Catching up in the garden, January 2023

Cinnamon basil in flower

It’s easy to fall behind in the garden when you only have a few hours a week. I have been keeping up on basic tasks, like watering, but a big garden like ours has myriad tasks that need to be managed regularly – and I have not been keeping on top of them. These include weeding, feeding, pest management, pruning, picking and processing the harvest, and removing spent plants. My husband and I made an agreement to get up early and get out in the garden. We both broke that agreement by lazing around in bed for longer, but we got out there by about 9:30 am, ready, if not exactly raring, to go.

Summer Pruning

Most pruning is completed in Winter, when plants are dormant. However, trees in the prunus family, such as apricots and plums, benefit from a prune in Summer after they have finished fruiting. This is because they are prone to diseases like gummosis, which can get into the cuts in the wood if the weather is damp. The apricot tree finished fruiting two weeks ago, so my husband got up on his ladder and started to prune it back. We are putting the branches on the workshop roof to season for next year’s fireplace. Firewood is expensive, so any bits and pieces we can pull together ourselves from (non-toxic) prunings saves cash.

While he pruned the apricot and plum trees, I pruned the grapevine, just a little. The wet weather in late Spring caused the early leaves and bunches to rot. New healthy leaves have since grown, but I have been intending to prune off the rotten leaves and bunches for weeks now. The vine looks much happier, if a little bereft, now. Real grape vine pruning season is in Winter, so I only pruned off the funky looking leaves.

Tomato Supports

I admit to putting off tying up tomatoes, because it’s an itchy and boring job. But there comes a point in the season where it is just necessary. Rather than using stakes, I prefer to build cages. I have tried all kinds of versions of tomato cages, but my favourite (also the quickest but one of the most expensive, unfortunately) is to use steel trellis panels, which cost about $15 each when I bought them from Bunno’s two years ago. I create a cage using four panels, tied together with zip ties. These are easy to build and easy to dismantle. Due to the cost and size, I use this style of cage for the largest indeterminate tomatoes (generally Green Zebra).

Tomato cages

The king of tomato cages is my brother, who builds very impressive structures, possibly visible from space, and also has the most impressive tomato plants in the family.

When I run out of trellis panels (and I refuse to buy more because a) cost and b) storage – I have to store them for the nine months of the year I am not using them), I build other types of supports for the other tomato plants in the garden. I have a group of three plants against the fence behind the lime tree. Using a large piece of reo mesh and two star droppers, I built a trellis to support this group. I have another piece of reo I am hoarding to build a trellis for pumpkins once they grow too large. I caught one pumpkin vine climbing the lime tree this morning, so it will not be long before I have to build a structure for it.

Reo mesh support

Of course, I could spend all day building cages for the rest of the plants…but I was feeling a bit lazy, and it’s a bit fiddly. Therefore, I decided that the standard stake and stocking tie support system would be fine. I only use the stake supports for smaller tomato plants, as they can quickly outgrow stakes if they are very vigorous plants.

All of these supports are recycled from previous years. I save the reo and trellis panels each year, and reuse the ties from previous stakes. If the stakes are not damaged from the last season, I reuse them as well. Some gardeners prefer not to reuse wooden stakes, due to problems with passing on soil borne diseases. However, I let the stakes dry out in the sun for a few days. After storing in the garden shed for twelve months, I figure they are probably ok. Once the stakes are too old and broken to reuse, I chop off the grotty end and they are used for firewood.

This season I grew all the tomato plants in my garden from seed (puffs up chest). A couple of the plants I grew from supermarket tomatoes that I thought were delicious, and saved some seed. I found one of these in the garden this morning (I had completely forgotten I had planted it). It has fruited like crazy (all green right now). I really hope that it is as delicious as I remembered. If not, I will use it to make some sauce. At the moment I am only picking a couple of cherry tomatoes a day (yellow Windowbox tomatoes – they are ok, but not really tasty). Can’t wait until the Green Zebra and Black Russians ripen up.

