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OUR FOOD FOREST GARDEN

Nine years ago, we bought a north facing piece of rainforest on the side of a mountain overlooking the Tasman Sea in Karamea on the West Coast of the South Island in New Zealand.  

  

We had come from a frosty but lush valley just 12 kilometers up the road where we had spent years transforming a hectare of farmland into an organic self-sufficient haven, complete with orchards, seedling and tunnel houses, a berry zone, and a chicken coop. We loved it but we yearned for the bush and became excited about what more we could grow in a seaside frost free climate.  

  

On our new land there was a tiny, cleared space around an even smaller bach, which was dwarfed by thousand-year Ratas and Nikau Palms. To our north was sloping second generation native bush covered in pungas, Mamako, Miro, lots of vines and Supplejack, and Tasmanian Blackwood. After navigating our way through this bush one day, we realised that the steepness was more a gentle slope, and that if we cleared the growth and most of the large trees, we would have a large sunny north facing frost free area to turn into a productive organic food forest.  

Fast forward to the present day and we have created the ultimate food forest, but not without a lot of blood sweat and tears! 

Organic permaculture food forest garden in Karamea New Zealand

The soil has taken years of lime, mulch and trailers and trailers of sand, woodchips, compost, and manure to finally get it to a workable loam.  

After thinking we had to slope our terraced gardens to ensure drainage, we eventually realised that every time it rained the water would just run off the gardens. This meant we had to instead swale each garden bed by adding more soil on the northern side of each terrace and replace the garden edges on that side too so they were higher. It was a lot of extra work and meant we were doing things twice, but it was absolutely worth it. 

We have dug out rocks the size of small cars just to plant fruit trees and broken up tough iron pan to create new garden beds.   

In summer the ground can dry out a lot and the soil required constant mulching and feeding in those first few years, sometimes it felt like I was applying mulch every two weeks!   

But all the hard work has been done now, and there are plenty of blessings gardening in this unique rainforest environment. 

  

Terraced gardens allow for larger trees to be planted at the bottom of the terrace without shading things behind them, so you can fit a lot more in than you might be able to on a flat space. Because space is limited, you must get creative and experiment like we have by espaliering pear trees underplanted with zucchinis and rudbekias next to a path that is only 30cm wide.   

Different eco systems are created at different heights in the garden. It can be blowing a gale at the top of the garden (although not often), but if you walk only a few metres to the second terrace the citrus trees are bathed in warm sun with not a breath of wind anywhere.   

Stone walls which we have made to build up different garden areas mean that we have warmer environments to plant chilis and figs in front of, or for heat loving strawberries to grow over.   

  

The wee bach which we lived in while our new house was being built has taken on a new life and has been recycled into our seedling house, complete with a ranch slider and the original pot belly fire to keep the tomato seedlings warm in early Spring.   

We recently built a 10 m by 4 m tunnelhouse which meant that this year we had enough tomatoes to freeze and dry as well as a constant summer supply of fresh tomatoes for the kitchen.  

  

Because of our frost-free climate, we can grow black passionfruit, avocadoes, all manner of citrus, and bananas happily outside, and I have also managed to grow eight papayas plants from seed that are now foot tall trees in need of a permanent spot.   

Aby Chalmers with a before photo of our rainforest garden in Karamea New Zealand
view of our organic permacuture food forest garden in Karamea, New Zealand

The two photos above were taken 6 years apart, the photo of the sunset shows the land after the scrub was removed but before the large trees were taken out and the terracing was done. In the second photo you can see the converted bach come seedling house in the distance – the original bach was never down here, it was where our house is now.   

Brett Mawson and Aby Chalmers preparing the ground for vegetable gardens

Me with my right-hand man, literally, and of course a spade, the latter of which most of our garden plans couldn’t come to fruition without. Brett is an “active relaxer” which means he always needs to have some big task on the go, and since he is a school teacher, the more outside time the weekend tasks give him the better. Our garden plans come together very simply – they usually begin with a sundowner glass of wine in said garden, followed by me saying something like “well maybe we should level off that area sometime and add a path here...” or “all we need to do is clear that scrub, make some rocks walls and...” so on and so forth. I use the word “we” lightly, because usually by the time I have done my yoga practice the following morning and gotten into my daily circadian rhythm Brett has almost completed the mission! In return though, once the paths, walls, and structures are created, he leaves it all up to me to plan the plantings and maintain whatever zone has been created.   

stack of rocks in a garden

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December 2023
EARLY SUMMER IN THE GARDEN 

Early summer kitchen garden harvest bask

I should be naming this article “Early summer top and flop crops”, as that would be the perfect way to describe my edible garden so far this season. The things that are growing well are absolutely flourishing, such as the espaliered pears which are dripping with pendulums of burgundy fruit, and the tomatoes that all have healthy thick stems and full trusses. We have had the most massive cauliflowers which I grew undercover during winter, and the beautiful cabbage and daikon radish pictured above have been made into kimchi to eat over the warmer months. The winter sown red onions are bulbing up nicely while the lettuces are hearting up beautifully. We have been enjoying using the inner leaves as fillers for beans and rice, a light and summery change from flatbreads. The spring planted fennel is giving us loads of sweet delicious bulbs which I love, especially in salads, or just nibbled on whole and raw. Whether you love or loath it, fennel is really good for your body and great at helping with stagnant digestion, making it the perfect palate cleanser to eat after a filling dinner. 

