Magnetic Island North Queensland
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A young koala's beach adventure

June 22nd 2010
Gardening Guru draws a large and attentive crowd

Phil Murray talks gardening About 70 Magnetic Islanders attended a hugely informative talk last Sunday by ABC's Gardening Talkback guru, Phil Murray> The event was organised by Magnetic Island Nature Care (MINCA) and held in the garden of Des Lavery and Sue Birch in Lilac Street, Nelly Bay.

The talk was developed around MINCA's ongoing Low Carbon Diet challenge which has seen teams of Islanders from various bays competing to see who can reduce their carbon footprint the most over a three month period.

Phil Murray commented that there are not many reliable books or gardening programs aimed for gardening in our dry tropics location. One notable exception was however, Leonie Norrington's Tropical Food Gardens which we understand can be ordered through Mary Who Bookshop in Townsville.

The cover to Tropical Food Gardens

Phil Murray took aim at the TV gardeners who, for instance, build vegetable gardens that are too big for inexperienced gardeners and which utilise imported growing mediums, fertilisers (including organic) and many other materials which have come a long way (read oil consumption) and therefore are carbon intensive. Phil put it bluntly: “Money is carbon!”

To counter the perception that we need to import so much to make a good vegie garden Phil's suggested strategy, at least for newcomers to vegetable gardening, is to start small. Much can be achieved with a simple styro-foam box which can be planted out with fresh greens for quick kitchen use. He added that just one successful tomato vine can produce a lot of fruit. “It's better to plant one instead of twenty,” he said and that unless you have good preservation skills you may well face a huge amount of tomatoes all together while just one plant with the next planted 6 weeks later could well be enough and more consistent.

Phil spoke later of how it is best to make sure that tomatoes are well pruned to allow light into their mass of foliage to reduce hiding places for bugs. This related mostly to removing the “laterals” Here is a simple video: (click here)

For locals looking to build low carbon intensive soil for a good vegie garden Phil recommended the otherwise, “completely useless” golden cane which prolifically sheds fronds which can be laid flat onto the vegie patch area and covered by fresh lawn clippings which will provide the nitrogen required to break down the carbon in the fronds and turn it into good quality mulch.

Phil understands that most Island gardens are found on poor but well drained sandy or decomposed granite soils. His advice is to look for local sources of organic material and he was keen to extoll the virtues of having at least a “wet season” lawn which could be harvested for this purpose. He suggested trenching coconut fibre, fronds and other nearby sources of carbon then covering it with nitrogen-rich fresh lawn clippings. A proud mower man he claimed that although a small amount of petrol could be used in the mower it was a fraction of that used driving to a nursery and buying mulch material which may have been driven many miles beforehand. Phil's use of the mower was also a little more adventurous than the norm. He prefers hitting a pile of prunings with his mower that using a time-consuming home mulcher.

Phil Murray and his attentive audience

One attendee was concerned that termites would be a problem with mulch from the green waste dump and while it was acknowledged that weeds are easily transported by the mulch, termites would be destroyed on the whole once the mulch was spread at a new location (away from their home colony)

For everybody's benefit Phil spoke and answered questions for well over two hours and for the benefit of those who were unable to attend, and, as a point of reference for those who did, a number of dot points of gardening advice noted by Magnetic Times are listed below. It should be noted that a lot of the points were related to questions which were raised so the flow of subjects covered is initially fairly random in nature.

*We asked about nematodes (tiny creatures which feed on roots and cause roots to be deformed into knotted and poorly functioning lumps) which are common on Magnetic Island. Phil recommended that the more organic material in the soil the less nematodes like it and to avoid replanting the same vege in the same location each season. Pouring molasses over the ground is another approach. He also suggested using a “green” mulch: a crop planted to be dug into the soil as it matures. Common bird seed or mustard seed was suggested as good options.

*Advice for pollinating veges under shade cloth was sought. Phil commented that insects will, most probably find a way in anyway and that more of a problem can be that moths and other threats can be caught in under the shade cloth and protected from birds which would ordinarily predate on them. Opening up for periods during the day was suggested.

*Another concern was regarding fruit sucking moths and Phil's advice was to use old mossie netting to protect the fruit or simply bag the bunches when they ripen. The same advice might be used for tomatoes which are prone to sucking bugs.

