Citrus – using up all that lovely fruit and spring time action

Our citrus trees have really started to fruit well. It takes a few years for fruiting trees to really get established and ours are kicking into gear well. Suddenly I fell the pressure to be using and sharing all this abundance. Challenge leads to creativity and this year I have had a go a few new recipes.

The big hit has to be the dried oranges.

drying oranges on fire

We received a gift of these in a Christmas hamper last year. I have to admit I was skeptical – myself and the family are not the biggest fans of citrus peel in things like fruit cakes. However – we are total coverts and have now dried enough orange to enjoy the zippy zing all through summer. I am imaging (once lock downs are hopefully a thing of the past) hikes in the mountains and dipping into a scroggan mix  with oranges and chocolate.

We dried the oranges on top of our fire place. They were sliced thinly, placed on top of a cake rake which is raised a bit above the top of the fire place. It took about 2 days to dry completely. I had to be careful that the fire wasn’t so hot that they burnt.

I have had a go at dipping them in chocolate as well  – not master chef stuff but very tasty.

choc oranges

I have also had a go at make limoncello – an Italian vodka based drink. I have since learn that there are vodkas and there are vodkas. If this is not nice it will be a good citrus cleaning agent! It is time for me to go and top up the compost under the citrus now as very soon their buds will burst. Then it will be a chance to dry some citrus flowers – delicious in herbal teas.

limoncello

 

Lovely citrus – how we care for them in our garden

As we tumble in June the citrus trees are starting to provide us with sweet juicy fruit. The early fruit can still be quite tart to taste but the run of frosty weather we have had this year will quickly sweeten the fruit and we will find stopping at 1 mandarin or orange hard.

Blood Orange

This winter our trees are laden with fruit. This was not the case in 2020. The summer of 2019/20 was a tough one as we experienced some long days and nights of extreme heat and the many days of smoke haze from bush fires. The month of February in 2020 was then unseasonably cool and as a result the citrus trees were tricked into an out of season flowering event and therefore fruited out of season as well. So for our last summer of 2020/21 we put a bit of attention on the citrus to help them back into their wonderful fruiting selves.

This included some extra watering, removing all the out of season fruit (which in a double blow was  fruit fly heaven), pruned them back quite a bit and thinned fruit as well. We spread compost around their base and also reapplied the truck bands to stop ant movement. We also made the decision to remove two trees – a pink grapefruit and a lemonade fruit. Removing trees is a hard decision but we were always struggling to eat these and gift them to others. We will plant another navel variety called “karra karra” that has beautiful pink to red, juicy sweet fruit.

The citrus in our garden are pretty low maintenance but there are a couple good maintenance tasks we do regularly. The first is to band the trunks of the trees – at least once a year.  This is great way to stop ant movement up and down the trunks and into the branches.

trunk banding to stop ant movement

remaining evidenc of scale and sooty mould

 

 

 

 

 

If you have sooty mold or scale problems simply banding the trunk will most often resolve these issues without you having to do any spraying. The ants harvest the sweet exudate that the scale insects secrete (which then also feeds the sooty mold) and they protect this product pretty fiercely from the usual scale insect predators. Once ants have their access cut off the other natural predators can come in and clean up. You can buy the sticky glue from local nurseries or on line. The important thing to remember is to protect the tree trunk with some old towel or sheet, then apply tape and then put the sticky glue onto the tape. Citrus trees have thin bark and can be ring barked easily if you are not careful.

Pruning – after the last of the winter weather has passed by and the risk of frosts gone we prune the trees back. We aim to keep the trees to a height that makes harvesting easy. During the summer any rampant growth is also given a cut back. We aim to avoid having fresh growth bursting out that could be hit by frost – sometimes this still happens though and our lime tree had a bit of tip burning in the last week. As long as the trees is strong and healthy it will be OK.

frost damaged tips

Finally the last important care we give is as much consistent watering as possible – particularly in the later autumn when the fruit is really filling and conditions can be dry. This helps losing fruit to splitting, ensures the fruit fills and can be as juicy good as possible.

