Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Patch update

It's been a little over six months since Susan and I started work on the Patch - our Landshare garden at Jill's and Mike's place. Here's a pictorial update on how things are going.

June 2011 December 2011
All in all, we're pretty pleased with the transformation from former horse paddock to productive vegie garden. The main problem was that I was away in Europe for the critical period mid-September to end October. Won't do that again.

Potato bed
Potato bed
The potato bed has produced a good crop of Pontiacs and the Dutch Creams are still going strong. This bed hasn't been watered since September and yet it's full of lovely, moist, worm-filled humus made from seagrass, mushroom compost, pea straw and home-made compost.
A second batch of Pontiacs has just been planted out and covered with compost made on site. The pea straw bales are breaking down quite fast (with the help of some hungry mice) - by the end of the summer I think some will just be shapeless mounds of straw.

Grain bed (not!)
The next bed was intended as a grain and pulse bed: amaranth, chia, quinoa, chickpea and linseed were sown in November. This was an experiment as I thought conditions might already be too warm, at least for the quinoa and chia. Looks like I was right: only the amaranth came up in worthwhile numbers, with a few chickpeas. An additional problem was watering: with only one or two visits a week and only hand watering, it was impossible to keep the seed bed moist. Lesson learned: any sowing of fine seed needs to coincide with decent rain. We got a nice crop of self-sown mallow, though!
I'm trying again with sunflowers, having enriched the soil with our home-made compost. Unenriched parts of the bed will be used for buckwheat and another green manure crop.

Watermelon and solanum bed

Eggplants, capsicums and watermelons
I divided this bed in half for ease of access - all watering at the Patch is by hand with a watering can. After a green manure crop, this bed was further enriched by the addition of 1.5 m3 of mushroom compost: I'm aiming for a rich, moisture-retentive soil. I think I walked 20 km with that wheelbarrow, as it's a couple of hundred metres from the driveway to the Patch.
Two rows of eggplants will hopefully provide shade for watermelon foliage and roots in hot weather.
I've never grown watermelons before but thought I would give them a try in this sunny position. I'm fairly sure we won't be short of eggplants come autumn - 16 plants may have been slight overkill. Not sure what else I'm going to put in here, possibly some autumn brassicas or leeks.

Three Sisters bed

Three Sisters: maize, beans, pumpkin
The Three Sisters system of symbiotic cultivation comes from South America: maize, climbing beans and cucurbits (in this case, Anna Schwartz pumpkin) are grown together. The beans enrich the soil with nitrogen and bind together the maize stalks, preventing wind damage; the large cucurbit leaves shade the soil, helping to keep it moist for the maize; the maize provides a frame for the beans to climb up. I've been sowing the maize in 1-metre blocks every 2-3 weeks and 4-5 beans a metre on the south side of the blocks.

Then there's a row of capsicums which were left over seedlings from our other garden. I guess they'll have to be the fourth sister.

Lucerne and wildflower strip

Lucerne and wildflower strip - decorative and useful

This 20 x 1 metre strip of lucerne interspersed with Queen Anne's Lace and California poppies has turned out really well. So much so that I've decided to make it 2 metres wide in the autumn. The flowers attract beneficial insects and the lucerne will provide mulch for the vegie beds. Looks great, too.
This bed hasn't been watered since early September.

Comfrey strip

Comfrey (Bocking 14)

20 comfrey plants were planted in a 20-metre strip back in July. All are doing well. I try to give them some supplementary water in hot weather, but they largely fend for themselves. I chose the non-weedy Bocking 14 variety from Diggers Club.

People have been puzzled why I'm producing semi-industrial quantities of comfrey. It mines the subsoil for minerals, then makes these available as its leaves break down. It's great as a compost activator, as a soil-enriching mulch and as comfrey tea (now brewing) - a nutritious but extremely smelly liquid fertiliser. The flowers will be good for bees (when we get some, but that's another story), and I see ladybirds and assassin bugs hanging out around them too.

Compost bays

Next batch of green stuff ready for composting

The four-bay compost system (such opulence! such luxury!) was built from old timber from Jill's and Mike's woodshed. It's working really well, but had to be lined with heavy-duty weedmat and old carpet, as the thuggish kikuyu grass from the neighbouring school oval was determined to get in on the act.

