COOL COMPOSTING : Composting Conversations Part 3

The ‘Cool Compost Bin’ …..

…….. is a traditional method of composting that uses a closed large tub to contain waste. These are usually made from recycled plastic and can be purchased from a local plant nursery or retail hardware outlet. Well managed, the cool compost bin offers a rich source of organic matter. The container has a neatly fitted lid that is removed to deposit waste material and is open at the base, siting directly on the ground where it drains and easily accessible to worms and micro-organisms living in the soil.

The traditional cool compost bin with lid in place. The bin has been positioned in front of an olive tree which will benefit from the seeping nutrients and worm activity at the base of the bin.
The traditional cool compost bin with lid in place. The bin has been positioned in front of an olive tree which will benefit from the seeping nutrients and worm activity at the base of the bin.

People often talk about problems with this type of bin, especially when waste is soggy and becomes sour, a problem that is best avoided through good management but can also be easily solved. The closed bin is a good performer in urban areas as the lid ensures that flies and birds do not have ready access to the waste.

Because the bins are mobile they are perfect for people who are renting. When you move house the bin can move with you – scooped up into buckets – so can your compost.

One of the secrets to success for the cool compost bin is patience. The other secret is introducing a variety of material and layering the waste to balance the mix. This technique is excellent for the busy person who is time poor and has an erratic interest in gardening.  The mix can be quietly working away decomposing while you’re going about life. The cool bin will offer the busy ‘urbanista’ a rich source of humus when the weather is perfect and they have a window of opportunity to try their hand at gardening.

Friable compost ready to spread on garden beds, worms and micro organisms contained in the compost will recharge the soil and promote healthy growth in plants
Friable compost ready to spread on garden beds, worms and micro organisms contained in the compost will recharge the soil and promote healthy growth in plants

Step 1:  Place your open bottomed bin in a convenient and strategic spot. Consider the route you travel every day; as you walk to the gate, or are leaving via the tram, train or car – near your rubbish bin, collecting the mail or hanging out the washing. If you are making a regular journey past the compost bin you are more likely to deposit waste or ‘give the mix a stir’. I often place a bin at the base of a tree, the goodies that drain into the ground are beneficial to the tree and the worm activity around the tree is a bonus. I also think about where I might be going to develop a new garden bed and make the compost in that spot. When it ‘s ready it’s just a matter of slipping of the skin, scooping off the top third of the compost material and spreading the remaining contents over the garden – easy.

Don’t think of the bin as an unsightly feature to hide away, place it somewhere that is pleasant and easy to visit. Design your garden around the bins, plant nasturtiums and herbs or plants that will benefit from the draining nutrients.

Cool compost bins beside the entry drive, a number of bins allows a time gap between each waste deposit and time for the worms to get to work helping with decomposing material.
Cool compost bins beside the entry drive, a number of bins allows a time gap between each waste deposit and time for the worms to get to work helping with decomposing material.

Step 2:  Once you have found the perfect spot begin by putting cardboard or wads of paper down, placing the bin over the top. Then begin to fill the bin by building layers of waste. Kitchen scraps, straw, shredded paper, pizza boxes, an occasional handful of pellitized manure, grass clippings, chopped up green garden waste. Never put too much of one item in at the same time, a variety of materials and layering the elements is the key to success.  Stockpile a range of waste material close by so you can throw a material into the mix.

Spread dampened newspaper or cardboard over the soil before putting the bin in place, this will help level the bin and create a graded layer when the mix is ready to be collected.
Spread dampened newspaper or cardboard over the soil before putting the bin in place, this will help level the bin and create a graded layer when the mix is ready to be collected.

Always place a layer of straw or dry leaves mixed with shredded newspaper over the top of the sloppy waste, then a handful of manure over the top (this can be compressed or pellet type garden manure that is purchased in a bag from the local garden supply – try and buy a certified organic mix). Lawn clippings are excellent, be careful to not add a thick layer, they can very quickly become soggy or dry if they overheat.   Occasionally the mix will need some extra moisture, sprinkle with the hose or add a few buckets of water and ‘tease’ the mix with the tines of a garden fork.

Inside a compost bin, the signs of worms at work with the castings on the surface of the bin, the straw helps keep the mix moist and controls pest flies on the top of the mix.
Inside a compost bin, the signs of worms at work with the castings on the surface of the bin, the straw helps keep the mix moist and controls pest flies on the top of the mix.

If you want to vermin proof the bin you should do this at the beginning. Before you start place a piece of chicken wire or similar mesh down before you put the cardboard down. This is not an absolute barrier to keep rats and mice out but it will discourage them.

