Winter morning

This morning everything was crisp and beautiful after a rainshower, and I couldn’t resist dawdling in the garden. The raindrops on the washing line looked like fairy lights.

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The self seeded buckwheat seedlings looked like love hearts.DSC_0471.JPG

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And the yarrow was bright and inviting.

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May we all have many more mornings like this one.

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Changing season

Technically it’s the last month of autumn and winter is just around the corner, but I feel like autumn has only just started gaining momentum in the last few weeks. We’re drifting slowly from mild days to crisp mornings, and the leaves are turning.

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It’s our third autumn in this house and I was delighted this morning to see my favourite autumn colour pallette on the way to the train. This sight always stops me in my tracks, the dusty blue green of the pigface against the scattered orange leaves.

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I went in to work a bit later than usual, too, and got the best of the morning, me and the birds. Perfect weather for listening to the magpies sitting on the top of the lamps and practicing their territory warbles. The crows were in fine form, mucking about in the trees and getting back at the Noisy Miner birds who harrass them. And the Rosellas were all over, just charmingly chirping to each other in the treetops as they ate nectar from the native trees. The call of Rosellas makes me think so forcibly of autumn, because they loved the apple trees we had in my childhood home and would feast on them. The apples were self seeded and very bitter so if all we got was a crop of Rosellas, we were very happy!

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The trees at the station are turning too. I think these are Black Locusts, and quite weedy, but they are very charming in the morning light.

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I’m not at all reconciled to the idea of winter, and I’m not looking forward to the bare trees. But I’m enjoying the turning season while it lasts.

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Autumn flush

The biggest problem I have in my garden is heat. Too much of it! That makes this time of year the best time for the garden. It’s finally cool enough and wet enough for things to thrive. Unfortunately it’s also the time of year when I start having less access to the garden – it’s dark when I get home and I have limited daylight on the weekends to do things in. Plus I’ve been on and off sick for a month because of winter germs. And so I accidentally grew a bunch of ‘microgreens’.

Please excuse the shitty iPhone snaps  I took these this morning as I was pottering around making myself late for work. If I hold out for proper photos it’ll never happen. These are all self sewn silverbeet from summer’s crop that went to seed. Interestingly it looks like only the red ones are growing – the seed packet is ‘five colour silverbeet’ and are meant to be red, orange, yellow, pink or white. The first generation I seem to get mostly red, some yellow, and a few stray white and orange. Second generation appears to be mostly red with the occasional yellow. Third generation almost all red. I wonder why? Any silverbeet experts out there have theories about what properties go with what colours?

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I put pea straw down about a month ago and accidentally grew a crop of peashoots. I’ve been meaning to harvest them to have in stir fries or anywhere you would use baby spinach, which is my favourite thing to do with them. But if you leave them too long the get tough – and you can see I’ve left them too long. So this morning I pulled them and laid them down as extra mulch

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The most annoying thing is that I tried growing tomatoes this summer and they didn’t do great  it was just too hot and they lingered on and never produced much. Enough though to self seed! These tiny toms have no future because it’s too cold but they are so perfect and healthy I can’t bring myself to pull them yet.

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There’s also a circurbit of some kind growing in the middle of the garden path from a stray seed that I forgot to take a snap of and I think those are eggplants in the corner?

I also have plenty of self seeded brassicas I’m not sure what these are. What I planted last year was sprouting broccoli – but from seeds a friend had given me some years ago. To be honest I think they might be a hybrid broccoli/kale effort. Certainly we found the leaves to be delicious (sweeter than the kale I grew next to it!) and ate both leaves and stalks. Here they are in October 2015:

I like this versatile vegetable and would be happy to have more of it but who knows what these seeds will grow into. The ones in my garden now are from summers sad crop which didn’t do too much because it was too hot, so we’ll see.

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I also have a seed tray of deliberately planted seedlings that will need to be transplanted soon, so I’d better clear some space! I think these will end up in salads and stir fries as ‘micro greens’ – I hate that term  it sounds like some trendy person thinks they invented eating surplus seedlings when it’s just how gardeners and peasants have done things since forever. Well, whatever you call them, they are delicious!

Washing the tamarillo

I’ve been a bit stymied since moving all my gardening posts over here. I’ve been feeling the need to do a big catchup post and not having the energy or the oomph for it. Besides, those big update posts are boring both to read and write, and don’t really convey what a garden IS, in the end. I’ve also been feeling the need to explain and justify this blog – but who cares? It’s a blog, it’s my blog, it can be whatever it is.  Maybe, like a garden, I have to just start, and see how it grows.

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So instead I’m going to tell you about how tonight it was such a lovely evening that I couldn’t bear to stay inside, so I went out and I washed the tamarillo.

The above photo, and the next few, shows the tamarillo in mid January.

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It’s planted between a mango and an avocado, and to be honest it’s a bit of a sacrificial tree. The idea is that it would grow fast and provide a bit of shelter to the other trees. The avo as you can see is still shrouded in its shadecloth and only starting to find its feet – but that’s a story for another time. This time is about the tamarillo.

You can see above it’s leaning and we’ve had to prop it up – with a very professional rig. We only do things professionally and neatly around here (ha!). This happened to the last tamarillo I had, in my last house – which tree we tried to brace with stakes and ties, but eventually collapsed totally.  This appears to be the only photo I have of it, before it started leaning:

My diagnosis of this is that they are a large-crowned plant with a comparatively small root ball. In both cases I didn’t water enough in the months after planting, so I suspect neither of them developed a large enough root system. This time I decided to give in and prop it up, despite it sprouting a bunch of leaves at the base, I suspect so that it could grow upright again after it collapsed.

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Probably I should clip those off, but they just look so happy to be there that I can’t quite bring myself to do it.

I’m not expecting it to live long, so it doesn’t matter if it’s totally dependent on the prop. About five years is the average, I hear. By that time I hope that the avo and the mango will have mostly filled that space, but perhaps I’ll get another tamarillo to be understory, if we like the fruit enough.

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In January it was just starting to fruit. And it was also starting to get aphids.

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Just a few. Not many. I sprayed it with a detergent solution a couple of times and it seemed to do the trick. Cut to a month later when I’ve not been paying much attention to it, and it was pretty infested. I didn’t get any closeups of it (I didn’t know I was going to blog today) but you can see the difference even from a distance:

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Much barer, much yellower. I think that it gets heat and water stressed pretty easily. After all, it’s an understory rainforest plant, and here it’s hot and dry and gets baking afternoon sun and salt spray. Not very kind to the poor tree, and it’s doing a very good job considering. I do try to water it often but it’s on the same watering system as the other fruit trees so I sort of have to average out their needs. And the tamarillo is the lowest priority for care, poor thing.

Anyhow, I’ve given it a couple more goings over with soap and water in the spray bottle but it’s got aphids on basically every leaf so it’s hard to get them all. Besides, there are ladybugs starting to be attracted to it and I didn’t want to get them too.

