Making Habitat - Living with Snakes

In addition to building soil, starting a CSA and establishing a diverse fruit orchard, we have spent five years planting native corridors, putting in water for the local fauna, and building habitat.  As farmers trying to work with nature, our thoughts have been that everything has it's place and it's specialty- Birds can see a caterpillar before we do and they will eat it before we will too!- Chickens till earth better then we do, as well as eating low lying invertebrates- Frogs, skinks and blue tongue lizards are better and far more efficient then we are at dealing with slugs, snails and slatters. All we need to do is make the right habitat and these creatures will come to help us. The food web is not exclusive though.  Invite frogs and you are providing food for snakes.  And snakes are far better at dealing with mice and rats then we are, right?

We have been tracking snakes this summer. Wish I had a great snake photo to show but, in truth, coming upon a big Tiger Snake as thick as Peter's forearm, extremely fast moving, and old enough to have a flat head from jaw displacement, all you are really thinking about is freezing and walking backwards.

For those outside of Australia, Tiger Snakes carry deadly venom- most of the snakes in these parts do. Tiger snakes are both blind and deaf. Most bites are a result of someone stepping on the snake or grabbing it while gardening. They do rear up...although from what we can gather, this is due to provocation. They are shy in nature. Their venom, though, contains powerful neurotoxins, coagulants, haemolysins and myotoxins which require immobilization of the bite area and immediate medical attention. When we see a snake, we are not thinking about photos. We are thinking about keeping a careful eye on where it is going and not provoking it to do anything but keep on its way.

Here we their territory- territory rediscovered by them...or...maybe we are the ones rediscovering the snakes. We hypothesis that the big snake has been here for some time and we have only been tracking her for the past two years. But she is not alone...there are others as the tracks tell!

While writing this post may limit the number of summer visitors we have, we know that we are not the only ones living with snakes.  I thought I would share some of the information we have found on snake identification, bite treatment and snake relocation.

Snake Identification and information from Museum Victoria - They have fact sheets on Victorian snakes.  They also have a search page which allows you to select land snake, sea snake, python or blind snake and then thumb nail photos appear showing the same snake in different areas to help with identification.

First aid treatment for bites and Applying a pressure immobilisation bandage - Complete with illustrations - from the Australian Venom Research Unit

Here is a detailed explanation on the venom of the Australian Tiger Snake put together by Clinical Toxonology Resources at the University of Adelaide.

Also snake identification, education and snake relocation in the Melbourne area - The Snake Handler

For now, we are educating ourselves, our children and visiting friends, tracking, recording, offering predictions on where the snakes are going and why they are going there and trying to learn more about their role in this ecosystem.

What experiences do you have living with snakes?

A favourite garden companion - the pobblebonk


Companion planting and garden companions.  The two go hand in hand. Create the right environment, and the garden companions will come.  Our garden companions are our garden predators.  Lady birds, frogs, skinks, blue tongue lizards, tree dragons, preying mantis, dragon flies, spiders, birds, bats, predatory beetles, predatory wasps, tachinid flies, hoverflies, stick bugs and many more I have yet to meet and/or identify.  Building an ecosystem will encourage the garden predators to come, keeping the garden "pests" in balance much better then any "intervention" us humans may devise.  As Linda Woodrow says, "you do not have the eyesight, dexterity, or speed to hunt insects."

Frogs are wonderful garden companions.  Once we installed the pond, we just waited and the pobblebonks or eastern banjo frogs found us. Our ponds range from bathtubs to terracotta pots with their bottom holes filled in, dug into the ground.  Both are surrounded by some rocks and overhanging plants for shelter and some logs half in the pond and half out acting as bridges.  Inside the ponds we grow a range of water plants.  Watercress, water chestnut, and Vietnamese mint not only provide coverage of the water surface, they are also edible plants.  Water lilies and "fairy weed" help to establish the pond ecosystem providing shade and shelter within the water.

Around the edge of the pond we have planted a few reeds and rushes and some other natives that like the moist environment and also provide shelter for not only the frogs but also their prey, slugs.  Maybe it seems strange to encourage garden "pests" like slugs.  But the best way to encourage the garden predators is to ensure there is a healthy food supply for them.  They will find the ones provided and then some!

