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It’s been really nice having a winter garden with almost no pest or disease problems – just the big pests like bower birds, bush turkeys and possums that are my current battle-of-wits adversaries.  But as we turn the corner towards spring, I know that is going to change. I’m expecting to start seeing aphids soon, and powdery mildew as it warms up.

The winter beach trip last week though gave me all the essential ingredients for a new brew. If I can get the micronutrient level nice and high and balanced early enough, I will give the garden plants enough immunity and the predators enough of a head start to avoid most of the spring and summer bugs.

I took a bag with me on my beach walks last week, and so came home with half a dozen bags of seaweed.  I tipped it all out on a tarp on the driveway and hosed it off, not too thoroughly but just enough to reduce the salt level a little. Then I put it all in tubs, covered with water, and allowed it to sit and ferment.  It smelled quite foul when I first made the brew, with all the little dead crustaceans  in the seaweed, but by next morning the brew was bubbling with a slow burble every few minutes and the ferment bacteria had consumed all the nasty smelling stuff.

I have dam water that has no chlorine and quite a range of microlife – I don’t know how this might go with town water.  The object is to get as much bacterial life as possible, not kill it off.  By today, six days later, there is enough room in the tubs for me to add a good bunch of stinging nettle to each one.  I shall let this brew again for a week and then start using it, a cup at a time in a watering can full of water, to water my seedlings in the shadehouse and to give an extra nutrient treat to anything out in the garden I think needs it.

I shall top up the brew with stinging nettle every week until I have weeded out the patch of nettle at the bottom of the garden, then I’ll start on the comfrey.  I have been slightly tempted over winter to swear at that patch of nettles, especially when it expanded to make reaching the tomatoes along that fence without getting stung a bit of a long-pants- and-boots mission.  It is nice to now be feeling glad I have it!

Fresh stinging nettle will up the silica levels in the brew, which sort-of works as a foliar water retardant that slows down powdery mildew.  The nettles are also a good source of sulphur, calcium, potassium, iron and copper, all of which are needed by most plants to fend off pests and diseases.  And the seaweed contains a whole huge range of trace elements and micronutrients such as boron,  zinc, molybdenum, manganese, and cobalt, some of which are a bit rare in our old Australian soils.

By the time it warms up I plan to have a garden full of plants with strong cell walls and good self-defense systems.  And if they’re not strong enough, I’ll just have to go to the beach again.

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Jack and Kaela

Sisters and brothers, cousins and second cousins, grandmas and great aunts.  Nineteen of us this time and missing just a few for the annual (most years) few days at the beach.

It was nice this time feeling the change in the generations.  My sister and I firmly in the great aunt’s generation, our daughters stepping firmly into the mothers’ roles, wrangling great gangs of kids, “nobody is coming to the beach until they have a hat and sunscreen on”, “you have to eat something or you’ll get low blood sugar and be miserable and cranky”,  “find an aunt to watch the little kids in the lagoon and I’ll take the big kids out into the surf”.  Grandmothers and great aunts taking long beach walks talking about vocation and staying fit.  Long conversations about the ordinary extra-ordinariness of new babies and teenage angst and aging. Including by proxy ideas from grandad, died this time 5 years ago.

Two year olds and five year olds and twelve year olds and young adults and all the generations of parenthood and grandparent-hood and great grandparent-hood sharing and comparing the challenges of each life stage, and how to live them to the fullest.  I know too many people stuck in one life stage or another – young adults stuck in the dependence of teenagerhood,  Peter Pans in their 40s afraid to become men,  grandparents reverting to sex and drugs and rock and roll, exploring the world and trying to decide what they want to be when they grow up. One of the things I appreciate about my family is its midwifery of us through the stages, maiden, mother, crone, better and better.

Ollie Tayla and Kaela collecting seaweedJack and Emma collecting seaweed Kaela and Bella collecting seaweed
And, on top of all the phenomenological stuff, there is the practical issue of collecting seaweed to take home. Jack and Michaela, Emma and Tayla, Ollie and Bella helped me collect.  The best is half dry so it isn’t too heavy, shaken out of sand, varied kinds.  At home I tip the bags out in the driveway and give it a little hose off, not too thoroughly, just enough to wash off most of the sand and some of the salt.  Then I put it all into a barrel and cover with water and allow it to ferment.  Every week or two, I take a bucketful of greenish water out, dilute it, and use it to water the seedlings in the shadehouse, the potplants in the bathroom, any fruit trees or garden plants I think deserving of a treat.  Then I top it up again with water. Eventually the brew gets weak enough that I decide a beach trip is needed, and the magic pudding barrel is filled up again.

