Category Archives: Growing the Garden

Friendly Gardening Assistants

It’s time I wrote about our newest house-mates.  We met them in town a few weeks ago –  two blokes and four ladies. They needed food and shelter.  We’d actually been looking for some helpers in the garden, and this bunch was very friendly, so we agreed that they could stay with us.  We squeezed them all in to our van and brought them back to our place. They quickly settled in to their living quarters and helped themselves to food and drink.  Fortunately, we’ve found them helpful and charming so have asked them to board here long-term.  Providing they can do a few things for us in return.

Here’s their job list:

– weed removal

– distributing manure

– scattering mulch

– overseeing pest control

– turning over the compost

– entertaining the kids and teaching them responsibility

– eating some of our leftover food so it doesn’t go to waste

and one special task just for the men…

– waking us up in the morning (in case the kids forget).

I’ll admit, our house-mates are not living in our actual house.  They have a little one of their own.  In the orchard.  It’s an open-plan house with a miniature drawbridge style door and an upper level where they rest at night.  We close their door once they’ve settled down for the evening.  And open it for them first thing in the morning.

Our new friends are doing some wonderful work here.  So far they’ve fulfilled all their tasks on a daily basis.  Though on several occasions, I’ve had to politely move them on from certain areas of the garden where they’ve been a little overzealous with the weeding and scattering of mulch.

The girls also promised they’d produce tasty, nutritious morsels for us on a regular basis.  They said they’d start as soon as possible.  But so far only the oldest one has come through with the goods.  And only on three occasions.  I suspect the others need to grow-up a bit first.

Thankfully the men have been spot-on with their timing by not waking us before sunrise.  Actually it’s only the one fellow who’s been producing the morning wake-up call.  The other is still quite youthful and perhaps needs a sleep-in.  We were quite reluctant to have two males living under the one small roof at first – we didn’t want any fights breaking out, you see.  But we have ended up with two and they’re getting along quite well for now.  If there’s any trouble though, we’ll be finding alternative accommodation for one of them.

The kids have really enjoyed watching our helpers at work and following them around the place.  Miss Five often opens up their quarters in the morning and delivers some of our leftover food from the night before.  They appear to really appreciate this extra meal at the start of the day.  If the manner in which they scoff the food down and push each other out of the way to access it, is anything to go by.

We’ve become particularly fond of one of the girls.  She’s clearly had a very loving, attentive upbringing and is gentle and affectionate, yet sociable, and loves to come up to the house for a chat.  She’s formed a special bond with Miss Five, too.  Her name is Lulu.  She’s pretty, don’t you think?

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My Rusty Garden

I’ve said it before, that one of the appealing things about having old stuff around the place is the associated nostalgia.  It gives me a warm, happy feeling.  Which is a very good thing.  An anodised aluminium teapot that I keep on the slow-combustion heater for hot drinks in winter, sparks memories of Sunday morning tea after church in the hall.  And of the old (perhaps they were not very old, but I was just a kid back then) ladies who poured cups and cups of tea into proper tea cups, for me to drink with my biscuits.  When I fill one of my brightly-coloured anodised aluminium cups for a guest, I recall drinking cordial in Grandma’s kitchen.  And I’m taken straight back to my great grandmother’s sunroom when I sit in an old white wire patio chair on the verandah.  So around my garden, to add to the cheer that being amongst plants and nature brings, I’ve incorporated old furniture items that made me smile when I discovered them.

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Since there are various animals living outside at my place, as well as young children about, decent fences are rather important.  And fences need gates.  Just an excuse to obtain more lovely vintage items really!  When it came time to fence our property, my husband and I drove across the countryside to collect old gates that we’d purchased on ebay and at our local second-hand auction centre (OK we didn’t have to drive that far…I don’t want to sound like we were racking up the fuel miles).  They added instant character and charm to the garden.  And now when I wander around outside or open a gate I remember walking along the footpath to school, looking in to front yards and admiring the lovely country gardens.

