Pounding Sand Down Under
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Q. This week's feature literally comes to us from the other side of the world!
Alex in Australia (specifically Adelaide) writes: "Hello from Australia! We may be in the opposite season to the US, but we still look forward to your weekly show. Your recent podcast about coffee grounds was even more encouragement for me to take home the leftovers from the office coffee machine (much to the surprise of my co-workers).
"Here in South Australia we have a Mediterranean climate with extremely dry summers easily reaching 45 degrees centigrade for days at a time (that's 113 degrees Fahrenheit). I live only 700 meters (less than half a mile) from the coastline and so have sandy, water repellent soil. We've been inspired to improve it as much as possible by composting heavily and maintaining the worm farm collectively known as 'Barney' to provide plenty of organic matter to feed our garden. Once again, thank you for your weekly inspiration, Mike and team."
We emailed Alex back to thank him for his missive and to ask if he had been affected by the terrible wildfires racing across his continent. He replied:
"Not right here in Adelaide. We did have fires about 40 km east of us in the Adelaide Hills, but the fires were much worse down south on Kangaroo Island. The fires that you would've heard about were on the east coast, mainly through New South Wales and Victoria. (I looked up Alex's location, and he's on a spit of land on the Southern Coast; a very interesting location, surrounded by water on three sides). He continues: [The fires were] "pretty scary scenes and are sadly becoming more common. [But it's a] part of life over here; as with your blizzards, cyclones and tornadoes."
A. Although Alex didn't exactly ask a question, he gives us an opportunity to discuss sandy soil, which is way preferable to clay soil. As I have said frequently, the only real way to improve clay soil is with a backhoe, a strong throwing arm and raised beds. But sandy soil can become perfect with the addition of an equal amount of compost. That's relatively easy for most of us in The States, but a bit of a chore Down Under (and in similar climes here, like most of Arizona and Southern California, plus parts of Texas, New Mexico and Southern Florida.)
That's because the biggest ingredient in a classic compost pile is shredded fall leaves, which are abundant in most--but not all--of the US, and apparently not at all in Australia. Thanks to a crash course on Wikipedia (to whom I donate every year to help continue their fine work), I have some idea of what grows Down Under, and deciduous trees are not that common.
They do have a lot of eucalyptus, which unfortunately is better than gasoline at fueling wildfires and useless in making compost.
They also have a surprising diversity of grasses, which can supply carbon to a compost pile after they have been cut and dried. Yes, fresh grasses are 'green' and nitrogen rich, but dried grass becomes brown and carbonaceous. They also have a number of different seagrasses, which would make excellent contributions to a pile, but not if their harvesting damages the environment.
Unfortunately, their seaweed is essentially useless, as only seaweed from cold waters has magical powers in the garden. Plus, there are probably thirty venomous creatures just waiting for you to step near the water, plus sharks (although the East coast of the continent seems to have a much higher concentration of venomous and hungry thingees than Alex's South coast).
And then there are the abundant acacia trees, which the Aussies call "wattles". Possessing some of the hardest wood known to exist, Biblical scholars believe that the Ark of the Covenant the Israelites used to tear down the walls of Jericho was made of acacia wood, with some suggesting that the Ark was loaded with rocks and a primitive form of gunpowder and was fired on the seventh day of their march around the city, "when the walls came a tumbling down".
More pertinent to our purposes is that acacia is a legume; a plant that sucks plant-feeding nitrogen from the air and stores it in its tissues, making it living fertilizer. Acacia leaves will be tough to shred, but they are rich in plant food. If shredded, they could be used as a compost ingredient; or they could be used whole as a moisture conserving mulch that would slowly release nitrogen to nearby plants.
And let's not forget Barney the communal worm bin; a brilliant idea in a region where compost materials are scarce. That leads us to a condensed plan for hot, dry climes:
• Compost bins and piles are for normal climes. Where temps reach high extremes, compost in a pit to conserve moisture; and keep the pit covered with acacia leaves and branches.
• Practice water harvesting. Tamp down unused areas and then create little channels so that any rain gets funneled to a tree, growing area or compost pit. If occasional rains are torrential, install rain barrels to catch roof runoff for later use.
• Utilize greywater. Where fresh water is scarce, divert used water from your home to drip lines that feed into your garden. Water from clothes washing, showering, bathing, kitchen sinks; pretty much anything other than dishwashers and toilets.
• Special Note: Rainwater can be stored for later use; greywater cannot. Because it contains traces of soap, dirt and such, it must immediately be run out to the plants you wish to water, otherwise it becomes nasty black water.
• If you don't wish to replumb your home, take baths instead of showers and carry the precious left-over water out to the garden in buckets. The all-knowing Google says that the average bathtub holds 70 to 80 gallons! You only shower? If it's a shower tub, put the stopper in and use whatever water you get. Stall shower? Take a couple of buckets in with you. There's just no good reason to w