After dry comes wet

Wayyyy back in March I wrote with such longing for rain.  It came! It came and fell so generously in southern Australia we had..you guessed it, floods. When I wrote about waiting for rain so I could prepare a new patch I had no idea just how wet this site could and did become.  I have garlic that I am a bit scared to go and look for in long grass. I am so grateful that my clever hubby insisted on raising the garden beds as the water just pooled and pooled.  I will will take a photo and get brave to show you just how the site has progressed.

Meanwhile our gardens around the house have flourished. In our 10 years here this is the best it has looked.  The weeds have got a bit of a head start on me at the moment but I am gradually weeding and mulching to retain what moisture remains and hopefully smoother any future seed source.

Something I did today that was quick, will ensure a great stock for the next 12 months and feels productive was harvest a big bunch of oregano and dill.

fresh oregano and dill

fresh oregano and dill

I like to harvest in the morning after any moisture has dried up and before too much warmth hits. Oregano is a herb I am using more and more.  It flavours so many different dishes including home made cracker biscuits (combined with sesame oil..I would never have thought of that combination). It is that classic pizza flavour and last years jar is almost empty – so time to restock.

I haven’t grown a lot of dill but as summer comes and the thought of jars of pickled cucumbers surface I remembered to grow some this spring. If the dill runs to flower – lucky pollinator insects in the garden and if the plants go to seed – even better, more flavour to pack in a jar with the cucumbers.

I have hung the oregano up on the new clothes drying rack that was VERY well used this winter.  The dill I have just spread out on a tray. If we have a run of warm weather I should have some good dried leaves in about 2 weeks. The most critical (technical) consideration with drying is ensuring it really is dry.  Super crunchy dry. You don’t want any spongy bits lurking as the whole jar will go mouldy and that would not taste good in a cracker.

drying oregano on the clothes drying rack

drying oregano on the clothes drying rack

So back to that weeding and choking down the brave pills to search for the garlic.

 

Scaling up what we grow and summer survival

Like many of you with gardens and farms – I am hanging out for rain and relief from the current late summer weather. It seems amazing that any plants persist with no rain for this amount of time and in the conditions they have been given. Each year plants that don’t survive this type of weather pattern, disappear from our garden and the plants that survive and even look reasonable stay. I am also grateful that we have the ability to store water. This is really important in our garden as we are not connected to town water and don’t have surface dams. It is usually about now that I feel a bit nervous about water use and check the Bureau of Meteorology way too regularly for any sign of rain to refill our tanks. It does mean we don’t have a lush green lawn (it always grows back), we water food plants first, we REALLY value our grey water (this is the patchy green of our lawn!) and new plants must be well established before the summer seasons kick in.

As the intensity of summer disappears the produce from the garden shifts. In our garden this means the much loved Golden peaches, pears and apples start to ripen, tomatoes rush to ripen and fill our freezer and cupboard, the zuchinni looks quite shabby as does the incredibly generous cucumber. I have already harvested a few pumpkins and late beans are shooting for the top of a trellis (good luck).

I have to admit I always get a little excited by now about winter veg. Despite the late heat I have planted the first lot of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, wombok and kales. The warm weather hasn’t held them back at all and we have already had a meal of the Red Russian kale. The key to them looking so good is the shading created by using fruit fly netting.  This has also meant the white cabbage butterfly caterpillar hasn’t been able to attack the leaves.  I found one and it didn’t stay for long!

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Winter veg nicely tucked up under fruit fly netting.

I will be planting 3 successions of winter crops with the aim of putting in the last planting before May. All going well I hope to be eating some of the February plantings before then.

I am scaling up this year as our family eat a lot of vegetables.  To achieve this scaling up I have been given access to a patch of dirt on my parent -in -laws.  This will mean more garlic, carrots, beetroot, parsnips and cauliflowers. The patch is still very hard dirt at the moment waiting some rain and a deep rip. I have spread lime and gypsum and after deep ripping initially the 10X15mt site will become a productive market garden style patch! The most important aspect of this site is access to water.  At our home site we don’t have access to dams.  Even though this will be winter vegetables which will require little watering they still require it now in the establishment phase.

So I hope you might enjoy following the development of this patch as it goes from a grassy patch to a productive haven.

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Camp dam garden waiting to be prepared.

