Tales of a Backyard Farmer: Chapter 17

Chicks and chooks in the veggie patch

Circa 2005: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer

clip_image002The autumn crop of chickens arrived in the dying days of summer, born to the young brown hen whose very favourite thing is sitting on a pile of eggs and hunkering down until she hatches a whole bunch of new chickens to follow her around. When she turns broody we call up our friends in Strathalbyn, where Murray our ex-rooster is spending his days away from the neighbour’s complaints about his macho pre-dawn crowing.clip_image002[8] Fertilised eggs duly arrive from Strath, to replace all those unfertilised ones laid by our girls-only flock. Twenty-one days later, eight eggs hatch only two chicks. Perhaps Murray has been remaining faithful to the memory of his Magill flock, and hasn’t been doing his duty amongst those country hens, as he ought?

Three weeks later, these two small chicks are out and about in the chicken run, clip_image002[6]and have discovered what every chick before them has discovered – that small is beautiful, and that chicks can get through chicken wire to the veggie patch next door, from which all the hungry hens behind them are filtered out. Today they have found the Grain Amaranth, a magnificent deep-red flowering plant that drops tiny seeds smaller than a pin head, but higher in protein than just about any other seed. Chicks seem born knowing how to scratch and fossick, and these two are eagerly searching out the tiny yellow seeds that have fallen to the ground, seemingly just for them.

clip_image004Life’s been hectic lately, and I’m starting to fret about the winter crops, all of which I should have well along in the seedbeds by now. There are plenty of things around here still undone, and I’m slowly learning not to give myself a mental flogging because the garden, the shed, my paperwork, my business, my studies, the extension and all the other accoutrements of a modern life are in a state of some disarray.


But life with a veggie patch has its compensations. I was gathering silverbeet leaves for the chooks early one morning during this last week, when the young mother over the back fence called out to me. There she stood in the early morning sun, holding her young baby in her arms, and looking as radiant as only young mothers can. It’s been years since I’ve broken into a trot, but I was across the veggie garden in a flash, and Reina passed three-month old Roshani through the fence for me to hold. I could have wept – this was one more thing that I’d been wanting to do for months, but had found no chance to organise.

clip_image008This is no ordinary human baby – I’m her grandfather! Well, there are no common bloodlines, but I’m the old guy in the veggie patch through the back fence. When this first-born was on the way, I had asked especially if I could have the grandfather’s role – all the men-folk of my generation and beyond on both sides of our neighbour’s family are gone. Every child should know days in a garden, the taste of soil, the joys of stuffing strawberries into their mouth straight off the plant, and the beauty of butterfly wings nearby. Between the very young and the very old there is a certain slow measure to the passing of the days, and a great pleasure therein for both.

Two clip_image010other wonderful things happened this past week, which showed me once again that long hours of lonely effort bring forth some singularly beautiful moments. On the one hand, after months and years of effort, I sent off the final draft of a paper to a prestigious limnological journal that has accepted it for publication. I’d discovered a whole new way to measure stratification in lakes and reservoirs, and written about this.

clip_image020But it was the veggie garden that bought me the greatest pleasure – a letter came from the cancer care group, who have returned to the Fern Avenue Garden to grow healthy food for themselves. They’d asked me if I’d mind taking them on a tour through my garden.

So one bright morning in the first few days of autumn I’d ducked out of work, and we were soon eating fruit off the fig orange and peach trees. clip_image014Over in the herb garden we set about tasting chocolate peppermint leaves, ruminating about whether a certain plant was a pineapple sage or something else, identifying seeds from radishes, smelling carrot flowers and picking yellow and red tomatoes. We inspected the chickens and my ‘chicken fly-over’, which is like a freeway over-pass, but built from old timber. The humans walk over the top, and the chooks walk underneath, allowing them to move across to the opposite side of the veggie garden without me having to hassle myself opening and closing gates.

