Sunday, October 18, 2009

Rain, salt and sea

Well its' been a couple of weeks of water. First the tsunami warning emanating from Samoa - and my heart and thoughts go out to the lovely gentle people from those Islands that were affected by this tragedy - and then the rain, lots of it. The tsunami warning really hit home, reminding us of the downside of living on what is basically a peat bog about a metre above the high tide mark and a few hundred metres from the waters edge. It would not take much for us to be in the same predicament as those other poor people. Once we realised that the tsunami was probably not going to be more than a tidal surge, my thoughts went from our safety to my garden, naturally! All I could think was how to get the chooks above ground level, and what would happen to the soil if salt water went over it. As it happened, the arrival of the surge coincided exactly with low tide, and we barely noticed it.

This got me thinking though, about salty soils and tidal inundation in general. Many areas around the world suffer from this problem, for a variety of reasons. One of the best ways of overcoming this problem is to apply gypsum to the soil, in fairly large quantities. The way this works is the calcium in gypsum replaces the sodium in the soil. If there is sufficient rainfall, or a sufficient supply of quality irrigation water, then the sodium leaches out into the subsoil or the ground water. Of course this requires a good amount of water, and somewhere for the sodium to go to. If there is not enough clean water, or the soil is quite shallow with a hard pan beneath it, then this does not work as well.

I used this technique just last week, when I treated blocks of coir fibre that I use for potting up my bromeliads. Great stuff, which the broms just love, as it is very free draining. However some of it, like the fibre I use, is produced in regions where there is not enough fresh water to process the coconut husks to produce the coir fibre. Any fresh water they have is a precious resource. The salt water they use instead impregnates the fibre with sodium, which is toxic to the plants planted in it. So, before I use it, it gets a dusting of Gypsum which is mixed in and then left to soak overnight. The next day, fresh water is run through until the salt level drops enough to use, after which the fertilisers can be added. I check the level with a handheld salt meter (also known as a CF or EC meter). Apart from the transport from places like Sri Lanka to NZ, using this product ticks all the boxes for me. Aside from being great for the broms, it is a renewable and sustainable product, with very little detrimental impact on the environment, and also helps support families in some pretty low income areas.

All this reminds me just how lucky we are in New Zealand, particularly up North, where the rainfall is plentiful and the water quality is usually superb. A bit too plentiful this last two weeks, where we've had rain nearly every day. This makes it a bit hard to get out into the garden, but I have managed to set up two more raised beds. These are really simple to make. I just get 5 macrocarpa sleepers, 2.1m long. One I cut in half for the ends, and the others make the sides, all held together with nail plates. So easy. This makes a bed 20cm high, 4.0 m long and 1.0m wide. Some so-called garden experts recommend making the beds much higher than this, up to 1 metre high! This is fine if you've got medical issues so you can't bend over or kneel, but is otherwise quite useless. A high bed just uses up much larger quantities of good soil, dries out much quicker and provides no added benefit to the plants. The sleepers are great, as they are so heavy they don't need additional stakes or framing to keep them in place and they provide a place to kneel on when you're weeding or planting the garden. We now have 7 of these beds in our vege garden, filled with a mix of 50:50 compost and peat soil.

One downside of all this rain and humidity is an increase in fungal diseases. I noticed late blight on the potatoes, aagh I hate this disease. This year I am determined to not let it beat me, which is easier said than done in the humid North. Anyway, I thought I might try Potassium bicarbonate, which is like baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), but slightly more effective. Well it worked better than I thought it would. Stopped the disease in its' tracks as well as any commercial fungicide. I made sure I got good coverage with the spray, and followed it up with another 10 days later to make sure. While one success proves little, it certainly gave me a enough of a indication to use it again later in the season when the disease pressure is greater. Fingers crossed.

