Inflation busters! The best veggies to grow to save cash

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

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

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

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

Top veggies to grow to save money

Lettuce

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

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

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

Chillies

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

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

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

Lebanese Eggplant

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

Kale

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

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

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

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

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

Chard (Silverbeet)

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

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

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

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

Herbs

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

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

Weekend gardening jobs, 10th April 2022

April in Southern Australia is spectacular. As we walked by the reservoir this morning, the water rippled in a light breeze, and kangaroos bounded past. We sure are lucky to live in this beautiful part of the world.

After a walk and a quick breakfast, it was out to the garden to soak up some sun. It was just a perfect day to be out in the garden. Even clearing out old pumpkin vines was fun.

I went for a little wander and picked the last of the pumpkins (some Butternuts and a Queensland Blue), a bowl of eggplants, a bunch of carrots, a couple of final tomatoes, and a speckled cos lettuce (so pretty!).

Then I could finish clearing out the last of the Summer plants (except the eggplants, which are still going gangbusters) and clean up the whole garden ready for Autumn. So long, pumpkin vines (always a happy/sad feeling – happy because they are just all over the place, but sad because no more pumpkins). Farewell, tomato plants. I dug over the beds, spread organic fertiliser (pelletised chicken manure and blood and bone), and raked it all to a fine tilth. It’s amazing what a bit of tidying up can do – after a long growing season, when the garden is full of growing apparatus and rambling vines, it looks so neat and tidy when everything is cleared out. In a few months it will be full of plants again, but for now, it looks like the garden of one of those very organised gardeners I see on the internet.

I am organised, but not generally in the long tidy rows kind of way. I wish I was, but space is such a valuable resource in my garden, that I tend to fill in the gaps wherever I can, ruining the tidy line aesthetic so that after a month or so the veggie patch ends up with the same rambling quality as the front yard. I usually don’t mind it, but I did enjoy seeing it so neat today, if only for a moment.

The empty space was empty only briefly, after which I planted:

  • Garlic Mammoth – I planted out one full bulb, and I have another to plant out next weekend
  • Golden Acre Cabbage – half a dozen seedlings, grown from seed I saved last year
  • Red Spring Onions – two full punnets of onion sets, grown from seed
  • Green Viking Spinach – four seedlings, grown from seed. So far I have yet to grow a full Spinach plant from multiple seeds planted. If these babies fail too, I will go back to the more reliable Chard and Kale
  • Coriander- two seedlings grown from seed I saved last year

So far I have succeeded in only planting from seed. I planted up new seeds: Purple Sicily cauliflower, Curly Kale, Romanesco broccoli, and more Green Viking Spinach (c’mon little Spinach, you can do it!!).

Every season I become obsessed with growing something just because. You wouldn’t think plain old ordinary Spinach would be one of those things, and yet, here we are. That, and those crazy orange cauliflowers. I sent away for seeds and they sent me back exactly seven (7) seeds! They have all come up, but it’s a long way from seedling to plant, as I have been discovering over the past few weeks. I have a new found respect for plant wholesalers and retailers.

Pumpkin Season Outcomes

From left: Queensland Blue, Australian Butter, Buttercup

This year I grew four varieties of pumpkins: the classic Butternut, Queensland Blue, Australian Butter, and Buttercup. Of these, the Butternut was the most prolific (in fact, I still have a single vine in the corner of the yard that still has five pumpkins growing). Queensland Blue was the next best, and I only got one each of the gorgeous orange Australian Butter and Buttercup. However, I already know I will grow Buttercup again – I’ve already saved the seeds ready for next year. That was the most delicious pumpkin I have ever eaten. I hope next year it will grow more productively than this year.

In previous years, I have had excellent success with Kent pumpkins (also known as Jap in other parts of Australia). I will grow these again next year, as I can’t beat them for their output, although they are not as tasty as either Butternut or Buttercup.

Mostly I grow them because it’s fun, and they are so pretty. I am just happy to have ten organic pumpkins in my pantry, ready for soup and curries. They keep so well, I expect to have pumpkins for at least the next six months (if I can hold off eating them that long).

Weekend gardening jobs, March 13 & 14 2021

It was a long weekend here in our State, and it’s also early Autumn. Many of the Summer veggie plants are finishing off, and it’s time to start getting ready for the Autumn garden.