Now on to the long list of “flops”. Certain vegetables are sulking and refusing to grow, carrots being one of them. They are on their third sowing with still no sign of a single carrot top. I’m not sure if slugs are to blame, or bad seed (although I have used three different lots of seeds), but something is certainly not letting us have carrots any time soon. I have even spaced the sowings out to account for the thought of “maybe it was too cold then” ...  or “maybe I will wait until after that rain we are meant to get” ... but still to no avail. I’m not one to give up easily, so I will try again in the new year when hopefully the conditions are more favourable. I am having similar issues with the curcubits – they either aren’t germinating, or if they do, they are growing to a point before getting eaten off at the ground. In one case I discovered slaters eating the stem of a cucumber planted in the seedling house, so I piled dirt around the stem higher than the damage in the hope that it would grow more roots. So far the plant looks great, with cucumbers developing, but part of me does feel like I am putting off the inevitable, especially when water displaces the mounded soil, and I can see the stem holding on by a thin thread! 

Another failure is the new potatoes that have been decimated by weka. After a month of me chasing the devious birds out of the garden I did eventually rig up a makeshift fence, but by then the damage was already done. The potatoes never recovered from the constant pulling and plucking of leaves early on in their life, and all the plants died. 

Large Organic Cauliflower
Organic new potato harvest with a garden fork

I did manage to collect a basket of spuds, but it was a pretty feeble harvest considering the size of the patch. Once again that never give up attitude has kicked in, so I have tried to look at this situation positively by utilising the now broken up friable soil to plant sweetcorn seed in instead. So far this is doing alright – not great as I can see signs of slug activity - but I think the corn may (just) be winning! 

In the tropical fruit department, it is once again a top and flop story, although the flop part was fully avoidable (husband rant coming!) Usually Brett undertakes the making of garden beds and structures, while I plant and tend to the crops, but for some reason my lovely man decided that the only lady finger banana plant with a very large healthy bunch of fruit hanging off it at the RIGHT time of year (ie summer - meaning it would have had the potential to fatten up and ripen over the warmer months - as opposed to the autumn forming fruit we had been getting) needed a prune, and he thought it would be a great idea to cut the bunch of fruit off the tree, so it could finish forming and ripen in the shed!?! I'm not sure of the logic there, but clearly I wasn't impressed. To make matters worse, he cut the whole banana tree down – as you should do once fruit has been harvested from it – and placed the chopped-up remains directly around the stem of a prolific passionfruit, causing the stem to promptly rot off at the ground. The added frustration was that this was the first year this particular passionfruit had an abundance of formed fruit hanging off it, and it was shaping up to be a large harvest. I have always known not to put mulch directly around the stem of passionfruit, but I was

still surprised at how quickly the stem rotted. The “top” part to this story is that we have another passionfruit vine that has countless fruit hanging off it. This is planted well away from banana plants and husbands, although poor Brett is so sheepish now, I think it will be a while before he makes any more major decisions in the garden without a korero first... 

Harvesting: broad beans, the last of the asparagus, red onions, cucumbers, dill, coriander, fennel, cauliflower, cabbage, daikon radish, redcurrants, raspberries, strawberries, new potatoes (kind of!), chilis just beginning from the over wintered Poblanos, spring onions, nasturtiums, lemons, lettuces, Italian parsley, mint, silverbeet 

Growing and planting: many varieties of tomatoes, okra (my first time growing this and it is growing fast), zucchini, butternut squash, pumpkins, maincrop potatoes, cucumbers, beetroot, ginger, passionfruit, vanilla passionfruit, cherimoya, figs, apples, pears, aronia berries, blueberries, Chilian guavas, boysenberries, blackcurrants, feijoas, borlotti beans, green beans, sweetcorn, sunflowers, basil, asparagus, peach, grapefruit, mandarins, lemonade, lime, kaffir lime, rhubarb 

Other garden happenings: We have made new raised garden beds on the bottom terrace that I have planted out potager style with a mixture of herbs, flowers and kitchen vegetables. Cucumbers, tomatoes, okra and zucchini sit alongside heliotrope, calendula, strawflowers, cosmos, cornflowers and dahlias, while basil, dill, strawberries and lettuces are dotted throughout. All these plants are thriving in the company of such a diverse group of characters, and once the flowers and fruit begin to form it will look quite beautiful. These gardens are connected to a large archway that you walk

Summer berries held in a childs hands

under to make your way to the seedling house. I am growing pumpkins over the arch, although in keeping with the top/flop crop theme, my pumpkins are struggling, with this being my third attempt at growing them this season. So far it seems third time lucky, although I only have two surviving plants out of around thirty seeds (this season is so strange!), but they are growing strong.  

September 2023
SPRING IN THE GARDEN 

spring garden scene with daffodils and lavender

One of the first indicators that spring has arrived to our hillside garden are the words “It’s that time of the year again”, usually voiced by Brett as he directs us from the deck to the barbecue area around the back of the house at sunset.

In the depths of winter, the afternoon sun is confined to the northern part of our deck, and as it shifts down towards the horizon you kind of have to chase it further and further up towards the house. But the lengthening days of September see the sun sink into the ocean much farther south, making the bush enclosed backyard the place to be to catch those last few rays. The promise of many more hours spent in this sheltered haven enjoying the summer ahead is always in the forefront of our minds come spring, and this year is no exception. 

Spring is also a much-anticipated season in the gardening world. It marks the end of slow winter growth and cold, sodden soil that is hard to work, instead hailing the beginning of one of the most active times on our land.

