Mid-summer harvest and winter sowings

P1060574As the year draws to a close so too do those crops planted mid-year and mid-winter – garlic and onions. Planted on the shortest day of the year, we harvest around the longest day or thereabouts. So these slender plants have had to be nurtured for six months, protected from the competition of weeds, watered and mulched and finally dug up and stored in the shed.

P1060575All this effort is repaid because onions – at least the brown and white varieties – store well and will supply the kitchen for months to come.

Red onions stay in the garden bed until the cook wanders past and selects one to slice into salads. Whereas the tops of the Hunter River brown and white onion varieties die off to signify that it is time for harvest the Sweet Red variety maintains green and healthy tops even after the bulb is formed. P1060576These tops are also used by the cook as ‘oniony-material’ in soups ands stews.

The garlic has come out of various beds to make way for pumpkins – another long-storing vegetable – and silverbeet for the chicken flock. The tops on the hard-neck garlic varieties stay in place and allow the garlic cloves to be braided before hanging in the shed.

P1060550The soft-neck garlic types lose that sturdy tie and so are stored in open-mesh onion bags that are also hung out of reach of mice.

Once these beds are cleared the remnants of the spring seed-table sowings are set out – largely lettuce and carrots.

Now the cycle starts again: the seed table is re-established and I look to the seed collection to begin sowing crops that won’t enter the soil until the break of the autumn rains in late March.


These winter crops include winter-hardy herbs – coriander, sorrell, chia, parsley, lovage, thyme, dill, spring onions and rocket. These will flourish briefly in the cooler yet still sunny days of an Australian autumn. The deep winter crops belong to the cabbage family – broccoli, kale, Chinese and German cabbages and ‘Palla Rossa’ radicchio, a form of bitter red lettuce beloved of the cook.

With the hottest summer weather still to come all these seedlings will be permanently covered by shade cloth and hand-watered daily with the last of the water from the rainwater tanks.

An Adelaide Kitchen Garden - 2014

In the quiet hours of Christmas Day morn I tour the garden and think back over the year that was, as is my habit.

A kitchen garden exists to supply a family kitchen with fresh and dried fruit, berries, vegetables, culinary seeds, eggs and herbs, to supply firewood and fresh flowers, to store produce and to provide the ingredients for refreshing juices, salads and whips.

P1060464The gardener's job is to somehow provide fresh seasonal produce year-round at a lower expense but with higher nutritional content and convenience than shop-bought produce. That it is even possible to break even in this never-ending cycle demands literally decades of practice, continual improvement and an intimate feel for the local soil and climate.

Given this long gestation period, both garden and gardener need to be somewhat forgiving of each others failings. So these annual retrospectives need to be tempered with a dash of ‘I’ll do better next year!’

P1060454With the Christmas turkey roasting in the oven and the cook supplied with fresh-picked lettuces, red onions, zucchinis and cucumbers for salads, I head outdoors with my camera and notebook. Here’s what I found…

On the deficit side of the ledger has been the high cost of water - 460kl (about 122 000 US gallons) - and about one thousand dollars worth of mulch and irrigation fittings.

On the plus side I've spent almost nothing on seeds or seedlings, thanks to my seed-saving activities. P1060354The new chicken shed was finished and has functioned sturdily despite those sparrows that figured how to get inside despite my counter-measures. The chicken flock has two new (and younger) hens who have settled into their foraging and scratching duties. Likewise the old chicken shed has been transformed into a  storage shed and finally sealed up properly, with the out-of-control bamboo thicket made to disappear at last.

P1060511A huge old pine tree has also been removed – those needles were forever blocking gutters that needed to be kept clear to catch rainwater. The same with the chestnut tree, which has been trimmed back upon threat of divorce. Deeper mulching throughout the garden has been the key to water savings while making garden paths a softer and more pleasant place to walk.

Some of the crops that have responded well to a better watering regime – guided by soil moisture monitoring – have been asparagus, avocado, raspberries, coffee bushes, kiwis, plums, mulberries, table grapes, citrus, apples and peach trees.

P1060405Even my early attempts at grafting apples and pears are finally bearing fruit – I just need to net these trees soon to prevent rainbow lorikeets from decimating the harvest.

Over in the ‘lady-finger’ banana plantation I’ve removed all the big old palms in the belief that stronger ‘hands’ of bananas will grow on new palms, or so someone ‘in the know’ has suggested to me.

