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!

Jailbreak!

Cucumbers will go to desperate lengths to flee an attack-flock of brush turkeys, eh?

So is it better to die fighting than live in chains?  I’m not sure where my zucchini would stand on this one.

I’ve managed to keep the plants alive under an ancient perforated veggie net, held up by a rusty drum stand and contorted steel reinforcing wire.  Shyla the Australorp sneaks through to lay the odd egg but so far the brush turkeys haven’t spotted an entry-point.  Which is lucky, because if they made it in, there’s no way they would ever find their way out again.  I’d arrive in the garden one morning to find a turkey skeleton splayed out underneath the enormous hole these leaves are bursting through.

The bees don’t seem to have found the great big holes in the netting either.  Or perhaps the local pollinators suffer from claustrophobia.  I’ve seen loads of male flowers but the little golden zucchinis just seem to wither on the vine.  I’m trying to figure out if it’s (a) the plant aborting seedless, non-fertilised fruit (b) blossom end rot, thanks to insufficient calcium (c) rampant powdery mildew, caused by constrained circumstances (d) despair induced by a life Inside or (e) all of the above.

It hasn’t been a good year for jam making, either.  Here’s the breba crop which was looking so lovely mid-winter. Not really worth setting aside a day in the kitchen for preserving this one.  On the right, “dried figs”, but not as we know them.  A few hot days saved me the cost of a dehydrator, but I’m not sure gastronomy is the winner here.

And a sad discovery this morning –  the lone survivor of my bumper crop of coyly fleshy persimmon flowers ripened, unattended, and was demolished overnight, probably by a young possum taking a leisurely midnight stroll from his summer house above the air conditioner in the granny flat.  Only a few days back I was thinking if might be time to wrap the precious persimmon in one of the net exclusion bags sitting neatly folded on the bench in the toolshed.

Zero tolerance, it seems, is the only solution.  Imprisoning the chickens is mean,  imprisoning the possums and the brush turkeys illegal.  Whereas imprisoning vegetables, pollination issues aside, seems to work quite well.

Small scale vegetable prisons seem to do the business for seedlings and your slender or ground hugging plants, but now I have the frame of an aged trampoline at my disposal, I’m thinking big. And I’ve started looking at the superannuated chook tractor with a new eye.

Yes, it has traditionally been Andy Ninja’s lofty sleeping quarters, but with a bit of dusting off, what a fine brush turkey exclusion zone it would make.  Perhaps, Andy, it’s time you reconsidered the virtues of Palm Beach, the vernacular modernist architectural masterpiece I painstakingly made you and your feathered friends a year ago, now sadly abandoned by every damn chicken in the flock.  Even the brush turkeys don’t try to sleep there.

Now there’s an idea: if the new improved carceral complex with its walk-in prisons doesn’t protect my veggies from assaults by poultry, maybe I should start planting them in the chook house.

Rooted?

I’m the sort of person who always has a plan F.  While it doesn’t represent my three previous failed attempts or the well-raked but now choko-free planting site, the following gallery of photos showing my recent efforts to grow a choko vine on my back fence, gives a hint why.

You might ask “Why the mirror? Do chokos favour selfies? Are they the body builders of the plant world, only able to bulk up while constantly checking their form?”.  A good question.  You might also ask “Why try to grow the choko in the first place, the vegetable equivalent of the Milk Arrowroot biscuit, a food you will only eat when the pantry is otherwise bare?” but let’s not go there now.

My garden gleams with reflected light in hopes that a sudden glimpse of a rival will put the wind up your peckish but flighty brush turkey and make him head for the hills.  I fell for this urban myth, and heavy rubbish day presented any number of opportunities to add a sparkle to my vegetable beds.

While a looking glass in the okra patch is aesthetically pleasing, the sad end to to my months of steadfast efforts to grow a choko vine suggests that mirrors may fall into the same category as companion planting – a charming idea lightly resting on a flimsy foundation of optimism and anecdotal evidence.

So I have undertaken my mission of establishing a sweet potato patch with a certain sense of doom. Yes, it is true that with absolutely no attention from me, over summer last year some long-neglected tuber produced a morass of sweet potato vines so resilient that it became my 2014 nominee for “plant most likely to survive the zombie apocalypse“.