Did adding biochar work on the onions?

It happens, just gardening and living your life is easier to do than write about the garden happenings (for me that is). However, I do love a good New Year’s Resolution and sharing what has and hasn’t worked in the garden is something I am going to work on being more consistent with.  Given the last thing I wrote about was adding biochar to where I was planting onions it seems fitting to report back on what I thought about it.

I am happy to admit that growing onions at our home hasn’t been hugely successful in years past.  The 2015 crop was a huge improvement on the 2014 crop (it may have been only 3 poor little onions so you can tell that an improvement was very achieveable).  The hiccup has been my stubbornness to grow our onions from seed.  This always takes a long time in the middle of winter and the seeds have so often had very poor germination success. So last year I spread the risk and bought beautiful, uniform, upright, healthy onion seedlings – plus sowed seed. The purchased seedlings were a joy to plant, my seedlings less so (and what are the odds – seed raising success this time around!!).  The seedlings were planted into the prepared ground that had the biochar mixture added to it.

The result :

Some of 2014 onion harvest. a mix of red and white/brown onions.

Some of 2014 onion harvest. a mix of red and white/brown onions.

You know that this was  improvement!  You can see that there is quite a bit of variation in the sizes.  We have eaten many a number of the onions already. So did the biochar help?  The soil that these plants grew in is terrible.  These onions I do think were helped by adding the biochar.  Generally the soil they were in doesn’t retain water at all, can be hydrophobic (where the water just runs off it) and any sign of added organic matter such as compost and mulch disappears very quickly.  There was an improvement in all these areas.  The size variation is also due to trying a mix of planting onions in clusters verses individuals.  For our site I will keep the plants as individuals (some commercial growers often plants in sets of 3-4).

So – I will continue to add biochar to new beds over the coming seasons. I will also aim to improve on the 2015 onion crop (I think I will propagate the seed much earlier in the season) and I STILL have plenty of biochar in the shed.

Happy Summer harvesting.

Biochar in the Garden

To garden is to constantly learn something new I feel.  I recently flicked through some old copies of the Organic Gardener Magazine and re read an article by Peter Cundall on using biochar in the garden (Issue Mar/Apr 2015).  I have also noticed that this is a product being sold by nursery and garden businesses. What struck me was the way Peter was using it to add and supply nutrients to his vegetables (in the articles case cauliflowers).  The charcoal is like a sponge that can absorb moisture and fertiliser to then leach or release slowly into the soil profile and therefore to plants.  The coal itself has no real nutrient value  – it’s importance is in it’s ability to hold minerals and nutrients.

So, after a family hike up the hill behind our home where we discovered a very large pile of charcoal I decide to give this a go.  To buy biochar is quite expensive, I figure a 30 minute work out to collect several large buckets of charcoal was a bargain! The large chucks of charcoal need to be pulverised to a finer crumble – you can do this easily enough with a block splitter dropped onto the coal in a bucket.

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charcoal partially pulverised in the bucket

 

 

 

 

 

 

For this batch of biochar I was wanting to add it to the onion patch I was about to plant. So to the bucket I added worm juice, some dolomite lime and some seaweed extract.  I mixed it all together and then poured over the prepared garden bed.  I mixed the top part of the soil with the biochar and time will tell how the experiment goes!

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the biochar brew reader to go onto the onion bed

Another  batch I added it to the soil blocks I made for the seedlings.  I was thinking this might mimic the use of slow release fertilizer.

Peter Cundall had also added compost/coco -peat, pelleted manure and some micro nutrients specifically for what he was wanting to grow (cauliflower) then added a handful to each planting hole for the cauliflowers he was growing.  I feel you could create the mix you want for the different plant groups.  I will continue to play with this as I have a good supply in the shed!

It is worth noting that ash from your fire place is different to the charcoal. The ash can be used in your garden as well but can be quite concentrated and alkaline.  Spread it very finely over the garden or read this wonderful writers suggestions for other uses.

August means preparing for the summer for me

Two years ago I took the plunge to attend a fantastic, intense 3 days of learning all about Market Gardening. Milkwood Permaculture co-ordinated the workshop and the generous, accumulated knowledge and expertise of Joyce Wilkie and Michael Plane of Allsun Farm was nothing sort of inspiring for me.  There were so many take home messages from those 3 days that have shaped a lot of approaches I now take with our home garden.  I do still dream of the CSA –  like business …maybe in the future?

