Category Archives: gardening

Autumn on our balcony

I cannot yet bring myself to embrace Autumn like I once did. Here in Sydney, the only signs of the changing seasons are bursts of torrential rain, moonlight on the drive home, and a sickly browning of the deciduous trees in place of the usual coppers, auburns, golds.  But Sydney does have one distinct advantage over the Northeastern United States when it comes to Autumn: the garden is still green, still abundant.

Without the threat of impending frost, we plant dwarf green peas and drape our late tomatoes over the balcony edge. Once plucked of green caterpillars disguised as stems, the fruit begins to warm in color, too late perhaps for the taste of summer’s first tomato.  But that’s the price we pay for waiting until February to plant this year’s crop (February–once the time for picking seeds out for the coming year, now a time for greenery, and the hottest nights you could ever possibly envision).

It’s been a tardy summer, filled with other things. But here, finally, we managed to grow more than we thought we could in tiny pots, full of store-bought soil.  We have discovered that most things will grow in closer proximity than the seed packets claim, and while the results are occasionally cartoonish, like our French Breakfast radishes below will attest, they are still finer than their store-bought cousins.

Thinned out greens (young radish, kale, pea shoots, arugula, cilantro) make for memorable salads, accompanied only by good olive oil, a splash of balsamic, pepper, a dash of salt. And now that our sourdough starter is alive again (our newest pet), perhaps some homemade sourdough bread is in our future. Autumn is, after all, the start of baking season.

Time to go buy some flour.

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I don’t like Mondays

Because I have to leave the garden, of course.  I’ll keep this short, as it should be when it’s late Sunday night and I have only just finished all the things I wanted to do today. Go check out the garden!

So far, we’ve had good luck with purple pole beans, spring onions (so sweet and delicious I don’t mind eating them raw), sweet nantes carrots, arugula, and lettuce. We did manage to get some dwarf peas (I can’t remember the exact variety) and cranberry beans out of the garden as well, though they were nowhere near as prolific as the purple ones.  I’m guessing purple pole beans are more resistant than the cranberry beans and peas to whatever pests we seem to have in abundance, but have yet to test my hypothesis.

And that’s just the early, cold-loving stuff.  It looks like we’ll have good luck with four different kinds of tomatoes (reisentraube, jaune flamme, red/pink brandywine).  The fifth, the Kellogg’s breakfast variety, was not a fan of all the rain we had earlier and has acquired a nasty case of blight.  I clipped off a bunch of yellow splotchy leaves this weekend on the one plant we stuck in the ground, and gave everything a spray of copper and sesame seed oil to keep aphids from spreading the blight and whatever other nasty fungal diseases wet weather inevitably brings.  This may or may not be related to the fact that it’s not fruiting — all I know is it’s definitely not the strongest variety of the bunch. It’s a beautiful vine, though.

Soon we should also have squash, melons, and ground cherries. Peppers … well, we’ll wait and see.  It always takes them ages to get started up here, because peppers like the cold about as much as I do.  And I’m pretty sure we stunted them somehow… One day, when we can afford heat (or live somewhere a little more pleasant, weather-wise), we might be able to grow peppers. But right now, getting the seeds going on schedule is just not worth an extra hundred gallons of oil.

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DIY terra cotta watering system

This state has no shortage of water.  We can waste it as we please, without worrying about drought warnings, crop failures, or growing tired of countless images of cracked, parched earth on the TV screen.  This doesn’t mean we should.  Water is one of those things that you quickly learn to appreciate if you don’t have enough of it.  I know I hate wasting water after spending all those years in the San Joaquin Valley, where droughts are pretty much the norm.

Sometimes, I think the world would change almost instantly if those without water shortages were forced to live with drought for a few months. Just enough to realize that water is a limited natural resource, just like oil.  Unlike oil, it’s a resource we can’t survive without.

