Making Progress in the Garden

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I’ve got three weekends left of the Permaculture Design Certificate course being run by Ballarat Permaculture Guild. I have learned so much, and having found some time lately I have been rediscovering my garden and coming up with ideas to make it more productive. Not only has my motivation to make changes and investments in time and money around the yard increased, I’ve gained a better understanding of why to do some things as well as how.

One idea I had was to put some fish and plants in the water trough in the farmyard. After researching plants that would not harm any of the animals, I set up some refuges for the fish and left it to see what would happen. It was going pretty well for a while, although one of the goats developed a taste for water ribbons. After a few weeks, though, a couple of the ducks discovered that the trough had edible plants in it, as well as being a nice place to have a wash. So the plants and fish had to find a new home, so that the trough could be cleaned out and hopefully not continue to attract ducks.

fishtub

The fish tub. I expect frogs will move in too.

I had been intending to add a water container to the large greenhouse, know referred to as the warmhouse, so having to move the fish and water plants forced this idea to come to life. But first I had to remove all the freeloading tomatoes.

After last year’s successful tomato yield I had big plans for the tomato crop this year. I collected passata jars with the goal of filling all of them with home made passata and bottled tomatoes, enough to get us through the year until the next tomato season. Last year’s bottled tomatoes lasted us six months. So, armed with seeds from the varieties that had yielded best, I managed to start some tomato plants from seed for the first time ever.

This early success looked like it was going to bear fruit. Once the plants were moved to the large greenhouse they grew and grew, before long they were taller than me. They looked great. But the season was not kind. I harvested maybe 5kg of tomatoes this year, a big drop from last year when I was bringing in buckets full of tomatoes every few days.

green tomatoes

Looks like I’ll be making green tomato relish…

So what went wrong? I had the right varieties, the right growing conditions and plenty of water. I think the issues were a combination of too many plants, not enough support and too much watering. The plants grew so thickly that the lower parts got no light, and the wet earth led to mould, fungus and rotten fruit. The huge plants fell over with insufficient support, leaving fruit sitting on wet ground and rotting leaves. Then I noticed something had been eating the fruit. I didn’t think it was birds, but it wasn’t until I found the entry hole that I realised the problem was rodents. Having the bottom half chewed out of what would have been a 500g tomato was very disappointing. Lots of the bigger fruit was damaged.

For next year we should have a new sturdy greenhouse for the tomatoes, like the small greenhouse but with more floor space. This time I will not get greedy and plant too many plants. I will stick with the Oxheart tomatoes, which ripen early, have more flesh and less seeds, and due their large size are easy to peel.

I was looking for a place to site the new greenhouse, when I stumbled across a large raised garden bed that had lost a lot of its larger plants. These had presumably died in last summer’s big dry. This bed features a big Honey Locust tree on the eastern end, a tree often used to base a plant guild around due to it’s deep root system and ability to bring nutrients up from deep in the soil and make them available for more shallow-rooted plants. I had found the perfect place to start a food forest.

I had a dream a couple of months ago that I had found an area of my garden that I had never been in before, and it was full of food plants including trees that grew pineapples. To then stumble across this garden bed that had been right in my face for the last two and a bit years and see it in a completely different light was surreal. Not only that, but this garden bed has an olive tree still living that is visible from the house, that I have walked past hundreds of times, but never seen until now.

olive tree

Definitely an olive tree – even has an olive!

So far my food forest contains it’s feature Honey Locust, an olive tree and a few nectarine seeds that I have popped in the ground. I have also added a feijoa to help get things started. Next I’ll need some smaller shrubs and groundcovers to complete the plant guild. I’ve started some comfrey seeds, so with a bit of luck these will sprout and I can add them too.

honey locust

The epic Honey Locust, perfect mainstay for a plant guild

food forest

It doesn’t look like much, but I’m going to reclaim this big raised area for growing food.

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Beginning with this little feijoa tree.

In the latest Diggers Club order, with the feijoa, I bought a couple of tea plants. I’ve started growing and collecting a few tea additives, like peppermint, chamomile and rosehips, so adding the base tea to my garden seemed like the next step. Upon reading that the tea plant, Camellia Sinensis, likes similar conditions to blueberries, I decided to plant them in the blueberry patch. I’ve been afraid to do anything to the blueberries, which have been in for nearly two years, as they represent my fourth attempt at growing blueberries and I am afraid of doing something that will kill them. But in planting the tea plants I had to take a deep breath and apply some manure and mulch. Fingers crossed!

tea and blueberries

Tea and blueberries, with a couple of rogue Sweetie tomatoes, behind the small greenhouse.

