Archive for September, 2011

Basil seed mats

September 30, 2011

After discovering home-made basil pesto last summer, I was determined to grow as much basil as I could this season.

Normally I don’t use basil much—just plant it with tomatoes as a companion—but this pesto (recipe follows) is to die for.

Always on the lookout for new propagation techniques, I spied Fothergill seed packets at Bunnings recently, featuring basil ‘seed mats’.

There are 5 to a packet and each seed mat is a circle of double tissue, 8 cm in diameter, impregnated with about 30 basil seeds. The idea is to place the mat on the top of a similar sized pot, cover lightly with soil or potting mix and keep moist. Result: a pot of basil, ideal to plant into the garden or give as a gift (five good Christmas gifts).

I put 3 of the mats in a seed tray in sieved potting mix, and didn’t cover them, but kept them moist with a hand sprayer. Because the weather was still cool, I put the tray on the heated propagating mat inside, in a sunny window. I intend to pot up the individual seedlings for planting in a wicking box.

They germinated in 7 days and here’s what they look like 2 weeks after sowing:

They’re still coming up, so the germination rate isn’t too bad. It’s an easy way to sow seed which doesn’t result in a mass of crowded seedlings and the risk of damping off. I wish more seed suppliers would do this.

Basil Pesto

2 cups basil leaves
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup grated parmesan

Blend all except the cheese in a food processor, then stir in the cheese by hand.
Store in the refrigerator.
Keep a thin layer of olive oil on top to stop the basil darkening.


Where will it end?

September 28, 2011

On Monday, when I went to pick up my new chickens, I drove through an area I hadn’t been through for some years.

Last time I went through there, it was all farm land; acres and acres of green fields. Now, there are huge housing estates everywhere and judging by the signs, more to come. It’s notable as one of Melbourne’s main growth corridors.

I was appalled by what I saw. Row upon row of small house blocks (less than the usual quarter-acre by the look), each sporting a huge two-storey  McMansion monstrosity, fence to fence.

Front gardens were non-existent. I’d imagine the back gardens were the same. Google Earth would probably show the ubiquitous swimming pool in many of them. No room to grow anything but the smallest amount of food. Each home dependent on the car and on fossil fuels for its daily requirements.

How will these places cope with a future in which oil supplies are declining? I suspect not a single resident of any of these new housing estates has heard of ‘peak oil’ or given any thought to its consequences. And there’s no way you could tell them about it; no way you could get them to understand that their way of life has no future. Anyone who knew and understood, simply would not be buying into an area like that.

Those areas were probably some of outer Melbourne’s best remaining farmland. Now all gone. Covered in concrete and bricks, piddling little lawns, cacti and white pebbles.

It’s a disaster. Governments of the day should be held accountable for allowing it to happen.

All the focus is on climate change  nowadays. Peak oil will hit the world first and hit so much harder.

Today was C-Day

September 26, 2011

Did you guess it? Chook Day. Today I picked up my three new Barnevelder girls.

I was really impressed with the setup at Country Chooks where I got them.  Co-owner Julie was so helpful and informative. I would really recommend them to anyone wanting chooks.

There were hundreds of tiny little chicks at various stages of growth in the breeding area. I would have loved to take a photo, but the flash would have scared them. Julie says she only has to sneeze and there’s a stampede of tiny fluffy bodies to the rear of the cage.

My three are 12 weeks old and were in a large shed with a couple of dozen others. A ten minute chase, scattering sawdust everywhere and a breathless Julie finally caught the ones she wanted and put them in my possum cage.

The 45 minute drive home with the cage in the back was a nervous one. I cursed at every red light and bump in the road. I chip-chipped and took-tooked all the way, hoping it would settle them down. There was no-one to settle me down.

When I put the cage in the run and opened the door, they just sat there and stared. I propped the door open and watched from a distance. Finally they ventured out, wide-eyed. Where the hell are we?

Is that really parsley?

I planted it in the run weeks ago. It was really looking good. It’s not any more.

What’s this stuff?

