Spring, and thoughts turn to mulch

Garlic May 2014I noticed yesterday that the stonefruit trees have budded and are about to unfurl. Despite little winter rain, the perennials (rhubarb replants, globe artichokes, strawb runners) are beginning to move again  and the annuals (garlic, broadies, greens) are adding bulk and height. Frances’s natives are on the move; a grevillea near the igloo is flowering.

Central Victoria – or Newstead at least – has a short, but very sweet, spring. Blink and you may miss its flush. Temperatures are still cool and the frosts still potent, but spring is just about upon us. Time to get the last of the ‘winter jobs’ done and think about the prolific time to come. Including the weeds!

It’s also time to think about mulching. Mulching bare soil is a good practice to:

  • prevent weeds from germinating and establishing,
  • conserve moisture,
  • protect the soil surface from crusting and drying,
  • encourage worms and microbes to hang about in the top part of the soil longer,
  • insulate and protect plant roots.

One disadvantage of mulching, particularly with straws is the slugs and snails and slaters that harbour under it. We have found they hide under the straw mulch, come out at night to feast and go back in hiding for the day, sated and happy. But as temperatures rise, the pesky slugs and snails will lose their upper hand over the plants (keep up protection with the copper tape though).

fog and frostMulch isn’t just mulch. Each type has different properties. The loose, fibrous, straw mulches can accentuate frosts because they create greater temperature differences at the soil surface. This isn’t a problem for cold loving crops like parsnip, kale, brussels sprouts, cabbage, kohlrabi, garlic and onions, but more tender plants can suffer. This time of year darker mulches will absorb warmth and benefit soil and crop metabolism (eg. rock dust, darker materials). In summer the lighter colors will reflect light and heat, but still insulate.

Beware of mulches that are very high in Carbon and ‘fresh’ (eg.spelt hulls, wood chips, or sawdust). They can ‘tie up’ any available nitrogen, preventing plants from getting it and causing starvation, or at least Nitrogen deficiency. Mulches that have some some nitrogen component are best (eg lucerne, pea straw) as they will add to the soil as they rot, besides the soil cover benefit. They are usually more expensive though. I avoid sugar cane mulch because of the ‘mulch miles’ and packaging, plus it is fairly lightweight and too quickly assimilated into the soil or blown about by the wind.

Look for certified organic and biodynamic. Conventional mulches will have usually been grown with synthetic fertilisers and usually lucerne will have been sprayed for pests such as red legged earth mite and weeds (and look for second or third cut lucerne – less weeds, usually).

digging in green manure of spelt, lentils and mustardAnd there’s always living mulch. Lucerne grown around fruit trees can be cut and placed around other garden areas or on the trees themselves. A ‘good bug mix’ of clovers, lucerne, flowers and herbs is also a highly effective living mulch. You can also grow your own version, say a mix of wheat, rye peas and mustard, Cut it off at ground level around flowering or just before, mulch with the cut portion and dig in the residue, to get double the benefit. Herbs such as comfrey or nettle make a great mulch. A budget version is just to cut and shred any crop residues or non-invasive weeds and put them on the soil surface.

Happy mulching.

And see you on Sunday at 10am for our get together with Jinette to talk about the garden.  Plus, the CWA are coming to visit the garden on September 10 – more news on that shortly.


Gardening in the Library

simon rickard flyerlandcare in the library - flyer 2014

Remember our successful fruit tree workshop with Simon Rickard? Simon will be in Castlemaine on Tuesday 9th September at 6pm to talk about his favorite heirloom veges and promote his new book. It’s sure to be an engaging session and Simon speaks from experience, having set up Annie Smithers’ kitchen garden in Malmsbury, which supplies her Trentham bistrot.

Download the flyer as a PDF here: simon rickard flyer

Castlemaine Library will also hold a session on Saturday September 6th from 10am to 2pm, as part of  Landcare Week and ‘Landcare in the Library’. Botany experts will be on hand to help you identify whether that mystery plant is a weed or a native. Bring along a smaple – leaves, fruit, or flowers, or even a photo. There’ll also be resources as free guides to take away.

Download the flyer as a PDF here: landcare in the library – flyer 2014

For more info oon either or both event, contact the Castlemaine Library on 5472 1458 or castlemaine@ncgrl.vic.gov.au



August – light and warmth ahead

Newstead garden raised beds installed august 2012, garden in winterThe eighth month already? Upon us quickly, even with the winter darkness and chill. I feel spring in the air, even though temperatures haven’t budged much. Still time to get those winter chores done, and time also for the early warm season ones. So, a busy time in the garden!

