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Winter in Adelaide can provide perfect lettuce growing weather – plenty of rain, and some sunshine, but not the lettuce-leaves-burnt-to-a-crisp sunshine we get in mid to late Summer. Lettuces need plenty of water, being shallow-rooted, and the leaves themselves have a high water content. If they get too hot or dry, or unhappy for any reason, their flavour turns bitter or they bolt to seed. On the other hand, make sure you grow late Winter/early Spring lettuces somewhere sheltered from frosts so that your lettuce leaves don’t turn to mush! But it’s so easy to grow them at the moment with the regular showers we’ve had, that some seeds I tossed around under our Fig Tree a while ago have been providing me with a daily bowl of salad, and I haven’t bothered watering them at all.

Red Oak Leaf lettuce, with some rocket and other mixed salad greens

Red Oak Leaf lettuce, with some rocket and other mixed salad greens

They’re Red Oak Leaf lettuces, one of my favourite varieties because they are so easy to grow, you can pick and eat them one leaf at a time instead of having to harvest the whole plant at once, and the snails and slugs don’t seem to like them much. Those slimy pests prefer the sweeter, milder green lettuces, so being a lazy grower I follow the path of least resistance and grow the stronger flavoured red varieties. These varieties also seem to be hardier when the weather warms up a bit, or if I forget to make sure they have enough water. 

Red Oak Leaf is often the only lettuce I’ll even attempt to grow in Summer when I’m rationing out water like liquid gold. In Winter when there’s plenty of water about I also like to grow Green Mignonette, a small variety which doesn’t take up much space, so will grow happily when squashed in amongst other vegies or in a tub. It has a lovely sweet flavour so I have to be a bit vigilant about the snails. I’ve also had good success with a Brown Romaine lettuce, which looks beautiful in a salad, has a great sweet-nutty sort of flavour, and is slow to bolt in warmer weather.

Growing lettuces from seed

I get my organic lettuce seeds from Green Harvest:  http://www.greenharvest.com.au    They also sell packets of mixed variety lettuce seeds so you can try several varieties from one packet – an economical way of finding out what grows best at your place. Hearting varieties are usually meant to be harvested all at once when mature, while loose-leaf varieties can be eaten gradually over a longer periods of time by just eating the outer leaves. Another good source for seeds is Select Organic: http://www.selectorganic.com.au  

Lettuces are easy to grow from seed. As long as you use a good seed-raising mix and make sure they stay moist, they’ll germinate quickly. Don’t sow them too deep, only about half a centimetre. I tend to just thinly scatter them onto compost, then scatter some seeds rasing mix over the top and water them in. Sometimes I’ll put a scrap of shadecloth over them to stop them drying out, to be removed once they germinate. I let them grow and compete with eachother for a little while until they’re about half a finger tall and then I thin out the small ones (and eat them in a salad) until I have some nice healthy looking lettuces about 20 to 30 cm apart. Sometimes with loose-leaf lettuces I get really lazy and forget to thin them out, and I just keep eating the outer leaves. They don’t grow very big that way, but they seem to last a long time. Whether you grow them in the ground or in a tub, the soil around their roots needs to be moist at all times, so that they grow quickly to full size without turning bitter. A thick layer of mulch around them helps a lot.

Harvesting lettuce seeds

If you want to harvest your own lettuce seeds for another round of planting, choose your best, healthiest looking lettuce and nurture it, making sure it has plenty of water and nutrients (if in doubt, add more compost!). Let it flower, keep molly-coddling it, and let the flowers turn into seeds.

It’ll take about two months for that yummiest-looking lettuce to produce yellow flowers that turn white and fluffy. You can then either:

1) cut off all the flowers near the bottom of the plant and put them somewhere to dry and then store the seeds, or …

2) my favourite method – leave them until they start spilling all over the garden and flying away with the breeze, then break off the big branch of flowers near the base and joyfully thrash it around the garden anywhere you think you might like lettuces! For more accurate and sensible ways of saving and storing seeds, see “The Seed Savers’ Handbook” by Michel & Jude Fanton. You can get it at: http://www.seedsavers.net

Eating lettuce and salads in Winter

You can give a Winter salad some really warm flavours. Try squeezing a clove of garlic into some olive oil and adding black pepper as a salad dressing. Or ginger, tamari and peanut oil with a little chilli….or how about a warm tahini, sunflower oil and sweet potato dressing.  My daily Winter salads are the result of garden foraging and usually include torn lettuce and rocket leaves, shredded cabbage, nasturtium, beetroot, radish and baby kale leaves, florets of raw broccoli side shoots, a handful of parsley and winter basil, and maybe some grated daikon and beetroot. Sweetened with some organic carrot from the market and tossed with apple cider vinegar and a good olive oil and sprinkled with sunflower seeds, it’s always an easy, fresh-tasting treat and makes me feel great. Toss through some chick peas or cooked beans and you have a complete meal. The incredible variety of ingredients is just one of the great pleasures of growing your own food.

Making the most of a small space: a red curly leaf lettuce growing in Spring under the protection of a dwarf nectarine tree. It will soon be ready for harvesting, and then the interplantings of kale and silverbeet will grow to full size.

Making the most of a small space: a red curly leaf lettuce growing in Spring under the protection of a dwarf nectarine tree. It is about to be harvested, giving the interplantings of kale and silverbeet space to grow to full size.

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RudolphWhen I found out that chooks can dig, weed, and de-pest the vegie patch as well as laying eggs, I wanted some. Specifically, I wanted a chook tractor; a bottomless, easily transportable chook home that could be moved anywhere in the garden where a crop had been harvested and the soil needed preparing for the next crop.

