17. A Drought-Breaking Winter

Finally, the weather reports tell us that in August 2010, the 13 year drought has finally broken in Melbourne, Australia. It will take a few years of higher than average rainfall until our water levels get back to normal levels, but you can already se the difference in the garden. Despite the garden being at its lowest ebb, where life literally stands still in the green world, the garden is rather lush and full of a few surprises.

 

One surprise is a tomato plant (pictured below) surviving right through winter into late August, looks like it will survive its second year when spring arrives in late September. This tomato plant is an Australian Red variety, and it is currently growing in a hydroponic pot against a north facing brick wall which gets the full midday sun and retains the warmth. There are broad beans growing next to it, which incidentally, are in season. Not shown in the picture below, situated to the left of the three green tanks in the top right hand corner, is a number of eggplants growing hydroponically, which look like they will survive into their second year also.

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Hydroponic tomato surviving through winter due to heat retaining, north-facing brick wall

 

I’ll be using these eggplants to graft onto my “eggplant tree”, the devil plant grafted with eggplants. While I’m on the topic of eggplant trees, I must say that even with my somewhat meagre attempts to cover the eggplant tree with shade cloth, in order to protect the eggplant grafts from the winter cold, most of them look like they’ve survived. The ones that died off will be replaced by cuttings from my hydroponic eggplants I just mentioned. I’ll have strong vigorous material for cuttings very early on in the season, and the eggplants and eggplant grafts carrying over from the previous year will fruit early and bear prolifically.

 

My second surprise is pictured below, and no, it’s not a weeping apple tree, it’s a pepino, a tropical melon related to the tomato family, which tastes like cantaloupe, and ripens to a golden yellow colour with purple stripes. I’ve grown pepino before hydroponically, and I’ve got a lot of fruit, all the size of small plums. The plant got broken by a strong wind so I took some of the broken branches and stuck them in pots of potting mix until they grew roots. then I transplanted them into the garden, and hey presto! The plants were about four to five times more vigorous growing in my organic garden beds than they were growing hydroponically, and the fruit hit a size I’ve never seen before nor I thought was possible. Goes to show that not all plants like hydroponics, but all plants do love growing organically!

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A very large Pepino fruit, a variety of tropical melon

 

From a Permaculture design perspective, I like to utilize vertical space for additional growing area. Vertical space doesn’t just mean growing upwards, if we think outside the square, it can mean growing downwards too! As you can partly see in the picture, there is a two foot (60cm) brick terracing elevating the garden beds above the ground level, as the block of land is slightly sloped. I reasoned that it would be nice to cover the brick terracing with a plant to make it more pleasant to look at, reduce the radiated heat in summer, and yield edible produce. One of the design principles of Permaculture is that any element you add to the garden should serve two or more purposes, and in this case, we were aiming for three. The pepino fits the bill perfectly, it is an easy to grow trailing vine-like plant, but not invasive, it grows well draped down from an elevated height, and it also produces tasty fruit. That’s an example of the thinking behind Permaculture design, and it works well. And yes, I’m thinking of producing more cuttings soon and filling the area completely!

 

Because of the shortened day length and lower temperature in winter, you’re restricted in the vegetables you can grow. I really did neglect may annuals this year, so I put in some seeds late in Autumn, spinach and rocket in the shorter pot pictured below, and two types of lettuce in the longer pot, purple leaf lettuce and Cos lettuce. Lettuce can grow in a wide variety of conditions, and if you plant it in the wrong time, when growth is limited by low light and temperature, it pretty much well sits there (as long as the snails don’t find it!) until the weather warms up and the days grow longer. These will be just the right size in early spring to transplant into the garden.

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Seedlings of Rocket and Spinach, somewhat stunted by the cold weather

 

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Seedlings of Purple Oak-Leaf Lettuce and Cos Lettuce, faring somewhat better, waiting for springtime!

 

One important thing in gardening is not be be scared of making mistakes, and to have a bit of a sense of adventure or a will to experiment. This is a large 50cm wide plastic pot of a perlite-potting mix blend that I use for growing cuttings in, into which I threw a handful of seeds which got mixed up during my seed harvesting earlier in the season. I couldn’t remember what the seeds were, so I tossed them into the pot and let them grow. They turned out to be a mix of carrots and celery! So, now I have a pot of seedlings which I can transplant into the garden, and I have transplanted so much celery I’ve now got more than I can use.

