How I Make Passata

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This is going to be a pictorial post about how I make passata. There are probably more correct or more traditional methods, but with the resources I have available this is the way I do it.

As you will see, I peel my tomatoes, but that part is optional. I think it makes for a better texture to not have tomato peel in my cooking. You can also skip the reducing stage and process your jars straight from cold, but you will end up with a lot of water in your jars this way.

As well as plenty of ripe tomatoes  and some salt, you will need:

Two large saucepans

A couple of large bowls

Sharp knife

Cutting board

Food processor or blender

Slotted spoon

Wooden spoon

Ladle

Funnel – a regular funnel is fine, but a wide-mouthed canning funnel will make life a bit easier

Empty jars – about one per kg of unprocessed tomatoes, plus a spare just in case

Stovetop of countertop preserving unit

 

 

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Step 1 – Source your tomatoes. Bigger fruit are better as they are quicker and more efficient to skin. Saucing varieties with fewer seeds are ideal. I used a mix of Hungarian Heart and Amish Paste, with a couple of rogue San Marzanos.

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Step 2 – Slice their bottoms. This makes them easier to peel as the skin will split where the slice is.

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Step 3 – drop tomatoes a few at a time into boiling water. Leave them for a few seconds – the exact time depends on the size and variety of tomato, but about 10 seconds is a rough guide.

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Step 4 – scoop your tomatoes out of the boiling water and into a bowl of cold water.

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The skins should slide right off.

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This will leave you with a bowl of skinned tomatoes and a bowl of skins in water.

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Worms love tomato skins, so if you have a worm farm you can tip the skins, water and all, into your worm farm.

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Step 5 – chop your tomatoes into pieces if they are very big and discard any hard green cores. Put your chopped tomatoes into the blender.

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Chickens, ducks and geese love bits of tomato. Cats not so much.

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Step 6 – process the tomatoes until most of the lumps are gone. This may be the point at which you realise you have put too many tomatoes in the food processor, so make your next batch a little smaller if this is the case.

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Once processed the tomatoes will look pale and be thin and frothy.

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Step 7 – reduce the tomato puree. You may want to add salt at this stage, the information I was able to find said 1tsp of salt per kg of tomatoes.

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Simmer until the tomatoes have reduced in volume by about half and started to thicken.

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Taking a ‘before’ photo can help you know when you have got the level of the tomatoes in the pot down to about half. This takes about an hour, depending on how many tomatoes you are processing and the peculiarities of your stove.

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Step 8 – pour the passata into jars (recycled passata jars are ideal). There are a few ways to process from here, but I do a hot water bath because I need to keep my jars in the cupboard for up to several months.

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Follow the instructions on your preserving kit.

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Once the jars have cooled make sure that all the seals on the lids have popped down. If any have not store those jars in the fridge and use them first. The others can go into your storage space.

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Half-Time Garden Update – Part 2

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It’s amazing how many things you can do in a garden that I didn’t know about before. Solutions to problems, opportunities to grow things that would not normally grow in this part of the world, and tricks to make your soil healthy. I’ve discovered the joys of composting, worm farms and mulching, and started experimenting with a whole lot of plants I never bothered with before.

In The Greenhouse

I had a very poor tomato harvest last year, which came down to a combination of overcrowded and poorly supported plants, and invasion by rats. What fruit didn’t rot on the floor was munched by rats as it became ripe. The plant supports were not sufficient to hold the plants up, so they collapsed and lay on the ground, creating a steamy jungle of tomatoes that the light and air could not penetrate.

So this year, with the flash new greenhouse and sturdy supports in place, I was determined that my tomatoes not suffer the same fate. I started Hungarian Heart and Amish Paste from seed, and planted one variety along each side of the greenhouse, leaving room for my tropical fruits and capsicum plants in the back. I put in quite a few alyssum seeds to bring bees and outcompete weeds, and added a few cosmos and calendula along the front of the beds for good measure.

The tomato plants grew well, and as they got taller and started to set fruit I found myself obsessively removing the non-bearing laterals to keep the air circulation and light through the lower reaches of the plants. Sometimes I brought out great armfuls of snapped-off branches. I wasn’t completely sure that it was the right thing to do, as some studies show that you get more fruit from not removing branches, but it seemed to fit with my understanding of why the previous crop failed.

