Friday, December 21, 2007

Palm oil - 20 December 2007

A Greenpeace survey team walk through a fire devastated forest in the Riau region. Palm oil companies are clearing forest and peatlands with fires in preparation for oil palm plantations. (Image from Greenpeace website:

As if you didn't have enough reasons already to limit purchases of packaged products from the supermarket, here is another very good one.

Palm oil is used in a wide variety of packaged food and some other products (such as cosmetics) available in our supermarkets and stores: for example, Kit Kats and Pringles. In ingredients lists, it is often listed as just 'vegetable oil'. Global consumption of palm oil is predicted to more than double by 2030 and to triple by 2050. While over 70 per cent ends up in food, palm oil is also used in the biofuels industry.

Large areas of rainforest in Indonesia, largely in Sumatra, are being cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. We all know that forest clearing is a major contributor to global warming. In this instance, the effect is even greater because these forests are peat forests, and peat is an amazing carbon store. A UN Environment Programme report on peatlands, biodiversity and climate change, released at the recent Bali Climate Change Conference, states that "peat is the largest and most efficient land-based store of carbon, and the world's second largest carbon store after the oceans."

Land clearing for palm oil involves draining and burning the peat, releasing large amounts of greenhouse gas. Greenpeace estimates that while Indonesia's peatlands represent just 0.1 per cent of the Earth's land mass, their destruction for palm oil constitues a staggering 4 per cent of global emissions.

Companies such as Unilever, Cadburys and Nestles represent a significant proportion of the global palm oil trade. Despite participating in a voluntary scheme for sustainable use of palm oil, they still rely on palm oil suppliers who destroy rainforests and convert peatlands into plantations.

For more info on palm oil see:



As well as exercising your consumer power by limiting your purchases of packaged food from these companies, you could also make a donation to Greepeace who are doing excellent work on this issue, including campaigning and lobbying for a moratorium on forest and peatland clearing, as well as on-the-ground work bearing witness to the ongoing destruction in Indonesia.

I'm sorry to bear such un-Christmassy news, but I think this is something to be aware of.

Marie Antoinette

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Avian war - Friday 14 December 2007

In November, when the callistemon at the back of the city garden was in full flower, the bees went crazy for it. Happy buzzing sounds filled the garden. Honeyeaters flocked to the tree, feasting on the nectar.

But that was then, and this is now. In those days I harboured tender-hearted feelings towards birds in my garden. Now the blackbirds, mynahs and starlings have moved in and . . . . .IT'S WAR.

It seems I've created soil that is so attractive to worms that it is also a magnet for birds that wreak mayhem and destruction. There is no point sowing anything direct and no point planting seedlings without putting netting or wire over them. The birds roam through the garden pecking at the soil to get the worms and scattering soil and seedlings everywhere.

I've tried a wide variety of deterrents, most of which work for a short time before the birds wise up. Tactics I've tried with limited success include flash tape, hanging CDs off stakes, a blow up ballon with (according to the manufacturer) "terror eyes". This last has become a running joke in the house - you can almost hear the birds' sarcasm: "oooh, I'm terrified". The only thing that really works is exclusion: netting and wire cages, and putting spikes or sticks all over the ground so they can't land. These strategies are of course a pain in the bum to implement and once in they make harvesting a chore, not to mention ruining the aesthetics. Oh Cruel World
Any tips for buggering off pesky blackbirds, starlings and mynahs would be appreciated. I'm getting so desperate, I've even considered buying a sonic repeller but that seems like overkill for courtyard veggie garden! A slingshot is, however, looking like an increasingly attractive option.

On the bright side
In happier news, the city garden is looking lush and pretty and is offering up summer bounty in the form of butter lettuce, rocket, zucchinis, the remainder of the spring spinach, and purple king beans. Of course the trusty old chard is still coming on - there's so much of that that I chop it up and feed it to the dogs - I put it in the blender with some oil to get it chopped up fine and then I mix it well with fresh meat. The finely chopped chard covers the meat so the dogs have to eat it - otherwise they just eat the meat and leave their greens.

The purple king beans are a truly a wondrous discovery. They are good to look at in the garden, with a small purple flower and leaves with a dark purplish tinge. The beans themselves are a rather startling purple but when you cook 'em, they go green, and they taste scrumptious: sweeter than your average long bean, with a nutty flavour.

Am loving the butter lettuce too - goes well with shaved parmesan. Here's the meal I had last night - all veggies courtesy of the good earth in my garden.
Before this in October, my partner and I dined on the remaining peas, broad beans, spinach, beetroot, and loads of parsley which mostly went into tabbouleh. And, of course, chard, always the chard.

