Gymnastic bees, virgin fruit and the birds that ate spring

It’s the vernal equinox and out in the garden, the spring flowers are blooming.

It pleases me no end me to think that these little figlets are made up of hundreds of the most secretive of flowers, snuggled inside a hollow-ended stem.

As you can imagine, pollinating figs is an extreme sport.  It’s undertaken by the fig-wasp, which spends much of its 48 hours of life on a suicide mission for fig fertility.  The male wasps hatch, blind and wingless, gnaw their way to one of the as-yet-unborn females, mate with them (eww), chew them an escape tunnel (still not redeeming yourselves, guys) and then die without ever having experienced life outside their flowery prison.  The females emerge and flee, spreading pollen as they go, only to find and squeeze into a second syncope (the fig “fruit” to you and me) through a hole so tiny she rips her wings off in the process.  If she’s lucky she gets to lay her fertilised eggs amongst the miniscule flowers inside and promptly, you guessed it, dies.

It’s really quite a disturbing life-cycle.  It’s with some relief that I can say that my three fig trees – a White Adriatic, a White Genoa and a Brown Turkey – are, like most cultivated figs, sterile mutants.  That sounds bad, but it’s a walk in the park compared to the Gothic splatterfest of the caprifig’s lifecycle.

Figs are one of the very first plants to be cultivated by humans: they have been propagated by us since the Neolithic era, over eleven thousand years ago.  And the outcome of our long association with ficus carica is virgin birth.  Yep, that’s the meaning of parthenocarpy – the way that common cultivated figs produce fruit from female flowers unsullied by any male influence. Since their fruits are sterile, they rely on us to do the hard work of allowing them to reproduce. Bloody skivers.

Actually, humans are quite fond of producing such feckless fruits.  Bananas are a good example.  They’re sterile, thanks to their three sets of chromosones – just like those fast growing “triploid” Pacific Oysters I wrote about in my last post, reproducing thanks to genetically identical “daughters” and “granddaughters” that spring from the plant’s base.  Fig wasps and caprifigs have co-evolved – maybe in some weird cultural way, modern humans with their taste for large, fast growing and seedless fruit and our virgin orchards have done the same.

One way or another, people, myself included, seem to get a perverse kind of pleasure in frustrating plants’ attempts to have babies.

My broccoli, encircled by landcress that deals death to invading insects and safe inside the kids’ superannuated, net-enshrouded trampoline frame – has done really well this year.  Now the weather is warming up, however, it’s taking a real effort to thwart the reproductive desires of my brassicas.  Those tasty flower buds really really want to go the full distance and burst into bloom and it’s taking a serious commitment to broccoli-eating to cut them off at the pass.

I tried, but it’s too late for that for the rocket, the mizuna and the tatsoi – these spring flowers are in bloom, like it or not.

I’m happier about these vernal blooms: magnificently monochrome broad beans in all their line-print glory.

I was a bit worried about my broadies this year, incarcerated as they are beneath the chook dome, my first line of defence against the brush turkeys.  Would the pollinators be able to make it through the 1 cm square lattice of the dome’s aviary wire?  As I noodled around in the garden the other day I had my answer. A European bee hovered indecisively, making careful mental calculations or perhaps looking for a door handle.  Eventually, it seem to sigh and alighted briefly on a wire, adopting what can only be described as a pike position and plunging through for a perfect 10 entry.

It’s a bit early to say, but I think I can see a few tiny bean pods forming so I’m hoping that while I’ve been otherwise occupied we’ve been visited by other elite insect athletes up for the gymnastic challenge.

The local birds seem to be almost as ambivalent about the signs of spring as I am about my brassicas going to seed. The bowerbirds are doing their valiant best to rip all the buds off the liquidambar and the little wattlebirds have been paying excessive attention to the flowers on the chinese lantern.  They’re either defending them from insect attack or eating them – I’m not quite sure which.

I don’t think these red wattlebirds would be capable of doing any damage to the heavy duty flower of a gymea lily, even mob handed.  These monster blossoms are bird pollinated – the red colour scheme is a dead giveaway apparently.  I guess this is the honey eater equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Since you can roast and eat the roots and the young flower spikes it could even be supersized bush tucker for us humans too.

Enjoy the equinox: may all your spring flowers be excellent eating!

