29 January 2012

A city garden summer visitor

Every summer for the last few years we've had a visitor turn up for in the garden for several months.  I thought perhaps this year it was too hot, too wet... (secretly hoping too-anything!) for our visitor to reappear.  But two nights ago the visitor, or at least a descendant of the previous visitor, came back.

I hate spiders, but even I have to admit that orb weavers are pretty amazing creatures.  Their behaviour is fascinating.  Each night they shoot out a long, incredibly strong single web across the garden, and then quickly get to work to create a huge perfect oval web that they sit in the middle of for the night, to catch dinner.  By morning it is all gone except the original line across the garden, and they sit quietly under a leaf until night falls, when they do it all again.   Last year we watched our visitor for what must have been at least three months, as her webs got bigger and bigger, along with her own girth, capturing food and then a mate.  Then after a storm one night, that was it, she was gone, I was almost sad.

This would all be fine except that each year the spiders build their little empire in the same spot, from the Crepe Myrtle tree down to the outdoor table, which also happens to be right across the garden, and completely blocking access to our studio.  So for several months each summer we know that we can't get into the studio at night without ending up caught in that intricate web.  When the latest arrival turned up two nights ago, she build a small, tentative web neatly tucked into the garden below the tree, and I was hopeful that this year might be different, but last night, as soon as night fell, out she went and somehow managed to get the initial web across past the table and onto the sun umbrella, cutting off even more garden.  At this rate, by the end of summer we won't be able to get out the back door!

One of the benefits of gardening is that you become much more aware of what is going on around you in nature.  The change of seasons; the response of plants to water and sunlight and warmth; and the insects that inhabit the garden.  This year I started to notice the ecosystem that seems to be in play in the city garden.  There were some aphids on the apple trees early on in the season, but then some ladybirds and small native birds arrived to munch them, and the problem was solved.  I'm hoping that our summer visitor will play her part in the garden, and reward our hospitality by eating lots of bugs that would otherwise be eating my dinner!

19 January 2012

In the country garden this week...

Despite their overcrowding, the tomatoes are thriving.
These yellow cherry romas are delicious and creamy.

The corn is nearly ready to harvest

These capsicums have been delicious in salads
 - sweet with a tangy aftertaste

The latest crop of spring onions 

The zucchinis keep coming.  We've just added some
striped Italian heritage Costata zucchinis into the tubs as well. 

Colour and zing of chilli

18 January 2012

Garden Bed Rotation

One of the important tools for healthy organic gardening is crop rotation, which keeps soils healthy and ensures that pests don't have the chance to become established in the soil.

The basic idea is that you plant beds out in four different groups (Legumes; Root crops; Fruiting crops; Leafy crops) and then rotate them the forward one position the next season or year.  In the gardening books this is often represented with simple diagrams which set out each group in a box with an arrow going to the next one and then from the last back to the first.  Easy!  In practice, it actually takes quite a lot of planning, and doesn't seem to be that straight forward...

In the City Garden crop rotation is almost impossible as I just don't have enough space.  I try to use an annual broad bean planting to provide as much nutrition to the soil as possible (and because they are my absolute favourite vegetable!) as well as mulching and composting the beds and pots, but not sure how long this strategy will keep working.

For the Country Garden however, I've just spent quite some time with lots of sheets of paper trying to work out a simple system that will enable us to rotate all the beds, starting with the potatoes in late winter, and then see us through subsequent years so we don't need to rethink it each year.  I've also been trying to incorporate the learnings from this first year.  For example, the lettuces have become a restaurant kitchen staple, but we've currently got them planted in one of the big beds with vegies that need netting over them to protect them from bugs, so it's actually quite difficult for the kitchen staff to quickly run out and grab some.  Also, some of the plants which will last for multiple years were planted in the middle of beds which need to be rotated, so really should be in their own space out of the rotation system.

On top of that, not everything ripens at the same time, so just allocating seasonal crops to each bed might not work to maximise harvests, and then really, the beds should also have some time to recover and get a quick crop of green manure every now and then.

