Experiments with kiwifruit

Thanks to exhaustive if faintly intrusive matchmaking with a ladder and a paintbrush back in October, we have a bumper crop in the kiwi arbor.

Four years ago the northern wall of the kitchen was occupied by a dank lean-to, usable only for turning your bike into the kind of rust-bucket that can be safely left overnight at train stations.  But we don’t need these kinds of amenities.  If you leave your bike unlocked outside the pub in Berowra, it might get taken by a drunk on his wobbly way home, but if it does, the bartender will recognise the miscreant on the CCTV footage and leave a friendly message on the guy’s answering machine to return it in the morning.  Even the pelotons of MAMILS leave their featherlight carbon-fibre bikes untethered at the end-of-ride coffee shop.

great sky near Berowra for crop

Blue skies over Berowa

So, with no need for a bespoke bicycle corroding zone, we replaced the corrugated iron over the frame of the lean-to with couple of precociously fruitful Sweetie kiwifruit vines, a low chill variety from Daleys Fruits in Maleny.  Last year we had a handful of fruit that the possums seemed enjoy.  If they’re planning to eat the whole crop this year they’d better be hungry.

I’m feigning disinterest in what happens to my kiwi harvest but let’s be real – the last few years have turned me from a lentil-eating hippie into an antipodean Mr McGregor, the pointlessly enraged gardener who would love to turn Peter Rabbit and his fluffy little brothers and sisters into a delicious warming casserole.

Don’t get me wrong, while I do covet the infinitely soft possum-fur jumpers that vengeful New Zealanders knit from our invasive marsupials, I’m not spending my nights under the kiwi trellis with a gun in my hand.  That said, the rugby-league style gum shield I wear overnight to stop me grinding my teeth to dust (expensive, but since it doubles as a contraceptive, probably good value) does date from about the time I started trying to grow fruit in the backyard.

No, I’m taking a less brutal and more scientific approach to harvest-management.  I have a control – the fruit I’m leaving untouched on the vine.  And I have two intervention groups – there’s the kiwis I’ve picked early, hard as furry brown rocks, and left to ripen in the fruitbowl, and then there’s the bunches I’ve put into protective custody in mesh exclusion bags.

I maintain a cautious optimism that I will get to eat at at least some ripe fruit.  This upbeat attitude has nothing to do with early success.  While commercial kiwifruit are usually picked unripe and can be kept on ice for two months or more, so far my early harvest has withered slightly but maintained a mouth puckering acidity, as evidenced by our school holiday Ph testing activity.

I can’t seem to kick the habit of growing red cabbages, despite the fact that no one in the house, myself included, really wants to eat them.  They’re just so pretty!

Purple cabbage leaves wide crop

Red cabbage abstract

So apart from feeding the leaves to the cabbage white butterflies that my 9 year old keeps in her bedroom as “pets”, what else can you do with leafy brassicas too chewy for coleslaw?  Well, you can boil them up and use the purple cooking water as a very cool litmus test.

There’s nothing kids like more than squeezing out half the toothpaste tube, making potions out of bicarb, tomato sauce and milk, or filling every single glass in the kitchen with disgusting viscous liquids.  We even ended up with a boys v girls Ph contest – boys obviously preferring alkaline household products, while as we all know, historically girls inevitably favour acids.  Including our long-cossetted kiwifruit, which turned our cabbage water a pleasing deep pink.

Litmus test from the side cropped

The results of the purple cabbage litmus tests

Early indications are the mesh exclusion bags aren’t doing much better than the fruit bowl in the protection and ripening caper. I can’t remember a pre-masticated fruit being present when I tied the bag around this bunch.  We seem to have a Houdini of the rodent world somewhere on the premises.  The outcome so far is not as dismal, at least, as 2014’s doomed attempt at protecting peaches.  The mammal and insect pests deployed a pincer movement – rats gnawing a hole in the bags and fruitflies pouring through to finish the job.

No, my optimism about getting to wrap my laughing gear around some home-grown kiwifruit sorbet is based on the barely nibbled fruit discarded the ground under the vines.  Whatever is chowing down on my crop just isn’t very keen.  Perhaps they have a sweet tooth.

