How to spot an obsessive gardener

The new greenhouse

We built a greenhouse

Or, I should say, Geoff the builder did.

I have been thinking about installing a greenhouse for a while. Our area of Southern Australia has been heading towards a two-season year for a couple of years now, thanks to either a) climate change or b) an evil mage’s curse. We have had long, cold, Spring times that seem to be an extension of our Winter months, and this pattern seems to be recurring. After the long Winter/Spring, we have our usual warm to hot Summers and longer, warmer Autumns.

A greenhouse will extend the warm growing season

I have been looking online, but I do not have building skills. I don’t even really have IKEA skills. Most of the kit-form greenhouses are expensive, and are shipped, flat pack style, to the buyer, to be built and installed by the customer. I couldn’t ascertain the quality, and I was fairly certain I couldn’t put one together. I assumed you need more than an allen key and a dream.

There was also the slight problem of space.

When we bought it, our property had three sheds for some reason (five if you count the dilapidated double garage and the lean to around the side, both of which we had to demolish). Maybe the owners before us had a lot of things to store. Maybe they were car enthusiasts or woodworkers – who knows! Too many sheds, in my view.

Behind the patio was a small garden shed that we stored all our tools, potting mix, and gardening equipment, but this stuff could be moved to one of the other sheds with a little effort. If we pulled that shed down, the space could either be used to extend the garden area, or install a greenhouse.

Enter Geoff the Builder. Geoff has been our builder for previous projects. He has renovated various parts of our 70s palace in the past. The great thing about Geoff is that he’s always thinking about ways to reclaim materials and do a job for less.

He was at our place quoting on a repair job on some fascia boards, when I asked him how much it would cost to pull down the garden shed and put together a greenhouse kit for me.

“Nah,” he said, “Don’t buy one of those – I’ll build you one.” He inspected the shed and surmised that the original frame was sturdy and good condition. A week later, I had a quote for a design and build on a greenhouse using the original frame of the old shed.

Interior of the greenhouse

It cost less than the greenhouses I was eyeing online, and while some new materials were used (shade cloth, poly sheets), we were able to reuse the original frame and Geoff took the tin from the old shed to reuse elsewhere. This made it a much more sustainable option. I also know if it ever needs to be repaired, I can call Geoff and he can fix it.

Ventilation has been built in via shade cloth panels on the back wall and two front walls. This allows for adequate air flow. The rest of the walls, including the door, are clear polycarbonate sheeting. The floor is the original shed paving.

The whole job took him 2.5 days. It would have taken me weeks to put together a kit, if I could have done it at all, and it would not have been a good use of my time. I spent some of the weekend sweeping it out, but it is basically ready to go.

Now I have the fun part – figuring out how to use it!

I realised this morning that this is next level gardening obsessive.

There’s people that enjoy gardening, that have a pot of herbs or two, some houseplants, a beloved rose. Then there’s people that really love it, for whom gardening is their main hobby. That used to be me.

Then one day I graduated. One day my brain switched gear, and I became an obsessive gardener.

I wondered when that happened. Was it when I tried to grow my entire season’s worth of veggies from seed? Was it when I spent 45 minutes trying to find the perfect gardening gloves, and told my husband off for wearing them and stretching them out? When I converted the whole back yard into a veggie patch? When I named the passionfruit and boysenberry vines? When my neighbour dropped off bags of poo on my doorstep and I thanked him for his thoughtfulness?

Or did I finally, finally, crack this week, when we installed a greenhouse?

Yep. I think this was the moment.

Weekend gardening jobs, October 29 2022

I love Spring. It’s my favourite time of year. Bees are buzzing in apple blossom and my favourite flowers of all (sweet peas) are in bloom and filling my garden with their heady perfume.

This year, however, it has barely stopped raining. It’s almost November and it is still cold and wet. So when I read that the whole week from Sunday will be wet and raining again, I knew I had to carve out at least a few hours on Saturday to spend in the garden.

Gardening in the rain

My first task was picking some veggies and flowers. Despite my complaining, the rain has been fantastic for the front yard flower garden. I hardly ever water the front yard, instead choosing plants that can survive growing on a sunny North-facing hillside with minimal water. But I have to admit that the extra water has really benefited the whole front garden – it looks amazing right now. I picked roses, irises, carnations, and sweet peas for the house. I filled two vases and could have picked more, but I love looking at the flowers through my office window during the week, so I am happy to leave the rest in the garden for now. Things have grown so much that when I went to move a hose out of the way, a couple of bushes had grown over and around it and I had to yank a few daisies out just to shift the hose (don’t worry, the daisies survived).

I also picked a bowl of peas and asparagus. I’ve had the best crop of peas ever this season. Usually, I have a pretty sparse pea crop – they tend to collapse in a mildewy pile before I manage to pick more than a bowlful. The cooler season has kept them going much longer, and we are still picking enough for a lovely stirfry a week. Veggies like peas, broccoli and chard love the slightly warmer weather combined with the extra rain, and are continuing to produce well after they would normally have bolted to seed. In previous seasons, we would now be in the hungry gap that usually sits between late Winter/early Spring and the Summer veggie explosion. Yet it’s the end of October and I am still picking greens, peas, asparagus, and broccoli. It’s so fun to pick a bowl of veg and then make a fresh stir fry just a couple of hours later with your own homegrown veggies and eggs.

The rain has also been brilliant for the soil. When I was planting seeds this afternoon, I noticed that not only was the soil damp and easy to work, it was black. The compost and sheep manure I’ve been putting on the soil in the past few months, combined with the lovely deep soaking rain, has turned the soil a dark black. I’ve never seen it so healthy.

Spring planting

I’ve been holding off planting out tomatoes and Summer veggies, because the weather is still so cool and wet. But if I don’t get the tomatoes in the soil soon, it will be too late.

So I decided today to get out there and plant, taking care to plant around the Spring greens and brassicas that are still in the ground. Normally they would have already been pulled out, but as I mentioned, they are all still taking up real estate. So I’m working around them.

ladies fingers lot
Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh on Pexels.com

The first thing I planted was the okra seedlings I raised from seed. I have not planted okra before, but now we are vegetarian I am looking for even more veggies to try, to expand our palettes and our plates. Okra, also known as “ladies fingers” is commonly used in Indian and Southern USA cuisine. We eat a lot of Indian food, as this is our family heritage, so I’m looking forward to growing it and learning to cook it. Sometimes these experiments in gardening work – and sometimes they don’t. Last season’s collard green experiment was not a great success. They grew fine, but we didn’t really enjoy them and I won’t grow them again. Collards take up a lot of space, and I much prefer other greens, like kale and spinach.

