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Spring Surprises

Honesty flowers; also known as Silver Dollar flowers for the papery seed pods used in floral arrangements

This year – 2020, has certainly been full of surprises. Many have been unpleasant due to extreme weather events and the virus pandemic. But Mother Nature has blessed us here with winter rain and a mild spring after several dry years. This has led to many surprises in my garden. The fruit trees that did not flower last year have done so abundantly and are making bumper crops of fruit. Perennials like Honesty, which did not cope with last year’s heat , and had blistered stunted leaves, suddenly came to life with that winter rain, making lovely new foliage and tall stems of flowers. Self sown seeds of Rocket, Radicchio, Celery, Salsify and other volunteers started to pop up as the weather warmed up. Birds turned up too, and I heard their pre- dawn songs again after a couple of very quiet years. Nesting time is in full swing, and ducks’ feathers will be lining some of those nests. Apart from the usual Blackbirds and Sparrows, there are now New Holland Honey Eaters, Wattle birds, Willy Wag Tails , Top Knot Pigeons, all enjoying plenty of feed. Such feed includes the insects that also have proliferated since the rains came.

A bit of a battle has ensued with earwigs, snails and slugs. I finally learnt how to make earwig traps. Using cans and butter containers baited with about 2 cm of cooking oil in them, I find I get quite a few bugs and need to clean out the traps about once a week. Old BBQ grease and soy sauce added to the oil makes it more attractive to the earwigs. I had tried saucers before, but realise now that they are too shallow. Bugs can crawl out too easily. By setting the can into the soil, so that the ground is on a level with the rim of the container, the bugs venture in, drown in the oil, and cannot climb out again! The snails and slugs make good feed for the ducks, who finally came back to work after a long holiday and started laying again in mid August!!

Every year is different and with climate changing too, finding the best time to sow and plant can be difficult. I used to grow beetroot over winter, but nowadays, autumn sown beetroot grows too slowly over winter, then bolts in early spring. I found the same thing with peas too.( they don’t bolt to seed, but they sulk and get eaten by birds etc.). So I am starting beetroot and peas in early spring now. Winter crops of Garlic, Lettuces, Endive, Broad Beans still seem to do well in the colder months. Some Florence Fennel, left in the ground at the end of summer, just to be used as a leafy herb, has made quite good bulbs which are being harvested now. The silver beet, Lucullus, struggled in the cold months but finally looks respectable enough to eat.

Red Flower Broad Bean. Pods beginning to form
Red Russian Kale quickly flowering in Spring

A large part of grass has been turned into a no-dig garden and a crop of potatoes-Pontiacs and Kipflers, is now growing well. With vegetables like potatoes, it isn’t money I am trying to save by growing my own, but the better flavour I am looking for. Fresh produce that is really fresh has an amazing flavour that no supermarket can offer. Besides, it is organically grown and so, nutritionally superior.

Of course, there have been some disappointments. Purple sprouting broccoli has been slow to grow, and now the flower heads are very small, or non existent. The brussels sprouts did not sprout at all and the Red Russian Kale has gone to seed much too soon for my liking. But this has happened before with winter brassicas and a few times I had giant leafy plants with no flower heads at all. I think it is due to choosing a spot that is not sunny enough in winter. I’ll try again next year.

In just two years and here in an average size back yard, there has been a good transformation from bare grass to garden beds, trees and shrubs. Biodiversity increases all the time and pleasant, sheltered nooks are evolving. This spring brings much hope of healthy harvests in summer!

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Peas, Beans, Turnips and Radicchio

Above are the Haw Lan Do Peas doing very well with long pods. The peas originally came from China to Darwin in the Gold Rush days – 1880’s. Jim Ah Toy’s family grew it for generations. He put some seeds in his pocket when everyone was evacuated to Adelaide in WW2, and later shared them with Marie Heindtman of Pine Creek who shared them with me. It performs well under heat and is not a thirsty pea!

Next to the peas is a photo of Uncle Dick’s Turnip in full bloom. Plants over 1 metre tall. Flowers growing in proximity to attract pollinating insects: Calendula, Imperial Stocks and Flanders Poppies.

