I am champing at the bit to start moving soil, so I can start planting out my winter crops. But I seem to have an inbuilt self-integrity mode that just won’t allow me to cut corners in the garden. I just can’t cheat on myself. A bulldozer is not for fine work – it’s not subtle. It does a great job of clearing the ground, but it won’t give a polished smooth surface. The ground is flat but there lumps and bumps in places. A lesser version of myself in a parallel universe would say it is flat enough and carry on with the next stage.
But as I stand at the bottom of the garden and gaze across I can see it is a tad wonky. My last garden was wonderfully wonky, and I embraced that. It evolved over time and beds were thrown together with varying techniques and a she’ll be right attitude. This garden is different. It is my dream garden and it would bother me for the rest of my days if it was out of kilter. I have time and opportunity and it is only my desire to get to the next stage that stands between me and a nicely laid out garden.
Our amazing builder watched me with amusement as I juggled a level and 1 metre lengths of wood and couldn’t bear it anymore so showed me how to use the string line. I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again – knowledge is power, and I had a huge ‘aha’ moment. Oh, so that is how it works.
The garden has a gentle slope that runs down to the house and if it was to be completely flat the bulldozer would have had to move mountains more earth for little gain. The slope is very minor and gives character. So, the string line was tied to a couple of rebar poles and pulled tightly at the top and bottom of the garden across 3 beds, and down one side. Any bits sticking out in a wonky fashion was adjusted back into line with a tap of my boot. And when all adjusting was done it was moved to the other side of the bed and levelling was repeated.
But there is more to a string line… it can check the other dimension and while the sides of the garden line up beautifully the tops seemed to go up and down like the hind leg on a donkey. I hadn’t really noticed it in some of the beds, but others were blatantly obvious, and I knew tweaking was needed.
This is where having sand is such a blessing – it is the material used to level off paving stones etc and I have it in abundance. The other blessing is it is winter, and it has been raining… a lot. So, the sand is damp and compacts well. In the height of summer, it would be a completely different story. It would be light, free draining and blow about the place and certainly wouldn’t stay put.
Using the shovel, I gently levered the bottom of the bed on the side that needed lifting a little and then packed some sand underneath until the bed looked level against the string line. Then I removed the shovel and continued to poke soil under the bed with my fingers – I’m a hands on gardener for sure. Then I grabbed a couple of blocks of wood from the off-cut pile from the building project and used them kind of like a couple of mini bulldozers to ram sand into the gaps and soft spots and compact them as hard as I could. I soon found an easy rhythm and the garden started to look even better than I first thought. I quickly worked my way through the first half of the half of the garden I had already built.
It won’t take more than a jiffy to finish off the rest and then I can begin the fun part. Well it seems like it will be fun from the starting point. Ask me again after I’ve filled three beds! So, the great lesson to be had here is ‘do it once – do it right.’ I won’t regret the time taken to do this extra step.
Come again soon – there is loads going on (get it – loads and loads of dirt!)
Sarah the Gardener : o)
If you want to listen along you can check it out here:
Sometimes life sweeps you away with what you are doing and you barely notice the passing of time. That was how this June has been so far. A hive of activity with the days disappearing into a blur. I am not entirely sure how we have found ourselves one third of the way through this month. The weather was magnificent and the garden called to me. The work, while involved heavy lifting, was fun and easy.
Half of the garden has been put together and I’m happy with that. I have arranged my crop rotation and planting plan so the winter crops are on this side of the garden. Which means I can get on with filling the garden with earth and planting out my onion and garlic, all going well, on the shortest day.
The other half of the garden is still not level and the bulldozer needs to do more work. The problem is the large pile of earth is in the wrong place, but how was I to know that all those weeks ago when the garden was just a dream?! So I need to burst a foo foo valve moving as much as I can, into the new beds. Then the bulldozer can come back and level out the rest of the garden and bed building can recommence.
In the meantime I will most likely be out there – rain or shine, moving a mountain.
Come again soon – progress is being made.
