Experiments with kiwifruit

Thanks to exhaustive if faintly intrusive matchmaking with a ladder and a paintbrush back in October, we have a bumper crop in the kiwi arbor.

Four years ago the northern wall of the kitchen was occupied by a dank lean-to, usable only for turning your bike into the kind of rust-bucket that can be safely left overnight at train stations.  But we don’t need these kinds of amenities.  If you leave your bike unlocked outside the pub in Berowra, it might get taken by a drunk on his wobbly way home, but if it does, the bartender will recognise the miscreant on the CCTV footage and leave a friendly message on the guy’s answering machine to return it in the morning.  Even the pelotons of MAMILS leave their featherlight carbon-fibre bikes untethered at the end-of-ride coffee shop.

great sky near Berowra for crop

Blue skies over Berowa

So, with no need for a bespoke bicycle corroding zone, we replaced the corrugated iron over the frame of the lean-to with couple of precociously fruitful Sweetie kiwifruit vines, a low chill variety from Daleys Fruits in Maleny.  Last year we had a handful of fruit that the possums seemed enjoy.  If they’re planning to eat the whole crop this year they’d better be hungry.

I’m feigning disinterest in what happens to my kiwi harvest but let’s be real – the last few years have turned me from a lentil-eating hippie into an antipodean Mr McGregor, the pointlessly enraged gardener who would love to turn Peter Rabbit and his fluffy little brothers and sisters into a delicious warming casserole.

Don’t get me wrong, while I do covet the infinitely soft possum-fur jumpers that vengeful New Zealanders knit from our invasive marsupials, I’m not spending my nights under the kiwi trellis with a gun in my hand.  That said, the rugby-league style gum shield I wear overnight to stop me grinding my teeth to dust (expensive, but since it doubles as a contraceptive, probably good value) does date from about the time I started trying to grow fruit in the backyard.

No, I’m taking a less brutal and more scientific approach to harvest-management.  I have a control – the fruit I’m leaving untouched on the vine.  And I have two intervention groups – there’s the kiwis I’ve picked early, hard as furry brown rocks, and left to ripen in the fruitbowl, and then there’s the bunches I’ve put into protective custody in mesh exclusion bags.

I maintain a cautious optimism that I will get to eat at at least some ripe fruit.  This upbeat attitude has nothing to do with early success.  While commercial kiwifruit are usually picked unripe and can be kept on ice for two months or more, so far my early harvest has withered slightly but maintained a mouth puckering acidity, as evidenced by our school holiday Ph testing activity.

I can’t seem to kick the habit of growing red cabbages, despite the fact that no one in the house, myself included, really wants to eat them.  They’re just so pretty!

Purple cabbage leaves wide crop

Red cabbage abstract

So apart from feeding the leaves to the cabbage white butterflies that my 9 year old keeps in her bedroom as “pets”, what else can you do with leafy brassicas too chewy for coleslaw?  Well, you can boil them up and use the purple cooking water as a very cool litmus test.

There’s nothing kids like more than squeezing out half the toothpaste tube, making potions out of bicarb, tomato sauce and milk, or filling every single glass in the kitchen with disgusting viscous liquids.  We even ended up with a boys v girls Ph contest – boys obviously preferring alkaline household products, while as we all know, historically girls inevitably favour acids.  Including our long-cossetted kiwifruit, which turned our cabbage water a pleasing deep pink.

Litmus test from the side cropped

The results of the purple cabbage litmus tests

Early indications are the mesh exclusion bags aren’t doing much better than the fruit bowl in the protection and ripening caper. I can’t remember a pre-masticated fruit being present when I tied the bag around this bunch.  We seem to have a Houdini of the rodent world somewhere on the premises.  The outcome so far is not as dismal, at least, as 2014’s doomed attempt at protecting peaches.  The mammal and insect pests deployed a pincer movement – rats gnawing a hole in the bags and fruitflies pouring through to finish the job.

No, my optimism about getting to wrap my laughing gear around some home-grown kiwifruit sorbet is based on the barely nibbled fruit discarded the ground under the vines.  Whatever is chowing down on my crop just isn’t very keen.  Perhaps they have a sweet tooth.