 

With plenty of soil preparation, seed sowing, and planting out of early season crops all taking place with a sense of urgency, it is easy to feel behind, or like there isn’t enough time to get everything in the ground. If you are traversing the garden centres at the moment you could be forgiven for thinking it's time to get plants like tomatoes in the ground, but I can assure you, it's not! Tomato seeds can and should be sown now if they haven't already, but it is far too early to even consider putting grown plants into your garden yet.

One of the most valuable lessons I have learnt through growing my own kai is that the upcoming summer season is long - especially here in sunny Karamea – and there is no sense in rushing the planting of subtropical crops. The tomato and pepper seeds I sowed

in August are only just ready to be pricked out into bigger containers, as are a handful of tomatillo seeds I sowed at the same time. We have a warm seed raising house, so I have also just planted seeds of zucchini, pumpkin and cucumber, but once again, these could wait until October or even early November if the weather isn’t favourable, or if you are wanting to directly sow them outside.

Cooler season crops, on the other hand, are going gang busters. Broccoli, fennel, spinach, and silverbeet are being sown and pricked out into larger containers, and the spring production line of lettuces has begun, with new seeds being sown every time the previous lot of seeds get pricked out, which is usually when the crop sown before them get planted into the garden. This pattern of sowing, pricking out and planting will ensure a constant supply of lettuce at its prime all through the summer.

At the moment the lettuces are getting planted out in full sun, but as the days warm up towards the end of spring, I will choose shadier, cooler parts of the garden to plant them, so they don’t get baked in the hot summer sun. Nooks and crannies between larger plants, or under the shade of fruiting shrubs and trees that may be interspersed throughout the vege garden are good places for lettuces to grow in the hotter months, just needing a small handful of compost or worm castings under each seedling at planting time.

Early spring has seen us developing a new area of our garden behind the tunnel house that was previously secondary bush with lots of ferns and pungas. Encouraged by the small but plump bunch of fruit we harvested off our Ladyfinger banana tree this winter, we have decided to dedicate a whole zone just to bananas, and this humas enriched forest floor seems to lend itself perfectly to growing the tender crop.
 
The main rule with bananas is to always cut off the whole stem at the bottom once that stem has finished fruiting, as a stem will only ever produce one bunch of bananas. We wear old clothes and gloves while doing this, because there is a sticky sap that comes out of the plant that can stain.  Originally I planted banana palms next to our sleepout (as pictured), and removing the spent fruiting stems was the only pruning I did to them.
But after a lot of research and discussion with fellow banana growers, I have realised I need to undertake more serious pruning if I ever want to get an abundance of fruit.

To do this, there are two options. The first option is to remove all the stems and suckers around the mother plant after fruiting with the exception of the strongest one, which in turn will grow and replace the fruiting stem you just cut off, and will be where the next bunch of fruit comes from. Any removed suckers can be replanted if there are sufficient roots.

The second option is to take the advice a Tokelauan friend once gave me who used to grow bananas in his homeland - instead of growing as a singular plant, grow your bananas in sets of three.

20211125_105039_edited.jpg

Essentially, this means you will create a family, with a mother plant (the stem that has fruit growing on it), an adolescent plant (this will be next year's fruiting stem), and a baby sucker (this will become the adolescent plant next year and the fruiting mother plant in two years time).  So, when a fruiting stem gets cut down, the next largest stem will replace it, and the baby sucker will grow while one more baby sucker will be retained, with all other suckers being removed. This way there should be a continuous supply of bananas growing, and no gap years without fruit. 

 

I am going to have a play around with both these ways of growing bananas, but I'm inclined to think the Tokelauan way sounds like a winner. It is always interesting to see how tropical plants go in our garden, and although we don’t get a frost here it is still a delicate balance trying to provide lots of sunshine without exposing them to the chilly south-westerly winds that go hand in hand with living on the West Coast. 

With the amount of suckers that banana plants produce it is easy to see how if you had a big enough piece of land in a warm enough climate, it wouldn’t take too long to have your very own banana plantation, and with the warming temperatures I encourage those in temperate areas to give them a go. Misi Luki lady finger bananas are a good variety to start with for the New Zealand climate, but if you know someone with a fruiting banana, you can always dig a sucker out and replant it. Even if they don’t fruit you will manage to create an attractive tropical-looking jungle effect in your garden, with foliage that makes amazing mulch! 

Sowing and planting: new potatoes, maincrop potatoes, celery, tomatoes, chilis, tomatillos, red onions, broccoli, lettuces, elephant garlic, broad beans, seeds of pumpkins, cucumbers, gherkins and courgettes just planted.  

Growing: potatoes, new potatoes, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages, broad beans, elephant garlic

cauliflower growing in a garden

Harvesting: purple sprouting broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cavelo nero (always!), Italian parsley, asparagus (slow this year - but I'm optimistic), lemons, limes, grapefruit, tangelos, leeks, lettuces, rocket, coriander, fennel, spinach, silverbeet

Other garden happenings: the espaliered pear trees have an abundance of fruiting spurs on them this year. The late summer pruning I did which involved cutting back each lateral coming off the leaders down to just 10cm has paid off – the previous year I undertook this pruning too early in the season and it resulted in more lateral growth rather than spur production, but waiting until the beginning of March this time around has given me countless fruiting spurs, as well as wonderful blossoms to look forward to.

 

This winter has also been an absolute bumper season in the citrus department with the Tahitian lime and Meyer lemon in particular producing a constant supply of juicy tangy fruit. As well as this, every other citrus tree bar one has given us some fruit too, and for a relatively young orchard we are pretty happy with the enthusiasm these trees seem to have for the space they are growing in. 

