I’m a very fortunate person, in that I have a home, a job, a family, and a big backyard with lots of space to grow a garden. When I have the time, I write this blog about my adventures trying to grow an organic garden and being as self-sufficient as I can be while running my own business, supporting my family, and being a good partner and friend.
Sometimes, that works out.
Sometimes…it doesn’t. Over the past three months, my garden has been the loser in the equation. My business has been extremely busy – busier than it has ever been, in fact. That’s great news for me as a small business owner. You never want the opposite!
What it has meant though is that I have been triaging my life. Work and family have been prioritised. Eating healthily and trying to get some sleep have come next. The garden has fallen right down to the bottom of the list of things I have had time to focus on.
This weekend I had my first full weekend off in a while. I caught up with family and close friends. And, after weeks and weeks, I went out to the garden and spent more than five minutes there.
Boy, what a mess.
The thing about a greenhouse is, apparently, that it needs caring for. You cannot leave it to itself. Bugs rush in when a gardener doesn’t have time to tread. And those bugs have had a glorious picnic in my lovely greenhouse. By bugs, I specifically mean aphids.
I had to throw out unredeemable pots of eggplant and chillies. While it is the end of the season anyway, I had been hoping to continue growing these well into winter, with the help of the warm greenhouse. Foiled by critters and my own neglect! No eggplants for me!
I cleared out the whole space, sprayed the plants that I could keep, put in new fly traps, and fed and watered everything. I’ve made a little promise not to let it get that bad again. I hope I can keep that promise.
The veggie patch
The veggie patch was a mishmash of old Summer plants, weeds, and half-eaten brassicas. What a sad state of affairs at the tail end of Autumn! I ripped out all the remaining eggplant and chillies, and Summer flowering annuals that just looked revolting. I weeded as much as I could, and then I planted up a bunch of lettuce, bok choy, and onions. Finally, I gave everything a good watering of seaweed extract and fish emulsion.
It will not be the Winter garden of my dreams, but at least it doesn’t look as bad as it did when I went out this morning. I was still able to pick a bunch of radishes and spring onions, the last of the green chillies and a few remaining eggplant, and we have had a bumper crop of limes this year.
If you have any recipes for limes, I’m listening…
On the plus side, the Sawtooth Banksia seeds I bought in Tasmania have finally germinated. I have three tiny seedlings, and hope to have three lovely Banksias ready to plant out in my garden in Spring.
I hate the cold. Just putting it out there. I don’t just dislike the cold, I hate it. I cannot bear the feeling of shivering, the discomforting, twisty, nerve tingling feeling of being under-optimal body temperature. In Summer, I will happily sit in warm rooms and go outside to feel the baking heat on my skin. I don’t complain about heatwaves or hot weather. I look forward to it.
This can be a problem for others. When others turn on the air conditioning, I grab a jumper. I don’t bother with air conditioning, and they have to ask to turn it on. In the Winter, I rug up in uggs, padded vests, scarves, and woolly jumpers, even if the heat or the fireplace are on, and for those that feel the heat, it can be disconcertingly warm in our house. When I worked in an office, many people would complain that my office was too warm, and I had to keep a jacket in my office to respect the differing needs of my colleagues.
All this to say: thank goodness Winter is almost done. I cannot stand it for much longer.
I can tell for sure that Winter is almost done, because I was outside in the garden on the weekend, and saw the first asparagus spear poking its head up from the soil. This can mean only one thing: like the crocus spotted in Narnia, it means that Spring is on its way. The Winter is almost over, and Aslan is coming.
This weekend, as with most weekends lately, I had to work. However, I took two hours out to muck out the chook shed, give them fresh bedding, pull out some old brassica plants, dig over the broccoli bed, and pat the chickens. Then I wrapped myself back up in pure white furs, magicked up some turkish delight, and went back inside my ice castle. Soon.
Spring – my favourite season of all – has finally arrived, and my garden has suddenly shifted from cold weather sulks to blooming, all in the space of a week.
I have not posted in a while because there has literally been nothing to post about. It has been cold (I hate the cold), wet (I appreciate the rain, but I am not someone who will run outside in it), and I have had surgery on my foot. That has taken a while to heal to the point that it is safe for me to start digging in the dirt again.
