Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Attracting Bees to your Garden

I had this email from a friend of mine and she doesn't seem to be the only one having this problem at the moment.

Dear Di
I am about to do a permaculture course in the mountains which will be great.
Just a query about Bees. My Zucchinni and cucumbers are not fruiting so the nursery lady advised me it was probably because of lack of bees. I grow roses nearby and have marigolds in the verge garden with all my gums around but still not enough bees.
What to do???  Love Virginia

Dear Ginny,  Flossie might have some answers for you - she knows about the birds and the bees................

TOP TIP: For attracting bees and other pollinators to your garden DON'T SPRAY HARMFUL CHEMICALS.  Nature is in a fine balance out there kept by the beneficial insects that will thrive in your garden if you don't KILL THEM WITH CHEMICALS.  They will do the work for you of keeping pests under control. (Go to this link about worldwide declining bee numbers)

My favourite 'buzzing' perennial Gaura lindheimeri - Butterfly Bush
1.  You won't see many pollinators around if it's raining.

2.  The bee people tell me there are just not that many foraging bees around at the moment.  This could be just a seasonal thing or a more concerning problem of loss of habitat or use of herbicides and pesticides.

3.  You can help by planting bee attracting plants with a mixture of natives and exotics.  Good natives for Sydney seaside are Leptospermum, Melaleuca, Grevillea, Eucalyptus and Kunzea etc.

Bees on flowering fennel
Flowering lemon thyme
4.  As well as having quite a few shrubby natives around (well it is Mullumbimby!) I have a lot of flowering herbs that set the bees humming like thyme, rosemary, mint, oregano, marjoram, tarragon etc.  It's also worthwhile letting annual herbs like parsley, fennel, dill, coriander and basil go to flower - the bees love it (and then you can collect the seed).  It doesn't need to be every plant - just one or two - and they look fabulous giving that romantic cottage garden effect.

One of the top ten plants for attracting bees is lavender - too wet for me to grow up here, but great for your garden.

My favourite bee plant is the one Flossie is standing under - Gaura - it is always alive with pollinators and is so pretty in a native and cottage gardens.  This is the pinky/white form but it also comes in dark crimson and once you plant it you will always have it - it just keeps popping up every spring and then I move it to where I want it.

NOTE:  Gaura has become weedy in some parts of Australia and nurseries, in those area, cannot sell it. I believe many of the plants that we love have potential to become weeds and it is up to us to be responsible caretakers of this planet - keep as much green waste as you can on your own patch - mulch it, compost it and recycle it.  The way to deal with invasive plants and weeds is to either bury them in a deepish hole or steep them in a large bin of water - let them rot then pour it on the garden.

5.  Great companion plants and pollinators for the vegie garden are annuals like zinnia, cosmos, echinacea, alyssum - marigolds are great as a fumigant for the soil (deterring harmful nematodes - click here for information about soil nematodes and marigolds) but I don't actually see many pollinators buzzing around them.
6. You can also 'play the hand of god' with any of the cucurbit family (zucchini, cucumbers, pumpkins etc) and pollinate them yourself.  These plants have individual male and female flowers on the same plant (usually) - easy to pick once you have a look.  The male has a sticky out bit (pistil with pollen) and the female is beautiful and curvaceous (stigma and ovaries) !  You can just pick a male flower and go around hand pollinating all the females. I thought this would be a fun activity for the children to do but the questions gave Nanma a headache!

Lack of fruiting is a common problem with this family and hand pollination has been, and still is, a common activity for gardeners - and probably your best short term solution.

Summertime - cucumber time!
Well Ginny, I hope this answers your questions - happy gardening and good luck with the Permaculture course.  Love Di

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Fingerlime : Citrus caviar

Fingerlime - citrus caviar
The native fingerlime Citrus australasicus just about ticks all the boxes in the desire to find the shortest route between the earth, the hand and the mouth - and what eating locally and sustainably is all about.

An indigenous understorey rainforest shrub, local to our area, grows to a maximum height of 3m.   This scrawny and thorny native citrus could be easily overlooked until you cut the finger-like fruit in half and out spills its fragrant citrus pearls that burst with flavour in your mouth - hence the name citrus caviar.  Chefs around the world just can't get enough of them to use as a garnish for all kinds of fish and seafood, especially oysters and salmon, spicy Asian salads and cocktail drinks.

