Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Tossed salad

Within the confined spaces of my little garden it's just not possible to put home-grown vegies on the table every meal. But with salads you can get pretty close to that ideal with everything in the salad bowl being home-grown, most of the time. It always feels nice to say "yes, all the greens are from our garden." And with the wonderful variety of salad greens that you can grow here in Sydney virtually all the time, this is one of the best backyard crops we can grow.

Right now it's the delicious "anything grows" spring season. This is just a punnet of mixed lettuce sold as 'Combo', belting along nicely. I like this selection because of the variety of leaves it offers. Every now and then I don't get my act together with the seed-sowing routine, so I play rapid catch-up with a punnet of seedlings. Easy.

And over the other side of the path is an English spinach patch which has astonished me with its speed of growth. I wonder if the secret is that it's not in full sun? The leaves went from the crop of little 'baby' spinach leaves I had planned on adding to salads to rapidly becoming large, adult spinach leaves. Yet such has been the quick growth that the leaves are still soft and tender, and if torn-up a nice addition to a garden salad of mixed greens. The rest I'll harvest and cook soon enough.

And here are 'spillover' pots of spinach and lettuce that I couldn't find spots for anywhere else. I'm plundering these for fillings for sandwiches at lunchtime.

And here's the next generation of green and red lettuce seedlings popping up now. By the time they'll be ready to transplant some of the current crop will be past its best. I often get the timing wrong on these replacement crops, but sowing another batch at around monthly intervals is what works well most of the time.

One of the secrets of an interesting garden salad is a good variety of leaf shape, colour, flavour and texture. I find that a good selection of salad seeds can last a whole season or more, given the small crops that I sow. And the huge selection of seeds available gives you so much more variety than you can buy at the seedling section of the local nursery.

Here's a nifty bit of info I picked up courtesy of the Australian consumer magazine, Choice. They road-tested balsamic vinegars and this was their bargain best buy. It's less than $5 a bottle at our local Woolworths store.

The really valuable info from Choice is that there is an official rating system for balsamic vinegars run by the people in Modena, Italy, where the best balsamics come from. This is the back of the label. It says 'Consorzio Aceto Balsamico di Modena' and that shows that it's authentic Modena balsamic. Apparently, not every Modena balsamic maker is part of this rating organisation, but here in far-off Australia it's a handy thing to know about when you're browsing through a dozen different brands of balsamic vinegar and don't really know what to look for, apart from price.

And this is the all-important 'leaf' rating symbol to also look for. Four leaves is the top rating they give for thick, sweet balsamic suitable for drizzling on strawberries or ice-cream. One leaf is for the thinner stuff that's fine for salad dressings. However, I've tried the different ones on offer and I always buy the four-leaf.

The other thing I have learned recently is that one of the most important things in choosing a nice olive oil for a salad dressing is its freshness. In another recent road-test by Choice magazine, the local Australian olive oils scored very well in a blind taste test by experts, and they say the reason for this is freshness. Many moderately priced olive oils from Europe spend a long time in storage and transport before they ever make it to our supermarket shelves, and their flavour is often poor as a result. By comparison, the fresh local olive oils are often superior to the cheaper European oils because the local crop is this year's, not last year's.

I haven't yet tried the Australian olive oil pictured here. It's a gift from my mother-in-law, after her recent driving holiday through olive oil growing districts of Australia. But mixed with some genuine Modena balsamic vinegar, I am sure it will do my home-grown salad leaves justice.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Betting on hedges

My wife Pam and I have a code word which we use to announce to each other that the morning newspaper is here – "thud" – because that is what happens most mornings here. Our newsagent, Nathan, is a pretty good shot, landing each paper with a thud on a narrow path that's edged on both sides by hedges. With a 95% accuracy rating, Nathan could throw newspapers for Australia at the Newsagents' Olympics. But it's the 5% of his throws which don't result in a good, solid 'thud' which have prompted this little posting about hedges and front gardens

Here's what happens sometimes when Nathan misses the path. Like a javelin waving around after it has landed, the Sydney Morning Herald occasionally sits there poking a hole in our hedge. For some reason, a fair percentage of Nathan's misses end up in this hole, when he misses to the right.

When Nathan misses to the left this is the usual result. The hedge on this side of the path gets bit more sunshine than the other one, and so is a bit more dense, and tends to hold the paper rather than let it through.

