How to exploit your termite work force

One of permaculture’s big ideas is makig plants and animals your agricultural labourers.  It’s not so much hitching the family Great Dane to the plough as letting your furred and feathered workers, more or less of their own free will, roam through your food forest grazing on weeds and wolfing down snails.  Say goodbye to tedious annual seed-raising, planting and hoeing: your self-reliant plants will look after themselves and keep an eye on each other, shading and nitrogenating and breaking wind (if you know what I mean).

Sometimes it works.  Our tamarillo, banana, monstera and tumeric plants have formed a chlorophyllerous collective. We have tip-pruning possums, chickens that mow the lawn and do the weeding, rat-catching diamond pythons and bandicoots on a search and destroy mission for curl grubs.  This week I even had a local katydid offering to supervise the manufacture of my home-grown pesto.

Unfortunately some of the local flora and fauna seem to have skipped crucial pages of Bill Mollison’s permaculture classics.  My custard apple tree, for instance, appears to need assistance to shed its leaves in a timely manner. Really, has it come to this? I spend my precious hours of leisure depilating fruit trees?

Meanwhile in the kiwifruit arbor, lacking both enthusiastic pollinators and RoboBees (yep, New Zealand has them), we’re having to take a prurient interest in the sex lives of our male and female kiwifruit vines. To be honest, my child labourers were about as useful as the diffident insects.  I’m baffled.  How could standing on the top of a ladder tickling plant reproductive organs with paintbrush fail to entertain?

The sorry state of my home-made kiwifruit planters remind me of another insect labour fail. Termites.  What can a permie do with them?

Thanks to our hippie ways, our place is a kind of termite nature reserve, where wood-eating insects can flourish, peacefully ingesting fruit trees and vernacular architecture, without fear of retaliation.  It seems, when they tired of consuming ad-hoc structures made of discarded bed bases, they like to break it up by devouring whole stands of artichokes as a kind of palate cleanser.

Termite eat artichokes – who knew?  Last year’s gorgeous silver leafed statement in the outdoor room is this year a soggy larvae-infested hole in the ground.

But let’s not lose faith in our insect workforce!  We need to reframe this problem. Bill Mollison once consoled someone tending a denuded garden: “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficit“.  Thinking along these lines let’s put it this way: we don’t have a termite problem: we have a woodwork surplus.

When we first arrived here six years ago, we were puzzled by the gratuitous decking around the washing line and the apparently pointless wooden walkway that took you there.  Our neighbours said they’d scratched their heads as they watched this expensive folly being nailed together.

The mystery was illuminated by the lingering damp patch by the garden gate.  Somewhere between the fig tree and the passionfruit vine, roundabout where the sewage line runs down from the house, there was a persistent and troubling damp patch.  RB wanted to investigate.  Having experienced the delights of sewage tumbling through another backyard and with a terrifying vision of a poo fountain raining down on my veggie patch, I implored him to leave it to the professionals.  But I made the error of leaving him unattended one day after work.

Thankfully I was spared the realisation of my nightmare of e-coli amongst the asparagus.  It turns out our damp patch was an old storm water drain, busted through when the some new and exciting toilet was installed in the house.  As one does, rather than repair the drain and desoggify the garden, our predecessors just built a walkway over the swampland.  What with the convenient supply of moisture, this wooden path has been a fine buffet for the termites over the years.

Thanks to our cellulose loving friends, a short stroll to hang out the laundry had become as fraught with peril as a high-wire walk between two sky scrapers.  Collecting a clean pair of undies from the line carried the ever-present risk of a broken ankle or at least the embarrassing prospect of a plank snapping under your weight, a reminder that you may have had too many marinated artichokes on your pasta lately. Yes, I could have fixed it properly with some decent hardwood or a load of treated timber.  But that just wouldn’t have been in the spirit of the thing.  Instead, it’s become steadily more raddled looking, thanks to running repairs with a random selection of timber found by the side of the road.

But even with my love of hammers and heavy rubbish, I finally had enough.  The walkway had to go.  Even in 35 degree heat, the demolition job was a highpoint of my weekend.  There’s little more viscerally satisfying than ripping something to bits with your bare hands, even if it has been fatally weakened by termites first.

