Weekend gardening jobs, 30 May 2021

One more day, and we are officially in Winter. You wouldn’t really know it, from the perfect, sunny morning I spent in the garden today.

Yesterday, I made lemon curd and lemon and lime marmalade using the fresh lemons and limes from my lime tree and my neighbour’s lemon tree. After eating pancakes with lemon curd and cream this morning, I had to get my muscles moving in the garden, or risk adding some more, er, Winter padding.

After we built our wall (yes, it’s finished!) we had a lot of displaced soil left over. This needs to be moved back to the garden bed in Pie Corner, but it’s a big job. I started it today, digging I-don’t-know-how-much dirt back up and into the bed. The area next to the boysenberries used to hold an old rainwater tank. We had it removed last year, but have not planted anything else there. The soil is quite poor. The job at the moment is to build it back up with organic matter, to get it ready for planting two dwarf plum trees later in the season. As part of this task, I sprinkled Dynamic Lifter over the soil, sifted it through for rocks and pebbles, and dug out two boysenberry suckers. Then I planted some red spring onion sets around the edges.

Planting Onion Sets

Onion ‘sets’ are the little clumps of onion seedlings you can either grow yourself or buy at a nursery. I have done both this season. I grew a tray of seedlings myself from seed (Barletta onions) and yesterday I bought a punnet of Red Spring Onion seedlings from the Big Green Shed, just because.

I love growing onions, for some reason. I cook with onions, but I don’t eat fresh onions. I just enjoy the look of them in the garden: different varieties look so interesting and pretty.

Most of the time, the onion seedlings you buy are growing in a clump. Try to buy the punnets with the most seedlings per clump, as these will give you the best value per punnet. I scored a bonanza yesterday: a punnet with six cells, but about twenty seedlings per cell. So for about $4.50 I got more than 100 individual plants.

Separate out all the plants. Don’t be too worried about damaging them – just make sure each plant has some roots.

Make a furrow where you intend to plant, then start laying each onion plant along the furrow where you want it to grow. Because these are spring onions, I planted them quite close together.

You can see from the photo above that this is not done super neatly. Don’t worry about standing them up or anything – lie them down on their side, it’s fine.

Cover them over with soil. Then water in with some seaweed extract and weak liquid fertiliser. As they become established, the onions will stand up on their own.

I had already dug over and raked over this soil a couple of times, but you can see it still looks pretty rough. As I continue to work on this area, the soil will improve. For now, I will grow a couple of rows of quick spring onions and by late June it will hopefully be ready for a couple of bare-rooted little plum trees.

I also planted out some kale and lettuce in the pots I refilled on the balcony last weekend, and fed all the brassicas and new seedlings with organic liquid fertiliser and seaweed extract. Good job too, because the brassicas are growing like crazy. This broccoli head has doubled in size since last weekend. All the brassicas are looking amazing – I’m so excited. I even have cabbages heading. That’s what they are supposed to do, I know, but cabbages can be a bit hit or miss in my experience. Broccoli is a more reliable vegetable than cabbage, any day.

The rest of the morning I spent doing the incredibly dull job of trimming herb bushes. Ugh. I hate doing it, but I am always happy I have done it in Springtime when they put their new flush of growth on and look gorgeous. I trimmed about a tenth of the plants in the front garden, and tried not to grimace as I did it. I love having a big garden, until I have to do stuff like this. I ended up digging out one thyme plant that was so woody that I thought it was never going to come good, along with a rhubarb plant that was really in the wrong place. I replaced it with a beautiful, old school, white dianthus plant I bought last week on a whim.

Then I came inside, made a mushroom omelette, and sat back down at my desk to work some more. I looked outside and realised I would rather be outside trimming herbs again. That’s what I get for grimacing while gardening.

Weekend Gardening jobs, May 22 and 23 2021

Boy, it’s been a while! I have been working so much lately that I have not been outside much, let alone out in my garden. I think the last time I really spent much time in the garden was Easter weekend. I have really, really missed it. I have seen it – from my office window. That is not the same thing at all.

Broccoli starting to form heads

This weekend I told my husband that no matter what happened, I was getting out into the garden. It also happened to be a very sunny and beautiful Autumn weekend, so that was lucky for me – but I would have gone out there in the hail, I was so desperate to dig in the dirt.

So much needed to be done after a month with no attention. I had to:

  • Repot plants on the balcony and remove Summer annual plants from the balcony garden;
  • Trim plants in the front and back garden (herbs, asparagus, etc);
  • Remove the last few pomegranates from the pomegranate tree;
  • Water and feed everything;
  • Weed the veggie patch;
  • Remove the dead Summer annual flowers from the backyard;
  • Plant out the last of the Autumn veggies before Winter sets in;
  • Finally plant the rest of the Sweet Peas before it’s too late;
  • Dig out the parsley plants that are setting seed.

That’s a lot!

