Friday, July 29, 2011


"Do you think you are educated?  I don't care if you can speak French, you have an MBA, you've travelled the world, you've accumulated plenty of money and you run your own business - you're uneducated if you don't know how to make a compost heap" Satish Kumar, Environmental Activist 2007
Compost Confusion: A lot is written about composting but many people are still confused and fail at their first attempt and then give up - 'the heap didn't break down', 'it went really slimy', 'it just stank and was full of cockroaches' etc. 

I want everyone to be a successful composter because it makes your plants grow better and recycles nutrients that might otherwise have been lost AND - it is deeply satisfying.

So - how do we turn this  - to this?

Here are a few simple tips:
1.  Get the recipe right.  For compost heaps to work they need about 15-20 parts carbon (C)(dry,brown stuff)to one part nitrogen (N)(green stuff/manure).  That's a lot of brown stuff to green.  

To help you - think about how nature feeds itself - say a forest?  What is dropping on the forest floor to replenish it? A lot of leaves, decaying logs, branches, strips of bark, ash from spot fires, fallen flowers, fruit, feathers, shed animal skins, egg shells, decaying bodies of animals and insects etc.  That's a lot of brown stuff to green.  There is a direct correlation here and it's helpful in thinking how compost is made in nature and what you should be putting in your heap (just leave the dead bodies out please!). 

I repeat because it is important - you need more of the carbon (sawdust, coffee grounds, dry leaves, straw, newspaper, kitchen scraps etc.)  than the nitrogen  (fresh pulled weeds, fresh grass clippings, seaweed, fresh manure, stable sweepings etc)

TOP TIP: Keep some sawdust or shredded newspaper next to your bin and add a handful every time you put a load of weeds, kitchen scraps or grass clippings - this way you will be getting the recipe just right.

2.  Keep it simple.  There is no need to go out and spend $500 on a compost bin.  Choose the system that will work for you and your family - one that you will use.  If you don't have enough stuff to fill a compost bin fairly quickly then you may be better off with a small and compact worm farm.
What Kind of Bin:  Compost bins need to be large enough to generate adequate heat – about 55oC – to break down materials and prevent unwelcome guests like cockroaches.   I have always had success with the plastic black bins – the million dollar bins (they are made from recycled banknotes!). However they will generally not get hot enough to kill off seeds – so don’t put invasive weed seeds in there (feed them to the chooks (or worm farm) or ‘hot’ compost them in a black plastic bag).  However, this does mean that beneficial ‘volunteer’ seeds will keep your veggie garden regenerating from the compost you spread around – you will always be getting new tomatoes, parsley, basil, papayas, coriander, dill, cosmos, zinnias, rocket etc. popping up here and there.

If you have a large garden you may opt for a bigger space to make your compost and one of these bays made from recycled wooden pallets is ideal.  Note the black plastic ready to cover the heap when it rains - compost heaps like to be moist but not waterlogged.

3.  Give me a sunny spot.  A lot of people make the mistake of putting their compost bin out of sight/down the back/behind the shed etc.  There are two problems with this.

Firstly: for compost heaps to work they need to be warm and airy.   

Secondly: if it's not convenient you won't use it.   You won't be making trips to them with the kitchen scraps if they are too out of the way. 

Return a little of what you have taken – don’t throw it away.  Composting is part of the natural cycle of life – by returning to the soil what once was living you will be part of that valuable process.  Compost adds life to the soil.  It improves plant growth, increases the capacity of the soil to hold nutrients and water and the ability of plants to resist disease.  

"If we returned our bodies to the soil, and all of our human and organic waste, we would go a long way to solving the earths' soil fertility problems.  Bill Mollinson (co-founder of the  Permaculture Movement) from a lecture I attended in 1988

What to Leave Out:  

  • Dairy products and meat scraps, they can bring maggots.  
  • Too many citrus peels – they rapidly change the pH and kill off the micro-organisms necessary to make the compost work. 
  • Oils and fats.  
  • Large pieces of watermelon skin and pumpkin will attract rats  - chop it up and bury it in the middle of the bin. 
  • Coloured and glossy paper. 
  • Plastics. 
  • Any plant with thorns. 
  • No chemicals.

TOP TIP: Grow some comfrey plants (Symphytum officinale) next to your bin.  Are you ready for this?  Comfrey is a dynamic accumulator which makes it a fantastic compost activator.  Because of its deep root system it is full of 'mined' minerals and nitrogen and gets the whole heap magically working (and you also have a talking point at dinner parties!)

