Growing Season

Published in The Green Issue 203

Life on a Better Ridge Growing Season

We’ve rounded out August with a few cool, windy days (just to remind us what winter is all about) and we’re heading into the new growing season with a suitable drenching and topping up of the liquid supplies that our plants and we require.

Given the relatively warm winter, we’ve been given somewhat of a head start in the garden, but how do we best capitalise on this? Well, the soil has been nicely softened by the rain, which has made it easy to pull out sneaky weeds, old tomatoes, the peas and beans that have finished fruiting and any other spent or neglected reminders of those cooler days. You remember the ones, where you stayed inside in bed, waiting until it got nicer, rather than going outside tiling the beds to make them nicer!

Well, now it’s time to make amends with your veggie patch. Feed it up with some Blood and Bone, chook manure or seaweed-based fertiliser and a few shovelfuls of compost and dig it over, so it’s nice and friable. The next thing to consider is what you put in these beautiful beds that are suitable for our region and the time of year?

While there are good times of the year to plant all types of veges, now is when we get the most success with the largest variety. We have the chance to establish many of the plants that would never make it as tender seedlings in the punishing heat of summer.

To extend your harvest, you could pop in some new tomatoes and beans, get the kids involved in creating a quick-growing radish patch and if eggplants and pumpkin get started now, they should end up robust enough to cope with any mildew that attacks these plants as the weather becomes more humid. It’s always a good time for lettuce, and other salad greens and root crops like beetroot and carrot will have a good head start if planted now.

As flowering annuals finish with their last blooms, it’s a good time to cut them back so they are ready for their new foliage and it’s a good time for pruning larger bushes and shrubs, especially natives like Callistemon and Grevilleas, to keep them from becoming straggly.

Not only is spring a great time for our gardens, but it’s a wonderful time to renew our connection with Mother Nature, get our hands dirty and enjoy the glorious outdoor lifestyle that our beautiful hinterland location offers us.

Non Stop Chop And Drop

Lemongrass Chop and Drop

Lemongrass that has been ‘Chopped and Dropped’

When speaking of the types of plants we have here on The Ridge and the functions they perform, we often speak of chopping and dropping. To “chop and drop” is a foundational principle in permaculture and the concept couldn’t be more self-explanatory. You simply chop the plant and drop it on the ground. As simple as it sounds (and is) there is a little more science behind why we do it and the types of plants we do it with.

So first, the why; why cut plants off and leave them on the ground? This is a highly efficient way of creating mulch in our gardens and is quite a lot less labour intensive than buying in and spreading commercial mulches. To begin with, it’s already exactly where you need it, it’s free and because you know exactly where it has come from you know that it doesn’t contain any weed species or external pesticides. All of these factors are a bonus if you are trying to live an organic lifestyle.

The types of plants to use for chopping and dropping are often referred to as support species, as they provide the medium for optimum soil health and plant productivity for our edible staples. They do this through their mulch, by providing a physical barrier against things such as sun, wind or heavy rain and also by providing nutrients to the other plants.

Atmospheric nitrogen is captured by growing plants and stored (usually in nodules on the roots). When the plant dies or is pruned (chopped) it releases its store of nitrogen into the soil in a form that is directly accessible by other plants. Nitrogen is one of the primary elements required for plant growth, so it follows that if all your other needs (water, sun etc.) are met, then extra nitrogen in the soil will result in a greater amount of growth (great news for your kitchen garden and food forest). Therefore, if you have a fast-growing support species that you can chop and drop often, you will make more essential nutrients available to your food plants more regularly.

The larger support species that fulfil this role in our garden are pigeon peas, arrowroot, lemon grass and comfrey. Plants such as Crotalaria, Leucaena and tagasaste (tree lucerne) can also be used.  On the smaller scale are the green manure crops we use intensively on individual garden beds of which cow peas, lab lab, oats, wheat and lucerne can be used.


Seasonal States

Published in The Green Issue 201

Life on a Better Ridge Seasonal States

There’s no doubt that on a day-to-day basis, the weather affects what we do and how we feel, but there are also long-term seasonal impacts that have a more subtle effect on us.

In parts of the world that experience extremes in light levels, such as the midnight sun of summer and the 20 hours of darkness in winter in the far Northern and Southern hemispheres, people’s moods (and therefore their behaviour) can be severely affected. The documented effects of “mango madness” that distress residents living in the constant high temperatures nearer the equator are well known. But these afflictions are not just limited to the extremes. People living in Britain and Canada have been shown to have a decrease in mood and an onset of depression with the long, dark, cold seasons.

Aptly named SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), this disorder has been extreme enough to be responsible, in some cases, for suicide. While here on the Sunshine Coast, we are blessed not to have such extremes, we still feel the cycles of our seasonal weather patterns.

On The Ridge, it’s not just the creeping mercury that hints at change. The last couple of weeks have been a hive of activity – all of which looks to future growth and productivity. Neighbours are building dams, clearing paddocks and dangerous dead trees are being tackled before August’s wild winds sneak up.

Everyone I speak to lately seems to share that they too have been compelled to change along with the season and agree it feels good to open up the house and air out their cupboards. Oppressive chores suddenly feel cleansing, and there is such a feeling of preparation and anticipation in the air.

