It’s not just weeds that are growing on the Rock Farm

There is no doubt that this is one of the best spring season’s this district has seen in recent memory. Our cattle are in remarkable condition, with the calves growing quickly.

With so much condition on the cows, they have already started cycling. We decided to go with nature and bring forward our leased bull. Ferdinand, as he has been named by the family took a little encouragement to get off the truck, but once he made it down the ramp, he was welcomed quickly into the herd. A magnificent Charolais Cross, his sire was a top performing bull in the United States, especially bred using artificial insemination by our mentor, John. We are extremely fortunate to be able to use some of the world’s best bloodlines in our humble herd.

With the cattle doing extremely well, and requiring little more than a daily water check, I have had time to turn my attention back to more domestic matters. The garden has exploded, and I have been spending quite a bit of time either pruning excess growth or removing branches and trees that died in the drought and haven’t recovered. Unfortunately Jo and I have slightly different objectives with our pruning. I want the area under the trees clear of obstructions so I can mow easily up to the trunk with our mower. Jo would rather I leave the branches down to the ground to make a wind break.

The best thing about a little battery powered chain saw is that you can do a whole heap of pruning before you get caught… It is also the worst thing. I think the shock of seeing the truck laden with clippings caused a moment, but once Jo realised how neater the trees looked I was almost forgiven… almost. The clippings, along with some weeds from garden beds, have been used to make swales in the bottom of the garden to better capture water in the previously dry area.

All Jo’s work in the vegetable garden is starting to really pay off. We have harvested our crop of garlic, and the snow peas and green salad leaves are in fantastic condition. We even enjoyed some broccoli before it shot to seed.

I admit I was skeptical about using the old roofing iron to make vegetable beds, but Jo did a great job. The garden looks really impressive, and is a pleasure to work in. There is also something completely wonderful about the taste you get with fresh vegetables and salad leaves picked straight from the garden. I once heard it described that you can taste the sunshine – and I think it is true!

But it is not just the vegetable garden that is putting food on our plate. We are finding magnificent field mushrooms in the paddock. Each mushroom could be a meal in itself, and we have dried some of our excess mushrooms to use in the future.

Other things are growing too. I have planted fifty willow cuttings along the leading (and eroding) edge of our dam. It seems most of them have taken and are sprouting green leaves. This is a great result. Some people have queried why I have planted willows along the dam, fearing they use a lot of water. My counter is that they only use water for half the year when they have leaves on them. They will \stabilise the bank, which is their primary purpose. They will give shade when they are bigger, and also provide an emergency stock feed in drought. Being on a dam, they will not enter the catchment either. I hope they continue to grow through the summer and add to the trees on the Rock Farm.

But really the most magnificent change has been the grass. From a paddock that was bare six months ago, there is now chest high grass. You could have seen an ant walk across this paddock at Christmas time (if you could have seen through the smoke haze)….

Last week the kids played hide and seek in this paddock.. All you had to do was run like crazy when the other one was counting and then flatten yourself. With the grass swaying in the breeze, it was really hard to even know where to start looking It was hilarious fun.

It is incredible to see photos of what we went through in the last few years. This is what the same area looked like in January. It is truly amazing what happens when you just add water, lots of water ūüôā

Tree Strategy at The Rock Farm

Trees are an essential part of any healthy ecosystem, but in Australia a robust debate rages about whether to plant native or introduced species.  With the assistance of Greening Australia, we planted thousands of trees at the original Rock Farm (see here).  Our new property has a good mix of native and introduced deciduous trees, which provide an interesting comparison.

Whilst there is no question that some introduced species have become real problems, this doesn’t mean all introduced species are pests.¬† Far from it.

The indigenous people of our area used fire to create grasslands and woodlands that attracted game.  The landscape was managed, but the use of fire had created changes in the nature and types of trees that were abundant.   The native deciduous trees died out, replaced by fire tolerant eucalyptus.  Today it is only in Tasmania that the only native winter Deciduous Beech (Nothofagus gunnii) remains.

These woodlands provided tall straight trees such as the Red Box (eucalyptus polyanthemos) and Yellow Box (eucalyptus melliodora).  These trees were highly valued by the early European settlers for their timber and the land was soon cleared, leaving small stands of less desirable timber such as Brittle Gum (eucalyptus mannifera) or Red Stringy Bark (eucalyptus macrorhuncha).

Our property was probably cleared not long after the first European settlers came through in the 1830’s.¬† We have an old stone ruin that is well over 100 years old, and around it are some equally old English Elms (ulmus procera) and some fruit trees.

