Growing a mini meadow

The author's mini meadow attracts insects to the vegetable garden

An important part of any productive garden should be flowers. Flowers attract beneficial insects such as bees and other pollinators, and also feed birds (many birds feed on nectar from flowers – these birds are also pollinators). I grow perennial ornamental flowering plants like salvias and lavender in my front yard, interspersed with fruit trees, herbs (which also flower annually), and flowering bulbs. I also grow annual ornamental flowers in window boxes and tubs on my balcony and front stoop. And I have planted what I like to call a ‘mini meadow’ in front of my backyard veggie patch.

What the heck is a mini meadow?

It’s a bit of a laugh really, calling it a mini meadow. It’s far too small to be a meadow. It’s really a rambling flower patch. But it kind of functions like a meadow. A meadow is an open field, planted by grasses and non-woody plants. Meadows play an important role in ecosystems, acting as carbon sinks, and as homes for animals, birds and food sources for pollinators.

My mini meadow doesn’t have grasses, because I weed them out. But it does have a range of flowers, about half of which are self-seeded, and that are non-woody. It attracts pollinators and birds. It lies in front of our retaining wall, and it is planted with the following herbs and flowers:

  • Nasturtiums
  • Violets
  • Poppies
  • Calendula
  • Nigella
  • Alyssum
  • Dahlias
  • Freesias
  • Daffodils
  • Sweet peas
  • Dianthus
  • Borage
  • Cosmos

You don’t have to be precious with a meadow. I stomp all over it on my way to the veggie patch, and it bounces back with no worries. It’s not made to be protected and cossetted. It’s not organised, and it will not win any awards for garden design. Many people would find it too messy to have in their backyard, but it suits my purposes. It is low maintenance, drought tolerant, tough, cheap as chips (as it’s mostly self-seeded), and it does its job of attracting beneficial insects to the veggie patch.

Building a backyard meadow

Growing a mini meadow obviously requires some space. If you want to try it, you will need a bit of spare earth in your garden. You could try creating on on your front verge (I’ve been thinking of doing this on our verge).

I first started building the meadow after my husband finished the retaining wall. He took an extended break before paving in the front. No shade to my husband, who was busy doing other things (i.e. building the trellises I requested) but there was a patch of dirt left for several months. You can’t just leave a patch of dirt hanging about and not expect a gardener to fill it with something. I figured better a couple of flowers than letting weeds set in. So I threw in a couple of nasturtium seeds, just for some easy colour. Then my mum gave me some lovely orange poppies. Then…well, you get the picture.

The soil in that spot had not been improved with anything – it had been compacted because it had previously been paved over. My husband had removed the old paving to install the retaining wall. I loosened up the soil with a fork, and then started planting, but I did not improve it with compost or fertiliser before I began to add plants.

I still have never fed it with anything, not even my homemade compost (I save that for the veggie beds and the fruit trees), and I don’t water it. The rule for my meadow is that aside from some basic weeding to stay tidy, it has to sustain itself. So the meadow has been built on some dodgy, compacted, weedy soil and left to its own devices. Something useful and pretty has developed, at almost no cost.

The only maintenance it gets is some weeding and every now and then, some new plants. Every time I am out in the garden I pull a few weeds from the meadow, or deadhead a flower or two. This weekend I saw it needed a bit more work than that, so I got out the trusty ho-mi, and weeded the whole bed. But that is really a once-a-year task. Because the meadow is planted so closely, weeds rarely get a look in.

Over time, it has developed a lovely rambling vibe that has led me to give it the ‘mini meadow’ epithet. Occasionally, I sprinkle in a few more seeds, or crush a seed pod from a nearby flower head. This keeps it going along its rambling way. The idea is for it to be planted closely and for something to always be flowering to attract bees, lacewings, and hoverflies to my veggie patch. At this time of year, I have daffodils, alyssum, calendula, nasturtiums, and violets flowering. In a few weeks, I’ll have my favourite, sweet peas, and freesias. In Summer dahlias, poppies, nigella, and cosmos are in flower.

