Wednesday, October 19, 2016

How I use herbs - Mother of Herbs?

I was given this herb at our monthly local produce share.  It had the label "tulsi?".  I didn't know what tulsi was at the time, but when I googled it I found that this herb was definitely not tulsi (AKA holy basil).  I was pretty keen to identify it, as I'd already sampled some of the leaf!  I started flicking through my herb books until I found a picture that looked similar in Isabel Shippard's brilliant and comprehensive "How can I use herbs in my daily life?".  It looks very much like Mother of Herbs (Coleus amboinicus - also Plectranthus amboinicus), however the text says that this herb can be easily confused with Dog Bane (Plectranthus caninus), but I think the leaves on my specimen are too serrated to be either of these.  Another herb book mentions Coleus forskohliii and further googling reveals that there are many similar looking plants in the Coleus/ Plectranthus genus, they are all related to mint and oregano (Lamiaceae family).

How to grow Mother of Herbs
All of the Coleus genus are succulent, they don't need much water.  They grow low to the ground and can be propagated from runners.  I will see how this one survives in our climate, so far we have had wet weather, so I hope it will be ok through a hot dry summer.  I am hoping also that this specimen will flower eventually and then I will be able to positively identify which coleus I have.

How to use Mother of Herbs
The Coleus genus has various medicinal properties:
  • C. forskohlii contains "forskolin", which has been found to reduce blood pressure, relax smooth muscle, stimulate hormone and digestive secretions, and reduce pressure in the eye.
  • C. amboinicus is used to reduce inflammation and for bronchitis and asthma
Both the leaves and root are used.  The roots can be pickled.  As I'm not exactly sure which species I have, I will be using it as an ornamental with a nice smell until I can positively identify what I have.

This is not the most educational edition of my herbs series, but I thought the story of trying to identify this particular herb was also of interest, and I will share the rest of the story when I learn more about it.

Do you recognise this herb?  Do you use it? 

How I use herbs - Mint, Peppermint and Spearmint

How I use herbs - Aloe Vera

How I use herbs - Basil

How I use herbs - Ginger, galangal and turmeric

How I use herbs - Marigold, calendula and winter taragon

How I use herbs - Lemon balm

How I use herbs - Soapwort

How I use herbs - Comfrey

How I use herbs - Nasturtium

How I use herbs - Parsley

How I use herbs - Borage

How I use herbs - Herb Robert

How I use herbs - Purslane

How I use herbs - Chickweed

How I use herbs - Neem oil

How I use herbs - Rue, tansy and wormwood

How I use herbs - Brahmi

How I use herbs - Yarrow

How I use herbs - Arrowroot

How I use herbs - Lucerne (afalfa)

How I use herbs - Lavender

How I use herbs - Rosemary and Thyme

How I use herbs - Oregano or Marjoram

How I use herbs - Sweet Violet

How I use herbs - Gotu Kola

How I use herbs - Lemongrass

How I use herbs - Coriander (or cilantro)

How I use herbs - Dill

Monday, October 17, 2016

Amongst the gum trees

I love the gum trees on our property, but I only recently realised that so many of the trees ARE gum trees.  I was lucky enough to pick up a book called Gum: the story of eucalypts and their champions by Ashley Hay (affiliate link), that our local library was selling off, so I only paid $2 for it, but its a great little book.  I was hoping to learn about gum trees and how to identify the different types, but instead I learnt about the complicated history of the taxonomy of gum trees.  Its a fascinating story, with chapters about Cook's botanist Joseph Banks, to Ferdinand Muller who continued Joseph's work and then May Gibbs, author of the gum tree baby comics and books.  Apparently there are hundreds of types of gum trees in Australia (and millions of gum trees) and they are all hardwood.

They are great for firewood if the wood is split and allowed to dry out.  Some gum trees grow straight and tall, perfect for fence posts and building materials.  Others have many branches and make great shade trees.  Some are so hard they are impossible to split.

