Tales of a Backyard Farmer: Chapter 9

The ‘grand plan’ in the veggie patch

Circa 2005: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer

Well, as usual, nothing is going to plan in the veggie patch. It’s not that I don’t have a plan, it’s that I keep changing it! The great danger of improvising ‘on the fly’ is that you can come badly unstuck. The great benefit is that you can also break old moulds and find out new things. So the only real plan around here is less of a plan and more of a vision – I’d like to feed the family from our ‘backyard farm’.


A tour of my conventional tomato patch would have to be the definitive guide to how to stuff things up badly. It’s also the result of poor scientific method, where the basic idea is to test only one thing at a time, and by a process of replication, randomization and controls, aided by statistical analysis, state definitively that this causes that. Well, I know all that stuff, but just can’t seem to bring myself to practice it in the veggie patch. Too many self-imposed pressures to grow things and at the end of the day, eat them. If I were a real scientist on a research station, I’d have little trial plots laid out all over the place. And at the end of many days, I’d be able to push the envelope of knowledge out just that little bit more, and possibly change the way we grow our food. Meanwhile, someone would be paying me a salary and I’d be going home each night to food grown by somebody else somewhere else…


Still and all, I’m a great despiser of ‘bucket science’, and a believer (perhaps a ‘hoper’, really) that the giant intellect that got our species into this current jam will get us out of it. This means intellectual rigor needs to apply to what I do and observe and test in the garden, so at present I’m caught between the two worlds. One of the things in my favour is that our eco-system hasn’t collapsed yet (despite infestation by a particular sort of Bush!). I still have my regular day job, and so I can afford to experiment.


So here is where I have to own up to the chaos in the tomato patch. Fundamentally, I didn’t have the soil ready in this particular spot, although I had grown a clover green manure crop in half of it (weeds in the other half!). I cleared it up and laid new compost over the top, planted out Ox-Heart and Roma tomatoes from potted plants I’d grown from seed, then established ‘teepee’ bamboo frames to tie the growing tomato vines onto. The tomatoes are two meters high, look dreadful, and aren’t cropping at all well. What’s gone wrong?


Well, the fact is I can think of a dozen things that I could have done to wreck all the effort that went into supplying next winter’s tomato sauce. I taught one of my sons to prune, and he took out the growing shoots of a third of the plants before I realized what was going on. But that’s not it, because I pruned the rest of the hundred or so vines myself, and they’re in no better shape. Perhaps that entire pruning operation allowed disease to enter via the pruning wounds? Perhaps it’s my overhead watering, or the fact that some of the bamboo stakes were used on tomatoes last year, and carried tomato diseases into this new ground. Perhaps the weather’s been wrong, or it’s just been ‘a bad year for tomatoes’? Perhaps the seeds themselves carried forward disease?


I have no definitive proof, but I think the real answer is much simpler – I stuffed up the watering, and they died of thirst. There are two explanations competing for attention here. One is a property of the compost itself – until it’s been in the garden for some time, it is almost hydrophobic (sheds water rather than absorbs it). And I suspect as well that its water-holding capacity is much poorer than I expected – nowhere near as good as if I’d mixed it in with the clay soil underneath. Finally, while it IS compost, perhaps it is deficient in some critical minerals to be found in real soil, or is low in nitrogen or potassium or who knows what (Peter Bennett would know, I bet, but I haven’t got around to asking him). Lettuces and pumpkins and basil have thrived in it (although the basil seed took forever to germinate), while this crop of tomatoes has not.


So there it is - no tomatoes from that bed and all those hours of effort. And no single explanation, a million questions and so not much learnt to caution me next time. But hey, I haven’t told you about my OTHER experiment! Perhaps I’ll be able to pull off a sauce bottling day yet… Over in the bigger garden is a patch of heirloom tomatoes (Mortgage Lifters, Yellow Pear and Rouge de Marmandes). Here I’d decided to do everything different. I grew them from seed and didn’t pot them, but planted the seedlings straight into heavy soil without compost. I’d had the broad-bean crop in this veggie plot however, and so there existed the possibility that the beans had fixed some soil nitrogen. No overhead watering for these fellows, but a weekly soak at ground level from the hose. The beds are mulched to keep the moisture there.