Saturday

I started with the balcony garden, which was looking very sad. The eggplant and tomatoes were well and truly done, but had been sitting out there ready to move in to the compost for at least a month now. I pulled them out of their pots and removed half of the potting mix. I topped up each pot with fresh potting mix and soil wetter granules. Some of the pots I re-potted with a Dragon Fruit plant and climbing monstera, but the remainder I have left empty for now. I fed everything with liquid fertiliser. The full pots can stay out there over Winter, regularly watered, and I will plant them back up in the Springtime.

All the spent plants and old soil went into the green bin, because my compost bins are almost full.

I watered all the indoor plants and moved some around to make sure they get the best light.

Then I started on the weeding. Although I mulch well, the weeds still come up, so I started in the garlic patch and cleared the little weeds that had started to make their presence felt, along with the rogue potatoes from last year’s crappy potato plantings. I also noticed that the lime tree, which has a bad case of Citrus Leaf Miner, needed another spray of Pest Oil.

Lime leaves affected by Citrus Leaf Miner

Citrus Leaf Miner is a very annoying little critter that sucks all the goodness out of the leaves of citrus plants and weakens the tree. They are too small to see, but you can see the damage to the leaves: they look puckered and twisted, and if you look closely you can see the telltale tracks on the leaves. Of course because I have been out of the garden for so many weeks, I did not notice they had moved in until a couple of weeks ago when I was tossing something in the compost bin. I was cranky as, and gave the tree a spray of Eco Pest Oil, which is a natural pest oil spray. Pest Oil smothers the Citrus Leaf Miners and is organic. It doesn’t damage the tree, just coats the leaves so the little monsters cannot breathe. One coating is not enough to knock them off though, so today I needed to spray again.

The lime tree has been an ongoing hassle. When we first planted it, we grew it in a pot in our patio. It caught a shocking case of wooly scale, helped by farming ants. It took forever for us to get on top of it (again with Pest Oil). After finally clearing that, it didn’t really enjoy being in a pot or under the patio, and kept dropping its fruit. We planted in the garden, and this year we had our first crop of about twelve large juicy limes. Then the Citrus Leaf Miners moved in. We love limes (we eat a lot of Mexican food) so I am determined that this tree will survive.

Sunday

Today my first important job was to cut back the asparagus.

Yellow asparagus foliage

Asparagus should be allowed to set its fern at the end of the season, as this enables the plant to build its energy for next year’s spears. When the fern turns yellow in Autumn, it’s time to cut it back down. Cut it right back down to the ground. It looks horrible and messy while it is getting to this stage, but if you want asparagus, that’s the deal. The other part of the asparagus deal is that you can’t eat the spears for the first two years: you just have to let them run to fern. You also have to leave a couple of spears to run to fern each year. This will be my third season of asparagus this Spring, so we are finally able to eat the spears, and I will be very excited about it, let me tell you.

Note: If your asparagus fern grows little berries, it is a male plant and you won’t get as many spears or as delicious spears. Best to dig it up as soon as you can and try again. If you leave it for another year or so, you might not be able to dig it up as the root system will be very strong. That’s the other deal with asparagus: you plant it, you keep it.

I also cut back the Vietnamese mint, that had grown like crazy under the lime tree, but was now woody and horrible. Poor thing likes a lot of water and this season has been very dry. I managed to save a bit and it should come back ok.

I dug out all of last season’s dead and dying annual dahlias, some parsley that was running to seed (I have tons of it everywhere so I don’t worry about saving seed anymore), and then I fed the whole patch and the lime tree with a mix of pelletised chicken manure and blood and bone.

Then I had fun planting onion sets, pak choy, violas, more broccoli, lettuce seeds, snow peas, coriander, and a couple of hopeful packets of Sweet Peas. The veggie patch is really full now: I couldn’t cram anything else in there without pulling something else out.

I am saving space in Pie Corner for two dwarf plum trees, but it is too early for them to go in yet. I have another month at least: hopefully it will not be that long before I get out there again!

Gardening jobs, Easter Weekend 2021

I run my own business, and things are flat out right now, so I do not have the time to spend four days outside in the glorious Autumn weather, more’s the pity.

I gave myself one full day off, and the rest was to be spent looking outside at my garden from my study window.

Bee-attracting Dahlias

Good Friday: working.

Easter Saturday: Day off at the Meadows Easter Fair, a family tradition of many years.

Easter Sunday: working.

Easter Monday: working.

Easter Saturday

The Meadows Easter Fair is held in the little town of Meadows, about twenty minutes from our place. We trek along every year with close friends. We have the stalls we visit each year, and the items we always look out for. It is a traditional country fair, complete with hot donuts, sausage sizzle, homemade jams and pickles, and marshmallow rabbits. Our kids love it, even at the ages of 16 and 12.

There are also a lot of plants for sale. This year there were fewer plants of the kind that I was looking for, but I did manage to buy some Dutch Iris and Daffodil bulbs to plant in the front yard. The Daffodil bulbs were a plain yellow called Greg’s Favourite, which I bought mostly because I was tickled by the name. The Dutch Iris were a lovely ochre coloured variety called Bronze Beauty, which I have not seen in any of the catalogues (and you better believe I’ve been reading the catalogues).

