Join the war effort: grow your own luffa!

Given my history of coldly executing generations of zucchinis in babyhood, it was a high risk endeavour to attempt to grow luffa.  But the charmingly named “dish-rag gourd” is described on-line as a “large aggressive climber“, and apparently is an invasive weed in Uganda.  So I thought I would give it a go.  In fact, maybe I should only attempt to grow plants that sound like they should be banged up for burglary and GBH.

Luffa is a dual utility crop, a bit like our big boofy chickens Shima and Apricot.  We don’t like to mention it when they’re around, but as well as being pretty good at layers, Barred Rocks (like Shima) and Light Sussexes (ie Apricot) make pretty good eating.  Allegedly.  We won’t do it, girls, we really won’t!

I’m not sure how toothsome baby luffa really are but there’s not many vegetables that can be used as a backscratcher, a pillow, a sound-proof liner for steel helmets, a device for cleaning car wind-shields or a filtration system for ship’s boilers, so perhaps we are asking too much for it to be haute cuisine.

Pearl Harbour was obviously a tragic event, but one little known casualty of the bombing of the US Navy was the sudden disappearance of luffas from bathrooms throughout America.  Japan had been the main commercial producer since the 1890s, and so when America entered the war, the luffa supply was suddenly cut off.  In the words of economic botanist W.M.Porterfield: “the same catastrophe that stopped their importation enormously increased the need for them” (1955, 212-3)  and the US War Production Board forbad their delivery, sale or use for anything except filtration systems for ship’s boilers.

I am quite grateful that I’ve not been required to turn over my luffa crop to the authorities for some kind of military emergency.  While I consider it to have been a success, that is relative to my usual abject failure on the gourd growing front.  I managed to grow four mature fruits from three plants.

Dried luffa closeup

Luffa are tropical plants and need a long growing season.  Given that my whole garden is plunged into shade around about the equinox, it was nip and tuck whether the fruits would get big enough to make a decent sized back scratcher. As with zucchini, you have to be patient.  The first rather lovely yellow flowers, appearing in mid-summer, were male and only very late in the season, just as I was about to give up on it as yet another curcurbit failure, did female flowers and tiny perky fruits emerge.

On the positive side, the little luffa plants proved very easy to move around the garden so they could follow the sun – from  little pots on the windowsill in spring, to hefty tubs on the sunniest spot on our patio.  Since they’re actually a pretty vigorous plants for growing in a pot, I ended up moving one plant yet again, to the base of my “black widow” trellis.  This spot had previously been the kiss of death for any vine I attempted to grow there.

Innumerable generations of passion fruit and even a choko plant have turned up their toes on that higgledy-piggledy bamboo lattice (what can I say: I’m a slow learner).  By some kind of miracle, the luffa survived despite the fact I violated innumerable transplanting by-laws by moving a metre long vine covered in leaves in the middle of summer.  It survived the chooks (more evidence that luffa are probably not worth eating), and produced a haul of three fruits.  Okay, Porterfield reckons 20 fruits per vine is “to be expected”, but I find it’s best to cultivate low expectations.

There are lots of videos on YouTube sharing advice on getting the fibrous “skeleton” out of the luffa gourd.  Which would have been more helpful if they weren’t a sequence of mutually contradictory tips.  The smart money seems to be on leaving your luffas to dry as long as possible.  Some of mine dried out a bit while hanging on the vine, but I left the rest on a sunny windowsill for a couple of months.  In theory that skin should go hard, brown and leathery and then you can just peel it off, shake out the seeds and voila, there’s your luffa.

The alternative suggestion for those who were too impatient to wait for dry skin or, whose luffa (like mine) seemed likely to rot away in the meantime, involved cracking and carefully peeling off the skin and then squeezing and massaging out the remaining flesh and seeds in a bowl of water.  Whacking the flaccid luffa a few times on the sink to help shift the flesh was also recommended by one YouTuber.  The whole thing had a faintly sordid feel, like some sort of low rent vegetable s&m club, but did seem to work reasonably well in the end.  After a few days of drying out on the windowsill, I now have a suite of firm, fibrous and faintly grubby looking luffa that my children will no doubt refuse to have anything to do with.

