5 signs of spring

A definite feeling of spring has arrived (for example, today the weather has swung from rain and hail this morning, to now bathing the house and garden in brilliant sunshine).

Rather than write a few hundred words about the changes spring is bringing to our garden, here are 5 pictures showing some of the seasonal highlights so far:

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The summer vegetable garden

A row of curly kale

A row of curly kale

Much of this week has been spent in the garden. A good proportion of our summer vegetable crops (those grown from seed) are now in the ground, and most of the rest are in our indoor greenhouse.

It took about 3 days of solid work in mornings and evenings (taking a break during the hottest part of the day) to weed everything, remove plants that were past their best, prepare the soil and plant. We also set up a new area for pumpkins, using a big old rug as compostable weed matting, and covering it with chicken litter and compost.

So here’s the list of what vegetables we now have in the ground, and in the greenhouse:

Already in the ground:

  • Kale
  • Cavolo nero
  • Silverbeet (Rainbow Chard)
  • Cabbage
  • Garlic

Recently planted:

  • Potatoes (two varieties – Heather and Red Rascal)
  • Broad beans
  • Corn
  • Beetroot
  • Pumpkins (two varieties – Crown and Harlequin)

In the greenhouse:

  • Tomato (one plant each of five varieties – Roma, Baxters Early Bush, Brandywine Pink, Sweet 100 and Beefsteak)
  • Zucchini (two plants of Black Jack and one of Patty Green)
  • Capsicum
  • Basil
  • Assorted “Little Garden” kits from the supermarket
Our potatoes grow happily in bags

Our potatoes grow happily in bags

Still to be started are lettuces (the mainstay for summer salads), but we’ll let other things get more established to provide some shade and shelter. Last year our lettuces were too exposed, and many bolted straight to seed.

We’ve also given our fruit trees some worm tea, removed a flower from our rhubarb, and refreshed our herb garden (moving our expansionist Pineapple Sage to a large pot, and replacing it with a new Sage plant).

This all means plenty more work to be done over summer as these (hopefully) grow and start to produce, but it’s a pleasing selection, and a good week’s effort!

Bee Awareness

September is ‘Bee Awareness’ month, with gardeners encouraged to make a place for bees – those all-important pollinators – in our summer plans.

Bookends made from a classic 'Buzzy Bee' toy

Bookends made from a classic ‘Buzzy Bee’ toy

Our supermarkets would be very different (very empty) without the food pollinated by bees, and even in our modest garden, they have a big role to play. I talked a bit about this (and why we don’t have beehives of our own) last year.

Looking after bees in our garden is relatively straightforward, with three guiding rules:

  1. Avoid bee-hazardous pesticides
  2. Provide water and a place for bees to rest
  3. Plant the kinds of flowers that bees love to visit

Avoiding pesticides is the easy one for us – our ‘no nasties’ gardening regime is naturally bee-friendly.

Similarly, water has been in no short supply for the last 18 months – falling from the sky more often than we would have liked. However with summer (hopefully) coming, we’ll provide bees and other tiny visitors with water in shallow dishes, with some large marbles and stones so bees can land and safely sip at the water’s edge.

The thing which requires us to really prepare are the flowers. One of the lovely people at my day job gave us seeds left over from her wedding, which will provide bees with a feast of nectar (and give us a palette of beautiful colour). We also have a few wildflower seeds from last year, and are planning some specific companion planting of nasturtiums and calendula around our fruit trees.

To encourage bees to travel around our whole garden, we’ll mix flowers throughout the beds – some in with our main vegetables, others nearby, and still more beside the house (where we had wildflowers last year).

Planning and planting is going to keep us buzzy – sorry, busy – for a good couple of days, but as a result, we’ll have happy bees and productive trees (as well as productive vegetables) for summer.

5 things in the garden this week

Garlic

Our garlic has finally come up!

After a couple of cold snaps in July, the weather has mostly settled down – and with the number of daylight hours visibly increasing, perhaps summer is on its way.

I had written off the garlic we planted about a week after winter solstice as a lost cause, but almost all of it has suddenly sprouted. Maybe it heard me saying we should dig the bed over and prepare it for something else, and finally got its hustle on…

We also have seed potatoes chitting in the linen cupboard.  This year we’ve gone for ‘Heather’, a red variety that’s good for roasting or boiling, and we should be eating them at Christmas.