On a less gloomy note than natural disasters, rain and disease, we harvested our first decent pick of strawberries today. An icecream container full of them; big, firm, sweet and juicy. Aah the joy of the first berries of spring, with vanilla icecream and cream. It looks like we're in for a good crop.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Icecream, lemon honey, lemonade and alcohol

Always a good combination in my opinion, but this time it was the making of it, rather than the consuming of it. With a surfeit of lovely lemons, from a rather tired but excessively cropping lemon tree; for the last couple of months we have been making anything and everything we could out of lemons. I'm hoping that we can reduce the load on the tree before it flowers, to try and reduce the chances of biennial bearing. With such a heavy crop I'm pretty sure it will have an off year this coming season anyway, but if I can shift the balance a little, that would be good.

This is another one of those sad, neglected trees that has all sorts of noxious weeds sapping the life from the soil around it. This week I have cleared out about 3 barrow loads of wandering jew (or wandering willie for the more PC inclined - although seeing as there is no similar general frowning on the expression "dutch courage" I fail to see why wandering jew needs changing), a barrow load of arum lilies and black taro, some chlorophytum, some ladder fern and a bunch of dock. All from under this poor tree.

I have found the best way to deal with wandering jew is to attack it with the mower. If you can get the mower under the tree, set it low to the ground, set the speed on full blast and get ready to empty the catcher a lot. It makes brilliant compost, as it heats up within hours, effectively killing off any life left in the mushy mash of leaves and stems. This is the method I used to free up the plum trees over winter. For the lemon tree I couldn't do this as I had planted bromeliads around the edge about 6 months ago. There's a lesson in that, finish clearing before you start planting! Anyway, wandering jew pulls out easy enough, then I just scatter it over the lawn to be munched up the next time I mow. Or I feed it to the chooks who love it.

People seem to get all panicky about leaving the little pieces behind, which will grow again quite quickly. For this reason many garden experts recommend spraying with herbicides. The common herbicide Glyphosate struggles against this weed, even when a sticking agent is used, so often more aggressive herbicides are recommended. My advice is simple, don't! There is no place for herbicides in the home garden, aside from using glyphosate to clear a large area for a new garden (if I have time I prefer to use a sheet of roofing iron to kill the area off over a month or so before planting). Some herbicides have residual effects in the soil that continue to affect your plants for months or even years. Others such as Clopyralid based herbicides can continue to kill even after composting the residues or feeding them to animals. Check out this UK site to see how scary this can be for home gardeners, or this US site for more information.

Instead of resorting to chemicals for troublesome weeds like ladder fern, wandering jew, arums and the like, just haul them out, mulch them up with a mower and then cover the soil with a good thick layer of mulch, such as sea grass, bark, sawdust or similar. The pieces that you've missed, which will be a lot; will regrow. However as they grow through mulch, their growth will be lush, their root systems comparatively smaller and they are much easier to pull out. If you get them early enough they will come out entire, without leaving bits behind. Presto! After two weeding sessions, three at the most, you have completely eliminated that nasty weed from that area. You've also improved your soil by adding lots of organic matter.

Whoops, that got a bit off topic, where was I, Oh yes, icrecream and alcohol. To use up the lemons and our eggs, Angela has been making delicious lemon honey, but this week she's been laid up with an infected leg, so I got out the cheap Vodka (that line always sounds classy) and proceeded to make Limoncello. This Italian lemon liqueur is right up my alley, being alcoholic (of course), sweet and lemony at the same time. As a by-product I made a big jug of fresh lemonade which is so much nicer than the bought stuff and so much better for you.

I was about to make lemon icrecream as well, but got sidetracked and added frozen blueberries that we swapped in autumn at our local green swap. The icecream recipe was so easy; in one bowl, whip up 4 egg whites with 1/4 cup of sugar, in another bowl mix the egg yolks with another 1/4 cup of sugar, in a third bowl whip 300ml of cream. Chuck the lot into an icecream maker, or gently mix them together yourself with a spoon and as you're mixing add a couple of decent handfuls of partially thawed blueberries (or fresh ones or anything else that is in season). It makes about almost 2 litres of really delicious icecream that is completely free of stabilisers, colouring, preservatives, artificial sweeteners and thickening agents. I used our fresh free range eggs so it is even richer to taste. Ooh, just ducked out to the freezer to have a sample, it's good!