Gardening jobs, Christmas weekend 2020

Happy Christmas! Like most of you, I am happy to be just a few days away from the end of this shocker of a year. I chose to spend the Boxing Day public holiday (the 28th here in our State) in the garden. It has been a lovely, cool day with some sunshine and some cloud cover. Perfect for a long day spent in the garden.

Before I could do that, however, I had to remove this creature from the doorway. Look at the size of this redback! I have never seen such a big one, but my husband assures me he has. It was an inch long, including the legs.

Usually when we find a house spider, we move it outside, but venomous spiders are a different story. Under the thong it went. Sorry, giant bitey friend.

Bloody hell

Today was an important catch up day. With the pile of work I have had to finish, plus Christmas, those important garden jobs have fallen by the wayside. These include weeding, trimming, and feeding. The veggie garden is still looking pretty good, but everything needed a good side dressing of organic fertiliser. I picked all the tomatoes I could find before I fed the tomatoes with blood and bone and dynamic lifter. Then I gave them a liquid feed of seaweed extract, fish emulsion, and Epsom salts. The Epsom salts give magnesium to the tomatoes and help make the fruit sweeter. I add about one teaspoon to a ten litre watering can, along with the seaweed extract and fish emulsion, and water the tomato bushes as a foliar feed.

Bowl of tomatoes picked this morning

While I was out there, I quickly planted some more sunflowers, aquilegias (also known as Grannies Bonnets), and cornflowers, and some more climbing beans. Some of the beans I planted didn’t come up, so I filled in the gaps with fresh seed. Beans only set fruit after quite a few days over 30 degrees C – we have had cooler days this Summer, so it might be all in vain.

My front yard was looking especially tired after a beautiful Spring display. I used my little hedge trimmers to start work on the lavender bushes. This is a really big job, as I have one lavender bush taller than me, and about twelve or fourteen lavender bushes in all. I only managed to trim about five of them. It’s a work in progress. I am not trimming them too hard, as it is the middle of Summer, and a hard trim will stress them out too much. I really just want to remove all the dead heads and let the new flowers come through. Lavender is pretty tough though and I have not yet killed any with a light Summer pruning.

I also started carefully trimming the dead branches from the sage and salvia bushes. Again, I don’t want to stress the plants too much. I have also discovered that sage is not very forgiving of a hard prune at the wrong time of year. But, the sticks poking up all over the salvia look bloody horrible, so I decided to risk it. I will prune it a bit harder in Autumn.

The apricot tree has finished fruiting. As mentioned in my previous post, we let the parrots have some. As punishment for our kindness, I now have to go over the tree and remove the half-eaten dried out apricots from the branches to prevent bugs being attracted to the tree. It is a pretty gross job, tbh. On the plus side, I found one last, perfect apricot that somehow was missed by both parrots and us, and brought it inside to share with my husband for afternoon tea. I was able to find a single ripe apple (that the rats missed!) from our Cox’s Orange Pippin tree to go with it.

One delicious ripe apple – and one not yet ready

Finally, I removed all the plants from two raised garden beds that are not doing well, and soaked them in a bucket while I dismantled the beds. I spread all the planting medium around the garden, where it will compost away for the next few months. Then I planted the petunias and eggplant from the raised beds in the backyard, where they will hopefully pick up. I will figure out something else to plant where the raised beds, although honestly something will probably self-seed there in a few weeks and I will not have to worry about it.

It is already looking happier, and I will keep trimming lightly and tidying things up over the next few weekends until it looks back to full strength (or as good as it can over Summer). The front yard really looks best in Autumn and Spring, when the pomegranates are in full fruit, the perennials start to recover from the Summer heat, and the bulbs begin to grow. Until then, keeping it neat and tidy and alive is the best I can do.

Duds and triumphs

The Triumps

This season we have had some notable successes. Our apricot tree ripened early. Normally we pick apricots the week of Christmas, but this year the fruit was ready a week earlier. We picked almost ten kilograms of apricots, which is the biggest crop ever for our four year old tree (it’s a Travatt apricot). I’ve made jam and given some away. This afternoon if I have time, I am making apricot ice cream, and my favourite of all desserts, an apricot pie. I like eating fresh apricots, but in my opinion, apricots really come into their glory when cooked, and especially in pie form. Apple pie is pretty good, but apricot pie is amazing.