So tonight, I came home from work and watered the garden. It was a hot day and it’s going to be even hotter tomorrow – high of 37C this whole week in fact. But it was lovely in the garden with the hose out, and I just couldn’t bear to go back inside. I put the sprinkler on the jasmine up the back behind the tamarillo, and I remembered that  I’d read somewhere, some time, that an effective treatment for aphids is just to blast them off with water. And so, I turned the hose up real high, and I washed the tamarillo.

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It was lovely. I got splashed, and cooled, and my feet in my thongs got wet, and my head got dripped on as I bent down to turn the leaves below. I touched almost every leaf as I blasted the aphids off, and spent some quality time with the tree, and I got the feeling it liked it. Almost like being at home in the rainforest!

I think this would be a fun activity to do with a kid. Very sensory and tactile. I know a water-loving 5 year old that would be ALL about this gardening job, although he might be sad that we’re ‘making the aphids dead’.

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I didn’t get every leaf. The long hose was plugged in to the sprinkler, and the short hose didn’t reach the very back. That’s ok, that’s where the ladybugs are. I counted three. I’d be ok with some aphids always if it also meant some ladybugs always.

Unfortunately I think some of the fruit is burnt – at least, I think that’s what it is. The position seems about right. Anyone more expert than me know what it is and if I should be doing something about it?

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That’s ok. There’s plenty that’s still fine, and fruit isn’t the primary job of this tree anyway, they’re a side benefit.

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As I turned over every leaf I was reminded of a conversation with my aunt where she complained about her tamarillo being similarly infested. ‘But why’ she lamented ‘do they have to all be on the backside? They’re so hard to get to!’ Nature is wily and mysterious that way…

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I think washing the tamarillo might go on my regular roster of garden tasks, even if there are no aphids. Even if it’s just for fun.

Wicking beds, stained

The other day I decided now was the time to stain the garden beds. There’s nothing edible growing in them (The zucchini has all but had it) and they were looking a bit grey and sad. I decided I’d stain them with linseed oil. I bought the pre-mixed ‘anti mould’ stuff that is 65% turps. You have to mix it with turps anyway, to get it to sink it. Boy did it stink! But the beds look great. It’s subtle but they are much richer in colour, and feel smoother.

Here is the bed before:

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And after:

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Stained bed in foreground, unstained behind.

I did two coats on all of them, and I think the ends of the logs and the sides that get the most weather could probably do with another. You could practically hear the wood soaking in the oil.

Before:

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After:

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I’d like to get in and do one more coat before winter sets in, because they’re still a bit dry. I really enjoyed spending some time out there, getting up close and personal with the beds. It’s a good opportunity to check in and find any issues with them. I think an annual stain will have to go on the calendar!

Stand alone drip irrigation system

As I’ve mentioned before, the beds with the trees in them are a good way from any tap, and basically all the surrounding areas are walkways. I wanted to put in a watering system but I didn’t want to do too much digging, as all those areas are still in flux. Maybe one day I’ll put a more permanent one in. For now, I decided I’d pop in a stand alone system that I could connect up to that regular garden hose. The downside of this is it’s pretty susceptible to getting dirt in the system – I don’t expect this to last more than a couple of years, for that reason.

This post is mostly for my own reference on what bits I used, but it might be useful to someone else, who knows? Please don’t use this as a how to run irrigation if you’ve never done it before. There are HEAPS of good resources on the net for understanding the requirements of irrigation, and the hows and whys, and you should get across that stuff first. Here’s a good example, and here. But maybe it will give someone an idea of what’s possible for a simple system. You don’t have to have a complex, multi-tiered system to benefit from irrigation. This whole set up cost me just over $50 – well ok that’s cheating, I already had some of the bits. Let’s say $100 for two duplicate systems, watering six trees total. And it’s going to let me water my trees deeply and thoroughly while saving me effort and water. It’ll probably pay for itself within the year. I bought everything at Bunnings, and it’s all really standard stuff.

If you are creating a system like this, as well as the parts specified you will also need something to cut the pipe (I just used regular scissors but it’s probably worth buying a proper cutter because the scissors give dodgy edges), poly pipe clamps to keep the connections secure, a hole punch for connecting in the 4mm bits (you can do without but it’s a pain, just buy the three dollar thingo) and probably some cable ties. You should probably just stock up on cable ties anyway. They are handy as. It’s also not a bad idea to have these repairers for if you make a mistake or want to move where your watering bits are.

The photos aren’t really very descriptive, unfortunately, because it all just looks like a black tube with another black tube. So I drew this very precise and professional outline:

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Here is the start of the system. In order to limit dirt entering the system, I bought a hose to 19mm connector. I connected it to a bit of 19mm poly pipe and clamped it off with a cable tie. I could have used an end cap but I didn’t. Cable ties work fine, especially since no actual water will be going through this bit. I’ve used cable ties to end off a system and they’re fine but you do have to check them regularly to make sure they haven’t atrophied and slipped off and you’re pouring water onto the garden and the first time you know about it is when you get a water bill that’s 5 times what it usually is. Ask me how I know.

Anyway, this goes on the end of the system when the hose is elsewhere, closing it off. It’s on the right in the next photo, sorry it’s not very clear.

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The start of the system is an adapter piece which was about $2:

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This attaches to the water filter/pressure regulator. You can buy these all in one, just make sure you get the right size – 19mm or 13mm. My system is 19mm because I already had that size poly pipe but really it only needs 13mm, because it’s short and simple. If you’ve got a more complex system with different levels or lots of things coming off it, you’ll need 19mm to get enough pressure. Again, do your reading.

The filter/pressure regulators are sold with the bit at the top of a size to screw on to a regular tap fitting, but it’s actually got a sort of double head – you can screw the tap fitting bit off and then you’ve got a bit that fits around smaller pieces, like this clip on bit. Test this out when you’re buying stuff, before you walk away from the aisle check that everything you need to connect does actually connect. If it doesn’t I guarantee you you’ll be able to buy a $2 adapter to make them fit – its just much less annoying to figure this out the first trip.

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So, so far we have: hose clip bit (idk what that’s called?) is attached to the filter/pressure regulator. All systems should have the pressure regulator/filter on them. They’re about $12. The other end of the filter has a bit to fit into poly pipe, so it goes in that. Don’t forget to put the clamp around the poly before you shove it in there – without the clamp the first time you turn the system on it’s going to shoot apart. I just used the plastic clamps, they’re fine. I used them in my old system and they lasted five years, no worries. You’ll note that I forgot the clamp on this one and it did in fact go shooting off. Popped a clamp on and it was fine.

Then you lay the pipe the length of the system, and you pop an end cap in, with a clamp around it. That’s the basis of your super basic system. You’ve got a water delivery pipeline running the length of your bed that you can attach things into.

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You can’t really see the end cap cos it’s in shadow but it’s there. Promise.

Next bit is to actually put the watering bits in!

