Gymnastic bees, virgin fruit and the birds that ate spring

It’s the vernal equinox and out in the garden, the spring flowers are blooming.

It pleases me no end me to think that these little figlets are made up of hundreds of the most secretive of flowers, snuggled inside a hollow-ended stem.

As you can imagine, pollinating figs is an extreme sport.  It’s undertaken by the fig-wasp, which spends much of its 48 hours of life on a suicide mission for fig fertility.  The male wasps hatch, blind and wingless, gnaw their way to one of the as-yet-unborn females, mate with them (eww), chew them an escape tunnel (still not redeeming yourselves, guys) and then die without ever having experienced life outside their flowery prison.  The females emerge and flee, spreading pollen as they go, only to find and squeeze into a second syncope (the fig “fruit” to you and me) through a hole so tiny she rips her wings off in the process.  If she’s lucky she gets to lay her fertilised eggs amongst the miniscule flowers inside and promptly, you guessed it, dies.

It’s really quite a disturbing life-cycle.  It’s with some relief that I can say that my three fig trees – a White Adriatic, a White Genoa and a Brown Turkey – are, like most cultivated figs, sterile mutants.  That sounds bad, but it’s a walk in the park compared to the Gothic splatterfest of the caprifig’s lifecycle.

Figs are one of the very first plants to be cultivated by humans: they have been propagated by us since the Neolithic era, over eleven thousand years ago.  And the outcome of our long association with ficus carica is virgin birth.  Yep, that’s the meaning of parthenocarpy – the way that common cultivated figs produce fruit from female flowers unsullied by any male influence. Since their fruits are sterile, they rely on us to do the hard work of allowing them to reproduce. Bloody skivers.

Actually, humans are quite fond of producing such feckless fruits.  Bananas are a good example.  They’re sterile, thanks to their three sets of chromosones – just like those fast growing “triploid” Pacific Oysters I wrote about in my last post, reproducing thanks to genetically identical “daughters” and “granddaughters” that spring from the plant’s base.  Fig wasps and caprifigs have co-evolved – maybe in some weird cultural way, modern humans with their taste for large, fast growing and seedless fruit and our virgin orchards have done the same.

One way or another, people, myself included, seem to get a perverse kind of pleasure in frustrating plants’ attempts to have babies.

My broccoli, encircled by landcress that deals death to invading insects and safe inside the kids’ superannuated, net-enshrouded trampoline frame – has done really well this year.  Now the weather is warming up, however, it’s taking a real effort to thwart the reproductive desires of my brassicas.  Those tasty flower buds really really want to go the full distance and burst into bloom and it’s taking a serious commitment to broccoli-eating to cut them off at the pass.

I tried, but it’s too late for that for the rocket, the mizuna and the tatsoi – these spring flowers are in bloom, like it or not.

I’m happier about these vernal blooms: magnificently monochrome broad beans in all their line-print glory.

I was a bit worried about my broadies this year, incarcerated as they are beneath the chook dome, my first line of defence against the brush turkeys.  Would the pollinators be able to make it through the 1 cm square lattice of the dome’s aviary wire?  As I noodled around in the garden the other day I had my answer. A European bee hovered indecisively, making careful mental calculations or perhaps looking for a door handle.  Eventually, it seem to sigh and alighted briefly on a wire, adopting what can only be described as a pike position and plunging through for a perfect 10 entry.

It’s a bit early to say, but I think I can see a few tiny bean pods forming so I’m hoping that while I’ve been otherwise occupied we’ve been visited by other elite insect athletes up for the gymnastic challenge.

The local birds seem to be almost as ambivalent about the signs of spring as I am about my brassicas going to seed. The bowerbirds are doing their valiant best to rip all the buds off the liquidambar and the little wattlebirds have been paying excessive attention to the flowers on the chinese lantern.  They’re either defending them from insect attack or eating them – I’m not quite sure which.

I don’t think these red wattlebirds would be capable of doing any damage to the heavy duty flower of a gymea lily, even mob handed.  These monster blossoms are bird pollinated – the red colour scheme is a dead giveaway apparently.  I guess this is the honey eater equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Since you can roast and eat the roots and the young flower spikes it could even be supersized bush tucker for us humans too.

Enjoy the equinox: may all your spring flowers be excellent eating!

A dead-end trap crop

A “dead-end trap crop”: is it the germ of a new Dr Seuss tongue twister or a surplus insult from a John Cleese and Graham Chapman sketch?  Nope, it’s the my latest strategy for dealing with the beautiful but deeply irritating cabbage white butterfly.

