Monday, January 26, 2009

Seed Amaranth trial

Michele from visited us in November last year and kindly sent us some amaranth seed that she had harvested from her crop. Heather sowed a patch measuring about 1.5m x 2.5m following the recommended method of scattering seed by hand. The results were amazing- every seed must have germinated because the area soon became a carpet of red and green. It needed a severe thinning to give plants enough space to develop. From some reading, we found out that half a kilo of amaranth seed is all that is needed to cover a whole acre- so only a handful was needed for the space we had in mind. This was followed by a second thinning a month later and they now have nearly reached the stage of developing flower heads. We can’t wait to harvest the crop and add this grain to our expanding list of food crops.

We grew the crop in our orchard with a rough chicken wire fence around it to prevent the chooks from scratching the seed up. A few plants have grown outside the fence and many of these have leaves that seem to have been nibbled on by the chooks- providing another source of chook food. We’ve read that the leaves are edible (young leaves for salads and older leaves steamed like a vegetable). The leaves are high in vitamins (especially calcium and iron) as well as minerals and protein.

Seed amaranth appears to be an ideal grain crop for this climate. It doesn’t require much water or maintenance. Next time we will sow it more thinly to reduce the amount of thinning required. We will keep you up to date in future posts. Check out Michele’s very informative and interesting blog for lots of information about her food growing experiences.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

More about snakes

Addendum to the last entry. After reading it through, Heather says I’ve created an inaccurate portrayal of our snake interactions. She says it reads like we are stumbling across snakes every few minutes. I can see her point, so to clarify the situation I had better point out that the snake stories mentioned, happened over a number of years. In fact on average we might see around five or six snakes per year and only a few of those will be anywhere near the house. We often will see one or two in early spring when they are coming out of hibernation. During the summer we will occasionally see a few more- usually when they are peacefully sunning themselves or occasionally when they are searching for food. In autumn they return to hibernation until the weather warms up again. So there you have it. Any readers who were getting worried- it’s not so bad after all!

PS. Credit for the "snake in the dam" photo (another one accompanies this post) goes to our daughter Sally who is a wildlife photographer. If you wish to purchase some great wildlife photos you can catch them at Healesville Organic Market, held every Saturday morning outside the Healesville Railway Station. Soon I will do a post on this small but ground breaking market-keep an eye out for it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Living with wildlife-Snakes

Living in or near the bush is likely to lead to interactions with wildlife. In the past many people have resorted to shooting, poisoning and trapping as ways to control these so called “pests”. Others inadvertently terrorise their local wildlife (and possibly their neighbours) by allowing their pets to roam freely. Our attitude is, that we are caretaking this bushland for the period of time we are here and have a responsibility to minimise impact on the long term inhabitants.

The previous owners of our 96 acre bush block, bulldozed 12 acres with a presumed plan of developing grazing areas. Apart from the fact that this land is unable to maintain even small numbers of grazing stock we felt we could get by with around 5 acres and the balance would be better used by allowing regrowth to return it to bush (forest).

The development of gardens, orchard and buildings lead us on an adventurous journey full of opportunities to observe and learn about our fellow creatures. There have also been many challenges to be met, considered and solved.

Snake Adventures
We have so many snake stories, I wanted to call our place “Snake Gully”, but Heather objected feeling that some people may be less inclined to visit. We settled for the less phobic name “Tenderbreak P.F.”

So far, we have come across snakes in the house (whilst under construction), under the dog’s bowl (a baby), in the chookpen (he cleaned up all the rats), in the corella aviary (only seen above the entrance door after I had passed a few cm under him), in the dam (see photo), under bark in our garden retaining walls and dozens more around and about. However it was the sight of a 3 foot tigersnake leisurely sliding under our thick, water conserving mulch, that led to the idea of building a “snakeproof” fence around the veggie garden.

In the winter (2005) when the ground was softer, we built our 1500mm high weldmesh fence with 12mm holes for the first 900mm. The lower edge was buried to depth of around 150mm giving the fence the multiple functions of excluding snakes, rabbits, wombats, kangaroos, deer and any other veggie munching neighbours who wandered by. It was also designed to keep the dog away from those aforementioned neighbours. It would bring harmony to an area of possible conflict- our veggie patch.