Layering of material is important as it evenly distributes wet and dry ingredients and will prevent the heap from souring. Don’t add material that is chunky, try and chop things up a bit, it helps with the process of decomposition and will speed your compost making.

Occasionally you will need to stir the mix. Do this with the garden fork by placing the tines down into the compost and gently lifting the waste. This will aerate the material and accelerate decomposition. Do not use a spade, the blade slices through your worms – the fork is kind and teases and lifts the mix without harming your little urban helpers.  You could purchase a compost twirler.  This tool twists down into the heap and lifts material, distributing air into the decomposing matter. Either way a good agitate and the mix will be revitalized.

Look for dry spots when you’re mixing – a quick hose or bucket of water over the dry area will help reactivate the compost. If the mix is soggy or wet then add some straw, shredded newspaper or leaves and mix this through, sprinkle with a little coffee grinds and top off with straw.   It you are adding moisture to your compost add some liquid seaweed fertiliser to the bucket, this tonic will also give a sluggish compost heap a boost.

There are two enemies in compost making – when the mix is to wet – or – when the mix is to dry! By trial and error you will learn how to manage this balance to make sure your compost keeps progressing along.

Through this process you will eventually build layer upon layer of goodness. The bottom of the bin will compress and be active with worms while the top might still be quite ‘green’ and loose with new material. I always try and have the mix capped with some straw, it helps control any smells or compost flies and keep things ‘sweet’ and moist.  Push the straw aside when adding new material and reuse the capping straw at the top again and again.

Step 3: Time and patience is required to make cool compost. I judge that it takes between 4 to 6 months to reap the rewards.  When the contents of your bin are reaching the top of the container leave it a while, check for dampness, give an occasional stir with the garden fork and allow the material to settle. You will be surprised by the number of worms that will make their way up and through the decomposing waste. This is what you are aiming for, natural decomposition together with worm activity that will transform sloppy waste into rich humus.

Compost mix with the plastic container lifted showing the graduated layers. The bottom layer is decomposed and ready for spreading. The top layer should be used to help set up the next mix in a new location.
Compost mix with the plastic container lifted showing the graduated layers. The bottom layer is decomposed and ready for spreading. The top layer should be used to help set up the next mix in a new location.

When the mix has subsided a little you can add extra layers – this is especially good for people who don’t have much time. The bin will look after itself between your bursts of interest.

Step 4: I judge if a bin is ready by gently lifting the plastic skin of the whole bin and slipping it up to reveal the bottom. It is ready when there is a healthy amount of black moist humus at the bottom. You will see multiple worms scurrying to find a dark hiding place when you do this. You can put a garden fork into this bottom layer to ‘investigate’ the progress of decomposing material.

The skin of a compost bin being slipped off the mix, the lower layers are always compacted and quite dense. The upper layers will be semi decomposed and perfect for starting off the next compost cycle. Separate the mix and use the best parts on the garden.
The skin of a compost bin being slipped off the mix, the lower layers are always compacted and quite dense. The upper layers will be semi decomposed and perfect for starting off the next compost cycle. Separate the mix and use the best parts on the garden.

When there is adequate humus remove the plastic container and transfer the cyclinder to a new spot.   Prepare the bin as you did in Step 2 with cardboard or shredded newspaper at the bottom and place a little dampened straw over the paper. Using a garden fork scoop the top third of the mix into the bottom of the new bin. This is your compost starter. I compare this to yeast in bread. The starter will make an excellent base for your new bin and will mean you may not have to wait so long to harvest the next round of contents. Always make sure you also transfer some of the worms, they are urban livestock, your little garden workers.

A new composting process about to be started, the soil has been gently forked and paper will be spread before placing the composting container into place. The straw mulch surrounding the trees helps keep moisture in the ground and micro organisms active.
A new composting process about to be started, the soil has been gently forked and paper will be spread before placing the composting container into place. The straw mulch surrounding the trees helps keep moisture in the ground and micro organisms active.

The new compost is ready to spread on your garden. I find I get the most from my compost when I add it to an area after I have forked over the soil. I make sure the ground is moist before I top dress with the compost and I often ‘cap’ the compost lightly with some extra damp straw. This means any worms that have been moved from the bin have an immediate source of food and continue their good work in your garden. If the worms have no source of food they move elsewhere or simply die through lack of food.

Worms feeding on over sized zucchini that have been sliced and placed face down into the compost bin. Worms enjoy soft vegetables and fruits and will devour the material in a matter of weeks. Adding a mix of material always helps introduce balance to the compost process.
Worms feeding on over sized zucchini that have been sliced and placed face down into the compost bin. Worms enjoy soft vegetables and fruits and will devour the material in a matter of weeks. Adding a mix of material always helps introduce balance to the compost process.