The book got me interested in identifying our gum trees, but also made the task seem impossible with so many varieties and some can be unique to a small area.  I wasn't sure if I would ever know what trees we had, but we then stopped in at the Gympie Woodworks Museum and had a chance to speak to some expert "timber getters".  Lucky for us a few of them had worked in our area and knew the type of country we live on.  They told us that we probably have Red Leaf Iron Bark and Blue River Gums.  He also told us that our wattles are probably brown, hickory and ferny leaf varieties.  He had an amazing knowledge of the trees in and around Nanango and Yarraman, I was very impressed!

Anyway, I really just wanted to share some photos of the beautiful gum trees on our property! I love their colours, the different bark and leaves, some of them are incredibly tall, and all provide lovely shade for our animals, firewood for us and homes for wildlife.

The iron barks on a misty morning
Bruce and Rocket eating among the gum trees
A kookaburra helps us clean up a pile of wood felled by previous tenants

Do you love gum trees too?  What do you use them for?

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Holistic Management - part 5: tools for managing ecosystem processes

The book Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making (affiliate link) sets out a guide to developing a holistic goal for your farm or business.  See my introduction to Holistic Management here, and part 2: four key insights for the reasons why holistic management is important and part 3: holistic goal for understand what you are managing and what you want from it.  I reviewed the ecosystem processes in part 4 - the water and mineral cycles, energy flow and community dynamics.  The next part of the book takes that understand of ecosystem processes and discusses the tools that we can use to manage ecosystem processes in brittle and non-brittle environments.  These tools include:
  • Money and labour
  • Human creativity
  • Technology
  • Rest
  • Fire
  • Grazing
  • Animal impact
  • Living organisms

Money and Labour
I admit I found this chapter abstract and confusing.  I think the point is to consider the use and source of money used in working towards your goal.  You should invest in efforts that will see a consistent return, both in money and as enhanced soil fertility.  For example, if you continue to use conventional agricultural methods which effectively mine soil fertility, then you are investing in agrichemicals which are not sustainable and not creating soil  fertility, so you are not really building wealth and resources that you can build on.  I think that's what it means anyway!

Human Creativity
"Every situation requires management that must be an original product of human imagination, and even that must evolve as the situation changes".  Creativity to adapt to changing environments is therefore the land manager's greatest tool.  Unfortunately many farmers rely on agrichemical company representatives to tell them how to farm, observing their land from the air-conditioned cabs of huge tractors, they are disconnected from ecosystem processes, and do not trust themselves to creatively solve management problems without external inputs.  I think this is where Permaculture is also useful, with principles such as "observe and interact" it encourages creative thinking rather than formulaic one-size-fits-all solutions.  The success of creativity depends on an accurate understanding of the environment, even a highly creative solution can cause chaos if the underlying processes are not well understood,

Fire is a powerful tool for modifying our environment.  Savory suggests that overuse of fire and rest is leading to desertification in brittle environments, which is a reminder that fire should be used very carefully.  One of the arguments for the use of fire is that many of the Australian plants are fire-resistant and have therefore evolved to withstand frequents, however this ignores the fact that once abundant fire-sensitive plants are now extinct due to the use of fire by ancient aboriginal people.

The effects of fire include:

  • exposing soil surface by removing both vegetation and leaf little (and therefore vulnerable to erosion, makes rain less effective at penetrating the soil)
  • permanently destroying fire-sensitive vegetation, favouring fire-resistant vegetation, reduces diversity
  • Impact on native animals as habitat is destroyed and diversity reduced
  • Carbon in the soil burns (forms carbon dioxide) and is lost from the mineral cycle
Overall, fire is detrimental to all four ecosystem processes in the long term.  Experience has shown that fire alone does not improve grassland/pasture in brittle landscapes.  It could be a tool used as part of a management process, but other tools may produce better results.  Unfortunately many farmers in our area rely on burning as their only pasture management tool (the photo above is our neighbour's pasture burning).  