Feeding

The day was relatively cool, so I gave every plant in the veggie garden an organic liquid feed of the old faithful standbys Charlie Carp (a liquid fertiliser made of carp, a pest) and liquid seaweed. The grapevine and avocado tree was fed a bucket of liquid fertiliser as well. My plan for the avocado tree is to keep the water and food up each month, as tbh I have been a bit slack on both over the past twelve months. For the lemon tree and passionfruit, I also dissolved iron chelates in a watering can and watered ten litres into the root zone of each plant.

Iron chelates are a trace element that do not need to be used regularly. However, the leaves on these plants were looking yellowed, and the fruit was shrivelling. Poor fruit and yellowing leaves can be a sign of iron deficiency in fruiting plants. Iron chelates are easy to apply, following packet directions, but it is important not to overdose.

Yellowing passionfruit leaves

As the other plants (tomatoes, eggplant, capsicum) are all looking healthy and are setting healthy fruit, I do not think it is a problem with the soil nutrition generally. However some fruiting plants are much hungrier feeders than others, so it seemed a good idea to give them a dose of iron chelates to see if this will help. Time will tell. Really, looking at those passionfruit leaves, it honestly couldn’t hurt – they look so bad. This is the problem with having such limited time – there is so much to do and so little time to get everything done. I was aware there was a problem, but I may have been too slow to fix it.

The Greenhouse

The greenhouse continues to be a successful growing space. I have been unscientifically comparing the progress of plants in the greenhouse to those planted outside.

These two eggplants were both grown by seed by me, and were planted at about the same time. Eggplant One was planted in a raised bed outside, in a premium potting mix. It is watered daily, and has been fed with a liquid feed at least fortnightly.

Eggplant One, raised bed, outdoors

Eggplant Two was planted in a large pot, in the same brand of premium potting mix. In hot weather it is watered twice daily, and has been fed with a liquid feed at least fortnightly.

Eggplant Two, greenhouse

As you can see, it is at least three times the size of Eggplant One, and is flowering. With all other factors being equal (type of soil, feeding regime), greenhouse conditions seem to encourage faster growth.

Previously I have used a heated seed mat to raise seeds in small trays indoors. While the heated seed mat germinated seeds more quickly than without, the plants did not have as much light as they needed, and struggled past the initial germination phase.

I planted these borlotti bush beans nine days ago in the raised troughs in the greenhouse, watering daily. They have almost all germinated, and already have their true leaves. As they are bush beans, I will keep them in the trough for their lifecycle. I have climbing beans in the garden as well, which were planted six weeks ago, and are only about twice the size of these beans.

Borlotti bush beans

I believe that the relatively constant temperatures and excellent light in the greenhouse creates optimum growing conditions.

The greenhouse is not without pest problems. One eggplant was initially affected by whitefly, and another by white cabbage moth caterpillars. These were easily controlled by manual means (squishing). Occasionally small sparrows manage to get in, and cannot seem to figure how to get out without a little assistance. But generally, the greenhouse protects plants from most pests.

It does require consistent and diligent watering. Unlike the outdoor garden, which I can leave a day if I’m busy, it is not possible to skip watering the greenhouse. This is due both to the fact that the plants are all in containers, which dry out more quickly, and the higher temperature. Leave them for a day, and I could end up with dead plants.

My other main concern is pollination. While insects can come into the greenhouse, I worry that not enough pollinators will come in. I am thinking through different ideas to attract them – if any greenhouse gardeners have some suggestions, I would love to hear them!

Of course, I still have many tasks left to complete, but there is never enough time. I still have to work, see family, exercise, be a friend and partner and parent…life is not all gardening! Hopefully what I have done this weekend will hold the garden together for a little while.

Gardening jobs, Christmas and New Year 2022

Happy New Year!

It’s finally really lovely and warm in our parts. I have had lots of jobs to do to keep the garden alive and well, including watering the containers and raised bed daily, and keeping the watering up across the whole garden. I don’t mind this, but it is a job of work.

Fortunately, I’m on a break for the Christmas/New Year period. This is my first proper break in over a year. I am taking full advantage, getting out to the garden every day.

