Category Archives: Soil, the foundation of our Homestead

Cleaning up the Aftermath

Restoring pasture land following a pine forest harvest.

Our small block of pines was harvested over the winter, not ideal timing by any stretch of the imagination. But the combined factors of it only being a few hectares and a long way from anywhere meant our options were limited.

As homesteaders on approximately 6 hectares of land we have a close connection to our land, but the pine trees felt like interlopers. They should never have been part of this landscape, planted on some of the few gentle sloping areas in a steep rugged farming and bush valley. In our wet environment they were becoming hazards, with trees falling or breaking after every rain or wind event. As they were at harvest age, we decided it was better to remove them and repurpose the land for a more beneficial use.

Initially we were told the harvest would happen in late spring, but after many date changes it was not until the following winter that the harvesters arrived. The result of heavy machinery on sodden land in high rainfall country was massive track rutting which filled with water every time it rained. Branches and even whole logs were churned into the mud, often to provide footing for the machines. Numerous breakdowns and another lockdown delayed the job but by early September they were gone leaving us with the cleanup.

Mud, mud and more mud.

Unsure of how much, if anything, we would receive from the harvest and having seen the damage done to the land by the machines, David began the cleanup by hand, starting by clearing a small spring fed stream which ran across the paddock. The slash had choked the flow and the whole centre of the paddock was a sodden mess. Getting the stream flowing again allowed much of the area to dry out enough to work in it. He learnt fast that it was best to wear work gloves after getting several large splinters up under his finger nails on the first day of clearing. David then moved on to the area where the old man pines had been dropped the slash was deep on the ground, masses of pinecones spread through the debris made walking even more hazardous. We were offered the use of a tractor but it was still too wet to get the tractor in the paddock. The job was an exhausting and relentless one. Branch after branch had to be released from the tangled mass or pulled from the still wet ground. Where the harvester had sat and stripped piles of logs, the pine needles and small debris formed thick mats up to a metre deep, often with large branches or short logs buried in it. In these thick areas David built the fire stacks, better to burn it out then try to pull it apart.   In areas which had become boggy, logs were squashed into the earth to create ’platforms’ so the heavy machinery wouldn’t end up sinking belly deep in the mud. Seeing all this made the plan of growing pasture in the paddock seem a very distant dream.

David building ‘pires’ turns out flat stacking actually burns better than this method.

We had wanted to biochar as much wood as possible but the reality was to remove the large firewood and just burn anything else. Leaving the slash to break down was not an option as we are returning most of the land to pasture as it was pre pines. If you were planning on replanting in tree species this level of slash removal would not be necessary as they can be planted amongst the slash, but for our purposes it was to be cleared back to the soil. Draining the sitting water from the massive ruts and cleaning the small spring fed steam helped to get the water off the land and dry up many areas. But as the sun came out the earth dried into a solid almost concrete like mass with branches and logs sticking out. Piles of slash dotted one end of the paddock and days were spent burning the pyres and pulling more surrounding slash on top. Green piles were slow and difficult to burn, with whole days spent maintaining them. Dry piles burnt hot and fast but often tried to escape across the bark, needle and twig littered ground. Huge piles of firewood grew in the paddock, short logs and stumps cut into rings; large branches cut to more manageable lengths. It took about a week to mostly clear about ¼ of an acre and have it ready to reseed with pasture.  As each area was cleared seed was spread, the aim being to establish cover as fast as possible. Partially to avoid any soil loss and further damage in our high rainfall area and also because any grass which was in these paddocks was gone and our grazing was now severely limited.

Firewood stacks piling up.

Hand clearing several hectares of pine slash is a depressing job. A whole day of slogging, exhausting labour and you look up to still see a vast expanse of mess. It gives you a true appreciation of the toil of the first settlers in this landscape, as they cleared the land for their homes and farms. But there are times of enjoyment, a cuppa in the midst of it admiring the stunning rugged views now evident all around us, talking to a small robin as it flits around finding bugs in the freshly turned pine needle litter.  Listening to the river below and the quiet roar of waterfalls cascading into the ravine.  The valley feels less closed in now, we can see down it to the neighbours hut perched on their hilltop 2km away and back up to the DOC land past the neighbouring bee farm.

We have left the stumps in the ground as the work involved to remove them is huge. As we get the more pressing jobs sorted, like the rest of the slash cleared and pasture and fences in place, we will look a dealing with the stumps. We have a number of options and will trial a few to see what works best for us within our environment. Those in the way of any farm tracks will be dug out but the majority will be left to rot with various methods use to accelerate the process.

Pasture growing around the stumps

With about half the big paddock cleared and pasture sown, David moved to a smaller paddock for a bit of variety and a change of view. It was here that another forestry crew approached him about access across our land to avoid using a small bridge on our narrow gravel road. We had been wary about having more heavy machinery over our land as we had witnessed the impact they can have.  But the offer to clean up our final paddock and create access down the steep banks to our creek was a light at the end of the tunnel after months of hard labour. They brought in two diggers which had been creating tracks through the large forestry block opposite us. Two days later the paddock was raked with 3 mountainous piles of slash. But the majority of the paddock was now able to be sown and the next rainy day we spread a mixed pasture seed over the freshly cleared land. The creek was cleared of debris from our harvest and the steep banks replanted with natives. An old hand dug culvert cave was uncovered, hidden beneath the punga and mahoe. This is an amazing piece of history and more evidence of the hard work of the early settlers on this land. It is a cave dug through rock to divert the flow of the stream, about 20ms long. They would then full in the small ravine to push the water through the culvert and remove the need to build a bridge, how long this worked for I wouldn’t know as we now have a small bridge spanning the stream and the culvert is now home to hundreds of giant weta.

The hand dug culvert full of wetas.

We sowed the first grass seed in late September, the cold temperatures meant a long wait to for the seed to sprout but by late December the area was covered in better pasture than before the pine harvest. Where the piles were burnt the grass is lush and dark green, the potash having boosted its growth. In other areas the endemic lotus is in dominance, but its use as a rapid ground cover in the poorer condition areas is much appreciated. The weeds are there too, inkweed, betony, foxglove, thistles, blackberry and the ferns which thrived under the pines, but David walks the land with the weed whacker taking the tops off. With no fences in place the feral goats have been grazing the land too, which is helping keep the blackberry in check. Almost the entire roadside fence line had to be removed as the skid sites had to move due to the wet ground. We had seen the tangled mess of fence left if the forestry were to remove a fence so David had gone through in advance and rolled back the wire and battens. The posts and gate were removed too and stacked out of the way, saving and reusing as much as possible will save us hundreds if not thousands of dollars in the long run.

Levelling by hand.

The two main skid sites were left a mess of churned topsoil, clay, volcanic ash and pine debris. The massive metre deep ruts were full of manky water and in many places the old fence line was nonexistent. The use of a neighbours tractor for a day helped level out some areas but with bald tires it was a risky business in the slippery areas, so David abandoned that and much of the leveling was carried out with a shovel. I’m pretty sure the farmer who grazed the bee farm up the road must have thought we were crazy by now… but when it won’t stop raining and drizzling long enough to dry out, things just need to get done. We had some old crappy hay so tried spreading this over the grass seed on one of the skid sites once it was leveled and just sowed the other. The ground with the loose hay cover grew much better grass which could be attributed to the retaining of moisture within the mulch and the extra seed contained in the hay. But another area where we had been feeding out hay and silage prior to the harvest was also producing a better coverage and quality of pasture.

This area had previously been fed out on and grew the best pasture.

