Sunday, October 31, 2010


How sweet is it? Using a refractometer to test the quality of fruit and vegetables.
Two of my mates said I needed one of these Brix refractometers if I was going to get serious about growing organic fruit and vegetables. One uses his for testing the sweetness of his grapes in the lead up to their harvest for wine production. The theory behind it is that within a given species of plant, the crop with the higher refractive index will have a higher sugar content, higher mineral content, higher protein content and a greater specific gravity or density.This adds up to a sweeter tasting, more minerally nutritious food with lower nitrate and water content, lower freezing temperature and better storage attributes. So these strawberries I picked today gave a reading of 16+ which is in the excellent range compared with some store bought ones which gave a 6 reading which is in the poor range. This explains why the store bought ones taste like cardboard!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Knotted Marjorum, Origanum marjorana

Knotted Marjoram, Origanum majorana

A day for knots on this Victoria Derby Day, with the 'fashionistas' recommending a classic knotted hairstyle, the chignon, for the ladies to wear on this premier race day of the Spring Racing Carnival in Melbourne.
Knotted Marjoram gets its name because the flowers appear like round close heads or knots. These knots are single or in groups of several and stand on their own stems, which rise from the leaf axils along the stems, and at the tips of the stems too. Each knot is four-sided and made up of tiny sepal like leaves, each folded over the next like a shutter. From each 'leaf' of the shutter comes tiny white flowers, a few at a time. My marjoram is just starting to flower and is at its aromatic best. The scent is variously described as being reminiscent of pine, heliotrope, nutmeg, mint and camphor.
Though normally associated with European cooking, especially as an additive to meat stuffing mixtures and sausage meat such as wurstkraut in Germany, as well as part of the classic
bouquet garni with bay leaves, parsley ,thyme, Marjoram is actually indigenous to North Africa, the Middle East and India. In India it is regarded as sacred to Vishnu and Siva though I have never heard of it being used in cooking there.

Marjoram flowers

Marjoram is killed by frost in cold climates and is usually grown from seed sown in spring. I usually get a couple of years out of a plant before it becomes a bit woody and unproductive.It is useful to grown near a path as the texture of the leaves is soft and velvety and the delightful scent is released when you brush past it.
It is a plant I can't live without ,though it still remains less well known than its more robust cousin Oregano (Origanum vulgare) and is yet to make an appearance on the greengrocer shelf with other fresh herbs.

Marjoram from Tacuinum Sanitatum c. 1385

Marjoram from an English Manuscript dated 1100

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Onion Chives

Chives are to the herb gardener, Spring's true harbinger, as they send up their leaf spears as soon as the weather warms up. I divided my main plant in early August, separating it into groups of 3 or 5 bulbs and the small grassy clumps that have formed from the division of bulbs have now put forth straight stems of rosy coloured flowers which are quite decorative and useful to pick to use as a garnish. However to keep chives productive over the summer, these flowers need to be removed and also, rather than snipping off the tops of the leaves, like a haircut, it is better to cut individual leaves off at ground level to keep the plants in good shape. I am using the chive plants as a border around my dwarf bean plants.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Beschoneria yuccoides

Emerging flower stem of Beschoneria yuccoides

Beschoneria yuccoides
 False Red Agave

Driving home yesterday in yet another deluge and wondering whether the car was going to float away, I thought about all the water-wise plants and the dry climate gardening plants which have been the focus of the horticultural industry over the past ten years of drought. One plant which has made an impact as an easy care landscaping specimen during the big dry would have to be the Beschoneria. Much loved by councils for high impact public landscaping projects and home gardeners who like an architectural focal point, these hardy species hail from dry mountain forests of Mexico and have a similar appearance to an Agave rosette. At this time of year they send up a tall 2 metre spike of bright red and green flowers which look quite spectacular. The smaller growing B. septenrionalis has hot pink flower stems and flowers which make a vivid contrast to other bright foliaged plants. The flower stems of this species tend to be a bit top heavy and lurch sideways as they mature unless staked. Both species will grow in sun or light shade and are useful for difficult sites where tree root competition may be a problem . They are also tolerant of frost and quite cold conditions.
2017 update: i have both of these available in limited numbers

Beschoneria septenrionalis with golden Berberis

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Cool temperate Euphorbias

Yellow flowers of Euphorbia x martinii 'Ascot Rainbow', burgundy flowers of Euphorbia characias 'Blackbird' and white flowers of Euphorbia characias ssp. wulfenii 'Silver Swan' provide a wonderful display of flowers now and for the rest of the year provide interest from their variegated foliage. All grow to about 60cm x 60 cm and are frost hardy, pest and disease free and prefer a dry well drained soil.I planted the three together in front of a low hedge of the grey Plectranthus argentatus.

