Thursday, 20 February 2014

Corn update

This has been an extremely long summer.  We have had week after week of temperatures in the 40's and no rain.  Many of my types of corn have not survived, or has had a lot of trouble and will not produce much seed.  All of the corn has purslane (Portulaca oleracea) growing as a living mulch to keep the soil cooler etc.  In some beds this living mulch is well over a foot deep, but it is still not enough when the temperature is so high day and night.  I thought I would write about the progress of a few of the more interesting varieties of corn.

Argent - white super sweet corn
I planted all 11 of the precious 'Argent' super sweet white corn seeds that I had.  Out of them only 4 grew.  As far as seed saving goes that is rather precarious and any small mishap could cause me to lose them all.  This has prevented me from eating any argent corn this year as I want as much diversity in the seeds as I can get from such a small number of plants.  These plants suffered a lot of damage from the heat but are still growing strong.  The plants grew to about 1.5m tall and all are producing several (from 2 to 4) cobs.  Unfortunately as I had so few plants these cobs seem to be poorly filled.  The timing of the flowering was such that they were shedding pollen when the temperature was over 40C, as a result much of the pollen was denatured by the heat, resulting in few seeds being formed.  Extreme heat combined with a low number of plants is not good for corn cob formation.  Hopefully things go well and I end up with enough seeds between them so that I can do a large growout of this variety next year.  With work I should be able to keep this strain going without too much inbreeding depression.  If I ever find anyone growing this strain I will try to swap some seeds with them so that I can broaden the gene pool a little.

Inca giant white corn
I planted a small number of these seeds (only about 25), and most grew.  I have been told that this variety is highly daylight sensitive and it may not produce cobs in my location.  Being a landrace corn there is a lot of genetic diversity.  This has grown very tall and thick, some up to 3 metres tall with stalks that are about as thick as my wrist, some are far thicker.  Some plants are short and spindly.  They seem to be growing roots up the stalk, sometimes 3 or 4 nodes up.  Normally this would not seem odd, but when stalks are this tall it means that roots are growing a foot or two above the soil.  It has only just started to produce tassels and shed pollen.  Unfortunately it has shown no sign of growing any silk and I do not know if it will even attempt to produce any cobs.  Even if it does begin to produce cobs I do not know if it will have time to ripen before the first frosts kill the plants.  These have also suffered a lot from the relentless heat with many of the higher leaves damaged.  This small population has displayed a lot of genetic diversity in terms of growth, hopefully this is enough for it to survive and produce cobs in my climate.

Giant Inca White Corn - very thick stalks.  Purslane just starting to grow as a living mulch

Giant Incan white corn - another older picture showing the diversity in this population

Glass bead corn
These guys pretty much know what they are doing here.  While they experienced a little damage from the heat they seem to do a lot better than the other corn varieties.  Hopefully it will not be long until this is a good multicoloured pop corn.

Mini blue popcorn
These suffered badly from the heat but are still growing.  They are small plants, maybe some of the taller plants have grown up to a meter, most are shorter than a meter.  They have also only just started to grow tassels and have not yet shown any signs of silk or cobs.  Many plants have multiple stems so if they do produce cobs there should be a good number of them.  Hopefully they have time to produce a crop before the first frost kills them as the kids are keen to pop some blue corn.

Blue sweet corn
I grew a decent number of these in the hope of eating most of the cobs as well as saving seed from a good number of plants.  They grew from about 1.5 meters with a few up to 2 meters tall.  Unfortunately the heat has also damaged these badly.  They too have been shedding pollen in 40+ heat and mostly have poorly filled out cobs.  It has been a long and hard summer, I am happy that they have even survived as it shows how resilient they are.  Some plants produced multiple cobs, but most only produced one.  Some of the plants grew multiple stems but this trait does not seem to be too common in this variety.  As far as sweet corn goes, this one seems to be a winner.  Even though my preference is for white super sweet corn I plan to grow this variety again if I save enough seed.  The naturally high level of antioxidants as seen by the blue colouration is a bonus.  There are not many varieties of coloured sweet corn in Australia so it kind of makes it more important to continue growing it.

When they are ready, if I have enough I will try to sell some of these corn varieties through my For Sale page.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Growing Water Chestnuts in Buckets

The water chestnut (Eleocharis dulcis) is a type of sedge that is found growing in tropical wetlands of the world.  They are simple to grow, highly productive, and nutritious.  As well as providing food for you, they yield a decent amount of straw as well as providing habitat for frogs and water insects, all in all they are an excellent permaculture vegetable.

