Gardening in Winter

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The Permaculture Design Course ended just in time for the Ballarat winter to put an end to much in the way of gardening. What is still growing grows slowly. I got a few leafy plants in the ground that are growing at around the same rate that the slugs and birds are eating them and will hopefully take off once the ground heats up. But for the most part I have just been putting sticks in the ground and hoping they start doing something come the spring.

I bought a hazlenut duo and some apple trees in the family’s favourite varieties (which also happen to be pollinators, luckily) and planted these in the food forest. Being bare rooted they look a lot like sticks. We impulse bought a mulberry tree as well, which has gone on the southern side of the main food garden, alongside the two plum trees we put in two winters ago and the apricot tree that I relocated from the old orchard where it wasn’t very happy.

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Hazelnut duo, Ennis and Cassia

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Close up on the hazelnut.

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Apple trees – we got Fuji, Pink Lady and Red Delicious.

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Apple tree.

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Mulberry tree, also looks like a stick at the moment.

I also have big plans for these sticks, planted in terra cotta pots on the Eastern verandah. They will grow to be leafy grapevines in three different colours and shade the house from the morning sun in summer. I haven’t put the climbing frames up for them yet, but I think I’ve got a bit of time before I need to do that.

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Look at my stick! Look at it!

And possibly the most ambitious stick of all is this tiny twig which claims to be the beginning of a black Walnut tree. The silver birches in the central driveway garden have died and I want a feature tree to take over from them. The walnut will have the added advantage of suppressing grass growth under it and eventually it will bear walnuts, which I love.

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Where’s the walnut tree?

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There it is!

Fortunately for me, being an impatient gardener who wants to watch things growing NOW, I have my little greenhouse which is producing some rather slow lettuce and some beetroot for my next round of beetroot relish.

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Lettuce in the front, beetroot in the back.

I also have the warmhouse which is slightly more gratifying, although still only requiring a weekly visit for watering. The fish and water plants are doing well, and the basil mint looks like it could get comfortable in here.

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Super stylish fishpond, clearly used to live at number 5.

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Basil mint – is it basil? Is it mint? It’s healthy appearance at this time of year suggests that it is definitely not really basil.

The fish pond and blue tubs filled with water create a thermal mass that hold warmth and helps keep the temperature above zero during the freezing nights we have been having. It gets quite warm in the warmhouse during the day, pushing 20* on sunny days even when it is well below 10* outside.

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Three dollars at Bunnings. Super useful for learning about the temperature ranges in your growing structures.

I’ve popped a little Washington Navel in here, along with the avocados who look like they could do with a holiday in Queensland but are hanging in there. A friend has entrusted her potted orange tree known as ‘Grandad’ to me. Grandad had lived on the south side of a house in Geelong and seems to be pretty tough. He will hopefully do well in the warmhouse.

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The tea plants in here are surviving and even putting out a few new shoots. The wormwood cuttings have all struck and are turning into actual plants. They will be planted in the farmyard in a protected spot and also in the new chicken yard when it is built.

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The wormwood cuttings worked! Hooray for making new plants from old.

Winter gardening is kind of slow paced, but I’ve got heaps of ideas and plans for spring. My order of seeds and seedling pots has arrived from Diggers, and I’ll be getting a new bigger greenhouse for my birthday where I can grow all my tomatoes and capsicums and maybe even some basil. I’ve got plans for a herb bed along the side of the new greenhouse as well. I’ve never been one for growing flowers, but I’ll be experimenting with those this year to define the edges of the circular gardens and fill in the gaps that the grass currently likes to take over. And hopefully some of the herby and shrubby plants in the food forest will begin to thrive between the trees and start to out-compete the grasses in there too.

A few of the bulbs are starting to form flowers, including the ones we planted on Ripley’s grave, so soon we’ll start to see a little bit of colour in the garden again. Then the wattles will bloom, the nuts and stonefruit will blossom, the deciduous trees will start to turn green again, and next thing we know it will be spring. Then I’ll really have my work cut out for me.

I can’t wait.

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Permaculture Design Course

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It’s time for me to write about my PDC experience.

I’ve been putting it off for a while, mostly due to the fact that for a number of reasons that are complex and fairly personal I did not actually finish the course. I attended all but the last three weekends, and while my inability to complete the course still weighs heavily on me, I made my decision and there’s no going back now.

A classmate just published a blog post that included her experience of the course, and I have to say that mine was very different.

