Monday, May 30, 2011

Finding room for mushrooms

One of the best things about working on a gardening magazine is that you work on stories such as "how to grow mushrooms at home" and you then start thinking about doing something you've never done before, like growing mushrooms. The May issue of our mag carried the mushroom story, and I just couldn't resist the temptation after reading Cheryl Maddocks' interesting story. Admittedly, she mentioned all the fancy gourmet mushies you can grow, like Shiitake, Swiss Browns, oyster mushrooms etc, but I ended up buying the cheapest $19.95 mushroom growing kit from that extremely large and ubiquitous hardware warehouse chain that all Aussies know about.

Here it is, and as this morning is the first time I have spotted an actual mushroom growing in it, it's time I did my mushroom growing report.

As mentioned above, $19.95. Nice artwork on the box, fills you with the optimism that your mushrooms will all turn out to be red toadstools!

Inside the lid are the destructions on what to do. Note the bit which says "Mushrooms should appear in 21-39 days." In my case the count was the full 39 days, so be patient.

Inside the box, two plastic bags filled with what you need to get started.

First fill the box with the larger bag's contents of mushroom compost (pictured), then spread the smaller bag's contents of mushroom-spawn-impregnated peat moss evenly over the top.

Water the whole lot well with a fine spray of water.

Now, here's the trickiest bit: find a truly dark spot for the mushroom growing kit to live for the next few months. I used an old black plastic recycling bin that fortunately worked out to be a perfect fit over the top of the kit, which is in my very crowded but dry garden shed.

The black bin was a truly lucky find on my part, but hopefully you'll be able to find something similar, maybe you even have one of those old bins yourself, or a friend has one lying around unused. No light gets in under the black bin, which sits flush on the floor, so it's perfect. They sometimes use disused railway tunnels to grow mushrooms, so you get the idea, but areas deep under houses would be another option, as long as the area is dry.

After about a week, a faintly greenish mould appeared on the surface, raising my hopes, but then, suddenly, nothing much happened. For weeks. It has been a long wait. I have occasionally sprayed the area with a light mist of water, and of course I wondered if that was too much or too little, as the instructions say moist but not wet. However, I suspect spraying too little is probably better than too much because... I had completely forgotten the mushroom kit was there in the last week, during which I have been unwell. It was only this morning that I thought "oh my god, the mushroom kit!" and went outside to the shed, lifted the bin and...

Mushrooms! You could be churlish and say it's only two, and that works out at $10 per button, but hope springs eternal. All that white mouldy powder on the surface looks to me like the site of future mushroom cities springing up. The plan is that if I do it right we should get a few kilograms of mushrooms by the end of the production run.

In the meantime, all I have to do is wait. The larger the mushroom the stronger the flavour, or so they say, so I will check on these little guys in two days' time, to get some idea of how fast and big they grow. I have home-made chicken stock in the freezer just waiting to become a soup, and home-grown mushroom soup sounds like my kind of lunch treat.

To be continued, when the crops pop up...

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Medicinal soup

Here's a practical diet tip that you don't often hear: get sick.

A tummy upset is what you need to get started on that diet you've been meaning to get around to. Worked a treat for me last week. I'm down two kilos already. I was going to start my "before I go travelling diet" sometime soon, and fate, with the help of a nasty little virus, decided that my diet starts now. For the first few days eating anything was a lost cause, but then I came goodish after three days, and could at least eat some soup.

The virus then helpfully decided to move out of my stomach and occupy my lungs and throat. Little blighter (cough, cough). I'm almost well again now, but I am sure some of the credit for my recovery came via the chicken and vegetable soups that I had a couple of times this week.

And so with health restored, I decided that it was time to replenish my depleted supply of medicinal chicken and vegetable soup, and do a posting on that (and in the process learn a bit more about using my new mini digital travel camera). I'll provide the recipe at the end, but here's the basic steps.

Any combination of vegies would probably do, but this is the classic set: carrots, a leek, onion, celery, potato, swede, parsnip.