Instead of pruning and tying to vertical poles, I’m growing them amidst horizontal bamboo frames tied in layers to upright stakes. The bamboo poles are shiny smooth and so should not lead to abrasion wounds, and by letting the tomatoes bush out, I am avoiding pruning wounds. I may also prevent them setting a decent crop due to all that vegetative growth, and I may also have fungal disease problems due to poor air circulation, but the latter seems unlikely given the flogging they get every night from the gully winds around here! Another downer is that I’ve planted them next to some potatoes that I found sprouting in a kitchen cupboard, and decided to give a new lease of life by planting them out into the garden. According to the books on companion planting tomatoes and potatoes together do badly. But who does badly, the potatoes, the tomatoes, or both? Perhaps I’ll find that out too? Perhaps I’ll just wind up even more confused…clip_image014

So here I am again, still risking the possibility of store-bought tomato sauce for lack of care and rigor, but having fun. This whole veggie patch is an experiment really, and they’ll carry me out of here in a pine box before I understand it all. But one of the few things that I have learnt so far is that there is no need to understand all the relationships in an organic garden. Old Mother Nature has her mysterious ways, and it’s not my job to oversee her machinations.

Besides, right down the back of the garden is Tomato Experiment #3, where I’ve got all those Bell Star tomatoes that I’m growing on deep straw mulch with no staking or pruning at all. Perhaps there’s still a chance for winter pasta? If not, the pumpkins are doing well, or will they be adversely affected by more of those rogue potatoes?

Tales of a Backyard Farmer: Chapter 8

Circa 2005: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer

‘Has-beans’ in the veggie patch

Some strange things are happening in the ecological balance of this garden as the heat of summer builds. I haven’t been as conscious of this in other years, but as the veggie patch has expanded, the hours spent in the garden have expanded too, and so therefore have the hours available for observation and reflection.

File:Musk Lorikeet jul08.jpg

As a boy, I lived just a few kilometres from here, and one of the first native birds I was able to identify in the red-capped gum that grew on the footpath were musk lorikeets – small brilliant green parrots with a red stripe through the eye. These were said to flock with rainbow lorikeets, which are patchworks of purple, red, orange, yellow and green – yet it was years before I saw these in the garden. But today the mix has reversed – the rainbow lorikeets swarm over the apricots and almond trees, and only rarely have I sighted a musk lorikeet or a purple-crowned lorikeet among them.

In spring the biodiversity in the wildlife over the garden was greater then it is now as the New Year commences. It’s as though some of the native bird species have retreated to the hills as the nectar flows in the flowering suburbs have declined, or have moved on in some migration pattern I don’t understand. One of the great memories of this past Spring was the sight of a pair of black-faced cuckoo-shrikes landing on the fence on a grey morning, outlined against the brilliant white of the cherry blossoms. File:Blackfacedcuckooshrike.jpgAnother time a zebra finch came by, with its black-and-white striped chest and orange eye patches, looking like a small convict. As Zebra finches are a flock bird of desert regions, I reckoned this one must have been an escapee from a cage somewhere – who am I to dob him in?

Yet some native species are building up – in particular the red-wattle birds – the largest of the Australian honey-eaters – with their striated black and white backs, lemon yellow abdomens and the small red turkey-like “wattles” that hang beside their beaks. Their harsh “kwak-a-kwark” call can be heard as they hunt through the foliage and hoe into the fruit to be found in the local gardens. But these are the exception, as the smaller honeyeaters have all but disappeared, and the introduced species have become more common. Sparrows, starlings and blackbirds have been breeding up, and are all over the garden fossicking about for anything edible. File:Redwattlebird2.jpgThese birds are omnivorous, and so have adapted well to the company of man, himself an alien in this landscape.

What I don’t understand is the absence of the Australian crested pigeon, which wears a spike on his head over a uniform of soft grey with bronze wing patches. These are common enough locally – I see them along the creek line every morning on the way to work, where small flocks of them whistle upwards on whirring wings as I approach. Perhaps they just enjoy the presence of native plant species along the creek, but I suspect that they are locked out of the available “pigeon niche” in the suburbs by the Indian turtledove. File:Ocyphaps lophotes.jpgThis is another introduced species that can be seen along the roof caps or on power lines, bobbing and cooing to some apparently disinterested female, or fluttering about mating or bashing each other with their wings in what must be the usual male rivalry.

