Sunday, December 1, 2013

Two square metres

How many beans can you grow in two square metres of soil?

I couldn't tell you yet - I haven't finished harvesting.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A bumper crop of wax paper bags

I tend to only grow things that are edible or useful, and never just because they are sightly. Nothing probably better illustrates all of these points than my wax-paper bag trees, and this season I'm getting a bumper crop.

Okay, you've got me. These aren't actually wax-paper bag trees - they're really just apple trees in disguise, although I'm sure I had you fooled for at least a moment. Mind you, if I could grow wax paper bags on trees, I'd be ripping up the lawn to plant a small orchard.

These days the golden rule in my garden is: if you don't bag it, you don't eat it. In principal I'm completely fine with sharing my table with mother nature, but I had no option but to stop inviting her to the party - because it turns out, she's a bit of a glutton. Her fruit fly tend to arrive early, laying a bit of extra protein in the first bite of every apple. Bats also don't mind a go at the platter, but I'm not keen on inviting a colony of them around because they never go home, and they shit paint stripper. Possums tend to take a bite out of everything and put it back on the plate, breaking carefully manicured branches as they go. And finally, if anything is left - there's the sulfur crested cockatoo. When the first four of the seven seals are broken, marking the coming of the apocalypse - I'm certain Conquest, War, Famine and Death will actually come riding on the back of four sulfur crested cockatoos.

The wax paper bag has solved all these problems for me. They're a little time consuming to apply, and you'll be paying a silver platypus for each piece of fruit you want to reserve (a bag is only good for one season) - but you only have to do it once, they're non toxic, and they are really hard for any of the mentioned pests to circumvent - because they completely exclude flying insects, and make fruit invisible to everything else. And since you're already right there, its a perfect time to thin out your crop too. I also remove anything not bagged to help break the cycle of the fruit fly.

At times you'll find you need to bag the end of a whole branch, depending on how and where the fruit is attached to the tree (tying off the bag on individual stalks is fruitless - the first puff of wind will break fruit from the tree) - but the white paper lets some light through, and it won't kill leaves you've had to cover. The only other disadvantage is that you can't readily tell if the fruit is ready unless you take off the bag, but you might also find that results in less human "pests".

I've wasted plenty of time trying to figure out whether you can compost the bags at the end of the season, too. The loud, speculative and often emotionally charged argument of paraffin wax vs. bees wax completely dominates the web, making it almost impossible to bring up any search that results in evidence-based, peer reviewed research on anything wax related. It's also hard to find out what kind of wax is used on the bags, but you can bet your arse its probably paraffin. All that said, I did find one paper on the breakdown of wax paper that seemed to suggest that microbes responsible for wax decomposition are present on all six continents you'd contemplate doing such a thing, and it's possible no toxins are left from the breakdown. To be completely clear, I have absolutely no chemistry expertise to say if this is correct or not - I'm just a guy with compost heap and an internet connection. But if you want to try it, I'd think ripping them up small & adding it to a hot compost would be the way to go.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Yacon goes with everything

After flowering a few months ago, the tops of my yacon browned, drooped, and began to look sadder than a wet cat. On the surface it may have appeared like another casualty in a lifestyle of over employment, but thankfully, it was just the plants telling me that it was time to tuck in a bib and say grace. Sinking a garden fork into ground a generous distance from the browning stalks, I heaved up the dormant root ball. The small turd-like fragments of rhizome I'd planted some six months earlier had developed into what looked like a complex ball of intestinal tract - but more importantly, what came up attached to the mass was kilos of smooth, round, elongated tubers - the entire reason for starting on this journey to begin with.

Layers of dirt rode the back of a purplish-skin as I used a knife to peel it away from the white flesh of the first tuber. Yacon is often eaten raw in its homeland, and after six months of suspense I wasn't about to wait for a pot to boil before I dived in and had a taste. Raw yacon is crunchy like an apple, juicy like a watermelon and reminds you a bit of eating celery sticks - except it tastes like none of these things. In fact, it really doesn't taste like anything at all. At first that was very disappointing - but with an overwhelming pile of tubers boxed in a corner of the kitchen, The Wife started putting them in random dishes, if only to get rid of them.

...And the results have been surprising.

What yacon does add to a dish is texture, fill and a refreshing burst of moisture, without modifying the dish's original flavour. That's the true genius of the yacon tuber - because it tastes like nothing, it can be made to taste like anything. It's been particularly amazing in casseroles, stir-frys, or baked with a sprinkling of oil and rosemary. Cutting the tubers into thin slices and frying them with a touch of seasoned salt made the most amazing crunchy, moisture-filled chips.

