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.

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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.

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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.

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The epic Honey Locust, perfect mainstay for a plant guild

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Farm Update

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I’ve been finding it hard to find time to write over the past few months, and the simple explanation for that is that I have been working more hours. My job had got to the point where I just couldn’t keep up with everything I had to do in the time I had available, and since so much of what I do is time-critical I spent most of my time feeling like I was chasing my tail. So I put my hand up to do more hours.

This has meant that while work is less stressful because I actually have time to get everything done on time, I have less time at home and I have to go to bed earlier so that I can get up earlier. The rest of the family have had to learn to do more around the house and since I no longer have time to do everything I am also no longer the default person to look after everyone else. We look after each other, we all pitch in, and we all benefit from mum bringing home a bit more money each month.

I took a break from soapmaking and writing just to let everything settle down. Like anything else, it comes down to priorities. You make time for the things that make the most noise. But you also need to make time for the things that you get the most value from, and value can definitely include enjoyment.

When I found myself home alone on Sunday with the sun shining and the birds singing I was almost overwhelmed with excitement and an urge to get as much done as possible while I could. I popped out at 9am to do the milking and ended up having ‘breakfast’ at about 2pm.

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Hanging out with my farmyard friends

I sent Maia and her kids out into the world for the first time. Those babies got to feel the sun on their backs and the dirt under their feet, as well as meeting the rest of their family. This was especially sweet since little Gaia had been treated for sepsis two days earlier, and the vet had warned me that he did not expect her to live.

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Maia and her kids, Gaia and Reuben

Moving in and out of the house and between the shed and the garden, I got the milking done, cleaned the goat pens and delivered some straw to the garden beds. I did some weeding, thinned the silverbeet, cleared the dead tomato plants from the small greenhouse, baked the sourdough, did four loads of washing, replanted some strawberries, pruned the apple trees and cleaned out the cat litter. It was glorious.

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Yay! Sourdough. My lunch for the next fortnight.

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The food garden, with the berry nets up to allow for weeding, pruning and planting the strawberries.

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None of my winter vegetables sprouted last year, so I cheated this year and used the greenhouse. So far so good, cauliflower, beetroot, cabbage, broccoli and lettuce.

I sat down for a bit around 3pm and ventured out again an hour later when Leo the Italian Greyhound started complaining that it was getting cold and he wanted his coat back on. This seemed like a good time to go around closing up the windows and the big greenhouse door, and put the blanket back on Stella the old Thoroughbred who also got to get her kit off for the day. I was wondering what feat of culinary genius to make for dinner when I found that old Rianna, my boss doe, was about to have her kids.

I popped her in the kidding pen I had prepared earlier and set off to get the furthest away tasks done, which meant wandering down the paddock carrying a Weatherbeeta horse rug trying to find two full-size Thoroughbreds who seemed to have disappeared into the 10 acre paddock. I found them in the back corner behind the dam wall, re-clothed old Stella, took some pictures of the impressively full dams, and headed casually back up to the shed.

Where I found this…

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First kid out, nothing to do but keep on with my to-do list and check on Rianna occasionally. I got the goatlings and bucks in the small paddocks fed, put the poultry away, fed the cat and put out the call to Matt to pick up some dinner on his way home from work.

We ended up with a small but nice set of twins from Rianna. They were a little slow to get going, the buck was frustratingly resistant to feeding from his mother, but they are doing well now and feeding themselves.

After such a long dry Autumn, the recent rain has been very welcome, but it is much wetter here than we have seen it previously. The main dam is at its highest level since we moved in after almost drying up completely a few months ago. The interesting bit of earthworks described by the real estate agent as a second dam actually looks like how I imagine the previous owner had intended the water trap on his golf course to look.

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The main dam

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The back dam, aka hole 3

Days like this give me the enthusiasm to press on through the cold and wet, to make plans for the spring and start thinking about what to plant where. I’m hoping to do a lot more seed propagation this year, rather than buying seedlings, so I’ve got some equipment to use the small greenhouse to start seeds. I’ve started mulching and weeding the vegetable garden and ordered some seeds for the spring and summer crops. I hope to get some peas and beans planted next weekend, and I’m thinking about where I might be able to plant some hazelnut trees.

The daffodils and wattle trees are blooming, the geese are getting aggressive, the ducks are laying and the pregnant does are expanding alarmingly. Spring is on its slow march toward us and will be here before we know it.

Summer Garden Tour – Many Photos Within!

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With summer in full swing, and time to kill while I wait for my cheese curds to set up, I thought I would give my readers a virtual tour of my garden.