Sarah the Gardener : o)
Oh and… this week I am starting a new thing I’ve been thinking about doing for a while now, but have only just got around to. I’m voice recording my blog so you can listen along instead of reading it. You can check this out here:
It is always the way – you just get to sink your teeth into an exciting project and something comes along and throws a spanner in the works. We had a productive couple of days with the bulldozer sorting out my land. Gone are the undulating lumps and bumps. All but the merest hint of Kikuyu grass is gone and the base for my garden is clean sand. Which is manageable at this point. I just need to come up with a system to stop the inward grass encroachment from around the edges.
It was going so well and then we had an event that I think will be just part of our new normal. There was another storm. Nothing like that horrible one when the house was up on jacks, but still bad enough to have me up all night listening to the wind whistle through holes and gaps in the house that at that stage still hadn’t been repaired. By my count this will have been the 6th storm since we moved here on the 19th January. The only consolation is these storms aren’t isolated to our property and large swathes of the country are also experiencing traumatic weather events. It isn’t me, it is you too!
The wind is pretty wild and the ocean is as marbled as an expensive piece of wagu beef. Sitting in the dark in the middle of the night watching the sky light up with a dramatic electrical storm out to sea, framed perfectly through the bay window, is no longer terrifying – it is spectacular! Even in the worst weather I still love living here. It makes you feel so alive. However, it isn’t that conducive to getting things done outside. The building work has loosened a lot of the land and exposed the sand (aside from my project which doesn’t count in this as it is my sand with a noble purpose) and once you get the wind behind that, it is like a brutal exfoliant or a sharp sand blast. It is much better to just stay inside.
The problem with this is, I really want to push things forward and get things done. I’m done with waiting. I’ve done my time and 120 days is my limit. Then I remembered my seedlings, sown back in the beginning of April. In their short lives they have moved several times and been through a couple of good storms, and still looked good. They were certainly strong little plants, but the time had come to move them out of the seed raising mix and into bigger pots and a good quality potting mix.
But it was yucky outside and while the sun was shining, out of nowhere an intense rain burst would come up from the beach and then disappear as quickly as it came yet left everything freezing cold and soaking wet. Then I remembered – it isn’t so much that we have a building site in our home, we are living in a building site. The builder had set up his saw bench in living room. The electrician was working on the fuse box in a sea of wire clippings. So, if they could turn the house in to work space, then so could I and set myself up in the kitchen.
As I scooped the soil into the pots I began to daydream a little. All of these little seedlings will end their lives in the big garden. It is so close I can almost feel it. But at the same time there is a lot to be done to get there. The first step is to lose time in a wild afternoon in a kitchen with a light layer of sawdust dusting the surfaces and digging into the rich soil as I repot tiny plants loaded with an incredible future. Life is good.
Come again soon – there is some heaving lifting in my immediate future.
Sarah the Gardener : o)
* Exciting news: a lovely range of amazing Gardena Hand Tools will be available in NZ from 25 June 2018.
Today is a fabulous day. After months of being gardenless, it is all about to change. I have dreamed of this moment and can hardly believe it has come. The container with all our worldly possessions has gone. I made the brave call to book the truck to come and get it before we had even begun to empty it. I work better with a deadline, although this was a pretty bold deadline. Especially as Hubby the Un-Gardener would be doing the lions share of the work. Well he is so much stronger than me. It didn’t look like we’d make it as events and occasions kept getting in the way. I have found panic and pressure are even greater motivators than deadlines! You seem to find a superhuman strength to push on through into the impossible. It certainly didn’t seem like we were physically capable to this monumental task.
So, as we waved goodbye to the container that was the backdrop for the last 122 days we returned into the house and tried to store the contents as cleverly as possible so as not to trip over items that should really be in a shed, if we were to have a shed!
The caravan also moved. It didn’t go far, just tucked in beside the house. It had been here much longer than the 122 days. It had been here beside the sea for a few years. We were so blessed that the previous owner had allowed us to rent it from them while we were temporarily homeless. When we moved it, we found it wasn’t just a safe haven for us… the chickens have sort sanctuary underneath after the storm.
The chicken coop had blown over twice in one week of high winds and I don’t think they trusted it any more. Not only was it home but a great location for laying eggs as there were loads of them under there. We just thought they’d gone off the lay in the increasingly cold weather. Unfortunately, the age of the eggs was more than likely too old to even take the risk. Once you have the pleasure of smelling one off egg, it isn’t something you care to repeat.
