Spring loaded

AKA: “Click go the shears”

What a difference 12 months can make – September 2022 was one of our coldest and wettest ever, followed by a very wet and cold October, yet fast forward a year and the opposite is the case – after an extremely dry August, we’ve just experienced the driest September on record. Thankfully all of the wonderful rain we had in autumn meant that the ground remained quite moist, and then with the heavens opening up in early October and delivering almost 2 inches of rain in the space of 24 hours, we should now be in a good position coming into what is predicted to be a very hot, dry summer.

One of the highlights of spring at Greatrakes is the display of ornamental pears along the driveway, although with a smell reminiscent of wok-fried shrimp paste, it’s a sight best viewed from afar.

Spring at Greatrakes is always a busy time of year, and with the weather having been so warm and sunny early, the grass (and weeds) got a head start. Of course, whenever the grass begins to grow, the ride-on mower decides to have issues. We always knew the original battery wasn’t great at holding a charge, but after swapping the battery over for a new one and finally getting some lawns mowed, the very next time I tried to start it, there was nothing again. After a discussion with the wonderful folks at Bendigo Outdoor Power Equipment, we determined that it was probably a sticking solenoid at the top of the starter motor. Sure enough, when my Dad came up for a visit, we managed to get the cover off the engine, and with a quick spray of WD40 and a very light tap with the knockometer (otherwise known as a hammer), she was back up and running in no time.

The temperamental beast that is our zero-turn mower.

This allowed me to get another round of mowing done, until right on the last pass along the fence out the front of the property, I managed to pop one of the tubeless front tyres off its rim during a particularly tight turn. No amount of manoeuvring would get it into a position where I could pump it back up again, so it was another trip down to the mower shop for a tube. Effectively, this wheel now matches the one on the other side which did pretty much the same thing for a friend last year while we were away overseas. All these delays meant that every time I eventually got the machine back up an running, I then had to contend with grass that had managed to grow knee high again. I swear, at the moment I’m having to mow the back lawn at least twice a week if I want to avoid having to rake up big clumps of cut grass at the end.

The back lawn freshly mowed, fertilised and giving the irrigation system a test run.

Still, there’s nothing quite like looking out over a freshly mowed lawn to the green pastures beyond, and with the rain at the start of October I’ve even had to cut a few strips around the inside of the paddocks so that we can get around without having to worry about stepping on a snake. Speaking of which, it’s looking like a bad year for the old murder-noodles as well, with several of our neighbours having close encounters with brown snakes in their gardens, and Vanessa even running over a black snake on the road in to Bendigo. So far we haven’t had any encounters here ourselves, although we have had one false alarm which involved a warm sunny day during which I was working in Melbourne, a neighbour answering Vanessa’s distress call and blasting a hole in the back lawn with a shotgun, and one very dead stick as a result.

A beautiful display of Ranunculi in the front garden.

Out the front of the house, Vanessa has been busy this year with her display of Ranunculi, which were supposed to be all yellow to match with the hanging basket display of pansies, but actually turned out to be a mix of colours – one of those “happy little accidents” that the artist Bob Ross used to always talk about. The pansies themselves have been a vibrant yellow right throughout August and September, and are showing no signs of letting up any time soon. It’s amazing how visible they are from far away – as soon as we turn into nearby O’Brien’s lane, you can see them glowing from across the paddocks.

A vibrant display of yellow pansies at the front of the house.
The bright yellow against the white backdrop of the house is visible from a long way away.

Elsewhere in the garden, we’ve made a start on our summer vegetables. There’s always a dilemma here in Central Victoria about when is the best time to plant tomatoes. The accepted gospel for many years has been to get them in around Melbourne Cup Day at the start of November, after the last frosts have been and gone. Looking back to last year though, with the cold, wet spring and lack of sunshine, it was the tomatoes that I planted before we went overseas in October that gave us the best returns by far – many of those that I planted upon our return in November didn’t start producing fruit until late January, and with the season turning cold again quickly after that, I ended up tossing out a lot of unripe tomatoes (because there’s only so much green tomato relish you can deal with at any one time).

So, like last year, I have started my tomatoes off this year indoors in Jiffy pots, and they’ve spent the last few weeks soaking up the morning sunshine on the front veranda. I’ve struck plenty of different varieties again, and I’ve made sure that I have plenty of spare pots of each. This way I have been able to plant some out already, while holding some aside to either grow on in pots in the glasshouse, or to plant out as replacements should we get a heavy frost.

A pergola that will hopefully be covered in tomatoes by late summer.

One of the varieties I’ve managed to grow from seed this year is “Giant Tree”, a potato-leaf variety that is supposed to grow up to 6-8 foot tall, allowing it to be trained over a pergola. Unfortunately with this one I was only able to obtain a handful of seeds, so I’m trying to nurse them through any potential frosts with the addition of some cut-off Coke bottles to act as a shield until they get established. We’ve repeated our use of straw bales for the tomatoes this year, as they did well last year once we eventually worked out a proper watering regime. This year however, we’ll be sticking to deep rooted plants (like tomatoes), and thus avoid the mistake of last year in trying to grow shallow-rooted crops like beans and basil.