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My watering bits are these spectrum jets. I chose them because they distribute water over a large area (you can screw the cap on tighter or looser to adjust how much) and I want to establish a good root zone for my trees so I figure that’ll do it better than a dripper. I am not an expert so maybe this is the wrong choice. It’s the one I went with. These jets come with an attachment piece provided, so if you’re using them you don’t need to buy any connectors, you’ll just need the tube to connect the poly to where you want the watering action. Cut a generous length, connect it to the jet, connect the other end to the attachment provided, pop that in the poly pipe, you’re done. You can also, of course, buy drippers and sprinklers that come straight off the poly pipe, but I like being able to place them precisely where I want without wrestling with the poly pipe, which I find never sits in place. Give yourself more length than you think you need with the 4mm tube, better to have more give than not enough.

I ALSO have dripper tube on some of my trees. I had this on hand and I put it in and then it wasn’t dripping well. I figured it was maybe clogged up with dirt, being about 7 years old and having lain on the ground for most of that. So I replaced it with the spectrum jets but since it’s a short system and I don’t have to worry about pressure, I left it in.

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But then the spectrum jets also weren’t working very well! With a bit of mucking around and to-ing and fro-ing and exchanging of parts, I worked out that the issue was the pressure regulator. If I turned the tap up high enough to give enough pressure to the drippers, the pressure regulator was spitting out a fountain of water. I neglected to get a photo of this but it was pretty impressive. So I went back to Bunnos and got a stand-alone pressure regulator. They come in 100kPa and 300kPa – the one that comes with the filter is 200kPa. Not being totally across all of that, I went for 300kPa, and that seems to be doing the job just fine. Now everything works as it’s supposed to. I have had that experience with a pressure regulator in that past, and didn’t realise it was a problem with the regulator and not something I’d done wrong. It leads me to suspect it is not an uncommon problem. I wish I’d kept the receipt, I’d have taken it back.

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All in one filter and regulator, and the replacement in front

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All the bits come apart. Filter on the right, the pressure regulator that comes with it top left, new one bottom left.

And that’s it! A simple system, and my trees are not finally getting enough water. They look very pleased about it, too.

December garden -all caught up

And here we are, blogging in real time! Almost – this is being written on December 24th. I’m just scheduling these posts to spread them out a bit.

As I said in my last gardening post, I’ve given up on summer gardening until the trees get bigger. It’s a great deal too hot and the sun is so brutal. These photos were taken at about 8am and they do look nice and shady. But by 10 or 11 the sun is beating down pretty cruelly – which probably would have made for clearer photos, too, but I just couldn’t bear to be out there by then.

As you can see we still have the exposed black plastic, which probably doesn’t help the heat, but honestly I can’t imagine it makes a massive difference – I was out there painting trellises yesterday and I got quite sunburnt even in that dappled shade, in the morning. Since we’re planning to plant some bare rooted trees over winter, we’re leaving the mulch till then, to make it easier to cut a hole in the plastic and plant the trees. Also because we’ve been slowly chipping away at the big, physical jobs and we just haven’t gotten to this one yet.

The grass is dead from a combination of roundup and then finished off by the sun. I’m hoping this means I don’t have to re-poison it. The front lawn has mostly died all by itself but judging by last yer will come back in winter. I might have to sheet mulch the whole backyard to prevent that, if I can manage the time and expense.

I would also like to add that I didn’t move a single thing out of the way for these photos. The yard really does look like a construction yard like this. Partly because of all the random stuff on the back verandah – it needs to go in the shed. Clearing and organising the shed is our next biggest job this summer holidays, but keeps being delayed by hot weather and, you know, Christmas events and all that kind of thing. But I figured since I’m lazy and also because I enjoy seeing other people’s gardens as-is, I wouldn’t bother moving stuff like the random shovel I was using or the hose. My garden is just never going to be a display garden, and I’m fine with that. Not fine enough not to write this disclaimer, but you know. Fine enough. TL;DR yes I know it’s a mess, it’s a garden.

There have been some other changes, though. Here’s the view from just outside the laundry door.

I built up a no-dig/lasagned garden bed up near the shed, there. I was intending to plant corn in it but then gave up on the summer garden. It’s layers of newspaper, cardboard, sheep manure, compost and dirt, and straw. The shadecloth is on it to keep the birds from digging it all up and ideally to help it keep cool enough to moulder down but that’s laughable at this time of year – it’s 36 today and I am considering it a cool day, comparatively.

My current plan for this bed is to plant potatoes in it over winter, since they’re supposed to be good for preparing beds, and I can never have enough potatoes. Then it might become a herb garden. Herbs, especially woody herbs, should withstand the afternoon sun this bed gets. I hope. I also made it a bit big, I think – I can reach across to the centre but only just. So perhaps a rosemary shrub bang in the middle would be good. And I reckon I can cram some flowers in there too – I managed some love-in-a-mist behind the citrus but they did get a bit fried. Otherwise there’s not anywhere else really to put flowers, and I would like some in the yard. S and I both have allergies that make bringing flowers into the house something to be cautious about, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have them outside! It looks like the bed up the back where the avocado is would be a good spot, but that’s misleading. That area is mulched with barkchips over river stones and getting the the actual soil is hard work. But it would be good to have something to consistently attract beneficial insects and birds without always letting my carrots go to seed.

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I do wish I had left  a bit more space between it and the shed – I left about a metre which is enough walking/working room. But I wish I’d left enough that I could plant some shrubs or something against the shed. I think it would make it look a bit more integrated with the garden, and less like the new bed is just plonked down there. I might see how I go and perhaps when it’s cooler and the bed has settled more, I might move that side in. Then again, maybe I can’t be bothered. I should have taken some closeups of the bed, perhaps I’ll remember next time. It’s simply metal garden edging dug about 3cm into the ground. Then I used the clay-ish soil to pack it in around the outside, to keep it in place.

Obviously you can also see the trellis in the process of being put up – that’s new. Here is the view of that from the laundry door.

This began as an attempt to salvage some summer gardening. The thought being that a tall trellis would provide shade and also break up the wind which comes mostly from that direction. This was before the resignation of summer gardening plans. However, I am still very glad we did this. For one thing, while it won’t solve the problem of summer gardening, I think it will help extend the season, and also keep the wind off in the other seasons. For another, it will help give some shade to the fruit trees when we put them in. And for a third, it helps break the garden up a bit. It’s astonishing how much it changes how the garden feels – since the space is long, it felt very short. These help give it depth and balance it out. Perhaps eventually a low hedge to screen off the potting area would be good, too, so that when you look down the row it makes you have a nice view with a hint of something beyond – a mystery, what can it be? The bins, is what.

We placed them so that they’d be easy to navigate around, and I am very pleased with how this turned out. Ideally I’d have the back one a bit further from the bed but I didn’t want to compromise that walking route from the laundry to the compost/bins which are behind the shed. They still look pretty raggedy and the trellis is only just tied on with twine because I needed to stain them to give them a bit of a longer life. That’s what I got sunburnt doing yesterday. The good news is, they are now all DONE and we’re hoping to put them up tonight.

The poles are long, treated posts from Bunnings. We had the poles and trellises delivered along with some wood for shelves, since we don’t have a big car. I know there’s a trailer in these photos, but we’re just storing it for S’s dad, we don’t have a car with a tow bar. It means everything takes a bit of planning but that’s ok. We got a post hole digger at the same time and it’s already paid for itself in effort saved.