Comfrey growing next to my compost bin - keep it handy!

What Can Go Wrong: 
Foul smells – usually means the heap too wet and has become anaerobic - that means it has stopped working because too much green (nitrogen stuff OR not covered during heavy rain).  Solution - add some brown (carbon stuff a handful of garden lime/ dolomite or wood ash) and turning the heap will help to combat this.  
Not working at all – too cold/dry/or not enough N – add some fresh garden weeds/manure/lawn clippings/comfrey and maybe move to a sunnier spot.

TIP: The smaller the pieces that you put in your compost the quicker it will work.  Weed and prune your garden beds before you mow – use the catcher and you will have a perfect shredded mix to add to the compost heap.

A Little Story:  When I went to visit my brother-in-law in the UK he very proudly showed me his impressive, newly constructed compost bays, but he was just a bit upset that he still didn't have any compost - they weren't working.  When I looked in the first one it was full of grass clippings and when I looked in the second, dry leaves - neither decomposing.  So what had gone wrong?  Well the first was too nitrogen rich and the second too much carbon.  What did we do? Combined the two together, added a couple of bags of old sheep manure he had lying around, watered and covered the heaps and 'hey presto' two working heaps and after about two months lots of lovely compost.  (Oh, and Carl did add the magic ingredient guaranteed to get compost heap working - urine (nitrogen rich and such a dreadful shame to flush it away!)
 What the world needs now is a sense of humus 
What a lovely load of rubbish! 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Recipe: Lemon Verbena Shortbread

Lemon Verbena Shortbread:  I have lots of 'tea' plants in my garden but, as well as a refreshing herbal tea, you can make these easy delicious biscuits with the leaves.  Lemon verbena Aloysia citrodora is a lovely cottage garden plant that does best in a free draining soil.  It's an open shrub, with small lemon scented leaves, that can get to about 1.5m with spikes of creamy white flowers.
100 caster sugar
½ cup loosely packed lemon verbena leaves
200g unsalted butter
150g plain flour
150g wholemeal flour
pinch salt
1tbs finely grated lemon zest

  1. Pulse sugar and lemon verbena leaves in a food processor until thoroughly combined and all the leaves are completely pulverised.
  2. Add butter and cream until light and fluffy.
  3. Seive flour with salt and mix with creamed butter and lemon zest to make a soft dough.
  4. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for one hour.
  5. Preheat oven to 160C
  6. Roll out dough on lightly floured bench to 1cm thickness then cut into shapes with a small biscuit cutter.
  7. Place on a tray lined with baking paper and bake for 15-20ming until pale golden.
  8. Remove from oven, cool and store in airtight container
Makes about 50 biscuits

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Recipe: Hibiscus Tea

Hibiscus Tea
  a delicious and 'magical' tea made from the petals of the tropical red hibiscus.
I first had hibiscus tea in Bali, but it is a tradition in many cultures.  I was watching Jamie Oliver's American Roadtrip and he was with a Mexican chef that gave him hibiscus tea.  Jamie got a wondrous look on his face and said something like "I don't believe it - the last time I tasted this was when my grandmother gave it to me when I was a kid and I've been searching to put a name to that taste ever since".

The flowers you use for this are the kind you wear behind your ear, in tropical climes, to let the opposite sex know whether you are available or not.  Don't ask me which way is which.  That's probably why I have been with the same bloke since I was 17 - the whole dating game defeats me.  I can't even work out the flower behind the ear thing.
6 hibiscus flowers
1 1/2 litres boiled water
1 heaped tbs caster sugar
Juice of one lemon

1. Strip the petals and discard the rest of the flower.
2. Put in a jug with the sugar and a little cold water (to prevent it cracking when you add the hot water)
3. Add the boiled water - it will turn a sludgy purple colour.  Steep for one hour.
4. This is where the magic happens.  Remove the petals and as you add the lemon juice the liquid clears and turns a beautiful 'sunset' colour.  Children love doing this!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Recipe: Pickled Nasturtium Seeds (false capers)

Pickled Nasturtium Seeds (false capers):

I love capers in pasta, salads and sauces but, I don't like the fact that they are imported and expensive.  