I have a friend who planted, as an experiment, about 20 grafted plants three years ago and mentioned to me that they were laden with fruit, but he just didn't have the time to pick them - he runs our local native Nursery - and I just can't bear waste! That's where idle grandchildren on holiday, my foodie friend Grant and I came in.   Over the last 2 days we picked nearly 20 kilos and, after a few phone calls, had most of them snapped up by local restaurants and providores.

Fingerlime plants - three years old
Around here I have planted the local fingerlime many times as part of Landcare revegetation programmes, and it does well if you are looking for a useful rainforest 'bush tucker' plant for your own native garden. It's also good as part of an edible hedge. However, those being grown commercially are the grafted varieties like 'Local Green' - that has pink flesh and 'Tweed' with bronze fruit and lime green flesh.  The plants are expensive to buy and grafting is tricky.  I think my friend grafted over 100 and only about 10 were successful (and he's an expert) - hence the price of the fruit - $45-$60 per kilo for export and $20-$35 local shop prices.  However, a little goes a long way and they can be frozen.

If you have never tried them, you are in for a treat.  You should be able to find them in the shops now as it's the main harvesting time.  I love them as a garnish on home-made gravalax (cured salmon) - delicious.  Last night I panfried some scallops and made a dressing with chilli, fish sauce, soy sauce and fingerlime - yum!  Grant thinks they would be nice in a Margarita!  Feels like we have earned one after the last two days of getting stung by hornets, bitten by fire ants, startled by cane toads, scratched to death, getting drenched in numerous rain showers and answering testing questions from the kiddies - but hey,  we brought the harvest in!

"Nanma, those two butterflies have been stuck together for a long time - are they making babies?" (Leila, 6)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Recipe: Mango Cream Tart

Smells can take you on a real nostalgia trip.  For me the pending excitement of my childhood Christmases started by walking into a warm house, from the outside frosty air, to the wonderful smell of our Christmas tree (Norwegian spruce) and rum infused cake cooking in the oven (one that my brothers and I had to stir with a big wooden spoon, make a wish, then fight over who was going to lick the spoon and scrape out the bowl).  These days it's the heady fragrances of the summer garden, MANGOS - and rum infused Christmas cake cooking in the oven with the grandchildren fighting over the bowl.

Living in the sub-tropics there are mango trees everywhere, but we are lucky to get a good season and a decent crop.  Early springtime has me eagerly watching the weather when the mango trees begin to flower and then set their fruit,  as a really big storm or high winds just knocks them all off.  Mind you, when we get a good season there are almost too many to use and, as my neighbour says "It's like living in Beirut" with the heavy fruit falling onto her tin roof and exploding "just like a grenade going off".

Luxury, for my grandchildren, is having a whole mango to themselves - best of all eating it without worrying about the drips and the best place to do that around here is on a sandbank of the Brunswick River at New Brighton at low tide - wish I had had the camera!

I have been making this tart for over 35 years, a real family favourite, and passed the recipe on to dozens of people.  I'm not sure where I got the original from - it's one of those on a scrap of yellowing paper with very frayed edges, but my new son-in-law paid it the ultimate compliment when he recently tried it for the first time "Di, this is restaurant quality".  It sort of ticks all the boxes as far as making deserts are concerned:  Simple ingredients, easy to make - no cooking required, looks fantastic, tastes sensational.

Mango Cream Tart  (serves 8)
250g sweet biscuits (plainish ones like Nice or Tea biscuits)
125g butter melted
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
2 large ripe or 3 medium mangos
Juice of 1 lemon or 2 limes
1/2 cup caster sugar
4 tsp gelatin
1/4 cup hot water
200ml pure cream

1.  Crush the biscuits into fine crumbs.  Now you can have a bit of fun with this by placing them in strong plastic bag and bashing them with a rolling pin, but I usually pulse them in the food processor (it's usually a measure of what kind of day I'm having - pulse or bash!)
2.  Melt the butter in a saucepan.  Add the biscuit crumbs and cinnamon and combine.
3.  Press the mixture into the base and sides of a 25cm spring-form pan.
4.  Chill in fridge to set.
5.  Peel mangos and pulse flesh in food processor with lemon juice and sugar.
6.  Sprinkle gelatin over hot water, stir until dissolved.
7.  Whip cream until it forms peaks.
8.  Combine mango mixture with gelatin and cream and pour into biscuit base.
9.  Chill in fridge until firm.  Serve with cream/passionfruit/extra mango etc.
Mango Cream Tart - decorated by Leila 6

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Recipe: Sorrel Tart

This was not a plant I was familiar with from my childhood in England or early adulthood in Australia.  I first encountered sorrel Rumex scutatus when I was working as a landscaper in Sydney and specializing in putting in edible gardens.  I had a lovely client, Lilly, an elderly Hungarian lady who had had a fall, which left her mobility impaired,  and she wanted me to build a raised vegetable garden  - sorrell was the first thing she wanted me to plant telling me it was very popular in Hungarian cuisine for making soups, sauces and stuffing fish.  Making the garden wasn't hard - finding somewhere to buy sorrel in the 1980's was the challenge!

