Chicken tractor

We have a lot of weeding to do on our farm and it seemed a good idea to get the chooks to help. Chooks are very good at removing weeds and bugs as they scratch away at the soil – hence the name chicken tractor. They enjoy having plenty of green feed, and a mobile hen house that could be towed by a tractor or car was the answer to getting the chooks to work where we wanted the ground cleared of grass and weeds between grape vines, around fruit trees, and before preparing beds.

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My husband made this mobile hen house from a discarded farm trailer as one of his “chain saw carpentry” projects. He built the framework from 75 x 50 and 50 x 25 pieces of hardwood we had around the place. He bolted the framework to the sides and base of the trailer, and covered the frame with hardwood planks. The roof was made from alsonite sheets, but corrugated iron could be used. The sloping roof prevents rain pooling, and allows a ventilation area which was covered with chicken wire.
The back flap of the trailer was removed, and replaced with a drop-down door that is made from 10 mm waterproof ply cut to the full height of the structure. The door is hinged at the base so that, when opened, it forms a ramp for the chooks to get in and out of their house. Several rows of tomato stakes can be screwed in across the ramp for traction. Our chooks fly in and out of their home but the “steps” are helpful for chicks and pullets. The door is held closed by a piece of 50 x 25 timber that drops into a bracket on each side of the house structure.
Three nest boxes sit in the timber and plywood structure across the tow bar. This part has a hinged plywood lid for easy egg collection and cleaning, checking on babies, etc.. This trailer had timber sides, and it was easy to remove the panels from the side over the draw bar, but this section can be cut out of a metal trailer with an angle grinder.

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Perches are wedged diagonally across the interior for roosting. We have had up to twenty chooks sleep happily in this sized house. The floor is covered with an old tarp that can be pulled out for quick cleaning. The hen house was constructed pretty quickly – my husband has had no training in woodworking, so it’s an easy DIY project for the average person. This hen house has served us well for quite a few years but, as you can see, it could do with a coat of paint.

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The hen house is moved by tractor (in the early am before the chooks are let out) to an area that needs weeding. We set up a heavy duty chicken wire fence supported by star stakes around the weedy area, with two stakes closer together at one end to form a gate. You can use anything for a gate, really. At the moment we are using a rack from a commercial freezer (perfect). Where the ground is uneven, the 1 – 1.2m high fence is anchored with tent pegs or bent fencing wire. We always make sure the chooks have clean water and shell grit, and the area under the hen house provides shade for the chooks and their water dish if there are no trees in that section of the farm. It also provides a safe hiding place from cruising eagles and hawks.
As well as plenty of green feed, the chooks get the best kitchen scraps (except for potato and avocado), some cracked grain each day, and sprouted oat seed twice a week.

Frogs

After many years of drought, we had a lot of rain earlier this year. It was impossible to keep our pool chlorinated, so we waited until the sky cleared before attempting to clean the pool. To our surprise we found the pool contained many hundreds of tadpoles. Frogs are very welcome on our property because they eat insects and spiders. They are also a sign of a healthy environment. Many pesticides and herbicides are toxic to frogs and tadpoles.
The tadpoles were feeding on the algae on the sides of the pool, and looked quite healthy. Apart from providing some shade for them over part of the pool, and providing some ramps for froglets to get out of the pool, we left them to do what tadpoles do best. An old window screen prevents them from being sucked into the filter when we run the pump. I haven’t fed them because I haven’t had any lettuce growing, and I didn’t want to feed them lettuce that could contain systemic pesticides.

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There appears to be three types of tadpoles, one brown, one black, and a very shy type that is a pale, almost translucent, olive. These tadpoles don’t look the same as the small green tree frogs that bred in our small frog pond, as they were quite green by the time their tails had been absorbed (see below).

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The first to become froglets were the brown tadpoles; the other two types still have tails.
These mottled frogs with a dark stripe down each side, aren’t particularly nervous around humans and will allow me to get close enough to photograph them. In sunlight, the tops of their heads look almost like burnished copper, but at other times they look grey-brown. It appears that these froglets belong to the tree frog group because they have no trouble climbing the tiles at the edge of the pool. I spotted one of them hiding in a Birds-nest Fern the other day but most of the frogs are treating our backyard like Club-Med, and spend the day lolling around the pool. I have no idea what kind of frog they are, and would be grateful if someone could enlighten me.