So, what does this have to do with the photos I’ve posted today? Well, I thought I’d share a sort of primitive drip irrigation method I stumbled across recently, which makes use of buried terra cotta vessels called ollas.  There’s an excellent post here on how this method works.  It’s designed for dry climates, but we decided to install them this summer to regulate our water use a little more, and to make life easier when we went out of town.  Essentially, we’re taking advantage of the permeable properties of unglazed terra cotta to distribute water to your garden slowly and efficiently, minimizing water loss from evaporation.  And yes, this is a new experiment this year — I’ll be reporting back on how well all of this works.  For now, here’s a little tutorial on how I made them, so you can have a shot at this yourself:

1. Find unglazed terra cotta pots and saucers (or just use 2 pots of the same size — I’ll get to that in a bit).  We chose 6″ versions from Home Depot, which cost $1.50 each.  You will also need sandpaper and a waterproof sealant.  The 100% silicon sealant for doors and windows (which you can find in the paint section of Home Depot or any major hardware store) works quite well.

2. Sand the lips of the pots and saucers.  The pots and saucers in the background of the shot above are shown to illustrate how we’re going to glue the olla together; sanding will help the pot and saucer edges match up.  Make sure to clean off the surfaces you sand with a bit of water and let sit for an hour or two to dry before you continue.

3. Line the lip of the pot with silicon sealant (lots of it).  You want to make sure there are no gaps in between the pot and the saucer — otherwise you’ll have a water leak, which will defeat the whole purpose of this exercise.  Let this dry overnight, and check again for any gaps.  You might even want to test these for leaks before you put them in the ground.

If you’re using two pots instead of a pot and saucer to make your ollas, you’ll have to seal up one of the drainage holes as well.  I made one of these as a test, and just stuffed the whole with plastic wrap and then covered everything in silicon sealant.  This leaked.  More silicon fixed the problem, but you’ll definitely want to test this style of olla for leaks, because it’s difficult to visually confirm that you have a good seal on this sort of opening.

4. Bury the ollas in the garden so the saucer part and most of the pot is underground. You’ll basically bury these deep enough so just the open drainage hole is sticking up out of the ground.  This is so you can fill the ollas up periodically.  The first picture on this post should give you a good idea of how to position your olla.  Then, just fill them up, and cover the whole with a rock or something, so you don’t create a nice little mosquito nest in your garden. (As an aside, check out our pea shoots!  We installed the olla this week, and had planted these a while ago. I can’t wait until they start flowering…)

Simple enough, right?  As you might guess, the size and thickness of your olla will determine how the water is distributed, so you may need bigger pots, etc, but for a small vegetable garden like ours (a 10″x4″ plot), I think these should be adequate. If you have planters, you can buy small versions of this (kind of like this) (or make some with little pots, if you can find them?).  We tried a version of these plant nannys last year that used plastic 2 liter bottles as the water reservoir, and had trouble getting a good seal between the bottle and the terra cotta input in the garden bed, but they may be worth trying if you have a container garden.

I suppose now we’ll see how long I can put off watering the garden with these in place.  Though with all the rain we’ve had lately, I don’t think we’ll have anything to worry about any time soon.

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A little rant

Why does this remind me of something?

For the record, our garden takes us maybe an hour a week, if that, despite the fact that we have to lug jug after jug of water from the basement of our building to water it.  We don’t need chemicals — we just plant a lot of different varieties and seed more than we can actually grow.  Then we weed out the weaklings and wash our produce carefully.  That’s pretty much it. It’s not foolproof — we’ve learned what we can and cannot grow easily over the past year or so — but it seems to work pretty well for us, despite night shifts and paper writing and all the usual hectic bits of life.  And you know what? Seeing something you raised from seed thrive is one of the best feelings I can think of.

Granted, it does take a little work to learn how to prep the soil, etc — particularly if you’ve been killing everything off (both good and bad) with chemical fertilizers in the past.  But once you’ve figured that part out, you’re set for life.

Thanks to the Yale Sustainable Food Project newsletter for the link.

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Seedlings!

I’m being a lazy blogger at the moment. But look! We have seedlings!

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