Easter Sunday

Welllllll…I’m only human. Before I sat down to work, I gave myself a little bit of time in the garden. I have many indoor houseplants, and several of them needed dividing and repotting. I spent about an hour doing this, as well as taking cuttings from the overgrown Swiss Cheese Plant that has gone crazy in my study. I repotted the Fiddle Leaf Fig and a Hoya, and divided a Pothos Snow Queen.

Happy broccoli plant

I also repotted the silverbeet seedlings I have been growing from seed, and then watered all the repotted and divided plants with seaweed extract.

Then I checked all the brassica seedlings for caterpillars. I couldn’t find any, although I can tell that something has been having a little munch. I also noticed white fly around the place. The longer warm period has kept them hanging around. Generally I don’t spray, even with organic sprays because they can also kill beneficial insects, but if the white fly does get worse I might have to.

I cultivated around the brassicas to remove some opportunistic weeds (and some tomato seedlings that have popped up from the compost).

I quickly threw around some poppy and hollyhock seeds from my stash of seeds.

Then I waved goodbye to my lovely garden, and headed back inside to face my computer screen.

Next weekend, if I have time, I will plant out peas, sweet peas, garlic, and the bulbs I bought at the Easter Fair. Until then, it is time to work.

Weekend gardening jobs, 20/21 March 2021

Autumn is a busier time in the garden than Spring. In Spring, there is always another warm day to catch up on tasks if you miss out on a day in the garden due to work or family commitments. In Autumn, you are always playing catch up, because there are only so many warm days until Winter comes along. Those lovely mild days are critical for planting seeds and seedlings while the soil temperature is still warm enough for germination and for the seedlings to get a good headstart. There are lots of end-of-Summer jobs to finish, such as cleaning up old plants, preparing the soil for new plants, trimming and pruning, LOTS of weeding, and planting. I have been doing all of these things this weekend, and I am still not done.

Saturday

On Saturday, my husband and I visited an Open Garden. For those who do not know about the Open Garden Scheme, it is a program in Australia (maybe in other parts of the world too) wherein people with beautiful gardens open them up to visitors on a weekend. Each State has its own Open Garden Scheme.

This was the first time we had visited an Open Garden. Not being ageist, but we were easily the youngest attendees by a good decade. We had a lovely time. It was fun to see a different garden, established and maintained by people with a lot more space (and let’s be honest, a lot more cash) than us. Their garden was on a hillside in a winery in McLaren Vale, one of the premier wine growing regions in South Australia. It was not the kind of garden I would grow (too few veggies and fruit trees, too many ornamentals), but it was beautiful, and a very relaxing way to spend a sunny Saturday morning. Plus, the CWA were there with tea and scones. We sat on a verandah overlooking a hillside sipping tea, and felt like proper grownups.

We finished the morning at my favourite nursery in McLaren Vale. I love this place – it has the most beautiful pots and gardening paraphernalia, as well as stunning houseplants. I controlled myself and just bought seedlings this time around.

Sunday

I got up early and got into the garden as soon as I could. My plan was to plant out all the seedlings I have bought over the past two weekends while the weather is still lovely and warm, and to keep preparing the soil for Autumn vegetables.

I am still removing Summer vegetables and digging over the soil ready for new plantings. For each area, I have spread Dynamic Lifter and Blood and Bone to help replenish the soil, and compost or well-rotted chicken manure (depending what I have at the time). This time I had well-rotted chicken manure. I turned the compost bins lightly with a garden fork and added more material to them (old potting mix from tomato plants and kitchen scraps).

Weeds are starting to make their presence felt, so with my trust Ho-Mi, I spent some time grubbing out creeping oxalis from the flower beds in front of the retaining wall. Due to regular weeding and letting the chooks out for a run, the weeds are pretty well controlled, but the oxalis is a continuing problem. As I do not spray anything, it is something that just has to be continually managed.

After watering the newly dug and raked soil well, I planted another of the new passionfruit vines in against the back fence, and planted out a bunch of flower seedlings.

This season, I am planting stocks, violas, and pansies for winter colour, and I will also plant more Spring flowering bulbs (daffodils, iris, ranunculus, etc) for later colour. In a couple of weeks I will plant my favourite flower, sweet peas.

Dahlia in the veggie patch being visited by a bee

I always plant flowers in amongst the vegetable patch, to attract pollinating insects. This Summer, I planted dianthus, sunflowers, petunias, and dahlias. While the dahlias took quite a while to flower, they are now putting on a stunning display, and the bees are going crazy for them. I also always have alyssum, nasturtium, and calendula growing in the garden. These self-seed all over the place, acting as a ground cover and attracting bees and hoverflies to the garden.

One of the last sunflowers

Finally, all the seedlings, including the brassicas planted last week, were fed with a weak solution of liquid seaweed and fish emulsion to keep them growing nice and quickly in this warm weather. Feeding is critical for plants anytime, but especially when they are establishing, and especially for crops like brassicas and leafy greens. When they are young, a half-strength solution of liquid fertiliser is best. When they are larger, you can upgrade to full strength. Try to feed them earlier in the day and on cooler days to prevent burning the leaves. A weekly feed is best when establishing, but to be honest I am more likely to manage it fortnightly. Once the plants are well established, a fortnightly full-strength feed is fine. For larger plants, such as the passionfruit I have just planted, a fortnightly full-strength is preferred.

