Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Challenging Summer: Planting an “Insurance Garden”

Every year is different in the garden. Some things do well and others don’t. Amongst the mix, there are usually a few disasters and a couple of successes. This is one reason why it is so important to diversify. If one or two crops fail, you can focus your efforts on the other crops and still get by.
Disasters first
The pears looked great at the start of summer
This year was our driest summer since we have been keeping records (19 years). December rainfall was low and then the rains virtually dried up until the last day of summer, when we got some relief. It was also our warmest summer ever, so evaporation rates have been high too. The heat did not stop with summer, as Melbourne is likely to have its hottest March on record too. This hot, dry weather was very disappointing because at the beginning of December everything pointed towards a bumper season and harvest (See We have gone Crazy this Year!). Most of the apple trees were loaded with huge crops. It looked like we would be getting our best crops of avocadoes, macadamias, pears, nectarines, nashis and so on.

And so did the nashis
But then the big dry set in. We tried keeping up with the watering but as each week became drier and drier it became harder. By early February we had to let some plants go and survive the best they could. We didn’t have the time, were exhausted with the total workload (and heat) and had to maintain good quantities of water in reserve in case we had to deal with fire. Some areas of Victoria have had terrible fires again this year and they took weeks to get under control, so that possibility was always on our mind.

Our beautiful apple crop started dropping off the trees well before they were ripe, and our lovely crop of nectarines and plums started to burn and shrivel on the tree and other crops suffered too.
Five Crown is one of our most productive trees
Although all the apples trees did suffer, some managed better than others. The five crown dropped a large amount of fruit but kept perhaps 50% (about 20kg). The Opalescent once again produced a crop of large juicy red fruit and being on a dwarf rootstock we were able to cover it with bird netting. The Orange Cox’s Pippen produced its best crop yet. The fruit is not very big, but their flavour is delicious with a distinctive taste- almost a lemony touch. 

Our total apple crop would have amounted to several boxes of fruit, which was more than enough for our needs. There was plenty to eat fresh, stew and the hot dry conditions were perfect for drying. Our pantry has a good store of dried apples for use after the season finishes.
The clothes horse made a good drying frame
There was plenty of other good news too.
Most of our berry crops such as blackberry, blueberry and currents withered on the plants. However the raspberries came in, just before the hot spell with its withering, dry northerly winds, so we were able to turn our harvest into enough raspberry jam to last the year.

We planted 5 varieties of pumpkins and although 3 patches struggled to survive, we focussed on the two strongest ones. We kept the water up on these patches and they have produced a reasonable crop – enough to last us through to next summer. What we lack in variety we’ll make up for in quantity.

Our carrots, parsnips and beetroot are just springing out of the ground and we will have our best crops yet. Our two small successive crops of corn have kept us supplied with corn for six weeks now and there are quite a few cobs still left. Cucumbers grew almost faster than we could pick them. The self sown parsley has produced around one hundred good sized bunches (which we sell at our organic market) and is still going strong.
Our bean tepee was very productive
We have been feeding off our climbing beans for over eight weeks now. We planted 3 small crops about 3 weeks apart. We are just starting to pick the third crop and have already harvested about 20 kg. The first crop which was planted around a tepee frame is still flowering so we should be getting many more.
Nothing beats summer strawberries
Our biggest thrill though was our strawberry bed. Although only a fairly small bed we have had 3 or 4 feeds of strawberries every week for over around 2 months. They have been so flavoursome and delicious.

We planted 6 tomato varieties and over 50 plants. We lost a few and some did not come to much, but most produced huge crops. The two best performers were Tommy Toe (our favourite for salads) and Principe Borghese  (a first timer for us). Altogether we have had plenty to eat in salads, soups and other meals, as well as enough to bottle for sauces and soups during the year.

Prince Borghese tomatoes were a big success
Having diversity in the garden is great for variety, but it is also like an insurance policy. If extreme weather events are going to be more frequent, planting an “insurance garden” is a pretty good idea!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Autumnfest: Healesville’s Big Day Out

The Autumn solstice is always a bit “iffy” in terms of the weather and this year was no exception. A few days ago we had gale force winds, heavy rain and cool temperatures. However, those who worked the weather magic smiled on Autumnfest again this year, and gave us the most pleasant day possible.
Plenty of delicious gourmet food & drink

All the hard work, months of preparation and organisation paid off with our best Autumnfest yet- possibly 2000 visitors over the course of the day. There was a wonderful ambience and sense of community under the century old oak trees of Coronation park as individuals and families came together to enjoy the various activities, glorious food, talks, performances, demonstrations and opportunities to share information and knowledge. Our photos show some of the day’s activities.

Luna's veggies were popular

The crowd enjoyed the Irish Dancing

The goats received lots of loving

Mmmm! Pure Olivetto Oil

During the day we met and chatted to dozens of people and were lucky enough to meet several readers of our blog. Everyone we spoke to, seemed to be enjoying the day and gave positive feedback and happy responses. Thank you to all helpers, participants and visitors for joining in and making it such a successful and special event.
There was great interest in our Permaculture Tours
Hopefully it will all be happening again next year close to the Autumn equinox in March. If you want to join in as a stallholder or volunteer or just be kept informed about the event, keep an eye on this blog or send us an email ( and we will add you to our mailing list.
Winsome's Crepes & waffles went well with Yarra Coffee

Hmmm! Which apple shall we choose?

