Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Weeds - always there to welcome you home

For the last 3 months my family and I had been away house sitting in a beautiful straw-bale home. And wow! It was amazing how well it performed thermally - it put our brick veneer home to shame. I have always heard straw-bale performed well, but feeling it was believing. Anyway, while we were staying cozy and warm and enjoying a beautiful winter rural landscape from the living room window, our vegetable garden through the window at home was being overrun with weeds. Luckily with all the wet weather they were easy to pull, and with a day of focused effort from everyone we got the garden back into shape. While doing so, what I found interesting was noticing the change in weeds.

Prior to going away I mentioned we were experiencing an epidemic of mallow weed in the vegetable garden, and that I suspected it to be an indicator of the soil being low in calcium. Well prior to leaving I threw some powdered limestone on one of the beds in an attempt to replace the lost calcium and rebalance the pH. So what was very interesting three months later, was that while most of the garden was still rife in mallow the one bed I had applied lime to was now covered in nettle instead. Out of pure curiosity I thought I might take a pH test of that bed to see if the nettle was a sign that the soil had returned to a balanced level. Sadly not, the pH was still at 5.5. But despite the measurement I do feel the nettle is a positive sign that the soil fertility is returning, as nettle is well known for liking fertile soil.

While on the topic of nettle... Apparently, somewhere in England they hold a stinging nettle eating championship. What began as an argument between two farmers over whose field had the highest nettles, now is a challenge to see who can eat the most in one hour. Now if they are eating them raw… ouch!

BTW after a day of pulling weeds, does anyone see weeds when you close your eyes? Like the image has been printed on the back of your eyelid.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Where did my Calcium go?

Despite the garden being reasonably successful over recent months, I have been noticing and feeling the overall health of the garden to be declining. Many plants seem to be growing slower and performing poorly, with a greater increase in disease and pests. Last year I was drowning in zucchini and silverbeet, this year barely enough. Corn performed poorly despite being planted on compost sites, beetroot are all quite small, broccoli look terribly sick, and peas are wilting away before they have reached maturity. However the topsoil still looks and feels beautiful.

In April I blogged about how I was having an infestation of mallow weed, and how I questioned what this was telling me. From a bit of research, and some great reader comments, I started to believe the problem was related to a calcium deficiency. To help confirm this I decided to do a pH test.

The children helped me perform a pH test using a chemical based kit with a colour chart. According to my son it was 5.5, according to my daughter 5. Considering males are not as good at colour identification as females due to having less eye cone cells, I thought it best to trust my daughter. Regardless both 5 and 5.5 are considered quite acidic, with 6.5 considered best for most vegetables.

Soil pH is a measurement between how much hydrogen the soil contains compared to the amount of other nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, sodium, etc. When one or many of the nutrients are out of balance the pH level shifts from neutral and becomes either acidic or alkaline. The really important thing to understand here is that a pH test does not tell you which one of these nutrients your soil is deficient in. It is only an indicator to a possible imbalance. And this is where you have to be really careful. Adding dolomite because of assuming you have magnesium deficiency, when in fact you only have a calcium issue, may result in raising magnesium to a toxic level. But it gets even more complex...

From what I have been reading, calcium is in competition with other nutrients such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, ammonium, iron, and aluminum for uptake by the plants. Meaning what appears to be a calcium deficiency may in fact be one of the others blocking calcium uptake. For example a high level of sodium can displace the calcium and cause calcium leaching. Iron and aluminum can combine with the calcium and form insoluble compounds. And that’s just a couple of examples of the complexity.

So with all this complexity how was I going to know if I had calcium deficiency?

Well… in one of those lightbulb moments the answer dawned on me. I was collecting the chicken eggs, as I do, when I noticed that both eggs were cracked, and it was at this moment the lightbulb went on. You see... for a number of months now I have been aware that the eggshells have been becoming weaker and weaker, sometimes even breaking under the light pressure of being picked up. And of course why would the eggshells be weak? You got it… lack of calcium. This also helped to explain a major drop in production.

One very important thing about keeping chickens that I had failed to understand, was that chickens need a heavy source of calcium in their diet, such as shell grit. I felt like a bit of an idiot - it now sounds so obvious that constant egg production would require considerable calcium. I do hope the recent death of Panda was not also caused by this.

After pondering all this, I have come up with the following theory (refer to above picture):

The plants consume calcium from the soil. The chickens then eat the plants, and calcium direct from the soil. The calcium is then used to make eggs. The eggs are cracked open and the shells returned to soil - making a perfect loop. However the inside of an egg also contains considerable calcium - enough to create the whole skeletal system, claws and beak of a baby chick. This part of the egg is eaten by me and other members of my family, and thus never ends up cycling back into the garden. Considering chickens have been working this garden without shell grit for over three years, and have probably laid around 1000 eggs, I feel my theory sounds quite plausible.