I like to think of our choice of a garden on a steep, shady south west facing slope not so much a tragic error in garden planning but a deliberate strategy for replicating temperate conditions in a subtropical climate.  It wasn’t an inability to use a compass that led us here.  Absolutely not. Instead it was my cunning plan to produce home-grown raspberries.

This fantasy has been somewhat tempered by our brassica disappointments of recent years.

Radishes are considered to be idiot-proof and we’ve usually managed to get them to grow, if not to actually eat them.  I like the long-rooted daikons since there is a brief interregnum between germination and gnarly inedibility.  The daikon sits happily in the ground waiting for me to make sushi. If don’t get my act together in time, there’s always the lovely white flowers to look forward to.

This year’s bash at radishes hasn’t worked out quite so well, thanks to my innovative  (a.k.a. totally ineffective) strategy for keeping the chooks at bay – a mandala of brightly coloured children’s bicycle wheels.  Evidence, if you needed it, that (a) the Goddess doesn’t necessarily protect every vegetable sheltering in a life-enhancing spiral (b) chickens are definitely not supertasters.  In fact, apparently chickens only have about 300 taste buds, and they’re on the roof of their mouths, which may explain the chooks’ enthusiasm for eating polystyrene foam (“crack for chickens” as someone once put it on a backyard chicken forum).

I’m also a serial failure at growing brussel sprouts.  Perhaps they’re paying me back for all the bad-mouthing I gave them as a child.  I console myself with the thought that it’s a bit warm in Sydney for this member of the brassica family anyway. You need to start early – I’ve heard you need to have your seeds in by November if you want tidy looking mini-cabbages and not some kind of ad hoc freeform leafy thing.

I banged in some seedlings in autumn – I’m reserving judgement but at this stage I’m not optimistic.   The “bad hair day” of the plant pictured above may be a consequence of a close encounter with the repurposed wire drawer I was using to keep the bandicoots at bay.  Since the cure appears to be worse than the disease, and the bandicoot seems to share my childhood dislike of sprouts, I’m living on the edge and letting the brussels go commando. The wire drawer, along with a bisected fan-cover, is off to provide security and support to my newly planted swiss chard and salsify.  I’m hoping the look is more “frugal locavore’s organic garden” and less “disturbed hoarder’s junkyard” but I reckon it could go either way.

And now we turn to the Battle of the Bok Choi.

Over the years my passion for purple and anaemic lust for iron-rich veggies resulted in an epic struggle to produce a decent crop of my favourite asian green, Red Bok Choi.  Cabbage whites seem to share my enthusiasm.   Bok choi butterflies would seem a more apt (and alliterative) choice of name.

My first effort – a feeble attempt to conceal my pretties underneath the generous leaves of a (ultimately fruitless) zucchini –  underestimated the persistence and acute senses of your average crucifer-loving butterfly.  Interplanting with coriander was a break through.  In Sydney, you can harvest your coriander leaves for aroundabout ten minutes before your plant goes to seed.  Growing cilantro as a kitchen herb here is an essentially doomed enterprise.  That said, stinky old coriander leaves do seem to throw the insect pests right off their game.  There’s apparently a couple of genes that are implicated in some peoples’ deep distaste for cilantro – maybe that’s a part of the genome we share with bugs.

But this year’s lone self seeded bok choi is looking more perfect than last season’s coriander-defended efforts.  Is it the chilly weather? The location inside the repurposed chicken tractor/brush turkey and possum exclusion zone? or is it… (drumroll) the magic of the dead-end trap crop?

After my embittering exeriences with kale and marigolds, I’m a tiny bit skeptical about companion planting.  But given the cruel fate dished out to our broccoli by an evil alliance of brassica loving bugs and furry critters last year, I’d give anything a try to get a bit more broc to the table.

I’ve been growing land cress a while.  It was one of the few food crops I managed grow – in a polystyrene foam box parked by the outdoor dunny – in the concrete back court of my terrace house in the rainy British north-west, back in the day.  Here in Berowra, it flourished in a damp and shady patch next to the chook yard, giving us for two La Nina years an unending supply of the “house soup” – vicchysoise hotted up with landcress, jerusalem artichokes and zucchinis.  Flatulence-inducing but fabulous.  All in all, a great plant.