What is remarkable is looking at the ground around these Elms and comparing it to the open paddocks.

Within the leaf litter of the Elms trees, we see lush, green growing grass.  As we move away from the trees, the soil dries out and the grass is dry and stunted.  Lush grass like this is extremely unusual in our area this autumn which has been extremely dry.

This experience isn’t just our own.¬† It is explained in an excellent book¬†Broadscale Permaculture: The Mill Post Experience by David Watson.¬† David explains that there is merit in planting both native species and introduced species.¬† David’s property isn’t too far from the Rock Farm, and we found his book an inspirational study into how to employ permaculture principles on a larger scale.

Deciduous trees provide the following advantages over native eucalyptus:

  • They help reduce the fire risk to a property
  • They bring nutrients to the surface and make them accessible to the soil microbes
  • They provide shade reducing evaporation
  • They are delightfully cool to sit and work under on a hot day

The photos above show the green grass under the leaf fall of the Elm trees.  They also show the double fenced tree lines between paddocks.  We are extremely fortunate that the previous owners invested a lot of time and effort in establishing healthy wind-breaks of native and introduced deciduous trees along many of the fence-lines.  This is an excellent foundation on which to build on.

The trees have now grown to form wonderful shelter breaks – as seen in this google-earth view below.

Elms Trees

The only problem with the English Elm is that it produces suckers that can form impossibly dense thickets (mid right of google earth image above).¬† Stock will keep the suckers in check, whilst they are little, but¬† they can get out of hand.¬† A better tree would be the Scotch Elm (ulmus glabra) which doesn’t grow from suckers.

We are fortunate that many trees on the Rock Farm are natives.  These can be seen by the darker green colours in the lines of trees above.  The native trees provide food and shelter for many native animals, and fill important roles in our environment.  With many dozens of eastern rosellas living on the Rock Farm, I am confident we are providing a good balance of native trees for habitat for these beautiful birds.  I also find natives such as wattles are particularly good at stabilising degraded or damaged soil, and I am actively encouraging their growth in gullies and other areas with bare soil.

The hard part is getting young trees established, and in my next post I will share some of the tree planting techniques we are trialing.

More information on David Watson’s experience can be found here:¬†

Planting Kurrajong By Seed

One of our favourite trees is the Kurrajong (Brachychiton Populneus).  It is a small to medium size tree that is related to the Queensland Bottle Tree (B. Rupestris).  It grows naturally from north eastern Victoria to North Queensland.  It likes well drained soil, particularly around granite outcrops.

It is a fantastic tree for small farms like ours.  It provides dense shade and also drought fodder.  They are deep rooting trees and support honey production.

We recently planted some seedlings, which are growing well.  I also spied some seeds on a neighbour’s tree, so decided to see if I could propagate them ourselves.

The Australian National Botanical Gardens website provided me with enough encouragement to give it a go.  Their website provides a wealth of information and can be found here:

The first step was to soak the seeds overnight in warm water.

I then cut the ends out of some old tins.  These will be placed around the seeds, in an attempt to stop rabbits and kangaroos from chewing the young plants should they emerge.

I then selected the site for the new trees.  I chose to plant the trees along a former rip-line.  When you look at the photo below, it is obvious that the rip lines hold more moisture than the surrounding soil.  This will also help the trees get their roots established through the shale rock.

It took a few minutes to scrape away some grass, and loosen up the soil.  I placed the old tins over the seeds where I hope they will keep the new plants protected initially.

It was a glorious morning, and before too long I had my line of Kurrajong all planted.  The supervisor also enjoyed his morning watching me work.

The only problem with my chosen site is that the trees will eventually grow and block one of our favourite views to the east.  Of course that is, if they grow.  As if that would ever happen on the Rock Farm!  Here’s hoping!

Update on tree planting – Three months in

Three months have passed since we were fortunate to have Greening Australia plant our bottom paddock with seed for thousands of trees.  I thought we would take a wander around our paddock and check out the progress.

The planting was a relatively simple process (see here:  After preparing the site, seed was directly planted into small furrows, planted along contours.  We then herded the sheep out of the paddock and closed the gate.

This summer has been hot Рat times extremely so, but we have managed to get the odd storm or two.  A couple of weeks ago we also enjoyed one day of steady rain that filled our rain gauge a wonderful 24mm.

Whilst initial glances over the paddock don’t show much progress, a close up inspection reveals plenty of young wattles and eucalyptus starting to strike.

