Fried Green Tomatoes!

Fried Green Tomatoes

Fried Green tomatoes.7

This recipe has been inspired by a challenge reluctantly put forward by BayFM’s Karen Mason.  You see Kaz doesn’t like tomatoes.  She never has.  So I’ve stepped up to the crease and have accepted the challenge to create something containing tomatoes that Kaz can actually stomach.

Fried Green tomatoes_Kaz 1

I started off a little optimistically, by offering Kaz two home grown varieties; Green Zebra and Money Maker.  No sale on the Money Maker I’m afraid.  Just as well radio isn’t a visual medium, as there were some interesting facial expressions taking place in the studio.  While Green Zebra was received more warmly, there was still no way Ms Mason was going to make her way to the nursery any time soon to start growing her own.

Time to bring in the big guns – Southern American cuisine.  If anyone can make a vegetable tasty, it has to be the home of fried chicken ’n’ grits!

Fried Green Tomatoes

For this recipe I used Amish Paste tomatoes as they are a good size and are producing large quantities of fruit, hence I was happy to use a few ‘experimentally’.

Ingredients

4-5 green tomatoes sliced 5-8mm thick (1/4 inch)

I egg

Splash of milk

Oil for shallow frying

Plain flour

Polenta

Salt

Pepper

Method

It’s a pretty standard battering process, but anytime you’re using hot oil it pays to get everything ready before starting the cooking.  Another great tip I’ll tell you for free is that you should try to keep one hand clean and dry.

Start by slicing your tomatoes quite thickly – another reason to choose larger tomatoes in the first place. Discard the ends and any blemishes.

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Place your sliced tomatoes in a bowl of plain flour.  This removes the moisture and helps provide a good surface for the egg and milk mix to stick to.

Mix a splash of milk and one large egg with a fork until combined.  Dunk your floury tomatoes into this mix until coated.

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Next comes the ‘dredge’  This basically a seasoned flour mixed with polenta.  You can also use breadcrumbs instead of the polenta or a mix of both!  Season pretty heavily with salt and pepper – I probably used a good teaspoon of salt.

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Coat your tomatoes well with the dredge before popping small batches into hot oil.  I used olive oil as coconut oil is too damn expensive to use in bulk and I no longer keep any vegetable/seed oil in the house.

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Many recipes from the U.S. suggested ‘ranch dressing’ which I assume is a ketchup-sweet mayonnaise dressing – not swapping your clothes for a cowboy suit.

I was actually surprised to find them really tangy, refreshing and a great late summer dish – perfect for the impatient amongst us who can’t wait for their tomatoes to ripen…

Oh, and Kaz loved them!

Fried Green tomatoes_Kaz 2

Baring all this winter!

Deciduous fruit trees are at their most dormant stage right now.  This means they can be removed from the ground, bundled up and kept in moist saw dust by your local nursery.  But it’s a relatively small window we have to get planting.  After August you’ll notice buds starting to swell indicating the tree is out of its winter slumber and preparing for Spring (see below). This drastically increases the chances of transplant shock and is best avoided.

Bare rooted trees are relatively small and it’s easy to forget how big they may eventually grow.  Most fruit trees will get to around 4m x 4m by the time they’re 20 years old so if that doesn’t appeal check out if there’s a dwarf variety available.  Additionally you want to make sure you plan for the lateral (sideways) growth of the tree.  It’s often you’ll see a garden path made redundant because the once small fruit tree now has an established vase shape and threatens to bump the head of anyone passing nearby!  Of course you could just whip up an organic helmet…

Soil preparation and planting

I always dig holes for my new bare-rooted fruit trees a week or so before I plant them.  This allows me to see if the water will drain freely or whether there’s going to be an ongoing issue of root rot etc.  Simply fill your hole up with water and note how long it takes to drain.  If the water hasn’t subsided by a day then you can either mix in some gypsum with the soil or build up a hill above the original surface.   Gypsum won’t work on all clays (it’s not just adding sand, it actually causes a chemical reaction with certain clays that breaks them up) so it’s worth re-filling the hole with water again to check drainage.

Also worth noting that in recent years our increased rainfall means you have to be more mindful of drainage than 5 years ago.  Make your hole a little deeper than it has to be and about twice the width of the roots of your new tree.  You can tell the original depth the tree was planted at by the different colour on the trunk/stem i.e. the below surface stem will be darker.   DON”T PUT ANY FERTILISER IN THE HOLE!  Your tree has gone through quite a shock with a large amount of its fine roots removed.  The new root growth will not take kindly to any fertiliser so resist the temptation to give your new tree a thriving start by putting a shovel load of chook manure in the hole with it!   Wait until spring when you can apply some organic fertiliser on the surface and let it gradually reach the root zone.

