Gardening organically cuts out the addition of chemicals and pesticides, giving you healthier food and a healthier environment. To learn more about how you can make your first steps into organic gardening, check out these workshop notes.
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A good garden starts with a good design. Put your veggies in the wrong spot and you may lose morale and give up. Put a tree in the wrong spot and you may be unwilling to remove it, but be regretting it for decades..
Here's an extract of an article we wrote for a gardening magazine that summarises our urban permaculture design experience:.
Permaculture for the uninitiated can be hard to describe or place boundaries around: a nebulous mix of ethical and sustainable design principles and strategies for helping us work with nature – rather than against it – to provide for human needs..
Inspired by nature and traditional societies, permaculture practitioners look to recycle all waste, produce no pollution, protect the soil, value diversity, value edges and margins, store and infiltrate water, and catch and store energy. As such we look more towards balance than control..
But at the scale of urban permaculture most of our clients probably aren't looking for a new philosophy, they're looking for help designing their yard. And it often comes down to some common strategies which I'd now like to share..
Most of our clients want some combination of the following...
- A herb and salad garden
- Cropping vegie gardens
- Fruit trees
- A composting system
- A greywater reuse system
- A seating area
- Some natives
- Some flowers
One common sense permaculture strategy is 'oftenest-nearest.' We tend to place regularly accessed herbs and salad greens as close to the kitchen door as we can, also taking into consideration issues of light and access. High use routes through the garden, such as from the laundry to the washing line we call 'energy pathways,' and here too is often a good place for high maintenance or regularly picked vegetable crops.
We recommend flowers and other companion plants which provide extra beauty as well as pest protection, while the veggie patch by the back door can be thing of pride and colour.
Fruit trees can be further back. Is it possible to place deciduous trees so that they provide afternoon summer sun protection to some of the veggie beds? Can they double as windbreaks for the veggies, with a shrubby understory? Can they be integrated with chickens (for the reasons mentioned above)? Can they be used for screening for unattractive walls or neighbouring houses? Can they help protect the house from summer heat? Are there microclimates such as north facing walls where we can plant bananas, babacos or other subtropical species?
Can we create a 'food forest,' complete with several layers of edible, pest controlling, or nitrogen fixing low maintenance perennial understory plants?
Natives can often be at home in dryer banks of the property, on the nature strip, or integrated in and around food forests. Acacias, casuarinas, grevilleas and banksias and any number of native understory and climbing plants provide ecosystem services like nitrogen fixation, nutrient accumulation, mulch, wildlife habitat as well as beauty.
A surprising number of our design clients want chickens, well over half. Often an L or U shaped chicken run (along the sides and back fence) and orchard system suggests itself, allowing the chickens lots of roaming space and food from the trees. We often incorporate 'straw yards', a way of improving the quality of life for the chickens by breeding up more worms and bugs, while having the chickens take the backbreak out of turning the compost by excitedly doing it for you.
Where possible we incorporate a pond and rockery to encourage lizards, dragonflies, birds and frogs. Some scoops of water from a well established pond can bring in the bug life necessary to keep mosquito numbers well and truly under control.
On sloping properties we work with the contours of the land, which help suggest places for curved swales or mulched pathways to slow water down, send it sideways, and allow it to infiltrate into the soil; the single biggest water store in the system. Our optical hand level is our favourite tool, but we'll also knock up A-frames or Bunyip levels to mark out contours in the landscape. We'll often run a series of vegie beds along the contours, each no more than 1.5 metres wide so that the middle of each bed can be reached without stepping on it.
We often encourage clients to get laboratory soil tests and help them interpret the results, to help them improve their soil, and grow food which has the full complement of nutrients.
An assessment of the water requirements of the garden, and harvesting ability of the roof often suggests that anywhere upwards of 15,000 litres of tanks capacity is best – a surprise to many who were thinking closer to 2,000. At the home scale with permaculture strategies, food can be grown with less than 1/5th the water of broadacre agriculture, and there's plenty enough roof space in any suburban block to supply it.
Greywater we generally use untreated, subsurface on fruit trees, often in mulch pits, and never directly on veggies. Wherever possible we use gravity and no pumps. We encourage our clients not to use in the wet months to allow the soil to be flushed of salts.
Every client and every site is different, but these questions, patterns and strategies are among the most general and relevant that have emerged from our experience so far.
By employing a few permaculture principles and strategies we can re-ediblise the city in a way that begins to turn our yards into novel, beautiful ecosystems, with ourselves a functional part. We know we'll see more of it, because we can't afford not to. Using design inspired by nature and growing food in the suburbs may be one of the only ways we can provide for our food in a more energy scarce and drier future.