Musqee de Provence, a large French variety of pumpkin, with dog-resistant guards in place.

I’ve repeated the same early planting process with my cucurbits this year, but given that these go directly into the ground, I’ve also had to shield them with industrial-strength garden stakes, in order to protect them from rampaging puppies. I’m trialling a number of new varieties (for me, anyway), including several different types of pumpkins, zucchinis, cucumbers, watermelons and rockmelons.

A full bed of garlic, four different varieties and hopefully enough crowns to keep us going over summer.

Our garlic and onion crops that have been growing through winter are nearing maturity, and this year we have made sure to plant a lot more than we did last year, with a whole bed devoted to different varieties of garlic, as well as plenty of red, brown and white onions. There’s even a full bed of eschallots that should be ready to pick in early December. We’ve already harvested a bumper crop of beetroot, some of which we’ve roasted, and many more we’ve bottled up in anticipation of many summer barbecues.

A bed of mixed red, brown and white onions nearing maturity.
Another bed of garlic, with red onions and loose-leaf lettuce in the background.

The last major project for this spring will be the planting up of the annual display in the driveway. We missed the boat a little with this, in that we weren’t able to get the weeding and preparation of the bed finished before the crop of Sweet Williams I’d been growing in the glasshouse got too spindly, so we’ll probably end up making a dash to a local nursery in the next couple of weeks to pick up some established seedlings.

The annual bed dug over and ready for planting.

Of course, it being spring, shearing season is well underway, a task a lot more onerous this year since our numbers have risen to 21 (down from 22 as we sadly lost one of our little lambs a few weeks ago to an underlying heart defect). We managed to get the services of “Shane the Shearer” again this year, one of the few shearers around who is not only happy to offer his services to hobby farms, but is also set up to shear alpacas.

Shearing time.

Since our last post, we’ve changed the make-up of our alpaca herd slightly. Unfortunately, Queenie, the black-fleeced alpaca, still had some hormonal issues that had stemmed from her being surrounded by pregnant females while she herself hadn’t fallen pregnant. This manifested in her being quite domineering towards Rosie and High Class, as well as behaving aggressively towards some of the lambs, so after consultation with the breeders, they agreed to swap her over for Pandora, a fawn-coloured female similar to High Class. Apparently she and High Class had been best friends back at their original home, and she’s certainly proven to be a much better fit for Rosie as well.

Pandora, prior to being shorn.

Pandora has an amazing, milk-chocolate coloured mark on her neck that’s reminiscent of a love heart – it’s quite visible as a darker mark on her fleece, but it really stands out once she’s been shorn!

Pandora’s love-heart is highly visible after shearing.

Just like with the tomato planting, knowing just when to shear the alpacas is a bit of a gamble – too soon and you risk exposing them to frosts and cold, windy weather, but too late and they can overheat on hot days. Last year we didn’t get them done until late November (although that was in part due to the fact that we hadn’t been able to find a reliable shearer, and partly due to my falling ill with Legionnaire’s disease). This year however, with predictions of an El Nino and a early start to summer, we decided to bring the shearing forward a bit. Despite a couple of frosty nights, there have already been a couple of warm, sunny days this spring, and I’m sure the girls will be thankful that they aren’t having to walk around in their woollen jackets during the day. We’ve also reopened the lambing paddock that had been shut off since August, so not only do they have access to plenty of fresh grass, they can also take shelter down among the red gums if the weather turns too hot or cold.

The three girls make their way out into the main paddock.
High Class enjoying some fresh grass in the lambing paddock.
Pandora discovered a head-high patch of rushes to wander through.
A couple of the new lambs, enjoying being back in the lush grass of the lambing paddock again.

So as we head into summer, we luckily have lots of green grass in the paddocks, full water tanks, and plenty of moisture in the soil. The long range predictions all look good at this stage for this to be a short-lived El Nino, with a return to wetter conditions by late December. Fingers (and toes) crossed. In the meantime, we have a group of local volunteers about to come on to the property to plant over 400 native trees and shrubs down by the creek, as part of a project to restore habitat along Axe Creek between Strathfieldsaye and its confluence with the Campaspe River a kilometre or so downstream from us. More on that next post.

Looking across the main paddock, with the tree line of Axe Creek in the distance.

