Monday, December 3, 2012

Summer recipes

It's great to see the recipe idea taking off at Harvest Basket, with new recipe sheets appearing each month. Here are a couple more recipes you might like to try:

Beetroot and carrot salad
2-4 beetroot (depending on size)
2-4 carrots (ditto)
several mint leaves (peppermint probably best)
juice of half a lemon
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp salt
generous glug of olive oil

Peel the vegies, bung all the ingredients in the blender. Turn it on. Job done!
This makes a lovely, tangy salad with a slight Middle Eastern flavour. Goes well with sausages or other barbecued meats.

Jill Pring does a similar one with apple and coriander and without the cumin and lemon juice. Also yum!

Honey and almond cookies
250 g rye flour
120 g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
250 g honey
250 g butter
1 cup coarsely chopped almonds (you could also try raw pistachios, hazelnuts, chocolate, dried fruits, etc. etc.)
2 standard eggs or 3 bantam eggs

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Melt the butter in a saucepan then allow to cool slightly. Fold the eggs, honey and butter into the dry ingredients, then fold in the almonds. Don't overwork the dough: you want it just to hang together in a big, slightly crumbly lump. Adjust flour as necessary to achieve this.

Empty out the dough onto a well-floured surface and gently roll into a sausage about 10 cm across. Handle the dough as little as possible. Wrap in baking paper and chill in the fridge for about 30 minutes. (You can also freeze the dough and bake it later.)

Meanwhile preheat the oven to 160˚C. Cover two baking trays with baking paper.
Cut the dough into 1 cm thick slices and arrange on the baking trays. Bake in the oven until lightly browned on top (about 25 minutes). Allow to cool on a baking tray.

Makes about 15 generous-sized cookies. Would be gorgeous as a dessert with sour cream or ricotta and fresh berries.

My thanks to Rose Newberry, the wonderful chef at Milkwood Permaculture for a version of this recipe.

Rose's cookies are in themselves probably sufficient reason to travel to Milkwood, 60 km out of Mudgee!

Friday, November 2, 2012

An unexpected bee bonanza

I got back from Germany on Tuesday evening - and on Wednesday morning I was straight up the Patch despite that fuzzy jetlagged feeling in my brain. I was walking past Jill's and Mike's garage at about 7 a.m., thinking about all the gardening chores I needed to catch up with, when I heard a familiar buzzing sound. Bees!! In the garage?? Yep.

As I got closer I could see that there was a largish swarm of bees clustered on the side of an old desk and spilling onto the floor. There were also quite a few bees flying around in the garage.

I then found Jill in the garden. it turned out she was unaware of the swarm of bees in her garage and they probably hadn't been there the day before, or possibly even at 5.30 that morning when Mike went off to work - using the car which had been parked in the garage that was now full of bees. It was a warm morning after a warm, humid night. Tuesday had been up to 31 C and Wednesday was forecast to be around 34 C with possible rain later.

The bees appeared to be trying to get into the desk. I assumed that there would be a lot of them already inside it. The situation was complicated by there being a whole lot of stuff on the desk - a table, a couple of sheets and some tools and other objects.

A brief phone conversation with Susan ensued and we agreed that we would come back with our bee kit later that morning to have a good look at the swarm and probably try to catch it and use it to start a second hive, up at the Patch (our first hive being back home in our own garden).

We had enough spare components to make up a second hive, as our original intention was always to have two hives. We hadn't expected a second swarm to come our way quite this easily, though!

At 11.30 we turned up with our bee suits and all our kit in the car, got suited up and set about tackling the swarm. The plan was to sweep up the bees as gently as possible using our bee brush and a dustpan.

I taped together two hive boxes with a temporary plywood floor. This formed a 40-litre container I could use as to collect the bees in. When turned up the other way (i.e. entrance at the bottom) and placed on a hive base it would be the core of the new hive. Eight frames with wax 'starter strips' were place inside the hive along with a pheromone lure to encourage the bees to stay. A 40-litre cavity that smells of wax and bee pheromone is the ultimate des res for a swarm of bees looking for a home.

We lit our smoker and gave the area a few puffs, but we were relying more on a spray bottle of water to keep the swarm calm. Very moderate use of smoke and fairly frequent misting with a fine spray of water worked very well.