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Saving pumpkin seed

If your pumpkin vine has performed well for you this year, it is worth saving seed from one of the best pumpkins as the plants that grow from collected seed will have already adapted to your soil and climate conditions, and pumpkin seed is very easy to save. After harvesting, store the pumpkin for 2 or 3 weeks to make sure the seeds are fully mature. Then cut the pumpkin and scoop out the seeds. Place the seeds in water and rub them to remove the pulp. Viable seeds usually sink to the bottom of the container. Rinse the seeds well, then spread the seeds on a sheet of paper to dry where mice can’t get to them. After two weeks, place seeds in a labelled jar or envelope and store in a cool, dark, dry place.

Harvesting pumpkins

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It’s about time to harvest pumpkins again. Our pumpkin vine this year was a volunteer that sprang up in the chook run from the remnants of an old compost heap. It didn’t get any TLC because we half expected the chooks to trample it before it became established. However, it defied the odds and performed magnificently – which only goes to show how good compost is for growing vegetables.
I think it was only watered once but it received plenty of rain during its growing period, and the vine has produced at least 14 JAP pumpkins that we have found so far. JAP pumpkin is closely related to butternut pumpkin, gramma and trombone squash (Cucurbita moschata). These are thinner skinned and don’t keep as long as the Queensland Blue types (C. maxima).
Because we couldn’t spare the water last year, we bought all our pumpkins and some of them weren’t the best because of the drought. Consequently, we were curious to see what we could expect from our volunteer plant and picked one of the pumpkins early. (As you can see in the photo below, the stem is still moist.) Pumpkins picked at this stage do not keep well but we are using this pumpkin immediately, so it doesn’t matter. Now that they are nearly ripe, we will put a broken piece of foam box or thick cardboard under each fruit to keep them drier and clear of the ground, so they are less likely to rot. We will be leaving the rest of the crop until the vine dies off, and the stems become brittle, as that is when they develop their full flavour and store well. If you can’t wait that long, at least wait until the tendril closest to each pumpkin browns off.
Don’t worry about frost on your pumpkins, it will only kill the vines, and it is said that frost toughens the skins so that pumpkins keep longer.
P.S. When the vines had died back a bit, we realised that the vine had produced 28 pumpkins. Not bad for a volunteer vine! There were, of course, more than enough to supply family and friends, and we were able to sell the rest through our local organic greengrocer.
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Propagating Strawberries

In our area, propagating strawberries is usually a February job, but plants were late sending out runners this year due to the cooler summer. I like to use runners to grow some new plants each year, as vigorous, young strawberry plants are healthier and more productive. Once the new plants are growing well, I can thin out some of the older plants that are no longer performing well.
While our strawberry plants are fruiting, I put a plant marker next to the best producers. As soon as our strawberry plants finish fruiting and start to send out very long thin stems, I clear away the mulch to make it easier for the plants to take root. I then give the bed a drink of seaweed extract tea. Seaweed contains compounds that encourage root growth and build disease resistance.
At the end of each runner a small plant will form and tiny white roots will appear at the base (see photo A). Vigorous runners can produce two or three plantlets along each runner. I anchor plantlets from the best parent plants to the soil surface by placing a stone on the runner on the parent side of the plant. If the plantlet does not make good contact with soil, the roots will brown and the plantlet will die or grow poorly. Merely anchoring the plantlet to the soil surface allows the crown of the plant to sit on the soil surface where it should be. Strawberry crowns that become buried will rot.
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When the plantlet has produced a strong root system (see photo B), the runner connecting it to the parent plant can be severed with secateurs or a sharp knife.
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The new plant can then be left to grow where it is, or moved to another part of the bed so that all the plants have good air circulation. If I move new plants, I dig a wide shallow hole for each plant so that I can spread out the roots before covering them, and ensure that the crowns sit on the soil surface. I also remove all but one or two of the youngest leaves as this reduces any wilting after transplanting. I usually pot up some runners for spares too, just in case. Then, all that is required is regular watering and an occasional drink of manure tea until the plants are growing strongly. I don’t usually mulch them in autumn as the bare soil stays warmer and encourages the plants to produce plenty of healthy foliage so that next season’s berries will be hidden from birds.
Purists advise that runners should only be taken from plants that have not fruited because other plants are likely to be infected with strawberry virus. An aphid spreads this virus and we have never had aphids on our strawberry plants. As long as you use only runners from healthy, vigorous plants and use organic cultivation methods, there should not be a problem with runners that have fruited.