Slice leeks.

Dice potato and swede (you could use turnips instead of swede, which I think is called rutabaga in some other lands).

Dice carrots.

Dice celery then take a blurry photo of it.

Mix all the prepared vegies together, stand back and admire, point shoot.

Place 1.5kg chicken in pot, along with 3 litres water (I cheated and included some home-made chicken stock in that 3-litre quantity).

Add chopped vegies (and the water level should rise to just cover the chicken)

Add two bay leaves, a few sprigs of thyme and a handful of black peppercorns.

Bring to the boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally, and once boiling (and that can take 20-30 minutes) turn heat down low so the pot is barely simmering, but uncovered, so the liquid reduces slightly. Let it all simmer away slowly for 2 hours.

Remove chicken from the pot (it'll be falling apart by this stage) and let it cool. While the chicken cools, lightly mash the vegetables to help thicken the soup a bit.

At this stage I forgot to take a photo of the next step: ie, add 1 cup of tiny pasta. So then I had to fish out one teeny little square of tiny pasta, sit it next to a peppercorn, and take a macro shot of how tiny my teeny pasta is.

Strip all the flesh from the cooled chicken and chop into dice, add back to the pot. (Almost there!)

This photo needs a 'scratch and sniff' attachment, as it smells so chickeny/vegetably!

However, before you enjoy it, and this is the magic ingredient in turning a nice soup into a very, very nice soup: freeze it for a few days. For some reason all the soups I make taste so much nicer after they've had a spell in the freezer. Not just chicken soups, either. I won't eat my wintry pea and ham soup until it has been frozen for a while, and my leek and potato is the same, too.

All this soup shot lacks is bread. Good, crusty bread to dunk into it and mop up the last of it. My favourite lunch, a good soup with crusty dunking bread. And in the case of chicken and vegetable soup, it's genuinely medicinal. Apparently there are anti-inflammatory compounds within the bones of chickens, and provided you make chicken soup using chicken on the bone (and not just fillets) you'll get the anti-inflammatory goodies, as well as all the vegie goodness too.

OK, here's the recipe and it's an old one from the June 2004 issue of our magazine, and it's by our wonderful cookery writer Tracy Rutherford, whose recipes always work beautifully. You might notice that I haven't followed her recipe precisely in the photos above (because after a couple of batches it's fairly easy to make from memory, even if you slightly change it), but for starters I suggest you do it Tracy's way if you want to make a very nice batch of old-style home-made chicken and vegetable soup.

Tracy Rutherford's Real Chicken Soup

1.5kg whole chicken
8 peppercorns
1 bay leaf
large sprig thyme
1 large leek, sliced
3 large carrots, halved and sliced
4 sticks celery, sliced (reserve tops)
3 litres water
2 good quality chicken stock cubes (such as Massel)
1 cup (190g) stellini, or other small soup pasta

1. Place the chicken into a large, heavy-based stockpot. Cut a square of muslin and place the peppercorns, bay leaf and thyme on it. Bring the ends together to form a little pouch, and tie securely with kitchen string. Add to the pot.

2. Pour 3 litres of cold water into the pot, along with the vegetables. Bring slowly to the boil over medium-low heat (this will take about 30 minutes). Reduce the heat slightly and cook for 2 hours. The water should not be boiling during this time, just barely simmering.

3. Carefully lift the chicken from the pot – use two pairs of tongs, or a large slotted spoon and tongs. The chicken will fall apart, but into large pieces, so just take them all out. Let the chicken cool slightly, then pull the meat from the chicken, and chop into smaller, bite-sized pieces suitable for soup.

4. Meanwhile, using a potato masher, roughly mash the vegetables in the soup. Add the stock cubes and stir to dissolve. Return the chicken to the soup.

5. If you have time, chill the soup so that the fat floating on the top solidifies and is easy to remove. When ready to serve, bring to the boil, add the pasta and cook for 10 minutes. Chop the reserved celery leaves and stir into the soup; season to taste.