Capers are the buds of the caper bush (caper-berries are the fruit) and grows readily in Mediterranean countries - mostly out of rock walls.  It has a very pretty flower, but you hardly ever find a plant with lots of buds and flowers as they are harvested by the locals and pickled in brine at home - it's a fairly laborious process.
Jobs to do before the taverna opens.  Freshly picked caper buds being sorted outside a taverna in Sifnos, Greece

They say that necessity is the mother of invention so I was very happy to come across this recipe for 'false capers' in a book of early Australian cooking that is over 150 years old.  They don't taste like capers - they taste like pickled nasturtium seeds, but they are surprisingly good and are a fantastic substitute.

After the blossom falls off, pick the half-ripened (still green) nasturtium seeds. Continue picking as long as the seed crop continues. Drop them in a boiled, strained and cooled mixture of:

500ml white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons sea salt

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

1/2 lemon, thinly sliced

1 clove garlic, smashed

10 peppercorns

1/2 teaspoon fennel/dill seed

Nasturtium seeds - just ripe for pickling!

Simmer ingredients together in saucepan, cool and strain into sealable jar.  Add nasturtium seeds.  They will be ready to eat in a couple of weeks or so and will keep in the fridge for up to a year. They are ready to eat when they sink into the liquid. You can keep adding to the liquid pickle mix as you pick the seeds - how easy is that?

Nasturtium - Trapoleum majus.  This is one of those common garden plants that tends to get overlooked, but I love it because it has so many uses and is incredibly easy to grow and manage.

It's name comes from the Latin nasus tortus 'twisted nose' which is the effect it's pepperiness has on your nose when you eat it or crush it underfoot - are you beginning to love it?  Here are some of its uses:

Groundcover:  As a colourful creeping, flowering carpet that gives a soft 'cottage garden' look.  Nasturtium grows well in the sub-tropics and does best through the cooler months and in semi-shade.  It prefers sandy soils, but is adaptable to most soil types - in fact, the poorer the soil the more flowers you get. Their vibrant, sunny colours make it a lovely cut flower.

Living Mulch:  Useful as a 'filler' plant in tricky areas - like steep banks and around fruit trees to prevent weed invasion/erosion/drying out.  Once you plant it, you never have to do so again as it seeds and re-grows freely but, it is not invasive and easy to pull out.  Any plants in unwanted spots just go straight in the compost.

Food:  Every part of this plant is edible!!  Young leaves are used in salads and contain high amounts of Vitamin C (older leaves become too peppery) - I like to use them on sandwiches - they fit well.  Flowers can be eaten whole or as an addition to a mesclun salad.  An old gardener once told me that he ate a Nasturtium flower every day as a natural antibiotic.  (He is the same one that told me that lavender oil kept ticks away - and he was right about that). 

Companion Plant:  Nasturtiums are a great plant to use around vegetables.  The strong smell acts as a deterrent.  As a decoy/sacrificial plant that will attract white fly and keep them away from your vegies.  It also attracts hoverflies-one of those beneficial insects in the garden - this one gobbles up aphids.
Nimble fingered grandchildren make wonderful nasturtium seed pickers!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Economics of Happiness

Last night I went to see the new film by social activist Helena Norberg-Hodge called the Economics of Happiness. This film highlights the effects of globalization on communities and is a cry from the heart for 'Keeping it Local' to help restore and heal our planet and it's people - and in my humble way, what this blog is all about.

The film's message was clear and convincing, but I couldn't help feeling frustrated that it was preaching to a hall full of the 'converted' and it's message needs to be heard by, say, the board members of Woolworth's (who have just foisted on our town an unwanted supermarket that will probably ring the death knell of our vibrant high street). But, the film was trying to say that the tide is turning and the real power lies with the individual and how we chose to spend our money.

So how do we heal our selves while healing our planet at the same time? A long time ago, in a basic psychology class, I learned that there were three fundamental things that make and keep us happy:
1. Family/Heart connections (to love and be loved) 
2. Work (having gainful employment whether paid/unpaid)
3. Community (being part of/connected to something bigger than ourselves). This has as much resonance for me today as it did then (at least it is something I remembered from class!). It's also the reason why growing your own food, volunteering, shopping at the farmers market etc. are ultimately much more satisfying than what we are told will make us happy - buying more stuff!

