Does gardening save money?

No.

Seriously though, I have read many articles over the years suggesting that growing your own veggies can be a way of saving money on groceries. Writers of these articles are very optimistic at best, disingenuous at worst. I have been vegetable gardening for twenty years, and I know for a fact that it does not save any money. I would suggest that gardening is a relatively inexpensive hobby (compared to some other hobbies), depending on how you go about it, but as a way of saving money on produce and fresh food, it does not stack up. Here are some reasons.

Gardening is unpredictable

Gardening is fun, but the results are very unpredictable. Take this year: we had a great crop of apricots, but no passionfruit or mulberries to speak of. This means we have been eating apricots for about three weeks (awesome! We love apricots), but we still bought berries and other fruit. Our apple trees finally produced some apples, but half of them were eaten by rats. To protect the apples from the rats, we will have to buy a net for next season (more dollars shelled out). I can buy a kilo of apples for five bucks. A net will cost me at least thirty dollars, and I need two of them (we have two apple trees). Ignoring the water and fertiliser for the trees, I am already set back $60 to protect about ten apples on my two trees.

The veggie patch is the same. Last year was a bad year for tomatoes, and we ended up with very few. This year, we are having a bumper crop. This season, our potatoes were a total blowout, and so was the corn. In previous years, we have had success with both potatoes and corn. Gardening on a small scale in the backyard, like we do, achieves inconsistent results. It is great fun for someone like me, who enjoys the time spent outdoors and watching plants grow, but at best I supplement my family’s diet with homegrown vegetables at peak times of the year. The rest of the time, we have to rely on supermarkets and vegetable shops like everyone else.

Gardening supplies cost money

Last week I spent about $120 on basic gardening supplies at the Big Green Shed. Today I spent another $50 on decorative plants (for funsies).

This is not uncommon. Generally speaking, I do spend quite a lot on gardening supplies like mulch, organic fertilisers and tonics (seaweed extract etc), stakes, twine, wire, seeds, and plants. I would spend more on supplies than I would ‘make’ out of the garden: that is, it costs me a lot more to garden than I would ever save on fruit and vegetables that I grow. It’s worth it to me because I grow interesting heirlooms that I cannot buy in the supermarkets, and because it’s my main hobby. As a hobby, it is cheaper than many others. I don’t go to the pub, go wine tasting, or go to live shows or the movies often. Gardening is cheaper than all of those things. But if you want to do it well, it is not ‘cheap.’ For example, this year I built tomato cages for all of my tomato bushes. These alone would have cost about $150. I will be able to re-use them next year, but still, I could buy a lot of tomatoes from the supermarket for that. I know they taste better, but they are not cheap tomatoes.*

Gardening takes time and space

Some of the articles I have read about how gardening saves money seem to ignore the fact that time is also expensive. There is a reason I am the Part-time Gardener. I have a job. Maybe if I had all the time in the world, I could spend it in the garden and grow everything I need and save thousands of dollars a year. But the fact is that most people do not have that kind of time. There are weeks where I do not even walk outside, let alone weed my garden or think about succession planting carrots. If I am really busy with deadlines, I may not poke my head outside in the veggie patch for a month. Gardening takes real time and dedication. Because I ‘bank’ time by spending entire weekends out there when I do have the time, my garden makes it through the busy times – but many people do not have that kind of time.

I’ve read some articles that underestimate the kind of time people need to spend in the garden to achieve great results. They tell people they can grow all they need to feed their family with five to ten hours of hands on time a week. I do not think this is true. I would spend about five hours a week in my garden, on average, and I cannot feed my family of four from my garden. In my opinion, articles like this are discouraging to new gardeners, who might find that the time required is much higher than they anticipated. I understand that gardening writers are trying to encourage people to garden, but it is more effective to be honest about the time, space, and money required to successfully garden for fun and productivity.

Gardening enough to ‘save money’ also requires a lot of space. We are fortunate to have a lot of space, but many people do not. I have read articles exhorting people to grow in pots or on balconies. That is very expensive and time-consuming. I am growing tomatoes, chillies, eggplant, and blueberries in pots on my balcony this season. I already owned the pots, so I did not have that expense. I did have to buy good quality potting mix, which is expensive if you are growing more than one or two pots. I also needed fertiliser and soil wetting agent for the pots so they don’t dry out in the heat of the day. Pots require more regular watering. I estimate I spend at least half an hour a day just watering my balcony pots. So far I have harvested one eggplant and a tiny handful of cherry tomatoes, for about $100 of potting mix and a whole lot of time and water. Saved a lot of money there!! Next year I will only grow flowers on the balcony, and leave the veggies in the garden.

