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 purĆ©e 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).

Social distancing garden jobs, 6 April 2020

There is something so relaxing about sitting in yon pumpkin patch. I think it is because pumpkins are the least demanding of all vegetables. Although I have pumpkin seeds, I rarely plant them. The pumpkin patch in my backyard is entirely self-seeded from compost, and that’s fine by me. I never water them. I never feed them. The closest I come to care and attention is the regular hand-pollination I do in the mornings while they are flowering, but I am not even doing that anymore (it’s getting too late in the season). Once they start fruiting, they require no further care. They quietly swell until they are ready to be picked.

By contrast, brassicas are fiddly and demanding beasts. I have to keep a close eye on the seedlings to fend off cabbage moth caterpillars. Today my eldest daughter and I spent a good twenty minutes scraping caterpillar eggs from cabbage and kale seedling leaves and squishing the occasional baby green caterpillar that had just emerged and was munching away. Whenever she saw a cabbage moth my daughter would wave it away, yelling “Go away, you monster!” That was entertaining, if fruitless.

Today I:

  • Started trimming back woody herbs (mint, thyme, oregano, lavender) with my trusty plant chainsaw aka electric hedge trimmers. My friend calls electric hedge trimmers a ‘plant chainsaw,’ which I think sounds much more bad ass. This is a job that will take me days to do, given the overgrowth in the yard, so I am taking it a few bushes at a time;
  • Fell down the front steps while plugging in the plant chainsaw to charge. We have a big front staircase, and it was still slippery from yesterday’s rain. Ouch;
  • Cleared up some unwanted plants (self-seeded lavender and mint) and weeds (Oyster Plant and the dreaded creeping Oxalis) that were making themselves quite comfortable.
  • Dug up some lavender and geraniums for my sister to plant at her place. She specifically requested “unkillable.” Bless;
  • Removed the spent Love-In-A-Mist seed pods and was happy to see baby Love-In-A-Mist plants already popping up;
  • Spread some Calendula seeds about the place;
  • Checked out the pomegranates to see how they are ripening. Not much longer!
  • With my daughter’s help, planted out the garlic, and mulched it with chopped sugarcane straw;
  • Planted out some Curly Kale, after double-checking it for cabbage moth eggs;
  • Prepared a new planter box for Asian vegetables (most likely Pak Choy and Coriander);
  • Sat in the pumpkin patch, drank a coffee, and meditated on life for a bit.

My body is aching like hell, mostly because of the aforementioned fall down the stairs, but I feel good.

Tomorrow I will try hard not to be a clumsy goose, trim some more plants, and hopefully plant out the broccoli seedlings that are now looking lovely and ready to go.

Garden jobs, March 15 2020

It’s been a stressful week for, well, humanity. The best way I know to deal with the stress and worry for the health and wellbeing of self, family, friends and community is to get out into the fresh, hopefully coronavirus-free air and sunshine, and do something physical and practical. So after my standard Aussie panic buy yesterday (Toilet paper? Check. Pasta? Check.), I got out into the garden this morning to expend my ever-growing sense of plague-dread by ripping spent tomato plants out of the dirt and turning the compost.

A veggie patch, if you are fortunate enough to have the space to plant one, is a very good way to assuage apocalyptic terror, because you it makes you feel like you are doing something to prepare for the end of the world, even if that something is just planting cabbages. The truth is I can’t grow enough veggies to be self-sufficient for my family, and planting them now at the start of the Autumn growing season won’t do me much good if we are all sent into social isolation next week. But fear is psychological, so if I can do something busy that feels helpful and useful, and above all, fun, then I won’t feel so stressed about the fact that I might be stuck in my house with potentially no work (I’m self-employed), two kids, and a dwindling stock of toilet paper. I can watch my growing cabbages with the knowledge that cabbage leaves are lovely and soft and have potentially many uses šŸ˜‰

Cabbage seedlings popping up their lovely heads.

So far almost all the seeds I planted in seed trays last week have come up and are looking healthy. Now to nurture them to seedling size before planting them out into larger pots before putting them in the garden. I like to transition them to a next stage pot before I move them to the garden, so they are lovely and strong before they go in the ground

I dug over the compost and tipped in a full bag of pigeon poo, given to me by my awesome neighbour, John. I tell you what, when society falls, I will do my best to save my neighbours. A bag of pigeon poo goes a long way when it comes to choosing who to put on the proverbial ark. Let’s face it, in the new world, diamonds won’t count for much, but the ability to make kick arse compost will be a valuable skill set.

