Weekend Gardening Jobs, November 9th & 10th 2019

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.

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.

Reducing plastic in the garden

I’ve whinged about this multiple times, but I’m doing it again: weed matting in the garden does nothing. The people that landscaped our garden originally laid black plastic and weed matting before laying topsoil, and I’ve been either hitting the tough weed matting when trying to dig a hole, or pulling out chunks of black plastic ever since we bought this place and started building our garden.

Meanwhile, the weeds continue on their merry way.

Look at this bloody nuisance:

Pointless black plastic ruining my garden

I pull this junk out of my soil every time I try to plant anything. Not only does it achieve nothing at all, it pollutes the soil, and will be stuck on the planet for thousands of years.

If you are planning a new garden, I beg of you: do not lay this stuff. You will not have fewer weeds by laying weed mat. Most weeds are opportunistic, shallow rooted freeloaders. Their seeds float along in the wind or are spread by birds, and will root very easily in your topsoil. They do not care at all about a layer of weed matting.

In general, gardening can create quite a bit of plastic waste. Here are some ways to make it more sustainable and reduce single use and other plastics.

1. Consider packaging. Many common garden products come in plastic. For example, potting mix, manures, and fertilisers are all packaged in big plastic bags. I have recently switched from traditional potting and seed raising mix to coir bricks, which come in 9 and 15 litre compressed bricks in mulch, seed raising, and potting mix varieties. These are cheaper and much smaller in size (less than a tenth of the size) than potting mix bags, but when reconstituted in water, expand to similar volume as a 25 litre potting mix bag. Although they are still wrapped in plastic, it is a thinner clear plastic rather than the heavy thick plastic of the traditional products. Coir is also a sustainable product, as it is a by-product of coconut production. The plants are just as happy growing in coir as in potting mix, and I’m happier knowing I have created far less waste.

2. Plant seeds instead of seedlings. I try to raise seeds as often as possible, partly because it’s fun, but also because a paper packet of seeds has a lower carbon footprint than a plastic punnet of seedlings. I reuse my seedling trays over and over, whereas most punnets are single use only, as black plastic can’t be recycled. A single packet of seeds has potentially a thousand plants, while a punnet typically has four or six plants. Therefore a packet of seeds makes more sense financially, as well as environmentally.

Highly organised seed library

3. Reuse as much as possible. If I do buy seedlings, I reuse the seedling punnets for my own seedlings. I reuse all plastic pots. I cut up old milk bottles to make seed labels. I use old stockings and tights to tie up plants. To transport seedlings to friends, I use old pots or even recycled yoghurt containers. I save seeds in recycled jars.

4. Recycle wherever you can. While chemicals should not be thrown in recycling or the bin for obvious reasons, well washed containers can be (for example, seaweed extract bottles or other non-toxic products).

Gardening in extreme conditions

The temperature in our State hit record highs in the lead up to Christmas. Across the country, bushfires have been raging, some of them for several months. While I personally like hot weather, and manage the hot weather well (acknowledging that I have the privilege of working indoors and have a roof over my head), of course all gardens and wildlife across the State struggled. A State of Emergency has been declared in one state, while as I write this, we are waiting for a severe storm here after several days of plus-40 degree temperatures and high humidity.

I thought it would be worth writing about how those of us that love to garden manage to do so in regions where the weather or terrain can be extreme.

The climate in our region is sometimes described as ‘mediterranean’ but it would be more accurate to describe it as ‘arid.’ The arrival of Europeans and other non-Aboriginal people to this region after colonisation has forced a different approach to land management, most of it not suited to the very dry conditions. While this year has been drier and hotter than usual, in most years we have a relatively dry Winter, with the highest average rainfall 71 mm in June. This year the rainfall was lower, with only 54.6mm falling in June.

Our Summers are extremely hot, with an average temperature of 29 degrees centigrade and very little rainfall. In late January, we can generally expect at least a week of temperatures in the high 30s or low 40s. In the past couple of years, this has changed. We had a week of mid-40s temperatures in December, and are experienced another late last year. It is likely that the rest of Summer will give us some periods of temperatures in the high 40s (it already has).

Our warm Springs and warm Autumn periods make our region perfect for growing a wide array of Summer vegetables and fruits, particularly tomatoes, zucchini, chillies, and eggplant. However, for the home gardener, the extreme Summer conditions and low rainfall can present some unique challenges.

Some gardeners I know are giving up altogether in regions with strict water restrictions and very low rainfall. In our region we have water restrictions, but they are not as strict: we can water with sprinklers before 10am and after 5pm. In many parts of Australia, there are level 2 water restrictions in place, allowing only use of a bucket or watering can at those times, or drip irrigation for 15 minutes. In weather of 40 degrees plus, this will not be enough to keep most vegetable gardens going.

