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Spring Surprises

Honesty flowers; also known as Silver Dollar flowers for the papery seed pods used in floral arrangements

This year – 2020, has certainly been full of surprises. Many have been unpleasant due to extreme weather events and the virus pandemic. But Mother Nature has blessed us here with winter rain and a mild spring after several dry years. This has led to many surprises in my garden. The fruit trees that did not flower last year have done so abundantly and are making bumper crops of fruit. Perennials like Honesty, which did not cope with last year’s heat , and had blistered stunted leaves, suddenly came to life with that winter rain, making lovely new foliage and tall stems of flowers. Self sown seeds of Rocket, Radicchio, Celery, Salsify and other volunteers started to pop up as the weather warmed up. Birds turned up too, and I heard their pre- dawn songs again after a couple of very quiet years. Nesting time is in full swing, and ducks’ feathers will be lining some of those nests. Apart from the usual Blackbirds and Sparrows, there are now New Holland Honey Eaters, Wattle birds, Willy Wag Tails , Top Knot Pigeons, all enjoying plenty of feed. Such feed includes the insects that also have proliferated since the rains came.

A bit of a battle has ensued with earwigs, snails and slugs. I finally learnt how to make earwig traps. Using cans and butter containers baited with about 2 cm of cooking oil in them, I find I get quite a few bugs and need to clean out the traps about once a week. Old BBQ grease and soy sauce added to the oil makes it more attractive to the earwigs. I had tried saucers before, but realise now that they are too shallow. Bugs can crawl out too easily. By setting the can into the soil, so that the ground is on a level with the rim of the container, the bugs venture in, drown in the oil, and cannot climb out again! The snails and slugs make good feed for the ducks, who finally came back to work after a long holiday and started laying again in mid August!!

Every year is different and with climate changing too, finding the best time to sow and plant can be difficult. I used to grow beetroot over winter, but nowadays, autumn sown beetroot grows too slowly over winter, then bolts in early spring. I found the same thing with peas too.( they don’t bolt to seed, but they sulk and get eaten by birds etc.). So I am starting beetroot and peas in early spring now. Winter crops of Garlic, Lettuces, Endive, Broad Beans still seem to do well in the colder months. Some Florence Fennel, left in the ground at the end of summer, just to be used as a leafy herb, has made quite good bulbs which are being harvested now. The silver beet, Lucullus, struggled in the cold months but finally looks respectable enough to eat.

Red Flower Broad Bean. Pods beginning to form
Red Russian Kale quickly flowering in Spring

A large part of grass has been turned into a no-dig garden and a crop of potatoes-Pontiacs and Kipflers, is now growing well. With vegetables like potatoes, it isn’t money I am trying to save by growing my own, but the better flavour I am looking for. Fresh produce that is really fresh has an amazing flavour that no supermarket can offer. Besides, it is organically grown and so, nutritionally superior.

Of course, there have been some disappointments. Purple sprouting broccoli has been slow to grow, and now the flower heads are very small, or non existent. The brussels sprouts did not sprout at all and the Red Russian Kale has gone to seed much too soon for my liking. But this has happened before with winter brassicas and a few times I had giant leafy plants with no flower heads at all. I think it is due to choosing a spot that is not sunny enough in winter. I’ll try again next year.

In just two years and here in an average size back yard, there has been a good transformation from bare grass to garden beds, trees and shrubs. Biodiversity increases all the time and pleasant, sheltered nooks are evolving. This spring brings much hope of healthy harvests in summer!

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The Mid Winter Garden

Winter is the best time for a wide array of salad greens, both cultivated and wild. A typical bowl now has French Sorrel, Rocket, Continental and Curly parsley, Warragul Greens, Florence Fennel, Red and Green frilly leaf lettuces, Nettles, Red Russian Kale, Silver Beet .

