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Archive for the ‘Vegetable Gardening’ Category

First Published – 20 January 2010

It’s a hot hot summer’s day here in Melbourne, Australia, and in a fashion entirely inappropriate to the position of Under Gardener, I’m in my back yard drinking Pimm’s and Lemonade while harvesting Lavender.

Lavender is widely quoted as one of Queen Victoria’s and hence the Victorian era’s favorite scents.

“It is generally known that the Queen is a great believer in Lavender as a disinfectant, and that she is not at all singular in her faith in this plant… The royal residences are strongly impregnated with the refreshing odour of this old-fashioned flower, and there is no perfume that the Queen likes better than Lavender-water, which, together with the oil for disinfecting purposes, Her Majesty has direct from a lady who distills it herself.” Fragrant Flowers, 1895.

I love growing lavender.  It thrives in our Mediterranean climate and does very well in the free-draining sandy soil in my backyard.  To keep it flowering well I make sure it doesn’t get too dry on hot sunny days. I give each bush a light pruning after I have removed the flower spikes for drying. The pruning helps to keep the bush from getting leggy and in some years encourages a second flush of flowers. Bonus!

Lavender Ready to Harvest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Victorian Head Gardeners were responsible for harvesting the lavender spikes and tying them into paper cones for drying.  The drying, processing or distillation of the lavender then fell into the domain of the Housekeeper who managed the Still Room with her maids.

I dry my lavender in the same way by hanging the paper cones of flowers in a dry dark spot in my laundry.  It only takes a week to dry in warm weather.  Hanging the flower spikes upside-down also helps to keep the spikes straight which is useful if you are going to use them in dried flower arrangements.

The Victorian House Keeper would place bags of dried lavender flowers amongst stores of linen to perfume the cloth and help prevent attack by Clothes Moths.  My Mum’s Mum, my Nanna, told me that her mother Susan (a Victorian Country Woman ) keep a lavender bush by her clothes line on which she draped her favorite pocket handkerchiefs to dry and pick up the scent of lavender.

Dried lavender, Lavender Bag and Reckitts Blue Bag

 

I’ve often wondered how women in my family, during the Victorian Period, managed life in the newly settled State of Victoria in Australia.  It’s very easy to find information about the daily life of the ‘big English Victorian house’ but very difficult to find out about the lives of people such as my Great-Grandmother living in rural Australia.  What I know about her is from snatches of stories passed down from Nanna to me. The same is true for my father’s family who, by contrast, lived in an inner Melbourne working class suburb from the mid-Victorian era to the 1980′s.  Stories I do have about my Great-Grandmothers relate mostly to domestic chores and, surprisingly, to how they did their laundry!

The house built by my paternal Great-Grandfather still had its original corrugated-iron lean-to laundry when I was a small girl.  I remember my Grandma boiling sheets in a copper cauldron and then helping her to wring them out through an old winding mangle.  It seems amazing to me now, as I stuff another load of clothes into the front loader, that basically Victorian laundry techniques were still in place in Melbourne in the early 1970′s!

Grandma standing by the Laundry in the mid-1960's

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mrs Beeton outlines the duties for a Laundry-Maid in paragraph 2372 of BOHM. There is another great description of Victorian laundry practice in the novel Lark Rise to Candleford written by Flora Thompson describing her life in late 19th century Oxfordshire.  She explains how the clothes were laundered every two weeks by a visiting Laundry Woman.  Flora explains that washing the clothes this infrequently showed that a family had enough money to afford enough clothes to wait that long between washes (when I don’t get to the laundry this week – this is how I plan to sell it).  Neither of my Great-Grandmas were affluent enough to send laundry out or hire help in.  I can’t imagine what a thankless task it was to boil clothes clean in a hot Melbourne summer – blah!

I am really interested in the idea of ‘blueing’ that both Beeton and Thompson described.  This is the practice of putting a light temporary blue dye in the rinse water for white linen to make it appear whiter. Today washing powder contains sophisticated optical whitening chemicals so the use of blue or Fig blue as Beeton calls it is rare.  So does it work?

When discussing this with my Mum she found that she still had some of Nanna’s Reckitt’s Blue bags in the laundry and was happy to give me a couple to experiment with.  Here are the results.

Using a Washboard to Wash Hankies - Very Tedious!

Dunking the 'Blue' tea-bag fashion in the rinse water.

Rinsed one in clean water and one in the blue rinse.

Hmmm - the one on the right was blued. Is it whiter?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I discovered that using a washboard is extremely tiresome. Washing an entire household’s laundry this way would give you the shoulders of an olympic swimmer. It did eventually get the dirt out.  I used an Australian washing detergent from the Victorian era that my Great-Grandmothers would have made from scratch using this recipe.  It is free of whitening agents and available ready made in Australia today.  I remember grating soap on a cheese grater for my Grandma when she was making a batch – it still smells like my childhood to me.