"The world has enough for everyone's need, but not their greed" Gandhi

An interesting fact came up in this week's broadcast of the Science Show on our ABC Radio National concerning food globalization. "Where's the Beef"?
" About 20 years ago we were short of food, there was rather less food being produced all around the world than the number of people, so there really was genuine hunger through much of the world. But mostly through Chinese enterprise, farming became so much more efficient that for the last 10 years or so we have produced plenty of food, all the food that anybody in the world needs to eat.
 And the reason there have been famines is not because of a lack of food. When they had the big Ethiopian famine in Eritrea, for example, Ethiopia at the time was actually a net exporter of grain, if you can imagine that. It wasn't a lack of food that has caused famines, it's a lack of political goodwill that stops the food being distributed properly, that is what causes famines. "

"Grow your own Grassroots Defiance against the Capitalist Diet-Grow Vitamins at your Kitchen Door" Frances Phoenix

A good place to start is by getting out into the garden and growing as much of our own food as possible and buying from local, honest producers. The food we eat is only as good as the soil it is grown in and it’s something, as gardeners, that we do have control over – nurturing the earth and returning what we take - a carrot is not a carrot!  Even a handful of fresh herbs, grown in a container on a backyard deck, gives a deeply satisfying and nutritional boost to any meal, and I can guarantee that it will make you happy.

This is where real power lies and returns control to the individual - the economics of happiness.

NOTE: I first saw this marvelous poster by artist Frances Phoenix in the Queensland Art Gallery.  It's from the 1970's Sydney green/feminist movement and published by the now defunct Matilda Graphics. The plant/nutritional line drawings around the outside are exquisite.  Just about sums up my life's work really.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Recipes: Pakoras

Pakoras - spicy vegetable fritters.  I am always eternally grateful to an old neighbour, Nalini, who taught me how to cook Indian food - particularly her family food from the North India region.  I treasure her hand written recipes that are over thirty years old with this pakora recipe being one of my family's favourites.
This is an extremely versatile recipe which means you can use a whole array of vegetables - whatever you have in season.  I have used here cauliflower and eggplant (aubergine) which are my particular favourites - the eggplant staying crispy on the outside but deliciously soft in the centre.  You could also use; onion, potato, zucchini, pumpkin, sweet potato, broccoli, yakon, choko, okra, carrot etc.

1 cup lentil flour (besan), sifted (available at health food shops)
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp chilli powder
1/2 tsp ground cummin
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp garam masala
3/4 cup water
1 tsp salt
oil for frying (not olive oil)
1 cup yoghurt
1 tbs tomato sauce

1.  In a large bowl, mix all the spices, lentil flour, salt and water together to make a coating batter - it should neither be too runny or too thick. 
2.  Cut all the vegetables into even, bite-size pieces and toss them into the batter coating each piece.
3.  Heat the oil until it is just smoking and try a piece of pakora to see if it is hot enough.  Cook in batches until lightly golden and drain on kitchen paper.   Best eaten on the same day.
4.  Mix the yoghurt and tomato sauce together to make a dipping sauce (Nalini's choice).  You can also use yoghurt with chopped mint and/or chutney.
TIP - always dry the vegetables thoroughly, after you have washed them, or the batter won't stick.

Recipes: Radicchio

Radicchio - sometimes known as Italian chicory is in the daisy family (Asteraceae) Chicorium intybus.  This is a valued salad green in French and Italian cuisines for it's bitter and spicy flavour.  In a after dinner salad it is said to aid digestion.

Easily grown from seed and
planted out in summer it is
ready to harvest in early winter.  The colder weather initiates the reddening and heading of the heart - the part you eat.

How to cook it:  The bitter flavour mellows when it is roasted or grilled - which is how I have cooked it here, and it turns a lovely bronzed colour  Simply toss the washed (dried) quartered heart in 2 tbs olive oil and 1 tbs balsamic vinegar adding a dash of salt and pepper.  Place in a medium oven 180oC for about 15 minutes.  Serve with a milder meat, like chicken, or great with sausages.  You can also finely shred it and add to pasta and risotto.

No-Dig Gardens

Everyone loves a no-dig bed!
I have a few unsung heroes - Esther Deane is one of them. In the 1970's, in Sydney, she developed a means of building garden beds above ground without the use of heavy machinery and back-breaking work.

They really use the theory of successful composting - that is having carbon (brown stuff- leaves/ straw etc.) and nitrogen (green stuff - grass clippings/manure etc.) rich layers built up on top of each other - like making a lasagne. Then the worms, and other soil organisms, do the work for you. You keep repeating the layers to whatever height required.

The beauty of this system is that you can turn a patch of weeds or lawn into a productive garden-instantly! You can even build one, where space is tight, on concrete paving - you just need to make more layers and build a framework to contain it.

This is the only way I make a new garden bed - it's so easy and works so well. It's also very versatile. As a landscaper I used this method to make raised garden beds in hospitals, for wheelchair access, for children in school gardens and the elderly.

