How do plants work?

Just to recap – I am on a journey to understanding my sandy soil that has taken me into the murky depths of soil and plant science to find clarity.  I am trying to understand the reason behind things, so it makes sense as to why we do things.  Just saying plants absorb nutrients from the soil is all good and well when you have perfect soil, but when it needs help to ensure a perfect crop, understanding the mechanics behind it helps to make my actions as a gardener more effective.  I’ve spent some time poking about on the great big internet and with each revelation of understanding I was like a toddler asking, ‘but why?’ Which took me deeper in my understanding of what is going on in this new land I am now the guardian of.

So today we are starting where I ended up in my research.  My ‘but why’s’ took me on a journey from the soil to the plant, so explaining the way back should make it easier to understand.

Leaf canopy

And this is where most of the action happens in plants – up in the leaves.

Everyone knows plants get their energy from the sun and convert it to plant food in the leaves with photosynthesis.  This starts being introduced to small kids at school – that and the life cycle of a monarch butterfly.  I remember wearing out my best friend’s orange colouring in pencil on that project…  opps sorry buddy.    As my education progressed the layers of plant knowledge increased, and I can draw the internal structure of a leaf, its cell structure as well as the inside a chloroplast where the photosynthesis occurs within the cell with my eyes shut.  It just stuck.


The right kind of soap will be able to take care of these aphids in a jiffy

It is fascinating, and to understand the internal structure of the plant does more than just understand how it works, it also helps to understand the impact of how we treat the plants.  For example, a common remedy for plant pests is to whip up a concoction which often includes liquid soap.  So, the natural liquid soap to grab is dishwash liquid… its soapy, it’ll do.  But the thing is, it isn’t soap – it is a detergent with loads of ingredients with the aim of stripping grease, fats, waxes and oils off your plates. It isn’t soap.  Soap is made from fatty acids from animal fats or vegetable oils.  I can draw the Triglyceride structure with my eyes shut too!  (Triglycerides are the molecules we like to call fat and proper soap is made from them.)  Insecticidal soaps, in water, kill some common soft bodied insects on contact and do little harm to the plant.  However, if you know anything about leaf structure you will realise that most plants have a waxy layer to help prevent moisture loss from the leaves and to use a detergent soap instead of a proper fatty soap will strip this protective layer from the leaves making the plant more vulnerable to diseases.  There are so many side tracking topics that are handy to know when delving into the complex lifestyles of our horticultural companions, but I need to come back to the facts of how plants operate in sandy soil.

Tall tree

Just imagine the vast volumes of water flowing up through this tree… wow! It blows my mind.

Ok where were we.  Plants create their own energy from the sun, carbon dioxide and water with photosynthesis, in the form of carbohydrate sugars, with oxygen as a by-product.  The sugars are transported about the plant to the leaves, stems and roots in a pipe like network called the phloem.  It is a one way system sending the sugars down the plant to where they are needed.

Wilted strawberry plants

I now understand that watering plants isn’t just quenching thirst. It has a more complicated role and so not watering my strawberries over the weekend has probably done more harm than just drying out a little bit… eek, must do better.

Beside the phloem is another pipe network called the xylem and it comes up from the roots and is the one we are more interested in, as part of our journey to understanding the soil.  The xylem is the main pathway water takes through the plant, drawing up soil nutrients to take with it, to deliver them to where they are needed in the plant.

This water flow process is called Transpiration.  Plants take up a considerable amount of water from the soil, but they don’t actually need all the water they absorb and most of it is lost through the pores in their leaves, called stomata, as water vapour.  The main job for stomata is allow the carbon dioxide in for Photosynthesis as well as being a handy outlet for the water.  This controlled loss of water in the leaves acts as a kind of pump to draw the water up from the roots with capillary action.  As the moisture is lost more is drawn up into the leaf to replace it, pulling it upwards against the force of gravity and distributing soil nutrients with it as it goes and using what it needs for photosynthesis and then pretty much ejecting the rest.  It is a pretty impressive system.


This is a lovely example of guttation on a lupin leaf, where the water pressure in the xylem builds up the plant needs to release moisture in a different way than out the stomata. It is more common at night when the stomata are closed. So it is like a safety valve.  (Not to be confused with dew)

There is much more to it than I’ve outlined, but essentially what we are interested in is the water function – apart from having some specific uses within the plant, like in making energy and other things like keeping cells nice and plump so the plants stay upright and don’t wilt and other things. The way it is used like a giant conveyor belt to deliver the nutrients from the roots to the tops.  A lack of water in the soil can interrupt this flow and cause harm to the plant.

lush rainbow beet

I now have a new appreciation for what it takes to keep a plant looking this good.

So that is why it is important to have a soil that can retain water well, and why if I’m to have a successful garden I need to modify my sandy soil, because it isn’t all that good at holding on to water.  And this is where I arrived when I asked, ‘what happens once the nutrients get in the plant?’

But we are always left with the fact – the roots absorb the nutrients and water.  But my next questions were – that is all well and good, but how?  It turned out this was really cool and could make a great space-based action hero cartoon if I was any good at drawing and stop motion filming.

Come again soon – I will try to explain my understanding the how’s behind this magic ‘absorption.’