But the real winner with Yacon is that when freshly harvested, the bulk of its composition is oligo-fructose - a largely indigestible sugar which is also a pre-biotic and soluble fibre. Eating it not only means very few calories, but also that you won't have as much time to spend thinking next time you visit the throne. If you're dangerously thin or just need a bit more time to ponder the deeper mysteries of the world, you can always leave your tubers in the sun for a week or two to speed up the transition of oligo-fructose to other, sweeter sugars.

The initial disappointment had confined the remaining entrails of the plant to a box, which had been euphemistically stored under the house for later planting. Fishing them out of the dark with renewed enthusiasm, I broke them up into fist-sized pieces that contained a few nodes each. Re-planted, these should each re-shoot over the next month as it warms up, and we'll be back on the way to next Autumn's yacon harvest.

An early spring

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Two eggs in one

Today marked a new record in my coop: an egg of such massive proportions, it had me wondering whether an emu had broken into the yard for some overnight lodgings. I mean look at it - near enough to a hundred grams, surely that chicken should have needed an emergency cesarean to still be alive - it's got to be the poultry equivalent of giving birth to a toddler.

But all considered, my three birds are still alive, after a long period with only one bird on the lay. Having not been able to spot the bird that's walking funny, I can only assume that this egg is the result of a bird that's been blocked up for a while; mostly because we're back to two eggs a day of late. And lucky for them that they should be, these girls are now well into their third and - being Isa Browns - probably final season before I get in some new talent. Any stop in production at this point will guarantee them a promotion to chicken stock.

Meanwhile, I'm sure the wife is busy looking for a recipe that requires at least two eggs. I have to go figure out how this thing is going to fit nicely in the fridge - because as you can see, this egg carton ain't going to close any more.  

Monday, March 11, 2013

A final salute to the pumpkin vine

At the risk of leading the infrequent reader to believe this is a blog solely about pumpkin, allow me a moment to make one final post about this serial cucurbit for the season. I can make this assurance with certainty; because said pumpkin's dominance of the yard came to an abrupt end yesterday as I pulled its dying vine from the ground.

Inevitably mildew ran its course over a particularly damp February - and most of the plant was taking its final bows, with older leaves browning off and much of the newer growth taking on a cloudy white appearance. Mind you, pulling it out was still quite an effort; as even a dying, established pumpkin vine is something I wouldn't hesitate to grab if I ever found one growing on my way to a lengthy drop to the ground. I found a host of smaller fruit hiding beneath what remained of the foliage as I heaved it from the soil - so I've built a respectable tally (pictured; minus the two that have already made their way into kitchen) - each of the larger ones will easily make a portion of every meal over the good part of a month.

While it pains me to throw out any green waste; to compost these vines will only result in increasing the mildew problem I have - because to kill mildew spores, you'd need a compost heap running at a hot-as-hell setting; as opposed to the recently-used-seat-cushion setting of my own compost bins. So begrudgingly, I stuffed half a cubic meter of rotting pumpkin vine into our green waste bin and hauled it to the curb. Maybe not the most dignified end for the season's most productive plant - but at least it gets one final salute from the garbage truck.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Get this orange tree a cape

Citrus trees are kind of like super-heroes. It doesn't really matter what kind of shit they manage to get themselves into, you can rest assure they'll figure a way out of it before the credits roll. Such traits might make a boring and predictable movie, but by god it makes for a great addition to a veggie garden.

Its been a good six months since I last banged on about this orange tree, which was badly damaged by a marauding band of scale insect. Since then the entire core of the tree dropped its leaves and packed up shop - and so I was forced to cut out a stack of dead branches a few months back. Now, after a late summer growth spurt, green is shooting out all over place, just like you knew it would.

Friday, February 8, 2013

A white-belt in Bokashi

After five years of careful procrastination, I finally went ahead and bought a Bokashi bin. If you're not familiar with the concept, Bokashi is an oxygen-less composting system that can break down just about anything organic. Yes, An-y-thing. Fruit, Vegetable. Dairy. Pasta and Breads. Meat! You just throw all your waste material into an airtight bucket, sprinkle on a bit of magic dust (a.k.a Bokashi mix: wheat bran infused with microbes) and close the lid. The key selling point, though, is that it's supposedly odorless, and thus can be kept indoors close to the action: because the decomposition process happens via fermentation, not putrefaction.

