Tomatoes

Is there anything more satisfying than growing, harvesting and tucking into a home grown tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum)?   For those of you who reckon there are 100 things MORE satisfying, I reckon you shouldn't knock it until you've tried it. Tomatoes are immensely enjoyable to grow and eat, and are a dead-set must have in every Yummy Yard. So, get reddy to plant some saucy little tomatoes!

Planting Schedule

Warm: All year (in frost free zones)
Temperate: August - November
Cool: September - November

Position, Position, Position!

If you're looking for a top spot for these big, red beauties, the more sun the better. In really hot spots (G'day to all my mates in sunny Queensland) I would recommend making a wee "tomato tent" from shadecloth offcuts. This stops tomatoes getting sunburnt. A bit like "slip, slop, slap" for fruit!

Everywhere else in Australia, full sun is the go! Try for about seven hours of sun a day, for loads of fruit and healthy foliage.

When you whack in your babies, plant them deep into the soil, right up to the lowest proper leaves, as these guys will root from the stalk. This will make the plant tough, buff and ready to grow!

Talking Dirty

Unlike some other Yummy Yard favourites, (I'm looking at you sweet corn and pumpkin), tomatoes can be grown in a good-sized pot as well as a garden bed. In fact, there are some tasty little hybrids bred especially for pots and even hanging baskets!

Tomatoes love compost, and a bit of pelletised chook poo won't do them any harm either. The best way to ensure top toms is to prepare the bed at least one month before planting time. Whack in some top quality compost, pelletised poo, a nice straw mulch and then count down the days! The tip here is to ensure the soil drains freely and isn't too heavy (meaning not dense and clayey).

Now, tomatoes can be a wee bit fussy with regards to their soil pH, so I would suggest either buying a kit, or taking some soil down to the local SGA nursery for testing. Ideally, soil pH for tomatoes should be between 6.5 - 6.7, and this prevents all manner of hideous stuff from happening, in particular a dirty little disorder called Blossom End Rot. Prevention, as with most things, is better than a cure here, so my tip is whacking some dolomite lime into the tomato bed well before planting (about two months is perfect). Blossom End Rot is essentially a calcium deficiency, and dolomite lime will provide a nice whack of calcium ovber a long period. Don't leave this to the last minute, as it can take a while to become available to the plant. Ideally, if your soil has not been limed in the last two years (and honestly, whose has), it is recommended that 1 handful of dolomite lime be applied per tomato plant. I reckon mix this through with your compost, and walk away for a couple of months! Too easy!

In cooler areas, my tip is hold the mulch until late spring / early summer when the sun has had a chance to warm up the soil. Warm soil will help your big red legends grow like crazy! Tomatoes are one of the few plants which can tolerate mulch being applied right up to the stalk.

Feed Me!

Feeding tomatoes is pretty unnecessary at first, especially if you have prepared your soil well. Avoid manufactured fertilisers for these guys, in my opinion it's a waste of money, environmentally irresponsible and they really don't need it. If you are dead keen to feed, give 'em more compost! My secret is good soil preparation, coupled with the occasional drink of liquid chook poo... soak some pellets in a big old bucket of water for a few days, giving it a stir occasionally, and you're away. I do this every two to three weeks during the flowering and fruiting period!

Stake ya' claim!

Stake your claim with tomatoes! All toms, even the tiny little ones and the pot-bred varieties will benefit from staking. Like me, they have a tendency to want to be horizontal all the time. I love training mine on a bit of lattice or trellis, mainly because I like the look of it. Normal staking involves knocking in a fair size tomato stake or two (ask at your SGA nursery and they'll tell you what it is), and tying the stem to the stake with some sort of material that has a bit of give in it. I use old stockings, (not that I have any, but my neighbour has loads on her clothes line) and be careful not to tie them too tight... you don't want to strangle your toms!

What about the Water?

Never ever let the soil dry out with tomatoes, especially during the flowering and fruiting stages! This causes all manner of bad things to happen, mainly hideous diseases, fruit and flower drop, and plants really susceptible to attack by pests and the rest! That said, don't over water... wet boggy soils are just as bad as dry soils! Use the trusty soil moisture indicator (your pointer finger) to assess the situation! Oh, and as for the other Yummy Yardies... no Greywater on or near your tomato plants!

Are We There Yet?

Well, here's a rough guide... the big fellas take between 10 -14 weeks to mature, while the little cherry tomatoes (and friends) take about 11-13 weeks. The best time to pick tomatoes is... well... undecided! I tend to pick mine when they are slightly ripe, that is, they have changed colour, but are still quite firm, and a little green. This works especially well in warmer climes (hi Brisbane!!) as, if they are left on the plant too long, they tend to over ripen and split, due to the heat!

In cooler climates you have a bit more freedom, and can leave them on the vine a bit longer. Again, watch that they don't get too soft, or you'll run the risk of them being fairly unpleasant to eat. Also, if you are leaving them on the vine to ripen, watch out for stealthy tomato-stealers! Rats, possums, roos, rabbits, birds and all manner of critters love ripening tomatoes, so it's best if you get to them before they do!

Now, my nanna, an ace tomato grower, used to pick her toms when they were fairly green, and whack them on the kitchen window sill to ripen. I got a lot of gardening tips from my grandma, but this ain't one of the better ones. In my experience, tomatoes placed on a window sill can, if it's a really hot spot, warm up too much and blister, which makes for a very tasteless (and very unattractive) tomato harvest. Check out the hot tips below for better ways to ripen tomatoes... still love you heaps, Nanna!

Pests and the Rest

Unfortunately, tomatoes can be host to a plethora of garden nasties, but there are a couple of preventative measures you can take to "stop the rot" so to speak! Diverse Yummy Yards, full of tasty treats and pretty plants, will attract a range of good bugs to your patch. These guys will make short work of loads of pest outbreaks. The other hot tips are a consistent watering regime, and crop rotation. Don't plant this year's toms in a patch where tomatoes, chillies, eggplants or potatoes have been in the last two years... this lessens the possibility of disease. Also, companion planting and tomatoes go hand in hand.

