Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Getting started with growing your own - Ohio Farm Girl

In my ongoing series of interviews with bloggers who grow their own, here's another interview, this time we venture outside Australia to the middle of the USA, with Ohio Farmgirl from Ohio Farmgirl's adventures in the good land.  

Thanks Farmer Liz! I'm Ohio Farmgirl aka OFG. I live on a small homestead-like farm in the middle of Ohio, USA. Here in The Good Land we have ducks and geese and chickens and turkeys and pigz and dairy goats. We grow a lot of our own food and also feed for our barnyard. We butcher our own meat here on our farm. My blog, Adventures in the Good Land, is about how we are making our way in this world. Previously I lived in the city and only had a small flower garden.

OFG doesn't have a photo of herself on her blog, but lots of her lovely big dogs instead:)
Farmer Liz: Tell me about your garden and climate

Ohio Farmgirl: I have a series of gardens across the property. Unfortunately we have extremely bad soil (clay with low fertility) so our biggest challenge isn't more space – its productive space. We've spent the last couple years bringing in soil amendments and improving each little patch of ground as we go along. The first year was a total disaster. I couldn't get anything to grow. But little by little we are seeing improvements and now have a productive garden.

Of course we grow tomatoes and beans, but also a lot of greens, squash, potatoes, and herbs. This past year I finally had a small harvest of strawberries and also onions for the first time. Our biggest success tho has been that we've also started growing grains on a small scale. I fed the chickens for most of the summer with a smallish patch of wheat originally sown to improve the soil.

Even tho we have four seasons we have a long growing period. I can usually get some early radishes and greens going in March or April and we often continue to harvest until mid-October. We grow enough food that we rarely have to buy produce from the store in summer. We also have goats so they provide almost all of our dairy needs during the milking season. Our pigz and chickens provide probably 95% of our meat (year round).
It seems very cold there at the moment!
FL: When and why did you start growing your own?

OFG: I started a garden in my city yard years ago. At that time I mostly grew flowers and ornamental plants. However when I moved to the country I realized that I could grow food. We literally stood in a big grocery store and listed all of the things that we could grow ourselves. Then we thought, well, we could grow our own meat too if we wanted to... Back then I didn't know about canning or preserving. Now we harvest and preserve throughout the year. Knowing that you can provide just about everything you need in your your yard is a great feeling. And its a fun life. 

FL: From your experience, what’s the best way to start growing your own?

OFG: Start where you are, use what you've got, and do what you can. Live in an apartment? Grow some tomatoes in a pot – then add some basil and you've got a tomato sauce! Then see if there is a community garden and try that. Have a yard? Rip out that grass and put in a real garden. Or start with a few raised beds. Have a couple acres? Well then.. you can do just about anything. Nothing feels better than knowing your cost for your meal was a package of seeds and your time.

FL: What are your top 5 favourite easy and productive plants for beginners to grow?

OFG: Tomatoes – specifically Sweet 100's which are a cherry variety , Cherokee Purple, and one of the Roma varieties.

Spices – Parsley, basil, thyme.

Potatoes – Any of them. Potatoes are the best crop ever and so much fun. They are so easy and harvesting potatoes is like having an Easter Egg hunt. The way we grow potatoes has really improved our soil also.

Kale – grows like a dream and you can't hardly kill it.

Radishes – the first thing you can plant in the spring and the first thing you can harvest. They are snappy and delicious and are a joy after a long winter. 

am I the only person who can't grow radishes?
FL: Any other suggestions for new growers? 

OFG: Don't be afraid to try new things. But don't bang your head against the wall if something doesn't work for you. I can't grow an eggplant to save my life. But I can get the at a roadside stand right around the corner. So I focus on the most bang for our buck, for instance tomatoes. We make and can all of our salsa. It sounds like a little thing but having that jar of victory on a cold winter nite is a thrill. Every little thing you don't have to buy makes gardening that much more valuable. I finally grew broccoli for the first time last summer – I was so excited. Now my goal for this year is to grow enough so I don't have to buy any at the store.

FL: What’s your favourite thing about growing your own?

OFG: The deep satisfaction that comes from knowing I can do it myself. That little package of seeds is a spring's worth of fresh greens. Or will become all the canned tomato products I need for a year. It's knowing that I can grow alfalfa for the goats who will make it into milk, and the milk along with the wheat I grew for the chickens will allow the hens to lay eggs, the eggs will feed us and the pigz, the pigz will eventually become bacon. Thanks to the pigz, the ground where they were on last year is all tilled, cleared, and fertilized. That ground will then grow the alfalfa for the goats and the wheat for the chickens... who will produce milk and eggs...and so on and so on. It's wonderful to be this close to the circle of life and know exactly where you stand.

So what do you think?  Did that give you some ideas about starting to grow your own?  Head over to Ohio Farmgirl's blog to add your comments and continue the discussion.

Check out the other interviews:
Linda of Witch's Kitchen
Gavin of the Greening of Gavin
Emma from Craving Fresh
Tanya of Lovely Greens
and myself

Monday, February 25, 2013

Passive heating and cooling

In February I've been writing a series of posts about the permaculture principle, Catch and Store Energy.  One of the places that this principle can be applied is within the home.  In most homes, the largest use of energy is in either heating or cooling the house to a comfortable temperature.  This can be achieved for free by considering the orientation of the house and the building materials, which is a technique called passive solar design.  This is most easily applied before the house is built, but there are also many options for retrofitting passive design techniques to existing buildings.

our secondhand house
To understand how passive solar design works, it is important to first consider how heat is lost or gained in a building.  Heat transfer occurs through three mechanisms:
  • conduction - the transfer of heat from substances in direct contact with each other
  • convection - the movement of hot gases or liquids due to density
  • and radiation - the transfer of heat energy by electromagnetic wave motion (this is the hardest one to explain, the best example is heat from the sun, which reaches us without contact with any substance or through gas or liquid movement)
How can we use these principles to keep a house cool or warm?
Depending on your climate, one of these aspects may be more of a priority than another.  For example, in a very cold climate, the priority is heating the house.  In a hot dry desert climate, the priority is keeping the house cool during the day.  If you have a weird climate like mine, in which we have frost in winter and over 35degC in summer, you just have to pick your priority.  In our case, we have lots of wood to burn to heat the house, so setting up the house to be cool is more important.

