Booze from vegetables and fruit? Read on!
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3rd December 2013

Hi everyone. Crappy weather for harvesting garlic lately, eh? Did you manage to get yours out? Did anyone harvest last night after that amazing warm day? I harvested mine a week or so ago, out of wet soil which isn't optimal. But it seems to be drying OK on the veranda, and I wasn't game to leave it in the wet conditions since rust and other moulds were starting to really take hold. If you notice rotten or slimy bits when you harvest, its a good idea to strip back a few leaves until you get to clean skins before you spread your bulbs out to dry. I might not braid mine this year, but rather clip off the stems and keep the bulbs hanging in a string bag. 

Mulch matters

When the temperature gets warm enough to take your clothes off, its time to put your mulch on.

We all know that nothing is perfect, and this is especially true in gardening. Adding mulch as a surface layer in the vegie garden has some advantages and some disadvantages.

Prime advantages are: keeping the soil cool and moist over summer; promoting and nurturing the soil life right to the surface; protecting the soil surface from structural damage, and crusting, caused by raindrop impact (yes even in drizzly tassie!); providing a slow release of nutrients for plants and soil life; increasing organic content, especially humus, in the soil; and, if laid on thick, suppressing weeds and buttressing plants like corn.

The biggest disadvantage in my garden is that mulch provides good habitat for slugs and snails, which can wreak havoc on new seeedlings like basil, peas and sunflowers. Its also more difficult to weed using a hoe if you have mulch strewn everywhere.

For me, in a relatively small vegie patch that I hand weed, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages by far. Nurturing the soil is the primary job of the home vegie gardener. Healthy soil = healthy plants = fewer pest problems and more nutritious food for us.

So - what to use as mulch? Pretty much anything laid on the surface can be classified as mulch. In the vegie patch and around fruit trees we want to use something that will eventually rot down and feed our soil and plants. Home made compost is brilliant (like in the picture above). Layers of mixed animal manure and straw are good if you don't have much compost. Litter from animals like rabbits, chooks, guinea pigs etc is great too, just don't put fresh chook poo directly on the surface without some buffering layer of straw, dry leaves, grass clippings etc. In the photo at the bottom of this section my little tomatoes are surrounded by a thick layer of hay litter from the rabbit run, full of poo and goodness.
When seedlings are small, blackbirds can cover them as they scratch around and fling mulch everywhere. So its a good idea to cage young seedlings until they get a good grip with their new root system, and can emerge above the mulch layer. At right you can see my newly planted sweet corn, mulched with compost, and caged with wire structures for a few weeks until they establish.
Some crops don't really need to mulched, or even prefer not to be. I don't mulch the onion family (leeks, spring onions, garlic, shallots) since they can get rots around the collar at ground level if its too humid down there. If you have raised beds, a light scattering of straw or compost between these plants can help stop the surface crusting, without causing a problem.

I also don't mulch too heavily around lettuces, as they can get slimy and manky too, and harbour even more slugs. Once the leaves get established they are protecting the soil around their root zone pretty well by themselves.

At the end of the summer season when crops like tomatoes are finished, its a good idea to rake up the mulch and compost it, before planting winter growing green manure or crops like garlic, peas, brassicas and spinach. This helps to limit the buildup of pests like slugs and snails, and allows the winter sun to warm the soil around annual vegies.

What to plant now?

Around this time we start to get a bit of space in the garden, as broad beans and peas are finishing and coming out, and perhaps the garlic too.

You can plant seed of carrots, beetroot, radish and parsnip - in my garden these do well after the garlic usually. Lettuces and leafy greens, bush beans, bush pumpkins like golden nugget, capsicum, chilli, basil, sweet corn, cucumbers . . . lots of things! 

If you have a warm spot, try canteloupe or watermelon. They need protection from slugs when they're little. And you can make a mini greenhouse by propping an old window sash over a few bricks in the garden to give them a good start. Make sure its well ventilated, and also make sure they don't cook on a hot day.