But that was then and this is now.  Yesterday I saw not one, not two, but four baby brush turkeys in the yard during one 10 minute period.  If the undead favour brush turkey brains, the zombie apocalypse is starting to seem like a more and more appealing prospect.

There’s a hint of Hammer Horror about sweet potato slips, enhanced, I think, by the monster themed birthday candles I used to keep the tubers suspended in glasses of water.  Yet surprisingly, in the months of watchful waiting, there was only one horror movie moment.  A classic: Empty-house-Terrifying-things-hidden-in-enclosed-spaces-Heart-in-Mouth – When Sweet Potato Tubers Go Bad. There was a potential splatter event as I emptied the gut-churning water into the sink.  But fortunately, there were survivors.

So, time to plant out the sweet potato slips.  Needless to say, I won’t be  relying on Alice nipping through the looking glass to rescue my sweet potatoes.

Instead, I’m pinning my hopes on a trampoline. It has been a much loved trampoline.  But when you find lichen growing on on your backyard play equipment it’s often a sign that it’s time for it to move on to the next phase of its lifecycle.  In this case, in the fiscally constrained post-Christmas period, as low-rent vegetable exclusion netting.

Yes, that does mean that the kids can no longer leap and bound with gay abandon knowing that the nets around the tramp will catch them.  They now have the “tough love” type of trampoline we had in the 70s and 80s where the threat of a broken leg or fractured spine was ever-present.  But sometimes it comes down to a choice between securing the future of your offspring and your root vegetables.

So yesterday, in the foggy early morning, I set out to the bottom of the garden with everything prepared.  Commemorative real ale glass full of rooted sweet potato slips.  Length of lichen-encrusted trampoline netting.  Bucket full of broken terracotta pots, previously used to secure a now-partially composted Christmas tree.  And hope.  And back in the kitchen, a whole bunch of extra sweet potato slips.  Because when hope fades, there’s always Plan F.

Lust for the laundry

It seems Andy Ninja is not the only member of our flock to be inextorably drawn to the laundry. Unless you have a passion for turps, detergent or window spiders, there’s nothing appealing in there.  But when I arrived home today, look what I found on the bench, gazing longingly through the murky window at the unreachable garden:

For a few minutes, I watched the brush turkey babe desperately pacing the length of the windowsill, hoping against hope that, somehow, against the odds, the glass that had proved impervious for the last four hours would miraculously dissolve so it could fly to freedom.  RB had noticed the chick in the laundry in the late morning and tried to shoo it out the open door with a mop but it freaked out so much that he gave up, assuming that with a floor area of 4 square metres and one wall occupied almost entirely by a door, the exit would be obvious.  Not so.

I’ve noticed this specific learning difficulty in brush turkeys before.  The chicks are so bold and resilient, the adults so quick to locate food of any type and so brazen around humans, that you kind of assume they have the smarts.

Yet I have regularly seen a brush turkey “trapped” inside the veggie garden by my laughably poorly constructed bamboo and chicken wire fence.  The fence is a metre high: Snowball the silky bantam could probably jump over it.  The brush turkey obviously flew there in the first place.  But in a moment of stress, none of these minor details seem to matter.  The turkey will run up and down the fence line in a frenzy, as if my flimsy excuse for a fence was the perimeter wall of Alcatraz.

By the time I arrived, the brush turkey chick had exhausted itself and was a doddle to grab.  Given the complete parental neglect that characterises the early childhood of these birds, at least I didn’t have to feel guilty about mum or dad abandoning it after a whiff of the garlic-and-epoxy glue stench of my hands.

The chick looks calm enough in the photo RB took, but the shot from our 8 year old’s perspective shows a wild “what the hell are the predators going to do with me?” look in its eye.  I don’t think we’ll find it in the laundry again. But then again, thinking about those brush turkey problem solving and short term memory issues, we just might.

Latchkey chicks

The local youth have been loitering around our place, nicking in without so much as a by-your-leave, cadging food and then disappearing as soon as the adults arrive with a basket of washing or a lawnmower (or a camera).

Normally at this time of year the offenders are brush turkey chicks, absurdly tiny and fluffy to be so completely unattended by any kind of parental figure.  Chooks the same age and size would be under the watchful eye of some stern motherly type, but brush turkey babies are the original latchkey chicks.  From the time they burrow their way out of the incubating mound, they’re on their own.

