Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Earth Garden

A few years ago I stole borrowed my ma's and pa's Earth Garden books. The First Earth Garden Book (1975) is full of right-on peops with back-to-the-land hair, relaying how to knit houses out of cucurbit tendrils and make sourdough out of potatoes and sip elderflower bubbly while half-naked in the moonlight. It's totally up my alley. Yes, I can leach the tannins from acorns and grind them into a serviceable ... erm ... "flour" and mold them into a sorta biscuit shape and eat them with very few clothes on!* Yes, I can clabber my own raw, unhomogenised breastmilk and go totally DIY camembert!** And oh yes, stinging nettle gnocci, you're the lunch for me.***

It wasn't long after I devoured the parental Earth Garden books, that I discovered a very much up-to-date Earth Garden magazine in my local newsagenterie and an Earth Garden presence on ye olde Pfaczbuch. As an enthusiast for all things trellised, foraged, grown, tended, transformed from SPC fruit tins, and wombat-themed, I was hooked.

So you can just possibly imagine my joy when the latest Earth Garden No. 167 arrived in the post today ...

... and among the fantabulous articles on foraging for chickweed and making rocket stoves out of junk and eating gingko leaves and the surprisingly complex business of harvesting autumn veg, and brewing your own perfume, and chocolate beetroot cake recipes, and tiny houses, and fowl-wrangling, was Tim's and my disquisition on vintnering feijoas.

Feijoas, although green, torpedoid and delicious, have a habit of rotting all too soon after falling from the tree. Last year, with several kilos to despatch before they self-composted, we made 10 litres of feijoa wine, which turned out, in my opinion (but not in the opinion of my mother, my friend Eleanor, my mother-out-law, or my friend Lucy), quite delicious. At any rate, it hits you with that fruity feijoa-y fragrance, and then, when you drink it, turns out to be kind of dry and (this is the bit that amazed me, because who would have thought you could just chuck fruit juice and tea leaves and yeast in a tub and leave it to transmogrify) it tastes genuinely winey.

So we wrote about it. The science of feijoa fermentation must be shared, dagnabbit. And our account was published, just in time for feijoa season, if this little guy in the front garden is any guide ...

* an actual 1970s Earth Garden recommendation, which I actually tried. Disappointing. But good to know that, with enough oak trees, I wouldn't lack for calories after an apocalypse.
** not an actual 1970s Earth Garden recommendation
*** this wasn't recommended in a 1970s Earth Garden publication either, but I read about it somewhere, and I would totally do this. Nettles are the schizzle.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The motherlove of Esme, the masculinity of Geoffrey, and the unexpected arrival of Pamela

Last November, our darling Esme, all of eleven months old herself, decided it was high time for her to propagate some youngsters. She sat for weeks, a devotion that finally culminated in Geoffrey. Just three months later, with Geoffrey now an independent young person of almost 11 weeks age, Esme has decided to give parenting another red hot go. She is sitting, as I type, on a pile of straw, fluffing herself up ferociously whenever anyone tries to steal the nothing from beneath her. I made a token effort to get her some fertilised eggs. In fact, I phoned these breeders, idly imagining Esme mothering a clutch of Barnevelders and Coronation Sussexes, but the fertilised egg people advised me that it was too late in the season: the roosters can't be relied on beyond early February to do their roostery thing. Which makes me wonder why noone sent Esme the memo.*

Shirley offering family planning advice; Esme facing the wall.

Meanwhile, there's Geoffrey. Geoffrey has been quite a shy chick, certainly when compared to Henry, a wee bantam cockerel who grew up in our backyard, spent his youth sitting on our heads and teapots, mating with my hand (true), and generally being Captain Charisma. Geoffrey, on the other hand, still refuses to take delicious kale from my hand and requires me to tear it into small pieces and toss it in her/his general direction. It's this shyness, and the fact that Geoffrey still has no comb at 11 weeks (Henry had the first signs of a comb at 18 days), that has made us suppose Geoffrey's a young pullet. Only, this morning, Geoffrey crowed. The briefest and most un-voice-broken of upple-doodle-ups, followed by another attempt half an hour later, but still, not the vocalisation of a hen in the making.