Our ten biggest failures (or close calls) in this summer’s vegetable garden

In my previous post I outlined our ten biggest vegetable garden success stories from the 2022-23 summer season here at Greatrakes. Unfortunately, it wasn’t all beer and skittles – this being our first year in our new home, and a totally different climate to what we’ve been used to, we were bound to make some mistakes. Not to mention Mother Nature stepping in on occasion to lend a not-so-helping hand with the situation. So here are our ten biggest failures for the summer, along with a few close calls that were technically slight wins, but somehow felt like failures all the same:

#10 Straw bale garden beds

This is one of those situations where, although I really want to chalk it up as a win, there’s just been too many speedbumps along the road to success to feel overly enthusiastic about it at this early stage. The idea of growing vegetables in straw bales initially came about, with this being our first year in our new home and raised garden beds being so hideously expensive to buy, we needed to find a cheaper alternative that would use the space we had to its full potential.

Straw bales prepared for planting

After studying all of the instructional YouTube videos on the subject that I could find, I ended up buying a bunch of straw bales at our local feed & produce store. I set them up in double rows, and prepared them by adding a high nitrogenous fertiliser. I then soaked them every day for a couple of weeks until they had started to break down in the centre, at which time I added a layer of garden soil to the top, before planting them with my chosen crops – tomatoes in some, and beans in others.

The right side bale in the foreground here inexplicably collapsed within a few weeks of planting

I guess I should have realised at the time, but planting a nitrogen fixing crop such as beans into something that’s been treated with a high nitrogen fertiliser is probably not the smartest move I’ve ever made, and it probably also explains why some of the tomato crops were a lot later to start fruiting than their brethren in the raised garden beds. That being said, I don’t think that’s the full story – it’s a lot more complicated than that, and has a lot to do with the watering regime that we first employed, as well as the root structure of the plants involved.

The first tomatoes that we produced from straw bales all ended up with blossom end rot, a condition caused by a lack of calcium. The natural instinct here is to simply add more fertiliser, until you realise that the real cause of this lack of calcium is not the absence of the mineral in the soil, but a shortage of water needed to transport it up to the fruit.

Collapsing bales caused these bush tomatoes to sprawl over onto the topsoil below

It dawned on me one day that even though I’d been watering the bales every day alongside the raised garden beds, I hadn’t really checked to see how deeply or how well that water had penetrated. Sure enough, when I dug down into one of the bales, I found that although some parts were moist to the touch, a lot of the bale was completely dry, even though it had been watered that morning. This wasn’t such a problem for the tomato plants, which by this stage had managed to develop a strong root system that ran right through the bales, but for shallower rooted plants such as beans, it meant that there was a lot less margin for error. In fact, it was only much later in the season, after we’d switched to deep soaking the bales regularly using water from the bore, that the climbing beans we’d planted really started to flower and produce beans, by which time it was too late in the season to get a useful crop.

One of the other issues with straw bales that we encountered is that some of them ended up collapsing completely. These just happened to be ones that had determinate (bush) tomatoes growing in them, which hadn’t been trellised or staked, meaning the plants ended up sprawling along the ground, and in this environment, with its overwhelming numbers of slaters, slugs, beetles and earwigs, that pretty much spelled doom for any fruits that touched the soil.

After a full season, the bales are ready to be broken up and used as mulch or compost

Given that we plan to expand the vegetable garden this season, I’m sure we will end up using straw bales again, however this time around we’ll only use them for deep rooted plants (such as tomatoes) and we’ll make sure that even the bush varieties are well staked and well soaked. Plus we’ll make sure that there’s a much higher fertilising regime using a better balanced mix while the plants are getting established.

#9 Chillies

The failure of our chillies to crop this year I attribute wholly and solely to a couple of rookie errors I made. The first one was starting them off too early – I figured that even though it was the middle of winter, the greenhouse was warming up into the mid twenties (Celsius) each day, so they’d be fine. Of course, what I wasn’t taking into account was the nights, which were getting down to around -2 or -3 each night (even reaching -6 one morning). When you’re getting a frost inside a closed greenhouse, chances are you’re not going to have much luck germinating your summer crops.

A surviving Jalapeno

The few plants that did survive really struggled, and the later lot that I established in early spring fell fate to the overwatered Jiffy pot scenario that’s outlined in failure #6 below, so I really only had a handful of spindly seedlings to plant out in November when we returned from our overseas holiday.

Mini capsicum plant

My next error was to plant those spindly seedlings into one of the few garden beds that still had any space available, rather than waiting for the correct spot to open up. Given that we were still waiting to harvest the majority of our winter crops, I chose a bare patch in one of the original raised garden beds that the previous owners had built around the base of a nectarine tree. Of course, having never seen the tree with foliage at this stage, I hadn’t really thought about how much shade it would throw onto the bed. To make matters worse, the soil in the bed seemed to be mostly commercial potting mix, rather than a proper raised garden soil mix, so it drained far too quickly and completely dried out within an hour or two of being watered. The fact that we managed to get any chillies at all was a miracle in itself.

#8 Ram’s Horn tomatoes

These tomatoes promised so much, and unlike a lot of my tomato seedlings, they didn’t suffer from overwatering while in Jiffy pots, however it seems that the early start to the season may have been too much for them anyway, as for most of the summer they just grew a thick cover of leaves with hardly any fruit, even though they were growing in the same bed as Thai Pink Egg and Roma tomatoes that were heavily laden with crops.

