When Lizzie, Kyrstie and I decided to revamp the monthly Garden Share Collective linkup, we agreed that we would like to find out more about the participating gardeners. Where do they garden? Why do they do it? And what challenges do they face along the way?
It wasn’t difficult to decide who would be the subject of the first interview. I have long been fascinated by Jo Southwell’s beautifully photographed and eloquently written blog, Country Life Experiment. So when I met Jo at the recent Problogger conference in Queensland, I almost begged her to let me conduct an interview. Fortunately for me, Jo is as charming in real life as she appears on her blog, and she very graciously agreed.
Tell me about yourself and your garden.
My name is Jo, and I blog at Country Life Experiment. I began blogging in 2011 to document my experiences as we moved from Sydney to the family farm where my husband grew up in Southern NSW. Four years later we are here to stay and my blog has evolved into a place where I share thoughts on simple country living, growing and cooking your own food, and life on our family farm. I throw an occasional DIY project and a few random thoughts in for good measure too.
Our garden is a typical old farm house garden, full of over grown plants that have been in the ground for several generations. Since moving here, we have been extending, redesigning, and reimagining it so that it suits our lives today. At the moment, the vegetables have three large beds, which make 80 rows. Each row is about 4 meters long, and all are drip irrigated.
Why do you grow your own food?
My husband (who I call the Country Boy) has always grown plants. It is just something he loves to do. One of his biggest struggles when we lived in Sydney was the lack of space to have a big garden. Once we moved back here, he got straight into developing our garden to make it as productive as possible. The honest truth is I am not much of a gardener. I appreciate the produce, and help as needed (particularly with the harvesting), but CB does 99 percent of the work, while I make requests for food I like to eat.
Aside from CB’s love of gardening, the convenience of having fresh fruit and vegetables right outside our door is hard to beat. We live about 40 minutes from a larger supermarket, and buying fresh produce can be inconvenient. Growing our own food is also a lot cheaper than buying it.
Added to this, we love the variety, freshness, and taste of home grown food so much more than anything we can get in a shop.
Finally, we don’t love the ethics of many large multinational food corporations, or that so few companies are in control of our food supply. While we can’t totally avoid these large companies together (I still love chocolate!), growing our own food is one way to quell some of our ethical issues.
Our garden is huge. When we moved back to the farm, Country Boy seemed to make it his mission to cover the house yard with vegetables. We grow all our own vegetables with the exception of some of our onions and potatoes (because we cannot store enough for the entire year), and avocados and sweet potatoes (both of which I love) which do not grow this far south.
Throughout the year we grow peas, beans (green, borlotti, broad), corn, capsicum, cucumber, lettuce, rocket, tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, spinach, cabbage, beetroot, artichoke, chillies, carrots, pumpkins, garlic, potatoes, onion, leek, zucchini, and squash. We like to experiment with different varieties of each of these, and will plant a few new types each year, just to see how they turn out.
We also have a strawberry patch, tons of rhubarb, and lots of herbs including chives, parsley, mint, thyme, rosemary, sage, and basil.
Two years ago we planted an orchard with apples, pears, peaches, apricots, nectarines, sour cherries, hazelnuts, blueberries, raspberries and plums. The orchard has only just started to provide us with a little fruit, so we do still buy most of this.
The biggest problems we face in the garden are earwigs. They are really destructive, particularly in the Spring before the weather gets hot and dry. Last summer we built a chicken tractor to try and control them naturally, and we rotate the tractor around the garden beds before we replant them.
The vagaries of the weather present some challenges for us. We have cold winters with heavy frosts, and hot dry summers. If a late unexpected frost sneaks in, it can kill all our summer plants and delay or reduce our harvest. The hot summer sun can scorch the plants and produce, also ruining them. Add to this, the cycle of droughts and rains, which are unpredictable.
Because our garden is so big, it takes a lot of planning and forward thinking to make sure that the different crops are planted at the right time, and rotated each year. CB uses a diary and has a garden map he drew up to help him keep on top of this.
Another problem that our garden presents us is dealing with the sheer amount of food that it produces. Whilst late Winter and early Spring have hardly anything to harvest, other times of the year it can be overwhelming. In February, it’s not unusual to pick 10kg of tomatoes in a day, and then pick another 10kg three days later. We need to be fast, organised, and creative to store our summer harvest so that we can use it all year round. I’m always on the lookout for clever and interesting ways to use our produce
My number one tip for new kitchen gardeners is to start small. I know that when people read what we grow here on our farm, it looks crazy (FYI it is!), and that can be daunting for most people. Begin with growing just one or two things in a small space in a garden. Start with some lettuce or cherry tomatoes in a pot, or some herbs in the garden. Once you feel confident with growing that, add something else into the mix. It won’t take you long to have a nice little garden from which to pick your own fresh produce. Once you have tasted home grown, it’s hard to go back to shop bought vegetables!
Not everyone has an extremely enthusiastic gardener/farmer for a husband or a farm to grow vegetables on, and that’s fine – do it on a smaller scale.
My goodness, we get a lot of produce at times. Particularly in February through to April. Our number one way to use up all our produce is to eat as much as we can while it is in season and fresh. This can mean we have tomatoes with every meal in the summer. What we cannot eat we preserve. We make our own jams, relishes, and pickles. We blanch and freeze vegetables such as corn, peas, broccoli, and carrots to use throughout the year. We have also started making our own Italian tomato cooking sauce, which we put in jars and use in cooking.
Do you have a recipe that you’d like to share?
This is my pear and ginger paste recipe. It is perfect on a cheese platter. It keeps beautifully in an airtight container, so I make a big batch and then whip it out whenever we have guests (because an afternoon cheese platter is practically compulsory when you have guests). I also make plum paste.
- 1.3 kg pears
- 2 large green apples
- 3cm knob of ginger'
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 packet jam setter
- 1.2 kg sugar
- Peel, core, and slice apple and pears (I use our apple slinky machine).
- Place into a large saucepan and heat gently until the apple and pear collapse.
- Peel and finely grate the ginger and add to the apple and pear together with the cinnamon and lemon juice.
- Add in the sugar and jam setter and stir gently until the mixture simmers and the sugar has dissolved.
- Gently boil the mixture, stirring regularly until the mixture resembles runny apple sauce. You can check whether it is ready by dropping a small amount onto a cold plate. It should set firmly.
- Pour into a silicone mould, or a tray lined with baking paper and allow to set. This amount will fill a 20cm by 30cm tin. Alternatively you can fill several smaller tins (which is what I did).
- Once set, wrap in baking paper and store in an airtight container until it is needed.
- Use a hot knife to cut into portions as needed.
Jo’s blog can be found at www.countrylifeexperiment.com