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.

Is gardening ‘elitist’?

A discussion on a Facebook group had me mulling this over while I cleaned out the chook shed this weekend.

Australians are currently paying a great deal more for our fresh produce. This has led some to promote the idea of “growing your own produce.” Some have argued that this suggestion is ‘elitist.’

This caused a stir on one of the Facebook gardening groups I lurk in. I tend not to comment or share in these groups often. I prefer to look at the pretty pictures of roses and homegrown produce, and let others advise about whether that fungus is black spot or rust. I save my blathering on for this blog.

The ‘elitist’ post had upset quite a few people. They were outraged that someone could suggest that gardening is elitist. They fumed that of course gardening isn’t elitist, they aren’t wealthy, and so on…and so on.

I thought about my big backyard, my chickens in their coop, the money I spend on my gardening hobby. To some people, my mucking about in the backyard each weekend is the height of privilege.

Part of my backyard veggie patch in the height of Summer

So I did something I rarely do, and commented, something to the effect that I could see how, to some people, suggesting people grow their own to offset the cost of fresh produce could be elitist. It did not spark a conversation.

But you, gentle reader, choose to read my ramblings…

Gardening while renting

I’ve always had a garden. While renting, while a student, while broke. Always.

We bought our home relatively recently (about seven years ago). Prior to that, we rented our whole adult life. So I know what it feels like to really want to have your very own patch of dirt, and to be stuck keeping someone else’s yard looking nice.

And yet we still had a garden, through twenty years of renting.

But we did not successfully “grow our own” (by which I mean, at least 50% of our own fresh food) until we owned our own home.

I’m definitely not saying you can’t grow a lot of your own fresh produce while renting. There are ways you can do it, for example by growing in containers and carefully choosing the type of produce you grow. You can also try joining a community garden. We did all of those things.

But I do believe the limited control you have while renting often limits your ability to grow a productive garden to the extent that you really want to. For example, you can’t really improve the soil as much as you wish to or may need. You can’t easily plant fruit trees or perennials (like certain herbs), unless in pots, where they do not produce as well. You can’t install useful structures, like permanent trellising or irrigation systems. If you do decide to go ahead and do that anyway, if you have to leave, you can’t easily take them with you. And of course, you have to seek permission for everything you do.

While we were renting, we had gardens, and we grew some of our fresh produce. But if we were renting now, having a garden would not offset the inflated cost of fresh produce. We spent 20 years renting and gardening, and I can say from experience, that while it was a fun hobby, it never filled our fridge.

Gardening to save cash

I’ve written about this before. Gardening does not save money. Gardening is a great hobby. I love it. As a hobby, it is relatively cheap. But as a way to save money on fresh produce, it is not a great option. At best, you will break even. Even with prices as high as they are, my view stands. I have recently written about some veggies you can grow in containers, that will be good value. But you still need spare cash to buy the containers, potting mix, and seeds or plants. You still need money to set up a garden. If you don’t have spare money, then the advice to “grow your own” does sound tone deaf – and could come across as ‘elitist.’

If you do want to save some cash, grow lettuce from seed! If you have a small space or are renting, grow it in containers.

Time = money

There’s a reason I’m The Part-time Gardener: I work (actually, I run my own small business). If I want cash to spend on my hobby of gardening (as well as pay my mortgage, food, and heat), I need to work during the week – and sometimes on weekends. If I want to garden to “grow my own” I have to actively quarantine about 4 hours of my weekend, minimum, to achieve that. Realistically, I have to set aside more time in peak growing season.

There are plenty of people that work longer hours than I do, or that work more than one job. There are sole parents, or people with chronic health issues or disability, for whom working 4-6 hours a week in a veggie patch is a pretty laughable concept. Time and wellness is a precious commodity in their lives. “Grow your own” is not always an option if you don’t have the time, due to your caring responsibilities, work, or health considerations.

Once you’ve grown your own, it also takes more time to prepare and cook. I have a bucket of root veggies sitting outside that I picked yesterday. I still have to clean and prep them, before they can be cooked. They are beautiful and fresh – but also, kind of a hassle. I have to make the time to prep them. During the week, I do not have that time. It’s strictly a weekend thing.

I love that people want to turn to productive gardening as a way to offset modern challenges. Gardening is awesome. It’s my second favourite thing to do. But many people do not have access to the things needed to grow fruit and veggies successfully: land, good soil, some financial resources, and time.

There’s nothing wrong with being nudged to check your privilege sometimes. It’s not offensive – it’s a helpful reminder that our assumptions and opinions aren’t necessarily facts. When gardeners with land, good soil, some financial resources, and time, tell people without those things to “grow your own,” it does sound elitist. Because it is.

The experiment – growing everything for a veggie patch from seed

This season (Autumn 2022) I made a bold decision: to grow everything in my veggie patch from seed. This meant brassicas, root veggies, leafy greens, all from seed.

