Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Muscovy Ducks and Ticks

We have been getting heaps of bandicoots through the garden these days. The wet weather over the last 2 years seems to have increased their numbers quite significantly. Besides the annoyance of the bandicoots digging up seedlings in their quest for worms, they also bring another problem along with them: ticks.
Bandicoots are a natural host for ticks and (as with any host) once the tick has had its feed, it will drop off. This break from the host may be to grow some more or to lay eggs, in the case of a mature female.
Unfortunately one of our Muscovy Ducks, Edgar, came across one of these ticks and it managed to attach itself to Edgar's carbuncles. My daughter noticed that Edgar was not coming in for the nightly feed and lock up in the pens, so my wife investigated. Edgar was hardly able to move and allowed himself to be picked up (unheard of for our ducks). My wife had to use pliers to remove the tick as it had gotten too big for tweezers to get around its body.
We were not sure what to do next, so put a search on the web found that Muscovy Ducks had been recently reported to be affected by ticks (and yes we confirmed that). But what about the recovery rate or method for recovery? There was not all that much information to be found, except to keep that animal calm and comfortable.
So we let Edgar stay in the shade in his cage with the door ajar as the weather was not too hot (low 20 degrees C). The first day he did not do too much apart from lie in the one spot with his head lolling on the ground, but was able to drink some water when provided to him (i.e. water dish to bill). The following day he perked up a bit and was talking water more readily. Up until this time there was a small amount of white foam visible in the corner of each of his eyes, which seemed to annoy him a bit; he was observed shaking his head occasionally to try and clear the foam. After about 3 or 4 days he was eating again and able to move around with the rest of the flock.
Previous to this attack, Edgar had been the alpha male. There is one other male in the flock and they had gotten on quite well, probably because the number of ducks to drakes was quite high. But some Wedge-Tailed Eagles had started taking our ducks so the ratio was dropping.
The other male thought that this would be a great time to overthrow the recovering Edgar. I had to intervene a number of times by covering the eyes of the other male (this causes them to stop what they are doing - also handy when dispatching a duck for dinner). Muscovy Ducks can really fight when the get into it. They can be a bit like a couple of ice hockey players going at it. Their wings pack a punch when they connect with your hand, let me tell you.
After the first day of challenge, Edgar had enough and made himself scarce under some recycled materials. That night he did not want to go into his cage, though the males aren't penned in together. The following day he was stronger and thus was able to hold his own a bit better. Then after a few days of duking it out he was top drake again.
So I learned a number of things from this episode: the first being that Muscovy Ducks (or drakes) can recover from a tick bite. However prompt removal of the tick is important, as is ensuring that the animal is kept in a calm state with constant access to water (that is, you might need to bring water to them periodically). And finally, protect the recovering animal if there are other males when either a duck or drake gets a tick.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

More Google Earth Updates - Circa 2010

It seems that I have not been paying attention to how things look on Google Maps. However tonight I noticed that the pond was visible when viewing the property. In fact, two imagery updates had been done in 2010 without me noticing.

The first aerial photograph, taken on the 9th of March 2010, shows the beginnings of the swale orchard on the bottom left-hand corner (the south western part of the property). This had just been marked out with grass clippings along the contours of the land. The citrus orchard north of this had also been recently mulched. My parents were visiting at the time, thus I was able to get a significant amount of work accomplished. In the center of the property, the pond is now clearly visible.

The second aerial photograph, taken on the 21st of June 2010, shows the swales as being more substantial as planting had been well underway. The citrus orchard mulching was also being taken over by grass seedlings and other weeds. This area is a bit of a jungle now. To the west of the citrus orchard is the start of the mango line. This area has poor soil due to the cut for the road. It is also exposed to strong westerly winds. So it should be perfect for growing mangos. I have supplied them with manure and compost as mangos can be gross feeders when young.