So, what to do with the rest? The answer is obvious to a Permaculture devotee, it’s Permaculture ethical principle number three – “share the surplus” – free celery seedlings to anyone who needs any. Why pay $5 a punnet, and if I show you all the other pots I dumped this unknown seed mix into, you’ll see I’ve easily got more than twenty punnets of celery seedlings ready to go, you can do the maths…

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A mixed lot of collected seeds, dumped in a pot, turned out to be carrot and celery! Always label your seeds!!!

 

Of course, gardening is not just about vegies, some things are meant to appeal to our higher needs, rather than just our bellies! Below is another plant I grew from a cutting, it’s a “Firefly”, Justicia rizzinii.

This is a small evergreen Brazilian shrub, which flowers throughout winter and spring, and brings a bit of colour into the garden. Because the plant is quite young, it’s not that big, so you can’t see much of it’s leaves, but you can clearly see the “little flames” the tubular-bell shaped flowers that start of as scarlet, which transitions into a vibrant orange, and then into an iridescent yellow at the tips. When it grows to its full size of 50cm, and is in full flowers, the visual display has been described as “a shower of embers suspended in mid-air”.

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Firefly, Justicia rizzinii

 

Back to the rest of the garden, here are some photos of different shots of the garden, you don’t realise this is the garden’s lowest point in the middle of winter until you realize that it is about four times more lush and vegetated at peak growth time. That’s the advantage of having some evergreen fruit trees and lots of perennial plants and herbs – your garden isn’t reduced to a few sad rows of brassicas (cabbages, cauliflower, broccoli, etc) in bare soil when winter hits…

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Winter garden view, facing south

 

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Winter garden view, facing north

 

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Winter garden view, facing east

 

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Winter garden view, another perspective facing east

 

One way to spend time productively in the colder seasons is to take cuttings of deciduous trees and vines when they are dormant, that is, when they have lost their leaves, and put them in a suitable rooting medium, and leave them there until they grow roots.

I use coconut coir because it’s cheap, reasonably reusable (goes into the garden when it breaks down too much), holds moisture well, has natural plant growth hormones (which make the coconut grow into trees when they wash up on beaches) and a big block which sells for around $12 will expand in water to fill a whole wheelbarrow! I will write a proper an instructional article on propagating plants from deciduous cuttings in the DIY Instructions section soon, so for now I’ll provide a brief rundown on the topic.

To make cuttings of deciduous trees or vines, cut a dormant branch – one that is hardwood, the previous years growth that has hardened off, not delicate greenwood growth. At the bottom of the branch, the thickest part, on the side where you cut it, cut it at a 45 degree angle just below a node (dormant bud or point where leaf was attached, looks like a knot in the branch). You can put some rooting hormone on the cut end, or a tiny amount of honey (which acts as a preservative and stops it rotting) – both optional, and then push around half it’s length it into the ground or into a pot of whatever you wish to use that’s reasonably well draining. Leave the cutting there until it shoots new leaves. Be aware that just because the cutting now has leaves, it doesn’t mean roots are there yet. It could take a few weeks or longer. Give it a slight tug, if it resists, it’s got roots! Give it a while to get grow some decent roots, a week or two, then dig it up and plant it out where you want it!

 

Here is a big pot of cuttings, there are labels in there to tell them apart – grapes, figs, blood plums, dwarf plum rootstock, mulberry.– I’ve tested all these before and they do grow from cuttings. This year I’ve also put in a cherry cutting to see if that works, don’t be afraid to experiment, if you never try, you’ll never know.

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Propagating fruit trees – A mixed lot of hardwood cuttings (all labelled)

 

Next to it are two more pots, more mulberries, and raspberries. All bramble berries can be grown from cuttings, and they can also be propagated by dividing up the parent plant when new canes form, many canes will have their own separate roots.

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More propagation – Raspberry and Mulberry cuttings

 

Then there’s even more, herbs like wormwood, tree wormwood, soapwort, and a few plums. These definitely all grow from cuttings. In the experimental category are a few peach and nectarine cuttings, if they work, great, if they don’t no big loss, the wood gets recycled in the compost. Incidentally, the grass like plant is “cat grass” a tasty dietary supplement for felines, helps with their digestion, that’s grown from seed or propagated by division, grow it in a pot and they’ll be thankful (and so will you when they don’t chew up your favourite indoor plants instead!)

