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Plant markers from ceramic tiles.


After considering my garden marker options in a recent post, we cut some ceramic tiles for use in the garden beds.  As far as I can tell so far ceramic tiles are an ideal medium with which to signpost your plantings.

You need the largest size rectangular tile you can get ...and a tile cutter large enough to accommodate the tile's length. Some skill is required to use the tool but if you can handle the slice-ing motion there's little waste.

All things considered these markers should last a very long time sitting in the dirt despite all weathers. If you accidentally bury them they are soon enough resurrected.
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Little hands rising from the dirt

I have been nagged big time by the domestic challenge of garden markers. Me been thinking that if I could only find a means to flag my garden content my life would be easier.

I want to mark the location of the seeds and seedlings I plant as well as the the  mulch pits I dig. But finding a reliable means to do so is frustrating. 

Wood rots and colours so that it merges with the undergrowth.

Plastic tags are often quite short and, because they're light, will fall over and get lost in the mulch.

I've used aluminium foil pinched atop of twigs or bamboo too but the foil falls off.

Then I thought: ceramic. Since my garden is festooned with plates -- each bed looks like a flying saucer parking lot  because I use dinner plates to cover my terracotta pot wetpots-- I started thinking about the porcelain option.

Cups? Broken bits of terracotta pots? Plates on their sides?

It just so happens that my wife is a keen mosaic artist and we do have a ready supply of tiles on hand and tile cutters. 

Are you with me on this?

So all I need do is lay in a supply of old tiles -- old white or lightly coloured tiles -- preferably large ones - and trim them into narrow strips.I could even write on them too if I wanted. Inserted upright into the soil I'd have myself markers galore.I could even deploy colour coding if I had the supply of different suitable tiles. White for plantings; another colour  for mulch pits.

No rot. Easily located  among all the vegetative growth.

You may wonder why I should obsess about tagging like this. When you mulch thick and often it's easy to lose stuff in the garden. Seedlings. Seed holes. Even hand tools. Pit fertilising stations.... Inadvertently each time you throw on some more mulch material you may cover past gardening efforts. 

So it's all about preventing drowning. They're little hands rising from the dirt: I'm here! 

Indeed, if I added a little square or rectangular tile cut to the top of these strips maybe I've got a retailable item? So what's the market in garden markers these days?


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Mulching with lawn clippings: Oh the joy of dessicated grasses!

I love grass clippings! Can't get enough of 'em.

That's not just me being rhetorical but a statement of fact: I can never get enough grass clippings. Grass chopped up by mowers maketh up my garden. Year in  year out in all weathers I've collected and  distributed cut grasses atop my garden beds. 

This is mulching per the good graces of the local  lawn mowing industry. I have guys working for me gratis.

I save them tip fees and they deliver me mulch. All I have to do it barrow it from nature strip to garden bed.

I've been lawn clipping dependent for years. This is my second garden built from lawn detritus.

The sheer scale of the amount of cut green material I've thrown on my garden beds may have to be my little secret because dessicated grass quickly rots down to a shadow of its former self. 

It's a total Sisyphusian task. [See image] I'm always just one step ahead of exposed raw earth...which I just gotta cover with still more mulch material.

But after a few years and all those wheelbarrow loads ... my yellowish almost greyish sand has changed to dark grey and black loam while recruiting biota big time.

En route I've learnt a thing or two about mulching and mulching with grass clippings especially.

Lesson #1 : Plop Plop

When distributing grass clipping atop the garden beds throw it down in handfuls so that the surface of the mulch is undulated  and pitted. You don't want a flat surface or even a convex one. You want your mulch to break down unevenly so that any precipitation enters the mesh of  fibres and percolates through to the soil underneath. Undulation rules.

Lesson #2 : Tease it up

Depending on the weather and the condition of the grass on its arrival, the clippings may tend to lock together and create a sort of mat. This can cause the soil underneath to heat up and may prevent moisture seeping through. So you need to tease up the grass cover  as though you are brushing it. Separate the fibres, fluff  up the grass hairdo and aerate the mulch. I use my hands and pull any weeds  at the same time.