Having solid reminders of the beautiful environment we live in and opportunities to make the most of our experiences certainly makes me glad to be living here and excited to participate in the bounty this groundwork will no doubt provide.

Superb Sunflowers

Single Sunflower

The Sun-Flower

Sunflowers are always welcome in my garden. There’s nothing like their big, showy heads tracking the sun across the sky. To me, they are like small children in a playpen. Although they are unable to follow her, they keep their eyes firmly on the movements of their mother as she goes about her work.

Like many of the plants on The Ridge at the moment, they are also somewhat of a winter anomaly. Usually described as a summer-flowering annual the crop in my garden are more than happy to provide some non-conformist colour and support the commonly held notion that we here in the hinterland have an enjoyably mild winter.

Due to their fast and easy growth habit sunflowers are great for younger gardeners, and the rewards they provide continue even through their demise. Once fully grown, their heavy heads can be harvested and the seeds used in a multitude of ways. Giving the kids each a dinner plate-sized flower head to enjoy can provide hours of entertainment. The ‘love me, love me not’ game usually comes first as the petals are removed, followed closely by a faux ticker-tape parade with said petals. Then it’s time for the seeds. These can be cracked and eaten raw (another good activity to keep children busy for a while) or roasted in the oven for around 10 minutes at 180 degrees until they crack open themselves. Sunflower seeds are also a great supplement for chicken feed and if left on the heads provide just as much interest for the chickens as the children.

Sunflowers in a row

Sunflowers – Not Just Pretty in the Garden, but Delicious on the Plate

The seeds, however, are not the only edible part. Petals can be used in salads, as can the seedlings when they are quite small. Leaves from bigger plants can be put into salads or stir-fries, much as you would use Asian greens. The buds can be steamed or blanched and the young stalks, which taste a bit like celery, are also great in salads and soups.

I can definitely vouch for the sunflower as a great all-rounder in the garden and suggest that if you don’t already have some bringing sunshine into your life, you could get your patch organised for a bright summer crop.

Helping Hands For The Holidays

Published in Eumundi Green Issue 199

Life on a Better Ridge helping Hands For The Holidays

When you are building a house and have acres of land to maintain, you might dream of spending a couple of weeks relaxing on a tropical island while the kids are having a midyear break from school. And dream we do. The reality, however, is quite different. At the moment, we get our ‘tropical’ fix from a morning at the beach or some pineapple for a snack, which we wash down with a little bit of coconut juice. If we’re fortunate, we get a little memento of this beachside break and end up with some sand in our shoes.

Don’t get me wrong; this is a super way to spend a morning with the kids while they are on school holidays, but what then. Well, here on The Ridge we have several cleverly devised jobs, I mean activities, for unoccupied hands.

Seed Bombs are always a winner and can fill as many hours as you have resources available. Digging up clumps of lemongrass and vetiver and dividing them up for re-planting is another easy one, and always something that needs doing. This last ‘activity’ is great if done as a competition. Setting a kitchen timer with a fixed interval, both motivates and results in a lot more work getting done (I mean, fun). Pulling weeds can be made interesting if you tell the kids they can then launch them into the chicken pen. Luckily for us, recent experience with Shot Put at the school athletics carnivals has made this a popular pastime and helps provide a little entertainment to both chooks and children.

On a purely child-focused note, each holiday we enjoy renovating our ‘fairy gardens’. These are just large plant pots we have previously set up with cactuses or flowers, houses, plastic animals and the like. Depending on the particular mood and current interest of the children, we usually add some new plants, paint stones to resemble beetles or bugs and generally breathe new life into them.

Our favourite activity in the wintertime, though, is to collect sticks, leaves, pinecones and any other small flammable detritus to throw on our celebratory mid-year (let’s keep warm) bonfire.

Do Our Plants Think It’s Spring?

New Green Growth

New Growth

The Sunshine Coast is rather renown for its mild winter weather, but I’m sure you’ll agree, this winter seems to be somewhat milder (or possibly just somewhat later) than normal. The Ridge is currently (and a little confusingly) flushed with new growth. Tender shoots are sprouting from trees, shrubs, pots and ponds and species that have usually dropped leaves and become dormant by now are still in flower!

But what does this extended growing season mean for our plants? Does it mean we’ll have a bigger harvest, more crops for a longer period? Well, contrary to what we might logically infer, this extended warmth and changes in temperatures that vary greatly on and off throughout the season can actually decrease the yearly growth and yield a plant is capable of.

Many plants, even in our temperate climate, require the cooler conditions of winter to stimulate spring flowering and the ultimate viability of any seed produced. When warm enough weather interrupts this process, the plant engages in early growth, using up the small amount of energy (carbon) it has stored in its roots during the cold snap. If this happens a couple of times throughout the season there will then not be enough carbon left for the plant’s regular growth in the spring, resulting in a much smaller overall growth, yield and ultimately for those of us hoping to eat what we grow, a smaller harvest.

While this may be the case for more established plants however, it’s not all bad news. The extended warmth and associated dryness at this time of year are great for giving seedlings more of a chance to get established, which could be pretty valuable when planning for your food needs in light of a reduced yield from existing plants.

On that note, I’m off to enjoy the winter sun and get a few more seedlings planted about The Ridge.