29 Mar 2015

silver linings

Look what I came home to this week...

Yes, a stonking great big pile of beautifully aromatic woodchips, blocking my driveway. How so?

Recently I had to have a very large tree cut down, in order to avoid a neighbourly dispute. The tree, which my parents identified as a lily-pily, was huge, going upwards to the sky. Taller than my house, dense and dark. Birds roosted in it and chattered away as day drew to a close; it cast cool shadows over the house during the summer. It wasn't a beautiful tree, but it was a tree.

After I was asked to cut it down  - I shan't go into the reasons or the situation, but friends, let me tell you, I cried. For days - every time I left the house for work and passed the tree; every time I came home and passed the tree; every time I thought about it, I would cry. I would go to bed and my thoughts would return to that tree, and I would cry. I didn't plant this tree, but it was a tree, an old tree, a living tree, and I mourned its oncoming demise.

I get very emotionally attached to my plants. I suspect it's because I have no pets or children;  instead I transfer my love and care to the things I grow. Some trees, like the avenue of seven birch trees that my father helped me plant, or my new plum tree, mean infinitely more to me than any possible human (except my parents). The pink zepherine rose bush that my parents bought me a couple of years ago: when half of it got snapped away in some dreadful winds a few months ago, i came inside and heartily cried for its damage. Work might be frustrating, taxes and bills stressful, but the loss of any green thing in my garden will upset me dreadfully.

As quickly as possible, my dad organised G, an arborist who removed or cut back fire-damaged and dangerous trees for dad after the bushfires. I've met G a couple of times, so knowing him made me feel comfortable and reassured that my tree would be in good hands.

So one afternoon, G arrived, and over the course of a couple of hours, reduced the tree by about two-thirds its original height - it's now probably about two metres high, perhaps not even that. It was fascinating watching G work, especially towards the end when he was trying to shape the remaining bare trunks as best as possible. The difference between an arborist and a tree feller he told me, was that an arborist cares about the tree; a tree feller cares about the people. I liked that - I knew that we would meet my neighbours' demands but that my tree's life and health were his first priority; that it would be in good hands and would hopefully reshoot come spring; that these bare stumps may flourish back to life, green and happy.

G would cut down the tall limbs; when safe to do so, I dragged them away and hauled them in two piles on either side of my driveway. He remarked that I was a hard worker, but honestly, would I stand there and just watch someone work? I'm not strong by any means, but I like doing 'yard work' and it made me feel useful.

A few short days later, as promised, G came around while i was at work and reduced the stacks of leafy limbs to this pile of fine leafy woodchip. It was actually very exciting - I mean, what gardener doesn't like mulch? For me, it was the silver lining in the whole affair: I may have had to cut down a tree, but i could use its wood and goodness around my garden. There's a lot of light and warmth coming into the house now - great at this darkening time of year; though we'll see what that means in the hotter months next summer. And I've cleared out all the rubbishy plants that were beneath; I'll keep it clean and bare save for a lot of daffies and jonquils and grape hyacinths that need little attention but are so cheerful.

So, you know what I've been doing lately: shovelling and barrowing the woodchip out of the driveway. My biceps and back are groaning, and there's been copious cups of tea to power me thru. But something good has come from a distressing situation.
Below, the woodchip pile plus the cut down tree at left

22 Mar 2015

what i learnt this summer about growing vegetables

Nectarines from my tree, during the summer months

As summer draws to a close, here is a kind of memo to self for next summer:

Say no to broad beans. You don't really like broad beans that much - so don't plant them. Stick to what you like - and what doesn't get smothered in black aphids.

Don't sow so many seeds. By that, I mean don't sow them so close together in the one row. It just leads to too many plants crowded together, which leads to a lack of ventilation and that powdery mildewy stuff on your peas; and a damn tangle of stalks and leaves that makes it difficult to find the beans. Trust that what you sow will germinate; you don't need to be so 'just in case' here.

Don't plant so many plants. Three zucchini plants will be sufficient (maybe even two) - sufficient and enjoyable, rather than stressful. Three silverbeet plants will be sufficient. Yes, they will be. There is only one of you, remember.

Don't plant a grid of tomatoes. Because it's difficult reaching the one in the centre for maintenance, watering and harvesting. Stick to a square of tomatoes, all around the outside of the bed.

Oh, and you might want to remember applying the above rule to tomatoes as well. Yes you have an abundantly-stocked freezer ready for winter, but maybe ten plants is too many for one person. Stick to the varieties you really enjoyed: black krim, roma-style mamma mia, the apricot-coloured big beryl, and the abbruzese. Four or five may be sufficient.

Don't plant those trimmed off bits of tomato plant. Yes it's cool to think of growing extra plants from little discarded bits. But see above rules - the main plants will be sufficient. Remember, there is only one of you; only so much one can cook and roast and eat and freeze. And look after in the garden.

Repeat the carrots and beetroots. Especially the round little 'paris market' carrots (despite the aphids and ants they attracted) and the sweet orange beetroot. However, even though they looked pretty bordering the edges, don't do this around any beds you plan on netting (that is, the tomatoes).

