Diary of a permaculture novice

Here in Australia we are heading into Autumn. It has had a bit of a late start (thanks climate change!). Now is really the time for me to put in my autumn/winter crops, but the weather has been so warm that some of my summer crops are still hanging on to life. But, even if slow to start, the change of season is a good time for me to take stock of what of learned, and think about what I want to do next.

I consider myself quite a novice, even though I’ve been growing veges for over 5 years now. Each year I tend to do a little better than the last, but I face new and different challenges each season. Last spring/summer I was too late in putting in my summer vegetables, particularly my tomatos. So this time round I was organised. My neighbour has a greenhouse, and we do a bit of vegepatch collaboration- she started our heiloom seeds in early spring, before the last frost. By the time the weather warmed we both had beautiful big tomato bushes growing. My first red juicy tomatos came in at the end of Spring and I was so excited about a full summer of abundance ahead of me. But after a month I was baffled by the fact that no more tomatos were ripening. Then I noticed that a few pinkish tomatos were half eaten. I thought it might be catapillars. My whole patch was netted to stop the possums. But then I noticed whole large tomatos go missing before they had a chance to ripen. That is when I realised it must be rats! Yuck. I’ve seen them around, stealing the chicken scraps. I know they live under the house. There used to be a stray cat around, but I haven’t seen it in a year. That may explain why we suddenly have so many rats. My neighbour said she had lost all of her tomatos too! So tomatos this year were a disappointment. I’m not sure what to do next year. I stopped growing strawberries a few years back- I had always blamed the possums, but now I think it may not have been them.

Home grown kale

My zucchinis were abundant this year. Enough to keep us well supplied and a few to give away. Just enough to make us sick of them, we probably won’t crave them when they aren’t in season! My green beans were a great success. We ate them twice a week. The amount of green beans we ate would have cost us at least $10 a week if we bought them at the grocer. The beans were also grown from seeds that I had saved from last year, so they were extra self sufficient. I have some more seeds drying on the vine at present. There may even be enough to add some dried beans to a soup in winter, or just to share around the neighbourhood and spread the these wonderful beanstalks around the community.

I have quite a few eggplants that are just coming in to crop. They are a beautiful heirloom variety that produce small and orange fruit. They look much like tomatos, but thankfully the rats haven’t got a taste for them (yet). I cooked my first one and discovered that these are the type of eggplants you need to salt to remove the bitterness. They were still edible and nice, but a little more bitter than I would have liked. I will have to remember that as I start using the rest of my crop. I am no sure how many I will get of the plants- hopefully the first frosts hold out so they have a bit more time to produce.

I like to keep my growing as self sufficient as possible. I have tried so many times to grow basil from seeds, but I have very little luck with it. In spring when we needed a little basil I decided to buy a pot of basil seedlings instead. I was reluctant, as the plant was in a plastic pot and also wrapped in plastic. But a bunch of basil would have been wrapped in plastic too if I bought one. Buying the seedlings turned out to be a smart choice for the environment. I transplanted throughout my garden beds. At first they were yellow and sickly for what seemed like forever (it may have been as long as 2 months). I thought they wouldn’t survive. But they eventually found their strength and have grown like crazy. That one pot has meant that I haven’t needed to buy single bunch of basil for the whole summer. It was worth it in the end. There is a lesson in that. Sometimes we might need to relax our standards in order to produce a better outcome in the long term. Everything is a trade off. If growing from seeds isn’t your thing, then buy a mature pot of herbs and start there. It is better than not starting at all.

My vines this year were hit and miss. My cucumber vine did well, considering it was in a large pot and not in the ground. Next year I’ll try it in the ground. I’d really love to have an abudance one year so I can try making German dill pickles with some. I needed to be more dilligent with my hand-pollination to get a bigger crop. With the nets I use to protect my crops, the bees have no chance of getting near them. I have had another year with no luck for pumpkins. But my vine didn’t like the large pot I put it in. My neighbour grew a few vines in her front yard, and they went crazy. I will have to try planting pumpkins out the front next year.

We are actually thinking of shifting some of our vege patches to the front yard, and also putting in a rustic olive tree hedge in the front raised bed that serves as our front fence. I would love to pickle some homegrown olives. There is also more sunlight out there than in our back yard (we have some big trees), so I think my veges will do better as well. Certainly my neighbours vines did well in her front yard. Each time I walked passed I wished that I had done the same. I do wonder whether we will actually manage to do the work to make that happen. Time will tell I guess. My seasonal permaculture post here might help to keep me accountable!

I did notice that my beds are declining in productivity. I haven’t been very diligent with composting and fertilising. I’m trying to avoid too many external inputs, but with less time to dedicate to my garden, I think this is one thing I will have to yeild on. My plan is to look up some local farmers for manure and hopefully enrich my soil the the lowest impact way that I can. I am also interested in the concept of green manure crops which is a traditional agricultural techiniqe that as been lost in modern industrial agriculture. Over summer I grow vines in the garden bed around my fruit trees but over winter there isn’t enough sunlight for anything else. So the weeds take over. I tried planting mint to crowd out the weeds. It went crazy (because mint itself is a weed) but the grass still managed to take over too. I will try plant a green manure crop to help crowd out the grass and  enrich the soil for my vege next summer. In fact, buckwheat is recommended as one green manure crop, and I have just bulk ordered 10kg of buckwheat grouts (the whole grain) from my local food co-op. I use them to make delicious and simple gluten free sourdough, but I think I can probably aslo try planting some in my garden. It will be an interesting experiment anyway.

So my main autumn/winter projects are:

  1. Focus on winter greens (kale, silverbeet, cabbage etc)
  2. Try green manure and get work on enriching my soil
  3. Start to transition my veges to the front yard where they will get some more sun

That seems reasonable. It is all a learning process. I’m staring to work out what works best for me and what I need to improve on. Some veges are worth the time and others don’t give much for the amount of space they take up. I’m slowly learning where is it best to put my focus.

What about you? Do you have any gardening goals for your new season?

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  • Hayley May Ward

    Hi Summer, I really enjoyed this post. It’s making me miss Australia and long for the day I can own my own home and develop the garden of my dreams. Looking forward to more of your garden updates! xxx

    • Thanks Hayley. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I love my garden and my Canberra life, but your photos of Beijing hutong life make me miss Beijing terribly too! We are both so lucky to be doing what we are doing now, even if we dream of something different for down the track :)