Turning the porch into a Sunspace

Update: I’ve been vigorously reading up on solar heating in the last couple of weeks and realised that what I’ve done here is technically called a Sunspace. I changed the title of this post to reflect that but left the text as is.  Anyway, the temperature measurements are worthy of note. In the Sunspace itself, given full sun the temperature seems to peak at about 33C.  In the adjoining lounge room when both french doors are wide open, the temperature peaks at about 25C.  Not a lot of heat makes it to the rest of the house, however. Obviously the convection currents won’t move enough air for this to happen.  In my readings, this is exactly what is to be expected. To get around this you have to introduce fans and ducts but I always wanted a passive system.  Now that I’ve proved the concept and have some experience I’m working out a plan of attack to at least heat the kitchen/dining room area with passive solar. That should be fairly easy and I quite like the fact that the bedrooms at the back of the house stay cool.  There is also the issue of a lack of thermal mass which I may or may not address in the future. In any case, for the price and amount of work, I’m very happy with the results so far and reposing in a toasty lounge room on a cold but sunny day is a nice way to spend an afternoon.

A couple of years ago I bought a copy of The Food and Heat Producing Solar Greenhouse.  It was written back in the 70s inspired by the Appropriate Technology movement which had grown partly out of the 60s counter culture and also with an eye on the oil crisis at that time.  It’s a great book full of practical and technical information on how to build an attached solar greenhouse for the home.  Being attached, the greenhouse is able to provide some heating for the house whilst also functioning as a greenhouse for growing food and potentially also providing a nice space to hang out in.

I had originally planned to build the attached greenhouse as part of my house renovation.  However, a variety of factors led me to hold off at that time.  The main problem was the orientation and shape of the house meaning there was no easy way to simply add the greenhouse without undergoing fairly significant building that would require a permit from the council.  I decided to finish off the renovation and then use the front porch area to experiment with the attached greenhouse idea.  Last weekend I put this experiment in to action.

This is the before shot of the porch.  I insulated the walls and roof as part of the reno with an eye on conducting this test.

porch beforeNext step is simply to add the framing which would hold the polycarbonate glazing in place.

porch with framesAnd then simply attach the glazing to this frame.  I had already used this glazing on my stand alone greenhouse in the backyard and had very good results with that.  It’s double layered, 6mm polycarbonate which I picked up from a place called Growfresh in North Geelong.  Works out to about $50 for a sheet that is 1200 x 2400.  Those dimensions happened to be almost a perfect fit for 3 sheets.  Here’s the final result.

porch finalInside the greenhouse are two 44 gallon drums filled with water.  These act as heat storage, heating up during the day and then releasing heat overnight to even out the temperature swings in the house.  After a couple of sunny days and cold nights I have noticed a definite effect inside, with temperatures inside a couple of degrees warmer than they otherwise would have been.

This configuration is not exactly optimal. The house faces N-NW which is good.  However, with the lounge area extending outwards, the greenhouse space only starts to get direct sunlight from about 11am.  Even so, it does warm up very quickly and with full sun it was in the mid 30s inside the room itself at about 2pm (given an outside temp of about 19 degrees).

Anyway, this is just the start of the trial.  I’ll be playing around with it for a while and see what sort of heat gain I can get.  If it proves to be valuable enough, I’ll consider doing the work to add a proper small greenhouse to the front of the house which would get full sun all day long.

Pond

As mentioned in the last post, creating a pond has been on my to-do list for quite some time and last weekend I finally got around to doing it.

Here’s a pic of the pond site beforehand.  It’s on the eastern wall between some existing trees and up against the fence which includes the neighbours shed.  It’s therefore got good shelter all round, dappled morning sunlight and full afternoon sunlight:-

pond before picNote that big pile of dirt (actually it’s mostly old concrete).  I had previously had to dig that up from the west fence area in order to plant the apples and macadamia there.  In the end it came in very handy as the base for the pond.  I must say I always get a kick out of finding uses for stuff that’s just lying around.

