It was a sunny-ish day today, so I made a plan to spend it outside in the garden with my husband. He committed to finishing the pruning and to cutting back the giant rosemary bush under the apricot tree. It was so big, it was almost as tall as the tree! He cut it back hard, by two thirds. Most of it went in the green bin, but a bunch is hanging in the kitchen to dry.
I turned the compost bins, a job long overdue. The photo below shows the pile before turning. The layers of compost show the different stages of breaking down over the past few months: at the top is the ‘freshest’ additions to the bin, and as you can see at the bottom is the final product. In the middle there is a mix of compost ready to go out onto the garden, and some that needed to go back in the bin to break down further. The compost is created from a mix of chicken litter, manure, kitchen scraps, yard waste, old potting mix, and sometimes some pigeon manure from my neighbour’s aviary. From this single bin, I pulled about ten 10-litre buckets of compost.
Turning compost bins is a physically demanding but important task. It aerates the compost, which helps it to break down more quickly. As the compost is turned, you can dig out some of the ready compost and make space to add fresh content. And it helps you to learn more about what compost should look, feel, and smell like. If, when turning the compost, it seems a little dry, you can add some more greens (leafy plants or kitchen scraps). If it seems a bit too wet or smells bad (compost should not smell unpleasant), you will know to add some leaves or straw.
It’s a job I don’t mind, but because it is time-consuming and physically taxing, I have to find the time to do it. Once I have started, I get into it, especially when I pull out buckets of fresh compost to put around my fruit trees.
Planting seeds for early Spring
It’s still mid-Winter, and although still cold and wet, I have some space in my garden and in my greenhouse. I planted out some late Winter/early Spring veggies in my seed-starting trays in the greenhouse. My goal is to fill in the ‘hungry gap’ between late Spring and Summer, when we are waiting for those veggies like eggplant and capsicum to come on. I planted coriander, silverbeet (chard), spinach, more lettuce, tatsoi, and kale. In the light and warmth of the greenhouse, they should pop up quickly.
While I was in there, I potted up the Sawtooth Banksia seedlings that I have been nurturing since our trip to Tasmania in February. It’s been a long, slow task to grow these from seed, but they were finally large enough to put into little pots. I have successfully propagated four seedlings and I am so excited to see how well they grow in our climate.
The rest of the day was spent continuing the somewhat dull but necessary task of cutting back the old mint and oregano stalks in the front garden. I still have a couple of hours of this job to do next week, then it is done for the season. Combined with the pruning we have done, we have almost finished the seasonal tidying up and can look forward to a lovely Spring garden. The jonquils and daffodils are already up – I can feel the season turning just around the corner.
We have been hibernating around here. The icy blast that has hit our part of Australia has kept us indoors, working, or doing other indoorsy things, like sitting by the fire reading, watching movies, or on some days, making jam and pickles. We had a big crop of limes, so I have made marmalade, lime curd, and two types of spicy lime pickles. What I have not done is venture outside to the garden. It’s just been too cold and too wet.
This weekend though, after seeing we were in for yet another weekend of rain, I finally cracked. I missed being outside, and I know my garden really needed some love. So I carefully checked the 48-hour forecast for Saturday, and found a window of about three hours with no rain. So out I went.
Three hours is not a lot of time in a garden that has been neglected for weeks. Even in the middle of Winter, the garden keeps on growing. So I decided to be very judicious with my time. I grabbed the hedge trimmers and secateurs, and set myself a couple of simple tasks trimming a lavender bush, cutting down as much of the dead mint stalks as I could manage, and if I had the time, pruning a rose bush and a salvia. I felt these were achievable tasks in my three hours.
My husband was a bit reluctant to come outside, but after a coffee and a bagel he decided to join as well, to prune and train the apple trees on the espalier frames.
Trimming back the mint stalks
Every year, the mint and oregano in the front yard looks lush and full in the late Spring and Summer, with lovely mauve flower spikes. By Autumn, they start to look straggly. And by this time of the year, they look bloody awful. Trimming them back is boring, time consuming, a bit painful on the old joints, but necessary. If I don’t cut back the old flower stalks, it will limit the growth of the fresh Spring plants. Plus, they just look yuck. I know I have left it a bit late, but it has been so cold…and waaaahhhh. It’s one of those jobs I just hold off doing because it’s not fun. To start with, I used my electric hedge trimmers, but someone (cough – husband – cough) took them off the charger and they ran out of charge very quickly. So ended up using the old manual trimmers that only run out of charge when I do.