Autumn in our area is now tending toward the dry and warm, thanks to the ongoing effects of climate change. The long-range weather forecast for our region predicts just 10mm of rain for March, and not much rain for April (traditionally a wet month). The forecast is predicting a dry Autumn, a warmer and drier Winter, and a cooler and wetter Spring and Summer (basically, a repeat of the last twelve months). This means that gardeners need to change our approach to seasonal planting. Plants we might not have considered for the Autumn garden might be a possibility. We might be able to grow Summer veggies later into Autumn.

I’m seeing that myself right now. I still have an abundance of eggplant and chillies in my patch, and no sign that the plants will stop producing anytime soon. I have sowed some carrots, lettuces, and turnips directly in the ground, and they have popped their little leaves up already. As it’s still warm during the day, the soil is still warm enough to start directly sowed seeds. And usually gardeners wait until after first frost to harvest pumpkins, but the plants are dying off already with no sign of a frost on the horizon. I need to decide whether to pick the pumpkins, or try to keep them on rapidly drying up vines. I think I will have to pick, and give up on the idea of frost.

Cleaning up the garden

The Summer garden is almost finished. I spent most of this morning (Monday) picking the rest of the tomatoes, green beans, and a final watermelon (we only got a couple – note to self, don’t bother next year!!), and clearing out spent plants. Then I dug over the soil, sprinkled organic fertiliser over the soil, and raked it in ready for planting seedlings in a couple of weeks.

Seed-starting

Starting plants from seed is a kind of ‘one step forward, two steps back’ process. I successfully started a dozen silverbeet (chard) and another dozen spinach plants about a month ago, and then once they were large enough I planted them out in the garden. All but two of them have been eaten by birds. So now, frustratingly, I have to start those plants again. Don’t believe blogs or resources that say seeds are a lot cheaper than seedlings. Technically, seeds are much cheaper when comparing a packet of 500 seeds to a punnet of six grown plants – but like everything in gardening, nothing is as simple as that. Factoring in the cost of seeds, seed-raising mix, seed trays (which can be re-used), and now the heat mat with electricity, as well as the time, I probably come out ahead slightly, but not that much far ahead, than if I bought seedlings.

Where seeds are really worth it is in the wider variety you can access, and the fun.

I can find varieties of plants from seed catalogues that I can’t find in seedling form at a nursery. For example, recently I decided I wanted to grow collards. Collards are popular in America, but not in Australia, so I can’t find them in seedling form at a nursery or even as seeds from most mainstream seed companies. However, after a bit of online searching I found collard seeds from a seed company in NSW. They also had lots of interesting varieties of lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, radish, turnips, and kale, so I bought all the seeds I wanted to try for the Autumn garden from them. I will still buy seedlings from nurseries, but my plan is to try to start most of my plants from seed this season. I also like fiddling around with propagation kits and seed-starting, so although it’s not cheaper or a time-saver, it’s a great hobby.

However, trying to plan a garden this way requires a lot of planning on my part. As I really only have weekends, I need to be much more organised if I want to grow my garden almost entirely from seed this season. I can’t wait around until the end of March, then throw in a few dozen seedlings and still be fine. I have to start now to get the seeds going. This is why I am spending at least an hour a week starting seeds.

This week, I started more chard (after my first lot were eaten by birds), leeks, coriander, cauliflower, and more onions. In the garden, I direct sowed lettuce, turnips, and carrots. I planted out spring onions that I started from seed three weeks ago. I have just started to have to buy onions and carrots again, after months of not having to, and it’s so annoying! My goal is to have enough onions, carrots, lettuces, and greens in my garden for most of the year from mid-April without having to buy any.

I love turnips and kohlrabi, but I have had middling success with them. I think this is related to time of planting, which is why I am trying to be diligent with the planting time this year.

Summer Winners and Losers

This year, the garden winners for the Summer season were the eggplants, beans, chillies, and pumpkins. We still have an abundance of eggplants coming on, and I anticipate them to keep going for several more weeks. We have been eating at least one full eggplant meal per week – usually a spicy eggplant pasta dish or a curry. We have about twelve pumpkins on the vine almost ready to go (another week or so), including Queensland Blues, Australian Butter, Butternut, and a variety that I can’t recall the name of. I’m very excited about the Australian Butter, which is a brilliant orange.

