Chooks in their run

Why we Keep small productive Animals at the CRCG

At the Coffs Regional Community garden we are striving to create a full working model of integrated self-sufficiency. From our stand alone solar power systems on our meeting space, composting toilet and aquaponics system to our large rain water catchment tanks, our composting systems, our vast range of edible plants, to our productive animals, we aim to demonstrate the practicality of how we can live abundantly, organically, and as self-reliantly as possible.

 

Having small productive animals managed well within a productive garden setting makes a lot of sense. There really are so many benefits to having these special little helpers around. Some of the key benefits include fresh eggs, manure for the garden, pest control (grass hoppers, snails, slugs and caterpillars),compost turners, nutrient recycling, fish food pellets, animal therapy/pets/ aesthetic value, and all round excellent value in a self-reliance context.

Chooks in their run

Chooks in their run

Baby Chicks

Baby Chicks

Our current productive animal species include, Chickens, Muscovy ducks, Rabbits and Guinea pigs. These four species are all well suited to being raised in suburban situations and all can be fed on a varied diet of garden weeds and excess produce. All can forage for their own foods if given the opportunity, and all contribute to valuable nutrient recycling activities and some (guinea pigs) even create readymade fish food pellets for our aquaponics system.

 

Chickens are amongst the most popular and widely kept small productive animals throughout the world. Their adaptability to different climates and excellent ability to forage for a large percentage of their own food makes them an ideal species for self-reliance. We keep our chickens without a rooster and the hens create only moderate amounts out noise (usually just when laying an egg). Our chickens are kept safe in a fully enclosed 8M x 6M pen that houses both a good sized perching area and a deluxe egg laying house.  We have an automatic feeder, shell grit bowl and water in their pen which ensures that their basic needs are always met. When we are at the garden (during current opening times Tuesday and Thursdays 9am to 3.30 pm and Sunday from 10am to 2.00pm the chooks are let out into an expansive run that is full of great foraging opportunities for insects, soft green weeds and worms. The girls also have access both inside their secure pen and the extended run to loose soil suitable for dust baths. We now have eggs available for sale at the garden and many people visiting the CRCG enjoy seeing our chooks living in their own little garden of eden.

 

Muscovies  in their run

Muscovies in their run

Muscovy ducks make even less noise than hens, with the drake being almost completely mute and the females rarely making more than soft celebratory melodic sounds. They too have a secure lockup pen for when we are not on site, complete with their own elevated bath tub that regularly supplies nutrient rich water to the banana circle just downhill, and a number of plastic shell ponds also filled with water for their additional enjoyment. Muscovy ducks are their own separate species of water fowl, being unrelated to all the other domestic duck breeds. All of these other breeds are domesticated forms of the wild Mallard duck and these included the Indian runner, Khaki Campbell, Pekin, Rouen, Aylesbury, Blue Sweedish, Call ducks and many other derivatives. Most of these Mallard derived breeds are particularly noisy, especially the females who make the characteristic quack and much more exaggerated versions of the sound. Muscovies have many differences to the other breeds of duck, with the most prominent being the red fleshy caruncles on their faces which are more pronounced in the drakes. Additionally muscovies have a much longer incubation period at 35 days compared to the Mallard derivatives at just 28 days.  Muscovies are great grazers of grass and other plant material in this way similar to geese. Another distinctive trait  of theirs is that the drakes get to almost twice the size of the females and often approach around 7 kilos when fully grown making them exceptional meet birds. The females as well as being much quieter than other female ducks are also quite good egg layers and will produce around 180 eggs in a year if they are not allowed to sit on their eggs. If they are allow to sit, they will lay up to 18 eggs before their exceptional maternal instincts kick in, frequently hatching every egg that they sit on. Muscovies females are can also be used for hatching eggs from other duck species. Like the chickens, our muscovies also have a large and interesting run filled with foraging opportunities for them to enjoy when we are on site.

