Microplot design, #2

Jerusalem artichoke (sunchoke), basil, tomato, choko.

I actually don’t know which number this is, but I think it’s the second one I’ve posted about. This microplot is in the “vegie garden” section (zone 3A) of my trials, so it is in a raised bed filled with purchased soil of decent quality (which has been used a few seasons now and topped up along the way). This is important because soils here are so terrible. They can be reconditioned, which is what I’m doing with a lot of the plots, but for short-term and quick-install projects like vegie beds it’s popular (and probably sensible for your average not-a-green-thumb gardener) to buy in dirt that works first time. The other feature of this section is that it gets watered frequently through summer – as often as every two days. So this soil stays moist.

Quick reminder: the idea of the microplots is that they’re simple combinations of useful vegies and herbs that will grow well together at the same time of year here in Perth and can be “installed” complete by someone setting up a bed. There are lots of combinations out there for the species-savvy – but a beginner gardener tends to throw any random old thing in together without thinking. This is an attempt to set up a few simple combinations that are reasonably reliable given specific watering conditions and planting season.

This bed was planted in October here in Perth, possibly early November. It’s a summer combination. The jerusalem artichokes get tall (they’re a sunflower relative and look a lot like sunflowers) and help shelter the other plants as well as giving visual structure and beauty. The choko should in theory help protect the soil, but mine hasn’t really grown out much yet. They are a perennial though so I’m hoping it will last til another summer. Basil and tomato are a popular combination and usually grow well together.

This combination of four gives us a member of the mint family (basil), a member of the daisy/lettuce family (sunchoke), a member of the nightshade family (tomato) and a member of the squash family (choko). So in theory that should allow the soil to stay in balance, chemistry-wise, with the addition of fertiliser for the tomatoes at fruitset and after the bed has died back or been dug up. There’s no member of the legume family, which would help keep the bed running perennially, and I did consider that adding peanuts to the mix might make the combination fully self-stable. But these are all warm-season plants so the bed is going to be bare/unproductive across winter and could be planted with legumes – and brassica or the silverbeet family? – in its off season. In fact, it did have silverbeet in its previous season, which I left in when it bolted. The couple of tall overgrown bolted plants that hadn’t died off just yet made lovely drooping shelters for the other plants as they established. So I will no doubt get more volunteer silverbeet seedlings when autumn comes. Next spring the sunchokes should resprout – no matter how many you harvest, you always miss some – and I hope to keep the choko alive over winter, so only the basil and the tomato will need to be freshly grown and replanted.

The only imbalance I’ve found so far in this bed – and admittedly, I’m only halfway through the season – is that harvesting the jerusalem artichokes may be tricky. As with any root vegetable in a polyculture, the other plants will get disturbed when you dig them up. In theory I can wait until the tomatoes and basil have finished for the season (though sometimes we overwinter tomatoes here for an early crop in spring). But in practice, you only want to harvest sunchokes when you need them – they don’t keep well once they’ve been dug. So that aspect may need a rethink. But then, how many jerusalem artichokes will we actually eat?

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Off topic: Short Screenplay Challenge #2 – Women’s Business

Here’s my 5-page entry for the second challenge of round 1 of the NYCMidnight Short Screenplay Challenge. I was assigned:

Genre: mystery
Location: a vet clinic
Object that must be included: a champagne bottle


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Off-topic: Short Screenplay Challenge round 1 – Microaggressions

I’ve been trying to learn to write screenplays for some time. Thought I’d give my skills a bit of a push with the NYCMidnight Short Screenplay Challenge. Scripts have to be a maximum of 5 pages. My group (of 30-odd writers) were assigned:

Genre: Science Fiction
Location: A physical therapy centre
Object that must be included: A heart-shaped locket

Here’s my script, titled Microaggressions. Happy to take any kind of feedback/criticism!


