Saturday, October 12, 2013

News nuggets from the patches

First of the season's artichokes

I'm thinking of boiling these beauties up, extracting the hearts, slicing them and putting them on sourdough pizza with some kefir fetta. Could be strange, but could also be awesome.

Last of the season's silverbeet.

There's a lot of it, I know. It got steamed, chopped finely and frozen, ready for spinach pies.

Lettuce, munched hard by the rabbits, late August 2013

We didn't get to eat much of this winter lettuce. The rabbits got there first. I got these as seedlings from our neighbour, an expert veggie grower. See the darker variety at top right (I think its radicchio) - the rabbits left those alone.

Kale, mid July 2013

Shamefully, I let most of this go to seed. Turns out not many people in my family like Kale. Next year I'll do a smaller crop and try the kale chips option.

Mizuna, July 2013

The rabbits also monstered the mizuna - bloody gourmets they are. But we ate it anyway, munched leaves and all.

Lemons, late July 2013

We turned our glut of limes and lemons into lemon cordial which turned out to be tasty in lemon cordial icypoles. The lemon cordial recipe called for what seemed like a lot of sugar so we cut the sugar by 25%. Still lovely.

Lemon cordial, July 2013

Our veggie-growing neighbours, lets call them J and B, have been giving us so much delicious produce, including this gorgeous pumpkin. Pumpkin soup is a favourite for school lunches in the new whiz-bang wide-mouthed thermos.

We exchange fermented goodies too. J is learning the ins and outs of all sorts of natural fermentation tactics. I've had the pleasure of trying her ginger kefir soda, a naturally-carbonated fizzy drink that packs a punch. And the latest loveliness from J is kimchi - korean pickled cabbage. Unfortunately I'm the only one in the family that thinks this is a truly awesome condiment. I think it would be bloody good as dumpling filling. Wonder if there is such thing as a sourdough dumpling?

B and J's sourdough loaf, made using my wholemeal starter, and a Thermomix.

I gave some of my wholemeal starter, which is now at least 4 years old, to B and J. J used her Thermomix to produce this ridiculously proficient looking loaf - wha!, as Tashi would say. It inspired me to crank a loaf out - even though the demand from the family is for pizza bases rather than bread. I can't really complain though - we certainly do not have what you'd call a fussy kid. B eats pretty much anything we give him, loves salads and most veggies, and loves to try out new things. Among the foods he's added to his palate lately are tuna, avocado, chutney, prosciutto, steamed dumplings, and homemade sourdough garlic naan. He often hangs around the kitchen while I cook, helping with various tasks, and I encourage him to taste dishes at various stages of their preparation. We describe the flavours together, so his taste vocab is also expanding. He's starting to use lemon in a distinctly middle eastern way ;)

 Sourdough, September 2013
This is Dan Lepard's Mill Loaf, from his book The Handmade Loaf, with an increased % of wholemeal (versus white).
Red wine vinegar in the making, September 2013.

J and I are experimenting with making red wine vinegar. Back in July I pulled a bottle of organic shop-bought red wine vinegar out of the pantry and noticed a bloody great big disc of slimy stuff floating in the bottom. I did not panic. No, not I. I was pretty sure it was a 'vinegar mother', and indeed it was.

Vinegar making is basic science. In the presence of oxygen, Acetobacter bacteria feed off of alcohol and convert it to acetic acid. That acid, plus the water from the wine, creates vinegar. Even industrial vinegar makers rely on this basic biology. - See more at:
Vinegar making is basic science. In the presence of oxygen, Acetobacter bacteria feed off of alcohol and convert it to acetic acid. That acid, plus the water from the wine, creates vinegar. Even industrial vinegar makers rely on this basic biology. - See more at:
Red wine vinegar mother, July 2013

A red vinegar mother is a thick slimy disc , the colour of liver. It is a biofilm of acetic acid bacteria (Acetobacter spp.). In the presence of oxygen, the Acetobacter feed off the alcohol (red wine) and convert it to acetic acid. Too high an alcohol concentration however, is not tolerated by the Acetobacter so when you add wine to your mother, you need to dilute it. I've used the rough proportions given in this website:

I gave some of the mother to J and off we went to ferment ourselves some red wine vinegar. After a couple of weeks, when I pulled out the jar and smelt it, I knew something was wrong. It smelt like nail polish. A quick spot of internetting revealed that because I hadn't aerated the mixture regularly, the bacteria had produced too much ethyl acetate (produced in anaerobic conditions), over acetic acid (produced in more aerobic conditions). D'oh. So I threw half out, added some more red wine and water and stirred it every couple of days for the next few weeks. And lo and behold, its now smelling very much like the shop-bought red wine vinegar I have in my pantry. If I don't stir regularly, the vinegar produces a thick disc of bacteria that completely covers the surface.