We believe that the use of the hay helps to change the ‘signals’ of the soil to the production of pasture species.  Seeds will sprout when the conditions are right and pasture species prefer a 50/50 Bacteria/Fungi ratio, whereas trees (in our case the pines) do well in a higher fungal soil. By adding in organic matter of which you are wanting to grow our theory is you adapt the soil to your needs. In areas where these methods weren’t used, we had a more sporadic pasture and a higher occurrence of weed species, especially the woody weeds as they would naturally occur in the higher fungal areas left by tree removal. Another interesting study that we came across was that pines do not actually create an acidic soil, though it is their preferred growing condition. The acidity in the landscape is actually the result of damp shady conditions which the close planting of a plantation in a wet environment creates. This is the same effect created by our native forests. So, the theory may be extrapolated that by removing the conditions which create acidity and by supporting the earth natural processes, nature will start the process to balance the PH to suit the existing plant species, in our case pasture…

Grass seed sprouting where the hay was fed out.

As I write this (December 2021) David has been working on the restoring the fence line on the large paddock. It has been three months since we sowed some of this area and its now grazable. While the paddock still requires a lot of work to finish the cleanup there is now much more and better-quality pasture than pre harvest. We are finally reaching a stage in this whole process where the weight of it is lifting. What have we learnt from clearing by hand? Be prepared for it to take many years if wishing to return the land completely to pasture, not because it takes that long to establish pasture but because of the shear amount of exhausting work involved. Once an area is clear pasture can be established in as little as three months. We recommend that clearing by hand is only undertaken if you have a small amount to clear (under a hectare) or a team of willing workers.

The machines made short work of clearing paddocks, but is it the best option for the land…

The pros and cons

Hand Clearing


Smaller piles to burn

Minimal soil disturbance

Builds lots of muscle, stamina and endurance.

Low cost


Very hard work

Slow and labour intensive

Wears through lots of work gloves

Very hard on your body, need to pace yourself.

Machine Clearing



Surface is left in a reasonable tilth to sow into.

Can have landscaping done at the same time, e.g. shaping for water run off etc.


Scary huge piles of slash

Churns soil in wet areas

Compaction – affects deeper layers

Cost – can cost $1000 plus per day per machine, plus transportation costs for getting machines to and from the site.

The final area still to be cleared at the top of the big paddock

July 2022 update

After a long hot dry summer and autumn David has been back in the large paddock clearing the slash. It has been too dry to burn anything and after a brushfire, which was possibly caused by wind blowing powerlines into an old man pine, we have been wary of fires in our remote area. But we are back into open fire season now, the dry being broken by nearly two weeks of rainy weather.

Progress has been much faster, even with David having to dig logs from the wet ground. The green needles are long gone and with them a lot of the weight he had to contend with when the slash was fresh. The soil has changed too, soon after the harvest it was a puggy sticky churned mess. But now it crumbles and the needles and smaller debris have broken down giving the soil a nice dark colour in many places. While there is still a lack of worm life evident, there is a large amount of fungi already working to break down the logs and stumps. This should mean there is a high fungal load in the soil and with the animals grazing the bacteria should be building too. Hopefully this will help balance the soil into a more suitable environment for growing pasture. That said the areas which are already established in pasture coped reasonably well with our prolonged dry summer. In the large paddock there is a high water table due to the springs which flow from the hill across the road, this has certainly helped maintain the pasture in this paddock. The paddock which the machines cleared has not fared so well, while it has a cover of chicory and plantain, the young grass did not survive the assault of the neighbours cattle and the lack of rain. This paddock is much drier as most of the hill runoff is diverted through a small gully along side the road. We will need to use pasture species which can handle a drier environment here. We also think that while the machinery left the surface in a decent tilth that the compaction layer is quite shallow and possibly the scraping action of the machines has actually worsened the compaction. The plants which have grown there this summer are all deep-rooted, mining or pioneer plants, chicory, plantain, inkweed, thistles, nightshade and seedling pines. Weed management has been an ongoing issue especially in this paddock. We are hoping as we develop the pastures and change the soil fungi/bacteria ratios that these weed species will disappear.

Feeding out on the bare spots

The area where we had fed out hay on last winter/spring are coping well under the grazing pressure. So, we are utilising the locally grown hay, which we feed out to the stock daily, on the newly cleared land. This should hopefully reseed the land with a mixture of locally adapted pasture plants. The animal’s ‘hoof’ the seed into the ground, giving it a better chance of actually germinating and developing a good root hold. The residue hay will help change the land balance towards pasture growth as it decomposes. If you were trying to regenerate pasture without animals, spreading old hay, silage or haylage should hopefully spread the mixed seed and compost matter to enable faster regrowth.

Soon after harvest August 2021
December 2021 the fence is back in place and grass growth is good around the cleared areas.
June 2022, most of this area of the paddock is cleared. grass growth has slowed right off over winter.

The Upcycled Wooden Worm Farm.

Vermicast is the black gold of gardening and farming. Worms have been processing waste and building soil forever, so it makes sense that what they produce is what’s best for the soil and plant life. Worms concentrate the nutrients from organic ‘waste’ into forms which are much more available to plants. Vermicast also increases the water and nutrient holding capacities of the soil, improves soil texture and helps protect against diseases.  But they need a varied diet in order to produce a rich vermicast suited to your needs. High in manure and it is more bacterial, high in woody waste and it is more fungal. While the higher bacterial may work well for your pastures the higher fungal is better for orchards.

Read more here The Benefits of Worms and Vermicast

The finished worm farm with high tech brick closures 😉

Many worm farms are geared towards the collection of ‘worm wee’ but we use a different method and collect vermicast only. This style of worm farm allows the worms access to the ground. Which means if environmental factors are not optimal for the worms they can retreat to the soil. This could be high temperatures, too dry, too wet or lack of food, it is essentially a survival system for the worms. As ‘worm wee’ is basically leachate from your worm farm (which could mean there is too much moisture in it) you are actually better of harvesting the worm castings (vermicast) and if a liquid fertiliser is required soaking this in water to create a vermicast extract.

Easy access to vermicast. (this lot is partially processed only, as its from the old worm farm)

There is also no plastic involved in the construction of our worm farm, in fact it is built almost entirely from upcycled or reclaimed resources. The timber is pallet wood, screws and hinges came from our local dump shop and the chain from the stash in the shed.  Being untreated timber, it does have a shorter life span, but this also means no contact with treated timber to the worms and vermicast. Previous bins have lasted well over two or more years, so considering it has cost us next to nothing that’s good value in my books.

Our first worm farm in this style 2018, was still in use when we moved two years later.

This model has a few improvements on the previous ones. A hinged lid with a chain for ease of use and larger access at the base for removal of vermicast.  The bracing must be on the outside so the organic matter can move easily down the bin as any ledges within the bin can create blockages which stop the organic matter dropping to the bottom.  It is also larger to allow for greater vermicast creation as we intend to use it as a full property fertiliser. The design is pretty straight forward and flexible depending on resources. This one is approximately 1 metre tall and 80 cm x 68 cm wide.

Building the long sides.
The shorter access sides have their braces off set for joining to the long sides.
Joining the sides together, the off set bracings are screwed together and then trimmed.
Extra bracing is added to the base for strength and footings
A hinged lid is added.
The chain stops the lid from going to far back.
The worm farm is put in place and the contents of the old worm farm are transferred in.
Organic ‘waste’ is put in the top and the worms process it into vermicast which is removed via the bottom access panels.