We do fertiliser the trees with compost in spring and a poultry based nitrogen fertilise. Citrus love nitrogen so being generous with compost and a good handful of poultry pellets is really appreciated by these lovelies.

Green manure crops

Nature does not naturally like bare ground. If you have a quick walk outside you will always find ground that was bare – particularly over the summer –  will have a plant growing on/in it now that there has been rain. Usually we call these plants weeds but those same plants have the incredible ability to grow where other plants can not.

In our vegetable gardens minimising bare ground means you can continue to support the great work of all the critters we can’t see with our eyes. Active, growing plants keep the soil healthy, draw carbon into the soil from our atmosphere (which is brilliant) PLUS when you dig theses plants back into the soil you are adding more organic matter into the soil profile. Nothing but goodness here.

Each year I aim to give at least 1 of our vegetable beds are green manure crop. This year it is part of a bed.

I aim to sown a mix of seeds – the scratch mix we feed our chooks ticks the box for a mix of grains and legumes plus I always add some broad beans.

Seed mix read to sow.

Seed mix read to sow.

The amount of seed doesn't have to be huge. Just enough to get a mass of plant growth. The quantity passes inspection !

The amount of seed doesn’t have to be huge. Just enough to get a mass of plant growth. The quantity passes inspection !

Like any cropping farmers in the southern part of Australia now is the time to sow. There is still some warmth in the soil, plus the magic ingredient of moisture.

Prepare the area that the seed will be sown by gently ’tilling”the soil to create an open soil structure where, once seeds are sown, they will have good contact with the soil.

Garden bed ready for sowing

Garden bed ready for sowing

Once you have scattered the seeds over the area it is important to cover the seeds with soil. This can be simply raking the area or using a garden fork to “tickle”the soil. I also water in the seeds to increase the seed:soil contact.

 

 

 

 

sown seed

In a couple of months when the plants have grown to around 30cm I will cut back the growth then dig everything into the soil. The lush green growth will feed all the soil critters and then summer veg will have a brilliant thriving soil to support them during the summer to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mulching – what to use for mulch and why

When I think of mulching the garden I always think back to an autumn when one of my brothers and I did multiple trips filling the back of the ute with the trash left behind the harvester once the rice was harvested. It was scratchy and awkward work, but we knew how much Mum appreciated the gift of clean mulch. Rice straw was great because it was clean, had few weeds and because of the high silica content broke down very slowly. If only we had a baling implement for the tractor, we might have made some handy pocket money.

Today in our garden I use a variety of mulches. The type of mulch varies depending on the area in the garden I am planning to use it, the ultimate result I am hoping to achieve and also based on what I can get.

Every year I order 2 large round bales of straw which have been baled after harvest (usually a wheat or triticale crop) by a local farmer that he can deliver. I use this in the chook pen to create deep litter in the open pen and under the roost to catch the very moist droppings. This straw is nicely worked over by the chooks doing what they love best plus, when I clean out the chook pen I have virtually got the perfect mix to make hot compost (once all the scraps and straw from under the roost are mixed together). In Autumn I also add lots of large oak leaves to the pen, the chooks also break these into smaller particles. This makes the best base for a great compost.

I use this straw in other parts of the garden where I hope to add some softer organic material that will break down eg: under fruit trees, in the vegetable garden or new garden beds. The issue with this straw is there can be a high weed seed load of annual weeds, so I need to be prepared to keep on top of any weeds coming up.

Mulching under a grape vine with straw mulch to reduce weeds, keep in moisture and encourage worm activity under the top soil layer.

Mulching under a grape vine with straw mulch to reduce weeds, keep in moisture and encourage worm activity under the top soil layer.

Adding thick layers of straw to a  garden once the soil is nice and moist from rain or irrigation will help keep the moisture in the soil profile, can reduce weeds popping up and ultimately feeds the microorganisms in the soil as it begins to break down. This is not compost though so you aren’t adding nutrients – just food for the good soil community!

You do have to keep in mind that straw mulch is highly flammable so avoid using where you think this is an issue in our fire danger periods.

