Gardening (4)

    Thursday, 09 July 2020 11:11

    Winter Harvests, & Winter Beginnings

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    It might seem like winter is a bad time to harvest things, particularly to those who live in colder places. Now, while I freely admit that Canberra isn't likely to snow very often, it regularly gets as low as -4oC, and occasionally even -8oC. Fortunately, we haven't quite gotten that low just yet (and we're now into July) so the late autumnal harvests are now finally getting to the stage that we can clean those up, and tend to the garden for some winter sowing. What?! Winter!... Have I gone mad? Almost certainly, dear reader, but not necessarily in this particular instance.

    Here is our most recent bounty... a few dozen Kiwi Fruit! The vines which have wandered their way up the cherry tree have been surprisingly effective at confusing the Cherry Slugs, and so we had our first ever successful cherry harvest back in Summer time. Now winter is upon us, and the Kiwi vines have died off, we hopped back up to the cherry tree to pick our... Kiwi fruit.

    You might recognise the colander as the same one as the one holding the cherries in an earlier post. If you didn't, that's ok, I'm sure you have much more important things to think about.

    We ate a few, but like all things when the harvest hits you in full force, once a year.. we had to preserve the remainder. So Wren made some Kiwi syrup, Kiwi sauce, and Kiwi jam.. and the list almost certainly goes on from there... Fancy a kiwi-flavoured indulgence? It's weird but it goes well with Quark cheese on toast!

    Kiwi's aren't the only things that are coming up. We've harvested some "Purple Congo" potatoes when we were redoing some raised beds. (They really are purple) and our spinach is doing surprisingly well. The more we cut it, the more it seems to grow. Frankly, it's not the most exciting crop ever, but apparently my rate of consumption is no match for this plant's growth rate... and I can eat a lot. :-)

    Now what?

    Wren and I are particularly fond of berries. We have blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, loganberries, and our entire front yard is a giant crop of strawberries. Which interestingly, is yet another plant that fruits in both summer and winter. However, we adore a rather unusual type of strawberries the most, and that is the "Alpine Strawberry". It has tiny fruit, but it packs all the flavour of larger strawberries into that tiny package... so if you live in a cooler area and have a sweet tooth, and want to make the best strawberry-infused beverage, pastry, jam, etc... you definitely want to give these little nuggets of pure joy a go. If you're anything like us... they won't often make it inside... let alone into a cake. Cut up and infused in tea, the alpine strawberry makes a healthy, sweet addition to the beverage.

    Alpine strawberries must be sown in winter-like conditions. The springtime "thaw" is the threshold that triggers germination. If you plant them in spring, and there's little-to-no frost left... they will just rot away. If you're running that late, put the seeds in the freezer, for at least a few weeks, then plant them... preferably in early spring.

    Now is also a good time to start planting raspberry seeds, in trays, and keep them in the dark. They take around 3 months or so to germinate, so they need to get started in the cold weather. There are plenty of good sites online to guide your sowing and growing efforts.

    I suppose the point of this blog post is to hopefully inspire you to see your garden beyond the harvests of spring, summer, and autumn. Now is also an excellent time to start cleaning up those leaves, tidying up and preparing beds for winter and spring sowing. However, I do recommend that you do these things when the sun is out, and definitely in the warmer parts of the day.

    Happy gardening!


    Sunday, 15 December 2019 09:37

    Yet another weekend workshop: Introduction to Beekeeping

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    Problems with choosing an appropriate category....

    It may seem strange to worry about this, but bees fit into a number of categories here. Do I put it under pet care? gardening? wood working? or food stuffs? In any case, there's a lot of reasons to do a bee keeping course for us...

    Why do a bee keeping course?

    Ok, so I make cheese, and make things from wood. Wren makes candles, soap, cosmetics, and "beeswax wraps". Every single one of these activities finds a use for bees wax. My cheeses can be coated in wax for aging and preservation, wood working uses wax for polishing, smoothing, and preserving wood (particularly chopping boards). I couldn't quite tell you what the beeswax does in soap... (perhaps some sort of softening?) but I know it's used in natural ointments, lip balms, and deodorants which Wren makes and sells a lot of.

    Adding to the fact that we both have a "sweet tooth" (or should that be "sweet teeth?"). Honey is used in our ridiculous tea obsession, on sandwiches and toast, we make honey cakes (thanks to a certain former Russian-now-Kiwi-who-lives-in-England for the recipe) we use it to feed the bacteria in our bread making, and give the bread a slightly less refined sugar component. In short, beekeeping is something that fits well into our existing activities. If I could run it in my back yard, I would also do it for the pollination benefit in my garden. Unfortunately, the simple fact is we're too close to our neighbours, we don't have enough flower diversity to keep a hive going well in winter. Another reason that we can't do it at home is the fact that our yard gets way too little sun to maintain a healthy hive in Canberra's climate.

