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.
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 😉
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:
Onions (spring, red, white);
Garlic (John gave me four bulbs he saved from season – what a legend);
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.
Who doesn’t love a long weekend? Small businesses, probably. Actually, I do run my own business, and I still love a long weekend. My favourite thing about a long weekend, especially this time of year, is to spend that extra day in the garden without worrying about the fact that I should be working, or attending appointments, or all the other myriad tasks I should be doing.
It’s the start of Autumn, which also makes me happy. It’s warm enough to spend a good portion of the day outside, but cool enough to be comfortable. It’s also time to start removing some of the Summer fruiting annuals, make room for the Winter garden, and plant seeds for Winter vegetables.
First on my list was picking the ripening tomatoes (what is left of them), chillies, some green beans I was not expecting to find, and one beautiful Lakota pumpkin that made me just about the proudest gardener on the planet.
Did you ever see such a beauty? I have been trying to grow one of these for three years. Yeah, that’s right: three stupid years. I have one more little one on the vine and I am hoping that it will grow large enough to ripen before Winter. I don’t know why I am so obsessed with growing this particular pumpkin. I don’t even know what it tastes like – yet. It’s still sitting on my kitchen bench because I can’t bring myself to cut into it.
Next job was dividing the rhubarb plants. Last year I divided one enormous rhubarb into seven, and since then we have had more rhubarb than we can possibly eat. I share it around, but even so, we now have about ten or eleven rhubarb plants, which is more than a family of four, only two of whom really like it, can possibly manage. Now they need dividing again, and there is no way I have room for any more. I divided a couple of plants last week and gave them to a friend. Who else could I palm the extra plants off to….of course! My gardening neighbour, John! Heheheheh. The perfect crime. He happily took four plants, and offered me a bag of pigeon poo in exchange. What a gentleman that man is.
After dividing a moving two rhubarb plants and a spent tomato bush, I dug over and raked the cleared space. I will feed and mulch that area next weekend, and leave fallow for a later planting of brassicas.
Speaking of brassicas, I planted four trays of brassica seeds: red cabbage, Cabbage Golden Acre (a drumhead green cabbage), Dwarf Curly Green Kale, Cauliflower, Green Sprouting Broccoli, and Broccoli Romanesco (my favourite of all brassicas). If all of these take off, I will be very, very happy. If not, I will buy some seedlings.
On Monday I cleared some more spent plants (the rest of the summer squash) and built bamboo trellises for my next favourite winter crop: peas. Last year I successfully grew a Dwarf Snow Pea that was both prolific and delicious, but I wanted to build a proper trellis this year and try climbing Snow Peas. I don’t enjoy frozen peas from the supermarket, but I love fresh, homegrown peas. This year I am growing sugar snap peas, and snow peas.
The bamboo trellis is a copy of a medieval trellis I saw on a tv show set in ye olden times. It is built using a series of bamboo stakes set at intervals and then each pair tied at the top with twine. Another stake is set at the top. I don’t know if this will work better than the traditional teepee style trellis that I have used for climbing beans in the past, so I built a teepee style next to it. I can test which is better. I planted the sugar snap peas along the archway style trellis, and the climbing snow peas against the teepee.
Finally, I cleared away the mulch where the tomatoes had been planted, and dug over and raked that section. I planted Purple Kolhrabi, Spring Onions, and two varieties of carrots: Purple Dragon and Lunar White.
The weather will be warm, but not hot this week (low 30s), so I am hoping all the seeds I have planted will shoot quickly for a great headstart.
Next jobs will be to clear the remaining Summer vegetable plants once the last tomato plants have stopped fruiting, and prepare the soil for Winter vegetables. At the end of the month I will be heading to Melbourne for the International Flower and Garden Show, where I will be buying all of the Spring flowering bulbs, garlic, and seeds for the rest of the season. Can’t wait!
It’s been some time since I have really spent quality time in my garden. I have been working a lot. I had intended to spend all of January either on the beach, or in the garden, but my clients had other ideas! It turns out January and February are very busy months for self-employed writers like myself. As such, I spent almost all my time (weekends included) working, and what time was left with family. My poor garden has been sorely neglected as a result.
It has survived very well due to cooler than usual February temperatures, mulch, and the good offices of my husband, who has kept up the watering. But, a garden cannot survive on water alone; it needs to be weeded, pruned, fed, and generally loved if it is to keep on producing.