A few extra hints

Adding Coffee Grinds: I find that used coffee grinds are an excellent material to sprinkle over the top of the wet waste when you deposit it in the bin. Worms love the gritty nature of the used coffee and it helps to stabilize the mix and controls compost flies.  I collect coffee grinds from a local cafe and stockpile it in a bucket for quick easy access.

Have more than one bin:  I always try and have a number of active bins on the ‘go’. This allows me to alternate where I dispose my waste and allows time for the process of decomposition to take place between deposits. It also avoids souring inside the bin with an over supply of wet waste.  Having a number of bins allows me to rest a bin for a while – I usually allow 4 to 6 weeks from my last deposit before I use the waste.

Do Not Add Citrus or Onions:  This is a rule that can be bent. I believe it depends on the quantity of citrus and onions you are adding. I do not eliminate these from my cool compost but would never add them to my worm farm (refer the the blog posted 23 August 2015). If you use a lot of citrus then I would be cautious and carefully manage the amount you are adding. You might like to try having a citrus only deposit spot and see what happens.  Pineapple is also a questionable fruit.

Egg Shells:  I add these to the compost but crush them well. I collect the shells, wash them and place them together in a baking tray. The shells then go in and out of the oven when I am baking – to absorb the ‘end heat’ – this makes the shells very brittle. When I have collected enough I grind them with a mortar and pestle and add them to the worm farm, use them as a snail barrier or sprinkle them amongst seed in the chicken house for grit. Ground eggshells are also good sprinkled around seedlings to protect young plants from snail and slug activity – the pests do not like the very sharp nature of the crushed shells.

Eggshells, washed and dried in the oven then crushed to a gritty texture, these can be added to the compost along with coffee grounds to the mix.
Eggshells, washed and dried in the oven then crushed to a gritty texture with a mortar and pestle, these can be added to the compost mix along with coffee grounds to ‘sweeten’ the decomposing matter.  Worms like the gritty nature of the egg shells and the coffee grinds.

Animal Waste:  People have often asked me what about my dogs droppings. I have a small dog and she has small droppings but I don’t add them to the compost. I use them as a deterrent for foxes and scatter the dog waste along the fence line near the chicken house. However I have read that pet waste can be used in compost but not on plants and produce that you are going to consume. Save this ‘type of compost’ for the decorative parts of the garden and have a special small spot to deposit the material separate from the goodies that will go on your edibles.

Worm Farming – Urban Agriculture

Adventures with Worms

Worms are natures wonder creatures. These little critters process waste and through natural digestion create juice and worm castings that are high in nutrients. The ‘Castings’ and the ‘Juice’ are tonic for your garden and can be used on everything from veggies to flowers and even your indoor plants.

Deep in the heart of the worm farm the wriggling mass of worms congregate and mass feed on their favourite food
Deep in the heart of the worm farm the wriggling mass of worms congregate and mass feed on their favourite food, these are composting worms, red wrigglers, it is essential that the correct worms are used in a worm farm.

My worm farm was originally purchased for my father as a gift over 12 years ago – it was returned to me when we sold ‘Greenacres’ and has been in heavy production since I moved to Arundel. By trial and error I have developed a system that works for me.

How Have I Achieved Success?

The worm farm is managed as a stack of ‘filters’. The key to a good outcome is to keep the base where the liquid drains as clear and clean of worm castings as possible. This ensures the juice flows freely through the dispensing tap and does not pool and stagnate. To assist drainage I have my worm farm slightly tilted, the dispensing tap permanently ‘open’ with a bucket at the base to catch all the drips. I use 1 part juice to 10 parts water and spread it on the garden in a watering can, often mixed with a measure of seaweed fertilizer as a ‘garden tonic’.

The full multi storey worm farm, tap and bucket at the bottom, trays stacked and capped with lid, hessian sack and a brick to stop the wind blowing things away.  The water can and scoop sit beside the bucket.
The full multi storey worm farm, tap and bucket at the bottom, trays stacked and capped with lid, hessian sack and a brick to stop the wind blowing the lid away. The watering can and scoop sit beside the bucket.

The base is topped with four trays, the top tray is the ‘feeder’ tray and has a lid topped with a hessian blanket. The base with legs (bottom layer) has a tap attached and is where worm juice drains.