So when I heard that upland cress has the reputation as a Black Widow for a crucifer-loving insects I figured I’d give it another whirl.

Sacrificial or trap crops are tasty things used to distract bugs from your favoured plants.  Dead-end trap crops, on the other hand, lure insects away from the plants you want to protect and then kill them.  Land cress, it seems, contains the spicy-flavoured glucosinolates, prompting some moths to lay their eggs on its leaves where its caterpillars hatch, feast and die.  Gruesome but apparently effective.

The seeds I ordered from the ever-reliable Green Harvest were the familiar looking upland cress (Barbarea vernis).  Unfortunately, the variety of land cress (sometimes called winter cress or yellow rocket) that’s been been tested as a dead-end trap crop is  Barbarea vulgaris, a related, taller plant with similar yellow flowers but a less rounded leaf.

Barbarea vulgaris is resistant to another pestthe diamond back moth – which produces a smaller caterpillar that’s also a lover of brassicas (to identify whether you’ve got got a diamond-back larvae, give the grub a bit of a nudge – it will give a bit of a wiggle backwards.  But hopefully not leap up and punch you in the eye.)  It’s a bit less clear about whether winter cress is quite so deadly to cabbage whites.  And then there’s the vexed question of whether the landcress in my garden – barbarea vernis – does the same job.

But it’s all going swimmingly so far.  My land cress is unchewed, and my the kids have already turned their noses up at a couple of meals of home-grown broccoli.  I’m sure they’ll be pleased to find there’s loads more to come, not to mention heaping platefuls of mustard greens, land cress, kale and (with luck) brussel sprouts.

And so the time honoured tradition of intergenerational brassica torture continues…

Rooted?

I’m the sort of person who always has a plan F.  While it doesn’t represent my three previous failed attempts or the well-raked but now choko-free planting site, the following gallery of photos showing my recent efforts to grow a choko vine on my back fence, gives a hint why.

You might ask “Why the mirror? Do chokos favour selfies? Are they the body builders of the plant world, only able to bulk up while constantly checking their form?”.  A good question.  You might also ask “Why try to grow the choko in the first place, the vegetable equivalent of the Milk Arrowroot biscuit, a food you will only eat when the pantry is otherwise bare?” but let’s not go there now.

My garden gleams with reflected light in hopes that a sudden glimpse of a rival will put the wind up your peckish but flighty brush turkey and make him head for the hills.  I fell for this urban myth, and heavy rubbish day presented any number of opportunities to add a sparkle to my vegetable beds.

While a looking glass in the okra patch is aesthetically pleasing, the sad end to to my months of steadfast efforts to grow a choko vine suggests that mirrors may fall into the same category as companion planting – a charming idea lightly resting on a flimsy foundation of optimism and anecdotal evidence.

So I have undertaken my mission of establishing a sweet potato patch with a certain sense of doom. Yes, it is true that with absolutely no attention from me, over summer last year some long-neglected tuber produced a morass of sweet potato vines so resilient that it became my 2014 nominee for “plant most likely to survive the zombie apocalypse“.

But that was then and this is now.  Yesterday I saw not one, not two, but four baby brush turkeys in the yard during one 10 minute period.  If the undead favour brush turkey brains, the zombie apocalypse is starting to seem like a more and more appealing prospect.

There’s a hint of Hammer Horror about sweet potato slips, enhanced, I think, by the monster themed birthday candles I used to keep the tubers suspended in glasses of water.  Yet surprisingly, in the months of watchful waiting, there was only one horror movie moment.  A classic: Empty-house-Terrifying-things-hidden-in-enclosed-spaces-Heart-in-Mouth – When Sweet Potato Tubers Go Bad. There was a potential splatter event as I emptied the gut-churning water into the sink.  But fortunately, there were survivors.

So, time to plant out the sweet potato slips.  Needless to say, I won’t be  relying on Alice nipping through the looking glass to rescue my sweet potatoes.

Instead, I’m pinning my hopes on a trampoline. It has been a much loved trampoline.  But when you find lichen growing on on your backyard play equipment it’s often a sign that it’s time for it to move on to the next phase of its lifecycle.  In this case, in the fiscally constrained post-Christmas period, as low-rent vegetable exclusion netting.

Yes, that does mean that the kids can no longer leap and bound with gay abandon knowing that the nets around the tramp will catch them.  They now have the “tough love” type of trampoline we had in the 70s and 80s where the threat of a broken leg or fractured spine was ever-present.  But sometimes it comes down to a choice between securing the future of your offspring and your root vegetables.

