New media, new plants, tired muscles – The final aquaponics upgrade (yeah, right).

Lots of work ahead!
Lots of work ahead!

Hard yakka today! (and probably tomorrow).

I replaced the floating rafts bed in the bioponics garden with media. Why? Some of my favourite veggies like Kale and Spinach don’t like the watery environment and don’t thrive when their feet are too wet all of the time. Those in the media bed next to this are rocking and get the same water and nutrients, roughly the same light and are on the same cycle of water but the bed drains periodically, allowing a relatively dry spell a couple of times a day. This seems to do the trick.

Now that I’ve gone vegetarian for a while, I need more leafy greens and the raft bed, while doing OK wasn’t as productive as the media bed next door for the same amount of space.The plants that grew best there were Pak Choy and Celery. The season for Pak Choy is nearly over and We have heaps of celery growing elsewhere.

There is another problem too that this change resolves. Last year, the tomatoes in our main system got blight rather badly. This means that I can’t plant Tommies into those beds for a couple of years. In fact I can’t plant them anywhere in that system because the spores world have circulated through the whole thing.

Got to give it a thorough wash!
Got to give it a thorough wash!

With the new media in today’s bed, I can grow tomatoes and then plant out the other system with greens. This one is deep enough to hold the larger root systems of things like Tomatoes and Capsicum. Win Win!

Saving some scoria.
Saving some scoria.

I usually like a mix of 50/50 expanded clay balls and scoria (all well washed, of course). But today when I went to by the balls, they have shot up in price by 50%!

This bed is quite deep anyway and there was no way that I could afford to fill it completely at that price so I thought of a solution – I have plenty of ice cream containers from Boost Juice Gawler, so I made a kind of false floor with them after making a few holes in the tubs to prevent big bubbles of air becoming trapped in them.

I didn’t want to trim the bed itself to make it any shallower because the wooden frame and supports and the plumbing were already in place and it would have been a big job to rejig it. Substituting extra scoria instead of clay balls to make up the difference allowed me to get it up to scratch.

The biggest part of this changeover is the washing of the clay balls and scoria. Both of these things are covered in fine, red/brown dust. You never get rid of all of it as it is as much a product of the pieces crumbling as it is dust picked up during the packaging. It can clog filters and pumps if not removed before adding it to the beds. Eventually it will be filtered out or settle into nooks and crannies in the system. You’ve just got to do the best that you can.

I added about 30% new rain water let it cycle through for a day to get the microbes from the old water throughout the bed and its away we go. There was a be a big shift in pH too, which affects plant’s ability to absorb nutrients. It went as low as 4.9 ,which is quite acidic and way below what the plants like. I’ll raise it over the next couple of days with some bicarb soda.

pH is pretty low!
pH is pretty low!

Now I’m off to soak my tired muscles in a hot bath (with radox of course)!

Top it all up.
Top it all up.
Plant it out.
Planted out.
Viola!
Viola!

Kale Chips

Kale is well known for the nutrition that it packs into its leaves. It also has a reputation in some circles as being kind of boring. Making your own crunchy Kale chips at home can give it the kick it needs to be incorporated into your diet unless you’re already a convert, then you’ll already know the joy of crunching down on one.

Pick and wash choice pieces of Kale.
Pick and wash choice pieces of Kale.

How to make your own Kale chips –

Grab yourself some good sized leaves from your garden and give them a bit of a wash. Cut out the stalks and cut the leaves into pieces as big as you’d like.

Remove the stalk.
Remove the stalk.
Slice them to a size you'll like to nibble on.
Slice them to a size you’ll like to nibble on.

With the crinkly leaf varieties of Kale, I’ve found that you can save a bit of time by cutting across the stalk where it narrows. Then trim the sides. You can just tear the leaves but as this is the highest quality kind of cooking post, I’ve shown pics of cutting šŸ¤£

Don’t throw out the stalk or the little pieces of leaf that you inevitably end up with. You can dry and powder them later for stocks and soups. You can also feed them to your chooks or compost them, of course.