It seems to be working. The low fruit are starting to ripen and they are looking good. I have several plants along the Amish Paste side that definitely do not look like Amish Paste, one in particular has nice round red fruit more like a Grosse Lisse. A couple of plants on this side have suffered from blossom end rot, which may be related to the heat. Hungarians are my tomato of choice for bottling, as they are easy to peel due to their size, and I was mainly growing Amish Paste to prove that it could, having had trouble with them previously.

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Hungarian Heart tomatoes turning red in the spacious lower parts of the greenhouse.

In the greenhouse I have also grown basil successfully for the first time, and my capsicums are starting to fruit. This is the first time I have grown California Wonder from seed as well.

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Happy little capsicums, on a bed of alyssum, with basil in the background.

Fruitful Endeavours

The succulent Dragonfruit is growing like crazy, and its neighbour the Brazilian custard apple remains cheerful it its pot.

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Dragonfruit climbing up its support.

Over in the warmhouse, the avocados are putting out lots of new growth in response to more regular watering, and threatening to collapse under their own weight. I will keep an eye on them and possibly prune the crowns back in winter if they don’t become strong enough to stand on their own.

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Young avocado tree working hard.

My citrus have also expressed a liking for plenty of water, showing a real possibility of growing some fruit to maturity. The little potted orange tree I look after has several developing fruit, and the Tahitian lime on the front porch looks like it may bear again if I look after it. My lemon tree seems to have finally recovered from the -7* frost-nuking it got a few years ago, and the front porch Valencia is putting out lots of new growth.

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Developing oranges on ‘Granddad’ the orange tree.

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My lemon tree is beginning to flourish again.

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The Valencia on the front porch, showing lots of new growth.

Elsewhere, my figs have recovered from a sneaky late frost that took all of their early leaves and the Preston Prolific is living up to its name. The Mariposa plum tree has about half a dozen fruit ripening under its net, and the little Elder tree is starting to show signs of putting in some growth.

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Happy fig tree with its young fruit.

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The Mariposa plums are starting to ripen.

A Forest of Food

What relative newcomer to Permaculture is not inspired by the idea of a food forest? A collection of interconnected plant guilds, set up for minimal maintenance to produce all sorts of edible goodies.

I was struck by the idea to turn a big neglected raised bed into such a space. With a big Honey Locust at one end, and a previously undiscovered olive tree at the other, I embarked on the huge job of clearing all the weeds and grass and filling in the gaps with desirable species.

The bed is probably 15m long and a good six or seven wide at the broad end. Among all the lost and dead things are a giant flax plant and along the way I also found a couple of seedling plum trees and a large silvery bush that smells like curry. I pulled several trailer loads of weeds from this garden, starting at the narrow end nearest the house, and set about filling in the gaps.

I started with three small apple trees and a pair of hazelnut bushes, and built around these, adding sages, flowers, aromatic plants and herbs. Species include the ever-reliable alyssum, more calendula, borage and nasturtium, a stevia plant, pineapple sage, the Permie’s friend comfrey, lemon and lime balm, a Balm of Gilead grown from a stem picked at Chestnut Farm, and a small but determined feijoa tree. I also have yarrow, rosemary and something called pizza thyme that I could not resist.

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The front section of the food forest.

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Balm of Gilead claiming its place.

Having lost several young stone fruit to leaf curl, I learned that you can grow them from seed, and that although they take a few years longer to fruit, the resulting plants are much hardier than grafted trees. Since a dead tree is never going to fruit, I decided to give it a go. I saved pits from a few nectarines and peaches and much to my surprise, in the spring some little trees emerged. These are now growing under the Honey Locust.

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White nectarine, grown from seed, with no sign of leaf curl.

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This olive tree stood unnoticed in this garden for two and a half years. Now it has become the inspiration for my food forest.

Free Plants

As well as stonefruit trees grown from pits, and vegetables grown from saved seeds, I had a go at propagating wormwood from cuttings. A few have already made it to the farmyard where they are surviving despite a few raids from determined goat kids, but this one took a bit longer so has grown to quite a size in its pot. It will join the others once the weather cools down a bit.

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Wormwood, struck from a cutting in a re-used pot.

Pond!

