Garden Thoughts, Nature, Garden Update

Garden Update: Focus on what you Can do

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A summer bearing Imperial mandarin focusses energy for survival in a hot climate by not wasting it on producing an orange skin–even though its ripe and ready for eating.

A garden can teach you anything if you let it. Focus is one of those ‘anythings.’ It springs from cultivated patience and observation over time. Nature says ‘you’ll just have to deal with this,’ the Garden says ‘all that remains is what matters.‘ And a gardener who looks and listens, learns the lesson. Well that, at least, is my experience.

If you follow my Instagram feed you may have seen my post about my tiny 2 feet high Imperial Mandarin tree. Despite this high heat-ridden, windy, dry summer, the little trooper produced 5 very large mandarins. They were delicious and juicy. How? Well, you’ll notice I harvested them green with slight yellowing of the skin. This is because the mandarins in our hot summer climate are best harvested (for taste and sweetness) at this stage. I harvest the Valencia oranges the same way, from another tiny tree. The fruit at this stage, are ready for eating, but they don’t look it. The tree focusses its energy to prioritise survival in a hot climate summer-bearing situation, by stopping short of full orange colour-ripening. The tree lives. It’s that simple, but complex too. In a natural forest hot climate situation, the fruit would fall to the ground where the ripened seeds (unaffected by peel-colour) allow the plant a chance to reproduce. Now, if you’ve ever waited (in a hot climate) to harvest summer-bearing imperial mandarins until they went orange, you’ll know it was a long wait and the fruit tasted bitter (been there). The tree wants the fruit harvested quickly to increase chances of reproduction, so water can be directed to the roots and growth. Those actions will in turn increase its survival and resilience. Nature is way ahead of us! We have to get with the program!

Focus is the best piece of advice I can take from my experience in my garden this season, then give to you, as a possible hint on handling these weather weirding times. Right now there’s a ‘back-up in the flow’. Observation is telling me to ‘hold…hold’ – just like the Scots were told to ‘hold’ attack by William Wallace in that powerful battle scene in the movie Braveheart. It’s still too hot in the garden, for several types of cold season crops. Though, not necessarily for all types. Further, the steps I take when, have to be pared back to the essential, minus any flurry (because I, like the garden, have not got the energy to waste).

To fill you in, I think we are discovering ‘Second Summer’ in southeastern NSW this year. This is the name I’ve heard some indigenous elders call the weather cycle in the warmer regions of Australia, which seem to be eerily similar to this years weather patterns we’ve been copping. It’s April and yesterday was 35 degrees celsius here, again.  Today is over 30 degrees in temperature, but this time accompanied by strong hot and drying, northwesterly winds. The lead up to this has been 8 months of regular windy days from different directions, suggesting wind might be ‘the new daily normal.’ The heat in my area this month has been a consistent 7.6 degrees celsius above average. Less than 1 ml of rain fell this morning (the first rain of this month) and we have had just 106 millilitres in 2018 so far. My water tanks, are dry, again. The 106mm rainfall roof-harvested and tank-stored water has this year been used sparingly but consistently, on parched earth throughout the season. Many high temperature records have tumbled. Our nearby cousin, Penrith, was the hottest place on Earth recently. Our local area flying fox population was decimated by the heat  in early January, when our maximum temperature registered 45.3 degrees celsius. Later today I’ve learned in the news that a serious bushfire is burning out of control in a bush lined suburb just kilometres from here. Hot northwesterly and westerly winds seem ever-present when bad bushfires occur on parched land.

So I continue to focus major effort to providing enough water to my large and unirrigated suburban garden. Having earned my certification in permaculture design in 2014, I have provided my garden (both prior to, and since) with the benefits of water harvesting design elements. They work really well for both food forest trees and my annual vegetable garden.  I also have available town water – not as good for the soil as rain water, and an ongoing problem if it doesn’t rain soon, but there, thankfully,  if I need it.

Just like the mandarin tree I focus harvested water, where it is needed and conserve its use. By growing my own seedlings (using seeds collected from previous crops) I’m giving my annual vegetables the greatest chance of survival, in this garden and climate. Those annual plants then develop their own genetic ‘water-usage instructions,’ pass them on to the seeds they produce, and I collect them. So the seeds can only get better…for this garden. Meanwhile, the perennial trees and plants develop their learning about how to live and use water in this climate, because they never really go dormant (except in summer high heat). Plants learn from conditions then prioritise an adapted response. So cool.