Garden progress

The long, cool, and wet Spring stalled the progress of eggplant, zucchini, chillies, and tomatoes, which would normally be in full fruit by now. One of the cherry tomatoes I grew from seed, a variety bred for pots called Window Box, is the only one that has fruit so far. It is a dwarf breed, unusual for a cherry tomato, and has a lot of flowers and clusters of fruit already. Apparently the fruit is yellow. I’m looking forward to tasting the fruit. I have found that some of the new breeds of cherry tomatoes do not taste great (last year’s Blueberry cherry tomato was, in my opinion, yuck). I hope Window Box is tasty, because I have about six plants. All the other tomato plants have put on good growth and have started to flower, but no fruit yet.

As for my dreams of expansive eggplant crops, it’s not looking great. I’m thankful for the greenhouse, which will allow me to grow eggplant well into Autumn. I have planted another punnet of eggplants, as well as more seeds, with plans for a long season of eggplants in the greenhouse. Fingers crossed!

Greenhouse

Speaking of the greenhouse, it’s coming along nicely. For the first time EVER, I have planted eight watermelon seeds, and have germinated eight watermelon plants. These were a gift in a seed swap from a friend (an heirloom variety called Moon and Stars). Watermelons, along with cucumbers, are my Achilles heel, so if I can even grow one watermelon from this lot I will be very proud of myself.

The watermelons were exciting to watch. In the morning I found one had popped up from the warm soil. About an hour later, my niece found another poking its head up. By the afternoon, all eight had germinated and were stretching their leaves to the sky! How fun gardening is!

I also have cucumbers popping up, more eggplants, and basil. This greenhouse is so much fun.

Chillies Galore

At last year’s Chilli Festival I bought some chilli plants (a Devil’s Tongue, and a Four-in-one pot of a Mango chilli, a Lemon chilli, an Ajo, and a Curly Toenail). While I was not a fan of the Mango chilli, all the rest were great (the Devil’s Tongue is an old family favourite – very hot with a delicious flavour, and prolific). Following the advice of the stall holder, at the end of the season I cut them back by 50% and let them over winter. A couple of the four-in-one did not make it, but two did (I won’t know which until they set fruit). Over Spring the others put their leaves back on and have now started flowering happily. I’m looking forward to full crops of the others.

I also raised quite a few other chilli plants from seed, including Serrano, Gunter, Jalapeño, and Chocolate chilli. These are still quite small, but I’m hoping for a good crop. We eat chilli most days, and appreciate the flavour profiles of the different chillies, so growing many varieties is worth the time and effort for us.

The orchard

Mulberry tree

The apricot and mulberry trees are ready to harvest, and we are watching them like hawks – and so are the parrots! We have the biggest apricot crop we have ever had. The tree is too large to net, and I don’t like to do that anyway – I don’t mind the birds having some of them. But if we want to save any for ourselves, we have to pick as soon as they blush – so we check daily. We go out early in the morning and pick as many as are tinged orange, then wait for 24 hours to check again. We leave them to ripen on the kitchen bench.

Mulberries are kind of a pain to harvest. They ripen a few at a time, I think because our tree is still relatively young. We pick a couple a day, then wait for the next lot to ripen. The tree itself is beautiful, so I would not consider removing it (yet), but it has not lived up to my mulberry jam dreams.

We have a big crop of passionfruit and pomegranates coming on, but they are way off yet – at least a couple of months.

Cleaning up and potting up

A big and boring part of the past couple of weeks has just been cleaning up. I dug out the raspberry canes that have not done a damn thing over the past two years, and pulled out more bits of Audrey II, the boysenberry plant, that continues to make her presence felt (even though I dug the main part out months ago). I suggest to you that if you want to grow berries, set aside a bed that is completely separate from any other part of your garden, let them go, and don’t grow anything thorny!

At this time of the year, many of the Spring flowering annuals and herbs have flowered and are starting to set seed. They are generally looking tired and ratty. I have been clearing out all of the dead sweet peas, nasturtiums, parsley plants, and anything else looking old, dead, or tired. It’s taking quite some time and filling up my green bin quickly. To fill in the gaps I have sprinkled fast growing annual seeds like Cosmos, or planted quick growing annual colour, like Petunias. In about six weeks, I’ll start planting Spring flowering bulbs.

