Speckled Parks and Racing Saws

On Friday my work colleague commented that the best thing about her children growing up was that she didn’t have to take them to the Canberra Show anymore. While we don’t go to the show every year we were inspired to go again this year having watched Hugh F-W, in his early River Cottage DVDs, entering the local village shows and going head to head with his neighbours in the veggie and cooking classes.

Our goal was to head for the Harvest Hall, via the animal displays and the wood chopping. On the way we caught the judging of the Merino rams and watched the judging of the Highland Cattle. We also saw several heats of the wood chopping. While this sport is dominated by Queensland and NSW axemen it was encouraging to see ACT competitors in the mix. Unfortunately none of them made the finals which we saw later in the day.

The prime reason for visiting the produce display was to check out what sort of competition we’d be up against should we decide to enter the produce classes next year. We certainly thought that we could make a good showing in a number of the classes. Our veggies look like they would stand up well to the competition and I’m kicking myself that it never dawned on me to consider entering the jam making classes. My Blackberry Curd would have knocked the socks off the competition in Class 263 ‘Jar of Fruit Butter – other than Lemon Butter’. Next year I’ll just have to remove my digit and put my curd where my mouth is!

My greatest pleasure at any agricultural show is wandering around the cattle pavilions. All those beautifully groomed animals, washed and blow-dried into a picture of bovine perfection. And after the judging they return to their stalls to pose in the most elegantly arranged of sculptural forms. My latest bovine swoon is a breed of cattle called Speckled Parks (which I‘m told were developed in Canada). Their general appearance is one of white hides exquisitely spotted with black, but one animal we saw was black with a rococo flourish of white running down the length of its spine.

I also took great enjoyment in watching the carriage driving event which we caught while eating our lunch. The élan with which the horses step out and the precisely turned out drivers are the essence of a refinement not commonly seen today.

Moving from the sublime to the sweaty we stopped again at the wood chopping on our way out of the grounds. This time we saw several finals and the Queensland vs NSW ‘state of origin’ team relay competition. Each team has to cut, in order, one underhand (horizontal log), one standing log, saw a log with a single-handed saw, saw a log with a two-handed saw then cut another underhand log and a final standing log. What would take your average punter most of the day to get through takes these teams well under five minutes to complete. All their equipment is honed to the sharpest edge and yes they do have specially designed ‘racing’ saws for these competitions. It was all going very closely when the NSW sawyers’ single saw buckled and he was unable to move it through the log. While NSW had clearly lost the day they were supported by the Queensland team who loaned them their own single saw so the NSW team could complete the event. This was very well received by the large crowd that was watching and I believe that the NSW team ended up receiving the greatest applause.

At the end of the day we made our way back through the fields of parked cars. No tears or tantrums, just plain tired and not a showbag between us!

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Full Bottle

At the start of this week I bottled 3 kgs of tomatoes. 1 kg of green toms was turned into Green Tomato Sauce, although ‘khaki’ would be a more accurate description. 2 kgs of my assorted ripe red and yellow toms became Tomato Chilli Pickles, one of my all time (well at least the last two seasons) recipes from Sally Wise. By coincidence, it turns out that Sally Wise was interviewed last week on the Bush Telegraph’s (ABC Radio National) ‘Food on Friday’ segment. I was all set to listen to it over my lunchtime yseterday but when it came to the crunch the battery in my MP3 player was flat! Anyway if you want to listen to Sally and the other callers you can find the program here.

One other useful tip I picked up while looking for interesting preserve recipes was that if you can’t process all of your tomatoes when they are ripe you can just freeze them. DUH! Of course they won’t be any good for slicing but making sauces, passata or chutneys after they’ve been de-frosted is not a problem and according to what I read the skins come off very easily once the fruit has been thawed. There is, however, always the question of finding space in the freezer!

Another busy weekend looms. It’s Canberra Show weekend and we will be off to inspect the produce and the animals, not to mention dropping by and saying hello to all the Canberra Spinners and Weavers who will be spinning away in the craft pavillion. On Sunday (28 Feb) the Old Bus Depot Markets will be holding their Food Producers Day, however although it’s been advertised as such there doesn’t seem to be anything on their website to indicate that this is an ‘event’ rather than just a re-branding of their ‘normal’ activities – we’ll see. I did at least find out that the Markets will be holding their “Portobello Road” day for collectables and bric-a-brac on Sunday 4 April.

