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Seeds and other such things

I’m reading a very cheerful book at the moment about the industrialisation of our worldwide food industry, particularly intensive meat farming. It’s telling me things I kind of already know and suspect you do to about the damage this intensive farming is doing on all levels. From the people who work in these intensive systems, to the environments affected by the waste these systems produce, to the animals themselves and finally to us as the consumers. Very few people win in such systems.

I also kind of know about seeds and the fight to keep them free. This book mentions it in passing and it reminds me of the importance of saving seeds. Of sharing seeds. Of buying heirloom seeds and keeping these plants alive. If you aren’t sure what I’m talking about, have a quick look here: http://navdanya.org/news/240-dr-vandana-shiva-calls-on-you-to-respond-to-the-seed-emergency–join-us-for-the-movement-for-seed-freedom

But this book also mentions the ownership of semen. Not something I’d ever thought about. Something I’m kind of hesitant to write on my blog for fear of what spam it will bring me. But something my mind returns to. Who owns the genetic material of our farm animals? I couldn’t find a good link, but I think we can all be fairly certain that this material is becoming as restricted as other mainstream food items are.

So what can we do? Urban dwellers are not farmers. We can’t put a rare breed cow in our backyards, as much as we may like to.

So it comes down to our purchasing power. Think about what you are buying and where it is coming from. If you aren’t sure ask questions. And be prepared to pay a little more for food that is ethically produced.

It comes down to communication. I’m telling you. If you read this and think it’s worth thinking about, maybe you’ll tell someone else. Maybe you’ll spend a little time googling and find more information you’d like to share.

It comes down to doing what you can. So you can’t have a cow. Maybe you can’t even fit in a chicken. But everyone can grow something somewhere. And when you do, choose a plant that will produce seed. Let the plant produce seed. Learn how to save it. Share it. Grow it again. The bees will enjoy the flowers, and you probably will too.

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Just Eat it – Movie review

Look the first thing to say is this is not a feel good movie. It’s kind of fun to watch but you don’t come away feeling particularly good about yourself or your fellow humans. Well I didn’t. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a film worth watching.

Just Eat It is an easy to watch film that follows a couple, Jen and Grant, for six months as they quit supermarket shopping and instead choose only to eat what would otherwise be thrown away. The statistics are frightening and don’t feel comforted that this is a film made on the other side of the world. We are just as bad.

Just Eat It and our own Oz Harvest say we are throwing away between 30-40% of our food. When you look at the social, environmental and economical costs of this you realise what a sad sad mess we’ve got ourselves into.

Just Eat It points the finger at us, the consumers. We need to change our buying habits and our eating habits. We need to plan before we shop, we need to use our freezers and our left overs more, we need to make less and not feel the need to over cater. We need to learn what those dates on the products we buy really mean so that we are not throwing away perfectly good food based on a best before date. And we need to get involved in our food system. We need to know where our food is coming from, how it’s produced and what the wastage involved is. And if we don’t like that wastage or we feel it could be put to better use then we need to tell those companies how we feel, or get out there and do a bit of gleaning. Don’t know what gleaning is? Better watch the film.

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Win one of our new potato boxes!


Traditionally potatoes in Sydney are planted in August. This is to ensure that all possible frosts have been and gone which means the tubers won’t be damaged by any extreme chills. I’m not sure we had a winter. Maybe it’s coming late? Maybe it was those few cold days we had? Maybe it’s never coming again? Whatever it is, it’s time to plant potatoes.

I love growing potatoes. I love growing them because they taste so much better than if you buy them (unless you buy them straight from the source). And I love growing them because it’s a lot of fun to harvest them. A dirty treasure hunt. I’ll never get tired of those excited squeals from children and adults as a potato is spotted.

So how do you grow them? Potatoes need lots of food and free draining soil. You can grow them straight in the ground by digging in compost and/or cow manure and then planting your seed potatoes in a trench. When the potatoes start growing you back fill the trench around the plants.

You can also grow them vertically. At Randwick Public School we grow them in old bins with drainage holes cut into the base. At Stanmore Public School we grow them straight in the ground and in hessian sacks. As the plants grow you keep covering them (leaving the top 2-3 leaves showing) with compost or straw. I don’t use sugar cane mulch as I find this holds water too well and potatoes don’t like being soggy.

The longer the potato plants grow the bigger your potatoes will be. Traditionally you harvest potatoes when the plant has died back however you can also sneak your hand in and carefully pick a few new potatoes if you want them early. You need to be careful not to disturb the roots if you want to do this. It’s call ‘bandicooting’.

So because I love growing potatoes so much I came up with a design made from recycled hard wood that allows anyone to grow potatoes pretty much anywhere there’s a bit of sun. The bins are okay but they don’t let enough light in in the early stages. The hessian bags are ok but they are hard to fill and roll. The boxes are better. The boxes also have extenders. This means you can vertically grow by extending the box upwards allowing you to fill it with more compost or straw.