That time is now, just in time for Spring planting and for wandering around my garden looking at all the bulbs, trees, and shrubs that have decided to blossom all at once. I’m loving it.
In Autumn I gave our lavender bushes a gentle prune. Actually, I hacked them viciously with my hedge trimmers and hoped for the best. They have all come back into bloom looking better than ever. I have multiple varieties of lavender in my garden, from plain old English lavender, to the fancy schmancy double pink, white and strawberry coloured breeds that I forget the name of.
The odd thing about all the lavenders I grow is that after a season, they begin to naturalise, and I now have about twenty lavender bushes in my yard. Now if I see a lavender seedling, I either give it away to a friend or neighbour, or I have to pull it up and toss it in the green bin. I don’t want my entire garden to be lavender bushes. I assume other people have this problem, but when I have spoken to other gardeners, they have not experienced it. I think that my particular aspect, on a west-facing hillside that has full sun most of the day, is just a happy place for lavender. Herbs in general grow well here and naturalise. I am always yanking out surprise rosemary, thyme, parsley, oregano, and other herbs that have popped up in odd spots. While I don’t mind some extras, they will take over if I am not vigilant.
The daffodils are almost finished, but Dutch Irises, Anenomes, Ranunculus, Star Flowers, Freesias, Harlequin Flowers, Violet Sparaxis, and Snowflakes have arrived. The Harlequin Flowers are now naturalised in the garden and in the lawn on one side, and their cousins the Violet Sparaxis are back for a second year. I am very excited to see the Dutch Iris (our first planting of these beauties this year), and our second planting of giant Daffodils and smaller white Jonquils offered a beautiful display at the end of Winter. Next year I am going to plant even more bulbs so that the Spring garden looks like a carnival exploded. Some gardeners and landscapers have rules about what colour flowers and plants you should match with others to make your garden ‘harmonious.’
Not me. I am all about all the garden equivalent of a Ramones gig.
Seed Planting for Summer Veggies
Last year it could well be argued that our Summer veggie patch was…pretty sad. Partly, it was the weather. Our part of Australia experienced the hottest and driest Summer on record. Even usually reliable crops like zucchini, chillies, and eggplant didn’t fruit, or shrivelled up in the heat before they got the chance. The only really excellent crop we had was pumpkins. So many pumpkins! We literally ate the last bit of last year’s pumpkins just this week.
Partly, though, it was a lack of organisation on my part. I was determined to grow everything from seed, and I planted many of those seeds too late to achieve the kind of crop I wanted. I definitely started my tomato seeds too late, and they really had no chance.
This year, I have started early. I purchased some seedlings, and have planted out some seeds in seedling trays to give them a head start. The plan is that by October, I will have well grown plants ready to go out into warm soil. At the moment I still have Winter veggies in the plot, so there is nowhere for any Summer veggies to go anyway, but it is also still too cold.
The seedlings I purchased (on an excelled two for five bucks sale) were:
Some of these are going to be my final attempts at these particular varieties: Eggplant Listanda Di Grandia, Tomato San Marzano, Cucumber Marketmore, and PumpkinLakota. If these are unsuccessful this year, I will not try them again. It is likely they are not suited to my conditions, as with the exception of cucumbers, I have had no trouble growing other pumpkins, eggplant or tomatoes. I have a love-hate relationship with cucumbers: I’d love to be able to grow them, they hate me. I’ll try one more year and then I quit.
I am also planning to grow Tomato Jaune Flamme, Chilli Anaheim, Chilli Devil’s Tongue, Basil Cinnamon, PumpkinAustralian Butter, and several varieties of sweet corn, chillies, and beans. I love beans and can’t wait to grow them every year.
Sadly, I will not have much more room for anything else. We have planted asparagus, raspberries, grapes, strawberries, rhubarb, boysenberries and an avocado tree in the backyard, and are about to instal chickens. All of these take up valuable real estate. It is likely that many of the tomatoes and capsicums will have to be grown in pots this year.
What are you planning to plant for Spring and Summer? Do you prefer to grow ornamentals or are you excited to grow some Summer veggies for your kitchen?
