A timely reminder…

I consider myself to be a sensible gardener. I wear the appropriate PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) when using machinery such as the lawn mower, whipper snipper and chainsaw. While I would rather not wear shoes, I do wear boots in the garden, especially when using spades, forks and other tools. I am very careful when using secateurs and loppers. However, I must confess to being a bit lazy and not wearing gloves all the time.
I love getting my hands in the soil. There is something quite therapeutic about the feel of it. It is much less cumbersome when planting seeds and picking soft leaved vegies. 

That being said, I did receive a rather scary reminder this week…

I had just finished planting a couple of trees in the food forest. While watering them in, I noticed a few weeds at the base of a nearby Cherry tree. I’ll just pull them out while I’m here… I grabbed a handful of weeds, tossed them aside and then grabbed another handful. Just then I felt sharp, needlelike sting on my un-gloved finger… Something had stung/bitten me.

On closer inspection, I found a large female Redback Spider guarding her egg sack.

I won’t lie – I started to panic. For those who aren’t familiar with Redback Spiders (Latrodectus hasselti), they are a highly venomous spider that is closely related to the Black Widow spider in the US. They can cause serious illness and potentially death (thankfully there is an antivenom for severe cases).

The spider that bit me.

I turned off the hose and quickly headed back to the house. By the time I got back to the kitchen my finger had begun to swell and turn reddish/purple. I frantically tried to remove my wedding rings. After lots of handsoap, much pain and panic, they came off. I grabbed an icepack from the freezer, rang my husband and the hospital.

Our closest hospital is not equipped with anti-venom so I was instructed to have my husband drive me into our nearest Regional Hospital – Bunbury (80km away). We had a quick trip in. I am so glad Dave was home. He is calm under pressure and very reassuring. I was in tears – partly pain and partly just being pissed off at myself for being so stupid and not wearing gloves!

Thankfully, my bite was not terribly severe. After antihistamines, pain relief and 3 1/2 hours in the Emergency Department under observation, my blood pressure was almost normal and I went home nursing a sore finger wrapped in an icepack. 

Maybe the Spider was warning me to be careful of her babies or maybe Gaia was looking after me. Either way I was extremely lucky! After a few days my finger is still a little sore, itchy and almost back to normal size. 

My pet hate has been how smelly gloves get once you have been wearing them for a while. I have bought a new pair of gloves that you can put in the washing machine, so now no excuses…

Lesson for the week... Gloves, gloves, gloves – if you don’t have any, go and buy some!!!

Redback Spider (Latrodectus hasselti)

* Black legs and body, with an obvious red/orange longitudinal stripe on their upper abdomen.

* Females bodies can reach 1cm in size. Males are much smaller 3-4mm in size.

* Egg sack contains approx. 250 eggs that hatch in 2-4 weeks.

* Females mature in 4 months and can live for 2-3 years.

* Males mature in 3 months and only live for 6-7 months.

* Their favourite hiding places are dry sheltered spots – rocks, logs, shrubs, junk piles, sheds and outdoor toilets. They love being near humans…

* Predators include Daddy-long-legged spiders and White-tailed spiders

* 250+ bites a year require antivenom
If you get bitten. Apply and icepack to help reduce the swelling and the pain. 

 Seek Medical attention as soon as possible.
They advised me to collect the spider for positive identification – We took a photo instead and I am grateful we did. The ED nurse that saw me has a phobia of spiders and wouldn’t even look at the photo! she didn’t come back in again…


Growing Yacon

We humans tend to be creatures of habit. I am no exception and tend to grow mostly the same types of vegetables that my grandparents grew. The tried and true carrots, onions, peas, cabbages, and parsley – Well maybe quite a few more types than that, but you get the idea… Although I fear my Scottish and Irish ancestors would frown on my dismal ability to grow potatoes… lucky for me we aren’t a big tattie eating family – phew

Thankfully for me, Italian immigrants to Australia bought with them Tomatoes, Chilli, Eggplants and my beloved garlic. Because garlic goes with everything! I am learning to change and adapt, so now I do like to experiment with a few new crops each season. Some are worthy of a second season of planting and others aren’t. This winter I grew Corn Salad and while it grew nicely, the jury is still out. They didn’t thrive, I think I planted them a bit late, so I will give them another go, just to be fair. I have the luxury to do this because I have the space. 

 Lately my focus has turned towards growing edible perennial crops to augment our annual veg crops. For a few years now I have been growing Rhubarb, Jerusalem artichokes, Globe Artichokes and more recently Yacon.

 Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius formerly Polymnia sonchifolia) is a hardy herbaceous perennial native to Colombia and Ecuador. It is known by a few different names such as Peruvian ground apple, Bolivian sunroot, Ground Pear and Strawberry Jicama. I am not a big fan of using Common names, as they can be quite misleading – Yacon is not the same as the Jicama Climbing Yam Bean (Pachyrihzus erosus). In Australia, we know it as Yacon. 