Set up costs are high

The set up costs of a garden are quite high. To reach the point where we are now (a relatively productive vegetable garden and an attractive front garden), we have had to spend a lot of money and even more time on our garden. We have built retaining walls, bought trees (good quality fruit trees can cost up to $100 each), plants, fertiliser and mulch, and paid a professional arborist several thousand dollars to remove trees and stumps. While all of these things are arguably an investment in our home, it may not be affordable for all potential gardeners. We chose to spend this money instead of doing other things, but we also had some money to invest in it because it was important to us. When people write that gardening will save money, they ignore the high cost of setting up even a small vegetable or container garden. This annoys me, because it implies that these costs are negligible, or that everyone has the money to spend. I would rather they write a truthful article that looks at the real costs of setting up a garden, the most cost-effective plants to grow if someone is hoping to save some money, and the potential and ongoing costs that could arise over a typical year of gardening.

These are some things you should consider when deciding to set up a garden:

  • How much space do you have, and what is the soil like? Will you have to spend a lot of money preparing the soil before you can grow vegetables?
  • Are you renting? If so, you might not be allowed to dig up the landscaping for a garden. Check with the landlord first. Also, find out if there are pipes underground on the property that you don’t know about. Once when I was digging on a rental property, I hit a water pipe and broke it. That was an expensive lesson for a broke student.
  • If you are renting, or don’t have much space, consider a community garden. Many of the expensive set up costs of gardening and the cost of water are already covered by the community garden. You will have to pay for the plot rent, and possibly a membership fee, but it is a good way to try gardening if you are low on space. We were members of a community garden for seven years when we were renting, and it was fantastic. We made friends, learned about gardening from more experienced gardeners, and had the fun of gardening with lower overheads.
  • Look carefully at the space you are considering for your garden. Are there big trees nearby? If so, you might have to consider moving the planned garden, as big trees love to send roots where there is water. You may just end up watering the tree and not your plants.
  • Think about your garden space as premium real estate. Some plants take up a lot of space, and may not be worth it. Think about yield and what will give you best yield for the space they are taking up. Also, in Australia you can grow plants a bit closer together than is generally recommended in garden books and on seed packets. The plants shade each other in our hot weather.
  • Don’t forget that water is expensive, and growing a garden requires a lot of water. If you want to reduce water or water more sustainably, you will need to mulch – and this also costs money.
  • What do you like to eat, and can you buy it cheaper than growing it at home?
  • If you still prefer to grow it yourself, read about the best way to grow it. Is it best to grow it from seed or seedling? Seed will always be cheaper, but in some instances it will not be the most cost-effective because you still need apparatus like seed trays, seed-raising mix, and time to raise them. Best vegetables to grow direct from seed include peas, beans, carrots, rocket and other leafy greens, turnips and other root vegetables.
  • There are online seed and plant retailers that are as cheap or cheaper than the big hardware and garden retailers. There are also some seed exchanges, but sometimes the seeds are not what they promise, so take care. If you buy heirloom seeds, you can save the seeds to replant next year. Also sometimes the smaller supermarket chains can be a good source of plants like perennials and herbs at good prices.
  • If you are in a smallish space, consider setting up a no-dig garden.
  • If you can afford it and you have the room, consider a compost bin. This is the cheapest and most effective way of building up your soil.
  • If you have the space and money, buy some products in bulk. Best organic fertilisers to buy in the large bags are Dynamic Lifter and Blood and Bone. They keep well and are most useful for organic gardeners.
  • Sugar cane mulch is a cheaper mulch than pea or lucerne straw and in my opinion is just as effective.
  • Save and wash plastic pots from plants you have bought, and reuse to raise seedlings.
  • Don’t forget that pests, weeds, and diseases also happen, and you might need a plan to manage these. I garden organically, so I do not spray or poison anything, but this means that I need to spend more time weeding and managing my garden to prevent pests and disease. Think about how you want to manage these and how much money it will cost. Pesticides and herbicides are expensive, and organic gardening can be time-consuming.

I hope this list does not discourage new gardeners from trying out an interesting and healthy hobby – I just want to be honest about it. Gardening ain’t cheap, but it is fun and I love it. Maybe there are cheaper ways to do it than I do, and if so, that’s brilliant.

*For a great read about the high cost of gardening, the book The $64 Tomato is hilarious. I’d agree that right now, each apple from my tree cost about $64 each. Delicious, but still…

Gardening jobs, Christmas weekend 2020

Happy Christmas! Like most of you, I am happy to be just a few days away from the end of this shocker of a year. I chose to spend the Boxing Day public holiday (the 28th here in our State) in the garden. It has been a lovely, cool day with some sunshine and some cloud cover. Perfect for a long day spent in the garden.

