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.

How to exploit your termite work force

One of permaculture’s big ideas is makig plants and animals your agricultural labourers.  It’s not so much hitching the family Great Dane to the plough as letting your furred and feathered workers, more or less of their own free will, roam through your food forest grazing on weeds and wolfing down snails.  Say goodbye to tedious annual seed-raising, planting and hoeing: your self-reliant plants will look after themselves and keep an eye on each other, shading and nitrogenating and breaking wind (if you know what I mean).

Sometimes it works.  Our tamarillo, banana, monstera and tumeric plants have formed a chlorophyllerous collective. We have tip-pruning possums, chickens that mow the lawn and do the weeding, rat-catching diamond pythons and bandicoots on a search and destroy mission for curl grubs.  This week I even had a local katydid offering to supervise the manufacture of my home-grown pesto.

Unfortunately some of the local flora and fauna seem to have skipped crucial pages of Bill Mollison’s permaculture classics.  My custard apple tree, for instance, appears to need assistance to shed its leaves in a timely manner. Really, has it come to this? I spend my precious hours of leisure depilating fruit trees?

Meanwhile in the kiwifruit arbor, lacking both enthusiastic pollinators and RoboBees (yep, New Zealand has them), we’re having to take a prurient interest in the sex lives of our male and female kiwifruit vines. To be honest, my child labourers were about as useful as the diffident insects.  I’m baffled.  How could standing on the top of a ladder tickling plant reproductive organs with paintbrush fail to entertain?

The sorry state of my home-made kiwifruit planters remind me of another insect labour fail. Termites.  What can a permie do with them?

Thanks to our hippie ways, our place is a kind of termite nature reserve, where wood-eating insects can flourish, peacefully ingesting fruit trees and vernacular architecture, without fear of retaliation.  It seems, when they tired of consuming ad-hoc structures made of discarded bed bases, they like to break it up by devouring whole stands of artichokes as a kind of palate cleanser.

Termite eat artichokes – who knew?  Last year’s gorgeous silver leafed statement in the outdoor room is this year a soggy larvae-infested hole in the ground.

But let’s not lose faith in our insect workforce!  We need to reframe this problem. Bill Mollison once consoled someone tending a denuded garden: “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficit“.  Thinking along these lines let’s put it this way: we don’t have a termite problem: we have a woodwork surplus.

When we first arrived here six years ago, we were puzzled by the gratuitous decking around the washing line and the apparently pointless wooden walkway that took you there.  Our neighbours said they’d scratched their heads as they watched this expensive folly being nailed together.

The mystery was illuminated by the lingering damp patch by the garden gate.  Somewhere between the fig tree and the passionfruit vine, roundabout where the sewage line runs down from the house, there was a persistent and troubling damp patch.  RB wanted to investigate.  Having experienced the delights of sewage tumbling through another backyard and with a terrifying vision of a poo fountain raining down on my veggie patch, I implored him to leave it to the professionals.  But I made the error of leaving him unattended one day after work.

Thankfully I was spared the realisation of my nightmare of e-coli amongst the asparagus.  It turns out our damp patch was an old storm water drain, busted through when the some new and exciting toilet was installed in the house.  As one does, rather than repair the drain and desoggify the garden, our predecessors just built a walkway over the swampland.  What with the convenient supply of moisture, this wooden path has been a fine buffet for the termites over the years.

Thanks to our cellulose loving friends, a short stroll to hang out the laundry had become as fraught with peril as a high-wire walk between two sky scrapers.  Collecting a clean pair of undies from the line carried the ever-present risk of a broken ankle or at least the embarrassing prospect of a plank snapping under your weight, a reminder that you may have had too many marinated artichokes on your pasta lately. Yes, I could have fixed it properly with some decent hardwood or a load of treated timber.  But that just wouldn’t have been in the spirit of the thing.  Instead, it’s become steadily more raddled looking, thanks to running repairs with a random selection of timber found by the side of the road.

But even with my love of hammers and heavy rubbish, I finally had enough.  The walkway had to go.  Even in 35 degree heat, the demolition job was a highpoint of my weekend.  There’s little more viscerally satisfying than ripping something to bits with your bare hands, even if it has been fatally weakened by termites first.

But what to do with the hardwood footings, cemented and bolted in place?  Digging them up would be tricky work, haunted by the ever-present risk of a spade through the sewage pipe.  And then it came to me in a blinding flash: with a bit of help from our termite tenants, moist soil heaped up onto wood frames would do the job for me.

So now the erstwhile walkway is a (very very slightly) raised bed, fenced in by scraggy aviary wire: yet another addition to the carceral complex that is our garden.  As I water the cucumbers and the cherry tomatoes,  I’ll be helping our Willing Workers on Organic Farms Backyards, the termites, demonstrate the second law of thermodynamics.

It’s been a long time since I sat through high school physics.  Things might well have moved on in the inexplicable post-Newtonian world. But I can say with absolute confidence that, in our yard at least, there continues to be “a natural tendency of isolated systems to degenerate into a more disordered state”.

