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.

Of snakes and snakebeans

This sight out the window as I stumbled into the kitchen for the first cup of tea of a Monday morning made the caffeine hit mostly redundant.   Snakey the diamond python’s back in town.

Last time we saw her was early spring a year ago. I looked up from the computer, wondering about the din the little wattlebirds were making, and there she was, stretching up for a sunny rooftop.

I’m worried about the timing of Snakey’s visit.  After a good five years of prevaricating, we finally decided to use rat poison near the house. You can predict and even understand when the vermin demolish your nearly ripe corn-on-the-cob – it’s almost obligatory for your quasi-rural pest population.  But when they won’t leave your broccolini alone it’s all gone too far.

Leaving the house on a late-night mid-winter drive, I saw a tawny frogmouth flash out of the dark.  Another evening a surprised visitor landed on the balustrade of the back deck, only to realise three humans, stock still with beers half-raised to their lips, were unexpected keeping the rodents away.  And we’ve seen Snakey wait, poised for hours, then suddenly strike a rat on a twilight mission for chookhouse grain.  A glorious sight.  But pythons might only eat one a fortnight – it’s that low energy lifestyle.  Sadly there’s no sign of such dietary modesty in the case of the sweet potato munching rattus rattus.

We tried humane traps too.  But what do you do with the terrified beasts, usually the littler, stupider ones, after their night in a cage?  Counsel them?  Release them in the nearest industrial estate?  Figure out some new, psychologically gruelling way of killing them, all the while deluding yourself that it might be somehow be painless?

So not so long ago we reluctantly, guiltily, laid down baits in inaccessible places and endured our penance, the smell of death.

So over my cup of Earl Grey, I anxiously inspected Snakey’s features for signs of toxicity.  She’d chosen her spot judiciously, beside our neighbour’s chicken shed and right above the rat run down to ours.   She looked torpid: had she taken a poisoned rat, one dying slowly and easier to catch than the others?  Wasn’t her jaw somehow slack and asymmetrical, her pose ungainly…?  All I can say is, don’t try phrenology or poker with snakes.  They are danged hard to read.

By the time I got home from work she was gone.  I must confess, in the subsequent days, I have become slightly more cautious with my footing as I head down to peg the washing on the line.

Snakey seems to have brought the subtropical summer with its run-to-the-washing-line storms.  I was that nervous commuter, glancing up at the looming alien mother-ship and hoping I’d get home before all hell broke loose.  Then, same thing, same time, next day. And the next. A regular 4 o’clock Apocalyse.

It’s like the Nile River Delta out back.  As you can see from the flood-art-installation above, every item a child or lazy BBQ tender has carelessly discarded in the backyard now has its own rich pile of alluvium.

The subtropical plants are glowing.  The tumeric has reappeared in the understory as just suddenly as the snake has in the vines.  It dies right down over the winter, and come early December, just when you think it’s a goner, the leaves start nudging through the soil.  Given my dodgy record with propagation, I’m specially pleased to see the this year’s young ‘uns.  Instead of wimping out and buying plants from the ever reliable Daleys, I buried some fresh rhizomes from my weekly organic veggie box and crossed my fingers.

Inspired the marvellous Sri Lankan cooking of my clever sister in law and her mum, I’m trying to grow the ingredients for my favourite mid-week meal of 2014, snake bean curry.  I probably don’t have the stamina to harvest and process my own tumeric powder, but thanks to the big rain, the “Red Dragon” yard long beans are leaping out of the ground, and my baby curry leaf plant – in a pot near the house where I can nip off its weedy berries and quash any suckers – seems to be doing well so far, despite attentions from a nearby lebanese cucumber.  Now, if only I could keep my coriander from bolting for more than 15 minutes I’d be ready to hit the kitchen.  With luck, I’ll still be under the steady supervising eye of Snakey.

Tropic Snow

First peach blossom closeup

The first peach blossom of spring winter: TropicSnow, a low chill variety.  It has produced Cezanne-worthy fruits from its second year here – but so far I haven’t beaten the critters to them.