Broccoli seedlings

If I am to be completely honest, keeping up with feeding all of my plants is challenging. I am much more diligent with the fruit tree watering and feeding than I am say, with the roses and ornamentals, which I tend to leave more to their own devices. I would have much better roses if I was really religious about nutrition and watering. But as a part-time gardener, I only have so much time, so the plants I am most passionate about are those that receive most of my time and attention.

While I was watering, I noticed a couple of white cabbage moths fluttering around the cabbages and cauliflowers, and made a mental note to start checking the seedlings for those horrible green grubs in the next day or so.

After almost the whole weekend in the garden or garden adjacent, I still have so much left to do before the warm weather runs out – and not enough time to do it. Hopefully, next weekend will be warm and I can make it out there for a few hours.

Weekend garden jobs, Sunday 28 February 2021

It’s the end of Summer and the beginning of Autumn, and I spent the morning pulling out expiring tomato plants and prepping the soil for the next planting season. I listen to gardening podcasts while I do this, to inspire me for the tasks ahead.

I also picked the rest of the tomatoes, a couple of little onions that I discovered under some big old tomato plants, a couple of zucchini, about half a kilogram of fresh green beans, a small pumpkin, and four lovely eggplant. Sunday night I made curries using entirely homegrown veggies, which always makes me happy.

Seed raising

To get ready for the next planting period, I made my own seed-raising mix. I have not been happy with the ready-made seed-raising mix, which seems to dry out in five minutes flat. It dries out so quickly that if you forget to water even just once, your seeds will die and all your efforts will be for naught. While the failure to water is of course, arguably my own fault, I am a part-time gardener, and stuff happens. Life, work, kids, etc. I would like something that holds moisture just a bit. I made my own using what I already have in the shed: potting mix with added blood and bone, coir, and propagating sand. The addition of the coir holds the moisture, while the propagating sand enables good drainage. I used a brick of coir, soaked in a bucket of water, then added it to the other ingredients in a bucket in the following proportions:

  • 1 part propagating sand (this is coarse washed river sand, not the sandpit sand);
  • 2 parts coir;
  • 2 parts potting mix.

I mixed this up in a bucket with a fork. I would not necessarily recommend making your own seed-raising mix if you do not happen to have all this stuff lying around your garden shed, but as I do, it took only a matter of minutes to throw it together. Also, it was much cheaper than the bags of ready-made seed-raising mix, and as I mentioned, I am not a fan of the ready-made stuff.

Of course in a pinch you can use regular old over the counter potting mix, but it really is too coarse for successful seed-raising. The fine coir and sand lightens up the chunky particles of the potting mix. Some people swear by jiffy pots or pellets for seed-raising, but I think they are not very good. I have run my own nerdy garden experiments and found the pellets have a lower germination rate than regular seed-raising mix by a factor of 2:1, and they cost twice the price.

Once made, I spread my homemade seed-raising mix into seedling trays and planted:

  • Onions Barletta;
  • Silverbeet Fordhook giant;
  • Cabbage Golden acre;
  • Broccoli Green sprouting; and
  • Broccoli Romanesco.

I will plant another lot of seeds next weekend, and continue for several more weeks while the weather is still warm. My goal this season is to plant early and to plant successively to ensure ongoing crops of some of my Winter favourites, such as turnips, romanesco broccoli, and homegrown onions (OMG really fresh bulb onions are so good). I also want a good crop of garlic this year: last year the garlic was extremely disappointing. I think I did not prep the soil well enough, so this year I am going all in preparing the soil for the garlic to be planted in May.

Garlic

Garlic is a heavy feeder. It loves nitrogen rich soil, so I am preparing the soil with compost and blood and bone. Next weekend I will dig through aged chicken manure from my healthy, free ranging chooks.

I have two bulbs of garlic purchased from the Digger’s Club shop in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, ready and waiting for my soil to be ready. You don’t need to buy garlic from a nursery; you can buy a regular bulb of garlic from the fruit and vegetable shop. The only rule is that it must be Australian grown garlic, not the cheaper imported garlic. Imported garlic has been treated with fungicide and should not be planted. Australian grown garlic is more expensive, but as one bulb will grow many plants, it is worth the expense of a few dollars for one bulb.

The only reason I like to buy it from a supplier like Digger’s is that they have different varieties, and I enjoy the fun of trying different kinds. Tbh I don’t know a lot about garlic varieties, but I still enjoy trying them. I tend toward the purple varieties, because…well, they are pretty. Otherwise, the Australian grown garlic from the shop is probably just as good and a bit cheaper than buying from a nursery.

I won’t be planting for a few months, so I will have a garden space that will sit fallow until then. The soil will be recovering from a high-demand crop of tomatoes, so it will do it good to rest and relax while I feed it up with nutrients, ready for the garlic crop. Then I will have to be patient while garlic, one of the longest growing crops of the year, takes it’s time. Patience is the key attribute of the gardener.