I made this fateful decision for a couple of reasons. Firstly, funsies. Growing from seed is pretty fun. Some people like messing about in boats; I like messing about with dirt.

I also wanted to grow a few things that are not so easy to find in punnets from the Big Green Shed, or even from my favourite local nursery. I wanted to grow the standards (broccoli, caulis, cabbages, chard), but also some different plants, such as collard greens and orange cauliflowers. Of course, I could have found the broccoli and caulis at the nursery, but I could only find collards from one online seed supplier. I can’t even explain why I wanted to grown them. I get little side interests like this, and for some reason, collards was a thing I wanted to try.

I think the other reason I wanted to grow everything from seed is that it is an experiment in independence. Although I did buy most of the seeds online, some of the seeds I had saved from heirloom plants grown last year (cabbages, some lettuces, and coriander). While I’m not a prepper by any stretch, I do think about how we would manage if our supply chains are suddenly interrupted and we can no longer rely on the economic systems we currently have in place.

Oh, wait….

I’d like to think that I could manage to feed myself and my family – to an extent – by saving seeds and growing plants from seed, if the luxury of popping down to Bunno’s for a six pack of broccoli seedlings was taken away from me for some reason.

Like a worldwide pandemic.

Or if the country caught fire.

Or if large parts of our nation sank under metres and metres of water.

Oh, wait….

So, can I? Weellll…kinda. The answer is complicated.

Yes, I can grow everything from seed.

However, it takes a LOT of time. More time than I have, to be honest.

Not because I am so busy, although that is partly true. I only have time to be a part-time gardener.

I’m talking about the time I can’t control: seasonal time. I started sowing seeds for planting in Autumn in February, starting them inside using a heat mat. I planted out the second-last tray of seedling brassicas today (mid-May). That means that it has taken me 3.5 months to grow a full garden’s worth of veggies, using my tiny home setup. If I did not have the heat mat, it would have taken much longer.

The problem with this is that I have missed most of the warmer early Autumn weather, and I am planting baby brassicas into cold soil. The temperature today was about 20 degrees C. That doesn’t sound too bad, except the night temps are much cooler, and the soil temps are around 10 degrees C on the Adelaide Plains right now. As we live in a Southern hills area, the soil temps are likely to be about 2 degrees C cooler. My baby plants are likely to sulk in the cold soil, instead of taking off.

When gardening, temperatures are everything. Wait too long in Autumn, and you risk letting your seedlings slowly grow through Winter, until they suddenly bolt in the warmth of Springtime. This is likely to be my result for all my stubborn efforts. Even a week’s delay in planting can make all the difference.

If I had bought seedlings and planted everything at once in March, I’d probably be halfway to cauliflowers by now.

Lessons learned (but never learnings)

So what is my lesson – and what can you take from my bold/crazy experiment in seed-starting?

Firstly, the positives.

There are definitely some plants that are best to start from seed. Think zucchini, pumpkins, peas, beans, onions, any root veggies, and leafy greens. I always plant leafy greens from seed, as it is far cheaper and better to grow lettuces, spinach, bok chop, tatsoi, coriander, and chard from seed.

It’s also worth searching out seeds for heirloom or different veggies you may want to grow that you can’t find in commercial nurseries. I don’t want to just grow the things that big companies tell me to grow. Sometimes, seeds are just the only way to find and grow those plants. I’ll let you know if the collards were worth the effort!

I will also continue to save seeds, swap seeds, and plant seeds from veggies that I love or that do really well in my microclimate. For those plants, I will definitely grow from seed. Free seeds! Can’t beat that deal.

I do think that if I had a greenhouse, this whole experiment would have turned out very differently. Instead, I have a tiny heat mat in the corner of my sunroom. As I was planting out the seedlings this morning, I mused different ways I could afford a greenhouse. Then I realised that our annual September gales would probably throw someone’s roof shingles or backyard chairs through it. I could buy a LOT of seedlings for what that would cost me to fix.

There’s no point wasting precious seasonal growing time just to be stubborn. Right now, we still have the privilege of buying a punnet of seedlings for about $4, which is a pretty good deal. I know for a fact it’s a good deal, because it has taken me a lot of time and effort to grow all of these plants from seed.

And, FYI – growing from seed isn’t cheaper. Add in the cost of seed-raising mix, the little cardboard jiffy pots that I used to reduce the reliance on plastic, seeds, time, etc, and I would suggest that $4 for punnet of six seedlings is actually a spectacular bargain.

Therefore, I will start buying seedlings again for the old standards (ye olde broccoli, drumhead cabbages, white cauliflower, cherry tomatoes, and eggplants).

And the final lesson: no matter how you plant up your veggie patch, from seeds or seedlings, all your efforts will go to waste if you accidentally let the chooks out.

