Catching up in the garden, January 2023

Cinnamon basil in flower

It’s easy to fall behind in the garden when you only have a few hours a week. I have been keeping up on basic tasks, like watering, but a big garden like ours has myriad tasks that need to be managed regularly – and I have not been keeping on top of them. These include weeding, feeding, pest management, pruning, picking and processing the harvest, and removing spent plants. My husband and I made an agreement to get up early and get out in the garden. We both broke that agreement by lazing around in bed for longer, but we got out there by about 9:30 am, ready, if not exactly raring, to go.

Summer Pruning

Most pruning is completed in Winter, when plants are dormant. However, trees in the prunus family, such as apricots and plums, benefit from a prune in Summer after they have finished fruiting. This is because they are prone to diseases like gummosis, which can get into the cuts in the wood if the weather is damp. The apricot tree finished fruiting two weeks ago, so my husband got up on his ladder and started to prune it back. We are putting the branches on the workshop roof to season for next year’s fireplace. Firewood is expensive, so any bits and pieces we can pull together ourselves from (non-toxic) prunings saves cash.

While he pruned the apricot and plum trees, I pruned the grapevine, just a little. The wet weather in late Spring caused the early leaves and bunches to rot. New healthy leaves have since grown, but I have been intending to prune off the rotten leaves and bunches for weeks now. The vine looks much happier, if a little bereft, now. Real grape vine pruning season is in Winter, so I only pruned off the funky looking leaves.

Tomato Supports

I admit to putting off tying up tomatoes, because it’s an itchy and boring job. But there comes a point in the season where it is just necessary. Rather than using stakes, I prefer to build cages. I have tried all kinds of versions of tomato cages, but my favourite (also the quickest but one of the most expensive, unfortunately) is to use steel trellis panels, which cost about $15 each when I bought them from Bunno’s two years ago. I create a cage using four panels, tied together with zip ties. These are easy to build and easy to dismantle. Due to the cost and size, I use this style of cage for the largest indeterminate tomatoes (generally Green Zebra).

Tomato cages

The king of tomato cages is my brother, who builds very impressive structures, possibly visible from space, and also has the most impressive tomato plants in the family.

When I run out of trellis panels (and I refuse to buy more because a) cost and b) storage – I have to store them for the nine months of the year I am not using them), I build other types of supports for the other tomato plants in the garden. I have a group of three plants against the fence behind the lime tree. Using a large piece of reo mesh and two star droppers, I built a trellis to support this group. I have another piece of reo I am hoarding to build a trellis for pumpkins once they grow too large. I caught one pumpkin vine climbing the lime tree this morning, so it will not be long before I have to build a structure for it.

Reo mesh support

Of course, I could spend all day building cages for the rest of the plants…but I was feeling a bit lazy, and it’s a bit fiddly. Therefore, I decided that the standard stake and stocking tie support system would be fine. I only use the stake supports for smaller tomato plants, as they can quickly outgrow stakes if they are very vigorous plants.

All of these supports are recycled from previous years. I save the reo and trellis panels each year, and reuse the ties from previous stakes. If the stakes are not damaged from the last season, I reuse them as well. Some gardeners prefer not to reuse wooden stakes, due to problems with passing on soil borne diseases. However, I let the stakes dry out in the sun for a few days. After storing in the garden shed for twelve months, I figure they are probably ok. Once the stakes are too old and broken to reuse, I chop off the grotty end and they are used for firewood.

This season I grew all the tomato plants in my garden from seed (puffs up chest). A couple of the plants I grew from supermarket tomatoes that I thought were delicious, and saved some seed. I found one of these in the garden this morning (I had completely forgotten I had planted it). It has fruited like crazy (all green right now). I really hope that it is as delicious as I remembered. If not, I will use it to make some sauce. At the moment I am only picking a couple of cherry tomatoes a day (yellow Windowbox tomatoes – they are ok, but not really tasty). Can’t wait until the Green Zebra and Black Russians ripen up.

Feeding

The day was relatively cool, so I gave every plant in the veggie garden an organic liquid feed of the old faithful standbys Charlie Carp (a liquid fertiliser made of carp, a pest) and liquid seaweed. The grapevine and avocado tree was fed a bucket of liquid fertiliser as well. My plan for the avocado tree is to keep the water and food up each month, as tbh I have been a bit slack on both over the past twelve months. For the lemon tree and passionfruit, I also dissolved iron chelates in a watering can and watered ten litres into the root zone of each plant.

Iron chelates are a trace element that do not need to be used regularly. However, the leaves on these plants were looking yellowed, and the fruit was shrivelling. Poor fruit and yellowing leaves can be a sign of iron deficiency in fruiting plants. Iron chelates are easy to apply, following packet directions, but it is important not to overdose.

Yellowing passionfruit leaves

As the other plants (tomatoes, eggplant, capsicum) are all looking healthy and are setting healthy fruit, I do not think it is a problem with the soil nutrition generally. However some fruiting plants are much hungrier feeders than others, so it seemed a good idea to give them a dose of iron chelates to see if this will help. Time will tell. Really, looking at those passionfruit leaves, it honestly couldn’t hurt – they look so bad. This is the problem with having such limited time – there is so much to do and so little time to get everything done. I was aware there was a problem, but I may have been too slow to fix it.