The results are pretty impressive:
Underneath that leaf litter are new mint and oregano plants that will spring up in a couple of weeks.
Arguably I could have saved myself all this trouble if I did not plant mint in my garden in the first place. Most garden experts advise to plant mint in a pot, because it has the tendency to spread everywhere. That is true. It’s equally true of oregano, lemon balm, lamb’s ear, violets, and even calendula, parsley and lavender, all of which spread or self-seed prolifically in my garden. However, I don’t mind the mint where it is. It is great ground cover, and stops other unwanted weeds spreading. It smells beautiful, and unlike some other ground covers, is non-toxic and edible. I wouldn’t plant it in my veggie patch, but in my front garden, under the pomegranate tree, it’s fine.
Cutting back the salvia
I’m slowly replacing most of the lavender in my garden with salvias. I prefer the different varieties of salvia, their drought tolerance, and I have found to my frustration that lavender self-seeds like crazy in my garden. I’m always pulling out baby lavender plants.
Salvias come in many varieties, are drought and heat tolerant, and I think they are beautiful. Some of the new plants are still establishing so do not need to be cut back yet, but I have some older plants that have grown enormous over the past six months. The lipstick salvia (bright red heart shaped flowers) has tripled in size this year, and was impinging on the space of other plants.
To cut back a salvia, follow the canes back to the base and cut off with sharp secateurs. I just shaped the bush to the size and shape I wanted – cutting back by about half. That tidied it up and made space for the other plants nearby. I also found one of the canes had rooted – I pulled that one out and put it in some water to plant elsewhere in the garden.
Planning the Summer Veggie Patch
One of my favourite seed companies (Happy Valley Seeds) had a snap EOFY sale this weekend, so I took it as an opportunity to buy my seeds for Summer. I thought about what I really wanted to plant this season, and the answer was: chillies, zucchini, beans, and eggplants.
The varieties I bought are:
Eggplant – Tsakoniki
Eggplant – Thai Purple Ball – I love these little globe eggplants
Eggplant – White egg
Eggplant – Turkish Orange
Eggplant – Red Ruffle
Zucchini – Rondo De Nice – a globe shaped zucchini
Climbing Beans – Kentucky Wonder Wax
Squash – Scallop Bennings Green Tint
Last season’s eggplant crop was a bit of a bust, but the long range weather forecast is for an early Spring and a hot Summer. That’s eggplant and chilli territory, baby. So I stocked up on five types of eggplants, some chillies, extra zucchini and squash, and some more climbing beans. I still have seeds from last year, but I used up all the eggplant seeds from last year. My plan is to start everything in the greenhouse in late August, and as Spring is starting early, plant out in September.
Bring on the eggplants! Hey, some people get excited about Christmas, I get excited about eggplant. Each to their own.
I also bought some watermelon seeds (the cycle of self-inflicted pain continues) – a mini yellow variety, and some red passionfruit seeds (Red Flamenco). The Red Panama passionfruit I planted a few years ago turned up its toes – I want to try growing another red passionfruit from seed to replace it.
FYI, the online sale at Happy Valley Seeds is on until 30 June – 25% off store wide. I don’t get paid to endorse them, I just think they have a good variety of heirloom seeds at a fair price.
It’s easy to fall behind in the garden when you only have a few hours a week. I have been keeping up on basic tasks, like watering, but a big garden like ours has myriad tasks that need to be managed regularly – and I have not been keeping on top of them. These include weeding, feeding, pest management, pruning, picking and processing the harvest, and removing spent plants. My husband and I made an agreement to get up early and get out in the garden. We both broke that agreement by lazing around in bed for longer, but we got out there by about 9:30 am, ready, if not exactly raring, to go.
Most pruning is completed in Winter, when plants are dormant. However, trees in the prunus family, such as apricots and plums, benefit from a prune in Summer after they have finished fruiting. This is because they are prone to diseases like gummosis, which can get into the cuts in the wood if the weather is damp. The apricot tree finished fruiting two weeks ago, so my husband got up on his ladder and started to prune it back. We are putting the branches on the workshop roof to season for next year’s fireplace. Firewood is expensive, so any bits and pieces we can pull together ourselves from (non-toxic) prunings saves cash.
While he pruned the apricot and plum trees, I pruned the grapevine, just a little. The wet weather in late Spring caused the early leaves and bunches to rot. New healthy leaves have since grown, but I have been intending to prune off the rotten leaves and bunches for weeks now. The vine looks much happier, if a little bereft, now. Real grape vine pruning season is in Winter, so I only pruned off the funky looking leaves.