Weekend gardening jobs, 1 May 2022

There’s nothing like the ache you get after a full day in the garden. Regular exercise doesn’t give it – I exercise about an hour four times a week and I never get that same bone tired but relaxed feeling that I do after gardening. I think it’s the fact that I use so many muscles when I garden: I climb, dig, bend, stretch, lift, and strain for hours at a time, stopping only for a quick cuppa and a bite to eat. Right now every part of me is pleasantly exhausted. I need to think about making dinner, but not until I’ve rested for at least an hour or so.

Planting salvias

I’ve been working a lot lately, including the last long weekend, with minimal gardening time, so there was a lot to do this weekend. The front yard in particular has been looking…a bit feral, to be honest. I could tell that a few of the lavender bushes and woody herbs (thyme and sage) were really on their last legs. This was confirmed when I dug up one of the lavender bushes to discover it was actually dead. No wonder it wasn’t flowering – apparently they don’t when they’re dead! I cut up what I could for firewood, then consigned the rest to the green bin. Woody herbs don’t live forever – although they are called ‘perennial’, in actuality they live around 3-5 years. These plants have lived at least that long, so we have done pretty well out of them. I still have plenty anyway, as they have self-seeded prolifically. It’s just the original plants that needed to depart.

I had decided over Easter that this job was coming, but wasn’t sure what to replace the dead and dying bushes with. Whatever we replaced them with needed to be as tough as the conditions on our hillside front yard: North-West facing and in full sun. Plants have to be able to survive in hot and dry conditions all year round. I chose salvias. Salvias are beautiful, drought tolerant, and will survive many years. I already have three salvias in the front yard, so I know they will do well.

I tried finding some at the Easter Fair we attend each year, but the plant stall only had one! So I bought that, and then ordered some online from the Diggers Club. While I was at it, I ordered a lemongrass plant, a hanging rosemary, and a meadow sage, which is like regular sage but more prostrate.

Digging out the bushes was pretty tough on the old body but I managed it. My usual digger was out, so I had to use all my muscles to get the job done.

I immediately replaced them with the salvias, and watered in well with liquid seaweed tonic to give them a fresh start. I also planted out the hanging rosemary and meadow sage in empty spots in the garden, and trimmed back some other lavenders I wanted to keep. It’s all looking a bit bare and sad right now, but once everything starts growing it should fill in nicely.

The veggie patch

While I was cutting back and digging out, I removed the now spent eggplant bushes from the back garden, and steeled myself to cut back Audrey II, the boysenberry cane. I hate this job, as she is one mean, green mother. To make the job less painful (literally), I decided to only cut back two of the plants (she is actually four). Some gardening advice: don’t plant boysenberries. They are delicious, but painful. Not delicious enough, in my view. Find something thornless, if you want to grow berries.

I planted out some purple cauliflower seedlings that were ready for transplant, fed everything in the veggie patch with an organic liquid fertiliser, and finished mulching with sugar cane mulch. Yes, even heading into Winter I still mulch. Our Winter is still pretty dry so we should mulch no matter the weather. It also suppresses weeds, which are more likely to come up in Winter.

Coming along nicely are the turnips, carrots, beets, first batch of collards, and radishes. Garlic is looking lovely but of course will not be ready for months and months. Every year I weigh up giving space to garlic, which takes the longest to mature of any annual vegetable in the backyard. Then I harvest it and I am so glad I did. I am down to my last bulb from last season, and then back to buying it again *sob*

As I was weeding and mulching today, I discovered three avocado trees behind the lime tree (which is weighed down with beautiful juicy limes). These have self-seeded from the compost bins just nearby. Like most of Australia, we have been eating copious avocados this year, as they have been at bargain basement prices ($1 an avo? Avo toast for all!!). Our compost bin is full of avocado seeds and skins as a result – and now my garden appears to be sprouting avo trees. I’d hazard a guess they are Hass. We have a Reed avocado (the king of avocados) growing behind the chook pen, from which we have received exactly zero avos in the last three seasons. We have decided to let the avo seedlings keep growing for now, and then we will decide whether to dig one out and plant it nearby as a pollinator for the Reed.

The other plant that is kicking along nicely behind the lime tree is a Beauregard sweet potato. I planted it as an experiment, and because I love sweet potatoes. It’s growing like crazy in the corner near the compost bins and asparagus bed. I’m very tempted to bandicoot underneath to see if we have any tubers, but I know I’m not supposed to dig anything up until the leaves go yellow. If there’s no sweet potatoes under there I will be so disappointed.

Seed starting

I also planted more seeds. My plan to grow everything from seed is starting to feel slightly insane as the weather grows cooler, but I am determined to accomplish it now that I have put it out there. I planted kale, mini cauliflower, more collards, and tatsoi seeds. In an old wheelbarrow I use as a raised bed I have more lettuce seeds coming up. My plan is not to buy lettuce at all until Summer. I have romanesco broccoli, orange cauliflower, and more cabbage almost ready to go in the ground.