It’s comfrey, planted outside the run. The leaves they could reach through the wire have nice  lacy edges now (memo to self: grow more comfrey).

Whew! that drive was so tiring and this sunshine is so nice. I’ll just close my eyes and……zzzzzzz.

Before I left this morning, I emptied a tray of worm castings and worms from the worm farm in the run and covered it with mulch. I just looked out the window and there’s some serious scratching happening in that spot. It looks like, ‘goodnight worms’.

I haven’t seen them on the perches in the coop or climbing up the ramp to the nest boxes and night roosting spot yet. Looks like they might spend their first night downstairs.

I don’t expect to spend much of my first night as a chook mother asleep either. I don’t trust those foxes.

Garden visits and other things

September 19, 2011

I had the pleasure of entertaining Frogdancer’s veggie garden group yesterday and we spent a pleasantly warm afternoon wandering around the garden, swapping veggie growing notes. Lots of pressies came my way too, including tomato seedlings, home-made soap and, for the compost, a bag of coffee grounds from Shane and a bag of shredded newspaper+chook poo from Frogdancer’s  girls. Shane’s Ground to Ground coffee grounds blog is worth a read if you don’t know anything about the benefits of coffee grounds for the garden (I didn’t).

And now I want a paper shredder. I get The Age delivered every day and have been using it for sheet mulching and lighting the fire in winter. The excess goes into the recycling bin. With a shredder, I can use the paper under the chook’s night roost and on the floor of their coop, instead of the wood shavings I’ve been buying for the composting toilet.

Stupid not to make good use of the paper, really. One of my maxims is that if you’re growing your own food, then you should make sure no nutrients leave the property,  or if they do (when you give away food for example), then there should still be a net gain, i.e. more nutrients enter the property than leave it.

If there’s a continual drain of nutrients from your property, then eventually the soil won’t grow anything unless those nutrients are replaced. So if you’re not composting food scraps, or you’re silly enough to put out a bin of green waste every week for the local council to pick up, then you’re ensuring that eventually your soil will become depleted of nutrients.

So…. enriched with chook poo, all that carbon in my daily newspaper will go back into the soil.


Oh, no! Not asparagus, again:

They’re really bearing well at the moment. And there’s still another 2 months of harvesting to go!

No chickens yet. I was expecting the breeder to phone last week to say they’re ready. Meanwhile Barney, the tin-pot rooster waits patiently for his girls atop the chookyard roof:

These zucchini seedlings are going well:

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t buy plants at the supermarket, but outside Coles last week there was a display of plants which included punnets of capsicum seedlings which looked so healthy and were streets ahead of my seedlings (which have only just germinated), that I bought a punnet. I’ve potted them into small pots, from which they’ll go into wicking boxes:

I’m madly potting on tomato seedlings into their final pots before planting out. If this warm weather continues, I’ll be itching to get them growing and planted out. The first tray is done:

I bought this healthy, well-grown tomato seedling at the Sunday market yesterday. It’s Cherokee Purple, a new variety for me:

I’ll put it in one of the deep wicking tubs, as it’s a tall-growing variety.

Eating from the garden at the moment:

  • Asparagus
  • Potatoes
  • Kale
  • Silver Beet
  • Lettuce
  • Endive
  • Carrots
  • Leeks
  • Radishes
  • Celery
  • Oranges
  • Mandarins
  • Cape Gooseberry
  • Purple Sprouting Broccoli
  • Rocket

Watering & water storage

September 15, 2011

It’s good to see Melbourne’s dams over 60% full, but we can’t afford to sit back and relax.

Storing water for the home food garden is crucial for self-sufficiency and building resilience into our lives in the face of change. In a reticulated system, such as we have now, energy is need to pump water to suburban homes. In the energy-scarce future that’s ahead of us, we can’t guarantee that we’ll always be able to turn on a tap and have water at our fingertips.

So….putting in a tank should be a priority. Much more so than the latest brand of plasma TV.