Following Linda Woodrow's advice, my long term strategy is to do what I should have been doing in the first place and feed the chickens shell grit. In the short term to quickly get the garden back to performing, she recommended I apply agricultural lime. Which I have now done. I am now looking forward to some happier plants, and I am sure so much happier chickens.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Feb, Mar, Apr 2014 Summary

Over the last three month we averaged over 50% vegetable self sufficiency. Not the goal of 80%... yet. But still a figure I am proud of - I can honestly make the claim that we produced majority of our own vegetables. Laying all the food out to take the above photo was uplifting to say the least. It felt like I could have opened up my own market stall. And you should have seen me trying to get in the fridge ;-)

Putting these harvest figures together can be rather monotonous, thus is a task I have increasingly come to procrastinate over. Despite it being a less then enjoyable task I do find measuring the gardens performance very useful. I source motivation through goal setting and one of the key tricks to successful goal setting is to make the goal measurable. As three months have slipped past and the task is only getting bigger I thought it time to take my procrastination by the horns and just get on with it. So here are the results for the last three months.

February 2014

             Grown (g) Purchased (g) Grown %
Avocado                 450          0%
Beans          90                    100%
Beetroot       1,000                 100%
Broccoli       770                   100%
Basil          140                   100%
Cabbage                 750          0%
Capsicum       540      590          48%
Carrot                  790          0%
Cauliflower             300          0%
Celery                  500          0%
Cucumber       3,040                 100%
Coriander      15                    100%
Eggplant       390                   100%
Garlic                  40           0%
Kale           1,350                 100%
Lettuce        1710                  100%
Onion                   2,440        0%
Pea                     400          0%
Potato                  1,110        0%
Pumpkin                 6,150        0%
Spring Onion   310                   100%
Sweetcorn               400          0%
Sweet Potato            780          0%
Silverbeet     410                   100%
Tomato         4,765                 100%
Zucchini       2,600                 100%
Total          17,130   14,700       54%
Average                              50%
Money Spent on Garden  $126   

March 2014

             Grown (g) Purchased (g) Grown %
Avocado                 900          0%
Beans          1,370    570          71%
Beetroot       80                    100%
Broccoli       1,460    1,010        59%
Basil          195                   100%
Capsicum       570      970          37%
Carrot                  1,560        0%
Cucumber       2,580                 100%
Coriander      40                    100%
Eggplant       960                   100%
Garlic                  60           0%
Kale           1,120                 100%
Lettuce        840                   100%
Lentil                  900          0%
Onion                   130          0%
Parsley        85                    100%
Pea                     150          0%
Pumpkin        3,050    900          77%
Radish         730                   100%
Rocket         220                   100%
Spring Onion   200                   100%
Sweetcorn      940      500          65%
Sweet Potato            1,030        0%
Silverbeet     500                   100%
Tomato         4,345                 100%
Zucchini       700                   100%

Total          19,985   8,680        70%
Average                              63%

Money Spent on Garden  $32           

April 2014

           Grown (g) Purchased (g) Grown %
Beans                   900          0%
Beetroot       390      250          61%
Broccoli       60       535          10%
Basil          75                    100%
Cabbage                 400          0%
Capsicum       550      1,165        32%
Carrot                  615          0%
Celery                  500          0%
Cucumber                860          0%
Coriander      40                    100%
Eggplant       400                   100%
Garlic                  55           0%
Kale           225      500          31%
Lettuce        765      100          88%
Leek                    845          0%
Mustard        195                   100%
Onion                   1,985        0%
Parsley        20                    100%
Pea                     100          0%
Potato                  1,955        0%
Pumpkin        2,380                 100%
Radish         230                   100%
Spring Onion   25                    100%
Sweetcorn      875      150          85%
Sweet Potato            840          0%
Spinach                 200          0%
Silverbeet     570                   100%
Tomato         745      600          55%
Zucchini       875                   100%

Total          8,420    12,555       40%
Average                              50%

Money Spent on Garden  $107

Monday, April 7, 2014

Mallow weed, what’s it telling me?

In my last post I raved about how successfully I had planted out in the heat of February and I was so pleased at how healthy all the plants were looking. But while I was distracted preparing the March bed this bed became overrun with a weed, and the vegetables seem to have declined in health. I had never seen this particular weed in the vegetable patch before and became intrigued as to why it decided to all of a sudden start growing - in mass - in this one particular bed.

