grids in my planting habits. Waffle gardens were developed by the Zuni of New Mexico (picture right) as a means to farm in very dry conditions. Since we are officially 'in dought' and I forever have water issues,  I adapted the method to my own garden beds. I now sow direct into the ground by first scraping out a waffle depression. then border  it with soil and mulch. There's no over all design grid -- not yet anyway -- but I expect I'll customise as I explore this approach further. The compartmentalisation suits me. It's also risk free as I have, afterall, such sandy soils....
  • I mine my chook pen. Since I've been creating new beds --requiring 'mounds' of dirt --I had to get my soil from somewhere. Fortunately my chook pen is large and I've always wondered how to better harvest all the inputs I feed the chickens. So I take soil from the pen and put it on the garden. My chook pen is a  mine site. What better way to harness all that chook poo? It's sandy ++++ so it's an easy pick up and deliver. The chickens don't mind the crevices that are opening up at their feet. I'm even thinking of digging a well there. 
  • I sift sand and cow manure together before throwing it on the beds and mounds. It is not a fun task breaking up and sifting cow  poo through a sieve, but since my 'dirt' is sterile sand I try to merge manure and sand together on a 5o:50 recipe. Besides my keeness for   honey holing  I suspect I've found a way to quicken the transition from sand to loam in situ. This approach seem more efficient than waiting on layers upon layers of mulched grass clippings to break down.I still mulch, but I now have a Plan B.

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Gardening with mounds

I was wondering about gardening with mounds. 
I have discussed this before relative to the growing of sweet potatoes on conical mounds as practice norm throughout Melanesia and Polynesia. (See picture at right: that's' a serious mound!)

Since then I built a series of mounds and planted them out with potatoes with the perspective that I had begun to solve my  potato conundrum. 
I fiddled with the setup  and embedded a terracotta irrigator pot in the middle of each mound -- such that the mounds look like volcanoes with craters.
If you are into terracotta pot watering as I am the pot in the middle of a built up conical earth mound is a wondering engineering solution for water spread.It's like a chicken and egg thing . Wonderfully syncronicity. The shape allows not only broader water seepage but enables  more plants to access the irrigating core.

So I not only planted potatoes in the mounds but have since added Zucchini and am considering other options. Between the mounds, in the gullies, I just planted Taro.
However, I am reminded of an earlier gardening inspiration developed by Tiny Eglington.
It blew me away.Check out another example of the design method here ( sample picture at left).
When I laid out my own garden I didn't do this because all I had was sand to work with and going up -- such as for drainage -- didn't seem to make sense.
But that's only part of the story. Much as I tried to make Edlington's watering system work --watering the gullies rather than the beds (deploying a sort of wiking logic) -- I couldn't facilitate it.Not on sand, despite laying plastic and paper and mulch underneath the gullies.
But now that I can water with my pots -- Voila! I have a solution.
Of course gardening in mounds or ridges isn't new. 
HugelKulture is a quintessential mound method (pictured right below). But I've not been able to make HugelKulture work given my conditions. I suspect that here our climate is too dry.
But looking at the 'mound' and reviewing the literature on HK there is a lot of advantages in mounding to that size.
I've thrown a lot of twigs and paper into my mounds --to give them texture and some structural core.I sifted in manures and coated the lot in a blanket of lawn clippings mulch.
Some are a bit like ridges, but double camel hump ridges. I call them '2 pot mounds' as distinct form the conically shaped  'one terracotta pot' mounds.
I'm not certain how far down I should take the gullies. Water pooling doesn't happen here so excavating the gullies is primarily about getting dirt.
Mine are higgledy piggledy things and when I built them it was clear that not only could I water with my fav method -- da pots --  but I could harness the gullies for different purposes such that I could use some, rather than for pathways, as dumps for mulch and cut scrub, newspaper and such like the banana circle option.Even if I walk over this 'rubbish' its' not a problem. As soon as it breaks down I can put it on a garden bed or use it to make another mound.
Indeed these  beds of mine have tended to look like the shape and size of large upturned bathtubs, mini volcanoes or an Alien egg nursery...
But the logic of mounds of this size -- and irrigated as I do -- impresses me.
  • You extend the surface area of your 'bed' by using a curved surface. 
  • Despite the increased size your access to all plants is enhanced because the required reach is less.
  • You harness gravity to encourage plants -- esp ramblers like cucumber, tomatoes and such -- to fall away and down onto a surface that will tend t be drier than a flat bed.
  • You get to also plant in the gullies, esp more water dependent plants. (Thats' the estimate, anyway).
  • Because the mounds are elevated beds -- just like any contour you can plant according to sun requirements -- as you'll have some 'sides' more exposed to the sun than others. So you plant, say, lettuces on the south of the mound and capsicums on the north and west. If planting extensively in the gullies is an option you can use the mounds as shade and or weather protection.
  • Like the Melanesian examples mounds are demountable. That may seem an anathema but it is easy to shift a pile of dirt than dig a hole -- or disassemble a mound and build a new one in its place. Indeed when I began this project I had in mind that the mounds would be my 'portable' garden
How big can these mounds be  given my watering methods? Does the design actually work -- at least on my sandy soils? I'm sure that mounds like this would not suit all soils, as you have to consider erosion issues. But then if you plant out you'd have a underground web on your side. So there's soil run off perhaps? All you do is spade it back up the hill.
Normally, mounding like this would require a lot of precipitation. Conical mounds normally aren't friendly to irrigation systems. But then there's the terracotta pots, you see...and that's a game changer.
Of use:
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Mixed vegetable gardening -- a 'cottager' perspective

