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 artichokes – slow 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.