Saturday, December 4, 2010

Tropical paradise

Ten years of drought and suddenly Melbourne is a tropical wonderland. Kangaroo paws that had looked like couch grass for three years stand erect and bloom profusely. Poas wave in the sky above my head. Everything's exploding. Don't remember seeing so much green since I lived in New Zealand. It seems, sometimes, like a different country to the scorched brown earth we're used to.
It buckets down. Floods. Then the sun comes out hot and strong. Then it buckets again.
It's not all good news. The onions hate it. They have got far too much water and have grown thick necks, like rugby front rowers. Not a good look in an onion. The early summer blossoms are regularly pounded into the ground by torrential downpours, just as everything looks lovely.
The snails love it, but they are more than outweighed by the frogs pobblebonking through the evenings. The weeds love it, but we can't complain about green growth when it's what we've wanted for years.
And we - well, we just can't get used to it.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

... and back again

A few weeks ago I wrote:
One minute I was hiding the citrus pots from frost. The next, I'm out in the garden in a t-shirt, watering the bloody things.

But yesterday I had to run outside IN THE SNOW (and in pyjamas and gum boots) and drag the citrus pots back under the eaves. We've never had actual snow here before. Not much but enough to feel special

Then there was hail. There was torrential rain.

The spring blossom took a pounding so I fear for this year's crops of pears and cherries.  The new acres of mulch are nicely watered in. I can't finish the whipper-snipping, because I'll just make grass pesto.

So that's why we don't plant tomatoes until after Cup Day. That, and because my Uncle Phil always said so. And he was right.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Spring, spring, spring

Oh, the farmyard is busy
In a regular tizzy
And the obvious reason
Is because of the season.
Ma Nature's lyrical
in her yearly miracle -
spring, spring, spring.

Tragic as it is that I remember the words to every song in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, they are appropriate. One minute I was hiding the citrus pots from frost. The next, I'm out in the garden in a t-shirt, watering the bloody things.

Spring's busting out all around - we have our first bluebells, freesias, sheets of forget-me-nots, Mexican orange blossom, actual orange blossom, banksia roses, cherry and apricot blossom, and late wattles. The first pale red leaves are emerging on the maple tree (formerly known as a stick). The first rose buds.

We also, of course, have had our first aphids, first blowfly, no doubt the first snakes stirring, and the first locusts are hatching up north.

Then there is the start of bushfire clearing season, and the thigh-high weeds which - at least momentarily - make one long for the good old days when rain didn't ever fall.

It's kinda daunting from this end. But at least it's warm.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Winter? Dull? Where?

It's a myth that winter is a tedious time in the garden.
OK, you aren't out sunning yourselves on the grass, eating tomatoes warm off the vine, or surrounded by fragrant rose petals, but it doesn't have to be a time of boredom and gloom.

First, if you have deciduous trees, you get to see the structure of your garden: the architecture of the treetops; the bark and buds and sky beyond.

Then there are the many flowers - some subtle, like hellebores, some party animals such as narcissus - that take the opportunity to shine when the sun's behind the clouds and you really need a spot of brightness.

If your garden's feeling a bit dull, take a walk around the neighbourhood and see what's in flower so you can plan for next year and the years ahead. This is what I found in bloom this morning on my walk.

In my garden:
White hardenbergia
Daffodils, Earlicheer jonquils, and miniature daffs
Hellebores (Soft pinks, greens and cream)
Grevilleas (red)
Hyacinths (blue and pink)
Muscari (grape hyacinths in a deep blue)
Correa (white, cream and pinky green)
Light mauve miniature (Algerian) iris
That bright yellow daisy thing whose name I can never remember
Emu bushes (red and yellow)
Swan River pea.
I also had some lovely red beetroot and rainbow chard in the veggie patch, along with bright yellow flowers on the rapini (but only because I forgot to pick it). And cymbidium orchids in various stages of spiking or fading.

There are things that are more or less always in flower. Here, that includes:
Penstemons (red)
Westringia (purple is year-round, white not quite so)
Daisies of various sorts
Dark purple bearded iris

In other people's gardens I saw:
Purple hardenbergia
Violets galore (mine aren't out yet)
Kangaroo paws in various shades of red
Native hibiscus
Camellia (mostly in nasty pinks, but also some nice ones)
Early flowering cherries
Flowering quince
That horrible South African purple pea thing
And lots of magnolias only a week or so away from opening.