Bangladeshi Allotment
Today I planted out 45 seedlings. Greens, root crops and Leeks. 

When you go to plant you gotta think about where you will plant the plants, right?

Since I'm upping  the number of plants in my garden beds and seriously chasing a harvest increase, I got anxious that maybe my habits were a handicap. 

Other gardens of my acquaintance are formatted by blocks and rows of sameness vegetation. These may not be true 'monoculture' but my take on 'polyculture' kind of makes me a mix-em-up radical. You could say that my garden beds are  heterogeneous mixes of plants seemingly thrown together.

And it's true -- if I see a vacancy -- like a parking space -- I'll plant/park a seedling or seed there. 

I'm not stupid -- I don't plant the same thing there year in year out -- but a regular and set regime of rotating crops isn't in my CV. I may change the plant grown in one spot, but that's about the extent of my sequencing.

A bad habit? 

So far so good. 

This habit of mine began a few decades back when my parents moved to Rosebud Victoria in cooee of Heronswood and Diggers Seeds and thereon both my parents and I have been cottage garden aficionados as Diggers were cottager obsessed. I'd get all my seeds there and a lot of my inspiration.

Later the Permaculture bug kicked in -- and while Permaculture isn't a monocultural system, it's polycultural design is ruled by the 'food forest' concept and reliant on perennials.

Over the years I've found food foresting has hairs on it and it's been a task to wean myself from some Permaculture precepts I'd adopted. 

I'm not really  great perennial sort of guy. My stomach is ruled by annuals.

But there I was looking at the soil at my feet, seedlings in hand...and I had sudden doubts. Maybe squeezing in this and that where I can fit it in isn't the best gardening option?

I was thinking that maybe I should redesign the whole shebang...

After investing in some research I feel much better because I won an affirmation :
In a conventional vegetable garden, each type is planted in rows or patches. Usually similar species are grouped together, such as brassicas, beans and peas and so on. Plants of the same or similar species compete for the same nutrients, and are an attractive habitat for pests of that plant. Usually, the patches are rotated every year to prevent the build-up of pests and diseases and so as not to deplete the soil of nutrients.
By contrast, in mixed cropping a large number of different vegetables are grown together in the same space. A well-chosen combination can result in less competition for nutrients, and other beneficial relationships between the different plants mean that plants are healthier.
Indeed a little brochure from UK Permaculture on Mixed Veg Gardening is a gem and is worth downloading. It's free.
Mixed vegetable gardening is an example of a  polyculture . The word means
growing lots of different types of plants together. The growing mix in a polyculture can include vegetables, herbs, flowers and even fruit. People have used this approach all over the world for hundreds of years, often with great success. Examples include the English Cottage Garden, Caribbean kitchen gardens or the allotments of Bangladeshi communities in London.
Of course gardening in a medley is a headache. Finding plants isn't always easy. It's more time consuming to garden. The only logic is your own eccentricities...and maybe a bit of companion planting. You have to think about finished growth height and competitors in the neighbourhood after the same nutrients and moisture. You have to think about the underneath business too -- what the veg roots will get up to and where. 