So yesterday, in the foggy early morning, I set out to the bottom of the garden with everything prepared.  Commemorative real ale glass full of rooted sweet potato slips.  Length of lichen-encrusted trampoline netting.  Bucket full of broken terracotta pots, previously used to secure a now-partially composted Christmas tree.  And hope.  And back in the kitchen, a whole bunch of extra sweet potato slips.  Because when hope fades, there’s always Plan F.

Superfood of the Undead

In the light of the Berowra Potato Famine of 2014, I am grateful that the obituary I gave for the kale some months ago was premature.

People may say they grow kale because of its alleged status as a superfood, but I know the truth.  People grow it because it’s impossible to kill.  Attacked by aphids, gone to seed, garrotted daily by the garden hose, baked in the hottest spring on record and scarified on a regular basis by the vicious claws of visiting brush turkeys –  after all that, my kale plants have felt the need for a little lie down.

However, having risen from the grave once, they won’t just won’t lay down and die.  Those leaves keep right on coming, whatever I throw at them.  Not great big fancy leaves, good for stuffing with, say, quinoa and chick peas. More the slightly stunted, hard living leaves you might expect to be produced by the once-definitive vegetable of a country famous for its disdain for vegetables.  In dark and gloomy pre-industrial Scotland, kale was such a staple that the veggie patch was called a “kailyard”. and by extension, the evening meal, “kail”.   Any green that can crush the neep in the death-match for vegetable supremacy on the Scots dinner plate is not to be trifled with (boom boom).

In the light of this backstory, I’m starting to wonder about the untimely demise of my tatties.  The flea beetles are in the frame for the execution of my potatoes, but all the while, the kale lay nearby… unnoticed… waiting… Could it be that my zombie kale has vengefully fed on the life-spirit of the blighted potato, colonial pretender to the Scottish vegetable crown?

Flowers of the Frozen North

Something new in the garden today: hazelnut flowers.  Our filberts have been in for about three years, and have produced a few catkins, but I’ve never seen these before.  They are very very tiny, though, so maybe they were there last year and I never noticed.

The miniscule red blooms are all on one tree – Ennis, “preferred variety for all markets”, Daleys boldly asserts.  Lucky Ennis.   “Hall’s Giant” sounds so much more magically productive but it’s mainly a pollinator, dangling those catkins.

Will we get some nuts this year?  It seems unlikely.  The raspberries, our little Stella cherry, three neglected high-chill apples, the Hayward kiwis, and the hazelnuts, all planted with foolish optimism. Okay, Sydney is subtropical and all these plants require a hundred plus chilling hours … that’s a hundred or maybe a hundred and fifty hours below 7 degrees C while in Sydney’s chilliest month, July, the average minimum is 8.1 degrees…. but we are at 200 metres elevation!  maybe we’re in a frost pocket! What about those chilly south-westerlies?

Our mighty leader, Anthony Abbott MP, confidently claims that “climate change is crap” so perhaps we are, as my hirsute medallion-wearing neighbour asserts, heading towards a Snowball Earth scenario: the Pacific Highway to Hornsby will be lined with snowpoles  and we will be skating, not taking the ferry, across Berowra Creek.  All my eccentric plant selections will be vindicated.

While I’m waiting for a glacier to form in the Sydney Basin, or at the very least for a small crop of hazelnuts, at the bottom of the garden the winter veggies are flowering.

The daikon is too tough to eat now, but the flowers are lovely and I’m planning to save the seeds.  The winter’s chinese greens are also in bloom.  The leaves are getting smaller, stringier and slightly bitter though I’ve still been picking them.  I’ve got a feeling these may be the mutant offspring of my favourite – red bok choi, an F1 hybrid.

The process of creating the F1s is like something from “Game of Thrones” – ten generations of in-breeding to produce a pure-blooded weaking, that is then matched with an inbred of a different tribe, to produce children with renewed vigour, sharing little with their spindly parents. These muscular cross-breeds are frustratingly incapable of passing on their all-conquering qualities to the next generation (an appropriately Machiavellian outcome that keeps gardeners in the thrall of the Plant Wizards of Monsanto). It’s kind of cool to save the seeds of the F1 hybrids not just to give the multinationals a crinkly mouth but also to see what sport comes up in the next generation.  And the next.  Who knows, perhaps eventually some robust throwback will thrive in the endless Winter?

Bok choi flowers