Straw like materials also include pea straw, Lucerne hay and sugar cane trash. All of these will help improve the soil and more importantly fuel the soil microorganism system. There are slight differences between each of the products with Lucrene hay generally container fewer weeds and higher nitrogen levels. Lucerne hay is usually more expensive so using it strategically where you really need an extra boost could be an option.

Mulching with wood chips in the areas dominated by native plants.I add what may be call wood chips or sometimes a forest mulch to the main bulk of our garden. These areas are dominated by native plants and trees. I have added so much of this over the time we have been here that I am starting to  make top soil. The advantages of this material for our garden (in these garden areas) include the much slower rate of decomposition. Loads of various sized woody material (diversity is the key here as this will also result in diversity of tiny critters involved in the decomposing process) plus finer leaf trash that also comes in the loads have help reduce weeds, kept in soil moisture when it has rained and provided endless hours of digger for the beautiful White Browed babblers that live in our garden. I do often feel a bit nervous in summer that we have a fuel load close to the house so am very careful just where I use this mulch.

Finally – given that it is Mulching with autumn leaves under fruit treesAutumn I have to mention how excited I get about the fallen leaves. These are such a gift each year. I love raking them up, putting them onto the garden beds knowing that all that deep goodness from the tree and deeply drawn up nutrients is cycling back to the earth to help the plants again for the next season. The leaves break down really quickly and are like a boost juice for the soil ..yep you guessed it..soil microorganisms (you will be sure to find worms in these piles). they are also free. I have been know to sweep urban streets collecting them.

Mulching also helps give your garden a nice tidy finish at times – a bit like adding a bit of definition. It is a great thing to do just before you display a garden or finish off a new area – maybe a bit like eyeliner?? For more information try the Sustainable Gardening Australia web site here.

Using mulch to help give the garden a complete and tidy look.

Using mulch to help give the garden a complete and tidy look.

 

Luffa – growing your own scrubbing brush

Over 10 years ago I grew a luffa vine. This vigorous climber produced so many fruits that I haven’t grown it since and have been using the dried “sponges”for cleaning dishes ever since. My stock of dried luffa was running low so this last summer I grew it again to replenish the stores.

There are many web sites describing how to grow, dry and prepare the luffa fruit. In our local climate the main tip I would like to offer is around timing of when to sow the seed. I have found that the seed really needs a lot of warmth to successfully germinate and thrive.  The most success I have had with seed sown in the ground is when seed is sown in late November – early December OR germinated in a glass house then planted into warm soil.  I have also created in-situ hot houses by putting an upside down glass vase over the seed to encourage some very localised heat.

Mature luffa fruit ready to harvest

Mature luffa fruit ready to harvest

Once the seed has germinated and beginning to grow the vine will become incredibly vigorous. I tend to tip prune growth that is taking over. This also encourages the plant to set more flowers and therefore more fruit.  Like the pumpkins, squashes, zucchinis  and cucumbers in the garden the flowers open in the morning and close at night. The pollination is aided by bees and other native pollinators.

The cucumber-like fruit I leave on the vine to mature. The fruit looks like it is rotting by it slowly dries until the skin is easily peeled away to reveal the luffa as we know it. Having said this I recently read this article and I will harvest some the fruit early – peel and see what happens.

What I love about growing this plant is the closed loop of growing a product that I use in the house and when it doesn’t work so well anymore can just go into the compost and back to the earth. It’s a thought process I try and apply to many aspects of our lives – what happens when I no longer need this item?

The last dried luffa from my supplies and a recently harvested fruit to dry.

The last dried luffa from my supplies and a recently harvested fruit to dry.

So next summer if you have a spot in the garden that can support a vine perhaps this could be worth trying.

Saving Seed for next summer (beans)

The response by many gardeners – both the old, new, hopeful and optimistic, to the isolation conditions we have been asked to follow, had many interesting flow on affects.  The demand for seeds, seedlings and infrastructure to support food growing at home was very high – to say the least. Seed supply companies have depleted a lot of their stock (which is exciting as so many more households have a go growing food) – however this extraordinary demand for seed does means that there is extra pressure on the current seed growers for future seed supply.

