Christmas morning garden tour

P1010949Christmas morning dawned to perfect weather, and in this brief moment of quiet while the world sleeps, I’ve got into the habit of touring the garden to take stock of how the summer growing season is progressing. P1010932This small reflective tour helps me get some perspective on this important facet of our life; cook and gardener are in complete accord when we come to providing fresh home-grown fruit and vegetables for our kitchen table. No matter that our budget of time and money is heavier in this department than most folks – the garden and the nutritious food that it produces is part of our lifestyle.

P1010929There are no jobs to be done, so all the tools are back in the shed. Everything has been organised to carry the garden through Christmas Day and Boxing Day while we deal with 22 folk coming to lunch and the arrival of two of our three sons and their partners and friends from Melbourne and overseas.

P1010930Harvest is still a few months away – around March – although the zucchinis are already in flood. All the home-grown seedlings have been planted out and are now growing quickly in the long warm summer days here on the Adelaide Plains – melons, silverbeet, cucumbers, beetroots, tomatoes, basil, pumpkins,beans, onions, lettuce, capsicums, eggplants – the list goes on, as it does every year.

P1010910There are really two gardens in operation this year; the production garden down the back of the property (photo at top) and the ‘seeds garden’ where scruffy plants – parsnips, celery, kale, parsley, broccoli and such like - have burst forth into flower during their second spring, to be head-high now and covered with seeds that will refresh my seed stock for many years to come. More detail on these later this week…

P1010903Down in the onion patch, the garlic has just been harvested while the onions still need a month or more of warm weather to finish.







In the orchard, red and white table grapes are forming green walls amidst peach trees laden with fruit, while the lemon tree is still carrying about a ton of fruit that we have no idea how to use.


















Over in the potato beds, the ‘Dutch Cream’ potato plants are flowering – a sign the potato tubers are now forming underground. Only when these plants die back will I begin to think of digging for their harvest.

P1010885And what do I make of all this?

My main concern is water, and just how much it takes to produce so little food for the table. For most of us townsfolk, this cost is out of sight behind supermarket price-tags – professional farmers pay about 1/10 of the water price I do because I’m farming in the suburbs and using town water rather than river water.

P1010920While I’m convinced that I can grow almost anything I need here in this climate and on these soils, I’ve still about a decade of learning ahead to come to grips with backyard farming on half my current water consumption. That will mostly mean better handling and distribution of mulch to keep the soil covered from winter onwards – no mean feat when crop rotations are going on.

Ah well – Happy Christmas! I expect that I’ll be better at this by next year. Now its time to sit in my garden shelter and look out at this year’s efforts before the Christmas rush begins…


Enjoying our berries

We are still enjoying our berries immensely.

This is a slightly decadent take on scones. Freshly baked scones, with a good layer of raspberry jam, then a good helping of thick cream. Then pile on as many fresh berries as you can. All sooo delicious! :)
What's your favourite way of eating fresh berries?

How to make soil

P1010847Soil – as distinct from dirt – takes years to create. Building soil is the real job of the gardener, and is a task that goes on year after year while annual crops come and go. Building soil requires the cooperation of the cook, for much of the nutrients from kitchen scraps are recycled through compost bins or the chicken flock back to the soil. Buying in compost is a quicker route when soils are degraded or new areas are opened up, but once good soils are established, they must still be fed and developed in the background to growing fruit, vegetables and herbs.

P1010870Good soils smell warm and rich, are friable (crumbly) and soft, easily dug, full of worms, and dark with organic matter. These soils are not dug over, except for when rows are hoed for planting seedlings. Good soils are always protected from the sun and moisture loss by mulch – bare soils die, because the worms that upgrade the organic matter in soils to something acceptable and palatable to plants cannot work in hot hard dry soils.

P1010825It’s Day 56 after sowing seed, and the last of the seedlings – capsicums and eggplants – go into soil that has been a decade in the making. With the spring crops in, the summer round of re-sowing will recommence over the coming weeks, with rocket and lettuce seeds for salads, more celery and carrots to join the beetroot for juice, and early winter crops such as cauliflower that need to be sown in the warm months. These will go into the beds currently raising slow-growing garlic, onions and leeks that need six months to mature between the coldest and hottest parts of the year.