The next step was removing the temporary garden into a new temporary location, so it was out of the way. It has since moved again as it was in the way of some tradesmen where it was tucked in beside the house. Now it has lovely view overlooking the ocean but moved with less care than the last relocation as time was of the essence. It doesn’t seem to mind its new spot.
Finally, it was a matter of removing all the things that had built up as clutter around the container and out of sight behind the caravan. The kind of things that should be in a shed, but don’t mind too much being out in the open. This was also down to the strength and might of Hubby the Un-Gardener and he stacked it all away in a tidy manner out of the way. Well most of it. As the time raced by it was more a case of moving things to higher ground and hoping for the best.
The day dawned on a mostly sunny day, punctuated with squally rain showers you could see approaching across the ocean, but it didn’t dampen my spirits. Today was ground level day and the bulldozer was due. The kikuyu grass was pushed to one side where it could grow again as lawn. Hubby the Un-Gardener wants a tennis court and for all his efforts it will be good to give him one, however for most of the time it will masquerade as lawn.
It is hard to imagine how such undulating land can possibly become remotely level, and yet with a few sweeps of the blade of a bulldozer the foundation for my dream garden has been revealed. All I need to do now is build it.
Come again soon – I’ll be gardening again before you know it.
Sarah the Gardener : o)
The garden is on the move again! Now the house is kind of under control and in the hands of a good builder, the time is right to focus on other things and in particular the garden. For the last 117 days I have bemoaning the fact the caravan and the container with all our worldly possessions contained within are smack bang square in the middle of where I want to put my garden. Well not for much longer!
Last week I made a bold call and phoned the shipping container company and asked them to take it away today. Then I told Hubby the Un-Gardener we needed to empty it and had a week to do it. It was a complete mission and we have had to sacrifice a room in the house, but we got there. I think a new shed is now high on Hubby the Un-Gardeners list of priorities! The caravan was also moved off my soon to be garden and is now tucked in beside the house, well out of the way.
The container was useful – not only in keeping all our stuff safe, but it was a great windbreak for my temporary garden. It has been so lovely to have a wee garden to tend to over the last few months, caring for plants, some of which were started well before this idea of moving had even occurred to us! Some crops have come and gone, like my peppers and others are hanging in there waiting to take their place in the new garden. There are also new crops, recently sown that may start their lives contained, but I fully intend to release them into the open soil of the new garden very soon.
There are also crops that enjoyed the wait with me, however they were not destined to be a part of the next stage and I dug them up before moving all of the other plants. The expectations for my kumara and yams was high, however the results were mixed. But heavy pots now lay empty and the latest move is made all the easier. One by one I gathered up all my plants and tucked them in to a safe little spot beside the house, where they will be out of the way for the next stage of the project. Although they can’t stay there. They are in the way of building repairs and renovations. I just hope the next move will be into the garden…. But I expect to move them at least once more before then.
You can check out the latest move here and join in the celebrations and commiserations over my most recent harvests. You can’t win them all, but there is always next year!
Come again soon – I expect things will happen quickly from now on – well parts of it anyway.
Sarah the Gardener : o)
In the final days before I can get stuck into the garden there was one more thing I wanted to know about this new place, so I can garden wisely. And that is the climate. We’ve only been here almost 4 months, but boy have we seen some weather! In the early days it was the height of summer and the heat seemed to radiate from the black sand these hills are built on. The valley I want to grow the vegetables in seems to hold the warmth captive with a three-sided secure border.
Having said that it was a very hot summer and the sea breeze was a bit of a luxury as there was a gentle movement in the air which dropped the temperatures a degree or two. It wasn’t until we made trips into town and felt the close, muggy heat that seemed so much hotter and more oppressive, did we realise the blessing we had with our natural fan from the ocean.
We have also experienced the worst of the wind. Everyone said “ohhh it’ll be windy out there” and I thought “how bad could it be?” Naively I thought it would be manageable. It was windy down on the swamp as it was very exposed, and I lay awake many a night worried about the greenhouse or the peas and tomatoes. There was always a windy storm just went the sweetcorn was at the point of the pollen dropping to the silks, no matter when I started them off! So, I already have wind proofing strategies.