I’ve also repotted some sad looking houseplants, including an Umbrella plant that was miserable. I’ve had it for two years, and it started dropping leaves. When I repotted it, I found it had sported two babies. So for my repotting efforts, I have three plants now instead of one. I also repotted my beautiful Spotted Begonia, moving her up to a larger pot. She is much happier now, and I removed one of her leaves to strike into a new plant. Begonias strike easily in water, and are very easy to grow in the right conditions. I have two now (one struck from the mother plant), and they flower profusely with very little attention from me.

Greenhouse Setup

The greenhouse was built several weeks ago now, but I have not really had any time to use it yet.

Firstly, I am working flat out up to Christmas. I have been stealing a little bit of time in the garden on weekends, but I am working most weekends as well.

The other reason is that while the builder had built the lovely greenhouse, we had left a bunch of junk in there. He kindly built around it, and although he offered to move it, we knew it was our responsibility to shift it all. This junk included a big stack of pavers and sundry other crapola. Shifting the pavers took me the best part of a full day, because I also had to clean them all. I discovered quite a few species of technicolour spiders I had never seen before, some teeny gecko skeletons, and a big old nest of ants.

We posted the whole lot on Gumtree (the pavers, not the critters) and gave them away the next day.

Once the space was clear, I had to order shelving, racks, and planters. I went to a few places locally to see what was available, and also looked on Gumtree for secondhand racks, but there was nothing suitable. I ended up going to the evil empire Amazon for raised planters, a stainless steel kitchen bench, and stainless steel plant racks.

All these have started to arrive, and thanks to the assembly skills of my husband and various teens about the house, they are now set up in the greenhouse.

Raised planters

I have planted up three of the planters with seeds (watermelons and cucumbers, as well as having another crack at eggplants, for the final time this season). One planter has been set aside for my youngest kiddo and my nephew to play around with, as they have both expressed an interest in learning to garden.

Planters and racks

When the bench arrives, it will be placed in the centre of the greenhouse so I make good use of space. That will be the potting area.

This time of year is not ideal for a greenhouse (Summer in Southern Australia), except…it has been unseasonably cool. So I’m going to keep playing around with the greenhouse and will try my luck growing some melons and cucumbers in here this season. Where it will really come into its own will be the cooler months. I’m pretty happy with the whole setup – it’s neat, it’s functional, and mostly, it’s just hella fun.

How to spot an obsessive gardener

The new greenhouse

We built a greenhouse

Or, I should say, Geoff the builder did.

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

A greenhouse will extend the warm growing season

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

There was also the slight problem of space.

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

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

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

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

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

Interior of the greenhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yep. I think this was the moment.

Weekend gardening jobs, October 29 2022

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

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

Gardening in the rain

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

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

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

Spring planting

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

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

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

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

Planting pumpkins

From left: Queensland Blue, Australian Butter, Buttercup

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

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

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

Planting tomatoes

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

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

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

Finding some space

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

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

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

Spring long weekend gardening jobs, October 2nd 2022

Spring bulbs are one of the best parts of spring gardening

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

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

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

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

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

Spring gardening leads to spring greens

Spring gardening, seed starting

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

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

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

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

Re-potting houseplants

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

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

Messy jobs

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

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

Eating from the veggie patch

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

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

Seasonal gardening jobs, 21st August 2022

Chickens are an important feature of an organic garden
Chickens love to dust-bathe in the sunshine

It’s that time of year to start thinking about seasonal gardening jobs – in our part of the world, jobs for the Spring garden. This weekend that means starting seeds, caring for hens, and making plans for a fruit tree before I run out of time.

Caring for chickens

Sunday morning dawned foggy and chilly, but soon cleared to a sunny but cold day. It was also chicken coop cleaning day, so I let the little marauders out of the pen while I mucked them out.

Chickens are pretty easy pets to keep. We have four ISA Browns, which were the only type of hens we could get during the pandemic chicken frenzy of 2020. My goal has always been to have Australorps, an Australian heritage breed, but I could not find them at the time we were looking for hens.

ISA Browns are a hybrid hen bred for egg laying. Our four cluckers do lay really well. They are in their third year and are still going strong. They are also curious, cranky, naughty little dinosaurs that love to rampage through my veggie patch if I let them.

