Saving seeds, Part I

Seed saving – Giant Russian Sunflowers


The Svalbard Seed Vault achieved a milestone in February when it reached one million species stored in its arctic vault in Norway. The Seed Vault, also known as the Doomsday or Apocalypse Vault, stores seeds to protect the genetic diversity of the world’s agricultural crops. It is one of several seed vaults around the world, and saves the seeds that humanity relies on to feed itself, in case of war, environmental catastrophe, famine, or other global crises.

My seed vault is not hidden inside a sandstone tunnel in the Arctic, like a Bond villain’s hideout (although I wish). It’s my pantry, which is a cellar in our house. It is nice and cool, but not Norwegian ice fortress or Bond villain hideout cool. I also don’t have one million species. At the moment I probably have about twenty, saved over the past three years as our garden has grown and produced plants that have been worth saving.

Kent pumpkin grown from saved seed

Like one of my heroes, agricultural activist Vandana Shiva, I regard saving seeds as a political act. Many of the plants and seeds we have available to us are developed and owned by large agricultural companies, which are in turn owned by larger companies. Seeds are our heritage, not just because as humans we have selected and saved them and passed them down through generations, but because as beings that share this planet with all the other species that live on it, we owe a debt that requires we help ensure the genetic diversity of plants. A seed is a gift from the plant that came before it, and a promise of a new life. For millennia, plants have reproduced using this effective system, and plants, humans and animals have been the beneficiaries in a symbiotic relationship that has enabled all of us to survive and thrive.

Previously, gardeners and farmers would select the strongest or most productive varieties, and save the seeds of those plants for the following season. This would result in strong and productive plants being retained over generations. This practice also developed genetic diversity of plants over generations, as farmers and gardeners would select for plants that grew well in their local conditions. A tomato variety that grew well in one region would be saved and passed down, while a different tomato variety would be saved and passed down in another. Sometimes, a plant would mutate and a new variety was born. If that plant was stronger, tastier, or more productive, the seed would be saved and passed on. This is one way that we have ended up with such an interesting variety of plant species. A good example of this in Australia is the Granny Smith apple, which was an unexpected seedling that grew in the backyard of a lady called Maria Smith. The apple was so delicious and useful, she propagated the plant and it became one of the most popular apple varieties in the world, valued for its usefulness as a cooking apple. The Granny Smith Apples we eat today are all propagated clones of the original tree from Maria Smith’s garden.

Giant Devil’s Tongue Chilli Bush

In my small way, I contribute to this sustainable process. Last year, I grew a chilli plant I purchased from a gardener’s market. Labelled Devil’s Tongue, it grew more prolifically than any chilli I have grown. The plant itself was the largest chilli plant I have ever grown, and produced more chillies than I have ever seen one plant produce. It was also the hottest chilli I have ever tasted. That is fine by us, as we love hot chillies (particularly my husband, who will put hot sauce on anything). However for many people, it was just too hot! I couldn’t give many of these chillies away.

We loved it though, and at the end of the Summer, I saved the seed and planted it again this year. The chillies are just beginning to form, rather later than last year, but I am hoping for another bumper crop. The Devil’s Tongue is an heirloom, or open-pollinated plant. This means that its seeds have produced another plant the same as its parent. If it does well again, I will know that this is a reliable plant and I can feel confident to share my Devil’s Tongue seeds with other gardeners – if they dare (insert crazed Bond villain laugh here, mwah ha hahhhhhhhh).


Since the 1930s, large seed companies have been developing plants called ‘hybrids.’ These plants grow “true to type” (that is, as the packet says it will) for the first season. However, any seeds the plant then produces, if planted, will not grow true to type, if at all, the following season. As such, if you want to grow the same plant again, you will have to buy fresh seed.

For example, this year I grew a sweetcorn, Jubilee, a hybrid. It was fantastic: sweet, juicy, high yielding, and pest free. I’d love to grow it again. But if I want to grow it again, I will have to find the seeds from the same company. It’s a relatively large seed company, so that should be easily done.

Sometimes there are good reasons to hybridise plants. Plant breeders do it to breed stronger plants, or plants with certain characteristics, such as a high yield, good storing capability, or uniformity. Many of the common agricultural crops, as well as the seeds and seedlings we buy at large nurseries are hybrids. Farmers know that they can rely on the result if they plant them.

So what’s the problem? The corn I grew was great!

