Monday, March 30, 2009

Good Gourd

At Summertime Farm, Jane’s pumpkin harvest included a few lovely yellow ornamental gourds. In our temperate climate, these are more easily grown than the hard shell varieties. They grow in a marvelous range of colours and shapes and have smooth, warty or ridged skins in the same conditions as pumpkins, members of the same family of Cucurbits. The drawback is they are thin skinned and unless sealed in some way, don’t keep well. Small green thin skinned gourds were also eaten as a vegetable and the bitter seeds of all gourds was used as a remedy for intestinal parasites.

Hard shell gourds are more durable, seeds and fragments found in South America have been dated at 10,000 BC. This predates the use of pottery for carrying, cooking and serving food. Intact gourd vessels have been found from 100 BC.

Hard shell gourds require rich soil, lots of water and fertilizer and either a minimum of two months of temperatures over 40˚C or 3 – 4 months full sunshine. In southern areas, they are best started indoors and planted out into tree bags when the threat of frost is over. Feed them well until the creamy white flowers set fruit and give them a deep watering twice a week.

The vines are vigorous and can grow up to a hundred metres long in good conditions so don’t attempt them if you live in a unit! They don’t have to be grown along the ground as they will happily clamber over fences, trellises and pergolas and climb trees. Don’t allow any of the giant varieties to do this … they can weigh many kilos and will pull down large branches and fences. Long gourds including dippers are best grown on support if you want them to grow nice and straight. At this stage you can train them to grow bent, twisted or even tie knots in them if you really want to! I tend to let nature do its thing and take inspiration from the results.

Allow the plants to die back completely before harvesting the gourds. Discard any with holes in, they won’t dry well. If the weather remains dry, gourds can be left where they lie or hang until they have lost a lot of their weight and turned from a pale green to a beige/brown colour. Then you can store them under cover, off the ground or on a dry surface. You will need to check them occasionally as the rats enjoy a feed of gourd seed and love to nest inside them.

At this stage they often look mouldy… don’t worry, this is the outer layer of skin that is removed before using, the mould often creates wonderful random patterns in autumn colours.

Start planning your gourd crop for next year now. There are some wonderful varieties available in all shapes and sizes. Look out for this years crop at markets now and check out seed catalogues for next year. Next time, I`ll tell you how to deal with them and show you some things I have made that I think are totally gourdeous!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Rivendell Farm

When we arrived in Australia in 1968 we had $100.00 in our pocket, three children and a lot of hope. Marc had a job to go to, the weather was glorious and this was the land of opportunity. Australia has never disappointed us. My two other children and a new son-in-law came from Britain and once more we were a complete family.

Marc and I were enjoying a rare quiet breakfast with toast and newspapers when he said 'Hey; listen to this ad. ‘For Sale. 16 acres of land and a weatherboard house. $12,000.00'.

Ferguson Valley 18 miles from Bunbury is the local area of scenic beauty where people would take the children for a Sunday afternoon drive to picnic in the forest and we loved and lusted after this area on sight. We organised an estate agent and were standing on the land an hour after reading the ad.

We knew immediately that this place was ours. The house, uninhabited for 18 months had been condemned as it had no running water, no bathroom or toilet, the roof cavity was infested with rats and possums and the ceilings were falling in. The orchard was filled with fruit trees past their prime, untended, sadly in need of pruning and water.

Looking beyond these (to us) superficial disadvantages we saw a sturdy house built of mature, solid, seasoned jarrah standing on an east facing slope where the morning sun warmed the old timber; rich chocolate loam where my herbs would flourish and most importantly we saw a home. We were so wild with enthusiasm and excitement that the calm and steady estate agent actually tried to bring us down to earth by pointing out the disadvantages. His words of caution fell on deaf ears and I went hightailing to the bank to ask for money. That was how we came to Rivendell.

We worked from first light until dark and often later, renovating the house and creating terraced gardens on the sloping land. Gone were the leisurely days of a glass of wine with dinner and a liqueur afterwards; dinner frequently happened as late as 10.00 pm and was eaten in a semi-conscious state. Dead trees were ripped out and new fruit and nut trees planted. A small new flock of sheep, three calves, 24 chickens and a flock of geese were to be our meat larder and barter system. Herb gardens grew at an astonishi
ng rate in the good soil, pure air and clean water and after some time we were selling potted herbs, dried herbs, herbal tinctures and ointments.