Well, those bees were everywhere. On the leg of the table, on the side of the desk, hanging from the sheet and - what I think was the main part of the swarm - hanging from a piece of timber on the garage wall. I cleared all the things off the desk, working slowly and carefully so as not to agitate the bees, then just proceeded methodically with sweeping the bees up and tipping them into the upside-down hive. When I was eventually able to open the drawer of the desk, I found about 50 bees inside. I guess this was where they were all heading, but there was only a narrow gap and it was taking them a long time to get in. The drawer would have been about 20-30 litres capacity. A bit small for a good-sized swarm of bees.

Eventually we had most of the bees in the hive. I hadn't seen the queen but I thought she was most likely in the big ball of bees hanging from the wall of the garage. I then put a hive base on top of the hive, taped it in place and turned the hive the right way up.

The bees seemed quite calm and not aggressive throughout the whole process, which took nearly 90 minutes. A few of them buzzed around my head or banged into the veil, but there was no attempt to sting me. They seemed to take to their new home immediately.

Important note: bee swarms are usually not aggressive, however you should never interfere with one if you don't have appropriate training and equipment. If you anger the bees by mishandling them, you can expect to be badly stung.

We then left the bees to their own devices for the afternoon. Our hope was that the rest of the bees would find their way into the hive, which we left in the garage next to where the swarm had been. During the afternoon I selected a site for the hive in the Patch, then levelled the ground for four concrete blocks to make a hive stand.

When we returned at dusk the bees seemed settled, with just a few hanging around the hive entrance. We waited until they were all inside, then taped up the entrance. We also put the quilt* and roof on the hive at this stage, as we didn't want to open it again out in the cool evening air.

I then carried the hive 150 metres up the garden to the Patch. It was pitch dark and not at all easy to see where I was going, despite Susan's flashlight, as I was encumbered by my bee suit and a hive in front of my face! Also two hive boxes plus quilt and roof got quite heavy quite quickly. Anyway we got there without mishap and installed the hive in its site, untaped the entrance and beat a retreat.

I went back this afternoon to check out the situation and was pleased to see the bees busily foraging. Looks like the operation was a success and we have a second beehive!

* Quilt – a box full of woodshavings to control humidity in the hive. This is one of the important features of a Warré hive which distinguishes it from the Langstroth hives used by commercial beekeepers. Other key features are the characteristic pitched roof (regulates the temperature) and smaller boxes (more bee-friendly and easier to manage). The most important difference however is the low-intervention management method which focuses on the bees' needs – not on maximising the honey yield. Warré is in my view a far easier, more enjoyable and environmentally friendly method for the backyard beekeeper.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bee Day!

Earlier this year Susan and I attended a Warré beekeeping course in Sydney run by second-generation professional apiarist Tim Malfroy. It seems like a long way to go for a weekend course, but I had read about the Warré beekeeping method and wanted to learn more. It was worth the trip.

I have since become convinced that this is an ideal method for backyard apiarists in Australia, and it would be highly beneficial to bees and beekeepers alike if it became more widely practised. (Yes, I do tend to get evangelical when talking about Warré.)

Two days ago the great day arrived and a swarm moved into our hive. A big, vigorous swarm it is too. The power of a swarm of bees is a remarkable thing. I don't think I'll ever forget the way the air vibrated with that all-pervading hum, as a massive cloud of bees came barrelling up the road and parked itself over our front garden. I felt that we had summoned a force of nature. I actually felt a little scared at what we had unleashed.

You should be able to view the video on my flickr page here. It really doesn't do the experience justice!

It was particularly satisfying because we had done everything ourselves – learned about bee biology and behaviour and hive management, built the hive according to Émile Warré's design (slightly modified for Australian conditions), set out the bait hive and attracted the bees.

It has been quite a journey so far, and our life with bees has only just begun; there is so much to learn.

Here are a few photos we've taken along the way.

Tim Malfroy's course, April 2012. Because Warré is a low-intervention beekeeping method, most of the course is classroom based, but one of Tim's students kindly allowed the 20 of us to visit her backyard apiary. Here Tim is demonstrating the use of the smoker and opening the hive. The bees remained wonderfully calm throughout. In previous classes Tim has encouraged participants to gently stroke the bees! (Don't do that at home, folks!)