So why do I think August means preparing for summer? I am not necessarily frantically working outside just yet but I have already planned what vegetables I will grow over the summer, where I will grow, how many I plan to grow and the varieties. I have also got as much hot compost brewing as possible to feed these new plants. Importantly I have also begun sowing seeds of plants for this summer. This preparation I use to do a bit vaguely – now I plan it like a professional and also grow like the market gardeners that have inspired me. This change has been very influenced by my experience from the workshop and has resulted in greater food production from our garden.

To begin with I use soil blocks for growing seedlings in

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soil blocks ready to sow seed into

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beetroot seedlings jumping out of the soil blocks

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soils blocks require the right mix of ingredients, just enough water to hold together and of course the right bit of equipment to form the blocks with.  It took a few goes to get the mix proportions right – however it was a more forgiving process than baking a cake!  There are a few mix options by different soil block makers or users. The mix I used here was:

2 parts compost (sieve your finished hot compost)

1 part worm castings (again sieved..the odd worm will sacrifice themselves though)

2 parts cocopeat or coconut coir (ensure it has been rehydrated well in advance and if you can rinse a couple of times before using)

1 part fine sand

So August is still cold, the promise of the change to come will leap in before we know and I am prepared!

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ingredients ready to mix

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water to add and soil blocker ready to use

Outside fire pits for wintery outdoor gatherings

July can be cold in our parts.  If the days are bright and sunny (which they often are following a frost) working outside can be fantastic.  To encourage staying outside a fire can definitely help.

We did some serious re-assessing of our some of the early landscaping and planting originally put in when establishing our garden.  When we are in the height of summer the potential threat of fire is often at the front of our minds.  Some of the beautiful shrubs we planted on the north western edge of the house were just too close to the house should we get a fast furious fire coming through.  It was watching some very sobering footage of the Canberra fires at a RFS (Rural Fire Service) workshop that really drove this point home. So – before last summer we removed them from where they were.  A lovely Permaculture philosophy that is well explained here is seeing a problem as a solution – we love being outside and particularly enjoy sitting around a fire when having friends and family to visit. So this new space has become – ironically – a beautiful fire pit.

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It has been a lot of hard work to build the brick walk and the fire pit itself weighs over 300kg. The end result though has been worth the effort.

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300kgs of heavy metal!We sourced the fire pit from a local quarry – it was part of the large mechanism used to crush rock.

A slow and very carefully built retaining wall also acts as seating for around the fire pit.

The retaining wall is complete and the fire pit ready to move into place.

The retaining wall is complete and the fire pit ready to move into place.

5 inutes of nail biting for ma watching 4 strong fellas gently guide the fire pit into it's final resting place.

A nail biting 5 minutes for me watching 4 strong fellas gently guiding the fire pit into it’s final resting place.

There is something very relaxing and calming about sitting around a fire. We really enjoy this way of entertaining.  This space has already changed how we use our garden and we look forward to many evenings around the fire.  I also look forward to feeling just that bit more relaxed about pushing the garden a bit further away from the house should a fire come through.

June Gardening

Today winter hit our garden

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Orange Fruit nearly ready to harvest.

As a rule I don’t like to think of our seasons in Australia as aligning with the tradition of Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring.  However June 2nd, today, is definitely Winter for me! We are on a north facing slope and don’t often get the frosts and chill that occur lower down. Today, however, just as the weather report suggested WE had the isolated frost. Hubby rode to work and vouched for this as the usually frost pockets we are most use to were, in-fact warmer than our patch toady.

So do frosts affect our gardens and plants and are they all bad?  Our winter fruit and veg can tolerate very low temperatures and compared to the northern hemisphere, really, our winters are quite mild.  The citrus trees, which are starting to carry mature fruit, can be killed in extreme frost and snow. Mature trees in our inland climate (not the mountains or high country) will tolerate the frosts  and can sweeten the fruit.  I sprayed the citrus leaves with Seasol on the weekend, the trees can benefit from some “tonic” as the cold soils lock up available nitrogen.

Citrus are heavy feeding fruit trees and very generous fruiters so looking after them pays off.  If you want to plant citrus wait until spring once the soil warms up and frosts have virtually gone.  Nurseries generally don’t stock them until spring anyway. There a numerous varieties available and cultivars that are suitable for pots as well.

