Chicken house #2

P1030757In this garden, the chickens (or, in colloquial Australian - ‘the chooks’) do more gardening than the gardener, all in exchange for a meagre daily handful of grains and greens. Their scratching and grazing and insect-hunting keeps down pests and weeds while turning over the topsoil, fertilizing it and breaking down old mulch.

P1030760Chooks are a long-term investment in soil fertility and health and their fresh eggs provide much of the direct protein available to cook and gardener from the garden. Our four hens patrol our pathways and work over fallow beds every day of the year, and these free-ranging activities keep them in top-notch health, extending their egg-laying lifetime to at least five years. At a cost of $15 per bird when purchased at ‘point-of-lay’ around 16 weeks of age, they are a friendly and productive - even essential - presence in the garden.

P1030761It’s high summer down-under, and our three sons are home for Christmas, so it’s time to build the new chicken shed - a project long-delayed while Spring planting ran on into summer. The old chicken shed is needed for storage purposes and the old chicken yard is needed as an outdoor entertainment area under the shade of the lemon tree, so a new chicken shed needs to be built down in the production garden.

P1030493This shed will be need to serve for another twenty years so we do the job properly, cementing in posts, providing ventilation and secure shelter against urban foxes, easy access, food storage bins under cover and egg laying box, perches, and drinking fountain. The sturdy steel door was once the back-door of the house, way back when we purchased it some decades ago.

The daily care of the chooks falls to the cook, as she is as caring of their nutritional needs as she is for her human family. Luckily for all the family males, there are plenty of left-overs from Christmas lunch, as chicken shed construction is hungry and thirsty business.

How to pickle garlic

It’s the longest day of the Australian year (tomorrow is Christmas Day) and so I’m harvesting the garlic that I planted out six months ago around the shortest day, in late May and early June.

P1030729Harvesting garlic in these heavy soils needs only the simplest of tools – my horseshoe-shaped ‘potato hoe’ – and a tub to put the bulbs in as I pick them out of the ground. That, and a strong back!

By this time of year, the garlic tops have died back and disappeared into the yellow background of the barley-straw mulch, so it’s now that I’m grateful that I planted them in straight lines, as they are all but invisible from the surface.

P1030743To avoid damaging the garlic bulbs, I hoe under the depth at which the bulbs have been grown, and use the hoe to lift and break up the surface (as for potato harvesting) and to expose the garlic. Picking through the clods is easy in these friable soils; one need only toss one’s findings into the tub, which gets dragged down the row after the gardener. The tub has holes in the bottom, as I will use a high-pressure nozzle to wash the dirt off the harvest and back onto the garden.

P1030730Up at the house, the cook’s eager to view the crop and start pickling some of the better cloves. Pickled garlic is placed in the cellar, and outlasts even those bulbs plaited and hung to dry in a cool dark part of the house. The taste changes slightly, but the goodness is preserved and pickled garlic adds a certain piquancy to late winter dishes when the price of garlic at the market has gone through the roof.

The garlic variety we like best is called ‘Monaro Purple’ as it has large bulbs that separate easily into tasty cloves. There are other varieties in other beds – yet to be harvested – but these are the pickling ones, so they come out early before the cook is overwhelmed by the Christmas turkey and biscuit-baking.

P1030732The gardener’s job doesn’t end with the harvest; garlic cloves get broken apart and ‘shelled’ of the light purple skin, then dropped into waiting glass jars. I guess this is where some folks would don gloves, as the scent of garlic stays on the skin for days. There seems little point in my doing this however, as my hands will be back in the soil to finish the job, and that should effectively cleanse away the pong.


And the cook’s recipe for pickling garlic?

Add 16 grams of sea salt to a litre of boiling water, stir then let cool to room temperature. Pour this salty water over the garlic in the jar to within an inch (25 mm) of the surface then place raspberry, grapevine or horseradish leaves on the garlic cloves and push down to sink the lot below the surface of the water. Add whey or ‘culture starter’ to kick off the bacteria that drive the fermentation process. Add glass marbles to keep the lot weighed down. Close the lid tightly and leave around on a shelf out of the sun until bubbling ends after a few weeks to indicate that fermentation is complete. Store in the cellar or a cool dark spot. Once opened, keep the jar in the fridge.

Santa in the Coonawarra

P1030709With only one week to Christmas Day and fierce heat forecast for this week in Adelaide, my weekend disappeared in the usual ways that conflict gardeners; trying to get the water onto the garden and fit in family functions.


P1030676By Sunday evening – when I usually write up my week’s gardening efforts – I was way behind schedule in packing for my trip to the Coonawarra early Monday morning.



P1030680In this famous wine-growing region on the Limestone Coast one finds those wonderful ‘terra-rossa’ soils that are behind the region’s reputation for fine red wines.





