A Productive Food Garden in 4 Weeks

In December 2012, I travelled to Norfolk Island to conduct a two-day weekend workshop specifically designed for local people seeking to create food gardens. This is of particular relevance to the Island, as they are in the midst of a serious recession and food gardening is the great recession-proofer. The course was roughly modelled upon an intensive, hands-on, one-day course conducted in Brisbane earlier in the year by my partner, Moira Clayton, and myself. Here, the attendees were involved in everything from composting, microbe brewing and garden creation to food fermenting, green smoothie production and stress-busting exercises.

At the end of that action-packed day, our host, Susan McKinnon, had seen her lawn transformed into a fully planted, fertilised and mulched vegetable garden, beside which stood a two metre, free-standing compost pile. She was even left with a large bowl of sauerkraut to ripen. The course attendees were excited and motivated to create something similar after they had all been physically involved in the creation of something special. Susan went on to win a prize at the Brisbane Organic Growers Group for some of the excellent produce from that new garden as she has become a passionate advocate of the biological approach. She is currently designing programs to teach children about soil and human nutrition.

Master Chef in Paradise

On Norfolk Island, we decided to extend this course over both days of the weekend. Saturday morning involved my introductory lecture covering the links between soil health, human health and planetary health. This was followed by a delicious breakfast on a veranda overlooking a commercial garden that supplies the fruit and vegetables for a popular local restaurant called Hillies. Pete Barney is the grower responsible for these gardens. He is an accomplished local horticulturist who has attended the NTS Certificate in Sustainable Agriculture four-day course and he has embraced the biological approach. Pete uses a variety of NTS products in the soil and on the leaf and he regularly brews beneficial microbes to keep the soil firing. Pete is also the president of Sustainable Norfolk, the local organisation who were hosting my visit. It was a real pleasure to look down upon clean, healthy vegetables produced without chemicals and to sample the flavours of that abundant, nutrient-dense produce during breakfast. This property has recently become a popular tourist destination where visitors walk the gardens with Pete explaining the basics of biological food production and the links to superb flavour. They then select the food they would like to cook and return to the kitchens of the house overlooking the gardens for a cooking lesson with the chef from Hillies. The delighted tourists then get to eat these dishes on the veranda overlooking the food gardens with a dreamy ocean backdrop. Norfolk Island is one of the few remaining pieces of paradise and it should be on everyone's bucket list. I have a farm on the Island and I can't get enough of the place. In fact, I am writing this article from my veranda on Norfolk Island. We are positioned beside the National Park overlooking two serene valleys. The farm is encircled by ancient Norfolk pines. A flock of white terns return to this property each year from the other side of the globe to nest and their aerobatics flavour the natural harmony. Unlike the dripping heat of Queensland, the summer here has been clear blue skies, emerald seas, 26 degree days with no humidity and the ever present ocean breezes.

Becky's Gift

The balance of the weekend was spent at the gardens of Steve and Becky Nobbs in a glorious location overlooking a beautiful bay. This couple are living the dream with private access to a quiet beach where they can catch their protein and complement the fish with organic, home grown vegetables. They have created a wonderful hand-crafted home, fashioned from the ubiquitous Norfolk Pine and other native timbers. They also keep bees and produce a tasty honey for local sale and they milk their own cow to enjoy the multiple benefits of raw milk. Becky had attended an earlier NTS course on Norfolk Island and she had become a passionate composter and vegetable producer as a result. It was decided that she should be rewarded with a whole new vegetable garden and compost pile as we were confident that she had the skills to maximise the potential of this gift.