Imagine being someone that is slightly obsessed with growing things. Then imagine that you have not been able to grow or plant or do anything in the garden in the peak growing season of the year. This has been my existence for the past two months as my workloads have skyrocketed and I have spent my weekends in front of a computer screen. My job is entirely deadline focused, so there has not been a way of getting out of it. My poor garden.
Actually, the garden has been fine. My husband has maintained the watering, and everything I planted at the start of Spring just tootled along at its own pace. The tomatoes were in dire need of tying up when I went outside yesterday, and there was hella weeding to be done, but nothing else seemed amiss. Nature finds a way.
I dug up all the garlic, and now it is drying in the sunshine. We are expecting four days of extremely hot Australian weather, so that should be sufficient to dry it out before I bring it inside. We use a lot of garlic so this should last a couple of months. I guess I will have to plant more next year if I want to grow enough for a whole year.
I tested out a new shovel by digging up the compost from the two compost bins. One was half full, while the other was full. Both were ready to use. One had truly incredible compost in it because I had used pigeon poo from the next door neighbour’s aviary. It breaks the compost down very quickly. The corn and tomatoes got a great feed yesterday. The other contained rabbit poo and straw, which also broke down very well. Considering I have not had the time to give my heavy feeding plants a good feed this season, this should make up for it.
I am growing two types of corn this year; an heirloom painted mountain corn and an F1 hybrid called Jubilee that I grew last year. The mountain corn is already producing cobs. I expect it will be another month before the Jubilee follows. My experiment of growing beans up the corn stalks has been somewhat successful. The beans are growing up the corn as planned, but the beans are growing much faster than the corn. I started building some additional supports yesterday to help the corn so it would not be strangled by the beans. I also made the error of planting Scarlet Runner beans next to the corn, not realising that this bean grows enormous! It is the largest growing runner bean and requires a much sturdier frame than a poor corn stalk.
Now all the weeds are cleared and plants fed, I am going to figure out if I have time to grow a quick crop of eggplant and zucchini before the end of the season. I can’t believe I have not had time to grow a single zucchini this year.
It was so lovely to be outside in the dirt again, even if it was mostly digging up weeds and shovelling pigeon poo.
As part of a concerted effort to ‘relax,’ my husband and I decided to forgo our usual Saturday routine of housework and other crap we hate chores and headed out to a big garden sale. This garden sale was made extra special because it had a free (that’s right, free) sausage sizzle. We were there, baby. We lined up like the rest of the sad sacks with nothing better to do, and got our free barbecued snouts’n’entrails in bread, smothered in mustard and tomato sauce. A perfect artery-clogging waste of 10 minutes on a Saturday, probably resulting in 10 minutes reduced lifespan later down the track.
I have been wanting a hydrangea plant for a neglected shady corner of the front yard, and found one at the sale, along with a beautiful carnation bush, all for 30% off. We got out of the sale with a carful of mulch, plants, and potting mix for less than $80 and called it good.
This was the weekend that I vowed to remove the remaining broccoli plants to make way for the Summer seedlings. And yet, they are still producing more than a kilogram of broccoli heads and sprouts a week! So I decided to leave them a little longer, and to start slashing down the broad beans instead.
Some people do not enjoy broad beans, perhaps remembering the grey, overcooked bullets of their childhood. In fact, they are a delicous, elegant vegetable that is very useful in the garden as a soil improving crop over the winter time.
Broad beans, like all leguminous crops, are ‘nitrogen-fixing.’ Simply explained, this means that they draw down nitrogen from the air, and store it in little nodules in their roots. They use this nitrogen to feed the plant. Nitrogen-fixing plants are good for the soil, because when they die, the nitrogen in the little nodules is released into the soil, nourishing it. Runner beans, peas, and broad beans are all good crops to grow either before or after heavy feeding crops (for example, corn or tomatoes) to prepare the soil. I am planting tomatoes in the bed that held my broad bean crop, and I have planted climbing beans directly alongside the corn crop.
I picked half the broad beans and slashed down the plants, leaving the roots in the soil to release the nitrogen. I left the slashed plants on top of the soil, as although I am planning to mulch in the next couple of weeks, I did not have time this weekend. The pile of broad bean stalks will help the soil retain moisture in the meantime. I’ll pick the rest of the broad beans next weekend.