I’ve wanted a pond for ages. Inspired by a work colleague’s garden ponds, I bought a simple black pond liner, dug it in a few inches, and built around it with rocks and soil. Then I added some plants to the outside and situated a magnolia next to it that I had found languishing in another garden. The magnolia is happy for the water, the little creepy plants around the edges are doing quite well, and the collection of plants in the water are growing rapidly in the warm weather. I’ve had a few transient Eastern Banjo frogs pop in, and the local birds love having a good spot to get a drink. I am looking forward to the pond lillies blooming and hope that the system will work without a pump once the plants start to cover the surface more.

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My pond. Yes, those rocks were heavy.

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The magnolia was not too bothered by being uprooted in summer, it is very grateful for all the water it gets now.

What’s Next?

From here there will be many weeks of watering, weeding and the harvesting will start to ramp up. As harvest time hits high gear, preserving becomes a high priority. The tomatoes are about to take off, which will mean many afternoons of skinning and bottling fruit, making salsa and passata. The zucchinis are also gearing up for their high-yield time, meaning lots of zucchini pickles, zucchini slice and zucchini chocolate muffins.

Many of my plants are a few years off producing much, especially my little fruit trees, but they still need to be maintained and cared for.

I’m not into ‘low maintenance gardening’, I love to spend hours working in the garden, connecting with the earth, getting my hands dirty and marvelling at how things grow, the amazing variety of food I can produce, and the hundreds of things I can do with that food. But the more that the design reduces the workload, the more things I can add to my garden. The more I learn, the easier things get and the more surprises and miracles I can work in my yard.

Half-Time Garden Update – Part 1

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So here we are at about the halfway point of the summer vegetable growing season, and things are going pretty well. After spending many weekends during the first half of last year studying permaculture and taking pages of notes on tips and things to do in the garden, I was absolutely raring to go when the growing season began.

Armed with a whole lot of new information and a big, flash new greenhouse, I started making some plans. I sorted my seed collection and purchased what I needed to fill in the gaps.

Start With Seeds

I’m a bit of a sucker for the instant gratification that comes from buying seedlings, but I decided to put more of an effort this year into growing plants from seeds. So I gathered up some of the many punnets kept from bought seedlings, bought some seed raising mix, and got to work.

With the pumpkins I planted a combination of bought and saved seeds. I had never successfully grown pumpkins from seed before, so I wanted to maximise my chance of success.

Add Some Flowers

Another thing that I did this year that was different from previous years was grow flowers. I had always been of the opinion that it was a waste of water to grow things you can’t eat, but I have since learned of the importance of flowers to bring bees and other beneficial insects to the garden. I set about creating floral borders and flowering understoreys, as well as using them to fill in areas that would otherwise be overtaken by weeds and grass. Borage, alyssum, and calendula, as well as a few cosmos and nasturtiums, have started to take hold around the garden, some happily self seeding, and providing a range of benefits. I am particularly keen to expand my use of calendula, which I initially grew to put in tea, but now hope to infuse in oil to use in soap, as it is great for your skin.

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Establishing a border of calendula (with a couple of marigolds) around the garden beds.

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Chamomile

I have also grown a heap of chamomile, hopefully enough to keep me in tea through the winter.

Berry Time

My three year old blueberry bushes produced their first fruit this year. After a few failed attempts at growing blueberries, I have managed to keep these plants alive for three whole years, and they are growing slowly and starting to bear. It’s a humble beginning, but it’s a reward for years of persistence.

I’ve also had my best ever crop of raspberries so far, having discovered that raspberry canes like a good prune, lots of water and not too much competition. Most of the raspberries have not made it into the house, as I tend to eat them straight off the bush, but I did manage to collect enough to make some banana and raspberry muffins.

I managed to beat the slugs to a few strawberries as well, and eventually I learned that watering in the morning can help deter the slimy thieves. I’ve started a new strawberry bed in the berry nets, filling in the space that had been occupied by a patch of amaranth taller than myself. Turns out the goats quite like amaranth, so I was able to repurpose it as a goat treat.

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Strawberries staring to spread themselves out. There are a couple of open pollinated fancy varieties in the baskets.

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Berries for my smoothie 🙂

Vegetable Medley

My pumpkin seed all sprouted, which was amazing, but once planted out they were easy prey for slugs and I lost most of the first lot. So I took the slower seedlings and transplanted them into bigger pots so they could grow bigger before I sent them out into the world. This worked quite well, and I was able to establish about half a dozen plants in a recently-mulched bed in the mandala garden.