It’s important to look at the cost of storing water per litre. Obviously, the bigger the tank, the cheaper the price (assuming the same material).  Our first tank, a 9,000 litre, cost about $1000. Some years later, we bought two 4,500 litre tanks and they cost about $1000 each. Cost per litre for the first tank was about 11 c. Twice that for the second tanks. Prices do rise, unfortunately.

When the drought was in full swing, Bunnings were selling 100 litre rainwater storage bins for $90. I saw several people buying them. I did a quick calculation—cost of water storage = 90 c/litre. That’s a lot.

Yet I bought two black plastic 60 litre rubbish bins (Willow brand) for $20 ($9.98 each). That’s 120 litres at a cost of 17 c/litre. Quite a difference. It seems the people who bought the $90 bins didn’t stop to do any calculations or consider what else was available.

In fact I’ve bought many more Willow bins over the last few years. I must have a couple of dozen now. Here’s what you can do with them:

*Turn the domed lid upside down and drill a small hole in the centre. The lid becomes a rainwater catchment:

*Put a bin in your veggie garden or beside a fruit tree, up on some bricks or a polystyrene box, for added height. Drill a hole in the side near the bottom and insert a length of 5 mm plastic tubing with an in-line tap. Open the tap and direct the water where you want it, when you want it. During water restrictions, with watering restricted to certain times of the day, you can use that time to simply fill up all your bins and then water when you want to. Better than standing and holding a hose for 2 hours.

*Use the bins to make nutrient tea. Just toss weeds into the water and let them rot down. Comfrey makes a great nutrient tea. But keep the lid on the bin….it stinks!

*I have a bin beside my water wicking boxes with a plastic jug in it. Handy for adding water down the access tube or watering in newly planted seedlings. I also have one in the polyhouse filled with water plus comfrey tea, worm juice and seaweed fertiliser. Great for watering seeds and seedlings.

You might find that mozzies can get into the bin through the hole and lay eggs. I used to scoop the larvae out with a kitchen sieve until I took the lid off a bin one day and found a million drowned mozzies floating on the surface. The adults must have hatched, but couldn’t get out through the hole!

Always be on the lookout for extra water storage receptacles. Second-hand baths are great. I have two now. The first one I snaffled from somebody’s nature strip during a non-burnable rubbish collection. The second was a present from a friend who scrounged it from his local tip.

As well as storing water, I use the baths to grow azolla, the floating water fern. If it’s allowed to completely cover the surface, mozzies aren’t a problem. I can scoop off handfuls for the worm farm or for mulch and it soon grows back to cover the surface. With a bath, you can put some timber slats or a sturdy wire frame over the top and put seedling pots on it. When you water them, the excess water drains straight back into the bath. One of my baths is full of tadpoles at the moment.

When you water from stored water containers  (providing you put them in the right place), you can let gravity do the job for you. It’s a no-brainer to put in a tank and then an electric or petrol-driven pump to get the water where you want it. That energy won’t always be around, but gravity will never go away!

Growing vegetables from seed

September 13, 2011

It usually amazes me when someone asks what I think is a dumb question about growing plants from seed. I’m afraid I tend to forget that I’ve been doing it for 30 years or so and much of it is second nature. For newbies, growing from seed is, well….new. Totally.

So here’s some of my experiences. I hope you find them useful.


Most books will tell you to buy a bag of commercial seed-raising mix, put it in a pot, sprinkle the seed over the top, cover with a depth of mix equal to the thickness of the seed and water gently.

When the seedlings germinate (they never fail to do so in the books—real life is often quite different!), you ‘prick’ them out into larger pots to grow on. They always tell you to do this when the first set of true leaves appear. (Note: the first set of leaves to open from a germinating seed are the seed leaves or cotyledons. They are often very different in size and shape from the true leaves which appear next.)

Seedling with cotyledons and true leaves:

After that (say the books), you simply water the seedlings, perhaps add a little fertiliser and wait for them to grow big enough to plant out in their final position.

