The tale of Bek's backyard...

30 March, 2014

It's only now, about 4 years on from starting fruit and veg gardening in my backyard, that I have started to look back and think about just how much has been done to and in the garden over the years.

So I thought I'd to a retrospective on how the garden has grown and evolved over the time I've been in this house. Today I'll be outlining the evolution of the backyard, and over the next few posts I will do the same for the front yard, raised bed veg patch and of course, the orchard.

It all started back in 2009 when I started living in this house. This is the backyard which I had to look at every day through the kitchen window every time I washed the dishes or made a cup of coffee.

Not all that appealing is it. This was the view from the verandah, with the straggly branches of an overgrown camellia to the left, and the straggly branches of one of three fig trees on the right. Of course, front and centre is the ubiquitous hills hoist, without which no Australian backyard is complete, and further back in a supporting role the ugly back fence and neighbours visually less than exciting shed. The stacks of roof tiles and sheets of corrigated iron held down (or supporting) the black pots are merely icing on the cake.

To given an additional idea on how the house is situated, this is a rough plan of the block.

This is pretty much what the block existed of when I moved in. 

It is an odd shaped triangular block, with the kitchen looking out onto the rear of the yard and opening out onto the verandah.

Something had to be done.

So I did. I moved the roof tiles and corrigated iron into the garage and pulled out the offending ugly bush on the left. Then I started planting. Around the same time I started a gardening book, for which I am now eternally thankful and highly recommend.

This was the original plan.

By the time 2010 came around I had put in a bunch of green goddess lillies (pilfered from the local river, but I feel ok about this as they are a noxious weed and clog the waterways dreadfully), some iris's, agapanthus, lavender and geranium, as well as my first fruiting plant, the passionfruit which I hoped would cover the ugly fence. I left the lantana for the same reason. I didn't much like it, but I liked it better than the fence.

I had also radically pruned the fig tree and started an attempt at a pond, which was not particularly successful being neither level, nor fully waterproof (somewhere around the 10cm mark was a leak, which meant it needed continual topping up so you didn't see the cement bases of the border rocks as you can in the photo).

But it was a (small) improvement on its previous incarnation.

I worked my way around the perimeter of the triangular backyard and built on the original plan, putting in more green goddess, more agapanthus, more lavender, and a few more edibles (the central pot is a cherry tree, and the terracotta pots slightly to the right of the shovel handle are blueberries).

This photo was taken on an incredibly rainy day, where the water was about 15cms over the grass at this point. It never rains but it pours.

Further around the yard (and in slightly more photogenic weather) I had pulled out the overgrown camellia and replaced it with three nicer ones further into the corner where they get more shade. I also planted a buddileja and have an avocado in a pot (it since died).

By 2011 things had growed up a little and I had snuck in a few more edibles including the strawberries, but I was sick of cutting the grass and the lantana (I had a path running through behind the iris plants).

The time had come for a major overhaul.

I decided to poison the grass, and cover it with gravel (because gravel was cheaper than paving). I also got rid of the hills hoist as having it in the center of the yard ruined the view of the yard and I really didn't use it all that much, preferring to air dry clothes inside on racks.

I also moved the pond forward and made it almost double the size and twice as deep. It took me ages to dig that thing! But I needed it nice and deep to be able to grow waterlillies which I have always loved.

The plan was modified.

Its a pity I don't have any photos from around then.

In 2012-13 I further extended the garden beds and put in the paths which eventually became graveled also, and started focusing more on planting edibles amongst the ornamentals. This documents the edibles I first started with, leaving blank the rest of the purely ornamental garden beds.

Over that time into the backyard went some fruit trees including 15 apple trees (12 step-over apples and 3 free standing dwarf apples), 2 cherries, the Anzac peach and lots of strawberries.

These are the step-over apples when they were first planted as dormant bare rooted trees. 6 Pink Lady step-overs are here, leading around the left side of the backyard bordering the path leading to the front yard.

The other 6 are Woodbridge Winter Pippin and they border the garden beds to the right side of the pond.

The other trees went in scattered around the garden beds, with the idea of it eventually becoming a food forest.

In 2013 I further extended this fruity paradise with adding a mandarin and lime which are being espaliered, plus two oranges between the lilac trees to provide an evergreen covering for the colourbond fence. 

Also that year I got my ducks and had the challenge to fit in their pen. One of the fig trees had to go. Ah well, there is still one left.

How do I fit it all in? Like this.

21 - Peach Anzac, now also grafted with Fragar and Blackburn Elberta
22 - Orange Valencia
23 - Step-over apples Pink Lady (6)
24 - Cherry Regina
25 - Orange Cara Cara (red fleshed)
26 - Evergreen blueberry
27 - Apple Dr Hogg (named after the well know (in apple circles) pomologist and a good cooking apple)
28 - Apple Bramley's Seedling (another well known cooking apple)
29 - Cherry Napoleon
30 - Apple Andre Sauvage
31 - Step-over apples Woodbridge Winter Pippin (6 - including the 5 drawn plus one in the duck pen not noted)
32 - Mandarin Imperial espalier
33 - Tahitian Lime espalier
36 - Cherry (sour) Morello
49 - Fig (white type, variety unknown)

This is the view from the verandah now.