This year! This year! Mesh exclusion bags!  Fruit fly traps!  Pheromones!  Chooks given the run of the pepino groundcover – dig, dig my sharp clawed friends! – on the condition that they utterly exterminate all fruit fly larvae.  I’m toying with installing a band of slippery plastic (or inedible metal?) around the base of the tree to at least give the possums and the rats a bit of a challenge (or some core body exercise?).  Tiger poo??  Whatever it takes!

Peaches apparently only live for a few years, and I simply refuse to have the damn thing die before I wrap my laughing-gear around some luscious sun-warmed home-grown fruit.

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.

Critters with kidneystones

It was all going so well.  The warrigal greens were flourishing, even without being regularly urinated on.  Deep-rooted sorrel was a stalwart when pretty much nothing else was happening in the garden at all. Both were in high rotation in the kitchen.  I’ve always been a bit cautious about using them raw, since, along with other garden staples like rainbow chard and rhubarb, both of them have a fair bit of oxalic acid, which if you overindulge and/or are unlucky can cause kidney stones (although the idea that the latest “miracle foods” might have the potential to be dangerous causes outrage in some) .  Given that rainbow chard, which is also quite high in oxalates, always has escaped animal attention, it seemed too much of a coincidence that the beasties seemed to leave these plants alone: those smarty pants critters were sensibly avoiding intestinal distress .

But look at my poor greens now:

Chewed sorrel Chewed warrigal greens

Something is clearly tucking in.

There are a number of possible suspects.  Judging from the robotic squeaks and buzzes in the undergrowth, there are satin bowerbirds still around.  Rumour has it they are fond of fresh shoots – I blame them for the tatty foliage of my now past-it Purple King beans.  It could be the chickens of course, but though the four new girls spend a lot of time in the area where the warrigal greens are (or were… *sniff*) only tricksy skinny Shyla regularly scoots through the gap in the bamboo gate into the veggie patch where I’ve planted the sorrel and, more recently, rhubarb (the leaves of which *are* toxic to humans, and have also been chewed in the last few days).  So, in the absence of an extensive literature review on comparative rodent, marsupial and human tolerances of oxalic acid (I have tried!), I’m blaming rats or possums.  I guess definitive evidence would consist of creatures with particular glossy pelts.  Or creatures rolling around with excruciating abdominal pain. Or both.

Diggers

Naughty as it is to dig – vandalising the earthworms’ underground cities and all that – I decided to take to the spade today.  The youngsters did a pretty good job in their weeks under the chook dome of clearing that patch of its weeds but excavating the couch grass was beyond them.  And I wanted to work in the chicken manure they left behind: black-and-white gold it might hypothetically be called by some chicken-obsessive. And, let’s face it, I just felt like digging.

And now I have more garden buddies to help out.  The young chickens returned with some enthusiasm to their old stomping ground.  Tragically perhaps, there are few moments when I’m more content than gardening with an inquisitive chook scratching away beside me, perilously close to being whacked by a spade in its eagerness to dart in for grubs.  Today I almost decided that the psychodrama of raising day-old chicks was worth it.  Shyla, raised in the brooder, hung out with me, approaching periodically to inquire, with a dinkum Aussie rising inflection, when I was going to find her something delicious to eat.  Absolutely charming.

Allegedly Einstein said “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.  This aphorism seems appropriate to ANZAC Day somehow.  It also quite accurately describes my approach to planting broad beans.  I’ve had two goes at getting my broadies going with minimal success, but now the human and chicken digging is done, I’m trying again.  The humane traps are in the post, and in the mean time I’m hoping a well secured vege net will keep critters at bay.  With luck aromatherapy will be my ace in the hole.  The beans planted right by the lavender hedge seemed to germinate unmolested – benefiting, I suspect, from distracting smell of the companion plants.  This particular net was draped right over my “Frenchette” lavandula dentata for the last three months.  It’s as delightfully scented as your granny’s hankie: hopefully rats don’t favour potpourri.

