Sunday, February 19, 2017

How to make soil and compost with no work

When it comes down to it, I am either lazy or clever….. probably lazy! As well as that, unlike many people, I don’t like buying things much, especially if they are in plastic bags and come from far away or if I have to get in my car to go and get them. I like staying at home and using what is around me which means I also like to sit on my verandah with a coffee and think about how not to have to go out, but still have things I need!

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I like sowing seeds I have saved and I often need to have plants in pots for a while until there is room in the garden and I like compost; I just LOVE the feel and smell of beautiful compost. All this means I need something to put into my seed trays, something to put in my pots and something to dig into the garden….. and here is how it gets done at my place.

My chooks live in a kind of man made forest….. well, some of it is man made intentionally, some of it is a consequence of people living here. Some years ago someone planted two oak trees and a few fruit trees, all very much too close to one another, if you ask me, but they were there so I left them there when I moved here. Someone crazily planted 2 buddleias, which are now massive, one of which the chooks have chosen to roost in at night, instead of in the funny little tin and apple crate structure which they now lay eggs in, mostly. Then, unintentionally some mallow “tree” seeds probably blew in and a few wild plum trees grew on the neighbour’s side of the fence and some other weeds and plants got a hold and now it is quite a lovely forest for chooks. Add to this a lazy woman who throws most of the weeds from the vegetable garden and elsewhere, into the chook yard for them to deal with.

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Next, the oak trees lose their leaves in winter and half the chook yard becomes literally 30cms or more deep in oak leaves. I keep tossing weeds on top, the mallow sheds its leaves too as do the  fruit trees, the other plants come and go and for months and months the chooks turn it all over, pecking at insects and edible bits and pieces, which they turn into eggs for me. Sometimes I can hardly open the gate because the chooks ALWAYS kick and scratch everything towards the gate! Oh lalalala, maybe the gate faces Mecca or something but I tell you what they NEVER kick it away from the gate!

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So, one day when I was again in there with my spade trying to reclaim my desire to easily enter the chook yard through said gate I noticed how fabulous was this mound, how good it smelt and, kneeling down, how beautiful it felt running through my fingers…. I had discovered gold; a free, easy, continuous supply of beautiful, rich soil, hand made by a flock of assorted chooks of all ages who had been throwing it towards me for years and for which I had cursed them up until this moment.

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All set to sift some gold for seed sowing
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Now I have raked the area and the chooks are back to see what I have revealed for them!
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4 buckets filled. The back right is sifted.
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Here are the buckets, now by my potting bench which is next to the chook yard. All very convenient.

Now I can easily gather up a wheelbarrow of soil, which I sift well if I am going to sow seeds into it. If I want it as compost for the garden, I dig it in, acorns, little sticks and all (but I do curse those innocent acorns when they turn into oak trees faster than a speeding bullet!). If I want potting mix, I take the middle ground (like Goldilocks) and use the stuff that is not too fine and not too coarse and sometimes I mix it with some cheap potting mix from some of those wretched plastic bags I hate!

It does take some management because you have to get at it before the next lot of leaves fall and not just after you have dumped a load of the world’s worst weeds on top! Sure, a few grass seeds etc germinate but chooks have very beady eyes and do not let many seeds go uneaten!

All in all it is a brilliant system and allows me more time to sit on my verandah and contemplate other ways to avoid going out and buying stuff.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

February 2017 Kitchen Garden Guide

It has been a blustery summer thus far and many days that I intended to garden were instead spent visiting friends, painting my bedroom or cooking up a storm in my kitchen. Nevertheless I have enjoyed myself and my food garden is in pretty good shape.

 

Pear and cherry slug

If you see tiny little black ‘worms’ on the leaves of your pears, cherries, quinces and even plums and the leaves are turning brown and crisp, you have this slug. A simple control is to spray the entire tree with a mist of water then throw ash or lime all over it. Do this a couple of times and they will be desiccated. Try to stand up-wind!

 

Managing wind

Tomatoes: I have not tied up my tomatoes as they do not like wild wind ripping through their foliage. My tomatoes and lying all over the thick hay mulch and producing lots of fruit. There are several myths about tomatoes. Here are the facts: First, they are self-pollinated so do not need bees. Slight air movement is all they require and there is plenty of that! Second, the tomatoes themselves do not need the sun to ripen; they simply need warm air temperature. Mine are ripening beautifully and I am eating even the quite large Black Krim already. Third, you don’t need to bother pricking out the laterals but you can if you want more order. Fourth, if you pick them when they just begin to colour, take them inside to somewhere warm but there’s no need to put them on a sunny windowsill.

