Another day of icy Antarctic blasts after that tempting warm spell late last week. Today we had 37 mms of rain in the gauge so that at least is a positive. The long term forecast is for an El Nino this year so we can expect above average temperatures and a lot less rain. So any soil moisture we can get now, along with run-off into the dams is welcome. On the negative side – the strong winds have torn several holes in the polyhouse roof which will need fixing quite quickly.

Fixing a hole where the rain gets in ...
Fixing a hole where the rain gets in …

Luckily the only seedlings I have in there are tough old brassicas, Kailan (sometimes spelled kailaan), or Chinese Broccoli, which will be able to stand the cold for a while.

Small but tough Kailan seedlings
Small but tough Kailan seedlings

Walking around the garden after the rain I spot some self sown seedlings. Two brassicas, one Red Russian Kale and this Red Mustard – a favourite in salads.

Self sown Red Mustard
Self sown Red Mustard

Saving the best until last, another one of the hen’s started laying today. Which just puts the pressure on the last one to get a move on. Hooray fresh eggs again!

Truffle chooks and box birds

Those chickens! You give them an inch and then ….. We’ve let the chickens out into another part of the garden while we renovate the area they’ve been in over winter. It took them a few days to settle in and then they really start exploring.

Letty and Arty checking out the long grass in the polyhouse.
Letty and Arty checking out the long grass in the polyhouse.

Unfortunately for us they have found several types of mischief to get into. The first I knew was the sound of pecking – it really shouldn’t sound that loud – weren’t they just eating the remains of the warrigal greens? No. They were eating the polystyrene box that the plants were growing in.

Yum, tasty box!
Yum, tasty box!

A quick leap into the yard to remove that box and another they had also been eating. So much for organic chickens!

We had a bit of a hunt around and couldn’t see any other obvious problems. That was fine, until this morning when I went out to look for eggs only to see Dotty and Arty buried in the pot containing TB’s truffle oak! Boy had they been digging. Perhaps they found a truffle, we will never know, so now it’s a Fort Knox oak tree.

Dotty returns to the scene of the crime.
Dotty returns to the scene of the crime.

Only time will tell what they will get up to next.

All the signs …

Spring is nearly here, just under two weeks to go until the official start of the ‘growing’ season. The wattle is flowering, the chickens are laying more consistently (well at least two of them are), the days are getting longer and most incontrovertible of all, I have an overwhelming urge to go to the nursery and spend up big on any plant I see.

Newly bought seedlings and some early seed propagation in the polyhouse.
Newly bought seedlings and some early seed propagation in the polyhouse.

I’ve found it all so hard to resist. We gave in last week and bought a few punnets of plants, pak choy and lettuces, that will be able to survive in the current low temperatures and will survive the inevitable frosts. And yes, at the back, that is a tray of pea seeds that I planted in their traditional loo roll tubes, yesterday. By the time they are up they will be well able to cope with the outside temperatures. Parsley, at the front, was transplanted from tidying up in the front veggie garden. Most of these are destined for give-aways to friends and neighbours.

I am also trying to be a bit more logical in assessing what we have in the garden and what we need to source for the garden. A case in point are the strawberries. Our current crop are well past their use-by date as can be seen in the spotty, virus laden foliage. These have to be rooted out, quite literally and replaced.

Bad strawberry!
Bad strawberry!

I have some previous years runners in pots, but I still have to check whether they are clear of viruses. I did buy four new plants of the strawberry variety Hokowase, which originated in Japan and friend M says she will give me some of her runners. So once I wrestle with digging out the old plants, tossing them in the bin to avoid any further infection and replacing the soil in the brick niches I will be able to replant.

I’m working off, or perhaps working up, my spring gardening urges by reading gardening books and listening to gardening podcasts. Top of the reading list at the moment is A Year at Otter Farm, by Mark Diacono (Bloomsbury Press 2014).

A year at Otter farm, cover illustration by Andrew Lyons.
A year at Otter farm, cover illustration by Andrew Lyons.

Yes, I was sucked in by Andrew Lyons’ beautiful cover illustration, but equally so by the fact that Mark has a recipe for Jerusalem artichoke cake. Anyone who grows these yummy tubers will know that, like zucchinis, you can never have too many recipes for using them all up! This book ticks all my boxes. It’s seasonal, the recipes are sorted by main ingredient and the recipes are sensibly listed on the page where the vegetable is discussed. Such an obvious idea and yet I think this is the first time I’ve seen it in use. Mark is also growing some of the less common veggies and it’s great to get his growing tips and learn from his experience. While Mark is living in the UK it is easy enough to follow the seasons through the book by simply ignoring the month listed at the chapter heading.