Now, if all this fails and you do have an issue, never fear, Sustainable Gardening Australia is here! Below is a list of common issues, their causes and a couple of solutions for taming tomatoes!

Flowers fall off before the fruit forms - Could be caused by loads of things, including too much or not enough water, not enough light, over fertilising (I tried to warn you), possums or thrips. Check flowers for thrips

Leaves wilting
Did you water your plants? This generally happens when humans are overcome by laziness, or holidayitis! Especially common during summer school holidays.

Yellowish patches on fruit and burnt bits on leaves - "We're melting, we're melting"! If your toms could talk this is what they would say! It's too hot... read the "Position, Position Position" section above for some tips!

Mottled yellow patches on leaves and fruit - Sorry Mum, but this happens to my tomatoes a fair bit! It's called tobacco mosaic virus, and it's spread by smokers not washing their dirty little hands before touching their tomatoes! Make sure your crop is maintained, hygienic and rotated seasonally. And for goodness sake you puffers - wash your hands!!!

White powdery patches on upper surfaces of leaves - Ahh, our old mate powdery mildew. Often caused by water hanging around on the leaves of plants. Try to water the soil, rather than the foliage. Remove affected leaves and put them in the bin, not the compost.

Holes in your leaves - Pretty sure it's caterpillars

Really ugly wet looking patches on the tomato - It's probably Blossom End Rot.

Hot Tips

Now, thanks to my Nan, we have some great ways to speed up the ripening of toms... and it's so simple! Grab 10 or so green tomatoes, and pop them in a paper bag with a banana (not too ripe... that would spoil it). Ripening bananas release ethylene, which seriously speeds up the ripening of tomatoes! How easy is that?

Finally, the best way of storing your home grown tomatoes is on your kitchen bench, away from direct sunlight. Don't ever, ever put them in the fridge, as it destroys their structure and flavour... something I didn't know until last week, but it makes a pile of sense!

Eat me!

Tomatoes are the love apple, so it’s best to K.I.S.S. them and enjoy the homegrown taste of fresh juicy tomatoes “vine ripened.”

So...

Make the salad from the Basil Yummy Yards fact sheet.

Do a bruschetta. Chop tomato, onion and red onion or shallot. Tear up some basil leaves. Season with salt and pepper and stir through your best quality olive oil. Toast some bread and smear a cut garlic clove on it. Pile the bruschetta mix on top. Ahh, the taste of summer.

Throw some breadcrumbs, freshly picked herbs, olive oil and garlic into a frying pan. Allow to heat through for a minute. Add halved tomatoes, cut side down. Move each tomato in a circular manner to ensure it is coated with the breadcrumbs mix. Allow to cook for about 5 minutes. Gently turn the tomatoes over and cook through for a few more minutes. Serve with toast for breakfast or alongside chicken or steak for dinner.

Make the Ratatouille from the Capsicums and Chilies fact sheet.

Chop them and toss through the cous cous Recipe from the Cucumbers page.

Mock Chicken

Try this 'Mock Chicken' recipe. It will take you back to the days when tomatoes tasted like tomatoes!

2 home grown tomatoes chopped
1 onion chopped
1 egg beaten
Salt and pepper
1 cup cheddar cheese, grated
Handful fresh homegrown herbs

Finely dice onion and tomato

Fry onion till soft, then add tomato and cook until starting to fall apart.
Beat the egg and add. Cook till egg firms. Turn off the heat.
Add chopped herbs and cheese and salt and pepper to taste
Eat straight away on toast for breakfast or chill before filling a roll with the mixture for lunch. Also great served with crackers.

Pictures
Tomato pics: Mary Trigger (SGA)


Lizards

Generally when we think of backyard habitat, we think of beautiful birds and butterflies, fantastic frogs, persistent possums and a host of other cute critters. Unfortunately, we tend to forget about one of the most important and most vulnerable of our native vertebrates – the reptiles!

Now, before you recoil in horror, or turn off the computer to watch Junior MasterChef, consider this:  our urban reptile and frog populations have declined enormously since European settlement, to the point that one in four of our 850 reptile species are now in serious strife.

Think that’s no big deal?  Think again. Of the 850 species of reptile found in Australia, 90% of these are found nowhere else in the world, meaning we really have to do something about this rapid decline, and fast.  There are five distinct families of lizards in Australia; geckos, dragons, skinks, legless lizards and goannas, many of which would love to hang out at your place!

Reptiles get seriously overlooked when we talk about habitat gardening, but they are enormously important in a biodiverse backyard.  But, how do we encourage them in, and, more importantly, how do we ensure they survive and thrive in our gardens?  This factsheet is designed to give you a swag of ideas, tips, tricks, dos and don’t when it comes to creating a lizard longue at your place.

Love Your Lizards and Can the Chemicals!
Not convinced that a lizard or two is the ideal addition to your garden?  How about the promise of free, natural pest control in the patch?  Many lizards and little grass skinks feed on insects and larvae, while larger lizards such as Blue-tongues and shinglebacks will happily slurp up slugs and snails.  While we are talking about lizard lunches, it is important to avoid using chemicals and products in the garden that may harm or prove fatal to your beloved lizards.  Wiping out the insect population in your garden with a pesticide may seem like a good idea, but in doing this you are removing the lizards’ food source, and, if they can’t get a feed, they won’t hang around.  Avoid using snail and slug pellets, as these can prove deadly to our lovely lizards!