Fruit trees: Quince fruit seems to stay on despite summer wind, as do plums, apples, olives and Kentish cherries. Contrary to what you hear, citrus also seem to thrive on my verandah and in my garden despite the wind. Young trees bearing fruit will snap off in the wind so staking is necessary. I espalier my Bramley apple as the fruit are way too big and prolific for the branches. This means that the trellis takes the weight of the fruit and far fewer seem to drop off. If you live in a very windy area, I recommend you espalier the perimeter of your garden with fruit trees, all the way around. Actually this is a wonderful, practical and beautiful way to grow fruit and is common in many English and French gardens. You can find any number of shapes and patterns online.

 

Interesting snippets:

Strawberries: Did you know that strawberries require bees to visit the flowers several times for full pollination to happen? If you have mis-shapen fruit, the reason can be that bees are not visiting enough. I suggest you plant some other bee attracting flowers nearby, or leave some things to flower and go to seed, such as fennel, globe artichokes or chicory, all of which are magnets for bees.

Sage: This deep hay method has resulted in a vast improvement of many of my herbs. Unexpectedly I have discovered a fabulous way to multiply sage plants, simply by piling damp hay over some of the long sage stems and leaving it alone! This is called layering and came about because I am a lazy gardener. I now have a small forest of my favourite, purple sage. If you don’t cook much with sage, you must start! The flavour holds well so is wonderful in slow cooking or even on the BBQ as crisp sage leaves are gorgeous. Chopped and fried in a little butter or good olive oil, then folded into pasta is a quick and easy and totally delicious meal. Put a sage leave in the pot when you are cooking rice. If you have trouble growing basil, grow sage!

 

Hay time

Our Tasmanian soil was never meant to grow vegetables so the things we add to it and do to it cause changes that are not well documented, here at the bottom of the world. Imagine a forest floor, deep in leaf litter, old, fallen trees and tree ferns and dappled light….. now picture a cleared vegetable garden bed in full sun. Hmmmm how can we encourage the soil life, microbes and worms that once did live in our forested soil, to live there again and help make nutrients available to our vegetables?

The answer is deep hay, at least 20cms thick, all year round. I have written about this now for well over a year and, since now is the time to buy hay, I have some tips for you. Hay ain’t hay! Hay is made up of all the plants in a paddock so, watch out for cheap hay full of thistles, dock and gorse. You will curse buying it for 7 years while the weed seeds torment you and you will blame me for suggesting it!! Ask the farmer about the hay. Look at the hay, look at the weeds growing in the ditches nearby and don’t buy hay from a farmer that cannot answer your questions or a farm surrounded with thistles and bad weeds. And don’t buy hay from a farmer that uses chemicals as they also will be in the hay and end up in your vegetables. I can direct you to where I get hay. Email me at katevag@gmail.com

 

Zucchinis, berries and more

If you need some recipes, check out Gardeners’ Gastronomy blog.

 

Seeds to sow now

Broccoli raab

Kale

Beetroot

Shungiku

Lettuce

Asian greens (late Feb.)

Carrots

Spinach & silver beet

Spring onions

Hakurei turnips

Tas. swedes

Parsnips

Radishes

Plant out now, yes now, or before!

Brussel sprouts

Cauliflower

Broccoli – regular, sprouting and raab

Lettuce

Jobs for February

Plant or move citrus

Summer prune stone fruits

Prepare beds for autumn plantings

Save seeds for next spring

Give pots and the veg. garden some seaweed and fish liquid feed in a hosable spray.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Seeds that made me smile

Today was one of our regular Southern Food Gardeners get togethers. I was determined to put my best foot forward and take some things to showcase my garden, which I could also share with others.

My garden is a rabble of nationalities combining anything that will grow at 43 degrees south, with Japanese mizuna alongside Italian parsley edged with a border of young Tasmanian pepperberries and Chilean guavas. As I wandered around during the previous week, standing and watering or weeding, I noticed that several of the vegetables that I had let go to seed months ago in fact had seeds approaching dry enough to collect. So, that was it, I would take a fine collection of seeds from the edible world, to share.