I think I've tried at least 5 new broad bean recipes, including a really simple dip that is just about cooking them, adding olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper and magimixing it all up. This dip is yummy on crusty bread.

In October my partner and I pulled out the olives that we picked off the tree in the front yard last August. We had cured them according to instructions from my partner's uncle who grows olives near Tocumwal in NSW. Unfortunately, ours don't taste too good, which is a disappointment given that the curing process is kind of time-consuming. Anyone got any olive curing hints?

As summer approached, I was pulling out odd shaped beetroots and as time went on, the ones I pulled out seemed to have more white in them. If anyone can explain this or has any plausible theories - bring it on.
Towards the end of spring, I caught our little caramel-coloured sausage-jack russell cross lounging in the parsley and mint bed - it was very cute. She was lying on her back in patch, with the sun on her tummy and her head in the fragrant parsley and mint, breathing deeply.

A trip to central Victoria

In early December my partner and I went on a week's holiday to Daylesford (central Victoria) and surrounds. We kicked off the holiday with a tour of Melliodora, David Holmgren and Su Dennett's permaculture property in Hepburn Springs. A fantastic passive solar house and amazing permaculture garden. Check out the greenhouse at the west end of the house. It is an entry point to the house and the kitchen opens out onto it. When we were there sweet corn seedlings were on the outside wall of the greenhouse, soon to provide shade and climate control.
David Holmgren in the 'house garden' at Melliodora

Greenhouse in the west wing of the Melliodora house

I highly recommend taking one of these tours, which are run once a month on a Sunday. You can do the garden and/or the house.

I was pretty excited to visit the dry composting toilet, located in the garden shed. It was a pleasure to use. When you use a dry composting toilet, you usually have to add sawdust or some other dry chopped matter. This one had a big bucket of dried lavender, presumably harvested from the garden. How cool is that?
Dry composting toilet at Melliodora

I find that most people wrinkle their noses at the idea of composting toilets. For many people its because they have never used one or their only experience with them has been a smelly pit toilet in a national park. But if compost toilets are designed and maintained correctly, they don't smell at all, and they produce excellent compost. Check out this beauty in the Eucadorian eco-lodge, Black Sheep Inn. This site also has a bunch of links and further info about composting toilets and their place in permaculture.

We also visited the Diggers Garden of St Erth at Macdon, which includes some very impressive veggie patches. We both gazed longingly at the lovely berry bounty. I also looked enviously at the undoubtedly scary predator bird replica flying above the main veggie patch, mounted on a long pole and flapping it's wings menacingly. Bet that keeps the bloody blackbirds away.
Raspberries at St Erth

Bird scarer in the edible garden at St Erth

The peninsula
In late September on the peninsula, my father netted his recently espaliered fruit trees, a big operation but already paying off with what is shaping up to be a bumper harvest.

Contractors came in to take down and chip some large eucalypts behind the house and they mixed the chips with chook poo to create a pile of compost for us. Unfortunately, the ratio of chook poo to chips was too high and the pile heated very quickly and then proceeded to burn itself slowly. The mixture was too strong to apply directly as compost - it would have burnt plants - so we've had to content ourselves with spreading it out away from the trunks of trees. I've also taken some back to the inner city patch and mixed it with sugar cane mulch to take some of the heat out.

Pile of chook-poo and woodchips, peninsula

The potatoes I planted in September are doing well, and I've also planted a corn patch (Golden Bantam) but as corn is very water hungry, I'm not sure how it will do without regular watering.
Sweet corn seedlings, peninsula
Composting update
All the bending required to turn the compost in the small side access path in the city garden has proved to be no good for my back. So I've changed tack and have bought a big compost tumbler.

It is designed to make compost the berkeley way - ie. the same way I've been making it up until now. I'm going to use the old purpose-built compost bay to store materials for the tumbler compost. I'll still be visiting the crew at Australian Herb and Fruit Supplies on the corner of my street for a weekly barrow full of veggie waste. Pat, Tim and Louie keep boxes at the front for me - they're just winding up the busy season now. Sometimes I bake them tasty goodies for their morning tea, but they tell me that unless they keep it under lock and key, the other shift staff get the loot!

The crew at Australian Herb & Fruit Supplies
Garden high points
The city garden has just gone through a big growth spurt and the greenery is rampant. It's gone from this in late September:
to this in mid December:

Tommy toes planted against a sunny brick wall are coming along well.