  1. Reliance on hybrid plants reduces crop and plant diversity.

Heirloom, or non-hybridised, plants reproduce themselves year on year. Over time they may also throw up an occasional “sport” or genetic mutation. This can happen if they are cross-pollinated by wind or a bee, or can occur spontaneously. If this mutation is a better yielding plant, tastes better, or has better disease resistance, a new plant is born and the biodiversity of our foodchain and our planet is increased. As hybrid plants don’t produce new productive plants (they will still grow, but not reproduce reliably or at all), there is no opportunity for anything new from my hybrid sweetcorn. At best I may end up with a plant that is a weakened version of one of the parents that was used to create the original plant. I won’t get back my Jubilee corn – if I want the exact corn, I have to buy new seeds. This leads me to the next point:

2. Hybrid plants are more expensive.

These plants were created by companies for commercial purposes. They don’t reproduce reliably, so farmers and gardeners have no choice but to buy new seed each year. In the past, farmers saved seed for the following year. This saved money for farmers, and also contributed to genetic diversity as farmers in different regions saved seeds that did the best in their environmental conditions.When we plant hybrid seeds instead of growing open-pollinated or ‘heirloom’ plants, gardeners must rely on seed companies and nurseries for plants. Farmers must buy seeds from companies that produce seeds for their corporate conditions. This is of particular concern in developing countries, where farmers have been convinced to buy hybrid seeds on a promise that it will be higher yielding or pest resistant, only to find that they are trapped in a cycle of buying seeds annually. I can afford to buy a fresh $2 packet of sweetcorn seeds each year if I want to. A farmer in a developing country may not be able to afford to buy canola seeds for his farm each year. Purchasing seeds each year is a cost that poorer farmers could do without – and they have done for thousands of years until the late twentieth century.

3. Health, taste, and experience.

Many heirloom plants are not grown commercially because they do not travel well or store well in cold storage. We do not see them on our supermarket shelves. We grow used to seeing one kind of apricot, two kinds of nectarines, one variety of carrot, the black zucchini, the green broccoli, the white cauliflower. We think that this is the only kind of fruit and vegetables that exist because these are the varieties grown commercially and sold to us. By limiting the plant foods that are grown to only those that can travel in planes and trucks, and stored in the fridge, we are also limited in our understanding of what food tastes and looks like. For example, there are more than 7,500 apple varieties and 400 varieties of bananas, but in Australia we are able to buy about six varieties of apples and three varieties of bananas commercially.

Why is this a problem?

To me, it is a problem because our food choices, preferences, and health are being dictated not by what is healthiest or tastiest, but by what is commercially most viable. The Red Delicious is in my view, a pretty average apple (it looks like a cartoon apple, and tastes like cotton), but it is still sold commercially over other, tastier apples because it travels and stores well. The standard supermarket tomato does not taste anything like the Jaune Flamme I grew this year, but that tomato would not stand up to the rigours of the modern commercial supermarket; it’s too soft and ripens too quickly. Yet this gorgeous heirloom tomato is not only high in Vitamin C, but is also high in beta-carotene, is highly productive, and delicious. A hybrid tomato will tolerate being transported long distances and will put up with being handled by fussy supermarket shoppers.

An article in Scientific American , citing a paper published in the American Journal of Nutrition, reported that many of the fruits and vegetables we buy today are less nutritious than those available several decades ago. The paper found that this is because  vegetables have been developed with a focus on certain characteristics to meet commercial requirements (size, uniformity, pest resistance). This has resulted in vegetables that are unable to take up nutrition from the soil because they grow too large, too quickly. The article did warn that fruit and vegetables are still nutritious – just not as nutritious as they used to be, because the focus was on breeding plants that grow to a certain size and appearance, rather than on nutrition.

What next?

So now what? Do we all stop growing hybrid plants?

I can’t say that – it would be hypocritical, for one thing. I grow some ornamental and edible hybrid plants, and I will into the future.  I do think that hybrids have a place in the world. I think that hybrid plants can be better plants under certain environmental conditions, and in many instances offer plants that are uniform and high yielding for the home gardener. As a home gardener that can afford to replace seeds annually, there will be certain types of seeds that I will buy that I know are hybrids.

I also am not self-sufficient. I buy supermarket and produce market fruits and vegetables when I need to, and I understand that not everyone is as fortunate as I am to be able to have a patch of dirt to grow the food that I do. Growing my own heirloom carrots is a time-consuming luxury, and I still have to buy the commercially grown carrots most of the time.