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We also have lots of chairs outside and around the garden.  I have a thing for chairs.  Not that I get the chance to sit on one very often.  But when I count how many old chairs there are at my place I realise I’m a bit of a chair collector.  They are very useful at least.  And all are carefully placed.  So if you ever happen to visit, you can be sure you’ll find somewhere to sit, inside or out.  You’ll notice with these old cast iron chairs that they have lost a bit of paint.  That is the state that I bought them in.  And that is how I like them.  Otherwise they might look too new.

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Despite appearances, this one is still going strong and is actually very comfortable.

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And on the verandah (the lovely antique wicker chair was a thoughtful birthday gift from my mum)…

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Tables are useful, too.  This is my favourite.  I wouldn’t dare paint it.

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My vintage pot plant stands remind me of my grandma’s back door steps.  Hers was likewise laden with succulents.  And the miniature jade (Portulacaria afra) on the centre shelf originated in her mum’s wonderful garden.

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Note the rust.  Rust is good.

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I just liked the look of this one – a vintage bird cage holder.  I prefer to keep plants in the bird cage (which is actually not that vintage but I did buy it second-hand and it looks the part I think).

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It is just as well I have a large garden to house all this old furniture.  As my garden grows and changes, my collection of old stuff evolves with it.  And more memories are created.

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A Few of My Favourite Plants

My gosh I didn’t expect to have another prolonged break from my blog. But now that the craziness (but nevertheless awesomeness) of Christmas is out of the way, the Event of the Year (my big sister’s wedding) has occurred and was absolutely breathtaking and beautiful, and some other stuff has been ticked off my long list, I can get on with things in the blog department.

Aside from these other activities, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in my old garden again. It’s one of my favourite places to be. And it’s also my thinking spot. Though the thinking doesn’t happen very coherently with a toddler and preschooler constantly butting in. Nevertheless when I was out in the garden the other day I thought: ‘I really, really need to write a blog post.’ And at the same time I was feeling some plant love. Which gave me an idea for this post: a spiel about my favourite plants in my garden. I don’t mean my favourite plants in general. I’m talking about plants that are useful and easy to grow or to propagate, in a permaculture-type garden (and in my temperate, almost subtropical climate in Australia). Some are edible and some are not. And others might be classified as ‘edible’, but I wouldn’t eat them unless I was starving on a desert island and they happened to be growing there.

Firstly I’d like to point out that I only have formal qualifications in animals, not plants. So don’t take my word for it. But I have been a gardener for a long time and I have spent many hours reading gardening books and magazines and watching gardening shows on telly (I think Kosta and Peter are pretty special – my apologies if you live outside Australia and haven’t the vaguest clue who Kosta and Peter are but trust me, they’re gardening heroes in my neck of the woods).

Here’s my list:

Queensland Arrowroot (Canna edulis)

Arrowroot is an attractive plant with large, green leaves and occasional (but beautiful) scarlet flowers.  The leaves are used for animal fodder and mulch.  The plant produces a large tuber, which can be cooked and eaten in similar ways to potatoes (roasted is my favourite) and also made in to flour.  (Although I’ve heard the rewards are disproportionate to the effort with regard to the latter.) It is the tuber which is planted and divided for propagating (too easy).  Like all good Queenslanders, arrowroot is remarkably tough and likes a warm climate. I recently had a bucket full of tubers sitting out in the hot weather for a couple of months yet they were still producing new shoots.  I planted them two weeks ago in the most horrible, compacted, dry (due to lack of watering) clay soil and the plants have already shot up to 20-30cm above the ground. So although they apparently like fertile soil and ample water (even waterlogged areas) they survive with sheer neglect.  Despite this I haven’t found them to be weedy perhaps because their spread is slow and the plants can easily be removed by way of the large tubers. Actually, when planted en masse and in a row, arrowroot can act as a weed barrier and will also protect other plants from wind and sun.

