This is going to be a far shorter post than I want it to be. I want to do my research and give you the numbers but I don’t have the time. I leave the country in just a few days, and writing for the blog has kept falling off my “must get done” list. I’m sorry. I’m not going to do these guys justice, and I’m going to fall silent again. Life is short and I’m busy living it, but I have so much I want to say. So, on with it!
I’ve written before about unusual and heirloom vegetables and the importance of maintaining a diversity of seed to enable us to grow crops that best suit our local conditions, that provide the quality or yield of food we seek and provide a rich genetic pool to draw on into the future. Crop diversity helps us to make best use of the land and resources we have, and to adapt to changing conditions as the climate shifts. Protecting plant diversity is important work, and seed banks around the world are contributing to it. It’s not only plant diversity that matters though: if we’re going to feed and clothe ourselves as best as we can, agricultural animal diversity matters just as much. Rare breed beasties need loving too.
Farming systems have become industrialised and standardised across much of the world. Just like crops, the animal breeds most commonly grown are those that give the greatest yield per unit cost, with little consideration given to animal health and welfare, suitability for conditions, environmental impacts, disease resistance or even quality of flavour. Much like supermarket tomatoes, many farmers are growing flavourless meat. For instance, a modern meat chicken takes as little as 30 days to raise from egg to plate1. From nothing to roast dinner in a month? That’s crazy selective breeding for yield and little else.
You may shrug and think that a pig-is-a-pig-is-a-pig, but as such farming practices spread and traditional livestock breeds are replaced by the fast-growing, so much genetic heritage, so much biodiversity, is lost. Along with that we’re losing cultural heritage: breeds that are markers of places or peoples, farming practices that are tied deeply to ways of life. All that is gone, left to fading memories, as heritage porkers are replaced by Large Whites2.
That’s the serious side of things – lost diversity, resilience and heritage – but we’re also losing flavour. Industrialised farming doesn’t grow for best taste. The aim is not the highest quality, merely consistency at a low market price. Does taste matter? Not to everyone, not to those on tight budgets, but to you and me? Sure does! One taste of proper free-range piggy ham from a breed grown for taste convinced me enough that I had to try the bacon, then the chorizo, just to be sure… I didn’t know pork could taste so good!
Lucky for me I live somewhere where I can buy free-range raised, rare breed meats. I can do this because where I live there are farmers who are passionate about rearing rare breeds and keeping all that heritage alive. Farmers who put animal welfare, product quality and taste above maximising products and have worked hard to build up enough of a market that they can grow businesses outside the cut-price supermarket paradigm. And yeah, I’m lucky that I’m in a position where I can choose to support them: I don’t eat much meat, but what I do eat, I can afford to source from these types of farmers. These farmers, who have become people I know.
Let me introduce you to two of them: Guy and Eliza from Mount Gnomon Farm. These are the folk who awakened me to the true beauty of bacon, grown from their drove of Wessex Saddleback pigs. They are fierce supporters of preserving rare breeds and choose their livestock based on an ethos of preserving rarity, suitability to farm conditions, animal well-being and quality of flavour. They are also truly lovely people, and last year I was lucky enough to visit them on the farm and see their passion in action. It’s a beautiful spot on the edge of the Dial Ranges in northern Tasmania, all green grass, red soil and dramatic sky. I’m very glad I had the chance to visit, to meet my meat and learn about the challenges and rewards of free-range rare-breed farming.
It was an inspiring trip for this sustainable eater, and one that you too can make if you’re going to be in Tasmania this weekend. You see, Guy and Eliza are so dedicated to what they do that this weekend they’re opening up the farm to the public to share their passion and show anyone who wants to know how their meat is raised. This Sunday (March 24th) they’re inviting you to a Rare Day Out at Mount Gnomon Farm.
You can visit the farm, get up close and personal with the animals, see what they’re doing to protect the soils and support on-farm diversity and even sample the very tasty meats their animals become. If you’re interested in heritage breeds or free-range farming, or just getting to know a little bit more about where your food comes from, I highly recommend you go along and check it out, and while you’re there, give Cyril a good scratch for me…
Why won’t I be there? because I’ll be on my way to Peru! Catch you in a month or so and as always, thank you for reading!
 “The first harvest might occur as early as 30-35 days and the last at 55-60 days.” Australian Chicken Meat Federation Inc.
 “The Large White has become well established as a major breed in virtually all pig producing countries in the world.” NSW Department of Primary Industries.
It’s that time of year again. The days are still hot, the soil still concerningly dry and the breeze still smells of smoke but they are getting shorter. Summer is slowly sliding into autumn.
The garden knows it. The leaves on the last potatoes have been yellowing. The beans, so prolific this summer, are finishing. A lone pumpkin is beginning to ripen on the self-sown vine. The red winter kale has finally admitted defeat in the face of powdery mildew and aphid attacks and gone to seed. Summer’s bounty is fading.
It’s been an odd growing season, and my first summer here at the Cottage. It was exceedingly hot1 and dry,2 with horrible winds that stripped the moisture out of everything. I don’t like to water much, but even my well-mulched, water-conservative garden has needed a good weekly soaking. The eggplants and chillies enjoyed the heat and I’m looking forward to harvesting a handful of aubergines. The tomatoes haven’t done so well though, or the zucchini: where I was expecting great gluts I’ve ended up scavenging from friends to gather enough for preserving. Still, I’ve had plenty to eat and largely kept myself in veg this summer (with the notable exception of carrots, of which I grew just one).