Lovely compost - once was weeds, cardboard and chook poo
We've just produced and used our first batch of lovely crumbly compost using the cold-composting method. Now the blanket weed I dug up in July is being hot-composted. Despite dire mutterings from locals about the stuff being indestructible, this is going a treat. If it once lived, you can compost it.

That's about it for now. I'm hoping a Permaculture Design Certificate in February will give me some more inspiration. Also we're doing a bee-keeping course in April as we think our Patch is a bit of a bee-desert, being surrounded mostly by acres of well-mown grass. If we want pollination, we'll have to provide the pollinators and plenty of bee tucker.

Happy New Year and happy gardening in 2012!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

German red cabbage

Our red cabbages are a little late this year, but they're ready now. They've formed nice tight heads, which are bug-free once the outer leaves have been stripped off. I use them for three main dishes: coleslaw, pickled red cabbage and German red cabbage (Rotkohl). Here's an easy way to do Rotkohl.


  • half a red cabbage, finely sliced
  • 1 apple, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 rashers bacon
  • 1 glass red wine
  • 1 glass apple juice
  • bay leaves
  • half a dozen cloves
  • seasoning
  • sugar (optional)
  • olive oil

Make sure the cabbage is clean and bug free. Quarter the cabbage and cut out the stalk. Slice the cabbage thinly. Chop the bacon, onion and apple.

Take a heavy cast-iron casserole or saucepan with a lid. Fry the bacon quickly in the oil, then add the onion and fry over a low heat for 5 mins. Add the chopped apple. When the onion is translucent, add the red cabbage, bay leaves, cloves and the wine and juice. Stir and simmer over a low heat with the lid on for 2-3 hours. Check from time to time to make sure there is still sufficient liquid, adding more juice or wine if necessary.

You may add 1-2 teaspoons of sugar, depending on how sweet your juice, apple and wine are. Personally I prefer not to. When cooked, your Rotkohl should be glutinous, sweet and sour and caramelised. It goes really well with roast or barbecued meat and can be frozen. You could also use it as a filling for a jacket potato with a blob of sour cream.

The original German version would use goose fat instead of olive oil, would use good quality German Speck rather than bacon back rashers and would be heavier on the sugar and may add a small amount of flour to make a more glutinous dish, but my version is a little lighter.

Monday, November 28, 2011


For the past couple of years I've been paying more attention to the soil in my garden – 'soil' is a short word, but what is it exactly?

Soil is an amalgam of tiny particles of rock with humus (decayed vegetable matter), fungi and bacteria. This provides a substrate for plants to anchor themselves in and a sponge to capture water, making it available to the plants' roots.

Soil contains a wide variety of nutrients which are essential to healthy plant growth, including the big three – potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus. Then there are the secondary nutrients calcium, magnesium and sulphur. Thirdly, there's a range of micronutrients: boron, copper, iron, zinc, chloride, molybdenum and manganese. 'Micro' because they are only present (and needed) in tiny quantities. They're also called 'trace elements'.

So far, so complicated. But we're not done yet. Not only do plants need all these nutrients in varying quantities, it appears that they also need the help of a type of fungus to enable them to digest their food. This symbiotic relationship is called mycorrhizal (fungus and root).

So there's a lot more to 'soil' than just some brown crumbly stuff. But how can I apply this knowledge practically in the garden?

Well, I monitor soil pH (acidity/alkalinity), because I know that it affects a plant's ability to take up nutrients. A pH test kit is quite cheap and easy to use. An excessively acidic (under 5.5) or alkaline (over 7.5) soil can be corrected by the addition of lime or sulphur respectively. I check the soil pH about once a year.

Other than measuring pH, soil care is fairly unscientific in my garden. I adopt a variety of approaches, hoping that they will all help.

  • I try to get as much organic matter into the soil as possible, through the use of green manure (a crop which is grown, slashed down and dug in to feed the soil) and home-made and bought-in compost.
  • I boost micronutrients through the addition of rock dust.
  • Now that my worm farm is flourishing I can also add worm castings and worm 'wee' to the soil, hopefully boosting its population of beneficial bacteria.
  • The organic mulches I apply, such as lucerne and pea straw, protect soil microbes and plant roots from overheating and desiccation, and add some carbon and nitrogen as they break down.
  • I try to avoid deep digging, which brings sterile subsoil to the surface.
  • I'm experimenting with the use of comfrey and lucerne - deep-rooted perennials - to recover lost nutrients from the subsoil.
  • I don't sieve soil unless absolutely necessary, because it disrupts the soil structure and can produce a hydrophobic surface.
  • I'm very careful about what I put in and on my garden soil. No detergents, no poisons like glyphosate (Roundup or Zero), which may harm beneficial bacteria.