See? Virtually spring already.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

On yellow

We think of yellow as a summer colour, but in fact around here it's the colour of winter.
Lucky, that, because in the dead of winter we all need the hope (will spring really come again?) and splash of warmth that yellow brings.
Again, we think of many yellow flowers as emblems of spring - the wattle along the roadside, the daffodils in an old farm yard, sheets of jonquils in the orchard. But in fact they all tend to make an appearance in winter, just when we need them, along with yellow and creamy daisies and irises, grevilleas, wintersweet (though mine died over summer so it's more brown than yellow), correas and even my new favourite yellow emu bush.
So too the lemon tree hangs heavy with fruit just when you need the hot lemon and honey drinks to get you through a winter cold.
Isn't nature clever?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


After several weeks' delay I finally turned the first sod in my new allotment in the community garden down by the river.
And what a joy it was.
Drive in the fork and gorgeous loamy stone-free soils simply lifts up and turns over. Just like it should. I nearly cried with relief.
Every spadeful I turn here in the bush backyard is a hard-fought battle with hard or sticky clay, splinters of shale, and crap from the house construction forty years ago.
In the new patch, however, it's well-loved soil in a raised bed, far from eucalyptus roots and safe from rabbits.
So I divided the rhubarb in my backyard and took three new crowns along to plant in the allotment, plus broadbeans and onions to sow. Needless to say, when I got there, I found that the clump of rhubarb already in the corner of the patch needs dividing as well. I think I'll have to start a rhubarb farm.
I'll leave much of the rest of the patch fallow for the winter until there's no danger of frost, and then plant some spuds. I don't know what's been planted there previously so it may need a rest.
It really feels like luxury to have so much room and so few soil hassles.
The community garden is very well set up, too, as I suppose they all are. It's a growing (pardon the pun) movement, but of course allotment growing is a traditional post-war past-time in Britain, where people have such small yards.
Our community garden has water tanks and a glasshouse (though it doesn't seem to be in use at present), a shed with a great range of communal tools, a gazebo and cubby house for a bit of relaxation, and even a barbecue for working bees.
If you have spare seeds, you add them to the seed exchange box and share them around - I tried out some different sorts of onions to mix with those I'd brought along. There are also collective herb and fruit plantings around about, and a gorgeous compost system which made me deeply jealous.
So if you have trouble growing food in your backyard, or would like the experience of communal growing, a community garden is a great option. They are dotted all over the place, but especially in the cities.

Other things to plant or sow during June include:
- Asparagus
- Garlic
- Silver beet or rainbow chard
- Cabbage
- Leeks
- Lettuce.
It's also time to prune roses, cut back perennials (be brave!) and move or plant any deciduous trees or shrubs such as bare-root fruit trees and roses - more roses.

Friday, June 11, 2010


No time for gardening for the last few weeks, let alone blogging about it.
Normal transmission resumes next week.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

On purple

Not long after we moved into our house, and well after a great deal of garden planning had taken place, I was shocked to learn that my partner hates purple flowers.
How is that possible?
I don't know, but then since I can't bear a great many pink flowers I guess I have to concede the point, especially given that irises, lavender, rosemary, violets and pansies are exempted from the ban. And some purples are really too harsh - metallic, somehow, like that nasty little hebe I pulled out this afternoon.
But it came to light after I had planted the indigenous climber Hardenbergia all along the driveway. (I didn't own up, but luckily the rabbits ate them all and destroyed the evidence.)
Rather more disturbing was the fact that all my life I have wanted a Tibouchina, and was thrilled to find not one but two here when we bought the house.
"They'll have to come out," I was told, in no uncertain terms.

Well, three years later they're still there, hanging on, and instead of trying not to be noticed keep putting on a fabulous show and spreading deep purple petals all over the place, and attracting far too much attention to their purpleness.
No flying under the radar for a Tibouchina. And why would you? Flaunt it, I say.
But for new planting, things can get a little touch and go. After all, the line between blue and purple in the flower world is very fine sometimes. I am occasionally heard to claim: "But it's blue! Honest."
An indigo salvia is, apparently, on the wrong side of the borderline. On the other hand, it turns out bulbs of any kind are also exempt, which is lucky, as I have a weakness for crocuses.