Rams Horn tomatoes

What fruits did appear would almost instantly start dying back and dropping off the bush prematurely thanks to blossom end rot. From all accounts they are a heavy, reliable cropper in the right conditions, but it sounds like that’s not what we have here in Axedale.

‘Rams Horn’ produced abundant foliage, but struggled to produce much in the way of quality fruit

#7 Celeriac

Not a true failure as such, but another crop that we ended up growing over a long period for very little return. I planted half a bed of celery and the other half with celeriac – both are heavy water users, so I made sure to keep the water up to them throughout the summer, but while the celery was ready to harvest in a reasonably short amount of time, the celeriac seemed to take forever to develop its customary root swelling, and when it finally did, the bases were small and quite stringy – making for a not very pleasant texture the one time we tried to make celeriac mash. In the end I pulled the lot out and fed them to the sheep. At least they seemed to like them.

Celeriac in the foreground, lots of lush green foliage, but very poor root development

#6 Overwatered Jiffy Pots

Jiffy pots, the little discs of pressed coir that swell into little self-contained planters when water is added, were an absolute godsend for someone keen to get their summer vegetables off to a head start in weather that was more suited to growing icicles. After raising my first lot of tomato seedlings in Jiffy pots indoors during July and August, I was able to transplant them into pots to grow-on in the glasshouse as the weather started to warm slightly in September.

A tray of Jiffy pots planted up with several varieties of tomato seeds

However, with an overseas trip lined up for the entirity of October, what wasn’t so smart was starting a second lot of seedlings in September that were still too small to be planted up by the time we left. Instead I transferred the Jiffy pots and their self watering trays into the greenhouse, and in the last minute rush, I forgot to let my mum know that they needed to be watered separately. As the days started to get sunnier, and the temperatures inside the greenhouse started to rise, the watering became more frequent, and over 70 tomato, chilli and cucurbit seedlings slowly began to stew in a stagnant pool.

By the time we returned in November, most were beyond saving, and ended up on the compost pile. What was still alive got potted up or planted out into the garden, but none of them flourished, and apart from one California Wonder capsicum and a solitary Jalapeno, the rest eventually joined their brethren on the compost heap.

Jiffy pots are a very convenient seed starting medium – provided they aren’t overwatered

Sadly, this included the majority of my indeterminate tomatoes, and most of my cucumbers, zucchinis and pumpkins, so I ended up having to purchase a heap of advanced seedlings from Bunnings to get us through.

#5 Sweet potatoes

Another crop that promised so much, but failed to deliver – I raised a number of slips from a single orange sweet potato, and purchased an individual plant of a purple skinned variety from Mitre 10 in Bendigo, planting them into beautifully rich soil in a 700mm high circular raised bed. Throughout the summer the vines grew thickly, seeming to thrive, but as the nights started to get colder, I started to turn my mind to what sort of harvest we might get.

As I turned over the soil, I was anticipating bunches of big, fat tubers, but alas, for the most part they were tiny – if they had developed at all. I wondered if I may have been too early (they had been growing for over 4 months), however the two tubers that had managed to grow to a decent size told a different story – both were riddled with black beetles that had gouged deep tracks right through the skins – in the end the vines ended up on the compost heap and those two mangy orange tubers ended up being donated to the dogs’ dinner. We ended up eating the purple one (it was actually all white, and hadn’t even developed any purple skin) – it was pretty ordinary, and certainly not worth the effort or the space we had dedicated to them.

Sweet potatoes planted into a deep circular raised bed. The Turmeric plant in the centre was equally disappointing and produced no useable tubers.

#4 The Greenhouse

On June 9th 2021, we spent a terrifying night inside our former home at Mount Dandenong as all around us we listened to the sound of giant messmate stringybark trees toppling to the ground. The following day, as we surveyed the damage, one of the first casualties we noticed was our Maze greenhouse, which had received a direct hit from one of the fallen eucalypts. Thankfully, our insurance covered us for the damage, and we were able to order a replacement kit, however by the time it arrived, plans were already in place for us to sell the house, so it stayed boxed up until we arrived here at Axedale.

Our first greenhouse didn’t survive a direct hit from a fallen eucalyptus tree

We moved in here in winter 2022, and one of our first projects was to assemble the greenhouse so that I could start raising seedlings. We were pleased with the end result, as this one seemed much sturdier than the last one, and with just open paddocks behind it, the chances of having it smashed in a storm again seemed fairly remote.

The replacement Maze greenhouse at Axedale, soon after construction

Skip forward to January of 2023 however, and as the blistering sun caused wave after wave of dust devils (otherwise known as wily-willies) to dance across the parched paddocks every afternoon, I guess it was inevitable that one of them would eventually build up enough energy to do some damage. What we didn’t expect though, was that the path it followed would take it straight through the middle of our greenhouse, picking it up and twisting it as if it were made of paper.