The Greenhouse

The greenhouse continues to be a successful growing space. I have been unscientifically comparing the progress of plants in the greenhouse to those planted outside.

These two eggplants were both grown by seed by me, and were planted at about the same time. Eggplant One was planted in a raised bed outside, in a premium potting mix. It is watered daily, and has been fed with a liquid feed at least fortnightly.

Eggplant One, raised bed, outdoors

Eggplant Two was planted in a large pot, in the same brand of premium potting mix. In hot weather it is watered twice daily, and has been fed with a liquid feed at least fortnightly.

Eggplant Two, greenhouse

As you can see, it is at least three times the size of Eggplant One, and is flowering. With all other factors being equal (type of soil, feeding regime), greenhouse conditions seem to encourage faster growth.

Previously I have used a heated seed mat to raise seeds in small trays indoors. While the heated seed mat germinated seeds more quickly than without, the plants did not have as much light as they needed, and struggled past the initial germination phase.

I planted these borlotti bush beans nine days ago in the raised troughs in the greenhouse, watering daily. They have almost all germinated, and already have their true leaves. As they are bush beans, I will keep them in the trough for their lifecycle. I have climbing beans in the garden as well, which were planted six weeks ago, and are only about twice the size of these beans.

Borlotti bush beans

I believe that the relatively constant temperatures and excellent light in the greenhouse creates optimum growing conditions.

The greenhouse is not without pest problems. One eggplant was initially affected by whitefly, and another by white cabbage moth caterpillars. These were easily controlled by manual means (squishing). Occasionally small sparrows manage to get in, and cannot seem to figure how to get out without a little assistance. But generally, the greenhouse protects plants from most pests.

It does require consistent and diligent watering. Unlike the outdoor garden, which I can leave a day if I’m busy, it is not possible to skip watering the greenhouse. This is due both to the fact that the plants are all in containers, which dry out more quickly, and the higher temperature. Leave them for a day, and I could end up with dead plants.

My other main concern is pollination. While insects can come into the greenhouse, I worry that not enough pollinators will come in. I am thinking through different ideas to attract them – if any greenhouse gardeners have some suggestions, I would love to hear them!

Of course, I still have many tasks left to complete, but there is never enough time. I still have to work, see family, exercise, be a friend and partner and parent…life is not all gardening! Hopefully what I have done this weekend will hold the garden together for a little while.

Gardening jobs, Christmas and New Year 2022

Happy New Year!

It’s finally really lovely and warm in our parts. I have had lots of jobs to do to keep the garden alive and well, including watering the containers and raised bed daily, and keeping the watering up across the whole garden. I don’t mind this, but it is a job of work.

Fortunately, I’m on a break for the Christmas/New Year period. This is my first proper break in over a year. I am taking full advantage, getting out to the garden every day.

Garden progress

The long, cool, and wet Spring stalled the progress of eggplant, zucchini, chillies, and tomatoes, which would normally be in full fruit by now. One of the cherry tomatoes I grew from seed, a variety bred for pots called Window Box, is the only one that has fruit so far. It is a dwarf breed, unusual for a cherry tomato, and has a lot of flowers and clusters of fruit already. Apparently the fruit is yellow. I’m looking forward to tasting the fruit. I have found that some of the new breeds of cherry tomatoes do not taste great (last year’s Blueberry cherry tomato was, in my opinion, yuck). I hope Window Box is tasty, because I have about six plants. All the other tomato plants have put on good growth and have started to flower, but no fruit yet.

As for my dreams of expansive eggplant crops, it’s not looking great. I’m thankful for the greenhouse, which will allow me to grow eggplant well into Autumn. I have planted another punnet of eggplants, as well as more seeds, with plans for a long season of eggplants in the greenhouse. Fingers crossed!

Greenhouse

Speaking of the greenhouse, it’s coming along nicely. For the first time EVER, I have planted eight watermelon seeds, and have germinated eight watermelon plants. These were a gift in a seed swap from a friend (an heirloom variety called Moon and Stars). Watermelons, along with cucumbers, are my Achilles heel, so if I can even grow one watermelon from this lot I will be very proud of myself.

The watermelons were exciting to watch. In the morning I found one had popped up from the warm soil. About an hour later, my niece found another poking its head up. By the afternoon, all eight had germinated and were stretching their leaves to the sky! How fun gardening is!

I also have cucumbers popping up, more eggplants, and basil. This greenhouse is so much fun.

Chillies Galore

At last year’s Chilli Festival I bought some chilli plants (a Devil’s Tongue, and a Four-in-one pot of a Mango chilli, a Lemon chilli, an Ajo, and a Curly Toenail). While I was not a fan of the Mango chilli, all the rest were great (the Devil’s Tongue is an old family favourite – very hot with a delicious flavour, and prolific). Following the advice of the stall holder, at the end of the season I cut them back by 50% and let them over winter. A couple of the four-in-one did not make it, but two did (I won’t know which until they set fruit). Over Spring the others put their leaves back on and have now started flowering happily. I’m looking forward to full crops of the others.

I also raised quite a few other chilli plants from seed, including Serrano, Gunter, Jalapeño, and Chocolate chilli. These are still quite small, but I’m hoping for a good crop. We eat chilli most days, and appreciate the flavour profiles of the different chillies, so growing many varieties is worth the time and effort for us.