How, I hear you ask, can you tell when to harvest your kiwifruit?  Well, apparently if you cut one open and the seeds have turned black it’s ready for harvest: its starches will turn slowly to sugar in storage. But there is a more scientific way.  Sugar solutions refract light, particularly polarised light, differently from your ordinary tap water. So your go-to-device for measuring sweetness (reported in Brix) is a refractometer.  The savvy kiwi farmer picks her fruit at a bit over 6 degrees Brix, it seems.  Let’s just hope the brush tailed possums can’t tell their pouches from their polarising light and the satin bowerbirds couldn’t track down a refractometer on ebay.

Bananas: my part in their downfall

Yes!  We have bananas!

Two and a half years after planting my first “cool banana”, it looks like we have a crop on the way. With luck and a tail wind, we might get a few home grown smoothies before the upcoming banana apocalypse.

In fact, our fruitful plant isn’t the first one I acquired – a tiny carefully selected, soil-free, tissue-cultured plantlet sent by mail-order from Queensland.  It’s one of a job-lot grubbed up and bundled into the back of the car when my sister decided to give her backyard jungle in Newcastle a makeover.  This particular tree seems to have the right kind of humid micro-environment, protected from the wind by the tamarillo tree and surrounded in a companionable way by monstera deliciosa, ginger and tumeric plants.   It gets some winter sunlight, and some gifts of love from the chickens in the form of dung-encrusted sugar cane mulch.

For all my attempts to recreate a tropical ambience, I haven’t gone quite as far as using my bananas as a living shower screen.  This idea seems strangely popular in permaculture circles, due I think, to the banana’s love of phosphorous, frequent watering and good drainage.  I’m no stranger to nakedness in the outdoors thanks to many happy  hours in childhood spent camping on nude beaches (in retrospect I witnessed surprisingly few cooking-related injuries).   But I’m not really sure how practical backyard ablutions are in suburbia, even in the sub-tropics.  There seems to some wishful thinking about unfettered encounters between man and nature (or, more specifically if disturbingly, woman and banana) going on here.

While I’m on the theme of soft-focus fantasies of interspecies coexistence, I have to confess to one of mine – that our backyard is a little island of biodiversity.   This is the kind of thing plant-hoarders tell themselves as they croon and mumble over on-line nursery catalogues.  But thanks to my impatience to start growing the world’s largest herb, three long years ago, I didn’t order any of the more intriguing possibilitiesBluggoe or Blue Java or Goldfinger – but just common or garden dwarf Cavendish – the world’s most widely grown variety.

It wasn’t always so.  In the early twentieth century, the dominant variety was the Gros Michel – by all accounts sweeter and more flavoursome than the Cavendish (if less productive).  Your grandparents were right – everything did taste better in the good old days.

But in the middle part of the twentieth century Panama Disease, a fusarium fungus, wiped out most of the commercial plantations of Gros Michel in Central and South America.  Panama disease is a doozy – transmissible through infected soil, water or equipment and impossible to eliminate or treat.  Once the ground in an area is infected it stays that way for decades.  Over the years, the big banana producers kept moving from country to country to keep the banana plantations going but eventually, thanks in part to multinationals and agricultural monocultures, the disease had spanned the globe.

So in the 1950s, the world switched over to a less tasty variety of banana – Cavendish – more resistant to Panama disease, or at least its early twentieth century incarnation, Tropical Race 1.

It’s not just Panama Disease.  There’s Black Sigatoka, as well, and Bunchy Top, the latter hard to take seriously since it sounds more like a Loony Tunes character than than a devastating agricultural blight.  Bananas are particularly susceptible to disease because we’ve bred them to be sterile: seedless mutants that replicate through their genetically identical “daughters” and “granddaughters”.  Commercial bananas have three sets of chromosones – they’re triploids, just like our old friends, the herpes-ridden Pacific Oysters of Broken Bay.

Genetic mutations can happen without sex but it’s a painfully slow process. And retrofitting disease-resistance without recourse to selective breeding is equally tricky, unless you want to go GMO. An article in Conservation Magazine described an attempt to do it the old fashioned way:

Every day for a year, workers laboriously hand-pollinated thirty thousand banana plants with pollen from wild fertile Asian bananas. The resulting fruit, some 440 tons, had to be peeled and sieved in search of any seeds. “I’ll let you guess how many seeds they collected,” says Emile [Frison, head of International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in Rome]. “About fifteen. And of those, only four or five germinated.