Traditional Moon Planting

All about traditional moon planting

Traditional Moon Planting is an ancient agricultural practice that has been used by farmers for several thousand years and is still practiced today. It is based on the synodic period of the Moon from one New Moon to the next, an average period of 29.5 days.
Over time, farmers observed that all aspects of farming were affected by the interaction of the gravitational forces between the Sun, the Moon and Earth. These are the same gravitational forces that affect ocean tides around the world. Because the Moon is closer to Earth, its effects are more noticeable. These observations were handed down to younger generations as their community’s survival depended on getting the best results from their crops.
Scientists have more recently confirmed that variations in sap flow, biological functions in plants, and subtle changes in Earth’s electro-magnetic fields, correspond to the Moon’s gravitational pull. Scientists have also confirmed that the Moon has an influence on breeding and feeding cycles of many life forms on this planet. As plants contain a high proportion of water, it is not surprising that they would also respond to a force that can move huge bodies of water. And, when you consider that plants absorb nutrients as ions that carry either a positive or negative electric charge, you can see how changes in electro-magnetic fields can affect the growth of plants.
The Lunation Cycle
Each lunation cycle the Moon passes through four phases – New Moon, First Quarter, Full Moon and Last Quarter. The number of days between each change of phase can vary from 6 3/4 to 8, so to make it easier for you, the current moon phase and its duration can be found by clicking on the ‘Current moon phase’ icon in the menu bar.
The Waxing Moon
During New Moon and First Quarter phases, the Moon is increasing in light. In these two phases, sap flow increases in the above ground parts of plants, and these are the most suitable phases for sowing and transplanting annuals (and biennials). Flowering annuals, grains, melons and spring onions do well if planted in either phase but, generally, New Moon phase is best for leafy annuals and First Quarter is best for fruiting annuals. Liquid fertilisers will take effect more quickly if applied during the waxing phases. Shrubs and trees can be pruned in First Quarter phase when you want to produce new growth quickly, such as pruning spring-flowering shrubs or summer pruning of roses. When pruned while sap flow is high, sap is quickly diverted to the lateral shoots. When sap flow is low, regrowth is slower and dieback is more likely to occur in some plants. First Quarter phase is also good for grafting and budding because these require a high sap flow for successful results.
The Waning Moon
During the Full Moon and Last Quarter phases the Moon decreases in light and sap flow in plants is more concentrated in the root area. As sap flow gradually slows during these two phases, Full Moon phase is best for sowing and planting because germination is lower, and regrowth slower, during Last Quarter phase. Because sap flow is lower in the foliage part of plants, crops or seed harvested for storage or drying are less likely to rot if harvested during the Moon’s waning period.
Full Moon phase is best for the sowing and planting of both root crops and perennials (plants that live longer than two years). All trees, shrubs, vines (including fruit trees and vines), globe artichokes, asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries, herbaceous perennials, bulbs and lawn grasses are perennials. The reason that these plants are planted (or sown) in the root vegetable phase is that perennials have a different type of root system from leafy and flowering annuals. Roots of perennial plants have, like root vegetables, the ability to store carbohydrates and nutrients, and this type of root system is important for the longevity of perennials.
Because Full Moon phase favours root growth, this is also an excellent phase for taking cuttings, or for aerial layering, because root growth must form to support new foliage growth. This is also the best phase for dividing plants for the same reason. Prune dormant plants during Full Moon phase. Last Quarter phase is best for cutting back rampant shrubs and vines, – regrowth will be less vigorous.
Fertile and Barren signs
Traditional moon planting uses the tropical zodiac that divides the celestial belt into twelve equal parts of 30 degrees, named after the constellations that were closest to them in the second century B.C., and ignores that fact that the actual constellations vary widely in size. The twelve segments were also given labels of ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. The equal divisions were basically markers for degrees of tension from the major permanent points of reference (the Solstices and the Equinoxes), which occur within 24 hours of the same days each year.
Negative segments are considered ‘fertile’ and the best days within a phase for sowing, planting, taking cuttings, budding and pruning to encourage growth. Positive segments are considered ‘barren’ and best days within a phase for collecting seeds, harvesting crops and for storage and weeding.

