Pumpkin-picking Sunday

One of the simple pleasures of autumn is the bringing-in of the pumpkin crop.


The chooks are happy too – they get turned into this patch – closed to them since the crop was planted six months ago – to work their way through the old mulch in their search for insect snacks.


imageWithin half-an-hour, this healthy crop has been placed into cake-trays on a shelf in the workshop, with the smaller ones set aside for our four-month-old granddaughter, who is just discovering the taste of vegetables for the first time.

These butternut pumpkins are sweet-tasting, long-lasting and easily peeled.

imageThey are neither as decorative nor as large as many other varieties that I have grown in the past, but I have settled for what suits the kitchen.

They will last us until well into Spring, to that new season when fresh food is once again available.


The rains of autumn


The rains of autumn have come at last, bringing relief to a gardener weary of the chores of irrigation after eight dry months.

Winter crops are growing slowly on the seed tables and the chooks are taking care of the weeding. All gardening activities – including blogging – have been put on hold while I prepare for the final assault.

Fortunately for this ageing body, this last attempt requires me only to attempt intellectual heights, not physical ones. The same well-spring that drives this small garden has powered my life’s work in developing sensors and systems for improving the way we irrigate crops on a global scale.

IMG_20150519_081637_028So I’ve cobbled together a small budget to outfit my home workshop – right there in the middle of my garden – to make the final tweaks to a sensor design that began twenty-six years ago. Finally, the art of electronics and my own skill levels are good enough.

I’m going to “get the plants to do the talking”

That story has been told before (here).

Now I assemble my workshop from judiciously-chosen second-hand equipment available on eBay and Gumtree. Winter evenings will be spent down at my bench. Winter weekends will be devoted to getting those crops into the soil and sorting out weeds and soggy paths.

IMG_20150502_150442_453But it’s not all work. My granddaughter comes over and ‘plays’ in the newly-organized home-lab, making flashing lights and miniature weather stations from the junk that has been set aside after a long career building such things professionally.

Life seems good.

New rooster

Meet Colin!
The Berry Gnome has always wanted a rooster called Colin.
Now she has got one. :)

Purple mash

Well, why not? Purple potatoes are absolutely delicious. Roast or as mash. Depending on variety, obviously.

Today's purple feast - vegetarian shepherd's pie.
Delicious and just the ticket on a cold day.
Have you had purple potatoes before?

Autumn Chill

It’s autumn in southern Australia and plants are beginning to slow down as soil temperatures fall and daylight hours rapidly drop away. All this starts once Easter is over and the first rains bring the soil back to life; the autumn chill is coming.


Only a month ago I was protecting seedlings against too much sun and heat. Shade cloth over new seedlings produced the worst seed table I can recall in a very long time. One week they were thriving (photo on the right) and then – phlat!

The most likely problem is that the commercial ‘premium’ potting mix I used lacked sufficient nutrients to provide these seedlings with the energy they needed to cope with extremes of heat and shading, no matter how carefully I watered them. So what started out as excellent piece of planning – an early start to the autumn plantings – turned into a near-disaster, with many seedlings lost.

P1060864So the seed table was moved to a sunnier spot, new potting mix obtained from a more reputable supplier, and new seeds planted. All the usual winter stuff - red, brown and white onions, orange and purple carrots, kohl rabi, beetroot, parsley, tatsoi, whitlof, all sorts of flowers (for the Spring display), mitsuba, mitzuna, filderspitzkraut, chives, garlic chives, Black Spanish and Miyashiga White radishes, raddichio, endives, ‘Fat Hen’ salad greens, ‘Freckles’ cos lettuce and thyme.

P1060859More netting is dragged out of the shed to cover these seed trays before the blackbirds get in there and flick up the potting mix in their search for worms; the fragile seedlings are all too easily buried.

The ‘home paddock’ garden bed has been dormant all summer for lack of available water; this has been mulched and watered and the soil restarted to receive these autumn/winter crops and the remnants of the summer seedlings.