I think I've finally worked out a system which will work reasonably well, but the challenge will be to keep track over it in the coming months as the summer and autumn crops finish, and gradually change across to the winter crops in the new beds.  Here's the rough outline of the plan through until winter:

10 January 2012

Seed Saving

There always seemed to be something a little bit mystical and secretive about growing vegies beyond just buying some punnets of seedlings and whacking them in the ground.  And yet, when you actually start doing it seriously, it suddenly all becomes clear and it's actually reasonably simple: Vegetables generally start as seeds, then with water and nutrients and sunlight they grow, produce vegetables and more seeds!

So I've started experimenting with seed saving from a variety of vegies and herbs, and it's going really well.  Actually this post could probably belong on the "It's all just a learning experience" page, as that's exactly what I've been doing: saving seeds where I can work out how to do it - some are easy but others less obvious - and then reusing them in the garden in the next season.  I'm now collecting so much seed that we've started to put together little packets to give to customers at Shantell's restaurant.  Hopefully other people will be encouraged to give it a go too.

Many varieties flower and then produce seed pods that will dry out and then burst open to reveal the seeds.  The secret is in letting the flowers stay growing on the plant until the pods appear, rather than picking the flowers too early.  I've been picking whole stems of plants such as rocket and coriander; the heads of chives and spring onions; and bean and pea pods. Put them in a warm, dry place to completely dry out, on a large plate or dish to catch any seeds that pop out before you get to them.  Don't hang them up to dry, or the seeds might fall out and you'll lose them.  And the other big tip is to separate the varieties onto different dishes so that the seeds don't get mixed up!

Other varieties of course have the seeds inside the fruit or vegetable.  So with those it's a matter of gathering the seed (from tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkin, capsicum etc.), rinsing off any excess flesh, then drying them out well.  The key to these is remembering to save some rather than eating them all, or throwing them out with the peelings!

I'm in the early stages of learning about all of this, but there is lots of information available if you want to know more.  There are also local Seed Saver groups who swap seeds and work to continue heritage and rare breeds.  Or do what I've done, and give it a go, it's all just a learning experience!

the logistics of it all

It's always interesting to plant the same things in the two gardens and observe the different growth patterns between the city and country garden.  The city garden has poorer soil, is drier, being surrounded by paving that radiates the sun and there is more competition from closely spaced plants.  Yet surprisingly, all of that isn't always a negative.

I planted purple sprouting broccoli last winter in both gardens.  In the country garden it shot up, produced lots of leaves, then finally a bit of broccoli, then quickly shot to seed.  In the city garden however, it took much longer to grow, but once it was established it slowly starting producing head after head of broccoli for months.  It basically saw us through winter with delicious and nutritious heads of beautiful purple broccoli.  The only disappointment is that it turns green when you cook it, as most purple vegetables seem to!

It's been really surprising how quickly some things grow in the country garden compared to the city, and it's taken me a while to start to understand the production times there so that I'm prepared with the next batch of seedlings or seed to plant to keep a constant supply going.  

In fact, I think that this ongoing planning is definitely the most difficult part of managing a large garden.  It's really hard to allocate the right amount of space without filling everywhere up at once, to allow for replanting a couple of weeks later to replenish the supply that we will eat.  Dealing with large plants such as cabbages, which take a long time to grow, take up heaps of room and then only produce one item, is really hard to manage.  In some cases the garden has naturally done the work for us:  We planted three types of beans, with two of them producing at the same time, and then one just about ready to pick now that the other two have nearly finished.  This should give us time to plant another crop of beans where the first lot were, and therefore keep us in beans over the whole summer.  

I started a diary when we first planted the country garden of when things were planted and how long they were taking, but I have to admit that the diary has been neglected recently.  But as we go into the next season I think it will be an invaluable tool to help with planning.  I'm determined to get a successful crop of purple sprouting broccoli going in the country garden this year, need to do everything I can to make that happen!