P1060535In the garden beds can be found all the usual summer vegetables – tomatoes, egg-plants, silverbeet, capsicums, beetroot, pumpkins, zucchinis, climbing beans, white brown and red onions, garlic and manzana chillies.

Avocadoes grown from seed are starting to take hold with the first fruit appearing on the oldest tree after a four year wait. Peach trees are burdened with fruit and the almond tree has produced nuts for the first time after a long unproductive spell, thanks to deeper mulching and better watering.

P1060506Some things are still in a state of chaos – that giant pile of shredding material still awaits that time when I can sacrifice a whole day to noise, dust and stink to recycle garden trimmings back to the earth.

So, not a bad year, but much work lies ahead staking tomatoes and other solanums (egg-plants and capsicums), growing bush-beans, harvesting onions and garlic and planting out more carrots and lettuce. Some beds lie empty awaiting rain and winter crops, for I cannot afford to irrigate them nor have the time to plant them out.

P1060500All around me folk of my generation are retiring and asking me when I too plan to stay home and do a ‘proper job’ of looking after this garden - I can only reply that that is still some years away.

So in summary, the garden is OK, but not rating more than 7 out of 10 for productivity; I’m simply too tired and time-poor for a better result. That won’t change anytime soon.

But on another front both cook and gardener have shifted up another generation, becoming (biological) grandparents for the first time. There too we’ve had plenty of prior practice, with a parcel of neighbourhood kids learning to bake, make and plant things in Oma’s kitchen and Opa’s garden and workshop.

Welcome to the world, Zoe Beth.


Summer (vegetable) flowers

It’s the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere – the longest day of the year – and its time to remind myself that there’s more to the garden than the seemingly endless list of chores which always peaks at around this time on the Adelaide Plains.

The Christmas morning garden tour will capture the state of my crops – just now it’s time to capture the quiet beauty of some of the vegetable flowers that are blooming in their understated fashion.


Some of these flowers are to be found on plants that have gone beyond their useful productive phase as far as the cook is concerned and remain in the garden only to provide the gardener with next year's seeds. These include leek, onions, celery, lettuce, carrot, parsnips and many of the herbs.


P1060332Various other plants must flower before they set their crops – potatoes, beans, tomatoes, chillies, zucchinis, eggplants, capsicums and pumpkins – to name just a few.

Many vegetable and herb flowers are small – only the camera can capture their complexity and intrinsic beauty.

Others – such as those of the cucurbits (pumpkins and zucchinis) – have large and showy blooms that are either male or female and so have different shapes and internal structures.


Some flowers  - such as celery - form large bushes.


Even comfrey – a herb – sets many flowers in late Spring that bees enjoy.


Some of the tallest blooms belong to carrots – these can rise to 2m in height.


Even the other herbs - thyme, rue, lemon grass, wormwood and nettles - are all blooming.


An African Connection

Spring has slipped into summer in southern Australia and I’m reeling under the pressures from the garden, birthdays, family events, impending births and business pressures that find me alone at my desk long after the staff have gone home and the long summer evenings have started to wane.

P1060177There is barely enough energy left after my typical working day to walk home and to move the irrigation to where its most needed to combat the heat that’s coming. Australia has just experienced the hottest spring on record since records began in 1910, close on the heels of the hottest autumn on record, only six months ago and also in 2014.

P1060265So I’m almost defeated – but not quite - by the effort needed to bring food plants through this ever-harsher and more variable climate. Each year I discover some small tweak to beat the heat and the spiralling cost of water as I practice growing my own fruit and vegetables for the coming decades.

P1060269But I've an unexpected ally in this garden – a technological edge that guides my watering decisions and helps me learn about how things work below the soil surface. This garden is alive with gadgetry!

In a deeply fundamental way, I’m glad to have all these soil moisture sensors and displays finding their way into this particular garden; they were invented here. Now they have spread beyond this small plot to some of the biggest farms in Australia. P1060122Sensors measure rainfall, soil moisture, air and soil temperature, relative humidity and other climate, soil and plant variables, keeping records of what’s happening in the garden while I’m away chained to my desk.

Where this garden now stands we once tested weather stations built in what is now my shed, off to the side of the garden, but the centre of so many of today’s gardening activities such as seed saving. imageIt’s in this shed, on warm summer evenings, that I repair all the ‘factory seconds’, prototypes and obsolete soil moisture devices and displays that would otherwise have been tossed out at work.

This is the garden that has inspired so many of my ideas for farmers; what works for me here should work for them out there. Indeed, many thousands of these devices have now been shipped all over Australia.

