Monday, 22 June 2015

March 2015 Part II - Our first big planting!

Our first foray into the wilderness...

If I was you I'd wonder what this crazy woman is doing posting pictures of organized dirt. I agree, that's what it looks like right now! But that's the thing about gardening isn't it? Understanding that I can facilitate good growth, but I can't force it or speed it up. When organised dirt becomes an oasis of edible greenliness then everyone wants a pic!

Recovering perfectionist confession time: those pictures of established gardens intimidate and even paralyse me - I won't get my garden looking like that in a weekend, or a month or even a year, so why try?  So maybe my ineptitude will  encourage to start your own garden.

I read once that gardening is a great way to teach kids about delayed gratification, as it includes a long period of waiting between the labour and the fruit of that labour. I think it should be compulsory for adults too... Back to the organised dirt:

We have a wonderful gentleman called Ali who comes in to help with some muscle in our garden every Wednesday. You can see in the background of this image how overgrown the space had become with blackjacks and sweethearts and syringa seedlings. This planted area looked just like that until Ali got hold of it! Yay for Ali!

You can see a white railing in the top right hand corner of this organised dirt image - that is where the original picture was taken from. 

So what have we got here?
I had bought some seeds from Living Seeds in February - including their Late Summer / Autumn Starter Pack - and planted them on the 24th of that month - so I had some seedlings ready to plant a month later as you see them here. I started with the 6 beds on the right, and added the 3 on the left later. 

Even though you can't see all of it - these are the plants I have in this spot:
(Links redirect to
Bok Choy / Pak Choi
Spring Onions
And some Sweet Potatoes I grew from slips from my mom-in-law

Still in seed trays:

You can see the diagram I made in my gardening journal - although in the diagram the bottom edge is the edge of the garden against the wall - as if you are leaning over the railing looking at the garden from the top. 

I know it doesn't look like much right now, but there's a whole lot of potential under that soil! I have been known to go check my seeds the morning after I sow them - waiting for seeds to germinate is a big challenge for me! But I guess that is one of the difficulties about gardening - we can only give a good environment as far as it's up to us - but that seed has to do its work all on its own in the dark underground!

The soil down here is very sandy and full of weed seeds so it looks like we'll just need to be vigilant with our weeding.for a while. I did have a chance to let a batch of weeds germinate so I could pull them out all in one go, and not let them go to seed - but beyond that we just have to keep at it. For these beds I aerated the soil up to a spade's depth and removed rocks where necessary. The paths you see are made of discarded roof tiles left by our previous owners - upcycling builder's rubble for the win! There was some lovely black compost from the garden refuse pile, also left by the previous owners, so I mixed that in where I could. You can see I used some straw over the beds on the left - actually, it was dried grass from the plants we cleared - but it does the same job!

I know I could have raised the beds more and done more to improve the soil, but I just wanted to get plants in there as soon as possible!

So join us to see how it grows! Make sure you subscribe so you can see the 'after' shots of these 'before' shots!

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

March 2015 Part I - Swimming with the fish

Starting with a list of our failures is not the way to inspire confidence... trust perhaps, but not confidence! 

But we are on a journey and journeys sometimes have flat tyres and detours - we fix them and we move on and tell tales about them when we get where we were going!

Seeing as we only recently moved in, and getting our rentable spaces ready for tenants is the biggest priority right now, our aquaponics has taken a bit of a back seat. First of all it took us a while to be able to fetch our gear from our previous house. And by that time many of the plants in our system had died. 
Perennial Basil,
Yellow Plum Tomato plant
and one of our Koi

When we were able to fetch our system, we brought the fish over first. We had Koi and Tilapia in one system, but the Tilapia died soon after the move due to a number of factors - not the least of which was the fact that we didn't have sufficient filtering capability without the rest of the system i.e. the planter. We really struggled to filter the Koi water sufficiently so made it a priority to fetch our planters. It was a good lesson for us about how efficient the planter actually was as a filter!

We cleaned the existing fish pond, mounted the planter on some bricks in the middle and got the pump going - the water went from soupy to crystal clear in a couple of hours! You can see the Koi pond here with some perennial basil dominating and a little yellow plum tomato plant peeking out on the right. For the planter we just used a black Big Jim crate, which originally had a bell siphon in the centre as we wanted to try an ebb and flow system. (If these terms are confusing right now, don't stress!) But not it is a continuous flow system.