But what to do with the hardwood footings, cemented and bolted in place?  Digging them up would be tricky work, haunted by the ever-present risk of a spade through the sewage pipe.  And then it came to me in a blinding flash: with a bit of help from our termite tenants, moist soil heaped up onto wood frames would do the job for me.

So now the erstwhile walkway is a (very very slightly) raised bed, fenced in by scraggy aviary wire: yet another addition to the carceral complex that is our garden.  As I water the cucumbers and the cherry tomatoes,  I’ll be helping our Willing Workers on Organic Farms Backyards, the termites, demonstrate the second law of thermodynamics.

It’s been a long time since I sat through high school physics.  Things might well have moved on in the inexplicable post-Newtonian world. But I can say with absolute confidence that, in our yard at least, there continues to be “a natural tendency of isolated systems to degenerate into a more disordered state”.

If they weren’t disordered in the first place, the termites, the possums and the brush turkeys would pretty soon make them that way.  Good work if you can get it, lads!

Having fun with no money

The untimely death of our favourite chicken Shyla has generated unaccustomed scenes of activity in our backyard.

We are not a dynamic household.  We are a posse of ponderers and ruminators, hoarders and procrastinators, ever ready with a “let’s not rush into things” or a “perhaps we should pause to examine this problem from all angles”.  In a disaster movie, we would be the bit-part characters who are consumed by a rising tide of magma while considering our escape plan from the easy chair with a view of the volcano.

But all that changed this week.  Fate intervened, in the form of a generous Hungarian freecycler whose guineapigs had gone to on a better world, leaving behind them the Taj Mahal of pet enclosures.

They say money makes the world go around.  But does it really?

Just add up all the things people do for love, or for family, or to be neighbourly or because it seems like it might be a hoot, and all stuff you can grow or swap or get as a hand-me-down or find by the side of the road (or, if you are my boat-building neighbour, at the bottom of the creek).  The gift economy may not have its own stock exchange, but things would grind to a halt pretty quickly if all the tuckshop volunteers, weekend soccer coaches and grannies with strollers called it a day.

As Noam Chomsky says in this fab video “We don’t have a capitalist system. No capitalist system has ever survived“.

Freecycle is a case in point.  With a trailer and a tolerance for cyberloitering, I reckon in less than three months you could completely furnish a McMansion without spending a cent.  Your home would admittedly be rich in bulky exercise equipment, large lamp shades, and clothing for the under threes, but still, the sheer quantity of stuff on offer is impressive.

And that’s without even considering what you can buy with the local currency – the Opera – in Sydney’s community exchange system – bartering with more bling, I guess you could call it.

Our new chook house was miracle of timeliness.  Fabulous finds on my local freecycle facebook page are  snapped up almost instantly.  In fact, even implausible things like half-used bottles of shampoo to be collected immediately from Mona Vale seem to be claimed with surprising speed. The new predator proof run – Colditz, as I’ve provisionally named it – turned up just before we headed off for an out-of-town family weekend.  Without the generosity of strangers, our chooks would have been an all-you-can-eat buffet for the newly emboldened feral foxes.

And then there was the gift of Dave.  Having eyeballed pics of the cage on facebook and figuring it was a shonky wood and chicken wire job of the sort I might cobble together myself, I reckoned if I knocked off work early, RB and I could wrestle it onto the top of our old Subaru Forester.  But hearing of our dead-chicken woes, Dave, RB’s workmate and ex-trucker, insisted on driving down from his place on the Central Coast, an hour away, to help us out.

And thank god he did.  Turns out our new 3 x 1.5 x 1 metre chook run is has rivets, a steel frame and weighs as much as a Panzer tank.  I could no more have lifted one end of it to head height than unicycled to the moon.  Dave, on the other hand, had the Hilux, the roof-rack, the reversing skills, the muscles and the shipping-big-things savvy to sort it, no wuckers.  Thanks Dave.  You are a legend.

It may not have the casual elegance or aquarium-lid clerestory window of Palm Beach, my own vernacular modernist masterpiece, but Colditz has a number of winning design features – most impressively, a sliding roof to cut down on the lower back pain associated, for inconveniently tall adults, with egg collecting (I’m hoping child labour will make the sliding sun roof unnecessary, but my track record of achieving such outcomes is poor).

What the new coop lacked, however, was a roost.  Having googled what the modern chicken requires of a night – apparently, just like in the contemporary bathroom, square is the new round – this is what I came up with.  Soft on the feet, in a range of widths for chickens of all shapes and sizes.

