It’s been an exciting month with lots of reading about composting, because our new garden beds have the most dreadful soil. Only one worm has made an appearance, which was just because of big rains (when there’s excessive water in the soil, worms escape to the surface, only to reach a terrible sunny purgatory). The lack is worrying because worms are like underground gas-chamber canaries, so the ground must be very tired. When I read worm books, I think of the data coursing through my brain like an information worm, reminiscent of those dreadful library posters showing the internet as a hypercolour tunnel.
Despite the worm drought, it’s been exciting to find some other bugs in the soil (sorry no pictures). M thought they were witchetty grubs (they are white with a red/brown head). However, my Mum thinks they are a root-eating grub – and back in the day, they were fed to pet dogs (I don’t want to think about that).
Composting is the only solution I can think of to fix the soil to make it a suitable venue for a wormy party – Peter Cundall calls them “…the underground movement.” (Murphy, 2005, p. xv). It could become The Place for dirty wormy raves, maybe I should play them the Worms song (Clark, 1953) to facilitate mad dancing.
I just finished helping a neighbour empty their above-ground compost – which was unfortunately full of rubbish (non-bio plastic wrappers, dog toys, buckets… it covered a large area). It made me feel better about the state of my own dirt-patch. Sir Albert Howard (founder of the organic farming movement) says that “Every compost heap has its own history.” (2009). But I wish it wasn’t a rubbish dump history. Haven’t people read that book in the Babysitter’s Club series where they realise a biscuit packet can’t decompose?
If a compost heap is a snapshot of history, it’s like an inverted family tree of earthworms. Van de Water wrote in a farm-nostalgia style about the origin of fishing bait, unearthing that first part of the catch: “The angler who purchases his lures from a languid sporting-goods clerk forgoes part of the adventure, misses the opening chapters of the romance, never hears the first movement of the symphony. The redolent manure heap behind the barn; the rusty potato fork plunged into the rich and quivering earth; the revelation of pink and brown, divinely ordained bait among the scattered clods; the ecstasy over the bluely glistening night crawler…” (1949, p. 66).
I’m not yet invested enough to puree vegie scraps to “pamper my worms”, but I do like the idea of a food-like end product: “Your compost should look and feel like rich chocolate cake – dark brown, moist and crumbly.” (2009, p. 11). Peter Cundall did always say that good soil was “so good you could eat it”. At the other end of food, I was excited to read about the Bhawalkar Earthworm Research Institute (Pune, India) creating a low-cost, waterless, worm-driven toilet. I don’t know much about the topic, but there is a composting toilet at Canberra’s Sustainable House – surely if there can be one at one residence in the ACT, there could be more, especially in new developments?
In terms of aesthetics, my compost piles haven’t ever really scored highly – when I wanted to use a tyre (but they do have a lot of chemicals), Mr. Sonja decried our garden as looking “too industrial”. So I did the cheapie thing and bought lid-bins (meant for rubbish) and cut holes in the base (if you end up doing this, you can put some holes in the sides, or put a pipe down the middle, if you’re not inclined to turn/stir it). To make a “normal” heap (i.e. one that isn’t in a container) a bit prettier, you can grow zucchini, pumpkin, cucumbers or melons on top – plant seeds about 3cm deep at the edge of the compost and water regularly (Cullen et al, 1992, p. 68). Green mulching would be fun as well, but I would feel sad to cut the plants down. Thompson et al (2008) suggest building a compost bin from stacked hay bales, the top of the which can be used for planting vegetables or flowers.
I aspire to growing comfrey (or borage) and making comfrey tea just for my compost, like we are just two girlfriends having a brew together (except one of us is rotting). But I enjoy this idea more than actually doing it, a bit like flossing – more about intention than practice. I could even become the sort of person that asks other Canberrans going to the coast, ‘could you bring me back some seaweed, for my garden?’. I’ve read different things about whether you need to rinse seaweed but Taylor et al (2010) say that the sea salt shouldn’t be concentrated or present because the nutrient elements are absorbed as separate entities. But you still might want to chop it into bits. For the impatient composter, Taylor et al has a recipe for “Fast-cooking 14-day compost”, which is tempting because the extreme heat means you can bake potatoes in the ground!
I’m also reading an awesome retro YA book (with a delightful cover), Worms in the night – I don’t know what kind of worms they are yet, but a character warns “Look out for the worms. They’ll get you,’” (Harewood, 1991, p. 23). I look forward to finishing it because the mystery of the worms is just so ominous. I would still like our garden to have more, though.
(2009). Composting : a down-to earth, water-wise guide. Camberwell, Vic : Penguin
Clark, Olive. (1953). Worms. http://nla.gov.au/nla.mus-vn2054441
Cullen, Mark. & Johnson, Lorraine. & Aldous, David E. (1992). Backyard and balcony composting : the complete guidebook. Melbourne : Bookman
Harewood, Jocelyn. (1991). Worms in the night. Sydney : Pan Australia Horizons
Horsfall, Mary. (2011). The mulch book. Chatswood, N.S.W : New Holland
Murphy, David. (2005). Organic growing with worms : a handbook for a better environment. Camberwell, Vic : Penguin
Taylor, David. & Allsop, Rob. (2010). The compost book. Chatswood, N.S.W : New Holland Publishers (Australia)
Thompson, Ken. & Cosgrove, Laurie. & Gilbert, Alan. (2008). Compost. Camberwell, Vic : Dorling
van de Water, Frederic Franklyn. (1949). In defence of worms and other angling heresies. New York : Duell, Sloan and Pearce
I toiled away in the heat today, for a harvest of potatoes and some fetid compost. The plants could have kept going for a little while, but the hot spell had made them faint in their enclosure. I couldn’t contain my anticipation as I dismantled the “cat-proof” fence. Witness Ms. Cat’s squinty-eyed disapproval of the boundary line.
