Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Garlic fail - part two..... the pre Christmas postscrip.

Last month I posted about my sad little garlic harvest...... I was little ashamed to mention the postscript to this story, thinking it was a reflection of my poor garlic husbandry skills.

A week or so after pulling the garlic I had it all on in a tray drying in my living area. I could small a strong garlic odour but wasn't too concerned as normally, when its not so damm cold and miserable I dry it outside in our covered BBQ area (which is on the south wall of the house) where I assumed the smell would dissipate. The smell went on for the rest of the busy week until I decided to sort and separate what was worth eating from the smaller cloves that I intended to put back for another year. Much to my dismay I found that half the heads felt empty inside. The cloves themselves had shriveled and gone almost butter-like in texture.  Most of what little I harvested was now apparently ruined. I assumed it was some kind of bulb rot and put most of the affected cloves into the worm farm.

Fast forward to pre Christmas preparations at the Gasworks Farmers Market collecting my free range ham from Bronwyn and Michael at Gypsy Pig. On my round of the market I purchased a bag of garlic and got chatting with the farmer about my garlic incident. He immediately diagnosed the cause.... I had sun burnt my garlic! After I pulled out the garlic it was a little damp so I left it on our outdoor table for a day before I brought it inside. Apparently 15 minutes in the sun is enough to do it- so a few hours and I had essentially cooked up my cloves. Who would have thought. Oh well lesson learnt. It won't happen again and I am feeling a little less insecure about my garlic growing skills- rather it was my garlic harvesting skills that were more of a problem!

Thursday, 12 December 2013

The tomato project -part 1

My tomato patch at the community garden
It seems ages since I have had a decent crop of tomatoes. I have to swing my mind back 13 years to a rental share house on the other side town where it seemed like magically with little effort we just had buckets of them -quite literally. Here at my current home, the past few years have not been kind to my tomato growing efforts. Throw in climatic factors; too hot, too cold; not enough rain; too much rain (Melbourne's erratic weather),  lack of full sun and my experiments (pre-chook days) with perhaps a bit of an overdose on worm castings and worm wee that yielded huge green plants but little fruit,  its been a long time since my last bumper harvest. Last year for the first time I had a decent crop ready to ripen but that disappeared thanks to a boom in the population of the local rats.

This year,back in the depths of winter, I decided to get organised a set up a tomato growing strategy. It started with Bek's call out to help her clear out her seed collection. It was very exciting to receive in the old fashioned post a beautiful envelope containing neatly labelled plastic zip-lock bags with the following selection:

  • Ned Kelly
  • Big Beef
  • Champion
  • New Yorker
  • Mortgage Lifter
  • (and most intriguingly) Big White Pink Stripe (lets call that BWPS).

To that collection I added two kinds of cherry, Yellow pear and some Mini Roma. The cherry tomatoes included a small sweet tomato I took from the planter garden (variety unknown) and what I refer to as feral cherry- the cherry tomatoes that seem to crop up everywhere around the garden. Unfortunately due to an accident during seed sowing the Mini Roma got tipped into the BWPS so its going to be interesting to see what grows where.

My first step back in July was sowing a few of each into strawberry and tomato punnets. These act as perfect mini greenhouses out on the front porch in the northern winter sun. The punnets were lined up in a kitty litter tray so they could be bought inside and put in front of the heater at night. That technique seems to work and I got excellent germination. Once the plants had their first sets of decent leaves I planted them out into single tubes or two by two into small pots.

Having grown far too many seedlings for my own use (I have kept 2 of each of the standard varieties) I sold seedlings off for a gold coin donation at work and at a little stall I set up for an hour and a half as part of the Garage Sale Trail Day (basically this was an event encouraging everyone to have garage sales that offered me the chance to publicise my sale via a listing on the website). With very little effort, my combined sales of excess chilies, eggplants and capsicum came to $52 which has been donated to Oxfam to help fund local food growing programs in East Timor.

This year with my expansion out into a community garden, I have shifted the focus on my backyard beds leaving only cherry varieties in the backyard. There are numerous cherry plants filling out the various pots and tubs and a row of the 'feral' variety lined up on the back fence. Yellow pears and either mini roma or BWPS are out in the planter boxes and a full plot of standard tomatoes in the community garden plot. Not content with that I have planted out all my left over seedlings in the adjacent plot that seems to have been abandoned. I am hoping with any success the community garden will be so overrun with tomatoes that the crop from that bed can be distributed to one of the many community or refugee  groups that could use donations of fresh vegetables. Stay tuned to see how it all works out!

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Garlic fail!

A few weeks ago I read with trepidation  Liz's post on Suburban Tomato about her unsuccessful garlic harvest. For some weeks I had been watching the rather pathetic garlic stalks in my garden whither away (not helped by the odd  "naughty chook got BUSTED in the garden stampede") knowing that the day would soon be coming where I would  need to soon take the plunge and dig them up.

Last Saturday was that day..... and here are the results of my entire garlic harvest.......

Unlike Liz I don't necessarily use my best cloves its more a case of what happens to be left over and sprouting at the end of the season. Never the less I swear on the whole the cloves have still managed to end up smaller than when I put them in.

In the past I used Chinese garlic because that's all there seemed to be around (you can see there is still some white garlic which I think dates from that time). For the past two seasons I have added in organic purple garlic that I have picked up from Farmers Markets.

With this being my second year with a less than bumper harvest I have been interested to see what other people think might be the problem. Last year I am sure I read a similar post on Liz's blog where readers mentioned that garlic needs lots of food. So in preparation this year I dug mounds of chooky goodness (composted manure and wood shavings) a few weeks prior to planting. Throughout the growing season I also gave the plants the odd dose of worm wee.... mmm so maybe it's not nutrients after all.

My second idea is that it's about water. I am thinking well watered draining soil might be the best. I am growing my garlic in fairly heavy clay type soil so its a real balancing act to keep the soil wet but avoid water- logging and rotting the bulbs. I am putting it out there in a totally non scientifically tested way that the water balance is most important right about the time the growth is highest before the plants suck all that nutrient back into the bulb. That was right about the time I went away and the whole bed ended up a little dry.

