Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Drought Insurance

This week we insured against the likelihood of a complete garden watering ban (Stage 4 water restrictions) by installing 8000L of rainwater storage. I am very excited about the prospect of being able to water the garden whenever it needs it rather than the current 6-8am on Wednesdays and Saturdays, only by hand (no sprinklers). I also suddenly feel more in touch with the local climate, and suspect I will be more aware of ways to save water around the garden. My garden to-do list now includes:
  • Further enrich beds with organic matter
  • Mulch, mulch, mulch (still deciding on which mulch to use...)
  • Install dripper irrigation and timer switches (I feel a future post coming on)
  • Aerate the lawns with a garden fork

I know having water-thirsty lawns in a dry climate is a contentious issue, and watering them even more so. The previous summers we've let our lawns turn brown and dusty, but this year we are hoping that by using our own water supplies (rain water and grey water) we may be able to have a decadently green patch for the boys to run around on.

So now, let it rain!!

Monday, June 22, 2009


I found the first daffodil shoots emerging this morning. They were from bulbs I planted 15 months ago, which was a relief as I had wondered whether the horrible hot weather of the last summer might have killed the bulbs. I know there is plenty written about daffodils as a sign of hope after a long cold winter; for me they were a sign of life after a long hot summer.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Asparagus

I finished Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle a few months ago and it could be one of the more influential and habit- changing books I've read in a long time. It follows her family's commitment to locivory for a year, meaning that for that year they only ate food grown in their local area (Virginia, USA), predominantly produced on their small farm. She makes powerful arguments for locivory as a key to environmentally sustainable living.

Kingsolver intersperses more factual content with anecdotes from her family’s year of eating local- the highs and lows of zucchini gluts and her family's adventures in home grown poultry (the Christmas turkey will never look quite the same...). A highlight for me was the inclusion of seasonal recipes at the end of each chapter, with more provided online. Vegetable gardening, recipes, a few facts, a lot of anecdotes- for me it was a fantastic balance in paperback form.

But coming back to the life changing part: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle reignited my passion for growing food at home, and has made me more aware of "food miles"- the distance food must be transported to reach your plate. I can't say I am a complete convert- living in Melbourne, I had to choose between no bananas, or bananas that have travelled from sunnier climes, but I have become more aware of out-of-season crops that are provided to fill the void in the local harvest (Californian cherries and grapes are good examples here) and I have resisted purchasing these out-of-towners. I've also become more vigilant about reading food labels (did you know all the canned Borlotti beans at Coles are from Italy?) and have started pestering my local greengrocer to reveal imported produce rather than me poking around their boxes to find things like a "Product of Thailand" label on the baby corn.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has also made me keener to store my surplus harvests (frozen or dried) so that we can enjoy them for more of the year. Little Bro has been a beneficiary of this: I finished Animal, Vegetable, Miracle just as my (delicious!) bean harvest was coming to an end, so as he was not yet eating solids, the last beans of the season were pureed and frozen so that his first taste of green beans could be home grown.

The other impact Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has had on our garden has been through bringing the nuances of home-grown asparagus to my attention. Now, I don't think I'm a complete food dummy: I know that zucchinis are technically fruit, rhubarb is a vegetable, potatoes are tubers whilst sweet potatoes are swollen roots, and that the red bit of a strawberry isn't a fruit (the little "seeds" (achenes) on it are the true fruit). But I hadn't ever thought much about the origins of asparagus, despite having seen the post-edible plant. Just in case anyone is as naive as I was, asparagus is a perennial vegetable, with the edible shoots emerging from underground crowns that can continue their production for up to twenty years.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle got me excited at the thought of growing asparagus so the next thing I knew, my name was down at the local nursery to be called when this year's asparagus crowns arrived. And on Friday, I got the call! I quickly finalized a few plant rearrangements to make room, dug a coffin-sized trench, and today my five crowns went in. I'm excited!

Don't expect me to be passing on my excess asparagus just yet... asparagus growing is an exercise in restraint. It needs to be allowed two years' growth before the crowns will have stocked up enough starch that they can spare me a few spears. This means that when Little Bro is the current age of Big Bro, we'll be ready for our first harvest. I don't know whether that seems very soon, or far away.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Vacuum man

Inspecting the top of the range Dyson. This is Big Bro's favourite part of Harvey Norman.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Introducing the Garden and Gardener

I thought at this early stage of blogging I should tell you a bit more
about the garden side of things.

Firstly, the gardener, who is mostly me at this stage. I'm not one of those people who loved gardening from the time I first picked up a shovel. As a child living in Hobart I grew various bits and pieces- wall flowers, a blackwood tree, plumbago and peas come to mind. But nothing quite got my attention, until one August when, aged 18, I was cutting a pumpkin and decided to see what happened if I put the seeds in some potting mix on the kitchen windowsill. They germinated, I was determined to see what came next. My mother offered me a crummy corner of the garden, probably thinking that my interest in this garden project would wane as it always had previously. For some reason, it didn't, and that year I grew pumpkins and zucchinis. And I was hooked.