Gimme Shelter!
To encourage lizards to your garden, provide the following:

  • Tussock grasses, groundcovers and hiding spots in rocks and logs.
  • Protected sunny spots on rocks, logs or brick paths
  • Natural leaf litter to support insects and larvae
  • Logs, fallen branches, natural cracks in soil and ground-cover plants

Lizards need debris that will provide shelter and a bit of a hiding place from critters that might make our lizards their lunch.  This can include leaf litter, wood mulches, twigs on the ground, rocks, logs, old clay pipes, appropriate native plants – all of these give lizards shelter, and provide habitat for insects and micro-organisms, delicious if you are a lizard!

Some native plants that lizards love include: Dwarf Baeckia (Baeckia sp.), Dianella sp., Purple Coral Pea (Hardenbergia violacea), Mat Rush (Lomandra longifolia), Native Violet (Viola hederacea), Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra), Weeping Grass (Microleana stipoides), Wallaby Grass (Austrodanthonia spp.) and assorted Grevilleas and Bottlebrush (Callistemon sp.) to attract insects. Don’t forget to mulch these plants with a nice layer of chunky leaf and wood based mulch (not pine bark or redgum).

Lizards Rock!

Lizards, unlike us, are cold-blooded and rely on the sun to raise their body temperature and keep them happy and warm.  Lizards love nothing more than lounging the day away on rocks, logs or brick paths, but do ensure that the sunning area is protected from predators, and offers lizard shelter nearby, just in case they are startled out of their sunning slumber.  A really good idea is to elevate the rocks slightly, or put them in a little pile so the lizard can slip under it if threatened. Whack a few plants nearby, and you’ve got yourself a Lovely Lizard Longue!

Flat Out Like a Lizard Drinking!

Lizards get the bulk of their moisture from the food they consume, and are incredibly efficient when it comes to moisture retention, however they will happily have a drink if water is provided, especially in really hot weather.  Pop out a shallow bowl, in a protected spot and your lizards will lap it up!

Okay, there is one rule to remember here… if you build it, they will come! There is no need to head down to the local park and collect lizards, and, in most places, this is illegal and can draw a hefty fine, so please don’t do it! Lizards will seek out a well designed and lizard-friendly gardern, and, although it won’t happen overnight, it will happen!

Once they have moved in, you can pretty much sit back and enjoy. Try and keep pets away from your lizards (they do tend to munch and frighten them), and, don’t rake up mulch, leaf litter and sticks too often… this upsets the little ecosystem, and can do more harm than good.

Now all that is required is to sit back on a sunny summers day, and enjoy your lizards lounging in your patch!

Lizard Pictures by Mary Trigger (SGA)


Using Your Excess Lemons

There are two real loves in my life... gardening and food (I hope my partner and parents aren’t reading this!), and I am always chuffed when I am able to combine the two. I was talking recently to my non-horticulturally minded brother, who remarked that his lemon tree was absolutely heaving with fantastic fruit, and I had an idea: "Why not share some of my secrets for coping with the cracking cornucopia of citrus?". So here they are, for your lemon-loving pleasure!

Preserved Lemons

A staple ingredient in Moroccan cooking, preserved lemons are dead simple to make at home, and are a great way to use some of your home harvest. Remember, it is generally the skin of preserved lemons that is used in cooking, rather than the flesh, so the thicker the skin of your home grown lemons, the better this recipe will be.

Cut the lemons in quarters, add a pinch of salt, and then cram as many lemon quarters as you can into a sterilised glass preserving jar. Pop a few of your favourite spices in as well; those tried and tested in my house include cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamon seeds, all spice and peppercorns. Now add a cup of salt, and pour a cup of lemon juice on top (making sure all the lemons are covered). Pop on the lid, seal well, label and date, and then whack it into the fridge for six weeks...it’s that easy.

Lemon Curd

An absolute family fave, lemon curd is a winner, and a great way to use some of those left over lemons. Oh, and if you’re a creative type (this is where I fall down), lemon curd in pretty jars with lovely labels make great gifts!

Makes
1 1/2 cups
Ingredients
2 eggs, plus 2 egg yolks
3/4 cup (165g) caster sugar
1/3 cup (80g) chilled unsalted butter
Zest and juice of 2 lemons
Method
Whisk whole eggs, yolks and sugar in a saucepan until smooth, then place pan over a low heat. Add the butter, juice and zest and whisk continuously until thickened. Strain through a sieve into a sterilised jar. Lemon curd keeps, covered, in the fridge for 2 weeks.

Lemon Curd recipe from www.taste.com.au

Easy-Peasy Lemon Cordial

Another “must-do” with your load of lemons, this cordial is a staple in our house, and a fantastic “mixer” for a massive variety of cocktail combinations!  As they say, "If life gives you lemons, make fabulous cocktails"...or something like that!

Makes
About 4 litres

Ingredients
6 large lemons
20 g tartaric acid
20g citric acid
1 kg sugar
2 L boiling water
Method
Put sugar, citric acid and tartaric acid into a large bowl (or very clean bucket!). Grate rinds of all 6 lemons over and then add strained lemon juice from the same 6 naked lemons. Pour boiling water over the whole lot and mix well. Bottle and seal.

Getting involved in a Local Food Swap

Ok, so it’s not edible, but sustainable local food swaps are a sure recipe to get to know your neighbours, and reduce food miles, consumerism, waste and the damaging environmental impacts of certain types of agriculture and food production. From leaning over the fence and giving a bag of lemons to the neighbours, joining a local gardening group, and attending free fruit and veggie swaps at your local community house/farmers market, there are a million ways you can connect with community and turn your load of lemons into a sack of spinach!

Picture: Mary Trigger (SGA)


Blossom End Rot

Hi, my name is: Blossom End Rot

Describe yourself: Firstly, let me just say that I am not a disease, a fungus, a virus or any of that! I am a disorder... got that! I live at the blossom end of fruits, and appear brown, tough and sunken. I look water soaked, and honey, you ain't seen nothing yet!