clip_image016When all that was done, we sat down to morning tea in the shade of our half-built extension out the back of this old house. It was cool and pleasant there, and my wife served homemade biscuits with Moroccan tea (black tea with a sprig of fresh peppermint in it). These kind folks then presented me with an enormous bottle of red wine for my troubles. (That was trouble? Standing in my garden during a working day, talking ten-to-the-dozen and enjoying myself immensely?)So it was a wonderful surprise to come home from work this week to find a letter from these same good folk, expressing again their pleasure and enjoyment of the ‘veggie patch tour down-under’.

clip_image018But what remains with me is the parting words of a very beautiful woman from this group, who had felt inspired by her visit, and spoke nostalgically of her memories of her own father in his veggie patch, with chooks and fruit trees and a rainwater tank. I was left wondering whether many of us from the Baby-Boomer generation also have such long-buried memories of young days spent in a garden just like his. Perhaps we all carry memories that have been lost in our busy lives, but that can be re-awakened by a sight or a smell or a taste.

If suchclip_image030 a beautiful legacy could remain for so many decades with this woman, then I in my turn can provide that for a young Indian-Australian girl still in her mother’s arms, but with an old bloke over the back fence standing by with fork and hoe and tins of veggie seeds, ready to create memories for her that will endure long after he himself is gone.

Tales of a Backyard Farmer: Chapter 16

Seeds of change in the veggie patch

Circa 2004: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer


It’s a Sunday morning in a strange summer of grey days and stormy weather. Today though has dawned bright and clear, and that’s more than can be said for me, standing in the garden and waiting for my engine to start.

Yet these slow moments bring their own rewards – out over the school oval beyond the veggie patch I see an Australian White Ibis swing gracefully outwards and upwards, heading off over the suburbs. These large snowy-white water birds have black heads and long curved black bills used for fossicking about for prey in shallow waters. clip_image002One of the great sights of Australian agriculture is to see a flock of these birds descend in military formation upon one end of a locust-infested field, and march in line-abreast to the other end, sweeping it clean of these plague insects. For some years now I’ve been doing a bird count from the back garden. With fewer chances than in younger days to go bush walking and bird watching, it has been one of life’s real pleasures to see nature visiting me instead. This Ibis brings my veggie patch bird count to 41, and gives me some small measure of hope.

Airport lounges aren’t my favourite places, but there are compensations – there is usually a book store with the latest releases, plenty of seats to slump in and some spare moments for reading. clip_image006On a trip through Melbourne to Launceston recently I discovered Tim Low’s “The New Nature”. Tim’s thesis is that nature is moving into our Australian cities, with rare and endangered species turning up in industrial zones to take advantage of the changes wrought by man. That wildlife welcomes our sewage, rare animals need weeds, and that wildlife-friendly gardens are not so friendly. In our forests, native pests, including lyrebirds and rainforest trees, are now a force to reckon with. Sheep are being kept in national parks to save rare birds and plants. And that we need to know why.


This summer in the veggie patch veggies are in short supply. It’s not the grey weather that is to blame; it’s that I’m growing vegetables for their seeds, not their leaves. This means veggies occupy ground for as much as a year longer than normal, as many vegetables are biennial, setting seed heads only in their second year. Whereas in other years I would have ripped out these plants to make way for more edible crops, this year I’m quietly enjoying the rare and wonderful flower shows put on by carrots, amaranth, artichokes and chicory, to name a few.


And while some folk might decry the arrival of the coffee bean and its impact on agricultural land, it too makes a contribution to my seed saving, in the form of wonderful re-sealable tins and jars. Down in the back shed are old Balfour’s cake trays holding dozens of these tins, each labelled with the seed type and the year I grew it.

The clip_image014trampoline out on the lawn hasn’t seen much jumping since my lads outgrew it, but it’s the perfect height and texture to flog the lettuce and silverbeet plants upon as I separate their seeds from the seed stalks. I use onion bags to filter radish seeds from their chaff, and plastic ice-cream containers to winnow the fine seeds from onions and lettuces. Amongst these simple pleasures I spend my spare hours, trying to forget the hectic strain of competing in a high-technology world.

clip_image012Well south of the veggie patch, and just about as far south as one can go, the Larsen B iceshelf off the coast of Antarctica has crumbled and disappeared into the sea. Glaciers that fed it have sped up and are pouring ice at an even faster rate into the cold Antarctic waters. This is only one of thousands of indicators that mankind’s impact on his environment is accelerating changes over which we have no control. Climate change is one of the key factors in the collapse of civilisations. (I know this, because I’ve been spending my pocket money in airports again – this time I purchased Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse’, sub-titled: ‘How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive’).