A bit of a mess really if your were a formalist.

In my mix --hidden among all that veg and green -- are my terracotta pot irrigators, so the more jungle there is, the harder it is to find, reach and refill these pots.

Nonetheless, you're relating big time almost to every plant.You're monitoring growth and habit in close proximity to the dirt. 

But if you want to lazy garden...forget it. Compared to the 'food forest' concept and  block or row  planting, mixed vegetable gardening demands at lot of attention....but there are some great advantages:
  • Better use of space - a lot of food is produced and many types of vegetables can be grown in the same space over a longer time.
  • Fewer pests and diseases - the different colours, shapes, textures and scents of the leaves confuse pests, and diseases can't spread as easily from one plant to the next.
  • Less weeding - there is no space and no light on the ground, so weeds can't germinate.
  • Less need for watering - greater soil coverage means less evaporation.

So despite the frustrations it's an effective way to deploy dirt.

In my mix  the trees I grow are pawpaws and sweetleaf (Katuk) as they are both short lived and so easily governed. I also have many frangipanis strategically planted as a source for controlled Summer shade (and Winter light since they're deciduous here)...but for the rest, I guess I'm still learning, especially as my soil has only recently become a workable loam.

But for now, let;s just say that my moment of doubt is over and I remain a (sub-tropical) cottager at heart..
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Great moments in horticulture

'Tis the time of year in the sub tropics when the Sweet Leaf/Katuk bushes [Sauropus androgynus-- mani cai (马尼菜), in Malay it is called cekur manis or sayur manis] loose their leaves and bare out.I make sure I strip every leaf on mine before that happens and ferry them inside. As I have been advised by my Malaysian gardening mentors, I've cut the bushes back and taken cuttings for striking.

But I miss 'em so...my sweet sweet leaves. I have only about 20 leaves left and I won't waste one of them.

I love Katuk with a gourmandising passion.So I'm planning to up my supply...and maybe I should look at trying to extend the harvest season next year somehow.

The good thing is, as the Katuk struggles to flesh up, the Kale kicks in...and I have planted a lot of Warrigal Greens to supplement.

Katuk, Kale, Warrigal Greens..seems all very exotic, doesn't it? But they all very easily grown this far north on grumpy soils. Kale is supermarket expensive ($5/bunch) and not the green veg norm. The rest are rare.

Also in Winter the Kantong -- water spinach -- dies back but sweet potato leaves make a good substitute . There is always plenty of leaves in sweet potato patches. Indeed, it is said, that if you cull back the leaves, you'll get bigger tubers.
Here we have folk chasing the hard to grow, bug prone, and often expensive supermarket veg like broccoli and such, when there are these more self reliant substitutes

From my POV the produce larder essentials starts with veg like this --and core fresh herbs like rosemary, parsley,garlic, coriander,chilli and basil -- all of which I tend to pile into a dish -- and the root vegetables: carrot, beetroot, turnip...Add the main starches -- white and sweet potatoes -- and you're cooking up a storm. The 'glue' for all this, for me, are spring onions and leeks. Indispensable. I haven't peeled a regular onion in almost a year. And while I use fresh (or frozen) ginger a lot I prefer to grate Turmeric -- and I even have the bench top stains to prove my preference.

I use tomatoes, of course, even 'dry' them -- but my keen addiction is to one  sweet pepper type : Cubanelle/Italian long sweet pepper.

The day I master the cultivation of these delights will be a great horticultural moment.
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The garden in June

They're not flying saucers parked in my garden, but the stoneware plate lids on my terracotta watering pots. It's  exposed plumbing.

