Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Professional

We had some friends around for lunch yesterday, one of whom is a professional gardener. I'd been keen to show him our little garden for some time, but started feeling a bit nervous a few days ago. You see I cast a critical eye over the place and realised it was not looking its best. The fig tree is covered in scale and has some nasty outbreaks of furry caterpillars, the kale has become the cradle of a new aphid civilisation and even my prized tomatoes were looking a bit brown and sad in places. So after talking vegie growing with him whenever we'd met, I was a little uncomfortable at the thought of showing him around a distinctly unimpressive looking garden.

I forgot: he is a professional gardener. He's seen it all before and was quick to dismiss my ego-destroying disasters as being just what happens in a humid summer when you grow temperate-climate vegetables. The weather lately has also been particularly well suited to helping all our pesty little friends with their breeding and eating.

Our conversation served to remind me that growing things is always a bit hit and miss. Farmers with generations of growing experience still experience crop failures so why would it be any different for a home gardener? In my case half of the fun is trying new things, and with failures hopefully comes knowledge gained. And anyway, the kale can still be used (after some scrubbing) and the fig tree still has figs on it, (at least until the bats notice them)... So while it would be grand to have a picture-perfect weedless, pestless, embarrassing-dead-thing-free garden, that's just not going to happen. Our front yard farm is on display to the world (or at least to the street) as an honest example of home vegie growing. And while I do have a few plans to neaten things up a bit, all of our successes, failures and ill-conceived experiments will remain visible for all to see, at least until they harvested... or the bats get them... or the aphids...

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Down on the Farm

Just to give you an idea of how not big our garden is, here's a photo.

This is from December 2008 showing what was going on back then. Clockwise from bottom left: random flowers, sweet corn, tomatoes against the house, wire potato silos, dead lychee tree, leeks along the fence, zucchini, dill and parsley (top right), carrots and snapdragons, and dwarf and climbing beans (centre).

We got heaps of beans, tomatoes, parsley and corn. I haven't staked corn in the past, but it can get a bit windy in this garden. I looked out one day and they looked like they were about to be uprooted. So I staked them all with bamboo. It seemed to help.

I planted the potatoes way too late (November) and probably got fewer than I planted.

The carrots were excellent, although we got a few mutant ones. They still tasted nice.

Zucchini numbers were a little disappointing.We needn't have worried though, I'll explain later when I write about zucchinis..

Leeks didn't do that well, probably not enough sun and poor drainage in that bed.

Dill grew quickly giving us more than we knew what to do with, but went to seed soon afterwards.

Finally, the obligatory produce shot:


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Tomatoes: how?

It's not hard to grow some tomatoes. It really isn't. But if you want loads of sweet shiny bug-free tomatoes that go on for months then you need to know a few basics about what tomato plants like, and what likes tomato plants. Hopefully by keeping things general here, what worked for me will work for you, but you never know given all the possible combinations of soil, climate and location. My aim here is to get you started, for more info grab some locally written vegie gardening books and talk to some other gardeners in your area.

Tomatoes, like most vegies, don't like wet feet. They need a well drained soil or they're just not going to grow too well. Tomato plants are nutrient hungry, so FEED THEM. Composted animal manure is ideal, pelletised chicken manure is fine too. They also appreciate the occasional dose of potash (potassium sulfate) and fish emulsion or seaweed extract as a liquid fertiliser to keep things kicking along.

Generally, unless you live in a very hot, dry location, full sun is the way to go. I've grown them in partial shade (maybe with 7 or 8 hours of direct sun a day) and they did just fine. If you stick them under a big tree they will hate you.

Tomatoes need a reasonably warm climate to fruit. Frost will make them dead. Most sources say germination and transplanting require a soil temperature of at least 15C. I've tried to get seedlings going at this sort of temperature and it takes a long time. A little greenhouse or heated propagator would no doubt help. I have neither so just wait until it's warm enough. Of course you could just buy the seedlings to get a head start, but that does limit you to the more common varieties. Warmer weather still is needed for fruit production. One trick in cooler areas is to grow them against a wall which faces the sun and retains the heat.