Planting pumpkins

From left: Queensland Blue, Australian Butter, Buttercup

I’m going all in on pumpkins and eggplant this year. I love growing pumpkins, and I always do well with them. My trick is to go out early every morning and hand pollinate the flowers to encourage heavy cropping (I call it “probing the pumpkins”). We are still eating the last of the pumpkins from last year’s crop (literally a quarter of one of last year’s Queensland Blue is in the fridge as I write). This season I am growing:

Buttercup are the tastiest pumpkins I have every grown, but are not prolific fruiters. Kent grow like crazy but do not keep well. Queensland Blue keep well, but are not as tasty. So I have planted a number of each so I can have a bit of everything. Sweet Dumpling Squash are a new variety for me – they are what Americans call a ‘Winter Squash’, which means they keep longer and have a tougher skin than the vegetables we Aussies usually call ‘Squash’ (which are really a type of zucchini, which if you want to add to the confusion, Americans call ‘Summer Squash’). We tend to call ‘Winter Squash’ ‘pumpkins‘ – think thin-skinned pumpkins like Butternuts. Anyway, Sweet Dumpling look pretty so I want to give them a go – no idea how they will taste. Hopefully, I will find out.

I plant pumpkins directly where I want them to grow, from seed. I never grow them as seedlings, as they don’t transplant well. You can buy pumpkin seedlings but, in my experience, transplanted pumpkins tend to sulk for quite a while and never do as well as pumpkins that are grown directly from seed. I dig a little mound, and then plant two seeds in each mound, and label so I remember what I have planted where. I’ll leave them alone now until they come up.

Planting tomatoes

After planting out the pumpkin seeds, I planted eleven tomatoes that I have grown from seed. I planted Black Russian and Green Zebra, as well as Window Box tomatoes in containers. Window Box is a yellow cherry tomato that unlike many cherry tomatoes, grows on a short, bushy, plant, perfect for pots. Hopefully the fruit is tasty – I grew a cherry tomato last year that looked great but tasted…bleagh.

I have grown so many tomatoes from seed, many more than I can fit in the garden. This was kind of an accident, so I have been slowly giving the seedlings away to neighbours and family, and planting others into pots on my balcony.

I plant tomatoes quite deeply – deeper than I plant any other plant. Tomatoes can shoot roots along their stems, so planting them deeply lets them shoot additional roots along the part of the stem planted underground and grows a stronger plant.

Finding some space

I also planted out more capsicum that I had grown from seed (Golden Marconi), and the Teddy Bear sunflower seedlings I have been carefully nurturing for a few weeks now. I have tried growing these three years running, with no success. Hopefully this year will be the year! I have generally good luck with sunflowers, but not this variety. I love their bright, fluffy heads – they are so cute.

I can see I will have a serious space issue once again. When the pumpkins come up and the tomatoes grow, I will have a problem, especially as I also want to plant more eggplant, green beans, chillies, and zucchini. As it is, I use pots, raised beds, trellising, and my balcony to expand my growing space, but it is still not enough. The truth is that I grow more than we can ever eat, and I give away a lot of it. It’s just the fun of growing that makes me want to fill every bit of space with plants.

Today (Sunday) has brought rainy and windy weather, so I am hiding inside and working instead. Probably for the best, because my body is protesting a lot after Saturday’s efforts! The problem with part-time gardening is that when I do finally get outside, my poor old body doesn’t know what is happening to it!

Spring long weekend gardening jobs, October 2nd 2022

Spring bulbs are one of the best parts of spring gardening

I love Spring gardening. I’d love nothing more than to be spending all day long in the Spring sunshine, but unfortunately I’m not paid to garden (more’s the pity).

It’s been one of my busiest work periods in a while. This means very little time for me to spend outside. The closest I have come is looking out the window at the Spring bulbs blooming in the front garden. Check out the irises growing under the Mulberry Tree – the best display of Dutch Irises we have ever had.

However, we had a long weekend (Labour Day), so I gave myself a day off and spent the entire Sunday in the veggie patch (after a quick trip to the Big Green Shed to buy a few supplies).

My first job was picking a bowl of veggies. It was exciting to find the first spears of asparagus in the garden today, along with lots of rainbow chard, spring onions, Tuscan kale (also known as cavolo nero or dinosaur kale), cabbage, daikon radish, and carrots.

Speaking of asparagus, if you are growing it, don’t forget about it. One of the awesome things about the Spring gardening season is how quickly things take off. One of the challenging things about the Spring gardening season, is how quickly things take off! If you don’t keep an eye on plants like asparagus and broccoli, you will either find yourself overrun, or it has bolted faster than you can pick it. The first problem is not too bad, but the second is pretty heartbreaking after all your efforts.

Spring gardening leads to spring greens

Spring gardening, seed starting

I had a big list of jobs but decided to start with the most fun jobs first. I am trying to grow as many plants as I can from seed again, without being prescriptive about it. I have been starting seeds to plant out in the late Spring garden since early August, and I am still sowing veggie seeds. I spent a happy hour or so sowing some more seeds, and potted on seedlings that were ready to move into bigger pots.

I have some beautiful tomato plants almost ready to go out into the garden in a few weeks, and capsicums growing bigger. I have learned though that basil, chillies, and eggplant do not like to be started in September, even on a heat mat – it’s just too early. As soon as I moved the seedlings off the heat mat, the plants keeled over and died in the cold. I have had to restart them all over again, wasting time and seeds. Hopefully this next lot will work out better.

This week, I sowed chillies, eggplants, okra, sunflowers, and some seeds I had saved from an heirloom tomato we bought from the supermarket that was delicious. I scooped the seeds onto a paper towel on a plate to dry, then I lazily tore bits of the dried towel into little pieces and planted them into soil (call it a “cheats seed tape”). I have already tried this out with good success (from a black cherry tomato I enjoyed earlier this year), and now I have a dozen seedlings growing in pots ready for the garden. Whether they will grow true to type is the next question.

The only problem is that now I have heaps of tomato seedlings. My plan this year was lots of eggplant, fewer tomatoes. I’ve ended up with lots of tomato plants, and so far very few eggplants! I’ll be giving away some tomato seedlings and will have to buy some extra eggplant seedlings to achieve my goal of a mountain of delicious eggplants this Summer.

