Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A walk on the wild side: Charms and Puggles

Banded Finch

It's that time of year when the Australian bush is flowering in all it's glory so Sunday found me out with the grandchildren on a bush-walk in Mt Jerusalem National Park - which we are lucky enough to have right on our doorstep.  I remember the very first bush-walk I went on when I first came to Sydney over over 35 years ago - for me it was one of those 'eureka' moments - the ones in your lifetime you never forget.  We came to the first flowering shrub,  and my knowledgeable friend said 'that's Prickly Moses' Acacia ulicifolia.  And so it went on for the whole day - one amazing plant after another and I didn't recognize one of them,  let alone know their name.  It was like being at a huge party where you don't know a soul.  The diversity was absolutely astounding.  Then we spotted the glorious crimson Waratah Telopea speciosissima (the state emblem of NSW) and she explained that the Latin name meant 'the most spectacular plant seen from afar' - I was hooked. It's been a fascinating journey ever since - which continued on Sunday.

Charms of finches: The warmer weather has brought the birds flocking to my garden including dozens of these beautiful double-barred finches.  I then discovered the collective noun for finches was a 'charm' - very poetic and very apt I think.
Koonyum Range, Mullumbimby, NSW

On the way up to our walk on Koonyum Ridge a fat black and gold echidna was waddling across the road and I wondered if it had a puggle in its' pouch.  This is the very cute name for the baby echidna - also shared by it's monotreme cousin, the platypus.  These are the very unusual creatures of the Australian animal world in that they are marsupials (have a pouch) but unlike other marsupials, like kangaroos, they lay eggs instead of live babies.  It's amazing what you find out when you do your kids school assignments!

So there was a lot to talk about with the little ones on the way and lots of flowers were out including the lovely Native Iris Patersonia fragilis.  The views were lovely.  It didn't rain.  We only had to carry two of them - and then we finally got there.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
William Blake

Monday, August 29, 2011

Hot Composting with Dave

 Few gardeners make enough compost for their needs.  HOT COMPOSTING is an easy way of producing a lot of compost in a short space of time.

Most of the ways we make compost is termed COLD COMPOSTING (see previous blog) that is; slowly adding to the heap over time and raking out the decomposed material from the bottom when it is cooked.
With HOT COMPOSTING the heap is made in one go, left alone to decompose, and then the whole heap is ready to use in a relatively short space of time.

Advantages of HOT COMPOSTING over COLD:
  • Finished compost faster than COLD which can be quite slow.
  • Kills disease organisms - COLD does not
  • Kills weed seeds - COLD does not
  • True soil food as NITROGEN is retained in the composting process.*
  • Efficient use of space - can be made as a 'ready to use' garden bed
Jenny and Penny on quality control duties!
DID YOU KNOW?*  I love it when you find out things like this.  COLD and HOT composting employ different bacteria!!  A HOT compost heap will have a lot more air in it and they use oxygen loving bacteria to break down the heap so the nitrogen (essential plant food) is retained in the heap.  This is not the case with a COLD heap which has less air in it and employs nitrogen loving bacteria, from the material in the heap, to help it break down- essentially you end up with compost that is more of a 'soil conditioner' than a plant food.

HOW TO MAKE HOT COMPOST:  Come with me to Dave's place and see how he does it.
Dave lives on 5 acres with a large re - forested area, vegetable garden, chickens and ducks - so he always has a lot of material for making simple compost heaps like these.

TOP TIP:  Make your HOT COMPOST in a spot where you want to have a new garden bed - then just rake it out, when it is ready, and PLANT - bingo!

 1.  Make a simple frame with some chicken wire and pickets.  You can also use wooden pallets/straw bales/old bits of corrugated iron etc.  It just needs to be big enough to generate heat.  Put on your best hat.

2.  If you have looked at the previous blogs for making a NO-DIG garden and COMPOSTING you will see that we are going to use exactly the same 'lasagne' methods that we used in those-layering CARBON with NITROGEN about 15:1.

3.  Start with a good layer of dry/CARBON material - straw/shredded paper/dry leaves/cardboard/egg boxes/wood shavings/dry prunings etc.

4.  Next, a layer of green/NITROGEN material - old pumpkin vines/freshly pulled weeds/grass clippings/spent flowers/kitchen scraps/seaweed/any plants from the pea or bean family (they are nitrogen rich)   
5.  It's important to water well between each layer.  Here Dave is making sure the composting process will be activated quickly by adding diluted urine - a valuable source of nitrogen that we just flush away.  Not so long ago this was all returned to the land - it still is in many countries.