The orchard

Mulberry tree

The apricot and mulberry trees are ready to harvest, and we are watching them like hawks – and so are the parrots! We have the biggest apricot crop we have ever had. The tree is too large to net, and I don’t like to do that anyway – I don’t mind the birds having some of them. But if we want to save any for ourselves, we have to pick as soon as they blush – so we check daily. We go out early in the morning and pick as many as are tinged orange, then wait for 24 hours to check again. We leave them to ripen on the kitchen bench.

Mulberries are kind of a pain to harvest. They ripen a few at a time, I think because our tree is still relatively young. We pick a couple a day, then wait for the next lot to ripen. The tree itself is beautiful, so I would not consider removing it (yet), but it has not lived up to my mulberry jam dreams.

We have a big crop of passionfruit and pomegranates coming on, but they are way off yet – at least a couple of months.

Cleaning up and potting up

A big and boring part of the past couple of weeks has just been cleaning up. I dug out the raspberry canes that have not done a damn thing over the past two years, and pulled out more bits of Audrey II, the boysenberry plant, that continues to make her presence felt (even though I dug the main part out months ago). I suggest to you that if you want to grow berries, set aside a bed that is completely separate from any other part of your garden, let them go, and don’t grow anything thorny!

At this time of the year, many of the Spring flowering annuals and herbs have flowered and are starting to set seed. They are generally looking tired and ratty. I have been clearing out all of the dead sweet peas, nasturtiums, parsley plants, and anything else looking old, dead, or tired. It’s taking quite some time and filling up my green bin quickly. To fill in the gaps I have sprinkled fast growing annual seeds like Cosmos, or planted quick growing annual colour, like Petunias. In about six weeks, I’ll start planting Spring flowering bulbs.

I’ve also repotted some sad looking houseplants, including an Umbrella plant that was miserable. I’ve had it for two years, and it started dropping leaves. When I repotted it, I found it had sported two babies. So for my repotting efforts, I have three plants now instead of one. I also repotted my beautiful Spotted Begonia, moving her up to a larger pot. She is much happier now, and I removed one of her leaves to strike into a new plant. Begonias strike easily in water, and are very easy to grow in the right conditions. I have two now (one struck from the mother plant), and they flower profusely with very little attention from me.

Seasonal gardening jobs, 21st August 2022

Chickens are an important feature of an organic garden
Chickens love to dust-bathe in the sunshine

It’s that time of year to start thinking about seasonal gardening jobs – in our part of the world, jobs for the Spring garden. This weekend that means starting seeds, caring for hens, and making plans for a fruit tree before I run out of time.

Caring for chickens

Sunday morning dawned foggy and chilly, but soon cleared to a sunny but cold day. It was also chicken coop cleaning day, so I let the little marauders out of the pen while I mucked them out.

Chickens are pretty easy pets to keep. We have four ISA Browns, which were the only type of hens we could get during the pandemic chicken frenzy of 2020. My goal has always been to have Australorps, an Australian heritage breed, but I could not find them at the time we were looking for hens.

ISA Browns are a hybrid hen bred for egg laying. Our four cluckers do lay really well. They are in their third year and are still going strong. They are also curious, cranky, naughty little dinosaurs that love to rampage through my veggie patch if I let them.

The four main things you need to care for chickens are:

  1. A fox-proof coop and run: We purchased our neighbour’s shed (he built a new Cluckingham Palace, and sold us his old coop for $100). He helped us to re-build it on our side of the fence, and we got a solid coop for less than we would spend on materials to build a new one. They have a large space to run around and dust-bathe outside, as well as occasionally free-ranging in the backyard. Don’t think you can get away with not securing the coop. Foxes are a legitimate pest in most urban and peri-urban regions of Australia, and they will take out a flock of chickens very quickly;
  2. Bedding straw, and time to clean them out regularly: I clean the run and coop out every two weeks, raking out and replacing their bedding with fresh straw. I buy a bale of bedding straw for $9, which lasts me (well, them really) two months;
  3. Good quality poultry food: Our hens prefer Red Hen Free-range Layer Mix. We buy a 20 kg bag for $33, which lasts four hens a couple of months. Their food is supplemented by kitchen scraps and green feed from the garden;
  4. Time: Healthy birds take a bit of time. I need to spend about two hours every two weeks cleaning them out. We also obviously have to feed them daily, water them, put them to bed at night, make sure they are kept safe from foxes, and generally keep an eye on them.

I check on the birds’ physical health every time I clean the pen by picking them up to see if they have healthy feet and feathers. I also check in their pen when I am cleaning it for any signs of mites or lice. So far, we have not had any problems. That could just be dumb luck, but I do think chicken hygiene plays a part. Regular cleaning of the coop, fresh water, and giving them only as much food as they can eat in one day prevents other pests visiting their coop.

Why have chooks?

I have chickens because I like them. I’m not a furry animal type of person (we don’t have dogs, cats, rabbits or any other fluffy creature), so chickens fulfil my need to have non-human creatures about the place. They are my favourite animal – I find them soothing company. However, there are some other good reasons. Because we have the space, chickens contribute to our little organic gardening ecosystem: they reduce waste by eating a lot of our kitchen and garden waste, their manure becomes compost, which in turn feeds the garden. They give us eggs in return for their food and space. We eat some eggs, but not as many as they give us, so we usually give some away.