There are a few different hedges out front. In the foreground is a newspaper-catching lilly pilly hedge. The plant's cultivar name is cute – 'Tiny Trev' – a native Aussie lilly pilly bred for hedging. In the background is a Murraya paniculata, one of Sydney's best hedging plants. This tough specimen is in full shade for four whole months in winter and never complains. Then over summer all it gets is blazing hot afternoon sun every day. A wondrous plant.

This is another of our short-but-sweet, three-metre-long Tiny Trev hedges, just after trimming. You can see a couple of dents and hollows here and there where Nathan tossed in a particularly heavy edition of the Herald complete with bonus shopping supplements that I don't read. The holes will slowly fill with new growth, and the best I can manage with this hedge is a neatly trimmed shagginess.

But here's the real nemesis of Tiny Trev, the psyllid, a tiny, sap-sucking insect that creates lots of ugly little pimples in the plant's new leaves. Infestations can get bad, but regular trimming plus follow-up sprays of a non-organic spray product, Confidor, keep the problem under control quite well. The only organic solution would be to rip out all the Tiny Trev hedges and start again with psyllid-resistant plants, and right now that's just too much work!

In between the hedges I have planted foliage plants of different hues. In the foreground is a groundcover native Cootamundra wattle (Acacia baileyana prostrate form) and behind that is native Correa alba, which I regularly prune into a dome, for a shape contrast against the square hedges. The Correa produces lots of small white flowers in autumn, but it's really just a foliage plant. The groundcover wattle is a lush, wild, almost untamable beast that spills through the front fence and either delights or terrifies all passers-by. It does produce golden ball flowers in winter, but not that many. Again, it's the lovely blue-green foliage which is its best feature.

Here's a cross-section style shot of the different foliage colours out front. Tiny Trev foreground, wattle in the middle-ground, and grey-leaved Correa alba behind.

In winter and spring the new growth on the Tiny Trev lilly pilly is a lovely, rich red colour that adds to the picture, and complements the other native plant we have out front, our eucalyptus street tree.

The street tree's formal name is Eucalyptus leucoxylon 'Rosea', but another name for it is the pink-flowered form of the yellow gum. It's a wonderful flowering gum, starting its blooming each year in autumn (very early April) and continuing all the way to spring (late September). It's still in flower now, and native lorikeets and honeyeaters are constantly jockeying for feeding rights on its branches. It'll still be in bloom in October.

Though a gorgeous, long-flowering and fairly small tree (around 5-6m) it's a shocker of a street citizen, dropping leaves and twigs all over the footpath, and turning any car parked under its branches into a sea of gum nuts, twigs, flowers and other detritus overnight. Add to that several dollops of bird poo on the windscreen, and maybe even a bonus of the evilly black and smeary poo of the fruit bats which feed in the tree at night, and every local in our street now knows not to park there! But aside from being thoroughly anti-social, it is the loveliest tree in the street.

And so that's a quick dip into my front yard. Spring is in full swing out in the backyard now. Predicted maximum today is 33, which is seriously warm for spring. Everything had a good drink this morning, there are plenty of jobs to do, so I'd better stop blogging and get down to the real reason I am here on this planet – to do some gardening!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Backyard babies

It's a lazy gardener's dream come true when you hear the rain on the roof in the morning. "Oh, good, I don't have to worry about watering the babies – thank you rain god." And so it was this morning. Nothing to set the weather bureau humming with excitement, but a couple of mills of rain nevertheless. And the cloudy weather makes everything look and smell so nice.

Even in their adult glory tiny alyssum flowers look like a cluster of so many babies, so I thought I'd start with them.

Sown as seed a few weeks back, this pot of chervil is enjoying its semi-shaded new home. I tried to grow it last year, presuming it was a typical sun-loving herb, and it didn't thrive. And then I discovered that it's a shy thing that likes its semi shade. Looks a lot like parsley (see the next pic) and it's said to be lovely with eggs. Will report back on this one later on. So far, so good.

And speaking of parsley, here's this year's seed-sown parsley border powering along. Parsley takes about three weeks just to sprout from seed, then another couple of weeks to get
serious about growing. But about 10 days ago it announced its adolescence and it's belting along. Four weeks from now it will probably want to leave home.

