Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Garden Wedding!!

So... we had a bit of a wedding!!

See, over the past couple of years, the garden and its surrounds have been the setting for a romance of sorts. It began on the bike path, my true love and I would pass each other on our respective ways to work. We started dating and I would pick a bunch of flowers from the garden on the way over to his house. A little while later he moved into my place with his kids and about the same time we combined our plots into one. We weeded, dug, planted and grew together and one romantic afternoon, last December, were down at the plot, sharing a pot of tea and checking the tomatoes when he asked me to marry him.

And so, the community garden seemed like an excellent place to celebrate our wedding. After the ceremony (at the velodrome across the road) our guests (including friends from the garden) joined us in the garden to stroll amid the veggies and sip champagne. The wind stopped blowing, the sun was shining, the flowers blooming and the corks were popping! It was a cracker of an afternoon!!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Spring Bling

First day of spring and the garden in general is blossoming. The orchard is awash with pink and white with an under-carpet of sunny English marigolds. Brassica and rocket are bolting all over the place in a blaze of yellow and white. Pink pigface spill over and lavender spikes form a cloud of grey blue at the entrance.

Our plot has been soooo slow it's been quite depressing but things are finally starting to happen there too. A few flowers here and there to keep the spirits up... calendula for the most part - I hacked them back today in the hope that they'll bounce back even better in a couple of weeks. Nigella, chamomile and sweet peas are finally getting their act together, the poppies have buds and the broad beans are cranking at last. Cosmos springing up here and there too. Tiny self-seeding speckled lettuce were relocated from the patch where they'd sprung up in a bunch and popped throughout our plot (and the garden in general) to add a bit of leafy colour as well. Fingers crossed for a good few weeks of growing and it might even look good for the wedding on October 5th.


Friday, May 17, 2013

Autumn Almanac

Summer crops have finished, the last of the tomatoes have been pulled. For a few weeks the cosmos was like a crazy constellation of fluttering purple stars, lighting up the garden and in their midst, the deep blood red, lion-headed dahlias stood proud and tall. Even those are on their way out now and the beds are gradually being cleared and composted to make way for winter crops and spring flowers.

Photos are crappy but I suspect they'll be a nice record later in the season as things change.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Mystery Plant

Last autumn I was the lucky recipient of a stack of dahlia bulbs from one of my colleagues. She heard of my love for their blousy blooms and offered to grab me a couple of tubers when her mum was digging up and dividing at the end of the growing season. Her mum is a good Greek gardener and has been growing dahlias for years so I was most excited to unwrap my plastic bag of dirty, potato-like tubers. Dahlias, in the daisy family (Asteraceae), are originally from Mexico and hate to have wet feet so I popped them into a spare pot of dirt to overwinter away from the soggy marshland of the winter plot. 

Come spring, the bulbs started to shoot out dark green leaves. They had to languish in their pot, poor things, until our plot change when I finally popped them into the ground around the corners of the veggie beds. All but one rocketed away and are just now producing stunning red-black, lion headed blooms. I love them.

However, there was one dahlia that never looked quite like the others. It was always smaller, the leaves were more divided and much paler. Never having grown dahlias before, I guessed it was perhaps just a different variety. I popped it into the ground with the rest of them and it sat at the front of the garden, not doing much, while its former pot-mates turned into leafy towers of deep green.

It wasn't until just after Christmas that Sean asked what it was, this strange little plant, a few leaves, no flowers. I shrugged but my true love, despite having no formal botanical training plucked a leaf and did what I had failed all those months to do, he sniffed it.

It was ten years ago, when I worked in the alps with a couple of crazy botanical nerds that I learnt the power of sniffing a leaf, for identification purposes. The oils in the leaves of plants evolved primarily as a defense against herbivores; they are distinctive and can give you a serious clue to the family, even the genus, to which a plant belongs. A sniff of a leaf lets you know that the weedy little sharp leafed thing growing by a bushland creek is in fact in the same genus as the mint growing in your garden. It tells you which tough leafed Aussie plants belong with the might myrtles and which are, strange as it may seem closer relatives of the citrus. It is one of the easiest ways to distinguish those elegant Eucalypt sisters, the Spotted and Lemon Scented Gums. 