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Off topic – Flash Fiction Challenge round 3 – Grains of Paradise

I made it to round 3 of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. Which I’m pretty chuffed about – I had to be one of the five best in my group of 30-odd across the previous two rounds, and I ended up ranking second. This round of the challenge was much harder because I knew everyone I was up against can also tell a competent story to a tight deadline, so I was working hard to write a story that wouldn’t just succeed but could win. I wrote two and a half stories during the 48-hour challenge period, and submitted the one that held together best and stuck in the mind the most. It’s science fiction, which to me means stories that briefly illuminate strange futures or new conceptions of ways of being, moments of “but, weird, wait, hey” that then keep coming back to you later and get you thinking for a while. In the end though I didn’t have time/energy/space to edit and rewrite the serious flaws that I saw (I’d have needed to sleep on it for a day, and I didn’t have a day!), so I decided to chalk this one up to a learning experience and see what feedback came my way. Opportunities to make a big jump in becoming a better writer don’t come along so very often! So I greatly appreciate the time you take to read this story and any feedback that’s left for me, here or on the NYCMidnight forums. Thanks so much!


Genre: Science Fiction
Location: A convention centre
Object that must be included: A pumpkin pie

Title: Grains of Paradise
Word count: 997

Continue reading

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Off topic: Flash Fiction Challenge entry for round 2: Might and Power

I promise I’ll get back to the agri-writing shortly, I have a couple of blog posts I’ve been working on to do with interesting ideas and on seasonal activities, plus it’s a great time of year for photographing weeds and writing weed profiles. However, before then:

I’ve entered the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. In each round of the challenge, you are assigned a genre, location and object, and have to write a story of 1000 words or less with those constraints. In this round I was assigned:

Genre: Historical Fiction
Location: A brothel
Object: Tiger skin rug

Here’s my story, proffered up for review by other FFC writers. My own take on the story: it was fun to write, but challenging to pick a historical time/place that I knew well enough to write in at short notice that would also be easy to understand by judges who don’t have my shared cultural background (it’s being run and judged in the USA). It’s not like I can spend a chapter setting the scene or anything 🙂 I think I succeeded, but I won’t know til the judging’s done.

Might and Power Continue reading

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Off-topic: Flash Fiction Challenge 2015 entry for round 1: The Maiden With A Drill.

Just an off-topic entry for a moment! Stepping away from the agriculture and ecological writing to put up my entry for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge round 1. The competition involves writing flash fiction stories (under 1000 words) that fit your assigned combination of genre/location/object. In Round 1 I was assigned to group 22: fairy tale; asteroid; and diamond. So here is my story The Maiden With A Drill. (My own opinion on the story: it ticks the boxes and is competent, but not the most enthralling fairy tale I’ve ever told and I tell the kids quite a few.)

The Maiden With A Drill (972 words)

Once upon a time there was an asteroid miner named Ruby. She lived on one of the minor asteroids in the Outer Belt with her parents and her two older sisters, Emerald and Amethyst. Mostly they mined cheap ore for small dollars, but they went out every day hoping they’d find diamond.

Now, Emerald was beautiful, with glinting green eyes and long golden hair, and she could speak three languages most beautifully. And Amethyst had long brown hair and shining violet eyes, and could sing and dance better than the vidcast popstars. But Ruby was just Ruby. She could wield a good drill and assay a fair sample, but her sisters always said “Oh, Ruby! A prince would never want to marry someone with dirty hands!”.

One day Ruby was underneath a robot carrier, fixing a broken tread, when a vice president from a big mining corp came by on a field day tour. When he saw Emerald, he exclaimed “Who is that beautiful maiden?” Ruby scooted out from under and said “That’s my older sister Emerald. She wants to marry a prince.” He said “Well, perhaps she would accept a vice-president with a princely salary.” And she did, and they left together.

A few months later, Ruby was servicing and replacing drill bits when a music producer from the biggest vidcast channel came by on a tour flight. When he heard Amethyst singing, he exclaimed “Who has that beautiful voice?” Ruby said “That’s my older sister Amethyst. She wants to marry a prince.” He said “Just one prince? She could be wooed by all of them! Perhaps she will accept a vidcast contract with me.” And she did, and they left together.