With the 2.5 kilograms of broad bean pods we picked (no kidding), we gave some away, and used the rest to make Jamie Oliver’s BroadBeanPestorecipe. My husband patiently shelled and blanched and then skinned all those beans! He deserves a medal.
If you grow broad beans, or even buy them frozen, I recommend this recipe – delicious and easy (unless you have to shell two kilos of broadies).
The rest of my time outside was spent pricking out my tomato seedlings and replanting new seeds. I am trying yet again to grow watermelon. As with cucumbers, watermelons are my white whale. Hopefully I don’t suffer a similar fate as Ahab…but I doubt anyone was dragged to their untimely demise by a watermelon plant.
“Yeh don’t know them gargoyles at the Committee for the Disposal o’
Dangerous Creatures! They’ve got it in fer interestin’ creatures!”
Reubeus Hagrid, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Hagrid is one of the best characters in the Harry Potter universe. He is kind and brave, and he will do anything to help Harry and his friends defeat the evil wizard Voldemort and his cronies. One of his endearing qualities is his love for what he calls “interestin’ creatures” – Acromantulas (giant spiders), Hippogriffs, Salamanders, Dragons, Nifflers, Unicorns, and other magical beasts and beings. Hagrid takes care of the beasts of Hogwarts in his capacity as Care of Magical Creatures teacher, and also befriends many of the Magical Beings that live in the Lake and the Forbidden Forest. Often his love and care for Magical Creatures will get him into trouble, such as the time when he tried to keep a baby dragon (Norbert) in his tiny wooden cabin, or he was expelled from Hogwarts for keeping an Acromantula that was thought to be killing fellow students. His ability to see the value of all Magical Beasts and Beings enables him to see the value and unique qualities in all people as well, leading him to fight against the “Magical Supremacy” of Voldemort.
I enjoy Hagrid so much because he is a bit of a kindred spirit. Although unlike Hagrid, I am not a keeper of the beasts of the world (I do not own any pets except goldfish), I do love interestin’ plants of all kinds. I find it hard to walk past a plant stall, sale, nursery, or just a garden without taking a sticky beak to see what is happening or what ideas or new plants I can take home with me.
While I love traditional plants, I like to seek out the interestin’, the exotic, or the just plain weird. Sometimes my husband has been heard to sigh “Can’t we just grow something normal?” – this especially when I start researching fruit trees or planning the Summer veggie patch. I am not interested in growing Pink Lady apples, or Satsuma plums. I want to try growing something different that I cannot buy in a supermarket produce section, like a 17th Century English heirloom apple that can only cross-pollinate with a 15th Century French relative. And although I do grow the standard Aussie Butternuts in the Summer, I also like to try my hand at growing Japanese heirloom pumpkins or Italian spherical zucchini, for fun and interest. Sometimes these experiments are successful; at other times I have an epic fail – like last year’s Lakota pumpkins, which yielded exactly one tiny pumpkin. That was a very expensive tiny pumpkin, for all the water that was pumped into that fist-sized squash…
I also love to grow unusual flowers that I cannot buy at a florist or a nursery, like beautiful crocuses that flower for two days a year, because I think that there is no point growing something I can buy at Coles or Bunnos for ten bucks a bunch. I wait eagerly all year to see their beautiful flowers pop up, admire them extravagantly for those two days, and then wait again for them for another 12 months. I grow six varieties of lavender and six varieties of mint, only one of each I can easily buy at a nursery. I have multiple varieties of thyme and sage, daisies that smell like passionfruit, and four colours of violets that creep around my garden and remind me of my grandmother every time the wind blows and the scent wafts across the garden. I have plants just for touching, and plants just for smelling. I have plants with names (and I think, personalities), including one fruiting vine that stubbornly refused to fruit until I named her and talked to her, sometimes in frustration and sometimes with love until she started to fruit prolifically. Now my husband has caught my crazy, and talks to her as well when he walks by. We might sound slightly bonkers, but people have commented on the huge size and health of our passionfruit vine.
In our streetscape and against the backdrop of our great 70s palace, our garden looks a little out of place. All the other gardens are landscaped in the late 70s-early 80s Australian style of lawn interspersed with diosma bushes and an ornamental tree or two. These yards look very neat. The lawns are tidy and the diosmas are trimmed. In the Spring, small clumps of daffodils occasionally dare to disrupt the tidiness.
