Thursday, August 30, 2012

Recycling the Freecycle Way

The concept of waste ignores the basic cycles of nature. In nature an output from one system becomes the input of another. On this principle was born the invaluable resource of Freecycle. The Freecycle website is a simple platform where anyone in the world can create a group for their locality, and gain members who can start posting Free and Wanted advertisements for all those things they need or don't want anymore. And of course everything is given free in good faith. Furniture, books, flat screened Tvs, fridges, boats. One persons waste becomes anothers treasure.

black stemmed taro
Black stemmed taro

Our horse paddock has perfect conditions for growing taro. So much so that beautiful black stemmed taro plants had set up home and gone weedy. 30 or more tubers was a bit of a job to dig out when added to our list of other chores to refurbish the paddock. A quick check in bunnings, and I find that these plants sell for $8 or more each. Lacking time and keen for any help to tick a job off our garden to do list, I put a 'Free for Removal' ad on my local Freecycle network. Within two days I had three eager takers sending me emails. I replied to them all, that there were plenty to go round and that they were all welcome to take their pick. Two got back to me. 

The first were an older couple interested in growing unusual edible plants. They were keen to try their hand at taro. Unfortunately the variety in my paddock was a little disappointing in the tuber size department. But he took a few anyway. "Have you tried Yacon?" asked the man. I replied that I certainly have and were planning a large planting of them. "Have you grown fennell?" Yes, but I don't have any in at the moment. He deposited by my front door step a few days later a bag of yacon, a fennell seedling and two large daikon radishes. 

The next keen gardeners, two women, had just bought an acre in a nearby suburb and were planning a pond, orchard and vegie garden. They brought a trailer which they half filled with taro. One of them commented on what a lovely plant a yellow hedging shrub in our front yard was. I was looking to move it as, I informed them, we are planning a cottage garden out the front. They were glad, upon my offering to dig up the lot for an instant hedge a their place. "We love freecycle!" They said. In gratitude they offered me a card for their pet minding business. "Next time you go on holidays, we are happy to mind your cat for free."

I still had 10 or more plants left. Gumtree is another great website for freebies. Check out the 'free' classified section. It tends to have more landscaping and building giveaways than Freecycle, which has more household stuff. Previously we dismantled an old iron and hardwood shed that was advertised on Gumtree, free for removal. It has saved us $100's on our horse stable build and there's plenty left over for a chook house.

I posted an ad and got in touch with yet another passionate gardener, Steve. He cleared out the remaining plants for a school's dry river bed garden. He had collected over 60 varieties of taro alone for the garden, yet didn't have the black stemmed variety. I was so pleased for it to go to such a worthy cause to be enjoyed by many. Another gardener who is keen on exploring the more unusual varieties, Steve offered to help me source any plants I wanted in the future. It seems a fantastic hobby, modern plant finding in our internet age. Sure to be less adventurous than a century or so ago when it meant traveling to exotic places, but no doubt rewarding. Plus he offered to raise a variety of seedlings for a community garden I am involved in.

Recycling with Freecycle and other free directories is not only environmentally responsible and a help in my case as I tick off another job done, but as I discovered a fantastic way to meet other like-minded people, in my case, serious gardeners. I was pleased to simply see the taro go to new homes and clear up my paddock. However the generosity of those I gave to makes me realise what a wonderful way it is to share resources.

You can join Freecycle for free at

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Plan: Designing A Garden (Part 3)

Drawing plans for a garden can be a surprisingly abstract experience. John Brookes, is I surmise to be a well regarded garden designer, as I discover his garden in my Phaidon book of famous gardens. His approach to garden layout is to play with abstract shapes on an overlay of a site map, as detailed in ‘Your Garden Design Book'. This process is fun.  I found myself playing with random shapes, not thinking too much of the finer details. Circles, I love circles. I discover the effectiveness of this approach to creating a basic structure to the garden. It all seems to come together quite easily. In the final plan the shapes might be delineated by a fence, the edge of a path or a garden bed. 