Those of us who enjoy a banana with breakfast should really be fearful of an attack on the clones.

And sure enough, Tropical Race 4 Panama disease, unstoppable killer of Cavendishes and pretty much every single variety of bananas and plantains, appeared in Asia and the Northern Territory in Australia for the first time in the 1990s.  And in March this year, it turned up  in Tully in far north Queensland, the place that around half Australia’s bananas call home.

The fact that TR4 attacks so many varieties of banana makes it a threat not just to first world breakfasts but to hungry people across the globe, for whom plantains, in particular, are often a staple.  After a couple of decades in a holding pattern, TR4 has in the last year cropped up for the first time in the Middle East and in Africa, which is worrying – if you have any mental space left for additional worry about the general direction the world is going.

Given the kick-arse nature of Tropical Race 4, perhaps my unimaginative choice of varieties and ad-hoc acquisition of plants isn’t such a big deal.  Newcastle may one day be a commercial banana growing area – in fact, this would seem an entirely appropriate fate for the world’s largest coal export port.  In the meantime, moving these suckers around isn’t a criminal offense like it would be in Queensland, where your backyard banana should spring from a test-tube and come with a permit from the Department of Primary Industries.

I may be the handmaiden of monopoly capitalism, monocultural agriculture and globetrotting disease, but despite all that I think I’ll chill and allow myself to enjoy however many bland tasting Cavendish bananas escape the indiscriminate attentions of the possums, the fruit bats and the grasshoppers.

Persistent twitching in Weed Central

This is my argument for an active commute:

My view about halfway through my morning commute from deepest suburbia. Beats the back of the car in front, doesn’t it?  Okay, except if it’s this car:

Cornish witches' vehicle small crop.jpg

As soon as we’ve had breakfast, fed the chickens and wasted a small but irreplaceable part of our lives looking for a missing shoe,  there’s the walk via school to the train station.  It’s a twenty five minute rail journey – just long enough to get depressed by the newspaper – and then the last three k on foot from Epping Station to Macquarie Uni.  I’m ashamed to say it took me several years to figure out that the cash I save on therapy by hoofing that last leg well and truly pays for the expended foot-leather.

I’ll admit, it’s a pleasant, if hilly walk, down leafy suburban streets and across the bridge at Terry’s Creek, a tributary of the Lane Cove River.  In fact, over time, I’ve come to feel rather attached to this spectacularly weed infested rivulet – I’m tempted to say it’s not Terry’s, it’s mine.

I think it would be fair to describe this waterway as a colourful year-long festival of invasive and noxious species, as you can see above. And I haven’t even included decorative photos of the willows, the trad or the waving walls of bamboo that line the way.  Terry’s Creek is so densely hemmed in and overhung by broad leafed privet that walking down the path towards Brown’s Waterhole feels like stepping into a suburban remake of Apocalypse Now.

Danger high voltage square

Danger! High voltage!

What with the perpetual roar of Epping Road and welcoming ambience of the nearby electricity substation, your first thought wouldn’t be “valuable wildlife sanctuary”.  But in the 10 minutes I spend each morning and afternoon walking through through this part of Pembroke Park, a 500 metre strip of weeds and scrub, I’ve seen more small birds than I’ve seen over six years in beautiful Berowra, surrounded by national parks and with the freshest air in town.

Firetails flying off horizontal crop

The superb blue wrens, willie wagtails, red-browed finches and eastern spine bills are regulars.  My photographic evidence of the yellow thornbills and silver eyes consist of a sequence of butt-shots and blurry silhouettes – my white-browed scrubwren is only marginally better.  I’ve often been tempted to hunker down for an hour or two with a view to improving my collection of snaps but somehow I don’t think it would play well if I failed to rock up to my own lectures because I was busy with a long-lens camera behind a bush.

