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

 

A flash of gold and a stash of blue

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Season of mists and mellow tinnies: the Hawkesbury in fall

Autumn lasted for aroundabout a fortnight this year.  The endless summer of an apocalyptic El Nino wrapped up in mid-May, giving the deciduous trees an extremely tight schedule to dispense with their leaves before this weekend’s torrential rain.

We’ve had autumnal glory in the kitchen as well.  When Keats talked about the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, I’m not sure he was thinking about bananas.  In theory our crop of tiny fragrant fruits should have been perfect for lunchboxes, but I made the mistake of describing the first-ripened one as “Geoffrey”.   After this, not only Geoffrey but all his brothers were deemed “too cute” to be eaten.

As well as the gold in the fruitbowl, there’s been plenty of gold in the trees.  The yellow-tailed black cockatoos are back in force, mewling and crunching in the radiata pines.

Yellow tail and autumn leaves horizontal

Fly by from a yellow tailed black cockatoo

And for the first time this year, I’ve noticed the migrating yellow-faced honeyeaters.  Thousands of them pass through the Blue Mountains most autumns, it seems, but this year they’ve been funnelled between the mountains and the coast, through the Hunter Valley.  I first spotted them darting through the riverside casuarinas at Karuah National Park, on our trip north, but since we’ve been back, I’ve seen flocks of them with their travelling companions, the noisy friarbirds, pouring up the Hawkesbury.  I’ve even seen them on the way to work, taking a moment out on their journey to watch the commuters boarding the morning train at Berowra Station.

But not all the autumnal excitement has been touched with gold.  Last weekend, halfway through detaining my broad beans (fencing, netting and a mulch of lavender and liquidambar – doubtless all in vain) I spotted a little collation of royal blue underneath the pomegranate tree. Nerf gun ammunition, the lid of a milk container, a peg.  Signs that we need to tidy up the yard, and a hint that randy bowerbirds might just do it for us.

 

More autumnal reflections from our backyard:

Let them eat light!

Autumn in terminal decline?

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Backyard gold

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!

Let them eat light!

It’s persimmon season, but, natch, nothing doing on my little Nightingale tree, despite a grand show of weird naked-looking flowers in the spring.  Two fruits nearly made it to the finish line, but the possums got there first.

Gorgeous as the golden fruits are reputed to be as they hang on the leafless trees, 2016, I have decided, will be the year of picking green. The persimmons may well be mouth-puckeringly unripe but as human overlord of this place, I insist that it is I who will enjoy their high-tannin nastiness, and not some upstart marsupial.

In fact, my tree is an old fashioned astringent persimmon: the fruits need to be “bletted” to go super soft and sweet. This can happen far from fruitflies and other critters, deep in the pantry, in the comforting darkness of a paper bag, with only an ethylene-emitting banana for company.  I have days when crawling in next to the banana to be bletted myself sounds like a good gig.

In theory, me and my persimmons can hole out for a few weeks in an undisturbed corner and it should work out delectably for both of us.

But, really, I don’t care! Harvests mean nothing to me! A barren tree is a beautiful tree.

For now, it’s all about the komorebi, a Japanese word I encountered for the first time a few days ago in the marvellous nature blog, Mildly Extreme.

Because who needs food when you can have sunlight filtering through though autumn leaves?*

*Love those leaves… but thank god for the Freemont mandarins

Bandicoot in the Sacred Garden

Is it just me, or does this sound like the title of an atrocious 1970s Australian erotic film? Admittedly I’ve never heard a bloke describe their wedding tackle as any kind of marsupial.  Is this a failure of the national imagination? Possibly.

Anyway, the “sacred garden” is not as lewd as it sounds – it’s the name our eight year old has given the veggie patch that shelters beneath the frame of our ancient trampoline.

I’m not quite sure why she views it as a holy site.  It could be the shape.  In the organic gardening world, it seems, circles, mandalas and spirals have some mystical life-giving power that doesn’t flow through your old fashioned rectangular plot.   I’m skeptical, but at this stage in our death-match with the brush turkeys I’ll take any advantage I can get.  From chook dome to remodelled tramp to recycled children’s bicycle wheels, there are no corners here.

And the Mandala of Aviary Wire does seem to have worked its magic on my brassicas, despite extreme flimsiness.  Having been abandoned by the side of the road after a rich and full life getting between bouncing children and broken ankles, the trampoline net is more a spiritual than a physical barrier to aerial raiders, held in place by optimism and zip ties.  But to date, my newly planted garlic – positioned, of course, in a protective ring around the broccoli – has remained in the ground and my crop of red mustard and baby bok choi, while small, is perfectly formed.

It’s not looking so good on the broad bean front, despite a lavender and rose geranium mulch that makes the chook dome smell like a seniors’ underpants’ drawer.  I’d like to think a benevolent long-nosed bandicoot is squeezing in under the wire to snaffle the curl grubs amongst the asparagus crowns.  But I suspect that in reality I’m hosting rodents with keen insights into the politics of eco-nationalism.  “When you go in and take the beans, Rupert, make sure you leave a cone-shaped hole.  That way the marsupial-loving hippie will never dare leave rat poison out again.”  If only I owned an infra-red video camera with a motion sensor I might find out for sure – or at least collect some footage of hirsute visitors for that retro Ocker erotica.