The Survival Garden

We’ve been thinking about the garden a lot of late, about how it works for us, what grows well here and what do we really want to utilise the space for. Seed saving, time saving and the best plants for optimum nutrition with minimum inputs are important factors. Looking at what and how much we actually eat from it has been interesting too. All of this is coming together in a rather major change of tactic within the main vegetable garden, but also spreading out into the orchard and berry gardens. Plus having finally built our large tunnel house this too will change the growing abilities of our garden. Life is often busy and with the vege garden now reaching about 200m2 of growing space it sometimes gets a bit overwhelming. How can we simplify the food production to work with our time and energy?

The vege garden plan

A few of our key observations this year have been that brassicas have been more hassle than they’re worth.  Between the white cabbage butterflies and the fact that they just don’t like growing here without a lot of pandering I just can’t be bothered with them. While our soil has improved dramatically there is still someway to go before it reaches a highly healthy alive state, so focusing on the plants which thrive here, or which will help enliven the soil makes more sense to us. The other issue I have with brassicas is the cross pollination which makes seed saving difficult. So, if we want to save true seeds, we can only have one variety flowering at a time. We like sauerkraut and fried cabbage so that means the humble cabbage leads the stakes there. Violet cauli would be a close second but I have accidentally fed our teen buggy brassicas too many times and now she won’t eat it. I’m not interested in constantly picking off caterpillars, having to buy BT (Bacillus thuringiensis a natural caterpillar killer) or having to use butterfly mesh cover the crops once they are big. We do use bird nets while crops are small, but once crops are big enough to handle the birds the nets or mesh just get in the way of weeding and harvesting etc. Cabbages tend to stay squatter and cover the ground better so nets could still work with these if necessary and once they have formed nice heads, they are less prone to caterpillars finding hiding places. One thing about brassicas though is that apparently their seed stays viable for several years so you could choose one variety to save seed from each year. You would have to not allow any other varieties to flower at the same time, therefore avoiding cross pollination. Though I’m not sure I’m that organised…


We are looking at other crops in the same way, pumpkins are notorious cross pollinators so choosing only one type from each species is necessary if we want to save true to type seed. This is fine for the Cucurbita maxima species as we are happy with just a Crown or a Triamble for our long keepers and then any Butternut for the C. moschata group it’s the C. pepo where we run into problems as this group contains courgettes, Kamokamo and the oilseed pumpkins, all of which have their place in our garden. To save true seed we need to either grow the plants a long way from each other (not really practical) or isolate flowers and hand pollenate. Other wise we will end up with mutant fruit, which could be fun or a complete waste of time and space. Still working on a plan for this issue…

Self-seeders tick a lot of boxes for us, they are self-proliferating, I don’t need to actively harvest, dry and store seed, they just appear enmass when the time is right. Because of this they are also acclimatised to our area and conditions so are less likely to suffer from pest issues. There is no garden prepping for them or planting to be done. This also leads into creating permanent growing spaces for these plants going against the crop rotation methodology and leaning more towards poly-cropping or mini ecosystems within the garden. An example would be a permanent salad bed where salad crops are allowed to set seed and apart from a bit of thinning if necessary, feeding when needed (like compost top ups or liquid feeds), removal of non-edibles and of course harvesting, the bed is left to cycle through the seasons. Miners lettuce, corn salad, and violas through the cooler months with heat loving crops like purslane, orach and magenta spreen emerging over the warmer months, but always with a base crop of lettuce and rocket and possibly some Asian greens (though these could mess with any brassica seed saving).

Miners lettuce self seeds readily.

Rocket is a great self seeder popping up all over the garden, we also have calendula, parsnips, cutting celery, leeks, perpetual spinach, violas, parsley, chives, garlic chives and other herbs. Of course there are the brassicas, Asian greens, turnip, mizuna, mustard, Bok choy and mutants from them too. There are also wild grown potatoes and the Jerusalem artichokes which spread themselves. If we allow these plants to seed into the surrounding garden bed, they establish themselves without interference from us. This could allow for better root establishment without the disturbance of transplanting, though thinning might be needed to allow plants to reach their full potential. However, this also allows for a chop/pull and drop mulch which feeds back into and protects the soil. If need be other plants can be planted into this mulch. The less time soil spends uncovered the better it is for the soil, utilising these self seeders as a cover crop prior to planting other crops would be a beneficial practice.  But just make sure you allow some healthy plants to complete their life cycle to allow for the next generation of plants.

Leek seed head

There are some concerns about certain plants (tomatoes, potatoes, brassicas etc) growing repeatedly in the same bed but if your soil is alive and healthy and you allow other plants to establish around them there is no real reason to practice crop rotation. Diversity and soil health and life are better issues to focus on than rotation of mono crops. However, specialty cover crops can be used in between edible crops if needed as they can have different purposes. For example, mustard is said to be a fumigant, cleaning up disease issues in the soil. Or legumes which are the nitrogen fixers and are great before a heavy feeder crop. Cover crops are a great way to keep your soil covered and healthy over the winter months, they bring in more diversity and if left to flower can provide a nectar source at a time when not much is available. They can still be part of a permanent crop bed if they are cut and laid for mulch prior to any seasonal crop emerging or around any existing crops before the cover crops get too big.

Laying down a mixed cover crop before pumpkins are planted.

The idea of utilising permanent crop beds brings us to Perennial food plants. Asparagus immediately comes to mind as a permanent crop but there are so many other Edible Perennial Plants which can be utilised in the vege garden. These are generally easy care and provide more than food in your garden. Having areas where the ground is hardly disturbed apart from an occasional weeding allows a safe place for the underground life. These soil and plant critters, bacteria and fungi are all part of the ecosystem of your garden.  Allowing them safe havens within the garden protect them from the constant tilling and bare soil which many vege gardeners seem to favour. The more life you have in your soil the healthier and more nutritious your plants will be. Sure, you can grow beautiful big plants with well-manicured beds, fed with artificial fertilisers and any issues controlled with chemicals. But wouldn’t you rather care for your soil, the life within and around it and not have to buy so many inputs? What happens if for some reason you can’t get those inputs anymore? Its these issues which lead us to soil health by sourcing and nutrient recycling as much from our own property as possible. If we are to create a survival garden it needs to be able to do just that itself, survive off its own systems and not be reliant on false nutrition to grow. If left to its own devices a landscape will grow and evolve, it will move through many stages with the processes of life and death within the soil and the plants, cycling the nutrients to support growth. By allowing your garden to experience its own cycles of sprouting, growth, producing, seeding, dying and decay it creates an ecosystem. When you remove food from the garden you return the waste as compost, vermicast or manure to keep it as part of the cycle.

We also need to consider the ‘weeds’ in the garden, not the dock and buttercup they just need annihilating! (Unless you’re planning on making dock seed flour) But the dandelions, chickweed, puha, land cress, fathen, stinging nettle, purslane, plantain… these volunteer plants are also nutrient packed and super easy to grow. We really need to step away from the concept that what you buy in the supermarket are what veges you eat and grow. There are so many more options to full your tummies and many of them will grow regardless of what you do. The reality is that if you just let your backyard naturalise you could probably harvest greens all year round. Sometimes I walk through our garden and think what is ready, but there are always greens there they were just not planted by me. We delight in the massively healthy dandelions growing in the middle of a bed, there were none when we first came here. Now I see them popping up in the lawn too and the paddock with their sunny flowers and fluffy wishes. Plantain is now everywhere, but it was missing from the pastures before. We now have it throughout the garden, though more often harvested for the rabbit’s dinner, but I know if I need it its there and not just for eating but medicine too. Puha is a thriving spring leafy green and the little cress plants and chickweed make a great salad crop and ground cover under the bigger plants.

Chicory, dandelion and plantain.

