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.

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.

Weekend gardening jobs, February 26 & 27 2022

My husband and I spent the weekend in the garden, but at different times and doing different things.

It’s the last weekend of the Summer, and I spent the weekend getting ready for the Autumn garden.

Preparing for Autumn

Some parts of the garden (eggplant, chillies, pumpkins, basil) are still in the full throttle of Summer production, but other areas are in their last gasp. The zucchini plant was very done, so I pulled that out, clearing a massive area of the garden, and also picked the last of one of the carrot beds and the final red onions. I dug over that bed, and spread organic fertiliser over that area (homemade compost, pelletised chicken manure, and blood and bone), raking it over and watering it in. That area is now sitting and waiting for planting in slightly cooler weather.

I started some more seeds for the winter garden: leeks, onions, coriander, and caulis. The collards and onions I started last week were moved into larger pots for hardening off, and I planted spinach and silverbeet into the garden. Then I forgot about them for a couple of days…whoops. The spinach is in a more sheltered area and is OK, but the silverbeet is not looking so good.

Saving sad plants

I repotted a dieffenbachia houseplant that was looking miserable (following the process I wrote about a couple of weeks ago). Hopefully some fresh soil and a larger pot will give it a fresh lease on life. A beautiful calibrachoa I received for my birthday was also looking very sad after an attack of white fly, so I gave it a spray of pest oil and a good water, and I am hoping that this will save it.

Building a trellis

While I was pottering about, my husband was doing the hard yards, building a trellis for the grape vine. Our sultana vine has been strung up on a makeshift trellis for the past two years, which was fine while it was young, but now the vine is in its third year it was far too big to manage on the little trellis.

My husband has been building trellises for all the fruit trees and vines. He started with a trellis for the apple trees a few months ago, and has been gradually building additional trellises throughout the backyard. This has enabled him to perfect his skills, and has decided to rebuild the original apple trellis now that he has figured out his technique.

I think he has done a great job (with only a bit of minor swearing).

Grape vine trellis

He has one more big one to build along the back fence for the passionfruit vines and for climbing seasonal veggies (cucumbers, beans and peas), and then his next job is re-paving the backyard and building a fire pit.

After that I will let him rest.

Just kidding 😀

Weekend gardening jobs, 20th February 2021

It’s been a busy week in the garden, because I gave myself a week off (exciting). As I work for myself, it’s not often that I get a full week off, but I managed it!

As it’s still Covid times, I took the week off around home, but it was still very lovely. I spent a few mornings and afternoons in the garden, and also visited some outdoor gardening places, such as the botanic gardens, the Digger’s shop in the botanic gardens, where I bought plants and garlic to plant in a few weeks time, and the annual Chilli Festival, where I bought chilli plants and a local plant nursery and bought more house plants. So I guess it was kind of a gardening holiday in which I spent the majority of the time either gardening or thinking about gardening.

House plant mania

I looked around my house this morning and realised that I have a crazy amount of house plants. There is at least one house plant in almost every room. In the lounge room, there are about twenty. On the kitchen window sill I’m striking four new plants. In my office I have six plants to keep me company while I work.

It might be time to slow it down a little, because they actually take a fair bit of time to care for.

Melon success

Pocket melon

I have been trying to grow melons since…always. I have never successfully grown any melons, despite having grown pumpkins with success for a number of years. This has always puzzled me, since pumpkins and melons are closely related. I could not figure out what I was doing wrong.

To be honest, I can’t figure out what I am doing right either, but whatever it is I’ll take it! I’m growing two varieties: Pocket Melon, and Golden Midget. Both are smaller varieties. Golden Midget is a golden melon with red flesh, that grows to 2.5kg at the largest, making it a relatively small melon. The Pocket Melon is a much smaller melon, grown for its intense fragrance more than its flavour. I’m growing them more as an experiment than anything else – if I can break the melon curse then it will have been worth it.

Golden Midget

Preparing for next season

Right now we are picking an abundance of veggies from the garden, and most of our meals are made almost entirely from the veggie patch.