This morning is the first Sunday I have not had to meet a deadline for some time, so decided to get outside while the going was good. What a mess! My first task was to walk around with a bowl and pick what was available to pick. Cherry tomatoes, eggplants, jalapeños, and a cache of perfectly ripe strawberries were my reward. Unfortunately, the zucchini are rotting on the vine, so I was not able to pick any. These plants have a week to come good, otherwise they are going to be consigned to the compost. It’s a bugger because the plant itself is very healthy, without any sign of mildew. I see plenty of bees around, but I think I am not getting any male flowers. WTH, nature?
By picking first, I also got to see what needed doing most urgently. Answer: pruning the boysenberry. My response: sigh. This I my least favourite garden task, because ouch (see below).
Being stabbed with these barbs is extremely painful. Unfortunately, even with gloves, it happens very frequently. Unfortunately, pruning the boysenberry brambles is necessary, or it completely takes over Pie Corner. I have thought about pulling the damn thing out, but I am always happy when the bloody thing produces delicious soft boysenberries each year (see below). And so I forgive it my annual bloody thumb stabs for the tasty rewards it offers. I am sure there is a metaphor there somewhere, but I am in too much pain to think about what it might be.
This task takes quite a while, due to the care it takes. Think of rose pruning if the rose bushes had long, long tendrils that crawled all over the yard and under every other plant you had in a ten metre radius, and were spawned by Satan.
I also noticed their less prolific, younger and less thorny cousins, the raspberries, required tying up, so I also did this when I was sick of being attacked by brambles.
Once I had finished with Pie Corner, I moved on to tomato country. The tomatoes have been quite disappointing this year, I have to say. The combination of early extreme heat, bushfire smoke, and late cool weather, has led to a disappointing tomato season for every gardener I have spoken to. We did have some success with cherry tomatoes, but they were quite sour compared to the lush sweetness that cherry tomatoes are renowned for. We pick them, but they are better for cooking than eating in salads, which is one of the joys of Summer, usually. I picked the remaining tomatoes, and dug the plants out. While I am at it, I pulled out two of three squash plants. I left one last squash plant in the ground, hoping to salvage a couple more delicious yellow squash before this one too mush be dragged from the ground.
I felt sad as I dug out these plants: I am saying goodbye to Summer. I enjoy growing (and truthfully, I am more successful) Winter vegetables, but there is something about the Summer annual vegetables that I think all gardeners look forward to more than any other. Every year I pore over the seed catalogues and hopefully plant a wide variety of tomatoes and beans with the excitement of a kid writing their letter to Santa. Yet every year by the end of Summer, I have the same successes: pumpkins, eggplant, chillies, and yet more pumpkins. Why do I keep trying with the tomatoes, beans, capsicums, squash, when they more often disappoint than succeed?
I must have that twisted gardening optimism that convinces me each year that this year will be different.
It was a stinker of a week here in our Southern states of Australia, with temperatures reaching 42 degrees C in my area before a windy cool change. I pre-emptively watered my garden ahead of the heat, with the hope of saving my newly planted tomatoes, chillies, eggplant, capsicum and zucchini. Last year, a one-day heat blast (48 degrees C) wiped out everything in one hit. Happily the intensive watering kept everything alive and well.
Next weekend I will be mulching heavily – a little late, but at least before Summer starts in earnest.
This is a dull, repetitive task that I put off – I would rather weed than dead-head flowering plants. However, it is a necessary task to keep flowering shrubs looking their best and flowering longer. Ideally I would do this about three times a year, but honestly it is more likely twice yearly. I have about 15 lavender bushes in my front yard; these have all reached the point that they need their semi-annual haircut. I spent an hour with the hedge trimmers chopping back four of these, including the largest of the English lavender bushes, a monstrous beast that is also encroaching the neighbour’s yard. I will leave the rest for the weekend.
Wait to dead-head, as the name suggests, when the flowers are mostly spent. You can see in the photo above that there are still a couple of fresh lavender flowers on the bush, but that the majority are dried out and dead. Try to choose a cooler day to dead-head if you can, to avoid stressing the plant. I chose a warm day, early in the morning, because that is when I had the time. Often gardening is about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
At least trimming lavender smells divine, making a boring job a bit more pleasant. I also have three climbing roses, about a dozen calendula, sage bushes, thyme, oregano, and mint that all needs a tidy up. When I cut back the herbs, I will put them in my dehydrator to make mixed dried herbs. I usually live to regret this, as scrunching them up into jars afterward takes a long time. By the time I have pulled them off their stalks and put them into recycled jars, I end up with a disappointing amount of herbs for all my hard work. But I cannot bear to toss all those beautiful herbs in the compost, even though I know they are a renewable resource (unlike my time).