If they weren’t disordered in the first place, the termites, the possums and the brush turkeys would pretty soon make them that way.  Good work if you can get it, lads!

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!

Blood on the mulberries

This means war!  Or at least a humanitarian mission with military elements.

Just when you’ve been lulled into a false sense of security by their generous assistance with your passive solar, suddenly the bowerbirds turn against you.   One minute they’re giving the liquidambar a light trim, the next they’ve descended on your mulberry tree and stripped it bare.

Mulberries are perfect backyard trees.  They’re easy to grow, fruit without chilly weather, and produce berries in spring before the fruitfly really get into gear.  Kids love to eat them: the Halloween themed blood-stained hands afterwards are a bonus.  You can feed them to silkworms which sorts out any number of school projects (and if you’re that kind of person you can weave your own scarves or caftans).  Chooks happily clean up the spoil.  And you never ever see mulberries in the shops – when they’re ripe they’re so soft and juicy they’re unshippable.  You have to eat them warm, straight off the tree.

And if that’s not enough, they also make a great spot for a diamond python’s mid-morning nap.

mulberry bush and snakey

There’s not much you can do wrong with mulberries, or so they say.  You’ve gotta love trees about which it can honestly be said: “you cannot kill them”.  You have to prune them for new growth and berries, but hacking randomly does seem to more or less work, though the outcome might be described less as “a classic open-centred vase shape” and more as “an ugly mess”.

The only bit of advice that people regularly give about mulberry trees is to avoid planting them near paths “to avoid stains”.  Given the chaotic state of our garden, I smiled smugly at this.  And then planted mine right next to the washing line.  Oops.

I know, I know, my Hick’s Fancy should have been netted against the birds (given that they can be weedy, this is probably a good idea for ecological as well as harvest-maximising reasons).  But the bowerbirds haven’t stopped at the mulberry.  They’ve also had a good go at the grapes up the granny flat wall and the kiwifruit vines on the “solar pergola”.  Exclusion netting is all very well but short of getting a great big net dropped from a helicopter to drape over the whole house and yard, there’s only so much you can do.  Thinking about it, that actually sounds like a lot of fun.  All I need is some air support.

DIY by subtraction: the kiwifruit arbor

I’ve been laying low on the blog a bit lately while we’ve been doing cut-rate eco-renovations on our house, a poorly insulated 50s fibro place clinging to a steep south-west facing slope, thermally enhanced by a dense cluster of giant evergreen trees perfectly aligned with true north. Short of an avalanche burying the house in boulders or it sliding unexpectedly into the Marianas Trench, it’s hard to imagine a more unpromising scenario for “solar gain”.

Since I’m lucky enough to work from home a day or two a week, seasonally I spend large slabs of time hunched over my laptop in  thermal underwear, jeans, flannie, woollens, scarf, beanie, winter coat and laprug, with my bedsock-and-slipper-clad feet resting ecstatically on a hotwater bottle, thinking obsessively about winter sunlight.

The mid-century part of the house, surprisingly, is pretty well thought through from the perspective of passive solar heating that is (mostly) about allowing the low winter sun to enter the house as source of heat while keeping the overhead sun of summer out.  In the southern hemisphere, that means having windows on the northern side of the house (or within about 30 degrees of true north) and less on the eastern and especially western walls, where the late afternoon sun in summer will blast in the windows just when everyone is feeling at their sweatiest.

So whoever hammered this place together in the late 50s out of asbestos sheeting and weatherboard put in plenty of north-east facing wooden-framed windows that let morning light in through the bare branches of the liquidambar when that glowing ball in the sky finally peeps over the hill.  The kids’ bedroom and the kitchen even have those cool 50s windows that wrap around corners – in this case, oriented to the north.
Kitchen pic real

But it all went pear shaped with the 1980s extension.  Lashings of leaky and thermally conductive aluminium windows and sliding doors facing south-west (towards the view, admittedly – okay, windows aren’t just about solar gain).

The ceiling (and of course ceiling insulation) pock-marked with that latter-day house-cancer, halogen downlights.  And bizarrely, a whole sequence of interior features and outbuildings, aiming, it seems, to prevent even the tiniest gleam of late-afternoon sunlight from melting the icicles on the extremities of the residents inside. Perhaps the previous owners had photophobia: one can only presume so.

In the quest for light-drenched interiors or at least the possibility of taking my hat and overcoat off indoors, mostly what we have been doing is pulling things down and ripping things out.  Renovation by subtraction: cheap entertainment.

First to go was the hand-made bookcase and cabinets that separated the sunny kitchen and the gloomy dining room.  (The wood got a second guernsey as an implausible shoe rack and series of wonky shelves – the previous owners must have spent their years in the dark doing advanced carpentry by headtorch-light, as their skills with a mitre saw are streets ahead of mine).  Never has so much joy or interior illumination ensued from an hour’s work with a screwdriver.

