Seed Season

2016/04/10 deej 1

A week ago, I planted a selection of tree seeds – five different species of wattle (Acacia spp.), poinciana (Delonix regia), jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia) and honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos). Today I noticed that some of them (notably the wattles and poinciana) are germinating already. In spite of torrential rain, the tiny, delicate seedling heads are poking up through the soil, seed cases still covering their baby seed leaves. I’m so pleased 🙂 I know it’s silly, but I love seeing baby plants emerge, especially baby trees. It also means I did pick the right time of year to plant them, just intot he beginning of the wet but before the weather cools down. Not that Perth gets that cold, even out in the hills.

 

Today I started the next phase of the seed planting plans: the vegetable seeds. I haven’t managed to plant them all; there are way too many for that. I went on a bit of a seed-buying spree a while ago, so I now have many packets of seeds, many varieties of each thing, all heading towards the end of their “best before” (i.e. easily germinates if planted before) date. This afternoon, so far, I’ve planted the eggplants (Mini Purple Oblong, Green Oblong, Rosa Bianca, Pea Eggplant, Udamalapet, and Small White), capsicum (Alma Paprika and Sweet Chocolate), chilli (Chilli Fatalii), and tomatoes (Roman Speckled, Reisetomate, Costuleto Genovese, Red Fig, Jaune Flamme, and the seeds I saved from my mum’s garden last summer, for some sort of delicious cherry tomatoes). So, all the nightshades, really.

 

All my vegetable seeds are grouped according to their place in the planting rotation, so all the nightshades are together. Standard rotation puts leafy greens together, root vegetables together (which one is beetroot??? leafy or root?), and legumes together, and there’s generally a ‘green manure’ or fallow rotation to build the soil back up. My rotation groups are:

 

  • Nightshades (eggplant, chilli, tomato, capicum)
  • Root Vegetables (radish, beetroot, onions, carrots, salsify)
  • Legumes (beans, peas, cowpeas, lentils)
  • Squash & Corn (sweetcorn & maize, sunflowers, summer squash, winter squash, cucumbers)
  • Brassicas & Leafy Greens (lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, swedes)
  • Green Manure (barley, roselle, alyssum, cosmos, basil, dandelion, purslane)

 

So.. yeah. I still have a lot of planting to do, even just planting the autumn and winter varieties (and a few of the ones which recommend spring sowing, but which I think should be sown in autumn – like tomatoes). But it’s a good feeling watching the seeds sprout. And it should mean I have a beautiful productive kitchen garden this spring & summer.

plant profile: amaranth

2013/06/18 deej 0

Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.), also known as love-lies-bleeding or pigweed, is reasonably common in flower beds and nurseries around Perth. It’s an impressive looking plant, with tall spires of long lasting pink, purple, or orange flowers and often attractively variegated red and green leaves. Amaranth species prefer a tropical climate, but many species are frost tolerant, and they’re so hardy that they’re considered a weed in many places. I saw a few growing wild in the middle of the city this morning.

Almost every part of the plant is edible. The seeds were a staple food of the native people of Mesoamerica, until its cultivation was banned by the conquistadores. The seeds have a mild, nutty, malty flavour, and are high in minerals such as iron, magnesium, phosphorus, copper and manganese as well as offering a complete protein (containing all essential amino acids for human health).

They can be cooked like rice, either with rice or other grains, or alone; cooked on their own they cook up to a stickier consistency than rice or quinoa do, more like polenta. The seeds can also be cooked into a porridge, or used to add protein andinterest to stews or soups. They can be parched and milled into a gluten free flour, or popped like popcorn. Popped amaranth seeds mixed with honey make a very tasty breakfast cereal. Amaranth seeds can also be sprouted, in the same way as alfalfa, wheat, or other seeds.

The leaves, young stems and shoots can be cooked like spinach. They soften up readily, requiring only a few minutes cooking, which helps avoid excessive nutrient loss. The boiled leaves may be rubbed through a fine sieve and served as a puree. Young shoots and tender young leaves can also be eaten raw, as a salad vagetable.