P1040657And there on the fence, just beside my shed, is a Chameleon. No, not the distinctive and highly specialized lizard of Madagascar, but a simple soil moisture display that is keeping track of my onion crop and named for its coloured lights. Developed in conjunction with Australia’s leading research institute - the CSIRO - Chameleons were designed to help African subsistence farmers learn to irrigate their crops profitably. That story appears here on the company blog.

Chameleon in AfricaOn various benches in the shed can be found all the accoutrements of a design engineer’s life. Yes, much of this equipment is also old and obsolete but is still serviceable as I continue my search for tomorrow’s new yet simple irrigation scheduling tools.

Those future gadgets – like the many that have come before them – will be tested first in this small inconsequential garden down at the bottom of the world.


From rain to raspberries

It’s been three months since we’ve had any useful rainfall so thunderstorms in November are my last chance to re-invigorate the garden with that magic that only real rain can work on growing plants. With lightning crackling all over the sky, interspersed with sudden intense showers, yesterday was a day spent in the shed doing odd jobs.


Immediately (it seemed) the raspberries chose that moment to ripen their heavy burden of fruit; these will be added to fruit salads, morning muesli and the freezer for fruit ice-cream throughout the year. Raspberry harvest will continue for the next month.

P1060217Up in the kitchen the rest of the family is baking more than three hundred ‘Stollen’ (German Christmas cakes) using the family’s secret recipe, passed down for generations on the cook’s mother’s side. This money-making enterprise is destined to grace the family stall at the Christkindlmarkt in Hahndorf a week or so before Christmas, right around that critical moment when three generations celebrate birthdays: 60 (soon-to-be Oma), 30 (soon-to-be father), 0 (soon-to-be grand-daughter). Just the usual chaos…

P1060188For the gardener, now working single-handedly to sort out all the usual Spring chaos, danger flares with this rainfall; grapevine fungal diseases such as powdery and downy mildew love these conditions of high humidity, 10 mm of rainfall within 24 hours, and wet leaves. As this is an organic garden, I avoid chemical sprays. The best I can do at short notice is to trim off low-hanging canes that are most likely to be infected by rain-spattering of zoospores from the mulch up onto low leaves. Now I wait.

Ah well, I’d hate the table-grape crop to fail, but it will be a bumper year for peaches and those fabulous raspberries…thunderstorms are a one-way blessing for them.

Pumpkin planting and garlic hanging

Planting out the tomatoes seemed a simple objective for a weekend in the garden. After all, I needed only to drop a small punnet of a dozen pumpkin (squash) seedlings into the existing garlic bed first and I’d be ready to get into it.


Fifteen hours later, with the pumpkins and garlic sorted, it had become abundantly clear that the tomatoes would have to spend another week in their pots and I’m left to rue my complete inability to guestimate just how long any particular job in this garden will take.

P1060144Gardening – like painting the house – is 95% preparation and 5% actual doing.

In order to get the pumpkins in I needed to get the garlic dug out and hung in the shed, the watering system tested, the soil profile re-wetted, some ‘blood and bone’ fertilizer in to feed the colossal pumpkin plants that will produce a crop, the drip tubes back on, the pumpkins planted (15 minutes) and the mulch back in place.

P1060165Along the way the cook offered to pull about 100 onions that were going to seed early (the chooks had buried the working end of the drip line and they’d dried out), leaving me to hang those in the shed too.

As for the tomatoes, all I managed was to wet-up that bed, water the pots and get mulch onto the soil to minimize evaporation.

Maybe next week?


How to save pea seed

P1060100In southern Australia peas are a winter crop. So one of the jobs to be done in late Spring is to gather-in the dried pea plants, pluck off the full seedpods and to set aside pea seed for planting next autumn.

This is  a simple and pleasant task consuming a few hours of the gardener’s time and well-worth the effort in the never-ending business of off-setting the high-costs of water and mulch by saving one’s own seed stocks year after year.


I’d run low on pea seed and so had purchased several commercial packets of pea seeds last autumn, planting these in a secluded corner out of sight of the cook and growing them only to produce bulk seed. This is part of  a plan to take advantage of that special skill that all the members of the legume family exhibit; the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil from the air through a symbiotic relationship with soil bacteria. Bulk-planting of peas over the winter growing season will thus provide both mulch and nitrogen fertilizer for summer crops.