You can see the pond in the far corner of the property in the picture of the pool. There are 4 Koi in this system currently - about the limit for this pond I think! I made the remark that I wished our swimming pool water was that clear as the Koi water and that got us thinking - what about a natural pool / fish pond / aquaponics reservoir all in one. You can see the work of South African natural pool companies here and here.

Our pool is massive - 11.5m x 6m - and over 2.2m deep in the deep end so it works out at over 120 000l. And the pool pump leaked so we had to keep filling it up until we fixed the leak, until it sprung another leak... Oh bother! It just seems such a waste to spend all that time and money and chemical input to keep a pool dead. I'm sure it can't be healthy soaking yourself in that much chlorine on a regular basis - I'd much rather support a natural balance!

By Clear Water Revival (Own work)
via Wikimedia Commons
The whole interior needs resurfacing anyway, and with such a huge pond we can easily afford to use some of the space for a gravel bed and some water plants. I'm not sure if we'll be able to afford the finance to do the whole thing this winter - but I'm hoping we can do it next winter!

From what I already understand of natural pools, they use water plants and a gravel bed as the filter - we are guessing we won't need so many water plants as we'll also filter the water through our aquaponics system. Most natural pools we've seen don't incorporate fish - I'm sure there is a way to do it though. We are thinking of making it possible for fish to use the whole pool when there are no human swimmers, but simultaneously providing a designated spot they can retreat to while there is swimming going on. If anyone gets squeamish about swimming in the water with the fish, I'll remind them that people swim in dams and lakes and in the sea all the time!

In the image of our pool above, you can see another black crate to the left of the pond - that is actually a crate resting in an old bath that has been sunk into the ground, with a small solar powered pump - another aquaponics system in the making. That system doesn't have fish in it currently - but we are getting there! 

What we did get from that system though is a batch of lettuce seeds as pictured here - your lettuce plant will get to a point where it 'bolts' i.e. the stem grows longer - culminating in a flower head. These flowers bloom and then later close and start to dry out. 

Lettuce seeds are ready to be picked when the flower heads are fluffy i.e. ready to fly away. Pick them and rub them between your fingers to release the seeds, then blow gently to lift the chaff. 

You can see two different types of seeds - dark and light - in the image here. I got these particular lettuce plants in a mixed pack, so I'm happy to mix the seeds. Apparently lettuce varieties don't cross readily - this makes seed saving quite simple!

Speaking of seeds, this image of my seedlings and cuttings, taken past 7pm in the evening, gives you an idea of when I get to do my gardening! I made a joke on Facebook the other day about how when you are working full time you can't get all your gardening done in the daylight hours - 

'Some call it urban permaculture, 
I call it 'Gardening in the Dark'
You can see some Sansevarias on the left in this image - I found a plant at a nursery that was practically bursting the growing bag it was in - so bought the plant and split it into a number of individual plants that I could put in my house - and give away as gifts! 

The polstyrene containers were rescued and recycled and I used to plant my herbs seeds and various small cuttings I collected. The plastic storage baskets have worked really well for storing my seed trays - I can bring them in if it is too hot outside, or if the rain is too heavy, but can put them outside when necessary. 

March was quite a busy month - so look out for Part II of our March update!

Until then, what are your thoughts on natural swimming pools? Have you ever swum in one? (other than an actual lake or dam!) If you have a swimming pool yourself, would you ever consider converting?

February 2015 - My indoor Jungle in the making

I love having plants inside!

They clean the air and they give any space a lived-in, homey kind of feel - and if you are rattling around a bit in a big house as we are, they soften hard lines and create bold decor statements with very little time or money!

Plants soften hard lines in our bathroom window
I do see the value of having indigenous plants in my garden and I understand the reasons for focusing on indigenous plants - I can't wait to get rid of the horrible syringas that are currently the only trees on our property other than a lone avocado tree. 

