The Space Between Years

There’s a small important gap between the end of one year and the start of the next but I can only find it if I am alone.  This week my days off landed on the 31st and the 1st.  I spent the daylight hours entirely in the garden in solitude, drifting unhurriedly between tasks, collating the year’s stats in my head whilst hands were busy.  It was restful and quite rejuvenating and despite the lack of holidays (sniff) I am feeling fresh at the start line for 2015.

Every gardener knows this special kind of pottering joy – unstructured time, no lists, all observatory powers in effect and at the end of the day, something achieved.  I spent an hour squishing sap-sucking psyllids off a young Acacia Leprosa ‘Scarlet Blaze’ (the only wattle with red flowers and a beauty native to Victoria).  I watered the apples and pears. Mulched things.  Staked stuff.  Netted the young apricots and plums.  In fact four days on I can’t really remember exactly what I did, but I did more of the same this morning. The default activity these days is gardening, which has me wondering what the hell I did in the years prior to age 30 when I didn’t have a garden, or indeed 50 acres, to play in.

This is new:

Herb Garden

Herb Garden

 

This is where the hours go.  Those rocks took some lugging.  I rolled them up the hill, where they’d been sitting under a tree (leftovers from building the terrace).  I spent some money on soil and transplanted all my herbs from their old concrete pots.  Lovely crusty pots are pretty but impractical in summer when they dry out in an hour.  At the moment the herb garden sits adrift on my front lawn (sic) but it’s stage one of phase 14b of the development of the garden and will have a reference when I find 20 cubic tonnes of clean fill and level out a seating area and make a path between that and the herbs. Meanwhile, the basil is thriving and the rosemary died inexplicably and the parsley seedlings fight on.

The other day I was listening to 87-year-old horticulturist Peter Cundall (“when I kick the bucket, they can just shove me in the nearest compost heap so I’ll still be working”) talking about what gardening does for war veterans.  He is one himself.  Amongst many other benefits, it’s the surety of the seasons and the predictability of the plant-grow-harvest cycle that brings a sense of peace, safety and optimism to those who have fought in wars.

This sentiment is beautiful.  Every gardener knows that the soil heals and sorts your head out.  And the predictability of the growing cycle is spiced up by the vagaries of the weather, and no two years are exactly the same – the acceptance of this handily increases your resilience and mental flexibility.  Your 110 olive trees will be lovingly descaled by hand and then defoliated a week later by grasshoppers.  Your carefully planted rare trees will be denuded by rabbits.  The garlic harvest is not as bountiful as last year (more on that later.)  But it’s okay because the tomatoes are going gangbusters.  The ornamentals are thriving.  And the cucumbers, in a turnaround from last year, seem impervious to the 40 degree heat.

26 Tomatoes (and Other Stuff)

26 Tomatoes (and Other Stuff)

 

While I was taking this photo today my neighbour’s father arrived to help his son with some renovations.  He sold my property to me (reluctantly, as it had been in the family for generations) and we got chatting about the tomatoes.  Yandoit is dry, dry, dry at the moment and the opposite of lush.  But the slope on which I made my vegetable garden continues to produce beautifully.  I have spent a lot of time improving the soil, but even still…  Noel told me today that the bulls were kept in this paddock and it was also often used as a night hold for the dairy cows.  Fertilised over many decades. How lucky then I happened to choose this particular patch for veggies (or rather, it chose itself – north facing, already fenced and close to the house – ideal.)

San Marzano in Clay

San Marzano in Clay

 

San Marzano plum tomatoes are the business for bottling.  They’ve been designated as the only tomato allowed on a pizza Napoletana (strict!  love Italians).  It’s early days but I see a lot of flowers – I guess we’ll have to see how the season progresses but I’m hopeful.  And I have the clay to thank.

In amongst the jobs, the watering, the tidying, there is the hammock.  The breath between one year and the next is made more spacious by lying down, looking up. And that’s going to happen next. Happy new year to you.  May your garden grow.

Hammock Time

Hammock Time

 

p.s. 12 years ago I didn’t really know gardens existed and I didn’t allow plants inside because they were dirty.  I still kill indoor plants despite all efforts.  If you don’t like gardening yet don’t worry, it will get you in the end.