The green beans, which are Blue Lake variety, have also been abundant, and we have been eating them in vegetarian stir fries with carrots, chillies, and noodles. The chillies have been prolific. We have grown eight varieties of chilli: cayenne, dragon’s roll (prolific but not spicy, and a bit dull), dragon’s tongue (delicious and super spicy – our favourite), curly toenail, mango, cherry, lemon, and jalapeño. The best have been the dragon’s tongue and the curly toenail. Both are spicy, but also have a great flavour. The lemon chilli is delicious green and sliced up on top of chilli, eggs, stir fries, curries, or anything that you want a bit of a kick with that lovely fresh green chilli flavour.

The garden losers this year were the zucchini, cucumbers (ugh, I bloody give up), melons, and tomatoes. I’m not sure who had a good tomato year, but it definitely was not me. That’s partly my own fault: I did not really put a huge effort into tomatoes this year. If tomato seedlings popped up, I let them grow, but I did not choose tomato plants and nurture them. As such, we had a couple of nice cherry tomato plants grow in cracks and corners, but the other plants struggled. I did this because I was trying to rest the main tomato growing areas in my garden after discovering nematodes on a couple of plants last year. I am glad I did this: when I pulled up the sad tomato plants today, I found none of them had nematodes. I hope this means that the nematodes are now gone from my soil. I picked what was left and made a green tomato pickle (delicious).

I did get a few good zucchini, and two melons (technically that makes this my best watermelon season ever), but the wet, cool Summer created ideal conditions for mildew. The zucchini plant rapidly succumbed to powdery mildew, and I ended up pulling it earlier than usual. Goodbye, zucchini season, I hardly knew ye.

Weekend gardening jobs, 20th February 2021

It’s been a busy week in the garden, because I gave myself a week off (exciting). As I work for myself, it’s not often that I get a full week off, but I managed it!

As it’s still Covid times, I took the week off around home, but it was still very lovely. I spent a few mornings and afternoons in the garden, and also visited some outdoor gardening places, such as the botanic gardens, the Digger’s shop in the botanic gardens, where I bought plants and garlic to plant in a few weeks time, and the annual Chilli Festival, where I bought chilli plants and a local plant nursery and bought more house plants. So I guess it was kind of a gardening holiday in which I spent the majority of the time either gardening or thinking about gardening.

House plant mania

I looked around my house this morning and realised that I have a crazy amount of house plants. There is at least one house plant in almost every room. In the lounge room, there are about twenty. On the kitchen window sill I’m striking four new plants. In my office I have six plants to keep me company while I work.

It might be time to slow it down a little, because they actually take a fair bit of time to care for.

Melon success

Pocket melon

I have been trying to grow melons since…always. I have never successfully grown any melons, despite having grown pumpkins with success for a number of years. This has always puzzled me, since pumpkins and melons are closely related. I could not figure out what I was doing wrong.

To be honest, I can’t figure out what I am doing right either, but whatever it is I’ll take it! I’m growing two varieties: Pocket Melon, and Golden Midget. Both are smaller varieties. Golden Midget is a golden melon with red flesh, that grows to 2.5kg at the largest, making it a relatively small melon. The Pocket Melon is a much smaller melon, grown for its intense fragrance more than its flavour. I’m growing them more as an experiment than anything else – if I can break the melon curse then it will have been worth it.

Golden Midget

Preparing for next season

Right now we are picking an abundance of veggies from the garden, and most of our meals are made almost entirely from the veggie patch.

Spinach fettuccine with spicy eggplant sauce – we are cooking from the garden every night

But I have an eye to next season, and I have already bought all the seeds we need for a full Winter/Spring veggie patch. In addition to the usual suspects (broccoli, cabbage etc) I want to try some different veggies to shake our diet up a little. I have been listening to an American gardening podcast called Backyard Gardens, which has me thinking about some different options. I recommend listening to it, with some caveats: the seasons are obviously the opposite to ours, the pests they deal with are generally non-existent in Australia, and the male host has a habit of sometimes speaking over the female host (she’s great). I still listen because I enjoy listening to the female host, and I like learning about what other gardeners are doing, even if it’s across the world.