Despite gardeners being in constant battle with weeds, if you stop take a breath, calm the anger and hatred you feel towards them, you can often glean some valuable information from their mere presence. Well that’s what I am told. Weeds are meant to be excellent soil indicators. Simply by observing the most prevalent weeds you can deduce the quality and condition of the soil. They can tell you if the soil is too wet or too dry, whether the soil is healthy and balanced or depleted. They can even indicate if the soil is over rich or deficient in specific nutrients.

So what was this weed problem telling me?

Before I could conduct my investigation I needed to know ‘who’ I was dealing with. One of the best tools I find for identifying plants is Google’s image search. Search for an obvious characteristic, in this case leaf shape was the only one I could think of. I searched for ‘round leaf australian weed’. Surprisingly I recognized my weed quite quickly there on the first page, among many other “weed” images I recognised ;-)

Known for crimes in many countries my weeds name was: Small-flowered Mallow (Malva parviflora L.) belonging to the Malvaceae family, and going by many other names: Mallows, Marshmallow, Ringleaf Marshmallow, Whorled Mallow, and Whorlflower Mallow. Described as an erect or sprawling, annual or biennial herb to 1.5 metres with round lobed leaves, heart shaped cotyledons, small, 5-petalled white or pink flowers that swell into 4-10 mm fruits that look like tiny pumpkins.

Now that I had its name, the next step was to conduct a bit of research. Majority of online resources seemed to indicate that mallow enjoyed highly fertile soil. But like all the gardening research I do, why does it never turn out black and white? A few sources contradicted each other with claims ranging from wet to dry soil and cultivated to compacted soil. Like with all research it is important to compare what you read to your own experiences and observations. I have often seen mallow growing in my driveway, seeming it is gravel and highly compacted it seems to indicate it likes nutrient deficient, dry, and compact soil. I recently even saw it growing on gravelled road sides and walking trails. And growing in dry compacted soil does seem to make sense to it having a very deep tap root.

Turning back to the vegetable garden has me observing something quite different and very interesting: the mellow is only present in one isolated garden bed. So that got me thinking about what is different about this bed. Well… it is on the same irrigation system getting the same amount of water as all the other beds, it gets about the same amount of light, is on the same slope, and is prepared using the same method as the others. The only things different I can think of is that it has been recently cultivated by the chickens, and I added, as an experiment, two bags of commercial composted cow poo. This would concur with the majority of references claiming it thrives in rich fertile soil. And such a conclusion about my garden I am more than happy to accept.

There is also the other possibility that the mallow seeds were eaten by cows, and end up here in my garden. I do question whether this would be possible though. I would have thought commercial composting to be quite intense - killing off all seeds. But I am also open to accept that the soil is becoming compacted, or maybe I am over watering, or not enough.

Sadly understanding what this weed problem is telling me is not clear, but what I have learnt is that they need to go. Apparently mallow serves as a host for insect pests and viruses that cause diseases in neighbouring plants. One of the common pests it harbours is caterpillars. This clearly explains why so many of the plants in this bed are being eaten to shreds, particularly our precious kale needed for our morning smoothies. The good news is that they needn't go to waste. Apparently South African natives have used mallow for various medicinal reasons, including as an astringent, an anti-inflammatory and antiemetic agent, and a treatment for tapeworm. So following the advice that it makes a good alternative to spinach it has become a temporary substitute in our smoothies while the kale picks up.

Out of this research I came across this potentially valuable resource that may help with understanding other weed problems: weed and soil table

Do you get mallow in your garden, and if so under what conditions does it seem to thrive?

Friday, February 28, 2014

Planting in hot weather

If I told you that I was planning to plant out seedlings on a hot summers day in early February with the mercury soaring in the 40ies (Celsius), and was going to plant them out in the morning so that they would have to injure the blistering heat for the entire day, would you think I was mad?

Well until recently I too would have thought I had lost my marbles. But pushed by necessity this is what I was forced to do, and just look at the results - the entire bed is thriving.

As those of you who follow the progress of my garden would know, I changed the rotation of the garden from a spring and autumn planting to an all year round monthly rotation. Along with not knowing whether the chickens would survive the change to being in full sun over summer, I was also apprehensive of how successful planting out would be. When I told my grand plan to one of my good gardening buddies - Debbie - she too questioned the feasibility of this idea. But I was determined, or possibly pig headed, that this idea was going to work, and was willing to put the lives of our chickens and seedlings on the line to prove it.