Tour de Tomato

I thought I’d bring you up to speed on our tomato growing season which has been somewhat mixed this season. Our tomato seeds were planted on 17 August into punnets on a heat mat and started sprouting on 25 August. Seedlings were planted out on 26 October into the polytunnel. TB’s polytunnel experiment for growing tomatoes certainly started off well with flowers by 2 November and the first fruit on the Siberians and Cherry tomatoes by 21 November. The Amish Paste and Mortgage Lifters started setting fruit by 28 November. Three Brandywine tomatoes also joined this bed on 5 November courtesy of TB’s colleague at work.

We realised around Christmas that there was just not enough sunlight getting through to produce really heavy crops from the polytunnel bed. Despite this setback our first tomatoes, Siberian and Cherry have been cropping here since early January. By contrast our self sewn tomatoes, that came up from compost spread on another bed were making their presence felt by 24 November and are now the heaviest croppers of all our plants. Looking at the fruit they are producing they seem to be a mix of Roma, Amish Paste and Mortgage Lifter.

Since the rain last weekend we’ve needed to give the tomatoes some attention as we haven’t been as active as we should have in tyeing them up. Unfortunately their sprawling habit has been not a good thing in the humidity of the past week and some diseased leaves are appearing not to mention quite a few beetles that seem determined to eat their way through a fair amount of fruit. You can see the newly constrained and trained plants in the (coverless) polytunnel bed. The cat has volunteered to demonstrate just how much room there now is in this bed. The still somewhat sprawling mess are the self sewn plants which are growing in a far sunnier spot in the garden.

I’ve included a collage of all the types of tomato, except Mortgage Lifter, that we currently have cropping in our garden.

How are your tomato crops this year? My friend’s Mum was saying on Saturday night that she was disappointed that she only made 20 bottles of passata this year! Half her luck as we haven’t even got that far. We are eating plenty of tomato salads and even Fried Green Tomatoes (today’s lunch), and hope to be bottling very soon. With the tidying up lots of green tomatoes have fallen off the plants so I’m just about to launch into some more green tomato recipes courtesy of Southern Food.

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Flying South

I paid a flying visit to Hobart last week for work. Sadly there was little opportunity to enjoy the finer aspects of Tasmania during my day and a half sojourn.

I can’t say that the food available on the flights has improved since I last flew. In fact I’d say it was even less interesting than it has been previously – which in some ways is quite an achievement. Qantas has clearly embraced the ‘new frugality’ quite whole heartedly. On the 3 legs I flew with Qantas, no matter the time of day, we were given a small bottle of water, an even smaller Toblerone chocolate bar (about 4cm long) and a sandwich. You could consider this as not necessarily a bad option, that is until you turn the packet over. I was stunned to see the ingredient list for my egg, ham and mayonnaise panini, with lettuce – see below. The ingredient list on my second sandwich was just as long. Thankfully the third which was ham, matured cheese and pickles, actually included a small number of ingredients which I could actually understand. Michael Pollen’s warning to eat only food that had five or less ingredients and included only words you can pronounce and no numbers was definitely ringing in my ears. As my work colleague remarked, “don’t read the back of the packet, you’ll only distress yourself”.

To arrive in Hobart after the shops close at 5.00pm was to witness a scene reminiscent of Civic some 20 years ago – no-one was anywhere to be seen. Luckily we were only a short walk from Salamanca which is clearly where everyone else who hasn’t a home to go to in the suburbs retreats. Thankfully there are some signs of life in the city. Someone had yarn-bombed the bicycle rack outside the parliament building!

A leisurely stroll back to hotel took us past St David’s Park which was beautifully shown off in the early evening light. However we were somewhat startled by signs of dangerous architecture that we saw nearby.

We did at least manage to have a great meal at our hotel. I had fresh oysters with wasabi on the side. This is a fantastic combination that I will definitely try in future. I also had a tasty serving of roast quail. All was washed down with a really good Tassie sauvignon blanc, which sadly I didn’t get the name of as it wasn’t in the wine list. Our waitress provided it as a substitute when the wine we ordered turned out not to be available.

A walk before breakfast around Constitution dock revealed an unusual factoid. Did you know that the foundry that cast Picasso’s sculpture ‘Negroid’ 1952, also cast the bollards which ships tie up to on the docks? Neither did I. Is there a resemblance? You be the judge (actually you’ll have to as I can’t find an image of the Picasso work).