Lesson #3 : No dust

In dry weather conditions cut grass mulch will turn to dust. This is all part of the break down process. The solution is to cover the pulverised grasses with fresh mowings. But because the weather is indeed dry -- and we're talking June and July (here in South East Queensland)  for example -- your grass clipping supply may be very low indeed because grass doesn't grow without rain and if it don't grow it don't get mowed and your supply will also dry up.

So you need to plan ahead and as the dry conditions kick in you need to deepen your mulch layer: pile up the grass so that you have leeway in the break down. Watering the mulch will also keep down the penchant to dust and ironically slow down the process .

Lesson #4 : Fertilize

You can read the stuff on the N:P:K of grass clippings and angst over it if you like. Since I'm reliant on the green stuff I've experimented with many throw-on additives deployed to fertilise the garden beds. But I always suspect that I am being wasteful of my resources. It just sits there atop the beds like dollops on a carpet...and dries out to pith.

This is why I seriously explored trench/pit mulching in preference to demanding too much of my sheet mulching habits.Nonetheless, after some experimentation I prefer to 'top dress' my mulch with Blood and Bone (+potash). After sprinkling Blood and Bone over the mulch beds, a quick fluff up of the grass clippings will distribute the ground particles to the soil below. Preferable to 'hosing in'.

Lesson #5 : Weeds

If you are gonna use grass clippings as mulch you are sure to be importing weeds into your garden. 

Fact.

My experience has been that if you keep layering on the cut grass you are usually one step ahead of the weeds as you shade them out. But they occasionally will root and they will spread. 

Every now and then I pull them...but the norm is that one species is the  feral one so you get to know its habits. That's the irony you see: I may get grass clippings mowed from a wide local regional arc, but the weeds I get are usually just the one or two varieties.

Compared to what I got when I laid out locally collected manures -- especially horse -- give me the grass clipping weeds anyday. I got some real nasties from the manures taken from local farms.In comparison, my grass harvest was benign. 

This is one reason why I now prefer to bury my manures in pits rather than let them rest on the surface of the soil.

Lesson #6 : Seedlings

My mulch layer is preferably deep. So when it comes to planting I find that you need to create a pit in the mulch in order to plant your seedling or seed. Pull the mulch aside, embed your plant, and...this is where a problem may kick in. 

Ideally you'd flag your seed or seedling: but so far I've not found a foolproof method for doing this. I don't block plant, so the bigger the plant is/the more chance there is that I'll continue to know it's there. So planting in mulch has its drawbacks.

My garden beds are 'busy' ...and there isn't much order about them. So marking off what I do -- so that I continue to register the fact -- is still a problem. This is exacerbated by the thickness of the mulch layer. 

Nonetheless, a deep mulch layer will also serve as a wind break for your seedling., so with that in mind you could look at your plantings as taking place at the base of a pit  walls all around..


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Trench Mulching, Pit Composting, Anaerobic Composting...Honey Holing: call it what you will -- it works

Trench Mulching, Pit Composting, Anaerobic Composting...Honey Holing: call it what you will -- it works.

Burying rubbish may be a crude way to garden but I find that it suits my lifestyle. It's simple. Little exertion is required. And it's all done UNDERGROUND -- so, in that sense, it's like an offering to the critters of the soil.

A sacrament.

Despite my many efforts at studying the manly art of composting -- that is the standard layer-it-and-turn-it aerobic mode of composting -- I  can't tune in. Rot is rot and while the route you choose will require different soil biota, in the end you are gonna arrive more or less with the same product.

You may arrive sooner if you toss and turn your rubbish to aerate it and heat it up -- but as I always say I generally prefer to pass my produce through the back end of the vertebrate before it touches the dirt.

I'm more of a manure man.

Of course manures can burn your plants so you need to dilute them. I also discovered that if I want my excrement supply to go a long way,  spreading it atop the soil is wasteful of good poo.

So I mix n'match and pit mulch my supplies. 

I was doing some research on this preference of mine and realised that I was inadvertently ticking a  few boxes en route. 