Our front garden is a tribute to Hagrid in the middle of Privet Drive. It does not have any ornamental trees. Instead we have five beautiful fruit trees and vines (mulberry, apricot, passionfruit, pomegranate, guava), one pretty sad looking lemon, and a newly planted lemon myrtle tree. Our enormous herb garden keeps company with perennial flowers and spring flowering bulbs in colours that are not designed to match each other neatly but instead were chosen because they make me happy or because I spotted them in a catalogue and I thought they looked interestin’. So we have brightly coloured Harlequin Flowers (sparaxis, pictured above) growing in the same space around the garden with mint, self-seeded parsley and oregano, cosmos, violets, crocuses, pale Erlicheer daffodils, riotous Ranunculus, delicate purple Star Flowers, white, red, purple, and pink lavender, and dozens of different herbs.
I say fight back against the tide of diosma bushes and boring front yards. Don’t give in to the rules of Privet Drive. Be a Hagrid, not a Muggle.
This weekend has turned on some spectacular Winter weather – cold, crisp, and sunshiny, with barely a cloud in the sky. Perfect weather for that endless winter weeding, provided I rug up well! It was touch-and-go for a minute, when I couldn’t find my woolly winter beanie, but crisis was averted, and out I went.
The sunshine of the past week that followed some wet weather caused germination of many weed seeds, so I have spent two days weeding, and then mulching with sugar cane straw to try to prevent the weeds returning. Some people believe that sugar cane mulch causes nitrogen drawdown, but I have never seen any evidence of that, and I am happy to use it in my garden.
I also spent a happy hour turning the compost in my bin and digging out the fresh compost to add to the garden. There was enough in there to add to a whole new section of garden. I cleared that section of weeds, and added the compost, before planting brassica seedlings from my raised seedling bed. These included a mix of broccoli (Green Sprouting), cauliflower (Purple Cape), and cabbage (Mini Drum). After watering in, I mulched and then fed with seaweed solution to prevent transplant shock.
Hand weeding allows you to take stock of changes in the garden. For example, my bed of mixed greens (silverbeet, rocket, and coriander) are now ready to start picking. They are still at the lovely, sweet, tender stage and are really delicious. Coriander is a tricky herb. It can only be planted in cooler weather, as it will bolt straight to seed as soon as any hint of warmer weather hits. It also dislikes transplanting, so it is best to grow it directly from seed and then leave it alone to grow quickly. Pick it frequently so it grows nice and bushy, and ensure you keep it well watered. Some people dislike it intensely, but our family loves it. I have planted a lot and will plant some more in a couple of weeks to ensure a good supply while I can grow it myself. I tend not to buy herbs, as I have the space to grow all I need, but I make an exception for coriander in the Summer.
The beetroot I thinned a couple of weeks ago is responding to the extra room. It is time to plant some more though so I can have a steady supply of fresh beetroot during the cooler months.
The broad beans and peas I planted recently are taking off. I have purple-podded peas, dwarf snow peas, and although I have planted three kinds of broad beans, to date only two have germinated. I think the third packet, which I found at the bottom of my seed tin, was too old. I will give it another week before accepting defeat, though.
The Crimson-flowered broad bean started flowering this week. These were planted about a month ahead of the Aquadulce, so this is not surprising. It was exciting to see the flash of red in the mostly green and brown garden.
I’m having a week off work this week, so I’m hoping for a few more pleasant days to get out in the garden. Next job on my list: rose pruning, and transplanting some very unhappy feijoas.
If you come to my house, you are more than likely to find a plate or a saucer on our fireplace, with some seeds drying on it. I often wonder what visitors to our home think we are doing. Who are these people, with their plates of dried out husks all over the place?
I save seeds for future planting in my garden because it’s fun, it saves money, and it contributes in a very small way to plant biodiversity.
Saving seeds is very easy. I have learned to do it over time by reading about how to save seeds from different plants, watching YouTube videos, and testing it out myself. For some plants it is very intuitive, and you don’t need a guide. For others, it is helpful to read about the plant and the way seeds are reproduced in nature.
I save seeds in two ways: by allowing the plant to self-seed in my garden, and by actively sourcing and saving seeds for replanting later.