Winter is also marmalade making time; lemon, orange and lime marmalades take advantage of plentiful local citrus. Also Wild Olives that grow along the road side near commercial orchards have been filling up big jars to slowly sit in their pickle mixture till maturity in a few months time, when they will be decanted and then bottled again in oil. Being wild olives means that they vary in size and shape and colour, but all are good tasting when preserved.

This spring I have extended the vegetable garden considerably by turning grass into no- dig beds. I was too late sowing beetroot and turnip seeds last autumn, because I was waiting for other plants with seed heads to mature. In short, I ran out of space.


The first no- dig bed is ready for potatoes, Kipflers and Pontiacs. I always buy certified seed potatoes if I have not saved any seed myself. Potato blight is a terrible thing and once in the soil, it takes decades to eradicate. Be sure of using clean organic certified potato seed if you have to buy any. It’s too ear here to plant yet as we are still having frosts, but I hope to do so next month.

The unusually damp foggy season has also prompted me to hold off with most of the pea sowing, as I do not want plants to get rust in the spring. A wet spring in this area often means the local Faba Bean crops get hit with rust problems. The snow peas I did put in are slow but so far healthy.

The broad beans, both the Red Seed Peruvian and the Red Flowered ones, are doing quite well, and this year I also have Purple Sprouting Broccoli, Lucullus Silver Beet , -also called Southern European Silverbeet, Red Russian Kale coming along-slowly. A few more sunny days needed now we are past the shortest day. The winter lettuces, Endive, and NZ spinach are providing plenty of greens to pick and side salads for the ducks as there is not much grass for them to graze on at this time of year.

Multiplier onions and shallots are thru the soil now and the Russian garlic is really getting a move on. I had good returns with the Jerusalem artichokes and have been replanting them along fences and under trees. And this year, the Horseradish roots made a decent size for using in the kitchen.

Our local markets are going to start up again soon, at least for outside stalls, and we have been lucky to avoid the covid virus here in Western Victoria. When you live in a small country town the cost and quality of fruit and vegetables in local supermarkets can be disappointing, and most of us appreciate the fresh food we can get at farmers and community markets. Some other stall holders I know have been selling from the farm gate and have had such success with it, they are wondering whether to continue going to markets. A lot of driving and the cost of petrol has been avoided by them by selling from home. Others I know are now selling products online instead of at markets.

For me, markets are more than buying and selling . A lot of stall holders are retired as I am, and the markets are a hobby. A way to catch up with friends, to exchange , to share, to be part of a community. I have a feeling that cottage crafts and self sufficiency will be more popular than ever if the economy suffers from the predicted long downward slide due to the current global situation.

But here’s to spring and warmer days and recovery , which will come eventually!

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Fertilizer for Free

I make two lots of Green Fertilizer each year. One is spring and one in autumn. It is late April and I have just cut the Comfrey and stuffed it into a large plastic garbage bin, which has a vermin proof lid. I simply added water and will let it ferment over winter in a nicely sheltered sunny spot.

In spring I will strain off any plant solids and dilute the green tea at a rate of about 1 litre of tea to 10 litres of water ( a regular watering can capacity). Comfrey fertilizer has many minerals, and vitamins and also protein. It is good for all garden plants and is a real Universal plant food.

Comfrey – Symphytum Officinale. A truly wonderful herb.

In spring there will be plenty of nettles. Stinging Nettles. The nettle is as valuable as food and medicine as is comfrey. How sad that most people do not understand this. Nettle is also full of minerals, and protein and is a blood cleanser. It is an ideal tea for humans especially in spring when the bodily systems can be sluggish from poor winter diet and lack of exercise. Fresh young nettles make a delicious spinach when lightly steamed or stir fried. Pick them with gloves on but once cooked the sting goes.

In spring there are usually other good deep rooted green weeds that can be added to the fertilizer; Burdock, Dandelions, and lighter plants such as Chickweed, and left over vegetable plants of kale, silver beet or spinach can also go into the brew. Likewise, herbs such as chamomile and thyme, mint and sage made good additions to this batch of plant food.