Sarah the Gardener  : o)


What makes soil tick

When you have great soil, you don’t really need to give it much thought.  Just pop the plants in, they grow wonderfully, you harvest a bountiful crop and then chuck in some more compost and fertilisers to replace what was lost and away you go again.  And for most people that is how it is.  For me that is how it was.

Productive garden

It is very easy to take a productive garden for granted.

But then you move house and end up with less than perfect soil.  To get the best out of it, you need to understand it.  Like really understand it.  So, I have been on a bit of a journey to find out more about sandy soil, so I know how to care for it.  I have a long history of plant science studies over the years.  Some of this knowledge is tucked so far back into the recesses of my mind as I wasn’t sure I would ever need it, but as I researched this complex topic of soil science, it tickled something in my mind and the words I was reading seemed vaguely familiar.

Sandy, seaside location

Starting again in less than idea conditions can be a little daunting.

This journey of discovery was a fascinating one, and to find out about sandy soil and what makes it tick took me into understanding the nature of soil, the relationship of organic materials that we carelessly say ‘add to sandy soil to fix it’; the importance of the microorganisms, the nutrients plants need to live, the role of water in the whole situation, basic chemistry that I had deliberately blocked from my memory, gosh I didn’t enjoy that subject at school; but also refreshed my memory as to how plants actually worked.  Some of the documents I read were quite basic and left me wondering ‘but why?’ and others were university papers that left me bamboozled and wondering ‘huh?’

New Zealand bush

How is this impressive life sustained and how is the soil actually involved?

But with the benefit of the great big internet I was able to take the light and heavy documents to find what I was looking for, sift through the conflicting material and measure it against what I could remember being taught, sort the reputable sources from the fluffy ones and found myself not only unravelling the mysteries of the soil but actually enjoying it.


I’m going to get down and dirty to find out how soil actually works.

In order to lock it into my brain, making it easy to access and apply as I work in this new environment, I need to order my notes in a way that I can understand, which is pretty much to bring it all together in a logical way and turn it all into plain English that goes beyond ‘that is the way it is because I said so!’  I find if I know why, then everything seems to fall in place.  So here is as good a place as any to get my thoughts in order.   The question is where to start? With the soil or with the plant?   To understand sandy soil, you need to know how plants work, but to understand how plants work you need to know what goes on in the soil.

fern bud

Unravelling and understanding soil starts with the plant!

I think I’ll break it into bite sized chunks over the next wee while to make it easy to digest.  So, while this post isn’t instructional or informative, it lets you know I’m about to do a wee series on basic soil and plant science in a way I can understand it, so it should be easy enough for you to share in this collection of ‘aha moments’ as I seek to garden well in this new place.  There should be something for everyone.

Come again soon – I think I’ll start with the plant and work towards to soil.

Sarah the Gardener  : o)

The dirty lowdown

I’ve been pleasantly surprised.  The sandy soil isn’t actually all that bad.  I always thought of it as a soulless substrate that contained very little goodness that needed amending within an inch of its life!  I believed those who had sandy soil hand been dealt a bad hand and I thanked my lucky stars I wasn’t one of them.   But now I’m one of them with more than enough sandy soil to shake a stick at.

Beach sand

The sand on the beach is much different from my sand, although some things still manage to grow.

It is a pervasive thing – with its fine black grains getting in everywhere.  I think it will be better in a house as we will be able to put in things between it and the doorway to reduce the clingage to feet and shoes.  Things like steps, a deck, luxurious door mats with a thick deep thatch of bristles, and then maybe a mat or rug inside the door.   Here in the caravan there is little to stop it hitchhiking in and the gritty feeling beneath bare feet is a tad irritating and so frequent sweeping is essential.

Sandy soil

You can’t get away from the fact that this is sand, but there is more to it.

Our Handy Neighbour tells me of all the amazing crops his father grew, sweetcorn and kumara are some of the things he said did really well and I don’t imagine he had raised beds back in the day to make that happen.   He also assured me it was good soil – although the topsoil is only about a couple of centimetres deep.  It is apparently low in sulphur as this is water soluble and flushes through the sand.  As a result, this can affect the plants ability to utilise nitrogen and other essential nutrients, as well as affecting the processes within the plant that actually need sulphur, like the development of proteins, the formation of chlorophyll and other metabolic processes.

So, it would seem with a little help this soil wouldn’t be too bad, so I checked it out with my soil test kit.   I dug a hole where the boxes had done a great job of removing the grass on the top, to collect my sample.  It had a silkier feel than the sand on the beach below and it really felt like there was some substance to it – although nowhere near the substance you get from a lovely thick swamp soil.  The black of the sand was also tinged with a light brown and so it felt promising.

sandy soil

As far as sand goes, this doesn’t look to bad and is far removed from the stuff on the beach.

I was pleasantly surprised when my testing revealed the pH was in a great place for growing vegetables, the Nitrogen was hovering around adequate and the phosphorus was hovering somewhere between deficient and adequate.  The Potassium was depleted but my Handy Neighbour had also mentioned the soil was low in this as well.  Apparently, this is common in sandy soils as it is also soluble and easily leached.  But knowledge is power, and I can work with this.

