Hard yakka

First cob of corn for dinner

It was a perfect afternoon to get into the garden, sunny enough with a nice breeze. I was working in the front garden, planting out some daisy cuttings and pulling out a dead shrub.

The biggest issue was whether the bull ants (inch ants) were still nesting next to the dead shrub. And yes they are. However I did manage to dig out pretty much all the dead stuff before the ants came charging out. Having been bitten earlier in the week I was being quite careful.

I rounded out the afternoon by harvesting all the good sized Blue Lake climbing beans and picking our first cob of corn. We are now getting a steady feed from our tomatoes and fruit from our fig tree is making dessert choices easy.

Fig tart for dessert

Although we are not the only ones lining up for a feed. Our resident Grey Currawong loves our figs as much as we do.

Not bad for a bird with only one eye! We gave him/her this one.

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Summer Summary

Well here we are into Autumn at last and a week of days over 30° C has been forecast. This is the pattern of recent  years. Our summer results have been influenced this year by the time we spent away from the garden as much as anything else.

To start where my last post finished off, the final number of roosters we gained from our intake of 5 chicks was 3.

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We have eaten two of the roosters so far and are saving the last one, in the freezer, for a forthcoming dinner. The birds tasted very good, as we expected, but as they all had a large dose of game-bird genes they dressed out with the longest drumsticks I’ve ever seen.

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Speaking of salads we have had a bumper crop of roma tomatoes this year. For once we broke the Canberra tomato rule (only plant after Melbourne Cup day) and this worked in our favour. We didn’t quite get toms for Christmas but we did have them a week later. Sadly my open air tomato drying was a complete failure. The day I took the photo heralded a wet and cool period that was lasted more than a week (quite a common experience this past season). Even with trying to dry the tomatoes by fan inside, they soon collapsed into a very furry mess.

Just after Christmas I planted out my second batch of tomato seedlings. The variety is Soldacki (bought several years ago from Cornucopia Seeds, although the seeds are not included in their current offerings). This is a Polish variety, meant to do well in cooler climates. The plants are powering away and we have plenty of fruit coming along, but nothing to taste as yet.

As always growing out punnets of lettuce seedlings has kept a steady flow of greens for salads, along with our regular herbs such as basil and nasturtium leaves.

What has been  bumper this year is our fruit crops. The apricot fruit set on our tree was good, although like many trees I heard of, the fruit was small and really long in ripening.

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Apricot dessert

We generally harvest apricots around Christmas and nectarines at the end of January. This year we didn’t pick the apricots until mid-January and the nectarines came along in February. The apricots were remained small in size but made up for it in flavour.

The nectarines came in a rush. It was a bumper crop this summer, but the fruit only started to ripen days before we were due to visit family interstate. It was all hands to the dehydrator to deal with the bulk of the crop. I did stew about 2kgs of fruit down, but that barely made a dent in the proceedings. I do have two large bags of dried fruit.

Our legumes were a let down, with the exception of our ever reliable broad beans.

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Broad bean harvest

I managed to get a tiny crop of purple-podded peas, enough for one and a half meals! Every bush or climbing bean that managed to get out of the ground was immediately ring-barked by slaters or chewed right off by snails.

The one area that has improved markedly over summer is our rennovated front garden.

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Early December and the white paper daisies dominate the new garden

It’s been a lot of work doing weeding and mulching, limited as I was by my dodgy knee. Tackling the project a few metres at a time worked. Today things are looking much better, the weeds are few and far between. I cut back the paper daisies afew weeks ago to give the other plantings a chance.
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One of the stars of the new plantings has been Brachyscome ‘Pacific Sun’, a yellow version of the familiar blue flowers.
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Over time we will continue to nurture out grassland plants with a view to providing food sources and homes for insects and small reptiles.

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!

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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.

 

At last, my corn has come along! not to mention the tomatoes

It seems an age but our corn is ready to pick and darn yummy with it. Due to our trip in October/November our spring planting was delayed and I had to resort to buying corn seedlings (will I ever be able to live with myself), to get a crop in. Now here it is in all its fully grown splendour, Sweet Honey Bi-colour corn. This is the first time that we’ve grown this variety, (we usually grow Golden Bantam) and I’ve been quite impressed with how it has grown. We have had much better pollination and far fewer gaps in the cobs that we’ve previously experienced. The plants themselves are shorter, but they are still producing plenty of cobs. I’d be happy to go with this variety again next year.