As it’s been my second (and last for now) week at home, we’ve put a bit of effort into tidying things up in the garden, and planning some next steps. Here are the 5 main things we’ve done:

  1. Pruned our fruit trees
    It’s really a bit late for this, but pruning needs to be done on a dry day, so we took the chance we had. We pruned to remove any dead wood, and to open out the branches so we can get better air flow through the tree (which reduces the chance of fungal diseases). As a bonus, it also means there’s more room for fruit to form.
  2. Nipped flowers and fruit off our strawberries
    This felt harsh – the promise of strawberries is alluring, even though out-of-season fruit isn’t good to eat. Trimming these back now, however, means the plants will put all their energy into growing. Ultimately, they’ll be ready to fruit well when the summer really hits, so a little imaginary loss now will be well worth it in December.
  3. Freed our citrus from their frost cloth
    This is another reasonably big call – we can’t promise there won’t be any more frosty mornings, but it seems a decent bet we’re through the coldest part of winter. These new trees (we only bought them in early winter) were also outgrowing their wispy cloth shrouds, and we figured that improving their access to sunlight is probably more beneficial to them at this point.
  4. Pulled out (most of) our carrots
    We’ve had carrots in the ground for quite a while, and would have harvested them at least a month or two ago, if we didn’t already have an abundant supply. Carrots store well in the ground for quite a while, but now they’re starting to grow too large for their own good, so out they came. As a bonus, for the next few days our pet rabbits get to enjoy a treat of fresh carrot leaves!
  5. Started planning the summer garden
    Yes – it’s that time again! Our first challenge is figuring out where to plant in summer, since quite a few of the things in the ground now (garlic, kale, cavolo nero and even silverbeet) will still be growing well into the summer. We’ll need to find room for lettuces, tomatoes, corn and a few other summer goodies somewhere!

Working the land

If it wasn’t quite so cold, and the daylight hours so short, I could think it was summer. We’ve certainly had more reliable sunshine this week than we did over summer.

With a bit of luck, I’ll even be able to do some of the larger outside jobs this weekend. We can definitely get out in the garden. That’s great, because I want to plant some garlic, and maybe onions as well. Since both garlic and onions naturally repel pests to some degree, I wonder if planting them among the kale and silverbeet would discourage the pests from munching on these leafy greens as well.

I’ve largely ignored the garden lately, other than weeding a bit in each of the last two weekends. My heart just hasn’t been in it, and my head’s been somewhere else entirely. However the nice weather this week – and answers to a couple of big questions about my day job – have brought both my heart and my head back home.

Despite this neglect, the garden is generally growing well and looking good. Yesterday I transplanted lots of bok choi – a necessary step after simply throwing half a packet of seed on the ground resulted in a much higher strike rate than I’d imagined.

I love the fact that I’m able to grow food on our land. Even though it’s a challenge at this time of year – when weekends are my only chance to see the garden in daylight – it’s worth the effort. Now it’s time to roll up my sleeves and get to work.

Short and sweet

A short update this week – no update at all really. It’s been cold here, and until yesterday I hadn’t seen the house or garden in daylight all week. It’s the time of year when all I want to do is hibernate, but I know there are plenty of things I need to be getting on with.

Today I should transplant some bok choi around the main garden, as we have a bunch of plants all growing much too closely together to be healthy. We’ve been having more problems with our chicken feeder as well, and I need to keep an eye out to see if the girls are using it.

We haven’t quite finished sorting through everything we took out of our bedroom before the walls and ceiling got re-done, and as a result the room (and particularly the closet) look amazingly uncluttered. The reverse is true in our spare room, though. Some things will almost certainly end up at op-shops, but looking through it all is something we’ve been putting off.

Anyway, there are a few things I can do from the comfort of our living room – where I have coffee brewing and the heat pump running – so I might get on with it.

-G

Allegedly summer

This summer is one of the strangest I can remember. The average temperature has definitely risen, but we’ve had a lot of rain, and almost completely missed the reliably hot, dry days that mark our normal summer season.

At least we haven’t had to water the garden nearly as much – and we’re still getting enough vegetables and strawberries to play a big part in our (admittedly not great) diet. One night this week we picked our first lettuce, and there are plenty more still at various stages, which will be ready over the days and weeks ahead.

In fact, our harvest from that day is worth a photo.

A day's harvest - lettuce, carrots, strawberries and eggs.

We have lots of good looking carrots, though some need to be thinned again. We’re only picking what we want to use, at the time we want to use them.

We’ve followed the same strategy with our potatoes, though we’ll have to harvest the rest soon, so they don’t start rotting or sprouting.

