May the roof above us never fall in
And may we good companions beneath it never fall out.

~Irish blessing

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Oh, rats!

I saw a sneaky critter disappear under the decking last week, and then I found one Black Russian tomato missing, and one like this...

Yesterday, another was taken with the one next to it also looking very gnawed. Why is it only the Black Russian they're targeting? Only one little fruit is left.

Beating the heat. Yes, we can.

The latest thing I have learnt about in this 43+ heat wave is tomato sunscald. These pale patches of sunburn appear on green fruit exposed to strong sun on very hot days. This is another reason to not over prune your tomatoes because they need the shade of the leaves, and it's a myth that they need sun to ripen, the leaves need the sun, not the fruit. Some varieties still have less leaves though, or some can get knocked off by disease. While we were away for a week, a few of the exposed fruits ended up looking like this...


Pot Tomato

The patches become a bit sunken, and depending on the damage, can cause the fruit to rot and attract nasties. 

It's going to be in the 40s then high 30s for at least a week here, the worst heatwave Melbourne has had since 1908, so without wanting to shell out for metres of shadecloth, I went in to defense today with a bedsheet, a newspaper and some clothespegs.

These are San Marzano's under the bedsheet. So far they have been resistant to the sunscald, perhaps because they're more of a robust cooking style with thicker skins. Still, I'll keep them covered for the next few afternoons just incase.

And below are my efforts with the newspaper. It's also quite windy today, otherwise I probably wouldn't use so many pegs. Seems to be a great temporary solution though.  Certainly doesn't have to be The Age, but the tomatoes prefer if it's not something written by Andrew Bolt ;)

It also works for protecting lettuces and other delicate greens.

I've moved the basil in to the shade, as well as a lot of other pots. The seedlings are keeping from drying out in a damp cardboard box, and all the hanging baskets have been taken down and given refuge.  Now, for me...

Friday, January 16, 2009

Summer Vegetables Recipe: Ratatouille

What to do with all those tomatoes, eggplants, capsicums and zucchinis? Ours are actually just getting going, but in an effort to eat seasonally I just whipped up a beautiful batch of the French provincial dish Ratatoille.

There are many variations of the recipe but the essential ingredients tend to remain the same.

Olive oil
1 sprig of thyme (I used lemon thyme)
1 brown onion
2 cloves of garlic
1 eggplant
1 red capsicum
4 tomatoes

Finely chop the onion and garlic and soften over low heat in a casserole dish with about 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add a generous pinch of salt.

Dice and add the rest of the vegetables and the thyme.

Cover and stew gently for 30 minutes, then uncover and cook for a further 10 minutes.

Serve hot or cold, as a side dish, or as an antipasto with perhaps some olives and cured ham, oui? My husband is at the cricket tonight, so I'm having a hot bowl of it with a drizzle of olive oil, some crusty bread and a glass of red wine. Tomorrow, the two of us can enjoy it cold with some BBQ'd locally raised lamb. Fantastic.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


With the onset of hot, dry weather, all the fungal problems have cleared up beautifully, but we're having a few problems with bugs.

I noticed the Black Russian tomato had some curling leaves. On inspection I found Whiteflies and eggs under some of the leaves, on the Black Russian, and the Tommy Toe next to it. None of the other plants seem to have been targeted so hopefully we've caught it early.

Whiteflies are not actually flies, but 3mm long white flying sap-suckers, closely related to aphids. They can breed up quickly, particularly in areas that have been sprayed with pesticides (not in our case) where there are few predatory insects, and they also quickly become resistant to any pesticides used against them. Smothering sprays such as soap or oil mixes are recommended, and you can buy or make sticky traps.

I sprayed the plant with Eco-Oil - 5ml to 1 litre which seems like a very weak solution but I followed the instructions. A few Whitefly have settled back on to the plant. I'll check it in the morning, and if it isn't looking better I have some Natrasoap I can try.

UPDATE: 15/01/09 Thismorning the Whiteflies seem to have cleared off the tomatoes but have settled on the nearby mint. I'll continue with the Eco-Oil for now, and may even try getting the vacuum cleaner out to suck them up, which some gardeners have recommended. Buying some beneficial insects is also an option:

15/01/09 Found eggs on the back of Nasturtium leaves and several other tomato plants. Sprayed all thoroughly with Natrasoap - 15ml to 1L.

16/01/09 No signs of Whitefly in the garden today. Yay!

18/01/09 Uh oh, whitefly on some of the zucchini leaves. I gave the colonised leaves a quick squirt with Pyrethrum - something I avoid, but I kept it localised and it did kill them immediately.

9/02/09 The odd whitefly ends up on the sticky yellow trap, but they're not causing any problems.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Mrs Ellen Skennar's Grape Jam Recipe

One lonely bunch of grapes on the grapevine this year. I may need to drop in to the carpark next door and pinch some of the masses on it's self seeded children. I'd love to try the recipe below.

Grape Jam

Chef: Mrs Ellen Skennar
Herberton, Queensland
In the ABC Gardening Talkback Great Home-made Pickles and Jam Challenge, this recipe won first prize in the Best Jam category.

Mrs. Ellen Skennar from Herberton uses Herberton Isabella Grapes in her jam and the recipe originates from a vineyard that grew a variety of grapes for eating and wine making.

Squeeze Isabella grapes so that skins are in one saucepan and pulp in another.

Cook skins with small amount of water with lid on for 10 minutes.

Cook pulp for 10 minutes then rub through coarse strainer.

Combine sieved pulp with the skins and measure cup for cup with sugar.

Cook about 20 minutes until set.

Olive Preserving Recipe from the ABC's 'Gardening Australia' Story

Plenty of olives are forming on the tree...

