In a Scientist’s Garden week cook and gardener flew off to Australia’s capital city – Canberra – to visit CSIRO’s Dr Richard Stirzaker. Richard's life’s work has been to learn to understand water and its use in growing food. He wrote a book on the lessons learnt called Out of a Scientist’s Garden, available from CSIRO publishing.

What we have in common is our backyard gardens - the well-springs of our interest in irrigated agriculture. Together we’ve been messing about for years trying to build better and cheaper sensors to allow folk to water gardens and vast acreages more efficiently – to get more food per litre of water. In our most recent efforts, we’ve worked to come up with some ‘appropriate technology’ for subsistence farmers in Africa and irrigators in Bangladesh.

P1030422So we did all that we had to do in Canberra talking to the folk who have funded this work, but the real highlight of our two days was the much-anticipated tour of Richard’s garden – so different from my own. Some of these differences are driven by the colder Canberra climate and the shorter growing season. For example, Richard needs to raise seedlings in a glasshouse during the cold months of late winter and early spring.


Yet there are also differences of style, and I always come home inspired and with a deeper understanding of ‘doing-by-learning’. Here are a few photos taken before breakfast…








The arduous days of Spring

 The shredder is back from repair and, while the seeds germinate in their trays, yard and bed clearing goes on. All the front gardens in the district are blooming, but I guess few of their owners know that vegetables are also blooming at this time of the year – radish, lettuce, parsley, broccoli, cabbage and other winter vegetables have shot up to several metres in height and are blossoming. If these are not to be saved for seed, then they need to be pulled out and composted in order to make way for Spring plantings in a few weeks time.








P1030498And the problem with the shredder? Water in the petrol! Leaving cans of fuel on cold concrete floors apparently causes moisture in the atmosphere to condense and be absorbed by the petrol so that it fails to burn. The repair guy had kept a half cupful of mouldy water to prove it to me. $150 poorer, I can now offer this hard-won wisdom; store your petrol in tins placed on wood.

And all the old stuff removed to make way for new crops? Tossed on the path outside the bed, where it will dry off in the next few weeks and be shredded in turn.

The seeds and seedlings of Spring

Once again, the leafing of our chestnut tree signals ‘seed planting time’ – soil temperatures have risen and night time temperatures are also warming.


The seed collection down the back shed has been boosted by some rare old heritage open-pollinated seeds purchased in from Eden Seeds in Queensland. Purple tiger chillies, chocolate capsicums, Daikon radish, Syrian cucumbers, ‘freckles’ cos lettuce and triamble pumpkin will take their place in the garden next to the other varieties being planted out at this time of year. 29 new varieties join the seed saving club down the back shed, all for the expenditure of $100, including postage.

P1030409With so many seeds to plant out into seed trays, the existing seed table is too small, so the gardener fashions yet another one from stuff only he values and hoards – bee boxes, old camp stools, a strong welded steel ladder, cake trays and house bricks. Potting soil is sieved from an area where the hens have been scratching and pooping diligently for the past six months; it’s not potting mix, but it works just fine.

Now for all those seed that need to be planted directly; pumpkins, cucumbers, beans, radishes, carrots... It’s fun and relaxing.


Vegetable juice

Both of us – cook and gardener – have worked extraordinarily hard over the past 30 years to build a home, a family, a garden and the businesses that support them.

Unsurprisingly then, we look forward to an active old age spent in the home and garden with the grandchildren around us, rather than endless hours in doctors’ waiting rooms and lying in hospital beds for the infirm.


If the secret to nutritious food and a healthy old age is indeed hours of  exercise tending plants grown in a healthy soil, then one of the great elixirs of such a life is vegetable juice derived from those same plants harvested from such rich soils.

P1030386Ingredients are simple – lettuce, celery and  carrot as the base, and apples for sweetness and their extra juice. Berries are added in season, along with whatever other vegetables and soft fruit are about and in surplus.

As always, it’s worth buying a high-quality juicer that will be good for many years of trouble-free operation; ours is a three-year old Sunbeam DA-900 screw-type that separates juice from fibre with ease. The fibre goes off to the compost heap and will be returned in that way to the soil.


All the usual Spring chaos

P1030371The October long weekend (Labour Day Holiday) arrives, and the garden pressures are already rising along with the warming Spring temperatures. At the same time, my expectations of further soaking rains of 12mm or more are diminishing, so it’s time to get the covers on the garden so that I can save what winter moisture I have accumulated in the soil profile to offset future water bills.

All goes smoothly enough while I’m using simple tools such as the three-pronged hay fork. But the wheelbarrow has blown a tire after thirty years of loyal service, so I have to fix that before I can begin. [All I did to trigger this catastrophe was to stack 80 kg of premix concrete into the barrow for the new chicken shed]

P1030367When all my friable mulch – overwintered on the garden paths and broken down by the scratching of the chicken flock – has been placed around lettuce, onion and garlic crops, its time to shred my supplemental stockpiles of cuttings and trimmings from the orchard.

P1030376For the first time in twenty years, this wonderfully reliable machine refuses to start. Out come the tools, and I wire-brush the sparkplug, empty the fuel tank and clean the air filter. To no avail – I will have to send it off to the repair place.

The three day holiday is over, the mulching is done, but the shredding and chicken shed are in limbo. Now there’s nothing for it but to revert to the hand-tools; I clean out all the winter thistles and nettles around the old chicken shed so that I have something to show for the passage of time.