First planting session...


I planted the first tomatoes today. I managed to squeeze in 10 plants per bed. They may be a bit close together, but let's hope for the best. (I always plant them a bit close together, it seems to have become a spring ritual, I'm afraid.)

There are stardroppers at either end of the beds, plus one in the middle. Later in the season, when the plants grow bigger, I'll use some twine to weave it around them - called 'Florida Weave' - and that tucks them in nicely.
I also started on the other summer vegetables. Zucchini (Golden Summer Crookneck), cucumbers (Armenian), okra (Burgundy) and tomatillos.

There are still quite a few plants left to be planted, but one day at a time! How are you going with your spring planting? :)

‘Red-a marl’ tomatoes


Potting Mix – Day 15

Two weeks after planting out seed stocks for the summer crop into home-made potting mix, germination of most seeds is well along.

The few seeds that haven’t yet appeared can probably be assigned to the ‘infertile’ category and these trays re-seeded with something else. This is no bad thing; all seeds have a limited life, and some of my stock has been gathered from the tool sheds of the old men of the district who are now down the cemetery. While the beans from my old Italian neighbour have failed to appear, his capsicums have burst forth energetically, despite that fact that these seeds must be over five years old.

I’d also been saving on some ‘moon-and-stars’ watermelon seeds for many years, but not planting them out during the decade-long drought that we endured down under here in southern Australia up until two years ago. I’m guessing that it takes about 100 kg of water to grow a kilogram of watermelon flesh, so I’ve been anxiously awaiting a year when I could afford the water to regenerate my ageing seed stock of this old heritage variety.P1010568This year’s the year, and I’ve planted out the last of my seed. Germination rate has been only about 25%, so I’m just in time. That matters not – I just need to bring a few melons through to completely reinvigorate my collection of these colourful melons. Even the seedlings display the yellow patches that will later dapple the melon’s skin into the large dot for the moon and smaller yellow dots for the stars.

But back to those capsicums – they look suspiciously like tomato seedlings! Could it be? My old Italian neighbour grew his own particular variety of tomato that he’d brought out from Italy. Every year around Christmas, I’d drink a beer with him, and ask him – yet again - what the name of his tomato variety was. “Red-a marl, Andrew, red-a marl”, he would reply. P1010573This didn’t help – no such tomato is listed anywhere in the seed catalogues. The colour ‘red’ didn’t ease my pain much either – most tomatoes being red. Once I asked him to write it down for me, but this proved to be embarrassing – he either didn’t know or was illiterate in the English language. So ‘marl’ is just the spelling of the sound as I heard it.

So now I wait. If he mixed up his labels and these aren’t capsicums at all, but ‘red-a marl’ tomatoes, I might be the luckiest bloke around here. I’ll be able to grow them on!

Potting Mix – Day 8

P1010553Eight days ago, I planted out twelve trays of seed in home-made potting mix. These have been watered each morning with rain water via a watering-can; I prefer to have the seeds start with a cool bath and warm up during the sunny Spring weather, rather than start their evening with a cool bath and have them just get colder overnight.

P1010556Eight days later, the cucumbers have had almost perfect germination and have developed their ‘cotyledons’ – the ‘seed leaf’ that was such a large part of the structure stored within the seed. That makes cucumbers members of the family of flowering plants called ‘dicotyledons’; if they’d had only a single embryonic leaf, they would be classified differently, as ‘monocotyledons’.

P1010557Not far behind the cucumbers are the beetroots, while basil, silverbeet and lettuce have only just begun to emerge. Various other seeds – beans, melons, rocket – are still dormant or infertile. We’ll follow their journey from potting mix to soil to table over the coming weeks…

P1010561Over in another part of the garden, the other end of this story has begun to play out; silverbeet entering its second Spring is going to seed, and will dry out over summer to provide me with thousands of seeds for the next few years, at no cost beyond space and water.

How to make your own potting mix

Spring is all around us down under in southern Australia and the nurseries have been crowded for the past six weeks as folk stock up on vegetable and flower seedlings. But at $5 a punnet (six small seedlings) I can no longer afford to garden in this fashion on the scale that I do; the price of our vegetables from the garden would become unconscionable.

P1010523So I’ve bided my time, saved my seeds and waited for Mother Nature to signal that the soil temperature is warm enough to begin to plant out seeds for my summer crop; the first tiny green leaves on the chestnut tree have flushed out and let me know that it’s time to make the potting mix.

