Saturday, February 12, 2011


You may have noticed a rather large gap in my blog posts…. Extremely bad form I know.  My intention was to prepare a few  tasty blogs well in advance so I could regularly post at least one or two per week.  I have no shortage of food ideas but they sit in my draft blog files waiting for appropriate photos and illustrations to be uploaded.  Add to that, when spring was almost upon us, I decided I wanted to create a kitchen garden. I’ve always been a pretty keen gardener but with a bunch of kids, work and the usual distractions I have simply not had the time to devote to a proper kitchen garden. My partner’s never been that keen on the idea either, and without a bit of muscle, I could it see it all being a lot of hard work for me alone...

Well things have changed and the other half was suddenly keen on the idea. I have had a concept in mind for some time, formulated a few years ago when we planted 9 fruit trees in the area I had envisaged for the kitchen garden.  These poor fruit trees have sat in lonely isolation like little lost soldiers ever since….

After some initial thought as to the layout, the first thing we did was build three big compost bins out of recycled timber. They are enormous and it will take several months to fill one, but once I get my chooks (another story!) and get serious with our green waste and composting in general, we should fill them and will be able to recycle our waste into the vegetable garden. We completed the bins in a weekend and felt all the better for the hard work.

The plan was to build raised beds using old railway sleepers with gravel paths between. It is important to buy non-treated sleepers for use in the vegetable garden.  Some sleepers were treated with creosote to prevent termite invasion, but the creosote is poisonous and definitely not suitable for use near a food source such as the kitchen garden. After dinner one evening, and over a glass or two of a very nice Barossa Shiraz, I drafted on paper, the layout of the garden beds with the fruit trees - lemon, lime, two blood orange, a native finger lime, a fig, two peach (I thought one was a nectarine), and a bay tree - at the centre of each grid. As the construction involved heavy lifting, I knew I would have a small team of workers assisting at short notice (we run a construction company so ‘spares’ come in handy occasionally), and a reasonable plan for them to work from would be essential.

So from the first draft I prepared a coloured diagram which was definitely not pretty, but served it’s purpose well. The colour coding meant it was clear to everyone where the trees were, where the gravel went, and where the garden beds were to be constructed. I was hoping to garden organically so we laid thick wet newspaper at the bottom of each bed and imported virgin soil of top to fill the raised beds and we raided the horse paddock over our back fence for some well rotted manure.  It took several trips in my ride-on-mower and little trailer, to move about 3 cubic metres of manure which I then dug into the beds.

Once the beds were all in place and filled, we laid about 100mm of decomposed granite on top of the grass to create the intersecting paths, which we then compacted with a vibrating plate. The gravel goes quite hard and generally resists weeds. It’s also a lovely natural colour and will allow easy access with a wheelbarrow around the beds.

The next job was to build a fence to keep thieves out. Hares that is, not humans. I’ve never really seen many hares before and they are quite funny looking.  Certainly not as cute as rabbits.   If we arrive home late at night, they look very comical hopping down the lane in the car headlights, with their big hind legs and bums up in the air. Our golden retriever Fletcher, is the garden guard, and patrols each night. His energies are supplemented by the occasional fresh snack – of hare. I’ve seen the odd hairy-hindquarter lying around the garden, so he’s an effective guard and has recently packed on a few kilos (weighing in at 46kg). Of course my girls are all horrified by this wanton display of carnivorous activity in our otherwise placid and gentle dog, but it’s natural after all, a bit like the kitchen garden, and saves on doggie food miles… The vet actually suggested we cut back his dried food by 50% so he’s becoming pretty cheap to maintain thanks to the hares.

The garden took shape over several weekends and after much deliberation, I decided on a hardwood fence of 125mm pointed posts with 4 x 125 x 50mm recycled hardwood rails (much like our external garden fence) finished with 2.5cm thin gal wire to keep the night-time marauders out. We placed a sleeper boarder about 500mm around the outside, so we could simply mow the edge. My now enthusiastic partner got a little carried away and sprayed roundup to kill the grass between the fence and sleeper boarder, and I was of course quite disappointed in this breach of organic protocol but soldiered on all the same.

These perimeter beds such as the one to the right, is devoted to 'fruits rouges'. Plantings of blueberry bushes, a redcurrants, ligonberries (a cross between blackberries and raspberries) a thorn less blackberry and four raspberries bushes. This weekend I planted strawberries in baskets on the top fence rail. After some heavy late spring rains, we topped this bed with thick newspaper, and straw. We’ll top that with mushroom compost late next winter, prior to planting a little hedge around the edge. 

Initially I started digging everything with my trusty spade, but when the other-half finished his extensive carpentry work, he decided that was too much trouble and needed a ‘proper tool. I must admit it our new little rotary hoe, he does a day’s hard labour in half an hour and will come in handy as we prepare to replant the beds.

Out front, we built an arbour to frame the entry, and have planted the only non-edible plants in the kitchen garden so far: a pretty climbing white rose which will ramble the entrance. On either side I think I will plant small single trunked pear trees which will be espaliered to maximize and allow easy harvest in the minimal space. The process is illustrated below by, where I will buy my bare rooted stock – Faccia Rose, Corella and San Giovanni next year. I might do almonds on one side but these will be a pretty long term commitment as they take several years to fruit.

On the sunny north western side, I have planted a few different varieties of passionfruit, and there is one bed at the rear (semi-shaded, facing north east) which will have some root perennials such as turmeric, ginger, galangal, horseradish and wasabi. A local restaurant, the Hungry Duck at Berry, has a beautiful kitchen garden, and owner Dave Campbell has promised to swap some horseradish roots for some my finger limes if I don’t have any luck.  We love David’s modern Asian menu, and dining in the garden in the warm summer weather is a real treat.