Self-seeding (a.k.a the lazy way)
Only do this a) if you have the space (I do); and b) for plants you don’t mind spreading around the place. I mostly allow plants like herbs and some flowers to self-seed. But a word of warning before you do this: make sure that you know for sure the plant will self-seed true-to-type the following year (i.e that it is an heirloom variety). I made this mistake two years ago with a variety of Cosmos (an annual flowering plant) that I believed would self-seed prolifically. The first year, the plants were spectacular, and I really wanted a second crop from the seed heads that grew very easily from the spent flowers. I sprinkled them far and wide in my garden. Sure enough, the plants regrew the following year. However, they produced only one or two flowering heads, and are now an annoying weed in my garden. I am still pulling them out. The lesson here is: really know your plant before you go ahead and allow it to self-seed in your garden. Plants are biologically hard-wired to try to reproduce, even when humans have bred them not to be able to do so. You may not get what you want.
The plants I allow to self-seed are: parsley (both Italian and curly), violas and pansies, lettuces, lamb’s ear, sweet peas, nigella, and white alyssum.
Parsley is a good one to try first, as it goes to seed at the end of its two-year lifespan, and is not happy to be transplanted. When it does go to seed, it will often grow to an enormous size, so you will need to be ready for this. Choose a plant that is in as unobtrusive a spot in your garden as possible, and let it bloom and the seeds form.
Allowing plants to go to seed is a lesson in patience. You have to accept that the plant will look sprawly and overgrown for some time. However, you will be rewarded by beneficial insects (in my garden, primarily foraging bees and ladybugs) that love to visit your herbaceous flowers.
After several months (yep, months!) the parsley seed heads will dry and you can either collect them and save them in a jar for future planting, or sprinkle them around your garden. It is likely that they will already have spread by wind or birds, and you will start to find little parsley plants popping up at odd spots throughout your garden. Personally, I love this look and am happy to let them grow where they will. However, you can transplant them when they are young. Do it before the parsley has had time to develop its long taproot, or it will be grumpy and will not do well. One thing I enjoy about having so many herbs all around the place is that friends and family know that we always have herbs free for the taking. If they want a bunch of parsley for dinner, they can just grab some from our garden.
This is also the case with Lamb’s Ear, which really struggles to be transplanted. I have only had success in a few cases. It self-seeds readily, but hates to be moved. I don’t mind letting it go to flower and seed though, as the tall pink flower spikes atop the soft grey foliage are stunning and provide a point of difference in my garden. The bees also love these.
Alyssum and violas are very easy to self-seed. Since I planted a punnet of white alyssum three years ago I have never needed to replant. I let it go along its own way, and I now find the flowers in cracks, between other plants, and in my grass. Again, I don’t mind this, but if you want a neater garden you will need to plant it in a pot. For a less invasive variety, plant the purple variety. In my experience it does not self-seed readily at all (kind of annoying from my point of view, but good if you do not want a spreading variety).
Sweet peas were an unintentional self-seeder. In 2016 I planted Sweet Pea Matucana, a purple and pink heirloom sweet pea that grows very strongly and is very sweetly scented. Due to time constraints, I let it develop a lot of seed heads before I removed the spent plants. I deliberately saved some to plant the following year, but a full stand of flowers grew without my help last year (I also planted some in a different spot). I saved more seeds from that crop and this year I will plant them again, along with the new seeds for Sweet Pea America I just purchased. Sweet peas are my favourite flower, so I am more than happy to have them reappear annually without any effort on my part.
I save seeds from plants that have been highly prolific, or that are especially tasty. Some of my efforts at saving seeds have been highly experimental and very successful; other efforts should have worked but were dismal failures. It is very much a trial and error process. In terms of saving time, it is not a hobby for that. I could buy a packet of seeds or a punnet of seedlings and be done with it.
Saving tomato seeds is a fiddly business. If you have an heirloom tomato that you want to grow again next year, wait until you have a nice, ripe specimen. Fill a cup or small jar with water, and scoop the seeds into the cup. Let the tomato seeds sit in the cup overnight. They will ferment slightly. Strain in a fine sieve, ensuring you remove all pulp from around the seeds. Dry on a plate lined with paper towel until completely dry. They will stick to the paper, but they are easily removed. Store in a labelled jar in a dark place.
