gardening

Repurpose

When perusing a seed catalogue with a view to vegetable planting for the coming season, it’s easy to have eyes bigger than available plot space. I have experienced this in the past and with novice gardener’s enthusiasm have attempted to grow too many varieties resulting in what can only be described as a crowded, unsuccessful tangle. This season I am narrowing my selection to three plantings based on what will grow best and what we will actually eat. It’s all very well sowing several rows of hollow-crown parsnip seeds, but what do you do when upon harvesting your glut, everyone at the table pokes at the mash suspiciously or makes polite excuses? So this winter, I plan to slice the heads off cauliflower and broccoli and uproot a good supply of leeks because these are the staples that appear in many of our cold weather meals. There will also be some fenugreek seeds going in, a herb to be added to winter Indian curries, and based on the fact they will prosper independently in terracotta pots, they won’t be part of the head count.

When you keep chickens, it’s amazing how generous people are with their empty egg cartons. I have accumulated a tremendous supply from well-wishers who I suspect, like me, are not comfortable tossing away these resourceful cardboard packages and share a collective relief that there is a good home to be found for them. There is however, a limit to how quickly my brood of five can fill them, so I do have a considerable stockpile. You can then imagine how pleased I was when I saw these gems planted up as seed sprouters, that when the seedlings have reached maturity, can be planted out directly in the garden within their own biodegradable pods. Less shock to the seedlings and nothing to be disposed of – a perfect gardening scenario.

When sliced down the centre, the bobbly half of the carton with the 12 egg craters is filled with seed-raising soil (after being pierced with a skewer for drainage). Simply insert the exact number of seeds in each pod and gently water with a spray bottle. Each of my seed planters sits in its own aluminium baking tray and is covered with cling film to create a mini hot house. The cardboard lip that was formerly used to close the carton is a fabulous place to write the name and planting date of the seeds.

The plan is, once the sprouts have appeared, all but the strongest in each pod will be culled – survival of the fittest, natural selection, runts of the litter – whatever biological theory you subscribe to, will be the way the most superior, robust seedlings with the greatest chance to produce will go forth to the great outdoors and provide us with a groaning table of winter veg. Well, that is my theory. For now they sit lined up near a sunny window and I have a new daily task assigned to lift the cling film, give a light spritz of water, watch and wait.

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gardening · health and wellbeing

Sowing

Little Red Hen

It’s usually when I’m knee-deep in dirt that my most profound thoughts occur, and to follow suit as I recently pushed the pitch fork into the neglected vegetable patch, this came to me: you reap what you sow. Obviously not an original light bulb, but one that spurred me to dig deeper as weeds resisted and motivation waned. To keep turning that soil and uprooting a winter’s worth of tangled roots, the mental picture of what would be thriving in a few months fuelled the progress.

So as fork struck earth, as it so often does my mind took that thought on quite an expedition, concluding at the realisation that all we reap from life does in fact come from all the effort of our sowing.

This row of infant beans will be fed, watered and watched over. Should environmental factors threaten, they will be protected, mended and secured once more to their trellis. My hopes for these beans are that they grow tall and are healthy, producing a bounty for our table.

Row of new beans

Like these beans we nurture our children, nourishing, shielding and guiding with hopes of healthy, robust individuals emerging. And it is through these sowing and cultivating years that can be so challenging we know to persevere, as the ripening of resilient people is the greatest reward.

And our friends, the cheerful petal-faced people, that brighten our days as their horticultural counterparts do from their vases, flourish with our attention. Considered time and effort is a necessity to keep flowers blooming – and so it is with our companions. Both to be treasured.

flower seeds

All of the delicious meals, fascinating stories and masterful accomplishments in the workplace began with cognitive seeds, given time to develop. Pause and reflect on the satisfying fruits of your recent labour and know that it was your careful sowing that resulted in their fruition.

scarecrow

Postscript: Mind you, there are times when no matter how carefully you sow and how expertly you guard, the crows of life can intervene ….

gardening

Pink

Pink Blossom

As Winter free-wheels down to its closing stages, a delightful spring teaser surreptitiously unveils. The prunus trees, having been all skeletally grey and bare for many months, miraculously bloom into fluffy marshmallow-esque wonderments. The blossom is about – and spring is drawing closer.