I love a deep purple (iris, say) near bright red (penstemon or salvia, perhaps), or mixed in with a sunshine yellow.
Monty Don claims in The Sensuous Garden that purple "allows other colours to show through more powerfully". Sometimes. On the other hand, in Peaceful Gardens, Stephanie Donaldson recommends a mixture of blue, purple, white and pink to create a relaxing, soothing palette.
I often find the purples in indigenous plants (besides the odd emu bush) to be a rich, deep bluey-purple, or a soft mauve (Westringia), which work beautifully with the blue-grey of the eucalypts in a bush backyard.
The Westringia seems to go unnoticed by the Purple Planting Monitor.
For now.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

On white

I plant a lot of white: plants with white flowers; plants with silver foliage. Why?

- Light coloured foliage can give a sense of depth to your view of a garden
- It is easy on the eye and cooling, especially on hot summer days
- It helps blend flowers and foliage colour that almost, but not quite, go together, such as different reds, crimsons and scarlets; or purple and blue
- It works well as a contrast with dominant colours such as a deep red
- It can spotlight dark corners or shaded spots under trees
- Plants with silver or grey foliage tend to cope well with summer heat and dry conditions
- White works beautifully in the evenings
- In its own right, white is a glorious thing.

(Above: Japanese windflowers - Anemone x hybrida - in a dark spot under a rock bank)

In The Sensuous Garden, Monty Don points out that most white flowers are not actually very close to pure white at all. Anyone who has ever had the misfortune of trying to choose a white paint from a colour card will understand this.

"I'll just paint it white," you think. "Simple." Oh no. No, no, no. There are whole colour cards in your paint shop of different shades of white; some yellow, some verging towards blue or pink; some warm; some cool; some cream, ivory, chalk, almost yellow.

(Above: White valerian mixing with red penstemon and English lavender)

Plants are the same, and of course when it comes to white flowers you are also dealing with something that is, let's face it, almost entirely green with white dots (and even those dots might be dotted with yellow or splashed with red). Convulvulus cneorum, otherwise known as rabbit's dessert around here, is both a lovely soft silver foliage with sharp white flowers, but more often you will find the lovely white flowers set against a deep green - for example on a Cistus ladaniferus (Rock Rose), on which you also get a deep red splodge.

You will have heard and seen photos, no doubt, of Vita Sackville-West's White Garden at Sissinghurst, with its white, cream, silver and grey plants. It wasn't the first single palette garden, but it is certainly one of the most famous, and it spawned a generation of copycats (fair enough, too), though this has made some gardeners wary of using much white.

But don't be afraid. Splash a bit around, like eau de cologne, and enjoy the light.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Worst case scenario planning

Just realised something: after months spent clearing leaf litter and debris in a vain attempt to become fire ready, I had completely gone off gardening. (Don't worry, it's just a phase.)

The bush backyard had become a chore, almost an enemy to be conquered, and as one can never really be fire ready, it seemed we had been defeated.

So I surrendered, somewhere in late January, and have barely lifted a finger since.

That said, summer isn't the best time for gardening in these parts, anyway, because the ground is like concrete and the days are simply too hot to do much. You can't plant anything, all you do is keep things alive. It's a bit like winter is for gardeners in the northern hemisphere, or the wet season in the tropics (although in the tropics, I gather, most of your effort goes into preventing plants from growing too much or where they aren't wanted).
Here there's just lots of watering in the early mornings and the occasional dabble in the veggie patch of an evening, to keep production ticking along.

A tangential realisation is that much of our gardening media, and many books, are all about worst case scenarios. Doesn't matter whether it's about indigenous plants or edible plants or exotics. You get a description of the plant and then a long list of all the terrible things that can go wrong, and another list of all the things you have to do to it over its lifecycle. As if you don't have a life cycle yourself (some of these authors clearly spend more time in their gardens than any normal person, and forget that most of us have a few hours a week, at most, spare for this sort of shenanigans).

