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.

Greenhouse Setup

The greenhouse was built several weeks ago now, but I have not really had any time to use it yet.

Firstly, I am working flat out up to Christmas. I have been stealing a little bit of time in the garden on weekends, but I am working most weekends as well.

The other reason is that while the builder had built the lovely greenhouse, we had left a bunch of junk in there. He kindly built around it, and although he offered to move it, we knew it was our responsibility to shift it all. This junk included a big stack of pavers and sundry other crapola. Shifting the pavers took me the best part of a full day, because I also had to clean them all. I discovered quite a few species of technicolour spiders I had never seen before, some teeny gecko skeletons, and a big old nest of ants.

We posted the whole lot on Gumtree (the pavers, not the critters) and gave them away the next day.

Once the space was clear, I had to order shelving, racks, and planters. I went to a few places locally to see what was available, and also looked on Gumtree for secondhand racks, but there was nothing suitable. I ended up going to the evil empire Amazon for raised planters, a stainless steel kitchen bench, and stainless steel plant racks.

All these have started to arrive, and thanks to the assembly skills of my husband and various teens about the house, they are now set up in the greenhouse.

Raised planters

I have planted up three of the planters with seeds (watermelons and cucumbers, as well as having another crack at eggplants, for the final time this season). One planter has been set aside for my youngest kiddo and my nephew to play around with, as they have both expressed an interest in learning to garden.

Planters and racks

When the bench arrives, it will be placed in the centre of the greenhouse so I make good use of space. That will be the potting area.

This time of year is not ideal for a greenhouse (Summer in Southern Australia), except…it has been unseasonably cool. So I’m going to keep playing around with the greenhouse and will try my luck growing some melons and cucumbers in here this season. Where it will really come into its own will be the cooler months. I’m pretty happy with the whole setup – it’s neat, it’s functional, and mostly, it’s just hella fun.

How to spot an obsessive gardener

The new greenhouse

We built a greenhouse

Or, I should say, Geoff the builder did.

I have been thinking about installing a greenhouse for a while. Our area of Southern Australia has been heading towards a two-season year for a couple of years now, thanks to either a) climate change or b) an evil mage’s curse. We have had long, cold, Spring times that seem to be an extension of our Winter months, and this pattern seems to be recurring. After the long Winter/Spring, we have our usual warm to hot Summers and longer, warmer Autumns.

A greenhouse will extend the warm growing season

I have been looking online, but I do not have building skills. I don’t even really have IKEA skills. Most of the kit-form greenhouses are expensive, and are shipped, flat pack style, to the buyer, to be built and installed by the customer. I couldn’t ascertain the quality, and I was fairly certain I couldn’t put one together. I assumed you need more than an allen key and a dream.

There was also the slight problem of space.

When we bought it, our property had three sheds for some reason (five if you count the dilapidated double garage and the lean to around the side, both of which we had to demolish). Maybe the owners before us had a lot of things to store. Maybe they were car enthusiasts or woodworkers – who knows! Too many sheds, in my view.

Behind the patio was a small garden shed that we stored all our tools, potting mix, and gardening equipment, but this stuff could be moved to one of the other sheds with a little effort. If we pulled that shed down, the space could either be used to extend the garden area, or install a greenhouse.

Enter Geoff the Builder. Geoff has been our builder for previous projects. He has renovated various parts of our 70s palace in the past. The great thing about Geoff is that he’s always thinking about ways to reclaim materials and do a job for less.

He was at our place quoting on a repair job on some fascia boards, when I asked him how much it would cost to pull down the garden shed and put together a greenhouse kit for me.

“Nah,” he said, “Don’t buy one of those – I’ll build you one.” He inspected the shed and surmised that the original frame was sturdy and good condition. A week later, I had a quote for a design and build on a greenhouse using the original frame of the old shed.

Interior of the greenhouse

It cost less than the greenhouses I was eyeing online, and while some new materials were used (shade cloth, poly sheets), we were able to reuse the original frame and Geoff took the tin from the old shed to reuse elsewhere. This made it a much more sustainable option. I also know if it ever needs to be repaired, I can call Geoff and he can fix it.

Ventilation has been built in via shade cloth panels on the back wall and two front walls. This allows for adequate air flow. The rest of the walls, including the door, are clear polycarbonate sheeting. The floor is the original shed paving.

