Weekend garden jobs, May 10 2020

After several wet and stormy weekends, it was lovely to have a cool but sunshiny day to spend out in the garden. As it happened to also be Mother’s Day, I exercised my motherly rights and left all household tasks to my husband while I spent the entire day outside.

It was perfect.

I had many jobs that needed to be done. Due to the cold weather and an uptick in my workload (yay), I have only trotted outside to pick some salad leaves and check the brassicas for cabbage moth caterpillars. This is probably an exercise in futility: I keep squishing them and they keep coming back, but eventually I will end up with enough cabbages and broccoli for Springtime. The rest of the garden has been patiently waiting, and growing weeds, until a lovely, work-free day, for my attention.

First task was harvesting pumpkins. I grow Kent (also known as Jap) pumpkins. I use the term ‘grow’ somewhat loosely. I have never planted Kent pumpkins. They come up from the compost, happily seed themselves, and take over a spot, and I allow it. I don’t feed or water them. I do hand pollinate them if the bees don’t seem to be doing the job well enough, but once the fruit is set, I leave them alone until the weather starts to turn. Then I place a brick under each pumpkin so it is raised up from the damp soil and the base doesn’t rot. I wait as long as I possibly can into Autumn before picking.

To pick, use a strong knife to cut a couple of inches of stem (see below). Wipe over the pumpkin with a rag to remove excess moisture and dirt, and check the blossom end for any dried up bits of the pumpkin flower, and remove it. I usually store my pumpkins in a cool dry place – we have a cellar so that is perfect. They can keep for quite a while, but check every week for any softening spots or mould, particularly in thinner skinned varieties like the Kent. If you notice any softening, you can still eat it – just put it in the fridge and start planning pumpkin soup asap. If I have an excess of pumpkin, I often steam and purée the flesh and freeze it to use later in chocolate brownies, pasta sauces, and cannelloni.

Harvesting is easy. Removing the old pumpkin vine is not so easy. As I mentioned, I let the vine ramble across half the backyard, which means it is an enormous vine by harvest time. I cut it into smaller pieces with my gardening knife, and shove it piece by piece in the green bin. It had very long roots, so to dig it out I had to dig carefully around the base and then follow the roots back along the garden bed to fully remove. It was a very happy plant.

I have tried growing other pumpkin varieties, and nothing really grows as well in my yard as the compost-seeded Kent. When I deliberately plant a pumpkin and nurture the damn thing, I might get one or two pumpkins. As they take up so much space, it’s just not worth it. But the Kent is always reliable, and one vine produces around 5-8 lovely heavy pumpkins, averaging about 4kg in weight. Kent also taste good and have a nice texture, which is not guaranteed with some pumpkins.

Next on my list was to remove the old eggplant bushes, and turn the compost. My lazy hips were not really happy with me for all that digging and lifting, after so many days sitting in front of a keyboard, so I switched to lighter jobs: planting bulbs, seeds, and seedlings. I finished planting the bulbs I bought last month, finally planted sweet peas (Spencer Ripple and Hi-Scent), and lettuces (Tennis Ball and Freckles), red cabbage, and silverbeet (Fordhook Giant). I thinned a few turnip and radish seedlings, and staggered back inside for a cup of tea and a cinnamon muffin by the fire, body aching, to watch my husband cut up one of our pumpkins for roast dinner. Happy Mother’s Day to me (and to all the awesome mothers out there, including my own wonderful Mother, my gorgeous sister, and the dear friends who play the role of Deputy Mothers to my kids).

Gardening jobs, Easter Weekend 2020

Easter weekend is one of the best weekends for gardening in Southern Australia. The weather is still warm enough to plant veggies and have them take off nicely, but cool enough to spend a lot of time outside.

I spent most of this weekend planting brassicas. I sowed a lot of caulis, cabbages, and broccoli about four weeks ago, and this week they were large enough to plant into the garden.

I planted the brassicas direct into beds that were prepared two weeks ago (pelletised chicken manure, rock dust and mulch), and covered each with a cloche made of PET soft drink bottles cut in half (see photo above). You can see from the photo that my veggie garden is a mixed planting of flowers (pansies), lettuces (self-seeded cos), annual herbs (basil), and perennials (rhubarb and lemon verbena). This mixed garden has come about due to a crossover of seasons (some Summer plants are still growing), and a lack of space, so I cram as many of the plants I love into the space I have. In between the brassicas I have sown some root vegetables so I can take advantage of the space:

  • Onion Californian Red
  • Radish Heirloom Mix
  • Beetroot Forno
  • Beetroot Chioggia
  • Turnip Early Purple

I also planted some flowers: Freesias (bulbs) and Sweet Pea Flora Norton. These are a sky blue sweet pea that I am excited to grow (although I am always excited to grow sweet peas). Normally I plant sweet peas on Anzac Day, but I have four packs of sweet peas to plant, so I am staggering the planting throughout April so I can get them all in. I am also expecting a big order of bulbs to arrive next week, in addition to the daffodils and crocuses I already have to plant, so that will keep me busy throughout April.