The main way to use conduction to your advantage is through insulation in roofs, walls and even underfloor.  This prevents heat being transferred out of the house when the house is warmer than the atmosphere, and from being transferred into the house on a hot day.  The only problem is that if the house does heat up during the day, it will slow heat loss overnight.  

Convection can help to cool the house in the form of drafts, which are of course unwelcome when you want the house to be warm.  In summer, this means opening lots of windows and creating cross-breezes through the house.  The main recommendation is to open windows low on the shady side of the house and high on the sunny side, air will rise as it heats and exit through the top window, while fresh air is sucked into the house through the low window.  In winter you need to prevent drafts and cold convection currents.  Drafts around doors and windows can be blocked using cute "draft snakes" (a clever one here too).  And the convection current around a window, which sucks warm air over the cold window pan, can be blocked using pelmets and floor length curtains.  Heat from wood stoves and heaters is transferred by convection (unless you are standing in front of the fire, and then its radiation).

Anything that is warmer than its surroundings will radiate heat.  In summer, we need to block the radiant heat coming directly from the sun, and the heat reflected from other surfaces.  The main way to do this is to block windows using curtains or shutters/blinds on the outside, the latter is more effective as it stops the heat before it enters the house.  It is also possible to reflect or absorb radiant heat from the roof of the house.   In winter, the best way to take advantage of radiant heat is to let the sun shine in your windows.  These strategies work best if the house is also orientated correctly.  Most of the windows should face north (in the southern hemisphere).  In summer, the sun is high in the sky and will not shine directly into north-facing windows, but in winter when the sun is lower, it will shine into north-facing windows.  You can look up the solar path at your latitude and shade your north-facing windows at the appropriate angle to provide summer shade and winter sun.  

What about solar mass?
Solar mass is a common passive solar technique, and is great if you have a climate in which you get reasonable day time temperatures in which to heat a slab floor or internal wall and then a cool or cold night which would benefit from the gradual release of that heat.  In our climate, that would be ok in winter, but in our humid summer, true thermal mass would only keep the house hot all day and all night.  Also in really cold climates, if the mass never heats up, it just becomes a massive heat sink that makes it hard to heat your house.  Make sure you read about thermal mass and how it would perform in your climate before you include it in your design.

More information here and here.

How do we apply this concept in our house(s)?
Our existing house has not been orientated correctly.  The veranda is on the south, so it is cold in winter.  We at least have no windows on the western side (hot afternoon sun) and a car port on the east shades us from morning sun.  The house is well-sealed, and heats up quickly in winter.  Unfortunately it also heats up quickly in summer!  There are not enough windows to create airflow, allow we have installed ceiling fans in every room to assist with this.  The house is insulated in room and wall cavities (looks like the minimum requirement though) and has a zinc alum roof, which reflects radiant heat.

The "new" second-hand house at Cheslyn Rise (see yesterday's post) will be orientated with the veranda facing north and the master bedroom east (lucky we are early risers).  The enclosed veranda (storage area) is on the south.  The house has lots of windows to allow cross-breezes.  We will insulate the roof and the walls where possible.  I suspect that it is going to be drafty in winter, but we have plenty of wood to burn to keep us warm and I will be knitting some door snakes and sewing curtains.  I'd like to get some outdoor window shades when we see where the radiant heat is a problem.

Have you used passive heating and cooling in your own house?

Each month in 2013 I reviewed a principle from David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability:

Sunday, February 24, 2013

A secondhand house for Cheslyn Rise

After living in an old Queenslander in the Lockyer Valley for several years before moving to Nanango, Pete and I were convinced that we never wanted to own another one.  They are beautiful, but a lot of work to maintain and sometimes have a very odd layout.  The house that we lived in was raised up to allow storage under the house, and with 8ft ceilings, it was very difficult to reach all of the external walls to paint them.  It also had the toilet located off the porch as you came in the back door, which wasn’t very nice on cold nights!

We were also sure that we didn’t want a cheap modern house.  Our house at Nanango is made of a product called “hardiplank”, which is fibre cement sheeting moulded to look like wood weatherboards.  It doesn’t look like wood weatherboards, it looks like moulded cement sheeting (I have heard that you can get a nicer version of this, but ours seems to be the cheapest option).  The inside has been fitted out very cheaply with just plasterboard walls and tile flooring, with a raked ceiling.  Every time we want to hang a picture we miss the “VJs” (vertical join) boards in the Queenslander, you can hang a picture anywhere on the wall without worrying what’s behind the plasterboard!  When I go into other modern houses I notice how low the ceilings are, at least ours is raked, so it doesn’t seem so bad, but I miss the high ceilings in the Queenslander.

We were planning to build a new house, but when we looked at the options, we really couldn't decide anything, from cladding to internal walls, nothing seemed to suit us, being that we wanted quality, it seemed like we would be saving for years to afford what we wanted.  Actually we were leaning towards rammed earth construction….. and then we found a second-hand house.  We weren’t really looking for one, but Pete loves his, and was checking out houses and land in our area when he found a small Queenslander for removal, only 15 km from Cheslyn Rise.  We looked at the photos online, and then we went for a visit in person, and of course we couldn’t resist a sweet little Queenslander, so we made an offer and now its ours for removal.  Its not totally finalised, we are still making all the arrangements, I wouldn't normally tell you about it until it was definite, but its getting difficult NOT to tell you because I want to write a post about houses!

