At The Backyard Pharmacy at Maison Bleue the water crisis has hit hard. Dry soils and poor rainfalls, coupled with increased water bills, have led to the decision to install the biggest water tank possible on our (1 acre) block (in this case 77,000 litres) and to harvest all our storm water for garden use. The infrastructure for this and the work associated are not to be underestimated.
The second big decision has been to replace all our garden beds with wicking beds of differing designs (and cost). Following the success of our first large (2 X 1 metre) wicking bed over summer, this seems like a sensible long term idea. Experimentation has involved the large, purpose built bed using recycled materials from the tip shop plus the design of Costa, then a bathtub I successfully converted for strawberries, and even an old esky, good for things like radishes (the chooks agree).
Radishes are not only the perfect starter crop to entice kids to grow food, but have a good reputation in supporting digestive and respiratory function, are high in flavonoids, so are beneficial to heart health and the cardiovascular system, plus have anti-inflammatory properties.
We are now onto an innovative straw bale design for larger beds and will keep experimenting using different materials that can be repurposed and achieve a minimal cost, large volume of home grown edibles in future.
There is also a plan to expand the orchard and look at growing indigenous foods on a larger scale – that’s the next project in making our backyard edible. Water can help make it happen, the tank is installed and everything is ready to go, all we need now is some rain.
This winter’s extreme cold would seem to be ushering in a summer that may break heat records in the planet’s hottest year on record to date. One of the benefits of mid 30 degree temperatures in September was an early start to tomato growing. Having successfully hot-housed tomatoes to avoid frosts and achieved early crops of Roma tomatoes last year, this year a new way to boost their pre-planting growth was their placement on a ledge of our double glazed north facing living room window. The results were spectacular with plants growing rapidly and two more varieties were added, plus pots of basil. With late frosts over, their planting out a few weeks ago has seen them establish in their new garden beds and fruiting already. One can never have too many tomatoes.
Our WWOOFer Vicki spent some spare time helping the major weeding and veggie bed refurbishing that preceded recent planting of multiple seeds and home grown lettuce seedlings in the warm soil. The benefit of growing large amount of seedlings is that thinning can allow for gifts and exchange with other gardeners – how many kale, mizuna, rocket, fenugreek and giant red mustard can you use?
Another part of the seasonal preparations was removal of the huge amount of nettles that were flourishing in the chookyard. Currently romanticised, the edible and highly nutritious nettle is undergoing a renaissance, mainstream acceptance being indicated by their presence on the menu at our local pub. I say romanticised as the bucket full I processed for eating, stripping leaves and blanching and steaming prior to making a hearty nettle pie ( see recipe), took quite a while and despite best efforts left my arms covered in nettle stings. Luckily we have dock growing and it provides a remedy. The remainder of the nettles removed were put in a barrel and topped with water and have broken down into a marvellous smelly nettle tea that is providing beneficial minerals to the veggie garden. Nettles have a long history as a herbal remedy for varied application from treatment of rheumatism to a traditional hair tonic. They are also high in protein, iron, beta carotene and Vitamin C.
Five varieties of rubarb will also provide for swapping and gifts throughout summer, as we await the tomatoes. It will provide for experiments in preserving and fermenting to add to the repertoire at Maison Bleue as plans develop for workshops on preserving the bounty of the summer garden in 2016.
There have been homegrown tomatoes for Xmas in The Backyard Pharmacy at Maison Bleue for the first time. Construction of mini hot houses over my big metal tubs beat the last of the frosts and saw the Roma tomatoes flourish, extending our tomato season as the heritage varieties planted have now also kicked in. Tomatoes’ high antioxidant content make them a strong contender for prime position in our garden of preventative medicines.
Disappointingly the three garden beds left unshaded this year are just not coping with our severe summer heat, so its a matter of making the most of what we have. The delicate seedlings waiting for planting out remain in the potting shed for now. Who would have thought I would be waiting for the small zucchini crop to prosper?
There are cabbages, potatoes, onions, rocket and a large amount of parsley (the consequence of planting seed plus seedlings and ending up with 24 plants – tabouli salad here we come).
The little cherry and apricot trees have pumped out volumes of lucious fruit, despite the dry. It has been a good year for cherries. They were great in a cinnamon syrup to adorn the mango and macadamia ice cream Xmas pudding.
The apricots made great eating when fresh, then stewed and now bottled, and the chickens liked the off cuts as well.
Flexibility is the key word for gardening in our environment. Now we are gearing up for several days of rain. I hope it works wonders for the eggplants and extends our tomato season.
They say that the best laid plans often come unstuck, and so it has been at Maison Bleue this year thus far. Planned autumn gardening activities have become the winter catch up due to an ‘event’ that means we now have a large amount of floorboards and building materials that have provided a new ‘palace’ for The Girls (now minus one unfortunately). Sporadic egg production has proved that we are indeed lucky with such beautiful eggs when they are on the lay – nothing else compares really.
