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.

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Gardening in Winter

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The Permaculture Design Course ended just in time for the Ballarat winter to put an end to much in the way of gardening. What is still growing grows slowly. I got a few leafy plants in the ground that are growing at around the same rate that the slugs and birds are eating them and will hopefully take off once the ground heats up. But for the most part I have just been putting sticks in the ground and hoping they start doing something come the spring.

I bought a hazlenut duo and some apple trees in the family’s favourite varieties (which also happen to be pollinators, luckily) and planted these in the food forest. Being bare rooted they look a lot like sticks. We impulse bought a mulberry tree as well, which has gone on the southern side of the main food garden, alongside the two plum trees we put in two winters ago and the apricot tree that I relocated from the old orchard where it wasn’t very happy.

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Hazelnut duo, Ennis and Cassia

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Close up on the hazelnut.

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Apple trees – we got Fuji, Pink Lady and Red Delicious.

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Apple tree.

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Mulberry tree, also looks like a stick at the moment.

I also have big plans for these sticks, planted in terra cotta pots on the Eastern verandah. They will grow to be leafy grapevines in three different colours and shade the house from the morning sun in summer. I haven’t put the climbing frames up for them yet, but I think I’ve got a bit of time before I need to do that.

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Look at my stick! Look at it!

And possibly the most ambitious stick of all is this tiny twig which claims to be the beginning of a black Walnut tree. The silver birches in the central driveway garden have died and I want a feature tree to take over from them. The walnut will have the added advantage of suppressing grass growth under it and eventually it will bear walnuts, which I love.

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Where’s the walnut tree?

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There it is!

Fortunately for me, being an impatient gardener who wants to watch things growing NOW, I have my little greenhouse which is producing some rather slow lettuce and some beetroot for my next round of beetroot relish.

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Lettuce in the front, beetroot in the back.

I also have the warmhouse which is slightly more gratifying, although still only requiring a weekly visit for watering. The fish and water plants are doing well, and the basil mint looks like it could get comfortable in here.

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Super stylish fishpond, clearly used to live at number 5.

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Basil mint – is it basil? Is it mint? It’s healthy appearance at this time of year suggests that it is definitely not really basil.

The fish pond and blue tubs filled with water create a thermal mass that hold warmth and helps keep the temperature above zero during the freezing nights we have been having. It gets quite warm in the warmhouse during the day, pushing 20* on sunny days even when it is well below 10* outside.

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Three dollars at Bunnings. Super useful for learning about the temperature ranges in your growing structures.

I’ve popped a little Washington Navel in here, along with the avocados who look like they could do with a holiday in Queensland but are hanging in there. A friend has entrusted her potted orange tree known as ‘Grandad’ to me. Grandad had lived on the south side of a house in Geelong and seems to be pretty tough. He will hopefully do well in the warmhouse.

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The tea plants in here are surviving and even putting out a few new shoots. The wormwood cuttings have all struck and are turning into actual plants. They will be planted in the farmyard in a protected spot and also in the new chicken yard when it is built.

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The wormwood cuttings worked! Hooray for making new plants from old.

Winter gardening is kind of slow paced, but I’ve got heaps of ideas and plans for spring. My order of seeds and seedling pots has arrived from Diggers, and I’ll be getting a new bigger greenhouse for my birthday where I can grow all my tomatoes and capsicums and maybe even some basil. I’ve got plans for a herb bed along the side of the new greenhouse as well. I’ve never been one for growing flowers, but I’ll be experimenting with those this year to define the edges of the circular gardens and fill in the gaps that the grass currently likes to take over. And hopefully some of the herby and shrubby plants in the food forest will begin to thrive between the trees and start to out-compete the grasses in there too.

A few of the bulbs are starting to form flowers, including the ones we planted on Ripley’s grave, so soon we’ll start to see a little bit of colour in the garden again. Then the wattles will bloom, the nuts and stonefruit will blossom, the deciduous trees will start to turn green again, and next thing we know it will be spring. Then I’ll really have my work cut out for me.

I can’t wait.

Farm Update

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I’ve been finding it hard to find time to write over the past few months, and the simple explanation for that is that I have been working more hours. My job had got to the point where I just couldn’t keep up with everything I had to do in the time I had available, and since so much of what I do is time-critical I spent most of my time feeling like I was chasing my tail. So I put my hand up to do more hours.

This has meant that while work is less stressful because I actually have time to get everything done on time, I have less time at home and I have to go to bed earlier so that I can get up earlier. The rest of the family have had to learn to do more around the house and since I no longer have time to do everything I am also no longer the default person to look after everyone else. We look after each other, we all pitch in, and we all benefit from mum bringing home a bit more money each month.

I took a break from soapmaking and writing just to let everything settle down. Like anything else, it comes down to priorities. You make time for the things that make the most noise. But you also need to make time for the things that you get the most value from, and value can definitely include enjoyment.

When I found myself home alone on Sunday with the sun shining and the birds singing I was almost overwhelmed with excitement and an urge to get as much done as possible while I could. I popped out at 9am to do the milking and ended up having ‘breakfast’ at about 2pm.

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Hanging out with my farmyard friends

I sent Maia and her kids out into the world for the first time. Those babies got to feel the sun on their backs and the dirt under their feet, as well as meeting the rest of their family. This was especially sweet since little Gaia had been treated for sepsis two days earlier, and the vet had warned me that he did not expect her to live.

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Maia and her kids, Gaia and Reuben

Moving in and out of the house and between the shed and the garden, I got the milking done, cleaned the goat pens and delivered some straw to the garden beds. I did some weeding, thinned the silverbeet, cleared the dead tomato plants from the small greenhouse, baked the sourdough, did four loads of washing, replanted some strawberries, pruned the apple trees and cleaned out the cat litter. It was glorious.