Since the frogs found us, we have delighted in the various frog calls and tadpoles that are as small as a pinhead to ones with bodies the size of 20-cent pieces.  Finding the frogs is an endless source of garden amusement for both adults and children.  Usually they are found by chance.  But the wonder of looking for where the call comes is lots of fun.It may sound like a leap of faith...provide an environment to encourage slugs and slaters for example, and their predators will come.  Our experience with doing just that has proven that there will be enough for everyone in the healthy ecosystem.  And our input of time and effort in eliminating the "pests" as well as the various "organic" and not sprays and poisons we may employ to try and help us "battle" the pests, will become nothing more than the time we spend observing nature's balance be tipped from one side to the other.

Adding water to the home garden is as simple as sinking a pot large enough to hold a few water plants and surrounding the edge with a variety of plants, rocks and logs. Or as involved as making a lined pond with multi levels capable of supporting fish, frogs and a variety of insect larvae.  Ensuring that there is a healthy balance of underwater oxygenators (available from nurseries or pet stores), surface cover to shade the water from the sun which encourages rampant algae growth, and higher plants inside the pond and/or around the edge that provide shelter, will allow a balanced ecosystem to grow.

Our pond deos not have a pump or filter and yet it is still crystal clear.

In Peru, frogs are a symbol of fertility.  And here, too, the frogs know before us humans when the soil is beginning to warm.  Make the right environment and enjoy the excitement when you hear the first frog call in the late winter...foretelling the end of the cold season and the coming of spring.


Chamomile - The Plant's Physician


For over 2000 years, chamomile has been a garden herb favorite.  The famous Greek physician Dioscorides recommended it as a medicine for fever in 900BC.  It was one of nine sacred herbs for the Saxon's who used it widely as a sedative and calming medicine for the stomach (Brooke, 25). It was highly valued as a remedy for hysteria, insomnia, nightmares, convulsions, delirium, tremors of alcoholics, melancholy and a whole range of other nervous afflictions, especially of women (McIntyre, 153).

In the language of flowers, chamomile means patience in adversity (McIntyre,153).  It was known as the herb of humility because, as a lawn plant, the more it was trodden on, the faster it grew. Like a wise grandfather, it is able to calmly quell a tantrum recognizing that these fiery outburst usually stem from fear and anxiety.

Anne McIntyre describes,

The flower essence will soothe tension and anxiety and stop them from accumulating through the day to cause restlessness, insomnia and nightmares.  Chamomile will help one to stand back from the day-to-day things that irritate and annoy, and upset one's superficial equilibrium, and to find a place of calm and serenity where light, like the sun behind the clouds, is always shining .

Chamomile has a marvelous ability to relax smooth muscle throughout the body.  It is a famous remedy for soothing all kinds of digestive upsets, especially those related to stress and tension such as nervous indigestion, heartburn and acidity (McIntyre, 153-154). As it relaxes the nervous system, use chamomile for headaches, anxiety, insomnia, palpitations and general fearfulness.  Chamomile is a pain reliever and an excellent remedy for teething in babies.

Chamomile is a wonderful herb to use with children.  Think about Peter Rabbit's mother, who when Peter returns from his ordeal in Farmer McGregor's garden, wisely tucks him into bed with a warm cup of chamomile tea.  Chamomile is an excellent relaxant for babies and children.  It calms anxiety and nervousness.  It is well known for calming restless babies prone to colic, teething and sleeping problems, as well as overactive, irritable children (McIntyre, 28).  These results can even be achieved through a warm bath using chamomile infused water.

It has a long association with young maidens, used as a bath in Celtic initiation ceremonies and Beltane festivals.   It is very useful in relieving premenstrual stress (including headaches) and menstruation cramps.  Chamomile tea has been drunk throughout childbirth to relax tension and lessen the pain of contractions. It is also helpful to reduce menopausal symptoms.

