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Pip Brains Trust

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

We have access to lots of coffee grounds. Just wondering about putting it around the fruit trees in the orchard which is also the chook run? Will they bother eating it and is it bad for them? Or will they be cackling and crowing all night?! [Cheryl, Brogo, NSW]

Chickens don’t tend to eat used coffee grounds. They hold little nutritional value for them and caffeine is not good for chickens. The chickens will however scratch around in the coffee grounds and may make a dust bath in it. Their scratching will help you spread the coffee around the garden. In the chook run, the mix of coffee grounds, manure, hay and food scraps makes a great base for compost; I rake this all up and put it directly into my compost bays. I love things getting pre-prepared like this as it makes composting easier. Composted coffee grounds give more direct benefit to your garden. [Morag]

What can I do to stop my greywater stinking? There’s no detergent in it, just a few plate scrapings. It’s driving me nuts and I think it’s doing bad things to the plants near the outlet. [Jen, Charlwood, QLD]

I’m presuming that you’re collecting greywater from the kitchen sink and moving a hose around in your garden. Greywater requires some form of primary treatment, with the most common being either reedbed filtration beds or a gravel filter system. In the process, greywater should never be in contact with the air, which is probably why you’re getting the smell. You could dig a mulch pit to release your greywater into. Dig a hole at least a metre in circumference and half a metre deep, then fill this up with mulch material such as woodchips. Have the outlet pipe go into this mulch pit below the surface. Depending on the volume of greywater, you may need a few of these mulch pits scattered around your garden. [John]

What can I grow in a frost sensitive area that is useful or edible, that thrives in a situation of eucalypt allellopathy? [Louise, Mt Adrah, NSW]

All plants need plenty of food and water, and eucalypts are very successful competitors. At the micro scale, you can use containers to keep your soil separate from the eucalyptus roots, but you still have to rake leaves off the top to remove the allopathic effect of the leaves as they decompose. If you choose to grow in containers, this has an extra advantage of letting you put a cover over the plant when there is a risk of frost. This is like a blanket – at night only. Also, the soil level is higher than the surrounding ground level so that also keeps the plants a bit warmer, as cold air sinks. If this is your only place to grow food, you can consider removing some trees, or do your food gardening at a friend’s or community garden instead. As for specific choices of what to grow, find neighbours who do have success and/or the local gardening group. They can share seeds, cuttings and advice. [Ian]

What is the best thing to do for a chook with runny poo? She has a varied diet, including layer pellets, kitchen scraps, grasshoppers and grass seeds and my toddler often shares whatever he is eating with her. Yet there is always loads of runny poo on the verandah… [Jasmine, Nobbys Creek, NSW]

It is normal for chooks to do a couple of runny poos a day, but regular runny poo can be a symptom of parasites or other illnesses. If the chook appears healthy otherwise (active, alert and with a red comb), I would not worry about it too much. To be on the safe side, you should treat her for worms: add some crushed garlic or finely chopped wormwood to her feed (wet some layer pellets and mix the herbs into the mash). Allowing chooks to self-medicate on plants such as wormwood is also beneficial. Your toddler and chook must have a very cute relationship! However it sounds like your chook may be on its own. Chooks are always happier with other chook companions, so to keep her healthy and happy consider extending your flock. [Beck]

What would you do if you had two really large hazelnut bushes that are at least 10 years old but haven’t fruited in three years, and you don’t know what variety they are to work out whether you have the right cultivars? [Lisa, South Hobart, TAS]

Firstly I’d suggest checking the health of both trees. Any signs of stress or disease? Are they getting enough food and water? If this pair used to fruit, then chances are they are the right cultivars, unless someone has removed another nearby hazel. Assuming the problem is with pollination, hazelnuts are fussy with their partners so if you don’t know the existing variety it can be difficult to select the right cultivar. I’d suggest documenting your trees and approaching a specialist nursery, heritage fruit group or hazelnut growers association with photos, leaf samples and dates, etc. Hopefully they can help you narrow down the variety. A nursery supplying hazelnuts should also be able to help you select a locally adapted ‘universal pollinator’ with the best chance of success. [Kat]

Property is being cleared for a new home; worried about losing topsoil as it’s raining. Cover crops are best sown in the autumn, but can I sow them now to help hold the soil, without diminishing the green manure properties? [Pam, Marysville, WA]

The priority is to stabilise the exposed topsoil now, rather than grow a green manure crop. You can always ‘chop and drop’ whatever is grown as organic matter later on after the roots have anchored into the soil. During most times of the year, a fast germinating grain crop should be available for your climate that will grow quickly. Germination rates can be improved with a light sprinkling of mulch material over the seed straight after sowing. [John]

I’m currently setting up my suburban backyard farm area. What is the best way to deal with dog poo and also mushy cooked bones (chicken and beef) from bone broth? Currently my compost heap is in with the chooks, so dog poo and bones are put in the bin. [Jess, Petrie, QLD]

I recommend having lots of different sorts of compost systems for varied uses around the garden. Having a few different ways to process pet and bone waste too would ensure that one system does not become overloaded. I’d suggest some worm towers and a Bokashi bin. Bokashi accelerates decomposition and helps to get rid of smells; perfect for pet waste. I would definitely keep dog poo and bones out of the standard compost, as they harbour unhealthy bacteria and attract unwanted animal attention. [Morag]

Is there any harmonious way of getting rid of couch grass? It’s completely invaded all my no dig beds. [Linda, Katoomba, NSW]

Unfortunately there’s no silver bullet for chemical-free removal for couch grass, but on a backyard scale I’ve had great success tackling couch grass with people power. Many hands make light work and hosting a Couch Grass Removal Party (with celebratory music, food and drink!) will transform an otherwise daunting task into a fast, manageable and, dare I say, fun occasion. Then fertilise with something high in nitrogen and sheet mulch with heavily overlapped wet newspaper (minimum 10 sheets but thicker is better), followed by woodchips. Fertiliser stimulates growth, but mulch prevents it from reaching the sun, helping to exhaust its stored energy. A few shoots will stage a comeback, but with a bit of vigilance you should be able to pull these out before they get established. Start your eradication efforts from a solid structure, like a house wall or paved area, to reduce the edge that you’ll need to patrol. [Kat]

What’s the best way to utilise/contain/capture a feral chicken that has decided my urban permaculture backyard is the best place to play/scratch/destroy? [Brooke, Deer Park, VIC]

Although chickens’ scratching behaviour is the basis of permaculture ‘chicken tractors’, unmanaged chickens can be very destructive in the garden! The best way to contain a chook is to clip one wing: cut the long ‘flight’ feathers about halfway down and the bird will be too unbalanced to fly very far. But first you need to catch it! This is easiest at night when the chook is roosting. I take it that this is not your chicken? Visit your neighbours and try to find out where she is coming from – maybe she has a roost she goes to each night. If so, you can nicely ask to visit in the evening to clip her wing. If you can’t find where she sleeps, start taming her by throwing her some wheat each day so she will start to associate you with food. Once she is calmer around you, use a large net to catch her and clip her wing. You can then return her to her home (if you found it), keep her contained in your own system or find her another home. Good luck! [Beck]

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