Does traditional moon planting work?

As someone who has obtained certificates in both astrology and horticulture and had been working in horticulture for some 40 years, I felt competent to test and assess the various moon planting and gardening guides available to the public. Over a period of eight years, I experimented with and compared different forms of moon planting against detailed records of sowing, germination, growth, harvesting and pruning.
Some moon or lunar calendars and guides advised readers to plant all plants that produce fruit above ground during First Quarter phase. This ignores the different root system of perennials. Other guides totally ignored moon phases and focused on the astrological signs. The tray below on the left was sown during Full Moon phase, which is an incorrect moon sowing phase for leafy annuals. The tray on the right was sown two weeks later during New Moon phase. Both were sown in the same seedling mix and received the same amount of care.

I found that most moon planting guides in women’s magazines are prepared by astrologers who have used the astrological ‘rulership’ of plants rather than moon planting methods that have been handed down through the centuries. These interpretations have produced some results that make no horticultural sense and must be confusing for readers.
The designation, by traditional moon planting farmers, of fertile and barren ‘signs’ varies slightly from the fertile/negative and barren/positive labels applied in astrology, and I feel there had to be a reason for this variation to remain constant through the centuries. Although there has been no scientific study into this part of moon planting, I believe it relates to the changes in the Earth’s electro-magnetic field and the absorption of plant nutrients, which must be absorbed as water-soluble electrically-charged ions.
Some moon or lunar planting guides will tell you to avoid watering your garden on ‘fertile’ days while others will advise to avoid watering on ‘barren’ days. A perusal of rainfall records will show that Nature doesn’t follow these rules. Gardens should be watered when they need it.
After comparing the various methods of Moon Planting, I came to the conclusion that the traditional moon planting method, although the simplest to follow, made the most horticultural sense, and it works best for us. The basic rules, or principles, are described below.

Traditional moon planting ‘rules’

1. Avoid sowing, planting or taking cuttings from 12 hours before to 12 hours after the exact change of moon phase.
The twelve hours immediately before and after the exact change of each phase is not a good time for sowing, planting, or taking cuttings. We have found that the increase or decrease of unfavourable energy is gradual and it will not have an obvious effect if you run an hour or so into this period when you have a lot of sowing or planting to do. While this is not a good period for sowing or planting, this time can be used to prepare beds or compost heaps, apply mulch, etc.
2. NEW MOON PHASEthe best time to sow or transplant leafy annuals (we eat the leaf or stem), and flowering annuals. Also sow annual grasses, green manures, and apply liquid fertilisers. Mow lawns to encourage growth. This is the second best phase to sow or transplant fruiting annuals.
3. FIRST QUARTER PHASEthe best time to sow or transplant fruiting and flowering annuals (we eat the fruit or seed bearing part), and grains. Also sow annual grasses, green manures, and apply liquid fertilisers. Prune to encourage growth and deadhead roses and flowering annuals. Carry out grafting and budding. Mow lawns to encourage growth. This is the second best phase to sow or transplant leafy annuals (we eat the leaf or stem).
4. FULL MOON PHASEthe best time to sow or plant out root crops and all fruiting and decorative perennials, including fruit trees. Also sow lawns or lay turf, harvest for storage, take cuttings, divide plants, prune dormant plants and apply solid fertilisers. Mow lawns to slow growth.
5. LAST QUARTER PHASE – no sowing or planting during this phase. This is a good phase for attending to your soil; weeding, applying mulch, making compost, preparing manure teas, applying solid fertilisers and digging or ploughing, if necessary. Prune to restrain growth, and mow lawns to slow growth during this phase.

A current, colour-coded, easy-to follow traditional moon planting and gardening calendar is available for purchase HERE.