Just quietly, I have a love for saving seed. I don’t buy a lot of seed except when there is a need to try a new variety or I am not happy with the quality of the plants growing from my seed any more. Saving seed gives me the chance to save seed of the plants that have performed well in our garden – given our local conditions. It can take a few years for plants to adapt to your local conditions so it makes sense to keep saving the seed from plants that have the characteristics that suit your own local climate.

I don’t save seed every year from all vegetable plants as I usually have enough for a few seasons worth of growing. The excess seed also goes to the local Seed Savers group (Seed Savers Albury Wodonga) where we swap and share seeds (plus so much gardening know how).

This last summer it was the dwarf bean “Gourmet Delight”that really performed brilliantly. We harvested so many beans – the last collection to place only at the end of this month. The cooling days and evenings have seen the plants start to sulk, so now it is time to collect what ever seed I can for next summer and to share with Seed Savers and friends.

The following is a quick guide to saving bean seeds – for a more information you can’t go past the The Seedsavers Handbook or visit Seed Saver Albury Wodonga’s information sheets.

Collect mature bean pods (the pods will be large, can still be green but the seeds will be changing colour within the pod) and put them in a sheltered location to continue to dry out.

Bean pods drying out before cleaning, freezing then storing for next summer

Bean pods drying out before cleaning, freezing then storing for next summer

Bean dwarf "Gourmet delight". Sown in Dec 2019 and still producing at the end of April 2020

Bean dwarf “Gourmet delight”. Sown in Dec 2019 and still producing at the end of April 2020

 

 

Dry the seeds pods until the seeds are hard and the pods really brittle - they should crumble when you rub them.

Dry the seeds pods until the seeds are hard and the pods really brittle – they should crumble when you rub them.

Once pods are dry the seeds will pop out easily from the pod and should be quite hard. Remove the seeds from the pods, cleaning away the “trash”- the old pods can harbor insect pests so it is always important to remove any of this.

When I am confident the seeds are completely dry (you can test this by trying to push a thumb nail into the seed – you shouldn’t be able to) – I freeze the seeds overnight. This kills off any insect eggs possibly hiding on the seed (Green Vegetable bug is a good one for this).

Once beans are dried and any pod trash cleaned away, store the seeds in a dark and dry location until summe

Once beans are dried and any pod trash cleaned away, store the seeds in a dark and dry location until summer.

You can easily collect plenty of seed for a few seasons to come and to share with many friends and neighbours.

Autumn 2020 – Constraint can sprout creativity

Like everyone we are navigating our new normal. The garden, the season and our wild places continue on their cycles unaware of the human species madly treading water around them.  Thank goodness for these places of calm.

Just like in a garden and in nature when a gap is created new opportunities arise. I love a new gap in the garden and with this open mind set the increased time at home opens up the chance to again share what we do in our garden during the seasons. It has also opened up an opportunity to work with our eldest daughter whose big gap year plans to work and travel screeched to a halt. Bella is helping with some major garden projects and  helping me share with you what happens in the garden (with the help of social media – gulp). I am happy to have her around for as long as possible.

prefered image lou & Bella

When I last  wrote in November 2019 we had bought water for the first time. It didn’t rain after that and once again we really rationalised all the water we used. This meant scaling back food growing in our vegetable gardens, saving any water used inside to keep important plants alive (orchard trees, grape vines shading our north facing pergola and other recently planted young trees). The upside, what I like to think of as creative problem solving included:

  • reassessing where we buy our vegetables from,
  • what we cook and eat weekly,
  • what plants and trees were surviving despite the extreme heat days,
  • how we use our space outside,
  • the infrastructure to support us being able to grow some vegetables (wicking beds folks) and what we needed to change.