My third idea is that garlic needs 100% sun. I am going to struggle in the yard with proving this, so to test out this theory I am going to plant out some of the bulbs in the planter and my new community garden plot. Stay tuned for this time next year for the results.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Coming back

Well I have been away from this blog and away from home on my jaunt around Central/ South America. I spent the best part of the week in Costa Rica pitching my 'Bottles to Boardwalks' project to the good folk at G Adventures  at the "Summit in the Jungle" (you can read about it here and here). While I didn't win the $25,000, I am keen to not let my idea die....so watch this space. Costa Rica was followed by the opportunity to extend my complimentary ticket over to that side of the world by joining a G Adventures 7 night cruise (not sure if that's the right word- safari on a boat perhaps?!) of the Galapagos. This was followed by another week on the islands hanging out, getting to know the town sea lion population, catching the local inter island ferries (small speedboats with BL**DY big engines) and doing a spot of diving. Combine that with a few days of exploring the sites of mainland Ecuador (Quito and surrounds) and far too long in transit and I was back!

Backyard in the Galapagos

Coming home there is always a sense of anticipation and anxiety... will the pets be waiting, will they be happy to see us (no not really) and hows the garden ?! Slightly overgrown but a little dry was the answer to the latter. One of my girls had gone clucky and caused some grief to my Japanese house-sitter who thought she was on her last legs. But everyone and everything else had survived incident free.

Coming back there's always the issue of restocking an empty fridge- Well the fridge wasn't quite empty as expected the other half had basically ignored my instructions about the leftovers for him and the chicken necks for the cat  before he left to join me in Quito and my house-sitter bless her had clearly not wanted to throw out anything she wasn't supposed to. The month old left over milk that hadn't soured was a very bizarre mystery of science! Anyway with out having to rely on everyone's favourite (un)freshfood people or getting down to the  store with the'big red hand',  the best bit about coming back was ducking out into the garden for survival rations of Tuscan kale (cavalo nero), carrots and the last of the sprouting broccoli. (I like to think the overdose on Tuscan kale also helped make up for the significant absence of leafy greens on my Latin American jaunt).

Aside from Tuscan Kale layered in lasagna, sauteed with garlic,olives pesto and pasta, I have been adding it as a side dish (along with some roasted parsnips from the garden) to accompany my favorite recipe discovery of late. Here it is:

Slow Roasted lamb shoulder with cumin and pears
2 brown onions, skin on and sliced into rounds
1 lamb shoulder (bone in), semi-cut into portions (ask your butcher to do this)
2 tbsp cumin seed
2 tbsp black peppercorns
5 cloves garlic
2 tbsp flaked salt
1 tbsp olive oil
7 sprigs thyme, leaves only
4 beurre bosc pears, skin on and cut in half (if available, you can also use 3 quinces, peeled and cut into cheeks)
3 tbsp raw sugar
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1. Preheat oven 160C fan-forced (180C conventional).
2. Place onion in base of a heavy ovenproof dish.
3. Trim and slightly score top of lamb.
4. Crush cumin and peppercorns with a mortar and pestle, then add garlic and salt. Crush to a paste and add oil. Smother paste over lamb, rubbing between bones as well. Place lamb on top of onions, scatter with thyme and add pear halves. Sprinkle with sugar and vinegar and pour in 80 millimetres of water.
5. Cover dish in a double layer of foil and roast for four hours, then remove foil and skim some of the fat. Return lamb to oven and raise temperature to 180C fan-forced. Baste lamb a little and cook for another 35 minutes or until golden brown.
6. Serve with braised silverbeet and couscous.
Serves 4-6
(Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/good-food/cook/greatest-hits-20130812-2rr60.html#ixzz2iiamojRC)

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Nothing like a good challenge

A part of my day job is keeping track of what's going on in the media. I subscribe to an excellent free media monitoring service- 'making environmental news' which is collated by an organisation called the Banksia Foundation. Unfortunately the 'environmental news' space is a pretty depressing space these days. Take the issue of food for example -just a sample of themes and challenges currently featuring  include the expansion of coal seam gas exploration into our most productive farmland, various reports about the challenges of feeding the planet's growing population in a world constrained by the challenges of climate change, Victorian farmers pulling up peach trees because they can't sell the peaches and the Chinese buying up another patch of local farmland. To top that all off there was a Four Corners investigation into toxic dioxins being found in common herbicides used on our farms.  So rather than get down about it all I have decided to make it a motivating force to keep up my home grown challenge....

With spring around the corner, my baby girls have started to lay and the garden and the planter boxes are starting to yield serious dividends.....

Sprouting broccoli and rapini are the current staples

my first ever  parsnips, a random carrot and more broccoli and rapini for dinner

Just like the Chinese ...... I am continuing with my own land grab....taking on my biggest expansion challenge ever......

A plot in the new Braybrook community garden. This was supposed to be a new community and food hub in one of Melbourne's most disadvantaged areas.... two years later the vision hasn't materialised and Council has given up... leaving a weed filled field with ten garden plots up to the community to deal with.... like I said a challenge.

To fill my garden beds I am cleaning out the seed drawer

A test of some really old (about 10 years old!) lettuce seeds yielded the following results:

Oh well, at least the tomatoes I scored from Bek's seed collection clean out are now happily germinated on the way to being my first Braybrook crop.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

A winter garden (?!)

A little while ago I read an excellent analogy used to compare a renowned climate scientist and his views and predicitions versus those of a local climate sceptic who constantly finds reasons why the world is not warming such as "xxx part of the world has just had its wettest, coldest summer since 1944" etc. The analogy begins with the climate scientist and the sceptic both out in the forest. The climate scientist has access to a fire tower used to spot oncoming bushfires so he climbs to the top  holding a pair of powerful long range binoculars. Over on the far horizon he can see a massive cloud of smoke coming over the hills towards them so he calls out to let the sceptic know there is a bushfire on the way. Down on the ground all the sceptic can see are some trees "no fire here, lets get on with out picnic" he tells the scientist. Without wanting to sound like the antithesis of that sceptic "'back in my day we always had frost at this time of year" - it really does seem like the winters are getting shorter here in my neck of the woods.

Here's a couple of pictures of my capsicums back at the start of the month:

They won't get the size or the sweetness of late summer picked fruit but they remind me of 'piiman' (the type of green peppers they have in Japan) so they will do just fine for the odd cooked dish (they will be a little bit bitter to eat raw)

I have also been picking the very last of the eggplants and the climbing beans (that has to be a record for June!)

