Gardening jobs, October 30 2021

Mulberries! Finally!

We spent almost eight hours in the garden today, building trellises for the fruit trees in Pie Corner. That is to say, my husband was building the trellises, while I did other stuff.

Firstly, I cleaned out the chook shed (boring but necessary), and collected seven (!!) eggs.

Then I mulched the entire back garden, which is a big job. However, it is definitely reaching the warmer part of the year, and mulching is a necessary task. It saves water and keeps weeds down. Over time, it breaks down and builds soil structure, and it stops the soil becoming hydrophobic, which can be a big problem in Australian soils. I use chopped sugar cane mulch, which is a sustainable by-product of the sugar cane industry. It’s cheaper than lucerne, and lighter, so it lets the water through. I have used it for years, and I think it does a great job. Some people prefer lucerne or pea straw, but I have compared both and I personally don’t think there is much of a difference except price.

Mulching a garden the size of ours takes quite a long time. I took little breaks to pick a kilo of rhubarb, a big bunch of silverbeet, and pull out most of the older plants to feed the chooks (much to their delight, it’s their favourite), weed the opportunistic weeds that came up after this week’s rain, and pick flowers for the house. Mulching is quite boring, so doing these jobs helped keep me going. I also had to water it in, so it doesn’t blow away and undo all my hard work.

Building trellises and espaliering fruit trees

This is how our old trellises looked:

Old trellis

They were ‘built’ from star droppers and wire, and were not large enough for the apple trees. The wire was casually looped around the star droppers, and could not be tightened, which meant that the wire sagged as the tree grew and the weight pulled on the wire. Also, the whole set up looked ugly. A dodge job all round.

New trellises with espaliered dwarf apple trees

This is the new set up, with newly espaliered apple trees. Some of the undergrowth you can see there are berry plants that are yet to be trained up a new trellis. Once they are moved onto a new trellis all of their own, it will look neater and nicer. Also, btw, expecting a bumper berry crop this year. The plants are covered in blossoms. Very excited about that. My husband loves the boysenberries, which is a pretty sweet reward for all his hard building work.

Espalier dwarf apple tree

The trellis has been built with wooden poles, strong wire rope, and turnbuckles to enable us to tighten the wire if it sags. We chose to use wood for the supports rather than metal, but you could use steel poles. We prefer wood for the aesthetic, and because it is much cheaper. We are building five large trellises across our garden, and need thirteen tall poles, so cost is an important consideration.

In addition to the three trellises in Pie Corner, we are building a large trellis along the back garden fence to support three passionfruit plants, green beans, cucumbers, and a pepino, and a trellis for our three year old grapevine. I want to use as much of my vertical space as possible.

The espaliering is probably not textbook, but as Homer Simpson says, it’s my first day. I’ll keep shaping and training them and soon, hopefully, they’ll look like some textbook French potager effort. Or at least, ok. Whatever, we’re getting apples, so it’s all good.

We’re also getting grapes on our grapevine for the first time. I’m very chuffed about that. I will guard these little baby grapes with my life. Or at least some kind of netting.

Hello, little baby grapelings

The rest of the day, I potted up more petunias and a new Chinese Jasmine I bought on a whim, and cleaned up the patio because we have guests visiting tomorrow. Our yard continues to look like a construction site as we always seem to be building something, but at least the patio is as tidy as it can be, and the house has lovely fresh flowers. I do hope the construction site is cleared away before Christmas though…is exactly what I said last year!

Maybe if I want that to happen I should stop asking his nibs to build stuff.

Weekend gardening jobs, 16 & 17 October 2021

If you’re a gardener, and if you want to grow a food forest, and if you are so inclined to partner up, can I recommend you seek out a person that can build stuff? Gardening requires a surprising amount of building and engineering, if you have a largish sized plot. Unfortunately, I am not an engineer. I know what I need, where I want it, and how it should look, but not how to build it. My husband, on the other hand, enjoys being outside and the results of gardening (i.e. the eating) but is not really into the digging, composting and planting. However, he is pretty great at figuring out how to build the things I need.

He recently finished the retaining wall, and has started to re-pave the backyard with recycled pavers (we want to build a backyard in-ground firepit for next Winter). But before he can continue that task, we are building trellises for all the backyard fruit trees and canes. This is a task that has been on my mind for about two years. I built short-term trellises to espalier our dwarf apple trees, but they look, well, craptacular.

Dodgy espaliering job on dodgy trellis

The problems are many: star pickets look ugly, the wires were not strong enough and have started to sag, the trellis was quickly outgrown by the apple trees etc etc. It had to go. The trellis for the berry canes in Pie Corner was similarly horrible and the berries are just free-forming it all over the place (as you can see in the above photo). I have also recently planted several passionfruit plants that are going to outgrow the temporary trellises, and I have also recently planted dwarf plums that I wanted to espalier properly. Hence, I need a builder.