10 seconds of thermal dynamics at play

A different insurance company to deal with this time around, and a far more difficult story to sell, despite it being 100% true, but as luck would have it, the assessor they sent out was not only familiar with the Axedale area, he had himself seen a wily-willie build up enough force to destroy a shed, so he approved our claim without hesitation. This time around we were offered a cash settlement for the replacement cost of the glasshouse, plus the cost for a builder to rebuild it from scratch. This meant that we were able to take the settlement and put it towards a sturdier glasshouse from a local manufacturer, Sproutwell Greenhouses in Geelong, provided of course that we built it ourselves.

The new Sproutwell greenhouse after construction

That’s a story in itself, one that involves a lot of colourful language and some deep and meaningful discussion about whether it was truly worth it, but in the long run, what we’ve ended up with is a far superior design, with a lot more space to play with, and little to no chance of it being picked up by the wind. Although I’ve learned never to say never.

#3 Borlotti Beans

The first planting of Borlotti beans I made was into straw bales, and as we’ve already discussed, beans in bales was an idea that never really worked for us, so fairly soon into the summer I made the decision to plant a second patch of Borlotti beans into a raised garden bed. I’m not even sure now, in the cold light of day, why I was so keen to grow beans that are harvested for their seeds rather than for the whole bean, as most YouTube garden channels these days seem to feature them on their “10 plants I’d never grow again” lists, but whatever the case, I persevered. The second planting went in at the same time as I planted my bush beans, and I had high hopes that this time around they wold be a success.

Borlotti beans

This second lot definitely grew a lot leafier, pretty much keeping pace with the bush beans, however flowering was very sporadic, and whereas each bush bean would be laden down with beans every day, the Borlotti beans were lucky to have produced more than one at a time. When the neighbouring mustard plants eventually grew up and over the top of them, I can’t really say that I was overly disappointed, and soon after they were removed and fed to the sheep.

#2 Brussels Sprouts

Another crop that seems to feature fairly high on most YouTube “no-grow” lists, but given the long, cold winter we had, I would have thought that this season would have been the perfect time to grow sprouts, but alas it was not to be. Despite our success with cauliflower, cabbages and other brassicas, after more than 150 days in the ground and showing absolutely no sign of developing any sprouts, these too ended up on the compost pile.

Brussels sprouts supposedly love the cold winters

#1 Potting mix

Some of the mistakes we made this year have been simply annoying, while others have been both annoying and costly, however only one of them has been truly life threatening. For most of my adult life I have worked with potting mix, and I’ve always been aware of the risks involved in handling it, but like most people, I don’t think I’ve ever truly understood just how dangerous it can be. Even the warning label on the back of the brand of potting mix I normally use seems to understate the risk – “If dusty, wear a mask”. Well after returning from overseas and spending some time in the greenhouse using a damp potting mix that was decidedly un-dusty, I can say quite categorically that the decision to not wear a mask damn near cost me my life.

Even the warnings on the back of the label seem to understate the potentially deadly consequences of inhaling potting mix

October had been an extremely humid month in Victoria, with record rainfalls and widespread flooding. While Vanessa and I were on our overseas trip, we were constantly in touch with friends and family back home, who kept us updated on the devastating floods that had swept through our region. Meanwhile, while the temperatures outside were generally well below average for that time of the year, in the greenhouse they were reaching up into the mid to high twenties Celsius on most days, and on those days that the sun did shine, well into the 30s. All the while, a 3/4 full bag of potting mix sat under the potting bench, soaking up the moisture and steaming as it heated up – the perfect conditions for growing Legionella longbeachae, the bacteria found in potting mix that is one of the common causes of Legionnaire’s Disease.

Legionella longbeachae loves to lurk in moist, humid conditions like those found in potting mix

I’ve outlined elsewhere on this blog the full story of my experience with Legionnaire’s Disease, so I won’t go into further details here, but suffice to say that this is one mistake I will never make again – there’s always a face mask and gloves on hand to use in the greenhouse, and they go on the face and hands whenever I am using potting mix nowadays – even if it’s just to top up a pot. It’s just that simple.

Sweet potato by ivabalk from Pixabay
Borlotti beans image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay
Brussels sprouts image by Carola68 Die Welt ist bunt…… from Pixabay

A change of direction

For anyone who has been hanging on all this time wondering what the hell happened at Greatrakes over summer, you’ve probably realised by now that I’ve decided to take the blog in a different direction, and rather than providing monthly updates, from now on I’ll be adding content whenever I feel the urge to do so – which may be several times a month, or maybe not for a few months at a time. So to tie up some loose ends, let’s just say that summer here was very late in arriving (in Axedale we only had one day in November that just managed to sneak into the 30s), however once it had finally done so, it came with a vengeance. For the last three months we have been baked dry with searing heat and very little rain – on the rare occasion that storms did form up in Central Victoria, we watched despairingly as they slid away to the east and west of us. Meanwhile to our north, in Queensland and across the top end of Australia, there have been record rains and devastating floods as the third year of La Nina drew to a close. For a year that had been as wet as it was though, here in Axedale we ended up watching our paddocks turn to dust, and by late February we were forced to bring in a couple of rolls of hay to supplement the dwindling supply of grass for the sheep and alpaca to eat. Thankfully we received a healthy drop of rain at the start of March, and a couple of days of good follow-up rain towards the end of the month – not enough to refill the tanks yet, but enough to get some green back into the fields.