That’s all right as far as it goes, but seeds vary enormously. Here’s a few examples:

On the left is tiny, tiny seed (like dust) of camomile; then tomato, then peas and finally broad beans. It’s generally accepted that you sow large seed, like peas and beans, direct into the ground, bypassing the potting on stage. The disturbance to growth that would result from trying to pot on a large bean seedling (if you could do it without breaking the root) would set the plant’s growth back too much. Yet I still see punnets of pea and even bean seedlings for sale in nurseries and Sunday markets. Don’t buy them.

On the other hand, tiny seed means an equally tiny seedling with equally delicate roots. That means trying to prick out something very small with a  very large thumb and finger, while trying to avoid crushing the poor thing to death.

So one of my tricks for tiny seed is to sprinkle a pinch of seed onto the surface of a small pot and allow all to germinate, then thinning later to the strongest seedling (often nature will do this for you by simply wiping out the weakies). Be careful though, that the little group of seedlings don’t succumb to fungus that will wipe them all out. Good air circulation around them is important. The plant is allowed to grow on in the original pot, bypassing the pricking-out stage and can be put in the ground without too much transplanting shock. If you know your plants and their growth habit, sometimes it’s possible to leave 2 or 3 seedlings to grow on and plant out as a group. You wouldn’t do this for a large tree, but you might do it for an annual or perennial, where a group of 2 or more plants will grow successfully together.

This doesn’t mean that all tiny seed should be treated in this way. Some small seeds resent the disturbance of potting up and planting out and need to be direct sown. Carrots are an example (and parsnips, although their seed isn’t as small). They must be direct sown and thinned in the ground. Thinning should take place as early as possible, but sometimes I’ve been able to get away with a succession of late thinnings and get a feed of baby carrots into the bargain. It’s possible to buy carrot seed sealed at nice regular intervals in a ‘seed tape’, which means thinning isn’t necessary:

When sowing seed, you don’t need a deep pot; this is only wasteful of seed-raising mix. A shallow punnet will do. A margarine container is suitable, but even then that can be a bit deep. I’ve taken to using those black plastic trays that supermarket meat comes in. A few holes in the bottom for drainage is all that’s needed:

Don’t forget to label with the name of the species and the date. Now, not later. Memory doesn’t recognise ‘later’. And keeping written records is most important if and when you want to check back on germination times (for forward planning, for example).

Once your seeds have germinated, forget about potting on at the first true leaf stage. They’re mostly still too small to be handled. Wait till they’re a decent size and have a small cluster of roots. You might need to do some experimental poking about at this stage. Some seeds make good top growth and very little root growth. Others make a lot of roots and still look pretty peaky on top.

While they’re waiting to be potted up they will relish a dose of weak liquid fertiliser—diluted worm juice is good, if you have a worm farm. If you’re going to use pelleted fertiliser, make sure that no pellets are sitting right against the seedling’s tender stem. The sudden influx of strong chemical can dehydate and kill the seedling.

If you’ve started your seeds off inside then they should be given adequate light as soon as they germinate.  Otherwise they stretch up and become leggy and fall over. That usually means outside, although not in really hot sun.

You might start by using a commercial seed-raising mix and then decide to experiment with something else entirely. At various times I’ve used sieved potting mix, a mix of sand & cocopeat or commercial mix. At the moment I’m using a mix of 2 parts perlite:1 part cocopeat. It makes a nice light, but water-holding mix that makes it easy to lever out the seedlings.

I’ve found that the longer I leave them, the stronger they are and the better they transplant. Sometimes I may have to trim a long tap root, but as long as side roots have formed this isn’t usually a problem. If there are strong, multiple side roots sticking out in all directions and you can’t get them into the hole you’ve made without crushing them, then here’s a neat trick. Dip the root system in some water. As you pull it out, the roots clump down into a narrow cylinder, allowing the seedling to be dropped straight into its hole.

When I’m potting up seedlings I fill the pot with potting mix and make a hole with a thin flat stick by working it from side to side. The mix has to be damp for this, otherwise it will fall back into the hole and you won’t have a hole! So I fill my pots and water them overhead with a fine rose spray on the hose and let them drain.

