Posts in Summer

The chickens are coming Pt II – the coop site.

The site for the chicken coop.

The site for the chicken coop.

Preparations for the chickens have begun apace. During the summertime I have some extra time off as some of the work I do corresponds with the academic year. As a result I usually like to undertake some kind of project around the house and yard. This year it is the chickens. I started of course with their coop.

I started with selecting the spot. In many respects the spot had been chosen for me – I don’t have many free areas left in the garden large enough to accommodate the coop. But it also turned out that this spot was suited to siting a coop. Big enough, dry, far enough from neighbour’s bedrooms, level enough and not ground that lent itself easily to other uses.

If you are a backyard gardener like myself, you will know that the modern suburban plot presents challenges in its small size. When setting out your plot (or making it up as you go along) there is a constant battle around what to put where. The particular spot where the coop was going had been a problem for years. The soil was too poor to plant much, and making it fertile was too much of a challenge for me. It was also very dry. Our block is sloping and in this area any moisture drains away quickly. So by default it got left.

Now when it came to putting chickens on the area many of the negatives became positives. Dry soil is a good idea for a coop. Too much moisture can lead to foot diseases in chickens. I can’t see that being a problem here. That excessive drainage suddenly became desirable. continue reading..

Spotty (but delicious) nectarines

Our nectarines this year are a bit spotty, but delicious none the less.

We have a bumper crop of nectarines this year on our tree, and we have just started harvesting them.  Unfortunately (and I never thought I would say this in February – our hottest month) we have had too much rain and like the grapes I have mentioned elsewhere, they are suffering from some fungal spots.

So far though it doesn’t seem to have affected the crop or the taste.  I guess we will just have to wait and see if it has any effect on the keeping.  Not that nectarines are a crop to try and store anyway.  They are one best eaten immediately in all their soft ripe glory – yum!

Shhh, the chickens are coming, Pt I – The Reasons.

I’ve been wanting to get chickens into the garden for some time now and the time has come to take some action. The reasons for getting chickens are many and before I launch into my series of posts on setting up and actually getting them, I’ll cover some of the reasons why you would want them in your backyard plot.

Firstly chickens add another layer of productivity to the garden. Permaculture maintains that the inclusion of animals in the productive space is necessary to create a more natural ecosystem. I’m not an obsessive permaculture fan but I do subscribe to their theory on the need to include livestock. Unfortunately I don’t have the space to include pigs and the like and living in a metropolitan area they can’t be included without Council approval, but chickens don’t take much space, and you can have several without needing to involve the bureaucracy.

Chickens can also be used for pest reduction in the garden. When a vegetable area has finished its productive spell at the end of the season, fence that area off (so the chickens don’t wreck the rest of the garden) and put the chickens in there to scratch over the soil and eat any remaining insect pests. In the process they’ll also fertilize the soil and start loosening up the soil as well. Your garden will benefit and the chickens will benefit from the extra insects in their diets. Just don’t forget to return them to their coop in the evening!

Initially when looking at getting chickens I was a little disappointed with the possible loss of vegetable scraps into the compost, as they would go to the chickens instead. Like all gardeners I love to be able to get my hands on as much compost as possible and anything that looks like it will reduce it tends to meet with resistance from me. However I think the opposite will be the case. I plan to use straw in the base of the coop and the pre-fertilized carbon rich material will add to the compost beautifully. My compost tends to be too nitrogen rich generally due to the grass clippings from the lawn, so adding the straw should balance it and bulk it out well.

My last reason for including chickens is that they add a beautiful ambiance to the garden. Which I think is reason enough.

Do you have any other thoughts? Reasons that I may have missed? Let me know by posting a comment below.

The snail blitz worked!

My un-eaten beetroot seedlings!

Maybe I am soft but for many years I have felt terribly guilty about squashing snails, feeling that they had a right to exist in my vegetable patch as much as I did.  The result, however, was that I could never grow anything from seed – it would always get eaten – and even bought seedlings rarely lasted the week.  I tried beer traps with my duff homebrew batches, but the snails seemed to prefer my lovely seedlings to the beer.

But this year I toughened up.  No more mister nice guy.  Any snail or slug found within slithering distance of the vegie patch was promptly dispatched to a better place (not on this earth if you catch my drift).  My strategy has included nightime forays into the garden, torch in hand, squashing shoes on foot.   As a result I have managed to grow a whole punnet of basil, a crop of lettuces and the beetroot seeds you see above have burst forth unmolested.  I still don’t like squashing them, but the results have been worth it.

Wrapping the garden up for summer – mulch

All tucked up for the summer.

You might think that the title sounds a bit strange, especially those who live in the more extreme latitudes who are more used to wrapping their plants up for winter. But here in Melbourne the summer heat can get very fierce, and soil that doesn’t have the protection of a mulch soon dries out and forms a crust that become impervious to water.  In addition the roots of the plants seem to suffer heat shock and the plant copes less well with the heat.