The posts are cemented in, and we planted some passionfruit. Two Nelly Kellys – one gold one black. We’ll see how they do. I figured they are tough enough for the spot, and a fruit we will eat. They also don’t last forever so that gives us some room for changing things up in seven years or so. Perhaps I could manage an espaliered fruit tree along one of these spots, when there’s more shade? A cherry perhaps? I went old school and got the butcher to order in two massive beef hearts to put under the passionfruit, and they seem to be doing really well so far.

The soil in the lawn is clay, but a very mild clay for Adelaide. If you can keep it moist it’s a lovely loamy soil. I did get it tested through the free Vege-safe testing. We are well within safe levels of everything, although there is quite a lot of iron and zinc along the dripline. Since the only exposed dripline is along the fence where they put all the dead fill soil, I’m not surprised. It was interesting to see how the different contaminants vary by area, it makes me wonder even more what the history of this house and garden is.

Not so long ago this area was all farmland, now I think about it – it wasn’t a residential area until the 50s, when people started building mostly beach shacks here. Here’s the general area in 1935 – a bit north of us where the ‘main’ town is. And a bit south of us, in 1931. Mind you, here is Port Road in ’58, and I’ve seen photos of aerial views from the Showgrounds from that time and half of Mile end is just farmland. So I guess that’s where all the Adelaide jokes come from – 50 years ago it was still a big country town, and the attitude is still kind of there. ANYWAY asides aside. Farmland. I suppose that’s why the soil is pretty good – this was pre-industrial-pesticides so I guess they had to build their soil. The short version is, it’s a relief to know that the soil is safe.

Anyhow here’s the view of the beds from the laundry door – bonus view of all our junk out on the verandah

The beds are all basically abandoned. I’ve left stuff growing for general soil structure reasons and to avoid the beds getting stagnant. Plus, the seeds are feeding birds and that’s quite nice. The sparrows love the silverbeet seeds, and to hide in the tangle, and the pigeons love the seeding brocolli. The mosquitos were quite bad when we moved in but we’ve had almost none this year and I suspect it is due to more bird and bat activity.

The only one with any real action in it is the side bed, with one lonely zucchini.

I planted zucchini, cucumber, watermelon and squash seeds in here and the only ones that came up were the zucchini and watermelon. The watermelon seedling has since carked it in the heat but the zucchini shows promise.

We’ll see. We did fix the outlet on this bed so it drains properly now. I’ll try to remember to take a photo next time.

I didn’t take good closeups of the citrus trees but here is the lemon and it’s resident potatoes

Just about died off, I should harvest them. The potatoes that is, not the lemons. You can see the lemon is looking much happier now.

The bay tree continues to love life. I mulched it with gravel because the pigeons were dust bathing in its pot and had almost dug up the roots.

You may also have noticed extra shadecloth shrouds up the back. They are hiding some new trees – a Bowen mango

And a red Tamarillo

Which I’m hoping will act as a bit of a nursery tree to the avo, and also be delicious. This tree has been the source of three arguments with S, they all went like this ‘what’s a tamarillo?’ ‘It’s a tree. Remember I had one at the last house and eventually it leant over and died?’ ‘Yes but what do they taste like?’ ‘They taste like… a fruit. Like themselves.’ ‘Do they taste like tomatoes?’ ‘No, they’re related, but they taste pretty different. They taste like… they’re tart? And sweet?’

They taste like themselves. Which is to say, delicious. Hopefully S agrees with me when we get fruit on them.

The avo itself is still going but I’m finding it hard to keep enough water up to it, it’s doing ok but is slightly limp.

It’s hard because the bark chips over river stones provide great mulch but also mean it needs a really REALLY long soaking for the water to get to the soil. And in the process a lot of the water is wasted to evaporation. My current plan is to set up a little line of drippers along the trees at the back and side fence, perhaps I can even bury them into the barkchips a bit. It’s a bit hard to run a permanent irrigation pipe anywhere along the yard, because the only tap is isolated in the middle of the stone paving, which is cemented in. So my plan is to do a set up that can be plugged right in to the garden hose. Since all the tropical trees up the back, and all the citrus down the side, have the same watering needs, I hope that will do the job nicely.

And that’s the December garden! Not a lot growing but still plenty of planning. Although it’s looking messier and less organised than ever, I can see my plans for the space slowly coming into reality. In late January I’m going to pull out the seeding plants and maybe use them directly as mulch, maybe compost them. Then once the sun cools off a bit I’ll be ready to start planting in the wicking beds again!

Here’s an updated schematic of what’s in the garden now (plus the planned-for fruit trees in between the garden beds).

2015 garden

Plans for this winter include more brassicas, more greens, and to get two stone fruit trees into the space between beds. Current candidates are a nectarine and an apricot, although we’re still debating white or yellow fleshed nectarine. I maintain we have room for more trees in the future, so we have more chances for other things. But I want to take that slowly and not get ahead of myself in terms of needing to do everything at once – I want those two stone fruit but then that’s it until everything is more established. As it is I’m going to have to be vigilant with the pruning to keep the avocado and mango to size, as well as the trees in the garden bed area – the plan is to train them to vase shape so they provide some shade in summer but aren’t too in the way of things. Which I haven’t done before so it’s a learning curve. Well, if I’m ‘lucky’ the gum tree roots will stunt everything and they won’t get too big!

I’d also dearly like to start on planting things in the front yard, where I want to get rid of the grass and mulch, and then plant essentially a native cottage garden (with some lavender too). But I also very much do NOT want to set myself up for failure by biting off more than I can chew, so I guess we’ll just wait and see!

ETA I nipped out there in the 38 degree heat to take some updated photos. We put the trellises up and, miracle of miracles, managed to clear out and organise the shed and put all the rubbish back into it so the verandah is clear.

I’m so pleased with how the trellises look – obviously they look fancier without the shadecloth but it’s still so burny I’m afraid to take it off. Even though Passionfruit can probably handle it. We planted both vines on the east side of the trellis, for shade. But the one closest to the bed is already twining over to the other side so we probably could have planted them so they were both on the ‘inside’ of the path the trellis makes.

I’m so proud of the cleared out verandah that I took a photo of that, too. The plant stand was found in hard rubbish – I think it’ll be sheltered enough to actually grow some summer herbs. I have some basil I can plant out and might get a small harvest from, and then I can start my seeds again with brassicas, to get an early start on the autumn planting.

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Garden in August and October

My last garden post got us up to the end of June. So here we go racing through the months. Here’s what it looked like at the start of August.

Most of my garden photos are taken while I’m waiting for the beds to fill. I think this was the first time in about a month I had to top them up. I spent the first five minutes of that checking for weeds and pulling them, and then I had nothing else to do but take photos. That’s how low maintenance this system is! It helps, of course, that I bought soil in that managed to be mostly weed seed free so I have had very little in the way of weeds in the garden beds. A true luxury.

Here is a not very good photo of the citrus trees down the fence.