Before I could do that, however, I had to remove this creature from the doorway. Look at the size of this redback! I have never seen such a big one, but my husband assures me he has. It was an inch long, including the legs.

Usually when we find a house spider, we move it outside, but venomous spiders are a different story. Under the thong it went. Sorry, giant bitey friend.

Bloody hell

Today was an important catch up day. With the pile of work I have had to finish, plus Christmas, those important garden jobs have fallen by the wayside. These include weeding, trimming, and feeding. The veggie garden is still looking pretty good, but everything needed a good side dressing of organic fertiliser. I picked all the tomatoes I could find before I fed the tomatoes with blood and bone and dynamic lifter. Then I gave them a liquid feed of seaweed extract, fish emulsion, and Epsom salts. The Epsom salts give magnesium to the tomatoes and help make the fruit sweeter. I add about one teaspoon to a ten litre watering can, along with the seaweed extract and fish emulsion, and water the tomato bushes as a foliar feed.

Bowl of tomatoes picked this morning

While I was out there, I quickly planted some more sunflowers, aquilegias (also known as Grannies Bonnets), and cornflowers, and some more climbing beans. Some of the beans I planted didn’t come up, so I filled in the gaps with fresh seed. Beans only set fruit after quite a few days over 30 degrees C – we have had cooler days this Summer, so it might be all in vain.

My front yard was looking especially tired after a beautiful Spring display. I used my little hedge trimmers to start work on the lavender bushes. This is a really big job, as I have one lavender bush taller than me, and about twelve or fourteen lavender bushes in all. I only managed to trim about five of them. It’s a work in progress. I am not trimming them too hard, as it is the middle of Summer, and a hard trim will stress them out too much. I really just want to remove all the dead heads and let the new flowers come through. Lavender is pretty tough though and I have not yet killed any with a light Summer pruning.

I also started carefully trimming the dead branches from the sage and salvia bushes. Again, I don’t want to stress the plants too much. I have also discovered that sage is not very forgiving of a hard prune at the wrong time of year. But, the sticks poking up all over the salvia look bloody horrible, so I decided to risk it. I will prune it a bit harder in Autumn.

The apricot tree has finished fruiting. As mentioned in my previous post, we let the parrots have some. As punishment for our kindness, I now have to go over the tree and remove the half-eaten dried out apricots from the branches to prevent bugs being attracted to the tree. It is a pretty gross job, tbh. On the plus side, I found one last, perfect apricot that somehow was missed by both parrots and us, and brought it inside to share with my husband for afternoon tea. I was able to find a single ripe apple (that the rats missed!) from our Cox’s Orange Pippin tree to go with it.

One delicious ripe apple – and one not yet ready

Finally, I removed all the plants from two raised garden beds that are not doing well, and soaked them in a bucket while I dismantled the beds. I spread all the planting medium around the garden, where it will compost away for the next few months. Then I planted the petunias and eggplant from the raised beds in the backyard, where they will hopefully pick up. I will figure out something else to plant where the raised beds, although honestly something will probably self-seed there in a few weeks and I will not have to worry about it.

It is already looking happier, and I will keep trimming lightly and tidying things up over the next few weekends until it looks back to full strength (or as good as it can over Summer). The front yard really looks best in Autumn and Spring, when the pomegranates are in full fruit, the perennials start to recover from the Summer heat, and the bulbs begin to grow. Until then, keeping it neat and tidy and alive is the best I can do.

Duds and triumphs

The Triumps

This season we have had some notable successes. Our apricot tree ripened early. Normally we pick apricots the week of Christmas, but this year the fruit was ready a week earlier. We picked almost ten kilograms of apricots, which is the biggest crop ever for our four year old tree (it’s a Travatt apricot). I’ve made jam and given some away. This afternoon if I have time, I am making apricot ice cream, and my favourite of all desserts, an apricot pie. I like eating fresh apricots, but in my opinion, apricots really come into their glory when cooked, and especially in pie form. Apple pie is pretty good, but apricot pie is amazing.

We pick the apricots when they first start to blush, and ripen them indoors. This is because we do not net the tree. We let the birds have a go at the fruit, and pick as much as we can ourselves. Some would disagree with this, but I figure there is a lot of fruit and the parrots need to eat as well. I like looking out at the tree and seeing rosellas and lorikeets having a ball out there. There is a lot of fruit for us and them. I do wish they would finish an entire apricot before starting on the next one though. Wasteful little buggers.

I do indeed mind sharing with rats, however. Our apple trees are finally fruiting after three years of patiently waiting, and I have been admiring a perfectly round, blushing apple, coveting it like Snow White’s stepmother. My husband discovered the other morning that the back end of it had been attacked by a gnawing little monster. You can imagine the stomping and cursing that ensued (from me, not him).