Despite being sold by the principle very early on, at first I couldn't get over the fact that I'd be handing over four red lobsters for what initially looks like a bucket and a bag of sawdust. But eventually I began to see it as a way to wring valuable nourishment for the garden out of the waste that would be otherwise rotting down at the local landfill - and not only does the fermented solid waste end up in the garden, the liquid that is produced during fermentation can be drained through a tap at the bottom of the bucket and used as a rich liquid fertiliser. What's more, I could vastly improve the serenity of the general area downwind of our wheelie bin at the same time.

So a few weeks back my Bokashi bucket arrived and we enthusiastically started filling it with a mix of vegetable scrap, meat offcuts, and generally whatever my 18-month-olds were trying to feed to the dog that no one else can see. We made the bucket a little home in the laundry, and I sang songs to it at night before we turned the lights out.

But that's when it all started to go wrong.

It was subtle at first. Every now and then the wife would pause randomly and give the slightest twitch of her nose. I couldn't smell anything however, so I had just assumed she was trying to cast a hex on me, as she sometimes does. But soon she became insistent that some animal must have died in a wall cavity - and it wasn't much longer before arguments started breaking out over the Bokasi bin, cowering scared in the corner.

I couldn't smell anything. I didn't want to. The little red devil hovering behind my left ear was telling me I should sneak the Bokashi bin into the bedroom overnight and prove her wrong! I'm sure you assume - since I'm not now sharing news of my divorce - that I didn't go through with that plan. Though pretty soon, the smell was strong enough to cut through the walls of the happy bubble I was living in.

My Bokashi was putrefying, which is most certainly what you don't want. The bin moved outside and began to alert every cat in a 10km radius to where we lived, and what we ate for dinner three nights ago. I drained off the liquid in the bottom of the bucket, and it smelt like the bathroom floor of  a Sydney nightclub at 3am on a Sunday morning. "How could this be!" I demanded of the bucket, like it would answer me and my neighbours wouldn't think I was crazy. "I followed your instructions!".

I had been obediently feeding the bucket one tablespoon of Bokasi mix for every cup of waste, but so it would seem, that just wasn't cutting it. So I turned to Uncle Google in the hope that'd he'd know what was going on. As it turns out, the summer heat can certainly cause the contents of your Bokashi bin to putrefy before it can begin to ferment. However, I think the primary cause was that my obstinate bucket and its adoption papers just weren't telling me everything I needed to know.

If you're going to Bokashi any high protein wastes (like meats), you need to add waaaaay more Bokashi mix. You also really need to make sure you compact the waste in the bin, squishing out as much air as possible. Another cool trick to get the machine pumping at a faster rate is to get those microbes on a sugar-high by adding a cup of sugar to the mix.

As meat offcuts are one of my main uses for the bin, I'm going to go through a lot of Bokashi mix - I reckon I'd end up using 3L (at a cost of about $4 per litre) of it for each full 20L bucket of waste - for the same price I can pick up three times that volume of moo poo. I hear Bokashi mix can be home made, so I'm going to be having a close look at that, and hopefully improve the cost effectiveness of the system.

So another week on, and my Bokashi is starting to smell the way it should - a sweetish vinegary aroma - while the liquid smells kind of like a jar of pickled olives. The latter I'm using at a rate of about two tablespoons per 9L watering can, as soon as it becomes available (it supposedly doesn't keep well). The former will stay in the bucket for a few weeks after its full, then finally be emptied into the compost bin to finish breaking down. Should the system behave going forward, I'd introduce a second bucket into a rotation, so the next will be filling while the first finishes stewing. Who knows, maybe it'll even be allowed back in the house one day.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

How to root (or not root) your pumpkin vine

What's really quite impressive about the empire of the pumpkin vine is not only that it's such a great conqueror, but how it holds the ground it's won. My vines have taken over ten metres of territory now, and many of its greatest contemporary exploits are being grown on this frontier. But try to shift its lengthy routes, and you're probably likely to find you're rooted.

Wherever one of the nodes (junctions where the vine throws up leaves) has good contact with the soil, it digs its feet in to start sucking up resources and shortening the supply lines. Pull out these guys, (here's one I rooted earlier) and you might find any pumpkins down this end of the line don't fair to well going forward. So you really do need to think carefully about where you let your empire grow, cause once its there, you might find moving it a tougher choice than you might think. Large sections of my lawn entered the formulative stages of jungle as I waited for pumpkins to reach a reasonable size before I could remove the vine and mow the lawn.