They are part of the Daisy family (Asteraceae) and are a clump forming perennial. Its small yellow daisy-like flowers are borne on a stem reaching to 2m tall. Underground it has two types of tubers. A reddish-purple rhizome directly at the base of the stem and a larger brown tuber that grows off the base of the top tuber. The larger brown tubers are the ones we eat. The flowers and stems look similar to that of the Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) however they are not invasive and won’t take over your garden, like the ‘farty-choke’ has a habit of doing. They have a crisp, sweet taste that is a little difficult to describe. Some say it is like an apple with a hint of watermelon. I’m not so sure, that sounds a bit like describing the taste of some wines… However you describe the taste, we think it’s yummy!

 I like its versatility. We eat it raw in salads and use it in a stir-fry, as a substitute for water chestnuts. Apparently it can be boiled like a potato and also used cooked in a mixed fruit crumble. It is quite a handy crop as it will grow in both poor and richer soils. That said, it does crop best in rich, friable soil and tolerates full sun and part shade. Mulch it well and keep it irrigated in our climate if you want to harvest good sized tubers. I grow mine in part shade as this is where I can protect it from our frosts in winter (blanketed by nasturtiums). The foliage is killed by frost but the tubers are fine as long as your ground doesn’t freeze – thankfully not an issue we have to deal with here in the SW

 The leaves have a 11-17% protein level and are reported to be a potential animal forage. I’ll have to see what my flock of chickens think… 

It isn’t a commonly available plant here but there are a few people growing it now and sharing tubers. I started with one tuber from a ‘Swap Shuffle and Share’ – Thank you Chris & Lin. 

 Plant your reddish-purple tubers 0.5m apart and cover with about 5cm of soil. Mulch well and they should grow and mature in about 6-7months. The tubers are produced in Autumn, so wait until the foliage has died down before you start harvesting. Unlike potatoes you can leave your tubers in the ground until you want to use them. Beware of getting too fork happy, as they grow close to the surface and I find in friable soil it is easier to ‘bandicoot’ with your hands and you don’t damage the fragile tubers.

 Yacon is a hardy, easy care and tasty addition to our veg patch. 

Permaculture Design Course

This month I was fortunate to spend 2 weeks at a live-in Permaculture Design Course (PDC) held at Fair Harvest Permaculture in Margaret River (fairharvest.com.au).  I am so grateful to Dave, my fabulous husband, for taking annual leave and looking after our daughter and the farm.  I could then immerse myself without feeling too worried or guilty for being away that long.

Our PDC had a great mix of theoretical, practical and hands-on interactive workshops.  The guest speakers were all very knowledgable in their field, passionate and sparked plenty of lively discussion.  There were 12 course participants with very different backgrounds.


We started with the principles and ethics of permaculture.  We then looked at the principles behind designing sustainable systems and delved headfirst into discussions on social, environmental and economic ethics.  Each presenter enhanced my knowledge of their particular topic and challenged me to think differently – to question my assumptions.  Heather Mac did this on the first day!  I have struggled with the concept of patterns in nature when it comes to design.  Yes, they exist and we can mimic them in our designs, but for some strange reason I thought I had to like them all or felt the need to connect with them positively in some way.  Sounds odd… I know…  Heathers session reinforced to me that patterns have positive and negative attributes.  They are there and all perform a function. All I need to do is observe them and learn from them, in order to use them more effectively – I don’t have to like them and it doesn’t matter…

I initially looked at the timetable and wondered how we would cover such a huge array of topics in such a short time!  You could spend weeks discussing geology, climates, soils, plants, water, aquaculture, weeds, integrated pest management, windbreaks, human settlements & design, natural buildings and solar passive design…  Our days were certainly jam packed and my brain was working flat out – I loved every minute!

We had field visits to several inspiring permaculture initiatives.  Each one was different in size, maturity and complexity while still fulfilling the owners needs and reflecting their personality.  We looked at a variety of integrated animal systems, gardens, orchards and food forest designs.  The hosts graciously sharing their experiences with ideas and systems that have worked well, while also discussing the issues with those that haven’t worked.  Too often we don’t share our failures – they are what help us learn. I couldn’t pick a favourite place we visited, although for a plant geek like myself, walking around Jeff Neugents place and coming home with pockets full of seeds and a fist full of cuttings certainly put a smile on my face!

Our course culminated in a group project where we set about reading the landscape of our designated block.  Then designing a sustainable permaculture system that met the specific needs of our clients.  We drew on the knowledge we gained during our course, and on our personal experiences, to design their farm. Our design was then presented to our clients and teachers for comments and feedback.  It was a nerve wracking experience and I am sure I was beetroot red in the face the whole time.  Our group worked really well together and I was incredibly proud of how well we all rose to the challenge.  There were  three group designs, all very different, yet covered the clients brief and we were all given some really good constructive feedback.  A truly valuable experience.

I will cherish the warm, inclusive comraderey of our PDC group.  The sense of community I felt during the course and feel now, even as we have gone our separate ways – we are connected through our shared experience. 

As participants, we have come away with a globally recognised accreditation, as a Certified Permaculture Designer.  No doubt we will all incorporate this differently into our lives.  I came away from the course with a renewed focus and a confidence for the direction of my life and a future business idea. This being said, there is not a necessity to go out and ‘do something big’, although I am sure some of the participants will.  It is the small changes and small actions that we can do each day that will collectively have a profound effect.