As the roots have been trimmed in bare rooted trees, you need to take of about a third of the above ground growth to compensate.  This is fairly easy, although many nurseries will do this for you when they pack your trees.  Keep in mind the final tree shape you’re after as this first heavy prune will decide whether you keep a main central leader (pyramid) or promote the lateral growth (vase).

Avoid staking unless your tree is really exposed and simply don’t buy it if it doesn’t look robust!

Backyard Harvest’s Top Five bare rooted recommendations

Ultimately your tree choice comes down to personal fruit and nut preferences.   The five I’ve listed will fit in most compact urban yards and either pollinate themselves or rely on one of the others.  If you’re renting don’t forget you can also pop them in large pots.

Apricot (Moorpark)

Surely the king of stone fruits, most of us have fond memories of apricots you could smell before you could taste.  I grew up near Mildura where a massive apricot tree used to produce fruit by the bucket load every summer and gave me an early appreciation of home-grown fruit.  Moorpark is a variety not favoured by the commercial growers as it just doesn’t travel well.  It’s just too bloody succulent!  So it’s not just nostalgia that made the apricots of your childhood taste better – they were most likely a backyard cultivar that never made it anywhere near a supermarket.

Almond

Also known as the peach that’s gone a bit nutty, the almond is a great way to show your kids how nuts actually grow.  Make sure you ask for a self pollinating variety.

Apple #1 (dwarf Granny Smith)

You know there actually was a granny Smith.  About 130 years ago she threw a crate of rotting apples by a creek bed like magic some of the seeds germinated and morphed into the world’s best cooking apple.  Nice one Granny.

Apple #2 (dwarf Gala)

Like the dwarf Granny Smith, this Gala will grow to about 2.5m x 2.5m keeping the fruit within reach.  Of course if you’ve got the space go for a full sized ones as they are truly beautiful trees.

Peach (Elberta)

There’s few things that top picking a ripe peach straight from the tree and eating it.  Commercial peaches have to be picked way before they’re ripe so it’s rare to buy one that can go close to matching the home grown experience.

Fig (Black Genoa)

One of the most underrated fruits in Australia.  During the last drought I saw fig trees happily producing fruit using virtually no water while eucalypts a few blocks away turned up there toes and died.  Beautiful shade trees, great for kids to climb and why pay $40kg for organic figs when you can grow them in your backyard!

 

No Dig Gardening

No-dig gardening has been written about since the mid 1940’s.  I mean just take a look at Albert Guests’ “Gardening Without Digging” (below).  Kinda reminds me a little of myself, standing there in my double breasted suit, smoking a pipe while admiring my garden.

But is was wonderful Esther Dean, who took the concept to the mainstream in the 1970s with her book “No Dig Gardening”, which has sold over 100,000 copies to date.

More recently it’s been promoted as “A new layering system…” or Lasagne Gardening with Patricia Lanza’s book.

 

How to get started?

Firstly you’ll need to assemble some ingredients:

Materials for a border: Straw bales, timber, bricks.  NB: If you’re building a garden over concrete or bitumen you will need boarders at least 30cm high.

Newspaper or cardboard boxes.

Bales of hay- ideally lucerne but straw will do (pea straw is great)

Manure – chicken, cow, pig – I’m not a huge fan of horse manure as it tends to include more weeds.  Would be fine for a deeper bed.

Compost

Potting mix

Water

Step by Step

1. Place your newspaper and/or cardboard in a sturdy wheelbarrow  right where you’re working and fill with water.

2. Mark out the edge of your new garden with your border material

3. Take the now soaked newspaper and place down thickly (the tougher the grass/weeds, the thicker it needs to be)

4. Throw some veggie scraps over the newspaper to encourage worm activity

5. Place down a thick layer of straw (if the straw breaks off into ‘biscuits’ go one layer deep)  approximately 20cm

8. Water well

6. Cover with a good layer of manure – use the ‘hottest’ first e.g. chicken.  Again water well.

7. Cover with another straw layer and follow with with manure, watering between each layer.  Continue until you’ve reached the height of your border.

8. Finish with a final layer of pea straw or sugarcane mulch.

9. Pull aside holes in the top layer of mulch and put in a few handfuls of potting mix.

10. Plant directly into the potting mix and water well.

Here’s a time-lapse clip showing how it’s done.  Maybe turn the volume down though…

 

 

Important Tips!

