How to handle tomato stakes

It’s Easter, and in southern Australia the rains are coming fitfully after a long dry six months of a spring and summer without useful rainfall. It’s that time of year when the gardener longs for the relief that this natural rainfall brings from the expensive and unending chore of irrigating.


Summer crops – such as cucumbers, zucchinis and tomatoes – are coming to a natural end too, and it’s time to lift the tomato stakes in one of these beds to make way for Filderspitzkraut cabbages (perfect for making sauerkraut), parsnips, snow peas and sugar-snap peas. Recently planted beds have also benefited from the first rainfall with lettuces, bush beans, broccoli, kohlrabi and Chinese cabbage are flourishing.


P1020513If one has to lift these hardwood (Jarrah) tomato stakes to make way for other crops, it’s really worthwhile investing in a ‘dropper lifter’; the counterpart of the ‘dropper whopper’ that was used to drive the tomato stakes into the soil in the first place. While these tools are heavy and initially expensive, they save much effort digging out stakes P1020512and help avoid injuries that are the natural consequence of bashing in stakes with a heavy hammer. ‘Droppers’ – in Australian English – are tough steel stakes used largely for fencing, having a star-shaped cross-section and holes along their length to thread wires through. A ‘dropper-whopper’ is a closed-ended hollow tube with handles welded onto it. It is dropped over the blunt end of the dropper (or wooden tomato stake), which can then be safely pounded into the soil without risk of injury.

P1020503The ‘dropper lifter’ is a solid steel fulcrum used to lever these hard-driven droppers (or wooden tomato stakes) out of the sticky soil. It uses a C-shaped grabber to temporarily grip the dropper (or stake); pushing down on the long handle raises the dropper just a few centimetres, but with just that considerable force needed to break the stake free from the cling of the soil.








P1020524Only when these stakes are out of the way, stored standing in a dry spot for the coming winter, can the next stage of hoeing and planting seedlings begin. And not before time – these German cabbage seedlings have waited far too long in their seed trays, and will start to decline if not planted out this weekend. Other folk take holidays at Easter – gardeners just don’t seem to have that much leisure…

Nevertheless, we do get fresh salads for lunch, and even early autumn asparagus – shooting from sheer happiness since the gardener broke their long summer drought with a good soaking!



Growing coffee in an Adelaide Kitchen Garden

P1020367‘Coffea arabica’ – the  coffee bean bush that is an understory shrub originally from the south-western highlands of Ethiopia – has been cultivated outside its country of origin since the first plants were taken to Europe from the wild in the 1600 and 1700s. From this small pool of genetic material, the coffee bean bush spread to other mountainous regions of the world that enjoy year-round rainfall, light shade, no frosts and temperatures around 20 °C (68 °F). These plantations in northern Africa, the Carribean, Indonesia, East Timor, Papua New-Guinea and South America now account for 75 to 80% of the world’s coffee production, with other species such as Coffea Robusta -  now grown in Vietnam, Africa and Brazil – making up the remaining 20%.

P1020368Sadly, for all those folk who can’t start their day without a cup of coffee, the original Coffea Arabica shrub is now rare in its native state, and that rare stock and its inherent genetic diversity is increasingly protected by the Ethiopian government on behalf of its own coffee farmers. As climate change threatens those areas where coffee beans now thrive, searching through the wild strains for more robust and drought-tolerant versions of this small shrub becomes increasingly urgent in the race to keep the world’s workforce from grumpy chaos.

P1020366That our own kitchen garden bears little resemblance to the highlands of Ethiopia goes without saying. But the sale of Coffea Arabica seedlings for $35 per pot in a local hills nursery added some impetus to at least experiment with this natural source of the caffeine that fuels the gardener’s daily coffee breaks. This will require regular watering, slight shading for the shrubs under the annual leafing-out of their companion peach trees in our netted orchard, and a wait of a mere seven years until they bear fruit.

Still and all, even if the beans don’t amount to much down here on the Adelaide plains, the old Ethiopian habit of making a tisane from the leaves of the coffee bush might serve to keep some of the gardener’s caffeine-withdrawal symptoms at bay if a world-wide shortage does ever eventuate…

Autumn plantings in an Adelaide Kitchen Garden

P1020346Harvest and autumn plantings are combining to keep cook and gardener busy at a time when many other gardens in the district are beginning to wind down following ‘summer only’ crops such as tomatoes, zucchinis, beans and cucumbers.

That this new round of plantings is possible owes much to the mild Mediterranean climate that we enjoy here on the Adelaide Plains; dry hot summers followed by cool wet winters. The absence of serious frosts owes much to the nearby ocean and allows us to grow all sorts of useful foodstuffs through the coming cooler months.