I hadn’t realized until a few months ago that there’s all sorts of rivalry going on in (as distinct from above!) the veggie patch as well. At the Seed Savers weekend in Adelaide in October, all sorts of folk were swapping all sorts of strange and wondrous veggie seeds.


I knew nothing about any of this, and found it all fascinating. Since the early 1900’s, nearly 97% of our veggie seed heritage has disappeared. The bigger seed companies have rationalized the varieties they carried or produced hybrid varieties designed for commercial growers as the home-gardener market dwindled away with our accelerating life-style and the disappearance of the backyard veggie patch. The Seed-Savers network was set up to save and reproduce the “heirloom” varieties of vegetables that are our rightful inheritance. These seeds have been passed down from generation to generation, are not patented or genetically modified, and have been found to work best under local conditions. Many of these older varieties had characteristics that we can ill-afford to lose from the gene pool.


Perhaps they had heavier yields, were more disease resistant, grew better in colder climates, yielded over a longer period, or just had soft and delicious fruit that were unsuitable for shipments to far-off markets, but were perfect for the local table.

Here was a whole New World! Suddenly I could see where the smaller seed companies fitted into the picture – those who offer these heirloom varieties. These open-pollinated non-hybrid vegetable seeds come in paper packets with simple labels, from companies like Eden Seeds or Greenpatch Seeds up in Queensland, or the Digger’s Club in Victoria. Using simple seed packets makes it possible for these smaller companies to offer the diversity and range that’s just not available from the bigger companies, with their shiny printed packets in full gorgeous colour (minimum print run 60,000!). One of the bigger brands infuriates me by replacing advice to the gardener with advertising: “Raise in trays of Brand-X Seed Raising Mix. Add Brand-X Complete Plant Food before transplanting. Apply Brand-X Soluble Fertilizer regularly for best growth. Protect young seedlings from slugs and snails with Brand-X [snail killer]”. Spend three dollars on seeds and thirty dollars on chemicals? What’s wrong with soil, mulch and compost?


Right – no point just talking about it! Back to the veggie patch to try it out! My main tomato crop (about 100 vines) consists of Ox-heart tomatoes for the table and Roma tomatoes for sauce. One area of my compost-covered beds I use just for raising seed. I do this as simply as possible, by leveling a small area about 500mm x 500mm, ruffling the surface with my fingertips and sprinkling all the seeds from one packet onto this surface. I then stir them around some more to bury them a bit, cover with a thin layer of the same soil then smack them down with the flat of my hand to ensure the seed is bedded in tightly. I water them daily with rainwater, as they are pretty delicate to begin with, and sensitive to temperature and moisture swings. Using this technique, I raised Mortgage Lifter tomatoes (giants!), Yellow Pear tomatoes (yellow and pear shaped!) and Rouge de Marmand (flat and red!) – all these are heirloom varieties.


Finally, with somewhat more care, I planted out about twenty seeds of the rare Bell Star tomatoes, which we’d been given privately at the Seed Saver weekend, and which are a bush or “paste” tomato. After all these tomato seedlings reached 10cm to 20cm in height, I lifted them in great clumps with the shovel, then broke them apart and transplanted them directly into the beds, buried as deeply as I could. Some I covered with the trampoline for a few days to give them shade and protection against the hot sun, while their shattered root systems recovered and started pushing out in the search for moisture. It’s still early days, but all these heirloom tomatoes have survived and are healthy and strong. If we like them, we’ll save their seed, and keep propagating them ourselves in years to come, rather than relying on buying new seed each year.

clip_image012And then there were the beans! I can make no claims to having been an adventurous bean grower – each year I buy Gourmet Dwarf Beans, and that’s what we eat. They are a tasty stringless bush bean for eating green, but bear only over a short period, and so I plant new crops periodically. Bill at the Seed-Savers weekend had raised about ninety different varieties of beans, and during his talk, passed around packets of seeds ranging from delicate browns and deep reds to white ones with purple flashes. Every thing else was interesting – this was fascinating! So I bought home lots of packets of bean seeds, all with wonderfully evocative names – Nicaraguan Red Bean, Purple Queen, Double Princess, Pink Bush Bean, Tongue of Fire Bush Bean, Bountiful Dwarf, Redlands Greenleaf, White Marrowfoot, Royalty Purple Pod and Scarlet Beauty. This was all sheer indulgence! But I did like the idea that many of these beans are for drying, so that one can raise a crop and store the dried beans for winter eating.