A dead-end trap crop

A “dead-end trap crop”: is it the germ of a new Dr Seuss tongue twister or a surplus insult from a John Cleese and Graham Chapman sketch?  Nope, it’s the my latest strategy for dealing with the beautiful but deeply irritating cabbage white butterfly.

I like to think of our choice of a garden on a steep, shady south west facing slope not so much a tragic error in garden planning but a deliberate strategy for replicating temperate conditions in a subtropical climate.  It wasn’t an inability to use a compass that led us here.  Absolutely not. Instead it was my cunning plan to produce home-grown raspberries.

This fantasy has been somewhat tempered by our brassica disappointments of recent years.

Radishes are considered to be idiot-proof and we’ve usually managed to get them to grow, if not to actually eat them.  I like the long-rooted daikons since there is a brief interregnum between germination and gnarly inedibility.  The daikon sits happily in the ground waiting for me to make sushi. If don’t get my act together in time, there’s always the lovely white flowers to look forward to.

This year’s bash at radishes hasn’t worked out quite so well, thanks to my innovative  (a.k.a. totally ineffective) strategy for keeping the chooks at bay – a mandala of brightly coloured children’s bicycle wheels.  Evidence, if you needed it, that (a) the Goddess doesn’t necessarily protect every vegetable sheltering in a life-enhancing spiral (b) chickens are definitely not supertasters.  In fact, apparently chickens only have about 300 taste buds, and they’re on the roof of their mouths, which may explain the chooks’ enthusiasm for eating polystyrene foam (“crack for chickens” as someone once put it on a backyard chicken forum).

I’m also a serial failure at growing brussel sprouts.  Perhaps they’re paying me back for all the bad-mouthing I gave them as a child.  I console myself with the thought that it’s a bit warm in Sydney for this member of the brassica family anyway. You need to start early – I’ve heard you need to have your seeds in by November if you want tidy looking mini-cabbages and not some kind of ad hoc freeform leafy thing.

I banged in some seedlings in autumn – I’m reserving judgement but at this stage I’m not optimistic.   The “bad hair day” of the plant pictured above may be a consequence of a close encounter with the repurposed wire drawer I was using to keep the bandicoots at bay.  Since the cure appears to be worse than the disease, and the bandicoot seems to share my childhood dislike of sprouts, I’m living on the edge and letting the brussels go commando. The wire drawer, along with a bisected fan-cover, is off to provide security and support to my newly planted swiss chard and salsify.  I’m hoping the look is more “frugal locavore’s organic garden” and less “disturbed hoarder’s junkyard” but I reckon it could go either way.

And now we turn to the Battle of the Bok Choi.

Over the years my passion for purple and anaemic lust for iron-rich veggies resulted in an epic struggle to produce a decent crop of my favourite asian green, Red Bok Choi.  Cabbage whites seem to share my enthusiasm.   Bok choi butterflies would seem a more apt (and alliterative) choice of name.

My first effort – a feeble attempt to conceal my pretties underneath the generous leaves of a (ultimately fruitless) zucchini –  underestimated the persistence and acute senses of your average crucifer-loving butterfly.  Interplanting with coriander was a break through.  In Sydney, you can harvest your coriander leaves for aroundabout ten minutes before your plant goes to seed.  Growing cilantro as a kitchen herb here is an essentially doomed enterprise.  That said, stinky old coriander leaves do seem to throw the insect pests right off their game.  There’s apparently a couple of genes that are implicated in some peoples’ deep distaste for cilantro – maybe that’s a part of the genome we share with bugs.

But this year’s lone self seeded bok choi is looking more perfect than last season’s coriander-defended efforts.  Is it the chilly weather? The location inside the repurposed chicken tractor/brush turkey and possum exclusion zone? or is it… (drumroll) the magic of the dead-end trap crop?

After my embittering exeriences with kale and marigolds, I’m a tiny bit skeptical about companion planting.  But given the cruel fate dished out to our broccoli by an evil alliance of brassica loving bugs and furry critters last year, I’d give anything a try to get a bit more broc to the table.

I’ve been growing land cress a while.  It was one of the few food crops I managed grow – in a polystyrene foam box parked by the outdoor dunny – in the concrete back court of my terrace house in the rainy British north-west, back in the day.  Here in Berowra, it flourished in a damp and shady patch next to the chook yard, giving us for two La Nina years an unending supply of the “house soup” – vicchysoise hotted up with landcress, jerusalem artichokes and zucchinis.  Flatulence-inducing but fabulous.  All in all, a great plant.

