The basics are covered in a thousand books, so here are a few tips you don’t come across quite so often.
- Design. A few extra hours spent thinking about your garden layout can save you many heart-aches, head-aches and back-aches down the track. Permaculture and Organic gardening books are a good place to start, a PDC (Permaculture Design Course) is a very helpful experience, or you could hire a Permaculture consultant for a couple of hours to look over your design attempt (paying someone with experience to tell you “That won’t work because…. Try this instead….” is money very well spent, keeping the ache-trio I mentioned before in mind.
- Protection for the garden is really important. Those books that say your vegie garden needs full sun are either from the very South of Tassie or they’re written for cloudy English conditions. In the harsh Aussie sun, most vegies only need about 6 hours of full sun and those baking afternoon rays from the west can be more of a liability than an asset. A deciduous vine to the west will provide summer protection, whilst allowing in valuable winter sun. Some movable pots of bamboo can also be a good solution.It’s also important to block out hot-dry summer winds, which suck the life out of your plants. If you’re in Melbourne, those winds come from the N/W. In this case a 1m wide strip of fast growing acacia planted against the fence can be a good solution. Allow them to grow up as a windbreak for the summer-time and then chop them back in winter to allow in sunlight (the prunings make excellent mulch for fruit trees).
- Catch and infiltrate runoff right where you need it. If you’re planting fruit trees it pays to dig basins or trenches just above them. These intercept any runoff, giving the water time to infiltrate, right where the tree needs it. If you’re setting up a vegie garden, make your pathways level and place a mini dam wall at each end. This means that your pathways will hold water and allow it to infiltrate into the vegie beds. If it’s been really wet and you risk leaching valuable nutrients from your garden, you can just dig out your little dam wall and the paths act as drains. So that you don’t need gumboots to walk in your garden, crusher dust can be used to fill the paths, which provides drainage, a nice surface to walk on and will add trace minerals into the bed over time.
- Cycle all nutrients. What springs to mind for most is to return the parts of the vegies you don’t eat back to the garden (via the worms for example). That’s a good start but there are some other important ways:– If a weed pops up in the garden, as you’re pulling it out say ‘Thanks!’ for the carbon it’s captured and the nutrients it’s brought to the surface, and tuck it back under the mulch where it will break down and feed your vegies.
– If you have a slope, gravity will do its best to leach nutrients from your garden. By planting ‘dynamic accumulators’ such as Comfrey, Yarrow, Tansy, Horseradish or Nasturtium at the base of the garden, they’ll capture these nutrients and bring them up into their foliage. You can cycle them back onto the garden by chopping them back from time to time, and then tucking them under the mulch. (Important: don’t plant comfrey ‘inside’ your vegie garden where you might disturb its roots or else it will take over)
– Why do I keep mentioning tucking green plants in under mulch? Because if you leave green plants such as a green manure crop on the surface they quickly turn brown, and what’s happened is that a good chunk of nitrogen has evaporated off into the atmosphere; lost. By covering green stuff with a thin layer of brown mulch, you’ll notice when you come back a few weeks later that it’s still green underneath, and it’s holding onto the nitrogen until the soil critters get around to breaking it down and incorporating it into the soil.
– Wee in a bucket of water and put it out on the garden once a day. If you have a nice layer of carbon rich mulch, the garden won’t smell at all. (By the way, urine actually contains far more nutrient than your #2 does.)
– Commercial composting toilets can now be legally installed in any sewered area of Victoria, even in the heart of the city. Also check out Jo Jenkins The Humanure Handbook which you can download from this website, but I’d recommend supporting Jo’s ‘shit-hot’ work by buying a copyand keeping it in the dunny.
- Mulch, mulch, mulch. Seems like a strange one to add in a list of ‘not-so-common tips’, but there are a couple of aspects which are often misunderstood. Here’s a couple of quick tips:– Think of your mulch as a flat, spread out compost pile, for which you should be aiming for a similar carbon:nitrogen ratio. If you just put down pea straw for example, this is really high in carbon. The soil critters that will want to get to work on breaking it down need nitrogen to build their bodies and if you don’t provide it for them they’ll go looking in the soil and will steal every last bit from around your plants; that’s what’s known as nitrogen drawback. By providing a bit of nitrogen in the form of blood and bone, manure, urine etc., you’ll get the wonderful benefits of mulching, along with the decent plant growth you’re after.
– It’s a good idea to use mulch which has a similar herbaceous/woody consistency to the plant you are growing. The reason for this comes down to the soil biology, in particular the ratio of fungi:bacteria, which different plants prefer. For example, as a result of millions of years of evolution, vegies prefer a soil that is fairly bacterial dominated rather than fungal. If you mulch with woodchips, which are predominantly broken down by fungi, that’s what your soil will be dominated by. A more appropriate approach would be to use grass clippings or pea straw on the veg, whereas for a fruit tree you’re better off with the slightly woody tree prunings from leguminous trees or from a local tree lopper.
Healthy soil = healthy plants = healthy people
Feel free to check in anytime to read about some of the stuff I’m up to.