The pomegranate bush is going great guns this year – we had a mass of flowers and they are now forming beautiful baby pomegranates like lovely Christmas baubles. I love pomegranates. I love the look of the bush, the flowers, the beautiful globulous fruit, and the ruby juice. It is just a beautiful and undemanding plant. It requires almost no maintenance, little water, and gives so much.

Our tomato bushes are the garden triumph of the veggie patch this year. We are picking Tommy Toe and another cherry tomato called Sweet Bite that is living up to its name. The plants are healthy and abundant. I am hoping we end up with a great crop for sauce as well as eating fresh throughout Summer. I also have not yet managed to kill two cucumber plants (a miracle for me), although the chickens have eaten three others. I may yet achieve a homegrown cucumber, in which case you may hear me screaming from the rooftops.

The Duds

We have a couple of duds that, if they are not careful, will meet the Huntsman’s axe soon. Our mulberry tree is the same age as the apricot tree, and so far has produced almost nothing. There are a few pitiful berries on its branches that are stubbornly refusing to colour up. I alternately beg, plead, and curse the tree whenever I pass her, but she still refuses to do more than that. I do have a woodpile…

The other dud is the passionfruit vine, Odette. One great crop, and she thinks that is her job done. Well, I have news for her. I have plans for her patch of dirt if she can’t pony up some passionfruit next Summer.

But the biggest dud of all this year was our potato crop. After months of building up around healthy looking spud plants, I dug down to find…nothing. Nada. Zilch. I piled on the compost and straw and gave up precious garden space in the height of the annual growing season for nothing at all. Talk about crestfallen. My face dropped faster than Clark Kent’s pants in a phone booth.

Another dud was the red and white petunias I planted with plans of a lovely display by Christmas. What wasn’t dug up by one very, very, naughty chicken has largely dried up due to a lack of water (a visitor yesterday heard me telling this chicken off for digging up a new zucchini plant, and thought I was scolding a child. I had to explain, with a manic smile, why I was berating a bird). This is entirely my fault. I have been very busy with work over the past six weeks and while I have tried to maintain water all over the garden, the veggies and fruit trees have been prioritised over the poor flower gardens. I am going out this morning to replant the whole area in the hope that it can be salvaged – but to be honest, it probably cannot.

The point of this post is, no matter how much time we spend in our garden, and no matter our experience, we experience triumph and frustration in almost equal measure. Probably next year we will have a pitiful apricot crop and an amazing crop of something else unexpected. It’s part of the fun and learning experience of gardening.

Weekend garden jobs, November 21st 2020

My husband is working hard to finish the remaining half of the garden wall by the deadline I have kindly set for him (Christmas) – and he has almost finished! Who knew he just needed a deadline? Note to self…

If you ask me, he’s doing a bang up job

While he’s building, I am doing the other gardening jobs, like weeding, weeding, and weeding. Also, watering. We are heading into the driest time of the year, and if I want any tomatoes (or anything else), I need to be diligent with watering. It is not so much about amount of water, as consistent watering.

In between these pretty dull, but necessary tasks, I am admiring the fruiting plants. This year, we finally have an apple crop forming. We planted two dwarf apple trees three years ago, and so far have only managed to pick one small apple. This has been a source of intense frustration for me, as garden space is a premium. If it doesn’t pull its weight, I start to make plans for a woodpile.

Then finally this year, both trees bloomed simultaneously (a necessity, given they are supposed to pollinate each other), and we now have the makings of a delicious (I hope) crop of Early Macintoshes and Cox’s Orange Pippins. I have never tried either of these apples, as they are not grown commercially in Australia, but trusted sources inform me that the Cox’s Orange Pippin is one of the most delicious eating apples currently cultivated. It doesn’t transport well, which is why it is not available in shops

Also growing great guns are our boysenberries in Pie Corner.

Boysenberry ice cream time, I reckon

This is the largest crop we have ever had. My husband is pretty excited about these. He keeps going outside to check if they are ready yet (they aren’t). Given the great job he has been doing on the wall, I think I will give him first crack at them when they are. We also have raspberries coming on for the first time, and have recently planted thornless blackberries. Next year should be a Summer Berry festival around here.

And that’s yer lot. Weeding, watering, and making eyes at my fruit trees. Next weekend will be plus 40 degrees all weekend so the time will be spent keeping things alive.

Weekend garden jobs, 1 November 2020

I have tasked my husband to get the second half of $#@! retaining wall completed by Christmas – so off to the landscaping place we went to purchase all the stuff. That’s technical tradie talk for buying paving sand, crusher dust, and retaining wall blocks to build the last fifteen metres of retaining wall.