Fortunately for me, I have some space to grow my beloved Romanesco broccoli, and plenty of other jobs to take on over the next couple of weeks, including espaliering my apple trees (they have grown a lot and I need to re-do the previous job with stronger posts and wire), preparing the soil in Pie Corner for two dwarf plum trees (so excited – I love plums), and feeding the other fruit trees.

Oh – if anyone has any advice on mulberry trees, send it my way. Ours has been in the ground for almost five years now, and not a single crop. The apricot tree nearby had its best crop ever. I can’t work out what is going on with this tree! If it doesn’t start fruiting it’s starting to look like a very nice woodpile…

Weekend garden jobs, Sunday 14 February 2021

Happy Valentine’s Day, lovely people. For Valentine’s Day , I gave my husband a sleep in and a coffee in bed, and he gave me the gift of cutting up the prunings of Audrey II (the boysenberry vine) and putting them in the green bin. I think we both feel we got the good end of the deal.

I fed all my pot plants, which include this stunning eggplant (Listada de Gandia). I have tried growing this eggplant for several years without much success. Turns out, it loves a large pot on our balcony. To feed the pots, I use an organic Powerfeed spray.

I turned the compost bins to make room for the chicken litter from the chook shed, and spread a bit of ready compost on the garden. As I only turned it a couple of weeks ago, it wasn’t really ready. My husband helpfully chopped it up with a spade to make more room. I picked more tomatoes (seriously, best tomato year ever for us), and zucchini, and I watered.

Then I did the gross job of cleaning out the chook shed and replacing their straw. I know it is a necessary task, but I do hate doing it. I try to think positively while I do it. Chicken manure is good for the garden!

And that’s my list of boring, yet necessary tasks for the week. I bought garlic bulbs and onion seeds yesterday to plant for autumn, but I don’t have space for them yet. I was hoping to plant them out today, but that was definitely wishful thinking! Maybe in a few weeks when the tomatoes are finished.

I hope your gardens are doing as well as mine this season – tomatoes, tomatoes, and more tomatoes!!

Does gardening save money?

No.

Seriously though, I have read many articles over the years suggesting that growing your own veggies can be a way of saving money on groceries. Writers of these articles are very optimistic at best, disingenuous at worst. I have been vegetable gardening for twenty years, and I know for a fact that it does not save any money. I would suggest that gardening is a relatively inexpensive hobby (compared to some other hobbies), depending on how you go about it, but as a way of saving money on produce and fresh food, it does not stack up. Here are some reasons.

Gardening is unpredictable

Gardening is fun, but the results are very unpredictable. Take this year: we had a great crop of apricots, but no passionfruit or mulberries to speak of. This means we have been eating apricots for about three weeks (awesome! We love apricots), but we still bought berries and other fruit. Our apple trees finally produced some apples, but half of them were eaten by rats. To protect the apples from the rats, we will have to buy a net for next season (more dollars shelled out). I can buy a kilo of apples for five bucks. A net will cost me at least thirty dollars, and I need two of them (we have two apple trees). Ignoring the water and fertiliser for the trees, I am already set back $60 to protect about ten apples on my two trees.

The veggie patch is the same. Last year was a bad year for tomatoes, and we ended up with very few. This year, we are having a bumper crop. This season, our potatoes were a total blowout, and so was the corn. In previous years, we have had success with both potatoes and corn. Gardening on a small scale in the backyard, like we do, achieves inconsistent results. It is great fun for someone like me, who enjoys the time spent outdoors and watching plants grow, but at best I supplement my family’s diet with homegrown vegetables at peak times of the year. The rest of the time, we have to rely on supermarkets and vegetable shops like everyone else.

Gardening supplies cost money

Last week I spent about $120 on basic gardening supplies at the Big Green Shed. Today I spent another $50 on decorative plants (for funsies).

This is not uncommon. Generally speaking, I do spend quite a lot on gardening supplies like mulch, organic fertilisers and tonics (seaweed extract etc), stakes, twine, wire, seeds, and plants. I would spend more on supplies than I would ‘make’ out of the garden: that is, it costs me a lot more to garden than I would ever save on fruit and vegetables that I grow. It’s worth it to me because I grow interesting heirlooms that I cannot buy in the supermarkets, and because it’s my main hobby. As a hobby, it is cheaper than many others. I don’t go to the pub, go wine tasting, or go to live shows or the movies often. Gardening is cheaper than all of those things. But if you want to do it well, it is not ‘cheap.’ For example, this year I built tomato cages for all of my tomato bushes. These alone would have cost about $150. I will be able to re-use them next year, but still, I could buy a lot of tomatoes from the supermarket for that. I know they taste better, but they are not cheap tomatoes.*

Gardening takes time and space

Some of the articles I have read about how gardening saves money seem to ignore the fact that time is also expensive. There is a reason I am the Part-time Gardener. I have a job. Maybe if I had all the time in the world, I could spend it in the garden and grow everything I need and save thousands of dollars a year. But the fact is that most people do not have that kind of time. There are weeks where I do not even walk outside, let alone weed my garden or think about succession planting carrots. If I am really busy with deadlines, I may not poke my head outside in the veggie patch for a month. Gardening takes real time and dedication. Because I ‘bank’ time by spending entire weekends out there when I do have the time, my garden makes it through the busy times – but many people do not have that kind of time.