garden plan 1
Garden Layout 1

There is a useful key to this design process for getting the proportions right. Brookes lays a grid over the site plan. The size of the grid and whether it sits on a horizontal or diagonal plane is determined by the size of the site and existing main structures, such as a house. The grid allows the garden to relate proportionally to the key features of the site. I chose to make my grid approximately 3.25m for the side of each square. This is half the width of a proposed deck a the rear of the house and appropriate to the site which is 13.5m wide, thereby fitting just over 4 squares across the width of the site. Note that my grid does not fit snugly to the site boundaries, I want to draw attention away from the boundaries, therefore making it of less importance to line design elements up with them. When playing with the shapes of the garden layout I use the grid as a general guide. Not everything need line up precisely with it. The circular vegie garden for example is approximately 3 squares wide, but sits a little off the lines of the squares to allow some space between it and the glass house. 

garden plan 2
Garden Layout 2

Visualising the infinite possibilities of our backyard has been a fun creative process. I developed four potential plans for our new garden. Each plan details the basic structure. Once we decide on which plan we like most, a planting plan can be overlaid. You'll notice that each plan incorporates the existing structures in our backyard: shed/garage, greenhouse and a concrete path that runs along side. We are currently building a horse stable and feed store room, only the feed store is visible on the left, the stable is an extension of it further to the left. We decided on a number of fenced zones for the garden, in order of distance from the house:
  • Zone 1: grassed backyard suitable for a dog
  • Zone 2: mandala vegetable garden incorporating a chicken house in the center
  • Zone 3: native food garden and orchard
  • Zone 4: pond for growing edible water plants and tropical food forest
  • Zone 5: horse paddock and stable/feed store

garden plan 3
Garden Layout 3

Each of the zones are placed in the same location on each of the four possible garden layouts. These positions were chosen based on a study of the sun and shade patterns of the site, drainage, slope, and the siting of high visitation areas closer to the house. The differences between each layout are the shapes and lines of the fences, pond and garden beds. These lines will form the foundation and style of the garden. We are still not sure which one we like best. We would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on our plans. Which would you choose: Plan 1, 2, 3 or 4?

garden design 4
Garden Layout 4

Friday, August 3, 2012

Seedraising Workshop at Purple Pear Organics

We picked up a friend and headed out for Anambah, a suburb bordered by the Hunter River on the outskirts of Maitland. The farm we are visiting sits on the boundary between city and country. A brand new 'homemakers' center sits next door, Maitland airport is their other neighbour. A housing estate is slowly enveloping the surrounding hills. We spot the sign: Purple Pear Organics.

Rolling up the tree lined drive we a are greeted by a flock of white geese patrolling the yard. Today's classroom is a large open shed, the walls adorned with farming implements and tools, already bustling with members of the Hunter Organic Growers Society (HOGS). Each seated in their fold up chairs, hats on heads and gardening gloves at the ready. The sun casts a welcome warmth below the tin roof. HOGS have organised today's workshop on seed raising with our hosts Kate and Mark, the entrepreneurs behind this successful example of community assisted agriculture (CSA). 

CSA puts the consumer in direct contact with the producer. Subscribers have an opportunity to know where their food comes from, how it is grown, and who grows it. Mark tells us that they feed 20 families who each commit to a weekly box of produce from the farm. They don't like waste. By selling their produce before they grow it they know precisely what quantity they need to produce. This model seems to share the gluts and losses more equitably. This season they received a poor batch of onion seeds. None germinated, therefore, Kate laments, no one will receive onions this winter. But things must weigh out, as they have a long waiting list of families and are planning to more than double their production very soon.

A light plane circles into land, disappearing below the horizon. We head for the mandala garden. Kate is the farm's seed raiser. It's cheaper than buying seedlings she tells us. Mark mentions the challenges of reaping a profitable income from their small scale operation, despite selling direct to the consumer. For the economics to be at the ideal, Kate would need to sow seeds at some incredible speed. I wonder at how much large scale farming operations play a role in pushing small farms out of the market. Not to mention the ongoing saga of the supermarket price wars. Being in the sunshine on a winters day makes for a rather nice office, but it's still a business, the economics need to be managed carefully. 