Either in the form of total rest (all livestock removed) or partial rest (extensive livestock operations where animals are spread out over large areas), if not used appropriate this tool can also cause damage.  Often we allow damaged land to rest in order to recover, however this may not actually help in brittle landscapes.  Old plant material decays very slowly due to lack of moisture, which can cause grasses to die out.  Rest tolerant plants are often unproductive and unpalatable.  Animal impact is actually needed in these situations to break down plant material (in the rumen of livestock) where it would naturally decay in less brittle (wetter) landscapes.  The effect of rest depends on the degree of brittleness.  Where we live, the landscape moves along the brittleness scale from year to year.  Sometimes we have high rainfall and resting a paddock will result in lush, thick grass cover.  Other years if we have very low rainfall for several months, that same paddock will be full of unproductive, sparse clumps of dead grass.  Knowing how much rest is needed under certain conditions before it becomes detrimental and reducing the occurrence of "partial rest" by keeping paddocks small (i.e. rotational grazing methods) is important in brittle landscapes.  One of the best ways to rejuvinate an over-rested area is to bring cattle in for a short period, confined to small areas with portable panels or electric fence and feed hay bales, manure and hay will get trampled into the dead grass and help to kick-start a productive decay cycle.  This mirrors the herding and moving on behaviour of large ruminants in nature which have maintained productive grasslands over centuries, and the basis of mob-stocking (Joel Salatin) and other rotational grazing concepts.  Savory also notes that the condition of rested land is an indication of the brittleness of the landscape.  I know we have a lot of bare patches on partially rested areas of our property, which confirms my assessment that we are usually very brittle.

By manipulating the timing and intensity of grazing we can use it to our benefit rather than causing damage.  Grazimg must be considered in conjunction with animal impact, the next section. In this case, grazing itself refers to the eating of grasses and other types of vegetation, even through bushes and forbes are technically "browsed" rather than grazed.  The point at which grazing becomes "overgrazing" depends on weather the vegetation is annual or perennial, grass or non-grass and the type of grazing animal.

While short-lived annual plants are never really overgrazed (as they die off each season anyway), perennial grasses, which are so important for soil cover in brittle environments, are susceptible to overgrazing.  Grasses have growth points close to the ground and actually benefit from having old growth removed by grazing, either early in the growing season or when the plant is dormant.  However, if the grass is grazed too frequently in the growing season it will fail to recover.  As I wrote in a post back here (actually just after I had first learnt about holistic management), the grass has to use energy from its roots to regrow each time and will gradually lose root-mass if it is grazed repeatedly before it can recover.  Therefore, overgrazing is defined as " any grazing that takes place on leaves growing from stored energy at the expense of roots, rather than directly from sunlight".  By contrast, "grazing" as a tool is the appropriate use of animals to eat grass and other plants, to the benefit of those plants, without overgrazing.  Slashing or mowing can be used instead of grazing (as per Peter Andrews).

Grasses with runners, such as Rhodes grass and Blue grass are less likely to be overgrazed than bunching grasses such as Panic and Digit grass.  This is because the running grasses spread horizontally, so less leaf is removed per root mass.

Grazing can be used to improve diversity of plants, encourages vigorous growth and reduces fire hazard as old dead growth doesn't accumulate.  Water and mineral cycles are enhanced through greater root mass.  Overgrazing tends to have the opposite effect.

In an extensive grazing system (large area with few animals) some plants can be overgrazed and others over-rested in the same paddock, as animals return to the same plants to nibble the tasty regrowth.  Therefore it is the time that the animals have access to an area and not the number of animals that is important (as discussed in part 2: four key insights).  This is where the ideas of rotational grazing or Joel Salatin's "mob-stocking" are useful, as you can mimic the effect of large herds, bunched together by predators and moving regularly to new pastures.

Our property was overgrazed when we had too many animals during drought conditions a couple of years ago (cattle prices were really low, so we held them a bit too long which we waited for the market to settle and then sold all of them).  We were lucky to have rain since then and with no animals on the land and non-brittle conditions, the rest allowed the grasses to regrow.  Now we risk over-resting because we only have fewer cattle on the property.  It seems that we need to vary stocking rates depending on the year.  We also need to set up rotational grazing, we are working on making smaller paddocks and thinking about how we split them up using electric fencing.

The one problem I have with rotational grazing is that all the examples I have are from non-brittle environments.  Joel Salatin, my favourite house cow blog "Throwback at Trapper Creek" and even fellow Australians Peter Andrews and Darren Doherty, are all using this system in less brittle environments.  But we will come to this later in the book.