Cucumbers are starting to climb the trellis on the west wall and pumpkins are searching for any space and light they can find. Purple king beans are climbing everywhere - not only on their trellises, but all over the tomatoes, up sunflowers and up jerusalem artichokes. The jerusalem artichokes are going gangbusters. Unfortunately, I seem to have an allergy to the leaves and stalks, which have fine glass-like shards all over them.

Bounty that will be on the table in the next few weeks: tomatoes, more rocket, more beans, cucumbers, pepinos, capsicum, chillis, and more butter lettuce.

Pepinos, not yet ripe

Seeds I've saved or been given by other gardeners recently: mustard greens, poppy, parsley, broccoli. I also got a lovely big handful of rocket seeds, given to me by Socrates, who tends an impressive vegetable garden at the corner of my street. One of the highlights of this garden, which is street-facing, is a beautiful loquat tree. Socrates has rigged up a homemade tank to his roof downpipes, made out of, he tells me, an old mattress glue container.

As I write this, it is raining. Rejoice.

Marie Antoinette

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Eating from the garden - Saturday 13 October 2007

Harvest from the garden is picking up so I thought I'd make this post all about enjoying the harvest, with a bit of other agriculture news thrown in. Excuse my shoddy photography. I'm all about the flavour, and don't spend much time on the looks.

Beetroot salad with labna

We're moving into salad weather so rather than roast the beetroots, I made a lebanese beetroot salad out of them, which is basically beetroots, onions and herbs on labna. As well as beetroots from the garden, I used just some of the masses of the mint and parsley (which is serving as groundcover) that is growing now. I love labna, an extension of my love for yoghurt. I noticed that there is a recipe very similar to this one in Greg and Lucy Malouf's latest book on Lebanese and Syrian food, Saha.

(serves 2)
2 large beetroot or 4 small ones
300g labna (500ml yoghurt that has been placed in a small muslin bag and hung overnight to drain excess liquid – use a whole container if making salad for 2)
½ cup parsley leaves
½ cup mint leaves
½ Spanish onion (thinly sliced)
2 tbs extra virgin olive oil
sea salt to taste

Boil beetroots in their skins in salted water till tender. Peel while warm by rubbing skins (wear gloves to stop hands staining). Allow to cool then cut into 2cm cubes. Spread labna on serving dish. Toss together parsley, mint, onion, beetroot and salt. Arrange on the labna. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.

Broccoli and sesame seed salad

Australian-French chef Gabriel Gate was big in the 80s, with his low-cal cooking and cute Frenchie accent, but he's fallen out of favour recently. I think people started wising up to the suspicious persistence of a strong French accent in the face of long-term residence in Australia. Someone gave me this book when I was in my early twenties and I used to cook out of it a lot. I still do this salad regularly as I find broccoli a bit bland straight up. This dish used up the last of the broccoli crop from the garden.

Serves 4
600g broccoli
2 tbsp sesame seeds
freshly ground black pepper
1 tstp red wine vinegar
1 tsp soy sauce (light is better)
2 tsp olive oil
2 drops sesame oil

Break up broccoli into florets. Steam until just cooked and dip in icy water until cold (blanch), then drain. Toast sesame seeds over medium heat. Mix pepper with vinegar, soy, olive oil and sesame oil. Toss broccoli with dressing and sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve.

Vietnamese chicken soup (pho)

This is probably best eaten standing up, outside a hawker's stall in a crowded rural marketplace, but it's also really easy to make at home, and a good way to use the coriander, chives, parsley and vietnamese mint that is growing well in the garden at the moment. Amounts are approximate because I make it from memory. Leave the leaves of the herbs unchopped, except for the chives.

Serves 2
1 chicken breast, halved lengthways and cut into strips
cellophane noodles (enough to put in soup for two, be generous)
handful coriander leaves
handful vietnamese mint
chopped chives
1 red chilli, finely chopped (don't forget to take the seeds out)
splodge of fish sauce
2 tsps minced ginger
peanut oil
3 cups chicken stock

Arrange the herbage and chilli (mint, coriander, chives) on a plate.
Fry the ginger in a wok with some peanut oil, until aromatic and then add the chicken. Cook for about a minute. Add the chicken stock and fish sauce and bring to the boil. Cook for about 8 minutes until chicken is cooked through. While it's cooking, cook the noodles.
Ladle noodles into bowls and cover with the chicken in the broth. People can add the herbs and chilli when they eat. If you like it spicy, serve with chilli paste.