Spinach fettuccine with spicy eggplant sauce – we are cooking from the garden every night

But I have an eye to next season, and I have already bought all the seeds we need for a full Winter/Spring veggie patch. In addition to the usual suspects (broccoli, cabbage etc) I want to try some different veggies to shake our diet up a little. I have been listening to an American gardening podcast called Backyard Gardens, which has me thinking about some different options. I recommend listening to it, with some caveats: the seasons are obviously the opposite to ours, the pests they deal with are generally non-existent in Australia, and the male host has a habit of sometimes speaking over the female host (she’s great). I still listen because I enjoy listening to the female host, and I like learning about what other gardeners are doing, even if it’s across the world.

They suggested growing collards. These are a vegetable that I have never eaten or grown. They are a brassica, related to cabbage and kale. The seeds are not easy to find in Australia, but I found some sold by Happy Valley Seeds in NSW. I’m looking forward to growing and learning to cook collards, which the Backyard Gardens hosts say are tastier than kale (I also like growing and eating kale).

Happy Valley Seeds also sell a wide range of other heirloom and hybrid seeds, so I bought most of next season’s seeds from this site. In addition to the collards, I bought lots of lettuce, purple and orange cauliflower, cabbage, onions, carrots, kohlrabi, turnips, silverbeet (chard), spinach, two types of kale, and broccoli seeds. I am using my heat mat to raise the seeds inside, so I can plant them out in March once the Summer veggies are done.

I bought the heat mat as part of a propagation kit from Diggers Club last month. The whole mat costs $50, but I bought it as part of a kit for $100 (the kit also included a seed tray with cover, seed raising mix, jiffy pots and some other gear). The electric mat supplies gentle heat to the bottom of a seed tray and speeds up propagation. Instead of waiting 7-10 days for seeds to come up, they pop up in three days! I already have seedling pots of silverbeet and spinach ready to plant out once they add their mature leaves, and I have onions, kohlrabi, and collards popping their little heads out now. I love this thing, and just wish that I had bought one years ago. I ordered my kit online from Diggers Club, but you can find them online from other places, as well as the separate components from the Big Green Shed.

What to do with all that stuff you grow

  • Freeze it: shred zucchini, carrots, beetroot, and freeze in one cup portions in snap lock bags. For the zucchini, squeeze out as much water as you can first. To freeze green beans, spread on a tray lined with baking paper, then place in a bag once frozen. To freeze silverbeet, kale or spinach, just chop it and freeze it in bags, and either use it from frozen, or thaw it.
  • Preserve it: make jam, chutney, passata, ketchup, or preserve it;
  • Give it away to friends, family, co-workers, or put it on a Grow Free cart;
  • Bake it: there are so many recipes online for muffins, cakes, brownies, etc using veggies, including vegan options;
  • Cook it: we are not vegetarian but right now we are eating mostly vegetarian food or less meat meals, because we just have so many veggies to eat! We certainly eat our five a day at the moment (admittedly sometimes in chocolate beetroot brownie form, which probably doesn’t count).

What to do with your excess garden produce

Excess garden produce waiting to be used
Photo by Adonyi Gábor on Pexels.com

Once you start building up a decent productive vegetable garden, you often end up with an excess of garden produce.

We are now at the point where we have several months a year that we have enough homegrown veggies to cover our basic needs. In the height of the Summer months, with swaps with friends and neighbours and our own produce, we often get away with not buying much fruit and almost no veggies, with the exception of some lettuce, potatoes, lemons, and avocados.

Planning around your garden produce

However, not buying from the supermarket means we have to think outside the square a little bit. When you rely on the supermarket or fruit & veg shop for produce, you can buy whatever is a good price and is in season, then cook based on what you have purchased.

When you are relying on the garden, you have to consider a bit more carefully what to cook, based on what is ready in your garden. As you can’t always predict exactly when something will be ready, you have to play it by ear a bit more.