P1010865In the meantime though, its time to make more soil – the potatoes need ‘hilling up’. 85% of the new tubers grow above the original mother potato, and the green stems of maturing potatoes (from whence new tubers will come) are starting to fall over whenever the wind blows.This ‘hilling up’ puts soil around the potato stems, which will push out more roots, segments of which will swell to form the edible portion.

P1010859Digging for these potatoes is one of the few processes used in this garden to turn over soil and to break new ground; potatoes are often the first crop into beds that have been dormant for years. So creating new soil is a good way to add compost onto then into old patches, and potatoes are the ideal vehicle.

P1010855Making soil is simple enough, though it won’t be ‘real soil’ for some time to come. Clay (dug up during recent plumbing operations) and aged and air dried compost are both put through the shredder to break them down, then mixed in equal parts in the barrow before being shovelled around the potato stems after their mulch cover is pulled back.











Summer seedling-sowing Saturday

A quick tour of the dwindling number of vegetable gardens in the neighbourhood shows me lagging weeks behind the pack in the annual race to have tomatoes on the table by Christmas Day which, in Australia, coincides within just four days of the longest day of the year.

P1010756Yep, I’m late again, but I’ve longed ceased to care -  I’ve come to recognize the benefits in late summer of having my vegetable garden crescendo just when all the racers are petering out. I guess I’m the only guy around here to have had tomatoes still running on into September, hanging off leafless vines that look as though they should (and did) die during the winter.

P1010759The other valuable thing about running seedlings up all the way through Spring (as against trying to prod them into action in the cold days of late Winter) is that slow-growing capsicums (peppers) and eggplants seem to be able to grow to full size by late autumn, hang out in Adelaide’s Mediterranean climate through the cold days of winter, then set their first fruit in the early days of spring the following year while the racers are still fiddling about with potting mix.

P1010762But no matter how I rationalise all this, seven weeks have passed since I sowed the Spring seeds, and this weekend they just have to be planted out, planted on into bigger pots, or tossed. So I rise at 5.30am on a summer Saturday to face the biggest plant-out of the year. The cook’s seen this coming – she’s booked herself into an all-day seminar someplace else, and so the next fifteen hours will either make or break the gardener and the garden.

P1010777Still, the chooks have cleared the beds, and I’ve been watering up for two weeks so that the seedlings will come out of wet pots into soil as wet as I can get it. The beds are already mulched; I just need to hoe the sowing rows along the drip lines and get down on my hands and knees for the planting.

Newly-planted rows of seedlings are covered with cloches and shade cloth for up to a week, allowing their fractured root system to recover before they face the full heat of the Australian sun.

P1010782At the other end of the process, in one of the other dozen garden beds, the broad beans have finished  and dried off, and when tomatoes, beetroot, silverbeet and basil seedlings have are all been planted, this slumbering bed has to be cleaned up and the broad bean seeds that have escaped the cook’s depredations gathered, shelled and sorted for next year’s crop.


Perhaps its here that I’ll plant out the last seeds of spring - the capsicums and eggplants that are the last seedlings lingering on in seed trays down on the growing tables…

Sorting out the sad seedlings

Seedlings – like human babies – outgrow their cribs not long after birth, and have to be put into a proper bed or face decline.


The cucumbers above could have gone out at six weeks after sowing, but here we are at seven weeks and the inevitable must happen, no matter what is happening on the rest of the property (and that’s another long shaggy-dog story…)

P1010734The real problem has been a week of hot weather (40 degrees centigrade, or over 100 degrees Fahrenheit). The seedlings would never cope with that much direct sunshine and heat, no matter how frequently I watered them, so they have been covered for most of the working day with heavy-duty shade cloth, waiting for cooler weather to start their new lives.

P1010732However, for this transplanting process to work, much preparation is needed,

Firstly, the water melons need to go in, as they are bigger and their garden bed has been prepared weeks in advance. The planting technique is simple, and has been explained last week when the zucchinis went out. So that was the easy bit, and helped postpone the cucumber plant-out for one more day while cook and gardener gathered their strength and got things sorted on the rest of the property.

