Monday, March 3, 2008

Take a garden tour

I don't know about you, but I tend to be intensely curious about other people's gardens. I find there is always something to learn, something new to find out and different ways of doing things. Which is one reason why I enjoy growing our own food.

Our own garden has been productive enough to keep us fed for the last year. I no longer buy vegetables. And as the onion harvest is finally in, I don't even have to buy onions or garlic any more. Now I would like to invite you for a 'virtual walk' around our garden, if you like!

The tomatoes had a very slow start but are finally picking up. Provided we do not get an early frost - which is always a possibility, particularly with the very cold weather we have been experiencing over recent days - we may again get enough tomatoes to keep us going until the next season starts again.

My first lot of corn seed got all eaten by birds but the second lot has come up nicely. We have had some corn dishes already and I hope there will be more to come.

The greens are doing ok, with kale, chinese cabbage, bok choy, mibuna and silverbeet all producing enough to provide us with a varied menue. The salad greens did fine during spring but all bolted to seed or collapsed from heat exhaustion in the January heat wave.

A particular surprise this year was my first attempt to grow "bush tucker" (native Australian food). I bought a package of seeds of "Warrigal Greens", also know as "New Zealand spinach", which is a native of both Australia and New Zealand (see photo on the left). I put out five seeds, nothing happened. Then I read somewhere that you are supposed to soak the seed in hot water over night, which I hadn't done. I found that puzzling because I had also read somewhere else that Warrigal Greens are self-seeding. How could that be if it needs hot water treatment? After a little while, three of the seeds produced some seedlings. And they grew. And grew. And grew. The mass of green I have produced from those three seeds is quite astounding. It is drought-hardy, tastes great, and can be used as a substitute for or complement to any of the other greens. Warrigal Greens are fairly high in oxalic acid, it is therefore recommended to blanch them for a couple of minutes, then quickly drain them under cold water (and throw the cooking water out) before eating them or adding them to other dishes.

I also have another kind of bush tucker growing in the garden. At first I didn't even realise and thought it was a weed. In fact, it is a weed. It is known as pigweed (portulaca oleracea) and grows wild around this part of the world, including in my garden. All parts of the plant can be eaten. According to the excellent book on bushfood by Keith and Irene Smith pictured on the right, the seeds were "a staple foood of desert Aborigines" as it contains "18 to 20 per cent protein, more than wholemeal bread (11.5 per cent) and double that of rice (6.9 per cent)." We have so far tried the leaves, they have a slightly acidic taste and would make a great addition to any salad.

The beans (both climbing beans and bush beans) are producing reasonably well, albeit not as prolifically as I had hoped they would. Last year I had fewer plants but I seem to remember a sustained and prolific harvest. I had rather optimistically imagined I would be canning kilos and kilos of beans this year, but so far it has only been enough for a number of meals plus about a dozen jars of beans. Maybe, if the season is long enough (no frost!), I may still get to do my big bean canning session. Otherwise, I just have to plant much more next year! We also had a great crop of snow peas, with those plants that had self-seeded being the most prolific.

The potatoes were a bit of a mixed bag. I had planted a range of heirloom potatoes from the Digger's club into a straw bed. The first lot came up, flowered, withered and died off, with only smaller potatoes forming, and not a hell of a lot of them, either. They were superb to eat, though, but not really enough to feed my hungry brood. Another lot came up, never got to flower and fell over - it was obviously too hot for them! The last lot is still going, and going strongly. I am hopeful that we will get a decent crop from them! It just goes to show how important it is to grow a healthy variety of potatoes or other crops, rather than relying on one kind only. I just wonder whether I need to grow my potatoes in a more shady spot next year.

We got an excellent crop of artichokes this year, enough to can some artichoke hearts as well. The Jerusalem artichokes have come up nicely and have formed a dense hedge on the western side of the chook yard. I have also planted another tuberous vegetable that I had never heard of before, an ancient Inca crop that goes by the name of "yacon" (Polymnia sonchifoli). It struggled initially (too much sun!) but has since grown to a very impressive bushy plant. It has not flowered yet, but from the photos I have seen, it may look similar to Jerusalem artichokes. The tubers are supposed to taste like "a cross between a fresh apple and a watermelon."

Another excellent and prolific food source is spaghetti squash. Once ripe, the large yellow squash should be steamed whole (or, if too big, cut in half and then cooked) for a short while (I put them in the pressure cooker for about 2-3 minutes). You then remove the seeds and take out the flesh with a fork. It produces spaghetti-like fibers which are a bit bland by themselves but do taste very nice with Mexican-style chili con carne (or chili without the 'carne', if you are a vegetarian!). And of course there are all the other relatives of the cucurbita family as well, the pumpkins, cucumbers and zucchinis!

Oh, and by the way - I didn't use huge amounts of water to grow my vegetables, either. Seeds and very young seedlings need to be kept moist until established, which can be a struggle in very hot weather. It helps to use shade cloth for that purpose - my garden did much better after I set up some shade cloth over my main vegetable bed . For established plants, use plenty of mulch and compost and only water when a "finger test" shows that you need to add moisture. Stick your finger into the soil - if it feels dry below the knuckle of your index finger, it is time to water.


  1. Great to see more native Australian food plants get a mention. I think they are a vastly under-utilized resource and many are deliciously nutritious.

    The Portulaca for example has complex carbs in the leaves contributing important soluble fibre. While the tiny black seeds can be milled and Aborigines made this wet-milled paste into seed cakes, it's a lot of work collecting and processing them without a combine harvester and a pin mill. You got it, they are a lot like wheat if you wanted to make your own flour. The only thing is that they are hundreds of times more nutritious than wheat and really great to eat if you do make the effort.

    In the meantime, you might have a look at this site for some more easily procurable indigenous Australian foods.

  2. I loved your garden tour, thanks. I am interested in your native foods as well and would like to learn more about growing them when we get home. J