I have slowly been getting my life back in order and recovering from a little souvenir illness I brought back from Peru. After so many weeks away or otherwise indisposed I feel like the world has got away from me a little.
Still, the list of things to do is – very slowly – getting shorter, as are the days. Although it’s technically still autumn, winter arrived here in Hobart a few days ago. I’ve been enjoying the frosty mornings, cold blue-sky days and crisp, starry nights. Having the wood heater going really does help with enjoying the cooler weather, I must admit, and I’ve purchased another load of ‘sustainably-harvested’ firewood.
Meanwhile there’s always work to be done in the garden, no matter the time of year. I’ve harvested the last of the beans, tomatoes and potatoes, plus the surprise Jerusalem artichokes (thank-you former tenants). While I was gone the lettuce went to seed, so at some point I need to dig the seedlings out of the lawn and find a better place for them. The winter brassicas are coming along nicely too, with staggered plantings of broccoli, kale, cauliflower, Brussel’s sprouts and tatsoi to get me through the coming months.
Really though I’m looking forward to the slower pace of winter; to quiet nights in front of the fire, slow cooked meals, sleeping in and time spent with good books. The challenge now is making that happen, with everything else I want to do, and still finding time to research and write.
Somehow, though, I always find time to stop and appreciate the beautiful world around me.
What do you like best about winter? Tell me how you celebrate the cold season.
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.
Spring is ramping up into summer now. The days are long, the evenings warm and I’m thinking I’ll need to take a hat on my walk to work from now on. With the return of the sun the garden has roused itself and the food growing has begun in earnest.
I’m spending more and more time out there, planting out seedlings, picking things to put on my plate and aiming to keep the mulch in the garden beds and the grass in the lawn. My resident blackbird family disagree with my philosophy of mulching the veggies, preferring instead to spread the stuff over the pavers and lawn, uprooting the occasional seedling in the process. Still, they’ve developed a taste for snails and for that I am grateful: as much as I’d prefer a few native blue-tongue lizards to do the job I’m in the middle of suburbia and can’t provide good lizard habitat.
The garden here is the biggest one I’ve ever taken on, and I’ve surprised myself by already filling up all the existing garden beds and the new one I dug at the bottom of the yard. I’ve planted potatoes and oca, and they take up quite a bit of space! Also in are peas and beans (the peas self-sowed, as did one type of bean, so I’m not sure what I’ve got yet), beetroot (doing well), carrots (doing badly), lettuce (another self-sower) rocket, rainbow chard and the first lot of tomatoes.
Meanwhile, the late seedlings (mostly replacements for what the snails ate the first time) are sitting in an old fish tank on my dining table, waiting to be planted out this weekend. There’s a load more tomatoes, sprouting broccoli, dill, parsley, sunflowers and my coddled tiny eggplants that will go into pots in the greenhouse though I doubt I’ll manage to get fruit of them. Since I’m all out of garden space already I guess I’m going to be digging up more lawn. Luckily my landlord doesn’t seem to mind and lets me do my garden thing (at least so far).
Some things do incredibly well here. Red winter kale continues to come up everywhere, as do borage and calendula. The spuds are thriving and the beans are shooting up quickly. Other things aren’t doing so well, like the strawberries that put out lots of leaf growth but aren’t quite getting enough sun to flower well. The lack of sun has also set some plants back a little: my pea plants are tall and strong but are only now really getting going on flowering, while friends are already harvesting theirs.
Still, it’s beginning looking like a real garden out there. The neighbour’s house might shade it more than I’d like, the soil is still lacking in organic matter and the blackbirds may frustrate my efforts at keeping everything neat and tidy, but it feeds me, both literally and metaphorically. Time in the garden helps to ground me, and the physical work with obvious results is a powerful antidote to the day job, spent sitting behind a computer for far too many hours. Tending the earth has helped to keep me sane while a nasty knee injury has preventing me from hiking and motivated me to get outside and active through stressful times. It’s a very good thing I’m enjoying it, as there’s plenty more work to be done.
Spring has been beautiful in my garden, and now the summer has begun.
What’s growing in my garden this summer? Plants marked * are self-sown or were here when I got here:
- Beans (mix of fresh eating & drying varieties)
- Bok Choi
- Broccoli, sprouting* (also seedlings I’ve grown myself)
- Carrots (barely!)