Once I was a sick man, but now I am on the road to recovery thanks to Tracy's medicinal soup. Thank you Tracy!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Inconvenience foods

It's peak season for my two favourite inconvenience foods – persimmons and quinces. 'Inconvenience' foods? Yep. These babies aren't quick and easy to eat. You have to earn them, you have to wait and, best of all, they're available for just a few months every year. After the season is over, you have to be patient... and wait ... until next year. I like that!

This dome-shaped person is an astringent persimmon. Should you foolishly attempt to eat this thing while firm and unripe, I have been told your mouth will pucker instantly with the bitterness, and stay puckered for ages. And you'll never do that again, either. Fortunately for me I was forewarned and I did what everyone should do: I waited until it softened, and softened some more, then finally arrived at the "I'm about to disintegrate with softness" stage. Then it's ready to eat. It's my favourite breakfast during its season of autumn and early winter. I like to think of it in an anti-marketing way as "Cereal with Disintegrated Inconvenience Food Collapsed over the Top". Catchy name? Yummy, I say.

On the left is the astringent persimmon, the one with the dome, and on the right is the modern convenience food type of persimmon, the non-astringent type, the flatter one, also known as Fuji, Kaki and various other names. The non-astringent types are much more sensible things. You can eat them crisp like an apple or let them ripen until softer and eat them, say, like a ripe pear. They're nice, and they are of course much more popular than the highly inconvenient astringent persimmon. But I like the weirdo on the left more because, in the end, it wins the big prize: it tastes better.

As this is a gardening blog most of the time, I should pause for a moment to say that no, I am not about to tell you how I grow persimmons here, because I don't. I could keep a persimmon tree alive here, sure, and collect some fruit each year, but I don't think it wouldn't be a completely happy person. Persimmons like a mildly chilly winter as a part of their fruit-making cycle, and the mild, coastal part of Sydney where I live can't supply that. My area is also just a touch too warm for raising successful crops of my other favourite fruits such as apples, nashi pears and quinces, so I don't bother growing them, either. And so I content myself with letting other people in the right climates grow quality crops of the fruits I love, and I'm happy just to buy some, to keep them in business doing what they do so well.
Edit: not long after posting this here today, Lanie at Edible Urban Garden, who lives just 5km from me, did a posting on her beautiful persimmon crop, so what do I know about growing persimmons! Check our her blog!

Did I just mention quinces? My other favourite inconvenience food. They're in season now, and I love them as much as I love persimmons.

Bought this one yesterday, and it's wonderfully inconvenient too. And seasonal as well. When fruits are available for just a few months each year they remain special. As soon as the modern world decrees that the spoilt child known as the average consumer simply insists on having their favourite fruit for 365 days a year, then the poor fruit loses some of its charisma. Absence does make the heart fonder for fruit. Such a thrill to see the first quince of the season each year, and to know what lies ahead for the next few months.

I love this part of quinces, the soft downy bloom which appears on the skin. It's harmless and rubs off or washes off (or disappears in the peelings anyway) but I have seen people in shops almost recoil in horror when they discover that there is "something" on that fruit! So many modern fruit shops, with their gleaming over-polished apples and art-directed displays of coordinated colours, are almost sanitised in their drive for visual perfection. And then over to the side, away from the main show, there are the quince trays, fluffy with down and looking like a bunch of unshaven hobos needing a wash. Often I think they're the only truly natural looking thing left in some modern fruit shops.