    This is the bee keeper's equivalent of "Where's Wally?" (Americans call it "Where's Waldo?", and almost every country calls it something different). The game in this case is called "Where's the queen?" Do you see her? No, nor do I! Bee keepers will go frame by frame, looking for her, to assess the health of the hive. There's a distinct possibility that if she is there... you'll miss her... and if you don't see her, she could be dead, off mating "in flight", or taken a swarm and left for greener pastures... or more flowered pastures.

    Booking the course and why we joined the association.

    Nonetheless, we decided to do the "weekend beekeeping course" run by the Canberra Beekeeper's Association in the off-chance we could find somewhere to put a hive. It's a popular course, booked months ahead of schedule. Given the sensitivity of bees to cold temperatures, and the reluctance winter usually has when letting Canberra go. These courses usually only run from late September to February. If you're interested, I highly recommend that you join the club first. Whether you join as an individual, or a family, the price is the same. $40 per year. If you are a member or have a family membership, the course price drops $40 per person who does the course. So I effectively paid $40, to save $80 for the two of us when we booked the course... and now we're both members and can turn up to meetings and join the mailing lists should we want or need to.

    The members meet on the third Wednesday night of each month, and are some of the loveliest people I have ever met.  They aren't just interested in making a buck, many of them do it to impart knowledge and to share their passion. This makes them really great at telling you what you need to know, and everyone brings something meaningful to the meeting. I was particularly impressed by the diverging opinions, the reason one person liked one particular type of hive, while another found that a completely different style of bee hive suited their needs. Each person had a "beekeeping philosophy", ranging from almost purely natural for educational and pollination purposes only, to a heavy focus on honey production and commercial pollination. Most of the people I met were of the retiree persuasion, so you can understand why production might not be so critical. When people expressed a controversial opinion, they outlined their reasons, and had at least considered the perspective of others. In this age of Internet "Trolls", the ever-abundant "over-inflated senses of entitlement/intelligence", and general infantile behaviour from people who should know better, it was a joy to see such collaborative attitudes.

    Things I learned from the course:

    Always learning.

    The fact remains that beekeeping is a process of ongoing learning. Even long-standing, 7th generation beekeepers will inevitably need to get a second opinion, a helping hand, and/or maybe major assistance at some point. As people grow and change, so too do their perspectives, their needs, and their priorities. The way things are done are constantly evolving. People are discovering things about bees that we had absolutely no clue about, and that is not going to change unless the bees do indeed die out.

    The course was largely taught by a man called John Grubb who had been bee keeping for roughly 12 years. While he did his best to answer the multitude of questions thrown his way, he was honest when there was something he didn't know. You see, you can only speak in general guidelines, but as soon as you start thinking something is "certain", the bees will "surprise" you. This was a recurring theme. However, before you start thinking John didn't know anything, I should state that he covered a lot of material, and incorporated at least two practical sessions a day. (Bee suits, gloves, and jackets were provided). One of the fundamental lessons he taught us was that every hive can be different, and that there are many reasons a hive can behave strangely. Observation is key, and to think carefully about your actions when considering the bees.

    The occasional "Pro tip".

    One of the most important and interesting facts was the fact that if you eat a banana before visiting a hive, the potassium in the banana makes you smell like the "alarm pheromone" which will not make the swarm as docile as you'd like. In fact, it's unlikely to go well for you... or anyone around you. Another interesting tip was that you can be arrested for using a beekeeping smoker during a total fire ban. Trust me, you don't want to be wearing a bee suit on during bush fire weather anyway.

    The costs of getting started:

    It might seem surprising, but beekeeping is a hobby that can be surprisingly affordable, or surprisingly expensive to get into. A common break down of costs include:

    • Beekeeping suit + gloves ($100-$200)
    • Smoker $75-300 (don't buy the sub $40 models)
    • Basic three box Langstroth hive ($200-250)
    • Tools, tape, clean drop sheet, spare frames, perhaps a box. ($150)
    • Bees (varies by area). Usually $50-150 Some are sold with hives, or a nucleus hive (a.k.a: "Nuke").

    So that's a total cost of about $500 and up. It's not uncommon for some of the fancier hive styles to be over $1000, but depending on whether build it from scratch, buy a kit and you assemble it yourself, or buy them pre-made you can do it cheaper or much more expensively if you wish.