Even no scent is a clue. In an instant it rules out thousands of species that belong to the sharp scented Rutaceae (the citrus family), the antiseptic tang of the Myrtaceae (Eucalypts, Melaleuca, allspice and myrtles) and it cancels out the delicious culinary waft of the entire Lamiaceae (Mint, Lavender, Basil to name a few). 

Anyway... botanist or not, Sean was on the ball. The mild mannered little mystery plant in my garden was, with one sniff, transformed in my mind. It had a pungent, spicy but fresh aroma, reminiscent of ancient Grecian gullies. Familiar but strange. The closest thing we could come up with was celery, and now that we looked, the leaves were similar but the smell was like no celery Sean or I had ever known. I was thrilled - what a wonderful mystery!

So I picked a leaf and took it into work to ask my Greek colleague. She barely glanced at it before saying with a shrug, "It's celery." 
I countered, "It can't be, celery doesn't smell like that. Not even the garden variety, I've grown it."
She seemed surprised at my ignorance. "No, it is. Greeks use the whole plant to cook, the stems, roots and the leaves. It's celery."

Even more mystified I went home and consulted google. Could it be that there was some mysterious Greek variety of celery, unavailable at the Ceres nursery, unseen in Diggers catalogues, grown and cherished since the 1950s only in the gardens of Greek migrant families?
Turns out, yes. Yes indeed. Selino translates as celery, it's also know as cutting, mountain or wild celery. It's the same species at regular celery but vastly different in a culinary sense. It's not the stems that are eaten so much but the pungent leaves, used for their powerful flavour in Greek and Macedonian soups and stews. It's in the carrot family (Apiaceae) and it produces a fat taproot (also used in cooking) which perfectly explains how it came to be mixed up with my dahlia tubers.

So there you have it. Mystery solved. From garden nobody to cherished garden gem in one sweet sniff. Our darling little selino now gets plenty of love and its leaves added an extra authenticity to our silverbeet spanikopita. I can't wait to use it in winter to make the classic, hearty Greek bean soup masterpiece, fassolada. And best of all, it's a delightful, constant reminder that you can never know everything. You sit there thinking there's nothing new to discover in the world of gardening but the next mystery plant is sitting there, just waiting for you, to turn over a new leaf.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Eggplant Envy

This gorgeous beast is the envy of the garden. Next year, I'm getting one of these!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

On Crayfish and Cucumbers

Algernon: (Picking up empty plate in horror) Good heavens! Lane! Why are there no cucumber sandwiches? I ordered them specially.
Lane: (Gravely) There were no cucumbers in the market this morning, sir. I went down twice.
Algernon: No cucumbers!
Lane: No, sir. Not even for ready money.  

- Oscar Wilde - The Importance of Being Earnest   -

If you've never tried a cucumber sandwich you should. When made properly (fresh thinly sliced bread, no crusts; good quality butter, thinly but not stingily spread; cucumber cut fine, laid close; a sprinkle of just-cracked pepper) they are one of those mysterious culinary miracles which are so much more than the sum of their parts. Somehow, the twin triangles of delicate spongy bread, the salty touch of butter and the inbetween wafer of crisp, fresh cucumber, combine in a savory morsel that is all at once refreshingly simple, deliciously satisfying and delightfully moreish. It's no wonder Algernon scoffed them all before his Aunt arrived.

But deliciousness aside, cucumber sandwiches, have a special place in my heart. I went to see the above play, years ago, with two dear friends of mine. At the time, they were my housemates. One, Kim, now lives, with her lovely husband and two dear children nearby in Brunswick. The other, Ellisha, now lives in San Francisco with her lovely husband and her one, brand new, darling baby. Back in the day we were all living together in North Fitzroy and the three of us went to see a wonderful, uproariously funny, highly unconventional version of the The Importance of Being Earnest which had a cast of just two blokes. These men played every single character in the three act play, complete with ridiculous and increasingly chaotic costume changes. Sounds silly, it was wonderful.