I’ve read some articles that underestimate the kind of time people need to spend in the garden to achieve great results. They tell people they can grow all they need to feed their family with five to ten hours of hands on time a week. I do not think this is true. I would spend about five hours a week in my garden, on average, and I cannot feed my family of four from my garden. In my opinion, articles like this are discouraging to new gardeners, who might find that the time required is much higher than they anticipated. I understand that gardening writers are trying to encourage people to garden, but it is more effective to be honest about the time, space, and money required to successfully garden for fun and productivity.

Gardening enough to ‘save money’ also requires a lot of space. We are fortunate to have a lot of space, but many people do not. I have read articles exhorting people to grow in pots or on balconies. That is very expensive and time-consuming. I am growing tomatoes, chillies, eggplant, and blueberries in pots on my balcony this season. I already owned the pots, so I did not have that expense. I did have to buy good quality potting mix, which is expensive if you are growing more than one or two pots. I also needed fertiliser and soil wetting agent for the pots so they don’t dry out in the heat of the day. Pots require more regular watering. I estimate I spend at least half an hour a day just watering my balcony pots. So far I have harvested one eggplant and a tiny handful of cherry tomatoes, for about $100 of potting mix and a whole lot of time and water. Saved a lot of money there!! Next year I will only grow flowers on the balcony, and leave the veggies in the garden.

Set up costs are high

The set up costs of a garden are quite high. To reach the point where we are now (a relatively productive vegetable garden and an attractive front garden), we have had to spend a lot of money and even more time on our garden. We have built retaining walls, bought trees (good quality fruit trees can cost up to $100 each), plants, fertiliser and mulch, and paid a professional arborist several thousand dollars to remove trees and stumps. While all of these things are arguably an investment in our home, it may not be affordable for all potential gardeners. We chose to spend this money instead of doing other things, but we also had some money to invest in it because it was important to us. When people write that gardening will save money, they ignore the high cost of setting up even a small vegetable or container garden. This annoys me, because it implies that these costs are negligible, or that everyone has the money to spend. I would rather they write a truthful article that looks at the real costs of setting up a garden, the most cost-effective plants to grow if someone is hoping to save some money, and the potential and ongoing costs that could arise over a typical year of gardening.

These are some things you should consider when deciding to set up a garden:

  • How much space do you have, and what is the soil like? Will you have to spend a lot of money preparing the soil before you can grow vegetables?
  • Are you renting? If so, you might not be allowed to dig up the landscaping for a garden. Check with the landlord first. Also, find out if there are pipes underground on the property that you don’t know about. Once when I was digging on a rental property, I hit a water pipe and broke it. That was an expensive lesson for a broke student.
  • If you are renting, or don’t have much space, consider a community garden. Many of the expensive set up costs of gardening and the cost of water are already covered by the community garden. You will have to pay for the plot rent, and possibly a membership fee, but it is a good way to try gardening if you are low on space. We were members of a community garden for seven years when we were renting, and it was fantastic. We made friends, learned about gardening from more experienced gardeners, and had the fun of gardening with lower overheads.
  • Look carefully at the space you are considering for your garden. Are there big trees nearby? If so, you might have to consider moving the planned garden, as big trees love to send roots where there is water. You may just end up watering the tree and not your plants.
  • Think about your garden space as premium real estate. Some plants take up a lot of space, and may not be worth it. Think about yield and what will give you best yield for the space they are taking up. Also, in Australia you can grow plants a bit closer together than is generally recommended in garden books and on seed packets. The plants shade each other in our hot weather.
  • Don’t forget that water is expensive, and growing a garden requires a lot of water. If you want to reduce water or water more sustainably, you will need to mulch – and this also costs money.
  • What do you like to eat, and can you buy it cheaper than growing it at home?
  • If you still prefer to grow it yourself, read about the best way to grow it. Is it best to grow it from seed or seedling? Seed will always be cheaper, but in some instances it will not be the most cost-effective because you still need apparatus like seed trays, seed-raising mix, and time to raise them. Best vegetables to grow direct from seed include peas, beans, carrots, rocket and other leafy greens, turnips and other root vegetables.
  • There are online seed and plant retailers that are as cheap or cheaper than the big hardware and garden retailers. There are also some seed exchanges, but sometimes the seeds are not what they promise, so take care. If you buy heirloom seeds, you can save the seeds to replant next year. Also sometimes the smaller supermarket chains can be a good source of plants like perennials and herbs at good prices.
  • If you are in a smallish space, consider setting up a no-dig garden.
  • If you can afford it and you have the room, consider a compost bin. This is the cheapest and most effective way of building up your soil.
  • If you have the space and money, buy some products in bulk. Best organic fertilisers to buy in the large bags are Dynamic Lifter and Blood and Bone. They keep well and are most useful for organic gardeners.
  • Sugar cane mulch is a cheaper mulch than pea or lucerne straw and in my opinion is just as effective.
  • Save and wash plastic pots from plants you have bought, and reuse to raise seedlings.
  • Don’t forget that pests, weeds, and diseases also happen, and you might need a plan to manage these. I garden organically, so I do not spray or poison anything, but this means that I need to spend more time weeding and managing my garden to prevent pests and disease. Think about how you want to manage these and how much money it will cost. Pesticides and herbicides are expensive, and organic gardening can be time-consuming.