It looks disturbingly like bondage equipment.  Who would have thought old bicycle inner tubes and a repurposed wooden ladder could be so kinky?

It is possible that the girls prefer something a bit vanilla.  Given a choice, they seem find their way back to Palm Beach at dusk, where they can sleep in a egalitarian fashion, all on the same dowdy round perch, without even a whiff of rubber.

But don’t worry, with a bit of discipline, we’ll soon sort that out.

Bandicoot in the Sacred Garden

Is it just me, or does this sound like the title of an atrocious 1970s Australian erotic film? Admittedly I’ve never heard a bloke describe their wedding tackle as any kind of marsupial.  Is this a failure of the national imagination? Possibly.

Anyway, the “sacred garden” is not as lewd as it sounds – it’s the name our eight year old has given the veggie patch that shelters beneath the frame of our ancient trampoline.

I’m not quite sure why she views it as a holy site.  It could be the shape.  In the organic gardening world, it seems, circles, mandalas and spirals have some mystical life-giving power that doesn’t flow through your old fashioned rectangular plot.   I’m skeptical, but at this stage in our death-match with the brush turkeys I’ll take any advantage I can get.  From chook dome to remodelled tramp to recycled children’s bicycle wheels, there are no corners here.

And the Mandala of Aviary Wire does seem to have worked its magic on my brassicas, despite extreme flimsiness.  Having been abandoned by the side of the road after a rich and full life getting between bouncing children and broken ankles, the trampoline net is more a spiritual than a physical barrier to aerial raiders, held in place by optimism and zip ties.  But to date, my newly planted garlic – positioned, of course, in a protective ring around the broccoli – has remained in the ground and my crop of red mustard and baby bok choi, while small, is perfectly formed.

It’s not looking so good on the broad bean front, despite a lavender and rose geranium mulch that makes the chook dome smell like a seniors’ underpants’ drawer.  I’d like to think a benevolent long-nosed bandicoot is squeezing in under the wire to snaffle the curl grubs amongst the asparagus crowns.  But I suspect that in reality I’m hosting rodents with keen insights into the politics of eco-nationalism.  “When you go in and take the beans, Rupert, make sure you leave a cone-shaped hole.  That way the marsupial-loving hippie will never dare leave rat poison out again.”  If only I owned an infra-red video camera with a motion sensor I might find out for sure – or at least collect some footage of hirsute visitors for that retro Ocker erotica.


The waste management business

Heavy rubbish day.  Or as it’s known locally, the council cleanup.  No words strike more fear into the hearts of your loved ones, if you are a gardener with an ample shed and an insatiable love of junk.

I was left momentarily unsupervised today, and all the good work of a weekend of chucking stuff out began to go into reverse.  I know it’s a sign of my hoarding pathology, but I really struggle to imagine why someone would ditch a barely scratched inch-thick slab of gorgeous red gum about half as long as my kitchen.

Here’s the only plausible explanation I could come up with: it had been used in the commission of a mob murder.  “I know, I know, Vinnie had to go… he knew too much… but since he “went on holiday” I just don’t feel the same about that big chopping board…”

Another road-side acquisition of the last 48 hours (the coffin-sized item pictured below) also suggests restless nights and guilty secrets.  I swear the pruning saw was in-situ before I even considered taking this photograph.  Such measures may be necessary when “spring cleaning” for those of us who only have possession of an electric mulcher, suitable strictly for lighter duties.

Okay, not quite long enough, but there's always the pruning saw.

Okay, not quite long enough, but there’s always the pruning saw.

All this “waste disposal” has perhaps been a bad influence, since today I had to do a piece of work.  I got a place ready, somewhere nice.  No need for concrete boots (or indeed blood and bone) just a very old pair of Blundstones and some hair clippings at the bottom of a hole.  We had a problem: our new associate, low-chill Tropical Sunshu nashi pear, had to be put in the ground.

We put her in the ground, and we put her in a box.  In that order, suggesting I’m no wise guy.  Though I can say, hand on heart, that she’s gone to her narrow bed, to sleep the Big Sleep, since the box we put her in was constructed of not merely one, but two bed frames.  Those beds may never have concealed any horses’ heads, but they were absolutely and definitely products of the waste management business, a business I should clearly for the sake of my family (and my shed) try to leave behind.