One day Ruby was out drilling samples when she saw three little men walking along without space-suits. It was very strange. She could even hear them through her visor. “Overtime again”, grumbled one. “Do we ever get any thanks?” complained another.

They were so caught up in their complaints that they didn’t see or hear Ruby. She followed the three little men into a tunnel which led deep into the asteroid to a huge cave. There she hid to watch. In the middle of the cave was a golden throne topped with the largest diamond she’d ever seen. On the throne sat a man so handsome that Ruby knew he could only be the King of the Underhill. The three little men began to report to him, but he interrupted. Sniffing the air, he said “I smell engine oil. I smell nylon. I smell… a HUMAN!”. The Underhill folk searched the cave. They found Ruby straight away and dragged her off to the dungeon to await her fate.

That night the King came to her and said “I will ask you one question each night for three nights. In the morning you must answer. If you give the wrong answer you will die. If you answer all three correctly you can go home, and I will give you the Great Diamond from my throne. The first question is: What is the first sound in every language?”. He slammed the door closed.

Ruby thought and thought, but had no idea of the answer. So when nobody was near, she rang her sister Emerald on her suit-com. Emerald was very pleased to hear from her. She said “That’s easy. It’s the sound for ‘mother’”. Then Ruby got out her drill and spent the rest of the night drilling a hole in the cell wall. The next day when the king arrived she said “The first sound in every language is the sound for ‘mother’”. The king was very cross, but had to let her live.

That evening, he asked her “Which snake vanishes everything it touches?” Ruby thought and thought, but had no idea of the answer. So when nobody was near, she rang her sister Amethyst on her suit-com. Amethyst was very pleased to hear from her. Her three production assistants said “We can find that out for you!” So Ruby drilled until they called back. The next day when the king arrived, she said “It’s the snake that eats its own tail. The number zero.” The king was very cross, but had to let her live.

That evening, he asked her “If you know so much, tell me this. What is my middle name?” Then he slammed the door closed. Ruby’s heart sank. It was an impossible question! She’d have to escape. Her drill finally broke through the wall – but she’d not be able to make the hole big enough before morning. She sat down to cry. To her surprise, she could hear the little men through the hole. They were laughing. “That silly girl. She’ll be killed for sure! There’s no way she could ever know his middle name is Unrede!”

The next morning when the king arrived, she said “Your middle name is Unrede!” Then she pushed past him and ran as fast as she could to the throne room. She grabbed the diamond and kept running out the tunnel. Behind her she could hear the angry king following, smashing walls and ceilings as he came. She burst out of the tunnel into bright light. Behind her, with one last curse, the tunnel caved in, sealing the entrance to Underhill forever.

Ruby went home, where her parents were very glad to see her. She put the diamond in their broken ore-scope. From that day on they could find the most precious ores at any depth with ease, and they lived well. Ruby built up a nice, steady, sensible fortune, got her hands dirty when she wanted, and didn’t get married until she thought it was worth it.

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Early winter, and working in the understorey

I’m going out to plant quinoa shortly. I have no idea if it’s a good time to try planting it or not – quinoa is a tricky crop for Perth because it needs a long time of cold before germination, and because it doesn’t like our warm-to-hot-to-extremely-hot secondspring and extended summer. These seeds have been in my fridge for over a year, so I’m fairly sure the “long time of cold” is taken care of. How they’ll cope with the next two months of winter I don’t know. (Winter for me, in the six-season routine, is approximately May 21st to the last week of July.) It made me realise that I’ve lost track of the crops I’ve tried using as understorey in my Mediterranean food forest, so I started making a list. These are mostly things that I only expect to grow seasonally. Some last all year, others die back in secondspring and resprout when the autumn rains arrive. Some of them resprouted when we got a good rainwave during secondsummer, but not all stayed alive once the rain stopped again. (I got some good weed control done then – lots of weeds sprouted and then died in the next six weeks of dry!)