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An assorted lot of cuttings at various stages, on a self watering tray, note terracotta pot water reservoir in centre and capillary matting below.

 

Like I said, there’s nothing to lose with experimenting, so here’s even more, mainly plums and nectarines. Most of these are part of a rescue mission of a friend’s neglected backyard orchard. the trees were on the property when he acquire it, in a bad state, now they are critical, falling down, breaking, dying. They are all tasty varieties that are well worth saving. By propagating them, we can grow small trees to plant beside the parent ones, so when the old trees go, we will have strong and vigorous replacements, which are identical clones of the parent trees.

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More deciduous cuttings, rescuing a friend’s ageing backyard orchard, hopefully I will have a few dozen small trees ready for him in springtime!

 

More grapes and pomegranates pictured below to complete the picture! You’re probably thinking, that’s a lot of cuttings, if they all take root, that’s a lot of trees! Precisely the point!!! Production is not just about vegetable yields, or fruit yields for that matter. With this type of produce, once it’s consumed, it’s gone forever. Not so with plant production, which produces more productive capacity for both more edible yield and more productive plants. Your fruit and vegetable production is your investment in the present, your plant production is your investment in the future. Plant production makes use us extra space, unproductive season times, and yields valuable plant stock which can be sold, traded, swapped or given away freely. In the light of urban food security, peak oil and resilient communities, if I produce one hundred fruit trees a year, and distribute them freely in my local community, potentially there will be one hundred more viable fruit trees in my community in under five years, feeding people for free. That’s what Permaculture is about!

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More grape vines, here we’re propagating red muscat variety from vine cuttings.

 

If you think this is idealism, well, I’d like to highlight that the whole point of this website is twofold:

  1. to provide a source of documented, living proof that it all can be done, and
  2. to provide a source of tried and tested instructional material that you can you can use to do it too!

For the second year of this garden, I’m predicting around 200kg of produce for this 12 month period, and I’m nearly there. Additionally in these two years I have produced around one hundred raspberry plants, twenty grape vines, ten fig trees, fifty mulberry trees, thirty pomegranates, thirty goji berries, fifteen plum trees, forty strawberries and literally hundreds of herbs and companion plants. Then there’s the aquatic plants – many edible, and a varied handful of other trees, berries, tubers, etc. All this was produced and given away for free. Not bad for a one-man effort while working a regular 40 hour week, 5 day a week job, with time still left for other interests and social activities (and writing a web site like this!) Yes, it really can be done…

 

All the cuttings sit in a sheltered spot at the side of the house that gets morning sun, and natural rainfall. The strange “ghost shape” in the upper left of the photograph are the plastic bags that cover the Starkrimson cherry grafts on wild cherry rootstock, and nectarine grafts on dwarfing plum rootstock, but that’s a whole article in itself, which you’ll no doubt see soon! Not to be forgotten, just below these, is a green pot with lavender cuttings. There take a few months to take root sometimes, but they’re finally ready.

 

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Keep cuttings in a sheltered spot, with morning sun or dappled shade. These are tucked up against the fence on the east side of the house.

 

I’ve also been experimenting with a technique called air layering, which allows you to propagate plants that can’t be propagated by cuttings, by making branches take root while they’re still attached to the tree. It’s actually a technique that was developed by the ancient Chinese around 2000 years ago and had been widely used since then. Works great on citrus, which don’t grow by cuttings. I’ll know by spring if these air layers have taken, you’ll see my full report in the spring update!

Just in passing, I though to mention one thing, irrigation. Since all the extra rain, I’ve been able to turn off the irrigation at the tap. For three months, this garden has just survived on natural rainwater, my water tanks are full, and if we get regular rain from this point onwards, I can hopefully reduce the dependency on tap water even further.

I’m now only two months away from completing a full 24 month cycle of documenting everything that has happened in my garden from the initial design and construction to the present day. I’ll continue general updates after October, just to show how productivity still increases for a few more years, but I’m planning to bring you some new projects that I’m working on, some of these are large scale community projects and are quite exciting.

 
 
18. What’s Growing in the Garden?
 
 
 
 

One Response to 17. A Drought-Breaking Winter

  1. Lynneh says:

    Thank you so much for sharing. Very interesting. Very inspiring as you have provided many of the pieces of the puzzle and food for thought!. I read about permaculture 17 years ago, and was inspired which lead to minor (very) success at vegie gardening. Hoping to get into it again.

    Like

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