In Pictures

That bunch of teeth there is a group of ecstatic city dwellers being herded to their garlic planting work stations in the back of the ute – a nice little thrill for all concerned. Planting 2,500 cloves of garlic seemed to Karen and I a nice reason to get some help. But before they came for the day, we had to turn a patch of grass into a field.

There’s a lovely flat on my patch of land edged by Yandoit Creek (named Hermit’s Hollow on account of the fact that it’d be an ideal place to spend time unnoticed).  It’s in a valley, completely private and downhill from a (broken) dam.  Critically for gardeners, there’s topsoil.  About an acre of arable land will easily do for a four-yearly garlic crop rotation with the sort of modest production Kaz and I are interested in.  If we do want to go bigger there’s a much larger flat a little further along over the next hill.

Craig helped out with a tractor – fossil-fuelled muscle worth many times the $150 he charged.

Craig's $150 Muscle

Craig’s $150 Muscle

The Patch

The Patch

Wanting to do this whole thing as cheaply as possible, we spent a good couple of days gathering generously donated horse manure and spreading it over the ground.  Then Kaz went home to Melbourne and I thought “more poo.”  The beauty of living in the country is that there is no shortage of this stuff, so I went visiting Paul’s shearing shed.

Why the Garlic's Not Going to be Cheap

Why the Garlic’s Not Going to be Cheap

Won’t be displaying that kind of solo enthusiasm again.  Crawling on my knees and dragging sheep pearls out hurt a lot.  Even with an admittedly genius tool – a family heirloom of sorts apparently, which shows what you can do with a foraged road sign.

Shit to Shovel

Shit to Shovel

Another weekend later and after application of gypsum, a little agricultural lime, blood & bone and some pelleted chicken poo, we hoed.  As I drove to the hoe hire place I thought grimly again about fossil fuel and how much of it we were using to grow this garlic.  Hand digging such a plot would have been possible, but not pleasant.  I imagine a future universe in which a horse-drawn plough might again be the norm and that idea doesn’t seem too dark to me but for now it’s a drive to Maryborough for soil improvers and another drive to Carisbrook to hire the rotary hoe.

Karen Getting Owned by the Rotary Hoe

Karen Getting Owned by the Rotary Hoe

Now Karen’s a seriously athletic person but the rotary hoe can get away on you until you’re used to it, so that picture above is not Karen driving the beast masterfully, rather chasing it.  40 minutes and a full circuit later I had a go with less finesse.

Some fencing (thank you Michael) about which I’ll write little because even the memory of fencing puts me in a bad mood – it’s bloody expensive, looks ugly and the process never goes as smoothly or quickly as you’d like.

And then the big day.  We retrieved the garlic seed from Gerhard’s cellar and spent the whole morning breaking up the bulbs into individual cloves – dividing them into varieties, weighing it all.  Something we should have done the day before as it took us about four hours.

Preparing to Separate

Preparing to Separate

Holding on Tight

Holding on Tight

Friends arrived.

Help Arrives

Help Arrives

I stuck everyone in the ute and we got down to the patch.  Garlic doesn’t like getting soggy so the first task was to make raised beds – a bitch of a job frankly, with metal rakes and consistent use of stomach muscles.  After the raking, the planting.  The bigger the cloves you start with, the bigger the bulb you end up with and our champion seed needs space.  So a good 15-20 cm between each and more between the rows did the trick.

Working the Field

Working the Field

Your knees need to be in good order to plant garlic.  You need two men for a gate-making project.  There will be children who make a cubby house of the round straw bale and spread the stuff everywhere except on the beds.  One kid will jump out of a moving ute and land on her head.  The dog will generally annoy everyone and the whole job will get tiresome before it gets finished.  The ceaseless repetition in handling anything larger than a backyard gardening project is a reason for machines I guess, but I really enjoyed the day and I hope it felt like fun for everyone else.  The provisioning was excellent, we drank a lot of tea.

Mulched

Mulched

On a sunnier day a week later I got to planting the last of the seed.  So we’ve got up to 3,000 seeds in varying amounts of Italian Purple, Austral, California White, Hollingsworth White, Rojo de Castro and a tidbit of Mystery Purple A.