Garlic beds

It is still a bit too early to plant garlic in most areas, but not too early to prepare soil. Garlic needs a soil that is rich in humus but doesn’t require a lot of nitrogen so avoid adding manures to the bed. Uncomposted manures can cause garlic bulbs to rot, although processed poultry fertiliser is quite suitable for garlic. Garlic needs a full range of plant nutrients and trace elements for healthy growth. A drink of seaweed extract tea over the whole planting area will supply a full range of trace elements. Garlic also needs a soil pH of that is close to neutral. If you know that your soil is acid, give the bed a dose of dolomite or agricultural lime. Dissolve a generous handful in a full watering can and apply this to each square metre of the bed. Repeat again in a week or so for very acid soil.

Ladybirds

Ladybirds, except for the leaf-eating 26 or 28 spot ladybirds, are an asset to any garden. Both adults and larvae consume a considerable quantity of pests such as aphids and scale, and one type of ladybird feeds on fungus.
Most people know what adult ladybirds look like but ladybird larvae are strange looking creatures and many people confuse them with garden pests. As a result many of these hardworking pest predators are killed by pesticides, including organic sprays, and a decline in ladybird numbers is always followed by a pest outbreak. A common victim is the larvae of the Cottonycushion Scale ladybird which disguises it self so well, it is often mistaken for scale. A Brisbane web site has an excellent range of photos of ladybirds and their larvae. Check before you spray so that ladybirds won’t become an endangered species.
http://www.brisbaneinsects.com/brisbane_ladybirds/index.html

The cabbage family

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This family, called the Brassicas, tend to be more susceptible to attack from the Cabbage Moth and the Cabbage White Butterfly when conditions are too warm for them or when the soil they are growing in is too acid for their liking, especially while the plants are young.
The cabbage family includes Brussels sprouts, Chinese cabbage, cauliflower, horseradish, kale, kohlrabi, mizuna, mustard greens, swede, tatsoi, turnip, watercress and stock, and is also related to radish. These plants need both boron and molybdenum for healthy growth and these are only available to plants when the soil pH is close to neutral. If you know that your soil is acid, and your Brassica plants are being attacked, give the bed a drink of dolomite or agricultural lime. Dissolve a generous handful in a full watering can and apply this to each square metre of the bed. Repeat the application if pests are still hanging around in two weeks.
In the meantime, remove all pest eggs from under leaves and leave crushed caterpillars on the leaves. This helps to deter further egg laying.

Saving tomato seed

To improve the quality of your tomato crop next year, save seed from one or two plants that have cropped well for you this year because these seeds will be from plants that have already adapted to your local growing conditions.
It is easy to save tomato seed from plants that were grown from open-pollinated seed. Hybrid seeds are unreliable because seed from hybrid varieties can be sterile, or revert to the traits of only one of the parent plants. A wide range of open-pollinated seed for tomatoes is available, with varieties to suit all Australian and New Zealand climate zones. You can order them by mail on the internet from companies including Greenpatch Seeds, Green Harvest or Eden Seeds.
tomatsd2c.jpg To save tomato seed, first select one or two fully ripe tomatoes that you would like to grow next year. For medium to large tomatoes, one fruit is usually enough for the home gardener. For best results, keep them at room temperature until they are just beginning to get soft.
Then cut the tomato into segments and use a teaspoon to transfer the seeds and their surrounding jelly into a clean glass jar. For Italian type tomatoes that don’t contain a lot of jelly, you can add a very small amount of water to keep the seeds moist, but don’t drown them.
Leave the jar undisturbed in a warm place, out of direct sunlight, where you can observe fermentation. Within two or three days a foamy mould will form on the surface of the tomato mixture and it will look as though something has gone horribly wrong. Don’t worry. This is a beneficial fermentation process that kills off several diseases that can affect tomato plants, but the mould can cause premature germination of the seed, if it is left too long.
tomatsd3.jpg As soon as the thick foam forms, scoop it off and fill the jar will clean water. Viable seed sinks to the bottom of the jar. Carefully pour off loose jelly floating at the top of the jar, then pour the jar contents into a sieve. Wash the seeds thoroughly in the sieve to remove all the jelly, then tip the seeds onto a sheet of smooth paper. Avoid using paper towels for tomato seeds because they are hairy and difficult to remove from absorbent paper. Allow the seed to dry for thoroughly, indoors. After they have been drying for a few hours it is easy to rub them between your hands to separate any clumps of seed. I usually leave them to dry for a week before packaging in a paper envelope and storing in a biscuit tin in a cool place, until they are needed.