Cedronella canariensis, Balm of Gilead

Cedronella canariensis
 Balm of Gilead

I have grown this small shrub on and off for years and am in love with the warm aromatic resinous smell of the crushed leaves. Being native to the Canary Islands it is not that easy to keep going in a warm humid climate like mine. It is a garden escape in California and can be seen at the San Fransisco Botanic Gardens but is otherwise not well known in cultivation other than with herb enthusiasts.This is the first time I have seen the dusty pink flowers which are held erect above the foliage. I propagate it by taking cuttings during winter and when potted on in spring they make rapid growth. The foliage is excellent for cutting and drying and retains the aroma of camphor, pine and wood smoke..... rather like a good after-shave.
2017 update: I currently don't have any plants of it.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Growing Carrots

Freshly pulled Carrots
The humble carrot is believed to have originated in Afghanistan, a place much in the news of late. The carrot made the journey to Europe in the 14th century but it was not until the 17th century that the familiar orange type was developed in the Netherlands. 'Dutch' carrots are still sold today and refer to a bunch of young carrots usually sold with leaves attached.
Last weekend in the Sydney Morning Herald, Steve Manfredi wrote about carrots in his excellent column Seasonal Cook and summed them up best by saying that they are 'indispensable in the kitchen and along with celery and onion form the trinity of flavours that are the basis of stocks and sauces.' He recommended slow braising of carrots to caramelise them and unlock their abundant sugar making them a great side-dish for a roast meal. Eating them raw, I like to julienne them and add the slender pieces to Vietnamese rice paper rolls where they give the crunch factor in contrast with the other soft ingredients. The other way I like to eat them fresh is in Moroccan style salads where grated carrot is mixed with currants, pine nuts, pieces of orange and dressed with olive oil and spices. This is inspiration from Claudia Roden's A New Book of Middle Eastern Food.
As for growing carrots , they are too easy, especially from seed as long as the soil is well dug and prepared beforehand. Avoid fresh animal manure in the soil and thus nitrogen which produces too much leaf growth at the expense of root development. I was a vegetable gardening snob before sowing this batch, pictured above, in my plot at the community garden. However having sold some bunches to an organic food store and seeing the other varieties available such as the lovely purple types I am sold and can't wait to try growing some more. Carrot seed can be sown all year but the sweetest ones are dug in spring. The variety pictured here is Nantes perhaps named for the French city? Organic seed is readily available.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Summer Savory, Satureja hortensis

Satureja hortensis, Summer Savory
This herb from southern Europe and a garden escapee in the American States of Ohio, Illinois and Nevada, is not as well known here as it should be. It is a small, to 30cm, annual grown from seed sown in spring. It has slender linear leaves which are soft to touch and tiny pink flowers which look like a dusting of powdered sugar over the stems. This is one of the sweet herbs and has a pleasant spicy fragrance and a resinous peppery taste with camphor overtones. My Italian neighbour at the community garden gave me a couple of small plants which have already grown large enough to provide some leaves for picking. The plants are normally quite top heavy and lurch sideways if not staked. For cooking this savory is a classic bean herb as its German name attests, Bohenkraut. It has a particular affinity with broad beans as well as string beans and gives an aromatic indescribable taste to them . French cookbooks refer to sarriette being blended with fines herbes, or in the final preparation either a la poulette or au lard, when it is chopped with parsley as well as being added to new peas.
Summer Savory gets a mention in all the old Herbals including Gerards from 1597 in which he recommends it as a dieting herb as well as for the flatulence one might encounter from eating beans! "It maketh thin; and doth marvellously prevaile against winde; therefore it is with good success boiled and eaten with beanes, peason and winde pulses"
The Latin name satureja means satyr's herb as a reference to its alleged aphrodisiac properties. Shakespeare perhaps had this in mind in the Winter's Tale (IV. iv) "Here's flowers for you, Hot Lavender, Mints, Savory, Marjoram"

Today's flowers

Navy Blue Sweetpeas & dark red Carnations

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Callistemon 'Mary Mackillop'

Mary Mackillop will become Australia's first Saint at a ceremony at the Vatican in Rome tomorrow. This cardinal red bottlebrush was named in her honour and was introduced by Bill Molyneux of Austraflora Nursery in Victoria. It is a hybrid between Callistemon viminalis 'Hannah Ray' and Callistemon citrinus 'Splendens'. A percentage from the sale of this plant goes to continue the work of the Sisters of Saint Joseph which was founded by Mary to help disadvantaged people in the community. All the bottlebrush plants are just loving the excessive rainfall we have been experiencing.

