Garden Feed

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.

Reliable rhubarb - how to grow and what variety to choose

A beautiful bunch of Sydney crimson (aka Gran's Red) Rhubarb. Little ec0 footprints

Rhubarb is one worthwhile garden plant. It’s beautiful, hardy, low-maintenance and delicious. I especially love that you plant it once and, if you care for your patch properly, you can be harvesting rhubarb indefinitely.

Right now – late winter and into early spring – is a good time to plant rhubarb.

It’s typically planted as crowns. You can raid a friend’s garden and divide crowns from an existing plant, or you can buy crowns or potted plants from a nursery.

Winter red varieties of Australian rhubarb

Much of the literature regarding growing rhubarb talks about it going dormant in winter. But not all varieties do this.

Numerous beautiful red winter rhubarb varieties were developed in Australia in the early 1900s.

Winter Red Rhubarb stems. Little eco footprints

These rhubarbs not only survive year round, they are actually at their best in winter – a time perfectly suited to warm stewed or baked rhubarb.

I suspect I'm growing Sydney Crimson – a winter rhubarb variety that was very popular with market gardeners in the 1940s and 50s.

It’s been in my family for more than 60 years. I call it Gran’s Red. Gran called it Sydney Red. She was very proud of her super red rhubarb. I've maintained a pot or patch of this rhubarb for the past 20 years and so have many of my relatives.

Other year-round varieties of rhubarb available in Australia include Wandin Red, Ever Red and Next Generation.

How to plant Rhubarb

Choose a sunny to partially shaded spot for your rhubarb. It can tolerate a little shade and appreciates afternoon shade in summer.

How to grow rhubarb. Little eco footprints

Rhubarb thrives best in rich soil with good drainage. Improve your soil with plenty of aged manure or compost.

Plant the crowns at least 50 centimetres apart. The growing surface of crowns should sit at or just below the surface. Water well and mulch.

How to harvest rhubarb

Give your plants plenty of time to establish and don’t harvest any stems for the first year or so after planting.

When harvesting rhubarb, hold the stalk near the base and gently pull it away from the crown. This ensures the whole stem comes away and doesn't leave a stump, which can cause rot.

Harvest the thickest stems and always leave behind plenty of stems or you will exhaust the plant.

I have enough plants so that I only harvest a couple of stems from each plant each time.

Gran's Red Rhubarb. Little eco footprints

Remove the leaves from the stalks.

Rhubarb leaves cannot be eaten but are safe to compost. Little eco footprints

The leaves are high in oxalic acid and shouldn't be eaten or fed to poultry or other stock. They can be composted safely. I keep a compost bin next to my rhubarb patch so that I can easily toss leaves straight into the compost. 

How to keep your rhubarb patch happy

To keep your rhubarb happy, top-dress it with well-rotted manure or compost before and after its peak growing season. For me, this is spring and autumn.

Regular liquid fertiliser is also a good idea.

It is almost impossible to overfeed rhubarb.

Don’t let rhubarb dry out, especially in summer. Keep your patch well watered and mulch generously. It is best to thoroughly water infrequently rather than give them a little frequently.

Adding plenty of high-nitrogen organic matter should discourage flowering. But if flowers do appear, remove them and increase feeding and watering, otherwise your plants will put energy into flowers rather than stems.

Healthy, large rhubarb plants can be dug up and divided for replanting. Use a spade and dig the whole clump from the soil. Shake off excess dirt and divide into large pieces using a sharp spade or knife. Ensure each piece has at least three growing points and good roots.

Stewed rhubarb with citrus and honey. Little eco footprints

Stewed Rhubarb on porridge - a selicious winter treat. Little eco footprints

My favourite way to enjoy rhubarb is simply stewed with orange juice and a little honey. What's yours? 

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

Comforting comfrey - how to use comfrey as a medicine and in your garden

Medicinal and garden uses of comfrey. Little eco footprints

I'm feeling very grateful for the healing power of plants. I've been using comfrey leaves to soothe a sore back and have been surprised by how well it works. Comfrey is not only a useful medicinal herb – it can also be used in the garden to improve and fertilise soil. My love for comfrey is stronger than ever and I'm determined to grow as much of this useful plant as I can.

Comfrey has been used as a medicinal plant for centuries.

It can reduce pain and inflammation and speed up mending of bruises, sprains and broken bones.

Knowing of its anti-inflammatory properties, I decided to try a comfrey poultice on my sore lower back.

A poultice is an easy way to apply healing herbs to the skin. Basically, it’s a paste of whatever herbs or healing substance you want to use, typically wrapped in a piece of cloth – such as gauze, muslin or other open-weave cotton fabric – and placed on the skin.

I was surprised by just how much the comfrey poultice reduced my back pain. I wore a poultice full-time (changing morning and night) until I ran out of comfrey. The back pain returned.

Intrigued by its effectiveness, I did some further reading and discovered there’s solid research confirming the therapeutic effectiveness of comfrey. Of particular interest to me is its effectiveness in relieving lower back pain.

