The days are getting a bit longer now and the sun is a little bit warmer in the daytime. We had 16 degrees today. However, we are still having frosts. This morning it was only very light.
We went to the local markets yesterday and bought a few early vegetable seedlings. I am always optimistic about when we can get in the early veggies. There is a sense of optimism in the air when the days start to get longer and warmer. We buy some tomatoes, zucchini, capsicum and a couple of cucumber plants. The lady on the seedling stall looks at us quizzically, “are you sure you want to buy these?” Our answer is “yes, we do.” We don’t live in Bowral where it takes month longer to get past the frosts. We live on the north side of The Big Hill at what used to be called “Lower Big Hill Siding”. It’s our little piece of Camelot here in the Southern Highlands. The big hill protects us from the worst of the southerly winds that blow off the snow at this time of year.
This year, I plan to make a temporary cloche for the first time. Many years ago, possibly 25 or 30 years ago? I made several light-weight steel frames, welded out of 10mm round bar. I strung wire mesh all around them, and we used them to place over the garden beds. This was our first attempt to stop the birds from eating all our vegetables. There weren’t very many birds around when we first came here, as there was nothing much here for them.
However, over the years, as we built up the soil organically with manures and compost, planted fruit trees and vegetables, mowed the weeds into some sort of lawn and built dams to hold the rain water run-off. We changed the local environment to be more beneficial for the local wildlife as well as for us. With permanent water, open spaces filled with fruit and greens, tall trees for roosting and lower bushes for cover and protection. We slowly found that we had created a big problem for ourselves as well.
Now there are hundreds of birds living here in all categories. This is wonderful. They are flourishing in our micro-environment. Our problem is that they want to eat most of the things that we do. So we had to come up with solutions to keep our food safe.
The small wire frames were my first attempt to protect each individual garden bed. I could just flip them on their side to get access for picking and weeding. This worked well enough for a few beds, but as I wanted to expand the garden, it became obvious that we needed a better, larger and more convenient and preferably permanent solution. So the large covered vegetable garden was eventually built and has been terrific. The now discarded wire frames were left sitting on top of the concrete water tank for the past 20 years. Up there weeds didn’t grow through them and they didn’t have to be continually moved.
Now, 3 of these frames are being reinvented as cloches. Frost and wind protectors. I cover them in a layer of shrink-wrap, using the big, industrial shrink-wrap dispenser gadget that I use to wrap kilns before delivery.
We have spent one day weeding, mowing and generally cleaning up around the garden, as it was looking a bit neglected and un-loved. For me this is the hardest part and take a toll on my back, as it involves a lot of bending and getting up and down. Firstly, I go around all the edges with a garden fork and loosen all the weeds. Then I work my way to the centre. Next, it’s time to get down and pull all the weeds loose and shake off the soil. This is time-consuming, slow work, but needs to be done. Only the sub-clover is left to be dug in. It’s the invasive weeds like couch grass that really need to be dug out and removed. All this ‘plants-out-of-place’ material is either piled on the compost heap, or in the case of the couch is transferred to the dam bank, where we wish it a long and productive life binding the soil over there.
Today we have spread a load of charcoal and ashes sieved from the fire-place when extracting the finest particles of ash for glazemaking. Next we wheelbarrow in 20 loads of spent mushroom compost and spread it all over the empty beds, along with a few handfuls of dolomite to sweeten the soil a little where necessary and some chicken manure. Lastly I spent an hour or two rotary hoeing it all into a deep, homogenous, rich mix.
We haven’t done a really big upgrade of the garden beds like this for a few years now. I usually just add the compost and manure on top of the soil and let the worms do the work. However, I have noticed that this minimal intervention method, over time, leaves the soil depleted of the fibrous compost. The soil remains crumbly with many worms, but somehow denser and heavier. After a total make-over like this, digging in massive amounts of compost. The soil becomes light, fibrous and very open.
I know that the rotary-hoe kills worms, but there are plenty of them in there and after a treatment like this the numbers bounce back 10 fold in a very short time, because I don’t do every bit of the garden at one time, just patches. This allows worms from the nearby untouched areas in-between to invade the freshly dug ground and multiply very fast. I don’t know if there is a better way, but this has worked for us for many years. I can imagine that lightly forking it all through would be better for the worms, but my 65 year old back isn’t up to it any more.
The vegetable garden under netting is about 450 sq. metres. About the size of the modern block of land for suburban housing. Of this netted area, I have about 150 sq. metres, or a third, under intensive cultivation for vegetables, another third has permanent blueberries, grape vines and almond trees. The remainder being walkways and paths.
We finish up the second day with planting out the seedlings. Planting seeds and finally watering everything in. A very productive weekend. The new re-invented cloches look a bit modern and space-age in our rustic garden, but as I clean everything up and the heat of the day drains away, my fingers start to feel the cold. I know that the plants will appreciate the plastic ‘dooner’.
Two days in the garden – six months of food!