Friday, May 8, 2015

What has happened to our expectations to grow food?

Every day at the moment governments are making announcements about budgets, taxes, welfare, childcare, big and small business incentives, superannuation, mental health, hospital spending etc etc but never, ever do they broach the subject of self-sufficiency or self-reliance as goals for Australians. It is politically incorrect to expect people to get out and grow their food, join a community garden and become skilled in relying on themselves. However, the simple act of doing this would, to a large extent, overcome many of our national woes.

I enjoy learning about the ancient and more recent history of civilisations and their foods. Up until almost the 21st century, almost every person on earth either grew some food or had relatives that did. Stop and think about that for a moment….. your parents and / or grandparents no doubt fitted this statement and had vegetable gardens and fruit trees in the back yard. In only one or 2 generations people have started to rely on others, unknown and as far away as the other side of the world, to provide nourishment for their families. At the same time, there has been a huge increase in obesity, depression, stress-related, chemical-residue related  and diet-related illnesses.

Interestingly, growing food has become a middle-class activity, seen as something you do in your spare time, after you have bought all the accoutrements that modern-day food gardeners seem to “need” such as raised garden beds and soil (as though the soil in the ground is not good enough these days!).

I am reading a wonderful book, given to me by my fabulous neighbour, Jilly, who recently blew in, in full wet weather gear, in the midst of the coldest and wettest day this year. We sat by the fire and talked for 2 hours, sharing interesting snippets about books, gardening and life. We seem to get together only about once a year but Jilly’s amazing knowledge of plants, history and everything in between keep me inspired until our next coffee. I now look at the old lino pattern on my kitchen floor as steeped in history, instead of annoying!

The book is called “The Nature of Gardens” and is a collection of essays brought together by Peter Timms. It sounds dry and just another intellectual, middle class look at garden design etc but I assure you it is not. I recommend it to anyone who has read this far through this blog piece!!


The first essay and my mother’s stories of life during The Depression have brought me to my laptop to write about the recent past’s expectation that you grew as much as you could and the poorer you were, the more you grew. If your job was not well paid or not permanent, you at least knew your family was going to eat well. This essay points out the interesting fact that when workers in the mines and in the coal and steel industries went on strike in Newcastle, NSW it was prolonged affair and they would not relent. This was possible because these same men all had food gardens so, even with no income, their families ate well. In fact, the free time afforded them because of the strikes meant that jobs in the garden and around the house could be done, and vegetable gardens better tended than usual. This is called resilience and is sorely lacking today.


If I had one day to rule this country, I would insist that welfare would include assistance for you to learn to grow food and even an insistence that you join a community garden where you would gain not just hands-on know how but broaden your social circle and gain a sense of community and self resilience. I know from experience how beneficial food gardening with others is to every single person who joins a community garden. But I also know that insisting people do something is not the best way to get them to do it! People who are transient and those who have short or long term rental are given a place to base themselves by belonging to a community garden. Once you get into a community garden then, even if you move, you take with you the confidence to find another, wherever you go. It is like having an extended family; always there and ready to nourish your body and soul.


At the Cygnet Community Garden we donate fresh vegetables weekly to the Uniting Care Food Aid in the same street as the community garden but I want to offer to walk with the recipients, one at a time, to the community garden and invite them, quietly and without preaching to them, to come along. This is my new goal….. if you have any helpful ideas of how to make this small gesture work please feel free to share them with me.


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

It’s raining, it’s pouring, this old girl is…..

I have been waiting for a rainy day, for weeks, so that I can stay inside and deal with the autumn abundance. As much as I love being in the garden, there’s nothing that makes me happier than a day in the kitchen but I cannot bear to be inside if the weather is fine!

The morning was misty, with clouds hanging on the hills, as we rowed and chatted and enjoyed the simple pleasure of being on the water in a beautiful rowing boat we helped to build. I never cease to be thankful for the day I found my home and moved to Cygnet, literally at the bottom of the world.