When my husband does get to re-paving the backyard, he can dig parts of the meadow up and it will not damage the rest of it – although I will admit that I’ll be sad if it all goes.

Tips for building a mini-meadow

If you have the space for your own little meadow, it’s easy to create one. Fill it with plants that are low maintenance, require little water and attention, and can easily self-seed. Plants that self-seed readily include calendula, alyssum, cosmos, poppies, and nigella. These are also very attractive to bees. As seed heads form and dry, let the seeds fall and re-seed among the bed. You can include annual bulbs like daffodils as well, for a bit of height and interest, although they will only flower once a year. Remember to plant closely so that weeds cannot grow easily between your meadow plants.

Perennials that are worth planting for longer-term colour are dianthus and violets. They will have the added benefit of a beautiful perfume.

Take care that your meadow is relatively self-contained though, as some plants like violets can become weedy if they have room to spread.

5 tips to plan your Summer garden

sunflower during sunset
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What do do when it’s too cold outside? Start planning your Summer garden!

My plan for Saturday afternoon was to spend the afternoon weeding the front garden. But it was so, so cold – and I just couldn’t face it. I made a cup of tea, rugged myself up, and read the latest issue of the Digger’s Club Seed Annual catalogue instead.

Looking at the beautiful seed catalogue got me thinking ahead to warm, sunny days. And that got me planning ahead to the Summer veggie patch. My garden is currently full of brassicas, turnips and peas, but in six weeks they will be cleared away to make space for warm season veggies. So what to grow? The possibilities are endless….

My garden space, however, is not. This is where some good planning comes to the fore.

Traditionally, I’ve taken more of a casual approach to garden planning

However, as my garden has become home to more fruit trees and vines (even though most are espaliered) that is just not possible anymore. It’s time to be more thoughtful about my space.

It’s also a good idea to start planning the Summer garden early because I have to think about what I want to plant, order the seeds (or go to a local nursery), raise them, and wait for them to grow. It might sound like it’s too early at the start of August, but think about it. My Autumn seed raising experiment found that trying to grow everything from seed takes a really long time (and I won’t be doing it again!) But even if you grow just some things from seed, you still need to plan well ahead. Seed catalogues are out now!

My 5 simple tips for planning a productive Summer garden

These are not rocket science, and they are based on my climate and my experience growing veggies in a Mediterranean climate.

  1. Choose veggies you actually like to eat and know how to cook. My husband recently admitted to me that he’s not a big fan of tomatoes. 25 years of marriage and I had no idea! I usually try to grow six or seven different varieties of tomato – but knowing that he’s not really into them, I’ll cut back to just two: a nice salad tomato and a cherry tomato (my youngest does love them) and leave space for more things I know we both love (hello, eggplant). I won’t stop growing heirlooms and rare varieties entirely, but I will reduce this down to just one or two new things – just to keep life exciting.
  2. Choose veggies you know will grow well in your microclimate. For some reason, cucumbers and melons collapse and die in my garden, but pumpkins go gangbusters. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, given they are close relatives, but I have seven years of experimentation to prove it. Every year I am suckered into trying yet another variety of melon and cucumber by the gorgeous seed catalogues, and every year I am sorely disappointed. Well, not this year! This Summer, I’m growing the plants I know will work – end of story.
  3. Choose veggies that aren’t too thirsty. All veggies will require irrigation, but there are some that are thirstier than others. Check the seed or seedling information before you buy to make sure you aren’t mortgaging your future in water bills. I know gardening is not just about ROI, but some plants just cost a lot to grow for a limited return (sweet corn, I’m looking at you).
  4. Choose plants that you have the space for. Although pumpkins need a lot of space to spread out, I train them over a trellis or wall and onto the pavers, so they actually don’t take up a lot of soil space. If you have limited space, choose compact versions of plants, such as bush beans, compact tomato plants, or patio ranges of zucchini. Try plants that climb up if you can build small trellises, or try growing in pots if you can. I grow lettuces and other leafy greens such as tatsoi (when the chickens aren’t getting into it) in an old wheelbarrow and a raised bed.
  5. Include some flowers in your garden to attract pollinators and improve pollination of fruiting plants. I always try to include dwarf sunflowers, dahlias, nasturtiums, petunias, poppies, love-in-a-mist (nigella), alyssum, dianthus, and cosmos in the Summer garden.

