Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Kale Racing

Rumour has it that you're meant to sow your brassicas in Summer. If the Brussels sprouts ain't a-germinating by the feast of St Stephen you might as well give up leaves for the new year. The trouble with sowing your brassicas in Summer, though, is that a bed that should look like this ...

Back-to-front: red cabbage, broccoli Waltham, Tuscan kale; all wickedly sown in mid-Autumn 2013, rather than the recommended December-February period of cabbage moth glee-time.

...instead looks like this, a cabbage-moth-larva-ravaged, post-apocalyptic wasteland:

Artist's impression of my cabbage-moth ravaged garden (actually nicked from here, a link, which, as luck would have it, takes you to a compelling argument for dumpster-diving).

This be-ravagement of the cabbage bed would be on account of the cabbage moths who turn up in the warmer weather, indulging their wily reproductive ways and the vegetarian proclivities of their adolescents, who apparently share Melbourne's collective kale fetish. The good news about this is that chooks like nothing more than a handful of fat green caterpillars reared on a diet of organic cavolo nero. Indeed, recently inspecting a bedraggled, half-vanquished kale plant, I decided that I wasn't trying to grow kale, I was trying to grow chicken treats. Which was comforting, or would have been, except that the Lalorian diet (i.e., mine) is all about the foliage (and the chocolate) (and the apples) (and the toast) (with cashew butter and honey, omidog) (and lentils, obvs.) (and tomatoey business) (etc), and when I'm eating foliage, I prefer my foliage (a) brassicaceous (or basilaceous, come to think of it, and sometimes silverbeetaceous, sorrelly, sage, lettucian, or minty) and (b) not pre-digested and in the form of caterpillars.

So, anyway. It's mid-Autumn, and orthodoxy would have it that I'm late to the brassica sowing party, but so be it: I've only just sown my brassicas, into soil-stuffed toilet rolls, no less, which are now sitting in a plastic box on top of the gas water heater.

For the public record, I've sown: dwarf blue curly kale, Tuscan black kale, red Russian kale, broccoli Romanesco (that fab fractal-forming lime-green cauliflowery business), and a side-sprouting broccoli descended from last year's Waltham broccoli but possibly of slightly mixed parentage, on account of my permissiveness with flowering cruciferous vegetables. You might notice a completely ridiculous three different kinds of kale in that list. My plan is to race them. Whoever gets least molested by cabbage moth larvae in the summer gets to have babies for 2015.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What's hot (and schmoodgy)

According to one of my students, porridge is so in right now. Apparently the yoof read blogs devoted to the theme of oatmeal.

And why yes, my class was entirely focussed on its discussion of the poetry of Seamus Heaney. No digressing, sir; none at all.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Lost trades

We're just home from the Lost Trades Fair in Kyneton (and it's on again tomorrow, just in case you're interested - and who isn't? - in scything, shoe-making, coopering, spinning, hedge-laying, letterpress, and ambling around the extremely tourist-congenial bluestone streets of Kyneton). I have two things to say. Firstly, Kyneton is lovely. Everytime I've been there (twice) it's been drizzly or mizzly, awash with sourdough, second-hand bookshops, half-price quilting fabric, licheny old oaks, withering hollyhocks, and elderly dogs asleep in the town's one remaining sunpuddle. Secondly, I WANT TO HAVE ALL THE SKILLS.

Look at this chair! Just look at this chair! Some guy (his name's Greg Hatton, in fact) just snapped off a few bits of willow from his local tree and knocked this together this morning. The way a less skilled person (me) might knock together a serve of porridge.

I want to be able to make this chair. I really do. It looks pretty easy when Greg Hatton does it. Also. I want to be able to describe myself as a willowsmith.

See this wall? This perfect and wonderful dry-stone wall? Someone was just chipping up bits of stone and assembling them while I watched. Oh, this old thing, just threw it together today, he says.

I could really get into drystonewallmeistering. Lalor needs more drystone walls. I could sledgehammer up the concrete driveways and re-assemble them as quaint yet serviceable structures over which to grow cane-berries.

This fork!