However, if I did not have the space or if I was renting, I would not have them. They do require effort and time, and some expense. In the twenty years we rented, we only had chickens one time, because we had a very chilled landlord.

Seasonal gardening jobs – late August

After cleaning the hens and turning the compost, a job I do at the same time (with some help from the chickens), I did some weeding and reviewed the garden.

Chickens can be part of an organic gardening system
The chickens love to help me turn over the compost

It’s been an extremely wet and cold few months in our area. The brassicas have not grown quickly, and I was starting to feel concerned I will not get anything before Spring hits and they go to seed. But walking around the patch this morning, I could see that many plants are starting to shake off the Winter doldrums and are putting on some growth. I plan to pick a bunch of collard greens this week – I am very excited about this.

We picked the last of an Autumn batch of Cos lettuces last week. These were in a raised garden bed, so I refreshed the soil with a bag of potting mix and watered it in well. Then I planted new lettuce and spinach seeds, hoping for a quick Spring crop of both before it gets too warm. Spinach has been my nemesis this year, so I’m not holding my breath. Lettuce has been an absolute winner though. This time I planted more Cos Paris Island, a lovely red Cos lettuce, and my favourite, Marvel of Four Seasons, a red butter lettuce. I’m sure I mostly plant it because I love the name, although the lettuce is tasty too. If you are in southern Australia, you will have time for a quick crop of lettuce, chard, spinach, or Asian veggies like Pak Choy or Tatsoi before the hot weather causes them to bolt to seed. Just plant ASAP now that the sun is coming out and the days are longer.

Seed Starting

I started the first of the Summer veggie seeds last week on the heat mat. I’m going in hard on eggplants and chillies this year, as I mentioned last week. But I’ve also started more Spring Onions (Red Candy Stick), bulbing onions (Barletta), some more Chard (Rainbow), Capsicum Golden Marconi, and Green Zebra tomatoes. Next on the list are all the eggplants – this season I’m growing four kinds. I completely caved when I saw the seed catalogues, and bought a heap of different varieties to try. I bought my seeds from Happy Valley seeds and so far I have been really happy with the price and quality.

I’m not banking on seed-raising like I did last season. This time, I’m treating it as a fun hobby. If I get to the first week of October and I don’t have enough homegrown seedlings to plant out, I will go to a nursery and fill in the gaps. I don’t want to lose any precious warm growing months.

Bare-rooted fruit tree

It’s almost time out for planting a bare rooted fruit tree (apples, quinces, nectarines, etc). In some parts of our State, I wouldn’t bother – it’s too late. But in my area, we are usually about six weeks behind the weather patterns of the rest of the State. Therefore, I’m going to take a punt and buy a bare-rooted fruit tree next weekend. I have a spot where Audrey II, the ill-fated boysenberry cane used to be. Her trellis remains, and I want to plant a tree that I can espalier. My plan is for a Quince, but I will settle for another Apple. If I don’t get it in the ground next Sunday though, I know I will have left my run too late and will have to wait another ten months.

Weekend gardening jobs, July 10 2022

Mid-winter might seem like a quiet time in the garden – and compared to Spring and Summer, it is – but there are still jobs that need to be done.

One of the most important jobs is feeding the fruit trees. Deciduous fruit trees like apricots, apples, and plums don’t actively grow in Winter. But they should be fed a lovely blanket of well-rotted sheet of sheep or cow manure over their root systems. Every July I order a dozen or so bags of aged, pulverised sheep manure from a local company, and spread a bag or two around the roots of each tree. I make sure not to place it right up against the trunk, as this can cause collar rot. I started this job today, but it is a big task as I have a dozen fruit trees and vines, and lugging the bags and spreading the manure takes quite a while. I managed a third of the task, and will try to carve out some more time during the week if the weather holds up. The manure will slowly feed the trees over the next couple of months and give them a boost at the peak growing time in early Spring.

Of compost and chickens

It was also time to turn the compost and clean out the chickens. I have four lovely hens, who are about 18 months old. They are moulting and off the lay right now, and looking a bit rough around the edges, poor girls. They stay in their run during the week, but on the weekends I let them out in the garden while I clean out their house and yard. They have a blast, although I have to chase them away from my lettuces! I found them scratching up spinach and tatsoi seedlings today. Grrrr. This is what happens when you let tiny dinosaurs loose in your veggie patch. Little monsters.

Before I let them loose, I turned the compost bins, and dug out about eight buckets of lovely compost to spread over Pie Corner. Then I filled the bins back up with the straw and crud from the chook pen.

Goodbye Audrey II

Speaking of Pie Corner, I decided today to remove that bane of my thumbs, the boysenberry canes I dubbed Audrey II. She had succumbed to a rust fungus, and I decided that rather than try to treat it, I would consign the plants to the green bin. Audrey II has been a somewhat patchy producer at best, and the pain of pruning the damn thing has not been worth the gain of a couple of punnets of boysenberries each Summer. I am sure we will find her offspring popping up over the next few months, but we will just keep digging those bits out until she has gone completely. I have decided to replace her with an espaliered quince tree next Season. I love quinces, and the flowers are so beautiful. I wish I could say I’ll miss you Audrey II…but I won’t.

