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winterI’m naturally not much of a gambler.  I think that’s one of the reasons I like permaculture – that focus on systems and design and elegant patterns of relationships that mitigate risk.  It’s not that I’m a control freak, it’s just that I’ve learned that “lets stop and think about this” is a good mantra.

This time of year in this part of the world (northern NSW), fruiting annuals are all a gamble.  I might just squeeze in another round of the summer annuals, especially the faster ones like zucchini and squash and cucumbers and beans.  My site is pretty well frost free and with luck they’ll bear into June, but an early cold snap will zap them just as the first fruits are ready to harvest.  I might just get away peas and snow peas but if it stays warm too long, and especially if its wet with it, they’ll all just succumb to powdery mildew.  I might get away with both, or very easily neither.

So I’ve planted  just a dozen each of peas, snow peas, and broad beans.  The first real planting will be next month but if these succeed, they’ll give me an early start and a bit of insurance if the mice steal my pea seeds next month  (as they’ve been known to do in the past).

And I’ve planted one, exactly one, pot of each of zucchini, button squash, cucumber, and potkin pumpkin.  Two or three seeds in each pot so that I can weed out the weaker ones, but aiming to plant out just one of each as a late bet.  And a dozen rattlesnake beans to get a last hurrah on the bean harvest.  And another few cherry tomatoes in the seed box, aiming to have just five or six to plant out.  They’ll be slow and a bit sorry for themselves being asked to grow through winter, but I can usually manage to get a few to bear right through.

All the big seeds are in leaf pots, three to a pot aiming to thin to two before planting out. By the time they are big enough to need planting out into the garden, the chooks will have prepared a bed for them.  It will be an oddly planted bed – a small set of peas, snow peas, beans, cucumbers all climbing the south side fence, with broad beans in front of them, then zucchini, squash and potkins round the north side (where they won’t cast too much shade), and leafy greens, onions and garlic in the middle.  The picture is that kind of planting from last year.  Lacking a crystal ball (sadly), oddly planted is my next best option.

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planting in March

I’d never noticed it before I started blogging, but there’s a pattern here.  Every year I seem to be thanking my lunar calendar that I got anything stuck in during early Autumn at all.  What is it with March?

I’ve done it again this year – all but missed the leafy planting days, determined to get something planted no matter what, and had a post half written in my head about “one of the things I like about the lunar planting calendar, that it pushes me to rescue my gardening from the “things that can be put off for a week or so” pile”.  Till I realised that’s exactly what I wrote this time in 2011.

In my part of the world – northern NSW – it’s the turn of the seasons time.  We’ve probably seen the last of the heat wave days when it’s a waste of effort planting out leafy greens and you can feel the coming coolness in the air.  It is coming into our wet season so we’re likely to get rain. It’s past Lammas, the festival marking the point when, though the days are still long,  if you graph the day length the graph starts a steep downhill plunge towards the winter solstice.  So bolters are not in such a hurry to set seed into what they think is the approaching snow, and instead they bunker down with food stores to survive till the days start lengthening again – food stores like bulbs and hearts and tubers.  The summer insect pests are still around but they’ve lost their head start on predator populations.  I see hover flies and lizards all over the garden now and a grasshopper needs to be lucky to run the gauntlet.

All of that means I can, for the first time, plant water loving leafies like lettuces and celery with some hope.  I can plant bolters like coriander and parsley and silver beet and they’ll hang in there for a while.  I can plant cool season things like leeks and spinach, and cabbage moth targets like kale and cabbages, broccoli and cauliflower.

Not too many of any of them – there’s several months of successive plantings to fit in yet, but today I’m making time to get these seeds into the seed boxes in the shade house.  The boxes are sitting ready in the shadehouse, the same ones I used for summer planting recycled.  It will take a matter of minutes, and, like every year it seems, I’ll thank my lunar calendar that it made me do it.

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self sown garlicEvery year a few garlic plants manage to escape harvesting in early summer.  The leaves die off and I lose them in the garden.  Every year in autumn I suddenly find them again, green shoots poking up from forgotten patches.

The thing is, every year it is getting earlier.

For years I’ve planted garlic around Anzac Day.  In 2010, my first year of this blog,  I wrote a post about self sown garlic shooting of its own accord in early April.  In 2011 I planted my garlic  in mid March to see if the early planting trick would work again, and a couple of days later I found the self-sown garlic agreed with me.   In 2012, after finding the self sown garlic sprouting in early March I wrote a post about planting the garlic, and how “Gardens are polite, quiet, undemanding, and utterly implacable” about timing.