The worm farm base cleaned and ready for trays to be stacked on top.  The tap is left open and 'Juice' drains freely into the bucket,
The worm farm base cleaned and ready for trays to be stacked on top. The tap is left open and ‘Juice’ drains freely into the bucket.  Don’t be put off by the black liquid, it is black gold and rich in nutrients.

The middle trays are filter trays. Cardboard, shredded newspaper and straw are spread to catch and filter the juice and fine castings that dribble down from the top layer. The tray immediately below the main ‘farm’ can be quite damp and covered with worm castings. This layer will eventually be transferred to the top.

While the majority of the worms will be clustered in the top tray some worms will move up and down travelling through the various levels via the sieve like holes in the trays.

A middle 'filter' trays with straw and paper catching the worm castings that drift down from the top, migrating worms can be seen amongst the organic matter.
A middle ‘filter’ trays with straw and paper catching the worm castings that drift down from the top, migrating worms can be seen amongst the organic matter.

 

In the past I have had a problem with the fine castings building up and blocking the base and preventing the juice from flowing freely through the dispensing tap. I solved this problem by lining the middle layers with paper and straw using this material as an organic filter. I never have a blockage problem now and only occasionally take the base away and hose it out. The paper and straw eventually breaks down and forms part of the organic waste that the worms convert. The filter material needs occasional topping up and to help the worms along I always use slightly damp filter material.

 

Bottom tray with corrugated cardboard and straw filtering the draining juice and any drifting castings.  This method ensures the base does not clog with castings.
Bottom tray with corrugated cardboard and straw filtering the draining juice and any drifting castings. This method ensures the base does not clog with castings.

 

At the Top Where All the Action Is………

The very top layer has the majority of worms and rotting vegetable material. Worms like soft fruits and veggies. I have discovered over grown zucchini is a favourite, as are watermelon and banana skins. Cut your excess fruit and vegetables and place flesh side down, skin side up – they will devour the core of the material very quickly. I also add semi-rotted straw and finely shredded newspaper, giving the mix an occasional gentle stir. When I am ‘feeding’ the worms I tend to place waste in a clump, on one side of the farm, placing a clump on the opposite side with the next deposit. I am unsure why this works best but it gives the worms time to demolish one area and happily move onto the next deposit.  I would feed my farm at least once a week, however when busy this might stretch to two weeks.  The time span can be longer between feeds but you need to ensure there is other organic matter (like wet straw) to keep them going.

Tasty morsels include banana skins, tomato ends, fruit peels, the cardboard is the the top layer to the tray with a blanket and then a lid with the hessian sack.
Tasty morsels include banana skins, tomato ends, fruit peels, the cardboard is the the top layer to the tray with a blanket and then a lid with the hessian sack.

 

Finally I sweeten the ‘feeding’ layer with an occasional sprinkle of used coffee grinds, worms like the grit. I also use finely ground eggshells, this adds calcium to the mix and helps correct the ph balance in the farm which can be slightly acidic.

Maintenance…….

About every 4 months (sometimes longer) I change the trays around.

I use the second layer and transfer it to the top as the new ‘feeder’ layer. When removing the ‘feeding’ tray scoop any half rotten material into the new tray– I have a plate of tasty worm treats ready – made up of the most tempting waste (banana skins, fruit ends, soft veggies).

A sample tray cleared out and the contents formed into a hillock to separate the worms from the castings.
A sample tray cleared out and the contents formed into a hillock to separate the worms from the castings.  The paint scraper is used to gently push the worms to the centre and the castings to the edge. 

 

I then empty the old feeding tray onto a work table forming a hillock, again transferring any soft scraps to the new ‘feeder’ tray. The worms will move quickly into the middle of the hillock away from the light. Start by gently removing the outer layer of castings and scoop in small amounts into a bucket. Move any worms you collect into the new ‘feeder’ tray, these are your breeding stock and the source of the next generation of worms.   Keep transferring small scoops to your casting bucket. I will often do this over an afternoon, moving between gardening jobs, coming back every 30 minutes or so to remove a few more small scoops.

 

Worms separated from the castings, they mass together trying to escape the light.  Keep these, they are your 'livestock' and will breed the next generation.  The 'Castings' will be spread on the garden.
When worms are separated from the casting they mass together trying to escape the light. Keep these these worms, they are your farm ‘livestock’ and will breed the next generation. The rich ‘Castings’ will be spread on the garden.

 

Gradually you will have a bucket full of worm castings and a hillock of thriving worms, all trying to find the darkest spot. Move the worms to your new tray and feed them with some tasty rotting morsels to restart the cycle. Wash the old tray. I usually do this in a spot where I am about to plant new young seedlings, making the most of the washed castings. Finally line the clean tray with shredded paper and soaked straw and transfer to the bottom of the stack as a new filter base.