As soon as I finish writing this blog this little quince is going to be peeled, cut into chunks, sprinkled with sugar, sloshed with water and tossed into a covered small baking dish, along with a cinnamon stick, to slowly turn bright, bright red and become yet another cool season breakfast treat. It takes three or four hours for the flesh to change from the original off-white to this wonderful colour, and while that happens the house fills with the aroma of the quinces meeting the spice of the cinnamon. It might take a while, but the inconvenience is always worth it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Moon glow

We've been having one of those beautiful spells of clear, cold autumn weather here in Sydney. By our standards nights have been crispy-cold, down to 7°C (brrrr) thanks to the clear skies. Over the last couple of nights the moon has been building up to a perfect full-moon disc, and this morning, when I popped outside to pick up the newspaper, I spotted the full moon setting. In my jarmies, I rushed back inside, grabbed the camera, click click click.

I would like to thank Roger Raven for his cooperation with this photo. No doubt 'Evermore' is what he was saying, but I couldn't catch exactly what he said, he was so far away. (Hint: click on the photo and it will come up much bigger.)

Last night I woke up very early in the morning, and the moon was glowing through every pore in the house. The little dish-shaped cloud-white perspex skylights in our hallway and dining room were so bright you'd swear I'd left the lights on. And the moonglow angling in through the kitchen window was so strong I was tempted to read by it.

I was captivated by the moonlight, and it occurred to me that surely plants must respond to its effect as well. I wonder if they grow a bit more when the full moon is in its pomp?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Wall flowers

I think I've found the plant to happily occupy my trio of wall pots. If happiness is a flower, then my Vriesia bromeliads are happy here, as two of the three potted bromeliads, which I only planted here a few months ago as little baby 'pups', are already in flower.

This very handy bromeliad website tells me that my bromeliad is Vriesia 'Isabel', no doubt one of the hardiest and easiest broms to grow, because as a brom beginner it would have to be a tough and easy one for me to grow, as I don't really know all that much about them.

Before I move on to my inevitable blathering on about what precious little I know about broms, let's just give my snazzy new pocket digital camera a spin in macro mode and have a look at this brom bloom, close-up. Does that scream 'tropical' at you, or what?

Now, here's a far less pretty shot of two of the three pots in situ. Terracotta wall pots, bolted to the wall, doing their usual business of leaching salts out of the pores and leaving a white crust, like kids' mouths after eating ice-creams.

This area gets zero direct sunshine, but stacks of filtered sun via the polycarbonate roofing of the pergola overhead, and the shadecloth on the western side. In summer it can get very hot and humid here, but it's sheltered from all cool southerly and westerly winds. It's a spot that suits the tropical/subtropical broms to a tee. Never sunny, never cold, occasionally stinking hot and humid – just like its South American home!

I had tried New Guinea impatiens in these pots, but they were so thirsty that the slightest inattention to watering led to instant wilting, and a wilting plant is just such a pathetic, sad thing to come across regularly that I pulled them out in disgust. Then the pots lay empty for part of the summer, as I pondered what to plant there. It was only when I decided to repot my bromeliads, and had too many 'pups' (baby broms) and not enough pots on hand to put them in, that I (thick as a brick) finally thought of the wall pots.

It turns out that I should have had them in wall pots all along. In the wild broms don't grow in soil. They mostly cling onto tree branches or, sometimes, rocks. And so the small amount of soil in a narrow wall pot isn't a problem for them at all. The potting mix I use is the one our magazine suggests: 50:50 orchid bark and ordinary potting mix. Seems to work OK!

As for care, they're dead easy. They do like to have some water in their little central 'cup', but it doesn't have to be constantly full or topped up. During our cooler temperate winters they like to be kept on the dry side, and during summer they like things on the moist and humid side. I sprinkle some slow-release fertiliser around them, and that's it. I guess I'm watering them about twice a week now, in autumn, and it'll be down to once a week in winter. Overwatering in winter is a really good way to kill them (a bit like indoor tropical plants, come to think of it.)

As I mentioned earlier, these wall-potted plants were planted as 'pups', new plants which spring up from the sides of the parent, from the base of the plant. I waited until the pups were about one-third the size of the parent plant, then cut them off with a knife, trying to take some roots with each pup.