A large part of the learning curve when gardening is becoming familiar with your particular climate and knowing what plants will do well in that climate. It would seem our climate is very suited to citrus of all varieties, so much so that I am on the lookout for a finger lime, an unusual citrus variety that I have never tasted but am excited to try to grow (and taste) one day.

The final bit of garden news is the development of some new flower beds which run the whole length of the northern side of the tunnelhouse. As productive as the tunnel house is, the plastic semi-circle shape can be a bit of an eyesore, so this summer I anticipate tall sunflowers and colourful zinnias all along the front of it, which will be a much prettier sight, and good fodder for the bees and butterflies.

Choosing the seeds for this area was a lot of fun, and as soon as they arrive in the post, I will sow them into good quality potting mix.

There is so much excitement and optimism in the air in Spring which often comes with big plans in the garden, for me it really is the season of anticipation.


Happy gardening! 

asparagus growing in a garden
spring

July 2023
WINTER IN THE GARDEN Worm Farms 

Winter is generally a time of dormancy, and this has never been truer in my garden than this year. Other tasks have seen me busy working on projects that have pulled me indoors, and with less-than-ideal weather I haven't really minded to be honest! We also have big changes on the horizon which have left me with uncertainty about which crops I should concentrate on. This in turn has left me procrastinating and not giving the garden the time or energy I would like too. To compound all of this, most of the things that I have made time to sow and plant over winter have not done well at all.  

The annuals have been the least productive they have ever has been, with most of my brassicas getting attacked by slugs, my late sowing of carrots failing to germinate, my leeks struggling slowly away, and my garlic, broad beans and beetroot all failing miserably (unless you are counting beetroot leaves, which are giving us beautiful winter salads). Even the usually easy silverbeet is sulking in the corner of the seedling house... 

I know I wasn’t properly prepared for winter and got a lot of my crops in far too late, such as the leeks, brassicas, beetroot and carrots. This has meant they either haven’t come up or are struggling along trying to make their mark in the depths of winter, when they should be strong young plants by now ready to harden off and produce. 

 

We had a terrible case of rust on our garlic this summer, and I lost all the seed that I had been saving for many years. I did however manage to successfully grow elephant garlic, so I planted about 30 large cloves of that in June, but for reasons unknown to me only a 

winter harvest basket with snowdrops and flowers

few shoots have emerged from the soil. I find this really strange as I have always found garlic so easy to grow, but something is definitely telling me that the garlic has other plans! I have resigned myself to the idea that maybe it is best to admit defeat this time around and start with fresh organic seed next winter. 

There are things that are going berserk though, one of them is our worm farms, which you can read about here, and the other is our citrus orchard. We have far more lemons and limes than we know what to do with, and I have been experimenting in the kitchen with many citrus recipes. The undercover tomatoes are (unbelievably) still giving us wonderful ripe fruit in July (as you can see in the photo above - it's not often you see ripe tomatoes and snowdrops in the same photo!) and I have been picking and pickling Poblano chilis like they are going out of fashion.  

With the shortest day behind us, the improving weather, and spring just around the corner I am ready to embrace some new season growth. 

potatoes in a basket being planted in trenches in a garden

Harvesting:  tomatoes (still!) chilis, lemons, limes, grapefruit, manderins, tangelos, kale & cavelo nero (pictured with the surprise tomatoes), beetroot (well, the leaves,,,), baby silverbeet, purple sprouting broccoli (does this crop ever end??), winter fennel, coriander, nasturtium (always) and Italian parsley.

Sowing and planting: indoor sowings of spring onions, fennel, silverbeet, broccoli, lettuces, kale and spinach have begun in preparation of spring, and soon I will begin sowing tomatoes and peppers. New potatoes have just been planted in wood ash and chicken muck enriched soil, and more self-seeded fennel seedlings have been transplanted to their permanent homes 

  

Growing: (a few) elephant garlic plants, Italian parsley, the last of the over wintered fennel, leeks, cauliflower, silverbeet, beetroot, and a very late sowing of broad beans.

Other garden happenings: Two things that are doing really well at the moment are two our worm farms, so I thought this could be the perfect opportunity to explain how they work, and why they are two of the best additions to our wee plot of paradise. I've got to say, I'm really surprised and chuffed at how successful they have actually been, so if you have enough space for a worm farm and feel like a winter garden project to get stuck into that will give you oodles of free organic fertiliser all year round, keep reading! 

ABOUT OUR WORM FARMS

After a failed attempt at a worm farm many years ago (I now know lack of drainage was most probably the reason for the failure) Brett and I did a lot of research before making the farms we use now. We knew we needed to grow enough worms to eat the masses of daily kitchen waste that we produce, with the hope that we would also be rewarded with a bit of worm juice and worm castings. Our expectations were well and truly superseded, because our worms eat ALL of the kitchen waste that comes from the house (this is a lot, a bucket every two or three days) and we have so much worm juice it is quite often overflowing in its tray when I go to check it. The castings aren't as prolific, but they are super rich and are such a good soil additive, that a little amount makes a big impact, especially when used in and on top of the soil where new plants and seedlings will be going. 