As the season progressed, so did my weekly harvest!
Now it’s time to prepare the garden for autumn and to stock my stores with the excesses of the summer. Yes, it’s relish time again!
The over-ripe tomatoes I scavenged from a friend’s garden have been turned into jars of rich, summer flavour. Soon that same friend’s surplus giant zucchinis will be cooked up with Indian spices for a spicy savoury relish. A couple of kilos worth of beans – green and scarlet runner – have been chopped and blanched and bagged up in the freezer for winter meals to come, and rhubarb has been stewed and frozen for winter porridge breakfasts. The apples that survived to worst of the weather only to fall prey to codling moth have had the edible parts rescued, been poached in vanilla syrup and stowed away: a delicious sweet treat despite the beasties. A good three kilos of potatoes are paper-wrapped and await a dark place to be stored.
It’s time, now, to prepare the garden for my winter crops. There are beds to dig, seeds to be sown, and if I don’t do it now there will be no backyard harvest through the cooler months. The soil needs a lot of love in places before much of anything will grow, so the compost bin has been shifted and I’m prepping green manure to get some much-needed organics worked in. One over-worked bed will lie fallow this season, then be planted out with herbs come spring.
For now, though, it’s autumn and winter veg I’m thinking of. I have interesting new heirloom seeds to sow: golden beets, fractal (romanesco) broccoli, ruby sprouts, mammoth leeks and purple cauliflower. Poor little plants will need to fend for themselves though, as soon I’m heading overseas again for a while. I’m relying on the kindness of friends and neighbours, on my little community, to tend my garden while I’m gone.
That’s the magic of a garden though: it doesn’t just grow food, it grows connections.3 This summer my surpluses have been shared with others. I’ve traded beans and potatoes for apricots and nectarines. I’ve swapped seeds with other growers. I was given the most amazing types of tomatoes by Pauline Mak and traded garden pest info with Provenance Growers.
My garden does so much more than feeding and nourishing me: it feeds the bees, provides home for the birds, it binds and enriches the fine black soil and it creates places for all sorts of crawlies to scuttle about. It creates a topic of conversation with friends and strangers alike, and allows the free trade of information and sharing of experience. It supports simple acts of giving and sharing and, like the sunflowers blooming down the bottom, spreads a little beauty through the world.
This is what my garden grows.
What about you? What’s happening in your patch right now? Are you starting spring planting? Still awaiting the thaw? Or, like my parents up in south-east Queensland, waiting for the saturated soils to dry out enough to plant?
What do you love about your garden? Tell me, what does it grow?
 Records were set for the hottest single day (41.8oC), the hottest summer overall (highest mean summer maximum) and the number of days above 30oC – source: Bureau of Meteorology.
 Only 39% of our average summer rainfall fell - source: Bureau of Meteorology.
 The social benefits of a garden – source: Irish Food Board.
As may be apparent, 2013 has got off to a busy start for me. Summers in Hobart are jam-packed with things to do, I’ve struggled to find time to write and I’m not as on top of things as I’d like to be.
It can be challenging to maintain balance during busy times and so often I hear people say that they’d like to be more environmentally-sound in their choices but they lead busy lives and they just can’t find the time. And so we let unsustainable choices sneak into our busy lives. We go to the supermarket to do our shopping, instead of visiting the local grocer and the farmer’s market. We drive places instead of cycling or walking. We buy ready-made and processed foods to eat on the run. Gardens get neglected… In the name of convenience, of saving time, we make a thousand small choices that make our lives less sustainable, that lock us in to being busier and busier, that have negative consequences on our health and the health of our planet, our one and only home.
If we really want to make this world, our home, a better place, sustainability needs to be a priority in our lives at all times, especially when we’re tired and stressed. That’s when our bodies and minds are telling us we need to slow down, to rest and to focus on the things that are really important: taking proper care of ourselves and our loved ones. That’s when we really need to nurture ourselves, and we do that best by making sustainable choices, by feeding ourselves wholesome and nutritious food, by connecting with our communities, by ensuring we breathe fresh air and get some exercise, by remembering that living in tune with our beliefs and values actually lowers stress levels and makes us happier.
So stop a while, take a moment to just breathe and remember how it is that you really want to live your life.
Making sustainable choices:
For me, I get through these busy patches by making sustainable choices part of my day’s structure. Daily routines and habits are much easier to maintain than big new changes, so when sustainability is part of your every-day lifestyle, sustainable choices just flow along.
Of course, I don’t have access to an endless well of time so some things do fall by the way-side when I get really busy. It used to be the healthy choices that I let drop. No time for a swim or a bush walk, no energy to cook a proper dinner, and I’ll just finish this or that before I head to bed (oh look, another night of not enough sleep…). Now I’m learning to stay off the computer when I’m tired, that blogging can wait. That I’ll feel better in the morning for cooking a real meal tonight and not opening that bottle of wine. That heading to the pool will clear my head and lower my stress, while an evening on the couch will do the opposite and that no-one is really going to notice if I didn’t do the cleaning this week, but I’m going to feel it I don’t get to the market and stock my kitchen with the sort of food I should be eating.
It’s taken an concerted effort to break these habits and I’m still working on it, but work it does and I’m getting through the busy patches now without dropping the things that really matter to me, without winding up sick and miserable as I push myself too far.
Learning new habits:
- Walk - the daily walk to work is so ingrained into my routines I don’t even think about taking the bus, plus the time and activity help me clear my head for the day ahead. Driving to work or the local shop doesn’t even occur to me now.