This year its been a struggle to raise my usual beans, and I was beginning to suspect I was a has-been as a bean grower when we heard from the local market gardener that he was having trouble too. Good – being able to blame everything on the weather gave me the confidence to try out all these heirloom varieties, which I’ve committed to propagating in years to come.


At this time of year, space in the garden is at a premium, but I’m digging potatoes, and so I’m getting back good ground for growing other crops. I planted out my ten varieties of beans, and covered them with underfelt in the same technique I use for raising carrots – the underfelt allows you to water them while keeping the soil surface cool and moist. After five days I removed the covers, and every one of these beans (dated 1999!) had germinated, and weeks later, are all doing well. Some have purple stems, others have variegated leaves, and all are interesting. They’ll be able to say of me “he too has beans!”


In my own small way, I’ll be able to carry forward some part of our inheritance, contributing to the biodiversity in the veggie patches of future generations, so that they may enjoy them as I have.

(Bird photos courtesy of Wikipedia)

Tales of a Backyard Farmer: Chapter 7

Circa 2005: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer

Tales of a Backyard Farmer

The pale yellow light of dawn strengthened over the small wine-growing town of Rutherglen in north-eastern Victoria as I pulled out of the motel and turned towards home. Something happens to me on a Friday – I start to shed my weekly skin, and to feel the call of the veggie patch, which now lay nearly a thousand kilometres to the west. Like an old homing pigeon, I’ll be looking to sleep in my own bed tonight – the thrill of the open road, motel rooms and hotel food is fading. Spring is fading too into summer, and I’ve still got packets of seeds lying about unopened that should have been planted out weeks ago.


As these trips go, this one has been short, crammed in between my youngest son’s birthday breakfast on Wednesday morning, and the need to be back in the garden early Saturday morning. Sometimes I get restless, wearing a path between home and the office, and I need to push out into the big spaces I know so well up behind Adelaide, and as far afield as the Darling Downs in Queensland. It’s in these big sparsely populated areas where our food is grown, keeping the city folk alive. Jetting between the luxury hotels in the big cities is not for me. I take the car and drive, for then I’m not at the mercy of timetables and taxis, but am left alone with my own thoughts and the chance to potter around the back of many of the small towns I pass through. Here I get out to stretch my legs and peer over the fences at gardens unpressured by time and real estate agents. In the main street one sees folk who’ve got time to stop and chat to each other, and to pass a “G’day” to a stranger like myself, just passing through.


There are no fashion statements on display in these small country towns – one can see in the homely faces the aging of our rural population, and the struggle their lives have been amidst a basic honesty of purpose. No ostentatious wealth here…

My first stop on Wednesday afternoon had been an almond orchard in the Riverland. There are clever ways to get to where I’d got to on this job, but my route had taken me up through the Adelaide Hills and out along the foothills of the eastern Mount Lofty Ranges through Cambrai and Sedan, following my tracks of thirty years ago. Back then, equipped with some aluminium cooking utensils, baked beans and a plastic sheet that could be strung between two trees for a tent, I’d loaded up my Dad’s old bicycle and set off to visit my sister in Barmera. (That darn bike – I even had to pedal it downhill, and the daytime temperatures were at least 45°C – in the water bottle!) By late evening on my first day I’d crossed the ranges and seen the Murray Valley laid out before me for the first time. I camped beside the River Marne that night, and on that earlier dawn, pushed on through the mid-Murray Mallee on the next leg to Waikerie. Some years later – with my first pay packets - I was to buy 75 acres of those foothills for $6000 in a burst of nostalgia and the mistaken idea that I could be self-sufficient in that parched landscape. On the following evenings, and on a number of canoe trips after that, I camped beside the mighty Murray River. Three decades ago it was a wonderland to me, full of fascinating bird life, giant goannas and all the diversity of the Australian bush. A canoe trip down the same river last year took me through a different and depressing landscape, of dead and dying red gums and black box, salt-scoured earth and little wildlife bar noisy humans in speed-boats slaloming around the once-quiet back creeks.