Drought tolerant gardening

When we moved in here, the previous owners had tried to address the water issue by planting a mix of succulents (agaves and aloes), along with some ground covers and trees. Unfortunately, the trees they had planted were inappropriate for the block and the succulents they had planted, while drought tolerant, were planted too close to other plantings. Everything was crowded in together.

We removed everything and started again. We wanted a productive garden and a sensory garden, where everything could either be eaten or enjoyed by our children and niece and nephews as a sensory experience. We also wanted plantings that could act as a natural mulch or ground cover to protect the soil from the heat, and that did not require too much water once established.

Herbs are a great choice. Even some varieties of mint, which people think requires a lot of water, is drought tolerant once established. We have found spearmint and apple mint to be the most drought tolerant. We planted the following herbs and have found they require almost no water once established:

  • Greek oregano
  • Common thyme
  • Lemon thyme
  • Golden creeping thyme
  • Sage
  • Pineapple sage
  • Spearmint
  • Apple mint
  • Lemon balm (Melissa)
  • Garlic chives
  • Parsley (Curly and Continental)
  • Lavender (English, Italian, French)
  • Rosemary

These plants have self-seeded around the garden and created swathes of living mulch, protecting the soil from the baking sun. We rarely water these; they are watered by the rain and pick up some incidental water when we water the fruit trees and roses.

Roses are also quite drought tolerant. We have three climbing roses. One is admittedly struggling, but it is picking up. The others, planted at the same time, are happy and healthy and are watered about once a month in the Summer, and not at all the rest of the year. They seem quite happy.

Our front yard faces west and is on a hillside, which means that it receives full sun in the afternoon and evening. In Summer, this is very hot and bakes the garden. We have planted deciduous fruit trees that provide shade for the rest of the garden, and mulch the areas that are not ‘self-mulched’ by the ground cover herbs. The trees are now well-established and we water these about once a week in Summer and Autumn until the rains begin (this period is stretching out longer and longer, unfortunately). In Winter and Spring we don’t water the trees unless it is particularly dry. We have a mulberry, apricot, pomegranate, lemon, and passionfruit vine in the front.

Pomegranate

Vegetables

Last year, we lost most of the vegetables to extreme heat, and gave up until Autumn. This is because I was busy with work until late December and did not plant until late. The plants were not strong enough to cope with a 47 degree day. This year, I knew I would likely be busy again in November/December (I was), so I established the garden earlier. I hardened off the tomatoes, capsicums, chillies, eggplants and zucchini seedlings in smaller pots outside so they would be tough as nuts before they went into the ground. This meant that they were well-acclimatised to the micro-climate of our garden. We water them, but not daily, so they receive a deep early soak on very hot days instead of daily short waterings. We fed everything with extra compost and pelletised chicken manure, and mulched the heck out of everything.

The vegetable plants sailed through the first lot of 40-plus days in December with no worries – in fact, they put on growth. We had another 40 degree day yesterday, and all the plants look happy.

Summer veggie patch

Water

Our rainwater tank collapsed during a storm and we have not yet replaced it. It was one of those old galvo jobs, with no pump and about a 2 litre capacity. I think it knew it was useless and collapsed from the shame. It is on our list of things to replace this year, before Winter. As such, we are on mains water only to keep our garden alive. This makes gardening pretty expensive, so for environmental and cost reasons we have to consider our water usage carefully.

I think about the plants I choose to grow. If we had to give up some part of the garden to save the rest due to extreme drought conditions, it would be the vegetable garden, as much as it breaks my heart to say it. Vegetable gardening is the most fun but it is also the most water-dependent. Certain vegetables require more water, so they are not worth growing when water is expensive and scarce. If we had Level 2 water restrictions, I would not grow vegetables at all, except a few in pots, like chillies.

We water only during the water restriction times. We get up early to water or water late after the heat has reduced, to prevent evaporation, and we set a timer. We don’t water the ‘lawn’ (such as it is) ever. We don’t water everyday except in extreme heat. We mulch the soil with compost and sugarcane or pea straw to prevent water loss. We also mulch our pots.

Mulch

You cannot garden in Australia, particularly the arid areas, without mulching. Mulching prevents evaporation and soil erosion. Mulching is both an environmental and economic choice – it reduces the amount of water used in the garden, and saves your precious soil from blowing away.

I use a combination of homemade compost, well-rotted sheep manure, coir, and sugarcane to mulch the garden. I use sheep manure around the fruit trees, applied in a thick layer in Winter. Coir is used on pots and raised beds. The rest of the garden receives a mix of compost and sugarcane mulch. This is a continual process, as the mulch breaks down over time. Other people prefer pea or lucerne straw to sugarcane, but I like the loose texture of sugarcane, and the fact that it is utilising a waste product from sugarcane production. Some people use bark chips as a loose mulch, but our pest control specialist has told us that this could encourage termites, which is the last thing I need around my place (I don’t know if this is true or not, but I am not taking chances on that).