Poor lost souls

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There’s new sound in the garden just now.  A plaintive relentless cheeping.  But not the tiny piping tones of a naked, newly hatched chick.  No, it’s the muscular alto plea of the ginormous eastern koel chick to its diminutive red wattle bird parent.

And the wattlebirds are desperate.  I eyeballed the juvenile koel, lounging comfortably high in the canopy. Meanwhile its parent wheeled and fluttered in frenzied manner, perching here and pecking there, apparently driven to madness by the insatiable appetite of its parasitic offspring.

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No sooner was the mega-chick fed than it returned to its incessant harping, as if unloved and cruelly abandoned.

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As I crashed around trying to get a clear shot of the elusive ear-splitting koel, I saw, at the top of the very same tree, something I’d never seen here before, something genuinely sad and alone.

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A flying fox all by itself, a good twenty kilometres from the nearest bat camp way down the Pacific Highway at Gordon.

Flying foxes are very mobile, travelling up to 120 kilometres a night to feed.  We often hear them around our place on summer evenings, squealing and hurling fruit around.  During the year they migrate long distances following the peripatetic flowering seasons of eucalypts, melaleucas and rainforest trees, pollinating as they go.  Just like giant warm blooded bees, they carry pollen on their fur from one fragment of forest to another.  Flying foxes have been tracked moving as far as two thousand kilometres over the course of nine months and bat encampments have been described as more like railway stations or youth hostels than places of permanent residence.

But mega bats are sociable creatures and finding one on its own in the daytime like this is not a good sign.  I realised later I should have called the local WIRES group so someone with more expertise and a better head for heights than me could shin up its extremely tall tree to check it wasn’t injured by any of the usual suspects – barbed wire, open weave fruit netting or a dog bite.  But by the time I worked that out, it was the next morning, and the bat was gone – back to its digs in the local “Batpackers”, I hope.

I know some people feel about flying foxes the way I do about brush turkeys.  If you’re a fruit grower in NSW it is still possible to get a licence to shoot them to protect your orchards, although the mega bats actually prefer pollen and nectar as a food source – and  tightly secured, finely woven netting (one you can’t poke a finger through) protects crops better than a shotgun anyway.  In my backyard, the bats would be at the back of a very long queue for the ripe fruit anyway.  Ahead of me, of course, but behind the cockies and the possums for sure.

Deforestation means that there’s more conflict between flying foxes and humans these days, as the bats move into  the leafy suburbs where the fruiting and flowering plants are diverse and well watered.  They’re chatty critters with some “interesting” habits – urinating on themselves and then fanning their wings to cool down for one – which some people living nearby can find a hard to take (not to mention a couple of rare but deadly bat-borne diseases).

But the visibility of flying foxes in east coast Australian cities conceals the fact that (unlike brush turkeys) their numbers are in major decline.  One article suggests that at current rates, the grey headed flying fox, the type I found in my backyard, will be extinct by 2070.

The mega bats are particularly susceptible to high temperatures.  They start to “melt from the inside” in the words of a scientist, at just about the same temperature that is unsupportable for stingless bees, 43 degrees C.  A couple of years ago in Queensland,  45,000 megabats, mostly the tropical black flying fox, died in one day during a heat wave.  But high temperatures may just be the final straw when bats are short of food anyway.

Over the last couple of weeks, there have been scores of baby grey-headed bats found dead in parks along the east coast.  Both habitat loss and the aftermath of an El Nino, according to researcher Peggy Eby, have led to a food shortage.

“The mothers are going through a difficult nutritional phase, and they’re reducing the amount of milk they’re producing and the young starve.  They hang on to the females for the first several weeks of life, when she flies from the roost at night, and they simply would lose the strength that they need to hold on.”

I’m not sure why this stray found its way to our yard.  I hope it wasn’t injured here.  We don’t have a dog or barbed wire and we use veggie nets to keeps the bowerbirds and the brush turkeys off the fig trees (or if we’re feeling cheap, old trampoline netting from the side of the road).  But we still haven’t raised the cash to chop down the nasty cocos palm that is so appealing and yet so dangerous to flying foxes.