NO-DIG GARDEN-How to make and instant garden bed in 5 easy steps. (Think lasagne and you'll get it!)

1. Slash weeds/grass down to ground level. Sprinkle with a layer of ORGANIC FERTILIZER or composted MANURE. Water well. As the grass breaks down it provides a rich layer of ORGANIC MATTER without removing the valuable top few centimetres of topsoil.

2. Lay paper (10 pages thick) or cardboard over the area you want for your new garden bed (do not use glossy paper). This is your organic weed mat.  Make sure you overlap edges and don’t leave any gaps. TIP – wet paper first then it won’t blow away. Better to start small and increase bed size over time.  Water well.

3. Add thick layer of NITROGEN rich ORGANIC MATTER eg COMPOST/ GRASS CLIPPINGS /SEAWEED/composted MANURES/COMFREY/GREEN WEEDS (not invasive and without seeds). Water well.

4. Complete with thick layer of STRAW/DRY GRASS or LEAVES/LUCERNE/CANE MULCH etc. You can make the bed any height you want by repeating step 3 + 4. Water well. As the layers decompose they will shrink – so you will need to top it up.
5. Six weeks later! You can plant straight away after step 4 by making pockets in the STRAW layer, filling with COMPOST and planting with anything that has a shallow root system e.g. LETTUCE/BASIL/RADISH/BOK CHOY/SPINACH.  You can retain the edge with anything you like - here I have used some thick limbs pruned off a tree.

"Don't break your back - let the worms do the work for you"

One year later - this bed has never had had a spade near it, just loads of compost!

Friday, July 15, 2011

In Praise of the Humble Earthworm

“Worms can live on the planet without people; people can’t live on the planet without worms”  Paul Watson (director of Sea Shepherd)

Last year on a patch of lawn in a garden in Kent, UK, I saw one of the longest running scientific experiments in the world – Darwin’s wormstone.  The garden is part of the family home of Charles Darwin – Downe House – and is now a living museum dedicated to his life and work.  His Galapagos voyages are legendary, but Charles Darwin made one of his biggest discoveries at the bottom of his garden. 

“ Of all animals, few have contributed so much to the development of the world, as we know it, as earthworms” Darwin

The experiment, started in about 1839, and still continuing today, measures the displacement of soil under the stone as a result of worm activity (about 2.2mm per annum).

As worms travel through the soil, ingesting mineral and organic material, they break down root mats and leave tunnels for oxygen and water to penetrate the soil.  These tunnels become coated with a nitrate-rich mucus, secreted by the worms, which encourage and feed root growth.

“Earthworms are the intestines of the soil”  Aristotle

Worms are essential for a healthy gardenThey eat their own weight every day and produce the same amount in vermicasts – amazingly these are far richer in minerals than the soil the worm ingested – natural soil fertilizer.  How is this done?

In many soils, earthworms play a major role in converting large pieces of organic matter (e.g. dead leaves) into rich humus -  improving soil fertility. This is achieved by the worm's actions of pulling down below any organic matter deposited on the dried dirt, such as leaves or manure, either for food or when it needs to plug its burrow. Once in the burrow, the worm will shred the leaf and partially digest it, then mingle it with the earth by saturating it with intestinal secretions. Worm casts can contain 40% more humus than the top 20 cm of soil in which the worm is living.

As well as dead organic matter, the earthworm also ingests any other soil particles that are small enough—including sand grains up to 1.25mm across—into its gizzard where minute fragments of grit grind everything into a fine paste which is then digested in the intestine. When the worm excretes this in the form of casts which are deposited on the surface or deeper in the soil, minerals and plant nutrients are made available in an accessible form. Investigations show that fresh earthworm casts are 5 times richer in available nitrogen, 7 times richer in available phosphates and 11 times richer in available potassium than the surrounding upper 150 mm of soil. (All of this while you were sleeping!)

Darwin estimated that arable land contains up to 53,000 worms per acre (13/m²), but more recent research suggests that even poor soil may support 250,000/acre (62/m²), whilst rich fertile farmland may have up to 1,750,000/acre (432/m²), meaning that the weight of earthworms beneath a farmer's soil could be greater than that of the livestock upon its surface.

How to encourage worms in your garden – just keep adding organic matter e.g. composted manures/grass clippings/wood mulch – and keep topping it up.
The North Downs, Kent, close to Darwin's House.  Beautiful countryside with a wonderful network of public footpaths.

I wonder if Darwin coined the phrase about 'leaving no stone unturned'?