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Summer is a much harder gardening season than winter in Australia. Most years there’s a set of frizzle days sometime over the summer – days when the temperature is up around 40ºC for a few days in a row.  It can be really disheartening.  Your garden can be looking good one day, then a few days later it’s all fried.

What to do:

Shade. Don’t be afraid of shade. European gardening advice is go for full sun, but not much likes Australian full sun in summer.   The perfect garden site has full sun from the north east round to the north west (because the winter sun actually rises in the north east and sets in the north west), but it has shade in the east and west. Short lived trees like leucaena work well in my subtropical climate.  I can plant them on the east and west of my circular garden beds and they create dappled shade in summer. They are legumes so as a side benefit, they fix nitrogen from the air, and I can use the prunings for mulch as well.

I also plant very intensively so my garden plants shade each other.  Using up all your water and other resources on a small area makes much more sense than spreading it thin to maximise your garden area.  Closely spaced plants shade each other.  And I use the fencing in my very intensively fenced beds as trellises, and grow climbers in preference to dwarf varieties of everything possible.  Climbing beans, cucumbers, tomatoes and squash add to the shade.

Mulch. I try to have a good 15 to 20 cm of mulch cover over my whole garden before the start of summer. I use huge amounts of mulch, for no-dig garden bed creation, for sheet composting and for weed eradication.  In summer though its most important functions are water conservation and insulation.  My most important garden tool is my 5 hp Honda walk-behind self-propelled mower.  With it I can get a trailer load of mulch in less than an hour, and it’s good exercise and meditation at the same time.

Unfortunately the better your soil, the less long-lasting the mulch cover.  Mulch cover over very biologically active soil disappears before your eyes, eaten by all the soil-living creatures and turned into compost.

Water : You do need a fair bit of water. I just use sprinklers and a hose because I have to be frugal with water and that gives me more control. I’ve never tried wicking beds but the idea is interesting and the theory is sound.  I avoid fixed watering systems because I don’t think they actually save labour. Luckily I’m a morning person because the best time to water is in the early morning.

This year is a La Nina year and the dams are full. Some years though I am trying to eke every skerrick of value out of every drop of water. But even in La Nina years, I don’t water every day. Seeds and seedlings in the shadehouse get water every day.  My advanced seedlings get watered in well at planting out. But the garden beds only get a sprinkler if there has been no rain at all for a fortnight or so.  If you water too frequently, root systems learn that the best place to get water is the top 10 cm, and they concentrate there – which is exactly what you don’t want in a heat wave. If you water deeply and infrequently, they chase the water down and that sets them up much better for frizzle days.

Plant the right things: Leafy greens have a really hard time – I generally don’t plant them during summer much at all.  Big leaved things like cucumbers and zucchini like the heat but have a hard time unless you really have lots of water and mulch, so I plant few of them and give those few all the water, rather than having too many and spreading the water too thin.

Plant sequentially: A week of frizzle weather will wipe out everything adolescent in the garden, but seeds and seedlings in the shadehouse are likely to survive, and mature plants with well developed root systems are likely to survive. If you have used up all the space you have available for pumpkins, for example, in one planting, you’ve put it all on black. If instead you have some at every stage, you’re only likely to be facing a few week gap in the harvest.

We are close now to Lammas, the traditional festival that marks the point when the day length passes the point, half way between the solstice and the equinox, when the days begin to shorten at an exponentially faster rate.  (There’s a nice simple graph that explains it here.)  The odds of getting more frizzle days now are rapidly shrinking.  The season coming, at least here in northern NSW,  is a much better one for gardeners.  The best thing I can do for my garden this time of year is go to the beach. The chooks need some cuttlefish and shell grit, the seaweed brew needs refreshing, and I’ve already ticked off one of my New Year’s resolutions.


I went out and mowed this morning early.  Not as early as I would have liked – the mower is noisy and there are neighbours within a hundred metres of the community centre lawn,  so I held back till 7.30 am.  I’m normally up before 5 these mornings, so it meant I had a couple of hours in the garden and shadehouse before mowing.  And still, that gives me a nice hour and a half before 9 am, then another half an hour to unload the mulch and I am in, showered and cool by 9.30.

Next week is predicted to be heavy rain and a nice thick layer of mulch will mean the chooks aren’t squelching around in mud.  The garden needs lots of mulch to survive days like this, and I need an hour or two of physical activity.  I can spend the whole middle of the day writing now without compunction.

I put sprinklers on when I first got up, and moved them around in those few hours, so that by 9.30 every bed had had a good deep watering.  It is days like this that I reap the value of soil with a lot of water holding capacity.  Years of adding organic matter pay off in being able to water heavily and have it all sucked up by the soil. Luckily, though it is a much drier year than average, our water storage is good enough now to afford the water.  Some years I have just had to watch the garden die on days like this.

We don’t have enough to water all the fruit trees, but I use all the grey water on them. We have a couple of trees full of mangoes just about ripe too.  It looked like a bumper year a few months ago but a spell of severe dry made them drop most of the fruit.  Still though, there are enough in our seven fruiting trees to make a few year’s supply of green mango pickle and mango chutney and  still have more than we can eat.

I have heat tolerant tall climbers – snake beans, indeterminate cherry tomatoes, tromboncino, cucumbers helping to shade beds.  In winter and spring, tall climbers are restricted to the south side of beds where they will never shade anything else.  But starting in mid-spring I begin planting them with an eye to heat waves, so that they extend around the western side and give the lettuces and rocket and beets and basil a bit of respite from the afternoon sun.