Luckily here at Greatrakes we have an excellent bore that produces water that’s technically drinkable – as the rainwater tank behind the garage that I use for my vegetables started to get lower, I invested in some new hoses and hooked up a watering system to the bore for us to get through – and what a success that was, with bumper crops of beetroot, garlic, spring onions, mustard, beans, strawberries, basil, eggplants, sweet corn, cucumbers, zucchinis and tomatoes. For the first time in twenty years we’ve had a garden that we’ve been able to utilise to grow substantial amounts of produce – in fact this year we’ve hardly had to buy any vegetables, apart from those that we didn’t grow enough of last year (such as garlic, onions and potatoes), or those that we’re still waiting to finish cropping (such as pumpkins, sweet potatoes and melons).

We’ve picked at least 15 kilos of tomatoes alone this season – with many going towards making passata, sauces and confit, as well as being given away to friends and family. I’d have to say, despite my love of several of the sauces I’ve made, including some extra tangy and smoky BBQ sauce, it’s hard to go past the confit cherry tomatoes, either in a pasta dish or piled into a hot toasty – absolutely delicious little bombs of explosive, sweet flavour that are truly exquisite.

Over 10kg of potatoes came from just two raised beds, but unfortunately that still wasn’t enough to tide us over, so next season we’ll be increasing our crops exponentially. This was the first time that I’d tried growing potatoes using the layering method, where you let the plants poke their heads out of the ground for a bit before covering them with another layer manure and straw – repeated several times throughout the growing season, it saw us gather more than seven kilos out of each of two raised beds. Unfortunately, before I had hooked up the bore I had been using the rainwater tank and had tried to go sparingly as the dry summer wore on, sacrificing some of the watering that should have been going to produce big spuds – an error that resulted in about 4kg of the total 15kg being on the small side. Nonetheless, these were perfect for using in potato salads, or roasting tom make our own version of ‘pommes noisettes’.

I’ve never been a big fan of eggplant, but this year with all of the summer heat, our crops have been huge, and Vanessa has tried her hand at a couple of variations that have made me rethink this whole ‘not liking eggplant’ deal. In fact, I’d have to say that the roast leg of lamb (from our own paddock) that she recently cooked and accompanied with a smoky eggplant sauce using eggplants from our garden, washed down with our own wine that we produced this year at Shiraz Republic, would have to have been one of my all-time favourite meals!

I grew a small patch of garlic last winter from on bulb that we’d bought from the supermarket that had started to sprout – it produced enough bulbs to get us through the summer and make a valuable contribution to our sauces and pickling mixes, but sadly we’ve now had to resort to buying it again, so this year I’ve purchased a stack of bulbs of four different varieties, and we should be looking at enough garlic for us to be self sufficient for the next twelve months.

As far as mustard goes, I planted a small patch as a cover crop in one quarter of a raised bed, after I had harvested a crop of cabbages earlier in the season. Despite massive predation by cabbage white butterflies (which we would counter by spending about an hour a day picking off the caterpillars and feeding them to the birds), they produced a bumper crop of flowers, followed by so many seed pods that I gave up picking them all after filling three large paper bags. This turned out to be a big mistake, as the remaining seeds dropped everywhere, and I reckon I’ll be pulling mustard seedlings out from around my crops for many years to come. Still, with each paper bag full of pods producing enough seed to make a full bottle of the most delicious wholegrain mustard, we won’t be needing to buy more of that any time soon, so that has to count as a win, right?

When it comes to vegetables, I really love changing people’s minds about beetroot – it always amazes me when people say they don’t like beetroot because the only time they’ve ever experienced before is the soggy sliced stuff you get from a can. This summer we have rotated crops of beetroot throughout the season, growing several different varieties including the regular red beets, as well as golden varieties and even a striped variety that turns white when pickled! We’ve pickled most of the beetroot, both as slices and whole baby beets, but we’ve also roasted some to produce the most amazing flavours imaginable.

Meanwhile Vanessa has devoted much of her free time this summer to establishing a Dahlia garden. It’s been a tough year, but finally the hard work and hours of hand watering with a hose attached to the bore has paid off, and the house is currently filled with stunning blooms of all shapes and sizes. She’s also been paying close attention to the watering and dead-heading of the many hanging baskets that we have hung along the verandas at the front and back of the house – the pink and purple petunias along the front make a striking display as you approach the house, while out the back the cheerful mass displays of Calibrachoa and Bacopa perfectly compliment the gorgeous views out to the west.