Animal impact
Animal impact refers to everything else that animals do apart from grazing - dunging, urinating, salivating, rubbing, and trampling.  This tool fits nicely with permaculture principles, considering how we can let nature (specifically farm animals) replace machinery or chemicals to remove overgrown vegetation, fertilise and disturb and shape compacted land to improve the land.  The idea that cattle (and other stock) might actually help the land was also covered in more detail in the book Can cows save the planet?  Certainly the way that cattle are fed intensively in feedlots is NOT contributing to saving the planet, but cattle in a well-designed and managed rotational grazing system will improve the land.  In fact, in a brittle environment, where there is not enough humidity to sustain microbial breakdown of plant material, ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats etc) are essential for cycling nutrients in the environment.

Living organisms
While the previous two tools used living organisms, this is also a separate tool to encourage the consideration of biological solutions before technology.  Again, this fits with permaculture principles.  "Failure to think along these lines accounts for much of the environmental damage humans have wrought".  This tool is closely linked to the ecosystem process of community dynamics, i.e. if you develop community dynamics through biodiversity, you will have the tool of living organisms to use, and if you use the tool you will develop the ecosystem process further.  This is the oldest tool, the most complex, and the one that has been too often abandoned in favour of technology, to the detriment of all the ecosystem processes.  When we raise animals or crops for our own advantage, we forget that they exist within an ecosystem, and rely on technology to control predators, pests, competitors, and disease, instead of working with the entire system.

The problem with technology is that its easy to "consider only the problem at hand without thought of larger implications".  Most technology has some side-effect, from minor issues to pollution, leaching, erosionnnn, extinction, deforestation etc.  Conventional agriculture relies heavily on technology, including machinery (tractors, bulldozers, excavators) and chemicals (herbicides, pesticides, fertilisers, vaccines and hormones).  While technology has the potential to benefit the land, it must be used very carefully.  I refer to permaculture principle "Use small and slow solutions".  Technology is usually big and fast, so it needs to be used very carefully.  Sometimes a short-term problem may demand the use of technology, but a longer-term view is required.  For example, we have been working on various ways to control buffalo fly without chemicals, but our poor cow Molly reacts terribly to fly bites and we have used chemical ear-tags on her the past couple of summers while we find something natural that works for her.  The flies will eventually become resistant to the chemical, so this is a short term relief for our cow while we figure out the long term solution

That is a very brief overview of the tools in holistic management.  The next section is about testing decisions, how we decide which tools to use to work towards our holistic goal.  This is where we will really get into the specific methods that we will use on our property.  What do you think?  Do you use these tools effectively?

Below are some Amazon affiliate links to books related to Holistic Management.  If you would like to read my reviews of these books, see the following links:

Joel Salatin's books

Peter Andrew's books on Natural Sequence Farming

Permaculture Principles


Monday, October 10, 2016

Knowing when to plant seeds if you're between climate zones

When I started trying to plant seeds, I would look at the climate map and wonder exactly what zone we lived in.  In the Lockyer Valley, just west of Brisbane, we were either sub-tropical or temperate.  The only problem was that these have almost exactly opposite planting times!  And now in Nanango, we are still in an ambiguous area of the map, on the each of these two zones. 

We do have a very hot and humid summer in Nanango, but the winters can get very cold due to our proximity to the Bunya Mountains.  We can get frosts, but even this depends on exactly where you are, as properties on the top of hills generally don’t suffer as badly as those in the valleys (and this is a hilly area). 

Fortunately, at the local farmers markets I had a chat to a local lady was selling seeds about when to plant.  It turned out that she lived just up the road from us and could give us some good local advice.  She said to follow the subtropical guide through summer, but as soon the weather gets colder, you need to be prepared to switch to the temperate guide.  I had never thought of using both zones in that way! 

The biggest problem I have is frosts in winter. Originally, my techniques for protecting the garden from frost were limited to putting old net curtains over venerable plants, such as silverbeet, so that dew wouldn’t form on them, this seems to work, but I only have a limited supply of netting and it is labour intensive!  However, one frosty morning, I noticed that we didn’t have any frost around the water tanks.  This is because the large volume of water in the tank stays warmer overnight compared to the air temperature and provides a little pocket of warmer air to protect the surrounding grass from frost.  This made me think of replicating the effect on a smaller scale in the garden by putting buckets of water around the garden to protect silverbeet and seedlings.  We’re also lucky that the garden itself is close to the tanks, so probably has a little protection from cold air. 

