Germinating In The Greenhouse

In a sunny spot on our deck we have a small greenhouse. It takes up less than two square metres of space and is probably the best investment that we’ve made in our garden so far. We use it to grow most of our vegetables from seed, and the benefits are enormous:Greenhouse with seedlings

  • Food miles were a major area that needed improvement according to our carbon estimate, comprising almost half of our family’s emissions. A packet with hundreds of seeds weighs less than a single seedling in a nursery and considerably less than the final vegetable in the supermarket, so the energy required transporting them is drastically reduced.
  • Seeds planted in our greenhouse germinate much faster than they do in the garden. We recently tried to plant some zucchini outside the greenhouse, and after three weeks I assumed they had failed so I tried again inside the greenhouse. Our greenhouse seedlings were all growing strong before the first of the outside ones appeared.
  • Seedlings started in the greenhouse are protected from many more predators than ones out in the garden. Birds, snails and caterpillars don’t snack on my tender baby plants when they can’t get to them.
  • We can prolong the growing season for our vegetables by germinating them in the greenhouse where they are protected from frosts in early spring and we can keep the soil a bit warmer in early autumn. Last year we were able to get two pumpkin crops with early and late germination, and we didn’t need to buy pumpkins from the supermarket for almost six months.
  • Have you ever tried to grow a new plant, only to realise that you can’t tell the difference between the seedling and weeds? We don’t have a weed problem in the greenhouse, which has saved a lot of our vegetables from untimely deaths.
  • Because seedlings are so small and we are making use of vertical space in the greenhouse, we can literally germinate enough seedlings to completely fill our vegetable garden. We started germinating the lettuce to replace our broad beans before we finished harvesting them. Overlapping growing times like this means that we can sometimes get an additional crop from our garden each year. If we want to start growing something, but there isn’t room in the garden, then we just move it into a bigger pot so that it can keep growing until we’re ready to plant it outside.
  • You can get much more variety when you start with seeds than you can find in a nursery or supermarket. Our seed collection now has over 150 varieties of herbs and vegetables. We’re currently growing red spring onions, purple broccoli and multi-coloured corn.
  • Growing vegetables from seed has mentally completed the life cycle of plants for the children. They can put the seeds in the dirt and watch how they sprout, grow, fruit and then get turned into compost that feeds the next generation of plants.
  • If a packet of 75 seeds costs less than a single seedling, I don’t care much if I accidentally murder half of them.

Despite all of those advantages, the biggest one by far is financial. It doesn’t matter how much a vegetable or herb costs in the supermarket, because if I can pick up a packet of seeds for under $5 and grow kilos of food from them then we’re winning. A packet of seeds can last for years, which reduces the annual cost even further. This year I spent less than $150 on seeds, which will completely fill our garden and leave a lot left over for next year. To put that in perspective, that’s the same as our weekly budget for fresh fruit and vegetables. If we do as well this year as we did last year, we’ll get half of our meals from our garden.

Most of the materials that we use in our greenhouse are reused. I’ve got a large collection of punnets, seed trays and pots that have been donated by other people after they’ve gone shopping for plants. To keep everything moist and cut down on how much I need to water the seedlings, I put my pots and punnets into the plastic trays we get with meat from the supermarket. For the large seed trays, which don’t fit into the meat trays, I put one inside the other and use a plastic bag as a liner to hold the water.

Setting everything up for a season takes me an afternoon with the kids or an hour by myself, plus an hour going through my seeds and deciding what I want to buy for the coming year. Germinating our plants has quickly become quality time for the family, and we get much more out of it than I ever expected when we started.

If you’re playing along at home…

…do you have a sunny, sheltered spot where you could grow a few plants from seed? If you’ve tried this and have a few recommendations, please share them in the comments below.

Buckets In The Shower

If you’ve ever tried to grow a vegetable garden in Australia, you’ll know that it isn’t as easy as it first appears. Even if you plant your spring vegetables at the very start of the season they’ll be trying to ripen during summer. If a solid heatwave sets in you can admire lush vegetables in the morning and dead plants in the evening. We’re in Melbourne, which has permanent water restrictions, so even if we could afford to water our garden all the time we wouldn’t be allowed to.

One of the benefits of this house is that it was built during a drought. As a result it has approximately 10,000 litres of water tank capacity underneath the deck, and the entire roof area feeds into it. We connected the whole vegetable garden to the tanks with an irrigation system, so we can literally run out into the heat, turn the system on for five minutes, and hide back inside our cool house again. Our vegetables survive and we can eat food that hasn’t got any attached miles of transport.

The problem for us is the pump. It might help us collect and save water, but it’s at the cost of electricity. I have no idea if the emissions from running it are more or less than the emissions generated by how far our food travels, but I do know that it’s noisy and irritating to run.

Buckets in a shower

We need to find a better solution to the electric pump, but in the interim we’ve got a wall of buckets in the shower. They’re old yoghurt containers that we’re reusing, and each has a 2 litre capacity. In winter we just have a couple on the floor of the shower and we scale up for the summer months where we end up with as many buckets as we have in the house.

A secondary benefit to the buckets is that we can fill the first one with the cold water in the hot water pipes. We’re not wasting hot water waiting for it to get warm, or the energy used to heat it, because as soon as I sense the temperature difference I can turn the tap off. It makes showering easier on the days when I have the kids in with me, because I can sort out one thing at a time and I know that when they’re ready we can just get in to water that’s already going to be the right temperature.