- Nourish - it’s very easy when busy to give into the temptation of easy food: processed stuff that will give you a quick energy hit but in the long run is bad for you and the planet (packaging, farming practices, food miles and the rest of it) but preparing and eating real food makes me feel better. When I’m tired and lack the motivation to cook I wander into the garden and find inspiration in what I can harvest there. I also over-cook when I can and stock my freezer with home-made insta-meals to get me through the busy times.
- Prepare - have the little things that help you make the right choices near to hand. I keep fabric shopping bags in places that mean I’ve almost always got one on hand and don’t get caught out needing plastic. I keep my swimming bag packed and hanging my the door. I have raw nuts on hand for snacking. I order seeds so I know I’ll get the garden ready!
- Share - turn chores into a social event by inviting friends, thus helping you to keep the commitment as well as spreading sustainable choices. I make dates with friends to sow the new season’s seeds, to go on foraging missions or get our preserve on to store seasonal surpluses.
- Decide - a friend introduced me to the concept of mindfulness a while back and it’s an amazingly powerful tool I use to keep myself going and being the kind of person I want to be. When I’m tired, grumpy or feeling over it I ask myself who I’m choosing to be, what impact will that choice will have on me? It’s usually enough to get me out and working in the garden or researching sustainability things!
- Stop - I’ve got into the habit now of giving myself a half-hour every evening to just sit and be quiet before bed; time I used to sacrifice in the name of productivity that now allows me to sift through my thoughts and feelings and work out where I’m heading each day. It’s keeping me grounded and has greatly improved the quality of my sleep.
How do you keep yourself on the right path?
These last couple of weeks I’ve been feeling a little low. This time of year does it to me: I get over-scheduled, over-committed, under-slept, and with most folk getting busy with family commitments sometimes I feel pretty alone. I’m tired, and some days it can feel like a bit of a struggle to keep going, but then the little things come along that lift me.
This afternoon I took myself on a fossick around the garden. You see that luscious-looking big, buttery potato there? I grew that. Or more accurately, I provided the soil and the compost and the seed potatoes and the mulch, and it grew itself.
I’ve never grown potatoes before.
Neither have I grown the beans, beetroots, chard, oca and numerous other things doing well in my garden. It kinda makes up for the disappointments, like having only 3 carrots come up, and discovering the self-sown peas I’ve been nurturing were pretty sweet peas and not lovely food. Then there are the strawberries: what fruit has survived the unusually hot and dry conditions of late has been pilfered by the blackbirds: I have had one lone ripe berry.
Tonight I’m going to steam up that potato, diced into little cubes. I’m going to dice and fry some divine local free-range bacon (payment for assistance rendered) and throw in some broadbeans (donated by a colleague with a surplus) plus some chopped up garlic greens and sage leaves I picked this afternoon. I’ll squeeze over a lemon, taken from my friend’s tree, and toss the lot on top of some lettuce leaves that have evaded the worst of the recent weather in a shady part of my garden.
Between my patch of dirt and my community, I’m feeding myself. Tonight I’m eating outside of the system, far removed from the supermarket. I’m actually doing this, with my sad little garden that the heat has burnt and baked the soil to clay. I’m doing this in a rental house, with a full-time job and a life that takes me out and about quite a lot. I am doing this, and if I can do it, maybe so can you. Maybe together we can build ourselves a food community, connecting eaters with growers and using the land we have to grow the food we need.
Imagine that: a world without dependence on the big supermarkets, with their demands for unsustainable farming practices and shelves stacked with pretend food. A world where we know our neighbours and trade our backyard surpluses, where we’ve met the grower who sells us vegetables, where we’ve gotten close and personal with the animals that become our meat. Lower emissions, more sustainable farming, connected communities. Grow, forage, trade, cook: do it.
Sometimes all it takes is a humble potato to remind me what it’s all about.
I believe I’ve mentioned that the gardens here at the Cottage are very good at growing weeds. I’d been working hard to get rid of them up until a couple of months ago when I decided to stop enforcing my idea of order on this patch of earth and work with nature a little more closely. That meant leaving some weeds in place to protect the soils and provide habitat for the creepy-crawlies that will help my garden to grow. So although the mirror-bush seedlings are yanked out as soon as they appear, lesser weeds are allowed to grow where other plants won’t and I started thinking about what makes a plant a weed and wondering what I could do with what the land was providing. So I got to reading, and realised that (along with the fennel) two of my garden weeds were perfectly edible: dandelions and stinging nettles.
Does this look like dinner? Dandelion & fennel from my weedy garden.
I started with the dandelions first, partly because there were more of them, but largely because the stinging part of stinging nettles concerned me. I took to plucking the young dandelion leaves and adding them to my backyard garden salads, pleasantly surprised by the flavour. They taste all green and zingy, something like a cross between rocket (arugula) and nasturtium leaves. Definitely edible, dandelion greens are now part of my culinary world.
The nettles I was less sure what to do with, until Rohan over at Whole Larder Love wrote about making nettle pesto (and if you don’t read Rohan’s blog already, you should. He’s awesome). I was sold on the idea with pesto. All I had to do was let the nettle patch grow until I had enough to try. Then the idea hit: why not mix the nettles with dandelion greens, and throw in some of that fennel that comes up everywhere too? Pest pesto: I had to make it a reality, and so I did.
Nasty spiky stinging nettles: surely not destined for dinner?