See the very august August Notes for what to do next in the late winter/early spring garden.

Brian Keats is warning of severe weather during 6-12th August and he has been pretty spot on so far this year with his predictions. On the 11th August, the moon will be full and closest to the earth, so we can expect severe tidal flows, and severe weather in general, including snow falls in the alpine areas. Brian suspects New Zealand will bear the brunt, but here in central Vic we should get some big frosts Newstead garden raised beds installed august 2012, garden in winterduring that time (he’s also warning of bad ‘Mars rising’ weather for NZ around the 26th).

Speaking of Brian Keats, he’s presenting at a workshop in September- download the details here: Brian Keats flyer. This workshop is sure to be booked out quickly! Also events for heritage apple grafting. Closer to home, Growing Abundance have something happening all through July and August in relation to fruit trees.

And closest to home, our Produce Exchange happens on Saturday 2nd, 10am-ish outside the Red Store. Please come along on the 27th for our session with Jinette, to set sail for the next four, five or more years ahead in the community garden. See you in the garden in August.

Full Moon Means Frost

Credit and copyright: Alan Walters

Credit and copyright: Alan Walters

Did you see the moonrise tonight? Spectacular. And after a chilly winter’s day, despite the welcome sunshine, it all augers well for a very, very cold night and a big frost. Say goodbye to all those still flowering, or producing, late summer and autumn crops! Oh well, it is mid July.

But the garlic will welcome it, as will the other alliums and hardy greens, like kale, silverbeet, broccoli, as well as caulis and celery. Root  crops like parsnip, carrot, celeriac, kohlrabi, swede, turnip, etc. also do well with a frost or more; they will all taste sweeter. I wish I had got my act together in late summer to plant celeriac, and many more greens! Next year …

A few of us made the most of the sun and popped out for a potter in the garden today – still very cold out, but it’s very easy (almost enjoyable) weeding, and the soil seems CWA sponge-light to dig in. The biodynamic preps and our hard working worms could be the reason.

Even if it is too cold now, calling all gardeners out in August,  for our August 27th Sunday gardening session. More news to follow, but we’ll be doing some dreaming, planning and talking about how the community garden is now and could be in the future, thanks to Jinette de Gooijer (Innovative Practice) who has offered to help us. It’s four years on in the garden and with many new plotholders and time passing, it’s ripe to revisit our original aims and how the garden is working. Plus, we need to work out what to write on our tank!

Stay warm and enjoy the weeding – and the full moon.

Calling tree planters and friends …

A call to friends of Powlett Hill, from Andrew & Jenny Fawcett, Ben & Jo Fawcett:

As part of the 2 million tree project the state government offered community and private groups the opportunity to apply for grants for vegetation projects. We have been fortunate to receive funding for 1000 trees and shrubs.

At Powlett Hill we have a long term plan to develop a wildlife corridor throughout the farm, already vegetated areas will eventually be connected along waterways and shelter plantations, the corridor will extend from the Campbelltown bush at the northern edge of the farm throughout the whole farm.

We would be very appreciative of friends of the farm to come on either Sunday 27th July (National tree planting day ) or Tuesday 29th July from 11.00 am and plant 10 trees each, we will have piping hot soup and fresh bread to warm the soul.

Please bring yourself a mug so we can save another tree.

If you are able to assist with this project please respond by email or phone so we can be sure to have plenty of soup .

We’ll be organising carpooling from Newstead for community gardeners. Let us know if you can come – 0439 003 469 or ecologica@bigpond.com and which day – alternatively, contact the Fawcett’s direct, see below. We’ve been well supported by Powlett Hill since our garden began, especially through compost makings, now we can repay their generosity.

Location – 110 Kellys Road, Glengower VIC 3370 (look up google maps), Email: powletthill@bigpond.com, Phone: 0353 456287.


It’s the weather for making biochar

Biochar WorkshopA cold Sunday morning, quite still, drizzle holding off. Perfect conditions for making a batch of biochar, where temperatures in the burner reach between 400 and 600 (or more) degrees Celcius. Depending on what sort of device you use, you can even boil a cuppa whilst you char!

Anthony gave participants a run down on the origin (Terra Preta, around 400BC) and values of biochar, it’s uses in agriculture and other areas, and importantly how to use or activate it once you’ve made it. We produced around 3 or 4 kilograms of biochar from about 20kg of starting material. But you can scale up to farm level, and also make use of the other byproducts of the process – ‘biogas’ (for energy, heat) and ‘bioliquid’ (also called wood vinegar).

