Permaculturalist Kathleen McCann comes to About Regional under the banner of “growing food.”
Kathleen started her business Luscious Landscapes in response to concern for the future of our natural environment and the sustainability of human life.
She offers a different approach to garden and landscape design by using techniques and practices that stem from permaculture design models.
Permaculture is a world-wide movement of designers, teachers, & grassroots activists working to restore damaged ecosystems & human communities.
It is inspired by practical techniques and principles from the study of natural systems which can be applied to our own backyards for growing food and people.
Its aim is to create systems that will sustain the present as well as future generations.
Kathleen’s connection with the South Coast of NSW goes back some 40 years or more.
She has always had a garden, but it was a course with Brogo master John Champagne in 2004 where the permaculture die was cast and set.
Kathleen continued her studies in permaculture practices over the next few years and is now a qualified permaculture teacher. She regularly delivers workshops and training courses on all things permaculture and garden throughout south east NSW.
Are you set to get into spring and all that it entails – making your garden ready for the next few months of warming conditions? In some gardens on the south coast, plants (as well as animals and birds!) have already begun their explosion of flowers, perfume, and accelerated growth.
What to do?
Well, hopefully you’ve survived the challenge of a very dry winter. Some of the crops I planted were very slow to grow, but since the last good drop of rain a few weeks ago, my garden has started to pump again. I have broccoli, parsley, three types of lettuce and mizuna really taking off, keeping me in greens.
A little slow to start at first, the peas have finally come in and the broadbeans are also flowering and fruiting fast.
But I’m contemplating what to do to get my beds ready for even more food.
I’ve got some horses that have moved in next door and my chickens are making an excellent pile of poo for me too. So it’s out in the paddock with a couple of big buckets and a shovel for the horse manure then I am raking up the chicken debris under the roost to help my garden along.
Usually, I would put both manures through my composting system – which I did throughout winter – but I am also going to put it straight onto the beds and lightly dig them in. This will give the micro-life in the beds a real boost, plus I am going to add some potash and dolomite and to top it off a healthy dose of mulch.
Choose your mulches wisely, if you are buying from a produce store make sure you enquire where the bales have come from. Organically grown or chemical free is the best to get – or slash your own if you can – as long as seed heads have not appeared, most grasses are good for mulching. I am lashing out and have bought a couple of organic sugar cane bales.
But rice straw, lucerne (horse food grade), wheat and oat straw work well too. Lucerne has more goodies in it because it is a nitrogen fixing plant. I steer away from pea straw as I have heard that it is sprayed with herbicide to make it easier for baling. It’s good to always check.
I’m making up seed trays out of old styrofoam vege boxes (free at the back of most supermarkets – goes straight to landfill otherwise).
My soil mix for planting seeds is two parts old sawdust, one part old manure, one part compost.
I’ve already got tomatoes going and springing into life! I placed a couple of old glass louvres on top to make a simple greenhouse – keeping the moisture and warmth in. As the weather warms overnight I will take the glass off.
Next to go in the boxes with be all my summer lovers – zucchini, cucumber, more lettuce, and maybe some extra different heritage tomatoes. I plant beans, corn, carrot and beetroot straight into the soil.
This year I am also experimenting with more subtropical plants – two types of sweet potato, ginger, turmeric and choko.
I did plant some yacon one year, but it doesn’t agree with my belly! (A bit like Jerusalem artichoke). I’ve also planted more tamarillo and passionfruit as my older plants are on their way out now after 4 years of growth – both plants usually only last 5 years.
So get out there and get started!
Fruit trees have already started flowering, the soil is receptive for more planting after the good rain we’ve had so it’s an ideal time to get into it!
The colder months are here and our region really feels it.
Life retreats only planning to stir with the first rays of spring, but don’t you retreat from your vegepatch or orchard, there are things to be done and still food to grow.
First a bit of observance – with a cuppa and sitting in the sun in the middle of the garden to peruse some of the issues that came up last season.
Some thought starters…
Do you need to rearrange the beds? What beds worked well last season and what didn’t? Do you need to put in a green manure crop to reinvigorate a bed where plants didn’t really thrive?
Take the time to really see what went well and what didn’t.
Start to make a list of some of those jobs you’ve been putting off in the garden…
Clean up the old summer beds and compost all that you can. You have been feeding and improving your garden for a while now so it’s good to keep what you’ve grown in the system.