Lemon in the middle, mandarin on the right, closest to the house (hidden by the other plants) and orange on the left. I am planning to eventually remove all of the other plants but I hadn’t the heart to this year – the little honey eaters just love those canna lillies and there’s so little else growing in the garden, I couldn’t give them up yet. I did get rid of the agapanthas, I hope successfully.

Here’s a close look at the lemon. You can see she struggled a bit with the cold

As soon as the soil warmed up her leaves turned green again and she’s shooting like bill-o so I am reasonably sure it was just too cold there, since she wasn’t established yet.

Behind are potatoes. I didn’t have anywhere much to put them so I thought I’d try above ground. I can report that they grew very well, although I haven’t harvested yet. The bags are probably good to harvest, they died off pretty quick because they got hot and dry. The mesh ones are only just starting to die back now, at the end of December. I will definitely be doing the mesh circle method again.

And here is the poor avocado

Struggling. Not sure if you can see it from here but it was already putting out new leaf shoots, so I wasn’t too worried. I did give it a much better shade structure, including a hat:

Under which is appears to have weathered summer very well. I did buy some stronger shadecloth to put over the top but it doesn’t appear to need it so I’ve left it.

I don’t appear to have photos of the legume bed but here is the front bed, still churning out the greens. Cos lettuce threatening to go to seed if we don’t eat it quick enough, with more seedlings ready underneath. I put the potted baby spinach in the ground after a while, where it flourished and grew up.

Silverbeet and beetroot.

Gailan (what a champion of  a vegetable) and more lettuces underneath

And about as much bok choy as we could handle

We ate so so many stir fries in August, with the greens barely cooked. My favourite way to do it is to blanch them and then just lightly toss them in garlic and ginger. Serve with shittake mushrooms – we have a big packet of dried ones I am working my way through. If you want you can mix a spoonfull of potato flour with water and then cover them with it in a wok, to give it a glossy, creamy coating. YUM. Also we added them, blanched, to just about everything. In Chinese cooking this is called ‘breaking the rawness’ and it is a very good way to get rid of the sulfuric taste of brassicas without losing the tenderness, as well as to make sure you don’t have limp bok choy in things.

Speaking of brassicas, the back bed started to come into its own in August

As soon as it got properly cold they shot up, and by August there was no stopping them.

I did get a little bit of cabbage moth on the cabbages, but so few that I was just able to rub them off and it was fine.

However, even though the soil was cold (and they were loving it), the aspect of this bed means it gets full sun from about 11am till whenever it is the sun sets. And that afternoon sun is HOT. So even as the sprouting broccoli was setting heads, it was already flowering.

No dramas. The flowers are still totally edible, and they weren’t grainy and seeding. It just meant I had to check on them often and we did eat a lot of broccoli. Not a hardship. It was so tender and lovely and we had it in everything, blanched as I said and then stirred through with butter as a side, in various fritters and bakes, everything. So good.

We also ate the leaves! I planted Tuscan kale but the seeds I had were from a friend. I suspect they got cross pollinated because what I thought was kale – with the ripply leaves, and the little sign I put next to it saying ‘kale’ sprouted as broccoli! So we ate that too. However, I think the leaves of the broccoli plants were more tender, myself. I think next year I might just plant a whole bed of broccoli and we’ll eat the lot of it. Of course, that probably accelerated the flowering, so next time I will stagger plantings.

Here’s what the beds looked like a month later, in October

Brocpocalypse. They’re taking over! I also took about a million pictures of them because I find the flowers so beautiful, despite being so utilitarian.

And the bees LOVED them which I was happy to encourage. We were still eating them at this stage although the ones in that last photo above would have been too woody. The ones on the morning-sun side of the bed were more edible, still

You can see that the wood is starting to grey after a winter’s weathering.

Here’s the Avo. Its leaves fell off all in one week and then the sprouts took over

It also put up a bunch of flower buds, which I rubbed off

And the pea bed

The other side was looking sadder

You can see I planted lettuce seedlings around the edges but they essentially went straight to seed.

The front bed is bolting, too

Let’s not forget, I took these photos on the 2nd of October. It’s still early spring here. But just too too hot. And windy! I put that bamboo screen up to protect the silverbeet, which was getting blown over. A week later I put up[ shade over all of the beds but it’s still a losing battle, given the combo of the sun and the wind. Even with the wicking beds, I couldn’t plant new seedlings. They would shrivel up within a day. The established plants can still get enough water, but they get the beating sun too.

Here’s the front bed all shaded over, two weeks after the previous photos, in late October.

If I do shade cloth next year, though, I’m going to have to make it more structured. There’s so much wind that these hoops get pushed back and forth and the plants exposed.

I didn’t harvest a single carrot, beetroot or parsnip. They were getting close to big enough and then in about a week they bolted. In fact I know it was in a week, because I went to Bali in mid october and when I came back… poof! That’s ok. The bees and other insects loved the flowers, too. While I was in Bali, the peas did this:

Yikes! Like I said before, I got one risotto’s worth of harvest out of this. And they were delicious. I think if i’d harvested them a week before I would have gotten a bit more.

And the back bed did this:

And without the shadecloth it looked like this:

I pulled out most of them a

I left some brassicas to be shade and also because the bees were still loving them – and now the birds are loving the seeds. I may as well tell you right now that the tomatoes etc were NOT a success. It is just too hot. As of November, I have given up gardening in the beds until it gets a bit less burny. I think that until the trees grow, it’s going to be a losing battle getting anything out of the beds between, say, late October and Early Feb. I might be able to extend the season with shadecloth and other structures, but I’m going to consider it like a snowy winter, just too extreme for growing. That’s ok, it gives me more time to sew and go to the beach, and to plan and execute other household tasks. Including getting more trees in, but that’s a story for next time.

Speaking of trees, though, here’s two weeks of new growth on the avo

And one plant is loving the  harsh sun: the bay tree in a pot

Garden in April and June

There’s  not much sewing happening around these parts at the moment, I’m using my break to catch up on house and garden stuff, and electronic chores, which includes catching up on blog posts! I’m considering making a side blog for house/garden stuff, but the thought of having TWO places to neglect is a little overwhelming. Does anyone have any preferences? I’m not sure who exactly my audience is these days. Perhaps I’ll just continue to use this as a general dumping ground for whatever I feel like putting out into the word on any given day, and leave it up to the reader to opt out of any posts that don’t interest them.

My last post talked about building the wicking beds. Here’s what they looked like in early April, when the sheep manure had rotted in enough to enable planting out.

The bird nets went on because as soon as I planted things, the backyard was immediately overrun with pigeons. I initially just laid the netting over the top while I got the materials to build hoops, and I looked out the window one morning to see a pigeon very carefully treading it down so it could reach the seedlings. Argh! After the autumn I found I didn’t have much trouble with birds, so the nets came off. I think it was probably a bit of a food gap for them.

I’d expended all my gardening energy on the beds rather than on starting seeds, so I planted mostly seedlings I bought from the local farmer’s market in the front bed (the one closest to the house, the left bed in the above photo). I had managed to start a few brassica seedlings though, and I planted them out probably a bit early because I couldn’t wait to get started! They went in the back bed (on the right in this photo) and the side bed (at the back of the photo) had broadbean, sugar snap and snowpea seeds direct sewn into it.