It’s hardly a proper scientific experiment. I save some of my own garlic to plant every year but I also mix up the genes a bit by buying some locally grown garlic to plant too.  It’s only a four year experiment, and lots else changes every year too including soil and weather and shade.  But it is an interesting little oddity.

This year, after finding this garlic happily sprouting this week, I’m planting my garlic in February.  Crazy early by standard wisdom, but I’m not going to argue with a plant.

Garlic is one of the most worthwhile plants to grow.  It doesn’t take a lot of space to grow a year’s supply and it’s pretty hardy with dry or cold or hot weather.  Supermarket garlic is mostly imported from China and there’s a reason it’s cheap. It’s treated with methyl bromide at quarantine, and methyl bromide is a nasty chemical.  It’s also bleached to make it that shiny white.  Chinese regulation of agricultural chemicals isn’t confidence inspiring and the garlic has travelled a long way.  The varieties used are mild and the growing practices push it along so hard that you use masses of it and don’t get the flavour.

If you are planting garlic, go to the effort of finding a good local variety.  Garlic is highly day length sensitive so a variety grown at a different latitude won’t work for you. If you can’t find local garlic, next best option is to do some good research about a suitable variety for your region – short day or long day, hard neck or soft neck.  If you are much north of me in Northern NSW, you are in a marginal area for garlic of any kind.  This far north I have to choose short daylength varieties, or they go to seed without developing a bulb at all.

Then just plant individual cloves in good composted soil, pointy end up, as deep as their own diameter, about 8 cm spacing, well away from peas or beans.  Give them a nice sunny spot and don’t overwater. And dream of braids of garlic to hang next summer.

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chooks in new bed

I’ve just moved the chooks into a new bed, and they are feasting on broccoli that is well past bearing human food.  They like the cabbage white moths and grasshoppers on it the best and have lots of fun hunting them. Moving the chooks just means moving their artificial tree roost you see in the middle, their water bucket, laying box, and the little kids pool you see on the right that they like for some extra protection if there is heavy rain in the daytime.  The beds are fully fenced and netted over anyway to keep out wildlife. At night, they fly up to bed, safe from foxes or carpet snakes, and in the morning they just fly down.  The little grey hen is top of the pecking order, so she claims the topmost roost high up under the roof.

Over the next month, they will clear out the bed of spent crops, weeds and insects.  They will get a bucket of house scraps and some weeds and spoiled fruit from other parts of the garden every day.  Over the month they will also get a trailer load of grass clippings and leaves and a few bags of horse or cow manure, maybe some azolla, and if they are lucky a few handfuls of mixed grain to encourage them to scratch through it all thoroughly, mixing it with their own manure and any of the house scraps they have disdained.  The deep litter means I can just chuck their food on the ground without it getting covered in their own poo.

At the end of the month, the bed will look like this, the bed they have just come off.

mulched bed

That’s a particularly thick layer of sheet compost, so I’ll rake off the top 15 cm or so and pile it to turn into real compost for my seedling mix. It’s already half way there, so it won’t need any turning and with wetting down, it will be mature in a couple of weeks.  Then I’ll plant advanced seedlings straight into the bed, pushing aside the mulch and digging just a little hole for each one, potting mix and all.  The bag in there is a chili plant that I wanted to survive the chooking. It is fine and healthy.

On the down-side of each fully fenced bed, I plant perennials to capture the benefit of any mulch that spills through and any water that runs off or oversprays.  On the right of the pic (which is the east side of the bed)  is galangal.  In summer, I let it get tall and lush to shade the bed a bit, then this time of year I cut it back to let in the morning sun. In the middle is a young pigeon pea, on the left (the southern side, out of the pic) is a coffee bush, and a pawpaw tree. They will never shade the bed because in the southern hemisphere, the sun is always to the north.  The understory is mint, with some nasturtiums in front.

In that bed, I’m planting beans, cucumbers, and one more tromboncino around the left hand fence, the southern side, where they will climb tall but not shade the bed.  Around the right hand fence, I’m planting zucchini, squash, and potkin pumpkins because that is the north side, and they are low.  On the eastern and western sides, I’m planting a few more tomatoes, just yellow and red cherry types this late in the season, hoping they will continue to bear well into winter. In my part of the world, northern NSW,  the climate is subtropical and my site is nearly frost free, so there should be plenty of time for all of these to bear before the start of winter.  It’s too late though for any more capsicums or eggplants – they take 4 or 5 months to start bearing and it will be too cold by then.  It’s also a bit too early for peas or snow peas or broad beans here – I can expect another month or so of warm, humid weather, and they’d just get mildew.