Here is what it looks like now – just on the other side. Dreadful!

And here is what it will look like once it is done. Beautiful!

Please don’t misunderstand me: my husband works hard and like me, only has weekends to do anything. We are part-time gardeners together. So the retaining wall has been a very long work in progress. But I finally got very, very sick of the damn thing and I want it over! If that means I have to do all the other jobs around the place while he spends every weekend until Christmas working on it, so be it.

While he shovelled sand and crusher dust all day, I moved the compost bins, cleared plants that had overgrown the old retaining wall, and planted…more tomatoes. I still have dozens of tomato plants. I offered some to a friend today and she promptly laughed in my face. I offered some to my neighbour and he more politely declined (neighbours try not to laugh in one’s face, unlike very old friends). Turns out, it is tomato planting season and those who want tomatoes have them.

I also planted pumpkins and cucumbers. I know I have said, in these very pages, that I won’t plant cucumbers again. And yet. I cannot seem to resist the lure of homegrown cucumbers, even though I fail at them every single year. I just keep thinking to myself: maybe this time. Maybe this year.

Then at the end of every Summer, I curse the cucumber gods (every plant has a god, I am sure of it – one of Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods for each plant), and vow, never again!!

Pumpkins, on the other hand. The Great Pumpkin smiles on my efforts annually.

Hello, my darlings xx

Weekend garden jobs, October 10 2020

Ranunculus in bloom

The Spring bulbs I planted back in March/April are blooming like crazy right now. My five year old niece declared yesterday that I have a ‘giant fairy garden,’ which is just about the best compliment I could receive. I have to admit, it is looking pretty magical, especially now the herbs are in flower as well. Purple sage and several shades of lavender are also in bloom, along with dianthus, iris, roses, ranunculus, salvia, and my favourites, sweet peas. I don’t subscribe to the landscape gardeners nice neat rules and matching colour palettes. I was raised by cottage gardeners: my mother and my grandmother always had flourishing, rambling, colourful gardens that children loved. Plants go where they fit and colours are as bright as possible. It won’t win any design awards, but if my niece thinks it’s a fairy garden then it’s a win in my book.

Double Ranunculus

I didn’t have much time this week, but I did spend a couple of hours in the backyard. I built a few more tomato cages and planted bean and lettuce seeds. I had a bag of lettuce seeds that we had saved from a very prolific crop of Australian Yellow Lettuce a couple of years ago, so I sprinkled them liberally in bare spots around the place while listening to the gentlemanly David Tennant chat to Elizabeth Moss. If there is a better way to spend a sunny afternoon in Australia, I don’t know what it could be.

Tomorrow I have to work (sad face) but before I sit down to my desk I will make rhubarb jam because a) I have lots of rhubarb and b) Sunday seems like a jam-making kind of day.

Weekend gardening jobs, October Long Weekend 2020

Apple Blossom

I just spent a week in the outback, where everything is a stunning red and there are few gardens to be seen. I love visiting remote Australia: I love the red earth, the hot weather, and the interesting and generous people. I also always see at least one interesting native Australian animal when I am there, and this time I got to hold a bearded dragon, which was pretty cool. He was spiky and dry on top, and cold underneath.

But I am also always happy to return to my family, and happy to be back in my patch. The long weekend is a good time to garden, and even though we had a lot of rain, there were enough breaks in the weather for me to get out and do some jobs.

Very exciting news: the dwarf apple trees flowered simultaneously. This is a big deal as they are supposed to pollinate each other, but in the three years since they have planted, have never flowered in sync. I thought I had been sold a pair of duds. Then this year, finally, beautiful pink blossoms on one (Early Macintosh), and white blossoms on the other (Cox’s Orange Pippin)! I think we may have apples this year in Pie Corner.

Speaking of Pie Corner, it is blossom central there right now. Strawberries and boysenberries are in full bloom. My husband, who is a lover of fresh berries, is a happy man. We are just waiting for the raspberries to bloom and then I think we will be in berry heaven in time for Christmas.

I am still planting out tomatoes. In addition to planting tomatoes wherever I can find a spot to take both tomato plant and cage, I have also pricked out tomato seedlings into new pots. The tomatoes I planted out before I left have put on new growth and some flowers, despite the cool weather.

I have also installed new trellising along the fence, ready for beans. I lashed out and invested in steel reo-mesh trellising, after years of frustration with different trellising for beans and peas. These will be permanent trellises for climbing legumes and (hopefully) cucumbers. They were more expensive than traditional teepees but will last longer and will make use of the vertical space along the fence, giving me more space for tomatoes.