 

rabbit

rabbit

Rabbits are usually very quiet with their greatest noise potential coming from their tendency to thump the ground when alarmed or disturbed. We keep ours in large mobile cages that are used for mowing the grass and we then rake up the manure which is almost odourless and an excellent slow release fertilizer pellet to use in the garden. Our rabbits eat a varied diet of grass and selected lush weeds, to fresh vegetables from the surrounding garden with some occasional supplement of commercial rabbit food blend.  Rabbits have a gestation period of around 30 days and give birth into a grassy nest that they have built and then lined with a large amount of the mothers own tummy fur, creating a beautiful warm and protected posy for the new born babies. When first born, baby rabbits are completely without fur and totally blind for 10 days, during which they grow very quickly and develop their first layer of fur. Rabbits were first introduced into Australia for the primary purpose of providing good quality easy to raise lean meet. It did not take long for a few bunnies to dig their way to freedom and the rest is history. Although they have largely fallen from grace as a mainstay meat animal, they still make great pets, produce great fertilizer pellets and for anyone who does eat meat, their lean delicious meat is amongst the healthiest and cleanest of all.

 

Guinea pigs

Guinea pigs

Guinea pigs, particularly when young can squeak quite a lot. This is often as a demand for feeding, but their sound does not carry far and is of a fairly high pitch. Our guinea pigs live in small mobile cages that are used to mow around edges and other more narrow nooks and crannies that the larger rabbit cages will not fit into. Guinea pigs have similar dietary needs to rabbits with fresh green grass, weeds and herbs accounting for as much as 90% of what they prefer to eat. The gestation period for Guinea pigs is around 72 days, but with this much longer development period comes babies that are fully haired and able to run around within hours of their birth. Guinea pig babies are also able to start eating grass often on their first day and have surprising good motor skills and judgment when it comes to assessing potential predators.  Guinea pigs are highly valued food in Peru and other parts of South America when they originated, but here in Australia they are regarded as amongst the cutest and best low maintenance of all pets. Our guinea pigs will also be used to contribute their little pellet droppings as fish food for our fully sustainable aquaponics systems.

 

Managing these four species we have found that most food scraps brought in by our members can be dealt with usefully and effectively, for instance all these four species will all eat green leafy vegetable scaps from spinach, lettuce, pak choi etc, Rabbits and guinea pigs will even eat the dry onion and garlic skins (must be like a chip to them), the chooks and Muscovy ducks both enjoy abundant protein in their diet and so will  eat food scraps containing meat, with the muscovies being even more voracious than the chooks for their love of protein in that they will eat whole mice and baby rats if they find them or have them thrown their way  All four species will happily eat bread as a minor supplement in their diet.

 

Our productive animals form invaluable links within our overall productive system, bring great joy for our members and visitors to watch and appreciate, and they help immensely with keeping our organic garden in an optimal state of health and productivity. If you haven’t been to the CRCG to see our animals and many other attractions, you’ll be amazed and inspired by what is possible in a short period of time.

By Matthew Downie (Coordinator CRCG)

compost

Composting Workshop Sunday August 24 10:30am – 12:30pm

 

compost

compost

 

Ever tried to make a compost heap and failed or simply didn’t know what you were doing right or wrong? Did you know there are many ways to ‘compost’? Do you know the advantages and disadvantages of various methods? Well, this is your chance to have all those questions answered and get hands on experience while understanding the requirements necessary to achieve rich fertile compost made from local materials.  The workshop will be presented by Steve McGrane who is a horticulturalist, agriculturalist and Permaculturalist of some 25 years’ experience, with associated formal qualifications. To book go to https://register.eventarc.com/23954/composting-workshop

Banana circle and food forest below muscovy duck pen

The Vast range of Edible Plants at the Coffs Regional community garden

 

The Coffs Regional community garden has one of the very best collections of subtropical and warm temperate edible and useful plants to be found anywhere in NSW. Showcasing a vast range of fruits, vegies, herbs, nuts, grains, spices, exotic and native plants, the CRCG is now a literal botanical garden of diverse permaculture-inspired food production. The CRCG management is also fully committed to organic production methods which include producing quality compost and liquid fertilizers, employing natural pest and disease control methods, promoting beneficial organisms and utilizing productive animals (Chickens, Muscovy ducks, Rabbits and guinea pigs) for foraging and additional nutrient recycling. The overall effect is an amazingly diverse, living demonstration of optimal and year-round abundant organic production.  If you haven’t yet visited the CRCG or haven’t been to see it lately, you’ll be very impressed with all the growth!