Mix low growing plants with taller plants, deep rooting with shallow rooting, climbers with sturdy support plants, highly scented plants to block pests from smelling which plants to attack.  Companion planting has long been used for plant health, improved pollination and pest repelling.  But I struggle to remember more than the basics, like tomatoes and basil together.  I need to utilise this more as by mixing crops which support each other, such as leeks with carrots to prevent pest issues, cropping is improved while lessening our workload. Mixed plantings which are supportive of each other, and which have their own succession make a lot of sense to me. Late summer and autumn can become a muddle of trying to balance the late producing crops with the need to plant crops for winter eating. If a plant is still producing late in the season, I am loath to remove it because the space is needed for the next lot of crops. But if it can be trimmed (tomatoes) or moved aside onto the path (courgettes) then other plants can establish around it. When it has finally finished it can become mulch for the garden or be cut off at the base for composting, there is no need to remove the roots, just let them break down in the soil.

Violas, puha and fungi in the blueberry garden.

The inclusion of more beneficial flowering plants in the garden also makes for a pretty workspace. These beneficial companion plants generally fit into the self-seeding category too and can be utilised as living ground covers to support soil health, aid pollination and for their own edible or medicinal uses. Around our blueberries we have a living ground cover of violas and strawberries (both ‘normal’ and alpine) while we do have to weed it occasionally the garden generally looks good with the green of the strawberry leaves and the bright splashes of purple and yellow violas. This bed is also prolific with its fungi which is all part of the biodiversity. We actively encourage fungi in the garden with regular top ups of wood mulch on the paths and around perennial plants. We have also inoculated an area of the garden with King Stropharia mycelium an edible decomposer mushroom. While we are still waiting for the fruiting bodies (mushrooms) to appear the mycelium has spread throughout the whole area in an impressive white network of hyphae.

Mycelium in the garden

These fungi networks are one of the reasons why less disturbance of the soil is better for its health. Healthy soil is a thriving mass of life, tiny critters, earthworms, bacteria and fungi all entwined in the roots of the plants, the earth and the mulch surrounding them. This is another reason why we are loath to garden in a conventional way of bare soil, digging over beds and using any insecticides, fungicides or chemical fertilisers which kill the underground life rather than nurture it.

The survival garden is not just about us having a constant source of food it is about our soil’s survival too…

Edible Perennial Plants

Perennials in the vege garden are nothing new, in fact many old gardens would have had easy care perennials and self sowers as the basis of their food supply. It is only the more modern times where we have stepped away from these foods and embraced the hybrid vege, the seeds of which no longer produce true to type. But there has been a shift back to the heritage crops, a renaissance of seed savers and the rise in popularity of food forests which has seen the perennial veges regain their place in gardens.

Cutting celery in the front, asparagus fronds and then fennel flowering in the rear, Perennial veges in the garden.

I thought when I began compiling this list for my ‘Survival Garden’ that I knew most of what was available in New Zealand. However, a read through Kahikatea Farm’s unusual vegetable pages soon showed me that there was much more. Jo from Kahikatea Farm has kindly given me permission to include her resources here. So, we have compiled a list of perennials, and some Biennials, many which can hold a permanent place in your garden. This means they also create a haven for the soil life, a place where no tilling takes place, like an anchor point in a quiet bay. Where the fungi can spread their fragile and beautiful mycelium. Where the underground critters can find a thriving colony of life and food.

Mycelium in the garden mulch.

The greater the balance of life you have in your soil the healthier and more nutritious your plants will be and the less work you need to do to have a ready supply of food. Perennials give you the opportunity to create ecosystems within your garden. They can provide shelter, support and mulch for your annuals or less hardy plants. Their established root systems pull the nutrients from deeper in the soil and the processes of growth and decay feed those nutrients back through the system in a bio available way, cycling the nutrients throughout the surrounding garden. Utilising chop and drop mulching for the more wayward growth keeps the surrounding soil covered further supporting the life beneath.

Above the soil the permanence of many of these plants provides a year-round habitat for many insects and wildlife. (Though in this regard I am still tossing up whether the Californian Quails are friend or foe in our garden. Hopefully they are helping control the slugs, but the flip side is they love to scratch in the mulch around the young plants.) But diversity should be encouraged and that includes insects and birds, all are part of a thriving ecosystem, it’s about achieving the right balance.

Bumble Bees on a Globe Artichoke flower

In our larger systems there are our livestock animals, they too benefit from our perennial plantings for fodder and forage. Many of these plants are suitable for feeding a range of creatures including ourselves. Some we grow as feed purely for the livestock, especially the pigs, the Jerusalem artichoke for example. It is a great summer shelter plant, bee plant and leaf fodder, then as it dies down the tubers become pig fodder and the stems are chopped and added to our autumn composts as carbon. The multi-use of so many of these plants is another reason to utilise them in your growing space. By utilising plants that are multipurpose we can add elements to our vege garden which go beyond just food and make maximum use of what space we have. The most common uses are food, fodder, bee plant, compost and mulch. But there are also those which are mineral accumulators, mining nutrients from deep in the soil, nitrogen fixers and some are medicinal. Many of our herbs can be included here too, rosemary, lavender, thyme, chives, oregano, French tarragon, marjoram, mint, lemon balm and so many more. There are some herbs included in the list below as they can be used more as veges rather than seasonings.

Jerusalem Artichokes flowering

These days most of these perennial edibles are unknown, apart from asparagus and rhubarb many will not be found at the green grocers or supermarket. It may take some adjustments for us to get used to cooking and eating many of them. Perhaps more of a move back to eating seasonally.  We love it when spring brings us the first shoots of asparagus and the fat tender globe artichokes covered in melting garlic butter. The fresh green tips of the NZ spinach are harvested as other veges are just popping their heads up. Summer is a chaotic mass of food, annual, perennial and self-sown proliferation. Then autumn brings an abundance of chokos for us and the pigs, plus yams and earth gems freshly bandicooted from their beds. But some, like the cutting celery pop up through the garden all year round. Add to these the ‘wild’ self-seeding greens and there will always be food in our garden no matter the season.

The Choko vine grows back each year.

The world of perennial veges opens a whole new lot of possibilities for your garden. I have tried to find as many New Zealand available perennial veges as I can. But if you know of some which I have missed please let me know so they can be included here.

The plants below highlighted in green link through to Kahikatea Farm’s information.

AlehoofGlechoma hederacea
AlexandersSmyrnium olusatrum

An ancient herb also known as Wild Celery, Black Lovage and Horse Parsley (horses love it). The entire plant can be eaten including the leaves, flowers, stems and roots with a taste somewhere between celery and parsley, though the older leaves and stems can be bitter and some people blanch (via deep mulching) to reduce this. Use the leaves and stems like you would celery and the seeds can apparently be used as a pepper substitute. The roots can be boiled and used in soups or grated in coleslaw or tossed in salads, roasted like parsnips or deep fried. All parts are also used to make syrups, wine and beer.

It is actually a biennial, producing leaves in the first year and then flowers and seed in the second, but is great at self-seeding throughout the garden so we will include it with the perennials. Alexanders can grow to 1.5 meters tall and are a lovely addition to your garden or food forest.

AlfalfaMedicago sativa
AquilegiaAquilegia vulgaris
ArugulaDiplotaxis tenuifolia
AsparagusAsparagus officinalis

Asparagus is a popular spring vegetable which produces thick green or purple spears (depending on variety) with sweet and succulent tips.  Asparagus prefers deep well drained soil with added sand or fine stones under crowns with annual side dressing of rich deep mulch. If starting from seed allow the first year “ferns” to grow on as these feed and help develop the roots, don’t cut them until they die back naturally in autumn. The crowns should stand a moderate cut the second year, but it is often best to leave harvesting to year 3. A well cared for asparagus bed can last for 15 or more years.