I finally harvested some fresh turmeric as the leaves yellowed and began to wilt combining it with some other slightly tropical ingredients - chili and lemongrass to make my seasonal a new seasonal favourite from Neil Perry.

Since the photo of the capsicums was taken, we finally got a cold snap (compressed into one week it seems) which finally managed to budge some of the green leaves from my crab apple. My pathetic stick of an apple tree- (its never given me an apple)  is still hanging onto one green leaf.

Throughout the month of May and the start of this month I have been keeping up my challenge of eating at least one thing from the garden each day but with cold snap and my beans finally finishing up things are getting a little more sparse.

My Tuscan kale is not far off though, and the first of my broccoli is starting to develop little buds in its crown. I have planted a few cabbage out in the planters that seem to promise they will form nice round heads and my snow peas have gone ballistic (just a matter of making sure the pesky rats don't come back)

Thinking ahead my plans to build a new planter for my next summer planting of Japanese burdock ('gobo') out the back away from my chookies were fast forwarded thanks to the discovery of this dumped pallet. It was perfect for my plans to grow a single row of gobo along the wall here. In the meantime I have planted some chard I got from the local produce swap and some more broad beans.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Waste not.....

Last Wednesday was World Environment Day... this year's theme was 'Think Eat Save'.  This is a mantra that's close to my heart and part of my philosophy that has lead to my interest in all things related to backyard food production.

According to UN Food and Agriculture Organisation 1.3 billion tonnes of food goes to waste every year- the equivalent of the amount produced in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, 1 in every 7 people in the world go to bed hungry and more than 20,000 children under the age of 5 die daily from hunger.

Seems like a big problem with insurmountable  issues involved.. but starting small.... just imagine if everyone here in Australia grew a few pots of herbs for example.... how many acres  of productive land would no longer be dedicated to growing herbs destined to end up soggy and slimy at the bottom of the fridge  (if any one has EVER used a entire pack of herbs in a dish I would be surprised) not to mention the dubious jars of 'fresh garlic' and tubes of squeezable  'herbs'  sitting up the back with a best before date of 2008. 

Anyway I digress here's how we deal with food waste at our house:

Growing 'waste' into new plants  

Here are  four crops I have grown from what would have otherwise become waste 

'Royal Blue' potatoes - the origin of these is a couple of sprouted spuds from Jones Potatoes from Warragul in Gippsland
Garlic- in the early days I grew the dreaded 'Chinese' import stuff reasonably well (it was little strong and garlicy). I also tried some South American bulbs with no success. Lately I have found good sources of  local organic garlic for sale at local farmers markets - going cheap at the end of the season. I eat what I can and plant the rest.

Ginger  (with some lemon grass cuttings) - this is my first attempt at growing ginger! for some reason this year an unloved  piece sprouted on my bench rather than simply shriveling away. Hopefully it will survive the winter

Sweet potato- once again, not sure how this will go- it started growing so I put it in the soil. Its looking a little wilted after a chilly winters night.
Feeding waste to 'chooks'

Sadly less effective than expected.... we don't have kids... just 2 adults who have kind of figured out how to match a serving size with an appetite .. so the food the chooks like is fairly limited. Here's a list of what they do and don't like:

  •  bread crusts (we don't eat a lot of bread but they take what they can get)
  • dregs from the cereal pack (mixed with grain - a great mash)
  • rice or pasta stuck to the pan bottom- soaked off with hot water and added to the cereal dregs
  • porridge (they happily clean the pot)
  • hot chips (minimum chips is never minimum- much to their happiness)
  • capsicum seeds (chuck the cores out and they pick them clean)
  • ditto pumpkin seeds (if they are desperate)
  • apple cores and skin (chopped finely)- makes me feel less guilty about losing the goodness peeling apples for cooking when I know it will be recycled back in eggs and poo.
  • over ripe fruit (peaches, plums etc) - put into mash
  • any kind of green leaf/ peeling etc (you have to be joking! they only enjoy greens straight off the plant!)
Feeding 'waste' to worms

We have 2 small worm farms that process about 1-2 litres of kitchen peelings  and coffee grounds per week. The main thing with the worms is not to let them overheat in the summer. A few days heading towards 40 degrees plus and they end up in serious trouble (I learnt the hard way during the crazy heatwave prior to the black Saturday bush fires in 2009. I came home from work to a hideous stench in my front yard- a 1000 or so rotting worms in my backyard).  My remedy since then has been to put a frozen drink bottle in the worm farm on very hot days which seems to work (either that or evolution has worked exceptionally fast).  Other than that my worms are pretty tough. Contrary to popular wisdom and unlike the chooks they are NOT fussy  and happily live with food they are not supposed to like- onion and citrus.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Mad about Mexican.

gathering ingredients for a Mexican feast.
Up until recently my  'Mexican' food experiences comprised of the following: Somewhere on our American road trip when I was 15, half price margarita night at Taco Bills- uni,  and Old El Paso. When I lived in Japan I even found the taco shells (made in Australia) at Sony Plaza a popular store with a weird mix of make up beauty products, Tim Tams, and other imported groceries.

Always keen to experience new  flavours,  I was quite excited with the opening of a  'Mamasita' a few years back, this was perhaps the first of recent batch of Melbourne eateries touting authentic Mexican food and Tequila. Unfortunately as with most over hyped things here in Melbourne, my excitement was short-lived. The one time we went we rushed out of work early got there at 5.45pm on a Tuesday... and found we had the last 2 seats in the place crowded at a bar whilst everyone else was lined up for hours from the front door and down the stairs. So I had given up on Mexican until I came across an entry in the Footscray Food blog for La Tortilleria- real tacos just round the corner in Kensington and the best bit you can by fresh tortillas made from freshly stone ground corn to take home.

So with tortillas in hand, a few left over chillies, capsicum, tonnes of fresh lime and some fantastic seasons avocado (not my own) I have unleashed a Mexican cooking frenzy. To date I have experimented with  Neil Perry's recipe for chicken adobo and a smoky pork tacos from Taste.com (lots of the other similar recipes contained apple/juice so I also substituted some of the chicken stock with apple juice for this recipe and added a couple of mild chilies).