The whole job took him 2.5 days. It would have taken me weeks to put together a kit, if I could have done it at all, and it would not have been a good use of my time. I spent some of the weekend sweeping it out, but it is basically ready to go.

Now I have the fun part – figuring out how to use it!

I realised this morning that this is next level gardening obsessive.

There’s people that enjoy gardening, that have a pot of herbs or two, some houseplants, a beloved rose. Then there’s people that really love it, for whom gardening is their main hobby. That used to be me.

Then one day I graduated. One day my brain switched gear, and I became an obsessive gardener.

I wondered when that happened. Was it when I tried to grow my entire season’s worth of veggies from seed? Was it when I spent 45 minutes trying to find the perfect gardening gloves, and told my husband off for wearing them and stretching them out? When I converted the whole back yard into a veggie patch? When I named the passionfruit and boysenberry vines? When my neighbour dropped off bags of poo on my doorstep and I thanked him for his thoughtfulness?

Or did I finally, finally, crack this week, when we installed a greenhouse?

Yep. I think this was the moment.

Spring long weekend gardening jobs, October 2nd 2022

Spring bulbs are one of the best parts of spring gardening

I love Spring gardening. I’d love nothing more than to be spending all day long in the Spring sunshine, but unfortunately I’m not paid to garden (more’s the pity).

It’s been one of my busiest work periods in a while. This means very little time for me to spend outside. The closest I have come is looking out the window at the Spring bulbs blooming in the front garden. Check out the irises growing under the Mulberry Tree – the best display of Dutch Irises we have ever had.

However, we had a long weekend (Labour Day), so I gave myself a day off and spent the entire Sunday in the veggie patch (after a quick trip to the Big Green Shed to buy a few supplies).

My first job was picking a bowl of veggies. It was exciting to find the first spears of asparagus in the garden today, along with lots of rainbow chard, spring onions, Tuscan kale (also known as cavolo nero or dinosaur kale), cabbage, daikon radish, and carrots.

Speaking of asparagus, if you are growing it, don’t forget about it. One of the awesome things about the Spring gardening season is how quickly things take off. One of the challenging things about the Spring gardening season, is how quickly things take off! If you don’t keep an eye on plants like asparagus and broccoli, you will either find yourself overrun, or it has bolted faster than you can pick it. The first problem is not too bad, but the second is pretty heartbreaking after all your efforts.

Spring gardening leads to spring greens

Spring gardening, seed starting

I had a big list of jobs but decided to start with the most fun jobs first. I am trying to grow as many plants as I can from seed again, without being prescriptive about it. I have been starting seeds to plant out in the late Spring garden since early August, and I am still sowing veggie seeds. I spent a happy hour or so sowing some more seeds, and potted on seedlings that were ready to move into bigger pots.

I have some beautiful tomato plants almost ready to go out into the garden in a few weeks, and capsicums growing bigger. I have learned though that basil, chillies, and eggplant do not like to be started in September, even on a heat mat – it’s just too early. As soon as I moved the seedlings off the heat mat, the plants keeled over and died in the cold. I have had to restart them all over again, wasting time and seeds. Hopefully this next lot will work out better.

This week, I sowed chillies, eggplants, okra, sunflowers, and some seeds I had saved from an heirloom tomato we bought from the supermarket that was delicious. I scooped the seeds onto a paper towel on a plate to dry, then I lazily tore bits of the dried towel into little pieces and planted them into soil (call it a “cheats seed tape”). I have already tried this out with good success (from a black cherry tomato I enjoyed earlier this year), and now I have a dozen seedlings growing in pots ready for the garden. Whether they will grow true to type is the next question.

The only problem is that now I have heaps of tomato seedlings. My plan this year was lots of eggplant, fewer tomatoes. I’ve ended up with lots of tomato plants, and so far very few eggplants! I’ll be giving away some tomato seedlings and will have to buy some extra eggplant seedlings to achieve my goal of a mountain of delicious eggplants this Summer.

Re-potting houseplants

I recently bought some lovely houseplants at a sale. Unfortunately since they have arrived at my place, the ficus has started dropping leaves and the calathea has almost completely turned up its toes. Generally I do quite well with houseplants, so I was concerned about why these two were struggling. I tried moving them to a different spot, but this did not help. I soaked them in a bath of water, which also did not help.

