After years of talking, dreaming and scheming, we’ve finally established our organic market garden. You’d think a perfect growing climate and rich volcanic soils would be enough to make the Lord Howe community completely self-sufficient (as it once was), but alas, no. Online ordering with Woolworths in Port Macquarie and a fortnightly supply ship is enough to deter people from growing their own produce in a serious way.
Like anything, it’s always hard to start, and we had a paddock of very thick kikuyu grass on top of a maze of plumbing, electrical and drainage works – most of it redundant, but that was part of the headache – which pipe to cut? It was enough to go back to Woolies, but instead we took a gamble and ploughed the whole bloody lot. Thanks to Nobbs and his tractor, we soon had 2000 square meters of tilled soil, a solid fence to exclude the cows, and a young wind break of Oleander to protect our garden from the sometimes vicious north winds.
The temptation was to plant crops straight away, but despite the rich 5cm of topsoil, the rest of the soil profile was a lousy sandy loam with limited fertility. So instead, we planted green manure crops to improve the structure, texture and fertility of the soil. Our oats grew well through winter on our newly formed garden beds, and in the back section of the garden, we planted a permanent stand of Lucerne to use for mulching and composting. Around the edge of the garden, we grew flowering plants, such as Lavender, Marigolds, Calendula, Dill and Nasturtium, to create the kind of beautiful place that you just want to be, and of course, to create a proper organic garden. One of the principles of organic gardening is to have diversity in plant species, age and structure to make sure there’s habitat for beneficial insects, and the flowing plants attract all sorts of insects (we even discovered a new species of Soldier fly during the Australian Geographic Expedition, but that’s another story).
By the end of August, we were ready to cut the oats and let them break down into the soil – adding rich organic matter for soil fertility and moisture retention. We also harvested our first crop of Lucerne and mixed it with chicken manure to make our own compost – just like the Swiss farmers did hundreds of years ago with grass and cow manure. And it’s rich stuff – better than anything you can buy at your local garden centre.
After a few weeks of resting the soil and letting the oats break down, we planted out first rotation of lettuce, coriander, basil, rocket, dill, radish, beans, spring onions, chives, pumpkin, cucumber, rock melon, zucchini and watermelon. We also built a greenhouse and started our perennial herbs from seed – marjoram, thyme, sage, oregano, lemon grass, peppermint, tarragon and mint. Part of the puzzle of supplying a restaurant that feeds up to 80 guests per day is knowing just how much to plant, and when. It’s very easy to have too much or too little, so we settled on a flexible pattern of successional planting every two weeks – the idea being that every two weeks we’d have a new supply of plants ready for harvest. By mid-October, we had nearly 300 linear metres of garden beds with some combination of vegetables, herbs, flowers or green manures.
Come November, we’ll either have fresh green bean salads every day (not a bad thing) or we’ll return to the bad old days of salads with tinned beetroot and iceberg lettuce. Stay tuned for the next update….