This is a 'secret family' recipe that uses no water to soak the olives and produces intensely flavoured preserved olives without the mess of soaking.

Get a 10kg bucket and drill 1/4" holes (as many a you like) in the lid and the base.

Get ripe Kalamata olives and put a layer in the bottom of the bucket (approx 3" deep)
Throw in a handful of rock salt over top of this layer.
Continue olive then salt layer to the top of the bucket or until you run out of olives.

Put on lid and leave for 24 hours.
Turn bucket over. Leave for another 24 hours and turn bucket over again.
Repeat this daily until the 4th day.

Open bucket and taste an olive to check bitterness (some people may like bitter olives and can stop at this stage).
If olives are still too bitter for your taste - continue. If salt seems to have dissolved add about 3 or 4 handsful of rock salt on top of olives.

Continue turning bucket to 10 days checking on bitterness and stop when olives are to your taste.

Usually olives have reached their optimum taste after 10 to 14 days. Keep adding salt if salt has dissolved.
NOTE: olive juice will seep out over this time so make sure bucket is outside.

Olives will be wrinkled - hence the name 'Sultana Olives' and their taste will be intense.

Once olives are to your taste, wash thoroughly in fresh cold water until all salt is removed.

Put olives in zip-lock bags and keep in freezer until you need them. Olives will keep for years in the freezer.

Take a bag from the freezer and let thaw naturally. (Do not put in water, microwave etc)

Put olives in container and add 50:50 oil and vinegar to cover (oil of your choice and vinegar of your choice - Sam of course chooses his best olive oil and often uses balsamic vinegar but you can experiment here with different oils and vinegars)

Add herbs of your choice - basil, chilli, garlic, oregano, lemon, dill.

The beauty of Sam's recipe is that each zip-lock bag can be made up separately as you need it and each can be flavoured separately so you can have plain or flavoured olives all year round.


January Veggie Garden

Sown late, because we were away in Italy, most of the summer veg is just starting to get going. The zucchini plants are going crackers and the first male flowers are opening with small female flowers close behind. Tomatoes are continuing to flower and form on all the varieties and we're collecting ripening yellow tumblers regularly now. I'm especially excited about the big Black Russians forming and the beautiful ribbed Marmandes (below).

Strawberries keep giving and giving.

On Peter Cundall's advice I am sowing the winter veg early this year. The broccolli and winter lettuce was sown last week, and today I sowed leeks, tuscan kale, cabbage and brussel sprouts.

I sowed these radishes last week and was amazed as they broke the soil in only a few days. These are amongst beetroot seed that is starting to sprout. The radishes will be harvested long before the beetroot need the space. I've done the same with carrots too.

Harlequin Beetles. Eek!

The Harlequin Beetles (Dindymus versicolor) are back... I'd noticed a few little ones around the garden.They are Australian native sap suckers and last year they nearly killed a young Wonga Vine, and I found their nest in some weeds along the side of the house. Thismorning I went along the side of the house pulling out clumps of weeds and voila - hordes of juvenile Harlequin bugs poured out of one clump. I squished as many as I could and will check again tomorrow. Apparently they are a real danger to tomatoes.

Jackie French suggests: "If you're troubled with harlequin beetles in the garden- sometimes called push-me- pull-you because of their active sex lives- stick some broad pieces of cardboard on the ground around the garden. Check each afternoon for sheltering beetles. This should reduce the numbers in your garden next season considerably." I will try this.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Beans beans beans

The 'Green Stringless' free seeds I got from Diggers and planted along the fence turned out to be bush beans. No worries though as they are really crunchy and delicious. 

The borlotti are also doing really well. They have pale pink flowers and the pods start green and are just starting to develop pinkish camouflage. I'm planning to use them fresh in soups and perhaps dry a few if we have enough of a crop. 

I did want some climbers though, so yesterday we planted some scarlet runner beans and my husband made a bamboo teepee to stand over them once they surface. The bamboo cloche protects the seeds from the blackbirds who love to dig them up.

Scarlet Runner Bean Patch

Borlotti Beans

Happy New Year 2009 - Done and To Do

We arrived back from 10 days away over Christmas to a fantastic looking garden, mostly due to my Mum dropping in to water a few times and lots and lots of mulch. Last year the tomatoes suffered quite badly while we were away, so we were relieved and pleasantly greeted by strong green plants and an enormous amount of growth! The tomatoes and zuccini in particular have sky rocketed.

San Marzano tomatoes

Black Russian tomatoes

Black Jack zucchini

I was given Peter Cundalls fantastic new book The Practical Australian Gardener: Seasonal Tasks Using Sensible Organic Methods for Christmas. It gives a month by month guide to what needs to be done in the garden. Armed with this, I made a list of tasks and got to work.

Remove sweet pea from hanging basket and save a few seed pods.
Tie support strings for tomatoes under the pergola (see image below).
Make a runner bean teepee.
Foliar feed indoor plants (spray weak Seasol solution).
Spray Eco-Rose on all fungus prone plants.
Spray Dipel on caterpillar prone plants.
Add more mulch where needed.
Feed veggies and fruit trees with blood and bone.
Feed tomatoes with potash.
Sow more beetroot, carrots, radishes, runner beans.

To do:
Plant pelargonium cuttings - they have struck well.
Plant honeysuckle - my in-laws gave me some from their big fragrant plant after I admired it.
Prune bansia rose along the fence.
Sow lettuce, leeks, broccoli, cabbage and brussel sprouts in preparation for winter plantings.

String supports for the tomatoes in planters on the deck. My husband's handy work.

We always return with more in the car than we left with on holidays. I bought these bamboo cloches from the wonderful Foxglove Spires nursery in Tilba Tilba. They keep the birds off the seeds and new shoots, and are much easier to handle than chicken wire.