Not too bad. I'll be happy when the trees are bigger and it looks much more like the food forest I want it to be.

This is the view from the far corner, looking towards the duck pen.

So that's my backyard.

Stay tuned for the front yard, raised garden veg patch and the proper orchard.

And nachos won the day...

27 March, 2014

More adventures pressure canning...

25 March, 2014

Since I got my pressure canner I've been dying to try out preserves I never would have dared do in the Fowlers Vacola (i.e. water bath). One of those things is salsa.

Salsa is a tricky one. Supposedly there are recipes that are safe for the water bath method, however they do need to be quite acidic with the addition of vinegar, and I like my salsa to be more tomatoey, peppery and a little on the spicy side. So until I got my pressure canner, which can achieve high enough temperatures to render the acid unnecessary, salsa was out.

No more. Salsa is now, most definitely, in.

In even more happy fun times, this salsa was made with ingredients sourced entirely from my own garden.

I went out and picked as many red, ripe tomatoes as I could (a mix of mostly Mr Ugly, Roma, Siberian), the only ripe peppers so far (Hungarian Sweet Wax and Flamingo), some white onions from the stash, some garlic and a few sprigs of mint that I didn't end up using as I really didn't think, on mature contemplation, that they would make an appropriate substitute for coriander which I do not have growing currently.

I didn't use a specific recipe for this. I really was guided by what was in the garden, so the proportions are pretty much as above with the exception of a few more tomatoes from earlier pickings. But here it is anyway, for those who like measures.

Salsa - for pressure canning
Around 5 cups chopped tomatoes
Approximately 2.5 cups chopped onions
4-5 green chillies, or more or less depending on size and desired heat of salsa
3-4ish cloves of garlic
Coriander, should you happen to have some
1 flat tablespoon salt

Put all ingredients into your cooking implement of choice, ensuring it is large enough for all the ingredients to fill it no more than about 1/3 full, as otherwise when it is hot and bubbling it will splatter salsa-y lava everywhere.

Boil the mixture until almost done. Decant into hot canning jars, leaving a 1-2 cm headspace.

Pressure can at 11kPa for 25 minutes (or higher pressure if you're above 1000 feet altitude, read your pressure canner instructions for more info).

I can't wait to crack one of these for some burritos, or tacos, or nachos...

I love how these little jars contain nothing more than my garden produce, with no additives except salt for flavour, and cost nothing more than a little kitchen pottering. Once you've bought the equipment of course.

I can't wait to give it a try.

How to save tomato seeds...

22 March, 2014

At the farmers market the other week I succumbed to the most fabulous looking tomatoes.

I mean, who could resist these? The first two were from on place that sells about 10 different tomato types (some of which I grew for myself this year), and the one on the end was from a seller that only had one type of tomato, and only tomatoes. But they were HUGE! I mean, bread and butter plate huge. Bigger than your hand huge. I had to have one, so I bought the smallest one I could find as I already had bought more produce than I could fit in my bike panniers.

But I didn't buy them to eat them (though I did that too) but to grow them.

Unfortunately saving seed from these tomatoes comes with no guarantee. While tomatoes can with care be self-pollinated to ensure (as much as is possible) a true to type seed, these were grown amongst other toms which means with bees doing their biz, the seeds contained within may be of any kind of mixed parentage.

However, I'm prepared to give it a go.

About a week ago I chopped open the tomatoes and squeezed the juicy, seedy innards into my gorgeous weck jars. Sadly, by this time I had completely forgotten the names of each of these seeds, so I labelled them as best I could.

These were left on my kitchen windowsill to get their mould on. This needs to be done when saving tomato seeds as the seed coat contains a compound which inhibits germination. This is quite clever as you don't want seeds sprouting in your fresh tomato, nor do the seeds want to sprout there as its really not the best place for a tomato to grow. Even more cleverly this compound is broken down by mould growth, so when a tomato falls in a natural environment and the tomato decomposes, the seeds are all ready to grow when suitable conditions appear.

I mimic this by letting the tomato seeds and juicy pulp get all mouldy.

Interestingly, the black and the huge tomato  got much more mouldy than the yellow tomato.

But I figure that should be enough.

Next step is to remove the mouldy coat, which is quite easy as it all holds together and you can easily pull it off with a spoon.

Into the compost it went. Those few extra seeds will have a chance at a composty existance.

The remaining seedy liquid is surprisingly pleasant looking.

This then gets poured into a fine sieve (as you don't want your seeds escaping) so the tomatoey juices can drain off.

Then the seeds are given a good rinse under the tap.

Nice and clean.

These then got spread out onto a plastic chopping board to dry.

These steps were repeated with the other two types, with good rinsing between to ensure the seeds weren't mixed.

Now I just need to leave them to dry well, before I pack them up and add them to the seed collection.