The four main things you need to care for chickens are:

  1. A fox-proof coop and run: We purchased our neighbour’s shed (he built a new Cluckingham Palace, and sold us his old coop for $100). He helped us to re-build it on our side of the fence, and we got a solid coop for less than we would spend on materials to build a new one. They have a large space to run around and dust-bathe outside, as well as occasionally free-ranging in the backyard. Don’t think you can get away with not securing the coop. Foxes are a legitimate pest in most urban and peri-urban regions of Australia, and they will take out a flock of chickens very quickly;
  2. Bedding straw, and time to clean them out regularly: I clean the run and coop out every two weeks, raking out and replacing their bedding with fresh straw. I buy a bale of bedding straw for $9, which lasts me (well, them really) two months;
  3. Good quality poultry food: Our hens prefer Red Hen Free-range Layer Mix. We buy a 20 kg bag for $33, which lasts four hens a couple of months. Their food is supplemented by kitchen scraps and green feed from the garden;
  4. Time: Healthy birds take a bit of time. I need to spend about two hours every two weeks cleaning them out. We also obviously have to feed them daily, water them, put them to bed at night, make sure they are kept safe from foxes, and generally keep an eye on them.

I check on the birds’ physical health every time I clean the pen by picking them up to see if they have healthy feet and feathers. I also check in their pen when I am cleaning it for any signs of mites or lice. So far, we have not had any problems. That could just be dumb luck, but I do think chicken hygiene plays a part. Regular cleaning of the coop, fresh water, and giving them only as much food as they can eat in one day prevents other pests visiting their coop.

Why have chooks?

I have chickens because I like them. I’m not a furry animal type of person (we don’t have dogs, cats, rabbits or any other fluffy creature), so chickens fulfil my need to have non-human creatures about the place. They are my favourite animal – I find them soothing company. However, there are some other good reasons. Because we have the space, chickens contribute to our little organic gardening ecosystem: they reduce waste by eating a lot of our kitchen and garden waste, their manure becomes compost, which in turn feeds the garden. They give us eggs in return for their food and space. We eat some eggs, but not as many as they give us, so we usually give some away.

However, if I did not have the space or if I was renting, I would not have them. They do require effort and time, and some expense. In the twenty years we rented, we only had chickens one time, because we had a very chilled landlord.

Seasonal gardening jobs – late August

After cleaning the hens and turning the compost, a job I do at the same time (with some help from the chickens), I did some weeding and reviewed the garden.

Chickens can be part of an organic gardening system
The chickens love to help me turn over the compost

It’s been an extremely wet and cold few months in our area. The brassicas have not grown quickly, and I was starting to feel concerned I will not get anything before Spring hits and they go to seed. But walking around the patch this morning, I could see that many plants are starting to shake off the Winter doldrums and are putting on some growth. I plan to pick a bunch of collard greens this week – I am very excited about this.

We picked the last of an Autumn batch of Cos lettuces last week. These were in a raised garden bed, so I refreshed the soil with a bag of potting mix and watered it in well. Then I planted new lettuce and spinach seeds, hoping for a quick Spring crop of both before it gets too warm. Spinach has been my nemesis this year, so I’m not holding my breath. Lettuce has been an absolute winner though. This time I planted more Cos Paris Island, a lovely red Cos lettuce, and my favourite, Marvel of Four Seasons, a red butter lettuce. I’m sure I mostly plant it because I love the name, although the lettuce is tasty too. If you are in southern Australia, you will have time for a quick crop of lettuce, chard, spinach, or Asian veggies like Pak Choy or Tatsoi before the hot weather causes them to bolt to seed. Just plant ASAP now that the sun is coming out and the days are longer.

Seed Starting

I started the first of the Summer veggie seeds last week on the heat mat. I’m going in hard on eggplants and chillies this year, as I mentioned last week. But I’ve also started more Spring Onions (Red Candy Stick), bulbing onions (Barletta), some more Chard (Rainbow), Capsicum Golden Marconi, and Green Zebra tomatoes. Next on the list are all the eggplants – this season I’m growing four kinds. I completely caved when I saw the seed catalogues, and bought a heap of different varieties to try. I bought my seeds from Happy Valley seeds and so far I have been really happy with the price and quality.

I’m not banking on seed-raising like I did last season. This time, I’m treating it as a fun hobby. If I get to the first week of October and I don’t have enough homegrown seedlings to plant out, I will go to a nursery and fill in the gaps. I don’t want to lose any precious warm growing months.