I did look for professional landscapers but they are booked out everywhere, and honestly my job is not large enough for most tradies to be interested in. Plus, my husband and I thought we could tackle it ourselves.

I watched several YouTube videos about building a trellis to espalier trees, and visited the Botanic Gardens to look at the way their very professional gardeners had done it. I still couldn’t figure it out. My husband watched the same YouTube video, and off we went to the Big Green Shed and in an hour we were back home with all the stuff we needed to build a trellis. Bloody hell. I mean, I love him.

I left him to it, and did the following:

  • Dug out enough compost from the two bins to add to an entire section of garden, which I lightly dug through and have left to settle.
  • Planted three varieties of climbing beans (Kentucky Wonder, Purple King, and Blue Lake) and one of dwarf beans (Yellow Wax).
  • Picked a whole heap of veggies for dinner, including carrots, broccoli, spinach, onions, and asparagus. I made an Ottolenghi spinach and feta pie for dinner, and it was amazeballs.
  • Planted beetroot, sunflower, carrots, and lettuce seeds, and pulled out some old spinach and coriander plants and fed them to the chooks.
  • Planted up a lovely pink calibrachoa for the front stoop, and watered all the balcony plants.
  • Fed the passionfruit with some fish emulsion and seaweed fertiliser, and cursed a bit when I saw some little critter has been having a nibble on them. Couldn’t find anything so I think it has gone away now.
  • Waved to all the bees, including at least a couple of native bees hovering among the flowers.
  • Admired the bronze iris that finally flowered after I thought all hope was lost.

An update in the trellis and espalier efforts next time.

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 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.

Social Distancing Garden Jobs, 20 March 2020

When you shouldn’t be with people, and your workload has been reduced, what can you do?

Well some people might Netflix and chill, which is totally fine, but I can only do that for so long.

I paved the chook shed.

Our neighbour, John, helped us to build a new chook shed several months ago. The shed was almost ready to welcome new henny pennies, but to prevent foxes getting in, we needed to pave the floor. My husband has been intending to do it, but…well, just general life happened.

We have the pavers, the paving sand, etc. I decided to use my day yesterday to just do it.

Bear in mind I have never paved anything in my life. I have built a lot of lego towns though. It was pretty similar. Also, quite calming.

I stopped to chat with John over the fence. His big German Shepherd kept us the obligatory three or four metres apart. I told him what I was doing, and he was visibly shocked. John is a very precise, old school tradie, who builds all kinds of excellent structures in his garden. When I told him that no, I was not using a level, he just about died laughing.

Later I showed him this photo and he had to admit I had done a pretty good job.

John was lamenting that he had run out of horse manure, which he uses a lot in his garden (well-composted of course). I had spotted about thirty bags outside our local Riding For The Disabled location not long ago. John rushed out to pick some up, and dropped three bags in my front yard, bless him. I’ve said it before, but great gardening neighbours are worth their weight in gold/manure.

After I finished paving, I got rid of the now spent jalapeño chilli bushes, that at the end of the season are being attacked by white fly, and composted their soil. I don’t generally re-use potting mix, but I do compost it. That kills any nasties and makes sure that it is recycled. You can put it in the green bin if you don’t have compost.

Then I started on the boring but necessary task of washing all my pots ready for the Autumn planting. I wash my pots with heavily diluted metho (a solution of roughly 50:1 water:metho), and scrub them out. This kills any bugs and makes them ready to accept new soil and plants.

I wasn’t always so rigorous. I used to just rinse them a bit and toss new plants in. But I have learned over time that it pays to give the home you are putting new plants in a good clean, just as you would give a new home you were moving into a good clean.

Sanitise, people!

Gardening Jobs, Week Beginning 23rd September 2019

Pomegranate tree in full leaf

It is starting to feel like the weekends will never be long enough to accomplish everything that needs to be done in the garden at this time of year. The list of jobs just keeps growing, and every time I think it cannot get any longer, I turn a corner and a new job appears! This week it starts and ends with the letter ‘W’: Wall and Weeding.

Believe it or not, we are still building the retaining wall. We have had many wet weekends, plus illness and my foot surgery. This has prevented work on the wall, to the point that I was beginning to despair of it ever being completed. However this weekend, the sun shone down on our little enterprise, and we were able to tackle the project with renewed vigour.

Or so we thought. Enter, the weeds. While the wall languished, the weeds flourished. We had removed several raised garden beds and a portable greenhouse to make way for the wall, but in their place a forest of thistles, nettles, mallow, and of all things, dwarf bamboo, had sprung up. My husband joked that we needed to acquire chickens and a panda to get rid of it all.

In lieu of a panda, we had me and a garden fork. It was tough going, but I managed to remove all of it. As I removed it, I was able to see my neighbour over the fence, who remarked that he was happy to see me, and happy to see me removing the weeds. The poor neighbours had been able to see our thistle patch growing, while we had not, as it was on the other side of our large pergola. We have an excellent relationship with our neighbours, and while joking about the weeds, he handed me some galangal roots to plant, and I gave him one of our spare raised beds. We are installing a chicken shed soon (courtesy of said neighbour) and no longer have room for it. We had a little chat about the best potting mix for growing blueberries, and I complimented him on his snow peas. I love having gardening neighbours.