6.  There are other compost activators like COMFREY.  This is a deep-rooted plant that mines nutrients and helps to speed up decomposition.

7.  Any kind of animal manures are good in not too large quantities and better used as a 'slurry' - watered down.  

8.  You just keep layering until the heap is complete.  Make sure you water it well and then cover it.  You need to keep heavy rain out and the heat in.  What this may lack in looks will make up for fattest eggplants and greenest lettuces. 

It will take about three months to be properly composted 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Recipe: Orange and Almond Cake (flourless and gluten free)

This is a very easy cake!!  And delicious!!!
The citrus season is in full swing, so when my daughter asked me to make a gluten free cake for a party I knew what it was to be - but where was the recipe?  I wanted to use Claudia Roden's orange cake from her fabulous Middle Eastern Cookbook, but whom had I lent it to?  I just had to 'fudge it'.

So here we have the 'accidental orange and nut cake' and, I must say, it was actually better than the original which can be a little dense - that's the way cooking goes. I will definitely be cooking it again.

2 large navel oranges (because they have no pips!)
5 eggs
1 1/4 cups soft brown organic sugar (you can use caster)
2 1/2 cups ground almonds (I used a half half mixture of almond and hazelnut which worked well)
1 tsp baking powder
Heat oven to 170oC
1.  Place oranges in saucepan, cover with water and boil for one hour.  Remove from water and cool.
2.  In a food processor beat eggs and sugar until pale and creamy.
3.  Add nut-meal and baking powder.
4.  Add cool and chopped oranges and whiz until a smooth consistency.
5.  Place in a lined and buttered spring-form pan and bake for approximately one hour.  Let it cool in the pan before removing to cooling tray.
The only piece left!

Monday, August 22, 2011

It's raining- it's pouring nitrates

Rain coming across the Tweed Valley
It rains a lot in the sub-tropics.  Mullumbimby, where I live in northern NSW, gets an average of 1,731 mm per year- London has 583 mm - but, of course it's a lot warmer. The average maximum being 23.7oC compared to 14.7oC for London.  The rain also falls in roughly the same number of days as London-which means that it just chucks it down - and then the sun comes out - not much of the grey drizzle stuff of my childhood.

We have had a recent dry spell, but this weeks thunderous storms have, almost overnight, turned the browning paddocks into an emerald lushness.

This wonderful phenomenon of nature occurs when rain falls through an electric storm and converts nitrogen in the air into the soluble nitrate form - which is readily absorbed by plants.  So it's not just your imagination that everything looks greener after a storm-it's Nature at work.
Flossie has found herself a dry spot!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Obesity: The Dying Art of Eating

"Don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognize as food" 
 Michael Pollan* (Food Rules)

Fat and NOT Happy:  Where did we go wrong?  How did we loose our sense of healthy eating and cooking that have sustained humans for thousands of years?

"If it comes from a plant,  eat it.  If it was made in a plant, don't" *

'Dibesity':  Almost every day we hear and read news stories about the epidemic of obesity that is sweeping the world and with it associated health problems like diabetes and heart disease. Elizabeth Farrelly (Sydney Morning Herald July 21 2011) wrote about the aptly named 'doughnut effect' in Sydney where the spike in obesity/diabetes was affecting the poorer outer suburbs - forming a 'fat circle' around the more affluent inner city ones which were largely untouched.

Conversely, the more affluent burgeoning middle classes of the emerging economies, like China and India, have in the last ten years seen an average 25% rise in obesity and with it diabetes.

In India, since 2000, 100 million people have become fat who were not fat before - a population the size of Germany! (BBC World Service Health Check)

This is the most serious medical and economic crisis that is affecting the whole world.  Our systems will not be able to cope with the pressures put upon it.

"Don't get your petrol and food from the same place"*

 Affluence is killing us: How did we allow ourselves to be so seduced by the global industrial food giants and fast food peddlers?  I am eternally grateful that I was too dumb for the Latin class at high school did Domestic Science and learnt basic cooking and nutrition instead - the most useful things I ever learnt.

"Eat FOOD. Not too much. Mostly Plants"* 

Most of the blame can be laid fairly and squarely on the industrialisation of our diet.

For the past sixty years we have been led a merry dance by the food industry, agog at all the claims they have been making about what kind of diet is good for us and hijacking the fundamentals of good nutrition

Nutritionism is good for the food business, but is it good for us?

