Mr Potato Head

 

Given that potatoes have such an ubiquitous presence in cuisines all over the world it’s humbling to think they only made there way to England a few hundred years ago.  Like so many of our edibles, the wild version of our beloved spud originates in Peru and Bolivia.  Here it could be grown right up to the snow line, way beyond the realm of wheat and other staples.  Ireland enthusiastically planted potatoes in the 1700s, as a few acres could feed a family and their livestock.  This self sufficiency strategy worked a treat until in 1845 a fungal disease – potato blight – wiped the crops out and reduced the Irish population by 1.6 million people over the following decade.  A sobering warning that biodiversity relates to human cultivated plants – not just in nature…

The potato’s botanical name Solanum Tuberosum informs us that they’re part of the tomato, capsicum and eggplant family – something to keep in mind when rotating crops to avoid diseases building up in soil.  Of course if this surprises you, get ready to be completely blown away.  While hunting for some images for this article, I discovered a nursery in the U.S. that combines the potato and the tomato!  Imagine tomatoes in summer and harvesting your spuds in autumn!  I haven’t seen one of these in the flesh and will probably experiment a little later in the year at grafting them together Frankenstein like bwahahahaha.  In the mean time I’m left to ponder…is it a Pomato or a Topato?

Enough talk, lets get some dirt under our nails and learn how best to grow some of your very own spuds.  Potatoes are frost sensitive so if you sow them this weekend, the risk of frost will be drastically reduced by the time they start to produce foliage.  I’m describing the traditional hilling method as I’ve found it to give me the best yields year after year.   Potatoes like soil on the acidic side so ideally your pH should be around 6.0.  Being tubers, all of the potatoes grow underground so start by digging nice deep and wide trenches.

This helps to explain the old adage that growing potatoes as  a ‘pioneer’ crop helps to break up the soil for future cultivation.  As 80% of the potatoes grow above the original planting depth, I’m afraid it’s YOU that break the soil up, but a neat saying just the same. Here you can see I’ve already established one crop (on the left) which are approx 6 weeks old.  I’m planting new spuds so I have a continous supply all year.

Place your whole spuds (don’t cut them up – too much surface area for disease) in the bottom of the trench about 40cm apart and make your rows about 50cm apart.

Backfill over your potatoes with about 15cm of the soil previously removed.  And that’s about it!   Your spuds will start to shoot in a week or two depending on temperature and rainfall.  This time of year watering isn’t necessary however if you’re growing in the drier months give a good weekly soaking.  Continue to hill up the soil around the base of the plant which will encourage it to keep growing taller and providing more room below the surface for potatoes to grow.  This hilling will also stabilise your plants.

Your potatoes will be ready to harvest when the plant has matured and started to die off.  Depending on the time of year they may even flower.  Another cheeky technique is called ‘bandicooting’ where you sneakily dig down and take the odd spud from time to time.  In fact that was the inspiration for writing today’s article about potatoes.  I didn’t have enough spuds in the pantry for the below ‘pierogi’ recipe so I had to bandicoot a few even though the plant isn’t fully mature.  You’ll also find growing spuds in the no-dig method makes bandicooting even easier as you’re moving straw and compost, not soil.

How to make Pierogi.

Pierogi  can be loosely described as dumplings or ravioli.  While the shape is consistent the fillings vary and combinations include:  mushroom, pork and cabbage, cottage cheese and potato and even seasonal fruit.

The below recipe is ‘Pierogi Ruski’ or Russian Pierogi where the hero ingredient is of course, potatoes.  I’ve made these in Australia in Polish households and in Poland with only minor differences notable.  They are great at this time of the year when a rainy afternoon makes them an ideal comfort food to enjoy making and eating with friends.

Ingredients

Filling

1.2kg peeled potatoes, boiled and mashed or put through a ricer (desiree or dutch cream)

500g Polish mountain cottage cheese (available at european supermarkets e.g Foodworks or IGA in Bell Park, Geelong) Put this through the ricer too or grate.

1 medium onion finely diced

50g butter (for cooking onions)

Season well with salt and pepper

Dough

600g plain organic flour

1 egg

Warm water (traditionally I think this was held over from the boiled potato water)

 

I’ve never measured the amount of water but I’d guess at about 300ml and you add it slowly.  Although the ingredients are almost identical to pasta, the dough should be a bit softer.

With the wonders of the internet I figured it best to leave the method to an actual Pole!  Sure it’s in Polish, but you’re clever folks.  Enjoy!  Or as they say in Poland “Smacznego!”