Generally, I tend to think it's not a such bad thing - this season when the original part of the vine suffered in the heat, the newer sections which grew into a shadier area picked up the workload in the recovery period. It does, however, seriously screw up your crop rotation - because now multiple beds have hosted pumpkin this season. Although, in a summer where I'm not going to end up with too much more than pumpkin, it certainly won't be a problem if I end up with a tonne of it.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Summer is beating me

Its utterly heartbreaking when, in a single day, you loose plants in a you've looked after for months - just because you weren't able to be home to fight against a completely unreasonable forty-five degree heat. It is the curse of a working man's summer vegetable garden.

I think I'll barely be able to pull some of the yacon through this one. But for some of the plants, this has been an untimely end.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

This season's winner in the Jalapenos Stakes

Well, I think the results are well and truly in for this season's Jalapenos Stakes. While there isn't a single happy looking plant on the form, it's pretty clear who made the finish line and who's still sitting in the starter's blocks.

Wombat's horse is on the left, mine is on the right - the top shots were taken in early December, and the bottom shots this week.
I really am bad at growing things in pots. My jalapenos' home is definitely too small, it didn't get watered enough and it's been slowly starving to death. In the time it took this impoverished green twig to shrink in size, a pumpkin vine has traveled over five meters and thrown up a few umbrellas over this desert island. My effort should serve to highlight  that the time-poor gardener probably only wants to pot things for the comical value.

However, three of the remaining six plants I put in the ground have really taken off, and are now laden with more ripening jalapenos than I could ever hope to use. I've occasionally kept them going with a bit of blood'n'bone & seaweed extract, but ultimately it just hasn't mattered if I haven't been so consistent with watering and feeding - because the root mass has so much more soil & moisture to work with.

So even if the Wombat's horse never runs another race, I think he might still be right for Jalapenos this year

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Fourty above

When I heard it was forecast to be 43°C today, I was expecting a plate full of roast pumpkin for dinner tonight. With no real way to protect the whole pumpkin vine from the outdoor oven, I figured the game was over. All I could do this morning was give it a good water, say my goodbyes and walk away with a tear in my eye. 

Well, it didn't turn out so bad after all. 

The garden only hit 41°C today, and at the time these photos were taken (7pm) it was still sitting at 38°C. I imagined I'd be returning home to see pumpkin leaves drooped on the end of their stalks - and they had been at about 1pm - but the wife kindly broke from protocol and did a little gardening. By the time she finished watering everyone was feeling a bit less scorched - except her.

In fact, there seems to be little or no damage to any of the plants today - not that there's really much else other than pumpkin to speak of - And thankfully, it's looking like there'll be a few more of them yet.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Bohemian Shrubbery

Its the silvery-green thing eating the chicken coop from the front right side.
Its been a great year for the absinthe bush - it must have tripled in size over the last few months.

As the name might suggest, absinthe wormwood is the ingredient infamously included in the bohemian drink of the same name. Living in a country that almost banned hundreds of common and native plants because they contained even a trace of DMT (more notably found in cannabis), it blew my mind that I could buy a wormwood, packed full of its own usual suspect - Thujone. But in trying to determine its legitimacy, I soon learned that the drink's reputation as a psychoactive drug has been greatly overstated and misrepresented through history, and that it's never really been illegal to distill or sell absinthe in Australia, provided there's a limited amount of thujone. Still, figuring that we're only ever one minority lobby group away from the next law based on moral outrage and anecdotal evidence, I acted swiftly - and $3.95 later I had some tube-stock riding the postal system to my front doorstep.

Aside from the novelty value, the main reason I picked up the wormwood is that it is reportedly a great thing to be planted near chickens. Supposedly, it will deter mites and fleas, and will take care of intestinal worms if ingested. It's very hard to find any empirical evidence of this - just a lot of chatter between gardeners, which makes me slightly suspicious it could be the kind of complete and utter rubbish that often gets passed down through the generations. Suspicions aside, I've always kept it near the coop since the great mite invasion of '09, and I often offer my chooks the pruning, which they dutifully ignore like a child would with any medicine not flavoured like chocolate ice-cream.

It perilously lived in a pot for a long time (for portability), surviving "localised drought" and marauding chickens until I finally planted it in a new bed at the front of the coop last summer. Wormwood loves a good feed of nitrogen, so the fact that it's suddenly taken off makes me think its roots have finally found the golden eggs my gooses lay.

It's also said that wormwood secretes a hormone that will inhibit growth in other plants, and thus is good for suppressing weeds. I don't want to draw any conclusions - but I've pulled plenty of  weeds (and cherry tomato, should you make a distinction) right out of the middle of the bush - so I'll let you judge for yourself on that one.