This is a technique that was used by Bolivians for centuries to raise the local temperature and boost their productivity (more here).  It seems that you just have to work out over time which plants will grow well in your garden, in your micro-climate, in your soil, especially when a neighbour just up the hill may have a completely difference climate and geology to your own.  For example, I found out the hard way that peas will not grow here in the summer, its just too hot, but they didn’t do well in winter either (too cold!), they seemed to thrive in spring, when the temperature and sunlight hours in my garden were just right.  I don’t think that follows any planting guide!  So it looks like I will just have to figure it out for myself.

I've written heaps more about frost here.

What's your climate like?  Does it show up on the climate map?

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Pollinators for your vegetable garden

A friend asked me what was the best way to attract pollinators to her garden.  She was thinking about getting a honey bee hive or maybe just attracting native bees.

Firstly I have to say I was surprised how much difference it made to my garden after we moved a couple of beehives right next to it.  Suddenly I had capsicums and pumpkins growing where I never had success before.  Thinking back, I hardly ever saw honey bees in my garden, which means we don't have any wild hives or beekeepers close to us.  I did used to see all sorts of other pollinators, but they must not be as efficient or as suited to vegetable pollination.  

These are your options for improving pollination in your garden:

1) find a beekeeper who needs somewhere to put hives, honestly you should not have to pay for this, someone will appreciate having somewhere to put them (we are always looking for good places to put our bees, particularly if you have lots of trees or other sources of nectar nearby), but you will need to be ok with them visiting every few weeks in spring/summer to check the hive. And they might give you some honey.

2) native bee/wasp hotel - this is for solitary bees and wasps (they just lay a few eggs in holes in wood and the new insects hatch and forage near the hotel, providing both pollination and pest control as some of them eat caterpillars too) and it does help to attract pollinators if you give them somewhere to live.

3) native stingless bee hive - there are three species of Australian native bees that build colonies like honeybees.  They prefer warmer temperatures, so you'll only find them in Queensland and northern NSW as far as I know. They have a queen (or several) and live in hollow logs etc. They don't fly very far, so if you've seen these in your garden then you already have a wild hive nearby. You can buy hives at around $200-300 for a tiny box of bees.

If you don't want your own honey beehive, then I think the cheapest and most effective option is to make habitat for wild pollinators that you don't have to look after or pay for. As long as you provide lots of flowers all year for them to feed on, shallow water sources, habitat (bee hotel, hollow logs, trees etc), no spraying of chemicals, they should come into your garden naturally. The options above will boost numbers if you feel that you still don't have enough pollinators.

What do you think?  How do you attract pollinators to your garden?

Monday, October 3, 2016

Farm update - October 2016

It has been a beautifully cool and rainy start to spring.  This is a bit different to the last few years and we are not complaining!  the grass is still green and my garden, while full of chickweed, is producing lots of silverbeet instead of drying up and dying.

Food and cooking
Every weekend I cook something in bulk, either a roast or a casserole or curry in the slow cooker, and then I make up 10 lunches in our glass lunch containers, with lots of veges.  That ensures that we have a healthy and frugal lunch to eat every day at work.  For dinner I often cook a larger batch so that we can eat the same thing for two nights and have less washing up and cooking work to do the second night.  Lately Pete has been studying, so I've been doing all the cooking, but usually we take turns.

Land and farming
We haven't had any time to do much on the farm.  We really need to mow the perennial pasture at some stage, the tops are dry and it will grow back green if we slash it down now.

The hens are laying steadily now and we have plenty of eggs.  Enough for the dogs to have several each day and we still have to make the occasional quiche!

Cows and cattle
Not much new to report here.  We still have the nine angus cows and eight calves at Cheslyn Rise with Bella, Molly, Nancy, Ruby and Fatty (and Bully).  And at Eight Acres we have the two baby house cows (Ruby and Charlotte) and Chubby.  The rain is helping with our grass supplies.  We need to castrate the bull calves soon.

