Category Archives: SPIN farming

How to protect your seedlings from frost and birds with simple, effective row covers

Easy row covers

Easy row covers

Last time I visited my SPIN farming block, I was very concerned to meet a family of wood-ducks who liked the look of my beds. I knew I had to get some row covers up over my onion seedlings as soon as possible! Had they been lettuce they would have been gone already.

I took some pictures while we worked to show you how you can also set up row covers to protect your plants from frosts and birds. I am using a lightweight fleece material to cover each row as it protects the plants while letting water through and they can also breathe.

The fleece is so light that more established seedlings will lift it up as they grow taller, eliminating the need for hoops. Personally, I prefer to use the hoops because the fleece will crush small seedlings. Also, birds are less likely to walk along the top of it (also crushing the seedlings) since many animals are deterred by wobbly structures (and perching on the hoops is not so much of a problem).

What I used:

  • bright orange builder’s string to mark out the rows (I had already marked them out when I planted them)
  • tape measure
  • thin stakes (approx 60 for this large bed) made from various recycled materials including tent poles
  • 20mm blue stripe irrigation pipe (cut into 1.7 m sections for hoops)
  • 25mm blue stripe irrigation pipe for clips (cut into 8-10 cm sections for clips)
  • Sanding block to smooth the clip edges (so they didn’t tear the cover fleece)
  • light fleece material for the covers (available from farming suppliers or contact me if you are interested in buying some)
  • a helpful wife (it’s much easier and faster to do this job with another set of hands)

How to do it

Beds marked out

Beds marked out

Here is a picture of 4 beds planted out with onion seedlings. They are marked out with high visibility builder’s string so I don’t step on any young seedlings. I adopted this technique after crushing too many young plants and it works exceptionally well. Once the plants are relatively mature (15-20cm) I will remove the string and undersow the entire area with a living mulch of white and red clover. If you want to learn more about living mulches and undersowing, read my previous article on the subject here.

Each bed is 75cm wide and there is a 30cm path between each row. This size makes the beds easy to straddle and move between when watering, feeding, and harvesting.

Beds with stakes

Beds with stakes

I placed stakes (made from various materials including recycled tent poles and 12mm metal bars) at even intervals (every 1.7 metres here) down each side of the row.

I used 20mm blue stripe irrigation pipe to make the hoops. I think this is the best pipe to use as it is the strongest and does not kink very easily. It costs approximately $50 for 50 metres. We cut 1.7 m sections of pipe so we had some good height on the rows. To make the hoops, you just fit each end of the pipe onto the stakes you’ve placed along the rows.

Fitting the hoops

Fitting the hoops

Measure out enough fleece cover so that you have a 1-2 m at each end to make sure it is easily closed off and tight.

Clever home-made clips

I wanted to clip the row cover neatly on to hoops using something that would be quick and easy to remove. Some people use rocks to hold down the covers but I didn’t want to have to carry rocks in and out from between 30cm wide paths. I also did not want to trip on the rocks on such a narrow pathway and risk falling on the hoops.

I saw somebody selling clips exactly for this purpose for $1.80 each but we needed 54 of them and I really wanted to avoid spending $100 just on clips!

I decided that I could make them myself. I had some leftover 25 mm irrigation pipe from another job.  I cut 8-10 cm sections of pipe and cut a groove in the side so it was opened up. It could then clip snugly over the 20mm pipe hoops .

I cut out a 30mm groove from the 25mm pipe and it clipped the row cover perfectly however it tore the material. I decided to lightly sand the clip edges and this worked perfectly which saved me $100 on  pre-made clips.

Cutting clips

Cutting clips

Sanding clips

Sanding clips

Once the clips are smoothed off and ready to use, start clipping the material working from one end of the row to the other. Gather the material at the hoop so there isn’t any slack along the ground between hoops. It’s virtually impossible to get the top of the rows taut without compromising the structure so don’t worry about trying. The important thing is that the fleece is taut along the ground so that it is hard for birds to get underneath.

