Pip Brains Trust

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

How do I encourage worms into our soil and to stay there? [Rebecca, Maryborough, QLD]

In the words of Kevin Costner, ‘If you build it, [they] will come’. Worms live in soils with high humus content. Humus is the product of decaying organic matter. The best way to produce humus is adding consistent volumes of compost and mulch each year. These elements provide worms with the food they require. Consistent moisture is just as important, so do your best to ensure your soils don’t dry out. [Justin]

Any tips for managing animals holistically on a backyard scale? [Manu, Lapstone, NSW]

Understanding what the animal likes to do and allowing it to undertake these behaviours in ways that benefit other parts of the garden is the key to holistic management. A classic permaculture example is using chickens scratching behaviour to turn food scraps into compost, while their insect-catching ability ensures there are minimal flies. Likewise, rabbits enjoy eating grass tips and will benefit from being moved regularly to new spots (becoming ‘lawn mowers’ on areas of grass). At a backyard scale, space is often limited, so systems must be designed to keep the animal active and engaged. This might include allowing animals out to forage for short periods of time (thus providing pest control services) and/or feeding a wide range of foods in a variety of ways (for instance, sprinkling grains through straw for chickens to scratch). Also ensure that you meet the needs of the specific animal; for instance, ducks need enough water to submerge their whole head, while rabbits need a secure dark space to relax. [Beck]

How to get rid of citrus leafminer and give the poor trees a chance to flower and bear fruit for once? [Susan, Brisbane, QLD]

Citrus leafminer is a small moth whose larvae tunnels its way through young citrus leaves, creating tell-tale silvery trails. Late summer and autumn growth is most prone to infestation, so it can help to avoid over-fertilising or watering around this time. The cheapest and most benign control is homemade white oil. Mix . cup of dishwashing detergent to 1 cup of sunflower oil until it becomes white. To use, dilute to 1 tbsp. per litre, spray to coat leaves (especially the underside) every two weeks in cooler weather or one week in warmer weather, but avoid days over 30ÅãC or it may burn leaves. Although the larvae inside the leaf is protected, oil sprays work by deterring female moths from laying eggs. A longer-term solution is to encourage predators of the leafminer (like parasitic wasps and lacewings) by planting a year-round diversity of umbel and daisy-shaped flowers, and other small flowers like alyssum. If your infestation is severe, also check soil pH, moisture and fertility levels, as healthier plants tend to resist (or at least outgrow) pest attack. [Kat]

What are good companion plants for tomatoes, peas and silverbeet, and what benefits do they provide? [Sophie, Jan Juc, VIC]

Companion planting, where different species are interplanted to provide mutual benefits, is a great technique for home vegie production. These benefits may include pest control or soil improvement, and some plants just seem to do better next to other particular species. However, companion planting is often very site-specific; what works well in one area doesn’t necessary work in another. For instance, the classic companion planting combination of tomatoes with basil works really well in many parts of Australia, but not in others. Although there are lists you can consult, the best way to find out what works well in your area is to ‘observe and interact’. Try different combinations of plants and keep records. See what other local gardeners have success with. In general, choose species that are in different families to minimise pests, diseases and competition for nutrients, and use plants with different forms, such as species with spreading root systems planted next to species with taproots. Planting aromatic plants such as culinary herbs to confuse pests, and including flowers to attract useful insects are good overall strategies. [Beck]

We’re hoping to improve the soil quality of our 5-acre block to sustain vegetation. The soil profile is predominantly red clay which was subjected to heavy human and animal traffic for the past 10 years. We’ve worked on improving soil quality in small beds to get them ready for crops, but nothing on this scale before! [Elsbeth, Horsham, VIC]

Changing scale can be a little daunting, and I’m sure there are many in your situation, so thanks for asking. The first thing is to address the compaction. The three key strategies I suggest are: firstly deep rip the main areas of compaction to open the soil without turning it; secondly add lots of organic matter to feed the soil life and improve its structure (and keep adding each year); thirdly avoid walking or driving anywhere except your paths now to allow soil life to thrive. You may also like to add gypsum to break up clay soil without changing the pH. In broader areas, to get enough organic matter you need to plant green manures, cover crops and pioneer legume shrubs which can be chopped and dropped. The shading of the shrubs also helps to prevent the soil from drying out as much. Improving soil takes time, so start where you can and just keep going. In a few years, your soil will be amazing. Red clay is rich in nutrients so once it’s activated and brought back to health you’ll see amazing growth. [Morag]

We have a slightly sloping area of lawn; essentially just dusty topsoil on heavy clay which is impossible to dig into without some kind of machinery. How do I bring the soil back to life so I can plant into it, or is the clay a deal breaker? [Jess, Northern Brisbane, QLD]

Heavy clay is not a deal breaker but a blessing to some extent. Clay soils can hold ample nutrients and moisture when wet. I have found ‘no-dig’ soil preparations/gardens to be the ideal solution in these instances. They allow you the opportunity to gain a yield while opening up the heavy clay below them. In a few seasons, the activity of invertebrates and plant roots in the no-dig system will penetrate and incorporate into the clay, freeing up the compaction. [Justin]

How do you stop grasshoppers eating saplings to the point they have no leaves and die? We don’t have chickens yet. [Elizabeth, Cairns, QLD]

Grasshoppers are eaten by frogs, lizards, spiders, snakes, rodents and all sorts of birds; it may be time to get those chickens (or ducks). A small pond will attract frogs and lizards, and some logs and sticks on the ground with increase the habitat for grasshopper eaters too. Garlic spray is often used to repel grasshoppers, but you’ll need to reapply it regularly and it can harm beneficial insects too (I usually avoid all sprays, even natural ones). Also consider nurturing simple things that grasshoppers prefer, like tall grass where they hide and feast; a preferable habitat than your vegies—win-win! [Morag]

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