With much of my property turned over to the production of fruit and vegetables for the kitchen table, I find myself increasingly bedazzled by the magnificent flower displays in some gardens that I pass on my walk to work. While showy displays of almond, peach and cherry trees in late winter compensate somewhat, one must look more carefully to find the beauty inherent in a flowering vegetable garden. Here are some of the photos collected over the past decade: -
OK, I grew too many chillies this year, largely to freshen up my five-year old seed stocks of this wonderfully decorative plant. Over-planting works well if the seed viability has dropped, but high viability has the unintended consequence of ‘guilt-planting’ of cute little seedlings that one can’t bear to abandon to the compost heap simply because there are too many of them.
Chillies look great in the garden, but they also look pretty good in the kitchen threaded onto strong cotton and hung up on a curtain wire. Here they can be stored for many months, and taken down as spontaneous gifts for friends who may admire them.
All you need (beside your double-threaded canvas cotton) is an upholsterer’s needle – this is forced through the red body of the chilli just below the green cap, as the latter will rip too easily to sew into. Start with a length of cotton between your outstretched arms, double it over, knot the end, and then sew then tie the first chilli – the rest are just drawn down the string. At the top, tie a couple of knots a few centimetres apart to take the hook. A quiet evening with some reflective background music should see the crop hung up. Save the seeds (as for capsicums) from the best formed ones.
The back doorstep marks the border between garden and kitchen, and it is here where the greatest hazard awaits the weary gardener. Forgetting to remove one’s muddy boots when entering the kitchen is an unfailing recipe for stirring the cook’s wrath!
This must be a universal sort of crisis, because the solution I found to defuse such forgetfulness was invented in America – ‘Sloggers!’ These slip-on garden clogs are even better than my old pull-on Blundstone boots, as they show none of the latter’s tendency to go hard and crotchety when left out in the weather. Thoroughly waterproof and good for most garden jobs even on wet days, they are also easily kicked off when entering the cook’s spotless domain.
I purchased my pair from a nice young lady down at the Norwood Garden Centre, where they even have a seat for old blokes like me to sit down and try them on.
Hanging them on a hook outside the back door prevents them filling up with water on rainy days, and makes them handy for the sort of quick exit needed when muddy knees brought on by seed-planting or weeding also spread havoc and chaos …
One of the strange dichotomies of kitchen gardening is that Springtime – which brings such a feverish burst of planting and new beginnings – is so impoverished a period as a provider of food for the kitchen table. So now – in the very middle of an Australian winter – is exactly the right time to ensure something is on the table then by planting broad beans.
Broad beans (LEGUMINOSAE – Vicia fava), also known as fava beans, can be cooked in oil with chopped onion or dried and stored for winter soups. They are easy to grow, nutritious, tasty and cold-hardy. While many gardening books suggest planting your broad beans in autumn while the soil is still warm, I’ve always thought Peter Bennett's Organic Gardening book had it right – hold off planting until mid-winter (i.e. now!), as broad beans will flower but not set pods until frosts are behind them. Planting too early means that only the very last flowers at the top of the 1m high broad bean plant will get to feed you, and they are always the smallest beans on the bush. If late planted beans are just coming into flower in September, you will find they are productive over a long period while you wait for all those other Spring vegetables to get on their feet.
Here in South Australia, springtime can be windy, and therein lies the second threat to broad bean plots; their height and the sail-like area of their broad leaves and beans mean that they can be irrevocably blown over, ending your chances of a harvest. So I grow my broad beans in a block (safety in numbers), stake all four corners, then run horizontal lengths of smooth and round golden bamboo poles all around the beans to give them some support without damaging their stems.
Broad beans seeds are large – about ‘ball of thumb’ size for the big Sicilian broad beans I favour. These I’ve grown on for many years from a small handful of dried broad beans I was given by an old Sicilian chap just down the road, now long in his grave. Smaller greener varieties of broad beans are available from the local seed displays available at nurseries and hardware stores, and are easy to come by. Just dig shallow trenches in good soil with the angle of the hoe, and drop seeds in about 25 cms apart. They will germinate readily in cool-to-cold soil.
One of the greatest pleasures afforded the kitchen gardener is the ever-changing activities of the birds that visit us directly or that fly overhead. Unlike our shy nocturnal Australian native animals, Australian birds are about in daylight and are highly visible, colourful, playful, noisy and busy.