Introducing the Life Force

The hands-on sessions began with lessons covering the importance of mineral balancing to achieve the level of resilience where chemicals are never needed. We then moved on to the second part of the healthy soil equation which involves soil microbes. Participants learned how to make a worm farm and how to use the microbe rich liquid that can be harvested from this farm. They discovered how to make a compost tea in a 20 litre bucket and how to produce a more task-specific microbe brew like Nutri-Life 4/20™. This particular microbe mix involves billions of organisms that fix nitrogen, solubilise phosphate and supply the plant with bio-chemicals that build resilience. The brewing demonstrations were conducted on the first day so that we could use the completed brews on the new garden the following day. Microbe brewing is not difficult. It is as simple as adding compost, or an inoculum like 4/20™ to a bucket of water. A microbe food called LMF™ is then added and the microbes are multiplied with the help of 24 hours of aeration with an inexpensive fish tank aerator. Beneficial bacteria subdivide every 20 minutes so there are huge numbers of organisms involved after a day and night of brewing.

Saving the World One Compost Heap at a Time

The following morning everyone got involved in creating a large, free-standing compost heap. This involves achieving a balance between carbon (dry, brown material) and nitrogen (fresh green plant matter). Nitrogen is the most abundant mineral in plants but the mineral is lost as nitrous oxide (as part of the nitrogen cycle) as the dead plant matter turns from green to brown. Extra nitrogen is usually necessary to achieve the ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio for compost of 30 to 1 and this is usually supplied as animal manure. So, a balanced compost pile usually involves alternate layers of green and brown, with animal manure added to each layer. In this case, the group selected from a pile of freshly mulched prunings (green) and some sawdust and wood chip from a neighbouring sawmill (brown). The first 15 cm layer was created from the brown material and it formed a circle of about 2.5 metres diameter. Upon that layer we sprinkled lime and soft rock phosphate and included some cow manure. We also added a few shovelfuls of Becky's existing compost to serve as a starter for the new pile. The next 15 cm layer involved the green material and to that layer we added the same mix of lime, soft rock phosphate, manure and old compost. Each layer was thoroughly wet down and we continued this layering process until we had a pile about 2 metres tall. This pile should hopefully deliver two tonnes of finished compost within five or six months. The soft rock phosphate is a great additive because it is a colloidal clay. One of the most important composting breakthroughs in recent years has been the finding that the addition of clay to a compost sponsors the formation of a clay/ humus crumb. The humus that is created has a dramatically extended shelf life. In fact, the stable humus will now last in the soil for up to 35 years. That is of huge import in light of the urgent need to sequester carbon as humus to keep it out of the atmosphere and help avert a climate change catastrophe. Composting is the single biggest contribution any individual can make in terms of turning the global warming tide. Every kilo of organic matter that is composted represents CO2 that would otherwise have returned to the atmosphere as part of the carbon cycle. Composting should become the mantra of the year as we all work to save the planet, one compost heap at a time.

We Are What We Eat and What We Eat Comes From The Soil

The fusion of practical sessions and lectures continued on Day 2 and included a talk about the missing minerals on Norfolk and their significance to the health of the people. Very little food is imported to the island so what is missing in the soil is missing in the people and there will be related health issues. Several years ago NTS was commissioned by the Norfolk Government to test the majority of the food producing soils on the island. We discovered commonly occurring deficiencies and developed a composted fertiliser for the island, featuring all of the missing links, called Norfolk Gold™. Copper and boron were two of the missing minerals and deficiencies of both minerals have been linked to increased incidence of arthritis. There is no shortage of sore joints on Norfolk. We are what we eat but many people have not made the link that what we eat comes from the soil. Several of the Norfolk food producers, including the two largest growers on the Island, now use Norfolk Gold™ regularly and there are some amazing forgotten flavours in Norfolk's fresh food.

Fast Tracking Fruit Trees

The business end of the weekend begun with a demonstration of planting a fruit tree. Pete Barney has achieved tremendous results on the Hillies farm with 12-month-old stone fruit and citrus trees that are already producing more than what the restaurant can manage. The secret is twofold. It involves the use of tree seedlings derived from a process called marcotting or aerial layering, and it involves a special preparation of the planting hole.