However, as my mini-seed vault grows, the number of hybrid plants I do grow and rely upon will be fewer. I want to be able to be mostly self-sustaining, particularly for the annual food plants I grow. I also want my children to grow up knowing that a zucchini can be golden or spherical, a pumpkin can look like a turban, and an apple doesn’t have to look like it came from a witch’s basket.

In my next post on Seed Saving I will go through some easy ways you can start saving seeds, and some simple plants you can try to grow if you want to save seeds.


*Please note that hybrid seeds and GMO – Genetically Modified Organisms – are not the same thing. A hybrid seed is created when two varieties of plants are crossbred. A good explanation of the difference between heirloom, hybrid, and GMO seeds can be found here.






















Weekend Jobs – Monday 12 March 2018

It was a long weekend here in South Australia, which means an extra day for – you guessed it – gardening!

I did a few little jobs on Sunday: feeding my fruit trees with an organic fruit and citrus blend, and then watering them heavily, and picking the last of our zucchini, and some eggplant ready for brinjal pickle. We have had a very dry Summer, and the trees required some extra food and water to get them through until the rain comes (and who knows when that will be?).

I picked just over a kilogram of eggplants. We have at least another five or six coming on, thanks to a late flush of Summer heat. We are growing a standard Black Beauty eggplant this year. I have tried growing an heirloom variety from Diggers called Listada di Gandia, but as with the San Marzano tomatoes, I planted the seed too late and only one of the plants is doing well. If I end up with one or two fruit from this one plant, I will be very happy. It’s a shame; I was looking forward to the beautiful purple and white striped fruit.

That being said, the Black Beauty has been prolific, with no pest problems. Seed catalogues and plant guides say to expect 4-6 fruit per plant, but our best plant has produced at least double this. We have four healthy plants and have eaten the fruit curried, in pasta, barbecued on skewers with haloumi, and as a layered ‘lasagne’ style with ricotta and yoghurt sauce. This time we have decided to make brinjal pickle, our favourite Indian condiment.

Black Beauty Eggplant

Brinjal is just the name that eggplant or aubergine is known by in South East Asia. The pickle is of Goan origin.

Having never made it before, I just found a recipe online that looked simple enough. My husband and I started it on Sunday, by chopping and salting the eggplant, and leaving to drain overnight. Then this morning after breakfast, we got to work. I recommend the recipe linked above, as it smelled amazing and was so easy that even our daughter helped out.

Bottling the Brinjal Pickle.

Then it was out to the backyard to remove the spent zucchini plants, dismantle the bean tripods, stripping off the dried bean pods to save for next year, and pick the last of the fresh beans for dinner. I also tied up the tomatoes again. The San Marzano I planted late seem unlikely to produce the huge harvest I was wishing for, but they will yield some fruit and we may end up with tomatoes for fresh pasta sauce for a few meals at least.

San Marzano

Once we removed the spent zucchini vines (discovering one last, giant zucchini under a leaf!), we assessed our pumpkin situation. We are growing Butternuts (I say “growing”, but that implies both effort and intent – these self-seeded and we have let them go their own way), Kent (in Australia also known as ‘Jap’), and Lakota. The Lakota is struggling, and I would probably not grow it again. The winner by far has been the Kent.

Kent pumpkin ready for picking

I saved the seeds from a Kent pumpkin I bought at the supermarket last year. Normally I roast pumpkin seeds (my family love them as a snack when roasted with olive oil and salt), but I managed to snaffle some away for the garden. I was not sure if they would grow, but they turned out to be very successful. When we pick this pumpkin this afternoon, I will make sure to save some of the seeds for next year. The huge vine is still producing baby pumpkins, and I expect to leave the plant in the ground for another six weeks at least.

We took a break and had a chat with our neighbour over the fence. He is a very keen gardener, and gave me the Giant Russian Sunflower seeds that were so successful this Summer. He did not have a lot of luck with his sunflowers this year, so we gave him a head of seeds from our collection drying on the shed roof. He has pigeons, chickens, and parrots, so was pretty happy to receive it. He also discovered a giant zucchini in his patch, so we had a good laugh comparing our finds. We will save the seed and swap. He is always experimenting with different gardening methods and soil mixes, and we spent a pleasant half an hour discussing soil, plans for garlic crops, and our successful plantings for the Summer. Best of all, he promised me a bag of pigeon poo from his aviary (pigeon poo is the king of compost activators). One of my favourite things about gardening is that it creates great relationships between gardeners.

The rest of the afternoon will be spent weeding, tidying up, and feeding the tomatoes, capsicum, and eggplant with a liquid blend of organic fish emulsion fertiliser, epsom salts, and seaweed tonic.