I collected all the young dandelion leaves I could find and pulled up fennel seedlings from the front garden, then I donned my trusty gardening gloves and plucked all the nettles (and still managed to sting myself somehow). The ‘lion leaves and fennel were simply washed and chopped, but the nettles needed de-stinging. I simply boiled the kettle and poured the hot, hot water over the spiny things and was hit by the most amazing smell! Like spinach, but earthier, and my senses were telling me most definitely edible! I gingerly poked at the blanched greens to confirm successful de-stinging, then chopped those up too and got on with the pesto-making.
A few cloves of garlic, a good slug of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, salt, pepper and a handful of sunflower seeds later, I had a jug of pest pesto ready to go. Conveniently, it was lunch time, so I threw some gluten-free pasta in the pot, chopped up some other tasty bits and stirred through a couple of generous spoons of my weedy green goo. The verdict? Delicious! Next time though, more nettles and less dandies.
Now I’m waiting for enough nettles to come up to make a second batch. Instead of pulling out the bastards when they pop out of the soil I leave the nettles be and dream of meals to come. From pest to prime ingredient, who’d have thought it?
Hey presto, it’s pest pesto!
Here are a few more benefits to be had from the weeds in your veggie garden:
- Legume weeds like clover add nitrogen to the soil, making more nutrients available for your plants.[1, 2]
- Plants with deep tap roots, like dandelions, break up compacted soils and help your veggies dig themselves in deeper. [3, 2]
- Spiky or pungent weeds can act as pest control, keeping furry and insect nibblers away. [1, 4]
- Some weeds, particularly native species, help to attract beneficial insects into the garden. [1,4]
- Weeds provide vital cover on what would otherwise be bare soils, retaining moisture and adding organic matter, as well as preventing soil compaction and erosion. [3, 2]
- Weeds can confuse pest insects by making it harder for them to find your tasty target plants. 
- Left to grow and then pulled before seeding, weeds can be a free source of mulch and compost. [5, 3]
- Manageable “nice” weeds can out-compete nastier weeds that are harder to control. I’ll take dandelions over thistles any day! 
And of course, leaving selected weeds be means less work for me, and another reason to avoid using herbicides in the garden. A free meal, better soil, happy bugs and more free time? Sounds rather sustainable to me!
What weeds have you learnt to live with, and why?
 Wikipedia on beneficial weeds
 Cocannouer JA (1950) Weeds: Guardians of the Soil; The Devin-Adair Company; Connecticut, USA
 Dave’s Garden Guide
 Hillocks RJ (1998) The potential benefits of weeds with reference to small holder agriculture in Africa; Integrated Pest Management Reviews 3, 155-167
 Gardening Organic UK
I have a few strange habits:
- I keep every rubber band that enters my house in a container in a kitchen drawer.
- The frilly tulle bags from jewellery shops get tucked into a box in a draw.
- I stack up old egg cartons on top of the fridge.
- Glass jars get washed up and stowed in a box under the table.
- A pretty box in the study stores used wrappings, packaging and ribbons.
- What plastic bags and tubs cannot be avoided are washed up and stored.
- I pile up plastic plant pots in an old plaster bucket under the house.
- Bottles of old engine oil get dutifully stored under the house.
- I bring home occasional piles of newspapers from work or bags of coffee grounds from my local cafe.
And yet, I’m not a hoarder. My home is small with little storage and I’m pretty strict about stuff. So why keep these things? Because they are still useful – to me or someone else – and needn’t be thrown away.
The rubber bands go to the market vendors who use the blighters to bundle their veg (with a few kept on hand because they’re always useful). The frilly tulle bags that still look brand new are taken back to the shop (eventually), saving the vendors money. The egg cartons get split between colleagues with chooks and the CWA shop (I tried using some as bio-degradable seedling pots this year, but it was a bit of a fail). The jars are re-used for storing dry goods and home-made preserves, with the excess passed on to a local charity for others to use. Rescued tissue paper and cellophane are kept to wrap another day, post-packs are recycled and ribbons re-used.
Those unavoidable plastics* are re-used to store fruit and veg in the fridge, and to freeze left-overs for future lunches (though I’m a little bit worried about the health implications of this). Pots are recycled (it’s best to sterilize them first, if you can) for the next lot of seedlings, now that I’m growing from seed, or passed on to gardening friends. The old engine oil goes to a guy who uses it for weather-proofing timber for his landscaping projects. Newspapers help light the fire, get shredded into the compost or added to mulch, while coffee grounds are deployed as slug and snail protection around pale green garden things.
This year’s seedlings shot up in recycled pots (but did less well in egg cartons), while an old olive tub gets used again for storing home-made hummus.
These things that would otherwise be thrown out as waste, added to the vast pile of landfill, are still useful. There is no need to throw them away. Each and every item that comes into my home came from somewhere, was made from something. Resources were consumed to make it and transport it to me, and living sustainably is all about conserving our resources as much as possible. Whether it’s the petroleum products in plastics or the plant nutrients in the coffee grounds, I feel I have a duty to make the most of the resources I consume and so I do my best to re-use and recycle.
What I really like, though, is the expression of pleasant surprise on the faces of shop-keepers and growers when I turn up with a bundle of tulle bags or rubber bands. I’m saving them money by my small acts, making a tiny contribution to reducing their operating costs and keeping my favourite businesses going. Now how’s that for sustainability?
Our little choices and small, simple acts can all add up and make a real difference.
* Any tips on how to go about buying locally-grown olives or other deli goodies without bringing home another plastic tub? How to store leafy veggies in the fridge without plastic bags? I’m keen to de-plastic my existence!