A light coat of oil...
A light coat of oil…

You need to lightly coat the pieces with oil. Olive oil or Rice Bran oil do the trick nicely but use what you’ got. Don’t drench them, just a light coating will do. Some folks lay them on a sheet of baking paper, I pop them into a big bowl to do it.

Sprinkle lightly with salt to taste. I love salt so I pile it on but your tastes may be a bit more delicate and refined. If you are using a bowl, give it all a toss so that the oil can get into all the nooks and crannies of your Kale pieces.

Thats a bit much salt, even for me!
Thats a bit much salt, even for me!

Preheat your oven to 120 – 150Ā°C

Lay the pieces out on baking paper on an oven tray and pop them into your oven for 20 minutes or so, checking from time to time for crunchiness.

Lay them out on some baking paper.
Lay them out on some baking paper.

Have a look after 10 minutes and move them around a bit and maybe even flip them so that they get baked evenly on both sides.

At this stage, before you pop the trays back into your oven, you can add Chili or Garlic flakes, dried Onion, Sesame seeds or Amaranth seeds as you desire. The choice is yours, it all adds to the taste!

Looks kind of like dried Seaweed but tastes a while lot better!
Looks kind of like dried Seaweed but tastes a while lot better!

When you’re happy with their crispness remove your chips from the oven and allow them to cool.

Munch away!

Mmmmmmmm
Mmmmmmmm

Pests, predators andĀ  taking it easy with the spray.

Yes, this is another post about letting nature take its course when it comes to pests. I’m getting into teaching about organic, pesticide free bug control and will write about it often as I clarify my thoughts.

I’ll admit it – I’m a lazy gardener. Lots of necessary, physical work by Marlon, Jelina and myself went into establishing the bones of Ligaya Garden but that’s done now. There are still a few large scale plans for the place but they’ll take professional work and substantial investment  to get done. We’ve done most of the achievable things that we planned.

Now it’s time to let the garden do its thing. The plants are all in, trees grown and bearing fruit, flowers, veggies and medicinal awaiting harvest. It’s  a pretty good time and the creatures that share our space are finding a balance. I like to let them do that because it makes my life much, much easier.

Little by little, Ligaya Garden has been colonised. Not by Jack booted invaders or ferocious folks waving Union Jacks but by lots and lots of tiny, welcome friends. At first, there were many pest problems as we were invaded by critters who liked nothing more than the thought of munching on our leafy greens and anything else, afterall, we had created an artificial ecosystem that had no defenders beside us – the young plants were a magnet for every pest under the Sun and I was kept busy jumping from one outbreak to another. Sometimes, though, we got to eat some of the plants ourselves.

Predatory wasps are everywhere now.

Enter the predators. At first, I was aware of the birds who flew in and out of our garden, snapping up pests on the wing or digging through our mulch (and usually kicking it onto our paths). Then, I saw a cloud of Hoverflies around our Crassula plant. That plant got divided and repotted and now its offspring are key parts of the garden ecology.

I found weird looking caterpillar cocoons and learned about predatory wasps,  saw myriads of dead aphids and learned about the huge number of insects who make their dinner from living ones.

As the garden matured and I learned its secrets, I saw many weird and wonderful critters and slowly unravelled their places in the tapestry of the garden. I saw which were the pests and which were the predators. It was slow learning as many insects who may be prey mimic other insects who may be predators. One big realisation was that the juvenile form of many insects look nothing like their parents! Ladybirds are a classic example, the almost spiny, lumpy, terrible looking larvae look nothing like their pretty beetle parents. Hoverfly larvae look nothing like hoverflies either. Then there were ‘instars’ to learn about. Instars are the stages of growth of a young insect and are marked by shedding the inflexible old exoskeleton as the juvenile insect grows beyond its limitations. Most insects change some aspect of their appearance between moults – they can change colour, markings and even body shape. 

The changes with new instars are not just physical. Insects can change behaviour as they mature. They can change their favorite food source, where they prefer to hunt or hide, many even learn to fly!

Learning so much lead me to realise that there are even more critters out there in the foliage that I never see. They could be pests or friends but I haven’t seen them yet. I’ve found so many by sheer accident and I know that every movement I make in the garden affects them. 