Seaweed tonic and Charlie Carp – turning the pests in the Murray River into something useful. Not shown: epsom salts

An occasional feeding of epsom salts is good for tomatoes. The high magnesium helps to ‘sweeten’ tomatoes in the fruiting stage. It also helps to prevent blossom end rot.

A perfect, sunshiny day of gardening finished with a delicious meal of five-spice roasted pork served with stir-fried beans and maple-roasted pumpkin from the garden. Doesn’t get much better than that, really.





Lessons learned (but not learnings) this Summer


Friends and I were discussing whether the latest corporate buzzword, “learnings,” is a word. I believe emphatically that it is not, and that like “space,” that other word beloved of keyword speakers and MCs at plenary sessions, it should be consigned to hell. One friend agrees with me, and would like to add the word “journey” to the rocketship to the sun. Our other friend thinks that, as it was used by Shakespeare and is accepted by Scrabble, it is a valid word. As she knows all the valid two-letter words by heart, I should probably take her word for it. I shall still refuse to use it. Therefore, today’s post is a short list of all the things I have learned, and none of my learnings, from the 2018 South Australian Summer gardening season.

  1. Planting anything near potatoes is a bad idea.

Apparently everyone knows this, except me. This was my first year growing potatoes, and they were brilliant. Unfortunately, I did not know that trying to grow other plants near them (for example, in between the potato rows) would lead to very poor growth for those plants. This is because potatoes release a compound that retards growth in nearby plants. This is great for weed suppression, but terrible for the two tomatoes that I planted next to the potatoes. Even the Giant Russian Sunflowers that I planted at the end of the potato rows were half the size of sunflowers I planted elsewhere.

On the plus side, we had a magnificent crop of potatoes and we will be planting them again next year.

2. Trying to start tomatoes from seed in December is a bad idea. 

Like all keen gardeners, I bought a batch of tomato seedlings in October, and had them in the ground so I could have fresh tomatoes by Christmas. Unfortunately, I did not buy enough plants, and by mid-January they were all but over. I also did not plant any sauce tomatoes, so my big plans to make pasta sauce for the rest of the year was an epic fail.

In mid-December I ordered some San Marzano tomato seeds from the Diggers Club, thinking that if I raised the seedlings in time for Christmas I could still have a crop of sauce tomatoes by the end of Summer.

This has turned out to be very poor planning on my part. After a good start in seedling trays and then in pots, they have not grown fast enough in the ground and are only just fruiting now (mid-March). These plants are unlikely to set enough fruit before the weather cools, and my tomato sauce plans will be dreams until next year.

San Marzano tomato – setting fruit but unlikely to set enough before the cooler weather hits

3. Plan more carefully next year.

Firstly, see above. If you have a big plan to make tomato sauce, it’s a good idea to plant sauce tomatoes. Fail.

This year was our first Summer gardening in the backyard of our new(ish) home (the home is not new, but it is to us). It has taken almost three years to clear the backyard from its overgrown and poorly kept state (the previous owner was not a gardener and traveled overseas frequently for work), and to repair the soil after inappropriate plantings. The potatoes were an experiment to see if something would grow. Once we saw the potatoes grow like crazy we knew the soil was ready for hungry plants like corn and tomatoes.

I went a little cray.

I bought zucchini, pumpkin, and bean seeds. Then I checked my seed stashes to find zucchini, pumpkin, and bean seeds. A LOT of them. I have so many varieties of bean seeds I can keep us in beans for the next ten Summers.

Then there’s the basil seeds I found after I bought basil plants, the lettuce seeds I found after I bought lettuce plants, the carrot seeds I found after I bought more carrot seeds, the tomato seeds I bought to grow late tomatoes, the eggplant seeds I bought at the same time, and the chillies I am growing with saved seed, even though I have a freezer full of chillies from last year.

From now on, I am going to check what I have at the start of every growing season, before I buy anything. This has already begun. Yesterday I went to Bunnings and I only spent $31.

True story.

Weekend Jobs – Saturday 3rd March 2018

Happy rhubarb in front of our mulberry tree

This Summer has been one of the driest and hottest on record. The Talkback Gardening advice show on ABC local radio this weekend recommended that gardeners give their trees a good soaking, with a follow up feed and soak next weekend to compensate for the below average rainfall. Much of our day was spent moving hoses and sprinklers around both yards, watering our fruit trees. Next weekend we will give them a feed and another soaking.

