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…

The Problem That Has No Name

Betty Friedan’s analysis of the psychological consequences of compulsory happy housewifery for  1950s middle-class American women may not cut much ice in the twenty-first century, when two incomes drum up barely enough cash to rent a cardboard box under a Sydney bridge.  But in recent weeks I’ve started to wonder if Her Indoors in the Henhouse may still, even in this day and age, struggle with The Problem That Has No Name.

Treasure has just spent several weeks in the nest box, trying to hatch baby Light Sussex chicks from golfballs.  At about 11 am every day the frustration seemed to overwhelm her and she would leap from the coop, galloping madly around the yard, finally throwing herself into the nearest patch of scarified earth for a frenzied roll about.  And then, after an orgiastic dirt bath, back to the nest for another thankless 23 hours of golfball-warming. After a month or so of this, she seems to have given it all up as a bad joke: she’s spending her nights with the other girls now, out on the edge of the fig tree barrel, in the rain.  But she’s emerged from her confinement looking disturbingly downtrodden and scabrous.

Just to ramp up the poultry-keeping anxiety, we’ve also had an egg strike.  Snowball occasionally pops out a pocket-sized effort which we have a slim chance of collecting, if we leap up the minute it’s been laid and leg it down the yard, hurling any object at hand at the awaiting brush turkeys.  But otherwise, nada.

We have had these health concerns before.  In the past our concerns about the wasting disease fatally undermining the chooks’ productivity has usually ended with a discovery like this:

After extensive searching of the spider-rich environs around the yard, a mother-lode of eggs has yet to be found, though  I have come to the conclusion that “exclusion netting” may be something of a misnomer.

Could an infestation of red mites explain Treasure’s sorry state and the recent lack of omelettes?  Oddly, Friedan’s account of housewives’ distress in The Feminine Mystique never references insects.

The henhouse has been duly scrubbed and even sprinkled with wormwood, allegedly a natural insecticide.  If it doesn’t kill off the annoying bugs, perhaps we can set up a still in the woodshed, chuck in the left-over wormwood and help the chooks drown their sorrows with absinthe.  What with the late Victorian bohemian vibe, I think chickens wasted on absinthe would have higher self-esteem than your hen zoned out on “mother’s little helpers“.

Not entirely persuaded that the beverage of choice of the nineteenth century Parisian art world would also do a good job with the modern mite, I also cracked out some evil commercial pesticide and gave the very indignant Treasure a good dusting.

In the spirit of equal opportunity ignorance, I’d been doing my best to avoid reading the manual or asking for direction.  Eventually I cracked and consulted other, wiser chicken enthusiasts.  Almost immediately I found out from Tim-the-Chicken that your broody light Sussex often sashays straight into the egg-free zone of the annual moult.

It’s The Problem That Has No Name no more. It has a name, and its name is moulting.

I’m not sure what insights I’ve offered into twentieth century women’s history here.   Can we read the rising popularity of the bikini in the the 60s and 70s as some kind of symbolic human female “moulting”? Will we see birth rates and valium consumption rise again with the increasing popularity of the retro one piece swim suit and the burquini?  Who can say.  I’m simply hoping, like a scary social conservative, that Treasure will come to her senses, cover up those naked bits, stop running around the town and get back into the henhouse.

Borage: a salad climax community

Once upon a time, in an autumn long long ago, the soggy spot between the chook yard and the custard apple tree looked like this: a jumble of useful greens – mizuna, tatsoi, bok choi, watercress, borage, rocket and giant purple mustard.

Mixed leaves edit

Some months later, thanks to a super-dry July, the chickens’ enthusiasm for salad and our squeamish wing clipping (as fellow chicken-blogger Julie Adolph notes, “chickens are not penguins“), this is mostly what the salad patch looks like:

Borage super closeup

Borage: it’s a survivor.  Apparently it’s an unfashionable term in ecological circles these days, but I reckon mustard leaves (“too spicy!”) and borage (“too furry!”) are the the climax community of our salad patch.

In theory, you can eat borage leaves – they taste like cucumber.  Very very hairy cucumber.  The flowers are gorgeous though: fab in a salad, especially thrown in with some fire-engine red nasturtium flowers and perhaps faded yellow (rather chewy)  blooms of aragula, or the tiny white floral clusters that sway around the garden when you let daikon radish go to seed.  The idea of freezing blue “starflowers” in ice cubes for fancy-pants drinks rather appeals to me too.