It’s especially valuable having a nice thick new brew this time of year.  We are past the summer solstice now, and heading into the wet season in my part of the world.  It’s time to start planting seeds of leafy greens again in the shadehouse and they specially like the micronutrient boost in seaweed brew. The curcubits in the garden are at risk of downy mildew and a bit of seaweed brew helps keep it at bay.  And it’s coming close to the best season for planting trees, and a bucket of diluted seaweed brew helps them recover from transplant.  So thank you nieces and nephews, sisters and brothers, mother and daughter, on every level.

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It is still late winter isn’t it?  I really wanted to name this “Early Spring” – the weather has turned the corner here, and the soil is warm enough now to reliably plant capsicums and eggplants and things that won’t germinate if the soil temperature is too low.  So this planting break I have planted seeds of:

Capsicums – three kinds: my own saved “Supermarket flats“, Liz’s gift of seeds of her “Mini Capsicums” (thanks Liz!), and my old favourite Hungarian wax (particularly for stuffing)

Tomatoes – four kinds: so hard to choose, but I’m determined not to overdo the planting again, so I’ve chosen yellow cherries, Roma, Principe Borghese, and Brandywine.

Eggplants – I have trouble with a virus spread by flea beetles. I’ve been cycling through varieties looking for resistance. This year I’m trying Thai Green.

Beans: four  kinds – Rattlesnake – a gift from Deb, that I tried very late in the season last year, so these are now second generation saved seed.  And my old favourites – Brown seeded snake beans, Blue Lake climbers, and Purple King climbers.

Cucumbers: Continental this time

Squash: Yellow bush

Zucchini: Tromboncino are going to be my main variety this year, because they use space so efficiently by climbing.  But I’ve put in a couple of seeds of Fordhook as well, just in case.

Pumpkin: I have several varieties that self seed, but I’ve put in some Potkins this year too for stuffing.

Sweet Corn: Balinese

I looked at the seeds of melons, luffa, sunflowers, tomatillos and okra too, but they didn’t make the cut this time.  The garden will be very full by the time I get this lot planted out so I might wait for next month for them.

The small seeds are all in a seed raising box. I shall transplant them into individual pots when they have their first true leaves, choosing just a few more than I plan to plant out.  That way, they will already be a month or more old before they are planted out, and I have another month to move the chooks through a couple of beds so as to get enough space well prepared for them all.

The big seeds like beans and cucumbers I’ve planted directly into pots.  I plant the beans three to a pot and choose the strongest two, and the cucumbers two to a pot and choose the stronger one to plant out.  The pots are filled with a very rich mix of compost, worm castings, some creek sand for drainage, and a little sprinkle of wood ash to raise the pH, all watered in with dilute seaweed brew.  So they will be planted out with their own little fertilizer stash. I’ve scored a lovely set of old concrete laundry tubs recently and they make a great potting mix making station – one tub filled with mix and one with dilute seaweed brew for soaking the pots as I fill them.  it makes the task so easy that I got it all done yesterday in a couple of hours.

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The Broad Bean seeds I planted nearly a month ago are up and looking healthy, and I have a spot where some zucchini and squash have just come out, so today they’re going out into the garden.  It marks a real turning point. The autumn planting is here!

They were potted up in my usual compost and creek sand mix with some wood ash mixed through, and I’m giving  each a good double handful of compost mixed with wood ash as I plant them out.  My soil is a bit more acid than they like it, and the ash will bring the Ph up a bit, and the potassium levels too.  I’m watering them in with some seaweed and nettle brew to help them stave off the last of the summer’s aphids.  I’ve been using Aquadulce variety the last few years, and planting earlier than I used to, and it seems to be working except that it means I’m planting out while aphids are still around and broad beans would have to be one of their favouries. But by planting earlier, and an early variety, I”m getting decent crops even this far north, right on the margin of broad bean territory.

I shall plant another round of seed in the shadehouse today too, so as to have at least one successional crop.  And I’ll plant the first round of peas and snow peas. I only plant climbing varieties these days.  The return on space is so good. I have Telephone and Massey Gem peas and Oregon Giant snow peas.  The Oregon Giants did well for me last year but I’m still looking for a variety  I used to have  that was such a good bearer – a relatively short climber – about 1.8 metres – and very mildew resistant. If anyone knows what it might be?

Last year the mice got my early rounds of peas and snow peas and in the end I had to bring the potted seeds inside and rig up our Weber barbeque as a sort of temporary propagation house.  This year I have my fake owl, and the broad beans all survived without being stolen, so I’m hopeful.  But I’ve brought one pot inside just so I can monitor when they should have germinated.  If the mice get them, I won’t wait so long to replant this time.

I shall also put a couple of kinds of tomato seeds in a propagating tray.  Yellow cherries and Principe Borghese have both done well for me as winter tomatoes in the past.