An example: lots of articles or books about summer fruit will basically tell you not to bother trying to grow apricots because they are too hard.
Let's just think about that. When I was a kid, lots of suburban houses had an apricot tree in the backyard. The fruit was so plentiful everyone made jars and jars of jam. We had them in our lunch boxes. Sometimes they were a little bug-spotted or small, but still delicious.

Now you buy a handful of apricots for some exorbitant price once or twice a summer, and make jam from the dried fruit because it would be ridiculously expensive to do otherwise.

How did we get here, from there?

Is it really so hard to grow an apricot tree? Clearly, no. Our parents and grandparents didn't have Dynamic Lifter or Pyrethrum or Seasol. They didn't have new hardy varieties and modern rootstocks. At most they had a few cow pats from time to time and some hideous chemical sprays (but only the serious growers used them). Most of them just let nature take her course.

The main issue with apricots boils down to the fact that they blossom early, so the chance of frost at the critical moment is greater than other summer fruits.

So what?

You read on: it says you have to run out every cold night and swathe your tree in horticultural fleece in winter and net it in summer. You have to spray it with this and sprinkle it with that. You have to prune it and coddle it and hold its hand.
You see these pages of instructions and threats and think at the very least: I'd rather buy a bag of apricots for five bucks once a year. It just sounds too hard.

Well, bollocks.

If you love apricots, grow a bloody tree. It's not that hard. Know that once every few years you might not get a crop because of a badly timed frost. You'll cope. Every other year you'll have a tree full of fruit.

It's the same with everything. Sure, you can fuss about and spend your whole life dead-heading and fertilising and applying this or that.

Or you can just help nature along from time to time. Most plants don't want anything more.

If the birds help themselves just a little too much, the next year you can bung a net over the top. If something starts to dramatically affect its chances of survival or production, then, sure, intervene. (That's when you check back with the article or book for a bit of guidance.) Chuck it a handful of poo or slow-release pellets once in a while. Cut off dead growth if there's any.

And let it live its happy little productive life as best it can.

Who could ask for anything more?

PS On the Italian Food Safari last night, my tomato theory was upheld. They like it dry. It's also better for the flavour as it releases the sugar in the fruit. So there's my scientific evidence: Guy Grossi says so.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

I have issues

I have tomato issues.
I also have tomato theories. They run like this: tomatoes are a bit like fine wine grapes. They like a bit of rough treatment. No molly-coddling.

Tomatoes need regular water and the occasional feed but what they want most is sun.
I don't hold with the school of thought that pours water onto tomato vines. Even less with the greenhouse-bred sort. I know I'm not alone in this.
I reckon tomatoes like it dry. It toughens up the plants and gives body and flavour to the fruit.

Many of the diseases and pests to which tomatoes fall prey can be triggered by too much water, or indeed too much fertiliser, which leads to a great many leaves and plants like Jack's beanstalk, but fewer fruiting flowers.
And anyway, I'm too lazy and there isn't enough water to keep them moist.

So then we get these sudden downpours. Not just one, but several. It's a shock to humans, since we aren't used to seeing that much water falling from the sky at once anymore, but it's more of a shock to the tomatoes.

Going from dry to sodden can have all sorts of effects:
  • Skin splits
  • Fruit taste diminishes
  • Split fruits attract fruit fly and all sorts of nasty things
  • Mouldy fruit
  • Fungal infections.
That's what's happened here, anyhow.
Too much rain is worse than not enough. The water somehow makes the tomatoes watery. I have no scientific evidence for this whatsoever, besides my tastebuds. But there you go.

While we can't do much about the downpours, besides harvest as much of the water as possible for later use, we can:
  • Remove fruit with split skins or any kind of damage and give them to the chooks
  • Harvest any ripening fruit and let them redden on a kitchen windowsill inside, especially if you expect a storm
  • Spray with garlic & pyrethrum if fruit fly or other nasties are about
  • Remove any dead or dying branches, and also any leaves or shoots tangled up in the centre of the plant, to let air circulate
  • Use a fungicide if you must but harvest a good supply first
  • Re-tie the stems so none are sagging.
Given that it's well and truly autumn, if your tomatoes have finished setting new fruit, you can actually pull out the plants and hang them up (upside down) somewhere dry to let the fruit ripen of its own accord.