I always wanted to grow water chestnuts, but was never able to find any to plant.  People often comment that they are cheap to buy from supermarkets so they are not worth growing, but I have never seen them for sale except in cans.  I have no idea what chemicals are used on the water chestnuts that I do buy in a can.  I do not know where they grow, how far they have traveled to reach me, how they are grown, or anything like that so growing my own water chestnuts organically seems like a sensible approach.

I have heard of a lot of different ways to grow water chestnuts, and I have heard a lot of people complain that they tried to grow them and failed miserably.  So I thought I would write a post about how I grow them, this is not necessarily the best way, but it works for me and requires very little time and effort.
perennial vegetables Australia
Water chestnuts growing in buckets

How I grow water chestnuts

The first mistake people make is rotting the dormant water chestnut corms.  I plant the corms in a small pot or punnet and keep it reasonably damp until they sprout.  I used 10cm square pots that we had in the shed, I put the cheapest potting mix in and planted the corms so that they were not quite touching each other.  I do not make it any more damp than I would if I were germinating tomato seeds.  If you put the corms under water prior to them sprouting I believe that they will mostly rot and die.  I planted them in late winter/early spring and kept them away from frost.

I then watered like I would any seedling until they were about 5cm tall.  At this stage I put the pot in an ice cream container and filled water half way up the pot, a few days later I put water up to the top of the pot so that the soil level was at the water level.  I then left the water level there for a few weeks.  This gives the water chestnut a chance to grow roots and the leaves start to collect energy for the plant ready for the next step.

People make a few mistakes in the nest step, they make the water too deep and they do not use enough soil.  Water chestnuts grow in soil, that is where they produce their crop, so if there is not enough soil then they will produce a small crop or a crop of very small corms.  They are an emergent plant, which means that while the roots are below water, the top of the plant must be in the air otherwise they will die.  I then separate the corms and plant them in soil which had about 10cm of water on top of it.  In this way the little plants were just under the surface of the water and would grow out of the water in a few days.  You can make the water deeper, but not too deep, up to about 30cm should not harm the plants but any deeper than this and they may struggle.

In a perfect world they never experience any frost, unfortunately mine seem to see a few light frosts when they are young.  I try to make sure the frost they see is not too hard and they seem to do fine with it.  Interestingly they handled a light frost better than duck potatoes.  They even had some ice on top of the water a few times, while it is less than ideal they are hardy enough to cope with that.

The water chestnuts then grow during the warm weather and die down in autumn.  When they die down the water level is dropped and the corms are left to dry a bit in the soil.  When they have dried down a bit they are dug up and eaten or stored.  If they are ever completely dry they will die.

mudflower.blogspot for sale
Water chestnuts growing in the shade of a plum tree

Where I grow water chestnuts

Ideally you would grow water chestnuts on the edge of a pond or slow flowing stream.  In a perfect world they would colonise this water edge and all you would do is go and collect them.  Many people, including myself, do not have access to a pond or stream so this method is unachievable.  

Many people who do not have access to a pond grow them in a bathtub, while this method sounds great it takes up space and you have to be able to find a free bathtub.  Finding free things where I live is almost impossible so I had to think of another way.  I have heard of people growing them in an icecream container filled with soil and submerged in a fish pond, they say they yield about 30 corms per container.  Again this sounds great but requires a fish pond which I do not have.

People often tell of growing them in styrofoam broccoli boxes that they get for free from the fruit and veg shop, out here we can not buy styrofoam boxes let alone convince a shop owner to give them away so I had to keep thinking.  

There are a lot of plastic tubs and boxes that I have seen used, but they all cost too much, I want to produce high quality food for cheap.

I found some cheap buckets for sale, buckets hold water, they look ok, they are easy to find in pretty much every town, they are large enough for one corm each, and they do not take up too much space.  If you only had a balcony this method would still work.  So I decided that buckets would be the containers I would use in which to grow water chestnuts.

I then dug up some subsoil clay, mixed it with animal manure, put it in the buckets to about 5cm from the top, and filled with water.  The soil settles a bit over the next little while so you end up with more water above the soil level.  

It is important to leave it for a few weeks because if you planted directly into this the water chestnuts would rot.  Any weed seeds germinate in the wet soil, the weeds can not survive being constantly under water so they die off reasonably quickly and pose no problems.  Over the next few weeks the water goes green, then crystal clear, then green a few times as algal blooms deal with excess nutrients.  This is good, do not worry when this happens as this is what you want.  The water seems to do this on and off throughout the entire growing season, again do not worry as this is normal.