This week I planted out corn seedlings. I grew an heirloom variety, Golden Bantam, from seed in a polystyrene esky box, until they were about five centimetres tall. I prepared the soil next to Pie Corner (where the old rainwater tank had been) with sheep manure and blood and bone, and planted them in a block formation. Corn should be planted relatively close together as they are wind pollinated and the movement of the plants together helps with pollination. I am intending to plant another fruit tree in this corner but it is too late to do that this year. Until then I may as well grow a quick crop of corn and pumpkins there.

We also built the chook run so the little dinosaurs stay out of the main veggie patch. This was done by using ready made wire panels and star droppers, and wiring them together. This was potentially a bit more expensive than the old chook wire method, but was much faster and sturdier. The girls haven’t figured out a way to weasel out of it yet, so it has been effective.

New chook run

They now have the whole back corner of the yard to wander around in, and seem happy enough – except for Mary Shelley, who is never happy. She’s the Grinch of chooks, that one. We have planted thornless berries along the fence in the run, and in a year they will have lush berry vines to hide in and blackberries to eat. We have noticed that they will eat almost any plant they can get their beaks into (including my new hydrangea bushes – grrrr), except berry vines. At first I thought it was because the boysenberry vines are spiky monsters forged by Lucifer himself, but they leave all of them alone. This bodes well for the berry vines in their run. I know they will eat the fruit – chooks love berries. I just want the plants to live long enough to bear fruit.

Next weekend: planting lettuces and beans, and generally tidying up.

Weekend garden jobs, 19 September 2020

Happy daffs

This time of year I have two problems in the garden: finding enough time to get out there as often as I want to, and controlling my desire to plant all the interesting varieties of tomatoes I can find. As it is, I am growing ten different tomatoes this season. That is ten different varieties, not ten different plants. I am growing multiples of some, if I can fit them in! This season I am growing:

  • Tigerella (heirloom);
  • Green Zebra (heirloom);
  • Moneymaker (heirloom);
  • Sweetbite (F1)
  • Tommytoe (heirloom);
  • Sweet 100 (F1);
  • Blueberries (heirloom);
  • Wapsipinicon Peach (heirloom);
  • Jaune Flamme (heirloom from seeds saved in 2018); and
  • Thai Pink Egg (heirloom from a cutting given to me by my brother).

I would grow more but I do not have the room. Partly this is due to literal space, and partly this is due to a new support structure I am trying for each plant.

Beta tomato cage

I have tried many different tomato support systems, and really they have all been pretty hopeless. Last year’s trellis was the worst – I learned a lesson there about following a TV gardener’s advice. Pfft! Useless waste of effort. Not only did the trellis not support the tomatoes, it couldn’t support itself, and fell over.

My brother grows the best tomatoes in the family, damn him (psst, Rob I love you). He builds tomato cages. I have never done this before, but after last year’s frankly pretty average tomato crop, I have decided it is time. Of course, my tomato cage effort is nowhere near as impressive as the ten foot structure my bro constructs, but I am lazier than he is, and less talented. I have built teepees from stakes, and wrapped them around with bits of wire mesh. The tomato is planted in the centre. The tomato cage gives the tomato more structure than a single stake, and will protect it from the dinosaurs now roaming my garden.

The only problem is that by doing it this way, each tomato plant takes up more space in the garden. To make space, I had to clear out a couple of extra plants, including two rhubarb plants. I felt bad about that, but I do have many rhubarb plants and not enough room for everything I want to grow. Time to get tough!

Marauding Dinosaurs

Troublesome creatures! The chooks are wreaking havoc. Look at what they have done to the sweet peas almost ready to flower at the back there. Grr!! Time to build a chook run to hold them in check.

This week I finally cleared enough space to plant potatoes. I am conducting a spud experiment: I planted some in an old feed bag about a month ago, and now the remainder in the ground. Instead of a trench, which is how I have always planted them, I dug a hole for each potato. I am going to see whether the potato bag grows as well as the spuds in the ground, and if the spud holes works better than the trench. I need more room to grow pumpkins and watermelons on that side of the garden.

I am also conducting a sweet corn experiment. Normally I grow corn direct where I want it to grow, in a block formation. However, I was listening to a gardening podcast the other day and the presenter mentioned that aside from carrots, he grows all seeds in punnets to start with and then transplants into the garden. His view is that this gives them a stronger start. I do not know if this is true, but I thought that I would give it a go this time, especially with the marauders on the loose. I am putting the corn in where we have removed the rainwater tank, in Pie Corner. When my husband finishes the wall in that section, I am considering planting another dwarf apple to espalier against the wall and help pollinate the other apple trees in that part of the garden. But for now, it can grow some corn and pumpkins over the summer while he finishes the retaining wall.