P1030686I’ve been tracking backwards and forwards into the region for more than twenty years now, and it’s during these two days that I will seek out one of those rare creatures, an ‘early adopter’.



P1030679These are those special breed of folk (13.7% of any population) who try things out when they are new and fragile and uncertain, built by those even rarer breed of folk comprising only 2.5% of the population, the ‘innovators’


P1030706So the truck’s loaded up with all the latest measurement gear; the culmination of 24 years of effort to build a sensor that will ‘allow the plants to do the talking’.



P1030702At the Majella Winery ‘the Prof’ welcomes me, as always, with his sunny smile and expansive disposition, and I set out to install these new sensors out in this sixty-year old vineyard.



P1030694By midday the next day the temperatures have risen to the mid-thirties and my work is done.

While I wait for readings to collect and to verify that all is well, I take the usual precautions and hang about town eating a quiet lunch and reading the book from my bag.



P1030698While driving backwards and forwards to nearby Penola, I spot the Santas outside each winery along the busy Riddoch Highway.

So while the gear settles and the heat passes, I get out the camera and snap off shots of all these wonderful country creations.

P1030697Somehow they capture the ludicrous aspect of Father Christmas – in his hot and heavy red suit and thick beard – down-under in the soaring temperatures of the counter-cyclical Australian Christmas.



P1030688By Tuesday evening I’ve done all I can do, and the Prof has gifted me with a carton of rare reds for Christmas. He and his wine-maker will watch the data streaming in from the shiraz and cabernet sauvignon vines and the soil moisture sensors beneath them, looking for signs of stress.



P1030705Now there’s just the long-haul ahead on the road back to Adelaide, taking me through the Padthaway wine region and the sheep-grazing and cropping country stretching up to the base of the Mount Lofty Ranges.




P1030682With less than a week to go before the longest day of the Australian year – midsummer’s eve - the sun sets while I’m still out on the plains between Coonalpyn and Coomandook.





P1030689As the sun flames out in the west a full moon rises in the east – both can be seen simultaneously.




P1030707Here – unexpectedly – is one of those quiet moments I enjoy most in life. The work is done, daily pressures are in abeyance because the rest of the world has knocked off and gone home, I’m headed that way myself and nature is all around spectacularly backlit by this rare sunset.

Saving lettuce seed

The winter crop of lettuce has come to the usual end; up jumps the centre stalk to a metre high, yellow flowers set and seed heads like thistlefloss set as spring moves into summer and the bed dries out. It’s time to save these lettuce seeds for future crops.


Lettuce seed is abundant and easy to collect; it needs to be, as I grow many hundreds of lettuces each year. These garden beds look pretty messy and dried out, but that’s seed saving for you – it looks chaotic, just like a small patch of wilderness would.

P1030593In collecting seed heads, I try to get a mix of the different lettuce varieties I’ve sown, though they are often hard to recognize by the time they’ve shot into their seed-producing stage. I wait for the fluff to appear after the lettuces have finished flowering then cut off the heads with secateurs and place them in large open brown paper bags for a week to let them dry off. It also gives the small bugs that live in the heads time to leave. I hang the bag on a hook in the shed out of the weather. P1030607The stalks and seed heads need to be really dry before proceeding else they will go mouldy in the seed tin. Luckily, all this seed setting happens in early summer…

When time permits, after other garden chores are done, its a simple process of putting the dried seed heads out into a deep plastic tray, then rubbing them together to release the seeds. One can go to a lot of trouble in the next stages to clean the seed from the thistledown and dry stalks, but its not really necessary. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t, and just put the lot in the seed tin.

P1030597Once the seeds are rubbed and I’ve decided on further cleaning, I just go outside into the breeze and blow across the seed tray while shaking it to get the lighter and finer stuff off. Then its out with the coarse then fine sieves, finally reducing the seed to that which will be stored. For safety, I dry this for another week or so in the summer warmth of the shed, and tin up the seed on a day of low humidity and clear skies.


Potting up capsicums and chillies

P1030581The first day of the southern Australian summer arrives, ushered in by contrary weather marked by dark skies and light rain. The garden and seed trays have survived a one week absence by cook and gardener, but the pressures of watering and transplanting the last of the seedlings gets mixed in with the cook’s birthday lunch and tea plus various social catch-ups.

So silverbeet, spinach, lettuce, coriander, fennel, dill, eggplants (aubergines) and red cabbage finally make it into the garden beds, and remnant seedlings are given away at a seed-savers swap meet on Sunday afternoon. The seed table is almost empty, and the gardener will soon shift gear from planting mode to maintenance mode.