Remember to collect fully grown seedheads from the best plants, dry them out and store in airtight containers.
Fork and aerate beds, reinvigorate with dolomite, potash and your favourite type of fertilizer, mine is my compost with added chicken manure from my girls.
Mulch all the beds again, I use slashings from the farm, rotted bales from the produce store and sometimes grass clippings if they don’t contain seed heads.
Plant out winter crops – brassicas, rocket, parsley, peas, chives, onions, garlic, silverbeet, spinach, coriander, all the root crops and don’t forget the broad beans!
Have you thought about what flowers to plant around your patch?
I have lots of geraniums, nasturtiums, marigolds, chrysanthemums, salvias and daisy family around mine. Someone is guaranteed to be flowering all through the year. The good bugs will thank you and help you control the bad ones.
Keep on top of any pests – aphid, white moth, cabbage moth, snails, and slugs all appear around this time of year before the harsher temperatures make it difficult for them.
For the ‘slimers’ I put ash around my seedlings to protect them, for aphids and moths a small amount of mild eco-detergent mixed with water in a spray bottle helps. The key is to be consistent, once is usually never enough!
Feed the citrus – cow/chicken manure, some potash, and a little Epsom salt, and mulch them.
Rake up leaves from deciduous trees and compost them, or better still put them into the chicken yard and let them play around in the leaves and turn them into compost for spring. Most deciduous trees are ok, but research your trees toxicity to chickens first if you have any doubts.
Planting more fruit trees?
Bare-rooted stock is now in and autumn is a great time for planting out. Remember to plan where your trees will work best and how you’re going to manage them throughout their (and your) life.
Clean up under all your fruit trees.
If you’re growing stone fruit or any of the pomme (apples, pears, etc) family get some help from the chickens in cleaning up. It is fine to leave the ground bare under the trees for a couple of months.
Start to think about how you’re going to prune for next years crops. Plus how are your tools going? Maybe an afternoon of cleaning and sharpening is in order?
Look for dead or dying branches to remove. Your first prune of the year should be the apricots – June is the usual time for this group. Wait till it’s very cold and all leaves have dropped to prune the rest of your orchard, that’s mainly so you can easily see next year’s fruiting spurs.
If your fruit tree has wooly aphid, scale, or sooty mould then it is usually a sign the tree is not doing so well in its root system, or rot has set into the heart of the tree.
You’ll need to make a decision, whether to save the tree or cull and start again. Often the tree is failing because of an issue within itself – just like us!
Keep up the watering, this time in the afternoon, when it is a little warmer.
A lot to consider, you might need more than one cuppa!
Everything is crispy, trees are turning up their toes and dust is now the common ground cover.
How on earth can we keep a productive vegetable patch and prevent fruit trees from losing their crop in these extreme dry times?
Part of the answer – grow plants that are up to the challenge.
Heat tolerant plants for the vegetable garden:
Arugula – wild rocket, spicy peppery flavour
Beans – dwarf varieties
Broccoli – picking varieties
Capsicums – all peppers including chili
Corn – nothing better than your own
Cucumbers – the small varieties work better in tough conditions
Eggplant – once again the smaller varieties work better and grow quicker
Hardy woody herbs – Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary or bush basil
Pumpkin – the smaller, quicker growing varieties
Silverbeet – perennial varieties work well
Spring onions – keep planting out to keep up a supply
Tomatoes – smaller varieties of fruiting toms grow well in tough conditions
Weeds – yep, you can eat’em. Purslane, warrigal greens, dandelion; all good to add to your menu
Zucchini – smaller varieties again do better
Fruit trees that cope with heat (to a point):
Apple – dwarf and smaller fruit varieties
Banana – on greywater if possible
Plum – Asian varieties
And once you have them in the ground, some tips on keeping the moisture up to them…
During the planning stage of making your garden it is vital to think about water – availability, easy access, recycling and ways of keeping it on (or off!) the block for as long as possible as needed. This determines the size of the garden and what you can produce using the resources you have.
If your garden or orchard is on a slope you may have to introduce terracing or swaling (a ditch on the contour) to help slow water down so that it seeps down into the ground instead of running off the top.
Do you have access to town water?
If you’re on town water you will have to decide if you’re prepared to pay for its use. If you are on dam water or tanks then it is important to manage your use over the drier seasons.
You have to regularly maintain all taps, connections, and joins – leaks stick out rather easily with lots of green turning up in unusual areas.
