Archive | July, 2011

My secret weapon

31 Jul

Every mother knows about arsenic hour. Some parents also call it witching hour, but the definition is the same.

It’s that hour before dinner when the kids are running in circles, screaming for pizza and you cannot find the cat. If you listen very carefully (which frankly is impossible) then you would hear it mewing piteously from wherever it’s been locked, right next to the defrosting mince and your best lipstick.

Actually we don’t even own a cat. I hate cats, and enjoy fantasing about them coming to untimely ends. But that is what would happen during arsenic hour if we did.

So to get through this time of the day, you need to have a few tricks up your sleeve. One of these is broad beans.

J loves to help cook. If she had a choice she’d like to boil water, chop pumpkin – all the dangerous stuff. I quietly suspect that paramedics wouldn’t really improve my arsenic hour, so I’m always on the hunt for kid friendly jobs to give her.

Take note, mothers. Shelling broad beans will entertain a preschooler for an hour. After that, you blanch the broad beans, then you need to skin them. Potentially an hour again. These babies are your friend.

And they are on their way. They are in full flower, and my biggest one is three inches long.

The lifecycle of blueberries

27 Jul

I’ve done a lot of wacky things in life so far, but this is my first year as a blueberry farmer. I’m a bit of an amateur one, and I’m learning on the job.

My blueberry plants (two of them, quite small) started flowering in early May. I was confused but elated, blueberries being a summer crop and all. They eventually started forming beautiful bell-shaped flowers, which then shriveled up and fell off. My disappointment was bitter, and I almost cried.

To cut a long story short, they are meant to fall off. And in order to protect the delicate feelings of all amateur blueberry farmers everywhere, I’d like to go through the sequence of blueberry formation, illustrated in full colour.

The blueberries start forming their flowers at different times, depending on the variety. Mine are Sunshine Blue (Nellie Kelly brand), so they started in late Autumn. The flowers tend to form at the end of the branches. At first I thought they were just new leaves.

Slowly the flowers fill out and become very pale, maturing into beautiful, white bell-shaped flowers. This is what threw me – these flowers look like they would just turn blue, and voila – blueberries!

But instead, they shrivel and die. The flowers blow off in the wind, leaving a naked stalk. These once-proud beauties look suddenly undignified. A bit like a wet cat.

Then slowly (very, very slowly), the blueberries start to form at the end of the stalk where the flower used to be.

I’ve been inspecting my blueberries almost daily for quite a while, looking for any sign that they are forming. I really had my doubts, thinking that it was possible that they just hadn’t pollinated. It has really only been this week that they have started looking vaguely blueberry-ish.

Except this last one. I think he’s a goner.

Sign I’m getting older #104

26 Jul

Age 10 with a very bad perm

As a child I always wanted to be older. I know that’s kind of normal, but I think I took the desire to an another level. I was this strange child who went op-shopping for blazers with shoulder pads.

Power dressing at 9.

Some people say that at 21, life is the best it can be. I turn 32 today, and it’s only this year perhaps that I wish I was younger. I noticed distinctly grey regrowth in the bathroom at work last week, and despite the wishful thinking that it was paint in my hair (plausible, I’m renovating) the signs are all there that I’m now rolling down the hill rather than climbing up.

Having young children, I read a lot of stories. Many are modern, but some of them are classics that I remember from my own childhood. Jack and the Beanstalk, Where the Wild Things Are, Mary Poppins.

The words are all the same, but there is something that has changed with time.

Jack went to the market with his mother’s cow, instructed to sell it for a good price. He came back with magic beans. Anyone else think this was perfectly reasonable as a five year old? I read this story now and immediately see it from his mother’s perspective, deprived of perhaps 6 months’ income.

“Go sell the minivan Jack…  oh, you traded it for 3 cocktail frankfurts? Very good then.”

In Maurice Sendak’s magical Where the Wild Things Are, Max is sent to bed without his supper. In primary school, this seemed dreadfully unfair.

Now, when Max glares defiantly at his mother, I think he had it coming.

In Mary Poppins, Michael’s childish whim costs his father his prestigious job at the bank. Don’t even get me started on that one.

Yes. I’m definitely getting older.

Is grass overrated?

21 Jul

I’ve been reading Fritz Haeg’s wonderful book Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn.

I originally saw Fritz on a Martha Stewart re-run and found his ideas revolutionary. His transformations of ordinary, boring suburban front yards into productive (and importantly attractive) spaces was eye-opening to me.

