Dying Star

Recently I’ve been watching a charming British television documentary series from 1987: ‘The Victorian Kitchen Garden’. The word charming is used here in the most literal sense. One of the two lead characters in the series is an old bloke who had actually worked as the head gardener for the very English manorial estate for four decades. The series was filmed in the massive old walled garden on the estate – as you do. Probably not something for the likes of the rest of us!

What the old bloke didn’t know about growing edible plants in that locale, probably isn’t relevant to anything. He’s clearly a knowledgeable bloke, but also hands on with every aspect of the garden. Being English, the garden appears to be subjected to quite a lot of adverse weather. In the series, the characters are always talking about ‘forcing’ plants. Basically, ‘forcing’ means to get plants to grow faster than they otherwise may do so, or grow them way outside their natural range, given the prevailing climate conditions.

In the large walled garden, there is an enormous greenhouse, which frankly produces the emotion of envy, as well as a whole lot of forced vegetables. Cold frames were also used, which are a sort of smaller and flatter greenhouse. And the heat from the bacterial activities which goes along with the decomposition of fresh manure, was also cleverly used to get many a plant off to an earlier productive start than would otherwise be the case. The solid brick walls surrounding the garden reduce the wind and capture the heat from the sunlight, radiating warmth for fruit trees at night. The whole garden arrangement was very clever, well thought out and thoroughly tested.

Must have taken a lot of labour back in the day, to keep that massive garden productive for the estate and all the workers there. And the occasional old black and white photo showed a lot of workers. It takes a lot of effort to force plants. Guess labour was cheaper back then. By 1987 however, things were perhaps different, the series had the old bloke, a young assistant, some other bloke, and of course the professor providing commentary. It was hard not to notice that those folks all used the hand tools from an earlier time to get the work done, and they were doing an admirable job.

The months of winter and early spring, are the lean time in any temperate climate garden. Back in the day, on the English estate, they ignored such pesky issues. A massive boiler ran continuously, providing heat to the epic greenhouse via hot water running through pipes. That system worked as a giant heat exchanger. The fuel cost would have been mind boggling, but those heated greenhouses would have been able to produce edible food all year around, not to mention exotic foodstuffs for the manors table, the likes of which would be not seen elsewhere. Not a trick you can do at home!

Forcing plants has been on my mind of late. September was warm. Then bizarrely, October and November were cool and dry. Late last week, the grass in the paddocks began slowly turning yellow due to the ongoing drier weather. And that was when the weather turned strange. Friday about 2pm, thick clouds hanging low over the mountain range, began to produce some rain. And the forecast suggests that it will rain most days for at least the next two weeks. At times over the past few days, the rain was torrential. As I type this blog entry, it’s raining. Utterly bonkers, of course. Here’s the rainfall forecast map of the continent for the next 8 days:

There’s a continent somewhere under all that forecast rain

Incidentally, the farm is located in a tiny little blob of blue colour just to the north and west of the city of Melbourne (which isn’t marked on the map). It’s candidly hard to know what impressions to make of the climate here, other than it’s variable, and stuff happens. Hardly a meaningful description!

The rain is great for the fruit trees, berries, herbs and some of the other plants. The annual vegetables however, are not doing all that great. The tomatoes and chilli’s are tiny and at least a month behind. We gave up on the idea of planting out the eggplant seedlings, despite them being a slim cold tolerant variety. Could be wrong there, but past experience suggests the eggplant has little chance of producing fruit in this sort of growing season. Forcing plants has been on our minds of late. Sandra and I have seriously begun discussing the need for a second greenhouse. The current greenhouse is fully planted out.

All being well, the second greenhouse project will begin sometime mid next year. We don’t have the funds of an English estate, so it takes time and personal effort to get any projects done. And long term readers will note that like the rangy head gardener in the series, we do most of the work ourselves using hand tools and small machines. Economics is a factor too. The idea of running a boiler for a heated greenhouse is just something that will never happen.