The next year I claimed a better space for my pumpkins, and built retaining walls so that they could grow in a metre depth of rotted sheep manure. With the encouragement of my friend and garden mentor, J, more varieties of edibles crept in, and in my third year of serious gardening I was a member of the Digger's Club, and experimenting with vegetables from aubergines to zucchinis.

Then I moved to Melbourne.

Melbourne isn't a desert- it's even the capital Australia's self-proclaimed "garden state". But as a graduate student, time and space for vegetable gardening weren't forthcoming. One summer I grew potted vegetables in a west-facing courtyard of my rental property, but long days at work meant that I wasn't there for the vegies when it hailed or when they were roasted by summer heat. B's parents kindly let me plant a few things in their vegie plot one year (and nurtured them in my absence) but it wasn't the same.

And then we moved to Denver, Colorado. This wasn't such a dramatic upheaval to my horticultural habits as moving to Melbourne had been- we moved from one garden-less apartment to another. I did join my apartment building's garden committee, meaning I helped out at some working bees, and took responsibility for a planting pot about a metre in diameter over one summer. I filled it with herbs and Habanero chillis, and it thrived with the aid of daily watering by the building's janitor. I harvested and used or stored stored all the herbs I could, and it felt good.

Back in Melbourne, and with a new addition to the family, B and I now needed a place with space for Big Bro to run around- and so we ended up here, at our house-with-a-garden.

We live on an old fashioned quarter acre block in the suburbs of
Melbourne. Our house is like most in the area, with a front, back and
side yard, and our garden plan for the front and back involves a
central lawn surrounded by beds.

Most of the garden structure was put in after the previous owners
renovated the houses few years ago, and it has left us some
interesting surprises- patches of building sand or mortar amongst
areas of clay and a drier dustier soil; concrete foundations for
former structures, brick retaining walls and pipes that presumably
used to lead to long-extinct taps; the remnants of rubbish middens
revealing our predecessors to be consumers of oysters and breakers of
china and glass. My favourite item that we have unearthed is a
yellow toy car, circa 1950?

The jumble of soil types in the garden has been a challenge for me. My
first summer was close to a horticultural disaster- as soon as the hot
weather hit, many plants I had eagerly planted shrivelled in the water-
repellant soil. A year after we moved in I realised that some patches of soil were so horticulturally repugnant that plants put in by the previous owners hadn't sent roots further than the pot-shaped confines of the potting mix in which they were planted. Since then I have enriched the soil with organic matter in the hopes of improving things. Two years on, I think I can say we're getting there.

So what sort of gardener am I?

Growing edible plants has been my first passion, but now that I am in charge of a whole garden I am gradually learning more about ornamentals. And now that we've established ourselves somewhere for the long haul I have an interest in my garden's infrastructure- especially irrigation.

I'm definitely an amateur gardener- I couldn't name all the plants in our garden, and I'm sure I stun the local nursery with the dumbness of some of my questions. If you're a serious gardener reading this blog, you'll probably be stunned by my naivety too! But I love getting out in the garden and poking around, and I love the sense of satisfaction that I have when I say to B "did you realize we grew everything we ate for dinner tonight" So if you have the same reasons for hosting the chemical reactions that are photosynthesis on your patch of dirt, then I hope you'll enjoy sharing the gardening journey of This Growing Life.

Hello world!

You can call me Mama: that's what I tell my two boys, Big Bro who is a
two and a half year old ball of energy, and Little Bro, who has spent
the last 6 months watching Big Bro and the world with interest.

Here is one of my favourite photos of Big Bro when he wasn't so big:

The hands in the photo belong to me and my husband, B.

In the interests of fair and balanced reporting, here's one of my
favourite pictures of Little Bro:

In 2007 we moved into our house-with-a-garden here in the suburbs of
Melbourne, the capital city of Victoria, Australia's self-declared
"Garden State".

So you know who we are; now it must be time for the big question:

What am I doing here?

This blog has been gestating between my ears for a year or more. Some
entries made it into in silico status until Big Bro consigned them to
the silicon trash ("Mama, Wook! I pwess wubbish bin button!"). At that point
I began to seriously consider the question of whether I could make the
transition from being a blog reader to a blog writer. A bit of poking
around about how to set up a blog, a bit of encouragement from friends
(thank you!), and here I am!

So what's this blog about?

I'm planning to share the adventures of my two passions: my
family and (in distant second place) my garden. I also enjoy cooking as an interface between my family and my edible garden so I won't be able to stop a few recipes creeping in here and there.

So without further ado, I declare This Growing Life open!

Welcome, and enjoy!

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