How, I hear you ask, can you tell when to harvest your kiwifruit?  Well, apparently if you cut one open and the seeds have turned black it’s ready for harvest: its starches will turn slowly to sugar in storage. But there is a more scientific way.  Sugar solutions refract light, particularly polarised light, differently from your ordinary tap water. So your go-to-device for measuring sweetness (reported in Brix) is a refractometer.  The savvy kiwi farmer picks her fruit at a bit over 6 degrees Brix, it seems.  Let’s just hope the brush tailed possums can’t tell their pouches from their polarising light and the satin bowerbirds couldn’t track down a refractometer on ebay.

Let them eat light!

It’s persimmon season, but, natch, nothing doing on my little Nightingale tree, despite a grand show of weird naked-looking flowers in the spring.  Two fruits nearly made it to the finish line, but the possums got there first.

Gorgeous as the golden fruits are reputed to be as they hang on the leafless trees, 2016, I have decided, will be the year of picking green. The persimmons may well be mouth-puckeringly unripe but as human overlord of this place, I insist that it is I who will enjoy their high-tannin nastiness, and not some upstart marsupial.

In fact, my tree is an old fashioned astringent persimmon: the fruits need to be “bletted” to go super soft and sweet. This can happen far from fruitflies and other critters, deep in the pantry, in the comforting darkness of a paper bag, with only an ethylene-emitting banana for company.  I have days when crawling in next to the banana to be bletted myself sounds like a good gig.

In theory, me and my persimmons can hole out for a few weeks in an undisturbed corner and it should work out delectably for both of us.

But, really, I don’t care! Harvests mean nothing to me! A barren tree is a beautiful tree.

For now, it’s all about the komorebi, a Japanese word I encountered for the first time a few days ago in the marvellous nature blog, Mildly Extreme.

Because who needs food when you can have sunlight filtering through though autumn leaves?*

*Love those leaves… but thank god for the Freemont mandarins

Ecosystems of evil

Okay, I know there’s no such thing as evil ecosystems.  You create plenty, and things come.  Plenty of chicken food and regular eggs, you get nine teenaged brush turkeys, slouching around your backyard, eating anything that’s not nailed down.  Lots of grapes vines and your resident possums bite their way through the mesh exclusion bags and let in the fruit flies.  A yard littered with the sulphurous fermented droppings of a cocos palm (not to mention the ordure of those brush turkeys), you get loads and loads of flies.

I’ve had a red hot go at taking an aesthetic approach to the flies, with their sparkling metallic blue and golden armour and crazy eyes.  I’ve tried to think about them as simply part of the cycle of life, but I am starting to stare pointedly at my watch, waiting for the arrival of the cavalry, a wheeling flock of insectivorous SBBs (small brown birds) that will weave through the undergrowth and snatch the pests from the air without breaking formation.  I want one of those neat and tidy ecosystems, the ones where the annoying insects become a food source for endangered and good-looking avian visitors.

But no – desite my native shrubs and the absence of a horde of noisy miners, our place is rich in  bombastic generalists and SBBs are thin on the ground.  Your kookaburra – good for tidying up your left over sausages. Your cockies will make short work of the peach crop.  But both of them bloody useless at disposing of flies.  The garden skinks have been a disappointment as well.  Allegedly they are avid carnivores, and flies are a favourite treat, and we’ve got more Lampropholis guichenoti in the backyard than we have five cent pieces rattling around in the bottom of the washing machine.  But they, too, have failed to come to the party.  Once again, Gaia appears to be napping on the job.

While the Cocos palm absolutely and definitively a weed (I like the nuggets of invective in the Grow Me Instead Brochure – “a blot on the landscape” “can give the appearance of a garden planted with telegraph poles”) my hatred for this vermin-attracting plant was masked for a while by a sense of gratitude.  After all, it did save the house and possibly the family from being crushed under a giant gum tree.

I was at work one day when RB called.  “I don’t want to worry you but a tree’s just fallen on the house”.

