Plants Make the Home

When we first decided to build a house, and bought the land for it, we immediately began propagating plants. We selected our favourite ornamentals, natives, and perennial crops and divided them, took cuttings, and collected seed.

As soon as we had a landscape plan, before the house was even staked out on the ground, we began to prepare garden beds, hiring a rotary hoe and having twelve cubic metres of compost delivered to start the process of turning compacted, nutrient-free clay into productive soil. Nine months before we moved in, we started planting. We put in hundreds of native plants and a small vegetable garden while the house was nothing but a concrete slab. Without a connection to the water mains, we hauled buckets of water from the ditch across the road to irrigate our new plantings. Through the summer, we made the 45-minute drive to the new property weekly to check on and water our fledgeling plants. On particularly hot weeks, we visited twice.

When we moved onto the property in March 2020, we lived in the shed, because the house wasn’t yet done. Our move included about a hundred more plants propagated from the old house—plants we knew we wouldn’t be able to put in the ground until the house was finished.

The house was finally finished in mid-winter, and we got to work on the remaining landscaping. We planted out most of the remaining plants from the old house. We bought fruit trees, olives, grapes and strawberries. We even splurged on a few tree ferns and a bunch of natives we didn’t have at the old house. We bought an excessive number of roses.

We ordered more compost, hauled cow manure from the neighbour’s place, and spread more than 80 bales of pea straw out to mulch the new gardens.

We dreamed in plants.

We’ve been in the house for only 16 months, but the 15 cm tall akeake we planted reach over two metres now. The cardoon threatens to top three metres. The silver tussocks form a hummocky mound that blankets the ground and offers shelter to native skinks. The currants, gooseberries and artichokes fill their beds and look like they’ve been there for years.

This year’s vegetables are well established, feeding on the manure and compost I’ve worked into the soil over the last year. They are lush and tall and green.

And when I come home after a day of work, I pass nodding aquilegia flowers and the towering cardoon. I see the roses creeping up their trellis. I admire the rows of berries, peas and cabbages, and I finally feel at home.

Because it is truly the plants (and the people that grow them, of course) that make a home. 

Garden Transformation

vegetable garden

The weather forecasts have been good and the garden beds are all prepared, so in the evenings after work this week, I’ve been planting out vegetable seedlings.

On Tuesday, as I left the garden at dusk, I turned to close the gate behind me. I smiled as my gaze swept the scene. My work had transformed the garden from a weedy patch sporting a few vegetables to a vegetable garden with a few weeds. The transformation had taken months, but my shift in perception was like a switch being thrown.

The coming long weekend will complete the transformation, with all the remaining seedlings filling in the gaps. But the switch in my perception means the weekend planting will be an enjoyable challenge. It won’t feel like an insurmountable hurdle.

This is where my obsessive-compulsive garden planning pays off. All the tasks I’ve crossed off my list since mid-August come together this weekend in a tidy, fully-planted garden with the potential to feed us for the year.

People ask if I have plans for the long holiday weekend.

“Just gardening,” I answer. 

They think it’s work. And no doubt I’ll spend long hours on my knees. I’ll sweat. My back will ache. My feet will protest the hours encased in gumboots. 

But the work I will do this weekend is more a celebration than a chore. At its end is a sense of accomplishment and well-being nothing else can provide.

And as every gardener knows, at its end is the beginning of a new set of tasks—the weeding, watering, and other ongoing care that fills the summer calendar.

So this weekend I will plant and celebrate, and next weekend I will weed.

Springtime Companions

I like to make the most of my garden space. No matter how big the garden is, I never seem to have enough. 

lettuce and peas planted together

I also enjoy having fresh salad greens all year, but lettuce has a tendency to bolt in our dry, warm summers.

I tackle both problems, and keep weeds at bay with companion planting. 

I plant most of my peas along the fence surrounding the vegetable garden, using the fence as a trellis for the tall varieties. The bed I prepare for them is 50 cm wide, and since I want them to climb the fence, the peas sit at one edge of the bed, leaving plenty of room for weeds to grow.

Instead of letting the weeds take over, I plant my lettuces and spinach in front of the peas. These low-growing plants quickly cover the soil, smothering weeds and naturally mulching the soil, protecting it from the drying sun. The taller peas provide shade to the salad greens for much of the day, preventing them from getting too hot and bolting early.

Both peas and lettuces finish around the same time mid-summer, so it’s easy to pull them all out at once and chop them up in place to thickly mulch the garden edge, preventing weeds from taking over.

And if I’m really thinking, I plant big rangy late crops in the beds nearby—pumpkins, cucumbers, melons or potatoes. They creep across the path and take over the space vacated by the peas and lettuce, making sure the garden space is used continuously all summer.

Watching the Weather

tomato plants in the greenhouse

October is over so I’m a little obsessive about the weather. Will we have another frost? Will it rain? Will it be warm and sunny? What will the wind be like? Every day is critical for the next two weeks.