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Yay! Sourdough. My lunch for the next fortnight.

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The food garden, with the berry nets up to allow for weeding, pruning and planting the strawberries.

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None of my winter vegetables sprouted last year, so I cheated this year and used the greenhouse. So far so good, cauliflower, beetroot, cabbage, broccoli and lettuce.

I sat down for a bit around 3pm and ventured out again an hour later when Leo the Italian Greyhound started complaining that it was getting cold and he wanted his coat back on. This seemed like a good time to go around closing up the windows and the big greenhouse door, and put the blanket back on Stella the old Thoroughbred who also got to get her kit off for the day. I was wondering what feat of culinary genius to make for dinner when I found that old Rianna, my boss doe, was about to have her kids.

I popped her in the kidding pen I had prepared earlier and set off to get the furthest away tasks done, which meant wandering down the paddock carrying a Weatherbeeta horse rug trying to find two full-size Thoroughbreds who seemed to have disappeared into the 10 acre paddock. I found them in the back corner behind the dam wall, re-clothed old Stella, took some pictures of the impressively full dams, and headed casually back up to the shed.

Where I found this…

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First kid out, nothing to do but keep on with my to-do list and check on Rianna occasionally. I got the goatlings and bucks in the small paddocks fed, put the poultry away, fed the cat and put out the call to Matt to pick up some dinner on his way home from work.

We ended up with a small but nice set of twins from Rianna. They were a little slow to get going, the buck was frustratingly resistant to feeding from his mother, but they are doing well now and feeding themselves.

After such a long dry Autumn, the recent rain has been very welcome, but it is much wetter here than we have seen it previously. The main dam is at its highest level since we moved in after almost drying up completely a few months ago. The interesting bit of earthworks described by the real estate agent as a second dam actually looks like how I imagine the previous owner had intended the water trap on his golf course to look.

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The main dam

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The back dam, aka hole 3

Days like this give me the enthusiasm to press on through the cold and wet, to make plans for the spring and start thinking about what to plant where. I’m hoping to do a lot more seed propagation this year, rather than buying seedlings, so I’ve got some equipment to use the small greenhouse to start seeds. I’ve started mulching and weeding the vegetable garden and ordered some seeds for the spring and summer crops. I hope to get some peas and beans planted next weekend, and I’m thinking about where I might be able to plant some hazelnut trees.

The daffodils and wattle trees are blooming, the geese are getting aggressive, the ducks are laying and the pregnant does are expanding alarmingly. Spring is on its slow march toward us and will be here before we know it.

Beetroot – A Most Awesome Vegetable

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All my life up until about six weeks ago, beetroot was that vinegar-smelling stuff in a can that only weirdos, including my younger child, actually liked.

Callum loves beetroot. Back in our McDonalds-eating days, he would order a McOz with extra beetroot. He gets a tin of beetroot in his Christmas stocking. He freaking loves beetroot.

So I decided to grow him some. I got a punnet of seedlings and planted them in groups of four or five, expecting most of them to die of transplant stress. They all lived. I separated them out again. They still all lived. I thought ‘what the hell am I going to do with all this beetroot?’.

The last of the crop.

The last of the crop.

My grand plan of preserving it in slices, reminiscent of the canned stuff, suffered an irredeemable setback when I Googled ‘beetroot recipes’ and discovered the huge world of amazing things you can make from beetroot.

It started with roasted beetroot hummus dip. Progressed through beetroot soup to beetroot relish and red velvet beetroot muffins. There are three left from that original planting, and none have been sliced up and preserved in jars. I just put in another 36 seedlings. Next trick is to grow them from seed.

Beetroot, un-pickled and un-canned, is sweet and slightly nutty in flavour. While it is fun to cook with, it does leave a trail of reddish-purple juice all over the kitchen.

Roasted in olive oil, it makes a great addition to your ordinary roast vegetables, or you can then whiz it up with chickpeas and garlic to make a tasty pink hummus. There are loads of different beetroot soup recipes, or you can freestyle it with some other root vegetables and experiment with spices.

This beetroot relish is sweet and goes well with cold meat or in toasted sandwiches with melted cheese.

 

Beetroot Relish

650g beetroot

1 brown onion, finely chopped (or grated)

1 granny smith apple, peeled, cored and grated

1 cup lightly packed brown sugar

1 cup vinegar

1/4 tsp ground cloves

Method

Boil beetroot for 20 minutes or until just tender. Rinse under cold water. Wearing rubber gloves, peel and grate the beetroot.

Combine onion, apple, sugar, vinegar and cloves in a medium saucepan. Bring to the boil and stir until sugar is dissolved. Simmer for 10 minutes.

Add beetroot. Simmer for 45 minutes or until mixture is syrupy. Carefully spoon into hot, sterilised jars and seal.

 

I am always looking for healthy, alternatively-sweetened muffin recipes, and if they include vegetables that is even better. This cupcake recipe is incredibly easy, and goes great with a cream cheese topping.

Beetroot Red Velvet Cupcakes

2 large beetroot, washed and grated, raw

2 eggs

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tsp cinnamon

1 1/4 cups self raising flour

4 tbsp cocoa powder

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup maple syrup

Method

Preheat oven to 170C and line a cupcake tray with 12 paper cases.

Blend all ingredients together, in blender or with stick mixer, until batter is smooth. Spoon into cupcake cases.

Bake for 40 minutes or until skewer inserted comes out clean.

Beetroot cupcakes.

Beetroot cupcakes.

 

Beetroot is the another new favourite that I might never have learned about if I had not grown it. The beauty of it is that it also grows in the cooler months, so I might get some into jars for sandwich topping after all. Or maybe Callum can try some of the relish on his lunch.