Here’s a selection of some of the pots I might use for potting up seedlings:

The pots don’t need to be very big, otherwise you have to wait too long for the seedling to grow before planting out. I want to get a nice strong seedling into the ground and growing as soon as possible. The tall pot is 50 mm (2″) square and 150 (6″) mm deep. (By the way, that black thing in the cement course between the bricks behind the pot is a plump little spider. See the legs. She’s found a nice warm spot to shelter in).

Tomatoes get special treatment. I want them to be a decent size so I can put them out as soon as the weather warms in spring. I don’t want to be actually sowing seed in spring and planting seedlings in summer. I want them growing and fruiting as soon as possible. So tomatoes get sown inside in late winter, on a heated propagating mat. I soak the seeds overnight, then plant them in cell trays, 3 seeds to a cell. Later, I thin to the strongest seedling. It’s important that they get plenty of light once they’ve germinated, to stop them becoming leggy, so they’re moved right up against the glass window during the day and moved further back into the warm room at night.

Cell trays on the heated propagating mat:

The first batch of tomatoes has already germinated:

When the weather warms enough outside, the cell trays go into the polyhouse until the seedlings are big enough to transplant into their final pots. They get fed really well at this stage and are planted out from these small pots.

Tomato seedlings ready to plant (from last year):

It doesn’t really matter if tomato seedlings get leggy, because they can be planted out right up to the level of the first set of true leaves. New roots will grow all along the stem and make for a much stronger plant.

Here’s a batch of beetroot seedlings I bought at a Sunday Market recently. They’ve been allowed (by the grower, not me) to become a bit leggy and have flopped sideways. You want to try and prevent your seedlings from doing this:

I potted the seedlings on into tall tubes. I didn’t want to plant them straight into the garden as they’re too small, but I wanted to eliminate the legginess, so I’ve potted them right up to the base of the cotyledons:

The tall tubes will allow a good deep root system to develop, but won’t stop the formation of the swollen root. I’ll put them out when they’re bigger and the ground is warmer.

If you’re going to have a go at growing trees and shrubs from seed, you need to know a bit about the plant species and where it grows naturally, especially what the normal germination conditions are. For example, the seeds of many plants from the northern hemisphere drop in autumn and spend the winter buried under snow and won’t germinate until the spring. Being buried under snow is a requirement for germination—they won’t germinate without this happening to break dormancy and prime them for germination.

If there’s no snow handy, you can get around this by ‘stratifying’ the seeds. This means sowing them as normal, then putting the pot or punnet in a plastic bag and storing in the fridge for a few weeks.

Some seeds, e.g. wattles, have a hard seed coat that needs to be broken down to allow moisture to penetrate and start the germination process. In the natural environment, fire usually does this by cracking open the seed coat. To get around this, you can sow the seed, pile some leaves onto the pot (not a plastic one!) and set fire to them, however it’s easier to put the seeds in a cup and pour boiling water over them, then leave them to soak. The ones that swell up can then be planted.

Many plants that come from fire-dependent vegetation areas (Australia and South Africa come to mind) need fire to germinate their seeds, but it’s not only hard-coated  seeds that are in this category. In this case it’s chemicals in the smoke that trigger the seeds to germinate. Experimental work in South Africa and later at King’s Park in Perth proved this.

Seeds were treated by enveloping them in smoke from a drum of burning vegetation and germination was improved. In another experiment, the seeds were watered with water that had smoke bubbled through it, with the same result. The water was chemically analysed and a synthetic brew made up. It’s now possible to buy ‘smoke water’ to use on difficult to germinate species. I’ve been using it for some years on Australian natives with great success.

So, germinating seeds can be quite involved, but  fortunately for us, growing veggies from seed is pretty easy!

Naming chickens….& other stuff

September 8, 2011

Even though I haven’t got them yet, everyone has been asking what I’m going to call my new chickens.

I loaned a friend Watership Down by Richard Adams recently and (as the rabbits were named), I’d like to go with wildflower/plant names.

Clover, Thistle and (maybe) Yarrow.