Planting the Hollingsworth White

Planting the Hollingsworth White

I reckon the pointy end of the garlic market in Australia will become all about varietals eventually, much like it has for potatoes.  And when you’re small, that’s the market you’ve got to aim at.  But we’ll see if we’ve got any to sell first – and I’ve had a few concerns about the crop because in the last month it’s been quite wet.  And wet mulch lends itself to mould.  I anxiously observed the patch for signs of green and five weeks after planting was rewarded with some tufts.

Five Weeks Later

Five Weeks Later

It’s always like that with seed.  You worry about the little babies.  And then you remember they’re quite tough and they’re going to get up all by themselves.

At Ground Level

At Ground Level

Seed

Well that was a long break for tea.  In between August and now 20 blog entries have been written in my head and then discarded when other things came up.  This morning, after trying to shift a 300kg round of hay and ripping my left calf in the process (such a clean pop of a sound!) I am forced inside and can get some words down.  The jobs of today – the push mowing of an acre of lawn, the hoeing of a broad bean patch, some fencing – will be left undone.

When you’re benched, it becomes blindingly apparent that human resource is pretty much the most important element of rural living.  Having lived in rather pronounced rusticity since moving to Yandoit Hills two and a half years ago I’ve come to a couple of conclusions: that being here is not a one-person job and that being able-bodied is an absolute necessity.

The Culprit

The Culprit

 

Happily, Mother Judy lives at Yandoit Creek Farm with me.  She went away for three months over summer and my jobs tripled and the summer vegetable crop pretty much failed.  (Although we’re still picking tomatoes and basil in late autumn so maybe it wasn’t a complete flop.  Or maybe that says something about the weird warm temperatures we’re experiencing.)  Mother Judy is back now and living down the end of the dairy where Brie once was; she moves at a pace from dawn ’til drop and radiates a contented retiree glow.

Given the unceasing roster of everyday, have-to-do jobs on even one of the 21 hectares, you want something to show for your efforts – something to elevate the whole experiment beyond mere maintenance.  The land is there and so are you, physically fit (!) and mentally curious.  There are arable patches here and there and you want to get some food from them.  You’d like to leave the land better than you found it. Well the regeneration is a whole other (unbegun) chapter, but I have a plan for the juicy creek flats this year and that plan is garlic.  And I’m not doing it alone.

Last year my good friend Karen and I tested out a garlic bed in my home vegetable patch.  Karen has always enjoyed digging up her rental lawn in gentrified urban neighbourhoods to plant vegetables and was after a) more space and b) a beefy project. We wanted to see how well the garlic went, and how we worked together.

Why garlic?  So many reasons.  In a climate with vicious summers and limited water, it makes sense to plant a winter crop.  Garlic is in most things I like to eat, it sells for a decent price so costs might at least be covered, it stores well and most people I know can never get enough of the local stuff.  If we can avoid white rot and nematode infestation with vigilance, good bed rotation and luck, we might have a chance at a healthy annual crop.

So in an effort to build up some seed stock for our 2014 crop, Karen did the research on varieties and we planted a few types last year.  It looked like this:

 

2013 Bed Prep

2013 Bed Prep

Growth

Growth

Italian Purple

Italian Purple

Pulling

Pulling

Tom on Lunch

Tom on Lunch

 

Curing (Next to a Bonus Onion Crop)

Curing (Next to a Bonus Onion Crop)

The Endless Cleaning

The Endless Cleaning

 

We were nicely surprised at the harvest.  And 450 beautiful bulbs of garlic later we decided we definitely wanted to do it all again this year and a lot bigger.  So we ate some, used some of it as country currency to get jobs done and favours granted (like storing it all in Gerhard’s excellent cellar) but saved most to put in the ground.  Which we did this week, and that’s next.

Lessons From the Vegetables

So, a whole summer happened.  Lived the damn thing so hard I hardly got my computer out.  Now I’m wearing leg warmers and making a mental inventory of unattractive fleece in the wardrobe.  As the season changes, the talk around the neighbourhood is all about how  splendid autumn is.  The softer light, a tinge of green in the grass, the windless warm days edged by cooler dawns and dusks.

