Home & Away Part Two: A Guide to Absentee Gardening

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The third golden rule of absentee gardening: MULCH!

This post is the second in a series of three. Collectively, the posts weigh the pleasures of roaming (travel) against the pleasures of homing (epitomized by the practice of gardening), offering practical tips and solutions for gardeners – who like me – enjoy long periods away from the nest. In short, this series of posts is about ‘absentee gardening.’

In this particular post I outline the crucial six-steps I followed prior to departing on a four-week holiday. It goes without saying that gardens benefit from regular attention, and so four weeks without maintenance is a lot to ask of any annual vegetable garden!

Why I was leaving… the back story
A few hours after delivering my Confirmation Presentation (a doctoral milestone!) to a mingled audience of faculty, friends, family and office of research staff at the University of the Sunshine Coast I decided it was time to celebrate. I jumped online and did the unthinkable: booked a ticket to Thailand and Vietnam for one month. I hold the endorphins released during the presentation responsible for the rashness of my decision – or maybe it was simply the fact that I was missing Richie, who had been away in Thailand for four-weeks already.

Hold on honey, I’m a-coming!’ was the subject of the email I posted to Richie that night.

In my hast to get away I’d booked an outward flight departing in three days’ time. Not long to get everything around the house and garden in order. Not long at all!

My priority was to ensure that when Richie and I returned from our holiday there’d be a well-established winter vegetable garden waiting for us. Here’s the six step I followed to prepare the garden for our absence:

  1. Fertilise
  2. Water
  3. Mulch
  4. Sew
  5. Protect
  6. Entice

Fertilise
The first thing I did was visit the plant nursery to see how the annual vegetable seedlings were getting on. I’d sewn the seeds into trays a little over three-weeks ago. Most of them were doing all right. The broccoli, lettuce, Ethiopian cabbage and rocket (grown from seeds I’d saved last year) were ahead of the game.

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Some of the other seeds – the parsley, saltwort and American cress – had failed entirely to come up. These seed I had not saved myself. Were they viable, I wondered? I checked the instructions on the packets. Yes! They were all well within the ‘best before’ date range and yes, they were also suitable for planting at this time of year in the subtropics.

Before planting-out the seedlings I decided to fertilise the garden. Since the end of summer, the garden had gone to rack and ruin, overlooked as I ploughed ahead with my doctoral research.

summer produce

Summer produce from the garden.

Thankfully, before leaving, Richie had the foresight to collect a ute-load of well-rotten cow manure, courtesy of a dairy farm down the road. It was to the manure-pile that I headed now. I loaded the manure into a wheelbarrow and carted it to the garden.

I watched the black treacley soil exit the wheelbarrow. Good shit, I thought to myself, nodding appreciatively. The yellow-breasted robin sitting beside me on the rock wall seemed to think so too. He was keeping a keen eye out for worms – of which there were many.
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As I worked, I hoped that the farmer from whom we’d bought the manure was right – that there were no grass and weed seeds lurking inside, waiting to germinate. He’d assured us that it had been heated to above sixty degrees for several consecutive days (naturally of course – via the combined power of sun and microbes) – which is the best guarantee you can get in terms of weed-free manure.

Water
Between each barrow of manure I watered the area liberally. If the seedlings were going to survive four weeks of neglect it was important that the soil should be thoroughly moist.

Mulch
After the applications of rotted manure and water came a thick top-dressing of dry leaves; about two-to-three inches deep. Hmmmmmm, mulch! Again, I had Richie to thank for collecting the leaves in a leaf cage about three months prior. Because we hadn’t had any spare water to add to the leaves (we live entirely on collected rainwater), they had decomposed rather slowly and were still in larger pieces than one might otherwise expect.

Sew
Before planting the seedlings into the newly fertilised, watered and mulched garden beds I first scraped back small areas of mulch, exposing the soil where I intended to plant.

Using my fingers I poked a few dozen holes in the surface of the earth and into each hole lowered one seedlings from the tray. I then compacted the soil gently around the base of each of the seedlings, firming them in, before then tucking the mulch in around them. This step, I hoped, would protect them (and the soil) from drying out.