Our days have just started to heat up – so far it has been a mild summer.  But now we are into January  2-3 days of temperatures over 35 degrees are not uncommon and I don’t want to be caught off guard.  So today I went out and spread a 3-5 cm layer of sugarcane mulch over the bare soil.  For those not in Australia you may not be familiar with sugar cane mulch.  It is a by-product of the sugar cane industry and the shredded sugar cane makes a good ground cover.  Light enough to let water through, light in colour to reflect the heat and relatively cheap, which becomes a consideration when you have a large area to cover.  Barley straw is another option but less readily available.  So if you are heading into summer heat like me, consider tucking your plants up for summer.

Bordeaux mixture in the end

Those who have been following my mildew saga will know I had come down in favour of using sulphur to try to control it. Unfortunately that didn’t have the effect I was hoping (in fact it seemed to make no difference at all). And it was starting to spread into the second vine I have. So despite the advice I came across I decided to use copper sulphate in a Bordeaux mixture. The good news is it seems to have checked the problem. And even better the vines are sprouting new leaves so they will at least build some reserves for winter. Next year we might get some good grape crops. Here’s hoping!

Sulphur is the go for mildew!

Sulphur powder on the vine leaves

I went to look for copper sulphate as I talked about in my last post but it proved to be harder to find. I did manage to get some at a local stock feed store, but along the way I found some where selling powdered sulphur.

It turns out sulphur is also good for fungal infections. So after doing some research on the Gardening Australia website I found that Bordeaux mixture is best used during winter when the plants have no leaves and that powdered sulphur can be dusted onto plants with mildew. So that’s what I’ve done. I’ll let you know how they get on.

Copper sulphate, bordeaux mixture and the curse of the mildew

mildew blighted grape vines

My mildew blighted grape vines

I’ve got mildew. Not me personally of course, but my grape vines. It was shaping up to be a bumper year for grapes with all the rain that we have had. However that has turned out to be the problem.

The moisture in the air has resulted in mildew on the vines. Initially I thought I might be able to avoid spraying it but the rain has persisted and the mildew is getting worse. Unfortunately it has damaged the early grapes on one vine and I will have to take some action to prevent the other vine going the same way.

But what to do? I know about Bordeaux mixture to treat fungal infections on grape vines but I have been unable to find the copper sulphate needed to make the mix. All the gardening books say it should be available in garden centres. But here in Victoria it isn’t. All I could find was other commercial copper fungicides and if you are an organic gardener you can understand my reluctance to use them.

However it turns out that is readily available in stock/horse feed stores to treat copper deficiency. So tomorrow I will be heading down to buy some. Otherwise I’ll have no grapes left to eat.

Buy big leek seedlings to grow at home

Whenever you buy leek seedlings I would recommend that you get them as big as possible. Leeks really need to be planted deeply, the deeper you plant them the more white stem you will get without having to earth up them up.

Many of the leek seedlings you can buy are too small which means you can’t plant them deep enough and they are easily consumed by snails. Try and get them at least as big as the ones below.

Good tall leek seedling

Good tall leek seedlings.

The only downside of buying seedlings this size is that they can end up root bound in the pot. While looks like a major issue, the roots on leeks are quite tough and roots like this actually means the pant will have a good root run as soon as they are planted. Just take care as you tease them out and you should be fine.

Just a bit root bound.

I plant my leek seeds using a dibber, which in this case is the handle of the pointing trowel I use in the garden. I stick the handle of the trowel in as deep as it will go, then gently pull it out. I then poke a leek seedling into the hole as deep as it will go without jamming it in. Don’t worry if the roots don’t appear to go in easily, they will be fine. As you can see from the third photo they go in quite deeply, with really just the top third of the plant poking out above the soil. This method only works with soil moist enough to hold it’s shape. If yours is too dry or too sandy you may need to dig a trench instead.

Leeks and dibber in situ.

Once you have planted all your seedlings the final thing is to go along and give all of the leeks a good soaking. This will collapse the hope around the leek and cover the roots up giving the plant a firm foundation. Easy huh.

Watering in the leeks.

Building My Wood Fired Oven

Earth wood fired ovenOver the last few months I have been building a wood fired oven in my backyard.  Wood fired ovens have become quite trendy over the last few years and they are starting to show up all over the place, from custom bespoke ones to “off the shelf” ones from the local hardware store.  I suppose they all work, probably very well.  But mine is different.  I built it myself.

Not only did I build it myself, but so far it has cost me less than $150, and (if you ask me) it looks the bees knees.  The secret to building my wood fired oven is that it is made from cob or adobe (depending on which part of the world you are from).

We recently did some work putting in retaining walls which involved some excavation.  From this we had a pile of subsoil that I earmarked for building the oven.  Several years ago I got “Building with Cob” for Christmas by Adam Weismann and Katy Bryce.  In it they describe how (not suprisingly) to build with cob.

Basically cob is subsoil that has about 25% of clay in it.  Too much clay and it will crack too much when you build.  Too little and the mix won’t bind together and your structure will fall apart.  In the book they describe how to do a soil test.  Thankfully my subsoil came out pretty much right, so all I had to add was straw when I mixed it.  (Straw acts as a re-inforcer in the mix, like steel bars in concrete).

Over the coming weeks I’ll talk more about the building of my oven, and eventually I want to release a video on how I did it.  But for now, let me know, have you build anything like this?  What guides did you use, and was it a success?