P1010525What exactly is potting mix? Well, the stuff in plastic bags that can be purchased from your local nursery has only a very small amount of soil in it and a whole lot of free-draining materials like sand, coconut fibre, peat, or ground bark because there’s a big emphasis on not drowning the seedlings if you over-water them, as happens to anxious parents of young vegetables in pots. Then there’s the water-holding materials like perlite or vermiculite, wetting agents to get the stuff to absorb water in the first place, and some slow-release fertiliser thrown in to feed the seedlings. Much of the initial weight is water. Still, nothing like what Mother Nature provides on the forest floor for seeds that fall out of the canopy above to start the next generation of plants.

P1010527But there’s no need to purchase potting mix to raise seeds; its really not that hard, as seeds are as anxious to get going as you are to have them do so. There are plenty of sources of good friable soil suitable for the purpose around the garden if one knows where to look. The bottom of the compost heap lying on the soil is an especially rich source, but there is one other source where ready-made potting mix can be found; the garden paths. Provided that you’ve covered your paths with wood chips rather than pavers or concrete, walked over them for a few years and let rain and sun work their slow and gentle transformation, potting mix is available underfoot whenever you need it. The broken-down bark mixed with soil will provide the right combination of drainage and water retention plus humus to feed the seedlings. You just need to trust nature to get the soil balance right and to trust that your seedlings will fight off any soil-borne fungi, weeds or other diseases.

P1010533Whatever your source of soil, a wheelbarrow and large sieve (mesh size about 5 mm), a shovel and a strong back are all that is needed. Shovel the degraded chips and soil mix into the sieve on top of the barrow, rock it back and forth sideways over the barrow, and there’s your potting mix. Throw the large bits left in the sieve back onto the path for the coming years, or replenish it if needed; mulch on paths is not only soft underfoot, but keeps the soil between the garden beds cool and moist, forming a reservoir for worms and tree roots and a natural catchment for rainfall. The soil in your paths is ready for use as potting mix when self-seeded lettuces can be found growing there after winter rains.

P1010530Seedlings should be grown above ground – this keeps the chooks out, but also earwigs and caterpillars and other things that creep out of the soil and garden beds at night time to feed on tender seedlings. It also saves you bending over all the time when watering or weeding them; pure rainwater from a watering-can works best for me, as it contains no salt.

P1010528Wheel the barrow over to where your seed table is, get the seed tins out and a small trowel, some plant labels and a black permanent marker pen. This pen is about the only thing I need to bring in, and I admit that I just get one of them out of the stationary cupboard at work. The wooden markers I cut out of old flat-slat wooden blinds, and cut a point on them with a scroll-saw. (OK, I might be too stingy to buy potting mix, but I spend all the money I save on good tools!) 

P1010535The seedling containers are actually seed trays; I can’t be bothered with those tiny punnet containers that would require me to drop a single seed in each tiny compartment. I lay my home-grown potting mix loosely about 25 mm deep into these trays, sprinkle seeds roughly on top, and rub handfuls of more potting soil over them, patting them down loosely to seat the seeds against the mix.

P1010541Does it matter about seedling spacing and all that? Not to me. I’m going to pull them apart anyway when I transplant them and as I’ve plenty of seeds I prefer a little wastage of seedlings to fiddling about at this stage (with seeds that may not necessarily be viable) by planting them out en-masse.

P1010543Two hours later I’ve gone from ground-zero to a table full of some hundreds of seedlings. After all, this is the easy bit – the real work comes in six to eight weeks time when I have to plant them out on hands and knees… Now they will stand in this sunny spot and I’ll water them daily, keeping the blackbirds off with some wire-mesh cloches. And as there will usually be plenty of seedlings left over, I can endear myself to fellow gardeners by gifting them handfuls of seedlings wrapped in wet newspaper that would otherwise cost them tens of dollars down at the nursery.

Tales of a Backyard Farmer: Chapter 24

The Bridge  to Hagsfeld

Mid-2012: The final chapter of the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer

File:Verwaltungsgebäude FBG.JPGA sea of faces looked down at me expectantly from the lofty heights of the lecture theatre; scientists and academics from all over the world had gathered in Geisenheim in Germany to hear about the latest research into the irrigation of horticultural crops, and it was my turn to speak. Twenty-three years of solitary effort were about to see the light of day, and if I was going to make this stick, I’d better use what I’d learnt long ago - that what folk really love best is a good story. So I’d be keeping the graphs and charts to a minimum, and calling upon my Irish ancestry to help spin this yarn about a new instrument never seen before…

P1010229“In about 1985 or 1986” (I began), “a long skinny German student flew down to Australia to undertake his PhD studies into the water relations within citrus crops. And because he knew everything about plant physiology and nothing about electronics, pretty soon he found his way to my lab and we set out to measure the growth rate of oranges up in his test patch in Loxton in the South Australian Riverland. Three years passed quickly, and we shook hands for the last time as he prepared to fly back to the Fatherland with his newly-minted PhD.”