*On trees Phil is a fan of many new dwarf varieties especially ones that are double or triple grafted so that fruiting can be extended. Keeping even non dwarf trees at a fruit accessible level is also a must and Phil demonstrated how one should prune out central trunks to allow lower wider branching and to let light into the centre of the tree so the middle can bear fruit also.

*We asked about using bore water in gardens and Phild was adamant that bore water should first be checked for E.coli bacteria. “There is lots of polluted bore water from septics and I wouldn't want that on my vegetables,” he said. He also recommends testing for ph, mineral/salt content. He suggested that saltiness in the water could, 9 out of 10 times be dealt with by adding gypsum to the garden. He said that later in the dry season bores get lower and are more likely to give up saltier water. If possible, more watering than usual can help dissolve salts or, better still, watering with fresher water. The best places for water testing were irrigation shops. Pool shops could do some tests and ph testers were readily available.

*A question was asked about cashews and how best to safely remove the highly toxic flesh which surrounds the nut. Phil recommended a very simple trick. Freeze them then crack them open and the nut will come clean away from its surrounds. Phil went on to comment on the native cashew trees which are quite similar to the exotic. He said they were known as the Marking nut” tree and although the fruit quality varies they were “a nice spreading tree”.

Phil speaks from inside Des Lavery's impressive Island garden

Phil then went on to list his own must-have plants for this region with some helpful tips on each:

1. Paw paw: Plant lots. They are low maintenance and can provide a harvest in 12 months. Don't bother drying the seed just rub off the seed 's sack with sand which, when washed off, reveals the lumpy shaped seed ready to plant. The seeds germinate within a month but don't take the first plants to appear. Wait for the medium range of germinated seeds to appear. Phil believes that the tallest seedlings are more likely to be males (you only need one girls) so choose the smaller seedlings. Phil also suggests it's best to plant paw paw at Christmas time so that they will benefit from the wet season growth and should fruit at an easy-to-reach height. “Don't be scared to chop the tops off,” says Phil. Pawpaws are hardy so long at the cut trunk is capped to stop water entering and rotting the plant. They will always put out new branches to provide low-altitude fruit.

2. Bananas: (Check to see what varieties can be grown) Can be grown at the end of a grey water pipe but not continually. Bananas suffer from many diseases and its important to keep their surrounds clean of the heavy build-up of trash and leaf litter or cover over with lawn clippings. Phil recommends that only three trunks be permitted from each stump area: “A mother, daughter and baby.” One should snap the flower off when the hand stops setting fruit. This directs more energy towards making the fruit rather than the flower which can also be cooked. The bunch should be cut as the shape of the fruit changes from an angular (cross section) to a rounded shape. Potash is the key to good bananas.

3. Any citrus are good to grow in this climate. With space saving, high productivity and diversity in mind, Phil believes they should be heavily constrained and grown up in pots. “Take them out for a root prune and this will also stimulate fruiting. Keep them small and plant lots of varieties. You can even plant a bundle of different varieties bound up together and they will graft into each other.” he said.

4. Any of the carambolas or star fruit: but need to be kept small and contained with the fruit netted. Tip pruning recommended.

1. Silver beet: lots of nutrient and not much eats it. One of the last things to die in a neglected garden. Improved nutrient-wise after being eaten by a pest as the plant releases extra nutrients.

2. Sweet potato: useful protecting living green mulch. Quite reasonable crops with TLC. Plant every month and remove all of old crop to stop nematodes. Eat leaf tips. Huge range of varieties. Plant runners at 30cms or 12 inches. Try not to let roots form along the runners as this will mean less energy to make tubers at the original base.

3. Cassava: low nutrient but high starch value. Very easy to grow and in poor soils. Can be used as a trellis for growing beans.

4. Taro: best on a wet spot or spring if there is one in the garden. Taro sold in supermarkets is OK to grow from.

5. Beans: most traditional English varieties are hit by bean fly. Dry lawn clippings or shade cloth help to protect base. Snake beans however grow all year round and should be picked when skinny. The tips of the vine are also edible.