Here’s a pic of the same pile of dirt forming the edge of the pond:-

pond with edgesFrom there, it was simply a matter of laying down the lining.  I had two different types of liner. One was some thin rubber courtesy of my father (who owns a rubber lining business) and the other was some pond liner I picked up at Bunnings.  You just lay the liner in place and hold the edges down with stones, wood etc.

pond with linerNext you fill it with water. The thing to note is to make sure you use rainwater.  If you don’t have rainwater catchments, you can use tapwater but it’s best to leave it sit for about a week in the sun.  The chlorine isn’t good for the plants and animals that will make the pond their home (makes you wonder exactly how good it is for us).

My main goal for the pond is not strictly aesthetic but to attract local native fauna, in particular frogs and birds.  I’ve gone exclusively with local native aquatic plants.  There’s water ribbons which help to oxygenate the water, a couple of different sedges and nardoo.  These are all emergent (they have their roots in the water but extend above the surface) although I understand that water ribbons can be fully submersed in the water and still do their thing.  Around the pond edge I’ve planted some more sedges and rushes as well as Bidgee Widgee, Lomandra Longifolia and Clematis Mycrophylla.  There’s also a Hedge Wattle nearby which should help to attract local fauna.  All these are there with the purpose of providing cover, shelter and food for invertebrates, frogs etc.  Here’s a picture of the first iteration of the pond:-

pond first iteration

Now I just sit back and wait to see how things develop.  Given that we are heading into winter, I don’t expect a lot of activity.  The frog breeding season starts in August but until the surrounding plants have grown enough to provide cover, the site might still be too exposed for frogs to want to risk using the pond.  Time will tell.

16th April 2015 – Photo update

The term used in Edible Forest Gardens to describe the creation of a brand new garden from scratch is Instant Succession.  I guess one of the features of this is that the whole garden undergoes a period of rapid change in the first several years.  That will certainly be true of my yard where the vast majority of the plants are new and will grow to maturity over time.

I’ll be keeping track of progress by photographing the guilds every three months or so (probably sticking to the solstice/equinox just for ease of memory).  The aim of this is track plant growth and also to see how individual guilds are performing eg. do the plants seem to be working together, what problems have been encountered etc.

For this first update, I have several guilds fully planted and several more under construction.  Here’s a photo covering some of the guilds with a description of all the guilds below.

Lisbon Lemon Guild

 

I had originally planted this lemon on the west side of the block but later realised that spot was just what I needed for an avocado. So, I transplanted the lemon a couple of weeks ago.  Seems to be doing ok so far. I’ve surrounded it mainly with Running Postman which is a nitrogen fixer and also a food source for native birds. There’s a Rounded Noon Flower in the top left for some variety and a Gold Dust Wattle in the bottom right which should attract insects and also act as a windbreak.

Hojiblanca Olive Guild

 

As stated in a previous post, the purpose of the olive tree in this location (apart from getting olives!) was as a windbreak to give cover to the macadamias behind. I’ve got another Gold Dust Wattle in the middle right hand side of the picture to help with that. The groundcover here is Bidgee Widgee, a local native that’s good for attracting insects (and thereafter birds). The other plants are small local native shrubs chosen more or less randomly.

Pinkalicious Macadamia Guild

 

The Pinkalicious Macadamia is a semi-dwarf variety which should theoretically reach about 4 or 5 metres high when fully grown.  I’ve positioned it where it will get full sun and it should have plenty of shelter from the wind once the garden has grown up.  In the bottom left of the photo is some more Bidgee Widgee and also several local native Yam Daisy plants which are edible tubers.  To the left and behind the macadamia are some Lomandra Longifolia which are also edible and can be used for basket weaving.  There’s also a couple of Native Raspberry and Mints in there to attract birds plus a few other local native small shrubs chosen more or less at random.