Brush turkey like to make their mounds where it’s really shady – 85-90% cover.  Our neighbours’ backyard is perfect and every now and then the little chicks squeeze through the fence  – or fly over it, something they can do from the time they’re only a few hours old – into our place.  This one doesn’t quite have the heft to work Grandpa’s foot-pedal activated chicken feeder, but it’s giving it a red hot go.

But this year the brush turkeys are not the only feckless youth about. One morning last week, I spotted two scrawny youngsters scuttling away behind the woodshed.  Two?  I’ve never seen a brush turkey babe with a buddy before.

It seems the neighbours’ pair of fledgeling Barnevelders occasionally like to slip away from their adoptive mum to rampage through our yard.  I was baffled by the sudden demolition of the “clucker tucker” patch –  a mix of tasty greens and seeds like bok choy, buckwheat,  clover, linseed, lucerne, millet, silverbeet and sunflower that I’d been carefully cultivating as a cover crop and future fodder supply.   Green Harvest’s website makes the droll comment that these plants “have vigorous root systems that will quickly regrow leaves that are cut or eaten”.  I’d carefully fenced it off from our own poultry demolition squad and the damage didn’t have that “visit from by a front end loader” look so characteristic of the work of brush turkeys so I was at something of a loss until I saw two sets of skinny dino-legs through a pullet-sized scrape under the fence.

I’m not sure what the allure of our backyard is.  I guess there are no handy bus shelters for the young team to hang out in around here, so our woodshed is the next best thing.  Recently I’ve seen one of the neighbour’s teenage chickens in the yard again, this time fraternising with an adolescent brush turkey. All fine and dandy, I’m sure (like any naive parent, I’m carefully not thinking about this kind of thing).

I’m taking tips on bringing up the kids from the chooks – the case for a free range childhood seems pretty sound to me.  So bring on the latchkey chicks!  I’m here to embrace the modern fowl – whether she be Alectura lathami or Gallus gallus domesticus – with her busy life as a working parent, and to celebrate her offspring’s initiative and spirit of independence. As long as the little fiends stay out of my silverbeet!

The Phantom Egg Eater: caught in the act!

At last, after yesterday’s sting operation, I can announce that we have finally exposed the identity of the Phantom Egg Eater.

Was it Luna, so long a marked hen after the damning outcome of her interrogation by the children? Or Andy Ninja, craving not just egg yolk, but a return to her lost youth? Or Treasure, driven to the edge by long days alone in the chicken coop, attempting to hatch offspring from a collection of golfballs?

Or was it Snakey, taking a break from the taste of toxin-laden rats?


After six months of suspicion and doubt, all of the above have been exonerated.

Yesterday, RB caught the culprit in the act.

It was Colonel Mustard, in the henhouse, with a candlestick.  Okay, there was no candlestick.  But the resemblance to Colonel Mustard is more than passing.

So it seems apt that, in the interest of maintaining a consistent omelette supply to the humans of the household, the Colonel will be getting a taste of his own medicine.  Whenever he’s in the Dining Room, or indeed, taking light refreshments in the Billiard Room, the Kitchen or the Abandoned Compost Bin, the canapes will inevitably be that 70s classic “stuffed eggshell with a giant mouthful of spicy condiments“.

It’s a relief to know that our girls are innocent of Egg Murder.  However, I’m not sure if I have the probation officer stripes to successfully rehabilitate the Colonel and potentially the entire brush turkey population of the Berowra Valley National Park, even if I had an infinite supply of Masterfoods’ Hot English Mustard. Plus, I’m not entirely convinced that the Colonel, and indeed Mrs Peacock, Miss Scarlett and other native poultry friends, haven’t got a secret passion for the stuff.

So perhaps it’s lucky that the silly season is coming up.  During the festive period I’m hoping my intensive work schedule will involve exhaustive ongoing surveillance of chicken conversation for boastful “I’ve laid an egg” cackles from a strategically chosen location (ie, an easy chair on the back deck).  To ensure the achievement of my critical key performance indicators (that is, collection of at least four intact eggs a day), it will obviously be essential to clear my diary of all other commitments to ensure that I am able to respond to The Egg Dance in a timely and flexible way. This zero tolerance approach to policing brush turkey misdemeanours is going to be a productivity challenge but I think we can rise to it.

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.

Ingredients

–  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.

Procedure

– 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.