The kids enjoyed checking out the plants – and so did Kruz – the most wonderful new addition to our family – but I’ll write more about him later.

I’m no expert on identifying the seedlings, but the seed planted had a good mix of Blakey’s Red Gum (eucalyptus blakelyi), Red Box (eucalyptus polyanthemos) and Yellow Box (eucalyptus melliodora).

It also had plenty of wattle seed too, such as Silver Wattle (acacia dealbata).

The tree I have been really looking forward to finding is the Drooping Sheaoak (Allocasuarina Verticillata). ¬†This tree is habitat and food for the Glossy Black Cockatoo. ¬†I found another young tree in our top paddock, bringing the total number on our place to 6, but sadly haven’t found any seedlings in our furrows yet.

That said, the trees seem to be going well. ¬†The weeds are also starting to compete, and I know that I will eventually have to slash between the rows of trees to give them a fighting chance… ¬†best I get me a tractor!

Helping birds with nesting boxes

Whilst the Rock Farm is blessed with many hundreds of trees, only a handful of our trees are large old trees, with all important nesting hollows for our native birds.  Hollow logs and branches take literally hundreds of years to form Рand are prized by native birds for nesting.  With our young areas of re-growth promising excellent habitat in the future,  we thought we would lend our birds a helping hand.

One way to assist native birds, even in an area with as many trees as ours, is to build nesting boxes.  They replicate the hollows that take so long to form.  There is a wealth of information online, with plans freely available.  There is also a significant amount of science involved too, with the size of the box, the entry diameter and other features critical for many species.

We armed with this excellent publication from the Local Land Services (available online here:  With our heads full of plans and ideas it was time to get building.

The boys had a look around the Rock Farm Resource Centre ¬†– also known as Dad’s Shed, and we found some old flooring that was looking for a new purpose.


This was to be the boy’s own project. ¬†In the interests of expediency (I was looking forward to an afternoon nap) I might have cheated and run the timber through the bench saw to cut it, but I was working to their design. ¬†The old adage of¬†measure twice and cut once was in force… but soon there was so much pencil lines on the boards it was hard to tell which ones to cut!


The boy’s initial thoughts were that this would be easy… but like all good plans, they soon realised that assembling the boxes would take a little effort. ¬†I told them they couldn’t use glue – so it was hammer and nails only. ¬†The Little Helper found his soft oregon boards were easy to work, but the Little Fisherman regretted his selection of thick hardwood boards. ¬†He ended up pre-drilling his holes, and only broke one drill bit in the process.


To their credit, I only was used to hold things together a couple of times.  The bench saw made small adjustments easy and before long we had a couple of neat little boxes ready to hang in the trees.

The best way to secure the boxes to the trees is via two bugle headed screws.  This causes far less damage to the tree than tying wire around the branch.  We mounted the boxes in a Scribbly Gum (Eucalyptus Haemastoma).  We are just now waiting for our first guests to move in!

It was a wonderful way to spend a morning with my gorgeous boys.  They learnt a few new skills, and as a bonus, we get to help a few little birds get a head start.

The best portable chook tractor

I’m the first to admit that chickens are not my thing, but the quality of eggs you get from happy chooks has to be tasted to be believed.¬†¬†With a well fenced orchard doubling as a chicken run, keeping chooks at The Rock Farm was a simple decision.

Aiding our decision to keep chickens was a couple of young entrepreneurs who offered to look after the chooks.¬† In exchange they would sell us the eggs. ¬†It seemed a good deal – although I haven’t had the heart to break their business model by charging them for the chook food!

How to make a lightweight chook tractor

Over the past couple of years, our herd of chickens had grown to over 12 chooks and 4 ducks.  But all was not well in the chook world.  Slowly our egg production had dwindled to nothing.  We had also lost a couple of chooks and a duck in interesting circumstances (they were drowned in their pond).  With a randy drake the most likely suspect,  we needed to do a bit of housekeeping.

A new lightweight chook tractor was decided as the best means to separate our chooks, and provide all the benefits of portable weed control and fertiliser application.   Importantly Jo found a wonderful design that looked like it might work for us.  And it did!

The basic design uses electrical conduit cut into lengths and looped to form a lightweight self-supporting structure.  The joints are cable-tied Рalthough the base requires holes to be drilled into the conduit to hold the joints together.

How to make a lightweight chook tractor

After laying out all the pieces, measuring the required lengths, and even going so far as to mark the ends in colour coded markers, my virgo wife had the main structure completed in little more than half an hour.