I addition to creating a side of avocado with lime and coriander I also found another unusual Mexican ingredient at the Gasworks farmers market- tomatillos. I had never seen these before, but my friend having just returned from a brief stop over in Mexico assured me these are indeed found in Mexican markets.

I am excited about attempting to grow some of the tomatillos from seed- any hints?

Helpfully they came with there own recipe sheet for 'Tomatillo Salsa Verde'. The tomatillos first need to be cooked- apparently they are normally boiled but this recipe suggested baking these along with a couple of cloves of garlic which is what I did.

The recipe then proceeds as follows (note I created mine with about half the amount)
  • 500g tomatillos
  • 1/2 cup chopped coriander
  • 1tbs fresh lime juice
  • 1/4 tsp sugar
  • 2 jalapeno or padron peppers (seeds removed for less heat)
  • roasted garlic
  • salt to taste
All the ingredients are then put into a blender for a couple of pulses to chop fairly coarsely- place in a serving bowl and there you have it.

tomatillo salsa and some avocado and coriander with lime

Monday, 20 May 2013

Common ground

You know when you have well and seen the very last vestiges of the summer when you have pulled your last tomato plant- letting go of the last juicy green tomatoes that will sadly never ripen. Today I pulled the last ones out from the back corner of the lane- they get away with staying up there jumbled in with the raspberries. But I have pulled them out and planted broad-beans- like the tomatoes I will let them run rampant up in the back corner.

Out in the Pitt Street block we are coming to the end of the 6 month council  trial of the planters. Most people have cleared out the summer crops and have winter crops well underway in anticipation of the planters remaining post the trial.

I am still growing the Lebanese eggplants I planted very late in the season. Each of the 3 plants has yielded heavily and is still fruiting. I would like to leave the last fruits on the plants but it's a difficult balance as I lost a couple of kilos to pilfering neighbours (to my knowledge these are the ONLY things that have been seriously pilfered so they must have been good). I am hoping to scratch together the last of them for my final serve of Chinese chili eggplants.

Planter box harvest: egg plant, lettuce and beetroot

Two of the box 'owners' have officially relinquished their responsibility for their planters and until the future of the project is known I am planting out with the leftovers and thinnings of my winter seedlings.

Asian greens and sprouting broccoli


I am trying new crops this year sprouting broccoli and cabbage. Seed from my carrots has run rampant in the backyard garden so I have spent the afternoon planting into the abandoned planter boxes. I hope that if the garden remains we can get more people involved in planting out boxes - but in the meantime I am not wasting space!

In Meg's box the seeded coriander is also running wild. When my chook litter bin was overflowing I gave Meg a bag of the composted wood shavings and poo. (I think it was the secret of the eggplants and is now paying dividends with the coriander). In exchange for the poo I have thinned out some of the coriander that's now choking the spinach.

I have pruned the basil from an 'unofficially' relinquished planter box for a last jar of pesto before winter sets in.

basil for pesto & pasta

In the of  midst all the gardening action I have also been busy with another project- which I must now shamelessly plug!

Its an idea that's been knocking around since my trip to the Solomon Islands last year....  at the time it really worried me what happens to plastic waste in countries where there is no where (recycling/ landfill)  for it to go. Based on my work back here in Australia I came up with the idea of up-cycling the plastic into building materials. The technology exists but it would need help to get it over there and on the ground. A week ago I saw an ad for an international competition to make it happen.... if I have piqued your interest in something non garden related... please take a look...http://www.thisisyourplanet.com/ideas/beauty/329 . The competition works by popular vote. The top 4 ideas from each category (mine is beauty- as in the environment not as in me personally) go through to a professional judging round and the chance to gain $25k towards making it a reality. I am currently tracking in 5th place and all it needs is a few more votes...

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Real Bannockburn free range chicken

Sitting down to my regular half hour "grow your own eat your own" fantasy fix that is SBS Television's Gourmet Farmer last Thursday, I was dismayed to see it is now sponsored by Lilydale 'free range' chicken. Surely Mr Matthew Evans, Gourmet Farmer would be dismayed too, to see that everything he goes on about- honest food- that's raised in a ethical way- was being compromised by 'Big Chickens' muscling in one the vision we all wish we had access to everyday. Lilydale chicken is owned by Baiada- Australia's largest chicken processor. Aside from the fact that free-range is very much a side business (albeit growing) from its regular factory farming business, Baiada also has a dubious reputation for its treatment of workers, many of them new migrants to this country- you can read more about that here and here (be warned the second article is pretty nasty as it describes the death of a worker at the plant). Another big chicken processor La-Ionica was fined a $100K by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for misleading customers about its 'free to roam' factory chooks. La Ionica also has its own 'free range brand' - Bannockburn Chickens, given the company's history who knows if they are actually free range as we think of it or if they even come from the town called Bannockburn (just west of Geelong).

With all this on my mind I thought it was time I got around to telling the story of my real Bannockburn free range chook- from his journey as an egg (yep, he was conceived in Bannockburn- hopefully where his parents are still happily pecking around in the yard) to our plates a few weeks ago.

Its a journey that many people I know have questioned as a matter of ethics..."but how could you do it?, "isn't he a pet?", "if you don't need him wouldn't it be kinder to take him to the vet and have him put down?"(mmm- after which time he would be put into landfill while I went off to buy another chicken?) But the fact is I eat meat and if I can't face up to the reality of that in my own backyard, is it right that I allow the 'brand' on the supermarket shelf to hide the reality of really going on?

The decision to raise chickens was one we had considered carefully with the decision if we had a baby rooster (a part of the natural process) we would dispatch and eat it. When our five chicks hatched I kept a sense of detachment, anyone one of them could have a life measured in weeks rather than years. But each week was a good week- from about one week old they were out scratching in the yard (under our watchful eyes for just an hour or so at this stage), hunting and digging. As they grew it became obvious there was one rooster in the midst. He was a bit of an individual, he loved sun baking, legs splayed, wings stretched (maybe because it took him ages to feather up- a sign we were warned by the breeder he would be a boy). As time went on I wondered wouldn't he make a good breeder (picturing a bucolic image of him standing proud over his flock) - but when I went into the for sale section of backyard poultry there were dozens of other people with the same idea. In commercial farming, free range or not  roosters are expendable,  they are summarily executed on the first day of their lives. My boy had the chance to run around, roll in the dirt, carry on like a complete ratbag chasing the birds, woo the ladies,and towards the end do what roosters do with his surrogate mum and half sisters- (god love him)  thankfully I don't think he got it quite right!