 

Generally different species are grown primarily for the seeds (Amaranthus caudatus, Amaranthus cruentus, and Amaranthus hypochondriacus) and for the leaves (Amaranthus tricolor, Amaranthus cruentus, Amaranthus blitum, Amaranthus dubius), but both the seeds and leaves of all amaranths are equally edible and nutritious. Amaranths grown principally for vegetable use have better tasting leaves then the grain types.

Amaranths are mostly annuals or short-lived perennials, grown from seed or seedlings planted in late winter or spring (after frosts have passed). As they are tall, soft plants they need protection from strong winds. They use the C4 photosynthesis pathway, which means that they thrive in areas of high light intensity and heat, and can survive drought conditions better than many plants. With supplemental water, the yield of grain amaranth is comparable to rice or maize. Seeds can be harvested by hand or mechanically; leaves are harvested by hand.


 

What amaranth needs:

  • Water – Amaranth survives drought conditions, and will grow happily with 200 – 3000 mm of rainfall, or supplemental water. Leaf amaranths require more water than grain types.

 

  • Sunlight – Amaranth thrives in strong sunlight and high temperatures – it will grow and thrive at 30 – 35 degrees celsius. The ground should be 18 degrees Celsius or more before seeds are planted to ensure good germination.

 

  • Soil – Although amaranth prefers a rich soil, it will grow in virtually any well drained location short of pure beach sand. Clay soils can inhibit germination, as the young amaranth seedlings are quite delicate and may not be able to push through a clay crust on the soil.

 

  • Space – Amaranth comes in all sizes, shapes and colours. Commercially, optimum grain yields have been obtained at around 45 plants per square m.

 


 

What amaranth has to offer:

  • Edible seeds (which, when cooked, can also be fed to poultry & fish).

 

  • Edible leaves (which can also be used for animal fodder).

 

  • Attractive, hardy ornamental plant for landscaping.

 

  • New amaranth plants.

 


 

Further info:
Amaranth grain & vegetable Types
Alternative Field Crops Manual: Amaranth
Jefferson Institute: Amaranth
National Academies Press: Lost Crops of Africa: Amaranth
Ripe organics: Amaranth
Strengthening food security with grain amaranth
Tropical Permaculture: Amaranth
Harvesting Amaranth grain – Is It Worth it?

 

Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons:
File:Amaranth_%22opopopeo%22_%28367191600%29.jpg
File:Amaranthus_hypochondriacus_%28Amaranthaceae%29_plant.JPG
File:20120921Rispen-Fuchsschwanz_Hockenheim.jpg
File:Amaranthus_caudatus2.jpg
File:Amaranthus_kiwicha.jpg
File:Den_luoc.jpg

lucky tomatoes

2013/05/21 deej 0

There are a multitude of tomato varieties, ranging from black and purple through every shade of red, pink, orange and yellow to the ones which are green when ripe. Most of them taste better than the standard supermarket tomato varieties available in Australia. Diggers Seeds holds annual taste tests of a selection of varieties, and the supermarket variety they scored for comparison got only 42.46% approval, while the heritage varieties ranged from 60% to 77%.

Not all good tomato varieties are heirloom or heritage varieties, though. There are still plant breeders out there working on annual vegetables like the tomato, creating new varieties that breed true (as opposed to the F1 hybrids, which do not). The Modern Farmer magazine has an article on a new tomato variety called Lucky Tiger, bred by Fred Hempel of Baia Nicchia Farm in Sunol, California. It looks beautiful, although since it’s in the US and I’m in Australia I haven’t had a chance to try it. As with TV and movies, we have to wait a long time to get seeds to new plant varieties, when we get them at all.

Mr Hempel hasn’t said what the full parentage is of his Lucky Tiger, but he said that one of the direct parents is Blush. Blush, released in 2011 (and available from Seeds of Change and from Artisan Seeds), is an open pollinated tomato variety, selected by Mr Hempel from an original cross between Maglia Rosa (selected by Mt Hempel, released in 2007) and an un-released variety called Zucchero. I have none of these varieties available to replicate the process that created Lucky Tiger, unfortunately.

However, there are many heirloom varieties that I do have access to. Jaune Flamme (aka Jaune Flammee) was declared the equal first winner of the 2013 tomato taste tests held at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens. It’s an indeterminate, heavy yielding old French variety with beautiful persimmon orange skin, a blushed yellow/red interior, and (apparently) a full-bodied, citrus-like flavour. Ananas Noir and Green Zebra also scored highly, and Green Zebra has those beautiful stripes.

