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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Raising seedlings

Seeds and seedlings  …Nursery Work for the time poor.
Making compost is hardly ever a chore for me , I get so turned on by the process of putting together annoying and maybe stinky waste products to create something so valuable they call it black gold.
However one tedious chore for me is pricking out numerous little seedlings into pots to grow on to a robust 3 or 4 inch high seedling. Perhaps it is because I know that only half of them will survive…..rats, chickens, a 40 degree day . In fact why do I bother at all? Well you have to , because lets Face Facts  , you cant eat supermarket “food”, and purchased mass produced  seedlings are weak as …very poor success rate with them and of course not at all kosher regards organic certification.
Why don’t you just plant seeds in the garden?  Well , at the magically precious  but sadly short times of Autumn and spring you can do just that, because its raining. In winter slugs are a menace and seedlings grow so slowly often get smaller not bigger. In summer however, You need to water the whole big garden every day , possibly 3 times a day, to get the seeds to germinate. I like to concentrate all that time and energy into a small area called the nursery, where a plastic house provides shade and humidity and many seedlings can be raised with a lot less water spent.
Garden irrigation is best done deeply and infrequently, otherwise you can end up with a depth of only  50 ml wet and dry underneath. This leads to shallow roots. Our gardens have finally developed marvellous soil to a depth of 300 m or more , because it is rich in carbon it is a sponge like material which absorbs and holds moisture well. I try to water it deeply only once a week even in summer.  This leads to big deep root systems which will enable a plant to survive for many days should something go wrong like a broken pump or a broken leg.
So , at Merri Bee Organic Farm we have developed some ideas on nursery chores that work for us in our extreme climate . We first build a hot house to keep soil and plants from drying out. In winter, when it is theoreticaly raining it may  simply be 4 walls with a door in one, open to the sky and the rain somewhat like a large tree guard but for the long hot summer a plastic and shade cloth house is required:
Level an area big enough to enable 2 benches and a gangway down the middle, maybe a third bench across the end opposite the door. One idea is to obtain 4 blue drums from a recycling depot, the 200 litre types . Place them so that they will hold up your working surface. We have been known to use old bedframes for the benches  and also old pallets, a discarded  old dunny door, a simple bunch of planks. What ever you use, it must be able to constant water applications and be fairly level and even for your seed trays to sit on. A comfortable working height bench is essential.
For thermal mass we fill the drums with water  which moderates the temperatures inside the green house. Would be good to also create a high thermal mass floor by first laying some insulation on the ground ( we used an old doona wrapt in black plastic) over which you may lay some concrete slabs or pebbles. A simple structure of big black polly pipe pushed onto star pickets  in hoop formation , covered in UV stabilized plastic ( whatever you do don’t waste vast sums on that reinforced with mesh style plastic that comes on a roll in green and white at the hardware….it doesn’t last long at all) will complete the structure. Weigh down the plastic at the sides well by either burying it in a trench or putting heavy eights on it…remember  you could have just made a big kite should  it get windy!
To have used old shade house frames we bought through the paper from peoples backyards for $100.00. We slit poly pipe lengthwise and pushed it onto the frame to secure the plastic around the door frame. Another idea  we have patented  ;) is to squash 12 ml trickle pipe flat and tech screw it on to the frame, sandwhiching the plastic which is pulled tight as you go. Of course my readers are ever so resourceful and will overcome any challenges I am sure.
 As you will be going in and out carrying seedtrays and old breadbaskets  full of dirt and plants, a  nice door is worth constructing, especially if you are keeping critters like chooks out. Once again Mitre 11 ( the tip) is handy for old flyscreen doors you can work with.
Last but by no means least you need an irrigation set up on a timer. This is an absolute must . You need fairly good water pressure. Don’t repeat our mistake of making this wonderful hot house at the top of a hill where our water pressure is poor so a timer cant be used.  We built another glass house down the hill just so the timer tap could be used. Best $40.00 I ever spent was on the  timer tap. We set it to turn on a mister for one minute, 3 times in every 24 hour period. Luxury for the forgetful, busy or just plain slack.
Have ready a piece of shade cloth to cover the whole thing in summer. Take it off in autumn, apply again in spring. Once again, weight it down appropriately.
Ok , you have the 5 star plant accommodation sorted.
 Now for the potting mix.
On a hard surface mix the following together:
2 parts Coco-peat (comes in a dried and pressed block)
1 part Course sand (washed)
1 part Compost
1 part Mushroom compost (if you can get it – ordinary compost if not – we use our home made which is not quite as soil like as the commercial stuff)
1 part Worm castings
I don’t always have the coco peat and the mushroom compost and instead I use dirt from chook pens.It usually has no weed seed in it .Very important  point when planting onion seeds, believe me.