I hope this list does not discourage new gardeners from trying out an interesting and healthy hobby – I just want to be honest about it. Gardening ain’t cheap, but it is fun and I love it. Maybe there are cheaper ways to do it than I do, and if so, that’s brilliant.

*For a great read about the high cost of gardening, the book The $64 Tomato is hilarious. I’d agree that right now, each apple from my tree cost about $64 each. Delicious, but still…

Gardening jobs, Christmas weekend 2020

Happy Christmas! Like most of you, I am happy to be just a few days away from the end of this shocker of a year. I chose to spend the Boxing Day public holiday (the 28th here in our State) in the garden. It has been a lovely, cool day with some sunshine and some cloud cover. Perfect for a long day spent in the garden.

Before I could do that, however, I had to remove this creature from the doorway. Look at the size of this redback! I have never seen such a big one, but my husband assures me he has. It was an inch long, including the legs.

Usually when we find a house spider, we move it outside, but venomous spiders are a different story. Under the thong it went. Sorry, giant bitey friend.

Bloody hell

Today was an important catch up day. With the pile of work I have had to finish, plus Christmas, those important garden jobs have fallen by the wayside. These include weeding, trimming, and feeding. The veggie garden is still looking pretty good, but everything needed a good side dressing of organic fertiliser. I picked all the tomatoes I could find before I fed the tomatoes with blood and bone and dynamic lifter. Then I gave them a liquid feed of seaweed extract, fish emulsion, and Epsom salts. The Epsom salts give magnesium to the tomatoes and help make the fruit sweeter. I add about one teaspoon to a ten litre watering can, along with the seaweed extract and fish emulsion, and water the tomato bushes as a foliar feed.

Bowl of tomatoes picked this morning

While I was out there, I quickly planted some more sunflowers, aquilegias (also known as Grannies Bonnets), and cornflowers, and some more climbing beans. Some of the beans I planted didn’t come up, so I filled in the gaps with fresh seed. Beans only set fruit after quite a few days over 30 degrees C – we have had cooler days this Summer, so it might be all in vain.

My front yard was looking especially tired after a beautiful Spring display. I used my little hedge trimmers to start work on the lavender bushes. This is a really big job, as I have one lavender bush taller than me, and about twelve or fourteen lavender bushes in all. I only managed to trim about five of them. It’s a work in progress. I am not trimming them too hard, as it is the middle of Summer, and a hard trim will stress them out too much. I really just want to remove all the dead heads and let the new flowers come through. Lavender is pretty tough though and I have not yet killed any with a light Summer pruning.

I also started carefully trimming the dead branches from the sage and salvia bushes. Again, I don’t want to stress the plants too much. I have also discovered that sage is not very forgiving of a hard prune at the wrong time of year. But, the sticks poking up all over the salvia look bloody horrible, so I decided to risk it. I will prune it a bit harder in Autumn.

The apricot tree has finished fruiting. As mentioned in my previous post, we let the parrots have some. As punishment for our kindness, I now have to go over the tree and remove the half-eaten dried out apricots from the branches to prevent bugs being attracted to the tree. It is a pretty gross job, tbh. On the plus side, I found one last, perfect apricot that somehow was missed by both parrots and us, and brought it inside to share with my husband for afternoon tea. I was able to find a single ripe apple (that the rats missed!) from our Cox’s Orange Pippin tree to go with it.

One delicious ripe apple – and one not yet ready

Finally, I removed all the plants from two raised garden beds that are not doing well, and soaked them in a bucket while I dismantled the beds. I spread all the planting medium around the garden, where it will compost away for the next few months. Then I planted the petunias and eggplant from the raised beds in the backyard, where they will hopefully pick up. I will figure out something else to plant where the raised beds, although honestly something will probably self-seed there in a few weeks and I will not have to worry about it.

It is already looking happier, and I will keep trimming lightly and tidying things up over the next few weekends until it looks back to full strength (or as good as it can over Summer). The front yard really looks best in Autumn and Spring, when the pomegranates are in full fruit, the perennials start to recover from the Summer heat, and the bulbs begin to grow. Until then, keeping it neat and tidy and alive is the best I can do.

Duds and triumphs

The Triumps

This season we have had some notable successes. Our apricot tree ripened early. Normally we pick apricots the week of Christmas, but this year the fruit was ready a week earlier. We picked almost ten kilograms of apricots, which is the biggest crop ever for our four year old tree (it’s a Travatt apricot). I’ve made jam and given some away. This afternoon if I have time, I am making apricot ice cream, and my favourite of all desserts, an apricot pie. I like eating fresh apricots, but in my opinion, apricots really come into their glory when cooked, and especially in pie form. Apple pie is pretty good, but apricot pie is amazing.