The most common advice to ‘fix’ sandy soils is to add lots of organic material and keep adding it and after several years you’ll have a lovely sandy loam that will grow anything well.  I appreciate this; however, I have a couple of points that mean I need to think outside the box.  As I want flat land to put my garden on, this will create an erosion field day.  That thin layer of topsoil and all its goodness could easily be lost once the grass cover protecting it is removed to create a level playing field.  I need to put something on top to effectively hold it down.

Sandy soil test results

The sandy soil didn’t do too badly in its tests.

And the other point is I want to have raised beds, so I can control the growing conditions and bypass the years of waiting for the addition of organic material to turn my garden into something wonderful.  I can put anything I like in my raised beds and so I’m going to fill them with a mix of compost for that all important organic content, which I still have to source from somewhere, but I’m sure I’ll find some when the time is right.  And I’ll have the lovely soil from ‘Up near Froggies’ for the bulk of the beds for structure and the important inorganic content that often gets overlooked when filling raised beds.

Now I know this area ‘Up near Froggies,’ it is around the corner from where we used to live.  There was a chance I would have been able to get some of my very own old swamp soil, but there wouldn’t have been enough to make it worthwhile and was put in touch with this lovely supply.  It isn’t swamp soil, but it is prime horticultural land from what makes up part of the bread basket of this region.  Who am I to turn down such fine soil?

Good soil

Compared to the sandy soil this stuff looks so much better – it has a healthy glow and a firm texture.

I ran this soil through a few tests as well and found the pH was perfect, the potassium was a little on the low side but not too bad, the phosphorus was somewhere between ok and could do with more, but the nitrogen was a tad excessive.  Maybe the first thing I’ll do is grow cover crops and then add them to the compost instead of digging them in.  While it will be wonderful for lush leafy growth – think of the cabbages, it won’t be so good for fruit and flower production.   But I can work with that.   Once again, knowledge is power. I can make adjustments.

The body and feel of this soil feels great.  It looks like it will do a better job of retaining the moisture as you can put some damp soil in your hand and clench your fist and it holds together until you give it a gentle nudge and it crumbles away to a lovely light and fluffy soil.  I have the feeling I’m going to enjoy working with this soil once I get more closely acquainted with its idiosyncrasies.

soil test

The ‘Up by Froggies’ soil tests rather well and I couldn’t be more pleased.

Having said that, I also want to grow things beyond the veggie patch and become more familiar with landscaping and ornamental gardening, and I can do so safe in the knowledge the soil will be ok, maybe with a little help.  All that is left to understand really is the weather and the impact of the ocean on this environment.  I’m led to believe the wind can be rather strong when it wants to be.   Fun times ahead.

Come again soon – I still need to get those seeds in.  I got distracted by all that lovely dirt.

Sarah the Gardener  : o)

Dirty Goodness

There is nothing that makes this girl happy like a load of dirt.  Well actually well-rotted manure would do it too!  To be honest, a house right now would put a smile on my face and I never say no to chocolate.  I’m a simple creature.   But as we are talking about dirt, if a load makes me happy, then five loads make me super excited.

Delivering dirt

It is almost as good as when Santa delivers your Christmas gifts! Almost – but not quite.

To be honest I’ve breathed a sigh of relief.  I did everything wrong.  I advise people who are looking to get topsoil to do their homework and find out as much as they can before taking delivery of their dirt.  The best advice is to check it for weeds – no one wants a garden full of oxalis where there was none before.  I didn’t do that.   It is also a good idea to take a sample and do a soil test to make sure it isn’t poor quality soil.  I didn’t do that either.  It is also good to look at it as a whole to make sure it isn’t filled with building rubble.  You guessed it – I didn’t do that.  At least I remembered to ask the truck driver, on the third load, where it came from.  When he said “up near Froggies” I breathed a sigh of relief.  I know that area.

I have thought long and hard about what to do with the land the garden is to go on.   For a start it needs levelling as it is a bit all over the place.  It looks flat enough but when you get down to it there are lumps and bumps everywhere that aren’t conducive to my raised bed plans.  So, I know it needs to be levelled.  But I have a handy neighbour with a bulldozer who is ready and waiting.

dirt pile

Is there nothing more wonderful than 5 piles of dirt?

The thing is, it’s really sandy here.  And to scrape off all the grass that is holding it together could result in what we in the sandy hills like to call a blow out.  A small exposed area of sand, with the help of wind and rain can become a large area of sand and nobody wants that.  So, a scrape is fraught with danger.

The other problem is the soil is firmly and well held in place by kikuyu grass.  It is perfect for coastal areas as it helps prevent erosion, spreads easily with its rhizomes to quickly cover any bare patches.  When mowed regularly, like Neville will do, it makes a rather lovely lawn.  However, in a veggie garden this is a complete nightmare.  Nobody wants kikuyu grass in their garden, and especially me.

Sandy blow out

Here is an example of a blow out. It started as a small slip down the side of the hill. However, in this case it wasn’t the elements – it was the chickens who have been active in helping this patch grow by the day.