As well as these basic measures, I've recently started to experiment with two new products which have come on the market: biochar and Bactivate, a bacterial fertiliser.

Biochar is the 'black earth' that is supposed to have given the naturally poor Amazonian soils great fertility, supporting intensive agriculture in pre-Columbian times. Basically it's charcoal, in a form which binds water and nutrients, making them available to plants and improving soil structure. Bactivate is also carbon based: it's pellets of coal dust coated with beneficial soil bacteria.

By the use of all these methods, I'm hoping to transform the rather poor, sandy and hydrophobic soil I inherited for my vegie patch into a rich, fertile growing medium. Comparison with other parts of the garden suggests that I've already made quite a bit of progress.

What I'd really like is the rich, dark soil of my mum's and stepdad's garden in western France. Come spring, the vegies in the Limousin leap out of the ground at an astonishing rate. However, it's taken probably 3,000 years of organic cultivation to make that soil, so I may have a way to go yet!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Growing summer veg from seed

Tomorrow I'm giving an informal workshop on this subject at Harvest Basket. I was dubious about the need for it, but on talking to Jill and other keen gardeners, it seems that this is still regarded as a bit of a 'black art' by some. Actually it's dead easy once you get yourself set up.

I thought it would be good to do a step-by-step description of the process here, with photos.

Now I tend to be quite methodical about my gardening and have been known to spend more than is strictly necessary on getting the 'right' gear, so do bear in mind that you can do this more simply and for virtually no outlay except a bit of potting mix …

Step 1

Assemble the stuff you need. At a minimum: seeds, potting mix, pots, water, a container with a transparent lid to act as a controlled environment. That can be as simple as half a plastic bottle to put over your pot.

I use Jiffy coir peat pots because you just plant them out, pot and all. The seedling roots grow through the pot and there is little or no transplant shock (IF you wait until the garden soil is warm enough; see below).

I also use a few extras: a potting sieve, a propagation thermometer, plant labels, a propagator with a vented lid, a heated propagating tray with a thermostat.

Step 2

Soak your Jiffy pots. You must get them completely wet at the outset.

Step 3

Arrange your wet pots in your tray with no gaps. The square pots are much better for this than the round ones.

Step 4

Fill your pots to the rim with your growing medium. I use a general organic potting mix, as seed raising mix doesn't have enough nutrients to keep the seedlings going for the two months they'll be in pots. Then give the pots a good water; the growing medium will compact slightly, giving you a few millimetres of space to sow and cover your seeds.

Step 5

If you're as forgetful as me, write your plant labels NOW and arrange them in the same order as you're going to sow the seeds in the pots. All the solanaceae (tomatoes, eggplants etc) seeds look very similar.

Step 6

Sow your seeds. I usually sow three per pot. Two of them will be culled later.

Step 7

Cover your seeds with a fine layer of potting mix. I use a sieve for this - seeds won't grow too well if they're weighed down by a big lump of potting mix or bark! Water in gently. I find these little watering can tops for plastic bottles very handy for watering seedlings.

Step 8

Get your plant labels in before you forget what you sowed where. (You may begin to see a pattern emerging here. Yes, I really am that absent-minded.) You'll notice there's also a thermometer in one pot. More about that below.

Step 9

Set up your heated propagator tray if you have one. It wants to be somewhere out of the sun and the rain - this unit is weather-resistant, but not water-tight. Also, your seedlings may dry out or get too hot in direct sunlight. When they get their first true leaves, you can start to put them out in the sun. But I'm getting ahead of myself …

This propagator tray has a felt blanket which must be kept moist, otherwise it will not transmit the heat effectively to the pots.

Step 10

Put your lids on your propagators and close the vents. Put the propagators on the tray and turn it on. You want a soil temperature of about 20C. To achieve that, you'll probably have to turn the thermostat up to about 28C. That's why there's a thermometer in one of the pots: the temperature of the heating unit will be higher than the temperature of the soil, and it's the latter that counts. You can use the thermometer to monitor the soil temperature and adjust the thermostat accordingly.