Geoffrey, perching with great aunt Agatha.

It's not easy finding good homes for young roosters. We're not allowed to keep one in the 'burbs (sadly), and country people with chooks usually can only keep one rooster at a time, because roosters (as my mother discovered when she had a few young cockerels cohabiting in her garden) have a tendency to kill each other, bloodily and brutally. We found a wonderful home for Henry in Tyaak, where he inherited an instant family of 12 hens and won the hearts of all who met him, but at that point I think we exhausted our rooster-rehoming options.  So we made a decision, when we gave Esme her eggs in November, that we would give any little boys who hatched as good a life as we could, a life of being raised by a loving parent (or two, given Shirley's and Esme's co-parenting program), of foraging, and delicious vegetables and insects and branches to perch on, and when they started to crow, we would kill them, swiftly, by night when they were asleep, and Tim and/or Harriet and Bea Cat (the three resident omni-/carni-vores) would eat them. Now that it seems like we're going to have to follow through, of course, the thought is appalling, as I guess we knew it would be. I am keen to put it off as long as is neighbourly. The crows so far have been scarcely loud enough to trouble neighbours - quieter than a hen announcing that she's laid an egg - and I think we can let Geoffrey stay a little longer, take a bit more time to peck at grass and chase earwigs and become a little bit less the baby of the backyard. But all the same, typing this, I know it's time to start preparing mentally for her - his - end.

In further chook news (yes, indeed, there's more), last night a couple of neighbours knocked on the door** and presented me with this lovely bird, who we're calling Pamela:

Pamela spending her first night on top of the washing machine.

Pamela was found not very far away in a sidestreet consisting mostly of auto-repair yards. Tim walked up to investigate while I acquainted our starving visitor with food and water. We now think that she might be an escapee from a cull. She's a former battery hen (as her blunted beak indicates). One of the mechanics in the street is known to have had "about thirty chickens" (in the words of an informant), but when Tim peeked over the fence there were no chickens, just a large empty roost. I'm guessing that a flock of "spent" hens were bought from a farmer, kept for perhaps a year for eggs, and then, their egg-laying dwindling, killed for soup. Our heroine somehow escaped and wandered the streets until a neighbour stumbled upon her.

If she does stay, then she'll have come to the right place, I think. Our post-henopausal chooks lead a leisurely retirement, supping meditatively on dew drops, snaffling magnificently just-ripe raspberries from the cane, meeting regularly with the Senior Hens' Synchronised Sunbathing Guild.

L to R: Daisy, Griselda, Agatha

They haven't been very hospitable to Pamela so far, so for now she's hanging out in the living room while I type, pooing on a temporary carpet made of local newspapers and Mega-Supa-Shoppo-Fun catalogues, and gobbling down chook crumble like she hasn't eaten in a week. Which, besides dinner last night, perhaps she hasn't. When she's less disoriented and more herself, I hope she'll be able to meet the others without being put in her place too aggressively.

All those chicken metaphors - from "mother hen" to "pecking order" - they're happening right here.

* I have the same question apropos our Granny Smith, who, last Autumn, covered herself in blossom, which of course the bees fertilised, so that runty little nuggets of apples sat on the tree through the first half of Winter, before dropping off in despair. Could it be that the apple (and Esme) register the relief of rain and 20ºC weather after a droughty heatwave as Spring? season of chicks and mellow blossominess?

** which was wide open, of course, because, hey burglars!, would you like to steal our ... erm ... prize collection of jam jars? how about the coffee table I found on the footpath? or the CD player that's been kicking around since 1996? (All right, sorry. I'm showing off now.)