Comfrey (Symphytum Officinale)

Comfrey is one of those plants that gets me excited.  If you were to judge it on outward appearances you might think it was a nasty, prickly weed.  But it is wonderful and produces the most nutritious organic matter for the garden, by way of mulch, compost or liquid fertiliser (just add water and a few weeks).  Comfrey can be eaten in moderation, and is particularly beneficial for chooks.  I’m yet to sample the infamous comfrey fritter, though. There seem to be two schools of thought on its gastronomic merits: one that says it tastes just lovely, with a slight fishy flavour (which does nothing whatsoever to tempt me) and another that says don’t even bother! Comfrey is another robust plant and after being cut back, the leaves will regrow in a matter of weeks depending on the time of year (about 4 weeks to reach maximum size in the current warmth of summer at my place).  If planted close together it can be used as a weed barrier, for example, along the edge of a garden bed. Once it is planted in a particular location comfrey can be tricky to remove, as the plant will regrow from any little pieces of root that remain in the soil.  So plant it in a spot where it’s welcome to stay for a long while.

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Lemongrass (Cymbopogon species)

Another excellent mulching plant which is also hardy.  It grows to around 1m high and forms a large clump.  The plant is easily propagated by dividing up the clump or digging out smaller sections of roots from the main plant then replanting those.  Because of the strong clump that is formed, lemongrass can be a useful edging or barrier plant, to stop weeds getting past or to act as an informal border to a garden bed. It is happy with average soil and little water.  And I don’t think I need to inform you of its fabulous culinary reputation!

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Tamarillo (Cyphomandra betacea)

Tamarillo is a small, fast-growing tree that produces a bounty of delicious fruit of the same name.  I usually describe these as being a cross between a tomato and passionfruit.  Tamarillo trees begin fruiting within two or three years of planting, but only live for around five to seven years. So it’s generally recommended to plant more trees every three years.  They can be grown from seed (very easy to collect) or cuttings.  They are a must-have fruit tree for a warm climate.

Blueberries (Vaccinium species)

We planted nine blueberry bushes along the front of our house when we first moved here and now I consider that a wise investment. They started fruiting for us in their second year, and since then we have picked bucketfuls of berries each spring.  The bushes grow quickly and are relatively resistant to pests and diseases but they do need reasonable watering and regular additions of organic matter to produce yummy berries. Mine conveniently live adjacent to the comfrey row, so every now and then I simply pull off gloved handfuls of comfrey leaves and pile them around the base of each bush.  And since they like acidic soil, they get treated to our coffee grounds, too.  A plant that likes coffee has got to be super cool, don’t you think!? But one of my favourite things about growing my own blueberries (or any berries for that matter) is that it saves me from buying them in little plastic containers.  And I can eat handfuls of them at a time without feeling guilty about over-spending! Of course birds like to eat beakfuls of them at a time.  So you might want to cover them with a wildlife-friendly netting, such as Vege Net, which I purchased from Green Harvest. It ensured we actually had some blueberries left for ourselves this year.

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Salvias (Salvia species)

Of all the flowering perennials I have a soft-spot for the salvias.  I grow several varieties around my garden and they never fail to give me a warm, fuzzy, plant-loving feeling.  Salvias are drought tolerant and grow quite fast and easily from cuttings. I have been known to just stick a salvia cutting into the ground rather than bothering with a pot; that’s how readily they produce roots. So if you haven’t propagated plants via cuttings before, salvias are an excellent starting point.  Salvias are useful for attracting beneficial insects such as bees and for just looking pretty. Many are also culinary herbs – common sage (Salvia officinalis) is probably the most widely known.  My favourite though is pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) because it does actually smell and taste of pineapples (perfect for adding to cool summer drinks) and produces a gorgeous scarlet flower for much of the year.

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Here is a list of some other plants that I reckon are fabulous to grow in an organic or permaculture-style garden:

  • Gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) – grows from seed, on a vigorous, annual vine; the fruit can be eaten when small but I like to let them grow into giants that become unique ornaments and vessels when dried.
  • Luffa (Luffa aegyptiaca) – grows easily from seed on an annual vine.  And yes you can make your own luffa scrubbers with the fruit!  One plant will provide you with enough luffas for a few years, depending on how much you utilise them.  Not only are they fabulous exfoliators, they also make useful compostable cleaning scrubbers eg,for washing the dishes.
  • Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) – self seeds readily but not too far from the parent plant because the seeds are quite large. A pretty ground cover with a long flowering period.  The flowers are a lovely addition to salads and the green seeds can be pickled and eaten as a caper substitute.