I admit to putting off tying up tomatoes, because it’s an itchy and boring job. But there comes a point in the season where it is just necessary. Rather than using stakes, I prefer to build cages. I have tried all kinds of versions of tomato cages, but my favourite (also the quickest but one of the most expensive, unfortunately) is to use steel trellis panels, which cost about $15 each when I bought them from Bunno’s two years ago. I create a cage using four panels, tied together with zip ties. These are easy to build and easy to dismantle. Due to the cost and size, I use this style of cage for the largest indeterminate tomatoes (generally Green Zebra).
The king of tomato cages is my brother, who builds very impressive structures, possibly visible from space, and also has the most impressive tomato plants in the family.
When I run out of trellis panels (and I refuse to buy more because a) cost and b) storage – I have to store them for the nine months of the year I am not using them), I build other types of supports for the other tomato plants in the garden. I have a group of three plants against the fence behind the lime tree. Using a large piece of reo mesh and two star droppers, I built a trellis to support this group. I have another piece of reo I am hoarding to build a trellis for pumpkins once they grow too large. I caught one pumpkin vine climbing the lime tree this morning, so it will not be long before I have to build a structure for it.
Of course, I could spend all day building cages for the rest of the plants…but I was feeling a bit lazy, and it’s a bit fiddly. Therefore, I decided that the standard stake and stocking tie support system would be fine. I only use the stake supports for smaller tomato plants, as they can quickly outgrow stakes if they are very vigorous plants.
All of these supports are recycled from previous years. I save the reo and trellis panels each year, and reuse the ties from previous stakes. If the stakes are not damaged from the last season, I reuse them as well. Some gardeners prefer not to reuse wooden stakes, due to problems with passing on soil borne diseases. However, I let the stakes dry out in the sun for a few days. After storing in the garden shed for twelve months, I figure they are probably ok. Once the stakes are too old and broken to reuse, I chop off the grotty end and they are used for firewood.
This season I grew all the tomato plants in my garden from seed (puffs up chest). A couple of the plants I grew from supermarket tomatoes that I thought were delicious, and saved some seed. I found one of these in the garden this morning (I had completely forgotten I had planted it). It has fruited like crazy (all green right now). I really hope that it is as delicious as I remembered. If not, I will use it to make some sauce. At the moment I am only picking a couple of cherry tomatoes a day (yellow Windowbox tomatoes – they are ok, but not really tasty). Can’t wait until the Green Zebra and Black Russians ripen up.
The day was relatively cool, so I gave every plant in the veggie garden an organic liquid feed of the old faithful standbys Charlie Carp (a liquid fertiliser made of carp, a pest) and liquid seaweed. The grapevine and avocado tree was fed a bucket of liquid fertiliser as well. My plan for the avocado tree is to keep the water and food up each month, as tbh I have been a bit slack on both over the past twelve months. For the lemon tree and passionfruit, I also dissolved iron chelates in a watering can and watered ten litres into the root zone of each plant.
Iron chelates are a trace element that do not need to be used regularly. However, the leaves on these plants were looking yellowed, and the fruit was shrivelling. Poor fruit and yellowing leaves can be a sign of iron deficiency in fruiting plants. Iron chelates are easy to apply, following packet directions, but it is important not to overdose.
As the other plants (tomatoes, eggplant, capsicum) are all looking healthy and are setting healthy fruit, I do not think it is a problem with the soil nutrition generally. However some fruiting plants are much hungrier feeders than others, so it seemed a good idea to give them a dose of iron chelates to see if this will help. Time will tell. Really, looking at those passionfruit leaves, it honestly couldn’t hurt – they look so bad. This is the problem with having such limited time – there is so much to do and so little time to get everything done. I was aware there was a problem, but I may have been too slow to fix it.
The greenhouse continues to be a successful growing space. I have been unscientifically comparing the progress of plants in the greenhouse to those planted outside.
These two eggplants were both grown by seed by me, and were planted at about the same time. Eggplant One was planted in a raised bed outside, in a premium potting mix. It is watered daily, and has been fed with a liquid feed at least fortnightly.
Eggplant Two was planted in a large pot, in the same brand of premium potting mix. In hot weather it is watered twice daily, and has been fed with a liquid feed at least fortnightly.
As you can see, it is at least three times the size of Eggplant One, and is flowering. With all other factors being equal (type of soil, feeding regime), greenhouse conditions seem to encourage faster growth.