The weather plus our absence meant a prolonged season of garden greens and late picking of the last of the beetroots and Tuscan kale. Since then, thanks to our WWOOFer Maria, who launched energetically into assisting with the renewal process and preparation of beds for winter plantings. The carrot seed I planted then has done so well that the thinnings are looking great in their mounded rows interspersed by the garlic. Spring plantings have seen us with a steady supply of salad pickings, including dandelions and fennel, so handy for the digestion. I have snuck in a few tomatoes, all the while watchful for the hasty cover-ups required when a frost is forecast.
Hot on the heels of our unplanned house renovation was my two week soujourn in Timor Leste with CERES Global. Once more horticultural activities were to the fore and many discussions had with the locals about food growing in such a different climate. Its a poor country and the expected ‘hungry months’ each year when the food runs low led me to investigate their traditional food preservation practices.
As in Australia water is frequently the limiting factor when planning for food growing, whatever the scale. With predicted dry conditions looming at home, we are now looking to our watering system and a much larger provision for storm water capture from our block. Winter has allowed for planning so that now in spring we are in the process of The Backyard Pharmacy at Maison Bleue being less water hungry and vulnerable to the conditions to come.
Another year, another pile of zucchinis on the kitchen bench. It must be summer. Despite poor rainfall and a slow start for the tomatoes, the garden is producing enough for something to either be the basis of or to add to a meal every day. Though it is possible to tire of blue kale. That is until fermented, when it transforms into a tasty addition to the simplest of bread and cheese lunches. The year of ferments spills into 2014 with the anticipation of fermentation workshops with Sandor Katz in February.
Creativity with salads is the order of the day and the use of edible flowers provides taste sensations as their pure essence can transform the most mundane of leaves. Our original potato plantings went feral and thanks to our compost every garden bed has produced potatoes in surprising places and quantities. You can’t beat the deliciousness of a freshly dug and steamed potato.
It has been an excellent year for cherries and, once protected from chooks and other birds, provided the plump type that pops nicely in your mouth. I have equally high hopes for my recently planted sour cherry in future. Cherries are high in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds, making them popular for treatment of the pain of gout and arthritis. They have an affinity for vanilla and cinnamon in cooking, lending themselves readily to many fruit based desserts and cakes and can be frozen or preserved, in alcohol being a popular choice.
Similar optimism exists for the walnut we have planted in place of one of our ancient mulberries that has fallen, connected by a thread of root, like a tooth waiting to be removed, we have propped it up and hope it will re-sprout.
Who would have thought that warragul greens and marigolds could spread the way they have? The marigolds attracting many bees and useful insects into the garden and are an all round medicinal plant with their antiseptic and healing properties and their edible flowers, which when dried make a very good digestive tea and eyewash.
Despite the watering system, the below average rainfall shows the garden beds to be quite dry below the surface when digging deep to prepare the soil for the next planting. Water really is the limiting resource. With predictions of a dry time ahead this year, it is prudent to plan for further improvements in water holding capacity of the soil, watering regimes and efficient mulches.
The past year has been fruitful in The Backyard Pharmacy. Thanks to planting and soil enrichment lessons aplenty we now have a better understanding of the garden’s cycles and capacity. The groundwork continues and we look forward to the seasons ahead.
It’s the time of year when people get generous with bunches of silver beet, bags of broad beans and more bags of broad beans, that are given away with gusto. The Backyard Pharmacy at Maison Bleue is flush with greenery but it’s a battle to keep up with eating it. Warmer weather means salad days are here so that’s great as a catch-all for anything you fancy in a salad bowl with a good dressing, especially the sweet snow peas that are replenishing themselves as quickly as they are picked.
A knock on the door and a friendly inquiry as to our silver beet status is politely declined, seeing as I had just made a mega batch of four dozen silverbeet and ricotta sausage(less) rolls. This was followed by a visitor with a huge pot full of purple kale and the words ‘please take more’ when I took half a dozen handfuls to ferment (which turned out very well). Where’s the local vegie swap when you want it?
The unseasonable dry and heat has made the long awaited Brussels sprouts and a few other tasty treats bolt and an incursion into our newly fortified yard by The Girls saw the leaves eaten off a second batch of cavolo nero, the sprouting broccoli and the kohl rabi. They love their brassicas. It doesn’t pay to get too attached to what you are growing. The local Spring fair was a chance to relocate some rapidly spreading warragul greens, oregano and rocket, but there’s plenty more popping up where they came from. Meanwhile the tomatoes growing from seed in the potting shed are starting to look strong and my impatient purchase of two grafted heritage tomatoes recently planted have been prudently protected with shade cloth just in case of another frost – and we have had two this week!
Last season the old repurposed trailer/garden bed produced tasty spuds so I reasoned that a crop of broad beans would be a good nitrogen addition for the soil, providing beans in the meantime. When they die off the stems will be cut and composted and the remainder dug in to enrich to soil.
Broad beans are also known as fava beans. They contain high levels of protein, fibre and other plant nutrients plus levo-dopa, a precursor for production of compounds like dopamine in the brain and used to treat people suffering Parkinson’s disease.
But what to do with the prolific beans? The small ones are beautiful in salads, when larger they need cooking and each bean needs peeling, which is OK for small amounts. Try them in risottos, soups or pureed with peas or make a tasty batch of avocado and broad bean sourdough toast topper.