The minute we finished our rowing, it started to pour with rain. As usual we headed to The Lotus Eaters’ Cafe for coffee after which we all headed back to our various homes. I skipped in through the door singing with joy at finally having nothing better to do than cook and preserve and steep and brew and ferment.

Not a bad effort for one afternoon…. but I have lots of apples to box up for storage and plums to stew yet! I hope it rains solidly again soon!

Carrot and ginger pickle begins its fermenting after a kg of carrots, a large knob of ginger and a tablespoon of salt (collected at a salt pan near the Coorong) have been pounded to release the juices.
I add a bit of the liquid from a previous batch of fermented radishes, to the carrots.
Then I start hand grinding 1/2 kg sprouted spelt, to make bread
imageI think of it as upper body exercise as I use right arm, then left, then stand one way then another!
Periodic rests are important so that the stones don’t overheat the grains.
Meanwhile I make a marinade for some pork (from a friend) I have decided to roast for dinner on this chilly afternoon. I LOVE Tommy German mustard…. so flavoursome.
I love the view from my kitchen window. The milk from these cows can be bought at the local butcher, who lives just out of view of this photo.
Next it is time to start dealing with some of the quinces. These first, barely ripe ones, with plenty of pectin, are destined to be quince paste.
A box of radishes on my doorstep, from a neighbour,  means I need to do more pickling!
imageHalf a kg of blackcurrants from the community garden and 10 blackcurrant leaves + a bit of
sugar, covered in a bottle of Brandy will make cassis for sipping by the fire over winter.
imageI bought a huge, organic celery from the market, removed some babies from the sides, put them in water for a couple of weeks and now they are ready to plant out.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Pears, Eggs, Mulch and more

I love cool days; I can get so much done. I love where I live; it is rarely brown and dry and the creek through my garden mostly trickles and tinkles all summer long.

I had a problem with my mulcher this morning so, while I thought about how to fix it I took to the lawn mower…. then I had a bright idea, which worked and I felt very pleased with myself as the mulcher once again roared into action.

After I had reduced the whole pile of sticks and prunings to a nice heap of mulch to spread on my paths, I decided to continue my fix-it session and move the latch on the chook yard gate to a more ergonomic place. I also took out a large, spiral steel rod I have and, over and over again, screwed it into the compacted stuff in the cut-off rain water tank where I throw garden waste for the chooks. That is very satisfying as, when I pull it up, it loosens up the lovely composted waste below and puts it on top of the new stuff. The chooks have been in there with their bottoms up and beaks down, ever since, finding all the grubs and worms that have made it home since I last aerated it.

On my way inside for lunch I collected eggs, picked another armful of pears and dug up a huge, self-sown parsnip that had grown up through the debris that I had mulched. I have never had one that big in my garden before. What a great morning.

I will have been here 5 years on March 10th…. and only now am I ready to make some changes to some parts of my garden. Up until now most of it has stayed more or less the same, except the makeover I did early on to make a vegetable garden, herb garden and chook area.

After lunch my brush-cutter and I make short work of slashing the retched grass that is the curse of the Tasmanian gardener as it grows a mile a minute and forms thick clumps with hundreds of small nodules that are impossible to eliminate, if you leave it for even a few weeks. At least slashing it makes it look nice for a while!

All today’s work has been in one area; a particularly secluded spot which gets full winter sun and very little wind…. and up until now has been entirely ornamental. This was such a pretty, shady, ferny area when I came here but a couple of years ago the beautiful willow tree fell into the creek, removing all the shade. At first I was horrified and it became unkempt and ugly until I realised not what I had lost but what I had gained.