- Chard, rainbow
- Eggplant, casper
- Kale, curly*
- Kale, red winter*
- Lettuce* (read & green oak & two other mystery non-heading varieties)
- Peas* (mystery varieties)
- Potatoes (blue sapphire, pink fir apple, cranberry red & banana that I put in, plus a white variety* that self-sowed)
- Raspberries* (one here, one I’ve planted)
- Salad burnett
- Wide assortment of herbs (mixed origins)
Tell me, what have you got growing?
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!
It’s been just over 6 months now since I moved here to the Cottage, looking for a home that would better enable me to live the lifestyle I was after; something smaller, lower impact and more locally-focussed. It feels like a good time, now, with the weather warming and winter fading into memory, to reflect on the changes that have been made and the life I’ve been growing for myself.
So how have things turned out? Let’s take a look at my original list of desired aspects and see!
- North-facing, sunny position: a definite success! Once I hacked back the mirror bush that was shading out the morning sun, the Cottage has been filled with light. Sure, my armchair under the window is fading, but I don’t mind. Even on cold days, if the sun is shining the house warms up and stays warm until late evening. Even in the depths of winter, a sunny day means coming home to a warm house. Old but decent curtains help to keep the warmth in (though would be even more efficient if floor-length) and the tiled floor also adds to the thermal mass of the place. I’ve been seriously impressed: this old timber girl was far warmer through the winter than the previous modern brick place I was living in.
- Not open plan: There’s nothing open plan about this place and being able to shut rooms off made for much more efficient heating on those chilly winter nights. If I didn’t get the fire going I could use the electric heater to warm up only the room I was using, which was far more efficient and effective. On the other hand, once I had a good blaze going in the evenings I could open the door to the bedroom and know that by sleep-time it would be cozy warm in there. The place doesn’t feel pokey though, and with all the doors open the place is light and breezy.
- Insulated: Yeah, well, you can’t have everything, right, and the place is 100 years old… The roof here is not insulated and when I first moved in I discovered a few rather chilly draughts! The ceiling is timber panelling (huon pine, I believe), which is unusual, but turns out to have pretty good insulating properties. Well, at least once you’ve had your landlord get up there with gap filler and block up all the cracks and gaps where the timber’s warped with age. No longer are there 2 am “waterfalls” of cold air falling from the knots above my bed. I also sealed the sash windows and now, even in the spring gales with their 100 km/hr winds, no draught gets in. Between the timber ceiling and the proper curtains we stayed pretty warm through the winter, again much better than my old, semi-insulated 1990’s house.
- Workable kitchen with natural light: Ah, the kitchen. I compromised a little on the kitchen here and at first I hated it: dark, no storage, not enough bench space, a single sink and the cooker-of-fail. It took me a little while to figure out what to do about it! Fitting some construct-it-yourself shelving into the empty fridge nook (my fridge is too big to fit it) created an open pantry and solved my food storage problem, while a spare table and old fish tank stand were adapted to provide extra bench and storage space. The limited space is well managed now by having neat systems in place: everything has its place and the space works fine as long as you follow the system (woe betide if you don’t do the dishes for a day around here). The fail-cooker and I, well, we’ve come to an understanding. I’ve adapted what and how I cook and it mostly doesn’t burn my food. I’ve even managed to reduce the gloominess a little by sticking a cheap mirror up on the outside wall opposite the sole south-facing window. It’s subtle, but the reflected light does make a difference.
- Space for a garden: Oh boy, did I take on a bit much in the garden department! The backyard is decently sized and faces north, but had been woefully neglected. Still, with so much growing potential on display every time I look out these lovely big north-facing windows it was inevitable that I’d spend way too much time out there, wrangling it into shape. It’s still got a way to go (and if I owned, the whole yard would be terraced and turned into veggie beds) but it’s a lovely productive garden now, and I’ve had a surprising about of “volunteer” plants come up from things former tenants let go to seed. I’m not complaining about unexpected peas, leeks, shallots and celery! Given time and a liberal application of effort it would make the proper potager I’m dreaming of.
- Community: I got very lucky here. Not only is most everything in walkable distance, I scored great neighbours too! Admittedly I’m yet to meet anyone from the flats across the way, but I’m on good terms with my direct neighbours. The neighbours to the north are just plain brilliant. They’re happy to lend me tools, to mow my lawn when doing theirs and regularly stop for a chat. They keep an eye on my place when I go off travelling and I take care of their dogs while they’re away. I’m also getting to know the folks from local businesses I frequent and create a real sense of connection. It’s really lovely and I couldn’t be happier with the way things have turned out.
