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, 19 September 2020

Happy daffs

This time of year I have two problems in the garden: finding enough time to get out there as often as I want to, and controlling my desire to plant all the interesting varieties of tomatoes I can find. As it is, I am growing ten different tomatoes this season. That is ten different varieties, not ten different plants. I am growing multiples of some, if I can fit them in! This season I am growing:

  • Tigerella (heirloom);
  • Green Zebra (heirloom);
  • Moneymaker (heirloom);
  • Sweetbite (F1)
  • Tommytoe (heirloom);
  • Sweet 100 (F1);
  • Blueberries (heirloom);
  • Wapsipinicon Peach (heirloom);
  • Jaune Flamme (heirloom from seeds saved in 2018); and
  • Thai Pink Egg (heirloom from a cutting given to me by my brother).

I would grow more but I do not have the room. Partly this is due to literal space, and partly this is due to a new support structure I am trying for each plant.

Beta tomato cage

I have tried many different tomato support systems, and really they have all been pretty hopeless. Last year’s trellis was the worst – I learned a lesson there about following a TV gardener’s advice. Pfft! Useless waste of effort. Not only did the trellis not support the tomatoes, it couldn’t support itself, and fell over.

My brother grows the best tomatoes in the family, damn him (psst, Rob I love you). He builds tomato cages. I have never done this before, but after last year’s frankly pretty average tomato crop, I have decided it is time. Of course, my tomato cage effort is nowhere near as impressive as the ten foot structure my bro constructs, but I am lazier than he is, and less talented. I have built teepees from stakes, and wrapped them around with bits of wire mesh. The tomato is planted in the centre. The tomato cage gives the tomato more structure than a single stake, and will protect it from the dinosaurs now roaming my garden.

The only problem is that by doing it this way, each tomato plant takes up more space in the garden. To make space, I had to clear out a couple of extra plants, including two rhubarb plants. I felt bad about that, but I do have many rhubarb plants and not enough room for everything I want to grow. Time to get tough!

Marauding Dinosaurs

Troublesome creatures! The chooks are wreaking havoc. Look at what they have done to the sweet peas almost ready to flower at the back there. Grr!! Time to build a chook run to hold them in check.

This week I finally cleared enough space to plant potatoes. I am conducting a spud experiment: I planted some in an old feed bag about a month ago, and now the remainder in the ground. Instead of a trench, which is how I have always planted them, I dug a hole for each potato. I am going to see whether the potato bag grows as well as the spuds in the ground, and if the spud holes works better than the trench. I need more room to grow pumpkins and watermelons on that side of the garden.

I am also conducting a sweet corn experiment. Normally I grow corn direct where I want it to grow, in a block formation. However, I was listening to a gardening podcast the other day and the presenter mentioned that aside from carrots, he grows all seeds in punnets to start with and then transplants into the garden. His view is that this gives them a stronger start. I do not know if this is true, but I thought that I would give it a go this time, especially with the marauders on the loose. I am putting the corn in where we have removed the rainwater tank, in Pie Corner. When my husband finishes the wall in that section, I am considering planting another dwarf apple to espalier against the wall and help pollinate the other apple trees in that part of the garden. But for now, it can grow some corn and pumpkins over the summer while he finishes the retaining wall.

Pumpkins! I have big pumpkin plans this year. Some might say Powerful Pumpkin Plans 😀 In addition to the usual Kent pumpkins that inevitably self-seed from the compost, I will be trying Australian Butter, ye olde Butternut (always a good grower in my backyard, even if it does like to cross-pollinate with Kent to create a mutant Kenternut), and Queensland Blue. I have never grown them but they are a delicious, classic Aussie pumpkin.

So many Planting Plans, never enough space, and not enough time. Where will I fit the zucchini?

Don’t grow zucchini you say? Which blog are you reading?

Gardening jobs, weekend 12th & 13th October 2019

You think when you start to work from home that you will have all the time in the world. I had a vision that I would spend half my days in the garden, followed by a couple of hours work in the afternoon.

That turned out to be a fantasy of epic proportions. I still am very much the Part-time Gardener. I could be the Full-time Gardener, if I didn’t want to foolishly pay my mortgage and continue to fund this new-fangled electricity all the kids are talking about. So, weekend gardening is mostly still what I have time to do.

This weekend was mostly about soil preparation for Summer fruiting vegetables: tomatoes, eggplant, and capsicum. I cleared the lettuce field to make space for Summer veggies (probably for tomatoes, but possibly pumpkins), and then dug over the two compost bins. Being a strange one, I love to dig over compost bins. It’s so satisfying to see what has happened to all that waste. Like most of us, I diligently recycle, but it feels kind of futile. After listening to the news, podcasts, and watching TV shows about what has happened to the waste stream over the past couple of years, I don’t really believe that what I am putting in my kerbside recycling bin is actually being recycled. I feel like I am doing it because I hope that the right thing is happening. But with my own compost, I can see home recycling in action, from start to finish: it’s a beautiful closed loop.

