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Kids Move to the Country – Part II

Pit-falls, projects and laughs from our Permaculture journey

“Andrew, I need to talk to you about something,” I’ve sought out the new president of the Community Garden at Peregian Beach, Andrew Maitland, to ask an important yet delicate question.


“It’s about slugs,”


“Yes, I have a lovely, bumper crop of slugs.”

“Ah!” He smiles, nodding, and looks at the ground.

We’ve had constant rain, in varying velocities, for a good part of the past week. My little kale seedlings, raised carefully in the new shade-house before being planted into the no-dig beds, have holes in most of their leaves and host an average Australian family: mum, dad and one and a half kids. I’ve counted as I’ve squashed them.

“Have you tried molasses? It’s a deterrent.”

“You mean I should water it into the mulch around the plant?”

“No, you can water the actual plant with it. Mix a table-spoon of molasses into a watering can of water and pour it over the plant.”
“Oh!” What a perfect solution. The slugs don’t have a sweet-tooth, but the soil microbes we want to feed do.

I poured ten watering cans full of the mixture to cover all the veggie gardens when I got home. Whether it was the molasses or the fact it didn’t rain that night, when I did my rounds in the morning there wasn’t a single slug in sight. In fact, come to think of it, even with subsequent showers I haven’t had to contend with them again. So, we’ll chalk that up as success number one for this post. Molasses plus slugs equals happy gardeners and unhappy slugs.

Molasses mixed with water kept the slugs away for about a week,
but after a week of rain we need to reapply.

Gradually things are coming together on our one and a half acre block. Located on the main road into Cooran in Queensland, it backs onto rolling green farmland dotted with dams, an old dairy and homestead. While we were completing the PDC in Melbourne, my mum house-sat for us. Mid-way through the course I received a phone call.

“Sweet-heart, I just thought I should let you know I saw the farmer on his four-wheel motorbike, spraying his paddocks today, which isn’t good, is it, because along his fence is where you want to grow your organic food, isn’t it? Anyway, I just thought you should know; maybe someone down there can tell you what you can do?”

“Hmm. Yeah maybe.” I thanked her and hung up. Bugger. Our new tree-change isn’t looking so pristine after all.

Returning home we could see the dying grasses, bright yellow amongst the lush green pastures. Apart from planting wind-breaks and non-edible plants along the fence I couldn’t think of much else we could do. And besides, he probably only sprays once a season.

I was wrong. Approximately every three weeks we spot our neighbour, not exactly hooning around, but stop-starting, stop-starting as he weaves his way through the grasses, pausing long enough to load his spray-gun and pump-action the life out of his weeds, and soil.

Last week when I was in the garden, our paths crossed.

As it turns out, he is a huge cricket fan, has lived in the area for forty-eight years and used to own the land we now call home. He once grew oats on it, before turning it over to milking cows and eventually sub-dividing it into multiple blocks.

I lean over the fence, as you should in situations like this, exchanging pleasantries. Yet, as he sits there, with three bottles of poison, one to the fore and two at the rear, and his gun resting ever so nonchalantly over his lap, I’m trying to think of a polite way to broach the subject of organics, my sensitive health and such matters. Better warm up to it, I think.

So we continue chatting. He’s lived through two droughts while he’s been here. During which the dams dried up, the river was a quagmire and he was lucky to have town water for his cows. Now, the dams are full and everything’s green. Droughts seem like a distant, almost forgotten weather pattern, something I must take note of however. He is most disappointed I haven’t been watching the cricket, Australia vs England, and while I think we are on neutral territory he suddenly stands up in his stirrups, turns and takes aim at a clump of tall grass on our boundary.

“I’d better get that for you, or it will jump the fence and end up in your veggie garden!” With one smooth hand-to-hand motion he’s refilled his gun and a stream of chemicals is shooting through the air, uncomfortably close to my pumpkin seedlings. Now, I have great respect for the older generation, so I don’t open my mouth. Quite frankly I’m too stunned to say anything. Not much good now, anyway, I think, as the concoction has already splayed all over the leaves.

We chat further until I finally raise the courage to ask what he is spraying. A certain type of grass, as it turns out, that the cattle could eat but don’t much like, and he wants to eradicate to allow more room for their favourite crops.

“Not much you can do,” he says, “so I just come out here and go around every few weeks.”

I look at the vast ground he has to cover on his four-wheeled operation. I can sense we are coming from vastly different angles, so I hold tight.

“But what I am trying to grow, is this little ground-cover, can you see it?” He’s parting the long strappy grass with the tip of his gun to reveal a string of large clover-type leaves beneath.

“It’s a legume. And they have little things that grow on their roots, taking nitrogen from the air and putting it in the soil. So I won’t have to fertilise the whole paddock!”

Ah! Nitrogen fixing plants! We are speaking the same language at last. A small bridge I can use.

“Oh!” I say, enthusiastic, “That’s a great idea.”

“You may get some of it growing in your place too.”