Our second hand house, ready to move....
When I called the council to ask about the removal process, the lady asked me if it was a second-hand house.  I hadn’t thought about it like that before, but I suppose it is second-hand.  It feels good to recycle it, we could never afford to fit out a new house with VJs, but this way we get the walls we want, and no fibre cement cladding!  The best part was when we talked to our neighbour and it turned out that his mother grew up in that house, so I’m glad that we could keep it in the general area. 
While it initially seemed like a cheap option, and I hope it will still end up being cheaper and quicker than our well-built new house, its probably not much different to buying a new relocatable or cheaply built hardiplank or brick house.  I wouldn’t normally go into details of the cost, but as we have gone along, there have been a number of small unexpected costs, just because we didn’t know the process very well, and I thought by listing some rough figures here, it may help others to plan their house removal project.  Please remember that these are estimates only based on our experiences and your own costs may be very different.

The house itself only cost us $10,000.  Removal 15km and restumping is just under $40,000.  Those are the two major costs, but there are quite a few other small unexpected costs involved in getting the building approved for removal from the site and then approved on the new site.  These will depend on the council at each end of the move, but to give you an idea of what to look for:
  • Soil test and wastewater plan– about $1000 (depends also on travel to site, most are in metro areas)
  • Council bond - $17000 until the building is 'sound'
  • Council fees – nearly $1000
  • Drawings of the building – about $1500
  • Engineering drawings and energy efficiency – about $500
  • Certification – at least $2000
  • Plumber to disconnect at site - ?
  • Engineer’s inspection – about $1000
  • Owner builder permit – about $150 (even if you aren’t actually planning on doing anything to the house yourself, its best to just get an owner builder permit, as you will be coordinating all the contractors.  Any work over $11000 requires a permit, unless you have a “lead contractor” with a BSA licence) - and then $340 for the actually permit!  You also need to do the White Card construction induction course (I already had that one at least). 
Its surprising how quickly this adds up and makes a $10000 house more like a $70000 house and that’s before you do the rest of the work on the new site.  In order to get the final building approval, the following may be required, depending on the council and the state of the house:
  • Septic and plumbing connection
  • Re-wiring (even if this wiring is ok, this is an opportunity to put power points and switches where you want them, most Queenslanders were built prior to electricity, so the wiring done later can be quite odd).
  • Water tanks
  • Energy efficiency requirements (eg insulation, solar hot water)
  • Owner builder insurance
  • In some areas you have to also replace the roof sheeting
This is our project so far, and I can’t wait for it to all be over and I can show you the finished house ready for us to move in!  We’ve only had the contract for a few weeks and all the work to find out what needs to be done and engaging contractors has been crazy, but often with this kind of thing, if we don’t just jump in and start something we would still have been procrastinating over the type of house we wanted J
If anyone has any removal house or general building tips to share, please go ahead….  So what do you think of our second-hand house?

Friday, February 22, 2013

Perennial plants and trees - a food forest

In February I've been writing posts about the permaculture principle of "Catch and Store Energy".  One of the less obvious forms of energy is in seeds and perennial plants and trees.

Seeds saving
Saving seeds from annual plants is a form of catching and storing energy and a very simple way to ensure that food can be grown year to year.  Seed can either we saved directly by drying seed pods and keeping the seeds secure, or indirectly by simply letting plants go to seed and seedling to spring up again where the seeds fall.  This is described in Masanobu Fukuoka's classic book "One straw revolution".  I like to do a bit of both, I keep a small amount of seed for myself, I give lots away and I scatter the rest.  Everything I know about saving seeds is here.

leek seeds ripening
Perennial plants
An important aspect of permaculture is to let nature do the work for you.  One of the easiest ways to obtain food year after year is to plant perennial plants that do not need to be replanted and tended at the start of each season.  The only work required is to harvest the fruit, roots or leaves (in One Straw Revolution, Masanobu talks about not even pruning the fruit trees!).  My garden was originally designed around annual plants, but as I've learnt more about perennial plants, I've made space for them around the perimeter of the garden.  I grow perennials such as sweet potato, jerusalum artichoke, strawberries, raspberries, lots of herbs in pots, arrowroot, comfrey and lavender.  Fruit trees are also perennials, and at the moment I only have a lemon and a lime in pots and a very sad tangelo in the ground.  I will be planting plenty more at Cheslyn Rise when we have water organised.

raspberries and sweet potato in the background
Non-food Trees
Trees are a source of timber for building and fencing, firewood, shelter and fertility.  Trees have deep roots and are able to bring various minerals to the surface to be available to other plants through leaf-drop.  Contrary to popular farmer belief (and I have heard this one several times now), the trees do not "suck all the water away and stop the grass growing"!!!  As Peter Andrew explains, the trees actually exert suction on the water table and raise water closer to the surface, so that it will be available to other plants.  Why would they have such deep roots if they only take water from the surface where the grass roots are?!  A good stand of trees, such as our small forest at Cheslyn Rise, will provide these needs indefinitely if it is well managed.

we have lots of trees....
Food Forest
A common permaculture technique is to plant many perennial plants together in a "food forest" that mimics natural forest conditions.  This means fruit trees, bushes, herbs, ground cover and root crops all growing together, arranged so that each can take advantage of different root depths and mineral requirements.  When it is well-established poultry, and eventually larger animals, can forage in the food forest to clean up fallen fruit.  Self-seeding annuals can also be incorporated in the food forest.  The type of forest will depend on the climate and micro-climate.  In tropical areas, the food forest can be densely planted with tropical fruit trees.  I think in our climate I will be growing more temperate fruit trees and they will need to be spaced so that they get enough sun.

How do you ensure that you plan to catch and store energy from plants in your garden/farm?

Each month in 2013 I reviewed a principle from David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability:

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Getting started with growing your own - Gavin Webber

Today I'm continuing my series of interviews with bloggers who grow their own with an interview with Gavin Webber who writes over at The Greening of Gavin. Gavin grows fruit and veges in Melton, Victoria, just south of the Great Dividing Ranges, on his suburban house block. Gavin also keeps chickens, has two worm farms, and many compost bins. His blog was recently awarded ReNew Magazine 2012 Blog of the Year, where he writes about his sustainable journey and lifestyle that was brought on by a green epiphany.

