Nettle tea fertilizer

P1020718After the first serious rains of the year, self-seeded nettles - Urtica dioica – are springing up all over the place in those beds where the chooks have been absent (chickens graze newly germinated nettles with relish, though will avoid them assiduously when they get bigger and nastier). ‘Springing up’ is probably a euphemism for ‘overtaking’ already established crops, P1020746so some painful weeding is needed to rescue those crops in those beds where the ‘chicken plough’ has been absent.

Nettles are extraordinarily rich in nitrogen, potassium, magnesium, trace minerals and iron. While nettle consumption by humans is common and beneficial, both as a steamed vegetable or as a tea, we use it as an organic fertilizer, mulch and a nutritional supplement in our homemade chook food (it is put through the food processor and then frozen).

P1020734‘Nettle tea’ is an occasionally useful diluted organic liquid fertilizer for seedlings struggling along in poor potting mixes or caught up in a bed where soils are poor. The fact that I have nettles at all – those lovers of rich dark moist earths – suggests that I’m finally getting on top of such ordinary ‘dirt beds’ anyway, and this probably explains the decline in its usage around here as my soil humus has built up.

Nevertheless, such a nettle surplus cannot be ignored in the gardening cycle. So it is out with the old plumbed-up garbage bin to which rainwater is added (chlorinated town water is pretty unfriendly to the necessary bacteria). Nettles are tossed in and pushed under. Over the coming weeks this mix will be stirred regularly by passers-by while fermentation takes place.

P1020752It’s not all good news though – the stench of nettle tea brewing is absolutely foul! So the bin is located somewhere in the middle of the property to avoid complaints from the neighbours and non-gardening folk up at the house.

The 'break in the season'

P1020697Kitchen gardeners on small backyard plots – just like farmers on thousands of acres of land – wait avidly for the ‘break in the season’ in southern Australia; the first decent rainfall that heralds the start of the winter rains, and that breaks the long stranglehold of drought that increasingly marks the Australian summer. The last rains of any value ended back in September 2012, and the summer crops have been totally dependent upon town water for survival.

P1020699These opening rains today – 23 mm (nearly an inch or 100 points) – mark the start of a new series of crops that will take us through to next Spring, but without the hassle and cost of irrigation.

Over on the seed table, lettuce, beetroot, spinach, rainbow chard, strawberries, celery and celeriac seedlings have been grown though from the last heat of summer, ready for this occasion. Early autumn crops have been flourishing in the beds behind them – broccoli, kohlrabi, lettuce, bush beans and Asian vegetables. Various cabbages, peas, parsnips, carrots and shallots have been planted elsewhere. Broad beans wait in the seed tins in the shed. I’ve stocked up on 10 kg of five varieties of heritage garlic cloves; when these sprout green shoots, they will replace the pumpkins in the pumpkin patch, expected to be harvested in the next few weeks.


The real work ahead is in pruning the fruit trees and clearing the ‘dry beds’; garden plots left to go to seed for seed collection but pretty much left out of the summer irrigation cycles for lack of water. They’ve been awaiting the break of the season to wet them up ready to receive those lettuce and spinach seedlings currently down on the seed tables. They will supply our winter salads for the coming cooler months.


And the carrot seeds planted a fortnight ago?

P1020664Covers have been removed, and there they are – hundreds of carrot seedlings, just in time to greet the first of the winter rains and waiting to be thinned and given a chance to grow to full size over the coming winter.

Gifts from gardener to cook

P1020548For far too many years – with the family at home and mouths to feed – I’ve grown fruit, vegetables and herbs, and lived contentedly enough within my green world.

Now, however, as I enter my seventh decade, I find myself reminded often of my maternal grandmother and her love of dahlias, grown in her small backyard in the inner Adelaide suburb of Parkside, where I spent wondrous days as a small boy.

P1020550Last year I got rostered onto the Rare Fruit Society stall at a local garden show, and found my attention drifting far too frequently from discussions of pruning, grafting  and White Sapotes to the neighbouring stand run by the Dahlia Society of South Australia. I emptied my wallet onto their table, and came home with half-a-dozen different dahlia bulbs which were duly planted in among the vegetables.

