My little veggie patch

Last weekend I spent two days building a rolling planter box with my Dad.

The “design phase” of the project was pretty casual and was of little consequence, as we changed my design significantly throughout the build. I had a vague idea to build a table-height planter on stilts with wheels, so that I could put other plants underneath to save space and be able to easily re-use water that ran through the bed. My imagined planter box was also a lot smaller, lighter and more compact than the finished product. The sketches below show the entire extent of the design-phase. The design changed substantially while we were at Bunnings getting the supplies, the dimensions of the available wood meant changes to the dimensions of the box, and the larger box necessitated the placement of the box closer to the ground.  It ended up being about 1200mm long and 850mm wide at its widest point, with the actual bed ending up 900mm long, 550mm wide and 300mm deep.

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The design was based two different concepts – the first was Stephanie Alexander’s description of her rolling vegetable boxes in The Kitchen Garden Companion – she has a courtyard similar to mine, and she rolls the boxes out of the way when she needs the space back for entertaining. The second was the “No-dig apple crate” garden from The Little Veggie Patch Co’s book How to grow food in small spaces

Stephanie Alexander describes basically how she had the boxes made, and the no-dig apple crate project gave me a few ideas about how to layer organic material in the box – I ended up using their layering technique and adjusting the layer depths to fit the depth of my own planter box.

I used treated pine because it will last the longest outdoors and it was far cheaper than the other wood varieties available. This is also my first attempt at something like this and I didn’t want to spend a fortune on it.  I have read that you shouldn’t have treated pine in contact with soil you are growing food in, so I lined the box with a waterproof liner. Limiting the amount of water that sits against wood on the inside will also help to prolong the life of the planter. The plastic is nailed over the edge of the walls to prevent water trickling down against the wood from the top. The bottom is made from a piece of plastic lattice cut to size, pinned in place, and reinforced with a cross beam. Many planters like this that I have seen online have particleboard bottoms with holes for drainage – but that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I finished by poking lots of holes into the lining for drainage with a drill.

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The layering technique suggested by Fabian and Mat from The Little Veggie Patch Co is alternating layers of slow release organic fertiliser, mushroom compost, lucern hay or pea straw, and worm castings. It’s a “no-dig” technique, which means layering organic matter so that feeds your plants as it decomposes (rather than tilling the soil) – you just top it up at the end of the growing season with another layer to build it up after a season of decomposing. After filling the bed, I let it sit a few days to settle in.

Its just Autumn here now, so I’ve decided to plant some snow peas and some beetroots. I have constructed a bamboo teepee for the snow peas to climb on. Once the seedlings sprout, I will mulch the bed and think about a possum net.

The whole project took two days and cost me just shy of $200. I definitely think it could be done more cheaply with better planning. It could also be done more quickly – my Dad and I definitely took it at a leisurely pace, plus we spent a lot of time rejigging the plan as we discovered new problems and opportunities for improvement.

I am treating this all as a bit of an experiment, I’ll let you know how it goes!

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Through sickness and in health

Most people who enjoy gardening are very familiar with the feeling of excitement and anticipation of watching a plant prosper and thrive. Watching a new tranche of seeds poke out of the earth, or seeing a plant you have bought settle down and get to work is immensely satisfying. For me, that is one the great joys of gardening.

Unfortunately, the anticipation we experience is heightened by the possibility that our efforts will fail – that whatever we have carefully planted or whatever seed we have planted to exact specifications in ideal conditions will fail.

I have planted seeds, only to watch pots of blank soil continue to be blank over weeks, with the first flush of anticipation turning to impatience, and then ebbing away into resignation. I have watched healthy new plants fresh from the plant shop wither and die over days (not only disappointing, but expensive too!). I have also just outright killed plants through my own incompetence, or ignored problems until they caused irreversible damage. An example of this is when I planted my marigold tube stock too close together because I thought it looked nice (and it did) only for my actions to create a little humid wonderland between the plants for harmful pests to enjoy.

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The beginning of the end for my first chunk of marigolds –  they are starting to sag away from each other, and their leaves have little white spots on them from some kind of pest. I planted them too close together.

This week has been particularly disillusioning, as a few plants have had a bad reaction to the recent wet, and I have had a few notable casualties as a result of the general possum problem in our part of Sydney.

This morning, instead of skipping out into the garden and casting my eye over what has been growing through the week, I trudged out and witnessed the generally disappointing scene and decided I need an action plan. Tomorrow I am going to heartlessly rip out my battered tomato plant – I decided today that leaving it in will only depress me. I definitely let it get too big early on, and the recent torrential Sydney rain seems to have done it in – it has just been too wet for too long. When I came out this morning and saw that the paltry tomato harvest had further been decimated by possums, I decided it had to go!