I hope the neighbours’ pool gave was a spot for a cooling bellydip and the jungle at the bottom of the yard gave it somewhere to recoup, recalibrate its GPS and get ready to head back to its pals at base camp.  Lovely as it was to have the chance to take his photo, I hope we hear him but don’t see him again.

Beekeeping without pain

“Do you still want that hive of stingless bees?”

Are there people out there who say no to the offer of a thousand tiny flying pets?  Perhaps there are, but I’m not one of them.

So when my marvellous friend Laura decided to divide her hive of native bees – Tetragonula carbonaria, the variety of Australia’s 11 species of stingless bees most commonly kept in backyards – I was certainly not going to look a gift bee in the mouth.  Even if I was able to inspect the teeny mouths of these diminutive 4mm long critters.

Laura was able to share the joy because about every 18 months a healthy hive of these highly social bees doubles in size and can be divided to create a new colony. There’s no worries about finding a queen for each of the two new hives.  European honey bee queens sting their rivals to death, but in a charmingly democratic process, the queen for the new colony of native stingless bees is selected by the workers from the emerging virgin queenlets hanging around waiting for their moment. This thought pleases me almost as much as the factoid acquired from my new bible, Tim Heard’s (2016) The Australian Native Bee Book, that bees are kind of like wasps that evolved to become vegetarians. My new pets are a vego workers’ collective.

Splitting hives is how Kuring-gai Council’s WildThings bee programme (that, via Laura’s benificence, has made us beekeepers) has distributed 900 hives around NSW.  And it’s how the number of meliponists – the appealingly pretentious name for keepers of stingless bees – tripled between 1998 and 2010.  Carbonaria are opportunistic snackers and seem to like it in the suburbs, with their mishmash of local and introduced flowering plants.

There are around 1600 types of native bee in Australia.  We’ve put up a lovely poster by Gina Cranson of some of the locals on our back door to try to improve our bee-spotting skills.  But of the highly social Australian stingless bees T.Carbonaria is the one that copes best with a temperate climate, with a range that extends from the Daintree to the NSW South Coast.

Here in Sydney it’s getting on the chilly side for them, so we won’t be able to harvest sugarbag from our hive.  Our bees will need the pots of honey they stash around the beautiful and distinctive spiral shaped brood comb, along with their surprisingly large reserve of pollen, to make it through the cooler months.  Stingless bees produce a lot less  than European bees anyway – a kilo or so a year, compared to up to up to 75 kilos – although sugarbag is apparently delicious.

We can’t steal sweet treats from them, but our tiny pets won’t be idle.  Native bees don’t seem to be vulnerable to varroa virus, the nasty bug threatening bee health the world over that may spread to Australia any day now.  So I can be sure that my mango, macadamia and avocado trees will have pollinators in the eventuality of a bee-pocolypse… assuming I don’t succeed in killing the trees (or the bees) first.  Happily, however, given my patchy track record as a farmer, our new friends will happily roam up to 500 metres away, well beyond our wonky fence line in search of tucker.

You don’t have to walk bees, desex them, groom them, clip their nails or pick up their poo (although in winter the “house bees” can’t be bothered carrying the dunny can too far from the nest, so if you choose to keep stingless bees on your verandah and you are the sort of person who is troubled by piles of barely visible dung you might need to invest in a nano pooper scooper).  But of course, despite that, I have managed to find something to worry about.

Stingless bees don’t like spells of frosty weather or very very hot days.  If it’s over 42 degrees inside the hive the whole damn lot of them can die.  So I was a bit antsy when Sydney had a couple of sizzlers in our first week as bee keepers.  The spot we’ve picked out for them is shaded by vines and protected from the afternoon sun, as well as catching the morning rays in winter time.  And our hive is wrapped in a polystyrene cover to insulate the colony against temperature extremes.  Once we’ve had them for a year or two we might take Laura’s approach: “tough love”.  But because we don’t really want to execute our bees (to be referred to collectively, the kids have decided, as Bob) before we even get to know them, this time we rigged up a bit of extra shelter and some evaporative airconditioning.