My change-of season garden ‘should’ technically have cool season crops starting to ‘take’ or even ‘fruit’ by now. But ‘should’ is a human perspective and the four seasons approach has little relevance in Australian conditions. There are probably more like 12 seasons but I would need training in indigenous weather content to know for sure. I take many cues from Indigenous knowledge weather advice, but I have much to learn! What I have right now is a ‘hybrid season’ annual vegetable garden, that looks much like… a summer garden! Eggplants, cherry tomatoes and capsicums have no intentions of fading. Volunteer tomato seedlings are popping up with strong little stems that don’t resemble the straggly fragile ones that usually die off at the first sign of cold. I’ll pot those up the minute the weather threatens cold, and shelter them through winter for an early start next season. The garden is not overly tidy and neither are my techniques, but it’s not messy either. I have a very strong need for aesthetic beauty and when everything is humming nicely along, my garden proves both great productivity and beauty can co-exist.

My confused granny smith apple trees are blossoming again. There is no real chance of them producing finished apples before the eventual cold, which from experience of this last year, could mean no granny smith apples in spring/summer – for the second year in a row. Bummer. It’s unlikely the blossoms will last anyway in these cruel hot winds. Even the washington navel orange blossoms which are ‘on schedule,’ may find it difficult to hold on in the wind (they are drought stressed).  We may have less oranges this winter. I caught myself singing that “Cruel Summer’ Bananarama song the other day while pruning some burnt leaves off my avocado tree. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t a psychological hang-over from my youth, and is more of a meaningful thought as I pruned the avocado of this cruel season!

Anyway, there’s some cool season things like snow peas I planted in shade…now climbing and flowering. They are third generation to this garden, so they’ve adapted to the seasonal routine (which is something bought seedlings can’t do in their first generation). They make my heart sing. The red russian kale seedlings don’t seem to mind their haphazard garden spot which is the result of being put in ‘for now.’ They seemed tough enough, with my intention being to move them to a final spot, later. Their mature siblings from last season, left in over summer for an early start, burst out of dormancy into production a few weeks ago. The garlic are up and over the 20cm mark, but I won’t know how the very warm start to the ‘cold season’ has affected their taste, until closer to Christmas.

Many of my cold season crops – naturally grown seedlings I’ve started like broccoli, purple cauliflower, edible flowers, rocket and mizuna are holding out in seedling trays and pots. I’ve had to focus my efforts more than usual this season, on providing shelter from wind and heat. I find I can water them easily, keep them alive and prevent bolting this way, which wouldn’t be possible in the garden beds yet. While I hope they won’t be ‘bonsai’ by the time they get into the garden (because their roots have been in trays and pots too long) the alternative – bolting or dying when I’ve spent so much effort raising them, seems a lot worse.

My mind this afternoon, returns to the central Australian indigenous elders who’ve spoken about Uterne Uyelpuyerreme – late summer. In March usually, the advice goes that ”whirly winds dance across the landscape, scattering seeds and pulling the growth up from the seeds in the ground” and then… the cool weather is nearly ready to arrive. But the advice also goes, that if it rains, Winter can extend into September. This would delay what we usually think of as ‘Spring’. Well I’m hoping for rain but focussing my planning systems on preparing for none – which seems somehow to be a higher probability. I’m probably a cynic! But if  it does rain, I’ll prepare for a late ‘spring’ planting, which will mean another ‘hybrid change of season garden.’ I’m not sure Nature is aware she’s being scheduled by humans. If she is aware, she doesn’t care. So good luck to Her if it’s the latter!

As the sun starts to dip today, I can say the whirly winds are still here. Perhaps cooler weather is near. I’m looking forward to it, and the garden doesn’t need to speak to tell me it is too. But just look at those divine olive branches I cut and put into water this morning! It’s still warm enough weather for soft cuttings and a dream of the free olive hedge those cuttings will spawn. That hedge will protect fragile plants from the ‘whirly winds’ in similar seasons I expect to see in the future. Cultivated patience. Thoughts for another blog, obviously. Take care, focus on what you Can do. Trish 🌸

© Trish McGill 2018

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