Oh lalala wait until you see what I have in mind to make it a key part of my food garden! What I discovered as I removed a temporary, chicken wire fence I constructed to let the chooks in to dig it over but to keep them from wandering further, involved tall, lush grass tangled in the whole length of the bottom of the fence…. and that the soil there, at the bottom of the slope, was fabulous. I know only too well how dry and barren the soil is just a few metres further up the slope…. so…. brain ticks…. terrace it along the contours…. with straw bales of which I have plenty…. like the slope of my vegetable garden in Adelaide.

The reason I need more food garden is that the oak tree near the chook yard has roots that have crept into some beds of my irrigated vegetable garden, turning them to dry dust, no matter how much compost and water I add. So I will have to think about what to do there…. maybe a few big pots…. or something!

Sadly there are no before and after photos to brighten up this monologue!




I love lacto-fermented vegetables…. Here is a jar of radishes well on their way and a jar of zucchini pieces and fennel seeds being made.






What a wonderful group of people come to the Cygnet Community Garden on Thursdays. I especially like the food each of them brings to share at the end of the gardening session!

Monday, February 16, 2015

It is darn easy being green, you know.

It’s a funny thing but I never cease to be surprised and delighted by self-sown vegetables popping up just at the time when I am thinking I really must sow some. Today I weeded an unruly and neglected patch, leaving various things that are setting seeds. I long for an empty bed to rake to a fine tilth and sow with nice neat rows of something, like I see on TV, but I never get one because of all the things I let go to seed and the things I see germinating. At the community garden, however, I am a bit more ruthless!

It is quite windy lately and pleasantly warm so I sprinkled a fine layer of mulch over the weeded area, after thoroughly wetting the soil and adding some blood and bone, just to help along the tiny red cabbage and leek seedlings emerging here and there. I expect lettuce will appear soon and maybe some kind of Asian leafy green; frilly mustard I hope.

In September I planted out some garlic that I bought from a local market gardener who told me that this hard neck garlic, planted late like this, is what keeps him in garlic for months after the rest have finished. Well they are still growing well and I am eating the scapes some of them have produced. I look forward to multiplying this variety to more than the 6 cloves I managed to plant last September.


This is the first time the nashi and the Bramley have produced fruit and what a picture they are!  I love an espalier because they are so easy to maintain and pick and look so gorgeous. The nashi are a lovely yellow colour, very juicy and a nice change from all the soft fruits this time of the year.

The Bramley is an enormous apple which turns to a delicious mush inside, when baked whole (as I did tonight). I can only eat half of one at a time! These photos are deceiving!


What a lovely day in the garden and another tomorrow, I hope.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Paleo was great 100,000 years ago but…..

Home grown kale, home-smoked trout and an egg.

It is interesting how popular the Paleo diet has become recently. Based on the idea of our gut being attuned to eating the diet of the hunters and gatherers in early human history, it embraces meat and vegetables whilst restricting certain fruits and omitting dairy and grains. In theory this seems a plausible, natural way for many to regain the health they have lost due to over-consumption of modern, processed foods.

However, meat today is a far cry from the meat of our early ancestors, where all animals were wild and diversity of the diet would have included everything from lizards and small mammals to kangaroos (in Australia) and deer etc. Fossicking and fishing in pristine waters would have brought shellfish, crabs, cockles and wild fish, all free from heavy metals and other contaminants.

All parts of the animals were eaten and nothing wasted as who knew when the next animal would be caught. Organs, brains flesh would be shared with the tribe; your share being determined by status, age and sex. Never would there have been unlimited amounts of meat and never would you have eaten one cut of one animal, over and over, for years, as people seem to do today with steak or chicken breast or fillets of a favourite fish. Bones were made into broths, the marrow being prized for its rich mineral content.

Vegetables and fruit were foraged and therefore always seasonal. Plant food was not always abundant but it was always organic, fresh, natural and not bred for high yield or anything else. Grains and seeds were picked by hand from fields of diversity, not by mechanical harvesters on super-farms stretching as far as the eye can see. Thus they were also seasonal and vastly reduced in abundance compared to today.