If mankind were to disappear as a species from this planet, changes would still continue. There is no doubt that mankind has mixed the gene pool across the globe by transporting exotic seeds and animals to all corners of the landscape. Here in the veggie patch I’m growing out seeds to try to preserve some of our wonderful bio-diversity in vegetable varieties for future gardeners and for my own pleasure.


No conceit imaginable could see such quiet activity changing the course of human history as we face up to what some have termed ‘ecocide’ – societal collapse brought about by sudden environmental change. Yet it brings to me personally a sense of being able to do what I can do in my own small corner of our world.


Tales of a Backyard Farmer: Chapter 15

Thistles in the veggie patch

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. Boobook Owl - courtesy of WikipediaThere 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.

Tales of Backyard Farmer: Chapter 14

German Veggie Patch

Circa 2003: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer

My chicken tractor has been hard at work while I’ve been swanning around Europe; the lawn has been trimmed to within an inch of its life, and there’s not a weed to be found under the fruit trees or in last year’s tomato beds. The great thing about this 30-legged tractor is that it not only weeds, mows and cultivates while it fertilisers, but it lays great eggs, provides meat and keeps slugs and bugs at bay. Massey-Ferguson and John Deere tractors can’t do that, let alone reproduce themselves ad infinitum using such unskilled labour. And my tractor finds its own free fuel of weeds and worms to supplement the small portions of grains and kitchen scraps I fill its tanks with. It can operate in confined spaces, put itself away every night, and genuinely seems pleased to see me each morning. On the down side, I doubt I’d catch the diesel-powered version crapping on my doorstep or savaging my lettuces…


Only days ago the wintry conditions of late July in my Australian veggie patch were but a distant memory. The summer sun in southern Germany had risen before me, but by 6am I was out of the house for my last adventure in German veggies, and was on the tram from Hagsfeld to Blankenloch - scene of my first failed attempt to study at first-hand the cabbages in the land of my wife’s ancestors.


There’s only so much cake and coffee even a big bloke like me can consume, and so I sneak off on my own adventures in Germany as an antidote to all the mandatory visiting of friends and relatives. These solitary journeys usually consist of expeditions out into the villages, fields and forests of the countryside, as far away as I can get from the ‘shop-til-you-drop’ town centre. On that first day in Germany five weeks earlier, I’d been trying to find a route by foot or bicycle to Weingarten - a quaint old village on the edge of the Black Forest with a stream running down the middle of the main street, and grape vines on the hills behind it. Along the way, I was keeping an eye open for one of the many community gardens that are such a feature of the German landscape. I had in mind to explore at first hand that most fascinating question: “Could the German people once again be self-sufficient in food and heating if fossil fuels ran out?”


Well, it was my first day in Germany, and I guess I hadn’t yet dropped back into either the culture or the language, or I wouldn’t have taken the dumb full-frontal Australian approach to finding something out. On the outskirts of Blankenloch I’d run a veggie gardener to earth outside a fenced-off community garden, and asked whether he’d let me in to wander around. This resulted in a torrent of German, all amounting to the word “Nein!” which, as in any great bureaucracy, is the instinctive human reaction to anything unorthodox. Now, I don’t know if I really got the gist of the 85 reasons why he couldn’t leave the gate unlocked, but I certainly appreciated the effort he went to to map it all out for me. It was a good thing that when - long ago - I’d told my Mum that I’d picked up a little German, I wasn’t just talking about my wife-to-be…