I do my best to time indoor seed planting just right, so all the frost tender vegetables are ready to plant out on Canterbury weekend (in mid-November)—the date I can be 90 percent sure of no more frost. The slow-growing peppers and eggplants are first—planted the 15th of August along with all the frost-hardy crops. A week later, I plant the tomatoes and basil. Fast-growing cucurbits and corn wait until late October.

By the beginning of November, the greenhouse is full of plants waiting to be planted out.

Of course, no matter how hard I try, there’s a level of uncertainty. A particularly cold spring can slow down growth so I’m planting out tiny seedlings in mid-November. On the other hand, warm sun can mean my plants are chomping at the bit by the first of the month. Hence, my obsession with the weather.

This year, my tomatoes are at the perfect stage to be planted out now. In two weeks, they’ll be overly tall and leggy. So I’ll be checking the long range forecast to see if I can plant them this weekend instead.

The peppers and eggplants, however, could use another week or so in the greenhouse before being planted out. I’ll coddle them in their pots, urging them to put on some good growth before they’re at the mercy of bugs and birds. I’ll be hoping for good sunny days to kick their growth into high gear.

At the same time, I’ll be watching the early crops already in the garden. They’ll be starting to feel the heat—risking bolting if they get too hot and dry. I’ll be monitoring the weather to know when I have to turn the irrigation on.

In two weeks it won’t matter so much—it will be reliably warm enough, and predictably too dry. All the vegetables will be in the garden, and they’ll all need extra watering.

But for now, I have the weather forecast open on my browser at all times, watching carefully to make the most of what the weather has to offer.

Asparagus, Asparaguses, Asparagi?

asparagus spear infected with phytophthora
Asparagus spear infected with phytophthora

It’s asparagus season, and we are enjoying spears from our own plants, though not as many as we’d like.

We moved crowns from our old house to the new, and have had rather mixed luck. Some didn’t survive transplant. Others grew poorly last year, and did not show their faces this year. Still others sprouted this year, but have been succumbing to phytophthora infection—a new challenge for us.

Phytophthora asparagi is an oomycete. Its long-lived spores overwinter in the soil and infect asparagus roots and spears. Phytophthora infection interferes with water transport in the stem, causing shrivelling and a ‘shepherd’s crook’ curl to the spears.

Oomycetes were once thought to be fungi, because their growth forms can be similar. They are, however, genetically distinct and are now known to be more closely related to kelp than fungi. Many oomycetes are plant pathogens, and some, like late potato blight, sudden oak disease, and Phytophthora asparagi are of economic importance.

We never had trouble with phytophthora at the old place—our well-drained soil with excellent nutrient levels kept it at bay. But at the new property, the heavy clay soil devoid of nutrients provides perfect conditions for phytophthora growth. 

Two months ago, before we’d identified phytophthora, I planted a packet of asparagus seed. I wanted to fill in the gaps in the asparagus bed, where our transplanted plants had died. Now, with 38 beautiful asparagus seedlings in the greenhouse, I’ve got a different plan for them.

Michigan State Extension recommends fungicide and careful selection of planting site to control phytophthora. I’d like to avoid the fungicide, but I can manage the soil, at least a little.

asparagus seedlings

My little seedlings will need about 18 months in pots before I can plant them out. That’s plenty of time to prepare a special raised bed for them, filled with compost, sand, and soil for high-nutrient, well-drained growing conditions. In the meantime, we’ll enjoy the asparagus we are getting, and do our best to keep the old plant alive until the new ones can be harvested.

And, just so you know, the plural of asparagus is asparagus.

The Organised Gardener

Garden map and to-do lists
Garden map and to-do lists

We’re in the middle of the spring school holidays. This two-week block of time off of the day job is always a busy gardening time. There are garden beds to prepare, vegetable seedlings to plant out, seeds to start, seedlings to pot up, and of course the weeds are running rampant everywhere. There’s never enough time to do it all.

This is the time where panic sets in—I’ll never have plants in the ground in time, the weeds will take over all the vegetables I planted earlier in the spring, the birds will eat all my pea plants before they get going, hail or frost will kill tender plants … I have a thousand worries at this point in the gardening year.

This is the time of year when my garden plan is absolutely essential. In mid-August, when I plant the first vegetable seeds, I create a garden map and a week by week to-do list. Every task—planting seeds, preparing garden beds, potting up seedlings, installing or fixing irrigation lines, netting crops, etc—is added to the list on the appropriate weekend from August to mid-November when I finally plant out the last vegetables. Each weekend, I need only worry about the items on the list for that weekend. I can ignore the burgeoning weeds in one place, and the swaths of winter-feral garden in another, because I know that those areas are on the list—I’ve got a plan that will make sure that by the time a plant is ready to go into the garden, the garden will be ready for it.

Of course, sometimes things get out of hand—a week of warm wet weather might speed up weed growth, or an unexpected frost might nail some tender plants and require replanting. I’m always adjusting the list, adding things or shifting tasks from one week to another, but having the plan means I can stop panicking. It means I don’t prepare a bed so early, that it needs to be weeded again before I can plant in it. It means I don’t forget to do an important task at the right time. It means that, if I spend a weekend hiking, I know exactly what I need to accomplish in the evenings during the following week in order to catch up on the work.