So what’s new?  The vision of excited children running into the verdant backyard to pluck ripe organic snowpeas and strawberries has never really gelled with the scorched earth look of our chicken-denuded yard and proliferation of high-security possum-proof vegetable beds made of wire sock drawers found by the side of the road.  So I’ll let yet another self-sufficiency fantasy go.  The kids will remain (un-ex?)foliated but I’m still a seed saver – I’ll give “the dishrag gourd” another go.

 

References
Porterfield, W.M. (1955) “Loofah: The Sponge Gourd” Economic Botany, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1955), pp. 211-223

 

Nude trees and naughty birds

Who lives in our backyard?  How would I know? I haven’t been paying attention.

I see a flash of black and white down by the chook run and what do I think?  “Magpie”.  Humans, huh?

Yesterday, ominous thumps and crashes below the lightning-riven radiata pine had me racing to see if it had finally succumbed to a pincer movement of termites and southerlies.  But no, the demolition job was courtesy of a pied currawong, ripping the tree apart like it was a lego construction.  Well, a lego construction with integral insects.  Since in the (distant) future Lego will apparently be “sustainable”, one day this might even be a thing.

Perhaps it’s for the best that Lego’s green-washing target date is a decent decade and a half away.  Depending on how significant bark is to the structural rigidity of defunct pine trees we might need to use those infestation-proof plastic bricks – we’ve got enough of them under furniture and half buried in the garden – to rebuild our crushed house.

That’s if the currawongs are here to stay – and they might be.  Back in the day, before the ’40s, currawongs came down from the mountains to visit Sydney over the winter, but now they hang out in the big smoke all year round.  They like it down here, snacking on cute little birds and munching up the tasty berries of our attractive invasive plants.   If I want to save the roof, that monster privet the size of a redwood may have to go.

And a sighting today of another naughty black bird has cast doubt on the long-settled verdict in the Case of the Phantom Egg-Eater.

There was a stramash this morning between a crowd of brush turkeys and an crow, the latter carrying something that from a distance might appear to resembled a chicken’s egg.  I have no pictures of the actual incident but only an image extracted from the raven’s dream, in which hens’ eggs are light as a feather and easily borne in the beak for leisurely later consumption in convenient locations.

Later investigations showed that a freshly laid chook egg had indeed be devoured, but, in addition, one of the fake plastic eggs, carefully placed in the nest with to confuse and baffle hungry brush turkeys, had also vanished.

I’m not sure what this tells you about corvid intelligence but to me it suggests that ravens are optimists.  Apparently young European ravens are extremely curious.  In experiments where juvenile birds were offered “novel inedible items”, it seems, “birds never missed any potentially edible item … even with “highly cryptic objects”.”  I think it would be fair to call last year’s Easter hunt left-overs “highly cryptic objects”.  Maybe this was a young ‘un because apparently adult ravens are “neophobic”.  I’m assuming this doesn’t mean harbouring a hatred for Keanu Reeves in the Matrix sequels (though this is not an unreasonable viewpoint), but rather preferring actual foodstuffs to eccentric plastic replicas.

Where does the arrival of this new mob of razor sharp egg-robbers leave our prospects of our home-grown protein?  I can almost certainly outwit a brush turkey, but the socially adept, tool-using raven with the problem solving skills of a seven year old might give me a run for my money.  Perhaps I should plant some more broad beans.

And there’s more backyard black-feathered bandits where they came from.  The red-eyed, jet-feathered male koels are gone for the season, but the bowerbirds are back – mostly the “greens” – olive, stripey young bloods and females – but every now and then there’s a flash of violet-black as a grown male, glossy and gorgeous, disappears, full bellied, into the shrubbery, after a exhausting afternoon of shredding my kiwifruit vines.