First of all, I'm gardening on sand so in trying to add a lot of carbon to my underground I'm doing so with the presumption that any pit or trench is sure to be porous. That allows me to explore recipes for concoctions that may be more intense than is the norm. I mean any pit is sure to be less self contained. 

It surely 'leaks'.

I'm also digging holes with worm numbers in mind. In my logic I'm building feeding stations -- sort of like neighborhood takeaways --  for earthworms. They're my mentors.

However, after reading up on compost tea and being a cook at heart I marinate my rubbish before burying it.

Practice makes perfect in this. Routine rules. 

I throw newspapers and other paper products into my wheelbarrow and drown them in water. I leave them to soak for a few hours or a day or so before pulling the pages apart. I then throw in some manure and grass clippings, twigs, and whatever other stuff  then mix all that up with the torn papers. I then immerse this medley in a water top up before leaving the brew stand for at least 5 days, wobbling the wheelbarrow every day to agitate the mix (as you do with compost tea). 

For me it's like making bread. It's all about 'feel'. Grass clippings are such a good blending medium that the analogy with baking is  useful. Just imagine you'll be creating loaves for burial.

After the marinade runs its course, I dig myself a few honey holes -- trenches-- no more than forearm deep, slip on a pair of latex gloves and stuff the mix into the holes. I then ram it down with a shovel, cover with a dressing of soil and mulch before marking the spot with a flagged stick.

Voila!

If I have old bones or shellfish shells or dead cane toads...they go into the bottom of the hole first. That way my dogs noses don't usually register the presence of the underground larder(esp with all that muck on top).

Anytime I hand water the garden I make sure I direct spray at these holes by squirting at the base of their markers. I give them a good soak not only in order to foster the composting process, but the carbon content is gonna be moisture retentive.

So far so good. I've been trench rotting like this for some time but have been fiddling with my methodology. Past experiments -- primarily of rolled up newspapers and twigs rammed vertically into the earth with a manure dressing -- have been successful exercise in creating sponge stations. All I've done since is integrate my primary mulch medium -- grass clippings -- into the process and explored marinades with compost tea in mind.

So it's more about  breeding bacteria. 

I'll review my practices after a few months of rot once I've had the opportunity to explore breakdown in situ and monitor neighborhood worm numbers. I'll also assess local plant growth. 

I'm digging holes where I can fit them in among already existing plantings. So I'm trying not to damage any root systems directly by my construction work or enriched stuffing. But already, as a focused use of manures, I'm way ahead.Previously spreading manures atop the soil was wasteful as even with the mulch covering break down was desultory. This way I'm getting the stuff underground  without turning over the whole bed.







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Cold green tea and me and my body.

I'm not a keen food culinary snob. I just like what I like.Preferably without fuss. But I've been drinking green tea brewed cold for years. It's less bitter that way.

It turns out that hot brewing releases different Catechins , a type of disease-fighting flavonoid and antioxidant, than does cold steeping. So I've started to brew up jugs of tea with hot water. But not just any old hot water. I'm trying to keep the initial brew temp within the 60-80 degree centigrade range in the hope that I can avoid the taste of bitter tannins.

This range is supposedly serendipitous  for green tea.

That may seem fastidious but it works. The flavours are stronger but I use green tea as a cordial anyway. 

Since I use a thermometer to make my yogurt -- an essential -- the tea temp thing comes easily to me. 

I indulged myself last week and bought 50 grams of locally grown Sencha. Ouch! Vereey priceey.

The literature may be keen to distinguish green teas one from the other in way of benefits but I think there's not much in it. In Summer  cold green tea is my preferred daytime tipple but I'm gonna stick with the supermarket blends as that's my price range -- esp my preferred Madura Green Tea and Papaya Leaf. I rip the strings bits off the teabags and steep the little pockets of tea. The Papaya Leaf is supposedly a therapy addition but I just like the taste...and besides Pawpaw/Papaya is my favorite fruit.

Why bother with green tea?

While I like drinking it I'm currently extra keen to exploit any means of pain relief I can find. It has  been a very painful last 8 months inside my body and after obtaining some relief  with Curcumin (Tumeric) I'm looking for similar options. I've been a bit desperate you see...