I have been mulling over how to write down my experience, post PDC.  I am the type of person who needs to ‘digest’ my thoughts in order to be able to verbalise them coherently. Something to do with liking things to be perfect…

I find the greatest place to do some serious thinking, is in the vegetable patch…

A couple of days ago, I was in the vegie patch picking a few things to make soup for lunch, when I had an unexpected visitor.  A white ute drove down the driveway and out stepped a mature gentleman, with a kind face.  He introduced himself as Harry.  It transpires that he loves his poultry and has been breeding various types of chickens for decades.  He has driven past our place several times, noticed my flock of muscovy ducks and finally plucked up the courage to call in and see me.  He has kept pied (black & white) Muscovy for years and unfortunately, recently had his flock taken by a fox.  He was looking for a trio to start again.  We had a lovely, lengthy chat about all sorts of things – growing food, making do with what you have, why mushrooms are indicators of good soil and swapped recipes for rhubarb chutney… all as we walked around my garden.

After a while, I caught 2 beautiful pied ducks and a handsome pied drake.  We loaded them into his ute, along with some Yacon tubers and a handful of potato onions for him to grow.  As he was leaving, he thanked me for our walk and our chat.  It appears people don’t do that anymore – talk to strangers or take the time to listen to gentlemen in their 80’s.  I got the feeling that I had made a real difference to his day and he to mine …

After Harry left, as I picked my vegies, I started to think about the sharing of knowledge and skills.  I had an ‘ah-ha’ moment.  On the PDC, we covered the topics of Social Permaculture and Sociocracy.  We discussed the importance of being connected to our community. I am intrigued by the the concept and also not entirely sure how I might engage with my community in a permaculture capacity – I don’t like crowds, noisy groups and the thought of being the focus of attention terrifies me…  However, my visit from Harry reminded me about the sense of worth people feel when they are able to share their knowledge and feel that they are being valued.  Also the incredible knowledge base that our older generations have.  It is unfortunate that we don’t find more time to sit and chat, unlocking this knowledge, so it can be shared.  Maybe I can ponder on a way to do this…

I do so hope Harry drops in again sometime, for another chat…

Plums, Preserved Three Ways…

Plums are wonderfully diverse and versatile stone fruit. European plums (Prunus domestica) and Japanese plums (P. salicina) are the most common varieties grown, but there are also Damson Plums (P. insititia) and Cherry plums (P. cerasifera). They grow beautifully in cool, temperate and mediterranean climates, however you need to choose your variety carefully as they can require significant chill hours. Japanese plum varieties tend to have lower chill requirements (275-550 chill hours). My Satsuma and Santa Rosa varieties require 500-550 chill hours in comparison to my D’Agen Prune, Green Gage and President (European plum varieties) that require upwards of 800-900 chill hours.


They are a small to medium sized tree, 3-5m tall and can crop in as few as 3 years. They are very easy to manage and well worth planting. I have pruned and trained my trees in a vase shape with 4-5 main ‘arms’. I keep the trees trimmed to about 2m tall. This makes it easier for me to pick the fruit and also to put a net over if the birds are starting to take more than their fair share.

I have my trees growing in the chicken yard. They get irrigated a couple of times a week in the summer months and receive very little additional fertiliser. The chickens do a great job of keeping any pest or fruit fly populations down and fertilise the trees as they wander around. To stop the chickens from scratching or ‘excavating’ around the base of my fruit trees, I have place a ‘fan’ of old house bricks radiating out from each trunk.

Once I have picked off the last of the fruit, I prune any excess grown off my trees, to keep the shape and height I want. I find maintenance pruning in summer is best, as I don’t get the excessive regrowth like you do after a winter prune.

I love plums – of the seven varieties I grow, Satsumas are my favourite. They are a fabulous old fashioned variety that produce well in our area. As with most plum varieties, they need a suitable pollinator. I have two 8 year old Satuma trees and one Santa Rosa tree the same age. While the Santa Rosa is partially self-fertile, it does crop better with cross pollination. The Satsuma needs to be pollinated by either a Santa Rosa or Mariposa plum.

If you have enough room, planting multiple varieties is of great benefit as it extends your fruiting season. The Santa Rosa gives me lovely juicy, amber fleshed, sweet eating plums in late January. The Satsuma gives me slightly more tart, dark red fleshed, blood plums in late February.

Satsumas are a reliable cropping plum. This year I picked over 36kg of tree ripened fruit, off my two trees. This gave me plenty to eat and preserve, also some to give to friends and neighbours. You don’t find the fruit in the shops. Probably because they aren’t shiny and red. The best tasting fruit is rarely shiny and red… The Satsuma plum skin can be a little mottled dark red/green with a characteristic ‘bloom’ or whiteish powder on the skin. Beneath this plain exterior lies a gorgeous dark red, juicy flesh. Perfect for eating and can be made into fabulous jam, sauces, pickles and preserves. I look forward each year to making plum jam, Savoury plum sauce and to preserving plum halves in Vacola Jars.

I tend to make a lot of jam (11kg this year), as we eat plenty of it and a jar of this makes a wonderful gift. When making jam, I like to only use just enough sugar so that the jam will set. Depending on the fruit I will use a 50-75% ratio of sugar to fruit. With plums, I use 60%. It sets well and you get more of a ‘true’ plum flavour rather than a sickeningly sweet spread. I don’t like to add lemon juice to any of my jams, as I find it changes the texture and mouthfeel of the jam. Once the jam is ready, I put the hot jam mixture into hot sterilised jars, so I find it keeps well without extra sugar or lemon juice.