After planting, I mulched everything in the garden that was not already mulched with chopped sugarcane straw, and watered all the new plants with a weak liquid fertiliser to give it all a boost. We are expecting a couple of very warm sunny days this week (high 20s-low 30s), so this is a perfect weekend to plant and give all the plants a good chance to take off before the cold weather sets in.

Cutting back

Autumn is also a good time to cut back woody perennial herbs like Oregano, Thyme, Lavender, Sage, and Mint. Honestly, these are pretty hard to kill (especially Mint), so if you were to do it anytime with the exception of high Summer, you can’t really harm them. But right now they are all looking very straggly and cutting them back will give them time to recover in the Winter and put on lovely new growth in Springtime. I used to use ye olde garden shears to do this job, but my husband gave me electric hedge trimmers that make this task much easier and quicker. I filled up our empty green bin in half an hour! And that was just from one corner of the garden (we have a lot of plants to trim). I trim Oregano and Mint right down to ground level. You can see the new plant reshooting from the base, so it is fine to do this. Thyme is a bit fiddlier – it grows very woody over time and you need to try to shape the plant more carefully. For all varieties of Lavender, I just cut off the spent heads at a level. It will reshoot again.

If you don’t take the time to cut back these woody herbaceous perennials, they will become less prolific and healthy over time, and you will have to replace the plants. By giving them a haircut, you will keep the plants you have for many years, and give your garden a tidy appearance in preparation for a beautiful Spring showing. My personal favourite are the Thyme and Sage flowers each Springtime. I feel that it is truly Spring when the beautiful purple Sage flowers.

Social distancing garden jobs, 6 April 2020

There is something so relaxing about sitting in yon pumpkin patch. I think it is because pumpkins are the least demanding of all vegetables. Although I have pumpkin seeds, I rarely plant them. The pumpkin patch in my backyard is entirely self-seeded from compost, and that’s fine by me. I never water them. I never feed them. The closest I come to care and attention is the regular hand-pollination I do in the mornings while they are flowering, but I am not even doing that anymore (it’s getting too late in the season). Once they start fruiting, they require no further care. They quietly swell until they are ready to be picked.

By contrast, brassicas are fiddly and demanding beasts. I have to keep a close eye on the seedlings to fend off cabbage moth caterpillars. Today my eldest daughter and I spent a good twenty minutes scraping caterpillar eggs from cabbage and kale seedling leaves and squishing the occasional baby green caterpillar that had just emerged and was munching away. Whenever she saw a cabbage moth my daughter would wave it away, yelling “Go away, you monster!” That was entertaining, if fruitless.

Today I:

  • Started trimming back woody herbs (mint, thyme, oregano, lavender) with my trusty plant chainsaw aka electric hedge trimmers. My friend calls electric hedge trimmers a ‘plant chainsaw,’ which I think sounds much more bad ass. This is a job that will take me days to do, given the overgrowth in the yard, so I am taking it a few bushes at a time;
  • Fell down the front steps while plugging in the plant chainsaw to charge. We have a big front staircase, and it was still slippery from yesterday’s rain. Ouch;
  • Cleared up some unwanted plants (self-seeded lavender and mint) and weeds (Oyster Plant and the dreaded creeping Oxalis) that were making themselves quite comfortable.
  • Dug up some lavender and geraniums for my sister to plant at her place. She specifically requested “unkillable.” Bless;
  • Removed the spent Love-In-A-Mist seed pods and was happy to see baby Love-In-A-Mist plants already popping up;
  • Spread some Calendula seeds about the place;
  • Checked out the pomegranates to see how they are ripening. Not much longer!
  • With my daughter’s help, planted out the garlic, and mulched it with chopped sugarcane straw;
  • Planted out some Curly Kale, after double-checking it for cabbage moth eggs;
  • Prepared a new planter box for Asian vegetables (most likely Pak Choy and Coriander);
  • Sat in the pumpkin patch, drank a coffee, and meditated on life for a bit.

My body is aching like hell, mostly because of the aforementioned fall down the stairs, but I feel good.

Tomorrow I will try hard not to be a clumsy goose, trim some more plants, and hopefully plant out the broccoli seedlings that are now looking lovely and ready to go.

Weekend garden jobs April 3 2020

Rain! Lots of it. That’s a great thing…unless you are socially isolating from the coronavirus and the most fun you can have right now is escaping outside to the garden.