A permaculture design example:
Soil and Compost
Healthy humans come from healthy plants (directly or indirectly via other animals), and healthy plants come from healthy soil. So healthy soil is an important thing to have underneath your plants, and something food production should build, not degrade.
Get your soil right, and you'll have healthier plants with less disease and pest problems, they'll require less watering, and they'll uptake less heavy metals.
There are several strategies to better soil, including:
- Growing cover crops and 'green manuring'
- Adding amendments addressing mineral imbalances such as adding lime or gypsum to heavy clay soils
- Physically breaking up and aerating heavy soils with garden forks or tap rooted vegetables
- Protecting the soil from the elements and feeding it with mulch
What is Compost?
Compost is a natural soil improver made from broken-down organic matter. It contains three things of vital importance to gardeners:
- humus (a form of dark spongy carbon which creates great garden soil)
- microscopic lifeforms which create a healthy soil ecosystem.
- it improves drainage and nutrient availability in clay soils
- it improves water and nutrient holding in sandy soils
- it moderates pH – whether too acidic or too alkaline, compost helps!
- toxins in city soils are broken down or become locked up and less available to plants when compost is added
Both your soil and your compost pile are alive! And like us, they need a balanced diet, water, air, and shelter. We'll explain how to make great compost using these principles.
There are many different ways to make good compost, and these include:
- Hot compost: If you pile organic left-overs and garden clippings into a big pile – at least 1m high by 1m square – at the base, the pile will usually generate enough heat to kill weed seeds and many diseases in the middle of the pile. Hot composts are “batch processes” – ie. you need to gather all your ingredients at the beginning and start it all at once. You need to turn hot composts to make sure the outside of the pile is cycled through the hot middle. They needs to get to 55°C for three days to kill weed seeds, but usually they will get even hotter. It's the fastest way of making compost! It's often possible to get lawn mowing companies to deliver clippings to you for free, or you might weed a large garden and end up with a large pile of materials. These are situations where you might build a hot compost pile. We'll focus on the other strategies but you can Google the 'Berkley Method' if you'd like to learn more.
- Cold compost: Most people don't hot compost, rather they placing kitchen scraps and garden weeds, a bit at a time, often in a black, plastic compost bin. It takes longer than a hot compost and doesn't kill weed seeds, but you don't need to start it all at once and can add to it gradually. You need two bins so that one rests once it is full. This is a perfectly fine way of making compost, however you do need to follow our advice below to make a good product.
- Chicken compost: Chickens love to scratch and eat food scraps and bugs. If you put chickens on top of a thick layer of straw and throw in food scraps, they'll do the work for you in creating great compost (and the straw absorbs the smell of the chook poo!) We don't cover this method in this course, but there's some info on the www.VeryEdibleGardens.com website.
- Worm farms: Worms are great for most kitchen scraps but not woody garden materials. We'll deal with worms separately below.
The Balanced Diet: Carbon to Nitrogen ratios.
balance of carbon-rich materials and nitrogen-rich materials. In general, carbon-rich materials tend to be brownish, often dry, and don't rot easily. High nitrogen materials rot (and stink) easily. Any green foliage is high nitrogen. Sawdust is very carbon-rich, fish guts very nitrogen-rich. Mixing the two gets the right balance.
Using about 2 parts Carbon-rich materials to 1 part Nitrogen-rich material from the table below will be about right. For example, you could mix two buckets of straw to one bucket of kitchen scraps. Or two buckets of autumn leaves to one cup of chicken manure. If you're really keen you can google 'compost calculator' to help you get it right, but it gets to be fairly intuitive and you can also use our troubleshooting guide.
|Carbon-rich materials (1 part = 1 bucket)||Nitrogen-rich materials (1 part = 1 bucket)|
Green lawn clippings & weeds
Manure (eg cow, horse, sheep)
Wool, feathers, hair
Extremely nitrogen-rich (1 part = 1 cup)
Blood and bone
Neither of these are essential, but whichever method you use, you can improve the process by:
- cutting any overly large kitchen and garden scraps (e.g., corn stalks) into smaller pieces. The smaller the particle size, the faster it decomposes.
- including a diversity of materials for a better end product
- large amounts of citrus or onions aren't good for worms and can slow down other composting processes
- large amounts of meat or dairy – don't add unless you have a healthy quickly breaking down system
- dog and cat poo can be worm composted or hot composted, but kept in separate systems and shouldn't be used on vegie beds. Some cat parasites can survive worm composting, although hot composting should kill everything.