 

The Phantom Egg Eater: caught in the act!

At last, after yesterday’s sting operation, I can announce that we have finally exposed the identity of the Phantom Egg Eater.

Was it Luna, so long a marked hen after the damning outcome of her interrogation by the children? Or Andy Ninja, craving not just egg yolk, but a return to her lost youth? Or Treasure, driven to the edge by long days alone in the chicken coop, attempting to hatch offspring from a collection of golfballs?

Or was it Snakey, taking a break from the taste of toxin-laden rats?


After six months of suspicion and doubt, all of the above have been exonerated.

Yesterday, RB caught the culprit in the act.

It was Colonel Mustard, in the henhouse, with a candlestick.  Okay, there was no candlestick.  But the resemblance to Colonel Mustard is more than passing.

So it seems apt that, in the interest of maintaining a consistent omelette supply to the humans of the household, the Colonel will be getting a taste of his own medicine.  Whenever he’s in the Dining Room, or indeed, taking light refreshments in the Billiard Room, the Kitchen or the Abandoned Compost Bin, the canapes will inevitably be that 70s classic “stuffed eggshell with a giant mouthful of spicy condiments“.

It’s a relief to know that our girls are innocent of Egg Murder.  However, I’m not sure if I have the probation officer stripes to successfully rehabilitate the Colonel and potentially the entire brush turkey population of the Berowra Valley National Park, even if I had an infinite supply of Masterfoods’ Hot English Mustard. Plus, I’m not entirely convinced that the Colonel, and indeed Mrs Peacock, Miss Scarlett and other native poultry friends, haven’t got a secret passion for the stuff.

So perhaps it’s lucky that the silly season is coming up.  During the festive period I’m hoping my intensive work schedule will involve exhaustive ongoing surveillance of chicken conversation for boastful “I’ve laid an egg” cackles from a strategically chosen location (ie, an easy chair on the back deck).  To ensure the achievement of my critical key performance indicators (that is, collection of at least four intact eggs a day), it will obviously be essential to clear my diary of all other commitments to ensure that I am able to respond to The Egg Dance in a timely and flexible way. This zero tolerance approach to policing brush turkey misdemeanours is going to be a productivity challenge but I think we can rise to it.

Eat sheet and die

Today’s garden project: half-baked sheet mulching.  It sounds like a filo pastry recipe but it’s actually permaculture as practiced by the exceedingly impatient.

Proper sheet mulching is a variant of no-dig gardening that can turn your couch grass infested lawn into a fairly weed-free veggie garden, at the same time recycling all those packing boxes you used when you moved in. Done properly it involves ingredients as rich, fastidiously prepared and generously layered as a fabulous lasagne.

However with an epic quantity of washing still to get off the line and some holy card weather on the horizon, speed, rather than accuracy, was my watchword today.

Ingredients

–  Garden soil.  Very very recently limed and ready to off-gas ammonia when hit by the inevitable cow manure.  Because you can’t beat a vegetable patch that smells of a recently cleaned bathroom.  Soil includes plenty of trad (left over treats for the chickens) just waiting to reroot in the moist and nutrient rich environment of the new zucchini mounds.

– Partly cooked compost, still replete with visible kitchen scraps.  Nothing says “urban food forest” like a seed growing mixture that looks like a bin.  In defense of my shonky methods, zucchini will apparently grow happily on a compost heap.  Lucky, that.

– A bale of sugar cane hay, three bags of cow manure and a handful of golden zucchini seeds

– Two large cardboard boxes, recently used to deliver plants.  There’s poetic symmetry here, since these very same boxes may now very possibly be used to kill them.

Procedure

– Amend soil with cow manure and compost.  Best advice is to check soil chemistry first, but life is too short.  Possibly zucchini plants lives may also be quite short.

– Shape into a mound.  Turn your back for a moment.  Reshape into a mound.  Repeat.  Once again, we see the way chickens (and, it seems, brush turkeys) flourish on a diet of ordure.

– Water thoroughly.  Flatten and soak the cardboard boxes/give the chooks a drink.

– Lay the boxes over your mounds and cover with remaining rotten food scraps.  Mulch with a thick layer of straw, or alternatively, whatever meagre quantity of straw you have left after interring the potato plants.

– Plant three zucchini seeds in each mound.  Say a tiny prayer for each of them.

– Attempt to protect your seedlings from resident poultry by either mechanical or psychological means.  You may want to try one of the one of the following: (a) a long arch of  of chickenwire secured with rocks and tiles (b) a broken child-sized camping chair draped with a vegetable net (c) a scary painting of the Cyclops’ eye.

Only time will tell whether the exclusion approaches traditionally used by permaculturalists will be more or less successful than the innovative deployment of one-eyed monsters from Greek myth.  Since I’ve now used up every scrap of chicken wire, trellis and veggie net on the premises, I may be heading in the direction of threatening ancient gods for economical bird protection in future.