By the way, at 7.30 on SBS's Italian Food Safari tonight (1/4), Maeve O'Meara gets stuck into tomato day with an Italian family and it's all about tomatoes. As it should be.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


I have a theory (not my own, needless to say) that the best veggie patch simply contains the things you eat the most, and some things that just taste a million times better when homegrown.
I would never buy silver beet, for example, unless I was desperate to bake a spanakopita. But home grown silver beet - or rainbow chard - is like a different creature altogether.
So when planning your edible garden, you can grade things in terms of how many times a week you and your household eat them. I like Sarah Raven's idea of having three grades (daily, weekly and occasional consumption) and then you plan your percentage of space and plantings around those ratios, especially for the annuals. Most of your space and attention goes to the food you eat most often.
Of course there are some plants (rhubarb and globe artichokes, for example) that take up a consistent amount of space but they do pay their way. Perennial herbs are the same.
So at this time of year we spend most of our time and water on tomatoes, salads and basil because that's what we eat daily. We devote a fair amount of space to eggplants and raspberries, and I've been trying to keep a fair bit of beetroot underway because we can then eat it year round.
All planned. Mostly works, although I haven't been so great at the successive salads sowing.
But why O why then do I get sucked into trying the odd new thing?
I had the best of intentions with the Warrigal greens. Perennial spinach has got to be a good thing, and then it seems to be bush tucker both here and in NZ, indeed it's often called New Zealand spinach, so it seemed like a good idea. I should have known when the Kiwi told me she'd never heard of it. But I read all about it in a few places, got some seeds, it came up reliably and I was sure I was onto a good thing.
Nobody told me it tastes like soap.
Disgusting stuff. Don't bother growing it.
Finally (too late) I read the sad truth in Stephanie Alexander's Kitchen Garden Companion, the new Bible of the Kitchen Garden. Stephanie can barely muster enough words to bother encouraging people to grow it.
Then I had read about pepinos. Those Gardening Australia blokes are always going on about them, so I was a bit curious, and one promised they taste like rock melon. Sounds gorgeous, right? So I saw a plant at the Kevin Heinz Centre sale and thought it would be a fine investment. Lavished months of care and water on it. Harvested my first one yesterday.
Tastes like cucumber.
I hate cucumber.
So I look it up (too late - see a theme developing here?) in the Bible of home fruit growing, Susan Lyle's Discovering Fruit and Nuts and discovered, you'll be astonished to learn, that they taste like cucumber. Sweet cucumber, but cucumber, nevertheless.
Morals of the story?
Grow what you like to eat.
Experimentation sucks.
Check with a woman first.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


Pretty warm today and back on bushfire alert because it just feels like one of those afternoons.
The lettuce seedlings are lying down flat and, frankly, who can blame them? They needed an afternoon sprinkle as well as a morning splash.
But on the other hand, I have my first Autumn Crocus (Sternbergia lutea) of the season, and a lovely thing it is, too.

I'm hoping that the passionfruit will finally set some fruit - it has tried, and we've had a million of those spectacular flowers, but the tiny fruits keep poaching on the vine on hot days. With the cooler nights, we might just be in luck.

A Belladonna lily has popped up twenty feet away from where I was expecting it to appear.
Gardening is often so wonderfully random.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

So close

It's so close to autumn I can feel it. There's moisture in the air of an evening, early morning fog, the odd downpour, lovely sunshine and cool nights. What could be better? All that and it's still February.
So we have the gorgeous autumnal feel plus the summer harvest.
I've noticed how this year, as the garden becomes more productive, and I get better at managing it, that the bounty has led into cooking things I wouldn't normally bother with. Babaganouj, for example. Usually just buy it. It's a thousand times better fresh. Same with pesto.
Not only do I make these things - I feel like making them, feel like engaging, feel like experimenting and creating more than the usual staples.
So I have a weekend coming up of jam making and pesto preparation. I have my dozens of jars. I have my fresh new lids in a range of sizes and colours from Green Living. I have more basil than anyone could ever wish for.
But I also have plenty of garden jobs to do.

