How We Will Re-Build
Construction of Vegie Gardens in Fire Affected Areas

Planting edible gardens directly into the soil and ash currently present in these fire-impacted areas would be, without question, a somewhat fruitless exercise. It is highly unlikely that anything would grow, due to the seriously altered nature of the soil, and the offending ash. Also, due to the potential for contamination of these soils, growing edible annuals directly into this soil may present serious health issues, for both the plants, and those who consume them! It seems then, that the answer, with regards to the question of vegie garden construction, is not to go down, but to go up!

1. When rebuilding property, it is important to minimise the negative impact of heavy machinery, building activities (including painters and brickies) and the like on the soil, and the sites of future gardens. Instead, dedicate specific ‘pathways’ for machinery to move along, and ensure rubble, rubbish, and debris is disposed of in a designated area and not just dumped through the garden. Ensure brickies and painters do not rinse their gear out in an area you have set aside for a garden… the soil has been through enough, lets at least give it a fighting chance!

2. Select a suitable location for your garden… for a productive patch, the more sun the better. Be realistic about size, you can also get bigger later on… this is not going to be an easy process, and our mantra here is ‘from little things big things grow’. Peg or mark out this site. A patch about 1m to 1.5m wide is ideal, as it allows access to all sides of the patch.

3. Remove any large debris from the sight. Remember, much of this may be potentially nasty contaminants, so wearing protective gear and a dust mask is an excellent idea.

4. Remove ash from garden site. This is imperative, as the hydrophobic nature of the ash has the potential to turn a raised, no dig garden bed into a gigantic self watering pot, where water is unable to penetrate and move away, resulting in the untimely death of anything planted. Ash is notoriously difficult to rake out when dry (but much harder to do when it is wet), so consider using a flat blade shovel, and skimming the ash off the surface, as you would strip paint from a wall. Place this ash into a sealed receptacle (metal would be best, like a 44-gallon drum) and move to one side until a suitable disposal method can be devised (we’ll keep you posted). A small amount of ash may remain, and, if it has the appearance of icing on a cake, use a nail rake or similar to “scruff” this into the soil. Again, protective gear is a must here, especially the dust mask.

5. While you’re scruffing the soil, consider adding gypsum and organic matter (such as compost diverted from the waste stream) to the top 15cm of soil. While we are building up in raised beds, this process will help the soil below regain nutrients, structure, and much needed life. The planet will ultimately benefit, and while this can be hard work, we need to dig a little so we don’t have to dig again!

6. Layout and construct your garden edging. The minimum height for a working patch is 30cm, but the higher you can go the better, and, based on the poor quality of the soil in-situ, double the recommended (60cm plus) would be ideal. Chose sustainable, low environmental impact materials, avoiding unsustainable timbers and, if building a vegetable patch, the use of CCA Treated Pine is not recommended. Consider the use of galvanised tank surrounds, eWood panels (recycled printer cartridges), or ACQ Treated Pine. (ACQ is the Kidsafe type of Treated Pine. It is more expensive, but is treated with Copper instead of Arsenic and Chrome like standard Treated Pine… especially important to consider when you are growing food in it!)

7. Place a layer of newspaper or cardboard on the ground to a depth of 5-6mm. Ensure any glossy magazine segments are removed, as well as packing tape and staples.

8. Utilise a locally sourced straw based mulch, like pea straw or lucerne for the next layer, and lay this to a depth of about 10 – 15cm. Wet down lightly.

9. On top of this straw mulch, lay about 15cm of organic compost, with some well-rotted cow manure mixed through. Avoid using horse manure, and ensure any manure used is pulverised and aged. Wet down lightly.

10. Follow this with another layer of locally sourced straw mulch, again to a depth of 10 – 12cm. Wet down.

11. Add another layer of compost/manure mix, and don’t be afraid to ‘overfill’ the bed… the compost, manure and straw mulch will break down and settle, meaning the level will drop over the next week. Wet down and walk away.

12. After allowing the bed to settle for a week, commence planting out, either with seeds or seedlings. Water in these seedlings, and mulch well with a straw based mulch, to a depth of 6cm. Keep mulch well away from the stems of young plants.

Now all that is left is the on-going maintenance of the garden, a process that can be shared and enjoyed by many, as can the fruits (and veggies) of your labours.

Bushfires have ripped the heart out of so very many communities, but the strength and courage of these ordinary Australians will see towns rebuilt, livelihoods restored, and the affected begin to grow and heal. There is an old adage that states “more grows in the garden than the gardener sows”, and, in these amazing communities, with their incredible strength and resilience, the building of gardens, the sowing of seed and the arrival of green in this blackened landscape will represent and mean so much more than we could ever imagine.