Attracting over 1 million page views, and containing over 1200 posts, The Greening of Gavin has been published nearly every day for the past 4½ years, and is a treasure trove of sustainable living advice and gardening tips. Gavin has also written four sustainable living eBooks that are available from all good eBook retailers. 

here's Gavin planing corn 
 Farmer Liz: Tell me about your garden and climate. 

Gavin Webber: My food garden is located in my average suburban yard in Melton, Victoria, Australia. I would say that the climate is roughly Mediterranean temperate, and our area to the west of Melbourne always seems to get about 250mm (10 Inches) of rain less than the east side of the city. Over there it is green and lush, but on my side, it is dry and barren.

The actual growing areas take up most of my spare land. We have about a 779 sqm block, with about 100 sqm under food production. That includes my 8 main raised garden beds, and my entire front yard which has 13 fruit trees in the ground. I also have 12 more fruit trees growing in large pots.

We also have seven chickens, which provide us with eggs, who also give us fertilizer for the garden, and keep insect pests under control. They are an integral part of the food growing system. On average, the chooks lay about 2 dozen eggs a week.

I water all of my food garden beds with rainwater, and I have two medium slim-line water tanks that hold 4500 litres. I have these tanks interconnected, and water the garden via a drip irrigation system serviced by a 12-volt pump connected to a small solar power system.

I produce about 40% of all our fruit and vegetable requirements, and when there is surplus, I preserve it using our fowlers-vacola kit.

FL: When and why did you start growing your own?

GW: Well, I suppose I first started to grow food when I lived on a dairy farm as a child. I used to help my Father around the farm, milk the cows, and help him in his orchard and veggie patch.

However, I took up the challenge of growing my own food in earnest in March 2007, after seeing a TV show called “It isn’t easy being green”, staring Dick Strawbridge and his family in the UK. It was a truly inspirational show. After watching the first series, I knew that I could also learn to grow my own food around my back yard. I really wanted to taste real food again, just like when I was a kid, with a second objective of lowering food miles.

So I started small, cleared some lawn and ornamental shrubs, and built five large raised veggie patches on the west side of my yard. The first year was very experimental, and I tried to grow far too much. However I did read as much as I could about organic gardening, and have stuck to those principles ever since. I stick to basic crops of wholesome vegetables, and manage to grow something all year round.

Gavin even fits hens into his yard
FL: From your experience, what’s the best way to start growing your own?

GW: I believe that the best way to start growing your own food is firstly to observe the lay of the land, even on a suburban block. See which part of the yard gets full sun for most of the day, where the soil is good, or even where there is part shade. Then draw a plan of what you want it to look like. I did this for about a month before I built anything and I am glad I did. All of my main garden beds receive full sun for about 7 hours in Summer, and around 4 hours in Winter. Then once you have allocated a plot, build up the soil if needs be, and go for it.

FL: What are your top 5 favourite easy and productive plants for beginners to grow?

GW: Tomatoes, Pumpkins, Garlic, Zucchini, and Onions. All of these vegetables have been staples in my garden since I began growing food in 2007. Onions and Garlic and basically plant and forget in winter, and the others are prolific if you take a little bit of care and water well.

Look how many potatoes Gavin grew!
FL: How do you grow so much in a suburban backyard?

GW: Well it is quite easy actually. The first rule is dig up the lawn. It is useless and serves little purpose, unless you want to keep some for your chickens or ducks on which to graze. Once the lawn is gone, you will have so much space to grow productive crops that you will not know where to start!

The second rule is use vertical space as well as horizontal. Any fence can be used to grow climbing beans, chokos, or even pumpkins. Grape vines can be grown above on an arbor over a walkway. Use fruit trees in pots to expand productivity upwards.

My third rule is that even the smallest space can be used to grow something. I have a 50cm wide space either side of the garden path which I have populated with herb pots like common mint, peppermint, spearmint, sage, basil, thyme, curly leaf parsley, Italian parsley, and rosemary. I even have a few tomato and sweet corn plants in pots growing well. You just have to use your imagination and be creative.

Gavin's suburban yard
FL: What’s your favourite thing about growing your own?

GW: The taste of homegrown food cannot be beaten. Supermarkets have forced farmers to grow produce that survives long transportation, but think little of the taste when it arrives at the store. Most supermarket produce is not fresh and has been kept in storage for many months. That is not a definition of fresh in my books.

There is nothing quite as satisfying as walking 5 metres out of your own backdoor and harvesting the freshest ingredients for your dinner.

Gavin, thanks so much for providing such excellent advice for new growers.  What do you think? Do you need to know more? Head over to The Greening of Gavin to comment on this post and let us know your advice to new growers. Next week I'll be chatting with Ohio Farmgirl of Adventures in the Good Land.

The other interviews:
Linda of Witch's Kitchen
Ohio Farmgirl from Adventures in the Goodland
Emma from Craving Fresh
Tanya of Lovely Greens
and myself

Monday, February 18, 2013

Biological agriculture - a transition to organic farming

Since I did the Sustainable Agriculture course in July last year, I have been reading The Biological Farmer, by Gary Zimmer.  This month I'm writing about permaculture principle "Catch and Store Energy", and one of the less obvious forms of energy is soil fertility.  Biological agriculture is all about maintaining soil fertility in pasture and grain crop farming, so I thought it was appropriate to tell you more about it this month.

While biological agriculture shares many philosophies with organic agriculture, they are not the same thing.  Like organic agriculture, biological agriculture focuses on soil fertility and working with natural systems, however biological agriculture also uses limited amounts of synthetic chemicals where they will help the soil to rebuild.  This may seem a contradiction, but when you get into the detail it does make sense.  Its fairly obvious that all synthetic herbicides and pesticides will damage natural systems and these are not recommended by biological agriculture, however, certain synthetic fertilisers can help to balance soil minerals and feed soil microbes.  Biological agriculture is a way to transition from chemical agriculture to organic agriculture without losing too much productivity.