Pumpkins! I have big pumpkin plans this year. Some might say Powerful Pumpkin Plans 😀 In addition to the usual Kent pumpkins that inevitably self-seed from the compost, I will be trying Australian Butter, ye olde Butternut (always a good grower in my backyard, even if it does like to cross-pollinate with Kent to create a mutant Kenternut), and Queensland Blue. I have never grown them but they are a delicious, classic Aussie pumpkin.

So many Planting Plans, never enough space, and not enough time. Where will I fit the zucchini?

Don’t grow zucchini you say? Which blog are you reading?

Weekend garden jobs, September 5 & 6 2020

Spring in Southern Australia is definitely the perfect season and the perfect place to be in the world. We are fortunate to be out of lockdown, with easing restrictions and minimal COVID-19 cases in our State. The weather is perfect. I want to be outside all day, everyday.

I do have to work, but as I am a freelancer, I have the gift of mostly setting my own hours. This means I can try to spend at least some time outside each day. Right now I am sitting under the pergola, eating a curry and feeling the warm air. I did try to concentrate on work this morning, but I kept looking outside, feet jiggling under my desk, and finally I gave up. The work will still be there tomorrow!!

This weekend I cleaned up the blind spot in the garden that annoys my neighbour more than it does me, because I can’t see it, and he can. He doesn’t complain about it, but he has mildly mentioned once that he would like the weeds to be removed before they flower so the seeds don’t blow into his yard.

I have struggled to deal with this spot. It gets mostly shade, and it is right by our large covered pergola. I don’t want to grow a lot here, but I will have to grow something to out-compete the annoying thistles and other weeds that have taken up residence. The last owners of the house also planted some bloody annoying bamboo, that continually re-seeds, and the back neighbours have ivy that climbs from their place over the fence. And finally, because our house is 2.5 storeys, the fence line is sunk about two metres from ground level and slopes down to the front yard, meaning that if I want to remove other weeds near the fence line, I have to climb down into what could be a haven for snakes. It’s not a fun time. This is why I leave the whole stinkin’ lot until I know John is cursing the sight of it.

Cleaning up thistles, ivy, and bamboo is a boring and hard job. However, I have a plan in place to minimise this task in the future. Some would say to spray the whole lot with glyphosate and be done with it, but I don’t use any poisons in my garden, so I need to be more creative than that. Part the first of my plan is chooks. They are allowed to free-range back there. I figure that once the giant weeds are gone, they will be able to quickly manage any newbies that pop up their heads. Part the second is to plant ground covers, such as violets, calendula, nasturtiums and others that will quickly take over and prevent such rampant weed growth. I have done this in other parts of the garden and it is successful. And part the third, as mentioned last week, is to plant shallow-rooted fruiting vines such as berries, to take over from the ivy. While also potentially annoying, at least it will fruit and be useful for both us and the chickens.

I am also planting climbers against the chicken coop to provide shade in Summer. After some thought, I chose a climbing jasmine for one side. If that does well in that spot, I will plant another. I originally planned a passionfruit vine, but I think it will not receive enough sun there.

After the boring work, I got to have some fun. The garden is producing a lot of late Winter/early Spring veggies, including this stunning Romanesco broccoli. It weighed in at 760 grams, which is not too shabby. I roasted half of it in a baked chicken and sweet potato dish with smoked paprika and oregano that all declared delicious. Roasted broccoli is yummo. Romanesco in particular lends itself well to roasting, as it has nice strong florets that roast nicely.

I also picked the remaining kale, and made kale and parsley pesto. As we cannot eat nuts in our house, I use pepitas (pumpkin seeds) as the ‘nutty’ element. Basil pesto is nicer, but the kale pesto is still good. And that is the last of the kale for the year: it was a pretty nice crop this time around.

The dud for the Winter season was the purple kohlrabi, which has not put on any nice bulbs, and the regular broccoli, which bolted straight to seed the first sunny day.

On the plus side, the tomato and chilli seeds I planted two weeks ago are popping up their heads in this warm weather. I planted:

  • Tomato Moneymaker, which the Heirloom Tomato book tells me is one of the most prolific tomatoes you can grow, but not the tastiest 😦
  • Tomato Sweet 100;
  • Chilli Anaheim – second time around for this one, hopefully it grows;
  • Watermelon Golden Midget – every year I say ‘this is the last time I try growing watermelons’ – and every year I give them another crack. Gardening is the triumph of optimism over experience.