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  • Aloe (Aloe vera)- I keep this handy in a pot on the verandah, ready to break open a leaf and apply the magic soothing gel as required to insect bites and minor burns.  It actually appreciates being sheltered from the sun in summer so being near the front door suits us both. Being a succulent it tolerates minimal watering.

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  • Globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus)- a survivor and easily propagated by dividing plants.  And of course absolutely delicious!

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  • Rosella – heat-tolerant and easily grown from seed.  Makes the best jam you will ever try!

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  • Scented geranium (Pelargonium species) – scented geraniums are easily propagated from cuttings, hardy and drought-tolerant with pleasant fragrances that vary amongst the species.

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  • Coneflower (Echinacea species) – coneflowers are survivors and their flowers are just divine. Excellent bee-magnets!

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If you live in Australia, I realise now is not the ideal planting time by any means.  Many parts of the country have been getting sizzled by the heat for the past week and I’m sure there’s more of that to come.  And I’d imagine if you reside in the northern hemisphere now might not be a wonderful time to plonk innocent seeds or vulnerable cuttings into the soil either.  Nevertheless I hope I’ve given you some ideas for planting in the upcoming milder seasons.  Bring on Autumn and Spring!

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Home for the Holidays

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I couldn’t resist including a little typewriter love in this post – a packing list for last week’s holiday.  To my old house.  Sounds exciting doesn’t it!?

An odd list of holiday necessities it would seem.  Secateurs?  Boxes of cushions? Actually it wasn’t exactly a holiday.   The purpose of our trip was to make preparations for our eventual return to our property and for the arrival of a special house sitter.  There was lots of work to do.

But there were lots of sweet surprises to be had too.  Like the abundance of flowers in my garden despite the fact that it’s winter.   My resourceful preschooler set about collecting them (edible ones only) to make various exotic teas.  (Nasturtium or calendula tea, anyone?) I showed her the delightful red pineapple sage flowers and hinted about their sweet nectar contents.  Needless to say Miss L kept herself occupied with those for a long while.

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Our old vintage rocking horse became a surrogate pet for the week.  ‘She’ was lavished with various garden treats including nasturtium leaves and flowers, of which we have an abundance.  Thanks to my nasturium planting method of throwing handfuls of seeds onto the general designated area and hoping they will eventually germinate.  And of course now they self-seed quite happily.  This could be a problem. But I’ve noticed that as the seeds are too large to be dispersed by wind (they’re about pea size) they tend to fall close to the parent plant rather than spreading all over the garden.  Which is very good of the nasturtium.  (In contrast to the lemon balm which I mistakingly planted in a front garden bed and now discover popping up anywhere there’s a bit of soil.)

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While Miss L was busy with plants and animals I found myself taking pseudo-holiday snaps in between wiping out the kitchen cupboards, unpacking boxes and blindly assembling the timber bunks which I bought second-hand on ebay.  ‘Blindly’ refers to the fact that the bunks came minus instructions…so it was a joyful exercise.  As you can imagine.  (And thank you, Mum, for your amazing dedication, perseverance, and skill.)

The sunny calendulas below were shot in a hurry – those little feet were  getting into a suitable position for flower-picking.  I had to be quick!

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This bright but delicate fungus was growing on a timber log that informally edges the front garden.  It was quite tiny.  But look at that colour!  Nature is incredible, isn’t it?

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And this beauty was  in a pot amongst the other orchids that were given to me by my mother-in-law a few years ago.  Living in absolute neglect.  What a perfect welcoming gift from my home itself.

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Getting Kids’ Hands Dirty…In the Garden

I’m not sure what incited my passion for gardening.  Perhaps it was the special times spent in my great grandmother’s sprawling garden with its tasty fruit and vegies, and delightful flowers at every turn.   Or the array of potted succulents and flowering perennials at Grandma’s back door that cheerfully greeted me on arrival. Or joining my dad in his vegie plot when I was just a wee one.  Maybe it was the little vegie and flower garden that my first-grade classmates and I created in primary school.   Probably ‘all of the above’ is how I came to be a green thumb.  Growing plants (especially edible ones) has excited me for as long as I can remember and I have many fond memories of being amongst them.