Feeding and Weeding
The rest of my time this week was spent digging compost out of the the second compost bin, side dressing all the tomatoes with a solid shovel of pelletised chicken manure each, giving the plants in pots a liquid feed of diluted worm wee, and weeding. At this time of year, the task of weeding is endless. Driving around the city, I see that the local councils are barely able to keep up with all the weeding. If they can’t do it, how can I manage it all?
The weather in Australia this past week can best be described as ‘whacked.’ In the East Coast, we have had bushfires raging across the state of New South Wales, with tragic loss of life and of property. In our Southern States, where I am lucky to live, we have had a cold snap, with wintry weather, strong winds, and rain. We had a hot day yesterday, and back down to wintry weather again. While I’m not complaining about the rain, it is pretty crazy to have weather like this in late Spring. I was at the supermarket yesterday, and two old guys (older than me, anyways) were complaining about climate change. I don’t know where the politicians get the idea that their more mature constituents don’t accept that climate change is real. They should be spending less time listening to Alan Jones and more time listening to the people buying bananas at Aldi. Climate change: it’s not just for the Gretas of the world (bless her). We are all affected and even we Gen Xers and OK Boomers accept the science. Unfortunately, the kids will have to deal with the effects long after the current crop of pollies have written their boring memoirs.
Even though the weather has turned chilly and windy again, I informed my husband that ‘by hook or by crook’ I was getting out in the garden again this morning. He thought I had finally lost the plot, and he is probably right, but this morning I got out there in my gardener’s clogs and turned the compost. I have the old style Dalek composters, and they do a brilliant job, especially in the warmer weather. They are helped along by compost worms. As I dig, I toss the worms back in the composter: they are not earthworms, so they really don’t want to be anywhere else. I am sure I missed a few, but I guess they make it back there eventually.
I have two composting bins. I dig them out every six weeks or so, removing the usable compost and replacing back the compost that still needs work. Then I keep adding more household scraps and other debris back on top. If I can get hold of some, I add some manure. Pigeon manure is the best, but chicken, donkey, or sheep is also good. I’ve even used rabbit manure in the compost bin. All manure should be well composted before placing on the garden. Fresh manure can burn plants and can contain undigested seeds that can germinate in the garden, leading to a weed problem. Some seeds can’t be destroyed even by composting: right now I have a crop of tomato plants popping up in the garden where I laid some compost recently. I will let them go until they are large enough, then plant them out somewhere else. I have also never met a pumpkin seed that didn’t survive composting. The past two years, all my best pumpkins have grown out of the compost.
I used the six buckets of compost to top up the potato pots, and to side dress asparagus, apple trees, and some tomato plants. I have another compost bin that also needs digging out; I’ll do it later in the week, weather permitting.
Finally, I started planting out zucchini plants that I have been hardening off in small pots. As I mentioned in the last post, I have decided to abandon my long tradition of planting them in mounds, and opted to plant in wells or troughs to help the plants to better retain water.
Tomorrow I will try to find space for the rest of the zucchini, plant some climbing beans, and give all the lavender plants a haircut. I don’t want to trim them, but they are starting to look ratty. If I give them a trim now, they will probably flower again this Summer, to the joy of the native bees that love to visit.
The title of this post is actually somewhat misleading: I have been going out to the garden every morning for an hour or so, even on weekdays. I made the decision to do this after I spent half an hour in bed trying to convince myself to get on the treadmill. I realised I could have spent that half an hour happily in the garden getting some exercise. With that thought, I jumped out of bed, and did spend an hour happily in the garden getting some exercise. Turns out, gardening is what I want to be doing. Walking to nowhere while watching the morning news is my idea of hell.
I have been planting tomatoes, eggplant, and squash, and prepping the zucchini I have been raising from seed for the garden. Usually, I sow zucchini seed directly where I want them to grow, but this year I still had snow peas and brassicas in the garden. To give myself a head start, I started raising zucchini seedlings. I don’t know if this will work out better, but I figure it is worth the experiment. I raised a mix of different zucchini seeds I already had: golden, striped, pale green, dark green (can you tell zucchini is my favourite vegetable?). Unfortunately I was in a bit of a rush, and I didn’t label any of them, so it will be a pleasant surprise to see what I have when they finally start producing. This was about a month ago, so this week I potted them on into larger pots to help them develop a stronger root system before I plant them in the ground. I already have the mounds ready for them to go in.