Lemon tree care

Lemon trees are so bountiful and beloved when all goes well. This time of year they should be putting out lots of lovely purplish new growth, and its a great time to feed them with generous mulch layers of manure, compost and rotting straw all around their root zone.

Its also worth inspecting the tree closely when you pick your lemons, to see if all is well. I did that the other day and was horrified to find an outbreak of scale starting to really take hold. Scale is in insect pest that looks like little pale or dark bumps, usually on the underside of leaves and along the narrow branches near the edge of the canopy.
Telltale signs that you might have scale are (1) ants scurrying all over the plant (they harvest the excess sugary liquid secreted from the sap sucking scale insects) or (2) sooty mould which looks like, well, soot, over the leaves and stems. Both the ants and sooty mould are secondary problems to the scale, so if you treat the scale, the rest will sort itself out.

To get rid of scale, spray with white oil, or a home made alternative of any oil from the pantry (eg canola oil or olive oil) mixed with water about 1 part oil to 10 parts water, plus a few drops of detergent to emulsify. These treatments are non-toxic, and act by suffocating the insect. So bees and other good guys, although they don't like the oil much, wont be killed if they accidentally land on a wet leaf just after spraying.

You need to make sure the oil mix actually covers the bug, so that means carefully spraying the underside of the leaves. A large, or even medium sized tree can use alot of white oil, and take some time to diligently cover properly. Its a good idea to do a follow up spray a couple of weeks after the first go. And don't spray white oil on your plants in really warm weather, or they'll get cooked!

If you treat for scale, and keep your tree well fed and watered over the warm months, you should be harvesting plenty of lemons. My friend Kim and I recently did a big pick, prune and mulch of her lemon tree  . . . . and made some fantastic limoncello! Cheers!

Rhubarb rhubarb

I was carrying litter from the rabbit cages the other day down to mulch the bottom pumpkin patch. It was wet and drizzly, and I had to keep brushing past rhubarb and artichoke leaves that were leaning out over the path. So I did a bit of a cleanup of these bountiful perennials, and ended up with a huge pile of compost fodder and an equally huge pile of rhubarb stems.
I gave as much to three sets of neighbours as they could cope with, tried to foist some on to a visiting friend, and still had a pretty big pile to process. So all my extended family are getting something rhubarby for Christmas (sorry to spoil the surprise for those of you who read this!!). 
I've stewed some and frozen it in batches, bottled some for tall ruby brilliance, made rhubarb and vanilla bean jam, rhubarb and ginger syrup (great for rhubarb mojito's, pictured on the left) and a batch of rhubarb champagne which is maturing as you read this! The jam recipe is simple and delicious and can be found HERE on our website.

Anyway, what I wanted to write about was the growing of rhubarb. Its easy: you feed the heck out of the plant, with regular generous mulchings of compost, all sorts of poo, straw, whatever you can spare.
To get started, you can cadge a section of the root crown from someone who already has a good one growing. To divide an existing plant you harvest all the big stems, then dig it up (it has enormous fleshy roots) and with a sharp spade carefully chop through to isolate sections that have a growing shoot. You don't need to keep all the big fat root mass on pieces you plant. They should have some fine roots though. Or you can just carefully dig out a growing section from the edge of a well established plant. The very best time to do this in in late winter / early spring, ie July - September, but if you are prepared to lavish some care on the plant, they are pretty tolerant of interference in most seasons.

Rhubarb comes in many shapes, sizes and colours. I have three plants from three different friends' gardens, and each is quite distinct (see photo below). There is the big one, HUGE thick red stems; the meduim one, with stems that are very dark red; and the little one with thinner stems that are red at the base and green near the top. The thing to know about rhubarb is that the stems don't "ripen" ie turn from green to red. They just get bigger, and will be greener or redder depending on the variety and the growing conditions. So if you have a flattish stemmed greenish rhubarb, there isn't much you can do to make it go red. The best time to pick the stems is when they have reached maximum length and unfurled the leaf fully, and are still fairly upright.

While my 'papa bear' plant is definitely a spectacular showoff in the garden, I mostly cook with the smaller stemmed ones since I get better colour in stews or jams made with those.
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