A free packet of tomato seeds with the latest gardening magazine: Grosse Lisse tomatoes. There are also Tiny Tim cherry tomatoes coming up well from seed, plus Roma egg tomatoes from seed, all side by side in the same little suburb of punnets.

An encouraging sight – new growth on the bay tree. At the very bottom left of this pic you can see a typically winter-blighted bay tree leaf with scale damage. I truly tried to be a diligent gardener and sprayed the thing with PestOil this winter, and still the relentless scale set up colonies. At least this new growth compensates for the lack of success with the pest prevention.

Roast chicken here I come! Oops, forgive me, I haven't made introductions. This is the 2008 spring crop of French tarragon, springing up and rapidly making headway. This herb dies back in winter and then bounces back in spring from the runners it sends out. It has a mildly aniseedy flavour that is just made for chicken (and French mustard, and garlic, but that's another posting). One of these days I'll get really adventurous and try it with something else...

I guess I'm stretching the concept of babies with these little winter-sown cherry tomatoes, but they changed colour from green to red the other day, and it at least they get a 'coming of age' award for doing that.

Raised from seed, this Zucchini 'Black Beauty' baby will soon become a tearaway teenager and then a hardworking, productive adult a few weeks after that. Hopefully there will be a full zucchini blog with recipes a few months from now. So far, the kid is doing fine!

And this large person is a baby, a newly planted big baby. My Pammy has always wanted a frangipani tree, and I love them, too (the classic one with white flowers with a yellow centre and a tropically sweet fragrance). A few years back one of my workmates, Krissy, decided to renovate her house, and the hardest thing for her was getting rid of her big, old frangipani tree to make way for the snazzy new building. So, all sorts of family and friends received cuttings from her tree, and they're growing well in several new homes, including ours. Last Sunday we decided the time was right for 'baby' to go into its new home in the garden, having spent two summers growing and developing nicely in a pot. One funny little thing is this: 'baby frangipani' looked like a whopper in the pot, but it looks just like a small but perfectly formed tree in the ground.

Babies might come in all shapes and sizes, but the nurturing instinct is blind to size.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Cooking broad beans

I might even end up calling 2008 the year of the broad bean! Well, it has been that for me. While, for many years, I have enjoyed cooking and eating broad beans, this year I've completed the cycle by growing, cooking and eating broad beans, and it has been well worthwhile. So, for this little post, my first about cooking, I thought I'd offer up my favourite way of cooking broad beans. I'll put the full recipe at the bottom of the post. But in these photos and captions I'll just talk you through the recipe.

Visually, peeled broad beans are the most delicious little vegetable, glistening with moisture from the par-boiling and peeling, glowing the freshest, youngest green colour imaginable.

And this is where they came from. No pests attacked my crops and they grew like crazy through the winter. The main job in growing them is to keep on tying them to the growing frame, using something gentle, such as budding tape.

Harvesting them is a delight, as there are always a lot more beans on the plant that you might notice at first glance. Keep on poking around and you find lots more.

Preparing broad beans is a labour of love. If you're lazy about cooking, broad beans are not for you. Step 1: break open the pods and shell out the large beans into a bowl.

Step 2: bring a saucepan of water to a rolling boil, then tip in all the broad beans. As soon as the water starts to bubble again, that's enough blanching. Tip the broad beans into a bowl of cold water.

Step 3: now shell the broad beans again, removing the tough outer shell, revealing the gorgeous, tender, inner green bean.

Flash photography at night has an amateurishness about it that really is second to none. But I got the idea of blogging about cooking broad beans after sunset, so flash photos it is. Here's the line-up of ingredients for broad beans. Top left, home made chicken stock (I make mine using old boiler chooks, which have stacks of flavour). Centre top is chopped bacon (about 1 small rasher). Also shown are the broad beans, carrot, potatoes, fresh common thyme, and French eschallots.

Here's the cooking at half-way. The process is fairly easy. A splash of extra-virgin olive oil, then fry the bacon and chopped eschallots for a few minutes, until the eschallots soften. Then toss in the sliced carrots and chunked potatoes, and let them fry for a few minutes. Then add just enough chicken stock to make it wet, but not to cover it all, and sprinkle in the thyme (a fair bit, probably a tablespoon of leaves). Pop a lid on top and let it all cook slowly for about 20 minutes, until the potatoes are soft.