Bare-rooted fruit tree

It’s almost time out for planting a bare rooted fruit tree (apples, quinces, nectarines, etc). In some parts of our State, I wouldn’t bother – it’s too late. But in my area, we are usually about six weeks behind the weather patterns of the rest of the State. Therefore, I’m going to take a punt and buy a bare-rooted fruit tree next weekend. I have a spot where Audrey II, the ill-fated boysenberry cane used to be. Her trellis remains, and I want to plant a tree that I can espalier. My plan is for a Quince, but I will settle for another Apple. If I don’t get it in the ground next Sunday though, I know I will have left my run too late and will have to wait another ten months.

5 tips to plan your Summer garden

sunflower during sunset
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What do do when it’s too cold outside? Start planning your Summer garden!

My plan for Saturday afternoon was to spend the afternoon weeding the front garden. But it was so, so cold – and I just couldn’t face it. I made a cup of tea, rugged myself up, and read the latest issue of the Digger’s Club Seed Annual catalogue instead.

Looking at the beautiful seed catalogue got me thinking ahead to warm, sunny days. And that got me planning ahead to the Summer veggie patch. My garden is currently full of brassicas, turnips and peas, but in six weeks they will be cleared away to make space for warm season veggies. So what to grow? The possibilities are endless….

My garden space, however, is not. This is where some good planning comes to the fore.

Traditionally, I’ve taken more of a casual approach to garden planning

However, as my garden has become home to more fruit trees and vines (even though most are espaliered) that is just not possible anymore. It’s time to be more thoughtful about my space.

It’s also a good idea to start planning the Summer garden early because I have to think about what I want to plant, order the seeds (or go to a local nursery), raise them, and wait for them to grow. It might sound like it’s too early at the start of August, but think about it. My Autumn seed raising experiment found that trying to grow everything from seed takes a really long time (and I won’t be doing it again!) But even if you grow just some things from seed, you still need to plan well ahead. Seed catalogues are out now!

My 5 simple tips for planning a productive Summer garden

These are not rocket science, and they are based on my climate and my experience growing veggies in a Mediterranean climate.

  1. Choose veggies you actually like to eat and know how to cook. My husband recently admitted to me that he’s not a big fan of tomatoes. 25 years of marriage and I had no idea! I usually try to grow six or seven different varieties of tomato – but knowing that he’s not really into them, I’ll cut back to just two: a nice salad tomato and a cherry tomato (my youngest does love them) and leave space for more things I know we both love (hello, eggplant). I won’t stop growing heirlooms and rare varieties entirely, but I will reduce this down to just one or two new things – just to keep life exciting.
  2. Choose veggies you know will grow well in your microclimate. For some reason, cucumbers and melons collapse and die in my garden, but pumpkins go gangbusters. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, given they are close relatives, but I have seven years of experimentation to prove it. Every year I am suckered into trying yet another variety of melon and cucumber by the gorgeous seed catalogues, and every year I am sorely disappointed. Well, not this year! This Summer, I’m growing the plants I know will work – end of story.
  3. Choose veggies that aren’t too thirsty. All veggies will require irrigation, but there are some that are thirstier than others. Check the seed or seedling information before you buy to make sure you aren’t mortgaging your future in water bills. I know gardening is not just about ROI, but some plants just cost a lot to grow for a limited return (sweet corn, I’m looking at you).
  4. Choose plants that you have the space for. Although pumpkins need a lot of space to spread out, I train them over a trellis or wall and onto the pavers, so they actually don’t take up a lot of soil space. If you have limited space, choose compact versions of plants, such as bush beans, compact tomato plants, or patio ranges of zucchini. Try plants that climb up if you can build small trellises, or try growing in pots if you can. I grow lettuces and other leafy greens such as tatsoi (when the chickens aren’t getting into it) in an old wheelbarrow and a raised bed.
  5. Include some flowers in your garden to attract pollinators and improve pollination of fruiting plants. I always try to include dwarf sunflowers, dahlias, nasturtiums, petunias, poppies, love-in-a-mist (nigella), alyssum, dianthus, and cosmos in the Summer garden.

So, what’s my Summer garden plan?