Raising your garden

 

So during the last decade-plus of well below average rainfall, we’ve stopped using a lot of the techniques that assist drainage.  The most effective one is what we’re going to explore today, the raised garden bed.

It’s not just the height of the raised bed that helps with drainage it’s your ability to modify the growing medium (soil) to ensure the right balance of drainage and nutrient holding.  This is of course the holy grail of gardeners all over the world and one that deserves a separate post all of its own.  Having said that, even without the benefits of improved drainage and soil, not breaking your back is a good enough reason alone to look at raised beds!

Materials for raised beds

Over the years, raised beds have become far more sophisticated.  Perhaps they started with off-cuts of fascia or other plank like timber, held in place by tent pegs, rocks or those very handy star-pickets.  Many of Australia’s European migrants built very sturdy brick edged gardens in the 50’s and filled them with as much cow, sheep and chook manure as they could get their hands on.  Brick and stone are of course very durable and can help maintain even soil temperatures.  The main downside is they are expensive and labour and skill intensive.  Additionally you’d better be sure you don’t want to move the bed in the future and pretty much forget it if you’re renting.

The Aussie equivalent of the Mediterranean masonry edging is perhaps the retired galvanised water tank which was too rusty to hold water but fine to angle-grind down to a round garden bed edging.

This ‘recycling an old tank’ idea has now evolved to see tank manufacturers designing raised garden beds with new materials.  Of course the edges need to be folded down or covered with protective stripping to make them safe.  The corrugated looks look good in old and new houses alike, and seems synonymous with Australian homes.

We then move onto timber.  Now I have to confess right from the start that I’m not a big fan of chemically treated timbers.  Everything I know about organic gardening involves increasing your soil biology and diversity to open up the best possible nutrition to your plants.  It makes sense if the soil biology is prevented from rotting the wood over time then your soil must be compromised.  Recently there’s been the introduction of ‘Eco’ type treatments on plantation pine which although seem to be an improvement on the old ‘treated pine’ (which was Copper Chrome Arsenic – CCA ) they still can’t be composted or burnt at the end of their life…and that’s the real test as to whether or not a material can be harmlessly reintroduced back into your garden.  Proceed with caution and read more here if you’re interested.

So what are some other timber options?   Well you can look at untreated plantation pine, such as these boxes which were used for the Grow It! project last year.

They’re cost effective and a great height to work with.  Red gum and rough sawn native hardwood are both excellent, long lasting timbers although knowing how sustainably they were harvested can be challenging.  Hardwood is also a little tricky to work with – heavy and particularly hard on drill bits and saw blades.  Which leads me onto what I think is the champion of raised bed timber – cypress macrocarpa.  Now this isn’t the same cypress you’re starting to see available at hardware stores.  Macrocarpa is an introduced species – a true cypress from North America.  It was used in Australia on farms as wind breaks, but as the trees reach over-maturity they’re being pulled down and often piled up and burned.  A couple of local millers have seen this opportunity and have started producing small quantities of this marvellous stuff.  I love the stuff.

There’s also vintage (or recycled, reclaimed) beds.  I’m a big fan of old apple/potato/onion crates which are about 1.2m square and 0.6m high.  They originate from the fruit and vegetable packing industry and despite being made from untreated pine, have quite a long life.  Here are some slightly lower ones I managed to get hold of from a retired spud farmer.

 

Recently OH&S regulations have seen the move away from timber bins to plastic ones.  Apparently the risk of splinters for supermarket contract staff is too high. Hope my cabbages survive…

 

Anyhow, be sure to grab hold of these vintage timber bins before they all disappear.  I know I’m having to look further to source them…

All hail King Kale!

Well you can grow it in your very own garden at home – it’s called Kale and one cupful can do all the above plus more!

 

Maybe it was really kale in that tin?

Where’s it from?

Kale is a Mediterranean member of the brassica or cabbage family which dates back a couple of thousand years.  In fact it was a staple vegetable of the time as it proved frost hardy and could survive

much harsher winters than it’s origins would suggest.  In the Netherlands it’s known as ‘farmers’ cabbage’ with the main variety we see called Cavolo nero or ‘black cabbage’.  The dark blue and green leaves

are the first hint to the health inducing carotenoids contained within.  My fiance knew about kale before I did, as she used to be a florist and some varieties are stunningly ornamental.

 

How do you grow it?   