The obvious winter vegetables of the cabbage family (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale and Asian greens) will be producing their edible flowers (that is what we eat!) parts now.

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Broccoli leaf with frost

You could still plant some seedlings for spring eating this month – however I personally think May should be the latest date for planting as the plants don’t grow a lot over the colder months.  They can quickly bolt once warm weather creeps in in August.  Frosts on mature plants shouldn’t damage them – if however you had any exposed potato plants still in the ground they will be burnt very quickly – time to dig the tubers out of the ground!

Autumnal SeasonalFruit

Ripening quinces, for me, definitely mark the arrival of serious autumn weather moving into the cold snaps of winter.  It is not a fruit you can chomp into.  It does required peeling and cooking.  The joy is the flavour and colour you get from the cooking process.  I usually cook up as much as I can, freeze it then make quince paste and jelly when colder winter days arrive.

I love quinceit as a crumble base mixed with rhubarb and apples.  I have a couple of cake recipes I am yet to try. It is, however, quince paste that is the decadent end product I most love.  After some experimenting I now make the paste using the microwave – gradually getting the paste drier until it is really thick and sticky.  I also don’t make it as a sliceable jelly as I find that too hard to spread.  I like it more as a thick spreadable paste.

Quince trees are very hardy. They are related to apples but handle our inland temperate climate much more easily.  Often you see old trees in odd places where perhaps a house use to stand. The tree is also one of the first fruit trees to flower in very early spring.  Again here the tree is so giving. The delicate and fragrant flowers bring a smile and the hope of warm spring weather.netted pomme fruit

If you want to plant a quince tree now is the time of year to find a supplier.  You are best to plant the tree as bare rooted in winter.  There are a few varieties to select from and your local supplier will give you advice on which to choose for your area.  Mine is “Champion” and I like the size and shape of fruit that it produces.  I grow it as an espaliered tree next to pears and apples.  This makes it easy to net to keep out birds and fruit fly. I also have the trees in an orchard where our chooks free range.  This means that codling moth – a major problem for apples, pear and quince is not an issue.  One tree is enough for our family and to supply us , friends and the local food swap with quince paste until next year.

Have a look around your neighbourhood, you might find some fruit free to pick. Cook it up and enjoy the autumn and winter joy to come.

Preparing for winter veg as summer winds down

March is nearly coming to a close and the summer intensity of our vegetable garden is moving into the next phase. I love our winter vegetable garden.  A really productive winter garden, I have learnt, means a busy time right now.  I actually start winter vegetable preparation in February by propagating seeds of broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale and silverbeet.  This does seem ridiculous at the time but I am already admiring the strong healthy growth of these plants in such a short time that I feel encouraged to find those winter slow cooked recipes right now!

Winter veg seedlings ready for planting

Winter veg seedlings ready for planting

I have now done a second planting into another bed of 2 different Kale varieties (dwarf Siberian and Red Russian), more broccoli, wombok and cauliflower.  I will sow seed in the next couple of days for a third and final planting of a similar mix of varieties.  The monthly plantings will mature at different times and keep us rich in greens for the next six months.

Growing these winter greens on a large scale commercially has the challenge that I also face of the caterpillar of White Cabbage Moth.  Controlling this very hungry caterpillar on a large scale requires regular spraying whilst the weather remains warm.  Cool weather will see the moth numbers drop off quickly but getting your plants to grow and mature before the caterpillar has eaten all the leaves is a race.

The same seedlings a month later and under netting.

The same seedlings a month later and under netting.

 

I personally use bird netting over the beds as soon as the plants go in.  Provided the netting isn’t touching any leaves the moth can’t land and lay eggs,  thus stopping the cycle of egg to caterpillar.  I also check daily for any sneaky caterpillars – they are so well camouflaged – any collected caterpillars go to the chooks.  The netting will come off in a month or so when the moth numbers have lessened or gone and plants are larger and stronger.

I really appreciate that I can harvest all these winter greens from our garden without having to think about what spraying needed to happen.  These super foods are easy to grow in our temperate climate of southern Australia and don’t take up as much space as some of summer’s bigger cropping plants.  Time to get those next seeds in for April planting.

