When people ask me for advice on growing vegetables, my first point is always start small and try a few different things. Preferably things you would happily eat. Then learn from your experience and expand as you go.
A vegetable garden can come out of nowhere, and the best way to learn is to experiment. I see many proud beginner gardeners with packets of seeds or punnets of seedlings planted in neat rows. Often these uniform seedlings, planted side-by-side, have completely different growing patterns. Rosemary and parsley might start out the same size when you buy them and plant them in your new herb garden, but that rosemary is going to turn into a great big shrub and drown out your parsley.
The climate requirements of different plants are not always compatible either. I always grimace when I see basil and tomato seedlings for sale in chain stores as early as August. These are started in climate-controlled greenhouses. When you plant them in your chilly Ballarat garden they are not going to last long.
Over the years you learn which plants will naturalise, which will die off in the first frost, which will just refuse to grow in certain soils and which are pretty much unkillable. Eventually you will figure out how to grow the plants you like best.
Sometimes you will stumble upon something that completely revolutionises your garden. For me, that something is SilkieDome.
I was introduced to the concept of the integrated garden and poultry system during a site visit as part of the Introduction to Permaculture weekend I attended last year. This impressive mandala garden had a pond in the middle and a series of circular garden beds around it. Atop one of these garden beds was a round poultry tractor, whose residents were cheerfully digging up the spent garden plants and fertilising the bed as they went.
So when setting up the food garden at the new house, I was determined to try this method of gardening. I had hung on to the kids’ old trampoline frame for two years with the intent of doing something useful with it. Finally it has become SilkieDome.
I considered Silkies as ideal residents for the garden. They are small, quiet and don’t need a great deal of space. And my Silkie rooster, Malcolm, has been more than happy to move away from the main farmyard where he had to compete with the big Rhode Island Red rooster, Russell Crow.
The Silkie family is made up of my white hen Quartz, Malcolm the black rooster, and three of their daughters who hatched in November.
As for the garden itself, we are on to the third bed.
Now, the real beauty of this system is that it encourages staggered plantings and maintaining season-suitable growth of different vegetables. When you have square, stationery beds, you tend to (or at least, I tend to) plant one block of something and that is it for the season. You grow it, you harvest it, you eat it, and that is it. But with the need to regularly move onto the next bed, you can add a late planting of a warm weather favourite, or put in some plants to harvest in Autumn.
With each move of the SilkieDome there is an opportunity to try something new, or have another go with something that has already worked.
I have plans to put a gravel path between the beds, and in the centre plant something decorative that will attract bees and other beneficial insects to the area.
Each bed is grazed out by the Silkies before I put down a load of garden mix and top it with straw from the main poultry night pen. Since I am basically starting out on what was once a driveway, the garden mix (a combination of mushroom compost, manure and topsoil) will give each bed a head start and allow the plants, and later the Silkies, to make inroads into improving the soil underneath. The thick layer of straw mulch with poultry manure keeps the moisture in the bed, at the roots of the plants where it is needed most.
I have static garden beds, as well as the dynamic ones. I plan to put an area for blueberries behind the greenhouse to take advantage of the afternoon shade. The front boundary of the garden will eventually be filled with rows of berry canes. There is a bed that I put in next to the greenhouse to get me started which will be used for self-seeders and perennials, as well as climbing peas and beans on the climbing frame.
The greenhouse has been so successful for growing tomatoes and capsicums that I don’t think I will bother trying to grow them outside in future.
It will be interesting to see how the SilkieDome project pans out, and how the winter plantings will go. Will the rotations work out well for the Silkies and the plants? Will I be able to grow anything actually edible through winter?
It is all about experimenting, trying different things, figuring out what works and growing more of what we like to eat.
Just like when I first started out.