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.

Weekend gardening jobs, 10th April 2022

April in Southern Australia is spectacular. As we walked by the reservoir this morning, the water rippled in a light breeze, and kangaroos bounded past. We sure are lucky to live in this beautiful part of the world.

After a walk and a quick breakfast, it was out to the garden to soak up some sun. It was just a perfect day to be out in the garden. Even clearing out old pumpkin vines was fun.

I went for a little wander and picked the last of the pumpkins (some Butternuts and a Queensland Blue), a bowl of eggplants, a bunch of carrots, a couple of final tomatoes, and a speckled cos lettuce (so pretty!).

Then I could finish clearing out the last of the Summer plants (except the eggplants, which are still going gangbusters) and clean up the whole garden ready for Autumn. So long, pumpkin vines (always a happy/sad feeling – happy because they are just all over the place, but sad because no more pumpkins). Farewell, tomato plants. I dug over the beds, spread organic fertiliser (pelletised chicken manure and blood and bone), and raked it all to a fine tilth. It’s amazing what a bit of tidying up can do – after a long growing season, when the garden is full of growing apparatus and rambling vines, it looks so neat and tidy when everything is cleared out. In a few months it will be full of plants again, but for now, it looks like the garden of one of those very organised gardeners I see on the internet.

I am organised, but not generally in the long tidy rows kind of way. I wish I was, but space is such a valuable resource in my garden, that I tend to fill in the gaps wherever I can, ruining the tidy line aesthetic so that after a month or so the veggie patch ends up with the same rambling quality as the front yard. I usually don’t mind it, but I did enjoy seeing it so neat today, if only for a moment.

The empty space was empty only briefly, after which I planted:

  • Garlic Mammoth – I planted out one full bulb, and I have another to plant out next weekend
  • Golden Acre Cabbage – half a dozen seedlings, grown from seed I saved last year
  • Red Spring Onions – two full punnets of onion sets, grown from seed
  • Green Viking Spinach – four seedlings, grown from seed. So far I have yet to grow a full Spinach plant from multiple seeds planted. If these babies fail too, I will go back to the more reliable Chard and Kale
  • Coriander- two seedlings grown from seed I saved last year

So far I have succeeded in only planting from seed. I planted up new seeds: Purple Sicily cauliflower, Curly Kale, Romanesco broccoli, and more Green Viking Spinach (c’mon little Spinach, you can do it!!).

Every season I become obsessed with growing something just because. You wouldn’t think plain old ordinary Spinach would be one of those things, and yet, here we are. That, and those crazy orange cauliflowers. I sent away for seeds and they sent me back exactly seven (7) seeds! They have all come up, but it’s a long way from seedling to plant, as I have been discovering over the past few weeks. I have a new found respect for plant wholesalers and retailers.

Pumpkin Season Outcomes

From left: Queensland Blue, Australian Butter, Buttercup

This year I grew four varieties of pumpkins: the classic Butternut, Queensland Blue, Australian Butter, and Buttercup. Of these, the Butternut was the most prolific (in fact, I still have a single vine in the corner of the yard that still has five pumpkins growing). Queensland Blue was the next best, and I only got one each of the gorgeous orange Australian Butter and Buttercup. However, I already know I will grow Buttercup again – I’ve already saved the seeds ready for next year. That was the most delicious pumpkin I have ever eaten. I hope next year it will grow more productively than this year.

In previous years, I have had excellent success with Kent pumpkins (also known as Jap in other parts of Australia). I will grow these again next year, as I can’t beat them for their output, although they are not as tasty as either Butternut or Buttercup.

Mostly I grow them because it’s fun, and they are so pretty. I am just happy to have ten organic pumpkins in my pantry, ready for soup and curries. They keep so well, I expect to have pumpkins for at least the next six months (if I can hold off eating them that long).

The unbearable optimism of planting seeds

I’m trying something unbelievably optimistic this season: I’m trying to plant my entire cool season garden from seeds. No seedlings or advanced plants.

Collard greens grown from seed

Seeds have some benefits over planting seedlings. There is a much wider range of plants to choose when you buy seeds. Instead of being held to the limited range of what is most commercially viable at the Big Green Shed, you can go to the many online seed companies and choose interesting varieties. For example, I love a lettuce called Marvel of Four Seasons (tbh, I think I just love the name). You can’t buy it in seedling form, but I can buy a packet of seeds for $3 from an online seed retailer. Or I can decide to trial a pumpkin I’ve never grown before, just for the heck of it, because it looked pretty in a catalogue or a podcaster told me it was good.

Growing from seed is also (mostly) fun. I spend at least a couple of hours a week fiddling around with seed-raising mix and seed trays and labels. I’m no scientician, but playing with seeds is as close as I get.