Re-potting houseplants

I recently bought some lovely houseplants at a sale. Unfortunately since they have arrived at my place, the ficus has started dropping leaves and the calathea has almost completely turned up its toes. Generally I do quite well with houseplants, so I was concerned about why these two were struggling. I tried moving them to a different spot, but this did not help. I soaked them in a bath of water, which also did not help.

I decided to repot them, as the mix they were in seemed to be very loose (more akin to a cacti and succulent mix than a potting mix). The roots seemed not to be rotted, so that is not the issue with the calathea. I moved them to the patio area, which has sheltered light but is much warmer than the house. I’m misting them daily with water to increase the humidity. Hopefully this stops the ficus dropping leaves, and helps the calathea leaves to unfurl.

Messy jobs

The rest of the day, I turned the three compost bins and then cleaned out the chicken shed. I pulled out some weeds, and dug out the remnants of the boysenberry cane, Audrey II, which reared her thorny head yet again. I think I will be digging the damn thing out for quite a while, but as I refuse to use RoundUp in my garden that is just what I will have to do.

I do have to start pulling out some plants that are going to seed. I started with a few kohlrabi (ugh, why do I keep trying! It never sets a bulb for me) and fed them to some very appreciative chickens. I still have quite a few parts of the garden to clear, but as the seedlings aren’t ready yet, this job can be done in small sections.

Eating from the veggie patch

I staggered back in to clean up, then made a batch of really delicious okonomiyaki for dinner (you can make these with any veggies, but I made them with cabbage, daikon, carrots, chard and spring onions) before crashing out in front of the TV. Yay for the Spring gardening season – the most wonderful time of the year! Some people think that’s Christmas…but not me!

The plan this week is just to eat from the garden: okonomiyaki, spinach and feta rolls, squash and kale pasta, spinach and lentil dal…so many delicious options with these amazing greens. If you have any good recipes for Spring greens, let me know!

Growing a mini meadow

The author's mini meadow attracts insects to the vegetable garden

An important part of any productive garden should be flowers. Flowers attract beneficial insects such as bees and other pollinators, and also feed birds (many birds feed on nectar from flowers – these birds are also pollinators). I grow perennial ornamental flowering plants like salvias and lavender in my front yard, interspersed with fruit trees, herbs (which also flower annually), and flowering bulbs. I also grow annual ornamental flowers in window boxes and tubs on my balcony and front stoop. And I have planted what I like to call a ‘mini meadow’ in front of my backyard veggie patch.

What the heck is a mini meadow?

It’s a bit of a laugh really, calling it a mini meadow. It’s far too small to be a meadow. It’s really a rambling flower patch. But it kind of functions like a meadow. A meadow is an open field, planted by grasses and non-woody plants. Meadows play an important role in ecosystems, acting as carbon sinks, and as homes for animals, birds and food sources for pollinators.

My mini meadow doesn’t have grasses, because I weed them out. But it does have a range of flowers, about half of which are self-seeded, and that are non-woody. It attracts pollinators and birds. It lies in front of our retaining wall, and it is planted with the following herbs and flowers:

  • Nasturtiums
  • Violets
  • Poppies
  • Calendula
  • Nigella
  • Alyssum
  • Dahlias
  • Freesias
  • Daffodils
  • Sweet peas
  • Dianthus
  • Borage
  • Cosmos

You don’t have to be precious with a meadow. I stomp all over it on my way to the veggie patch, and it bounces back with no worries. It’s not made to be protected and cossetted. It’s not organised, and it will not win any awards for garden design. Many people would find it too messy to have in their backyard, but it suits my purposes. It is low maintenance, drought tolerant, tough, cheap as chips (as it’s mostly self-seeded), and it does its job of attracting beneficial insects to the veggie patch.

Building a backyard meadow

Growing a mini meadow obviously requires some space. If you want to try it, you will need a bit of spare earth in your garden. You could try creating on on your front verge (I’ve been thinking of doing this on our verge).

I first started building the meadow after my husband finished the retaining wall. He took an extended break before paving in the front. No shade to my husband, who was busy doing other things (i.e. building the trellises I requested) but there was a patch of dirt left for several months. You can’t just leave a patch of dirt hanging about and not expect a gardener to fill it with something. I figured better a couple of flowers than letting weeds set in. So I threw in a couple of nasturtium seeds, just for some easy colour. Then my mum gave me some lovely orange poppies. Then…well, you get the picture.

The soil in that spot had not been improved with anything – it had been compacted because it had previously been paved over. My husband had removed the old paving to install the retaining wall. I loosened up the soil with a fork, and then started planting, but I did not improve it with compost or fertiliser before I began to add plants.

I still have never fed it with anything, not even my homemade compost (I save that for the veggie beds and the fruit trees), and I don’t water it. The rule for my meadow is that aside from some basic weeding to stay tidy, it has to sustain itself. So the meadow has been built on some dodgy, compacted, weedy soil and left to its own devices. Something useful and pretty has developed, at almost no cost.

The only maintenance it gets is some weeding and every now and then, some new plants. Every time I am out in the garden I pull a few weeds from the meadow, or deadhead a flower or two. This weekend I saw it needed a bit more work than that, so I got out the trusty ho-mi, and weeded the whole bed. But that is really a once-a-year task. Because the meadow is planted so closely, weeds rarely get a look in.

Over time, it has developed a lovely rambling vibe that has led me to give it the ‘mini meadow’ epithet. Occasionally, I sprinkle in a few more seeds, or crush a seed pod from a nearby flower head. This keeps it going along its rambling way. The idea is for it to be planted closely and for something to always be flowering to attract bees, lacewings, and hoverflies to my veggie patch. At this time of year, I have daffodils, alyssum, calendula, nasturtiums, and violets flowering. In a few weeks, I’ll have my favourite, sweet peas, and freesias. In Summer dahlias, poppies, nigella, and cosmos are in flower.

When my husband does get to re-paving the backyard, he can dig parts of the meadow up and it will not damage the rest of it – although I will admit that I’ll be sad if it all goes.