This morning, as I clipped twigs of kale pods, strings of rainbow chard clusters, umbels of parsnip seeds and literally tree branches of purple sprouting broccoli pods I was in heaven. The basket I took out to put them in was not big enough and soon I had 2 boxes and a huge plastic bag full of future food for all who wanted them.

I had intended to shake off all the seeds, winnow them and put them into lots of little, labeled bags but, for one thing, I am far too lazy and secondly I had an idea! These days everyone buys seeds in fancy packets with photos but many people have no idea what the seeds look like on the plants so I would take them unshelled; in the raw, so to speak.

When it was my turn to say my piece at the meeting, I told them that this seed experience was like the difference between buying salad greens in a plastic bag from a supermarket, compared to picking it leaf by leaf from your garden. Then I let them at it and I watched on, answering questions along the way.

The first person approached the sharing table with a coffee in one hand and attempted to wrestle a kale pod off a stem with one hand. Of course this did not work and the seeds spilled out of the pod as it sprung open. I wanted to help but another person went over and called out to me that this method did not work and that next time I should put them in bags for them.

Luckily all the naysayers soon dispersed, leaving my seed experience for others. Someone asked if I could come and help as they were new to seeds and were not sure what to do. It was then that we had a wonderful time, me snipping pods and twigs and umbels with my secateurs and placing them into paper bags that the members were busy writing on. We were really focused on the job and talked about sowing methods, varieties and recipes. We all had a ball.

For the first time in absolute years I felt I was connecting people to seeds and bringing a sense of understanding of the importance and relevance of seed saving to people, some of whom have never grown anything from seed before.

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Hopefully, when we meet next, some will have these vegetables growing from the seeds from my garden, in their gardens…..

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Monday, November 14, 2016

It all started with a surprise head of broccoli….

It has been a long and extraordinarily wet winter and spring but some plants seem to have outdone themselves whilst I was inside by the fire. Yesterday, between showers, I went to a corner of the garden to check on some purple sprouting broccoli I planted months ago and I found a head of the most gorgeous broccoli I have ever seen, and not a sprouting broccoli in sight!

purple broccoli head

I moved on to the rainbow chard and picked as many leaves as would fit in my biggest basket.

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I stripped off all the stems, oooh-ing and aaahh-ing over the crisp, wet leaves, the brilliant colours of the stems and the total lack of snail holes. Everything was chilled and glistening from the rain. Imagine how healthy I felt eating that!

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Then this afternoon I went again to see the beautiful, purple broccoli head, this time taking my camera. Then I continued on around my garden in some rare rays of late afternoon sunshine, capturing the glory of a spring which has appeared despite all the rain…..

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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Facebook, winter and my brushcutter; some revelations

I have an urge to write something, to dig deep in my head and bring out a cauldron of words which will fill the page with insight and life. Facebook saps blogs; it brings quick snippets for comment, it brings reaction and information but it is not the forum for literary endeavour or wistful dissertations. Facebook is addictive as you scroll through the list, clicking now and again on interesting headlines whereas blogs, both the writing and reading, require dedication to time and concentration. Both are excellent and far outweigh newspapers and diaries. But there is more…..

Humans are group animals; thriving on interaction and connection. Does it matter if we interact more with people online than face to face? The people I interact with online are mostly people I know anyway, with maybe 10 or 15% being people I have never actually met. What I love is that I am in contact with old school friends and some of my distant, Adelaide friends as well as those who live in my area. I don’t read about their pets or the minutia of their lives, I read what they share in the way of thoughts, links to what interests them and, in one case, the photos of parts of South Australia that I miss. Mostly I read information from sources I subscribe to; faceless but meaningful.

Twice now someone has come up to me at my market stall and told me they are so-and-so, usually not a real name but rather an online, quirky name,  and that we are friends on facebook. Instantly we are connected then, in real life. Those people probably know who I am more deeply than many of my broader, non-facebook-using friends! It has become a habit not to bang on to friends and relations about food and the environment too much in real life but I love the liberty I have to do so on facebook!

