House update – We have a house site cleared

The loggers have been and gone, leaving a lot of tree heads lying around and a pervading sense of guilt (for me anyway). They were very careful to preserve the areas we identified and even identified some habitat areas we didn’t know about and I am really very grateful to them for that, but I still feel guilty about the amount of disturbance we have created on our block. So many animals have lost homes and many species of plant have been affected. We only plan to log the block once and all income will go to building our house.

The good news is that we have a house site cleared and some money to go on to the next step of building; getting our design approved by council and beginning the building. We also have a good fire break cleared around the humpy and house site and I do feel a good deal safer because of this.

The house site looks like chaos; there are some stumps in the cleared area and a lot of disturbed soil. The loggers used their earth moving machinery to dig out the stumps and roots inside the actual house site so that digging the foundation trenches will be easier, they cleared all the vegetation in a 30 metre radius around the house site and pushed the tree heads back to 40 metres. Looking at the space now, I can see the house and garden there in my imagination.

We plan to plant fire retarding plants and trees around the fire break and many fruit and nut trees inside.

I went out at dawn one morning this week (in my all too thin nighty; it has been cold) and stood where my kitchen sink will one day be. I stood there imagining what it will be like to wash up while the sun rises in my own house. How will I feel to know I am living my everyday life in a place I have personally built? Will I remember the long years of struggle, planning and set backs? Will I be thankful for the beauty and comfort around me? or will I just be cursing people who choose to get another coffee mug each time rather than rinsing and re-using the first one?

This will be the view from my kitchen window (which is , of course, over the sink). I plan to have gardens rather than bare soil though.

Next, we will be sending in our application to council. Things are moving…slowly, but surely.

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Using gum leaves in the garden

It is really hot at the moment, so the fire danger level is high. I am raking up leaves from around the house at a rate of one or two 20 litre buckets a day (and fighting a losing battle). Summer solstice (or Litha) is when gum trees drop a lot of leaves and shed their bark like a Hollywood actress shrugging out of her overcoat to reveal she is naked underneath. All that newborn bark is exceedingly beautiful to look at and I love walking  in the bush and letting the cicada song wash over me like a sound ocean, but…extra fuel on the ground leads to extra fire danger.

Common knowledge says that gum leaves are no good for compost; they are allelopathic (don’t play well with other plants), highly acidic, slow to compost and hydrophobic (don’t soak up water). In fact the only thing they have in their favour is we have a lot of them, but what to do with them?. I always struggle with where to put leaves once they are raked up from the constant drifts around the house. I usually rake them away from the house and leave it at that. This year I thought I’d try something different.

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The path in my Hugelkultur bed area is constantly sprouting weed seedlings, which I try to keep up with by pulling a handful or two as mulch  every time I go in there (not a very effective method) but missing one day means the big weeds are taller and harder to pull out and there are just too many of them. Every year I try to cover the path with cardboard as boxes come into the house, then I cover the path with something; wood chip, sand, mulch hay, etc, anything that will keep the cardboard down and can be shoveled onto the beds the following winter. This year I have decided to try gum leaves and bark.

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You can see the multitude of weed seedlings on the path in this photo

My reasoning is that most people say the leaves will break down eventually, given a year on the ground and it is best to have the allelopathic qualities of the leaves spent on the path where I don’t want plants. Also the leaves will be broken up by the mechanical action of me walking on them often which will speed up their decomposition somewhat. I can add a high nitrogen source like urine to the path to further speed decomposition (pardon the indelicate reference) and dampness provided by the infrequent watering of the garden and rain will also speed the process. When I add the resulting leaf mold to my garden beds I will have to remember to add some lime with it to counteract the acidity of the gum leaf mold. This is an experiment to see if gum leaves can be useful in soil building, I am not sure whether it will work out well or be a failure, but we will see in six months or so.

In other news;

My Hugelkultur beds are growing well. Here are some photos to prove  it.

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The zucchini are flowering

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The tree tomato is growing new leaves (it isn’t really this pale, it’s just the camera)

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The chia is growing so fast you can see it

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I am picking lettuce and a tiny bit of silverbeet from this bed

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The beans are up at last and the tomato is ready to be tied up (I’m not sure I will do it though)

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I  have continued to build up the beds that were very low on organic matter by adding anything that comes to hand; horse and cow manure collected from beside the road, the contents of the rabbit litter box and any weeds I pull from the garden.

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Building up the bed ready for planting…probably in winter now, unless I can get some late corn in soon

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The rabbit litter tray; the litter is compressed paper pellets which soak up water and break down very fast, also rabbit poop, pee and hair

Burning off; we don’t, do you?

Well it’s bushfire season again. spring would be my favourite time of year if not for bushfires. In this area most people burn around their homes before summer to protect them from bushfire, unfortunately the vast majority of bushfires start from these ‘controlled burns’ when the wind changes and the fire becomes ‘uncontrolled’. The whole argument for and against burning can get very ‘heated’, we don’t burn but we do take some steps to protect our home from fire, now and in the future.
The CSIRO is of the opinion that fire is an essential part of our ecosystem and that we need to continue the practice to maintain the bush. Most people seem to agree with the notion that the Aboriginal peoples used fire to change the landscape so we should too, but they seem to forget that fire was used as a hunting tool and to clear migration paths not as an ecological aid. Aboriginal peoples gradually changed the ecology by using fire; species that survive and even need fire gradually became more common and the ecosystem became more and more fire friendly.
 Many Australian species rely on hot fires to germinate seedlings, these same plants are usually the ones who drop lots of leaves in the spring, have very flammable bark and catch fire very quickly. Plants that have evolved to need fire for germination do everything in their power to produce the right conditions for fire (makes sense doesn’t it). Species that do not use fire to germinate tend to have more water stored in their leaves and stems, have smooth, non flammable (to a degree) trunks and stems and do not catch fire easily.

My reasoning for not burning is that species who don’t use fire and are not so flammable can find a haven here, around our humpy (at a distance of about 30 metres), and will slow the speed of fires advancing on our home simply by being less flammable. We don’t need to plant them, we just provide the right conditions for them to germinate (I hope). Instead of burning I choose to graze the area immediately around the humpy with sheep. The sheep clear the long, dry grass, the smaller eucalypt saplings and the lantana (slowly) and keep the area fairly bare. We also have a huge clean up every fire season to get rid of any rubbish we have lying on the ground that may provide a place for sparks to ignite. By rubbish I mean household rubbish not tree heads and such. We are gradually working to clear several piles of tree heads within the 30 metre radius of the humpy, we use them as hugelkultur material and firewood, we clear slowly so as to not kill or immediately dehome the little animals that have taken up residence in them since they were pushed up about ten years ago.

You can see how bare the ground is around the humpy

Our humpy is in a terrible position when it comes to fire danger; in a saddle at the top of a hill, a fire can come at us from any direction and be traveling uphill (and therefore faster) and the humpy itself has lots of nooks and crannies that would be spark friendly. Still we are working to correct these things and we haven’t had a fire here in the six years of our residence. We may be lucky enough to make our home fire proof enough to survive the next big fire season; as long as it’s not this year.
Do you burn off around your property? Do you feel safe from fires?