We opened a restaurant called ‘The Prancing Pony’ and herbs were a major feature of the meals. Customers were encouraged to eat the garnishes and were enchanted by flower salads glowing like dishes of jewels, sauces redolent with basil, thyme and oregano, delicate dishes that hinted at French tarragon, mouth-watering desserts sweet with angelica and lemon balm, ice-cream with the delicate flavour of lavender. Glass jugs of iced water with slices of lemon and sprigs of peppermint stood invitingly on each table, and little bowls of fennel seeds were there to solace and comfort those who had eaten well but not wisely!

Making your food a herbal event doesn't take any more preparation time than to create an ordinary meal and will change 'dull' to 'delicious'. Herbs add distinction and more: oregano and thyme are digestives, peppermint and spearmint help to dispel wind, the seeds and feathery fronds of fennel help to digest fat. By adding herbs to your cooking you are using them in a preventive way. For instance, caraway added to cabbage, or coriander to be
ans during cooking helps to prevent flatulence, as well as giving the dish a delicious flavour. This seems to make more sense than drinking a cup of caraway tea after the meal to cure the discomfort.

Herbs can also be used to replace salt as a flavouring agent. This is good for everyone but particularly those on salt-restricted diets.

We will soon be adding a new book ‘Cooking with Herbs’ to the growing collection of e-books. If you’d like to be on our mailing list to receive details of our latest books just drop a line to and we’ll add your name to the list.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Is That a Potato?

I’m glad it was Margaret that called in for a visit while I was harvesting potatoes the other day... In spring I had encouraged my partner to plant something he loved to eat so he would spend more time in the garden. We had selected the perfect site - leaving some compost in the winter compost heap and adding a pot pourris of manure. Real seed potatoes were purchased and all were hand watered and lovingly tended and watched over.

Judgment day: after much digging, a very small basketful was all we could find. To admit this was our complete crop (we had also dug some rogue Kiplers that had grown by themselves) made me feel a complete failure. Margaret was sympathetic - hers had grown well this year.

Gardens can be like that though. The more I garden, the less attached to results I get. If something proves hard to grow, after several tries I try something else. It seems we all have vegetables we have an affinity with, that do well for us. Often, those same plants won’t grow next door in the same soil and conditions for our neighbours.

We have this idea that we have control over our patches of dirt. The reality is that nature calls the shots. The idea of failure never occurs in its cycles. It is us human beings that get upset when things don’t work out as we have planned. As I get older I am less goal-orientated and enjoy the act of creation for its own sake whether it is gardening, knitting or writing. While I’m curious to know why things happen as they do, I no longer take it as a personal failing if what I end up with is not perfect in my own very critical estimation.

There is magic in the unexpected and the different if we can look with the eyes of a child. If we need potatoes, we’ll ask Margaret!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Spices Rare and Wonderful

Whole nutmeg
The birds discovered the peacharines the day before I was ready to pick so we stripped the tree, leaving the damaged fruit for them to finish. In a small garden it is difficult to net the trees so we are used to sharing. This crossbred tree produces huge juicy fruit that are like peaches without the fuzz but not great keepers. I knew that there would be more invisible bird holes that would turn to bruises in the next few days.

I didn’t have much time before work, so after carefully cutting around the damage and peeling a few sad peaches with the last few wrinkly plums, I put a large pot of fruit on to stew. When cool, I mix this with an equal amount of muesli and let it soak Bircher style in the fridge. With yoghurt, it is a quick and sustaining breakfast.

Some of the damaged peacharines were not quite ripe but I thought that they would pickle well in sweet and sour syrup. In typical Virgo style, my two herb and spice racks are sorted alphabetically with the overflow in a small basket in the pantry so I knew fairly quickly I had no whole star anise. It was early on a Saturday morning but we live in a trendy tourist town with a good variety of stock so I dispatched the cavalry on a mission. He returned with a very disappointing packet of broken, obviously second grade, star anise.