Once he started crowing it was pretty much time to face reality. I researched on the net- 'home chicken killing'- forums on different methods, what time is the right time. Most people seemed to think around 14 weeks before they get too leggy, some people said killing chickens older than that wasn't worth it as they were all leg and no meat, others suggested waiting until 22 weeks for heritage breeds when the meat had filled out. It all seemed right in theory.... but I was worried about the practice - what if we got it wrong? I wasn't sure I personally had the physical strength to make sure it was a clean kill. To add to the dilemmas, G crashed his bike and tore the ligaments on his fingers rendering him 8 weeks out of action... with a loudly crowing rooster cooped up in the spare bedroom at night.

It was through my connections with the local permaculture group we got the opportunity to dispatch our rooster as part of a skill share session. Anyone with an interest could come along and learn how to kill, pluck and butcher their home grown roosters. In the end three others joined G and I when we drove him 500m up the road to the local community centre. Rather than the fear and terror that must be felt by the millions of other chooks, snatched in the darkness, jammed into crates and driven out in the open at high speed down the freeway, our rooster was sitting in his familiar crate (albeit a little hungry and impatient). When he was taken out and held upside down by his feet he seemed a little annoyed, then dazed for a minute as his head hit the block - then it was all over in a short couple of seconds.

Everyone then learned to pluck, gut and joint the chicken. The moment the feathers came off we could see the difference, long and leggy, his skin yellow.

commencing the gutting process

We brought 'Roo Roo' home in a plastic tub. As a small sign of respect, or rather sentimentality I took the bits we didn't want (the head and feet) to bury in the garden next to my other beloved hen. With the smell of fresh meat, his mama Boss came running over expectantly looking for some tasty treats. It seemed a bit macabre but really made me appreciate there is no such thing as sentimentality in the animal world. In my chook's eyes one minute he was there and one minute he was gone, end of story.

In the pot- no added artificial flavours or colours!

But I am a sentimental being- so I wanted to make sure this meat was treated with respect. Originally I had planned my favourite roast chicken recipe, but with dispatch happening on Sunday we didn't have the time to let the meat rest so we opted for 'Coq au vin' (Mathew Evans recipe) using a good bottle of Riesling, some free range pancetta (substituted for the prosciutto which was not available) and stock I boiled down and froze from my last roast chook. For such a seemingly skinny bird I struggled to jam all the pieces (including the frame) into my stove top casserole dish. All in all he gave us four delicious meals:
 (plus I took a small taster to work for my colleagues who were curious enough to try).

  • two  hearty goes at the coq au vin (after two days resting in the fridge and reheat in the oven, the second helping was sensational, rich, slightly gamey flavour falling off the bone)
  • meat shredded off the frame to top a delicious pizza with Meredith marinated goats cheese, fresh herbs and home grown tomatoes and zucchini 
  • 500mls of left over liquid to form the base of a rich pumpkin and leek risotto (with even more left overs for lunch).

On the first night, I set the dining table and opened a good bottle of Ten Minutes by Tractor Mornington Pinot as it seemed apt to respect and reflect. 

At the end of it all, was I glad I did it ? Yes. Would I do it again  Yes, although our chicken breeding days are over for now. What did I take away from it all? That we should think deeply about where our food comes from and that we should also take time from our busy lives to pay respect for a moment for the animals we didn't know and where ever possible make sure we choose the most ethical meat options we have available.

Monday, 6 May 2013

The only way is up (and out)

With the cooler (but sadly not wetter) autumn weather in place, I have been busy completing my autumn planting season (both edibles and other). Ever eager to improve on my home grown haul  I am keen to maximise my harvest using all of the resources I have available (land and sunlight being the limiting ones). Unfortunately with two young pullets (who unlike their broody box reared mama) have been raised to develop a keen sense of curiosity and experimental taste buds, I have added in an extra layer of consideration when planning my planting. The first step has been to utilise my growing areas outside the yard - lane waycommunity planter box and a revisit my attempts a at front yard 'ornamental' cabbage bed (sadly a dismal failure last year). This has involved shifting half my brassica plantings  (primarily cavalo nero and sprouting broccoli) to the outside planter boxes, not only to increase the available sunny planting area but also as a safeguard against damage inflicted by any unsupervised garden raids.

The second strategy is to utilise pots strategically placed in paved sunny areas closer to the house.

While out at one of the home improvement mega stores -shopping for some irrigation pegs (technically designed to hold down irrigation tubing- but they work just as well to hold down mesh to protect ground cover from foraging hens) these pink pots caught my eye. I have teamed them up with this slightly modified antique ladder from a hard waste collection to build a tiered strawberry planting (filled with runners I secured at our local produce swap). Facing the ladder on the angle allows for the eastern morning sun to reach under the ladder for a planting of snow peas and some coriander, the idea being that the ladder serves as a frame for the snow peas.  Since its installation the girls have taken a serious and destructive liking to the snow peas so I am currently improving on installing removable mesh around the base of the ladder. Since the photo there have been more caging works on the recycle tub behind for some additional snow peas and a small fence around the front planter for another coriander planting.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

How to keep a rooster in suburbia.....

Ok this is my second chook post in a row, but its an issue that's been preoccupying us of late. How to keep a rooster in suburbia. Lock him in the wardrobe of your spare room seems to be our current answer! Not permanently of course!

Using a 'night box' for roosters is a common solution to keeping roosters in suburbia and it's a technique we have been experimenting with over the past few weeks. Basically the theory goes that if put your rooster in a box/pet carrier and put it somewhere dark and quiet (sheds and garages are the normal options) the rooster is disorientated and unaware that its dawn so doesn't crow (or alternatively the sound is so muffled no one can hear). Catching him to go into the box has proved the most difficult part of the exercise. First we bring him inside and give him a few little snacks. He actually doesn't seem to mind the box, no doubt it's warm and dark and quiet and makes for a better nights sleep than being jostled by the girls outside. Of late hes been jumping off my lap and walking in there of his own accord.

