Archive for September, 2012

Ecology Action

Monday, September 24th, 2012

Earlier this month Anneliese and I had a chance to visit Ecology Action, in Willits, California.

Ecology Action is the research farm of John Jeavons, author of How to Grow More Vegetables than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than You Can Imagine.  Given that this book had a huge influence on the way that both Noel and I garden, it was a big deal for me to finally be able to visit the site.

The Garden of Ecology Action, nestled in redwood hills

Looking down at the gardens of Ecology Action.

John Jeavons wasn’t available, but another John, who is currently interning with Ecology Action, took time out of his schedule to show us around.   The site is hidden among redwood hills and is difficult to find.  The view of the mini-farm is spectacular, but the soil is not.  Part of the research involves showing whether or not the Bio-Intensive method works in conditions similar to that of small-farmers on marginal soils with little access to outside inputs and large-scale irrigation.

John and Anneliese at Ecology Action

John, one of the interns at Ecology action, gave us a personalized tour. Here he is with Anneliese.

To that end, the goal of the garden is to generate all of its own fertility.  This means growing lots of crops as much for the carbon and other biomass that they produce that then goes back into the compost pile as for their food value.  At Ecology Action, they follow a 60%-30%-10% model.  Sixty percent of the space is devoted to crops that produce a lot of carbon as well as some food, such as quinoa; the seeds are eaten and the stalks go into the compost.  Thirty percent of the space is reserved for high calorie root crops and ten percent of bed space is for vegetables.

Quinoa at Ecology Action

Grains and grain like crops are an important part of the system that Ecology Action has developed, both as a calorie crop and as a source of carbon for the compost. We saw lots of quinoa.

At the time of our visit, we saw lots of quinoa and amaranth almost ready to harvest.  Since this is a research farm, everything that is harvested is weighed and recorded.  Signs on the various compost piles showed the ratio of carbon to nitrogen in each pile; later the effects that different blends of compost had on yields would be observed.

Many gardeners have access to outside fertility.  Even Noel, who generates almost all of his garden fertility on his property, relies on composted leaves from other parts of the yard not dedicated to food growing to replenish the organic matter.  At Ecology Action, the assumption is that the garden must become a source for organic matter, not a sink; the garden must produce more organic matter than it consumes.

A closed-loop fertility cycle is just a small-part of the method presented in How to Grow More Vegetables.  Even if you are a city gardener who relies on purchased compost for your fertility, the other raised bed techniques, crop spacing guidelines, and more make the book one of our favorites, and visiting the research farm in person gave me a new appreciation for their methods.


News From Southeast Queensland

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

Presenting the CobraHead Blog’s first ever guest post!

Barbara Wickes of the ‘The Perennial Poppies Group’ garden club was our first international customer.  Somehow she found us on the world wide web soon after we opened for business and we’re happy that she did!  We’ve been shipping CobraHead Weeders and CobraHead Long Handles to Australia ever since.

Barb has kindly consented to write a post from Down Under so we can see what their club has been doing and let our readers know what’s happening in gardening a half a world away.


What a strange year we have had – unusually dry through the Christmas period of 2011 when everything in the garden looked amazing! The roses had never looked better at that time of year. We were aware that the wet was coming and thank goodness it didn’t hit with the intensity of the previous year when so much of Australia had such severe flooding. The members of our cottage garden group live in various areas throughout southeast Queensland so there are many various climatic areas – some in the hinterland areas get frosts in winter.  At Buderim where I live we often get heavy rain through summer months and at times at least 10 inches in less than a week! Our winters are dry and this year there has not been a drop of rain for the month of August. As I write on 18th September light rain is falling which is very welcome as we are opening our garden on 20-21 October with Open Gardens Australia.  This is a not-for-profit organization that opens private gardens throughout Australia to promote the enjoyment, knowledge and benefits of gardening.

Our cottage garden group is called ‘The Perennial Poppies Group’ and within the group we have a salvia study group. There would be around 150 different salvias growing in our gardens and our aim is to trial salvias and encourage more people to grow them. There are many that suit the sub-tropical climate however, like all gardeners we attempt to grow some of those more suited to a temperate climate. Members living in the Hinterland of our coastal regions have more success with temperate plants and successfully grow a lot of deciduous trees. We have a lovely copse of tropical birch, a liquidambar, ornamental pear, swamp cypress (taxodium) and a Nyssa sylvatica – all colour up beautifully.