One of our worm farms is made from an old bathtub, and the other is made from an old washing machine. The bathtub farm gives us all that beautiful worm juice, and a substantial amount of the castings, while the washing machine farm seems to have become a worm growing factory, so if we need to supply anyone with worms (like we did recently with our local school where Brett teaches) we can do so. I sometimes also use these worms to add to my compost or a garden that needs help breaking down spent plants and dug in mulch. There are also plenty of castings in the washing machine farm, it is just a matter of wading through the masses of worms to get to it all! 

tiger worms in a worm farm with a  garden fork

The Bathtub Worm Farm

The bathtub farm doubles as a garden seat when the lid is closed, so you want to think about that when positioning it, as well as making sure it is not going to cook in the summer. Ours is at the bottom of our garden by the seedling house in a bright sunny position, but it is surrounded by plants and protected by a hedge, and it is in a temperate part of the garden. If it was out in the open with no shelter or protection and was in a really exposed environment, it may become too hot in the summer for the worms to survive. 

worm farm at the bottom of an attractive garden

The first thing we did was source an old bathtub – when doing this you want to make sure it is still intact with a plug hole and no cracks. 

 

Brett then built a frame to sit the bath in. When building the frame, you will need to raise it up so that you can fit a tray under the plughole (this will be where the worm juice collects) and the bath will have to be high enough in that frame so that you can comfortably slide the tray in and out to empty it when you need to.

 

You could raise it minimally and double the worm farm up as a seat like we did or raise it a lot and turn the top of the worm farm into a work bench. 

Once we put the bath into the frame, Brett used an old hardwood door as a lid to attach to the frame via hinges at the back. 

It's important not to use treated wood anywhere the worms could get to, and it is equally important to make sure there is no gap between the lid and the frame – the last thing you want is rodents or water getting in there, so overlapping the lid at the top is a good idea so rain drains off - instead of into - the bath. 

The next thing we did was made a false bottom on the inside of the bath with wire mesh so the worms would have air coming up from underneath. Doing this means the worm wee can drain down the plughole without food scraps and worm castings clogging up the plug, and potentially drowning some of the worms. 

You may want to sit some bricks under the mesh to keep it in place so it doesn’t sag. We then placed green windbreak over the top of the mesh,  but shadecloth would also work, just something to allow worm wee to drain through.

After that we made a nice “bed” for the worms. I started with a thick layer of straw, and then some cow manure – not too much, I just dotted it here and there, before adding my first couple of buckets of food scraps, followed by the tiger worms.

 

Common garden worms will not like being in a worm farm as the food scraps are far too acidic for them, so you need to source tiger worms that thrive on acidic foods. You can buy them online, but if you know somebody else with a worm farm, just see if you can fish a cup or so of worms out of theirs. If you have a good compost brewing away, you may find you already have some in there. You will know them because they have distinctive tiger like red stripes on them, hence the name! 

tiger worms in a worm farm
making a worm farm out of a bath
making a worm farm out of a bath
making a worm farm out of a bath
making a worm farm out of a bath

Once you have placed the worms in, layer cardboard or old sacks over the top of everything, and water the top well so it is completely damp. This helps to stabilise the temperature and will help the whole farm stay moist. Over summer you will have to keep an eye that this top layer doesn’t dry out – if it does just water it again. 

Initially I began by putting the food scraps evenly over the whole surface of the bath, but now I fill up one side with food scraps, then once that half is full, I leave it alone and begin to fill the other side. This way I always have one side with the worms busy eating and converting the scraps into castings, and one side getting added to. 

From this point on its just a matter of feeding your worms with kitchen waste (see below for feeding tips) and checking the bottom tray for worm juice. Once worm juice production has begun, you can begin feeding your plants. A ratio of roughly 10 parts water to 1 parts worm juice is a good ratio to stick too, but for heavy feeders like cauliflowers and leeks I go 5 parts water to 1 part worm juice.

 

Worm juice is sometimes nicknamed called liquid gold for good reason – it is one of the best overall sources of friendly microbes and bacteria that you can put into your soil, helping with overall structure and soil health, and it is high in nitrogen as well as a wide range of minerals and nutrients. 

worm bath in the middle of a garden
collecting worm juice from a worm farm

We have made a door on the side of the bath frame with a latch to house the worm juice tray and to keep the whole system rodent proof. We just pull the tray out when we want to use some of the nutrient rich worm juice.

The Washing Machine Worm Farm

This is a much simpler setup than the Bathtub farm. Brett took the insides out of our old washing machine, leaving us with a shell and a rainproof lid. He cut the bottom off and replaced it with gauze for drainage, then he built a low stand to sit the whole thing on. 

worm farm made from an old washing machine

This worm farm is situated around the back of the seedling house, so after making a bed out of straw and adding the worms, I began using it just to put my spent pot plants and chopped up garden waste from the seedling house into, along with lawn clippings every now and then. But now that there is a hefty worm population to feed, I put some of my kitchen waste in here too, alternating between putting it in here and the bath.

 

Because the purpose of this worm farm was mainly to compost large garden waste such as spent tomato plants and the like, we haven't been utilising it the best we could, and presently the worm juice just drains out of the bottom and onto the grass. But a system like this on the edge of a garden bed would be ideal, because the juice could then run into the garden and feed the soil and the plants growing in it. 

Feeding your worms

You can feed the worms anything that is organic and has been living, such as food scraps, garden waste (cut up small), animal or human hair, old leather, wool, straw, fish waste, seaweed, grass clippings, and manure, but there are a few exceptions to that rule...