A4 Macadamia Guild

 

The A4 Macadamia is a full size tree that could get up to 10 metres high at maturity.  It seemed fitting to give this centre stage in the garden given my love of macadamias and also because it will need full sun to do well in the Werribee climate.  This guild turned out quite large.  In the bottom left is a Chilean Guava that I got from Digger’s.  It’s a small shrub with edible fruit.  In the top right is a Goji Berry which was a random purchase. I’ve never actually tried Goji Berries!  The rest are all native and local native.  In the centre bottom is an Austral-Tobacco plant.  There’s several Running Postman and Inland Pigface (a succulent which is almost entirely edible but which is prized for the flower which apparently tastes something like raspberry).   There’s a few local native saltbushes and a Correa Alba which should all attract local birds and insects.  At the back are some Common Tussock Grass.

Pineapple Guava Guild

 

In hindsight, I probably would have preferred a dwarf apple in this spot, but Pineapple Guava are damn tasty so I’m not going to change it now.  There’s several more Inland Pigface in this guild.  Off to the right of the picture are about 10 Chocolate Lilies just to add some colour. The flower also has a beautiful chocolatey scent (hence the name). There’s a local native Hop bush at the back which I look forward to incorporating into my homebrewing.  Other plants are local native small shrubs to attract local fauna.

Julienne Pear Guild

 

The Julienne Pear will get up to about 7 metres tall at maturity. I had thought about an avocado in this space but it does tend to get a little less than full sun so decided against that.  In the front is a Lemon Verbenna which has grown vigorously and whose leaves make a beautiful tea.  To the left of that is an Agastache which adds some nice colour.  In the bottom right is a Lavender.  There’s a couple of Acacias and Banksias in there, several more Running Postmans and Inland Pigfaces and a random Raspberry that I picked up over to the right. (Note: the bricks here are to stop birds digging at the roots of the plants. I’m not entirely sure why they decided to go for these plants.  Fortunately they haven’t tried the same trick with the new plants elsewhere in the garden).

Those are the guilds completed to this point.  The following are the major trees that are in but whose guilds haven’t been finished.

Packham’s Triumph Pear

 

The Packham’s Triumph and Julienne should pollinate each other.  I was originally going to espalier this but then thought it would be good to let it grow to full size at the back of the yard where it should help to provide some summer shade but also allow sun through to the greenhouse in winter time.

Pink Lady Apple

 

I planted the apple in December which probably wasn’t the greatest time.  Luckily we had a very mild summer. After a shaky start, the Pink Lady has done well.  I aim to let this grow to full size.

Crimson Crisp Apple

The Crimson Crisp has done the best of the three apples I’ve planted so far.  Again, I’ll aim to let this grow to full size.

Dwarf Gala Apple

 

The Dwarf Gala did have a hard time at the start but came through summer ok.  I’ll espalier this one along with several other apples that I’ll plant as bare root stock in winter.  You might be thinking – that’s a hell of a lot of apples and pears – and you’re right.  Fear not, I aim to put them to good use in the making of some (hopefully) delicious ciders!

Bacon Avocado

 

The avocados and macadamias are more marginal in the southern climate so I’ve placed them in the yard to give them the most favourable conditions. For some reason, anything I’ve planted in this area of the garden has grown beautifully (you can still see the pumpkins that almost ready to harvest).  I guess that is because it is an area sheltered from the wind which gets morning sun and later afternoon shade.  In theory, this is ideal for the avocado so fingers crossed that it grows up big and strong.

Hass Avocado

 

I’ve located the Hass underneath the giant peppercorn tree at the back of the yard. It’s got shelter from southerly and westerly winds and the peppercorn also provides afternoon shade in mid summer as well as free mulch from falling leaves and small fruits.  The Hass and Bacon cultivars fruit at opposite times of the year so I can theoretically get fruit most of the year which would be excellent given that I eat avocado pretty much every day.

Nectarine

 

This was a random find that I planted as bare root stock last winter. As such, I can’t remember its name.  It’s done quite nicely indeed over spring and summer.  Looking forward to some very tasty nectarines in a couple of years!