I decided to repot them, as the mix they were in seemed to be very loose (more akin to a cacti and succulent mix than a potting mix). The roots seemed not to be rotted, so that is not the issue with the calathea. I moved them to the patio area, which has sheltered light but is much warmer than the house. I’m misting them daily with water to increase the humidity. Hopefully this stops the ficus dropping leaves, and helps the calathea leaves to unfurl.

Messy jobs

The rest of the day, I turned the three compost bins and then cleaned out the chicken shed. I pulled out some weeds, and dug out the remnants of the boysenberry cane, Audrey II, which reared her thorny head yet again. I think I will be digging the damn thing out for quite a while, but as I refuse to use RoundUp in my garden that is just what I will have to do.

I do have to start pulling out some plants that are going to seed. I started with a few kohlrabi (ugh, why do I keep trying! It never sets a bulb for me) and fed them to some very appreciative chickens. I still have quite a few parts of the garden to clear, but as the seedlings aren’t ready yet, this job can be done in small sections.

Eating from the veggie patch

I staggered back in to clean up, then made a batch of really delicious okonomiyaki for dinner (you can make these with any veggies, but I made them with cabbage, daikon, carrots, chard and spring onions) before crashing out in front of the TV. Yay for the Spring gardening season – the most wonderful time of the year! Some people think that’s Christmas…but not me!

The plan this week is just to eat from the garden: okonomiyaki, spinach and feta rolls, squash and kale pasta, spinach and lentil dal…so many delicious options with these amazing greens. If you have any good recipes for Spring greens, let me know!

Growing a mini meadow

The author's mini meadow attracts insects to the vegetable garden

An important part of any productive garden should be flowers. Flowers attract beneficial insects such as bees and other pollinators, and also feed birds (many birds feed on nectar from flowers – these birds are also pollinators). I grow perennial ornamental flowering plants like salvias and lavender in my front yard, interspersed with fruit trees, herbs (which also flower annually), and flowering bulbs. I also grow annual ornamental flowers in window boxes and tubs on my balcony and front stoop. And I have planted what I like to call a ‘mini meadow’ in front of my backyard veggie patch.

What the heck is a mini meadow?

It’s a bit of a laugh really, calling it a mini meadow. It’s far too small to be a meadow. It’s really a rambling flower patch. But it kind of functions like a meadow. A meadow is an open field, planted by grasses and non-woody plants. Meadows play an important role in ecosystems, acting as carbon sinks, and as homes for animals, birds and food sources for pollinators.

My mini meadow doesn’t have grasses, because I weed them out. But it does have a range of flowers, about half of which are self-seeded, and that are non-woody. It attracts pollinators and birds. It lies in front of our retaining wall, and it is planted with the following herbs and flowers:

  • Nasturtiums
  • Violets
  • Poppies
  • Calendula
  • Nigella
  • Alyssum
  • Dahlias
  • Freesias
  • Daffodils
  • Sweet peas
  • Dianthus
  • Borage
  • Cosmos

You don’t have to be precious with a meadow. I stomp all over it on my way to the veggie patch, and it bounces back with no worries. It’s not made to be protected and cossetted. It’s not organised, and it will not win any awards for garden design. Many people would find it too messy to have in their backyard, but it suits my purposes. It is low maintenance, drought tolerant, tough, cheap as chips (as it’s mostly self-seeded), and it does its job of attracting beneficial insects to the veggie patch.

Building a backyard meadow

Growing a mini meadow obviously requires some space. If you want to try it, you will need a bit of spare earth in your garden. You could try creating on on your front verge (I’ve been thinking of doing this on our verge).

I first started building the meadow after my husband finished the retaining wall. He took an extended break before paving in the front. No shade to my husband, who was busy doing other things (i.e. building the trellises I requested) but there was a patch of dirt left for several months. You can’t just leave a patch of dirt hanging about and not expect a gardener to fill it with something. I figured better a couple of flowers than letting weeds set in. So I threw in a couple of nasturtium seeds, just for some easy colour. Then my mum gave me some lovely orange poppies. Then…well, you get the picture.

The soil in that spot had not been improved with anything – it had been compacted because it had previously been paved over. My husband had removed the old paving to install the retaining wall. I loosened up the soil with a fork, and then started planting, but I did not improve it with compost or fertiliser before I began to add plants.

I still have never fed it with anything, not even my homemade compost (I save that for the veggie beds and the fruit trees), and I don’t water it. The rule for my meadow is that aside from some basic weeding to stay tidy, it has to sustain itself. So the meadow has been built on some dodgy, compacted, weedy soil and left to its own devices. Something useful and pretty has developed, at almost no cost.