Understorey that’s done well for more than one season/cycle:

Alexanders, salad burnett, nasturtium, warrigal greens, Spanish thyme (the species sold as “Bush BBQ Thyme” that’s high in cineole), ice plant varieties, curry plant, santolina, radish, garlic, white sage, borage, potatoes

Understorey that’s done well in its season but not necessarily since (may need trial in a different spot or different handling/pest control, or may have only had one season’s trial so far):

Golden amaranth, fenugreek, asparagus pea, cowpea, peanuts, buckwheat, chickpeas, liquorice, flax linseed, other varieties of thyme, red sunflowers, scarlet broad beans, sorghum

Understorey that I’ve struggled with but want to keep trying and get going:

Watermelon, chia, black cumin (I finally have one plant of this this year!), Zaatar (a Middle Eastern marjoram/oregano), Geraldton sunflowers. There may be more that I’m forgetting, in fact I’m sure there are.

Understorey that’s non-edible (and in some cases just weedy, but I’m keeping it for one reason or another):

Spanish hoop daffodils, regular daffodils, Oxalis pes-caprae (soursob), Romulea rosea (Guildford grass).

Note that these are all in the Mediterranean food forest zone, which gets water at best once a week in the height of summer and is supposed to function on water once a fortnight to once a month – it’s not intended for year-round productivity. The garden zones with more water and the intent of year-round productivity have different kinds of understorey not listed here.

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Microplot garden design – 1

One of the things I’m experimenting with is dense microplots for urban gardens. Take three, maybe four species of food or useful plant, and grow them together in a complementary fashion so that they each help each other thrive and produce. Most urban gardens don’t have very much space, and there’s always a temptation to plant all the everything – but what you end up with at harvest is two lone roma tomatoes, a single sweet corn, and some bolted lettuce. More effective is to plant plenty of a couple of things, so that you have all of those that you could wish for plus spare to swap with a neighbour – who is hopefully growing something different. It’s a distributed model of smallholder farming – you grow the this, we’ll grow the that, and we’ll share. It means a little less effort and concentration on your part because you’re only trying to keep a couple of types of things alive for a set period of time. But it also means that if you screw up on something, you lose all of that particular crop. What seems like it would be useful would be some practiced microplot designs – combinations of food plants that are tested to grow well together, need the same kind of water and fertiliser regime – take some of the guesswork out of it. I’ve been playing with various microplot designs over my time here, experimenting with novel crops as well as the familiar garden favourites in order to build up some suggestions. I’m going to post a few of them across the next little while, warts and all.

The one I’ve got most active at the moment is in my drylands zone. It’s a space about 2.5m wide by 4m long. It gets watered once a week throughout Perth summer – which is half the permitted amount and a lot less than most vegie plots would unofficially get. The three crops I chose were cowpea, broom-corn sorghum and watermelon. They’re all sow-in-spring, warm-season crops. I hoped that the cowpeas would help provide nitrogen to the others, the watermelon would help shade and protect the soil, and the sorghum would give a limited amount of canopy to take the edge off the heat for the lower plants. Cowpea is a cooking legume – harvest when dry, store sealed and then cook when needed. The broom-corn sorghum is best for feeding wild birds or chickens, and its roots make good, extensive soil conditioner/developer. The watermelon needs no explanation.

What I learnt: first, planting them all as seeds at the same time didn’t work. The sorghum and the cowpea need soil moisture protection to reliably germinate in our warm spring. I allowed weeds to grow through the patch for the first month or two, and wherever the weeds had sufficiently protected the soil moisture, I got germination. The plot I’m working in is (like most of my garden) highly hydrophobic and I didn’t fix that well enough before starting. That’s a problem for sorghum – ideally, it has good soil moisture all the way through the profile and then only limited rain while establishing, if I’ve understood correctly. The watermelon just didn’t get established quickly enough or well enough to cover the soil. Some of that was water and the hydrophobicity, and some of that was timing vs soil warmth. Starting the watermelons as seedlings a few weeks ahead of planting the main bed might have worked a lot better. Or planting the seeds into an existing microplot that was running on a winter design and still had some soil cover.

