SpadeRunner

Our kitchen garden; the Mid-levels at one year

It’s a year since we got water to a cleared paddock half way down the hill and the ‘Mid-levels’ garden was begun. After fencing (about 230 square metres) and lot of digging it has become our main kitchen garden. The garden area keeps expanding beyond the original fenced patch, including the addition of two greenhouses and an aquaponics system. Along the way I’ve learned a lot as the seasons made a full turn.

Why move the kitchen garden to the Mid-levels?

Our original plan was to have the vegetable garden at the house. The land was essentially all pasture grass, a blank canvas for the garden design.

It turned out that the small area of flat land around the house I had earmarked for a kitchen garden is shallow and stony, so not good for veggies. Below that is a steep bank of good soil, which I carefully made into small terraces with the fear that it might wash away in the big rains we get. All this was less than satisfactory, but the final reason to move the garden was that house rainwater tanks got low in our record dry October, and the new garden suffered from lack of watering.

It all changed when we got the solar powered pump at the dam working and I put a pipe up the hill to a nice ridge of fairly level ground, surrounded by trees.

The start of our kitchen garden; water.

The garden started when I got the solar pump piped up to a relatively flat clearing.

Six months before that we weren’t even sure what was there at the Mid-levels. It was on the track to the dam, but the grass was shoulder high and so thick that it was an effort to push through it to get to the forest at the far edge for a scout around. Then Bill got the slasher into it and revealed a nice, reasonably level patch, that looked promising for cultivation.

I fenced an area with chicken wire and got digging.

The soil

Kitchen garden start -up.

Newly fenced and the first beds being dug

The soil has good structure, but after many years of just being ungrazed pasture, it was a bit leached and in need of building up. As always here, it is very acidic (around pH 5) so liming is the first treatment. I also noticed that crops like capsicums and tomatoes responded well to magnesium supplementation in the form of epsom salts foliar spray, so now I’m liming with dolomite lime instead of ‘ag lime’, which adds magnesium as well as calcium. I’ve been surprised by how much liming the soil needs. Beds that I began a year ago with a handful of lime per square metre tested low for pH recently, and tended to noticeably fade through the year. It will be an ongoing process, but I’m thinking it will take a few 25 kg bags of dolomite to stabilise the pH near 7.

Kitchen garden one year old

A year later

Next the soil had low fertility after all those years of leaching, so I started with a general broadcast of granular NPK fertiliser. Since then I have been working up individual beds with the chicken house cleanings, which proved to be a great fertiliser and also builds the soil organic material with its hay content.

Building soil organic matter is important, and I’ve been doing this in two ways, through the chicken house hay, but also using well rotted leaf litter compost, which has given great results.

Drainage

A neighbour warned me that the soil gets very wet here through the Summer, and said that she was making raised beds with special drainage bases. I’m not into raised beds with wooden sides and imported soil, but I was careful to drain the garden with trenches. The soil is free draining but underlaid at about a spade’s depth by less permeable clay. Fortunately though, the garden is on a slope, so the lower edge of each bed is raised like a terrace, and water tends to drain out into the cut below the bed. By digging trenches to connect the beds I was able to drain the excess rainwater out of the garden successfully and keep the beds aerated.

The plants

I’ve got stuck into trying a big range of vegetables. Most things have done well, with proper soil preparation. It started with sunflowers, sweetcorn and soybeans, but as I opened up beds they have grown leafy greens, tomatoes and capsicums, onions, root crops of all sorts, okra, beans and peas, tomatillos, herbs, you name it. I have even expanded outside the fence for strawberries, broad beans, carrots (which did get nibbled), and a growing list of trial crops.

Kitchen garden layout

kitchen garden original survey

Survey of the original beds, as I progressively cut them from the pasture.

The fence was made to suit the contours, resulting in an asymmetric shape, and I made the original beds as infill between the first trial sunflower beds. Combined with corridors for drainage and irrigation pipes, the result was a mix of sizes and orientations. Now that I have a feel for what works there, I am standardising the layout to a central access corridor with long beds running off to each side. This will also reduce the path area and run the beds more along the contours.

The upper midlevels

kitchen garden greenhouses

The upper mid levels with two greenhouses and some corn and chia beds.

We put in the two greenhouses above the track at the midlevels, in what was a scrubby patch of lantana and vine regrowth. These were followed by new vegetable beds (trialling melons, corn and okra for the summer), then the aquaponics pond, then the new header tank for irrigation.

As the soil here is deeper and the spot is more sheltered and shaded, I will try vegetables that like moist conditions through summer like the leafy greens.

The next year

I’m modifying the garden all the time, and the current project is moving our shade house down there, which started with making another level pad. The shade house will complement the greenhouses for seed raising, as well as house orchids and cuttings.

Now that the beds are pretty much in their final forms, the next year will involve building each one up with chicken compost, horse manure, and lime, as it comes free after harvest. It will be time to start a proper rotation system too, of cover crop and legume crops to prepare the beds. After each cover crop I will be checking that pH to see whether I can get it neutral. Finally, I have begun extending the planting to helpful non-vegetables, with some comfrey for trial soil improvement, arrowroot to catch nutrient runoff for mulch, and sowing pest deterrents like marigolds, along with the mustard greens that are already established.