Cavendish Banana

 

Another little experiment here.  Don’t expect great yields from a banana this far south, but who knows?  In this corner, the plant has good wind protection and plenty of sunshine.  Unlike the other trees, I can, in theory, be getting fruit from this next summer.

Verdale Olive Trees

 

I love olives, hence I went for three trees which might have been a little excessive in hindsight.  Anyway, the theme for this area is mini-Mediterranean Garden.  I’ve got rosemary, sage, lavender, thyme and chives around the olives which should take care of my herb needs in the kitchen.  In this position on the east of the property, the olives get full sun all year.

Golden Wattle

 

It’s been my goal from the start to create a garden that was also attractive to local fauna. I’ve tried to achieve that mostly by planting local native plants in the shrub and groundcover layers, however, birds in particular are mainly drawn to trees.  Thus, I’ve kept space for two local native trees which border on the area i’ve set aside for a small pond (more on that in later posts).  In picture is a Golden Wattle, which also happens to be Australia’s floral emblem.  It’s a small but very attractive tree that will also add some nice colour to the garden.

Wooly Tea Tree

 

With the addition of the pond, I’m hoping to attract frogs to the garden and frogs like a dense habitat with gives them protection from predators.  The Wooly Tea Tree will form the southern border of the pond.  It’s a nice dense, small tree that should also attract food for the frogs in the way of insects.

So, that’s all for an epic post!  Luckily, I’m almost done with the tree planting.  I’ve got apples, almonds and grapes coming as bare root stock in winter and that will be all.  Until then, the next task for the garden is the pond, including a small retaining wall.  More on that in later posts.

Planting a guild

In this post I’ll show some photos outlining the basic approach I’ve taken to the planting of guilds.  (Note: all of this is taken pretty much straight out of the method outlined in Edible Forest Gardens).

Here’s my initial sketch of the Hojiblanca Olive patch.  It outlines the rough locations of both the main tree and the surrounding plants.  As you can probably tell, it’s an incomplete diagram but fits the basic strategy I explained in a previous post whereby the supporting plants are local natives.

This Olive patch is located at the northernmost area of my backyard which is the area where both cold winter and hot summer northerlies blow through.  Thus, the olive is part of my overall strategy to mitigate the effects of those winds on the macadamia trees which are now directly south of the olive.  I expect the olive to do much of the windbreaking but I will also put some dense medium local shrubs around it to add further blocking power.  I also put a Lisbon Lemon in here as well. Although lemons don’t generally like a lot of wind, this placement was a compromise on my part and I’m hoping the wind won’t take too much of a toll on the lemon tree.  In any case, it will help to block more of the wind which will assist the macadamia.

Here I have staked out the final positions for both the olive and the lemon.

I made the mistake when planting the Julienne Pear of thinking that I could bluff this step but I’m now paying a heavy weeding price.  There’s no denying it, digging up grass is hard work, especially if you want to retain the topsoil most of which is still attached to the grass when you dig up a clump.  This section took a good two and a half hours straight to complete.

First to go in is the Hojiblanca Olive tree.  The soil in this part of the garden is quite rocky with little topsoil.  Will be interesting to see how the olive handles this.  In theory, it should be ok.

Next is the sheet mulching. Once again, I paid a price on the Pear tree for skimping on this step. I recommend thick cardboard with lots of overlap at the edges.  This should give me a year or so of protection from weeds and whatever is left of the grass during which time it’s to be hoped that the local natives and the olive have established themselves and will crowd out any undesirables.

Mulch goes on top of the cardboard.  Note that you can add manure/mulch/compost below the sheet mulch layer if you want. For my Julienne Pear I put down some lucerne hay and manure and then put the cardboard on top. For the olive I decided to experiment and forego this step.

Fast forward to the finish. The Lisbon Lemon is in with some manure and compost below the cardboard layer to give it a helping hand. You can also make out the first lot of local natives. Running Postman is a groundcover that’s reputed to be a nitrogen fixer and is also a food source for Honeyeaters.  I’ve planted that around the lemon.  There’s also a Tree Violet near the fence on the left that is just out of shot.  I’ll add a couple of other dense shrubs in here and that should provide a nice windbreak for the macadamias behind, not to mention some tasty olives and lemons as well.