Hive building. The dimensions of a Warré hive are carefully attuned to the bees' requirements. The aim is to provide them with the best home (other than a hollow tree!) that we can, so that we have a healthy, happy, unaggressive colony. I decided to build my own hive from Warré's specifications, adapted by Tim Malfroy for Australian conditions. The joinery is basic but needs to be quite accurate, built to a 1-2 mm tolerance. Inaccuracies will result in ill-fitting frames, which the bees will stick to the sides of the hive box, making your hive illegal. (DPI inspectors are obliged to destroy hives that do not have removable frames.)

I built 8 Warré boxes initially, with four flat roofs and two pitched roofs, meaning that I could set up four 2-box bait hives and then convert them to two full-size Warré hives. The pitched roofs don't just look pretty, they allow maximum thermal insulation for the hive, enabling the bees to control the hive's internal climate.

Bait hives. When bees swarm they send out scouts to check out the surrounding area for nest sites. Bees will nest pretty much anywhere that offers them shelter, but they actually rank the available sites according to suitability and reach consensus on the best one! This is a remarkable example of collective intelligence and has been thoroughly researched and documented by Thomas D Seeley, one of the world's eminent bee biologists, in his book Honeybee Democracy.

As it happens (and of course this is not coincidence but design) a two-box Warré hive is the optimum size, shape and configuration for a bee colony. That makes it easier to attract a swarm. This is a great way of getting a genetically diverse, strong colony - and taking a feral swarm out of the environment, which might otherwise nest in someone's roof or wall.

The bait hives need to be in an elevated position and contain some beeswax. We also used a pheromone lure to attract the bees - but only an attractive site can persuade them to stay, this is not a mechanical process.

The next stage was to transfer the occupied bait hive to its permanent position. At night and as it happened, in the rain. I don't recommend standing on a slippery stepladder in the dark clutching a box of 10,000 or so bees, but it was the only way to get them down. You only have a day or two to move the hive, otherwise the bees will imprint on their location and always go back there, not to the hive if you move it elsewhere.

The next day our bees were busy getting used to their new surroundings and sending out foragers. By the afternoon we were seeing bees returning with pollen, indicating that the queen was already laying eggs in the newly built comb.

Today we are going to move the hive on to its permanent base and add the quilt (a box of woodshavings above the hive to control humidity) and the pitched roof, which fits over the quilt and prevents rain from entering.

By around Christmas our colony should occupy three or four boxes, so it will look like this.

More on Warré beekeeping from my friends Kirsten and Nick at Milkwood Farm, NSW.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Edges, boundaries and paths

Cultivating the Patch is throwing up interesting questions about edges, boundaries and paths. It's a rectangle of land with minimal boundaries: a large-mesh wire fence on the north and east separating it from the neighbours' properties; a 2 metre wooden fence on the south separating it from the school oval and no boundary on the west other than Jill's and Mike's vineyard.

On the minus side, that means that there's little to block the passage of wind, rabbits and the occasional errant dog. On the plus side, there are none of the issues with shade that we have to deal with in our home garden, caused by mature trees in our and our neighbours' yards, and of course our 2-storey house. The Patch was really a horticultural blank slate.
The Patch - June 2011
Faced with a nice big block of land to grow stuff on, my tendency (and I suspect I'm not alone in this) is to think of growing space, not access, and to begrudge any land dedicated to paths and barriers.

But paths and barriers are necessary. Foot and wheelbarrow traffic compacts soil, so you don't want to walk on land you're going to grow plants in. Aggressive running grasses and other tough running weeds (we're 'blessed' with kikuyu and blanket/carpet weed) would quickly overrun the cultivated land without well-defined borders that can be 'patrolled' for incursions.

I've tried to build some Permaculture principles into how I tackle the issue of barriers – the Patch is defined to the east and west by borders of deep-rooted, perennial plants – primarily comfrey and lucerne, which resist the encroachment of running weeds, provide useful nutrients and mulch to the garden and require little maintenance or irrigation.

To the north, a wattle border will eventually be about 2 metres high and diversified with sheokes, blueberries, etc. to provide shelter from hot northerlies, mulch and enrichment for the garden and some fruit for us.