Place the worms into the top layer with a few tasty morsels, they will quickly find their favourite place in the top tray.
Place the worms into the top layer with a few tasty morsels, they will quickly find their favourite place in the top tray.

 

Month by Month stuff to do…………

If we were discussing ‘normal’ livestock or pet management we would be talking about ‘day to day’ care. A worm farm will survive on ‘managed neglect’.  Month to month is fine. Worms enjoy a dark moist (not wet) environment that is slightly warm – never hot. I use corrugated cardboard over the top of the waste then cover this with the ‘worm blanket’, cap the unit with its lid and place a hessian sack over everything. By keeping the worm farm in a shaded spot over summer I stabilize the temperature and moisture levels.   Moving it to a place where it catches a little sun in winter does the same thing and keeps the worms active.  The straw and paper in the ‘filter’ system means the worms always have something to ‘eat’.  Feeding with kitchen waste can happen sporadically. If I am going away I put the farm in a shaded spot, make sure it’s topped up with goodies and put a bit of extra damp straw in place. The farm will happily look after itself for 6 to 8 weeks without any attention.  The perfect ‘pet’ for busy people.

 

Worm castings ready to spread on the garden, a small plug around the base of veggies is all thats needed.  Juice is sitting in the scoop ready to add to the watering can, 1 part juice to 10 parts water, then sprinkle across the plants that need some tonic.
Worm castings ready to spread on the garden, a small plug around the base of veggies is all that’s needed.  Juice is sitting in the scoop ready to add to the watering can, 1 part juice to 10 parts water, then sprinkle across the plants that need some tonic.

 

My system is made in Australia. I recently purchased an extra tray to increase efficiency. A similar model can be bought from large plant nurseries and hardware stores. New units come with a list of instructions, these can also be found online – my original instructions had been lost so I went hunting and found the makers instructions.

If you’re starting from the very beginning you will need to also purchase worms. I was surprised how much they cost when I originally purchased the farm for my father. When I set up the farm here at Arundel I collected my own worms from my cool compost heap – it is important to get the right worms – red wrigglers – I call them fast worms. I have ‘gifted’ worms to family and friends – a strange thing to offer but wonderful if your setting up a worm farm.

Making Do………..

If cost is an issue you could improvise with a series of stacking Styrofoam boxes from the green grocer, drill extra holes to allow adequate drainage. You could also repurpose an old esky, bath or trough, whatever your system it needs to be raised and free draining. You must also think about how you are going to ‘catch’ the juice. The system needs to drain to ensure it does not become fetid.

A top up of rhubarb leaves, a favourite food, they decompose quickly and are loved by worms.  Cardboard will be spread across the top to act as an insulating layer.
A top up of rhubarb leaves, a favourite food, the leaves decompose quickly and are loved by worms. Cardboard will be spread across the top to act as an insulating layer.  2 weeks and they will be gone.

 

Worms don’t need a lot of attention – just a little care. One of natures ‘wonder creatures’ they are the perfect pet for the busy household – your own urban farm, the livestock processing your waste and transforming it into liquid magic for your garden.

Happy Farming

 

 

Composting Conversations

The secret to good gardening is good soil and the secret to good soil is compost. 

I have been making compost for as long as I can remember, saving kitchen scraps, transforming garden waste and recycling material that many people throw in the bin.  We all inherit family habits.  Some good, some bad …. Composting is a habit handed to me by my mother and grandmother, a habit for which I am thankful and a family tradition I am intent on handing onto the next generation. I am already educating my grandchildren on the wonders of worms.

The chooks smorgasbord, my little helpers, Henny and Penny, are always about when I am moving the compost heap, scratching and searching for worms, insects and garden spiders.
A smorgasbord for my little helpers, Henny and Penny, they are always busy beside me when I am moving the compost heap, scratching and searching for worms, insects and garden spiders.

Compost is the natural end product of a well-managed organic process. When properly balanced, waste material will break down to a sweet earthy mix that you can spread across your garden beds. It will reinvigorate tired soil and reward you with a healthy garden that is filled with wonderful fruits, vegetables, flowers and foliage. Compost that is well managed will be filled with micro-organisms that brings balance your soil.

At Arundel I make three different types of compost and each requires a different approach.

 1:  The Worm Farm – needing little space and offering liquid food and castings

2:  Cool Compost Bins – requires patience, time and a little tending

3:  Hot Compost Heaps – the fastest method and excellent for bulk production

My coming blogs will focus on each process and the collection and recycling of various domestic waste products. Hopefully it will help you decide the method that is best for your garden. By using all three methods I get the best from my waste and maximize my compost output, but these techniques are not the only ones available. What is important is to respond to your own situation.