All of our uncertainties about nutrition should not obscure the plain fact that chronic diseases that now kill most of us can be traced directly to the industrialization of food: the rise of highly processed foods and refined grains; the use of chemicals to raise plants and animals in huge monocultures; the superabundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat produced by modern agriculture; and the narrowing of the biological diversity of the human diet to a tiny handful of staple crops, notably wheat, corn and soy.*

Where is the life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
Choruses from The Rock (1934)  T.S. Eliot

Teach Your Children Well:  Our town has recently had an almighty battle on it's hands to keep Woolworth's out - we lost.  I found out today that Woolworth's had been up to my granddaughters' primary school doing a PR spiel and offering 'free apples' - sounds like the wicked stepmother in Snow White to me!  Resist this kind of insidious bribery.

FACT:  Woolworths and Coles supermarkets currently have an 82% share of the food market sales in Australia.
(On a recent visit to Sydney I visited my children's old public school and was thrilled that they had achieved what I had tried to do 25 years ago - created a kitchen garden, installed a kitchen for them to cook in AND introduced gardening and cooking into the curriculum - Yeh!!..................)

Turning Back the Tide:  My unsung hero number 2 is Australian chef/cook book writer/ school food garden guru - Stephanie Alexander - a modern day King Canute.

Almost singlehandedly she has turned the tide with her food gardening/cooking school's programme which has been running since 2001.  Why did she do this?  Because she was working with trainee chefs that didn't know how a bean grew or how you harvested it.  Her store of knowledge from childhood had not been passed to the next generation.

FACT:  One can of soft drink has an average of TEN teaspoonfuls of sugar.  This is converted to fat in the body.

Children have to learn about how food grows and how to cook it.  This is where most the community/school gardens I have worked with, over the past 25 years,  have ultimately failed - NO harvesting/recipes/cooking/eating element was included in the grand design. 
The new kitchen garden at Vaucluse Public School, Sydney

We need to complete the circle of finding the shortest route from the earth, to the hand and the mouth.  Along with organic food gardening and nutrition, these subjects should be part of every school curriculum.

Armed with this knowledge we can make more informed decisions about what we put in our mouths and ultimately take responsibility for our own health and well-being.

*Ref. Pollan, Michael, In Defense of Food ; Food Rules, Penguin Press, 2008 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Recipes: Leek and Pea Risotto (with Prawns)

Leek and Pea Risotto (with prawns)
Leeks, peas and lemons are in abundance at the moment and this fabulous risotto is a favourite with my family using seasonal and fresh ingredients.

lovely leeks at the Farmer's Market

The very first time I ate a real risotto was in San Gimignano, Italy over twenty years ago - and I remember every mouthful.  Fresh crab, subtle lemon flavour and glistening, succulent fat grains of rice - heaven.
Risotto is not a difficult dish to make but, because there are usually just a few ingredients, they need to be of the best and freshest quality. Plus, you need to put a bit of time aside for the stirring (glass of prosecco in the other hand!).
NOTE: I add the prawns as a garnish if I can find fresh green ones, but this is a lovely dish on it's own.  Without the prawns you can garnish with grated parmesan.
1 leek (white part only), washed and finely sliced
1 litre stock, vegetable or chicken
1 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen peas. if using frozen peas, make sure they are at room temperature
1 lemon, zest only
500g arborio rice
120g butter
2 tbs finely chopped dill OR parsley
salt and pepper

4 green prawns per person, shelled (leaving tails on) and deveined
100g butter
2 cloves garlic finely sliced
1 tsp dried chilli flakes

1.  Heat stock and wine in saucepan.
2.  In heavy based pan, melt butter and saute leek until it softens.
3.  Add rice and evenly coat with butter mixture and cook until the grains go slightly translucent.
4.  Add one cup of hot stock at a time, stirring constantly until rice is almost cooked.
5.  Add peas and lemon zest, adjust seasoning, and cook until liquid is mostly absorbed and rice is cooked (no hard bits in the middle, but firm).
6.  Just before rice is cooked heat a frypan with remaining butter, add chilli and garlic.  Add prawns and cook on high heat until they are golden.
7.  Add finely chopped dill (leaving a little for garnish) to risotto and stir through.
8.  Pile risotto onto plate and garnish with prawns and remaining dill.
where's my food stylist?
Buon appetito!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Kitchen Gardens: What to Grow in the Sub-Tropics

When and What to Plant?

Climbing French beans
I wasn't thinking of taking my wheelbarrow any further than the end of the garden so I was a bit perplexed this morning when I noticed this warning on it's tyre 'not to be used on the highway. 
A little later on a friend stopped me in town and asked "can I still plant onions"? It seems like a simple question but it is really quite a big one - what can I plant and when?  This would be the topic that, over the years, I have probably been asked the most. When answering this, the most important factor that you have to take into account is your climatic region and then the micro climate of your garden.  