Green tea has long been recognized to have cardiovascular and cancer preventative characteristics due to its antioxidant properties. Its use in the treatment of arthritic disease as an anti-inflammatory agent has been recognized more recently. The constituents of green tea are polyphenolic compounds called catechins, and epigallocatechin-3 galate is the most abundant catechin in green tea.Epigallocatechin-3 galate inhibits IL-1–induced proteoglycan release and type 2 collagen degradation in cartilage explants.In human in vitro models, it also suppresses IL-1b and attenuates activation of the transcription factor NF-kB. Green tea also inhibits the aggrecanases which degrade cartilage.Green tea research now demonstrates both anti-inflammatory and chondroprotective effects. Additionally, green tea research includes the “Asian paradox”, which theorizes that increased green tea consumption in Asia may lead to significant cardiovascular, neuroprotective and cancer prevention properties. The usual recommendation is 3–4 cups of tea a day. Green tea extract has a typical dosage of 300–400 mg. Green tea can cause stomach irritation in some, and because of its caffeine content, a decaffeinated variety is also available; but the polyphenol content is currently unknown.
Mind you I drink black tea too. That's my favorite drink. Maybe four large cups per day (although my black tea is low caffeine). And I drink coffee -- black -- each morning.


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Warrigal greens and other preferences


I'm really taken with growing and consuming Kale in the cooler months and Sweet Leaf ( AKA: katuk, star gooseberry:-- small SE Asian tree which is deciduous south of the Tropics) in Summer, but I sometimes run out of green eats -- in part because I use these leaves in everything.

So I'm exploring Kangkong (AKA:water spinach, water convolvulus) which regrettably does require a lot of moisture to bring on. I also grow Portulacas but i'm finding these fleshy leaves a bit gluggy.

However, there's another option which I've started growing: Warrigal Greens (AKA: New Zealand Spinach) . The stuff is easy to grow and that attribute may have a little to do with the fact that it grows native and wild along the shoreline here.
Toxic oxates need to removed by blanching first, but Warrigal Greens aren't bad at all...and I'm saying that as a person who doesn't like Spinach or Silver Beet. I'm not giving Warrigal Greens the heads up just because they're 'bush ticker'. In the right recipe they work (even though I still prefer my kale and sweetleaves).
This brings me to the core question of what I prefer to grow and what, for now, my garden will grow. 
It's all about what I want to eat.
I'd like to grow a lot of different things but my soil (and  my skills) aren't quite there yet. But here's my working list.
Kankong - Spring Onions - Small tomatoes - Herbs, especially heaps of parsley - Kale - Peppers (although not very successfully) - Sweet Potatoes (if I can keep the water up to them) - Zucchinis -- Cucumber - Warrigal Greens - Salad veg esp the chickories -- Chillis -- PawPaw -- Mulberry -- Chokoes -- Snake Beans -- Sweet Leaf - Figs - Pumpkin - Portulacas - Bananas - Gooseberry - Loganberry - Tomatillo - Eggplant - Leeks -Passionfruit.
Now that I actually can refer to my patch as bona fide 'soil' I can get down to the serious business of targeting specific plants in order to grow them well. 
But hey! there's a lot of frustration emanating from some species: large tomatoes, Peppers/Capsicums, Strawberries,Pepino,  even most beans. And 'quality produce' is not an across-the-board thing. My soil and I still don't trust one another to make the babies I yearn for.
But then in other related gardening news there is a 70% chance of an El Nino phenomenon this year which means I need to seriously work at drought protecting my garden.That means I gotta really up its carbon content in order to hold onto what moisture it gets.
That's my rule-of-thumb.So I'm really working on my honey hole recipes. Digging and filling these trenches seem the most efficient way I can introduce such matter into my soil. I'm relying on my worm army to do the menial work so I take the approach that if I keep the worms happily fed and fecund I'm ahead of any drought.
I'm also looking forward to late Winter when the Mulberry loses its leaves. Then I'm planning to cut me a lot of branches and strike them around the border of the chook pen as a hedgerow.My chicken wire frame (made from collected driftwoods) is protesting under the weight of choko, passionfruit and Madagascar Beans so I'm gonna  grow myself a new fence.
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After the rain + >3 years of effort making soil out of beach sand...Getting there.