While I removed the weeds, my husband continued building the wall. He has now completed 50 per cent of the task. Now that the weather has fined up, we are planning for a completed wall by Christmas.

Other jobs left to do this week:

  • Weeding;
  • Feeding the fruit trees and vines;
  • Planting eggplants in the raised bed in the front yard;
  • Weeding;
  • Planting Crystal Apple cucumbers;
  • Harvesting snow peas, lettuces, kale, and herbs;
  • Preparing tomato beds;
  • Weeding.

Self-seeded dwarf sweet peas

Galangal

Galangal is a relative of ginger, often used in Thai cooking. It is not as hot as ginger, and grows smaller rhizomes. It grows similarly to ginger and turmeric, underground at a depth of about 10 cm, planted in the Spring. I am planning to grow the two rhizomes I was given in a large pot.

We don’t eat a lot of Thai food, due to allergies, but we do eat a lot of Indian food. Although Galangal has a milder flavour than Ginger, I am sure that it will be delicious to use in Indian food or in stir fries and Asian-style soups.

Building a retaining wall – in pictures

The retaining wall that became an urgent need after the Great Mud Flood of 2019 is described below in pictures.

This is what our backyard looked like, pre-retaining wall:

You can see that we have a brand new fence (installed mid-last year), but the retaining wall is a horrible mix of old perma pine, moss rocks, and stacked pavers. The stacked pavers were a stop gap measure added after the Mud Flood. You can see the after effects of the Mud Flood – there is mud everywhere! The first job after the retaining wall is built will be to pave over the remaining dirt, and then to power wash the heck out of the filthy paving stones.

When we bought our property four years ago, the fence was falling down behind three enormous conifers that were inappropriate plantings for the space (they were already huge, and were expected to double in size again). These were removed, and the built up soil you can see in the photo was rehabilitated by the addition of manures, compost, and organic matter. The soil is now very good, and we grow excellent veggies in it. It is a working veggie patch, but there is no need for it to look quite so horrible.

We chose to use a product called Garden Wall by Boral, which is a ready-made sandstone block that can be easily stacked and locks into each other. I say “easily” – but I am not the poor sucker lugging the damn things. They are extremely heavy. The cost of Garden Wall blocks varies, but we searched around until we found a good deal from a local landscaping business.

To prep the area, my husband had to remove a lot of soil. Barrows and barrows of the stuff. He removed it from the backyard, where we could not add it to the existing area (or we would have to keep building a higher wall), to the front yard. The soil in the front yard continues to be a work in progress due to previous plantings (some odd choices made by previous owners) and the accursed weed matting. The addition of some nice fresh soil could only do some good. I raked the new soil around the front yard while he dug and barrowed.

To create footings for the wall, he had to dig a trench. To guide him, he created a string line out of stakes and twine (see below), and used a level to make sure his trench was straight. You can see from the image below that they used infernal weed matting and black plastic in this garden bed as well – I continue to dig the bloody stuff up. The trench is about 20cm wider than the Garden Wall blocks, to allow for necessary drainage.

Once he had a nice flat trench, he laid 15cm crusher dust and tamped it down using a tamping tool:

Next, he laid paving sand about 5cm thick and tamped it down again:

This created a foundation for the blocks to be laid. Then he was ready to lay the first layer of blocks:

As he laid them, he checked each block to make sure they were level. He carefully tamped down each block.

After laying the first row, he installed blue metal gravel behind the blocks for drainage purposes, tamping it down again for neatness and to stop the backfilling soil from sinking.

He then stacked the next row, following the same process. Here you can see stage one, completed:

We are building an 18 metre wall that will run right around the entire garden bed. The garden bed runs right around the backyard – pictured here is only a small part of it. The wall will step down, as the bed slopes gently downward. So far, he has completed about 9 metres in three days, just in time for a weather system that is expected to bring with it at least 20mm rain.

I think he has done a great job!

Once the wall is built, we will pave up to about 15cm from the wall, and then plant up the remaining soil with some groundcover plants that will hold the rest of the soil in place.

A good reason to DIY, aside from personal satisfaction and accolades from your wife: this 18 metre wall will cost us under $4,000 AUD. Paying someone to do it (labour and materials) would cost us about $15,000 AUD. While we are happy to contract out tasks that we know we cannot do, my husband is also a pretty handy kind of person. He likes to learn new things and will take on tasks if he thinks he can manage them himself. In this case, he was fairly certain he could manage the task of building a retaining wall himself, if I was not fussed about how long it would take, given that we both work full time and would be doing this job on weekends. Saving $12,000 is a nice bonus. That will buy a lot of plants.