Sunday, March 22, 2015

Grow Your Own Organic Food

Our Urban 1 Tonne Challenge

With the end of summer upon us and only 130 days left in our latest Urban food production challenge (to see how many KG's of organic food we can grow on our suburban block of 750 square metres) we have just passed 233Kg of home grown food. Not bad huh?

Since summer started we have barely bought any fresh produce, bar the occasional bunch of bananas, some onions, and the odd bag of shrooms that have crept into the trolley,  but other than that our family have been more than satisfied with what we have grown in our garden. The kids have devoured tamarillos in their lunchboxes every day since school started again and the road-side apples we picked a few months back (they store really well wrapped in newspaper, certainly fresher than most of the apples in the big supermarkets). They've eaten heirloom tomatoes straight off the vine or helped themselves to crispy cucumbers as a snack. In the kitchen we've cooked and prepared seasonal produce; salad greens, radicchio, basil, mint, leeks, beetroot, sweet potato leaves, nasturtiums just to name a few - breakfasts of warm sourdough with a parsley, tomato, basil and nasturtium bruschetta mix, served with a poached egg straight from the laying ladies, is what life is all about.
Now with the cooler weather we are looking forward to roasting, souping and baking this season's produce, sweet potatoes, potatoes, parsnips, pumpkins roasted with our own garlic and rosemary and our neighbour's honey and baking citrus tarts and pumpkin scones for afternoon teas. As a society, many people don't even consider purchasing and eating seasonal produce. Watermelon in June? Coriander in July? "Folks, this ain't normal!" The questions are , where is your food coming from? What's been done to it to allow it to grow out of season? Or how many kilometres has it travelled to be there? And why aren't we supporting local farmers and fresh, seasonal food?

While we won't reach the magic "1 tonne" (this year) we are still hoping to reach close to a kilo of food for every day of the year... but the quantity of kilo's isn't really what counts. The point of this experiment is to explore what we can do with the space that we have, to get others thinking about how we can boost our local food security by growing our own food, and realising that food is our own responsibility, not that of the industrialized globalised petroleum guzzling, mass producing, off shore food monsters that we have all unwittingly become dependent upon. We say its high time to stick a home grown purple carrot up their bum!

The Crop and Swap (Four years old!)
In April we will have ended our fourth season of the Crop and Swap (our local food swap with now over 300 registered members). Much of the locally grown food produce this season has been outstanding in quality and variety. Beetroots, breads, brassica's, honey, tomatoes, tamarillo's, turnips, parsnips, you name it, someone has dared to grow it in their backyard this year!

Not only is the swap still growing strong, it has brought our community together in a way we never really expected. We have made some fantastic friends, learned enormous amounts about gardening, shared plants, seeds, laughs and tears, and collectively shared thousands of kilos of locally grown  and home-made food. Beyond even this, we have held countless workshops on chooks, worms, microbes, pests, fertilizers, jams, and even fungi (each by different members of the community). We have held socials, and shared resources.

The swap has even encouraged the development of new networks between neighbours, starting their own initiatives such as gardening working-bees, sharing firewood, and even pig shares! Oink!

Bottom line, the Swap has changed us, and everyone else who has shared in it. Its captured local imaginations, and made each of us realise the worth that each person can offer to their community. Some swappers have even taken the brave step to quitting their jobs and moving into the organic food industry... Isn't that amazing? If there is one thing that you can do to really build a sense of community food networking and security in your own community, we would very much recommend that you start your own food swap in your local hood!

So here's to the Swap, 4 years on, and going strong!

Experiments in the Patch

As always, just when you think you have settled on the best way to set up your veggie patch, you find an even better one, but that's the fun of gardening I guess, and we are always experimenting with new and more efficient ways to grow our veggies. Recently we have come across two concepts that have changed the way we grow.

Bird netting saved most of our veggies after a massive hail storm
The first is called "SPIN" farming, which stands for "small plot intensive farming". The system is very popular in the States, and basically looks at how urban farmers can make a commercial profit from a small plot of land, growing high value crops in quick succession. The growing rows are about 80cm wide by approx 7 m long. This is so that you can easily straddle the beds and water them with a regular garden hose. A guy by the name of Curtis Stone (not the b grade Aussie celebrity chef (?)) has been making a successful business out of farming people's front yards and backyards, delivering greens to local cafe's. Very cool and worth researching.