To harvest pea seed, wait until the whole plant has dried out to a pale brown colour after a spell of hot weather. The dried pea pods are ‘spring-loaded’; they will ‘pop’ open along the sides if left too long, ejecting the seeds onto the ground after this mini-explosion. So timing the collection of the plants needs some care. I just pull up the pea plants by the roots and put them in the wheelbarrow. Inevitably, handling the plants causes seed spillage; all those extra and over-enthusiastic pea seeds can be collected from the bottom of the barrow later.

I first strip the seed pods from the old plants - the latter will go onto the working beds as additional mulch – placing the dried pods into a seed tray that acts as a sieve to separate the fine dust and twigs from the seed. I like to do this job in the shed, on the bench, after dark, and with Tuba Skinny playing on the stereo.

P1060109For a time I simply open each seedcase by pressing on the seams to pop them open then brushing the dried pea seeds out with my thumb. After a while, hunger or the need for speed find me looking for faster methods; rubbing a fistful of the pods together also releases the seeds and allows some small increase in speed. The seed is dry enough to place them directly in the seed tins, but I cover them for a week with another seed tray (against marauding mice) to make sure that all the moisture is gone. It would be a sad end to all this effort to open up the collection next year to be presented with mould and fungus.

So is the job now done?

P1060062Not quite.

These seed peas have been hidden behind a magnificent display of ‘sweet peas’ that are still blooming profusely and giving off a delicate and pleasant scent (I’m told); I take a bunch up to the kitchen for the cook, busy in her own world roasting parsnips, carrots, garlic and onion for some recipe which will provide our Sunday family dinner the next day. Those flowering pea seeds will also need to be harvested, but nearer to Christmas.

‘Potting-on’ tomato seedlings

Mother Nature is taking her own sweet time to finish ending the broad-bean crop in the garden bed in which I’m planning to raise this year’s tomatoes. I’m going to have to ‘pot them on’ to tide me over for another week or two until I can get in there and prepare their new home…


Because I save my own seed I can afford to plant more tomato seeds than will become tomato plants. This sounds wasteful but protects me against germination failures. So I select the strongest plants and move them along to larger pots.

This is a simple-enough process, though it’s hard to toss out young seedlings as ruthlessly as this job demands.


A clump of seedlings is broken out of the original seed tray and one or (at most) two are kept in the hand then moved to the larger pot where I’ve previously placed a small layer of potting mix. The thing is to leave the healthiest plants with the longest roots covered by the most soil; a job for a sharp eye. The roots are dangled over the bottom layer and one’s spare hand can be used to grab potting mix and pour it gently around the plant until the pot is full and the first small leaves are just covered.

Tamp down and move on, while keeping track of labels.


All dressed up...

...and nobody to scare.

Halloween isn't celebrated around here. So, I wonder why that little bug bothered?

Does anyone have an idea what bug that could be? It looks quite funky, doesn't it? :)

Honey ice-cream

First ice-cream of the season. Honey.

Only 3 ingredients. Cream, eggs, honey.

Just perfect for this warmer weather. :)

How to Save Onion Seed

P1060052It’s the middle of Spring and I should be furiously planting out seedlings, but with high temperatures and hot winds on this particular gardening Sunday, ‘transplant shock’ would be a death sentence to small plants under these conditions.

Fortunately there is another job where these same conditions demand action; collecting onion seed for the vegetable seed collection.

Onions (Allium cepa) are a hardy biennial from the southern parts of Russia and Iran. Biennials are plants that produce vegetative growth (and in this case, onions) during the first growing season, slow down through a period of cold weather, go to seed in the second growing season, and then die.

Spring onions (Allium fistulosum) originated in the Altiac Mountains east of Mongolia and were probably cultivated first in China and Japan, entering Europe from Russia with invaders in the Middle Ages. Spring onions are a perennial, meaning that they should last year after year, even if neglected somewhat. This is a useful skill in an edible garden, as they produce faithfully in a quiet corner.

P1060048So I have both types of onions – biennial and perennial – and both are going to seed in this second Spring after planting. They have shot up on leafless hollow stems, produced the pretty spherical mauve flowers typical of alliums, and the plant heads are now coming to seed at different rates. The heat is helping, but strong winds will knock them down and scatter the seed onto the soil, so I’m out there with the scissors cutting off the browned seed heads where the seed capsules have opened and the black seeds are visible.

P1060057One can go to some trouble here bagging and drying these seed heads in a warm dry shady place, but I find that just tapping the heads into a plastic tray produces adequate levels of seeds under these weather conditions. These will be left in open air in the shade for a few days to allow the small insects to escape and to dry the seed a little further before they go to the storage tins. The fine chaff is blown gently away.