And I officially give up on spinach. It seems that the only thing that loves baby spinach more than my youngest child is the birds that visit my garden. I have raised and planted 18 spinach plants and lost 18 spinach plants. I could buy a net and cover it to protect it from marauding sparrows, but that would cost me more than just buying it – so I think I’ll resign myself to buying baby spinach from now on. Interestingly, they leave the chard alone. They are discerning little pests – because really, who’d go for chard when you could have spinach? My husband said he’d build a scarecrow, but I think that would scare me more than them.

Weekend gardening jobs, 10th April 2022

April in Southern Australia is spectacular. As we walked by the reservoir this morning, the water rippled in a light breeze, and kangaroos bounded past. We sure are lucky to live in this beautiful part of the world.

After a walk and a quick breakfast, it was out to the garden to soak up some sun. It was just a perfect day to be out in the garden. Even clearing out old pumpkin vines was fun.

I went for a little wander and picked the last of the pumpkins (some Butternuts and a Queensland Blue), a bowl of eggplants, a bunch of carrots, a couple of final tomatoes, and a speckled cos lettuce (so pretty!).

Then I could finish clearing out the last of the Summer plants (except the eggplants, which are still going gangbusters) and clean up the whole garden ready for Autumn. So long, pumpkin vines (always a happy/sad feeling – happy because they are just all over the place, but sad because no more pumpkins). Farewell, tomato plants. I dug over the beds, spread organic fertiliser (pelletised chicken manure and blood and bone), and raked it all to a fine tilth. It’s amazing what a bit of tidying up can do – after a long growing season, when the garden is full of growing apparatus and rambling vines, it looks so neat and tidy when everything is cleared out. In a few months it will be full of plants again, but for now, it looks like the garden of one of those very organised gardeners I see on the internet.

I am organised, but not generally in the long tidy rows kind of way. I wish I was, but space is such a valuable resource in my garden, that I tend to fill in the gaps wherever I can, ruining the tidy line aesthetic so that after a month or so the veggie patch ends up with the same rambling quality as the front yard. I usually don’t mind it, but I did enjoy seeing it so neat today, if only for a moment.

The empty space was empty only briefly, after which I planted:

  • Garlic Mammoth – I planted out one full bulb, and I have another to plant out next weekend
  • Golden Acre Cabbage – half a dozen seedlings, grown from seed I saved last year
  • Red Spring Onions – two full punnets of onion sets, grown from seed
  • Green Viking Spinach – four seedlings, grown from seed. So far I have yet to grow a full Spinach plant from multiple seeds planted. If these babies fail too, I will go back to the more reliable Chard and Kale
  • Coriander- two seedlings grown from seed I saved last year

So far I have succeeded in only planting from seed. I planted up new seeds: Purple Sicily cauliflower, Curly Kale, Romanesco broccoli, and more Green Viking Spinach (c’mon little Spinach, you can do it!!).

Every season I become obsessed with growing something just because. You wouldn’t think plain old ordinary Spinach would be one of those things, and yet, here we are. That, and those crazy orange cauliflowers. I sent away for seeds and they sent me back exactly seven (7) seeds! They have all come up, but it’s a long way from seedling to plant, as I have been discovering over the past few weeks. I have a new found respect for plant wholesalers and retailers.

Pumpkin Season Outcomes

From left: Queensland Blue, Australian Butter, Buttercup

This year I grew four varieties of pumpkins: the classic Butternut, Queensland Blue, Australian Butter, and Buttercup. Of these, the Butternut was the most prolific (in fact, I still have a single vine in the corner of the yard that still has five pumpkins growing). Queensland Blue was the next best, and I only got one each of the gorgeous orange Australian Butter and Buttercup. However, I already know I will grow Buttercup again – I’ve already saved the seeds ready for next year. That was the most delicious pumpkin I have ever eaten. I hope next year it will grow more productively than this year.

In previous years, I have had excellent success with Kent pumpkins (also known as Jap in other parts of Australia). I will grow these again next year, as I can’t beat them for their output, although they are not as tasty as either Butternut or Buttercup.

Mostly I grow them because it’s fun, and they are so pretty. I am just happy to have ten organic pumpkins in my pantry, ready for soup and curries. They keep so well, I expect to have pumpkins for at least the next six months (if I can hold off eating them that long).

The unbearable optimism of planting seeds

I’m trying something unbelievably optimistic this season: I’m trying to plant my entire cool season garden from seeds. No seedlings or advanced plants.

Collard greens grown from seed

Seeds have some benefits over planting seedlings. There is a much wider range of plants to choose when you buy seeds. Instead of being held to the limited range of what is most commercially viable at the Big Green Shed, you can go to the many online seed companies and choose interesting varieties. For example, I love a lettuce called Marvel of Four Seasons (tbh, I think I just love the name). You can’t buy it in seedling form, but I can buy a packet of seeds for $3 from an online seed retailer. Or I can decide to trial a pumpkin I’ve never grown before, just for the heck of it, because it looked pretty in a catalogue or a podcaster told me it was good.