After sending up its litter of pups the parent plant dies off (I'm not sure if that bit is true to all broms or not, but it's true for the few broms I have, Vriesias and Neoregelias.) And so an occasional routine around here is unpotting, dividing up, and repotting the pups (but if you don't get around to this, it doesn't matter, the pot will just be chockers with pups growing into adults).

Each time I do my repotting the number of plants has steadily grown. Hardly any die, so the way I keep the numbers of potted plants down is simply to give some away. So if you see a bromeliad and are tempted, or someone who already owns some offers you a freebie, take it.

Find a sheltered spot away from too much direct sun, such as a wall under a balcony or pergola, install some wall pots, and give amazing tropical bromeliads a go. There's only a zillion to choose from, so you'll probably find a couple of dozen that you'll adore.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A new camera!

'Boys and their toys...' I know what my girl Pam is thinking! It's not a toy, it is a sensible purchase.

The planning for our USA trip is slowly gathering steam. We have booked flights, made just a few reservations at hotels here and there, and we're changing our mind all the time about where we might go, what we might do. Good. But no matter where we go, no matter what we do, we'll be tourists taking photos. And my heavy big lump of an SLR camera would be a pain to carry around for eight weeks. So the sensible purchase was a much smaller, lighter camera that could still take nice garden photos, but also fit into a jacket pocket.

Anyway, on with this afternoon's first test run of the new pocket digital camera, done of course without bothering to read the instructions, in the time-honoured tradition of boys with new toys.

Alyssum close-up for starters. Not bad.

Faucaria in bloom.

Sempervivum. Yep, looks just like one.

Curry tree berries.

Tibouchina 'Groovy Baby' showing signs of returning to health (once I pulled off all the flower buds and let it put all of its energy into growing leaves and roots – I might not let it flower until it's an established healthy 'teenager' of a plant. It's been a sick baby so far.)

Nasturtium foliage. I'd like a car in that colour and pattern.

Grevillea 'Peaches and Cream.

And second-last, Pam's indoor plant, her Peperomia.

Last of all the girl who I think of as 'bossy boots, the class prefect'. She's a cute little plastic person we bought when we visited the White Rabbit Gallery, a truly captivating contemporary Chinese art gallery at Chippendale here in Sydney. She always looks so pleased with herself, and with the quite good first-up outing with my new pocket camera I feel something like she does at the moment. Pleased, but I hope not quite as bossy.

Oh, what camera is it, you ask? The nice salesman in the shop was adamant that the Ricoh CX2 has the best macro of the cameras on offer in my middling but not too cheap price range, and so the deal was done. Free carry bag, half price discount on the 16Gig chip and spare lithium battery, and a bit over $500 later, it was mine. It's just 10cm wide, 6cm high and 3cm deep. Perfect pocket size for the plant-loving tourist I plan to be.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Casting nasturtiums

Every now and then Pam gets an idea in her head about some flower or plant, and it's my job to go find it, plant it and keep it happy – or, failing that, to talk her out of it (usually with the winning argument that we don't have enough space for xyz beautiful but too-large flowering shrub).

And so it came to pass that we planted some nasturtiums a few weeks ago and, as nasturtiums do without encouragement, they are already thriving. But there's a bit of a 'Mother's Day' theme to this story that you'll find out about by the end of this post, so I guess it's the right time to tell you the story. It goes like this...

Here's the first of the nasturtium flowers, and they're vividly nice things, although appreciating them sometimes means getting down on hands and knees and parting the foliage to find the blooms.

Speaking of foliage, this nasturtium does have a lovely 'splashed paint' look. These are attractive plants, but they do have a major drawback, notably being an invasive weed, but I just couldn't say 'no' to Pam's request for some nasturtiums. She loves them, and very recently nasturtiums came into our lives for a lovely celebration involving my dear old Mum.