Under my dripping tank tap, I filled a half wine barrel with water, planted some watercress in a plastic pot, and submerged it in the water where it will happily flourish.

The vegetable beds have been planted in a five bed rotational system. Rotated in the appropriate order, one group of plants either depletes or enriches the soil for the following group of vegetables.  Bed 1 is for Brassica's and legumes (broad, borlotti, and baby green and French yellow beans, and peas cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage. In bed 2 are root crops and alliums. Potatoes have a long bed along one side to themselves and are now ready for harvesting. I planted planted Kipfler, Desiree, Nicola, and Sebago varieties so we have floury, waxy and general purpose varieties. Down the other end are a bunch of yellow and green/black zucchini’s. The male flowers are picked for stuffing (ricotta, fried and chopped sage, lemon zest, pine nuts, salt and pepper). The female flowers which are not picked grow to maturity. We had an abundance yesterday so I made a zucchini slice. The Cucurbits (pumpkin, cucumber and watermelon) have a wide bed along the back of the kitchen garden where they can ramble away.  Corn is planted down one side, with perennial asparagus to the inside, as well as a few rhubarb crowns. There are also some leeks, and Swiss chard in a variety of colours. A fifth bed is dedicated to solanaceae (eggplants, chilli, and capsicum). Outside I planted a Lemon Verbena shrub (Aloysia Citrodora) which grows 2-4 metres and was too large for the veggie patch.

There is a dedicated tomato bed, lettuce bed, and several small beds dedicated to herbs. One small bed is dedicated to herbal teas including German chamomile, Moroccan tea, Lemon Balm and some Stevia Rebaudiana – one leaf infused in teas makes a whole pot sweet without the addition of sugar. I am also after some black peppermint which has attractive red and green leave to complete the tea pot/bed.

Another small bed is for Asian herbs: lemon grass, Vietnamese mint and Thai basil. Another is dedicated to coriander which I can never grow enough of.  There is a sage bed including the pretty purple one, and another bed devoted to several varieties of thyme. There are chives and garlic chives for stir fries, and a bed of delicate chervil, and garlic under plants the bay tree. A companion planting of basil is scattered amongst the tomatoes along with flat leaf parsley and there is marjoram and sorrel in large terracotta pots. I also put some French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) in with the thyme so I can find it. I have planted several previously and they get accidentally ripped out along with the weeds.  I’ve a large established rosemary bush in my original herb garden but will grow lots more so I can harvest the stems for lamb skewers, as well as the leaves for roast potato and lamb.

I want to plant a mini hedge around the outside boarder, and am thinking of Korean box for a nice year round green. the neat little hedge will provide some permanent structure during dull winter months and some of the overgrown summer weeks.   I’d also like to try some sweet cicely which can be used when cooking acidic foods like rhubarb. With the additional of a few leaves, you can apparently cut down the sugar required by half.

While I said earlier that the entire garden is edible, this doesn’t mean we don’t have flowers. We have grown some marigolds and edible nasturtiums (flowers and leaves) to encourage friendly bugs. I’ve planted some pretty borage at the edge of the cucurbits.   From past experience I know it can spread like crazy so I’ll be careful with it, but the are pretty flowers and are lovely to freeze in ice cubes to add to a summer Pimms punch.  There are also a few roses I’d like to add if I can find a spot.  Rosa mundi for rose petal jam or sauce and Rosa Gallica ‘Versicolor’, the petals of which are edible.  There is French and English Lavender used as companion planting to stone fruits, which are said to encourage good bugs as well as being used in herbs de Provence and in delightful lavender ice cream. I didn't manage to sew sunflower seeds this year, but will next summer, and we’ll also make a scarecrow to keep the birds away from my precious figs which I have under-planted with strawberries.  I am not certain the scarecrow will work, but my number one young helper Tylah, will certainly love it.

It’s a while since I have grown strawberries and I had forgotten how much birds love them. I read a tip in Harvest, by Meredith Kiting, which suggested putting the baby fruit into glass jars for protection as they ripened. As you can see, it worked a treat. The only additional tip I would add is to ensure the jar is able to drain. Recently after a series of heavy rainstorms, my strawberries were sitting rotting in a half filled a jar of water!

As a vegetable garden novice it all seems to be going remarkably well and after only a few short months, we have an abundance of produce already.  The heirloom tomatoes: green zebra, black krim, Principal Borgesse and a few others, were absolutely bursting with real flavour.  Dealing with that abundance was interesting in itself, and my first efforts at preserving were quite successful. 

The garden has been pretty hard labour but an absolute labour of love. I can’t wait for the changes in season and the opportunity to plant some other goodies like Jerusalem artichokes. We are lucky that we are in a little spot where it gets quite cold overnight, mid-winter, (one + degrees below zero Celsius), so we can plant lovely berries and other crops which need some sub zero temperatures.

Having gotten into the food plant mentality, I have also thought of some more trees I want to plant in the wider garden such as a stone pine (for pine nuts), an English walnut , Chinese pistachio, macadamia tree as well as another weeping mulberry (we have a face and clothes staining baby black one) and a white mulberry  and even hazel and willow to make stuff for the garden. OK, maybe that’s going a bit far but it sounds so much fun…

The final element to the garden, our pretty wire gates, were delivered and installed finally giving the dog a break.