High temperatures and high humidity are the biggest problems for our salvias and although March can still be humid, generally the temperatures are not as high and the nights are cooler. Pruning needs to be done carefully until the cooler weather arrives and I find that pruning half of the plant and waiting for new growth to appear before completing the job is generally successful with the microphyllas and greggiis.

At Buderim, which is 15 minutes from the coast, our soil is lovely sandy loam and a pleasure to work with.  The addition of organic matter certainly makes a difference to its water holding qualities. I like to garden organically and when pruning the ‘cut and drop’ method is used for smaller prunings. Lots of organic fertilizer is then spread before topping with a hay mulch. Larger prunings are dropped in the back corner of our acre under trees where they eventually rot down. Prior to our open garden we foliar feed weekly with a variety of organic products and this certainly brings on the flowering.

Old-fashioned roses are a favourite with many of our members. We grow the old Teas, Noisettes, Hybrid Musks, Polyanthas and Floribundas. In our sub-tropical climate we don’t get a cold winter so they never really get a break. Pruning is usually done in July/August as throughout the autumn up to the end of May we can have beautiful blooms.  That time of year is very gentle on them.

I discovered the ‘Cobrahead’ some 10 years ago and our group regularly orders them. The word how good they are spreads fast. Since the blue handled one has been available I haven’t lost one!  Prior to that the neutral handled one would get lost in the mulch! Over the years I have found the ‘lost’ ones – rather worse for the experience but still usable!

Barb Wickes
The Perennial Poppies Group Inc
18th September, 2012




Simple Seed Saving

Monday, September 10th, 2012

Lettuce Flowers and Seed Heads

I could have titled this, “Seed Saving for Dummies”, but I’ve never been a fan of the “For Dummies” or “Idiot’s Guide” list of titles for how-to manuals.  How dare they imply that I may not be too smart?  Anyone reading our blog posts is obviously very intelligent and I would never insinuate otherwise.

Greens Gone to Seed

There are plenty of seed-saving guides out there and this is not going to be a treatise on complicated seed-saving techniques.  Some seed saving is extremely easy.  This picture shows the bed where I grew garlic and interplanted it with salad greens.  I wrote about that here. 

The garlic was harvested in July and the lettuces and most of the other greens have long bolted.  Rather than ripping them out, I’ve let them flower and put out seed.  Also in the bed is cilantro, dill and kale.  Those all are repeat volunteers which I encourage by letting them go to seed and then scattering the seed when it dries.  These volunteers come up everywhere and I have them to transplant, leave to grow if they are not in the way, or just cull out the ones in the wrong place as if they were a weed.

Arugula Flowers

The lettuces, arugula, mustards and other greens now flowering will drop seed, some of which will come up as volunteers next spring.  I’ll transplant some of them and I’ll also save and dry some of the seed heads this fall to have free seed to plant next season.

In all cases saved seed should be from open pollinated varieties.  Hybrids are not reliable to give an offspring you may be happy with.

This method of seed saving is cheap and easy, but it has the minor drawback in that seeds can cross.  This is more likely with lettuce.  There is a chance it will cross with wild lettuce and produce a bitter offspring.  It could also cross with another lettuce variety.  That would not be a problem, it just wouldn’t be the same lettuce you had originally planted.  But over the years, I’ve have plenty of volunteers, free seeds, and no crossing that I was aware of.  For cilantro and dill, unless you grow several varieties, crossing won’t be an issue.

While this isn’t quite permaculture, a significant portion of my vegetable garden is volunteer or grown from saved seed.  Saving seeds from other vegetables is also very easy.  We’ve saved bean and pea seeds, which is no more difficult than letting the pods get almost dry on the vine then finishing the process of totally drying indoors.  If you leave the pods to dry completely on the vine, there is a danger the pods will split and the seed will fall to the ground.

For seeds from tomatoes, peppers, melons, squash and other vegetables, the process is a little more complicated, but still easy.  For the home gardener who does not have to ensure that the seed saved will produce an exact offspring of the parent, you really don’t have much to lose by giving simple seed saving a try.

Cassius Cauliflower

Saturday, September 1st, 2012

Cassius Cauliflower

We’ll try to stay lean, but we won’t be looking hungry when we cook up this good-sized Cassius Cauliflower I harvested this afternoon.  The fall coles are coming in nicely; cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, and soon Brussels sprouts.   Cabbage type crops are great for the northern home gardener.  The harvest this year has been super.

Harvested Cassius Cauliflower

Cauliflower heads don’t always turn out this flawless, or this large.  This one is worth bragging about.