The month of November has brought a new flush of spring growth, here are the pictures of how the garden now looks after 13 months since it was first built:
East view along rear fence
West view along rear fence
As you can see, it’s all growing quite abundantly, but green growth does not necessarily equate with harvest.
The previous month of October was consistently productive, yielding a little over 10kg of produce. Listed below is the breakdown for the October harvest.
|kale (western front)||180|
|potato (russet burbank)||2,659|
|red dandelion chicory||66|
What happened in November was quite a surprise to say the least. As an experiment, I decided to leave a lot of the annual vegetables to go to seed. This was for the purpose of collecting the seed, as my old supply of annual vegetable seeds that I had previously bought was running out. That way I could plant the next season’s annuals from the harvested seed, a further measure in self sufficiency.
Incidentally, I have been saving seeds from all my herbs since I started, as they seed after flowering as part of their normal cycles, whether annual or perennial, and the seeds are there for the taking.
So why the big deal with annual vegetables? I’ll explain.
When you plant most herbs, they grow to their expected size and occupy the space you’ve allocated to them in the garden bed. You harvest what you need, they pretty well stay the same size, then they flower and then seed. In some cases it’s the flowers that you harvest or the seeds, so the size of the plant stays the same. If they are annuals they die down, if they are perennials they stay there, or the plant above ground dies down over winter and then they pop up next spring, back to the same size once again.
With annual vegetables it’s a completely different story. They are grown to be harvested before they go to seed! You plant them according to the planting instructions that come with the seeds, the right distance apart, and they behave themselves and grow to the expected size, and are then harvested. But what happens if they are left to go to seed???
Well, lets start with the Umbelliferae family (the umbellifers are so named because of their compound flowers called umbels, which are like "umbrella" shapes), your carrots, parsley and celery and the like. They are planted fairly closely, about a foot apart and grow not much over a foot or two high (depending on which we’re talking about!) and are then harvested. Each plant grows comfortably in about a square foot of garden bed with traditional gardening methods.
If using advanced high density, high productivity techniques, such as the system of Square Foot Gardening devised by Mel Bartholomew, it’s even packed more tightly. With small plants such as radish, carrot, spring onion, celery, you plant 16 plants in a square foot (three inch space between the plants).
Now, if you intentionally don’t harvest them, letting them go to seed, they will suddenly grow enormously in size and height, then flower and seed.
A dainty little radish which sat comfortably in 1/16th of a square foot of space standing about a foot high will transform into a towering monster up to 5 feet high, and occupying (or shading out) up to 2 square feet in space. Carrots will get equally large.
Parsley is just plain scary. A humble little parsley plant sitting in one foot of garden bed will grow to a huge bush about 3 feet wide by about 4 feet high. I know this from experience; it took up almost half of a 4×8 foot raised bed!!!
I also let a few varieties of lettuce go to seed, along with beetroot, radishes, rocket, chicory and a few more. Seeding annual vegetables will chew up a lot of your garden space, be warned.
Now we must remember that the resource of garden space is not the only limited resource, the other is time! A season is only three months long, and every annual vegetable has a required amount of time for it to grow from seed to harvest.
Tip: To make the most of the growing time in each season, it is a good idea to plant your seeds early in pots and keep them indoors to get a head start, this might also allow you to get a second crop in, in the same season if you plant a second batch of seeds at the right time.
Now, when annuals are harvested, the practice of succession planting tells us that we should have another plant to put into the same spot immediately afterwards to maximise the productivity from that space in the garden – there is always something growing, no empty space!
But if a plant is not harvested, it will take a few more weeks to go to seed, occupying space that could be otherwise used by (several more) other plants, during a time where other plants could be growing. It also means you have one less plant to harvest, because you needed to leave it to seed, which also reduces your harvest. And you’ll feel the pinch a bit more because you must always leave the biggest, strongest and healthiest plant to go to seed, rather than eat it, because you want the most vigorous one to provide you with seeds to produce equally healthy vigorous seedlings.
Now, if most of the space allocated to annuals is occupied by a few going to seed (remember, they grow to occupy way more space than harvest ready plants), and if your garden is planted with companion plants too, then there won’t be any space for any more annuals for the season!