6. Pepino: grown on stake or wire cage. Bugs will get them if on the ground.

7. Pumpkin: Best planted in June or July for Christmas.

8. Cucumbers: grow well but suffer from powdery mildew. Best treated with 50/50 milk and water spray. Seaweed based spray also helps strengthen the plants against this problem.

9. Wild capsicum: they look like chillis but not hot. The best seed (this is a general rule) come from successful locally grown plants.

10. Big hearting lettuce can be grown until Christmas. Non hearting types like mignonette can be removed completely from the soil at 4 weeks and eaten whole – roots and all. Lettuce turn bitter as they start to go to seed.

11. Asparagus beans or winged peas: should be picked when very small but will grow in winter and summer.

12. Ockra: Grows well but should be picked small. Great as a soup thickener and for gumbo. Some may not like its mucilaginous texture.

More generally, at this time of year broccoli and even cauliflower can be grown here. Zucchini and eggplant should be grown quickly. Phil is impressed with the long Lebanese eggplants for their productivity. “I've never seen so much produce on a plant he commented. But there should be no longer than three weeks from flower to fruit otherwise they will grow bitter.

Phil Murray was also keen to advise locals to grow stuff all year round and keep things alive in their garden throughout so as to continually improve the organic content of their soil.

Phil Murray was applauded for his very informative talk and thanked for his efforts by MINCA's publicity Officer Pen Sheridan.

Magnetic Times hopes that this report will trigger further comment (below) and gardening advice for people attempting to lower the carbon footprint and enjoy fresh and healthy food from their gardens.

Phil Murray's, ever popular, Gardening Talkback program can be heard at 10am on Friday mornings on ABC north Queensland.

Story & photos: George Hirst

To add your comment,
or read those of others, see below

Gardening Guru draws a large and attentive crowd
Wendy Tubman
June 22nd 2010
Thanks George for a great report! Another benefit of lots of home-grown vegies is that they encourage more vegetarian dishes - and cut down the demand for those methane-burping/farting cows and sheep! I'm please to be able to report that the participants in the Low Carbon Diet Interbay Challenge have been achieving some staggering savings in electricity use (and their bills!). Stay tuned for some amazing results at the beginning of August. And finally, I was fascinated to learn from Phil that pawpaw leaves are good for salads - but when I had a taste of mine, they were really bitter-tasting. What am I doing wrong (in relation to pawpaw leaves!)?
June 22nd 2010
Thanks Des and Sue for hosting this event. Des, your garden is a credit to you. Thanks to MINCA for bringing these events to the island.
Lorna Hempstead
June 22nd 2010
Editor, this article is a fantastic resource. I wasn't able to attend the presentation - but I've certainly got plenty of useful tips from the write up.
Sylvia Hayes
June 22nd 2010
This was a great morning and the surprisingly high number of participants possibly indicates the healthy state of gardens on Magnetic Island...I have some tomatoes and herbs in 2 styrofoam boxes,(covered by a spare mossie net) and this is a totally maintenance/hassle-free garden which delivers me delicious fresh greens.
However Phil has dangerously inspired me to plant more varieties...I also feel a beehive coming up!Thanks for the great tips ! Great coverage George!
Suzy Gilmour
June 25th 2010
SUE and Des's veggie garden with its adjoining chook run was an INSPIRED venue - it was also the site of a MI Community Gardening plant-in last year. More please!
Phil Murray
July 1st 2010
Wendy, The really young leaves are used but need to be blanched ect or pickled. Of note a tea was made from fresh leaves and seeds as a very effective contraceptive think for most people the fruit green cooked or ripe eaten or used as a marinade for meat. Same with the bruised leaves. The seeds used occasionally as a worm remover and cleanser are also useful. I had a great day and it was great to see so many people there thank you for comming -keep on planting, seed saving and swapping and feed the Island!!!Great story George.
July 6th 2010
Thanks, Phil. I'll keep that worm remover and cleanser tip in mind. Ditto the contraceptive, although thinking about that......hmmmm.
March 4th 2013
Terrific story! I keep coming back to read it, as it has so much good information on backyard fruit and vege gardening. Thank you Magnetic Times and Phil Murray!
July 12th 2013
Brilliant. How did I miss this first time round? So much more than I remembered from attending.
Thanks George

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