Factors that will determine the system that is right for you will be how much space you have, materials available and how much waste your household produces, or can find. You will need to experiment and discover the method, or mix of systems that works for you.

Worms massing on a zucchini feeding frenzy. Oversized zucchini were cut in half and placed flesh side down in the worm farm. Within 10 days the worms were digesting the pithy flesh and within 3 weeks all that was left was a papery skin.
A worm feeding frenzy inside the worm farm.  Oversized zucchini were cut in half and placed flesh side down.  I was amazed, within 10 days worms were digesting the flesh and within 3 weeks only a papery skin was left .

A word of encouragement; even though I have been making compost for a long time I have had failures – a sludgy worm farm, stinky cold compost, strange dry areas next to wet areas inside bins and hot heaps that have turned cold. Each time things go ‘wrong’ they can be turned around and with a few simple steps compost can be brought back to life.

To help everyone along the ‘Composting Road’ I will include ‘Compost Remedies’,  you will learn some fixes from my failures.

My next post will focus on making and managing a worm farm.

 

 

Companion Planting with Garlic

VOLA… My garlic has sprouted!!!

Proof that a combination of warm soil and mild autumn days promotes a spurt of growth before the winter cold sets in.  If you haven’t planted any garlic yet there is still time, you have till the end of May, but the sooner the better.

The first garlic sprout shooting up through the damp earth
The first garlic sprout shooting up through the damp earth

The first variety to sprout was the soft neck ‘Winchelsea Organic’ (sourced from last years crop, I am yet to identify the variety). To my great surprise it was less than a week when I noticed the first green shoot. By week two a row of green spears was sitting upright in the planting bed.

In just a week the shoots are growing leaves and forming rows
In just a week the shoots are growing leaves and forming rows

 

The hard neck variety ‘Ail de Pays du Ger’ has taken a little longer. I began to wonder if they were going to be successful and poked about to see what was happening. I was relieved to find the cloves looked fine and were showing signs of growth. Just last weekend I spotted the first spear and now they are also popping up. Neat rows of plants will soon line both beds.

Yesterday I took advantage of a beautiful autumn afternoon and also planted a row of radish and radicchio between the garlic rows. The purpose of this is to make the most of the space and maximize what I get from the bed. The garlic will take 4 to 6 months while the smaller winter ‘greens’ will be quick. They are also a reminder to water the crop – especially when plants are young.  Dry cold weather is a certain danger for young plants.  Gardeners often lose a crop because of ‘winter drought’.

 

Seed mixed and ready to take out to the garden.  A white bowl helps to manage the seed outside
Seed mixed and ready to take out to the garden. A white bowl helps to manage the seed outside

 

Radish grows very quickly and I anticipate picking some by the end of May, maybe sooner. The radicchio is slower, about the same speed as lettuce, 10 to 12 weeks. I will be picking these through winter and early spring. Both species need to be sown at a depth of 4mm, so make a perfect pair to grow together. The radish seed is largish and easy to see and feel, while the radicchio seed is very fine. By mixing them together it makes an easy task of sowing the seed.

 

Radish seed is very granular, while the radicchio is fine and feathery
Radish seed is very granular, while the radicchio is fine and feathery

 

Before I started I removed a small scatter of grassy weeds, then carefully ‘combed’ down the middle of each row of garlic with my favourite single tine hoe, all the time being careful not to disturb the garlic cloves. This wonderful tool can be dragged along to create a furrow, finding and breaking clods and providing a loose bed for the new seeds to germinate and set roots. I broke up clods with my hand then sprinkled the seeds evenly along the row. First I do a light sprinkle along the whole row, then repeat the light sowing a second and third time. This way I am sure that seed will be evenly dispersed.

The new furrow formed between rows of garlic. Note that seed is divided into two lots for the two separate garlic beds.
The new furrow has been formed between rows of garlic. Note that seed is divided into two lots for the two separate garlic beds.  The gaps in the garlic are where there is a ‘miss’, I will fill this now with an extra clove.

 

After I have spread the seed I then take some of the soil from an adjoining area and lightly sprinkle with crumbly earth to cover the seed. Remember 4 mm is the recommended depth. This is not very much soil, it is very easy to sow seed to deeply. If you sow seed deeply nothing will appear, the seed will not be stimulated by the light and will just rot in the ground. I suspect sowing seed deeply is a regular cause of failure and disappointment.