I’m also going overseas for my favourite podcast over at You Grow Girl. Gayla Trail’s blog (Gayla is based in Toronto, Canada) was one of the first gardening blogs I found all those years ago. I must say that I had not been catching up with it recently so I was pleasantly surprised when I dropped by the other day to see that she is now podcasting. Her podcasts go under the title of What’cha Growin. I like what she is doing – I’ve listened to four podcats so far – Gayla has some really interesting guests. Some are experienced, others raw beginners from both rural and really urban gardens – have you ever had a gunshot victim laid in your garden while waiting for the ambulance? I’ve been really disciplined starting from her first podcast, but I’m building up to episode 7, when she interviews Alys Fowler, one of the UK’s leading veggie garden promoters.

Bring spring on, I’m ready!




A Winter’s Day

The sun is shining and I’m out in the backgarden despite a wind off the snow that is of a nails scraping on a blackboard chill*. After a week of more than 50 millimetres of rain, worries about termites and being stuck in the house I’ll take any chance to get out.

I figure the chooks could also do with a leg stretch so they are out in their annex digging through to another continent. Their main yard is a quagmire.

The 'girls' out in their annex
The ‘girls’ out in their annex

I’ve put the veggie scraps in the compost bin and spend a bracing 5 minutes scrubbing the compost bucket out. I still need to let the wind blast the stale air out of the house so I go into the polyhouse to check on how our plants are surviving.

chillies drying from the roof, some borage in need of a feed with some minerals and our native plants waiting to get into that garden I can't dig.
chillies drying from the roof, some borage in need of a feed with some minerals and our native plants waiting to get into that garden I can’t dig.

It’s looking pretty good and the sun is warming in the slight protection of the plastic sheeting. TB is working really hard to get some of our tender plants through the Canberra winter. He’s succeeding. Some of our chillies, the Vietnamese mint and lemongrass are alive and doing quite well.

Looking through the lemongrass to the Vietnamese mint and chilli plant
Looking through the lemongrass to the Vietnamese mint and chilli plant

His most daring experiment are a bunch of eggplants that are still outside in a large pot, which is carefully covered every night against the frost. His goal is to get the plants safely through winter so he can re-plant them once the frost has passed to get fruit earlier than we can from younger plants. We’ll see.

*PS on the weather report tonight I heard that our ‘apparent’ daytime maximum today was 1.3 degrees celsius.

Ha-ogen home

Our polyhouse is mainly used as a safe haven for plants over the winter and early spring months. Come summer it’s pretty deserted as it gets too hot for most plants to cope with. So this year we are trying an experiment by planting some of our more tender tropical crops in the polyhouse to see if we can find a better use for it.

These are our ha-ogen melon seeds, just sprouting at the very end of September. Thankfully they have survived better than the first seeds I sprouted back in 2010.


Ha-ogen seedlings, 29 September 2012

They are now reaching a size where thy can be planted out. Given our relatively short growing season, sandwiched between late spring and autumn frosts, it’s a challenge to get these melons to fruit in Canberra. So this time around we’ve decided to plant two of them, one at each end, in the polyhouse.

You can see from the photo that TB has used the idea of growing them in a mesh enclosure rather than a pot.


Ha-ogen seedling planted out 16 October 2012

Given that the plants will not survive past the first cold spells (even in the polyhouse) we are OK with them putting roots down into the polyhouse’s soil floor. What is yet to go in is a sturdy trellis for the vines to grow up.

We are also going to try growing our lemongrass inside the polyhouse in a similar container. Hopefully the more humid atmosphere will encourage the development of thicker stems that we’ve managed to grow when the lemngrass has been planted out in the garden. Fingers crossed.

Spring is here, spring is here!

Well technically spring arrives this coming Thursday, but I think that, given the amazing displays of blossom driven by the warm weather of the past week, we can safely say that spring is defininitely a happening thing.

Already the garden is picking up. Our plants are not only starting to visibly increase in size, but their colour is absolutely glowing. Our snow peas are a case in point.


The polyhouse is powering on now that we have moved it. Indeed we keep having to leave the door open during the day as the temperature can easily get up to the mid 30’s. Here are our seedlings and styrofaom tubs of potatoes, in the foreground and baby bok choy at the far end.


Even though we have a large garden area I think that gardening in styrofoam boxes are a very useful adjunct to any veggie growing concern. Our potatoes are a case in point. These ones were planted several weeks ago and now they are already up and growing. We expect to harvest these in November, at least a month and a half before anything will come out of our ground potato plot. While we will not get a massive crop we did pick several kilos when we cleared out three boxes potatoes earlier in the year. Enough for several feeds for us.