So when I heard that upland cress has the reputation as a Black Widow for a crucifer-loving insects I figured I’d give it another whirl.

Sacrificial or trap crops are tasty things used to distract bugs from your favoured plants.  Dead-end trap crops, on the other hand, lure insects away from the plants you want to protect and then kill them.  Land cress, it seems, contains the spicy-flavoured glucosinolates, prompting some moths to lay their eggs on its leaves where its caterpillars hatch, feast and die.  Gruesome but apparently effective.

The seeds I ordered from the ever-reliable Green Harvest were the familiar looking upland cress (Barbarea vernis).  Unfortunately, the variety of land cress (sometimes called winter cress or yellow rocket) that’s been been tested as a dead-end trap crop is  Barbarea vulgaris, a related, taller plant with similar yellow flowers but a less rounded leaf.

Barbarea vulgaris is resistant to another pestthe diamond back moth – which produces a smaller caterpillar that’s also a lover of brassicas (to identify whether you’ve got got a diamond-back larvae, give the grub a bit of a nudge – it will give a bit of a wiggle backwards.  But hopefully not leap up and punch you in the eye.)  It’s a bit less clear about whether winter cress is quite so deadly to cabbage whites.  And then there’s the vexed question of whether the landcress in my garden – barbarea vernis – does the same job.

But it’s all going swimmingly so far.  My land cress is unchewed, and my the kids have already turned their noses up at a couple of meals of home-grown broccoli.  I’m sure they’ll be pleased to find there’s loads more to come, not to mention heaping platefuls of mustard greens, land cress, kale and (with luck) brussel sprouts.

And so the time honoured tradition of intergenerational brassica torture continues…

Superfood of the Undead

In the light of the Berowra Potato Famine of 2014, I am grateful that the obituary I gave for the kale some months ago was premature.

People may say they grow kale because of its alleged status as a superfood, but I know the truth.  People grow it because it’s impossible to kill.  Attacked by aphids, gone to seed, garrotted daily by the garden hose, baked in the hottest spring on record and scarified on a regular basis by the vicious claws of visiting brush turkeys –  after all that, my kale plants have felt the need for a little lie down.

However, having risen from the grave once, they won’t just won’t lay down and die.  Those leaves keep right on coming, whatever I throw at them.  Not great big fancy leaves, good for stuffing with, say, quinoa and chick peas. More the slightly stunted, hard living leaves you might expect to be produced by the once-definitive vegetable of a country famous for its disdain for vegetables.  In dark and gloomy pre-industrial Scotland, kale was such a staple that the veggie patch was called a “kailyard”. and by extension, the evening meal, “kail”.   Any green that can crush the neep in the death-match for vegetable supremacy on the Scots dinner plate is not to be trifled with (boom boom).

In the light of this backstory, I’m starting to wonder about the untimely demise of my tatties.  The flea beetles are in the frame for the execution of my potatoes, but all the while, the kale lay nearby… unnoticed… waiting… Could it be that my zombie kale has vengefully fed on the life-spirit of the blighted potato, colonial pretender to the Scottish vegetable crown?

Flowers of the Frozen North

Something new in the garden today: hazelnut flowers.  Our filberts have been in for about three years, and have produced a few catkins, but I’ve never seen these before.  They are very very tiny, though, so maybe they were there last year and I never noticed.

The miniscule red blooms are all on one tree – Ennis, “preferred variety for all markets”, Daleys boldly asserts.  Lucky Ennis.   “Hall’s Giant” sounds so much more magically productive but it’s mainly a pollinator, dangling those catkins.

Will we get some nuts this year?  It seems unlikely.  The raspberries, our little Stella cherry, three neglected high-chill apples, the Hayward kiwis, and the hazelnuts, all planted with foolish optimism. Okay, Sydney is subtropical and all these plants require a hundred plus chilling hours … that’s a hundred or maybe a hundred and fifty hours below 7 degrees C while in Sydney’s chilliest month, July, the average minimum is 8.1 degrees…. but we are at 200 metres elevation!  maybe we’re in a frost pocket! What about those chilly south-westerlies?