February garden tasks:
- Summer prune and feed for roses so they come back into bloom in autumn
- Move and/or divide bearded irises to encourage flowers next season
- Spray gardenias for scale (Pest Oil or white oil)
- Spray grevilleas to deal with caterpillar plague (garlic and pyrethrum or Dipel if it's very serious)
- Keep down the weeds that spring up after the rainshowers
- Fend off those bloody rabbits again
- Keep watering even if it seems to have cooled down - there are weeks of no rain and quite drying winds
- Order spring bulbs (this takes hours - of brochure gazing and day dreaming)
- Sort out bulbs dug up last year and get ready to replant
- Plan new planting and get in early with the plant purchases so they have plenty of time to get established
- Try new assault on the Portuguese millipedes (wit's end nearly reached)
- Prick out the self-seeding coriander.

I've also sown more lettuce and beetroot in the propagator, along with some of the winter tomatoes from Burke's Backyard magazine - all the way from Siberia and worth a try.

- Pears
- Tomatoes
- Eggplants
- Basil
- Autumn raspberries
- Rhubarb (there is always rhubarb)
- Rocket
- Lettuce.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Harvest recipes and family traditions

Got a glut? How fabulous.
You might be surprised to know how many vegetables, beside the usual suspects, can be frozen: tomatoes, for example, can just be thrown straight into the freezer. They'll never grace a salad again but are fine for cooking - even cherry tomatoes.

Same with passionfruit. And onions, although slice them first. Eggplants, zucchini, etc, should be sauteed lightly then cooled before freezing. Leafy vegetables need to be blanched in boiling water or preferably steamed, then cooled.

But this year I have gone a bit mad on the bottling, for the first time. It's a family tradition, in a way, but I'd never done it myself. So I started with...

My great-aunt Myrtle kept us all supplied with home-grown, home-bottled beetroot for years and it beat all hell out of the canned stuff.
I just recently inherited her recipe books and I can see from her notes that one year she made 39 jars.
I made about six. But my next batch of beetroot is still growing so it ain't over yet.
First, remove the tops (you can cook these like spinach, with olive oil, lemon and garlic), wash the beetroot, but try not to damage the skin. Leave the little roots - if you cut them off at this point, it will bleed colour out.
Then boil the beetroot. Mine are smallish and take about 45 minutes. Drain and let them cool enough to handle.
For the next bit, I suggest you don some rubber gloves or you'll look like an alien for hours later.
Take the skin off each beetroot with your fingers - it'll just squeeze off. Then you just put them into the jars, in whatever configuration you like: chunks, whole if they are baby beets, or slices if you want to pretend they are Golden Circle. Chop off the tops and roots unless you like them for aesthetic reasons.

Top the jars up with whatever quantity you need of the following mixture:
- Half a cup water
- Third cup red wine or sherry vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- Half teaspoon of salt
- A few grinds of pepper.


Raspberry Jam
I remember traipsing all over the place as a kid, collecting blackberries in our buckets, in great neighbourhood gangs, and my mum stirring up huge quantities of jam over the stove.
It's a bit sad you can't collect blackberries now in case they've been sprayed. It was nasty work but fun in a way. I'm thinking I might invest in some non-invasive blackberries next season.
I have to admit my first batch of jam was cheating because it wasn't with my own produce. My raspberry plants haven't fruited yet and even if they had they wouldn't last uneaten long enough to be made into jam.
(I was inspired by my aunt's efforts, sampled at Christmas. I won't go into my entire family tree, but this is Marls, a different aunt - just as great in spirit but not technically a "great-aunt". And a professional home economist.)
Anyway, I used frozen raspberries, as she had, because they are a great deal cheaper. You can get them at supermarkets but since then I've noticed plenty of farmgate producers offer them, and that's probably nicer fruit.
You can do it in the microwave or on the stove. I used the microwave but frankly it was pretty slow. Depends on your machine.

This is what I did:
- 500 grams raspberries
- 500 grams sugar (I used jam setting sugar)
- Juice of one lime

Chuck it all in a heavy microwave-proof jug and stir. Bung it on High for two minutes then stir again. Keep doing that until it sets.

Mine was pretty slow, so next time I'll just do it the old-fashioned way, stirring it at a rapid boil in a saucepan on the stove.