P1060844April brings the first serious rains we’ve had in over six months; weeds and remnant vegetable seeds spring up all though this soil. Direct-sown lettuce does particularly well, along with broccoli, cauliflower, ‘rapa’, silverbeet and corn salad (‘Feldsalat’ in German). It doesn’t look like much now, but it will all get sorted before the soil cools too far.

All this goes on while the last of the summer crops are harvested – pumpkins, zucchinis, basil, eggplants (aubergines), capsicums (peppers), beans, avocadoes, grapes and peaches. The citrus trees – mandarins, grapefruit, oranges and lemons – are already starting to show colour.

And the current soil temperature? Over in the production garden soil temperature is monitored automatically and continuously. I need only log onto the internet to see that the long slow slide into winter is upon us. So now it is a race to get those seed-table seedlings to a sufficient size to plant them out before cool soils stop them altogether.


Self-sufficiency in a kitchen garden: Part 5

Why this series?

P1010910Productive gardening – like farming – is a tough business; it’s no place for the whimsical idealism that set me upon this journey in my early twenties. This is especially true in our Mediterranean climate where more than one hundred varieties of vegetables and herbs are likely to be grown across summer and winter growing seasons. So

Tip #21: Learn which vegetables grow in which season.

P1010759Growing vegetables out of season simply wastes space and the potential of those seedlings. Some things – like cabbages – enjoy a touch of frost, while frost kills many other plants, or prevents successful flowering. The solanums (tomatoes, capsicums, eggplants and so forth) grow best in summer, while the brassicas (cabbages, kale, cauliflower etc.) like colder weather. Peas like cool conditions, beans like warm weather, so they can grow up the same mesh fence but during opposite seasons.

Simply stated: “Out-of-season, out of the garden!”

Also, plant one full season ahead: seeds sown in Spring will grow throughout summer to be harvested in autumn.

Tip #22: Learn to space vegetables according to their needs.

P1010777This is crucial to maximising productivity.

Where space is limited – and it always is in a backyard garden – throw away weak or sickly seedlings and plant the strongest ones.

Tip #23: Choose your crops.

Don’t grow what you won’t eat. In our house, cauliflowers and Brussels sprouts aren’t planted because we won’t eat them. If I had my way, that would also be true of beetroot, but the cook loves the stinking stuff. Some things just don’t return value: we find melons and sweet corn to be too water- and space-intensive.

Eat the freshest food available. But

Tip #24: Learn to store produce

P1010884Some vegetables – potatoes, onions, garlic, pumpkins – store well and can be kept in a cool area for months, eking out their value to the kitchen after a bumper harvest.

Learn to pickle, dry, freeze and ferment. Build a cellar under the floor. Buy freezers for the basement or back shed.

Tip #25: Get some help!

P1020884In an economically-constrained kitchen garden, a small flock of chickens is all that’s needed. If I’ve learnt anything over the past few decades, its the value the ‘chooks’ bring to the gardener, working year-round without ever taking a day off. I’ve written about that here.

On a more human scale, gardeners need cooks as much as cooks need gardeners; the combination together makes for an unbeatable partnership.

End Note: And that’s it.

P1020182Gardening is not for everyone; some temperaments are simply unsuitable for the sustained and solitary effort required to produce food for your own kitchen.

So is ‘self-sufficiency’ just a dream?

Probably, though I’m still aiming at that far point as a useful goal and goad to sustain my efforts to squeeze the maximum productivity and produce out of the confined space that is a kitchen garden. I’ve always felt amply repaid by the gains in friendships, health and satisfaction that the simple yet complex business of growing crops gives us.


Pole beans

P1060808The same small argument breaks out each year between cook and gardener. And the topic of contention? “Dwarf beans versus climbing beans”.

Why this should be so has much to do with the differing pace between kitchen and garden.

P1060805Up at the house, meals have to be pulled together in a matter of hours, whereas the gardener operates on a seasonal time scale that stretches on interminably through our long hot summers.

