Friday, March 21, 2008

The big dry

Oh. Oh. So Dry. Where is the water? Autumn is underway, and now that I've started clearing garden beds in preparation for autumn plantings, the low soil moisture level is apparent.

The rain deficit has been exacerbated by a March chock full of higher than normal temperatures, a situation described by the Bureau of Meterology as "an exceptional and prolonged heatwave in southern Australia".

Late summer harvest
Five pepinos came off the potted pepino (Solanum muricatum). The taste is like a kind of bland rockmelon - pleasant but nothing to write home about. They're a relative of the cucumber and I note that they are susceptible to something called cucumber mosaic virus. I've come across the mosaic virus while volunteering at Mock's Biodynamic Orchard on the Mornington Peninsula. Mosaic virus also affects cherries and apples.

The chinese snake cucumbers are now finished, with the leaves having succumbed to a late summer mildew. The harvest was bountiful and included some strangely shaped specimens.
The tommy toe tomatoe harvest got larger and larger, so that by mid Feb, I was running out of freezer space for homemade tomatoe sauce and frozen whole tomatoes. Stephanie Alexander's method for making tomatoe sauce is a cracker - just mix the seeded tomatoes with herbs and olive oil and onions and bake for 15 minutes (or until the tomatoes skins are soft and coming off the tomatoes). Then mouli the lot. As I don't have any fresh basil this year, I've been using my perennial basil (Ocimum gratissimum - I wrongly called this Ocimum obovatum in the last post) in the sauce, which is stronger but just as tasty.

While tomatoes in the inner-city patch are nearly finished, on the peninsula they are still going strong, and on much less water. Tomatoe relish is next on the agenda. Anyone got any good recipes for that? I've saved some seed from the peninsula tomatoes, and am trying the seed fermentation method recommend by Jude and Michael Fanton in their Seed Savers Handbook.
Zucchinis are now finished and the freezer is full of zucchini soup for winter. Like the cucumbers, they all finally succumbed to mildew leaves, but I think I prolonged their lives by cutting off affected leaves.

The climbing beans (Frederico) reached the pergola and produced a big harvest, but not for very long. We enjoyed the small ones in salad and the older ones mostly went into an Indian tomatoe-based bean dish, which is a firm favourite with a certain young visitor (sometimes known as Veggieman). It's also a way to use the chillis proliferating on my chilli bush (not sure of the variety but it is prolific) and the lemons from the tree on the peninsula property. Thankfully chillis freeze well. Here is the recipe, curiously called "Fried Beans' in my cookbook, but for no apparent reason as it's not a fried dish.


Ingredients: 500g green beans, 2 small onions (minced), 1 tsp grated fresh ginger, 1tbsp olive oil, half tsp garam masala, half tsp ground turmeric, half a fresh chilli, 1 tsp salt (or leave out if you're not a big salt fan), two thirds of a cup of chopped tomatoes, 2 tsp lemon juice.

String the beans if necessary and cut into one-inch pieces. Saute the onions and ginger in the oil until golden brown. Stir in garam masala, turmeric, chilli and salt, and cook for a few minutes. Add tomatoes and beans and cook about 20 minutes, or longer if you have time. I reckon this dish tastes best cooked for ages, and then reheated. Stir in lemon juice and serve. It's extra tasty served with yoghurt.
I've planted the following seedlings, raised from seed in polystyrene boxes:

swiss chard
sweet pea (Massey Gem)
potatoes (peninsula patch)
sweet corn (peninsula patch)
garlic (peninsula patch)
In one of the new beds, I scattered lots of parsley and rocket seeds, as well as the seedlings, for eating and groundcover. The broccoli is in a sunny spot, with the soil covered in sugar cane mulch to conserve soil moisture and reduce evaporation.

On the balcony are many polystyrene boxes (surely I'm bringing the tone of the neighbourhood down - one can only hope) of beetroot (chioggia), onion (barletta), watercress, more sweet pea (massey gem) and lettuce (goldrush).

The sunflowers are already flowering after only 4 or 5 weeks, and will hopefully be pollinator and beneficial insect attractors, along with some calendulas (seed sown direct). Nastursiums planted last year are reactivating again.

Garden maintenance
Compost tea brewing
Another batch of compost-tumbler compost has gone out on the beds, and I made two batches of compost tea out of it as well. Australia's expert on compost tea is Elaine Ingham. I use Cam Wilson's recipe. Cam is a permaculture teacher, and all round excellent bloke.

CAM'S COMPOST TEA RECIPE (makes 20 litres)

2 handfuls good compost mixed in with handful worm castings from your worm farm
fish bubbler (buy this from an aquariaum/pet shop - it is the device that is used to oxygenate water in a fish tank - will set you back about $20)
a 20-litre bucket
1/8 cup organic molasses
2 tbsp oatmeal
2 capfuls Seasol

Put the compost and wormcastings in a mesh bag (I use an old delicates washing bag). Place the bag in a bucket and add water. Add remaining ingredients and stir gently. Insert the fish bubbler and turn on. Leave for 24 hours, stirring occasionally.
I've been progressively clearing the beds of spent plants. The jerusalem artichokes are in flower so I've been heading some of the buds to encourage the plant to put its energy into tuber growth. As they have grown very high (up to neighbour's roof), I haven't been able to get to all the buds. Tubers should be ready for harvest in about 4 weeks. Looking forward to Jerusalem artichoke soup and having Dad make his skordalia with them.

On the peninsula patch I've progressively harvested the seeds off the two grain amaranth plants (Amaranthus hypochondriacus) so that I now have four batches of seed, each batch harvested one week apart. Gathering the seed has been a lesson in grain harvesting, including winnowing the chaff from the grain, a process which I find relaxing and meditative. Basically, once you have separated the larger chaff from the grain by pushing it through a garden sieve, you can further separate the grain by winnowing it, which means pouring the chaff-grain from one bucket to another in a breeze. The breeze blows the chaff away, and the (heavier) grain falls into the bucket. It takes a bit of practice, and you have to wait till there is a reasonable breeze, but it works.

Fully grown grain amaranth plant, ready for harvest.

First step in harvesting grain from grain amaranth - separate seed and chaff from head by grabbing the stalk and running your hand down it.

After some winnowing the much of the chaff has been removed

Grain on the left, chaff on the right - winnowing is nearly finished.

I'll leave you with some images of the amazing edible garden of Mark Dymiotis, which was part of the Victorian Open Garden scheme this year. The crowd on the open day was huge - so much so that it took me an hour to inch around his suburban backyard. The centrepiece of Mark's garden is a covered compost shed where he makes hot compost. He teaches gardening and cooking at Melbourne's CAE and not only does he grow most of his own veggies and fruit, but he's also an expert at bread making, and olive preserving. What a dude!
Grapes in Mark Dymiotis's garden

The crowd in Mark Dymiotis's garden on Open Garden day.

Go well in your garden.

Marie Antoinette