Waking up from my summer torpor

The somewhat shorter and cooler days of Autumn have finally seeped into my brain. Time to stop lying around, avoiding the garden, it’s time to dig in the garden! The change is almost as obvious to me as the impact that those lengthening spring days have. First job, as always, is clearing away the last seasons crops.

At the outset, what's left of the last season's plantings
At the outset, what’s left of the last season’s plantings

There can be no hiding here. There is the only beetroot that survived when I forgot to water the beetroot seedlings on a particularly hot day. The Scarlet Emperor beans have reverted to their normal habit of not re-growing. A lanky stem of Calabrese cabbage is lurking with the odd tuft of leaves at the top. The corn was a success and as for the rest, the flat leafed parley has taken over in the absence of any other crops.

At least the soil is good and easy to turn over. All the spent crops and weeds, barring the parsley, are tossed to ‘the girls’. If you ever doubted the dinosaur origin of these animals just stop one day to watch them use those strong legs to tear into a potential food source!

The girls get stuck into the weeds
The girls get stuck into the weeds

While the girls were cleaning up the weeds I was leveling the garden bed and broadcasting carrot seeds all over. The only plants I left behind were the solo beetroot and the Calabrese cabbage which had several new shoots sprouting from its base. I’ll keep and eye on it and decide whether to keep it or remove it, depending on how those shoots grow.

Cleared and ready to go
Cleared and ready to go

Every year we collect seed from our carrot crop. Over the years the distinct yellow, red and white forms have interbred and produced a vaguely yellow, often white and white tinged with rose coloured roots. And for the record, we never sow our carrots in rows nor do we thin our carrots out. The only time we thin carrots is when we pull them out to eat, starting with baby carrots as long as a little finger. This way we enjoy a massive crop of carrots over several months. The carrots are quite content to keep themselves fresh and tasty in the ground without any help from us. It saves a lot of work!

Having sown the carrot seed we cover it with hessian to keep the seed moist while it germinates
Having sown the carrot seed we cover it with hessian to keep the seed moist while it germinates

The trickiest thing with carrots is to keep the soil moist while they germinate. Over the years we’ve settled on putting some hessian over the top and then making sure we keep the hessian watered until the seed shoots. Here we are a week later and already the seed is sprouting!

New carrot seeds sprouting

We’ll keep the seeds moist over the next few weeks, gently lifting the hessian so it continues to act as a sun shelter until the plants really start to take off.


Getting Ready for Winter

Call that a beetroot!
Call that a beetroot!

Well we’re still waiting for the onset of the cold weather, but in the interim there’s been lots of preparation of new crops. Our broad beans, garlic and carrots have been planted and seeds of broccoli and turnips are sprouting in the polyhouse.

The carrot bed is prepared with very thorough weeding, on the left; and a covering of hessian to maintain an even moisture level, on the left.
The carrot bed is prepared with very thorough weeding, on the left; and a covering of hessian to maintain the even moisture level that is needed for the seeds to germinate.

We are leaving our pumpkins on the vines until the frosts start.

Butternut pumpkins waiting for harvest

There are still plenty of veggies to be harvested. A quick whip around the plants we were tidying up yielded this haul of zucchini’s, potatoes, eggplants and warrigal greens.

veggie harvest
What we found when cleaning out the last of the summer crops

Dinner that night was a cheesy vegetable bake, stuffed zucchini flowers and roasted potatoes.

Straight from the garden onto the plate.
Straight from the garden onto the plate.

Carrots in a clamp

We planted a crop of carrots in late January and have been steadily picking them through the winter months. This past weekend we’ve lifted what is left of the crop – a respectable 7 kilograms (minus all the leafy bits) – before they all start to go to seed. We will be turning the bed over to a crop of brassicas, kale and collard greens along with some dill.


As you can see we grow a range of different coloured carrots – purple, yellow and white – and since we’ve been harvesting our home-grown seed over the past few seasons we now have quite a few colours in between.

