Sunday, November 29, 2009

My mate basil

I was out in the garden this morning planting out my second basil crop of the summer, and the funny thing is, summer hasn't officially started here yet (although with 40°C last Sunday and 32°C yesterday my garden certainly thinks it's summer already). Basil crop? Yep, basil crop. I've changed my attitude to growing basil. I'm treating it as a cross between a vegie and a herb. I use it as a herb in the kitchen, but I grow it like it's a vegie in the garden.

Basil lives hard and dies young. Here's some of last year's crop telling me that it's ready to flower and make babies then slowly fade away.

Just a week or so after the first photo was taken, it was in bloom. Around this stage the leaves lose their soft lusciousness and, as a herb, it's not a patch on its youthful self. And so last year I started up a second crop, then towards the end of summer, a third one. And the crops became fairly small, too, as I don't really need lots of basil at any one time. But I do like the idea of having fresh, tender young basil on hand at all times.

One thing I did wrong last year was sow the seed too thickly (I sowed them directly into the pot). Sure, I thinned out this dense little patch of seedlings to separate the plants, but it turned out I didn't quite thin them enough.

Overcrowded basil certainly looks nice, but while I had plenty of leaves to harvest for cooking I could just tell that the plants weren't happy. Some plants thrived but others died off amid all the competition.

This year I have raised seedlings in punnets and planted them out in pots, with about six seedlings planted into this pot. This is the first batch of this 'summer' and you can tell by the flower buds that it's already on the way out (last weekend's searing-hot heat didn't help, either). So, about three weeks ago I sowed the next batch of seed in punnets and got them going.

This morning I planted the new babies out into their pot in a spot on the path edge which gets maximum sunshine. This pot will need almost daily watering, but that's the only problem with doing things this way. All my other sunniest spots are taken up with tomatoes, zucchinis, zinnias and salvias, so it's a pot on the path or nothing! It will get light liquid feeds of one of those nitrogen-rich organic liquid foods (eg, Nitrosol or Seafeed 3-in-1) every fortnight.

I expect that I'll get another batch of basil seeds going some time later in the summer, probably late January, making that my third 'crop' of the summer. Many other herbs live a more leisurely life as perennials, lasting for years in the garden. But some herbs are (correctly) classed as 'annuals' which live for a year or less. With basil this 'annual' label is a bit misleading, as they don't last a whole year (well, at least not here in Sydney they don't). For my basil, it's three to four months from go to whoa. Coriander is another herb which lives fast and dies young in the same way, but I only grow that in the cooler autumn-winter months here.

Basil has so many uses in cooking, it's one of my favourite herbs. Of course, like everyone else I use it with tomatoes, in salads, and in Thai-style stir-fries, and I am also a great fan of turning the end-of-the-line plants into traditional pesto and freezing that in little batches.

I use tiny plastic Tupperware containers which hold about two tablespoonsful of pesto each, and that's the perfect size. Small batches of pesto unfreeze fast, so they're also very easy to use in a last-minute kind of way.

However, as a variation on the traditional 'pesto pasta' dish served on its own, I sometimes serve pesto mixed with smaller quantities of penne or shell pasta as a 'carb' side dish, instead of potatoes or rice. Pesto is also wonderful in a potato salad that includes lightly cooked green beans and some chopped walnuts. And it's also lovely as a dollop-style sauce to make grilled chicken more interesting.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Saying hello to the world

Well, a year ago today I was visiting Gavin's blog and noticed a little thing at the bottom of his blog which counted the number of visitors. As a blogging newbie then, I thought "what a good idea" and so I signed up for the free, basic service at Sitemeter. And today it has been a year since I started counting, so I thought I'd do a little blog to say not only thank you to Sitemeter for a handy little service, but also 18,000 thankyous to everyone who has visited my blog so far. Thank you one and all.

This is the bit I really like – seeing the whole world saying hello, especially when I get all continents (bar Antarctica, of course) taking part at the one go. Who is that in the centre of the Amazon? Hello Cape Town! Greetings, India. Howdy, the US and Canada. And cheers, Europe, Japan, Malaysia, Iceland, the Caribbean, Hawaii and all my mates in Australia and across the ditch in NZ.

Until I signed up with Sitemeter I had no idea how many people visited my blog. I presumed it was about half a dozen, maybe even a dozen, as I noticed a variety of names cropping up regularly leaving comments. Now I know that about one in 100 visitors leaves a comment, which is fine by me. Sitemeter surprised me with the numbers visiting here, which is more than I imagined but still very modest by any standard, but it helps to keep me going!