Step 11

Sit back and wait … and wait …

It can take about 2 weeks for tomatoes to emerge, and the warmth-loving eggplants and capsicums may take up to 4 weeks. In the meantime, the pots shouldn't need watering - unless you let the sun get to them. You will however need to wet the felt blanket every couple of days, more often in hot, dry weather.

What next?

Your seedlings will first put out a pair of cotyledons ('baby leaves'), then a week or two later their first true leaves. At this stage, cull two of the seedlings in each pot, leaving only the sturdiest one. Your pots will need watering regularly now and you can give them a very diluted seaweed solution and/or worm juice. Just a few drops of the concentrated stuff in their watering bottle is sufficient. Make sure they get plenty of sunlight now, but not baking heat. If you have a sheltered spot (such as a cold frame with the lid off), you can take the plastic lid off of the propagator during the day. You don't want too much humidity now or your seedlings could damp off and die.

When the soil temperature in the garden bed is around 18C, it's time to plant out your seedlings. On the Bellarine Peninsula, this will probably be around the second week of November. You can warm up the soil by stripping off any mulch for a couple of weeks beforehand.

Transplanting tomatoes, eggplants and capsicums into cool soil is a waste of time and plants. Your plants will be set back, more vulnerable to pests and diseases, possibly permanently stunted, and you won't get fruit any earlier, so unless you have a hothouse, be patient.

It's all to easy to get 'garden centre-itis' and bring home luxuriant tomato seedlings in mid-September. The poor little buggers will turn up their toes when you stick them in your 10C soil. You have been warned …

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Patch update

Well, it's been a hard slog, but the evolution of The Patch from paddock to productive garden is almost complete.
  • Infrastructure has been built: a four-bay compost system and a timber shed.
  • Beds have been dug: four vegie beds @ 4 x 5 metres, giving 80m2 of growing space; two 20-metre-long strip beds for comfrey and lucerne, which will hopefully provide mulch and plant food for years to come.
  • Living windbreaks have been planted: 12 Flinders Ranges wattles on the northern boundary, 24 grevilleas on the eastern boundary.
With some trepidation I sent away a soil sample to AMAL Analytical soil lab, and was relieved to learn that there were no detectable traces of pesticides in the soil. DDT and Dieldrin have left their toxic legacy on the Bellarine Peninsula, but thankfully not in this backyard.

This weekend I'm planning to get sowing: the strawbale-lined, heavily-mulched potato bed will get its seed potatoes at last; the other three vegie beds will be sown with a green manure mix of oats and vetch; the lucerne bed will get its lucerne.

There are a couple more projects to deal with before I go off to Europe in mid-September: get a water tank and plumb it in; dig a small bed for insect attracting annual flowers and find a space for some lavender seedlings which have popped up in our other garden. The bathtub worm farm will have to wait until I get back in early November.

It will be interesting to see what happens next. Will the kikuyu overrun the grevilleas while I'm away? Will the rabbits devour the comfrey? Will the potatoes wilt? Will the pigeons dine out on the oat and vetch seeds? I'm sure of only one thing: the unexpected will occur. Watch this space.
    Those shed panels were heavy. Just as well Mike was there to lend a hand.
    Constructing the shed was a day's work.

    Preparing the potato bed. Newspaper topped with straw and sheep poo should keep the weeds down. Strawbales form an organic fence and will be used as mulch next year.

    Digging the beds was a hard slog, but I like a challenge.

    Flinders Ranges wattles will grow to 2 x 2m, provide mulch, shelter from hot northerly winds and bird-attracting flowers.

    Grevilleas will grow to the top of the fence, if the kikuyu doesn't smother them.

    Sunday, July 3, 2011

    Cutting a swathe

    This may be blasphemy to many Aussie blokes, but I hate petrol powered tools. They're smelly, noisy brutes that scare the chooks and belch carcinogenic fumes into their operators' faces. In many cases, they're simply unnecessary for the modest workload on hand.

    In our backyard, we find a cordless electric 'Enviromower' from Victa more than adequate. It even has a nifty edging attachment to keep the edges neat and tidy. Not that the chooks have left much lawn worth mowing.

    Up at the Patch, it's a different story. The Victa would struggle to mow 300 metres of couch and blanket weed on one battery charge, and I'd rather not have to cart it back and forth anyway.