They suggested growing collards. These are a vegetable that I have never eaten or grown. They are a brassica, related to cabbage and kale. The seeds are not easy to find in Australia, but I found some sold by Happy Valley Seeds in NSW. I’m looking forward to growing and learning to cook collards, which the Backyard Gardens hosts say are tastier than kale (I also like growing and eating kale).

Happy Valley Seeds also sell a wide range of other heirloom and hybrid seeds, so I bought most of next season’s seeds from this site. In addition to the collards, I bought lots of lettuce, purple and orange cauliflower, cabbage, onions, carrots, kohlrabi, turnips, silverbeet (chard), spinach, two types of kale, and broccoli seeds. I am using my heat mat to raise the seeds inside, so I can plant them out in March once the Summer veggies are done.

I bought the heat mat as part of a propagation kit from Diggers Club last month. The whole mat costs $50, but I bought it as part of a kit for $100 (the kit also included a seed tray with cover, seed raising mix, jiffy pots and some other gear). The electric mat supplies gentle heat to the bottom of a seed tray and speeds up propagation. Instead of waiting 7-10 days for seeds to come up, they pop up in three days! I already have seedling pots of silverbeet and spinach ready to plant out once they add their mature leaves, and I have onions, kohlrabi, and collards popping their little heads out now. I love this thing, and just wish that I had bought one years ago. I ordered my kit online from Diggers Club, but you can find them online from other places, as well as the separate components from the Big Green Shed.

What to do with all that stuff you grow

  • Freeze it: shred zucchini, carrots, beetroot, and freeze in one cup portions in snap lock bags. For the zucchini, squeeze out as much water as you can first. To freeze green beans, spread on a tray lined with baking paper, then place in a bag once frozen. To freeze silverbeet, kale or spinach, just chop it and freeze it in bags, and either use it from frozen, or thaw it.
  • Preserve it: make jam, chutney, passata, ketchup, or preserve it;
  • Give it away to friends, family, co-workers, or put it on a Grow Free cart;
  • Bake it: there are so many recipes online for muffins, cakes, brownies, etc using veggies, including vegan options;
  • Cook it: we are not vegetarian but right now we are eating mostly vegetarian food or less meat meals, because we just have so many veggies to eat! We certainly eat our five a day at the moment (admittedly sometimes in chocolate beetroot brownie form, which probably doesn’t count).

Gardening jobs, late Summer 2022

Pumpkin hanging on a trellis

After a relatively cool Summer (for Southern Australia), and a sudden burst of torrential rain caused by a tropical cyclone up North, we have had a spell of hot, humid days. This is not weather I enjoy. I love the heat, but I don’t love humidity. The constant blanket of moisture in the air feels oppressive to me.

That being said, I am glad to finally have some heat in the garden. The cooler weather has not been great for Summer fruiting veggies. We live in a hilly area, and this means that we are always a couple of degrees cooler than the Adelaide plains. We need some warmer weather for the tomatoes, eggplant, and beans to get going. These have finally started to take off, and we are generally cooking from the garden each night. There is at least something to nab out of the garden everyday to throw into a meal, whether its eggs from the chooks, a zucchini, some little Lebanese eggplants, carrots, beetroot, or onions. Tomatoes are just coming on now, and we have basil, chillies and mini capsicums on the balcony.

My husband has been building a new trellis for the grape vine and the passionfruit vines. He has been slowly building new trellises for all the fruit trees in the backyard, which is a big job. Somehow we have managed to plant five fruit trees, four berry canes, and five vines in our backyard, as well as our veggie patch. I think that probably qualifies the backyard as a food forest.

Before building the trellis, we picked our first bunch of grapes from our two year old vine. I planted the grape vine because my youngest loves grapes and looks forward to grape season every year. I like grapes, but I would rather eat a new season apple any day. However, I have to say that I felt crazily excited about picking the first bunch of grapes – more than I felt picking the first apples from our trees. They tasted really good.

Succession Planting

I’m experimenting with succession planting. After my great success with carrots this year, I have started planting fresh seed about every 8 weeks, with the goal of always having a supply of fresh carrots. I’m doing the same with beetroots and trying to do the same with onions. I haven’t had to buy a carrot or onion in months. You could argue that carrots and onions are dead cheap, and why would I bother taking up garden space for them?