Productive laziness

I read an article in the New York Times today about work and the scam of ‘busyness’ (as opposed to ‘business.’ The author was speaking from the perspective of an American, that people are beginning to reject the American idea of ‘work’ and the non-stop, rat-raciness, over-productive busyness of it all. Importantly, he differentiated between that kind of work, and work that is genuinely engaging and absorbing. This work could be unremunerated.

I don’t believe most people are lazy. They would love to be fully, deeply engaged in something worthwhile, something that actually mattered, instead of forfeiting their limited hours on Earth to make a little more money for men they’d rather throw fruit at as they pass by in tumbrels.

Tim Kreider, “It’s time to stop living the American scam.”

I genuinely like running my own business. But I also agree that there is something to be said about a different kind of work, that is absorbing, engaging, and deeply satisfying – even if it doesn’t earn any money per se. I spent half my day today shovelling various kinds of waste: compost, chicken shed waste, pulverised sheep manure. To some people, that would be just a horrible time. But I was completely, happily, absorbed in what some would see as unproductive, unremunerated work of limited practical value. I might get some apples in the future. I might not. Who cares? To be completely honest, I don’t, much.

Worthwhile garden investments

I’ve spent a lot of time in my garden over the past 7.5 years. And a lot of cash, if I’m honest. I can’t say how much exactly. By the time I add up the cost of plants, removing trees, building a retaining wall, installing a chook shed (which we were lucky enough to score secondhand from our neighbour), tools, trellises, even more plants, etc…the cost must be in the shillions (that’s a number my youngest invented at the age of four, when trying to envision the largest number possible).

While I don’t regret any of these expenses, I do think there are some items that were better investments than others. They have raised both the value of our home and improved the overall look or productiveness of my garden.

Compost bins and compost worms

Compost bin

I have three black ‘dalek’ style compost bins that are always in rotation. Two cost $40 each from Bunnos, and the other was free from my local Buy Nothing group. I continually add garden trimmings, coffee grounds, tea leaves, chicken shed waste, and kitchen scraps to the bins. I turn them every time I clean out the chook shed, so roughly every two weeks. By ‘turn’, I mean I tip them over, move them around, pull out the ready-to-use compost, and shovel the rest back in the bins. Some weeks I might get a few buckets out of three bins, and at other times, a wheelbarrow load. I tip it on to whichever part of the garden looks like it needs it the most. Over the course of the year, the whole garden gets a topdressing of homemade compost. I don’t dig it in – I just tip it on top of the existing soil and let it weather in.

I add a box of 1000 compost worms to the bins every couple of years, where they happily breed and chew through the compost. I don’t bother with worm juice or a worm farm; I am perfectly happy just tossing them back in as I turn the compost. A box of 1000 worms costs about $50.

For an investment of $180 over 7.5 years (2x boxes compost worms + 2 x compost bins = roughly $25 per annum), I have homemade compost for my front and backyards. The other important benefit is that we divert kitchen and garden waste from landfill, reducing our family’s carbon footprint. Most weeks, our red bin (garbage) has only one bag.

Tree removal

When we first moved to our property, we paid a professional arborist $3500 to remove five trees. We researched several arborists, and received quotes. One guy quoted us $1000. When he visited us, he was clearly a dodgy operator and we turned him down, even though his quote was less than a third of the other company. At the time, $3500 was a lot of money to spend before we even started our garden. But the trees there were not safe or appropriate for the property, and prevented us growing anything productive. We forked out the extra cash, and a team of professional arborists safety removed the trees. I still think it was worth the extra money.

Good quality trees

You can buy trees from many places. Even supermarkets sometimes sell fruit trees at a bargain price. I’m not averse to picking up a bargain punnet of petunias from my local supermarket, believe me. It might seem that a tree is a tree, and that all that counts is the variety. However, I have learned the hard way that is not the case. Specialist tree nurseries invest in good quality root stock and hire qualified staff with expertise in varieties for your area. I buy most of my fruit trees from a local nursery that understands my soil and weather conditions, and provides advice on growing conditions and care. I pay for that advice by paying more for the trees I buy from them, but it has been worth it. Every tree I have bought from them has thrived.

To compare, I have a lime tree bought from my local specialty tree nursery, and a lemon tree bought from a supermarket. Both were planted at roughly the same time. One is in the front yard and one in the back yard. The lemon tree is a sad, spindly little thing, with not a single flower or fruit to be seen. I have fed it and watered it – and nada. The lime tree, even after fighting off a scale infestation and a leaf miner attack, has glossy dark leaves and has produced its first full crop of juicy limes. It is currently flowering again, getting ready to produce its second crop. Arguably the back yard and the front yard have different conditions. But not that different. I’m getting ready to yank that lemon tree out and replace it with a new tree, from a good nursery. I’m not one to harp on sunk costs.

Tools

This should be obvious, but cheap tools are not worth it. I have a solid hard wood handled garden fork that that I bought from the Digger’s Club five years ago, and aside from the muck on it, still looks new. It cost me about $80, but is worth every cent. I can buy a fork from Bunnos for ten bucks, but the handle will snap in no time. On cheap forks, the tines bend very easily, leaving you with an annoying fork that digs and turns unevenly. I dig with my Digger’s fork a lot, and the tines don’t bend, even when digging over hard or rocky soil. I feel confident that this fork will still be in tip-top shape in another five years. I intend to replace my other tools with Digger’s tools as they die, because I know the investment will be worth the extra cash.