By using water from our showers we are not only able to reuse our water, but we can also reduce the electricity from the pump. We can water just the plants that need watering, and therefore not turn on the pump at all, or we can pour the water into a 60 litre bucket that sits underneath our laundry window and also feeds into the irrigation system. We’re less likely to empty the water tanks, which happened last year, and more likely to get through the hottest months with our garden intact. It’s a small change, but it has a big impact for us.

If you’re playing along at home…

…can you reuse the water from your showers or elsewhere in the house to water plants? Please comment below if you’ve found another use for the grey water from your showers or a better alternative to buckets.

Mowing The Lawn

When we first moved to this house, the biggest job in the garden was keeping the lawns mowed. It was winter, so the grass was long and lush, and it seemed as if my partner was out there every weekend trying to keep it under control. We didn’t own a mower at that point, so we had borrowed an old one from relatives. It had a pull cord to start it, two stroke to fuel it, broke down more than it worked, and my partner seemed to spend more time violently swearing at it than he did mowing the lawn. The edge trimmer was even worse.

Standing on the deck holding the baby and watching this was hilarious.

After a few weeks of this, he finally reached the snapping point and wanted a new mower and trimmer. We had barely any money in our budget, but new tools were probably going to be cheaper than the required counselling sessions if I made him keep using the old ones.

Once the decision was made, we had to decide what type of mower and trimmer to buy. At the time I had been flipping through a book in the library that recommended getting rid of lawns around the home to improve your environmental impact. This seemed counter intuitive to me, but the book went on to explain that the amount of energy used to maintain them more than outweighed any environmental benefit to having them. With two young children we didn’t want to convert their play area into a hard surface or cover it with plastic grass, so it was time for better alternatives.

Initially we were looking at an electric lawn mower and an electric trimmer. These options seemed better than the petrol ones, because we wouldn’t have the hassle of jerrycans and trips to the petrol station to fill them. When we got to the store, we discovered that not only did they have electric mowers, they also had push mowers. The push mower was tiny compared to the mower we had been using, and the lack of an engine meant that it was light weight and easier to move.

I’d like to claim that it was environmental diligence that inspired us to buy the push mower, but it was our budget. At less than half the price of the mowers we were initially looking at, a push mower and electric trimmer combination meant that we could afford both, while staying with the more common petrol equivalents would have meant we could only afford one.

Push mower and electric trimmer
It came with a grass catcher, but catching grass is too much work on any mower.

The reaction from friends and family when they heard that we had bought a push mower was pure astonishment. We were told by many people that we’d be back to a regular mower within weeks. Strangers have stopped on the footpath to watch my partner, amazed that our pathetic little mower works so well. Thanks to our push mower, we got to know some of our neighbours, and we’ve built a reputation of being amazing gardeners as a result. One guy said our lawn looked so good that he wanted a bit of grass to try growing it at his place, so we switched from the edge trimmer that weekend to a shovel and he happily took home some of the grass roots that had grown out over the footpath.

Despite its many benefits, there are a few disadvantages to the push mower. Obviously the power that we get out of it is the power that we literally push into it. If we let the grass grow too long then it doesn’t cut as well as it does with more frequent cutting. Weeds can also be a problem if they are supple enough to flex around the blades, and if we push over something long it can wrap around the cutting bits and they get stuck.

We made that purchase about a year ago now, and we have no intention of going back to a petrol mower or trimmer. The drawbacks are negligible or easily solved, and the switch to something that gives us healthy exercise while being quieter and cleaner more than outweighs the negatives.

If you’re playing along at home…

…have you found any techniques to reduce the amount of fossil fuels that you use to maintain your garden? Please share what worked and didn’t work for you in the comments below.

Plant A Fruit Tree

One of the most obvious ways to offset our carbon emissions is to plant a tree; this is the basis of many of Australia’s carbon offset programs. When I think of planting trees, my imagination immediately goes to towering forest specimens that will live for hundreds of years. There is no denying the beauty of these majestic trees, just as there is no denying that our suburban backyard simply doesn’t have the room to plant something that will grow to be 75m tall.

We wanted to plant some trees in our garden, and our emissions calculator revealed that we were generating a surprising amount of pollution through how far our food travels to reach our plates. These two needs combined to provide an obvious solution: fruit trees.

I packed the kids into the car and we went to the nearest Bunnings. They had a modest selection of fruit trees, so we went a bit mad picking out a selection. We settled on a lime, two oranges, an apple, a pear, an apricot, a cherry with two grafted varieties and quite a few smaller fruiting bushes. The total spend came to just over $360, and incredibly I managed to get everything into the car without having to leave either of the children at the store.

Trees on the passenger seat of my car.
Getting this many trees into the car at once only worked because they were bare rooted.

At home we began the lengthy process of arguing passionately about where each tree should go. The lime went into the front yard so that our neighbours can steal as many limes as they like. The oranges were planted beside our deck to provide a visual balance and shade from the afternoon sun. The apricot will provide shade and privacy for our bedroom window, and the rest of the trees will eventually convert our open back yard into a shaded place for the children to play.

Even though we are very active in our garden, for the first time our plantings give it a sense of permanence. It will take years for these trees to reach their full height and fruiting potential but, when they do, they’ll more than pay for the purchase cost in fresh, delicious fruits that didn’t have to travel across the country – or the world – to reach us.

If you’re playing along at home…

Do you have space in your garden to plant a fruiting tree or bush? Many varieties do well in large pots, so renters don’t have to make a donation to their landlord’s property. If you are growing something, please share in the comments what you planted and if you think it was a good decision.