Organic carrots and onions aren’t cheap, firstly. Conventionally grown carrots and onions are, but the veggies I grow are organic, no sprays, fungicides, or pesticides. They taste amazing. A homegrown carrot tastes special. Also, I can grow interesting varieties, like purple or yellow carrots, little round Paris Market carrots, and lovely long red onions.

Of course, I can do this because I have the space to continually grow rows of carrots and onions.

Late Season Planting

Summer is heating up late this year, so I am taking advantage of the late season warmth to throw in some extra veggies (in addition to the carrot and onions). I have thrown in some extra cucumber and zucchini seedlings to try to get some extra zucchini and cukes before the cooler weather kicks in.

I decided to spend a bit of money, and bought a propagation kit, which included an electric heat mat so I can start seeds for Autumn inside. I have started spinach and chard (silverbeet) now, to see how the heat mat works and familiarise myself with it, and because it is a bit early to grow out brassicas ready for planting in March. If that works well, I will grow all my caulis, cabbages, broccoli and kale from seed using the heat mat inside, and then plant out in March before the cold weather sets in.

Re-potting House Plants

My amazing Philodendron, that I bought as a tiny plant several years ago, has grown into a giant monster. It can no longer stay upright in its own pot or its cover pot, which means it is time for re-potting.

When I buy house plants, I generally buy the smaller, cheaper plants, and then challenge myself to grow them into the big plants that cost a bomb. I have grown a ten dollar Fiddle Leaf Fig into a lovely $80 specimen (the secret – lots of light and keep the leaves free of dust). I do this partly because I don’t like paying a hundred bucks for a plant, and also because I love the challenge.

When you buy a house plant, you should leave them in their existing pot, and place them in a cover pot. Keep them in their existing pot until they grow too large and need re-potting. You should be able to tell when the time is right.

Before re-potting

This philodendron had clearly outgrown its existing pot.

Original pot on the left, new pot on the right

I looked around in my potting shed for a new pot to upsize the plant. You can see how much bigger the new pot is than the old one: easily three times the size. This is because I don’t intend to re-pot this plant again for a long time.

I gently removed the plant from its existing pot, and soaked it in a bucket of water for a while. You can see how root-bound it is. Being root-bound is not a bad thing for house plants. Most house-plants prefer being root-bound, which is why re-potting should only occur once the original pot is clearly much too small.

I gently teased the roots out, being careful to make sure the soil from the roots fell into the bucket of water. I placed a layer of good quality potting mix into the base of the new pot, and then placed the plant in the bottom. Then, I tipped the water and soil from the bucket back over the plant. I did this because the plant is healthy and happy. The healthy microbes and fungi from this plant’s existing soil should be saved as much as possible and returned to it. If the plant was sick, I would not have done that.

I topped up the pot with fresh potting mix, making sure it was as upright as possible.

Now I just need to find a big enough cover pot – the basked I had it in is too small! Such a shame, I hate shopping for pots…

Gardening jobs, October Long Weekend 2021

It’s the October long weekend here, which is one of my favourite mini-breaks. I love it because it’s Springtime in Southern Australia, a few months before Christmas, and we have a bit of time to get some things done around the garden.

It’s always great being in the garden at this time of year, because there are flowers everywhere. All the spring flowering bulbs are out, as well as my favourites, the sweet peas. This year I have three varieties in flower. They always make me feel happy.

This time I am not spending the whole weekend in the garden as I have a deadline, but I decided to take two full days off for the first time in…bloody ages actually.

I booked a big skip bin and my husband and I made plans to clear out our sheds of extraneous junk. A lot of the junk was left over from the guy that lived here before us (yes, still!), and from building our retaining wall and renovating our bathroom. Some of it is just from the accumulation of life.

We filled up a 4m cube bin really quickly. I would not say we are collectors, but it was kind of depressing how quickly we filled a pretty large bin.

The other job left over from building the retaining wall was moving the clean fill back to the garden. This has taken me many months, partly because it is a boring job, partly because there is a lot to move, and partly because it’s really hard. There’s only so much shovelling dirt into buckets and moving it around the garden I can do in one hit before this old lady collapses in a corner. However, this weekend I managed to clear a whole section. I am really happy about that. You can actually see the pathway next to the shed now. Only one section to go (the biggest, of course), then all I have to do is power wash the whole thing and it will look great. Or at least, not filthy.

