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.