Bamboo – MosoPhyllostachys edulis

There are over 100 different edible bamboos from which the tender young shoots are harvested for eating. The Moso shoots are harvested in the spring when they are about 8cm above the ground, cutting them about 5cm below the soil level with a sharp spade. The dormant young shoots are also eaten and are harvested in the winter before they emerge above the ground. The hard outer skin is peeled to expose the core which must be cooked before eating. Often this is done by boiling, rinsing and boiling again till tender.

The Moso bamboo reaches an impressive 15m in height and up to 20cm diameter. It is also used as building material but has a spreading habit so needs to be well managed.

Bean Scarlet RunnerPhaseolus coccineus

This attractive scarlet flowering bean produces many large flat pods before it dies back in autumn. The root system will resprout again in spring putting on rapid growth in fertile soils. A sturdy climbing structure is needed to support the runner beans growth. They tend to slow production as they age so plants may need to be replaced every few years. While hardier than most beans the runner bean is frost tender and will rot in cold, wet soils.

Bean Asian Winged/Asparagus Pea Psophocarpus tetragonolobus/ Tetragonolobus purpureus
Bellflower – Campanula sp

Bellflower – CreepingCampanula rapunculoides

Bellflower – DalmationCampanula portenschlagiana

Bellflower – GreaterCampanula latifolia

Bellflower – KoreanCampanula takesimana

Bellflower – MilkyCampanula lactiflora

Bellflower – Nettle-leavedCampanula trachelium

Bellflower – Peach Leaved WhiteCampanula persicifolia

Burnet Saxifrage Pimpinella saxifrage
CardoonCynara cardunculus
Clover Frosty Feathers (White)Trifolium rubens ‘Frosty Feathers’
Clover Red FeathersTrifolium rubens ‘Red Feathers’
Cutting Celery / ParcelApium graveolens
Cutting Celery Red StemApium graveolens
ChicoryCichorium intybus

Upright perennial which grows year-round with broad leaves and bright blue edible flowers. The young leaves are used in salads, stir fries, fritters, pesto etc, they are bitter which is great for digestive health and full of vitamins. The root can be boiled or roasted like parsnips and is often roasted as a coffee substitute. The roots are also used in beer brewing as they are rich in the starch inulin which can easily be converted to alcohol. It is traditionally used medicinally in the treatment of jaundice, liver enlargement, gout and rheumatism, as well as to eliminate worms. Chicory is great fodder/forage for cows, deer, sheep, pigs, chooks and rabbits which find it highly palatable and nutritious.   It is a mineral accumulator which can be added to compost heaps to aide bacterial activity or used as chop and drop mulch.

Chinese ArtichokeStachy affinis
Chinese ToonToona sinensis (syn. Cedrella sinensis)
ChokoSechium edule

A rampant climber which produces avocado shaped fruit in autumn, which are a bit like a hard cucumber with no seeds. The vine is frost tender and will die down over winter only to come back with a vengeance the following year. Trimming is often needed to keep the vine in check as it can easily cover sheds and smother nearby plants. While better suited to warm climates, high night-time temperatures (20 to 30°c) will delay fruiting. The juicy growing vines are great fodder for pigs and chooks, I haven’t tried them for our other livestock yet.

Chokos can be peeled and chopped to use in stews, soup or as a stir fry vegetable. They can also be boiled, stuffed, mashed or pickled, with a very mild flavour it is best used with other flavourful foods or with a cheese sauce.  While you often see mature fruit available many prefer to eat the younger fruit at about 6 to 8 cm for best taste and texture.

CollardsBrassica oleracea
DandelionTaraxacum officinale

A very hardy perennial herb which is naturalised throughout NZ. The leaves and the tap root are harvested for eating and medicinal purposes. The young Dandelion leaves can be added to salads, green smoothies or as cooked greens, bitter flavour stimulates digestion, and they are a good source of minerals. The root is used for supporting liver function and stimulating digestive secretions, which helps with indigestion, poor appetite, constipation etc.

DahliaDahlia pinnata

Plant tubers of the Dahlia pinnata were eaten by the Aztecs and are still widely consumed in Mexico. Two other varieties are commonly classed as edible D. coccinea and D. varibilis, with a 1914 cultivar ‘Yellow Gem’ classed as a ‘choice’ edible. The plant is frost tender, but in most areas the tubers can remain in the ground over winter, resprouting in the spring. If you have hard frosts, you may want to lift the tubers and store until the frosts have passed. Tubers for eating are lifted in the autumn after the plant has died back.

The tubers can roasted, boiled or eaten raw, though it may be preferable to peel them first. A sweet syrup can be made from the tubers which is made into a beverage or used as a flavouring. Flower petals can be used in salads and the leaves are also said to be edible, but it is hard to find information on that.

DayliliesHemerocallis fulva

A hardy perennial, tolerant of most conditions, it is most often valued for its beautiful flowers which usually open only for one day. But in eastern countries the daylily is more often utilised for food and medicine. All parts of the plant can be eaten, the young leaves, flower buds, flowers and the rhizomes. The flowers are said to be high in protein and Vitamin A. Hemerocallis fulva is the common variety and preferable if you wish to consume it as with some of the cultivar’s edibility is uncertain. Do not confuse it with other species of lilies as many of those are toxic.

Eryngium Sea Holly Eryngium planum
Evening PrimroseOenothera lamarckiana

This biennial herb readily self-seeds which is great as all parts are edible. In the first season the young roots can be eaten raw or cooked like potatoes. The leaves can be used in salads or as cooked greens, while the young flowering stems are peeled and eaten raw, cooked or pickled.  The flowers are also edible and are often used in salads or desserts, while the seeds are a rich source of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA).

False Valerian ‘Pretty Betsy’ – Centranthus ruber var coccineus ‘Pretty Betsy’
Fennel/ Bronze Fennel/ Florence FennelFoeniculum vulgare /Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’

A very hardy, tall perennial herb with yellow flowers and feathery leaves.  A highly aromatic and flavourful herb with an anise flavour used in cooking. Florence fennel is a variety with a swollen, bulb-like stem base that is used as a vegetable. Fennel is a useful companion plant for attracting bees, hoverflies and ladybirds. The Fennel plant accumulates sulphur and potassium, it is great for a woody mulch or cut up and added to composts.  It is suited to most soil types and very drought tolerant. Fennel also has medicinal qualities, especially as a digestive aide and as part of a medicinal herbal ley for stock.

French Sorrel Silver LeafRumex scutatus ssp glaucus ‘Silver Leaf’
Globe ArtichokeCynara scolymus

The Globe Artichoke is a stunning perennial suitable for both the edible and ornamental garden. It’s large grey-green leaves add an architectural element to the garden and the large globe shaped buds open into attractive purple blooms, which are loved by the bees. Vigorous, prolific, and hardy, this perennial is also edible and medicinal. The globes are harvested at about fist size and before they open, but the stems and fleshy leaf parts can also be eaten. Medicinally the artichoke is thought to have the one of the highest antioxidant levels of all vegetables.

Artichokes are best grown in full sun in reasonably fertile and well-drained soil. They may flower in their first year but fully mature in their second year with the plants lasting 3 – 4 years before needing replacing. However, they can continue from side shoots and dividing every 2 –3 years will keep them producing. Cut back the stems in autumn and use in the compost or as mulch around the plants returning the nutrients to the plants. In cold areas mulching the plants well in late autumn can help protect plants from the cold winter weather. Globe artichokes can reach 1.8 m and have a spread of about 1 m so give them room to grow, planting about 60 cm+ apart in a group creates a stunning mass planting.  