Our mighty leader, Anthony Abbott MP, confidently claims that “climate change is crap” so perhaps we are, as my hirsute medallion-wearing neighbour asserts, heading towards a Snowball Earth scenario: the Pacific Highway to Hornsby will be lined with snowpoles  and we will be skating, not taking the ferry, across Berowra Creek.  All my eccentric plant selections will be vindicated.

While I’m waiting for a glacier to form in the Sydney Basin, or at the very least for a small crop of hazelnuts, at the bottom of the garden the winter veggies are flowering.

The daikon is too tough to eat now, but the flowers are lovely and I’m planning to save the seeds.  The winter’s chinese greens are also in bloom.  The leaves are getting smaller, stringier and slightly bitter though I’ve still been picking them.  I’ve got a feeling these may be the mutant offspring of my favourite – red bok choi, an F1 hybrid.

The process of creating the F1s is like something from “Game of Thrones” – ten generations of in-breeding to produce a pure-blooded weaking, that is then matched with an inbred of a different tribe, to produce children with renewed vigour, sharing little with their spindly parents. These muscular cross-breeds are frustratingly incapable of passing on their all-conquering qualities to the next generation (an appropriately Machiavellian outcome that keeps gardeners in the thrall of the Plant Wizards of Monsanto). It’s kind of cool to save the seeds of the F1 hybrids not just to give the multinationals a crinkly mouth but also to see what sport comes up in the next generation.  And the next.  Who knows, perhaps eventually some robust throwback will thrive in the endless Winter?

Bok choi flowers

All-conquering kale and its frenemies

Good friends describe me as “herbal”.  I’ve been a lentil eater for 27 years and my shelves groan with organic gardening and vegetarian recipe books.  And I’m not averse to dabbling in a spot of ancient-learned-women’s-plant-knowedge-as-yet-unverified-by-modern-experimental-science.  But I have to say that companion planting has taken a body blow in our household in recent weeks.  Here’s why:

 Two kale plants, from the same punnet, planted less than a metre apart.  On your left, the kale that enjoyed the companionship of a cheerful red and orange flowered marigold, “Naughty Marietta”.  On your right, the kale out in the cold with no date  (though giant mustard, baby leeks and daikon radish are hanging around in a kind of unstructured way).

It turns out that the vague story I heard about marigolds, with their pungent foliage, as a nifty companion plant is true enough if you have a problem with nematodes, but dead wrong on the aphid front.  It seems that all-female parthenogenic parasites love the cheery flowers of marigolds even more than I do. But not enough to turn down the opportunity for a feast on a superfood.

In fact, I read recently that if you rub some vaseline on a yellow sticky label and stick it in amongst your veggies, the aphids will be lured in and get stuck on the lube so you can dispose of them thoughtfully.  But I’d advise you not to get too carried away with this approach, for a number of reasons: (a) if left long enough your post-it might attract aphids from further afield  (b) striding out back with a bundle of stationery in one hand and a tube of vaseline in the other will raise eyebrows amongst your neighbours and (c) the veracity of this story is no more guaranteed than the one about the marigolds and the aphids.

I’m not dissing the power of the herb entirely though.  It seems the smell of granny’s hanky does distract possums and bandicoots (and perhaps singing mice and super rats) from sniffing out newly sprouted peas and beans.  My broadies and sugar snaps are looking good under a vegenet liberally sprinkled with lavender flowers and leaves. I hold out hopes that this continue to work, significantly reassured by the fact that absolutely no one, as far as I know, recommends these as companion plants.

A grand day out

Time to get the fully feathered chicks – all of 6 weeks old – out of the brooder in the kids’ bedroom.  To my amazement the new coop, which weighs the same as a gas giant, does actually fit under the chook dome.   After Donna’s departure, I’m a bit worried about plunging the peepers straight into the fowl-and-brush-turkey-ordure-rich environment of the run, so we’ll give them a few weeks in the chicken tractor, getting a garden bed ready for brassicas.  They had a first scratch around this afternoon, ready for the big move tomorrow.