Growing from seed is immensely satisfying. When I see plants I grew from seed turn into delicious veggies and herbs, I feel extra proud – like a real gardener, not those fake ones I see on TV.

But – and of course you knew there was going to be a but – growing from seed is also bloody heart-breaking. It would be much cheaper and easier to just pick up a darn punnet of regular old caulis and cos lettuces from Bunnos and be done with it. I mean, lettuce is lettuce, right (even if it doesn’t have a cool name)? If I lose a couple to cabbage moth or pigeons, it would bug me a little, but I wouldn’t feel the gut punch I did when more than half my Green Viking Spinach seedlings disappeared overnight thanks to a hungry bird. I spend a lot of time growing my orange caulis and collard greens from seed. To lose them in such arbitrary fashion…argh!

Also, if I wasn’t growing from seed, I would have a garden almost fully planted up by now. Sowing from seed, even with a heat mat, takes a looooooong time. I started back in February, and it’s already April. After over two decades of parenting, my patience is quite well-honed, but still – I could be well on the way to broccoli and cauliflower by now.

Why have I not caved and bought a few backup punnets? I mean, does it really matter in the long run? I set myself this crazy challenge, after all.

Some dude once said, gardening is the triumph of hope over experience.

I guess that’s why.

Not designing a garden

Front yard in 2016 – after we pulled everything out

A photo popped up in Google memories today, showing us our front yard six years ago.

When we moved to our property seven years ago, we could see the potential of the massive sloping front yard, but we did not like anything that previous owners had planted. Directly in front of the house was a yuuuuuge date palm, with the base of the tree at the footings of the house – asking for trouble. A large gum tree was dropping round gumnuts all over the yard, which was a slipping hazard, especially for our friends and family with mobility impairments. There were several old tree stumps, also a tripping hazard and a termite attractor. The soil was poor, and the owners had used black weed matting to prevent weeds – epic fail, as there were weeds everywhere.

We hired an arborist to come and remove the trees and grind out the old stumps, and we set about removing the weeds, weed matting, and rehabilitating the soil. We used (and continue to regularly add) compost, sheep manure, and mulch. My husband moved the enormous moss rocks from all around the garden to build a natural-looking retaining wall at the front of the garden.

I listen to a lot of gardening podcasts and they rabbit on about the importance of garden design. Once the soil was ready and the trees were removed, we had a plan to plant three deciduous fruit trees, but aside from these we have not ‘designed’ anything. If I find a place to fit in a plant that I like, in it goes. That means our garden definitely won’t win any design awards, but it’s an interesting place, with visiting birds and bugs, healthy soil, and at least something flowering or fruiting at any time of the year.

I mostly leave the front yard to do its thing, with minimal water. If a plant can’t survive without lots of attention and water (I’m looking at you, hydrangeas), they don’t survive. It’s a Northern facing hill in full afternoon sun, so if a plant can’t cope, then farewell. I’m a part-time gardener – I have no time to coddle ornamentals. All my love and coddling goes to plants that produce food. So my front garden kind of looks pretty but a bit rough around the edges, especially at this time of year. At the end of Summer and Winter especially, the plants look a bit ragged and tired, and need a good clip and feed. Right now, parts of the garden are a bit feral, and I need to go out there with my hedge trimmers and a fork and clean it up.

Front yard (Spring 2021)

It’s possible that whomever moves in after us will raze the yard again and plant a lawn or landscape it with the latest fashionable garden plants. That’s ok. While we have this space though, we will continue to fill little gaps with whatever will survive in the hot sun on our hillside.

Weekend gardening jobs, March 13 & 14 2021

It was a long weekend here in our State, and it’s also early Autumn. Many of the Summer veggie plants are finishing off, and it’s time to start getting ready for the Autumn garden.

Autumn in our area is now tending toward the dry and warm, thanks to the ongoing effects of climate change. The long-range weather forecast for our region predicts just 10mm of rain for March, and not much rain for April (traditionally a wet month). The forecast is predicting a dry Autumn, a warmer and drier Winter, and a cooler and wetter Spring and Summer (basically, a repeat of the last twelve months). This means that gardeners need to change our approach to seasonal planting. Plants we might not have considered for the Autumn garden might be a possibility. We might be able to grow Summer veggies later into Autumn.

I’m seeing that myself right now. I still have an abundance of eggplant and chillies in my patch, and no sign that the plants will stop producing anytime soon. I have sowed some carrots, lettuces, and turnips directly in the ground, and they have popped their little leaves up already. As it’s still warm during the day, the soil is still warm enough to start directly sowed seeds. And usually gardeners wait until after first frost to harvest pumpkins, but the plants are dying off already with no sign of a frost on the horizon. I need to decide whether to pick the pumpkins, or try to keep them on rapidly drying up vines. I think I will have to pick, and give up on the idea of frost.