This week we have a lot of turnips, daikon radishes, lettuce, collards, and onions in the garden. That means soups, some Japanese, and some Mexican dishes will be on the menu this week. Fortunately, we like pretty much everything (allergies prevent us eating a couple of cuisines like Thai, but we would if we could). We will be having quesasdillas, burrito bowls, soup, and a riff on okonomiyaki (delicious Japanese pancakes). I’ve had to figure this out ahead of time because I’m not too sure what to make with a fridge full of turnips, radishes and collard greens, once I’ve given some away. It’s part of the fun and challenge of home gardening.

The other thing I do is preserve and save excess so I have it later in the year when I wish I had a couple of turnips or beets in the fridge.

What can you do with excess produce?

Freeze it

I still have some produce from last season in my freezer, including bags of washed and chopped raw rhubarb and spinach, grated zucchini, and stewed rhubarb and apple. I use these to supplement the fresh veggies to the point that I can stretch out both homegrown garden produce and store bought veggies.

Freezing is an easy and cost-effective way to save garden produce. I shred zucchini, carrots, beetroot, and freeze in one cup portions in snap lock bags. For the zucchini, squeeze out as much water as you can first. I use these shredded veggies in chillies, pasta sauces, cakes, muffins, and soups.

To freeze green beans, broccoli, or cauliflower, wash and trim, then spread on a tray lined with baking paper. Place in a bag once frozen. To freeze excess tomatoes you can just put them in a bag whole. Then when you thaw them, they slip out of their skins. Squeeze out the seeds and then you can use in any recipe you would use canned tomatoes. Chillies can also be thrown into a bag whole, and used either straight from the freezer, or thawed. They last for a long time like that.

I chop rhubarb into 2.5 cm (one-inch) lengths and freeze in bags or containers, then use straight from frozen in muffins, crumbles, or you can roast or stew with apples.

For leafy greens like spinach or kale, wash well, then shred and freeze. Use straight from the bag in pasta dishes or soups.

For soft fruits, like peaches, place in a large heatproof bowl. Cut an ‘X’ in the base of the fruit. Carefully pour boiling water over the fruit and let sit until the water cools enough to dip your hands in safely. The skin will come away from the fruit easily. Peel it away, then quarter the fruit and place in one or two cup portions in snap lock bags and freeze. I use these for muffins, crumbles, or pies when Summer is over, and I am missing those delicious soft fruits. I don’t have a peach tree but my friend does – we usually swap other things during the year and at peach time, we receive a couple of bags of delicious freestone peaches.

I use snap lock backs and usually reuse them once or twice (don’t do this if you have used them to freeze meats or dairy products). Make sure to squeeze the air out to prevent freezer burn.

Preserve it

clear glass mason jars
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Make jam, chutney, pickles, passata, ketchup, or bottle your produce. I tend to make jams, chutneys or pickles because it’s an easy way to preserve excess produce for shelf stable storage, but these methods do use more sugar than bottling (also I don’t have a bottling kit). I also really enjoy making jams and pickles; it’s a relaxing time for me. You have to prepare ahead of time though: many recipes require a step the night before, and you need to make sure you have enough jars, lids, and some equipment. I don’t bother with recipes that require water bathing for shelf stability, or that only stay fresh for a couple of weeks (with the exception of lime or lemon curd – because these are so delicious it’s worth it).

Because I make these from my garden produce, we don’t buy many condiments, aside from the basics. The quality of homemade jams and pickles is much higher than the supermarket kind, and I know exactly what is in the jar. Although it is quite high in sugar, we don’t it much of it, so I don’t see it as a health issue. If I was eating it daily, I would worry about it more.

Commonly I make marmalade in Winter, a peach and apricot jam in Summer, and a rhubarb and ginger jam in Autumn. I also often make a lime curd when I have an abundance of eggs and limes, and I pickle beetroot, onions, eggplant, and last year I made a delicious rhubarb ketchup. Last year we planted a couple of plum trees, so I am hoping to one day have enough plums to make my grandmother’s famous satsuma plum sauce, which I still occasionally dream about.