After my work was done in the almond orchard, the young chap I’d come to help out showed me a grove of almonds he’d worked on especially. Compared to those around them, these four year old trees were magnificent, a deeper green, and laden with almonds along every branch. Down the back of the property lay the secret – a system for delivering soluble nutrients along with the irrigation water, in a process now used in conventional agriculture called “fertigation”. As the evening bled away on the trip up to Mildura, my thoughts drifted away from those young trees to a gnarled old monster of an almond tree that’s stood down my backyard since Magill was just orchards and vineyards. Every year, with the benefit of nothing more than the rain that falls, this old tree loads up with almonds after a mid-winter display of pink and white blossom that’s a delightful harbinger of spring. According to the neighbour who shares this tree with me, those almonds of yesteryear were delicious. Then the Ash Wednesday fires forced the parrots down from the foothills, and they’ve been back each year since, clipping the tops off the green almond shells and neatly nipping out the nuts from inside. This year I’ve festooned the tree with old bags of every colour, encased clusters of almonds in onion bags, hung bird nets over the few branches I can reach, and even wrapped chicken wire around a few clusters. I reckon it’s time those Rosellas and Lorikeets shared some of those mythical almonds with me!


The next day (Thursday) started well then turned sour. My track en-route to Rutherglen took me down the Murray Valley Highway from Mildura through to Swan Hill. Swan Hill has a legacy of old soldier-settler blocks whose irrigation systems are fed directly from the River Murray. Here they measure the trunk diameter of their peach trees (in centimeters), multiply by six, and so arrive at the number of export-size peaches the tree can support, knocking off as many as three-quarters of the young peaches so that the tree has energy enough to plump up the remainder. Crikey – I haven’t been that clever by these standards! Each year I forget to spray my peach trees with copper sulphate and every Spring I curse my forgetfulness as they succumb to a disease called “curly-leaf”. Yet Mother Nature – that old ham – doesn’t see this as a problem. The crinkled leaves shrivel and fall off during spring and are replaced by healthy ones, then she goes on to deliver mouth-watering peaches of a good size with no assistance from me other than ropes to keep the heavily-laden branches from sprawling all over the ground. Perhaps I’ll just continue to leave the old girl to it…


It was in the River Murray town of Kerang that the worst of the damage to our riverine environment became apparent. The country around there is a moonscape, with ash-grey trunks of long-dead eucalypts pointing forlornly to the sky. The land itself is a testimony to the damage done by over-irrigation, rising water tables, water-logging, poor drainage, salinity, loss of soil structure, loss of bio-diversity, loss of habitat and degradation of the river itself. No need for a Ph.D in ecology out there – the land itself speaks forlornly of the disaster wrought upon it since the coming of the white man and his agricultural practices just a few hundred years ago. All down the Murray Valley Highway one can see the beginnings of this ecological disaster, but around Kerang one can see the future of this once great river.

In Rutherglen I looked over a cattle feedlot – the first one I’d ever been on – and my sense of doom only worsened. The cattle were penned up permanently in yards and fed grains and who knows what else; they’re treated just like battery hens, except they’re bigger. The problem the cattle were experiencing was not one common to cows who (like Nobel Prizewinners!) are out standing in their fields. Because they lie on concrete pads where they eat and defecate, their coats develop tangles that are almost impossible to remove during their processing into meat, creating health issues.


By the end of Thursday, I was too tired to start the journey home, even though there was some daylight left. Some years ago I gave up the chatter of the television set to give myself more reading time and the chance to dig deeper into the meaning of life. So the setting sun found me in the second-hand bookshop in the quaint main street in Rutherglen, judging books by their covers. The first one to catch my eye I paid for, and took along to read with my evening meal at the pub – “Natural Gardening and Farming in Australia” by Jeffrey Hodges. Part 1, Section 1: “Harvest your backyard”! Page 2: “Victorian farmers are losing 13 tonnes of topsoil to produce one tonne of wheat … it is taking 7 kilograms of our precious soil for every loaf of bread we produce.” And so and so on – the message over my Veal Parmigiana was clear: - if our agricultural practices aren’t sustainable – and the landscape has changed markedly for the worse in my own thirty years of travelling through it – then how can we sustain the human populations in our cities? A population blithely unaware of the death of the countryside that sustains them, because food continues to appear cheaply on the shelves of the local supermarkets…