This season I intend to grow a lot of chillies, eggplant, climbing beans, spring onions, and pumpkins in my Summer garden. These are all staples in my family. I also intend to grow some cherry tomatoes, salad tomatoes, capsicums (sweet peppers), and zucchini. I personally love zucchini, but I find it takes up a lot of space and does not do that well in my area (slightly better than cucumber, but not much). So I will grow some but would rather save the space for something that does better.

These are the varieties I am intending to grow

Pumpkins from last years Summer garden
Pumpkins from last year’s Summer Garden
  • Tomatoes: Green Zebra (unbeatable flavour and good yield) and Christmas Grapes, a cherry tomato I have not grown before;
  • Climbing Beans: I’m going for Purple King. I’ve tried many varieties of beans over the year, and Purple King is the best in my opinion, both for yield and the ability for me to see them on the vine (because I’m getting old). The beans grow purple on the vine, and then turn green when they are cooked. Magic! I find climbing beans much easier to grow than bush beans, which in my opinion never seem to produce as well. However if you have limited space, give bush beans a go.
  • Pumpkins: Australian Butter, because it’s just so beautiful and I have saved seeds from last year, Buttercup because it is the most delicious pumpkin I have ever eaten, Butternut because it is so prolific and keeps going right up until the weather turns, and Kent, because it is the best performer in my garden.
  • Chillies: We grow a lot of chillies because we love them, especially my husband who seemingly must eat them daily. We have five plants over-wintering that I hope will return: Mango, Cherry, Curly Toenail, Lemon, and Devil’s Tongue. If they do not come back again, then I will seek out a Devil’s Tongue again because it is the best flavoured and the most prolific, if you love a hot chilli, and then also plant several Jalapeno because it is just so useful and versatile. Curly Toenail is delicious and fun to grow – it looks like its name, and has a nice kick, but tbh I would not bother with Mango again if I didn’t already have the plant. It is prolific and beautiful, but I do not like the flavour much. I grow these in pots on the balcony so they do not take up space in the patch.
  • Spring Onions: I prefer to grow Red Spring Onions. I grow from seed, and they do well in my garden.
  • Eggplant: Last year we planted four Lebanese eggplants, this year we plan to double that at least. I’m vegetarian and my husband doesn’t eat a lot of meat, so eggplant are a really useful plant to grow. Lebanese eggplant are productive and easy, and delicious. I may grow a couple of globe eggplant too, for variety.
  • Zucchini: Again, the Lebanese zucchini do the best in my garden. I’ve tried the black, ribbed, golden, globe – none of them beat the pale Lebanese zucchini in my book.
  • Capsicum: This year I’m going for Mixed Italian Fryers, a mix of Italian sweet varieties best suited to cooking.
  • Flowers: As I mentioned, calendula, sunflowers, dahlias, alyssum, love-in-a-mist (also known as nigella), cosmos, nasturtiums, poppies, dianthus and petunias take up space in my Summer garden. Some of these are edible, and I do put them in salads, but mostly I use them to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects to my garden.

I’ll grow the pumpkins, zucchini, spring onions, beans, and capsicum from seed, as well as the cherry tomatoes. Most of the flowers, the eggplant, and Green Zebra tomatoes I will buy as seedlings. A few other plants may sneak their way in (carrots, turnips in early Spring), but not before these others find their place in the patch.

What are you intending to grow in your Summer garden? Let me know – maybe I’ll make some space in my garden for your ideas!

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.

The experiment – growing everything for a veggie patch from seed

This season (Autumn 2022) I made a bold decision: to grow everything in my veggie patch from seed. This meant brassicas, root veggies, leafy greens, all from seed.

I made this fateful decision for a couple of reasons. Firstly, funsies. Growing from seed is pretty fun. Some people like messing about in boats; I like messing about with dirt.

I also wanted to grow a few things that are not so easy to find in punnets from the Big Green Shed, or even from my favourite local nursery. I wanted to grow the standards (broccoli, caulis, cabbages, chard), but also some different plants, such as collard greens and orange cauliflowers. Of course, I could have found the broccoli and caulis at the nursery, but I could only find collards from one online seed supplier. I can’t even explain why I wanted to grown them. I get little side interests like this, and for some reason, collards was a thing I wanted to try.