    Note that the total above does not include extraction tools, they usually cost about $200-400 for a 3 frame, stainless steel centrifuge in Australia, possibly a "hot knife". (up to $100)  If you're interested, it's likely the local club will have that to borrow if you join. Of course, you also need jars to put your honey into as well.

    Note that in some states and territories, you are required by law to register your hive, and have a design that is "inspect-able". True "natural beekeeping" hives may not have that facility and thus will make it illegal if you're found out.


     At the end of the two day workshop, we were much more informed than we were previously. I feel that when the opportunity presents itself, we'll start a hive. However, there's a reasonable amount of work into the hobby, and you can't just ignore the hive for months on end (unless it's winter). I think if you want to succeed in this hobby, you're going to need to be able to keep an eye on the hive, and treat them as you would a respected pet. If you go on holidays for three months, there's no telling whether or not the bees will be there on your return. If the work doesn't seem so bad, I'd heartily encourage you to do the course and see if you'd like to proceed from there.

    Good luck and happy bee keeping!




    Tuesday, 26 November 2019 09:50

    What would you wait 14 years for?

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    It seems like a pretty serious question, doesn't it? 14 years is most of a childhood. When we look at ourselves today, can we even imagine how we each will change in the next 14 years? It's roughly one sixth of a life... unless you happen to be my favourite 105 year old... who has lived through two world wars, with the depression in between, the first Australian radio station, TV, the first transistor, and all the technology and drama afterwards. The stories she tells, and the "Aussie battler" sense of humour is both inspiring, and humbling....but back to the question at hand....

    Wren bought her home in 2004 "off the plan". It was completed late that year, and after she moved in, she planted two trees in early 2005... one apricot, and one cherry. (Don't worry, she chose a variety of cherry that does require a second tree to fruit). Now the trees are fully grown, and the apricot has been nigh on bullet-proof. It produces an average of 30-50Kg of edible fruit a year... factoring some loss to the wildlife like possums, bats and birds. Some years it's less, and other years been enough to bend branches to the ground. Let's just say that we're experienced apricot jam makers... when we finally get sick of the fresh fruit. However, the cherry tree has been a completely different story...

    This cherry tree has been an epic saga, of dogs digging it up, pests, leaf curl, rain damage, storm damage, cockatoo damage, and almost every other dilemma you can imagine. Yet Wren has persisted, and with a few years of my help, we've managed to beat back one problem after another, until the problems are either eradicated, or substantially reduced. Now please note that we do NOT spray chemicals in our garden, and this choice means that the typical "kill everything with spray" isn't an option, so it requires a bit more thought and care.

    Lessons learned the hard way:

    1. Pet management is needed for younger plants:

    Wren spent years fostering homeless dogs. Now as you'd imagine, many dogs who come from broken homes have issues, poor training, and some long-established bad habits. Wren mentioned that dogs frequently would dig up the garden, rending garden and trees alike decimated. The back lawn looked like a mini moonscape with holes, divots, and other ankle-destroying landscape features. I shudder to think how many hoses and hose attachments Wren bought over the years. Fencing off trees is something I would recommend if you have digging/chewing-prone pets... whether that's dogs, chickens or something else entirely.

    2. Soil health leads to plant health:

    Canberra is not renowned for its high quality soils. In fact, in most suburban areas, there's a heady mix of clay, rock, and builders fill that lies mere centimetres from the surface. Wren dropped this cherry tree directly into this soil, and I'm going to be honest here... she wasn't exactly gung-ho on the watering and soil conditioning front. It survived, but I wouldn't say that it thrived.

    In 2017, I did a Permaculture course, and using my new found knowledge, decided to turn the largely unused lawn space into a garden for herbs, vegetables, and fruit. So I carpet mulched the lawn to kill it, then added mixed compost, manure, and straw, on top of that, and then layered another layer of mulch for effect. I then ran several lines of "dripper hose" along the length of the former grass areas to encourage soil moisture, worms and microbial activity. Six months later, the trees showed a visible sign of improvement, namely in surprisingly rapid growth, beyond what we had seen in previous years. A healthier plant is less likely to suffer from disease, or if it does get one, the effect is mitigated, slowed, and perhaps more limited to a smaller section of the tree.

