Sunday, March 28, 2010

Summer success stories

Despite the last post, it wasn't all gloom and doom in the patch this summer. There were a few success stories.

We had two different bean varieties this summer. Rattlesnake beans, (below left) which are a climbing variety, where planted in the front garden to climb (and help cover) the bit of lattice underneath the front porch. The other variety is a butter bean called Sex Without Strings (below right), which is a bush variety and was planted into the main vegie patch in a couple of beds where we had space.

Both beans have gone well, with the Rattlesnake beans being the most productive. We only have two plants going, but have probably yielded just over a kilogram of beans so far. I've started to write down the weight of each harvest so we can have a better record.

The Sex Without Strings beans have been pretty productive per bush (we've got 4 going), but probably overall half the yield of the climbing beans. And true to the name, they are a lovely stringless butter bean. Both beans are very tasty and have been a regular addition to our dinners.

The tomatoes may have failed, but the basil has been going off! I transplanted around 6-7 basil seedlings in around the tomatoes and all have thrived, to the point that I had to seriously cut back some of them as they were smothering the tomatoes and capsicums.
The basil harvest has already been turned into a few jars of basil pesto, some basil butter, and some diced basil frozen into an ice cube tray for use later in the year. And there is still loads in the patch, which the bees love and we'll let go to seed.

We've tried to get in to the habit of have a couple of lettuce plants on the go so that we've got lettuce for salads and meals. The best variety so far has been one of the freebies we received from Digger's Club, Australian Yellow Leaf (left).
It has bright yellow-green leaves and is a 'cut and come again' type of lettuce (non-hearting). Crisp and delicious. We've also been trying some heirloom varieties (middle and right) from a mixed pack. These have been nice, but in the crazy summer weather have tended to bolt to seed.

The strawberry patch was quite productive, and when we managed to beat the birds, slugs and labradors to them, we were treated to the tastiest luscious red fruit. I don't think that many made it to the kitchen, it was too tempting to eat them straight from the garden.

The two rhubarb plants I put in during winter, which I was so worried I'd killed, sprang into life in spring producing thick stalks and enormous leaves that were so heavy some of the stalks were coming off from the weight of the leaves pulling them down.

We'd read that in the first year you shouldn't harvest any stalks, to let the plant establish and feed the crown, so we left it to grow. It has recently died down to nothing, which I'm hoping is just what rhubarb does and that with all the rain and humidity the crowns haven't rotted. The crowns do look very much like they did when I bought the dormant crowns, so hopefully they'll burst back in to life next spring.

Last winter, on the winter solstice, we planted a number of onions. We had two varieties of brown onion - Creamgold and Australian Brown - and one red onion. To experiment a bit with yield, we sowed a row of Australian Brown directly into the bed, and sowed the Creamgold and red onion in a seed-raiser tray, then transplanted them as soon as they were big enough to handle. The direct sown seeds certainly produced larger onions, but the others were a good medium-small onion.

We harvested them on the summer solstice (following the traditional planting guide of planting on the shortest day of the year and harvesting on the longest), which was just as well as we got them out before the deluge of summer rain hit. We strung them up in net under cover to dry out, and are now storing them inside in mesh bags. The yield was around 3.8kg of brown onions and 2.4kg of red onions.

Like the onion, our garlic harvest went reasonably well. We got around 12 good sized cloves of red italian garlic, plus a few bonus garlics from the compost heap. Interestingly, none of the italian red garlics flowered. We had read that you wait for them to flower before harvesting, but they never did and the stalks just seemed to die off, so we pulled them out. One of the compost heap garlics did flower and the flower ends up producing seeds that look like tiny garlic cloves.

We've probably got enough garlic to last us until next crop, when I think we'll plant some more of the italian red garlic and also try some of the seeds that we saved from the compost garlic.

Other successes in the garden have been the carrots, which continue to grow well though we need to remember to keep sowing more seed to get a progressive crop. The herbs in the front garden are also doing well and it is nice to be able to just duck out the front to snip a few when cooking.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Summer of rain and shine: A tribute to the fallen

Well, to be more accurate, it has been the summer where our poor vegie patch has been scorched and drowned, often in the same week. Back in late spring I was happily raising seedlings and anticipating a summer where our kitchen would be overflowing with produce. Sadly, like many fellow gardeners I've spoken to lately, much of our patch simply didn't survive the scorching hot days, followed by torrential rain, with mould, mildew, and disease inducing humidity in between.

So a tribute to the fallen of the Summer of 2009/2010...

Remember the great potato patch we made back in September? From strong beginnings the plants then seemed to suddenly wilt and die. I suspect either potato blight or black leg. After a while we decided to excavate and see what had happened. Many of the spuds had started well, but the heavy rain had compacted the sugar cane mulch and compost into a thick, wet, rotting layer and anything above that layer died. Our yield was a handful of small deformed potatoes.

However, on the upside, the potatoes that were voluntarily growing in the compost heap seemed to be unaffected and yielded a good number of decent sized spuds. And while some of the ones from the main patch weren't edible, they were possibly the rudest looking potatoes ever grown, so we got some giggles.