As a natural antihistamine, chamomile is useful for hay fever.  It has an anti-allergic effect by reducing the body's response to allergens such as pollen and house dust.  Steam inhalations (putting hot water over the flowers in a large bowl and then covering the head and bowl with a towel or blanket and breathing in the infused steam) will help relieve hay fever, asthma, catarrh and sinusitis (McIntyre, 154). The anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties of chamomile help heal inflamed mucous membrane linings of the lungs and sinuses (Soule, 50).

In the garden, chamomile is like having little rays of sunlight mingling and poking through the perennial border.  It is a wonderful companion of cabbages, onions and mint and its unobtrusive nature makes it pleasant anywhere in the border.  It is also a micronutrient accumulator harnessing calcium, potassium and phosphorous (Woodrow, 35).

Chamomile posy
Chamomile posy

In Biodynamics, the chamomile preparation promotes a good breakdown of the proteins in the compost to humic plant nutrients, and prevents the protein breaking down to ammonia which would be lost to the atmosphere (Proctor,70).  It helps soil to retain nitrogen and calcium, keeping them in the living realm and preventing loss to the atmosphere.  Chamomile preparation strengthens the plant's regenerative life activity and reunites this with the physical (Biodynamic Resource Manual, 22).  This ability has led chamomile to be referred to as the "plant's physician" in folklore.  It has been said that if you have a failing plant, simply plant chamomile next to it and it will revive.

As a mother, a woman and a farmer, I love growingand nurturing plants that benefit humans, animals, plants and soil.  Chamomile is wonderful in its ability to comfort and aid all of the living things on our farm.  I delight in its mercurial quality of popping up in different places in the garden year after year and am always grateful to see it in the spring.

Linda Woodrow's Witch's Brew

To stop fungus diseases like powdery mildew use the following liquid brew.

-Gather stinging nettle, comfrey, causurina needles and/or chamomile. -The first three are high in silica, which is water-retardant and so creates leaf surface conditions unsuitable for fungi.  The chamomile is a mild fungicide. -Cover the herbs with water and let the mixture brew for just TWO days. -Dilute 1:10 and add to perennial seaweed brew. -Spray zucchini, squash, cucumber, pumpkin and anything else you think is susceptible.  The same mixtiure is a foliar fertilizer so there is no worries about over using. -This brew works well if you catch the infestation early and only if the brew is fresh - after no more then 48 hours' brewing.  After this it is still a great foliar fertilizer and compost additive but it does not work against fungus.

-An Astrological Herbal for Women by Elisabeth Brooke; Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs by Scott Cunningham; The Yoga of Herbs by Dr David Frawley and Vincent Lad; Herbal Healing for Women by Rosemary Gladstar; The Complete Floral Healer by Anne McIntyre; Grasp the Nettle by Peter Proctor with Gillian Cole; The Roots of Healing by Deb Soule; The Permaculture Home Garden by Linda Woodrow; Biodynamic Resource Manual by Biodynamic Agriculture Australia

Herbs and Perennials in the Mandala

House Mandala Oct 2011

House Mandala Oct 2011

This week saw the planting of several more mandala "borders".  This area is a two metre wide circle which encloses the six inner mandala circles.  The border consists of fruit trees, perennial vegetables and flowers and a wide variety of  herbs.

Our eleven mandalas are based on the concepts outlined in Linda Woodrow's book The Permaculture Home Garden.  In her introduction she states,

The trick to doing less is doing more of what we humans do best: use our intelligence to see patterns, create designs, invent things - activities that come so naturally they feel like play.  The other side of the coin is to do less of what we do worst.  Humans make hard work of digging, but for worms it is fun.

In planting out the herbs and perennials around the mandalas, I reflected on our house garden, which after three years is a great example of an established border.

artchokes, foxglove, borage, garlic chives, pear tree

artchokes, foxglove, borage, garlic chives, pear tree

The perennial food plants planted in the border include artichokes, asparagus,  fruit trees, strawberries and edible flowers.  These are all producing in abundance now.  In addition to autumn feeds of compost, their roots would be stretching out into the annual vegetable beds receiving the benefits of chickens and cover crops such as legumes which harness nitrogen.

The herbs act as companion plants to the fruit trees and the vegetables. They attract and provide food for predatory insects and insect pollinators. They are a natural apothecary and a culinary pantry within a few steps of the kitchen.  Their flowers are both edible and decorative.