The cats did work out how to get in through a gap, but the wire was still better protection than last year’s attempt to grow potatoes in a tractor tyre. Those plants lost the will to live after Mr. & Ms. Cat both thought it was a pleasantly private place to attend to their needs. After that we called it the “shittery” because it was a horrible wreath of awful. Understandably the plants preferred the great nursery in the sky. Later I read theories about tyre chemicals leaching into the ground, so I washed the tyre and gave it to a friend for her dog (not as a toilet, you attach hessian on the top to make a hammock).
It was quite exciting to discover all the potatoes hiding under the sugarcane mulch like savoury easter eggs. I scrabbled through the ground like a mole and continued the excavation, there were so many layers like dirt chocolate with crunchy bits (my favourite pre-veg*n chocolate was Bertie beetle which had similar textural surprises).
I had been told that piling up the mulch near the potato plants would make it easier to harvest. Lies! Although this shouldn’t be considered a thorough scientific study as all our plants grew from potato scraps in the compost. It was sheer luck they were in roughly the same area to make for convenient fencing.
I made a great find with four sprouted avocado seeds! I put them in a container for the windowsill. I just checked them – they haven’t grown anymore, but a worm had hidden inside one of them during the 8 hours since the relocation. Protip – leave the avocado seeds on the edge of your garden to give any earthworms the chance to crawl out. I’ll have to see if he’s vacated the premises in the morning. There are more instructions on growing avocado plants on Australian avocados site. I always feel tempted to write “avocadoes”, like a deer herd of green fruit.
The reason we let the potatoes go was because we planted tomatoes two years in a row, and I freaked out about crop rotation. Some of the tomatoes didn’t know they were banned this year so they still woke up. Of course I didn’t realise that potatoes and tomatoes are family, so that was a bit of a waste of time. Anyway, we grew tomatoes in pots this year. Compared to our past bounties, this year’s crop has been quite disappointing. The heat is sort of an excuse, but there are a lot of other gardens in Canberra that have done better.
Mr. & Ms. Cat have reached their own goals for the season, having killed 2 ½ cucumber plants (the third was mostly killed by the heat), 2 zucchini plants and at least several potato plants. How are they so nefarious? They like to dig, or just squash a plant by sitting on top: “It was in my spot”.
You can see Ms. Cat likes to guard the stump near the black zucchini, “the last of his kind”. She’s a pirate cat with a pegleg on each front paw. Miaowyarr.
Thanks for visiting! An art practice sits within general life experience, so sometimes I will write about things which may not be explicitly art-related but might be conjuring up a body of work or some new ways of thinking.
TEDxCanberra 2011 was over a month ago, but it still continues to inspire me – idea digestion takes a while! I’ll also justify this by noting that these events are meant to be a wake up call, so a delay is inevitable as ideas are put into practice.
I was lucky enough to attend TEDxCanberra 2011 through a complimentary ticket from my workplace.
I really enjoyed Nick Ritar’s talk about living sustainably – and from this, I have embraced permaculture in a small way by answering nature’s call in our garden a few times, but I will need to find a more long-term solution.
Especially as we have recently removed the privacy-enhancing Diosma shrub from our yard.
Nick spoke about the importance of growing our own food, and there are lots of ways to learn more – naturally from your library, which supports your community and encourages sustainable resource-sharing.
Blatant book name-dropping (book-dropping?)
Clive Blazely says that:
“Growing your own vegetables is the single most important step to a sustainable, healthy life. When vegetables are grown at home they are fresh and free of chemicals, eliminating food miles and cutting CO2 emissions by up to 30%. It takes a few hours of work a week. In just 40 square metres you can grow 472kg of vegetables which is enough for four people.”
From Growing your own heirloom vegetables: bringing CO₂ down to earth, p. 24. You can find out more about the Diggers Club here.
Feasting on Floriade’s “Tasteful Sensations”
Recently Floriade – a festival of flowers – was held in Canberra, with a “Tasteful sensations” display showcasing the beauty of bush tucker, herbs and vegetables. In the Floriade picture below, my culinary ignorance asserts itself as I can only identify parsley and perhaps rhubarb. A beautiful garden and knowledge of plants are definitely only aspirations at this stage!
Australian bushfood cuisine
As well as growing our own food, we can minimise the environmental impact of our food choices by looking at sustainable, local Australian cuisine.
Vic Cherikoff’s book Uniquely Australian: a wild food cookbook: the beginnings of an Australian bushfood cuisine is very readable with lots of glossy, lust-worthy food pron pictures.
In his book, Vic discusses the possibilities of using eucalypt, desert wattles and desert oak saps as natural sweeteners. These could really change the landscape of the sugar and artificial sweetener industry, as we have seen with xylitol and stevia.
You can find out more about Vic and his Australian recipes here.
You may also be interested to read The urban homestead: your guide to self-sufficient living in the heart of the city which has very easy step-by-step instructions and down to earth advice about reducing your footprint. You can see Kelly and Eric’s blog here or follow them at @rootsimple
Here is my burgeoning compost heap, resplendent with the TEDxCanberra catering floral decorations. The rest of our yard – for now – is a very successful dirt garden.
The book links above will lead you to Trove, which is an Australia-wide discovery service – a catalogue for many libraries. To find a book in your local area, from the individual Trove book record, click on the “All libraries” tab and then the relevant state/territory tab. Click on the library name to go to that library’s catalogue. See the Trove help for more information.
Happy reading and gardening!