So, what’s my Summer garden plan?

This season I intend to grow a lot of chillies, eggplant, climbing beans, spring onions, and pumpkins in my Summer garden. These are all staples in my family. I also intend to grow some cherry tomatoes, salad tomatoes, capsicums (sweet peppers), and zucchini. I personally love zucchini, but I find it takes up a lot of space and does not do that well in my area (slightly better than cucumber, but not much). So I will grow some but would rather save the space for something that does better.

These are the varieties I am intending to grow

Pumpkins from last years Summer garden
Pumpkins from last year’s Summer Garden
  • Tomatoes: Green Zebra (unbeatable flavour and good yield) and Christmas Grapes, a cherry tomato I have not grown before;
  • Climbing Beans: I’m going for Purple King. I’ve tried many varieties of beans over the year, and Purple King is the best in my opinion, both for yield and the ability for me to see them on the vine (because I’m getting old). The beans grow purple on the vine, and then turn green when they are cooked. Magic! I find climbing beans much easier to grow than bush beans, which in my opinion never seem to produce as well. However if you have limited space, give bush beans a go.
  • Pumpkins: Australian Butter, because it’s just so beautiful and I have saved seeds from last year, Buttercup because it is the most delicious pumpkin I have ever eaten, Butternut because it is so prolific and keeps going right up until the weather turns, and Kent, because it is the best performer in my garden.
  • Chillies: We grow a lot of chillies because we love them, especially my husband who seemingly must eat them daily. We have five plants over-wintering that I hope will return: Mango, Cherry, Curly Toenail, Lemon, and Devil’s Tongue. If they do not come back again, then I will seek out a Devil’s Tongue again because it is the best flavoured and the most prolific, if you love a hot chilli, and then also plant several Jalapeno because it is just so useful and versatile. Curly Toenail is delicious and fun to grow – it looks like its name, and has a nice kick, but tbh I would not bother with Mango again if I didn’t already have the plant. It is prolific and beautiful, but I do not like the flavour much. I grow these in pots on the balcony so they do not take up space in the patch.
  • Spring Onions: I prefer to grow Red Spring Onions. I grow from seed, and they do well in my garden.
  • Eggplant: Last year we planted four Lebanese eggplants, this year we plan to double that at least. I’m vegetarian and my husband doesn’t eat a lot of meat, so eggplant are a really useful plant to grow. Lebanese eggplant are productive and easy, and delicious. I may grow a couple of globe eggplant too, for variety.
  • Zucchini: Again, the Lebanese zucchini do the best in my garden. I’ve tried the black, ribbed, golden, globe – none of them beat the pale Lebanese zucchini in my book.
  • Capsicum: This year I’m going for Mixed Italian Fryers, a mix of Italian sweet varieties best suited to cooking.
  • Flowers: As I mentioned, calendula, sunflowers, dahlias, alyssum, love-in-a-mist (also known as nigella), cosmos, nasturtiums, poppies, dianthus and petunias take up space in my Summer garden. Some of these are edible, and I do put them in salads, but mostly I use them to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects to my garden.

I’ll grow the pumpkins, zucchini, spring onions, beans, and capsicum from seed, as well as the cherry tomatoes. Most of the flowers, the eggplant, and Green Zebra tomatoes I will buy as seedlings. A few other plants may sneak their way in (carrots, turnips in early Spring), but not before these others find their place in the patch.

What are you intending to grow in your Summer garden? Let me know – maybe I’ll make some space in my garden for your ideas!

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.

The experiment – growing everything for a veggie patch from seed

This season (Autumn 2022) I made a bold decision: to grow everything in my veggie patch from seed. This meant brassicas, root veggies, leafy greens, all from seed.

I made this fateful decision for a couple of reasons. Firstly, funsies. Growing from seed is pretty fun. Some people like messing about in boats; I like messing about with dirt.

