One of the best ways we can reduce our resource footprint is to cut down on food miles. By learning how to preserve local food ready to eat in winter, we can end up with a pantry full of cheap food that is tasty beyond anything you can buy in the supermarket. You also avoid producing heaps of waste, another plus for our planet.
It’s actually not that hard nor time consuming. I can fill these shelves with a few hours a month from November to February, and then in March I spend a few days on the tomatoes. The hardest bit is doing it for the first time – collecting your jars and preserving equipment, and figuring out where and when to get the best local surplus food.
Although it may seem strange to think about winter when the weather is just warming up, now is the time to get organised to make sure you can eat local food all next year. Start with cherries and apricots in November and December, and finish with tomatoes in March or olives in June.
I’ve written about how to do this in more detail here.
I was vegetarian for 20 years. I’ve never had anything against people eating meat, though I’ve always thought it would be most ethical to raise the animals yourself, and probably kill them too. When I started to eat meat again for health reasons, I decided to put my money where my mouth is, and raise and kill my own meat. I felt that way I would truly understand and appreciate the animal I was eating.
There are other reasons why I believe it’s good to raise our own meat. The meat industry can be pretty cruel. I only eat meat from local farms where I’m pretty satisfied that they raise their animals well and kill them humanely. But even so, surely I could give them a better life in a suburban backyard than when they are raised on a commercial scale. After all, our home-produced eggs were so much better than the most expensive organic free range eggs we could buy. Like the eggs, I expected the meat to be more nutritious. Also I am concerned about the amount of wastage that occurs commercially. Despite repeated requests, I’ve never been able to obtain chicken heads or feet for soup. What happens to them all? Are they chucked out? We are in the habit of eating the muscle meat but not the organs (though they are very good for us), and in our society it’s rare to make stock from bones these days. By processing my own meat I could ensure minimal waste.
I also want to really understand how much food I could produce in my backyard. I already produced 80% of my family’s fruit and vegies. Could I produce a good portion of our meat onsite too? I wanted to find out.
I’ve blogged about my journey raising chickens for the first time.
I would like to show you the cottage I lived in for almost twenty years. The front half I built when I was 22, with no building experience! It cost $10,000, and I kept it cheap by doing absolutely everything myself. The back half was added much later. I made this photo tour in spring of 2014.
This is what you saw when you came in from the front gate.
Here you can see the front of the original house, with its beautiful gothic arched windows that I got from an old church. Back right was the chook house, and a wooden gate that went to the chook area and my son Jesse’s garden.
This was the entrance to the new part of the house, the kitchen door.
Here’s the pretty herb garden beneath that kitchen window:
And here’s my home from the other side. I was inspired by French country farm houses, and I think it really does look a bit like one:
Now come inside, let me show you the kitchen:
All the cabinets were made from old weather boards. The kitchen had the most glorious view from the window, which you can see in this photo here:
And here’s the table where we ate, chatted, and watched each other do silly interpretive dance routines on the ‘stage’ that was our kitchen floor.
When we ate, the rabbit, who free ranged in the garden, liked to hang out near us outside the window, entertaining us. It was nearly as good as interpretive dance.
There was a lovely little Alice-In-Wonderland style arched doorway that went from the kitchen to the lounge room:
Now step through into the lounge room, and you’ll see the wood stove, which made me very, very happy in winter. When everything was grey and dark and wet, lighting the fire lifted my spirits. I always did intend to have a wood stove but the one I installed when I first built the house was stolen (!!) and then we put a cupboard in its space, and after that we couldn’t figure out what to do with all the STUFF that we depended on in the cupboard, so I couldn’t replace the woodstove!
Now here’s the front door, and through the arch window, you can see my fishing girl statue. She was been trying to catch fish in that pond for years, but no go yet, unfortunately.