The odd family member and friend asks me why do I bother blogging, and that's such an easy question to answer. I'm expressing myself. At last.

I grew up with dreams of being a writer, but soon realised that I didn't have anything huge, like a novel, lurking within me. I was full of little bits and pieces of ideas, but no grand, unifying themes. So I have turned my modest writing skills into a comfy income as a journalist. And I've always loved to take photos, but always as a happy amateur without ambitions of anything beyond the odd pic appearing in magazines. And I love gardening. Oh how I love gardening.

And so blogging is the perfect storm of all these hopes and interests swirled into the one cloud of words and photos. Finally, after 56 years on this planet, I am expressing myself in a way that seems right for me. Thanks for dropping by!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Coriander seeds update

It was only a month ago, on October 31, that I did a posting on harvesting coriander seed. In that short time the seed has dried, I've sown some to test if they're viable, and they've come up (well, some have). So that's my update, essentially, but along the way I discovered something about village life that I'll share with you at the end.

October 31, the vibrant, fresh green seeds, healthy bouncing babies in a bowl.

After three weeks in a brown paper bag hanging up in my shed, they're all dry.

After about two weeks in the bag they all looked dry enough, in fact, but I left them there for another week just to be sure.

The hardest part of the whole process was pulling the seeds off the stems and creating this pile of seeds. Took a while, that did.

Next step, the viability test. Six seeds sown, then covered in seed-raising mix.

Not sure if this constitutes three seeds up or two. Not exactly the best seed viability rate I've ever seen, but not a complete dud either. As I only need to grow a few plants at a time next autumn/winter season, I am sure to get more than enough seedlings out of that pile of seeds.

However, about two-thirds of that pile of seeds is headed for a jar in my kitchen. To turn the seeds into powder, I lightly heat up the seeds in a dry frying pan, just until you can smell the fragrance coming off the seeds, then I grind them up in a coffee grinder. I use the coriander powder in all sorts of spice mixes, but as I cook a lot of Indian food that's where most of it will go, although many Greek and Middle-Eastern dishes use coriander powder as well.

And what was this blinding insight I had into village life? Well, it happened during the long drudgery of separating the dried seeds from the stems. While doing this I imagined I was a poor villager somewhere, trying to scrape together a living, harvesting and sorting fifty kilos of coriander seeds, a pile five feet high. What drudgery! The only way to get through countless hours of this would be to share the workload with a couple of others, and make things interesting by talking village gossip!
"She did what, with Uncle Varna? No! Really?"

I am sure the only good thing about long hours of such drudgery would be the gossip.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Surviving a scorcher

There's such a huge difference between the weather merely being hot and life-threateningly scorching. Everyone here in Sydney experienced the scorched side of far-too-hot last Sunday. Here in Marrickville, it got up to 40°C, or 104°F in the old money, and I'm close to the coast, so it was a lot hotter than that in the suburbs further inland. It was hard to cope with. Walk outside for a few minutes and you started to wilt, just like the plants.

For what it's worth, proof. Of course we knew it was coming, so I was out early in the garden protecting what I thought were the vulnerable ones.

Most vulnerable, the goldfish! A hastily erected shadecloth tent.

Unconcerned as ever, greedy as ever for a sprinkle of food, the comets kept on circulating all day.

My supposedly 'cool climate' tomatoes must have thought they'd been transferred to Namibia, and so they got their own little shadecloth tent.

These are the chubby little 'Beaver Lodge Slicers' under that tent, Canadian tomatoes who had been enjoying a holiday in Australia, suddenly regretting their tour Down Under. They came through it all OK.

Across the path, this hastily erected structure, which I dubbed the 'Sarah Palin Room', houses my other cool-climate tomatoes, the 'Alaska' variety. Marvellous use of orchid stakes and bulldog paper clips from the home office under pressure, I must say!

Underneath the shadecloth shroud, the Alaskans were undoubtedly muttering recriminations to themselves about who booked the passage to Australia, but they survived.

Elsewhere in the Scorcho-Dome, the cumquat tree received special treatment, mainly because a good friend Michelle, whose cumquat plant I baby-sat for several months recently, had told me about the awful 40°C day a few years ago when her potted cumquat almost went to heaven. Panic-struck, I decided my baby citrus, right now in the bloom of youth, was going to avoid that fate, and it did. Breezed through it all in fact. Seemed like an over-reaction, actually. That's always the problem with people/critters/plants which survive due to good planning. Did they really need all that fuss in the first place? Next year, complacency!