We are taking several approaches to keeping our carrots in good enough condition to eat while our new crop matures. The bulk of the carrots are being stored in a ‘clamp’ of damp sand. We first saw this technique used on the The Victorian Kitchen Garden (an endlessly fascinating BBC TV series from the 1990’s that was re-released as a DVD in 2006). This technique was used to store all sorts of root crops such as parsnips and carrots, prior to the advent of refrigeration.


It’s pretty straight forward. The cleaned carrots, with most of the green top removed, are placed in a suitable box on a layer of damp sand, (we used a 20kg bag of river sand from the garden centre) with more sand placed around and over them. The good thing is that the sand can be recycled for future use for storage or other projects


It turns out that I needn’t have been so careful about placing the carrots, it would have been OK to have them much closer together. Anyway they are all packed away now and we will be storing them in the shade on the cool side of the house.

While the bigger carrots went into the clamp I was left to deal with a stack of what we jokingly refer to as our ‘gourmet micro-carrots’.


While they are fiddly to clean these little guys are just the perfect size for blanching for a few minutes in boiling water before I spread them on a tray to freeze.


Once frozen they can be happily packed into bags for long term storage.

Of course we still needed to complete the cycle so before we packed it in for the day TB sowed our new carrot crop.


He’s not planting a mix of sand and carrot seed here (as is frequently suggested to help the fine seed spread eavenly) – this is pure carrot seed. We’ll just stick to our standard approach of letting all the carrots sprout and thin by eating them from micro size and upwards.


Putting down roots

Per usual I am thinking about winter … planting that is. Always at the height of summer as we hide indoors from 37 degree days we have to start thinking about getting seedlings off and running for winter. Our summer crops have been haphazard to say the least and some of this is due to insufficient advance planning.

Anyway TB has got the carrot seeds into the ground and shooting which is some achievement in the current heat. Here’s how he did it. Forget about thinning your carrot seed out with sand. The whole point about carrot seed, from our perspective, is that its quite small and there is generally a lot of it in your seed packet, let alone the vast amounts you can harvest if you collect your own seed. There is no doubt that the seed is better off in the ground than on the shelf so don’t be afraid to sew it thickly.

Now you don’t even need to sew your seed in rows. TB normally just broadcasts it over the area he intends to plant. Just to be contrary this time he’s gone and sewn in rows. Whatever! Just cover your seed with a fine layer of soil and water with a fairly fine spray so the seed settles rather than washes away. The trick is now to keep your seed moist as it is so fine and close to the surface it will dry out even on a mild day.

Here’s our bed covered with some old hessian cloth we found in the shed.


Anything will do, a bit of shadecloth, an old sheet, some old painting drop cloths just get it on the surface and give it a water as well. You need to keep an eye on your seeds and water them every day in hot weather as they will sprout fairly quickly. Our carrot seeds were planted on the 24th of January and came up by the 28th.

As you can see there are lovely thick rows of seedlings.


Of course you can’t leave the hessian on for too long as the seeds start to get caught up in it and pull out of  the ground when you roll it back to water. So TB’s next move was to make a series of hoops out of old irrigation pipe (which seems to be growing in great abundance behind our shed) which are threaded through with some thickish wire cut longer than the irrigation pipe so the ends can get pushed into the ground.


Et voila! ready made shade tunnel which we put the previously mentioned hessian back over to keep the sun off during the day. We are taking the hessian off during the morning to allow a bit of sun onto the plants, and then putting it back late morning which is easy enough on the weekends. On working days we’ll leave it until after work to remove the hessian.


Now if you are worried about having to thin your seedlings – don’t. Our tried and true method is to just start picking them, even at a very small size and add them to your salads or steam them with your other veg. This is foodie ‘micro-veg’ at a ridiculously small stage and can only be achieved in the home garden. Of course at our place we will expect to lose a certain percentage to snails and slugs, but there will be enough left to feed you for months. Each time you pick choose wisely and the remaining plants will grow to fill the spaces.

A Green Winter

One of the things that most surprised me when we got seriously into gardening was that you could keep growing some plants all through winter. This was because I ???knew??? that everything stopped growing in winter, duh! Well our garden is currently a picture of green. It may not be as rampantly lush as at other times of the year but it is productive.