P1010746The next garden bed to be opened up, for the cucumbers and the rest of the seedlings, has dried out since winter and the soil must be ‘woken up’ and brought back to life by applying water some weeks in advance. This is expensive, and 44,000 litres of water (over 11,000 US gallons) have been used in this past fortnight alone to bring the garden through the heat wave. P1010752This, despite very slow and careful irrigation via drippers laid under mulch.

The chickens have worked over this moistened strip of soil and tilled it to a fine tilth while cleaning out any resident insect pests. Now they are pushed to the outside of the fence, and ‘gutter guard’ mesh has been tied along the lower edge to keep them from sticking their heads through to destroy the seedlings (cucumbers have to be planted close to the mesh to allow them to climb up it).

So the cucumber seedlings are planted at 45 cm spacing, then surrounded by barley straw mulch. The upper part of these seedlings are almost buried in the straw; this will allow them to lie dormant for the next week (forecast to be in the cool twenties) with their leaves out of the sun for much of the day while their shocked root systems recover and get a new grip on their very own piece of rich dark soil.P1010754

How to grow raspberries in a warm climate

P1010681Most commercial berries are grown in cool-climate areas such as the Adelaide Hills. Much head-shaking was the general response to my queries about why I too couldn’t grow raspberries down in the warmer areas of the Adelaide Plains. I guess I was just too stupid to listen to the naysayers, so went ahead and planted anyway, but in the coolest spot in the garden.

My reward has been a handful of raspberries shared with the cook on our breakfast cereal each morning throughout spring, a flourishing of fruit somewhat earlier than those still ripening up in the cool valleys of the Adelaide Hills.

P1010684And where is this raspberry-haven in the garden? On the cooler south-side of the massive rainwater tanks that sit stolidly at a pleasant cool temperature through the heat of summer. Each tank holds just over three tonnes of winter rainfall, so comes into spring at a pretty cool temperature anyway, warming only very slowly as the season progresses.

The variety I’ve planted out is called ‘Willamette’ – a bare-rooted winter gift from the berry experts up at the gnomes' house high in the ranges behind Lenswood. P1010688This variety fruits twice a year, in spring and autumn, before being cut back hard as winter approaches. I’ve set up a trellis that follows around the wall of the tank; this carries the weight of these thornless canes.

Finally, the raspberries receive only the sweetest and coolest water I have – directly from the rainwater tank behind them. I flood their roots each morning for the few minutes it takes me to pick my breakfast berries. I figure I’ll get a small portion of that cool water back the next day for my trouble.

How to plant zucchinis

P1010696P1010541Thirty-six days after planting zucchini seeds into potting mix the seedlings are ready to be transplanted into the garden beds. Leaves look like miniatures of those that will adorn the adult plants and they are starting to crowd each other in the seed tray.

Of all the seeds planted five weeks ago the zucchini seeds developed the fastest, perhaps helped along by the large store of energy and nutrient supplied by the parent plant when the seeds were formed a year or two ago.

P1010566All seedling have to survive ‘transplant shock’ - disturbance to their root systems when the seedling is planted out into full sun conditions and into soil at a different temperature and moisture level to that in which it has grown up. This often leads to immediate wilting, and so one must ensure that the seedling has had plenty of water right up until plant-out to fully hydrate it. Seedlings should also have been ‘hardened up’ by being out in full sun all day long rather than under the shade cloth covering many nurseries. If possible, I plant out on the evening of a cool day. This gives the seedlings time to settle in before coming under high atmospheric demand under the midday sun.

P1010632There’s one other thing that I have to look out for; insect attack. Earwigs and slater beetles in the mulch come out to feed at night; they are especially thrilled to find new and vulnerable seedlings to feast upon. I guard against this by putting the hens into empty seed beds for a week or two prior to planting; their scratching and hunting completely wrecks these pest populations.

