Heat over the Veggie patch
January 2007: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer
“The door to the furnace of Africa is open” – so goes the old Italian saying when the temperatures climb into the mid-thirties. In the past few weeks, as temperatures soared to the low forties over my Australian veggie patch, the only thing moving in the garden by late morning is the gardener himself, and by then he’s slowing down too. Even the chooks have gone to ground in the shade under the lemon tree, scraping out shallow bowls in the moist earth which I have watered especially for them, and where they ‘hole up’ to keep cool during the middle of the day. Egg production has been dropping lately, and in the face of protest from my soft-hearted spouse, I’m muttering darkly about chicken soup and new hens.
No matter what the weather brings, garden I must. It’s early January, and I’m still trying to sort out the remnant chaos from the past year as I plant out chillies, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, luffa gourds, snake beans and Italian lettuces that should have been in the ground back in spring. This year I have abandoned bush beans, and have concentrated on climbing varieties, which produce heavier crops for longer and don’t force me to kneel down to pick them. Kneeling down is easy – it’s getting back up that is becoming increasingly creaky. So Lazy Wife and Purple-King beans climb my bamboo frames down the row from Giant-of-Stuttgart and Epicure beans. When the errant growing tips of these beans wander off-target and across my path, it’s my job to loop them around the nearest bamboo post and suggest that upwards might be more productive than sideways. The beauty of the big seeds from beans, corn, zucchini and cucumbers is that one can plant them in soil completely protected from the harsh mid-summer sun by a thick layer of pea-straw, and they’ll poke their way through when they are good and ready.
So through my Christmas and New Year holidays I’ve been getting filthy, sweaty and tired, and loving it. Moving fence lines, mulching, shredding, sawing and stacking wood heaps is hot hard physical work, but at least my brain is resting, and new ideas spring forth of their own accord from my subconscious, which has been working on problems fed to it over the past year. Every half-hour it seems, I head up to the house for another glass of water, a handful of sultanas and almonds to fuel this lumbering old body, and to make a few quick sketches in my notebooks that record ideas for sensors and instruments that have popped into my head ready-formed. It’s the gardener in me telling the engineer about simpler and more accessible ways to monitor soil moisture and soil salinity, wetting fronts and deep drainage.
There’s something about chaos that presses uncomfortably on one’s life, and a threshold above which no decent gardener can sleep comfortably at night. Little problems niggle but remain unresolved, such as those blasted Indian Turtle-Doves that raid the chook-food in the automatic feeders. I’m starting to suspect them as a source of disease in the flock, and try various methods to keep them away. Unbidden, my mind wanders back to boyhood creations of sling-shots, box traps and air rifles.