 Briefly mix all previously moistened ingredients together.  I was told once and tend to believe that it isn’t good to mix or otherwise “work”  wet soil. I prefer to hose  big pot fulls  of the components and allow them to drain, then mix them together ever so briefly I . Then pack  it into a standard 40 ml deep small seed trays.  I try to have a stack of these ready so I can throw seeds into them should I be about to miss the proper moon planting time for the various seeds.

Once the seeds come up, while they are still tiny,  dig  them out with a bread and butter knife a few at a time, leaving as much dirt  around them with as least disturbance  as possible, and pot them into half toilet rolls filled with rich  compost y soil. Pack the toilet rolls into some container which will hold them upright, and make sure the container has a few drainage holes. Water them in well soon after planting. A few weeks later when these seedlings are  about  2 inches high, plant them into the garden still in their cardboard cylinder. This is normally a dicey procedure , especially in hot weather ( where upon evening is the best time to act) , but by planting the whole thing there is no transplant shock at all. If you leave them too long in these toilet rolls your healthy seedlings  will run out of  nutrient and start yellowing a bit.
Mulch the bed well, plant your plants in holes dug in the mulch, water well and you should be harvesting something soon.  Best of luck .

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Tony Rinoudo's work can be seen from space. Plant rain today!

This is  a talk by a  beautiful man Tony Rinoudo from World Vision. Watch part one  by starting at the 8 minute mark. ( the first 8 minutes is dum as they cant get the sound working) which shows what they are up against then go on to part 2 . Its just such an awesome, uplifting, true story.
“Plant the rain and the plants will plant themselves”

Millions of world vision dollars were getting no where, and Tony nearly gave up , but then he noticed something vital………… 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

How to grow Sweet corn for the New to Gardening

Sweet corn for the New to Gardening .
Corn is a warm season frost tender plant so in Nannup it can be planted from September through to the end of February with relative safety. It is thirsty and a heavy feeder so will grow best in soil enriched with compost and or worm castings and a protective layer of mulch. It will need irrigation in most Perth gardens , but a humus ( carbon ) rich soil will of course absorb and hold 4 times more water than a poor soil , so improve your soil and save on irrigation. Corn does not suffer many diseases or pests, except rats, so start controlling any rodent populations when you plant the seed. Very strong winds can blow them over , so a hedge of Jerusalem artichoke /sunflower is a good idea around a corn patch.
Best to plant corn in blocks of at least 12 plants spaced about 200 mm apart in all directions , rather than rows, as pollination is by wind. We recommend Merri Bee Certified Organic non hybrid seeds. We sell  packets of  coloured corn, sweet corn, baby corn . Each variety , if you want to save seed to regrow, must be separated by distance ( lots! .....2 kms would be safe) or time. I would plant any different variety 6 weeks after the first one to avoid cross pollination.  I mulch the area I want to seed  with corn, make furrows on contour in the mulch ,  fill with water,  then place the seed and cover with compost to a depth 1.5 times the size of the seed. Water again and they should appear in 10 days.

An un- pollinated corn cob has no niblets! So you are likely to get corn on only one side of the cob if it is grown in a row.
Corn takes about 4 months from seed to sweet corn ready to pick. The Balinese variety usually has 2 cobs per plant . Knowing when to harvest can be tricky. Over or under ripe corn is a bit of a waste. You get to know by experience when it is ready. I sneak a look at the cobs just as the tassel has gone all dry and dark brown and the cob is looking fat, by peeling aside a few inches of green sheath leaves and seeing if the
 niblets look plump and yellow. If not ready yet pat the leaves back in place to protect against the prying eyes of thieves like rats and parrots. Under ripe are cream coloured and small .Past their prime they look deeper yellow and a little shrunken.
Open pollinated corn is not a super sweet and tender as the hybrids, but it is still very nice , and I find it tastes actually better and more nutritious ( and probably is). The pale green corn silk surrounding the cob is edible and meant to be good urinary tract tonic and alkalising . The big advantage of open pollinated corn is, if you wish to save your own seed you can and it will be like the parent plants. Replanting saved hybrid seed is not recommended as it may not be anything like what you saved. To save seed choose the healthiest plants with the earliest, biggest, most numerous cobs and do not pick them to eat ( ohhh!!) but let them remain on the plant till all the plant and cob are withered and going brown. If you end up with lots of corn seed, tell the world because we need to maintain our open pollinated, non GE , non- patented seed stocks. And that’s best done by keeping good varieties alive and in the hands of many gardeners.
Happy munching! PS Once we grew a lovely stand of sweet corn. It was nearly ready to eat and we were dismayed to find the cows had got in and demolished the corn patch. They were enjoying the last stalks and leaves. We crossly shooed them out .
But surprise! All was not lost. On closer inspection we found the cobs lying on the ground untouched. …muddy, but otherwise unscathed. We peeled them and got the inch of water boiling in a big pot and threw them in . A feast of fresh corn ensued and we  froze the rest!