So the move to the Cottage has been a success, though not without its dramas. A few year of neglect has meant lots of catch-up maintenance and it’s taken some lifestyle re-adjustment. When I first moved in the place felt quite small and I struggled with finding places for my stuff. Now the Cottage feels luxuriously big for just one and I’d happily share the space (though only with someone as systematically organised as me!). I do miss company, living alone, but it’s nice to not have to compromise on my ethics and values or to clean up anyone else’s mess.
In the next 6 months I want to look at how to run the Cottage even more efficiently, reducing my water and energy use and continuing to reduce the amount of STUFF I keep and use. This space challenges me to think about the choices I’m making and work to my values and I love it for that. The Cottage has very quickly become my sustainable little home.
How does your home shape your lifestyle?
I’d pretty much given up on my spring veg seeds sprouting. Well, except for the rocket and beans – they’re unkillable.
Instead of buying seedlings this year I’d decided to do my bit for crop diversity and source some rare and heirloom variety seeds: tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant and sunflowers, along with last season’s self-saved seed. I got all eco-experimental and planted most of my seeds in egg cartons, which it turns out don’t drain well and do dry out very easily. I was nervous about my prospects for success. Then the spring gales came and ripped my flimsy plastic greenhouse asunder and I came home last week to find all my seedling pots dust-dry and the few little shoots that had sprouted, withered and died.
Dispirited, I brought all the dirt-filled egg cartons and little pots inside, gave them a thorough soaking and ensconced them on the dining table under my lovely north-facing windows. Then I waited. I waited, I waited and I waited. Nothing.
So when I dropped by the hardware store to buy tape for greenhouse repairs (avoiding throwing the damn thing out like the disposable item it’s designed to be) I picked up a few tomato seedlings, determined to taste a home-grown summer again this year. And just this morning – as I checked again but found no signs of life – I thought I’d be throwing my egg carton experiments out as just so much expensive dust.
But this afternoon when I came home, there they were: pale green things.
Purple sprouting broccoli, Italian parsley, Caspar eggplant, chillies and all three types of tomato.
I’m going to take this one as a lesson to not give up on things so soon. To not be in such a rush to throw out and move on, but give fragile things a little bit more time to see if they can grow.
There will be sunflowers this year.
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.
Over the weekend I spent a bit of time in the garden, weeding, composting and mulching. I’m preparing beds for the month ahead, keeping myself motivated through the hard graft (the gardens here are seriously neglected) by daydreaming about the harvests to come. As well as thinking about what will do well in my garden and what I like to eat I’ve been giving a bit of thought to biological and genetic diversity and wondering how my plantings might help to keep rare species and varieties alive.
So what’s the problem with food crop diversity? The limited types of plants we grow, and the few varieties (genetic strains) of those plants we do sow.
Modern agriculture promotes the growing of only a small sub-sample of possible food plants. The plants grown have been selected over the years for various reasons, including high yields, easy harvesting, long shelf-life, market familiarity and easy processing. As western industrial systems of agriculture have expanded across the world, western crops have moved with them, replacing traditional food plants. We’ve lost awareness of many alternative food plants along with the knowledge of how best to grow them, and along the way we’ve lost access to many of the food plants best suited to growing conditions in many parts of the world, and to the conditions predicted in a climate-change impacted future.
As farming has industrialised we’ve also become reliant on a small handful of the known varieties of the plants that have become our dominant crops. Where a century ago there were 400 known varieties of peas in cultivation, now there’s only 25 that are commonly grown and most of the original 400 have gone extinct. Although it might not seem important – after all we still have peas – this loss of genetic diversity is really quite worrying: genetic diversity is the thing that lets us adapt crops to changing conditions, environments and diseases.[1, 2] If we lose the genes, we lose the means to adapt our food plants to new growing conditions. This is a huge concern for food security, putting our agricultural systems at risk of collapse due to drought, climate change, plant diseases and even global politics – agribusiness is big business.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 75% of crop biodiversity has been lost from the world’s fields – that’s how big the problem is. Some governments and science organisations are so concerned that they’ve established a secure seed bank to preserve rare seeds as best as possible, behind steel doors in a vault built into a mountain beneath the permafrost in the Arctic circle.[1, 3, 4]
Although it’s not only the lost biodiversity that’s the problem – there’s related issues about fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide use , as well as lost potential medicinal and biotechnological properties, farming knowledge and cultural traditions – it’s the part that I can do a little something about in my own back yard*. I can plant unusual crops and rare varieties of veggies in my little patch, preserving diversity when I collect seed for the next year and expanding my culinary world at the same time. I’ve taken my day-dreams of fresh greens and home-grown spuds and checked them against growing guides and seed catalogues, getting an idea of what plants and varieties will do well on my fine, claggy soil (I could spend hours looking through seed catalogues, dreaming of gardens that will never be…). I’m choosing for suitability, flavour and biodiversity, tracking down suppliers of unusual, heirloom and organic seeds. There’s a world of weird veg out there that I can’t wait to explore!