I had thought about after the scraping, if I suppress the grass and any other weeds with sheet mulching.  I first thought about cardboard – we have loads of boxes. The only problem is most of our worldly possessions are still contained within those boxes and so freeing up this resource would make the garden even more of a waiting game.  And then there would be the logistics of putting them down without blowing away while the bulldozer spreads a layer of lovely weed free dirt to form the base for my garden area.  Newspaper also crossed my mind, as four sheets is all that is needed for an effective weed barrier but that would be even more blowy and impossible to hold in place than the cardboard.

Top soil

Even up close it looks like good dirt

So, I got to thinking about other kinds of sheet mulch, there had to be a better way.  There was no way I was going to use weed mat as that stuff is just nasty and I don’t intend to add unnecessary plastic in my new garden.  This conundrum was sorted when we finally got reconnected with the great big internet.  There were plenty of options for biodegradable weed mat by the roll!  There were ones made of wool, jute, hessian and even from reconstituted destroyed documents in a great way to upcycle unwanted confidential documents, however, I’m not sure about the ink that would have been used.  I could be over thinking it but, I’d rather not go there for edibles.

Goats and chickens

Snowy the Goat and the chickens are keen to check out this new delivery from ‘up near Froggies’

So that was my plan – scrape and level, cover and apply a layer of topsoil as a solid foundation.  Then I’d be good to go with building the garden, all I had to do was wait for all this stuff to get off my garden.  The thing is – there is a lot of stuff languishing about – waiting.  I moved a few things to get to other things and made an interesting discovery.  While the Kikuyu looks robust and possibly difficult to remove, under the boxes that have been sat outside for the last 8 weeks, revealed – nothing.  The earth was bare.  All trace was gone.  So now I’m umming and erring.  Will a scraping to remove most of it and a layer of dirt on top be enough? Do I need the weed mat?  I know there will be residual rhizomes that will need attention but if I keep on top of them, they won’t be there forever – as in years of effort rather than an instantaneously weed free environment. If it wasn’t this there would be something else.

To stop it creeping in from the edges of the garden I intend to put some kind of impenetrable barrier around the base of the fence enclosing the garden that will also stop rabbits.  I’m thinking possibly a concrete strip.

Sunset over dirt pile

Catching the last rays of sun over the wonderful piles of dirt

So, while five large truck loads may seem a bit excessive for a collection of raised beds, as a base to the entire garden – I’m hoping it will be enough!

Gosh, just thinking aloud has filled a page.  And I still have to tell you about the soil from ‘up near Froggies’.  I’m open to suggestions to my soil situation, especially if you see any glaring problems with my plan.

Come again soon – I’ve run a few tests and have the results in an envelope.  We’ll not exactly in an envelope, but it sounds exciting that way.

Sarah the Gardener  : o)

Chopping and changing.

It is funny the way you get used to things.  We’ve been out here living in a caravan for about 8 weeks or so.  And in those 8 weeks there hasn’t been a whole lot of activity to be seen, except the arrival of the water tank the other week.  It isn’t like things aren’t being done as behind the scenes the project manager has a finger in many pies, but for us here on the land, it feels like a big fat nothing.  But it has become our new normal and this is our little world.

Rainy lawn

Even through a rain soaked window the potential for the garden looks so promising

With all of the rain we’ve had since we’ve moved here, the grass has grown vigorously and so we did what comes naturally and we mowed it.  The resulting expanse of well manicured green lawn that formed around the caravan was a sight to behold. It looked loved.   It won’t be long before Neville is the one out there doing a grand job of keeping it looking well maintained all the time.

mower and bulldozer

There is something satisfying with whipping long grass into shape. Some would say a bulldozer would have the same effect, but for me it is quite frightening the change it can make so quickly. There is no going back with a bulldozer.

But as the house is due in a week, we decided to take things into our own hands before the truck arrives with the house.  We had a lovely entrance driveway that was more than adequate for a wide car or truck.  However, we wanted it wider – wide enough to park my car and Hubby the Un-Gardener’s car side by side with a fence across the front, with a gate in it wide enough for a vehicle should we need to get up close and personal to the garden or house.  But we really want the land beyond the drive to be lawn that will be patrolled by Neville the robotic lawnmower, who is currently waiting impatiently in the container with all our other worldly possessions.   The last thing we want is for him to be accidentally run over by a visitor not expecting to see a little blue machine bobbing about on the grass.


Our handy neighbour made quick work of the vision for our new and improved driveway

So our handy new neighbour came over with a bulldozer and realised our vision.  However I wasn’t expecting it to be so…  raw.  There is sand all over the new drive and it looks like an angry scar in what was once a travel worn grass and gravel entrance.  My initial thoughts were – ‘Oh my goodness, what have we done?’ But it is the first step in a process and it will eventually look nice again.  The first step to rectifying it is a load of gravel to be spread across the sand to stop it blowing away and stopping vehicles from getting stuck.   Gosh just imagine if the house got stuck just metres from its final destination…

Excavated driveway

The new, soon to be wonderful driveway layout.

Our handy neighbour had suggested a good rain would level out the sand and firm it down a little, and like it was requested, the following day began with rain so fierce there were actual waterfalls bouncing down the hill to form rivers through my lawn!  Once again I found myself standing in ankle deep water.  Once again I found myself asking ‘what have we done?’  I’ve spent enough time in floody gardens to have up sticks and moved to another.  There was so much water.  The kind of water that would take at least a week to drain at the old place.   The neighbours said that it was an unusual amount and they’d never seen anything like it.  Great.  Out of the frying pan and into the fire.   But then something interesting happened.  It stopped raining and before my very eyes the puddles disappeared.  Sandy soil does indeed have good drainage.   Phew.