Some newly formed vinegar mother.

Additional vinegar mother is continually formed. Like sourdough starter and kefir culture, this can be given away to friends.

Lemon and rhubarb pie - rhubarb from the patch - about to go in the oven. Witness the fine food stylings of my partner.

First avocados - Reed variety, September 2013

I'm pretty stoked to have avocados on one of the trees planted 3 years ago. This is the Reed variety. The other 3 trees (Bacon and Hass) haven't produced anything yet. The one I planted from seed (variety unkown) died so I replaced it with a grafted Reed from Diggers.

Reed avocado, planted to replace a failed attempt to grow an avocado tree from seed.

There's been a lot of action in the patches over the past few weeks, with Spring well underway - clearing, sowing, fertilising and so on. But that will have to wait till the next post. Also in the next post - reports on an inspiring agroforestry tour, and an update on the Sandalwood project. There has been movement at the station folks.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Sandalwood: Part 1

Santalum spicatum, Echuca (northern Victoria) demonstration site, October 2011
"Climate change is a game changer. We can no longer just conserve bushland, we need to imagine and construct new landscapes, with new farming systems, in which perennial native vegetation plays a strategic, structural role." (Andrew Campbell)
So, how to design systems that are productive and conserve biodiversity? In 2011, my partner and I were asking ourselves this question when were thinking about what to do with a 1 ha block on the Peninsula property that was originally planted with eucalypts and acacias (indigenous and non-indigenous) for timber.

The trees were not suitable for timber because they hadn't been thinned or pruned to suit timber production. We considered leaving them in the ground as habitat for, among other animals, koalas and birds, and for the soil health benefits, but they were shading a domestic orchard, managed by my father, on the property. There are also other areas on the property already devoted to conservation (approximately 70% of the total area) thanks to the efforts of Mum and Dad.
Ben Boxshall, ecologist with Spicatum Resources, next to a 10-year-old S. spicatum at a demonstration site at Ko-warra Native Grasses, Echuca, October 2011

Then in 2011, we visited a demonstration sandalwood plantation at Echuca in Northern Victoria and started thinking about the possibilities of native sandalwood (Santalum spicatum), which is indigenous to WA.

Sandalwood is a hemi-parasite - it attaches its roots to nitrogen-fixing host species and extracts water and nutrients. Its primary use is as oil in the perfume industry, but the wood is also used for joss sticks and for carving. There is currently a world-wide shortage of sandalwood because Indian sandalwood (Santalum album) is severely depleted due mainly to unregulated harvest of wild stocks in India.

Plantation sandalwood is generally harvested at 20 years - the older, the wood the more valuable it is due to its higher oil content. In the short term, there is also the possibility of deriving some financial return from harvest of thinnings (from year ten onwards) and from the sale of the sandalwood nuts, which the tree produces from year 5 onwards.
Ben Boxshall, ecologist with Spicatum Resources, next to a 10-year-old S. spicatum at a demonstration site at Ko-warra Native Grasses, Echuca, October 2011

At Echuca, the host species for the S. spicatum is a diverse mix of native nitrogen-fixing host trees, including acacias (A. stenophylla, A. salicina, and A. acinacea). In the early days of S. spicatum cultivation in WA, growers were advised to establish sandalwood with only one host species, Acacia acuminata (common name - Acacia jam), which is endemic to Western Australia and common in the wheatbelt. However, more recent research has demonstrated that S. spicatum will recruit on a wide range of native nitrogen-fixing host species.

At the Echuca site, the sandalwood was direct sown at a rate of two sandalwood nuts per host seedling. I was pretty excited by the visit, and set about doing more research. By the end of 2011, after discussions with Dad, we had decided to replace the woodlot with a mixed-species stand of indigenous trees and shrubs supporting a main crop of S. Spicatum. The host species will remain on the block permanently while the S. spicatum will be harvested at between 15-20 yrs of age.