A nice easy, slow Sunday morning in the garden. Then time to bake bread, read the papers right the way through, go for a walk and see how the creek is faring, chat on the phone to my kids for ages, and maybe even light the fire under our outside bathtub for a “star bath” tonight. Mmmm Sunday.

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The first compost pile of the season, and it’s a good one.  It’s a lasagna pile with nice thin layers, with mulch from the Mulch Mountain every second layer.

It only took me an hour to build, but only because I have been routinely on the lookout for the ingredients, bringing home a bag of horse manure whenever my neighbour puts some out on the roadside for sale ($3 a bag), collecting a bucket of cow manure whenever I see cows out on the road reserve on my way home (I keep a bucket and shovel in the car for just this chance), collecting seaweed at the beach, cultivating the herbs and weeds I know are micronutrient accumulators, and lately making my morning walk  over to a neighbour’s dam to collect a barrow of azolla.  They all took time, but it was kind of incidental time.

The major ingredient was the mulch, and there’s about an hour’s worth of mowing in the pile.  But you could almost call it “incidental time” too, a byproduct of my Mowing Meditation.

It goes:

  • Layer of mulch, then layer of horse manure
  • Layer of mulch then one of azolla
  • Layer of mulch then one of cow manure
  • Layer of mulch then one of green herbs and micronutrient accumulators (including nettles),
  • the whole lot wet down with the last of the Seaweed Brew, diluted 1:20.

I will turn it twice, next weekend and the weekend after, wetting it down again, breaking up any clumps, moving the outside to the inside and introducing more oxygen. It will take about an hour’s work with a pitchfork each time.  But it’s a good investment.  This pile will keep the shadehouse and planting out going all summer.  I’ll build another one in autumn to keep me going for the winter.  That, and the sheet mulching done by the chooks is most of my garden work done and dusted.

I am using it to clear a new bed along a fence, hoping to cover the fence with a perennial climber like Scarlet Runner Beans, or maybe passionfruit. But first I need to get rid of the cannas and the stinging nettle and the nut grass along the fence. A  good compost pile will get hot enough to kill everything under it.  As I turn the pile along the fenceline, I’ll cover where it was with a good thick layer of mulch and plant my seedlings into it (in little wire cages to prevent the bandicoots digging them straight back up again every night).

Happiness is a good compost pile.

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Everything has lined up beautifully for a planting day today – no bottlenecks for once.  I have old compost and creek sand for seed raising and potting mixes, seeds and seedlings for planting, a new bed just vacated by the chooks ready to plant into and mulch to mulch up the spaces in the old beds, a barrel of old seaweed brew, a dam full of water, a lovely cool, slightly overcast day following some good rain yesterday, and a Sunday free.  When all the bits are there, the assembling is so easy, and I can feel like I get so much done in a day.

I have a seed germinating box full of tomato, capsicum, and  eggplant seedlings planted last month, all now at the two leaf stage and ready to pot on.  I have been selecting the strongest three or four of each and potting them in individual pots, and planting another round of seed of each to give me continuity of supply.

I also have seedlings of several varieties of beans, cucumbers, zucchini, and squash ready to plant out, and I’ll plant another round of all of them too, skipping the seed germinating stage and planting directly into individual pots.

I have seedlings planted the month before now a good 15 cm tall and ready to plant out.  I took the leaf-tube pot off to show you the root development.  This seedling has had a month in its own private pot of compost mixed with a bit of creek sand.  For the last week it has been out in full sun, and I can plant it out now without damaging the roots at all, and it won’t miss a beat.

If I plant it into a newly chooked bed, I won’t need to fertilise any more at all.  If I plant it into an older bed, I might give it an extra handful of compost and surround it with a good thick layer of mulch.  It’s a Principe Borghese variety so it is indeterminate, so it will grow tall.  I shall plant it next to a fence in one of my fortress fenced beds (one of the advantages to having to fence intensively is ready made trellises) and tie it up to the fence as it grows.  I’ll water it in, but then only water if we get a few weeks without any rain.  From now on, it’s pretty much on its own till it comes to picking.

And then, just because I can, I’m going to break all my own rules and plant some sweet corn seed directly out into the newly chooked bed.  I didn’t have any seed to plant last month, so I’m a bit late with the corn, and now the bed is ready.  I shall put some in pots as well at the same time, so I have some to fill any gaps from no-shows.  I am aiming for about 16 plants – just about the minimum number I am likely to get away with to get a good rate of setting of kernels on the cobs.  But I don’t want too many at once.

It’s just about the biggest planting day of the year, and it’s so nice when it all comes together without a bottleneck.