As we don't have a garage our first option  for the box was the shed. Unfortunately our chook pen is a kind of a lean-to on the side of the shed so the minute the girls were up and squawking, off went the rooster. We could still hear him (and the girls) at the front of our compact weatherboard house- no doubt so could some of the rear neighbours.  The next step was the laundry. As I am yet to get around to organising my dream renovation to transform the laundry/ toilet into a European laundry with powder room and toilet there is still an old shower with fully enclosed glass screening. This has actually proved very handy on a few occasions.  It's where we kept our first two girls before they were big enough to go outside and more recently two dwarf rabbits I found on the run in my street. Eventually as no one claimed them, ,they were re-homed by the RSPCA (much to the relief of my cat). Unfortunately directly across from the laundry is the back of neighbour's house with rooms that are being rented out to international students. Our rooster was less excited by the girls but it only took a flock of the local ravens or a singing magpie and he was off again. With daylight saving drawing to a close I also didn't feel like a 6 am wake up so we needed to get creative. G suggested the wardrobe and its worked a treat. If he does crow we can barely him, let alone the neighbours, so the wardrobe it is.

Sunday, 7 April 2013


All grown up.

It's been ages since I last posted. Its not for lack of motivation or because I have abandoned the ideas behind this blog, in fact I reckon I have had most productive summer yet (most of it due to my expansion out into the laneway and my planter box out in our community area.)

This summer I tried my first beetroot and had serious bucket-loads of eggplants (they're still going!). My tomatoes promised (but never delivered- thanks to the rats), I am about to pull my spent zucchini and my capsicums are all busy ripening and ready to pick. The end of the long hot summer has finally come and sent me scurrying to get all the brassicas ready as a winter crop.

So while its all been good in garden world I have been busy and preoccupied dealing with stuff. Stupid negative unproductive stuff. Stuff that's been getting in the way of getting on with things and continuing all the great progress I have been making over the past couple of years.

Firstly there's been stuff about the rear laneway. Apparently someone wants to buy the laneway and council seeing the $$$ is happy to oblige. Before Christmas I received a council survey to gauge my thoughts on this. Guerilla garden boxes aside, rear access has been a blessing on more than one occasion. Without we wouldn't have been able to send a digger in to replace our sewer or install a 3000L water tank. Anyway so began a few months of time wasting bureaucracy. Coming from someone who's worked in Local Government- its been an experience of every bad "council" stereotype of incompetency you can imagine. "Oh sorry we lost your correspondence, we'll call you back when we found it... whoops we lost your phone number to call you back... we hadn't gotten around to writing you a letter yet to say we found the correspondence". I don't know whats going to happen- in the meantime the council has changed the 'policy' on laneways and we are yet to hear if they have decided to commence a full 'statutory process'. In the meantime I am thinking 'Tuscan kale' and 'sprouting brocoli'

We have also been through stuff with the 3 month consultation on the 'planter boxes' - more surveys to fill in, a 'site' meeting to attend. The neighbourhood has been letter boxed and it seems the feedback is 'mostly positve'- there's been no elaboration on the negatives- but from what I gather there are a few in the neighbourhood who think their own personal  dead piece of  gravel to use as an off street car park is a better option.

Finally our little family have grown up and spread their wings. Two of the girls have moved onto to a new home and for a while the backyard seemed a little empty without them. Our 'Baby Roo' is now a 'Big Roo'. He's not only getting bigger, but louder too. The added complication being this is all happening amongst the backdrop of poultry hitting the front page news, thanks to some high profile chook evictions in the neighbourhood(here and here) . It turns out the Council has a local law (not mentioned on the chook page of their website) that prohibits chooks being housed 15m from a dwelling or 1.5m from a boundary fence (fail on both accounts)- meaning my chooks (along with practically every other chook in the municipality) are technically breaking the law without a council exemption. So its been more stuff -emailing everyone I know around here to promote a  petition and attending meetings aimed at changing the laws. All along it's not the best time to be ending daylight savings with a rooster who' now going to be waking up at 6am rather than 7am.  We know he has to go... but lucky for 'Roo' all the other stuff keeping us busy means he lives another day.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

The $3.80 veggie shop

Last Saturday I spent exactly $3.80 on my veggie shop for the week. That consisted of  a hand full of red onions ($1) and three red capsicums ($1) from the "one dollar, one dollar" ladies at Vic Market and a punnet of "tomatoberry" ($1.80) basically the latest novelty cherry tomato that's been bred in the shape of strawberry- mmmm if only it weren't for the dammed rats I would have had a $2 shop!

I must confess it might be cheating slightly to admit I was mostly cooking for one last week and I did have a few left overs but thanks to the abundance of zucchinis and eggplants coming out of the lane way at the moment I was well set up for the week.

Here's a run down of the week.

On Saturday I pulled up the last of the carrots  from my first planting in the planter box. They were steamed with a zucchini and some chat potatoes (ok cheating I bought them the week before) and served with a piece of fish.

On Sunday I cooked up one of my favourite season recipes Ethiopian roast chicken with roast veg based on a recipe by Cath Claringbold's (founder of Mecca Bah). See below.

Zucchini and Lebanese eggplant (note one plant seems to be on steroids)
And later in the week I cooked up a yellow curry. I normally don't use the all in one sachets (but oriental merchant- the curry import people were having a crazy sale at their stall for  Chinese New Year). Despite the made in Thailand pedigree it tasted more like 'Japanese' Curry-  but with the bonus is was minus the palm oil! (the blocks of Japanese curry is full of it! so banned from my place).

More zucchni and eggplants ready for Thai curry with chili and Thai basil

This week I am hoping for a similar effort (I think just over $5). My one item a day challenge has been a cinch. To add to that- Boss laid her first egg post babies which was also a nice surprise because she is still moulting.

Ethiopian Roast Chicken:

The first step for the dish is mixing up a Berber spice rub for the chicken as follows:
  • 1tbs coriander seeds*
  • 1tbs cumin*
  • 1tbs black peppercorns*
  • 8 cloves*
  • 1tsp ground cardamon
  • 1tsp ground ginger
  • 1tsp all spice
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • dried chillies to suit
  • 2tbs sea salt
*roast whole seeds in a hot pan before mixing with finely chopped chillies and sea salt and pounding with a mortar and pestle (adding in the pre-ground spices at the end)

Take a whole chicken (or for shorter cooking time use chicken pieces- skin on. I used thigh pieces on this occasion). Rub with olive oil and spice mix. Depending on how generous you are with you measuring out of the spices the mix should do about 2 smallish chickens.

