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August 2015

Growing heirloom non hybrid corn. The Greenpatch Organic Seeds Corn/Maize project.

My first sweetcorn seeds for the season have gone into the ground. I've sown two varieties so far and will be planting at least another three. I didn't plan to grow so much corn, but I couldn't resist. A corn and maize conservation project run by Greenpatch Organic Seeds is now in its third year and Australian gardeners can start to reap its rewards.

Anasazi Sweet Corn. An amazing ancient multi coloured sweet corn grown by Greenpatch as part of their Corn Maize conservation project. Karl Bayer

Anasazi Sweet Corn. An amazing ancient multi coloured sweet corn grown by Greenpatch as part of their Corn Maize conservation project. Photo: Karl Bayer

The Corn/Maize project aims to rescue non-hybrid heritage varieties of corn and maize before they are lost forever.

Greenpatch Organic Seeds, based on the mid-north coast of NSW, grow and multiply the seeds and make them available to gardeners and farmers.

They are selling nine varieties of heritage corn, maize and popcorn this season. Neville Donovan tells me they have another 10 varieties that will be grown and multiplied this summer.

So far I've sown Golden Bantam and Balinese. Next I’ll plant Hawaiian and the beautiful multi-coloured Anasazi. I might even do some more seed shopping and add blue and pink mini popping corn to the mix. Blue and pink corn that can be popped is too irresistible.

Being able to grow multiple varieties of corn at the same time is one of the advantages of non-hybrid varieties.

Neville tells me that "planting multiple non-hybrid heritage varieties at once will not affect the flavour or taste of the resulting crop".

In contrast, hybrid varieties of corn shouldn't be grown with other varieties because any cross pollination can ruin their flavour.

Most sweetcorn seed readily available to home gardeners is hybrid.

You’ll notice the F1 on the packet indicating its hybrid status.

Another advantage of non-hybrid varieties is that you can save seed to grow the following year.

Whereas F1 hybrids are sterile and don't produce viable seed.

Saving seed isn't a priority for me this year. Corn is wind pollinated and all my varieties will be cross pollinating with each other. Neville suggests saving seeds from a mixed planting "is a hit and miss as to what it will produce the following season, but that could be an interesting outcome too".

I’ll save seed next year once I know which varieties I prefer.

Staggering planting can reduce cross-pollination between multiple varieties

Greenpatch grows up to four varieties on its property each season by staggering plantings to reduce cross-pollination.

"As a general rule we work on five weeks between any two varieties of plantings. It is critical to make sure plants are fertilised and watered well to prevent bolting and possible cross pollination. Pop corns normally take less time to tassel (flower) so it is best to plant them as your first crop," suggests Neville.

Two varieties Greenpatch are particularly proud to be saving are Manning White Maize and Anasazi sweetcorn. "They are both worlds apart," says Neville.

Manning White was bred in the Manning Valley near Taree in the 1930s for the dairy farmers to grow as animal feed. It can be eaten fresh when young.

Anasazi was bred on the other side of the world more than 2000 years ago by the ancient American Indians.

"We’re still searching for seed from Hickory King and Manning Pride – both once grown widely in the Hunter and North Coast regions. We still hold hope that somebody may have some of these seeds," says Neville.

Greenpatch is seeking growers to help with the project. If you are interested – and have some space, gardening experience and a reliable water source (or a secret stash of Hickory King or Manning Pride) – I'm sure Greenpatch would be happy to hear from you.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 24th August 2015.

Homegrown and weedy herbal teas

A pot of homegrown lemongrass tea. Little eco footprints

If I had to choose one drink I couldn't do without - it would be tea. My day is littered with many quick cuppas.

The moment is as important as the contents of my cup. It's time to stop, reflect, relax, and when I'm fortunate to be with friends - a time to chat.

But you'll rarely find tea bags dangling in my cup.

I prefer my brew to be herbal, homegrown and weedy – and often the contents reflect the season, my mood, and my health.

If it wasn't for herbal tea I suspect I'd rarely drink sufficient water throughout the day.

Drinking herbal tea is an easy way to increase water intake, particularly when it's chilly and the last thing you feel like drinking is cold water.