Attaching cover

Attaching cover

The clips will fit nicely over the 20mm hoops and material, leaving neatly covered, adjustable row covers. Gather up the material at each end of the row and weigh it down with something heavy  so it doesn’t blow off (or tie it and stake it if you prefer).

Finished covers

Finished covers

This cover will keep most birds out and will also trap some heat, making the seedlings grow much faster. When the warmer weather arrives the cover can be removed and replaced with a green 30% shadecloth. This will make growing leafy greens much easier in hot weather.

I have the fleece for sale for $2/metre, so if you are interested please contact me.

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The SPIN starts here: launching my first urban farm SPIN plot

I have started to cultivate the new block of land that has been kindly donated for my SPIN-farming project. It is situated in Bullaburra and has about 300 square metres of usable space. The land is quite typical of the area which is extremely sandy with a bit of clay and will need a vast amount of compost to grow good vegies. The cost of adding so much compost initially is very high, and would take a couple of years growing and selling vegies to recoup the cost of buying in the compost. To avoid that expense,  I will do a number of things which anybody can also do at home:

1)I will add a couple of bags of organic rock phosphate (P), Blood and Bone (N), fish meal (N), lucerne meal (N) and wood ash (K). These things will get me started and are a source of important mineral elements. N stands for nitrogen, P for Phosphorus and K for Potassium.

2) I will also water the area weekly using compost tea to also make up for the lack of organic matter. I have a device called a “Syphonject” which attaches to your hose. The device has a second pipe which you place into a bucket of compost/manure tea. When you turn the hose on it mixes the water with your liquid manure at a ratio of 20:1. This technique is called fertigation (a cross between irrigation and fertilising).

3) I will be growing root crops on this site initially such as garlic, onion and carrots. One of the reasons for this choice is that these crops don’t need vasts amounts of compost. In fact, in the case of carrots, too much compost (or too much nitrogen) causes piddly growth and forking (where the carrot splits but continues to grow).

If I were growing these crops in a rotation, I would put them in a bed that tomatoes or pumpkin (or any gross feeder) had just finished and not add any extra compost (providing the soil was in tip-top shape previously). The first year I tried this I had a bed growing zucchini and then planted red onions and garlic with great success.

4) I will initially not mulch the bed but will keep it weed free using a hoe. I’ll top dress the soil with home-made compost as and when it is available. I currently make about 1 cubic metre of compost every 12 weeks but I can halve the time to 6 weeks as more vegetable waste (stalks, stems and roots) become available after my first harvest.

5) Once the crops are about 15cm out of the ground I will undersow the planted area with clover to provide a living mulch. This will not only keep weeds down, but will also provide organic matter to the soil as it will be dug in after harvest.

Living mulch costs significantly less than using things like straw, lucerne or sugar cane. For example, one average bag of sugar cane mulch covers approximately 10 square metres and costs anything from $10-$15. By comparison, 1kg of clover seed costs around $8 and is enough to cover 1 acre!

The area has been rotary-hoed, but will need another going over next week. There are also lots of stones that need removing with a crow-bar. We will be planting toward the end of June with garlic cloves and onion seedlings that have been growing since mid May. We will keep an area free for carrots which will be sown as seed in September. Meanwhile,  I am putting this to use for the moment by sowing a lettuce “catch crop”.

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If you have some unused land that you would like to lend in exchange for a weekly box of fresh vegies, I’d love to hear from you!

To be fit for the SPIN model, the land needs to fit a few basic requirements:

  • Springwood-Faulconbridge area
  • minimum of 200 m2
  • minimum 40 cm of topsoil
  • relatively flat
  • unshaded
  • fenced
  • accessible
  • vacant and unused i.e. a blank lawn

You can find out more information about SPIN farming here. Please contact me on 0431 383 516  or daniel@healthyharvest.com.au for a chat about your block!