What to do then? We slowly construct the farms infrastructure, whilst testing, learning and adapting to the conditions. If there were another way… One day we might even be as knowledgeable as that head gardener in the series, but probably not, instead we’ll be good enough. There are limits to how much you can know about topics. Keep on, muddling on!

During the really torrential rain in the last day or so, which happens most years, the rainfall water capture systems require a bit of manual assistance on my part to clear any gunk (the technical description for unidentified organic matter) from blocking up the inlet filters on the water tanks. Many years ago we looked into the various systems to avoid this blockage of the filters from happening, and came to the conclusion that they all fail sooner or later. So we’ve kept the system simple, and I have to clean out the collected gunk during torrential downpours. It’s a dirty job but someone’s gotta do it.

You see what I have to deal with here?

Last week, some large rocks were liberated from a boulder. In the days before the rain began when the paddocks were dry, we were able to bring those large rocks back up the hill.

Large rocks were brought back up the slope

The rocks were all used on the low gradient path project. The current work on that project aims to extend the path on the downhill side of the chicken enclosure. The lower side of that path has a rock wall which curved around some pear trees.

The large rocks retain the soil and crushed rock with lime on the path

Once past the pear trees the curve of the rock wall heads back downhill.

Ruby admires the curvature of the rock wall, yet thinks of chickens!

Another morning was spent splitting up rocks in the paddock. Time was a bit short due to the impending rain, so we chose to split what we thought would be easier to work with boulders. Some were easier, and some were very hard. And we got rained on!

Dame Plum avoids the jackhammer!

Despite some of the boulders being harder than we’d considered, a reasonable amount of rocks were liberated that day. Those rocks were all brought back up the hill to be used on the low gradient path project. The rock wall now runs parallel to the chicken enclosure. The idea is to create a wide path on the downhill side of the chicken enclosure. Sadly for us, due to the slope of the land, the rock wall will need to be two rocks tall so that the path on the downhill side of the chicken enclosure remains flat.

Ruby is impressed by such accuracy with the rock walls

At the very start of the low gradient path, long term readers will recall that we’d created a drainage basin and planted out a tree fern. The torrential rain proved the drainage basin works, and the tree fern enjoyed a good feed and water.

The tree fern enjoys a good feed and drink during the heavy rain

For some reason unknown to me, the King Parrots have decided that I’m OK, and word has clearly gotten around. The birds sometimes follow me around here, and allow me to get very close to them. The other day I was at the local general store enjoying a coffee, and a visitor dropped by to say hello.

Dude, anything but my coffee!

In really wet conditions, raised garden beds are worth their weight in compost. This year is no different and the kitchen greens are doing OK. We’re experimenting with growing rainbow chard (Silverbeet) this year, and cooking it much the same way we do with kale. We have not grown this plant before.

Rainbow chard seedlings are doing well

A late frost in October damaged the very early fruits such as apricots, plums and almonds. The almonds fell off the tree, as did many of the plums and apricots. The remaining apricots show signs of frost damage.

Apricots are displaying signs of frost damage, but may be OK

The later flowering fruit trees appear to have done much better. The climate here is very suitable for growing pears and apples.

European Pears are looking good
Pears are good, but the apples are already larger

Cherry trees grow well and produce fruit here, but I’m doubtful that we’ll beat the birds to this fruit. And the forecast rain this week and next week, will probably split the skin on the fruit.

Cherries hang off the tree

Mulberries also grow quite well here, and the wallabies (a smaller and darker lone forest dwelling kangaroo) do less damage to these trees for some unknown reason.

Mulberries are slowly ripening

We grow a lot of raspberry plants, and they make a very tasty jam. The very first berry ripened this week.

Raspberries are very tasty and produce a lovely jam

Onto the flowers:

Ixia flowers are produced from very reliable bulbs
The succulent garden provides a great splash of colour
Despite the cooler November, the Roses have produced delightful flowers
I’ve always felt that the tighter Rose flowers produce the finest aroma

The temperature outside now at about 10am is 10’C (50’F). So far this year there has been 807.6mm (31.8 inches) which is up from last weeks total of 759.8mm (29.9 inches)