The Gardener’s friend


I had a Praying Mantis drop by for a visit while I was gardening on the weekend, it seemed attracted to the green sweatshirt I was wearing.

These insects are keen to tackle all types of bugs in the garden and are happy to eat things even bigger than themselves. Welcome them to your garden for some extra pest control help!


Small packages

This week has seen the start of the harvest of our smallest and most valuable crop – saffron. These little bulbs really seem to like our climate. We started out with 10 bulbs three years ago and we now have over 40 – I know because I recently had to transplant them form their old bed to a new permanent home.


You have to keep a sharp eye out for the flowers or the tasty stamens will be eaten by some snail gourmand before you can get to them. The flowers only last a day or two, the stamens never last that long.


We hope to have a ‘haul’ this year that will go further than one meal, but we have a way to go yet!


Grand designs in the garden

Autumn always seems to herald the start of construction at Chez Fork. Last year was the Autumn of the polyhouse and this year its the turn of the long awaited chook pen & coop construction.


TB is chief designer, builder and project manager, a combination that would have Kevin McLeod expressing deep concern at the folly of such an approach. Of course I’m been in charge of decorating, which basically means the timber treatment, stained, not painted (well the chook pen at least). Athough I have been told that a finial for the ridge-post would be a good idea.


I chose the dark stain after I started to stain the timber with a product whose colour was rather imaginatively called ‘Natural’. I say imaginatively because its orange glow would put a well known orange-flavoured drink to shame.

The frame is now roughly in place, although it is yet to be permanently fixed to the concrete edges, and as TB has fixed the ridge-pole to the rest of the frame we have followed tradition and held a topping out ceremony. In our case the branch fastened to the highest point of our timber structure is a branch from our snow-gum (Eucalyptus gregsonianna).


So here we are ready to fix the roof beams in place and then start fixing the frame onto the concrete. I’m not sure how far we will get over Easter but fingers crossed for some progress.




The Machine in the Garden

If you are looking to spend some time away from the garden at present then perhaps you will be interested in visiting an exhibition at Craft ACT called Machine in the Garden by the South Australian-based artist Christine Cholewa. Christine works in glass that is cast, slumped etched and printed on tiles and in bowls and glasses.

Christine uses images of machinery and family photograhs in her work, these need to be seen at close range to fully appreciate the intricate detail of her work.


Christine Cholewa, The Harvest, 2011, hand blown glass, kiln formed, etched (Photograph Creative Image Photography), image courtesy of Craft ACT

She also has a wonderful graphic sense which is shown in her collection of small brooches.
While you are visiting don’t forget to check out the Craft ACT shop which is full of fantastic items from local artists, great quality and variety fantastic for a gift for yourself or some other lucky person!
Opening hours
Tuesday to Friday   10:00AM – 5:00PM
Saturday   12:00 noon – 4:00PM
Admission to Craft ACT exhibitions is free of charge.
Sundays and Mondays
Public holidays

Hung up to ripen

Little by little I’ve been setting up my garden beds for winter. In the front garden, which I worked on several weeks ago, my seedlings of beetroot, purple-sprouting broccoli and cimi di rapa (another brassica) are heading upwards. The turnips and onions are proving a bit slower out of the ground but they are finally starting to appear.

Today was the turn of the back garden and the tomato bed in particular. While my tomato plants are still producing fruit I really want to get ahead and get my broad beans into the ground. I had quite a task ahead of me.


I could have left the tomatoes a bit longer but once I see these shield bugs having a go at the fruit there doesn’t seem much point in persisting. As you can see from the second photo they really are turning out in numbers to suck on the ripening fruit.


The only consolation was that, unlike some of these relatives, these ‘shield’ beetles don’t exude a pungent smell when disturbed. It took quite a while to clear the beds and then dig out as much as I could of the couch grass which was starting to invade the bed. While I didn’t get to plant my broad bean seeds I did find a cluster of spring onions which I split up and transplanted into one end of the bed.


Apart from picking the ripe fruit I chose to hang my healthy tomatoes under the carport so the remaining fruit will ripen on the vine.


In the same bed was our large bush of Vietnamese Mint, which I know won’t survive the winter. So out with the secateurs and after a quick trim back I dug it up and transferred it into a pot which is now inside the polyhouse ready to over winter. This worked quite well last year.


