Half-Time Garden Update – Part 2

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It’s amazing how many things you can do in a garden that I didn’t know about before. Solutions to problems, opportunities to grow things that would not normally grow in this part of the world, and tricks to make your soil healthy. I’ve discovered the joys of composting, worm farms and mulching, and started experimenting with a whole lot of plants I never bothered with before.

In The Greenhouse

I had a very poor tomato harvest last year, which came down to a combination of overcrowded and poorly supported plants, and invasion by rats. What fruit didn’t rot on the floor was munched by rats as it became ripe. The plant supports were not sufficient to hold the plants up, so they collapsed and lay on the ground, creating a steamy jungle of tomatoes that the light and air could not penetrate.

So this year, with the flash new greenhouse and sturdy supports in place, I was determined that my tomatoes not suffer the same fate. I started Hungarian Heart and Amish Paste from seed, and planted one variety along each side of the greenhouse, leaving room for my tropical fruits and capsicum plants in the back. I put in quite a few alyssum seeds to bring bees and outcompete weeds, and added a few cosmos and calendula along the front of the beds for good measure.

The tomato plants grew well, and as they got taller and started to set fruit I found myself obsessively removing the non-bearing laterals to keep the air circulation and light through the lower reaches of the plants. Sometimes I brought out great armfuls of snapped-off branches. I wasn’t completely sure that it was the right thing to do, as some studies show that you get more fruit from not removing branches, but it seemed to fit with my understanding of why the previous crop failed.

It seems to be working. The low fruit are starting to ripen and they are looking good. I have several plants along the Amish Paste side that definitely do not look like Amish Paste, one in particular has nice round red fruit more like a Grosse Lisse. A couple of plants on this side have suffered from blossom end rot, which may be related to the heat. Hungarians are my tomato of choice for bottling, as they are easy to peel due to their size, and I was mainly growing Amish Paste to prove that it could, having had trouble with them previously.

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Hungarian Heart tomatoes turning red in the spacious lower parts of the greenhouse.

In the greenhouse I have also grown basil successfully for the first time, and my capsicums are starting to fruit. This is the first time I have grown California Wonder from seed as well.

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Happy little capsicums, on a bed of alyssum, with basil in the background.

Fruitful Endeavours

The succulent Dragonfruit is growing like crazy, and its neighbour the Brazilian custard apple remains cheerful it its pot.

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Dragonfruit climbing up its support.

Over in the warmhouse, the avocados are putting out lots of new growth in response to more regular watering, and threatening to collapse under their own weight. I will keep an eye on them and possibly prune the crowns back in winter if they don’t become strong enough to stand on their own.

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Young avocado tree working hard.

My citrus have also expressed a liking for plenty of water, showing a real possibility of growing some fruit to maturity. The little potted orange tree I look after has several developing fruit, and the Tahitian lime on the front porch looks like it may bear again if I look after it. My lemon tree seems to have finally recovered from the -7* frost-nuking it got a few years ago, and the front porch Valencia is putting out lots of new growth.

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Developing oranges on ‘Granddad’ the orange tree.

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My lemon tree is beginning to flourish again.

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The Valencia on the front porch, showing lots of new growth.

Elsewhere, my figs have recovered from a sneaky late frost that took all of their early leaves and the Preston Prolific is living up to its name. The Mariposa plum tree has about half a dozen fruit ripening under its net, and the little Elder tree is starting to show signs of putting in some growth.

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Happy fig tree with its young fruit.

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The Mariposa plums are starting to ripen.

A Forest of Food

What relative newcomer to Permaculture is not inspired by the idea of a food forest? A collection of interconnected plant guilds, set up for minimal maintenance to produce all sorts of edible goodies.

I was struck by the idea to turn a big neglected raised bed into such a space. With a big Honey Locust at one end, and a previously undiscovered olive tree at the other, I embarked on the huge job of clearing all the weeds and grass and filling in the gaps with desirable species.

The bed is probably 15m long and a good six or seven wide at the broad end. Among all the lost and dead things are a giant flax plant and along the way I also found a couple of seedling plum trees and a large silvery bush that smells like curry. I pulled several trailer loads of weeds from this garden, starting at the narrow end nearest the house, and set about filling in the gaps.

I started with three small apple trees and a pair of hazelnut bushes, and built around these, adding sages, flowers, aromatic plants and herbs. Species include the ever-reliable alyssum, more calendula, borage and nasturtium, a stevia plant, pineapple sage, the Permie’s friend comfrey, lemon and lime balm, a Balm of Gilead grown from a stem picked at Chestnut Farm, and a small but determined feijoa tree. I also have yarrow, rosemary and something called pizza thyme that I could not resist.