I suspect we will have more borage flowers in time for ice-clinking weather.  It self seeds very reliably, it seems, which troubles me a little, since we’re a hop skip and a jump from the edge of the bush.  Easy enough to pull out, though, and a bee-flower too.  There’s the usual unsubstantiated talk of companion planting – in this case with strawberries, which I imagine must look good at the very least.  I’ll keep an eye on it: it may have to be exiled, like lemon balm, that enjoyed our shady slope just a bit too much, or the eye-catching but definitely weedy red orach.  But for now, I’ll keep pleasing the bees.

Borage bee flower

Tropic Snow

First peach blossom closeup

The first peach blossom of spring winter: TropicSnow, a low chill variety.  It has produced Cezanne-worthy fruits from its second year here – but so far I haven’t beaten the critters to them.

This year! This year! Mesh exclusion bags!  Fruit fly traps!  Pheromones!  Chooks given the run of the pepino groundcover – dig, dig my sharp clawed friends! – on the condition that they utterly exterminate all fruit fly larvae.  I’m toying with installing a band of slippery plastic (or inedible metal?) around the base of the tree to at least give the possums and the rats a bit of a challenge (or some core body exercise?).  Tiger poo??  Whatever it takes!

Peaches apparently only live for a few years, and I simply refuse to have the damn thing die before I wrap my laughing-gear around some luscious sun-warmed home-grown fruit.

All-conquering kale and its frenemies

Good friends describe me as “herbal”.  I’ve been a lentil eater for 27 years and my shelves groan with organic gardening and vegetarian recipe books.  And I’m not averse to dabbling in a spot of ancient-learned-women’s-plant-knowedge-as-yet-unverified-by-modern-experimental-science.  But I have to say that companion planting has taken a body blow in our household in recent weeks.  Here’s why:

 Two kale plants, from the same punnet, planted less than a metre apart.  On your left, the kale that enjoyed the companionship of a cheerful red and orange flowered marigold, “Naughty Marietta”.  On your right, the kale out in the cold with no date  (though giant mustard, baby leeks and daikon radish are hanging around in a kind of unstructured way).

It turns out that the vague story I heard about marigolds, with their pungent foliage, as a nifty companion plant is true enough if you have a problem with nematodes, but dead wrong on the aphid front.  It seems that all-female parthenogenic parasites love the cheery flowers of marigolds even more than I do. But not enough to turn down the opportunity for a feast on a superfood.

In fact, I read recently that if you rub some vaseline on a yellow sticky label and stick it in amongst your veggies, the aphids will be lured in and get stuck on the lube so you can dispose of them thoughtfully.  But I’d advise you not to get too carried away with this approach, for a number of reasons: (a) if left long enough your post-it might attract aphids from further afield  (b) striding out back with a bundle of stationery in one hand and a tube of vaseline in the other will raise eyebrows amongst your neighbours and (c) the veracity of this story is no more guaranteed than the one about the marigolds and the aphids.

I’m not dissing the power of the herb entirely though.  It seems the smell of granny’s hanky does distract possums and bandicoots (and perhaps singing mice and super rats) from sniffing out newly sprouted peas and beans.  My broadies and sugar snaps are looking good under a vegenet liberally sprinkled with lavender flowers and leaves. I hold out hopes that this continue to work, significantly reassured by the fact that absolutely no one, as far as I know, recommends these as companion plants.

Night of the Living Mulch: cover crops for the zombie apocalypse

When the very existence of humanity is threatened, perhaps by catastrophic global warming, perhaps by an attack of brain-eating monsters, what is the first thing you think of? Yes, we’re on the same page: ensuring an adequate layer of mulch under your fruit trees.  Ideally something that not only retains moisture and maintains soil structure but offers a little something for the humans struggling with a post-industrial lifestyle nearby.  So, to address the needs of fellow survivalists in these difficult times, I offer a run down on chlorophyll-laden companions for such moments of adversity.

Strawberries.

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Chance of surviving: Good, given consistent moisture and morning sunlight.  After a couple of years in the ground, susceptible to a virus that makes the fruits look like hairy-faced Cousin It out of the Adams Family – greenish protrusions all over the fruit.  Still tastes okay, though: it doesn’t pay to be fussy after the zombie apocalypse.

Productivity: Theoretically, excellent. A delicate reminder of the luxuries of gentler times.  In reality, in my garden, nada: easy pickings for critters. Maybe netting would help.