Backyard-friendly unusual veggies that I’m contemplating growing include salsify, skirret, salad burnet, oca, mizuna and elephant garlic. I’m also planning to plant unusual varieties of more familiar crops:
- blue sapphire potatoes - seriously, purple spuds that are tasty too – What’s not to love?
- Chioggia beetroot - it’s stripey!
- purple sprouting broccoli - I grew this last year and am hooked
- “Caspar” white eggplants – early harvesting, so hopefully I’ll have better luck than I did last summer.
…and whatever else I come across that’s just a little different.
I’ll find out what works, save seed from the successes and grow them again next season, slowly selecting the genes that do best right here, creating a garden with a genetic profile that’s all it’s own.
What usual food plants or rare varieties are your favourites? What’s the weirdest edible you’ve ever grown? Know any good sources for heirloom seeds or kooky seedlings? Let us know what makes your garden a little more biodiverse!
Sources for seeds or unusual seedlings (Australia):
In Tasmania and interested in food security? Public lecture: Food Security and Nutrition – The GM Question
- Who? former Chief Scientist of Australia and CSIRO Fellow, Dr Jim Peacock AC
- Where? Stanley Burbury Theatre, University Centre, Sandy Bay campus
- When? 10th July 2012, 6.00 – 7.30 pm
- How? RSVP by email to UTAS.Events@utas.edu.au
 Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (2010) Crop biodiversity: use it or lose it.
 Longyearbyen (2012) Banking against Doomsday; The Economist, March 10th, 2012.
 Altieri MA (1999) The ecological role of biodiversity in agroecosystems; Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 74, Pp 19–31; Elsevier.
 Altieri MA & Merrick LC (1986) Agroecology and in situ conservation of native crop diversity in the third world; Chapter 41 in Wilson EO (1986) Biodiversity, Part 3; National Academy of Sciences, Smithsonian Institution, USA.
* I can also do something about it through my grocery shopping, steering clear of the supermarkets for my produce, buying meat from rare-breed livestock and selecting unusual veg from the farmer’s market and local grocer.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve finally been able to get a start on the gardens here at the Cottage. What a sorry state they are in! The soil’s horribly compacted and woefully lacking in organic matter (with the exception of last year’s potato bed and a spot where mint had gone feral) and decidedly lacking in worms. There are a few of the lovely crawly things about though, and I noticed lots of tiny little wormlings when I gave the compost a good a stir on Sunday.
Aside from planting out a few potted herbs that desperately needed proper dirt and transplanting some self-sown seedlings I’ve discovered about the place, my gardening activities have largely focussed on weeding. Not your usual keeping-the-garden-beds-clear type work, but serious weeding on the slash-and-burn scale. You see, like many older rental properties my garden is home to grand collection of well established declared and noxious weeds.
What is a declared weed? One that’s listed under relevant legislation banning it from sale and requiring active management to control it’s spread. Here in Tassie it’s the Weed Management Act 1999, and legislation decrees that:
(a) A person must not import, or allow to be imported, into the State any declared weed except with the written approval of the Secretary.
(b) The tolerance level for declared weed seed in imported grain will be 0 seeds per kilogram.
(c) Landowners and managers must take all reasonable measures to control the impact and spread of a declared weed.
(d) A person must not propagate, trade or otherwise distribute declared weeds or anything carrying declared weeds except -
I. transport for purposes of disposal and
II. sale or transport for purposes other than disposal where authorised by the Secretary.
(e) A declared weed must be disposed of in a manner which will not result in further infestation.
(f) A declared weed must be eradicated from areas of the State where this is considered feasible.
