It’s been far too long since the last gardening post. The sad realisation has been dawning on me that soil condition and water availability are serious issues in the new garden. To get things going well, it’s going to mean right back to basics. The soil is seriously depleted, requiring a truck load of organic matter and potassium like most old Australian inland soils. There’s at least one wilting disease affecting tomatoes and potatoes. And it’s dry. The well ran dry during the drought and it hasn’t come back up in the years since, so everything here is dependent upon tank water. Without rain, no well and no tank water. Initially a bunch of herbs and robust things like chards and kale grew in the veggie gardens, but a veggie garden isn’t a permaculture food forest.
Dealing with the lack of water will take some thought. It will take some time for a canopy of trees to get going, but that’s pretty much what it’s going to take to develop a bit of a micro-climate and provide some shade and frost shelter for smaller, younger plants. It will also help keep the water table down. Although that sounds odd in a place where the well is dry, this area is frequently flood irrigated to grow fruit trees and dairy. This makes salinity a real problem. Keeping the groundwater and salt from getting too high will be critical to maintaining the fertility of the soil here once it is established. Earlier today I was having a look at some permaculture vids on youtube by Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton, about reclaiming arid land and starting a food forest. I’m now contemplating compost ditches interspaced with guilds of drought tolerant plants that will add some productivity and fertility to the place. It’s too flat for proper swales to be of any help with runoff, but ditches may help water absorption.
So it’s back to basics. Enriching the soil with organic matter and growing starter crops including “bio-fumigants” that can help reduce wilt. This means a couple of seasons planting mustard, radish, red clover and kale. Later, some nitrogen fixing legumes like peas. These are grown not to eat too much but to crop and drop onto the soil to allow them to break down as a green mulch. Acacias or wattles will probably be a good starter for trees. They grow fairly quickly and are tolerant of the depleted soil. I’m also thinking figs and maybe pomegranates as they don’t mind the hot, dry Summers so long as they’re protected for the first few winter frosts.
Then it’s a matter of waiting for the soil to be enriched by the fumigant and legume crops and hopefully getting a bit more rain. And that brings us to:
Summer garden ideas.
We’re coming up to the most extreme weather of Summer, or if you’re in the Northern hemisphere Winter. The two things that sprang to mind foremost about gardening in the hottest of Summer weather is oddly something that also works for Winter. Mulch and not pruning. Sure you need to keep the water up to a Summer garden, and deep Winter is a good time to allow compost to fallow, but for gardens one of the best things to do right now is mulch. There’s a heap of different types available here, from pre-packaged sugar cane by product to home grown lawn clippings or straw and hay.
My personal favourite is alfalfa or lucerne hay as it breaks down into lovely rich humous. Straw and hay are also great, though if you’re using the hay from the bottom of the chook pen, it might be better to compost it first as chook manure can be pretty strong. A deep bed of mulch over your garden or exposed areas will help keep the soil from drying out, will add organic matter to the soil as it breaks down and will protect seedlings and young growth from frost or excessive heat.
As for pruning, it’s something that can be very tempting when the garden is looking a little haggard in the worst weather. The problem, though, is that if you trim off all the dead growth you’re leaving new or young growth exposed to the elements. If your garden is looking particularly the worse for wear and straggly you might like to just take the edges off, round things down a bit, but don’t cut everything back hard or you’re only going to kill off the growth that will otherwise come back when the harsh weather is over. If some plants are looking particularly hard hit it might be a good time to have a look around the garden at the exposure and aspect (north or east facing garden) and perhaps consider if plants might be best moved or replaced with others that might better cope with the climate in your area.
It’s also a good time of year to have a look at your overall garden and consider things like aspect. Is your property facing north, south, east or west? Where is the weather most often coming from? Which walls or yards are most exposed? You can see where canopy trees might best be planted to protect the garden and reduce frost or heat. If you’re in a small allotment or apartment, have a look what the weather is doing to the outside of the house and see where window boxes or pots might best be kept in order to get the right amount of sun, be it lots in Winter or just enough morning sun in Summer. See where shade cloth might be utilised to prevent excessive heat.
It’s past the best time for planting Summer or Winter veggies right now, but you can make preparations for the next season’s plants by mulching and composting.
While I’m focused on water issues, I’ll leave you with a video from Tony Coote about farming in Australia, erosion and re-hydrating the landscape.
And some ideas for planting trees to assist reclaiming dry land.