Weekend gardening jobs, 30 May 2021

One more day, and we are officially in Winter. You wouldn’t really know it, from the perfect, sunny morning I spent in the garden today.

Yesterday, I made lemon curd and lemon and lime marmalade using the fresh lemons and limes from my lime tree and my neighbour’s lemon tree. After eating pancakes with lemon curd and cream this morning, I had to get my muscles moving in the garden, or risk adding some more, er, Winter padding.

After we built our wall (yes, it’s finished!) we had a lot of displaced soil left over. This needs to be moved back to the garden bed in Pie Corner, but it’s a big job. I started it today, digging I-don’t-know-how-much dirt back up and into the bed. The area next to the boysenberries used to hold an old rainwater tank. We had it removed last year, but have not planted anything else there. The soil is quite poor. The job at the moment is to build it back up with organic matter, to get it ready for planting two dwarf plum trees later in the season. As part of this task, I sprinkled Dynamic Lifter over the soil, sifted it through for rocks and pebbles, and dug out two boysenberry suckers. Then I planted some red spring onion sets around the edges.

Planting Onion Sets

Onion ‘sets’ are the little clumps of onion seedlings you can either grow yourself or buy at a nursery. I have done both this season. I grew a tray of seedlings myself from seed (Barletta onions) and yesterday I bought a punnet of Red Spring Onion seedlings from the Big Green Shed, just because.

I love growing onions, for some reason. I cook with onions, but I don’t eat fresh onions. I just enjoy the look of them in the garden: different varieties look so interesting and pretty.

Most of the time, the onion seedlings you buy are growing in a clump. Try to buy the punnets with the most seedlings per clump, as these will give you the best value per punnet. I scored a bonanza yesterday: a punnet with six cells, but about twenty seedlings per cell. So for about $4.50 I got more than 100 individual plants.

Separate out all the plants. Don’t be too worried about damaging them – just make sure each plant has some roots.

Make a furrow where you intend to plant, then start laying each onion plant along the furrow where you want it to grow. Because these are spring onions, I planted them quite close together.

You can see from the photo above that this is not done super neatly. Don’t worry about standing them up or anything – lie them down on their side, it’s fine.

Cover them over with soil. Then water in with some seaweed extract and weak liquid fertiliser. As they become established, the onions will stand up on their own.

I had already dug over and raked over this soil a couple of times, but you can see it still looks pretty rough. As I continue to work on this area, the soil will improve. For now, I will grow a couple of rows of quick spring onions and by late June it will hopefully be ready for a couple of bare-rooted little plum trees.

I also planted out some kale and lettuce in the pots I refilled on the balcony last weekend, and fed all the brassicas and new seedlings with organic liquid fertiliser and seaweed extract. Good job too, because the brassicas are growing like crazy. This broccoli head has doubled in size since last weekend. All the brassicas are looking amazing – I’m so excited. I even have cabbages heading. That’s what they are supposed to do, I know, but cabbages can be a bit hit or miss in my experience. Broccoli is a more reliable vegetable than cabbage, any day.

The rest of the morning I spent doing the incredibly dull job of trimming herb bushes. Ugh. I hate doing it, but I am always happy I have done it in Springtime when they put their new flush of growth on and look gorgeous. I trimmed about a tenth of the plants in the front garden, and tried not to grimace as I did it. I love having a big garden, until I have to do stuff like this. I ended up digging out one thyme plant that was so woody that I thought it was never going to come good, along with a rhubarb plant that was really in the wrong place. I replaced it with a beautiful, old school, white dianthus plant I bought last week on a whim.

Then I came inside, made a mushroom omelette, and sat back down at my desk to work some more. I looked outside and realised I would rather be outside trimming herbs again. That’s what I get for grimacing while gardening.

Weekend garden jobs, Sunday 14 February 2021

Happy Valentine’s Day, lovely people. For Valentine’s Day , I gave my husband a sleep in and a coffee in bed, and he gave me the gift of cutting up the prunings of Audrey II (the boysenberry vine) and putting them in the green bin. I think we both feel we got the good end of the deal.

I fed all my pot plants, which include this stunning eggplant (Listada de Gandia). I have tried growing this eggplant for several years without much success. Turns out, it loves a large pot on our balcony. To feed the pots, I use an organic Powerfeed spray.

