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?

Bowerbirds: snacking for solar gain

Before the fall

Before the fall: it’s always sunnier on the other side of the fence

The gang’s back.  Loads of satin bowerbirds in the garden at the moment.  I’ve seen a couple of mature males, with their glossy blue-black feathers and gorgeous indigo eyes, but most of the robotic whistles, clicks, churrs and cracks in the trees seem to be the “greens” – juvenile males and females, hanging out in a pack.

I’ve heard grim stories about the antics of bowerbirds in the veggie garden.  Apparently they like to lull the backyard grower into a false sense of security and then swoop in and devastate your greens.  But I’m feeling kind of relaxed on that front.  After the brush turkeys exhumed my long awaited Hass avocado treelet, and my big girls, the young-bloods, the prodigious egg-layers, started lounging around under the baby banana trees, making eyes at my kale and chomping on every “poisonous” rhubarb leaf the moment it unfurled, I’ve decided to go totally Christo.  Every seed, every seedling, every newly planted tuber has its own little  blanket of horticultural fleece.  Anything growing that’s remotely likely to appeal to the poultry palate is swathed in netting.

The one upside of the chooks’ blithe disregard of the garden fence is the complete and total elimination of trad from the veggie patch.  Three months ago our spindly raspberry canes and brave little Nightingale persimmon were drowning in a lush wash of juicy stems and emerald leaves, even as the ground slowly dehydrated around them. But now – nada.  A few stems scattered around, waiting to reroot after the rain but not a leaf to be seen.  It’s all very satisfying.

So it’s not all bad when your flock take to the greenery.  The bowerbirds haven’t got a chance of getting my broadbeans.  But with their leaf-picking ways, they are doing sterling work for the environment.

Brushturkey in liquidambar

Brush turkey roosting in our poor denuded liquidambar

Their latest hang-out is the neighbour’s liquidambar tree – gorgeous and looming, throwing a great long shadow across our ice-box house all autumn. Basking in the sunshine on the other side of the fence, it steadfastly refuses to shed its leaves, months and months after our poor overhung specimen has shivered and shaken off its own.  And then, when the last ruby shreds are about to be blown from its branches, and the winter sun finally promises to warm our August days, the bloody thing starts growing leaves again!

But never fear, Super Satin Bowerbird is here!  I can’t prove definitively that their main objective was improving our passive solar gain but after closely studying these photographs for insights into bowerbird psychology and culinary habits, it certainly looks like it.

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

Apples of the earth vs the hungry gap

Truth be told, Sydney doesn’t really have a hungry gap – when your late winter dessert fruits are custard apples, the chillier months don’t hold too many terrors.

Nonetheless, things are moving… very…. very… slowly… in the garden at the moment.  Everything except whatever ate my first-formed head of broccoli, which moved far too damn fast – faster than I did, anyway.

A few stalwarts – purple mustard, parley, garlic and shallots – are ticking along despite winter sunlight and absolutely no rain, and the globe artichokes are still standing, like gorgeous silvery statues scattered around the garden.

Artichokes and peach blossom

But it’s harvest-time for one thing: yacon.  A real pomme-de-terre – the mostly delicious root vegetable you’ve never heard of.  Just when the apples are getting a bit meh, the granny smiths slipping out of your hands and the rest of them hardly worth picking up, it’s time to dig up the “apple of the earth”.

The whole eating experience is deeply implausible.  The tubers look a bit like turnips yet curiously you don’t feel like Baldrick when you eat them.

Baldrick and turnip

They’re crisp and sweet, a little firmer than an apple in texture but just as juicy.  You have to peel them, and the flesh has a distinct resinous tang – someone has described it as a little like sugar cane, which is spot on.  They would make a fantastic addition to a fancy-pants cheese plate, though my rather meagre harvest didn’t make it that far – too easy to crunch them as a snack.

Yacon share many features with jerusalem artichokes, but, critically, *not* the dangerous flatulence in the dining room or the irritating weediness in the garden.  Like artichokes, they shoot up to six foot over the summer and then die back down.  Mine have tended to keel over at a certain point, overburdened by their large, shapely leaves, but that hasn’t seemed to crimp their style.

I’ve been growing them along a fenceline that gets very little light from autumn equinox to spring, and they seem to handle those conditions, though I think I may need to fertilise and water them more generously this year.  The copious fruits of our Eureka lemon tree are being pressed into the hands of all our visitors at the moment – I’d love to to the same with yacon, like some sort of Johnny Appleseed of the Apple-of-the-Earth.

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