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Wild bees

The Victory Women (aka honeybees) living in our apiary (aka back garden) have changed the way I feel my way through the world (aka mostly Melbourne). I notice cape weed and oxalis poking up through the grass around the local oval. I log them in my memory, in a column headed August-September, Subject to Change. Beefood. When I walk past a eucalypt, my eye seeks out gumblossom, those wee cream-coloured tutus, or the green waxed caps over the blossom-to-be, or the brown nuts of blossom that's been and gone. I feel the double usefulness of fruit trees, for the nectar they use to bribe the bees into being their sexy go-betweens and then the fruit that bribes us fructivores into being the trees' devout midwives, au pairs and all-round manure-bearing lackeys. 

I notice bees themselves. The darker ones, Carniolans, and the honey-golden ones, Italians, and the native blue-banded bees, and the occasional teddy bear bee, also native, one of whom I saw today picking her way over a parsnip umbel. I notice things that might hurt them too. Every time I see someone squirting insecticide at a rosebush, I mentally draft the letter I'll write to the local legislature explaining that all the experts concur: squirty stuff designed to destroy insect life generally does, indeed, destroy insect life and then what. Then I mentally play out the scenario in which I run for local council and go to 76 meetings and eventually table a recommendation insisting that all insect mitigation be conducted via the agency of other insects, birds, or thumbs and forefingers. I can see that going down really well.

I don't know if, before the Victory Women came into my life, I would have noticed the aperture in the base of this tree.

I love these bees. They're about five kilometres from our house, and every so often we amble up to watch them. They're living in a wide corridor of rivergums that runs between piles of houses. Beneath the gums there's an understorey of grasses and wild mustard and in the nearby gardens there's the usual garden stuff, so they do well, these bees. You can see them descending through the air to their antechamber, fat yellow pouches of pollen on their legs, and you can imagine the ecstasy of gum nectar when the season comes.

Last September, we found that someone had detonated a fleabomb in the entrance to their home. There was a grisly pile of dead bees that the survivors had carried from their nest out onto a graveyard perhaps a foot from the entrance. We worried that, although clearly some of the workers had survived, the brood would be poisoned, would perhaps not grow or would grow with stunted wings. But five months have passed - that's two or three or four bee lifetimes - and the bees are still coming and going from their rivergum. I want to cheer for them, resilient wild girls.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Ruminations on the weather, and what can be done with a $15 box of Roma tomatoes.

It rained last night. Such a blessing after the droughty heaty hotty dry of the last few weeks (eight days over 40ºC here in Melbers; fires to the north, the west, the north-east and the south-east). 

After no rain, no rain, no rain, and watching people's lawns turn to dry carbon and brave CFA friends heave up lungsful of smoke, the rain last night was blissful. (Earlier in the day, I saw photos of people in Adelaide dealing with their most-rain-in-a-day since the 1960s, and despite water lapping dangerously at doorsteps and submerging streets, everyone was grinning madly, in the manner of people who haven't seen water fall from the sky for half a year. Rain!) We had 11mm in the rain gauge this morning, which means about 1500 litres into the watertank. I lay in bed watching the mizzle patting the windows. Later, we headed down to Lalor shops in the gentle damp, and celebrated the cool (and the fact that it would not be downright horrible to run the stove) by buying a $15 box of sauce tomatoes, which would necessitate quite a bit of stove-running. (Actually, we bought three $15 boxes, because apparently we do not have jobs and can spend the rest of our days preparing for the global home-preserved tomato shortage.)

They're not the best tomatoes ever. The heirloom veg obsessives are right, homegrown heirloom tomatoes beat industrial ag tomatoes for sheer tomatoiness tenfold. On the other hand, my attempts at growing tomatoes this year have been Dismal with a capital D. It was too cold, then it was too dry, and somewhere in the middle it was too rampaging-chickens-in-the-tomato-bedsy. On the other other hand, these romas ain't so bad.

You can make a lot of tasty food with one $15 box of tomatoes. I made tomato bread:

(Which is delicious, I'll have you know, although it seems that the only people in the house interested in eating it are me and Esme. (Wholemeal spelt, tomatoes, salt, yeast and heat, in case you were wondering.))