(emphasis is mine)
So far I’ve found 4 weed species in my garden that are listed as declared or of concern in Tasmania: fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), mirror bush (Coprosma repens), English ivy (Hedera helix) and cottoneaster (Cottoneaster sp.). It’s going to take a lot of hard work, but I’m determined to do my best to get rid of them. The mirror bush is fairly easy: cut it down and paint with poison (likely many times over). The ivy and fennel present more of a problem as they’ll keep coming up from runners and seeds. The cottoneaster I’m afraid I’m going to have to live with, as it’s a 5 m tall tree and felling that is going a little too far as a renter!
It is worth remembering that I rent, when I’m out there labouring away in the garden. Sometimes I think I’m a little insane putting so much hard work into someone else’s garden with no long-term reward. After all, there are reasons weeds are so common on rental properties: they’re hardy, almost impossible to kill and will survive even the most neglectful and brown-thumbed of tenants. When I feel like giving up, though, I remember the impact of weeds on the environment.
Weeds take over, choking both native vegetation and agricultural land. They reduce the habitat available for native animals and often provide a competitive advantage for feral animals. They change the structure and function of an ecosystem, altering soil structure and chemistry, water flows, food chains and biodiversity. Some are poisonous to native animals and livestock: introduced onion weed is causing a horrible liver disease that is killing wombats in the Riverlands. The Australian Government estimates the cost of weeds to agriculture alone at $4 billion per year (cost of control plus lost production). Weeds are bad news!
My first proper job as an ecologist was monitoring the condition of creeks and rivers around Brisbane. It was a frank and depressing education in just how bad weeds can be, with waterway after waterway choked with introduced weeds, the native bank-side vegetation replaced with garden escapes and other ferals. Stopping the spread of weeds matters, and to do that we need to do our best to eliminate sources of seeds and runners. That means:
- Getting informed about what are the problem weeds in your area (your local Council is a good place to start)
- Cutting down and pulling out weeds where possible
- Trimming weed flowers and fruits before they set seed
- Disposing of garden waste properly, instead of dumping it in the bush or other places where seeds can spread
For me, it means I’m going to spend many more hours out in the garden, wrangling the weeds and fighting the never-ending battle against the invaders. I hope you will join me.
The weekend just gone marked the end of my lease at the House of the Gumtrees and I spent most of it tidying up the gardens, despite the inclement weather. I’d waited til the last moment to do it, resisting the reality of abandoning my lovely little garden.
Still, waiting for the colder weather made the emotional work easier, if not the physical. A sudden cold snap had finished off the last of the summer’s veggies that had been struggling on. The chilly weather also made shovelling out the compost bin a much less unpleasant task! Yes, I dug out my compost bin in the sleet and took the lovely mess with me, sleepy worms and all.
I had to remove the bin anyway, thus needed somewhere to put the contents. Musing on the quandary with a neighbour a few weeks previously, her dad – a fellow keen gardener – interjected to say he couldn’t understand the problem, of course I’d be taking my compost with me! So I bought a plastic garbage bin and shovelled it all in, locked the lid on tight and threw it in the back of my little car and drove across town. Now it’s sitting in a corner in the back yard waiting for me to dig a new bin in and get the process started all over again.
It was nice to see how well the compost was progressing and to marvel at the numbers of worms working hard at turning my scraps into soil. When I moved in to the place 2.5 years ago there wasn’t a single worm to be found anywhere in the garden, yet somehow they found their way: little red wrigglers writhing in the compost and big fat crawlers deeper in the garden soil. During my diggings (transplanting self-seeded annuals to tidy the beds) I also found some lovely fat grubs and scuttling beetles: signs of healthy, living soil.
I made this garden.
It’s the first serious go I’ve had at growing things. I’ve always had a collection of herbs everywhere I’ve lived, plus the occasional tomato plant and chilli, but here I gardened properly for the first time, learning about growing things in the strange cool climate. I planted bulbs for the first time and was rewarded with the splendid spectacle of spring blossoms. I got serious about tomatoes, as you can see! I went a bit bonkers for brassicas, growing broccoli (purple-sprouting and romanesco), kale (cavalo nero and frilly) and tatsoi. I experimented with edible natives (thanks to the wonderful Provenance Growers) and indulged my love of herbs.