And so Friday morning found me once again on the road, and by 11.30 that evening I was indeed at home and in my own bed. Worn out and heart-sore it’s true, but ready to stagger out into the garden at dawn’s early light, the same old bloke, but with a new title: “Backyard Farmer

Tales of a Backyard Farmer: Chapter 6

Havoc and chaos in the veggie patch

Circa 2005: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer

There’s been many a time when I’ve been grateful that the backyard isn’t in the front of the house! And as everyone knows (bar a few brave souls), veggies are only grown in the backyard. For it’s in the veggie patch that the forces of havoc and chaos can so often rule…

Andrew & Claudia's Backyard Farm Visit 070As a small boy, the veggie patch was also down the backyard, but my Dad was in control. Somehow I managed to finagle a small patch of this halloed ground, and grew easy vegetables like beans and radishes. About every two hours, I would go down to the house and get Mum, urging her to come and look how big my radishes were, then dawdle back up the yard to give them a chance to grow just that much bigger before we’d arrive to inspect them.

Years later, I took control of the backyard of an old asbestos house where a mate and I dwelt in typical bachelor disarray. It was here that it began to dawn upon me that Murphy had indeed been a gardener, and it was in a veggie garden such as mine that he had formulated his soon-to-be-famous “Murphy’s Law”*. I think the exact moment dates from the time I bought those two geese, around whom I’d spun myself some yarn about becoming self-sufficient in eggs and meat – heck, I really just liked having them! I knew just enough about geese to realize that they swim on ponds, and so a pond I set out to provide. I’m nothing if not an improviser, and the soon-to-be-a-pond was in fact a garden bed surrounded by a circular concrete border, whose insides I proceeded to dig out to a suitable depth. After filling it with the garden hose, I stood back to enjoy my moment of creation as the two geese waddled over the edge and set sail, then slowly sank out of sight until only their heads could be seen above the lip of the pond. The water had drained out through the unsealed bottom, and the disgruntled geese scrambled out all wet and muddy. (Every cloud has its silver lining – from the ranks of the brass section, I yearned dumbly after a beautiful oboe player in a youth orchestra in which I played on a Saturday morning. Imagine my joy when I realized simultaneously that the geese were moulting and that all oboes are cleaned out after each performance with a goose feather!)

clip_image002Things haven’t improved all that much – for all the pleasures of a garden, there are days when it exerts pressures of its own, and mayhem always seems to precede order, and order can only be restored through strenuous exertions and after moments of bleak despair. This seems to come about because the simplest job is often impossible to achieve unless it is first preceded by a whole chain of interacting and complex jobs that in themselves seem to spawn further chaos. Back in early spring I was messing about trying to avoid the complexities of raising seedlings, and had sown tomato, lettuce, egg-plant and capsicum seed in beds of black organic compost overlaying the garden beds.

This had mostly worked, in as much as I was able to plant out over a hundred lettuces straight into more of these compost-covered beds, without the intermediate step of potting them, and without any of the dire consequences the compost maker had warned of when using the stuff “straight”. The eggplants also marched from seedbed to garden-bed, as did the capsicums seedlings that had survived the predations of a snail or two. But the tomatoes – AAaaHHHhhhRRRrr!!!!


In my grand plan for the garden, the tomatoes were destined to follow the broad beans, but the latter were still going strong, so into pots the tomato seedlings had to go, while I looked around for an unscheduled bed. Finally, these tomato seedlings were getting too big for their pots, and in desperation I decided to get in more compost and lay it over some beds destined for (who can remember!) But to get in more compost, I first had to clear the driveway so the truck could back in. To clear the driveway, I had to mulch the great heap of wisteria I’d pulled down to clear the way for the extension we can’t afford. Then the folks over the road heard from someone about the merits of pruning their fruit trees, and magnanimously donated us a truckload of these prunings, which joined the wisteria. Now I do have a shredder, and it’s a marvelous machine for converting garden trimmings into compostable material, so shredding began – days of it! Then three trees blew over just as I was getting on top of the shredding, and so I had to get out the chain saw and cut those up, move the wood to the wood heap, and add their foliage to the shredding heap. About then I was getting desperate, and in the heat of the moment came up with the dumbest idea of the year. Last year I’d emulated all my Italian neighbours, and built two rows of bamboo trellises for the tomatoes, like teepees with long horizontal braces on top. Why not move this whole construction up to this year’s tomato beds? With family and friends helping, we uprooted these great frames and walked them up the garden, and braced them upright until such time as I could fix them firmly into the ground. More wind, and one night the whole thing collapsed across my potato patch and flattened a few leeks. Disaster! Not to be defeated, I directed my sons to cutting new tomato stakes from our grove of golden bamboo behind the tool shed, and they stripped the leaves off while I got on with the shredding.