I have one of our potato boxes planted and ready to go. I’ll include an extender and deliver to the eastern or inner west suburbs of Sydney. If you live outside of these areas you will need to be prepared to pick up from either the eastern or inner west suburbs.

To go into the draw all you need to do is like and share my facebook page, add a comment that you’ve shared to me and I’ll put you in the draw. My four year old will choose a winner at the end of next week.

If you want to skip the competition and get right into planting and growing, you can order a box on our website!

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Think.Eat.Save.

It’s less than a week until this year’s Think.Eat.Save. event will be held in Martin Place, Sydney (and many other locations around Australia). A UN initiative and run in Australia by OzHarvest Think.Eat.Save. asks us to think about food waste by making lunch for 5000 people from food that would otherwise have been thrown out.

Last year we created a milk crate garden for the event from plants raised by seed that would have otherwise been thrown out. This year it’s pots & pallets.

So what about food waste and the garden?

Well the first point has to be compost. Food scraps should not be going in your general waste bin. The best way to convert food waste into a valuable commodity is via the compost bin. Composting doesn’t have to be hard. There can be a lot of rules about composting but basically you need to put your food scapes in and then cover it with a good layer of torn newspaper or grass clippings or dry leaves or even spent potting mix, anything that’s going to keep the flies down. You make sure it’s not too wet or too dry, give it a stir if you wish or just let it be.

If you don’t want a compost or don’t have room for one there are a lot of other options. Community gardens and school gardens will often take organic waste from local community members. You could get a worm farm (keep in mind they only consume about a handful of food scraps a day) or bokashi bin. You can even dig a big hole and bury it in the back yard.

Other ideas to reduce food waste with your garden:

Grow your own herbs so you’re only picking what you need when you need it instead of buying a bunch and only using half.

Grow leaf lettuces and other leafy greens. Only pick the leaves of these as you need them rather than picking the whole plant. The plant keeps growing and you keep getting more when you need them. Ditto for spring onions – leave the roots in the ground and you can be cutting these for years.

Plant sprouting potatoes, onions (for the tops), garlic and pineapple tops (patience required if you’re hoping for a pineapple).

Share. If you grow too much for your own use, share it around. I’ve never had anyone refuse the offer of something home grown and freshly picked!

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Plastic Free July

Did you know it’s plastic free July? Nice idea and while I love thinking about ridding my life of plastic and try to avoid it as much as I can, the idea of giving up single use plastic is pretty tough. Plastic free July offers you an out. They give you a top four to aim for. Plastic water bottles, plastic bags, plastic straws and plastic takeaway coffee cups. Pretty easy given there are easy available alternatives for three of them and plastic straws are never a necessity. I’d also add those little fish full of soy. Do we really need those?

I have a little stumbling point with plastic bags. Easy to avoid with all those reuseable bags we have now but I always wondered what I’d line the bin with. It seems to defeat the point if we buy bin bags. Permaculture (and plastic free July) have taught me to line the bin with newspaper. You can make origami bowls out of newspaper for all your messy bits (I can’t but you may be better at following those instructions than me), or just wrap it up like you’re in the fish shop. Easy. Unless of course you read your news online. Then you’re going to have to source your newspaper from a cafe or neighbour. Still, worth it I think if it means you’ve not got all those plastic bags around the place. And think of the message you are sending to commercial outlets who throw your purchases into them without much thought.

I admit I feel a little rude taking my bread out of bags and handing it back (the only place I shop where they don’t ask if you’d like a bag, but they always say thank you so I persist. Also Randwick Council is now recycling soft plastics. You have to drive it into their recycling centre in Matraville but gee it reduces your hard waste.

Less to wrap up in newspaper.

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Building community in the garden

Today, a couple of my children and I spent a very pleasant 3 hours in their school garden with two other families and their children.  The kids gathered caterpillars and seeds and ate tomatoes before moving on to running through sprinklers and climbing trees.  The adults dug and picked, sorted and trellised and everyone had a lovely time.

2014, for me, is the year of building community.  When Thea and I started grow.eat.enjoy. we wanted to put edible gardens into homes (we still do).  But as the years go on we move more and more into education and community gardening and I’m finding this a good place to be.  When I’m at Razor&JOY, tending to their office garden, and staff come to sit amongst the plants while they eat their lunch; when I put a call out to the OzHarvest volunteers and people come from all walks of life to work in the garden with me; and when I make a connection with a parent from a non English speaking background who in turn brings others to our school garden and everyone feels happy and connected, I know, like Thea and I always thought, that gardening brings so much more than just good food.

So here’s to 2014, my year of growing good food and building community.  If you’re in Sydney and need a little help doing either, let me know.

