Frogs are a great asset

Frogs are an organic farm asset and help to control bug populations on the farm, you can see in the photo a cloud of tadpoles which is a huge population the frogs are going to be plentiful in a few weeks time.

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Frogs eat are carnivorous meat eater so bugs are their favorite meal. Small to medium sized frogs eat insects such as but not limited to flies, mosquitoes, moths and dragonflies. Larger frogs will eat larger insects like grasshoppers and worms. Some large frogs will even eat small snakes, mice, baby tortoise, and even other smaller frogs!

Frogs are also an indicator species of the environment they are in. This means that if the air, water, or food source in a frog’s environment is polluted by something you are not aware of, the frogs will have symptoms like they will be prone to diseases, abnormalities in offspring and deaths are visual signs that let you know that something is wrong.

On Growing Healthy Farms we have a lot of crickets so we are glad we have a lot of frogs to match their numbers and keep them under control. We seem to hear two main crocks at night so we know that we definitely have at least two different frog on our farm.

 

It’s a buzz of life on the farm

The winter cover crops are blending in well with the summer cover crops and the bugs are enjoying the jungle full of flowers, with the sound of the bees flying to investigate each one. The variety insects were mostly beneficial from what I could see including predatory species like wasps and ladybirds. The bird life on the farm also increased a hundredfold, which shows that the natural farming system attracts the right balance of life as the farm evolves.

20151208_131805 The amaranth adds beautiful yellow greens into the picture along with the attraction of bees, butterflies and birds. Amaranth is a common spinach alternative and one of the original native crops of Africa. Amaranth is nutritious and and has a better nutritional profile than commercial spinach which is prized for its texture and flavour.

These cover crops are both stabilising the soil and helping to develop biomass within and above ground which will be beneficial to the farm as it matures. As at this point in time out our plan is to have natural sections on the farm keeping it as naturally friendly as possible to attract all the right insects onto the farm.

 

Natural farms start, looking wild

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As the warm season rolled on the seeds that where broadcast grew and the landscape begun looking naturally wild with a mix of winter cover-crops and summer cover-crops. The increase of bird life and insect life was phenomenal and mostly made up of predators which are exactly what you want on a farm.

The start of the spring season was hot and dry but by December 2015 the Growing Healthy Farms team had recorded 112mm of rainfall on the farm during November. One of the rain events on the 14th November  was 34mm which is a good soak and the mulch layers that the Growing Healthy Farms team had applied retained the moisture well. Plants respond positively to good rain events even when its way too hot on the days between.

Rain gauge of 34mm on 14th Nov 2015
34mm rain on 14th Nov 2015

The drought cycle was in the El Nino phase which is known to be hot with scarce rain events so the rain events are most welcome because we know there is going to be a total rainfall for the year well below normal drought records. At least these rain events top up the pond and dam.

A natural farm can take a few years to mature to the point where almost anything can be planted but in the beginning our selection is limited to crops that can handle poor soil and because we are in a drought Growing Healthy Farms knows the need crops that can handle low rainfall.

From here Growing Healthy Farms will grow from strength to strength as the farm matures a bit more with each month that passes.

Compost production begins 

Compost is a vital ingredient in farming it’s known as black gold, because like gold it is not abundant on the planet. One has two choices either buy it at a high cost or make it at a lower cost. Compost can be made from many ingredients one just has to investigate one’s local environment to see what may be available.

We are lucky enough to be in a equestrian area so stable waste is in abundance. So the main cost is collecting it and labour to make and harvest the compost. We mix organically sourced cow manure with EM treated stable yard waste and what every garden waste and farm waste we can find to add.

EM’s are beneficial Effective Microorganisms with the power to control odors thus reduce flies, reduces vet visits so less need for equestrian pharmaceuticals, and increases the digestibility of the horse feed so more energetic horses. All this is achieved by adding bokashi’d bran to their feed, and EM’s to their water and spraying EM water on their walls, bedding and on the horses coats.

The EM’s then help us during the compost production which is an external digestion process so the more microbial activity we have the better the compost properties. The more nutritious the compost the better it will be to augment the soil to a healthier state needed for our crops to be nutritious and pest free.

Add water, wild life appears 

African Bank Duck by our dam
New dam attracts a duck

It did not take long for the African Black Duck to find the farm once the water was in the dam. In fact the bird life increased by the power of ten. The dam was the key and the natural farm was the home for these few wild ducks have been here ever since . 

Ducks are good predators, non destructive by nature and very good for dams and keeping the bugs in check . Ducks are known to seal leaky dams but can also can create leaks by digging around the edges looking for worms. 