We felt pretty proud of ourselves during that first spring, and were looking forward to our first bumper harvest of veggies, where we got to eat the bulk of them. We had to reassess our cleverness when a few days later Heather was surprised to discover a metre long tiger snake slipping around our corn stalks. We carefully guided it (from a safe distance) towards the gate. At the last moment however it slid under a large log that bordered our zucchinis. When I carefully pulled the log back (after demolishing the zucchini plants) we suddenly found ourselves confronted by two snakes. We reckon they had hibernated under that log over winter, as we were carefully building our supposed “snake proof fence” around them. They had accidentally been locked in!

Since then there have only been two other breaches of our fence. Heather found a baby snake (30cm) under the dog bowl. He may have fitted through the small holes in the weldmesh or been dropped by a passing kookaburra. The other occasion was when out daughter saw a snake “climb” the diagonal brace on the timber gate and slip over the top. Once he was in, she opened the gate and guided him back out. Later that day I reversed the gates to ensure diagonal braces were on the inside. (See photo of reversed gate). These events have caused us to use the term “snake deterrent” rather than “snake proof” when describing the fence. We also realise more than ever that part of the deal when living in a bushland setting is the possibility of coming across a snake. Being aware becomes a way of life.

The snakes that we have come across are either red bellied blacks (photo) or tiger snakes, both of which are venomous. Snakes are beautiful creatures that have no intrinsic interest in humans. Their sole aim in life is to feed themselves and go about their business in private. However if they feel threatened they will use their instinctive defensive strategy which is to rise, flatten out their neck and if necessary strike. A bite can be dangerous. Always be wary if near bushland, and keep well back from snakes. Never try and corner or catch one. If left alone, they will invariably disappear back into the safety of the bush.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Making the most of a dam

The last post outlined our solution to water security. Here is a summary of our priorities relating to dam design and list of the many functions dams can fulfil.

Dams are expensive to build so we recommend thinking through the design/layout, reading widely and studying the topography. If you are thinking of building a dam, here is a checklist of our priorities:-
· Place the dam to protect your house from fire (in fire prone areas)
· Engage a reliable contractor who knows what’s required. Cheapest is not necessarily the best
· Evaporation rates are higher in shallow dams. Incorporate enough depth to tide you over an extended dry break.
· Include some shallow areas around the edges for vegetation and habitat for fish, frogs etc.
· Vegetation around and on the water reduces evaporation and helps settle sediment. This can also be harvested from time to time as valuable biomass for composting.
· Use fences to prevent stock from increasing sedimentation and erosion
· Size the dam according to available catchment- it is no use having a dam that never fills
· Build an outlet into the dam wall so that stale water can be released from deeper levels and environmental flows can be made.

A dam is more than just a water supply. Our dam serves at least 10 different functions making it a very worthwhile investment.
1. Water supply for garden and orchard.
2. Permanent water source for fire fighting.
3. Non flammable static fire break.
4. Dam wall provides a gully crossing point for vehicles.
5. Fish for food and recreation.
6. Swimming and boating.
7. It attracts wildlife which in turn helps us. Wild ducks eat snails, and wallabies keep grass around the dam short and leave fertiliser behind.
8. Micro climate effects- increases humidity.

9. Harvested reeds provide biomass material for composting.
10. Provides many aesthetic qualities and provides private areas for meditative experiences.

Incorporating an island in the dam has some disadvantages. It adds to the construction cost, and the island takes up space that could be occupied with water thus reducing the overall capacity of the dam. However it does have its beneficial aspects.

We included an island because it had aesthetic appeal and provided a safe haven for wild ducks and other birds. It adds extra edge to the dam which increases the potential food supply for fish if the dam is stocked. The island also provides a destination when swimming or boating.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Water Security

We all need a reliable source of water, but this is especially critical for farmers and those who are growing food. When we developed our permaculture design for Tenderbreak PF, there were two issues that had the highest priority, and influenced all our decision making - these were water supply and fire defence.