I use my paternal grandmothers recipe for making Spicy/Savoury Plum Sauce. This is great served with quiche, cold meats, sausages or chops. I trialled marinading some of our homegrown lamb ribs this year – they were delicious! So now, I put the marinade in with the ribs before they get vacumn packed. This makes it much easier (and less messy) while also halving my cooking prep time. I have only made 5kg of this sauce… I hope it is enough! This year I was also able to use homegrown onions, ginger and garlic in my recipe, so very proud. I bottle the sauce in 375ml beer bottles. I have a bottle capping tool, so find this a quick and easy way to seal my bottles of sauce.

I try to bottle as much fruit (Plums, Pears, Peaches and Figs) in the summer as we can use for the rest of the year. I’m hoping 8kg of plums is enough… I like to bottle the plums in halves, slicing off each cheek. I stack them neatly in the vacola jar with the cut side down. This time, I have used a light syrup (1 cup of sugar in 3 cups of water) so that I can use the plums for both savoury and sweet dishes. The majority of my vacola jars are either #27 or #31, both work well for fruit. I have 10 small jars (#20s) which I have used to bottle smaller batches of the plums this year. I have about 20 muscovy drake ducklings that will soon be put in the freezer. Slow roasted duck with blood plum sauce is very yummy! The plums will also be delicious made into fruit crumble (topped with icecream or custard) on a cold winters night or as a special desert treat in a plum clafoutis.

There are so many recipes to try! I have just found a recipe for pickled plums. Maybe with my last three kilo I might give that a go… So really, three ways is a good start but you can preserve them in an infinite number of ways!

Renovating the Vegetable Patch

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.

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.

2016 – looking back…

We’ve reached our first milestone – Our food forest project is One year old!

As we reached the beginning of December, I started looking back over photos, plans and notes of the food forest. It has been satisfying to see how far we have come and I am feeling very grateful that we have taken so many photos! At times I have felt a bit overzealous, taking copious photos of every new part or planting, from different angles. However, I find it is easy to get lost in the enormity of the jobs yet to be done, and not think about or celebrate what has already been achieved. Our photo diary/history helps me see our accomplishments.

The first photo I took was of my new ‘orchard’ on 20/10/2015. I had planted 15 trees and designed a lovely traditional grid pattern orchard. I had plans for a total of 70 trees, as that was what my traditional orchard spacings would allow. It was after standing in the bare paddock in the sun, taking that photo that I started asking myself more questions. I wanted the orchard to be productive and to build the soil fertility. Covering the ground with mulch seemed like the solution, but how to do it economically? Mulching roughly half an acre with mulch at 5cm deep, would mean that I needed just over 68 cubic meters of mulch. At current prices that would mean at least $3400 in mulch alone! So I started to think about alternatives… Could I underplant the trees and create a living mulch? and What species would be suitable?

After finding very little useful information in the traditional places, I heard about polycultures. I didn’t know where to start looking for information regarding these and thankfully I connected with Chris and Lin. They lent me a few books and away I went… Enlightenment is a bit of an understatement. It was like the lid of the box was taken off and a world of information was suddenly made available…  Since then, I’ve been madly reading, planning, digging, planting and re-reading. I cant believe it has already been a year!

What have we achieved so far?

Planning started in late November and the ‘plan’ went through a few incarnations until I settled on the current one. With Chris and Lins help we assessed the site and worked out the contour lines, including the directions of the rise and fall across the area. From there I worked out the amount of potential rainfall runoff and was stunned at the potential volume! On an average year we have the potential to get 1 million litres of rainfall runoff – we wanted to keep it within the food forest and help reduce our irrigation needs, so set about designing our multifunctional paths/swales.

I set about, with help and huge amounts of sweat and hard work from my awesome husband, to put in the bones of the food forest. The structural parts, or hardscaping as it is sometimes termed, was the first priority. For us this meant paving and building the gazebo, marking out and hand digging the paths & swales.

Hand digging swales is hard work! We have dug 225.9m of swales. Fortunately they also form the paths so we were in essence finishing two jobs at once. We had an unseasonal downpour of 117mm over 2 days in February 2016. So I madly finished digging the swales around the top two guilds in time and was excited when they worked well (armed with my umbrella and camera). It spurred me on to keep digging. As to be expected some of the dirt, that was piled into the middle of the paths, has washed back into the swales. I had anticipated this, so dug them deeper than needed, and they worked well all winter. We haven’t really had anymore heavy downpours so it will be interesting to see what happens during the summer months, if we have some storm events. As the winter and spring progressed, more and more vegetation grew on the paths. I am using my ride-on mower to keep it trimmed for now and eventually my family of muscovy ducks will be given the task of keeping the grass paths eaten down.

With the plan as a guide, I have started to fill in a few of the intentional blank spaces with additional trees. Some trees chosen are ones I hadn’t originally thought of and some tree species I rationalised the number really needed – so I have planted 3 not 4 apricots and 2 quinces not 3. Some changes are because I couldn’t source the particular variety that I wanted (In the case of the Perry Pears, I will continue to look within WA but quarantine makes it impossible at the moment to get them in from interstate.) It doesn’t hurt to write a wish list of everything you want to grow, would like to grow, possibly might grow… then reassess.