Pumpkin Mounds

Some of the buckets of dirt went to build pumpkin mounds. Curcubits (pumpkins, zucchini, squash etc) are prone to powdery mildew, which is exacerbated by getting their leaves wet. A way to help prevent this is by planting them on little hills or mounds, then watering the base of the plant. I used the spare buckets of dirt (which was originally from my garden), to build hills. Then I mixed in a bit of compost, and planted pumpkin seeds in the top. I planted four types of pumpkins: Australian Butter, Queensland Blue, ye olde Butternut, and Buttercup. Hoping for a great pumpkin crop this year after last year’s sad effort.

I cleaned out the chicken coop, and let the chooks go for a wander while I did that. After I replaced their straw I went looking for them, calling out their “chookchookchook!” call that lets them know it’s time to come inside. One of them trundled along, but the others just called back and didn’t come back to the yard. After a bit of searching I found all three tucked up under a rhubarb bush, having a dust bath together. I decided to let them be. Twenty minutes later I caught them trying to dismantle a new pumpkin mound, and unceremoniously tossed them back in their pen. Naughty!

Seed Starting

It was raining on and off, so when it was raining I slipped undercover and planted up some seed trays for Summer veggies. This year I am not giving quite so much space to tomatoes, because I need the soil to recover from all the tomatoes I grew last season. It’s not good to grow tomatoes in the same spot, year-on-year. Unfortunately, if you don’t have a massive space, that reduces your tomato-growing opportunities. I will grow a few, but I just can’t grow as many. This year the plan is go hard on squashes and zucchini, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, corn and beans, as well as the necessary chillies and eggplant. Hopefully I can swap some of these with my brother, who always grows great tomatoes. So far I have planted:

  • Chilli Devil’s Tongue;
  • Tomato Sweet 100;
  • Tomato Moneymaker;
  • Tomato Jaune Flamme;
  • Onion Long Red Florence;
  • Corn Jubilee;
  • Cucumber Crystal Apple;
  • Cucumber Marketmore;
  • Melon Pocket; and
  • Watermelon Golden Midget.

The Devil’s Tongue are from seed I saved a couple of years ago, and that I am hoping are still viable. These were seriously great chillies. Lovely and hot, but still flavourful, and the most prolific plants I have ever grown. Fingers crossed at least some of the seeds grow.

I do not have the greatest of luck with cucumbers and melons, yet paradoxically have generally good fortune with pumpkins (last year notwithstanding). What works for one should technically work with the other, as they are related, however it doesn’t seem to be the case for me. Therefore I intend to give them yet another crack and try something different. Not entirely sure what that will be yet. If anyone has any suggestions to grow cracking cues and melons, I’m all ears.

These were planted up in trays with seed-raising mix. It’s a smidge cold still but I decided to give it a shot anyway – it’s the start of October after all, and if I wait too much longer it will be late November before I have plants large enough to plant out.

The rest of my garden space will be set aside for climbing beans and a little bit of space for some eggplant. I will wait until the end of October/early November to plant them. Once my major deadline is done in late October, I plan to have a week off and then it’s planting time. Can’t wait!

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, 1 November 2020

I have tasked my husband to get the second half of $#@! retaining wall completed by Christmas – so off to the landscaping place we went to purchase all the stuff. That’s technical tradie talk for buying paving sand, crusher dust, and retaining wall blocks to build the last fifteen metres of retaining wall.

Here is what it looks like now – just on the other side. Dreadful!

And here is what it will look like once it is done. Beautiful!

Please don’t misunderstand me: my husband works hard and like me, only has weekends to do anything. We are part-time gardeners together. So the retaining wall has been a very long work in progress. But I finally got very, very sick of the damn thing and I want it over! If that means I have to do all the other jobs around the place while he spends every weekend until Christmas working on it, so be it.