I’m sure you’ve seen the front yard veggie garden of the Nonno up the street or 3 doors down from your brother – don’t we all have one? The Italians realised long ago that productive gardens could be beautiful. Now I’m looking for that long lost Mediterranean branch in my family tree, but drawing a blank. My friend Michele has grandparents who bottle their own passata and make their own salami – I wanna be Italian!

I can’t change my gene pool, but I can change my landscaping.

I’ve witnessed the reaction of my own neighbourhood when I pulled out the roses and replaced them with vegetables. I had a few negative comments, but the many positive ones far outweighed the doubters. I’ve had so many conversations with passing people over the past few months that I never would have imagined. People don’t just walk past anymore – they stop and look, comment and ask questions. I’ve had people drive past and stop, and even some who have made a special trip to see.

Now don’t get me wrong – My garden isn’t that amazing. I think it’s just the concept that people are intrigued by. In my area (with small land sizes), growing food just isn’t that popular, and those who do hide it away from everyone else in their back yards.

Our front yard

So after several months of front yard veggie gardening, I’m longing for more space. My eye is drawn to the front lawn, and I wonder if the neighbourhood and I are ready for the next step. I’ve been considering the layout and the price of materials (quite significant), so need to take it slow.

But I’ve mentally committed. My food forest is going to happen.

The Productivity of Peas

20 Jul

Google tells me that today would have been Gregor Mendel’s 189th birthday. The fact that we still remember him is quite an endorsement of the importance of his work, seeing as he died at age 61. This guy’s been pushing up daisies for a very long time!

So it was very fitting that today, we harvested our first bowl of peas.

Harvesting Peas

We planted ‘Greenfeast’ peas this year. Their white flowers have been quite beautiful and productive. I’m concerned though that in order to provide enough peas for our family, I’d need to plant out my entire block. Don’t get me wrong, the plants are cropping quite densely, but we eat a lot of peas.

It’s given me a new appreciation of those bags in the freezer section. They are full of the precious little pearls, all for a buck or two. I can appreciate now the amount of land that must have been devoted to each little bag. My quick reading suggests that commercial yields of shelled peas vary between 1.5 and 5 tons per hectare. Say the yield is 3 tons/hectare, then that is 300g of peas per square meter. I’ve devoted about 2 square metres to my peas, so I think I’m optimistic in aiming for 500g.

I estimate that my family would eat 10 kilos of peas per year. If my math is right (and it rarely is) that means that I would need to plant  20 square metres of peas for self-sufficiency.

McCain, you’ve really have done it again.

Lettuce is looking mighty productive now.

**Update** We had a really wet winter and eventually all my peas were stricken with a fungal ‘rust’. I pulled the lot out, and that last harvest alone yielded 2.5 kilos of peas in the pods and 500grams of shelled peas. And this was at a stage where most of the pods were still too small to shell. I think that next year I’ll build proper supports and plant more, because I was quite encouraged by the yield.

They also froze very nicely, and didn’t even need blanching first.

Blindsided by Jerry

18 Jul

Jerry Coleby-Williams (Image from Gardening Australia Website)

I love Gardening Australia on the ABC. I rarely manage to catch it live, but I never miss the replays on iView. I love the passion of the presenters and how shamelessly real [read dorky] they are.

This is not Better Homes and Gardens. Let’s face it – Sophie has a speech impediment and Leonie Norrington dresses on national TV like she’s actually gardening. Either that or attending a blue light disco in the late ’80s (I’m not sure which).

They’re delightful, all of them.

I’m in awe too of their knowledge, and the sheer information they seem to hold in their heads. It seems that they can encounter any possible plant and immediately conjure up it’s botanical name from the depths of their consciousness. How is this possible? It’s all gobbiltygook to me.

So last night I settled myself down in front of the computer to watch Saturday’s program. I must confess I mostly skip past the “pretty native garden” segments, and cut straight to the interesting bits (Like Tino).

Jerry Coleby-Williams then hit me with a bombshell. He started pulling out his garlic. Virus-riddled he said.

It looked just like mine.

So apparently, my garlic is a goner. Just like that. It has the Garlic Yellow Streak Virus, and I should just pull it out. All 150 of them.

My reading today has suggested that the yellow streaks through my garlic leaves are indeed a sign of a potyvirus. It’s not going to poison anyone, but the yield will be low so I probably shouldn’t bother. It is also spread by aphids and thrips, so now I’m convinced that this companion planting thing is a sham. Garlic and Roses – supposedly dream bedfellows.


Bring back Peter Cundall. He would have let me down gently.

I really really really want chickens

13 Jul

I grew up with chickens. My parents had chooks when I was growing up and I collected eggs as a part-time job during my uni days, where I once heard a chicken speak.