We pick the apricots when they first start to blush, and ripen them indoors. This is because we do not net the tree. We let the birds have a go at the fruit, and pick as much as we can ourselves. Some would disagree with this, but I figure there is a lot of fruit and the parrots need to eat as well. I like looking out at the tree and seeing rosellas and lorikeets having a ball out there. There is a lot of fruit for us and them. I do wish they would finish an entire apricot before starting on the next one though. Wasteful little buggers.

I do indeed mind sharing with rats, however. Our apple trees are finally fruiting after three years of patiently waiting, and I have been admiring a perfectly round, blushing apple, coveting it like Snow White’s stepmother. My husband discovered the other morning that the back end of it had been attacked by a gnawing little monster. You can imagine the stomping and cursing that ensued (from me, not him).

The pomegranate bush is going great guns this year – we had a mass of flowers and they are now forming beautiful baby pomegranates like lovely Christmas baubles. I love pomegranates. I love the look of the bush, the flowers, the beautiful globulous fruit, and the ruby juice. It is just a beautiful and undemanding plant. It requires almost no maintenance, little water, and gives so much.

Our tomato bushes are the garden triumph of the veggie patch this year. We are picking Tommy Toe and another cherry tomato called Sweet Bite that is living up to its name. The plants are healthy and abundant. I am hoping we end up with a great crop for sauce as well as eating fresh throughout Summer. I also have not yet managed to kill two cucumber plants (a miracle for me), although the chickens have eaten three others. I may yet achieve a homegrown cucumber, in which case you may hear me screaming from the rooftops.

The Duds

We have a couple of duds that, if they are not careful, will meet the Huntsman’s axe soon. Our mulberry tree is the same age as the apricot tree, and so far has produced almost nothing. There are a few pitiful berries on its branches that are stubbornly refusing to colour up. I alternately beg, plead, and curse the tree whenever I pass her, but she still refuses to do more than that. I do have a woodpile…

The other dud is the passionfruit vine, Odette. One great crop, and she thinks that is her job done. Well, I have news for her. I have plans for her patch of dirt if she can’t pony up some passionfruit next Summer.

But the biggest dud of all this year was our potato crop. After months of building up around healthy looking spud plants, I dug down to find…nothing. Nada. Zilch. I piled on the compost and straw and gave up precious garden space in the height of the annual growing season for nothing at all. Talk about crestfallen. My face dropped faster than Clark Kent’s pants in a phone booth.

Another dud was the red and white petunias I planted with plans of a lovely display by Christmas. What wasn’t dug up by one very, very, naughty chicken has largely dried up due to a lack of water (a visitor yesterday heard me telling this chicken off for digging up a new zucchini plant, and thought I was scolding a child. I had to explain, with a manic smile, why I was berating a bird). This is entirely my fault. I have been very busy with work over the past six weeks and while I have tried to maintain water all over the garden, the veggies and fruit trees have been prioritised over the poor flower gardens. I am going out this morning to replant the whole area in the hope that it can be salvaged – but to be honest, it probably cannot.

The point of this post is, no matter how much time we spend in our garden, and no matter our experience, we experience triumph and frustration in almost equal measure. Probably next year we will have a pitiful apricot crop and an amazing crop of something else unexpected. It’s part of the fun and learning experience of gardening.

Weekend garden jobs, November 21st 2020

My husband is working hard to finish the remaining half of the garden wall by the deadline I have kindly set for him (Christmas) – and he has almost finished! Who knew he just needed a deadline? Note to self…

If you ask me, he’s doing a bang up job

While he’s building, I am doing the other gardening jobs, like weeding, weeding, and weeding. Also, watering. We are heading into the driest time of the year, and if I want any tomatoes (or anything else), I need to be diligent with watering. It is not so much about amount of water, as consistent watering.

In between these pretty dull, but necessary tasks, I am admiring the fruiting plants. This year, we finally have an apple crop forming. We planted two dwarf apple trees three years ago, and so far have only managed to pick one small apple. This has been a source of intense frustration for me, as garden space is a premium. If it doesn’t pull its weight, I start to make plans for a woodpile.

Then finally this year, both trees bloomed simultaneously (a necessity, given they are supposed to pollinate each other), and we now have the makings of a delicious (I hope) crop of Early Macintoshes and Cox’s Orange Pippins. I have never tried either of these apples, as they are not grown commercially in Australia, but trusted sources inform me that the Cox’s Orange Pippin is one of the most delicious eating apples currently cultivated. It doesn’t transport well, which is why it is not available in shops

Also growing great guns are our boysenberries in Pie Corner.

Boysenberry ice cream time, I reckon

This is the largest crop we have ever had. My husband is pretty excited about these. He keeps going outside to check if they are ready yet (they aren’t). Given the great job he has been doing on the wall, I think I will give him first crack at them when they are. We also have raspberries coming on for the first time, and have recently planted thornless blackberries. Next year should be a Summer Berry festival around here.

And that’s yer lot. Weeding, watering, and making eyes at my fruit trees. Next weekend will be plus 40 degrees all weekend so the time will be spent keeping things alive.