Notice the colour of the pond water as compared to the other picture. The natural flow of the water and my sediment trap design at the inflow to the pond, really seems to help reduce the amount of suspended particles which most dams suffer from. As a result aquatic life flourishes in the pond. We have even seen evidence of a platypus with heaps of fresh water clams along the pond edge. We know that they exist across the road in our neighbours pond, so they are probably checking out ours as well.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Beneficial Pests

I did not always think of curl grubs as a beneficial pest. I had been told that they could kill lawn and other plants with their appetite for roots. However, it was once I started making huge compost heaps that I realised the information I had been provided was not the complete picture. If you make a compost or have a large pile of manure, once things cool down, the earthworms and other soil animals will move in. This includes curl grubs which help create wonderfully rich soil. So now instead of squishing them, or feeding them to the chooks, when discovered I toss them to the most organically rich spot in the garden. Eat, my pretties, eat!

Understanding why insects are attacking a plant is the best approach in being able to create a healthier garden. Are you starving your soil, thus starving your plants? Have you recently fed your plants high levels of soluble nitrogen? With organic matter and compost in the soil, everything becomes more balanced and stabilised. Root knot nematodes will not be a problem. I can grow tomato plants in the same place for over 6 months and get great crops off them to the end ("the end" being when I need the particular garden plot for something else) with no visible nematode damage to the roots. I do not fertilise the plants during this time either. The reason I can achieve this is that I have made the soil, so incredibly healthy it can support plants for long periods of time thanks to the well fed soil life. I know I have root knot nematodes on the property, as when feral tomatoes come up in the rose garden, their roots have shown signs of attack.

A health plant can respond to trimming of its roots, branches, and leaves, as long as it is in proportion to the health, vigor, and size of the plant. So when an insect arborist wants to ply its trade, who am I to say no? As long as no major or lasting damage is done to the plant or its fruit, then I do not mind. A healthy plant will respond to the trimming by putting out more growth. I have some native trees on the property that get every leaf completely eaten away by a beetle. But the trees always regrow the leaves and power along quite healthily, so why would I spray the bugs with some organic control? There is simply no point.

When I first set up my veggie garden, I left all insects be. I wanted to see what would happen. Would predators come along? Would the pests really be a problem, such that I could not harvest enough for my family's needs? I certainly found that caterpillars are a pest that needs to be managed, thus my current use of Dipel (Bacillus thuringiensis). But this is because I have not set up the right system in the veggie garden with permanent perennials and similar beneficial plants for key predator insects. Thus once garden designs have been changed, it is important to see if the current control methods are still warranted.

Ants are often thought of as a general pest. But they are fantastic recyclers of above surface material including meat. I use ants to pick the fats from bones before I bury them around the garden. Ants can breakdown the fats very quickly, whereas it will take a longer time if immediately buried in the soil. Ants are great predators. Green ants, which I certainly do not appreciate getting bitten by, will easily take down any cut worms roaming your garden. While ants can tend and protect scale and other honeydew producing insects, the presence of these insects often indicates another problem which needs to be managed for the long term health of the plant. Ants can also assist with pollination, for instance sugar ants will pollinate passionfruit and pitaya (dragonfruit).

Ants are also fantastic aerators of soil. My pastures are allowed to grow tall before I harvest the grass for compost, mulch, and other garden uses. The ants love this and build mounds of soil, excavating from below the surface and bringing it to the top. This improves water penetration, helps roots grow, and even sequesters carbon.

There is no doubt that there are pests which are truly just that. Queensland Fruit Fly being a prime example of such a pest. For those starting out in gardening, it can be hard to know what is a good bug, versus a bad one. So it is nice to know that there is a free locally focused website on Brisbane insects called This website is an absolute gem allowing a better understanding of local insects. If you want to see a 28-spotted ladybird (plant eater) versus a three-banded ladybird (insect and/or fungi eater), then this is the site for you. The layout is well done, giving general information and pictures at the top, which allows people to drill down to more insect specific information as identification progresses.

So the next time you see a so-called pest having a go at your plant, ask yourself if nature has simply posted a job opening for a Sanitation Engineer.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Solar Power Generation Update

A little under a year ago we had solar panels installed. So I thought an update on how things have been going was in order.