Remember 1 ml of rain on 1 square foot of roof catchment means 1 litre in the tank.
Watering the garden deeply once or twice a week, usually in the evening, really helps maintain good root coverage below ground. If you miss an evening, early morning is second best.
In prolonged extreme temps and hot winds, you may have to water every day or every second day depending on water availability.
You could also look at recycling your greywater out into the garden. There are certain rules to follow so read up on the local council regulations.
Kitchen, bathroom and laundry greywater will need to go through a filtration system to take out any impurities.
You can use laundry greywater straight out on the vegetable patch – but only if you aren’t washing nappies. If you do wash nappies you will have to put the water through a filtration system before it goes onto the garden.
There are many designs out there on the net, ranging from simple reedbed systems to very expensive technology.
And remember to use eco/soil/plant friendly detergents for greywater use.
Mulch deeply to keep in moisture
I start my beds with no-dig gardening techniques and keep adding throughout the seasons as needed.
I make sure I have at least 10cms of mulch around the summer vegetables that need it – leafy greens, tomatoes, soft herbs such as basil, brassica’s, capsicums, chilli, zuchinni, etc.
I don’t mulch around any alliums though – onions, spring onions, chives.
Remember to keep up the slug and snail baiting throughout this time too as deep mulch can also help them survive the heat.
With fruit trees, mulch to the drip line of the tree – where the end of the branch hangs down to the ground is the usual size of the root ball.
In extreme weather conditions, you may have to decide what to keep growing and what to let go?
If you do have to make the decision to stop using some garden beds, it is a good idea to ready that bed for fallowing – letting it sit there – weed free if possible, fertilised and mulched – until the weather turns and you can replant for the next season when it looks like enough rain has returned.
Plant out larger vegetables on the hottest side of the garden to help protect and shade the smaller, less hardy varieties. Companion planting guides will help you choose who can tolerate who.
If you have a netted orchard you could plant a shelterbelt of smaller trees on the west/northwest side of the fence to provide shade and wind shelter.
You need to make sure the shelter belt is far enough away so that root invasion isn’t a problem in the orchard. Choose trees with a small root ball.
Most eucalyptus have roots that can travel up to 45 metres looking for sustenance.
In extreme conditions, shade cloth can be hung above your fruit tree and to the windiest side to help keep them cool.
If you have limited water you may need to take half or more of the younger fruit off to help the tree cope.
It’s all about the base, ’bout the base, ’bout the base…the garden bed base that is. If you want to grow luscious healthy, strong and abundant vegetables, herbs and flowers, you are going to need good quality soil.
As well as good soils, a vegetable bed needs aeration, sunshine, water and lots and lots of food – if you want to have a continual abundance in plant life.
The soil itself can be made up of different types of sediments: clay, sand, loam or decomposed rock – a combo of all four is the best – lucky you if you have it!
Most of us in Australia have either a clay issue or a sand issue, but you can bring it to life with the following:
Broken down manure – cow, sheep, chicken, horse, alpaca
Some sort of organic mulch – like straw, broken down sawdust, seedless cut grass, shredded leaves
Compost – made at home if possible, the bagged stuff you see in stores isn’t that fantastic, so I’d steer clear of it if possible
Mineral enhancers – rock dust, potassium sulphate, dolomite
Moisture – not too wet, not too dry – consistency in moisture is the key
Worms and other good little helpers for decomposition
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned commercial fertilisers.
You can use them – blood and bone, pelleted chicken manure with additional minerals, etc, but these are commercial, processed animal products from who knows where and are often advertised as ‘organic’ but that can simply mean that the contents of the bag came from something that was once living.
You should look for the Australian organic label when buying processed fertiliser and always read the list of ingredients and mineral components on the back of the pack – some products contain elements of heavy metals.
The trick to continual good vege bed health and excellent cropping is regular top-ups as you harvest.
Most people don’t pull everything up in their home gardens at once, it’s usually a continual picking regime for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
As you start to make space in your beds, you want to keep planting – add some more goodies if you can. Remember what you take out in mass (in terms of the size of your veg) you really should put that and a bit more back in as compost, manure and mulch. Aerate with a fork first if needed and then add the goodies.
Remember what you take out in mass (in terms of the size of your veg) you really should put that and a bit more back in as compost, manure and mulch. Aerate with a fork first if needed and then add the goodies.