Our Sweet Honey Bi-colour corn, ready for a quick steam and then into our stomachs!
Our Sweet Honey Bi-colour corn, ready for a quick steam and then into our stomachs!

The day I planted the corn seedlings I also planted out tomato seedlings from our friend M. They have also finally started to ripen, although with the rain we’ve been having we are getting quite a bit of blossom end rot – that nasty black patch on the tomatoes’ bottom – you will note that I have carefully designed the photo not to show that bit!.

Ripened tomatoes at last!
Ripened tomatoes at last!

Thankfully our eggplants and zucchini are producing steadily and at least one of our chickens has started laying again. Ah summer bliss.

Tempura of the Times

Yesterday afternoon was very wet – 86 mms of rain over two hours worth of wet!

Down she comes, a very rainy afternoon in Canberra.
Down she comes, a very rainy afternoon in Canberra.

What better excuse could there be to have a dinner of deep fried food, mainly tempura, with some pan-fried eggplant and zucchini with dengaku sauce on the side.

Eggplant and zucchini with dengaku sauce and soba noodles.
Eggplant and zucchini with dengaku sauce and soba noodles.

My favourite veggie tempura is corn, and we were able to use our first corn of the season, collected in between downpours, to make tasty tempura nodules.

Tempura batter and method
First take equal quantities of corn flour and self raising flour, in this case 3-4 tablespoons of each and mix with an equal quantity of soda water. If you have it, add a sprinkle of Japanese 7 spice powder, sometimes called Red Pepper Mix, ‘Shichimi Togarashi’ to the batter for extra flavour. You could also add other spices to the mix depending on your taste.

Mix the batter quickly, it should be runny and you don’t need to get out all the lumps. If you beat the mix too much you will activate the gluten in the flour and end up with a soft, rather than crispy, batter.

Make sure you oil is up to cooking temperature before you start dipping the vegetables in the batter.

This is how your oil should look when you are frying the tempura.
This is how your oil should look when you are frying the tempura.

Have your corn kernels ready in a separate bowl. Add a small amount of batter to the corn, not the other way around! You want to just coat the corn, not drown it. Quickly place a dessert spoon of corn into the hot oil and cook until golden brown. The remaining vegetables can then be quickly dipped in the remaining batter before being cooked. Just remember the batter on your veggies should be a crisp thin skin, not a thick soggy blanket.

On our final platter you can also see some of our zucchini flowers and some sweet potato (not grown by us) as well. Itadaki mas! (Bon appetit!).

Tempura of corn, zucchini flowers and sweet potato.
Tempura of corn, zucchini flowers and sweet potato.

Three Sisters

OK this post is nothing to do with the Blue Mountains, rather it’s about my latest garden bed.

The ‘three sisters’ refers to 3 plants, corn, climbing beans and squash, that have been tradionally grown together across central and north America, that literally form a supportive growing community.

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The idea is that the corn stems provide a support for the climbing beans to grow up and the squash provides a ground cover to help retain soil moisture and supress weeds. The beans will also provide nitrogen fixing in the soil which will help the corn to grow.

You are supposed to get the corn started in the bed first then plant the bean seeds next to it and then the squash.

3sistersbed

As I was growing all the plants from seeds in the polyhouse and the beans were out-growing the corn I’ve skipped the initial step. So now all the plants are in the garden bed. The corn is Blue Popcorn, the beans are Scarlet Runner and the squash is Butternut Pumpkin.

Assuming this lot survive the snail/slug/slater onset starting later tonight I’ll try and post updates on how the bed is growing.

Cereal efforts

I’m not sure why but growing cereal crops in your backyard always sounds so ‘wrong’. Perhaps we are too used to scenes of combine harvesters moving across acres of golden wheat, when we may be better off contemplating how farmers in Japan still grow rice in the suburbs (this case in outer Kyoto).
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So really there is no reason not to give cereal growing a try. Our thinking is that if your have space in your yard to grow potatoes you could try growing cereals as well or instead. According to an article on growing grains in he current issue of Organic Gardener magazine (Sept-Oct 2011) you need a 10 x15 metre plot to grow enough wheat to be self sufficient for a year (at 2kgs flour per week).

A few years back we grew some wheat. To be honest it was not a great success. We were probably too inconsistent with the watering and it was during the drought. Indeed our total output was probably enough to made a cake or a loaf of bread. However that hasn’t stopped TB from exploring further options with growing rice. Now before you get overly agitated about excess water use what we are growing is a ‘dry land’ strain of rice. The seed was easily obtained by buying a bag of organic brown rice from the local supermarket. Said bag of rice also noted that it was not grown with flood irrigation so we think we have made a reasonable choice. Another option is to grow paddy style rice in an old bathtub.