Andy is looking very miffed by these developments.  I caught her lurking in the new coop – I think she envisages it as her own personal quarters.  She was transfixed by the sudden appearance of the new girls, so I was able to grab her and turf her out before any argy-bargy.  However, Snowball and Andy have been using the top of the dome as a perch, so they were wandering around the run at something of a loss at sundown tonight.  They have a whole series of dry places to sleep – under the granny flat, in the wood-shed – but since they seemed to favour a spot underneath the neighbour’s horrible coral tree, we leaned a ladder (a previous craft project) against the outside of the woodshed, exactly where the chicken dome used to be.  I tried to give Andy the idea but she wasn’t having it.  Hope they are somewhere out of the rain tonight….

It’s not easy eating greens

Maybe it’s a careless-vegetarian-with-low-level-iron-deficiency thing, but I’m often hankering after greens. Thankfully, the green leafies seem to be one of the few foodgroups to which brushtailed possums, rats, bandicoots, brush turkeys and chickens – the non-human beneficiaries of my most of my horticultural efforts – all seem relatively indifferent.  When things were very barren in the yard recently, my sorrel plant, a marvellous perennial that, with the deep taproots of a potential weed, soldiers on with minimal attention, was munched by something with a sophisticated palate for citrus flavours and a high tolerance of oxalic acid.  Occasionally some beastie has a light snack on my other trusty standby, the rainbow chard, but on the whole my favourite  greens seem immune to animal predation.

Image  Image

Having failed to grow them from seed, the Warrigal greens I bought from Daleys have been a cracker.  They’ve threaded their way through a garden bed that, with only a couple of hours sun a day, has pushed the envelope for even shade tolerant plants like Davidson’s plum, macadamia and callicoma serratifolia.  Andy Ninja regularly scratches her way through that neck of the woods, grubbing for remnants of trad, but she hasn’t managed to loosen the Warrigal greens from their moorings, and we’ve had it in everything from lasagne to dal to quiche without any visible dent appearing in the supply.  Rumour has it that they self-seed prodigiously, so there’s promise of more next year.

During a couple of La Nina years we had watercress soup on the menu for about 18 months on the trot thanks to a semi-shaded spot near the chook run: boggy in torrential downpours but otherwise ordinary garden soil.  A soft spot for umbrelliferous flowers and the aphid eating critters they attract, and a lazy habit of chucking decrepit parsley plants under my fruit trees as mulch has meant that Italian parsley pretty much dominates the seed bed in the herb garden and food forest around the back door.  Whenever the moisture level and the temperature is right, a new generation surges forward underneath the potted makrit lime and the Cavendish banana and even between the paving stones.

I had rocket doing the same in the veggie patch a couple of years ago, until I put the kibosh on it by over-zealously collecting the contents of the papery pods.  I must have been indulging in some herbal fantasy of seed saving, and so I have feral rocket no more.  At least for the moment.  Because of the tedious necessity to earn a living, I’m never on top of the weeding, and as the years pass I’ve started to recognise the seedlings of my favourite plants wherever they appear so I can “edit” the garden rather than, in that hateful bit of business-ese, attempting to “grow it”.

Image   Image   Image

However, a particular favourite has proven to a more difficult proposition.  I love bok choi and all its cousins, but especially the look and taste of red bok choi, an F1 hybrid that’s really a luscious purple, a perfect match for the “house” beans, Purple King; the salad enriching Giant Mustard and the beautiful but apparently impossible to grow purple brussel sprouts.

I have spent far too much time, money and mental energy over the last three years trying to produce an anemia-busting harvest of bok choi.  In year 1, following the gospel of Jackie French, I tried to shelter my precious cruciferous greens in a guild of fellow travellers, with limited success.  In year two, I went for a guerilla strategy – my choi germinated under the cover of the great hairy leaves of my zucchini.  I was optimistic but the cabbage whites were not so easy to fool.  But I have made a break-through, thanks to a “chuck all the seeds in the bottom of the packets together and hope for the best” approach.  Coriander!  So impossible to grow in Sydney, always starting so well and then going to seed before you’ve even got a garnish out of it.  But apparently, you can keep the barn door closed (to moths? where is this metaphor going?) even if your coriander has bolted.  The bok choi that grew in amongst my incorrigible coriander was completely untouched.  So under the shelter of brush turkey-thwarting hoops of wire and the modest veil of a rather tattered veggie net, in goes bok choi and sacrificial coriander along with the aragula and the mizuna, the watercress and the daikon.  If I can crack this one, the purple brussel sprouts are next!