Saturday, May 31, 2014

Being co-operative – week 3

One very nice thing about the vegie co-op thing, at least the way my friends practise it, is the pleasant business of dropping around to someone's place to pick up the boxes of vegies. This is a leisurely affair, from beginning to end taking up about an hour of each Saturday morning. It's a relaxed social occasion, where co-op members enjoy some tea or coffee, biscuits or cake and a chat, prior to paying their dues and hauling the two boxes off to their car and returning home for the 'show and tell' with their partners/families back in their own kitchen. 

The "show and tell" is a very different story each week, as what
you get depends on whose turn it is to do the shopping. This
week's cornucopia includes lots of tomatoes, oranges, carrots,
potatoes, pears, apples, bananas, capsicums, Lebanese cucumbers
and a bunch of curly kale, half a Chinese cabbage (wombok)
a full butterhead lettuce, three baby butternut pumpkins and a
bag of small white mushrooms.
As far as our tastes go, this haul of goodness hits our tastebuds in the right spot, and has been voted by us as the 'best' haul so far.

I've been meaning to cook some kale, so now is my chance. It's ridiculously trendy here in Sydney right now, but lots of people are quietly saying "ugh" when asked how they like it. So it's not one of those vegies which appeals to everyone. I suspect it just depends on how you cook it, and perhaps what you cook it with.

My favourite inclusion this week is the wombok. I love it in salads (it makes the best coleslaw) and in stir-fries. But right now though, I'm off to eat a banana!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Lemon grass

"Hey, you can really see that it is a grass now," Pammy said as we both stood out in the garden this morning, admiring the lemon grass clump. It's quite beautiful right now, tall and lush, its longest pointed stems arching over, graceful and green. Get very close to it, ruffle its feathers a little, and it smells both lemony and lightly spicy. 

By rights the clump should be starting to die back a little now that it's autumn in Sydney, but Sydney is still enjoying a record-setting stretch for the warmest ever month of May, including the longest 'heatwave' (of successive days of above-average temperatures), and so our lemon grass is thriving in this most memorable Indian summer of a late autumn in living memory. Climate change, anyone?

The clump itself is about 1.2m (4 feet) tall at
the point where the taller leaves arch over,
and the tallest flower spike is now 2m high. This
was planted as a relatively puny seedling back in
September last year, in a less than ideal
spot which gets half-day sun at best, and yet
it has grown beautifully since December.
Its botanical name is Cymbopogon citratus, and
it is a member of the grass family of plants. It
slowly but very steadily forms a dense clump at
the base, and this has always been my problem
with growing lemon grass in pots. It does really
well for a while, then its clumpy-ness becomes
its own worst enemy as it fills the pot with roots
and stems. It can become pot-bound in no time,
no amount of water ever seems to be enough
for it, once it reaches that jungleiferous stage.
So this time I just planted it into the ground and
it is so, so much happier, and infinitely more
lovely to behold as well. Lemon grass is so
elegant I don't know why it isn't used more often
as a multi-use landscaping plant that adds
architectural form, movement, colour and shape
and can be harvested for the kitchen, too. 
The stems are lightly hairy, red-tinged at the
joints, and the sound it makes in the wind is
the rustling that is such a lovely part of
being near grasses. 
There's so much to say about lemon grass, but
I will leave "what happens next" to later on, as
at this stage I don't know what will happen next.
Yes, this tip looks like it will flower for sure, but
after that, with winter coming on, I don't know.
It's a tropical plant so it's a long way south of
home. It should die back a bit, maybe a lot.
I'll let you know when I find out. I suspect with
our changing, warming climate, it might just
shrug off our winters and keep on growing.
In the meantime there's dozens of uses for this
lemony grass. Here's just one stem, cut off at
the base, laid out on our long outdoor table.
It's the lowest portions of the stem, coloured white
or pale lemony yellow, which are used. I won't
go into all the culinary uses here, other than to
mention words like curries, stir-fries, sauces,
dressings and marinades. But to finish off this
homage to lemon grass, let's savour the flavour
with a refreshing cup of lemon grass tea. 
For the tea, finely chop some lower stem.

I then add the lemon grass to flavour green tea. I find many
herb teas on their own a bit insipid and uninspiring, so my way
is to use the herbs to flavour green tea. Here's the simple recipe...