I turned the compost bins to make room for the chicken litter from the chook shed, and spread a bit of ready compost on the garden. As I only turned it a couple of weeks ago, it wasn’t really ready. My husband helpfully chopped it up with a spade to make more room. I picked more tomatoes (seriously, best tomato year ever for us), and zucchini, and I watered.

Then I did the gross job of cleaning out the chook shed and replacing their straw. I know it is a necessary task, but I do hate doing it. I try to think positively while I do it. Chicken manure is good for the garden!

And that’s my list of boring, yet necessary tasks for the week. I bought garlic bulbs and onion seeds yesterday to plant for autumn, but I don’t have space for them yet. I was hoping to plant them out today, but that was definitely wishful thinking! Maybe in a few weeks when the tomatoes are finished.

I hope your gardens are doing as well as mine this season – tomatoes, tomatoes, and more tomatoes!!

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, October Long Weekend 2020

Apple Blossom

I just spent a week in the outback, where everything is a stunning red and there are few gardens to be seen. I love visiting remote Australia: I love the red earth, the hot weather, and the interesting and generous people. I also always see at least one interesting native Australian animal when I am there, and this time I got to hold a bearded dragon, which was pretty cool. He was spiky and dry on top, and cold underneath.

But I am also always happy to return to my family, and happy to be back in my patch. The long weekend is a good time to garden, and even though we had a lot of rain, there were enough breaks in the weather for me to get out and do some jobs.

Very exciting news: the dwarf apple trees flowered simultaneously. This is a big deal as they are supposed to pollinate each other, but in the three years since they have planted, have never flowered in sync. I thought I had been sold a pair of duds. Then this year, finally, beautiful pink blossoms on one (Early Macintosh), and white blossoms on the other (Cox’s Orange Pippin)! I think we may have apples this year in Pie Corner.

Speaking of Pie Corner, it is blossom central there right now. Strawberries and boysenberries are in full bloom. My husband, who is a lover of fresh berries, is a happy man. We are just waiting for the raspberries to bloom and then I think we will be in berry heaven in time for Christmas.

I am still planting out tomatoes. In addition to planting tomatoes wherever I can find a spot to take both tomato plant and cage, I have also pricked out tomato seedlings into new pots. The tomatoes I planted out before I left have put on new growth and some flowers, despite the cool weather.

I have also installed new trellising along the fence, ready for beans. I lashed out and invested in steel reo-mesh trellising, after years of frustration with different trellising for beans and peas. These will be permanent trellises for climbing legumes and (hopefully) cucumbers. They were more expensive than traditional teepees but will last longer and will make use of the vertical space along the fence, giving me more space for tomatoes.

This week I planted out corn seedlings. I grew an heirloom variety, Golden Bantam, from seed in a polystyrene esky box, until they were about five centimetres tall. I prepared the soil next to Pie Corner (where the old rainwater tank had been) with sheep manure and blood and bone, and planted them in a block formation. Corn should be planted relatively close together as they are wind pollinated and the movement of the plants together helps with pollination. I am intending to plant another fruit tree in this corner but it is too late to do that this year. Until then I may as well grow a quick crop of corn and pumpkins there.

We also built the chook run so the little dinosaurs stay out of the main veggie patch. This was done by using ready made wire panels and star droppers, and wiring them together. This was potentially a bit more expensive than the old chook wire method, but was much faster and sturdier. The girls haven’t figured out a way to weasel out of it yet, so it has been effective.

New chook run

They now have the whole back corner of the yard to wander around in, and seem happy enough – except for Mary Shelley, who is never happy. She’s the Grinch of chooks, that one. We have planted thornless berries along the fence in the run, and in a year they will have lush berry vines to hide in and blackberries to eat. We have noticed that they will eat almost any plant they can get their beaks into (including my new hydrangea bushes – grrrr), except berry vines. At first I thought it was because the boysenberry vines are spiky monsters forged by Lucifer himself, but they leave all of them alone. This bodes well for the berry vines in their run. I know they will eat the fruit – chooks love berries. I just want the plants to live long enough to bear fruit.

Next weekend: planting lettuces and beans, and generally tidying up.

Weekend garden jobs, March 1 2020

Sweet rewards for gardeners that decide to spend their Sunday mornings in the garden!

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.

With great reward comes great risk

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.

Oh well. There’s always next year.

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.