Good King HenryChenopodium bonus-henricus
Greater BurnetSanguisorba officinalis
Horokaka / IceplantDisphyma australe
HorseradishArmoracia rusticana

A tall (1.5m) perennial root vegetable from the brassica family. Horseradish has long been cultivated for its spicy pungent root which is grated and mixed with vinegar to create a sauce. A reasonably hardy plant though like most brassicas it is prone to white cabbage butterfly attack. The roots are dug arfter the first frost knocks back the leaves. The main root is used to make horseradish sauce and the side shoots can be replanted for next years crop. If unharvested horseradish can spread by underground shoots and become invasive.

Hosta/Plantain lilyHosta sp.

These shade loving herbaceous perennials are usually grown for their attractive foliage, however the leaves, stems and flowers are edible as well. Most commonly the spring shoots are harvested before the leaves unfurl, these can be eaten raw, stir-fried or boiled. The opened leaves can also be eaten stir-fried or like you would spinach. As the leaves age they develop a more bitter taste. Flowers and stems are said to be rather bland but are still edible.

Italian BuglossAnchusa azurea
Kale ThousandheadBrassica oleracea var napus
Lady’s MantleAlchemilla mollis
Lemon SorrelRumex acetosa

LovageLevisticum officinale

Lovage is herbaceous perennial, dying back in winter then reappearing in spring. It prefers rich moist soil in either sun or part shade. The whole plant is edible with the celery-flavoured leaves used cooked in soups, sauces, stews, and casseroles. The fresh leaves go well chopped into salads, meat and fish dishes. In the garden it is considered to be a good companion plant to root crops like potatoes and swedes. Lovage was also a popular medicinal herb recognised for its use in stimulating for the digestive organs and as an inner cleanser for the body.

Malabar SpinachBasella alba and Basella alba ‘Rubra’
Mitsuba Japanese ParsleyCryptotaenia japonica
Perennial NettleUrtica dioica
NZ SpinachTetragonia expansa  –  Kōkihi

New Zealand Spinach is a reasonably hardy native trailing plant that covers the ground with long stems of soft fleshy foliage with a crystalline appearance. It is drought tolerant though the leaves can become bitter, and so is best to maintain soil moisture for succulent leaves and stem tips. Hard frosts will knock it back, but it will withstand light frosts. NZ spinach responds well to picking, if you pinch out the top 10 to 15 cm of a stem it will branch, and the plant will produce more leaves. Leaves contain oxalates and so should preferably be cooked or not eaten raw in large quantities though the tips are nice in salads. Steam, boil or stir fry the leaves, or add them to soups and stews.

Nine Star Perennial BroccoliBrassica oleracea
Oyster LeafMertensia maritima ssp. asiatica
Plantain Broad leaf and Purple BroadleafPlantago major and Plantago major ‘Rubrifolia’
Purslane -Pink/Siberian – Claytonia sibirica

A perennial relation of miner’s lettuce, with a similar self-seeding ground cover habit. It’s pretty pink flowers and succulent leaves are edible and it is said to have a slight beetroot flavour. Often used in salads or it can be lightly cooked, added to stirfrys etc. while it is usually evergreen the leaves may be small during the coldest part of winter.

ScorzoneraScorzonera hispanica

A herbaceous, perennial plant often grown as an annual for its edible roots. These long black, edible roots have good nutritional value and a mild but slightly sweet flavour. The roots contain inulin which can cause flatulence in some people. The washed, unpeeled roots are cooked by boiling for 5-10 minutes, then the black skin (which is not edible) is easily peeled off. The boiled roots are often served with a sauce or eaten with other veges like peas and carrots etc. The leaves, unopened flower buds and flower petals are often eaten in salads and the young flower stems are cooked like asparagus.

Sea KaleCrambe maritima

Sea kale is a mound forming and spreading perennial also known as sea-colewort and scurvy grass (The plant was pickled and eaten to prevent scurvy on long sea voyages)

The shoots, roots, leaves and flowers are all edible. The shoots are eaten much like asparagus though blanching/mounding is recommended to keep them tender, the younger leaves are used like spinach or kale.

A reasonably easy-care plant which does like a slightly alkaline soil and regular top ups of compost or mulch and well-rotted manure. While it is a salt tolerant coastal plant it also grows well away from the coast.

Sheep’s SorrelRumex acetosella
Solomons SealPolygonatum biflorum

A spreading woodland plant which grows from rhizomes Solomon’s seal has sweet young shoots in spring which can be cooked like asparagus. The rhizome is also said to be edible but needs to be boiled three times or sun-baked. The berries are unfortunately considered toxic, so caution is needed if including this plant in your edible garden.

SpoonwortCochlearia officinalis
Sweet CicelyMyrrhis odorata

A tall herbaceous perennial plant growing to about 2 m in height. The fern like feathery leaves smell strongly of aniseed when crushed. Its leaves are sometimes used as a herb or salad green, either raw or cooked, with a rather strong anise like taste. The roots can be eaten raw, boiled or roasted and the seeds also are edible. It has a traditional use as a medicinal herb.

RhubarbRheum rhabarbarum, Rheum x hybridum

This easy-care plant is grown for its red stems which are commonly used in desserts. Rhubarb likes moist, fertile free draining soil in full sun. It is a mineral accumulator, pulling up nutrient from deep in the soil. However, the leaves are toxic so save those for your compost or chop and drop mulch. Harvest the stems by gently pulling low on the stem and twisting away from the base.

Russian StonecropSedum kamtschaticum
Texsel Greens / Garlic Kale / Ethiopian CabbageBrassica carinata
Tutae Koau/Native CeleryApium prostratum
Walking Stick KaleBrassica oleracea var acephala
Water Celery ‘Flamingo’Oenanthe javanica
Water Spinach Bamboo LeafIpomoea aquatica
Violets – SweetViola odorata

Both the flowers and the leaves of the sweet violet are edible and are a beautiful addition to salads. But the fragrant violet flowers also can be candied or used to make tea, syrups, vinegars, jellies or in baking. The flowers have a sweet perfumy taste while the leaves are slightly tart. A clumping perennial the violet grows best in partly shaded areas and spreads readily making a lovely fragrant ground cover. The flowers appear in spring, though in warmer areas they will flower all winter.

Violet – LabradorViola riviniana Purpurea Group
Violet – AustralianViola hederacea
YomogiArtemsia princeps

Tubers and Root crops

Earth Chestnut Bunium bulbocastanum

Also known as Pignut, this is a hardy, easy-to-grow perennial vegetable in the carrot family, with pretty leaves and white flowers. Once cultivated widely in Eastern Europe but now not widely known, all parts are edible – the seeds can be used like cumin, the leaves can be used as a parsley substitute, and the clusters of tubers can be eaten raw or cooked and taste like chestnuts. Full sun or part shade in most soil types but prefers free draining with some humus. Height to 60cm when in flower, otherwise just an extremely low ground cover.

Earth GemUllucus tuberosus

A trailing ground vine from South America, which produces small roundish yellow and pink tubers. The tuber is the primary edible part, but the leaf is also used and is similar to spinach. They are known to contain high levels of protein, calcium, and carotene. Because of its high-water content, Earth Gems or Ulluco is not suitable for frying or baking, but it can be cooked in many other ways like the potato.