Ben Boxshall, an ecologist and S. spicatum expert came out to assess the block and provide advice on host species selection, planting density, and weed control. Some of the indigenous host and companion species that we plan to use are Black sheoak (Allocasuarina littoralis), Indigofera australis, Alyxia buxifolia, and Olearia argophylla.
Dusky antechinus (Antechinus sainsonii). Will our sandalwood lot provide hunting grounds for this little dude? Source: Alan Couch, Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2. Generic Licence

Potential environmental benefits include increased plant and animal biodiversity from the mixed, multilayer, indigenous host-tree population. The mid-level indigenous host plants will attract insectivorous birds, and provide habitat and forage for our local reptiles and small ground-dwelling marsupials such as the dusky antechinus (Antechinus swainsonii). As some of the host species are flowering, the plantation may also assist in attracting native pollinators to the adjoining orchard.

So far, we have had the existing trees on the block taken down. Unfortunately, while much of the wood was taken for firewood or chipped, cost meant we couldn't have the stumps ground, so the block is littered with very, very large burn piles. Its taken us longer than anticpated to burn these, which has meant that we haven't been able to do an Autumn 2013 planting of the host species and sandalwood. We should be ready by Autumn 2014. Sadly, this winter, we've become the biggest polluters in our neighbourhood with our burns that go for weeks on end!
February 2013 - to the left of the fence is the block cleared for S. spicatum; to the right, a 15-year old planting of indigenous acacias. 

We have also had to control the regrowth from the felled trees. On Ben Boxshall's advice, we've been doing this by slashing the regrowth (with a hard-bladed whipper snipper), then spraying with glyphosate at relatively high concentration (backpack sprayer). Once won't be enough judging from the regrowth coming back after our first pass.
 Wood pile after clearing of block destined for sandalwood, July 2013
 Wood piles after clearing of block destined for sandalwood, July 2013

Because I'm also interested in soil carbon and soil health, we are using this planned planting to participate in a soil health project run by the Westernport Catchment Landcare Network. It has the rather unwieldy name of 'Healthy Soils – Linking Soil Carbon and Soil Acidification with Farm Management Practices'. As part of this project soil on the block has been tested for carbon levels, as well as other nutrients (i.e. phosophorous, nitrogen, potassium, magnesium and calcium). I plan to write more on our particpation in this project in the next post on our Sandalwood journey - stay tuned.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Dusting off the vacola

An excess of rhubarb on the Peninsula patch finally made me get out the Vacola cooker and jars that have been gathering dust for a few years. I did Rhubarb in light sugar syrup. I don't think I quite got the packing right - see how the rhubarb's floated to the top? Should be delish with yoghurt, on porridge, or in a clafoutis.

Its fig season and amazingly the birds have left us some of the luscious beauties produced by our rather neglected tree. Now, what to do with them . . .

Towards the end of April, I finished picking the last of the summer bounty. The purple kings kicked on until end of April.

These german pickling cucumbers were quite special. I kept meaning to preserve them in brine but we ended up eating them all fresh in salads.

From the next door neighbour's jaw-droppingly productive veggie patch

Our next door neighbours continued to share their garden bounty with us. Massive zucchinis became zuchini fritters, which froze well and were great in Bboy's lunchbox with a small container of sweet chilli sauce. Parsnips, pumpkin and potato got turned into cornish pasties. Later in April, I added jerusalem artichokes from my patch to the pastie filling. These pasties also made good lunchbox fare. Its hard for me to swop veggies with my neighbours because they grow so much. I settled for giving them some kefir fetta and sourdough pizza base.

Butter lettuce, safe from the rabbits

Our first pomegranates
In my Dad's orchard, the pomegranate tree has produced its first crop. I was quite excited until I did some research on how much work is required just to get the seeds out, let alone make juice out of them. Disheartened, I left them to moulder in the fruit dish - oh no!

The last of the tomatoes became the base for a bean-tomato filling for burritos. This base, which comes from one of my favourite food blogs Veggie Num Num, is is super easy and can also be used as a pasta sauce. You basically just chuck your ingredients into an oven tray, toss it all with a good dose of olive oil and bake until soft and mushy. No standing over a frypan stirring and no need to take the skin off the tomatoes. That's my kind of cooking.

Beans-in-tomato for burrito filling 
Serves 4

  • 1½ cups dried beans, pinto, haricot or red kidney
  • 6 cups water
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 6 garlic cloves
  • 1 green capsicum (bell pepper), quartered
  • 250g tomatoes
  • 1-2 chillies
  • vegetable oil
  • salt
  • 1 tbs fresh oregano, diced
Boil your beans with a bay leaf and simmer till soft enough to your taste.