I also wanted to grow a few things that are not so easy to find in punnets from the Big Green Shed, or even from my favourite local nursery. I wanted to grow the standards (broccoli, caulis, cabbages, chard), but also some different plants, such as collard greens and orange cauliflowers. Of course, I could have found the broccoli and caulis at the nursery, but I could only find collards from one online seed supplier. I can’t even explain why I wanted to grown them. I get little side interests like this, and for some reason, collards was a thing I wanted to try.

I think the other reason I wanted to grow everything from seed is that it is an experiment in independence. Although I did buy most of the seeds online, some of the seeds I had saved from heirloom plants grown last year (cabbages, some lettuces, and coriander). While I’m not a prepper by any stretch, I do think about how we would manage if our supply chains are suddenly interrupted and we can no longer rely on the economic systems we currently have in place.

Oh, wait….

I’d like to think that I could manage to feed myself and my family – to an extent – by saving seeds and growing plants from seed, if the luxury of popping down to Bunno’s for a six pack of broccoli seedlings was taken away from me for some reason.

Like a worldwide pandemic.

Or if the country caught fire.

Or if large parts of our nation sank under metres and metres of water.

Oh, wait….

So, can I? Weellll…kinda. The answer is complicated.

Yes, I can grow everything from seed.

However, it takes a LOT of time. More time than I have, to be honest.

Not because I am so busy, although that is partly true. I only have time to be a part-time gardener.

I’m talking about the time I can’t control: seasonal time. I started sowing seeds for planting in Autumn in February, starting them inside using a heat mat. I planted out the second-last tray of seedling brassicas today (mid-May). That means that it has taken me 3.5 months to grow a full garden’s worth of veggies, using my tiny home setup. If I did not have the heat mat, it would have taken much longer.

The problem with this is that I have missed most of the warmer early Autumn weather, and I am planting baby brassicas into cold soil. The temperature today was about 20 degrees C. That doesn’t sound too bad, except the night temps are much cooler, and the soil temps are around 10 degrees C on the Adelaide Plains right now. As we live in a Southern hills area, the soil temps are likely to be about 2 degrees C cooler. My baby plants are likely to sulk in the cold soil, instead of taking off.

When gardening, temperatures are everything. Wait too long in Autumn, and you risk letting your seedlings slowly grow through Winter, until they suddenly bolt in the warmth of Springtime. This is likely to be my result for all my stubborn efforts. Even a week’s delay in planting can make all the difference.

If I had bought seedlings and planted everything at once in March, I’d probably be halfway to cauliflowers by now.

Lessons learned (but never learnings)

So what is my lesson – and what can you take from my bold/crazy experiment in seed-starting?

Firstly, the positives.

There are definitely some plants that are best to start from seed. Think zucchini, pumpkins, peas, beans, onions, any root veggies, and leafy greens. I always plant leafy greens from seed, as it is far cheaper and better to grow lettuces, spinach, bok chop, tatsoi, coriander, and chard from seed.

It’s also worth searching out seeds for heirloom or different veggies you may want to grow that you can’t find in commercial nurseries. I don’t want to just grow the things that big companies tell me to grow. Sometimes, seeds are just the only way to find and grow those plants. I’ll let you know if the collards were worth the effort!

I will also continue to save seeds, swap seeds, and plant seeds from veggies that I love or that do really well in my microclimate. For those plants, I will definitely grow from seed. Free seeds! Can’t beat that deal.

I do think that if I had a greenhouse, this whole experiment would have turned out very differently. Instead, I have a tiny heat mat in the corner of my sunroom. As I was planting out the seedlings this morning, I mused different ways I could afford a greenhouse. Then I realised that our annual September gales would probably throw someone’s roof shingles or backyard chairs through it. I could buy a LOT of seedlings for what that would cost me to fix.

There’s no point wasting precious seasonal growing time just to be stubborn. Right now, we still have the privilege of buying a punnet of seedlings for about $4, which is a pretty good deal. I know for a fact it’s a good deal, because it has taken me a lot of time and effort to grow all of these plants from seed.

