On an unassuming block of neat and tidy homes in a fairly new and conservative sub-developed estate I found myself scratching my head and wondering if I had taken a wrong turn when directing myself to our May HOGS field day. I peered up the street wishing to see a familiar committee members car to turn the corner. And I checked, double checked and triple checked the address on my phone and the number on the letterbox before I finally made my approach to the front door to ring the bell.
Aha! There to welcome me was Andrew, our host for the day, who kindly invited me inside and introduced me to his wife Cynthia before taking me out to their garden. I had indeed found the right place, and gee whiz was I immediately thankful! The home of “Hunter Backyard Veggie Growers”.
Andrews garden is a wonderful mix of well organised, symmetrical perfection as well as unique, creative experimentation. After growing up in Tasmania in a family of keen horticulturalists, he had moved through many phases of gardening as a profession before he chose a change of career and moved to Newcastle. Andrew and Cynthia bought their humble, yet completely barren, block of land and began building an “investment property” with the intention of moving elsewhere once it was established. But fast forward 9 years and that same property has become too much of a home for them to leave it behind. Andrew has built an extremely impressive edible landscape where he can find solace from the outside world and focus on getting grubby amongst his true passion and therapy – gardening.
The block of land began as a sand dune with absolutely no nutritional value in the soil. He had to build everything up from scratch. He therefore opted for developing raised garden beds, 14 in total. They are all unique in shape, tessellating together in perfect symmetry with a few extra beds tacked on the end when he began to run out of room. The larger beds have keyhole access points that allow him easy access to observe & harvest crops without stepping over the beds and compacting the soil. Along the back fence he is growing a variety of citrus trees, and a bay tree that he prunes as a hedge/screen. He had initially tried growing espaliered apples and pears but soon learned that they did not suit the coastal climate of Newcastle. When he did get fruit, he also got fruit fly! This was just one of the challenges of learning to adapt in a completely different microclimate than his home back in Tasmania. But there are plenty of positives to the change in climate zones too. He has had the joy of growing crops like sweet potato now that he was not able to in the cold south, and he can look forward to 3 or 4 crops of snow peas each year instead of just the one. And no more frosts! They have only experienced one or two since moving to Newcastle – Andrew had to go outside and touch the frosty leaves to believe it was real!
As he learns from the garden he has made changes along the way. In order to be more water wise, he has been gradually retrofitting the beds to include a wicking system. He used the thickest plastic he could find (he now wishes he had used pond liner) to line the bottom and sides of the beds, which were then filled with a layer of gravel. Amongst the gravel he also added upside down plastic pots to create extra voids and save on costs. He laid down a piece of drainage ag-pipe along the sides and wrapped it in geotech membrane – this would become the watering inlet. Another layer of geotech membrane then separates the gravel water reservoir from the soil above. He has found that during the heat of summer the wicking beds only require a topping up of bore water for about 5 minutes, twice a week. Whereas the other garden beds are watered with drip irrigation that has to be used daily. The crops in the wicking beds grow vigorously with their consistent supply of water. One thing he has had to be mindful of is ensuring the geotech membrane is not pierced when staking crops like tomatoes, however. To prevent this from happening he has built support frames that are attached to the outer sides of the garden bed.
Andrew propagates a lot of his seedlings himself and he chooses a few experimental crops each year. He keeps a detailed record of historical data on what has and hasn’t worked in the garden. This allows him to plan crop rotation, plant selection, pest management, and other ways of managing his harvest. As a result, he always knows what he will be planting 6 months ahead of time and therefore well organised with ordering seed, preparing structures, etc.
Another impressive feature of his garden are his netted garden beds that help protect his crops against pests such as cabbage butterfly/moth. He has built frames out of electrical conduit, elbows, and cable ties that are wrapped in a high-quality exclusion netting and fit perfectly over the garden beds. He buys his netting and clamps online from “Judy’s Vegie Patch” (www.veggiepatch.com.au/shop). He is careful to ensure his plants are pest free prior to planting them under the frames by dunking the seedlings in an organic neem oil solution.
Other ways he manages pests is by purchasing predatory insects such as 3 spotted mites (from www.bugsforbugs.com.au ). For approximately $60 a year he can control the 2 spotted mites that can otherwise wreak havoc on his crops such as beans, cucumbers, and zucchinis.
Andrews garden is extremely productive and it was wonderful to see (quite literally) some of the fruits of his labour. He dug up one of his enormous daikon radishes for us all to view and he talked us through the process he follows when dehydrating his turmeric crops to turn them into a powder for cooking. He also explained other ways he preserves his harvests, such as making a paste out of his ginger which is then frozen in ice cube trays.
If you were not able to attend the field day or are just interested in reading more about his gardening experiences then you can follow him on Facebook or visit his website (links below). With an enormous following of over 4000 people, Andrew has been able to share his knowledge and encourage others to grow their own food. In future he will be working towards providing gardening consultation as well, so keep this in mind if you know someone who needs some skilled guidance on getting started in the garden!