Growing from seed is also (mostly) fun. I spend at least a couple of hours a week fiddling around with seed-raising mix and seed trays and labels. I’m no scientician, but playing with seeds is as close as I get.

Growing from seed is immensely satisfying. When I see plants I grew from seed turn into delicious veggies and herbs, I feel extra proud – like a real gardener, not those fake ones I see on TV.

But – and of course you knew there was going to be a but – growing from seed is also bloody heart-breaking. It would be much cheaper and easier to just pick up a darn punnet of regular old caulis and cos lettuces from Bunnos and be done with it. I mean, lettuce is lettuce, right (even if it doesn’t have a cool name)? If I lose a couple to cabbage moth or pigeons, it would bug me a little, but I wouldn’t feel the gut punch I did when more than half my Green Viking Spinach seedlings disappeared overnight thanks to a hungry bird. I spend a lot of time growing my orange caulis and collard greens from seed. To lose them in such arbitrary fashion…argh!

Also, if I wasn’t growing from seed, I would have a garden almost fully planted up by now. Sowing from seed, even with a heat mat, takes a looooooong time. I started back in February, and it’s already April. After over two decades of parenting, my patience is quite well-honed, but still – I could be well on the way to broccoli and cauliflower by now.

Why have I not caved and bought a few backup punnets? I mean, does it really matter in the long run? I set myself this crazy challenge, after all.

Some dude once said, gardening is the triumph of hope over experience.

I guess that’s why.

Weekend gardening jobs, March 13 & 14 2021

It was a long weekend here in our State, and it’s also early Autumn. Many of the Summer veggie plants are finishing off, and it’s time to start getting ready for the Autumn garden.

Autumn in our area is now tending toward the dry and warm, thanks to the ongoing effects of climate change. The long-range weather forecast for our region predicts just 10mm of rain for March, and not much rain for April (traditionally a wet month). The forecast is predicting a dry Autumn, a warmer and drier Winter, and a cooler and wetter Spring and Summer (basically, a repeat of the last twelve months). This means that gardeners need to change our approach to seasonal planting. Plants we might not have considered for the Autumn garden might be a possibility. We might be able to grow Summer veggies later into Autumn.

I’m seeing that myself right now. I still have an abundance of eggplant and chillies in my patch, and no sign that the plants will stop producing anytime soon. I have sowed some carrots, lettuces, and turnips directly in the ground, and they have popped their little leaves up already. As it’s still warm during the day, the soil is still warm enough to start directly sowed seeds. And usually gardeners wait until after first frost to harvest pumpkins, but the plants are dying off already with no sign of a frost on the horizon. I need to decide whether to pick the pumpkins, or try to keep them on rapidly drying up vines. I think I will have to pick, and give up on the idea of frost.

Cleaning up the garden

The Summer garden is almost finished. I spent most of this morning (Monday) picking the rest of the tomatoes, green beans, and a final watermelon (we only got a couple – note to self, don’t bother next year!!), and clearing out spent plants. Then I dug over the soil, sprinkled organic fertiliser over the soil, and raked it in ready for planting seedlings in a couple of weeks.

Seed-starting

Starting plants from seed is a kind of ‘one step forward, two steps back’ process. I successfully started a dozen silverbeet (chard) and another dozen spinach plants about a month ago, and then once they were large enough I planted them out in the garden. All but two of them have been eaten by birds. So now, frustratingly, I have to start those plants again. Don’t believe blogs or resources that say seeds are a lot cheaper than seedlings. Technically, seeds are much cheaper when comparing a packet of 500 seeds to a punnet of six grown plants – but like everything in gardening, nothing is as simple as that. Factoring in the cost of seeds, seed-raising mix, seed trays (which can be re-used), and now the heat mat with electricity, as well as the time, I probably come out ahead slightly, but not that much far ahead, than if I bought seedlings.

Where seeds are really worth it is in the wider variety you can access, and the fun.

I can find varieties of plants from seed catalogues that I can’t find in seedling form at a nursery. For example, recently I decided I wanted to grow collards. Collards are popular in America, but not in Australia, so I can’t find them in seedling form at a nursery or even as seeds from most mainstream seed companies. However, after a bit of online searching I found collard seeds from a seed company in NSW. They also had lots of interesting varieties of lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, radish, turnips, and kale, so I bought all the seeds I wanted to try for the Autumn garden from them. I will still buy seedlings from nurseries, but my plan is to try to start most of my plants from seed this season. I also like fiddling around with propagation kits and seed-starting, so although it’s not cheaper or a time-saver, it’s a great hobby.

However, trying to plan a garden this way requires a lot of planning on my part. As I really only have weekends, I need to be much more organised if I want to grow my garden almost entirely from seed this season. I can’t wait around until the end of March, then throw in a few dozen seedlings and still be fine. I have to start now to get the seeds going. This is why I am spending at least an hour a week starting seeds.