Not this again – I’m so over floody lawns!

Just as I came to terms with the new temporary ugliness in our landscape, another opportunity arose that we couldn’t turn down.  We were offered five large truck loads of excellent topsoil from a location I was familiar with and so I just had to say yes please.  Five large truck loads of soil is a lot of soil!   And with each load the truck drove through the sand and across the well mowed lawn in order to dump it where it needs to be – tucked out of the way until the time is right to spread it about and to fill raised beds.  They reversed up through what would soon be my bedroom and then backed across the soon to be garden and in doing so added insult to injury their big fat wheels churned up my lawn.   Arggh.  But as they were delivering fine soil, I’ll let it slide.  Just as well it happened before the house arrived or it may have been a tight squeeze, even with our enlarged driveway.

soil delivery

One of 5 loads of lovely soil being delivered at the back of the soon to be garden.

I guess this is just the start of things.  You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.  There are foundations to be dug, septic systems to be installed and goodness knows what other abuses will happen to our plush lawn – aside from having a house plonked on top of most of it!

Things are still in a state of slow change, which is just as well as it would seem I’m not a great fan of change.

Come again soon – I need to find out exactly what this soil is all about, but it looks good from the outside.

Sarah the Gardener  : o)

40 days and 40 nights

It has been 40 days since we moved to our current homeless situation.   Actually it has been 41 days, and it is raining.   About now old Noah would be getting off his ark and releasing the animals two by two!  But we are still here, adrift in our temporary caravan accommodation.  It isn’t too bad because we know it won’t be for much longer.

Gloomy view

Even on wet miserable days the view still seems magnificent

Our internet connection with the outside world has been installed and just needs tweaking.  This will make a huge difference to the waiting as it feels like we have truly been cut off from the outside world. Which is fine for a while, but when you want to do things like plan a new garden and research the heck out of it with great enthusiasm, you are left thwarted, twiddling your thumbs and dreaming really big ideas with no idea if they are possible or not.  I strongly believe where there is a will there is a way and no real harm can come from trying.

Water tank delivery

The first signs of progress – the water tank. Some day soon it will be collecting water of the roof of a much awaited house!

The house is scheduled to arrive on the 15th of March, weather dependant.  Although this date seems quite fluid as originally the old owners needed it gone by early February.  The advert shouted out: “Must be gone.”  But it would seem they are happy for it to still be there.  I just want it to be here.  The council are currently checking all the details and then once they give the nod it will be all go and a flurry of activity.   The only thing that has made it feel like progress so far is we have a water tank.  Yay!  We’ll be getting two eventually, with separate pumps – one for the house and one for the garden.  It is really good to be able to put these things in place first than trying to retrospectively make the amenities bend to the needs of the garden.

Fennel the Cat sleeping in the caravan

Some members of the family have taken to caravan living really well.

In the meantime we wait, convincing ourselves we are camping on holiday with the best view in the world.  The view helps bring everything back into focus when things get a little fraught.  Because while it was easy in the beginning to convince ourselves it was a wonderful extended holiday, the kids weren’t back at school yet, the sun beat down with the intensity of mid-summer and it was like being in paradise.  However, now the kids are well and truly back at school, the weather is a bit rubbish, and the demands of ‘normal’ life are trying to overlay themselves on this unusual situation.

Birds Eye Chilli peppers

In spite of the challenges of a container garden, the Birds Eye Chilli peppers are flourishing.

The need to garden has fortunately been addressed with my temporary container garden which I have found is a pretty needy creature.  Worse than a clingy toddler.  If it was a boyfriend I’d have dumped him long ago.  But it’s a garden so all is forgiven, even if it dries out at the drop of a hat and starts to sulk more often than not.  Oh bring on the real garden… plants that can stretch their roots are more like teenagers that only check in when they need something or are hungry.  The majority of the time they can cope perfectly well on their own.

Fennel the Cat on the tent

Camping isn’t for everyone

And to top it all off it is no longer summer.  The calendar made the shift yesterday to that gentle season Autumn.  I normally like autumn, but you can feel the shift of the seasons more acutely when the walls of your home are paper thin and the chill of the mornings are much more noticeable than if we were in a house.  Only the keen and the crazy go camping in autumn!


Days like this remind us exactly why we have inflicted this upheaval upon ourselves

But while there is still some warmth in the air I will satisfy myself with sowing seeds for the cool season crops in the hope that they will end their lives in a wonderful new garden with their roots going down deep!  Time to get those hands dirty again.

Come again soon – change is still afoot, it just takes a while.

Sarah the Gardener  : o)

When you’re not you

We have survived our first month living in a caravan with just a handful of weeks left before the house arrives.  We seem to be in a lull in the busyness that has been swirling around us in the last few months and will continue to do so in the months to come.   The weather has yo-yoed between being perfect camping weather with clear blue skies that disappear into our incredible ocean view and pouring with rain so heavily we can barely see the sea at all.  February is ordinarily a very settled month as the summer draws to a close, however this year seems to have other plans.