A bessa block glasshouse stands in the corner of the market garden. A row of pines create a wind break to the west. All the trees on the farm were planted by Mark and Kate. This left them with a pile of black tree tubes. Everything has a potential for re-use at Purple Pear. We are presented with a styrofoam box cut in half on the horizontal, filled with tree tubes that have have also been cut in half. A simple home made seedling tray. These are used for the second stage of seed raising. Seeds are densely sown into small punnets. When the first two leaves emerge, the seedlings are planted into the individual tubes of the tray. See below for a step by step:

Home-made Seedling Tray

styrofoam box and tray
2. Insert a tree tube tray to hold the 
tubes in place.
styrofoam box
 1. Cut in half horizontally a small
styrofoam box. Punch drainage holes into
 the base.

 3. Cut in half tree tubes and insert the top 
section into the tray. 
Alternatively use empty toilet roles.

ready to plant tray
 4. Fill with seedling mix. 
(see the seedling mix recipe below)

making a hole in the soil
 5. Make a hole with a stick or dibbler in 
each tube.

 6. Prick out seedlings when the first two leaves 
have emerged and plant one into each tube.

7. Store in a green/glasshouse or protected area with adequate sun. 
Feed weekly with seasol.
8. When plants reach around 10 - 15 cm high, place outside to harden up for a few days,then plant into your garden.

Seed-raising Mix 

Equal parts:
Cocopeat (available in bricks from hardware stores and nurseries) 
Crushed basalt (landscaping supplies)

Potting Mix

Equal parts:
Crushed basalt 
Compost or worm-casts or aged cow manure 

A few volunteers start the fiddly task of prying apart seedlings from a tangle of roots and planting into the trays. I nip away quickly to the loo, which is an experience in itself. Beside the shed sits a white box, a mismatch of recycled building materials, propped up on stilts. The handle is a knotted rope threaded through the door that slots between two nails on the door frame to hold it to. Inside, I peer into the bowl. I don't make a habit of inspecting toilets with such attention, however this one has caught my eye as it works somewhat differently to the familiar dual flush. There is a deep dark hole at the back as one would expect with a compost toilet. At the front end there is a little white dish with a drain in the middle, like a miniature handbasin. 'Liquids, solids.' I think. As a female, I have had never had to consider my aim before. 

On my return my partner tells me that there was a mid air dual between two large birds of prey. I gaze at the sky where the winner remains circling. The bird has a large wing span, perhaps close to two meters. They had broken apart before hitting the ground.

Kate gestures behind her to a bench made of old heavy gauge wire fencing, like those that were once used to fence schools, laid over a frame to create a table. Trays of thriving seedlings lay on top, a net thrown over to keep birds off. This is the holding pen where seedlings spend a day or two to harden up to the elements before graduating to the vegetable beds. Below the table peck a few chooks enclosed in a pen to keep the grass down. The structure serves two purposes, a classic permaculture principal in action. 

Mandala is a Sanskrit word meaning circle. The term often refers to concentric diagrams common in Buddhist and Hindu art. The mandala as a garden layout (see my earlier post Mandala Chook Clock Garden) has been popularised amongst permaculture enthusiasts by Linda Woodrow's book 'The Permaculture Home Garden' where a series of circular beds placed within a larger circle form the design. Purple Pear's market garden resembles Woodrow's system being a series of mandalas within mandalas, dotted with small fruit trees and central ponds that attract beneficial wildlife. Wandering down the narrow paths that weave gently through the garden, spongy underfoot, I find myself somewhat pleasantly disoriented, but I go with the flow. We are presented with a recently planted circular bed, chock full of some 200 or so seedlings in an approximately 2 - 3 meter diameter bed. The key to gardening efficiently in this design, Mark explains, is that a large vegetable such as a cabbage, will be planted in the middle of a patch of fast growing plants, such as salad greens. By the time the cabbage encroaches on the smaller plants, these plants will have been harvested, leaving room for the cabbage to expand. Kate affirms the importance of this simple design element as a key part of the system. 