It???s green because the predominant plants growing above ground are members of the Brassica family. Currently we have kale Cavolo Nero and also a plant of frilly Russian kale that I bought at the Farmer???s Market last weekend. I read that the various kales taste different to one another but my Russian kale is a bit small to harvest at present so the taste-off will have to come later. We also have collard greens, which are another non-heading cabbage type thingy (which are now recovering from the major Cabbage White caterpillar attack). There are also a few ???normal??? cabbages just starting to form their ???heads??? and Purple Sprouting broccoli.

In the green but not a Brassica category we have plenty of silver beet, stacks of sorrel and also the warrigal greens soldiering on. Snow peas, bush peas and broad beans are all growing happily away but apart from picking the tips out of the broad beans (good in stir fry and encourages energy to go into pod production) we won???t be harvesting anything from those for a few months. BTW those five non-starter broad beans I mentioned several weeks ago were so stung by my comments that every last one of them has now shot! So that is a 100% germination of the Aqua Dulce/Leviathon Longpod I planted.

All of these green things go into the ubiquitous Green Soup. This can be anything green in a home-made meat stock. Favourites at Chez Fork are silver beet with mashed chickpeas, broccoli soup (a bit early for that) and sorrel soup with its lovely lemon flavour.This one is silver beet and chickpea served with some yoghurt and Franquette walnuts.


Kale also goes into soups and stir fry. It is great cut fine and simmered in just enough stock to cook and then served on toast with a dash of olive oil – you can also add some fried bacon (a Maggie Beer recipe). Warrigal greens are for unbelievably good creamed spinach.

We are still harvesting our root crops planted in summer, carrots and potatoes. What is good is that they keep perfectly well in the ground here until you need them. I have had mixed success with growing parsnips. I tried direct sewing into the garden and also sewing into seedling pots. None of the direct sewn plants came up ??? I believe this was because it was difficult to keep the soil consistently moist as parsnip seed has a long germination period. I did a bit better, well three seedlings, in the pots but only one survived the transplant (it???s growing very vigorously now). However the best result I???ve had came with a suggestion from Tino at Gardening Australia to grow parsnips in pipes! Tino suggests that you use pvc pipes that are 40cm long to allow for the tap root of the plant to grow sufficiently deep. So far the germination rate has been easily over 90% and the plants seem to be coming along very well. I???m also trying two plants in an olive oil tin which is about 30 cm deep. I???d like to see if this works as the tins are rather easier to get than cutting up lengths of plastic pipe.

Parsnips on 20 April …


and … today!







Summer BBQ

Well another hot day is on its way and I’ll be out with the hose very shortly to start watering before the heat hits (we only have a 3 hour time period in which we can water in the mornings). We will be hitting the old century mark (100º F) today so any activity will be confined to the next two hours before I come inside to stay.

Yesterday we went to a friend’s place for a BBQ, thankfully in the evening. We had been asked to bring some salads, particularly a leaf salad. I’d said yes, no worries and then started to wonder what I would bring. I knew that our lettuce had pretty much bolted and there is nothing much to our lettuce seedlings at this stage. A tour of the garden reassured me that while I wouldn’t be supplying a lettuce salad we did have leaves of all sorts that could be used. What ended up in the bowl was, two or three salvageable lettuce leaves, loose leaf chicory (an Italian variety) and wild rocket – these two formed the greatest contributions – celery leaves, basil, beetroot leaves, bucks horn (one of the Italian salad leaves I’m trying out this year), snow peas (our second crop) and garlic chives. TB dressed it with his Vietnamese Nuoc Cham dressing (3 tablespoons fish sauce, 100mls lime juice, 1 teaspoon rice vinegar, 2 cloves of garlic chopped, 1 long red chili chopped) which we had in the fridge.