 

Be careful not to sow  seed to deeply.  Cover seed with a fine tilth and gently firm with the back of your hand.
Be careful not to sow seed to deeply. Cover seed with a fine tilth and gently firm with the back of your hand.

 

The final job is to firm the row, I do this with the back of my hand, gently pressing the soil along the sowing line.

Very few seeds like compacted soil, most prefer a fine tilth.   This allows new shoots to grow upward and break the surface and roots to penetrate down and anchor the new young plant. Take care not to compact the soil too much when you firm the seed down.

The next step is a quick light sprinkle to moisten the fine soil and new seeds. It is important not to flood the crumbled soil, everything is so fine it will easily wash away. During autumn seeds will need to be dampened with a light sprinkle every 3 to 4 days. This is something that depends on the weather and you will have to judge this timing yourself.

The same technique is used to sow lettuce and a variety of greens. Mixing granule like radish seed with feathery lettuce seed is a great way to quickly ‘mark’ the sowing line. This technique also helps to break the surface soil that can sometimes become ‘biscuity’ and stop germination.

In the meantime enjoy the mild autumn days. The light in the leaves and the colour in the garden is wonderful.

 

Autumn colour on a perfect autumn day.
Autumn colour on a perfect autumn day.

 

Happy Gardening

Helena and Frankie

Autumn Harvest, Beans and More

Autumn is a time of abundance, when days are mild and the summer harvest is coming to its end. Our tomatoes have ripened and been picked but the last still linger to sweeten salads. A rogue plant has been this season’s favourite, a yellow tomatoe that is fleshy and sweet. Purchased as ‘Sweet Bite’ we were expecting clusters of red cherry tomatoes. This yellow marvel was one of the first to fruit and will be the last served at the table late autumn. I will save seed and try and grow more next year. Let’s see what evolves. An unnamed wonder.

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Plump and ripe the unnamed yellow tomato

We have extracted our honey, harvested pumpkins and the larder is full of passata and traditional chutney.

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The harvest table with honey, an array of vegetables and chutney.

These last mild days are great to sow early winter crops. The soil is warm and plants can reap the benefit from mild temperatures before the days shorten and the chill sets in.   The broccoli I planted just 6 weeks ago is beginning to head and the first of the dwarf snow peas are ready to pick. Young leeks planted from seedlings are starting to stand straight and will soon offer a first pick, baby leeks for the plate.

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Young snow peas, broccoli, baby leeks and rainbow chard nearly ready for autumn picking

Best of all, I have planted a very late crop of ‘Uncle George’s Beans’. These beans have been growing in our garden each summer for nearly 15 years. They are remarkable. A dwarf French bean they will continually crop if regularly picked. I always set seed aside when I grow them and I’m keen give seed away, they are such good performers.

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The first pick from a late crop. Flowering Uncle George’s Beans will offer more over the coming weeks.

I planted ‘Uncle George’ during early spring but the last crop of ‘Uncle George’ was planted in late February. They are in a spot protected from wind and catch the mid afternoon sun. I picked my first crop today, 375g of beans, with many more to come. I wonder how late they will continue? I know this will depend on the night temperatures over the coming weeks. There are tiny beans and flowers still appearing. I have spread some coffee grounds to deter snails from the lush growth, the tiny shellbacks are always a problem when the weather cools.

This wonderful bean was handed to me in an envelope with just 20 seeds inside. My work buddy and gardening friend, Macka, had been given them by another gardener. He had been growing them for 15 years before offering them to me. According to Macka the beans originate from up along the Murray River. It was his friend’s ‘Uncle George’, a farmer, who was the original grower of the beans.  A chain of gardeners. Growing beans, harvesting the crop and handing the seed one to another.

I cannot begin to calculate how many beans I have harvested and shared from those original 20 seeds handed to me.

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Weighing the beans, just to see how many are grown from a small handful of seeds.
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Sweet red hungarian peppers split and strewn with thyme for baking

Just last weekend we shared a table with friends and I took an offering grown from the garden including Kaboocha Sunshine pumpkin, Sweet red hungarian peppers, Beetroot both red and white, garlic, parsley and a sprinkle of marigold petals.   All topped with a good load of Uncle George’s Beans. Delicious.

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An autumn plate of garden vegetables baked and finished with parsley and a sprinkle of marigold petals.

Dancing Apple Walk – Columnar Apples

A relatively recent addition to our garden that has come into its own is the ‘Dancing Apple Walk.’ This section of the garden helps divide the lower produce garden and the upper decorative garden leading to the house.