Back in October I had started planting tomato seeds and by early November I had so many seedlings I was giving the excess away to family, friends and anyone who happened to drive past. Later in November saw us going on holidays for a week, during which we had several absolute scorchers and I came home to some rather scalded and sorry looking tomato seedlings. Still, we planted them out and thought they might just come good, only to have them drowned in rains, scorched again and getting every tomato affliction under the sun. A number have rust, much of the fruit has blossom end rot from the erratic rain, a lot of fruit has simply split or rotted while still green, and to top it off we've got fruit fly. I've tried spraying a Bordeaux mix to see if that helps with the rust. We've had a few good, if small, tomatoes from what I think is a Red Tommy Toe. Sadly, I think what I need to do is pull them all out to try and stop disease spreading further.

We had 4-5 mini capsicum plants and 2 regular size plants. They've been strong and early on had lots of flowers and fruit developing, but the insane weather has meant that most of the fruit are rotting before they're ripe. We have managed to get a couple of very cute mini capsicums, but don't hold much hope for the rest in this humid weather.

I really thought the corn was going to be alright. Sadly, the humid weather isn't great for corn either. A lot of the cobs had aphids and some kind of borer. The ones that looked okay were very disappointing to eat. They tasted like glue - bland and starchy. I don't know whether we didn't have enough of them to get good pollination or there was some nutrient deficiency, or both.

There is one lone apple cucumber that has survived against the odds. Two plants were lost when the dogs got into the patch and had a bit of a rampage. The other one succumbed to the rampant powder mildew that threatened to cover every curcubit in sight. Diligent spraying with diluted milk seems to have saved my lone survivor and we even got a decent sized and quite edible cucumber from it.


The rhubarb grew to epic proportions with massive leaves and thick stalks. However, in the last few weeks, I think the rain and humidity has taken its toll as many of the stalks became rotten and I think the crowns may actually have rot from being too wet for too long. This is the first time I've grown rhubarb so I don't know if they're meant to die back at the end of summer or whether this is actually crown rot. There are still some new green stalks emerging from one so I'm hoping it will hang in there.

However, it hasn't all been bad and in many ways we've learnt a lot from those plants that didn't make it.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Van Gogh Vision: Sunflower Summer

A few months ago I had this idea - a Van Gogh inspired vision - of sunflowers along the back fence. I had seeds for both Giant Russian and Yellow Pollenless sunflowers and planned a double row, with the 3-4m tall Giant Russians at the back with the shorter 1.5m tall Yellow Pollenless in front. I could picture the magnificent image in my head so clearly.

The first issue I encountered was a logistical issue. Our back fence has been steadily falling down, not helped by the fact that our two dogs and the dog that lives behind us like to try and play together and scratch and push at the palings. So we had a chat to the people behind us and agreed to replace the aging wood paling fence with a colorbond fence. Which meant that I needed to hold off planting anything in front of the back fence until it had been replaced (unless I wanted my sunflower seedlings trampled).

The fence got replaced around the end of November. Here we have old fence and new fence:

We asked the fence guys to leave the old palings in our yard. We plan to reuse them to make a nicer vegie patch and compost area fence.

The planting was done in an afternoon in December. First we mowed the strip along the back fence. As the soil is heavy clay, we decided to dig holes and fill them with compost to get the new seeds a good start on life.

After the seedlings started to emerge, we realised that they were at risk of getting squashed or trampled by the dogs, so I made some wire mesh collars to give the ones in prime "trampling" zones a little bit of protection. Then as they were also getting some stiff competition from the grass, we started to mulch around them using wet newspaper to smother the grass first before laying the mulch on top. Unfortunately we only had enough mulch to half the row, so it looked a bit odd for a few weeks.

By the end of January the sunflowers were starting to bloom and were looking gorgeous. Once we got another trailer load of mulch, courtesy of Mum & Dad having some trees lopped and a gigantic pile of mulch, we finished mulching the row around the end of February.

Once open, the sunflowers were truly beautiful to behold. The bees certainly loved the big giant russian flowers. The yellow pollenless put out little mini sunflower side shoots, often with "double-heads".

Sadly our sunflower joy was rather short-lived. The first issue was that the sunflowers seemed to struggle to hold up the weight of their heads. We're not sure if this is a nutrient deficiency or perhaps we were growing them at the wrong time of year. The giant russians in particular needed some propping up (or perhaps a hug), while the rest just looked a bit droopy and depressed. And on overcast days, they seemed a bit confused about which way to face.

Then we discovered we weren't the only ones who enjoyed sunflowers. The local population of sulphur-crested cockatoos had discovered the tasty buffet in our backyard, We thought of the Woolworths ad when the the woman yells to her husband "Stavros!" when the cockatoos are on their vegie patch. Sadly the back fence was a bit too far away from our kitchen window to rig up a scare mechanism (though the CPD was tempted to try), so we tried training Hudson to chase the cockatoos off the flowers by yelling "Stavros!" out the window. Can't say it worked particularly well, though once pointed out, he gave a good show of chasing them.
And while the cockatoos started the demise of our sunflowers, their fate was doomed once the dogs discovered that sunflowers are tasty and jumping up, grabbing the heads, and pulling them out of the group or snapping them off was a great new game.

One by one, our sunflowers succumbed to our playful pups. What can I say? It was fun while it lasted and I'd probably do it again :)

The end.