So I've decided to increase the amount of comfrey in my garden. Thankfully it’s easy to grow.

How to propagate comfrey

Common comfrey (Symphytum officinale) can be grown by seed, root cuttings and division, whereas Russian comfrey (Symphytum uplandicum) is sterile (does not produce viable seed) and can only be grown from cuttings or division.

Given that a small piece of root is all that is needed to create a new comfrey plant, it’s easy to quickly propagate a large number.

How to use comfrey in your garden

Once you have comfrey established in your garden you can use it in a myriad of ways.

Comfrey’s strong roots draw up nutrients from the soil. You can chop and drop the mineral-rich leaves and use them as a mulch. Leaves can be added to compost as a conditioner. Or you can make a nutritious tea (for plants) by brewing leaves in a bucket of water for a couple of weeks.

Is comfrey safe to eat? 

There’s a lot of debate regarding the safety of ingesting comfrey.

The debate is due to the presence of small quantities of a toxic alkaloid pyrrolizidine which can have a cumulative effect on the liver.

Common comfrey has negligible quantities of the toxic alkaloid and has long been safely consumed, particularly as a medicinal tea.

Russian comfrey, a hybrid bred in the 1950s largely for its ability to improve soils, has higher levels of pyrrolizidine.

Given that it appears Russian comfrey is often sold as common comfrey, I’m playing it safe and don’t consume home-grown comfrey. I supposedly bought common comfrey root cuttings from a reputable nursery. But given that I haven’t seen a seed set in the three years I’ve been growing it, I’m not convinced I wasn’t sold the Russian variety.

Whichever comfrey you have, scatter it liberally around your garden and use young leaves topically and you can’t go wrong. Comfrey is one amazing herb.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 29th June 2015.


Dirt glorious dirt - and why you should be playing in it more often

Scentists have discovered that playing in the dirt makes us feel good - thanks to a seratonin boosting bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae. Little eco footprints

I've long recognised that digging in the garden makes me feel good. No matter how tired or stressed I am, a few minutes with my hands in the earth and my mood improves. I had assumed the boost was due to being outdoors and active and doing something I love. But it may actually be tiny micro-organisms causing my good mood.

Unintentionally picking up a microbe called Mycobacterium vaccae can make us feel good. Scientific trials suggest this soil dwelling bacteria can decrease anxiety, improve our ability to learn and may work as an antidepressant.

We pick up this serotonin boosting bug by playing in the dirt or eating it with our fresh fruit and vegetables.

Mycobacterium vaccae is one of 10,000 or so species of microbes that may call your body home. And many of them are just as valuable, or more so. Some produce inflammation-fighting chemicals and others help regulate your immune response. Microbes also help you digest particular foods and assimilate nutrients.

We evolved with microbes. And it’s starting to look like we don’t function properly without them.

Scientists are only now starting to discover just how important microbes are for our health. Rob Knight in his book Follow your gut: the enormous impact of tiny microbes suggests that "microbes are not only more numerous than we thought ... they’re also more important than we ever imagined, playing a role in nearly all aspects of our health, even in our personality".

Rob writes that: "You are made up of about ten trillion human cells – but there are about a hundred trillion microbial cells in and on your body. Which means: you are mostly not you ... We are not individuals; we are ecosystems."

But there’s a problem. We’re destroying our useful microbiota by being stressed, overusing antibiotics, using antibacterial cleaning products, and indulging in processed food, artificial sweeteners, and sugar.

We also have fewer opportunities to pick up beneficial microbes. We’re playing or working in the dirt less. We try to sterilise our homes. And industrial-scale farming and widespread use of pesticides has depleted soil microbe diversity – reducing the chances of us picking up a diversity of good microbes from the foods we eat.

There are suggestions from researchers that our modern-day disconnection from soil microbes could help to explain the rapidly increasing frequency of food intolerances, allergies, asthma and diseases involving inflammation, such as diabetes, arthritis, and even depression.

So what can you do to boost your good microbes?

1. Play in the dirt. Dig in the garden. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.

2. Grow your own food organically. Gobble a few carrots straight from the soil. You’ll likely pick up more beneficial bugs from a fresh barely cleaned homegrown carrot than from popping an expensive probiotic pill.

3. Buy fruit and vegetables that have been grown on small organic or family farms. You are more likely to pick up a greater diversity of beneficial microbes from fruits and vegetables grown without pesticides.

4. Enjoy fermented foods. Make your own yoghurt, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha or kimchi.

5. Repeat. The beneficial bugs we gain from playing in the dirt or eating homegrown food wear off after a while. A couple of weeks after contact with Mycobacterium vaccae – and it (and its feel-good feeling) is gone. 

I like the idea of playing in the dirt being good for us.

Playing in the mud is a great way for kids to boost good microbes. Little eco footprints

It seems mud loving children know what's good for them.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 18th May 2015.