grass or grain

The area where I live is rather infamous for growing a contraband herb commonly known as ‘grass’. Personally, I think the human race should working on waking up rather than medicating it’s pain. But I’m playing with the possibilities of regular grass here.

When I first started working with this plot of earth, the ground was like rock, with no worms or signs of soil life at all. Most of the region had been seeded with a particularly tough variety of pasture known as setaria grass, for beef production. It is a hardy, vigorous clumping perenial that grows a foot a week in summer, reaching a height (that falls over) of up to 2 metres if not grazed by permanent livestock. Although, thankfully, it slows growing in winter, keeping it in check without constant grazing or weekly slashing in summer is impossible. Heavy cattle grazing & yearly burning off contributed to the compacted lifeless soil condition & so not an option for me. AND I don’t have a tractor. For lack of a solution, mostly it has been allowed to simply grow for many years & inadvertently added compost & protected the soil from erosion. The result, especially after the last few wet years has been a vast improvement in soil life & condition.

However, the wet won’t last forever & long grass is a fire hazard in dry years & setaria is not the best quality grass for grazing ruminants; horses suffer calcium deficiencies & so too, most likely do other species. Grass is food for animals but a more varied diet is preferable. My plan is to intercrop with other grass & herb types by slashing in autumn when growth slows & seeding with lawn varieties & clover for nitrogen-fixing in open areas & roadways/access tracks as fire breaks. Once new pasture is established in a few months, the introduction of goats should help with maintenance over summer. I have chosen goats for their usefulness in browsing brush & weeds & have found their barn/straw droppings a bonus in the vegetable beds; their small size does much less soil compaction damage & they conveniently eat more grass in summer & more brush in winter (lantana & woody weeds abound here).lantana eating goatlings

So far, I have reclaimed perhaps an acre or two by hand digging fully grown clumps of setaria grass, laying on contour & creating garden beds with the decomposing grass, a back breaking job of many years. In fact, anywhere the grass isn’t over your head & looks like garden is the result of this work. Now I have a new method that looks unsightly for a time but far more effective- covering with old carpet or black builders plastic, leaving for months until the grass dies & directly planting into the resulting layer of mulch. Instant garden!black plastic

This piece of black plastic has been progressively rolled downhill & now the newly cleared area has been planted to linseed, a crop I tried a patch of last winter with great success. The great advantage of this method is not digging. I’ve found that as soon as one turns the earth or it is laid bare, a new nightmare begins, weed seeds that have laid dormant invariably sprout, creating more work in the cropping area.

My latest grass experiment is to try inter-cropping grain into the permanent pasture, taking advantage of the dormant winter growth of setaria to interplant wheat & oats (a winter crop in Australia).  Without tilling or disturbing the soil I have been spreading seed between the clumping grass (although the clumps are massive, they are almost a foot apart). After the harvest in spring, the permanent grass will re-grow to be grazed by the goats who will also manure & fertilize the area for the next season’s winter grain. That’s the cunning plan!

Here’s the progress so far: first, cut the grass! Easier said than done- this stuff is like rope & has been un-cut for years, resulting in tangled masses that only the toughest brush-cutter, time & gritted teeth can conquer. Fortunately, I have the machine, although it took 5 tanks of petrol to clear the first 10m2! before rakingThe pic at right is after the first cut before raking the mulch for the vege gardens. Did I say raking? Yeah right- no rake can get through it. Human tractor picks up with bare hands.

Next, after clearing bulk of mulch, leave to re-sprout one week & cut again.big clumps This picture will give you an idea of the monster grass I’m dealing with here. Next to the boot is ONE clump before the second cut. Grass is cut in the forth lunar quarter on the waning moon; hopefully it’ll stop growing. Hopefully (now late April).

Now for the fun part. There is is still a good layer of mulch on the ground between the clumps. I don’t want to expose the soil or dig but take advantage of the very wet soil & use the mulch to cover,but the seeds do need soil contact. Human tractor gets low & dirty. Hands & knees, hand fork in one hand, rake surface mulch towards self, sprinkle seed, rake next section over first, one foot by one foot, across contour. 12m2of wheat sown in first lunar quarter (sow leafy greens).         IMAG0040 Left: soil bared for seeds before raking mulch over to clear next section.

Ok, so this is madness, you may think. Why would I bother? This isn’t even a grain-growing area. Sub-tropical, mountainous ex-rainforest. Tell that to the traditional Asian populations of the world. AND I don’t have a tractor! AND I don’t want to turn the soil, slowly returning to fertility after years of slashing, burning & over-grazing. Why even grow grain? Because I eat it! Because I’m not trying to make money & grow large areas. Because I have inadvertantly realized a tractor would have compacted this super saturated soil (one has time to think & observe when on hands & knees tending the earth). Will wheat even grow here? Well it did last year! I tried a small patch (5m) of biodynamic wheat from a farm some 100km from here- the nearest I could find. It grew fine & fortunately we had a very dry spring when it was heading (a usual pattern). I saved the seed & have re-planted the small amount in the crop circle for extra care to save again. I plan to save (not eat) my seed for generations to breed a wheat variety acclimatised to my zone. Taking the time & trouble to do all this by hand is worth it to save seed, the most important thing any gardener can do in this age of multi-national take-overs of our sovereign right to food! after first cut