Like other cabbages, Kale is a hero winter vegetable that can be sown in Autumn and harvested a few months later.  Alternatively sowing established seedlings around now (early July) will ensure your enjoying

Kale well into spring.  I don’t bother growing it during the hot summer months as the white butterflies are too numerous to compete with, plus the leaves are sweeter when grown in the cooler seasons.  As with

cabbages, prepare the soil in advance with lots of compost and/or rotted manure.  They are heavy nitrogen feeders so top dressing with pigeon manure and liquid feeding during their growth will ensure success.

Pick the older outer leaves first (as you would with silverbeet) to keep the plant producing again and again.

 

Eating Kale

Kale is a little tougher than it’s cabbage cousins but don’ let this put you off.  I first learned of Kale from Stephanie Alexander as she described it as being the original addition to minestrone soup.  So it can be

cooked long and slow and still hold its shape and texture which is a bonus in many dishes.  It can be boiled (apparently if you drink the liquid afterwards you will, in fact live forever) or sautéed with butter or

olive oil and of course garlic.  Young leaves are great raw and will ensure you get all of the vitamin C as described above.  I find it to be a great addition to simple oil based pasta dishes that need something to cut through other rich flavours, where spinach simply doesn’t make the grade.  Same goes for risotto.  Below is  a recipe for Kale Chips and while I can’t guarantee they’ll take the place of your beloved salt and vinegar varieties,

they do feel a lot more grown up and taste awesome.

 

Ingredients

A good salad spinner full of tender young Kale leaves (use the rest for other dishes as they’ll be chewy rather than chippy!)

Olive oil, ghee, coconut oil or whatever you use for healthy frying

Sea salt or Murray River flaked salt

Method

Pre-heat your oven to 180 degrees using a fan setting if available

Soak the picked leaves in water to remove any bugs (especially in home grown or organically purchased)

Cut the leaves of the kale away from the stems and then chop into bite sized pieces

Spin in a salad spinner really well a couple of times (until it’s well and truly dizzy!)

 

Place in a clean dry bowl and drizzle with olive or your favourite oil

 

Mix thoroughly and place onto a baking tray (don’t sprinkle with salt just yet as it will bring out moisture and make the chips soggy)

Place in the pre-heated oven for 15-20 minutes checking they are crispy but not brown or still floppy

 

Sprinkle with salt and or sesame seeds and enjoy!

 

Breathe Easy!

Why this stuff matters

Astronauts in both U.S. and USSR space programs had been experiencing symptoms such as itchy eyes and skin, chest pain, breathing problems and loads of other allergy-like symptoms.  At the same time due to the energy crisis of the 1970s buildings had become far better insulated whilst also including far more synthetic chemicals in their construction.  Think of benzene in plastics and rubbers, formaldehyde in particle board just to name a couple of nasties which lead to disease, asthma and even cancer.

Importantly, energy efficiency is a hot topic these days and if anything we’ve increased the amount of chemicals in our homes as we choose materials made of synthetic over natural again and again.  The CSIRO currently estimates that this ‘sick building syndrome’ costs us around $12 billion annually!

The original investigator of the NASA report – B.C. Wolverton Ph.D. has gone on to publish and entire book on the subject, which I imagine is a little more readable than the original report and highly recommended if you want to know more.

BC Wolverton

So without further a due here are my top five plants for detoxing your home and supplying fresh oxygen!

Areca Palm (chrysalidocarpus lutescens)

A natural humidifier

areca palm

Golden Pothos or  Native Monstera (epipremnum arum)

Removes formaldehyde, benzene and xylene

golden pothos

 

Boston Fern (nephrolpis exaltata bostoniensis)

Most efficient at removing benzene and formaldehyde

BostonFern

Peace Lily (spathiphyllum)

Excellent at removing benzene

peace lily

Mother in Law’s tongue (sansevieria trifasciata)

Produces oxygen specifically at night time – great for bedrooms and small talk with the inlaws…

MotherinLawTongue

Tips for getting the most out of your indoor plants

  • Don’t overwater – you want to avoid encouraging mould forming in the extra humidity of pooling water etc.
  • Use a quality potting mix and slow release fertiliser
  • Wipe the leaves regularly to remove dust and indoor pollutants
  • Take the plant outside for half a day, once a month
  • Ventilate your house regularly for optimal indoor health for you and your plants
  • Check if plant is toxic if eaten by curious pets before purchasing

So while some things from the 1970s should be left behind (think matching his and hers jumpsuits) indoor plants are a great idea that should be embraced!

matching jumpsuits