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?

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.

Autumn on Hawkesbury sandstone

Cherry blossom in autumn

What’s the difference between a good gardener and a bad gardener?

Two weeks.

That’s me, at least two weeks late with everything.  Most of the autumn planting happened today, in delicious sunshine after three days of deep, seeping rain.  Peter Cundall says my newly sown carrots (should they germinate, always rather unlikely – I got one solitary seedling out of the batch sown a month or so ago) will be pale and thin.  Gothic carrots.  Hopefully the spindly survivors will be the purple ones: seems more appropriate somehow.

I’m not very optimistic about my garlic either.  In previous years I reaped, almost to the clove, an identical amount of garlic to the quantity I planted six months before (I have a similar success rate with potatoes).  However, I live in hope that all that will change in 2014:  “The Year of Lime”.  I have been very slapdash with soil preparation in the past, hoping that cow manure and lucerne-and-straw mulch, with the odd splash of comfrey tea will do for pretty much everything.  This year I’ve taken the same approach to dolomite on my leeks and garlic, that the Scottish other half takes to salt on his dinner: more is more.  Hopefully it will make a difference. I’ve also put in not just the usual Italian White but also a day-length neutral type, Glen.  Perhaps its not me that is harshing my garlic, but my latitude.  Now I have a controlled experiment to settle it.

Having discovered the implausible passion of brush turkeys for the allium family, I’ve gone for a belt and braces approach to protecting seeds and seedlings.  This year I’ve draped my usual little hoops of wire fencing with vege nets, partly to keep out the beasties and partly to shade the newbies in what’s been an unusually warm March.  My home grown brassica and fennel seedlings are working with that same goth aesthetic and I fear that one sunny day might be the end of them.   The nets have done sterling service with the beans, which are up and cropping well.


So since we’re in the dying days of March, it may be that my celery and rainbow chard, broccoli, kale and fennel are destined to spend the next six months in suspended animation waiting for the sun to hoist itself above the trees and get things going again on our chilly south-west facing slope.  But then, I noticed only a few days back that the little pot-grown cherry tree that has, for the last five years stubbornly refused to flower or fruit, has spluttered into bloom at this most inpropitious time, and that the strawberries beneath the custard apple have sprung little white petals and even greenish fruits.  I’m not sure what all this portends: the unnatural beginnings of climate change or just the confused reaction of temperate plants to subtropical seasons.  Either way I’m hoping for a harvest.