I also got excited with the radishes and made the Smashed Chinese Pickled Radishes from the Japanese pickle book Tsukemono Japanese Pickled Vegetables by Kay Shimuzu (Shufunotomo Co. Ltd 1993). This is a dead simple recipe and worked really well. All you need do is pick your radishes, give them a clean up and leave them to sit for 15 minutes in a bowl of iced water. Take them out of the bowl and using something heavy, like the flat blade of a heavy kitchen knife or chopper you crush the radishes as you would a clove of garlic. If you have a small round variety you might be able to do them whole, otherwise cut the radishes into pieces about 2.5cm (1 inch) cubed before you try this manoeuvre. You may also want to place an old folded tea towel over the blade to avoid any mishaps to your hand. Put the crushed pieces back into the iced water for another 15 minutes. You then make the dressing as follows 1 tablespoon of shochu (Japanese whiskey, or sake, or just omit this ingredient as we did), 1 and 1/2 tablespoons of rice vinegar, 1 teaspoon of sugar, 1 teaspoon of sesame oil and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Put it into a small screw top jar and shake vigourously. Drain radishes, dress and serve.

…….. Sorry about that I just had to pop outside and do some watering. You can see that rampant growth is the order of the day!

While I was getting my leaves TB decided to pick some baby carrots and beets which he boiled whole and then cut into smaller pieces after they were cooked. He dressed these with 2 parts olive oil to one part Vietnamese dressing. At least TB had the presence of mind to take a photo of his dish – I completely forgot to take any photos!

My final dish was a variation on the baked rhubarb I’ve made previously. Cut rhubarb into 2-3 cm pieces and place as a single layer in a baking dish. Pour over the juice of one orange and about half a cup of honey. Bake in a 180º C oven until soft (about 20-30 minutes). Eat with cream, ice cream yoghurt, whatever.


Start Planting for Winter NOW!

I’ve just heard the weather report and they are predicting 36º today and 37º tomorrow so you may think I’ve already been touched by the sun when I say now is the time to start planting for winter. I’m not.

Let’s break this down a bit. As a very new gardener I was surprised, to say the least, when I discovered that winter is actually a very productive time in a Canberra garden. Yes we do swap scorching summer temperatures for frosts but there are many plants that happily survive the frost and require cold temperatures to be productive. So as we plant in late winter/early spring for summer crops we need to be doing the same now to produce winter crops.

The plants that seem to love the cold weather best are brassicas, root vegetables and lettuces. I know the lettuces sound odd but again they seem to cope with frosts remarkably well and don’t bolt to seed as quickly as they do in summer. Rocket is another plant that is also at its best in winter. If you don’t like green leafy veggies then perhaps you can just keep harvesting your current crops, keep up your succession planting and otherwise have a break until late winter.

Here are the planting recommendations from two sources you may consider more reliable than me. Firstly the Organic Gardener Calendar suggests planting turnips and carrots now (we are talking seed here as root crops grow best, not to mention straightest, when planted as seeds in drills). Jackie French who you might already know I consider the best source for Canberra gardening advice, says plant cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts, peas and collards. You can also plant Tom Thumb tomatoes to over-winter in a pot. I won’t be as we don’t have any suitably protected space to over-winter them. BTW she also suggests that you keep planting beans, corn, lettuce, carrots, silver beet, cabbages and potatoes with a view to getting crops out of them before winter.

A winter suggestion from our own personal experience is to grow some kale. Cavolo Nero is now widely available and to my taste has a much fuller flavour that is preferable to your average cabbage. There are also several kale varieties with frilly leaves that will also do well in Canberra. We’ve also had better luck with cauli’s than cabbages, picking off the White Cabbage moth caterpillars is a real chore and if you don’t keep onto it they can strip the leaves of your plants quite quickly. Unfortunately the moths also like kale but the open leaves make it easier to spot the caterpillars. If you really have a problem you can apply Dipel, which is an organically approved spray of bacteria that kills the caterpillars but leaves other good insects alone.

I’ve placed our order for some winter seeds with the Lost Seed company last night (www.thelostseed.com.au). Our choices this year are purple sprouting broccoli (recommended by both my new ‘friend’ Elspeth Thompson and Hugh F-W), salsify a root crop that looks a bit like a parsnip (sometimes known as the Vegetable oyster because of its supposed hint of oyster flavour), lettuce -Australian Yellow and Red Velvet, onions – Walla Walla and Stuttgart, French Breakfast radishes and Bunching Spring onions.

