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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Friday photo – Yellow Admiral butterfly, August 2014

A butterfly sitting wings wide open on wood mulch. The wings are rusty coloured nead the centre and low down, fading to black, there is a large yellow-white spot and two smaller spots on each wing.

This yellow admiral butterfly was exploring my local natives zone yesterday. Their caterpillars feed on plants in the Urticaceae – first choice is native pellitory, but they will also feed on nettles and the butterflies will travel quite substantial distances to find good egg-laying spots. To my knowledge the only plant of that family I have is one carefully nurtured nettle in the vegie garden. I don’t know where that nettle came from – it suddenly appeared all alone in the middle of one of our running areas, so I moved it to some place less likely to incur human contact.

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Weed profile – Common groundsel, Senecio vulgaris

The flowers still seem half-closed - the yellow bits poke out the top of tightly-heald green tubes. One flower has started to go to seed and the white fluffy head is pushing the green holder open, tufts of yellow still attached to the white. The leaves are deeply lobed and mid-green.

Flowering stem and the distinctive leaves of common groundsel, Senecio vulgaris, growing on the tiny roadside dirt strip leading up onto a bridge over train tracks.

I first noticed this weed at the beginning of secondspring last year when I was out photographing plants to use in weed profile posts. At first I was pleased – it looked a lot like one of the edible chrysanthemums. Further checking however and I discovered it was Senecio vulgaris, the common groundsel, and very definitely NOT edible at all. The Asteraceae is a large family and always, *always* worth checking the details. There are references to it having been used in herbal medicine – it’s even listed in Culpeper’s – and some of these uses may possibly even be effective. But when you read them closely you notice that they are either external uses (poultices and washes), or they are treatments that depend on the plant being just enough toxic to make you throw up or have some other bodily reaction that sorts out your medical problem as a side effect. I am not totally opposed to using toxic reactions as part of medicine – digitalis is the well-known poster child – but I’d rather it be done with controlled quantities and known purities than picking weeds from the roadside.

Groundsel is toxic to humans, and also to livestock. Interestingly though it’s very popular with birds and its seeds were (still are?) used in commercial bird food mixes for small birds – canaries, finches and the like. This is probably how it has ended up becoming a world-wide weed of such global distribution that it’s not always entirely clear whether it was native to an area before European colonisation or not. Senecio comes from Senex, meaning old man, as the flowers do that lovely puffball thing of turning into a white head of hair and then going bald as the seeds blow off in the wind. They don’t actually float that far though, mere metres usually, so it’s unlikely that wind dispersal got them round the globe. Birds, however – the seeds have wonderful persistence, they last for several years, a significant percentage pass through birds digestive systems still able to germinate. And birds think they’re tasty. Between bird spread and being carried intercontinentally on ships as contaminants in bags of grain, groundsel’s gotten just about everywhere.

It’s an interesting weed in its habits. The seeds last for years and don’t need to germinate at the first opportunity. It loves disturbance – you mostly find it on roadsides, spare lots, random forgotten corners of the urban sprawl. It doesn’t compete heavily – it’s one of nature’s collaborators rather than competitors – so you’re more likely to find a few groundsel plants mixed in with lots of other weeds than a big field of them. Unless that field has been recently disturbed or dug up, which would encourage large numbers to germinate. Groundsel also loves warm rain. I found a reference online saying that rain temperature is a better predictor of seedling emergence than soil temperature. And that’s borne out by my observations so far – we’ve had some good autumn rain this year, early enough for it to still be warm, and I’ve got groundsel plants growing well already. Last year I didn’t see them til well after midwinter. Though I acknowledge that I wasn’t looking for them either so it’s possible I saw them and didn’t know what I was seeing.

Getting rid of groundsel becomes tricky, because digging it up or weeding it creates disturbance which means more seeds in the area will germinate and you’ll get a new crop. That’s not totally a bad thing, it just means you have to weed-and-dig again in two weeks’ time (and then again, and then again). Solar soil sterilisation will successfully cook the seeds so that could be of use in an area you know had groundsel in a previous season. In Perth, groundsel’s not usually an all-year weed. Its germination is mainly limited to autumn and spring and it can’t get all the way through our dry summers. So there’s a good window for soil sterilisation. But, because it’s not a competitor, sometimes it doesn’t need to be removed at all. I have no livestock grazing here and I’m happy to leave some for the birds even though the neighbourhood cats have pretty much ensured we have no small seed-eaters in our immediate vicinity. However, I refuse to let it grow in the vegie beds where people go and munch random greenery on a regular basis. It’s also a host for one of the root-rot fungii that can affect the flowers and vegetables we want to have growing, so it’s not good to have in growing beds that we’re leaving fallow for the season (it does love fallow beds!).

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Friday photo – Winter leaves

Deep red palmate leaves on an Acer tree, up close. The leaves are deep red with veins traced in fine yellow lines where sunlight passes through them, black and burgundy where shaded, brownish where the sun reflects from them. Blue sky behind.