Indeed, some of these crops need short days and cold nights to begin to bear fruit or edible flowers or bulbs; asparagus, garlic, red, cream, white and brown onions, broccoli, broad beans, kohl rabi, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, potatoes, leek, Cos lettuce, parsnips, peas, Daikon radish, corn salad, shallots, kale, rocket, Mesclun mix, Mizuna, carrots, Chinese cabbages and stir-fry vegetables such as Pak Choy and Wong Bok, celeriac, silverbeet and spinach, turnips and swedes, chives, dill, coriander, fennel, marjoram, lemon balm, comfrey, nettles, parsley, peppermint, sage, rue, rosemary, sorrel, wormwood, nasturtiums and sunflowers are some of the herbs and vegetables, while the almond and citrus trees (grapefruit, oranges, mandarins and lemons) will also crop in late winter and early spring. If space permits, green manure crops such as barley or wheat will be grown for chook food and next year’s mulch. Raspberries are coming into their second (autumn) crop.

P1020221So seeds saved last year were planted out in February, protected from ultraviolet damage by shade cloth and are now entering garden beds that the chicken flock has worked over for weeks to clear of insect pests that grew in the summer mulch. Water has been going on in these autumn/winter beds, even when they lay fallow under mulch during the hottest days of summer; this is an important part of the preparation for planting, as it keeps the soil biota (worms, fungi, bacteria, insects) alive and healthy for the arrival of the new seedlings.


So now a whole new round of plantings begins while the soil is still warm, while there is that wonderful soft yellow autumn light to drive photosynthesis and growth until well into May, and while we wait for the refreshing autumn rains.

P1020340Growing crops year round is an essential part of getting the garden to provide fresh food to the kitchen and for the maintenance of harmony between cook and gardener – a relationship often strained by early autumn as we try to cope with the sheer abundance of crops that must be handled.

And what are we looking forward to most at the moment? Fresh rain-fed salads and green beans, the first capsicums and a cold crisp evening worthy of new pumpkin soup!

How to grow bottling tomatoes

P1020337The universal sentiment in this house, shared by both cook and gardener, is that tomatoes are a lot of hard work to raise; planting, staking, pruning and tying seem to go on for months, consuming more management effort than any other vegetable or fruit. Furthermore, there is a real sense that all this handling and pruning transfers diseases between plants.

So this year is different – we separated tomato crops between those for salads and sandwiches (a small number staked and tied in the usual way) – and the bottling tomatoes grown in the commercial way – on the ground on a barley straw mulch mat.

The Red-a Marl tomato variety that we planted has been grown over the road from us for nearly fifty years by an old Italian gardener. I was given the seeds on his death some years ago now. So these tomatoes can be considered to be well-adapted to our local climate – one of the great advantage of seed-saving between generations of local home gardeners. His hard-working wife would turn his tomato crop into sauce for all-year round consumption with their pasta.

P1020318Four months after planting in rows beside the drip tube irrigation system, and with zero handling, these tomatoes needed to be picked before the mice got them all (an obvious disadvantage of ground-grown fruit in an organic garden). For gardeners more fastidious than I am, these tomato beds would not be a pretty sight; tomato vines sprawl all over the place and intertwine, grow huge laterals and ripen at different rates because of variable sunlight access and shading.

P1020332Both green and red tomatoes are picked, leaving some on the vine to ripen further. This harvest will lie around the house for another week, allowing further ripening on old towels laid in shallow trays. However, the idea is to pick them in no more than two trips down the yard, with bottling tomato sauce day restricted to a single weekend.

Finally, there’s not much point in growing bulk tomatoes without growing bulk basil; rows of basil have been grown on either side of the tomatoes as companion plantings and destined for the same sauce. Planted in advance of the tomato seedlings, close-planted basil also forms a sturdy hedge for the tomatoes to lay their limbs on, keeping at least some of them above mouse height. The garlic harvest will be taken from storage; it too is an important part of the sauce-making process.

Late peaches and early apples

P1020295Autumn in Australia begins on the 1st of March – all of our seasons start on the first of the month (December, March, June and September) and run for three calendar months. While not quite true to the timing of the solstices and equinoxes, this simplification undoubtedly helps a largely urban population, disconnected from seasonal changes in their air-conditioned houses, to make sense of the four seasons.
For the few remaining gardeners among us, the seasons are often marked by the ripening of certain fruits, berries and vegetable crops of one sort or another.
P1020298So it is with us – the late clingstone peaches are ripening at last, and the first fresh apples of autumn are appearing. I’m particularly proud of these Royal Gala apples – they were grafted as small twigs onto our Granny Smith apple tree and these grafts are at last bearing fruit, bringing a new taste to our Adelaide autumns in the kitchen garden.