Then I dunked the bag of Blue into the rinse water until the water was a pale blue in colour.

It is difficult to see in the photos that I’ve taken but the Hanky dunked in the blue rinse looked blue at first rather than white.

Opinions in this household vary but I really couldn’t see a difference between the blued hanky and the other one.  It could be that the bluing works more effectively on older linen that tends to yellow as it ages.  I might try again if I find a piece of old fabric.

I guess this has strayed a long way out of the territory of the Under Gardener.

So bringing this discussion back to the garden.  My Grandmothers, as their Mothers did, loved the scent of lavender and kept bags of dried lavender with their hankerchiefs.  Grandma used lavender water to spray linen while ironing to help remove wrinkles and scent her sheets (ironing sheets seems unnecessary but I think this was one of her little luxuries). I like growing lavender as it is a plant that connects me to the women in my family and back to my Great-Grandma’s laundry rituals.

If you feel inspired to try Lavender Water here is a modern version of the Victorian Recipe for Lavender Water that I use at home.

Lavender Water

100ml (4 fl oz) Vodka

10 drops Lavender Oil

500ml (17 fl oz) Water

Add all ingredients to a Pint Spray Bottle and shake to mix.  It will keep indefinitely.  Spray it around the house to kill odours, on ironing for smoothing or keep some in the fridge to spray on you on hot days. It is also fairly good at killing the ‘wet dog smell’ on woollens that have got damp in winter.

Just be-careful not to use it as a cocktail mixer by mistake!

 

 

 

 

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We have just had the most glorious weekend in the garden, 24 degrees and sunny, just perfect. With all the rain this winter the garden looks like the national weed collection and two whole days of weeding has not made much of a dint.

Digging in the Green Manure

We dug in the green manure (mustard) into two garden beds. This is the first time we have dug the mustard into the garden in previous years we have let the chickens on the bed to eat it down. This year we cut leaves to feed to the chickens through the winter leaving the plants to keep growing. My chickens love mustard and the way they fold a mustard leaf into a cigar as they gobble it down is extraordinary. I’m looking forward to seeing if the mustard does imporve the soil.

I hoping that the green manure will increase the water holding capacity of the soil. I plan to grow climbing beans in this bed and they seem to be very thirsty plants so this should be a good test. Apart from yummy beans the Purple King Climbing Bean is a beautiful plant the hanging dark purple beans a very ornamental.

Glowing Scarlet Broadbean Flowers.

I planted Broadbean seeds in June and they are now, four months later, about a metre tall and in fall flower. I planted a Scarlet Broadbean as well as the standard ‘Prolific’.  The Scarlet plants are slightly shorter, maybe 80cm, a very fetching in the sunlight .

A second wild swarm of bees arrived in the garden on Sunday. This swarm is still sitting under the Jasmine on the back fence in a ball about the size of an Aussie rules football (Mmmm two football finals – two swarms. Coincidence or cosmic?). There is so much swarming at the moment that there isn’t a keeper available to come and collect it. I’m not at the stage were we can collect a swarm by myself.

I will be ready next year though. I’ve read that you can add a swarm to a hive by placing the swarm into a box on top of the hive. Newspaper is used to separate the two colonies. The bees then eat through the paper towards each other, by the time they meet, they recognise each other as the same colony due to the intermingling of pheromones. This seems to be a quick way to build a hive – well lets wait and see.

Next task is to germinate more seeds!

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Nessa, Kenso and Demelza - a happy chicken family.

 

Chicken Update

Our new chicks are now fully feathered and 6 weeks old.  Mum Demelza is still actively mothering the chicks who are becoming increasingly bold and independent day by day.

The biggest problem we have had has been the need to separate Tabbitha from the flock.  Tabbitha is a Leghorn bantam and sister to Demelza. Instead of becoming broody she has become increasingly agressive towards the chicks. After a week of Tabbitha waking us up every morning with her attempts to crow we needed to do something. A crowing hen will soon have all the neighbours offside.  Last night we swapped the chickens around placing Demelza and chicks in the new run and Tabbitha back in her old run – hazaar she has stopped crowing!

It seems that Tabbitha is turning broody but wants to brood her eggs in the coop she is familiar with.  Demelza and the chicks seem happy anywhere so long as they are together.  The plan is now to leave them separated until the chicks are three months old by which time I hope Tabbitha has passed in and out again of broodiness and should be ready to share space again.  Here’s hoping!

Tomatoes

The Roma tomatoes continue to develop with blossom end rot.  Other tomatoes are fruiting but not in spectacular bounty.  There is still a second bed to come on – but at this stage it is looking like another poor harvest with no surplus for bottling – fail!