Potting mix and fertilisers

Certain things can be purchased more cheaply for sure, but potting mix is not one of them. I know, because I have bought and tested almost all available to me. You will hear many garden experts say to buy ‘premium’ potting mix. I used to think, ‘well, sure, if you’re made of money.’ Then I discovered that the cheap three-dollar bags of potting soil are basically pressed bark sweepings, and do your plants no favours. Cheaper potting mix dries out very quickly, becomes hydrophobic, and leaves your plants hungry and thirsty. Spending money on good plants and not spending on the soil ends up costing you more in the end.

Look for the ‘red ticks’ on the bag. That means it’s a premium mix. ‘Premium’ usually means it has added soil wetting agents such as additional coir, and slow release fertiliser. Of course, you could add this to a cheaper mix yourself, but then you have just raised the cost of the cheaper mix anyway.

I also spend money on good quality, pure organic fertilisers such as pelletised chicken manure (also called Dynamic Lifter or other versions), Blood & Bone, and liquid tonics and fertilisers. I don’t buy brands that say they are ‘Blood & Bone-based’ as this can mean the manufacturer has added cheap fillers to the bag to lower the cost. These do nothing for your garden and may attract pests. It’s worth spending more to get a pure product.

Some gardeners prefer not to use Blood & Bone products, and as a vegetarian, I understand that. There are vegan fertilisers available. However, I am not a vegan, and neither are soil micro-organisms. I am not opposed to using animal products in my garden so long as they are organic. I use a product called ‘Charlie Carp,’ that is made from European Carp, a fish that is a pest and pollutes our waterways, and I also use animal manures such as sheep and chicken. Use what you are comfortable with and that sits with your values. Buy the best products that you can afford to feed your soil. Feeding your soil is the best investment you can make in your garden.

Not designing a garden

Front yard in 2016 – after we pulled everything out

A photo popped up in Google memories today, showing us our front yard six years ago.

When we moved to our property seven years ago, we could see the potential of the massive sloping front yard, but we did not like anything that previous owners had planted. Directly in front of the house was a yuuuuuge date palm, with the base of the tree at the footings of the house – asking for trouble. A large gum tree was dropping round gumnuts all over the yard, which was a slipping hazard, especially for our friends and family with mobility impairments. There were several old tree stumps, also a tripping hazard and a termite attractor. The soil was poor, and the owners had used black weed matting to prevent weeds – epic fail, as there were weeds everywhere.

We hired an arborist to come and remove the trees and grind out the old stumps, and we set about removing the weeds, weed matting, and rehabilitating the soil. We used (and continue to regularly add) compost, sheep manure, and mulch. My husband moved the enormous moss rocks from all around the garden to build a natural-looking retaining wall at the front of the garden.

I listen to a lot of gardening podcasts and they rabbit on about the importance of garden design. Once the soil was ready and the trees were removed, we had a plan to plant three deciduous fruit trees, but aside from these we have not ‘designed’ anything. If I find a place to fit in a plant that I like, in it goes. That means our garden definitely won’t win any design awards, but it’s an interesting place, with visiting birds and bugs, healthy soil, and at least something flowering or fruiting at any time of the year.

I mostly leave the front yard to do its thing, with minimal water. If a plant can’t survive without lots of attention and water (I’m looking at you, hydrangeas), they don’t survive. It’s a Northern facing hill in full afternoon sun, so if a plant can’t cope, then farewell. I’m a part-time gardener – I have no time to coddle ornamentals. All my love and coddling goes to plants that produce food. So my front garden kind of looks pretty but a bit rough around the edges, especially at this time of year. At the end of Summer and Winter especially, the plants look a bit ragged and tired, and need a good clip and feed. Right now, parts of the garden are a bit feral, and I need to go out there with my hedge trimmers and a fork and clean it up.

Front yard (Spring 2021)

It’s possible that whomever moves in after us will raze the yard again and plant a lawn or landscape it with the latest fashionable garden plants. That’s ok. While we have this space though, we will continue to fill little gaps with whatever will survive in the hot sun on our hillside.

Weekend gardening jobs, February 26 & 27 2022

My husband and I spent the weekend in the garden, but at different times and doing different things.

It’s the last weekend of the Summer, and I spent the weekend getting ready for the Autumn garden.

Preparing for Autumn

Some parts of the garden (eggplant, chillies, pumpkins, basil) are still in the full throttle of Summer production, but other areas are in their last gasp. The zucchini plant was very done, so I pulled that out, clearing a massive area of the garden, and also picked the last of one of the carrot beds and the final red onions. I dug over that bed, and spread organic fertiliser over that area (homemade compost, pelletised chicken manure, and blood and bone), raking it over and watering it in. That area is now sitting and waiting for planting in slightly cooler weather.

I started some more seeds for the winter garden: leeks, onions, coriander, and caulis. The collards and onions I started last week were moved into larger pots for hardening off, and I planted spinach and silverbeet into the garden. Then I forgot about them for a couple of days…whoops. The spinach is in a more sheltered area and is OK, but the silverbeet is not looking so good.