The dam was the first thing we built. It was sited where it would have a good catchment area- at the junction of two natural shallow gullies. During periods of heavy rain we had seen these carry water runoff and knew they would help our dam fill rapidly. The critical words here are “periods of heavy rain”. Unfortunately there can be long gaps between these periods, but when the rain does come, it is a real joy to see small streams flowing into the dam.

We sited our house, outbuildings and drive so that runoff from these is directed to the “house gully” adding to the natural runoff. Of course roof run-off initially goes into our water tanks, but once these are full, the overflow runs into the gully. Another advantage of this design is that moisture levels in the “house gully” are kept higher, improving the microclimate in the vicinity of the house.

The house and other structures are also positioned so that the dam is to the north, forming a static 50m firebreak between our “house envelope” and the thousands of acres of state forest in that direction. The dam is also a reliable water supply for fighting fires if the need should ever arise. Even in the worst of the drought it only dropped around 1m out of its total depth of 7m.The thought of wildfire is not very pleasant, but having a reliable water supply helps.

Having the dam to our north, and all runoff from our developed area flowing to the dam works really well. To make use of that water though, it has to be pumped, and relying on a pump for irrigation and especially for firefighting leaves one vulnerable to mechanical failure. Our solution was to build a small (.5 megalitre) header dam 200m up the hill behind the house. This is the dam we use for day to day watering and with a 30m head is suitable for fire fighting.

This dam has a much smaller catchment and will only fill naturally during good rainfall years. To overcome this we have connected both dams with a 50mm pipe. When the main dam is overflowing in the winter, we can pump up to the header dam to top it up. This system enables us to start each summer with a good supply of water, capable of being fed by gravity to any of our developed areas.

Even though we have a good catchment, the dam still took over 12 months to fill with water. We reckon it was us bulding a dam that caused the drought. Anyway this gave us plenty of time to build a jetty. (Much easier building it in an empty dam than a full one.) The jetty allows access to the water (for watering, boating, fishing or going for a refreshing dip) without stirring up the mud. More on our main dam in the next post.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Permaculture Tours

Back to the Open Day.

Earlier this year we were asked by Yarra Valley Permaculture Group to hold an open day on our property, as part of celebrations to acknowledge 30 years of permaculture.
So what was there for people to see? As outlined in previous posts, we have gradually been bringing our permaculture design into reality. Our farm is designed with an emphasis on sustainability, energy efficiency, self sufficiency, no use of poisons, re-used and recycled materials, living in harmony with the environment, integration of small animals, taking advantage of the natural topography, nutrient cycling, developing defences against wildfire, multiple functions and zoning.
Other features of the property, include use of plantation timber for the house frame, electrical power from our off-grid solar system, tanks and dams supplying all water needs, heating and cooking through wood fired appliances (there’s plenty of fallen timber), chooks and ducks supplying eggs, bees providing honey and extensive fruit and vegetable gardens.
Apart from guided and self-guided tours of the above, volunteers gave talks about Permaculture and food security, put on a display of rare breed farm animals, ran interactive “composting worms” discovery sessions, a wildlife photograph gallery and stalls sold organic refreshments, books, plants and seeds.

As you can see –there was a very full program of activities for visitors to choose between and judging by the comments in our visitor’s book most people found the day rewarding. In fact the plethora of positive comments inspired us to commence a program of small group tours for people who missed out on the open day or those who wanted to look round without the pressure of crowds and limitations of timetables. We ran three of these during November and intend to continue in 2009 on a monthly basis (or more if demand warrants it).
The open day motivated us to start this blog which provides more detail about our story and how Tenderbreak Permaculture Farm came into existence. It also allows visitors to keep up to date with new developments as they occur. In the next few blog entries we will look at some of the features of our farm in more detail.

The success of the Open Day also motivated us to commence small group tours of the property - especially after positive feedback from many visitors who commented that they were inspired by our house and garden tours. The tours cover everything covered on the open day and more, without the pressure of large crowds. By limiting the size of the groups there is plenty of scope for questions and discussion. Apart from having a look at the many features described above, we also provide some insight into how permaculture has influenced our thinking and helped us develop our farm. If you would like to find out more about our “Permaculture in Action” small group tours please email us at
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