This biscuit tin mandolin! (Plus: "Hello, what do you do?" "Oh, I'm a luthier.")

This hessian bunting! (Actually, possibly within my existing skillset.)

Also, pottery, wool spinning, and making coracles. (If I could learn Cossack dancing, Old Icelandic, and Chinese medicine to boot, I'd begin to feel moderately equipped for adulthood.)

P.S. I hereby officially recommend the lost art of taking the V-line train to Kyneton and back. Not only is it pretty cheapo (approx. $20 for a full return fare), and pretty quick (a bit more than an hour from the city), but the view from the train (dark blue clouds rolling up over yellow grass) is mildly preferable to the view from the Calder Freeway (the distressed palms and dead tyre collection of Calder Park Raceway).

Friday, March 14, 2014

From the KierkeGaarden

Long skinny eggplants from an eggplant that overwintered in a pot against the house (as opposed to eggplants I tried to grow from seed sowed in August), basil fino verde, tomatoes-of-survival, Shirley's ovum, Golden Queen peaches, Tuscan kale (the least cabbage moth-molested of our Summer brassicas), and the pumpkin de resistance, Golden Nugget (first of many).

Nashi pears and rhubarb. Dessert material.

The head of John the Baptist. 100% organic.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Weeding, reading, and sweetcorn erotica

I've been reading Atina Diffley's Turn Here Sweet Corn, a memoir about coming to farming and recognising the sanctity of generous soil. Atina (we're on a first name basis, by the way, on account of how I've read her book and all) gets close, several times over, to making me want to move to Minnesota and grow watermelons on rich prairie loam beneath the beating Summer sun. Prairie loam, for pea's sake! It sounds like chocolate cake. I feel very tenderly for Australia's much-abused earth, but prairie loam elicits a whole nother kind of love.

It's basically vegetable erotica, is what this book is. Take off your clothes and lie down on the warm soil and let someone read you this huskily*:
It is a humid, still August evening; pockets of clammy heat sit stagnant in low spots. The scents are pungent, corn pollen the predominant bass note. Normally corn is a sweet-sour, central aroma, riding high above the kale earthiness but far below the tomato pheremone. But tonight the pollen smells burnt, like it has been roasted on low in an oven all day. Now at half dusk, the heat is off, and the scent pours out. It is gravelly and scratchy, brown and heavy. It catches in the back of my throat and tastes of scorched barley malt and sugar. It rolls of the corn ocean and settles, dense and sultry, in the gullies. It is the overriding fragrance, blocking out the flirtatious sprays of cantaloupe perfume and purslane succulence. I feel it settling into my hair and onto my skin, sugar coating me, as if I too could slide pollen down my silk and fertilize my kernels with the fountain of youth. (262)
And there's plenty more where that came from. Romancing the kale. Adoring the squash. Canoodling with onions. Prostrating oneself beneath the solanaceous apples of love.

Amidst all that (and more, including our author's battle against an oil company that tries to lay a pipeline through her kale forest), there's a passage in the book that really arrested me, where I felt Atina saying more than she meant to say. It's the Day of the Weeds. They're on the verge of flowering and setting seed, so what happens on this day determines whether the vegetable plots are overrun for the year or not. All hands are hacking away with hoes, when one of the visiting workers crumples.
"All we do is kill things," she says. "I thought organic farming would be about life. I feel like the hand of death."
"They're just weeds," I say. "Killing weeds is part of farming."
"They are living organisms. They deserve a place on the planet."
"Yeah, they're our allies, and our job is not to annihilate them - don't worry we can't - but we still have to manage them." (199)
Everything eats, everything is eaten, Atina explains. Death is part of life. She ends the passage by wryly wondering how the worker will feel when it's time to cut off the broccoli heads. Toughen up, young person.