“Great! And you know, if you see weeds coming close to our fence, don’t worry about it. We’re trying to grow things organically so if grass gets in I don’t mind just pulling it out by hand. I’ve had some health issues and am sensitive to chemicals so I’d prefer to weed things out.” Phew, I’ve politely said my piece. Well done, Nic.

The legume our neighbour is cultivating. Anyone know what it is?

“I just sprayed that one because it was going to end up in your veggie plot.” I’m not sure if he is defensive or just trying to clear up any misunderstanding. “I won’t spray your lemon trees or anything like that,” he says, waving the gun at our row of citrus.

It’s at this moment I realise the gulf between us is too wide for this respectful young gardener to cross, at least on our first meeting. I take solace thinking of all the fumes I’ve breathed in my life, living in the heart of Brisbane and working as a painter with oil paints, and I weigh up the costs. He is a nice old man, who has lived in the area almost twice my life-time. His paddocks and cows look healthy. I will just plant more arrowroot, lemongrass and particularly comfrey, which I’ve read is a great weed-barrier, along the fence for the time being and keep our convivial relationship growing. Maybe if I ever watch a game of cricket with him, we can broach the subject again.

A typical veggie garden guild that works as a wind-break and weed-barrier
in our area. Arrowroot, great for ‘chop and drop’, lemon-grass, excellent for
mulch, and comfrey, the famous compost activator.

These past couple of months have held a lot of new experiences. Some good, some not so good. I’ve felt like I’ve almost reached my quota for new experiences this month. But one task was on the list that wouldn’t go away. We needed to phone local excavators for quotes to dig our new swales in the orchard, so we could implement Dee’s design (which we spoke about last time).

That said, I’ve decided to tear myself away from house and garden projects to go for a walk, around three times a week, and see what the rest of the world is up to. Already it’s yielded results. I’ve observed (observation: a useful Permaculture principle) other people’s gardens, seeing what grows well in our area and taking note of plants I’d like to take cuttings from in the cover of darkness, if I ever summon the stealth or courage. Or perhaps introduce myself to the owners as I once did, being rewarded with a proud and personal garden tour.

The other day, I was taking one of my new thrice-weekly walks, when I came across some earth works, of a sort. A lone excavator operator was standing by his truck, having lunch, while his digger was perched on a newly cleared house-site. We exchanged hellos and I passed by, expecting to feel the awkwardness that goes with being a solo girl passing a work-site. I didn’t feel it. And before I was completely conscious of what was happening, I’d turned around and was walking back to him. Gee whiz, Nic. What are you doing?

“Hey there. Actually, I wonder if you could help me? We are looking to do some earth-works at our place.” “Ok.” He said, clear faced, without the sound of a cat-call or wink in sight.

I haven’t phoned any local excavators, afraid of sounding a fool asking about something which I know very little about. Plus, I don’t think I’m ready for the shock of the potential quote.

“We have a block just behind here and we want to dig some swales. You know? Basically ditches on contour.” I’m feeling a little more confident now I can say ‘on contour’ like I know what I mean, “piling the dirt into mounds behind.”

“So you’re not looking to take the dirt anywhere?” he said.

“No, we want to keep the dirt. We got a quote to hire a little digger and do it ourselves. But I don’t know…”

“I wouldn’t be doing it that way,” he said. “If you get someone in who knows what they’re doing they can get in and do the job quickly. It wouldn’t take them long. What size block are you talking about?”

I give him some rough estimates.

“Ok, you’d want to get someone with a three or four tonner and a swivel bucket.”

I repeat this to him, trying to lock this new vernacular into memory.

“A three or four tonner with a swivel bucket…”

“Yeah. I don’t know anyone around here, I’m from up north, but that’s what you’d need.”

“What kind of cost would we be looking at?” I’m relieved to ask someone who won’t be profiting from my naivety and or be offended if I double-over in shock at the price.

“About $98 an hour, plus tax.”

It was going to be $400 to hire a two tonne excavator and do it ourselves, so this new solution is looking up. Piece by piece the puzzle is coming together. Dreams and reality, slugs and molasses, designs and diggers are less daunting and more doable by the day.

Tomorrow we’re off to visit a permaculture property that was the inspiration for Dee’s design, integrating swales and support species into our orchard. We’re looking forward to seeing the design in action, being able to visualise the scale before calling some excavators for quotes. Hello, we’re looking for a three or four tonner with a swivel bucket… A three or four toner with a swivel bucket….


  1. Nice one Nicola – nice to see you sharing info and inspiration (and smiles!). Re slugs, not sure if you’re ready for them yet, but if molasses fails you, you could look into getting a couple of ducks. They just love slugs….

    Others – why not copy Nicola’s example here. We’re paying Nicola for her posts. This brings more readers, which in turn brings more info-sharing as readers give knowledge back to the writers, and so on. Find out more here. Don’t keep your experiences to yourself! And, you get some extra dollars to diversity your income stream.