    So, I've gone for a low-tech alternative: I've got in touch with my inner Grim Reaper by acquiring and learning to use a scythe.

    The mainstay of farmers before mechanised industrial farming, the scythe has become a fairly specialised tool. Mine was imported from Austria. It has a hand-carved snath (that's a handle to non-scythe users) and a variety of hand-forged, razor-sharp blades, including a wicked 65 cm job. It came with an instructional CD featuring a family of barefoot, scythe wielding Canadian farmers who made scythe mowing look really easy. In one memorable scene, a 15-year-old girl with a scythe raced a burly bloke with a brushcutter and won. Her hay was even neatly piled in a row ready for collection; his was just mashed and scattered across the paddock.

    Well, I've got a long way to go to match that barefooted scythe girl, but getting started is really quite easy. It's very gentle exercise and that 65 cm blade cuts through swathes of long grass with a satisfying swish. Despite Susan's initial fears, there's actually no danger of cutting your own feet off. Other people's feet, maybe.

    Before too long, Jill and Mike may even be able to distinguish the areas of grass I haven't mowed from the ones I have. We live in hope.

    Not-so-grim reaper with his new toy

    Friday, June 3, 2011

    Sharing the land

    It's time to tell you about a plan that we've been hatching with Jill and Mike Pring.

    Jill and Mike have some under-utilised land in their back yard, and kindly invited Susan and me to cultivate it under a landshare agreement. Anyone who knows me won't be surprised that I leaped at the chance, and Susan is really excited at having the chance to create a vegie garden from scratch.

    So, what's a landshare agreement?

    In a nutshell, people with more land than they can use get together with people who would like more land to grow produce on. Both parties are protected by a contract which formalises what they can expect of each other. You can find lots more info at http://www.landshareaustralia.com.au/

    In our case, the land in question is about 250 m2 of grass and carpet weed behind Jill's and Mike's grapevines.

    A blank canvas

    We're itching to start growing stuff, but I'm determined to be methodical and get the new garden (christened 'The Patch' as 'The-New-Vegie-Garden-at-Jill-and-Mike's-Place' proved too much of a mouthful) off to the best possible start.

    The Patch looks very promising, with a gentle, north-facing slope. My initial excavations for the compost bays have revealed a deep, sandy loam soil.

    Speaking of compost bays, we've been able to make use of the extensive Pring family woodpile and are constructing an opulent four-bay compost system, with each bay able to contain a little over 1 m3 of compost. Luxury!

    A post hole auger is really handy

    These old weatherboards will do the job

    We also have plans for a water tank and a smallish timber shed, as well as a bathtub worm farm.

    I've planned a four-bed organic vegie garden. Permanent strip plantings of comfrey and lucerne will eventually provide most of our mulch needs (I hope), and a windbreak of indigenous wattles on the north side will slow down the fierce summer winds and provide more organic mulch. Rosemary and lavender bushes will help to attract beneficial insects.

    Here's the plan:

    The Patch
    The Patch has to be fairly low-maintenance, as it might only get attention once a week. I've given that a lot of thought, but I don't doubt that it will be a learning experience with much trial and error. Stay tuned ...

    Friday, April 29, 2011

    A summer of surprises

    Well, that wasn't quite the summer I was expecting. No heatwaves to frazzle the foliage; plentiful rain to fill the tanks and swell the tomatoes; below-average temperatures that stubbornly refused to ripen the rockmelons.

    Here's my scorecard for my various gardening endeavours this summer, from 0 (complete failure) to 10 (complete success)

    Tomatoes: 11
    Huge, tasty, prolific. My Amish Paste produced lots of half-kilo monsters like this one and is still going strong.

    Eggplants: 0
    Nice, healthy plants, no fruit. Not one.

    Rockmelons: 1
    Plenty of fruit, but not enough heat to ripen them. Most of the fruit were rather tasteless. I think I'm giving up on rockmelons, as they're clearly marginal in my garden.

    Onions: 9
    Good spring rain produced a nice crop of compact, juicy bulbs. I pulled them just in time to survive the worst of the wet weather in January.

    Potatoes: 8
    Not a huge number of spuds, but they were of excellent size and great taste. Why is it that I can never, ever find the last potato? Even after a thorough dig over by our chooks, the potato bed produced an unexpected second crop.