There's something familiar and true in what she says. Death is part of life, and there are ways of killing that promote life (i.e., if the weed becomes fertiliser) and ways of killing that destroy more than what is meant to be killed (i.e., if herbicides are used that annihilate the microbial life of the soil). But unfortunately for my opinion of organic annual-culture and the righteous slaying of weeds, a few days after putting down Atina's beautiful book I read Wendell Berry's Guardian interview. Wherein Berry says:
[A]t present, 80% of the land [in US agriculture] is planted annually in annual crops such as corn and beans, and 20% in perennials. ... It's pretty clear that annual plants are nature's emergency service. They're the plants that come in after, say, a landslide, after the land has been exposed, and they give it a temporary cover while the perennials are getting started. So our predominantly annual agriculture keeps the land in a state of emergency. It's hard to make a permanent agriculture on the basis of an emergency strategy. By now the planted acreages have grown so large that most soybean and corn fields, for instance, are not seeded to cover crops, and so they lie exposed to the weather all winter. You can drive through Iowa in April before the new crops have been planted and started to grow, and you don't see anything green mile after mile. It's more deserted than a desert. And the soil erosion rates in Iowa are scandalous.
The desert that Berry is describing is far, far, far from Atina's farm, which is, on the contrary, best practice mass annual farming. The Diffleys grow cover crops that renew soil fertility; they do have small-scale monocultures, rows of this, rows of that, but their farm is a mixed species one; they leave edge-rows of weeds to permit the survival of "beneficial insects" (quotation marks because, you know, beneficial to whom?); and their management of the unrulier annuals - the weeds - is mechanical rather than chemical.

Even so, a ploughed field is still land in a state of emergency, innit. And the fact that they have weeds to hoe out proves it. Those weeds are there because of the emergency conditions. (As I'm writing this, I'm hearing emergency as the noun that follows the adjective emergent, which actually doesn't sound so bad. Emergency conditions as conditions out of which life emerges?)

Though the Diffleys' farm is in a relatively gentle climate, it's still subject now and then (likely to be nower and thenner as climate change effects kick in) to unusually high rainfall, or unusually low rainfall, or unusually fierce winds, etc. And although they've increased the organic soil content so that it retains water, and generally done everything that can be done in an annual cropping environment to stabilise the system, annual cropping is inherently unstable. Its condition is the rapidity of its life cycles. All the cabbages germinate together, grow together over five months, and then they're harvested together, leaving, suddenly, a cabbageless, plantless, swath. I've got my own annual veg beds, very small scale, and they couldn't be more gently treated, with manures and mulches and mixed species and sub-surface water, and yet still, they have periods of bareness. And they sprout weeds, of course, because those weeds are nature dealing with a state of emergency.

So, I don't know. A huge percentage of my diet consists of annual species. My staples are lentils and chickpeas and soybeans and rice and wheat. Then I add mostly annual veg. I love a sun-ripened tomato. And the sweet orange flesh of a pumpkin. I love beans, and cabbages, and caulis. Omidog, basil. And beetroot! And garlic! The eggs we get from Shirley and Esme and occasionally Griselda depend on the chooks' largely annual-based seed and pulse diet. It's true that most of my fruit comes from perennial species - trees, bushes, brambles, vines - and I eat the odd perennial vegetable (globe artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes, rhubarb, sorrel, warrigal greens) and mostly perennial herbs. And nuts, of course. And, hey, cocoa comes from a perennial. But - however numerous the bunya nuts and peaches in my life - I find it hard to imagine switching to an 80% perennial diet.

It seems worth trying, though. Trying to find a way of eating that doesn't require the yearly harrowing of soil and the emptying out of fields. Eating food that grows on trees (or from a sorrel clump, a prickly pear cactus, the rhizome of an artichoke) means promoting deep roots over shallow ones, relative ecological stability over upheaval. I guess it means olive oil rather than seed oil. Tamarillos rather than tomato. Sorrel before lettuce. Thyme instead of basil. Honey rather than cane sugar. And maybe finding ways of grafting annual species to perennial ones (eggplant to some kind of super overwintering solanum, for instance).

Perennial-based vegetarian protein sources, not so easy. Maybe I really do have to start eating snails.

On that alarming note, here ends the essay, for now.