Many of the herbs are also micronutrient accumulators.  These are elements that are essential for proper plant nutrition but that are only needed in minute amounts.  Some herbs accumulate very large amounts of micronutrients, even in soil that is deficient.  Using these herbs in mulch and compost spreads the micronutrients around the garden, making them available to vegetables that may not be quite so proficient at mining them for themselves.

The herbs and perennials have matured since their original planting. In many areas they completely cover the earth.  This is beneficial as it does not offer weed seeds the opportunity to sprout or creep in and it provides a living mulch in summer keeping the roots of the  fruit trees cool.

House mandala border

House mandala border

Herbs can be trimmed and given to the chickens who can self medicate themselves if they are deficient in a nutrient (much like humans use vitamins and supplements) or just scratch them back into the earth adding trace minerals to the soil.  Several of the herbs are compost activators. Alternatively, the herbs can be added to a seaweed brew, making a nutrient rich tea that can be used a s a plant tonic or for wetting down the compost.

snapdragons, poppies, thyme, sage, fennel, rue, apple tree

snapdragons, poppies, thyme, sage, fennel, rue, apple tree

The mandala border acts as a protective barrier for the inner circles.  It prevents weed, grass and pest invasions from the edges.  Again, with the house mandala which began in Feb 2008, one would not know that there are vegetables growing unless they stood on the roof or walked through the pathway entrance to the garden.  The herbs and natives have formed a natural "wall", offering wind protection to the tender vegetables as they are growing.  They also provide predatory birds a vantage point and predatory lizards and frogs habitat.

The circle design of a garden was not new to me as a gardener, nor was planting herbs, flowers and vegetables together.  What I have found  brilliant about the mandala design though is heavy feeding vegetable beds are kept in rotation without ever interfering with the perennial border.  The perennial border is being fed by the vegetable beds while providing all of the other benefits indicated above. The two independent systems work cohesively together creating a very healthy garden ecosystem.

In its first two years, the border did require energy.  We seeded most of the herbs and helped the little plants to get established.  There were more weeds the first two years  as there was still bare earth.    I am continually amazed at the quiet job the herbs are doing at improving our soil.  Our chickens are incredibly healthy. Our time spent combating difficult fungus and pest problems on both the vegetables and the fruit trees has also reduced. Once established, the human effort in maintaining this system is surprisingly minimal.



This week, our friend Baxter of Palate Earth  joined in to help plant three more mandala borders.  It was great to have the help and also nice to share the beneficial aspects that the herbs are providing to the mandala.  Thank you Baxter.

Link here for more photos of establishing the mandalas.

-For more in depth information about the mandala system, the use of perennial and herb borders, making seaweed brew, having chooks in the garden, and many more topics, we highly recommend The Permaculture Home Garden by Linda Woodrow Published in 1996 by Penguin Books

Thyme - The Eagle of the Herbs

Thymus vulgaris Each week, I walk through our garden and notice which herb calls my attention.  You may have noticed that our garden is a "messy" garden - food spills into flowers surounded by fruit trees and at their feet herbs.  It is a cacaphony of fragrance, colour, shape, structure, vibration which feeds the body and the soul.  This is the classic permaculture design, based on the premise of confusion to predators and drawing on the attributes of companion planting, soil building and fodder for the beneficial insects and animals.  As I witnessed the first of the thyme blossoms to open, and saw the bees flock to them, this week, thyme kept calling me.

In our vegetable mandalas, thyme is planted throughout the outer circle. It is drought resistant and does not require pampering.  We grow various varieties and they all spread to form a mat, which keeps other weeds at bay and covers the ground, providing a natural ground cover that cools the soil in summer - another wonderful reason to plant it on the edges of the garden and let it grow.

I have not found any plant or tree that is adversely affected by thyme, and so it is throughout our garden, especially under fruit trees.  Bees love thyme.  Greek thyme honey is prized all over the world for its wonderful flavour (McIntyre, 214).  In this regard, thyme is highly valuable as a garden companion.  It blooms in spring, about the time of the fruit trees that require the bees for cross-pollination.