But that storm was massive with it’s 213km per hour winds was a great example of worst case scenario. Everyone around here has said they haven’t seen anything like it in decades. So, if I set up my garden, then a normal winter storm will be a breeze to prepare for. Windbreaks around the garden will be essential, but not an everyday thing. I might create some systems I can rig up when the storms are forecast.
The other thing I have noticed since I’ve been here is the sea breezes aren’t the only threat. The winds that come down the valley are funnelled down the hill and pick up a fair bit of speed. These are more common in the summer and as this is when the garden is most vulnerable, I’ll need to take this into consideration in the garden design.
The best part of being on the wild west coast is it is great for things like surfing and next door is a paragliding site and the weather is very important for these activities so there is some very good, very local weather information.
The only thing I don’t really know about yet but will do by the spring is frost. The only historical information I can find that is close to us is at the Auckland airport. It isn’t that far away as the crow flies, but it is seaside facing, but in the inside of the Manukau harbour so it does offer it a degree of protection from the full influence of the open sea. But until I collect my own data, it will have to do.
The interesting thing, over the winter months for the last three years the lowest temperature was 1ᵒC in July. The June, July and August temperatures range between 1ᵒC and 4ᵒC with mostly 2s and 3s. The maximums are an encouraging 17ᵒC to 20ᵒC. However, I don’t think this takes wind chill into consideration. But I think gardening all winter should be bearable if I wrap up warm.
But I’m really not sure about the frost. Will we get any? From what I understand, coastal areas are less prone to frost because in winter the sea can be warmer than the land and any breeze from the ocean can protect against frost. Having said that, frosty air is heavy and rolls down a hill like a liquid. The house and the wind protection could work against me and trap the cold air in the garden. I guess there is only one way to find out and that is to go through a winter or two. You need more than one season to really know as in the swamp I remember one winter with no frost at all and another with so many I lost count. I would like to see a frost or two – not only is it pretty, but it is good for keeping the pest and disease populations in check and it can help to break up the soil, making it easier to work in the spring.
It is a good idea to have a vague idea of how it will be, so I can make sensible plans for the garden, have strategies for the worst conditions and make informed choices when deciding which varieties to grow. But to know for sure, I just have to carry on and learn as I go. So, we’ll have to wait and see.
Come again soon – all my behind the scenes garden prep is almost done.
Sarah the Gardener : o)
Things are racing ahead now, just like the year is. How have we reached May so quickly? It doesn’t seem that long ago we were just embarking on this hair brained scheme. But it can’t have been that hair brained. I’m sitting here in a house, overlooking an amazing view. Ok, so the plumber is still plumbing and the electrician still has things to do, but there is a lot more elbow room in here during the day to get things done.
It has been over 100 days since we first moved into the caravan and we have seen the best and worst of things. The wonderful full heat of summer and a terrible, terrible storm. We have bonded as a family and no one was killed. I’m not sure many would want to be stuck in a small place with teenage boys. The smell of socks alone is a challenge.
Moving into the house in a proper fashion, through the front door (that needs to be repaired after the storm blew it off the hinges), opening the fridge and deciding what is for dinner, popping on a load of washing and then going to bed in a proper bed – with a mattress (we gave away our old one, as I know ourselves too well – if we moved it in, it would be a long time before we see a shiny new one!) is so close, so very close. And what follows that is I can start on the garden. After a good night sleep and a hot shower, this is the next important thing for me. I can hardly wait!
But while we wait, you can check out the terrifyingly exciting journey that is moving a house.
Come again soon – it is almost garden time!
Sarah the Gardener : o)
Aside from us coastal newbies, that is… It is always good for a gardener to know who will be sharing the land with you. I got off relatively easily at the last place in the swamp, as there weren’t all that many things trying to take advantage of my good efforts. There were slugs but not many snails. But these were easily taken care of with a judicious application of little blue pellets around the outside of the beds where they were lurking in the cracks. As my intention is to feed my family and not risk my crops on things that don’t work well, then I am happy to compromise here to ensure the end result.
There were bird pests, cheeky sparrows who would gobble up my seeds, pecked at my leaves and nipped the growing tips out of my peas. But with a bit of netting, this problem was easily fixed. And then there were the pukeko, swamp hens, who dug up all my seedlings out of curiosity and left them lying on the surface to dry out and die if I wasn’t vigilant. Plastic bags tied to bamboo stakes – while ugly, was sufficient to frighten them off. And we can’t forget the white cabbage butterfly, allowing it’s unattended offspring to shred my brassicas.