There was a light frost this morning but I’m still eating watermelon and harvesting tomatoes, which seems incongruous given the temperatures.  And that brings me to the business of the day – summer vegetable prize-giving.   After my first season growing, I’m taking a moment to assess the successes and failures.  I think the lessons have extended past the vegetable patch…

Dux – nerd capsicums.  Look at this perfection:

Pepper Glory

Pepper Glory

Squished

Squished

I am extremely surprised about how good this crop is.  I had nothing to do with it except some pretty good soil prep, a mid-season dynamic lifter application (composted chicken manure, blood and bone, fish meal and seaweed served up as pellets) and semi-regular watering.  We planted too close, but as a result there were few weeds and little moisture evaporation from the soil.  I often chomp on one as I water the garden – usually the riper red, as they have twice the vitamin C of the green.

Most improved – tomatoes get it.  I planted a few varieties, they did nothing.  

Tomatoes Looking Straggly Toward the End

Tomatoes Looking Straggly Toward the End

The heat of early January really got them when they were young and I thought they wouldn’t recover.  In the last month they’ve really come on.

Picking a Bellyful

Picking a Bellyful

Now I’m picking them greenish to beat the birds and throwing them about in salads and on toast.  I haven’t got enough of my own to make sauce and have had to buy in, but I have grand visions for next year.

Prize for effort – planting a variety of melons over a dry summer?  Foolish novelty perhaps, but I didn’t end up needing to buy in water and my tanks are still half full so I’m not going to beat myself up.  Particularly when the cantaloupe tasted like it did. Caramelised nectar.  Memories of $90 watermelon in Japan lead me to look upon this homegrown fruit with amazement.

Sex fiend – there is always one in class.  Overdeveloped and precocious.  Every backyard gardener has a similar zucchini story – each time I walked past this I thought “I must pick that” and the next time you look it’s an obscene monstrosity and you can’t take your eyes off it.  Chicken feed I think.

Big

Big

Non-starter – damn beans.  Sowed a red bean and a white bean (don’t ask the variety, have no idea).  They got to 20cm and then stopped.  Gardening is a very mysterious business at times.

Back of the class talker – I can identify with the basil here.  Never bloody shutting up, this stuff is still growing.  I planted 30 this year so I could make a batch of basil oil, which should keep into the months ahead.

Teacher’s pet – it’s got to be the beets (followed closely by the leeks).  They’re just so well-behaved.  We planted quite a few, they struggled on through the heat and have been pickable for weeks.

Beets Behaving

Beets Behaving

I would recommend beetroot to the novice vegetable gardener; they’ll build your confidence as they don’t seem to know how to fail.  And the leaves are as valuable as the root, which is pretty endearing.

Special prize for fat lady tuck shop arms – the bees.  Neighbour Terry built a hive on my front lawn and I enjoyed seeing them labour about the sunflowers and veggie beds.  A few weeks ago I helped (watched) Terry extract the honey – a pretty straight forward business if you’ve got the right equipment. I got a couple of kilos, which is a few kilos more than I was expecting after such a summer.  He texted me a few days later “doesn’t it taste floral?”  It does.  Quite unlike the strongly flavoured eucalyptus stuff that dominates supermarket shelves in Australia.  Sunflower honey.  Yum.

If I learnt anything this season past it is to get seedlings in early and not pull poor performers prematurely.  I pulled out my eggplants in a fit after they were mauled by caterpillars – now the caterpillars are gone and Pepe’s plants up the road are still producing.  He’s the market gardener so I guess I should have listened.  And try new crops.  I never produced a single edible pepper before this season and as I cradle perfect specimens in my arms I realise that one day I might even have luck with carrots.

Of course I haven’t planted my autumn seedlings yet so it looks like I’m a poor learner. But I am on a good path and have come some way.  Back in the late ’90s I wouldn’t allow plants in the house – “they’re dirty!”  And now, well, tending plants brings a particular serene and earthy joy that nothing else can touch.  If that can happen to me, then there’s probably a similar journey inside everyone.

Things Grow

And then they struggle.  This is gardening in a country ablaze.  Not that I’ve had a fire at my door, but a fast-moving 60 hectare grass fire did come within 5km on New Year’s Eve and that was close enough.  January has been full of days above 30 celsius and we’ve had about 40mm of rain locally in the past four or so months.  Not the time to establish a hedge, vegetable garden or trees, all of which I’ve pigheadedly attempted.

The only two apps I use at the moment are the Country Fire Authority and weather.  It’s all about watching stats, worrying about wind direction, hoping for rain.  Every photo I take in the harsh sun looks overexposed and my feet are taking on hobbit hoariness after hours in the garden.