I wasn’t able to get avocado trees from Diggers because I hesitated and they sold out. I was fortunate that a local nursery had some Hass avocado trees in stock, which were reportedly a lot more advanced than the ones available by mail order from Diggers. Avocados are something else I have wanted to try growing for ages, but had put off due to being afraid of killing a fairly expensive tree. Turning over the large greenhouse to become a warmhouse presented a good opportunity to get some avocado trees going in a sheltered environment, so I took the plunge. Again, fingers crossed!

warmhouse

Avocados in the ‘warmhouse’. I hope to add a few more plants that will appreciate the frost-free zone.

Something else I am trying that I have never done before is striking cuttings. I want to plant some wormwood in the chook pen, and we have heaps of mature plants in the yard, so I’m attempting to grow some new plants from cuttings.

potting table

The potting table, with wormwood cuttings.

My renewed enthusiasm for growing things and my confidence to try something new when it comes to gardening are a direct result of what I have learned in the PDC. There is so much more to growing things that putting plants in the ground and watering them. Soil health is a huge thing, as well as keeping the soil covered with plants to prevent weeds from inviting themselves. Another thing I have learned is to worry more about what the garden is doing than how it looks.

The growing season is slowing down, the garlic is in the ground, the pumpkin vines are dying off, some plants have packed it in for the winter and others are settling into their spots in the greenhouses. I’ve got a few jars of pickles and relish in the cupboard, and I am hopeful that a few more figs will ripen before time runs out and winter hits. Then we get a couple of months of relative peace before kidding begins and all my outside time is dedicated to goats again.

figtree

Yay! Figs!

It will be interesting to see how my efforts manifest when spring comes back and the growing season starts again. But I feel like production is definitely set to increase.

 

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Nature’s MSG

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It’s winter solstice time, and you know what that means…

Yes, it means the shortest day/longest night of the year. It also means you should have your garlic in the ground by now.

They say garlic should be planted on the shortest day and harvested on the longest. Around these parts we generally go about a month before that. Once the garlic bulbs from last season start to sprout in your cupboard, prompted by the cold nights and sunny days of autumn, it’s time to pop those babies in the garden.

Here are mine.

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Young garlic plants

Garlic is a great thing to grow in winter because it seems to really love the cold. While the rest of the garden is either frost burnt to death, making slow and pitiful attempts to grow, or just sitting there inert, garlic cheerfully pokes its little sprouts through the ground and shoots up with enthusiasm through the coldest days. If you like going out in your garden and seeing a plant with a smile on its face, garlic will bring you winter cheer.

It eventually grows a great long stem with a flower on the top, and when the flower dies it is time to harvest. Or in time for making hummus for the rounds of Christmas parties in December.

I’m a big fan of garlic, both in the garden and in the kitchen. For a while I have jokingly nicknamed it ‘nature’s MSG’ because it makes everything taste yum. I refuse to use bought stock in soups, and I am always worried about my soups being bland, so they all get a good dose of garlic and parsley. It goes in tomato sauce, spicy plum sauce and sweet chilli sauce. It is great mixed in with herbs to make a flavoured soft goat cheese. And I have been known to put a little bit in mashed potatoes to give them a bit of oomph.

And then there is hummus, pretty much anything Italian, and as an accompaniment to roast meat. Yep, I love garlic.

If you want to grow it, there is still time, but not much. If bulbs you have bought from the supermarket have sprouted in your spud box, simply separate the cloves and plant about 15cm apart in well-drained soil. It is really easy to grow, doesn’t need much looking after through the cold months, and each clove grows into a whole new bulb.

It keeps for several months after harvesting, simply plait or bundle several stems together and hang the whole lot in a shady place. Mine did well in the garage, although I can’t tell you exactly how long they will keep because we ran out of home-grown garlic a couple of months ago. I successfully grew a few bulbs in pots last year, enabling me to harvest some even though we moved house at the start of December. This year I have planted more, and next year I will increase the crop even more.

You will probably find that home-grown garlic, like most home-grown things, has a stronger flavour than shop-bought stuff, especially if you are inclined to buy pre-mashed garlic in jars. You will get used to the stronger flavour.

So if you are an amateur gardener, or you just love cooking with garlic, try garlic for a low-risk, high return crop. It takes a while to grow, but it gives you something to look at while the rest of your garden sooks in the corner and waits for the temperature to reach ten degrees again.