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.