The rice grains didn’t take too long to sprout on their bed of wet paper towel.
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And while our transplant method is clearly unsuitable for larger scale plantings,
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at least the grains have continued to sprout.

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The biggest drawback to growing rice in Canberra is, of course, the temperature. We are just not in the right climatic zone for this plant, not that that will stop us trying. TB expects to grow most of the crop in pots in the polyhouse and we will try some in the garden as well.

Our most regular grain crop is corn. Most years we grow sweet corn – Golden Bantam to eat fresh and to save some as dried corn for later use. We also grow popping corn, Blue Mini and Strawberry pop corn, which are quite amazing in colour.
Corntypes

Sadly when these varieties are popped they look just like any other popcorn. I’ve just planted some seeds of both Golden Bantam sweetcorn and also some Blue Mini popcorn to get us underway for this year.


 

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.

Grind

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!

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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! 
Corncoarse
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.

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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.

Off the Cob

Our corn is one of the few things that has been growing and producing consistently this season. So much so that it is becoming a regular on the menu. Indeed it needs to be eaten regularly because fresh corn can actually grow past its use-by date and turn into a mass of small beautifully coloured MDF squares. Last year we left our cobs too long on the plant and had to throw out cob after cob that we literally couldn’t get our teeth into.

How do you tell if your corn is ready? As soon as that cornsilk goes a dry and red-brown coloured on top of the cob you should be checking. Peel back the top of the outer leaves of the cob. The silk inside the leaves will still be pale, silky green and still moist (if this is dry then your corn will already be too tough to chew). If the kernels are pale yellow, plump and full (we are growing Golden Bantam so yours may be a slightly different colour), the corn is probably ready. Break one of the kernels with your fingernail is the ‘milk’ that comes out clear = not ready; cloudy = ready; white and thick = past its use-by date.

Corntest

 If the cobs aren’t ready put the leaves back over the cob and hold them together with a rubber band if necessary. Check every day.

So if your corn goes past its used by day you can give it to your chooks if you have them, or let it dry out and grind for polenta. Last year we saved ours and dried the cobs.

I must say that the grinding part the most difficult to achieve. I had absolutely no success with a small grindstone we bought from one of the local Asian shops. As far as I can tell it has a more promising future as a very quaint garden ornament.

Corngrind

I had some luck with a small electric coffee grinder, and almost equal success with our very heavy mortar and pestle (although with the latter you are in grave danger of losing an eye to flying corn kernels).

I’ve had lots of fun reading reviews of corn grinders on Amazon, apparently they are a ‘must have’ item for survivalists! The consensus seems to be that the best (electric) corn grinder is something called the KoMo Fidibus Classic, a mere snip at $US499, a European model. On the hand-cranked side the Imusa Victoria Traditional Corn Grinder $US36 seems to be the go, but of course its temporarily out of stock. I’ll be waiting to see what the shipping price is because I saw the same item on ebay Australia with the most ludicrous shipping price of +$100!! Feel like you are a target for a rip-off?

Well I’m not that desperate yet – back to the coffee grinder.

Better Days

In contrast to my sulking solanums some other crops are revelling in the high rainfall conditions. My strawberries are gi-normous, particularly the Red Gauntlet variety. If I can beat the snails to them just a few fruits are large enough to fill one hand.

Strawb

Thrusting ever skywards are our Golden Bantam Corn. In the picture you can see TB holding a piece of wood that is three metres long. When the photo was taken earlier this week the corn was already higher than the post and they have put on even more growth since.

Corn

The critical focus of the corn crop at present is their pollination. The male flowers are on the top and the female proto-cobs with their silky tassels are in the armpits of the plants below. We did an inadvertant pollination experiment with our corn last year. The corn was planted in several clumps around the garden. Out the front I left nature, via the wind, to deal with pollination. In the back garden TB literally took a hands on approach and shook the plants violently to send the pollen down onto the corn silk.

Much as it grinds me to admit it the backyard corn had a much better pollination rate. The cobs filled out evenly whereas the ones in the front garden were a very mixed bag. Some were full and others only had the odd full kernel on the surface of the cob. So if you see someone violently shaking their corn stalks don’t call the plant protection authorities, its all for the good of the plant.