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A few fruit set early in January, and the plants seemed to be sprawling and doing well. I read that watering in the morning was better and more efficient than watering in the evening, so I took up getting up early to water in the morning. The pumpkins soon let me know that they wanted to be watered twice a day, and I lost several young fruit before I noticed this. But in the last few days, with plenty of water, we have set several new fruit that seem to be growing well.

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The corn was another challenge, and after the seeds I sowed direct into the bed proceeded to do pretty much nothing, I tried a different approach and started some more seeds in punnets. I covered these babies in cloches made from cut-off soft drink bottles to protect them from blackbirds who love to dig in the mulch and knock little plants over. As a result, I have a thriving little patch of sweetcorn.

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The onions went in as seedlings back in Autumn, and seemed to take forever. For a while I was concerned that I had bought the wrong kind. But eventually they grew plump and I was able to harvest them. They are now nearly cured and ready to store.

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Another new trick I picked up was using sheepyard mesh to support plants. This was very useful for my tomatoes, and also for my climbing beans and peas. The shape of the mesh also made it possible to grow peas and beans over a path, rather than having the void underneath take up space in a garden bed.

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I’m not a huge fan of beans, I find them rather bitter, but these Australian Butter beans are not bad. They have yielded very well and been part of several dinners. I started these from seed in punnets as well, and once they grabbed hold of the mesh, they took off. Very rewarding to grow.

Defying the Laws of Nature

I did that thing everyone says not to do and grew a whole lot of cool season plants in summer. Usually you end up with your plants being mercilessly devoured by white cabbage moth larvae. I planted kale, cauliflower, turnips and broccoli, and while I did a few rounds of physically removing little green caterpillars, the plants did not get as damaged as I expected. In particular, I had the best broccoli crop I have had since the year I first grew vegetables, and I even grew them in the small greenhouse. The plants should have been chewed to bits and bolted in the heat, but I am still harvesting shoots. I wonder what part the resident frogs have played in keeping caterpillar numbers down.

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This mess has yielded my best broccoli crop to date.

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Lots of broccoli, and even a bit of cauli for dinner. With cheese sauce – yum!

Celebrate Diversity

I’ve also attempted to get away from single crops in garden beds. This bed got a nice purple alyssum border and was the home of my amazing beetroot crop as well as a couple of zucchini, kale, cauli and turnips, and now the lettuce which is filling in the gaps left by the vegetables that have been harvested. All of my beds contain multiple plants, even if it is just a few rogue potatoes popping up between the main crop.

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I’ll follow this up with another report on my fruit, greenhouse and food forest adventures, as well as the installation of my new pond.

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Biggie surveys the mandala garden.

Gardening in Winter

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The Permaculture Design Course ended just in time for the Ballarat winter to put an end to much in the way of gardening. What is still growing grows slowly. I got a few leafy plants in the ground that are growing at around the same rate that the slugs and birds are eating them and will hopefully take off once the ground heats up. But for the most part I have just been putting sticks in the ground and hoping they start doing something come the spring.

I bought a hazlenut duo and some apple trees in the family’s favourite varieties (which also happen to be pollinators, luckily) and planted these in the food forest. Being bare rooted they look a lot like sticks. We impulse bought a mulberry tree as well, which has gone on the southern side of the main food garden, alongside the two plum trees we put in two winters ago and the apricot tree that I relocated from the old orchard where it wasn’t very happy.

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Hazelnut duo, Ennis and Cassia

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Close up on the hazelnut.

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Apple trees – we got Fuji, Pink Lady and Red Delicious.

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Apple tree.

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Mulberry tree, also looks like a stick at the moment.

I also have big plans for these sticks, planted in terra cotta pots on the Eastern verandah. They will grow to be leafy grapevines in three different colours and shade the house from the morning sun in summer. I haven’t put the climbing frames up for them yet, but I think I’ve got a bit of time before I need to do that.

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Look at my stick! Look at it!

And possibly the most ambitious stick of all is this tiny twig which claims to be the beginning of a black Walnut tree. The silver birches in the central driveway garden have died and I want a feature tree to take over from them. The walnut will have the added advantage of suppressing grass growth under it and eventually it will bear walnuts, which I love.

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Where’s the walnut tree?

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There it is!

Fortunately for me, being an impatient gardener who wants to watch things growing NOW, I have my little greenhouse which is producing some rather slow lettuce and some beetroot for my next round of beetroot relish.