This week, I started more chard (after my first lot were eaten by birds), leeks, coriander, cauliflower, and more onions. In the garden, I direct sowed lettuce, turnips, and carrots. I planted out spring onions that I started from seed three weeks ago. I have just started to have to buy onions and carrots again, after months of not having to, and it’s so annoying! My goal is to have enough onions, carrots, lettuces, and greens in my garden for most of the year from mid-April without having to buy any.

I love turnips and kohlrabi, but I have had middling success with them. I think this is related to time of planting, which is why I am trying to be diligent with the planting time this year.

Summer Winners and Losers

This year, the garden winners for the Summer season were the eggplants, beans, chillies, and pumpkins. We still have an abundance of eggplants coming on, and I anticipate them to keep going for several more weeks. We have been eating at least one full eggplant meal per week – usually a spicy eggplant pasta dish or a curry. We have about twelve pumpkins on the vine almost ready to go (another week or so), including Queensland Blues, Australian Butter, Butternut, and a variety that I can’t recall the name of. I’m very excited about the Australian Butter, which is a brilliant orange.

The green beans, which are Blue Lake variety, have also been abundant, and we have been eating them in vegetarian stir fries with carrots, chillies, and noodles. The chillies have been prolific. We have grown eight varieties of chilli: cayenne, dragon’s roll (prolific but not spicy, and a bit dull), dragon’s tongue (delicious and super spicy – our favourite), curly toenail, mango, cherry, lemon, and jalapeño. The best have been the dragon’s tongue and the curly toenail. Both are spicy, but also have a great flavour. The lemon chilli is delicious green and sliced up on top of chilli, eggs, stir fries, curries, or anything that you want a bit of a kick with that lovely fresh green chilli flavour.

The garden losers this year were the zucchini, cucumbers (ugh, I bloody give up), melons, and tomatoes. I’m not sure who had a good tomato year, but it definitely was not me. That’s partly my own fault: I did not really put a huge effort into tomatoes this year. If tomato seedlings popped up, I let them grow, but I did not choose tomato plants and nurture them. As such, we had a couple of nice cherry tomato plants grow in cracks and corners, but the other plants struggled. I did this because I was trying to rest the main tomato growing areas in my garden after discovering nematodes on a couple of plants last year. I am glad I did this: when I pulled up the sad tomato plants today, I found none of them had nematodes. I hope this means that the nematodes are now gone from my soil. I picked what was left and made a green tomato pickle (delicious).

I did get a few good zucchini, and two melons (technically that makes this my best watermelon season ever), but the wet, cool Summer created ideal conditions for mildew. The zucchini plant rapidly succumbed to powdery mildew, and I ended up pulling it earlier than usual. Goodbye, zucchini season, I hardly knew ye.

Weekend gardening jobs, 20th February 2021

It’s been a busy week in the garden, because I gave myself a week off (exciting). As I work for myself, it’s not often that I get a full week off, but I managed it!

As it’s still Covid times, I took the week off around home, but it was still very lovely. I spent a few mornings and afternoons in the garden, and also visited some outdoor gardening places, such as the botanic gardens, the Digger’s shop in the botanic gardens, where I bought plants and garlic to plant in a few weeks time, and the annual Chilli Festival, where I bought chilli plants and a local plant nursery and bought more house plants. So I guess it was kind of a gardening holiday in which I spent the majority of the time either gardening or thinking about gardening.

House plant mania

I looked around my house this morning and realised that I have a crazy amount of house plants. There is at least one house plant in almost every room. In the lounge room, there are about twenty. On the kitchen window sill I’m striking four new plants. In my office I have six plants to keep me company while I work.

It might be time to slow it down a little, because they actually take a fair bit of time to care for.

Melon success

Pocket melon

I have been trying to grow melons since…always. I have never successfully grown any melons, despite having grown pumpkins with success for a number of years. This has always puzzled me, since pumpkins and melons are closely related. I could not figure out what I was doing wrong.

To be honest, I can’t figure out what I am doing right either, but whatever it is I’ll take it! I’m growing two varieties: Pocket Melon, and Golden Midget. Both are smaller varieties. Golden Midget is a golden melon with red flesh, that grows to 2.5kg at the largest, making it a relatively small melon. The Pocket Melon is a much smaller melon, grown for its intense fragrance more than its flavour. I’m growing them more as an experiment than anything else – if I can break the melon curse then it will have been worth it.

Golden Midget

Preparing for next season

Right now we are picking an abundance of veggies from the garden, and most of our meals are made almost entirely from the veggie patch.