But, despite my doziness, there was no way I could mistake today’s most magical visitor for a common or garden magpie.  Nude trees held no allure for her.  She watched me, still and cautious, from a leafy branch low in the hibiscus, patiently waiting for maybe five long minutes while I snapped away incredulously.

I reckon she came after the noisy miners that have descended on us over the winter, yipping and snapping at the wattle birds.  Last I saw the sparrowhawk, she was gliding off through the jungle at the bottom of the neighbour’s garden, indignant miners in hot pursuit.  I’m hoping she got the best of them.  What a fitting end for those hateful lerp eaters – fastidiously “killed, plucked and eaten”, all the while clutched in a sparrowhawk’s long and elegant middle toe.

I hope she’ll be back.  I’ll be keeping watch.

Death toll on the windowsill

This punnet of celery is 900 years 9 months old.  It’s a heritage variety, lovingly protected from the wicked hybridising ways of multinationals, raised without recourse to superphosphate or pesticides, its seeds collected and harboured by sequence of people of good will, finally given a new home on a windowsill that has scarcely ever seen any form of domestic cleaning product.   And look how it has repaid me and all the hippies before me that sought to give it life.

At some point during the epic period of time it has taken this recalcitrant celery to grow to its current puny dimensions, I  succumbed to a pack of genetically modified and chemically drenched celery seedlings from Bunnings.  The evil celery has been planted out, watered, mulched, fertilised, endured winter, had a spring growth, been mulched again, and seen the inside of at least three soups.  But it’s all too hard for our home-sown hero.

I wish I could claim that this diminutive plant was a radical experiment in developing kitchen-garden bonsai, or the result of a daring hybridisation of celery and genetic material from Methuselah, 4,845-year-old Great Basin bristle-cone pine, which holds the current record for the oldest tree in the world.  Indeed, I’m sure any hypothetical future celery sticks that might be harvested from this uninspiring specimen would have the same flavour and texture as a lump of a four thousand year old pine bark.

Sadly, however, this is no horticultural break-through.  It’s normal service. This is how we raise seeds in our Berowra backyard.  The fact that the celery seedling is still clinging to life at all is, in truth, a triumph.

Here’s a typical sequence of events.

1. I observe a change in the seasons: a warm breeze, the hint of autumn rain.  It’s late winter/ late summer – just the right time to put in some seedlings.  I resolve to grow some.

2. Weeks pass.  Sometimes months.  Eventually in a late-night frenzy of consumer excitement, I order about a hundred packets of seeds from the prompt, informative and ever-reliable Green Harvest: eighteen types of beans, twelve types of rocket, cherry tomatoes shaped like a banana, a rubik’s cube and the Sphinx, vegetables I don’t like/have never heard of/have never successfully grown/wouldn’t know what to do with even if I succeeded in growing them.

3. Seeds arrive in my postbox in a flash.  I file them carefully in an enormous box that previously stored floppy disks, fastidiously organised by season of planting and vegetable family, and filled with a panoply of seed packets, mostly well past their “use by” date. Weeks pass. Sometimes years.

4. One Sunday afternoon, in deep denial about the terminal decline of the weekend, I plant out at least four punnets of each of the hundred varieties.  Space on the kitchen windowsill is now at a premium.

5. Within a week or two, nearly all of the seeds emerge and turn into thriving little plantlets, thrusting up into the light, energised by the stored resources of their subterranean seed.  They grow a second thrilling set of leaves and sometimes a third.

… and then suddenly everything stops. It’s as if we’ve had a sneaky overnight visit from a vegetable hating comic-book super villain with a freezing deathray.

6. Tormented by the failure of my seedlings to grow even a millimetre, I am prompted to do one of the following:

(a) Anxiously over-water them. They rot.  I throw them into the compost heap.