Today my first glimpses are caught through the window of an ever-ferrying suburban car, but as a child quite differently. On crisp mornings casually sauntering along the school route, I would gaze in admiration, as these neighbourhood trees would transform into naturestrip and front-garden showpieces. Should the temperature elevate slightly, making a particular morning unseasonally mild, the bees took an interest equal to mine.

But let me tell you, not all prunus trees are created equally. My backyard hosted a couple of species, one from which my childhood swing was attached. The blossom they produced, while pink and delicate, did not have the voluptuous density of those pictured above. Their display was usually short-lived as they shed quickly. My classmate Anna however, who descended from avid gardening stock, was keeper of prunus that was simply majestic. Anna would arrive in the classroom clutching a spectacular arrangement, ends expertly bound in foil, to present to our teacher. How I coveted her offering.

One morning, when the urge to present a bouquet of my own became too great, I paused on school route and diligently snapped a number of branches off a local tree. Hats off to the teacher, who must have been aware of their origin by the clumsy arrangement and without hesitation, showed equal enthusiasm for my contribution to her desk.

Prunus Blossom

Postscript: and still, not having a sumptuous prunus to call my own, I am once again coveting the beauty of others’ by gazing at and photographing my neighbourhood gems.

gardening · homemaking

Float

camelia bowl

Bursting onto the scene in their usual prolific manner are our winter camellias. Green glossy leaves and copious flowering heads, they brighten our chilly gardens and offer a bounty of cut specimens.

The trick is to outwit the rain. Sudden downpours bruise delicate petals, so cut before the clouds gather overhead. Should you miss the opportunity, do not despair, as camellias bud abundantly so new blooms unfold almost daily. The insect community loves them as we do, so before bringing them indoors, gently brush off to release any outdoor residents. Don’t be hesitant to harvest, as like all shrubs, camellias love a good cutting.

Once indoors, arrange them as you please in vases and jars alike. Way back in the 1930s and 1940s, homemakers loved to display their cut specimens by floating them in round shallow bowl/vases made for the purpose. This 2013 homemaker likes this method as well.

Floating camelias

For your floating centrepiece of beauty, hunt out your widest bowl and fill with water. No wide bowls? I can tell you that thrift shops are bursting at the seams with them, your only dilemma will be whether to go with glass, porcelain or three of each. Trim the stems close to the bloom and save a few leaves to balance the display. If you have access to a number of varieties a mixed bowl looks lavish.

Collect them now, as before long the display season will have come and gone and your dense green leafy shrub will take its place in the general garden scene once again.

cut camelias

Postscript: and hopefully the comments you will receive from your fellow occupants will be less like “How come we always have flowers all over the house!”…..

gardening · recipes

Golden

Golden Wattle

Nothing speaks of mid-Winter in Melbourne quite like the golden wattle. With a choice of bare deciduous or lush green rain-fed under-growth, our early winter neighbourhood landscape generally lacks imagination. Suddenly as the season gets into its stride, strollers, joggers, cyclists and commuters are met with glorious bursts of vivid yellow, and the collective relief can be heard in communal expression, ‘the wattle is out!’

The distance travelled is relatively small for my first glimpse of the golden beauty. Not far short of my mail-box, a neighbour has a majestic specimen lighting up our grove. Throughout the year it blends chameleon-like in an ash-green shade amongst other leafy companions putting on their summer display. As the season pulls out its crispest of days, the summer pretties are leafless and forgotten – but now the wattle takes centre stage.

And fortunate we are, as short drive through our district reveals an incredible variety. The early flowerers are now fading, the golden is in her prime and others are poised to burst. A spectrum of gold has painted our neighbourhood, it surely is Winter.

Wattle, though magnificent an outdoor display, does not fare well indoors. It’s pungent aroma tickles the allergies and the tiny florets sprinkle the surfaces. So for us, indoor winter gold must come in this form:

Lemon Deliciious Pudding

Lemon Delicious pudding. All things golden: butter, egg yolks, lemon and crust. Gold.

100g softened butter
grated rind and juice of 1 large lemon
2/3 cup caster sugar
3 eggs, separated
1/2 cup sifted SR Flour
1 1/4 cups milk
icing sugar to dust

  1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees celsius and grease a casserole dish.
  2. Cream the butter with the lemon rind and sugar.
  3. Beat in the egg yolks.
  4. Stir in the flour alternately with the milk.
  5. Beat the egg whites until stiff and fold into the mixture with the lemon juice, lightly and gently.
  6. Pour into casserole dish and bake for 45-50 minutes.
  7. Dust with icing sugar and serve hot with cream or ice-cream.