Dwarf beans mature more quickly than climbers but produce a once-only flush of pods that are soon eaten, leaving the garden bean-bare. Nevertheless, “plant the dwarf beans first!” cries the cook early each Spring, hungering for something fresh and green to delight our palates after the months of broccoli and brassicas in late Winter.

P1060803Sadly for us both, this specific dwarf-bean-planting conflicts with all the usual Spring chaos that runs on for four months as old winter crops come out and new summer crops go in. “There’s just not the room yet…” declaims the gardener.

Yet somehow that same gardener always finds time to plant out the climbing beans, knowing that they will bear longer and that he will not have to kneel down to pick them if sent back to the garden to gather in whatever the current recipe demands.

P1060799Is it any wonder then that the gardener receives so little sympathy from the cook when her chickens – in their never-ending search for edible greens - reach through the mesh bean fence and eat the developing beans shoots bare to half a metre off the ground?

So the gardener – never one for overt warfare – uses ingenuity to push beans up out of reach of those short-legged chickens. Netting protects them at ground level as they grow to the top of the mesh fence, then bamboo poles stuck vertically in that same fence allow the beans to grow up another metre, greatly increasing the productive capacity of the crop compared to those stumpy dwarfs with their large footprints.

P1060800Finally, as in every year, the cook’s mutterings die down as each new dish of tender beans is brought up to the house in autumn and the overflow is blanched and stored in the freezer for the lean bean times.

I’ve had two tranches of climbing beans this year, and a warm winter is forecast.

I wonder can I make that three before the frosts hit?

Self-sufficiency in a kitchen garden: Part 4

Why this series?

One thing that gardening bequeaths upon the gardener is the sense of the passing of the seasons. While other outdoor jobs may well confer the same benefits, it is the short cycle of a vegetable's life that makes the gardener more conscious than most of the passage of time.


Tip #16: Each new season gives you a chance to correct the mistakes you made last year.

I read somewhere that ‘errors aren’t mistakes until you refuse to correct them’. So fiddle about until you get it right. You can easily clock up experience on twenty or more generations of annual vegetables such as cabbages or capsicums.


Tip #17: Perennials may be slow growing, but they require less work.

P1010902Fruit trees are the natural adjunct to vegetables and herbs in a productive garden. If room is limited, learn to espalier them along walls or fence lines. Once established, they deliver nutritious and tasty treats on an annual basis without the hassle of replanting new crops each season.

P1010885Tip #18: Keep things fun – gardens can provide stress-relief.

Gardens can provide plenty of stress too; there is a certain inexorable pressure to foster and nurture in a garden that never goes away.

Unlike knitting or reading books, you cannot simply lay a garden aside until you feel like dabbling once again.

I suspect such pressures do go away in colder climates than ours, when winter shuts down the garden and gardeners get to hang up their hoes. Around here though, winter crops follow summer crops like night follows day; we garden all year round. So

P1020135Tip #19: Plant some interesting and unusual plants for your own enjoyment.

I’ve got coffee bushes, Manzana and Christmas Bell chillies, Golden Sunrise tomatoes, Triamble pumpkins and Lazy Wife beans, Purple Congo potatoes, asparagus and avocadoes, as well as all the common stuff. Massed displays of sunflowers feed the chooks and delight the eye simultaneously.


Tip #20: Give your friends gifts from the garden, not from the shops.

P1010681Any chance you get to claw back the high costs of water, mulch and seedlings is a step closer to self-sufficiency, saving your cash for other things.

Besides, who can resist an unusual gift of fresh fruit, brown eggs, piquant herbs, colourful flowers, home-made tomato sauce and crisp vegetables?

Remember, lots of folk cook but very few folk grow the ingredients. A gift from the garden is likely to be welcome in most homes.


Late summer harvest

Feb 28th is the last day of the Australian summer, so the demands of harvest must interrupt my dissertation on self-sufficiency as I help the cook process the burgeoning tomato crop.