We need the ducks for the farm, I’m not sure of these will become resident ducks so we are going to get tame ducks that don’t fly away. We just want about twenty duck for our farm, to keep pests under control . 

Wetland was not ready for this

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A wetland is a functional part of a river system for one it slows water down, to a point of course and while it flows through a wetland it gets filtered and the dirty water would leave the wetland cleaner than when it flowed into the wetland.

Our wetland was just planted so only two weeks old when the late October 2015 downpour of 38mm occurred. So the plants which were supposed to hold the soil were washed into the wetland and it took us a bit of time to replant them.

The water level in the dam stayed high for two months slowly decreasing through evaporation, but the end plan which is now in place the water from the dam is used to irrigate the farm which put the boreholes on holiday for a few weeks.

This year is La Nina which is the positive phase of the El Niño and the La Nina is known to be very wet in fact sometimes too wet with potential flooding in many parts of the country. So our farm is potentially going to be put to the test this year thank goodness the plants have had a full year for their roots to hold the soil firmly.

 

Was empty now full

The runoff water from the neighbors property did exactly as we planned, just so much quicker than I thought with us in a drought cycle.  Natal was recording the lowest rainfall in thirty years, Gauteng was on water restrictions of watering at night only, so it was a pleasant surprise.

The neighbor was telling me that his pool gets a deposit of grass, leaves and other debris which flows into his pool each time it rains.  I explained that his house is on a keyline and hes said his pool was on the opposite side of the house to my pond which explains why he has a rain runoff river filling his pool.

It was a big rain, a 38mm downpour that came with hail and all.  When the rainfall is so quick and concentrated the capacity of the soils ability to absorb does not handle the load and runoff water that flows over ground naturally towards a keyline.  Keylines are not always visible to the naked eye, but water will always find them.

Well positioned buildings and natural resources can have beneficial results of a farm, working with nature and not against it is easier at the end of the day. Water is the key to a successful farm, and ecohydrological farm designs allow the water to work for you on the farm and the greater environment of neighboring properties.

Water in water out

  So it dawned on me today that I may not have explained how the farm is putting water into the ground at a rate far higher than the rate at which we take water out. This rain added 285,000 liters to the farms soil from a 22mm rain event.  

The swales of a permaculture farm are designed to capture runoff water and and allow it to soak into the soil. This in turn tops up the water table as the ground gets saturated with water.  The water table seeps water into the streams and rivers and into aquifers below over a period of weeks.

A great story to demonstrate this is from a canoeing who says years ago before Fourways Mall and Monte Casino when it rained there would be good canoeing waters in the rivers for weeks now it only lasts a few hours. 

The water capacity of our rivers and dams are not designed for heavy flows of water,  so damages result from trees floating down stream from a flash flood. Dam walls weaken from a wet dry cycle increasing repairs and replacements of dam walls. 

Permaculture principles are designed to improved natural systems as they are based on natural designs found in our natural environment. 

Earthworks

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Once the stakeholders were happy with the design, we then started the earthworks moving soil from one side of the property to the other using machinery commonly found on building sites. The neighbors must have thought we were building a motocross track when they saw the shapes of soil forming in curved piles.

The shaping and digging went on for four weeks and we moved tons of soil around until the design was met with precise accuracy. Accuracy is important when you intend controlling the flow of water as the force of water can easily show your flaws in your development and your hard work can get washed away.   

We definitely don’t only check twice cut once, we check many times and make the required adjustments are done before moving on as once soil is in place its not easy to move around within these curvy piles. Watching machinery move soil like this was fun to watch as no soil was brought onto the land it was all just moved around.

The soil was not great to start with and with all the digging the subsoil was now exposed which means that the soil was even more in need of some ingredients to kick start life to support hungry vegetable crops. As soon as the earthworks are done we can get started on introducing new life into the soil which is where I have the most fun.

Drilling for water

borehole-oneA borehole is a cost effective way to get water for a farm as electricity is far cheaper than municipality water and can be far better for your crops than municipality water. It is just a matter of testing it to ensure its safe as it may have high concentrations of dissolved salts from deposits within the earth. 
 
Are there alternatives to electricity to pump the water, yes there are and it could be as simple as a windmill if you have sufficient wind. Solar is a better option and the costs are becoming more affordable as time goes on and electricity price goes up.
As with the picture above each pile of soil is a sample from one meter which allows you to see the layers of soil and rock beneath the farm. Each time they hit a water layer they mark it so you get to know how deep the water is. Shallow water is your water table normally above an impermeable layer and deeper water normally below the impermeable layer is from the aquifers. 
Our ecohydrological plan is to return water to the water table and into the aquifers below so it important to know how deep we need to plants roots to break open the fissures to allow the water to filter down through the layers of rock.