You might just see behind the pot a milk bottle filled with water. This is my new polyhouse experiment for this year. Following on from a suggestion of Lolo Houbein (the author of One Magic Square) I’m placing water-filled bottles around the base of the polyhouse walls to provide some extra insulation for the over-wintering plants. While the polyhouse does stay several degrees above the outside temperature. The plastic walls don’t stop the temperature from dropping below zero on really cold nights. The theory is that the water-filled bottles will build up and retain some heat, which should benefit the plants at night. I suspect that I might need a whole wall of bottles to be really effective, but its worth a try!

A peek in the pardalotes’ nest

Try as I might I can’t find the photo of the pardalotes that took up residency in our compost heap at the start of spring. What I can show you is the picture of their nest, now that they have moved out of it.

TB has obviously been watching too much Time Team as he ‘sectioned’ the compost heap so I could clearly see the nest (no doubt he’ll be sinking sondages next looking for Roman pottery).


If you are having trouble following their construction method here is a tarted-up version …


The birds dug an entrance hole in the side of the compost heap and proceeded to dig a tunnel some 30cms into the centre of the heap. here they dug out an oval chamber and in the chamber they built their nest. Every so often they had to do some more digging as the compost heap slowly sank down over summer.

Here in my hand is the nest itself, which seems pretty standard as nests go.


I thought they might have just lined the cavity and sort of burrowed into its centre to lay their eggs, but I clearly got that bit wrong. The nest seems to be mainly constructed out of the coir fibre from an old hanging basket liner that we left out for all the garden birds to use. We never did see any hatchlings but these little birds were so swift in and out of their burrow that it was hard to see just who was coming and going. As the birds had occupied the nest until about a month ago they certainly had the time to raise several sets of young. Apart from limiting our access to that particular pile of compost it was really rather special to have our our pair of pardalotes in the garden.



Get cracking!

Its taken awhile but this week I’ve finally had a go at hand grinding my own corn. If you remember I’ve been trying to track down a grinder so I can turn our corn into polenta and other useful products. To date all I had been able to find was unbelievably expensive grinders only available from overseas.  Our luck changed last month when we were at the Sunday market at Bairnsdale. There, lurking amongst the old hand mincers, TB spotted a hand cranked grain mill. It was not cheap, but as it was all intact and appeared to be in working condition we were willing to take the chance.


Since then the grinder has languished while we dealt with our self-inflicted apple glut. I finally got the grinder set it up this week and gave it a go. Wow it actually works!


The initial effort to break the dried corn kernels is definitely the hardest part of the exercise and I’m quickly convinced that I would be able to eliminate all upper body exercises from my gym program if I took this up on a regular basis! 
Anyway, the job needs to be done in stages. Each time the corn is passed through the mill the space between the grinders is closed and a finer grain results.The best thing is that each successive grind is easier to do than the one before.  It took me four grinds to get to a nice size suitable for polenta and I gave the corn an additional run through as I was wanting a fine grain to make polenta  & apple muffins. I was pleased to get just under two cups of polenta from two cobs of corn with virtually no wastage.


I’m also sure that once I get the grinder fixed to a really solid surface the whole process will be easier. I came to this conclusion after I noticed the slots which allow the grinder to be bolted to a bench!  Believe me you don’t want to try this exercise with your grinder clamped to a flimsy table.

I used dried cobs from last years harvest. I’m not sure how good the quality of this years corn will be as those cobs we’ve left to dry seem to have been infested with some type of aphid. Next up my blue corn – watch this space.

Time Out

We took a break from all the bottling last Sunday and headed out to the Open Garden Scheme’s Annual Plant Fair, which this year was held at Bellevale near Yass.
The property certainly lives up to its name as it is situated on a hill with great views out to that big mountain next to the Hume Highway


yes that one, (can anyone tell me the name of the mountain?), and out to lots of other very beautiful rural scenes.


The current owners, the Abbey family, bought the property in 2007, from the descendants of the original family that bought the property in 1834. The new owners have been working  to renovate the existing gardens, which will be quite a challenge as there are 2 acres of them! The work so far has included re-placing, as necessary, some of the old roses in the formal rose garden.


This roses are protected by a photinia hedge which, while not a personal favourite of mine, certainly forms an attractive windbreak for this part of the garden. The hedge is also enhanced by features such as this lovely wrought-iron gate the pattern of which was rather marred by the whoever stuck the sign on it.


Next to the rose beds is a stone flagged terrace with a central sundial. The large sculpture on the top of the sundial was made by one of the sculptors whose work was being sold on the weekend.