Cleaning up the garden

The Summer garden is almost finished. I spent most of this morning (Monday) picking the rest of the tomatoes, green beans, and a final watermelon (we only got a couple – note to self, don’t bother next year!!), and clearing out spent plants. Then I dug over the soil, sprinkled organic fertiliser over the soil, and raked it in ready for planting seedlings in a couple of weeks.

Seed-starting

Starting plants from seed is a kind of ‘one step forward, two steps back’ process. I successfully started a dozen silverbeet (chard) and another dozen spinach plants about a month ago, and then once they were large enough I planted them out in the garden. All but two of them have been eaten by birds. So now, frustratingly, I have to start those plants again. Don’t believe blogs or resources that say seeds are a lot cheaper than seedlings. Technically, seeds are much cheaper when comparing a packet of 500 seeds to a punnet of six grown plants – but like everything in gardening, nothing is as simple as that. Factoring in the cost of seeds, seed-raising mix, seed trays (which can be re-used), and now the heat mat with electricity, as well as the time, I probably come out ahead slightly, but not that much far ahead, than if I bought seedlings.

Where seeds are really worth it is in the wider variety you can access, and the fun.

I can find varieties of plants from seed catalogues that I can’t find in seedling form at a nursery. For example, recently I decided I wanted to grow collards. Collards are popular in America, but not in Australia, so I can’t find them in seedling form at a nursery or even as seeds from most mainstream seed companies. However, after a bit of online searching I found collard seeds from a seed company in NSW. They also had lots of interesting varieties of lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, radish, turnips, and kale, so I bought all the seeds I wanted to try for the Autumn garden from them. I will still buy seedlings from nurseries, but my plan is to try to start most of my plants from seed this season. I also like fiddling around with propagation kits and seed-starting, so although it’s not cheaper or a time-saver, it’s a great hobby.

However, trying to plan a garden this way requires a lot of planning on my part. As I really only have weekends, I need to be much more organised if I want to grow my garden almost entirely from seed this season. I can’t wait around until the end of March, then throw in a few dozen seedlings and still be fine. I have to start now to get the seeds going. This is why I am spending at least an hour a week starting seeds.

This week, I started more chard (after my first lot were eaten by birds), leeks, coriander, cauliflower, and more onions. In the garden, I direct sowed lettuce, turnips, and carrots. I planted out spring onions that I started from seed three weeks ago. I have just started to have to buy onions and carrots again, after months of not having to, and it’s so annoying! My goal is to have enough onions, carrots, lettuces, and greens in my garden for most of the year from mid-April without having to buy any.

I love turnips and kohlrabi, but I have had middling success with them. I think this is related to time of planting, which is why I am trying to be diligent with the planting time this year.

Summer Winners and Losers

This year, the garden winners for the Summer season were the eggplants, beans, chillies, and pumpkins. We still have an abundance of eggplants coming on, and I anticipate them to keep going for several more weeks. We have been eating at least one full eggplant meal per week – usually a spicy eggplant pasta dish or a curry. We have about twelve pumpkins on the vine almost ready to go (another week or so), including Queensland Blues, Australian Butter, Butternut, and a variety that I can’t recall the name of. I’m very excited about the Australian Butter, which is a brilliant orange.

The green beans, which are Blue Lake variety, have also been abundant, and we have been eating them in vegetarian stir fries with carrots, chillies, and noodles. The chillies have been prolific. We have grown eight varieties of chilli: cayenne, dragon’s roll (prolific but not spicy, and a bit dull), dragon’s tongue (delicious and super spicy – our favourite), curly toenail, mango, cherry, lemon, and jalapeño. The best have been the dragon’s tongue and the curly toenail. Both are spicy, but also have a great flavour. The lemon chilli is delicious green and sliced up on top of chilli, eggs, stir fries, curries, or anything that you want a bit of a kick with that lovely fresh green chilli flavour.

The garden losers this year were the zucchini, cucumbers (ugh, I bloody give up), melons, and tomatoes. I’m not sure who had a good tomato year, but it definitely was not me. That’s partly my own fault: I did not really put a huge effort into tomatoes this year. If tomato seedlings popped up, I let them grow, but I did not choose tomato plants and nurture them. As such, we had a couple of nice cherry tomato plants grow in cracks and corners, but the other plants struggled. I did this because I was trying to rest the main tomato growing areas in my garden after discovering nematodes on a couple of plants last year. I am glad I did this: when I pulled up the sad tomato plants today, I found none of them had nematodes. I hope this means that the nematodes are now gone from my soil. I picked what was left and made a green tomato pickle (delicious).

I did get a few good zucchini, and two melons (technically that makes this my best watermelon season ever), but the wet, cool Summer created ideal conditions for mildew. The zucchini plant rapidly succumbed to powdery mildew, and I ended up pulling it earlier than usual. Goodbye, zucchini season, I hardly knew ye.