In his book, Gary lists 6 rules for biological agriculture:
  1. test and balance soil - replace deficiencies and provide for the crop, replace major elements and then trace elements, restore soil biology
  2. use fertilisers which are life-promoting and non-harmful - some fertilisers are better than others
  3. use pesticides and herbicides in minimum amounts and only when really necessary - a few weeds in a forage or hay crop don't matter, but for cash crops it will depends on customer requirements, use tillage to control weeds where possible
  4. use a short rotation - change crop type every 1-2 years, or don't use a monoculture (particularly for forage)
  5. use tillage to control decay of organic material and to control soil air and water - organic matter (green manure or animal manure) must be tilled into the soil to a shallow depth to enhance decay, also use optimal calcium and soil biology to improve aeration
  6. feed soil life - major elements, plant material, manures and legumes (nitrogen) and then fine-tune with 'biological' inputs such as seaweed, fish emulsion, inoculants etc.
Gary says "the secret to biological farming is to use crops, soil life and fertilisers to make more minerals available to future crops".  Another important point is that yields from biological farming may be lower than yields from chemical farming, but the input costs are also lower.  The main problem with chemical farming is that the input costs will always increase.  As natural fertility is degraded, more synthetic fertiliser, more herbicide and pesticide is required to achieve the same yield.  In biological farming, the natural fertility increases each year and the input costs decrease.  

It has been our aim since we bought Cheslyn Rise to use organic farming principles, but as we transition the farm from chemical farming (used by the farmer before us) to organic farming, we have been using some synthetic fertilisers to help us.  Now we know what to look for to buy synthetic fertilisers that will do no harm to the soil biology, and we understand how to enhance the natural soil fertility, we can continue that transition.  Organic farming works when everything is in balance, but when everything is out of balance due to long-term chemical farming, careful management and techniques such as biological agriculture can smooth the transition to organic farming.

This book focuses on crop farming, however, I believe that the principles can also be applied to animals.  Our focus with the cattle is in building their natural immunity by feeding mineral supplements, but where necessary we will also use chemicals (in this case pesticides) to assist the cattle when they are under threat from pests such as paralysis tick, until they develop natural immunity.

Biological agriculture also has an interesting parallel with permaculture, as Gary points out that whenever part of the natural system is eliminated (eg the earthworm), the farmer must take over their function in the system (eg increase tillage for aeration).  If the natural system is maintained, the farmer does less work, which is also the aim of permaculture design.

If you want to know more about biological agriculture I recommend that you read Gary's book.  I am about to order the sequel, Advancing Biological Agriculture, as I want to keep learning more.

Have you tried any of the concepts from biological agriculture?  What do you think?

Each month in 2013 I reviewed a principle from David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability:

Friday, February 15, 2013

A sourdough cake starter called "Herman"

My friend gave me a bowl of sourdough cake starter, called "Herman".  A bit of a google revealed that this cake starter has been around for a long time, maybe not this particular starter mixture in my kitchen, but the idea of this cake starter has been circulating since the 1980s or earlier.  There's actually an entire website devoted to it, as well as lots of newspaper articles and forum discussions.  Have you heard of it before now?

Herman when he arrived - pictured with my Danish bread dough whisk,
which was a very cool xmas pressie from a friend, and I've been using it at every opportunity
In its current incarnation, the mix is given away with instructions on how to look after it for 10 days.  It needs to be "fed" with flour, sugar and water on day 4 and 10, and stirred on each of the other days.  On the 10th day the started is split into four portions, three to give away and one used to make a cake.  The recipe that comes with Herman is for an apple and cinnamon cake, which I hear is delicious.

As you know, I love trying fermentations.  Fermenting is both a low energy and simple method of preserving food and way to partially digest and improve the food before we eat it.  I make and eat fermented dairy products (yoghurt, kefir and cheese), fermented beverages (ginger ale, barley water and beet kvass), fermented vegetables (picked cucumbers and sauerkraut), and I "soak" all grains and flour with kefir or whey prior to cooking.  In the case of rice and quinoa, if I want to cook these in the evening, that morning I put the grain in a pot with the correct amount of cooking water and a few tablespoons of kefir, and then cook them as normal in the evening.  For bread, I mix up the flour and water in the morning and add the yeast and bake it in the afternoon.  I hadn't figured out how to soak the flour for cake yet though... until Herman turned up.

Herman after being fed, bubbling nicely :)

Herman is a sourdough cake starter, which is similar to sourdough bread starter, but the difference is that the sourdough bread starter is used to both pre-ferment/soak the flour prior to baking AND to provide the yeast to rise the bread (for my bread method, I presoak with kefir and add conventional bakers yeast).  In comparison, the cake starter is ONLY used to pre-ferment/soak the flour, as baking soda is used to rise the cake.  This seems to have caused some confusion on some of the forum threads that I read, in which people wonder a) why the yeast is needed to bake the cake (answer: its not needed) and b) why you would want to leave it on your kitchen bench for 10 days (answer: to ferment the flour so that its easier to digest).