Would you believe we are officially in Drought and our water usage is down 40% compared to last Summer -- a wet one -- but the plants live! That's the hobby, you see:Making the best of soil and climate...and scrounging mulch. 

But for me the key inspiration has been the Greek and Italian formatted veg backyards of Inner city Melbourne. 

You want to learn horticulture? Then go rent in Brunswick or Northcote or Preston or Thornbury or Clifton Hill in the seventies and take on the lessons of a gentrification occupancy . 

What's missing is cement, right? But hey, I got figs...you gotta have figs.

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If you can garden in beach sand you can garden anywhere.

After three and a half years of seriously collecting mulch materials I suspect that I now have the beginnings of a garden.

This change has kicked in because I now have dirt where once sand ruled. 

At some time over the past 6-8 months this qualitative  metamorphosis kicked in. Now, at the end of a very dry Summer -- when we are still officially in  drought -- I can dig  my fingers into the dirt and grasp a rich loam.

And I got critters ++++ in my dirt. Worms especially -- when once upon a time there were none known to roam. 

I think  worm activity rules the quality of the underfoot establishment and I guess I can now call myself a vermiculturist.

Feeding my soil takes a lot of effort. How many times have I carted lawn clippings from my front nature strip to the outback patches? Layer upon layer -- a recipe  enriched by collected newspapers and manures, a bit of blood and bone, twigs and sweat. 

Constantly spreading the green stuff, hunting down any more carbon materials I could get my hands on, fretting over soil quality and irrigation options.

So I guess it took me 3 years to graduate.  

The disconcerting thing is that having spent so much of my energy focusing on creating soil from sand I only now begin to address the question of growing plants better in it.  Maybe now I can begin to look at pH  issues and some of the other horticultural parameters that make for  good cropping. 

But what a great adventure it has been.  (Read about it here.)  If you can garden in beach sand you can garden anywhere.


En route I have to say that the gardening literature was not all that helpful. So much of what I've done has been trial and error. Most of it presumes that you start with dirt and not sterile granules devoid of an active biology. And the irrigation handbooks simply have no concept of how porous my untreated sand is...still is. 


Now my garden is 'perched' atop of sand like a Fraser Island lake. The difference is that my 'garden' isn't impermeable. It just slows down the water as it diffuses through the soil long enough to foster the makings of a garden. I suspect that without the addition of clay  it will remain very permeable. So my interest is in seeing how much I can do in way of soil improvement with organic matter alone. My working hypothesis is that big bits of organic matter -- my favorite being rolled up newspapers -- act like sponges, holding onto more moisture than the surrounding soil. 

This is my number one principle -- a principle that underlies my use of clay pot irrigation. Indeed, I guess I  have added clay to my soil -- but in the form of  buried flower pots.

Sometime this year I'll write up my experience in as a sort of DIY manual for those who may be interested in  a few hints for gardening on sand.

But outside of all that I gotta say that my main inspiration--aside from local Wallum ecology --  has been the rain harvesting work of Brad Lancaster and the literature on vermiculture, especially David Murphy's wonderful book , Organic Growing With Worms.  As the irrepressible Peter Cundall writes in regard to it:
"This is an amazing, inspiring book..it should be on the bookshelf of every farmer, gardener, conservationist, scientist or anyone who comprehends the environmental dangers now threatening all life forms on earth."



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How to honeyhole.

After exploring trench mulching a lot in  my garden I decided to adopt some of the principles that govern honeyholes and fertility trenches.

The main variation from my past practices are:
  • tear up the newspaper and cardboard
  • mix it with green mulch and manure 
  • add water (even urine!) to the mix
  • let it marinate
  • ram the mix into the honeyhole
This is still an experiment.
  1. Honeyholes should be standard depth and diameter. In my established garden I keep them to a forearm's depth. 
  2. Honeyholes' location should always be marked.
When positioning your honeyhole remember that its contents may be a tad strong for some nearby plants. So remember: Location. Location. Location.

If creating new beds, long trenches would be more apt.

