Thursday, 9 June 2016

Rain and the Stagg diary.

At last the el Nino has finished, for the moment, at least and we have rain.  We have had rain, off and on, for the past month.  I have planted quite a few new vegetables... carrots, cabbages, cauliflowers, kale, broad beans, peas and onions, leeks, garlic and coriander, parsley and silver beet are popping up all over the place where the seeds have fallen. 
Today is cold and wet, and I am too sick to go to work, and so I have been reading some of William Stagg's diary.  It is even more interesting that the reference to his diary previously was on 5 June 2012, when I would have been planting again as well.  I often read his entry of the same date, if he has one, to see how the season would have influenced his life as it does mine.  In 1885, on 9 June, William Stagg would have been 18 years old.  The day before,  they had killed a small pig, half of which was to be given to a neighbour,  Mrs  Martin who was a widow with two sons.  She was going to knit William's father (also William) a pair of socks.
"I took the half pig weighing 35lbs up to Mrs Martin's.  The old woman was walking over her little piece of ground seeing whether the wheat was growing.  She picks up every stone and weed she sees and has picked up enough stones to make a little wall around her 3 or 4 acres of ground.  We was building the tank.  We are going to build about 2 1/2 or 3 feet above the ground to keep out pigs and other things."
This photograph shows  Tarcowie in about 1885, with the Stagg farm in the background, on the left.  The building in the front (with a verandah) is the hotel.

The Stagg family is of interest to me because, in 1855, Thomas Stagg, a farmer, married Mary Ann Newland, the older sister of my great, great grandmother, Eliza Newland.  That Thomas Stagg was a brother of William Stagg, whose son William (Willie) wrote the diary.  That sounds complicated,  but the young man who wrote the diary had an uncle who married my great great grandmother's sister.  That doesn't make us relatives, really,  but it does mean that, in reading this diary,   I am able to find out how my family lived four generations ago.

And so it has rained over the past few weeks,  the tanks here are full, and the garden is flourishing.  I can only imagine how happy the Staggs would have been when it rained and crops flourished.  And so this is what I have been doing while I am not able to go to work.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Time flies

This month has been rather a repeat of the last.  There has been little rain, warm dry days and the summer is supposed to be over.  As the days shorten, it is necessary to plant the next season's food plants before the soil is chilled,  but hopefully there will be some rain.
Meanwhile I try to buy those things that I am unable to grow from suppliers as close to home as possible.

My coffee comes from  Hightrees  and they are on Facebook.
It is not quite local,  but as local as I can get and the coffee is wonderful, the service is good and my coffee arrives safely soon after I order it.

I have recently found a source for one of my other delights... dates.  I have bought Californian dates in the past,   but I much prefer the local product... from The Desert Fruit Company... and they are also on facebook.

Other than those two mail order sources,  my food comes from the Barossa Farmer's market, Four Leaf Mills , who I have mentioned previously.... or my own backyard.

In considering this further, I don't believe that my grandmother (who lived in Burra (1877-8), then Hawker until about 1900... then on to the Kimberley and Niugini then to Norwood SA during the depression)  would ever have thought of buying food that was imported from far away.   Would she even recognise some of the brilliantly coloured boxes on the supermarket shelves as food?

When we are encouraged to live and eat as our grandmothers did, I believe that it might just be a good 'rule of thumb' and probably what we are facing in the future.  Sometimes I despair.
The chickens are laying, the garden still supplies enough for me and life is good.  (Small vegetables quiches for home and lunch breaks at work.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Prickly pears and rain.

It's been a busy month... not so much in the garden,  but in the rest of my life.  I am back to working (part time) to pay off a debt that I have inherited, and so the garden has been rather neglected.  With the equinox having just passed (last Sunday afternoon ~ 20 March 2016) I am really going to have to be a bit better organised.
I have been picking prickly pears.  There have been plenty.
 One needs to be well protected to pick them......
 .... with appropriate equipment.....
 Once inside,  the prickles can be softened by soaking the fruit in water.  I then scraped them with a sharp knife to really remove the spines.... but this has to be done pretty carefully.
 Cut the ends off....
 .... peel and cut the fruits and they are lovely.  There are seeds in amongst the flesh,  but I haven't bothered to remove those.

It is also blood lily season....
 ... and this year they seem to be particularly lovely, and plentiful.

After more than 2 inches of rain this month  (~ 60mm = 2.3") the forgotten potatoes are beginning to emerge.  (These are the ones that escape when I'm digging the rest, ones that I just didn't see!) This also means that it is well and truly time to plant the post summer crops, ready for the rainy season.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Seed saving

I am able to grow plenty of food.  Unlike traditional growing seasons (at least for the books, articles and information available in English) it is much easier to grow food in the winter time in my area.  This has most to do with water, but even if water is available to pour onto crops, the air temperature can be prohibitive also.  I grow quite a lot in winter and much less in summer... and much of that in pots or confined spaces where I can more easily control the temperature.