* Not an actual husky, though.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Skeps and stitches

One of my favourite books, when I were a wee tacker, was Evelyn Scott's The Fourteen Bears in Summer and Winter. Daddy Bear and Mother Bear live with their improbably large progeny in the woods, where they swim and skate and decorate trees and skip paw-in-paw through the buttercups. The bear cubs (they have gorgeous names like Henrietta and Gloria and Dora and Little Theodore) sleep inside tree trunks, decorated to taste. One is all folksy floral kitsch; another is rocking the 1960s Danish minimalism. I blame this book for the fact that from the age of 4 to ... I dunno ... 27? ... I couldn't look at a Morton Bay fig tree without imagining myself sitting inside it arranging my prize collection of hand-carved spoons.

One of the most exciting things about this book was its depiction of bee-keeping. Flora has a "honey farm with very special bees". She turns the spigot on each skep and out comes vanilla honey, or maple honey, or strawberry honey, or coconut honey, looking remarkably like soft-serve icecream.

This is not, perhaps, an entirely realistic account of bears, or bees, or honey. For one thing, contrary to widespread lore, bears aren't especially interested in honey; rather, they're extremely keen on bee larvae. Delicious, high-protein, pollen-fed grubs. For another thing, there ain't no kind of beehive where the honey flows neatly out of a tap.

When beekeepers used to use skeps - those beautiful conical basket hives - the only way to harvest the honey was to destroy the hive. In autumn, the beekeepers would select the strongest hives, which they'd leave to over-winter, in the hope that come Spring those strong hives would swarm and replenish numbers; but they'd cut open the middling ones, after "tanging" the hives to chase the bees out. They'd remove the honey and (more importantly, in an age of DIY lighting) the wax, and kill a whole lot of bees in the process. It sounds (and I guess was) appallingly violent, and pretty unideal for the beekeeper too, who must have been stung from head to toe by justly disgruntled insects.

Apart from this substantial defect in the skep system, though, skeps are the perfectest human-made bee homes I can imagine. Well, a skep lodged three metres above the ground is the perfectest human-made bee home I can imagine. In the absence of human-made structures, honeybees choose homes inside trees and they choose homes at altitude - out of bear-reach. I've seen comb made in the absence of human interference. It curves; it's built on an angle; it certainly doesn't run east-west in straight parallel lines. The skep mimics the hollow of the tree, and it allows whatever graceful free-form comb-creation the bees choose.

I'm pretty in love with skeps, is what I'm saying, and if you were interested in keeping bees for pollination (or just for the bees' sake), rather than for honey harvesting, I think a skep would be excellent.

On another (but tenuously related) matter, I've just finished sewing my new uniform, which apparently I couldn't manage to iron before taking this photo:

I made the skirt one evening after work. It's a very simple A-line job, made out of a grand total of five pieces of fabric, plus a zip, and a button. My favourite colours are teals and turquoises and greeny-blues, so I'm pretty pleased with the fabric.

But I'm even more pleased with the fabric I've used for the shirt. It's a peach-and-white print of skeps, designed by Bonnie Christine. I stumbled across this material ages ago and knew I would find a use for it.

Then these wooden bee buttons turned up on ebay. Ten for $2, which felt a bit wrong, but I'm not one to say no to el cheapo bee buttons when they throw themselves across my path.

I used my old faithful late-1980s blouse pattern. It's already given me a frog-print shirt with green buttons and a blue polka-dot shirt with little cat's-face buttons. In both cases I experimented with alternative collars (finagling variations on the pussy bow), because I don't love the collar in the pattern and I'm a bit phobic about sunburn of the thoracic epidermis.

This time, I've invented a sort of Mandarin collar, having finally come to appreciate the value of a stiff layer of interfacing.