The root crops – which consisted of Detroit beetroots, daikon radishes and Paris Market carrots – I sowed direct. Again, I started by scraping back the mulch; I then dug a few shallow furrows and dropped the seeds into the furrows at intervals; finally covering them over with a sprinkling of river sand, about one centimeter deep. The addition of the sand meant the young seeds would emerge through a nice, fine substrate as opposed to the coarse, lumpy texture of the rotted manure.

Protect
Once the seeds and seedlings were in the ground it occurred to me that if they were going to survive they’d need protection. I’ve seen the havoc a bush turkey can reek on a newly planted garden bed. I didn’t want to risk it.

In the failing afternoon light on the day prior to my departure, I trundled over to the ever-generous grove of black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra). Using a pair of loppers I chopped down the bamboo-equivalent of a small forest. The rustling leaves and hollow canes fell chaotically around my feet, making me think of the iconic chase scene in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

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Black running bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) doing what it does best – running away!

Throwing the twelve-foot canes over my shoulder, I proceeded to walk up the driveway, around the back of the house, past the rainwater tank until I arrived at the vegetable beds, which, I might add, are located beside the back door. Remember Bill Mollison’s rule: to garden from the back door outwards, extending the edge?


Permaculture principle no 11: Use edges and value the marginal.


Even though the black running bamboo (which we inherited along with the house) is a nuisance – threatening to overwhelm everything in its path – it is proving a valuable resource. Permaculture, in all its wisdom, teaches us that a problem = a solution. Heeding this wisdom, we’ve begun harvesting the bamboo in vast quantities (bamboo is the epitome of a renewable resource!), employing it for use in all sorts of home and garden construction jobs, like my nifty pecan-storage beam which I built by drilling holes into the underside of a cane of decorative green and yellow bamboo, (another variety which grows in abundance on our ‘patch’), feeding wires through the holes, and attaching nylon nets of pecans to the wire hooks. Later, Richie pointed out that rather than drilling holes, it’s easier to simply tie a length of rope to the neck of  two bags, connecting them, and then throw the rope over the beam so that the bags of nuts dangle opposite one another, balanced on either side of the beam). Hopefully this will be enough nuts to see us through for three or four months.

a novel way to store nuts

Bamboo: a novel way to store nuts!

The next step, after transporting the bamboo canes back to the garden, was to split them lengthways and cut them into roughly two-foot lengths. I poked them vertically into the soil around the perimeter of the garden beds, then wove some canes through the uprights at a cross-angle to make a rustic turkey-proof fence. This turkey fence has stood the test of time. As a bonus, it is proving a popular perch for small birds such as fairy wrens and robins who help keep our bug population in check.

The newly-constructed turkey fence.

The newly-constructed turkey fence.

The turkey fence has stood the test of time, keeping turkeys out and lettuce in!

Eight-weeks later, the turkey fence has stood the test of time – keeping turkeys out and lettuce in!

I enlisted one further strategy to ensure the little seedlings were adequately protected. I’d seen this technique used to good effect in my Mum and Dad’s garden. They use sharp scissors to cut the bases out of a load of plastic plant pots. Then they slide the hollow pots over the heads of their little seedlings, pressing down on the pots until their bottom lip is firmly planted in the soil. These plastic collars help protect the seedlings from excessive sun and wind, and I suspect, make a pleasant microclimate – warm and damp – in which the plants seem to thrive.

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This strategy doesn’t look so great, but it IS effective for protecting seedlings.

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Recycled plant-pot collar.

There's no way we can remove those plant pots now - the plants are way too big!

There’s no way we can remove those plant pots now – the plants are too big!

Typical practice is that after a few weeks, when the seedlings are bigger and hardier, you remove the collars and stack them back in the potting shed, ready for next season’s planting. However, in our case, such a long time had elapsed, that by the time Richie and I returned from our holiday the plants were too big to remove the collars – not without causing damage to the plants. And so, the collars have stayed on and will continue to stay on until our winter veggies – like this broccoli – are fully mature and ready to harvest.

A broccoli grown from seeds saved last winter. This one's almost ready to harvest!

A broccoli grown from seeds saved last winter. This one’s almost ready to harvest!