I am also going to pull out the chilli plant that has been completely devoured by possums over the past fortnight (why??!!), and replant some seeds which were washed out of the ground during the last two weeks of rain. I’ll also have a think about what other edible plants I can grow, and further investigate methods of dealing with possums. It seems that physical barriers such as netting aren’t really doing the trick for hungry possums helping themselves to whatever they like from my garden. Not even succulents are safe – they have taken a nibble from practically every pot and every variety, squashing nearby plants by sitting on them so they can have a nice comfortable snack.

A visitor to the house last night suggested putting out bananas as a decoy, but I find I resent the idea of feeding them, and having squishy banana strewn around the courtyard is not very appealing (get it?) to me. I will do some more research in the meantime. Does anyone else have the same problem? What works for you?

On the plus side, my zinnias are really coming along, and all of my herbs are looking very lush!

 

 

The beginning

I have always loved gardens. In fact, when I think of my early life and childhood, most of my fondest memories took place in either of the gardens in the two houses I grew up in. The first (and most formative garden) I knew well was a small brick-paved courtyard in Erskineville, lush with ferns and mossy groundcovers, and canopied with a huge jacaranda. I remember helping my Dad landscape the garden (I think I was helping, anyway). Not even being taken to hospital with two itchy eyes full of fibres from a nasty Tasmanian Tree Fern we were moving was traumatic enough to turn me off!

I only really realised how important gardens were to me when I didn’t have one anymore. When I moved out of my parent’s house, to an apartment with a tiny, exposed, south facing balcony, where nothing would grow – I really missed my own little bit of greenery, the apartment didn’t really feel like a home.

When I moved again, to a house in Glebe with a bit of space and a lot of sun, I quickly generated quite a collection of pot plants, which has continued to grow and change over the year until now.

In October of 2015 I realised how much satisfaction gardening gave me, and how hungry I was to learn everything I could. I bullied my friend Jackson into going to a one-day Sustainable Gardening course with me at University of Sydney’s Centre for Continuing Education.  We were both a bit daunted by a six hour talk about gardening, but I found myself completely engaged the entire six hours, taking copious amounts of notes in addition to the handouts that the wonderful instructor Judith Sleijpen had prepared on each subject (if you see her name on a course description, go!) I have been adding to those notes ever since. If you think you might be interested in knowing more about gardening, or you would like the opportunity to ask an expert questions all day I would highly recommend you do the course too. I’ve been hooked ever since!

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A small sample of the kind of things I learnt about at CCE’s Sustainable Garden course.

 

 

 

Green tomatoes

My lovely friend Sarah has recently become very keen on vegetable gardening. It’s good for her, because she gets to supplement her now entirely vegan diet with organic homegrown veggies, but it’s also pretty good for me, because apparently I get her extra vegetable plants when she has too many.

Sarah recently gave me a cute little Roma tomato plant, about 20cm tall. I am not sure of the exact variety. All I know is that as soon as I got it home, I immediately started overfeeding it.

It became a mammoth bush and quickly needed repotting. Burke’s Backyard tells me you are only meant to feed it once every 2-3 weeks at most, although I have heard from others that every 3-4 weeks is plenty, I think it depends on the variety of your plant, where it is placed, and how well the soil is prepared.

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My very large and leafy tomato plant, with a few little basil plants nestled around it’s base.

The reason you want to avoid overfeeding the plant is because overfeeding causes the plant to overproduce leaves, when really you want it putting its energy into flowering and fruiting, instead of producing tonnes of leaves.

My boyfriend’s father grew up on a tomato farm, and insists that I need to remove all but two of the most promising stalks from the plant to make sure that it fruits well. I couldn’t bear to do that, but I did cut it back by about 25% around two weeks ago, which didn’t seem to do the plant any harm. The plant flowered soon after, and now I have five little tomatoes growing bigger by the day, with plenty of flowers as well.

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Just one of the many flower clusters, plus a fresh little green tomato popping out in the background (middle right). Flowers turn into tomatoes, soon the flower will be a little brown dangly bit on the bottom of a tomato.

When I asked Sarah for advice about my oversized tomato, she suggested treating the plant to something she called “pinching”, to make sure the plant isn’t over producing new leaf growth. This involves finding the small new growth budding in the forks of the stems, and pinching them off so that they don’t turn into another leafing arm of the plant. The photo below shows the kind of new growth that I mean (but this has been left to grow for a little bit too long!)

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It’s best to “pinch” off the new fuzzy growth that grows in the forks of stems – it stops the plant getting too leafy. It should be concentrating on growing tomatoes instead!

I am trying not to get my hopes up too high about my tomato harvest, because I have heard from a few places that tomatoes are notoriously attractive to possums (which we have a lot of), rats, and birds. The worst part is that they often take only one bite from the reddest part of the plant, and then leave you to find the grizzled and useless remains the next morning. I have put netting over the plant in an attempt to deter this happening, I bought it from Easy Pest Supplies with a few other bits and pieces. A 4x5m piece cost me $14.95, seems to be doing the trick so far. Fingers crossed!