Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Exciting new species of edibles.

After many years I finally have a couple of the perennial plants that were in the Permaculture manuals as excellent perennial crops. Luckily a few people in Perth have been growing some of these rare seeds and there is a network of food growing, seed collecting gardeners that are sharing the joy of growing their own food. 

Chilacayote (Cucurbita ficifolia). 

This rambling perennial vine produces round zucchini-like fruit that are eaten small, around apple size when they can be steamed or eaten raw. Medium ones are good baked and larger fruit can be used added to soups or stews to add bulk. The seeds are also said to be tasty from the big fruit.

Pigeon pea.
Pigeon peas are a tallish shrub that makes a lentil type pea. Useful plant for making shade and structure for beans to climb. It is a notrogen fixer too, being a legume. Quite handy.

Mouse melon (Melothria scabra).
This little melon grows rapidly and produces small fruit likened in flavour to cucumber. I haven't tried any yet, but a few folk in Perth and Albany have had success. Looking forward to these. Hopefully they will not be tasty to rodents.

We also have yakon growing in a few spots this year, so I guess we should actually eat some this autumn when it is ready.

Maybe this year we can trick the pesky rodents and end up with something to eat from our garden for a change.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Passive solar house design.


This page is full of fantastic information about how to design a house to maximise the free cooling and warming that is available by using proper solar passive design.

This is good if you are able to start from scratch. There are also lots of ways to retro fit a home to improve cooling and heating. Planting deciduous shade plants to the ease north and west of a home can prevent it heating up in summer.

Surrounding your house with food plants would also be a great thing to do to save money in the long term.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Backyard chickens may be taking up organochlorines from your soil.

Every now and then someone pipes up to remind or inform other back yard chicken keepers that they may be poisoning their family by letting the chickens free-range in their gardens. This is due to the persistant nature of a lot of the organochlorine type pesticides that were widely sprayed in the seventies and eighties to try and control Argentine ants and termites around people's properties. Often whole suburbs were sprayed, usually along fence lines and back alleys and around the stumps and foundations of houses. If you live in an area that was previously market garden you may be at risk, too. These older established urban areas have more of a chemical load in the soil than the newer suburbs on recently cleared Banksia woodland and sandplain areas.

These chemicals are in a group called Persistant Organic Pollutants. They break down very very slowly and accumulate in the food chain; as each larger animal eats their prey they gather higher and higher amounts of the toxin in their fatty tissues.  If you have chickens and they are scratching the soil and eating insects from an area that is still toxic and then you eat those eggs, there may be some of these poisons in your body. There are a number of problems caused by these toxins, from allergies and neonatal developmental changes to nervous system damage, cancer and even death.

You can reduce the risk of ingestion through eggs by siting the chicken run away from fence lines and house foundations and by installing a cement floor, layers of thick plastic or deep enough fresh soil to prevent the chickens getting to the deeper layers.

You can get your soil tested at various analytical soil labs around the city.
Chemcentre WA is the most commonly recommended.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Five main types of pest ants in the Perth area.

There are five main types of invasive ants in the Perth metro area.

Pheidole megacephala          Coastal brown/big headed ants  
Technomyrmex                      White footed ants
Linepethina                            Argentine ants  
Iridomyrmex spp (various)     Odorous ants  
Ochotellus                             Black house ants 

Firstly you must identify which Genus and possibly species of ant you have.
Identify the type of ant by its looks, food preferences, behaviours, nesting and what potential problems it is causing.
You can use DNA testing but that is expensive and in most cases they can be id'd by looking with an eyeglass or microscope. Close up examination using keys to identify needs some skills and correct information. 

Easiest identification is by observing behaviours etc (above):
*Food preferences: some ants like only sweet foods, some prefer oily foods such as vegetable oil, peanut butter or animal fats.
*Trailing behaviour. Some ants make obvious trails and walk quickly while others meander and seem less orderly.
*Sting or bite? Some ants will do one or the other, others can do both.
*Habitat/nesting type. White footed ants, for instance, will live inside buildings whereas most other ants prefer to live outdoors, only coming in if there is easy access to preferred foods.
*Smell when squashed. Some ants smell more or less strongly of formic acid when squashed and some ants don't smell at all.
*Do they dominate other ants and displace them? 