And, FYI – growing from seed isn’t cheaper. Add in the cost of seed-raising mix, the little cardboard jiffy pots that I used to reduce the reliance on plastic, seeds, time, etc, and I would suggest that $4 for punnet of six seedlings is actually a spectacular bargain.

Therefore, I will start buying seedlings again for the old standards (ye olde broccoli, drumhead cabbages, white cauliflower, cherry tomatoes, and eggplants).

And the final lesson: no matter how you plant up your veggie patch, from seeds or seedlings, all your efforts will go to waste if you accidentally let the chooks out.

Weekend gardening jobs, 1 May 2022

There’s nothing like the ache you get after a full day in the garden. Regular exercise doesn’t give it – I exercise about an hour four times a week and I never get that same bone tired but relaxed feeling that I do after gardening. I think it’s the fact that I use so many muscles when I garden: I climb, dig, bend, stretch, lift, and strain for hours at a time, stopping only for a quick cuppa and a bite to eat. Right now every part of me is pleasantly exhausted. I need to think about making dinner, but not until I’ve rested for at least an hour or so.

Planting salvias

I’ve been working a lot lately, including the last long weekend, with minimal gardening time, so there was a lot to do this weekend. The front yard in particular has been looking…a bit feral, to be honest. I could tell that a few of the lavender bushes and woody herbs (thyme and sage) were really on their last legs. This was confirmed when I dug up one of the lavender bushes to discover it was actually dead. No wonder it wasn’t flowering – apparently they don’t when they’re dead! I cut up what I could for firewood, then consigned the rest to the green bin. Woody herbs don’t live forever – although they are called ‘perennial’, in actuality they live around 3-5 years. These plants have lived at least that long, so we have done pretty well out of them. I still have plenty anyway, as they have self-seeded prolifically. It’s just the original plants that needed to depart.

I had decided over Easter that this job was coming, but wasn’t sure what to replace the dead and dying bushes with. Whatever we replaced them with needed to be as tough as the conditions on our hillside front yard: North-West facing and in full sun. Plants have to be able to survive in hot and dry conditions all year round. I chose salvias. Salvias are beautiful, drought tolerant, and will survive many years. I already have three salvias in the front yard, so I know they will do well.

I tried finding some at the Easter Fair we attend each year, but the plant stall only had one! So I bought that, and then ordered some online from the Diggers Club. While I was at it, I ordered a lemongrass plant, a hanging rosemary, and a meadow sage, which is like regular sage but more prostrate.

Digging out the bushes was pretty tough on the old body but I managed it. My usual digger was out, so I had to use all my muscles to get the job done.

I immediately replaced them with the salvias, and watered in well with liquid seaweed tonic to give them a fresh start. I also planted out the hanging rosemary and meadow sage in empty spots in the garden, and trimmed back some other lavenders I wanted to keep. It’s all looking a bit bare and sad right now, but once everything starts growing it should fill in nicely.

The veggie patch

While I was cutting back and digging out, I removed the now spent eggplant bushes from the back garden, and steeled myself to cut back Audrey II, the boysenberry cane. I hate this job, as she is one mean, green mother. To make the job less painful (literally), I decided to only cut back two of the plants (she is actually four). Some gardening advice: don’t plant boysenberries. They are delicious, but painful. Not delicious enough, in my view. Find something thornless, if you want to grow berries.

I planted out some purple cauliflower seedlings that were ready for transplant, fed everything in the veggie patch with an organic liquid fertiliser, and finished mulching with sugar cane mulch. Yes, even heading into Winter I still mulch. Our Winter is still pretty dry so we should mulch no matter the weather. It also suppresses weeds, which are more likely to come up in Winter.

Coming along nicely are the turnips, carrots, beets, first batch of collards, and radishes. Garlic is looking lovely but of course will not be ready for months and months. Every year I weigh up giving space to garlic, which takes the longest to mature of any annual vegetable in the backyard. Then I harvest it and I am so glad I did. I am down to my last bulb from last season, and then back to buying it again *sob*

As I was weeding and mulching today, I discovered three avocado trees behind the lime tree (which is weighed down with beautiful juicy limes). These have self-seeded from the compost bins just nearby. Like most of Australia, we have been eating copious avocados this year, as they have been at bargain basement prices ($1 an avo? Avo toast for all!!). Our compost bin is full of avocado seeds and skins as a result – and now my garden appears to be sprouting avo trees. I’d hazard a guess they are Hass. We have a Reed avocado (the king of avocados) growing behind the chook pen, from which we have received exactly zero avos in the last three seasons. We have decided to let the avo seedlings keep growing for now, and then we will decide whether to dig one out and plant it nearby as a pollinator for the Reed.