If you’re planting directly over lawn, mow the law on a very low setting just before starting the newspaper layer

Make sure you remove plastic tape from any cardboard boxes and plastic wrap from magazines.  Staples are fine.

Don’t use waxed vegetable boxes as in most cases it will be a petroleum based wax.

Some permaculture books suggest using old clothing, jeans, bed linen etc. as a sheet mulch for the bottom layer.  In my experience this is no longer the best idea as many of these now contain polyester which won’t break down.

The more thoroughly you can water whilst building the no-dig bed, the less is will sink down afterwards.  It also helps to speed up the composition of all your ingredients.

No dig gardens are better suited to well established seedlings – not seeds or root vegetables.

Now get (no) digging!

Crop Rotation 101

Why bother?

When starting a kitchen garden, we focus a lot on plants and yields.  What do I like to eat?  What do I want to grow?  As time with dirt up your nails increases you tend to get more focused on the soil and its needs – then the plants take care of themselves.  Part of this acknowledgement is realising it’s actually a pretty amazing thing to grow such high nutrient food year after year in plain old ‘dirt’.  But it’s not all a oneway street.  Soil gets depleted of elements and especially the three majors: nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus.  We can work around this natural cycle though, by planting in tune with the soil’s fertility.  Additionally, by moving plant families around, you’re less likely to have problems with soil borne diseases and other pests.

We are family

To effectively use crop rotation we have to understand the different plant families.  Some of our veggies are fairly obviously related e.g. carrot and parsnip.  Some are less so…think potatoes and tomatoes or beetroot and spinach.

Here is a quick run down:

Onion Family (Alliaceae)

Garlic, Leeks, Onions, Shallots

Cabbage Family (Brassicaceae)

Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Kale, Kohlrabi, Mustard, Bok Choy and other asian greens, Radish, Swede and Turnips

Carrot Family (Apiaceae)

Carrot, Celeriac, Celery, Fennel, Dill, Parsley, Parsnip

Potato Family (Solanaceae)

Eggplant, Capsicum, Chillies, Potato, Tomato

Marrow Family (Curcubitaceae)

Cucumber, Zucchini, Melons, Pumpkin, Squash

Bean and Pea Family (Leguminosae/Fabaceae)

Alfalfa, Beans, Clover, Fenugreek, Lupin, Peas

Daisy Family (Compositae/Asteraceae)

Lettuce, Chicory, Endive, Jerusalem Artichoke, Salsify

Now we categorise our veggies according to the parts we eat (basically).

Legume

Bean and Pea Family

Root

Onion Family

Carrot Family

Leaf

Cabbage Family

Daisy Family

Fruit

Potato Family

Marrow Family

Let’s get started

Know we’re armed with all this knowledge we can start to plan our beds.  To start with a four-bed system is a good idea and if you don’t have separate garden beds you can simply divide a large patch into four.  It’s also a good idea to throw a little lime on the soil after the ‘fruit’ season as this will sweeten the soil for root crops.

 

  Season One Season Two Season Three Season Four
Bed One Peas or Beans Leaf Fruit Root
Bed Two Leaf Fruit Root Peas or Beans
Bed Three Root Peas or Beans Leaf Fruit
Bed Four Fruit Root Peas or Beans Leaf

Planning a kitchen garden

We certainly live in times where the perception is to achieve something you have to be moving at a furious pace; report writing, renovating and making sure you respond to friends’ Facebook comments within 15 seconds.  Even relaxation time has to be booked in and analysed: “is this yoga class really giving me spiritual enlightenment?”.

1) Observation

Anyway, give yourself an afternoon off on the next sunny day and get into that comfy chair to simply pay attention to what’s happening in your garden.

In only a few minutes, birds will start to ignore you and you can begin to note the following:

Which way is north, east, south and west?   (Free compass apps are available on most smart phones)

Where are the sunny and shady parts of the garden?

Note any breezes and the direction they’re coming from.  (You can also check for wind damaged trees e.g. missing foliage from strong/salty winds)

Bugs, bees, birds and butterflies.

Where are the eyesores or ugly views?

Take a wander and note dry or wet patches of soil.

Look for trees that may cast a shadow over areas or offer competition for water a nutrients.

Take note of the slope of the ground and where this will direct water during heavy rain.

Pay attention to the types of weeds that have grown over winter.  Tough, woody weeds usually mean poor soil.  Lush green leaves (that you’d probably eat if someone told you it was okay) are signs of fertile soil.