Biochar WorkshopThe process involves burning material which is high in carbon, fibre and cellulose under conditions of low oxygen and high temperature (and no smoke).  After you’ve produced the biochar, you then need to ‘condition’ or ‘activate’ it  before applying it to the soil. Anthony has built his own TLUD (Top Load Up Draft) furnace from 44 gallon drums, but you can also buy smaller TLUDs specifically made for use in developing countries (where continued exposure to smoke from cooking fires is a major health issue).

Watch the slideshow or the picture gallery for more info on the method. Anthony has used the ‘bible of biochar’ – The Biochar Revolution – to guide his learning and also presented an interesting paper outlining fifty-five uses of biochar … and counting?


Discover the wonders of Biochar

Our Sunday gardening session on 22 June will include a workshop from 10.00am -12.00noon, to introduce gardeners to biochar and how to make your own, run by Anthony Santamaria. He’s been experimenting with making and using this amazing substance.

Essentially charcoal – biochar is made by burning carbon rich materials, in the absence of oxygen (pyrolysis). The result is a soil additive that is stable, has a large surface area that provides a perfect home for soil microbes, and holds large amounts of moisture. It is also a way of sequestering or storing carbon in the soil that is not easily released into the atmosphere. (think hundreds, or thousands, of years).


You can also download the flyer here: Biochar Intensive June. Feel free to pass onto any interested gardeners in your networks. For more info or to book, contact Anthony on 0490 055 918.

Yes, it’s mid-year, and winter

toms from juliaHard to believe. But yes, we are on the cusp of winter – June; the middle of the year … And if you’re like me, you’ll still be eating – and ripening – tomatoes. It’s barely believable – what happened with autumn?

On the subject of tomatoes, Saide and Julia are keen to know how the garden ones performed this year, remembering that Margot gave us an array of varieties, and that some gardeners also put them in at home. How did yours go? I reckon the Yellow Pear were very productive, but not so tasty and the San Marzano, though supposed to be a drying/preserving variety, were exceptionally good (so much so I failed to save seeds). Whippersnapper and Snow Apple also tasted pretty good to me.

Be keen to hear of your tomato tastings, even though it hasn’t been a great year for them to truly shine. But it will help guide our growing next year and work out what suits Newstead climes. I’ve also got some Newstead Tomatoes ripening in the fruit bowl for seed saving (a bit nervewracking, having to be a keeper of the seed).

Autumn 2014 Newstead Community GardenSo to June. For what it’s worth, the seasonal June Notes are now posted. I suspect the cold is finally coming, and along with it let’s hope for some wet, though El Nino is looking likely. Brian Keats is predicting cold and frosts for the first part of the month, and through it.

Have fun in the June garden at any rate. Still plenty to do. Don’t forget our biochar workshop with Anthony on 22nd, the Produce Exchange on the 7th and our regular gardening dates.

Maldon Neighborhood House are running a mosiac tile making workshop at their garden on Saturday 14 June – more info here: tiles.pdf. Could be a good way to identify our plots at the garden, and yours, at home.

After the compost, heaps more

Diana and Sarah had a go at a heap after our big build; some pics below. The next build will be at Sarah’s in the next couple of weeks, an invite, if anyone wants to join in … practice makes perfect, or at least a fairly decent compost. Others have also been busy with heaps!

During a coffee and cake brainstorm Diana and Sarah thought that it may be a good idea to see if any garden members were interested in joining in on a working bee to be held at each other’s properties when required. As Diana suggests:

Perhaps, one member may have fruit trees that need a winter prune and are unable or don’t know how to do this, or perhaps another member may need some assistance in making a small garden patch in their yard. We would all help each other in lending our skills and know how to assist each other. What are your thoughts?

Let us know. In the meantime, our big BD heap is ‘cooking’ and now also several smaller bays, thanks to Joan’s efforts on the weekend. Nothing like a good compost build to create the basis for community gardening.

Thanks also to Frances Cincotta from Newstead Natives who has generously donated more plants to our indigenous planting areas, to replace those poor plants lost over last summer’s blast (and our lack of nurturing). The rest of her plantings are doing exceptionally well – it’s good to see what local species are thriving at the garden. We’ve seen wrens and small birds about, apart from the very resident (and fat) maggies, so hoping that the native plantings are attracting more small birds that will eat the pesky bugs. Thanks Frances!