This afternoon I am going digging through my saved seeds to pull out the best chillies I have ever grown (Devil’s Tongue – both spicy hot and prolific) and the best tomato (Jaune Flamme – bright orange and delicious). Hopefully the seed is still viable. I am going to plant them out in seed trays and see what happens. Fingers crossed!

Weekend garden jobs, Sunday August 30 2020

Yesterday was the kind of perfect Spring day we get in our part of the world: clearest of clear skies, slight breeze, warm air without any hint of pollution or odiferousness. Perfection. This is why I love Spring and why it is always my favourite time of year. Every second of the day I felt lucky and happy to be alive, especially when I heard the tragic news of the death of Chadwick Boseman at just 43. I appreciated so much the gift of my life and how lucky I am to live so freely in such a beautiful place, and felt keenly how unfair it was that not only he had lost his life so young, but that so many people around the world have lost their lives this year.

I had been planning to spend the day in the garden, but my husband and I had a couple of hours of KFT (kid free time) and decided to take a trip to our favourite nursery, which is in a town a bit up the road. It’s also a nice town for a stroll and has an excellent bakery, so it seemed like a pretty great way to spend an almost-Spring day.

This nursery has some of the most beautiful pots you can buy, and lots of beautiful garden-themed knick-knacks (that usually sucker me right in), but I was a gardener on a mission this time. This is partly because I had a mental list and a plan, but also because I have bought so many pots and indoor plants over the Autumn and Winter that I need to take a break. I probably have almost twenty indoor plants now. Have you seen the movie Poltergeist? That house is my life goal. The indoor plants aesthetic, not the terrifying ghosts and skeleton pool. The 70s were where it’s at when it comes to indoor plants. Indoor plants seemed to disappear after the early 80s and have come back again in the past five or so years, thank goodness. Anyway, I went ham on them recently, and I probably need to take a break and make sure I can keep them all alive and well before blowing more cash on indoor plants (and blow some cash on outdoor plants instead).

I was after flowers to plant by our retaining wall, with the goal of a blooming display by Christmas. I went full Christmas colours (red, white, and green). We usually host at least once at Christmas (often twice or three times), so I wanted the backyard to be full of big, blousy blooms.

I also found thornless berries to plant at the side of the house, behind the chook shed. We have a fence that is set in a deep recess, and the area next to it it is plagued by weeds. It is hard to keep clear, and it bugs both us and our neighbour, who has to look at it more than we do. Due to a pipe that runs from the main road, down through all the house blocks behind us and through to our street, we can’t plant anything with a deep root system in case we crack the pipe and flood both our house and our neighbour’s yard. Our house is two stories, so if we crack it, it will flood the bottom floor of our house. But I do have to plant something to take over instead of the flourishing thistles and the ivy coming over from our back neighbour’s yard (ivy – the cursed plant. Do not plant it because it is un-killable. Like the vampyre, it will rise again). I have considered many options, but I think that thornless berries will work well. They are quite shallow rooted, spread easily, require little attention, and if they do well, I can climb down and pick them without being torn up. If I don’t get to them, the chooks can eat them without being injured or becoming ill. Berries are also inexpensive plants, so if these don’t work, I have not blown hundreds of dollars on hedging plants. I also have a feijoa in a pot that is quite unhappy. As it is also relatively shallow-rooted, I will chuck that down there and keep it trimmed.

Like a hopeful sucker, I also bought tomato plants, far too early. I couldn’t help myself. I really should have waited another month, as the soil temperature is still too cold to plant them. I might have to pot them up to grow a bit larger, and then prepare the soil for them to go in the ground in a month or so.

Today (Sunday) Google Home kept promising me it was going to rain, so I stayed inside most of the day doing boring but necessary jobs, like laundry, and cleaning my office, and every so often eyeing the sky and my box of plants and wondering if I should risk being rained on.

Finally I thought, ‘nuts to this,’ and went outside to at least plant the flowers. I had a helper:

I discovered that gardening with chooks is a lot like gardening with small children: they don’t really care what you want to do, they just want to be where you are. Vanessa the chook is the smartest of our chooks. I watched as she slipped niftily through the barrier we have set up for them when they are let out to free range, while the other chooks looked on, quite puzzled (they did not figure it out). She followed me around the yard, watching what I was doing. When I realised that she was only going to hang out with me, I moved to a patch of weeding, and she helped me turn it over (I returned to the planting later). We occasionally stopped for little pats and my rendition of ‘Rocket Man.’ I think she’s forgiven me.

I also discovered she can understand me. I called her by name and told her it was time to go in, and she came back in to the yard (no food required). Peeps, I have a genius chook. And three dum-dums.

I did manage to get all the flowers planted, and as I am typing this, the rain has just started. Made it!