05. A Hot Harsh Summer

The months of January and February 2009 have been quite interesting to say the least…

January was a ripper month, with the peak produce to date, 22kg of produce for the month! Roughly double of what the other months produced! This was the month that the rest of the potatoes were harvested. Not the ones in the potato patch in the garden, but the ones put in spare soil left over from levelling the garden beds and put into pots for storage – because there was nowhere else to put this surplus soil.

Well, anyway, this “afterthought”, five 45 litre pots and one 60 litre pot, yielded 10.5kg of potatoes, 2 different varieties too.

The great thing about potatoes is that you can replant all the little ones once you add some nutrient to the soil, so I’ll see how they go the second time round! We’re going for 5 different varieties this time round.

Another “afterthought” was the surplus carrot seed that was nearing the end of its use-by-date, scattered indifferently amongst the liliums beneath a dwarf peach tree and forgotten. Deciding to check if they were “doing anything” was a pleasant surprise, namely over 3.5kg of carrots.

…the state recorded one of its hottest days in its history, over 46 degrees celsius, setting the stage for the worst bushfires in our history

Mind you, it all hasn’t been good news.

Victoria’s summer heatwave, a series of windy days in the high 30’s, scorched the state to a dry, flammable tinder. Then, the final death knell, the state recorded one of its hottest days in its history, over 46 degrees celsius, setting the stage for the worst bushfires in our history. Then a few weeks later, when the rain finally made its presence felt, they were accompanied by extreme weather conditions, gale force winds that caused extensive damage.

In the wake of the damage and loss of lives caused by the bushfires, the damage to urban gardens paled into insignificance. When put into perspective by the severity of the loss in the rural areas, we felt lucky in urban Melbourne to have escaped the tragedy.

As expected, the adverse conditions did not favour the plant species any more than it did humans. The expanses of green that were lawns, parks and nature strips became stretches of the golden yellow of dry straw. Natives of the plant world, in the peak of their growth, showed varying degrees of autumn tones of burnt and dried foliage.

When plants experience these conditions, they go into survival mode, sparing nutrients to regenerate damage to themselves or to avoid wasting them. Growth stops, plants experience trauma, drop leaves, flowers and fruit in order to survive.

I was wondering earlier how well a heavily stacked Permaculture design garden would cope in peak summer, well, and after a literal “trial by fire”, I had my definitive answer, and I couldn’t have asked for a clearer one than this.

The pictures display some of this quite clearly:

1. Berry damage – though they’re still alive with green leaves intact, the blackcurrant, redcurrant, and some of the more exposed raspberry plants have the growth at the tip of their branches burnt off. The only other similar damage was to a shade and moisture loving herb, the Valerian plant, which makes a wonderful relaxing tea that promotes sleep from its quaint smelling root – smells like unwashed socks… The hot wind dried the tips of the leaves that hung over the raised bed.

Picture 01

2. The hydroponic tall Balinese sweet corn managed to grow to around 2m tall when the heatwave struck. As the system can supply as much water as the plants can physically draw, it minimised the damage. Nevertheless, the tips of the leaves got burnt, indicating that evaporation was happening faster than the plant could transpire to replace the lost water. The real problem was the wind. It blew one pot over, out f its nutrient bath, so it survived on what nutrient was still in the pot, which obvious damaged the plant, as can be seen by the lack of foliage compare to the one on the right, and the dry stalk tops.

Picture 02

3. View facing west – garden pretty well unscathed, and looking quite lush and green.

Picture 03

4. Same view from further back – other than a few berries with burnt foliage, it held up pretty well thankfully!

Picture 04

5. Aquatic plants really thriving, a testimony to the higher efficiency of aquaponic systems. In this case, some Arrowhead plants, (Sagittaria sagittifolia), also known as Duck Potato, an aquatic with edible tubers, growing in an organic soil and compost blend sitting under 10cm of water, in a 15 litre container. When you’re knee deep in water, there are no real water issues, even in the worst of heat.

Picture 05

6. Back to the potato experiment, six 45 litre pots and one 60 litre pot of spare soil from the garden planted with potatoes. Some of the potato harvest that was replanted has already resprouted, and some of the old potato plants that were pulled up were replanted have regrown. I added a bit of blood and bone, home-made compost, worm castings and worm casting leachate (“worm juice”), and some seaweed extract to help things along, because there’s no space for crop rotation just yet for the potatoes in this garden.

Picture 06

7. Another aquatic experiment, a 60 litre recycled plastic tub with a compost/soil mix, flooded with water to a height of about 10cm above the soil, and planted with water chestnuts, and some duckweed added to the water for the sake of it. And, not to be forgotten, there’s one more pot with potato plants directly above it, that wasn’t visible in the last picture.

Picture 07

8. The grapevine, a sultana grape, with barely any dry lives, sheltering the under-story of strawberry plants, and the delicate feathery foliage of the asparagus behind it, from the harsh sun and wind. The strawberries act as its living mulch, and there’s the herb hyssop on the right hand side as a companion plant to the grapevine. One happy family… or should that be, guild. Sunflowers can be seen towering over the top, and they are one of the hardiest trap crop/diversion plant for aphids I’ve seen to date!

Picture 08

9. Back to the vertical hydroponic cucurbit wall shading experiment. Now we have Loofahs, Bitter Melon, Butternut Pumpkin, Chinese Cucumber and Watermelon. Some of the plants have really taken off, they’re making their way up the mesh. The extreme heat and sudden weather changes are causing them to drop their flowers, some are fruiting currently.

Picture 09

10. The Loofah has already reached the top, and is now stretching across the trellis. It’s really looking like we won’t get enough foliage early enough to shade the wall, this would have to be done very early in the season to get the benefit of shading. Now what’s left to determine is how much yield they will produce.

Picture 10

11. The aquatic plants are growing really well, a bit too well in fact and will need to be thinned out a bit. With the three goldfish in the water garden, the water is nutrient rich, and the plants grow prolifically. The water lily didn’t flower this season, so it’s due to be lifted, divided and repotted. Not a task I look forward to because it’s always a messy job

Picture 11

The garden is proving quite productive, these are the monthly yields so far:

Yield (g) per Month

Oct         11,252
Nov          6,149
Dec           9,556
Jan         22,203
Feb         10,860

The total harvest to date is just over 60kg for a period of 5 months. Whether the heat damage will have a longer term effect on productivity is something we’ll have to wait and see.

Next Page – 06. The Drought Breaks…

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