So there’s no proof I ever saw that startled pair of white-headed pigeons and or an eastern whipbird, the only one I’ve ever actually eyeballed. I suspect I snuck up on it, gallumphing footfalls obscured by traffic.  However, a few weeks back, I was dead chuffed to snap a very distant dollar bird having a rest in the overhead powerlines.

But according to a habitat survey from a few years back, there’s still loads of locals I haven’t seen.  Pardelotes!!  Powerful owls!! Someone bring the smelling salts!

Firetails alert plus wren crop closer

I’m not quite sure why this is such a good spot for LBBs (and LRBBs – little red and brown birds, LBBBs – little blue and brown birds, LYBBs etcetcetc). There’s the creek of course, and the lantana and the privet berries, and the tangle of bamboos and morning glories to hide in – weedy or not, the kind of dense multilayered cover that small birds need to survive, as this beautifully specific guide by the Habitat network points out.

There’s also plenty of native grasses, vines and trees, some quite recently planted, many pleasingly photogenic but also lots of the kind of spiky unglamorous bushes that are favoured by smaller birds as hide-outs –  kunzea ambigua, for instance.  This part of Pembroke Park, scrubby and not at all fun to bushbash through, is part of a line of green spaces stretching north to Lane Cove National ParkSmall birds need such “stepping stones” – contiguous patches of cover – to flourish.

The wrens and finches seem to particularly enjoy the grassy area a wee bit back from the main road, even during recent months when guys in high viz outfits driving tiny diggers would regularly park up around there and talk seriously about sewage pipes.  I suspect the more knowledgeable would call it an ecotone – an area where a number of different habitat types meet (… main road, suburban grass deserts, bush, privet rainforest, bike path…)

Equally interesting is what I don’t see in this little patch of scrub and noxious weeds.  I’ve spotted a wattlebird or two, but the mynahs and the currawongs seem to prefer the closely shaved lawns and unlovely topiary of adjacent suburbia only a few hundred yards away.

It’s lucky, probably, that the water dragons don’t share my landscaping snobbery.  They seem equally happy basking on the buffalo grass by the kerb, nestling under the hateful row of aloe plants, or zipping into the hinterland of privet, ehrharta and abandoned tyres.  I guess a suburban lizard’s gotta do what a suburban lizard’s gotta do.

How to murder your monster shrubbery

The short answer is “slowly and with feeling”.  But let’s not rush into anything.

I’m pretty sure there’s some kind of by-law in Hornsby Shire against putting your kids to bed with a recitation of “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”.  Something along the lines of the “Unsafe and age-inappropriate use of modernist poetry act of 1987”.  But when your eight year old requests read T.S.Eliot, what can you do?

 

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when if I say that T.S. seemed to be a teeny bit negative about ageing.  One can only speculate on how different this poem (and indeed his whole oeuvre) would be if Prufrock had focussed less on getting lucky with the sirens of the sea and more on pruning.

Because, let’s face it, gardening is an oldie’s game.  When, yet again, the annual spud harvest fits in a single soup bowl; when your carrots are absurdly abbreviated; when another fruitless year passes for the ungrateful kiwifruit vine, the middle aged gardener shrugs her shoulders and thinks “next year”.  The seasons tumbling past faster and faster just means a shorter delay before you have another go at germinating those ruby brusselsprouts.

Our Fraser Island creeper finally did its gaudy thing – flaunting great big, hot-pink clusters of flowers in the oddest place, not up where the growing fronds reach  towards the light but way, way down in the gloom underneath the rampant Sweetie kiwifruit vine.  It flowers on old wood.  What a fine turn of phrase!

The Tecomanthi hillii not alone in dragging its feet.  Here’s a wall of shame – some other plants that have taken their sweet time to do anything exciting at all.  At least the “Bower of Beauty” has finally decided to flower on our side of the fence, rather than, like it did last year, offering a display exclusively to he neighbours.

It seems fitting, then we’ve taken what might be politely described as a contemplative approach to the execution of the massive weeds that tower over our back garden.

Our broad-leafed privet rivals the great redwoods of North America.  We have a Japanese honeysuckle vine as gnarled and vigorous as a strangler fig, which scrambles through a hibiscus “bush” as tall as a two story building. If only the mystical growth potion that the erstwhile owners  poured on these doughty invasive plants would seep down the hill into my peaky looking zucchini plants.