The only maintenance it gets is some weeding and every now and then, some new plants. Every time I am out in the garden I pull a few weeds from the meadow, or deadhead a flower or two. This weekend I saw it needed a bit more work than that, so I got out the trusty ho-mi, and weeded the whole bed. But that is really a once-a-year task. Because the meadow is planted so closely, weeds rarely get a look in.

Over time, it has developed a lovely rambling vibe that has led me to give it the ‘mini meadow’ epithet. Occasionally, I sprinkle in a few more seeds, or crush a seed pod from a nearby flower head. This keeps it going along its rambling way. The idea is for it to be planted closely and for something to always be flowering to attract bees, lacewings, and hoverflies to my veggie patch. At this time of year, I have daffodils, alyssum, calendula, nasturtiums, and violets flowering. In a few weeks, I’ll have my favourite, sweet peas, and freesias. In Summer dahlias, poppies, nigella, and cosmos are in flower.

When my husband does get to re-paving the backyard, he can dig parts of the meadow up and it will not damage the rest of it – although I will admit that I’ll be sad if it all goes.

Tips for building a mini-meadow

If you have the space for your own little meadow, it’s easy to create one. Fill it with plants that are low maintenance, require little water and attention, and can easily self-seed. Plants that self-seed readily include calendula, alyssum, cosmos, poppies, and nigella. These are also very attractive to bees. As seed heads form and dry, let the seeds fall and re-seed among the bed. You can include annual bulbs like daffodils as well, for a bit of height and interest, although they will only flower once a year. Remember to plant closely so that weeds cannot grow easily between your meadow plants.

Perennials that are worth planting for longer-term colour are dianthus and violets. They will have the added benefit of a beautiful perfume.

Take care that your meadow is relatively self-contained though, as some plants like violets can become weedy if they have room to spread.

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.

5 tips to plan your Summer garden

sunflower during sunset
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What do do when it’s too cold outside? Start planning your Summer garden!

My plan for Saturday afternoon was to spend the afternoon weeding the front garden. But it was so, so cold – and I just couldn’t face it. I made a cup of tea, rugged myself up, and read the latest issue of the Digger’s Club Seed Annual catalogue instead.

Looking at the beautiful seed catalogue got me thinking ahead to warm, sunny days. And that got me planning ahead to the Summer veggie patch. My garden is currently full of brassicas, turnips and peas, but in six weeks they will be cleared away to make space for warm season veggies. So what to grow? The possibilities are endless….

My garden space, however, is not. This is where some good planning comes to the fore.

Traditionally, I’ve taken more of a casual approach to garden planning

However, as my garden has become home to more fruit trees and vines (even though most are espaliered) that is just not possible anymore. It’s time to be more thoughtful about my space.

It’s also a good idea to start planning the Summer garden early because I have to think about what I want to plant, order the seeds (or go to a local nursery), raise them, and wait for them to grow. It might sound like it’s too early at the start of August, but think about it. My Autumn seed raising experiment found that trying to grow everything from seed takes a really long time (and I won’t be doing it again!) But even if you grow just some things from seed, you still need to plan well ahead. Seed catalogues are out now!

My 5 simple tips for planning a productive Summer garden

These are not rocket science, and they are based on my climate and my experience growing veggies in a Mediterranean climate.

  1. Choose veggies you actually like to eat and know how to cook. My husband recently admitted to me that he’s not a big fan of tomatoes. 25 years of marriage and I had no idea! I usually try to grow six or seven different varieties of tomato – but knowing that he’s not really into them, I’ll cut back to just two: a nice salad tomato and a cherry tomato (my youngest does love them) and leave space for more things I know we both love (hello, eggplant). I won’t stop growing heirlooms and rare varieties entirely, but I will reduce this down to just one or two new things – just to keep life exciting.
  2. Choose veggies you know will grow well in your microclimate. For some reason, cucumbers and melons collapse and die in my garden, but pumpkins go gangbusters. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, given they are close relatives, but I have seven years of experimentation to prove it. Every year I am suckered into trying yet another variety of melon and cucumber by the gorgeous seed catalogues, and every year I am sorely disappointed. Well, not this year! This Summer, I’m growing the plants I know will work – end of story.
  3. Choose veggies that aren’t too thirsty. All veggies will require irrigation, but there are some that are thirstier than others. Check the seed or seedling information before you buy to make sure you aren’t mortgaging your future in water bills. I know gardening is not just about ROI, but some plants just cost a lot to grow for a limited return (sweet corn, I’m looking at you).
  4. Choose plants that you have the space for. Although pumpkins need a lot of space to spread out, I train them over a trellis or wall and onto the pavers, so they actually don’t take up a lot of soil space. If you have limited space, choose compact versions of plants, such as bush beans, compact tomato plants, or patio ranges of zucchini. Try plants that climb up if you can build small trellises, or try growing in pots if you can. I grow lettuces and other leafy greens such as tatsoi (when the chickens aren’t getting into it) in an old wheelbarrow and a raised bed.
  5. Include some flowers in your garden to attract pollinators and improve pollination of fruiting plants. I always try to include dwarf sunflowers, dahlias, nasturtiums, petunias, poppies, love-in-a-mist (nigella), alyssum, dianthus, and cosmos in the Summer garden.

