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Pip Brains Trust

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

What plants can I grow underneath my fruit trees to create a guild that will support them? [Jack, Cooma, NSW]

I would start with plants that assist in pollination, perform the role of pest control and don’t compete with the tree. Perennials that flower just prior to and during each fruit tree flowering time will invite bees, pollinating the fruit and providing you with a harvest. Plants with daisy or umbel-shaped flowers are favoured by common predatory insects, so a handful of them in your guild during fruiting season can minimise damage. Shallow-rooting plants minimise competition for water and nutrients (with the exception of grasses). You may already have plants in your garden playing these roles, so cluster those species under your fruit to form a guild. [Justin]

There is no space on our roof for solar panels. Where could we put them instead? [Jeanette and Russell, Sheffield, TAS]

It might be worth further investigating your roof, as most will have room for a small array. It’s also possible to put panels on carports, bike shelters, sheds, pergolas—anything that is structurally sound to take the weight of the panels. Arrays mounted on a frame at ground level are also possible, and make for convenient inspection and maintenance. North-facing is ideal, though panels can still be worth installing with other aspects. Your council may have some restrictions (e.g. heritage overlays), but many are now providing residential solar incentives too. [Kat]

How do I make a sourdough culture in the tropics? [Lesley, Katherine, NT]

The trick is to stretch and shape your loaf within an hour and then put it in your fridge to slow down the process while you let it stand. Also, it seems that feeding the starter twice a day until it is stable works better in hot climates, and then keep it in the fridge until needed. I had a great chat with our sourdough baker and he suggested it really does take some trial and error to find just the right timing for your particular microclimate. [Morag]

Can you recommend a nutritionally balanced mix of grains to feed layer hens? In what situation would I need to sprout grains to make sure my chooks get total nutrition? [Ella, Watervale, SA]

Like so many questions in permaculture, the answer starts with ‘it depends’. Modern layer breeds generally need a carefully formulated feed to stay healthy, whereas a hardy chook with access to free range will often stay healthy and laying on a few handfuls of wheat. Most grains are suitable for chickens, so use what is grown locally in your area. Unless you are supplementing your hens’ feed with protein-rich food (e.g. black soldier flies or worms) and/or they have access to good forage, they will need a protein-rich legume in the mix (e.g. soybeans or lupins). For a complete feed, it might be worth buying a ready-formulated mix. Sprouting grains is easy and makes more nutrients available to the hens, so it’s a good practice to get into. It should only be done with single types of grain at once, as the grains will have different sprouting rates. [Beck]

What is your best advice when planting broccoli? How do I keep it the ground rather than in the stomach of the broccolosaurus? [Samantha, Cromer, NSW]

So many creatures want to eat broccoli—they must be on to something! Grow in cool weather when some pests are less active, and bring pest problems down before planting seedlings (beer traps for slugs and snails; checking at night). Prepare your soil carefully so the plants grow strong, healthy and outgrow minor pest damage. Cabbage white butterflies can be thwarted by covering beds with a fine mesh, raised above the seedlings to prevent egg-laying on leaves. On a small scale, I control them with handpicking. You can use cloche, but not in hot weather or you’ll cook them! You can also grow a bit extra to deal with any casualties. [Kat]

Do chickens’ eyes reveal anything about their health or wellbeing? [Patrina, Bemboka, NSW]

Beady, bright, shiny eyes are a sign of good health in chickens. Any discharge, excessive watering, dullness or puffiness should be a cause for further investigation. These could be symptoms of a range of issues, from a bit of dust in the eye right up to contagious and potentially fatal diseases such as Marek’s. [Beck]

How long does the average backyard chicken live for? [Lisa, Hobart, TAS]

Care for your backyard chicken well and protect them from predators, and they will easily live for five to seven years. There are reports of chooks living way longer than that too. Backyard chickens will continue to lay for over five years, with perhaps fewer eggs in their later years. [Morag]

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