Plants in protective custody

Reflecting trends in Australia more broadly, the population behind bars in my garden is steadily increasing. The metaphor starts to break down there because my indigenous plants aren’t systematically and grotesquely over-represented in prison.  And it’s not collective punishment, more like protective custody.

Washing line vege netHere are some of the make-shift prisons keeping chooks and brush-turkeys at bay. Eventually I suspect I might just cage the whole veggie garden, as much to deflect the midsummer sun as to prevent raids by flying dinosaurs.  Some of our neighbours are already there, as you can see from this fabulous repurposing of a Hills Hoist.

In the mean time, I’m finding new and creative if not visually attractive ways of leveraging my pathological hoarding… from the tried and true bit of broken trellis…

… to recycled heavy rubbish finds.

So far mysterious steel objects from the side of the road 1: brush turkeys 0 (though not for want of trying).

There’s an array of objects yearning for landfill propping up veggie nets:

Old umbrella frame protecting salad greens

Old umbrella frame protecting salad greens

and then there’s the open prison: things surviving against the odds outside the fence that encloses the veggie garden.

Of course that’s making the assumption that the fence is high security. Somehow, I don’t think so:

Okay, my road-side finds are not quite quirky enough to function as garden ornamentation (I need to yarn bomb my umbrella!).  And I don’t think these pics will appear on Buzzfeed under “2014’s Best Organic Garden P*rn”.

Perhaps I should proudly locate my backyard in the fine tradition of rural homesteads featuring interactive museums of rusting Massey Fergussons and defunct Valiants, and in-situ galleries of op art reinterpreted in the language of car tyres, tarpaulins and giant piles of silage.

I’d like to flatter myself that the selling point of my carceral structures is functionality, rather than kerb appeal.  However, drawing on painful experience, I know there’s a strong possibility that around about the time my plantlets look like producing something edible, there’ll be a conspiracy between a brush turkey and a windy day and I’ll see roots wafting in the breeze.

Eat sheet and die

Today’s garden project: half-baked sheet mulching.  It sounds like a filo pastry recipe but it’s actually permaculture as practiced by the exceedingly impatient.

Proper sheet mulching is a variant of no-dig gardening that can turn your couch grass infested lawn into a fairly weed-free veggie garden, at the same time recycling all those packing boxes you used when you moved in. Done properly it involves ingredients as rich, fastidiously prepared and generously layered as a fabulous lasagne.

However with an epic quantity of washing still to get off the line and some holy card weather on the horizon, speed, rather than accuracy, was my watchword today.


–  Garden soil.  Very very recently limed and ready to off-gas ammonia when hit by the inevitable cow manure.  Because you can’t beat a vegetable patch that smells of a recently cleaned bathroom.  Soil includes plenty of trad (left over treats for the chickens) just waiting to reroot in the moist and nutrient rich environment of the new zucchini mounds.

– Partly cooked compost, still replete with visible kitchen scraps.  Nothing says “urban food forest” like a seed growing mixture that looks like a bin.  In defense of my shonky methods, zucchini will apparently grow happily on a compost heap.  Lucky, that.

– A bale of sugar cane hay, three bags of cow manure and a handful of golden zucchini seeds

– Two large cardboard boxes, recently used to deliver plants.  There’s poetic symmetry here, since these very same boxes may now very possibly be used to kill them.


– Amend soil with cow manure and compost.  Best advice is to check soil chemistry first, but life is too short.  Possibly zucchini plants lives may also be quite short.

– Shape into a mound.  Turn your back for a moment.  Reshape into a mound.  Repeat.  Once again, we see the way chickens (and, it seems, brush turkeys) flourish on a diet of ordure.

– Water thoroughly.  Flatten and soak the cardboard boxes/give the chooks a drink.

– Lay the boxes over your mounds and cover with remaining rotten food scraps.  Mulch with a thick layer of straw, or alternatively, whatever meagre quantity of straw you have left after interring the potato plants.

– Plant three zucchini seeds in each mound.  Say a tiny prayer for each of them.

– Attempt to protect your seedlings from resident poultry by either mechanical or psychological means.  You may want to try one of the one of the following: (a) a long arch of  of chickenwire secured with rocks and tiles (b) a broken child-sized camping chair draped with a vegetable net (c) a scary painting of the Cyclops’ eye.