And we preserved ten x 1200mL jars of toms (then more, when we moved onto the second box). I love the idea of making passata, except for the bit where you have to spend whole days eviscerating tomatoes - hence my practising of the slackers' alternative, viz., whole skinned tomatoes shoved in a jar, with a slurp of red wine vinegar to stave off the botulinum toxin, and a sprig of rosemary to stave off the rosemary plant getting too big, and then the whole lot left in the Fowler's Vacola for an hour and a half to think about what it's done.

With the dregs of our $15 box, we made enough of this soup to feed a small family of seventeen or so.

Note the basil. Homegrown from seed and as organic and righteous as ever basil was. I think this makes up for the tomatoes from a polystyrene box. 

The weather's looking pretty nice for the next week. Mostly low 20s, the occasional shower portended by the Bureau of Meteorology. I'm letting myself think the worst of Summer is over. Hooray!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

On the perennially interesting subject of blackberries

The year the 1979-83 drought broke, the blackberries at our place in Canyonleigh fruited for their lives. Blackberry patches that had sat withering through the drought, barely holding the earth together as the wind whipped topsoil from sheep country and dumped it on the Pacific Ocean, sprung up like ... blackberries, I guess ... and bloomed their rosy white blossoms and grew fat lovely berries by the thousand. There were four of us kids. Mum equipped us with two four-litre ice-cream buckets apiece, the old cylindrical ones with a plastic handle, and we filled the lot with berries. It was a one-for-the-bucket, one-for-me arrangement, and still we ended up with about 25 litres of fruit, besides the smudgy purple around our mouths.

That was my formative blackberry moment. Ever since, I've expected blackberries to come in staggering quantity and indecent juiciness. So I was excited the other week when Bek mentioned that she'd stumbled upon a hoard of scrumpy blackberries in Mount Beauty, which is practically nextdoor (30km-ishly) to Bright, current Harlot Family HQ. I already knew about Bright's blackberries, of course. A few years ago, Tim and I had waded down the Ovens River with our pants rolled up, picking blackberries that dangled from the riverbank. Last year, in early March, I'd salvaged the last of the pickings from the pine forest track behind Mum's house. But Bek's enthusiasms triggered memories of the 1984 harvest, so Operation Pick Blackberries in Bright Y2K14 turned into a thing.

At about 7.30 this morning, the Aged Wilbur and I set up the hill behind mum's house. It's about half an hour of zig-zagging up through almost vertical gum forest (pant, pant, pant) until we reach a sort of plateau, and then a dirt track that winds through the pine plantation. The understorey has been colonised by blackberries, which, imho, is to the blackberries' credit. I mean, iknowiknowiknow, invasive weed of national significance and all, but those pine trees really acidify the soil and there aren't many indigenous plants that can cope with such a low pH. Blackberries help hold the soil together, which is no bad thing on a slope like this one. They are the delight of little bluewrens, and (in my unsubstantiated, research-free opinion) they do that  dynamic accumulator thing that makes permaculture people so excited about yarrow and comfrey. I'm convinced they're good eggs. Or possibly I just like the berries and need to come up with a compelling case for why the Department of Primary Industries should not be blasting my berry sources with glyphosate (which they seem not to be doing; good work, DPI).

I filled the better part of a bucket with blackberries, ate quite a few along the way, and fed some to Wilbur. The dog, I should say, has always been a fan of things he can eat. My brother, M, used to chide me for letting fruits and vegetables disappear down the Wilburtian gullet. The gist of these chidings was that fibre led to sloppy dogpoos, and as my brother was for a long time poo-picker-upper-in-chief, fair enough that he should hold strong opinions on the subject. Since M has moved to far north Queensland, where he has bigger anxieties than sloppy dog poo (such as monsoons, cyclones, cane toads the size of camels, tiger snakes in his bed, wild pigs stomping through his agricultural efforts, tropical ulcers, the full Indiana Jones shebang, really), I have resumed my program of supporting Wilbur in his quest for vegetable foods. In this quest he is wildly enthusiastic. Beagles really do know how to put the omni into omnivore, greatly expanding the definition of edible so that it embraces, for instance:

ineffably delicious wombat droppings.