The centre of the bed will have advanced seedlings of  leafy greens and carrots and beets and spring onions planted into it over the next few weeks.  At the same time, I’ll plant a new round of seed so that, in a month’s time, when the chooks move again, they’ll be ready to plant into the next bed.  And so the cycle goes on.

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This is the lettuces for April and May, planted on the leafy planting days last weekend.  These are my own seed so they are free and bountiful. But still there’s no point in planting more than a pinch of them.  We take lunches and lettuce is in it practically every day when it is in season, and we would have a salad for dinner a few times a week too.  But even so, half a dozen loose leaf lettuces planted each month keeps us supplied.

Buttercrunch is a really good hot weather variety, and this is probably the last round of them I shall plant.  Next month I’ll plant a Romaine loose leaf lettuce, probably Rouge d’Hiver and/or Brown Romaine. Planting different varieties each time gives me a bit of insurance, since they respond differently to weather and pests.  A few weeks of wet might wipe out my buttercrunches, but the romaines will likely survive it.

This trick of taking only the seeds I intend to plant, not the whole packet, out to the garden is a really good way of making a packet of seeds last through multiple successive plantings. I wrote a whole post about it a little while ago.  Such a simple trick for so much benefit.

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This is that pinch of seeds today.  It was planted in a coolite box full of home made seed raising mix – half creek sand (fine gravel) and half mowed old dry cow pats.  I’ll prick these out to transplant and re-use the seed-raising mix for the next batch.  It will keep going for years with occasional top-ups.  I like using a deep coolite box like this because I find shallow trays or punnets are too vulnerable. I only need to neglect to water once, or get a really hot dry day when I’m not home and I lose them.  The deep boxes give me much more leeway.

There’s about 18 baby lettuces have come up.  These ones are ready to transplant, and today l shall pot on about a dozen of them, selecting the strongest.  Transplanting them at this two leaf stage is quick and easy and causes almost no transplant shock.  Culling the weaker seedlings is a good pest and disease control measure. It’s hard to do though – gardeners tend to have a weakness for baby plants! But if I plant all of them, I’ll just use up all the garden space and have no room for the next round.

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This is the baby lettuces I shall plant out into the garden today.  They were planted as seed a month ago now, at the  leafy planting days at the beginning of January, so they are already a month old.  They were transplanted at the two leaf stage into their own pot filled with a rich mix of compost, worm castings, with a bit of creek sand for drainage.  They have been kept in the shadehouse where I remember to water them.  I’ll plant them out by digging a little hole and putting the whole potting mix and all in it, so they are never bare rooted and suffer no transplant shock at all.  Often I make little leaf pots and I can plant pot and all.  We will be eating them in March and April.

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These lettuces were planted as seed back in December and out into the garden a month ago, and we’ve already been sneaking a few leaves from them. About a third of the lettuces in pots never make it out into the garden.  I select the strongest 6 or 8 and recycle the potting mix for the rest.  At any one time, there will normally be at least 3 beds with lettuce pickable in them, some getting to the end, some in the middle, some just starting to bear, 18 to 24 lettuces in all, plenty for us.  Small amounts of sequential planting like this is also less daunting.  Even if I am really really busy, I can normally find time to stick half a dozen lettuces in the ground.  Planting too many at once is not only a waste, it’s also a pretty effective deterrent to planting any at all!

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This is the lettuces we’re eating mostly now.  They were planted as seed back in November, planted out into the garden in December, and I was able to start picking them from mid-January. I pick a handful of leaves when we want them. I much prefer loose leaf lettuces because I can do this.  These are a cos variety and they managed to cope with the heat waves of December and January, which was a bit impressive of them.

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And this was the December/January lettuces.  I was impressed by the ability of this variety to survive the heat waves, and its resistance to bolting.  They were planted as seed in October, which would be the worst month of the whole year for lettuces in my part of the world.  My springs are often hot and dry, and the days are lengthening which spurs them to bolt to seed.  But these guys hung in through all that, and you can see from the length of bare stem at the bottom how much lettuce we ate from them.  I’ve left two of the slowest to bolt to bear seed.  I’ll collect the seed, dry it in a bowl on my verandah table, and that will be the seed I plant next spring.

I plant a pinch of seeds, pot on a dozen baby seedlings, and plant out 6 or 8 advanced seedlings each month, aiming to do it on the leafy planting days mainly because that’s a good reminder and procrastination buster.  The September to November plantings are a bit of a long shot and I don’t have high hopes for them, which means there is often a period from December to February when lettuces are in short supply. But for the rest of the year this strategy normally means there are several varieties of lettuce for picking any day I like.