Undersowing, rotational grazing, and a mobile chook house (all in one raised bed)

We have finally completed the first raised bed. Here’s a quick recap on the design (you can see earlier articles here and here). The bed is 1 of 5. Four of the beds will have vegies growing at any one time, whilst the fifth will house my ‘gang’ of chickens. The bed’s wire cover and hoops are mobile, and will be moved from bed to bed after harvest as each one becomes available.

Alongside the vegies growing in each bed, I will be sowing a variety of green manures (if you have never heard of green manuring please see this link). This technique is called ‘undersowing’ and was popularised and adapted for vegetable growing by the US farmer, Eliot Coleman. The technique involves planting seeds or seedlings of your chosen vegie crop, followed by a subsequent planting (4-6 weeks after) of a green manure crop alongside the main crop.

The idea is that the main crop will always be larger than the green manure crop so the green manure crop does not overtake and affect the growth of the main crop. This system allows the ground to be protected by a living mulch (thus removing the need for expensive straw or lucerne mulch). After harvesting the main crop, the green manure can be dug into the soil.

I will be adding another element to that system by introducing chickens into the rotation. Instead of digging the green manure crop in myself, I will leave it for the chickens to graze on and scratch up leaving a clean (weed free), tilled and manured bed for the next crop. This idea took two years of planning and revisions and was originally inspired by a visit to a number of small scale farms which use similar designs to move chickens from bed to bed. I adapted these designs to to suit my own landscape and needs.

As you’ll see in the picture, the bed has been filled up with a large amount of wandering dew (trad) which was taken from my neighbour, an amateur wandering dew farmer. I tried to explain that there is no money in farming this crop but he is not prepared to listen to reason at this point. So far, I’ve managed to score 15 wheelbarrows of wandering dew. This is fortunate for me, since I’ve calculated that I will need 6-8 cubic metres of soil to fill the bed. This would cost approximately $300-400 delivered. Instead, the wandering dew, grass clippings, straw, cow manure and other vegie scraps will provide fodder and entertainment for the chooks, and will become compost in a relatively short time, and all for free!

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A quick description of the pictures.

As you will see there are 2 doors. The larger door is man size and is used to access the drinking water and food for the chooks. This door is also used to add straw etc. The second small door on the end is purely used to access eggs in the nesting boxes. Both of the doors are part of the metal wire construction and move along with the coop.

U.N: Small-Scale Farming Could Double the World’s Food Production

http://www.slashfood.com/2011/03/08/u-n-small-scale-farming-could-double-the-worlds-food-productio/

Raised bed No. 1 update: fox-proofing the portable chook house

Raised bed No. 1 is still under construction. Today we added rabbit wire (thick chicken wire) to the outer sides of the bed and this wire also runs out from the bed (see the picture). This is because we will be housing the chickens in the bed and the wire will stop any foxes or dogs digging under the bed. Animals tend to try to dig under an object (such as a fence or in this case a bed) right at the wall and therefore they will dig into wire. I have used this method on my movable chicken coop and have not have any break-ins. We also got some of the corrugated metal on the sides. A lot of the materials used have been salvaged so they are different colours. I think I will paint it all white (to reflect light) once finished.

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Raised bed construction and rotational grazing Part 1

Yesterday Neil (who is helping with the back yard project) and I started building the the first of five beds. The plan is to have 5 raised beds (each 6m x 1.5m) that have vegetables grown in them. Only 4 will be growing food, while the fifth will house the chickens.When a bed is harvested the chickens (and their portable hoop house) will move on to the newly empty bed which they will clean up and fertilise. Neil took home a lovely basket of freshly picked veg and herbs in return for his hard work.

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Landshare Australia

Landshare has finally come to Australia. You may be be familier with the presenter of this clip from River Cottage. If you have spare land that is going to waste then someone could turn it in to a vegie patch and share the bounty. If you have land or are looking for land please register here and watch a short video about landshare here.

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