Broad bean salad with prosciutto

After watching my broad beans grow too tall and spindly, I was worried they wouldn't produce anything, but they've come good and we get to enjoy this salad. The dish seems particularly Spanish to me, but that's probably because eating prosciutto also makes me yearn for Jamon Iberico. It also uses the cos lettuce that is going nuts in the sunny bed against the wall of the neighbour's house.

I won't bother reproducing the recipe here, because you can find it here.

Gardening update

I reckon the pollination rate in the garden would be up, with the flowering of the red bottlebrush in the back corner, which seems to be a bee's paradise. The nastursiums are all in flower too, and the mustard greens are flowering with their brightly coloured yellow flowers.

Seeds planted: corn, basil, rocket, sage, tomatoes (tommy toes), alpine strawberries, eggplant (last batch didn't germinate), snake beans (direct).

I tried to sow the rocket and basil in situ, but the birds (miners mainly) are wreaking havoc and destruction as they feast on the worms living in the newly-spread compost. I've resorted to constructing crude bird -repelling things, like plastic bags pegged to sticks and cds on string. All these methods work up to a point - then the birds wise up and continue on their merry ways.

Seedlings planted out in the garden: zuchini, cucumber, spinach.

I want to sow some edible groundcovers (and I've got plenty of rocket and parsley, seeds for this purpose) for all the standard reasons, including stablising soil temperature, reducing evaporative moisture loss, and weed prevention. But I think it would be a waste of time, with the birds still going hard at the freshly laid compost. It's a cruel conundrum because the groundcover would itself protect seedlings from bird damage. Might wait till the worm activity subsides a bit.

Soil science

Since the last post, I've done a soil-science residential school at Wagga campus of CSU, including a mid-semester soil science exam. Here's a photo from one of the field trips, where we took soil samples from different locations and classified them out in the field. In this photo, a student is holding a bolus, which is one of the steps in the field classification of soil-texture.

This week in my study, I'm focusing on nutrient cycles in the soil, especially nitrogen and phosphorous.

Get into your gardens folks.

Marie Antoinette

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Spring has sprung - Sunday 26 August 2007

The science and practicalities of composting in the inner city
It just so happens that I'm studying soil science as I enter a new phase of my obsession with compost. Soil science is a subject in Agricultural Science, which I'm studying part time by distance mode at Charles Sturt University.

This week's soil science topic is organic matter as a property of the 'solid soil fraction'. This includes looking at factors affecting the rate of decomposition, one of which is that ratio beloved of all composters worldwide - the carbon to nitrogen ratio. Other factors of which we composters are well aware are aeration, water and temperature. It's quite neat to be turning my compost, adding water, then hitting the books to find out why I'm doing it.

Anyway, I'm not sure that it's improving due to my scientific knowledge - plain 'ole observation and wisdom from other gardeners would teach the same lessons about this age old art.

Due to space limitations, turning the pile is quite a business. I thought I would need two bays: one to store the pile; the other to turn it into. However, I've found that I can turn it out of my purpose built bay into our trailer and then back in again. It's not ideal in that there's a bit too much bending and lifting, but it does save space and we don't have much of that.

Plantings and maintenance
As spring has sprung, there is much to do. This weekend I cleared one of the beds, leaving only a few elephant garlics (which won't mature till November), some broad beans that are just coming into flower, some mustard, and a fence-line row of spring onions and some flowering plants whose names I've forgotten (oops!) but which have only emerged in the last few weeks. I then laid down compost, about 5-cm thick. Along the fenceline, against the spring onions, I made a small furrow, filled it with sifted compost and put down some rocket seeds (mmmmmm).

I also planted the following seeds into some trusty polystyrene veggie boxes and put 'em out on the front balcony in full sun:
zucchini (Fordhook)
cucumber (non-climbing)
eggplant (Long purple).

What I'm eating out of the garden
Lettuce, mustard greens, silverbeet and broccoli, and of course herbs (coriander, parsley, dill, watercress, vietnamese mint, shallots).

Looking forward to broad beans. I have a broadie recipe culled from the internet: lamb braised with broad beans and artichokes. I might just stick with a trusty broad bean, mint and prosciutto combination though. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

The higher temperatures have set the peas off - I love the way their tendrils seek out climbing structures. You can see them growing in mid air towards the nearest support, which may be as much as 10 cm away - amazing.

I leave you with a shot of the woolly vetch growing down in the peninsula patch.

Happy spring gardening.

Marie Antoinette

Friday, July 27, 2007

Land for veggies goes permanently cultural - Wednesday 25 July 2007

Land for veggies has now been dormant for over 6 months. This is the first step in a revival that will see it reporting on not one but two veggie patches, and with an added focus on permaculture and sustainable agriculture generally.