Hobbies: Spreading the love... all over your fruit, especially tomatoes, capsicums, eggplants, watermelons and zucchinis! Destroying your crop!

Likes: People who don't water properly, like, you know when you water and then don't water for like two weeks and come back and water again? I love that! I love gardens that are waaaayyyy over-fertilised with nitrogen and potassium, really acidic soils and calcium deficiencies!

Dislikes: Good pH, good watering practices, mulches, wind breaks to stop plants drying out, soil with great water holding capacity.

You'll know you've met me when: Oh sugar, you'll know. If one end of your fruit looks revolting, brown and kind squishy... you've met me! Oh, and if there is little hairs on it, that's still me, but I have bought one of my fungal friends along!

Old School Control Methods: Dumping truckloads of chelated calcium into the garden.

Breaking up ain't hard to do... if you

  • Protect crops with suitable windbreaks.
  • If the soil pH is below 5.5, add lime before planting.
  • If the soil drains poorly, apply gypsum (calcium sulphate).
  • On light sandy soils, apply organic matter such as poultry manure before planting, to increase the moisture-holding ability of the soil and reduce water stress in hot weather.
  • Follow a well-balanced fertiliser program. Apply low applications of fertilisers frequently to limit their salting effect.
  • On sandy soils with high levels of salt, increase watering to leach salts.
  • Water plants adequately, especially at fruiting. Apply more water on hot days.
  • Mulch!!!!!!

Picture: Elaine Shallue (SGA)


Wicking Beds

You know, I’ve been doing this horticulture thing for a while, and over that time, I’ve seen a number of garden designs, products and “innovations” come and go.  Remember the giant scoping rake hands?  What about the combination chilli sauce/garden pest spray?  Even the ever-popular “upside down tomato planter” has me scratching my head a little!  But every now and then I come across an inspired innovation, a dandy design that makes me excited to get out into the patch and give it a go.  One of these I’ve been convinced of this week is wicking beds, and I hoped you’re as interested in them as I am.  And they can be constructed on the soil in your garden or on hard surfaces in a courtyard and even using a polystyrene box.

What Is a Wicking Bed and Why Would I Want One?

So, what is a wicking bed?  Well, as I explained to a colleague of mine, it’s essentially a giant “self watering pot” in the form of a garden bed.  Okay, there is a fair bit more to it then that, but the idea is a garden bed designed to draw water up from a reservoir below, hence “wicking” through the soil directly to the roots.  A system devised by Australian engineer Colin Austin, wicking garden beds (and wicking worm beds) are gaining popularity as a wonderfully water wise garden bed alternative.

Drawing water from a reservoir below the growing medium, wicking beds operate on the concept of capillary action, with the soil and plant roots drawing this water upwards as required.  Essentially, this means that a properly constructed and maintained wicking bed should have nice, moist soil most of the time, with the roots accessing the water as they require it.

Wicking beds have a number of benefits, both environmentally and horticulturally.  Firstly, it’s a great set up for thirsty gardens (like vegie patches) in areas that have lower rainfall, or are affected by water restrictions.  Wicking beds also deliver the water were it’s needed (the plant roots), which minimises water wastage, and can also help to reduce the risk of funky fungal foliage issues.  Also, wicking beds are said to be more effective at sequestering atmospheric carbon than many other traditional types of garden bed set ups, meaning it’s a win for us, and the planet.

The Wicking Bed How To

So let’s look at the nuts and bolts of constructing a good, functioning wicking bed.  Essentially, it’s all about having the right depth, right medium (both for drainage and for growing you plants) and taking a bit of time to construct the bed properly.  It may sound tedious, but you will thank me in the long run.  So where do we start?

1. Choose a suitable site for your patch (full sun for vegies), ensuring that it is level (or you are able to level it) – wicking beds work best when they are level, as this ensures even water dispersal down the track.

2. The total depth of the patch may vary depending on what you wish to plant, but, for a wicking vegie bed, the overall depth needs, ideally, to be 600mm.  This equates to 300mm for the reservoir/water saturation zone and 300mm for the growing/root zone.  It should be noted here that wicking bed wizards all agree that water cannot be wicked further than 300mm, so bear this in mind when you are looking at preparing your patch.

It is possible to use polystyrene fruit/vegetable boxes e.g. broccoli boxes, for wicking beds.  In that case, the overall depth will be reduced.

3. Of the 300mm reservoir/saturation area, about half of this (150mm) will contain gravel or scoria (we prefer scoria since it holds water) and the water inlet pipe, while the other 150mm will contain a soil blend.  Prepare this area first.  If using a polystyrene box, omit the 150mm soil blend layer.

4. If you are gardening on soil, dig a hole to a depth of 150mm, ensuring it is level.  This will form the water reservoir. If you are placing your garden on a hard surface, ensure it is level and move to next step.

5.   Make the sides, so the bed has a total depth of 600mm, including the hole you just dug.   If using a polystyrene box it will, obviously,be less.  Line the entire bed with good quality builders plastic or pond liner, ensuring there are no tears or holes.  To prevent tears in the builder’s plastic, you may wish to add a shallow bed of sand to the base of the reservoir hole.

6. Now it’s time to put in the water delivery system.  To do this, place about an inch of scoria into the bed for the horizontal pipe to sit on. This will act to improve the drainage.  Then, install a length of 50mm wide PVC pipe vertically, attached to a PVC 90 degree elbow the will sit near the base of the bed on top of the scoria you have just placed.  Next, attach a length of 50mm slotted agricultural pipe (this has outlets holes in it) to the elbow, and this will run the length of the bed, along the centre.  Place a cap on the end of this agricultural pipe.

7. Cover the pipe and the bottom of the bed with scoria, to a depth of 150mm.  Cover the scoria with geotextile to prevent soil particles moving into the reservoir and blocking the pore spaces.  Shade cloth could be used but it will allow some soil to pass through to the reservoir.