This is what started Pam's nasturtium thing. This is a beautiful old, original, Art Nouveau wrapping paper which Pam has in a book that simply consists of bound-in sheets of many different, original Art Nouveau papers. It's a gorgeous book. Pam asked me to scan the paper, as she was designing a special birthday card to commemorate the fact that as of March 8, 2011, it was 100 years since my mother was born. Mum has been in Heaven for over 30 years (Dad joined her there in 1986), but on the night of Mum's 100th 'birthday' Pam and I got together with my brother and his wife for a special dinner to commemorate the occasion. Champagne, great food and no washing up (we went out to a flash restaurant) did Mum and the occasion proud.

Here's the birthday girl herself in a photo taken probably around 1930, sitting on an old, fallen gum tree branch somewhere around Glen Innes in the Northern NSW tablelands where she grew up, or perhaps down on the coast at Grafton, where she met and married my Dad, Neil. Mum's christian name was an unusual one – Zella – and Mum told me Zella was the name of a Gypsy girl who once passed through the town where Mum was born, Tenterfield. Grandma loved the name and so her first child, a beautiful girl, was called Zella.

To mark the 100th anniversary, Pam designed a special card with this photo of Zella on the front, and on the inside are some more photos, backed with the nasturtium paper. My sisters live too far away to be able join us that evening, so we thought making the card and sending it to them was a way of including them in this little celebratory moment of family history.

And so, when Pam, with her big, beautiful eyes looked at me and said the equivalent of "darling, I want to plant a rampant flowering weed", I had no option but to say "I suppose you want the type with the variegated foliage?" then head off to the garden centre to find one. It does look nice in the garden now, but I have fears that when we return from our American holiday later this year the nasturtiums might just have taken over half the backyard.

But the combined, irresistible forces of mother and wife easily win out over the practical boy gardener, and so we're casting nasturtiums here at Amateur Land, with pleasure.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

May sunshine

May Day on a Sunday, and the sun is shining! Contrary to Australia's usual reputation for being a warm and sunny place, this autumn has been horribly wet and miserable here in Sydney. In the last week alone there has been rain every day, and more than five inches of rain (135mm) has well and truly drenched my backyard. But it hasn't just been raining this week – it has been raining like mad for the last two months. Records have been set, plants have drowned and gardeners have spent a lot of time indoors, when what they really would rather be doing is enjoying autumn, which is usually my favourite time of year here in Sydney.

Anyway, the sun is out and when I ventured out into the garden with a long, long list of jobs to do, I discovered that some plants were loving all the sogginess and had been merrily growing while they swam.

Last time I looked at my little pot of chervil, I think it was about a week ago, it was just a couple of scrawny seedlings, and most of what I saw was bare, brown potting mix. Not any more. Last year's Herb of the Year here in Amateur Land is putting in an early bid for back-to-back championships.

It's pretty much the same story with the coriander, also grown from seed. A week ago it was sparse but green and healthy. Now it's thickening up nicely.

If potted cumquats could groan this one would be doing just that, so weighed down is it with fruit. But the news here is that the fruit is now changing colour, leaving behind the greenness of youth and starting to show a bit of yellow. It'll be another month before Marmalade Sunday is upon us, though.

This is hardly the best news, but it is a sign of health and happiness on the part of my potted curry tree: it's trying to make babies. Ever since I saw the leaf colour on Indira's curry leaf tree I realised that I had been underfeeding mine, and since then I have upped the amount of nitrogen-rich organic foods I give it, and its foliage looks much better. What's wrong with the berries? Birds eat them then 'drop' them into bushland, and it seems that this is yet another weedy worry in some, but not all, areas of Australia.

I did a bit of planting today (cinerarias to brighten up a winter-shade spot, plus lettuce, carrots and English spinach for a sunny bed) and as usual I added several good scoops of compost to the soil in the vegie patch to give it a gentle boost. As I scooped out the compost it literally wriggled before my eyes, so densely was it packed with worms.

Finally, a little pic of the grevillea 'Peaches & Cream' that I posted about last week. Helen from Patient Gardener wanted to see how the grevillea looks as a bush covered in those two-toned blooms, so this one's for you, Helen!