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.

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.

An unhappy threesome

The threesome in the bottom of the garden is just not working out well, or not for my lonesome lady kiwiberry anyway.

Most kiwi fruit are dioecious – to produce fruit you need both male and female plants.  Commercial producers have maybe one staminate pollinator to eight fruit-bearing pistillate plants. In our garden, there isn’t enough space for such large scale polygamy.  All in all, the plant sex around here is playing into the hands of the social conservatives.

The couply-couply Sweetie kiwifruits in the “solar pergola” have done their baby-making (with a little bit of help from me).  Inspired by their example, the Mt Tomah Red kiwiberry is now in bloom.  But it’s just not happening for Hairy Hayward, her pollinator (or his lovely vigorous and hairy wife).  It takes chillier weather to get their blood up, I reckon.

I’m not quite sure what should happen next.  Mr Sweetie has done his dash fertilisation-wise this year.  I have no shame – I am willing to act like a bee and transport the good stuff around the garden but I’ve gotta have something to work with.  Perhaps internet dating is the way to go: “Would like to meet: generous pollen-laden male kiwifruit.  A love of warm weather essential.  Variety and nectar-production unimportant. Must be willing to reproduce immediately.  No time-wasters please”

She may not have a fully functioning pollinator, but Mt Tomah Red does have a new BFF.  A teenaged possum has snuck into the marsupial sunroom – between an old pane of glass above the barely used airconditioner and the boarded up window behind it.  I don’t think he realises it’s like the Big Brother house in there: he might feel like he’s having a secluded nap amongst the kiwi vines but in reality anyone hanging out the washing can look in and catch him snoring.  And if he’s hoping that Madam Tomah Red is going to provide him with a sequence of midnight snacks, he’s mistaken there as well.

Backyard archaeology

Garden makeovers: love them.  Love hastily manufacturing a bespoke bamboo and zip-tie trellis in a frenzy of blunt rip saws and blisters.  Love labouring over a shovel to extract every last tuber of noxious, flourishing ginger lily.  Love spending all my discretionary money for the fortnight, and then some, on more plants that will feasibly fit in the boot of the car and planting them all in a rush, surveying them afterwards, faintly guilty but sated, with a hosepipe in my hand.

But sometimes there’s a hint that all these things – all the plans hatched on the backs of envelopes while nodding away to some background conversation, all the cruising of plant catalogues, all the impulse buys on a Sunday – have happened before.

A while back, with great effort, we moved some of the large barrels along the side of the granny flat a couple of metres down the hill into the sun, so we could plant them up with some figs – White Genoa and White Adriatic, since you are asking.  Where they had been, under a layer of soil and detritus, was a large tarpaulin, threaded through with roots and looking the worse for wear.  Shrugging, I pulled it up, tidied a bit and installed a trellis (an early “blue period” effort) along with a grafted Nellie Kelly black passionfruit vine.  The aim was to protect the granny flat, a fibro hotbox, from the westerly summer sun, and if the possums were slow on the uptake, get some fruit.

trellis 1Nellie swarmed up the trellis and onto the roof in no time, though I did start to notice some vigorous vines with  dull green leaves, three-lobed like the passionfruit, appearing amongst the mass of creepers over the garden wall nearby.  Did they look a little familiar?  Had I seen them before?  I pulled up a few and didn’t think too much about it.

Three years on, Nellie has done nothing fruit-wise and hasn’t even flowered much, which might say something about the cruelty to plants inflicted by a largely organic but also veggo gardener who has qualms about blood and bone.  That said, the dark-green vine hasn’t minded one bit, and has appeared everywhere in the garden, threading its way through the wallaby grass, swarming up the fig trees, and, during our tip away, anchoring the bamboo garden gate to the ground.  My “wait and see” weeding philosophy has spawned a tribe of voracious suckers from the root-stock passiflora caerula.  A beginners’ error, I have realised, after some research, especially on Hawkesbury sandstone.

Nellie’s got to go.  The plant and its Mr Hyde companion vine, almost as large, are summarily executed.  In a surprisingly short time, the contents of half a black passionfruit emptied into in a pot of seed-raising mix on the windowsill has germinated, despite predictions that it might take months.  Once the corpse of Nellie has been disposed of, one or two of these babies will replace her, and will hopefully survive the root rots to which the non-graft fruit are apparently prone.

I’ve clocked, of course, what that tarpaulin was all about.  Someone who lived here before, that person who we’ve often cursed for planting huge stands of reportable weeds and using only two screws in all the door hinges, made the same mistake.  Someone before me, on a whim, probably at Bunnings, bought one of Nellie’s clone sisters years ago, planted it in the very same spot, and then had to take drastic measures to keep the suckering hordes at bay.

One day (when my body is taken out of this place in a box)  maybe someone else will rip out my fruit trees, put a lawn across my asparagus and spray Round Up on the scurvy grass, kidney weed and native geranium that have crept back where the spider plants and trad used to run riot.  Maybe there’ll be a townhouse and a double-car garage where my mulberry tree is.  Perhaps the best I can hope is that someone will pull out my non-grafted passionfruit, muttering about root rot, and put in another Nellie Kelly.