Once I figured out that Herman was a sourdough starter, I started to investigate all the cake recipes for Herman and for sourdough starters in general.  I could have just made the recipe that came with Herman, but I really like chocolate cake, so of course I looked for something chocolate.  I based my cake on this recipe, but you know I can't stick to a recipe, so here's what I really did:

the finished product, to encourage you to keep reading...
  1. the night before I made the cake I followed these instructions to feed Herman, instead of the instructions that came with him.  I honestly didn't want to make so much starter, so I didn't want to add 1 cup of flour AND 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of milk and then have excess to give away, so I only used half a cup of flour and half a cup of flour, and I washed 1 cup of the starter down the sink first (I know!  I felt awful doing this!  but I gather that this is essential to make room for the fresh ingredients).
  2. In the morning I combined 1 cup of the now very bubbly Herman, with 2 cups of organic white flour and 1 cup of raw milk. 
  3. In the afternoon I then combined 1 cup of rapadura sugar, 1 cup of cocoa, 1.5 tsp of baking soda, 1 cup of coconut oil, a splash of vanilla essence and 2 eggs.  I then mixed in the starter mixture.  It was very think and difficult to mix, I didn't want to ruin it by mixing too much, so it ended up a bit of a marble cake :)
  4. I then baked it in the Weber BBQ for about an hour at around 180degC until it seemed cooked
  5. Served warm with natural yoghurt (I can never be bothered with icing), it was delicious!
Don't get me wrong, this cake is still full of sugar and not something you want to eat everyday, or bake every week, but that seems difficult to avoid if you're supposed to keep feeding and using Herman.  Fortunately, just like a sourdough bread starter, Herman will survive in the fridge or freezer for several weeks, until your next cake (or muffins, or pancakes etc).  You just need to get him out the night before you need him and feed him again (maybe even earlier if he's frozen), so that's he's ready to combine with your flour in the morning and ready to cook in the afternoon.

Traditionalists prefer to keep their starter in a glass jar with a muslin cover or in a ceramic crock.  Honestly, we have a massive ant problem in our kitchen at the moment, so I have been keeping my Herman in a plastic container with a lid that has a pop up thingy to release steam when you microwave (I actually bought it for aging cheese, which it is very good at too).  And I've had to keep it on the dining table away from the ants.  

I think I'll put some Herman in the freezer just in case I break the one I have at the moment, and I'll keep the rest out for the occasional cake experiment, until I get sick of it and then it can go in the fridge for a while.

So what do you think?  Do you have any personal experience with Herman?  Do you keep one yourself?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Getting started with growing your own - Linda Woodrow

As part of the series of interviews I started last week, today I have asked Linda Woodrow to tell me about how she gardens and the advice she gives to someone who wants to get started with growing their own.  Linda blogs over at The Witches Kitchen.  She says "out of the witches kitchen should come food that is healthy, tasty, local, seasonal, ethical, green, and sustainable", although she also acknowledges that this is almost impossible to achieve, but absolutely worth trying!  Linda writes from decades of experience with food gardening and food preparation and has also published a book called "The Permaculture Home Garden", which I reviewed recently, and highly recommend to anyone thinking about starting or already started with food growing, it has some excellent advice for all levels of gardeners and all sizes of garden.  

Linda Woodrow
Farmer Liz: Tell me about your garden and climate.
Linda Woodrow: My garden these days is small and very intensively fenced against bandicoots, padimelons, wallabies, brush turkeys, bush rats, bobuck possums, rosellas, king parrots, cockatoos, bower birds.... the list goes on. It wasn't always so. For about 15 years I had a great big open unfenced garden. At one level I'm really pleased and proud that our habitat restoration has been so successful, but it has brought up all sorts of interesting philosophical questions about human and wildlife relations.  

So, what's special about it these days is that it is very intensive and uses a lot of vertical space. I figure since I've got the fences, I might as well use them.  I only have about 80 square metres of ground area, but another 80 square metres of vertical space in my 7 beds.  At any one time the chooks will be in one bed, so that leaves 6 beds of nearly 12 square metres each producing food. Here in northern NSW, we have a year round growing season, so that's enough area to produce pretty well all the vegetables we need, plus giveaways, plus some to preserve and bottle and dry.

My shadehouse is an important part of the system too. It's about 12 square metres and it's the only part of the system that gets daily watering. I have no automatic watering - I need to be more frugal with water and have more control over it than that.  So I just water with a hose in the shadehouse, and move a sprinkler round the garden only when it has been dry for a fortnight or more. 

Linda's garden in winter
 FL: When and why did you start growing your own?
LW: I've been growing my own for over 30 years now.  I started as a young hippy intent on bringing peace, love and mung beans to the world, and that still seems to me like a good goal in life. I was a very hard-working hippy in the early days. I think many people became disillusioned with just how hard and skilled the work of primary production is. Learning about permaculture was a revelation moment. I went from a garden to a system, and these days it's a system that needs only a few hours a week to keep it happening. 

FL: From your experience, what’s the best way to start growing your own?
LW: The key insight of permaculture is "protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour:"  Starting a garden without a design will end in tears as surely as starting a renovation project without a plan.  The design should answer questions about sun and shade, wildlife, proximity and  access, water, organic matter and nutrient cycling,  local seasons, crops, and weather.  The answers will be different in every situation but the principles are the same. 

A seedling soon to be transplanted
 FL: What are your top 5 favourite easy and productive plants for beginners to grow?
LW: I guess the answer follows on from the last question - it will be different in every climate, microclimate, soil type, ecology, season. And I don't know that there's any set of 5 plants that will make up a nice stable productive system.  

But having said that, I wrote a post a few years ago with the title "Gardening in Small Spaces: Go for Herbs"
"If you have only a tiny area (or a tiny window of time) for gardening, every one of the first dozen plants I’d go for would be herbs. In pots or courtyard, herb spiral or window boxes, balcony garden or flower bed, these are the 12 plants I’d plant first. In no particular order (choosing just a dozen was hard enough!):

1. Parsley – a super high vitamin, hardy, prolific green. Just a sprig or a sprinkle takes almost any dish to another level. Also allows you to create a salad when there’s virtually no fresh food in the house.

2. Regular mint – If you have parsley and mint the whole of the eastern Mediterranean cuisine opens up.

3. Garlic chives – perennial, bunching, and easier to grow than regular chives. If you have these, lack of an onion won’t stop you.

4. Oregano – perennial, very hardy and can turn tomato sauce out of the bottle into Italian cuisine.

5. Greek basil – the perennial small leaf kind, and you have pesto in the repertoire, which means you have gourmet pasta anytime.

