Weekend garden jobs, May 10 2020

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

It was perfect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gardening jobs, Easter Weekend 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cutting back

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

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

Finally! Rain!!

No posts for a few weeks, because it has been raining! It has been truly wonderful to see the soil soak up the water and the garden begin to look fresh and green again.

However, today was a warm and relatively dry day (24 degrees in the middle of May! Crazy!) so as soon as I could pull on a pair of jeans and a beanie, because even at 24 degrees I still feel the cold, I was out in the garden.

I really had no specific plans once I was out there, so I decided to dig a hole and see what the soil was like. Damp and beautiful, was the answer. The rain has really sunk through now and the soil was lovely.

I noticed that the lettuces I let go to seed have germinated, and there are baby lettuces everywhere. Some of my favourite little bulbs, Sparaxis or Harlequin Flower, have popped their heads up as well. Can’t wait for these beauties to flower for the third year running. At this point they have naturalised in the garden.

Sadly, there have been a couple of casualties of the extended dry. I had a magnificent creeping thyme plant that looks like it has been touched by a Dementor, and I am not sure it will recover. One of my rhubarb plants looks very sad. The rose bushes are still not established enough to cope with such extended dry weather.

I decided that today was a good day to plant out the lime tree I have had growing in a pot under my patio for the past two years. It has grown quickly but is quite spindly and just does not have the lushness that I would expect from two years of growth, even though it has been fed and loved. I think it needs full sun.

Digging the hole was fun. I have not dug a good, deep hole in a while. If you have the space, capability, and the time, I recommend it. Work has been busy and stressful, and I sit down most of the day. Digging a hole uses muscles that my sedentary body does not often exercise. I started sweating embarrassingly quickly.

When planting a tree, you should dig the hole twice the size (depth and width) of the root ball. Some gardener once said you should dig a fifty dollar hole for a ten dollar plant.

I placed the tree in the hole, and then ran the hose in the hole with the tree sitting in it, next to a brick of coir.

Coir is great stuff. It’s cheap as chips (a brick of it costs about two bucks from the Big Green Shed, and a bit more if you buy it from a smaller nursery). It’s organic and sustainable (a waste product of coconuts, made from the fibre, chopped up and compressed). When you wet it, it transforms to ten times its size by volume. You can then use it as a mulch, a planting medium for raising seedlings, or as an additive to potting mix to help retain moisture. In this instance, I was using it as an additive to the soil.

While the coir was expanding and the hole was filling slowly with water, I dug three bags of cow manure into a bed that has been lying fallow since the Summer. Then I planted broad beans (Aquadulce) and Dwarf Snow Peas into the beds. Last year I grew two varieties of broadies (Aquadulce and Crimson Flowered). While the Crimson Flowered were gorgeous, they did not crop that well.

Some people don’t like broadies – I do. They are good for the soil, being nitrogen-fixers, and they are lovely in pasta or made into pesto.

Once the hole had filled half way with water, I poured some seaweed extract into the hole, broke up half the coir brick and spread it around, and filled the hole back in. I trimmed off some of the lower, spindlier branches. The remaining coir brick I spread around the base as a mulch.

That’s it for today – hopefully tomorrow the rain will hold off just long enough for me to do some weeding and to plant out some window boxes of violas. Then let it rain once more.

Autumn Planting 2019

Anzac Day is an important gardening day in my house. It’s the traditional bulb and sweet pea planting day in the Southern Australian region. Unlike every Anzac Day in my recent memory, it didn’t rain. This concerns me, although I’m sure it was a blessing for the Anzac Day marchers. It concerns me because we continue to have a long dry spell, following on from a very hot and dry Summer. If this continues, we are facing another dry Winter. The soil is extremely dry and on the verge of hydrophobic. There is only so long I can pump water into the soil – rain is what the garden really needs.

Today I planted a bunch of seeds into seed raising mix in trays. Because the season has stayed warm right up until the end of April (it was 32 degrees last week!), I am not at all concerned that this is too late.