The peninsula patch

The summer harvest from this patch was tomatoes (tommy toes), basil, cucumber, and zucchinis, lots and lots of zucchinis.

With two permaculture courses under my belt since the last post, the patch on the peninsula has been reconceived. It is now growing a green manure crop of woolly vetch and lupins, in preparation for a summer crop of quinoa and amaranth grain.

Until late June, the last of the tomatoes were ripening in the patch, and last week I harvested the last of the potatoes with veggieman who was much taken with the many giant worms living in that part of the patch. This weekend, if I have time I may plant out a couple of rows of potatoes at the north end of the patch, using a combination of methods:
- Peter Cundall's technique, which includes a generous topping of manure. Luckily, the neighbouring property has plenty of that in the form of cow poo.
- a trick I learn't in Tasmania while on a permaculture training camp - dip the cut end of the spud in wood ash.

My peninsula patch task before summer is to research quinoa and grain amaranth, including grain preparation and recipes. No point growing it if I can't make it into something tasty.

The inner city patch

In the inner city, a permablitz has transformed the small courtyard I share with my partner, father, two dogs and (every second weekend) veggieman and the Jamesmeister. For a full report on the blitz, visit the permablitz website. Take some time to read about some of the other fantastic blitzes, a few of which I've been to. The latest one I went to happened last weekend (Sunday 22nd July) was at the home of the lovely Tamara and Andy in Bunyip. Tamara is a colleague from the two-week permaculture training camp I did in April in Tasmania, on Bill Mollison's property. She and Andy live on a fantastic acre of lovingly designed permaculture. Check out her flickr site and look her up if you need a permaculture design, because that's her main game now.

The inner city patch (a series of patches really) is growing lots of green goodness. The main harvest since Autumn, when things got underway, has been lettuce (cos and great lakes) and mizuna. Along the way there's been a lovely set of beetroots, and now we're seeing the beginning of the broccoli. Other greenery that is in abundance at the moment is parsley and dill and green onions. You can see that various patches are mostly mixed, with a main crop in each patch (such as the broadbean patch) interspersed with other complementary goodies such as the parsley, dill, spinach, mint and so on.

I've yet to have any success with the peas in the south east patch. Even though they were despite provided with an excellent trellis, they've stayed small and insignificant. Peas planted against the western wall later seem to be doing better, so there's hope yet that I'll get to sit down and shell peas with veggieman who loves to eat them raw. The south east patch is the only one that didn't get a dose of my compost. Instead it got a french millet mulch (millet grown for the purpose in that patch) slashed (before it set seed) and covered by a half-cubic metre of commercial compost. In the pond (bathub), the vietnamese mint is happy, as is the watercress. I'm loving the tart mustardy taste of watercress leaves in the salad and think I'll grow some more. I've just purchased some water chestnut corms from GreenHarvest, and those will be going in the bathtub this weekend.

Composting is go
I am, as my partner keeps reminding me, quite obsessed with compost. I have a kickass compost bay, built by him out of pallets and small gage chicken wire. Unlike me he has an eye for design and the beauty of a well made object. The bay keeps the rats out and has an ingenious removable front wall to allow for regular turning. I've also purchased a compost thermometer as I'm using the hot composting or 'Berkeley' method, which involves turning it every 5-6 days . I'm making about a cubic metre a month. Sourcing green materials for the heap has been relatively easy - a herb and vegetable packing business at the end of the street provides me with twice-weekly hauls of high quality green waste - mainly the outer leaves from cabbages and lettuces and such as well as slightly bruised or old veggies and herbs, all of which go straight into the pile (I don't bother to break it up - it seems to be decomposing fairly quickly). The only input that I'm not particularly happy about in terms of sustainability is the one bale of sugar cane mulch per pile that I add to keep the carbon-nitrogen ratio right. Hopefully when summer comes I can use dried grass from the peninsula patch property. The compost pile also gets some sawdust provided free of charge from the furniture maker down the road. It's a mix of untreated timber shavings and MDF sawdust. There's a potential toxicity issue with the glue used in the MDF but I did some research and don't think it's a problem.

Well that's it from the two patches. Next week will be a composting special methinks. I leave you with a not particularly relevant, but endearing nonetheless, photo of some highland cattle on a farm near Bunyip, which I took while being taken on guided tour of this farm near Tamara's place. These cattle have very cartoony looks, particularly the perfect pink cross that is their nose.

Marie Antoinette, 27 July 2007