Through my personal observations I have come to believe that plants can survive quite high temperatures as long as the plant can continue to maintain its moisture. Plants just like us can keep themselves cool through perspiration, or as it is more technically known in the plant world as transpiration. The risky problem that a plant faces though is hot days usually mean dry soil, and thus a risk of running out of water. So in the harsh game of survival, if a plant fears that it is going to run out of water it will close off its stomata in an attempt to prevent water loss, inhibiting transpiration. In extreme temperatures this of course can result in the plant getting cooked.

So the trick to planting out seedlings in extreme heat conditions, is to not only insure the soil is well wet, but to also convince the plant that water is in great supply, and that it can happily go on transpiring as much as it likes without fear. To convince our seedlings of this, I simply left them soaking in a tray of water the night before. They probably all assumed there had been a flash flood and thus plentiful supply of water to last. Of course after such a trick one must supply them with the adequate water now promised. I gave the bed a good soaking with a sprinkler before hand and then set the auto drip irrigation to run for an hour every morning.

There is also one great advantage to planting out in the height of summer: the more light the more photosynthesis, the more photosynthesis the more energy, and the more energy produced the more growth. Again as long as there is adequate water to do this. Photosynthesis is the process of synthesizing carbon dioxide and water together to make sugars, so again water will be consumed.

Have you ever planted out in summer?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

January 2014 Summary

January this year wasn't as successful as last years. Last year we managed a 68% vegetable self-sufficiency, this year only 42%. Some of this I believe is due to changing the rotation cycle and making it a continues yearly cycle, rather than two cycles - a winter one and summer one. I am however expecting the continues cycle to provide a more constant output, with less glut. If the garden does keep pumping out 42% each and every month I will be very pleased.

             Grown (g)Purchased (g)Grown %
Avocado                 600          0%
Beans          250      1,200        17%
Beetroot       700      450          61%
Broccoli       590      225          72%
Basil          210                   100%
Cabbage                 500          0%
Capsicum       40       1,275        3%
Carrot                  1,835        0%
Celery                  200          0%
Cucumber       4,300                 100%
Eggplant       100                   100%
Garlic                  40           0%
Ginger                  65           0%
Kale           620                   100%
Lettuce        2,030                 100%
Lentil                  400          0%
Onion                   2,585        0%
Parsley        90                    100%
Pea                     850          0%
Potato         100      1,585        6%
Pumpkin                 4,200        0%
Radish                  600          0%
Spring Onion   380                   100%
Sweetcorn      190      1,300        13%
Sweet Potato            665          0%
Spinach                 200          0%
Silverbeet     695                   100%
Tomato         3,140    1,815        63%
Zucchini       1,480                 100%

Total          14,915   20,590       42%
Average                              42%

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Spill and dirt proof chicken drinking container

On one recent scorching hot day the children and I escaped the heat at our local swimming pool. On the way home later in the afternoon it suddenly hit me I had forgotten to refill the chickens drinking container that morning. Fully prepared for a saddening sight I was relieved to find them all ok, panting but still alive. Luckily I had gotten the insulation installed in their home only the week prior. As a result of this scary incident I decided a back-up drinking container was in order.

It is however not only me who results in drinking container incidents. Sometimes the chickens themselves will tip the water out. They dig under it, then stand on the edge and flip it over. So the new solution needed to be spill proof. The chickens also quickly dirty the current drinking solution with all the scratching and kicking, and washing their feet in it for that matter. So the new solution also needed to be dirt proof. This is what I came up with...

It is a lidded bucket with a couple of holes in the side (see first picture) of which the chickens can stick their heads in and have a drink. With the only access to the water being through two head sized holes it’s much more difficult for the girls to contaminate the water. Mind you they still manage it, so it’s not a perfect solution but way better than the open tray.

To enable topping it up with water without requiring one to get inside the enclosure and remove the lid, I also put a hole in the top to pour the water through. Unfortunately dirt does collect on the lid and gets washed in. It has just occurred to me though that I could insert a small piece of PVC pipe to create a lip around the hole, which should solve the problem.

I cut the holes with this simple and inexpensive tool that I found in Melanies tool box. It's fundamentally a hack saw blade with a handle.

To insure it wasn't tipped over I fastened it to their enclosure via a couple of small holes in the back of the bucket and a piece of string.

Do they use it? Well they did stick their heads in when I first installed it - chickens are quite inquisitive little creatures for such vulnerable animals. But since then I haven’t seen them drink from it yet. Mind you, their old drinking container has not run out of water since. I can only hope that if it ever does, god forbid, they are smart enough to remember the new option.