I feel heartened to notice patches of clover and chick weed fringing the vegetable beds. By comparison, I feel the inevitable weeds in my garden aren't so bad after all. 

There is a glimmer of a smile on Mark's face as he mentions that his chook dome is in need of a few repairs, and therefore requires a few extra hands to move it to the next bed. It just so happens that today there a plenty of willing hands. Six or so people circle the dome and grip the edge of the frame, slowly walking it to an adjacent bed. The moulting crew of chooks within stay under the dome as it moves. The chooks new bed is piled high with mulch and spent plants. They get straight into scratching it over with their powerful legs. The domes are made according to Woodrow's method. Approximately 1.5 - 2m in height, and the width of the mandala beds. The frame is a network of black and white flexible piping (I assume another useful tip find), covered in chicken wire with a tarp on top to weather proof it. A mower catcher makes for a nesting box. When a crop is harvested the chooks are moved onto the bed to weed and fertilise it in preparation for the next crop. Permaculture in action.

Seated in the 'classroom', the last crumbs of afternoon tea are brushed away. Photo copies of a calendar of June are passed around. I note the little cow symbols dotted across the page. Contented cows sitting down chewing the cud. This is a moon calender. Mark explains there are several different approaches to planting by the moon, but which ever works for you is the one you should choose. He recounts an evening upon which they hosted Lyn Bagnall in preparation for the launch of her book 'Easy Organic Gardening & Moon Planting' to be held at the farm the next day. It was an evening of heated discussion over the merits of their differing methods of moon gardening. However, Mark re-affirms, which ever method works for you. 

Across the page are the days of the month. Running in a column below each day is a picture of the moon phase, today it is waning, and the zodiac that the moon is currently in front of which informs the daily plant focus. Today there is a picture of a tomatoe, meaning it is a fruit day, therefore all planting and harvest activities today should involve fruits such as apples or melons. A graph shows the position of the moon in the sky: whether it sits high or low in relation to the horizon. Today it is descending and nearly at its lowest point in the sky. The moon effects a pull on the earth, Mark tells us, which we can observe in the tides of the oceans. This pull of the moon also affects flows within living things. In plants the sap flow will rise as the moon ascends, and descend to the roots as the moon lowers in rhythm with the monthly pattern. Seasonally there is a similar effect, in Winter energy tends to move inwards, to conserve, in Spring and Summer energy moves out to the periphery.  These rhythms can impact the success of germination, pruning, fertilising and other activities in the garden.

I gaze out beside the shed, a little boy is befriending the resident tabby cat. He motions for the cat to follow him. The cat decides that eating the crumbs off my partner's feet is a more lucrative option. 

Moon planting is a way of getting in tune with natures rhythms and utilising these to promote optimum plant growth. By undertaking particular activities at certain times, such as pruning in winter when a plant is dormant, and ideally when the moon is descending, then the sap flow will be directed towards the roots, reducing the stress on the plant. Once you develop a feel for working with nature, Mark's experience is that you'll discover a sense for knowing what needs to be done on each day without looking at the calender.

I am still not sure what the cows are for, but they look happy, if that can be a testament for moon planting. In all seriousness, the thriving garden at Purple Pear is surely a testament to Mark and Kate's application of permacuture and biodynamics as systems that produce fantastic results. 

As we turn out of the farm-gate I take another look at the houses creeping over the hill, the cusp of development. I think how appropriate a location for a farm that aims to close the gap between farmer and consumer. 

Thank you to Kate and Mark for sharing their knowledge and to Hunter Organic Growers Society ( for organising the day

To learn more about Purple Pear please visit their website 

Moon Calenders are available for sale from Holistic Page.

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