In short, it means I can relax and enjoy springtime—enjoy the work, rather than stress about it.

Sometimes I’m embarrassed by my stacks of lists and hyper-organised garden schedule. But here in the thick of springtime planting, I’m extremely thankful for the part of me that insists on organisation.

Spring Cleanout

The equinox has passed and we’re on the sunny side of the year. The greenhouse is filled with vegetable seedlings. Flowers bloom in the yard. Asparagus spears and artichoke buds are popping up to grace our dinners.

Now is the time to scour the cupboards and freezer for what’s left of last summer’s bounty. It needs to be eaten before this year’s crops start to come in and make us forget.

As usual for us, the frozen peas and corn are long gone. The carrots I froze from last year’s bumper crop have been eaten, too. The currants, peaches and strawberries never stand a chance of making it to September—they are like bright sparks for winter’s darkest days.

As usual, what remains is pumpkin. Baked and frozen when the fresh pumpkins started to rot back in July, frozen pumpkin has become a staple in our springtime cooking as we scramble to finish it off.

Maybe I should plant fewer?

Except it’s the only vegetable left at this time of year. And maybe pumpkin isn’t traditionally considered a springtime vegetable but pumpkin pie, cake, galette, and pancakes are delicious any time of the year.

So bring on the flowers, the sun and the warmth. And bring on the pumpkin! We’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

pumpkin cake glazed with yogurt frosting
Pumpkin cake … best way to eat pumpkin?

Field of Dreams

If you mulch it, they will come.

When we first bought our property, we started right in on soil improvements where we knew the vegetable garden was going to be, long before we even had house plans finalised. That work was terribly depressing. The topsoil had been stripped off by the developer, and what was left was compacted clay studded with rocks. It barely grew weeds, and the combined effort of a rotary hoe and hand tilling only managed to penetrate about 5 cm into the soil. There were no worms, no beetles—and we later learned, no nutrients either.

I wondered if we’d made a huge mistake buying the land.

Since then, we’ve poured compost and manure into the soil, mulched heavily, and done our best to avoid compacting the soil so painstakingly loosened.

As I began turning beds this spring, I was stunned by the number of worms in the soil—thousands upon thousands of them. The clay is honeycombed by their tunnels, and you can’t dig a hoe in without bisecting a few (sorry!). It is truly astonishing.

Where did all those worms come from? Were they there all along, but hiding deep below the surface? Did the few worms there when we first moved in simply reproduce like mad when we started adding organic material to the soil? I’ll never know, but I begin to have hope for this garden. 

I feel a little like Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) in Field of Dreams—create the right conditions, and the players will appear.

Sun’s Return

It’s only a few weeks past the solstice. Nights are below freezing, and the worst of winter is still to come. In shady spots the frost lingers all day.

Spinach seedlings in the greenhouse
Spinach seedlings in the greenhouse

But plants are already responding to the increase in sunlight. There is a haze of new green growth in the chickens’ winter-bare paddock, daffodils are poking their shoots out of the flower beds, and the grass will soon need to be mown.

In the greenhouse, the lettuce and spinach seedlings that have been sitting there unchanging for weeks have finally begun growing again. The broccoli in the winter garden has begun thinking about heading up (at least until yesterday when the chickens got in there and stripped the leaves).

I too have responded to the sun. I’ve drawn my garden map for the upcoming season. I’ve assessed my seed needs in preparation for the arrival of the new year’s seed catalogue. I’ve nearly completed incorporating manure into the entire vegetable garden.

The weeks will go quickly. Before I know it, it will be time to start seeds, mark out garden beds and spread compost. Now is the time I should be buckling down to complete winter tasks—sewing, organising, cleaning … But like the plants stretching out their tentative leaves, I can’t help but respond to the sun, reaching for spring and looking forward to the new season to come.

A Warm Winter Solstice

The winter solstice passed this week, cold and rainy. It was also the anniversary of moving into our new house. It was truly a delight not to endure the run-up to the solstice in an unheated, uninsulated shed. To have a warm, dry place to eat and sleep; to have electricity and plumbing—what a luxury!

8 am with the sun barely rising …

Indeed, I still sort of feel I’m living in someone else’s house. Until a year ago, my husband and I had never owned a house less than a hundred years old. Then suddenly we had square corners and level floors. We had double glazing and insulation. We had doors that opened and closed properly, walls without fifty coats of paint, and not a speck of rot anywhere.

It was a bit of a shock.

And now I wonder if I’m going soft. I don’t wake up to a freezing house and have to light the fire. I don’t worry that the roof will leak every time it rains. I don’t have to venture to the attic to empty and re-set the rat traps. I don’t wake wondering if today is the day the water heater, septic system, or well pump is going to die.

Sometimes I miss the character of an old house—a house that is old enough to have a life of its own, a house that tells stories. Sometimes I feel guilty—a new house is such an unnecessary luxury.

But truth is, modern life is pretty good, especially in the cold, rainy days around the winter solstice. So for the moment, I’ll simply be thankful for all those luxuries that make the dark days brighter.