Pete the Permie had plenty of advice about fruit trees

Suzann and Paul demonstrated their skills

Skipping Stones Circus skills for youngsters

Tour of Tenderbreak Permaculture Farm on Sunday April 7

If you happen to be near the Yarra Valley on April 7 we are holding a tour of our property in the afternoon. Tours cost $15 and bookings are required. Email us for more information.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Healesville Autumnfest 2013

Saturday, 23rd March, 2013
Healesville Autumnfest 2013 is going to bigger and better than ever. With over 40 stalls and displays there will be something for everyone to enjoy.

Our regular market stalls are famous for their organic locally grown food and they will be joined by others selling an even wider range of fresh local produce. There will be tastings of various heritage apples and if you discover a variety that really appeals you can even buy a potted tree so you can grow it yourself. Apart from produce there will be stalls selling clothes, wooden toys, wooden furniture, jewellery, preserves, woollen products, soaps, natural body products, seeds, books and lots more.

There will be plenty of entertainment for all ages. The Healesville Music Festival has a line up of local acts on its stage and Skipping Stones Dance is running a series of activities called “Adventure  Fun - Circus, Dance & Ephemeral Art” for children. There will be milking goats to pet and Edd or Amanda will be happy to answer any questions about these friendly animals. Emily will be there again doing delightful and creative face painting, but you’ll have to be quick because she had a queue all day last year.

As the event is organised by Permaculture Yarra Valley there will be plenty of information about Permaculture and topics related to sustainability. There will even be a demonstration Permaculture Garden in the Community Garden area. 
A program of talks will include a talk about Edible Weeds by local author Doris Pozzi, and you can purchase her book if you wish. Other topics of talks include Seed Saving, Designing a Permaculture Garden, Climate Change, Tenderbreak Permaculture Farm and Propagating your own Plants (along with a propagating activity for children). Many community groups will also be setting up displays to demonstrate their fantastic work.

There will be a number of stalls selling yummy organic food to eat, so forget breakfast and lunch and enjoy a meal of fresh, locally made food under the shade of the gorgeous Coronation Park trees. 

Autumnfest is sponsored by Permaculture Yarra Valley and Yarra Ranges Council and entry is free.  Email  for more information. If you happen to be in the locality we would love to see you there.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


The system's main components
As mentioned in the last post we recently had trouble with the pump that moved water from our worm farm waste water disposal chamber to the underground distribution system. As many people who come on our permaculture tours are interested in the system, we thought we would elaborate on how it works and review its performance over the past 12 years.

The system is called the A&A Worm Farm Waste System (designed and built in Australia) and we are very happy with it. All waste (bathroom, toilet and kitchen) flows by gravity to a storage chamber (the worm farm). Solids form a compost heap in the tank and liquids gradually drain through into the sump. A submersible pump activated by floats takes a couple of minutes to pump the liquid to the disposal area where the waste is dispersed underground.
Our plan is to one day run this waste water through reed beds and then use it to water fruit trees. It is possible on some sites (in fact desirable) to have the whole system run by gravity. This would negate the need for a pump, and the only need for power would be to charge the battery on the alarm system which lets you know if the system is not working properly.

The rechargeable alarm
There is a compost bin on top of the chamber for adding other organic matter. We dispose of cardboard boxes and invasive weeds through this, to give the worms some variety in their diet. 
Over 12 years we have had some large parties and events and the system has coped well. The solids in the chamber have reached about the halfway mark and seem to have stabilized at this level. As the solids are broken down by microbes and worms, small particles get flushed out with the water.
We see the system’s main advantages as:-
·                 The waste water can be put to use in orchards or grassy areas
·                 Minimal power use (Almost nil if gravity is used instead of the pump)
·                 The cost of the system is reasonable with no ongoing maintenance contracts (like some other systems)
·                 There is virtually no odour – even when the access lid is lifted up
·                 A simple design that doesn’t require specific technical knowledge and problems are easy to diagnose and fix
·                 Most of the time there is no maintenance required at all
·                 The compost chamber allows easy disposal of persistent weeds and other organic matter
Looks like a compost heap inside!
How has it performed?
Even though we have had occasional issues that need attention, we think its performance over the 12 years has been excellent.  During this period it has largely operated day in and day out without us giving it a second thought.
The issues that have arisen with the system have mostly been of a minor nature and were easily fixed.
  • Stuck floats. A couple of times the floats that turn the system off and on have become stuck. Usually the solution is to give the sump outflow pipe a shake and this frees them up.
  • Build up of sediment. Every year or so we pull the pump out of the sump, wash it down, inspect it and empty any sediment that has built up in the bottom of the sump. The pump is not designed to cope with sediment so this is more of a precautionary measure.
  • Pumps have a limited lifespan. Our issue with the pump was detailed in the last post
  • Blocked Disposal trenches. This took a bit of effort to solve, but was very site specific. During the drought (years of very dry conditions) the ground surrounding our disposal trenches dried out to such an extent, it had set like concrete, and lost the capacity to absorb water. We would have had the same issue with any system of underground distribution of waste water.  In these conditions our soils were just not capable of absorbing the required amounts of waste water quickly enough. We replaced the first few metres of the installed underground distribution channels with Plastic Domed Drain Material which had a much bigger capacity and was capable of holding the waste water long enough for it to be absorbed over a longer period of time.
Domed drainage added to each absorption trench
Most of our issues were relatively easy to solve in retrospect. They were also part of the process of learning about how the system works, its limitations and maintenance needs. This last point is part of our basic philosophy – to take responsibility where possible for growing food, generating power, harvesting rain water and disposing of our own waste. Life has become one huge learning experience!

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