As with any pest problem always use PHYSICAL or CULTURAL CONTROL first, then least toxic solutions and highly targeted baiting.
This includes removing food sources, keeping benches clean where ants are indoors and finding gaps and sealing them to prevent incursion of the tiny insects.
Big headed ants/coastal brown 
Pheidole megacephala  
These ants are very common around Fremantle. Easily identified by looking to see whether about 10% have large heads compared to the rest of the population of ants present. They have no smell or sting but they can cause a not-very-painful bite. They tunnel under pavers, leaving piles of sand everywhere.
They move into pots and damage plants by eating the root hairs which are high in proteins and sugars. They will also farm aphids and scale for honeydew.They will swarm at foods.
Borax bait using a plain peanut butter and vegetable oil base can be used. A highly succesful target specific product called Amdro works really well.

White footed ants
Smell when crushed and form trails. They don’t sting.
They will live inside buildings  and can appear suddenly in large numbers and then be gone again just as quick.
They will live on sites with other ants species and don't dominate.
These can be difficult to control, needing special baiting repeated frequently as they do not pass poisons to the higher orders but keep it to themselves and make clean sterile eggs for the queen. This means only soldiers die with baiting and thus it needs repetition until the nest is depleted.

Argentine ants
Linepethina humile
Argentine ants are about 2-3 mm long and smell slightly of formic acid when crushed. They have no sting and tend to create regular trails, which they move along slow or fast. They usually live outside and can form super colonies which displace other ants species.
These ants eat sugars and proteins, however sugary secretions called honeydew from scale on plants are a favourite, thus the ants will sometimes 'farm' scale insects.
These ants have multiple queens in each nest and new colonies are created when a queen and some workers move to a new area. Their nests are not always easy to identify for baiting. Least toxic control is by winter trapping of queens. Garden hygiene, removing piles of leaves, sticks etc, can provide less habitable spots for them. Other wise persistence is needed to control this hard to exterminate pest species.

Odorous ants
Iridomyrmex spp
This Genus of ants often move in after coastal browns are removed. They have a strong smell when crushed and no sting. They run riot when disturbed, running all over the creature disturbing their nest. These ants live outside in big colonies and will displace other species.
They prefer animal fats and sugar. Control is by use of targeted baits and DIY options -  2% borax  dissolved in 25% honey or sugar + 73% H2O. Place baits where there are large numbers of ants during their frenzy. 
Ant rid and other target specific ant baits are available in some hardware or pet stores.

Black house ant
Ochotellus spp
Sometimes outside but mostly inside, the black house ants only have a slight smell and are timid, they are easily discouraged by wiping surfaces with eucalyptus oil. They have no sting.
These ants prefer sugar,  and can be controlled using Ant-rid.

If you still don't know what sort of ant you have you could use this service:
Identification service - Department of Agriculture and Food
Correct identification of the pest ant is crucial before commencing any control procedures. There are pest ants that can be more easily controlled based on advice appropriate to that species. A free identification and advisory service is provided by the Department of Agriculture and Food. To submit specimens for identification, stick about a dozen ants to a piece of paper with clear tape and enter your contact details on the paper. Ensure the ants are collected from a clean surface. This will prevent picking up sand and other debris which can allow the ants to escape from under the sticky tape, or spray the ants first with fly spray.

Specimen identification requirements
When sending or delivering samples, the following information is required:
• Collector’s name, location (where the specimen was found), full address, telephone number and e-mail address, description of the damage and date collected.
Department of Agriculture and Food
Pest and Disease Information Service
3 Baron Hay Court, South Perth WA 6151 Freecall: 1800 084 881
Email: info@agric.wa.gov.au

Once you know what you have but still don't know how to control the pest at hand contact Systems Pest Management, Fremantle for advice on the least toxic way to control your pest ants.

May 5th 2014 was International Permaculture Day, and one of the talks was given by my old friend David Piggott from Systems Pest Management. He promotes non toxic solutions for termites and ants and willingly shared the information that I used to start these notes.

Some other resources ..


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Springing towards summer.

Alyogyne heuglii

Chorizema chordatum

Sowed some seeds.