We pick the apricots when they first start to blush, and ripen them indoors. This is because we do not net the tree. We let the birds have a go at the fruit, and pick as much as we can ourselves. Some would disagree with this, but I figure there is a lot of fruit and the parrots need to eat as well. I like looking out at the tree and seeing rosellas and lorikeets having a ball out there. There is a lot of fruit for us and them. I do wish they would finish an entire apricot before starting on the next one though. Wasteful little buggers.

I do indeed mind sharing with rats, however. Our apple trees are finally fruiting after three years of patiently waiting, and I have been admiring a perfectly round, blushing apple, coveting it like Snow White’s stepmother. My husband discovered the other morning that the back end of it had been attacked by a gnawing little monster. You can imagine the stomping and cursing that ensued (from me, not him).

The pomegranate bush is going great guns this year – we had a mass of flowers and they are now forming beautiful baby pomegranates like lovely Christmas baubles. I love pomegranates. I love the look of the bush, the flowers, the beautiful globulous fruit, and the ruby juice. It is just a beautiful and undemanding plant. It requires almost no maintenance, little water, and gives so much.

Our tomato bushes are the garden triumph of the veggie patch this year. We are picking Tommy Toe and another cherry tomato called Sweet Bite that is living up to its name. The plants are healthy and abundant. I am hoping we end up with a great crop for sauce as well as eating fresh throughout Summer. I also have not yet managed to kill two cucumber plants (a miracle for me), although the chickens have eaten three others. I may yet achieve a homegrown cucumber, in which case you may hear me screaming from the rooftops.

The Duds

We have a couple of duds that, if they are not careful, will meet the Huntsman’s axe soon. Our mulberry tree is the same age as the apricot tree, and so far has produced almost nothing. There are a few pitiful berries on its branches that are stubbornly refusing to colour up. I alternately beg, plead, and curse the tree whenever I pass her, but she still refuses to do more than that. I do have a woodpile…

The other dud is the passionfruit vine, Odette. One great crop, and she thinks that is her job done. Well, I have news for her. I have plans for her patch of dirt if she can’t pony up some passionfruit next Summer.

But the biggest dud of all this year was our potato crop. After months of building up around healthy looking spud plants, I dug down to find…nothing. Nada. Zilch. I piled on the compost and straw and gave up precious garden space in the height of the annual growing season for nothing at all. Talk about crestfallen. My face dropped faster than Clark Kent’s pants in a phone booth.

Another dud was the red and white petunias I planted with plans of a lovely display by Christmas. What wasn’t dug up by one very, very, naughty chicken has largely dried up due to a lack of water (a visitor yesterday heard me telling this chicken off for digging up a new zucchini plant, and thought I was scolding a child. I had to explain, with a manic smile, why I was berating a bird). This is entirely my fault. I have been very busy with work over the past six weeks and while I have tried to maintain water all over the garden, the veggies and fruit trees have been prioritised over the poor flower gardens. I am going out this morning to replant the whole area in the hope that it can be salvaged – but to be honest, it probably cannot.

The point of this post is, no matter how much time we spend in our garden, and no matter our experience, we experience triumph and frustration in almost equal measure. Probably next year we will have a pitiful apricot crop and an amazing crop of something else unexpected. It’s part of the fun and learning experience of gardening.

Weekend garden jobs, November 21st 2020

My husband is working hard to finish the remaining half of the garden wall by the deadline I have kindly set for him (Christmas) – and he has almost finished! Who knew he just needed a deadline? Note to self…

If you ask me, he’s doing a bang up job

While he’s building, I am doing the other gardening jobs, like weeding, weeding, and weeding. Also, watering. We are heading into the driest time of the year, and if I want any tomatoes (or anything else), I need to be diligent with watering. It is not so much about amount of water, as consistent watering.

In between these pretty dull, but necessary tasks, I am admiring the fruiting plants. This year, we finally have an apple crop forming. We planted two dwarf apple trees three years ago, and so far have only managed to pick one small apple. This has been a source of intense frustration for me, as garden space is a premium. If it doesn’t pull its weight, I start to make plans for a woodpile.

