Archive for the ‘gardening’ Category

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Home-groan Tomatoes: A Labour of Love

January 31, 2015

As a tomato grower, I’m a great root vegetable producer. More on that later.

I’d never bothered growing tomatoes, but after last year’s Sydney Tomato Festival I changed my mind. It was taste-testing the Russian Black Krim and other unusual varieties that got me interested.

I started small, buying three cherry tomato plants (Lady Bug or Sweet Bite?) as I’d heard they don’t attract as many pests or diseases as larger varieties.

I planted them in my mother’s garden bed and watched them grow. On recent visits two-three times per week, I’d touch the parched soil that had gone un-watered for days. “Have you been watering the tomatoes?” “Oh yes of course” she’d answer. Unconvinced, I’d give them a good soaking anyway. 

The first harvest produced seven tiny tomatoes – four with split skins. What could I do with them? Make a sauce for three strands of spaghetti? Chop them up for one small piece of bruschetta? Wizz them into a thimble-full of Bloody Mary?

red cherry tomatoes

I decided on a lunch salad, cutting them in half and dressing them with oil, vinegar, salt and basil and tumbling them into the smallest bowl available.

On the next visit, my mother had already picked seven tiny tomatoes – five with split skins. Just as well then, that I’d bought a punnet of bigger, more attractive-looking relatives that I added to the bowl to plump up the lunch.

I reflected on the growing regime: bringing them home from the markets, making space in the garden bed, preparing the soil, planting and then feeding, watering and staking them. And checking for pests. I calculated that each meal from the crop has cost about $95.

But all’s not lost. I found a recipe I’d archived from the Italian Notes site for pickled green tomatoes (pomodorini verdi sott’aceto). Picking them unripened solves the problem of eating ugly, split fruit with the seeds erupting from the flesh like unwanted intestines.

However, I think my future as a vegetable grower rests with the sweet potato. Not very Italian, I know, but we have a mystery plant that has grown on its own, without love, and produces a bumper crop of sweet potatoes each year. No work required. Last year’s harvest included a potato so big I had to share half with the neighbours. The other half went to a friend who made a sweet potato pie for a dinner party.

biggest sweet potato

I’m really quite happy to let other people be tomato growers. I think La Gina has the right idea.

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Growing Coffee: a backyard job

September 30, 2014
growing coffee at home
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I, Gladiolus

November 14, 2012

I really want to champion the cause of the unfashionable gladioli, but in future must remember the “buyer beware” warning.

I’d been on the lookout for gladioli for a couple of weeks, since my mother was given one by a stranger. At a post-medical appointment coffee ‘n cake break, she was presented with a lovely white gladdie plucked from a vase by the young male café manager. She had a new admirer, I was all but ignored and the words ‘chopped liver’ came to mind. No matter. The gesture brought a million dollar smile to her face and she can’t wait for next month’s appointment.

My mother always appreciated my father walking in the front door with a gladioli sheath for her birthday. I’d had a chat with him one year and suggested he swap the usual carnations for something more provocative. So throughout the ‘70s we embraced gladioli – until celebration roses took over.

Dame Edna Everage of course kept them in the public eye. For over 40 years, she endorsed them and her live show devotees in the front stalls risked serious eye damage as she javelined them from the stage. The word ‘Gladiolus’ comes from the Roman gladius meaning sword: a small sword was called a gladiolus. As a gladiator skilled in entertaining the public, the good Dame did wonders with these ‘sword lilies’. But with the Housewife Superstar’s retirement last July, I fear for their future.

red gladioli in vase

A display I prepared earlier, playing around with a Holga camera

I was so desperate for a bunch four days ago, I believed the florist’s “coupla days” response to my question about the unopened flower buds. Gladioli are seen by some as a bit frou-frou, but I love the contrasting frilly edges against the sharpness of the slender pointy leaves. Unfortunately, all I have in my vase are slender pointy leaves.

Maybe I should cut my losses and think about dinner? Gladdies are edible (except for the anthers) with a somewhat bland, lettuce-like taste. They’re recommended for holding tasty tidbits and I’m picturing them as an alternative to the iceberg lettuce cup for Sang Choi Bao. Or an Italian gorgonzola dip. Maybe decorating a refreshing sorbet alongside the other flowers currently scattered on fashionable restaurant plates.

So, is a new Gladioli ambassador already waiting in the wings? Morrissey, while performing The Smiths’ lyrics about sexual ambiguity and lust, used to shower the band’s fans with gladdies as a nod to his hero Oscar Wilde. I’d like to encourage him to continue.

Gladioli Sculpture Melbourne

As part of Dame Edna’s farewell tour this year, a 13-metre outdoor gladioli sculpture was erected in Melbourne where she recited the ‘Ode to the Gladioli’ but surprisingly confessed to the flowers being “unsubtle and slightly common”.

