Tales of a Backyard Farmer: Chapter 6

Havoc and chaos in the veggie patch

Circa 2005: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer

There’s been many a time when I’ve been grateful that the backyard isn’t in the front of the house! And as everyone knows (bar a few brave souls), veggies are only grown in the backyard. For it’s in the veggie patch that the forces of havoc and chaos can so often rule…

Andrew & Claudia's Backyard Farm Visit 070As a small boy, the veggie patch was also down the backyard, but my Dad was in control. Somehow I managed to finagle a small patch of this halloed ground, and grew easy vegetables like beans and radishes. About every two hours, I would go down to the house and get Mum, urging her to come and look how big my radishes were, then dawdle back up the yard to give them a chance to grow just that much bigger before we’d arrive to inspect them.

Years later, I took control of the backyard of an old asbestos house where a mate and I dwelt in typical bachelor disarray. It was here that it began to dawn upon me that Murphy had indeed been a gardener, and it was in a veggie garden such as mine that he had formulated his soon-to-be-famous “Murphy’s Law”*. I think the exact moment dates from the time I bought those two geese, around whom I’d spun myself some yarn about becoming self-sufficient in eggs and meat – heck, I really just liked having them! I knew just enough about geese to realize that they swim on ponds, and so a pond I set out to provide. I’m nothing if not an improviser, and the soon-to-be-a-pond was in fact a garden bed surrounded by a circular concrete border, whose insides I proceeded to dig out to a suitable depth. After filling it with the garden hose, I stood back to enjoy my moment of creation as the two geese waddled over the edge and set sail, then slowly sank out of sight until only their heads could be seen above the lip of the pond. The water had drained out through the unsealed bottom, and the disgruntled geese scrambled out all wet and muddy. (Every cloud has its silver lining – from the ranks of the brass section, I yearned dumbly after a beautiful oboe player in a youth orchestra in which I played on a Saturday morning. Imagine my joy when I realized simultaneously that the geese were moulting and that all oboes are cleaned out after each performance with a goose feather!)

clip_image002Things haven’t improved all that much – for all the pleasures of a garden, there are days when it exerts pressures of its own, and mayhem always seems to precede order, and order can only be restored through strenuous exertions and after moments of bleak despair. This seems to come about because the simplest job is often impossible to achieve unless it is first preceded by a whole chain of interacting and complex jobs that in themselves seem to spawn further chaos. Back in early spring I was messing about trying to avoid the complexities of raising seedlings, and had sown tomato, lettuce, egg-plant and capsicum seed in beds of black organic compost overlaying the garden beds.

This had mostly worked, in as much as I was able to plant out over a hundred lettuces straight into more of these compost-covered beds, without the intermediate step of potting them, and without any of the dire consequences the compost maker had warned of when using the stuff “straight”. The eggplants also marched from seedbed to garden-bed, as did the capsicums seedlings that had survived the predations of a snail or two. But the tomatoes – AAaaHHHhhhRRRrr!!!!

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In my grand plan for the garden, the tomatoes were destined to follow the broad beans, but the latter were still going strong, so into pots the tomato seedlings had to go, while I looked around for an unscheduled bed. Finally, these tomato seedlings were getting too big for their pots, and in desperation I decided to get in more compost and lay it over some beds destined for (who can remember!) But to get in more compost, I first had to clear the driveway so the truck could back in. To clear the driveway, I had to mulch the great heap of wisteria I’d pulled down to clear the way for the extension we can’t afford. Then the folks over the road heard from someone about the merits of pruning their fruit trees, and magnanimously donated us a truckload of these prunings, which joined the wisteria. Now I do have a shredder, and it’s a marvelous machine for converting garden trimmings into compostable material, so shredding began – days of it! Then three trees blew over just as I was getting on top of the shredding, and so I had to get out the chain saw and cut those up, move the wood to the wood heap, and add their foliage to the shredding heap. About then I was getting desperate, and in the heat of the moment came up with the dumbest idea of the year. Last year I’d emulated all my Italian neighbours, and built two rows of bamboo trellises for the tomatoes, like teepees with long horizontal braces on top. Why not move this whole construction up to this year’s tomato beds? With family and friends helping, we uprooted these great frames and walked them up the garden, and braced them upright until such time as I could fix them firmly into the ground. More wind, and one night the whole thing collapsed across my potato patch and flattened a few leeks. Disaster! Not to be defeated, I directed my sons to cutting new tomato stakes from our grove of golden bamboo behind the tool shed, and they stripped the leaves off while I got on with the shredding.

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Finally the shredding was completed, and I set out to barrow it all down to the compost heap in the back yard. Tragedy! All the bamboo they’d cut was laid neatly across my path, and there was no way through until I’d moved it all…

Last May I drove up to a Vegetable Growers Field Day in Gatton in Queensland, between Brisbane and Toowoomba. This is conventional agriculture on display, showing off its prowess at growing vegetables for export all over Australia and to the world. I was awestruck – in a world where fruit and veggie shops engage in beauty contests rather than wars of nutrition, here were the Elysian Fields. Rows and rows of perfect lettuces of every style, tomatoes growing under plastic-coated mounds with sub-surface drip and strung between wires (no bamboo stakes for these fellows!). Cucumbers in green houses growing up strings from plastic pots with barely half a bucket of soil in a plastic bag and drip-fed with water and nutrients. Battery vegetables! And the machinery – this was truly awesome. I chased a machine down a field that was planting lettuce seedlings perfectly at the rate of two rows of three seedlings every second. There were machines that sorted seeds and popped them into growing trays then covered them up automatically, so that the seedlings could be raised perfectly to be fed into those high-speed sowers. Other machines were on display for grading melons and potatoes, for cultivating the raised vegetable beds to a fine tilth, for spraying, for harvesting the veggies and packing them into boxes ready for the flights to Asia and beyond. This was not the place to boast of my organic veggies grown on such a tiny scale with nothing more than hoes and rakes, a chainsaw and a shredder, and without benefit of any chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides…

clip_image008A few thousand kilometres and a week later, I crossed the Victorian border back into South Australia, and pulled into the roadhouse in Pinarroo for an iced coffee, as is my wont. Here I struck up a conversation with an old-timer, who told me of a local farmer who had invested in a massive centre-pivot irrigation system to boost his production of carrots and onions, and to out-compete his neighbours. He did indeed achieve these huge increases in productivity, except that in bringing these massive volumes of veggies to market, he caused the price to slump. With these poor returns, he was unable to repay his borrowings on all the machinery he had purchased to boost production, and bankruptcy resulted. He too had experienced the havoc and chaos of the veggie patch, but on a much grander scale…

And the tomatoes? Yep, they were finally planted out and are doing well - 100 vines from two packets of seeds. No thanks to Murphy!

* Murphy’s Law states that “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong!”

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