Can you believe it’s November already? November, when the weather finally warms up around here, the days grow long and the garden takes off. Time to plan for the summer and the busy period to come.
I’m wondering where 2012 went and realising that all too soon it will be Christmas, then New Year and 2013 will be here. Christmas… It still strikes me as unnatural to celebrate Christmas at the height of summer, when life here is at its busiest. It’s a Northern Hemisphere idea: a mid-winter festival that draws us together through the cold and dark. Fairy-lights, conifers and roast dinners make sense when the nights are long and cold, not when the temperatures are hitting 30oC! Still, Christmas is coming and it’s time to prepare, and that means getting gifts organised.
I loathe Christmas shopping. I’m not a fan of shopping at the best of times, but the combination of festive muzak, crowds and marketing overload between now and December 25th push me to the very edge. I do my damnedest to avoid it! Instead of heading out and buying stuff I stay in and make things with my own two hands.
It’s a choice that started as necessity when I was a broke uni student. With no cash to spare I got creative at Christmas, baking cookies, mixing up bath salts or massage oils, cooking up pesto and sauces, or making gift cards promising to deliver a massage or perform specific chores. Presents were wrapped in plain brown paper (hand-decorated in those days when I had more free time) and gift tags created from the bits and bobs in my craft draw.
My family got used to the idea of a hand-made Christmas and now it’s a tradition that continues. Born out of poverty it’s now a celebration of love: taking the time to make something for each other instead of buying yet more stuff. It’s cheaper, more meaningful and what’s more, it’s greener too! Consider the difference in impact between something cooked up in your own kitchen versus a made-in-China trinket. Home-made gifts mean no packaging, no transport emissions, no manufacturing impacts and far less resource use.
Of course, not everyone has the time, skills or resources available to make Chrimbo gifts, but there are still ways to green-up your gift-giving:
- Go second-hand – if you’re after a specific item for someone, does it have to be new? Check out websites like gumtree.com or the trading post and see if you can score one second-hand (thus leaving you with more money to get them something extra).
- Go local – buy things made by people in your community. Try art and craft galleries and fairs, or manufacturing jewellers for pretty things. Buy a book by a local author or a CD from your fave local band or city orchestra.
- Go charity – Not in need of more stuff? Make a donation to a worthwhile cause in your family’s name instead, or buy a charity gift through one of the many great programs available these days. A couple of years ago my Mum gave me a goat and it made me very happy!
- Go experiences – instead of objects, give the gift of doing. Think tickets to a concert, a fine-dining experience, a voucher for a massage, or something a little more adventurous like a joy flight or jet-boat ride.
- Go producer – visit the markets and providores to pick up locally made tasty treats, supporting local farmers and growers. Put together a hamper of local cheeses and chutneys, give a dessert-lover sweet sauces and syrups or box up a collection of quirky ingredients for a culinarily-adventurous friend.
- Go growing – give the gardener in your life (hi Dad!) some fancy heirloom veggie seeds, pick up some funky potted herbs for home gourmets or give a living bouquet with a pot of pretty flowers or an exotic orchid to your loved green-thumb.
This year I’ll be baking mini Christmas cakes (note to self: put the cake fruit into brandy this weekend) and making panforte again. I’ve also got a bag of lovely foraged lemons that I’ll turn into sunshiny curd to give away, along with the spiced cumquats I bottled recently. And because Christmas means sharing food and booze I’ll be buying some fine local wines and sourcing prime Tassie produce to lay on my table.
Do your worst, Christmas, I am prepared!
How do you navigate the Christmas consumer overload? Share your suggestions for making the festive season a little more sustainable!
Peanut butter cookies & Lemon curd never go astray!
Tassie folk: where are you doing your sustainable Christmas shopping? Here’s a summary of what’s on in the festive lead-up:
- Sustainable Living Festival – 10 & 11 November, Princes Wharf, Hobart
- Plant Hunter’s Fair - 10 & 11 November, Plant Hunters Nursery, 1115 Huon Road, Neika
- The Barn Market - 17 November, Rosny Barn, Rosny Park
- The Mother’s Market - 26 & 27 November, St. George’s Church Hall, Cromwell Street, Battery Point
- Maker’s Market – 8 & 9 December, Masonic Temple, Sandy Bay Rd, Battery Point
- Farm Gate Market - every Sunday, Melville St car park, corner Melville & Elizabeth Streets, Hobart
- Harvest Market - every Saturday, Cimitiere Street car park, Launceston
Can you add to the list?
Have you ever noticed how much food grows in our urban spaces? Here in Hobart I know where to find elderberry trees, blackberries, olives, apples, quinces and figs. As I’m slowly learning a little more about edible natives I’m discovering a whole new range of plants to scavenge for a free feed. The urban bounty isn’t restricted, however, to the plants that grow between the cracks. There’s also plenty of edible goodness going to waste in other people’s gardens. Who hasn’t seen a lemon tree laden with un-picked fruit and longed to clamber over the fence for a handful of fruit? After all, there’s no point letting it go to waste!
But as well as being illegal, trespass is plain bad manners. So when walking a new route home one day and stumbling across a heavily-laden little cumquat tree I resisted the urge to just help myself and summoned up the courage to knock on a stranger’s door. And you know what, permission to pick all I wanted was granted (though I did have to come by a couple of times before I caught someone at home). The next free Sunday I wandered on down and filled up my little bag then spent a few quiet hours preparing the fruit to preserve. Juicy little balls of sour in a sweet-spiced syrup: juice, honey, sugar, cinnamon, clove and brandy, stowed away for a Christmas treat and as gifts-in-kind to helpful friends.