 

Green vegetable bug and Crop rotation

I last wrote with great delight about our magnificent early tomatoes. Sadly pride comes before a fall and that same crop has suffered so badly from Green vegetable bug damage that I have turned the water off!

Green vegetable bug is a sap sucking insect. They feed on a number of plants and in the great reference book “What Garden pest or disease is that” Judy McMaugh these include pumpkins, capsicums, potatoes, spinach, oranges, peas, passionfruit, beans and tomatoes (plus other garden plants). Yikes – that is a decent list for a little green bug.

vegetable-bug

Various stages of green vegetable bug maturity

This beautiful image painted by E.H Zech for the NSW Department of Agriculture  shows what the bug and eggs look like at various stages of maturity.

So what am I going to do? Well this is a bug that doesn’t have a a quick fix solution and according to DPI literature is a difficult bug to control. Fortunately it appears efforts have been made to find biological controls but I am not seeing these in our crop.  In fact, I have the bug nicely trapped under the fruit fly netting at present.  So, I will firstly aim to trap them in there and not allow escapes to feed on other crops not netted. The life cycle of egg to adult is around 8 weeks – once our tomatoes have died under the net I will look at knocking the crop to the ground and solarising the whole lot under black plastic.  The aim will be to kill off any maturing or adult bugs and existing eggs.  I will keep you posted.

What I should have done much earlier in the season was put on the fruit fly netting.  I delayed the netting as our fruit fly population has been managed well in recent years.  Not so the Green Veg bug!

This leads nicely into the topic of crop rotation.  Whenever Seed Savers run workshops or I have presented at other workshops crop rotation regularly comes up as an area many would like to know more about.  The above insect problem gives a great example of one of the number of reasons why not planting the same crop or plant family in that location each season is important .  I say season because in our southern NSW climate we can grow crops (seasonally appropriate) in the same ground year round.  So after the tomatoes I will grow a green manure crop (probably grass family – over the winter) that is not favoured by green vegetable bug and then a summer crop also not favoured by this bug – say Asian greens and herbs or a root crop of beetroot, carrots and onions.

Generally the main aim of crop rotation is to reduce build of pests and diseases and to allow the building of great soil life to benefit subsequent crops.

As a starting point get to know your plant families that most of the vegetable belong to. Also get to know the growing needs for of each of these groups. This information can be readily found in books such as the Seed Savers Manual.  A couple of the main families are:

Solanaceae Family (hungry crops for nutrients)– tomatoes, capsicums, eggplants, potatoes

Brassiacaceae Family(lots of nitrogen) – broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage, radish, mustards, rocket

Fabaceae (can proved valuable nitrogen)– beans, peas

Cucurbitaceae (hungry feeders and need lots of water)– cucumber, pumpkins, squash, melons

Apidaceae(don’t like much nitrogen and like milder conditions) – carrots, celery, parsley

Liliaceae – onions, leek, garlic

Asteraceae – lettuce, artichoke, dandelion.

You can start to see the potential for a pattern to emerge for planting different crops before or after each other.  As a general guide you may try something like this;

ROOT CROP (carrots, parsnip & beetroot)

LEGUME CROP (peas, beans)

LEAFY CROP (broccoli, kale, cauliflower) add some well decomposed compost then

FRUITING CROP of tomatoes.

You could simply group plants together by the characteristic of how they group eg all root crops.  I have been moving away from this as I refine what I grow. For example, I now have all the tomatoes, potatoes, capsicums ect growing together as they grow in the same season and all tend have the same needs.  So far I am happy with this plan.

Crop rotation does require planning and a bit of shuffling around with what can go where and when.  I enjoy this planning and thinking but can appreciate the headache it can give others.  In this case I have suggested that don’t stress about crop rotations until you see some evidence of something not going well in your garden. Alternatively – when I started down this path I simply aimed to just make sure my tomatoes didn’t grow in the same spot season after season.  This is still the group of plants from which I begin planning rations for summer planting.

Great detailed references for rotating crops can be found in books such as previously mentioned “The NEW Organic grower” by Elliot Coleman, “The Market Gardener” by Jean Martin Fortier and many other organic gardening books and magazines.

My main advice is start with learning about the plant families and the plant needs in those groups.  This will help you establish your own planning, planting, green manure cropping and adding compost plan to suit your garden and your space.