We have created 9 guilds of varying shapes and size. 8 of which have most of the key trees planted. When I started December, I had already planted 15 trees. Now we have 44 trees, 30 large shrubs and quite a few small plants and ground covers.

After a bit of encouragement from Dave and a couple of fabulous writer friends, I bravely started this blog in Feb 2015. The idea of the blog is to act as a visual diary for us, to look back on as we progress, to vent a few frustrations and boast about a few triumphs. As I read more blogs and chat to like minded people, I find there are more people out there yearning for information and sharing their journeys. Thank you to all those people who share. I am constantly learning!

What have I learned thus far?

Protecting plants from the frost – A must!
After our mild winter of 2015, I was caught off guard with the first frost at the beginning of June 2016. We had thirteen frosts over 3 months and four at minus 4 degrees C. I don’t know what the number of chill hours were, but there were enough to set fruit on my new Morello Cherry and Almond tree, so at least 500hrs. I lost one tree, my Acerola Cherry (Malpighia glabra) and the top was burnt off my Rose Apple (Syzygium jambos). They both have proved more frost tender than I had expected, but with more protection and some fussing, the Rose apple will recover well. My Avocado made it through the winter in its shade cloth enclosure, so I think I will make a few more for the more sensitive trees. All in all I am pretty happy, I made a conscious effort not to plant too many sensitive trees, but as some trees are hard to come by, when you see them – you buy them or are given them, then you plant them… lesson learnt. 

Rabbits – I got excited and planted out the understorey plants in several guilds in Autumn. The rabbits really enjoyed the onions, garlic, lavender, daylilies, asparagus… pretty much everything I planted! Thank fully I had put wire mesh guards around the base of the trees and in hindsight should have protected more of the smaller species. I’m thinking a few rolls of rabbit netting around the bottom of the fence will be a good investment. I will also keep a few plants potted up to replace the eaten ones!

Weeds – Generally my definition of weeds is  ‘plants growing in the wrong place’. However there are a few exceptions to this rule – African love grass (Eragrostis curvula) and Doublegees (Emex australis). Lovegrass is a perennial roadside weed that invades bushland, grows as a large clump and needs a sturdy spade, fork or matik to remove. It produces copious amounts of seed and spreads really easily if mown. The dreaded doublegee was introduced as a salad vegetable! It is an annual weed, however it produces multi-spined seeds that readily pierce your thong, bike tyre or foot and the seeds survive in the soil for years, so essentially are at least a 7 year issue…. Thankfully both of these weeds are only found on a small portion of our block, unfortunately this is where the food forest is… so controlling them will be an ongoing project for a few years.

The Joys

I love to wander, ponder and to sit quietly in the food forest. It has come to life. I can now walk around in a 3D version of my paper sketch…

One of the lessons you learn as a gardener, is to tune in and appreciate the ‘little’ things, for it is these that are really the ‘big things’.   Many of my new plants have blossomed and fruited over this last year.  My journey so far has made me more aware of how important it is to notice the bees and butterflies as they pollinate the blossoms, to watch as the fruit and nuts develop and then to relish the harvest.

My ultimate joy came in december.  I picked 250g of fruit off my 3 Redcurrant bushes, which gave me just enough to make one jar of redcurrant jam. We always have Roast Turkey on Christmas eve and this year, I bought the homegrown, homemade redcurrant jam.

The Unexpected benefits

The gazebo was intended to be an inviting place, so that we spent time in the food forest. It has done just that. It provides us with a new place to relax as a family, which is essential – not often admitted (and never out loud it), but essentially I am a work-a-holic. I seem to find a constant stream of jobs to be done and don’t take enough time to relax and enjoy our hard work (or so I’m told…). We have loved sitting as a family around the fire-pit in winter, having a few drinks and nibbles with friends, toasting marshmallows, chatting and contemplating. It appears that sub-conciously I have designed a way to slow down and be more productive at the same time, an interesting concept…

Charlotte loves riding her bicycle and the paths have made a fantastic track. The food forest has become a cool place to ride her bmx and have fun with her best friends – our dogs Panda & Giro.

This project has also given me a lot more confidence in my abilities to design and implement my knowledge. Sometimes, I am so in awe of the amount of information that I am still to learn (about growing vegetables, trees and natural systems) that I under-estimate and under-value how much I already know.

Our food forest is becoming so much more than “an underplanted orchard” and I am keen to see what the next year ahead will teach me…

Growing hops

When we sat down to plan our food forest, one of the first discussions was about what we wanted to grow. What fruits and nuts do we liked to eat?

We knew what plants would grow in our area and also created a wish list of plants that we would like to grow. The list was filled with the usual suspects (pears, plums, apricots..), a few less common (Acerola cherry, hazelnuts, walnuts) and a few very obscure varieties (Japanese raisin tree, Witchhazel, Rowan..). It was a matter of finding them and then possibly having to create the right growing conditions for them to thrive.

One of the less common ones, that we thought would grow here, was Hops. Dave already makes Perry (Pear cider) and Mead (Honey wine) so why not make his own beer.