As if that’s a bad thing. 

Barry Humphries and the giant vase of Gladioli in honour of Dame Edna on the Arts Centre lawns.

(Photo: Donna Demaio)

PS. I’ve just read the latest post on one of my favourite blogs ‘The Gardenist’. Yes, it’s all about the gladdie!

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Lurking in the Cupboard: Manual Coffee Grinder

August 29, 2012

An occasional post about long-forgotten household gems in my mother’s kitchen

I could feel it doing me good. Core muscles engaged and arms clenching the machine would produce great results. Am I in a gym? Hardly. I’m grinding coffee beans at the kitchen bench on my new obscure object of desire (apologies to filmmaker Luis Buñuel).

I’ve located our long-forgotten hand coffee grinder in my mother’s kitchen cupboard and it’s been getting a good workout at my house. I thought it had been donated to charity, but there it was, over 40 years old and looking at me with a downcast bottom drawer. Last used in 1989 by my dear late dad – and sometimes me  (see older blogpost) it deserved to be rescued after I developed my hankering for a fresh daily grind.

Vintage manual coffee grinderMade in Holland, it’s a wooden “burr” grinder and still works like a dream. I love the soft crunching sound of the beans being crushed between the mechanisms. Much nicer than the  screeching noise of an electric blade grinder that has me imagining a dentist’s weapon. And the aroma of the oils released by the ground beans is nothing short of heady.

I’m guessing my mother found it too much effort to use (my father being chief coffee bean crusher) and stored it away. Interestingly, she planted a coffee tree in the back garden about 15 years ago and it’s making a brave comeback after her indiscriminate pruning festival two years ago. Prior to that, we’d harvested its crimson beans and roasted them as an experiment. Then threw them away. Now, with the hand coffee grinder resurrected, we’re ready for the next stage of the ‘torrefazione’ (such a nice Italian word) process. Illycaffe – watch your back.

I’m liking the idea of calling our future crop Fairtrade coffee: if my mother promises not to go near the tree with any sort of hacking implement, I promise not to call her a terrible gardener. Fair trade.

But back to the workout. It’s quite a job turning the coffee grinder handle and keeping it steady on the bench. Multiply that by four caffeine fixes per day and hello rock-hard biceps. Ta-ta tuckshop arms.

More about manual coffee grinders

And for manual coffee grinder freaks, here’s a museum

Have also just found these many uses for leftover coffee grounds. Brilliant.

♦ I welcome your thoughts or retorts. The Comments button is only a click away…

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The Gardens of Ninfa – I’ve Died and Gone to Heaven

August 16, 2012

That’s it. I’m officially an old person. Last night I had dinner in front of the TV, near the heater, wearing woolly slippers, watching a GARDENING PROGRAM.

I’d managed to all but miss the four-part BBC series Monty Don’s Italian Gardens. But this episode promised a sense of ruin and loss on a Thursday night – as well as calla lilies and clivias.

Monty was travelling north from Naples to Sermoneta, 40 kms south of Rome, to wander the Gardens of Ninfa. Breathtakingly beautiful, Ninfa is a ruined medieval town rescued by two dedicated gardeners in 1905 and captures the liberated, looser spirit of southern Italian gardens.

Gardens of Ninfa near Rome

I did some googling and one blogger couldn’t understand Monty calling Ninfa “the most beautiful garden in the world” for all sorts of reasons, but apparently he’d misunderstood: Monty had called it “the most ROMANTIC garden in the world”. Sssshhh. Let’s keep our voices down and not upset the flowers.

Another blogger at Library of Design posted straight after watching the show and also has a crush on Monty. How could you not, when at one point he has to catch his breath when he spots a beautiful rose growing high in an oak tree. “Aaah, that’s just lovely” he says in a voice that’s pure honey.

Monty Don at Ninfa Gardens

Having declared myself an old person doesn’t mean I don’t have needs. And I need to buy this series NOW.

Here’s a seven minute teaser.

Gardens of Ninfa image: Daniele Muscetta

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Late Bloomer Gilds the Lily

August 13, 2012

‘Clivia, oh Clivia, say have you met Clivia … Clivia the Tattooed Lady’.

OK, if you’re not a Marx Brothers’ fan, you’re wondering what on earth I’m talking about. If you are a fan, please indulge me. It’s of course the wacky song Groucho sings in the 1937 film A Day at the Races.

Sometimes pronounced “clive” after their namesake Lady Charlotte Florentine Clive, I much prefer the flower name to rhyme with “trivia’ – otherwise how could I possibly burst into song each year when they show themselves?

orange Clivias

Who says gardens are dull in winter? Apart from my singing (and clivias) we’ve got an explosion of  pale pink marguerite daisies, cymbidium orchids, violets, snowdrops, enormous calla lilies and gorgeous bearded irises that just keep on giving.