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The front section of the food forest.

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Balm of Gilead claiming its place.

Having lost several young stone fruit to leaf curl, I learned that you can grow them from seed, and that although they take a few years longer to fruit, the resulting plants are much hardier than grafted trees. Since a dead tree is never going to fruit, I decided to give it a go. I saved pits from a few nectarines and peaches and much to my surprise, in the spring some little trees emerged. These are now growing under the Honey Locust.

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White nectarine, grown from seed, with no sign of leaf curl.

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This olive tree stood unnoticed in this garden for two and a half years. Now it has become the inspiration for my food forest.

Free Plants

As well as stonefruit trees grown from pits, and vegetables grown from saved seeds, I had a go at propagating wormwood from cuttings. A few have already made it to the farmyard where they are surviving despite a few raids from determined goat kids, but this one took a bit longer so has grown to quite a size in its pot. It will join the others once the weather cools down a bit.

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Wormwood, struck from a cutting in a re-used pot.

Pond!

I’ve wanted a pond for ages. Inspired by a work colleague’s garden ponds, I bought a simple black pond liner, dug it in a few inches, and built around it with rocks and soil. Then I added some plants to the outside and situated a magnolia next to it that I had found languishing in another garden. The magnolia is happy for the water, the little creepy plants around the edges are doing quite well, and the collection of plants in the water are growing rapidly in the warm weather. I’ve had a few transient Eastern Banjo frogs pop in, and the local birds love having a good spot to get a drink. I am looking forward to the pond lillies blooming and hope that the system will work without a pump once the plants start to cover the surface more.

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My pond. Yes, those rocks were heavy.

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The magnolia was not too bothered by being uprooted in summer, it is very grateful for all the water it gets now.

What’s Next?

From here there will be many weeks of watering, weeding and the harvesting will start to ramp up. As harvest time hits high gear, preserving becomes a high priority. The tomatoes are about to take off, which will mean many afternoons of skinning and bottling fruit, making salsa and passata. The zucchinis are also gearing up for their high-yield time, meaning lots of zucchini pickles, zucchini slice and zucchini chocolate muffins.

Many of my plants are a few years off producing much, especially my little fruit trees, but they still need to be maintained and cared for.

I’m not into ‘low maintenance gardening’, I love to spend hours working in the garden, connecting with the earth, getting my hands dirty and marvelling at how things grow, the amazing variety of food I can produce, and the hundreds of things I can do with that food. But the more that the design reduces the workload, the more things I can add to my garden. The more I learn, the easier things get and the more surprises and miracles I can work in my yard.

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Half-Time Garden Update – Part 1

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So here we are at about the halfway point of the summer vegetable growing season, and things are going pretty well. After spending many weekends during the first half of last year studying permaculture and taking pages of notes on tips and things to do in the garden, I was absolutely raring to go when the growing season began.

Armed with a whole lot of new information and a big, flash new greenhouse, I started making some plans. I sorted my seed collection and purchased what I needed to fill in the gaps.

Start With Seeds

I’m a bit of a sucker for the instant gratification that comes from buying seedlings, but I decided to put more of an effort this year into growing plants from seeds. So I gathered up some of the many punnets kept from bought seedlings, bought some seed raising mix, and got to work.

With the pumpkins I planted a combination of bought and saved seeds. I had never successfully grown pumpkins from seed before, so I wanted to maximise my chance of success.

Add Some Flowers

Another thing that I did this year that was different from previous years was grow flowers. I had always been of the opinion that it was a waste of water to grow things you can’t eat, but I have since learned of the importance of flowers to bring bees and other beneficial insects to the garden. I set about creating floral borders and flowering understoreys, as well as using them to fill in areas that would otherwise be overtaken by weeds and grass. Borage, alyssum, and calendula, as well as a few cosmos and nasturtiums, have started to take hold around the garden, some happily self seeding, and providing a range of benefits. I am particularly keen to expand my use of calendula, which I initially grew to put in tea, but now hope to infuse in oil to use in soap, as it is great for your skin.

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Establishing a border of calendula (with a couple of marigolds) around the garden beds.

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Chamomile

I have also grown a heap of chamomile, hopefully enough to keep me in tea through the winter.