“But wait up there, Peter” (I said), “how are we going to measure the water relations in all those other crops that don’t have oranges hanging off them?”

P1010273“Andrew” (he said), “I’m going to back to Germany to become the famous Professor of Pomology in Geisenheim and to run the International Symposia on Irrigated Horticultural Crops in 2012. You’re the measurement guy – you figure it out!”

And so began for me a pilgrimage to build an instrument that would change the way the world’s farmers set about irrigating their crops. This ‘crop water stress’ sensor was to be inserted into living plants and (if it worked) would replace all the expensive soil moisture and climate tools that farmers had been using in the past to decide when to irrigate.

I’d be “getting the plants do the talking”.

P1010293My notebooks recorded the first crude circuits in May 1989 and dozens of notebooks followed, filled with ideas worked out in cafes, trains, planes and at the kitchen table by a man plodding through life under the combined stresses that a part-time doctorate added to the already volatile mix of running an engineering business full-time, community service, home renovations, a large vegetable garden, a growing family, ageing parents and my wife’s own studies and small business start-up.

P1000481That I succeeded in all this says much for the atavistic urge within me to grow things, dating back - no doubt - to my mother’s Irish ancestors. They had settled in Mintaro in South Australia in 1849 to grow wheat and barley, eschewing the crofter’s diet of potatoes that had failed them during the Irish potato famine, forcing them to flee their homeland. Had I myself been born into a landholding family, farming and irrigating horticultural crops would have been my life’s work. Instead, I was born into a landless city-based family with an inherited gift for engineering. The nearest I could come to farming was in the vegetable garden down the backyard. The nearest I could come to farmers was to be the guy who built their measurement tools.

P1000746And so here I was in the lecture theatre in Germany in mid-2012, with the conference convenor – my old mate (and now Professor) from those early years in Adelaide – sitting in the front row and wondering what an engineer could possibly tell a distinguished bunch of crop scientists about plants and how to irrigate them. What they didn’t know was that I’d been growing vegetables on and off since I was four years old, in every country I’d landed in except Papua-New Guinea, and that being out in left-field is just where you want to be coming from if you’re going to kick old conventions in the pants.

P1000461The lecture ended, and I was clapped on the back and invited to Israel, Spain, Belgium, Holland, USA, Italy, New Zealand and back to Germany to take part in scientific trials that would qualify this new sensor for different crops and different agricultural regions. There was excitement in the air – something new had turned up out of the blue, and not just for scientists, but designed for growers on the land. A triumph, really, but I could feel nothing but exhaustion after 23 years of sustained effort and a longing to be by myself - home again in my garden. But it was not to be – the demands of business and family washed over me and, as one does, I was swept along in playing my part.

P1000227And so, almost two months later, I found myself yet again on the bridge to Hagsfeld. Nowhere really, just a small pedestrian bridge over the main railway line near my German base in Baden-Württemberg; this line runs up from Basel in Switzerland all the way to Hamburg in northern Germany and the Baltic Sea. Cut adrift from my garden in far-off Australia and struggling to find a place to be alone in crowded Europe, this train-watching activity satisfied for me a different atavistic urge; the need to understand ‘how things work’ that I seem to have inherited from my father’s English ancestors.

P1000218This four-month stint in Germany has had all to do with the cook and her family as she nursed her mother on her death bed; we attended the funeral and then stood by as her father found his feet in his new role as a widower. If I’d thought life in Australia was hard, running an engineering business remotely from half a world away doubled the stress, and I found myself unable to shrug it off or escape it by any activity or diversion. I needed to go home.

Finally, duty done, we boarded the Qantas flight for Australia and I found myself wakeful in the early hours of a Saturday morning amidst sleeping passengers in a darkened cabin. The in-flight map in front of me showed us entering South Australian airspace over the vast unpopulated deserts that stretch for thousands of kilometres in all directions up behind Adelaide. Somehow, all the stress lifted off me, and the garden and our Australian life lay ahead.