I know I get overly excited about plant and animal breeding projects, but tomatoes wouldn’t be too tricky. Perth has almost the ideal climate for them – lots of sun, hot summers and mild winters, little chance of mildew. So, amongst my many (many, many, possibly too many) projects, I think I might try some tomato breeding. Jaune Flamme x Green Zebra to begin with, and then perhaps one of the elongated types – maybe Speckled Roman, or Cherry Roma. And in the mean while, I might see if I can get a few different varieties from the farmers market this weekend, and try growing the seeds from the tastiest ones.

I might also look up tomato genetics and see what I’m dealing with.

All images from Diggers Seeds, except the Lucky Tiger image which is from Modern Farmer.

international permaculture day

2013/05/06 deej 0

I created and gave a talk for International Permaculture Day (Perth Edition) on Sunday, talking about less common food plants and urban foraging. I think everyone liked it – there were questions, both during and after the talk, and the audience all looked interested. People complimented me on the presentation afterwards, which is always nice. Some people even took notes! This is very exciting to me – I haven’t really given any presentations before outside of a work context.

 

I thought I’d share the content of the talk for those who might be interested, but missed the event.

In the 1950s, a Russian geneticist by the name of Dmitry K. Belyaev started an experiment to determine the genetic factors affecting domestication in foxes. This is relevant, I promise. He started with foxes form fur farms, and bred them for acceptance of human contact, testing by hand feeding the pups and selecting for those which showed the least avoidance behaviours. What he discovered (other than how to breed adorable domesticated foxes) was that one of the most significant changes that occurs in a species with domestication is a reduction in the fear response to new stimuli in adult animals.

To a large extent, domestication means being open to new things. You could say that humans are a self-domesticating species; historically, the humans who were most open to trying new things – new places, new ways of doing things, new foods – were the most successful. That ability to adapt and try new things is very important in an environment which is changing very quickly, the way ours is through climate change, globalisation, technology, and simple population growth.

Most of the plants we are used to eating here in Perth come from Europe. Wheat, apples, pears, carrots, most of the fruit and vegetables you can buy in a supermarket really – they all come from a climate that is both wetter and colder than ours. We can’t afford to rely on just these plants for our food, because long term we don’t have enough water to grow them.

Our underground aquifers will run out if we keep pumping water out of them, and it takes thousands of year for them to refill. Our river runs low at the best of times, and our dams don’t fill up any more. We don’t get enough rain to fill them, or to irrigate the very thirsty plants we know from our European cultural heritage. We need to start eating plants that will grow happily and easily with the water we do get, that will survive the heat of our summers and reliably produce food for us.

Some of those plants you already know, others are going to be new to you.

  • Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) is an annual plant from South America, which grows in climates just as hot and dry as ours. Its seeds are edible, and can be used the way you would use rice. They’re very high in protein, so they’re especially good for vegetarians.

 

 

  • Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) grow similarly well, and is actually considered a weed in some places. You might have already seen this plant growing in flower gardens, with tall spires of pink, purple, or orange flowers. Their seeds can be cooked like rice, or made into porridge, or popped like miniature popcorn and eaten as a very tasty breakfast cereal. Their leaves are also edible, and can be cooked like spinach. Amaranth seeds are high in protein, and very healthy.

 

 

  • Dates (Phoenix dactylifera) have been used as a staple food in the Middle East for centuries. Although they’re very sweet, the sugars are slow-burning and will give you long lasting energy rather than a diabetes-inducing spike in your blood sugar. Dates make an excellent breakfast or snack food, and can be used to sweeten biscuits and cakes.

 

 

  • Moringa (Moringa oleifera), also known as drumstick tree or horseradish tree, is a pretty, graceful tree which produces edible seed pods (eat them when they’re green and tender, after cooking like snow peas) and edible leaves and flowers (eat raw or cooked as a green begetable). Moringa leaves are tasty, with a slightly nutty, broccoli flavour and a hint of mustard-like spiciness.

 

There are hundreds of other plants which are well-suited to Perth’s climate. I couldn’t possibly list them all for you here, but trust me, they exist.