Did you know cumquats are fiddly little things to peel? How my hands ached the next day! It turns out though that the peel is edible and I should have done my research first. Ah well, next time I’ll preserve them whole.
Of course, there’s a price to pay for picking with permission: a jar or two of your handiwork delivered to the grower to show your thanks. I hope she likes them! There’s also something quite nifty to gain: another link into creating community, building trust between neighbours and breaking down the walls we construct along property lines. We know each other’s names now, the cumquat grower and I. We’ve enlarged each other’s world, just that tiny bit more.
Tips for urban foraging:
- Be certain you know what you’re collecting: stick to things you can readily ID. Take an expert with you when foraging for mushrooms (and if you know one in Hobart, please point them my way!).
- Avoid collecting from plants along major roads; they’ll be covered in car exhaust crud.
- Only collect from plants you’re certain haven’t been sprayed (particularly problematic for blackberrying).
- For native plants leave enough to share with the wildlife; they need the food more than you.
- Ask for permission before harvesting from private gardens if you’re crossing the property line (I’m less circumspect about collecting fruit from the other side of the fence, especially if it’s clearly being left to rot).
- What goes around comes around: always pass on something made with the product to growers who donate.
What have you foraged from your neighbourhood?
It’s early spring here in southern Tasmania; no doubt about it. The bulbs have pushed their green fingers through wet soil, the daffodils have thrust their cheerful faces towards the sky and the garden is gently unfurling itself, seeking the warming sun. The nights are still chilly but the days are lighter and warmer, and this weekend the first bees appeared, contentedly buzzing among the bright blue flowers of my borage.
It’s the lean season in the garden: winter crops of brassicas are going to seed and falling victim to the aphids that manage to appear out of nowhere. My spring greens, freshly planted, are little more than shoots and sprouts and the summer veg still lie in coiled potential within their seeds, sleeping in the warmth of my tiny greenhouse. The lack of local produce at this time of year can be felt at the grocery store and at the market. Winter root vegetables are past their best, with potatoes threatening to sprout in the cupboard and parsnips turning woody. There’s still kale about, but after 4 months of kale feast I’ve had my fill until next winter. At my local grocer the shelves are stocked with eggplant from north Queensland ($14 a kilo!), strawberries from Western Australia and green beans from somewhere in northern New South Wales. It’s all food that’s travelled a long way from market, by boat or plane, or spent months in cold storage, before it reaches our plates.
Me, I like to eat fresh local produce that reflects the seasons. There’s a whole load of good reasons to do this:
- Local food gets to you sooner, so the food is fresher, tastes better and has peak nutrient content.
- It’s more energy efficient, as less energy has been used to store and transplant the food.
- Seasonal growing also requires fewer resources as we’re working with nature: no lighting, no heating, less fertilizers, less pesticides and less irrigation.
- Seasonal eating allows us to taste the changing seasons and be more connected with the world around us.
- It supports local growers and brings local products to market, improving food security and helping to build community.
- It’s cheaper, as you’re not paying for the transport, storage, and other resources, plus you can grow a lot to eat yourself!
So what to eat in Hobart in September, when the pickings are slim and the shops full of imports? It turns out that there’s quite a lot! Between my little garden and Farm Gate Market I’m managing surprisingly well. You just might need to broaden your definition of vegetables to get the most out of early spring. A 10 minute forage in my still-establishing garden yielded the array of tasty goodies pictured above:
- The last tiny shoots of sprouting broccoli, surprisingly sweet and just bite-sized.
- Delicate fronds of salad burnet, rapidly unfurling new spring growth.
- The first pickable leaves of oak lettuce, a self self-sown surprise in the berry bed.
- The last few leaves of my winter crop of rocket (arugula), now in full flower.
- “Rocketini” – the whole seedling thinnings from the spring crop of rocket – densely packed with nutrients and flavour.
- Soft new leaves of the nasturtiams - such a lovely peppery taste.
- A few sprigs of salad-friendly herbs: coriander shoots, sea celery and deep green mint.
- a beautiful selection of edible blooms: bright yellow kale, maroon and cream rocket, borage blue and the cheery orange of nasturtiam.
Edible flowers are one of my favourite spring garden things, and this evening’s pickings turned my garden fresh salad into a delicious, nutritious work of art. With the addition of avocado donated by a friend with a bumper crop, some baby radish greens* from the incredible new season radishes I picked up at the Market (thanks Provenance Growers!), some Huon Valley smoked salmon and a splash of local raspberry vinegar for dressing, everything on my plate this evening came from this little isle and most of it came from my back yard, a new patch that’s only just beginning its kitchen-garden journey.
That said, I still find myself yearning for a glossy dark eggplant (aubergine) or a bright red capsicum (bell pepper). I grew up in Queensland where European veg grows through the winters and summers are full of south-east Asian flavours, but I have learnt that the well-travelled specimens that grace our southern shores are a poor echo of the flavours I’m dreaming of. Better off waiting for the long days of late summer, when the locally grown stuff appears and life is Mediterranean-flavoured. For now I’ll celebrate the flavours of Tasmanian spring in all its fresh green glory, and preserve the few excesses of the season to flavour the summer to come.
Want to know what’s in season where you are? There are lots of great, region-specific seasonal food guides available on-line, or wander down to your local produce market and see for yourself!