Don't do corn. Yes it looked wonderful, the tassles and tops swaying in the breeze, but the plants were in the ground for soooooo long and actually produced very little. How many meals did you get - three? Four? Not worth it.

Try climbing beans and peas. Specifically the sweet 'lazy housewife' beans that really are your favourite. Remember, you are getting older - it's getting hard to scramble around amongst the dwarf bush beans. Just make sure your trelllises are wind-proof.

What have you learnt about growing vegies this summer?

15 Mar 2015

the best butter cake

Everyone needs a good butter cake recipe in their repertoire, and this now is mine. It is simple but rich, plain but oh-so-good. While a slice or two is wonderful say topped with roasted apricots, plucked warm from the tree and drizzled with honey, or with a dollop of tart stewed rhubarb, mostly I love these little cakes — made in my mini-loaf tins — just slightly warm and ‘as is’, with a cup of tea.

It is tempting here to pontificate on the value of baking with good-quality ingredients: creamy Tasmanian butter and super-large rich eggs from my mother’s happy hens. And yes, that holds true.

But, a confession … I’ve made this recipe a couple of times now when all I had to hand was soy milk, not milk-milk nor sour cream — and lite soy milk at that (I have it for my breakfast muesli). That breaks all the baking rules, right? But you know what? It worked just as well as the times I used full-fat sour cream. I couldn’t taste any difference; the cakes were just as rich and moist and I-think-I-need-another-one.

I must also reveal that once I misread the recipe and added three cups of flour, not two. Luckily I realised this before I folded that last cup in — so I upended the bowl and shook out as much as I could, then flicked off any remaining with my silicone pastry brush! I got most of it out, and added just a touch more (soy) milk to be on the safe side. As you can imagine, I am reading recipes very carefully now.

So this really is the best butter cake — no matter what you do to it.

The best butter cake
Adapted from an Australian Womens Weekly recipe, torn from the June 2013 edition. The recipe specified a 20cm round cake tin, but I’ve been using my mini-loaf tin (8 holes) and a couple of sturdy cupcake papers for whatever doesn’t fit.
  • Prep your chosen baking tin and preheat the oven to 180.
  • Cream 250 gm soft butter with 1 cup sugar and 1 tspn vanilla paste (I have also used the vanilla syrup-with-speckles) til wonderfully soft and creamy.
  • Beat in 3 large eggs.
  • Using a wooden spoon, fold in 2 cups SR flour and a pinch of salt.
  • Then fold thru 125mls milk (or other dairy, or dairy substitute).
  • Dollop into your baking tin and bake. I baked my smaller cakes for 20-25 minutes; the recipe specified 50-60 for a single large one. Once cooked, cool on a rack before turning out. Enjoy.

1 Mar 2015

garden share collective: march

I am exhausted.

I have reached that point of summer when I am just plain exhausted. When maintaining the vegie garden is a chore. No longer a relief after work, but another chore to fit in: watering, picking the beans and zucchinis - or as mum and I say, the beans and zucchinis and beans and zucchinis and beans and zucchinis ... our phone conversations lately go something like this: What did you do today? Oh, I picked more beans and zucchinis. And beans and beans and beans and beans? Yes, and more beans; just for a change. And what are you having for dinner tonight? Oh, I thought I'd have beans and zucchinis. What about you?

Yes, you can guess the response.
Luckily, the tomatoes have started ripening. Boom! Mum came up to help me pick my vegies - I had a breakdown one night over the phone and tearily pleaded for some parental assistance. So mum came over and got to pick my beans and zucchinis for a change. And at lunch she quipped to dad, isn't this pleasant, we're eating someone else's beans ... anyway, mum helped me pick bucket loads of tomatoes. As you can see above. She had warned me, somewhat ominously, only a couple of weeks earlier, that I'd have a lot of tomatoes ripening all at once.

And now I have, and I have trays lining my kitchen benchtop. I'm eating my way thru them merrily, but also cooking them. I think this was my real intention for the tomatoes all along: cooking them and squirelling them away for later. I have been roasting wedges of them, sometimes merely anointed with some olive oil and S&P, sometimes with herbs and garlic, then freezing them for winter use. For blitzing into a smooth sauce or probably just using them as is; they are such rich velvety wedges of tomatoey goodness.
Really, you can never have enough tomatoes. However, I may not have enough freezer space. Wow, do I need to ask santa for a second chest freezer out in the garage? I asked mum if I could rent some freezer space and she said, you'll be lucky.
But back to the garden. Watering is the other big issue, one that is breaking my heart. It's distressing to see how dry my garden is, despite mulch and my constant watering (or so it seems). Even though we have had a couple of 'big rain events' here in Hobart, it has overwhelmingly been a dry year so far (and the eastern shore where I live is notoriously dryer and warmer). I am just struggling to keep the water in the ground. And when it does rain, I am beginning to think that the mulch just stops the rain getting into the soil. I have become cynical about the rain and its unlikely appearance; I have become one of those people who view hot summer's days as a threat to the health of my garden.

So I am exhausted. There is a small part of me that realises autumn and the oppressing dark of Hobart's winter will soon be upon us, limiting gardening time and opportunities. But there is a small part of me that is also looking forward to the break that the winter season will bring.