But then I thought, what if they don’t have Clover, Thistle and Yarrow personalities? What if they’re Grumpy, Frumpy and Bossy?

So, I think I’ll observe and wait and for the time being, they’ll just be, “Oy, chooks!”

In the meantime, spring has sprung……

I’m picking asparagus—a half dozen every couple of days (tip—to keep asparagus fresh, stand the spears in a glass of water):

There’s a volunteer lettuce in there, too.

All the stone fruits are flowering. This is my new dwarf, yellow-fleshed nectarine. Dwarf is right—it’s only a foot high at the moment. I expect it to top out at a metre or so:

Alpine strawberries are flowering (the red-fruited form just clumps; the white-fruited form runs everywhere. It’s covered about 5 square metres so far, a great ground cover for the food forest).

The citrus trees are literally dripping with fruit:

I’m potting up dozens of seedlings…..tomatoes, sorrel, borage, celery, gazania (for the bees), parsley, sage, huauzontle (look it up…I had to!), liquorice, calendula (bees again, although the petals are edible and look great in a salad), rocket and lettuce.

I’ve planted an experimental early crop of butter beans in a wicking box. It’s been so warm I thought I’d start sowing early. I normally start planting beans at the beginning of October and each month from then till February. They take 2 months to bear, so I have beans continuously from just before Christmas till April.

The quinces are covered in new leaves. Thank god! I thought they’d died. Last year they got quince rust and dropped all their leaves. Unlike the stone fruit, they flowered after leafing out (which took me by surprise) and even set a few fruit, but they dropped off as well. Hoping for better things this year:

I’ve started potting the early tomatoes into their final pots, from which I’ll plant out. I decided to go for the deep (15 cm) tubes this year, instead of the half-size ones. That should give a really large, sturdy seedling to put into the ground as soon as the soil warms up. In previous years I’ve succumbed to impatience and planted too soon and then been frustrated by a sudden cold snap which has set them back:

They’re still in the polyhouse at the moment. They only came out to have their photo taken. Even though we’ve had a few warm days, I’m not taking any chances. Tomatoes are too important!

Seed suppliers

September 7, 2011

I’ve been making a list of seed suppliers in Australia and thought I’d put the links here for everyone’s use. There are probably plenty more than I’ve listed here, so I’ll update as I find extras. If any reader has any to add to the list, please send me a note via the comments box and I’ll add those too.

Eden Seeds

Green Harvest

Goodman Seeds

New Gippsland Seeds

The Lost Seed

The Italian Gardener


Rangeview Seeds

Origin Seeds

Evergreen Seeds

Greenpatch Seeds

4 Seasons Seeds

Phoenix Seeds  This supplier has no website, but you can email him at phnxseed at ozemail dot com dot au (substitute the you-know-whats) and he’ll send you a catalogue. His address is PO Box 207 Snug Tasmania 7054, if you want to write for one. He has some unusual trees and shrubs.

Cornucopia Seeds

Southern Harvest

I know I said no chickens yet, but……..

September 1, 2011

…..I was Googling around and found Country Chooks. It looked good and is much closer than the Bayswater breeder I’d intended to visit. And she has all the breeds I was considering. So I picked up the phone and called.  Co-owner Julie sounded nice and was very helpful. Did she have Barnevelders? Yes, she had 9 week-old pullets. She’d prefer I got them at 11 weeks, so I have a couple of weeks to wait and then she’ll call and I’ll arrange to go and pick up my three new babies.

I’m as nervous as a kitten! I hope they like their new home. I’ve been putting as much deep litter in their yard as I can lay my hands on. Mulched bracken and sugar cane mulch. I’ve got a million weeds to pull up for them, plus kale, silver beet, parsley, sorrel, comfrey and nasturtiums. The worms are going to have to share their kitchen scraps from now on (and themselves…..I plan to empty a tray from the worm farm in there occasionally; worms and all).

Julie tells me they probably won’t lay till they’re 20 weeks. As long as they do plenty of pooping, I don’t care!