We have a good range of young fruit trees:

  • Apricot (variety: Trevatt);
  • Black Mulberry;
  • Passionfruit (a fruiting vine, variety: Grafted Nellie Kelly);
  • Lemons (varieties: Eureka and Lisbon);
  • Lime (variety: Tahitian);
  • Apple (varieties: Early Macintosh and Cox’s Orange Pippin);
  • Pomegranate (variety: Azerbaijan);
  • Pineapple guava, also known as Feijoas;
  • Boysenberries.

All of these are new plantings after we removed the trees that were originally here. We have had our first crop of apricots and passionfruit this year, but have not yet had any crops from the other plantings as they are too small. We are looking forward to healthy crops, but only if we can keep them alive through long, hot Aussie Summers.

Unfortunately, some of our plants have suffered the effects of the heat (we think). A couple of our previously healthy rhubarb plants have died suddenly.

Sad, dead rhubarb 😦

Compare this to the healthy, happy rhubarb plants at the top of this post! I am very much hoping that this is a heat and watering issue for just these two plants, and not a disease or a pest. If it is, I do not want it to spread to my other rhubarb plants. We have about seven rhubarb plants. It is one of my favourite things to grow. I love its beautiful red stems, green foliage, and the interesting decorative structure it brings to a garden. I also love the flavour.

The other task on our list today was to remove the heads of the Giant Russian Sunflowers we grew for the first time this year. My neighbour gave me some seed from his crop last year, and I wanted to give them a try for fun. Little did I know how truly these plants would live up to their name.

The smallest of the flowers grew to over a metre tall, but the tallest were well over two metres tall. They towered over our garden, and when in bloom were truly spectacular. They also attracted many happy bees to our backyard, which doesn’t have the same range of flowering plants as our frontyard. Once in the backyard, the bees were also happy to pollinate our pumpkins and zucchini.

After they finish flowering, the heads form seeds, and the weight of the hundreds of seeds in each flower cause the heads to droop. A plant that formerly looked so cheery begins to look downright mopey. By the time we reached this weekend, the heads were so heavy, the stalks were beginning to slant to the ground. My husband used our fishing knife to remove the heavy seed heads, much to the sadness of our eldest daughter, who loved the “Sunflower Paradise” as she called it.

We are now drying the heads on top of our work shed.

Sunflower heads drying on the shed roof

Each seed head weighs over a kilogram. My neighbour said that the heaviest seed head he harvested last year produced 1.8 kilograms of sunflower seeds. As he has chickens and pigeons, he was very happy with that harvest.

We plan to save some seeds to plant next year, and some to eat. My husband loves eating sunflower seeds, and although these are kind of a pain to dehusk, he doesn’t mind doing it. I will also give some to my mum for her chickens; a trade for the chicken manure she gives me for my compost bin.











Weekend Jobs – Sunday 25 February 2018

Garlic Chives flowering

This morning I decided to tackle some garden jobs that I had been putting off: making some compost, weeding, and moving a raised garden bed that I wanted in a different spot.

The raised garden bed took a little while. We have three of them: those galvanised Stratco jobs, filled with a mix of compost, mushroom compost, mulch and potting mix. I’ll move all of them eventually, but two of them still have some plants in them right now so I will wait a few more weeks to shift them. This one only had a couple of beetroot in them, so I picked them and got cracking.

Before I could shift it I needed to dig all of the compost out and move it around the back. Unfortunately our wheelbarrow is on its last legs so it took a bit longer than it should have. Note to self: invest in a new wheelbarrow.

It took about an hour and a half all up, and once I shifted it, I transplanted a very sad little lemon tree from the backyard to the spot where the raised bed had been. I think it will be much happier there, and the raised bed is much more useful around the back where the rest of our veggies are happily growing. I am planning on using the raised beds to grow our winter greens and lettuces.

The front yard is home to our fruit trees (an apricot, mulberry, and pomegranate tree, and a prolific passionfruit vine), flowers, and many healthy herb bushes. When we moved here three years ago, it had been much neglected and overplanted with an enormous date palm and a gum tree, and a bizarre mix of vines, roses, and ferns. Even worse, the owners had made the mistake of trying to combat weeds by laying black plastic under the soil and then laying dirt and gravel on top. This does not combat any weeds (most weeds are pretty shallow rooted and just grow on top of this so-called ‘weed mat’), and it makes it difficult to grow anything useful. It has taken us a long time to dig through the stupid plastic, remove the vines, ferns, and trees, and replenish the soil and replant with fruit trees, herbs, and flowers that attract beneficial insects.