Finally we have the Radicchio which is about to flower, in front of the red flowered Broad Beans

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Spring Update

radicchio

“Nothing is more beautiful than spring

When weeds in wheels shoot long and lovely and lush”


As the poet, Gerald Manly Hopkins said

Alas, most farmers and home owners waste them and poison the soil destroying them. A sort of scorched earth policy is being enacted around here, with heavy applications of glyphosate turning nature strips and road sides into dead brown areas. Saturday’s paper, 21/9/19. revealed that North America has lost 30% of its song birds in the last century and even house sparrow numbers are declining. And people wonder why there are more insects in our gardens when we make life so hard for those who would happily eat them!

If a weed is just a plant out of place and most of the ones which have European origins were bought here by early settlers, because they have useful properties, we should be using them as a resource. Broad leaf plants like Docks and Dandelions are full of minerals and make excellent green tea fertilizer for the garden. Even put into compost tumblers and heaps they add their goodness. And more immediately, made into cleansing teas they help us with a spring tonic too. The Nettle is a marvelous blood cleanser and young leaves steam up into a good soup, or can be added to stir fries. All these plants make good green pick feed for chickens and ducks too.

french_sorrel
French Sorrel

Bitter greens are very good for the kidneys. I have plenty of French Sorrel and nettle and radicchio to add to salads right now. Rocket leaves, celery stems, coriander are ready to pick now as well as Russian Garlic ( really a leek) Rainbow Silver beet , Florence fennel and Egyptian beetroot. Here is my favourite recipe for beetroot chutney.

Beetroot Chutney

Ingredients:

4-6 nice firm beetroot, 2 medium onions, 4 large cooking apples, peeled and chopped, 2 large oranges, peeled and chopped, 1 cup brown sugar, juice and rind of a lemon, 2 cups of real apple cider vinegar and 2 teaspoons fresh coriander seeds.

Simmer the beetroot till tender then peel off the skin and chop into small chunks. Combine with the remaining ingredients in a large saucepan. Bring to the boil, and then lower the heat to a simmer. Cook uncovered , stirring occasionally for about an hour or till mixture thickens. mash lightly with a potato masher or fork. It should be slightly chunky but nor not a sauce. Put into sterilized jars and seal when cold. Excellent with all red meats.

The ducks are finally laying too and finally I have surplus eggs to sell. The rhubarb is very good now, with wide red stems and it blends wonderfully with strawberries in any kind of dessert or jam. The Florence fennel goes well with any fish meal and can be sliced raw into salads. It has a slight aniseed flavour and a lovely crunch.

The local hardware store and supermarket have tomato plants for sale, but we have had late frosts and I think it is much too soon to try growing tomatoes around here. Accepted wisdom in Central Victoria is to have the plants ready to put out on Melbourne Cup day, early November, but in recent years we have had frosts right up to December. I will get out my heat tray soon though and start some tomatoes, basil and chilli. In the meantime, a bed is ready for more peas, Hurst’s Green Shaft shelling peas go in next. The Haw Lan Do snow peas are doing well. They are growing under a tent of an old nylon curtain which protects them from birds and frost. My Delta Moravia snow peas have been continuously attacked by earwigs which lurk in the middle of nearby celery and silver beet plants. i am going to try a saucer of beer to maybe trap and drown them !

veggies_growing_under_a_curtain
protected from the birds and frost with a nylon curtain

Uncle Dick’s Turnips are doing OK but they did not get enough sun over winter, so next year I need to be aware of shadows cast by adjacent buildings. There are still plenty of Jerusalem Artichokes in the ground. In the USA they are called Sunchokes, and I noticed with astonishment that Sunchoke Ravioli was on the menu at the State dinner in The White House last weekend! No one around here wants them and I gave away a lot to the pet pig of a friend. Food has fashions too.

I am getting plenty of exercise mowing the grass but it is great to see everything green and many plants growing again.. We have had enough rain to encourage us and the local crops look magnificent. The Desert Ash trees are wearing spring green and the fruit trees have flowered well. Long term planning is the key to success in the garden, although every year is different now and climate change adds increasing challenges. The olives I got from the wild trees are ready to be put into smaller jars and can be enjoyed in summer salads.

Here’s hoping for more sunshine and more rain and a good growing season this spring.

The Ark of the Future is the Home Garden.