In the vegetable garden too, without bees, we would be hand pollinating zucchini, pumpkins, potatoes, eggplant and melons, to name just a few of the vegetables that require pollination.  All through the year, bees are an important member of the garden and should be encouraged to come and linger.

Thyme is also said to help repel cabbage moth when planted near cabbages.  I wish I could offer personal results of this claim but alas, it has not dramatically reduced the moths from landing on the cabbage in our garden.

Thyme (thymus vulgaris) comes from the Greek thumus, meaning ‘courage’ and  'to fumigate'.  Because of the plant's strengthening and energizing properties, thyme was a symbol of action, bravery and courage.  In the age of chivalry, women embroidered a bee hovering over a sprig of thyme on articles to give to their knights. The Greeks burned it on their altars when making sacrifices to the gods, and it was made into incense to drive away infections and insects.  The Egyptians used thyme for embalming.

The Romans slept on thyme to cure melancholy while in other traditions thyme has been used to quell nightmares and ensure a pleasant night sleep (Cunningham, 210), as well as convulsions, vertigo and ringing in the ears.  Made into soup it cures shyness. Thyme's aroma was inhaled to strengthen the brain and increase longevity (McIntyre, 214).

Thyme is an herb of Venus - soothing, calming, cleansing and gently expulsive.  The energy of the herb is heating, the taste pungent and the actions antispasmodic and carminative (Frawley and Lad, 216).  A strong infusion of thyme poured into the bath water helps to ensure that all the sorrows and ills of the past are removed from the person (Cunningham, 210).

Thyme makes an excellent remedy, especially for children, for coughs whether they are caused by nerves, anxiety or an infection such as bronchitis, pneumonia or pleurisy.  Its relaxant effect on the bronchial tubes relieves asthma and whooping cough, while its expectorant action is useful for shifting phlegm - particularly useful for dry, hacking coughs (McIntyre, 214).

Thyme also relaxes the digestive system, enhances appetite, digestion and stimulates the liver (McIntyre, 57).  In South America they say that a good broth resurrects the dead.   A wonderful warming stock can be made by gently simmering carrots, onion and celery (with or without chicken necks and bones) with cloves and thyme.  The traditional chicken stock has been called "penicillin" for its healing attributes.  Adding thyme to that brew, helps to throw off fever and chills, strengthens and invigorates the body, re-ignites the digestive system and relaxes and soothes the body.  With medicine that amazing, why look for anything else?

Thymus × citriodorus - Lemon Thyme

As a culinary herb, thyme is widely used and extremely versatile. Thyme is a main component of Herbes de Provence, a blend that also includes marjoram, rosemary, summer savory, lavender flowers and other dried herbs. Thyme is also typically included in the traditional bouquet garni, a bundle of herbs and aromatics used in making stocks and sauces. In its dried form, thyme is also a component of the basic sachet d'epices, which is also used to add flavour and aroma to stocks. Thyme and lemon thyme are both frequent additions to sauces and salad dressing.

Thyme has the quality of the eagle, soaring highest amongst mountain peaks in the half-light before dawn.  It is for those who have suffered much, who feel they have come to the end of their strength and have reached their lowest point.  Thyme gives strength and courage to hold on until things improve (Cunningham, 81).

Thyme Healing Bath - from Deb Soule This is a wonderful bath when you are grieving or feeling deep sadness stirring inside, or when you just need to throw off chills and lethargy. Take 1-2 cups of dried thyme or 2-3 cups of fresh and pour 3-4 quarts of boiling water over the leaves and flowers and steep, covered for fifteen minutes.  Strain and add to your warm bathwater and soak for twenty minutes.  Do this every night for twenty nights when you are in active stages of grieving.

Syrup of Thyme for cough 225 grams fresh thyme 900 ml spring water Pour the boiling water over thyme and its flowers (if available) placed in a saucepan, and close the vessel.  Let stand in a warm place for twelve hours.  Strain and measure liquid.  To every pint, add 1kg white sugar, melted and scummed.  Stir over low heat until it is well mixed. Dose: 1 x 5ml spoon every three hours

-Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs by Scott Cunningham, The Yoga of Herbs by Dr David Frawley and Vincent Lad, The Complete Floral Healer by Anne McIntyre, Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte, The Roots of Healing by Deb Soule

Our gardening notes are posted before each Wednesday for the week. View this weeks at  Biodynamic Gardening Notes for 5 - 11 October.