Only time will tell whether the exclusion approaches traditionally used by permaculturalists will be more or less successful than the innovative deployment of one-eyed monsters from Greek myth.  Since I’ve now used up every scrap of chicken wire, trellis and veggie net on the premises, I may be heading in the direction of threatening ancient gods for economical bird protection in future.

Death, hot compost and chicken addictions

Something weird happened today.  With a self-important summons to the other chooks, Treasure sped over the large disgusting vat of compost tea lurking under the tumbler and took a long, luxurious drink. After a good sup, she briskly trotted away with the kind of dirty stain on her snowy chest that speaks of an all-absorbing gastronomic experience.  Is this a chicken version of the breakfast long black?

Chicken coffee

Nom nom nom

Knowing as I do in the contents of the compost tumbler – innocent things like lawn clippings, comfrey cuttings and fallen maple leaves; but also less pleasing items –  mouldy citrus peel, rotten pears and fetid greens, barnhouse bedding weighed down with healthy gobbets of chicken manure, and in consequence a fine array of crawling and creeping things, their offspring and their excreta – the idea of the chickens necking great drafts of the liquid that oozes from this brew is really quite disturbing.

In general, I view keeping chickens as bit like teaching adults (my day job).  Kindy teachers have to wipe away tears, give cuddles and clean up vomit, but when you teach in higher education you can more or less rely on students to handle the basics on their own.  I don’t like to patronise my chooks – I reckon they have a fair idea of where to hang out, how to spend their time and what’s okay to eat.

But perhaps I’m being too laissez faire.  Maybe I should treat my hens more like my children and start policing their behaviour a bit more vigilantly.  Possibly letting the girls drink compost tea is the equivalent of doling out supersized glasses of Coke (and a Happy Meal?) to under tens.

This is the dark side of the compost tumbler.  It seems so sleek and neat, holding its dubious contents high above things that squirm and scamper and gnaw in the night.  You spin her wheel and steer her like a noble vessel towards the promised land of super-speedy compost, black gold faster than lightning.  And I can say, hand on heart, that after fifteen years of steadfast unintentional cold composting, one bucket of kitchen scraps at a time, with this tumbler, I’ve seen my very first batch of the good stuff, cooked within an inch of its life.  While most things (except for teaspoons and the plastic tags on bread bags) will rot down eventually regardless of how incompetently you build your heap or how infrequently you turn the pile, there is something glorious about seeing steam rising from your compost and knowing the nasties – weed seeds and plant viruses and pathogens – have been fricasseed.

But the path to hot compost is not pure.  Here’s what I found on the innocuous sounding Soil Forum while hunting out the best compost recipes, the perfect balance between browns (carbon rich things that crunch) and greens (nitrogen rich things that squelch):

“when we say that “anything” can go into a tumbler, we do mean “almost anything”. Whole small animals are OK but I would do deer heads in a separate pile! (Make too much noise flopping around in there!) I do have 20 deer lower legs on hand but they’d create quite a tangle sent through in one batch. However, I may simply saw them in half and run them all through the next hot batch.”

No, that wasn’t a post from Sarah Palin, though I’m sure she could cook up a fine tumblerful of deer-heads if she turned her hand to it. In case you were wondering, deer body-parts would count as greens (squelch).  Always put them in the very centre of your tumbler, where it’s hottest. (seriously, in contrast to anything Sarah might say, for rat, health and aesthetic reasons I never compost dead animals – there’s not a lot of corpses going round in a vegetarian household, and any tragedies that do occur are accompanied by a tiny funeral and ceremonial interring)

That said, there’s no getting around it: composting is still all about death and decomposition.  An interesting bit of that Peter Greenaway film “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” comes to me.  The cook says:

“I charge a lot for anything black. Grapes, olives, black currants. People like to remind themselves of death. Eating black food is like consuming death. Like saying: “Death, I’m eating you”. Black truffles are the most expensive. Caviar. Death and birth. The end and the beginning.”

I quite like the idea that the chickens are engaged in some kind of philosophical act drinking up their ordure-enriched powerade.  That it’s not just forbidden pleasure, the subtle piquancy of insect exoskeletons or a health-giving blast of liquidised potassium that holds such appeal, but that they’re drinking deep from the existential heart of gardening.