On a baking tray put the garlic cloves, capsicum, tomato, chillies and oregano. Drizzle 2 tbs olive oil over the top and toss everything well. Bake in a 180°C oven for 25-30 mins or until soft. When cooled, chop all ingredients roughly, saving the pan juices.

To the roasted veggies and pan juices, add 1/3 cup olive oil and salt to taste. If you have time, you can put the whole shebang in a pot on the stove and cook for a further 30 mins to improve the flavour. But if not don't worry. It'll still be tasty. You can also mash the mixture a bit towards the end to get the consistency you like. Add the cooked beans.

This is the basic filling for burritos. The other fillings are things like chopped lettuce, tomato, grated carrot, grated cheese, and of course, sour cream. I put these in little bowls on the table so people can make up their own. The tomato-bean base freezes well.

Co-op action
I've joined a local food co-op which has just started up in my area and is operating out of a shed on someone's property. The founding members built bays for the goods - dry goods such as flour, rice and nuts. Members pay an annual membership and order every two weeks. We bring our own containers and sign on to a roster to supervise order-pickup day. Produce is mostly organic and local and includes cleaning products such as laundry powder and dishwashing liquid, as well as some personal care products. Its great to have a co-op that is so local and connected to my community.

Reveg and rehab tours
My partner, Bboy and I have been attending field trips to properties near us that have undertaken rehabilitation and revegetation works. Wetlands and boardwalks featured on the amazing property in these photos. The non-government conservation group Habitat Restoration Fund ran the project. Weed control was the main management action - once competition for light, water and nutrients from the weeds was reduced, indigenous seed in the soil seedbank was able to germinate.

The property also had some well established orchards and veggie gardens with serious bird and rabbit-proofing. I was impressed by this watering system on some of the newer trees.

In wider world news, its great to see that the EU has slapped a 2-year moratorium on neonicotinoids. Hopefully that will give their bees some breathing space

I can't keep up with all the fabulous free plant ID tools out on the intermatron these days. Here's another I came across recently, produced by the WA government. Its got proper binomial key functionality and all. Love it:

Weeds of Australia identification tool

I caught these sawflies hanging out together on a eucalyptus on the property in March.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

When a plague is not a plague

Plague solider beetles (Chauliognathus lugubris) on a parsley plant, Peninsula herb patch

This christmas Melbourne has been inundated with plague soldier beetles (Chauliognathus lugubris). CSIRO tell the gardeners of Australia that there is nothing to fear from these insects. In fact they are garden heroes, eating aphids, gypsy moth caterpillars and cucumber beetle larve, among other garden pests.
Plague soldier beetle mating swarm, parsley plant, Peninsula herb patch.

Integrated weed management in native pastures 

The second last subject in my Graduate Diploma of Applied Science was 'Integrated pest management' and as part of the final assignment I put together a website on integrated weed management in native pastures in the high-rainfall zone.

The approach detailed on the website is a ‘multi species approach’. It targets the botanical composition of pastures – % desirable perennial grasses, % undesirable annual grasses, % undesirable broadleaf species, % desirable broadleaf species. This is in contrast to strategies that have as their goals the reduction of weed biomass/density as rapidly as possible, species by species.

The ultimate aim of this multi-species approach is a pasture with a ‘stable’ botanical composition – i.e. botanical composition that confers stability across a wide range of conditions. It is a preventative approach aimed at staving off pasture decline and the costs of reversing it. 

The kangaroos of Green's Bush

Eastern grey (Macropus giganteus) on private pasture adjacent to Greens Bush, Mornington Peninsula, September 2012

My final assignment for entire Graduate Diploma was on the eastern grey roo (Macropus giganteus) population of Greens Bush. The assignment was an assessment item in the subject 'Managing agroecoystems' and I was interested in how an ecological understanding of this kangaroo population could help incorporate into kangaroo management strategies local grazier concerns over increasing roo numbers and the feared impacts on pasture availability. I was also interested in the peri-urban context - small land parcel holdings, lifestyle farmers, shrinking knowledge base about farming and so on. 

The Greens Bush section of Mornington Peninsula National park supports the largest eastern grey population on the Peninsula and roo densities are high compared to other monitored populations in Australia. Greens Bush is approximately 1500 ha of mostly native vegetation surrounded by cleared private land, much of it used to graze beef cattle on relatively small (under 100 ha) lifestyle holdings. Highfield, a 1km square section in the south of Greens Bush  is a popular tourist viewing area for the roos who graze on the cleared private land surround the Bush, returning to shelter in the national park.