Prior to the rain setting in though, I was able to do some things on Friday to prepare the garden for planting next week.

I dug over all the backyard veggie beds, and raked to a fine tilth, then sprinkled with organic pelletised chicken manure and rock dust. Once the rain is over, I can start planting out the brassicas I have been raising from seed.

I ordered a large order of sheep manure and potting mix from SA Natural Fertilisers, a company that home delivers mulch, potting mix, and manure. I ordered enough for my neighbour, also a keen gardener. The sheep manure is for my fruit trees, and the potting mix is for my raised beds and pots.

I used some of the mix to top up a raised bed, and planted Radish seeds (China Rose) and Spring Onions in it.

In the ‘roots’ plot, I planted more radishes (French Breakfast) and Beetroot Chioggia. I have yet more beetroots and onions to plant, along with garlic, but I will wait until the rain has finished.

Finally, I picked some more eggplant and basil, and made Jamie Oliver’s kickarse Eggplant Parmigiana while it rained outside.

Looking forward to soft soil and mild weather next week so I can get out of my house and plant sweet peas.

Weekend garden jobs March 28 2020

Listening to Talkback Gardening on the ABC may not be everyone’s schtick, but hear me out.

Two months ago, I had my tickets, flights, accommodation all booked to go to the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show. On this day, I should be nerding out with all the other gardenerds from around the country at the biggest Garden Show in the Southern Hemisphere. I had been saving all year for it. Not only that, my dears, it was to be my first ever trip alone (excluding the many work trips I have been on to remote areas) sans kids, husband, etc since I got married almost 25 years ago. It was a big deal.

Now I recognise my privilege, well and truly. I get to be here at home in my own house with a backyard, and I still have some work (for now), and I don’t have COVID-19 (for now), and I am just so fortunate. But I was looking forward to it.

So what can I do instead of going to the Garden Show?

Firstly, I took all the money I had saved for the Garden Show, and spent it on garden supplies, bulbs, seeds, and other gardening paraphernalia online from gardening retailers that missed out on being able to sell all their things to me at the Garden Show – because missing out on the biggest event of the year has likely cost them thousands of dollars. Seeing as that money was set aside for splurging on garden supplies, I figured I should still give it to them. Plus I have the fun of receiving presents and extra gardening while stuck in social isolation.

Next, I listened to the gentle dithering tones of Jon Lamb, resident talkback gardening expert on the ABC Adelaide on a Saturday morning, while dithering around myself in my own backyard. The gentle Q&A of a gardening show is about the most low-risk, quiet listening experience a person can have, especially right now.

Today I started potting on some of the seedlings I grew from seed a few weeks ago. Seedlings of this size are soft, sappy little babies that need to be hardened off. If you don’t do this, they will be like the teenage boy that is never taught to do his own laundry: if you plant them in the garden they will most likely collapse and bring their laundry home for mum to do.

And I ain’t doing it, kiddo.

Prick the seedlings out with a small tool. I use a plastic chopstick that I keep in my garden shed for many purposes: seed dibber, general hole poker, plant lifter, hole unplugger, etc. It’s a great all-rounder. You can see in the photo below that I have used it so much that it is a bit broken. It still pokes though, so it’s all good. When it finally dies, I am sure I can find another one around the place. You could also use an old fork, but for general all-purposefulness, I recommend the chopstick.

You can see in the photo that something has been having a go at these little seedlings. I did some exploring and found a tiny little white sap-sucking bug, about 1mm in size. I did go full terminator on them. That means I squished them: I don’t use poison. If I find more, it will be hasta la vista, buggos.

I moved each seedling to a recycled, clean small pot, filled with premium potting mix, and labeled each one.

I make my own labels with old plastic milk cartons. These are as better than the shop-bought labels, which I find snap after exposure to the sun for any length of time, and add to plastic waste, whereas the homemade ones just use a flexible plastic that was going to recycling anyway. They look a bit wonky, but no-one sees them except me and the twelve people that read this blog (hi, Mum!)

You can see that the seedlings look sad. They will perk up and toughen up. I will give them a good week to ten days to grow larger and healthier, and then plant them out.

I placed the pots in an old wheelbarrow that is rusting out, watered them with a weak liquid fertiliser solution, and covered them with bird netting to stop the sparrows getting them, and placed them in a sunny corner. Then I rinsed out the seedling tray so I can start up the next lot of seedlings.

This week I am planting a mix of flower and vegetable seeds. I received quite a few free packets of flower seeds recently, so I decided to plant most of them next to the retaining wall, which has a bare spot that is prone to weeds. If even a few of the flower seeds take, they will provide cover that will hopefully out-compete the weeds, and provide food for the bees.

