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Sunday, 25 May 2008

Gardening update

It's about a year now since I first decided to try and grow some food in the backyard. Last autumn I was posting about the my first attempt, the tomatoes in a pot. Time for a review and a look at what's ahead.

So what have I got to show for my past year's efforts? Dead tomatoes. Dead capsicums. Dead cucumbers. Dead strawberries. Dead carrots. We did get to eat a few handfuls of tiny cherry tomatoes, several strawberries and a couple of capsicums, but on the whole... I'm really glad the shops still have plenty of food in them.

There is good news with the bad though, because I've learned things through these failures. Most of what we planted was grown in pots with soil from the garden bed I excavated to make way for one of the tanks. My conclusion is that that soil sucks. It really didn't hold water well and appeared to be lacking a great deal in nutrients.

The plants which grew the best were the capsicums, and they were transferred into the ground as seedlings with a layer of home-made compost and mulch on the top. They grew vigourously and fruited like mad - only to have the fruit flies destroy almost every last one. That garden bed is now seemingly lifeless, with the nutrients depleted, the sun keeping it hot and dry and the mulch (woodchips, really) still keeping even the weed seeds at bay. I have an experiment forming in the back of my mind to do a soil improvement project over winter using comfrey or something and then have another go at the capsicums since they seemed to like that spot.

Taking heart from the way the capsicums responded to the compost and mulch treatment, over the past few months we've converted a weedy, wet corner of the yard (just in between the fence and the patio) into a herb garden. It was full of clover and some other leafy weeds and a bit clay-bound so I took a garden fork to it and churned it up. Not much "soil structure" there to be destroying, don't worry. I then mixed in a generous amount of well-aged compost, and promptly ignored it for weeks. The weeds grew back with renewed vigour of course. And then we got serious.

Lots of weeds got ripped out and fed into the new compost bin. A thick layer of newspaper covered the ground with holes left where the chives, sage and marjoram (gifts from a friend) were planted. On top of that went a layer of recycled pine bark mulch that a neighbour was throwing away. Since then we've expanded the crop with basil, parsley, rosemary, challots and a little chilli bush. And they're thriving!

The chillis quickly became infested with what I think are aphids... complete with the "farmer" ants tending them. The plant is still flowering, fruiting and looking generally healthy but I'm sure it would be better off without them, so this arvo I took action. I found a recipe on the net for "white oil" - a mixture of vegetable oil (I used olive), water and dishwashing detergent. This has been sprayed liberally on the plant and as far as I can see the aphids are in fact now dead. Fingers crossed that the plant will survive.

My other proud success is the quality of the compost that I've made. OK, it's not that hard, but it's still deeply encouraging to see the cycle of life playing itself out with such calm assurance, relentlessly renewing. It makes me realise that my main responsibility is to learn how life works and just facilitate it. The new bin accelerates the process and takes some of the manual effort out of it. And in the spirit of facilitating, earlier I scooped out a few handfuls from the bottom (mostly material which I had transferred from my previous heap to get this bin started) and introduced some of my worms.

Yes - my worm farm is still alive! They don't eat anywhere near as much as I'd hoped but they're still going. Maybe the compost bin will be a more appetising home for these worms and certainly they can't do anything but contribute to the process... even if it's just by becoming raw material.

The compost that I removed, I sieved to get rid of the woody bits and then took a close look. It's dark brown, but distinctly not black. It's light, spongy, and if you squish it it retains its shape. But it's also "crumbly", in that you can break it apart into light, spongy pieces again by rolling it between your fingers. And it has almost no odour at all. From the descriptions I've read... this is exactly as it ought to be.

I'm going to grow food in my backyard. It's just a matter of time.


DB said...

Hey Terry,

have you looked into companion planting? For soil/pest management maybe this time around with the capsicums you could plant some basil, onions or tomatoes.

Just a thought....

Lil Bro

Crazy Mumma said...

Take heart Terry, many experienced gardeners have had trouble in the past year. Nobody really knows why, but it's been a bad year. Glad to see your compost and worms are going well though :-)

You can't really use ground soil successfully in pots, it just doesn't have adequate drainage characteristics, so I'd suggest that that was a large component in your vegie failures. Soil in pots also dries out much faster than in the ground, and it only takes it drying out once to make it hydrophobic, i.e. won't absorb water anymore. You'll need to use a rewetting agent if that happens. I use a good quality certified-organic potting mix for my pots, but you can make your own if you are motivated enough, try Doc's Frugal World and search for "potting mix". Lots of great cheapo backyard ideas for you to try actually, and have a look at his wife Scarecrow's gardening blog for great water-saving tips and other cool ideas.

Better luck this time! Cheers,