Here’s the front bed, with my boughten bok choy and lettuce seedlings. I also direct sewed into this bed – carrots and beetroot and parsnip up the back, and various greens at the front. The pvc tube you see sticking out at the back is an in-bed worm farm. The idea being you put worms in the bed and then feed them through the pipe with the lid on, so that nothing else can get to the food scraps. I haven’t used it much because they were sluggish over winter and as it got warmer there were plenty of plant roots sans their tops, that needed chewing up. I have periodically checked on them and topped them up a little, though.

I was biting off a bit more than I was sure I could chew, at this point. I had initially intended to start with one or two beds and work my way up, but since it made so much economic sense to buy all the beds at once, that’s what I did. I planted them all out because… well because I got excited. But also because, being wicking beds, the maintenance was fairly easy going. In winter I found I could leave them for weeks at a time with no great consequences. And it’s much better to have things growing in terms of soil health and weed cover, as well as to keep the water wicking and prevent it getting stagnant in the reservoirs.

The other factor was the almost total absence of any kind of insect life in the backyard. There were relatively few plants there when we arrived, but I also suspect the previous owners sprayed the crap out of the place. There are just almost no bugs. That meant not much pollination and it also meant that the first bugs to arrive were pests, with no predators. Planting things that may end up going to seed was pretty much a good thing at this point. I’m happy to report that although there’s still not a huge amount of insect life, a year in there are plenty of bees (at least when there are flowers for them), and many fewer mosquitos. There’s also plenty of species of birds and even bats.

Anywho. Here’s the back bed in June

Chock full of brassicas. There was cauliflower, kale, two kinds of sprouting broccilli (purple and green), two kinds of cabbage (purple and green).

And the front bed

Bok choy on the left, lettuce on the right. Baby spinach in a pot set into the soil up the back, scattered seeds of mixed asian greens coming up everwhere.

And broad beans in the side bed

You can just see the snow peas just coming up on the perimeter of the trellis. This bed did not do very well, though (spoiler alert?). The peas took a long time to establish and then, I think, got rust. The bed was quite damp, I think because of the drainage issue I mentioned in my last post where we didn’t angle the outlet down. Also I think not having established plants meant it stayed quite damp – in future I will always try to have at least some lettuce seedlings or something to make sure the water is circulating. Especially in this bed – the other two get a lot of evaporation because they are oriented so the wind blows all the way down them, whereas this one is side on to the wind and so although it still is a factor, it’s much less extreme.

Also the jute trellis was not secure enough, especially with the high winds we get. I eventually added in wire mesh and that helped but I think a lot of the damage was done by that point. I got a meagre crop from this bed but that’s ok, I was essentially considering it a cover crop. And it did make for one very delicious risotto. I think next year I wouldn’t bother planting pea seeds until May, since that’s when they started to actually grow.

Also in May we bought and planted a Reed avocado.

That’s the shade structure we gave it – more spoiler alerts, it was totally inadequate, especially since it (along with most of the garden) gets the very strong afternoon sun + salt in the wind. The strawbale is for warmth and seems to have worked quite well for that.

At the same time we bought a Eureka lemon, seedless Valencia orange and Imperial mandarin, which we planted down by the east facing fence and which I neglected to take a photo of in May, so you’ll have to imagine it. The idea is to semi-hedge them so they stay smallish, since the fruit grows on the outside branches anyway. That way they’ll be manageable and I can keep them below fence height to keep them protected from our strong winds.

This is what the poor Avocado looked like in July

But on the plus side it didn’t seem to get wet feet in spite of reasonably heavy rain – we had a dry winter and spring overall but with several weeks that were very very damp.

Here are the July peas, still showing promise

These minature fruit trees in wine barrels were left by the previous owners. They had a big dog and these pots were wrapped in hardware cloth so I suspect it was their way of having any garden at all. However, it was essentially impossible to keep them wet enough, even in winter. They just get too much sun, the whole backyard is not a good spot for pots except for in the shelter of the verandah, and the wine barrels are to heavy and too falling apart to move.

I got this one pear and a couple of tiny but delicious peaches. They also did a glorious show of mini autumn red leaves. I planted the nasturtiums in an effort to mulch them. This summer I’ve just left them with no water and I think they are all but dead. It’s a shame but I’ve nowhere in the ground to put them right now, and the pots are just not a practical thing in this garden, right now.

Here’s the back bed of brassicas in July, showing promise

But the true star of July was the front bed, with the mixed greens – you can see the bok choy is a bit nibbled by I’m not sure what. The humans still ate it, though. There was enough to share.

This bed produced, and produced, and produced. The lushest, easiest lettuces and the most succulent bok and pak choy. It just kept on going, growing more greens than even we could eat!

I am absolutely using this bed in the same way next year, it had the perfect aspect for delicate winter greens. What a luxury to always be able to pick a variety of lettuce for an impromptu salad!

There’s the beetroot and parsnips in a row, with silverbeet behind.

More silverbeet, possibly my favourite vegetable:

And sculptural lettuces by the handful

As you can tell, I feel very poetic about this bed of greens!

Monetarily, considering how pricey greens are and how apt to go manky in the bottom of the fridge, I’d estimate this bed neatly paid for all the seeds and seedlings I bought. I haven’t made a dent in the cost of the beds themselves, but you know, I don’t expect to. Honestly this bed gave me a thing I can’t buy – fresh, delicious, healthy greens available any time of the day or night. And I relished it.

Building our wicking beds

Fair warning, this is a long one. It’s also pure garden stuff, so if you’re here for the sewing, try again later!

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Well, this post was much delayed! My photos tell me we built the beds in March, and it’s now December. The photo above is from October, showing our bumper sprouting broccoli crop that grew so much it was flowering as fast as we could pick it. But we’ll get to that.

I talked in my last garden post about selecting the beds, and you can see what the garden looked like before they went in. I’m going to write this post a bit out of order because I want to first describe our experience of placing and constructing them, and then afterwards provide a bit more of a step-by-step a single bed so you can see the process. Please don’t use this as a how to, though! There are PLENTY of good resources out there, if you google ‘how to build a wicking bed’ there are tonnes. But one of the things I found useful when researching was specific accounts and examples so that’s what I’m going for here. I also found a real lack of follow ups on how things worked after the beds were built – all well and good to say ‘do it this way’ but does it WORK is the question! So I will try to get to that, as well. If you’re here after the fact, check out the tag ‘wicking beds‘ which is where I intend to put all of that. Hopefully there will be something!

Before we started the beds I had poisoned the grass where they were to go with roundup, and laid black plastic down to solarise it. I would prefer, in general, not to use poisons but I’ve battled kikuyu before and it doesn’t muck around. No point using half measures, it will just laugh in your face. So poison it was, and even then I’ve had to do touch ups around the edge as it tried to rise from the dead. I’ve since piosoned off the rest of the grass in the hopes that the harsh summer sun will keep it dead and I won’t have to re-poison. But that’s a story for another day.

