Circa 2004: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer
Just when I think life’s grand in the veggie patch, some surprise comes along that makes it even better!
Mind you, it never seems to be too darned grand until late January when the spring planting reaches an end and I can begin to set aside that feeling of panic and “behindedness” that dogs my heels and bites my ankles from September onwards. Only after five months of toil can I say with some certainty that the last spring seeds and seedlings are in the ground, and start to think of the autumn crops – leeks, peas, endives, cabbages, brussell sprouts, kohl rabi, more silver beet and so forth.
If one’s objective were to feed the family year round from the veggie patch, then there would be periods of desperate famine and fruit-fed bloat. Spring in particular is a time where the pickings are slim – the soil is still too cool for new seedlings to push ahead vigorously, and winter crops are coming to an end. Broccoli is reaching a climax and starting to flower (to the benefit of the bees) and broad beans and leeks are producing well. All great vegetables but guaranteed to incite mutiny in the troops if served too often. Lettuces are still struggling, and we look with longing at the tiny shoots of “rocket” in the herb garden, which along with basil, mesclun (mixed French salads), chives and mints, will form the basis for my lunch-time rolls throughout summer. Potatoes and onions can be harvested in early summer, and used with the leek in stews and roasts.
In spring the Washington Navel oranges – those great eating oranges – are running low, as are the grapefruits we squeeze for breakfast. Valencia oranges will replace them later for juicing in the hot summer months. Cherries don’t appear until around Christmas time, and one must wait even longer for grapes, apricots and peaches, plums, figs, bananas and lemons. Chestnuts won’t be ripe until the autumn, and nor will the capsicums, eggplants, sweetcorn and (the way things are going this year!) the tomatoes. Honey melons, rock melons, watermelons and pumpkins also need the benefit of all that summer sun to bear fruit, and are not really ready for continuous picking until summer nears its end. Cucumbers and zucchinis are prolific in late summer and when mixed with basil and sliced red onions create a flavourful salad. Lettuces can theoretically grow all year round, but I’ve yet to hit on the best varieties for the colder months – the ones I’ve tried grow agonisingly slowly, and serve as homes for slugs and earwigs.
So spring is a “yellow” time in the veggie patch, with most growing things barely poking their heads above the yellow pea-straw that blankets the veggie patch, ready for water conservation and mulching through the hot summer months. The “green” months start to arrive after Christmas, and it is here that one’s labours start to bear fruit. This year the Austrian “hull-less” pumpkins are trying to climb over the chicken shed in their enthusiasm, and the melon and pumpkin patch is a blend of greens, with shoots pushing out vigorously in all directions now the average soil temperature is above 25°C. The “moon-and-stars” watermelons are producing their first fruits – deep green with a big yellow spot for the moon and lots of little yellow spots for the stars. The fruit trees are bearing, and salads are plentiful.
Yet early spring does yield value in abundance – thistles! Milk thistles and greens of any sort make the difference between an ordinary chook egg and a great one. Free-range chickens on dirt are chickens no better off in a dietary sense then chickens on straw in a hen house. It is access to green food that ensures their health and guarantees tasty eggs that have no store-bought counterparts. When the thistles run low in early summer, nature provides another “weed” to replace it in the hen’s diet – field peas. These sprout wild in the pea straw, and once they reach about a foot high, the whole plants can be picked each morning and tossed by the handful into the chook yard. Hens will go straight past layer’s mash to squabble over these sweet and tasty morsels.
The fact that these peas germinate at all from deep within a layer of pea-straw mulch is the clue to successful bean and corn plantings. I’ve found that these large seeds have the strength to push up through a blanket of mulch that has stabilised the moisture and temperature during their germination. Carrots on the other hand I have never been able to get to grow under pea-straw – I suspect the seeds are just too small. (They will however germinate successfully beneath old underfelt). Once nature’s provisions run low, the garden is producing silverbeet and lettuce “seconds”, which chooks will shred and gulp down within minutes.
So by Australia Day in late January, tomatoes are tied up, the red cabbages are providing colour along with the sunflowers, rainbow chards and grain amaranth grown for the benefit of the chooks. Maize and over-large cucumbers and zuccinis provide some backup when thistles run low.
My neighbour sees me toiling out there in the hot sun, and brings cold beer and visitors for a tour – veggie gardens are becoming such a rarity that many city dwellers do not recognise the plants (carrots, pumpkins etc.) that produce common foods. The herb garden is providing the taste and smell sensations - dill, thyme, coriander, sage, basils, mints and fancy lettuces. I’ve organised a new chook run as I move the flock to new parts of the garden to fertilise, weed and cultivate – this summer they are working over the compost heap and saving me much digging while finding protein in insect form.
As dusk turns to night, I’ve just cleared an old bed of dwarf beans, and I’ve added compost to the bed prior to planting out English spinach seedlings that will add some greens to my winter bread rolls. I am looking forward to the harvests of autumn, then something flashes past and is just spotted from the corner of my eye. There on the bamboo trellis in the tomato patch sits a large boobook owl – the first I’ve ever seen sit still long enough for me to get a good look at. In the proliferation of food that’s all around me, here is the counter-force to those rats I’ve spotted walking along the fence-lines heading for the fig tree. No need then for chemical ammunition; Mother Nature will strike her own balance.