    Pumpkins: 5
    Not what I expected. I was confidently expecting a good crop of 1-2 kg rich orange Potimarron heirlooms like these ones from a couple of years ago.

    … instead I got a handful of 5 kg greenish monsters like this one. Obviously someone at Diggers wasn't paying attention.

    I could go on, but you get the picture. A decidedly mixed bag. But wouldn't it be boring if everything always turned out as planned? If you aren't reliant on one type of crop, there are always successes to compensate for the failures - and failures to stop you getting too big-headed about your successes.

    Friday, April 1, 2011

    My favourite recipe book

    Most of my cookbook purchases over the years have been 'aspirational': I'm seduced by a gorgeous-looking book, buy it, try one or two recipes and then the book retires to the bookcase, where it gathers dust. You see, mostly I'm a spur-of-the-moment cook and can't be bothered with elaborate recipes.

    The one exception is Jamie at Home by Jamie Oliver, published by Penguin, 2007. I love this because it's a real gardener's cookbook. I cook every day, but I only get passionate about cooking with fresh produce that I've grown myself. This book is stacked with simple, rustic, delicious recipes, arranged by season.

    Here's a sample, which as it happens is bubbling away in the oven right now, using capsicums, onions, tomatoes and herbs that I've just picked from the garden. (I've simplified and shortened the text a little.)

    Spicy pork and chilli-pepper goulash
    serves 4 to 6

    2 kg pork shoulder off the bone, skin off, fat left on
    olive oil
    2 red onions, finely sliced
    2 red chillies, finely chopped
    2 heaped tbsp mild paprika
    2 tsp caraway seeds
    bunch fresh oregano
    5 medium-large capsicums (pref. a mix of types and colours)
    1 kg ripe tomatoes, peeled
    4 tbsp red wine vinegar
    small pot sour cream
    zest of one lemon
    bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped

    Preheat the oven to 180C. Get a deep, ovenproof casserole with a lid and heat it on the hob. Score the fat on the meat in a criss-cross pattern all the way through to the meat, then season generously with salt and pepper. Pour a good glug of olive oil into the pot and add the pork, fat side down. Cook for about 15 minutes on a medium heat, to render out the fat, then remove the pork from the pot and put it to one side.

    Add the onions, chilli, paprika, caraway seeds, oregano and a good pinch of salt and pepper to the pot. Turn the heat down and gently cook the onions for 10 minutes, then add the sliced peppers and the tomatoes. Put the pork back in, give the pot a shake, then pour in enough water to cover the meat. Add the vinegar. Bring to the boil, put the lid on, then place in the oven for 3 hours.

    Stir the sour cream, lemon zest and most of the parsley together in a little bowl. Serve the goulash in a dish or bowl, with basmati rice and the flavoured sour cream. Garnish with the rest of the parsley.

    If you want any more recipes, you'll have to buy the book!

    Wednesday, March 23, 2011

    Veg in a bag

    I'm always on the lookout for ways to pack more edible plants into our garden. One of the most successful has been these 45 litre woven plastic bags from Diggers. They last for years, they only cost about $5 each, and they're big enough to grow a range of different veg. Also they can be moved around the garden to make the best use of sun, shade, windbreaks etc, as they have robust handles. Try not to give yourself a hernia, though!

    I fill the bags with a mixture of bought-in organic compost and my own home-made compost, which holds a lot more water. I find that the bags benefit from a daily water in hot weather, but otherwise you can go 2-3 days at least between watering, depending on how thirsty the crop is.

    I've had great success with the following:
    • capsicums (1 plant per bag)
    • cucumbers (1 plant per bag)
    • peas (4-5 plants per bag, with a wire frame and then a net tied to the balcony when they really went berserk)
    I reckon bush/French beans would also go well, eggplants and possibly even a small rockmelon like Eden's Gem. Sprouting broccoli might be worth a go, ditto kale.

    Zucchini were a marginal success: they really need more space for their extensive root system and tend to suffer from blossom end rot. Pumpkins proved a waste of space and water: lovely healthy plant, but no fruit! Tomatoes didn't do as well as I hoped, but I used a vigorous, indeterminate variety (Tommy Toe); a bush variety such as Roma might do well.