Hops – Image: thebrewhut.com

Hops (Humulus lupulus) are a perennial vining plant that grow from a rhizome. It is dormant over the winter and grows rapidly during the summer months, reputedly reaching 5-6m tall. They are said to like the same climate as grapes, so luckily for us our climate is perfect – we have some of the best wineries in the SouthWest within 20km of us. They like rich, moist soil and full sun. Curiously the vine grows clockwise and only the female plants produce the hop cones used in brewing. There are divided into 3 categories – aroma, bittering and dual purpose hops.

They are a vining plant, so we set aside the planned entrance arbour (4m long and 2m wide) to grow them over. We thought that it would give us room for a couple of plants either side. Now all I had to do was track them down…

A couple of week ago, I found a place just outside of Albany (3.5 hours away) that had some rhizomes for sale. Dave was very excited and started asking me all sorts of questions… I couldn’t answer them… so we rang the owner. After a brief chat it was decided that he would take a road trip. That way, he could check out how they grow, ask her as many questions as he could think of and buy a couple of rhizomes to grow.
The roles were now reversed – Dave was being let loose……… now I have a better understanding of how he feels when I say “I’m off to the nursery for a look”…

He had a wonderful day trip and came home totally enthused. The carboot was filled with seven potted up rhizomes (all different varieties) and a few bags of dried hops to experiment with.

We had planned on maybe four plants… All seven of these plants were not going to fit on the arbour and as they have a tendancy to want to grow straight up, we would be fighting with their natural tendencies by trying to run them horizontally along the trellis. So we had to change plans…

We decided to erect a hop trellis along the northern edge of the food forest, mirroring the chook yard fence. It gives us a good 15m stretch to plant the varieties and have plenty of room if they want to spread. Allowing them to grow straight up means they are happier and take up less room, however they can pose a challenge when it comes to harvesting the hops at 5m tall…

The new Hop Trellis

We devised a strategy – Our end poles (treated pine) are 4.2m long and have 3.5m out of the ground (0.7m in the ground). They are supported/stabilised by a box strut. We attached a pulley to the top of each pole and ran a length of thick baleing (Binda) Twine between the poles. The plan being that this allows us to let down the twine and harvest the hops without having to climb up ladders. Each plant has a single twine running vertically up to the top twine.

The ‘Nugget’ variety growing skywards. Protected by a tree guard so that the ducks don’t eat the new shoots.

We chose ‘binda’ twine as it doesn’t break easily and is very strong, so should hold the weight of the mature plants. It doesn’t break down readily in the sun and can withstand being chewed on by cows, so the ducks shouldn’t pose any issue. It also comes in a long roll (1200m) from our local farm supply store, so we figured it would be a good long lasting and economical choice. Unfortunately it only comes in a very attractive blue colour… Once it is covered in lovely green hops we wont know its there, hopefully

As we are new to home-brewing beer and growing hops, Dave came home with a few different types. Our varieties cover the 3 categories:

Aroma hops – Gold, Flinders, Karacanup (a Cascade/Chinnook blend) & Hernsbucker
Bittering hops – Super Alpha & Nugget
Dual purpose – Target

We prefer Pilsner style beers, so the aroma hops should give us a crisp beer with passionfruit & citrus flavours. The other varieties will give Dave something to experiment with. Now all we have to do is wait until they grow and then get brewing…

A glass of Daves first home brewed beer.


Our Vegie Patch

Why do I grow vegetables? Apart from being a self confessed ‘plant geek’… I love being able to walk out into the vegie patch (basket in hand) and gather herbs for a breakfast omlette, or pick leaves for a salad lunch or harvest a pot full of vegies for dinner. Satisfying – Yes! I find growing our own is rewarding, but at times it can also be extremely frustrating and hard work. Thankfully, I love to garden, we love to cook and we love to eat…


Photos: A substantial ‘haul’ of Jerusalem Artichokes (40 turned into 4000!), the first of the baby carrots and what was going to be a tasty cabbage (the rabbits beat us to it!)

In our previous house, the vegie patch consisted of 4 small beds, 2m long x 1m wide, that supplied a few herbs, leafy greens, tomatoes, rhubarb etc.

When we moved to our current home, we had plenty of space (15acres) and I was keen to grow more, a lot more. We chose an area close to the house (for ease of picking), that was fairly flat and had the least amount of kikuyu grass growing in it. Kikuyu is a wonderful vigorous grass in the paddock, but a serious problem if you have to fight against it in the vegie patch – tiny seedlings don’t stand a chance. There are also two large Jacaranda trees, on the north side, that provide some welcome shade in the hot summer months.

The vegie patch design is straight out of a textbook – a grid pattern running East-West with wide access paths. The beds are 4m long x 2m wide, which was more from ease of construction (1 railway sleeper wide and 2 sleepers long) than by design. I had drawn out a 6 bed rotation system, however as we had room for 8 beds, my husband suggested we make the extra ones. The 8 beds give me a total of 64m2 growing space. I remember measuring them out and having an animated discussion with him on “How could I possibly use all those beds!…


Our Vegetable Garden design

I transplanted some Boysenberry plants onto a trellis under the Jacaranda trees and in time added 2 more trellises, one with more Boysenberries and the other with Raspberries. On the Western side, I planted a Buddleia hedge to screen us from the neighbours and act as a windbreak in winter. On the eastern side, a passionfruit was planted to ramble over the fence and we also made a long perennial border bed (8m x 1m) to grow asparagus, rhubarb, jeruselum artichokes, mint & blueberries.