Blackberry pickers should wear fishermen's waders, suits of armour greased with vegetarian lard, and gloves made out of synthetic rhinoceros. Not their favourite short-sleeved cotton shirt. I spent quite a lot of time this morning unpinning myself from the thorny embrace of a blackberry cane, which got me thinking about why blackberries come with prongs. It's a deterrent obviously, to creatures that might otherwise eat the canes, but that means that (to such creatures, at least) the canes must be edible. And possibly even more than edible? Possibly even Quite Nice? I am officially registering here my intention to do some experiments with the edibility of blackberry canes, but I'm going to wait until next Spring, when the canes are green and juicy, not cantankerous and a bit over it all, like they are now.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Rambling, ambling, brambling

I had some writing due today, and so (as happens all too often in these situations) I was up last night until a millionty o'clock trying to make the words hang together. This morning, Esme and Shirley started up their let-us-out, let-us-out cackle a bit after 6, so of course there was flopping out of bed and letting out of chooks, lest our long-suffering and uncomplaining neighbours should be cackled awake. I'm enough of a sleep monster that I was starting to feel pretty ragged and feckless shortly after lunch. My ragged-and-feckless adjusted work regime this afternoon consisted of checking my email, checking my email again, a bit more email checking, trying to do a thing I'm meant to be doing, deciding to do it tomorrow, after a Proper Sleep, eating some chocolate, checking my email, ambling to the bus stop, catching bus, catching train, walking home from the station, where - ta da! - I was inundated with a sudden desire for a spot of energetic blackberrying.

One of the things I love about living in outer suburbia is the interpenetration of "city" and "country". Fingers of whacked-together housing poke out into paddocks to the north, and while I'm not particularly pleased to see an old field immured under concrete, I am pleased at the way the paddocks reclaim the gardens to the south. As quickly as the developers move (which is no longer as quickly as they were moving a few years ago, in the throes of Melbourne's real-estategasm), the envoys from the country move quicker. Seeds drift into my garden - thistles and canola - that wouldn't dare if I lived in the city proper. Driving to the airport very early one morning to collect me mum, we saw a kangaroo nibbling at a tidy Lalor nature strip. Flocks of cockatoos and starlings wheel into town. Just down the road, living in a makeshift pasture between a suburban backfence and a suburban drainage canal, is a small herd of goats.

And I can walk in search of blackberries through a thicket of brick veneer houses, and turn a corner, and this ... 

These are the remnants of what came before the houses and driveways. The breathing old land divided by nothing but a wooden fence-line from the mown lawns and the backyard swing sets.  I can see the hazy skyscrapers of Melbourne. I could walk to them in the good part of a day, or hop on a train and stride amongst them in under an hour.

But meanwhile, I am wading through cardoons and dog roses and grass up to my waist.

The blackberries weren't much to write home about. It's been so impossibly dry and hot this Summer (six days over 40º now, with another forecast for Sunday), and most of the berries have shrivelled to hard little sundried bundles of seed. A few patches to the east of fences, protected from the hot afternoon sun, have proper juicy berries. Or had, I should say. They're snaffled now.

Despite the lacklustre blackberrying, it felt like there was food everywhere I looked. The cardoon buds have opened into big puffy thistle flowers now, but before they get there, they're as edible as any globe artichoke (as are their stems, stripped of thorns). I keep thinking herbal-tea-related things about the rude little rose hips on the dog roses. The seeds inside are covered in fine prickles, but I reckon if I just shoved a few hips, whole and un-de-pipped, into a tea strainer, and let them steep, I'd have the rose hip tea of champions.

And prickly pears! Not my all-time favourite invasive species, but not without its uses. Slice the thorns from the leaf pads and we have a very acceptable vegetable. Let the fruit ripen and ... well, they're sweet and bland, which could be worse.

Coming home means walking along Childs Road, cars grumbling past, a McDonalds announcing itself in the middle distance. It means padding along the concrete footpath of my street, past the disciplined gardens with their low brick walls. But then I see someone's nature strip overrun with the bright blue of chicory flowers or the yellow of dandelions. I think I'm saying that I like weeds.