Initially to combat the black plastic problem, and because the backyard was equally weirdly planted with three enormous conifers, we installed the raised beds to start growing some vegetables. Now that we have replanted the front yard, made the soil healthy, and have slowly removed the black plastic, we can move the raised beds to the backyard – where we have also removed the giant conifers.

Anyway, once I moved the raised bed and planted out some cauliflower seedlings (Cauliflower Macerata) I had been raising, I made some compost. Or rather, I added to my compost.

Making compost

Making compost is an ongoing process. It is something I am pretty passionate about. I have been known to gasp in shock if my kids throw a banana skin in the bin instead of the compost bucket.

“What do you think you are doing?” I cry, waggling my finger at them. “That banana skin is nature’s protein shake.”

To which they walk off, grumbling about their slightly insane mother, while said slightly insane mother rummages in the bin to rescue the banana skin and transfer it to the correct bin.

Our compost bucket lives under our sink, and was purchased from IKEA for the princely sum of $8. The lid seals well and I don’t think it smells, but that is probably because I am used to it…

The contents of the bucket comprise anything that was once a vegetable or fruit (peelings, cores, etc), paper, tea leaves or teabags, coffee grounds, or washed eggshells. I don’t put meat or fat in there.

I tip it in the black plastic compost bin that I bought from Bunnings for $40. Along with the garden fork I bought from The Diggers Club, it is probably the best money I have spent in the garden (the worst was the in-ground worm farm, may they rest in peace). I have tried several different composters, and this one seems to work really well. Forty bucks, people.

You can see below the kind of things that we toss in there: coffee grounds, some carrot peels, some old watermelon, a bean.

Yeah I know, it’s gross. My sister says I should take up knitting.

Compost Fixings

You can also add other things from the garden: weeds, garden waste, trimmings, etc. Try not to put big chunks in there as it will take a long time to break down in a home composter like this.

Try to include a good mix of wet and dryer ingredients – by “wet” I mean household fresh waste, and by “dry” I mean paper or straw. Some people like to think of these as “greens” and “browns.”

All of these things are important, but they are not as important as the magic ingredient.

What is the magic ingredient, I hear you ask?


Poo is the magic ingredient.

Or as we gardeners prefer to call it, manure. It’s a nicer way of saying poo.


Every few months my beloved Mother gives me a bag of poo from her chooks. It is combined with straw as that is what her chooks are bedded in. This gift is fantastic and frankly, I would be happy if instead of a birthday gift, she just gave me a monthly subscription to “Mum’s Poo Service.”* This is because a bag of chook poo is the magic ingredient that turns my compost bin from a slowly rotting pile of carrot peelings to a hot bed of quick activating fertiliser.

Manure activates the compost pile and helps it rot down and turn from rotting organic matter into compost. Compost is critical for gardens. It creates healthy soil, feeds the beneficial bacteria and fungi in the soil, and creates a home for the earthworms and other friendly little critters that live in the soil. Without a healthy soil, you can’t have healthy plants. You can’t have healthy humans.

Put the poo in the composter – happy days

At least every few months, the composter needs a dose of poo manure. My neighbour raises pigeons, and sometimes he is kind enough to pass a bag of pigeon manure over the fence. Otherwise, a bag of my Mum’s chook manure will do the trick. I could buy a bag of sheep manure from the nursery, but it is not as good as bird manure, in my opinion. Bird manure is high in nitrogen, so it activates the compost very well.

I also know that my Mum’s birds are healthy and fed very well on fresh food, so there is no nasties in the manure from there.

Composting is an ongoing process, because as the manure, straw and compost bucket contents break down, I keep adding to it. Every eight weeks or so, I upend the bin and dig it out, taking some compost from the bottom to wherever in the garden needs it. Then I dig the rest back into the bin, and keep going. This is the cycle of composting: food that comes from my garden (the zucchini trimmings, carrot tops, pumpkin guts) go into the composter and come back out again to feed the garden once more. It’s a pootiful thing.




*Not joking.


Weekend Jobs – Saturday February 24 2018

This weekend was lovely and cool after a few weekdays of bright heat and sunshine. There was a tropical cyclone in Western Australia that caused heat and humidity here (but not a lot of rain, unfortunately), and the garden responded with a sudden burst of late Summer productivity. This meant that my Saturday morning job was to pick some veggies, including some unexpected Purple King beans, eight enormous zucchini, and some green capsicums. We have about six eggplants on the way and a plethora of flowers indicating another lovely crop coming, but I decided to leave the eggplant for another week.