Then, just 3-4 minutes before you plan to serve them, add the broad beans and stir through. The blanching process done earlier half-cooks the beans so they need very little cooking at all, and their colour is just wonderful.

For the formal recipe, here it is.

1kg fresh broad beans
1 tablespoon olive oil
5 French eschallots or small onions, or spring onions, sliced
1 rasher bacon, chopped into dice
1 carrot, sliced into rounds
2 potatoes, cut into small chunks
3 sprigs fresh thyme leaves
about 200ml chicken stock (or 2/3 cup)
salt and pepper to taste

1. First shell the broad beans. Bring a saucepan of water to the boil, then drop in the shelled beans, then scoop them out with a strainer when the water comes back to the boil. Remove the beans' outer skin, revealing the green, inner beans.
2. Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat, then add the bacon and eschallots/onions and cook until the eschallots soften slightly. Then add the carrots and potatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.
3. Add enough chicken stock to make it wet, but not enough to cover the vegies. Bring the stock to a simmer, then cover and cook for 20 minutes over a low flame. Then add the broad beans, plus salt and pepper to taste. Cook, uncovered, at a gentle simmer for 3-4 minutes more, until the beans and potatoes are tender. Serve as a vegetable side dish, or on its own, if you like.

And finally, a little recipe credit to a very large-format book called 'France, the Beautiful Cookbook', which is loaded with lovely recipes. It's written by the three Scotto sisters. My recipe adds in potatoes and doesn't use goose-fat, either, but it's their recipe nevertheless!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Behind the scenes in Compost World

Composting is a lovely blend of art and science, exactly the kind of natural mystery that appeals to the amateur scientist lurking within me. I'm getting better at it after several years of mixed results, but it's certainly not as easy as it seems. As I've just spent a few hours this cool morning spreading around my latest batch of compost, and it's probably my best so far, I thought I'd talk nothing but rot today.

At my place, Compost World is hidden by this simple little hedge of two Murraya paniculata plants. Murraya is a wonderfully easy-care hedging plant with fragrant white flowers, and it's also a good nesting site for small birds such as bulbuls, which build a nest there every year.

And here's a peek behind the hedge. It's where the compost bins live, along with the spare pots and a small assortment of ferns, all under the shade of an olive tree and Pam's office/shed.

And here's this morning's harvest of compost from the big tumbler bin. This batch is probably the best ever – dark, crumbly and sweet smelling.

This tumbler bin isn't perfect, but it's the best choice for my garden. It scores 10 out of 10 for aerating the compost, but its one drawback is that its contents never get hot enough to kill off seeds from vegie scraps such as tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins and capsicums. I just try to keep as many seeds out of the compost as possible in the first place, but after spreading the compost out there's usually a small workload of 'weeding' the unwanted seedlings that pop up here and there.

An essential part of my composting set-up is the 'spare bin'. This was the original, and not very efficient, compost bin I had in the backyard 17 years ago. It's still extremely useful, because I always say that the minimum number of compost bins in any backyard should be two. Let me explain: I always get to the point in autumn where the big tumbler bin is chock-full. I then stop adding kitchen scraps to the tumbler bin and let it break down into compost (which takes three or four months, provided I keep on turning the tumbler bin over every few days). So this spare bin then becomes the bin where I keep on adding scraps during the months while the tumbler batch breaks down. Without a second bin, I'd stop recycling perfectly good kitchen waste for months on end, and that would be a criminal waste!

Now we're getting into the nitty gritty! A peek under the lid of the spare bin shows a couple of important composting lessons I've learned over the last few years. To get compost working well, you need to add a balance of 'wet' and 'dry' ingredients. Wet ingredients include scraps from vegies and fruit, which we have in abundance as we both do a lot of cooking using only fresh ingredients. However, 'dry' ingredients are in much shorter supply. They might include fallen leaves, shredded paper, old potting mix, or straw, for example. I've found the easiest way to supply dry ingredients to the compost is to add some straw mulch, each time I add another bin of scraps from the kitchen. Any old straw mulch will do, and here in Sydney sugar cane mulch is cheap and plentiful, so that's what I use both on my garden beds and in my compost bin.
When you get the balance wrong inside a compost heap, the process of breaking everything down slows down, either because it's simply too wet or too dry. The worms let you know whether you've got it right. They thrive in good going, and they are scarce when the mix is wrong.