Don't add:

  • raw or cooked meats, dairy products, large amounts of cooked foods

  • oil or fat

  • too many citrus or onion skins

  • dog, pig, cat or human manure

  • wood ash

It is important to gradually feed your worms in the beginning, taking notice of how fast your family of wriggly things is growing and how fast they are eating their food. As the amount of worms increase, you can begin feeding them more. Also take notice of the overall worm farm health and try to use your intuition. If the farm seems too wet, you will need to look at your drainage, while if it is too dry you may need to wet the top layer of cardboard or sacks. If you find you haven't added anything other than food scraps to the farm for awhile, give the worms a treat by putting in a bit of horse manure if you have it, or maybe some grass clippings. You can add a sprinkle of lime too if you think your worm farm is too acidic, but keep in mind that tiger worms are happy in quite an acidic environment. 

Like anything, observation is key, and the more you get to understand your worm farm the more in touch with potential problems you will be. Generally speaking they are relatively easy to manage, and with the benefit of never ending free fertiliser, once you have a functioning worm farm you will be wondering how your garden ever got by without one. Happy farming!

Aby Chalmers pouring worm juice fertiliser into a watering can
Winter

May 2023
AUTUMN IN THE GARDEN 

Autumn harvest with pumpkins, feijoas, apples, tomatoes, salvia, vanilla passionfruit and chilis

Autumn is such a special time of the year, especially if you are lucky enough to be connected to a garden like we are. Sunlight takes on a magical quality - on our land we get beautiful shards of hazy glowing morning light shining onto the Rata forest as it wakes up, and on a clear evening we see intense purple hued orange sunsets as the sun settles into the Tasman Sea.  

The tones of colour intensify in the food forest too – iridescent purple fluffy salvia and bright red pineapple sage glow in the corners of the garden beds, and deep purple figs, earthy pink Chilian guavas and gold and ruby helenium flowers add to the jeweled effect. 

Autumn is also a time of bountiful harvests, and this is the first year that the feijoas we planted have fruited in absolute abundance. By abundance, I mean buckets and baskets and more buckets bursting at the seams with the sweet fragrant fruit. We are all quite excited by this and it is leading to a lot of experimentation in the kitchen. I have discovered a way to make a (relatively) healthy feijoa & coconut caramel sauce which tastes divine, and I am presently working out ways to incorporate it into homemade ice cream. I am developing a feijoa granola recipe using blended up caramelised feijoas as a base, and all my feijoa skins are getting frozen so they can be added to breakfast smoothies for a bit of tartness now that the berry season is over.

 

This was also a cracker of a season for pears, and even our young espaliered trees fruited this year, giving us a dozen or so luscious fruit. This wasn’t enough to consider doing much with other than enjoying them fresh, but luckily we were given access to a neighbour’s large Beurre Bosc pear tree. We managed to forage 

enough to fill plenty of Agee jars with sweet cinnamon infused preserved pears, and I’m glad I made lots because they are going down a treat with my teenage son who eats them with cornflakes for breakfast and dessert most days – who knew teenagers could eat so much!  

An unexpected star in the garden this season has been a vanilla passionfruit vine that we have been pampering for some time now. It was originally planted a few years ago at the bottom of the citrus zone with the intention of training it across an old metal bed base, but like all plants it knows where it wants to grow, and it has decided to use the bed base to propel itself upward towards the herbaceous driveway border. Here it has happily woven its tendrils through large grasses and purple salvias to settle amongst the delicate branches of a juvenile kowhai tree.

vanilla passionfruit vine

It thrived in this position over summer and blessed us with giant pink flowers, and now that it is Autumn we have multitudes of pendulous yellow fruit hanging from the kowhai, giving the illusion that the fruit is growing from it rather than the vine planted 5 or 6 metres below. The fruit itself looks like it’s more invasive cousin banana passionfruit, but where banana passionfruit is acidic, vanilla passionfruit is anything but. It is just beginning to ripen and we have a family consensus that yes vanilla passionfruit is definitely the most sumptuous, sweetest and “pudding-like" fruit growing in our food forest, meaning that the sweet tooth boys (and Brett) love it. I generally like tart fruit, so I prefer the more traditional purple passionfruit, but I appreciate the fact that this vanilla version is yet another incentive for our kids to eat fresh fruit straight out of the garden. 

Harvesting: Feijoas, Granny Smith apples, and Chilian guavas. The limes are just starting, and there is a huge amount coming on. The zucchini are just finishing up after succumbing to powdery mildew, the butternuts and Triamble pumpkins have all been picked, and the basil and tomatoes are still going strong in the tunnel house. I'm also harvesting Italian parsley, spring onions, cavelo nero, Red Russian kale, purple, yellow, white and orange carrots including a variety I have never planted before called Paris Market. The purple sprouting broccoli that was planted

many months ago is still producing spears, and I have lots of coriander which I am cutting about twice a week . The silver beet, chard and spinach are just beginning, and I am harvesting the odd beetroot leaf for salads too. Poblano chilis are being picked green, sliced and added to a pot of slightly sweetened vinegar and water to make pickled hot green chilis – yum, especially with nachos or loaded potato wedges! Thai chilis are ripening, plus another fruity delicious unnamed chili variety that was given to us. Also coming on is a late chili that grows well outside in Karamea, even ripening and maintaining good health right through the winter. The fruit are large and round with ridges, and are not for the fainthearted as they can get very spicy. The chilis start off green, but quickly turn purple before going a deep orange colour.  

The figs are still ripening and are being eaten straight off the tree, and of course we are getting lots of tropical fruit off the vanilla passionfruit vine. 