And that was about the extent of it. I think it fair to say it was mostly pest free. In hindsight I didn’t really appreciate just how blessed I was. I mean – there wasn’t a fence around the garden to keep critters out, because it wasn’t necessary. I did create a partial fence but that was purely for the aesthetic and so I could have something to wrap my compost heap around. I don’t even have much of a garden yet and I already know I will be creating a battlefield.
There are rabbits. I know this for a fact as Fennel the Cat bought one into the caravan last night at around 4am. Cats are such givers! I have also seen them bounding down the driveway trying to escape the approaching car. They have little sense – instead of just moving over to the side, they hippity hop all over the place, because disappearing over the nearest hill. I won’t be taking any chances – there will be rabbit proof fencing going up.
There are deer as well. However, in the 96 days since we moved here – I haven’t seen hide nor hair of them. Although I have a reliable source- the lovely house movers were telling me about how they saw them every morning on the way down the driveway. How come I haven’t seen them? – I’ve been up and down the drive at that time of morning taking kids to school and never noticed them. Maybe they were in a truck and so could see further. I think I’m going to have to get up at about 6:30am and go for a stealth walk and try and spot them. It depends on how determined I am to size up these potential garden eaters. The neighbours assure me it is a well established small herd that everyone loves to see about the place. So I have to take the word of others that they are there and build deer proof fencing around my garden.
Apparently, there are also a lot of frogs. These are friends of the garden and I’m happy they are here. Having said that I’ve never seen any either. Once again the lovely house movers drew my attention to these little fellas as they had to be rescued from the bottom of the 1.4 metre foundation holes before the posts went in. Maybe I should dig a hole and wait so I can meet them.
There are also plenty of mice. Aside from the cat gifting them to me in abundance, they are also inviting themselves in to be warm. The other day as I was getting ready for bed one shot across the mattress along the wall and disappeared down in to the workings of the caravan. This is important to know as I will need to make sure my seed supplies and my harvest are kept safe from this tiny fuzzball looking for a fast feast.
An inhabitant that took me by surprise was the snails. If you believe everything you see on the great big internet, you would think snails hate crawling over sand. But after the first major rainfall we had here, the ground was crawling with them. Goodness knows where they had been, but at least I now know they are lurking about the place unaware of the feast I’m inadvertently about to set before them.
There are also some interesting surprises. Ordinarily the only butterflies I see are Cabbage Whites (they’re here too!) and monarchs because I feed them. However there is such variety here. I haven’t managed to take any photos as I never have my camera at the right time. But I have seen a Common Copper which is like a tiny monarch and I’ve seen a much larger Yellow Admiral. Now I know there is such variety I will be on the lookout for more. Oh and the dragonflies are the size of real dragons – they are huge!
It is a real privilege to be a gardener as it gives the opportunity to notice or be on the lookout for wildlife that may or may not want to harm the garden. Creatures who would ordinarily go about their day to day lives unnoticed due to the busyness of ours.
Come again soon – I’ll see what else needs digging up.
Sarah the Gardener : o)
Great news, the sun is shining, the builders are back, and things are happening. Although it was a little chilly this morning. It has just dawned on me that I’ll be building my new garden in the winter. Well, I always knew it, but from the balmy warmth of summer, all my imaginings were of nice days. There will be nice days, once any frosts melt, but there will be less than ideal days. When you have the luxury of an established garden, you can take the yucky days off! But if you are on a timeline, then every day is a work day come rain or shine. I think I may need to harden up. If I thought today was a chilly start, then I’m in for a bit of a shock! I see a shopping trip in my immediate future for good quality thermal clothing and wet weather gear. I am determined to make that spring deadline.
Once the builders do what they need to do with the house, we can move in and say goodbye to the caravan and the container and work on the garden can begin. This is now being counted in days (could be counted in 2-3 weeks but counting it in days sounds better) so my days of scratching about looking for things to do is rapidly drawing to a close. This time hasn’t been wasted. I’ve learnt a lot, I’ve made plans – and changed them several times, and done loads of research that will be beneficial for the long-term life of this garden. I am grateful for this last 90 days, because as the expression goes – ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’ and I was keen to rush in!