Once all the old plants were removed from the garden beds, I dug everything over and raked it to a fine tilth, ready for planting. Next on my list is to plan my plantings. I have to be honest: I am not a planner when it comes to the garden. Normally, I just chuck plants in wherever they fit and hope for the best. Usually this works out pretty well, but I am running out of space now and I really want to maximise every inch of soil. So I have decided I am going to plan it properly this season to see if I can boost the productivity of my space. I am leaving each space I clear empty for now, until I can plan out exactly what I want to plant.

These are my non-negotiables:

    Green cabbage;
    Red cabbage;
    Lettuces (lots);
    Onions (spring, red, white);
    Garlic (John gave me four bulbs he saved from season – what a legend);
    Kale;
    Turnips;
    Kohlrabi;
    Broccoli (green and Romanesco);
    Carrots (white, orange, purple);
    Peas (Snow and Sugar Snap).

I would like to grow broad beans (mostly for soil health), silverbeet, radishes, bok choy, climbing spinach, and cauliflower.

So not too much then.

All of this has to be grown around the fruit trees and perennials like rhubarb and strawberries.

I’ll post my sketch next week.

Finally, check out my pumpkin vine.

I love to grow pumpkins, but they are something you can really only grow if you have the luxury of space. Every year they take up half the backyard: I couldn’t get even half the vine in the picture. I have at least six lovely Kent pumpkins growing. They will be ripe just in time for pumpkins to come down to less than a dollar a kilo.

Garden jobs, March 8 & 9 2020

Who doesn’t love a long weekend? Small businesses, probably. Actually, I do run my own business, and I still love a long weekend. My favourite thing about a long weekend, especially this time of year, is to spend that extra day in the garden without worrying about the fact that I should be working, or attending appointments, or all the other myriad tasks I should be doing.

It’s the start of Autumn, which also makes me happy. It’s warm enough to spend a good portion of the day outside, but cool enough to be comfortable. It’s also time to start removing some of the Summer fruiting annuals, make room for the Winter garden, and plant seeds for Winter vegetables.

First on my list was picking the ripening tomatoes (what is left of them), chillies, some green beans I was not expecting to find, and one beautiful Lakota pumpkin that made me just about the proudest gardener on the planet.

Did you ever see such a beauty? I have been trying to grow one of these for three years. Yeah, that’s right: three stupid years. I have one more little one on the vine and I am hoping that it will grow large enough to ripen before Winter. I don’t know why I am so obsessed with growing this particular pumpkin. I don’t even know what it tastes like – yet. It’s still sitting on my kitchen bench because I can’t bring myself to cut into it.

Next job was dividing the rhubarb plants. Last year I divided one enormous rhubarb into seven, and since then we have had more rhubarb than we can possibly eat. I share it around, but even so, we now have about ten or eleven rhubarb plants, which is more than a family of four, only two of whom really like it, can possibly manage. Now they need dividing again, and there is no way I have room for any more. I divided a couple of plants last week and gave them to a friend. Who else could I palm the extra plants off to….of course! My gardening neighbour, John! Heheheheh. The perfect crime. He happily took four plants, and offered me a bag of pigeon poo in exchange. What a gentleman that man is.

After dividing a moving two rhubarb plants and a spent tomato bush, I dug over and raked the cleared space. I will feed and mulch that area next weekend, and leave fallow for a later planting of brassicas.

Speaking of brassicas, I planted four trays of brassica seeds: red cabbage, Cabbage Golden Acre (a drumhead green cabbage), Dwarf Curly Green Kale, Cauliflower, Green Sprouting Broccoli, and Broccoli Romanesco (my favourite of all brassicas). If all of these take off, I will be very, very happy. If not, I will buy some seedlings.

On Monday I cleared some more spent plants (the rest of the summer squash) and built bamboo trellises for my next favourite winter crop: peas. Last year I successfully grew a Dwarf Snow Pea that was both prolific and delicious, but I wanted to build a proper trellis this year and try climbing Snow Peas. I don’t enjoy frozen peas from the supermarket, but I love fresh, homegrown peas. This year I am growing sugar snap peas, and snow peas.

The bamboo trellis is a copy of a medieval trellis I saw on a tv show set in ye olden times. It is built using a series of bamboo stakes set at intervals and then each pair tied at the top with twine. Another stake is set at the top. I don’t know if this will work better than the traditional teepee style trellis that I have used for climbing beans in the past, so I built a teepee style next to it. I can test which is better. I planted the sugar snap peas along the archway style trellis, and the climbing snow peas against the teepee.