Treat each site on it's merits.  To give you an example.  Our region is classified as sub-tropical and I have certainly had to totally rethink the question "what can I plant and when" since moving from the temperate (cooler) climate of Sydney. 
For example; I can't get garlic to 'head' in my garden and use it as 'wet garlic' (like a fat spring onion) in cooking - yet 5 km up the valley they grow beautiful stuff - it's a few degrees cooler than here. Conversely, none of the valley folk have any ripe tomatoes or zucchini yet, but my neighbour and I are harvesting already (something unheard of until December in Sydney) 
Here goes!  Below is a list of all the food plants in my garden at the moment - divided into annuals (I have to plant them almost every year) and perennials (they just keep going).  If you have realised that it's good to have a mixture of both - you are half way there. 
Harvesting Now!
basil lettuce
beans(going since summer)
bok choy
broad beans(not quite)
coriander(almost finished)
leek(2nd crop this year)
broad bean (in flower)
mustard greens
potatoes(2nd planting)
spring onions
tomatoes(just ripening)
tuscan kale


About to be Planted!

Broad beans in flower

PERENNIALS in the garden
betel leaf
blood orange
ceylon spinach
curry leaf
French tarragon
Pineapple - makes a good border
kaffir lime
lemon myrtle
lemon thyme
rose apple
Bananas are easy to grow and bountiful!
sweet potato
Vietnamese mint

All of this has been planted within the last five years and a most of it virtually looks after itself, with a lot of the annuals self seeding.
The most important lesson I have learned is that the annual food plants in the sub-tropics do best in the cooler months of autumn, winter and spring and deteriorate rapidly when the rains come over summer.

However, for most of the year the garden is incredibly abundant and always gives us something to eat. To answer Jo's question - if you want to plant onions, do it now and you might get be able to harvest them before the rains come. Give it a go. Just see how much you can grow!
" Beware of gardens of the righteous! Trimmed edges mean a frightened soul. "Jackie French


Monday, August 8, 2011

Kitchen Gardens: Top Tips for Getting Started

Part One: Getting Started
"Find the shortest, simplest way between the earth, the hand and the mouth." Lanza del Vasto

My cycle ride into town this morning was even more pleasurable for the warm and balmy air fragrant with the scent of orange and jasmine blossom.  A perfect time to get out in the garden and plant some food.  I hope the simple tips below, gained from my years of gardening, will help and encourage you.

Where - simple site analysis
  • Choose an area that gets 6 hours of sun per day.  I have a winter and summer vegetable garden to cope with the different light conditions.
  • Do not put your kitchen garden near or under trees - you will just be feeding the tree roots.
  • Have all/some of your food garden as close to the house as possible - especially the things you are going to use every day like herbs and salads.
How - fixing the soil
Beige Pudding!
  • Food is only as good as the soil it is grown in.  Take time in preparation and you will be rewarded.  Make a no-dig bed (see NO-DIG GARDEN) and keep building on it. You may be unlucky enough, like me, to discover that the developers have skimmed off 2m of beautiful red soil and left you with 'beige pudding'.  Do not despair - all is not lost. 
  •  Treat heavy clay soils with gypsum (helps to break it up) and just keep adding that organic matter - compost(see COMPOST and HOT COMPOST)/straw/grass clippings/composted manures etc.
  • Do a pH test.  Most vegetables prefer a pH of 6-7 and in sub-tropical soils this can quickly go out of kilter.  pH is a measure of the acidity/alkilinity in the soil and because the alkaline component is more soluble in water heavy rains can leach it out and leave the soil quite acid.  All the important nutrients in the soil like Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium etc. become available to the plants when the pH is neutral (6-7).  You can correct acid soils by adding dolomite/lime, wood ash and loads of organic matter (see UNDERSTANDING SOILS)
  • TIP: I have discovered that spent mushroom compost is very alkaline (it contains composted chalk) so is fantastic for fixing soils after the rain - it helps to neutralize acid soils and adds vital organic matter.  Just make sure you get it from a reliable source.
Part Two: Getting Started - Garden Design
"Garden design should be as personal as underwear: (Who wants to wear white cotton knickers every day?  Or have a garden like everyone else's in the street or like those in garden magazines?) No-one can design a garden for someone else - a garden should be an intensely personal thing.  Forget about the sterotyped gardens you see all around you, and just work out what you love and what you need.  What do you want to do in your garden?" Jackie French 
The garden in August
Let Nature Be Your Guide:  Nature doesn't come in rows with the same plant over and over again.  A garden of diversity and integration - like nature - is going to save you an awful lot of time, money and heartache and be incredibly beautiful at the same time.
I live on a small suburban block with limited garden space yet, when I did a head count the other day, I had over 70 food/useful plants.  Here are some of my rules to help you on your way:

