Capeweed – love it or hate it?

Capeweed - pretty yellow flowers, but is it a desirable plant?
Capeweed – pretty yellow flowers, but is it a desirable plant?

We’re often asked what we think of capeweed, which is often seen growing in great abundance all over the countryside (and our farm) in spring.

If you’ve been following us for a while, you’ll know we’re generally big fans of weeds (we even wrote a short course about it called Learn to Love Your Weeds,) but does the same apply to a huge monoculture of one weed?

A yellow carpet of capeweed in the orchard
A yellow carpet of capeweed in the orchard

Capeweed germinates in autumn and winter, so is most evident in spring, dying off in summer – and that creates a problem right there, because where you have an over-abundance of capeweed, you end up with bare ground in summer – which is a terrible thing for the soil.

It’s basically a weed of cultivation, pastures, lawns and disturbed areas. Stock will eat it but don’t like it (and the woolly seeds can cause impaction), it can taint milk and where it’s the dominant feed, nitrate poisoning of stock is possible.

Sounds terrible doesn’t it?

A bee gathering pollen from capeweed flowers
A bee gathering pollen from capeweed flowers

But the problem is not the capeweed itself. It can actually play a useful role in covering bare soil and keeping it cool, attracting bees, and – when part of a rich biodiversity of plants – filling a niche in the ecosystem.

The problem is the soil – and even more importantly, the practices that have led to soil and diversity imbalances that result in this kind of destructive monoculture.

A carpet of capeweed is a stark visual reminder that whatever we’ve been doing to the soil is all wrong! It’s an indicator of acid soil, compaction and can be an indicator of waterlogging or salinity.

It’s telling us to sit up, take notice and change our practices immediately.

We need to get more organic matter into the soil, rebuild a wide diversity of plants, and particularly focus on including plants that will stay green throughout summer.

The work of eminent Australian soil scientist Dr Christine Jones (www.amazingcarbon.com) tells us that bare soil should be avoided at all costs as it heats up to at least 60C in summer, which causes it to rapidly lose moisture, kill soil microbes, and contribute to climate change!

So, that’s the long answer!

The short answer is that while a mooculture of capeweed (or any plant) has its drawbacks, it’s a fantastic indicator plant, a good bee attractor, and can be a very useful member of a healthy biodiverse garden or pasture.

7 Steps to a Simple Worm Farm

Hugh with hands full o'worms
Hugh with hands full o’worms
Photo: Biomi’ Photos

This week we’re talking about worm farms, and the huge capacity of worms to turn “waste” food into a rich source of nutrients for your fruit trees.

You may not appreciate just how awesome these tiny creatures are, but they are truly incredible waste-munching machines, and a worm farm is one of the simplest and most useful things you can add to your garden to rapidly increase soil fertility with absolutely no cost!

Do you have a worm farm? And if not, why not?

Ella with her brand new worm farm at one of our workshops
Ella with her brand new worm farm at one of our workshops

Lots of people think it’s complicated, messy or expensive to set one up, but it doesn’t have to be – there’s no need to buy a ready-made worm farm.

Or you might have tried to have a worm farm but ended up with a pile of sludge, or all the worms either died or mysteriously disappeared – all common problems, but simple to avoid when you know what worms like!

Here’s how to make a simple and inexpensive worm farm at home that will provide the right habitat to keep your worms happy.