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I totally agree with Australian gardening legend Peter Cundall, that gardening is super beneficial to our health – not only from a physical aspect, but also for the mind.  And there’s the bonus of nourishing your body with a bounty of fresh fruit and vegies from the edible garden.   Whether you’re four-years-old or eighty-four, the merits of gardening hold true.    Encouraging kids when they’re small will help to start them on this wonderful journey.

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Here are some ideas on how to pass on the gardening bug to kids:

– Garden with your kids from their very beginning.  My daughter joined me in the garden as a newborn –  carried in a sling, resting in the pram or on a blanket.

– Provide child-sized tools and gloves.  Miss L has shown a heightened interest in gardening since receiving some lovely gardening tools for Christmas last year!

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– Give your child her own garden area, whether it’s a small pot or an entire raised vegie bed.  Making a sign for this, eg, ‘Sophie’s Patch’ can also be a fun activity to do together.  With some gentle guidance and depending on her age, allow her to choose what is planted and to do the planting herself (again with some help if needed).  Try to avoid the urge to take over.  For younger kids you might let them pick from a selection of seeds that you’ve chosen based on season and ease of growing, show them how to sow the seeds and help them to do it.  Older kids could be given the task of choosing suitable seeds and then planting these themselves.

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– Try to keep gardening sessions short.  Take your child’s cue – if he tells you he’s had enough then it’s time to stop.

– Develop their sense of wonder for the natural world.  Whenever you or your child sees something noteworthy in nature, even if you’re just walking along a suburban footpath, take the time to stop, examine closely and show interest and amazement: ’Wow!  Look at that caterpillar!  I wonder why it’s covered in all those hairs?’…’Can you see that bird over there?  The one with the white cheek and red face.  What other colours can you see on its body?’…’Oh fabulous!  Look at all these worms I’ve uncovered!  They are doing such a wonderful job keeping the soil healthy for our plants to grow!’…’Come and see!  Our beans have sprouted!’   You might feel that you’re sounding a bit like the late Steve Irwin, but your kids will pick up on your enthusiasm.  (I’ve no doubt Steve converted thousands of viewers into serious nature-lovers with his contagious passion)!  This helps kids learn to appreciate and even love, the many critters they might come across whilst gardening, that might otherwise incite fear or disgust and also keeps them interested in the biology of what is happening in the garden.

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– Avoid pressuring your child to garden…if they don’t want to garden at a particular time, that’s fine.  And try not to worry (at least pretend you’re not concerned) when the seeds aren’t in perfect little rows and neatly spaced, or they are planted a little too deep, or your child pulls out a young vegie seedling thinking it’s a weed!

– Do some gardening-based craft.  Decorate old containers (tin cans, canisters, cups) to be used as pots.  Make a scarecrow.  Paint rocks for signs and decoration. Create garden sculptures.

– Read about gardening…together…no matter how young (or old) your kids are.  We especially like The Australian Women’s Weekly Kids in the Garden, by Mary Moody and The Little Gardeners Guide, by Niki Horin.  But even your regular gardening books, magazines and catalogues can capture children’s attention as they are filled with lovely, colourful and often fascinating pictures.

– Harvest and eat your produce together.  Allow kids to help with the preparation, even if it’s just washing the carrots or lettuce.  Little hands are also ideal for fiddly jobs like shelling peas!

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I’m pretty sure my daughter, at four years of age, has caught the gardening craze.  Miss L chose The Little Gardeners Guide for us to read this morning.  On our walk she noted our neighbour’s lawn still hadn’t grown properly over a little defect that they’d filled with soil recently.  When we returned home Miss L insisted she go outside and water the plants, even though the soil was still wet from this morning’s downpour.  Then Miss L asked if she could plant some seeds.  Which she did.  Not before gathering her entire gardening tool collection and donning gardening gloves and hat…and treating the soil to lashings of home-made compost.  I’m pretty stoked that my daughter loves gardening.  But what made me smile tonight was that Miss L not only devoured all of her vegies at dinner, but she also ate the little mound of mint leaves on the side.  And declared them to be ‘delicious’.  I shouldn’t be surprised.  She  grew them herself!

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