So. We started with the black plastic laid out, and the beds in pieces. It took us a while from getting the beds to building them, because we had to acquire all the other materials. This included:

  • The beds themselves (three 2.4m long x 1.4m wide x 0.6m high beds from Dovetail timbers)
  • Pond liner
  • Wicking fabric/geotextile
  • Sand
  • Gravel
  • Soil
  • PVC pipe for outlets and inlets, as well as pipe and caps for in-bed worm farms
  • Irrigation pipe for the reservoirs.

It’s been a while and I’ve forgotten how much of stuff we got but I know we just bought one big roll of the felt from bunnings – it was with the builder’s plastic which is a bit counter intuitive. I can’t remember volumes for the sand and gravel but it was a couple cubic metres of gravel and one of sand, I think.

Our piles of sand and gravel – this was as close as we could get it delivered so we had to cart it back and forth a fair way. The closest bed is about 5m from there, the furthest one about 12m. Not massively far but it certainly added to the effort this project took.

So once we had everything, we began by laying out the bottom tier in the general area we wanted the beds. Here is the original plan:

Kate's Backyard FUTURE

And here we are laying them out:

The tree in the corner of this photo is the tree in the top left of the plan, if that helps orient people. We weren’t sure that they were where we wanted them, but they were pretty close. And we were sure about the first one, so we decided to build that first and then re-assess, because giving it height would change how it all looked and felt. We did try to simulate this by using the black lining that came with the beds, but it was hard to tell.

Once we had the bed in the right spot, we lined the bottom with sand to even it out and also make a soft surface for the pond liner, to avoid punctures. It’s important for this whole process that everything within the bed is level, otherwise the water won’t wick evenly to the surface, and you’ll get stagnant spots in your reservoir.

Sand lining. We pushed it to the sides to hold up the black liner for the next bit. The liner came with the beds, from Dovetail timbers, and is designed to shield the wood from moisture to extend its life. It also was very handy for us, to shield the pond liner from splinters. I have also found that some of the boards have shrunk over time as they aged – as timber does. This is not a problem at all but it made gaps big enough that, without the liner, the soil would be starting to spill out.

The next step was to even out the beds. The surface we were building them on was pretty uneven. In order to compensate for this, we stacked gravel under the wood and leveled that out.

I say that like it was easy. It was pretty painstaking, gotta say. As you can see, we used the top tier of the bed to hold the gravel in place. We put those logs in place and then S lifted up a corner while I jammed a brick in there.

You can see the labeling of the timbers here, to make it easy to match to each other and build. You can also see that the one on the right has split – this was our fault for leaving them out in the weather, lying on the ground, for about a month before building. Whoops.

We repeated this for each corner, and the we shovelled gravel in there, making sure to get it pressed right up against the black internal liner which was now exposed at the bottom. Then we used a spirit level to see which end needed to be adjusted, and either added or subtracted gravel from there until the whole edifice was roughly even. I’d say this process took around about an hour per bed.

Some of the corners needed more support than others – this is in a spot where the ground dips down. We used random rocks from the garden to make sure it didn’t shift.

I was a bit worried this wouldn’t be secure long term. Our plan was/is to get in bark chips to mulch the area, so they’d be the same height as the gravel and make everything a bit more secure and prettier. We haven’t gotten to that yet for a bunch of reasons, and the gravel and beds have stayed put just fine, despite some woolly weather over winter.

Once we had the first bed evened out we built up the tiers, just by stacking them on top of each other. Honestly, these beds were fantastic. The wood is good quality, the craftsmanship is great – the top tier is all beautifully smoothed and each of the joins fits perfectly. Putting them together was a breeze, the people who sold them to me were very helpful, and in terms of comparative products, the price was really good. I would highly recommend these beds. (Just my personal opinion, you understand, but I would 100% buy from them again).

Anywho, once we had the height on that bed, we played with where the other two would go. We ended up moving them a bit from the plan – instead of having them in line with each other we staggered them.

This started as an accident – we’d just put the timbers down in that area to get them out of the way. But we found that the layout was really easy to walk around, and looked better than having them line up. People like to walk in curves and having things staggered generally produces the impression of more space and interest, so it worked well! We built the bottom tier in place and left it like that for a while, to look at it and decide. Once we were happy with it (with some minor moving back and forth) we built the other two up on gravel, and built them up as well.

And then we quit for the day, because we were exhausted.

The next day, we went back to the first bed and began the process of making it a wicking bed rather than just a regular bed.

First we evened out the sand lining the bottom.

Then we checked that they were still even. Some of them had settled a bit overnight and we had to adjust the corners again.

It’s more important that everything within the bed is even rather than the bed itself. So we spent more time getting the sand even than the bed itself. But it does generally help if the bed is on a level footing.

Then we put in the pond liner and the wicking fabric for the bottom layer

You can see that it’s taped in place. This was mildly annoying because the tape came unstuck constantly. But it was important not to fix it in place right away. Once the soil is on top of it, it will sink down lower. I have also read people saying that the pond liner shrinks slightly over time, so we tried to give it some slack so that it wouldn’t pull out from the nails at the top.

This was the easiest way we found to put the plastic and wicking fabric in. Place it over the top and then one person stands on each long side, and you go ‘one… two… three!’ and slowly push it down in. Then you fuss with the edges until it’s mostly in place.

Next we prepared the irrigation pipe. This is to go in the reservoir part of the bed, to provide more room for water. The principle of the bed is that the gravel etc creates an area of water tension between it – it’s important to use smaller gravel and not, say, river stones, because the gravel needs to be small enough that the spaces in between will be small too. This means they are small enough to allow water to pull itself up them by surface tension. I did a LOT of reading before I tracked this nugget down. I found this a really good source of actual information about how it works, rather than just ‘do it this way because’. I made some wicking pots over summer and the ones with bigger stones barely wicked at all, so I already knew size mattered! 😛

The irrigation pipe gets laid within the wicking medium. This creates more room for water. The smaller your material, the better its wicking properties (hypothetically) but the less water can fit in the spaces between it. So the pipe creates more water room while maintaining the general structure of the wicking area. We also laid the geotextile going up the sides, to create even more opportunity for wicking, but this by itself won’t evenly keep the bed wet. The geotextile also helps to protect the liner from punctures – just the thought of getting a puncture in the bottom of the bed is making my eye twitch (it’ll inevitably happen eventually but I’d like it to be a LONG TIME AWAY thanks)

To do the pipe, we connected all the pipe that we had and then cut it into thirds (you can see the blue connector here). Then we capped the ends with geocloth cinched in with a zip tie, to keep the gravel and any dirt etc out of the pipe. The other end gets connected to an elbow bracket which connects to a pvc pipe for intake.

We did this by just shoving it in as hard as we could. Then we packed in scraps of geotextile to exclude dirt and keep them jammed together.

Then we placed the intake into a corner of the bed, and laid out the pipe in the middle, and shoveled gravel around it.

The pipe is going to move about a bit as you shovel so you’ll have to adjust it as you go. We found it was best to shovel directly on to the pipe, because otherwise the gravel found its way under it and pushed it up. You want the pipe to be completely covered, so that the top layer is all gravel.