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parsnips gone to seed

After the heat wave of last week, today is cool and wet.  We had over two inches of rain yesterday and the garden, orchard, geese, ducks, fish, yabbies, wildlife, dams, tanks – everything is loving it.  (Well, the chooks not so much. My chooks are so phobic about water that when I tried to mist them with the hose set to a really fine spray last week to keep them cool, they just stood miserably out in the sun till I turned the hose off).

It’s a perfect planting day. The ground is wet and Bom says that here in northern NSW we can expect under 30°C and patchy rain for the next week.

I’ve planted another round of carrots and beets and spring onions, using my usual system.  There were a lot of casualties to the heat wave out of the last lot, so it’s good to fill the gap.  Succession planting small amounts every month, rather than using up all your garden space in one big planting, is a good insurance strategy.

It’s a too early yet for onions and garlic, but I’ve planted the first round of parsnips for the season.  I had left a couple in the garden to go to seed (that’s the picture), and they reckon it’s the right time to plant seed. Parsnips are from the umbelliferae  family, and like the rest of that family their flowers are good for attracting predatory insects like tachinid flies, assassin bugs, lacewings and parasitic wasps.  So letting a few flower and seed is a pest control insurance payment, and you get free fresh seed as a byproduct.

By standard gardening calendars it’s a bit early for parsnips – they take four months to mature, and they are best harvested after the first frost.  We can’t expect a frost until well into June.  But I’ve learned to trust that plants know what they are doing. Parsnips hold in the ground well so if we get bad conditions for planting next month, we’ll still be eating them in June. And we eat a lot of parsnips.  To my taste they make better mash than potatoes, and they are wonderful in a tray of roast vegetables, which is one of my all-time favourite dinners.

I use the same system for parsnips as for carrots – raised in the shadehouse four or five to a pot, then planted out as a group, potting soil and all with minimal disturbance to the roots.  I find they transplant fine like that, and it saves having to spend a month trying to keep them constantly moist in the garden while they germinate and establish.  And it allows me to put little clumps of them spread around the garden.  They grow taller than you would think, much taller than carrots, so they go towards the southern side of a bed.

If I get some time this afternoon, I’ll also pot up next year’s strawberries The chooks are due to move on to the bed they are in next, and they need a fresh start anyhow.

And I have about 20 seedling Mango trees in the shadehouse, that have been waiting for enough rain to plant.  I think they might be a good fire retardant species, so I’m planting them all along the edge of the fire trail downhill from the house.

And, most important of all, I need a sanity day getting my hands in dirt!

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eggplants

I’m very proud of these.  Eggplants are one of my difficult crops. In my garden they are prone to attack by flea beetles.  The flea beetles themselves are a nuisance – they chew holes in the leaves – but not critical.  But they spread virus diseases and the nightshade family (that eggplants belong to) is very prone to virus diseases.  And I live in an area where wild tobacco (Solanum mauritianum) is a  prevalent weed so it is impossible to break the cycle of disease by just having a break from all nightshades.

I’d love to be able to put my finger on exactly what I did right with these.  The seedlings were bought – something I rarely do, and only because I hadn’t planted seed (too disheartened after last year’s dismal eggplant harvest), and then succumbed.  They are “Little Finger”, a variety I’ve tried before, but maybe this is a particularly strong cultivar?  They were planted late in the season – usually I try to get them started in September but these didn’t go in until well into October.  They were planted in a bed that has been well chooked – that bed had the chooks on it at the peak of my crazy busy time and they were there for much longer than usual.  But the bed had tomatoes in it before that, and they’re the same family… ?

My best theory is that they are companion planted with Thai basil on all sides, and the Thai basil was well advanced when the seedlings went in.  Because the bed is very fertile, the Thai basil has really grown big and leafy, but it wanted to bolt to seed a bit so I’ve been breaking off  the seed heads and dropping them as mulch around the eggplants.

I’m going to be sure to save seed from these, and try to remember to run the Thai basil experiment again next year.  But meantime, I’m relishing the idea of Smoky Eggplant and Pomegranate Dip with the pomegranates just coming into season too.

I know in many parts of Australia you are coping with frizzle weather, and my fingers are crossed that there are no fire catastrophes.  But here it is cool and overcast with occasional showers – jealous? So I’ve planted another round of beans – Red Seeded Snake Beans and Rattlesnakes this time, just a couple of metres of fence with each.  I’ve planted zucchini and squash and cucmbers and potkins, just a couple of each.  I won’t plant any more tomatoes – I want to save some spots for next year and I’ve learned to be very careful to rotate tomatoes.  I’ll plant out just two more advanced capsicum seedlings, and I’ve planted another dozen sweet corn.

With any luck we won’t get your heat wave this time, I’ll be able to keep water up to them and they’ll survive, but if they don’t, at least it’s only this one batch of successional planting that I miss.