 

Banana circle and food forest below muscovy duck pen

Banana circle and food forest below muscovy duck pen

Plants create a major part of the foundational diversity from which garden eco-systems are based. In the majority of natural systems there is a  dynamic range of species that fill each niche and together combine to give stability and resilience to the system. Permaculture as a design science makes great use of these models provided by nature and sets about creating abundance through maximum integrated diversity.

 

In most landscapes there are a range of potential ‘micro-climates’. These are significant variations of conditions including ambient temperature; soil type; soil moisture content; drainage, aspect to the sun and topography. These differences within a particular area influence how particular plant species will grow. With research and practical experimentation, the optimal microclimatic conditions for each species can be understood and utilized to ensure optimal health and production.  In Coffs Harbour we enjoy a idealic climate that is situated perfectly between the Sub-tropical latitudes and the Warm temperate zones. The mountainous landscape of the Great Dividing Range coming right to the coast at Coffs Harbour, further enhances the micro-climate extremes giving rise to an optimal potential to incorporate the largest range of edible and useful plants from around the Earth.

 

The site accomodating the Coffs Regional community garden is predominantly flat but we do have an elevated north facing slope on our southern boundary. Gently rising from the water course that meanders through the middle of the garden, this north facing slope offered us our best subtropical microclimate. Before planting out this area with a vast selection of subtropical fruit trees in July 2012,  we dug two swails along the contours that now act to capture rainfall in dry times and to allow excess water to drain off in prolonged wet periods. The initial planting of Subtropical fruit trees included species such as Black sapote, Jaboticaba, Cherry guava, Brazilian guava, Babaco, mountain pawpaw, Santol, Panama berry (strawberry tree), Guamachama, yellow sapote (canistel), Tamarind,  Coffee bean, Saba nut, Brazil cherry, Mexican guava, Mango, Lychee, White sapote, jack fruit, Acerola (Barbados cherry), Longan, Sapadilla, Tamarillo and more being acquired and added as they become available. These plants are strategically planted out to eventually become the canopy of the food-forest, but while they grow we have companion and understory crops growing. These additional crops include cassava, Yaccon, Sun root (Jerusalem artichoke), Taro, Coco yam and sweet potato vrieties

Entrance into Muscovy Duck pen

Entrance into Muscovy Duck pen

 

At the South eastern corner of the garden we have our very best north-facing and protected aspect. The slope here is even greater than our main subtropical area and we have some extra deposits of soil at the highest point (giving perfect drainage) and continuing down the slope towards the creek we have our Muscovy duck pen in the middle. A swail has also been created below the duck pen to capture the run-off nutrient and make further use of a permanent damp location (possibly a permanent spring or leaking water pipe) we have situated other plants that enjoy higher than average amounts of water such as Sugar cane, arrowroot and Taro. In this top corner of the garden on the extra mounds of top soil we are successfully growing papaya, Abika, avocado, sour sop, Amberella, Sea grape, Custard apples, Rollinia and again utilize perennial vegies as the understory until these trees form a canopy in a few years time.

 

Outside the enclosed fenced area on the northern edge of the CRCG we border a natural creek tributary that eventually flows into Coffs Creek. This part of the garden gets substantial shade and cool conditions particularly during winter where the creek vegetation creates a major shade zone. This area represents our best warm temperate area, being naturally cooler and with less direct sun exposure. In this warm temperate food forest we are successfully growing the whole range of Citrus, Low chill or ‘tropical’ varieties of apples, pears, peach, nectarine and plums. We also have in this area exotic figs, mulberries, Chinese raisin tree, Black walnut, pecan nut, Kiwi fruit, pomegranate, Olives, Maple syrup tree,  Kei apple and some bush tucker plants including macadamia, Rose apple, peanut tree, Atherton almond  plum pine.