I initially struggled with rotating the beds. I found it was difficult to get the right flow without having beds empty/waiting or having ‘hungry’ gaps between seasons. Obviously the plants haven’t read the same vegetable growing textbooks as I have…

After a few disasters and some success, I have moved away from the traditional block plantings in favour of a more camouflaged approach. I loosely follow the ‘leggy, leafy, rooty, fruity’ rotation:

• Bed 1: Legumes (Peas, Climbing & Dwarf Beans, Broad beans etc.)

• Bed 2: Leafy greens (Lettuce, Herbs, Kale, Silverbeet etc.)

• Bed 3: Root crops (Carrots, Beetroot, Parsnip, Radish etc.)

• Bed 4: Fruits (Curcubits & Solanums in summer or Brassicas in winter).

Having 8 beds means that I can plant 4 beds initially (Early) then another 4 for (late) successional plantings.

Within each of these categories, I worked out what crops I want to grow, then found out who the beneficial companion plants are and separated them into summer and winter plantings. It sounds more complicated than it is… By mixing my plantings (the camouflage effect), the hope is that I won’t loose whole crops and will have less pest issues. This also better utilises my growing space by filling in the gaps.

My rough planting guide – Main crops with their companions

In gardening circles, there is plenty of discussion as to whether companion planting ‘works’. In my mind, there is merit in planting pest deterring species, however I believe it has more to do with making sure your plants do not compete against each other for soil space and nutrients. For example, I plant carrots, radishes and spring onions together. The radishes mature quickly and loosen the soil for the carrots. The spring onions have shallower roots than the carrots, so use a different part of the soil profile, and they help to break up block plantings or mini-monocultures. They can also be used to separate carrots and parsnips (who don’t like to grow next to each other – same family, same root system, same nutrient needs). I plant my parsnips between rows of perennial leeks. Parsnips are slow to germinate and are ready to harvest after I have pulled the leeks. Leeks like all members of the onion family do not like weed competition and neither do parsnips – a win win situation.


Photo: Two Curcubit beds – Succession planting of corn & zucchinis.

Finally, after a few years, I feel like it is working and that I have a better ‘handle on it’. That is, despite midnight vermin raids and poor seed germination, I generally manage to grow enough for us to eat and preserve a bit too. The rabbits have been particularly frequent visitors to the garden this year – Grrrrr….


Photo: Early planting of the Solanum bed – Capsicums, Basil, Eggplant, Cherry Tomato

With a few successful seasons under my belt, I have become more adventurous with my plantings. Each season, I try to grow an additional 2-3 varieties of vegetables and have now stretched this to include a few subtropicals species. Last summer, I grew Arrowroot (Canna edulis), Sweet potato, Lemon grass, Sugarcane and Ginger. All grew really well under the shade of the large Jacaranda trees and I was amazed the amount of shelter these trees provided over winter. Even on my coldest mornings of minus 4 degrees C, only a small amount of frost touched the tips of the Arrowroot and sweet potato leaves doing very little damage.

Photos: My Ginger harvest & the Sweet potatoes from one plant.

One of the the sweet potato slips grew well and did give me a few tubers. However, my most exciting harvest was the Ginger. I divided a 100g knob of organic ginger into 6 pieces and planted them in shallow pots. After 5 months, I dug up 875g. This didn’t include a few pieces I had cut off along the way! I am not ashamed to say that I did a bit of a happy dance and can’t wait to replant  (when the weather warms up) and try for an even bigger harvest next year.

When we first started the vegie patch, my 8 beds seemed like the most amazing amount of space. Now, if I am honest about the extra varieties and quantity of food that I am keen to grow, I will definitely need more space. What to do? My time is already stretched thin between the school runs, ballet, music lessons, life in general, the food forest and the vegie patch.

I’ve been doing a bit of researching… Maybe the answer lies in rethinking how I use the space I already have…

The Quince Guild

At times this ideal, of our food forest, seems a long way off. Interestingly, I have found lately, that when I walk around and explain my vision to visitors (with great detail and the necessary enthusiastic arm waving) I am often met with bewildered looks. I wonder if it is how I explain the concept or maybe just when something looks like stick city and will take a few years to mature, they cannot see what I can see…  Whatever the case may be, my vision remains firmly set on implementing the plan and creating our edible forest garden. As my husband so aptly described it – I am a gardener, we are artists with a living canvas.

Late Autumn was spent furiously researching, sourcing and planting the majority of the main trees within each guild. It is now looking very much like stick city, however creating shade and a canopy layer is an essential first step in the longterm goal of the food forest.

I have also turned my focus on starting to infill (guild by guild) with the initial hardier shrubs, herbs and ground covers. Most of the planting will now have to wait until spring, but it is really starting to take shape and I want it all done now!