Spinach fettuccine with spicy eggplant sauce – we are cooking from the garden every night

But I have an eye to next season, and I have already bought all the seeds we need for a full Winter/Spring veggie patch. In addition to the usual suspects (broccoli, cabbage etc) I want to try some different veggies to shake our diet up a little. I have been listening to an American gardening podcast called Backyard Gardens, which has me thinking about some different options. I recommend listening to it, with some caveats: the seasons are obviously the opposite to ours, the pests they deal with are generally non-existent in Australia, and the male host has a habit of sometimes speaking over the female host (she’s great). I still listen because I enjoy listening to the female host, and I like learning about what other gardeners are doing, even if it’s across the world.

They suggested growing collards. These are a vegetable that I have never eaten or grown. They are a brassica, related to cabbage and kale. The seeds are not easy to find in Australia, but I found some sold by Happy Valley Seeds in NSW. I’m looking forward to growing and learning to cook collards, which the Backyard Gardens hosts say are tastier than kale (I also like growing and eating kale).

Happy Valley Seeds also sell a wide range of other heirloom and hybrid seeds, so I bought most of next season’s seeds from this site. In addition to the collards, I bought lots of lettuce, purple and orange cauliflower, cabbage, onions, carrots, kohlrabi, turnips, silverbeet (chard), spinach, two types of kale, and broccoli seeds. I am using my heat mat to raise the seeds inside, so I can plant them out in March once the Summer veggies are done.

I bought the heat mat as part of a propagation kit from Diggers Club last month. The whole mat costs $50, but I bought it as part of a kit for $100 (the kit also included a seed tray with cover, seed raising mix, jiffy pots and some other gear). The electric mat supplies gentle heat to the bottom of a seed tray and speeds up propagation. Instead of waiting 7-10 days for seeds to come up, they pop up in three days! I already have seedling pots of silverbeet and spinach ready to plant out once they add their mature leaves, and I have onions, kohlrabi, and collards popping their little heads out now. I love this thing, and just wish that I had bought one years ago. I ordered my kit online from Diggers Club, but you can find them online from other places, as well as the separate components from the Big Green Shed.

What to do with all that stuff you grow

  • Freeze it: shred zucchini, carrots, beetroot, and freeze in one cup portions in snap lock bags. For the zucchini, squeeze out as much water as you can first. To freeze green beans, spread on a tray lined with baking paper, then place in a bag once frozen. To freeze silverbeet, kale or spinach, just chop it and freeze it in bags, and either use it from frozen, or thaw it.
  • Preserve it: make jam, chutney, passata, ketchup, or preserve it;
  • Give it away to friends, family, co-workers, or put it on a Grow Free cart;
  • Bake it: there are so many recipes online for muffins, cakes, brownies, etc using veggies, including vegan options;
  • Cook it: we are not vegetarian but right now we are eating mostly vegetarian food or less meat meals, because we just have so many veggies to eat! We certainly eat our five a day at the moment (admittedly sometimes in chocolate beetroot brownie form, which probably doesn’t count).

What to do with your excess garden produce

Excess garden produce waiting to be used
Photo by Adonyi Gábor on Pexels.com

Once you start building up a decent productive vegetable garden, you often end up with an excess of garden produce.

We are now at the point where we have several months a year that we have enough homegrown veggies to cover our basic needs. In the height of the Summer months, with swaps with friends and neighbours and our own produce, we often get away with not buying much fruit and almost no veggies, with the exception of some lettuce, potatoes, lemons, and avocados.

Planning around your garden produce

However, not buying from the supermarket means we have to think outside the square a little bit. When you rely on the supermarket or fruit & veg shop for produce, you can buy whatever is a good price and is in season, then cook based on what you have purchased.

When you are relying on the garden, you have to consider a bit more carefully what to cook, based on what is ready in your garden. As you can’t always predict exactly when something will be ready, you have to play it by ear a bit more.

This week we have a lot of turnips, daikon radishes, lettuce, collards, and onions in the garden. That means soups, some Japanese, and some Mexican dishes will be on the menu this week. Fortunately, we like pretty much everything (allergies prevent us eating a couple of cuisines like Thai, but we would if we could). We will be having quesasdillas, burrito bowls, soup, and a riff on okonomiyaki (delicious Japanese pancakes). I’ve had to figure this out ahead of time because I’m not too sure what to make with a fridge full of turnips, radishes and collard greens, once I’ve given some away. It’s part of the fun and challenge of home gardening.

The other thing I do is preserve and save excess so I have it later in the year when I wish I had a couple of turnips or beets in the fridge.

What can you do with excess produce?

Freeze it

I still have some produce from last season in my freezer, including bags of washed and chopped raw rhubarb and spinach, grated zucchini, and stewed rhubarb and apple. I use these to supplement the fresh veggies to the point that I can stretch out both homegrown garden produce and store bought veggies.

Freezing is an easy and cost-effective way to save garden produce. I shred zucchini, carrots, beetroot, and freeze in one cup portions in snap lock bags. For the zucchini, squeeze out as much water as you can first. I use these shredded veggies in chillies, pasta sauces, cakes, muffins, and soups.