Tips for building a mini-meadow

If you have the space for your own little meadow, it’s easy to create one. Fill it with plants that are low maintenance, require little water and attention, and can easily self-seed. Plants that self-seed readily include calendula, alyssum, cosmos, poppies, and nigella. These are also very attractive to bees. As seed heads form and dry, let the seeds fall and re-seed among the bed. You can include annual bulbs like daffodils as well, for a bit of height and interest, although they will only flower once a year. Remember to plant closely so that weeds cannot grow easily between your meadow plants.

Perennials that are worth planting for longer-term colour are dianthus and violets. They will have the added benefit of a beautiful perfume.

Take care that your meadow is relatively self-contained though, as some plants like violets can become weedy if they have room to spread.

Weekend gardening jobs, July 10 2022

Mid-winter might seem like a quiet time in the garden – and compared to Spring and Summer, it is – but there are still jobs that need to be done.

One of the most important jobs is feeding the fruit trees. Deciduous fruit trees like apricots, apples, and plums don’t actively grow in Winter. But they should be fed a lovely blanket of well-rotted sheet of sheep or cow manure over their root systems. Every July I order a dozen or so bags of aged, pulverised sheep manure from a local company, and spread a bag or two around the roots of each tree. I make sure not to place it right up against the trunk, as this can cause collar rot. I started this job today, but it is a big task as I have a dozen fruit trees and vines, and lugging the bags and spreading the manure takes quite a while. I managed a third of the task, and will try to carve out some more time during the week if the weather holds up. The manure will slowly feed the trees over the next couple of months and give them a boost at the peak growing time in early Spring.

Of compost and chickens

It was also time to turn the compost and clean out the chickens. I have four lovely hens, who are about 18 months old. They are moulting and off the lay right now, and looking a bit rough around the edges, poor girls. They stay in their run during the week, but on the weekends I let them out in the garden while I clean out their house and yard. They have a blast, although I have to chase them away from my lettuces! I found them scratching up spinach and tatsoi seedlings today. Grrrr. This is what happens when you let tiny dinosaurs loose in your veggie patch. Little monsters.

Before I let them loose, I turned the compost bins, and dug out about eight buckets of lovely compost to spread over Pie Corner. Then I filled the bins back up with the straw and crud from the chook pen.

Goodbye Audrey II

Speaking of Pie Corner, I decided today to remove that bane of my thumbs, the boysenberry canes I dubbed Audrey II. She had succumbed to a rust fungus, and I decided that rather than try to treat it, I would consign the plants to the green bin. Audrey II has been a somewhat patchy producer at best, and the pain of pruning the damn thing has not been worth the gain of a couple of punnets of boysenberries each Summer. I am sure we will find her offspring popping up over the next few months, but we will just keep digging those bits out until she has gone completely. I have decided to replace her with an espaliered quince tree next Season. I love quinces, and the flowers are so beautiful. I wish I could say I’ll miss you Audrey II…but I won’t.

Productive laziness

I read an article in the New York Times today about work and the scam of ‘busyness’ (as opposed to ‘business.’ The author was speaking from the perspective of an American, that people are beginning to reject the American idea of ‘work’ and the non-stop, rat-raciness, over-productive busyness of it all. Importantly, he differentiated between that kind of work, and work that is genuinely engaging and absorbing. This work could be unremunerated.

I don’t believe most people are lazy. They would love to be fully, deeply engaged in something worthwhile, something that actually mattered, instead of forfeiting their limited hours on Earth to make a little more money for men they’d rather throw fruit at as they pass by in tumbrels.

Tim Kreider, “It’s time to stop living the American scam.”

I genuinely like running my own business. But I also agree that there is something to be said about a different kind of work, that is absorbing, engaging, and deeply satisfying – even if it doesn’t earn any money per se. I spent half my day today shovelling various kinds of waste: compost, chicken shed waste, pulverised sheep manure. To some people, that would be just a horrible time. But I was completely, happily, absorbed in what some would see as unproductive, unremunerated work of limited practical value. I might get some apples in the future. I might not. Who cares? To be completely honest, I don’t, much.

Worthwhile garden investments

I’ve spent a lot of time in my garden over the past 7.5 years. And a lot of cash, if I’m honest. I can’t say how much exactly. By the time I add up the cost of plants, removing trees, building a retaining wall, installing a chook shed (which we were lucky enough to score secondhand from our neighbour), tools, trellises, even more plants, etc…the cost must be in the shillions (that’s a number my youngest invented at the age of four, when trying to envision the largest number possible).

While I don’t regret any of these expenses, I do think there are some items that were better investments than others. They have raised both the value of our home and improved the overall look or productiveness of my garden.

Compost bins and compost worms

Compost bin

I have three black ‘dalek’ style compost bins that are always in rotation. Two cost $40 each from Bunnos, and the other was free from my local Buy Nothing group. I continually add garden trimmings, coffee grounds, tea leaves, chicken shed waste, and kitchen scraps to the bins. I turn them every time I clean out the chook shed, so roughly every two weeks. By ‘turn’, I mean I tip them over, move them around, pull out the ready-to-use compost, and shovel the rest back in the bins. Some weeks I might get a few buckets out of three bins, and at other times, a wheelbarrow load. I tip it on to whichever part of the garden looks like it needs it the most. Over the course of the year, the whole garden gets a topdressing of homemade compost. I don’t dig it in – I just tip it on top of the existing soil and let it weather in.

I add a box of 1000 compost worms to the bins every couple of years, where they happily breed and chew through the compost. I don’t bother with worm juice or a worm farm; I am perfectly happy just tossing them back in as I turn the compost. A box of 1000 worms costs about $50.

For an investment of $180 over 7.5 years (2x boxes compost worms + 2 x compost bins = roughly $25 per annum), I have homemade compost for my front and backyards. The other important benefit is that we divert kitchen and garden waste from landfill, reducing our family’s carbon footprint. Most weeks, our red bin (garbage) has only one bag.

Tree removal

When we first moved to our property, we paid a professional arborist $3500 to remove five trees. We researched several arborists, and received quotes. One guy quoted us $1000. When he visited us, he was clearly a dodgy operator and we turned him down, even though his quote was less than a third of the other company. At the time, $3500 was a lot of money to spend before we even started our garden. But the trees there were not safe or appropriate for the property, and prevented us growing anything productive. We forked out the extra cash, and a team of professional arborists safety removed the trees. I still think it was worth the extra money.