Right in front of those lovely arched windows was my art desk, where I spent much of my time:
I also made art in the bathroom (which you had to go outside to get to), where I had a bench for dirty/stinky jobs like plastering, soldering and spray-painting:
It was pretty squishy in there, and the only reason I was allowed in there at all with my dangerous tools is because the room was in shocking state of disrepair with the roof about to fall in and holes on the wall. Later we fixed that and I moved my dangerous tools to my studio at the Abbotsford Convent. We had a composting toilet:
Which worked great and didn’t stink at all.
Now come back inside and upstairs. This is the loft, which was home to our bath, and originally my whole little family slept there – all squished in like peas in a pod. In 2014 the loft was just for Jesse:
And here’s the bedroom, which was my favourite room in the house:
Sitting up in bed, journaling, was probably my favourite switch-off activity, the best possible way to restore myself. When we slept in the loft, that was pretty hard on my back, as I never had anything to lean against, and had to sit right in the middle of the bed so I wouldn’t hit my head on the ceiling. Here in the new bed, I could spend hours journaling comfortably.
I think my favourite feature of the room was the chandelier, which existed as a dream in my journal for years before I finally had space for one. I made it from old forks, pewter jugs and other scavenged metals. I took a metal-smithing course just to learn how to do this, and now as a result, I’ve got the skills to do other metalwork – it heralded the beginning of a jewellery making career!
The bedroom had a lovely arched window:
And a wardrobe made from salvaged timber:
And this little corset I found in France, hanging on my grandmother’s coathanger:
Ok, let’s head outside and I’ll show you the garden.
If you went through that little wooden gate I mentioned back at the start of this post, you’d find yourself standing in front of the chook pen. They had a little yellow house to roost in, and a big pen covered with a grape vine to play in. But through the day we’d open the gate and they’d hang out in the orchard too. See the black square bin in the photo above? Worms lived in there.
Here’s Jesse’s vegie garden and cubby, fenced off from the chooks, who would otherwise have destroyed it:
We had a separate pen for our meat chickens, and they hung out under our fig and mandarine trees:
Now on the other side of the house, if you stepped outside our kitchen door, there was a garden of wild greens and the mosaic path, leading to my vegie garden:
My favourite piece of garden art is here too, a stencil I painted onto a piece of tin, which was flattened and had some barbed wire as a frame:
This was my vegie garden, where most of my gardening efforts were concentrated:
It had raised beds, and a fence around it to keep out animals. I tried to plant out roughly a square metre each month for us to eat. To know more about how I produce maximum food from this, read my page, How To Really Grow Food In Your Backyard.
This bed here was just ripening up, soon to be eaten:
We were already eating zucchinis and the last of winter’s spinach, broccoli and beetroots:
Past my vegie garden was my ‘food forest’:
At one end of the food forest was the composting station. This was where the composting toilet results went, and all food and garden scraps, and entire dead animals. In fact, my neighbours brought me their expired animals to dispose of here. It burned hot and fast. When I emptied stuff onto it, and came back a week later, it all looked like dirt. Ultimately, this fed the vegies and fruit trees, which made for a nearly-closed system of fertility.
The food forest was also home to bees:
The bees thought they owned the forest and sometimes buzzed me when I was out there doing destructive things like weeding. I learnt from experience that if buzzed, I get two warnings and then a sting. If it wasn’t a good day for a bee sting, I’d head inside after the first warning.
There was a fair bit of food hidden in my forest:
And some lovely little spots like this one:
And there we have it, folks. Thanks for looking around with me. I really loved that house.
I’ve just worked out my entire garden calender for the upcoming year. By following this calender, I should have vegies ready to eat every single month of the year (except when naughty critters get my seedlings). I’m sharing it here for those of you in Melbourne who would like to make use of the dates and details. If you live somewhere else, you can still use this as a base to create your own planting guide.
To use the planting and harvest chart, click on the image below, print it out, and then in the top row of the table, write down which garden bed you will use for each crop. Some of my beds are 1 square metre, others are two – in general I try to plant out one spare metre per month, for my family of three. I’d like more but that’s all the space I have.
I sow all my seedlings during the winter / early spring months in a little plastic covered green house. They are cheap to buy/make, and essential, otherwise you won’t be able to start your tomatoes in winter. Alternatively you could plant them inside, if you have a sunny North facing window.