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summer garden

My garden came through the frizzle weather of the last couple of days not too badly, though the dam is low now and I’m very much hoping we don’t get more of it before decent rain.  We have 100 silver perch in there, just getting big enough to eat, and the geese and ducks use it too, so there’s a real limit to the amount I can afford to battle heat waves with water.

Stacking to the north, shade, mulch, and plant selection did the trick though.  This photo is of one of my fully fenced beds, looking from the north towards the south.  Below me (I couldn’t fit it all in), around the northern fence, are non-climbing curcubits – potkin pumpkins, squash and zucchini, and beneath my feet is some aragula (wild rocket).

In summer I plant my fully enclosed garden beds with climbers right round from the east to the west.  Climbing beans are really resilient in heat waves, and provide good shade to everything else.  I can use a lot of beans by the time we eat them fresh and let enough fully mature for dried beans.  Cucumbers and tromboncino need more water, and they wilt and drop fruit in the heat, but the vine survives.  Sweet corn is also a good heat wave survivor. The eggplants, capsicums, basil and perennial leeks in front of them get the benefit of shade for much of the day.  Some of the fruit was burned but most survived.

The only leafy in the picture is the young amaranth.  In other beds I have mature amaranth, over a metre tall and taking up most of a square metre of space. It’s a good, resilient, heat loving summer green (even though it’s not actually green).  I harvest leaves and stems to use where I would use spinach or chinese cabbage in winter. There’s no lettuce in this bed.  There are a few, mostly buttercrunch, scattered around the garden.  Few enough that I could protect some of them, and some them got fried.  There’s a bit of parsley that hasn’t gone to seed, and it survived.  There’s some rocket that suffered but the wild rocket was fine.  I was happy that I haven’t been planting many leafies since early spring.

Today is cool and overcast, such a contrast.  And it is now past the summer solstice and heading into what is normally our wet season.  I planted a new tray of leafies on New Year’s Day, and they are just coming up now.  If I were going to plant brussels sprouts, they’d be in this box, but I’m right at the northern end of their range in a good year, and I’m not betting on a cool winter this year.  So sadly I’ll give up on them now.  It’s still just a bit early for all the brassicas here – they will be big enough to go out into the garden in about 6 weeks and the cabbage moths will still be too active then.  I ummed and ahhed about silver beet and celery and leeks, but they’ll be better in a month’s time too.  So just a little starter for leafies but their time is coming.

leafy midsummer

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There’s a permaculture principle of designing for disaster.  The same principle applies to big disasters (whoever had the bright idea of building the Fukushima nuclear plant wasn’t taking account of it), or small disasters like a hailstorm or a day of sizzling hot weather when carrots are germinating or establishing. Like many permaculture principles it’s hardly rocket science:  just research, consider and design for the extremes not just the ideal, and apply a bit of hazard assessment and risk management.

It’s the kind of thing that is elementary WHS.  If you were filling in one of those nowadays ubiquitous hazard assessment forms for Fukushima before the tsunami, you’d have to give it a 1 – which means stop, right now, and eliminate the hazard, even if it means you can’t build the power station there.  Same for the risks created by shipping coal and LNG out through the Barrier Reef or continuing to produce unlimited greenhouse gases – we don’t care how inconvenient or costly it is, if it’s a 1 you have to deal with the hazard.  Full stop. Right now.

Der.

Back to carrots.

This time of year, a tiny bit of hazard assessment says there are going to be thunderstorms and there are going to be frizzle days and chances are pretty good that you’ll get one or the other of them during the three weeks or so carrot seeds take to germinate and the further three weeks or so they take to establish to a relatively safe stage.  I know the death of a carrot is not exactly a disaster, but you’d have to give it a 1 – very likely to happen and if it does, almost certain to kill the carrots.

I rarely plant carrots directly out as seed at any time of year (or anything else much).  But if I need to, I can get away with it in autumn and winter.  My autumns here in northern NSW are normally wet and winters fairly mild.  WHS carrot risk drops to 3 or 4.  This time of year though, I germinate them in the shadehouse, grow them out to advanced seedlings, and only plant them out into the garden when they are robust enough to need at worst “Medical attention and several days off work”, and a frizzle day during the week or so it will take them to establish is at worst “unlikely”. Maximum risk a 4

I’ve written about my usual method for planting carrots before.  This week I’m planting out into the garden, besides the carrots, advanced seedlings of beets and spring onions, and I’m going to try sweet potatoes yet again (the wallabies love sweet potato leaves above just about anything else.) I’m also planting another round of seed in the shadehouse for planting out in January.

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