I still marvel at our incredible views. We count ourselves as truly blessed.

Since we have been living in the confined space of the caravan it has rained for 18 days and dry for a mere 14 days.  The first extremely wet day was the day we moved with about 20mm – give or take.  The days before and after it were nice days.  Go figure!  Just to make it more exciting two of the 18 days also had rainfall of over 30mm!  And as I write this we are waiting for the impact of the remnants of Cyclone Gita that ravished poor Tonga and Fiji last week.  It is looking like we won’t get a full hit here, but there will be rain and wind, which in a caravan with teenagers, won’t be that much fun, but we’ll live.


I’ll never get sick of seeing sunsets like this!

But I’m not here to moan about the weather.  I have something really exciting to share with you.  Although I can’t build my garden yet, due to the caravan and a container with all our worldly possessions positioned smack bang where I want to have my garden, I was feeling a little lost without a garden to potter about in, so did something about it.

Sarah's garden

And just like that, I’m a gardener again!

To start with it was like having a wee holiday, but I found myself at a loose end with nothing to do.  Gardening is what I do, and my identity is wrapped up in that too.  I’m a gardener and without dirt under my nails, I don’t feel like me.  Ok I must admit it was nice to go through a couple of storms without worrying about sweet corn blowing over, tomatoes snapping their stakes or the greenhouse blowing away.  But that isn’t enough to deter me, and I began longing for these worries.  It is part of the gardening journey – it is never smooth sailing.  There is always something, the weather, pests, disease, weeds.  Fortunately, the setbacks always outweigh the benefits and just sinking your teeth into something amazing that has been freshly picked makes it all worthwhile.  I missed that.

container garden

It is cool to have a hill to look down over the garden. It always looks so different from above.

During a recent dry spell, I gathered together all the plants I had bought with me from the places they had been conveniently deposited and gave them some love they desperately needed, some had become quite travel weary.   There were more than I’d realised, so I set about arranging them in a way that would be easy for me to tend to.  One of the lessons I have learnt about the garden is – the easier things are, then the more likely you are to do a good job.


There are only a couple of weeks left in this summer but, I have every hope these tomatoes will ripen and what a reward they will be.

Another thing I hadn’t fully realised was how many ornamental bits and bobs I had.  Spread out across the big old garden they were barely noticeable.  But in a small space, my butterfly windmill, my fountain, the memorial statue of poor wee Toast the Cat and a few other items make it a cheery place and accentuate the garden nicely.  I think I’ll need to look into getting more bits and bobs in the new big garden.


The fountain is so soothing and a much more gentle sound than the roaring of the waves that now forms the background soundtrack to our lives.

I’m really pleased with how the container garden looks and it is such a pleasure to potter in it.  I’ve elevated the pots off the ground on old bread style trays (that I have a great plan for them in the long term, but more about that later).  This gives the garden a nice defined shape and will be easier to maintain the overall look of the garden without it looking too cluttered or too weedy. It will make mowing in there easier too as moving a tray of pots will be simpler than moving them individually.


Fresh salad is a must have, and easy enough in a container – so long as you keep them well hydrated!

Finally, I wrapped a fence of sorts around it to keep the free ranging chickens out.  They have already had a field day with my poor exposed plants.


I’m delighted to see the elderberry cuttings I brought with me have taken. I hope they enjoy their new location.

I do have to say, I admire all of the gardeners out there who garden in containers as their only or main form of gardening.  It is actually higher maintenance than in ground gardening.  I knew all of this, however with such a large garden to potter about with, any unfortunate plants under my care inevitably died a sad and lonely death.  Without the vast resource of soil at the roots disposal, these plants are entirely at the mercy of the gardener for food and moisture.  Especially moisture.  In hot summer days, the limited space in modest containers can dry out very fast.  Watering the garden is much more of a life and death situation.  But it does give me the perfect excuse to potter longer in my little garden beside the sea.


I think this sweetcorn is more wishful thinking! It is too travel weary and storm beaten to be a raging success!

It is especially important I keep these plants alive as many are destined to go into the new garden, like the asparagus and strawberry seedlings that I have somehow managed to keep alive since the winter.  Others are hanging in there, so I can have a fresh crunch of something – anything homegrown before the season comes to an end.  I’m even growing beans, hoping for a late harvest, and I don’t even like beans!

Gardena Comfort Bed Sprayer

When watering the garden is as essential as keeping a container garden moist, having a good tool for the job makes it so much easier. I love the wide spread of the Gardena Comfort Bed Sprayer as it quickly covers a large area in a satisfying way.

What I am missing is herbs.  I think I need to pick up some to help liven up our diets.  A trip to the garden centre is needed, and just like that my little garden start to grow – in more ways than one!

Come again soon – I suspect things will start to speed up again soon and there will be many interesting things to tell you about.