  • Work with what you have got.  Look at the gardens around you and take a walk to your local community garden - and see what is possible.  Don't battle with your environment to try and turn it into something it wasn't meant to be.
  • Only grow food plants that you are actually going to eat.  Make a list with the family.
  • Start small.  Make a manageable no-dig bed then just keep increasing it.
  • Keep lawns to a minimum.  If it's not used for walking/lying/sitting or playing on get rid of it - turn it into a garden bed.
  • Avoid neatness - gardens should not be monuments to spadework.
  • Only plant things that you can eat or make you smile.
  • Dig as little as possible.  It's not good for your back or the soil.
  • Plant a mixture of annual and perennial foods so you will always have something to eat.
  • Think about the birds and the bees.  Attracting beneficial insects to your garden, birds, and small reptiles will keep your garden healthy and happy.  Plant some natives. Edge with logs and rocks.  Large shallow dishes make great birdbaths.
  • Recycle as much as possible - plants/compost/logs/seeds.
  • Mulch, mulch and more mulch.
  • Don't give up - things will improve over time.
Gardens are to be enjoyed - it should make you smile as soon as you walk into it.!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Top Plants: Yacon

Yacon - a crunchy and sweet tasty treat

Yacon: Smallanthus sonchifolius Peruvian Ground Apple

While a fairly common plant to organic gardeners and permaculturists Yacon deserves to be more widely grown.  It is a vegetable that produces a delicious root crop, and best of all it is hardy and virtually maintenance free.  I tossed a piece of this down the bottom of the garden and six months later had a two metre high plant that yielded about 4 kilos of edible tubers.  No watering, no feeding and no pests! 

Native to the Andean South American countries it has value eaten raw - where it 
tastes like crunchy 'pine' flavoured apple, or roasted where it takes on a caramelized taste.  The sugars in it are not absorbed by the body and researches are looking into it's value for use by diabetics.

Plant the purplish 'corms', that appear on top of the tubers, in autumn and harvest after flowering in June/July.  Like pumpkin - the flavour and texture of the edible tubers improve if stored in a cool, dark, shady place for a week or so.

It gets to about 2m or so and will grow in sun to semi-shade.  It is best grown in a perennial bed alongside larger edible plants.  I grow alongside turmeric, galangal, taro and cassava where it seems quite happy.

Take care when harvesting as the tubers are very brittle and will not store if damaged.  Itr is delicious 'raw' tasting like a crunchy apple or can be roasted like potato.

TIP: for roasting, cut into bit sized pieces and toss with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper and bake for 20-30mins at 180C in a roasting tray.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Recipes: Greek Lemon Yoghurt Cake

Greek Lemon Yoghurt Cake Yiaourtopita

Put a taste of Greece in your mouth with this yummy, sticky lemon cake: sun-kissed lemons, herb scented honey from a rocky coastline, creamy thick yoghurt and almonds from the vallleys and mountains of the mainland - poli orea

Herb scattered hillsides of Sifnos
250 g softened butter
200g caster sugar

4 eggs
2 lemons, zested
250g fine semolina
100g plain flour
2tsp baking powder
150 plain yoghurt
3 tbspn lemon juice
Syrup: 150g sugar
2 tbsp honey
250ml water
1/2 tsp eack cinnamon and nutmeg

Heat oven to 180oC
Beat butter and sugar until pale and creamy.
Gradually add eggs, one at a time, beating after each one till fully mixed. 
Add lemon zest and beat.
In a separate bowl, mix together the semolina, flour, baking powder and almond meal.
Gently fold through the beaten eggs, sugar and butter mixture
Add yoghurt and lemon juice and gently fold in flour mixture
Pour into a well greased springform pan.
Will make one large cake or two smaller ones.
Bake for 50-55 minutes. 

Meanwhile make the syrup by heating together in a small saucepan and reducing until it thickens slightly and becomes syrupy.
When the cake is cooked, remove from oven.
Pour hot syrup over cake when warm.
Cake will keep for a while in the fridge and improves with time.

Serve with thick yoghurt and decorate with chopped pistachios.