Making Progress in the Garden

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I’ve got three weekends left of the Permaculture Design Certificate course being run by Ballarat Permaculture Guild. I have learned so much, and having found some time lately I have been rediscovering my garden and coming up with ideas to make it more productive. Not only has my motivation to make changes and investments in time and money around the yard increased, I’ve gained a better understanding of why to do some things as well as how.

One idea I had was to put some fish and plants in the water trough in the farmyard. After researching plants that would not harm any of the animals, I set up some refuges for the fish and left it to see what would happen. It was going pretty well for a while, although one of the goats developed a taste for water ribbons. After a few weeks, though, a couple of the ducks discovered that the trough had edible plants in it, as well as being a nice place to have a wash. So the plants and fish had to find a new home, so that the trough could be cleaned out and hopefully not continue to attract ducks.

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The fish tub. I expect frogs will move in too.

I had been intending to add a water container to the large greenhouse, know referred to as the warmhouse, so having to move the fish and water plants forced this idea to come to life. But first I had to remove all the freeloading tomatoes.

After last year’s successful tomato yield I had big plans for the tomato crop this year. I collected passata jars with the goal of filling all of them with home made passata and bottled tomatoes, enough to get us through the year until the next tomato season. Last year’s bottled tomatoes lasted us six months. So, armed with seeds from the varieties that had yielded best, I managed to start some tomato plants from seed for the first time ever.

This early success looked like it was going to bear fruit. Once the plants were moved to the large greenhouse they grew and grew, before long they were taller than me. They looked great. But the season was not kind. I harvested maybe 5kg of tomatoes this year, a big drop from last year when I was bringing in buckets full of tomatoes every few days.

green tomatoes

Looks like I’ll be making green tomato relish…

So what went wrong? I had the right varieties, the right growing conditions and plenty of water. I think the issues were a combination of too many plants, not enough support and too much watering. The plants grew so thickly that the lower parts got no light, and the wet earth led to mould, fungus and rotten fruit. The huge plants fell over with insufficient support, leaving fruit sitting on wet ground and rotting leaves. Then I noticed something had been eating the fruit. I didn’t think it was birds, but it wasn’t until I found the entry hole that I realised the problem was rodents. Having the bottom half chewed out of what would have been a 500g tomato was very disappointing. Lots of the bigger fruit was damaged.

For next year we should have a new sturdy greenhouse for the tomatoes, like the small greenhouse but with more floor space. This time I will not get greedy and plant too many plants. I will stick with the Oxheart tomatoes, which ripen early, have more flesh and less seeds, and due their large size are easy to peel.

I was looking for a place to site the new greenhouse, when I stumbled across a large raised garden bed that had lost a lot of its larger plants. These had presumably died in last summer’s big dry. This bed features a big Honey Locust tree on the eastern end, a tree often used to base a plant guild around due to it’s deep root system and ability to bring nutrients up from deep in the soil and make them available for more shallow-rooted plants. I had found the perfect place to start a food forest.

I had a dream a couple of months ago that I had found an area of my garden that I had never been in before, and it was full of food plants including trees that grew pineapples. To then stumble across this garden bed that had been right in my face for the last two and a bit years and see it in a completely different light was surreal. Not only that, but this garden bed has an olive tree still living that is visible from the house, that I have walked past hundreds of times, but never seen until now.

olive tree

Definitely an olive tree – even has an olive!

So far my food forest contains it’s feature Honey Locust, an olive tree and a few nectarine seeds that I have popped in the ground. I have also added a feijoa to help get things started. Next I’ll need some smaller shrubs and groundcovers to complete the plant guild. I’ve started some comfrey seeds, so with a bit of luck these will sprout and I can add them too.

honey locust

The epic Honey Locust, perfect mainstay for a plant guild

food forest

It doesn’t look like much, but I’m going to reclaim this big raised area for growing food.

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Beginning with this little feijoa tree.

In the latest Diggers Club order, with the feijoa, I bought a couple of tea plants. I’ve started growing and collecting a few tea additives, like peppermint, chamomile and rosehips, so adding the base tea to my garden seemed like the next step. Upon reading that the tea plant, Camellia Sinensis, likes similar conditions to blueberries, I decided to plant them in the blueberry patch. I’ve been afraid to do anything to the blueberries, which have been in for nearly two years, as they represent my fourth attempt at growing blueberries and I am afraid of doing something that will kill them. But in planting the tea plants I had to take a deep breath and apply some manure and mulch. Fingers crossed!

tea and blueberries

Tea and blueberries, with a couple of rogue Sweetie tomatoes, behind the small greenhouse.