How to make a lightweight chook tractor

It was then time to fit some chicken wire to the structure.  Jo used wire around the base and bird netting over the top.  An old bread crate makes a roost, and a plastic tub a nesting box.  The only real complication was in getting the door to work, but Jo accomplished this with no fuss.

How to make a lightweight chook tractor

The tarpaulin isn’t fixed to the tractor – otherwise it would become a kite. ¬†It provides the bulk of the shelter for the chooks.

How to make a lightweight chook tractor

The final part of the exercise was to separate the ducks from the chooks.¬† During this amusing exercise, we realised that we had not one, but three roosters masquerading as chooks.¬† Now, even I know enough to realise that roosters don’t provide much in the way of eggs.¬† We eventually separated the chooks, the ducks and the roosters into their respective homes.

How to make a lightweight chook tractor

With so many roosters, no one was going to be happy, so one was euthanized.   His carcase was buried under the roots of a newly planted fruit tree, where we hope that he will provide a great start to the young tree.

On the plus side, the girls are much happier in their new accommodation.  I just hope that as we emerge from the depths of winter that the hens resume laying.  I am looking forward to enjoying farm fresh eggs once again.

How to build Wicking Garden Beds – Part 2

In my previous post, we constructed the base of some self watering wicking garden beds (you can read all about it here).  We made our wicking beds out of old railway sleepers, recycled corrugated iron and other timber we had lying around.  You can make wicking beds out of anything suitable for holding the weight of the gravel and water you plan on putting in them.

The next step is to line the beds with some cardboard or old carpet underlay to protect the water proofing plastic liner.

How to build a wicking garden bed

Cardboard can be used to line wicking beds

If you have some old carpet underlay, you can use it to line the beds.  Most underlay provides a good base that is resistant to rotting quickly.  It doesn’t have to be pretty – just cover the base.

How to build a wicking garden bed

Old carpet underlay is ideal for lining wicking beds

The next step is to line the base with a waterproof membrane.  We initially priced pond plastic, but it is incredibly expensive.  A suitable alternative is builder’s plastic.  We bought a large roll, which we doubled over to give two layers.  The tape holds the plastic in place while we fill it.

How to build a wicking bed

Builders plastic is held in place temporarily with masking tape

Now comes the fun part.  Time to fill the beds with gravel.  We constructed a ramp to make it easier to run the wheelbarrow up and tip gravel into the beds.  This is done in stages.  Firstly a 100mm layer of gravel is put into the base of the beds.  We used 20mm recycled concrete for our gravel bed, mainly because it was extremely cheap.

A temporary ramp for the wheelbarrow helps when filling the beds

After you have a 100mm gravel base, it is time to put in the irrigation pipe.  We used standard 50mm PVC pipe and brackets for the filler tube  or riser.  To distribute the water quickly and evenly through the bed, some 50mm Agricultural Pipe (ag pipe or drainage pipe) was curled around the bed.  The PVC fittings were glued, using PVC glue, however the ag pipe was simply taped to the PVC pipe using cloth tape.

How to build a wicking bed

The Ag Pipe is laid on a 100mm bed of gravel.

Once the filler pipe and ag pipe is in position, the hard work begins.  If you’re able to hire a strapping young lad for this part of the process, then that makes life a lot easier.  We enlisted the help of a friend’s 15 year old and in a few hours of intense labour, managed to fill three of the new beds with gravel to the required depth.

How to build a wicking garden bed

Filling wicking beds with gravel is easy if you have a helper

With the gravel filled to the required depth, it is a good idea to check for level.  You can do this with a fancy sirit level, or by filling the beds with water.

The next step is to put a drain in the beds.  We used a 12mm irrigation pipe, protected by a 19mm pipe.  Some old pantyhose over the end stops mosquitoes from breeding in the beds.

The half inch irrigation pipe is protected by the 1 inch pressure pipe offcut

The drain is hard to spot, and the pantyhose mesh stops mosquitos from entering the beds

Once you have the drain installed it is time to put some weed mat or shade cloth over the gravel.  This helps keep the soil on the top from disappearing into the gravel.  It also allows the moisture to wick into the soil.

Finally it is now time to fill the top third of the beds with soil.  Again it is handy to hire a strapping young assistant for this process, but if you don’t have one to hand, I’d suggest gently asking the person who desired the beds to be built to lend a hand..