Only sowed a few of each of lots of different varieties
Feeling encouraged by the warmer nights and sunny days, today I sowed a bunch of vegetable seeds. Maybe this year we can get to eat some stuff, instead of the rats pinching it all. I have netted the white shatoot mulberry this year for the first time as we have ravens raiding the loquat tee and rainbow lorikeets back on the powton for their spring flower feast. You get sick of chasing them away after a while.

I'm hoping that if I start beans off here first then they won't disappear like the last lot seem to have done that I planted direct in the soil.
   Also had some success with some cuttings of perennial herbs, which is always a great way to get a few free shrubs. Made a few prostrate rosemary cuttings from a tough self sown rosemary that grows across the road out of a limestone wall. So that should be happy in its new spot up at Ecoburbia.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Organic pest control outline for Living Smarties Melville.

­­Organic pest control talk.

How to reduce pest problems without using chemical sprays?

Stop using chemical pesticides and herbicides
Choose appropriate plants
Plant early and/or late varieties
Grow lots of flowers
Crop rotation
Improving the soil
Garden hygiene
Avoid monoculture


Biodiversity increases predators and plant diversity allows some plants to survive when others get diseased or eaten. 
The four main ideas to consider to increase biodiversity in your garden are :


Why not to use chemicals in the garden and how to encourage biodiversity and use cultural practices instead to reduce pests naturally.
Beneficial insects and what they do and how to deal with pests in a non or low toxic manner.

WHAT'S A PEST? (My definition): An insect or other animal becomes a pest when it causes economical damage. This may be due to there not being enough diversity in the surrounding ecosystem to support the predators, which keep the pests in check.

Encouraging diversity in your garden is the best way to control pests.

How to reduce pest problems?


Generally the worst problems will occur in new or neglected gardens or those with a history of chemical abuse.  It can take 3 years for balance to occur as it takes  awhile for predator populations to increase.

Stop using any chemical pesticides and herbicides. They kill far more than the target species; even the 'safer' ones can be dodgy.
Chemicals can kill non-target species of beneficial insects as they are extremely sensitive to any chemical use at all.
Resistance: Insects can become resistant to certain pesticides, making the surviving ones harder to kill may be hereditary resistance to common toxic sprays.
exposed eggs of an insect can show signs of resistance as an adult.
Soil organisms are sometimes affected by biocides.

Choose appropriate plants for your climate, time of year and soil type.  Certain varieties will be more locally adapted than others, if they've been grown there before.  Look around at other gardens to see what does well and isn't being bothered by pests. 
There may be disease resistant strains of the plant you like.

Plant early and/or late varieties: works to avoid pests such as Med fruit fly. You might just miss the time when the pests want to bother that crop.

Grow lots of flowers: Asteraceae family (daisies) and the Apiaceae family (dill, fennel, carrots, Queen Anne's lace, yarrow, angelica, coriander, parsley). Salvias and gone to seed veg and herbs are great too

Crop rotation stops a host plant being in the same place when eggs hatch the next year from adults that fed on the last seasons crop.  There can be problems associated with nematodes or other soil diseases when crop rotation doesn't occur.

Improving the soil and feeding plants well will grow healthier, stronger and more pest resistant plants.  Overuse of nitrogen fertilizers makes sappy new growth. Kelp seems to increase leaf strength.

Garden hygiene: some weeds harbour pests. Chickens can dig over the soil.

Avoid monoculture...Plant similar things or groups of things around the garden not altogether or in rows that a pest can easily follow and decimate or if some get diseased they won't all pass it on to each other.

Which leads to BIODIVERSITY..

Biodiversity increases predators and Plant diversity allows some plants to survive when others get diseased or eaten. 
Balance is easier to attain in a diverse environment.           
wildlife needs food, water and shelter. Providing places for fauna to shelter is a great way to improve diversity in your garden.

Increasing biodiversity is key.
PLANT LOCAL SPECIES: more appropriate for the soil type and climate and will provide food for local birds and insects. Prickly shrubs and grasses are important for birds.
Planting local species can help as this feeds local insects and small fauna such as beneficial insects, skinks, spiders, parasitic wasps.
Structural diversity is important too for birds to be at diff heights. Different levels of vegetation so that small birds can hide. Posts and sticks in the air give birds a place to rest before they hop into a bush or birdbath.