I wasn’t able to get avocado trees from Diggers because I hesitated and they sold out. I was fortunate that a local nursery had some Hass avocado trees in stock, which were reportedly a lot more advanced than the ones available by mail order from Diggers. Avocados are something else I have wanted to try growing for ages, but had put off due to being afraid of killing a fairly expensive tree. Turning over the large greenhouse to become a warmhouse presented a good opportunity to get some avocado trees going in a sheltered environment, so I took the plunge. Again, fingers crossed!

warmhouse

Avocados in the ‘warmhouse’. I hope to add a few more plants that will appreciate the frost-free zone.

Something else I am trying that I have never done before is striking cuttings. I want to plant some wormwood in the chook pen, and we have heaps of mature plants in the yard, so I’m attempting to grow some new plants from cuttings.

potting table

The potting table, with wormwood cuttings.

My renewed enthusiasm for growing things and my confidence to try something new when it comes to gardening are a direct result of what I have learned in the PDC. There is so much more to growing things that putting plants in the ground and watering them. Soil health is a huge thing, as well as keeping the soil covered with plants to prevent weeds from inviting themselves. Another thing I have learned is to worry more about what the garden is doing than how it looks.

The growing season is slowing down, the garlic is in the ground, the pumpkin vines are dying off, some plants have packed it in for the winter and others are settling into their spots in the greenhouses. I’ve got a few jars of pickles and relish in the cupboard, and I am hopeful that a few more figs will ripen before time runs out and winter hits. Then we get a couple of months of relative peace before kidding begins and all my outside time is dedicated to goats again.

figtree

Yay! Figs!

It will be interesting to see how my efforts manifest when spring comes back and the growing season starts again. But I feel like production is definitely set to increase.

 

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What’s The Alternative?

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There are so many products on the market for making people feel clean and smell nice. Most of them are overcomplicated, overpriced and kind of superfluous. But making the switch to more natural and simpler bath and body products can be a bit of a minefield.

Even for those of us who don’t get into perfumes and cosmetics, or who know better than to use a shower gel or antibacterial soap, it can be hard to know where to start or which alternatives actually work. Luckily for you I have tried a few. So here are my experiences, the products I use or buy and why, and a few examples of things that didn’t work for me.

In the Laundry

For years I found that regular washing powder made me itch. Growing up we had whatever was cheapest to wash our clothes in, which was usually some kind of concentrated powder. We never had fabric softener, and to this day the smell of fabric softener is so foreign to me that I can recognise it on a person from metres away.

After becoming the mother of a child with sensitive skin, I started looking for alternatives. We tried Lux soap flakes, which helped but were a pain to use because they had to be dissolved in hot water before use and can create a build-up of soap in your washing machine. I eventually settled on ionic laundry balls, which change the pH of the water in a similar way to which soap does. I have now been using laundry balls for something like ten years.

laundry ball

You don’t get whiter whites and brighter colours, but you get clean clothes. I use a stain remover for grease stains that don’t shift on the first wash. For extra dirty things I dissolve home-made soap shavings in water and let it sit for a couple of days until it forms a sort of gel, then add this to the wash.

Between this sort of washing and hanging wet clothes out to dry in the sun you get clothes that remain fresh for years even if worn very often.

In the Shower

As you will already know, I make my own soap and use this in place of shampoo as well. It is not uncommon for us to have up to ten different soaps in use around the house, between all the hand-washing stations and the showers.

Recent studies have shown that antibacterial detergents and hand-washing products (I won’t call them soap because they are far from it) can cause skin problems and leave us susceptible to infection as they kill the microbes in our skin. The skin microbiome is a relatively new discovery, and is considered to be as important to our health as the gut microbiome. Antibacterial products kill protective microbes and there is currently a push to discourage people from using them on their skin.