This was brought home to me a couple of summers ago when I had a lovely crop of tomatoes that couldn't ripen.  They faded from green to white and only those that were ready to ripen when the temperature was significantly below 40C (104F) were able to turn red.

After quite a bit of reading about other people's experience, I discovered that tomatoes actually ripen at temperatures between 20C and 25C.  (That is about 70F to 75F) and when the temperature is over 30C  (86F) they will not ripen at all, but turn white and remain hard.  That is what often happens to mine in summer.

Potatoes are another interesting plant.  They need plenty of energy to produce those tubers, and so they need plenty of leafy green plants and plenty of sunshine, not to mention water, as the plants wilt very easily during hot days.  Most recommendations are to grow them in summer when there in the most sunshine, but once again,  if the summers are too hot,  this becomes a matter of juggling the 'between season' opportunities and I have found that they are easier to grow in the late summer until the weather turns cold enough that the plants die off during frosts.  I probably don't get as many potatoes (or as large ones) as people who are able to grow them during the longest, hottest days of summer.

Winter crops are easier to grow.... the winter 'leafy green' plants, brassicas and broad beans are all much easier to grow here. And so I grow plenty of these and I have learned to preserve them for the summer when fresh vegetables are less readily produced.... though I still manage to grow some, as I stated above, in pots and protected areas, using a significant amount of water.  The only brassica that is difficult to grow here is brussels sprouts.  It just doesn't get cold enough.  They need a significant frost to force the plants to produce the tiny 'cabbage' heads and we jsut don't get those here.

There are other changes in food production that I am making.

Seed saving has been useful.  The easiest seeds to save (and good ones to start on) are broad beans because they are easy to find, sort and store.  I found that the seeds that I saved were especially productive in my garden.  I am not sure whether this was because they were collected from the plants that grew the best to begin with, or because the seeds were fresh (from the previous season) but they have done particularly well over the past few years.

I have gone on to collect such seeds as coriander, parsley, onions, leeks, and brassicas, fennel, and a few other herbs and flowers. That began with saving borage seeds a few years ago.

This year is my first foray into tomato seeds.  I had heard that it was difficult to maintain viability in these seeds,  but as they do sprout from compost heaps and garden waste, I thought it was worth trying.  I don't like to waste too much time or money on tomato plants for much of the year because of the difficulty in ripening the fruits.

In fact,  my opportunity came when a lovely tomato from the market (over-ripe and soft) began to go very mushy in the middle.  I saved the much (including seeds) and let it all sit on a window sill to dry out.  I planted the seeds in a pot, watered it and wrapped it in a plastic 'bread' bag (a mini glasshouse?) to see if the seeds would grow.  Within a week they had sprouted....
... they are now in their separate pots and hopefully they will survive.  I may keep these in pots permanently, and move them to a well sheltered spot to extend the fruiting...  if and when they get that far....

Monday, 15 February 2016

Gardening books and recent thoughts.

I have recently (finally!) read a book called "A taste for gardening" (by Lisa Taylor and published in 2008) in which the author discusses gardening as a practice in the context of class and gender.  The book was written after after an extended period of time investigating local gardening practices in the author's community with the image of gardening as a leisure pursuit of the wealthy in nineteenth century England, with its beautiful formal and landscaped gardens that are famous for their designers and owners.

There is a lot to take in and a lot of references to investigate but one subject that is investigated fairly thoroughly is the influence of television programmes concerned with gardening.  The author interviewed a number of people about their gardens, the significance of gardening and the influence of these programmes. The book is concerned with England and English gardens, but much of the information is relevant here also and I suspect that attitudes to television gardening is similar here (Australia.)

The 'make-over' gardens that are completed in a short time, while the owners are away, are discussed and the consensus seems to be that these owners are not 'gardeners' at all.   The gardeners considered that a garden needed to develope over a period of time, with cuttings and plants from other gardeners, so that the gardens had a history and culture that was relevant to the owner/gardeners.   These people also thought that the television gardeners seemed to have much better soil than they had in their own gardens.  I can relate to this,  having alkaline clay soil here that despite annual additions of gypsum and compost remains stubbornly the same and seriously lacking in micro-nutrients.  That is no surprise.  Old continents (like this one) with old soils that have been breaking down for millions of years and from which rain has leached minerals for just as long, are bound to be fine, non-wetting clay soils with a real deficit in trace elements.  The television gardeners here do seem to have very different soils as well, and it does make growing plants look very easy.  This apparent ease of garden success seems obvious to anyone who has watched television gardeners working in their plots.  I have often wondered how many failures these gardens do have and it might be interesting to come back a few weeks later to see how the seedlings or transplanted specimens are doing.