Good quality trees

You can buy trees from many places. Even supermarkets sometimes sell fruit trees at a bargain price. I’m not averse to picking up a bargain punnet of petunias from my local supermarket, believe me. It might seem that a tree is a tree, and that all that counts is the variety. However, I have learned the hard way that is not the case. Specialist tree nurseries invest in good quality root stock and hire qualified staff with expertise in varieties for your area. I buy most of my fruit trees from a local nursery that understands my soil and weather conditions, and provides advice on growing conditions and care. I pay for that advice by paying more for the trees I buy from them, but it has been worth it. Every tree I have bought from them has thrived.

To compare, I have a lime tree bought from my local specialty tree nursery, and a lemon tree bought from a supermarket. Both were planted at roughly the same time. One is in the front yard and one in the back yard. The lemon tree is a sad, spindly little thing, with not a single flower or fruit to be seen. I have fed it and watered it – and nada. The lime tree, even after fighting off a scale infestation and a leaf miner attack, has glossy dark leaves and has produced its first full crop of juicy limes. It is currently flowering again, getting ready to produce its second crop. Arguably the back yard and the front yard have different conditions. But not that different. I’m getting ready to yank that lemon tree out and replace it with a new tree, from a good nursery. I’m not one to harp on sunk costs.

Tools

This should be obvious, but cheap tools are not worth it. I have a solid hard wood handled garden fork that that I bought from the Digger’s Club five years ago, and aside from the muck on it, still looks new. It cost me about $80, but is worth every cent. I can buy a fork from Bunnos for ten bucks, but the handle will snap in no time. On cheap forks, the tines bend very easily, leaving you with an annoying fork that digs and turns unevenly. I dig with my Digger’s fork a lot, and the tines don’t bend, even when digging over hard or rocky soil. I feel confident that this fork will still be in tip-top shape in another five years. I intend to replace my other tools with Digger’s tools as they die, because I know the investment will be worth the extra cash.

Potting mix and fertilisers

Certain things can be purchased more cheaply for sure, but potting mix is not one of them. I know, because I have bought and tested almost all available to me. You will hear many garden experts say to buy ‘premium’ potting mix. I used to think, ‘well, sure, if you’re made of money.’ Then I discovered that the cheap three-dollar bags of potting soil are basically pressed bark sweepings, and do your plants no favours. Cheaper potting mix dries out very quickly, becomes hydrophobic, and leaves your plants hungry and thirsty. Spending money on good plants and not spending on the soil ends up costing you more in the end.

Look for the ‘red ticks’ on the bag. That means it’s a premium mix. ‘Premium’ usually means it has added soil wetting agents such as additional coir, and slow release fertiliser. Of course, you could add this to a cheaper mix yourself, but then you have just raised the cost of the cheaper mix anyway.

I also spend money on good quality, pure organic fertilisers such as pelletised chicken manure (also called Dynamic Lifter or other versions), Blood & Bone, and liquid tonics and fertilisers. I don’t buy brands that say they are ‘Blood & Bone-based’ as this can mean the manufacturer has added cheap fillers to the bag to lower the cost. These do nothing for your garden and may attract pests. It’s worth spending more to get a pure product.

Some gardeners prefer not to use Blood & Bone products, and as a vegetarian, I understand that. There are vegan fertilisers available. However, I am not a vegan, and neither are soil micro-organisms. I am not opposed to using animal products in my garden so long as they are organic. I use a product called ‘Charlie Carp,’ that is made from European Carp, a fish that is a pest and pollutes our waterways, and I also use animal manures such as sheep and chicken. Use what you are comfortable with and that sits with your values. Buy the best products that you can afford to feed your soil. Feeding your soil is the best investment you can make in your garden.

Is gardening ‘elitist’?

A discussion on a Facebook group had me mulling this over while I cleaned out the chook shed this weekend.

Australians are currently paying a great deal more for our fresh produce. This has led some to promote the idea of “growing your own produce.” Some have argued that this suggestion is ‘elitist.’

This caused a stir on one of the Facebook gardening groups I lurk in. I tend not to comment or share in these groups often. I prefer to look at the pretty pictures of roses and homegrown produce, and let others advise about whether that fungus is black spot or rust. I save my blathering on for this blog.

The ‘elitist’ post had upset quite a few people. They were outraged that someone could suggest that gardening is elitist. They fumed that of course gardening isn’t elitist, they aren’t wealthy, and so on…and so on.

I thought about my big backyard, my chickens in their coop, the money I spend on my gardening hobby. To some people, my mucking about in the backyard each weekend is the height of privilege.

Part of my backyard veggie patch in the height of Summer

So I did something I rarely do, and commented, something to the effect that I could see how, to some people, suggesting people grow their own to offset the cost of fresh produce could be elitist. It did not spark a conversation.

But you, gentle reader, choose to read my ramblings…

Gardening while renting

I’ve always had a garden. While renting, while a student, while broke. Always.

We bought our home relatively recently (about seven years ago). Prior to that, we rented our whole adult life. So I know what it feels like to really want to have your very own patch of dirt, and to be stuck keeping someone else’s yard looking nice.

And yet we still had a garden, through twenty years of renting.

But we did not successfully “grow our own” (by which I mean, at least 50% of our own fresh food) until we owned our own home.

I’m definitely not saying you can’t grow a lot of your own fresh produce while renting. There are ways you can do it, for example by growing in containers and carefully choosing the type of produce you grow. You can also try joining a community garden. We did all of those things.

But I do believe the limited control you have while renting often limits your ability to grow a productive garden to the extent that you really want to. For example, you can’t really improve the soil as much as you wish to or may need. You can’t easily plant fruit trees or perennials (like certain herbs), unless in pots, where they do not produce as well. You can’t install useful structures, like permanent trellising or irrigation systems. If you do decide to go ahead and do that anyway, if you have to leave, you can’t easily take them with you. And of course, you have to seek permission for everything you do.

While we were renting, we had gardens, and we grew some of our fresh produce. But if we were renting now, having a garden would not offset the inflated cost of fresh produce. We spent 20 years renting and gardening, and I can say from experience, that while it was a fun hobby, it never filled our fridge.

Gardening to save cash

I’ve written about this before. Gardening does not save money. Gardening is a great hobby. I love it. As a hobby, it is relatively cheap. But as a way to save money on fresh produce, it is not a great option. At best, you will break even. Even with prices as high as they are, my view stands. I have recently written about some veggies you can grow in containers, that will be good value. But you still need spare cash to buy the containers, potting mix, and seeds or plants. You still need money to set up a garden. If you don’t have spare money, then the advice to “grow your own” does sound tone deaf – and could come across as ‘elitist.’