To freeze green beans, broccoli, or cauliflower, wash and trim, then spread on a tray lined with baking paper. Place in a bag once frozen. To freeze excess tomatoes you can just put them in a bag whole. Then when you thaw them, they slip out of their skins. Squeeze out the seeds and then you can use in any recipe you would use canned tomatoes. Chillies can also be thrown into a bag whole, and used either straight from the freezer, or thawed. They last for a long time like that.

I chop rhubarb into 2.5 cm (one-inch) lengths and freeze in bags or containers, then use straight from frozen in muffins, crumbles, or you can roast or stew with apples.

For leafy greens like spinach or kale, wash well, then shred and freeze. Use straight from the bag in pasta dishes or soups.

For soft fruits, like peaches, place in a large heatproof bowl. Cut an ‘X’ in the base of the fruit. Carefully pour boiling water over the fruit and let sit until the water cools enough to dip your hands in safely. The skin will come away from the fruit easily. Peel it away, then quarter the fruit and place in one or two cup portions in snap lock bags and freeze. I use these for muffins, crumbles, or pies when Summer is over, and I am missing those delicious soft fruits. I don’t have a peach tree but my friend does – we usually swap other things during the year and at peach time, we receive a couple of bags of delicious freestone peaches.

I use snap lock backs and usually reuse them once or twice (don’t do this if you have used them to freeze meats or dairy products). Make sure to squeeze the air out to prevent freezer burn.

Preserve it

clear glass mason jars
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Make jam, chutney, pickles, passata, ketchup, or bottle your produce. I tend to make jams, chutneys or pickles because it’s an easy way to preserve excess produce for shelf stable storage, but these methods do use more sugar than bottling (also I don’t have a bottling kit). I also really enjoy making jams and pickles; it’s a relaxing time for me. You have to prepare ahead of time though: many recipes require a step the night before, and you need to make sure you have enough jars, lids, and some equipment. I don’t bother with recipes that require water bathing for shelf stability, or that only stay fresh for a couple of weeks (with the exception of lime or lemon curd – because these are so delicious it’s worth it).

Because I make these from my garden produce, we don’t buy many condiments, aside from the basics. The quality of homemade jams and pickles is much higher than the supermarket kind, and I know exactly what is in the jar. Although it is quite high in sugar, we don’t it much of it, so I don’t see it as a health issue. If I was eating it daily, I would worry about it more.

Commonly I make marmalade in Winter, a peach and apricot jam in Summer, and a rhubarb and ginger jam in Autumn. I also often make a lime curd when I have an abundance of eggs and limes, and I pickle beetroot, onions, eggplant, and last year I made a delicious rhubarb ketchup. Last year we planted a couple of plum trees, so I am hoping to one day have enough plums to make my grandmother’s famous satsuma plum sauce, which I still occasionally dream about.

Dry it

I have a dehydrator and use this a couple of times a year to dry excess fruits like chillies and peaches. Last season I dried a lot of chillies and ground them up to make chilli powder. It is so hot that we are still slowly using it months later. I used some in a recipe recently: a quarter teaspoon replaced a whole teaspoon in the recipe, and it was still very spicy.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend buying a dehydrator unless you intend to dry quite a lot. However, they last a long time and do not use much electricity. We have had ours for over ten years, and it is still working as well as the day we bought it. We have a Snackmaker Ezidri, which is a mid-priced model. It’s handy to have and I like the option to use it. However you can also use your oven on low, or just freeze your produce instead.

Store it

I keep pumpkins downstairs in my pantry, and use the most perishable first (that is the thin skinned varieties, like Kent). The thicker-skinned pumpkins like Queensland Blue and Jarrahdale are still there from last season. I check them periodically to make sure they are still in good condition, and make a plan to eat one every couple of weeks.

Bake it

carrot cake and tea pot
Photo by Hilal Bülbül on Pexels.com

There are a billion recipes for muffins, cakes, brownies, etc using veggies, including vegan options. I love a zucchini loaf or carrot cake, personally. Almost all of these freeze well for later consumption. Also check out chocolate beetroot recipes – amazing.

Give it away!

One of the great parts of gardening is of course, sharing the produce you grow. I always have some eggs to share, as well as some veggies at different times of the year. But not everyone wants or can use the vegetables I grow. I learned this the hard way one year when I brought a bag of kale into the office. This was before kale was dubbed a superfood and kale smoothies were a thing. No-one wanted it! I ended up having to take it back home.

Give it away to friends, family, co-workers – but ask first if they want it so you don’t experience my kale conundrum. You could put it on a Grow Free cart. I also give away the jams and pickles, or swap them. Although I love making them, to be honest I do make more than we can eat. Sharing is fun because I often receive a jar of something else back at a later date. A friend’s husband once gave us an amazing feijoa jam that was so, so delicious. I don’t grow them, so it was lovely to try something really different that we would never be able to buy.