I like to think incremental approach to weed-murder has some ecological justification.  Some weeds in some places – lantana, for instance – form a critical habitat, particularly for the smaller birds that have been disappearing from cities.  If you clear it without replacing it, the LBBs vanish too.

So over the last couple of years, as well as installing a spiky tangle of hakeas, callistomens, sorbs, grasses and vines in an out of the way corner of the yard, I’ve  been tracking down native fruit-bearing plants to replace the  tainted bounty of the privet and honeysuckle berries.  Purely in the interest of hungry birdlife, you understand.  Nothing to do with fetishistic plant-hoarding.

Daleys up in Maleny and The Good Karma Farmer in Newcastle are my bushtucker dealers.  In my experience, you can tell if it’s bushtucker because the critters get it before you.  Following this logic, I’ve put in lillypillies, native gardenia and Davidson’s plum, koda for the Lewin’s honey eaters and the brown cuckoo doves and blueberry ash for the wonga pigeons.  I’m fairly confident the birds won’t turn their noses up at the mulberries, the persimmons, my grapes, my persimmons and my cherries either, damn their eyes.

I’m still working on substitutes for the honeysuckle and the fine looking but weedy red trumpet vine we inherited from our house’s old occupants.   Along with the hibiscus, they’re a favourite of our regulars, the little wattlebirds, and the gorgeous eastern spinebill, an all too occasional visitor.

I’m slowly sliding the wonga wonga vines, the Bower of Beauty, the dusky coral peas and the guinea vines amongst the potato vines and the honeysuckle.  Lulling the evil invaders into a false sense of security before I strike… there will be time…

“There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.”

You see, Prufrock definitely has the makings of a gardener.  You may well murder and create after your hundred indecisions, visions and revisions, but don’t forget that cuppa tea*.

*Health and safety warning: this is a gardening blog, not a work of literary criticism.  No responsibility is taken for any adverse horticultural outcomes of incorrect readings of the Western literary canon.

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!

Russet trees & scarlet tails

Is that fall colour I see on the hillside as the mist parts over Calabash Bay?  Nope, wrong season, wrong continent.  It’s the golden-brown tips of the casuarina trees, the males that is, laden with pollen and catching the morning light.

For all their evocative latin label – named after their cassowary-like foliage – the casuarinas are a mournful kind of tree, I think.  The wind whistling through the wispy branchlets of the she-oaks takes me straight back to solitary times in childhood.  Even Wikipedia notes, rather poetically, how quiet it is in a she-oak forest, sound muffled by the blanket of fallen “needles”, in an understory where other things refuse to grow.

Not so quiet this morning, though.  Just as I was cursing my missed train, there was a “kraaaaak!” and a flash of red in the trees between the commuter car park and the RSL.  New guys in town (or new to me anyway): glossy black-cockatoos.

Two young fellas and an older female, I reckon – a typical little group for these birds, it seems, unlike the yellow and red tailed black-cockatoos that stay in bigger flocks.  The two lads flapped from tree to tree, red tails glowing in the sun, while mum (or cocky-cougar?) chilled out next to Berowra Car Care, having a good old preen.

Glossy black-cockatoos are fussy eaters.  The penny has dropped for yellow-tails that they need to diversify their eating habits and these days they’re doing okay, thanks to pine trees like the great big decrepit ones in our yard.  But these birds really only like the woody fruits of the allocasuarinas  – and turn their noses up at even some of those.  The black she-oak, casuarina littoralis, is a particular favourite and, now I’ve started to notice them in their winter finery, it seems there’s plenty of them around here.

But the black oaks don’t come back too well from big, hot fires.  And the glossy black cockies are competing with galahs, corellas, sulphur cresteds and mynahs – birds that don’t mind land being cleared and subdivided.  Humans knock down the big old trees, feral bees nick the nesting hollows and possums steal black-cockatoo eggs.  Perhaps it’s not surprising I haven’t seen these lovely birds before.

Or maybe they’ve been here all along, “inconspicuous and cryptic”, leaving a trail of half-chewed casuarina orts, just a red flash in the golden silence of the she-oak trees.

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…