If you do want to save some cash, grow lettuce from seed! If you have a small space or are renting, grow it in containers.

Time = money

There’s a reason I’m The Part-time Gardener: I work (actually, I run my own small business). If I want cash to spend on my hobby of gardening (as well as pay my mortgage, food, and heat), I need to work during the week – and sometimes on weekends. If I want to garden to “grow my own” I have to actively quarantine about 4 hours of my weekend, minimum, to achieve that. Realistically, I have to set aside more time in peak growing season.

There are plenty of people that work longer hours than I do, or that work more than one job. There are sole parents, or people with chronic health issues or disability, for whom working 4-6 hours a week in a veggie patch is a pretty laughable concept. Time and wellness is a precious commodity in their lives. “Grow your own” is not always an option if you don’t have the time, due to your caring responsibilities, work, or health considerations.

Once you’ve grown your own, it also takes more time to prepare and cook. I have a bucket of root veggies sitting outside that I picked yesterday. I still have to clean and prep them, before they can be cooked. They are beautiful and fresh – but also, kind of a hassle. I have to make the time to prep them. During the week, I do not have that time. It’s strictly a weekend thing.

I love that people want to turn to productive gardening as a way to offset modern challenges. Gardening is awesome. It’s my second favourite thing to do. But many people do not have access to the things needed to grow fruit and veggies successfully: land, good soil, some financial resources, and time.

There’s nothing wrong with being nudged to check your privilege sometimes. It’s not offensive – it’s a helpful reminder that our assumptions and opinions aren’t necessarily facts. When gardeners with land, good soil, some financial resources, and time, tell people without those things to “grow your own,” it does sound elitist. Because it is.

Safety in the garden – tips for being a healthy and safe gardener

Yesterday, I was digging over the compost with my usual gusto, when the shovel slipped and drove into my foot.

Fortunately, I have a tough pair of standard black gumboots, and it slid off with no harm done. But if I had been wearing some other less solid form of footwear, I would have been in real trouble.

That got me thinking about safety in the garden. It’s such an important issue. There are many things I do to keep myself safe while gardening, and a few things I do…that I probably shouldn’t. Here’s a list of safety tips to keep in mind while gardening, some of which I have learned the hard way.

Please note these are not exhaustive and are not professional advice.

Protective footwear

This is one I have already mentioned. We are all guilty of tramping out to the backyard in our Aussie safety sandals (i.e. Havvies/thongs/flip flops), but for time spent in the dirt, gumboots that go up to your knees are really the go.

We each have a a pair of standard black, knee-length gumboots, purchased from the Big Green Shed for $10 a pair. These have lasted us a couple of years and are still good as new (although encrusted with filth). There’s really nothing that can go wrong with them: even a shovel glances right off.

Just remember to check for redbacks before you put them on, and you’ll be right.

I also have a pair of Sloggers, which are rubber garden clogs. These are also great for protecting your toes, but because they are clogs, they do not protect the whole foot. I slip these on when doing some basic garden work, like planting seedlings, but I would not wear them for heavy duty work.

Protective Headwear and Clothing

I live in Australia. This means you slip, slop, slap – shirt, sunscreen, hat, even in Winter. In Winter, I usually wear a beanie because it’s cold, and in Summer, a baseball cap. I know wide-brimmed is better, but I find the brim gets in my way. 50+ sunscreen, and a long-sleeved shirt is preferable to prevent both sunburn and scratching from plants.

Protective Gloves

I always wear gardening gloves. I am obsessive about gardening gloves. When my husband mixes them up, and wears mine, I hunt him down and pull them off his mitts so he doesn’t stretch them out. Good gardening gloves are surprisingly difficult to find. They must be comfortable, protect your hands and fingers, while also allowing the dexterity needed to thin out carrot seedlings, prune a bush, and weed a plot.

Gloves not only protect your hands from dirt and grot, they also protect from thorns, bug bites, and other nasties. They are a barrier between you and the parts of nature that you may not want to be quite so up close and personal with.

I searched high and low for my gardening gloves. I needed a pair that was tough enough to enable me to prune Audrey II, our boysenberry canes. Audrey has spikes that make pruning her a very painful experience. I spent a solid hour in Bunnos trying on multiple pair of gloves until I found ‘the pair’ that seemed tough enough.

If you think I’m being paranoid and too obsessive about gloves, I’m not. A rose or blackberry thorn can cause some nasty damage to the human body, including bacterial infections. If I can avoid, I will. We often have little cuts or nicks on our hands we are not aware of, and gloves act as an additional barrier to prevent bugs getting in.

Anyway, I found a pair. I can’t tell you the brand because, like a doofus, I chucked out the label, dooming me to another hour of searching when they finally give up the ghost.

Face Mask

When handling any garden soil, manure, or compost, I always wear a mask. Potting soil in particular can be a carrier of a type of pneumonia called Legionnaire’s Disease. The safest way to handle it is to wet down the potting mix first, so dust does not fly up when you handle it, and to wear a mask and gloves. Also try to use it in a well-ventilated space, rather than in a close-in space like a shed. Wash your hands well after using potting mix, even if you have worn gloves.

I always wear a mask when handling seed raising mix, when digging over my compost bins, and when cleaning out the chook shed. It’s not like masks are hard to come by nowadays.

Back Care and Movement

I learned this the hard way. Sometimes, particularly in Spring, I spend all day in the garden.

But I’m only a part-time gardener. During the week, I basically sit on my can all day, glued to my laptop.

So what happens to a middle-aged lady who spends 60-70 hours a week on a laptop and then tries to spend 8 hours straight digging in the garden?

Bad things. Bad back things.

One Monday morning, I tried to get out of bed, and I just could not.

Not because I was tired. Because I could not move.

All that gardening had buggered my back, because I had moved in a way my body was not used to.

As I healed and saw the physio regularly, she taught me some exercises to do as I garden that help prevent that ever happening again. Every now and then, I stop digging and do my little back exercises. So far, I have not had any further serious issues.

I can’t tell you what the exercises are, because I am not a medical professional. However, can I suggest that if you are like me, and you spend most of your time sitting down, and then want to spend your spare time outside doing physical activity, either ask a professional or look for some resources on small movements you can do to prevent a back injury.