Real soap, made using the natural process of saponification rather than slapping together some sudsy chemical by-products, does not kill off your beneficial skin microbes. Real soap is slippery by nature of its alkalinity, and this causes germs and bacteria to be rinsed off or rubbed off when you dry your skin after using soap. Alkaline substances will cause your skin to become dry, which is why soap is made with a lelve of what is called a ‘superfat’. Superfatting soap ensures that even after the sodium hydroxide used to create the chemical reaction with the oils is all consumed, there is enough oil left in the soap to moisturise the skin. This is where skin-loving oils like olive oil, avocado oil and cocoa butter produce a soap that moisturises as it cleans. Natural ingredients like honey, tea, milk and oatmeal, as well as clays, botanicals and essential oils, can be added to real soap for extra healing, soothing and nourishing of the skin while you wash.

I’ve had people complain to me that they use body washes and hand washing detergents because they don’t like the slippery feeling that soap leaves. But this slippery feeling is what lets you know that you are getting clean without losing all your natural skin flora and moisture.

So now that you know a bit about real soap, you can understand why we use it so extensively. For hand washing, body washing and hair washing, even sometimes laundry use. You can use pretty much any soap to wash your hair, but things like avocado oil might leave it a bit greasy. We mostly use plain soap for hair washing, but the varieties with Rhassoul clay are a nice alternative.

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Here is the shelf in my shower. It generally contains a hair soap as well as whatever varieties Matt and myself have in use at the time. Also note the apple cider vinegar. Those of us with longer hair use this to reduce tangles. It removes some of the fat from your hair and neutralises the alkalinity of the soap. And once it is dry I guarantee that you don’t smell like old apples.

I have tried bicarb and vinegar for hair washing, as well as just rinsing, but using soap works for me. And the rest of the family have adopted it as well. I have a few people who buy my soap specifically for washing hair, including one woman who says that it is the best thing she has ever used for washing her dreadlocks.

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We are still using regular toothpaste, but for antiperspirant we have settled on alum stones. I tried a natural paste deodorant, which while not preventing perspiration at all did completely eliminate the subsequent odour. Unfortunately I developed a reaction to it after a couple of weeks so had to try something else.

I had been uncomfortable using commercial antiperspirants for a while. Roll-ons only really work for bare armpits, and the spray options caused an alarming stinging sensation that made me feel like my pores were shrinking away in terror. I believe that antiperspirants cause your pores to pucker up so that you don’t actually sweat, which can’t be good for you. Also, despite all the claims of offering ’48 hour protection’, not one antiperspirant I tried was able to keep me dry for much more than a few hours. Add to that my increasing distaste for the marketing around these products – I once found myself having to choose between two varieties named ‘Sexy’ and ‘Invisible’ and the irony struck a little too close to the bone.

We tried naturally formed alum stones, but these tended to erode, break and leave sharp edges. More recently I bought a stone from eBay, which you can see in the picture. It is dense and carved to a useful shape and it has been really great to use, as well as durable.

When I am at home working around the farm and garden I don’t use any form of antiperspirant or deodorant, I just sweat freely and rinse it off later. Often I can go a whole day without applying anything to my armpits and as long as I wear something well-ventilated, like a singlet, I don’t even smell at the end of the day. I think having actual armpit hair might work in my favour in this regard. Let the body do what the body does.

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Some other products I use are made by friends with goats. Both the Glenafton Goat Milk and Alpine Goatsmilk moisturisers are beautifully light and last for ages. Which one I buy basically comes down to who I see at a show when I need to stock up. I leave lotions to the experts and stick to basic soapmaking, because these producers make great quality and excellent value products. I also have arnica salves from Glenafton and Alpine that I use on my frequent bruises.

You will see also in this photo that I use a body spray. I have a bit of a paranoia about people finding me smelly, so I still use a body spray in social and work situations. Many body sprays have dodgy names and creepy themes (like ‘Temptation’, ‘Tease’ and ‘Instant Crush’…), but I found one called ‘So…?’ which sounds like an awkward silence or an expression of ambivalence, and decided that was the one for me.

Due to the way I live and present myself there are a lot of things other people buy and use that I just don’t. Things like disposable razors or make-up removal products or protection for heat-treated hair. I don’t have a complicated personal maintenance routine, I just wash with soap, condition my hair with cider vinegar, apply some goat milk moisturiser and run a comb through my hair. It’s pretty minimalist, but it saves me heaps of time and money, and I’m not unnecessarily applying chemicals to my body.