You won't be the only one in your garden who likes tomatoes. I have two main competitors where I am; caterpillars and fruit fly. Caterpillars hatch from eggs laid on the underside of leaves and quickly begin chewing holes in them. It's no problem losing a few leaves but they very quickly tire of foliage and take the express train to fruit city. Diligence is your first defense. Whenever you're in the garden look closely for holes in leaves and caterpillar poo. Check the underside of the leaves nearby and you'll most likely find the culprit there, trying very hard to look all green and tomato planty. The other pest I get is fruit fly, which appears here late in the summer when it's more humid. These are little fly things that inject their eggs into the fruit, where they hatch into yucky maggoty looking things that eat the fruit from the inside. The only evidence of this is tiny black spots on the skin, but when you cut open the fruit you find a whole load of wiggling nastiness. Rather than setting off some kind of toxic bomb I use fabric drawstring bags to prevent the fly getting to the fruit.

A few years ago we made a big batch of these bags, made from pale green organza fabric and they've lasted well with only a few needing repairs. I've also seen them commercially available if you don't have a sewing machine. They allow light and ventilation, but so long as the fabric is not stretched tight against the fruit they are effective in foiling the evil plans of both fruit fly and caterpillars. It's best to bag the fruit as soon as they start to form, or even when they're still flowers. Tomatoes self pollinate so do not need insects to pollinate the flowers.

Good luck and good eating. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tomatoes: which?

I am not a tomato expert. I am not an expert gardener. I have no qualifications in agriculture, permaculture or botany. With that in mind, here's my experience growing tomatoes. I started out growing them in pots, then in whatever bit of dirt I could find that the landlord wouldn't get upset about. Now we have a proper garden.

Anyway, when looking at varieties to grow, you can basically divide all tomatoes into small (cherry) tomatoes and large (beefsteak) tomatoes. This is overly simplistic with a big grey area in the middle but for simplicity I'll stick with it for now.

Small Tomatoes
Small cherry type tomatoes generally have the strongest flavour. They often grow in long beautiful trusses and can spread into quite large plants and produce over an extended period.

Large Tomatoes
Large tomatoes usually have a more mild flavour, and plants produce large, succulent fruit, perfect for slicing into sandwiches and impressing relatives.

If you're thinking of growing tomatoes for the first time, I recommend cherry tomatos. This is because you will never forget the fantastic flavour and they grow well in pots if you have limited space. There's also the safety in numbers argument. You see it is so disappointing to watch as your large, magnificent tomato starts to ripen, only to find a big hole chewed in it by a villainous caterpillar. All that effort and the fruit is ruined by one insect. With cherry tomatoes you get so many more per plant that you can afford to lose a few and it's no big deal.

So here are some of the varieties I've grown with a few brief notes. Bear in mind this is MY experience, and based on MY own inexpert techniques in MY garden, so any failures are just as likely to be MY fault.

Sweet Bite
A tasty cherry tomato that spread out along a trellis and gave excellent yields.

Cherry Plum
Attractive elongated fruit but not as flavoursome or productive as some other cherry types.

Good large tomato, but keep the bugs away.

Yellow Pear
Small beautiful yellow pear shaped fruit with slightly milder flavour than most cherries. Mix with red ones to provide extra colour to salads. Prolific but tended to run wild and a bit more susceptible to fruit fly than some of the others.

Black Russian
I didn't get great yields from this but the fruit was specacularly dark and flavoursome. I'll be trying this again some time.

San Marzano
An Italian roma-style tomato. Mild in flavour and good for sauces and soups. I've found them more susceptible to blossom end rot than other types, so you need to ensure the soil is prepared with plenty of calcium (from dolomite for instance) and that they receive diligent watering (lower left of photo below).

Low-Acid Yellow
Large yellow fruit but not very flavoursome. Also an absolute magnet for bugs and fruit fly for some reason..

Tommy Toe
This is a new one for me this year but it seem to be very high yielding with tasty fruit about the size of a walnut. Spread out across a trellis and seems pretty robust (right of photo)

Another new one for me with gorgeous striped orange apricot-sized fruit and spectacular flavour (top centre of photo).

Grosse Lisse
A favourite of home growers for many decades.

Tough-Skinned Mutant
This year I had a bunch of volunteer tomatoes, that is they appeared by themselves. I suspect they are some genetic throwback from hybrid store-bought tomatoes thrown in the compost as they taste nice but have skins like leather!

Anyway, this is barely scratching the surface of what's available. I strongly recommend you check out some of the online heirloom seed retailers to see some of the funky fruits available rather than just looking at your local nursery.

Next up: Tips for growing them and keeping the bugs off.