We loved the play and Wilde's infectious sense of the ridiculous became a running joke in our household. Cucumber sandwiches became a regular feature at parties we hosted and elegant platefuls of them even made an appearance at Kim's 30th birthday bash. When Kim's chef husband came home with a crayfish, rescued from the menu of the restaurant in which he works, it became a household pet. Various names were thrown around, until we hit on Algernon, the name of Wilde's eccentric, cucumber sandwich loving hero.  It was, somehow, a perfect fit.

Algernon in his glory days

After a while, we moved to the Far North, to East Brunswick; all of us, including Algernon, into my current abode. We continued along happily but eventually we went our separate ways, Ellisha and Kim moved out (Kim taking her husband, of course). Algernon and I stayed put. He was a well loved crayfish, living to a ripe old age. He dined on all sorts of delicaices including fat caterpillars from the pots out the back, fennel (his favourite) and, of course, the odd slice of cucumber. Eventually, after four or so years of happy pet-hood, he succumbed to old age. By that time I had come into possession of my (first) plot down at the garden and Algernon was buried, with ceremony (John and Kim in attendance), on a rainy Sunday, under the teepee in the corner of my plot.
Since then, I have moved plots but not far, and I like to think that on stormy nights, Algernon's ghost, still stalks through my lettuces, waving his claws and gobbling up unwary caterpillars head first like little squishy green mars bars. In the new plot, we have put up a cucumber frame. I've never grown cucumbers before but I know they like to go vertical. To keep them happy in this regard, we mounted a gorgeous old cast iron door frame, found many years ago, by Kim's husband, on the side of the road. It's perfect for the job, but in actual fact it belongs to Kim. She left it when she moved out but has always planned on using it in her own garden.

Fortunately for us, and the cucumbers, Kim was willing to let us use the door frame in our garden until she finds a place for it in hers. In return, I promised her a share of the cucurbit spoils. Our cucumbers have done well and when we came back from the beach there was a pile for the picking, the choicest of which I dutifully delivered to Kim's kitchen. Since then we have had a steady flow of cukes, all of which, I'm ashamed to say I've used myself. Like Oscar Wilde's insouciant hero Algernon, I've gobbled them all up completely without sparing a thought for anyone else. I've made cucumber salads, Thai cucumber relish, cucumber sandwiches (thick cut sourdough and goat's cheese this time) and three batches of cucumber pickles. 

The first two batches of pickles turned out just ok. One lot were very salty and the other batch super sour. The third batch I made last weekend, using a bread and butter pickle recipe sourced from the internet. I studied hard before I made them, followed the recipe carefully and I'm full of hope that they'll turn out well. Mostly because I can't wait to give a jar to Kim. I'm also hoping they'll live up to their name and can be enjoyed on thin little sandwiches, with just a dab of butter and sprinkle of just-cracked pepper. Maybe there'll still be some pickles left for sandwiches when Ellisha next comes to visit, but I don't know that I'd bet on it... not even for ready money.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Height of Summer

It's been a couple of months now that we've had the new plot the new plot and after two weeks away (thank you, kind watering friends), things are really cranking. We've added a trellis for the cucumbers, the cosmos, French and English marigolds and long-awaited dahlias and  are flowering, first batch of lettuce are going to seed, second batch are just putting their roots down, bean pyramid is up, eggplant is finally putting out pretty mauve blossoms, tomatoes are covered in unripe fruit (c'mon!) and the tomatillos are laden with little green lantern-like cases which house the developing tomatillos (hola, salsa verde!). I've been very happy to see aphid eating insects like ladybirds and solider beetles patrolling the plants and the thick mulch seems to be keeping the weed seed bank at bay. So far, so good...



Here's a bit of a sequence of the changes over the last few weeks.