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Lettuce in the front, beetroot in the back.

I also have the warmhouse which is slightly more gratifying, although still only requiring a weekly visit for watering. The fish and water plants are doing well, and the basil mint looks like it could get comfortable in here.

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Super stylish fishpond, clearly used to live at number 5.

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Basil mint – is it basil? Is it mint? It’s healthy appearance at this time of year suggests that it is definitely not really basil.

The fish pond and blue tubs filled with water create a thermal mass that hold warmth and helps keep the temperature above zero during the freezing nights we have been having. It gets quite warm in the warmhouse during the day, pushing 20* on sunny days even when it is well below 10* outside.

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Three dollars at Bunnings. Super useful for learning about the temperature ranges in your growing structures.

I’ve popped a little Washington Navel in here, along with the avocados who look like they could do with a holiday in Queensland but are hanging in there. A friend has entrusted her potted orange tree known as ‘Grandad’ to me. Grandad had lived on the south side of a house in Geelong and seems to be pretty tough. He will hopefully do well in the warmhouse.

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The tea plants in here are surviving and even putting out a few new shoots. The wormwood cuttings have all struck and are turning into actual plants. They will be planted in the farmyard in a protected spot and also in the new chicken yard when it is built.

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The wormwood cuttings worked! Hooray for making new plants from old.

Winter gardening is kind of slow paced, but I’ve got heaps of ideas and plans for spring. My order of seeds and seedling pots has arrived from Diggers, and I’ll be getting a new bigger greenhouse for my birthday where I can grow all my tomatoes and capsicums and maybe even some basil. I’ve got plans for a herb bed along the side of the new greenhouse as well. I’ve never been one for growing flowers, but I’ll be experimenting with those this year to define the edges of the circular gardens and fill in the gaps that the grass currently likes to take over. And hopefully some of the herby and shrubby plants in the food forest will begin to thrive between the trees and start to out-compete the grasses in there too.

A few of the bulbs are starting to form flowers, including the ones we planted on Ripley’s grave, so soon we’ll start to see a little bit of colour in the garden again. Then the wattles will bloom, the nuts and stonefruit will blossom, the deciduous trees will start to turn green again, and next thing we know it will be spring. Then I’ll really have my work cut out for me.

I can’t wait.

Making Progress in the Garden

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I’ve got three weekends left of the Permaculture Design Certificate course being run by Ballarat Permaculture Guild. I have learned so much, and having found some time lately I have been rediscovering my garden and coming up with ideas to make it more productive. Not only has my motivation to make changes and investments in time and money around the yard increased, I’ve gained a better understanding of why to do some things as well as how.

One idea I had was to put some fish and plants in the water trough in the farmyard. After researching plants that would not harm any of the animals, I set up some refuges for the fish and left it to see what would happen. It was going pretty well for a while, although one of the goats developed a taste for water ribbons. After a few weeks, though, a couple of the ducks discovered that the trough had edible plants in it, as well as being a nice place to have a wash. So the plants and fish had to find a new home, so that the trough could be cleaned out and hopefully not continue to attract ducks.

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The fish tub. I expect frogs will move in too.

I had been intending to add a water container to the large greenhouse, know referred to as the warmhouse, so having to move the fish and water plants forced this idea to come to life. But first I had to remove all the freeloading tomatoes.

After last year’s successful tomato yield I had big plans for the tomato crop this year. I collected passata jars with the goal of filling all of them with home made passata and bottled tomatoes, enough to get us through the year until the next tomato season. Last year’s bottled tomatoes lasted us six months. So, armed with seeds from the varieties that had yielded best, I managed to start some tomato plants from seed for the first time ever.

This early success looked like it was going to bear fruit. Once the plants were moved to the large greenhouse they grew and grew, before long they were taller than me. They looked great. But the season was not kind. I harvested maybe 5kg of tomatoes this year, a big drop from last year when I was bringing in buckets full of tomatoes every few days.

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Looks like I’ll be making green tomato relish…

So what went wrong? I had the right varieties, the right growing conditions and plenty of water. I think the issues were a combination of too many plants, not enough support and too much watering. The plants grew so thickly that the lower parts got no light, and the wet earth led to mould, fungus and rotten fruit. The huge plants fell over with insufficient support, leaving fruit sitting on wet ground and rotting leaves. Then I noticed something had been eating the fruit. I didn’t think it was birds, but it wasn’t until I found the entry hole that I realised the problem was rodents. Having the bottom half chewed out of what would have been a 500g tomato was very disappointing. Lots of the bigger fruit was damaged.