I couldn’t actually identify which one of them said “hello”, but I played it safe and rescued all chickens from the surrounding cages. I took them home to free range until I narrowed down the talker and made squillions from exhibiting her on Oprah.

Bloody chook never spoke another word.

I never really appreciated my feathered friends. It’s only now, trying to deal with kitchen and garden waste that I truly see them for the wonders they are.

For my kitchen scraps I am using a bokashi bucket, which is wonderful for processing large quantities of kitchen waste quickly and odour-free. I’m having trouble though with the sheer quantity of organic waste that my veggie garden produces, both in terms of weeds and veggie off-cuts.

A broccoli, for example, produces both a thick stalk and a plethora of surrounding leaves for every tight green head. My globe artichokes need their outer fronds plucked regularly to prevent them taking over the world. All these scraps won’t fit in my humble compost tumbler, and it’s really only designed for grass clippings and leaves anyway.

I need a solution, and preferably one that clucks.

My problem is P. He swears that they will smell, and that it’s a bad idea. He wants to get the kids a guinea pig instead. A flipping guinea pig! What good did a guinea pig ever do for anyone outside of Ecuador?

I’ve even resorted to asking J whether she would like a chicken. The problems is that I’m not one to shy away from life’s realities, so I’ve explained to her that when we eat chicken, a chicken has to die.

L: Hey J, would you like to get a chicken?

J: “I’d like to kill a chicken”.

L: “No, as a pet”

J: “I’d like to kill a chicken, because I like to eat chicken”.

L: “This would be a chicken that would lay eggs for us – we wouldn’t kill it”.

J: “I’m actually allergic to chickens”.

Preschoolers!  She was no help at all.

So I’m going to have to come up with a plan to convince him, and based on what works for J, harping on in an amusing way seems to be my best bet.

Luckily, there have been a few articles on backyard chooks in the gardening magazines I’ve bought lately, so I’m going to cut them out and leave them in various places where he’ll find them.

I’ve planted some m&ms in the fridge, which are an absolute certain, and this little chookie below is going in the top drawer of this bedside table. If I keep it up long enough, he’s sure to agree, right?

Planning a continuous veggie supply

7 Jul

My veggie patch is boom or bust.

There was the great turnip glut of June 2011, the era of broccoli that I’m currently experiencing, and I once had an entire forest of celery. These gluts are always accompanied by shortages of many other things.

Maybe that’s why it’s called a veggie patch – the produce is patchy at best.

I know there must be a solution to this dilemma, but I suspect it involves planning ahead.

Planning. Ahead.

I’ve had in mind for a while the broad outline of a planting plan or timeline. A plan to help me work out when to sow my seeds, and how many to sow at any particular time. I imagined it would look something like 1 lettuce seed per week rather than 10 lettuces in February. The thought of compiling this plan however seemed really daunting.

That is, until I discovered this amazing site called Under the Choko Tree. This site is run by Nev and Linda from Western Sydney. Nev commented on one of my posts, and I went to check out what he had to say.

They have written many many articles packed with great information on living sustainably, and I’ll enjoy perusing them over the coming weeks. What really got my attention though is their Veggie Plan. This is the plan Nev and Linda have devised over many years on their suburban block, which outlines exactly what they plant every fortnight. I imagine that this will take a lot of adapting for our particular land size, microclimate and family preferences, but it has given me a brilliant start.

So after this eye opening discovery, J and I set to work sowing seeds for the 1st week of July. The most interesting thing is that Nev seems to start some spring veggies off in early July, ready to plant when the frost is finished. That’s exciting stuff – planting tomatoes and zucchini in July.

Seed potatoes and their new bed

We also took things one step further in the spirit of breaking all the rules. We planted our seed potatoes. I’m devoting the Northern quarter of Bed F to potatoes this season, and we planted it with Dutch Cream, Kipfler and Royal Blue. This bed is still covered in shade cloth which will protect from frost, then I plan to rip the shade cloth down in spring to let in the light, which will be higher in the sky by that time.

J really loved planting potatoes. After so long planting tiny seeds that grow into something entirely different, it must have seemed like I was suggesting we plant a lego brick to grow a lego tree.

We sprinkled the bed with blood and bone, then watered it in lightly. I don’t think I’ll need to water again until the weather warms.

This really opens up a whole new world of opportunities to me, and should keep my family well fed (with variety) right through spring and summer.

Thanks Nev and Linda!