I planted:

  • Nemophilia Baby Blue Eyes
  • Love in a Mist Mulberry Rose
  • Californian Poppy Purple Gleam
  • Wildflower Pink Star
  • Candytuft Fairy Mixture

I also planted English Daisy in a seed tray.

Love in a Mist, also known as Nigella, is a gorgeous plant that naturalises easily. I have it growing in the front garden – the traditional flower is the blue you see below. The seeds I planted today are a reddish-pink variant. I hope they take, as I would love to have them naturalise in the backyard. Bees love them, and so do I. Also you can eat the seeds, which are known as kalonji, in Indian cuisine.

Finally, I refilled the clean seed trays and planted:

  • Lettuce Tennis Ball
  • Climbing Spinach
  • Chicory Italian Mix
  • Broccoli Green Sprouting

You can never have too much lettuce, I think, plus I was looking forward to growing this variety, which was a favourite of Thomas Jefferson. Heirloom gardening is so cool. Imagine eating a lettuce now in 2020, that people loved to eat almost 300 hundred years ago.

Later this week, I will be planting more peas, as the peas I planted a few weeks ago didn’t come up (sob) and continue preparing the soil for brassicas and garlic. This means adding pelletised chicken manure, rock dust, and mulch.

Social Distancing Garden Jobs, 20 March 2020

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

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

I paved the chook shed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sanitise, people!

Garden jobs, March 15 2020

It’s been a stressful week for, well, humanity. The best way I know to deal with the stress and worry for the health and wellbeing of self, family, friends and community is to get out into the fresh, hopefully coronavirus-free air and sunshine, and do something physical and practical. So after my standard Aussie panic buy yesterday (Toilet paper? Check. Pasta? Check.), I got out into the garden this morning to expend my ever-growing sense of plague-dread by ripping spent tomato plants out of the dirt and turning the compost.

A veggie patch, if you are fortunate enough to have the space to plant one, is a very good way to assuage apocalyptic terror, because you it makes you feel like you are doing something to prepare for the end of the world, even if that something is just planting cabbages. The truth is I can’t grow enough veggies to be self-sufficient for my family, and planting them now at the start of the Autumn growing season won’t do me much good if we are all sent into social isolation next week. But fear is psychological, so if I can do something busy that feels helpful and useful, and above all, fun, then I won’t feel so stressed about the fact that I might be stuck in my house with potentially no work (I’m self-employed), two kids, and a dwindling stock of toilet paper. I can watch my growing cabbages with the knowledge that cabbage leaves are lovely and soft and have potentially many uses 😉

Cabbage seedlings popping up their lovely heads.

So far almost all the seeds I planted in seed trays last week have come up and are looking healthy. Now to nurture them to seedling size before planting them out into larger pots before putting them in the garden. I like to transition them to a next stage pot before I move them to the garden, so they are lovely and strong before they go in the ground

I dug over the compost and tipped in a full bag of pigeon poo, given to me by my awesome neighbour, John. I tell you what, when society falls, I will do my best to save my neighbours. A bag of pigeon poo goes a long way when it comes to choosing who to put on the proverbial ark. Let’s face it, in the new world, diamonds won’t count for much, but the ability to make kick arse compost will be a valuable skill set.

Once all the old plants were removed from the garden beds, I dug everything over and raked it to a fine tilth, ready for planting. Next on my list is to plan my plantings. I have to be honest: I am not a planner when it comes to the garden. Normally, I just chuck plants in wherever they fit and hope for the best. Usually this works out pretty well, but I am running out of space now and I really want to maximise every inch of soil. So I have decided I am going to plan it properly this season to see if I can boost the productivity of my space. I am leaving each space I clear empty for now, until I can plan out exactly what I want to plant.

These are my non-negotiables:

    Green cabbage;
    Red cabbage;
    Lettuces (lots);
    Onions (spring, red, white);
    Garlic (John gave me four bulbs he saved from season – what a legend);
    Kale;
    Turnips;
    Kohlrabi;
    Broccoli (green and Romanesco);
    Carrots (white, orange, purple);
    Peas (Snow and Sugar Snap).

I would like to grow broad beans (mostly for soil health), silverbeet, radishes, bok choy, climbing spinach, and cauliflower.

So not too much then.

All of this has to be grown around the fruit trees and perennials like rhubarb and strawberries.

I’ll post my sketch next week.

Finally, check out my pumpkin vine.

I love to grow pumpkins, but they are something you can really only grow if you have the luxury of space. Every year they take up half the backyard: I couldn’t get even half the vine in the picture. I have at least six lovely Kent pumpkins growing. They will be ripe just in time for pumpkins to come down to less than a dollar a kilo.