Then finally this year, both trees bloomed simultaneously (a necessity, given they are supposed to pollinate each other), and we now have the makings of a delicious (I hope) crop of Early Macintoshes and Cox’s Orange Pippins. I have never tried either of these apples, as they are not grown commercially in Australia, but trusted sources inform me that the Cox’s Orange Pippin is one of the most delicious eating apples currently cultivated. It doesn’t transport well, which is why it is not available in shops

Also growing great guns are our boysenberries in Pie Corner.

Boysenberry ice cream time, I reckon

This is the largest crop we have ever had. My husband is pretty excited about these. He keeps going outside to check if they are ready yet (they aren’t). Given the great job he has been doing on the wall, I think I will give him first crack at them when they are. We also have raspberries coming on for the first time, and have recently planted thornless blackberries. Next year should be a Summer Berry festival around here.

And that’s yer lot. Weeding, watering, and making eyes at my fruit trees. Next weekend will be plus 40 degrees all weekend so the time will be spent keeping things alive.

Weekend gardening jobs, Weekend 2nd & 3rd November 2019

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.

Garden experimentation

Squash planted on a mound.

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.

Tomato plant in a concrete pot, mulched with coir

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.

Pie Corner

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.

Boysenberries forming

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

The wall continueth. By this point, it’s not just a wall building project. It’s a Wagnerian song cycle.

Garden jobs, First weekend of Winter 2019

So, Winter definitely came. For some reason, my husband and I decided that this coldest of seasons was the perfect time to start that retaining wall project we had been putting off planning for about three years.

Actually, we had no choice. A huge deluge of rain came through, and washed about a cubic metre of precious topsoil from our veggie patch down into our patio. The retaining wall suddenly moved up the list of jobs from “one day soon” to “urgent.”

While we were at the Big Green Shed buying a few tools, I decided that I was sick of waiting to build the trellis for the apple trees and boysenberry plants, and bought the wire and star droppers for that small but important job as well.

Trellises and Espaliering

I have two dwarf apple trees (Cox’s Orange Pippin and Early Macintosh) that I wanted to espalier. I have never done this before, but when I was at the Melbourne Flower and Garden Show in March, I saw a simple espalier technique on dwarf apple trees that I thought I could probably manage myself. It used zip ties to tie the tree branches to a simple wire trellis between two poles. Is it the most perfect, horticulturally approved way to espalier? No idea. My garden probably fails on that front many times over. But I did I think, “I can do that.” So I decided to give it a crack.

My apple trees are two years old, and I have to say they are not really doing much yet. I have had a couple of blossoms, and one tiny apple so far. Most annoyingly, they are supposed to cross pollinate each other, but one flowered much later than the other, so that was an epic fail.

I figure if I bugger up the espaliering of these trees, and they produce no fruit, I am not in a worse position than I was already. If it works and they produce a better crop, then the thirteen bucks I spent on wire and zip ties (which I also used on other projects) was money well spent.

My husband used his manly strength to hammer the star droppers in where I directed, and I tied trellising wire in at intervals that looked roughly about right. Then I tied the flexible apple branches down along the wire and zip tied them down. The Cox’s Orange Pippin seemed pretty happy to be tied down, but the Early Mac was not happy, Jan. Not at all. Not being glib, but it looks somewhat like a torture victim from a 14th Century painting of the Inferno. I hope that with time, and further growth, I can retie it and it will look much happier and nicer than it does right now, poor bugger.

Foreground: Cox’s Orange Pippin, Background: Early Macintosh. After these photos were taken I went back and re-trellised and re-tied these trees, so they look slightly happier than they did in these shots.

The boysenberry plants seemed much happier to be tied up in an orderly fashion. Boysenberries are a bramble, and if left to their own devices, they take over in pretty spectacular fashion. This was what happened to our two plants. They caught up all other plants (and people) in their wake, and I decided I wasn’t gonna take it anymore!

My husband and I built a pretty basic trellis out of tall star droppers and trellising wire, and I pruned back the boysenberry while trying not to stab myself. I failed at that. I call these vines collectively Audrey II – they like fresh blood, preferably mine.

Once I had them trimmed to three or four main canes each, I tied them in a fan shape using the trusty zip ties. My plan is that as other canes grow (they grow from the base of the plant), I will keep tying them in the fan shape, retaining some control of the Audreys and hopefully will pick many a delicious berry over the Summer months.

Once these two jobs were done, my husband and I made our plans to build a small, but relatively long, garden wall to keep tiny wights and rivers of mud out. After all, Winter is here.

Pics next week.