Finally the shredding was completed, and I set out to barrow it all down to the compost heap in the back yard. Tragedy! All the bamboo they’d cut was laid neatly across my path, and there was no way through until I’d moved it all…

Last May I drove up to a Vegetable Growers Field Day in Gatton in Queensland, between Brisbane and Toowoomba. This is conventional agriculture on display, showing off its prowess at growing vegetables for export all over Australia and to the world. I was awestruck – in a world where fruit and veggie shops engage in beauty contests rather than wars of nutrition, here were the Elysian Fields. Rows and rows of perfect lettuces of every style, tomatoes growing under plastic-coated mounds with sub-surface drip and strung between wires (no bamboo stakes for these fellows!). Cucumbers in green houses growing up strings from plastic pots with barely half a bucket of soil in a plastic bag and drip-fed with water and nutrients. Battery vegetables! And the machinery – this was truly awesome. I chased a machine down a field that was planting lettuce seedlings perfectly at the rate of two rows of three seedlings every second. There were machines that sorted seeds and popped them into growing trays then covered them up automatically, so that the seedlings could be raised perfectly to be fed into those high-speed sowers. Other machines were on display for grading melons and potatoes, for cultivating the raised vegetable beds to a fine tilth, for spraying, for harvesting the veggies and packing them into boxes ready for the flights to Asia and beyond. This was not the place to boast of my organic veggies grown on such a tiny scale with nothing more than hoes and rakes, a chainsaw and a shredder, and without benefit of any chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides…

clip_image008A few thousand kilometres and a week later, I crossed the Victorian border back into South Australia, and pulled into the roadhouse in Pinarroo for an iced coffee, as is my wont. Here I struck up a conversation with an old-timer, who told me of a local farmer who had invested in a massive centre-pivot irrigation system to boost his production of carrots and onions, and to out-compete his neighbours. He did indeed achieve these huge increases in productivity, except that in bringing these massive volumes of veggies to market, he caused the price to slump. With these poor returns, he was unable to repay his borrowings on all the machinery he had purchased to boost production, and bankruptcy resulted. He too had experienced the havoc and chaos of the veggie patch, but on a much grander scale…

And the tomatoes? Yep, they were finally planted out and are doing well - 100 vines from two packets of seeds. No thanks to Murphy!

* Murphy’s Law states that “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong!”

Tales of a Backyard Farmer: Chapter 5

Companions in the veggie garden

Circa December 2004, from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer

Gardening would be a solitary activity if it were not for the birds – these keep one company and provide an endless source of fascination. In an organic vegetable garden, birds (with a few exceptions) are welcome workers that balance the insect pressures on the growing plants DSCN1368in return for food and lodging. One of the mysteries of this garden is where all these birds spend their nights – when it comes time to roost they do so very quietly and secretively so as not to alert predators. All this mysterious activity occurs when I am putting away my gardening tools and heading up to the house, tired and thinking of tea, and no longer tuned in to my avian friends. So many observations of the wildlife in the garden are accidental, yet made possible by staying alert (earlier in the day!) to events around me as I lay down mulch, pull weeds, tie up the tomatoes or plant out seedlings.

Some of my feathered companions are gregarious and forthright. Young Blackbirds in their grey school uniforms seem particularly fearless – perhaps this fearlessness wears off after a few close encounters of the worst kind with the feral cats that wander the district looking for an unwary meal. Each Spring brings me a new friend who follows behind me in the garden, working over newly weeded patches and picking up worms, slaters beetles and other insect disturbed by my activities.

DSCN1348Some birds I have only ever heard until recently, such as the “whoo-whoo” of the Boobook owl on still nights. And then one evening I came home after dusk and was putting my bicycle in the back shed when an owl dropped over the roofline and passed just a metre or two above my head on silent wings. It’s hard to say which of us was more surprised. At times I have heard three of these owls calling from neighbouring gardens in the dead of night. As the only resident carnivores, I count on them to go after the rats that nibble off the thick skins of my lemons. Willy-wagtails also sing at night-time, and I’ve heard White-backed Magpies carolling in the pre-dawn hours of nights when the moon is full. Many birds just pass over, such as pairs of snow- white Corellas, who look like their larger cousins the Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, but without the yellow crest. They sport pink eye-patches like rogue clowns, and have long curved beaks.