The power savings have been as expected which is fantastic. Our most recent bill was for around $43 dollars (previously we were paying around $240 per quarter). Our power bills include an ambulance fee (around $26) as well as a typical fixed connection charge. During this period, the weather has been anything but conducive to effective solar power generation. In addition, my parents were staying with us for part of the period (and my mother is not quite as power conscience as I would like her to be). So to come out with only a $43 dollar bill is outstanding.

We have been trying to do certain activities at night time, such as using the dishwasher, laundry, baths and showers. Often the computer was being run during the day, but it is a energy efficient laptop. I recently put a timer on the sewage system, so that it only runs during part of the day. This makes a considerable difference to our base power usage and extends the life of the sewage system aerator.

The other great thing is that two other properties right beside me have also installed solar power (they are larger installs as well). I know that my installation helped convince one of my neighbours to take the plunge, which is a positive influence.

So all in all, I am quite impressed with how we have come out. And in another 2 or so years, this system will have paid for itself. Not too bad!

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Growth of the Swale Based Orchard

About one year ago, the swale orchard started taking development. I had previous started the top SE swale/trench and planted two Small Leaf Jaboticabas and a Lemon Myrtle. I also planted other useful plants such as Pigeon Pea, Rosella, and Egyptian Spinach. Since that time I extended the start of the swale so that all the overflow from the rainwater tanks flow through it.

The next picture shows the lay of the land before development of the future swale orchard.

The future swale locations were mapped out using a spirit level, old wooden ladder, and lots of grass clippings. For some reason I neglected to take any pictures when the contour lines were first set out, but they were a maximum of 4.8 m apart, but often merging much closer as they aligned with the contours. Below are some pictures taken around the beginning of May 2010 after planting had been started.

This picture is taken from the main path through the centre of the orchard looking towards the start of the driveway. In the foreground one can see a Bignay or Red Currant Tree (Antidesma bunius). At the next swale to the left is a Black Sapote. As well in the background, there are a Spanish Cherry or Bakul Tree (Mimusops elengi), Hawaiian Guava, Asenia triloba, and Jakfruit (Blackgold).

This picture is taken from the start of the driveway looking through the orchard towards the north east. There are Jakfruit, Vietnamese Mint, local feral Guava, Loquat, Saba Nut or Malabar Chestnut (Pachira aquatica), and Taro planted out.

This picture is also from the same location, but looking towards the east. The Asenia triloba are in the pink protective plant guards and the Hawaiian Guava is to the right.

While it can be seen that many of the plants raised about the "natural" ground, I since found that with settling this was not nearly enough. So I know put much more effort into raising the level for the planting of each tree.

So how do things look now...

This is now the view from the top of the main path down the centre of the orchard towards to the start of the driveway. Note incredible growth of the Red Currant Tree. (Yes the neighbouring bloodwood tree continues to shed branches during heavy winds.)

Next is the view from the start of the driveway looking north east. Note the growth of the feral Guava and the Vietnamese Mint on the far left. The Cassava blocks the view of most of the rest of the orchard.

This time we are looking towards the east from the same location. Note the growth of the Hawaiian Guava.

Now for the overall view.

I have found that the effort in making the swales out of compost, using on-the-spot composting techniques, has been extremely successful. The plants are really responding to the nutrient rich soil. For some trees it is a bit much, such as the Custard Apple and Spanish Cherry. These trees suffer from scale attack and the usual associated problems. The Spanish Cherry is particularly vulnerable to scale.

As I have been building up the swales over time, I have had problems during some heavy rain events with low points on the swales being washed downhill (although not off the property). This was particularly the case when a number of uphill swales were only partially completed. This problem has almost been addressed now, with only a few swales not completed and there are no longer multi-swale gaps.

As the plants get settled into their places and the soil life builds up, I have been seeing trees such as the Carambola (Averrhoa carambola) putting on huge amounts of growth. Our unseasonably wet spring and heavy rain periods have been great for the growth of the trees. None have had any problems with root rot.

As for fruits, I have been enjoying some Acerola Cherries. This tree is simply amazing in its output. It has only been in the ground for about 4 months and has been supplying a trickle of fruit for the entire period. But now it is really starting some serious production. Goodbye vitamin C tablets!