I am the first to admit that I am not the best-organised of gardeners. In the past I have gone through bursts of enormous enthusiasm and planting, often dissipated by failed crops, too-hot summers back in Perth, bad planning, and neglect. For years now I have usually grown (or tried to grow) some kind of food, but in reality, I have not made a very good job of actually consistently harvesting and using my produce.
I first got into veggie growing after the break up of my first marriage, 15 years ago. This is not to say I had no experience of gardening – growing up my Dad always grew veggies and kept chickens. I’m not sure how much of a help I was in my childhood, but have clear memories of scrabbling through shovelfuls of dirt to harvest potatoes as Dad dug them up, eating peas off the vine, turning my nose up at the fresh brussels sprouts, eating mandarins, plums and mulberries in the back yard. When I got into making my own little patches, first in a few rental houses, there was much sharing of ideas and talking about methods amongst my Dad, sister-in-law and myself – all keen gardeners. I’m pretty sure it was my Dad who gave me the first of what would be many, many books on gardening, food growing and the like – Jackie French’s Backyard Self Sufficiency.
I adored this book. I must have read it 10 times or more. I loved the hopeful, encouraging, can-do attitude. The you can make anything you need approach, tempered with the practicalities of how much work true self sufficiency actually is. Most of all, I loved the idea of low-work, messy gardening. Oh yes, that one hooked me right in. Messy, organic, letting the garden do its thing – that absolutely characterised the chaotic, all jumbled in together, riotous messes my veggie patches often were. I looked with fond amusement at my Dad’s organised, patches, all neatly planted in rows. I’m sure he looked at my patches with similar bemusement.
I kept the ad-hoc approach up with varying degrees of success as I built from scratch new vegetable gardens in each of the four houses I bought over the last 14 years. Recently I have been reviewing and totally rethinking the way I approach food gardening. I knew that my approach would have to change once we moved to Tasmania – not least because of the very different climate, and soil. (Soil! I have Soil! This still excites me, having planted most of my gardens on Perth’s coastal sands.) Part of our reason for moving here was to be able to have the time and motivation to become much more self-sufficient, which means my garden has to be more productive. And I need to be much more organised, which means planning, keeping records, and being open to different ways of doing things.
As I’ve mentioned before, I have spent a lot of time reading one of the Tasmanian Veggie planting books everyone tells you to read, Steve Solomon’s Growing Vegetables South of Australia, which has been a revelation. I’m not sure I will follow all his suggestions, but I am taking note. A good example is to look at the way I have approached potatoes.
On the right, the way I always used to do potatoes. Dig a little hole, put in some compost then cover with straw. keep adding more straw and ‘hilling them up’ after a fashion with the straw. Given this bed was started on top of cardboard, with potatoes I had started out in pots then transplanted, this bed hasn’t done too badly. I’ve started getting a few nice pickings from here already. However, to the left is my new experiment…
Yep – your good old-fashioned hilled-up potatoes. I always knew many people grew potatoes like this. So when Steve Solomon said this is the way I should–nay MUST– grow them I thought I would give it a try. (Steve is not afraid to assert that his way of doing things is the best and only way!) So I popped some lovely King Edward seed potatoes from local Golden Valley Farm into a shallow trench. Luckily I had gotten some light top soil delivered in order to speed-construct half the veggie patch, so I just kept piling it on and hilling up. The result? A wonderfully lush row of potatoes more than waist high. I have assiduously refrained from even having the slightest thought of bandicooting (another habit learned from Jackie!) and am waiting for the plants to die down before I get out my shovel. Well, maybe I should dig up one plant to get some lovely new potatoes…
My next challenge is to really get my head around planning, documenting and keeping track of my planting, varieties, methods used, and harvests. To that end I have joined an online gardening site and journal, My Folia which I have yet to really make use of. They have a ‘seed stash’ function which sounds awesome (put in all the seeds you have with planting times etc and it will send a reminder of when you’re meant to be planting). In the meantime I will keep trying to document what I am planting here.