 Sarah the Gardener  : o)


Wrapped in plastic

It has been two weeks since I left my garden for a gorgeous spot on the coast and it has taken that long to start to feel comfortable with caravan living.  We have slipped into a school term routine, so it no longer feels like we are camping and it seems all the more real that we are doing a peculiar thing that will be worth it in the long run.   The perception of camping was great to start with as the weather was absolutely amazing, endless blue skies and hot days that were softened by a gentle sea breeze.  Swimming in the ocean was a great way to freshen up and the living was relaxed and easy, even more so once we got electricity.  It was nice to take some time to do nothing much at all after months of busyness getting the house ready for sale and then packing up all our worldly possessions.


Every sunset is different. I shall never grow tired of watching them.

We even survived a terrible storm with torrential rain and strong winds, although we have had to make adjustments to the way we live.  The earlier sunny days had lulled us into a false sense of security and we had sprawled a little.  But it isn’t for much longer, about 35 days give or take and we should be house dwellers like normal people.  But it was a good wake up call as in these coming days it will rain again.

Easy living

We don’t have many luxuries right now, but we do have our spa pool.

One adjustment has been especially difficult for me, and that is with the cooking.  We have limited space to store things and so all of my pickles, sauces and other things I’d made to enhance my cooking are packed away.  The deep freezer is plugged in, in a location far from here so what harvest I was able to make this season is safe and will bring us some sunshine this winter.  And worst of all, I don’t have a garden as such.  There is no fresh produce for me.

Free range chickens

The chickens are enjoying the free range lifestyle.

So we have been buying things – little and often because of the lack of space.  I don’t think I’ve ever been to the supermarket so frequently ever.  Normally it is just once every couple of weeks for the basics I can’t make or grow and if we run out, then we wait.  Going in every other day leads to spending more than intended as things tend to catch your eye and it jumps into the trolley almost as if by magic.   I’m not entirely happy with what we are buying either, but it is just for a short time.   Having worked in the convenience food industry in a previous life I’m keen to avoid it now and love my whole food lifestyle, carefully making it from scratch.  However, in a caravan this isn’t easy so convenience food it is.


It is surprising how much stuff can be plonked in my new garden. I guess I shall have to wait patiently.

Not only is it a shock as to how little self control I seem to have in the supermarket, but also the price of things – especially veggies.  I can’t remember the last time I bought a tomato or a cucumber as I work with the principle – if it isn’t in season, we’re not having it.  It makes us appreciate the rhythm of nature and things anticipated taste so much better.  Except stuff from the supermarket.  The full and rich flavours experienced with home grown produce is missing from these items.   And as they come unnecessarily wrapped in plastic or have plastic stickers plastered all over them, then I am also concerned at the increased amount of waste this convenience lifestyle is generating.


The limes are enjoying their sheltered spot behind the container where my greenhouse should be!

I need to make a temporary garden as soon as I can so we can slip back into a way of life we are more accustomed to.  The big garden is coming along nicely in the planning stage and while I had hoped to get started on it straight away I hadn’t anticipated the place for the house and surrounding area needed to be clear for the tradespeople to do their thing.  Meaning the other lovely flat area that is to be my garden is cram packed with stuff – the caravan is where I would like to have my greenhouse, the container is stretched out across several potential beds, the trailer is where my office shed is to go and other items are blocking the possibility of most horticultural endeavour.


The start of my temporary garden, may it flourish for me in this place.

It is just for a short time, and so in the meantime I am researching gardening in these conditions, designing and planning the garden and beyond and gathering together all the materials I’ll need.  So once the house arrives and everything else goes I can get started straight away on my forever. garden.

Come again soon – I don’t feel like me if I’m not growing something

Sarah the Gardener  : o)

A Sea Change

Moving day

It does feel weird to have all of your worldly possessions following along behind you in a truck.

After 87 days from idea to realisation, we are now all moved and settled in to our new place.  Well not quite settled in.  We are living in a caravan with all our worldly possessions scattered about the place waiting to be rearranged in a orderly fashion.   We may be there for a short while, the house arrives, all going well in early March or hopefully even sooner.

Moving goats

I was worried the goats wouldn’t want to move house and had visions of chasing them around the property, but they just trotted up to trailer and willingly climbed aboard. Phew.

Our new place is 10 acres on the rugged west coast over looking the Tasman Sea.  The sand is black, the beach is empty for miles and the waves are often wild.  It is a mesmerising sight to sit and stare at.  We’re not on the beach front itself, but we have beach access and I can see the waves break from where the garden will be.  The view is spectacular.  This alone is worth the move.

moving chickens

The best way to move chickens is at night. Just pluck them off the roost and they don;t even know whats happened.

The land, while gorgeous, doesn’t currently have a house.  This is not a big problem for us as we like to embrace difficult situations.  It builds character.   Although I’m not sure our character requires strengthening in the area of building, so yeah nah, we’re not building a house.  We did look into that, and not only is it extremely expensive, but there are so many logistical hoops to jump through and takes a very long time, we decided we’re not up for that kind of a challenge.

House site

Hubby the Un-Gardener is standing in what will be my kitchen!

So we are relocating a house.  That way, we get to look for our perfect house to go with our perfect section.   As there is a lot of development going on in the country where old houses on large sections are making way for numerous townhouses, it didn’t take long to find the perfect one for our place.  All we have to do now is wait for it to arrive, so I’ll share more about that later.  It is the ultimate form of recycling!