Historical source: The Seed Savers Handbook

Home-made soil nutrition

Mid-Spring and two months since we’ve had rain on the Adelaide Plains…

P1060043About now I’d normally be starting to see the late winter crops drying out and I’d be struggling to start seedlings in drying soil.

But just for once I’ve got the ‘covers’ on the garden in time; a deep layer of barley straw – about 60 bales – covers all the working beds, paths and the orchard floor. Soil moisture levels are under control, needing only 10 tonne of water per week (10 000 litres) to hold steady.

P1060042But with watering and the seed table under control I’m forced to face a more insidious problem that’s been creeping up on me for some years now; the nutrition levels in these soils is starting to fall. This is particularly true along the edges of the garden bed (mesh) fences where I grow beans and cucumbers year after year.

Fortunately we’ve been saving kitchen scraps – imported nutrition – for a decade now in three Gedye bins that have been in constant rotation. Each bin takes at least a year to fill even though we throw in a bucketful of scraps each day and occasionally add green cuttings from the garden and a shovel or two of soil. Where does it all go?


So I choose the oldest bin and pull the tapered top off (the bottom is open). Compost worms everywhere! These worms - Tiger worms, Indian Blues and Red Wrigglers - are different from earthworms; they live on the surface and enjoy moist, cool, dark, oxygen-rich places with lots of food scraps to eat. This lot seem particularly fond of the cook’s lecture notes that she dumped in there; they are living between the sheets of these thick wads of old A4 paper and loving it.


This job stinks.

But I wouldn’t know – at sometime in the past I lost my sense of smell, so I’m the perfect guy for this work.

P1060035The top layer of the heap is set aside, the worms are moved to the two remaining working Gedye bins by the shovelful, the nutrition-rich worm castings at the bottom of the bin are loaded into the wheelbarrow and sieving begins.

Old cake trays make great coarse sieves for such compost, removing old bones, sticks, avocado pips and other bits of hard rubbish.

New bean trenches are hoed along the fence lines and ‘Lazy Wife’ bean seeds are dropped onto the trench floor with compost then straw mulch added on top; these large bean seeds will push through this as they germinate.

P1060037I add a brand-new drip line to totally saturate the root zone so that the beans can get out into the moist surrounding soil for extra nutrition. The cook helps out by planting the cucumber seedlings, adding compost and back-mulching as well.

And that’s that.

Except that – a day later – there’s still a funny smell lingering around wherever I am. Even I can occasionally detect it.

Luckily the cook is away at a seminar in the Barossa Valley or I’d be sleeping down the back-shed tonight…

Jostaberry flowers

Everything is going wild in the garden. Here are some flowers of the jostaberry.
The jostaberry is a cross between a blackcurrant and gooseberry. The berries are big and black,  with a lovely taste. The plant is really hardy and easy to grow. I am already looking forward to picking some berries in summer.

A new season begins

P1050896The remaining weeks of a cool German summer had me planting out my father-in-law’s garden with winter-hardy Feld Salat and Zuckerhut (‘Chinakohl’); leaf vegetables not much seen here but which provide green salads even as the soil approaches freezing point.

There was a certain sadness in this for me – I needed to load the old chap into his wheel chair and make the journey to Hagsfeld on foot to his favourite plant nursery, tucked behind a regular house and run by an old lady well into her 80’s. P1050895But we’d discovered a small bakery nearby, so we stopped off there for one more coffee and Bretzel before returning home for the plantout.

Our return to Australia was marked by the usual jetlag and somebody-else’s flu – lent out to returnees at no extra cost – but with the beginnings of Spring to cheer us.

As always, September brought the Royal Adelaide Show and a chance to see the farm animals and vegetable displays that link me to the land.


P1050974Late winter rainfall had failed on the Adelaide plains and warmer spring weather brought a new urgency to protect what soil moisture had been collected in the garden beds. So a thick mulch cover of barley straw - laid down on the pathways before we flew to Germany in early August – is used as a ready source of clean weed-free mulch.

The top layer is forked off with a three-pronged long-handled garden fork and tossed onto garden beds showing bare earth amongst the garlic, onions, potatoes, cabbage, garden peas, parsnips, leeks, lettuce, beetroot, silverbeet, broad beans, turnips and snow peas that have grown through winter and are now approaching harvest.

This year the seed table was set up in a single day; my seed-saving activities had meant that I had all the necessary warm-weather seeds to hand. Two weeks later, these seedlings are already flourishing, and the cycle begins again.