Not many lettuces in.  They need a lot of water and still they bolt to seed this time of year.  I have a few, of heat tolerant varieties, but my summer salads are not much based on salad greens.  This time of year, salads are best based on tomatoes (at their best now) or beans or capsicums  or cucumbers.   A heat wave sometime about now is so predictable that my garden is pretty clear of the things that are really vulnerable, and the few there are I can afford to sacrifice and replant when the weather changes.

The shadehouse is full of fairly advanced seedlings, each in its own little pot of good compost mixed with creek sand.  It is much easier to keep them watered and cool in the shadehouse.  I’ve recycled quite a few seedlings over the last month.  Germinated them in the seed raising boxes, transplanted them into pots, waited for a spell of the right kind of weather for planting out, recycled them into the seedling raising mix again and planted a new batch of seed when it didn’t happen.  There is a small amount of work wasted in doing this, but it saves a lot off work trying to establish seedlings in tough conditions.  I’m hoping that the rain predicted for new year will herald a few weeks of good planting weather and I can get all the seedlings in the shadehouse now out and established.

I don’t get frost in my sub-tropical garden, so winter is a good growing season here.  It is the frizzle days of summer that are the challenge, when a whole garden can be wiped out in one brutal day.  But just like gardeners in frost-prone climates, you develop a range of strategies to work the odds.


madagascar beans

Roots and perennials planting days this week, and when I look back over my “Garden” posts,  I find this planting break is the skinniest of the year, every year.

Partly it is because one of my other lives is teaching vocational education teachers and early summer is end of term madness.  Partly it is because by now the zucchinis and squash and cucumbers have launched a takeover bid on the garden.  Every year I am left wondering why it is so impossible for me to remember that those cute baby seedlings that looked so innocent back in October when I decided to plant out so many of them are really triffids and will leave me with no room for successive plantings of anything.  And partly it is because this time of year is often very harsh gardening conditions in my part of the world – the end of a long hot dry windy spring with the real frizzle days just starting to bite and the water supplies running low.

This year though it has been glorious gardening weather. So far we’ve dodged the “Godzilla El Nino” at is causing starvation level drought through SE Asia, New Guinea and Pacific Island nations. There have been a couple of heat waves but mostly mild days and the tanks and dams are full enough to water.

So this week I’ve planted passionfruit vines and pawpaws and tamarillos.  I’ve divided up the ginger and given it a nice new, well composted spot on the south eastern side of a garden bed where it will get light shade for the afternoon and water runoff.  I’ve planted  another bed of asparagus, and I’ve planted some madagascar bean seedlings to climb the bottom fence.

Madagascar beans are a tropical semi-perennial bean – they kinda take the niche occupied by seven-year beans (aka scarlett runner beans) in more temperate climates. I find that though I am theoretically at the margin between the two, Madagascar beans do much better in my sub-tropical climate. They live for about five years and though they like enough water, they cope with heat and dry and wet and humid (but not frost).  They bear very prolifically after year two on a rampant climbing vine.  I plant at three metre spacing along the fence and they will use every bit of that.

The beans are the size of lima beans but a very pretty speckled maroon and white.  Cooked they turn pink and taste pretty much like a lima bean and go well in bean patties for burgers, soups, stews, dips, patés and spreads.  They dry and store well so they’re a great staple, storable protein.  One of my zombocalypse essentials.


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.

garlic braids[relatedPosts]


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.



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!




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.



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




Back from welcoming Teo into the world, and a few days of warm weather with a lucky 50mm of rain , and the tomatoes have gone berzerk.  The big beefsteak one in the front is a Yugoslav, the one at the back a Brandywine.  These are my two favourite big tomato varieties.  They are both a bit fruit fly prone, so I have to be a bit lucky to get them – some years are worse for fruit fly than others.  And I only try for them early in the season – I won’t plant any more now.  They are both supurb flavoured tomatoes though, and worth growing for dishes where the tomatoes are the star, like Margherita Pizza or Tomatoes as Themselves or Pasta Puttanesca.

The small red grape-shaped tomatoes are Principe Borghese.  It’s an indeterminate, climbing variety that yields really heavy crops of sweet, meaty, fruit fly resistant tomatoes.  My breeding seems to have gone towards smaller and many-er than the standard kind – the seed you buy are likely to be more like mini-Romas.  They are one of my long-time favourite varieties, less seedy and more solid than cherries and good fresh or for cooking or bottling or sauce making, and very robust and reliable.

The yellow cherries are a new favourite.  I got the seed from some wild ones I found rambling all over a native bed in a park.  They were yielding really heavily even in poor soil, no water, lots of competition, harsh sun.  I’ve always been a bit shy of yellow tomatoes, thinking them a bit sallow but these are a good real tomato flavour (if a bit pale alongside the Brandywines :).  They are also prolific and so hardy, I haven’t planted any this year – they’re all self-seeded ones. The red cherries are the same – self-seeded, fruit fly resistant, hardy and prolific.

There’s a couple of Romas in there too, hiding.  They are fruit fly resistant and hardy, if not quite as prolific as the Principes and cherries.  Some years I go for San Mazanos but they tend to be a bit more disease prone.

I grow all indeterminate varieties, so all the plants bearing now should keep on producing right through until winter.  Summer really has started.