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Feeding the 5000 – the milk crate garden


So when Louise Tran from Oz Harvest rang me and asked for a pop up garden to go along with their Feeding the 5000 event it seemed only right that the garden should be built from what would otherwise have been thrown away just as the lunch is.

We decided on milk crates which are not exactly throw away items (though they do seem to be thrown onto a lot of street corners) but they are easy to transport and will return to their intended use once we’ve finished with them.  I then contacted a number of seed companies to see if they had any seed that was no longer saleable.  Yates and Green Patch came through with a lot of seeds, still viable but not saleable.

The kids at Randwick Public and Stanmore Public spent a lot of time sifting compost and planting seeds that were placed into their green houses and watered with harvested rainwater.  Once the seedlings were of a reasonable size they were transferred to larger containers and then to their current home in the milk crates.  The milk crates are lined with newspaper and old green bags and filled with compost from Randwick Public School who have a fantastic compost system mainly to compost the huge amount of leaves they sweep up daily from the playground.

If you’re in Martin Place on Monday come along and have a look at the garden.  What you’ll see is a garden grown from harvested plants, scraps and sourced seeds.  This garden’s life is short lived in Martin Place but will continue after the event.  The crates will return to be cared for in the two public schools and will hopefully find a permanent home in an Oz Harvest garden some time soon.

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Strawberry Shoes


It wasn’t my idea.  Jackie French talks about growing watermelons in boots (haven’t tried that yet), she may also talk about growing strawberries in shoes.  I can’t remember.  But that’s where the idea came from and ever since I first designed the Stanmore school garden I’ve been keen to put strawberry shoes on the fence.

Fortunately I have a child whose feet grow pretty quick and who manages to destroy his school shoes pretty easily so I’ve got a never ending supply of shoes.

Strawberries propagate by producing runners.  Once these mini plants have a root system they can be removed from the ‘mother’ plant and planted elsewhere.  In this case, in shoes.  I put in the new plants along with a good amount of compost and let them settle in, in the school green house for a few weeks until I felt they were strong enough to be screwed to the fence.

Strawberries can tolerate shade but you may not get the best out of the fruit wise.  They also like rich soil and don’t mind a bit of acid in it.  Strawberries are prone to virus attack.  To avoid this they need to be regularly replanted.  Linda Woodrow in her excellent book ‘The Permaculture Home Garden’ outlines her strategy to avoid the virus.  She keeps one plant as a stock plant.  This plant is not allowed to produce fruit (any flowers are removed) and is used to produce the runners.  This then provides her with a constant virus free source of strawberry plants.

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The Humble Herb Spiral


This week we built a herb spiral at CECAL (Canterbury Earlwood Caring Community Centre) as the start of turning their front area into a community garden.  The herb spiral is a small example of a lot of good permaculture ideas in one place.  It uses space and water efficiently and creates micro climates for your different herbs.  Traditionally the herb spiral is placed close to your kitchen door so that you can nip out and grab your favourite herbs.  In Earlwood we placed it as close as we practically could to the kitchen but when you’re working in limited and confined spaces these decisions also become limited.

This is how we did it:

The area is first measured out with a couple of sticks joined by a bit of string.  One stick stays firm in the ground, the other moves around the circle.  We played with a few different sizes thinking about access (both to the herb spiral and past it) and the number of bricks we had.  We then leveled the soil a little and laid a thick layer of newspaper to inhibit any weeds.

On top of the newspaper we threw on wood chip.  A lot of websites suggest gravel for drainage but I wasn’t keen to add stones to the soil, a hard thing to reverse, so we used woodchip.  The bricks are then laid around in a spiral pattern with the soil added in to help with stability.  We used a mixture of soils and manure. 

It probably would have been wise to water in each layer as we went but this was a step we missed.  On top of the soil we put in mulch and there you have it.  A herb spiral ready for planting.

In terms of planting the idea is to plant sun loving plants on the northern side and shade tolerant plants on the southern.  Water loving plants go toward the bottom and plants that can take drier conditions are planted towards the top.

All your herbs in one spot.  The magic of permaculture design.

 

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Growing for Food Security

Sitting on our back deck this morning, nibbling a couple of home grown blueberries and reading the SMH I came across an article urging people to buy from farmers markets or better still grow their own.  The focus of the article was food security.  So I started thinking about which foods I’d grow if food security was my main concern.

Blueberry would not be high on the list.  We love our blueberry bush but it produces 5-10 berries a day for a few weeks of the year.  For vit C I think it would have to be a lemon tree or if that were too hard then lilly pilly.  For some kind of staple the choko would probably be the winner in ease and bounty.  We are growing one in a pot to contain it’s wild spreading.  And for leafy greens I’d suggest warrigal spinach, easy, all year round source of greens.  You need to be a little careful with warrigal spinach.  The leaves should be blanched in hot water for 3 minutes before eating to remove the oxalic acid.

What would you grow?

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