There is still a lot of work for the owners to carry out, particularly along the embankment along the eastern side of the house. Those who were able to negotiate the rather irregular stone stairs were able to look at some of the more unusual plantings such as the Osage Orange tree which was dropping its oddly-shaped fruit around its base. For those unable or unwilling to risk the stairs an attractive bowl of the fruit was placed on a table on the eastern verandah of the house.


I’m presuming that this tree, which is estimated to be over 100 years old, was originally planted for its decorative value. While traditionally the wood was prized by the native Americans as a superior timber for making bows, (as in bows and arrows), today’s woodworker would be more likely to know it for the striking orange colour of the timber which is highly valued by the wood-turning fraternity.

In addition to the plants, garden ornament and tool sales, this year’s fair also included a sale of botanical art which was displayed in the ballroom of the house. And yes I did love that 17 ft ceiling (about 5 metres high) – perhaps if we ever decide to extend Chez Fork we can fit one in …

Moving from the sublime to the ‘mundane’, one of my favourite spots in the garden was the clothesline, which was surrounded by plantings of daisys, agapanthus, lavenders and other familiar favourites.


It certainly makes for a pleasant location to hang out the washing.

While the Abbey’s have only been at Bellevale for some four years, and it’s too early to tell see how the new native plantings will develop, they have clearly committed themselves to restoring and enhancing this garden. I hope I can return in future years to see how they have progressed.

Preservation Order

At present we are focussed on harvesting our summer crops and preserving our food for future use. We’ve harvested apples, and more apples, and more apples so not surprisingly we have been drying


and bottling




and pulping, in this case quinces and pears for marmalade


so we’ll have plenty of fruit to eat in the coming months.

I’m still working my way through Rachel Saunders’ Blue Chair Jam Cookbook, so there are several marmalades to add to the proceedings. The unmarked jar is Quince, Pear and Lemon Marmalade, the labelled jar to the left of it is Peach and Lemon Marmalade and the jars with the not inspiringly greeny brown coloured contents are the 6 kilos of spicy apple butter I made last week.


And its not only fruit. Autumn is the time when traditionally you’d kill a pig for eating over winter. While, much to TB’s regret we do not grow our own pigs to kill, we did get some pork belly from our favourite pig producers Ingelbrae, who are at the Northside Farmer’s market. TB has salted/cured the pork belly


and after this it will be smoked in the Webber for several hours thereby being transformed into luscious bacon. If that is not enough he has also made some confit duck. Things are looking good for the coming season at Chez Fork!


Autumn Digging

You may be surprised to hear that I have actually managed to get in some gardening amidst all our other recent exploits, but its plant now or have a slow start to spring. I’ve been working on the front garden bed which feels like less hard work than digging in the back garden  – a completely illusionary feeling as it turns out.

About two weeks ago I started on the least weed-infested part of the bed, clearing it to plant seeds of beetroot and purple sprouting broccoli, or PSB as I shall refer to it from here on in. By the way did you catch the latest episode of the Hairy Bikers Food Tour of Britain, they were in Worcestershire and everyone kept referring to the aforementioned veg as “purple sprouting” the ‘b’ word didn’t even get a mention. But I digress.

Everything is coming along quite well with only a few plants so far becoming slug snacks. I also have one tomato bush in the bed – the lone survivor of all the ones I tried to grow from seed this year. Then there was the other half of the bed….


Thankfully TB came along and gave me a hand with digging out some of the worst of it. This ‘summer’ with all its rain has certainly bumped up the weed quotient in the garden. Not surprisingly working in the front garden attracts visitors. My first just popped in quite casually and started helping clear behind me.


I can’t say that the second visitor, while friendly, was quite as welcome. Spotting a chance for some neighbourly interaction the Staffordshire Terrier from up the street came bounding across my newly seeded beds to get a pat. After which I decided to put some sort of structures over the beds in the hope of some degree of protection. At least at seed stage there wasn’t too much damage. In this area I’ve planted seeds of onions, Welsh bunching onions, and some Spring onions, Cimi di rapa, also called turnip greens, which are an Italian brassica very similar to broccoli, and some turnips.

I was also somewhat surprised to see that a new ‘branch’ has sprouted off last year’s Collard Greens (think of it as a loose-leaf cabbage, that’s it in the very front of the photo below) which I had saved for seed production. Apart from the seed I’ve already collected I see that it has also dropped some seeds which are spouting away nicely.


The finished garden bed ready for winter, ta da!