The bok choy is currently sitting outside in the sun. As you can see one box will readily grow four healthy plants.


If you get some deep stryofoam boxes you can fill them with some decent potting mix and use them to grow herbs, lettuces, or even some of those potatoes reaching out from the bottom of your cupboard.

Moving House

We did think when we built the polyhouse last year that a position close to the house would be the best place for it to go.


We had expected that the concrete underneath and the bulk of the house would provide enough thermal mass to provide some heat over the course of the cold Canberra winter nights.

What we forgot was that the sun didn’t actually hit the polyhouse until mid-afternoon and even the, as you can see in the photo above, it only really hit one side of the structure. Oh well, at least the light weight construction meant that once we moved all the pots out and removed the concrete blocks holding it down it was simply a task of us picking the whole thing up and shifting it back exactly where we had made our original polytunnel! At least now we have restored our view of the garden minus a large expanse of plastic.


As they say, the more things change the more they remain the same!


I know winter is upon us because:

1. my tomatoes, eggplants and other sensitive plants are lying in
mouldering heaps on the ground
2. several doors in the house have started to stick (this is not a
problem the rest of the year), and
3. virtually everyone in Canberra is wearing black!

Why do we wear black in winter? No doubt because black and charcoal grey seem to be the only ‘colours’ offered by the stores in warm winter coats! Personally I’ll like to see some burnt oranges, deep mustards and warm moss greens – that would lift my spirits.

On the plant front not all is bad. We now have open slather to clean out all those remaining summer vegetables and prepare the garden beds for spring. This might be through adding compost and letting the bed lie fallow or planting a green manure crop, legumes, clever clover or bio-mustard to help renew soil nutrients and assist in dealing with unwanted pests. TB is already removing spent plants with gusto.

Of course the frosty days are also one of natures great ways of killing off garden pests. A far more pleasant way of dealing with them than using chemicals.

The polyhouse is up and running, but we are unsure how well it will perform once the temperature goes below minus one and two overnight. Our current temperature readings inside the polyhouse indicate that the internal temperature is sitting some two degrees above the outside temperature. The idea of using the stored heat in the concrete slab the polyhouse sits on to maintain a temperature to over-winter sensitive plants is a good one but we hadn’t fully realised that the polyhouse only gets sun in winter from about lunchtime onwards. There is also obviously a benefit from having overhead cover to keep direct frost off the plants – however this may not be enough. We will have to wait and see.


Potted plants

I’m obviously not getting out enough these days. While visiting one of the few remaining commercial nurseries in Canberra over the weekend I was somewhat surprised to see a woman leaving with a very large potted kale (Cavolo Nero) plant. Indeed it was large enough to get a good meal off and still be a decent size plant. Further exploration revealed that for $14.95 you could also purchase well established broccoli and cauliflowers in 20 cm pots. At least brassicas should be hardy enough to survive the transplant at this size if they were well looked after. It seemed odd but really this is just a step along from selling advanced tomatoes. I had assumed that this was a clever move by the smaller nursery to keep ahead of the retail giants until my friend M said she’d just purchased some advanced Cavolo Nero, not quite as big as the nursery ones (and nowhere near as expensive), in individual pots at Bunnings. What will they think of next?

Well I can tell you that too because the next thing that hove into view were a selection of black truffle-spore impregnated oak trees! Yes you too can give an unusual present to the gourmet in your life for a mere $145. The trees I saw were Holm Oak, otherwise known as Holly Oak (Quercus ilex) one of the trees traditionally used as a host to grow truffles. You can keep these in quite large containers or even as a hedge but do be warned that according to Wikipedia they can grow up to 27 metres tall, so probably not a specimen for your courtyard garden. The producers of these trees do say that it will take several years for the truffles to be produced and that you should sniff the ground around the tree in winter so you can tell whether truffles are present. Might be hard to explain that behaviour to the neighbours!

Meanwhile at Chez Fork TB has been labouring manfully to convert last years polytunnel into this years ‘glasshouse’ (polyhouse?). TB has been suffering severe glasshouse envy ever since we visited the Stirzaker’s Open Garden?? . As you can see the structure is just about there, minus the plastic sheeting. You can guess who was responsible for the colour scheme!
TB has also done further major digging for the new beds, although we are still in some discussion over the placement of paths – all in good time. I think I’m finally getting to grips with planting a sufficient quantity of plants to provide a reasonable return. I planted out 30 broad bean seeds Aqua Dolce (otherwise known as Leviathon Longpod) an heirloom variety from the 1840s.I’m hoping for a good germination rate. The broadbeans will be the first crop to go into the new beds.