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!

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.

First moon party for Abbey the Barnevelder?

Huge day at the home farm. Palm Beach, the mid-century style hen shack, has seen its first eggs.  No need for the planned lessons in nest box use.  We can give away those scavenged golf balls – these savvy youngsters have no need of ersatz eggs to tell them what to do where.  Noble failure is our usual thematic here, but I do love it when a plan comes together.

The question is: who laid those eggs?

When I heard someone down in the chook yard doing the egg song a couple of days ago, I assumed it was our brilliant but erratic – well, just erratic – veteran layer, Snowball the Silky Bantam.  But is this egg the work of a bantam?  Yes, it is small compared to the ostrich eggs we’ve been buying from the shops lately, but small enough to be Snowball’s?  And what of those suspicious dark feathers? Perhaps some eggsperts out there can advise us (sorry!).

Could it be that at seven months old Abbey the Barnevelder is all grown up?  Should we be getting out the red bunting and throwing her a full moon party?  Only round-the-clock viewing of Chicken TV will tell us for sure.

Today on Chicken TV: the makeover show

Here’s me thinking that Chicken TV involved humans watching avian melodrama unfolding in their own backyard.  Little did I realise that Chicken TV is, in reality, chickens relaxing in front of the spectacle of me doing DIY.  Forget the twitter feed on Q&A, this is truly interactive television, featuring tea-thievery, butt pecking and repeated attempts to use powertools.

The occasion for this viewing pleasure was a revolution in gate-making – my first not entirely constructed of bamboo, zip ties and chicken wire.  This one is constructed from a superannuated IKEA bed frame (ok I cheated.  I also used some hinges, paint and one additional length of pine).  The original intention was to keep an ancient dog, visiting for the fortnight, away from the poultry.  As it turns out, the tiny, arthritic dog and the strapping teenaged chooks settled into a comfortable state of mutual disinterest.  The project had gained its own momentum by then, as gate-making activities always seem to do.

I was feeling mighty self-satisfied about my bed-gate, despite the “chookhouse tolerances” of my dodgy carpentry and the ominous creaking of overstrained hinges, and started to warm to the prospect of keeping the livestock out of the native shrubbery.  As my nine year old said “You’d don’t know our chickens, mum”.  And and sure enough, within ten minutes, there was Shyla, marching up briskly and forthrightly up to the back door.

Vernacular architecture in the suburbs pt.1

Moments of vernacular garden design from around Berowra.  With the council cleanup coming up, I expect to see more suburban creativity soon.