In the very well detailed study described in the book, there was also a significant difference in the gardens of middle class people compared with those of working class people.  The 'garden make-over' programmes and their 'lifestyle gardens' did not appeal to the working class people who're interviewed and whose gardens had a different significance.  The author describes this as 'way-of-life' practices and a view of the garden that related more to local knowledge and cultural practices that came from an oral tradition and a sense of community that didn't fit with the 'lifestyle practices' of the consumer society.
It is hard to imagine that in ancient and mediaeval times women were not involved in gardening.  Nicholas Culpepper dedicated his book "A Physicall Directory" to women healers who opposed the growing mercenary approach to plant knowledge at the time.  It is hard to imagine also that in cottage gardens, not only were healing herbs raised, but that women have been growing vegetables to add to their diets.  In "Radical Gardening" (2011), George McKay describes the 'reclamation' of the 'forgotten' history of women's gardening including the witches of old who cultivated plants for their healing properties.  Taylor suggests that, in fact, the experience of working class women would indicate that, rather than being forgotten,  much of this information survives in the gardens of ordinary people who don't see the 'lifestyle gardens' as real gardens at all, and the makers of those gardens as gardeners at all.
The books that I have been reading are:
Classed and Gendered Practices
Lisa Taylor

Politics, Idealism & rebellion in the Garden
George McKay

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Reading spot for a hot dry summer.

As I had commented in a previous post,  it has been a hot dry summer because of the influence of the el Nino that is spectacular, causing not only drought here,  but storms and flooding on the west coast of North America.  Even when such events are predictable (and some of them are becoming more and more so) they are hard to live with.  As I had already mentioned,  I have reduced my food production this summer because of the heat and lack of water.

It was just as well,  as I am also back to part time employment (I need to pay off some debts) and I'm not sure that I would have had the time to care for any fragile plants.

The time that I do spend at home is therefore focussed very differently,  but not wasted.  I have been enjoying the trees and outdoor 'living areas' more this year.  All of these areas are in parts that are not usually 'front and centre' on this blog.

The trees are lovely....
At the end of the pathway in front of the house is a lovely spot that can be quite a bit cooler than some places, even during the hottest days....

I have moved an old garden seat down to the end of the pathway....
... and it has turned out to be a good spot to sit and read in the cooler part of the day.
So my summer of less than favourable growing opportunities has not been wasted.  The treasures collected by my grandaughter during her last visit remain on the end of the table.  They don't interfere with my cups of tea.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Organic gardening, Gaia, the current predicament and prickly pears…. and grandchildren.

Organic gardening has become a term used to describe the production of plants using only 'natural materials' without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilisers.  There is a history of investigations, writings and practical advice regarding organic principles in farming and food production.  This fits well with the idea that we are a part of a closed system that includes all of the life on earth and even the planet itself, Gaia.  Chemicals used in the garden take significant energy to produce and transport and many of them persist for long periods of time.  When it comes to edible plants, those chemicals can end up in your food. 'Organic' has become a term to describe foods produced under particular conditions that need to be certified and sold as such.  Until relatively recently all food eaten by humans and other animals was 'organic'.

The Gaia thesis was put forward by James Lovelock and discussed in great detail at a conference held at the Wadebridge Ecological Centre in Cornwall (near Lovelock's home) in October 1987.  Discussions included the thesis, the mechanisms and the implications of this theory and has had profound consequences for the thinking about evolutionary theory, the organisation of living things and the prospect that Gaia is able to maintain stability despite environmental challenges in the same way that we understand organisms are able to do.

At first glance,  this sounds as though the whole system is able to maintain a habitable climate for humans into the future.  However, at second glance,  humans are forced to consider the fact that they are not 'guests' of the whole organisation,  but an integral part of a system that is going to maintain itself, even at the expense of humans... as it does at the expense of other species. The difficulty for humans seems to be that they do not consider themselves as a part of the environment, but resident guests who are able to manipulate the system to suit themselves.

In this view, I am speaking for 'modern industrial civilisation' rather than the whole of humanity, for there have been civilisations and communities in the past that considered themselves to be a part of the earth rather than residents upon it.  It is sad that 'modern industrial society' has been able to overtake those societies that were more aware of their situation and may well not have continued such exploitation, regardless of the consequences... to end in such a precarious situation that we find ourselves in now.  A predicament indeed.  A predicament by and for 'modern industrial civilisation'.

There had been hints at the problems with agricultural production as soil fertility declined in the past.  Darwin wrote about the usefulness of earthworms and their ability to improve soil.  (My grandmother judged the health of soil by the presence of earthworms.)    There were other authors who realised that fungi and bacteria were contributors to soil fertility.  The soil was seen to be improved by the addition of organic material, composting and with further analysis, particular minerals were found to be important.