Tomatoes: why?

I'm going to kick things off with tomatoes, one of the most rewarding crops to grow yourself.

Why grow them yourself?

Well... You see there is nothing, and I mean NOTHING, quite the same as biting down on your own home grown tomato, ripened to perfection on the vine and still warm from the afternoon sun. It bursts in your mouth with layers of buzzing flavours fading in and out of perception.

Anything you ever bought in a supermarket that you thought was a tomato, WAS NOT A TOMATO! Back in ancient times (I'm talking mid 70s here) I remember store-bought tomatoes that had flavour. We used to eat them like apples with a touch of salt. Then they vanished, to be replaced by these pale red rubber things for the next few decades. Finally, in recent years, the real live tomato (or close approximation) has begun to appear again, and in season you may be able to buy half reasonable tomatoes from good green grocers. But you know what? Despite decades of hybridisation, hydroponic juju and the very latest in plastic packaging, they are still inferior in flavour to those you can grow and harvest yourself.

There are a few simple reasons for this: 
  • Home grown varieties do not need to be picked before they ripen and transported long distances without damage. They can be picked when perfectly ripe and eaten immediately.
  • All kinds of pests and diseases can occur when crops are grown in a large industrial monoculture, so resistant varieties, which may or may not actually taste any good, are created to deal with this. When you grow a few plants at home, this isn't a problem, so you can grow whatever you like without fear of pestilence or plague.
  • Home grown tomatoes are allowed to be soft and weird looking. Commercial varieties can't be soft and weird looking because uneducated tomato buyers wouldn't buy them.
  • Home grown varieties have been selectively bred for flavour over many decades.

So, while there may be all sorts of seemingly valid reasons for commercially produced tomatoes to be hard, tasteless and uniformly uninteresting, these reasons do not apply to you! So go forth and find the most tasty, tiny, colourful and crazy varieties you can.

Next up (hopefully) I'll write about the varieties I've grown, what worked for me, what didn't. Seeya.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Brief History

We bought our little house in mid 2007, the front yard being one of the reasons why. At around 36 square metres it's pretty small for a vegetable garden, but it's what we have. It had obviously been used to grow vegies before, as evidenced by the brick garden bed borders and bok choy that spontaneously appears each spring. There was also a fig tree and lychee tree. The fig tree seemed to be on its last legs, with signs of termite attack and a distinct lean. I thought it was for the chop, but come spring it burst into life and produced lots of figs. The lychee tree produced one rather disappointing crop, then dropped dead from suspected fungal root rot..

The garden beds themselves were of course full of weeds. Onion weed, asthma weed, wandering dew and lots of other kinds I don't know the names of. There was much weeding.

Since then we've planted all kinds of wonderful things: tomatoes, lettuce, beans, zucchini, carrots, potatoes, rocket, cabbage, kale, chard, corn, peas, beetroot, leeks, broad beans, radishes and a few other things that just didn't work. Don't worry, you'll hear all about the failures as well as the successes.

The soil wasn't too bad to start with, except for a few areas of solid clay, and is slowly improving thanks to the careful attention and the addition of organic matter. The other annoyance is the amount of rocks, broken glass and building debris. It's probably been there since the house was built, 50 years ago. I actually found a lump of concrete with a ring pull stuck in it..

So where we are today is mid way through our third summer. The tomatoes are starting to pick up, the beans are producing and the figs are ripening. We have rainbow chard, red cabbage and kale which can be harvested when needed and I'm really looking forward to seeing how our first batch of eggplant turns out.

Even while this is going on I'm starting to plan for winter. The weather here is mild enough to grow quite a few things through the winter as we're close enough to the coast to not get any frost. Apart from trying new varieties, the focus this year is also on better planning to ensure more continuous production and making better use of the available space. Oh yes, and this blog too...

Saturday, January 16, 2010

What's it about?

Hi. Thanks for dropping by.
This little blog is a chance for me to record and share the fun, frivolity and frustration of growing vegetables in a small urban front yard garden. The front yard part is important, as it changes what is normally a very private activity to a very public one. There are good and bad aspects to this of course (I'll tell you later about the leek thieves) but it's so far been an overwhelmingly positive and rewarding experience. People passing by frequently stop to chat, ask about what's growing or to show their kids where vegies come from. Hopefully it's also helping to provide a little encouragement to anyone else who may be thinking of growing their own food.