6. Lemon thyme – If I have to choose between regular and lemon thyme, I’m a sucker for citrus flavours. If I was allowed number 13, I’d go for lemon basil too, or maybe verbena, or lemon myrtle or…

7. Culantro (or Mexican coriander) – perennial and hardier than the familiar annual coriander. A completely different plant but the same flavour, and it holds it’s flavour better when cooked.

8. Dill – a self seeding annual, so hardy it’s just about a weed. An egg or two or a can of fish…
9. Vietnamese mint – a few vegetables and some rice paper, or some miso and noodles …

10. Rosemary – the hardiest of the lot, and just a few leaves makes all the difference.

11. Sage – for sage burnt butter, which will make a packet of spaghetti look better than going out for takeaway.

12. Chillies – ok, they’re not quite a herb, but a perennial chili plant works the same way as herbs, with small quantities there when you need them, taking almost no space or time and opening a whole lot of kitchen doors."
The combination of being perennial, and a small amount making a huge difference, and being plants that are well adapted for semi-wild growing makes herbs a good choice. 

FL: Any suggestions for improving soil fertility without resorting to manmade chemicals?
LW: The quality of your soil makes a huge difference, and even if you start with the best soil in the world it won't stay that way if you just keep planting in it and taking nutrients out of it.  So taking the time to figure out how you are going to get a good organic matter cycling system going for minimal effort is a really good long term investment. Chooks are brilliant at it.  Worms are good.  Compost can do the trick if you have the right ingredients and a good system. If your soil is good enough, you just whack seeds in and they grow.  My big tip is that you get a lot more produce from a small area intensively and intelligently gardened than a big area laboriously dug up.  I've seen some fantastic pot plant gardens with great yields. 

FL: What’s your favourite thing about growing your own?
LW: Eating it!
But then the second favourite is the art and creativity in it. 
Then the third favourite is the sense of doing my bit, as best I can, for the health of the planet,
And the fourth favourite is the sense of security from it.
And the fifth favourite is being able to introduce kids to eating peas straight from the vine, or send visitors away with bags of treats.  
And the sixth favourite is the frugality of it.
And the seventh favourite is being able to avoid the tedious task of supermarket shopping.
And I could go on!

Food from Linda's garden, no wonder she loves eating it! 
Linda, thanks so much for sharing your answers with me and my readers, I know they will be very valuable to any new gardener who is wondering where to start.  For more information, check our Linda's blog (The Witches Kitchen) and book.  

Now we want to hear from you, comments are open over on Linda's blog, so go and tell us what tips you would give to beginner gardeners.  What have you done to save labour and generate an impressive yield?  Next week I'll interview Gavin from the Greening of Gavin.  

The rest of the interviews
Gavin of the Greening of Gavin
Ohio Farmgirl from Adventures in the Goodland
Emma from Craving Fresh
Tanya of Lovely Greens
and myself

Monday, February 11, 2013

Permaculture - Catch and Store Energy

In January I wrote about the first of the 12 permaculture principles - Observe and Interact.  In that post I discussed the various ways that we can observe and interact with our environment, from keeping your own records to research on the local climate and solar path.  Observing and interacting is a continuous process of improvement.  Of course its very important at the start of a design project, but we can always look for opportunities to improve a system.

This month's principle is Catch and Store Energy.  Energy is defined very broadly in this case, encompassing both the obvious heat and electricity, and less obvious forms of energy, such as water, trees, seeds, food and soil.  This principle is important because we live in a time of energy abundance due to the availability of cheap fossil fuels and it can be very easy to forget to plan for energy catchment and storage.  We have become accustomed to buying what we need when we need it because fossil fuels have made this such an easy option.

Energy is both heat and sun energy
and less obvious things like trees
This is not to say that we should stop using fossil fuels immediately, but we must try to use them in the most efficient way to create systems that will become self-sustaining.  We should design with an expectation that fossil fuels will one day not be available so cheaply (if at all).  This will result in a more stable system that cannot be so easily disrupted by shortages.

For example, during the flood in QLD two years ago, although some people in Brisbane required food drops after two days of isolation, we did not run out of food after nearly a week (I think we would have been ok for at least a month).  This is because we had a well-stocked pantry, freezer and garden to provide for our needs.  This kind of scenario can be helpful in planning for a future without fossil fuels.  We were very lucky not to lose power at that time, and promptly purchased a petrol generator (which we have never needed in an emergency so far!), however that only lasts as long as you have petrol, so we need to think more about food storage options that do not require electricity.  We now have a campervan with solar panels, battery system and fridge, so that will help us as well.  I also try to preserve food using fermentation and drying, which can be stored outside of the fridge.

There is so much to write about on this topic, I'm going to spread it over a few posts this month:
  • Energy for free - Passive solar design
  • Living soil - Biological agriculture
  • Trees, seeds and food - Perennial vs annual plants
  • Water - Keyline Design

Friday, February 8, 2013

Dried garlic granules

A guy at work who grows garlic commercially was selling it for $10/kg.  It was pretty good quality, just the same as the garlic that is $30/kg at the shops, so I bought 2 kg of it.  We weren't sure how well it would keep, so we decided to dry it.

We spent about an hour peeling 1 kg of the garlic and laid the individual cloves on the tray of our dehydrator.  We ran the dehydrator on and off for several days until the cloves were no longer sticky.  I then whizzed them all in the food processor to for granules.  We dried the granules on baking paper in the dehydrator for another day.  This produced about half a jar of granules.  As this translates to 1 kg of garlic, I imagine that they will be rather strong!

We are going to use up the rest of the fresh garlic first, and then use the granules.  During winter we often find that the Australian garlic runs out and we have to buy Chinese or Mexican garlic, so I hope this year we will be able to stretch all this garlic through the entire year.  I did try to grow it, but I think I kept the soil too moist.  I will keep trying.....