Pothos / Money Plant
(Epipremnum aureum)
Indigenous plants use less water, they are better for the indigenous insect population, they aren't invasive. I get all that. But, when it comes to fruit and veggies and herbs I make an exception. Indoor plants also get an exception ticket in my books, as I choose plants for their ability to clean the air and for their sculptural / decorative qualities. I also prefer low maintenance specimens for obvious reasons. 

Also, I'm still trying to figure out the names of the plants I already own - once I've figured that out I'll be able to find out whether they are indigenous or not, and make more informed decisions from there. I told you I'm not very good at this! I just grow things.

So in February I managed to repot all the plants I inherited from my dad's greenhouse as my folks have started a guest house on a property with a very different climate three hour's drive away. Fortunately some gorgeous terracotta pots came with the deal - so much excitement at not having to use plastic! 

(PS If anyone isn't sure what to buy me as a gift - a voucher to buy non-plastic pots, or a gift of some second hand unusually shaped pots and planters will send me soaring! That or a Bokashi setup... Or an unusual indoor plant... Or an heirloom seed voucher... Oi.)

So here is a picture of most of my plants post repotting:

  1. Rubber tree (Ficus elastica) grown from a cutting
  2. Wax Plant / Hoya Plant (Hoya carnosa)
  3. Rattlesnake plant (Calathea lancifolia)
  4. Coastal Daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus)
  5. Old Man's Beard / Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides)
  6. Various succulent starters
  7. Unidentified Fern
  8. Agave (Agave potatorum)
  9. Fish Bone Cactus, Zig-Zag Cactus? (Selenicereus? Epiphyllum? )
  10. Dracena Fragrans Victoriae 
  11. Unidentified Hanging Plant
  12. (see 9)
  13. A type of Coleus?
  14. Variegated Sisal / Variegated Sword Lily (Furcraea selloa var. marginata)
  15. Crassula (Plantarum Rariorum Horti Caesarei Schoenbrunnensis?) 
  16. Unidentified teeny tiny plant
  17. Unidentified little aloe-ish agave-ish thingamy

A Crassula adds a whimsical
touch to a bathroom window.
(By the way - if you can help identify any of these plants please comment below and I'll update the post!)

For the repotting I just mixed some of our garden sand with potting soil and worm castings from our worm farm and off we went. I probably wasn't conscientious enough about specific soil types for specific plants, and the proportions changed as I went along. I gave them all a good watering and put them in their designated places. I water them about once a week where required - but some require water a little more often, some require very little water at all. They have been positioned in various spots around the house, inside and out, and you'll recognise some of them in the other images on this page.

The balcony / conservatory from the outside

The balcony from the inside
So above our lounge area, we have a  glass-enclosed balcony that looks out over the pool and gets morning sun - so that is where I want to create a kind of indoor conservatory / jungle in an updated 70s style to match the house. (I'm collecting my inspiration on Pinterest here.)

Cabbage Tree / Kiepersol
(Cussonia spicata)
and Rubber Tree
(Ficus elastica)
We're still quite a way off from there, but I've included some images of the indoor plants that are looking reasonable at the moment. My biggest challenge is finding unusual and interesting pots and planters, and 'composing' the scene. I've got some ideas for hanging pots and planters as well - too many ideas perhaps! But all in good time...

The Cabbage Tree / Kiepersol in the image was found growing in one of the roof gutters at my mom-in-law's neighbour's house - so when the gutters were cleaned I was the first to pounce and adopt the poor thing.

The Rubber Tree next to it I grew from a cutting taken from my neighbour - which is why the leaves are cut. Cutting the leaves helps prevent excess water loss through transpiration while the plant is growing new roots. I just popped the stem in a bottle of water until it rooted then planted it in the soil. I know the bottle step isn't strictly necessary, but I love seeing the little roots grow! It did have two full grown leaves since repotting, but my youngest daughter felt that they were offending her sensitivities somehow and pulled them off.

Crassula ovata / Jade Plant
To be honest, I can't remember where I got the Jade Plant from - but they are truly lovely plants and it seems to be doing quite well in its spot on the balcony!