  1. Get a suitable box – a simple polystyrene box with a lid will do, and you can probably get one from your local organic or fruit and veg shop, or possibly even the supermarket if you don’t have a greengrocer nearby. Put a drainage hole in the bottom if there isn’t one.
  2. Line the bottom of the box with a mix of shredded newspaper, aged manure or similar.
  3. Mix all together, and wet thoroughly – it should be about 10 cm deep in total.
  4. Add a handful of compost worms (note: don’t use earthworms, as they have different feeding habits and won’t be happy in a worm farm).
  5. Put the lid on the box (pierce a few air holes in it first), and keep your worm farm in a spot with an even temperature – not too hot or cold, and not in direct sun.
  6. Feed the worms regularly, but not too often (be guided by how quickly they are eating the food you’re giving them), and make sure they don’t dry out.
  7. Dampen them every few days if they seem too dry, and collect any excess liquid that drains out the hole in the bottom. This is worm juice, and is fantastic liquid fertiiser that you can dilute and use on your garden. Worms don’t naturally produce liquid, so you’ll only get this worm juice coming out of the worm farm if there’s an excess of liquid going in, but be careful not to add too much water (and make sure the drainage is adequate) or you can actually drown your worms. 
Worm food
Worm food

Download this short course for more detailed instructions for building your worm farm (including a video), learning about worms in your soil (and the difference between them and compost worms) and trouble-shooting any problems that might arise.

Enjoy the lovely “black gold” your worms produce – the finest compost/soil conditioner you’ll ever see!

Dear America (part 1)…

Like a distant uncle that sends weird postcards from afar, we’ve grown up with you in our lives but never really known you.

After travelling for 5 weeks, 12 states, and 4,000+ miles, we still barely know you at all, but at least have had the chance to make some first-hand observations.

There were so many things we found to love:

  • Amazing landscapes, beautiful deserts, incredible plants … we spent as much time as possible visiting national parks, floating on rivers, hiking, and camping, and ran out of superlatives to describe the stunning vistas.
Arches National Park in Utah
Arches National Park in Utah
  • Warm, kind and hospitable people. Apart from family and friends (who we already loved), we met many new friends who welcomed us into their homes with open arms, fed us, and went out of their way to help us get the most out of our trip.
Anne and Ralph showing us how to get around on the New York subway
Ann and Ralph showing us how to get around on the New York subway
  • Generous farmers who were willing to share their precious time with us to help us understand their growing conditions, pests, diseases, and production issues. Fruit trees grow in a wide range of climates
Enjoying a tour of Michael Phillips' (author of The Holistic Orchard) 
orchard in New Hampshire
Enjoying a tour of Michael Phillips’ (author of The Holistic Orchard)
orchard in New Hampshire
  • Nongendered toilets – the rest of the world take note – it’s this easy to resolve an issue that’s uncomfortable, awkward and even dangerous for a significant proportion of society (and if you think you don’t know anyone for whom this is an issue, you’re probably wrong).
Gender neutral toilets in New York
Gender-neutral toilets in New York
  • Fabulous farmers markets! We visited farmers markets in various parts of the country, and were generally impressed with the authenticity (good accreditation programs making sure that the stallholders are actual farmers and not re-sellers), and the range and quality of produce. On the downside, despite the greater number of farmers markets they’re still only providing a tiny proportion of food, and probably 95% of the food that most people are eating comes from large-scale factory farms, or in other words the type of farming that is contributing to climate change (as opposed to the small-scale farmers that sell through farmers markets and CSAs, who tend to use more regenerative farming practices that mitigate against climate change).
An organic vegetable stall at Union Square Farmers Market in Manhattan
An organic vegetable stall at Union Square Farmers Market in Manhattan
  • The amount of people that are interested in growing their own fruit. From enthusiastic home growers to small-scale organic and regenerative farmers, we met loads of people that are either interested in or already growing their own food. One of the things we were researching on the trip was whether the teaching work that we’ve been doing with our Australian members of the Grow Great Fruit program since 2013 has application in American conditions and for an American audience, and the answer was a resounding yes! It seems that people are just as interested in learning how to use organic principles to grow their own food, but finding it just as difficult as they do in Australia to find a reliable “system” to guide them.
Enthusiastic fruit growers on a field trip at the Maine Heritage Orchard
Enthusiastic fruit growers on a field trip at the Maine Heritage Orchard

There’s certainly a lot to enjoy about America, and we’re keen to visit again and see more of this vast country, but we also experienced some aspects of life there that dismayed – and even alarmed – us. But more of that in another blog…