Jerusalem ArtichokeHelianthus tuberosus – SunChoke

An erect, rhizomatous herbaceous perennial herb, which grows up to about 3 m high. Mainly grown for its edible tuber for both people and livestock, the Jerusalem Artichoke is a high yielder with each tuber capable of producing 75 – 200 tubers a year in good soil. It also produces stalks and leaves which are highly palatable to livestock and should be fed or foraged prior to the small sunflower like flowers developing as the stems become woody. These stalks are often used as compost carbon, but the plant can deplete soils, so it is best grown with mineral accumulators or fed yearly. The stalks and leaves can be harvested for fodder throughout the growing season, but this drastically lowers the production of tubers. While the plants are hardy in most environments, they are considered frost tender, though the tubers will survive and grow back. Jerusalem Artichokes have also been used as a pioneer species on damaged ground.

SkirretSisum sisarum
YaconSmallanthus sonchifolius

Yacons produce the edible tubers and smaller reddish rhizomes, it’s the rhizomes which you need to grow the plant or a whole ‘crown’ which is the rhizomes attached to the plant base. As Yacon are frost tender wait till all frost have passed before planting or plant in a frost-free area. Otherwise, they are a very easy-care plant, reasonably well drained soil and plenty of compost and mulch should ensure a good crop. But give them a bit of room as they can get to 2m tall, 1 metre spacings are often recommended. Harvest by digging up the whole plant after frosts and when the plant dies down for maximum sweetness. You can set aside the rhizomes or crowns, which can be kept in a paper bag in a dark place or potted up in the greenhouse ready for replanting once the frosts have finished, though in warmer areas you can replant and cover mulch the crown over winter.

The edible tubers should be brushed off without damaging the skin, and air dried, before laying them in a cardboard box with newspaper between the layers and over the top. Store in a cool dark place for about 3 months, they can go wrinkly but are still edible.

Yacon can be roasted or boiled, used in stews and casseroles or in salads, juiced or used in smoothies. It has been said to treat it like a juicy, crunchy potato or a mild apple. The leaves are also apparently edible used like spinach or to wrap food and as a tea. Yacon is considered to be good stock fodder, both the leaves and the tubers, and the plant is thought to encourage healthy bacteria both in the soil and in the human gut.

Yams or OcaOxalis tuberosa

Yams are technically a perennial but due to their being frost tender are usually grown as annuals. But once you plant yams, being a member of the oxalis family, they will just keep coming back. Any small yams left in the ground will resprout as the soil warms again in spring. For this reason, yams are best planted in an area where you are happy for them to stay. This also makes them a reasonably easy care vege if they are in free draining soil.

The sweet colourful tubers are harvested in late autumn/winter usually after the tops die down and are delicious roasted in butter, but can also be boiled, steamed, stir fried etc

Yellow AsphodelAsphodeline lutea


Elephant GarlicAllium ampeloprasum vara ampeloprasum
Egyptian walking onionAllium proliferum

These onions produce little bulblets at the top of the flower stem which can be planted to provide the following years onions. They got the name ‘walking onion’ from the fact that if left the stem will collapse and the bulblets will root into the ground. This gives the appearance that the onions are ‘walking’ around the garden. In well drained, rich soil in full sun these onions produce and multiply very well hence the name proliferum. The onions can be harvested in late summer, and they will store well if kept in a cool dry place.

Garlic chivesAllium tuberosum
Multiplying Spring Onions/ChivesAllium schoenoprasum

This easy-care perennial from the onion family is more commonly known as chives but can however be treated as a multiplying spring onion. The whole plant including the flowers are edible, just harvest as you need it. Chives will produce most of the year but will die down over winter and return in spring. They are great self seeders but can also be propagated by division. Their mild onion flavour makes them a great addition to many dishes including salads.

Multiplying ShallotsAllium cepa

Shallots are a cool-season perennial but are usually grown as annuals over in summer. They multiply by dividing and forming several bulbs around the original bulb. If the ground is fed regularly and kept moist over spring and summer, they should provide a good crop. Harvest late summer and dry before storing in a cool dry place. Keep some bulbs for replanting in spring or if the ground allows leave some to naturalise in a permanent bed.

Multiplying LeeksAllium ameloprasum

‘Small leeks which will grow as thick as your thumb. They multiply into clumps which can be harvested for use and/or divided up and replanted. Plants die down in mid-summer and then pop back up in autumn with more stems. Plant in full sun and feed regularly with compost.’

Welsh Bunching OnionsAllium fistulosum

‘A perennial onion comprising a clump of small bulbs, each bearing long tubular leaves.  Plants grow approximately 75cm tall and onions are 1.5-2cm in diameter with a mild sweet taste.  Use like spring onions but harvest the leaves only to start with. Once your clump has formed up you can harvest from the base (bulb). Essential in Chinese and Japanese cooking, easy to grow and great for small gardens or pots.  Allow to flower in spring and then begin harvesting again. The flowers are attractive to bees. Good companion for apple trees – said to reduce the incidence of black spot (scab).’

Perennial Bunching Onion RedAllium fistulosum

‘A perennial red skinned onion comprising a clump of small bulbs, each bearing long tubular leaves.  Plants grow approximately 75cm tall and onions are 1.5-2cm in diameter with a mild sweet taste.  Use like spring onions but harvest leaves only to start with. Once your clump has formed up you can harvest from the base (bulb). Essential in Chinese and Japanese cooking, easy to grow and great for small gardens or pots. Allow to flower in spring and then begin harvesting again. The flowers are attractive to bees. Good companion for apple trees – said to reduce the incidence of black spot (scab).’

Fungi in the Garden

Two years ago, we moved to a new garden, it was winter and with the regular and sometimes torrential rain, the soil was sticky and boggy. The whole vegetable garden area needed reconfiguring as much of the runoff from the house paddock flowed straight into it and had no way to flow out again. The rest of the property was scattered with lovely large trees, many of which needed pruning to open up the pasture for better grazing, and there were a few hectares of pine trees. Having used our own homegrown tree mulch in the past we knew what a valuable resource all these trees were.

Mulching tree pruning’s

Work began with reshaping the vegetable gardens, using swales to guide the water flow around the gardens and away from the beds. The paths between the beds were dug out and the soil spread over the beds to raise them, these paths were then filled with woodchip, mulched from tree pruning’s to a depth of 100 to 200mm. All the larger perennial, shrub and fruit tree gardens also received a generous covering. Mulch is usually used to retain moisture during dryer months, but also as in our case, to allow excessive moisture to run away from mounded garden beds in high rainfall times.  It reduces the amount of weeds and any that do grow are easier to remove, this is thought to be due to succession (more on that later).

Fresh ramial mulch topping up the garden paths.

As we use mostly ramial mulch it also provides nutrients and helps change the characteristics of the soil to a less weed friendly environment. Ramial mulch is made from the fresh cut branches, up to 7cm in diameter and mulched while the cambium layer is still green. Often leaf matter or tree buds are included in the mulch adding even more nutrient for the soil. It is considered to have the optimal balance of carbon to nitrogen when used fresh, becoming higher in carbon as it ages. An issue with using aged wood chip is it can result in a ‘nitrogen deficit’ where the woodchip and soil meets, this can be negated by adding nitrogen to the soil in the form of blood and bone or aged manure at the time of applying the mulch or just by using ramial mulch.

Ramial mulch and straw in the vege garden

But wood mulch in and around your garden has another beneficial use, it creates a fungal-dominated soil. We saw this firsthand as our garden settled and found its rhythm, the wood mulch began to sprout. We had been experimenting with Korean Natural Farming methods (KNF), collecting indigenous microorganisms from old tree locations surrounding us. These were grown on to create fungal brews and added to the composts. We had spread fungi all over the garden and as any mushroom hunter knows the fungi bug is addictive. While we searched the wider landscape for fungi, beneath our feet our fungal networks were expanding.

Mycelium forming in the wood mulch.