2) Elements

This is the fun bit and often where people start without the knowledge gained in step 1 – Observation.  Think about what you’d like; raised garden beds, a big patch for potatoes/pumpkins, compost heap, worm farm, fruit trees, chook house, asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries or other dedicated perennial bed/s, bee hives, herb patch, sensory garden, edible maze, berries, water tank, potting shed, green house – and the list goes on!  REALLY clever design is where you start to help these elements work together.  For example, including your chook run amongst your fruit trees fertilises the trees, minimises pests and provides shade for the chooks.  Your pumpkin patch may be down hill from your compost heap so its receives lots of nutrient rich run-off during wet weather.  Your potting area may look out over the rest of the yard or kids play area so you can safely garden while still keeping an eye on everything!

3) Right thing in the right place

This is where we use a Permaculture design technique called Zoning.  Basically it means thinking about how often you’ll use the above elements in your day to day living and placing them accordingly.  We start with Zone 1.  This is stuff you access every day such as herbs, picking greens such as lettuce and annual veggies.  You know, stuff you pick and cook or eat straight away.   If you’ve included a chook house, you’ll want part of your zone 1 to include a trip to fetch the eggs and check on your hen’s water and food.  You can see how this zoning exercise will influence your chook house design as wallowing through a muddy chook run to get eggs can soon lose its novelty!  Depending on your needs a clothes line may be a requirement in Zone 1 if you have a big (or young) family and need to hang washing daily.  Again your keen powers of observation from step 1 will let you know which north facing position will allow you to dry your clothes in the sun throughout the year.  I also have my worm farm in Zone 1 as it means food scraps are disposed with as conveniently as just throwing them in the bin.

Slightly less convenient is Zone 2 where you may include fruit trees, berry vines, a potting shed or greenhouse.  Other vegetable beds such as carrots, beetroot that need less TLC than heavy feeding lettuce etc. can be located in Zone 2. In an urban house block, you may have no further need any further zones and indeed a small courtyard or balcony will mean you only need Zone 1!

When designing larger properties the same logic follows with Zone 3 and 4 used for grazing, managed forests or woodlots, bees and other areas not visited every day.   Typically Zone 5 is ‘left for nature’ on large acreage although in an urban setting I often think of the rural land outside the suburbs as my Zone 5.

This idea of Zoning can be used in any from of design when aiming for maximum efficiency.  You can use it to design an office building, a house, a kitchen, and life in general!

4) Work to a timeline 

This is a really valuable step as it acknowledges that creating a kitchen garden isn’t like building a swimming pool, where you have a definite start and finish date.  As food gardeners we really do follow the seasons and that means for example that the time for planting bare root fruit trees has really passed.  Simply note it as a job to do in June/July next year and start working on the soil preparation now.  However now may be the best time to install a greenhouse as it will allow you to establish summer seedlings.  Chickens are often available at point-of-lay currently, so a chook house is another great spring activity.

If you prefer to plan on a laptop rather than paper check out here for a free 30 day trial of a garden planner…although I prefer to work on paper.

Approaching a kitchen garden design needn’t feel like project management.  However taking the time to think things through means you’re less likely to waste time and money, while increasing your chances of having an enormous backyard harvest!

Dealing with leaf curl so your summer’s nice and peachy

What is it.

Known as Taphrina deformans  leaf curl is a fungus that loves cold and wet conditions.  It also loves peach, almond and nectarine trees, where it likes to live during the winter months.  As the tree buds swell the fungus gets to work infecting the leaf cells.  This stimulates the leaves to grow larger than normal and often with a reddish tinge.  To be honest leaf curl affected leaves look pretty hideous, and anyone unfortunate enough to have seen or read  ‘The Day of the Triffids’ will no doubt think they’re experiencing just that.

What you can do about it. 

There are a number of sprays available – most of them being copper based.  Now this started out with some French peasants in the late 19th century who were getting very grumpy as passers by kept stealing their grapes.  Noting the vivid colour left on the vine leaves when sprayed with blue stone (copper sulphate) the peasants discovered no-one stole their prized fruit for fear of the blue poison!  Don’t you love it when two wrongs make a right.  An unexpected outcome of the new deterrent was a big reduction in fungal diseases and therefore an increase in yield.  Voila!  Bordeaux mixture was born and aptly named named after the city that now produces 700 million bottles of wine annually.

Making your own Bordeaux mixture

(Ingredients available at most hardware stores and nurseries)

Dissolve 100 gram of builders’ (hydrated) lime in half a standard (plastic) bucket of water. (About 5 litres).

Dissolve 100 grams copper sulphate (aka blue stone) in a separate half bucket of water.

Keep stirring the lime mixture to prevent it settling and pour it steadily into the half bucket of dissolved copper sulphate.