Patience, my pet. Another week and you will be ready to go.

My fervent hope for the eggplants is to have enough to make Brinjal Pickle, the king of Goan condiments. So far we have picked eggplants consistently, but not enough to make a pickle – hopefully by next week there will be enough to make my spicy pickle wishes come true. My rule with pickles and jams is that I only make them if I grow the main ingredient myself. This is partly because I am a tightwad (why would I go to all that effort if I have to buy the ingredients?) and partly because I want the bragging rights (homemade! homegrown! all bow before the pickling queen!!!) If I cannot pull together enough eggplants, I will have to wait for next year.

Garden bounty
Purple King Beans, Lebanese Zucchini, Green Capsicum.

Purple King beans are a fun bean to grow. This is an old heirloom climbing variety that grows a pretty purple-green vine. I have grown dwarf beans in the past, but to be honest I do not have a lot of luck with them. I have found the yield to be low compared to the climbing variety.

This year my kids helped me to build some teepees from bamboo stakes, and we planted about twenty seeds. Don’t bother to plant the bean seedlings you sometimes see at nurseries – these are a straight ripoff. Beans should always be sown direct where you want them to grow from seed, and are great value. I bought my pack of seeds from The Reject Shop for less than two bucks. Most bean seeds that you buy are heirloom varieties, but you can check the packet. If the seed packet says ‘F1,’ that means it is a hybrid and you cannot save the seed for next year.

Of course, you can make sure your seeds are heirloom by buying them from a more reputable company than The Reject Shop! If I want a very rare variety, I go to The Diggers Club, but for the traditional old bean varieties like Purple King, Borlotti, or Scarlett Runner, you can get them easily from Bunnings or the discount shops with no problems and for a low price.

The Purple King is fun to grow because the beans grow purple as you can see in the photo above, but when they cook they turn green. It’s entertaining for kids to watch them cook and magically change colour.

Flavour-wise, they taste the same as regular green beans. Try not to let them grow too big – I let these grow a little too large for my taste, because I was busy this week and I actually did not realise there were so many there. It is late in the season and I was not expecting such a large second crop. Beans love hot weather and will only set fruit after they have a few days over thirty degrees centigrade, which is why we have had a second crop. I am a big fan of green beans, so I was happy to have a big crop. I blanched some for the freezer for later in the year, and I also gave some away. All up from our two “bean teepees”, we have picked about five kilograms of beans, which is not too bad for plants that are really “set and forget.”

These plants have required minimal care, aside from regular watering. We have a dripper hose set up around them and that is it. Beans do not need fertiliser, and although they can sometimes be susceptible to whitefly, we have not had that problem here. If we did, we would have used yellow sticky flypaper to deal with it.

The rest of my afternoon was spent grating zucchini for Zucchini and Haloumi burgers (dinner), making my patented zucchini chips (baton zucchini and crumb, then bake – serve with mayo and green chilli sauce), and Zucchini Chocolate bread. Tonight it’s Zucchini and Bean stirfry with honey soy chicken. We have never grown a zucchini plant like this one. Along with the pumpkins it has taken over the backyard. I thought about pulling it out the other day, but it keeps putting on new growth and adding new flowers. Until it stops doing that, I will leave it there and we will keep eating zucchini.

By the end of the Summer we will have eaten so much green food we will all be looking like The Hulk.

Why grow your own?


I was recently speaking with someone who is building a new house. He asked to include space for a vegetable garden, and the architect was shocked. Apparently no-one asks for garden space anymore. They want landscaped courtyards requiring minimal maintenance.

While I wouldn’t want that for myself, I get it. We are all busy, and gardening takes time and effort. Why grow your own vegies when you can buy them at Woollies for the same price it would cost to grow them, and for a lot less hassle?

I have a few reasons.


We eat a lot of vegetables. We are not vegetarian, but we eat less meat, and we eat vegetables with almost every meal. The vegetables we eat are predominantly organic, and are picked at peak ripeness and freshness. Because we use no herbicides or pesticides, almost no vegetable is peeled, retaining the vitamins. I know that I can feed it to my children and my little niece and nephew with just a wash to remove the dirt. I don’t have to worry about chemical residues.

Seasonality and freshness

Our vegetables are picked and eaten immediately, retaining vitamins and freshness. They taste amazing. Until I started growing my own, I didn’t realise that the faint unpleasant taste in many vegetables from the supermarket is actually mould. Even when vegetables in the supermarket look pristine, they are already starting to go bad.