The image below is one of my favourite spots in the house. It is of the sideboard in the dining room. The weaving on the wall is off centre purely because I hung it on existing hooks, but I think it still works. This image includes items I've scrounged from second hand shops, my own fiber and ceramic art, very special gifts from friends and family and some air plants (Tillendsia). It makes my heart warm every time I see it! I'm always shifting items to get the right balance of shapes and surfaces and colours and textures. I don't think it will ever be just right but that's part of the fun.

Homegrown tomatoes!
Oh, and also in February, we harvested these gorgeous red tomatoes from our inherited tomato plant! Those cracks you can see happened because the plant had dried out a little and then got a good watering causing the fruit to expand faster than the skin could grow.

They still taste good though!

Please do follow or subscribe to the blog so you don't miss out on future posts. Our next installment is all about aquaponics and natural pools and the like. You don't want to miss it!

Thursday, 4 June 2015

January 2015 - Our inherited (not heirloom) tomatoes get sun scalded

Save the tomatoes!

So if you say that a sun burnt person is 'as red as a tomato', what do you say about a sun burnt tomato? 

I have two answers: 
  1. Not all tomatoes are red - you get yellow ones and pink ones and striped ones and black ones as well as red ones... mutter mutter erythro-normative mumble mutter 
  2. But for all of them, no matter what their colour, the proper term for sun burnt tomatoes is 'sun-scalded'.

I figured that out this month when I tried to ask Google why my tomatoes were getting little soft spots... Along the way I also discovered how many things can actually go wrong with a tomato and that nearly put me off altogether! 

In case you are being very observant and you're wondering how I have tomatoes after only being in our new house for just over a month, our delightful predecessors planted some tomato plants before they left - which in my eyes has almost redeemed their various other quirky DIY efforts. 

I'm really grateful that they did otherwise I'd have very little to show for January! We also seem to move between August and December - so we miss have missed the spring planting a number of years in a row - but now that we have our own place *happy dance* - we ain't going nowhere! Now to just get everything ready for August...

Back to January... So in the busy-ness of the festive season, the tomatoes didn't get any support and just started spreading across the ground, as tomatoes do. I looked under a mass of tomato leaves one day and found this:

So being the conscientious tomato gardener that I am, I decided to hoist them (gently) onto some supports made from burglar guards we replaced in our tenant's flat.

Gold stars for recycling, except that all of a sudden, the leaves that were providing shade to the tender tomatoes suddenly weren't in the same spot anymore and my poor babies were exposed to the blazing January sun in all their unripe nakedness.

I hadn't realised this would be a problem so I was horrified when I found a little wrinkled soft spot on the 'shoulders' of many of my tomatoes. No, they weren't going soft on the bottom, that would be blossom end rot, and no, there were no worms nibbling at the skin - it was a classic case of sun-scald. I promise I'll take pics next time. 

And so another set of burglar guards was enlisted to support some shadecloth to protect my traumatised tomatoes. (Excuse the unmowed lawn in the image below.) The plant on the left of the image below bore yellow tomatoes (on purpose) and the one on the right bore red tomatoes. The sunscalded individuals survived (mostly) - we just cut off the sun scalded bits - and those that were beyond the point of no return were thrown back into the soil to give some nutrients back to their peers. 

I must admit that despite these hiccups, the tomato plants are bearing beautifully and I feel it is quite an auspicious beginning to our garden that I get to reap where I didn't sow. 

One thing we did manage to bring back from our old garden was these little violas which my girls grew from seed in a little window box planter. They love the bright colours and are delighted that they even get to eat them. Every visitor gets directed to the 'eating flowers' for a taste. (In case anyone is having heart failure - they have been taught that they can only eat plants that I show them are edible.)

On that cheery note - subscribe via one of the subscription links to keep up to date with our adventures in aquaponics and our various explorations and excavations!

PS Erythro-normative is a word I made up to describe how red (erythro-) tomatoes are seen as 'normal' and others are abnormal. If I ask you to draw a tomato, most of you would draw a red tomato. As a society we need to acknowledge that tomatoes come in many colours, and every colour is valuable and has its own unique flavour to add the the tomato universe - and I dream of a world where tomatoes will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their fleshy bellies.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The start of 'Dirty Hands, Clean Food'

Sharing a bit of bubbly to
celebrate being homeowners...
As of December 2014, we finally have our own house - complete with almost 500m2 of land that is perfect for a vegetable garden. So now we can grow all our own food and get chickens and some goats and make cheese for the whole world and never need to buy wrinkled and wilted fresh produce ever again... Um, yah, once we've fixed the plumbing and mended the roof and painted the wall and and and and...