Chemical and Tool Storage

I don’t have little kids anymore. And I don’t use poisons in my garden. However, young kids do visit sometimes, and I do have a lot of garden tools.

I don’t want the kids that visit to pick up a pair of secateurs and remove a finger. And frankly, I don’t want to trip over a rake in the garden either.

We have a dedicated garden shed, and all tools are returned there at the end of the gardening day. I do a walk around after each morning or afternoon spent in the garden and make sure every tool has been put away.

My garden shed isn’t one of those schmick sheds you see on TV. I don’t have one of those peg boards with an outlined spot for every tool. But everything generally has a spot (more like a pile), and it all goes back.

That also saves some cash. The best way to ruin a tool is to leave it in the rain.

Soap

Wash your hands after gardening. And scrub under those nails. I try to keep my nails short so fewer nasties can get under them, but I still give them a good clean after every gardening session.

Vaccinations

This last one is something you only need to do every ten years – but it’s important. Tetanus is a terrible disease that can kill you. The death rate from tetanus is 1 in 10.

It can be prevented by a vaccine, with a booster every ten years. I had my booster the other day.

It’s a common misconception that tetanus is passed by rusty nails or other items. Tetanus is passed on by a toxin in soil or animal waste – (rusty nails may have tetanus on them, which is why the misconception exists). That is why gardeners are more at risk. If you are not sure of the date of your last tetanus booster, your GP can check on the Immunisation Register.

Do you have any safety tips for the garden? Share in the comments!

Inflation busters! The best veggies to grow to save cash

If you have ever read this blog before you probably know my opinion that in general, growing a vegetable garden does not save you money. By the time you pay for water, buy the plants (or seeds), pay for fertiliser (organic or not), and gardening tools and equipment (such as trellising), my opinion is that at best, you come out even. That’s if you are comparing apples to apples, so to speak.

However, apples aren’t really apples. An organic apple grown in a home garden is not the same as an apple bought from the supermarket. If you grow heirloom fruit and veggies, the varieties you can choose are so different, they are not comparable. I think they taste better and growing your own is generally more sustainable (although it is not necessarily healthier – research shows that the basic nutritional elements between organic and conventional vegetables are very similar).

So, I grow my own veggies because it is fun, because I like to have more choice than the supermarket offers, and because it is a sustainable hobby.

However, if you choose certain vegetables carefully, you can save some money on your fresh produce bills. This is even more important in today’s inflationary environment. These plants can be grown in the ground, in raised beds, or in containers – also important if you are renting.

Top veggies to grow to save money

Lettuce

Social media has reported iceberg lettuces (the worst lettuce of all) for sale at an astounding $8.99 each in parts of Australia. While I would not grow iceberg, which requires a lot of water and fertiliser for very little nutritional return, there are many lettuce varieties that can be grown at home easily with almost no effort.

I like to grow Cos lettuces (currently, Paris Island Red) and a lettuce called Australian Yellow in a raised bed and an old wheelbarrow in the back yard. But lettuce is so easy you can pretty much grow it in any container during cooler months. You can grow it from punnets, but the easiest and cheapest thing to do is grow it from seed. Lettuces come in a huge variety in seed from from both garden retailers and online, and are a good deal. Lettuce seed packs usually come with between 500 and 1000 seeds in a packet. I plant half a packet at a time, sprinkling the seeds liberally over the soil (I don’t bother with rows), and then lightly covering with soil. Water in, then wait for them to pop up over the next week. As they grow, feed with organic liquid fertiliser once a week. Make sure to keep them moist, as lettuce that is not kept moist will become bitter and gross.

You can be picking your own lettuce within four weeks, depending on how cold it is. Pick the leaves you need as you need, and let the plant continue to grow. Try to pick a few leaves from each plant, rather than picking a whole salad from the one plant, so your crop produces evenly. Grow your own lettuce from Autumn to Spring, then let a couple of plants go to seed as the weather warms up. If you are growing an heirloom variety, you will be able to save the seeds for your next crop.

Chillies

My family loves spicy food, especially my husband. We eat spicy food almost every night. A packet of chillies (sold in plastic, natch), costs $6.50 at my local supermarket – or $32.50 a kilo. If you eat a lot of chillies, that’s a pretty costly habit.

One chilli bush will produce well over a kilogram of chillies for about $5 a plant. They don’t usually require much in the way of care, aside from water in the hot weather.

If your plant produces more than you can eat at one time, they can be frozen or dried for longer storage. I do both. If you freeze, you can use them straight from the freezer.

Lebanese Eggplant

Lebanese eggplant are the most prolific eggplant I have grown. While perhaps not as pretty or as widely useful as the globe eggplant (for stuffing or moussaka, they are definitely not as useful), they grow like crazy. This season we had four plants and at least one eggplant-based dish a week from early Summer through to mid-Autumn. Obviously if you’re not a fan of eggplant, that’s not a good deal, but for us it was great. We bought a punnet of four eggplants for about $3.50 from our local supermarket, and planted them in an unobtrusive corner of the garden. Aside from water and a side dressing of pelletised chicken manure once over the season, we left them alone the whole Summer except to go out and pick a bowlful every couple of days. Too easy!

Kale

Your mileage may vary on kale. I don’t mind it, but I don’t love it. I still grow it, because it’s very healthy and quite useful. It’s also pretty expensive – anywhere from $3-$5 a bunch, depending on the season.

Kale can be grown easily from seed and in containers. Last Winter I grew it entirely in pots. However, my view is that it does grow better in the ground than in containers.

Growing from seed is simple. Plant in seed-raising mix, and keep moist while they germinate. I use a heat mat to help the seeds along.

Kale is easy to buy in punnets as well. There are several varieties: Red Russian, Curly Kale (most common), Tuscan (also known as Cavolo Nero or Dinosaur Kale). I prefer to grow Tuscan kale, as I prefer the flavour and texture.

I freeze kale in bags. I just wash it and chop it up, and put it in bags in the freezer, using it from frozen.

Chard (Silverbeet)

Some people might not like chard, preferring the less strongly flavoured spinach. But silverbeet is a tougher, easier to grow plant than spinach, and is also beautiful in the garden, especially if you grow the rainbow variety (which is an Australian breed, btw). It holds up much better in the patch than spinach.

The other great thing about chard is that it grows really easily and quickly from seed, and leaves can be cut as you need it from the main plant over the season for a really long period.