Aerating works better than turning the sod over – biologists have discovered different microbes and small invertebrates live at different levels in the soil profile. Turning the sod means they are in the wrong place and can die, leaving your soil without little helpers for breaking down nutrients for the plants to eat.
I also suggest that you don’t put the same type of plant back into the same spot, a practice that helps to reduce the risk of disease. Follow a root crop with a leafy crop, follow a leafy crop with a heading crop, follow a heading crop with a vine crop. For instance, carrot then lettuce then broccoli then pea. All while keeping an eye on the seasons and what works best when!
I started off my vegetable garden with the no-dig method, mainly because my soils are clay-based and were rock-hard. From that start I have just kept up the layering, adding more and more good stuff and 4 years later I have a bed that sits around 15cms above the path. Fifteen to 20cms is a good depth for most vegetables.
Next bit is – should I go seedlings or seeds?
There are guidelines on most packaged seed. Root crops do better when sown direct into your bed, so do corn, peas, beans and cucumbers. Other seeds should be sprouted and raised in boxes or pots before planting out. Getting tomatoes off to a good start in a greenhouse or glass-lidded box is a good idea and some people start them off as early as June or July ready to be planted out when the frost has (finally) gone.
You could be like me and not worry about it and just chuck stuff (seeds) around randomly and hope for the best – it’s haphazard, works 70% – 90% of the time, and it does confuse the pests a bit too.
You can let plants self-seed and run wild through your garden, but sometimes you run the risk of inbreeding, stunted growth and bitter tasting veg as the plant returns to a wilder form.
I save the healthiest, slow to bolt plants for seed. Remember though that the one lettuce head can produce 60,000 seeds, yes you read right 60,000! Non-hybrid and heirloom plants are the best to collect seeds from.
Seedlings raised at home are generally strong and healthy. Commercially grown plants are often forced into growth to look good for the consumer and have little resistance to pests and disease.
Locally grown seedlings from your farmers market are generally better quality than from a supermarket or hardware store.
I always follow a planting out of seedlings with seaweed concentrate or worm juice, just to give the plants a feed to get over the shock of transplant. If a plant looks poorly, I will follow-up with regular liquid feeds every few days, till I see an improvement – if it doesn’t improve after 2 weeks, pull it out and start again.
Watering consistently will also help in vegetable abundance – early morning or late afternoons are the best times through the warmer months.
Splitting fruit and bolting to seed are an indicator that you are not watering regularly enough. Never be cuaght out with the notion that just because it has rained your vege garden will be okay – you should check the soil after rain to see just how far the rain penetrated.
Some call it the quickening, some call it sprinter but I call it a bit bloody weird this weather hey!
It’s getting warmer and wetter, which has the feel of the sub-tropics along many parts of the far south coast of NSW, so have you thought about growing food that may not traditionally belong in your climate zone?
In Permaculture there is a set of principles that guide you through the thinking of how to tackle the many issues of living sustainably in the challenging world of living well.
David Holmgren,co-founder of Permaculture, has come up with 12 basic ones to follow.
Observe and Interact – this 1st principle is all about taking note of what is happening around you. Using nature as a guide, then taking action to integrate what you have observed into improving how to live on your property, in your house, in your neighbourhood or community.
In my neighbourhood there are tried and true vegetable and fruit producers who have experimented with growing sub-tropical plants with surprising and delicious results!
Sometimes it’s come about through a simple happy accident – the seed of an avocado or mountain pawpaw that has gotten away in the compost heap, both of which have a seed that doesn’t break down easily.
My intrepid community growers are trying Cavendish bananas, small golden pineapples, red and orange fruiting tamarillos, macadamia nuts, sweet potato and avocados – all bring bragging rights to the over the fence, food trade in these parts.
Sub-tropical plants love warmth, light, well drained soils, lots of organic matter and moistness most of the time.
I live in the coastal principality of Tanja on the far south coast of NSW, so my soils are a bit sandy in places, have lots of decomposed basalt and quartz and there’s quite a bit of a clay component too, but it’s been ravaged by clearing and mining, so the topsoil is basically none existent.
If you do decide to grow them, they are going to need a sheltered area, look for the microclimate that may have formed in your garden. It will be a warm, sunny position, often a place the grass or weeds have taken off and maybe where moisture pools a bit more than usual.
They will need good composted manures like chicken or cow and regular feeding with liquid fertilizers and good quantities of mulch. Regular watering will be needed so you could try using your grey water on them – bananas perform particularly well at the end of a grey water outlet.