Thirty years later, up here in the sub-tropics, it's a common kitchen garden plant because it is so easy to grow and trouble-free - and we seem to have become more adventurous eaters.  The common 'wild' plant in USA, Asia and Europe is a different variety than this one which is also known as French sorrel.  It seems to survive in 'wet' and 'dry', sun and part shade and all but the boggiest of soils. It behaves as a perennial plant for two-three years before you need to re-plant it and grows like spinach.  It is very nutritious and has a greeny-lemony flavour.  Just a word of caution though - the high oxalic acid content means that you can eat it raw, but sparingly, and it is better cooked.  I use the young new leaves as part of a mixed salad to give a tangy bite.  I have also made soups with it and this delicious sorrel tart is another family favourite.

NOTE:  Some people seem to tremble in fear at the thought of making pastry from scratch.  Apart from the ready made stuff tasting like the cardboard it's packaged in - this is really easy. YOU JUST NEED A FOOD PROCESSOR.

Pastry - makes enough for 2 tarts and you can put half in the freezer for the next one!
200g butter, chilled and cut into pieces
250g plain wholemeal flour
1 tbs Greek yoghurt (you can use sour cream)

Heat oven to 200oC
Place flour and butter in food processor and pulse until resembles breadcrumbs.
Add yoghurt and pulse again until mixture forms one lump.
If it is a very hot day I recommend wrapping it in cling-film to let it 'rest' in the fridge for a while.  In warm weather it is best to make pastry in the morning, otherwise it will just fall apart.
Roll out dough until it is 5mm then use it to line a 20cm quiche dish.
Line the pastry with foil and cover with dried beans (you can re-use these for the next time)
Put in the oven for 15mins then remove the foil and beans and bake for further 5 mins.

NOTE: This is called 'baking-blind' (now, that could be an apt title for my biography!)  It is worth going through the process as it stops the pastry from rising and going soggy when you put a 'wet' filling in it.

1 red onion, chopped
1 leek white part only, chopped
(or you can use 2 small onions.  I just use leek because I have them in the garden and they give a sweetness to the dish)
knob butter
600g sorrel leaves stripped from stem
6 large eggs
150g soft goats cheese (or crumbled fetta)
sea salt and black pepper

Fry onion and leek in stainless steel pan with melted butter and cook until soft.
Add sorrel leaves and sweat until soft. Cool (otherwise it will cook the eggs!)
Transfer to food processor and blend.
Add eggs, goats cheese, salt and pepper
NOTE: You can use fetta, but just crumble it over the top - don't blend it.  OR leave out the goats cheese and fetta and add 1 cup cream and sprinkle some grated parmesan on top.

Pour the filling into the warm pastry case and bake on 180oC until set 40-50 mins.
Sorrel and goats cheese tart
Comment from Blake. This brought to mind that David Bowie song "with your long blonde hair and your eyes of blue, the only thing I ever got from you was...sorrel".

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Soils: The Good Earth!

I probably should have started with this way back in July, when I started this blog, as it is the fundamentally most important thing you have to learn about gardening.  But as it is the first day of the New Year we should probably start with some line-dancing scarecrows just to keep us in the festive mood?

Fact:  Tropical soils are not necessarily fertile.  We see the rainforests and the incredible mass of vegetation that they they support and think wow! -just think what I could grow on that.  The trouble is, the fertility is all in the canopy.  Once you remove the natural vegetation and inherent recycling of nutrients, the soils quickly become depleted and acidic because of their high rainfall and leaching - the good stuff is simple washed away.  

Fact:  The alkaline products in the soil are more soluble in water than the acid ones (think about how stalagmites are formed (alkaline calcium carbonate in solution slowly being deposited on the floor of a cave)) that is why tropical soils quickly acidify.