People are often afraid of clay or subsoil, but they hold a lot of minerals.  Being underwater it makes the soil soft enough for plant roots to penetrate and renders these minerals available to the growing plants.  The only thing to watch for is that no rocks are in the mix.
Growing water chestnuts in buckets
Water chestnuts growing in a bucket with duckweed

Once the water has had a few weeks to work itself out I then plant the water chestnuts in the fertile mud.  They were not tall enough to reach the air yet, but that is ok.  By now they should be strong enough to grow a bit to reach out of the water.  I also put a bit of duckweed floating on the water surface.  The duckweed grows to cover the water surface and blocks light from the algae.  It also slows evaporation, cools the soil by providing shade and helps out in a bunch of other ways.  If you have access to azolla I would include that too as it fixes nitrogen from the soil and fertilises your water chestnuts.

As the water chestnuts grow to fill the bucket they send out rhizomes, I had a spare bucket of mud so broke off one of these rhizomes and planted it.  It did not take long before it grew so much that I could not tell which bucket had a corm planted and which one was from the rhizome.  From here I simply kept the water at the top of the bucket by filling it up each afternoon when watering other vegetables.

Everywhere you read and everyone you talk to will say that you must grow water chestnuts in direct sun and avoid shade at all costs.  At first this is what I did and it went well for me, but then summer came along and it got too hot.  Even though there was still water in the buckets the plants were suffering from the relentless heat.  Being in buckets made it simple to move the water chestnuts under the shade of a tree.  I moved 2 buckets at first to see if that helped, those plants started growing again while the ones in direct sun were still going poorly.  Now I grow all the water chestnuts under part shade, they seem to be growing fine there.

How I harvest water chestnuts

When the time is right the foliage of the water chestnuts starts to yellow off.  This is a signal to stop watering the buckets.  When they have dried off for a while you then dig through and collect the water chestnuts.  It is important not to let the corms freeze if you are planning on replanting them the next year as freezing will kill them.  If you plan on eating them freezing is fine.

I wrote another post here about the yield I got from a bucket of water chestnuts.

Where to find Water Chestnuts for sale in Australia

I sell water chestnuts for planting and growing on my For Sale page. As you can see above they are simple to grow and very productive.  Chinese water chestnuts are a great perennial vegetable and fit in well in a permaculture vegetable garden.

Endler's guppy

The kids have been bugging me to get fish for some time.  I have wanted to get some fish, but have nowhere to put them.  I have also thought of doing a simple aquaponics set up, but that is a different type of fish altogether and the kids would most likely not be allowed to go near this. 

Then our pet turtle died, we had him since before the kids were born.  I don't know what went wrong.  The kids and I were upset.  We miss out turtle friend.

A few days later we happened to be going to Orange for something so I decided to get some fish as a surprise for the kids.  I considered getting gold fish as they are hardy and indestructible, but they are also very messy, and they do not breed easily in a tank.  I decided to get something that would breed without much work on my part, something like a guppy. 

Some of my fish - the guppy hybrids.  You cannot see the true deep colours in the pictures

I have liked guppies since I was a child, but a few years ago I learned about a fish called an Endler's livebearer.  It is uncertain if this is a type of guppy or a different type of fish.  They are prettier, hardier, and all round better than guppies.  I wanted to get some Endler's, but it is unlikely that we would find them out here, and they can be very expensive so if I did find some I did not like my chances of actually buying any.

My fish look similar to these but mine have deeper colours
- picture by Silvana Gericke
I looked online and found someone in Orange who was selling endlers for a good price.  Guppies in town cost about $6 or $7 each, so buying from a private seller worked out a lot cheaper and I ended up with a far larger colony to start with and I got the endler fish that I prefer to guppies.  The fish were all young, and were a mix of male and female endlers as well as endler/guppy hybrids.  They did not look overly great, mostly grey, one male had nice colours so I was happy.  I found out later that when they are stressed they lose colour pretty much immediately, when they had calmed down they looked amazing.  Kind of like a container of beautiful swimming jewels darting around.  When we got home and I put them in the fish tank the males displayed brilliant neon and metallic colours, very different from the dull fish that I picked up two hours ago.

They have had baby fish for us a few times, many of which appear to be surviving to maturity.  It is difficult to count them as the tank is large and has plants and other places for them to hide.  Unfortunately I have too many males, or not enough females, so I have separated all of the non-endler male guppies from the main breeding tank.  In this way the colony will end up as all endlers.  Every baby fish from now will be either an endler or at least 50% endler.  In a few generations if I cull hard I should have all endlers, or at least fish that look very much like endlers and carry a high percentage of ender genes.  It will take some work, especially considering how speedy these little fish are and how difficult they are to catch, but it will be worth it.