    3. Pest management instead of pest eradication:

    This tree has suffered from "Cherry slugs" for many years. Flies lay their eggs on the leaves in early summer, then the "slugs" eat the leaves until there's literally nothing left, and then grow into flies, mate, and the eggs fall to the ground as they're shed in autumn, they lay dormant there until spring, some slugs crawl their way back up to the tree, or were laid in the tree already.. and the cycle starts itself over again. By allowing our kiwi fruit vine to grow up the tree, planting lemon verbena and garlic at ground level, and spraying "Neem oil" extract on the tree, the biodiversity of the leaves from various plants, along with the strong fragrance of the neem, verbena and garlic, confuse the pests and make it harder for them to find the tree. There's a lot of merit to separating trees with different plants in between, and the results are not only less problems, but staggered harvests, easier management, and of course, diversified crop yields.

    Watering the ground instead of spraying leaves has not only reduced water use, but also avoided some diseases like leaf curl, or at least, substantially slowed it's progress. Some fungus or mould based problems are spread by dripping water from one leaf to another. Keeping the water off the leaves while watering the roots provides moisture without the associated problems of foliage watering.

    4. Netting really is essential:

    You might think that animals might leave you something, but for many years, the cherries were just starting to ripen. We'd go to work with a lot of cherries on the tree, almost ready to pick, and when we came home, we'd have literally, nothing left but "pips on sticks". I freely admit that I've spent some quality time from 5am-7am sitting on the top of a ladder, effectively working as a fruit-paid scarecrow to ensure the birds don't eat my crops once they've found a hole in the netting, or on trees that I haven't got enough netting for.

    There are a lot of ways to net a tree, but for fully grown fruit trees that are definitely not dwarf varieties, a 10m x 10m net may not be enough, and that's the biggest one I've found that's commercially available. The tightness of the weave is also important. I prefer as tight a weave as possible. Preferably 10mm x 10mm square holes or smaller. This eliminates small birds who I've seen dive through a 30mm x 30mm hole in the net to get to my raspberries. Tighter weaves are also less likely to get caught on branches, and reduces the chance of branches growing through the net over time.

    The timing of putting the netting can also be important. I prefer to let the flowers be pollinated by bees and birds (as well as any pests eaten by birds) while they're out in spring. I leave the netting off entirely during this phase. However, while the fruit is still green, I'll try to net the tree then to discourage problems like "early tasters", or fruit destruction by cockatoos.

    If you need a useful tool to put netting up, I recommend Ham's cheap "net putter-upper-er". It's basically one of those extendable painting poles, with a cheap roller attachment screwed on to the end, but with the roller cut off so that there's just a 50-100mm straight piece of metal at the end, and I round off the cut tip to reduce the chance of it catching the net or on anything else. You simply stick the pointy end through the holes in the net, and lift it up and over branches. If you must do it from within the tree, you can poke the pole up and through the branches, and work the net over one branch after another. Just remember to ensure that have enough slack to pull the net over, as the pole may give you a lot of reach, but it also gives the net a lot of leverage to work against you. If the net gets caught, you may not be able to move the net further.

    5. Regular watering does NOT mean over-watering:

    It may seem odd, but watering once a week, even when the tree is fruiting, is better than watering every single day. If you over water trees, the fruit can split when the water content in the fruit exceeds the fruit skin's ability to grow. I strongly urge you to water with a good soak for an hour, then leave it alone for a week. This is much more similar to sporadic rainfall. By allowing the soil to dry out a bit before the next watering will reduce moulds, fungi, mildew and other diseases while giving the tree a regular supply of water, softening soils, and encouraging soil life to aerate the ground, decompose sources of nutrients, and manage potential soil-born issues by increasing diversity and therefore, competition.

    Over watering can result in increased problems such as fruit drop, cracked fruit, plant disease, lower yields. Again, I'd recommend using a watering system to maintain "watering discipline".

    And the result, after 14 years? Is this!

    I don't claim to be a "natural" green thumb. I just try to learn from my mistakes, to try different solutions until something works, and get my hands dirty on a reasonably regular basis. A fruit tree may seem expensive when you see a price tag of $50-100, but the harvested yield of just one season once the tree is mature can outweigh that many times over. I paid $15 per kilogram for a box of cherries grown in Young last week to bring to a birthday party because these weren't ready. There's probably 3-4 Kg of cherries shown in this shot alone. For extra points, can you spot the kiwi fruit leaves in this image?

    So there you have it, and I should mention that these cherries are edible now, but will get a bit of extra sweetness in the coming days. If you haven't tried fruit toast made with fresh or dried cherries, you are truly missing out, and I encourage you to try it.

    Never give up, and eventually you'll learn enough to succeed. Happy gardening, and happier harvesting!


    Bird of Paradise
    A bunch of "Bird of Paradise" plants in bloom.