Eating the Produce

Tonight I am making Potato, Onion and Cheese Pancakes with Sour-cream and Chive dressing.  There are enough tomatoes ready to pick to make a Butter Crunch Lettuce, Tomato and Cucumber Salad.

Butter Crunch Lettuce has again performed really well in our sandy soil.  My cucumbers have not yet produced fruit so I have swapped a promise of honey for cucumbers with a college at work.

Garden tasks for February

We have had extremely strong winds today so tomorrow will be spent tying up plants that have fallen over in the wind and assessing the state of the garden.  We have had rain in the last week but the garden is looking very dry.  I think it is too late to sow any more seeds but I would like to try another sowing of Purple King Beans.

I intend to visit the Market tomorrow to see if there are any Vegetable seedlings worth planting now. Otherwise the next task for February is to work out in which order the Chicken Coop will rotate around the vegetable beds and planning the planting for the winter crop.

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First bean harvest

Beans are really performing well this year.  Green beans from ‘Pioneer Bush Beans’ and lovely purple beans ‘Purple King’.  Radishes are very slow – pictured above is a young ‘French Breakfast’.

Having a new tomato problem this year.  Cherry tomatoes are growing well but ‘Beef steak’ and Roma are developing horrible black rot inside as they grow.

Rotting tomatoes?

Looking through gardening books and the web suggests this might be a lack of calcium in the soil?  I’m surprised as I fertilised this bed with Cow Poo which should be high in calcium?  Tomorrow morning I’m going to add more ‘Blood and Bone’ to soil and water in with seaweed tea.

If it is a calcium deficiency then the next lot of tomatoes should be OK.  I hate to complain but I really feel that it is time for a good tomato year – sigh.

Recommended listening for gardening this week.  Two fabulous interviews by Phillip Adams on Gardening.

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Here in Melbourne we are waking up to a scorching 39 degrees (Centigrade = 102 Fahrenheit) while messages from friends in the UK and USA flood into our inboxes still coated in snow flurries.

In preparation for the sizzling weather I’ve watered the vegetable garden early, covered the chicken house in a big wet rug and placed old bed sheets over delicate younger plants.  Days like today just fry the garden.

I’ve finally mulched the garden beds with ‘Sugar Cane Mulch’ which is cheap and lasts well in the garden.  It isn’t as environmentally friendly as locally grown Pea Straw – as it travels a long way down to us from Queensland – giving it the environmental footprint of Jack B00ts.  The thing is I’ve not been able to find Pea Straw in recent months – so Cane Mulch it is.

Today I will see if leaving the mulching later this year has made the plants more resilient in the heat – fingers crossed.

In the meantime – I hope your garden is growing well and that you are looking forward to either watching your garden out the window from a warm-fire-side or like us celebrating the turn of the year from underneath a shade tree.

Merry Merry Merry All

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Interesting climatic weekend in Australia.  Here in Melbourne where I live we enjoyed 35 to 70 mil of rain in 48 hours – that is the whole of one months rain in 48 hours.  In Sydney, by contrast, they had the first Extreme Fire Danger Day yesterday with temperatures over 40 degrees celsius and 100 separate wildfire outbreaks.  This unpredictability is problematic from a gardeners point of view.

This time last year there was very little rain and I had already put mulch on the vegetable garden.  You might remember that I lost most of my bean seedlings to ‘ring-barking’ by Slaters (Wood Lice, Butcher Boys, Pill Bugs see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wood_lice ).  The most interesting thing about Slaters is that they are a land living crustacean – that’s right tiny lobsters.  Slaters breath through gills which means they need to hang out in damp pockets in the garden in order to get the oxygen they need via water.  You would think that since we have been in drought for 10 years that Slater would be on the decline.  Unfortunately these introduced garden pests are on the increase.  I’ve heard speculation that our relatively new practice of mulching garden beds in Australian has created the ideal habitats for them to survive and thrive.

This year I am holding off on the mulching until the weather is really unforgivably hot and dry.  This should allow the soil to warm up, the plants to send their roots deeper into the beds and discourage the Slater population. I will report on how this experiment works.  So far so good.  You can see from the photo that I have both Bush Beans and Purple King Climbing Beans growing well.

Undressed Bean Bed

Another advantage of  ‘not mulching yet’ is that this weekends soaking rains went right into the soil rather than wetting the mulch and not reaching the roots.  I know this is all quiet heretical in gardening circles but gardening in the elemental extremes is going to need some experimentation to get it right – I’m hoping that by allowing my plants to send their roots down deep they will perform and survive much better once the big hot dry arrives.  The proof will be in the eatting.

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