It is impossible and ridiculous to think that anyone could regain that diet. Our seas and air and soil are degrading faster than ever. Supermarket meat is factory grown and processed, very limited in range and not seasonal. Rarely do people eat organs or make real broths or venture outside their favourite cuts of meat. Show me where to buy lizards and snakes and other wild animals!

Vegetables, even wonderful, organic, home grown ones, are produced from seeds developed after hundreds of years of selecting varieties for shape, size, colour or taste but never for nutrient value or for wildness. And they are far better than those filled with chemicals which people are eating on a Paleo diet, thinking they are copying their wild ancestors.

Food is abundant and most people have no idea of its seasonality or how hard it would be to eat only what you can gather from the wild. There would certainly be no obesity if you only ate what you grew or foraged; the exercise of growing and collecting it would see to that!

Home grown lunch... Freshly picked salad + wild greens dip

My philosophy is to eat local, seasonal food and eat as much diversity as I can without overeating anything. I eat no fresh food at all from a supermarket. I either grow it or buy it from someone who does. I eat a huge diversity of home grown vegetables. I eat wallaby killed nearby and meat raised by friends and I eat all parts of the animal. I eat local fish and shellfish but, surprisingly for an island, it is hard to get fish from a fisherman….. it all goes to restaurants and to other parts of the world because of Tasmania’s clean, green image. I eat organic, Australian-grown grains and seeds but I eat them irregularly, unprocessed and in small amounts, trying to use as many different grains and seeds as I can. I ferment a lot of stuff, including milk (in its most original state). I eat cheeses cut from a round and never ever processed cheese in blocks. I grow and eat a lot of sprouts; red and green lentils, chickpeas, fenugreek and mung beans are my favourites.

(Wild weeds and leaves pesto dip recipe… as in photo above.)

Hugh and Hugsli at the Showgrounds Farmers Market, AdelaideMy big food-mile weaknesses are organic bananas and the odd mango from Queensland, coffee from East Timor, certain cheeses from France and Pellegrino mineral water from Italy (even though mineral water is produced here in Cygnet!). I also love treats from son Hugh, of Hughsli, in Adelaide whose mueslis, chocolates, carrot kasundi, crème brulee, sprouted dips and everything else are made with his local farmers market ingredients and with a passion for the seasonal, local and best quality.

Life is good. It can never be like it was 100,000 years ago or most of us would have died by now. Eat less, think long and deep and don’t be swayed from a healthy lifestyle because of fads.




Rowing our skiff, The Swan, to Hobart in the Parade of Sails at The Wooden Boat Festival recently…. what a wonderful day and wonderful way to stay healthy and happy!

Friday, January 16, 2015

The shack dimension

I think any minute I will see a goanna walk, in that prehistoric gait they have, past my window as I sit and absorb nearly 5 years’ worth of peace. The sand hill which nestles the shack is dry, sporting tufts of grey shrubbery, a few escaped succulents and lots of sand. This morning I cleared the sparse, prickly, dead weeds from the front where I like to sit and watch the sea. I came across a hole large enough not to be a snake hole; fresh, white sand having been cleared from its entrance quite recently. I am looking forward to seeing the occupant as, over the years, several individual, prehistoric creatures have wandered slowly past this window making me feel even more that the shack is in a different dimension than the rest of the world.

The longer you have been away from the shack, the stronger is its effect. You can leave home with your head full but arrival at the shack empties it. The first morning here begins your transformation to a new dimension where your whole, “real” life no longer exists and is replaced with space, which refuses to be filled. Time almost stands still; days become long and languid, ruled by nothing and filled simply with the light and sounds of the sea.

Any others you may encounter have been similarly transformed. Children and dogs frolic with cricket balls, sand castles, little boats and beach towels. Parents cease to fret and, instead, enjoy fun, laughter and relaxation. Even testy teenagers are happy!