We’ve only been here a year, and as it turns out I’ve set up the vegie garden right on top of the old driveway. It’s going to take a few years of adding manure to get the garden into full swing, but if there’s one thing we have plenty of around here, it’s manure.

In the dry weather I get an accumulation of dessicated goat and poultry manure where the animals camp in front of the pens in the barn. As it turns out, this dried manure, which has been thoroughly scratched through by the poultry and contains much-trampled straw and lucerne leftovers, can hold a lot of moisture and readily re-hydrates. I shoveled up a trailer load the other day and used the duck muck (or goose juice) from the duck pond to rehydrate it. It held seven buckets of duck muck without much effort. I unloaded it on the next garden bed to be planted out, and put a couple of shovels full around the roots of the fruit trees.

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Duck muck (or is that goose juice?).

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Duck muck plus dessicated manure.

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Makes an excellent growing medium.

This dessicated manure plus duck muck concoction is loaded with nutrients, and holds water like a sponge. On a hot day the top layer will dry out, but it remains damp underneath, keeping the roots of the plants cool. I’ll be collecting up a bit more of this over the summer months.

The new greenhouse is going really well, with tomatoes, capsicum, corn and chickpeas growing. I’ve also got some watermelons in there, and I am very excited to have my first melon growing! I’ve got some varieties of capsicum and tomato that I haven’t tried before, so it will be interesting to see how these go. Hopefully I’ll get a good yield of both and be able to put away lots of jars of salsa for the winter.

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At the end of Greenhouse Lane…

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An actual watermelon! So far it’s the size of a duck egg…

I’ve had a lot of trouble with birds getting into the fruit and pulling up seedlings, so I’ve had to resort to netting a few parts of the garden. The climbing frame sat waiting for a job to do for ages, before I added netting to it and made a magpie-proof seedling frame. I’ve added a couple of slug traps to my bag of tricks, and finally I’ve got lettuce surviving long enough to be edible. I’ve got celery and some tomatoes that I don’t remember planting under the dome as well.

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Upcycled vegie dome.

Elsewhere I have outdoor corn and chickpeas, five zucchini plants (will I ever learn, two would have been plenty), QLD Blue and butternut pumpkins and snow peas. I’ve just planted some lettuce from a variety I really like that I saved seeds from, a few miscellaneous free herb seeds from Diggers and some climbing peas that I saved from a previous crop.

The strawberries in the centre are growing like mad, and trying to put out runners all over the place. I’ve had to net these to stop the blackbirds from taking all the fruit, but I still find plenty of half-mauled ones which the residents of the SilkieDome are happy to finish off.

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Strawberries, lavender and a lemon tree.

My blueberries are still alive (touch wood!) and have a few fruit. They have also been netted. I know you aren’t meant to let them fruit for the first couple of seasons, but my blueberry bushes don’t tend to live long enough to get to a second season, so I figured a few berries wouldn’t be a matter of life and death.

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Blueberries – not dead yet.

I’m very reluctant to leave citrus trees to the elements, after losing all my half-grown lemons to a -5.7* frost last winter. I have espaliered my new orange and lime trees, which gives them support and allows me to keep them on the north wall of the porch. The orange blossom smelled just divine in the spring, and now I have tiny oranges growing. I’m hoping the lime tree will happily yield too.

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Espaliered trees on the north verandah.

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Tiny oranges!

And finally, my fig tree is having a great time and looks like it is actually starting to fruit. I love figs, and you can’t get them at the shops, so I am really looking forward to eating these.

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Happy fig tree, now with leaves.

So that’s the garden update for Summer. The forecast is for warm and wet over the next few months, so hopefully that bodes well for big yields.

Anyway, back to my cheese…

The Long Cold

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Winter at the new house has been interesting. While it feels like it has been cold for ever, the house is certainly warmer and the grounds certainly drier than winters at the old house.

We’ve had some long runs of soggy days and a couple of very dramatic frosts. But the goat pens are dry and if the farmyard is a little muddy, there are no huge puddles to dodge.

We are kidding a few weeks later this year, which was fortunate because those very cold nights fell on dates that have been prime kidding dates in previous years.

We have four does due to kid over three days starting on August 9th, with another three weeks later and couple more later in the season.

We are down to fifteen goats heading into kidding season. I sold Ambika’s twin wethers from last year, conceding that they were too small to bother butchering and I am not set up with a suitable place to fatten them.