P1010667I do have one more trick up my sleeve to combat insect pests; short lengths of PVC 90-mm pipe that I saw off long lengths of storm water pipe to act as seed guards. Not only do they keep pests out, but they also stop mulch blowing over the seedling and weakening it by blocking access to sunshine and photosynthesis. These guards are pushed about 10mm into the soil (without touching the top roots) and pinned down with galvanised hooks normally used to hold the irrigation piping in place.P1010702

Much of the soil preparation has been done over winter by the hens; they have kept weeds and insect populations down and broken up the surface mulch. That’s mulch that I’d laid over the beds in late autumn to capture the winter rains in the soil profile. Now it provides the cover that will protect the seedlings from too-rapid fluctuations in soil moisture while they strive to get their root systems deeper into safer and moister soil. Because this is now ‘old mulch’ it doesn’t steal nitrogen from the seedlings in breaking down; it’s already done so.

P1010707These garden beds are all fenced, so now the hens are locked out and the pre-established drip lines turned on to show me where the wettest spots are along its length; these mark the best locations for planting the seedlings, as I know they will have first access to irrigation water even when that water becomes scarce or is being dried out rapidly by the giant leaves of the mature zucchini plants.

P1010708The seedlings are lifted out of the seed tray by hand so that the root mass between seedlings separates readily. As much of the original soil as possible is kept around the seedling’s roots. The seedling is laid into the crumbled bottom soil of a hole dug in the wet soil alongside the drip line. The soil is gently returned to surround and cover the roots and tamped down with slight pressure to ensure that the soil and roots are in good contact without too much air. P1010709Finally the seedling guard is added and pinned down. Dry mulch is laid around the outside of the guard to prevent the soil water around the seedlings from being exposed to direct evaporation by the sun.

Sixteen zucchini plants are sown in under an hour; many of these will find their way into soups, vegetable side dishes, quiches, the freezer or used as food for those hens who worked so hard to prepare the ground for their arrival.

The Christmas rush ‘down-under’

Cream-gold potatoes sprouting in a brown paper bag ready for planting out Few folk in the northern hemisphere can fully appreciate the Australian gardener’s dilemma at this time of year; spring plantings are reaching a crescendo in concert with end-of-year pressures such as Christmas and New Year parties, school and University final exams,Christmas shopping pressures and the start of the annual summer holiday season that shuts down businesses and services during the month of January.

Just think Christmas in June, and you’ll have a mere taste of just how hard-pressed gardeners in the southern hemisphere are when it comes to firing up their crops among all these other activities that are thrust upon them!

P1010667So this past weekend was pretty typical  - a movie night on Friday evening with the family, birthday shopping with a grand-daughter on Saturday morning, the engagement celebrations of a nephew on Saturday afternoon, dinner for the newly weds on Saturday evening and again on Sunday evening, and birthday celebrations at Warrawong Sanctuary for the granddaughter on Sunday afternoon.


P1010670Yet the potatoes, climbing beans, and dahlia bulbs got planted out, the celery and capsicums seed trays were re-seeded, more pumpkin seeds got sown, the watering system in the onion and garlic beds got tweaked, the grape-vines and broad-beans got watered, and the lemons got collected and delivered to the local organic coffee shop who use them for cleaning purposes.

Is it any wonder that Mondayitis afflicts Australian gardeners worst than most others?

Potting Mix – Day 22

Three weeks have passed since I made potting mix, laid it into seed trays and planted seeds.

The large seeds – zucchini, watermelon and cucumber – are the most advanced, with the first real leaves appearing in this past week. Only now could I possibly contemplate planting these seedlings out, though I will wait at least another week.

P1010637Now the more familiar form of these leaves can be seen.

Smaller seeds – such as basil, beetroot and tomatoes – have only their first leaf pairs and are still tiny seedlings.

What is already clear is that thinning these seedlings is inevitable; there simply isn’t space (or energy) for planting out every seedling that survives germination and development.



Armenian cucumber

The first batch of cucumbers (Armenian) are planted. I put them in my trough, so that they are slightly protected from the icy winds that still crop up (like today).

The snails and slugs haven't attacked them yet - so let's hope it stays that way. Can't wait for our first summer vegetables! :) How are yours going?