I was taught by some Italian gardeners I once gardened with at a community garden to plant zucchini, squash and pumpkins in raised mounds so that they are more protected from water droplets and powdery mildew, the curse of zucchini plants. I think this might be generally true, except that the gardeners I learned this from almost twenty years ago were not grappling with the extremes of climate change. I have observed over the past couple of weeks that the ruffled squash plants I have already planted in mounds are not progressing as well as the tomatoes and eggplant I planted in deep troughs at the same time. The soil around the squash plants is extremely dry. This appears to be because the water collects in the troughs and is retained by the plant roots, whereas the water in the mounds is not retained by the squash plants (in fact, the tomatoes get most of it as the water runs off). I am considering replanting most of the squash in troughs, and leaving one on a mound as an experiment. I will plant the rest of the zucchini in troughs as well, and see at the end of the season which of the squash and zucchini fell prey to powdery mildew. Obviously, mulching will help offset some of the moisture loss, but this will be the case for however I plant them.
Speaking of mulching, this is my next big task. I am again experimenting with different mulches. I am trying to reduce the plastic waste created from gardening. While generally, gardening is a sustainable hobby, it still generates quite a lot of plastic waste that I am uncomfortable with. I can offset it by reusing plastic pots and creating tags out of old milk jugs, etc, but one of the main offenders is bags used to hold mulches and manures. I have been experimenting with coir as a potting medium and mulch, because it comes in a compressed block that is reconstituted with water. Because it is compressed, it is smaller, and is wrapped in less plastic.
Coir mulch is quite chunky. I have found it very good for mulching pots, but it is not a patch on sugar cane mulch for the general garden. I may have to go back to sugar cane for the garden, and go to coir for pots only. Both sugar cane and coir are agricultural waste products, so are a sustainable product compared to other mulches.
I am also experimenting with different staking methods for tomatoes. I have built a trellis for some tomatoes, using 2 metre stakes and wires. The tomatoes will be able to use the trellis for support, and I will also grow Scarlet Runner beans in between each tomato plant. For the rest of the tomatoes, I am using the traditional single stake and tie method.
The left hand corner of the garden, near the collapsed water tank (that is another job for the future), has been dubbed Pie Corner, because everything in it can be used to bake a delicious pie: strawberries, boysenberries, rhubarb, apples, and raspberries. We were so excited this week to discover a bumper crop of boysenberries developing.
Last season I built a better trellis than the dodgy job I had strung up last year, and I pruned the boysenberry plants and trained them up in a fan style. The vines looked pretty sad for most of the Winter and Spring months until suddenly they burst into new growth and flowers! Truthfully, I doubt very much there will be any berries left for a pie. I think we will be eating them all fresh with cream. Boysenberries are really delicious, and you can’t easily buy them in shops because they are so delicate – they don’t transport or keep well, making them a bit of a poor bet for supermarkets. For farmers they are probably not much fun either. They are spiny buggers, not much fun to pick or prune. I have damaged myself on more than one occasion.
We also have our first ever crop of mulberries developing, and a real crop of apricots coming on. Last year we managed a respectable 30 or so apricots, but this year the tree is laden. If we can beat the birds to both, I envision some mulberry jam and apricot pie in our future (apricot pie beats apple pie any day of the week, in my opinion).
In Winter, I gave all the fruit trees a blanket feed of aged sheep manure to slowly feed the tree and to keep the roots warm. The eighty bucks spent on sheep manure has been some of the best money I have spent. It is still breaking down (I can still see it on the top of the soil under each tree), and the trees look magnificent and are fruiting prolifically for the first time since we planted them four years ago.
Free Garden Goodies
On Sunday, we went to the Uraidla Show. Uraidla is a country town about 40 minutes drive from our place. The Show was fantastic – everything you want a Country Show to be (baking and flower arranging competitions, show chooks, hot donuts, sustainability fair, etc). For me the highlight was a stall run by local gardeners who were giving away free produce, seeds, and worm wee fertiliser. I picked out Teddy Bear Sunflower seeds, Lunar White carrot seeds, and Aquilegia (also known as Columbines, or Granny’s Bonnet) seeds. I also received a one litre bottle of worm wee fertiliser, aka liquid gold. This was truly the highlight of the event for me. My husband thought it was some new variety of kombucha and nearly drank it. Although that would have been hysterical, thankfully he did not do that, because I want that for my garden (check my priorities). I don’t keep worms, except in my compost bin, because it gets too hot in the Summer here, and they will die (in the compost bin, they can easily burrow down to the cooler soil if they want). Thanks to the bounty of generous gardeners, I can still feed it to my plants without having to keep worms myself.
My friends and family are surely heartily tired of hearing me boast about the worm wee already.
Gardeners be crazy, y’all.
The wall continueth. By this point, it’s not just a wall building project. It’s a Wagnerian song cycle.