Saving sad plants

I repotted a dieffenbachia houseplant that was looking miserable (following the process I wrote about a couple of weeks ago). Hopefully some fresh soil and a larger pot will give it a fresh lease on life. A beautiful calibrachoa I received for my birthday was also looking very sad after an attack of white fly, so I gave it a spray of pest oil and a good water, and I am hoping that this will save it.

Building a trellis

While I was pottering about, my husband was doing the hard yards, building a trellis for the grape vine. Our sultana vine has been strung up on a makeshift trellis for the past two years, which was fine while it was young, but now the vine is in its third year it was far too big to manage on the little trellis.

My husband has been building trellises for all the fruit trees and vines. He started with a trellis for the apple trees a few months ago, and has been gradually building additional trellises throughout the backyard. This has enabled him to perfect his skills, and has decided to rebuild the original apple trellis now that he has figured out his technique.

I think he has done a great job (with only a bit of minor swearing).

Grape vine trellis

He has one more big one to build along the back fence for the passionfruit vines and for climbing seasonal veggies (cucumbers, beans and peas), and then his next job is re-paving the backyard and building a fire pit.

After that I will let him rest.

Just kidding 😀

Gardening jobs, October 30 2021

Mulberries! Finally!

We spent almost eight hours in the garden today, building trellises for the fruit trees in Pie Corner. That is to say, my husband was building the trellises, while I did other stuff.

Firstly, I cleaned out the chook shed (boring but necessary), and collected seven (!!) eggs.

Then I mulched the entire back garden, which is a big job. However, it is definitely reaching the warmer part of the year, and mulching is a necessary task. It saves water and keeps weeds down. Over time, it breaks down and builds soil structure, and it stops the soil becoming hydrophobic, which can be a big problem in Australian soils. I use chopped sugar cane mulch, which is a sustainable by-product of the sugar cane industry. It’s cheaper than lucerne, and lighter, so it lets the water through. I have used it for years, and I think it does a great job. Some people prefer lucerne or pea straw, but I have compared both and I personally don’t think there is much of a difference except price.

Mulching a garden the size of ours takes quite a long time. I took little breaks to pick a kilo of rhubarb, a big bunch of silverbeet, and pull out most of the older plants to feed the chooks (much to their delight, it’s their favourite), weed the opportunistic weeds that came up after this week’s rain, and pick flowers for the house. Mulching is quite boring, so doing these jobs helped keep me going. I also had to water it in, so it doesn’t blow away and undo all my hard work.

Building trellises and espaliering fruit trees

This is how our old trellises looked:

Old trellis

They were ‘built’ from star droppers and wire, and were not large enough for the apple trees. The wire was casually looped around the star droppers, and could not be tightened, which meant that the wire sagged as the tree grew and the weight pulled on the wire. Also, the whole set up looked ugly. A dodge job all round.

New trellises with espaliered dwarf apple trees

This is the new set up, with newly espaliered apple trees. Some of the undergrowth you can see there are berry plants that are yet to be trained up a new trellis. Once they are moved onto a new trellis all of their own, it will look neater and nicer. Also, btw, expecting a bumper berry crop this year. The plants are covered in blossoms. Very excited about that. My husband loves the boysenberries, which is a pretty sweet reward for all his hard building work.

Espalier dwarf apple tree

The trellis has been built with wooden poles, strong wire rope, and turnbuckles to enable us to tighten the wire if it sags. We chose to use wood for the supports rather than metal, but you could use steel poles. We prefer wood for the aesthetic, and because it is much cheaper. We are building five large trellises across our garden, and need thirteen tall poles, so cost is an important consideration.

In addition to the three trellises in Pie Corner, we are building a large trellis along the back garden fence to support three passionfruit plants, green beans, cucumbers, and a pepino, and a trellis for our three year old grapevine. I want to use as much of my vertical space as possible.

The espaliering is probably not textbook, but as Homer Simpson says, it’s my first day. I’ll keep shaping and training them and soon, hopefully, they’ll look like some textbook French potager effort. Or at least, ok. Whatever, we’re getting apples, so it’s all good.

We’re also getting grapes on our grapevine for the first time. I’m very chuffed about that. I will guard these little baby grapes with my life. Or at least some kind of netting.

Hello, little baby grapelings

The rest of the day, I potted up more petunias and a new Chinese Jasmine I bought on a whim, and cleaned up the patio because we have guests visiting tomorrow. Our yard continues to look like a construction site as we always seem to be building something, but at least the patio is as tidy as it can be, and the house has lovely fresh flowers. I do hope the construction site is cleared away before Christmas though…is exactly what I said last year!

Maybe if I want that to happen I should stop asking his nibs to build stuff.

Weekend gardening jobs, 16 & 17 October 2021

If you’re a gardener, and if you want to grow a food forest, and if you are so inclined to partner up, can I recommend you seek out a person that can build stuff? Gardening requires a surprising amount of building and engineering, if you have a largish sized plot. Unfortunately, I am not an engineer. I know what I need, where I want it, and how it should look, but not how to build it. My husband, on the other hand, enjoys being outside and the results of gardening (i.e. the eating) but is not really into the digging, composting and planting. However, he is pretty great at figuring out how to build the things I need.