FOOD: Provide food: long flowering shrubs and herbs
It is generally the young of beneficials that do the pest control. It is important to have flowers at all times of year so nectar is always available. 
Herbs, daisies family and parsley family are great, gone to seed veges and salvias, mint etc.
Attracting birds by planting shrubs they can use will control pests then poop, redistributing nutrients around the garden. Never feed birds seed,
Leave some pests as food for the birds in your garden.
Mulch gives invertebrates a place to shelter providing small lizards and frogs with something to eat.

WATER: Provide water: birdbaths - kept clean and full with sticks to escape on; lizard and bee bars  - shallow trays with water and pebbles so they can't drown. 
Ponds. Many birds and insects use ponds in  summer. Birdbaths are also frequented by bees, wasps and other flying things.

SHELTER: Prickly shrubs for birds, piles of wood and or rocks for lizards, spiders etc. Leave wild areas for small fauna, eg gabion walls are great. Ideally these areas should never be disturbed.

Observation is important in all stages of pest control, to make sure you won't kill more than just the pest.  Use a magnifying glass to aid identification and if you can't id it get some help. 

Most pests have a particular time of year when they will be at their worst. Spring is ideal for cabbage white and aphids. Some will overwinter in weeds waiting for conditions to be right. By spending time looking at your plants you can catch pests before they get too bad. This can help decide what needs doing, if anything..

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Yabbietat tank

The tank has lots of yabbies, a few tadpoles and a couple of small fish to help control mosquito larvae.
These little fish are minnows. They have tiny mouths, so they can only eat mossie larvae but not tadpoles or frogspawn.
Inside this roll of shade cloth there may, hopefully, be lurking baby yabbies. When we unrolled it to have a look there were tiny babies up to about 5 cms.

Since taking these pictures more bits of pipe have been added so there are more spaces for the crustaceans to shelter so they don't attack each other.

It’s good to share, but beware. Plants and personal responsibility.

This article will also appear in the PermacultureWest enews.

Its good to share, but beware. Plants and personal responsibility.

Plants are amazing things. They can fix most of the worlds problems if used correctly and are the source of a huge amount of what we need in our daily lives.
As permaculture folk we want to fix degraded land and create complex ecosystems and we do this with plants as they can do it quickly. Unfortunately their speed of growth can sometimes also be a negative thing. Thousands of dollars and volunteer hours go towards removing escaped vegetation; lots of poison, too.
Plant selection and use is a complex and controversial subject and is a reason why permaculture has sometimes been denigrated . Having studied and worked in both environmental restoration and permaculture I have some conflicted ideas about plants out of place aka exotics aka weeds. Some plants are brilliant, having multiple uses but some are just so good at propagating themselves they become rampant and have been banned from growing in certain areas, despite how useful they might be.
Personal responsibility is a strong ethos of permaculture, so I am going to outline my concerns with the trend of sharing seeds without clearly considering the consequences.

Novel ecosystems
The term novel ecosystems (Hobbs, 2006) encompasses the many habitats on earth that have been altered in some way. Most habitats have been changed by the inclusion or removal of species, on purpose or accidentally; we can never go back to having pristine landscapes of purely indigenous species. Naturalised plants, that is introduced species which need no help to survive in a new place, have varying degrees of influence on bushland ecosystems, areas that are important repositories for endemic species including invertebrate populations. Earth care would have us protect remaining pre-settlement areas for health and wellbeing reasons.
Through clever design we can integrate a lot more food plants and other useful species into our environment but we need to be careful not to accidentally reduce biodiversity by letting many species be overgrown by one rampant one.

Using naturalised plants
There are many reasons to use existing weedy or naturalised species in an area; biomass production, shelter and insect habitats for instance. When trying to improve degraded sites the idea may be entertained that any plant that will grow in a place  should be encouraged. If a site is degraded it needs any plant to grow there to protect and improve the soil. However some newly introduced plants can settle into an area too quickly, becoming costly to remove if they turn out to be a bit more voracious than one had hoped or expected.
Ideally, before planting, the permie designer would look around and see what is already nearby to fulfil their needs for vegetation before introducing new species to an area. if a plant is a declared or environmental weed in another place it is worth researching to make sure the same thing wont happen on your site.  There are always plenty of choices for all but the most marginal of conditions.