We’ve always been light on pest sprays, avoiding the chemical ones and choosing the ‘environmentally’  friendly options but I got to thinking that the products are all made from chemicals in huge factories, contained in plastic containers, wrapped in more plastic, then shipped to the shelves in my local  garden centres.  There had to be a better way. 

I started making more of my own pesticides. All the usual favourites- soap, Garlic and Chili mixes, Turmeric, White Oil. They helped  but I got to thinking one day and had the obvious epiphany that sprays are indiscriminate and affect more than just the bugs you want to eliminate. A ‘pesticide’ is just an ‘insecticide’ and all beneficial bugs are insects so my efforts were probably taking down a few of the good bugs too. 

I decided that except for overwhelming infestations on plants that we really needed to eat to stay alive, I would take a hands-off approach. I would let Nature make a balance.

It didn’t take long for the garden to achieve that balance. It took about 2 years to find the happy place between lost seedlings,  chewed leaves and a population of predators but I persevered. It was a frustrating, panic inducing time but we made it. 

Now our losses are negligible. We have some holes and chewed edges, damaged leaves or a spoiled piece of fruit from time to time but far, far less than before. I’ve learned when the cycles of pests come so am prepared to use the minimum of work to deter them while predator populations are hatching out and getting to work.

Homemade white oil

I still make a batch of White Oil here and there but a litre of it lasts me many months. Water spray knocks many populations into oblivion and agile fingers combined with hard soled shoes take care of many individuals.  I do admit to using the ‘safe’ Slug and Snail pellets in the bioponics system every time the season changes. At those times, large numbers of tiny Slugs make their way from their hiding places deep in the grow media and rush (as much as a Slug can ‘rush’) straight to the new season’s seedlings. Traditional alternatives such a beer traps just don’t seem to work. Maybe the Slugs are too young to have acquired a taste for the stuff (I remember that I didn’t start to enjoy it until I was in my 20s. What is that in Slug time)? The bioponics beds are well off the ground and netted,  so that eliminates the chance that animals and birds may accidentally ingest some 

This year  I have learned that I can limit the Slug damage by paying attention to the timing of the plantings and by letting seedlings grow a little bigger before transferring them to the bioponics beds. This year, I used about a 3rd of the pellets that I did the year before. Hopefully by, as the permies say ‘observing and interacting’, I can eliminate them altogether next year.

I have learned which plants different pests attack first. Red Spider Mites always hit the potted Pepino in the back yard before I see them anywhere else. Crusader Bugs prefer the Orange tree and head there before they develop a taste for Mandarines, the same is true for Citrus Leaf Miners. 

A Spined Soldier Bug was seen sucking the insides from a caterpillar

The real excitement is when I discover a previously unseen predator in the garden. I saw a Lacewing larva the other day carrying its camouflaging bundle of dead victims. A Spined Soldier Bug was seen sucking the insides from a caterpillar and I discovered that we not only have Hoverflies, but that we have two species at our place and there’s another in a nearby garden. I hope that I can lure them to ours!

Plant nutrition is the next thing to focus on. I’ve always well fertilized our garden with generalised, home made fertilisers but I’m getting into much more specific information. Its not quite true that pests won’t attack a healthy plant but a healthy plant has less chance of attracting them, a better shot at fighting them off and will recover much faster once they’re gone.

Companion planting is the go!

Companion planting is another key. In general, strong smelling plants deter pests from attacking them or nearby plants. At Ligaya Garden, one of our Lavenders and a Wormwood grow right through the lower branches of our Mandarin tree, bringing pollinators and deterring many invaders. We’ve not had problems with Nematodes but plant Tagetes in different places every year to deter them from the soil. Their strong smell deters other things too. Many companion plants have the double benefit of attracting beneficial insects too.

Our garden design incorporates dense interplanting and I think that I think that interplanting densely with a wide mix of species simply confuses the buggers on arrival.

Of course, I haven’t done all this by observation and interaction in the classic sense.  There are hundreds of great insect identifying guides on the Web. My favorite book on the topic is ‘Garden Pests & Good Bugs’ by Denis Crawford, published  by ABC books. I like this guide because it is Australian and it is aimed at garden pests, so it ticks two boxes for me. It is very well illustrated, both pests and predators in detail and has a section on diseases. It’s my go to book for garden insects.