I think the other reason I wanted to grow everything from seed is that it is an experiment in independence. Although I did buy most of the seeds online, some of the seeds I had saved from heirloom plants grown last year (cabbages, some lettuces, and coriander). While I’m not a prepper by any stretch, I do think about how we would manage if our supply chains are suddenly interrupted and we can no longer rely on the economic systems we currently have in place.

Oh, wait….

I’d like to think that I could manage to feed myself and my family – to an extent – by saving seeds and growing plants from seed, if the luxury of popping down to Bunno’s for a six pack of broccoli seedlings was taken away from me for some reason.

Like a worldwide pandemic.

Or if the country caught fire.

Or if large parts of our nation sank under metres and metres of water.

Oh, wait….

So, can I? Weellll…kinda. The answer is complicated.

Yes, I can grow everything from seed.

However, it takes a LOT of time. More time than I have, to be honest.

Not because I am so busy, although that is partly true. I only have time to be a part-time gardener.

I’m talking about the time I can’t control: seasonal time. I started sowing seeds for planting in Autumn in February, starting them inside using a heat mat. I planted out the second-last tray of seedling brassicas today (mid-May). That means that it has taken me 3.5 months to grow a full garden’s worth of veggies, using my tiny home setup. If I did not have the heat mat, it would have taken much longer.

The problem with this is that I have missed most of the warmer early Autumn weather, and I am planting baby brassicas into cold soil. The temperature today was about 20 degrees C. That doesn’t sound too bad, except the night temps are much cooler, and the soil temps are around 10 degrees C on the Adelaide Plains right now. As we live in a Southern hills area, the soil temps are likely to be about 2 degrees C cooler. My baby plants are likely to sulk in the cold soil, instead of taking off.

When gardening, temperatures are everything. Wait too long in Autumn, and you risk letting your seedlings slowly grow through Winter, until they suddenly bolt in the warmth of Springtime. This is likely to be my result for all my stubborn efforts. Even a week’s delay in planting can make all the difference.

If I had bought seedlings and planted everything at once in March, I’d probably be halfway to cauliflowers by now.

Lessons learned (but never learnings)

So what is my lesson – and what can you take from my bold/crazy experiment in seed-starting?

Firstly, the positives.

There are definitely some plants that are best to start from seed. Think zucchini, pumpkins, peas, beans, onions, any root veggies, and leafy greens. I always plant leafy greens from seed, as it is far cheaper and better to grow lettuces, spinach, bok chop, tatsoi, coriander, and chard from seed.

It’s also worth searching out seeds for heirloom or different veggies you may want to grow that you can’t find in commercial nurseries. I don’t want to just grow the things that big companies tell me to grow. Sometimes, seeds are just the only way to find and grow those plants. I’ll let you know if the collards were worth the effort!

I will also continue to save seeds, swap seeds, and plant seeds from veggies that I love or that do really well in my microclimate. For those plants, I will definitely grow from seed. Free seeds! Can’t beat that deal.

I do think that if I had a greenhouse, this whole experiment would have turned out very differently. Instead, I have a tiny heat mat in the corner of my sunroom. As I was planting out the seedlings this morning, I mused different ways I could afford a greenhouse. Then I realised that our annual September gales would probably throw someone’s roof shingles or backyard chairs through it. I could buy a LOT of seedlings for what that would cost me to fix.

There’s no point wasting precious seasonal growing time just to be stubborn. Right now, we still have the privilege of buying a punnet of seedlings for about $4, which is a pretty good deal. I know for a fact it’s a good deal, because it has taken me a lot of time and effort to grow all of these plants from seed.

And, FYI – growing from seed isn’t cheaper. Add in the cost of seed-raising mix, the little cardboard jiffy pots that I used to reduce the reliance on plastic, seeds, time, etc, and I would suggest that $4 for punnet of six seedlings is actually a spectacular bargain.

Therefore, I will start buying seedlings again for the old standards (ye olde broccoli, drumhead cabbages, white cauliflower, cherry tomatoes, and eggplants).

And the final lesson: no matter how you plant up your veggie patch, from seeds or seedlings, all your efforts will go to waste if you accidentally let the chooks out.