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The once and future patch

Tino Carnevale

Tino Carnevale

October 3, 2012

`The greatest art of the future will be the making of a comfortable living from a small piece of land’ said George Washington. With this lofty ideal in mind I set about transforming around 280 square metres of garden into our own grocery store.

I had taken care of the woody plants but there was still the jungle of weeds to deal with. For me weeding is a very Zen experience, whether it is the precision weeding done around flower and vegetable beds or the hack and slash method using a mattock and axe. In some gardens though and certainly with some types of weeds the pleasure in the task can be somewhat diminished.

A cross section of the soil

To all the gardens I have known, those of you with looser soil I have loved the best. In this gardener’s experience a garden with a heavily compacted soil can be a real pain in the back. There are two weeds in particular that can strike fear into the heart of a Tasmanian veggie gardener. The first one is oxalis which took me years to control in my last garden, but thankfully I don’t have here. The other is twitch, otherwise known as English couch or the green plague. Every piece of literature regarding twitch and every gardener I have ever spoken to has warned against using cultivation to control it. By doing this you are breaking up the long rhizomes into many pieces, propagating more plants and exacerbating your problem.

Now in the face of all this collective wisdom I decided to run a rotary hoe over my green sea of twitch. There were two parts to the theory – the first was that through cultivation, my soil would be loosened and life would become a lot easier. The second was based on the observation that the rope like roots desiccate in the sun and particularly in the frost when they are bought to the surface. There was one slight problem with my plan; there is a large colony of rock inhabiting my garden. In fact in some parts of the garden the ratio of soil to stone is one to one. Evicting them was going to have to be my first priority.

About a third of the rock is fairly large, around 20 to 40 kilograms and these are mostly on the surface. The others are small angular pieces that are in the top horizon of the soil so removing them is not too dissimilar to harvesting spuds. Many barrow loads of rock later there were enough removed to ensure that I didn’t trash the rotary hoe I had borrowed off dad.

I ran over the site with the hoe and then using my fork I bought the weeds and roots up to the surface where they were zapped by the sun for about ten days or so. Then I raked them up and piled them to begin to compost and removed more rock. I added two trailer loads of compost from my previous garden and a couple of bags of poo and then I did a couple of laps with the rotary hoe. The area was finally clear and it looked beautiful, the soil came up like chocolate mousse. It is a funny thing that you can spend a long time on the most labour intensive job and nothing seems to change, but then five minutes on the simplest of tasks and the site seems magically transformed.

The next step was terraforming, which is a fancy way of saying using my post hole shovel and a rake to create beds and paths. I ended up creating seven beds that are the length of my fork in width by 6 metres long and three that are the same fork wide by 3 metres long. All the paths are two blade widths of my shovel wide, with the exception of the main central path that is the width of the concrete steps that lead up to the patch. There is a large bed devoted to those exceptional plants, the blueberries, that runs at a right angle to the vegetable beds. There are also two large beds that rap around the perimeter of the patch for herbs, other berry and currant crops, edible plants of interest like liquorice, pepino, horseradish and the like as well as espaliered fruit trees.

My patch will have few permanent constructions, two compost bays, a wooden skeleton so I can net the berries and a worm farm. Because of this, and the fact that the paths are just straw, it allows me to change the number and size of the beds from year to year depending on our needs. After all the beds and paths were completed it was time to dig over the beds. This meant removing more weeds and even more rocks which by this stage I had quite a sizable collection of.

I love straw or hay mulch, I find something special about its look and its smell as well as the effect it has on the earthworms and therefore the soil. I laid it on the paths and the berry beds but I never like to use mulch on vegetables except for potatoes and under pumpkin fruit. The idea is that once the straw on the paths has broken down I will dig it through the beds between crops cycles then lay fresh straw.

The time had come when I would be able to start making this once neglected site into a productive patch. There was one final job though, it was to enjoy a beer and the smug sense of satisfaction my new garden gave me.

Next – The Pioneer Crops.

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helen mckerral
helen mckerral
11 years ago

Haha, Tino, an engaging post: I can SO relate to your experience, especially the rocks! I used mine to create about 70sqm of retaining walls on my sloping site! What do you plan to do with yours?

11 years ago

Thank you Helen
I am currently converting my rock pile into a series of stone walls. I am using the larger stones as edges for some of the beds and the smaller ones for flooring in my potting shed. The stone walls cover around 20 metres in total at 1.2 meteres high. I am in awe of your 70m effort, well done.

Julie Thomson
11 years ago

Hi Tino,
Such a grand task and hope you have a good yoga back to put into it. I was wondering if all those rocks would have been dumped there for fill originally?How long did this transformation take, please? Looking forward to hearing what gets planted.