The other magic ingredient in my compost bin is dolomite lime. I discovered a few years ago that my compost was too acid (probably due to the large amount of fruit scraps), so I've got into adding regular handfuls of dolomite to the compost bin to sweeten it all up. I just tested a sample of the latest batch, and it's still a bit too acid, around pH 5.5. Fortunately my soil is around pH 6.5, so when I dig in the compost to a garden bed for vegies, I add more dolomite to help raise its pH. A reading of 5.5, as shown here, still isn't that good of course, so I'll just have to keep on working on adding more dolomite over the next year!

Compost is wonderful for all garden plants, and this morning's 'harvest' of compost was prompted by the need to hill some soil around my potato plants. I simply didn't have enough soil to do the job, so I mixed it 50:50 with some compost. While I was at it I also pulled out the failed crop of Brussels sprouts and prepared that bed for planting zucchinis soon. After adding lots of compost, chicken poo, dolomite and digging it all into the soil, I'll wait a week or two before planting the zucchini seedlings that I'm raising from seed at the moment.

I love the way that composting is the very essence of the endless cycle of life, decay and regeneration here on planet Earth. I don't feel so bad about the prospect that one day I, too, will become compost returned to the earth. It just seems the natural order of things, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Bit players

While various garden plants are making a pleasing exhibition of themselves in a way that no visitor could ignore, others quietly go about the business of being beautiful in a more demure way. These are the plants that you might miss altogether if you're in a hurry, but in a backyard small as mine all you need to do is take your time as you wander around, explore a bit deeper when you spy a splash of colour, and even the shy guys & gals can't hide.

Take this wild creature, for example. It's a kind of poppy, a chance seedling that came up amid all the Iceland poppies which I've now posted about a few times. Short-lived, a darkly mysterious personality, there's only one of these in bloom.

This is an eminently missable flower, but it's a very pleasing sight nonetheless. These are the extremely tiny blooms of the NSW Christmas Bush (Ceratopetalum gummiferum). This is one of those plants, like the bougainvillea, whose 'insignificant' flowers are followed by colourful, dazzling bracts which most people in the street would describe as 'flowers'. Given its name, the bracts are at their best in December. This pleasing little display of flowers simply says "I'll be putting on a great show in a few months – stay tuned". But get up close to the supposedly 'insignificant' white flowers and you can see tinges of pink here and there, as well as a delicate prettiness that reminds me of some of my favourite herb flowers.

Above and below here are some helleborus blooms. These face down towards the ground, so you need to get down and dirty to photograph them. I'm surprised these flowers have appeared, as these poor plants have been transplanted three times in three years. I really ought to apologise to them for the maltreatment, but at least I've learned one thing. I've often read that helleborus 'sulk' for a year after transplanting and refuse to flower, so mine must be very thick-skinned and resilient personalities.

Helleborus photo number two. Even on the one plant flower colours and markings vary. Hopefully I won't be moving them anymore for the next 20 years, and they'll keep on doing their thing. Their common name here is 'winter rose' but mine always seem to be an early spring bloom, rather than a winter flowerer.

Another pair of photos of the same plant. This shrub is a new baby, just to the left of the all-singing, all-dancing poppy festival, and with just a few blooms on it this first spring, the grevillea tends to get overlooked. Its name is 'Peaches and Cream', due to its two-toned colouring that also changes as it ages.

There's a more mature 'Peaches and Cream' a few streets away, whose unopened flower buds are almost lime green. Mine are showing a more metallic green colour right now, so hopefully that will change as the shrub grows. It had a bit of a sick childhood (turned out to be an iron deficiency) but it's looking healthy now. It should grow to about 2m high and wide.

And finally, here's another so-called 'insignificant' flower, on a lemon-scented pelargonium. Yep, they're smallish blooms (about 2cm or one inch across) but they're very pretty if you bother to stop and admire them, as I like to do. However, I do admit that I didn't plant these for their flowers. The foliage is superbly fragrant, and I do love scented foliage plants every bit as much as I like scented flowers – maybe even a bit more sometimes, I suspect.