Fifty years of studying these birds has given me the gift of immediate identification – by flight, song, size or silhouette. Yet there is always more to learn, and endless fascination. Birds play, fight, kill, swoop, soar and glide. They hunt through the garden on a daily basis and keep all sorts of insect predators in check – all for the price of the meal. They pollinate fruit trees and charm with their songs (harsh-voiced parrots aside!) Nature has moved onto the drought-proof Adelaide Plains to fill every ecological niche open to birds – my records show visits by some forty-five (45) species.
Sadly, birds are difficult to photograph compared to fruit and vegetables, and so I’ve included photos by others (from Wikimedia Commons) to whet your appetite for this simple activity to augment the pleasures of kitchen gardening.
Some of these birds are regulars, some were lost, some flew or wheeled overhead, some passed in great flocks or singly, some are migratory, some are introduced species. Nevertheless, they all give joy in small ways, so here they are, in no particular order…
Australia is blessed with a profusion of colourful if raucous parrots, from the large majestic cockatoos to the fast-flying strident-voiced lorikeets. These past few years have seen a return of the bigger parrots to the Adelaide Plains – there are few more majestic sights than the slow flight of some forty or more yellow-tailed black-cockatoos making there way from one pine tree to another.
My parrot list includes rainbow and musk lorikeets, Eastern and Adelaide rosellas, galahs, sulphur-crested and yellow-tailed black cockatoos plus long-billed corellas.
Honeyeaters have a brush-like tongue (I’m told) for collecting nectar and pollen from flowers, but are just as likely to be omnivorous; yellow-winged (New Holland) honeyeaters are often seen flying up into the air from fences and bushes at dusk to snatch insects from swarms that fly at that time of day. The largest of the honeyeaters is the red wattle-bird, with its harsh ‘quark-a-quark’ call and small red turkey-like wattles on either side of the bill. The ‘little wattle bird’ is less common but just as attractively striped.
My honeyeater list includes the white-plumed and yellow-winged honeyeaters and red and little wattlebirds. Other small colourful birds of about the same size seen in my garden include the rufous whistler, grey-backed silvereyes and the eastern spinebill. In the skies high above the garden, welcome and white-rumped swallows drift on long pointed wings in their aerial hunt for winged insects. My favourite bird memory is of a migratory Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo that stopped in the almond tree for ten minutes to imprint an indelible memory on my mind.
Kookaburras prey on small lizards and mice and can often enough be heard chortling to each other as they mark out the edges of their territories with song. The occasional ‘little falcon’ or Australian Hobby is easily the fastest bird in the skies – I’ve seen them catapult out of no-where to attack Indian Turtle-Doves that flee in panic into the interior of the fruit trees to escape. Black-shouldered kites, Nankeen kestrels and a (lost) wedge-tailed eagle have also been spotted overhead, though never mixing it in the garden. Boobook owls are silent nocturnal predators of rats, mice and other small animals and insects; they can be heard calling mournfully in the wee-small hours, or seen flying silently as darkness closes in as the gardener works on harvesting the last of the potatoes.
Surprising avian visitors to the skies over the garden are the water-birds, often en-route to somewhere else or just blown inland and lost – these include a stately flight of eight pelicans wheeling overhead, white-faced herons, black ducks, silver gulls and wood (or mountain) ducks. Spur-winged plovers and the occasional Australian white ibis find happy feeding grounds on school ovals in the district.
Common Australian garden birds
Then there’s a motley crew of birds common to Australian gardens – Magpie-larks, white-backed magpies, Australian ravens (mistakenly called ‘crows’), noisy miners, Willy-wagtails and their beautiful cousin the grey fantail, black-faced cuckoo-shrikes and the occasional grey thrush down from the Hills. I once saw a tiny zebra finch flitting through the garden; as these are a flock bird of the Australian deserts, I reckoned this one was probably an escapee from an aviary somewhere nearby.
Introduced bird species
The first Europeans to settle in Australia were less-than-charmed by the colourful parrots with their harsh cries and the seven hundred or so other birds native to Australia, and waxed nostalgic for the songbirds of home – so they imported the bloody things! Now Australian gardens have English house sparrows, blackbirds and starlings, domestic pigeons, Indian turtle-doves and even goldfinches. Each of these species displaces a native species somehow – fortunately for us, the Australian crested pigeon is shoving back, and can be identified by the whirring sound its wings make on take-off and its pointy crest.