My go-to book on garden insects

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, you don’t have to go as deeply into everything as we do here, I just love learning and have the time but maybe you’re too busy with a job and kids to focus. I’ll keep posting for you what I observe and learn. I’m even creating new posts and a page dedicated to the topic of pest control. There’ll be a new item added to the menu bar soon so that you’ll have no trouble finding them.

Even the worst have a purpose

One of the most feared warm weather plants!
One of the most feared warm weather plants!

Anyone who has ever worn socks in Summer or owns a pet will know Burr Medic (Medicago polymorpha)! It’s spiny little seed cases get stuck in anything fibrous weather man made or furry. It is equally a curse for folks who like their lawns immaculate.

But that’s all a human centred view. In our ecosystems, it has several valuable uses.

It’s got a job to do

We just have to face it, Nature doesn’t like bare soil and does whatever she can to cover it. Bare soil is seen as a wound and needs to be protected and restored. That’s where Burr Medic comes in.

This tough little plant is a coloniser that excels at its job. Its mat of leaves act as a bandaid for the bare soil, covering it and protecting it from further damage. Burr Medic has other uses too. It has a deep taproot that penetrates deep into the soil, breaking up compaction. This taproot brings nutrients to the above ground parts of the plant which, when they die, add them to the surface as organic material which can be further broken down my various microfauna. This organic material also protects the soil from damage as well as increasing its water retention capability . When it dies, the taproot provides convenient food for soil fauna and when digested, leaves a path for water and oxygen to penetrate into the soil.

Anyone who's worn socks will know Burr Medic!
Anyone who’s worn socks will know Burr Medic!

Burr Medic is a Legume too and, like the other well known members of that Family (Leguminosae) Beans and Peas, provide nitrogen to the soil which is invaluable in so many biological processes. The nitrogen fixing bacteria which do this job are located in nodules on the roots and when the rest of the plant does or they are broken off, they decay and their valuable cargo of nitrogen makes its way into the soil. The bacteria need to live inside these nodules because the process by which they gain energy and fix nitrogen is an anaerobic one (that is, without oxygen) and the walls of the nodule keep the oxygen out.

It's a Legume.
It’s a Legume.

The tiny Pea flowers (which help to define its Family) of Burr Medic provide a food source for many tiny creatures, both pollinators and predators, greatly increasing the biodiversity that would be lacking on bare soil.

A deep taproot makes it extra useful.
A deep taproot makes Burr Medic extra useful.

As with many coloniser plants, Burr Medic produces a prolific amount of seeds and has an effective dispersal mechanism the tiny hooks on the seed pods snag into anything furry that brushed against them and they are, thus, transported further afield.

Interestingly, at Ligaya Garden, we have only been graced with the presence of Burr Medic since I started regularly mowing the road verge. Before that, we saw it only in neighbours gardens and in other verge areas but now it’s here. It’s a pain to have and even the kindest thoughts and recognition of its role don’t endear it to me but it does it’s job well and I’ll leave it on the verge and just pick off the occasional specimens that pop up inside the fenceline.

The stalk at the base of the middle leaf makes it a Medic, not a Clover.
The stalk at the base of the middle leaf makes it a Medic, not a Clover.

Control

If you must remove Burr Medic, there are several methods that you can try before reaching for the herbicides.

Because it is a coloniser, it tends to minimise its presence once the soil is repaired. Adding goodly amounts of organic material to increase water holding capacity and soil structure is a good way toward deterring it or getting rid of it.

The seed pods are a problem that is best dealt with by regular removal such as mowing before it sets flowers and seeds. removal of the crown at the soil level leaves the organic material of the taproot to decay in the soil. Once seeds have been set, laying an old blanket over the area can pick up a lot of them. Then you just need to pick them off of tee blanket and dispose of them.

Burr Medic germinates in late winter so observation and removal of the young seedlings can help stop it from getting a foothold. At this stage, I pour boiling water over more established plants and that kills them off nicely.

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