Silverbeet seeds are little blocky, cube-like seeds. Soak them for a few hours in warm water before planting, then you can either plant in seed-raising mix, or plant direct where you want it to grow.

When it germinates, water with a weak solution of organic liquid fertiliser each week.

Herbs

I grow a variety of different herbs in my garden. I grow almost all of them in the ground, but you can also grow them all in pots. A small plastic blister-pack of soft herbs like thyme or parsley from my local costs $2.00 per 10 grams. That is $200 per kilogram, people. For the easiest plants in the world to grow. If you were to set aside $10 a week to start creating a potted herb garden at home ($4 for a plant, and the rest for the pot/soil), you would be very quickly better off than paying anything for a packet of these already dying herbs from the supermarket. If you plant them in the ground, you won’t need the pot.

I have many herbs in my garden because I have the space and I enjoy the freedom to pick and choose what I want to use anytime. I also just like to grow different things for fun. But even if you limit the herbs you grow at home to the three or four herbs you most commonly cook with, you will save some cash.

Weekend gardening jobs, 1 May 2022

There’s nothing like the ache you get after a full day in the garden. Regular exercise doesn’t give it – I exercise about an hour four times a week and I never get that same bone tired but relaxed feeling that I do after gardening. I think it’s the fact that I use so many muscles when I garden: I climb, dig, bend, stretch, lift, and strain for hours at a time, stopping only for a quick cuppa and a bite to eat. Right now every part of me is pleasantly exhausted. I need to think about making dinner, but not until I’ve rested for at least an hour or so.

Planting salvias

I’ve been working a lot lately, including the last long weekend, with minimal gardening time, so there was a lot to do this weekend. The front yard in particular has been looking…a bit feral, to be honest. I could tell that a few of the lavender bushes and woody herbs (thyme and sage) were really on their last legs. This was confirmed when I dug up one of the lavender bushes to discover it was actually dead. No wonder it wasn’t flowering – apparently they don’t when they’re dead! I cut up what I could for firewood, then consigned the rest to the green bin. Woody herbs don’t live forever – although they are called ‘perennial’, in actuality they live around 3-5 years. These plants have lived at least that long, so we have done pretty well out of them. I still have plenty anyway, as they have self-seeded prolifically. It’s just the original plants that needed to depart.

I had decided over Easter that this job was coming, but wasn’t sure what to replace the dead and dying bushes with. Whatever we replaced them with needed to be as tough as the conditions on our hillside front yard: North-West facing and in full sun. Plants have to be able to survive in hot and dry conditions all year round. I chose salvias. Salvias are beautiful, drought tolerant, and will survive many years. I already have three salvias in the front yard, so I know they will do well.

I tried finding some at the Easter Fair we attend each year, but the plant stall only had one! So I bought that, and then ordered some online from the Diggers Club. While I was at it, I ordered a lemongrass plant, a hanging rosemary, and a meadow sage, which is like regular sage but more prostrate.

Digging out the bushes was pretty tough on the old body but I managed it. My usual digger was out, so I had to use all my muscles to get the job done.

I immediately replaced them with the salvias, and watered in well with liquid seaweed tonic to give them a fresh start. I also planted out the hanging rosemary and meadow sage in empty spots in the garden, and trimmed back some other lavenders I wanted to keep. It’s all looking a bit bare and sad right now, but once everything starts growing it should fill in nicely.

The veggie patch

While I was cutting back and digging out, I removed the now spent eggplant bushes from the back garden, and steeled myself to cut back Audrey II, the boysenberry cane. I hate this job, as she is one mean, green mother. To make the job less painful (literally), I decided to only cut back two of the plants (she is actually four). Some gardening advice: don’t plant boysenberries. They are delicious, but painful. Not delicious enough, in my view. Find something thornless, if you want to grow berries.

I planted out some purple cauliflower seedlings that were ready for transplant, fed everything in the veggie patch with an organic liquid fertiliser, and finished mulching with sugar cane mulch. Yes, even heading into Winter I still mulch. Our Winter is still pretty dry so we should mulch no matter the weather. It also suppresses weeds, which are more likely to come up in Winter.

Coming along nicely are the turnips, carrots, beets, first batch of collards, and radishes. Garlic is looking lovely but of course will not be ready for months and months. Every year I weigh up giving space to garlic, which takes the longest to mature of any annual vegetable in the backyard. Then I harvest it and I am so glad I did. I am down to my last bulb from last season, and then back to buying it again *sob*

As I was weeding and mulching today, I discovered three avocado trees behind the lime tree (which is weighed down with beautiful juicy limes). These have self-seeded from the compost bins just nearby. Like most of Australia, we have been eating copious avocados this year, as they have been at bargain basement prices ($1 an avo? Avo toast for all!!). Our compost bin is full of avocado seeds and skins as a result – and now my garden appears to be sprouting avo trees. I’d hazard a guess they are Hass. We have a Reed avocado (the king of avocados) growing behind the chook pen, from which we have received exactly zero avos in the last three seasons. We have decided to let the avo seedlings keep growing for now, and then we will decide whether to dig one out and plant it nearby as a pollinator for the Reed.

The other plant that is kicking along nicely behind the lime tree is a Beauregard sweet potato. I planted it as an experiment, and because I love sweet potatoes. It’s growing like crazy in the corner near the compost bins and asparagus bed. I’m very tempted to bandicoot underneath to see if we have any tubers, but I know I’m not supposed to dig anything up until the leaves go yellow. If there’s no sweet potatoes under there I will be so disappointed.

Seed starting

I also planted more seeds. My plan to grow everything from seed is starting to feel slightly insane as the weather grows cooler, but I am determined to accomplish it now that I have put it out there. I planted kale, mini cauliflower, more collards, and tatsoi seeds. In an old wheelbarrow I use as a raised bed I have more lettuce seeds coming up. My plan is not to buy lettuce at all until Summer. I have romanesco broccoli, orange cauliflower, and more cabbage almost ready to go in the ground.

And I officially give up on spinach. It seems that the only thing that loves baby spinach more than my youngest child is the birds that visit my garden. I have raised and planted 18 spinach plants and lost 18 spinach plants. I could buy a net and cover it to protect it from marauding sparrows, but that would cost me more than just buying it – so I think I’ll resign myself to buying baby spinach from now on. Interestingly, they leave the chard alone. They are discerning little pests – because really, who’d go for chard when you could have spinach? My husband said he’d build a scarecrow, but I think that would scare me more than them.