Second, the watermelon. I first planted an early-season watermelon with the intent that most of the cropping would be done by the end of Birak or firstsummer, which is around about January 21st give or take ten days. When most of those seeds failed to germinate due to the soil moisture issues, I planted in some random hybrid seedlings that I picked up in a punnet somewhere. These kind of went along without doing much, until at the start of Bunuru or second summer, at the end of January, we had a week of steady rain followed by a return to the usual hot weather – and the sun had moved sufficiently that the surviving melon plants got an extra two hours of shade in the morning. At this point the watermelon plants that had survived went bananas, or rather melons, and spread everywhere. So water vs warmth vs light needs better managing for these guys, as they won’t have enough warmth left in our season to get fruit through to harvest now. I will try again next year with another early-season watermelon, and concentrate on the soil moisture.

Third, the broom-corn sorghum. I really enjoyed growing this plant. I recalled that the farmers who grow sorghum broadscale didn’t like getting additional rain during the season, and I wasn’t sure how the regular watering that the watermelon needed would affect the sorghum. It turned out to be OK though, if not better than expected. What I’m seeing (and I think I’m right but don’t completely know yet!) is that the extra watering – especially that week of rain – causes the sorghum to put up extra grain heads or tillers. Which is a problem if you’re broadacre harvesting, because you want all the grain to be ready at the same time. But in an urban microplot, extra grain at staggered times is much better.

Fourth, the climate suitability. These plants have all done fine so far across our four months summer, with watering at best every 6 days and sometimes only every 2 weeks. The cowpea mostly flowered and set seed early in the season, so in combination with early-harvest melons that means the bed could remain at reduced watering across secondsummer (our harshest time for plants). Shade was an issue – one half of the bed got an extra two to three hours of morning sun across Birak (roughly Nov 21st to Jan 21st), and that half of the bed had a) no sorghum germination and b) very little plant survival through to flowering. So even shading will be a consideration for replicating this bed design out to others, as will total sunlight hours. The bed gets full sun for most of the day, which all three crops like, but apparently there is such a thing as too much.

Conclusion: this bed design has a lot of potential and should eventually become a highly-suitable design for distributed urban farming in Perth, but I need to run it at least a second time (if not a third or fourth) and see what else I can get wrong or right.

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Friday photo – Wasp on Federation Flame kangaroo paw

A long-bodied wasp sits vertically, with its back to the camera, on fuzzy orange paw-shaped flowers.

One of the visitors in my native garden. I’ve seen a lot of wasps around the last month, ’tis the season for them. These flowers are the Federation Flame kangaroo paw, starting to fade a little.

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Friday photo – Carrot seedlings in sweet potato bed

My son is addicted to carrots, so we bought him some baby carrot seedlings to plant. (I have lots of carrot seeds and we'll plant those too, but seedlings is good this time of year and at his age). We've put them along one edge of the main vegie bed, which has gotten swamped with sweet potato vine. I'm hoping that the vine will provide a little sun protection for the carrots, but they shouldn't need too much as they are "baby" carrots and meant for picking early. I will also be planting cherry tomato and rosella seeds in this bed with my daughter this afternoon seeing as we've just had the spring equinox.

My son is addicted to carrots, so we bought him some baby carrot seedlings to plant. (I have lots of carrot seeds and we’ll plant those too, but seedlings is good this time of year and at his age). We’ve put them along one edge of the main vegie bed, which has gotten swamped with sweet potato vine. I’m hoping that the vine will provide a little sun protection for the carrots, but they shouldn’t need too much as they are “baby” carrots and meant for picking early so should be ready before the heat sets in. I will also be planting cherry tomato and rosella seeds in this bed with my daughter this afternoon seeing as we’ve just had the spring equinox.

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