There are two elevated ponds pictured in the gallery coated in stumpery and conical 'volcano' potato mounds with saucers atop terracotta craters.

I use locally collected Melaleuca branches -- culled from neighbourhood trimmings -- for staking and support.

All the brown stuff is dried grass clippings and  other mulch. Among the garden beds are naked Frangipanis (it being the off season) grown as a  obedient form of Summer shade.

Compared to March it's less green -- but it's been harvested and cleared in places; remade in others...

Looking back to April 2012 -- two plus  years ago -- it's instructive to note how much flexibility enriches this gardening business. When you are primarily growing annuals for food -- solid, set-in-place design isn't everything. And looks aren't everything either.

The major journey has been in the soil.

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Still more on terracotta pot irrigation...

Having got into some online chats about clay pot irrigation I thought I'd import dome of my comments...

I just bought another 10 pots from Masters at $3 each and put them to irrigation use.I now garden with over  60 pots  in situ. Today I got another batch of stoneware dinner plate lids for 20 cents each.
In the DIY adaption build I recommend grout rather than glues as generally a quick coating of the base is foolproof with grout. Glueing can be fickle. Just tape over the pot's drainage hole on the outside with masking or some other tape.
After using various irrigation approaches, buried hose driven, I'm absolutely smitten with clay pot style. Cut my water use in more than half. Change the whole nature of my garden and bought in worm colonisers.
On the question of terracotta wine coolers as irrigators -- I have to say that while some work, others don't...sweat. So stay away from wine coolers if you can. They aren't reliable.  The Master's pots -- a 19 to 21 cm rim (holding approx 2-2.5 litres) -- will sweat to effect and I've only had two (out of all of mine) that don't.
Given that an Olla --sold here as Wetpots -- costs $189 for a 10 pot watering system...price difference  do kick in. But the system seems to me to be a variation of Leeaky hose style approaches. 
With the single pots I can move them around as required. The shape of my garden doesn't matter nor does the location of any plant.
Have pot/Will travel.
All I need is a gardening hose to follow them.
Terracotta pot irrigation needs time to settle in. The soil has to synchronise. My pots empty on a 3-4 day cycle on sandy loam. In clay soil I suspect it would be a slower rate of emptying.  If you wanted to use them inside other pots, they'd work but a wicking bed approach would be more efficient.
In Summer white plates -- or white saucers --are preferable as lids because the bases supplied with some coolers get very hot and increase evaporation. But even if the coolers don't sweat they will nonetheless condense coolness and some moisture along their sides.
The Wine Cooler bases as lids are also more easily  circumvented by Cane Toads and mosquitoes.
Presently I'm exploring what planting distance from each pot suits various seedling species. 

Perennials have plenty of growing time to creep some distance.In my soil I'm usually distancing each pot by 1.3-1.6 metres from each other when placed in standard beds.
Elsewhere I embed a pot often alongside  new tree plantings. The wine coolers are excellent for that option.
But the synchronicity thing is important. Once the soil and plants have confidence that the pot is there and can be relied on to do its irrigating the whole soil neighborhood settles into remake. Osmosis pathways change. Soil texture alters. The change over a 4 month period is remarkable.. in my garden it was miraculous. Worms move into the pots' surrounds to survive the Summer heat and any dry periods.Biota activity quickens.
I'm  now  experimenting with planting patterns and suspect normal rectangular beds may be  a complication. As an exercise, I've built up some large mounds for tuber planting  and inserted pots -- wine coolers actually -- in the middle of each mound, like a crater in a volcano..but with a lid. That way the whole mound is constantly irrigated.
But the logic makes  a grand hypothesis:large conical mounds with terracotta pot craters....
As for watering-- I readily know how much water it takes to irrigate the garden so I am so considerate of my water usage.Other systems are not as easily monitored.So if I have 50 pots and each holds approx 2.5 litres I know that my water usage will be around 125-150 litres if I fill all of them up. I realized today that if I go around first and remove the lids, then do my watering circuit, I use less water than if I uncovered, watered and re-covered each pot while at each station.
Reason:The time it takes to lift the top plate and replace it given that I don't use a nozzle.I do often hose the surrounding plants on a bed, but if I'm just moving from station to station without having to bend down and play with lids -- I'm gonna be more water efficient.