At left is the slashed area one week later, before sowing to wheat.sprouts 1 1/2 weeks After sowing, I cut grass to cover seeds.At right are the newly emerged seedlings another week later. Aren’t they beautiful? At the same time, I am applying the same process to an area adjacent to the ‘crop’ that I hope to keep low over summer as an access road/ fire break parallel to the creek line (which is being planted to native rainforest). The edges slope & I am created mini-terraces planted to sub-tropical tubers (ginger, galangal, cassava & jerusalem artichokes) as a living fence/windbreak. new lawn seed

To the left is the new wheat crop, to the right, new pasture grass seedlings emerge, with root crop beds at the far right. Towards the rear is the next slashed & grass seeded zone one month later.at 4 weeks

 

 

The picture at right is the one month old wheat crop (late May). As the ground is still moist, I have not yet watered the new crop at all, including at planting. Meanwhile, I have prepared the next zone for oats to the left of the area in this photo & planted another section of wheat  3 x 10m between as a test for best sowing times for future reference. (1st & 2nd lunar quarter in May)  Below right

left wheat right oatsmay 25/201Above the grain growing area is the ‘crop circle’, now with an outer ring of wattle branches & up-rooted lantana. Late sunflowers, Oats & chickpeas have already been sown into this area & will soon also be planted with stone fruit, as this whole flat zone is liable to get frost at times. The crop circle (above right) is now being planted with a succession of winter vegetables, one segment per month. Note the ‘special’ wheat (from last years home-grown seed) to the top left of the photo. The milk carton cloches front left I now regard as indespensible to protect the new seedlings from wind, sun & insect exposure until their roots have established. So that’s the autumn planting, on to goat fencing preparations!

 

where are we now?

We closed our demonstration space at 66 Cullen St, Nimbin some months ago. Once the site at 7 Sibley site had been confirmed as purchased, we decided to take a break, catch up on the home front (our own zone one!) & be fresh for future involvement with the community owned Sustainable Living Hub at Sibley Street. Although the community has raised some funds towards the purchase, we still have a way to go before it is paid in full & until then, not much development can progress, but the Nimbin community has done it before! (We collectively bought the old high school site- now our community centre, housing a childcare centre, aged care service, Aboriginal cultural centre, Nim FM our local radio station, the youth club, dance studio, Aquarius Foundation & more!) We invite the world to help us raise funds, for more info about the project …http://www.sevenonsibley.com/……….

Meanwhile, back at the farm, extra time at home has seen the garden expand. Some extra help from Chris’s team of weed eating goats has made huge dents in the lantana infested landscape.Much easier to clear after they’ve made holes in it!terracing the slopes Now I’m moving up the mountain!

Personally, I’m a fan of adventitious weeds. Native regrowth is of course preferred, but the reality is that after 100 years of land-clearing, burning off & overstocking of cattle, this property, like so many others, had no topsoil when I came here 20 years ago & any rainforest species I planted in the early days didn’t survive & the fruit trees are only now starting to come good. Evolution takes time. Being in one once place for long enough has allowed me to observe the succession of species. I decided early on to leave the steep slopes to themselves, while concentrating on eradicating the setaria grass (great for grazing but grows 2m high without) & building up garden areas close to the house. Meanwhile, the slopes (once bare & eroded) changed over time to grow first blady grass (tough as it comes & sharp!), then bracken, then crofton weed, then lantana & finally the pioneer trees Marangas & wattle. Now shaded, the lantana is thinner (although scrambling up the trees) & with more mature stabilizing growth I can now clear the lantana & plant native rainforest trees. The photo above right is a very steep area beginning to be cleared. Some marangas have been felled & left on contour with lantana sticks to create terraces (biomass) & then planted with taro, ginger & galangal (edible tubers suited to this climate). These plants on contour should prevent erosion, allowing leaf matter to build up & contribute to topsoil buildup over time.

Similarly, I have observed all manner of common garden weeds appear, only to be replaced with others as the soil chemistry has changed. I have always pulled weeds & left them where they lie (biomass, biomass) & collected flowering or seeding weeds in a bucket filled with water to rot & used subsequent brew as fertilizer. Soil homeopathics!

All the rain of the last year has motivated me to trench & terrace even more (Shane calls me the human tractor) The new ‘crop circle’ below left looks more like a water wheel in heavy rain, like some strange machine, the trenches channel water from one part to another (I dug most of it in heavy rain!) trenches crop circl garden

This area was planted to all sorts of things I hadn’t tried much before- flax (linseed), oats, wheat, garlic as well as the other winter stuff broccoli, garlic, onions, beetroot, broad beans & kale. Elsewhere I had lettuce, spinach, potatoes, snowpeas, shallots, chinese greens, cabbage & cauliflower. With strawberries & bananas & the last of the pumpkins I haven’t bought fresh food for months! Everyone complained about the endless rain but now it’s stopped, it’s too dry & getting hotter so most of the garden gets a rest & I retract back to a small area of well-fed raised gardens for greens where I can keep up the water in summer. The self seeding cherry tomatoes take over & until chilli pickin’ starts up, I’ll have my hands full keeping the grass down.IMAG1272

At right, the basket gardens ready for summer planting. The pond has styrofoam boxes planted with water chestnuts- just sprouting nicely now. Hopefully, they’ll reproduce enough to grow a much bigger crop next year to float on the dam. I usually grow mint & vietnamese mint in the pond too & use the water for emergency watering or even grow lettuce in floating boxes so they don’t wilt when it gets too hot.