Here are just a few subbys that I’m growing that you could try at your place:
Pineapple – I planted tops from organic pineapples I bought last summer, kept safe under plantings of lettuce and rocket through the ‘harsher’ winter temps.
Sugarcane – I was given a stalk cutting last year in October, it’s growing extremely well in a hot, wet spot in the garden right beside a cement slab that retains the sun’s warmth. I’ve no idea what to do with it just yet – I just love telling people that it’s growing!
Tamarillos – I have two large trees that have given me good crops for nearly two years now, they also provide good shelter from the sun in summer in my little open garden. Seedlings are now appearing from dropped fruit so they will be my replacement plants in a year or so, as tamarillos only have a lifespan of 3-5 years.
Yacon – or Chilean ground apple. It’s a tuber that has a crunchy sweet taste and very easy to grow in our area. I use it diced in salads, but you can cook it too – it is usually harvested in Autumn after the tops have died down, but you can ‘bandicoot’ the tubers throughout the growing period.
Ginger – slightly harder to grow, but still worth trying! It dies back in winter down here and needs warm to hot, boggy type growing conditions. You need to dig it up to get to the tubers, so try growing it in an easy to get to position.
Turmeric – it has an awesome sweet scented flower and looks a little like a small canna lily or ginger in growth habit. Lots of people are having great success with this little rhizome in our area. Considered the new ‘superfood’ by many, it is delicious used as you normally would in anything spicy. It should be well washed then grated or blended into the preparation of your meal.
Passionfruit – do not buy a grafted passionfruit! Search for the grown from good seed type as the grafted ones are a terror in the garden if the rootstock gets away on you. I have a black passionfruit that I bought locally that is doing very well. You could also try banana passionfruit, panama gold or panama red for a different sweeter flavour.
Macadamia nut – I have a small tree (macadamia tetraphylla) that seems to be flourishing. I’ve also planted cuttings from a neighbour’s tree that I know is a good producer. This type of macadamia are self pollinators, but you may need to have other flowering plants like some of our natives, such as grevillea or wattle, or exotics like geraniums or lavender, that flower through autumn and winter to attract pollinators.
Avocado – I’ve decided to plant all the seeds I can! Can you imagine what the home garden environment would look like if everyone planted every seed from an avocado they have eaten? They would be the best weed tree ever in my opinion!
Other plants you may consider – kumera (sweet potato), custard apple, ice cream bean tree, babaco, guava, jaboticaba and cherimoya…great names hey, have fun exploring those plants!
Most sub-tropicals need extra care, especially when young and establishing, so if you live in a frost pocket, or have windy conditions regularly, here are a few ideas that will help them along the way.
Shelter belts of thick evergreen shrubs or small trees on the southern to western side of the garden helps to keep the cold winds off.
If you have the space, plant sub-tropicals on the northern side of the house, using the house itself as a heat-bank for the plants. Just remember that most sub-tropicals are evergreen, so take the shade they will make throughout the seasons into consideration when planting out.
You may need to prune them low to keep the shade to a minimum in winter. Just remember you can’t prune a banana!
Keep up the watering throughout winter! The far south coast does have regular dry periods, and the cooler months are often one of them.
It’s really important to keep the soil moist for subbys. Even if it has rained, it is good to test the soil regularly to see if they need a drink.
Having a good amount (at least 10cms thick but up to 20cms) of mulch or straw, composted woodchip or composted sawdust will help.
If you do get frosts in your area, water in the morning to allow for drainage throughout the day.
If the sky is clear at night, if there is no breeze and you can feel a definite steep drop in temperature during the settling evening, then usually a frost will come.
It’s a good idea to keep on noticing the weather trend right into springtime as we can often get the rogue frost that can damage not only the subtropical plants but the newly flowering and fruiting ones in our vege patch or orchard.
If you think a big frost may damage your plant, you can try putting a blanket over the top of it, if it is small enough or around the plant if it’s higher. Try using stakes underneath to keep the blanket off the foliage. The blanket can be light wool, hessian or shade cloth and I recommend leaving it there till mid morning afterthe frost has evaporated.
Sometimes you may need to protect your sub tropicals in the same way during the hottest times of the year too – especially when we get those awful over 35C hot westerly wind days. But this time leave the blanket on during the hottest part of the day.
So there’s something for you to chew on while you’re contemplating whether to wear the woolly jumper, the cotton cardie, or both today.