Pride is a virtue that is bound to be challenged and the pride of growing a fair proportion of our veg was a badge I definitely wore! Letting go of this was brilliant and offered the chance to subscribe to a weekly veg box from the amazing RADgrowers. Possibly some of the stress of growing great food was transferred to Erin – however the community of subscribers, Erin’s commitment to her growing system and the joy of the weekly box of totally in season veg was liberating. I love it and then another constraint popped up. Cooking only what is in season and in the veg box. We didn’t back down and this was yet another creative opportunity to dive into the many cook books I own. In fact I completely rationalised my cookbooks  to those that really focus on seasonal cooking.

We have in our part of the world had rain and our Autumn has been just delightful. We continue receiving the weekly veg box as we still don’t have full tanks and unlimited water (just like our internet really). What we focus on growing are the veg that are either not so market garden friendly eg peas, beans (which are a pain to pick in volume), carrots (can never have enough of these) and more winter greens – again because we eat a lot of these.

As for the other unleashed creative opportunities, we have planted some more shade trees to our north west of the garden, are paving an area of lawn that never was really lawn and are planning another wicking bed.

So constraints can be opportunities for creativity if we are open to this mind set. It is of course OK to totally freak out for a bit and feel overwhelmed –  but it will pass. Just like the seasons, sun, moon and all those other cycles.

As with any of the writing I have done, I look forward to sharing more.

November 2019 – after the rain came the long dry

Since last writing in 2016 (oh dear) a lot has changed in our landscape. Like most of eastern Australia we have experienced continued dry conditions with summers that have tested everything and everyone.  Compared to many we are lucky in our little part of the world. Around Albury in southern NSW it is definitely dry, but not as desperate as other areas – yet. Many crops have been made into hay or silage. Some farmers are hopeful that some  wheat and oat crops will yield a bit of grain. Water storage levels in dams and tanks vary considerably depending on whether you ended up under a rain cloud. We only have water we catch from our roof. We did buy water for the first time – 30,000 litres. It felt a little like defeat but was also a relief. Our 120,000 litre tank is still a long way from full and we will still be very careful with every drop. It just buys a little more time.

In our garden the extended dry and extreme heat events of the last few summers has resulted in us making many changes to the way we garden. I have  presented a couple of talks on the theme of Gardening in our changing climate as we have to consider how we need to adapt. Gardens, however,  in urban areas, on farms and in peri-urban areas can be vital biodiversity refuges for our local wild life plus providing a host of other positive benefits. At times it can feel very overwhelming but it is in times of constraint that we can often be the most creative. This is an opportunity to really look at how we have been living, how and where we work, what we grow and nurture in our garden and question what changes we need to make so that we can continue to live here.

If this is a journey that sounds familiar to you I would be so curious to learn about your thoughts. If this is sparking some questions and helping you take stock, make a cuppa and see if anything that we are doing might be of help.

Over time I would like to share the changes we have made and how they are holding up.

To come back to the theme of seasonality and the month of November, I am anticipating  the ripening of Mulberry’s. This is a tree that has stood up to the summers, still managed to give us some fruit (and the many foraging birds – some a little less desired) and provided amazing shade during the heat.

I have also enjoyed salad leaves, greens and peas in a vegetable garden that we have scaled back significantly and to only the wicking beds. Summer vege has started to gain strength with the gradually warming weather (or the bursts of heat and snaps of cold which is our spring). I have focused on growing plants we eat a lot of and don’t necessarily get in our veg box from our local market gardener (beans and saucing toms, more salad greens, cuc’s,  zuch’s which we do get in the veg box but we eat A LOT of salad).

To increase water catchment my husband built a shed for all our bikes –  on top of the rain water tank. It looks lovely and has had one rainfall event so far. This is one of the steps we have taken to increase catchment in our tank. There are other actions we have done around the garden that I will elaborate on later.

A multipurpose shed to store bikes, play table tennis in and to catch more water - when it falls.

A multipurpose shed to store bikes, play table tennis in and to catch more water – when it falls.

delivery of water (2 tanks worth) and mulch (15 cubic mts to be distributed around the garden.

Delivery of water (2 tanks worth) and mulch (15 cubic mts to be distributed around the garden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So a beautiful shed and delivery of water, plus a load of mulch were how we started our spring. I look forward to sharing more soon.

 

 

 

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.