January 2021

Karen Sutherland's regular permaculture tips.

You may be lucky enough to have a European elderberry (also called elderflower) plant in your garden or growing nearby, known botanically as Sambucus nigra. About this time of year, although it can vary according to where you are located, you may see the small berries ripening to dark purple. If so, get out there and harvest, as birds love them and may get there before you do – depriving you of the valuable berries but also most likely spreading them into surrounding areas where they can become weedy. If you grow them, it’s best to protect the fruit clusters with mesh bags once they have set, as they can ripen quite quickly. Growing your own elderberry plant is easy from bare woody pieces (hardwood cuttings), pencil thickness, taken in winter. Or try taking semi-hardwood cuttings in spring, which are further up the branch, green wood but still pencil thickness if possible. The latter can also be grown in a jar of water on a windowsill.

There is a myriad of uses for elderberries and this one is my favourite. Elderberry syrup is a traditional remedy for preventing, as well as treating, colds and flu. Science has confirmed and reinforced ancient knowledge about this tonic, proving it can shorten the amount of time you are sick and reduce the symptoms. At the first sign of a sore throat, I take elderberry syrup and it usually knocks it on the head overnight. Collect your elderberries, taking care to remove the small green stems as they do contain cyanide. The berries sometimes fall off the stems or you can rake them off with a fork or broad tooth comb. Give them a rinse in a sieve to remove any dust and shake off extra moisture. Pop them into a measuring jug, to see what you’ve collected. Then put them into a stainless-steel pot, adding two parts filtered water for each one part of berries. Bring the pot to the boil and simmer gently for 30 minutes, which removes the harmful natural chemicals this plant contains. Before and during simmering, use a metal potato masher to crush the fruit as much as possible, to release its goodness. Let the mix cool to at least room temperature, before straining the liquid through a cheesecloth or muslin fabric, around four layers thick. Squeeze the pulp in the bag thoroughly with clean hands to extract every last bit of juice. My last batch was made with two-and-a-half cups of fruit and five cups of water, and after simmering and straining I ended up with three cups of liquid. I then added one cup of raw honey and one cup of vodka, for preservation. Not everyone wants to add vodka if they’re using it as a tonic for children. You can keep this in the fridge for a year, although it should keep in a cool pantry if you add the vodka.

What’s in your harvest basket at the moment? Summer is stone fruit feasting time for peaches and nectarines and although they can be tricky to grow, with the right choice of variety and some helpful hints you could be picking your own fragrant fruits in two years or so. Although there are many great dwarf trees to choose from, the easiest variety to grow by far are the super dwarf Trixzie varieties, Pixzee peach and Nectazee nectarine. These are available as either low mounded shrubs, or grafted standards, which grow into small trees. These varieties need no pruning, other than to remove any dead wood, and the main care they need besides watering and feeding is to be sprayed with (organic) copper spray in winter to prevent the dreaded leaf curl. Each tree can produce up to fifty fruits.

Chickens have their origins in the jungle, so remember to provide shade and a feeling of protection for your girls. Tree cover gives chickens and quails a safe feeling as well as providing respite from the hot sun. A balance of sun and shade is ideal, as birds also need sun. A traditional climber to provide chook house shade is the humble choko plant, or you could try a passionfruit vine. Locating your chickens partly under an established fruit tree, such as an apple, is ideal as they will help with codling moth control. A quick-growing tree to plant in a chicken run is a dwarf mulberry tree. After a year or so to establish, they respond well to harsh pruning after fruiting, often fruiting again, making them easy to manage.

Chickens are omnivores and thrive when they can look for small insects in the garden to eat. A simple way of finding insects for your girls to forage for is to water the ground so that insects come to the surface. A simple sprinkle on a hot day in your chicken run will not only cool them down but encourage insects to appear, making for some happy chickens!

For your garden to function well and for natural controls to be happening, besides avoiding all chemical use and planting flowers for beneficial insects, you need to be aware of the good insects in your garden. Learn to recognise various beneficial insects in your garden and the space around your home. In summer, you may see tiny native lacewings, which can be green or brown flying about at night. These little creatures navigate by the moon and are affected by strong outdoor lighting. To help them, try to keep outdoor lights to a minimum in the warmer months when they are active.

Even in the peak of summer production, all good home vegetable growers know that they must be thinking already of winter vegetable planting! Now’s the time to look at your crop rotations, decide what you’re going to plant where next, and check your seed supplies. You may need to swap with some friends or neighbours or source something new online. Getting a good range of seeds and seedlings in your soil in late summer/early autumn is the key to a good harvest in winter and spring. Some quick to produce goodies are Hakurei turnip and Russian kale, while you’ll have to make long-term space for garlic (harvested around December) peas, snow peas and broad beans, which don’t start producing until the bees get active again in late winter/early spring.


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