Ok, so home ownership is not for sissies! But gardening keeps me sane in the midst of it all - so I decided to start slow, but at least I decided to start!

I'm going to be honest from the outset - this blog is mostly for me to keep track of the before-and-after moments as we transform this suburban space into an oasis of edible greenliness.

Almost 500m2 of sand, builder's rubble,
weed seeds and syringa berries.
Watch this space!
You are welcome to join us on the journey but I must warn you - I haven't had a very good track record with gardening so far! My  green-fingered father has been known to hand me plants rather gingerly with plaintive requests of 'Please try not to kill this one.'

But it isn't all bad - somehow we've managed a few successes - so to make myself feel better about all this I'll include some pictures below.

Because I'm not very good at watering plants, we had set up an aquaponics system at our previous house, and got some peppadews, basil and tomatoes growing quite successfully.

Aquaponics is a mixture between hydroponics and aquaculture - use fishpond water with fish poop in it to water and fertilize your veggieswhile growing fish at the same time. The veggie planter acts as a filter for the fish and so the cycle continues.

The aquaponics system shown below is *not* our aquaponics system - but it was the first (and only) one I'd actually seen in real life before we started ours! I found it at the CT Organics outlet at what was then the Dunrobin Nursery in Pietermaritzburg.

We have a very rudimentary aquaponics system on the go at the moment - but we'll definitely pursue the aquaponics thing again - we (My husband Hans and I) really feel that aquaponics is something that can form part of the solution for hunger and poverty in our country and continent. So we are experimenting with various ideas as we can afford them! Currently our biggest expense is the pond pumps that don't seem to like fish poop too much but we have figured out some cheap and effective pre-filtration systems that seem to be doing a good job.

The photo below on the left shows some tomatoes from our system, with some basil photobombing in the corner there. There is nothing quite like a home grown tomato! I had despaired of ever eating a fresh tomato again as all the tomatoes in the shop seemed either underripe or mealy - but since we started growing our own I find myself just eating freshly picked tomatoes with a little salt as a snack! And basil, ah, basil... my most favouritest herb! Basil is a good enough reason to do aquaponics all by itself!

This picture below includes some of our aquaponics tomotoes along with some not-so-baby marrows from our veggie garden turned pumpkin patch. It just took over and by the time I managed to get into the veggie garden again, these 5 marrows were peacefully nestling  in the spots where my bok choi used to grow. No matter. At least they weren't just weeds! And we got some good mileage out of these marrows! I'm actually looking forward to growing some more this size.

I cut them in half and took out the seeds, the roasted them in the oven until soft, then stuffed them with cooked minced meat, covered with cheese and baked until heated through and the cheese was bubbling. You can also freeze them once they are stuffed and cheesed for a quick supper another night, and you'll probably need to do that anyway because unless you have a family of 6, including some ravenous teenagers, it's unlikely that you'll use both halves at once! Next time I have some of these I'll do an official recipe.

These beauties just popped up on their own in my herb pot so I honestly can't take any credit for this bunch. Fortunately my mom was able to identify them as some long lost seeds of hers that somehow got into my herb pot, which was situated in what had been her garden.

Apparently they are San Marzano Redorta tomatoes - well known for having a low juice / seed content which makes them ideal for making tomato paste. They are also bigger than the regular San Marzano tomatoes. (If you'd like some seeds you can get some online from Living Seeds.)

So those are some of my previous successes... join me as we trust for more!

You'll notice that for the first few posts, the date of posting doesn't quite match up with the content that is posted - so most of these pics were taken in 2014 - but as the blog catches up with reality the content dates and post dates will converge and it will be a bit easier to follow.

Please do subscribe if you want to be notified of new posts - you'll get to hear why I choose to garden the way I do, and you'll get to see how our little garden expands, and you'll be able to share our tragedies and our triumphs. If you don't subscribe, you might miss the links on Facebook and that would be truly tragic.