Can you say ‘easy’? Pumpkins are the gift that keeps on giving, provided you have the room to grow them. Easy to grow, easy to save seeds, easy to eat. There is nothing about pumpkins to dislike. I saved my first lot of pumpkin seeds from a Kent pumpkin bought on sale at the supermarket, and it produced perfect replicas of that original pumpkin. In fact, it’s hard to keep a pumpkin seed down. Try composting them – you will just end up with pumpkin plants down the track. We currently have about ten pumpkin plants in our garden, and we only planted four of them. The rest are self-seeded butternuts from our compost. They are also producing beautiful, fat butternuts. I see pumpkin soup, pumpkin dal, and pumpkin scones in our future.
To save pumpkin seeds, just scoop them out of a fully ripe pumpkin, give them a rinse to remove the pulp, and dry them on a plate. Too easy.
I have to be honest: my success rate saving zucchini seeds is low. I find the seeds to be flimsier than pumpkins, and they do not dry as well. The process for drying them is the same as pumpkins, but the result is not as good (for me). I will keep trying but so far, not great.
Capsicums and Chillies
These are as easy as pumpkins. Let the capsicum or chilli ripen on the vine until red (or yellow or black, depending on your variety). Cut open and remove the seeds. Dry on a plate, and store in a jar in a dark place. I have had good success with both chillies and capsicums.
Beans and peas
These are very simple. Toward the end of the season, when the bean or pea vines are almost at the end of their natural cycle, let a couple of pea pods or beans grow larger than you normally would if you were planning to eat them. Let the pods dry on the vine for as long as possible. Give them a shake: you should hear the little peas and beans inside rattle. If you are worried about mildew, gently remove from the plant and bring inside to dry. Voila! Bean or pea seeds! When completely dry, remove from the pods and store in a jar until next season. I have saved both beans and peas this way with success. They can be prone to fungal diseases, but I have not had this problem.
This is kind of a pain, because you have to sacrifice an eggplant. To get an eggplant to the point that it has set seeds, you need to let it get to that old and bitter stage, when they are not really worth eating. Some people recommend pulsing your ancient eggplant in a food processor with water until the seeds rise to the top. I have not found that to be necessary. When they have reached the seedy stage, the seeds more or less fall out as you cut it up. Save the seeds you want and then compost the rest.
A lettuce sets seeds in a similar way to a thistle or other weedy plant you have seen in your garden. It has yellowish flowers that then sets a woolly seed head. These need to be allowed to dry out to brownish small seeds. The seeds are very fine, so when it reaches the dry stage, cover the head with a brown paper bag to catch the seeds.
In the end, much of seed saving is about trial and error. Try saving some of the simpler seeds, such as pumpkin, beans, and peas. I have had most success with capsicum and chillies, and pumpkin. I have yet to try silverbeet or any of the greens (except lettuce), carrots or root vegetables, brassicas, or sweetcorn. One day, I hope to be self-sufficient in seeds and have no need to buy seeds from a seed company.
I was recently speaking with someone who is building a new house. He asked to include space for a vegetable garden, and the architect was shocked. Apparently no-one asks for garden space anymore. They want landscaped courtyards requiring minimal maintenance.
While I wouldn’t want that for myself, I get it. We are all busy, and gardening takes time and effort. Why grow your own vegies when you can buy them at Woollies for the same price it would cost to grow them, and for a lot less hassle?
I have a few reasons.
We eat a lot of vegetables. We are not vegetarian, but we eat less meat, and we eat vegetables with almost every meal. The vegetables we eat are predominantly organic, and are picked at peak ripeness and freshness. Because we use no herbicides or pesticides, almost no vegetable is peeled, retaining the vitamins. I know that I can feed it to my children and my little niece and nephew with just a wash to remove the dirt. I don’t have to worry about chemical residues.
Seasonality and freshness
Our vegetables are picked and eaten immediately, retaining vitamins and freshness. They taste amazing. Until I started growing my own, I didn’t realise that the faint unpleasant taste in many vegetables from the supermarket is actually mould. Even when vegetables in the supermarket look pristine, they are already starting to go bad.