Dry it

I have a dehydrator and use this a couple of times a year to dry excess fruits like chillies and peaches. Last season I dried a lot of chillies and ground them up to make chilli powder. It is so hot that we are still slowly using it months later. I used some in a recipe recently: a quarter teaspoon replaced a whole teaspoon in the recipe, and it was still very spicy.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend buying a dehydrator unless you intend to dry quite a lot. However, they last a long time and do not use much electricity. We have had ours for over ten years, and it is still working as well as the day we bought it. We have a Snackmaker Ezidri, which is a mid-priced model. It’s handy to have and I like the option to use it. However you can also use your oven on low, or just freeze your produce instead.

Store it

I keep pumpkins downstairs in my pantry, and use the most perishable first (that is the thin skinned varieties, like Kent). The thicker-skinned pumpkins like Queensland Blue and Jarrahdale are still there from last season. I check them periodically to make sure they are still in good condition, and make a plan to eat one every couple of weeks.

Bake it

carrot cake and tea pot
Photo by Hilal Bülbül on Pexels.com

There are a billion recipes for muffins, cakes, brownies, etc using veggies, including vegan options. I love a zucchini loaf or carrot cake, personally. Almost all of these freeze well for later consumption. Also check out chocolate beetroot recipes – amazing.

Give it away!

One of the great parts of gardening is of course, sharing the produce you grow. I always have some eggs to share, as well as some veggies at different times of the year. But not everyone wants or can use the vegetables I grow. I learned this the hard way one year when I brought a bag of kale into the office. This was before kale was dubbed a superfood and kale smoothies were a thing. No-one wanted it! I ended up having to take it back home.

Give it away to friends, family, co-workers – but ask first if they want it so you don’t experience my kale conundrum. You could put it on a Grow Free cart. I also give away the jams and pickles, or swap them. Although I love making them, to be honest I do make more than we can eat. Sharing is fun because I often receive a jar of something else back at a later date. A friend’s husband once gave us an amazing feijoa jam that was so, so delicious. I don’t grow them, so it was lovely to try something really different that we would never be able to buy.

Gardening jobs, late Summer 2022

Pumpkin hanging on a trellis

After a relatively cool Summer (for Southern Australia), and a sudden burst of torrential rain caused by a tropical cyclone up North, we have had a spell of hot, humid days. This is not weather I enjoy. I love the heat, but I don’t love humidity. The constant blanket of moisture in the air feels oppressive to me.

That being said, I am glad to finally have some heat in the garden. The cooler weather has not been great for Summer fruiting veggies. We live in a hilly area, and this means that we are always a couple of degrees cooler than the Adelaide plains. We need some warmer weather for the tomatoes, eggplant, and beans to get going. These have finally started to take off, and we are generally cooking from the garden each night. There is at least something to nab out of the garden everyday to throw into a meal, whether its eggs from the chooks, a zucchini, some little Lebanese eggplants, carrots, beetroot, or onions. Tomatoes are just coming on now, and we have basil, chillies and mini capsicums on the balcony.

My husband has been building a new trellis for the grape vine and the passionfruit vines. He has been slowly building new trellises for all the fruit trees in the backyard, which is a big job. Somehow we have managed to plant five fruit trees, four berry canes, and five vines in our backyard, as well as our veggie patch. I think that probably qualifies the backyard as a food forest.

Before building the trellis, we picked our first bunch of grapes from our two year old vine. I planted the grape vine because my youngest loves grapes and looks forward to grape season every year. I like grapes, but I would rather eat a new season apple any day. However, I have to say that I felt crazily excited about picking the first bunch of grapes – more than I felt picking the first apples from our trees. They tasted really good.

Succession Planting

I’m experimenting with succession planting. After my great success with carrots this year, I have started planting fresh seed about every 8 weeks, with the goal of always having a supply of fresh carrots. I’m doing the same with beetroots and trying to do the same with onions. I haven’t had to buy a carrot or onion in months. You could argue that carrots and onions are dead cheap, and why would I bother taking up garden space for them?

