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?