It's also an easy way to take healing herbs and increase your intake of antioxidants. Far more pleasurable (and cheaper) than popping a pill.

You can buy herbal teas bags. But often the contents are stale, highly processed, and of a volume far too small to be of benefit.

And it seems silly to buy herbal teas when they are so easy to grow and forage.

Many herbs that can be used as tea thrive in pots and tolerate neglect.

My favourite is lemongrass. 

To make lemongrass tea, simply pull off a stem or two, squash them into a ball and roll between your palms. This bruises the stems and helps to release juices and oils. Pop the stem into a tea pot, cover with boiling water, and brew for around ten minutes.

Other herbal tea plants that are easy to grow and can be picked all year round include lemon balm, the mints (common mint, peppermint and spearmint), sage and thyme.

Thyme, lime and honey is one of my favourite teas for helping to speed up recovery from colds and flu. The thyme is antibacterial and antiviral. The lime gives you a good dose of vitamin C. And the honey is antibacterial and soothes the throat.

Calendula petals can be dried and used as a tea. Little eco footprints

There's other herbal teas that can be harvested from your garden when in season, like raspberry leaf, rosehips and calendula and chamomile flowers. 

Herbs can be brewed fresh or dried and stored for later use. 

To dry herbs you can hang bunches upside down for a couple of weeks, spread leaves or flowers out on racks, or use a dehydrator.

Dried Lemon Myrtle and Nettle tea. Little eco footprints

Once completely dry, herbs can be crushed and stored in a glass jar.

Drying Stinging Nettle to make nettle tea. Little eco footprints

I'm currently drying bunches of stinging nettle by hanging them in our shed. Nettle tea is one of my favourite teas. It's delicious, rich in minerals, high in iron, and a gentle natural diuretic that is good at flushing out toxins.

Nettle season is short in my neck of the woods, so I'm doing my best to collect and dry a years worth of nettle tea.

Chickweed tea. Little eco footprints

Chickweed is another favourite brew at this time of year. I simply toss a handful of stems into a pot or a few stems into a cup.

Most herbal tea leaves can be reused to make a second and third cup.

They continue to release goodness and flavour. Today I started with nettle tea. Next I added a lemongrass stem to the remnants of nettle leaves. After enjoying the nettle and lemongrass tea, I added a handful of chickweed. Each brew was unique. And as a bonus I didn't have to wash the pot between uses.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 17th August 2015.

Springing into Sprinter

Busy buzzing bees enjoying the Australian sprinter season. Little eco footprints

My bee hives are buzzing after months of quiet. The wattles and eucalypts have burst into blossom. Mornings begin with a crescendo of birdsong. And there's an energy in the air that assures me that winter is over. Sprinter has sprung.

If you look at the calender, there's still almost a month until spring begins. But according to Tim Entwisle, author of Sprinter and Sprummer: Australia's changing seasons, the traditional four season system does not make sense in Australia.

"We shouldn't expect an imported seasonal model to work in an entirely different climate on the other side of the planet" writes Entwisle.

"Indigenous communities have always known that Australia's climate is more complex than a simple four-season arrangement....Aboriginal communities around Australia have for tens of thousands of years recognised five to seven seasons, depending on where they live".

Entwisle suggests it's time for us to "adopt a more realistic home-grown system...We should have seasons that reflect our local climate, not that of a continent 16,000 km away."

He proposes some modifications to our current four season system.

"A tweaking if you like. The familiar anchors, summer and winter, are there but the bits in between and the duration of the seasons are adjusted for the southern Australian climate."

According to Entwisle's proposed five season system, what we are experiencing now along the south east coast of Australia is sprinter: "the flowering spring".

"It's when we see the start of a profusion of flowers and it's when wattles reach their peak in most parts of Australia".

Sprinter celebrates this early flowering of Australian plants. It's a two month season from 1st August until the close of September.

Then there's sprummer, "the cantankerous weather time", in October and November.

Sprummer is followed by a four month long hot summer spanning December until March.

A brief two month autumn happens in April and May, followed by an equally brief winter during June and July.

Sprinter is "the first season of the year" suggests Entwisle.

"It's a time of new beginnings...A time of renewal in the natural world".