With the gazebo built, my focus was directed at planting out the guilds directly next to it.

quince guild 003
The Quince Guild

The Quince guild wraps around 2 sides of the gazebo, to the South and the East. On the southern side we have the main road, and access to our driveway. While there is a small amount of remnant Eucalytus bush, along the roadside that continues on into a small section of road reserve, most of the trees are very large (20m).  From the road you can see through the tree trunks to the gazebo (and us enjoying lunch) so planting mid-storey trees, shrubs and herbs in the guild will give us some privacy.

In the summer months from November to March, we get a hot wind from the East and there is a 2 week period where it blows non-stop. I don’t like the wind – I know it has a purpose (seed dispersal, pollination, cooling/warming etc…) but when it blows non-stop it feels like someone is shouting at me constantly and I get cranky. I have been known to walk around with earmuffs or earplugs in while I do the gardening or feed the animals… So planning and planting a windbreak on the eastern side of the food forest is essential.


The main tree species in this guild are a ‘Smyrna’ Quince, Macadamia, ‘Frantoio’ Olive, ‘Independence’ Nectarine, ‘Moorpark’ Apricot and ‘Eleyi’ Crabapple. The two evergreen trees are the Macadamia and the Olive. The Macadamia will eventually be a large tree (8-10m) and will help shade the gazebo from the mid morning sun in summer. It is a seed grown tree so I expect it will take at least 7 years to bear nuts. The Frantoio Olive is a dual purpose olive (table and oil olives) that is also known as a universal pollinator. This means that it should boost the harvest quantity of my other olive trees by cross pollinating. We are keen to increase the yield from our 18 ‘Mission’ Olive trees, that we have planted down the driveway, as we are hoping to be able to press our own olive oil in a few years.

In between the trees I have planted several smaller trees and large shrubs – Tagasaste, Buddleia, Strawberry Guava and Brazilian Cherry. I included Tagasaste as it is fast growing, nitrogen fixing pioneer plant. It self seeds so I can get plants for free and by using the chop and drop method or mulching it, I can help increase the soil fertility. The Buddleias are a great fast growing shrub for a wind break that the bees adore. I have a hedge in my vegie patch so take copious cuttings (more free plants). Both of these species can be cut down and removed once the large trees are more established, if necessary. The Strawberry Guava and Brazilian cherry are evergreen and fruit in summer. They are dense shrubs with glossy green leaves and will be a lovely contrasting edible screen that will infill the trees.

strawberry guava
Newly planted Strawberry Guava plant

In the shrub layer, I have planted Globe artichoke, Manuka Tea-tree, Rosemary, Scented Geranium, Lavender, and Daisies. Strongly scented plants are usually great for pest deterring and their flowers attract beneficial insects. Globe artichokes are a large striking plant that rise up from dormancy in the late Autumn. Their silvery leaves are quite architectural and the flower buds are a gorgeous treat in spring. I love to make Artichoke risotto, Arancini and pickle/preserve some for topping pizza or putting in summer salads. I leave a few of the buds to mature in late spring and they become an enormous iridescent purple thistle flower. An amazing beacon for bees.

Images of Globe Artichokes from pennywoodward.com.au

Planted in the herb layer is Sage, Borage, Chives, Daylilies, Comfrey, Chicory and Yarrow. These will attract beneficial insects, supply us with herbs for cooking and also nutrient rich additions for the compost heap. As edible ground covers there are strawberries, sweet violets and Warrigal greens.

Lastly, I have also tried to incorporate an underground layer in this guild. Alliums are good companions with Apricots and Quinces, so I have planted 2 types of perennial onions (Egyptian Walking Onions and Potato onions) along with a few left over garlic bulbs. The garlic is reputed to increase the flavour of the Quince fruit and protect it from pests. I had good success with the onions in the vegie patch last winter. Both of the perennial onions are multiplyer onions. The Egyptian Walking onions (tree onions) look amazing, provide you with small brown onions similar in flavour to a shallot and a topset of bulbils to replant next season. Potato onions multiply (like potatoes), so that one bulb can give you between 4 and 15 new onions. Both types are smaller than the large brown onion you buy in the shops, however I find this is a good thing. I rarely use a whole large onion and I find homegrown ones have so much more flavour.

tree onions 2015
Egyptian Walking Onions

Time to take stock…

We are now well and truly settled into what is traditionally our coldest and wettest season (The Noongar season of Makuru). The rain has been very welcome. There have been a few days of showers and the occasional heavy downpour. We are still below our average for the month but the river is running and the frogs are still calling, so more rain is on the way.

Many of our mornings are cold and frosty, however this is offset as a frost also means a glorious day. We have had a few weeks of below zero and one morning managed a fresh minus 3.7 degrees C, which is not unusual for this time of year. Instead of staying rugged up warm in the house, I was out trying to put the sprinklers on to lessen the frost damage. Frozen hoses and taps had other ideas… It was a great opportunity to look at the frost pockets and where the more heavily frosted areas are within the food forest and the ‘farm’ as a whole. This is the first winter for the food forest and I am hoping the trees will survive and flourish – time will tell…

For the last two months I have been head down, tail up working in the vegie patch and food forest. Now, with the majority of the trees dormant and the ground too cold for planting, its time to take stock and catch up on the inside chores. Reading more, planning for spring & summer and brushing up on my computer skills (so that I can update the blog) – essentially reinvigorating the dream and resting the muscles…