Hot lemon delicious pudding

Postscript: So as the neighbourly tree lit up our street, this lemony pudding did its part shining in the kitchen.

gardening · recipes

Caps

Backyard mushrooms

Without prior notice and seemingly from nowhere, a small community of field mushrooms made their recent appearance near the mailbox. When spied by the offspring, topics of discussion ranging from magical creatures (the youngest) to poisonous death (male teen) were triggered. The eldest, who has wisdom (and botanical knowledge) beyond her years, cancelled out both with evidence-based biological explanation and species definition. As the merits of all theories were staunchly argued, my thoughts were galloping in an entirely different direction, one that was leading directly to a beef and mushroom pie.

I’ve never yet met a child who will voluntarily eat a mushroom, and if you know of one this rare phenomenon should be donated to science for DNA cloning, then all further issue would be appreciative of their mother’s cooking. I was one from the genetic masses and could never bear the smell or the taste of the fleshy fungus, yet the mention of a day out ‘mushrooming’ would fill me with excitement. Running along with a bucket or basket and being first to spot a patch was pure delight. Flipping the caps over and waiting for adult confirmation of edibility before cutting and collecting was all part of the process. Sunny days, with a chill in the air, meant coats and red cheeks. Boots of course, as the recent rains responsible for coaxing up those crops had left the paddocks moist and spongy. Happy and weary at the end of it all, but not remotely interested in the catch that some poor individual (my mum) had to clean and slice later that night.

Now I am that cleaning and slicing individual. An individual with an adult palate who adores mushrooms in pies.

A close inspection of your garden or neighbourhood may reveal similar treasures and if they do, here is a wonderful place to stow them:

beef and mushroom pie

2 tbsp olive oil
1kg blade or chuck steak trimmed of fat and cut into 4cm cubes
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tbsp plain flour seasoned with salt and pepper
250 ml beef stock
400g can crushed tomatoes
250g mushrooms, trimmed and sliced thickly
2 sheets ready rolled puff pastry
1 lightly beaten egg to glaze

  1. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large pan over medium to high heat. Brown meat in batches. Transfer cooked meat to a plate and set aside.
  2. Add remaining oil to pan over medium heat and add onion, stirring until softened. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute. Sprinkle flour over and cook for a further minute.
  3. Add the stock and mix in any residue from the base of the pan. Return beef to pan and add tomatoes. Cover and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour.
  4. Stir in the mushrooms and simmer, uncovered for 45 minutes until beef is tender and sauce has thickened.
  5. Transfer mixture to ovenproof pie dish(es) and leave to cool for 10 to 15 minutes.
  6. Preheat oven to 200 degrees celsius. Cover the pie(s) with pastry sheets and trim and press edges together. Brush with beaten egg and cut slits in the top to allow steam (and some gravy to escape).
  7. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until pastry is golden. (Depending on the size of your pie dish of course, this recipe will produce up to two family pies)

field mushrooms

Postscript: and should your garden or your botanical confidence be lacking, it’s a quick, even magical, trip to the local supermarket….

gardening

Nasturtium

Yellow nasturtium

How are you at cultivating weeds? Excellent, then you will have little trouble enjoying a thriving horticultural relationship with the nasturtium.

A simple matter of pressing a handful of seeds into less than average soil and applying a generous spray of water will in very little time, result in the appearance of tiny rounded pumpkin-esque leaves. These tender beginnings will only continue to develop into greater wandering vines seeking optimum aspect to settle for bud burst. Turn your attention to matters of the indoors for several days only to be pleasantly surprised, on the unplanned day you chance to pass this patch once more, now lavish and beaming with the rusty orange and golden yellow jewels this secretive perennial has been longing to astonish you with. And astonish you it will.