I’m planting into deep straw mulch; this will cover these beds permanently until clean-up in late autumn somewhere in May 2014. Each time I dig out a small scoop of soil to make way for these seedlings, I find a half dozen earthworms enjoying the moist soil and the rich organic matter that is their food source. Recent deep watering has brought these worms to the surface, where they will work around the plant roots to the benefit of both parties.

P1030580Capsicums and chillies are slow-growers and need a week or two more on the seed table, along with some late-planted celery. These solanums are pinched out of smaller trays and spaced out in a home-made deeper tray filled with new potting mix. In here are my Chocolate capsicums and various chillies such as Purple Tiger, Mettano, Serrano and Bishop’s Crown chillies.

P1030556This week’s water bill: 14 kilolitres, or 3700 US gallons. That’s 14 tonnes of water, or 14 cubic metres. Whichever way you look at it, that’s a lot of water. But the earthworms are there, so these soils are alive once again after the Spring dry out, and now I just need to exercise care in bringing these hundreds of seedlings through to the kitchen table in the months to come. Wet soils are soft soils, so both worms and the delicate roots of seedlings will have no trouble pushing out into these wetted areas and getting established.

The last week of Spring

P1030557The months of work leading up to Spring changeover in the garden are just about over; there remains but one week of Spring to oust winter crops and transplant Spring seedlings from trays into beds to finish establishing crops that will mature over our southern summer months to be harvested from February through to May next year.

Bed 3 of 13 has been cleared of the last of the winter broccoli and kale and broad beans, but I’ve lost all my soil moisture by failing to clear out these seeding giants soon enough. So last week’s watering with the rainbow sprinkler is followed this week by a thick covering of new barley straw mulch, pinned in place by new drip lines to wet up the soil lines along which tomatoes, basil, coriander, red Dutch cabbage and eggplants will be planted out.

P1030552It’s nerve wracking to have the taps running for many hours on end filling the irrigation tanks that drive these drip lines. But that’s what I need to do to get these seedlings established.

Maybe next year I’ll get it right, and so save on all that valuable water being put out on the eve of summer?

Ah well, the gardening expenses of water, mulch and irrigation pipe are long-term investments in my learning how to drive this garden efficiently once global warming starts messing with the climate and the rainfall. I’ll continue to have fresh and nutritious food up at the house after each day’s work.

Pouring on the water…

P1030536The beginning of the Australian summer is now only a fortnight away and the pressures of a gardening life are reaching a crescendo as the soil dries out and the need to finish planting out seedlings takes on a final urgency.

Watering also begins; sometimes well into the night. As always there’s not enough mulch to lock down this new moisture. Drip irrigation, despite its great efficiency at placing water exactly around the roots of sensitive plants, is dead slow to apply. Unless one plans work out a week in advance – and mine don’t – desperate measures are required.

P1030544So winter beds are cleared and prove to have dried out. Under these circumstances the soil has to be ‘restarted’ by up to 12 hours of watering with the rainbow sprinkler clamped to the top of an aluminium ladder; this covers the whole bed and pushes moisture down to at least 15 cms. This only works on weekends when the gardener is around the place - continual adjustments to the water pressure are needed to keep water within the bed and off the surrounding paths.

Very slowly the summer vegetable garden takes shape; the lettuces and salad greens are in and their moisture levels settled. Next cucumbers are planted along available fence lines and the ground readied for zucchinis and beetroots. Slowly the number of trays on the seed tables declines and order begins to return – if only there was time left over to bask in some sort of glow of accomplishment...


But there are a few laughs along the way; over in the chook yard I’ve been baiting for rats that are stealing chicken food and scaring the cook. I catch the neighbour’s cat instead. I let him out unharmed, and he gets off home.


Spring seedling plant-out begins

Seeds saved in previous years were planted out three weeks ago and lettuce seedlings are already far enough along to be planted out - the first of the massive replanting effort ahead of us right up to Christmas and beyond.


Other seedlings - tomatoes, dill, red cabbage, basil, beetroot, capsicums, chillies and various herbs, are still a week or two away from needing to come out of the seed trays. Bare patches in the seed trays show me where my seed has gotten too old and is now non-viable. Other (rarer) varieties like purple-tiger chillies and chocolate capsicum have germinated poorly but adequately.











Only two of my thirteen vegetable beds are in fact ready for plant-outs, so I have to juggle with the plan a bit and shift the lettuce into the bed designed for bush beans. As Eisenhower said “Plans are useless, but planning is invaluable”. Plans often go bust in this garden – this one crashed due to expediency.P1030512My main concern when planting soft-leaved seedlings like lettuces is to do all I can to avoid the ‘transplant shock’ that occurs when their delicate root systems are yanked out of friendly potting mix and stuffed into real soil. So I’ve spent the past week wetting up the sub-soil of this one bed ready for this occasion. Now I just hoe in the trenches and bung clumps of lettuce seedlings into the ground along the drip lines at regular intervals.