Have you made garlic granules?  What do you like to dehydrate?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Getting started with growing your own - a series of interviews

I vaguely remember a time before I had a garden, chickens and so many cattle.  A time when I lived in a rental property in the city and I thought I’d like to grow things, but I seemed to have a knack of killing anything in a pot.  Gardening seemed really hard, and I didn’t really know where to start.  Somehow over the last few years I’ve figured out how to grow things, even how to propagate seeds and make compost, in some ways it seems completely unbelievable given where I started.

I recently had a question from someone just like the old me, she wants to start growing some veges in a rental property, but doesn’t really know what to do.  I started trying to think what advice to give, and it wasn’t easy!  When I started my latest garden, we had lots of cow poo and mulch in the paddock, so we just borrowed a rotatiller and dug up part of the house yard.  My husband welded up a nice frame to support a massive amount of shade cloth that we got at a clearance for $50.  He also set up a recycled water system to water the garden and fenced out the chickens.  From there all I had to do was plant veges and work out which ones would grow in my climate.  Without these free and cheap resources, growing my own would have been so much more difficult, and I don’t really know where I would have, or should have, started. 

Then if occurred to me that I know (in blogland) lots of people who are growing their own in different situations, all over the world, on different sized properties and in different climates.  I wondered what advice they would give a new grower, so then I decided to ask them.  Over the next few weeks I will publish a series of interviews with other bloggers about their advice to a new grower. 

Farmer Liz - interviewing myself first :)
I'm going to share the interviews with other bloggers each Wednesday until I run out of them, but first I'll interview myself :)

Tell me about your garden and climate.
My current garden is about 4m by 10m.  It is fully fenced to keep out the chickens, although they trim anything they can reach through the mesh.  It is covered with shadecloth.  I have four garden beds which I attempt to rotate with annual vegetables.  Since discovering permaculture, I've been trying hard to establish perennial crops around the outside, things like arrowroot, sweet potato and Jerusalem artichoke.  I also grow lots of herbs in pots that I move around the garden so that they can get sun in winter and shade in summer.  Our climate is crazy, I called it a sub-tropical mountainous climate (we are 426 m above sea level here at Eight Acres).  In summer we can get temperatures in the high 30degC during heat waves, which is difficult for all but the tropical species to survive, but in winter we will get frosts that kill all the tropical plants.  Last winter I got a small greenhouse, which helped me keep some ginger and chillies alive through the frosts.

When and why did you start growing your own?
I jumped into growing when I moved in with my husband on 5 acres of land in the Lockyer Valley.  He already had chickens, and we decided to start a garden, and get a little poddy steer.  We didn't know what we were doing!  I was lucky to have picked up a Jackie French organic gardening book at a market, and to have wheel-barrow loads of the neighours' horse's poo in our paddock, but we really didn't take the time to plan the garden.  The first year we had some successes and some major failures, we were planting everything at the wrong time, we hadn't done enough to improve the soil and we were very lucky to put the garden on the north side of the house.

We started the garden because we had an idea that we wanted to be self-sufficient.  At the time petrol prices were at a record high and we were genuinely worried about peak oil and our ability to access food grown elsewhere.  In the meantime, fuel prices have decreased, but there are so many other reasons to be self-sufficient, we have continued to work towards this goal and have learnt an amazing amount.

an early success, but I've never grown such a good eggplant again!
From your experience, what’s the best way to start growing your own?
Do some research!  At the very least you need to work out where to put your garden so it gets plenty of sun.  And you need to have some way to improve your soil, a bokashi bin, compost or a worm farm, if not chickens or a steady supply of manure from cattle or horses.  A source of mulch will also be important, any cheap form of organic matter is perfect, we use old hay and wood chips from our mulcher.

If you're unsure about the time and effort required, you can start with a few pots of herbs that you would normally buy.  If you can keep them alive and use them in your kitchen, then you can start to try other plants, in more pots or in a small raised bed.  Don't be too ambitious to start with, its best to start small and increase as you learn more.
keeping herbs and other plants in pots is an easy way to start small
What are your top 5 favourite useful plants for beginners to grow? 
I wrote a post on this a couple of years ago and not much has changed.  Obviously it depends on your climate.  Everyone says that radishes are easy, but I find them a real challenge!  Try lots of different varieties and unusual veges until you find the ones that you like to eat and that do well in your garden.  My current favourites for my climate are:  silverbeet, spring onions, climbing beans, cherry tomatoes, and cos lettuce.

Any suggestions for keeping your garden cool in summer?
If you have a hot summer like mine, you really need to consider shade, or you won't be able to grow anything through summer.  I find that plants on the edge of my shade cloth cover do not do well when it gets really hot.  You can use temporary shade cloth structures, plant shady plants that will die back in winter (arrowroot is great for this) or keep things in pots that you can move into shade (like my herbs).

Shade cloth covers the entire garden.
Any suggestions for helping your garden survive frosts?
I've had to accept that there are some things that I can't grow here (e.g. passionfruit :(), but that the frost also presents opportunities to grow root crops through winter, that would be difficult if my climate stayed too warm.  I also use a greenhouse to get some of my favourites through the winter.

protection from the frost in a small greenhouse
What’s your favourite thing about growing your own?

I like to know that we always have some food out there, even if its just a few herbs and leaves of silverbeet.  During the QLD floods a couple of years ago, it didn't matter that we couldn't get to the supermarket.  And during normal time, we save a lot of money on vegetables.  I don't provide 100% of our needs, but I come close at times.  I also love being able to swap and barter with others to further reduce our reliance on the supermarket.  I could go on and on, but one last thing I wanted to mention is that I find the garden very relaxing and peaceful, with a wonderful sense of achievement when something grows well.

one year I produced kgs of cherry tomatoes, it felt good to have such an abundance

Next week I'll interview Linda Woodrow from The Witches Kitchen.  Well, what do you think?  What's your advice for those who are getting started with growing their own?

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