Sowing and planting: late broad beans are about to go in, and the elephant garlic has been planted. Last season's crop of regular garlic got the most debilitating case of rust which you can read more about in Late Summer in the Garden, and I managed to harvest enough bulbs for eating, but none large enough for sowing. This year we have decided just to plant elephant garlic as none of that variety developed any rust, even though it was growing alongside the regular garlic which did. Once again though I am crossing my fingers and toes for a successful garlic season!  

Coriander seeds are being sown every few weeks as they like growing during the cooler months, silverbeet, cauliflower, broccoli, winter lettuces, and beetroot are all being planted too.

 

We have just transplanted a couple of figs that we had growing in large copper containers – figs love rocky hard ground with slightly rich soil, and I tipped a bucket of ash into each hole before we planted them to help with future fruiting. One of the varieties we planted was a Brunoro Black. This is my favourite fig because even though the fruit are quite small, they are abundant, and their flavour is very rich with loads of depth. The dark purple fruit are a beautiful deep crimson colour inside and if you eat them when they are perfectly ripe they really are unparalleled in depth of flavour. The other variety of fig we have is the more common Brown Turkey. The fruit on this tree is much larger and lighter in colour, with almost a honey sweetness to it. If you are looking at planting figs, I recommend both of these varieties as because they taste quite different, they complement each other nicely.  

abundance of limes growing in a food forest garden in New Zealand

Growing:

The early sowing of broad beans that I planted in February are now waist high and flowering, so I'm hoping we will begin to get a harvest in winter rather than the usual spring broad bean glut. The leeks are very slow but are finally beginning to show signs of getting larger – they were planted later than I would have liked, and I can definitely tell the difference! Hopefully this late planting doesn’t impact on the end result too much.  

The citrus trees are all laden with fruit, especially the lemon, lime and mandarin trees, and for the first time we have a grapefruit on our small grapefruit tree. 

 

Other garden happenings:

The asparagus ferns are almost ready to be cut right back - I will wait until they go completely brown before cutting and composting the stalks, and then I will give the whole bed a good weed and sprinkle ash from the fire over the soil, before mulching with muck and straw out of the chicken coop. It may seem odd to feed the asparagus straight after it has died back, but I like to give it a good dose of nutrients now, followed by a warm blanket of mulch, to help set it up for next season and to give it the best environment to over-winter in. It actually doesn’t stay dormant for too long in our garden, usually springing back to life in late July, so I find it needs a good feeding now, before giving it another feed of fine well-rotted compost in August. 

Speaking of compost, we are in the process of making a large 3 x 1 metre garden bed at the bottom of the garden, so this is where I am making this seasons compost heap. Making a large pile of compost where you are planning a new garden is a simple and effective way to give the ground a head start and fast track the addition of valuable microorganisms into the soil.

 

All I do is dig out any noxious hard to get rid of weeds, such as dock and buttercup, before laying down cardboard where the new garden is to go. I then begin to make the heap, usually starting with cut up corn stalks, flower stalks and small twigs, and then I layer organic waste on top, thinking about following each green nitrogen layer (grass, manure, garden waste, food waste etc) with a brown carbon layer (brown stems and brown garden waste, straw, hay, woodchips, and leaves). I also water well in between each layer and addition.

 

I build the heap gradually as I find the materials for each layer – over autumn and winter there are a lot of spent crops being removed from the garden, so I find I don’t have to look too hard.  I usually layer the heap until it is almost as tall as me, then I top it with straw and cover it with a tarpaulin to rest for the winter.

A juvenile kowhai tree underplanted with salvia leucantha and vanilla passionfruit vine.
autumn
Late Summer in the Garden
sunflowers in an organic garden

The weather this year has been so strange, and I can’t go much further without mentioning the terrible events the North Island of New Zealand has been dealing with. After a very rainy, cloudy and cool summer, including Cyclone Hale to contend with at the beginning of the year, and flood events in Auckland and Northland shortly after, Cyclone Gabrielle arrived a couple of weeks ago and caused absolute devastation. Many families, communities and businesses have lost everything, and it has been simply terrible hearing the harrowing stories and seeing the effect this cyclone has had on entire regions.  

It is hard not to feel completely helpless, but I think one of the best ways we can assist is by either volunteering to help - a possible option for those that live nearby - or by donating money. Radio New Zealand has put together a concise list of links for both these avenues on their website: https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/484422/cyclone-gabrielle-where-to-donate  

Another way to support businesses in affected areas is to buy their products. The Esk Valley was hit very hard, and even though a lot of the vineyards in the area are presently buried under tonnes of silt, most of them still have bottled wine available for purchase. By buying just a bottle or two you will be helping them out immensely. I did a quick search and found this website https://eskvalleywines.com/ but there are many more to choose from.  

If wine isn’t your thing, Koanga Gardens - https://koanga.org.nz/ - has also suffered greatly due to a lot of their gardens and land being destroyed. By doing something as simple as purchasing one of their amazing online courses you are helping to support them through this stressful time with a service that they can offer with ease.

While this mayhem has been happening up North, here on the West Coast of the South Island we have had one of the hottest summers I can remember. We are used to having scorching hot days, especially in the warmer months, but the difference is that the heat this year has been relentless, with day after day of overwhelmingly hot sunshine, followed by equally overwhelming and muggy night-time temperatures. The cicadas have been deafening, even once the sun has gone down, and there hasn’t been a lot of sleep happening in our house – in fact we have spent more than one night downstairs in the spare bedroom where it is a lot cooler than our suntrap of a bedroom. 