Garden site

This doesn’t look like much but if you can see what I see in my head, this is going to be an amazing garden.

In the meantime we are going to live in a caravan that the lovely previous owners have left for us use for the few short months it will take for the house to come.  It is summer and most people about the place are staying in caravans by choice right now as they go off on their summer holiday, it can’t be that much different from that!  We have created several locations beside the caravan – tents and a large gazebo, so we don’t all kill each other in the confined space of the caravan.  It’ll be fine and won’t be for long.


I get to watch this incredible event every evening. I feel incredibly blessed.

The place I want to put the garden will be perfect for it – it gets all day sun and is mostly sheltered from the worst of the winds this coastal property will throw at it.  I will need raised beds as the soil is mostly sand.  I will miss the wonderful rich soil we had at the last place, but I won’t miss the mud.  Although come next summer I may be bemoaning the fact there is too much drainage!  I have great plans for the garden and you can check it our here in my wee video tour of the new place:

It is an ambitious plan which is exciting and scary all at the same time.  There is a lot to learn as things are very different, but a gardener is always learning and I am looking forward to the journey.  There will be ups and downs.  Mistakes will be made, but at the end of the day I can sit and let the troubles of the day wash away as the sun sinks into the ocean.   It would have taken a pretty special place to take me away from my old garden and this, I believe, it that place.

Come again soon – it is the first day of an very interesting journey.

Sarah the Gardener  : o)

Last days

Empty Shed

The shed is empty. Even the shed has a history. I had it built with the winnings from my second attempt at the Yates Vegie Growing Challenge back in 2011. So much has happened since then.

There is a strange sense of peace.  I am ready to leave the garden.  Which is just as well as we are out of here on Thursday.   It has only been 85 days since we made the decision to make the move.  It feels like a lifetime, but also at the same time it feels like it was only yesterday.  Parts of me still feel as though it isn’t real, and I’ll wake up surrounded by all my clutter.  But reality hits as the rooms in the house have a distinctive echo as it is denuded of furniture and all our creature comforts.  There is no going back.

The Greenhouse

The Greenhouse – my pride and joy. There are waves of sadness when I think about leaving this behind. So many happy times in here.

The greenhouse and shed have been emptied of all of my things and given a tidy.  This was done over several evenings by torchlight as the daytime temperatures this week have been ridiculous, and it would have been foolhardy and harmful to health to have attempted to work underneath glass.  I was surprised how much I had accumulated in the shed and greenhouse.  Many items were things I thought I’d try but never really got on with.  There are so many amazing things on offer at garden centres and such places and under the influence of the horticultural shopping spree, where all sense of self control gets left at the door, I just had to have these things and try them out.  Needless to say, there are considerably fewer items coming with me than those that languished the shed for the last few years.

Swing seat

The swing seat comes down tomorrow and will be re-erected at the new place – somewhere to sit and watch a new garden grow.

The garden itself looks better than it ever has.  I went into this season with a degree of delight as for once I had no projects on the go, no books to write, no training programs to run.  This was going to be my season to just immerse myself in the garden and nothing else.  It was to have my full attention and I would have been in my element.  Then we decided to move.  The garden, while not receiving the full care and attention it deserved, was still a priority as it needed to look nice for the real estate photos, then it needed to stay nice for the open homes, and then it needed to be maintained for the new people to take over from where I left off without wasting any of the harvest.

Large plants and shrubs

Large plants and shrubs waiting for the move

As I tended the garden in these last days, there was a little sadness, but more an overwhelming feeling that I was caring for it for someone else and hoping it would be a blessing to them.   I do feel a tinge of sadness that I will miss out on the sweetcorn, that is only a few weeks away from being ready.  The tassels are doing a marvellous job of dropping pollen on the silks and all over my pots that I was sorting on the ground beside them.  Everything is covered in a fine yellow dust, thwarting my efforts to only take clean things with me.  I don’t have the energy to rinse it all off, so I have a hazy yellow memory of the garden to take with me.

Container plants

While a little bedraggled and a tad worse for wear, these container plants will soon be the sole object of my attentions as they will be, for the immediate future, my only garden. They won’t know what hit them!

I have been able to sample the first few tomatoes to ripen and I know I made good choices when selecting seeds as they are all so incredible.  Nothing like the ordinary tomatoes most non-gardeners are used to.  They will all be welcome in my new garden.    The new carrot seeds I sowed the other day have broken through the soil surface and it is nice to know there is something for the new people to see there other than bare soil.  The broccoli is ready for them to enjoy straight away, although as I didn’t have my eye on the ball the entire time, it may be necessary for them to pick out a few green caterpillars.  I apologise profusely, but it is an interesting introduction to the reality of homegrown food as opposed to the sanitised versions found elsewhere.  A few holes and bugs never really hurt anyone – just eat around them!


I have to say I love this garden so very deeply and will miss it terribly. But I know I’m leaving it in good hands.

But in a few days from now, I’ll be waking up to a new future in a completely new place with so much potential around every corner.  There is a new garden waiting to emerge under my loving care, with a lot of learning and possible hard learnt mistakes along the way.   The future is very exciting and starts tomorrow…  well actually the day after tomorrow.

Come again soon – change is afoot!

Sarah the Gardener  : o)


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