It has been a very wet, grey winter, making the temperature seem colder than its degrees. I have done very little gardening for a couple of months but yesterday, after a few dry and windy days, I deemed it the right time to get out with my brushcutter and tidy things up. I felt fabulous, as I noisily dealt with grassy paths and broader swathes, decked out in all the safety gear. I love my brushcutter and am grateful to the local small-engines mechanic who recommended this one for me as I see many women either struggling with machines that are meant for hefty men or fiddling about with machines that are pathetic and flimsy. Then it was time to do a bit of pruning and trimming, breaking up any dead sticks to use as kindling and putting them in a wire basket by the door.

My affinity with everything outdoors far exceeds my desire to socialise with people and I realised that this winter, apart from the odd walk and dashing to and fro to my car, I have used facebook as a substitute for the outdoors! This is because so much of what I read and write about on facebook is related to the environment so, rather than being a substitute for real-life people, facebook this winter has been a substitute for outside. It makes a poor substitute for that as my revelry with my brushcutter yesterday was way beyond the norm!

The sun and breeze on my face, the magnificent Tasmanian sky, the sounds of the birds, the feel of the soil and taste and smell of the plants, the sky filled with stars, the rising moon; these are my special friends, always there. Facebook cannot bring the peace I feel when I am outside, even when I am connected to my noisy brushcutter!

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Friday, June 3, 2016

The Chicken Feed Dilemma

I have been recently thinking about animal feed; for chooks in particular but all farm animals, in the bigger picture. Let’s think about my situation where I have 6 chooks, for eggs. Every morning I give them 2 cups of mixed grain, Australian grown, then in the afternoon I give them more grain, this time organic, Australian feed wheat (ie complete with some chaff and unwinnowed). This make about 3 cups of grain / day and keeps me in eggs all year round, plus I have plenty to give away to son Hugh and even a friend or two, at times.

Using our agricultural land to grow food for animals is worth thinking about carefully, when there are people without enough food, land cleared means native habitat destroyed and then there are the fertilisers, machinery and fossil fuels used to grow, harvest, package and transport it all.

I am feeding grain to 6 chooks and getting eggs, so I think that is a good use for 3 cups of grain / day. However, what about when my chooks get older and are no longer laying? Is it right, on all levels, to keep feeding them? Multiply that by the number of people who have chooks just in Tasmania and we can see that tonnes of grain would be going to old chooks (never mind to old horses and donkeys and alpacas and goats and so on).

Most people stop at the edge of thinking and say “Oh I don’t kill anything and my chooks can live for as long as they like (and therefore I am humane and a nice person).” However, just think about this in relation to native animal and plant survival, CO2 production, fossil fuel usage and a myriad of other, deeper concerns.

Is it ok for you to be “kind” but at the same time be killing wildlife somewhere else, where your chook grain comes from? Is it ok to be “humane” but at the same time be adding to climate change, peak oil, mining and transport problems?

I don’t think we can continue to stop thinking at our property boundary. I think that is precisely how we got into this climate change and earth destruction dilemma in the first place; putting our personal desires before the good of the whole. It may sound harsh to some, but it is far more humane, nice and kind to put old chooks into the stock pot or even into the compost heap.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The hose and the skein of autumn

Autumn is that season when we may have the last of our summer vegetables still ripening while the nuts are starting to fall, but, as the days shorten and cool, the first of the new season’s leaves are emerging too. It is a glorious season for the home gardener and one I think a lot of people let slip by, unappreciated.

Life is like a skein of wool; keep it whole and you remain cosy and protected. The more you unravel it, the more you have to deal with the consequences but also the more opportunities it reveals. And so it is with the food garden in autumn!

I find the hurly burly of the spring garden stressful. I never seem to get ahead. Christmas looms, in a flash the grass is as high as an elephant's eye and seeds need to be constantly sown and seedlings tended to ensure a long summer vegetable harvest.

As I stand with the hose this dry autumn day, I am relaxed. Dew makes everything look fresh, flashes of red of the last of the tiny, wild strawberries and regular ones too are dotted about, enticing the gardener to wander further, nibbling here and there as I water. Fully ripe, the deep red, delicious, Chilean guava fruits are so abundant that I put the hose down in order to gorge on them before moving on.