Also, think carefully about how you will move around the beds before you chose where to put the inlet pipe. I wish I’d put the inlet for the first bed we made at the corner closest to the furthermost bed. It would have meant an easy triangle when topping them up. As it is I end up having to drag the hose around another corner and it’s a pain. I did it that way because I based the position on the outlet, wanting it where I could easily see it while doing other garden tasks. But I find the inlet is more annoying than the outlet, so were I to do it again I’d think more carefully about that.

So it should look like this.

General wisdom is your reservoir should be 20-30cm high. We went for 30ish, leaving about 30cm depth for the growing medium. You want the growing part to be as deep as or deeper then the reservoir, or else the plants can’t draw up the water from the very bottom, and you’ll end up with a stagnant part in the bottom (ugh). Any more than 30cm in the reservoir and it’s supposed to not wick as well, although I’ve read varying things about that.

Once that was done we had to make sure the gravel was even. We did this by filling the bed with water until it touched the top of the gravel. The water finds the level, and then we could rake out the gravel until it was at the same level as the water. Props to the ancient Egyptians for this technique, we weren’t building a pyramid but the principle for getting a sound footing is the same.

Once this was done, we folded the extra geotextile edges over the gravel. Then we laid down another layer of the geotextile over the top of the gravel and up the edges. This stops the soil from getting into the reservoir medium and clogging it up. It also provides some of that extra wicking up the sides.

Next step is the overflow! I read a bunch of different opinions about the level this should be at but most places said just above the reservoir. You want to make it, basically, so that the reservoir can be totally full but that the soil above it will never be more than moist. The other benefit of this is that, even if your hole seal leaks, it’s not too big of a problem. One of my beds isn’t sealing well now, and I suspect all of them eventually will have leaks around the outlet because it’s just plain hard to seal an outlet like that when there’s soil involved. But since it’s only wet enough to leak out when the bed is first topped up, I’m not worried. It’s not ideal but it’s not like it’s constantly wet and leaking, it just weeps a bit when it’s filled.

We (that is to say, S) drilled a hole with a wide drill bit and cut through all the layers of plastic and geotextile and poked a piece of pipe through. The wood smelled so good when it was drilled! Like honey. Then we used silicon sealer around it to make it (mostly) watertight.

It didn’t stay this long, we sawed it shorter. I wanted it to be sticking out a bit though, to not get the base of the beds wet. We made an error with the first one and didn’t angle the hole down. We also didn’t leave the silicon long enough between doing it and adding the soil. This spring we had to re-do it and plug the old hole, because water was collecting between the wood and the pipe and slowly leaking out, and it would have meant the wood degraded a lot quicker. It was really annoying to have to dig back part of the bed and deconstruct the innards. So, this is worth taking a bit of time over.

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Because we didn’t angle the pipe down, the water can’t run down it. Instead it leaks through the inside and has discoloured the wood. If it kept doing this it would rot pretty quickly.

I know some people advocate having a lower outlet which you can use to regularly drain the beds. I would very much have liked to have done this but thought, given that we have a wood bed and it’d be hard to seal, and water leaks would degrade it, that it was better not to risk it. I definitely think this was the right decision. In winter the beds get enough rain water that they flush themselves, I think I’ll just have to flush them out fully a couple of times in summer. I topped it up the other day after a 40 degree day and it did smell a bit. Plus, salts etc will build up and a flush is a good idea, every now and then.

On the other end of the pipe I laid a piece of flyscreen over a piece of geotextile, and attached it with a rubber band to the pipe.

The weight of the soil will help hold it on.

Here’s the first bed, all ready for soil. The bucket is covering the outlet pipe so we could add soil while it was still drying (a mistake, as I mentioned, but we had a limited time to get them done)

Then we added the soil!

I ordered a mix of soil and compost from SA composters.  I was a bit disappointed at first because it was very dry and sandy, and a bit hydrophobic. But as soon as it got moist it revealed itself as a lovely mix. I would definitely buy from them again.

You can see the tarp out the front, near the mailbox. That’s the soil. You can also see that we were running low on gravel! By the time we got to the third bed, we had almost none. But we still had a bunch of sand. So we used a mix of both for the reservoir.

I had read some places that sand is even better than gravel. Six months in, I’d say I can’t really tell much difference. It;s a bit hard because the intense wind and sun, plus different plantings, mean that each bed actually has pretty different conditions. I’d say they both wick as well but the sand stops wicking before the reservoir is empty. So I often will refill them when the top 3cm of soil are dry. The sand bed will take five minutes to fill and the gravel will take 10-15. They took about the same time to fill initially. So I’d say from that that the sand bed doesn’t wick as high. I’d love to hear if anyone else has experience with this. If I were pushed for height in my beds I’d do a smaller sand layer, say 15cm. I’m guessing on depths here. Although now I’m looking at this again I wonder if it isn’t just that the gravel on top of the sand was wicking and the sand wasn’t wicking much at all. I wish I could remember how much gravel went into the mix here. The downside of delayed blogging!

Here’s a bed all full up with soil. You can see how we dealt with the intake pipe by wrapping the geotextile around it to prevent dirt etc falling between the sides.

Here’s that in progress – after the first bed we nailed around the inlet before adding the soil, otherwise we kept getting stuff down there as we shoveled.

Once all the soil was in we nailed the geotextile and liner up

Behind the textile we tried to leave some slack in the liner, to allow for shrinkage. It’s less terrible if the geotextile shrinks and tears.

Then we emptied a couple of bags of sheep manure onto each bed and left it for a couple of weeks before planting.

And that’s it! That’s how we built our wicking beds.

I do intend to stain the beds, although given that it’s summer and that hasn’t happened yet I’m not sure it will happen. I’m trying to find a nice stain that isn’t totally toxic. I’m now thinking perhaps I’ll just use linseed oil, although that will need reapplying – I just think it would make them last a bit longer and also look nicer, as they’ve started to grey.

If I did it again, I’d plan better and 1) store them undercover before building (we didn’t have space but I should have MADE space because some of them did crack while lying on the wet ground, and that was a shame and totally avoidable – none of the others have cracked since it was just from being in contact with the ground and then moved) and 2) stain them before building them. But really, if I don’t get around to staining them then it’s not a big deal. They are hardwood and appear to be lasting very well although of course it hasn’t been that long yet.

Big thanks to both S and G who were champions in this process. I skipped a lot of resting and swearing and shovelling and measuring in writing out the process. It was HARD WORK and I would have gotten very overwhelmed and exhausted doing it by myself. So they each get a medal, especially as they couldn’t care less about the garden (although are both happy to eat out of it). It has saved a lot of work in the long term, though, and I’m really pleased with the beds. They save a LOT of water – I watered them maybe once over winter and in spring and autumn only needed to top them up occasionally and then re-wet the top bit which dries from the wind.

I am planning to do a follow up, what I planted and how the beds have worked and behaved since. Hopefully soon but I make no promises! Please let me know if you have any questions, I’m far from being an expert but I’m happy to share my experience! If anyone wants a closer look at the photos, they’re all on my flickr, here.