8. Fill the next 150mm of the wicking bed with a good quality water retentive soil – this will form the “saturation layer” and is NOT where your vegies will be planted.  If using a polystyrene box, this layer is omitted.

9. At the top of this soil level (300mm), you will need to install an overflow – this will allow excess water to leave the wicking bed after significant irrigation events, or long periods of rain. If  using a polystyrene box, this overflow will be at the top of the reservoir i.e. at 150mm. One of the easiest ways to do this is to use a water tank tap outlet, and drill an appropriate size hole through the end of the wicking bed opposite the water inlet.  This is important, and may help prevent the soil in the root zone becoming waterlogged and useless.

10. Fill the remainder of the bed (another 300mm or so) with a good quality soil/compost blend.  We recommend 1/2 mushroom compost, 1/2 organic soil mix, as research and experience has shown that wicking beds work best with a higher than usual compost portion. DON"T use the soil from surrounding gardens, especially if it has a high clay content.  Mulch well with a straw based mulch (to about 5-7cm), taking care not to cover the PVC pipe opening.

11. Using a hose, and in accordance with local water restrictions, fill the wicking bed reservoir using the PVC pipe opening.  You may wish to use an old tomato stake or similar as a “dipstick” to see how deep the water is. Fill the reservoir to about 200mm.

12. Once the soil is damp (you may need to water from the top initially as well to encourage the wicking to begin), plant out your wicking bed with your favourite incredible edibles.

13. Sit back, water less, and enjoy your wicking bed and its harvest!

We know you may need a printout to take out into the patch and get constructing, so we have a PDF for you here!

How To Keep Your Wicking Bed Working

Like all things in the garden, the wicking bed is certainly NOT a no maintenance set-up, and, if left untended for a long period of time, could very easily turn into a sludgy, smelly, salty unproductive mess.  So, some things you may need to be aware of and monitor in your wicking bed over time are as follows:

  • Ensure the overflow/drainage hole or pipe does not become blocked or non-functional.  Give this a good clean out every few months.
  • Be aware that, as a closed system, everything you put into the bed stays in the bed.  Overuse of fertilisers (even some of our trusted organically derived ones) may see the soil sour fairly rapidly, leading to an increase in saltiness.  This is certainly NOT ideal for many of our productive vegies and herbs.
  • Greywater (that is, water from the bathroom and laundry) should NOT be used in a wicking bed at any time
  • Compost and soil mixture will need to be topped up seasonally, as will the mulch.  A good idea may be to lightly turn the top 300mm of growing area with a garden fork at this time, to “freshen up” the soil.
  • Cover the open end of the PVC pipe (the water inlet) with a tile, brick or similar.  This will prevent mosquito larvae from breeding in the tube or garden reservoir.
  • If you have used a polystyrene box you may need to renovate the bed since plant roots may have reached the top of the reservoir or actually penetrated.  Just remove the soil and check the geotextile and reservoir - it is not too difficult!

 


Irrigation in an Arid Nation

Australia is the driest inhabited continent on Earth and despite the fact that we are surrounded by water, there is precious little of the stuff to splash around, especially in the garden. Loads of places are already under some fairly serious water restrictions, many of which impact on the way we water our gardens, and it is unlikely that this will change in the near future. Even if your part of Australia is not affected by water restrictions at the moment, we all need to water smarter, for the good of the planet. By following the points below, you should be able to continue growing gorgeous gardens despite limited water resources.

1. Water where it's needed – the roots!

Watering the leaves of plants is a water wasting exercise. All this will do is encourage fungi and mildews, so it's definitely best avoided! Plants take up water through their roots, so direct the water there, using a large droplet trigger nozzle, watering can, bucket or, better still, a subsurface irrigation system.

Now, before you panic, throw your hands up in the air and declare an irrigation system 'too hard', let us assure you that it is not nearly as complex as it sounds, and it will end up reducing your water usage significantly. In fact, some studies have shown that by using an appropriate drip system instead of a sprinkler or hose, gardeners can save reduce the amount of water used in their garden by up to 75%. That’s an astonishing saving, and the planet (and your water bill) will be grateful for!

So, how do we do it? Well, these types of systems, using either a pre-fabricated dripline, drippers or porous “weeping” hose are generally best installed before the garden is planted out, although they can be laid in an existing garden (just be careful not to tread on your precious plants or disturb shallow roots). To install, check out our handy tips in the factsheet Sub-surface Irrigation Systems.

After installing, check to see that the system is working, and, if all is well, cover the drip line lightly with soil and then mulch. A mate of mine tells his clients to top up their mulch when they can see the dripline, and I reckon this is a pretty good plan, as the time it takes your mulch to break down will vary depending on the type of mulch used, and the situation. I tend to do a fairly thorough check of my dripline system before I replenish my mulch early each summer, just to ensure everything is working as it should be.

Add a timer to take the guesswork out of watering, but remember to turn off the system when it’s raining. Better still, add a soil moisture sensor to the irrigation system to completely eliminate unnecessary watering! Couldn’t be easier, and while it may seem a bit of work to set up, the time, money and water savings make it well worthwhile. Don’t be a drip, install a sustainable subsurface irrigation system!

2. Water in the morning

The earlier in the day you water your plants, the happier they will be. A morning drink allows the plants to take up water before the day heats up. It minimises the devastating effect of the hot midday sun, keeps the soil cooler, avoids wet soil as the day time temperature cools and is a better idea all round! Of course, check local water restrictions before watering – many of these allocate specific times and days to garden watering.

3. Think about alternate sources of water

This ties in with the water smarter philosophy – we can all minimise the amount of quality drinking water (also known as potable water) we splash about the garden. Collect shower warm-up water in a bucket and give this to the thirstiest plants as required. Consider the installation of a rainwater tank, even if it is a small one just for the vegie patch. Don't know where to start? Check out our Sustainable Shoppers Guide to Tanks here.

