A pile ‘o pumpkins

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Five pumpkins in a row...
Five pumpkins in a row…

While the Sydney climate is tremendously mild, which is great for many crops, it also encourages the growth of a heap of pests and diseases.

In particular, we’ve had little luck with pumpkins, cucumbers, and many types of beans and peas. Inevitably, they get attacked by powdery mildew, and that’s the end of them.

While I’ve found resistant varieties of peas and beans, I’d pretty much given up on pumpkins, etc.

So when one self-seeded in the garden in spring, I let it run, to see how long it would last before the mildew killed it off. The answer turned out to be: a long time, as evidenced in the picture above.

I think these are Queensland Blues, or similar, and they grew with great abandon, producing fruit after fruit.

In total, we harvest five pumpkins, with a total weight of approx. 21kg.

That’s a lot of pumpkin! :-)

It highlights an important general principle, of the value of locally adapted crops. We’ll definitely be saving the seeds from these pumpkins, and planting them in future seasons…

Pesto ice cubes: storing little pieces of summer

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Yes, that's an ice cube tray full of pesto :-)
Yes, that’s an ice cube tray full of pesto :-)

Our basil plants are all now in flower, as autumn draws to a close. While this is great for the bees, it means no more lovely green leaves for us until summer comes around again.

One trick I picked up along the way is to make pesto, and to keep that for pasta, soups, etc. But instead of keeping it in a jar with a topping of olive oil (to stop it from browning), my approach is to make pesto ice cubes.

The starting point is Jamie Oliver’s super-simple pesto recipe, which measures things in terms of “handfuls”.

The pesto is then spooned into a normal ice cube tray (shown above), and then frozen.

Once set, pop the pesto cubes out of the tray, and store in an airtight container. Couldn’t be simpler, and the pesto lasts us all season until next summer.

Just throw 4-5 in a pasta dish, or 2-3 into a soup :-)

The pesto cubes, ready for long-term storage.
The pesto cubes, ready for long-term storage.

Creating an insect hotel

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Our new insect hotel, in place on the fence
Our new insect hotel, in place on the fence

Creating an “insect hotel” has been on my to-do list for a while now. The idea is a simple one: create a habitat for beneficial bugs to hibernate and breed in. The result should be more of the good bugs, leading to less of the bad bugs.

The great blog post on insect hotels by Inspiration Green was my starting point. This showed the huge diversity of shapes, sizes and materials of insect hotels.

The raw materials.
The raw materials.

My starting materials were a few pieces of well-aged firewood, and some handy bamboo garden edging from Bunnings.

The outside frame was made from cut-down 90x45mm pine, still left over from the renovation. The wood and bamboo was cut to 90mm long to match.

The two slow bits were drilling all the holes (6-9mm in size), and then gluing it all together.

It makes for an attractive addition to the garden!
It makes for an attractive addition to the garden!

The result is not just useful, but beautiful (I think so at least). It looks great on the side fence of our house. And as it’s visible from the street, it’s yet another item of interest for passerbyers.

Have insects already made a home?
Have insects already made a home?

The really encouraging thing is that a few of the holes have already been filled — so hopefully this means some friendly bugs have already made a home!

Our weeds are purple beans

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Yup, that would be beans in the driveway.
Yup, that would be beans in the driveway.

Following on from our earlier our weeds are lettuces, here is the latest rogue to grow in our pebble driveway.

Yes, that’s a purple bean plant, self-seeded into a bed of stones. It just goes to show that even edible plants that we take for granted are incredibly resourceful and adaptable.

Now to drive around it, as I can’t bring myself to pull it out — it looks so happy where it is!

My first fermented pickle

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Two jars of pickles - ready to eat!
Two jars of pickles – ready to eat!

A few weeks ago I attended a workshop on fermenting vegetables, presented by Sandor Katz (organised by the always-wonderful Milkwood Permaculture).

This covered a range of different approaches to using lactic acid fermentation to preserve vegetables.

The first and simplest technique is the one that most took my fancy (it was also the one Sandor recommended the most).

It goes like this:

The food processor made light work of even hard vegetables.
The food processor made light work of even hard vegetables.

Start with a mix of hard vegetables, in our case:

  • beetroots (red and yellow)
  • daikon (white radish)

Slice them into small pieces, by hand or by food processor. With the slicer attachment of our food processor, this took mere minutes.

The vegetables, crushed by hand with salt.
The vegetables, crushed by hand with salt.

Put everything in a large bowl, and add salt to taste. (I tried 3% salt as a first test, but next time I’ll use a little less.)

Crush and squeeze it by hand, until as Sandor put it, “you can wring water out of a handful like you would out of a sponge”. This only took about 5mins of easy work.

Ready to ferment!
Ready to ferment!

Squeeze the vegetables into jars, and pack down until the water level rises above the vegetables.

Put the lids on, and then watch and wait! Because I was doing a very quick pickle, I didn’t worry too much about keeping air out (there are a heap of techniques for doing this).

Each day I checked the pickles, as well as getting Priscilla to taste test. After just 3 days, the vegetables were soft enough (and not too sour) for Priscilla’s taste. Into the fridge they go!

This is a super-simple preserving technique, and I’ll definitely be doing more of this.

Some footnotes for future reference:

  • 1kg of vegetables, which made approx 1L of pickles (as Sandor had predicted)
  • 3% of salt (use less next time, a bit too salty for our salt-reduced diet)
  • 3 days pickling

Reclaim the curb (and win a prize!)

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Our native verge is lush and vibrant.
Our native verge is lush and vibrant (although only partially edible).

We’re great believers in homeowners playing a direct role in their street. The most visible (and perhaps the easiest!) way is to plant out the verge.

In our case, we’ve planted one verge with native plants (above), as well as a second containing herbs and other edibles. Both are lovely to walk by (we think).

That’s why we’re excited to hear about the Reclaim the Curb initiative, who are holding a competition to Create Australia’s Most Edible Curb.

What a great idea! So get planting, and submit your efforts to win a prize :-)

(The deadline is 5pm 31st May 2013.)

Our native back garden: one year on

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Our native back garden, one year on.
Our native back garden, one year on.

In addition to our productive vege patches at the front of the house, we established a native garden in the back.

A year on, the garden is growing solidly, although it still has some way to go until it creates the “mini bush block” effect we’re looking for…

What’s grown well: the correas (of many types), lomandras and dianellas. The backhousia citriodora (lemon myrtle) also grew quickly towards the light.

What didn’t: the boronias all died at various points (ok, ok, so absolutely everyone told me that would happen!). We’ve also had the usual assortment of random deaths over the last year.

Considering the garden has dappled shade, with big trees growing on adjacent properties, I think we’re doing pretty well.

And to highlight the point, this was the before shot, from a year ago:

The "before shot" of our back garden, with seedlings planted for our mini native bush block.
The “before shot” of our back garden, with seedlings planted for our mini native bush block.