I have been reading a book – always a dangerous thing… it leads to ideas!
The book is called “grow a sustainable diet: planning and growing to feed ourselves and the earth” by Cindy Conner. Firstly I borrowed the book from a friend, then I bought my own copy. I love its detail, information, ideas, references and instructions. Please note – I am not getting any reimbursement for recommending it, I just think its a great resource for someone who is serious about growing their own food.
My current focus is on growing food for my family. Healthy, nutritious, perennial, as well as annual vegetables and several varieties of fruit. If possible 90% of it. Growing that volume of annual vegetables takes a lot of time and effort. They require a considerable amount of space, especially if you wish to feed a family and have enough extra to give to friends/neighbors or preserve. As we are not strictly seasonal eaters (we like to have tomato sauce and bottled fruit all year round) I am keen to grow enough to freeze, pickle, bottle and preserve. Tomatoes are a big staple for us and I have been buying a few boxes, late in the season, from a local Italian farmer to make tomato passatta. I’d like to grow enough of my own.
One of the first things that struck me about Cindy’s journey, was how many times she has re-planned and re-designed her garden – and why not? It makes sense really. If your space isn’t working, change it. It got me thinking about how the focus for our property and needs have changed over the last few years.
Over the past few years, I have considered adding extra beds in the paddock adjoining the orchard (now the food forest) to be able to increase the volume of some staple vegies (such as garlic, potatoes and onions). Weeding, watering and time management have meant these attempts haven’t been terrible successful. I find that each time I create a mono-cultured crop it leads to issues with weeds, pests and frustration.
Photos: Diagram of the old vegetable patch layout and a couple of growing beds
My vegetable patch is a good size – roughly 26m long and 18m wide. It is closely situated to the house for ease of picking and already has irrigation to it. It makes sense to focus my efforts there and re-invent our space. So I started by drawing out an outline of my space, without the constraints of the current infrastructure. Then started to think about what were the positives and negatives of my area and current layout. What were my needs, wants and what did I want to grow, that I have previously been unable to.
Some of the positives
* I have two large Jacaranda trees that provide shade from Summer to Winter for half of the area. They also provide a great micro-climate beneath their canopy. This has become an area where I can grow a few less frost/cold tolerant species during the winter.
* My mature Buddleia windbreak hedge not only stops the cold winter winds from effecting my vegies, but it also provides nectar for birds, butterflies and bees (and gorgeous floral honey).
* We have a good 1 1/2 inch irrigation pipe to provide water on demand. Also a sink area to wash down vegetables before they are taken into the house.
* The site is conveniently close to the house, giving us easy access to produce all year and it has an existing rabbit proof fence.
* I have a small shade house set up to help grow on cuttings and start off seeds.
Some of the Negatives:
* We are starting to have an intrusion of kikuyu from the neighboring paddock, under the buddleia hedge.
* The other half of the area (not shaded by the Jacarandas) bakes in the summer sun. It cooks the plants and dries out the soil.
* The original 4m x 2m beds are too wide and awkward to weed and pick produce with ease.
With a bit of thinking outside the box, the negatives can be easily solved.
If we install a gateway into the neighboring chicken pen and a temporary fence, we can get the chickens to dig up the kikuyu under the shade of the hedge. This will limit/halt its spread into the rest of the vegie patch. However, It must be a very good, sturdy fence as chickens have a habit of being very destructive when let loose in the vegetable patch. Great if you have ordered in a demolition crew but not so good if you have just planted seedlings… I speak from experience…
Photos: My little flock of chickens helping to remove the Kikuyu grass
After mulling over the idea of planting trees to shade the vegetable beds and looking for suitable trees, I’ve come back to the idea of using shade cloth. I won’t have to compete with tree roots and I can made the beds whatever shape and size, then design shade to suit.
Needing more usable growing space, I started playing with the ideas from the book. If I made the beds narrower, changed the orientation, made my paths narrower between beds but allow for a larger access aisle… The outcome was very interesting. In the same space, I can fit 12 beds 1.5m wide x 5.5m long, which will give me 108m2 growing space – an additional 44m2 growing space.
Photo: 12 beds in the same space as the original 8 – narrower paths and better use of my space.