Key Line

KEyline farming was a farm/soil/water improving method developed by PA Yeomans in the 1950's in Australia. He was an engineer who had some acres in Victoria and rose to fame as his Keyline system proved itself in times of drought in Victoria, looking lush and productive compared to his  neighbours. This was achieved with a tractor, a Yeoman's Plough ( chisel plough with special foot ) and a some simple rules. The rules are
 1) Find the key point of the land . This is where the slope of the land changes from convex to concave. The key point in a valley is the ideal place to site a dam, if the subsoil is clay. A dam here would be able to water crops in the valley floor.
2) To the right and to the left of the key point, mark out the contour line. For this you would need a laser level, dumpy level, Bunyip water level, or 3 pieces of wood made into a sturdy A frame with a spirit level taped to the horizontal member
3) This contour line which passes through the key point is known as the Key Line and is permanently marked by a line of trees, a road , a fence line or such like.
4) Your  plough is pulled parallel  to the key line , above and below it. The plough lines fill with water when it rains and prevent water run off.  The shoe of each tyne creates a space underground, and only a slight bump with a slit cut into the surface of the soil. Rain water enters through the slot and sits in the air chamber, safe from evaporation. During a rain event water percolates slowly into the soil surrounding the air chamber. A warm and humid atmosphere in the chamber creates a good habitat for soil biota. When the soil reaches saturation point , any excess water is collected in the dam at  the keypoint. Its all laid out in PA Yeoman's classic book "Water for Every Farm",
I have never read the book because I have not managed a large farm with clay soil . We have sandy soil, which doesn't respond so well to the Yeoman's plough. The response of farms on the Eastern states  with their
 summer rainy season and heavier soils is phenomenal, and of course there is plenty of farms in WA which would totally regenerate with this treatment.
P.A. Yeoman's  son Allan Yeomans lives in Surfers Paradise and has done amazing work on floating parabolic solar thermal power stations, as well as improving on the design of keyline ploughs.
Allan was talking publically about carbon sequestration to avoid climate change back in the 80's!    He has this to say ( on his website) about his plough and soils: "Creating fertile soil is easy. Rich top soil is just dead subsoil plus a lot of reasonably stable humus plus a heap of active fungi, a mass of air breathing microbes and lots of earth worms, all with masses of dead plant root material to eat, air to breathe, water to drink and space to live in. If your soil is like that you know you don't have a problem growing anything.

  For nature to create space, unassisted, it had to wait for a tree to grow to maturity, then wait for it to die and then eventually fall over so finally the tree's roots could loosen up the deep, hard, subsoil.
  Or nature can do the job with grasses. That works, but it can take centuries for grasses to battle their way into dense compacted subsoil and loosen the stuff. It took centuries to create the deep, rich prairies and savannas of the world.
In an instant you can create the  space needed to allow soil life to do its thing, to massively proliferate. One deep pass with a subsoil plow that produces minimum disturbance of soil layers and the perfect microbe and earthworm housing estate is created. The soil fertility creation process can thus be speeded up....What took centuries can be done in two or three seasons. 
  Pouring expensive chemicals, year in and year out to just produce saleable crops is invariably more expensive than turning poor soils, dead soils and “worn out” soils, into rich and permanent and hugely productive soils.
  The end products of all this soil [microbial] activity are stable humic and fulvic acid molecules. Really the difference between the two is academic. They are both mainly made of carbon atoms. And technically, that mixture is what “humus” is. The individual molecules are enormous. They contain hundreds of carbon atoms."
 The large humus molecules are negatively  charged, so they attract and loosely hold the soluble soil minerals which would otherwise be washed away every time it rains. To quote Allan's website again,( and it is a rich source of information re the Key Line system) "Storm rains go straight into the deep worked soil. Storm erosion vanishes. There is just no wash. And with all that water and air, and provided the microbes and fungi have some dead root material to eat, then soil life will just explodes.... creating fertility..."