P1060770There is always a hiatus in the garden at this time of year, as heat and lethargy combine to drag our footsteps as we wait for the first rains of autumn to kick-start the soil and the planting of autumn and winter crops. Sheer weariness has set in, as it always does, as we keep water up to growing plants to bring them through to harvest.

But some things are – magically – blooming, especially the sunflower crop, which is a delight to the eye and a feast for the bees. These ‘Multi-Flora’ sunflowers – with many blooms on the same stem - also make wonderful gifts for visitors and birthday celebrations.

P1060760Fresh basil, red onions and ripe tomatoes combine in tomato salads to offset the on-going cost of water. Lettuce and avocado also combine in green salads, green beans are a common side dish, and late asparagus shoots still pop up to delight the questing cook.

This year our crop of ’Golden Sunrise’ tomatoes is prolific. P1060769This is a variety that was rare enough when I obtained the first seeds from a fellow gardener more than a decade ago. Now they have disappeared altogether from the seed catalogues, and I rejoice that they are still to be found in my garden. Their small 2.5 cm (1”) fruit are low in acidity and less prone to the viral diseases that plague their larger and redder brethren. I pick out the best fruit and carefully scrape out the seeds to carry on their line into future generations.

Self-sufficiency in a kitchen garden: Part 3

Why this series?

It’s a strange fact that growing ones own food is about the least profitable use of one’s time, whilst being the most rewarding.

Tip # 11: Gardening is the single most important step towards a self-sufficient lifestyle

P1060184Running a kitchen garden has real costs: water, mulch, seed and seedlings, compost, irrigation stuff and tools.

Against this red ink on a gardener’s ledger must be pitted savings at the greengrocery, the hardware store and the plant nursery.

One of the hardest lessons I needed to learn as a kitchen gardener was that I didn’t need industrial inputs and retail therapy to sustain the productivity of the garden.

Learn this, and the savings begin. So

Tip # 12: Skip the products – there are no magic bullets or secrets to be purchased.

P1060147Relentless advertising has convinced modern man that someone else has the secret product to cure all of his ills. Of this maddening array of costly inputs the most insidious are those from the chemical companies that support modern agriculture: herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and soluble fertilisers.

I don’t farm commercially, but I can well imagine that it must be almost impossible to produce modern crops on a vast scale to feed the masses without these products. But

Tip #13: On a backyard scale, you should farm organically – it’s cheaper.

P1060028Sometimes – particularly as you begin to improve your soil – you will need help to reverse imbalances in soil pH or deficiencies in soil trace elements. The soil may be depleted of nutrients or its structure may have been destroyed by years of abuse by previous owners. A soil test from an accredited laboratory can be helpful as you break new ground. However

Tip #14: The best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.

P1060031Patrol your patch. Or sit in it and let impressions reach you. There are no gardening mistakes - only experiments. Try stuff out – don’t just pour chemicals onto the problem spots. Healthy soils create healthy plants which feed healthy people. If you are going to add anything to your soil, add a good organic compost; your plants will feed off it for decades. Try not to poison Mother Nature as she gets down to work.

Tip #15: Small amounts of garden produce do make a difference to the weekly shopping bill.

P1060713A fruit tree bearing steadily is something a kitchen gardener can celebrate. It represents one small win in the unending struggle to balance the fiscal books. Keeping the cook out of the grocery store is a mark of a kitchen gardener’s success.

Self-sufficiency in a kitchen garden: Part 2

Why this series?

It’s a complex world.

P1040587Once of the great pleasures of a garden (and there are some unpleasant things) is that it allows you to disconnect from our ‘always-on’ world of mobile phones, computers, Internet, television, traffic and relentless advertising.

You need to keep this small private world simple, so

Tip #6: Buy simple but high quality gardening tools.

P1030377Good tools last a lifetime. A sturdy wheelbarrow is essential. You need not spend-up big on machinery, though a big powerful shredder is my exception to this rule – it’s an essential tool for recycling carbon in your backyard ecosystem.