The only trouble with polystyrene is, as all chicken keepers know, it’s like crack to birds.  They don’t have too many taste buds and for some reason they can’t get enough of that squeaky mouth feel.  The gaggle of teenaged brush turkeys that loiter in our backyard hoping for leftovers from the chooks obviously decided that bees with a side-order of synthetic aromatic polymer would make a refreshing after-dinner snack.

Maybe I’ll come to regret the peace loving nature of the vegan commune in the backyard.

The first winds of autumn

It’s been a dispiriting harvest.  No zucchinis.  Not one microvegetable.  I managed to get the plants to grow, thanks to divine intervention – well, an arresting children’s painting of Cyclops on my cardboard sheet mulch.  Not to mention, those secular forms of protection: chicken wire, veggie netting and steel reinforcing wire – in fact everything short of kevlar, plexiglass and concrete.  So my zucchini plants survived, but perhaps traumatised by their oppressive high-security environment, they steadfastly refused to reproduce.

I remember my allotment-owning pal Mary’s desperate missions to dispose of her harvest of marrows: abandoning big bags of courgettes on her friends’ front steps at the crack of dawn and legging it before her mates, undoubtedly already in possession of a fridge bursting with zucchini, could refuse.  Websites and blogs abound with strategies for hiding surplus zucchini from disgruntled family members in breads, slices, chutneys, muffins.  Whereas I can only fantasise about concealing pulverised marrows in my children’s ice cream.

Everyone else’s garden seems to have rampant marrows as eager to breed as randy rabbits, whereas I have somehow I have managed to create zucchini plants with the delicate sensibilities of the giant panda.

After the trauma of the zucchini experience (not to mention the underperforming watermelons, the disappearing peaches and the epic potato fail) I am considering giving up on planting altogether.  Instead I think maybe I’ll just edit the plants that arrive under their own steam.  Feral gardening.

For instance, I’ve recent realised the the garden is awash with purslane, an edible weed with a whole lot of omega 3 fatty acids.  Flavour wise, it doesn’t rock my world but since the brush turkeys and possums seem feel the same, I may have to work up an interest. I’m still still waiting for the sweet potato vines to hit their stride so I can make free (or more precisely, make stir fry) with their new growth and my warrigal greens have once again been murmalised by something with a sharp eye for bush tucker, so even with the fair success of “lettuce under a draining rack” strategy, the salad bowl is currently a bit bare.

Along similar lines, I’ve finally reconciled myself to the self-sown jerusalem artichokes.

Don’t get me wrong, I love jerusalems with a mad, colon-exploding passion, and I’ve tried to grow them in many locations around the yard.  They are almost unkillable.  Eight foot high plants don’t normally take to container gardening, but back in my expat days I got a decent crop out of a modest sized pot under grey British skies.

Given their invasive qualities – leave just one small tuber in the ground and next year’s crop is sorted – my first plan was to grow them in places where little else would thrive.  I set up a kind of slow motion, plant-based reality TV show: The Great Australian Weed Off. Running bamboo, gigantic grass grass that grows through concrete, versus Jerusalem artichoke, towering beauty that sneers at weaklings who need full sun, regular watering or fertile soil.  Which would survive on a permanently shaded rubble filled slope subject to occasional flash flooding?  I had faith in my sun chokes, but given the number of critters that range this place cruising for food, the bamboo’s quotient of deadly cyanide seemed to be its ace in the hole.  My artichokes disappeared without a trace.

So when some artichokes popped up on the northern edge of the veggie garden, springing from a few peelings I threw to the chickens when the chook tractor was in that neck of the woods, I was not so much delighted as resigned.  My dream permaculture garden would probably not include gargatuan invasive plants blocking the autumnal sunlight.  But after a decade of watching fastidiously planned planting schemes going to hell, my gardener’s hubris is slowly waning.  Who am I, an organism entirely lacking in chlorophyll, to decide what grows where?