The deep red leaves of the Acer tree across the road during leaf fall, which happens in winter in this city and not autumn. I don’t know its variety, but there are very few that turn full colour at leaf fall here because our winters are so mild. The colour comes from the tree reabsorbing chlorophyll to save resources, and most deciduous trees planted here don’t get the temperature signal that triggers the chlorophyll-sucking before the leaves fall (and they don’t even get the signal for leaf-fall until almost midwinter!). Even most of this tree doesn’t turn red – the leaves fall in shades of brown and burgundy, and the deepest red is only found on one low branch which gets significantly less sun than the rest of the tree. This tree is one of my great resources – I use its leaves as much-needed organic matter in my soil reconstruction. Left on the street they’d go straight into our local river, dumping excess nitrogen and nutrients in and suffocating the water by sucking out oxygen. I sweep the leaves from the street daily this time of year as my contribution to resource recovery, turning an environmental problem into an environmental solution.

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What do snails like to eat?

I found myself asking this question this morning when sitting outside with my son waiting for the car to take him to daycare. I was staring at the sky, he was staring at my peas, and we saw this:

A tendril of pea shoot, with each leaf covered in bite marks and chew holes, there's almost more hole than leaf

One of the tendrils shooting off my golden pea vine. I love the little line of holes, it’s like the snail was drooling so hard it forgot to pick up its tongue when it moved.

I’ve always known “what snails eat”, like any gardener – it’s whatever you’ve just planted. Right? Which is partly true. They also eat cardboard and limestone, but that’s another story. But they do have preferences, those plants which no matter how often you plant them the snails just seem to take out. My red-and-green kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos manglesii) is ground zero in my native garden, and the species has a reputation for it. I planted several young plants earlier this year before the weather became damp enough for the snails to wake up. I was hoping they’d get enough of a foothold to resist the inevitable advances, like my peas here which are still flowering, fruiting and growing madly despite the damage. But this morning after a damp and drizzly night I checked, and sure enough my plants had been eaten. Not the outer leaves, either, but just the growing centre without which there will be no flowers and no more leaves. Unless they’ve stored enough energy in their roots by now to generate new clumps (it’s a clumping plant but the timing is dubious), those plants are now toast – even though they still have 90% of their green matter left. I have several other species/varieties of kangaroo paws in the garden, including a second type interplanted with the manglesii. They are still largely untouched. Occasionally I’ve found snails living in them, sometimes in huge numbers, but they don’t harm the plant. The manglesii? It’s like the snails have a genocide mission. They’ve made their way past all the other plants – including fresh young grass seedlings with soft green leaves – and wiped the manglesii out.

Snails do have a preference for anything soft and green. The common garden snail doesn’t seem to really like grasses of any kind much, except as a place to sleep. It also leaves most of my hard-leaved drought-tolerant natives well alone. We have native species of snail that go for those, but our feral snails don’t like them. Seedlings are very popular, I’ve lost a lot of my seedlings to snails while waiting for them to get one more leaf so that I can transplant them. I even began growing the seedlings in boxes of water so that I could have a water barrier between them and the snails. Tip: this works, as long as you remove the bean seedlings before they get tall enough for the snails to use as a ladder. Seedlings are young, fresh, full of whatever it is that snails love to eat. Which I haven’t identified yet but basically it’s whatever it is that we humans like in vegies too. Which is probably a complete lack of anything resembling vitamins or flavour, if the popularity of iceberg lettuce is anything to go by. I think of it sometimes as “life force”, because they seem to zero in on plants, and the parts of plants, that are growing quickly and vigorously. Those pea tendrils above? They’re at the top of the plant. The snails climbed two metres of swaying string and vine to get to them, and ignored most of the other leaves on the way.

Snail-proofing a garden is tricky. I’ve been working on it for a while. You can’t just remove snails and throw them over the fence – snails have memory and a really good sense of direction and they will, however slowly, come right back to where they remember finding that really tasty meal. Using certain plants as snail bait is one thing I’m looking at. The pea screen is actually my key example here – the pea vine that got well established before the snails woke up is in fact doing fine regardless of the damage. The pea vines that didn’t quite make it to two tendrils by S-Day were eaten off at the base of the stem. Healthy well-established plants resist snails. So if you have good plants of a type that snails will travel for, you can direct them where you want them. However, that assumes you don’t actually mind low productivity on those plants. For instance, I’d *really* like to have my red-and-green kangaroo paws make it to flowering. And they don’t.

Most non-poison-using gardeners end up opting for physical barriers. As I did with the water around the seedlings. Crushed eggshells (didn’t work on my bean screen last year), crushed limestone (wait, don’t they like eating that to strengthen their shells?), a sheet of copper flashing (expensive but reliable if your target plants are grouped). Coffee grounds are my favourite, and what I will try next time if I plant any more kangaroo paws. Interestingly, it’s not the texture of the coffee grounds that puts them off, as I had assumed, it’s the caffeine. Snails don’t like eating caffeine – and maybe the question to ask when snailproofing is what they don’t like to eat, as well as what they do. You can in fact make an anti-snail soil treatment using coffee. Real coffee, the good and strong stuff, espresso rather than instant. Dilute it 1:10 with water and spray it on the soil around the plants you need to protect. I may try that with my summer seedlings when I plant them out. It’s only a temporary solution, it washes out of the soil so you need to reapply it after rain, but it’ll be worth trying with the seedlings I plant in September and October (August has a lot of continuous rain). Which (tell the truth) aren’t usually too badly hit by snails anyhow as the snails are going to sleep by then, so I don’t know if I’ll get a proper test of the concept. But we’ll see. Many years ago I tried a similar soil spray using a commercial copper-based preparation and wasn’t convinced, for much the same reasons. But it does mean no physical substance that can be played with, dug up or eaten by children and pets.

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