Today I got another five robinia seedlings transplanted. That makes a couple of dozen, now, I think. About half the western fenceline is planted out and waiting for spring. As I was digging the holes for them it began to rain softly. Just after I finished up and came inside, it started to pour. I’ve heard people say that when you have more trees you get more rain, but I didn’t think it was supposed to work that quickly.
This Summer just past was so hot and dry that most of the things I’d planted in the first couple of years here died. It was pretty demoralising, to say the least. The nice little spot in the middle of the back yard with the lemon tree surrounded by stawberries is mostly straw. Surprisingly the goji berries fared pretty well. That lemon was never going to cope with the hard frosts so it’s probably as well to replace it with an apricot or something. Most of the herbs are dead including all the lemon balm, nepeta, oregano, marjoram and chamomile.
The lovely big bush of lemon thyme managed to hang on in one tiny spot. I’ll leave the dead branches around it to help protect what’s left from the frost. We’ll see how it comes up in spring. The insect repellent Southernwood and Tansy around the house have done okay.
Among the debris of the main veggie patch there’s been a couple of pleasant surprises. The broccoli from last winter survived under the remains of the arugula stems and are starting to produce flower heads. The green mignonette lettuce that I’ve been selectively breeding for about six generations looks like it’s crossed with the wild lettuce… Seriously. We have wind blown volunteer lettuce popping up in shady spots that are in between cos, mignonette and spiky lettuce. It tastes pretty much like cos, so that and the baby rocket have been making up a few salads for us. Chards, of course, are popping up all over the place. They’re just bomb proof and one of the most versatile things you can grow in a veggie patch. My lovely red cos and bronze oak leaf lettuce set seed but don’t look like they’re doing much. A bit more rain might help that. Or not. Probably the best result has been all the Asian greens. Everything like wom bok, bok choy, pak choy, mizuna and something that might be perilla are going nuts. Kale and red eschallots are starting to appear too.
That’s all great, but what’s this about the trees? Earlier I wrote about the condition of the soil here, or more accurately the lack of topsoil. One of the first things that went in to the new garden when I got here was the obligatory compost heap. In early Summer I turned it over to spread some compost on the veggie patch only to find that it’s been so dry that nothing’s broken down much at all. It will have to be covered in newspaper or plastic or something to help keep some moisture in. With that, the wilt diseases and the long dry it became apparent that the whole thing has to be completely reassessed.
Fortunately Geoff Lawton and others have a billion great videos about desert and arid area permaculture techniques to get things going. Around here it’s pretty much totally flat, so there’s no need for contours, although swales around the edges and through the paddock would help develop the soil and keep water available to the roots of the plants. Until we get a bit more rain and the ground is soft enough to get into with a shovel, I’m starting with transplanting seedlings that will be the canopy planting. That’s where those little robinia seedlings come in. While I probably wouldn’t put them in a suburban yard, their deep roots are great out in the paddock. They’re very hardy, the autumn leaves will help build up the soil and they won’t go up in a fire the way Eucalypts would. Plus there’s hundreds of them self-sown all over the property. All I have to do is put them in the right spots.
Over summer there wasn’t much to do but watch everything dry up and die. Instead I passed the time going through plenty of videos and reading to find some more ideas to get stuck into this in a more productive manner. Something more appropriate to the climate and soil. I really must link to the TEDx they did in Dubbo. There’s some great stuff in there for gardeners and farmers alike. I’ll link to Guy Webb’s talk first because he says the same thing I’ve been saying about not burning stubble haha.
Another fascinating thing he talks about is how the roots of perennial grasses can create new topsoil from the bottom up. This is the same principle Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin have discussed in some of their lectures on organic farming, but I found it very encouraging to see it being integrated into Australian broadacre farming. In pasture cropping this stuff is great for stopping the depletion and erosion of farmland and restoring fertility in degraded areas.
A bunch of that native grass, windmill grass, has prospered even in among the buffalo around the yard and paddock. It’s a brilliant native perennial.
The technique is simple. You let the grass grow a bit. The amount of roots the plant has are mirrored in the amount of growth up the top. You send through your cattle or goats, or mow it, and the plant will shed roots to keep itself in balance. These extra roots that are no longer needed become food for worms or soil organisms and break down into topsoil. And this windmill grass that is growing around here is just perfect for that. It’s a fairly slow grower so you don’t have to mow too often, but if you want it for pasture it’s quite resilient when grazed. Being indigenous it’s frost and drought hardy. Doesn’t cause allergies like buffalo and is nowhere near as invasive as some other types. Also you don’t get the seeds like ryegrass that can cause problems in fleece or getting into ears of animals. (Or your socks.) Out here at the moment I’d been encouraging it because it competes well with a bunch of weeds that are resistant to herbicides. Now there’s even more reason to keep it going.
I’m disappointed that it took me nearly three years to realise that I can’t do the same things here that I did in suburban blocks, although in hindsight that should have been obvious. It will be a bit slower going, since it’s starting from scratch in quite a different manner, but I’m looking forward to spring now. Can’t wait to see those little robinias take off.