We lost two boys to urinary calculi in the space of two weeks. First was young buck Zeus, who has left one doe in kid. Then, to everyone’s dismay, we lost our beloved pet wether Thumper. Thumper was a happy-go-lucky three year old wether with not a single mean bone in his body. The tallest goat in the herd, his favourite trick was to rear up and put his front hooves on people’s shoulders, asking for a cuddle. This got him in trouble sometimes, like the time he left muddy hoofprints on the classifier’s shirt.

Then one evening I looked out across the paddock to see a huge eagle standing in front of a patch of trees. I went out to chase it off, but it was too late. The eagle was in the process of devouring my brash and over-confident Rhode Island Red rooster, Russell Crow. I have been told that they usually go for smaller birds rather than big mature roosters, and the theory is that Russell was defending his girls when the eagle decided to take him instead.

This came on the back of losing all four of my breeding Pekin ducks in the previous months to the eagles, including Derek the rescue drake. We are now looking at adding a Maremma sheepdog to the family as a livestock guardian, as they are the only method of protection against death from above.

We’ve added a few new chums to the poultry pen lately, including Muscles the Muscovy drake, a trio of Hyline laying hens and most recently a new RIR rooster by the name of Chuck Norris. Chuck is a vocal and hard-working rooster who has come from a flock of bachelor cockerals and seems to be greatly enjoying some female company.

It will be a little while yet before my vegie garden starts to come to life, but some of the cold weather crops are ticking along quietly. I’ve ordered several fruit trees which should arrive soon, and pruned the neglected specimens in the original orchard. There are a few blossoms appearing and plenty of bulbs springing up and flowering, including lots of daffodils and a few bearded irises.

There will be a lot to do when the weather improves, but for the meantime we are concentrating on staying warm and preparing for kidding time.

Nature’s MSG

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It’s winter solstice time, and you know what that means…

Yes, it means the shortest day/longest night of the year. It also means you should have your garlic in the ground by now.

They say garlic should be planted on the shortest day and harvested on the longest. Around these parts we generally go about a month before that. Once the garlic bulbs from last season start to sprout in your cupboard, prompted by the cold nights and sunny days of autumn, it’s time to pop those babies in the garden.

Here are mine.

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Young garlic plants

Garlic is a great thing to grow in winter because it seems to really love the cold. While the rest of the garden is either frost burnt to death, making slow and pitiful attempts to grow, or just sitting there inert, garlic cheerfully pokes its little sprouts through the ground and shoots up with enthusiasm through the coldest days. If you like going out in your garden and seeing a plant with a smile on its face, garlic will bring you winter cheer.

It eventually grows a great long stem with a flower on the top, and when the flower dies it is time to harvest. Or in time for making hummus for the rounds of Christmas parties in December.

I’m a big fan of garlic, both in the garden and in the kitchen. For a while I have jokingly nicknamed it ‘nature’s MSG’ because it makes everything taste yum. I refuse to use bought stock in soups, and I am always worried about my soups being bland, so they all get a good dose of garlic and parsley. It goes in tomato sauce, spicy plum sauce and sweet chilli sauce. It is great mixed in with herbs to make a flavoured soft goat cheese. And I have been known to put a little bit in mashed potatoes to give them a bit of oomph.

And then there is hummus, pretty much anything Italian, and as an accompaniment to roast meat. Yep, I love garlic.

If you want to grow it, there is still time, but not much. If bulbs you have bought from the supermarket have sprouted in your spud box, simply separate the cloves and plant about 15cm apart in well-drained soil. It is really easy to grow, doesn’t need much looking after through the cold months, and each clove grows into a whole new bulb.

It keeps for several months after harvesting, simply plait or bundle several stems together and hang the whole lot in a shady place. Mine did well in the garage, although I can’t tell you exactly how long they will keep because we ran out of home-grown garlic a couple of months ago. I successfully grew a few bulbs in pots last year, enabling me to harvest some even though we moved house at the start of December. This year I have planted more, and next year I will increase the crop even more.

You will probably find that home-grown garlic, like most home-grown things, has a stronger flavour than shop-bought stuff, especially if you are inclined to buy pre-mashed garlic in jars. You will get used to the stronger flavour.

So if you are an amateur gardener, or you just love cooking with garlic, try garlic for a low-risk, high return crop. It takes a while to grow, but it gives you something to look at while the rest of your garden sooks in the corner and waits for the temperature to reach ten degrees again.

SilkieDome – An Integrated Poultry and Vegetable System

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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

The Silkie Family

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.

The mandala garden in progress.

The mandala garden in progress.

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.

Static bed with climbing frame.

Static bed with 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.

Tomatoes and capsicums growing like crazy in the greenhouse.

Tomatoes and capsicums growing like crazy in the greenhouse.

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.