Clearly a more subtle approach was needed, but where would a wandering Australian get something like that? I need not have worried – the next five weeks gave me ample opportunity to study the veggie patches of southern Germany. With only one growing season (summer) everything’s going on together in these gardens. Winter veggies like cabbages, peas, broad beans, leeks and kohlrabi jostle summer veggies like tomatoes, onions, pumpkins and capsicums. The climbing beans have red flowers, not white as they do here. The tomatoes all had a remarkable sameness to them, wherever I went. I got a bit excited when I discovered some Ox-hearts and Roma tomatoes in the garden of one of my wife’s uncles – then I realised that they’d been grown from seed I myself had sent over last year. Fruit trees are mostly apples and walnuts – it’s too cold for citrus trees, which need to be bought inside each autumn. I’d need a real tractor to get my lemon tree inside the house…

It’s too cool to grow table grapes, but what a wonderful collection of berries – strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, elderberries, gooseberries, red currants, black currents and berries I’d never seen before and whose names I certainly couldn’t pronounce.clip_image008 Wood heaps reflect the differences between the tall straight trees of the German forests and the gnarled and twisted logs cut from red gums back in Australia. The German timber splits perfectly into four staves about a metre in length, and can be seen stacked in covered wood heaps awaiting the long cold winters. Yet these too are in decline, as the old wood ovens give way to convenient gas-fired central heating systems fed by pipelines from Russia and the North Sea. In the last fifty years, the German forests have ceased to be swept free of fallen timber by folks hungry for fuel and warmth; one can do the local forester a favour by leasing a section of forest for a pittance, allowing one to harvest one’s own firewood at leisure.

clip_image010Somewhere in the middle of this German adventure I flew to England for a week on business. By Friday night my official duties were done, and I was free to call Brit Rail for directions from Cambridge to Boston Spa in Yorkshire, birthplace of my English grandfather, a butcher by name and trade. On Saturday morning I caught all the trains they’d advised me to, and some hours later, there I was, the first of my family to be standing on the station platform from whence my grandfather must have set off for Australia back in 1913. Not only that, as the train rumbled into town, I’d been surrounded by glass houses and commercial vegetable farms stretching to the horizon.

Boston Stump Lincolnshire - Wikipedia

Perhaps my genetic make-up had regressed from butchery to vegetarianism when the old fellow crossed the equator going south, leaving me with an unholy interest in edible green plants? And what a great place – picturesque market square, a trad jazz band playing at the White Hart Hotel as I ate my lunch, magnificent views from the tower over the cathedral. Ah, but wait! I’d lined up to buy a video of the township to show the folks back home, and all the tea-towels said “Boston – Lincolnshire!”High_Street,_Boston_Spa_Wikipedia Where the hell was I? Certainly not Boston Spa in Yorkshire! In retrospect I can only surmise that it was a case of “any Boston for a tea-party” at the information desk in Brit Rail. But I had at least caught sight of the veggie gardens of England before skulking back to Germany to finish the job there…

And so my last day in Germany dawned, and I walked the six kilometres from Blankenloch to Weingarten as the sun rose over the forest. My route took me over the Autobahn, where the traffic roared continuously in six lanes, like a giant monster that never sleeps. WeingartenBaden_Marktplatz - WikipediaOn the edge of town the bike path I was following took me under the railway lines, where high speed trains roar past every five or ten minutes, carrying German commuters between city centres. Even in the village centre, crossing the busy street took more concentration than I’m used to. So it was with some sense of relief that I finally reached my goal – the vegetable gardens hidden up a quiet valley beside a gurgling stream, and accessed via a footpath rather than a main road. Here I’d discovered the garden of a kindred spirit, who had planted out and labelled all six different types of basil, as well as all sorts of other herbs and veggies. Perhaps he’s an adventurous spirit, and would one day consider swapping houses for a year with a backyard veggie grower from Down-Under? Perhaps he too finds in that garden on the other side of the world a sense of solace and quietude, balm to a spirit battered by the roar of planes and trains and trucks consuming our planet’s fossil fuels with a voracious appetite. I wonder if he’d appreciate a photo of my chicken tractor?