So the jerusalem artichokes have been left to tower over their neighbours, and it seems like it’s been a good year.  The plants have put on great show, looking exactly like the cousins of the sunflower that they are.  I’m too impatient to wait for them to die back before I start harvesting, so last weekend, I burrowed around to get the first couple of tubers of the season for a gourmet touch in my potato dauphin.

Since they’re so danged delicious, why harvest so few?  It’s not that I’m worried that pinching more tubers will kill off the floral display or thin out the harvest.  It takes a lot more brutality than that to cramp the style of a jerusalem artichoke.  It’s the flatulent dinner guests that trouble me.  There’s no getting around it: jerusalem artichokes will make you fart.  And as a longstanding vegetarian I should know.  Baked beans have nothing on it.

Jerusalems (like the completely unrelated globe artichokes) contain a sugar polymer called inulin, which is totally undigestible, making it high in fibre, a handy sweetener for diabetics and a probiotic which feeds the bacteria in your greater intestine.  Sounds great, doesn’t it?  In the thrall of this glowing nutritional report card, Mother Jones recommends using jerusalems, with its high fibre, high iron, high calorie payload  as a substitute for potatoes.  A huge bowl of mashed jerusalems – my idea of heaven!  But best not consumed before, say, a graduation ceremony, a silent Buddhist retreat or a solo piccolo performance in the Sydney Opera House, since when those friendly bacteria consume inulin they produce enough gas for a live re-enactment of the Hindenberg Disaster.

I love this vegetable so much I’m not willing to give it up.  My other half has worked this out, and now inspects any autumn stew with deep suspicion.  I’ve heard rumours about ways of deflating artichokesslow cooking, long keeping and pickling.  I’m not convinced by any of these.  In my experience, slowly and gently does it: a diced tuber in a vichyssoise, a handful roasted in the oven, one or two thinly sliced in a stir fry.

And make sure the next day is spent outside, in the fresh air of the garden. Or in the company of artichoke loving friends.

Jailbreak!

Cucumbers will go to desperate lengths to flee an attack-flock of brush turkeys, eh?

So is it better to die fighting than live in chains?  I’m not sure where my zucchini would stand on this one.

I’ve managed to keep the plants alive under an ancient perforated veggie net, held up by a rusty drum stand and contorted steel reinforcing wire.  Shyla the Australorp sneaks through to lay the odd egg but so far the brush turkeys haven’t spotted an entry-point.  Which is lucky, because if they made it in, there’s no way they would ever find their way out again.  I’d arrive in the garden one morning to find a turkey skeleton splayed out underneath the enormous hole these leaves are bursting through.

The bees don’t seem to have found the great big holes in the netting either.  Or perhaps the local pollinators suffer from claustrophobia.  I’ve seen loads of male flowers but the little golden zucchinis just seem to wither on the vine.  I’m trying to figure out if it’s (a) the plant aborting seedless, non-fertilised fruit (b) blossom end rot, thanks to insufficient calcium (c) rampant powdery mildew, caused by constrained circumstances (d) despair induced by a life Inside or (e) all of the above.

It hasn’t been a good year for jam making, either.  Here’s the breba crop which was looking so lovely mid-winter. Not really worth setting aside a day in the kitchen for preserving this one.  On the right, “dried figs”, but not as we know them.  A few hot days saved me the cost of a dehydrator, but I’m not sure gastronomy is the winner here.

And a sad discovery this morning –  the lone survivor of my bumper crop of coyly fleshy persimmon flowers ripened, unattended, and was demolished overnight, probably by a young possum taking a leisurely midnight stroll from his summer house above the air conditioner in the granny flat.  Only a few days back I was thinking if might be time to wrap the precious persimmon in one of the net exclusion bags sitting neatly folded on the bench in the toolshed.

Zero tolerance, it seems, is the only solution.  Imprisoning the chickens is mean,  imprisoning the possums and the brush turkeys illegal.  Whereas imprisoning vegetables, pollination issues aside, seems to work quite well.