Much of the produce we buy is stored for a long time before we buy it. This is because it has to travel a long way. Then we store it for even longer, in our fridge or freezer, before we get around to eating it. Often, we eat it out of season, expecting to eat asparagus in Winter, or a fresh apple in Spring. When you grow your own produce, you connect with the seasons and understand that asparagus in Winter will not only taste bad, it has likely been grown outside of your country and transported thousands of kilometres in cold storage.

When you grow your own vegetables, you learn to eat seasonally. What we don’t eat, we preserve at the peak of its freshness for later use, or share with family and friends.

Right now it is almost the end of Summer, we have finished our fresh tomatoes, and are eating a second crop of late climbing beans, endless zucchini, eggplant, and capsicum. We are obsessively watching the pumpkins swell, looking forward to an Autumn crop and lots of pumpkin soup and risottos. We are planning our Winter garden of broccoli, cauliflower, pak choy, and kohlrabi.


Marx said that in a modern, capitalist system, humans are often alienated from the product of their labour and from the act of production itself. I am not a socialist, and I do think that human health has benefited in many ways from modern food production, but I do believe that we are mostly alienated from food and food production. I grew up in a regional area, aware of how fresh food was produced. I spent many school holidays staying with friends on a dairy farm, and I worked in agricultural farms in high school and when at university. I had an appreciation for the hard work required to produce the fruit and vegetables we eat. But while I was picking it, I was still disconnected from it because I was not maintaining the land, taking care of the trees, producing the fruit, and living off its proceeds.

This disconnection from food production is evident in the amount of food that Australians waste each year (over $20bn of food waste annually, according to Oz Harvest). When you grow your own fruit and vegetables, you are connected to the land, the seasons, and the hard work that is inherent in the production of the food you grow. I don’t waste the food I grow because I understand how hard it was to produce. I also value the wonky capsicum, the slightly burned-on-the-bum eggplant, or the enormous zucchini. They may not be perfect, but they are mine. I made them, and I will find something worthwhile to do with them.

The Environment

Much of our seed biodiversity has been lost due to broadacre farming, monocultural farming practices, and a demand for uniform produce that can be stored and transported a long way.

Biodiversity is at risk. Giant companies like Monsanto and others have tried to reduce biodiversity by patenting genes in seeds and created hybrid varieties that are sterile after their first planting, meaning that plants grown from these seeds cannot reproduce. This has the greatest effect on low income farming communities that can no longer save seeds for replanting. Monoculture farming and a focus on growing varieties that store well reduces plant biodoversity. Home gardeners are less interested in these factors and help continue endangered varieties. This is why I am a member of the Diggers Club, which works to preserve these heirloom varieties.

Growing a garden also creates wildlife corridors and mini ecosystems for plants, animals and insects. This is particularly important for nectar and pollen foraging birds and insects. As humans have reduced their home gardens, bees, birds and other creatures reliant on plants have had to travel further to find food. I make sure to plant a variety of flowering plants to attract foraging insects and birds, and in turn they pollinate my vegetables and fruit.

Diversity and interest

Last year, I planted two heirloom apple trees, purchased from the Diggers Club. I will not be able buy those apples in a supermarket as these varieties are not commercially grown. I am so excited to be able to taste these apples that probably do not travel well or store for long in a fridge, but for as long as the season lasts, will be a delicious burst of flavour in our house.

One of the great joys of growing your own produce is being able to grow unusual or heirloom fruits and vegetables that are in danger of being lost forever if they are not grown by home gardeners and their seed saved. I love to grow different varieties of vegetables and test the varieties. I save the seeds of the best and replant the following year, doing my bit for biodiversity. This year, I am growing different varieties of zucchini, pumpkins, eggplants, tomatoes, beans, broccoli, lettuce, cauliflower, sunflowers, and sweet peas, and saving the seeds. I know some will be better than others, and I will learn from my tests. I don’t only grow heirlooms, but I have a lot of fun doing it. Sometimes the heirloom varieties are better than the hybrids, and sometimes the hybrids are better. This year I grew a hybrid sweetcorn that was exceptional, and an heirloom tomato that was the best I have ever grown. I am growing several different heirloom pumpkins: one is a bit of a dud, the other is doing really well. By trialling plants, saving seeds and sharing with other gardeners, I am participating in this rich tradition of home gardening that has helped maintain the seed biodiversity of this planet.