I like that idea. This time of year feels more like the start of a new year to me than during the exhausting heat of January.

It feels like a natural time for a fresh start. I've been sprinter cleaning and enjoying the awakening that’s happening in my garden.

Sprinter is an apt name, not just because it falls between the traditional winter and spring, but because I feel like I'm sprinting most days. I'm collecting and digging in mountains of manure. Garden beds are being prepared and the contents of my seed boxes are spread across the kitchen table. 

I like acknowledging Sprinter. It helps me get a head-start in the garden and gives me a second chance at keeping my new years resolutions.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 10th August 2015.

How to use wood ash in the garden and beyond

How to use wood ash in the garden and beyond. Little eco footprints

A large bucket of ash – the result of cleaning out our wood stove – had me searching for ways to use wood ash. A byproduct of burning hardwood, wood ash is far more useful than I expected. It can be used to decrease soil acidity and sweeten smelly worm farms. Chooks love to bathe in it, and it can even be used to make soap.

What is wood ash? 

Wood ash is the fine grey powder left behind after burning wood. Its composition varies but it typically contains lots of calcium carbonate – a compound that naturally occurs in limestone. It also contains potassium, magnesium and many trace minerals.

It's a useful frugal alternative to garden lime

Given its high calcium carbonate content, wood ash acts as a liming agent, raising soil pH levels and decreasing soil acidity. This makes it a frugal alternative to garden lime.

I'm now storing our wood ash in a lidded bucket and will use it throughout the year just as I would garden lime.

It should only be used in small amounts and when a decrease in soil acidity is desired.

Australian soils are typically acidic – so adding wood ash will make our soils more favourable for plants that like neutral to alkaline soil.

Wood ash is also a good source of potassium (promotes flowering), calcium (helps build strong cell walls) and numerous other useful nutrients.

Plants that are likely to appreciate a little wood ash include...

..lavender, citrus, flowering annuals and many vegetables such as tomatoes, peas, beans, spinach and garlic.

I’ll be tossing a handful of wood ash into each hole when I plant my tomatoes this spring. I’ll also be digging wood ash into my bean bed.

Wood ash shouldn't be used on plants that prefer acid soils such as..

...blueberries, strawberries, rhododendrons, camellias, azaleas, Australian native plants, potatoes or sweet potatoes.

When adding wood ash to your garden, mix it with compost or dig it into the soil to prevent it from blowing away.

Use it to sweeten compost bins and worm farms

Wood ash can also be added to smelly compost bins or worm farms to decrease acidity.

I've noticed worm farm and compost conditioners for sale. I’m guessing these are merely overpriced and over-packaged garden lime. Save yourself the money and instead sprinkle a handful of wood ash into your worm farm or compost bin now and then.

Use it as a dust bath for your chickens

Wood ash can also be used as a dust bath for chooks. Apparently they love it. Giving chickens a container of wood ash to dust-bathe in will help deter mites and lice.

A cat litter tray of wood ash would be a safe alternative to dust-bathing for urban chooks where there may be a risk of lead contamination in the soil.

Wood ash soap

I was surprised to learn wood ash can be used to make soap. Soaking ashes in water makes lye, which can be mixed with animal fat then boiled to produce soap. It doesn't sound very appealing – but this is how soap was made before we had palm oil and petrochemicals.

Smelly shoes? 

And finally, if you have smelly shoes, wrap a handful of wood ash in a piece of cloth and pop it into your shoe and apparently the smells will disappear.

My bucket of wood ash seems far more valuable than I ever could have imagined.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 3rd August 2015.

Making a Nature Drawer: to help kids explore their world {Milkwood}


Wishing you a weekend full of wandering and exploring. 

Just in case your kids come home with their pockets full of bits of nature - and then want to display their treasures on a table - here's a neat alternative: a nature drawer. 

Nature-drawer-mess-milkwood and little eco footprints

An increase in bits of dead animals on Little Eco's nature table (Can you see the dried headless lizard above?) inspired me to hide away her nature bits in a drawer.

Her nature drawer has become such a worthwhile addition to our home that I reckon all kids deserve their own nature drawer.

I'm sharing more on making a nature drawer over on the Milkwood blog.