If harvesting wild weeds from outside your own garden, try to be sure that no herbicides have been sprayed there recently. Woody green waste can also be used to make fertilizer. Old garden plants of annual flowers and vegetables will break down nicely over time. It helps to roughly chop up the tougher stems, and bigger leaves.

Autumn leaves of deciduous trees such as oaks and stone-fruit trees, which are relatively small and fine, also can be added to fertilizer.

In winter, I place the bins in a sunny spot, but in summer, they go along a shaded fence line.

These green tea fertilizers are also good for adding to compost bins and heaps, as well as for seedlings and as foliage feed for all garden plants.

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Harvest Moon. March 2020

It is harvest time and everything has done really well, except the tomatoes, which just don’t seem to like growing here. They start well, but crash out in the heat. Even the plants that stay healthy, and make flowers, don’t set fruit.

But aside from them, it is amazing how well the Australian White Bush Marrows have done, and the Pomona green rock melons, the National pickling cucumbers and beans – Rattlesnake climbing beans and Zagreb Soldier bush beans. I have more than I can cope with!

Pomona rock melons

The ducks have not been left without greens either, as there is a big patch of Warragul or New Zealand spinach and they get a bunch each night when they get put to bed. And Basil, what a profusion of Thai and Opal Basil! The Thai basil has big pink flowers and wonderful perfume. And finally, the last of the summer tribe, the Chillies, are making fruit, as yet green, but plenty of them now visible.

The garden here in the Wimmera, an arid area in Western Victoria, is a testimony to the fact that even in an average size back yard and even with the ever hotter summers, we can still grow a lot of great plants for ourselves. The biggest challenge ahead is probably going to be the cost of water. It gets more expensive every year, and we are about to get new Smart Meters, so our use will be more closely monitored. As a pensioner, it is a struggle to pay for it, even with a pensioner rebate. Of course, the ducks get fresh water in their wading pool or trough, so I guess, without them, I would use less water. I would never have imagined , a few years back , that I would come to see half a dozen pet ducks as a luxury. But the cost of feed, due to the drought , has gone up 30% in the last 2 years, and the water is really too expensive now. But they do good work, eating bugs and slugs and I get good compost from the straw in their yard. And they certainly still provide entertainment. And a few eggs, in spring anyway. This year they stopped laying after a very few short months in late spring.

Rattlesnake Beans

The Community Markets I go to in Stawell are still a mainstay for me, but disappointingly most people are not very interested in the seeds. I fear we have lost a lot of basic gardening knowledge in the last few decades, as it is just so easy to buy everything from the supermarkets. People feel that seeds are Too Difficult and are more inclined to buy seedlings, often poor value and unsuitable to the local conditions. However, the homegrown fruit and vegetables and herbs have a flavour you cannot buy in supermarkets. I am persisting in trying to curate a few rare and old varieties as a contribution to future food security. And if something grows in this climate, it must be adaptable and tough.

This week it was in the news that our summers are now longer than they used to be in 1950’s. A whole month longer in most areas. So winters are shorter, but also drier, and we have had spring seasons that are still cold and frosty at night, but dry. An awful combination, which damages the soil and inhibits plant growth. The challenge of this includes learning to adapt the timing of planting and sowing. Now, I start beans in the week between Christmas and New Year, not in the traditional time, of spring, and I am wondering if I might have more luck with tomatoes if I can adjust the timing of starting them? In the interests of frugality, I don’t use a hot house, so seedlings must be tough enough to cope with minimal shelter when they are young. I do however, use a shaded area and have shrubs which I use to provide shade to delicate plants that can be kept in pots. And while shady patches are essential in the intense heat of summer, at this time of year, we are chasing the sun already. The Equinox is next week, and then we’ll notice the cooler nights and heavier dew. I hope the garden keeps going though the autumn as much can still be produced, and the winter greens- lettuces, kale and brassicas, need a good start before it gets really cold.

So all you gardening friends, grow well and enjoy the fruits of your work.

Remember, it’s time to plant garlic and sweet peas.