I have also made some plastic row covers which I use on my garden beds. I plant out my tomatoes in August, surrounded by spinach, lettuce and baby carrot which will all be finished before the tomatoes take over, and cover the whole bed with a plastic tunnel. If you don’t have a tunnel, leave a space for the tomatoes, and plant them in September instead of August. If you don’t have tunnels for the summer veg bed and summer vines bed, plant them out in October instead of September.
One more tip: once you’ve planted your seedlings into the garden, PROTECT THEM! Nets help to ward off birds, chooks, rabbits, possums, rats and other small creatures, and so do plastic greenhouse tunnels. Snails can be a big problem late winter and in Spring. Go out on rainy nights and pick them off. If you can’t manage that, use a bait. In autumn, the cabbage moth is my biggest enemy – mosquito netting over the beds will protect from them. Or go out every few days and squish the baby caterpillars and wipe eggs from the back of the brassica leaves.
Once you’ve worked out where you’ll plant everything, the next step is to translate that into individual tasks which you’ll put in your diary. The list below shows moon planting dates for the coming year. Click on the image below, print it out, and then transfer the tasks into your diary on the day you plan to do them, so that you will remember to leave time for them – don’t book in other appointments for those days if possible. The specified dates are the ideal dates, according to the moon, but if you can’t plant on the ideal date, just reschedule for a suitable day around that time
Happy growing, everyone. If you use my guide, let me know how it goes!
My friend Loz is moving house and designing her vegie garden. I’ve been helping her with her design, and I think what she’s come up with now is absolutely fabulous. In fact, I’m dead jealous, since my garden is an ergonomic disaster, having gradually evolved in bits and pieces over the years. Just in case you are in the fortunate position of being able to start a garden from scratch, I thought I’d share with you Loz’s garden plans, and what I think is good about it.
For various reasons required by the council, Loz’s garden needs to be enclosed – so it will be contained inside a frame covered with wire. The entire enclosure will be 10 metres x 15 metres – a great size for serious food production.
In case it’s not clear from the picture, the front strip is a chook run with fruit trees. The chook house is on the left, at the end nearest the house, with nesting boxes accessible from outside, so it’s a quick easy trip to collect the eggs.
Behind the chook run is the vegie garden. The fence between the chooks and vegies will be high enough to stop flighty chooks from heading over, but low enough for a “throw over the fence” method of weeding. I can’t tell you how much I’ve loved this when I had it. Every time I spotted a weed or a snail or a caterpillar, I’d call out to the chooks, and they’d rush over to the fence to receive my goodies. I could just toss them from the vegie garden. It means that instead of waiting until I get something to put the snails in, and then cart them down to the chook pen, I tended to do things on the spot – a very valuable habit for food gardeners.
When you enter the vegie garden from the house end at the left, on your right are three compost piles, 1 cubic metre each. Three piles means you can put compost materials and weeds in the middle section as you generate them, can have one pile in current use, and the other pile waiting and breaking down. For more details about how to run this kind of compost system, which is even capable of processing human toilet waste, see composting toilets on my side bar.
On your right, opposite the compost piles, is a small walk-in glasshouse for raising seedlings – very valuable to get summer seedlings started in advance. I plant tomatoes and other summer vegies in an unheated greenhouse mid-winter, and this works well in Melbourne.
In front of the compost bins is a good-sized workstation. I wish I had one of these. There’s a tool cupboard, a worm farm, a sink and tap, and a work bench to use for potting seedlings. This area is conveniently close to the glasshouse where seedlings are raised, the compost, and the tools, so as to minimise carrying from one place to another. When potting up seedlings you need tools, you need compost, you need worm castings, you need water – and with this plan, they are all right there. There’s also plenty of space here to bring in a wheel barrow and even to dump stuff you’ve just brought home, like big bags of autumn leaves, until you are able to process them. There is an entrance to the chook run from this work area, so that to rake out muck from the bottom of the chook yard and pile it in the compost requires minimal travel.