- some plant diseases and weed seeds may survive cold composting so avoid diseased plant matter and weeds gone to seed.
- eucalyptus leaves and pine needles should be stored separately for a few months until they lose their strong smell
- wood ash – a bit is ok, but never burn treated pine!
- some twigs and branches are great to help aerate the pile
- coffee grounds and tea bags are excellent ingredients – go for it!
- cardboard, newspapers, pizza boxes – for sure! Wet and rip them up first, avoid glued bits in boxes
- glossy coloured magazine paper is a bit suspect, probably avoid it
- eggshells – will eventually break down in soil if not compost.
Some plants are 'dynamic accumulators' – they are full of nutrients and help 'activate' and speed up the compost process. They aren't essential but it can help to add the leaves of yarrow, tansy, comfrey, nettles or chamomile to your compost pile.
It is important to keep the pile moist. Soak cardboard or straw before adding and/or water each layer. But don't saturate the pile. It should be 50% moisture – you know it's right moisture level when you squeeze a handful between your fingers and a drop or two comes out between your fingers, but no more.
You can aerate your compost by either:
For hot composts: turning it from one place to another, and moving what was on the outside to the inside of the pile. A pitchfork is the best tool for doing this with.
For compost bins: If your plastic compost bin has no aeration, you need to drill holes into it. A great tool for mixing and aerating your compost is a 'Compost Mate' compost screw (available from www.VeryEdibleGardens.com)
If you turn twice a week, you will have beautiful rich compost in 3 weeks to 2 months for a hot compost, or more like 3-5 months for a cold compost, depending on the weather.
If your compost is not in a plastic bin, keep your compost pile out of direct summer sun and hot winds so it doesn't dry out. You also want to protect it from too much winter rain so it doesn't get soggy. You can put your compost pile under the canopy of a tree, or if it's not in a compost bin, you can use a tarpaulin (but make sure air can get underneath).
Is your compost too stinky? It may be too wet, or too nitrogenous. If it looks too wet and is stinky, mix in dry carbon-rich material, aerating well. If it doesn't look too wet, mix in soaked carbon-rich material. Make sure it is well aerated. Mix in some sticks, drill holes in plastic bins, etc.
Is your compost not breaking down quickly? It may be too dry or too carbonous. Mix in nitrogen-rich material, and water if it looks dry.
About worm farms
Worms produce perhaps the very best and richest compost for the vegie garden, and worms are especially suited to dealing with kitchen scraps. Worms speed up the composting process, introduce excellent microbiology for your soil, and aerate and mix the compost ingredients for you. Like other forms of compost we need to consider a balanced diet, water, air and shelter.
Compost worms are not the same as garden earthworms – they live closer to the surface, prefer wetter conditions and eat ‘raw’ organic material. Compost worms will only survive in your garden if there's lots and lots of organic material for them.
How many worms should I start with? We recommend that you start with 1,000 multiplied by the number of people in your house. A well maintained worm farm will increase its population to a comfortable amount for the space and food provided. Worms can double in numbers every two months or so.
Can-O-Worms worm farms are a great house for a thriving worm farm, except they MUST be kept in a cool spot on hot days such as a garage or worms will die. They come with instructions on how to use the multi-tray system, which is very efficient and allows you to harvest the compost while leaving the worms behind. Extra tips: If some stubborn worms won't leave the bottom tray come harvest time, put that tray on top and keep the lid off for several hours during the day. The light will encourage the remaining worms down into the active tray. Make sure your model doesn't let water stagnate in the bottom (The round ones are well designed and this is not a problem). If it does, drill a hole in the bottom to collect water from, or tilt the worm farm on an angle so the water all drains.
Polystyrene box: If you’re budget conscious, you can make your own worm farm with three stackable polystyrene boxes that have holes in the bottom. This will need to be standing on a large tray to catch the worm juice, and should be covered with a wet hessian bag or a waterproof cover if your farm is exposed to rain. The insulating properties mean that these survive hot weather better, but they don't keep out mice or flies.
Other systems: Worm farms don't need to have the multiple box system. You can make or buy worm farms made from recycled plastic, wheelie bins or wood which you fill from the top, and harvest from the bottom. You can also keep worms in a bathtub. The more surface area, the more you can feed them.
To start your worm farm, add the following:
- A few cm layer of coconut fibre, dry grass clippings or straw or wet cardboard
- Your worms mixed with a good amount of compost (which they come with)
Cover with a thick layer of damp newspaper, a wet doormat or hessian
Where should I put my worm farm?