Most people just think of fungi as the fruiting bodies (mushrooms) which we see above ground. But the main body of the fungi, called mycelium, is in fact below ground, spreading throughout the soil as a network of fibre like growth, called hyphae. These networks are very effective at extracting nutrients and water from the soil and mulch and making it more available to the surrounding plants. The beneficial fungi are great little workers within the natural environment, creating healthy soil biology, offering direct protection for the plants by producing anti pathogens and out-competing disease organisms.

Fairy inkcap, (coprinellus disseminatus)

There are two main types of beneficial fungi; Mycorrhizal and Saprophytic. Mycorrhizal fungi are the ones which form relationships with plants by either attaching themselves to the plant’s roots (Ectomycorrhiza) or by penetrating the roots cell structure (Endomycorrhiza). Their relationship is mutually beneficial, the fungi network, or mycelium, spreads its strands into the surrounding soil and extracts the nutrients, minerals and water from a larger area which it then releases to the plant. The plant in turn gathers carbohydrates, energy and fatty acids through its photosynthesis process and feeds these back to the fungi. This symbiotic relationship connects the fungi to other surrounding plants as well, creating a (chemical) communication network which can cover large areas. In fact, the largest known living organism in the world is the mycelia of the parasitic Honey Fungus in the Blue Mountains of Oregon, USA, it covers an area of over nine sq. km.

Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria,

Mycorrhizal fungi will often produce fruiting bodies near the roots of their chosen plant companion, as the underground mycelium can be very fine this may be the only way you will know they are there without the use of a microscope. However, the mycorrhizal fungi which fruit above ground are generally associated with trees (ectomycorrhizae).  The Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria, (the classic fairy tale toadstool) is a well recognised ectomycorrhizal fungi which is often found in pine plantations, but it also forms relationships with other trees such as oak, spruce, fir, birch, and cedar. Another well-known and edible species is the Birch Bolete, Leccinum scabrum, which is found under birch trees. But within the vegetable garden you are more likely to have Arbuscular Mycorrhizal (AM) fungi which is in the Endomycorrhiza group, these do not produce above ground mushrooms and do their work invisibly. Studied through a microscope, soil scientists are still learning about their amazing possibilities. AM are the most common symbiotic fungi/plant relationship, and it is thought that 80% of all land plant families have an AM relationship.

Common inkcap, Coprinellus sp.

The majority of mushrooms we see in our gardens are Saprophytic, the decomposers, and they are the most common type of all fungi, this group includes the common field mushroom Agaricus campestris. Living on dead organic matter, they break down materials like chitin, cellulose and lignin, which are difficult for plants to digest. Their action of breaking down woody matter, leaf matter, manure, dead insects and bugs, creates humus and mineralised nutrients which can be utilised by plants. The soft bodied delicate fungi are usually the first to show up in your mulched areas, species like the common inkcaps, Coprinellus sp. They will digest the more readily available nutrients making them more bio available to the plants. In our garden we have experienced flush after flush of these short-lived mushrooms, the delicate heads pushing up through the mulch, opening like flowers and then dissolving into the black goo which gives them their name. Another tiny relation the fairy inkcap, (coprinellus disseminatus) form little clusters along the edges of the garden beds causing us to step around to avoid damaging their fragile beauty. Then as the mulch ages, larger, chunkier mushrooms begin to appear which are capable of accessing and digesting the nutrients within the cellular structure of the wood as they have a more vigorous mycelium and powerful enzyme excretions. These species often include the very common and brick red Leratiomyces ceres, also known a Chip Cherries (a rather fitting name). Bright and cheerful as they look spreading out over the mulch, don’t let the name fool you they are not considered edible.

Chip Cherries (Leratiomyces ceres)

Another interesting fungi which is common on woodchip mulch is Cyathus striatus, Fluted Bird’s Nest or Splash Cups, thus named due to their little nest like cups with a few peridioles (capsules of spores) in each which look like little eggs. These curious little fungi are so camouflaged by their colours and size they are easy to miss unless you are weeding or fungi hunting. It is the mycelium of these Saprophytic fungi that is most obvious under your mulch or in your composts, forming quite thick white clusters of hyphae. Pull the mulch back, move a board or brick and we see clumps of hyphae, a vivid white against the dark browns of decomposing wood, as the mycelium spreads throughout our garden.

Fluted Bird’s Nest or Splash Cups (Cyathus striatus)

The last group of fungi is the second largest and yet probably the most studied from a garden or horticultural perspective, Pathogens. These can be present as rust, root rot, brown rot, blasts and smuts etc. While many resources are directed towards the fighting of these fungi, the fact is that fungi are the cleanup crew. If they are attacking your plants something must be out of balance, if we work on strengthening our soil and therefore plant health, our plants will have better resistance to fungal pathogens.

It is this cleanup function of fungi which has made them a useful tool in the battle against man-made pollutants. Myco-remediation is the term used for the process of using fungi to transform environmental toxins such as heavy metals, petroleum, herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and many more. Their digestive enzymes can degrade these substances into generally harmless compounds, though in some cases these compounds can accumulate in the fungi. The shaggy ink cap (Coprinus comatus) is a common edible mushroom which can remove mercury from the ground but as it accumulates the mercury in its body, it can become toxic. So, it would pay not to eat fungi from known contaminated sites. The good news is even plastic can apparently be broken down by something as simple as the common oyster mushroom.

Tawaka (Cyclocybe parasitica)

But there is another great side to these amazing fungi, the edible one. There are a number of popular edible mushrooms which are able to be introduced to your garden, most are grown on logs such as Oyster, Shiitake and Tawaka. But the most impressive of these edible garden fungi and which can be grown in your wood mulch, is the King Stropharia or Wine Cap (Stropharia rugosa-annulata) capable of growing to an amazing 30cm in height and diameter. It also is a very strong decomposer with a dense mycelial mat, breaking down the wood mulch into nutrients for your plants and into beautiful soil, plus it is apparently capable of gray water filtration. Spawn for the King Stropharia can be brought online and is mixed into a bed of thick wood mulch in your garden. With adequate moisture and mulch, it should begin fruiting within couple of months to a years’ time and continue to provide you with plenty of mushrooms for many years.

Often in our ‘conventional’ gardening and farming practices the beneficial fungi and other microbial life struggles. The use of frequent soil tilling, fungicides, pesticides, herbicides and frequent fertiliser application (especially soluble salt fertilisers) and even overgrazing, destroys the fragile fungal networks and their relationships with plants. Walk through old bush lands and you will see just how diverse and amazing these fungal networks can be. But these forests are highly fungal, which is not what we want in our food gardens and orchards, this is where the word succession comes in.

Ecological Succession Diagram

Succession is where one ecosystem is replaced by another as the soil and environmental conditions change and plants respond to these changes. Soil scientists studying the microbial world say bare rocky soil is at the highly bacterial end of the ecological succession, it moves on to scrambling annuals then to deeper rooted annuals and annual grass species, the fungi increasing slowly through each stage. The perennial herbaceous plants and grasses are just before the 1:1 B:F ratio (Beneficial Bacteria to Beneficial Fungi ratio) where vegetables usually thrive. The succession moves on to woody perennials, shrubs and vines between approximatly 1:2 to 1:5 B:F, with orchards said to do best at about 1:10. Deciduous trees range from 1:5 to 1:100 B:F with the evergreen and old growth forests being very highly fungal at 1:100 to 1:1000 B:F. By looking at what is currently thriving in your garden you can work out roughly where your ratio is at and changes you might need to make. But we also need to limit the practices that do harm and increase our use of mulches, diverse plantings and take the steps needed to start bringing our land back into balance. There is a whole new world to explore beneath our feet and bringing back the fungi is just a starting point into the soil health journey.

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