Monday, June 30, 2008


Our first frost was crunching underfoot this morning.

Sydney only gets light frosts, but they don't usually arrive in June! Of course, it is only just June. July is usually our coldest month, and we normally would only see frost on the ground -- yes, just on the ground -- half a dozen times a year at most. We'll have to see how many frosts we get this year, but it touched some of the lettuces in yesterday's photo... Normally the vegie beds are too high or too sheltered to get frost, so I am a bit worried!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Permaculture Basics: Guild Planting

Well, finally, I think I've figured out the whole photo-to-blog bit, so here's part of my vegie patch:
Is it chaotic? Yes. Deliberately so. This is guild planting. Guild planting, like all gardening, is a way of recreating nature -- but in order to take advantage of some of its processes.
Most ecosystems are mixtures of plants and animals, rather than vast monocultures. Why?
  • each species uses slightly different resources (the 'ecological niche')
  • each species has slightly different outputs, which are used by other elements in the system
  • taller plants shelter tender young plants from extremes of weather
  • not all species are susceptible to the same pests and diseases
  • some species shelter pest predators
  • potential exists for symbiotic relationships
A guild is a mixture of species organised to provide similar benefits, including benefits to the human designer. In a typical vegetable patch, plants are lined up in rows by cultivar. Snails call this a supermarket, I suspect. In a mixed planting, it's harder for pests to see or smell the plants they prefer, so there should be less pest damage. I haven't entirely managed to avoid rows here. That's because of the broad beans -- they are so tall that they need to be grown together so they can be tied up to prevent wind and rain damage. Behind them, however, is a random planting of Florence fennel, broccoli, Tuscan kale and volunteer parsnips.

Another idea of guild planting is to keep the ground covered by plantings all the time so as to minimise space for weeds to colonise, so that when one crop is pulled out, it should be replaced by another -- either by a new plant, or by a neighbouring plant growing bigger. In the picture above, you might be able to see radishes growing between the two rows of broad beans. They are a very fast-growing crop and I expect to pick them this week. The broad beans are now big enough to cope with root competition from weeds. The bok choy and the lettuces will also be eaten before the beans need the extra space.

And by the time the beans are out, it will be time for spring planting, which seems very far away!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Slowly does it...

It has been raining off and on for some weeks in Sydney. My garden is saturated. It is so wet that mud comes up on the grass when I walk on it. I am getting a bit twitchy through lack of gardening, but there isn't much you can do when the soil is as wet as this.

So what has been going on at our place?
  • The chooks have moved out of their dome to under the quince tree.
  • The broad beans have come up.
  • The Brussels sprouts are looking happy, but the bok choi has been chewed a bit.
  • Some nasturtiums did come up. Their first leaves are a really interesting shape!
  • My Fringe Wattle and Sydney Golden Wattle are both just starting to bloom.
  • The Council will charge us $300 for three square metres of concrete. Moral: one you have succeeded with a development application, don't change anything. Except that not making this change will annoy me for the rest of my life.

In other words, things are a bit frustrating around here at the moment. Reading Northern Hemisphere gardening blogs is not helping!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Book Review: Smart Permaculture Design

Jenny Allen's book is a beguiling exploration of permaculture for the novice. Filled with fascinating ideas, it emphasises the creative side of permaculture while still explaining the basic concepts that define it.

The photographs are beautiful and I enjoyed the quotations that wander through the pages, as well as the sly humour that peeps out from time to time. It is endearing to find a gardener who admits her mistakes. Her bush food garden, she points out, is very hardy, yet she has it in Zone 1 (ie, adjoining the house). Plants that really do require care are thus further away, meaning that they are less under her eye and require a little more effort to look after. She has a comfrey saga as well...

The Aspirational Trees impressed me; I hadn't seen them before. These are a more focussed alternative to brainstorming. You start with a bubble. Inside it, write something that is important to you, such as "fresh food". Draw lines out from the bubble (branches) and write what you might do in the garden to achieve it: "herbs" or "vegie patch" or "strawberries", for example.

The list of possible garden features provides intriguing options. I've never considered an aphrodisiac garden, though no doubt The Geek would be impressed. More amusing was the zoo garden, planted with such animals as tiger lilies, dragon fruit and snake beans!

There is a comprehensive list of categories of beneficial insects and how to attract them. Regular gardening books spend almost no time on this. As permaculturists might point out, a predatory wasp is very successful at removing caterpillars, requires no work of the gardener, kills no beneficial insects by mistake, and is fascinating to watch. Perhaps as the Western world becomes a bit more Green, we might see the regular gardening books change their emphases.

Now for the quibbles. The book opens with a poetic description of life in permie paradise, as do most permie books. I know why they all do it but gosh, it gets annoying after a while, particularly at a time when I am finding organic methods of kikuyu control to be pretty useless. But perhaps this battle is telling on my temper.

The main strength and weakness of the book, in my view, is due to the writer's location. Maleny, in Queensland, is a hub of permaculture, having some of the most fertile soil in Australia and a tropical climate. The list of unusual edible plants for the tropics is fascinating -- but only useful if one is in the tropics, on acreage. Suburban permaculture in the temperate zone is, I can't help thinking, a touch more difficult. Gardeners in the tropics and subtropics will gain most from the practical chapters, but the creative ideas are adaptable to any climate.

I would class this in the 'nice ideas' category rather than in 'essential reference', even for tropical gardeners. Borrow a copy through your local library before purchase.

Allen, Jenny
Smart Permaculture Design
Frenchs Forest : New Holland, c. 2002
ISBN: 187706917-5

Monday, June 9, 2008

Life is what happens...

... while you are making gardening plans!

Thank you to Staycalm for asking how I am! Nothing's gone very wrong here; it's just been very busy. There have been a number of family birthdays -- the Sprig turned three, for example, so that meant party preparations one weekend instead of gardening.

I also managed to re-injure my neck. It was much more painful than the car accident injury, but unfortunately unrelated to it, so I have to pay for the physio myself instead of relying on Workcover. It's much better now, but the physio believes I have an underlying problem, and that means more exercises.

We've just had a full week of rain and the back yard is saturated. No planting here for a while, especially as more rain is forecast for this week. We did manage to plant our 'Social Climber' sweet peas and 'Turkish Delight' pansies as planned. I also got the Sprig to plant some Nasturtium 'Peach Melba' seeds, but I suspect the rain has probably done for them. We'll see.