Endler/guppy hybrids - poor colouration due to stress

Endler's livebearers (Poecilia wingei) may be a subspecies of guppy, or they may be their own separate species of fish.  There is a lot of scientific debate and controversy over this.  They have been classified as their own species, it is safe to assume that this is partly for conservation purposes.  The fish that I have not culled look like the original ones from the wild, they have not had any selective breeding done in order to change them.  I think that this wild type fish is one of the most beautiful fish around.  People often try to hybridise them with guppies, I feel that this is a mistake as none of the hybrids look as amazing as the wild type fish and de-hybridising them without a lot of work is virtually impossible.

Some culls
Some more culls

 In the wild they lived in Laguna de Patos in Venezuela, they may be extinct in the wild, or they may have crossed with guppies in the wild (essentially becoming extinct in their pure form), or they may have some small remnant populations somewhere.  Many people who have recently caught wild Endler's have fish that are clearly wild guppy Endler hybrids.  Many of the recent expeditions have not turned up any Endler's, and the site they they used to reside is heavily polluted, so it is difficult to know if they still exist in the wild for sure.

The Endler's livebearer was first 'discovered' by Franklyn F Bond in 1937, these fish were then pickled, sent to a museum, filed away safely, and then forgotten about.  In 1975 Professor John Endler 'rediscovered' these amazing little fish, he sent some live fish to a friend who named them after him and introduced them into the aquarium trade.  From there they have spread across the world through aquariums.  In Australia they seem to be rare, probably due to how recently they have been introduced to the country but also because of how easily they hybridise with guppies.

They are a beautiful and lively little fish, the males have vivid metallic colours while the females are plain.  They are very similar to the fancy guppy in a lot of ways.  Many of the modern fancy guppies have some degree of Endler blood in them, and likewise many (if not all) Endler's in Australia have guppy somewhere in their heritage. 

Endler's differ from guppies in a few ways that are noticeable for the average fish keeper:
  • They can be smaller than guppies; 
  • They have a shorter gestation period than guppies;
  • The females are not interested in eating the new born fry, whereas guppy females are notorious fry eaters;
  • New born fry seem larger and more agile than newborn guppy fry;
  • They do not jump out of the water, unlike guppies who are well known for being suicidal jumpers;
  • Their colouring of the males is amazing and unique;
  • Females have no real colour;
  • They have a slightly different shape to the guppy;
  • They prefer water that is more alkaline and harder than guppies;
  • They prefer warmer water to the guppy, which is good for me as my tank is outside in a sheltered position and the water temp often exceeds the lethal temp for guppies;
  • Males display for the females, rather than harass them;
  • They behave more like a wild fish than a pet fish - if you get some endlers you will know what I mean...
I really like these little fish, they are interesting to watch.  They quickly learn that people equate to food and begin to frantically beg wneh they see you, even if they are not hungry.  They seem to be breeding well for us in conditions that are less than ideal and I can only begin to imagine how well they would do in perfectly clear water with stable temperatures and adequate lighting.  If they survive the summer I hope to have enough to be able to sell some, trade some, perhaps keep some in with the water chestnuts during the warmer seasons or even feed some to the poultry.  

Endler male, I would cull him as mine look much nicer than this one - picture by Marrabbio2
I have tried to take pictures of the Endlers and the endler/guppy hybrids but have had no luck.  They are far too speedy for me.  I tried putting some in a jar so that they could not escape the camera but they lost their colour as soon as I caught them and did not colour up again until I put them back in their tank.  Above are some of the best pictures that we took, and they have no real colour compared to the lively little fish as soon as I put them back in the tank.

I have learned a few things about expensive guppies and "pure" endlers from my little tank.  Some of the expensive guppy types are in fact hybrids with endlers, I have had a few 'Japanese neon blue' guppies and a few other noticeable types appear in my tank.  Some of the 'pure endlers' that I see for sale overseas that have been collected from the wild, are in fact hybrids.  I assume that they hybridised naturally prior to being caught by people, but the fact remains that they are not pure endlers.  Again, in my little tank, I have had a few 'peacock endlers' and some other things show up.  Some of these fish are truly beautiful and it would be simple enough to line breed them for a few generations so that I had several exotic types that breed true to type, but I have no interest in them.  The natural beauty of the wild type endlers has captivated me and I am culling hard to remove anything that is not close to a real endler.

At this stage I have no plans on sending live fish through the post, so if you would like to get them from me feel free to contact me through my for sale page but you would have to pick them up.