Berry Time

My three year old blueberry bushes produced their first fruit this year. After a few failed attempts at growing blueberries, I have managed to keep these plants alive for three whole years, and they are growing slowly and starting to bear. It’s a humble beginning, but it’s a reward for years of persistence.

I’ve also had my best ever crop of raspberries so far, having discovered that raspberry canes like a good prune, lots of water and not too much competition. Most of the raspberries have not made it into the house, as I tend to eat them straight off the bush, but I did manage to collect enough to make some banana and raspberry muffins.

I managed to beat the slugs to a few strawberries as well, and eventually I learned that watering in the morning can help deter the slimy thieves. I’ve started a new strawberry bed in the berry nets, filling in the space that had been occupied by a patch of amaranth taller than myself. Turns out the goats quite like amaranth, so I was able to repurpose it as a goat treat.

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Strawberries staring to spread themselves out. There are a couple of open pollinated fancy varieties in the baskets.

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Berries for my smoothie 🙂

Vegetable Medley

My pumpkin seed all sprouted, which was amazing, but once planted out they were easy prey for slugs and I lost most of the first lot. So I took the slower seedlings and transplanted them into bigger pots so they could grow bigger before I sent them out into the world. This worked quite well, and I was able to establish about half a dozen plants in a recently-mulched bed in the mandala garden.

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A few fruit set early in January, and the plants seemed to be sprawling and doing well. I read that watering in the morning was better and more efficient than watering in the evening, so I took up getting up early to water in the morning. The pumpkins soon let me know that they wanted to be watered twice a day, and I lost several young fruit before I noticed this. But in the last few days, with plenty of water, we have set several new fruit that seem to be growing well.

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The corn was another challenge, and after the seeds I sowed direct into the bed proceeded to do pretty much nothing, I tried a different approach and started some more seeds in punnets. I covered these babies in cloches made from cut-off soft drink bottles to protect them from blackbirds who love to dig in the mulch and knock little plants over. As a result, I have a thriving little patch of sweetcorn.

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The onions went in as seedlings back in Autumn, and seemed to take forever. For a while I was concerned that I had bought the wrong kind. But eventually they grew plump and I was able to harvest them. They are now nearly cured and ready to store.

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Another new trick I picked up was using sheepyard mesh to support plants. This was very useful for my tomatoes, and also for my climbing beans and peas. The shape of the mesh also made it possible to grow peas and beans over a path, rather than having the void underneath take up space in a garden bed.

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I’m not a huge fan of beans, I find them rather bitter, but these Australian Butter beans are not bad. They have yielded very well and been part of several dinners. I started these from seed in punnets as well, and once they grabbed hold of the mesh, they took off. Very rewarding to grow.

Defying the Laws of Nature

I did that thing everyone says not to do and grew a whole lot of cool season plants in summer. Usually you end up with your plants being mercilessly devoured by white cabbage moth larvae. I planted kale, cauliflower, turnips and broccoli, and while I did a few rounds of physically removing little green caterpillars, the plants did not get as damaged as I expected. In particular, I had the best broccoli crop I have had since the year I first grew vegetables, and I even grew them in the small greenhouse. The plants should have been chewed to bits and bolted in the heat, but I am still harvesting shoots. I wonder what part the resident frogs have played in keeping caterpillar numbers down.

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This mess has yielded my best broccoli crop to date.

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Lots of broccoli, and even a bit of cauli for dinner. With cheese sauce – yum!

Celebrate Diversity

I’ve also attempted to get away from single crops in garden beds. This bed got a nice purple alyssum border and was the home of my amazing beetroot crop as well as a couple of zucchini, kale, cauli and turnips, and now the lettuce which is filling in the gaps left by the vegetables that have been harvested. All of my beds contain multiple plants, even if it is just a few rogue potatoes popping up between the main crop.

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I’ll follow this up with another report on my fruit, greenhouse and food forest adventures, as well as the installation of my new pond.

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Biggie surveys the mandala garden.

Restocking

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When you get used to having 30+ birds in your flock, being brought back down to less than ten is quite a shock. In some ways there is relief at having less beaks to feed and less birds underfoot. It solved the ongoing problem of ducks bathing in the back troughs. But it also puts gaps in the group, and this absence of birds and the gaps it creates lead to new problems.

I was left with no mature rooster, no drake and no gander. And four flighty Muscovy hens, very keen to sit on eggs. At entirely the wrong time of year for purchasing a new drake. Most breeders either had their main working drakes who they did not want to part with, or recently hatched boys a long way off being able to work. I advertised a few times, scoured the poultry sales pages, and nothing came up. Meanwhile I was having to evict cranky Muscovy hens from beautifully crafted nests to save them the bother of sitting on eggs that would never hatch.