Of course when you are planting seeds in this weather you must water them daily or you will lose the lot before you get going (just ask how we know!). You will also need to keep an eagle eye out for the first seedling shoots and protect them as you see fit otherwise snails and slugs will ensure nothing green will survive the night. When you are directly seeding a very light sprinkling of sugarcane or pea straw mulch (hold a bunch loosely in your hand and shake it letting the smaller bits fall through your fingers) will help retain moisture but will allow the seedlings to break through easily. Seedlings will likewise need protection from predatory animals, including birds and possibly possums – a half circle of small chicken wire should do the trick for the birds and I know one friend at least raises her plants in wire mesh enclosures to keep the possums off.

Happy planting!

Back to the garden

About time we caught up on some serious gardening again!

TB harvested great armfulls of thyme and only slightly smaller amounts of tarragon over the weekend. It’s a good idea to do this now and let the plants grow back again to enable a second harvest at the end of summer. You don’t need any fancy drying equipment to dry herbs. For small amounts you can tie them up and hang them upside down in an airy corner to dry – you might want to loosley enclose them in a paper bag to catch any stray bits. For big amounts you can still air dry but make it easy on yourself by getting one of those old multi-drawer plastic-coated wire storage units – they can be found at Revolve in large numbers, just check for soundness before you buy. If they have the wire drawers with them you have a good find. Either put some fly wire or even some loosely woven fabric in the bottom of the wire drawer. If there isn’t a drawer its pretty easy to knock up a frame and staple some fly wire over it and then just lay your herbs out to dry. Again a dry corner where they won’t be disturbed is necessary – we use our shed.

You can also use this method for drying fruit later in the year but some sort of covering to keep the flying insects off will be necessary. For fruit drying you will also need to turn the pieces over regularly to assist in even drying and (hopefully) avoid mould growth (sticking the drying rack near your ordinary fan will also help the process). For some reason it’s hard to conjure up the prospect of moist air today!

Carrots, what can I say. Our first lot shrivelled up in the early part of this month. It only took one day of hot weather and a failure to water, for the poor little things to dry up and die. Thankfully more dilligent watering, with the watercan on non-watering days, has ensured that our second crop has now reached the stage where they are putting out recognisable carrot leaves. The second lot are also positioned where they get some shade in the late afternoon.

My Coles Proloific Broadbeans are living up to their name and will shortly overtake the Red-flowered broad beans in production (although to be honest this isn’t much of a challenge). I think ‘ll take the advice on using the Red-flowered variety more for a green manure crop in future years. Apparently the best time to dig them in is when they flower. I’ll be waiting until a bit later as the braoadbeans are only second to that other wonderful legume the Sweet Pea in terms of having a sweet scent. The other tip is to run over your green manure crop, whatever it may be, with the lawn mower as this is, apparently, the easiest way to chop your crop into small enough pieces to rot down easily. BTW all green manures are best dug in when they are wet to encourage breakdown of plant material. So wait for a rainy day or water well before digging in.

The corn in our front garden is leaping ahead and is now a good half a metre tall. It’s just under a month since I planted them (October 24 to be precise). My big dillema since i mounded the soil up around them and gave them some chook pellets to be getting on with is the rapid development of side shoots. Last year we grew corn and left the side shoots but I was thinking that this may not be beneficial to production. I’ve checked my usual sources but there was nothing forthcoming on this point. I can, however, rely on the good old interweb to provide the answer. Good ole Purdue University has provided the answer http://www.hort.purdue.edu/ext/HO-98.pdf. It says “Research has shown that removal of corn side shoots (suckers or tillers) not only offers no advantage, it may actually reduce yields.” So now I know. We’ve also planted Blue and Starwberry Corn, a different species Zea mays everta – a popcorn (rather than Sweet Corn Zea mays saccharata). These two types were planted at the same time, side by side. The Blue Corn is nearly twice as tall as the Strawberry Corn. While both are meant to be popping corns I’ll be trying to grind the blue corn as there is a Mexicam staple of Blue Corn tortillas. You can check this out on http://veggicurious.com/2009/05/ they really are blue!