P1030528A few hours later, and a couple of trays of lettuce seedlings – several hundred lettuce plants – are in and away.P1030537There’s nothing new to me in raising lettuces, but this year I’ll be experimenting with better ways to manage the soil moisture such that these lettuces reach the table as soon as possible with the least stress to them and us. So I’ve added soil moisture monitoring equipment to this bed.

Why go to all that expense? Simply because the cost of water is now by far the largest expenditure in providing home-grown fruit and vegetables to the kitchen. To measure is to know. And as it was me that invented this gadgetry, there are always a few spare units left over and lying around at work, so I bring them home and put them to work in among my own vegetables. Pottering around among them suggests new ways of designing and using them in the broader scene of Australia’s irrigated agricultural regions.



Thomas Edison on the 'Perfect Tomato'

P1020333Just as in previous years, the first warm days of Spring bring out the closet gardener in every Australian and for a brief few months my fellow-countrymen flirt with the joys of planting – tomatoes, mostly. This harmless national insanity tends to peter out just after Christmas when the hot weather really sets in. Nevertheless, its now that the plant nurseries are clogged with enthusiastic gardening neophytes buying big on tomato seedlings raised over winter in heated glasshouses, and us old chaps doing it the hard way – growing tomatoes from seed out in the Spring sunshine - are over-run by the wannabes racing for home-grown tomatoes on the table by Christmas Day.

At another time, and on another blog, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece that transmogrified Thomas Edison’s famous advice on “work” into his purported words on ‘growing the perfect tomato’, reproduced below. The main contributor to that blog responded with “Is this a joke or what ??”. So I guess it wasn’t as clever or as funny as I thought, but as an antidote to the current seasonal mayhem, here it is again…


Thomas Edison sterilising tomato seeds (I think!)“Very few of you will know this, but Thomas Alva Edison - the inventor of such things as light bulbs and the gramophone - was a closet gardener!
He deceived the general public into thinking that, in the following statements to the press, he was talking about inventing. In fact, it was all in code, as he was really explaining his experiences of life to the cognoscenti of the ‘Perfect Tomato Club’.
I have decoded his gardening work here for you, and have included a photo of his efforts to sterilize tomato seeds for storage: -
  1. "To invent a new type of tomato frame, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk."
  2. "The opportunity to grow the perfect tomato is missed by most people because it is dressed in grubby clothes and looks like work"
  3. "Gardening is one-percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration"
  4. "I haven't failed to grow the perfect tomato, I've found 10,000 ways that don't work"
  5. "Good tomatoes are what happen when opportunity meets with planning"
  6. "I never failed once. Growing the perfect tomato just happened to be a 2000-step process"
  7. "I never did a day's work in my life. It was all fun"
  8. "Nearly every man who wants to develop the prefect tomato works it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then he gets discouraged. That's not the place to become discouraged."
In summary then, old Tom (short for 'Tomato') Edison was a crusty old bloke who never ever gave up (witness his indefatigable efforts to create the light bulb), and he didn't mind calling a spade a shovel. All those quotes actually came from him but, of course, he let his landlady grow the tomatoes, as he was known to sleep on a cot under the stairs down at the lab.
I reckon tomato growers could learn a few things from Edison, about persistence for one thing. Hence the (tongue-in-cheek) gardener's version of his many real quotations, which came entirely from own fertile imagination. My apologies to his ghost...

In a Scientist’s Garden week cook and gardener flew off to Australia’s capital city – Canberra – to visit CSIRO’s Dr Richard Stirzaker. Richard's life’s work has been to learn to understand water and its use in growing food. He wrote a book on the lessons learnt called Out of a Scientist’s Garden, available from CSIRO publishing.

What we have in common is our backyard gardens - the well-springs of our interest in irrigated agriculture. Together we’ve been messing about for years trying to build better and cheaper sensors to allow folk to water gardens and vast acreages more efficiently – to get more food per litre of water. In our most recent efforts, we’ve worked to come up with some ‘appropriate technology’ for subsistence farmers in Africa and irrigators in Bangladesh.

P1030422So we did all that we had to do in Canberra talking to the folk who have funded this work, but the real highlight of our two days was the much-anticipated tour of Richard’s garden – so different from my own. Some of these differences are driven by the colder Canberra climate and the shorter growing season. For example, Richard needs to raise seedlings in a glasshouse during the cold months of late winter and early spring.


Yet there are also differences of style, and I always come home inspired and with a deeper understanding of ‘doing-by-learning’. Here are a few photos taken before breakfast…