Alas, there was one victim. Ringo. Not discovered on the day, or even the day after. But on the day after that, my usual greedy quartet of goldfish who appear like lightning at the first sprinkle of goldfish food – John, Paul, George and Ringo – well, they lacked the usual rhythm. The drums were silent. Ringo hadn't made it.

RIP Ringo, it was all my fault, somehow. Sorry old chum. It was a beastly day. I tried my best, but nature is like that. Beautiful, then vicious, then beautiful again.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Harvesting vegies: blog radio 2

A while ago I posted my first attempt at Blog Radio here, an MP3 of the little segment I do regularly on Sydney radio station 2UE (AM 954), as part of Don Burke's weekend mornings radio program called 'Burke's Backyard'.

And so this is the second installment of blog radio, and it's all about knowing when is the right time to harvest your vegies. At the end, I include a recipe for capsicum and corn fritters by the magazine's cookery editor, Tracy Rutherford.

And so, here's Blog Radio 2: harvesting vegies

Tracy's recipe can be found at the BBY website, here:

or here...

Tracy Rutherford’s Corn and Capsicum Fritters

• 1 cup (150g) self-raising flour

• 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

• 1/2 cup finely grated parmesan

• 2 eggs

• 1/2 cup (125mL) milk

• kernels cut from 1 corn cob (or 400g can corn kernels, drained)

• 1 large red capsicum, diced

• vegetable oil, for cooking

• 2 tablespoons chopped chives

• 1/2 cup (125g) sour cream

• crispy grilled bacon, to serve

1. Sift the flour, cayenne pepper and a generous pinch of salt into a large bowl. Stir in the parmesan. Whisk the eggs and milk together and gently stir into the flour mix. Add the corn and capsicum to the batter. Fold in with a large metal spoon, until just combined. Don’t overwork the mixture or the fritters will be tough.

2. Pour a thin film of oil into a large frying pan and heat over medium heat. For each fritter, measure 1/3 cup of the mixture, drop it into the pan, and let it spread to about 10cm diameter. Cook for 3 minutes on one side, and 1 1/2 minutes on the other.

3. Stir the chives into the sour cream. Serve a spoonful of this mix on top of the fritters, with some crispy bacon on the side.

And if you like the sound of Don's radio show, you can access the full podcast at the 2UE website here, and also subscribe to it via iTunes.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Cheater's chooks

I'm not sure how my workmate Chris cottoned on to the fact that I've been thinking about getting chooks, but when some props from a recent gardening promotion ended up in the back of her Land Rover, she immediately thought of me. "Would you like these decorative tin chooks?" she asked. Nanoseconds later I blurted out "yes", and so now I am the very happy owner of two cheater's chooks, nicely hand-painted roosters made from tin.

There could only be one place for these two. My shed window.

Not sure which variety they are. Rhode Island Rascals? Whynots? But until I can figure out how I could actually incorporate a couple of chooks into the heavily planted jumble of my backyard, they'll have to do. They're my 'Aspirational' chooks.

Not a patch on the real thing, sure. And they're boys, so there's definitely no chance of eggs, but as they're made from tin at least there's no chance of crowing, either. And until I can figure out where a couple of chooks could live happily here in my crowded little plot, I'll have to be content with a pair of nicely painted cheats.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Nervous waits

Apart from stinging nettles and Triffids, do any plants make you nervous? Tomatoes make me nervous. I think this is the symptom of being a trauma victim, because last year's tomato crop was a sudden, unexpected, dare-I-say-it 'tragic' disaster, and this year's crop is following the same early, worrying pattern. At the moment everything is looking terrific, just like the same time last year. And that's got me nervous. Let me explain.

Here's a totally healthy young 'Alaska' tomato, photo taken this morning. Small-sized but bigger than a cherry tomato, there are plenty of them forming. This is part of my experiment in growing so-called cool climate tomatoes early in the season, hoping for these fast-growers to crop early before the worst of our summer bugs and diseases arrive.

Raised from seed, this is the seedling on the day I planted it out, October 3.

46 days later and fruit is on the way, but not for another two or so weeks, I'd guess.

Alaska is a 'bush' type tomato, which means it spreads sideways like you wouldn't believe and it doesn't need staking. Seemingly, everything is OK with it. But that's how things were at roughly the same time last year...