  2. Hi everyone,

    I enjoyed your arcticle nicola and it got me thinking. My parents own a farm near pittsworth in Queensland and they have a terrible problem with a weed we know as “mother of millions”. I’m fairly certain it was introduced. Unfortunately it is poisonous and can cause serious problems if livestock ever end up eating it. The area that this plant has infested is, unfortunately just too large for my parents to go around pulling it out by hand (although my mum did try it at the start) and when ever one plant falls on the ground a million others spring up in its place (hence the name).
    I always hate seeing my parents going around spraying it, but as I have no other ideas to suggest I don’t say anything.
    Would anyone have any ideas of how to deal with this plant in an organic way?
    any help would be greatly appreciated.

  3. Hi Nicola,
    Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us. I really enjoy your style of writing. It so great to read about trying to get quotes for excavation work, as Anthony and I are at this stage at the moment.

  4. @ Paul,
    No personal experience with Mother-of-millions (yet), but I have heard of people having some success with sheet mulching.
    I recall someone using a roll of builders black poly sheet to eradicate some other weed (forget which). They laid the sheet out, let the sun cook it for a week or so, then sowed a thick ground cover to shade out any of the weeds that did survive and try to germinate.

  5. Hi Nicola,
    Top work and I hope you enjoy your journey. I also hadn’t used the services of an excavator until about two years ago. Now, I love them. The work they can do is amazing. We can get a 20 tonne excavator here for about $1,000 a day, although it depends on the operator. It can do a lot of work in one day although we’re a bit of a pain to get to as well. It’s now too wet for them to work here (1,400mm so far this year), so the swales will have to wait until it dries out. Oh well. Regards.

  6. Hi everyone,

    thanks for your comments! It’s wonderful knowing people are reading about our projects, pitfalls and sharing a few laughs along the way.

    Paul, I’m sorry to say I’m a novice in large scale (and small scale for that matter) control of weeds, so I hope Don’s suggestions help you out.

    Chris, thanks for the info on your experiences with excavators. We’ve also had a loads of rain – I think most of the east coast has – so we’re taking the opportunity see where the water flows on the property and prepare designs to harvest it.

    Brigitte, good luck and let me know how you go!

    Craig, I’ve heard ducks make great slug catchers, thanks for the heads up. We’ll keep you posted on future duck projects! And regarding sharing our experiences, writing for the PRI site has been hugely motivating for me. I’ve often wondered about starting a blog, but this is far better as it comes with a ready-made readership and established platform for sharing ideas with interested people. Plus, as you say, the diversified income stream is helping fund our projects. So it’s a win-win situation all round.

    Thanks everyone for your enthusiasm and support.

  7. Hi Nicola…… I live in Cooran too, also on 1 1/2 acres, and I have problems with spray mad neighbours too. In fact, I’m starting to think they may be responsible for two of my goats dying this year.

    That legume your neighbour’s trying to grow could well be a desmodium. There are lots of different kinds, and I haven’t seen that one before but they all have that trifoliate leaf structure… normally used a sfodder, and also recognised as a bit of a pest if you don’t actually have animals to eat it!


  8. Hi Nicola,

    I’m enjoying your posts. When’s the next one due? I have also decided to start writing for PRI. I’ll be starting the narrative several years before we actually began our permaculture design implementation, to help people understand some of the key things we had to change in order to be able to do so. I’d be interested in your backstory too. Any chance you’ll be posting the “lead up” events and how you financed the effort?

  9. Nicola congratulations on the garden ….I bet your grandpa would be proud of you!
    Now could you advise an uncle on how to keep the weeds and grass down around his fruit trees without spraying or using a whipper snipper?
    Also could you get some design into that garden plse….lets see some ‘Capability Chatham’ at work!


  10. Mike ~ great to hear from you. Sorry to hear about your goats, however. We’re looking for solar quotes, so we’ll be in touch soon.

    Nathan ~ good on you for deciding to write for PRI. It’s a really worthwhile and fun thing to be doing. Sharing personal experiences is how we can all learn and motivate one another. Our back story will probably come through in drips and drabs. I’ll probably post every ten days or so.

    Uncle Timothy!! ~ So lovely to read your comments. Your question re grass growing under your fruit trees is something I can help with :)

    We spread compost and then hay, about 10cm thick and the diameter of the tree’s canopy, at the base of our trees. The grass beneath died, and in it’s place cucumbers and tomatoes have sprung up from the compost. Only now, four months later, are a few odd weeds poking through and they’re easy to pull out. Our friend Dee plants strawberry plants around the base of her trees, and those act as weed barriers – keeping the grass out and giving her something sweet to nibble while she’s in the garden.

    If we cardboard or thick layers of wet newspaper (fill your wheelbarrow with water and put the papers – so they don’t fly away in the wind) then put the hay on top, it would have really kept the weeds out. I’ll do that next time. And that’s with our rampant growth up here in the subtropics. You’ll probably find you don’t have weeds or grass growing again down in Gippsland for quite a while. Plant some strawberries and you can have strawberries and cream to celebrate your next boat race win! xx

    Happy gardening all!!

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