Chook tractors are popular in permaculture designs because they can fit so intelligently into the whole system, with great benefit to both chooks (they LOVE weeding, eating bugs, and digging) and humans (I am less suited to digging, or weeding, or de-bugging and prefer to have a cup of tea and watch the chooks do it). So when my husband Tom asked what I wanted for my 35th birthday, I said I wanted a chook tractor, and being the lovely man he is, he built me one.

 

I wanted the chooks to be healthy and happy, so I researched their priorities, which are:

  • Earth to scratch around on and dry dirt to bathe in.  Chook tractors are floorless, so this is easy.
  • Chook friends for company. Chooks have strong social needs and become stressed in a group of more than 20.
  • A high place to roost and feel safe at night. Their rainforest dwelling ancestors roosted as high as they could in trees, away from predators on the ground.
  • A quiet, sheltered place to nest.
  • Some shelter from rain and sun, as well as opportunity for fresh air and some sun.
  • Clean water and a varied diet of seeds, protein, grit and fresh greens.

The chook tractor also needed to be very light-weight so that I could move it easily and regularly around the garden to give the chooks access to fresh ground and food. This is the main reason Tom decided to build with PVC piping. From a permaculture perspective, the unsustainabilityof this product is a disadvantage. However, his priorities were making sure I could lift it around myself (I’m small), and ease of building with inexpensive materials. It needed to be light enough for me and a friend to actually lift up and over permanent structures like low brick walls and bushes that our landlady may be quite fond of. We were also influenced by the use of  PVC in Linda Woodrow’s Chook Dome design from “The Permaculture Home Garden”. Hers is designed to fit into a mandala garden, but I needed a rectangular base because my garden has some rectangular beds bordered by concrete paths that were laid down long before we lived here. An arc shape seemed the logical choice to provide a high roost and maximum base area.

Building the Chook Tractor

Tom built the base with “sewer pipe” size PVC, because it’s ultra-violet resistant and strong enough to make a heavy-duty base. Right angle PVC corners connected the sewer pipes into a rectangle. He then built 6 ribs out of 20mm conduit to make the arc shape. The ribs were fitted into holes in the base drilled with a 20mm spade bit and fixed with PVC glue.chook tractor doing frame from inside

The ribs were fixed into shape by two more long pieces of conduit attached along the sides. These side pieces were fixed into place on the ribs by wire threaded through drilled holes. The ends of the side lengths were glued into an extra 2 holes drilled into the base. This made the structure stable.

chook tractor pre-door

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A horizontal piece of wood was fitted to the PVC with wire, to form the top of the door frame.

Once the rest of the door frame was built, the whole tractor was ready to be covered in chook wire mesh.

chook tractor facing door

 chook tractor fastening wood to PVC

 

 

 

We got the smallest size mesh we could, to keep mice and small birds out. The frame itself went up very quickly, and then tying the wire mesh onto the frame was the most time-consuming part of the project.

Two dowel roosts were attached to the conduit PVC up the back, one higher than the other. This allows the chooks to choose their roosting spot according to their pecking order, and to be able to reach the higher one from the lower one. The door is hinged from the top to open outwards and shut closed with a bolt that goes into the base.

Even though we live in the suburbs, many people’s chooks have been killed by foxes, so it was important to fox proof the tractor. Following Linda Woodrow’s advice we lie a skirting of extra chook mesh along the ground around the base. A fox or dog will try to get to the chooks by digging under the base, but are put off by the feeling of mesh under their claws. I just attach this extra skirting to the tractor withsome pegs or slip it underneath the base, and it’s held down on the ground with a few bricks. We haven’t lost any chooks so far, and it’s been four years.

The chook tractor holds four chooks very comfortably. For a nesting box, I used a large old wooden tea crate that someone was throwing out, and I provide straw for them to make a nest in it.

A friend donated an old car tarp, which is fantastic because it reflects the heat of the sun as well as offering protection from the rain.

chook tractor in situ with beans

I throw in straw regularly in wet weather to soak up any excess moisture, because chooks don’t like wet feet. In fact if I feel like being entertained I throw in a half bale of straw and watch the chooks use it as a trampoline, tear it apart, throw straw over eachothers’ heads, and generally have a wonderful time with it. Eventually they dig it through the ground along with any kitchen scraps they decided not to eat, along with their manure, and after they’ve moved on to the next spot it all becomes rich compost mulch. After a few weeks’ rest to age the manure and let the worms come back, it’s ready for planting and the vegies love it. So do the chooks!

When it’s time to move the tractor, I can just lift it up a little from inside, and walk the chooks over to the next spot. I only need to find a helper and take the chooks out if it needs to be lifted up and over something, which is rarely. When I start moving the fox proof skirting, the chooks know it’s time to move and they get very excited at the prospect of fresh bugs and greens. In the heat of Summer the chook tractor is placed beneath shady fig and pomegranite trees, and in Winter it’s oriented to face the sun more.

Some things we’d do differently next time

This was our first experiment in housing chooks. It’s done well in all kinds of weather, from frosts, wind, rain, and extreme UV, but it is starting to come apart a little in one corner where the UV glue deteriorated, and eventually the base cracked away from the corner-piece due to UV damage. The side pieces have been fine, but the base needs to be made out of something more sturdy and UV proof (it would still need to be light though).

It would be great to have the fox-proof skirting somehow permanently fixed to the edges of the base with hinges, so it can just be pegged up when moving the tractor and let down when the tractor’s in place, but again any extra weight would be an issue.

chook tractor in situ behind sunflowers

References

THE PERMACULTURE HOME GARDEN by Linda Woodrow

BACKYARD POULTRY – NATURALLY by Alanna Moore

I would love your ideas, comments, suggestions or questions, so please feel welcome to comment below.

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