Salt Burn in Avocado Trees

6 Jul

My avocado trees are my pride and joy. If I could choose any of my fruit trees to succeed, I think it would be these ones. Avocados from the shop are so hit and miss and it’s so difficult to keep a reliable supply up. Home grown avocados on the other hand can just be stored on the tree and picked on demand, ripening on the bench after a few days.

Well that’s the theory.

Brown tips on my Wurtz Avocado

In practice, my avocados have a problem. Their tips are browning, and I was totally stumped as to why. I’ve been paranoid about root rot, so totally not overwatering, and the potting mix is definitely not dry, so I didn’t think I was under-watering either. Sydney has been cold, but I’m sure my back deck hasn’t had any frost, so I didn’t think it was cold damage either.

I sent a message to Daleys, asking what they think the problem is and their answer was intriguing.

Salt Burn. Caused by not watering thoroughly enough.

Apparently avocados are particularly sensitive to chloride, and if you put them in potting mix the salts build up quickly. I need to water them infrequently but thoroughly, to wash the salts out of the soil.

Of course.

How the hell is the average punter gonna know that?

So I’ve put the hose onto them for about 10 minutes each, washing through the soil thoroughly.

Next thing they’ll tell me I have an orange juice deficiency. Or I haven’t belly danced around them lately.

This gardening caper is baffling sometimes.

Expanding the orchard

5 Jul

Continuing on from my last post, I’ve made a few more additions to the garden this week. Actually, it’s probably enough of an expansion to make a small list:

  • Dwarf multigrafted apple  (Granny Smith and Pink Lady)
  • Sunset Peach
  • Sunset Nectarine
  • Flame seedless grapes
  • Rhubarb (Victoria)

Dwarf multigrafted apple (Granny Smith and Pink Lady)

The gap in the dwarf fruit tree bed was bothering me, and I really wanted to fill it with a dwarf Granny Smith apple. Seeing as the Granny Smith apple was originally bred less than a kilometre from us, it would be a travesty to leave it out of my garden, right?

I picked up the multigrafted tree in Bunnings for an absolute bargain, but there was no indication of the rootstock so I’m fairly dubious about its dwarf status. I’ve put it in the ground regardless, and may have to be ruthless with my pruning. I think I’ll prune the two grafts substantially, because I don’t want this tree to shade the other ones significantly, and the Pink Lady graft is a bit longer than the Granny Smith, and I want them to be even.

Sunset nectarine just potted

I managed to get the sunset peach and nectarines into their pots. They are wonderful looking trees, and they will look spectacular in full flower. I used a rose potting mix and mulched fairly heavily. I already have a shoot on the peach, and I just hope the nectarine shows signs of life soon – one of its branches snapped in transport and it looks a little worse for wear. The courier company was also useless and kept them in a box in the warehouse for a whole week, which can’t have been very good for them either.

Grow little trees!

I’m just having my doubts that such small trees will be able to produce sufficient fruit for my peach and nectarine loving family.

J with the rhubarb and grape

The rhubarb crown and bare-root grape vine arrived today. Like many of my fruit trees, I ordered them from Daleys. I’m really impressed with the Flame seedless grape in particular – it’s quite a substantial plant for a very reasonable price – $12.90

For the rhubarb, I decided on the variety Victoria based on taste, but I’m concerned it isn’t very red. I can probably squeeze another crown in, so I may pick up another (redder) variety at some stage.

I took the crown out of its bag, and it looks pretty substantial. Though I’m concerned now looking at these pictures that I’ve actually planted it upside down – I’m sure that I can see a green leaf at the “bottom”.


Rhubarb 'Victoria' crown

The rhubarb crown has gone into Bed B, right in the back corner towards the rose bed and closest to the house. It’s not going to get a lot of sun there, but rhubarb should cope in low light just fine, and because it’s perennial I didn’t want to devote a precious sunny position to it.

Flame seedless grape root system

I ordered the flame seedless grape against the advice of Daleys, who suggest that it won’t thrive in a humid coastal environment like Sydney. We really love to eat flame seedless grapes though, so I thought I’d try it and see. When I pulled it out of the bag I was really impressed by the extensive root system – if this guy doesn’t thrive I’ll have to choice but to admit my climate is all wrong.

I’ve been thinking about the best location for the grape vine and not coming to any great conclusions. Today though I concluded that along the front bed is my best bet. I decided to plant it right in the middle, and if it grows well I’ll train it in both directions along a wire, which will act as a natural front fence.

Watering the grape in

I planted it right in the middle of Bed A (behind the suedes and turnips) and watered it in thoroughly.

I’m really very excited about its potential – the kids love red seedless grapes.

So tomorrow I have another job.

Digging up some rhubarb.

Stupid me.