Rosey likes to check out the camera

Bees and Beekeeping
We have had mixed success with the nucs we made last month.  One of them swarmed, which Pete managed to catch (a beekeeper told us to put a frame of brood in the box to make the swarm stay put, and this time that seems to have worked).  It looks like one of the nucs ended up with the original queen and then the newly hatched queen swarmed (or the other way around), so we have a swarm with queen and nuc with queen.  The other boxes don't have a queen yet, but we have given them more brood frames from the good boxes and will see if they come right.  They seem to be finding lots of nectar and are doing a great job building honeycomb, so if nothing else we will end up with plenty of good frames for our next attempt at starting nucs.

My garden is now full of flowers thanks to a nice we spring.  I have geranium, brassicas of all description, calendula, marigolds and rocket flowering.  A pumpkin vine has appeared from the compost and is making an early start, as are several tomato plants.  I'm still harvesting peas, kale, silverbeet and chard, perennial leaks, celery, swedes and a few carrots.  The capsicum plants have survived winter and the bees have already pollinated a few flowers for me.  I've noticed a new choko vine has popped up and I need to weed out the blackberry that wants to take over (and has only ever yielded a couple of berries!).  I have planted bean seeds, and the mice haven't eaten them.

my garden is full of flowers
We have made some major progress with the house.  We have started moving things from the the house into the shed and we have finished painting the lounge, bedroom and kitchen.  We took all the doors off and trimmed them to make sure they shut when the new floor is installed, then we started painting the doors, door frames and window frames.  I have booked in the floor people to come and assess the job (we have already paid a deposit, but I put them off until we had got further with painting) AND the kitchen guy is coming to give me a quote!

painting progress

I hope by now that anyone interested in Permaculture will have heard that Bill Mollison passed away on the 24th of September.  Bill Mollison developed Permaculture with David Holmgren, and Bill has written many books and really worked hard to spread the word.  There have been many wonderful tributes across the net, so I don't have much to add, and I will continue writing and practicing permaculture.  I think we can all continue Bill's work in our own small ways, so change the mainstream commercial culture.

This month I'm up to the principle: Make the least change for the greatest possible effect.  This principle has two parts I think.  Looking for small changes that you can make in your life and on your property, changes that don't require a lot of effort or resources are the easiest to achieve.  But also targeting changes that will result in the greatest effect, so that we are prioritising effort and not starting too many projects at once.  Related principles from Holmgren's series are 1) observe and interact (so that you can see what changes to make), 9) use small and slow solutions (low effort, but maximum impact) and 3) obtain a yield (make sure you see a result from your actions).

A couple of examples that come to mind: firstly the local produce share that I've helped to start with some friends.  Its really low effort, just once a month for an hour we get together to share our excess produce.  I spent some time researching the safe food rules and my friend researched potential locations and then we launched the idea on facebook.  For that small effort, we now have a growing and connected community group who always go home with some useful produce, this seems like a small change with a big effect.

On our property we are always looking for ways to make changes while keeping input costs low.  In my garden I have found that I don't need to dig the ground now that I have enough earthworms to keep the soil aerated.  On a larger scale, we can reduce the need to plough by growing perennial pastures and encouraging worms and microbes to work the soil for us.  This has huge benefits of increasing soil carbon and plant health, increasing carrying capacity and biodiversity, reducing erosion, leaching and run-off.  Sometimes the low-effort/high-impact solution is right in front of us, but its so different from conventional methods it takes imagination and guts to make the change and follow through.

I don't seem to have had time to create anything this month.  In fact I have been spending any spare time decluttering and collecting things to be moved to our new shed.  We have jammed so much "useful" stuff into our little house, and now I finally have somewhere to put it.  I am sorting through it and gifting or chucking anything that is not truly useful.  I do not want to move anything that we don't really need.  This is a slow process, but the clutter in our house is reducing and its a nice feeling.  I can actually close the doors to the linen cupboard!  We plan to start putting furniture in our second-hand house when the floors are finished, but we will only move a few things at a time.  Rather than fill the house, we will move things in as we need them and see how we feel about it.  I'm also planning lots of cupboards!

How was your September?  What are you up to for October?


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