* Yes, radish leaves are perfectly edible! So are beetroot leaves. Both can be used as salad or lightly stir-fried but the youngest, freshest leaves are best.
These days I think most everyone who’s interesting in food – from either a taste or a sustainability perspective – has discovered the benefits of shopping at local farmer’s markets*. Fresh, local produce that tastes great and supports the local community: what’s not to love?
There’s a lot of good information out there about the benefits of shopping at your local market and avoiding the supermarket produce aisles:
- The food is fresher, thus packed with more nutrients and will keep fresh for longer.
- You can get a broader range of varieties, bred for flavour and to suit local conditions, rather than shelf-life and supermarket aesthetics.
- You’re supporting smaller farmers who tend to manage their land more sustainably than the big agri-business growers that supply the supermarkets (where often decisions are made too far away from the land).
- You’re supporting the local economy, investing directly into your own community instead of creating profits for multi-national corporations.
- You’re shrinking your carbon footprint by purchasing food that’s locally grown and in season, avoiding energy use for storage and transport.
These are all very good reasons to consider shopping at farmer’s markets (though there are potential down-sides in terms of global food security, affordability and global distribution of wealth, but that’s a complicated discussion for another day) and what originally got me out of bed on a Sunday morning to head down to Farm Gate, but it’s not the main thing that keeps me coming back.
What keeps me supporting my local market is the sense of community this simple activity builds. Sometimes I’ll wander the market with a friend, making new connections as we meet people they know, but often I’m happy to wander alone and strike up conversations as I go, a question about growing techniques or flavour combinations turning into a connection over shared interests. Over time I’ve come to know a few of my favourite stall holders and growers, learning about their businesses and the passions that drive them to produce small-scale, high quality food.
There’s Ross and Matt with their free-range heritage-breed pork products, who have made me finally understand what the fuss over bacon is about. There’s the amazing Paulette of Provenance Growers, with her near-encyclopaedic knowledge of unusual edibles and native herbs who is enabling my ever-expanding herb collection (and her mum, who keeps me happily supplied with finger limes). Mark of the Naked Carrot and grower of tasty micro-veg has a ready smile and says nice things about my photography, and Masaaki Koyama makes the best sushi I’ve ever eaten (and has cooked for Iron Chef Sakai!).
Through these talented cooks and growers I’ve learnt more about where my food comes from and the challenges local farmers face. I’ve learnt what to do with broad beans and mizuna, eaten purple spuds and slippery-jack mushrooms and ditched growing parsley for the tastier native sea celery. From the market I’m learning what to sow and harvest each season in my own little patch, when dairy goats produce the best milk and how to cook a cassoulet, but more than that I’m making friends with the people who feed me, connecting a little deeper with my local community.
From the corner store to your favourite café, food has an enormous power to draw people together, and no-where have I found that more strongly illustrated than at the market. These days I look forward to catching up with my favourite market people as much as to the delicious produce I’m going to be bringing home.
Have you nurtured a sense of community through food? Got any ideas of how we can connect our communities through food in places without farmer’s markets or where socio-economic drivers keep people away? I’d love to hear about community gardens, co-ops and other projects that grow more than just food and feed more than our bellies.
Y’know something that really annoys me? Food waste. It could be the many hours I spent working in kitchens to support my studies, or it could just be simple economics, but it riles me.
There’s little sadder than seeing the hard work of our primary producers wind up in the garbage bin, uneaten and unwanted. You’re not just throwing away your own money, but also the labour, water, nutrients, transport and storage that got that food from the farm to you. It’s not just the lost resources either. Food rotting in land fill produces methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more climate-affecting than CO2. That’s a whole lot of unnecessary waste!
How bad is the problem? I don’t know about the rest of the world, but here in Australia we throw out around 7.5 million tonnes of food waste every year. That works out to about $ 7.8 billion in food waste, just looking at sale price alone! 40 % of our average household garbage is food waste – that’s taking out the people who compost – and in some parts of the country as much as 20% of the total food we buy is thrown away. With 30% of our population living below the poverty line how can we afford to waste so much food? I just don’t get it!
Lately I’ve come across a few organisations doing their bit for reducing food waste in Australia by taking the surplus from the fortunate and using it to feed the hungry. Here in Tasmania there’s Produce to the People, who collect the excess from backyard veggie gardens. In the bigger Australian cities groups like OzHarvest, Second Bite, Foodbank and Fare Share collect from supermarkets, restaurants and farms. Similar volunteer groups and food charities are popping up in major cities across the westernised world. These are fantastic programs, helping to reduce the environmental impacts of food waste and redistributing the surplus it to where it’s needed, but I think it’s also important to do what you can on a personal level to ensure you get the most out of the food you grow and buy.
Very little food goes to waste in my house and what does goes back into the system via my compost bin, rather than rotting away as landfill. It does take a certain amount of effort though! I have to think about what I’m buying and make myself cook even when I really don’t feel like it. I buy in smaller quantities and seek out fresher local produce, so have to hit up the shops a little more often, and when I have over-bought or have been too busy to cook I need to come up with creative ways to use up the excess before it spoils (or freeze it until I land an idea later). As a side benefit, getting the most out of my food gives me a little more disposable income to splurge on a nice wine to wash my meals down with, or the occasional gourmet treat!
Here are my favourite methods for using up food and preventing waste:
- Save any sad-looking veggies or edible offcuts for making stock. I have a bag in the freezer that scraps get thrown into as I go, then once it’s full I’ll add some dried mushrooms or the bones from a roast chook and turn it into tasty stock.