    Birds of Paradise are known for their unusual flowers by many. Experienced gardeners will also remember the challenges that the extremely large, flexible, yet fibrous leaves from plants like these can pose. Particularly when you're pruning, or removing them. You see, the leaves are too large for easy cutting with secateurs. You can trim the overall bush reasonably well with hedging shears... but the base of the plant can be really challenging, even with a chainsaw!

    Hedging shears start to fail in the dense, fibrous, often-clumped together stalks. I tried a pruning saw, but found that the teeth clogged up with fibres.. when the leaves didn't simply sway with the motion of the saw. A whipper/line trimmer failed completely, so I even went and got my chainsaw out. However, the hugely long fibres found in the leaves are drawn by the chain into the saw, and generally jam there. I even derailed the chain once when the accumulated fibrous bits managed to wedge under the drive gear.

    Enter the mattock.

    Lacking an axe, I decided that I needed to swing a mattock around, and half-hack, half-dig the Birds of Paradise plants out. Now when one plant had over 1.5 square metres of tightly packed, dense stalks, that's a lot of work for an I.T. desk jockey like me. I consumed over 5L of water over the next 4 hours, and chewed through a box of tissues. Listening to "A hard hand to hold" by Ace Young while struggling with some plants may not sound enthralling to some, but lyrics ended up being somewhat prophetic, after the day I had, I needed a day to recover, because I am still struggling to hold things properly.

    In fairness, it wasn't all the mattock-swinging that wore me out. The local landscaping supplies place delivered my order a few days ahead of schedule. Now the one thing most people don't know about landscaping suppliers, is that they will literally tie sleepers together, forklift them into the truck, and when that truck gets to your place, they will literally tip sleepers, soil, and whatever else you ordered into a pile next to the road, get you to sign off on the delivery, and drive off as fast as possible. Sorting it out, or moving your overpriced lumps of wood away from the calculating eyes of kerb-side collectors, when you have 13x 70Kg sleepers to move it is "all up to you". Now, with Wren at work, and neighbours who are pregnant, elderly, or riddled with cancer... I understandably-yet-unfortunately, didn't have anyone volunteering to help me out. So after moving all 910Kg of bulky, extra thick cut ironbark (a particularly dense wood), into the safer areas of my yard, my everything hurt.

    I still have maybe three square feet of stalk to dig out, but I was hoping to find a better (powered) option to cut this back. Unfortunately, I haven't found it yet. That's a problem for tomorrow. Perhaps a fine-toothed blade will be better at not dragging fibres on something like a reciprocating saw will help...

    To sum up what I know so far:

    1. Use hedging shears to cut pack the leaves a bit, and make access to the stalks easier.
    2. Long-handled loppers can help you get a bit further down, but this is very time consuming.
    3. Use mattock to hack/dig the rest out... but for larger plants in harder soil, this will take quite some time.

    Here's the mess created by the pruning....

    An update on the reciprocating saw:

    A reciprocating saw with wood cutting blade

    This is a reciprocating saw. Think of it as a jig saw for demolition.

    I tried this on the smaller clump of severed stalks today. By cutting it away in sections, I found this worked well. I didn't have a fine-toothed metal cutting blade, but I used a wood-grade blade and to my surprise, that didn't jam up like the pruning saw. Getting in low enough  for easier cutting was quite challenging for a tall guy. In the space of about 20 minutes, I managed to remove most of the smaller clump. This is a huge improvement, and so this is the tool/method I'd recommend...

    However, I didn't get as much done as I'd have liked, since I had a visit from those door-to-door religious people who genuinely asked me "Are you ready to make a life long commitment to your God and saviour?".

    I have mentioned that I'm an irreverent kinda guy right? I merely replied:

    "From a logical standpoint, to be life long, I'd have to have been committed since birth, and given many religious beliefs regarding abortion, and the termination of a life before birth... life-long might be considered even longer. Now, since I can't go back and start again, I can only say that such a commitment would be impossible at this stage. If you're simply asking whether I am willing to shift from my current beliefs for the remainder of my days, then I'm sorry I'm just not interested, good luck with your spreading the word though".

    We then had about an hour-long chat about gardening. I think it was just to break up the door-to-door grind. When they left, they covered the remainder of my street in record time, so I knew they weren't having much luck.

    (sac)Religious anecdotes aside... *

    I hope this helps someone, and at least helps to eliminate some of the tools that I've found to be ineffective.

    Stay safe, and happy gardening!



    * Note: Yes I know that's not the right spelling of sacrilegious.... which originally meant "thief of sacred things" in middle English/Latin. Rather than simply "anti-religion", "profane" or "disrespectful" as it is often used these days.

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