While I agree with Holmgren in his Weeds or Wild Nature essay that there has been demonisation of certain species, we should be careful not to dismiss the fact that some plants do escape into otherwise healthy bushland, changing the ecosystem structure.  Many naturalised species are not encroaching any further than they have done since they settled in however I would suggest that there are some species recommended in permaculture readings that reproduce a bit too successfully where we are and as with all things, the better educated we are before we start, the less costly mistakes will be made.

Why are some plants more problematic than others

This depends on the plants life cycle, method of propagation and their self defence mechanisms.

Self-seeding is good, sometimes.
Part of a good permaculture garden involves finding some edibles that will self seed. For some plants this is fine, we water and look after the soil so it is good enough to support self sowing vegetables. Lettuces, rocket, parsley, and a range of other vegetables are a fantastic set of foodstuffs to happen on their own. Other plants self sowing isnt so beneficial for suburban gardens, though. This is due to their size, rate of reproduction or some other behaviour.  An example would be some extremely useful trees, Albizia lophantha and Acacia saligna. Both species kept coming up each year for a number of years in our garden and we would let them grow where they wanted. But only ever one at a time would come up and they are short lived and easy to prune. We knew we could manage them. Of course, in South Africa the Acacia saligna has become a big problem, changing ecosystem structure and fire regimes in the fynbos.  It grows better there than it does here.

Weediness potential depends how the plant produces seeds.
Some plants will behave within their natural range and be controlled by natural seed or leaf eaters however outside of that, where soil or rainfall are more favourable, and no biological controls exist, there is the chance of over population.

There are a variety of ways that a plant can produce seeds that can escape.

Windblown- plants in the daisy family make thousands and thousands of seeds, which then blow away on the lightest breeze. This includes lettuces and globe artichoke, closely related to prickly thistles.
Pods - some seed pods can throw seeds many metres away from the parent plant, or make hundreds of seed per tree. Leucaena, Im looking at you.
Suckers - may be prickly and hard to remove, Robinia, a nitrogen-fixing deciduous shade tree is renowned for this.
Prickly and spines: Blackberries, cactus. Ouch. They can be spread by animals eating them and dropping the seeds or they may have seeds that attach to an animals fur, and spread that way.
Berries and fruit - birds carry seeds away and drop them off with a little free fertiliser. Olives easily spread into bushland this way. Blackberries - spread by seed and by sucker and are really prickly as well. Triple threat.
Bulbs: some can reproduce two ways, ie gladiolus makes bulbs and seeds.
Plants that creep and climb: kudzu, really useful, really buries houses.

Be aware of what seeds you are sharing.
I am not saying no weedy plants should be used in permaculture systems because any plant can be a weed if it is in the wrong place and we love weeds. What I am stating here is that there are a FEW really bad plants in terms of how readily they spread. I think we need to consider these plants and be aware of what we are sharing. If you are handing over seeds be honest about how hard that plant might be to keep under control; if they are in a different part of Australia definitely check that the plant isnt a weed.

It is too easy for people to swap plant propagules and there isn't always a description or warning of any sort whether the plant has potential issues. Indeed, the plant may behave totally differently in the two places, especially if the rainfall or soil is better in the new place.  Some plants can outcompete all others, reducing your carefully designed food forest.

WHAT can we do as responsible gardeners?
Be aware of who you are sharing seeds with. Do they live near bushland? Is there a less invasive plant they could be using instead. I am very unlikely to pass on seeds of a plant I know can make hundreds of seeds.
Also, be careful at swap meets, as sometimes people can be selling plants that are potential weeds and they may not even know.

There are still thousands of species and plenty of responsible food growers out there.   Just have a little think before you give seeds away to that thing youve been battling to control in your own garden, eh. 


Holmgren, D. 2013. http://permaculturenews.org/2013/11/12/weeds-wild-nature-permaculture-perspective/

UCDavis IPM: http://ucipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn74139.html