With improving technology and seemingly boundless supplies of cheap energy,  it became more profitable to farm huge areas, not by 'organic' means,  but by adding minerals (the first one being phosphorus) and using farm machinery that reduced the need for labour and increased production and profit. There were a few concerns from a some people promoting 'organic farming methods' even by the end of the 19th century.  By the time of the 'green revolution' phosphate was still being mined and added to farm soils,  but, depending upon the crop, nitrogen and potassium were being added in particular ratios… for poor soils, trace elements could be added as well, and we had 'super-phosphate'.  We no longer needed additions from the earthworms or the bacteria or the compost to produce bountiful crops and soil was degraded by their elimination until we had purely mineral soils with no organic matter or soluble elements.  The depletion of nutrients and degrading of soils was noticeable.  It was discussed.  It was written about by the promoters of 'organic" farming… Lady Eve Balfour (of The Soil Association fame),  Sir Albert Howard,  Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, Rudolf Steiner and, in more recent times, David Montgomery (Dirt: The Erosion of Civilisations), the Permaculture Crowd from Australia and any number of publications that encourage 'organic' gardening.

The mass production of food has meant that many soils are reduced to an inorganic substrate (comparable with hydroponic methods) that is sprayed with poisons and weedkillers prior to planting to sterilise the soil, then seeds and fertiliser are added (fertiliser is added at various optimal times during the growing season as well) and an 'efficient' crop is harvested when it is ready. Though it is only efficient if the added fuel, machinery and chemicals are not taken into account. The product is consistent, produced at minimal cost but may not be much like the original (historical) parent plants… for many reasons.  Nutrients and taste may be diminished as described by Thomas Pawlick in his book (The End of Food) where nutrients in some foods are so lacking (and poison so prevalent) that there is a question to be asked about whether they should be considered 'food' any longer.

All of this would be ok (while not optimal for health or vegetation) if it were not for the fact that arable land is being rapidly degraded, the human population continues to increase and the atmospheric changes wrought by our profligate use of fossil fuels in food production and climate control is beginning to change the weather systems, the ocean currents and the ability of many species to survive these changes.

The Gaia hypothesis suggests that the earth should be seen as a living organism itself… this idea having been first  proposed by James Hutton in 1785 (according to James Lovelock… that is the earliest reference that he could find.)  Hutton said that "I consider the Earth to be a super-organism and its proper study should be by physiology."  Lovelock has discussed this in much detail and his ideas are well known by now.  Lovelock was moved to add that the view of Earth from space when it was first seen by astronauts was disturbing…  "it showed us just how far from reality we had strayed".  Lovelock's first discussions added to Darwin's theory that, not only do species evolve,  but as they evolve, their environment changes with them and species that are successful are those that maintain a benign relationship with their environment.  Further, he said that Earth is a responsive entity that attempts (as living organisms do) to maintain homeostasis… that is keeping constant those conditions that we might notice… including climate and weather.  If the environment is stressed beyond its limits, then it must change to accommodate the stressors.  As conditions change, we may well notice changes in weather and climate.  Lovelock discusses the possibility of weather events being "harbingers of larger non-linearities to come if we persist in our experiments with the planet".  Food for thought?  When the damage done is irreparable,  the human race my well face a serious predicament  rather than just an aberration that will pass.

While I don't agree with all of Lovelock's remedies (notably his suggestion that nuclear energy could be a solution to energy needs that would not require a change in Industrial Civilisation… meaning industrial civilisation could continue as usual) I find his description of the predicament (from 1987) prescient.  In other words,  'business as usual' will lead to the predicted 'non-linearities' that we see as climate change.

Since living in my Kapunda Garden (and substantially feeding myself here) for 15 years (not long by planetary standards,  but longer than I have been allowed to remain in any place before) and learning to understand this tiny piece of the world,  I am just beginning to understand 'attachment to country' and the need for intimate knowledge of the soil with its micro-organisms, the plants and any interaction with the weather. This attachment to country comes from close observation over a long enough period of time to understand the soil, the plants and what their likely reaction to the weather might be. I am still learning.

David Suzuki calls the lack of attachment a 'nature deficit disorder'.  I don't know where this will end, but I am not hopeful.  I persist with 'organic gardening' and hope for the best.  My garden is suffering from a very difficult el Nino this year, and next year is still unknown.

Lately I have grown prickly pears… one of the few fruits that will produce with almost no water.  This year the first mass of flowers…. now to wait for the fruit….
In future, I can see the lack of rain and hotter summers being more frequent.  Learning to live with this environment is my task.  Having the least impact on the environment (Gaia) is my responsibility not just for my won sake,  but for the sake of generations to come. I have grandchildren.