Chainsaws are also useful for recycling dead branches, especially if you have a wood-fire in winter. P1030344Electric chainsaws are sturdy and always start. Small petrol engines – if used infrequently - are expensive to maintain. Petrol-driven chainsaws, lawn mowers and whipper-snippers cause more frustration and wasted time than just about anything else. So

Tip #7: When the kids have grown up, you don’t need a lawn. Plant it to vegetables. Use the front yard for fruit trees.

No lawn = no lawn mower, and more space in the garden shed. Sure, the grandkids are likely to want to run around outside (do they do that anymore?) but there are plenty of open-spaces and playgrounds in modern suburbia, maintained and watered by others. So,

Tip #8: Eat your landscape.

P1020296Many vegetables and fruit trees are highly decorative. Better a real pear tree with an annual crop than a non-fruiting ornamental one. Espalier fruit trees along the fence line to save space, as you will need to use every bit of room you can find. To this end,

Tip #9: Pull out old plants quickly.

This is particularly true if plants are unhealthy – playing doctor to plants that are in the wrong place or growing in the wrong season wastes your time, which is your most precious resource. They also take up space where something that feeds you could be growing. P1020333Other plants will simply be unsuitable for your climate; we buy more bananas than I can successfully grow, though I am trying to do better at this.

If it’s flowers and birds you want, let your vegetables run to term. They all flower, and while they may lack the spectacular blooms of floral plants, they can also delight the eye and tickle the nose.

So seed-saving is the one useful exception to Tip #9; leaving plants in the ground to run to seed is a time-honoured method of cutting costs in a garden and propagating along rare and adapted local seeds, so

Tip #10: Learn to save your own seed.


Self-sufficiency in a kitchen garden: Part 1


Why this series? Why this subject? Click here 

Back when I was a young single bloke with a head full of dreams and a few dollars in my pocket I purchased John Seymour’s book ‘The complete book of Self-Sufficiency’; life was never the same thereafter.

Looking back over the intervening forty years, I must admit that I was charmed by the drawings and the idealized lifestyle portrayed. It took me decades to realize that self-sufficiency was only for the rich, much like the formula for becoming a millionaire: “Start with $10 million and work your way down from there”

P1010950‘The complete book of Self-Sufficiency’ was written by an Englishman in England. If I needed to drain a field, jug a hare, pluck a pheasant or choose between a horse or a tractor to plough a five-acre plot in the English countryside this book would have been perfect. For a backyard gardener in the fiery climate on the Adelaide Plains in South Australia I had to start from scratch. So

Tip #1: Start soon, because it takes decades to understand your patch of soil and your local climate.

Of course, five acres in the city – where I needed a job to support a growing family –  was never going to happen, even for a dreamer like me. So

Tip #2: Buy your house for the land, not the house upon it.

I did that, and spent another thirty years fixing up the house so that the cook could suffer to live in the place. P1010916But houses can be renovated; if you don’t win some garden soil from the real-estate agent the small self-sufficiency of growing ones own fruit, herbs, eggs and vegetables will be a dream still-born.

Earning a living, studying, raising children, staying married, staying in touch with extended family and friends – these are all things that eat into a gardener’s gardening time. So

Tip #3: If you want to live off a garden, you have to live in it.

P1010876This may well be why so many folks only get gardening when they retire. If you put it off until then, you’ll find yourself surrounded by jobs that require a 35-year-old back, not a 65-year-old one.

But at a more fundamental level, kitchen gardening is a very time-consuming life-style; if watching sport on TV or endless rounds of socializing is what rocks your socks, you’d better stick with the lawn and the white roses.

If you’ve found a patch of garden behind your house that gets full sun and is not invaded by tree roots, then

Tip #4: Buy compost, not stocks and shares

P1010873Enrich and protect your soil: healthy soils produce healthy people. Kitchen gardens will win you small returns in savings at the local shops but big returns in exercise, sunshine, friendships with down-to-earth people (other gardeners), a connection to nature and the satisfaction that only growing your own food can bring.

More next week, I guess…