So what happened in December then? Consider that the production of annual vegetables is zero, and it is too early for fruit to ripen, so what’s left? Berries of course! 1kg of berries is OK, but it is only 10% of the monthly average yield we’ve come to expect.
Here’s the breakdown of the harvest for December:
The sad part is that there was a glut of raspberries, and they were ripening faster than I could harvest them. There was at least an equal amount that just fell to the ground, over-ripe. Luckily, I have two worm farms, which accept any fallen, damaged or otherwise inedible produce, recycling the nutrients so they can go back into the garden at a later point.
One of the bigger daily raspberry harvests (1/3 kg) alongside an attention seeking cat who added himself to the photo for the sake of completeness!
This highlights another problem with depending on annual vegetables for your produce. Apart from the time and effort that it takes to plant seeds raise seedlings, plan the timing of what gets planted when, and so forth, which is very labour intensive, there is also the problem with seed harvesting!
In permaculture, there is a preference for using perennial plants wherever possible, which is why I am experimenting with long lived vegetables, which last a few years, such as "western front" perennial kale and "nine star" perennial broccoli, both of which last a few years. I’m also trying the old fashioned clumping onions which multiply at their base(they grow by division). All of my (supposedly) perennial spinach (which is actually a variety of swiss chard) all went to seed…
A few major lessons learned this month!
It’s amazing what you learn by simply doing and experimenting! I uncovered a few interesting discoveries about aquatic plants that I’d like to share. Now, I know the idea of aquatic bonsai sounds strange, but I accidentally found out that Sagittaria sagittifolia a.k.a. arrowhead or duck potato, will grow in proportion to the size of the container you grow it in. This plant is an interesting looking marginal aquatic that produces edible tubers. I ordered 6 little tubers from Green Harvest (www.greenharvest.com.au) in Queensland (Australia) two years ago, and now I have a surplus of them to replant each year and give away too!
Here’s the description from the green Harvest website:
Sagittaria sagittifolia… An attractive aquatic edge plant with arrow shaped leaves and edible tubers… The tuber flesh is cream coloured and is eaten boiled, baked or fried, it should not be eaten raw. The protein content of 4 to 7% is high for a root crop. The young shoots can also be eaten. A simple way to prepare arrowhead is to boil tubers until tender, slice it thin and serve with butter or sesame oil. If any should be left over, unbuttered, serve cold with a vinaigrette dressing as a salad.
Here are my arrowhead plants growing in a 60 litre plastic tub. To give you an indication of size, the container is about a foot and a half tall, so you can see how huge some of those arrow shaped leaves are.
Sagittaria sagittifolia, also know as arrowhead or duck potato, a marginal aquatic with edible tubers. Incidentally, the long thin green plants growing out of the same container are water chestnuts.
Now, I have the very same plants growing in a 10 litre container, in an equally nutrient rich medium, and their leaves are only around the size of my hand. I had accidentally left a large number of surplus tubers in an ice-cream container of water (about 2 litres) and they all grew too, but the leaves were not much larger than my thumb.
So, restriction of root space does seem to limit the size of marginal aquatics too.
If we understand that naturally occurring bonsai trees were trees whose growth was dwarfed due to limited root space, because they were growing in places such as a small crevice where soil gathered on a cliff face, or some such inhospitable location, then we realise we are witnessing the same phenomenon here.
In my never ending quest to shield a west facing brick wall from the hot sun to keep the house cooler, I’m trying a different climbing plant on the trellis I’ve attached to the wall. Last year I tried various cucurbits (loofahs, bitter melons and pumpkins) but they did not grow fast enough to make a difference. This time round I’m using climbing beans, and they are on their way up already, climbing out of their Autopot Systems™ hydroponic pots.
Hydroponic climbing beans used to shield a west-facing wall to reduce summer heat
As further backup, there are three grape vines (sultana) that I grew from cuttings in among the beans. I’m just testing to see if I can grow grapes this way, but I wont know for another year. And just to make sure I’m covered, I’ve got a further fall-back plan. You might not be able to make out the last pot in the picture, but it’s clearly not a bean plant. Here’s a closer shot…
A hydroponic choko! An interesting experiment, considering the roots are highly susceptible to rot, especially in containers…
Yes, it’s a choko! If you don’t know what a choko is, let me explain. A Choko (Sechium edule) is a cucurbit, that is, it’s part of the same family melons, cucumbers and squashes (the Cucurbitaceae family). It is a climbing vine that is native to the tropical Americas, and produces edible fruit.