So, what’s my Summer garden plan?

This season I intend to grow a lot of chillies, eggplant, climbing beans, spring onions, and pumpkins in my Summer garden. These are all staples in my family. I also intend to grow some cherry tomatoes, salad tomatoes, capsicums (sweet peppers), and zucchini. I personally love zucchini, but I find it takes up a lot of space and does not do that well in my area (slightly better than cucumber, but not much). So I will grow some but would rather save the space for something that does better.

These are the varieties I am intending to grow

Pumpkins from last years Summer garden
Pumpkins from last year’s Summer Garden
  • Tomatoes: Green Zebra (unbeatable flavour and good yield) and Christmas Grapes, a cherry tomato I have not grown before;
  • Climbing Beans: I’m going for Purple King. I’ve tried many varieties of beans over the year, and Purple King is the best in my opinion, both for yield and the ability for me to see them on the vine (because I’m getting old). The beans grow purple on the vine, and then turn green when they are cooked. Magic! I find climbing beans much easier to grow than bush beans, which in my opinion never seem to produce as well. However if you have limited space, give bush beans a go.
  • Pumpkins: Australian Butter, because it’s just so beautiful and I have saved seeds from last year, Buttercup because it is the most delicious pumpkin I have ever eaten, Butternut because it is so prolific and keeps going right up until the weather turns, and Kent, because it is the best performer in my garden.
  • Chillies: We grow a lot of chillies because we love them, especially my husband who seemingly must eat them daily. We have five plants over-wintering that I hope will return: Mango, Cherry, Curly Toenail, Lemon, and Devil’s Tongue. If they do not come back again, then I will seek out a Devil’s Tongue again because it is the best flavoured and the most prolific, if you love a hot chilli, and then also plant several Jalapeno because it is just so useful and versatile. Curly Toenail is delicious and fun to grow – it looks like its name, and has a nice kick, but tbh I would not bother with Mango again if I didn’t already have the plant. It is prolific and beautiful, but I do not like the flavour much. I grow these in pots on the balcony so they do not take up space in the patch.
  • Spring Onions: I prefer to grow Red Spring Onions. I grow from seed, and they do well in my garden.
  • Eggplant: Last year we planted four Lebanese eggplants, this year we plan to double that at least. I’m vegetarian and my husband doesn’t eat a lot of meat, so eggplant are a really useful plant to grow. Lebanese eggplant are productive and easy, and delicious. I may grow a couple of globe eggplant too, for variety.
  • Zucchini: Again, the Lebanese zucchini do the best in my garden. I’ve tried the black, ribbed, golden, globe – none of them beat the pale Lebanese zucchini in my book.
  • Capsicum: This year I’m going for Mixed Italian Fryers, a mix of Italian sweet varieties best suited to cooking.
  • Flowers: As I mentioned, calendula, sunflowers, dahlias, alyssum, love-in-a-mist (also known as nigella), cosmos, nasturtiums, poppies, dianthus and petunias take up space in my Summer garden. Some of these are edible, and I do put them in salads, but mostly I use them to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects to my garden.

I’ll grow the pumpkins, zucchini, spring onions, beans, and capsicum from seed, as well as the cherry tomatoes. Most of the flowers, the eggplant, and Green Zebra tomatoes I will buy as seedlings. A few other plants may sneak their way in (carrots, turnips in early Spring), but not before these others find their place in the patch.

What are you intending to grow in your Summer garden? Let me know – maybe I’ll make some space in my garden for your ideas!

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.