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!

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.

Inflation busters! The best veggies to grow to save cash

If you have ever read this blog before you probably know my opinion that in general, growing a vegetable garden does not save you money. By the time you pay for water, buy the plants (or seeds), pay for fertiliser (organic or not), and gardening tools and equipment (such as trellising), my opinion is that at best, you come out even. That’s if you are comparing apples to apples, so to speak.

However, apples aren’t really apples. An organic apple grown in a home garden is not the same as an apple bought from the supermarket. If you grow heirloom fruit and veggies, the varieties you can choose are so different, they are not comparable. I think they taste better and growing your own is generally more sustainable (although it is not necessarily healthier – research shows that the basic nutritional elements between organic and conventional vegetables are very similar).

So, I grow my own veggies because it is fun, because I like to have more choice than the supermarket offers, and because it is a sustainable hobby.

However, if you choose certain vegetables carefully, you can save some money on your fresh produce bills. This is even more important in today’s inflationary environment. These plants can be grown in the ground, in raised beds, or in containers – also important if you are renting.

Top veggies to grow to save money

Lettuce

Social media has reported iceberg lettuces (the worst lettuce of all) for sale at an astounding $8.99 each in parts of Australia. While I would not grow iceberg, which requires a lot of water and fertiliser for very little nutritional return, there are many lettuce varieties that can be grown at home easily with almost no effort.

I like to grow Cos lettuces (currently, Paris Island Red) and a lettuce called Australian Yellow in a raised bed and an old wheelbarrow in the back yard. But lettuce is so easy you can pretty much grow it in any container during cooler months. You can grow it from punnets, but the easiest and cheapest thing to do is grow it from seed. Lettuces come in a huge variety in seed from from both garden retailers and online, and are a good deal. Lettuce seed packs usually come with between 500 and 1000 seeds in a packet. I plant half a packet at a time, sprinkling the seeds liberally over the soil (I don’t bother with rows), and then lightly covering with soil. Water in, then wait for them to pop up over the next week. As they grow, feed with organic liquid fertiliser once a week. Make sure to keep them moist, as lettuce that is not kept moist will become bitter and gross.

You can be picking your own lettuce within four weeks, depending on how cold it is. Pick the leaves you need as you need, and let the plant continue to grow. Try to pick a few leaves from each plant, rather than picking a whole salad from the one plant, so your crop produces evenly. Grow your own lettuce from Autumn to Spring, then let a couple of plants go to seed as the weather warms up. If you are growing an heirloom variety, you will be able to save the seeds for your next crop.

Chillies

My family loves spicy food, especially my husband. We eat spicy food almost every night. A packet of chillies (sold in plastic, natch), costs $6.50 at my local supermarket – or $32.50 a kilo. If you eat a lot of chillies, that’s a pretty costly habit.

One chilli bush will produce well over a kilogram of chillies for about $5 a plant. They don’t usually require much in the way of care, aside from water in the hot weather.

If your plant produces more than you can eat at one time, they can be frozen or dried for longer storage. I do both. If you freeze, you can use them straight from the freezer.

Lebanese Eggplant

Lebanese eggplant are the most prolific eggplant I have grown. While perhaps not as pretty or as widely useful as the globe eggplant (for stuffing or moussaka, they are definitely not as useful), they grow like crazy. This season we had four plants and at least one eggplant-based dish a week from early Summer through to mid-Autumn. Obviously if you’re not a fan of eggplant, that’s not a good deal, but for us it was great. We bought a punnet of four eggplants for about $3.50 from our local supermarket, and planted them in an unobtrusive corner of the garden. Aside from water and a side dressing of pelletised chicken manure once over the season, we left them alone the whole Summer except to go out and pick a bowlful every couple of days. Too easy!

Kale

Your mileage may vary on kale. I don’t mind it, but I don’t love it. I still grow it, because it’s very healthy and quite useful. It’s also pretty expensive – anywhere from $3-$5 a bunch, depending on the season.

Kale can be grown easily from seed and in containers. Last Winter I grew it entirely in pots. However, my view is that it does grow better in the ground than in containers.

Growing from seed is simple. Plant in seed-raising mix, and keep moist while they germinate. I use a heat mat to help the seeds along.

Kale is easy to buy in punnets as well. There are several varieties: Red Russian, Curly Kale (most common), Tuscan (also known as Cavolo Nero or Dinosaur Kale). I prefer to grow Tuscan kale, as I prefer the flavour and texture.

I freeze kale in bags. I just wash it and chop it up, and put it in bags in the freezer, using it from frozen.

Chard (Silverbeet)

Some people might not like chard, preferring the less strongly flavoured spinach. But silverbeet is a tougher, easier to grow plant than spinach, and is also beautiful in the garden, especially if you grow the rainbow variety (which is an Australian breed, btw). It holds up much better in the patch than spinach.

The other great thing about chard is that it grows really easily and quickly from seed, and leaves can be cut as you need it from the main plant over the season for a really long period.

Silverbeet seeds are little blocky, cube-like seeds. Soak them for a few hours in warm water before planting, then you can either plant in seed-raising mix, or plant direct where you want it to grow.

When it germinates, water with a weak solution of organic liquid fertiliser each week.

Herbs

I grow a variety of different herbs in my garden. I grow almost all of them in the ground, but you can also grow them all in pots. A small plastic blister-pack of soft herbs like thyme or parsley from my local costs $2.00 per 10 grams. That is $200 per kilogram, people. For the easiest plants in the world to grow. If you were to set aside $10 a week to start creating a potted herb garden at home ($4 for a plant, and the rest for the pot/soil), you would be very quickly better off than paying anything for a packet of these already dying herbs from the supermarket. If you plant them in the ground, you won’t need the pot.

I have many herbs in my garden because I have the space and I enjoy the freedom to pick and choose what I want to use anytime. I also just like to grow different things for fun. But even if you limit the herbs you grow at home to the three or four herbs you most commonly cook with, you will save some cash.

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.