Finally, I cleared away the mulch where the tomatoes had been planted, and dug over and raked that section. I planted Purple Kolhrabi, Spring Onions, and two varieties of carrots: Purple Dragon and Lunar White.

The weather will be warm, but not hot this week (low 30s), so I am hoping all the seeds I have planted will shoot quickly for a great headstart.

Next jobs will be to clear the remaining Summer vegetable plants once the last tomato plants have stopped fruiting, and prepare the soil for Winter vegetables. At the end of the month I will be heading to Melbourne for the International Flower and Garden Show, where I will be buying all of the Spring flowering bulbs, garlic, and seeds for the rest of the season. Can’t wait!

Weekend garden jobs, March 1 2020

Sweet rewards for gardeners that decide to spend their Sunday mornings in the garden!

It’s been some time since I have really spent quality time in my garden. I have been working a lot. I had intended to spend all of January either on the beach, or in the garden, but my clients had other ideas! It turns out January and February are very busy months for self-employed writers like myself. As such, I spent almost all my time (weekends included) working, and what time was left with family. My poor garden has been sorely neglected as a result.

It has survived very well due to cooler than usual February temperatures, mulch, and the good offices of my husband, who has kept up the watering. But, a garden cannot survive on water alone; it needs to be weeded, pruned, fed, and generally loved if it is to keep on producing.

This morning is the first Sunday I have not had to meet a deadline for some time, so decided to get outside while the going was good. What a mess! My first task was to walk around with a bowl and pick what was available to pick. Cherry tomatoes, eggplants, jalapeƱos, and a cache of perfectly ripe strawberries were my reward. Unfortunately, the zucchini are rotting on the vine, so I was not able to pick any. These plants have a week to come good, otherwise they are going to be consigned to the compost. It’s a bugger because the plant itself is very healthy, without any sign of mildew. I see plenty of bees around, but I think I am not getting any male flowers. WTH, nature?

By picking first, I also got to see what needed doing most urgently. Answer: pruning the boysenberry. My response: sigh. This I my least favourite garden task, because ouch (see below).

Being stabbed with these barbs is extremely painful. Unfortunately, even with gloves, it happens very frequently. Unfortunately, pruning the boysenberry brambles is necessary, or it completely takes over Pie Corner. I have thought about pulling the damn thing out, but I am always happy when the bloody thing produces delicious soft boysenberries each year (see below). And so I forgive it my annual bloody thumb stabs for the tasty rewards it offers. I am sure there is a metaphor there somewhere, but I am in too much pain to think about what it might be.

With great reward comes great risk

This task takes quite a while, due to the care it takes. Think of rose pruning if the rose bushes had long, long tendrils that crawled all over the yard and under every other plant you had in a ten metre radius, and were spawned by Satan.

I also noticed their less prolific, younger and less thorny cousins, the raspberries, required tying up, so I also did this when I was sick of being attacked by brambles.

Once I had finished with Pie Corner, I moved on to tomato country. The tomatoes have been quite disappointing this year, I have to say. The combination of early extreme heat, bushfire smoke, and late cool weather, has led to a disappointing tomato season for every gardener I have spoken to. We did have some success with cherry tomatoes, but they were quite sour compared to the lush sweetness that cherry tomatoes are renowned for. We pick them, but they are better for cooking than eating in salads, which is one of the joys of Summer, usually. I picked the remaining tomatoes, and dug the plants out. While I am at it, I pulled out two of three squash plants. I left one last squash plant in the ground, hoping to salvage a couple more delicious yellow squash before this one too mush be dragged from the ground.

I felt sad as I dug out these plants: I am saying goodbye to Summer. I enjoy growing (and truthfully, I am more successful) Winter vegetables, but there is something about the Summer annual vegetables that I think all gardeners look forward to more than any other. Every year I pore over the seed catalogues and hopefully plant a wide variety of tomatoes and beans with the excitement of a kid writing their letter to Santa. Yet every year by the end of Summer, I have the same successes: pumpkins, eggplant, chillies, and yet more pumpkins. Why do I keep trying with the tomatoes, beans, capsicums, squash, when they more often disappoint than succeed?

I must have that twisted gardening optimism that convinces me each year that this year will be different.

Oh well. There’s always next year.