While he shovelled sand and crusher dust all day, I moved the compost bins, cleared plants that had overgrown the old retaining wall, and planted…more tomatoes. I still have dozens of tomato plants. I offered some to a friend today and she promptly laughed in my face. I offered some to my neighbour and he more politely declined (neighbours try not to laugh in one’s face, unlike very old friends). Turns out, it is tomato planting season and those who want tomatoes have them.

I also planted pumpkins and cucumbers. I know I have said, in these very pages, that I won’t plant cucumbers again. And yet. I cannot seem to resist the lure of homegrown cucumbers, even though I fail at them every single year. I just keep thinking to myself: maybe this time. Maybe this year.

Then at the end of every Summer, I curse the cucumber gods (every plant has a god, I am sure of it – one of Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods for each plant), and vow, never again!!

Pumpkins, on the other hand. The Great Pumpkin smiles on my efforts annually.

Hello, my darlings xx

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:

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?

Weekend garden jobs, May 10 2020

After several wet and stormy weekends, it was lovely to have a cool but sunshiny day to spend out in the garden. As it happened to also be Mother’s Day, I exercised my motherly rights and left all household tasks to my husband while I spent the entire day outside.

It was perfect.

I had many jobs that needed to be done. Due to the cold weather and an uptick in my workload (yay), I have only trotted outside to pick some salad leaves and check the brassicas for cabbage moth caterpillars. This is probably an exercise in futility: I keep squishing them and they keep coming back, but eventually I will end up with enough cabbages and broccoli for Springtime. The rest of the garden has been patiently waiting, and growing weeds, until a lovely, work-free day, for my attention.

First task was harvesting pumpkins. I grow Kent (also known as Jap) pumpkins. I use the term ‘grow’ somewhat loosely. I have never planted Kent pumpkins. They come up from the compost, happily seed themselves, and take over a spot, and I allow it. I don’t feed or water them. I do hand pollinate them if the bees don’t seem to be doing the job well enough, but once the fruit is set, I leave them alone until the weather starts to turn. Then I place a brick under each pumpkin so it is raised up from the damp soil and the base doesn’t rot. I wait as long as I possibly can into Autumn before picking.

To pick, use a strong knife to cut a couple of inches of stem (see below). Wipe over the pumpkin with a rag to remove excess moisture and dirt, and check the blossom end for any dried up bits of the pumpkin flower, and remove it. I usually store my pumpkins in a cool dry place – we have a cellar so that is perfect. They can keep for quite a while, but check every week for any softening spots or mould, particularly in thinner skinned varieties like the Kent. If you notice any softening, you can still eat it – just put it in the fridge and start planning pumpkin soup asap. If I have an excess of pumpkin, I often steam and purée the flesh and freeze it to use later in chocolate brownies, pasta sauces, and cannelloni.

Harvesting is easy. Removing the old pumpkin vine is not so easy. As I mentioned, I let the vine ramble across half the backyard, which means it is an enormous vine by harvest time. I cut it into smaller pieces with my gardening knife, and shove it piece by piece in the green bin. It had very long roots, so to dig it out I had to dig carefully around the base and then follow the roots back along the garden bed to fully remove. It was a very happy plant.

I have tried growing other pumpkin varieties, and nothing really grows as well in my yard as the compost-seeded Kent. When I deliberately plant a pumpkin and nurture the damn thing, I might get one or two pumpkins. As they take up so much space, it’s just not worth it. But the Kent is always reliable, and one vine produces around 5-8 lovely heavy pumpkins, averaging about 4kg in weight. Kent also taste good and have a nice texture, which is not guaranteed with some pumpkins.

Next on my list was to remove the old eggplant bushes, and turn the compost. My lazy hips were not really happy with me for all that digging and lifting, after so many days sitting in front of a keyboard, so I switched to lighter jobs: planting bulbs, seeds, and seedlings. I finished planting the bulbs I bought last month, finally planted sweet peas (Spencer Ripple and Hi-Scent), and lettuces (Tennis Ball and Freckles), red cabbage, and silverbeet (Fordhook Giant). I thinned a few turnip and radish seedlings, and staggered back inside for a cup of tea and a cinnamon muffin by the fire, body aching, to watch my husband cut up one of our pumpkins for roast dinner. Happy Mother’s Day to me (and to all the awesome mothers out there, including my own wonderful Mother, my gorgeous sister, and the dear friends who play the role of Deputy Mothers to my kids).