Capacity to out-compete weeds: Could do better.  Needs extensive straw mulch or weed matting.  This is your pampered city no-nothing who is the first to bite it when weapons are drawn.

Pepino.

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Chance of surviving: Excellent.  Said to be short-lived but can reproduce by layering, so new plants take root wherever branches lay on the ground.  Tolerates partial shade well and copes well with periods of drought.

Productivity: Again, theoretically, impressive.  Produces peach-sized juicy, mildly sweet fruits tasting like a slightly insipid melon – good in a mixed fruit salad.  Flavour will be surely enhanced by the scarcities after the breakdown of civilisation.  Fruits early, within the first year or so.  Unfortunately, fruit tends to droop towards the ground where fruitarian zombies and/or rodents can easily nab them.

Aesthetic appeal: (the art galleries may be filled with mindless corpses, but the beautiful things in life are still important) High.  Gorgeous little white and purple striped flower with a contrasting yellow stigma.  The light apricot-coloured fruit is dappled with purple and the long leaves are an attractive greyish green.

Capacity to out-compete weeds. Not bad.  Plenty of leaves right down to the ground, even in shade.  Can’t entirely crowd out ehrharta or trad, though, and it’s a pain to weed around and through it.  Not for neat freaks.  But neat freaks probably won’t cope with the survivalist lifestyle too well, so not to worry.

Comfrey.

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Chance of surviving. Comfrey will be the last plant standing.  Deep tap roots enable it to access any water available.  Needs some sunlight but copes with very little in my garden.

Productivity. This is the permaculture mother lode: high nitrogen, high potassium, a dynamic accumulator of mineralsNo doubt there are herbal types who will profess it cures cancer.  You can’t eat it and your chooks probably shouldn’t eat too much of it either unless you want them to have liver failure, but it’s a fantastic compost activator and decomposes into a comfrey tea that’s an all purpose liquid fertiliser.

Aesthetic appeal: Enormous textured grey-green leaves and lovely delicate purple flowers.  Smells pleasantly of cucumbers when cut.

Capacity to out-compete weeds.  Comfrey is a weed.  Well, the non-sterile versions are: you are best getting your hands on the Bocking 14 sort which don’t produce seeds.  Spend some time in the underground bunker planning ahead before you plant this, since, a bit like Jerusalem artichokes, once it’s in it stays there.  Any tiny piece of root (or stem) in the ground will produce another plant.  You can tear off its leaves three or four times in a year and it will come right back. In fact, comfrey may well be the plant version of the undead.  The large leaves and capacity to grow when all around are wilting means it keeps most competitors down though trad seems to be able to find a way.  Dies down briefly in winter which gives the other nasties a go.  Since Sydney will no longer have a winter in the near future this may become less of a problem.

Sweet potato.

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Chance of surviving: Very good. In theory dies back in winter (but see above).  Regrows from tubers left in the ground in previous seasons.  Copes well with drier periods, though it does need quite a bit of sun.

Productivity.  In my garden hasn’t produced an astonishing number of tubers, but I haven’t taken it very seriously as a root crop.  That will obviously change when civilisation breaks down and there’s no longer a chip shop around the corner.  The new leaves and shoots are an excellent alternative to spinach or swiss chard, juicy and quite mild flavoured.  They are much nicer to eat raw than rainbow chard, for instance, and apparently are a favourite food in the Phillipines.  The leafy tips grow back quickly after being harvested.

Aesthetic appeal.  Gorgeous.  Some varieties have heart shaped leaves, others palmate.  The leaves are a deep glossy green with purplish new growth.  Related to the (weedy) morning glory vine, so you may get some very pretty flowers towards the end of summer.  Apparently there are ornamental varieties with near-black or lime green leaves, but the culinary varieties are nothing to sneeze at.  Note: there will be zero tolerance of ornamental plants after the zombie apocalypse.

Capacity to out-compete weeds.  Not bad at all.  The leaves are large and there are lots of them.  The vine is quite vigorous and, like pepino, sends out roots where it touches the ground.  With a little light supplementary weeding, my sweet potato seems to have kept things under control around the artichokes and the citrus pretty well.

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No advice here on weaponry or tips on an antidote for those snacked on by the undead, but we have covered the important issues.  Next week: hydroponics after the collapse of the West Antarctic Icesheet.

Autumn on Hawkesbury sandstone