I can't wait for next year to come round to see what these turn out to be.

I can can...

18 March, 2014

I finally got the right opportunity to open my Christmas present from last year.

This may seem a little delayed. But until now it just hasn't been the right time. But when I headed out into the garden, and came back inside with more tomatoes and zucchini than I could possibly use, I just knew the time had come.

The zukes have been cropping well for some time now, but I've been managing to keep up with the supply. Tomatoes are just starting to hit their strides, and I finally have enough to start thinking about preserving.

At the top are the few proper preserving tomatoes 'San Marzano' and the bottom is a mix of 'Siberian', 'New Yorker' and 'Mr Ugly'.

Now I an a massive fan of the water bath preserving method. I use it when bottling my passata (Italian style tomato sauce) and preserving the peaches but I know that for bottling low acid veg it just don't cut it.

Acid (along with salt and sugar) helps to inhibit the growth of food spoiling and food poisoning causing bacteria. I recall that at around pH 3.5 and below things are safe to bottle with the water bath method. Hence adding vinegar and pickling veg like cucumbers works, as does sugar in jam making, or both vinegar and sugar in chutneys. But I don't want pickled zucchini. I want plain zucchini I can use for zucchini soup in winter when my plants are but a distant memory.

Hence the pressure canner. Pressure canners work by achieving higher temperatures, which kills off bacteria like the delightful botulism causing bacteria which survive standard water bath temperatures. Therefore you don't need the standard acidic/sugary/salty solution, just your veg and water.

I'm doing the tomatoes with this method, as my understanding is that while tomatoes do contain acid, they vary between pH 3-4 and may be safe to water bath, or may not. Better to be safe than sorry, i.e. dead from botulism.

So on that fun note, on with the process.

I washed my produce, and prepared my canning bottles (wide mouth ball mason jars) by rinsing and holding in just boiled water.

The tomatoes got skinned by being put into a pan of boiling water for about 30 seconds, then removed and cooled in a bowl until they could be handled and the skin pulled off.

The whole or roughly chopped (depending on size) tomatoes went straight into the hot jars.

As they filled the tomatoes got squished down until the tomato-y, juicy mixture was around one inch from the top of the jar.

Then it was lids on and into the hot jar holding bay they went to stay warm until everything was ready for the pressure canner.

I then chopped the zucchini into thin-ish, inch-ish size pieces.

These also got about 30 seconds in the boiling water to soften, so they could be well packed into the jars.

These were also squished down, then the veg boiling water remains were poured over also to an inch from the top. Bubbles were removed but running a knife around the edges.

When all was ready, into the pressure canner it went.

Due preserving process was then followed (heat until steam comes out, let steam come out for 10 minutes, then put stopper on and watch pressure build, when pressure at 11 kPa start timer).

The tomatoes and zucchini had to be cooked at 11 kPa for 25 minutes. If the pressure drops below this at any time, the pressure needs to be increased and then the time started again to be sure of safe preserving. So I sat and watched the clock for the full 25 minutes to be sure all was well.

Actually, I had to reduce the heat to its lowest setting, and take it slightly of the burner to stop the pressure going too high. I was surprised such low heat was required to maintain the pressure once it had built up.

When the 25 minutes was over it came off the heat and was set aside to cool and the pressure to reduce enough to open the unit. This took quite a while, about an hour, so I wouldn't want to have a long production line waiting to go in. But when they came out it was amazing as the contents were bubbling away in the jar.

I really wish action photographs were possible.

Now I have zucchini and tomatoes that will safely keep for many a month, without energy input or deterioration.

It almost makes me wish it was winter now.

Almost, but not quite.

What preserving are you doing?

Morning meander...

16 March, 2014

Last night we finally had some rain. I think that's the second decent rainfall (i.e. more than a random 10 drops) in the last 3 months. The garden has badly needed it. So it was quite nice to get out this morning and see moist soil rather than baked earth on my morning meander about the garden.

Spaghetti squash is getting close to prime picking age.

Melons are close to ripe.

Watermelons too. There are two hiding under the leaves here.

This is the largest one, with its baby siblings.
Brassica beds are looking good. On the right is the cauli bed, and the left has cabbages and kale.

I protect the mulched beds from blackbird redistribution by wire. However this doesn't do much about the cabbage moths. These have had a little nibble, but Dipel sprayings have stopped the damage.
Peppers are still coming along and the plants are still flowering. Not sure what I'll get, but its nice to see them so lush.

This one is Hungarian Sweet Wax. I love the slightly wind-y shaped fruits.

Autumn raspberries are coming.
While I wait for the raspberries I'll console myself with some late strawberries.

Meanwhile the strawberry runners come. Do I really need another strawberry bed???

Second crop of corn almost there.

Likewise preserving tomatoes. I've been picking the ripe ones and building up a stash, but there are many green ones.

Second sowings of beans has been very productive, and still is putting out flowers.

Cucumbers are going well.

I've been trying to train them up the apple espalier, which seems to be working well.

Well, that's the garden this morning. Time to head back inside for another cup of coffee.