The other plant that is kicking along nicely behind the lime tree is a Beauregard sweet potato. I planted it as an experiment, and because I love sweet potatoes. It’s growing like crazy in the corner near the compost bins and asparagus bed. I’m very tempted to bandicoot underneath to see if we have any tubers, but I know I’m not supposed to dig anything up until the leaves go yellow. If there’s no sweet potatoes under there I will be so disappointed.

Seed starting

I also planted more seeds. My plan to grow everything from seed is starting to feel slightly insane as the weather grows cooler, but I am determined to accomplish it now that I have put it out there. I planted kale, mini cauliflower, more collards, and tatsoi seeds. In an old wheelbarrow I use as a raised bed I have more lettuce seeds coming up. My plan is not to buy lettuce at all until Summer. I have romanesco broccoli, orange cauliflower, and more cabbage almost ready to go in the ground.

And I officially give up on spinach. It seems that the only thing that loves baby spinach more than my youngest child is the birds that visit my garden. I have raised and planted 18 spinach plants and lost 18 spinach plants. I could buy a net and cover it to protect it from marauding sparrows, but that would cost me more than just buying it – so I think I’ll resign myself to buying baby spinach from now on. Interestingly, they leave the chard alone. They are discerning little pests – because really, who’d go for chard when you could have spinach? My husband said he’d build a scarecrow, but I think that would scare me more than them.

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).

The unbearable optimism of planting seeds

I’m trying something unbelievably optimistic this season: I’m trying to plant my entire cool season garden from seeds. No seedlings or advanced plants.

Collard greens grown from seed

Seeds have some benefits over planting seedlings. There is a much wider range of plants to choose when you buy seeds. Instead of being held to the limited range of what is most commercially viable at the Big Green Shed, you can go to the many online seed companies and choose interesting varieties. For example, I love a lettuce called Marvel of Four Seasons (tbh, I think I just love the name). You can’t buy it in seedling form, but I can buy a packet of seeds for $3 from an online seed retailer. Or I can decide to trial a pumpkin I’ve never grown before, just for the heck of it, because it looked pretty in a catalogue or a podcaster told me it was good.

Growing from seed is also (mostly) fun. I spend at least a couple of hours a week fiddling around with seed-raising mix and seed trays and labels. I’m no scientician, but playing with seeds is as close as I get.

Growing from seed is immensely satisfying. When I see plants I grew from seed turn into delicious veggies and herbs, I feel extra proud – like a real gardener, not those fake ones I see on TV.

But – and of course you knew there was going to be a but – growing from seed is also bloody heart-breaking. It would be much cheaper and easier to just pick up a darn punnet of regular old caulis and cos lettuces from Bunnos and be done with it. I mean, lettuce is lettuce, right (even if it doesn’t have a cool name)? If I lose a couple to cabbage moth or pigeons, it would bug me a little, but I wouldn’t feel the gut punch I did when more than half my Green Viking Spinach seedlings disappeared overnight thanks to a hungry bird. I spend a lot of time growing my orange caulis and collard greens from seed. To lose them in such arbitrary fashion…argh!

Also, if I wasn’t growing from seed, I would have a garden almost fully planted up by now. Sowing from seed, even with a heat mat, takes a looooooong time. I started back in February, and it’s already April. After over two decades of parenting, my patience is quite well-honed, but still – I could be well on the way to broccoli and cauliflower by now.

Why have I not caved and bought a few backup punnets? I mean, does it really matter in the long run? I set myself this crazy challenge, after all.

Some dude once said, gardening is the triumph of hope over experience.

I guess that’s why.

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, 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!