This is a shot from last year. Mid-December 2008, Tomato Land in full swing. Low-growing bush-type Romas in the foreground, taller-growing 'Grosse Lisse' in the background. Seemingly, everything OK.

Two weeks later, December 31, 2008, and the dreaded mystery disease has struck, the plants yellowed and wilted rapidly, exposing masses of green fruits that were never going to make it to the ripe, red stage. Every day it got more wilted and hopeless, and so I pulled up the lot. Rats! 'But there's always next year', I told myself, and so I'm back in the tomato-growing business again.

As well as planting the cool climate 'Alaska' I also raised from seed some Canadian 'Beaver Lodge Slicer' toms and planted them out on October 3 as well. (And yep, I am growing them in totally different garden beds to last year's disaster crop.)

Also a bush-type tomato, these have grown even better than the Alaskas, but they are in a slightly better spot in the garden, getting perfect sunshine.

Beaver Lodge Slicer fruit are bigger than Alaska's, about 2.5 inches (7cm) across, and there are plenty of them forming. I've used an organic spray called Success to control caterpillars, which have been seen, but I want to grow these guys organically, so no other sprays, dusts etc will be used. They're on their own.

As I dutifully water them every morning I keep on saying to myself "come on guys, ripen up. Go on, you can do it!" Nothing will hurry them along, I suspect. So I'll have to learn the virtues of patience. It will be a nervous wait, I can assure you.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Oops, a harvest!

Well, my experiment with growing spuds in a bag had an unexpected early part-harvest the other day, thanks mostly to Huey and his playful dumping of four inches of rain in one day on my garden. Most of the plants here just soaked up that heavy rain, but two of my six spud plants in bags went weak at the knees, keeled over, carked it, gave up the ghost. In a matter of days they started to look like ex-spud plants and a week later it was all over for them. No option but to dig down and count the bodies.

For an early harvest from a plant cut down in mere middle age, I can't grumble too much about this bunch of Spunta spuds.

Looking up Spuntas on the net and it seems these make very nice chips, although they also get a mention in despatches for being a good all-rounder. The more I read about how good Spuntas are, the more I lament their early demise! I want more of them (and I cooked some last night and yes indeed they are very yummy).

These are the spud bags just a day or two after all that rain - you can see the wilters wilting and yellowing already.

A week later and two plants have died back and the early harvest is completed.

The other victim, the purple 'Saphire' spuds, barely produced anything – just this little bunch of cocktail-size spuds which, when I cooked them, had a remarkably nice flavour for such small, under-developed spuds. And so I weep for missing out on more of them, too!

The one fun thing about this early harvest is, of course, the harvesting itself – a dirty business! Here in Australia we use the term 'bandicooting' to describe the way you burrow into the soil with your hand and arm to find spuds. (It's named after one of our native burrowing marsupials, the bandicoot, whose mostly nocturnal burrowing activities in search of food do not endear them to gardeners who have to share the same patch of ground with them.)

Shouldn't complain though. There are still four plants chugging along, hopefully growing bigger and more numerous tubers every day. And I can't blame Huey for the spud plants' demise, though. I did just have the bags sitting on the ground. Though they have a good number of drainage holes, if I had sat the bags up on something to let the water drain away, it might have helped a lot. I've done that now, and hopefully the remaining spud plants will go on to live out their full allotted time and leave behind some delicious crops that I just know I am going to enjoy!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Pigpen blooms again

Do you give nicknames to any of your plants? Mostly I don't, but I've made an exception for Pigpen. Yes, he's named after the character in the Peanuts comics I gleefully devoured as my children's literature as a kid – my potted gardenia is my little mate, Pigpen.

Here's what I mean. Pigpen starts out freshly laundered, crispy white like a washing powder commercial would like a flower to be. But sometimes by the end of the first day, certainly by the end of day two, each bloom is dusted with a caramel topping. This morning, also dressed with a sparkle of faint dew (click on the photo to see what I mean), Pigpen managed to look adorable for just a while.

Several years ago I planted three wide troughs with low-growing Gardenia radicans because the books talked about flushes of sweetly fragrant blooms set against glossy green leaves. And they were right. But they didn't mention that the flowers turn brown within days.

Panning down a few inches from the shot above, and the first splodge of murk already has made its mark.

Nevertheless, mornings at the moment offer a pretty greeting at my back door, with the gardenias in bloom and the water garden doing well (you can even see a flash of gold in the pot, as I am pleased to report to regular readers that all the goldfish are alive and doing well, so too the plants, which already need cutting back). Anyway, back to Pigpen...