I am careful not to stand on any self-sown chicory plants which colour the paths with their brilliant greens, reds and various markings, all of which are being constantly and gently harvested to add to my salads. Soon, their bitterness will recede with the cold of winter and larger leaves can be picked. Chicories are the beauty queens of the winter garden in Europe but are vastly under-valued here, despite my almost daily exclamations of delight to whoever will listen! I especially love the French “endive” (also called witlof by the English, but which is far superior in France than anywhere else), and the French “chicoree frise” which wear vast bonnets in the fields of France and emerges sweet and crisp but which I love, even without its blanched leaves, if picked young from your own garden.

Glorious chicories, bean jewels, first calendulas, amaranth tassles and the chooks

While I wait for the very last of my bean pods to crisp up, brassicas such as broccoli, purple sprouting broccoli and red cabbages are growing in pots in my greenhouse, ready for transplanting to the resulting nitrogen rich bed. I am not watering these old bean plants now, so I turn the nozzle off and fossick through the dilapidated mass, searching for brown, crisp, dry pods, plump and ripe with dried beans inside. Leaving them to hang there too long results in insects burrowing in and having a feast. I put the half dozen pods in my pocket to add to my inside stash later and pick up the hose again.

Next is my winter greens bed, planted out a few weeks ago and looking fabulous, despite the encroaching shade from the lower angle of the sun and the frosty hollow that it occupies. Winter leaves are thoroughly adaptable to shade, frost and even snow, bouncing back up and throwing off the weight of ice in the hardest and coldest winter weather. The trick is to get them well advanced before mid-May when the short day length, the soft light and cold nights reduce their capacity to grow without big solar panels to capture every second of good light to make growth, not just survive.

This bed was well prepared with compost and deep hay. Consequently, it needs very little watering and I have started picking a few leaves from the lettuce, mizuna and wasabi greens already. I pick and nibble and leave the hose for now. The tomatoes also have needed very little water, with this deep hay method, despite it being warm and terribly dry for months. I have never had so many huge, luscious, delicious tomatoes and the plants are still deep green and healthy in mid-April which is incredible.

I water an unmulched area of kale and coriander and celtuce. Why did I not include this patch in my deep hay experiment? Goodness, I don’t know and now wish I had! It is much easier to plant into a mulched garden than to mulch it later. Oh well, I water it well and move on….

I find it is important to be constantly planting parsley or risk the cook’s nightmare of running out in winter, when it is too late to sow more! This seems to be an excellent year for parsley as not only have I planted consecutive crops but also it has self sown in thick patches which are growing dark green and fabulously; much better than those I planted.

Just about back where I started, I water the walking onions a friend gave me recently, which have now shot out wonderfully and look strong enough to get to a good size before mid May. Lots of fennel are coming up around the edges of the deep hay so I water them too. The Tasmanian purple garlic are in and should emerge soon but I won’t water them until they do.

Walking past the main herb garden I stop to nibble on the flowers of the garlic chives and put some in my pocket too, to add to my salad for lunch. They are crunchy and sweet and very garlicky; almost enough to make my eyes water! While I water them, even though they don’t ask for it, I notice the red-ribbed dock is again coming up from its summer hibernation. In a frosty, winter garden it shines like a beacon to me when I am at the kitchen sink. Even if I never ate it, I would still love it.

Out near the front door, the quince is laden with enticing, big, yellow globes, attracting attention from every visitor, to some of whom I give one or two…. if they are drooling! Many artichokes and cardoons are now shooting and growing like the wind. Also by the front door are my saffron bulbs which are in full production of the earthy saffron filaments I adore. Last night I put my own fresh saffron into my tagine dinner. How exciting, even though I only had 9 threads. I did add a pinch of bought saffron but I am sure mine tasted better :-)

There is much more, like the Cape Gooseberry jungle in my greenhouse, with fruits that have not stopped for nearly 2 years, the new goji berry by the fence, the limes ripening on the front verandah, the lemon which I am protecting this winter with a courtyard of hay bales around it, the sweet potato experiment and the tamarillo about to burst out through the top of the greenhouse and I am not sure what to do about it…… and so on and so on.

As I sit here in the dawn at my computer, with the imaginary hose in my hand, it is such a joy to wander vicariously through my garden, unravelling the skein of garden food, friends who have given me plants and life’s images from where I first had vegetable experiences in far off countries. Life is short; get there fast then take it slow. I am there and really enjoying the slow life of autumn in the food garden.