One of the best ways to find the sorts of plants that will grow well in your local area is urban foraging – otherwise known as take a walk around and see what edible plants are thriving and healthy, especiallyweeds, verge plantings and plants on vacant blocks, or council street plants, all of which receive little care.

Foraging simply means collecting edible things from the environment, and humans have always done it. urban foraging means foraging in your suburb or urban area. These are some of the edible plants you’ll find growing around the Perth area:

  • Mulberries (Morus spp.) thrive in Perth. Not only are their fruit edible, their leaves can be used to feed herbivorous livestock (rabbits, goats, sheep, cows, etc.) as a replacement for hay – i.e. as almost the entire diet of the animal if necessary.

 

 

  • Citrus (oranges, lemons, grapefruit, limes, mandarins, cumquats, ..) love the heat and the sun in Perth. They are fairly thirsty plants, but as long as they’re given plentiful water support in their first year or two, they’re quite tough and drought resistant.

 

  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) grows brilliantly in Perth. It’s commonly planted as a hedge, and can easily be collected. Rosemary is very strongly flavoured, but it can be used in salads as well as for flavouring food, and can also be used to make a caffeine free tea (technically an infusion). Rosemary is also a fantastic bee plant, with a long flowering period.

 

 

  • Olives (Olea europaea) are ideally suited to the Perth climate. In some areas where they’re been planted as street trees you can hardly walk 5m at this time of year without running into a tree so laden with fruit that its branches are bent almost to the ground. Don’t eat olives raw – they’re horribly bitter; instead you can pickle them in brine or with plain, dry rock salt, or press them for oil. Olive leaves can be used to make a caffeine free tea replacement, and can also be fed to livestock. The mash left over after pressing olives for oil can also be fed to livestock, as up to 40% of their total diet. It’s high in fat (oils) and protein, so it’s good for them and promotes healthy coats and good milk and meat production.

 

  • Frangipani (Plumeria spp.) flower petals are edible, and good in salads. Do not eat the leaves or stems of this plant, only the flower petals.

 

 

  • Bottlebrush (Calistemon spp.) flowers produce high quantities of sweet nectar. This is why you often see their flowers being visited by honeybees. If you pour hot water (or even warm water) over the flowers and soak for a few minutes, the nectar is dissolved in the water for a sweet honey-flavoured drink.

 

  • Most people know that sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are edible, but not so many people know that the green parts of the plant are edible, and can be cooked and eaten like spinach. These greens are a common food in some North African and Central American communities. Sweet potatoes are one of the easiest of all vegetables to grow; cut the end off an edible sweet potato tuber form the supermarket, leave it for a few hours for the cut end to dry out slightly, and then plant it. The plant is thornless climber with big, heart-shaped leaves and purple trumpet shaped flowers.

 

 

  • The common fishbone fern (Nephrolepis cordifolia) is often seen growing semi-wild around Perth. It produces edible bulblets, which can be eaten raw or slow roasted for a caramelised flavour. The smaller bulblets are hard to roast, and tend to just burn up, but the larger bulblets can be roasted in a slow oven.

 

  • Rose (Rosa spp.) petals are edible, as are the fruit that some older rose varieties produce. The rose hips (fruit) are very sour, with a high vitamin C content, so they’re usually stewed, made into jam or jelly, or dried to make tea. It’s best to remove the seeds before eating the rose hip, as (a) the seeds are slightly toxic if chewed, just like apple and pear seeds, and (b) the “fluff” around the seeds inside the rose hip is irritating to the mouth and throat. Anecdotally, it’s just as irritating on the way out.

 

  • Sourgrass (Oxalis pes-caprae), also known as wood sorrel, is a childhood favourite of many Perth dwellers. It makes a good salad plant or pot herb, as do most of the other Oxalis species which we incorrectly call clover. They’re sour because of the oxalic acid in their leaves and stems; oxalic acid can leach calcium from your body, and in very high quantities can cause bladder stones, so don’t eat too much of these plants without cooking them first. Cooking destroys the oxalic acid, leaving a mild tasting green vegetable (pot herb). Don’t worry about it too much, though, as many well-known vegetables (such as spinach) contain oxalic acid.