I planted:

  • Lettuce: Marvel of Four Seasons (Heirloom) and Australian Yellow (Heirloom);
  • Kale: Curly Green Dwarf (Heirloom);
  • Poppy: Flanders Red (for the millionth attempt – this time I’m trying to raise in trays rather than direct where I want them to grow in the hope that I will have success);
  • Broccoli: Green Sprouting (Heirloom) and Romanesco (Heirloom);
  • Cauliflower: Year Round (F1 Hybrid);
  • Leek: King Richard (Heirloom from seed saved last year).

As you can see in the image below, I make my own tags. These were made from a recycled margarine container. I have also used recycled milk jugs. I use several seed trays: the tray shown below is a mini greenhouse type within individual cells and a clear plastic cover, but I also use a recycled maxi-punnet that once held violas for planting, and another flat tray that I scavenged from somewhere. They all work just fine.

I use a standard seed-raising mix. I experimented with jiffy pellets several times to see if they improved germination time and overall results. I filled half this tray pictured with seed-raising mix and half with jiffy pellets to see which was better, and trialled it several times with different types of seeds. The seed-raising mix beat the jiffy pellets every time for germination and overall seedling health. Not exactly a double-blind, randomised controlled trial, but good enough for my purposes, given that jiffy pellets cost about five times the price of a five kilo bag of seed-raising mix.

After planting out my veggie seeds, it was time to tackle the bulbs. I love Spring flowering bulbs. My favourite are crocuses, which are quiet, stunning little flowers that poke their heads up for only a couple of days a year.

Crocus Mr. Pickwick

Unfortunately they do not last, and do not produce the showy display of their other Spring-flowering cousins, Ranunculus, Dutch Iris and Daffodils. At the Melbourne Flower and Garden Show this year I picked up some Daffs and Giant Snowflakes, and again at the Easter Fair last weekend, some more Daffs, Dutch Iris, and Anenomes. I grabbed a big bag of cheap and cheerful Ranuncs and Freesias to throw all around for fun, and then grabbed my husband to help plant the haul.

Daffodil bulb planted in the ground – see how dry the soil is!

When planting Anenomes and Ranunculus, it’s a good idea to soak the tiny corms for an hour or so beforehand. Don’t do this with the larger bulbs, or they will rot. Ranunculus and Anenomes are not true bulbs, but corms. Remember to plant Ranuncs ‘claws’ facing down.

Stunning double ranunculus from Spring 2018

Ranunculus might be cheap as old chips to buy and plant, but when they flower they can be the most stunning flower in the garden. I could cut them and bring them inside, but I just love to see them in the garden, so I leave them alone. Sometimes they do produce a second year of flowering but for the most part, I treat them as an annual and replant corms each year.

Larger bulbs like Daffodils and Iris should reward the investment of $8 or $10 in a pack of five bulbs with repeat flowering. However, they do require cold weather after their Spring flowering to really come back well. With the seasons the way they have been, I am not sure they will get the real cold they need. I am hoping that last year’s Daffs (a lovely white variety called “Ice”) will come back, but I am not going to bet on it. If they do, I will be very happy.

Another that I hope to see back is the Violet Sparaxis. Its cousin, the standard Sparaxis, or Harlequin Flower, reliably returns year-on-year. I hope this purple beauty is as kind.

Violet Sparaxis

Finally, I planted the sweet peas: a blue variety in between two climbing roses; a variety called Surprise (aptly named because I have no idea what it looks like); and my tried and trusted dwarf Bijou, planted every year and the most reliable performer. I look forward to sweet pea season every year, and Bijou always presents me with a riot of colour and perfume in September.

Sweet pea Bijou

The fun thing about planting bulbs and seeds is waiting for them to come up. The hard thing about planting bulbs and seeds is waiting for them to come up. I guess like Luke Skywalker, I will have to learn patience.