Let not the display remain outdoors, but gather small handfuls of the gems to be spaced with sprigs of generic winter garden greenery, filling orphaned milk jugs to brighten the bleakness. Interestingly, well after the pricey bunch of hot-housed tulips have dropped their heads, with a swift freshening of the supporting green, the little nasturtium posy shines on.

nasturtium jug

For me, nasturtium fondness traces back awhile. Back in fact to the base of a mission-brown stained paling fence with a northerly aspect, flanked by a thickness of orange blooms set off by the vivid green. This is the visual I have of the dividing line distinguishing the boundary between my childhood home and the neighbourhood path.  With the fence and the home a distant memory,  it was therefore without hesitation, when I saw this artwork in our local gallery that I purchased a print. Complete with cabbage moth, who shares an equal affection for the plant, this print provides a restful scene to reflect upon before the bedside lamp clicks off, punctuating the end of another day.

nasturtium art

Postscript: Is it too late to add, that both leaves and blooms are wonderful additions to simple tomato, cucumber and lettuce salads? (once you have trained the uninitiated palettes into the ‘appreciation of the peppery’ of course)

nasturtium salad

gardening · recipes

Bay

Bay leaves

An unsung hero from the herb clan that any braise or casserole worth its salt would be lost without. Yet rarely does this leaf receive a sliver of the attention it deserves – while pantries across the globe hoard them in packets and jars. Seldom appearing in the weekly shop, yet always managing to be on hand – the bay leaf, our culinary Winter herb.

It is not uncommon for stock of milk, butter or Milo to exhaust in this household, but bay leaves are forever in ready supply. Other than the fact that two are only ever required for a dish, my mother is the keeper of a bay tree and visits regularly. (We are therefore secure in the knowledge that should we fall on difficult economic times, we shall never be without them). She recently delivered a branch, which has been stripped of its foliage, which now sits drying in an open jar. It is quite lovely to reach in and pluck out a few to pop into the stew du jour.

The law of bay leaf use however, is that prior to ‘plating up’ they must be removed from the dish, as the nature of their flavour enhancing role is of background chorus rather than centre stage. Unfortunately busy cooks will forget laws. So in response to this, under this roof new dinner table lore has evolved –  and is evidenced by the exclamation, “Look, I got the lucky bay leaf!”

For your next ‘stew du jour’ this Moroccan-style Oxtail braise will ensure two of your lucky leaves will be put to good use.

ox tail braise

3kg oxtail pieces trimmed of fat
plain flour for dredging
1 tbsp ground ginger
4 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
1 tsp ground cinnamon
8 cloves
800g can crushed tomatoes
2 bay leaves
zest of 1/2 an orange
2 cups beef stock

  1. Mix together the flour and ginger and coat the oxtail pieces. Dust off excess.
  2. Heat oil in large heavy based pan and add meat in small batches to brown all over. Transfer to slow cooker.
  3. Add onions, garlic, celery, cinnamon and cloves and cook for 1-2 minutes.
  4. Add tomatoes, bay leaves, orange zest and stock. Cook for another couple of minutes.
  5.  Pour this mixture over the ox tail and cook on low for up to 6 hours or until meat is tender.

(This can also be done in a casserole dish in the oven. Simply add 1 1/2 cups of red wine with the stock and cook at 160 degrees celsius for 2 hours or until meat is tender and falling off the bone.)

Dried bay leaves

Postscript: This post is dedicated to Z and her new slow cooker.

family · gardening

Sprout

sprouted seeds

To have the privilege, be the silent observer of life unfolding in its most rudimentary form, has great impact on the psyche of the young. To know the grain will become the tree, plants the seed of understanding regarding our own place on this terra firma. And holding this belief, I have enormous gratitude for my mother, who in recent weeks, arranged a sprouter for the youngest in our family, so he too could make this cognitive connection for himself.

Seed sprouters have certainly made significant leaps since my early days. Ours, being ice-cream lids or saucers lined with damp cotton wool, played the role of propagators to handfuls of wheat. Every kindergarten nature table in the 1970’s displayed them proudly. The sprouting science did not stop there, but continued on into early high school. ‘Controlled experiments’  were devised to prove hypotheses around photosynthesis – one poor saucer being sentenced to a darkened cupboard whilst the other basked on the sill. After a short space of time it became abundantly clear to us all, as we extracted the yellowed, wispy lifeless growth from the pitch, that plants do indeed require sunlight to thrive. Basic conversion of light to energy – simple chemistry.

If you believe that your grasp (and that of your progeny) of your collective place in the scheme of things is quite sound, rendering a seed propagator superfluous, then there’s more to be learnt. Once their educational role has been performed, these lovely shoots will become nutritious accompaniments to your sandwiches, salads and stir fries. Think alfalfa, radish and broccoli (below) for your sandwiches, adzuki beans, mung beans and lentils for your salads and chick peas and soya beans for extra protein in your next stir fry. Who knew that simple germination could yield such results?

seed sprouter

Postscript: and for the Breaking Bad fans amongst us, in the words of Walter White: always respect the chemistry.