 

Within our annual vegie and herb production range, we have been acquiring heirloom and long term locally adapted varieties where possible. We now have a seed saving program and our own seed bank that supplies most of the seeds we need for our nursery seedling production and for maintaining the interplantings throughout the garden.

The Coffs Regional community garden is evolving into ever increasing diversity, and demonstrates a reliable and perennial approach to garden food production. By cultivating the maximum diversity of productive perennial species, then interplanting with self seeding and self perpetuating annuals and devisable varieties, we have successfully created food forests that are resilient in all conditions, diversely productive throughout the year, very low in incidences of pest and diseases and would survive and continue to flourish even if no more human attention were given to them. Now that’s sustainable abundance by design!!

 

Coco Yam

Coco Yam

Babaco

Babaco

Front of hot house

Cutting edge Aquaponics system at the Coffs Regional Community gardens.

Aquaponics is fast becoming recognized as the most compact and efficient way to grow many vegetables, herbs, some fruits and many species of fresh water fish in a close to natural system. Aquaponics is a hybrid system between Aquaculture (fish farming) and Hydroponics (Growing plants without soil). The great advantage of aquaponics is that it solves existing problems with both of its parent systems, namely unused excessive nutrient from fish farming, which is usually discharged into the environment as large quantities of waste water,  and the dependency of synthetic nutrients in the hydroponic system is also eliminated and replaced with the processed fish nutrient waste.

 

Front of hot house

Front of hot house

 

The system  at the Coffs Regional community gardens was made possible by an NRMA community grant for 5K that Steve McGrane successfully applied for in early 2013. The basis of the grant application was to build an aquaponics system that was as fully stand alone and as sustainable as possible. One of the main criticisms of most existing aquaponics systems is that they still feed their fish commercially produced pellets, which are made from the by-product from ‘wild caught’ fish, a clear non sustainable aspect of production. Both Steve McGrane and CRCG coordinator Matt Downie have strong and clear beliefs about the value of organic production systems and the need for aquaponics as another one of these, to be as resilient and sustainable in its operation as is practically possible.

The CRCG aquaponics system has been designed to incorporate fish food production on site, this currently includes, compost worms which are a great source of protein and nutrients;  Duck weed (Lemna minor) reputedly up to 30 percent protein and packed with fresh vitamins, minerals and nutrients; Guinea pig pellets/dung, are a readymade fish pellet for larger sized fish and can be ground into smaller pieces for younger fish, again packed with nutrients because our guineas have a very diverse and healthy diet. Other foods also planned to be incorporated include daphnia and micro worm cultures and hardy fodder fish like gudgeons and fresh water shrimp. In the end, the diversity and range of nutrient provided to your fish will be converted to the very nutrients available to your plants which ultimately  end up feeding you!

Regulator and batteries

Regulator and batteries

Another consideration was that the Coffs regional community garden is not connected to the mains electricity grid so the system has been build to run its electrical components of a single 4000L/h pump and aerator to run  exclusively on solar power. Long term CRCG member and professional electrician Steve Sloan lent a big helping hand in setting up this part of the system for us. We have 3 x 90 Watt panels mounted together on a VERY heavy duty steel pole perfectly orientated for maximum yearly solar exposure. We have the power cables running down inside the pole itself, travelling underground inside another steel pipe and then entering our fully enclosed battery bank and regulator area. From here then power is taken straight across to the location of both the pump and aerator.  Bothe the pump and the aerator are then connected up with a timer being used to add further power efficiency to their operation and system efficiency as a whole.