A great example of this is how I am to treat this soil. I’ve already learnt a lot about soil and plant science, but now we are at the point that really matters to me. How is all of this relevant in my soil. The general advice for sandy soil is to add loads of organic material and she’ll be right. However, in my research I have discovered there this isn’t the case and there is much more to it! Let me explain.
The problem with sandy soil is its size. By definition a sandy soil has more than 85 percent of sand-sized particles and compared to the fine particle size of clay it is positively chunky. Depending on who you talk to the grains are supposed to be between .06 – 4.75mm. This makes it porous.
Unfortunately, this brings disadvantages. As we learnt earlier, plants need their nutrients to be on a molecular level and dissolved in water, so it can get into the root hair. But all of these lovely dissolved nutrients in water are more likely to woosh on passed and go right out of the garden and find its way into the nearest waterway. And all the plant can do is stand by and watch as the gravy train misses its station.
To compound this problem, the large particle size has less surface area than other soils. This is important because of the way nutrients are stored in the soil when not dissolved in the water. Now we need to delve back into the sciency stuff, because soil particles have a negative charge and most nutrients have a positive charge and so they cling together like magnets until they do that monkey bar thing and let go of the soil and jump into the water molecules. But with less surface area there are less rungs on the monkey bars so not everyone gets to play. And if their not holding on tight they get washed away and all the potential supplies lost.
The way to remedy this is to add the organic material and that combined with the poop created by the creatures of the soil, bind the sandy soil to create aggregates. These become the sponges that hold the water, the desirable homes for the creatures to upgrade into and also increased surface areas for the molecules to hang on to. These aggregates work together to form the structure of good soil.
So, it would seem organic material is the cure all so the more the merrier? Well not exactly. As sand is the foundational structure, it is always going to be more porous than other soils and good drainage is always going to be a feature.
Firstly – going back to the science, some of the key nutrients like chloride, nitrate, and sulphate have a negative charge and this makes it extremely difficult for them to stick around and they are more susceptible to leaching. By some act of magic – actually there is science to explain it, but we don’t need to go there, the pH can improve or decrease the availability of the nutrients – too acid and some aren’t available, but others don’t mind, too far the other way and it impacts the availability of other nutrients.
And just to compound things, sometimes having too much of one thing can affect the availability of another – sort of like an overbearing kid attention seeking so the quiet sibling gets overlooked. Look at me, look at me! Temperature also comes into play and if it is too cold or too hot the availability of certain nutrients is affected. There is more going in the soil than the office politics in a government department.
Taking a couple of things into consideration – the porous nature of sandy soil, and the great work of the soil dwellers to make the nutrients available, and pH, the fine balance between too much and not enough, the electric relationship of the molecules, and the need for plant food to be soluble in water and the fact it can rain in quantities greater than the needs of the plant, it appears just adding loads of organic matter might not be the right answer.
Yes, it is needed, but adding it in great quantities at the beginning of the growing season and then maybe again at the end may be a bit hit and miss. It would create a boom and bust situation where all of a sudden there is too much of a good thing, and everything would get out of balance. Populations would flourish – excess nutrients (not a good thing) would flood the soil, the rains would come and they’d all be washed away. Then the populations would starve and be in poor health and aggregates would crumble and the poor plants would come off worse than ever.
Yes, adding organic material is the answer, but little and often, so there is a continual supply of material that can be continuously broken down in a seamless supply. A good quality mulch would be a great idea not only retain moisture but give the soil creatures a raw material. As the season wears on the mulch wears out – refreshing it often will be a good idea. A little side dressing around the plants with some compost and well-rotted manure and feeding them with a slow release fertiliser will delay the inevitable leaching. Regular soil testing wouldn’t go a miss in the early days to make sure things are doing what you want them to do.
When working with less than ideal soil you have to farm the soil. Treat it like one of the crops. I guess the expression cultivate the soil means so much more when you have sandy soil. There is more to gardening than just the plants.
And that wraps up my understanding of my sandy soil – I need to nurture and support it like a good parent does with a kid, and it will grow up and make me proud.
Come again soon – things will be a lot less sciency now.
Sarah the Gardener : o)