I'm happy with how those solutions are evolving, but within the garden I feel the need for permanent paths, borders and subdivisions, and I'm not entirely happy with what I've done so far in that regard. One of the issues is the tension between the Permaculture approach I've recently learned – which values edge, diversity and curvilinear forms – and the traditional European organic gardener's approach, which wants straight lines and rectangular beds. There are advantages to both approaches and I haven't yet found a balance which works for us.

The two weeks I spent at Milkwood Permaculture in NSW brought home to me that there is scope for both approaches within an enterprise which is inspired by Permaculture principles. On the one hand they have a nascent forest garden which in years to come will probably be intensely productive with little ongoing maintenance; on the other hand most of their food in these early years is produced in a very traditional looking, labour-intensive organic market garden.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Food for thought

One of the things I took away from my Permaculture Design Certificate was a long list of books I wanted to read.

Milkwood Farm, where I did my PDC, has an extensive library in the converted woolshed that is its classroom, common room, dining room and well, room for all occasions. But somehow during two weeks of intensive learning and discussion I never found time to settle down and read any of the books properly. There were always fascinating conversations to take part in or just listen to around the campfire, or thoughts to digest from the day's presentations, group tasks and workshops.

So in the last five months I've been working my way through that list, with some additions I came across along the way. Here are some of the books, grouped thematically:


Introduction to Permaculture, Bill Mollison with Reny Mia Slay, Tagari Publications, 1991
This is a readable introduction to permaculture by its co-founder Bill Mollison, covering the main principles and plenty of practical examples. A great place to start.

Permaculture: A Designers' Manual, Bill Mollison, Tagari Publications, 1988
This permaculture classic is the curriculum for the Permaculture Design Certificate. It's nearly 600 pages of densely packed information. Not a light read in any sense, but a must-read if you want to get serious about permaculture.

Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability, David Holmgren, Holmgren Design Services, 2002
A wide-ranging exploration of the 12 permaculture principles by co-founder David Holmgren. I found this book thought-provoking and highly enjoyable. More theoretical than the Designer's Manual - you won't find any plans for herb spirals in here. More like plans for a new civilisation.

There are several books offering detailed explanations of how to apply permaculture techniques in your backyard or on your farm, but I haven't read any of them. I'm not really interested in 'how to' books at this stage.

Soil food web

One of the key thoughts I took away from the PDC was that soil isn't just brown crumbly stuff. I've written on this in my previous post. These books are helping me to get to grips with the complex answers to the simple question 'What is soil?'

Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web, Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis, Timber Press, revised ed. 2010
This book completely revolutionised my understanding of soil and what we gardeners should be doing in the garden. Please read it.

Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, Paul Stamets, Ten Speed Press, 2005
What are the biggest and oldest organisms on our planet? What is the key component of a forest ecosystem, connecting the others in a web of life and death? Trees, right? Wrong. Fungi.
This is a beautifully illustrated, engaging and thought-provoking book. I got a little uneasy when, about five pages in, the author informed me that fungal webs are sentient. Stick with it: this guy knows his mushrooms.

Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David R. Montgomery, University of California Press, 2007
The fascinating and horrifying story of what we have been doing to our topsoil ever since Neolithic humans invented the plough. Have you ever wondered how civilisation grew up in the rocky and barren soils of Greece and Turkey? Why the Roman Empire came to an end? Why there is chronic famine in Africa? Have you ever wondered what goes into our agricultural soils? This book provides some answers.


This evening I'm going to hear US writer Michael Pollan speak at The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. Pollan is a wonderful combination of raconteur, journalist and food theorist. I've only read two of his books so far but am looking forward to reading the rest.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Michael Pollan, Penguin, 2006
Pollan uses the preparation and consumption of four meals to show exactly where our food comes from. I'm just never going to look at maize the same way ever again. Hell, I'm never going to look at food the same way again.

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World, Michael Pollan, Random House, 2001
Based on the apparently whimsical premise that plants have cultivated us as much as we have cultivated plants. This lovely book is actually a profound essay on co-evolution of species and a provocative commentary on agriculture and horticulture. Loved it.


Given that 70 of the world's most important 100 crops are pollinated by bees, and every third forkful we put in our mouths is the product of pollination by bees, bees are pretty important to humans. As gardeners, we love them. However, I didn't know much about them until I did a couple of beekeeping courses and read these books.