This climate has also made way for a bit of a confused garden, with some fruits and vegetables coming to fruition – and then completion - much sooner than they normally would. I guess this might sound like a blessing, but I wasn’t prepared for such a high crop turnover. 

Even though we have recently harvested an abundance of sweetcorn, it feels like it was only around for a week or two.  I did two sowings a few weeks apart, but it all ripened at once due to the consistently high temperatures. As a result, we had to eat and process it all fast before it lost its beautiful sweetness. I have found the best way to deal with an abundance of sweetcorn (other than to eat it fresh in pretty much every meal) is to cut the kernels directly off the cobs with a large knife and freeze them in reusable freezer bags. I then give the cobs to the chickens so they can happily peck at the leftovers. I know it is practice with some people to blanch corn before freezing it to prevent flavour and colour loss, but to be honest I have always frozen it raw and have never had an issue with either of those things. For ease of use later, I bag the corn up into 2 cup portions. 

removing the sweetcorn harvest off the cob

A few of my tomatoes got so hot in the usually temperate seedling house that they only produced for a month and a half then curled up and died. In hindsight I should have shaded them a wee bit with shade cloth, just to give them a bit of a break from the daytime heat. Successive sowings would have been a good idea too, but as I am only realising that now, it is probably too late to sow more tomatoes. Although on the other hand, with our ever-changing climate, maybe it is time to begin experimenting? 

The good news is that most of the tomatoes are still growing strong and producing a lot of fruit. The compost I added at planting time ended up having butternut seeds through it, so some of my tomatoes are randomly underplanted with fruiting butternuts. Bonus!  

Tomato sauce is being bottled, tomato relish and tomato jam making has begun, and tomatoes are also being halved, mixed with salt, cracked black pepper, garlic and a drizzle of olive oil before being roasted in a single layer in the oven until nice and caramelised. I then blend them up to make a rich passata which I freeze for use over the winter months. 

Some other positives are that the chilis and aubergines are loving the hot days and warm nights, as are the basil plants, passionfruit and strawberries, which have been fruiting non-stop since November and are just beginning to send leaders out now. 

summer beans tomatoes courgettes strawberries alpine strawberries and aronia berries summer harvest basket

Harvesting: lots of apples, the first (ever) pears, passionfruit, aronia berries, strawberries and alpine strawberries, surprise cabbages (not sure where they came from but they are welcomed!), broccoli, cavelo nero, kale, successive sowings of carrots, sweetcorn just finished, coriander seeds, basil, Italian parsley, peppermint for drying, tomatoes, poblano chilis just beginning, loads and loads of zucchini, gherkins, red onions, spring onions, fresh beans and black beans for drying. The garlic got harvested very late after 7 months in the ground. It was overtaken with rust (see Early Summer in the Garden) which meant the bulbs were very small, but the fact that I trimmed the rust infected leaves off and left it in the ground for longer than usual meant that it did eventually bulb up. The elephant garlic was unaffected by rust, so we have decided to save most of those cloves to plant this autumn, as well as source some large, rust-free regular garlic seed too. Even though the garlic I grew bulbed, it is still tiny, so the really small cloves are presently being sun dried with the skins still on. Once fully dry, I will blend them into garlic powder for the pantry.  

Sowing and planting: early planting of broad beans, late summer planting of green beans, more carrots, beetroot, leeks, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, cavelo nero, curly kale, late summer sowings of red onions, more sowings of spring onions, silver beet and spinach. I have also just sown some kowhai seeds that I am hoping will sprout. 

Growing: self-seeded butternuts, self-seeded Triamble pumpkins, yellow pumpkins, figs and feijoas fruiting up nicely, Chilian guavas are almost ready, aubergines just flowering, chilis coming on nicely, and the bananas are still fruiting, but am not sure if the fruit is going to get any bigger or ripen.   

Other garden happenings: because we went away over Christmas and New Years this year, I was very late sowing my beetroot and leeks. Normally in February I would already be harvesting baby beetroot, but all I have at the moment are small seedlings waiting to be planted. My leeks are in the same boat, I would usually have had the winter leeks in the ground for a few weeks by now, but as it is they won’t be planted until early March. I’m confident both these crops will still be a success, as it is warm enough here to grow beetroot as the weather cools, and I have prepared a rich well manured bed for the leeks. Providing I get both these crops into the ground over the coming weeks, they should have a long enough growing season to be productive. 

The end of summer is also a good time to get some pruning done. The espaliered pear trees have just finished fruiting, so the other day I got stuck in and pruned all unwanted branches back to about 5 centimetres, cutting each to an outward facing bud. This should encourage those buds to form next season's fruiting spurs, so ideally next summer I will be left with a framework of long leaders on wire supports, with short tight knit stems holding loads of plump healthy fruit – well that is the idea anyway! While I do this pruning job, I also tie the leaders to their wire frame. The leaders will get pruned in winter, as that is when I will be wanting to encourage spring growth rather than fruiting spurs.   

The other job that has been keeping me busy is mulching any exposed soil. Having bare soil is one of the worst things for the ecology of any garden, and with lots of crops being harvested at this time of the year, now is the time to either compost and plant straight back into the newly emptied garden beds, or apply a thick layer of organic mulch to cover the soil. Grass clippings, small woodchips, cardboard, straw and decomposed leaves are all great options, as is freshly made compost. Using mulch will also help to abate the weeds while feeding the soil at the same time, and I find the effort required to do this small task is minimal compared to the reward of a rich, revitalised, weed free garden. 

Early Summer
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