I love calla lilies and they’re especially striking this season, standing tall opposite the front door. I like to think we chose that position in keeping with the Romans who planted them inside the portal to their homes for a winter solstice bloom, simulating indoor sunlight for the darkest days of the year. The greater the display usually meant the wealthier the resident. We’re still playing Lotto with no success, so the display’s modest.
Calla Lillies in gardenSuch a versatile flower too: it’s both a symbol of fertility and death – used at weddings and also placed on graves. Or on female TV vampires in 1960s sitcoms as they slept corpse-like at 1313 Mockingbird Lane.

American artist Georgia O’Keeffe painted some exquisite calla lilies in the early 1930s.

As for memorable calla lily film scenes, there’s a pearler in the 1937 comedy Stage Door, about a boarding house full of aspiring actresses and their dreams and disappointments.

“The calla lilies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower…” Can you guess the actress in the scene on this sound clip from Stage Door?

I’m a late bloomer, much to my mother’s delight. Neither of my parents were good gardeners, only growing an essential patch of north-east Italian radicchio and various herbs (see earlier post Secret Radicchio Society).

For a while, my mother tried her best, showing a talent for breaking off geranium stems, sticking them willy nilly in dry garden beds and hoping for the best. (I think she secretly wanted to create a bit of Tyrol in Sydney’s inner-west, bless her.) The result was a little sad until I took over and brought many neglected plants back to life.

I’ve left one geranium for her to tend round the back of the house. And I tend the lilies.

It’s a win-win really.

The photo at right is of my mother and me in 1960, in our Sunday best, standing proudly in front of a spider fern. Notice the ubiquitous geranium lurking in the background.

 

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The Revenge of the Mandarin Stinkbugs – or How I Learned to Love the Broom

July 18, 2012

I’m on all fours in the kitchen, scrubbing sugary orange blobs that have splashed from the stovetop to the floor and cursing the day I rescued my mother’s mandarin tree from a disease-ridden death.

Two bumper mandarin crops and many batches of marmalade later doesn’t quite make up for three years of pruning, regular feeding and watering, weed control and scrutinising for caterpillars. But I can’t go back now …  I’ve become the mandarin marmalade queen and there are expectations. I have orders to fill.

Home-made mandarin marmalade

Now, where’s my crumpet

I’ve come late to the world of gardening, and no-one warned me to look out for the scourge of the citrus grower:  stink bugs.

These nasty sap suckers appear in summer and you’ve soon got yourself a nice part-time job protecting young shoots. They are almost indestructible and will multiply overnight just when you think you’ve won the battle.

Whacking them into semi-consciousness seemed too brutal, so last year I squirted them individually with soapy water. Sure, it dazed them, but their revenge was a crazed kamikaze swoop towards my eyes before I ducked for cover. There’s a stylish Italian travel accessory company called ‘Mandarina Duck’ and I wonder if they’re named after a similar manoeuvre. Nah, probably not.

Nodding off on the bus a while ago following another session at the killing fields, a voice from behind whispers, “Excuse me, I thought you’d like to know there’s a bug on your head”. Panic can’t describe my reaction as I start swatting the pest, hoping it will move along without any fuss. The stink beetle, who’s enjoyed a free ride without a valid ticket flies off my head and releases such an acrid stench that I jump off the bus red faced – and well before my destination.

It got me thinking if you’re going to have something flapping on your head in a public place, it may as well be a bigger statement. Like a pigeon. In the 1995 film Forget Paris (directed by and starring Billy Crystal) Debra Winger makes contact with an unwelcome feathered friend:

This year I reverted to the broom ‘n’ bucket method, wielding my weapon of torture while wearing industrial strength goggles, gloves and a fetching hat. I’m atop a ladder while my aged mother waits below with a bucket of metho for the bugs. (It’s the least she can do for making me inhale the fumes of her home-made Italian mandarin liqueur in the early 1960s.)

Any good suggestions for disposing of the bugs are welcome. Apparently Clint Eastwood, in the film The Outlaw Josey Wales, has a habit of spitting tobacco juice on them, but I don’t know how effective it was. And I’m not willing to try it.

If you’re wondering what the Musgraveia Sulciventris looks like, here it is – quite the looker when young, somewhat uglier when mature.

the offending bug

For my delicious AmbraJAMbra, I used Stephanie Alexander’s Seville Orange marmalade recipe from her Cook’s Companion It can be adapted for all citrus fruits successfully.

Related post: Buddha’s Hand Citron-Lemon with a Twist

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