A well maintained worm farm will not smell or attract pests, and worms need a sheltered, shady spot that isn’t too light or hot. It’s best to place it near your kitchen for easy access. (Eg. in the laundry, the shed, on a balcony, or under a tree). Protect them from any direct summer sun, but sun will help in the winter.
Food for worms
Chopped up kitchen scraps, weeds, coffee grounds, crushed eggshells, tea leaves, animal manure (horse and cow poo is favoured). Add wet shredded cardboard or wet straw each time that you feed the worms to keep the worm farm smelling sweet, (adjusting the C:N ratio). To increase the fertility of your worm castings, it is important to give your worms a varied diet. Give your worms a treat. They love pumpkin, coffee grounds, wet cardboard!
Worms don't like citrus, onion, too much oil meat or dairy. They don't have teeth, so they can't handle woody material.
Feed your worms only so much as they can eat. They should turn whatever you put in into compost within a week or two, otherwise it's too much food. Start slowly and add more as their numbers build up.
The final product should look dark and rich (about like 70% cocoa chocolate). You can use it when there are still some not-quite completely broken down bits or completely uniform, but it is almost entirely the dark colour.
Sour smell and lots of tiny vinegar flies: add wet shredded newspaper or straw. Bury new food under existing castings.
Ants: something sweet is in the compost, or is too dry. Remove sweets, or add water. It’s normal to have slaters, mites and a few vinegar flies and other creatures in the worm farm.
Good books: Organic Growing with Worms by David Murphy (available through VEG)
Using the compost!
Whether you dig your compost into your soil, or place it on the top, it's important to remember that it's bringing even more life to your living soil! Spread it around the garden and keep it moist, out of direct sunlight and covered with plenty of mulch which provides both shelter and food. You now have fluffy living, humus-rich soil. Don't step on it or use artificial chemicals. Organise your garden beds so that you don't need to walk on them to harvest your vegies, and you will have turned waste into healthy living soil, healthy plants and healthy you! Enjoy.
Organic Pest Control
Organic pest control starts with the soil, as healthy soil allows plants to have strong immune systems.
Secondarily we want to establish a healthy backyard ecosystem, which includes good guy bugs, birds, frogs, lizards and other garden friends.
Here's some good guy insects to look out for:
One of the gardener's best friends, the ladybird and it's larvae (pictured) are voracious hunters of aphids, whitefly, small caterpillars and other garden pests. They aren't active in cold weather, but where aphids are found they are usually quick to follow, especially if you provide the right flowers to attract them (see below).
These tiny wasps are ubiquitous, but so small that you have to look for them. Different species are adapted to different garden pests, including aphids, whitefly, caterpillars. Some even attack other parasitic wasps! They like the same kind of flowers as ladybirds (see below). Look out for the hard brown shelled aphids – they have been infected by the wasp larvae. They are tiny and harmless to humans.
These small flies with bee like markings eat mostly pollen, however their larval offspring love to chew through aphids and other small pests. They like the same kind of flowers as parasitic wasps and ladybirds. This one is on a calendula.
Incredibly strong predators, they eat anything and everything (including other predators). They are elegant and lovely to watch, and good guys in the garden.
- Umbelliferous plant flowers. This includes carrot, dill, fennel, parsley and others
- Daisy family
- Marigold family including calendula
Provide habitat for small birds with dense native plants. Grevilias, fuscias and banksias bring in honey eaters and wattlebirds which also eat insects.
Always look for the garden good guys before spraying. If the predators are present, even in small numbers it’s usually worth allowing those pests to stay unsprayed so that the predators may breed up in numbers.
As a last resort, you can make your own organic sprays using ingredients such as potassium soap (available from nurseries). You can also make ‘white oil’, a mix of vegetable oil (100ml) and water (1.5litres) plus a bit of soap, to smother and suffocate insects. Don’t use this in hot weather though as it can damage the plants. Herbal infusions of garlic, chilli, wormwood, tomato leaf and many others help with various pests.
One of our favourite organic pest control books is the 2010 release Bug by Tim Marshall (see below). Here's Tim's quick garlic spray recipe:
Garlic spray recipe
- 500g crushed garlic
- 150-200mls liquid paraffin (just enough to cover garlic)
- 2.5L water
- 150g pure soap
Add remaining ingredients and stir thoroughly
Filter the mixture well (a commercial filter or sieve is best, but a piece of muslin or tea towel will suffice).
Store in a glass container (flagon bottles or jars are excellent), away from sunlight.
Dilute at the rate of 15-30mls of concentrate per 1L of water, depending on use.
We also recommend the Sustainable Gardening Australia website: www.sgaonline.org.au You can get some hands-on experience at a permablitz: www.permablitz.net