Sadly, another one of our baby chicks has succumbed to weak legs – it looks like it could have been something that went wrong in incubation, or in their genetics. Hopefully the remaining two can stay healthy long enough for their legs to develop the strength they need, and then they should be alright.

In the meantime, it’s another wet day here – another day to spend (mostly) inside. Hopefully, it’s a day to do some tiding up, cleaning, sorting and preparing for the weeks ahead.

Maybe those weeks will even bring some reliable summer sunshine.

-G

The post-Christmas garden

The post-Christmas holiday is always one of my favourite parts of the year. With a week still to go, I’ve almost completely lost track of the days, and am enjoying the opportunity to sleep in, read and (for the most part) rely on decent weather.

Around the house there’s been some decent progress, with a few more things still needing to be finished off.

We planted half a dozen new tomato plants, to replace the ones killed off early in the season by frost and wind. It’s probably a bit late to plant tomatoes now, and “too early, then too late” could end up being the epitaph for our tomato efforts this year. We’re only looking for a few handfuls of fruit from them though, so I’m hopeful we’ve done enough.

We’ve also put a dozen basil plants around the tomatoes, partly because I’d love to be able to make my own pesto, but also because they work well as companion plants.

Our strawberries are finally paying back our attention with some big, sweet fruit – at least some of which we’re managing to save from the slaters. I don’t think we’ll plant strawberries in tires again, partly because of questions about whether they might leech chemicals into the soil, but also because it’d be hard to get enough tires to fit the number of plants (and fruit) we’re looking for.

The first of our lettuces are almost ready to harvest, and my second planting of carrots will need thinning soon, too.

Inside the house, I’ve spent a lot of time reading. I’m racing through some of my backlog of fiction before getting into the two fantastic books J gave me for Christmas – Small House Living and Embrace Your Space. Both are New Zealand-centric and are simply beautiful books to look at, as well as being packed with great ideas and inspiration.

So on that note, I’ll sign off.

-G

Keeping eggshells out of compost

A few weeks ago we stopped composting our eggshells. This might seem odd – the shells are a great source of calcium, and whatever egg white clings to them adds protein to our mix.

However that was the problem – egg shells in compost attract rodents, and I’m sure they were a drawcard for the rat that took up residence in our compost bins. Rodents aren’t great news at the best of times, but we really didn’t want rattie graduating from the eggshells in our compost to the fresh ones in our chicken coop…

Luckily, there are lots of other things we can do with eggshells – including feeding them back to the chickens. Chickens need plenty of calcium in their diet to keep producing shells, and one way to provide it is by recycling the calcium they’ve already had.

The key to this is to make the eggshells look and taste different from the shells the chickens create, or else your birds might start eating their own eggs (seriously, they can do this). To prevent chickens from going all ‘Hennibal the Cannibal’, bake and crush the shells before feeding them back.

However, since we already feed oyster grit to meet our girls’ calcium requirements, I’m avoiding that option. Instead I’m baking the shells (for around an hour at 180 degrees Celsius), then crushing them with a mortar and pestle until they’re about the consistency of sand. I’ll add it to the soil when we plant more tomatoes, as I’ve read that tomato plants in particular love calcium.

At this time of year, when we’re making egg-heavy pavlova and lots of home-cooked breakfasts, we have a lot of shells. By using the shells wisely, we’re enriching our soil, along with our diet.

Christmas feast

It’s Christmas Day today, and I’ve started 3 weeks of holiday – which I hope will involve a lot of gardening, preparation for the new year, and relaxing.

One of our goals for Christmas was to be able to supply some of the food from our own garden. In particular, I was keen to have home grown potatoes, and this week we harvested the first bag of our “Red Rascal”  crop. Weighing in at just over 1.1kg, it’s a decent contribution to Christmas lunch, and a promising omen for the other 5 bags which are still growing nicely. We spaced the planting out over about a month, so should have freshly dug potatoes through summer.

As well as the potatoes (which we’ll boil and serve with butter), I’ve made honey kumara and pavlova – the latter uses our own eggs.

While they won’t be on the table today, the lettuces I recently moved have also perked up in the last week, and it now looks like they’ll all survive the experience. To be honest, I’m surprised at how well the transplanting has worked, and another good side effect might be that the time it took them to readjust means they’ll mature a bit later, extending the harvest.

I’ve also started breaking in more ground in our main vegetable garden – it’s a tough job, but will be worth it when the decade-old grass has made way for beautiful produce. I do love having a summer project to keep me occupied!

Merry Christmas.

-G