At the kiosk, the only shop for 20 kms, the shop keepers smile and chat, fill lolly bags, talk about fishing and are happy to see you back for the holidays. Outside, the wall is lined with kids’ bikes and at the door sit dogs, waiting patiently. Here, children ride their bikes in groups of mixed ages and there is not a smart phone or head phone to be seen anywhere. Fashion is not in this dimension either; everyone has bare feet or thongs, an old hat and a t-shirt over bathers.

In the last 5 years, since I have been in Tasmania, McMansions have sprung up here but those people are either inside with their technology, out fishing in their McMassive boats(as evidenced by the increase in Four wheel drives and empty trailers lining the streets near the boat ramp)  or have similarly been transformed into the shack dimension and blend with the rest of us.

Day one of waking in the shack dimension often ends without even walking the few steps to the beach. After so much yearning for a swim in warm water, a paddle on my board and a long walk on the beach, unbounded by coves or cliffs, it may seem odd but such is the transition. I don’t have to do anything and for a couple of days I don’t. I sit and watch, I read, I sleep, I look out for the goanna and I feel wonderful.

Life is good. I am there and taking it slow.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Australian Outer Hebrides

I am in Adelaide for a couple of weeks, celebrating my mother’s 92nd birthday, spending time with son Hugh, gardening with friends, walking on the beach and having the odd swim in a much warmer sea than ever happens in Tasmania. Two glorious weeks of November weather; balmy nights, warm – hot days and streets lined with the wonderful jacaranda trees in full bloom everywhere I go.

As I drive familiar streets and take the freeway in the Adelaide Hills I sometimes listen to 891, Adelaide’s ABC radio station. Yesterday I heard the claim that in a study of Australian housing it was found that Adelaide has the biggest average house size in Australia and Tasmania, the smallest.

This I can verify as I found it amazing, when I moved to Tasmania, that the houses were so small. The house I bought is what I thought was very small; a little, old cottage, but which Tasmanian visitors asked of me when they saw it for the first time “Why do you need such a big house?” !!

imageMany people, when building in Tasmania, struggle to see why the minimum house size allowable to build is now 70 square metres, up from the previous 60 square metres. I know a few people who live very comfortably in their 60m2 houses, such as this one. In Adelaide everyone wants to build the maximum size that will fit on their block of land and I doubt anyone even knows the minimum house size, whereas in Tasmania most people want a small house no matter how much land they have.

This morning I have been re-reading a wonderful book from my mother’s bookshelves, called The Sea for Breakfast by Lillian Beckwith. These gorgeous books, written in the 1960’s follow the writer’s stay and subsequent move to the Outer Hebrides and are a joy to read for transportation to a simple but testing life, rich in Gaelic  language and traditions, of a small, island community.

In some ways the books reflect a life not dis-similar to some parts of life in Tasmania which often seems to me as I read the books, more related to the Hebrides than mainland Australia. One of these similarities relates to an attitude to work. Statistics put Tasmanians on the bottom of the list of per capita earnings in Australia but, from my perspective, apart from the unemployed, most people earn enough to have a deliciously simple life, scouring tip-shops and second hand shops for cast off clothes, pots and pans, garden tools and timber for renovations etc and swapping this for that with others, at every opportunity. Time and work are often shared, and customers and friends all blend in together.

I love the line in The Sea for Breakfast where the woman is wanting to get some small windows made bigger in her newly acquired, tiny, stone cottage and enquires about who could do the work for her. A man called Erchy is suggested who “quite likes a bit of work now and then, just as a change, when he can spare the time”. This perfectly describes a lot of people in Tasmania too and I think that is one of the things that makes Tasmania foreign to the rest of Australia, on the whole. Visiting Adelaide after about 18 months of my 4.5 years of simple life at the bottom of Tasmania has highlighted this difference more than ever.

None of this is a criticism of anyone or of any place; it is simply fact and interesting to notice!

Life is good; get there fast then take it slow.