There are probably hundreds of buds on the three plants here, and the scents and the sights for the next few weeks will be delicious, especially on those mornings where the air is still and the fragrance is like a benevolent spirit at the door, waiting to be let in.

But all this delight brings quite a workload. I just can't bring myself to leave dozens and dozens of brown blemishes on these pretty little shrubs. And so I pick off the dead blooms each day, and that becomes something of a chore. The price you pay for having Pigpen as a little mate – cleaning up after him.

Other gardenias, such as the larger Gardenia augusta 'Florida', have white flowers that last a lot longer on the bush than my little G. radicans. And I have checked with others who know, or grow, G. radicans, and they have confirmed that my little Pigpen is typical of the breed.

But when I come to think of it, this is a plant with personality, one of the very few in my garden to earn its own nickname, so despite his dreadful manners he's a bit of a treasure, really.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Some like it hot

There's one sure-fire way to turn me into a lazy lay-about on the weekend, and that's heat, and today there's just the right dose of it – 30°C (86°F). I managed to score one garden brownie point this morning before I wilted - I trimmed the hedge which screens the composting area. But then my inbuilt, generations-old Celtic heat sensors went off and said "it's a wee bit tae hot for thee laddie" and so I have downed tools until late afternoon at the earliest, maybe for the day. And with a cup of tea to cool me, the fan on and a bit of blogging to catch up with, I thought I'd admire some of the plants which, unlike me, actually enjoy the heat on a day like today.

In the background is the crisply trimmed hedge with which I earned my brownie point this morning, and in the foreground is our frangipani, which can take any dose of heat Sydney cares to throw at it. Sydney has the ideal climate for frangis, they're everywhere in this town, and the ones doing best are usually the most neglected. I try my best to neglect mine at all times, so the regime here is simple: no fertiliser, no water except rain. Nothing. It's working so far.

I only planted this zucchini seedling two weeks ago and this morning it's having its first babies. Outrageous behaviour! Zucchinis love sun, but not the humidity that comes later on in January and February, so I am going to let this crop like mad from now until New Year then call it quits. Besides, we're 'zucchinied-out' by then.

My Beaver Lodge Slicer tomatoes are belting along in the heat. These are meant to be rapid-cropping 'cool climate' tomatoes suited to Canada (the seedlings were planted on October 3, six weeks ago). I thought I'd try them as a fast-cropper before all the summer bugs arrive to chomp our tomato crops. So far so good, but I was in roughly the same position last year with other varieties, just weeks before most of my crop succumbed to a mystery disease. Boo hoo! Glutton for both punishment and home-grown tomatoes, I am.

My wife Pammy asked me to repot into a much bigger pot this, her favourite pelargonium with the dark leaves and the salmon-pink flowers, as it is rapidly getting bigger in all the heat and sunshine. The trouble is that I repotted it only a month ago, and that was about a week after she first brought it home. This plant really loves the sun, but something tells me I had better keep this plant happy and healthy at all times, as it is her favourite child.

Our New South Wales Christmas Bush is in full sun-loving 'bloom' right now. In the same way that a bougainvillea's colourful 'flowers' aren't really flowers and are in fact coloured bracts, so too the NSW Christmas Bush. Its flowers are white and small, but the bracts are a ruddy pink, lovely and plentiful. It's a bit early for Christmas, but it always colours up at this time of year for us.

If I'm celebrating sun-lovers I have to slip in at least one succulent photo. Needless to say all my potted succulents are thriving in the sunshine.

Finally, I thought I'd finish off with high hopes for my favourite sun-loving flowers, blue salvias. I've just planted a batch of seedlings a few weeks ago and they're all still small but are growing well, loving the heat and sunshine, as salvias do. As this sparse patch of mulch dotted with tiny seedlings is hardly the prettiest way to end a celebration of sun-lovers, I thought I'd dip into the archives and drag out a couple of shots from last year of what I am hoping for again from my beautiful, sunny salvias.

Essentially this: pleasing light green foliage and spires galore of cool blue flowers.

But get up really close and a salvia blue is as cool and refreshing as an ice-cube.

Speaking of ice-cubes, I think I'll tinkle up something cooler to drink now and sit back in my cane armchair in the shade with a book and do very little for the next few hours, apart from looking up occasionally and watching my garden soak up the sunshine. As far as I am concerned, a garden isn't quite complete without a comfy chair.