The second concept is "No Till" gardening. This method follows the basic principle that turning your soil ruptures the micro and macro habitats beneath the soil, including the complex networks between worms, insects, microbes and fungi. If you  have ever watched "Horton Hears a Who" you will get this principle straight away. Soil that is undisturbed is teeming with life, while soil that is turned and disrupted regularly quickly becomes baron, needing chemical supplements to remain fertile. Many farmers are now moving toward a no till method, and so have we. We simply add organic matter, like compost, chook and horse manure, coffee grounds from local cafes and wood ash, then cover with mulch. the worms do the tilling for us.

Worm bombs and fish guts
Speaking of worms, one of the new things we have been doing in the garden is "Worm Bombing". As you may already know, worms do heaps of really cool stuff below the soil that improves plant growth, like unlocking available nutrient, aerating the soil, improving water retention, increasing good bacteria, eating naughty nematodes, and increasing root growth; so why not add them to the soil as you plant?

Before planting out our new seedlings, we raid one of our 7 in-ground worm holes and scoop out a good handful of wriggly wormies. With each seedling that we plant, we make a hole (with our trusty upturned beer bottle), drop in a 'worm bomb' (a ball of worm castings and worms) then plant the seedling. Not only have our plants been growing faster and healthier, but the soil is starting to pump with worms. Give it a go.

The addition of worms works super well with the no dig/till method. by continuously adding more organic matter to the top of your beds, your garden becomes one gigantic worm farm.

We have also been using our worm wee as a foliar spray for our veg. Worm wee is not only packed with nutrient, but also beneficial bacteria, which improve nutrient uptake and reduce disease in plants. For the brave, who want to get serious about microbes in the patch, and aren't squeamish about fish guts, read on.

 Our mate Craig, from the food swap, makes a brew from old fish guts, kelp, molasses and worm castings. Fear not, he has a background in microbiology and knows his stuff. The first step is to blend up some fish offal and leave it to break down in a bottle with a loose lid (somewhere far, far away from the house). After about 3 months its ready to use. Add a cup of fish soup, a few tea spoons of kelp, a jar of molasses and about 20 litres of water to a large bucket. Add a stocking with plenty of worm castings and a rock or two, so that it sinks to the bottom, then turn on the fish pump and leave it to bubble away for a couple of days. Amazingly, it doesn't smell at all, and is packed with good bacteria for the patch. spray it on the veg or water it on the soil to give your plants a super pro-biotic boost!

198 seedlings

these 198 trays have been fantastic!

A while back, my bro-in-law gave us a whole lot of seedling trays (for tree seedlings). They have been great, but because they are quite deep, they take up a lot of seedling mix. Having visited a couple of farms recently, the common seedling tray that is used for vegetable seedlings is called a "198", because it has 198 shallow seedling pods, so we got ourselves a few trays. 6 litres of seedling mix is enough to easily fill two trays (396 seedlings), which equates to about 3 cents per seedling for the mix, rather than 120 seedlings that we were potting with out bigger seedling trays.

In the pursuit of even more veggies, we have decided to say farewell to what remains of the front lawn, and drive way, and put in another 9 rows of growing space, and maybe even a poly tunnel! So the 198's will be getting quite the workout over the coming season.

Beautiful beans 

Who needs diamonds, when you can have beans. These Molly Zebra and Scarlet Runner beans are as beautiful as little jewels; tiny kidney shaped miracles of creation that awaken a sense of child-like wonder in anyone who gazes upon them. We always used to be blasé about beans until this season, when we afforded them a whole bed row unto themselves. Beans (we have discovered) are delicious! There are so many wonderful, and beautiful varieties of beans, and if you can't manage to eat them all fresh off the vine, you can easily dry them and store them for winter soups, or planting next season.

Although the summer months have passed, we still have plenty of pumpkins to harvest and loads of sweet potatoes, yacon tubers, potatoes, and Jerusalem artichokes, not to mention the winter citrus season ahead. How many more kilo's can we grow in 130 days???

Stay Tuned, We are determined to get back to regular posts ;)