Something extraordinary happened in the garden last spring – I heard an unfamiliar bird cry overhead while cleaning up after our latest efforts at chook-house evolution.This is a pass-time that involves me in endless discussions with my youngest son on esoteric questions like “Why don’t chickens fly?” clip_image002With all this brainstorming going on, it was hard to keep an ear out to the activities of other less lumbering birds. Yet strange cries from high up in the blue skies over the garden drew my gaze to a sight I’ve only ever seen before in the bush – a large Wedge-Tailed Eagle being pursued by a crow. I’ve seen this activity repeated with other Raptors (birds-of prey) being chased by Noisy Miners, Magpies or Magpie-Larks. These small birds chase the intruder out of range of their nests, then circle back into their home territory. They can’t frighten these big eagles, so they seem to depend on annoying them away. My theory is that they do this by flying just above and behind the eagle, disturbing the airflow over the bigger bird, making its flight awkward and clumsy and so diverting its sharp vision away from possible meals below.


Vegetables have got their companions too, and so planning a garden is like being a social hostess – there are all sorts of rules to follow to ensure that dinner is a success (my dinner, that is!) Parsley likes partial shade, so I plant this below the giant fern-like fronds of the asparagus, whose company they enjoy, while keeping it well away from mint. I plant basil, carrots and celery between the tomatoes, but keep the potatoes and fennel away from them. The carrots grow well in the company of onions, so they make a good border between the onions and beans, which do badly if placed together. I often plant leek and carrots together. The beans get on with the potatoes, so they can be side-by-side or interspersed, especially broad beans and potatoes, which share the winter veggie garden. The potatoes and pumpkins are mutually hostile, while the corn and pumpkins enjoy being together. Coriander and dill are two herbs that can be mixed, where the dill can lure pests away from the carrots and tomatoes. I plant African marigolds in among the lettuces, and enjoy their deep orange and yellow blossoms among all the green, and their pungent odour. This year I’ll plant out a few more, near the tomatoes and potatoes.


Nasturtiums also have pretty flowers that add something to the contrasting greens of the veggie crop, and keep aphids away from the zucchini. Both are rampant growers, so I put them in a corner and let them fight it out. Basil I grow everywhere – both the bees and I love it. Last year I grew some of the dark ruby basil as well as the sweet basil that we use for pesto in pasta, and for sprinkling fresh on tomatoes and sliced bocconchini cheese in olive oil dressing.


Lots of plants (with the exception of rue) go well with cabbage – beans, beetroot, celery, chives, sage, onions and leeks – so they are easy to find partners for. The cucumbers are similarly gregarious in summer, so can be placed near the beans or lettuce. All these relationships result in much head scratching and scribbling and crossings out as I plan the spring crop. The short answer to all this complexity is to get a book and keep cross-referencing one crop against another. My favourite is Brenda Little’s “Companion Planting in Australia”.


Arranging bedfellows is only half the job. One has to have a good memory for last year’s arrangements as well. The solanums (tomatoes, egg-plant and capsicums) shouldn’t occupy the same bed until three years have passed, so they have to be kept moving like vagrants or catch last year’s diseases. Peas and beans are a good follow-on crop to the gross feeders like sweet-corn, as the legume family can put much needed nitrogen back into the soil. In the third year, root crops like carrots and turnips with gentle appetites can occupy the beds. To rejuvenate the beds, I grow green manure crops like Clare sub-clover, which I slash with the whipper-snipper in spring and dig in. Or I add some compost from my precious store, built up from the shredded remnants of last years plants and chicken manure mixed with straw from the floor of the chook house, where my half-dozen hens have finished off our kitchen scraps and produced my breakfast eggs.


Very few of us are as young as we once were, and I’m no exception. So I surreptitiously look for ways to extend my tea breaks from the garden and get my hands on another piece of fruitcake. Sitting at the kitchen table mulling over my crop rotations and matchings is a great way to be gardening without effort, while my mutterings give the impression of great labour.