Dancing Apple Walk

The apple trees that line the walk are Columnar style sold as ‘Ballerina’, a variety of apple tree that grows as a column rather than a standard apple tree shape. These apples only grow to 2.5m-3m in height and don’t require substantial pruning unlike traditional apples. They are a grafted variety and naturally grow in a column shape meaning they simply require thinning of the fruit and subtle shaping to maintain their structure. Columanar or Balleria apples are not heritage but they are a group of registered apple species in Australia. It a smart choice for someone who is either not confident with the pruning process, or has become or will become unable to physically prune trees with confidence as they grow larger. In other words, an ideal choice for gardeners who are getting a little bit older.

The ‘Ballerina’ species selected were ‘Waltz’ and ‘Flamenco’ – hence the name ‘Dancing Apple Walk’. It is astounding by how well they have adapted to this spot. The crop in their first year numbered 12 apples – all ‘Waltz’. This year ‘Flamenco’ has taken off and has put on great growth. They have also proven to be particularly robust trees, requiring little maintenance and thus far have not attracted any unwanted bugs or needed to be sprayed.

Flamenco Ballerina Apple
Flamenco Ballerina Apple
Waltz Ballerina Apple
Waltz Ballerina Apple

The reason these 2 varieties were planted together is ­­­­for their ability to cross-pollinate. If you just have a single species of apple, they may flower beautifully but they might not produce fruit. Almost all apples need cross pollination to set fruit, other species that need cross-pollination include pears and cherries. For successful cross-pollination of apples you need at least 2 species of apple and importantly, they need to flower at the same time. Species selected for cross-pollination must all fit into the same flowering cycle and be all either early, mid or late season. With no cross over in flowering the apples will be unable to cross-pollinate. It is best to check on a horticultural website to see what the cross pollinators are for the apple variety that you select.

You can plant Columnar apples in very narrow spaces compared to traditional apples. The trees grow to about 600mm round. They shouldn’t be planted directly next to fences as you would an espalier but you could still plant them relatively close and train the tree by pruning off the small rear branches and sacrificing some of the rear fruit to have a front facing only tree. These species of apple would work well as a lower height garden screen, and have the benefit of producing delicious fruit! We planted our apples at 1.2m intervals. If you wanted a solid screen you could plant them closer together, but it loses the ability to enjoy each tree’s individual shape. They will also grow well in pots, but it is imperative the pots are kept watered. No pots like drying out!

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Eight of the apple trees were originally planted along a boundary fence as a hedge. This was until we discovered that the fence line was ‘possum highway No. 1’! If the apples had remained in this location we would never have seen a crop. They HAD to be moved.

The apples were transplanted to their current location during winter when there was no fruit and few leaves – when the trees become dormant in the cold weather. After marking out the spacing the ground was prepared and proper large holes were dug for each apple. We put gypsum into each hole and worked it through, we then used a manure and compost mix through the soil. After that the trees were mulched with a compost mixture. Over the last year to continue their growth they have been mulched, treated with organic pelletized manure and top dressed with sheep manure and a bit more compost. They have adopted to their new home exceptionally well and while it’s not advisable to transplant trees if possible, they seemed not to suffer at all.

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You can buy Columnar Apples bare rooted, only ever buy them in this way during the winter. If you wanted to purchase them now or during the warmer months you may be able to buy them in pots, depending on your nursery. You will pay a premium price for a potted rather than bare rooted tree. 

The fruit from both our varieties, ‘Waltz’ and ‘Flamenco’, tastes wonderful and we recommend them for all gardens, not just where space is limited. At such a young age these trees are already heavy with fruit for this reason the apples are especially wonderful because they are both decorative and productive. It has been a joy to watch the fruit fatten and then colour through the summer.

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Happy Gardening

Helena and Frankie

EVERY GARDEN STARTS SOMEWHERE

ArundelOur garden is currently three years into a ten (or maybe more) year plan. When we purchased our home the garden was dominated by agapanthus and vast stretches of kikuyu grass, really ‘just a yard’. But what that ‘yard’ offered was a league of possibilities and an opportunity to create an inspiring and exciting space from scratch. A garden ‘renovators dream’ was the way we saw it. arundel yard 1 IMG_0225 Lucky for us earlier owners had planted a number of trees and these now form the garden’s main structure. We are forever grateful for these trees, especially the Golden Elm, the shade of which has seen many gatherings of family and friends. IMG_0583 Creating a garden that provides for the kitchen and the soul has been our aim. Hopefully we can show through this website our continuing journey and provide you with some helpful tips for your gardens along the way. IMG_1127 Helena and Frankie