Friday, October 15, 2010

yet another weather event

I am trying to come to grips with the various meteorological explanations for the increased rainfall patterns we have been experiencing. From what I can gather it is the result of the unusually high sea temperature in the north of Australia at the moment. When the resulting warm moisture laden winds move south and hit a cold band of air coming from further south, heavy rain eventuates and strong winds also occur. The good news is that some dam levels have gone from under 20 percent to capacity levels and bumper crop harvests are expected. Cooler temperatures have slowed the germination and planting of summer crops in the vegetable garden. My eggplant seedlings have hardly moved and the corn is shy of germinating at all. The strong wind today set me back by weeks when a sudden gust of wind overturned all my trays of newly planted seeds. Gardening life is never easy......

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Farewell Dame Joan Sutherland

Dame Joan Sutherland (1926-2010)
A sad day for all Australians with the passing of Dame Joan Sutherland. A big thanks to ABC Classic FM for the wonderful day of her music.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Buck's Horn Plantain, Plantago coronopus

Plantago coronopus
Eat your weeds! They're good for you? I actually purchased seeds of this as the packet said the flavor of the leaves added a 'bitter high note to salads' I have kept just a few plants, pictured here growing close to some broccoli . A similar species from Greece, Plantago crassifolia, is given the name of 'Goose's Tongue', Arnoghlosson in Greek,  and is used as a cooked green vegetable. Plantain's were once called 'white man's footprint' because they were a weed of colonisation in America and Australia. Plantago coronopus is listed as a coastal weed of southern Australia. It is native to Europe where it has a long history as a survival food and use in herbal medicine. On the battlefield it became known as 'soldier's herb'. The astringent quality of the leaves made it useful for the treatment of wounds and bleeding. Shakespeare alludes to this when Romeo says 'Your plantain leaf is excellent for broken skin'

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Desert Design

Warm earthy colours for a planter box beside a new deck.
Plants include the bronze New Zealand grass Carex comans, the russet orange Wallflower Cheiranthus 'Constant Cheer' and a double flowering Kalanchoe blossfeldiana.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Younger than Spring-time..

The Sweet peas are at their best this week though for some reason most of the ones I planted this year have turned out pink. So I will dedicate this bunch to David Sedaris who makes me laugh out loud whenever I read his books.
Anyone watching the Commonwealth Games in Delhi? Network Ten is giving great commentary and coverage but spectators in the stadiums seems to be a bit thin on the ground.
It is certainly not a "green games". The budget in India didn't stretch to giving the winning medalists a bouquet of flowers for their efforts and the potted plants used for background decoration are quite miserable in size. The abiding image for me is seeing Indian soldiers standing in empty garden beds outside one of the main venues.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Raphanus sativus, Spanish black radish

'Rabanito', Spanish black radish (Raphanus sativus)

What to do when your entire crop is ready at once? Make pickles is the way to go with these beauties. I am guessing that the standard mix for pickling syrup is half a cup of sugar to 1 cup of vinegar with maybe a bit of salt added as well and some selected herbs and spices.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Salvia x 'Red Dragon'

Salvia x 'Red Dragon'

This is one of those brittle stemmed Salvias which has a fairly lopsided habit of growth and is best planted where it can sprawl in a haphazard way. It can be frustrating growing a plant like this commercially because it fails to look good in a pot and does not flower well until it is planted out.The flowers when they appear are a rich velvety red and like most of the genus are loved by honey eating birds.
2017 update: I  no longer grow this Salvia.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Brassica rapa var. rapifera, Japanese Turnip

Kabu, Japanese Turnip 'Kobaku' Type
 Brassica rapa var rapifera

This is the first time I have grown these small white Japanese turnips. They were ready to harvest about 30 days after planting the seed. The flavour is exceptional and they can be eaten raw as they are very sweet and mild flavoured. The green tops I have added to salads and used as a stir fried green. Because they are only small plants, they would be very suitable for growing in a container.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Iris x germanica 'Smoke Rings'

Iris x germanica 'Smoke Rings'
In flower this week is this aptly named Iris. It has delicate petals which appear like a wisp of smoke.