What these 'plate lids' need is a long handle enabling a no bend approach. Like: _I_

Also over time, you see, plants grow over and around the plate lids and it can take some foraging to locate and lift, then replace, a lid.  So think of the tasks the hands may need to perform given that one is carrying a running hose. 

You could engineer up and run irrigation tubing into each pot as per the Olla habits but when  I fill manually I'm savvy with the water levels, water requirements, local vegetative health & growth, soil conditions...etc.

I'm 'communing' with Nature...

In dry and hot weather I hose my garden daily as a supplement because its base is so sandy. But I check the beds and handle the soil for indications of moisture content before hosing.
The other advantage per the 'effort' quotient with terracotta pots, is that they target irrigation to what you want to grow rather than what you don't (like weeds) ...and less for the more self sufficient  such as perennials.


Aside from the top/plate lifting complication I'm delighted with the system.
I happen to have Leeaky Hose Irrigation installed in my beds. Leeaky --SubSurface drip irrigation -- is well respected as a water saving irrigation system.
Leeaky Hose takes advantage of the fact that water acts as its own conductor. It is designed so that water ‘sweats’ through its walls at a controlled rate over long distances at low water flow. At pressures of 4psi or below the hose will deliver moisture to the surrounding soil through capillary action. As a rough guide, Leeaky Hose releases water below ground at around 2 litres per metre per hour.
...and I don't use it.
I stopped using it because:
  • I had sandy soil and any irrigation session -- even over a few hours -- meant that the water soon dissipated in my sandy soil.
  • I was 'over' watering one day and drying out on others.
  • I'd turn the tap on (even just a wee bit) to run the system (and employ gravity) then forget about turning it off so I wasted water.(My tank system did not suit timers).Even if I used barrels as gravity feeds--I still had to fill the barrels. 
  • The pressure wasn't constant for the whole tubular network and I could never actually tell how much water entered the system and how much water got where as all the activity was underground. With pots all you need do is look at the water level..and maybe feel the soil near bye.
  • Once installed and hooked up, the tubing is hard to move around to new places.You have joins and lengths to consider.
With the pots I'm in control and I'm watering for 3-4 days rather than for 3-4 or more hours.
The research figures suggest that pots are as efficient -- or almost as efficient -- as wiking beds.
I've got more  info here on my site about my experience with terracotta pot irrigation...
But it has meant a massive change to the garden. Massive. It's also changed my gardening habits -- my stewardship -- as these pots and a garden hose are my primary tools. They serve as a sort of fulcrum anchoring everything else--the life force.
The literature (primarily by Indian horticultural researchers) does review how far the water travels relative to pot volume and soil type. See example. 
However, while I've changed my soil  sand by adding a lot of organic matter --thus increasing its water holding capacity, I suspect that the pots and the surrounding soil (and its biota) have taken time to consolidate the marriage. Like the way bushland relates to a stream.
It's not like irrigation flooding but constancy.
This 'could' mean that I'm promoting more fungal problems -- or , at least , more fungal problems closer to the pots than further away. But, for now, I can't answer that question because I cannot see a clear pattern emerging. 
And the worms love em heaps...lift a pot, even on the hottest Summer day, and you'll get a wriggle carnival. Before I hardly got a worm anywhere -- despite inoculation. My beds are now worm farms. This means that they are doing a lot of my work for me,  ferrying nutrients about and spreading the good stuff from my Honey Holes.
Now if I was designing my garden afresh I'd start with pot placement and construct the garden around them. There's something to be said for circular beds, or at least beds like this

-- indeed I am experimenting with growing tubers that way. Since I used to garden inside car tires the circle utility makes sense to me. You'd grow the annuals in the circle , close to the clay pot, and perennials (or slow growing annuals)  in the 'isthmus' between circles. The perennials' roots would have plenty of time to travel the distance to a wetter area.

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