4. Test the soil before you water

Don't just water for the sake of watering, even if it is your allocated watering day! Test the soil with your finger before hopping on the hose – if your finger has soil stuck to it, the soil is damp and probably doesn't need a drink. If it's dry, water it! This is especially important in cooler months, where watering can lead to root rots, fungi, mildews and very cold soil. Don’t kill your plants with love – and just because it is your allocated watering day, doesn’t mean you HAVE to water., Consider the installation of a soil moisture sensor, it takes the guess work out of knowing when to water, and is especially handy if you have an installed drip irrigation system.

5. Group plants according to their water needs

Plants, just like people, have different water needs. So, save yourself time, effort and money (replacing dead plants) and group your plants according to thirstiness.

Banner image: CSIRO, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35439750


Potatoes


The humble spud... is there any vegetable more versatile than these tasty tubers? Grown around the world, spuds are the only vegetable to have had a year dedicated to them (2008 was the International Year of the Potato) owing to their importance as a food crop in combating world hunger. So stave off hunger in your household and stick in some spuds!

Planting Schedule

Warm Areas: March - August (try planting in the cooler months, so harvest can be completed by December)
Temperate Areas: September - February
Cool to Cold Areas: September - February

Position, Position, Position!

Despite outward appearances, spuds can be, well, a bit fussy. For a start, they can take up a fair bit of room, and are a bit slow growing, so consider giving them a place of their own.  Many folk grow their potatoes in a raised, no-dig garden bed, or a custom designed potato patch.

Remember your Nana growing her spuds in a stack of old tyres? Great in theory, but there can be some issues with this - used tyres have the potential to harbour some problematic heavy metals (like cadmium and friends), which potatoes are super efficient at absorbing.  Now, I like my heavy metal as much as the next person, but I prefer it in my music, not my mash!  A better option is grabbing a few polystyrene fruit boxes, cut the bottom out of them, stack them up (three high is great) and away you grow (see the "Hot Tip" for more on this!).

Our fussy spuds need a full sun position, top notch drainage, and must not be planted where Chilis, capsicums, tomatoes or eggplants have been planted in the last few years.

Talking Dirty

Spuds need rich soil, chock full of organic matter, and some well-rotted cow poo. Like my Saturday afternoon six-pack, spud soil has to be well-drained, so I reckon a no-dig system is the way to go. So, here's how to do it: mix compost with your aged cow poo and some straw, and lay this to a depth of 15 - 20cm in you potato patch, and water it in. Lay out your seed potatoes, leaving about 25cm between each, and cover these guys up with about 15cm of the same mix.

When the little green shoots begin to peak through this mix, put in  another 15cm of your compost, cow poo and straw mix on top.  Keep repeating this through the growing season until you have achieved a total depth of about 60cm.  This gives your spuds the space to grow, and prevents the tubers getting "cooked" or over-heating. Potatoes grown in this beaut mix will be tastier than you ever imagined! Spuds need a soil pH of about 5.5 - 6 for top notch, scab-free growth.

Feeling Seedy

Top notch potatoes are grown from what is known as "seed" potatoes, which are virus-free spud tubers which have formed "eyes". Generally, putting a shooting supermarket spud (found in the back of the cupboard) into your Yummy Yard will not result in anything even remotely edible, so head to you local garden centre and buy the "real deal". Certified seed potatoes are best if you can track them down, as this ensures they are disease free.

Seed potatoes about the size of chicken eggs are good to go as is, whereas the bigger boys can be cut into large chunks that contain a couple of good-looking eyes.  Seed potatoes should be exposed to light for about a week prior to planting, as this toughens them up, greens their skin and gives the eyes an opportunity to shoot.

Feed Me!

Like me, spuds need a decent feed, and have a pretty big appetite.  Organic matter (the compost and cow-poo we talked about earlier) are essential, as is a bit of seaweed tea at planting time. I tend to give mine a diluted seaweed tea when they flower, but, with good soil preparation, that's all they need. The more organic matter in their well-drained patch, the better.

What about the Water?

Just like me, spuds aren't huge water drinkers, and need very little irrigation over their lifetime. In fact, over-watering and poor drainage are responsible for loads of potato pests, so hold back on the H2O. As always in our Yummy Yards, say no to grey water. My hot tip here is to wet down the different layers of mix (see "Talking Dirty") when you "hill" them up, as this will pretty much do the watering for you.

Are We There Yet?

Like all root vegetables (and life I suppose) timing is everything!  Depending on the variety of spud you plant, your harvesting time can vary from 12 to 20 weeks.  I know this is pretty broad, but, when you notice the leaves beginning to yellow (the lower ones first), your spuds are ready to harvest.  Harvesting just as the lower leaves change colour will give you new (or chat) potatoes, whereas late season spuds are harvested after their top foliage has died off.  It's best to harvest new spuds on a meal to meal basis, so ferret around in the soil for the largest tubers and collect, leaving the remainder to "grow old gracefully".

Old or late season spuds are best stored in the soil, but, because I can never remember where they are, I prefer to rip them all up at maturity.  You know they are ready to be harvested and stored when their skin feels firm and doesn't rub off.  Store your spuds in a cool, dark place, with the dirt on, and avoid exposing them to light.  Spuds exposed to light will turn pretty green, and should definitely not be eaten... they are related to nightshades after all!

Pests and the Rest

Spuds can have a fair range of issues, most of which can be avoided with good planning.  Free-draining soil will prevent soggy spuds, whilst good crop rotation will see nematodes and other nasties avoided.  Checking the soil pH and avoiding alkaline soils will prevent potato scab, and a bit of seaweed tea at planting and flowering time will do wonders.  For the best start in life, buy certified disease-free seed spuds when available, and, for the love of the Garden Gods, don't overwater!!