The Amazon story - it's a sorry one.  Hectare after hectare was cleared to run beef cattle (mostly for the American hamburger market) thinking they had found Bonanza!  Very quickly they discovered that that the soils, that had previously supported a verdant and incredibly diverse rainforest, couldn't even grow grass without a massive chemical input.

Fact:  Most volcanic tropical soils look wonderful, but they are so old, especially in Australia, that if the vegetation is cleared above them they quickly become very acid and infertile.  The exception is Indonesia where the volcanic activity is recent - in fact currently very active.  Try flying over Java and seeing 45 active volcanoes puffing away above the cloud-line - a sight to behold and you see what I mean.  The trouble is Indonesians today are trying to grow food crops on what were once rice fields/or cleared rainforest and you have the same inherent problems - within a couple os seasons acidity from water leaching. We are all in the same boat.  So how do we fix it?

Understanding pH will help you be a better gardener.  So buy a kit and test your soil.  Getting the soil chemistry right is fundamental to growing a healthy garden and remember that food is only as good as the soil it is grown in.

Slightly acidic or neutral soils, with a pH of 6.5-7, is the aim as this is when most minerals in the soil become chemically available to plants..  If the chemistry isn't right, merely adding extra fertilizer won't improve plant health, it just wastes money.

Think of the nutrients in your soil as being like the treasures locked away in a bank vault and the right pH being the combination that unlocks them.  They are mostly there all the time but unavailable except to the person with the knowledge and the right numbers (and a handy little pH testing kit!)
Testing soil pH. A first for Balinese farmers

This is where the organic gardener has the upper hand over 'conventional' gardeners.  Invariably, the continual use of organic mulches and fertilizers will, over time, rectify pH problems without having to do just about anything else.  But, what do you do if you want to fix the soil quickly without harming it?

Soils too acid- below 5.  Add lime or dolomite at a rate of one handful per square metre and rake it in.  Add mushroom compost - it contains composted chalk (alkaline) and will help to neutralize the soil while adding vital organic matter.

Soils too alkaline - above 9.  Add blood and bone/chicken manure and lots of compost.  For a quick fix add iron chelates.

FACT:  The continual addition of organic matter to soil in the tropics will do more, in the long term, to keeping your plants healthy than just about anything else.  DON'T WASTE IT - RECYCLE IT: composted kitchen scraps, grass clipping, animal manures, aquatic weeds, shredded garden waste, green weeds/straw/tree chippings/mushroom compost/seaweed etc. WHY?
1. They add vital nutrients to the soil that are needed by plants in a regular supply - nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and calcium.
2. Enrich the roil with beneficial micro-organisms. 
3. Increases the 'sponginess' of the soil i.e. air spaces 
4. Hold all those valuable nutrients in the soil and stop them from washing away in heavy rains.  

The old bracelet test.  How to tell what type of soil you have and whether it has sufficient organic matter.
  1. Get a handful of soil and moisten it.
  2. Try to form it into a ball.  If it won't do that it is SAND.
  3. Try forming it into a long strip.  If you can make a short one but then it begins to crack as you bend it - this is a LOAM (usually has plenty of organic matter and will be fertile)
  4. If you can make it into a long strip and bend it around your wrist - this is CLAY.  Good for making pots, but not much else.
How I learned my lesson about pH.
  1. I was running some workshops in Indonesia and was confronted with some farmers who wanted to rip out their unproductive citrus orchard telling me that it was the fault of 'bad spirits'.  A simple pH test showed the soil to be 4.5 (too acid for citrus).  Following a top dressing of lime and mulching with pupuk sapi (cow poo) and rice straw the problem was fixed.
  2. From this..................................
  3. Fifteen years ago I bought a property in the sub-tropics of northern NSW and swooned at the sight of the 2m deep red earth that looked like chocolate.  I then begun to wonder why nothing really thrived.  A pH showed the soil to be 4! - way too acid.  The vegetation had been removed many years before with no soil improvement and it needs continual love and care for it to be productive - even today. 
Set with the task of making a productive food garden in Ubud, Bali from an old rice field it was not that hard to fix the very acid soils and soon start producing fruit and vegetables. We started with a no-dig bed, edged with spent banana stems, and just kept building up the organic matter.  In exchange for produce from the garden, local cow owners and rice farmers were happy to do a swap for their cow poo and rice straw.

To this...........................................!
'The answer lies in the soil'
NOTE: see previous posts "In Praise of the Humble Earthworm", "Composting", "Hot Composting" and "No-Dig Garden Beds"