I'm not a very patient (and therefore not a very good) sewer, and my Aged Singer (picked up for $10 from the Rozelle Markets in Sydney in 2002) is rather given to swallowing bunches of fabric and generating snarls of cotton. But I took this slowly, cutting out the pieces one night, sewing a little bit another night, more again later. The slow and steady approach seems to have averted break-downs in both the machine and the tailor. So, skeps ahoy!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Nice pear

I walked all the way home from work yesterday. It's about ten kilometres, which takes me two hours, so Shank's Pony ain't my regular modus transportii from work. I do so wish I had time to do it every day, though. You can slip up through the northern end of my campus, which peters into remnant countryside before slamming into the new housing development. Once you're across Plenty Road, ambling cross-country through Bundoora Park across Darebin Creek will take you most of the way to Thomastown. Last night there were kangaroos grazing on the edge of the golf course (old man kanga, standing up watching me, with his dangly scrotum). From the top of the hill at Bundoora, through the thicket of browning-round-the-edges oaks, you can see right across to Tullamarine one way and the Kinglake Ranges the other. It's pretty special.

In Thomastown, I find myself a back lane and skip along it, counting the backyard fruits. Olive, lemon, fig, apple, peach, olive, lemon, plum, fig, apple, pear. The pears, I notice, have all been thoroughly gouged by parrots, so that there are just rusting cores dangling from the branches. It makes me worried for our pears at home.

This season I'm having my first ever glimpse of serious pear action. I planted a nashi and a Beurre Bosc in 2011. In 2012 they flowered, but three weeks apart. The nashi managed to pollinate two of its own flowers, so in 2013 we had two exemplary nashi pears to eat, but the bosc blossomed in vain. Frustrated, I got hold of a Wiliams bon Chrétien and put it in place of the dud supposedly-white mulberry from Bunnings, hoping that the Williams would pollinate the bosc. Of course, being a wee tiddler last spring, it didn't flower at all, but the nashi and the bosc synchronised their watches, the bees berserkered between the blossoms, and around November I was very excited to see ...

Meanwhile, the nashi has been all kinds of splendid, its ridiculously abundant fruit ripening since around about the time our plum ran out, in mid February. The first clue that the fruit were ready for eating came when we observed Shirley leaping into the air and nipping beakfuls of flesh from the low-hanging fruit. I wouldn't say that chickens are an infallible guide to deliciousness (unless you're keen on cabbage moth larvae), but in the last six months they've snaffled ripe raspberries, ripe banana passionfruit, ripe plums, and ripe Polka apples, so I figure they know a thing or two about fruit.

The Beurre Bosc, on the other hand, has been fattening a grand total of seven glorious russet-brown pears, and I've had no idea when they're best picked. Diggers says that they fruit in April, but then they also say that their Nashi fruits in April-May. The January heatwave may have done its bit for hastening ripeness, and local climate differences make huge differences too (the last of our Anzac peaches was practically melting with ripeness by the end of December, whereas a friend from Nagambie gave me a bag of firm Anzacs in mid-January).

Last night I lay in bed listening to the fruit bats cavorting in nextdoor's giant fig and wondering when they'd find our pears.

Today I saw that one had been nibbled. I rinsed it and nibbled it myself. Still firm, firmer than a perfect pear, but sweet, and juicier in the middle than the outside. I've read that you get a better pear - less grainy - if you pick it before its ripe, leave it somewhere cool (I'm hoping the fridge will do) for a couple of weeks, and then let it ripen off the tree. So I've picked 'em –  Dog knows if it's too soon – and all six of our remaining pears are a-sitting in the fridge.

It's a bit of an experiment in best-practice pear harvesting and ripening, but I hope that it means that when 2014-15 blesses us with more Beurre Boscs (and maybe some Williams) than a sensible person can deal with, we'll know exactly what to do.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

DIY micro fermenting vessel

Perhaps you've heard of micro-breweries? Here in the Lalorium, we've scaled down micro-brewing to nano-brewing (for which we have a selection of 25L carboys), pico-brewing (in an array of 5L demijohns), and now femto-brewing, for experimental-to-the-point-of-possibly-undrinkable ferments, like the liquorice and the rose-hip and gentian porters below.

The brewing supplies stores round these parts, many and excellent though they are, don't seem to stock a vessel suitable for the hemi-demi-semi brew. For three months, therefore, Tim has been begging everyone he knows to take up bulk fruit-juice consumption and to sling us the empties. As for the airlocks, they're single use only.