Having said all of that, it’s not completely grim.  The beehive that my neighbour Terry put on the front lawn is doing really well (despite lack of rain, the heat and not much food about).  I’m eating a lot of ice cream and swimming in dams.  The colour in the landscape is really beautiful.

Layer Cake

Layer Cake

I’ve just polished off a giant bowl of spaghetti with garlic and basil from the garden.  I’m eating radishes and spinach and eyeing up the spring onions.  I have to keep reminding myself that this is the first gardening season of many and I shouldn’t expect too much, better to savour the little edible victories and keep observing and learning.

I have learnt that every job in a garden this size is huge.  New beds means getting in the tractor and rotary hoe (and, let’s be honest, Pepe to do the heavy work).  Planting a hedge seems to take months.  A while ago now I dug 30+ holes for a feijoa hedge along the northern boundary and returning to plant just recently I got all boot camp on it and was out digging at 6am many mornings in a row.  They’re surviving well so far with a fantastically extravagant weekly bucket-watering regime.

The choice of plant is a hopeful experiment, an ode to my NZ childhood.  And I figure if Gerhard and Bern’s have survived for 20 years around the corner then I’ve got a chance here.  The wire protection keeps most kangaroos and rabbits out – save the odd clumsy ‘roo that catches a paw and squashes the damn thing (one shrub lost so far.)

Mass Feijoa Planting

Mass Feijoa Planting

I waited until we got bunny-proof fencing in place to start planting veggies.  So full of promise in September, the fenced area is now unquestionably tanned.

Lush After a Wet Winter

Lush After a Wet Winter

Brown and Proud

Brown and Proud

I’m giving a go raspberries, gooseberries, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, jerusalem artichokes, radishes, spinach, beans, lettuces, spring onions, leeks, cucumbers, a few types of melon & pumpkin, and all sorts of herbs.  The most successful crop so far? Sunflowers.  Ha!  Well at least the bees are happy.

Where Once Was Garlic

Where Once Was Garlic

Now Are Sunflowers (Sheltering Lettuces)

Now Are Sunflowers (Sheltering Lettuces)

When I asked my neighbour and fellow gardening enthusiast Claire what she did in the evenings she said “kids to bed, a cider and two hours of watering.”  I get it.  Years of gardening in the Melbourne suburbs had me a bit smug about my green thumb and now the climate and soil are slapping me in the face.  With just a few plants in the ground I’d rather keep my babies alive with a spend of $170 on 12,000 litres of water than go out to dinner or buy a dress.  Not that I’ve had to buy water yet, but in these next few establishment years I doubt I’d hesitate if the need arose.  For now I’ve got a 52,000lt capacity and apart from keeping the new plants moist Brie and I are frugal as hell. It must be said we’re getting a bit dirty.

Tough Dirty Times

Tough Dirty Times

Demand Tough Dirty Moves

Demand Tough Dirty Moves

Business as Usual

Well thanks for that Brie.  In a single blog entry you managed to convey more information than I’ll probably manage to in posts up to 2015.   And a reader might now even have a sense of exactly what is going on here out in the ‘doit.  Back now to the unfortunate business of writing about nothing much…

It was a beautiful day today.  Everyone in the neighbourhood (indeed, the whole of Victoria it seems) is done with winter.  It has been a long, wet, cold one with very few sunlight hours.  Today the spring sun shone and I busied myself with leather gloves, mattock and wheelbarrow.  It seems clear to me now that I returned to Australia after some decent years serving (& sipping) Cristal on private yachts only to dig dirt and get a farmer’s tan.

Receiving Top-secret Tanning Tips from Farmer Ross

[I’m looking pretty happy here because Ross is handing me my first ever envelope-full of farm income – cattle agistment fee.  39 cows @ $3 a head for 5 weeks.  They kept my grass down and I got their poo!]

The vegie beds are done – dug, edged, paths mulched.  I can’t stop looking at them.

Vegie Beds Sorted

Today I dug 34 holes along a perimeter fence.  There are no photos of these holes as by the time I finished it was dark and I needed to get the hell out of there and take my screaming muscles to a hot bath.