Next we chainsawed a couple of noxious oleanders on the north western side of the house. When I say “we” I mean RB, with me stabilising the ladder, shouting encouragement through a dust-mask, and hoping like hell the chainsaw doesn’t get dropped on my head. Oleander: a plant that is not only water wise and offers a long-lasting floral display but every part of which – leaves, sawdust, flowers, even the honey made from its flowers – can be used to poison your children.  A fine addition to any home.

Just to ensure that no dangerous beams of afternoon winter sunlight might fall on even the windowless exterior of the laundry (itself a protective barrier between the sun’s horrifying rays and the frigid loungeroom) the previous owners erected a dismal tin lean-to, guaranteeing enduring Stygian conditions indoors and out.  Removing the corrugated iron from the roof of this bat-cave was again surprisingly easy – the work of an afternoon – and suddenly what was a dank storage area for rusty things and part-time creek bed became an mid-day suntrap, a pergola simply begging for deciduous vines.  Too easy.

While I continue to harbour many elaborate northerly-glazing and thermal-mass fantasies, further demolition will require council approval and buckets of money, sadly, so I’ve had to content myself with some eco-thrifty upcycling and, of course, plant acquisition.

So…. the kiwifruit arbor!

I have three kiwifruit growing elsewhere in the garden – a male and female “Hayward” and a Mt Tomah red kiwiberry (a bit of a threesome going there, the Mt Tomah quite happy to make do with the Hayward male as a pollinator).  They do a sterling job of sheltering the granny flat from the brutal south-westerly sun on long summer afternoons but I have a sneaking suspicion that we may not have enough chilling hours here to see them fruitful (to wit, absolutely no signs of flowering yet, though we’ve had bunches of grapes from the Pink Iona vine that grows beside them for a couple of years now).

So I acquired a male and female “Sweetie“, a super-low chill variety from the marvellous Daleys, the fastest and best mail-order fruits in the West (okay the East).  The New Zealanders grow kiwis on trellises, and my notion is that the kiwi fruit and the recently planted Carolina Black Rose grape will offer some shelter from the midday heat during the summer and lose their leaves in time to let the low winter sun warm up my ad hoc bench made of bricks and some junked marine ply that sits outside the laundry, an ideal defrosting area on nippy mornings.

Drainage is apparently quite critical for kiwifruit, so, given that when it rains, that part of the yard becomes a water-feature, I decided to put the kiwis in raised planters (with an open base so they don’t dry out too much in less torrential times). Unlike a real bat-cave, the old lean-to didn’t have the benefit of a stockpile of guano but rather hard-beaten gravelly soil, so I figured planters would keep the vines clear of any limey ground and give me a chance to whack some heavy duty compost around their roots.

Fortunately for me, my neighbour decided to re-clad one wall of his house, and we had a bunch of cedar siding thrown helpfully over the fence, so over the course of a weekend, I constructed a pair of 6 foot long, 2 foot wide and high planters from some 2x4s that had been used to frame concrete and an bedframe found in the council cleanup, lined with plastic bags that had previously contained cow poo and finished off with the cedar boards.  I was quite pleased with the result, although given the shonkiness of the carpentry, I doubt I’ll be leaving them to descendents in my will.

A year down the track, it’s so far so good with the “solar pergola”.  As it turns out, while my Hayward vines, getting very little direct sunlight in winter, lose their leaves quite promptly around the solstice, the Sweeties, in a more promising position, cling to theirs in a rather annoying, shade-producing way.  So I’m trying to constrain their enthusiastic growth to the the far end of the trellis-that-once-was-a-bat-cave where they’ll block our view of the neighbour’s yard but not too much of the June sun.  Keeping kiwifruit vines under control is no mean feat, given their crazed energy and my morbid fear of pruning.  I’ve found grapevines equally prolific but much more compliant in autumn, dropping their leaves just as it gets a bit chilly, so I’ll try to get Carolina to do her fine work above the laundry wall.

It’ll be time for the Sweeties to burst from their buds any day now, and I need to clear the way for Miss Carolina Rose, so I’d better get out into that winter sunshine and prune like the wind!

Later updates from the kiwifruit arbor:

Pollination: Sweets from my sweetie

An unhappy threesome: pollinating kiwiberries

The first bumper crop: Experiments with kiwifruit


Bee-ing positive

Tropic snow and bee

It’s dry as a chip in the garden: less than 20% the average amount of July rainfall in Sydney and bushfires have already starting in the north of NSW, months ahead of the official fire season.  Warm too – a record 24 days of 18 degrees C and above.  It’s been 2.7 degrees C above the historical average for July.  Climate change – it’s here, suckers.

But on the bright side, gorgeous blooms on the Tropic Snow peach, and plenty of bees.  Touch wood, the varroa mite hasn’t arrived in Australia (yet) and our honeybees seem to be doing better than the rest of the world. I’m thinking about getting a hive or two, either of native stingless bees (though you can’t collect their honey here in Sydney) or just your everyday honeybees.  So far I haven’t had any flowers from my kiwifruit vines (notoriously hard to pollinate), but you have to plan ahead.

In the mean time… welcome, visiting bees!  Please help yourselves to our beautiful if precipitate peach-blossom.