One reckless day I came home with a raspberry cane and sweet dreams of summer. I picked my first meagre harvest last summer, but dug the now-much-larger canes up on Saturday and took them with me. They’ll go into the ground here this weekend, helped along by a heaping of that lovely compost, and hopefully I’ll be rewarded with a bigger harvest this coming summer.
For once I had the space to dedicate a little soil to frivolous pretty things, planting a cheery blanket of violas that renewed itself each spring (and hey, the flowers are edible!), though I did claw back some space from the ever-spreading seaside daisy I inherited. I waged an unending war with the arum lilies and went into chemical-free battle against an army of snails.
On summer mornings and evenings I’d sit out on the little deck, soaking up the sun and watching life buzz around me in my own little haven. Many days I’d come home from work, drop off my things and head straight out there to pick some fresh herbs or veg for that night’s dinner and I swear nothing tastes sweeter than what you’ve grown yourself.
I made this garden, but it’s mine no longer. Now I have a new neglected patch of hardened and compacted dirt to turn into something special. It’s going to take a lot of time and hard work, but at least I can choose not to work in the sleet!
For now the new garden lies unrealised, quietly dreaming of spring.
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?
Hello. It’s been a little quiet around here, and it’s going to stay so for a little while longer. Life is busy: big plans are afoot.
Last week I found myself a new home: a tiny cottage tucked away in the inner-Hobart suburb on Lenah Valley, neglected gem among ageing flats and renovated grandeur.
The cottage is old, though a thoughtful make-over about 15 years ago has made it comfortable. It’s small, basic, and is going to be a great exercise is living simply, as there’s no other way to make the place work. Aside from a few kitchen cupboards there’s no built-in storage and little room for furniture. There’s a cosy lounge, a workable but modest kitchen, an enclosed porch that’ll be my dining room (under lovely north-facing windows), a crowded bathroom-cum-laundry, a big-enough bedroom, and a teensy “second bedroom” that will just fit my desk and become the study.
I succeeded in getting my northerly aspect and efficient-to-heat spaces but didn’t do so well on insulation. The enclosed porch cannot be insulated and I’m pretty sure the main part of the cottage isn’t either. The floor has been tiled too, which may be a little chilly on winter mornings! Despite this, I don’t think I’m going to be too cold, for the lounge room houses a wood heater, built into the old fireplace. With a fire going the cottage will be toasty warm.
I was a little hesitant about taking a place with a wood heater, I must admit. It is more work and expense, buying and preparing firewood and collecting kindling, and the fire will need some time to get going before the cottage heats up. On top of that, burning wood for heat really isn’t the most environmentally-sound option when your power supply is hydro-electric. Of course hydro’s not a perfect option, but it’s a damn sight better than coal and green enough to make me think twice about lighting the fire.
In the end, the cottage ticked so many other boxes that I decided I could cope with the wood heater. The location is perfect: walking distance to shops and friends houses, a nice cycle to the office and my favourite coffee haunt, on a major bus route and in a surprisingly quiet little cul-de-sac off a main road. Although the kitchen window faces south, the rest of the cottage opens to the east and the north, making the most of the winter sun. Best of all though; it comes with a surprisingly large garden, ripe with potential!
It’s going to take some hard work to realise that potential, but I’m already dreaming about potato patches, beds of leeks, reams of beans and peas and a raft of sunflowers. The yard is fenced, so perhaps I could convince the landlords to let me have a couple of chickens to help keep the bugs down and give me fresh eggs. Oh, my mind is so full of ideas my hands itch to put into action!
I get the keys next week, on Friday the 13th (What better date to start a new adventure?), but there’s much to do between now and then. I’m sorting through and culling my possessions, reducing the amount of stuff I have to manage the lack of storage. The things I don’t need are being sorted into lots to sell, store, throw or give away, with attempts made to re-home as much as possible (I hate throwing out useful things!). I’m tidying the gardens here in preparation for leaving, digging up plants I plan to take with me and collecting seed. I’m refusing to shop, using up the food in my cupboards and cooking up all sorts of unusual but tasty things. Then there’s the inevitable paperwork associated with moving… Oh, and I’m broke. Paying bond plus double rent for a month will do that.
It’s Easter this weekend and the associated days off would be perfect for getting started on packing, but I won’t be here. Instead I’m travelling up to the sunny southern Gold Coast to spend time with family I haven’t seen in over a year. A trip booked in January, long before I’d thought about moving, to soothe the sting of not going home for Christmas. Yep, life is busy.
Wish me luck!