Anyway, I dug out two full barrow loads of lovely compost, which I dug into the old lettuce field (to explain how ‘closed’ the closed loop is – some of the old lettuce plants I pulled out a couple of weeks ago had already broken down into compost and were dug into the lettuce field. I mean, really – how cool is that?). I sprinkled pelletised chicken manure over the top and raked it, and I have let it sit now for a week. It has rained for several days this week, so by next weekend it will be perfect for planting some veggies.

And while I was having all that fun, my husband had the Sisyphean task of shifting massive moss rocks from the backyard to the front. Poor bugger.

Potted Gardens

A few weeks ago we moved a raised garden bed to the front yard to make room for the retaining wall (yep, it’s still going). After filling it with compost, potting soil and mulch, we let it sit for a few weeks until I was ready to plant.

I bought six punnets of seedlings about six weeks ago, and separated them all into pots filled with a mix of coir and potting mix. Six weeks ago in our neck of the woods, the soil was still too cold for tomatoes, and many of my Spring veggies were not ready to come out. If I had planted out those seedlings, they likely would have died from cold, or would have been eaten by slugs. By potting them on, I have given them time to develop a lovely strong root system (see photo below). Also, they have had time to sit outside in my garden, acclimatising to the conditions in my yard. Now they are used to the specific micro-ecosystem of my garden, they will be much stronger than if I had just planted them straightaway.

This doesn’t work for everything. It works really well for fruiting plants like tomatoes, capsicums and eggplant, but I wouldn’t try it on plants like sweet corn or beans, which are much better planted direct where they are to grow.

Capsicum ready to be planted in a pot

In the raised bed I planted capsicum, jalapeños and basil. In large pots, I planted more of the same. I am also trying potatoes in pots this year, as I have run out of space to grow potatoes.

I am trying potatoes in a pot large enough to grow a tree. I put a layer of potting mix on the bottom, and then placed three certified seed potatoes (we like Ruby Lou):

I covered just over the potatoes with more soil. As the potato plants grow, I will top up the soil. I have never grown potatoes in a container before, so we will see how they go. If it fails, I am only out some soil and a few seed potatoes.

The rest of my gardening time this weekend was spent weeding. So much weeding. The green bin and both compost bins are completely full. And still more to go!

Weekend gardening, Weekend 27 & 28 January 2019

After a week of record heatwave conditions in our region, this weekend was about repair work, mostly. About half the tomato bushes were pretty much dead, so we picked off the tomatoes that were left on them, and pulled the bushes up. I pruned the dead leaves off the other bushes, and we watered them well.

Half my potted plants died, including all of our window boxes on the balcony. We watered the poor darlings twice a day, but the hottest day in half a century did them in. We also lost some of the plants under the fully shaded patio; this gives you an idea of the intensity of the heat.

My baby avocado tree may still die. It’s previously chirpy new leaves now resemble pot pourri, making for one very sad gardener and an even sadder tree. I am hoping that ongoing watering will bring it back. It is shaded, but alas – see above re hottest day in half a century.

Our two mornings in the garden weren’t all doom and gloom. We had a gorgeous garden helper on one day, my three year old niece, who helped me pick corn and started digging out our potato crop. She informed me that she “doesn’t like eating ‘tatoes, but I do like gardening ‘tatoes.” We spend an enjoyable half an hour digging spuds until she announced that it was very hard work and she had had enough. We went inside and ate freshly picked sweet corn for lunch, followed by cupcakes with rainbow sprinkles as a reward for all our hard work.

The following day, my husband and I continued our spud harvesting. We planted Red Otway potatoes in October 2018. We do the traditional trench planting method, hilling up the plants with soil and sugar cane mulch as they grow. We stop hilling up once we have run out of soil and have calculated the cost of the mulch is not worth the amount of spuds we can possibly get.

Digging up spuds is a dicey affair. You have to be careful not to cut them with your spade. Our method is to dig around the base of the plant carefully (see above), exposing the tuberous treasure below. My niece was quite delighted to find tiny potatoes still clinging to the roots of the plants after I dug up the large potatoes, and made me pull off and keep every tiny spud.

This was our second year growing potatoes. In 2017 we harvested the week before Christmas, and our potato crop was prolific, but small in size. This year we waited another five weeks and were rewarded with much larger potatoes (similar weight crop). We planted only one variety this year, choosing the Red Otway variety because it had performed the best for us in 2017. From 1 kilogram of certified seed potatoes, we harvested 10 kilograms of potatoes.