The vegie garden beds themselves are raised, 1m wide, so that every part of the bed can be reached from the path without standing on the bed, ever. The paths are nice and wide which makes for easy movement around the garden, even with a wheelbarrow. Loz’s original design had the beds down the centre of the garden, with an aisle at each side, but by changing to a central aisle we had more garden bed area and less path. Also the path is in a more pleasing position to make it easy to pass through the garden.
On the far right is an extra fruit tree area which the chooks don’t have access to. This is the perfect place for Loz to plant herbs, perennials, and plants that attract beneficial insects. She’ll also put a small pond down here, again to attract beneficial insects.
It’s spring here, and for some reason that usually inspires me to post a litte photo tour of my garden.
Here’s my home – a sweet little mudbrick cottage with solar electricity, solar hot water and solar heater, built by me when I was 22 years old:
At the back there you can see my chook house, with tiny little red “windows” to match the main house.
The most used patch of garden this winter has been this patch of beet greens, self-seeded, from a chioggia beetroot that I left to go to seed last spring. Chioggia beets have gorgeously soft leaves, and all winter we’ve been juicing them and eating them as spinach. I’m hoping soon the roots will turn into fat beets and we’ll harvest them all for eating and making kvass (traditional Russian drink made of fermented beetroot):
Since once the weather really warms up, this will all go to seed, I’m thinking ahead to our next patch of greens. I’ve sown seed from the same chioggia plant here in this box, and they are just starting to come up. Hoping this will be my summer juicing patch:
My greenhouse shelves are bursting with plants for summer – eggplant, capsicum, basil, celery, cucumber, zucchini and pumpkin seedlings:
I’ve already planted out my tomatoes, into a bed that has a plastic cover on it that works like a greenhouse. Once the tomatoes get too tall or the weather warms up too much, I’ll remove the cover. I’ve worked out a great system for getting the most from my tomato bed. I put in the plants early spring (that way I get an earlier crop than if I wait until November to put them in), and surround them with plants that will all be finished by December, such as spinach, baby carrots, peas, and lettuce. Then just as those plants are done and the tomatoes are starting to shade everything out, I pull up the remnants of the surrounding plants, give the tomatoes an extra burst of compost, and leave the bed to them. Here’s a tiny tomato plant surrounded by some spinach seedlngs:
I have two square metres of garden bed coming along, the rightmost one to eat in October (though we’re eating the lettuce already), the leftmost one to eat in November:
You can see my vegies in the above bed arranged in rows – lettuce at the front for easy daily harvest, the carrot, then chinese cabbage, behind that red cabbage, and then a row each of broccoli and cauliflower.
Thinking ahead to what we’ll eat in December, while we still wait for the summer vegies to kick off, I’ve planted out most of this square meter:
It’s all the same vegies as the Oct Nov beds – just arranged differently. In the empty corner I’m still to plant the broccoli and cauliflower, which are hardening off as I type:
Going back to the larger garden, outside my fenced off vegie patch, we’ve reclaimed a bit of ground back from the chooks, so I am very excited to have these new garden beds to play with. The seedlings in the above photo, as well as being used for my December bed, will also fill out these new garden beds.
And last of all, the most exciting thing for me this spring is that my new peach tree in my food forest is covered with blossom! Does that mean we’ll get peaches this year? I hope so! Whoohoo!
Coming up in the garden now is planting out my summer vegies – I’ll put the zucchini and cucumber in a covered bed soon, hoping for an earlier crop this year. I’ll wait until October to plant out the capsicum and eggplant – in their own bed since they keep producing into late autumn, when all the other summer vegies are long dead. And then I have a little break from planting, since the summer vegies will really feed us for a few months – just some regular sowings of beans and corn are needed. In December, I’ll start planting seeds for vegies to eat in autumn and winter, when the summer vegies slow.