When watering the garden, be sure to always hose your honeyholes so that they absorb more water for slower local distribution. 

A honeyhole  is a pulpy version of a slow watering terracotta pot irrigator...and my presumption is that any fertilising is spread by the creatures of the soil especially worms. I'm thinking that juxtaposing terracotta pot irrigation with honeyholes makes a lot of gardening sense --esp on my sandy soils

Afterthoughts

I've found that my garden takes in moisture unevenly. This is a product of how much carbon matter is in my sandy soils...but other factors come into play.

Mulch can shield the underlying soil from getting wet...especially if precipitation is often light. While using terracotta pots for irrigation will get regular  moisture below that layer , the pots'  seepage envelope  can only reach so far.

The honeyholes serve as supplementary irrigators as their carbon/cellulose content hold moisture and their vertical alignment ferry moisture below the mulch layer. They are like so many wells. 

If I had planning options I'd alternate terracotta pots with honeyholes and let the worms work out their daily lifestyle. But as much vermiculture proves, a good worm colony will spread the fertility everywhere they go -- moving carbon about like dodgen cars. 

My other experiments with additions -- such as laying down rolled up newspaper and logs on top of my soil, in hugelkultur fashion -- have not been very successful. The cellulose needs to be buried, encased in soils and its biota. 

So these little mine shafts --adapted from my trench mulching experiments -- may suit my conditions. Filling them is like stuffing cannoli. 

 But a few question remain:
  1. How many freshly made honeyholes/how far apart can I insert in the one garden bed?
  2. How close can I locate a honeyhole to a growing plan or a freshly planted seedling?
  3. What happens to the hole once its contents has rotted down? Do I refill the space with more 'honey' or with the soils I initially  set aside -- and dig a fresh hole elsewhere? 




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Two rants: the joys of a sickle and my troubles with Permaculture

Sickle

I got myself a sickle because I couldn't afford a scythe and my grass patches are small. I had been electric whipper snippering but my machine burnt out.I've had it with mowers and powered brushcutters.

So I thought $25 for a sickle? Why not?

I needs to keep the neighbours off my long-grass-indifferent back.

Cutting with a sickle means you have to bend and you can't maintain a fixed height as you can with a scythe. But I'm not fixing to play golf or bowls.

We had a sickle way back in the 50s. Rusty old thing. Combined with hammer you can be a bolshevik.

But I tell ya, I can cut my patch quicker with my acoustic hand tool than I can with electrics or petrol.

(So long as you don't cut yourself: always cut with the right hand (if not a southpaw )and hold a short walking stick in your left.The more efficient scythe displaced the sickle for reasons such as these...)

And a scythe is the Tai Chi of mowing...and I look and think: what a hobby! what a exercise regime! What grace! It's groovin....add an ipod and you're there.

But hey the blade is gotta be sharp.Handy for later suicide attempts or decapitating the neighbourhood bully...

Maybe one day I'll graduate to a scythe but for now I'm sickling it.

My troubles with Permaculture



For many years I've done my homework and I've put in the gardening hard yards. And I've created a few gardens in different places. While I respect and endorse all those who take the sustainable growing path, the heavy doses of evangelical hype that accompanies omnipresent Permies annoys me no end. 

The pieces below by Peter Harper captures some of my hesitancies in regard to Permaculture. I'd also add that the way the system is so often packaged, dependent as it is on perennial plants, sponsors a menu mainly of fruits and the occasional nut...

I don't eat that much fruit....So what's the charm in growing it?

So growing perennials, sensible as it may be, has a limitation in that we aren't hunter gatherers of the olden day ilk and would like a more frequent turnover of comestibles. So I don't believe the hype, because I don't think much of the Permaculture Cook Book. 

But that's not the be all and end all of sustainability. Design surely matters and is no doubt useful, but it ain't the be all and end all of gardening....

So I'm saying partake with a grain of salt. Be pragmatic. In a 'food forest' you can't always see the wood for the trees.

My attitude isn't alone. With a little homework you can find some very useful and well argued critiques of Permaculture that do mark it down where it matters, while respecting it for its utility :
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