 

 

 

 

Fish tanks at the back of the hot house

Fish tanks at the back of the hot house

There are a number of different growing systems utilized in aquaponics systems and the CRCG system incorporated many of these. Firstly the overall system design at the garden can be categorized as a ‘CHOP’ styled system. CHOP stands for “Constant Height One Pump”. This system was developed by a number of different people and has the distinct advantage that the water in the fish tanks is the highest point in the system and stays at a constant height. The dirty water from the bottom of the fish tanks is removed to the plant grow beds, the pump itself is located in a separate sump and should there be a pump failure the fish don’t end up in a diminished water body or left stranded in water that is just a few cms from the bottom as has been the demise of fish in many older styled systems.  Our system is largely made from recycled 1000L  IBC or Tote drums, 3 of these make our fish tanks, and another one of these catches rainwater from the roof of the hot house for topping up the system where needed. We have 3 half totes with river gravel and Bell siphons, 3 more half totes making up the sump that will also incorporate floating raft lettuce production and a smaller side system of a split 44 G drum water filter entering into two 90mm PVC pipes with holes drilled for small pots to accommodate strawberries and other experimental crops.

 

Along with our FULLY Sustainable aims for the system, is finding the most suitable fish species that can both live comfortably and grow quickly on our home grown food diet. So far we have isolated a range of potential species that should perform well. The first of these is

  • The wild form of the common gold fish  (the Prussian Carp – Carassius gibelio) a very hardy species, a completely different genus to Koi and the Murray-Darling pest carp species , great omnivorous scavenger, fast grower and reputedly VERY good eating.
  • Eel tailed catfish (Tandanus tandanus) is a native Australian species that shows good promise for intensive tank production and well known for its fine eating quality.
  • Jade perch (Scortum barcoo) a very fast growing native fish and reputed the highest in Omega 3 of any Australian freshwater fish.
  • Silver Perch (Bidyanus bidyanus) is a very hardy native species already widely used in aquaculture and aquaponics for its ability to eat a wide dietary range and for its high quality eating.
  • Mullet (Mugil cephalus) the common mullet found in the Australian east coastal rivers and ocean are all able to be converted to living in pure freshwater. Studies recently done on this species at the Marine science research centre in Coffs Harbour are showing this species as a promising potential aquaponics species.

In addition to these fish species, the CRCG system will also incorporate native freshwater mussels (Velesunio ambiguious) that will help with the purification system and blue claw crayfish (Cherax destructor) that will also scavenge detritus (dead plant material) from the sump tanks.

 

Because aquaponics is creating a type of semi-closed  system, certain elements and microbes need to be added to create the dynamic nature of a natural system. Additional trace elements essential to lush healthy plants can be added via sea weed extract and vital microbial life can be introduced with the addition of a bucket full of natural creek water. These naturally occurring microbes are vital for the processing and recycling of nutrients from waste products from the fish, to fully available nutrients for the plants to uptake from the system. With these vital microbes introduced into the system they then need to have extensive surface area to filter and convert the waste water into usable plant nutrients. This can be achieved with various fibrous filters with vast surface areas and also with floating and trailing water plants that have extensive root systems that can both filter particles from the water and provide surface area for microbes to attach to as they convert the passing waste nutrients into usable plant nutrition.

 

Front of hot house showing solar pannels

Front of hot house showing solar pannels

We are very excited about the future of aquaponics for home based self sufficiency and are looking forward to next phase in the journey fine tuning our optimally abundant, fully sustainable organic food production system at the Coffs Regional Community garden.

A workshop covering the basics of Aquaponics is being held at the garden on November 23rd from 10.30am. Hope to see you there!

 

By Matthew Downie (Cocoordinator CRCG)

Peanut tree

Edible Plants of the Coffs Region

Peanut tree

Peanut tree

Learn about the incredible range of well-over 100 edible plants that are suited to our local climate and see them successfully growing in the Coffs Regional Community Garden. We’ll discuss their optimal growing conditions, utilizing certain species in micro-climates, unique plant characteristics, their geographical origins, how to propagate them and how to cook and utilize this entire range of edible plants. Covering fruits, nuts, herbs, grains and spices; annuals, biennials and perennials; natives and exotics!

Presented by Matthew Downie

Sunday July 27 2014
10:30am – 12:30pm