A former colleague informed me that growing potatoes is a waste of time and money, given they are so cheap to buy. I probably can’t argue with his overall economic assessment, as he is much smarter and definitely richer than me. Potatoes certainly could not be described are as a cheap crop for the home gardener. They require an investment in certified seed potatoes, mulch, fertiliser, a lot of space in your garden, and water during warmer months. But I still enjoy growing them. It is almost impossible to buy really fresh potatoes in the shops, and new potatoes taste wonderful. Growing your own also enables you to grow varieties you might not be able to find in the shops. Red Otway is a lovely potato, that is not commonly found. Lastly, it’s fun. Sitting outside in the sunshine with a three year old as she sits in a big pile of dirt searching for hidden treasures is just a great time, even if she doesn’t like eating ‘tatoes (she refuses to believe chips are ‘tatoes).

This brings me to my second harvest of the weekend, Painted Mountain Corn. This ancient variety is hundreds of years old, and is grown for maize and for popping. I grew it for fun and interest, and because I like to help continue endangered heirloom varieties.

I picked the corn once the husks had dried on the stalks, and dried it in the oven on a low temperature. I was stripping the kernels from the cobs and showing my youngest child, a teenager of 14, and explaining that we will be able to pop it on the weekend. I was telling them the history of this corn, and how continuing to grow corn like this contributes to the genetic diversity of the planet.

They stared at me for a long moment, listening to the ‘plink plink’ go the kernels falling into the tray.

“You are such a hipster. Even worse. You’re a nerd hipster.”

Correction: a nerd hipster with a jar of rainbow popcorn.

Weekend jobs – 27th & 28th October 2018

“Why is it that every weekend we end up at a garden centre?” my husband muses, as we pull up at the Big Green Shed.

He’s exaggerating, frankly. Clearly, a tree nursery is not a garden centre.

And that place that sells the donkey poo is an organic apple farm that just happens to sell donkey manure by the bagful for a buck.

OK, the plant sale last week – that was at a garden centre. But the free sausage sizzle made it totally worthwhile. And today’s expedition for an additional compost Dalek was a necessary pitstop. War on waste, etc. Doing our bit, etc.

I’ll admit, as soon as the weather warmed up, it was like a switch flicked, and every weekend has been all gardening, all the time. It was as if I was a little kid with my nose pressed up against the glass, waiting until my mum told me I could go outside to play. As soon as I got the nod, I was out like a shot. Now I only come inside when the sun comes down. Or when I have to feed my kids.

Nigella, or Love-in-a-Mist

Seriously though, who wants to be indoors in weather like this?

Anyway, we got the Dalek home, and my husband and I surveyed the veggie patch. So many jobs and not enough time to do everything that needed doing this week.

He offered to hill up the potatoes, which have been growing like crazy now that the weather is fine almost every day. The spuds are planted in a deep trench, and now that they have poked their heads up, they will need hilling to ensure continual growth. I left him to do that while I turned the compost, transferring the top layers in the old bin to the new bin, and digging the ready compost out to the garden.

The addition of pigeon poo (a friendly gift from my neighbour a few weeks ago) activated the compost so quickly that the bottom half of the bin was full of ready to use compost, while the top half needed to be moved over to the new bin. It’s a messy job, but I honestly don’t mind it. I put the ready compost around new tomato plants, on some mounds ready for zucchini plants, and in a bed I am preparing for tomatoes.

Now I have one half-empty compost bin, and another empty bin. Since we have started composting, we have reduced the household waste we send to landfill by half. Other changes, like switching to ground coffee from coffee pods, and leaf tea from teabags (mostly) has also helped. We still produce more waste than I am happy with, but composting is the single most-effective waste reducing effort that we have instituted in our household.

My husband picked the rest of the broad beans and broccoli – another kilogram of broccoli and 2.5 kilograms of broadies – and then went inside to shell and freeze them. Meanwhile, while I took on the task of mulching with sugarcane mulch. I only managed one bale today (we have at least three bales worth of mulching to do). It’s a huge task in our garden, and I will have to finish the rest next weekend.

Heading back out in the early evening to look over the garden, I noticed that the potatoes had already grown over the hilled soil and the mulch. No wonder spuds fed an entire nation!

Mind you, broad beans probably could too…

A mountain of broad beans, forsooth!