The choko can be grown in nearly all soil types but prefers rich, well-drained organic soils with plenty of compost or animal manure added annually. When grown in the tropics, the choko is virtually evergreen, but in cooler climates it has one crop then dies down to the tuberous root system and sprouts again the following spring. Chokos will grow as far south as Tasmania when given a sunny site sheltered from wind and frosts.
The choko has a reputation as a rampant vine that will grow up to 12m. It is described as a good permaculture plant that can be used as an insulator for sheds and a disguise for old fences.
A plant growing in a hydroponic environment is like "putting a plant on steroids", with an endless supply of water and nutrient, plants that can cope with the growing medium grow rampant. And if this vine can grow as rampant as it is claimed to, this might be a serious combination of rampant growth that should cover this wall in no time!
Just to put some thoughts to rest, yes, this hydroponic setup is just an experiment on a patch of concrete where I can’t set up a raised bed or no dig garden for several reasons, not all of them being gardening related… Ideally the choko would go straight in the ground, and it would pretty well take care of itself, it has a reputation as a hardy plant that thrives on neglect. I am an organic gardener, I don’t like the idea of buying chemical nutrient for hydroponic systems, or perlite for the growing medium. The nutrients are just mineral salts, and the perlite is just a mineral that is heated until it expands, but it’s still all unsustainable, as these are mined from the ground. This system luckily can be used with other re-usable growing media and fed with water from an aquaponic system which I intend to try by connecting it to my container water garden so the fish waste can feed the plants. It also works as a regular organic container garden setup with regular potting mix, where the system just delivers plain water, making it simply an automated watering system. Like I said, it’s all experimentation.
Given a choice, I prefer to have all my plants in the ground rather than in containers, but we don’t all have that luxury, so container gardening is a viable, and sometimes the only possible, way to garden depending on one’s circumstances.
Speaking of container gardening, here is what you can do with a 45cm wide pot filled with plain old surplus garden soil mixed in with some home made compost, and watered by hand. Over 2kg of Russet Burbank variety potatoes, organically grown in a container. I’ll get about two harvests a year from these pots.
Container grown Russet Burbank potatoes – over 2kg from the one pot
To grow in a container, the procedure is simple:
- Mix in some fresh compost with the garden soil or potting mix, put in the potatoes, water them regularly so they grow.
- When the plants die down and are dried, leave them for a week so the skins of the potatoes thicken, so they keep better, then dig them up.
- Sort out the potatoes, the big ones are for eating, the little ones and any green ones (don’t ever eat potatoes if their skin has turned green , they are toxic!) are for replanting.
- Once the potatoes have been dug up, mix in more compost, and plant around 6 to 8 small potatoes back into the put, about 10-15 cm deep, depending on their size. Water the pot, and it’s all done.
- Water regularly to maintain plants until they grow and die down, If you have surplus small potatoes, you can start another pot, put them in the ground somewhere. or give them to friends (remember the permaculture principle, "share the surplus"!)
- And the cycle keeps on going, just keep on adding compost every time, and blood & bone helps too if you can add it in.
It’s that easy, so give it a go!
Root crops are very productive, so potatoes are a great place to start. You can also plant any potatoes that have been around too long and have started to sprout. I feed my container potatoes compost, seaweed extract, worm casting liquid from my worm farms, and compost tea Which I collect from the tumbler compost bin after it rains.
I’m also trying carrots in containers, as well as tomatoes, so I’ll report on how well these perform.
The thing to keep in mind with container gardening is that the plants roots are restricted from reaching out for more water should it run out, so remember to water the plant to prevent it drying out, especially in summer when the heat and wind quickly evaporate any moisture and dry out the plant’s soil.
There’s so much more I can write about container gardening, this topic deserves an article of its own! In the mean time, I encourage you to fill a pot with some dirt, and plant something in it!