Entice
Only one step remained – to entice. No, not to entice the turkeys (I’d had enough of them), nor the beneficial insects (they, I hoped, would come of their own accord). No. The individuals whom I wanted to ‘entice’ were our human neighbors; entice them to come and water the garden from time to time, ensuring the seedlings didn’t simply dry-out and die, which, of course, was one very real possibility.

But what could I use to entice them?

An inspection of the garden revealed that there was a good crop of sweet basil still remaining on the basil plant below the clothes line – sufficient for about…. hmmmmmm, say three or four batches of pesto. There was also still a load of lettuce ready for harvest, enough to make maybe a dozen salads. In addition, there was also an assortment of perennial greens to be harvested, including the prolific Brazilian spinach, which has become one of our favourite vegetables due: (a) to its tolerance of poor soil, (b) its ability to crop heavily, and most importantly, (c) the lovely rich green flavour of its crisp leaves – perfect eaten lightly steamed, or thrown in to an Indian curry at the last minute.

chlorophyl-rich Brazilian spinach - a super food and easy to grow!

Chlorophyl-rich Brazilian spinach – a super food and easy to grow!

That evening, amidst a frenzy of packing, I called my neighbours to inform them about my holiday and the presence in the garden of the basil, lettuce and Brazilian spinach – all ready and waiting to be harvested. As an extra enticement, I made a note of emphasising that I’d placed a few jars of delicious homemade marmalade in the rattan basket on the deck, which they were welcome to take should they decide to pop over and give the garden a water (wink, wink).

Who can resist a spoonful of homemade marmalade?

Who can resist a spoonful of homemade marmalade?

On the off-chance my neighbours were impervious to the charms of basil, lettuce, Brazilian spinach and marmalade, I laid a second, more elaborate ‘enticement’ trap. This time, I sent an email inviting our dear friends, Jess and Jess, (who are also keen travellers and gardeners) and who normally reside 100 kilometres away in Brisbane, to come and stay while we were away – a rare opportunity for a secluded ‘country break’ – is how I sold the idea to them.

‘You know where the key is,’ I wrote at the end of the email, ‘AND IF YOU DO DECIDE TO COME, DON’T FORGET TO WATER THE GARDEN!’

Being good friends, Jess and Jess didn’t forget to water the garden when they came to stay. Nor did our wonderful neighbours who thankfully, couldn’t resist the allure of basil, lettuce, Brazilian spinach and marmalade.

And…

… it wasn’t only our friends and neighbours who conspired to help us out – even the elements did their bit. Every week while we were away, my mother wrote to inform us that it had been raining. In total, it rained at least half a dozen times. As a result, the garden stayed moist and happy, and the plants grew and grew. What it means – in practical terms – is that we’re harvesting and eating snow peas, radishes, broccoli, coriander, bok choi, lettuce and rocket on a daily basis!

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Snow peas, ready for harvest!

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Sugarloaf cabbages beginning to heart-up.

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Daikon radish. A great addition to stir-fries and winter-coleslaw.

Even if the garden hadn’t survived (which I’m glad it did), I’m happy I decided to go away and have a holiday with my man. Why? Because gardens – no matter what state they’re in when you return – are always there no matter how long you stay away. The same  cannot always be said of partners – for whom there are many more than six steps for caring for, AND… who might just up and leave if you neglect them for too long.

Sometimes relationships are a bit like gardens, sometimes they need extra special tending.

Relationships are a bit like gardens, they need extra-special tending.

Stay tuned for part three of Home & Away: a profile of the five top food-plants that survived (and thrived) during mine and Richie’s four-week absence. Here’s a sneaky peak of one reliable cropper who can handle a bit of neglect.

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Mystery vegetable. Who am I?

Happy lazy gardening!

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2 Comments

Filed under Doctoral Research, Earth Care, Food, Permaculture, Travel

2 responses to “Home & Away Part Two: A Guide to Absentee Gardening

  1. christina doratis

    I loved this entry Nina. Very practical and easy to read. Wonderful photos. Your garden is doing well – you and Rich should be proud of it.
    Love
    Tina

  2. Kay

    Well writen Nina, you really must help me with the art of mulching, I can’t get to grips with it, but your photos show how it’s a must, love Kay x

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