Apart from the successes in the garden, and my continued slow recovery from Legionnaire’s Disease, the other thing of great note this summer has been the addition to our family of another German Shorthair pup – Mathilda, a gorgeous girl with a dark brown coat and a little patch of white hair on her chest – her father was a very tall dog and the speed at which her lanky legs are growing makes it look like she could be the same. After a few days of sorting out their pecking order and the ownership of various toys, Heide has really bonded with her new little sister, and the two have become great playmates (or partners in crime as the case may be). Reinhardt is far less enthusiastic about the young one’s eagerness to play all the time, but when things have eventually quietened down of an evening you’ll usually find the two of them curled up together on the same bed.

As far as work around the house, there hasn’t been a lot that we’ve been able to accomplish due to the heat. We did manage to build a new glasshouse though, thanks to an insurance pay-out after our last one was destroyed in a freak wily-willie (otherwise known as a dust devil). We were both working in our offices one afternoon when we suddenly heard what sounded like a truck coming up the driveway. With the searing heat and the natural amphitheatre that our house sits in, it’s not uncommon of an afternoon to see multiple wily-willies dancing across the paddocks, and they’re usually fairly small and harmless, but on this occasion it ran along the length of the house, tearing the cover off the spa and picking up a half full recycling bin from against the back of the house and depositing it several metres away on top of a hedge. We both ran out to watch this tornado-like dust devil roar its way across our side paddock before turning and running back along the edge of the Mount Sugarloaf Nature Reserve across the road from us. As it blew itself out we walked around the back of the house to survey the damage and discovered our glasshouse had been lifted up and twisted in two like piece of paper.

To be honest, we weren’t holding out much hope of getting anything back from our insurer – we were already pretty much assured that we weren’t covered for all the damage to our fencing from the October floods, so the thought of trying to convince them that we’d been hit by a freak windstorm that came and went within a minute, seemed like an uphill task. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained right? So we contacted ING and they sent out an assessor, who then came back to us with an offer for a cash settlement that would enable us to upgrade to a larger, sturdier model, made right here in Victoria by Sproutwell Greenhouses – provided of course we were prepared to build it ourselves.

Let me say, that as much as I am in love with the quality of the greenhouse, the instructions that came with the greenhouse (plus the fact that there were about 4 different versions of the instructions provided to us, each contradicting the previous), was almost enough to question whether it was all worth it. I’m sure I’ll mellow over time, as the new greenhouse really is a massive step up from the previous one, but right now I’d be hard pressed wanting to set up another one any time soon.

OCTOBER – NOVEMBER 2022: Water, water everywhere

This post, for reasons that will become obvious, is both very brief, and very late. October for us at Greatrakes was pretty much non-existent, due to the fact that we boarded a plane on the 6th of the month and jetted out to Prague for the start of a nearly month-long sabbatical in Europe. We left the house and dogs in the capable hands of my mum during that time, and only returned to Axedale in the early hours of November 3rd, having missed some of the wildest and wettest weather ever to have hit the region.

More rain

The big wet, as you will have seen from our previous posts, had actually been going for several months already, and with each downpour the flooding had been a little worse, so with a few days to go before our trip began, the last thing we wanted to see was another huge frontal system heading down from the north.

As October began, the floods from the 27th and 28th of September had finally started to recede, leaving behind them piles of debris stacked up against the fences of the lower section of our paddocks, with the fences completely pushed over in several places.

Luckily, with the help of a neighbour and a four-wheel drive, I was able to straighten them sufficiently to keep the sheep and alpaca confined, and to restore the electric fence along the creek line to working order, a day before we were set to leave the country.

The creek levels dropped before we left for our holiday – but for how long?

Fast forward to just over a week later, and in the early hours of the morning of the 14th of October, we were waking up on the Danube River in Austria to news that the rains back at home had reached biblical proportions, with dumps of over 200mm overnight throughout the catchments of Axe Creek and the Campaspe River. Lake Eppalock, which had been sitting at around 47% capacity when we moved to Axedale in late May, was now around 133% capacity, with water levels above 1.8 metres flowing across both spillways. In fact, so ferocious was the flow on the second spillway, that it had washed away the road below it. Of course, all that water was heading into the Campaspe River, and the first chance it had to escape its banks was at the McIvor Highway crossing at Axedale, which not only resulted in the road between Heathcote and Bendigo being cut, but also removed the entire road surface from a section just above the bridge, images of which were now making news across the globe.

The water levels reached to well above the dam, the highest since the house was built in 2015

We checked in throughout the day and night with mum to monitor the conditions, and despite the fact that the water levels had reached halfway up the final rise before the house’s ground level, plus the fact that the house was now literally cut off from all road access in and out, she seemed to be handling it quite stoically. The sheep and alpaca were all securely locked up in the top paddock, out of harm’s way, and the house was still very much high and dry, so she resigned herself to a couple of days indoors and soldiered on.