How do you know it's set?
Put a saucer in the freezer and after a few goes (I should think at least 8 minutes) put a teaspoon of jam on the saucer. Tip the saucer and give it a little push with your finger. If it wrinkles, it's set. (Lick saucer.)

That's it. Splosh into jars through your groovy jar funnel (see below) or spoon it in and get jam everywhere. Your choice.

Traditional tomato sauce
Auntie Myrt also made a mean tomato sauce. The odd bottle would fizz when you opened it, from fermentation, but apart from that it was inspired.
So this year my cousin Al and I decided to reinstitute the tradition.
Al once asked Myrt what her secret was: she answered, "SauceSetta from Coles", with which profound disappointment we have lived for years. But her old recipe books tell a different story.
So this is the recipe we used (slightly adapted from good old Cookery the Australian Way) and it turns out to be almost exactly the same as Myrt's (hers included apples, which may be why it turned into cider).
But, to our utter astonishment, it's bloody sensational.

- 5 kilo ripe tomatoes
- 1 clove garlic
- 6 pimento (allspice)
- 2 teaspoons mustard seeds
- 12 cloves
- Eighth teaspoon cayenne pepper
- Two and a half cups red wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons salt
- One and a half cups sugar

Wash the tomatoes, cut in half, take out core thingy at the top. Cook them with the garlic and spices until they are pulp, stirring frequently.
The book says to strain it through a colander but we decided life was too short and Bamixed the hell out of it. (That did mean we had to fish out the pimentos later, though.)
Add the other ingredients and cook, stirring frequently for 90 minutes. Ours took about an extra 20 minutes. You know when it's right when you put a dob on a plate and it doesn't all separate into liquid or fruit solids.
Funnel it into sterilised bottles, and Bob's your uncle. Which indeed he is, in both our cases.

I can see myself making a year's supply of pesto over the next few weeks. Happily, it's very easy. This is sort of Stephanie Alexander's recipe from Kitchen Garden Companion, but it's pretty standard. You can also make it with rocket, or with coriander and cashews - rather than pine nuts - though I don't hold with that bollocks.

- 1 cup basil (cram as much into that cup as you can)
- 80 grams good Parmesan, grated
- Half a cup good extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic
- Quarter cup pine nuts.
- Salt (also good)

Stick everything but the cheese (new band name?) into the blender and push that button until it's all smooth. You might need to stick a spatula into it a few times. Of course, you will take your finger off the Pulse button first, won't you?
Add the cheese and pulse just a little moment longer.

When it's in the jar, push it down carefully so there are no air pockets and cover it with a layer of olive oil.
Keep it in the fridge. We top up the layer of oil if we use any, but frankly it gets used pretty fast around here.

Jars, bottles and lids
You can recycle old jam jars or pasta sauce jars or anything, but the research says you need to get clean lids, especially if you're making something that needs to last for months.
You can order lids from Green Living Australia (and all sorts of other contraptions too.) I got a packet from my favourite nursery, Bulleen Art & Garden.
You can also get quite good jars from The Reject Shop at half the price ($2 or $3 depending on size) you'll find them in homewares stores.
Of course any Op Shop will have a million jars too. That's where I finally found enough bottles for the sauce. These also had to have new rubber sealing rings (from Mitre10).

Preparing jars and bottles
All jars and bottles, even if they look clean, need to be washed again (chuck 'em through the dishwasher) and sterilised before you put anything in them. For many things, this is simple.
Boil up a stockpot full of water and stick the jars and lids in it, then leave them to drain dry before you put jam or anything else in them.

Now, I have a theory: if something's worth doing, it's worth having accessories. Lots of accessories. A good-sized freezer is a start.

For any sort of preserving you will need a big stock pot with a heavy base. We used Aunty Myrt's pot for the tomato sauce, mostly for sentimental reasons, but agreed a big preserving pan for the bottle-boiling would have been a great deal easier.

A batter jug also makes life easier, but a mixing bowl is OK if you have a decent funnel. But I love my batter jug and use it for everything. Except batter.

My jam-making aunt showed me with great glee a jar funnel she had picked up somewhere: a stainless steel funnel with a wide spout that fits into the jar lid so stuff doesn't go everywhere. A beautiful thing. I scoured the world for one and finally found it on sale (about $10) in David Jones.