How to build a wicking bed

Do not offer advice during this phase of the construction – or you might find yourself wearing some of the wonderful compost!

We were fortunate to source some of the most expensive compost in the world for our garden beds. You buy good quality horse food, and process it through the said horse. Then you mix it with fine quality straw, that is used for a short period as a soft bed, before the horse wees and tramples it into the mud. This product is then turned and mushed for a few days before you rake it and apply it to your garden beds.

How to build a wicking garden bed

Alternating layers of soil and compost helps build organic matter in the wicking beds

And you’re done.  If you’re like us, it will be just in time for winter – a particularly difficult time to grow anything on the Rock Farm.  I guess it doesn’t matter when you finish your project… it is just important that one day you do finish… even if it is 18 months after you started!!!

Good luck and happy vegetable growing ūüôā

How to build Wicking Garden Beds – Part 1

If you think lush green vegetables require too much water to produce  successful crop, or if water is a precious resource, then think again.  Wicking or self watering garden beds may provide the solution you require.  Even of the Rock Farm, we have been able to enjoy some fresh vegetables during a long hot summer by this simple principle.

How to build a wicking garden bed.

Lush green vegetables even in severe drought.

Wicking beds essentially provide water from below, meaning that they are particularly frugal with water consumption, especially during a long hot summer. ¬†They also don’t cost a fortune to make – especially¬†if your wife is a hoarder and you have plenty of old railway sleepers and corrugated iron lying about the place.

The basic concept is simple.  Water is held in a reservoir at the base.  Moisture is drawn up into the soil via capillary action or wicking.  The moisture is distributed more evenly through the soil, creating better growing conditions for plants.

How to build a wicking garden bed.

Basic design principles – wicking bed

The best part is that you can make these beds out of almost any material.  It is simple to modify the style and shape of these beds to suit your garden or materials at hand.

We chose to make our wicking beds in a wedge shape around a central fire pit.  This allowed us to recycle some original railway sleepers.  In this way, each wicking bed only used three sleepers.  The 2400mm sleepers were cut at the 16000/800mm mark to make the wedge shape.  The corrugated iron sheets were 2400mm long.

The first step was to clear the ground where the new beds will go and get everything nice and level.
How to build a wicking garden bed.

Once I was happy that the base was in the right spot, I placed the next sleeper on top, and secured it using a backing plate and bugle head screws.  This is extremely hard work on the electric drill.  Indeed it destroyed my first drill Рso be careful with your drill.  Pre-drilling the holes only helps marginally.


Our wicking beds were designed to be the height of three sleepers.  We anchored the sleepers to each other using the backing plate.  This will be hidden once the beds are constructed.

How to build a wicking garden bed.

After I had built both ends, I fitted a hardwood brace or frame for the corrugated iron.  This brace was cut to the same length as the corrugated iron and will anchor the iron and provide an edge for the beds.  I had to take out a small corner in each end to allow the boards to sit level between the two end sections.

How to build a wicking garden bed.

I then cut the corrugated iron to fit.  You can use tin snips for this, but an angle grinder makes short work of it.  The cut edge is placed on the ground and is buried slightly, and the original edge is placed along the timber frame.  I used regular roofing screws to hold the iron against the frame.

How to build a wicking garden bed.

After I had fitted the corrugated iron, I placed a bracing piece in the centre of each sheet.  This provides an anchor for the sheets and helps prevent the beds from swelling or bulging once the beds are full of gravel and water.

How to build a wicking garden bed.

After I was happy that all was in its place, It was time to scrape back the dirt and smooth out the base of the beds.

How to build a wicking garden bed.

How to build a wicking garden bed.

The bulk of the construction is complete. Now to line and fill the beds

At this time the main construction of the beds is complete.  There is still a whole heap of work to go.

  • The beds need to be lined with old carpet underlay / cardboard to protect the builders plastic.
  • Then the beds need to be lined with builders plastic to make them watertight.
  • A filling tube needs to be inserted to allow the beds to be watered from ‘underneath’
  • Once the pipe-work is installed,the beds need to be filled with gravel to about 2/3rd depth
  • A drain or overflow pipe needs to be fitted at this mark
  • Shade cloth or weed mat is to be laid over the top of the gravel
  • Then soil and compost fills the remainder of the beds.

These steps will be covered in Part 2 of this series.

The beautiful thing with these garden beds is that you can build these with just about any material.  It takes a little imagination and work to bring your ideas to life.  If you have wicking beds, please feel free to share photos of them with me at and I will post them for others to see here.