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Pip Brains Trust

Question for Pip Brains Trust? Email editorial@pipmagazine.com.au

Where do I start in planning my permaculture garden on my bare 2 acre block that I’ve just built a house on? (Anna, Candelo NSW)

Start at your door. Create a small kitchen garden while you get to know your whole site in-depth and make your plans. Go walkabout regularly. Look at what’s happening beyond your boundary too. Slow down and get a feel for each space. Perhaps even have picnics in various places around your block. Make a copy of your property plan or print out a Google Earth image (A3 is a good size). Carry it around with you and jot down observations like microclimates, wind and solar access, how you could source, sink and spread water, soil types and quality, and local vegetation and abundances. Meanwhile, begin mind-mapping your wish-list: plants, animals, structures, spaces. Identify what you want to include in your design and research what is climatically suitable. For extra inspiration, join the local permaculture group and visit other permaculture gardens in your region. (Morag)

How do I make a good compost? We produce large amounts of food scraps and struggle to find carbon material to keep it in balance with nitrogenous matter. (Remus, Sydney NSW)

It sounds like you already know the answer to this question: balancing nitrogen-rich material (such as food scraps) with bulk carbon material is the key to making good compost. Depending on where you live, readily available carbon-rich materials may include shredded paper, wood shavings or cereal straw—you need a roughly equal amount of carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich material. A hot compost needs around 1m3 material ready to go at once, however food scraps are produced daily and do not store well. A cool compost can be added to more slowly but is more likely to attract vermin and leach nutrients before you get to use it. Thus it might be worth considering options other than composting for processing your food scraps into a nutrient and microbe-rich soil additive, for instance putting them through a worm farm or chicken system that will benefit from additions on a daily basis. (Beck)

What are a few different mulch alternatives for garden beds when straw is at a premium due to drought? (‘From Little Things’, Merimbula NSW)

The best mulches are free, local and unpackaged and there are plenty of options. Firstly, if you can maintain a living ground cover or space crops to achieve full leaf cover, mulch might not be necessary. Next look to your homegrown resources. I chop’n’drop any spent plants or prunings right back on the soil from where they grew (diseased plants are the only exception). In this way my fruit trees create nearly all their own mulch and with decent soil health and a bit of moisture even woody prunings break down within a year. I also do this with weeds that won’t re-root. You can grow specific plants to cut for mulch around your garden such as comfrey, clumping bamboo or lemongrass. Many coastal gardeners use seaweed as mulch—it’s legal to collect up to 20 kg per person per day for non-commercial use in NSW outside sanctuary zones. In Melbourne I do an annual autumn leaf harvest from our street trees (London Planes). I also make use of shredded paper and cardboard (preferably ink-free or vegetable inks). Lawn clippings are a valuable nutrient-rich mulch best used in thin layers or mixed with a fluffy carbon-rich mulch to prevent matting together and rotting. Finally, wood chips from your local council or arborist are great choices for perennials and fruit trees, but avoid using them around vegetables and shallow rooted plants as these can rob your plants of nitrogen while the soil microorganisms break them down. (Kat)

I have a lemon tree that is growing fairly well at 2 metres tall and 1.5 metres wide. It has no leaf mites or any other problems except really yellow foliage. When we water it a lot and give it seaweed emulsion frequently it starts to pick up. Could it have something to do with the acacia and eucalyptus trees growing less than 2 metres away? Help! (Natasha, Bega NSW)

Lemons are shallow rooting evergreen trees which means they require consistent watering and feeding, hence your seaweed applications are working but only as a temporary measure. The roots of your citrus are closer to the surface than the surrounding natives but these locals know how scarce water can be so may still be stealing it from below. So here are some options: provide the lemon with its own water source (drip line or soaker hose) and move to slow release fertilising via manures rather than your current liquid regime. I apply chicken manure under the entire canopy of my citrus trees on a quarterly basis (some folks apply it six times a year!). A slow release fertiliser like this means the tree can feed every day of the year as long as you ensure it also has access to water. Water helps break down and dilute the manure; this helps your fertiliser to be taken up by the tree. ‘Never feed a dry plant,’ my mum always said. It’s not ideal to have nutrient hungry exotics interplanted with natives, as excess nutrients that leach can be detrimental to local species over time. Think about moving the citrus or even having it in a pot. (Justin)

My friend uses an insecticide on her beans as the bugs are destroying them—the packaging says it kills bees. What could I suggest to her as an alternative? (Marilyn, North QLD)

The first and most important step is to identify the culprit! Organic management is nuanced and relies on correct targeting. Have a close look at the plant and the damage pattern, and be sure to check at night when many pests are more active. If you can’t ID it yourself, use a local field guide, social media or ask a museum for assistance (e.g. Queensland Museum’s insect identification service). Then I would consult a good organic pest management book for specific strategies (Bug by Tim Marshall is a good one) which in the short-term might include handpicking or Dipel for caterpillars, lime sulphur for mites, or trapping for earwigs. Long-term approaches create habitat for predators. That said, two of the most important strategies are universal: soil improvement for healthier plants, and acceptance of some damage—permaculture gardens are about balance, and without a consistent low level of pests there can be no predators. (Kat)

My gardening efforts so far have been hit and miss. I am time-poor with young children and would like to know the quickest way to start up a successful garden bed in our suburban backyard. I’ve vaguely heard of no-dig beds. (Anna, Adelaide SA)

No-dig garden beds are fabulous—my absolute favourite. They are effective and easy to make with low weeding and watering needs. Check out my no-dig garden tutorial on Our Permaculture Life’s YouTube channel. The key steps are:

  1. Find a sunny spot close to your house, visible and with good access from the kitchen.
  2. Mark out your garden bed. If compacted, gently fork the soil open, avoid turning over.
  3. Soak the area well, perhaps with worm castings or comfrey tea.
  4. Add organic matter to your bed—compost, chopped up leaves, aged manure.
  5. Add a weed barrier over top. I use 10 sheets of moistened newspaper, overlapping well.
  6. Mulch thickly on top.

My twist on most no-dig instructions is having the paper just below the mulch, not on the ground, so soil life is directly in contact with and activated by the new organic matter which is then more protected from drying out. It’s okay if there are weed seeds in the organic matter (the newspaper is a weed barrier). Happy gardening! (Morag)

I have an area on my property I’d like to make productive with minimal time and money inputs. I’m thinking of a food forest. Is it possible to create a food forest that requires very little maintenance? (Peter, Leongatha VIC)

Food forests are a lower maintenance option than vegetable growing, but they produce a lower yield and will still need some maintenance, for instance pruning to control vigorous plants, checking for pests, and of course harvesting fruit. Fruiting subtropical plants are ideal for food forests, but in a cooler temperate climate like Leongatha you will mostly be using deciduous fruit trees that need more sunlight and airflow and thus cannot be planted as densely. Start by planting soil-improving nurse trees (local acacia species are generally a good option), then add fruit trees and useful understory plants such as those that produce a yield, attract good bugs or improve soil. Ensure that your food forest is protected from animals such as wallabies and that you will be able to provide some water in summer, especially while it is establishing. To save money you can grow the plants from seeds and cuttings. (Beck)

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