Add enough extra water to make up a total of 10 litres of the finished Bordeaux mixture.

It is at its most effective strength when freshly mixed so used immediately or within a couple of days. Using it straight away also means it’s less likely to clog spray nozzles etc.

If you’re not up for the above alchemy go for the following off-the-shelf least toxic ways to deal with leaf curl:

Old School

Lime Sulphur has been around for a long time hence is still favoured by organic operators.  As with the copper based sprays it will damage foliage so ensure the tree is dormant.

New School

Cupric Hydroxide has the advantage of being able to be sprayed after leaves are visible. You’ll see this marketed as a next generation copper spray that needs less copper to do the job.

They had me at “plasma technology”

Safety first for you, your trees and your soil

Only spray while the trees are dormant i.e. the buds haven’t burst and no leaves are visible.  Copper based sprays will burn leaves which really stresses out a tree that may already be fighting leaf curl so if it’s too late and spring has sprung just make a note to do earlier next year.

Spray to cover all the bare branches of peach, nectarine and almond trees.  You need to spray enough so it’s dripping (see pic below).  Wear old clothes and safety glasses plus gloves.  I did this once in black sneakers and they now have a blue speckled look…  If you choose one of the copper based spray options, be mindful that this is a heavy metal and will accumulate in the soil below your trees.  Over years this can add up so it pays to lay out some builders plastic/old curtains under the drip line to protect the ‘good’ fungi we want to encourage in your soil.

Don’t leave it for another week!  Get out there this weekend and make sure this you tube clip is the only curling going on at your place.

 

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…

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

Pruning Time

A common pattern you’ll see with all the productive plants humans have been poking around with for the last few thousand years is that they need us!  We’ve evolved these UBER productive plants by helping them perform to their peak.  So we prune for the following reasons:

– It keeps the tree size manageable and allows you to access the fruit.

– By clearing out the over crowded internal branches, you allow more light and airflow.  This means less disease and allows fruit access to more sunshine meaning it will ripen more quickly.

– When you reduce the amount of vegetation, you encourage you tree to produce larger and sweeter tasting fruit – perfect for home use.

Knowing what to chop

Not sure which branch to unleash your new loppers onto?  Try the five D’s:

Dead – no sign of life?  Get rid of it

Diseased – look a bit different to other branches, seeping gum, missing bark? Chop it!

Damaged – strong winds or lots of heavy fruit can break branches – remove these once you’ve harvested any fruit

Daggy – remove these branches if they look out of place and cross other branches, are too low to the ground etc.

Dark – by this I mean remove branches if they’re hidden in the middle of the tree and in summer are unlikely to see the light of day

Best times to prune

Speaking pretty generally here, but prune in Winter when you’re after more growth i.e. it’s a young tree and not yet the size you want.  Prune apples and pears early in winter and leave stone fruit until late winter.  Prune old trees before young ones.  Summer-prune trees that have reached the size you want.   Simply remove new vegetative growth.

Don’t cut off next year’s fruit!

A very important point to note is that you don’t chop off parts of your tree that are going to produce fruit!  Very few trees produce fruit on the CURRENT year’s growth.  So that means you need to leave some older laterals or branches on the tree.  You can tell the age of the wood by the colour and how close it is to the trunk.  Look for fat little flower buds on spurs (kind of little twigs of main branches) as these are signs where flowers will eventually become your fruit.  See the example below from an apple:

Tools of the trade

If you’re going to be doing your own pruning for at least a few seasons, then it’s worth investing in quality gear.  You pretty much get what you pay for, PLUS quality tools make pruning a lot simpler.  And unlike most things these days, quality garden tools will last and become something you can pass on to someone else one day.

Secateurs.  These are usually of the bypass type where the two blades pass each other.  Most models out there are a copy of the Swiss Made Felco brand.  I’m yet to hear a bad word about Felco’s products and they back everything up with spare parts etc.  Also it’s worth checking out Barnel from the USA.  Yes, there are still some old school quality manufacturers around so support them I say!

If you have trouble with arthritis or struggle to use normal secateurs, then you can get models to suit.  I purchased a set of these for my Dad and he’s been very pleased with them.  Fiskars are a Finnish company who like Felco make stuff to last.

Long handled pruners also often use a bypass cutting method or an anvil type – again choose a quality brand and you’ll never need another pair.  These will be good for branches up to 40mm across.  Larger branches can be taken care of with a pruning saw.  These are designed to get into small spaces and are available in hand-held and pole models for all heights.

Of course if you’re this guy – well just use your hand…