The next step is to prepare the other ingredients used in this dish:
  • coarsely chopped eggplants, zucchini. and red onion wedges
  • cherry tomatoes
  • jar of marinated goats cheese (eg. Meredith brand)
  • red wine vinegar (40-50ml).
The original recipe suggests baking the chicken and veggies in separate roasting pans. But I took a short cut by using a large roasting pan with a rack. I placed the chicken on the rack and the veggies (eggplant, zucchini, red onion) underneath. Generally the veggies don't take as long so its wise to kick start the chicken and add the veggies in later (10 minutes or so if using chicken pieces - slightly longer for a whole chook- the veggies should take around 30mins).  Prior to placing the veggies in the oven coat generously with oil oil (or use some of the oil marinating the goats cheese) and for a bit of extra flavour you can sprinkle on more of the spice mix.

Bake the chicken and the veggies at around 200deg C. Five-ten minutes prior to the veggies being ready, add the tomatoes.

If cooking the chicken separately collect the pan juice and add to the red wine vinegar. With my cheating version I just splashed the vinegar over both the chicken and veggies prior to serving. After you have turned off the oven mix some pieces of the marinated goats cheese through the veggies and leave to warm in the over for a couple of minutes.  If using the two pan method, splash the vinegar and pan juices over both the chicken and the veg as its being served.

Ethiopian roast chicken with summer veg.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Regarding rats versus tomatoes

The great thing about blogs is that you soon realise that whatever is going on in your patch, you're very rarely alone. So it was with some trepidation that I read Liz's accounts of her rapidly disappearing pumpkins and tomatoes on her Suburban Tomato blog.

It goes without saying that if you have poultry you have mice and possibly rats ( just don't tell the neighbours that! let alone they are actually coming over from that side of the fence).  We are very careful and had mouse proofed the chook feeder (rats are probably a different story) but unfortunately chooks are messy eaters and fling their feed out all over the place. So even with Pixie the guard cat sitting sentry outside its pretty much a losing battle.

The first hint the rats were getting a little bit out of control was when I saw one pop over the fence in broad daylight and run down the PVC pipe running the length of the chook pen. As time went on 'ratty' became more and more brazen and you could stare down the pipe and see him looking back at you - quite happy, safe and content. Then there was the instance of my rapidly disappearing bumper  raspberry crop. Any one who knows me will know I hate killing things - bug spray is completely banned at my place- so I wasn't really keen in facing up to the inevitable rat killing.

Here's the proof - I grew tomatoes in 2012-13

With all the warm weather, the tomatoes were the best they had been in years- the hybrid cherries were draped in bunches of big fat cherry tomatoes just beginning to ripen and my standard tomatoes (I think they are 'Mortgage Lifter' ) had set fruit en-mass for the first time in years. I had a smug sense of achievement of abundance in my garden.....until seemingly over night about six giant tomatoes vanished off the vine. This was followed in quick succession by the complete and utter stripping on my potted cherry tomatoes at the other end of the yard. The war had now begun.

The damage done - cherry tomatoes picked off the stem

My partner G went down to Bunnings and spent his Saturday morning comparing rat traps with a bunch of other Bunnings tragics (apparently  the news was they are growing giant ones all over the suburb of Sunshine with testicles the size of walnuts... so big they take on fox terriers....).

We set snap traps using rolled oats and peanut butter and put them out at night in strategic places under broken pots (to keep birds away) and hidden in the worm farm (showing signs of rodents digging). The worm farm yielded success straight away- 2 kills in 3 or 4 nights... but there was less progress elsewhere.

Still the tomatoes disappeared- and coming home after a bad day and in a fit of pre-dinner hungry grumpiness I pulled out a box of talon pellets I had bought but not used. So as not to poison the chooks I put one out in the lane next to my fence and covered with another broken terracotta pot (so its like a little cave) and one more brazenly on the rail of the neighbours side of the back fence where the rats cross over. (I will add the yard is so overgrown the neighbours would have no idea). I returned first thing the next morning to find both boxes (yes the cardboard boxes) and their contents gone. Later after a scour of the back corner of the garden (to check no pellets had been dropped on this side of the fence) I found a rats nest under a bush-  an empty cardboard box was amongst the various husks of seed pods it had been eating. The fact it dragged a box a good 5 metres through various vegetation has made me paranoid to use that method again (how easy would it be for one pellet to drop out). So we have now invested in a closed bait station box using the waxy style blocks (which don't seem as popular with the rats). Touch wood none of the large tomatoes have been taken since. The last rat we caught was 'drain pipe rat' - I came home one day to find it flailing, head stuck in the snap trap.

All this battling with nature has got me thinking..... it reminded me of an article I read a while back. It's a somewhat uncomfortable discussion (a warning to vegans- your diet most likely  DOES  kill warm fluffy animals on an epic scale!). It also reminded me how easy it is to sit back and shield ourselves  from plague and pestilence in a little cocoon of fast food and supermarkets. Unlike many people in the world I am lucky enough to see the destruction of my produce as nothing but a little interruption to my hobby. If growing my little garden has taught me one thing.... survival (man versus nature) outside the modern suburban world is not an easy or pleaseant task. No doubt despite adversity my rodent adversaries will prevail.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Reaping what you sow.

Back in October I posted about my project to turn a disused block of land into a productive oasis. We are now a few months into the trial  and while the garden has struggled a little of late, due to access to water (there is no tap) -overall I would rate it as a success. Here's an update of progress to date:

This is a shot of the garden I took back in mid December. (The sky looking deceptively stormy - since the planters were installed back in November I think we have had only had one or two rain events that were capable of soaking the the soil)


Here's my box with my first harvest of radish, some beetroot and some baby carrots. (Sitting in the middle of a gravel patch didn't deter the hungry little caterpillar that took to the radish on the left)

Here's just a couple of the beets that I have successfully harvested over the last month or so.

Fast forward to February.......... (and is starting to look like my 'artists impression' from my before and after shot on the promotional flyer)

Someone is growing some awesome eggplants!