Honeybee Democracy, Thomas D. Seeley, Princeton University Press, 2010
This book gives the reader a fascinating insight into the life of the hive, written by one of the world's greatest authorities on bees.

Beekeeping for All, Abbé Warré, translated by Patricia and David Heaf, Northern Bee Books, 2007 (also available online as a free pdf)
This little book explains in detail a beautifully logical and simple system of beekeeping, developed by a French master beekeeper in the 1950s after a lifetime of experiment.
This is the system which Susan and I are going to use in our hives. Having done natural beekeeping courses in Sydney and Melbourne, I'm convinced that the Warré system is far more suitable for hobby beekeepers than the 'conventional' Langstroth hives used by commercial beekeepers.

The Bee-friendly Beekeeper: A Sustainable Approach, David Heaf, Northern Bee Books, 2010
Explores various approaches to beekeeping and explains the natural beekeeping approaches used in systems such as Warré and Kenyan top bar hives.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The soil food web

I'm reading a fascinating little book at the moment called Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web, by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis. It's all about the complex interrelationships between organisms in the soil and the plants in our gardens.

I learned for example that plants form partnerships with particular bacteria and fungi. The bacteria and fungi feed on carbohydrates manufactured by the plant (through photosynthesis) and exuded by its roots. In return, their excreta provide nitrogen and other nutrients to feed the plant, and they coat its roots in a protective film. Individual plants actually control which organisms they attract, according to their needs!

Then the keen gardener comes along with crude chemical fertilisers and knocks the whole system out of balance. No longer reliant on the microbes, plants grow fat on the readily available nitrates poured into the ground. The microbes consequently die out. From then on, the gardener has to keep feeding the plants artificially or they won't thrive – remember, the microbes are gone.

When the microbes leave, the larger soil organisms such as earthworms leave, to the great detriment of soil structure and soil health. As the soil structure degrades, more and more of the synthetic fertiliser goes straight through into the groundwater, where it becomes an environmental pollutant.

(As an aside: ever wondered why we have toxic algal blooms in our rivers every summer? Yeah, right, it's 'natural'.)

With unbalanced nutrition, the plant is more susceptible to pest and disease attack. What to do? Spray it with various '-icides' to rectify the problem. Trouble is, they make the soil an even less hospitable environment for its natural inhabitants.

In other words, a quick fix solution has put the gardener on a chemical tread mill. From now on, gardening will be more labour intensive and expensive. It will rely on inputs which can't be manufactured within the garden, but are products of the petrochemical industry.

To my mind, it's just one more example of how organic methods are not just more effective than chemical methods, but easier and cheaper.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Busy, busy ...

No 'proper' post this month as I'm not going to be around much to write one. We're off in a few hours for the usual family Easter gathering in Ballarat. Hopefully this will include a long overdue visit to the garden of St Erth to stock up on Digger's Club plants and goodies.

After that, Susan and I are off to Sydney to learn about Warré bee-keeping on one of Tim Malfroy's courses. We're planning to have a hive up at the Patch and are very excited about the prospect of our own bees and honey.

Speaking of the Patch I've been using the scythe a lot recently to tidy up and would love to give a demo and informal workshop on scythe mowing if anyone is interested. Let me know at the May swap.

Happy Easter!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Perma-thoughts, 2

Here's an example of how my Permaculture course has changed my perspective on elements of the Patch:

On the northern boundary we're establishing a windbreak against hot, drying winds. At the moment, this consists of 15 Flinders Ranges wattle saplings. All but one are doing well, and should start to be effective in the next 24-36 months. I was quite pleased with this idea when I first thought of it: 'Good idea to create a microclimate, Steve!' I thought.
Will eventually be a windbreak: 15 tiny wattle seedlings , Aug 2011

Now, applying some Permaculture principles, I can see ways to make it a whole lot better:

Principle: Build diverse, stable ecosystems.

OK, a 15 x 2 metre windbreak (eventual mature size) isn't exactly an ecosystem. But what if I planted sheokes on the leeward side of the wattles, and grew a small-leafed (because not rampant) hardenbergia up the sheokes when established, and dug a swale to catch water runoff, and sowed the bank of the swale with dichondra and native violets, and planted blueberries in the lee of the windbreak? And put logs in the swale to provide habitat for lizards and amphibians?