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This time of year is such a good season up here for leafy greens. We are now eating the first of the silver beet, chinese cabbages, lettuces and kale for the season, and the rest are not too far behind now. That’s them in the top left picture. They were planted as seed three months ago, potted on two months ago, planted out last month into a bed beautifully prepared by the chooks, and now, they’re turning into silverbeet frittata for breakfast, salad sandwitches for lunch, and Chinese cabbage sauteed with garlic and lemon juice for dinner.

My garden is pretty nearly frost free – occasionally I get a light frost and the lighter lettuces will be damaged but rarely killed outright. I never usually get frosts heavy enough to damage the brassicas – broccoli, kale, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbages, chinese cabbages – or the raddicchio, spinach, silver beet, celery, parsley, rocket, aragula, or leeks. So I’m planting out all of them today. That’s them in the top right picture.

I have a new bed that the chooks have prepared over the last month and advanced seedlings that were planted as seed a couple of months ago, and potted on a month ago. They were all in individual pots so the planting out was very quick and minimally stressful for them. I have selected the strongest seedlings and ditched about a third of them. It’s a nice mixed planting, no two things the same next to each other, and since I’m only planting out the selected strongest seedlings and I expect to harvest all of them, I’ve only planted out what we will eat in the month (with a few extras for giving away). About the same amount also went out as infill planting in older beds, replacing the zucchini and squash as they finish up (after a good top dressing with compost and mulch).

I have another round of all the same batch of leafies ready for potting on today. That’s them in the bottom left picture. I’ll select the strongest, about a third more than I actually intend planting, and pot them up in a mixture of creek sand and compost, water them in with seaweed brew, and keep them in the sunniest part of the shadehouse for another month. At this two leaf stage, they are easy to transplant – it’s a half hour job – and they won’t suffer for it. I’ll have some punnets of left-over seedlings to go down in the mailbox tomorrow as give-aways. What goes around comes around, and when my seedlings fail, there’s a chance someone else will have some to fill the gap.

We are coming up to the winter solstice in about three weeks time, but until then the days are still getting shorter. So leafies planted now will not want to bolt, but rather wait until their lovely fine tuned endocrine sensing system tells them the days are getting longer, spring is on its way, and it is safe to set seed. So I have one more opportunity to safely plant them all again. By next planting break, it will be getting too late to plant the bolters. They would just be starting to look like maturing in September when the hot dry weather will likely hit, and the cabbage moths will start appearing again anyway.

So I’m planting another batch of seed in the seed raising box vacated by last month’s seedlings. A gorgeous, sunny winter day playing in the garden. Life is good.

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A week at the beach does wonders.  There is just no substitute for some time immersed  in wilderness – the ocean or the mountains or the bush – to get sane again.  It is a major failing in our economic system, that it undervalues this experience.  It treats everything that is “priceless”  – long walks on clean sand, our climate, our air, our wildlife, sunsets and sunrises, stars, our relationships with each other and other species –  as valueless.  It’s a collective delusion as dangerous as any loopy cult.

I swam every day, went for long long walks, thought up dozens of new recipes to try out, came off my pushbike and found a very nice ambo to bandage my knee, and read six books in seven days.  I ate fish every day (the benefit of a partner who loves standing on a rock staring out to sea with a fishing rod in hand), and had a lunch of local whiting better than even my own at a cafe called Rustic Table in Woolgoolga.  And I collected a big barrel-load of seaweed for this season’s seaweed brew.  It won’t be ready for the leafy planting days this coming weekend, but it will be just about right to use on the fruiting plants a week later.

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I’m planting carrots, parsnips, spring onions, and beetroot, all by my standard method.  The floods really knocked all my root crops around so I’m keen to get a new round in.  However my main job this week is to refresh the strawberry patch.

The strawberries have finished bearing now.  I have two patches in different beds.  The one-year old patch I’ll clean up, remove runners, feed with seaweed brew and add mulch, and I’ll get another round of fruiting next year.  The two year old patch though is becoming very ratty.  Fungus and virus diseases have started to build up, runners are crowding the plants,  and the original plants have just got old. Strawberries are real surface feeders.  They have used up all the supply of nutrients in their little root zone by now.  If I top dress too heavily, I will cover the crown and they’ll rot.

So I’ve selected the strongest of the young runners, radically pruned them of any leaf with even a sign of disease, and repotted them in a rich mix of compost, worm castings, and creek sand.  I’ve watered them in with seaweed brew and I shall keep them in a fairly sunny spot in the shadehouse till they are well established.  Meanwhile, I’m preparing a new bed, well away from their previous home, with lots of sheet compost and mulch. The new spot will be on the northern side of a bed because strawberries are short and won’t shade the things to their south as they come into full maturity in late winter.

And then, having used up all my seaweed brew, I shall just have to go to the beach for a few days.

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