Hot Tip

Polystyrene fruit containers with the bottoms removed make top notch potato patches, but they can look pretty ordinary. Why not get the kids (or grandkids, or big kids at heart) to wow you with their creative flair and paint them? This can create a unique, functional, funky and full-on sustainable potato patch that costs very little and is perfect for the job. I reckon three is the magic number here, with the layers added as your spuds grow up.

Eat Me

One Pot Potatoes

Garlicky and potatoey and oh so delicious and simple!  Just throw it in the pot and walk away:

1kg Potatoes
1/3 cup veg oil
3/4 cup water or stock
4 tbsp Tomato paste
6 cloves of garlic
1 tsp Salt
1 tbsp Paprika

1 cup home grown parsley

Method

Chop potatoes into small cubes. Place in a heatproof saucepan or casserole dish.
Add the rest of the ingredients.

Bake in covered dish for 1 hour. Check after about 45 minutes.

This dish can also be cooked on the stove top or in a slow cooker. You may need to check it regularly and stir it occasionally if cooked in this way.

This dish matches well with roasted meats or accompanies Lebanese dishes. The herbs can also be varied and tailored to your accompanying dish. e.g. try adding some home grown oregano or rosemary.


Quince

Quince – the fatter, uglier sister of the pear has come back into vogue in the last few years, thanks to a number of gourmet cooks and their delicious jams, pastes and desserts.  It must be pointed out at this stage that uncooked quinces straight from the tree a darned near inedible…tough, stringy and a bit tart (a bit like my Aunty Beryl). To truly enjoy a quince, one must stew, cook, poach or slowly simmer the fruit for as long as possible, until the flesh changes to a stunning ruby red.

The quince (or Cydonia oblonga to those of us in the know) is a gorgeous deciduous tree growing to a respectable 4m x 4m in most residential settings.   When thinking about a quince (which I am sure we all do often) it is important to remember that these trees are generally very long lived, and don’t take to kindly to being shifted, so plan your position well.  A tree in the right spot will reward you with amazing, ancient-looking gnarled branches – a fabulous feature with or without the fruit!

The foliage is a stunner as well, with the green, heart-shaped leaves having a lighter, slightly furry underside.  The beauty of growing a quince in the colder areas of Australia is that they can put on quite a show as the leaves colour through autumn.  Oh, and they don’t mind periods of dry either…could this be the perfect plant?

Full sun is the order of the day for your quince, and, in our part of the world, protect these guys from frosts, as they just don’t like it and it can harm fruit set.  Quinces adore a soil that has a fair bit of organic matter incorporated, so on our soils, grab some compost and prepare the hole before planting.  A bit of a feed once or twice a year with some compost, aged manures or blood and bone is all a quince will need.

Pruning of quinces is much the same as for other deciduous fruit trees (think pears, apples etc) and the earlier in the quinces life you can establish a shape, the better.  Pruning should be minimized as the quince gets older, as they fruit on the current season’s growth, and constant pruning may see a severe lack of fruity goodness.

If you are thinking of acquiring a quince, here is the quincessential guide to the varieties readily available at many nurseries:

Smyrna: This Turkish delight bears very large, golden yellow pear-shaped fruit on an attractive large shrub/small tree.  The foliage is also quite large and very attractive.  Cooked, Smyrna fruit is highly fragrant and quite firm, making it a great choice for pastes.  A very popular quince with lovely flowers.

Champion: Born in the USA, this quince resembles a fat pear, the fruit a greenish yellow changing to golden when ripe.  The colour of this fruit when cooked is amazing, the flesh tender, and the flavour milder than some other quince varieties.

Angers: An attractive, smaller tree (to around 2.5m), Angers is a French type Quince.  The fruit is flavoursome, although a bit harder than some other varieties, but cooks well.  One BIG advantage of this little tree is that the fruit stores for longer than most.


Pomegranates

If you are after some fodder for your next pub trivia night, this factsheet on pomegranates has it in droves.  One of the oldest cultivated fruit trees in the world, the pomegranate has appeared in Greek mythology and hymns dating back to the 7th century BC – a feat not matched by any other berry or fruit.  In fact, there are some schools of thought that suggest the pomegranate was in fact the “forbidden fruit” in the Bible, rather than the humble apple.  Either way, the pomegranate is a backyard beauty, and a must have in your “Garden of Eden”.

The fruit of the pomegranate is incredibly attractive, but the real winner here is the fleshy seeds inside.  Tart, citrusy and incredibly juicy, pomegranate seeds have suddenly become hip again, and have appeared in dishes and desserts from Masterchef to Michelin starred restaurants.

Originating from Persia, Afghanistan and thereabouts, the cultivated pomegranate (Punica granatum) translates as “seeded apple”, but is in fact a true berry...and a tough one at that.  A deciduous tree growing to around 5m x 4m, with an attractive, somewhat shrubby habit, the pomegranate will tolerate a range of soils, from lovely and loamy to tough and clayey. Seriously, these things are so easy to grow that everyone should have a go.

Pop your pomegranate in a warm sunny spot where you can enjoy the gorgeous, glossy spring/summer foliage as it changes from red to apple green with the seasons.  As long as the tree is protected from any spring frosts it should be fairly trouble-free; pomegranates are extremely cold tolerant and love a hot, dry summer – perfect for growing in your part of the world! In fact, I reckon pomegranates are pretty good in almost all parts of Australia.

Water is important for pomegranates, so prevent from drying out over spring – it will improve growth and fruit set in the long run.  Water for the rest of the year can be fairly limited – they don’t need too much, especially not in heavier clay soils.

Don’t be afraid to prune your pomegranates, and this is best done over winter.  The idea is to clear out the middle of the tree a bit to prevent over-crowding.  Remember though that pomegranates bear their fruit on mature wood, so don’t go too silly with the secateurs.

Oh, if you live in an area that is susceptible to Queensland fruit fly, think about enacting a control program, as these little pests LOVE a pomegranate.