My motivations for enrolling were probably different. I had dabbled in reading permaculture publications, done the introduction to permaculture weekend, and attended several workshops on various topics. Circumstances had prevented me from doing the PDC as it had been offered in previous formats, from two-week intensive courses to every Friday for two terms. So when the course was offered as one weekend every three or four weeks, and nearly all of those weekends we ones when my children were not at home, it was the perfect opportunity.

Like everything I do, I bellyached for a while before paying the deposit. How would I cope with the time commitment required and the early starts on weekends? How would I cope with the social aspect of spending entire weekends with strangers?

In the end it was my desire to learn that got me over the line. I’ve been growing food for a few years now, in a very hit and miss fashion, and I wanted to learn how to be more efficient and more effective at it. The idea of a set of principles and design methods that could be applied to life in general, leading to a more sustainable way of living, appealed to me greatly.

So I steeled myself and embarked on the journey. And there was so much to learn! Not just with regard to gardening, but also things like patterns and land usage and living spaces and community. I made pages of notes at each session, including lists of things I wanted to implement at home.

I also found myself getting involved in discussions about topics like food miles and parenting and sexism and body image. After a while, I found a confidence in speaking to my classmates that came from a knowledge that this was a group of people with respect for diverse opinions and who were all a little bit radical in their own way.

They say that doing a PDC changes your life. And for a little while, in a lot of ways, it did. Knowing that I had a lot to get through, that I was going to be super busy for several months, I was very proactive and organised. I made sure I went to bed early and got plenty of sleep. I drank lots of water. I made sure to eat well and keep the pantry and fridge well stocked with easy dinners for times when I had no motivation for cooking.

There were times when I got overwhelmed. Mornings when I found it hard to get moving, through tiredness or anxiety, and desperately wanted to just stay home. Knowing that one of my classmates relied on me for transport was what got me up and moving on a lot of weekends. And every time I got to class I was rewarded with a welcoming group and plenty of interesting content.

I learned a lot about my own property by visiting others and applying what we were taught. I came to recognise the genius of the previous owner of my place in how he set up the drainage system around the house and in the paddocks. I realised the value of the concrete slab under my wood heater and the large solid wall behind it as thermal mass. I even discovered an olive tree that has been only a few metres away from my house the whole time I have lived here and never noticed before. I began to see a wealth of opportunities that exist within my own back yard.

And as soon as I could I began implementing my ideas. I bought a worm farm and stocked it with worms. I started planting flowers to attract bees and other beneficial insects to my garden. I had a go at implementing a grey water system before realising how very, very flat the area around the house is, meaning that there is no scope for runoff from the laundry or bathrooms.

I got the confidence to do things like buy avocado plants and attempt to fertilise the blueberry bushes that have sat in suspended animation behind the greenhouse for nearly two years. I learned that the Washington Navel is one of the best orange varieties to grow around Ballarat. I bought an awful lot of plants. I began creating a food forest based in the dappled shade of a big honey locust next to my vegie patch. I created new wormwood plants from cuttings that I will put in the new poultry enclosure in the spring.

My garden is currently full of a lot of bare sticks poking out of the ground, but even these are exciting in their own way. Things like hazelnuts, three varieties of apple, a mulberry tree, a strategically placed black walnut, and a series of grapes along the eastern verandah. I have a box full of flower and vegetable seeds, a new greenhouse on its way for my birthday that will house my tomatoes and capsicums, and plans for a herb garden.

As well as embracing plants like borage, comfrey and tagasaste, I’ve taken a look at the environmental impact of my household. We’ve switched to a greener power company, with the intention of learning about and reducing our usage before we have our solar power system installed shortly. After Joel Meadows’ teachings about fire, I am getting much more warmth and efficiency out of our wood fire and looking to make it our main source of winter heating for the future.

I feel like I am treading water a little during these cold months with little growth, but I’ve got crops of garlic and onions in, as well as beetroot and lettuce in the small greenhouse. I am itching for the spring, when I can get back into the garden with gusto and start to make some real change and hopefully produce some real results.

My hope is that now I know a little, I can look to learn more. While I had no intentions of becoming a permaculture designer, learning the principles and applying them has implications for the future of everything I do on my property and beyond.

Even just flicking through my course notes, I am reminded of so much of the information that I had already forgotten, that I hope to return to when the weather warms up. In the mean time I can read and plan as I sit by my roaring wood fire which is drying the laundry as it warms the house.

Maybe I will even find it within me to push my social boundaries and attend some permaculture-related short courses or other events in the future.