 

 

  • Elephant food (Portulacaria afra), or dwarf jade plant, is edible – but is very, very sour. Anecdotally, it is believed to contain high levels of vitamin C, and to increase lactation in lactating women. It can also be fed to livestock. [Note – be careful with this one, as it can be unpleasantly sour, especially if it’s slightly wilted. It may be better to cook it before eating.]

 

urban foraging is a great way of finding edible plants which will grow happily in your area, and it’s fun too. There is a lot of information about it available online, although much of it is U.S.A.-centric. Information from the U.S. and Europe is still useful, though, because many of our common garden plants are the same as theirs, and many of those are edible or useful.Very few garden plants were originally kept just for their pretty flowers or foliage. For more information on urban foraging, one of the best online resources I’ve found is Green Deane’s Eat the Weeds (& Other Things Too) site.

Other than that, generally plants which grow well in places like Peru, Argentina, South Africa, Spain, Morocco, California, and most parts of the Middle East will usually do well in Perth.

Although my talk was one of the highlights of the day for me, the rest of the day went really well. Loads of people came through and browsed, and (hopefully) learned a bit about permaculture. We sold raffle tickets for a food forest starter kit, and told lots of people about the permaculture ideals and methods, sustainability, and aquaponics (thanks to Tony of Life Aquatic, who is brilliant and knows all the things). There were chickens and ducks, and a sheep that tolerated being petted by many, many small children. I had a fantastic day, and I hope everyone else did too.

Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons:
File:Apples.jpg
File:Chenopodium_quinoa_in_Cachilaya,_Bolivia,_Lake_Titicaca.JPG
File:Amaranth_%22opopopeo%22_%28367191600%29.jpg
File:Date_palm.jpg
File:Starr_070207-4337_Moringa_oleifera.jpg
File:Mulberry_1.jpg
File:Bee_on_rosemary.jpg
File:Plumeria.jpeg
File:Ipomoea_batatas_%28Purple_Sweet_Potato_Variety%29_Flower.JPG
File:Oxalis_pes-caprae_from_Malta.JPG
File:Denaid_Eggfly_%28Hypolimnas_misippus%29_on_Portulacaria_afra_W_IMG_1473.jpg

 Other images are mine, free to use under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

earthbags, potatoes & bees

2012/11/07 deej 0

Our mandala vegetable garden, with its earthbag & hessiancrete raised beds, has been in the works for some time. We laid out the locations of the beds back in August, and built the first raised bed (of a total of 6) as a demonstration model.

 

On Sunday, we ran a workshop/permablitz to build the rest of the earthbag garden beds. In spite of weather reports predicting “scattered thunderstorms” (weird weather in November) we headed up armed with polypropylene bags, shovels, barbed wire, and enthusiasm. We did get rained on, twice torrentially and a few times lightly, but there was also a lot of cool, cloudy weather perfect for working on the garden. We had a great bunch of people come up for the day, so many thanks to you all!

 

By the end of the day, we had 4 of the 5 garden beds built. We didn’t manage to get to the hessiancrete (aka burlapcrete) rendering, so that’s a job for this coming weekend. We’ll also build the last of the raised beds this weekend if we can; that way we can start the hugelkultur process and get the beds ready for planting for the summer.

 

For those who are interested, here is the workshop handout we put together for the day: Earthbag Workshop Handout

We also planted all the seed potatoes we ordered from Tasmanian Gourmet Potatoes. Hopefully they’ll do well and we’ll have a real harvest this autumn. There are Dutch Cream, Pink Eye, Pink Fir Apple, Royal Blue, Up To Date, Russian Banana, and Kipflers, all planted in the first (‘demonstration model’) raised bed. Now we see which varieties do the best.

The other excitement for the weekend was the bees! Finally, bees. Two hives, as it turns out, because we had the opportunity to rescue a swarm which had lodged itself in a flowerpot at someone’s house in the same week that our pre-ordered nucleus hive from  Bees Neez Apiaries was ready. So we collected the swarm on Friday night, complete with flower pot, and pcked up the nucleus hive on Saturday. Neither colony has been moved into their final hive boxes yet because the weather was so cold and wet that we thought it would be better not to open the hives up, and just leave them in their temporary accomodation for a week.

 

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