- Preserve it! Make sweet sauces from over-ripe fruit, turn a tomato glut into chutney or simply pickle extra veggies for a piquant treat to enjoy when they go out of season.
- Turn extra herbs into pesto, or chop them finely and freeze in small servings for future cooking.
- Freeze cream or plain yoghurt into icecube trays, then add a few cubes to stews or sauces when you need to.
- Poach or bake fruit that’s past it’s best and add it to your morning cereal or enjoy it as a dessert.
- Get creative in the kitchen; challenge yourself to use up everything perishable before buying fresh food and see what you can invent from the odds and ends hiding in your fridge and cupboards (I’ve made some of my favourite meals this way)
- Cook it all up into tasty meals and freeze them in portions for lunches. With a hot home-made curry or stir-fry instead of a sandwich you’ll be the envy of the work lunchroom!
- Share the love: put on a feast for friends or give away food you won’t use instead of letting it go to waste.
Over the last few months my tomato plants have been producing more fruit than I’ve been able to eat (and believe me, I’ve eaten a lot of tomatoes). I’ve given a fair amount away, but I’ve also been dicing and freezing what remained of each week’s harvest to eat once the season is over.
I’m moving house this weekend, which means unplugging the freezer, so I figured I’d better take action and do something to preserve my frozen harvest. Frozen tomatoes aren’t good for much: they get watery and soggy and so are no good for chutneys or relishes. Besides, I’m low on free time at present and really needed a simple, no fuss solution. What could be easier than tomato puree?
- Transfer frozen tomatoes to a large, heavy-based saucepan and cook on low heat until mixture reduces significantly and skins start to break apart.
- In a small pan, heat a few tablespoons of mild vegetable oil and fry 3 or 4 diced good-sized cloves of garlic and some finely-chopped red chillies (to taste).
- Add lashings of cracked black pepper and generous pinch of salt to the garlic mix.
- When garlic is lightly browned add a few tablespoons of white wine vinegar and stir to de-glaze pan.
- Pour garlic and vinegar mixture into cooked tomatoes and blend to a smooth paste, adding a little extra oil if necessary.
- Transfer finished puree into sterilised jars and stow away to enjoy another day!
I chose to make a puree that could be used for both Mediterranean and East Asian cooking, hence the use of a lightly flavoured oil, garlic and chilli. If you’re in an Italian type of mood I’d suggest using a good olive oil and adding some bay leaves and rosemary to your mix. It’s always fun to play with flavours and see what works for your tastes.
The finished product didn’t look all that much like tomato puree since the bulk of my harvest this year was yelllow-skinned ‘snow white’ cherry tomatoes, so I thought I’d better label the jars to be on the safe side! Because I’m paranoid, I tend to keep my preserves in the fridge unless they’ve been loaded up with sugar and pectin (jams) or vinegar (pickles and chutneys). This lot only have a little oil and vinegar, plus the chilli and garlic to protect them, so they’ll stay refrigerated until I get around to eating them.
At the height of the tomato glut I had enough fresh fruit to make up a few jars of spicy relish, and once the moving is done I’m going to come back to pick the green fruit remaining on the plants to make a green tomato chutney. That should see me right for tomato goodness through the winter months!
Jams, pickling, drying, bottling: what’s your favourite way of preserving excess produce?
After last week’s cold snap the weather here has returned to autumn glory. Cool mornings, wispy with fog, turn slowly into blue-sky days, ending in golden afternoons, gently warm under the mellow sun.
It’s perfect gardening weather, the lazy afternoons calling me to spend time in my little patch, harvesting the last of the summer’s goodness and preparing the soil for winter. There’s seed to collect and to be planted, late kale and cherry tomatoes to harvest, herbs to prune back and dry for the winter and the compost is long overdue for turning. It’s a busy time for a gardener but this year I’m doing less than usual, and the pleasure of the work is tinged with sadness: I’ve built this productive tiny garden up over two-and-a-half years of living here but now I’m moving on. The thought of leaving it all behind makes me glum, not yet knowing if my new place will have a real garden or just space for a few pots.
When I moved in here I told myself I wouldn’t get too invested in a garden. Just a few herbs for the kitchen, nothing more. I’d set up veggie patches and herb beds before, just to leave them behind in a year or two’s time, never reaping the full benefit of the work. It started innocuously enough: planting out some of the potted herbs brought from the flat I’d been living in, and a basic compost heap to save throwing good veggie scraps in the bin. Then I got a little excited about the idea of spring bulbs (having previously lived in sub-tropical climes), so in went some tulips and irises and a few months later a riot of colourful blooms rewarded the effort.
I turned the soil, added water crystals, clay-breaker and compost, and soon the sad soil I’d arrived to (with nary a worm to be found) was becoming rich and black and good. In went tomatoes, with great success (and many jars of relish). In a fit of excitement at the prospect of berries I planted a raspberry cane. Friends passed on seedlings and so I grew broccoli and kale. I gave into temptation at the farmer’s market, so in went sea celery, spinach, rocket and tatsoi. An artichoke came up, all by itself and another crop of tomatoes went in.
I am a compulsive gardener. I can’t help myself, and this is my patch. I’m going to miss it and can only hope that the next tenant appreciates what they’ll inherit. I hope the new place, when I find it, has space to dig, though if not I’ll keep myself going with what will cope in pots and dream of the day I own a patch of dirt of my own. Oh the things I will grow!
My potted garden basics:
- Italian parsley
- Rocket (arugula)
- English spinach
What are your favourite edible things to grow?