P1020549As autumn moves along, these dahlias are producing an abundance of bright and cheery flowers, and its been a special pleasure to pick the best of these blooms to take inside, place in a vase and set these small floral displays on the cook’s desk, to her surprise and pleasure.


I can’t claim any expertise in the flower-growing business, but more than fifty years of growing vegetables leaves one with a general sense of how to keep plants happy and thriving, and to my delight, dahlias respond to this treatment as well as potatoes and cabbages.

I suspect the start of a new gardening passion opening up with these colourful and joyous blooms…


How to Plant Carrots

P1020563Five weeks into autumn, and with the weather staying mild and pleasant, its time to harvest the potatoes and plant the carrots while the soil remains warm and un-water-logged by too frequent rain. I’ll be planting four varieties from commercial seed packets this season, as I need to re-establish some diversity in my carrot seed collection, which has concentrated on ‘Nantes’ but does not yet include ‘Topweight’, ‘Chantenay’ and ‘Purple’. (Just how I keep these four from cross-pollinating when the carrot blooms form in two year’s time is a story for another day!)

Purple carrots? According to the Seed Savers’ Handbook the origin of carrots is: ‘Native to many regions, including parts of Europe, northern Africa, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Carrots were first used as medicine. They come in many colours. Purple carrots arrived in Western Europe from the Middle East in the Middle Ages. After considerable selection, these evolved into yellow ones. Not until much later did a Dutch gardener obtain a mutation which had the orange pigment familiar today. By the Middle Ages the Japanese had developed unusually long carrots adapted to their cuisine.’

P1020566Carrots need a deep friable loamy soil free of coarse material and without too much nitrogen fertiliser, as this causes ‘forking’ of the carrot root. The best way to create such a soil is to plant potatoes as the lead-in crop; both the mounding of potatoes and the deep digging needed to harvest the potato tubers creates a rich and friable loam. I’ve known for some time now that this small crop of ‘Dutch Cream’ potatoes was going to be disappointing, and I haven’t been disappointed – they're rubbish! (Digging around the potato plant roots when the plants were still green and thriving showed no sign of the usual large tubers present; this sometimes happens with the wrong variety in the wrong place). However, the soil in this small spot – perfect for planting high density carrots – is now just about ideal – deep and crumbly with plenty of organic matter to feed the roots and later, us.

P1020560Once the deep digging has been completed with the ‘potato hoe’ – a far better implement than a garden fork – the soil surface is raked level and the last of the mulch and bits and pieces removed. Carrot seeds are fairly small and slow growing, so they need to be kept moist despite being planted in the shallow surface layer just a few millimetres down. I simply scatter the carrot seed across the surface, then use a large 5 mm sieve to cover these gently with more fine crumbly soil particles before tamping down by smacking the soil surface gently with my open hand to ‘bed in’ the seed.

P1020580The trick to raising carrot seeds is to find a way to water this very narrow surface layer while preventing it from drying out during sunny weather. In the old days, we used to do this by covering the seeded area with second-hand underfelt, often to be found on footpaths during hard rubbish collection week. Sadly, this wonderful material is becoming scarce – modern carpets use a foam rubber underlay to give it that comforting springy feel. So these days I use folded shade cloth lain on the surface; one can water through this with the watering can while it keeps the soil surface shaded for the first four or five days needed for carrot seed germination. P1020579The corners of this shade cloth are pinned down by bricks, or by wooden stakes laid across them. I check every few days to see if the carrot seeds are up; at this point they are rather yellow and in need of sunlight to keep going, so the cover is permanently removed. When the carrots are some weeks old and standing approximately  50 mm (2”) high, thinning can begin to a spacing of just slightly more than the diameter of a fully grown carrot. P1020571This ‘scattered seed’ method gives me more carrots per square metre than the old business of trying to raise carrots in rows. As for the old mulch that covered the potato crop during the heat of summer, its barrowed down to the chook yard and dumped for the chickens to scratch through it, turning all those slater beetles and earwigs into tomorrow's eggs.