He recently finished the retaining wall, and has started to re-pave the backyard with recycled pavers (we want to build a backyard in-ground firepit for next Winter). But before he can continue that task, we are building trellises for all the backyard fruit trees and canes. This is a task that has been on my mind for about two years. I built short-term trellises to espalier our dwarf apple trees, but they look, well, craptacular.

Dodgy espaliering job on dodgy trellis

The problems are many: star pickets look ugly, the wires were not strong enough and have started to sag, the trellis was quickly outgrown by the apple trees etc etc. It had to go. The trellis for the berry canes in Pie Corner was similarly horrible and the berries are just free-forming it all over the place (as you can see in the above photo). I have also recently planted several passionfruit plants that are going to outgrow the temporary trellises, and I have also recently planted dwarf plums that I wanted to espalier properly. Hence, I need a builder.

I did look for professional landscapers but they are booked out everywhere, and honestly my job is not large enough for most tradies to be interested in. Plus, my husband and I thought we could tackle it ourselves.

I watched several YouTube videos about building a trellis to espalier trees, and visited the Botanic Gardens to look at the way their very professional gardeners had done it. I still couldn’t figure it out. My husband watched the same YouTube video, and off we went to the Big Green Shed and in an hour we were back home with all the stuff we needed to build a trellis. Bloody hell. I mean, I love him.

I left him to it, and did the following:

  • Dug out enough compost from the two bins to add to an entire section of garden, which I lightly dug through and have left to settle.
  • Planted three varieties of climbing beans (Kentucky Wonder, Purple King, and Blue Lake) and one of dwarf beans (Yellow Wax).
  • Picked a whole heap of veggies for dinner, including carrots, broccoli, spinach, onions, and asparagus. I made an Ottolenghi spinach and feta pie for dinner, and it was amazeballs.
  • Planted beetroot, sunflower, carrots, and lettuce seeds, and pulled out some old spinach and coriander plants and fed them to the chooks.
  • Planted up a lovely pink calibrachoa for the front stoop, and watered all the balcony plants.
  • Fed the passionfruit with some fish emulsion and seaweed fertiliser, and cursed a bit when I saw some little critter has been having a nibble on them. Couldn’t find anything so I think it has gone away now.
  • Waved to all the bees, including at least a couple of native bees hovering among the flowers.
  • Admired the bronze iris that finally flowered after I thought all hope was lost.

An update in the trellis and espalier efforts next time.

Weekend gardening jobs, August 1 2021

It’s been weeks since I have been out in the garden – due to incessant rain, wind, and lots of work taking up my weekends. But today was a rare sunny (not warm) day, so I took the opportunity to get out and into the dirt.

The garden has held up extremely well after weeks of very wet and windy weather. This is due in part to my husband finishing the retaining wall before the really heavy weather set in, and the Winter veggie garden being well established before the really cold weather. This meant that all the garden had to do was keep growing, while we hibernated inside, working and watching old episodes of Scrubs. Occasionally I ventured outside to check the progress of the cauliflowers, but aside from that I stayed inside and worked on a raft of projects that have been heading my way lately.

That doesn’t mean there is nothing to do out there. Today I set myself the task of pruning the mulberry tree, weeding, trimming a geranium bush, and feeding everything with liquid compost. Last week I did get outside for two hours to plant up two dwarf plum trees in Pie Corner, and I checked on them to make sure they were happy and settling in well, but aside from that, I just did everything on the list.

Look at these beauties. Romanceso cauliflower (or broccoli, whatever you want to call them) are my favourite Winter veggies to grow, but they take patience. I used to think caulis took a long time, but they are nothing compared to these green lovelies. The beauty of them alone makes them worth it, and the flavour is incredible. I’d estimate another four weeks before they are ready to pick. While I am waiting, I will give them a liquid compost feed every week to keep them sweet, and pick off the caterpillars. Normally I would leave the caterpillars alone, and on other plants I do, but not on the Romanescos. They can eat other things, but not my spiralled lovelies.

While we wait for them to be ready, we have cabbages and caulis to enjoy – unfortunately all the broccoli is finished 🙁

I am not a very confident pruner. I tend to be tentative with removing branches, and worried I will remove too much. As such, I think I probably remove too little. I pruned some of it today, but looking back at the job I did this morning, I think I need to go back and give it another go. The mulberry tree has not been performing well, and I think it is because I have not pruned it hard enough. The tree is five years old and has yet to produce more than a handful of tiny mulberries, so whatever we have been doing is not working. All the other fruit trees planted at the same time are fruiting well, but this freeloader is not producing the goods. Time to prune hard, or go home. Or in the case of this tree, go to the wood shed for next year’s fireplace, if I don’t see some berries this Summer.

There were not many weeds out there, considering the amount of rain we have had, and those that were there were easily removed by hand. I think this is due to consistent hand weeding over time. They don’t get the chance to set seed, so we don’t have many weeds. Occasional foraging by an escaped hen also helps. I picked a cauliflower, planted some more spring onions, and gave everything a quick feed of liquid fertiliser, then came inside for a wash.

Tomorrow is expected to bucket down, so at least I can look outside from my office and know that I have spent a solid four hours in the garden today, instead of feeling frustrated that the weekend was spent inside. And only four more weeks of Winter to go! I am just not a Winter person. Bring on Spring.