Sadly it was back to the ‘office’ after that. I did manage to make a flying dash down to the Lark Distillery on Davey St during my lunch break so I could get a bottle of their Bush Liqueur, which is flavoured by Mountain Pepper berries. This is a real favourite of ours. I also bought one of their single cask, malt whiskeys which the company now produces. There were several on offer and these are well worth considering if you are interested in single malts. While these whiskeys are produced using Tasmanian peat to smoke the locally grown barley, they are very different in flavour to the very ‘peaty’ tasting Laphroaig. I found them to have a really complex ‘nose’, which was quite intriguing. By coincidence this week’s episode of the Gourmet Farmer showed Matthew Evans meeting Mr Lark (Bill) in the Tasmanian peat bogs!

Anyway it was all too soon back to Canberra and a visit to my first Open Garden of the year.

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The Stirzaker Garden

Richard Stirzaker is a CSIRO scientist with a lifelong history of veggie gardening and an avid interest in understanding the way water is used in gardening, farming and the broader landscape. TB and I joined an already a large group of people at the Stirzaker’s house in O’Connor which was open to the public this weekend. Their house block is fairly standard 887sq metres, but it is pretty much all veggie garden. TB was stirred to dreams of converting our whole back garden to veggies, which I’m resisting at present, as I’m not sure just who we would be growing for. The Stirzakers’ are after all a family with hungry teenagers to feed.

Richard was on hand to answer questions. He said that they had rainwater storage of some 12,000 litres. They also use grey water, bathroom and kitchen only, to water their fruit trees. They also have a large greenhouse which is used to extend the growing season for their garden. Like the rest of Canberra this garden was showing some signs of mildew and other problems as a result of last weekend’s heavy rains. The garden beds all have Fullstop water metering devices which enables Richard to see how deeply the water is penetrating into the garden beds. He commented that he now spends as much time measuring and monitoring in his garden as he does the gardening proper. The trials that Richard is currently carrying out on his corn bed, watering it using only washing machine water apart from rainfall, can be followed on his website.

To give you a quick tour of the house I’ve included some photos that follow the order of my following written description. The front garden is laid out with flowers and fruit. Here the raspberries are cropping at present. Along the side fence the fruit trees have been netted to keep the birds away. At the back end of the side fence the chooks live with an open run linked to an enclosed roosting area. A small paved seating area, under a trellis, is surrounded by veggie beds. I asked Richard about the large number of raised beds in the garden, which are really nicely made to look like adobe. It turns out to have been a purely practical choice. The house had a large area of concrete out the back. The choice was to dig the concrete up or build up the beds, so they choose the latter. There are also several netted enclosures for fruit trees along the back fence which is the driest area of the garden. The good-sized greenhouse is along the remaining side fence and is currently producing banana chillies, tomatoes and a rock melon. I can’t vouch that my recollection of all the plants under cultivation is completely accurate, as there was so much to take in.

I’m looking forward to reading Richard’s book, which is also available through his website, to gain some further insight into the better management of water both in our own back yard as well as the wider landscape.

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Forget the Fairies

Sometimes you find some very odd things when you go looking in your garden. Take today, I was emptying out my latest ‘find’ in the retro garden pot department when I made an almost archaeological discovery! I had tesserae in my tub! – not to mention an old lamb bone. Oh all right they weren’t Roman (there goes my guest spot on Time Team), more your 1970’s suburban small bathroom tile. Clearly someone thought that putting 112 tiles in the bottom of a pot, (well I was curious as to how many were there), when 10 would have easily covered the drainage holes, was a good idea.

Apart from my ‘dig’ I’ve been transplanting and potting-on. Firstly I’ve transplanted some rocket seedlings that have sprung up where TB was harvesting the seeds – talk about the hundreds that got away. I’ve also potted on some Perpetual Spinach seedlings that needed moving on to larger pots before they get sent out into the garden proper. For my work colleagues I’ve prepared some Silver Beet and Mustard Greens seedlings for their winter gardens. They will be pleased to see that all those coffee cups they’ve saved for me have been put to a good use.

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Joyful Water

Before I move off the subject of water I thought I’d share some photos of the water outflow at Scrivener Dam (Lake Burley-Griffin). One photo is my dodgy composite, as the panorama system I use couldn’t cope well with my multiple shots. I hope you appreciate the danger I put myself in to get these photos – check out the NCA’s warning. What you don’t get from these photos is the sound of the water pounding down continually onto the river surface and the sight of the Black and Pied Cormorants having a blast riding the foam front and scooping up lots of interesting bits to eat.