My initial wood chip paths looked great but broke down over a few years and the weeds began to become an issue. I have already been mowing and whipper snipping to keep it looking tidy. This also helps to reduce the wet feet issue in winter and allow good visuals of any snakes in summer. Instead of re-doing the wood chip paths, as I have done in the past, I am considering a more longterm solution. I like the idea of growing a nitrogen fixing ground cover, possibly white clover as it is a perennial but not quite sure yet. The idea being that the clover will grow on the paths and I can push the mower down the path, collecting the clippings in the catcher, add it to the compost heap then eventually the garden. Sounds good in theory …. so we will wait and see what happens.
With a new plan comes the challenge of reconstructing the area without loosing my existing crops, but also having beds ready for spring planting… ahhh the joys of gardening.
We decided to renovate in 2 stages. The initial stage was done last August. With the old bed layout, we could remove 4 beds on one side of the central path and leave the others. One side had one bed of perennial onions (potato and tree onions), one bed of garlic and a bed of brassicas that I didn’t really want to disturb. The other side only had the one bed of onions and the rest could be sacrificed – we chose that side. I didn’t really want to loose my crop of onions, so decided to try and transplant them, along with a few silverbeet, calendulas and various herb plants. I took a large sod of dirt with each plant and set them aside, wrapped in wet shade cloth, until the new beds were ready.
The vegie patch renovation
Photos: Using the rotary hoe, defining the new beds then beginning to plant.
We removed the old sleepers and any leftover plant material, then set about leveling the area with the help of our rotary hoe. Dave worked it at a shallow depth to begin with until we managed a good minimum friable 30cm depth. Once we were happy with the area, we gave it a light raking to fill in any dips and set about marking out the beds. We marked out the corners of each bed with jarrah survey pegs and hand raked the soil from the paths onto the garden beds to make them more defined.
I had worked out a new planting plan and started planting out straight away. I wanted to get a head start with the plants that were more cold tolerant so I didn’t have too much of a hungry gap. I planted lots of broad beans, hoping to eat a few and turn the rest in as green manure. The transplanted onions, silverbeet, calendula and herbs grew well and didn’t seem to worried about the move. I did have a few issues with the newly planted seedlings… my temporary fence had a small hole and the chickens used it to venture into the garden and help themselves… After a bit of swearing and chook chasing, they were banned from the garden and I replanted…
As soon as we harvested the garlic, in November, we set about ripped out the remaining 4 beds. We repeated the process of rotary hoeing the area and then marked out beds and planted. I was careful to make sure I could push the mower down each path, so the path is about 60cm wide to accommodate the mower, rather than my initial planned 50cm.
We have trialled a new way of irrigating the area. In the past I have had very little success with drip-lines, soaker hoses and small individual sprays. Sprinklers on risers within each bed seem to work the best but are difficult when you plant tall crops such as corn. We have gone to 25mm poly and 4 risers 1.2m tall with a Wobble-T head on each riser, equally spaced. These sprinkler heads throw large droplets, 4m in either direction. The sprinkler heads have the benefit of working on low pressure so are great for rural areas. The large droplets limits the amount of water loss by wind, covers the whole area and penetrates the foliage well. Very happy so far.
Photos: The veg beds are progressing nicely. Shadecloth is a must if you want to grow climbing beans in our climate.
We have had a strange season – a mixed bag. A very cool start in Spring, a series of very hot days followed by very cool days and an unseasonal 80mm of rain in February. The garden is not as abundant or fertile as I would like, but that is because I have started again from scratch. I need to be patient, as I have to build the soil, again. I am trying out new ideas and they always take a season to show you if it was worth changing.
Despite the chickens going rouge on two occasions (excavating newly planted seeds and seedlings) the garden is doing well. We had a very slow start but are managing to now eat almost exclusively from our garden or produce swapped with family and neighbours. Overall I am really happy, the garden is starting to look less bare and I have been able to put some excess beans into the freezer. Some crops have been pretty dismal failures, but I have had a lovely small crop of potatoes, lots of cucumbers, silverbeet, lettuce, herbs and now tomatoes, chilli and capsicums… A respectable start.
I am making a greater effort with my record keeping – weighing produce, noting the weather and any rainfall. As the summer rolls on, it is now time to get planning and planting my Autumn/Winter crops.
Lots of time and effort – Yes, but the sense of satisfaction when I make a meal from produce entirely grown on our patch – It is definitely worth it.