Eastern greys on pasture adjacent to Greens Bush, Mornington Peninsula, September 2012

My paper outlined an ecological understanding of a two-way relationship between the roo population and its food supply – in this case introduced temperate pasture – that can be used to determine eastern grey pasture offtake. The level of economic injury can then be assessed through a conventional agricultural framework such as grazing pressure expressed as DSE (dry sheep equivalents).  The DSE equivalency technique allows kangaroo offtake to be understood and managed by graziers as part of total grazing impact: the sum impact of all vertebrate herbivores on pasture, including not only stock and kangaroos but also introduced pest species such as rabbits.

Erosion from kangaroos crossing through fences on pasture adjacent to Greens Bush, Mornington Peninsula, September 2012 

Eastern greys are grazers. Leaving aside the question of competition and its economic impacts (if any), there is considerable dietary overlap between kangaroos and sheep and cattle in temperate environments. This is despite the fact that most studies on dietary overlap have been conducted in the semi-arid rangelands and have focused on sheep-kangaroo interactions. Eastern greys are grass specialists, with dicotyledonous plants comprising at most a few percent of their diet. They have a strong preference for grasses and forbs over a large range of environmental conditions. Studies of the diet of eastern greys on similar temperate improved pasture in New South Wales have found them to be highly selective feeders with consistent selection of low-fibre grass leaf (the grass category with the highest nitrogen content) and leaf preferred over other plant parts (i.e. stem).

The view from Highfield, a 1km square section in the south of Greens Bush. Highfield is a popular tourist viewing area for the roos which graze on the cleared private land surrounding the Bush, returning to shelter in the national park 

Its not surprising that eastern grey numbers have increased across large tracts of South Eastern Australia. Land clearing has extended the area of suitable habitat (through clearing), and agricultural development has created permanent and more reliable water sources, and on improved pastures (sown down to exotic grasses and fertilised) there is improved quantity and quality of forage. Food is abundant, shelter is nearby, and predators numbers have been reduced.

Some landholders adjacent to Greens Bush have erected kangaroo-exclusion fencing which has had the effect of funneling kangaroos onto adjacent properties, disrupting the local movement patterns of the kangaroo population. The immediate effect is to concentrate the kangaroos on accessible resource. Once fencing begins the domino principle follows - adjacent land-holders recognise increasing numbers and resort to the same measures.

Eating from the patches

On the peninsula, snails, cabbage moth caterpillars and rabbits imposed a heavy toll on  almost all spring plantings, including broccoli, climbing beans, lettuce, and cucumber. I tried various control methods, including cutting up tree wormwood to place around the bean seedlings to deter the cabbage moth.
Pruning the tree wormwood - we used the cuttings to try to deter cabbage moth butterfly - to no avail!

Despite the losses I still managed to harvest small quantities of mignonette lettuce, zucchini, purple king beans, broadbeans, capsicum, silverbeet and lately the first tomatoes of the season. This year I planted both tommy toes and Siberian again. In late January I harvested the garlic, dried it and braided it into one long braid, which should be enough to last us to the end of 2013.

The next door neighbours have a massive veggie patch and the know-how and equipment to grow lots of delicious veggies. They are generous in sharing their bounty, which is lovely and we have been eating their beetroots, zucchini, lebanese cucumbers and beautiful french beans. I also scored some planting stock off them: a perennial rocket (Diplotaxis muralis) and a perennial leafy green which I think is perpetual spinach (Beta vulgaris subs. cicla), a type of chard whose leaves can be eaten raw as well as steamed. Here is a lovely blog post about these two perennials, plus another of my favourite perennial leafy greens, French sorrel (Rumex scutatus), which I also grow in the inner city.

Sourdough hot cross buns
Over easter (yes, it has been that long between blog posts), I made some sourdough hot cross buns which were scrumptious (not to blow my own sourdough trumpet or anything). 
 Peninsula patch in early February 2013 showing tomatoes (climbing on trellis in middle), jerusalem artichokes (far side) and sweet corn (foreground). Comfrey forms the border. 

I've resumed volunteer work at a local indigenous nursery and am still learning lots of valuable stuff from the gang there, including including propagation from cuttings for various indigenous species.
The next big project on the Peninsula property is our sandalwood (Santalum spicatum) block. The block has finally been cleared in preparation for the sandalwood and host trees, after delays caused by spring rains which made it impossible for heavy machinery to be brought into the block. Could do with some of that rain now. More on the sandalwood project in the next post.

Marie Antoinette