Previously I have used a heated seed mat to raise seeds in small trays indoors. While the heated seed mat germinated seeds more quickly than without, the plants did not have as much light as they needed, and struggled past the initial germination phase.
I planted these borlotti bush beans nine days ago in the raised troughs in the greenhouse, watering daily. They have almost all germinated, and already have their true leaves. As they are bush beans, I will keep them in the trough for their lifecycle. I have climbing beans in the garden as well, which were planted six weeks ago, and are only about twice the size of these beans.
I believe that the relatively constant temperatures and excellent light in the greenhouse creates optimum growing conditions.
The greenhouse is not without pest problems. One eggplant was initially affected by whitefly, and another by white cabbage moth caterpillars. These were easily controlled by manual means (squishing). Occasionally small sparrows manage to get in, and cannot seem to figure how to get out without a little assistance. But generally, the greenhouse protects plants from most pests.
It does require consistent and diligent watering. Unlike the outdoor garden, which I can leave a day if I’m busy, it is not possible to skip watering the greenhouse. This is due both to the fact that the plants are all in containers, which dry out more quickly, and the higher temperature. Leave them for a day, and I could end up with dead plants.
My other main concern is pollination. While insects can come into the greenhouse, I worry that not enough pollinators will come in. I am thinking through different ideas to attract them – if any greenhouse gardeners have some suggestions, I would love to hear them!
Of course, I still have many tasks left to complete, but there is never enough time. I still have to work, see family, exercise, be a friend and partner and parent…life is not all gardening! Hopefully what I have done this weekend will hold the garden together for a little while.
It’s been weeks since I have been out in the garden – due to incessant rain, wind, and lots of work taking up my weekends. But today was a rare sunny (not warm) day, so I took the opportunity to get out and into the dirt.
The garden has held up extremely well after weeks of very wet and windy weather. This is due in part to my husband finishing the retaining wall before the really heavy weather set in, and the Winter veggie garden being well established before the really cold weather. This meant that all the garden had to do was keep growing, while we hibernated inside, working and watching old episodes of Scrubs. Occasionally I ventured outside to check the progress of the cauliflowers, but aside from that I stayed inside and worked on a raft of projects that have been heading my way lately.
That doesn’t mean there is nothing to do out there. Today I set myself the task of pruning the mulberry tree, weeding, trimming a geranium bush, and feeding everything with liquid compost. Last week I did get outside for two hours to plant up two dwarf plum trees in Pie Corner, and I checked on them to make sure they were happy and settling in well, but aside from that, I just did everything on the list.
Look at these beauties. Romanceso cauliflower (or broccoli, whatever you want to call them) are my favourite Winter veggies to grow, but they take patience. I used to think caulis took a long time, but they are nothing compared to these green lovelies. The beauty of them alone makes them worth it, and the flavour is incredible. I’d estimate another four weeks before they are ready to pick. While I am waiting, I will give them a liquid compost feed every week to keep them sweet, and pick off the caterpillars. Normally I would leave the caterpillars alone, and on other plants I do, but not on the Romanescos. They can eat other things, but not my spiralled lovelies.
While we wait for them to be ready, we have cabbages and caulis to enjoy – unfortunately all the broccoli is finished 🙁
I am not a very confident pruner. I tend to be tentative with removing branches, and worried I will remove too much. As such, I think I probably remove too little. I pruned some of it today, but looking back at the job I did this morning, I think I need to go back and give it another go. The mulberry tree has not been performing well, and I think it is because I have not pruned it hard enough. The tree is five years old and has yet to produce more than a handful of tiny mulberries, so whatever we have been doing is not working. All the other fruit trees planted at the same time are fruiting well, but this freeloader is not producing the goods. Time to prune hard, or go home. Or in the case of this tree, go to the wood shed for next year’s fireplace, if I don’t see some berries this Summer.
There were not many weeds out there, considering the amount of rain we have had, and those that were there were easily removed by hand. I think this is due to consistent hand weeding over time. They don’t get the chance to set seed, so we don’t have many weeds. Occasional foraging by an escaped hen also helps. I picked a cauliflower, planted some more spring onions, and gave everything a quick feed of liquid fertiliser, then came inside for a wash.
Tomorrow is expected to bucket down, so at least I can look outside from my office and know that I have spent a solid four hours in the garden today, instead of feeling frustrated that the weekend was spent inside. And only four more weeks of Winter to go! I am just not a Winter person. Bring on Spring.