It got me thinking – last week we had to beg and borrow ground turmeric – there was none in the shops. We have become very blasé about using ingredients from all around the world. What would we use if they become the expensive rarities they once were? Consider that the plants that produce these may take years to reach maturity; the effort that it takes to grow, harvest and process them and the thousands of kilometers they may need to be shipped to reach us. Consider too, the exciting range of Australian spices and flavourings that there are to discover.

Cinnamon Bark

We need to show care and respect for these precious seeds, buds, nuts and leaves that give us such intense bursts of the concentrated tastes of the tropics if we choose to use them. It is best to buy smaller amounts unless you use lots. Store them in glass screw top jars away from heat and light and spices should stay viable for a year or more. Whole spices have the longest shelf life. If you can keep an electric coffee grinder exclusively to use for spices, you will be delighted by the difference. Vanilla pods seem to keep best tightly wrapped in plastic wrap and kept in the fridge. If you manage to buy a lot cheaply, make your own vanilla essence, using the method for tinctures from Nerys’ book: Healing with Herbs, the method is the same. Candle nuts, like other nuts, are best kept in the freezer until needed.

When your spices no longer have that WOW! Factor when you open the lid or grind them, its time to throw them out. Their warming properties will be useful when added in small amounts to chicken mash, especially in winter, when it is traditional to add copious amounts of pepper! Otherwise, add to the compost. Save whole spices as a filler for pot pourris – they absorb and hold essential oils wonderfully. A handful of whole spices on a fire will give up the last of their fragrance to a room. Better if you buy bulk then share with your friends, you’ll never waste any!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Scarlet - a bean for all seasons

A bee enjoying the nectar

An arbor of Scarlet Runners

The whole month’s rain falling in half an hour heralded the first day of autumn here, leaving everything refreshed and sparkling. The season of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’ is my favourite and often one of the busiest as I squirrel food away by drying, bottling, preserving and freezing the summer’s crops.

The cooler nights have seen the end of the zucchinis, the tomatoes are now past their best and the peacharine, the very last of the stone fruits, is ready for picking. As most of the garden retreats from the cold and shortening days, the scarlet runners have perked up no end. Washed by the rain they are a bright spot of colour on these gloomy days.

Scarlet Runner Beans originated in South America, in Guatemala and Mexico. These rapid climbers were popular in England until the late 19th century when people began to choose the dwarf varieties of beans to grow in their smaller garden plots.

In frost free areas Scarlet Runners will develop tuberous roots much like a dahlia and will reshoot every year. This gives them their other popular name: Seven Year Beans. They grow vigorously when they receive regular watering. This year in my garden they have excelled themselves, traveling beyond their seven foot high (sorry, I’ve never got metric measurements right and Nerys will probably edit this when she sees it!) chicken wire trellis and have climbed into the plum tree where I need a ladder to harvest them!

They are best picked every day but don’t fret if you miss a day. They are delicious eaten young, raw or steamed, whole or sliced. Once they reach 10- 12 inches (!) they develop a tough ‘string’ as the beans inside start to form. These can be stripped out of their pods and cooked as fresh whole beans. The surprise is their colour. My 1905 vegetable book describes it as ‘liver overlaid with red wine’ – mine are much nicer and more modern every shade from a sassy hot pink to lilac streaked with a deep purple. Unfortunately, the colour fades with cooking. They can be used to make fabulous minestrone soup.

Once they stop flowering and begin to die back, you will discover fat, mouldy looking pods hanging everywhere. Bring them in, pod the beans and spread them on a paper covered tray in a single layer and leave them in a warm spot until they are hard and dry. You now have a supply of dried beans for the winter similar in taste and texture to borlotti beans that are fabulous in Mexican and Italian dishes.

My permaculture mates tell me that the tuber is also edible but I couldn’t bear to dig mine up to try. Has anyone tried this?

Our 12 bean plants feed us for nearly six months of the year and are a visual delight too. Next year we are planning to build them an arbor to climb upon from the trellis to the shed. With a little training we should be able to have beans hanging down like wisteria so we can pick at head height in a green bean tunnel.

I am happy to share seed if people in W.A. would like some. Seed Savers should be able to provide it for Eastern staters.

Wishing rain to all of you who need it, happy gardening.