Since September, once again we’ve been properly eating from our garden, and we’ve scarcely bought a vegetable. Paula cooks like mad to keep up with the baskets of goodness I bring in every day. Some days the three of us eat vegetables three times a day. We can’t get enough of them. No wonder people don’t like vegies, when they are raised on shop produce. Garden vegies are another thing altogether. Even Jesse hops in with gusto.
The photo above is just a typical day’s harvest.
The photo below is another one.
– artichokes with homemade egg mayonniase,
– honeyed buttered carrots,
– roasted beetroot dip with homegrown celery sticks,
– and plate after plate of “medley” which is Paula’s mix of whatever greens I bring in, generously doused with butter, salt and pepper. Lately the medley is spinach with peas, broadbeans and asparagus. Yum!
I’ve wanted bees for years and years – and at long last I’ve got a hive in my garden! They came in the night last week, delivered by the lovely Martin O’Callaghan, who brought them round in the dark and helped to settle them in.
I have been very put off by the complexities of a box hive. I went to a workshop at Ceres, and while it might have been a good one, I was pretty confounded. I couldn’t understand the teacher at all. I had a lovely friend who was trying to interpret for me, but when suited up in bee gear, it became pretty damned hard for her to sign. I couldn’t make sense of it.
My hive is a top bar hive, not a box hive, and apparently much simpler to manage. You don’t need as much training to look after a top bar hive, and the little training I will need, Martin is happy to provide. He communicates nice and visually, so hopefully I won’t have the suited up interpreting problems I had in the past.
The wonderful thing about a top bar hive is that the bees live a much more natural life than they do in a box hive. The bees make their comb by building onto a little strip of wax along the inside of the “top bar”. They build their comb downwards, in the shape that they like to make it. They make cells of different sizes, depending on what it will be used for. It could be used for the queen to lay an egg, which could become a worker bee, or a drone bee, or even a new queen bee, or it could be used for honey storage. The bees collect pollen from flowers within a 5km radius, turn that into honey, and store to use as food now and during winter.
The people who invented box hives, had this idea that they could force the bees to make more honey, by building the honeycomb for them. With a box hive, you put in a frame that has “foundation” wax on it – ie wax in the shape of honeycomb, with predetermined numbers of worker bee cells, honey storage cells etc. By doing this they could reduce the number of drone bees, considered redundant, since they aren’t collectors of honey. They could increase the number of worker bees and honey storage cells. They eliminated the work done by bees to build the honeycomb, and hence freed up more worker bees to focus on collecting honey. With this arrangement, the bees DO create more honey. Vastly more. But the drawback is that the bees are more vulnerable to problems, and hence need quite a bit of management and looking-after.
With a top bar hive, the bees get to choose how to structure their colony, who will do what, how many bees are redundant and so on. With this kind of management, they can make sure they maintain a healthy colony with good resistance to diseases and pests.
So this summer, my job is to add a new top bar every time the hive is getting kind of full. Martin will drop by to show me how to do it. And later in summer, Martin will host a harvest at his home, and all the novices like me who have bought bees from him in the past year, will gather to watch him harvest the honey from his hive, and learn how to do it with our own. I can’t wait!
Even better than the honey (apparently at the end of summer I should be able to harvest 10-20 litres), is the fact that the bees are already buzzing around, pollinating the blossom on my almond tree, and gearing up for some top-scale pollination in my vegie garden this summer. Hopefully I won’t need to “diddle” by hand any more! 🙂
As if I hadn’t already received enough magnificent art for my birthday, here’s a sign that Paula made me for my food forest. She used an old panel of wood we had lying around and nailed on the words made from little snippings of hazel wood. I love it! And I love that now my food forest has an official name!
For my birthday, Jesse made me this magnificent hawk, which flies over my vegie garden, suspended above my water tank. I adore it! Its beady eye and long beak seem poised to peck at my beans, and it looks as though it will swoop at any moment to catch some cheeky bug nibbling on my plants. Jesse drew this on paper, then transferred the images to scraps of wood that we had lying around. Paula helped him to cut them out with a jigsaw and assisted with screwing it together, but it’s Jesse’s creative vision.. his art. O I love it!