Gardening jobs – Weekend 6th & 7th October, 2018

October is tomato season in our region. I know this because the local weekend gardening show on the ABC, listened to by all people in South Australia over 60 and me, ran its annual Spring tomato segment this weekend. People call in and text the varieties of tomato they are planning to grow this season, and other gardenerds take notes. While I wasn’t exactly taking notes about the tomatoes, I was texting my friend about scale and citrus gall wasp (we have the scale, she has the gall wasp), so we are officially gardenerds. If you hadn’t already figured that out…

This year I am planting eight varieties of tomatoes:

  • Pineapple tomato (from seed)
  • Moneymaker (from seed)
  • San Marzano (from seed)
  • Jaune Flamme (from seed)
  • Black Cherry
  • Tiny Tim
  • Red Truss
  • Rouge de Marmande

I am also planning to find a Rapunzel tomato to grow from the balcony outside my bedroom, from which I have successfully grown cherry tomatoes in previous Summers.

I have planted the Tiny Tim and Black Cherry in pots already. The Red Truss seedlings, an F1 Hybrid, went in the garden on Sunday afternoon with a shovelful of compost and a handful of blood and bone. The seed plantings are still in their infancy, only just having popped their little heads up out of the jiffy pots.

Harlequin Carrots and Red and Golden Beetroot harvest

This was Spring harvest weekend, as we had to start making room for our potatoes. It’s at least a month late for potato planting, but we have had such a long growing season for our Winter vegetables. I still have heads forming on some of the broccoli plants, and I am unlikely to see cabbages at all this year – it is just too warm now. However, I have picked a quite astounding amount of broccoli – two kilograms on Sunday alone, so I can’t complain. I would have liked at least one Purple Cape cauliflower, but I guess the Romanesco broccoli will have to satisfy me. I gave some away to friends and my sister, and we made soup with the rest. There is still more out there, shooting delicious side shoots.

My husband discovered a cache of compost that I had forgotten I made. We have a worm tower that sits underground. Most of our worms live in our compost bin, but I recently tossed a whole heap of weeds and scraps in the worm tower, and chucked a couple of handsful from the compost bin on top. The worms from the compost bin got to work, and when my husband removed the lid he discovered that in six weeks the worms had created perfect compost.

Compost!

He dug it out for me to use in the garden, and we topped up the worm tower with more weeds and scraps. He replaced the worms and hopefully in another six weeks we will have more compost. I dug the compost around the rhubarb plant, an apple tree, and into the soil of the newly planted tomatoes.

Can I take a moment to say how much I love compost? Kitchen scraps thrown in the bin do not rot the way they do in compost; because landfill is anaerobic and the scraps are usually in plastic bags, they turn into sludge and produce methane, a greenhouse gas. At the very least, these scraps should go in the green bin where the council should dispose of them in the proper way. However, green bin pickup in our area is only monthly, and a month’s worth of kitchen scraps in a green bin will be pretty ripe. By contrast, our compost bin doesn’t smell bad, and eventually ends up back in the garden where it will feed the soil and by extension, us.

Potato planting

Planting potatoes is something gardeners do purely for kicks. Potatoes are cheap and easy to come by, so it’s not like we can’t go to Woollies and buy a bag of spuds easily enough. I just like growing them – but I am also well aware that I am lucky enough to have the space to devote to growing them. And by choosing to grow potatoes, I am giving up the opportunity to grow something else.

Potato growing: a lesson in opportunity cost.

I am also well aware that I am lucky enough to have a partner in crime bonkers enough to spend his Sunday afternoon digging trenches to plant them. The trenches in the photo above don’t look that deep, but they are quite deep and took a long time to dig. In the end he had to dig five trenches to plant two kilograms of certified seed potatoes.

We are growing Red Otway potatoes. Last year we grew Red Otway and King Edward, and we preferred the Red Otway. They grew slightly smaller in size than the King Edward, but were more prolific. They were also a good all rounder for our purposes. And they were delicious.

Dig the trenches as deeply as possible, and plant the tubers at the base of the trench, about 10-15 cm apart. Use certified disease-free seed potatoes, unless you want to take the risk of spreading a fungal disease to your soil. We bought ours from Bunnings.

We ‘chit’ our potatoes before planting. Potatoes usually have several ‘eyes’ from which the sprouts grow. ‘Chitting’ the potatoes simply means cutting the potatoes into several pieces, each one with an eye/sprout. Let them dry out for a couple of days, then plant each piece. This way you end up with more potato plants from one bag of seed potatoes.

Cover with soil – but not all the soil you have dug up to create the trenches. Just cover the potatoes and then wait for them to sprout above the soil. Then hill up with soil and let them grow above the hill. Keep hilling them up as they grow. Eventually you will run out of soil and you will have to use straw. Keep doing that until you decide the cost of the straw is not worth it – when your potatoes are roughly the price of a barrel of oil per kilogram, stop.

When the potato vines flower (a pretty blue flower), let the potato vines die down, and bandicoot one plant. This means to dig down the side of one of the plants to check the size of your potatoes. If they look good to go, start digging!