Small scale vegetable prisons seem to do the business for seedlings and your slender or ground hugging plants, but now I have the frame of an aged trampoline at my disposal, I’m thinking big. And I’ve started looking at the superannuated chook tractor with a new eye.

Yes, it has traditionally been Andy Ninja’s lofty sleeping quarters, but with a bit of dusting off, what a fine brush turkey exclusion zone it would make.  Perhaps, Andy, it’s time you reconsidered the virtues of Palm Beach, the vernacular modernist architectural masterpiece I painstakingly made you and your feathered friends a year ago, now sadly abandoned by every damn chicken in the flock.  Even the brush turkeys don’t try to sleep there.

Now there’s an idea: if the new improved carceral complex with its walk-in prisons doesn’t protect my veggies from assaults by poultry, maybe I should start planting them in the chook house.

An unhappy threesome

The threesome in the bottom of the garden is just not working out well, or not for my lonesome lady kiwiberry anyway.

Most kiwi fruit are dioecious – to produce fruit you need both male and female plants.  Commercial producers have maybe one staminate pollinator to eight fruit-bearing pistillate plants. In our garden, there isn’t enough space for such large scale polygamy.  All in all, the plant sex around here is playing into the hands of the social conservatives.

The couply-couply Sweetie kiwifruits in the “solar pergola” have done their baby-making (with a little bit of help from me).  Inspired by their example, the Mt Tomah Red kiwiberry is now in bloom.  But it’s just not happening for Hairy Hayward, her pollinator (or his lovely vigorous and hairy wife).  It takes chillier weather to get their blood up, I reckon.

I’m not quite sure what should happen next.  Mr Sweetie has done his dash fertilisation-wise this year.  I have no shame – I am willing to act like a bee and transport the good stuff around the garden but I’ve gotta have something to work with.  Perhaps internet dating is the way to go: “Would like to meet: generous pollen-laden male kiwifruit.  A love of warm weather essential.  Variety and nectar-production unimportant. Must be willing to reproduce immediately.  No time-wasters please”

She may not have a fully functioning pollinator, but Mt Tomah Red does have a new BFF.  A teenaged possum has snuck into the marsupial sunroom – between an old pane of glass above the barely used airconditioner and the boarded up window behind it.  I don’t think he realises it’s like the Big Brother house in there: he might feel like he’s having a secluded nap amongst the kiwi vines but in reality anyone hanging out the washing can look in and catch him snoring.  And if he’s hoping that Madam Tomah Red is going to provide him with a sequence of midnight snacks, he’s mistaken there as well.

Sweets from my Sweetie

Big news from the solar pergola: Sweetie-boy, our blokey kiwifruit, is in bloom.  Still nada from the Hayward pair and Mt Tomah kiwiberry down at the bottom of the garden, but there are buds all over the low-chill Sweetie vines, lad and lass, after only two years in the ground.  Well done, boyo!

I’m really really really hoping we get fruit, but I’m not wildly optimistic, given how tricksy pollination can be for kiwis. According to the ever-authoritative North West Berry and Grape Information Network “kiwifruit flowers do not produce nectar and are relatively unattractive to bees”.  Potential pollinators won’t look twice at your unappealing chinese gooseberry flower if there’s anything else going.  I’m mystified – they look lovely to me.  But I’m starting to regret that lavender hedge.

New Zealand’s boffins are developing a RoboBee to help solve this problem (seriously!).  In the meantime, if your fella really isn’t up to the job, there’s always PollenPlus (TM), “from the world’s largest male kiwifruit pollen producer and supplier”.  Surely that’s a niche market.  And to get your big jar of pollen where it needs to go, why not purchase a PollenPlus motorised air blower with an electronic pollen dispenser?  Live the life of a giant mechanical insect!  You know, I really fancy that, though I think a bee costume would be mandatory to get the full effect.

Let’s be sensible.  Robotic pollinators are a bit rich for our blood.  I reckon I can stretch to assisting with a bit of  flower-on-flower frottage, though.  So come on, Sweetie-pie, show us those girlish blossoms and let’s get twirling!

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