    Diggers advertise them as potato bags, but I've not had much success with that, after two attempts. The rampant top growth tries to climb out of the bag, pushing the sides down so you can't water properly, and the crop in both cases was miserable. Perhaps I just don't have the knack. These days I grow my spuds in the ground and have bucketloads of huge tasty spuds from an area 1 x 1.5 metres.

    Several of my bags are in their third year and going strong. I'm fairly confident I won't need replacements for a year or two yet. But maybe I should buy a few more, just in case I find another corner to squeeze them into ...

    Friday, January 21, 2011

    Autumn carrots

    Late summer is a good time to get carrots in - the soil has plenty of warmth, probably isn't too rich because it's been working hard for you growing spring/summer veggies, and hopefully autumn rains and cooler temperatures aren't too far off.

    This year I'm planning to grow St Valery - an old French variety with long orange roots - and Purple Dragon - a purple-skinned variety with long thick roots.

    Before I hit on the following method of growing carrots, I used to have problems with non-germination and with uselessly forked carrots. The last couple of years I seem to have got it right. Here's what works for me:

    1 Choose a bed that hasn't had a big feed of fertiliser or compost recently - rich soil can cause problems with forking.
    2 Make sure the soil is well cultivated without rocks or any other big chunks of hard stuff. Remove any mulch from the surface - you want a fine tilth to sow your seeds into.
    (Forget about planting carrot seedlings, you really need to grow carrots from seed because they have a long fragile taproot which after all, is the whole point of carrots!)
    3 Unless the soil is already moist, water the bed then leave for an hour or so.
    4 Make a wide, shallow drill (no more than about 1 cm deep).
    5 Sow your carrot seeds into it in a zigzag pattern. They're fiddly little things, but don't stress too much about spacing them exactly. Just try to avoid any big gaps or big clumps.
    6 Cover with a fine dusting of soil - your seeds need to be covered, but not too deep. Small seeds need to be sown near the surface.
    7 Water in - gently.
    8 Cover with a layer or two of damp newspaper. This is to stop your seeds drying out before they germinate, and prevent the birds from scoffing the lot. Weigh down the sheets of newsprint with something long and fairly heavy, or they'll blow away. I use garden stakes pinned down with weed mat pins.
    9 Water once a day until your seedlings are up.
    10 After a week or so, lift the edge of the newspaper each morning to check whether the seedlings are up. If so, immediately remove the newspaper.
    11 Continue to water regularly until your carrots have enough top growth to shade the soil. You could also mulch at this time.
    12 Don't bother too much about thinning your carrots: just start to pull and use them when they're still small, and the survivors will expand to fill the available space.

    Happy carrotting!

    Thursday, January 20, 2011

    How d'ya like them onions?

    Reliable spring rain followed by a mild start to summer has given us a superb onion crop this year: big, juicy and full of flavour. In a raised bed about 2.5 x 1.5 metres I've grown about 120 onions - 30(ish) each of Early Barletta, Long Red Florence, Heirloom Red and Creamgold - plus a few English spinach plants. The Early Barletta and the spinach have long since been harvested and digested, but I've just pulled the Heirloom Reds and the Creamgolds, and the LRFs are still going.

    I thought disaster had struck when we got the heavy rains last week: all my lovely onions were sodden and I was convinced they would all rot!! Fortunately I keep some long rolls of Solarweave in the garage and was able to cover the onion bed on Tuesday, allowing the soil to dry out.

    Creamgold, Red Heirloom and Long Red Florence

    Through trial and error I've discovered that to grow onions in our garden I need to avoid mulching. Even the thinnest covering of lucerne or pea straw seems to lead to white basal rot which ruins the onions' flavour and keeping qualities.

    No mulch inevitably means more weeding and watering, but a leafy cover crop helps to shade the soil until the onions are well established - hence the spinach. Once the bulbs are starting to swell, some low-growing weeds can be tolerated and may actually help to cool the soil and retain moisture.

    I always find onions a bit of a worry - they occupy the sunniest bed in the garden for 8 months of the year, so I want a good return on my investment. I often get it wrong: two years ago I left my newly harvested Creamgolds out to cure in the sun - on a 40 degree day. We came back from the beach to find the onions well on the way to becoming roast onions. Disaster!! There was no way I was going to chuck my precious crop out, so I fired up the barbie and spent the next two hours chopping and frying onions with tomatoes. That all went in the freezer and kept us in pasta sauce for a few months.