Jam will start to set when it hits 105 degrees Celsius. So a candy thermometer (about $8) can help.

I also found after the first round of jar scalding in boiling water that I needed a bit of help, so I bought a pair of tongs with silicon grabbers (whatever the technical term is) which made life so much easier. You'll also want nearby a few clean tea towels for helping manage the hot jars and lids.

Of course there is no end to the other accessories one could get, or you can improvise if you don't have a gear fetish, but these are the basics.

Excellent advice and more recipes are available on my new favourite site: Nonsuch Kitchen Gardens.

Good luck and buon appetito!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Things I learned this summer (so far)

1. If you live on a block full of gum trees you will never ever be "fire ready".
2. It's a myth that possums won't climb any wire that wobbles: they will if there are ripening pears on the other side.
3. Chooks don't like it when it's 44 degrees.
4. Seedlings with daggy old labels from some old family grower bear four times as many eggplants as those with groovy branding.
5. You have to plant three times as many peas as you think you'd ever need or you only get a dozen at once.
6. No matter how tough you think your favourite loppers are, when faced with a 40-year-old rambling rose you may be better off walking to the shed and getting your pruning saw (this is much faster than finding spare parts for your favourite lopper).
7. Never buy a cheap line trimmer.
8. In fact, if you have a bush backyard, don't even bother with a line trimmer. Spend more money on a bladed brush cutter.
9. (See 7, above) Don't throw out your receipts.
10. Don't get too excited when the Council erects signs announcing fire prevention works along your road - erecting the sign is the only tangible thing that will happen
11. Chain saws rock.
12. Bushfire fuel reduction is best started in winter, so you don't spend every precious spring and early summer weekend missing out on proper gardening.
13. Blue-tongues look pretty damn scary in the twilight.
14. Just keep feeding citrus. They eat more than you.
15. Pindone works.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Gardening in pyjamas

38 degrees yesterday. 31 today. 41 tomorrow.
So it's out early with the buckets of leftover shower and kitchen water, plus a little squirt from the tank. (I fear I may have been a bit profligate with the tank water early in the summer.)
The seedlings are suffering: lettuce, chard, beetroot. The citrus are sulking. The tomatoes and eggplants are growing five inches a day.
Like everyone else in Melbourne and half of Victoria, I spend an inordinate amount of time in the early mornings lugging buckets about and dribbling water rather meanly onto priority plants.
For me, food is the priority, followed by relatively new plantings that might need a very occasional helping hand, and a couple of young grevilleas that got inundated by caterpillars and all their new growth chewed. Everything else just has to cope - or not. They mostly cope, because I just don't buy or plant anything that has high water needs.
It's far too hot for gardening the rest of the day, so the early morning is also the best time for trimming, spraying, and of course harvesting. Evening is the time for deadheading, vaguely staring at things and pottering.
This morning I brought in the last of the tree onions. I just love how they are known as Egyptian Walking Onions. I have visions of little onions walking like Egyptians all over the veggie patch, singing happily to themselves.
But I'm not letting them walk - that is, normally they would bend over so the tiny bulblets on the ends of the stems touch the ground and plant themselves. I've put the bulblets in a string bag for planting later in the year as I have to rotate them to another part of the patch.
The early morning watering and pottering means I am always to be seen gardening in pyjamas and things (plus hat and sunnies on weekends). It's a good look. Luckily nobody can see me. At least, only the odd local walking their dog along the river. The other week one of them surprised me - he'd lost his dog and shouted out to me to ask if I'd seen it. I was in the chook house in my dressing gown at the time.
At present I'm reading Monty Don's gorgeous Ivington Diaries, his journal of several years of building and maintaining a beautiful and productive English country garden. His entries for January and February involve frost, rain, floods and snow and not being able to get out into the garden in the daytime. Mine involve bushfire fuel raking and the scent of lavender and hot tomatoes. Last entry I read, he was pricking out rocket seedlings in the potting shed early one morning. I just chuck a handful of rocket seeds on the ground and off they go.
It's a world away from here - on every possible level.
But on the other hand, we're both gardening in our pyjamas.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Weeding really can get you down

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
seem to me all the uses of this world.
Fie on't! O fie! 'Tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in Nature
possess it merely.

~ Hamlet