If that doesn’t work, perhaps I should leave out some of the unexpected harvest that appeared underfoot today. One scraggy looking stem of jerusalem artichoke, sprouted from peelings I chucked to the chooks, produced two double handfuls of dangerously more-ish tubers.  Blow on winds of winter, the artichokes have arrived!  This bounty was greeted with groans in the kitchen.  I love the taste and try to sneak them into to soups and bakes and stirfries, just one or two, cut up small so no-one will notice.  But the post-prandial flatulence that inevitably ensues is a dead give-away.  If they have a similar effect on rats, this could be our secret weapon in organic pest control.  Maybe if we leave them scattered around the garden-robbers will gorge themselves on that toothsome but indigestible inulin and simply explode.  If the decorous aroma of lavender  doesn’t work, perhaps the more prosaic accumulation of gas in the alimentary canal is the way to go.

Bean thieves

I’ve been a little obsessed with brush turkeys lately, in case you haven’t noticed. As yet I haven’t set up a nanotechnology lab to investigate the remarkable hydrophobic properties of their eggs but perhaps that’s only a matter of time. In the interests of keeping them from scratching everything up, the garden is an “homage de Christo” at the moment, swathed in vege nets and scraps of daggy horticultural fleece. That’s in addition to chicken wire hoops over my garlic, rocks and tiles around the baby citrus, and a trellis trapdoor over germinating sweet peas. And my new strategy: distraction. The brush turkeys have been having a grand time digging through a recently applied layer of wood chip mulch on the garden paths. Since “tidy” is not my watchword this is all to the good, keep them from pondering on what mysteries might lurk under the sugar cane mulch elsewhere.

However, while I’ve been congratulating myself on my success, other produce snackers have been at work. A few weeks ago I put in a couple of patches of broad beans, and for good measure some lupins as green manure. I spent some time fretting that lupins could become a garden escape, spreading through the sclerophyll forest of the Hawkesbury sandstone like the blue carpeted uplands of New Zealand’s South Island.

Image

I really shouldn’t have bothered. A week or so later I peeped under the fleece to find a neat sequence of holes in the loam. I actually wondered if I’d forgotten to fill in the divots I’d made with my dibber, but no. Apparently lupins make a fine high-protein rodent snack. Sadly broad beans seem to be haute cuisine too – though they weren’t nibbled til they had sprouted. It seems the local rats are health food freaks. Mental note: don’t bother planting quinoa or a goji vine.

There’s a lot in the permaculture literature about the virtual cycles of animal-botanical interactions. Your chickens in their upcycled chook tractor convert scrap to crap, dig up your weeds and move on to clear pastures new. They are a serious danger to your slug population and their bedding makes a fabulous mulch.

Not so much lyrical celebration of the rats that come to eat those scraps and also make short work of your seedlings.

It is particularly irking when these inconvenient animals deploy a pincer movement, the sad story of last year’s voluptuous TropicSnow peaches being a case in point. Protected by mesh exclusion bags, they were safe from fruit fly, or so I thought. But the bags were short work for the local rat pack, and once they’d had the pick of the ripe fruit, the fruit fly came in to clean up the rest.

This is where the food web shows its grimmer side, at least from the human harvester’s perspective. We could put out poison for the rats. But what if bandicoots are also fond of RatSak? And when the rats pop their clogs unobserved, what if the tawny frogmouth or Snakey the diamond python decide groggy and voraciously thirsty rodents or still warm corpses are an easy snack? The poison’s up the food chain and the next thing you know a White Bellied Sea Eagle has carked it on top of your washing line.

Snakey has made inroads on what I should perhaps refer to as our “organic” rodent population.

Image

Unfortunately with that slow reptilian metabolism one rat a fortnight is the best you can hope for.   I like to think that Grandpa’s chook feeder with its foot pedal operation has made things a bit more difficult for the rodents, since I’ve not yet seen them jumping up and down en masse to access the delights inside.

Beans and sky

So, over the last month I’ve managed to raise my first green (and purple) bean crop for years. I’m not quite sure why the critters left them alone. There seems to be an element of the stochastic in all this. Things emerge and grow peaceably and then, bang, the satin bower birds have macerated your greenery. Are the beasties lulling us into a false sense of security? Waiting for the precise moment when everything tastes its best? Or are they just a bit flakey and take a while to figure out that beans are once again on offer down the bottom of the yard?  For all I might be a bit skeptical about the “we sow the seeds, nature grows the seeds, we eat the seeds” hippie vibe of permaculture, there is a lot to be said for stealing a march on the predators by simply baffling them with a jumble of plants: an odd collection of survivors and accidental successes.