The SES was summoned: a marvellous mob of guys and gals with chainsaws who belayed themselves to the wonky car port and swarmed over the roof of the house, making short if noisy work of the tree.  The big gum had lost its grip on the ground and fallen sideways towards our verandah.  Fortunately a forked branch wedged itself across the Queen palm, holding the eucalyptus suspended just a smidgen above the roof. The sum of the damage: one branch lightly brushed a gutter and gave it a bit of a bend.

So, thanks for that, Queen palm (and, needless to say, the SES. You are legends.).  We’re grateful for the structural integrity of our roofline.

But if you think it’s going to stop us chopping you down, you couldn’t be more wrong. The possums might view your fruit as ideal picnic food but you’re a hazard for the flying foxes.  It’s a worry when you rely for 30% of your diet on something that gives you acid reflux, damages your teeth, chokes you and leads you to stumble around on the garden being mauled by suburban dogs.  Even Maccas isn’t that bad.  That’s an evil ecosystem if ever there was one.

And that’s leaving aside the trip hazard for someone as poorly coordinated and lazy with the garden broom as I am.  So unless I hear about a recipe for cocos palm wine before I afford a tree surgeon, Cocos palm, you’re cactus!

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.

Possum pruning and chicken lawnmowers

I seem to spend a lot of time talking about animals behaving badly.  Or at least, animals doing sensible, survival enhancing things I don’t 100% approve of.  That means you, Treasure!  You can’t hide – I see you eyeballing that rocket!

But it’s not only the bowerbirds that do useful nibbling.  The chickens also make great lawnmowers.  Although, describing our patch of grass as a “lawn” is stretching the definition considerably.  I can’t say how delighted I was to read the advice recently from the RSPCA that “a weed lawn rather than a monoculture lawn is recommended for free range hens”. Anyway, thanks to the very dry winter, this year the backyard hasn’t turned into the Somme – we’ve got at least some grass and not just vast stretches of mud –  and the chooks are keeping the grass down just fine.

The same happy thoughts about animals as horticultural helpers come to mind when I inspect my NSW Christmas bush.  It has gorgeous pinkish red new growth which the possums seem to enjoy as much as I do, though their appreciation is expressed through the medium of chewing.   Every now and then they pop down and do some tip pruning for me.

Spider on Christmas bush shoot

Ceratopetalum gummiferum is mostly famous for its flush of red “flowers” in December (in fact these are sepals – the real flowers are smaller and white and arrive in late spring or early summer).  The consensus seems to be that if you lop off branches for festive decoration the tree will “flower” all the more enthusiastically the following year.  Vindicating the view that if you give an inch, people will take a mile, some even claim you can cut them way down low and they’ll come back.  Eventually.   I’m not planning anything as brutal as that, though I don’t really want mine to hit five metres and mess with my view.  Regular snipping is the go but since I’m secateur shy, how kind of the possums to do it for me.

The egg eaters

Someone’s been eating eggs.  I don’t mean us, although obviously we have been eating them, and with great relish too.   I tried and failed to take a photograph of this morning’s scramble, that glorious renaissance of the freshly-laid goog.  It seems that these eggs are simply too magnificent to be captured by mortal photographic technology.  All that remained on film was this ineffable golden glow.

Scrambled egg yellow

No, I don’t mean us, the authorised Egg Robbers.  Some other creature has been eating eggs. It could be a rat or a possum. It could be Snakey the Diamond Python – there was a mysterious predatory smell in the garden over the last couple of days, along with scattered beige feathers. Andy Ninja was looking distinctly rumpled, like an ambitious nocturnal reptile might have tried to make her, perched temptingly amidst the lower branches of the coral tree, a late-night snack .  But I fear it may be…. a Cannibal Chicken.

The kids are on the case: “We questioned each of the chickens, by showing them an egg.  Shyla and Treasure were interested, but not too interested.  But Luna went close to it… too close.  I think she tried to peck it.”  So, after this exhaustive forensic investigation, Luna is in the frame (in a possible miscarriage of justice, Abbey the elusive Barnevelder escaped questioning by being impossible to catch).

Who is the inner Luna?  Who can say, although the disturbing photograph suggests an interior vortex and a single glowing eye.  Beware, Luna, we will be watching you…

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.