So, upon returning to my comfortable borrowed house I turned the bath on, poured a glass of red, fed the dogs, emptied the fire of ashes, prepped the pumpkin soup and set the timer to 30 minutes.  I usually can’t manage more than 15 minutes in a bath but I knew today’s needed to be a 30 minute soaking event.  Slid into the kitchen at the 15 minute interval to attend to the soup (ever stirred soup naked? feels silly) and raced back into the bath to think about what to write in my blog entry.  And that’s how you get this kind of quality material.

And so to the holes.  I am starting to think seriously about planting and while the soil is relatively soft and it’s not too hot I’m prepping soil for something to screen the estate (ha) from the road.  I’ve got about 20 more holes to do tomorrow.  And then I’ll think about what to plant.  Which, for gardeners, is like choosing which lollies to put in the pick & mix – it is just damn good fun (more fun, say, than digging).

The vegetable selection is underway.  Yesterday I helped Pep put market-garden quantities of seeds in trays in his greenhouse for his upcoming busy summer season.  In exchange for that small bit of labour, he’s going to supply me with seedlings for the vegie beds – enough to feed me, B and visitors.

But first I’ll need to do some exhuming to make space.

Workers’ Strike

When I got to the land this morning I saw these lovely little crosses on two of the vegie beds.  Someone’s got a sense of humour, but who?  I thought immediately of artist Gerhard, who has displayed his abilities with signage elsewhere in the neighbourhood (something along the lines of “No exit road, do not enter” on a perfectly exitable road going annoyingly past his house.)  Same nice neat handwriting.  But no.

Turns out it’s Langley with some spare time and a good line in sly workplace safety commentary (time to renegotiate wages).  Even better, he said he was finishing up early today to go play bagpipes at a funeral.  Bagpipers seem to secure a wide range of gigs.  When I came around a corner and saw him crouched by his ute, midway in a change into long white socks and a kilt I knew he wasn’t fibbing.

Langley on the Pipes

Langley needed to tune his bagpipes before racing to the funeral.  He gave it a couple of goes.  This first clip tells you a lot about a dog’s relationship with bagpipes – Zali’s ears perk up, then deflate, then she makes a quick exit stage left at the first ill squeak.

 

Having removed themselves a safe distance, the dogs settle in for a far more impressive Tuning II.  How he does this on a pack of rollies a week I’ll never know.

 

We made an outing of it and filed in a little procession down to the freshly dug graves.

Raising Pep

The dogs didn’t much care for it judging by the howling, but I have rarely enjoyed bagpipes more.

The Neighbourhood in Fog

Missing Italy quite a bit.  The look, the feel, the buildings, the landscape (the one euro roadside espresso, the food, the food, the food.)  So I was delighted to wake up the other morning to a thick soupy fog shrouding the neighbourhood.  It was Piemonte in winter. I took my crappy little camera and drove around the block.

C & R’s Wine Shed

Vince’s Place

The Old Homestead on the Corner

G & B’s

Sunken Structure at G & B’s

Neighbour’s Renovation

View to My Neighbour

View of the Ploughed Beds

The fog lifted but the rain did not.  I decided to keep going anyway with making the vegetable beds.  Pep’s tractor ploughed over the cow poo I’d collected, and then we threw around some limestone dust, gypsum and blood & bone.

Then I set about heaping the dirt into beds.  The size of the task and the shock of the physical labour made me very unreasonable and I had a little conniption part way in, attributable certainly to too much dirt, too much rain and an appalling lack of fitness for the task.  The work of peasants ain’t for pansies.  After the episode that Pep now (repeatedly) refers to as The Hissy Fit, I asked nicely for some help in moving the mud.

Peppy & Langley Helping Post Fit

Progress is such a mood improver.  I whacked up the volume on Ray LaMontagne (lyrics!) and settled into a nice daydream about his identical twin brother moving in around the corner as I started putting out the rock I’d collected from my hills.

Beds Before Levelling Off

Rock is heavy.  The tops of my thighs are bruised and grazed – a testament to overenthusiasm and an underestimation of the weight of various kinds of stone.  But I think it’s not only worth the work but is in keeping with the northern Italian feel of the neighbourhood and the rusticity of things.

Bit Sodden

I’m halfway there and will finish it this coming week.  If it stops raining.

Special thanks to Pep and Langley for standing me.