Edible Forest Garden in the Australian context

The Edible Forest Garden book was explicitly targeted at an American audience and, as such, many of the plants mentioned in it are foreign (although still purchasable in Australia where much of the mainstream gardening culture takes its cues from European traditions).  The book employs the concept of Guilds which is also prevalent in permaculture.  Essentially it’s a way to organise the garden design to facilitate the creation of a self sufficient system.  There are different ways to think about this but I took the route of using each medium to large tree as the starting point and working from there.  For example, I wanted to grow apples.  So I now had the concept of an Apple Guild.  In this guild you have the apple tree at the centre and you want to support it with other plants that will be beneficial eg. nitrogen fixers to help with growth, pest confusers to try and deter common apple pests from harming the crop or the tree itself etc etc.

Quickly the number of variables at play with this kind of idea explodes and you find yourself well and truly down the rabbit hole.  There is plenty of information online about what to plant with what and companion planting has a long history which means that much of it is valid information.  Nevertheless, it can definitely become paralysing when you are trying to figure out which plants to put in a guild.  This is all the more of a problem because until you have planted a plant, how do you know for example which pests will cause problems or what nutrients might be lacking in the soil etc etc.

The designs I uploaded in a previous post make reference to many plants that I found out about when researching the companion planting for the trees I wanted in my garden.  But I had essentially taken the view that given my limited knowledge and experience, these were just experiments and I would simply have to try them out see how they went.  It didn’t help that they were imported plants and I didn’t know how well they would fare in my local area.  I had even trialled a couple of these in the garden (eg. nasturtium) and they had failed quite miserably which didn’t fill me with confidence.

Then I was reminded about the several indigenous nurseries around Melbourne.  The most well known one is CERES in Brunswick.  This does have a decent range of plants and there are sections with edibles and various plants traditionally used by Koories.  However, the nursery mostly stocks the standard European-based plants and vegetables so I didn’t end up buying much from there.

A friend then put me on to a great nursery in Newport called the Newport Lakes Nursery. This nursery stocks only plants that are local to the Western Plains (of which Werribee is a part).  Among these are many banksias and acacias (which are reputed to be good nitrogen fixers) but also a number of edible plants and plants that attract beneficial native birds and insects.  From my first visit I could see its relevance to my garden design.  Here was a whole nursery of plants that were almost guaranteed to do well in my garden and many of them also had culinary and other uses.

From the nursery I learned that my particular location in Werribee is in what’s called a Riparian Woodland due to its proximity to the Werribee River.  While the Western Plains in general is mostly grassland where the shrub layer dominates, the Riparian Woodland has more of a balance of trees, shrub and groundcover.  Thus, I could see that I had the possibility of pursuing a garden design that more or less fitted with the original geography of the place.  Most of my trees would, of necessity, be imports.  However, I could populate the shrub and groundcover layers almost entirely with local plants.  In this way, I also hoped to strike a balance between feeding myself, and feeding the local native fauna.

One of the things that attracted me to the Edible Forest Garden concept originally was its deliberately experimental call to action.  The authors fully realise that the idea of creating and guiding an ecosystem gives rise to problems around control of variables and ability to draw inference.  For example, just because somebody in California got good results pairing borage with citrus trees, doesn’t mean that combination is viable in Werribee.  Only by extensive local trial and error can we hope to gather the knowledge over time about which combinations work and how this lower level knowledge can be applied to the creation of whole edible gardens.

In any case, the discovery of the Newport nursery was a kind of aha moment that allowed me to fix the nature of my particular experiment – can the Western Plains climate as well as its local flora and fauna exist symbiotically with the various different types of imported (both from other areas of Australia and overseas) fruit and nut trees that I would like to grow?  Time will tell.