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Bottled water

I’m trying to keep calm and take some deep breaths …. WOO HOO its raining! So far this weekend we’ve had over 100mms of rain and it is still coming.

And even I have had to admit that there is a limit to how much I can capture since our tank is full and over flowing. BTW that’s over 160 litres of water in those old milk cartons, not to mention what I’ve captured inside the sugarcane mulch bags set inside the styrofoam boxes, buckets and tubs. TB took advantage and spent half an hour throwing chook poo pellets over everything.

I’m thinking that there will be a big pulse of water going down the Murrumbidgee and into the Murray system and don’t the rivers and the land need it! It may not be a drought-breaker but it will surely set us up for a good Autumn season with some soil moisture at last.

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Simple Saturday Pasta

While not everyone has a big veggie garden most of us, at this time of the year, will have plenty of tomatoes ripening. Here is a simple recipe for using up some of those less than perfect tomatoes, a Simple Saturday Pasta with tomato sauce. You can see from the photo that the ingredients are few and basic. All the produce I needed for this dish came from our garden. No amounts will be given, you’ll have to figure that one out for yourself, this version was for two people and it was a medium sized serve (about 140gms of spiral pasta)

Chop up your onions and garlic and soften in some olive oil, let it cook while you chop your basil and tomatoes (TB says my version could have used a LOT more basil – so feel free to bump the amount up). Add the tomato and basil to the saucepan and grind in pepper and salt to your taste. Now put your pasta water on and once it comes to the boil cook your pasta. By the time the pasta has cooked your sauce should be right to go.

Feel free to embellish this recipe by adding any other veggies or herbs that you have to hand. Buono appetito!

I’ve entered this recipe for Grow Your Own #39 competition, hosted by Annie and Nate at the House of Annie, and sponsored by Andreas Recipes. This is a regular event that recognises those who are blogging out there about growing, foraging or hunting and gathering their own food. Go for it, put in an entry, one per blog.

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Buckets of Fun

When our area at work got moved (yet again) to another floor in our building I was surprised to see that an enterprising person had placed a ‘compostables’ bucket next to all the ‘general’ and ‘re-cyclables’ rubbish bins in our office kitchen. What’s even better people were using it.

As is the way of the public service that person has also since been moved. Seizing the opportunity I decided to put my own compost bucket in the kitchen. It’s been somewhat of a rocky start. The first week I duly collected my compostables, enclosed the bin and its contents in a plastic bag and got it home safely on the bus. This week I fell foul of a new and somewhat zealous member of the cleaning team, who emptied everything including the compost and re-cyclables into the same bin and took the lot away. I’ve now added another sign on the bin asking the cleaners not to empty it and this does seem to have worked.

Why do I bother? Because we need a lot of compost to keep the garden going as we grow food year round. We just don’t generate enough green waste to make up what our garden soil requires to keep it in good nick and keep our crops coming. My hairdresser recently confided to me that she had only now realised that her Father’s annual topping of his garden beds with huge amounts of manure wasn’t just one of those odd parental quirks, as she had thought. She now knows,as a veggie grower herself, that the plants can’t keep growing all those good leaves, roots and fruits without some food of their own.

I’ve just stopped to consider how many different sources of soil and plant ‘food’ that we have in production.

* two open compost heaps
* two compost bins, one actively being ‘fed’ and one ‘resting’
* one compost bin making leaf mould
* one home made worm farm – TB has just checked and the little
darlings have survived the heat, and
* sundry buckets of comfrey ‘tea’ and manure ‘tea’.

In addition to this TB also plants green manure in some of our beds each year to provide nitrogen, organic material (once it has been dug back in) and cover for the soil over winter. Our sugarcane and pea straw mulches also rot down over time to add organic materials and in the case of pea straw additional nitrogen to the soil.

Don’t despair none of these processes require major effort – throwing veggie scraps and lawn-clippings in a heap isn’t too arduous. Should you feel the need to go into this more deeply there is plenty of help available. The following fact sheets are available from ABC’s Gardening Australia:

* easy compost bin

* building a worm farm

* marvellous manures

I’d just warn you to be careful what you throw in your compost bins. Some years ago I arrived home to see a fire blazing away in one of our compost bins. TB had emptied the ashes from the Webber BBQ into the bin, not stopping to think about them still being hot. Oops.

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