While Debussy the gander was not particularly aggressive as far as ganders go, his presence did lead to Agnes the goose displaying a dogged determination to create a nest, lay some eggs in it and defend it, which was a nuisance. But without her mate, Agnes was clearly lonely, and took up attempting to mate with the Muscovy ducks, who were unfortunately happy to let her. A goose has a serrated beak, and a longer neck than a duck. Agnes’ misplaced breeding instincts led to ducks being bitten around the head by that serrated beak. They lost skin and feathers, and one duck nearly lost her eye.

I tried keeping the goose separate from the ducks, but the ducks would fly into the pen with the goose. I had decided to replace the gander with another female goose to avoid the problems associated with a breeding pair of geese, and as my poor ducks were repeatedly mauled, this became more and more urgent. Again, wrong time of year, most female geese were sat on eggs or raising goslings, and I could not find any for sale.

We took a trailer load of goats the Bendigo Show, where Titania was awarded Champion goatling and received a cash prize. After the judging was completed, we went for a walk around the show and wandered into a shed full of poultry accessories and various birds for sale, including a pen of young female geese. So that is the story of how Titania the goat bought a goose.

I selected a bird, and after a bit of a fuss where a couple of bantam pullets escaped and had to be retrieved from under tables of bird cages, Matt carried our new goose to the goat trailer, where she traveled home in the kid cage. Gertrude, aka Gertie Goose, soon became friends with Agnes and within a few days the duck maulings ceased and my goose quota was back in balance.

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Matt carrying Gertrude through the Bendigo Showgrounds.

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Agnes and Gertrude

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Don’t mess with Gertie Goose.

After some months of asking around and searching sale pages, I finally stumbled on a Muscovy drake. I was willing to travel up to 90 minutes to buy one, so insistent were my ducks that it was hatching season, but in the end I only had to travel to the next town. I picked up a scruffy two-year-old drake from a fairly large flock. He had no name, so in keeping with the M names for Muscovies, I named him Murray.

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Murray the Muscovy

I have heard repeatedly that Muscovy drakes are aggressive, and always thought I had hit the jackpot with my old drake Muscles, who had been hand raised and was a wonderfully friendly bird. But after a little over a month, Murray has proven also to be quiet and friendly, and while he is not quite confident to eat out of my hand, he does follow me quite closely to make sure I am bringing the food and to see if I have anything edible about my person.

Once Murray had arrived, my black and white duck Moana was quick to set herself up with a nest and start putting eggs in it. I had to take the first few because it takes about a week for a duck to lay fertile eggs once you introduce a drake to the flock, and she ended up sitting on only two. They have both hatched, and are perfect. I have another duck sat on 13 eggs, tucked securely behind several pieces of wire mesh, and these are due to hatch in about a fortnight.

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Murray’s first ducklings, hatched by Moana.

But from loss there can also be opportunities. Through pure chance, I was left with only a pair of related buff Silkies. I have always wanted to breed buff Silkies, but only ever had the occasional one pop up in a clutch. So with no mature rooster, Prince Harry the buff Silkie was allowed to grow up into the position of boss chook. I bought an unrelated buff hen, which gave me a buff trio consisting of Prince Harry, his sister Citrine, and the new hen Fanta. Citrine soon got to laying, and I let her sit on six eggs, of which five were fertile and hatched. Of those chicks four were buff (the other is white), and it looks like I will have two buff pullets to run on. This gives me a fairly stable little family of buff Silkies to breed on with.

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Prince Harry

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New girl Fanta, with her epic pompom.

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Citrine with some of her chicks.

I also picked up a couple more red laying hens to back up old Josie whose eggs have poor shell quality these days and don’t make it back to the house without breaking. One hen, Summer, lays an egg every day in a well-concealed abandoned duck nest. The other hen, Sandy, is suspected of stashing her eggs out behind the shed somewhere and while we found one nest a little while ago, I have not been able to find where she is laying now.

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Sandy’s nest is in there… somewhere.

There is one vacancy I would still like to fill, and that is a friend for dear old Ramona the Silver Appleyard, whose sister was killed. Ramona is going on six years old and is currently our only quacky duck. She doesn’t fit in with the Muscovies, and doesn’t fit in with the geese. Although she does seem quite happy, I hope to find her a quacky duck friend.

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Ramona Appleyard, all alone in the middle of the flock.