And here's what the neighbourhood playgroup have been busy planting....
More produce from my box.... the last of the beetroot and the first of my carrots. I moved the eggplant (in the foreground)  from the back garden (it was being overshadowed by other stuff). Not sure how much it will go? Perhaps not quite as well as the picture above but its worth a try.

So in summary

Whats worked?
  • Adding to my home grown produce haul.
  • Cleaning up the block and turning a vacant wasteland/ car parking area into something attractive and worthwhile.
  • Creating a space that's respected by the local community. Even though its still technically possible, no ones parking on the block, people smile when they walk by and no one has stolen anything we have grown.
What hasn't worked:
  • Council delivering on the water tank they promised. Apparently due to some bureaucratic issues it sitting at the depot waiting for permission to be able to fill it!
  • The wicking beds...... while I know they have their dedicated supporters ....I wonder if our wicking beds have achieved anything at all.  As the dirt was never watered in I am sceptical if the water in the reservoir has been able to wick up to the surface- its like the dry dirt has created a barrier between the water reservoir and the plants above. Some of the boxes have practically died off while the little water level monitor is showing water still in the reservoir. As I have been growing from seed I have mostly been watering from the top.
Whats next:
  • Here's hoping council extends our trial and makes it a permanent fixture. I reckon there's space for a few more planters yet!

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Change in the weather

OK so this entry is just a blatant excuse to post this cute picture of Boss ( and yes she is moulting!) attempting to shield her over-sized brood from the breeze on a chilly summer's night last weekend. The babies, despite losing their fluff seem to have been in no hurry to feather up, meaning it was all a bit of a shock to the system.

Where in the world would you have a week that started with a 39 degree day followed by a 20 degree day, then some other random in between days in the 20's finally ending with a 40 degree day...Welcome to Melbourne...

While the animals and plants must be confused, I am just thankful we have managed to escape the worst of the heat wave that has recently enveloped the rest of the country. Stay cool everyone.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The chook saga

Its been a bit of  roller coaster on the chook front over the past few months.... first came sadness, then anticipation, then relief and joy and happiness.

Sadness because  a few months ago our girl Spazz passed away. Something not quite right had been going on for quite a while, sadly something that not even a drive across town to the bird vet and a bill to match could solve. We watched her slowly losing her rough and tumble snatch and grab approach to life. I knew thing were drawing to an end when our other chook Boss also figured out something was wrong and pecked and kicked her away. She died peacefully on a beautiful spring day and  I buried her in the spot where she had dug and scratched the native violets out of existence.

The question came next as to what to do with Boss. Chooks are flock birds and don't live happily alone. At that time of year its practically impossible to find large 'point of lay pullets' as the year's crop has just finished hatching. But Boss had one thing on her mind apart from laying eggs and that was sitting on them.

It 6 of her own eggs to get her to bed down overnight on her clutch and we were ready and waiting. A quick trip out to her home farm at  Bannockburn to collect a precious cargo of 8 fertilised eggs.

Boss sat tight for days on end and we changed her name to 'Miss Clucky Mama'. She only ventured off for 10 minutes to eat, drink, drop a big steaming pile of chicken manure, engage in  power dust bath before bolting back to the nest.

21 days later and the wait was over..... five perfect little hatchlings poked out one at time from a protective 'mum' (we found earlier that 3 of the eggs  were most likely unfertilised and were not developing).

"Hello baby"- still a bit dazed and confused following the arrival of chick number 1

Locked up with the brood.

At first everyone was confined to an enclosed nest box area but within a week poor boss suffered 'cabin fever' with five little ones under her feet and took them all downstairs. They haven't looked back since!
First venture into the veggie patch
As I am sitting here typing 5 little scruffy little things (they look like feathered baby dinosaurs) are rampaging round the yard  scratching and digging running poor Boss ragged in their constant hunt for bugs and seeds.

At home in the garden

With one confirmed baby rooster (hes got attitude already) and another one or two possibles, I am doing my best to visualise tasty roast chicken and how when to dispatch..... (will keep two pullets as friends for boss)

Junior rooster (centre) One month old today! he's already lived longer and happier than an average KFC bucket!

Saturday, 5 January 2013


I am currently enjoying the last day of a very nice trip up to the far north coast of NSW. We have spent the last week holidaying (about and hour and half south of Byron Bay) in the sleepy village of Iluka on the mouth of the mighty Clarence River. It's a southerners vision of the ideal holiday - days on the beach spent in  (almost) tropical climes - so its kind of ironic that yesterday while poor Melbourne and the rest of the country sweltered we were practically the coolest place in the country!

I do feel extremely blessed! Free access to holiday home (once a home for a time for my late Grandmother) and hoping that the poor garden and the pets are being nursed through the heatwave by poor Naoko (a Japanese student who's kindly house sitting and has probably done more plant watering in two days than she ever thought possible).

Whenever I travel to regional Australia or even to my parents home in Canberra (where everything endures the trip down from Sydney and suffers for it!) I am always reminded how lucky I am to live in a capital city and have access to cheap and fresh vegetables and produce. Thanks to the domination of the big two supermarket giants and their insistence on centralised purchasing through the capital centres, travel outside Sydney and Melbourne away from the wholesale markets and suddenly the price of supermarket  fresh food goes up and the freshness goes down. On the way up here I was greatly excited to stumble upon a farmers market when we made a quick pit stop in the town of Glen Innes. Talk about amazing fresh bargains! $3  for a dozen free range eggs, $1 for a bag of the tastiest kipfler potatoes, $2 for a bag of fresh beans and $1.50 for fresh zucchini! Almost as good as home grown!

My partner 'G' (bless him) has been busy getting in touch with his inner hunter, wading out in the shallows  of the river each night armed with nothing but a torch and a hand spear.... when the wind has been behaving he's been bring home fresh flatheads to add with my vegies.  I am approving of this more 'sustainable' approach to fishing as it not only is it putting food on the table but its also putting a end to my usual concerns about his amateur fishing... spend $10 on bait... (that had to be fished from somewhere not necessarily sustainable).... and come home with nothing.

I wanted to upload a picture representing the simplicity of holiday life....... freshly caught flathead fillets with steamed vegies (complete with daggy melamine crockery that finds its way into every holiday home). Unfortunately the telstra 4G thingo is not cooperating with blogger so for now you will need to imagine!