Pomegranates are ready to harvest in autumn to winter, and the secret here is to grab the biggest, brightest fruits first.  If picked at the right time, pomegranates can be stored successfully for a couple of months in a dark, cool place or the fridge.

Variety is the spice of life, so, if you are in the hunt for some delicious pomegranates, try these out for size:

Wonderful – Possibly the most popular pomegranate in the world, Wonderful is, simply put, wonderful!  Beautiful, medium to large, deep red fruit is borne on a vigourous, attractive tree.  The seeds are juicy, sweet, fragrant, and perfect for juicing, eating fresh, and bunging in a recipe.

Gulosha azerbaijani – Ugly fruit, but the flavour of the seeds is something else!  This variety produces medium to large sized, slightly elongated fruit with a pinkish hue, but the internal seeds are deep red, large and very juicy.

Gulosha rosavaya – From Russia with love comes this perfect pomegranate – light pink, large sized fruit bears masses of sweet, juicy, slightly acidic seeds that are truly divine.

ElcheA fab little fruit from Spain, Elche produces lovely pink fruit, the seeds of which are bursting with juice.  May not be as cold tolerant as other varieties, but give it a go in a warmer spot.

Ben Hur – Purporting to grow fruit to 1.2kg, Ben Hur is a newer variety of Australian bred pomegranate with fruit resembling cricket balls.  The seeds are reportedly juicy, sweet and flavoursome...give it a go at your place!

Pictures
Pomegranate flower pic: Elaine Shallue (SGA)


Wetlands - The Kidneys of our Waterways

Wetlands – bet you didn’t know that, besides forests, they are the most biodiverse places across this wide land, home to a startling array of flora and fauna that is often not found anywhere else.  Oh, and here’s another bit of trivia for you – the week starting January 29th 2011 is World Wetlands Week, so it’s time to wise up to the wonderous world of wetlands!

So, what is a wetland?  Essentially, wetlands are classified as: an area of land either permanently or temporarily covered with water or with waterlogged sediments which supports plant and animal communities. They can include things like

  • billabongs, lakes, lagoons
  • swamps and marshes
  • saltmarshes, mudflats
  • mangroves, coral reefs
  • bogs, fens, and peatlands.

Australia has a bunch of really amazing wetlands, both natural and artificial, and, as a co-worker of mine put it, they are “the kidneys of our waterways”. You see, wetlands act as important filters for all manner of pollutants such as sediments, nutrients, organic and inorganic matter and bacteria before they reach our river systems and ocean.

Wetlands are vitally important elements in waterway and river system health, yet they are so often overlooked.  Instead of looking at these places as “boggy wastelands”, it’s important to remember what our Australian wetlands actually do.  I reckon wetlands are a bit like the ultimate (but underappreciated) staff member – they get a bit forgotten, but we couldn’t do without them. So amazing are these beautiful wild spaces that they are responsible for all this:

  • They are highly productive ecosystems, and are able to capture energy and provide food for many animals.
  • They provide important refuges for wildlife in times of drought.
  • They are naturally beautiful places and provide opportunities for recreation activities such as boating, swimming, bushwalking and bird watching.
  • They provide a natural water balance in the landscape and help to provide protection against floods.
  • They have a role in providing water quality protection in the catchment by filtering pollutants such as sediments, nutrients, organic and inorganic matter and bacteria.
  • They support a wide variety of flora (plants) and fauna (animals) and form different habitats and ecosystems.
  • They provide nursery areas for fish, and breeding grounds for wildlife, particularly waterbirds.
  • Wetlands provide vital habitat for some species of threatened fauna (animals).
  • They provide refuge for migratory waterbirds that breed in the northern hemisphere in countries such as China and Siberia. Thousands of migratory waterbirds inhabit Australian wetlands each year.
  • Many wetlands are of cultural significance to aboriginal people.
  • They provide opportunities for scientific research and are a source of education for the community.

Australia has some 65 Ramsar wetlands, meaning these are internationally recognised for their importance, bio-diversity, or their uniqueness.  In addition to this, there are over 900 significant and important wetlands, many of them closer to you than you may realise.

So what can we do, as gardeners, to look after our wetlands, during World Wetland Week and beyond? Well, for a start, we can think really carefully about what we are doing in our own backyards, and how that might impact these precious places.  Did you know that one of the biggest threats to the health and biodiversity of wetlands is weeds, many of which originate in our own backyards, ponds and aquariums?

Dumped garden waste, seeds moved by wind, water and critter, aquatic plants washed down drains – all of these spell serious trouble for wetlands.  My tip?  Know what plants cause an issue, or have the potential to cause issues, in your area, and avoid planting them.  If you already have these plants in place, manage them to prevent their spread.  Remove spent flower heads before they form seed, dispose of garden waste in a compost or green waste bin, and don’t allow your ponds to overflow and spread potentially harmful aquatic plants.

Another wetland-saving winner is to minimise run-off from your property.  Many of us utilise recycled and greywater across our gardens, which is a fantastic way of reducing our household water consumption.  However, if this stuff is allowed to leave our property and enter our wetland and river systems, we are all in big strife.  The increase nutrient loads in this type of water, coupled with the unknown quantity of chemicals, cleaners, detergents and the like can spell disaster for wetland ecosystems.  Algal blooms are an obvious issue, but their are numerous other water, plant and soil health issues that can arise if our grey gets into a waterway.

Regardless of where you live, it’s important to remember that what you do in your backyard can have an impact far beyond your fence line.  And while we are on that point, why not get to know what’s happening in wetlands beyond your fence, and get involved in the myriad of activities happening in your neck of the woods this World Wetland Week?  Check out the link and get involved – you will soon realise what a wonderful wange of wetlands we have!

Find out what’s happening in your state: www.environment.gov.au/water/wetlands/world-wetlands-day