Ode to Borage - The flower of courage

In my attempts to write about companion planting, my musings which began so simply started to twist and turn, passing through plants that are friends, feeding the soil, beneficial insects, deterring insects, attracting wildlife, brightening the soul, curing ailments, making ecosystems... As I sought to stay on one tangent, I realized that maybe the best way to approach such a huge topic is by paying homage each week to one special plant and its relationship in our garden- And so I bring you, my plant of the week... Ode to Borage The Flower of Courage


With its bright blue, star shaped flowers that uplift their heads, blooming in our climate from late winter through to late autumn, borage brightens any garden and gardener. Borage was used to promote bravery on the jousting field and continues to be used to bestow courage. Borage has a relaxing effect generally and is said to dispel grief and sadness (75, McIntyre). The herbalist Gerard writing in 1597 said that a syrup of borage flowers 'comforteth the heart, purgeth melancholy and quieteth the phrenticke and lunatick person.'  For as the lion finds out, where does courage lie but in the heart.

Being an edible flower, borage brightens a salad, livens up a simple glass of water and makes beautiful cake decorations.  In ayurveda, borage has a sweet, astringent taste and a cooling action (Lad, 195).  The crushed leaves smell like cucumber.  Young leaves contain vitamin C and can be added to a salad.  Borage flowers are a wonderful addition to a birthing woman's bouquet and a soothing bath.

The blue colour attracts bees, and as they are blooming from late winter, they are excellent to put near your fruit trees.  Most apple, pear, sweet cherry and plum trees cannot produce fruit from their own pollen.  They require the lovely aid of the bee to take pollen from one tree to another, providing the cross pollination necessary.  In addition to fruit trees, strawberries flourish near a borage plant as do tomatoes and squash. Borage deters tomato hornworm and cabbage worms.

Borage roots go down 2 metres, mining the subsoil for nutrients and adding organic matter (Woodrow, 147).  It accumulates silica, potassium and calcium, makes good mulch and is a great compost ingredient.  As we started this garden on a sand dune very deficient in trace minerals and humus, borage has helped us build a well balanced top soil.

Externally, the fresh juice from the leaves can be applied to burns and to draw out poisons from insect bites, stings or boils.

Boarge self-seeds easily.  It is extremely hardy, growing in shade, sun, wet or dry, but the plants are easy to remove from places where they are not welcome, so it doesn’t become a troublesome weed (Woodrow, 147).

The multifunctional quality of adding borage to our garden has been incredible.  Our soil is being enriched, the plants are healthier and happier, the garden is prettier, the fruit more prolific, our stings have been soothed and our spirit is continually uplifted. As I sit amidst a sea of borage, calendula and fruit tree blossoms,  watching funny little wasps and bees that flit through the flowers, I give my gratitude to this lovely plant and marvel at the beauty of the natural world working harmoniously.

Spring flower tea

Flower Teas - from Deb Soule

Drinking a tea of any of the following herbs serves to uplift your spirit, gladden your heart, and nourish your nervous system.

Heartsease pansy flowers- 1 part Sacred basil leaves and flowers - 2 parts Borage flowers- 1 part Lemon balm flowers and leaves - 2 parts Lavender flowers- 2 parts

Dose and Use: To make a summer tea, place whatever proportions of these fresh herbs or others you have into cool water and let them infuse in the sunlight or moonlight or slowly heat to near boiling and steep, covered, ten minutes.  Drink 2-4 cups a day.

You can also add any of these herbs to an herbal bath. As Rosemary Gladstar says, "Herbal bathing can be soothing to a weary soul.  It is a bit hard to remain depressed for long while soaking in a flower-strewn tub surrounded by plants from your garden."

-Family Herbal by Rosemary Gladstar, Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway,  The Yoga of Herbs by Vincent Lad, The Complete Floral Healer by Anne McIntyre, The Roots of Healing by Deb Soule, How to make a Forest Garden by Patrick Whitefield, The Permaculture Home Garden by Linda Woodrow