Much of the produce we buy is stored for a long time before we buy it. This is because it has to travel a long way. Then we store it for even longer, in our fridge or freezer, before we get around to eating it. Often, we eat it out of season, expecting to eat asparagus in Winter, or a fresh apple in Spring. When you grow your own produce, you connect with the seasons and understand that asparagus in Winter will not only taste bad, it has likely been grown outside of your country and transported thousands of kilometres in cold storage.
When you grow your own vegetables, you learn to eat seasonally. What we don’t eat, we preserve at the peak of its freshness for later use, or share with family and friends.
Right now it is almost the end of Summer, we have finished our fresh tomatoes, and are eating a second crop of late climbing beans, endless zucchini, eggplant, and capsicum. We are obsessively watching the pumpkins swell, looking forward to an Autumn crop and lots of pumpkin soup and risottos. We are planning our Winter garden of broccoli, cauliflower, pak choy, and kohlrabi.
Marx said that in a modern, capitalist system, humans are often alienated from the product of their labour and from the act of production itself. I am not a socialist, and I do think that human health has benefited in many ways from modern food production, but I do believe that we are mostly alienated from food and food production. I grew up in a regional area, aware of how fresh food was produced. I spent many school holidays staying with friends on a dairy farm, and I worked in agricultural farms in high school and when at university. I had an appreciation for the hard work required to produce the fruit and vegetables we eat. But while I was picking it, I was still disconnected from it because I was not maintaining the land, taking care of the trees, producing the fruit, and living off its proceeds.
This disconnection from food production is evident in the amount of food that Australians waste each year (over $20bn of food waste annually, according to Oz Harvest). When you grow your own fruit and vegetables, you are connected to the land, the seasons, and the hard work that is inherent in the production of the food you grow. I don’t waste the food I grow because I understand how hard it was to produce. I also value the wonky capsicum, the slightly burned-on-the-bum eggplant, or the enormous zucchini. They may not be perfect, but they are mine. I made them, and I will find something worthwhile to do with them.
Much of our seed biodiversity has been lost due to broadacre farming, monocultural farming practices, and a demand for uniform produce that can be stored and transported a long way.
Biodiversity is at risk. Giant companies like Monsanto and others have tried to reduce biodiversity by patenting genes in seeds and created hybrid varieties that are sterile after their first planting, meaning that plants grown from these seeds cannot reproduce. This has the greatest effect on low income farming communities that can no longer save seeds for replanting. Monoculture farming and a focus on growing varieties that store well reduces plant biodoversity. Home gardeners are less interested in these factors and help continue endangered varieties. This is why I am a member of the Diggers Club, which works to preserve these heirloom varieties.
Growing a garden also creates wildlife corridors and mini ecosystems for plants, animals and insects. This is particularly important for nectar and pollen foraging birds and insects. As humans have reduced their home gardens, bees, birds and other creatures reliant on plants have had to travel further to find food. I make sure to plant a variety of flowering plants to attract foraging insects and birds, and in turn they pollinate my vegetables and fruit.
Diversity and interest
Last year, I planted two heirloom apple trees, purchased from the Diggers Club. I will not be able buy those apples in a supermarket as these varieties are not commercially grown. I am so excited to be able to taste these apples that probably do not travel well or store for long in a fridge, but for as long as the season lasts, will be a delicious burst of flavour in our house.
One of the great joys of growing your own produce is being able to grow unusual or heirloom fruits and vegetables that are in danger of being lost forever if they are not grown by home gardeners and their seed saved. I love to grow different varieties of vegetables and test the varieties. I save the seeds of the best and replant the following year, doing my bit for biodiversity. This year, I am growing different varieties of zucchini, pumpkins, eggplants, tomatoes, beans, broccoli, lettuce, cauliflower, sunflowers, and sweet peas, and saving the seeds. I know some will be better than others, and I will learn from my tests. I don’t only grow heirlooms, but I have a lot of fun doing it. Sometimes the heirloom varieties are better than the hybrids, and sometimes the hybrids are better. This year I grew a hybrid sweetcorn that was exceptional, and an heirloom tomato that was the best I have ever grown. I am growing several different heirloom pumpkins: one is a bit of a dud, the other is doing really well. By trialling plants, saving seeds and sharing with other gardeners, I am participating in this rich tradition of home gardening that has helped maintain the seed biodiversity of this planet.