Years of Black Plastic

With hindsight, I realise that weed-mat may be a ‘solution’ favoured by those feeling overwhelmed and under-resourced: overwhelmed by weeds and under-resourced in time and physical capacity. It seems like a good idea because you think your backbreaking weeding days are over, but in fact they are only just beginning! My experience with weed-mat was difficult lesson that anything which does not belong in an ecosystem, such as plastic, is never a good solution.

But much as I hate it, black plastic is a very useful thing for smothering out the things you don’t want – for me that is mostly grass, but also things like swamp celery and farmer’s friends which can get out of control (and whose prickles I am constantly pulling out of my clothes and my cats’ fur!). I am more than happy to have weeds around, especially the more useful ones, and weeds are an integral part of a food forest – but everything in moderation!

I have two types of black plastic; the weed-mat that I ill-advisedly bought and may as well re-use until I can do so no longer, and square sheets of thick plastic that arrive in nurseries on pallets, separating layers of pavers. The second type is better for two reasons: firstly because it is being re-used and I have not created a demand for it; secondly, because it is thick and non-porous it does not allow air or water to penetrate so kills anything under it much quicker. Of course this is not great for soil organisms so you wouldn’t want it on too long, or on a space where you are going to be planting anything – I use it on pathways and edges of beds where the grass is creeping in.

Weed-mat allows air and water through so does not really kill anything underneath it, just weakens and slows it down, giving you a breather if you haven’t got time to tackle an area for a while. I have an overgrown bed at the back where I am planning to move the asapragus; rather than having to constantly keep on top of it and anything escaping from it, I have put weed-mat over it until i am ready to use it. An added benefit is that some of that material will also compost down underneath creating a richer soil.

But ultimately, I am looking forward to the day when I have NO black plastic in my garden anymore. Where the shade discourages sun loving couch and kikuyu, where my ecosystem is in balance, and where the odd weed is welcome and not likely to invade in plague proportions.

In the meantime, here are some picturesque views of my garden in all its plasticy glory 😉

Gravel Regret

This was my ‘seems like a good idea at the time’ phase, though I still have no idea what madness persuaded me to smother parts of my garden in plastic. (Actually yes, I do… see the next post).

During my first summer, before all the drought, we had a lot of rain and I couldn’t get to the back of the garden without looking like a mud wrestler. So I thought gravel would be a good way to solve that problem.

I laid a weed-mat pathway from the front of the house, round the side and into the back, and covered it with gravel – at huge cost to my back which is not great at the best of times. (Not wishing to add to the amount of quarrying in the world the gravel I bought was crushed recycled concrete, brick etc. and the good stuff was a second hand freebie – loaded bucket by heavy bucket from a friend who had just moved into a house with gravel he did not want.)

After three hot summers, made even hotter by the gravel, I am in the throes of serious gravel regret – especially as weeds love it! Never again. I have decided to pull up all the weed-mat underneath (it does not even remotely stop weeds – they just happily germinate in the gravel), allow the gravel to sink into the ground over time, and plant some groundcovers like Dichondra along the pathways.

Whilst shovelling barrows full of gravel and transporting the buckets, I thought many times of the ‘minimum inputs’ philosophy of permaculture and cursed my capacity to somehow always make more work for myself. Being a person who tries to recycle, re-use and not waste anything, I often find myself trying to transport heavy or awkward things. But the whole gravel experience has taught me something very valuable, which is that if it seems too much like hard work then it probably is, and I should think of another way.

Based on the information and experience I had at the time, I thought gravel would be the better option. Having subsequently used cardboard and woodchip on other paths around the garden I have discovered that woodchip is a superb weed suppressant that breaks down into wonderful compost which can be used in the garden. Of course, depending on the level of decomposition, the woodchip may still become somewhat muddy in a monsoon, but its advantages far outweigh this inconvenience. A hard lesson, but a valuable one.

Grapevine Aircon

After my first, incredibly hot summer in a weatherboard house with no insulation, no air-conditioning, and not even very good ventilation, I knew I needed to do something very quickly to shade the western side of the house. Grapes were the obvious solution, providing shade in summer and letting light and warmth through in the winter.

I was very lucky that my partner at the time was extremely handy and very keen to do things around the house – he built me a pergola that the grapes could climb up, providing excellent shade to that side of the house – thank you Les.

Grapes grow very quickly and within two years of planting them they had become quite thick. On a hot day, as soon as you walk underneath the pergola the temperature cools by at least five degrees.

First Homemade Turmeric

I am generally good at planning, planting and looking after things – but I am quite lousy at harvesting anything. I get a thrill of pleasure at how well the rocket is doing, and then completely ignore it until it’s gone to seed; I carefully tend my zucchini plants until they are magnificent, but don’t get there until they have become giant marrows; and I always, always dig up sweet potato when it’s either too big and woody or too small to bother with.

So I am ecstatic about my first good turmeric harvest, which I not only got out of the ground at the right time, but have processed into usable spice powder!

I gave them a quick scrub, sliced thinly and into the dehydrator for only about five hours, then whizzed up in the spice mill. Peeling the rhizomes would result in a ‘cleaner’ powder, but I don’t mind a bit of skin and dirt in there 😉

The Unhappy Lemon

They tell you that growing citrus in pots is easy and that they love it in containers. But I have been growing a dwarf lemon in a huge terracotta pot for about four years now and, after a brief moment at the beginning where it seemed to be happy, it has been suffering from depression on and off for about three years.

I admit to keeping one or two sneaky lemons in the first couple of seasons instead of picking everything off to direct its energy into growth, but I dutifully picked all the flowers and tiny fruit off most times. I topped it up with new compost whenever it seemed to need revitalising; but perhaps I did not keep enough water up to it – a mistake in my garden as I have a chronic ant problem, the suspected cause of my slow lemon death.

My little Meyer finally succumbed to a severe scale infestation and got covered in sooty mould. I am quite ashamed of my dreadful parenting and the fact that I could potentially lose such a beautiful little tree to sheer neglect. After fighting a losing battle with white oil as a weapon against the tiny monsters, I gave up and went for the drastic option – I cut everything off, dug it up, and planted it in the ground. It is in a special spot at the back of the garden, where I will also put the dwarf lime so they can keep each other company. (The special spot being where my beautiful Zoe was buried two years ago.)

My gorgeous Zoe, not the prettiest girl but the most beautiful!


Less than two months later and the first signs of new growth are coming through!