(b) Vengefully serve them up a little tough love (ie, neglect to water them).  They maintain the same utter stasis but look a little bit crispier.  Eventually, I throw them into the compost heap.

(c) Bemusedly supply them with more light and gentle healing rain by putting them outside in the Valley Of The Shadow of Death (aka the zone at the edge of the carport).  From here they will inevitably tumble to their doom, knocked down by a promenading brush turkey, a pair of wrestling brush-tailed possums, a child with a skipping rope and/or RB on a bee line for the first cup of tea at the end of the working day.  I swear a lot, scrape up the seed raising mix and throw it into the compost heap.

(d) Despairingly give up on producing decent sized seedlings and abandon the flimsy weaklings to their fate in the bottom of the garden.  The following day will be the hottest of the year and by six in the evening the underprepared seedlings have been vaporised, leaving, at best, one or two limp greyish leaves draped over the mulch as a cruel reminder of the three months I’ve just wasted.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.  Surely.

I have some ideas for diminishing the windowsill death toll.  This is a non-exhaustive list and I welcome further suggestions.

1. Defrosting my static seedlings with Essence of Death (TM) compost tea.  Treasure the Light Sussex drinks it with gusto and she has grown to an enormous size so surely it must give the seedlings a little vim and vigour.

2. Treating the babies to the occasional little holiday in the veggie garden, to suck up the rays and meet new friends.

3. Experiment with newspaper pots so plant and container can go, holus bolus, into the ground.  The only outstanding issue with this plan, given the volume of newsprint bought by our household, is whether plant pots made of iPads and laptops are biodegradeable.

4. Plant everything out under veggie nets or horticultural fleece.  With lucky, the seedlings, however feeble and under-developed, will transpire a bit less in those tricky first days.  At worst, this will both delay the moment when I realise that it’s all been in vain and provide a fitting burial shroud.

First fruit

Babaco

I’ve had a few babacos now: small, cool climate papayas that are said to fruit prodigiously, and in the shade too.  My first expired very quickly, probably from root rot, to which they are apparently quite prone.  I kept the second in a pot for a while, for drainage reasons, and it clung on despite my peripatetic watering habits.  The third plant I put in the “food forest” part of the garden, and it seemed to grow pretty well, on a sandy slope with filtered summer sun and not a lot of light at all in winter, so I popped the one from the pot into the ground nearby, in a slightly brighter spot.  The second plant has had two torpedo-shaped green fruits hanging on for quite a while, during which time it has slowly but steadily shed all its leaves, possibly encouraged by the possums.  I began to think it might croak before the fruits ever ripened, given the seasonal gloom.  Eventually one of its paps started to turn a patchy lemon yellow. After some bad guessing with custard apples last year, I wouldn’t have been game to pick it but the fruit dropped off the tree of its own accord and pleasingly, ripened up quite well inside, sitting next to a banana in the fruit bowl.

Apparently the ancient Greeks had a tradition of offering the first fruit of the new season to Demeter, goddess of the harvest.  I suspect Demeter might have turned her nose up at my first babaco.  It’s been called the “champagne fruit“, and others suggest it tastes of strawberries and pineapple… it certainly has a citrus tang along with that strange slightly off taste of papaya and something else… the odour of freshly laid carpet? the plasticky inside of a new car…? Not something I would be super eager to eat anyway.  That said, it’s a good looking plant which seems to grow reasonably well in a tricky spot and apparently propagates easily too.  I’m fairly sure the taste of slightly curdled carpet offcuts will be the least of my problems after the zombie apocalypse so I think after Number Two’s second torpedo has been launched I might have a go at growing some cuttings.  I have to drum up plants for the school fete this year (yes, we will be running a cake stall while the government spends $12 billion on jets) and it is always possible that there are fruit-growers out there in Berowra that like the taste of new cars.

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.

Vernacular architecture in the suburbs pt.1

Moments of vernacular garden design from around Berowra.  With the council cleanup coming up, I expect to see more suburban creativity soon.