Would this be an ecosystem, or just a collection of plants and landscape features? Let's have a look:

The wattles and the sheokes together will make a more effective windbreak; both are nitrogen fixing. When they are cut back (mulch for the veg beds), some of their root mass will also die off, making nitrogen available to the soil. Hardenbergia is also nitrogen fixing, so we have three plant species improving the soil. Blueberries on the leeward fringe of the windbreak will benefit from the added nitrogen, and also the acidic environment provided by the mulch of sheoke needles.

All of these are flowering plants and will provide forage for bees and nectar-eating birds. In addition the swale should become an ephemeral wetland, attracting the numerous frogs from the surrounding area - we're lucky to have two established wetlands to the northeast and northwest of the site.

So this begins to look like a functioning ecosystem, with beneficial interactions between the various species. In time further species would be introduced (or colonise by themselves) and it would become more diverse.

Principle: Every element of a design should function in many ways.

This is also referred to as 'stacking' functions. How does our windbreak fit in with this?

As envisaged above, it now serves the following functions:

• reduces the impact of hot, drying winds
• provides mulch for veg beds
• provides forage for bees (pollinators, suppliers of honey)
• provides habitat for insectivorous birds, reptiles and amphibians (pest control)
• provides fruit
• improves soil nitrogen
• improves water infiltration
• removes the need for mowing (saves labour)

Now, not all aspects of the plan will turn out as envisaged. For example, it may be that blueberries just won't flourish where I want them, so I would have to use other berries. That would tie in with other Permaculture principles:

Apply self-regulation and accept feedback.
Use small and slow solutions. (Otherwise referred to as incremental design.)
Creatively use and respond to change.

Friday, February 24, 2012


For some time now I've been grappling with questions like the following:

  • What do I want from all this food-growing activity? Is it just a hobby or a way of life?
  • How can I get better at this and what does 'better' mean?
  • Isn't backyard vegie growing mere escapism when we're laying waste to our entire planet?

Then I did an intensive two-week Permaculture course at Milkwood Farm near Mudgee, NSW. For two weeks I was thrown together with some really bright and knowledgeable people from many different walks of life (from cattle farmer to market gardener to software engineer), under the gentle guidance of two inspiring teachers.

I was rather sceptical before the course, and did worry about it being a massive waste of time and money. Not to mention the fossil fuels to get me to Mudgee and back. I don't like systems of thought that provide pat answers to difficult questions. I also had a whole heap of preconceptions about the course content, ranging from herb spirals to mandala gardens.

I now realise that Permaculture isn't like that; rather it's a set of methodologies, attitudes and principles that I can use in the design of productive systems - like a vegie garden, for instance. It has deepened my understanding of what a garden (or a productive landscape) is and can be. It has even given me some damn good answers to my three questions.

If you want to know what they are, you'll just have to do the course ;)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Learning from my mistakes

I read somewhere that the main benefit of experience is that it enables you to recognise your mistakes when you make them again. That certainly holds good for me, but I do try to learn from my gardening mistakes. Here are a few recent ones:

Onions, what onions?

Last winter I planted some of my heirloom onions in a bed which doesn't get a huge amount of sunlight. I've been growing great onions (if I do say so myself) for a few years and I knew that they needed a good, sunny spot. But I wanted to grow more heirloom varieties and couldn't resist trying them in a bed that was marginal. That proved a complete waste of time: the seedlings remained miserable, scrawny things and when I came back from Europe at the end of October I dug in the lot.

Moral of the story:
Don't be greedy, only plant what you have room to grow.

Rotten garlic

One of my beds is affected by onion basal rot, caused by a fusarium fungus. I thought it might be worth the risk of growing other alliums (leeks and garlic) in the bed anyway, as I didn't have anywhere much else for them. The leeks were OK but I lost about a third of the garlic to rot.

Moral of the story:
Don't allow optimism to triumph over experience.

Bitter cucumbers

I've had reasonable success in the past with growing cucumbers in 45-litre bags filled with compost, when the garden beds are full. This spring I did the same, however the fruit has been bitter and it has proven difficult to keep the water up to the plants. I think this is because I used commercial potting mix rather than my own compost, which is a lot more water-retentive.

Moral of the story:
Sometimes the stuff you make yourself is better than anything you can buy.

That's a prime reason for growing your own veg in the first place, isn't it?