Rosalie Quintal, a local nursery woman and friend, generously shared her skills with a demonstration of marcotting on one of Steve and Becky's peach trees. Here you select a healthy branch that might otherwise be pruned. It should have a stem thickness of about 2 cm and a metre from the tip of that branch you peel away the outer layer of bark (the cambria) in a ring about 2.5 cm long. The stripped area can be roughed up a little prior to the addition of rooting hormone. A plastic sheet is then stapled around the ring bark forming a 20 cm long envelope that is filled with wet sphagnum moss or potting mix. The top and bottom are tied with wire twists and sealed with masking tape. The plastic is dated with a marker pen. Three to six months later a root ball has formed in the growing medium which is visible through the plastic. The branch is then cut below the new root mass, the plastic is removed and voila! - you have a metre tall fruit tree that can produce fruit in the first season. The best time for aerial layering is springtime when the sap is flowing. You can continue into summer but the success rate will be a little lower.

Pete's tree planting demonstration involved a much deeper hole than what people usually dig. The sides of the hole, which was dug with a post hole borer, are softened and expanded to avoid the potential for root binding. This 900 cm deep hole is then progressively filled with layers of compost, humates, Norfolk Gold™, sprinkles of lime, soil and zeolite. Zeolite is a remarkable mineral that can hold several times its own weight in water. It can help retain leachable minerals in the root zone, and the honeycomb structure of this mineral also serves as a refuge for beneficial microbes. Pete uses this technique for all of the trees on the farm. They have established rapidly and they are never watered so it is well worth that initial effort. In fact, this type of nurturing at planting is equivalent to mother’s milk in terms of the kick start it provides.

Planting the Food Garden

We had been provided a selection of seedlings, seeds and herbs from Pete's greenhouse and now came the time to prepare the soil for planting. Steve had cleared the kikuyu beforehand with his bobcat and it had also been cultivated, so the group was spared the task of starting from scratch. We measured the pH of the soil, determined lime requirements and then applied a mixture of lime, guano and Norfolk Gold™. We then covered the 50 square metre plot in a 10 cm layer of mulch we had produced from prunings and leaves. Watering cans were used to apply the compost tea and Nutri-Life 4/20™ inoculums and the beneficial microbes were thoroughly watered in with hoses.

The seeds had been soaked overnight in a NTS product called Stimulate™ and then sun-dried prior to planting. The seedlings were all dipped in a solution containing Platform®, which is an inoculum of Mycorrhizal fungi. These amazing creatures burrow into the plant roots and then create a root extension involving a lace-like network of fine filaments. They can effectively increase root surface area tenfold and they mine minerals from the soil and deliver them to the plant. This symbiotic relationship is one of the most important on the planet, because it is now known that Mycorrhizal fungi are responsible for one third of all the stable humus in our soils. They produce a carbon-based substance called glomalin that is the trigger for humus formation. Mycorrhizal fungi are missing in most soils and it could easily be argued that they are the single most important creature on the planet at this point in time.

Bio-promotants, like fish and kelp (Life Force® Organic SeaChange™) were watered on to the plot and then we all began planting. It is a remarkably rapid process when many hands are involved and within 40 minutes the seeds were sown, the seedlings planted, the climbing frames installed for runner beans and peas and the herbs were positioned. We all headed to the veranda overlooking the ocean to enjoy a great lunch flushed with the sense of having created something really worthwhile.

Full Production in One Month

Becky and Steve's garden was planted on December 9 and Moira and I visited the plot to check the progress on January 11, during our summer holiday on Norfolk. It was a sight to behold. The peas and beans had reached the top of the frames, the robust corn stood 1.5 metres tall. Kale, silverbeet and a variety of lettuces were ready for harvest. Cabbages thrived, tall, dense tomato bushes were in full fruit and the herbs were also remarkably mature. Becky gifted us a bag of French bush beans that were amongst the tastiest we have ever eaten. No chemicals had been used in this garden and none were required. Plant vitality was the driver and there was barely a blemish on any of these healthy plants. We are hopeful that some of those involved in the creation of this wonderful food garden will visit Steve and Becky (they are all invited) to witness the fruits of their labours and to recognise that an abundance of nutritious food can be produced so successfully when you work with nature rather than against her.

Disclaimer: All advice in this article is for information purposes only. You should seek professional medical advice before undertaking any procedures and supplements included in this article.

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