Jamie’s lemongrass tea

1 teaspoon green tea leaves (or 1 green tea bag)
1 teaspoon finely chopped lemongrass stem
small teapot (for one or two people)

Cut an inch-long section off the bottom white portion of a lemongrass stem then chop it finely with a sharp vegie knife.
Bring some water to the boil, add the green tea and lemongrass, pour over the water and let it sit for 5 minutes.
Pour (using a strainer if your teapot doesn’t have a diffuser).
The flavour is light and delicate, very refreshing.

Tips: this makes a light, mild green tea. You can experiment with a bit more of either the tea or the lemongrass, but we prefer the lighter flavour, as it grows on you while you drink it.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Being Co-operative - Week 2

Go on, call me deadly dull, I don't care. I'm finding this vegie-co-op experience an interesting one. The way it works is that each week, a different couple from the co-op does the shopping at the markets, and so what you get each week differs quite markedly from the previous one. Here's what we found in this week's "chef's challenge" boxes.

A giant, deep green plume of silver beet, the leafies next to it
belong to golden beetroot. A huge bag of green beans, a small
bag of baby spinach, broccoli, lots of potatoes and onions,
sweet potatoes, red bullhorn capsicums, and a baby Cos lettuce.
In the fruit box, lemons aplenty, two small pineapples, Valencia
oranges, Imperial mandarins, Bartlett pears, Gala apples and
big, juicy tomatoes, all from an organic grower.
I just have to show you this architecturally fascinating sweet
potato. Wonder how that happened? Did it grow around an
old piece of root left in the vegie patch?
That sweet potato is a beautiful example of the delights of growing root vegies like parsnips, potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes etc. Every now and then a truly mind-boggling weirdo makes its grand entrance. As I said earlier, call me deadly dull if you like, but weirdo root vegies do hold a modicum of fascination on otherwise quite and uneventful Saturday mornings.

Next week it's week 3 of the boxes full of edible surprises. It's a good thing we're in this vegie co-op caper for just four weeks, as I cannot see the novelty wearing off that quickly. Bring on the next one, I say!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

How not to grow broccoli

How not to grow broccoli? It's dead easy if you pick the wrong weather. Here's how I did it. First, be lazy and buy a seedling, instead of seed. Then plant the seedling in autumn, right at the start of an unusually warm stretch of weather. Fertilise normally. Stand back! Here's what happens next...

Too late for harvest already. This broccoli head went from
normal 'broccoli' to flower head in a matter of days. We
blinked and missed our chance to harvest our crop.

"Don't touch the broccoli!" our resident artist (Pammy) warned
our resident gardener (me). Like someone glued to the TV
screen watching a soap opera, she wanted to see what happened
next. (Besides, might make a nice painting later on.)

Each little blob-ette in a head of broccoli is a flower trying
to have its moment in the sunshine. I have posted about this
issue before: vegie guilt. Knowing that when you harvest crops
you're cutting down a growing plant in the beauty of its
adolescence, denying it the chance to live out a full life as an adult,
flowering plant. It's a tragic, yet guiltily delicious, story that isn't
all that different from the fate of little lambs and piglets. 

A simple flower, yes, but complexity in flowers is sometimes
a bit overrated, especially when you have lots of simple blooms.

The final stage is the disappearance of the
tightly clumped flowerhead altogether, when
the broccoli briefly becomes a shrub with
a frazzled spray of white tassels. The bees love
the broccoli blooms; there's a humming
soundtrack to accompany the show. 
And so that's how not to do it. Grow broccoli, I mean. Don't do it like this, but should you accidentally do it like this, my advice is "don't panic". Leave it be and enjoy the show. It's actually the star of the garden right now, and who would have thunk that broccoli would ever be the star turn in a garden?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Reading matters

File this blog posting under 'shameless self-promotion' if you like, but I'm featured in another blog this week, at the literary magazine, 'Meanjin'.

Here's the link to my little piece on "What I'm reading".

How all this came about is that one of the people at Meanjin, Australia's second-oldest literary magazine (established 1940) contacted me recently saying that "we have not published any pieces with a specific interest in gardening and Australian horticultural literature" and so my little contribution would help to redress that omission.

I remember Meanjin as a child, when it was called Meanjin Papers, and Dad always had copies of it in his reading pile (he must have been a subscriber). So I was just a little bit thrilled to be asked to contribute something to Dad's old literary magazine.