Organic carrots and onions aren’t cheap, firstly. Conventionally grown carrots and onions are, but the veggies I grow are organic, no sprays, fungicides, or pesticides. They taste amazing. A homegrown carrot tastes special. Also, I can grow interesting varieties, like purple or yellow carrots, little round Paris Market carrots, and lovely long red onions.

Of course, I can do this because I have the space to continually grow rows of carrots and onions.

Late Season Planting

Summer is heating up late this year, so I am taking advantage of the late season warmth to throw in some extra veggies (in addition to the carrot and onions). I have thrown in some extra cucumber and zucchini seedlings to try to get some extra zucchini and cukes before the cooler weather kicks in.

I decided to spend a bit of money, and bought a propagation kit, which included an electric heat mat so I can start seeds for Autumn inside. I have started spinach and chard (silverbeet) now, to see how the heat mat works and familiarise myself with it, and because it is a bit early to grow out brassicas ready for planting in March. If that works well, I will grow all my caulis, cabbages, broccoli and kale from seed using the heat mat inside, and then plant out in March before the cold weather sets in.

Re-potting House Plants

My amazing Philodendron, that I bought as a tiny plant several years ago, has grown into a giant monster. It can no longer stay upright in its own pot or its cover pot, which means it is time for re-potting.

When I buy house plants, I generally buy the smaller, cheaper plants, and then challenge myself to grow them into the big plants that cost a bomb. I have grown a ten dollar Fiddle Leaf Fig into a lovely $80 specimen (the secret – lots of light and keep the leaves free of dust). I do this partly because I don’t like paying a hundred bucks for a plant, and also because I love the challenge.

When you buy a house plant, you should leave them in their existing pot, and place them in a cover pot. Keep them in their existing pot until they grow too large and need re-potting. You should be able to tell when the time is right.

Before re-potting

This philodendron had clearly outgrown its existing pot.

Original pot on the left, new pot on the right

I looked around in my potting shed for a new pot to upsize the plant. You can see how much bigger the new pot is than the old one: easily three times the size. This is because I don’t intend to re-pot this plant again for a long time.

I gently removed the plant from its existing pot, and soaked it in a bucket of water for a while. You can see how root-bound it is. Being root-bound is not a bad thing for house plants. Most house-plants prefer being root-bound, which is why re-potting should only occur once the original pot is clearly much too small.

I gently teased the roots out, being careful to make sure the soil from the roots fell into the bucket of water. I placed a layer of good quality potting mix into the base of the new pot, and then placed the plant in the bottom. Then, I tipped the water and soil from the bucket back over the plant. I did this because the plant is healthy and happy. The healthy microbes and fungi from this plant’s existing soil should be saved as much as possible and returned to it. If the plant was sick, I would not have done that.

I topped up the pot with fresh potting mix, making sure it was as upright as possible.

Now I just need to find a big enough cover pot – the basked I had it in is too small! Such a shame, I hate shopping for pots…

Weekend garden jobs 8 January 2022

I think I today found the physical limit of how much time I can spend in the garden. Today I:

  • Dug over and shifted two compost bins and set up another one, and spread compost over the tomatoes;
  • Cleaned out the chook shed and chased the chooks away from the raised bed before they ate all the cucumber seedlings;
  • Weeded the back yard veggie beds;
  • Moved the remaining soil leftover from the retaining wall (most of it anyway);
  • Picked a couple of kilos of veggies and fruit;
  • Planted fresh beetroots, lettuces, silverbeet, and zucchini;
  • Swept all the leaves from the back patio;
  • Built a tomato cage;
  • Gave all the veggies a foliar feed;
  • Collapsed.

Now I’m lying on my bed wondering if I can get up to scrub the veggies I still have sitting in a big tub of water and make dinner.

To be honest, I’m not sure. I do want dinner…but my body is protesting heavily.

Thank goodness I’m only a part-time gardener.