The sheep were certainly not in any danger of running out of food during October and November

Pastures aplenty, but fences – not so much

When we finally returned in early November, most (but not all) of the rain had cleared, and we were faced with the sight of paddocks towering with pasture. Unfortunately, the floods had completely destroyed around a third of our fencing, meaning that the livestock had to be confined to the top paddock until such time as I could erect a temporary electric fence across the main paddock to keep them from straying into the creek or the neighbouring properties.

Rosie surveys the acres of fresh pasture after all the rain.

Even then, the amount of pasture in the top paddock was way beyond the scope of the small flock of sheep that we had to keep down to a manageable level, and after sorting out the issue of getting them all shorn before the impending summer (if and when it finally arrived), we ended up enlisting the help of another Axedale local to come and slash the main paddock for us.

Picking & planting

In the meantime, the vegetable garden was finally starting to offer up some excellent produce, with rows of healthy cauliflowers and cabbages ready to pick, along with radishes, lettuces and carrots. A lot of the radishes, cauliflowers and cabbages ended up in various forms of pickled produce, such as piccalilli and sauerkraut, although I ended up having to throw most of the sauerkraut out a couple of weeks later due to it drying out (I’ll explain why in a moment).

The first of many cauliflowers from the garden.
Several of the cauliflowers ended up as delicious piccalilli

After harvesting the vegetables that were ready to pick, the most important job in the vegetable garden was to transplant all of the tomatoes from the glasshouse into the garden, as well as replacing the lettuce that had gone to seed with some fresh summer herbs. The tomatoes that I had experimented with planting out early were also doing well, as despite the rain and the cold days, there had been no frosts during our time away. I potted some of the seedlings up and planted the rest into raised garden beds, before refilling the planter box in the glasshouse with potting mix and a light top dressing of seed raising mix and sowing a bunch of different varieties of Basil and Dill. Little did I know it, but this simple action of emptying the remains of a bag of potting mix that had sat for a month in the glasshouse into a planter box would have a profound effect on the next two months of my life.

A bunch of radishes destined for the pickling jar
A big hearty Iceberg lettuce

Struggling to breathe

By the Tuesday afternoon of the week following our return to Australia, I started to develop severe asthma – or so I thought. Having been hit with bouts of it off and on throughout our European trip, I suspected it was just a return bout, and given that I had a journey into the office in Melbourne planned for the Wednesday anyway, I made an appointment to see my doctor in the city before work. He prescribed me another inhaler and a preventer and sent me on my way, but on returning to the office it was clear that I wouldn’t be able to do much, so I hopped back in the car and drove the two hour journey back home to bed.

The next day I felt worse and stayed in bed all day – by the afternoon I’d started to get hot and cold sweats. Given the wave of COVID 19 sweeping the state again, I took a Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) and expected the worst, however after a few minutes it came back as negative. The following morning my fever was running at 40 degrees, and I was struggling to even breathe lightly, so we called an ambulance. After testing negative on another RAT, and despite the advice of the ambos and the doctor on the virtual ED call that it was COVID and I should just wait it out at home, I insisted on making the trip into the emergency department. After passing yet another RAT and then lying in the waiting room for an hour, dripping with sweat and gasping for air, I was finally taken in for a chest x-ray before being sent back to the waiting room again. It wasn’t long however before the nurse came back in to inform me that I had a severe bout of what they suspected was pneumonia, and that I was being admitted to hospital immediately.

Things take a turn for the worse

Over the next two days my condition continued to worsen, despite the copious amounts of antibiotics I was being administered, until one of the doctors suggested they switch to treating me for Legionnaire’s Disease, given my recent history of working in a confined space with potting mix. Sure enough, within hours of the change in medicine, I started to come good, and I was finally able to go home on the Monday afternoon. The recovery from Legionnaire’s though is a very slow process, and the rest of November (and much of December) was pretty much a write off for me, both work wise and gardening as well.

We’ve all read the label hundreds of times, but how many people actually wear gloves and a mask when using potting mix?

A hearty drop

One thing that we were able to do during November was to finish bottling our own wine, thanks to the wonderful people at Shiraz Republic and their Rent-a-Row program. Given my lack of energy, I wasn’t able to do much myself other than stick labels on bottles, but Vanessa and our friends Jarrod & Aleisha did all of the heavy lifting to clean, fill, cork and seal 72 bottles of lovely Shiraz. I did manage to stick the labels on the bottles however – labels that I had designed myself based on an oil painting I had completed of a red gum by the roadside just near our house. As a tribute to our new home and location, we’ve named the wine “Sugarloaf Road Shiraz”. It’s drinking nicely already, but it should really start to peak over the next 5-7 years. If we can make it last that long…