It's simply 600 words on the topic of what I'm reading now, and of the three authors I mention only one is a gardening writer, Tommy Garnett, the former gardening writer for The Age newspaper. The other two are crime fiction's Raymond Chandler and Ryszard Kapuscinski, a Polish journalist and foreign correspondent. All three have something in common, in my mind, and you'll have to read the piece to find out what that is. How's that for suspense!

So, when you have the time, check out not just my own little contribution, but please bookmark the Meanjin website and explore it further. There's a lot of good reading (and good writing) there on a very wide array of topics, and if you revisit the blog over the coming months you'll probably find other garden bloggers showing up, reading list in hand.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Being Co-operative

I'll have to be careful how I choose my words here. "I got us into this" is, I think, far superior to "It's all my fault". However you want to apportion blame or causality to the photograph below, it's certainly all my own work. We've joined a vegie co-op… for the next four weeks (filling in for friends who are travelling).

And here's the first Saturday morning pick-up. Thirty bucks' worth, all bought at the Sydney Markets in Flemington. Wouldn't have a clue how organic it is or not. And there's just two of us to eat it all. And a similarly large pair of boxes will hit our kitchen benchtop next Saturday. And the Saturday after that. And… oh dear!

Here's the checklist
• One large brown paper bag of button mushrooms. Some will go into tonight's baked chicken and rice dish, the rest will disappear into melted butter one day this week and end up as sidekick to a steak.
• Lots of carrots, but that's OK, as my adorable Pam is 20% rabbit (I suspect). Loves her carrots. And what she doesn't eat raw, I'll chop and cook tonight and other nights this week.
• Big bunch of celery, Pam to the rescue again. Crunch crunch crunch…  and what she doesn't eat raw, I'll chop and cook tonight, and other nights. Good sauce starter pack, carrot and celery.
• One bunch of shallots (green onions). Easy peasy. Some to disappear tonight. I can feel a stir-fry coming on for Wednesday.
• 2 eggplants (in season now). Easy peasyish, but we do already have some eggplant in the fridge, so our neighbour Katerina will probably enjoy one of these.
• 3 corn cobs (one goes into the baked chicken, the others will disappear easily enough)
• a kilo (at least) of Roma tomatoes (we know what to do with them, saucery here we come)
• 8 Valencia oranges (yummm… freshly squeezed OJ on Sunday morning)
• a dozen or more Imperial mandarins (in season, juicy, sweet and a bit fragrant; they're my special treat and will disappear soon enough)
• 10 Royal Gala apples, in season, juicy and crisp, another easy assignment, as we both work from home and like to snack on fruit
• big bunch of English spinach (pan-fry on Monday with raisins and pine nuts, touch of nutmeg, as a side dish, an old French favourite)
• And last and definitely least of all, one bag of that awful white-bleached garlic from China. The only disappointment in the box. They use chlorine to bleach their export garlic in China, then fumigate it with methyl bromide to kill any bugs. Yikes! That's about as un-organic as anything that's actually grown in the ground. We're giving that bag a miss.

Apart from the worrying garlic, everything else looks great. So, bursting with enthusiasm, we're confident of knocking this box off this week. But then there's next week, and the week after that. I'm glad all this bounty of co-operative boxes actually has a "finish-by" date.

I don't think we could keep this up for two months, let alone a year. But it's a delightful change for a couple of weeks. It'll probably change what we cook and what we eat in the next month, which isn't such a bad thing, even if our diet is already a varied and healthy one (well, most of the time).

Have you ever been in a vegie co-op, and how long did you last? Amazingly enough, this lovely bunch of people has been doing it for years, so I am told.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Wandering star

As the autumn finally delivers its first wintry chills, the succulents start to colour up. One of my favourites, which I've mentioned before, is this person, Senecio jacobensii. Normally yet another blog posting extolling the beauties of its pinky-purple-tipped foliage would be par for the course at this stage, but this year I have news to report. 

My senecio is starting to wander. All over the place. Into the shadier regions, and out into the sunshine. It's a rapidly spreading star in our garden and 2014 is the year it has come out in all its glory.

I'll always think of, and thank, gardening writer
Cheryl Maddocks for giving me this plant, a
little guy in a pot. Thank you Cheryl.