File:Bee pollinating peach flower.jpgOur three grown-up sons had gathered to greet us and to spend the weekend with us, the spring sunshine lit up the garden and its flowering peach and citrus trees, and we could get back to work in earnest. No matter that there was a mountain of stuff to do – this was where we belonged, down the bottom of the world far from our roots in England, Ireland and Germany. We’d been transplanted…

Tales of a Backyard Farmer: Chapter 23

Old folks in the veggie patch

Circa 2007: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer

It was the Christmas of 1981, and in the depths of a Canadian winter I caught the train from my home in Ottawa to the Montreal Airport to board the flight to Germany. A deep sense of sadness pervaded all that lay behind me, and only uncertainty lay ahead as I touched down in Europe for the first time. Long-distance courtship was having a rough ride, and I had only three weeks of annual leave to sort things out before my return to Canada to complete my contract.


It was a great pity that I’d spent so much time trying to invent new ways of sampling mineral slurries, and so little time poring over my German textbooks. I was still operating on a six-word vocabulary derived largely from childhood war comics, and “Dumbkopf” and “Schweinhund” didn’t quite fit the bill as opening remarks in my upcoming introduction to my future in-laws. Nor did it help that my only source of English-to-German translation wasn’t talking to me, apart from the occasional clipped sentences delivered in an icy tone that made Canada seem warm by comparison. But help was at hand from an unexpected quarter…


“It’s a liddle varm, ja?” startled me out of my concentration on the soup in front of me. High tea was in progress that Christmas Eve, following stilted introductions, and you could have cut the air with a knife. Well, what I’d just heard was definitely in the English language, it probably was a little warm back home in Christmassy Australia, but outside the brass monkeys were keeling over by the dozen. But Sepp - Claudia’s father - was beaming at me over his soup-spoon, not knowing that it would take me over twenty years to figure out that he was on about the soup and not about the weather.


The war-torn Germany of Sepp’s youth was not a place were village schooling included studies of languages other than German. But the seventeen-year-old lad was soon enough conscripted off the farm to bolster the ranks of a nation contracting in defeat and defended only by old men and boys. Only days before his capture by Allied troops in Holland, Sepp was ordered to search local farmhouses and to bring back any animals he could find to feed the hungry German soldiers. The one horse he found belonged to an old farmer who would face severe hardship without it. To the German farm boy – no stranger himself to the difficulties of eking out a living from a smallholding – the farmer’s pleas touched a chord, and he reported back to his superiors that no livestock remained in the surrounding countryside.


Weeks later he found himself interned on a farm in Scotland, where he was to remain for three more years before his repatriation to southern Germany in 1947. Along the way, words and phrases in broad Scottish seeped into his life, and were to reappear unexpectedly decades later when his elder daughter turned up at his meal table with a stumbling Australian in tow. Nor was that small store of English vocabulary destined to rust any further – more years passed, and a small tribe of tousle-haired Aussie boys came to love their Opa and his odd mixture of German-English phrases.


Only a year after my wife’s uncle had fought Australian troops in Tobruk in North Africa with Rommel’s Afrika Korps, the ‘Desert Rats’ were called home to defend Australia in the Pacific War against the Japanese. Now my own favourite uncle was moved up with the Australian infantry forces to the New Guinea highlands. Reg Dempsey also returned from that war to marry and raise a family of six children, while pursuing his passion for gardening and poultry-raising half a world away from Sepp’s first garden in Karlsruhe Germany.


It was Reg who turned up one dark night at my rented house in Magill, and lifted six sleeping chooks out of cardboard cartons and placed them on the perches of the old chicken coop down the back of my first real garden. Years later, when he had moved back to Adelaide and I had a family and a garden I actually owned, we came to be friends. I’d take him potted tomatoes and do the heavy digging for him, and he’d send me home to my wife proudly bearing magnificent displays of potted petunias. Friendship grew between us in quiet ways, through our common love of growing plants and family history, bakeries and a good joke.


Near the end of his own life, he told me the story of a Japanese attack that had wiped out his mates in the other half of his Signals Platoon. They came under artillery attack on the opposite face of a mountain, while he looked on helplessly. I was fortunate indeed to have had these few years with this wonderful old gentleman. On the other side of the world, Sepp’s older brother had failed altogether to return from the Russian front, and we were never to know him or the family that he could have raised.