Weekend Gardening Jobs, November 9th & 10th 2019

The weather in Australia this past week can best be described as ‘whacked.’ In the East Coast, we have had bushfires raging across the state of New South Wales, with tragic loss of life and of property. In our Southern States, where I am lucky to live, we have had a cold snap, with wintry weather, strong winds, and rain. We had a hot day yesterday, and back down to wintry weather again. While I’m not complaining about the rain, it is pretty crazy to have weather like this in late Spring. I was at the supermarket yesterday, and two old guys (older than me, anyways) were complaining about climate change. I don’t know where the politicians get the idea that their more mature constituents don’t accept that climate change is real. They should be spending less time listening to Alan Jones and more time listening to the people buying bananas at Aldi. Climate change: it’s not just for the Gretas of the world (bless her). We are all affected and even we Gen Xers and OK Boomers accept the science. Unfortunately, the kids will have to deal with the effects long after the current crop of pollies have written their boring memoirs.

Even though the weather has turned chilly and windy again, I informed my husband that ‘by hook or by crook’ I was getting out in the garden again this morning. He thought I had finally lost the plot, and he is probably right, but this morning I got out there in my gardener’s clogs and turned the compost. I have the old style Dalek composters, and they do a brilliant job, especially in the warmer weather. They are helped along by compost worms. As I dig, I toss the worms back in the composter: they are not earthworms, so they really don’t want to be anywhere else. I am sure I missed a few, but I guess they make it back there eventually.

I have two composting bins. I dig them out every six weeks or so, removing the usable compost and replacing back the compost that still needs work. Then I keep adding more household scraps and other debris back on top. If I can get hold of some, I add some manure. Pigeon manure is the best, but chicken, donkey, or sheep is also good. I’ve even used rabbit manure in the compost bin. All manure should be well composted before placing on the garden. Fresh manure can burn plants and can contain undigested seeds that can germinate in the garden, leading to a weed problem. Some seeds can’t be destroyed even by composting: right now I have a crop of tomato plants popping up in the garden where I laid some compost recently. I will let them go until they are large enough, then plant them out somewhere else. I have also never met a pumpkin seed that didn’t survive composting. The past two years, all my best pumpkins have grown out of the compost.

I used the six buckets of compost to top up the potato pots, and to side dress asparagus, apple trees, and some tomato plants. I have another compost bin that also needs digging out; I’ll do it later in the week, weather permitting.

Finally, I started planting out zucchini plants that I have been hardening off in small pots. As I mentioned in the last post, I have decided to abandon my long tradition of planting them in mounds, and opted to plant in wells or troughs to help the plants to better retain water.

Tomorrow I will try to find space for the rest of the zucchini, plant some climbing beans, and give all the lavender plants a haircut. I don’t want to trim them, but they are starting to look ratty. If I give them a trim now, they will probably flower again this Summer, to the joy of the native bees that love to visit.

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, jalapeƱos 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!

Gardening Jobs, Weekend 9-11 March 2019

A miracle happened today: I went to the Big Green Shed and only bought the item I intended to buy.

I know, I’m freaked out too.

The truth is, there is not much point buying new plants right now. The weather is still too unpredictable to plant anything, and the soil is too sad and depleted from the hottest Summer on record (it’s official, sadly). We still have not had a decent rainfall, and I am not sure when it will come. I looked at all the beautiful plants and thought: patience, my pet. I could see their future if I gave into temptation now and planted them in my dry and sad garden. So I bravely left them on the stands, and walked away, sad but resolute.

Also, I’m going to the Melbourne Flower and Garden Show in three weeks and you know I will be blowing a wad of cash on bulbs, seeds and garden paraphernalia designed to attract the green thumbed and gullible. The Big Green Shed will still be there when I return, broke and happy.

So what did I do this weekend? Maintenance. Boring, necessary garden maintenance. Everything needed a feed, a weed, and a water, so that is what I did. No fun planting or buying, just the basic boring jobs that every gardener must do to keep the soil healthy and the garden looking decent mid-season until it is time to do the exciting stuff.

That is why I have no pictures: a broom and a pile of weeds just aren’t that interesting. I did discover some more of the amazing Kenternut pumpkins (from another vine), bringing the total to about six. I hope these hybrid pumpkins taste good, or I will have been watering and growing a bad pumpkin all Summer. I’ll do a taste test soon and let you know. Fingers crossed for deliciousness.

I also picked another pile of rhubarb, and another dozen or so passionfruit from the vine that just keeps on giving. I am going to make a passionfruit slice, a dessert that has fond childhood memories for me, and possibly a rhubarb and strawberry pie.