This is what I mean by the 'wandering' bit.
In our succulent patch it has sent out arms
onto the pathway, where it's hotter and sunnier,
and back past the lavenders and pots of herbs,
which is a bit shadier. It's out to conquer the
whole garden, I think, but as a slowish-grower
 it's unlikely to be a threat to its neighbours.

The way it branches off looks a bit like a suburban railway map.

Measured from one end to the other it's more
than six feet long, and counting.

For its first few years here, that spreading
quality was put to good use in hanging
baskets, where it drapes itself languidly over
the edges.

Its one drawback as a hanging basket plant
is that is does get knocked around a bit by
heavy winds. Every now and then whole
branchlets break off in howling winds, but
when that happens I always remember what
a country-resident friend said about wind
doing all the pruning on his property. And
so after the storm damage, new arms of
senecio appear a few months later.
Its great advantage as a hanging basket
plant, though is that it lives on rainfall alone.
The cool season colour is just starting to blush
now on the groundcover plant (the hanging
basket is the one with the stronger hues, shown
in the opening photo on this posting).
Have you ever heard of the term 'ear worm'? It's one of those songs which you can't get out of your head. So, ever since I thought of doing this blog posting, calling it 'Wandering Star', I have been tunelessly mumbling/humming that old Lee Marvin hit song, his gravel-voiced version of 'Wandering Star', from 'Paint Your Wagon'. It might have nothing whatsoever to do with a pretty pink-blushed groundcover succulent, but it has been the soundtrack to my gardening weekend, and having said that, I now hope it will go away!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Happy Mothers Day

Here's wishing all the mothers in Australia and elsewhere a very happy and pleasant Mothers Day today. I think they also celebrate Mothers Day on this same day in the US, Canada, NZ, India and South Africa, but it's celebrated in March in the UK and to be frank I just gave up looking up all the Mothers Day dates around the world after that, lazy old me on this fine, sunny Sunday morning in Sydney. 

My own Mum moved up to heaven back in 1980, so my 'Mum' for a very long time has been Pam's mum, Val, who we're having lunch with today. A while back I spotted a very worn-out, chipped and faded little gnome planter pot at a secondhand store, and so this year I decided to paint it up, plant it with some Jelly Beans succulents from my garden, and give it to Val as a little Mothers Day gift.

Val is a very good gardener, a true 'plant whisperer' who can make anything grow, and whose garden of potted plants in her townhouse is a thriving, happy jungle of colourful plants lucky to be in the care of such a gardener. So next time I see this little pot of Jelly Beans it'll be bigger and better than ever (not putting any pressure on you here, Val!). Happy Mothers Day Val, and the rest of the world's mothers, too.

Friday, May 9, 2014

OK, two more free plugs and that's it!

I knew the floodgates would open the moment I gave Fair Dinkum Seeds a free plug in my last post. Well, maybe 'floodgates' is a bit strong to describe 'one more', but this is definitely my last free plug… well, for 2014 that is.

I decided to relent because this is such a nice idea, a good story, a local story in fact, and I like helping people to get started. And in the case of Katherine Eaton and her sculptural garden tools, that's exactly what she's trying to do: get started.

Katherine is a student at the Design Centre Enmore (and Enmore is my next-door suburb, so that's almost as local as it gets) and she's trying to raise the funds to get her sculptural garden tools project off the ground. 

Rather than try to explain it all here, all you have to do is visit this page (linked to below) at the Indiegogo website, where Katherine has put together a very good video explaining the evolution of her design project. And if you're interested you can pre-order your own beautifully designed hand tools, or if you prefer, toss in a few bucks to help Katherine meet her initial funding target. Good luck Katherine, I hope it all works out brilliantly for you!

So, where's the second free plug? Oh, they haven't asked for one, but I was so impressed by a new gardening blog called The Plant Hunter that recently won an award in the Australian Blog Awards, that I thought I'd just mention it, just in case you're bored with me and all the regulars you visit.

Here's that award-winning blog, well worth a visit:

And if you just love blogs of any kind, there are some sensational (non-gardening) blogs to check out at the Awards. I really like the "Hello May" weddings photography blog, some very nice pix there, but all the others are worth a browse, especially the overall winner, a food blog called The Hungry Australian. 

And so that's it, freebie publicity seekers! No more for 2014, no matter how heart-rendingingly compelling your struggle against the odds has been. I'm in Grinch mode for the rest of the year (but good luck, Katherine!).