For next year we should have a new sturdy greenhouse for the tomatoes, like the small greenhouse but with more floor space. This time I will not get greedy and plant too many plants. I will stick with the Oxheart tomatoes, which ripen early, have more flesh and less seeds, and due their large size are easy to peel.

I was looking for a place to site the new greenhouse, when I stumbled across a large raised garden bed that had lost a lot of its larger plants. These had presumably died in last summer’s big dry. This bed features a big Honey Locust tree on the eastern end, a tree often used to base a plant guild around due to it’s deep root system and ability to bring nutrients up from deep in the soil and make them available for more shallow-rooted plants. I had found the perfect place to start a food forest.

I had a dream a couple of months ago that I had found an area of my garden that I had never been in before, and it was full of food plants including trees that grew pineapples. To then stumble across this garden bed that had been right in my face for the last two and a bit years and see it in a completely different light was surreal. Not only that, but this garden bed has an olive tree still living that is visible from the house, that I have walked past hundreds of times, but never seen until now.

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Definitely an olive tree – even has an olive!

So far my food forest contains it’s feature Honey Locust, an olive tree and a few nectarine seeds that I have popped in the ground. I have also added a feijoa to help get things started. Next I’ll need some smaller shrubs and groundcovers to complete the plant guild. I’ve started some comfrey seeds, so with a bit of luck these will sprout and I can add them too.

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The epic Honey Locust, perfect mainstay for a plant guild

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It doesn’t look like much, but I’m going to reclaim this big raised area for growing food.

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Beginning with this little feijoa tree.

In the latest Diggers Club order, with the feijoa, I bought a couple of tea plants. I’ve started growing and collecting a few tea additives, like peppermint, chamomile and rosehips, so adding the base tea to my garden seemed like the next step. Upon reading that the tea plant, Camellia Sinensis, likes similar conditions to blueberries, I decided to plant them in the blueberry patch. I’ve been afraid to do anything to the blueberries, which have been in for nearly two years, as they represent my fourth attempt at growing blueberries and I am afraid of doing something that will kill them. But in planting the tea plants I had to take a deep breath and apply some manure and mulch. Fingers crossed!

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Tea and blueberries, with a couple of rogue Sweetie tomatoes, behind the small greenhouse.

I wasn’t able to get avocado trees from Diggers because I hesitated and they sold out. I was fortunate that a local nursery had some Hass avocado trees in stock, which were reportedly a lot more advanced than the ones available by mail order from Diggers. Avocados are something else I have wanted to try growing for ages, but had put off due to being afraid of killing a fairly expensive tree. Turning over the large greenhouse to become a warmhouse presented a good opportunity to get some avocado trees going in a sheltered environment, so I took the plunge. Again, fingers crossed!

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Avocados in the ‘warmhouse’. I hope to add a few more plants that will appreciate the frost-free zone.

Something else I am trying that I have never done before is striking cuttings. I want to plant some wormwood in the chook pen, and we have heaps of mature plants in the yard, so I’m attempting to grow some new plants from cuttings.

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The potting table, with wormwood cuttings.

My renewed enthusiasm for growing things and my confidence to try something new when it comes to gardening are a direct result of what I have learned in the PDC. There is so much more to growing things that putting plants in the ground and watering them. Soil health is a huge thing, as well as keeping the soil covered with plants to prevent weeds from inviting themselves. Another thing I have learned is to worry more about what the garden is doing than how it looks.

The growing season is slowing down, the garlic is in the ground, the pumpkin vines are dying off, some plants have packed it in for the winter and others are settling into their spots in the greenhouses. I’ve got a few jars of pickles and relish in the cupboard, and I am hopeful that a few more figs will ripen before time runs out and winter hits. Then we get a couple of months of relative peace before kidding begins and all my outside time is dedicated to goats again.

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Yay! Figs!

It will be interesting to see how my efforts manifest when spring comes back and the growing season starts again. But I feel like production is definitely set to increase.

 

Farm Update

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I’ve been finding it hard to find time to write over the past few months, and the simple explanation for that is that I have been working more hours. My job had got to the point where I just couldn’t keep up with everything I had to do in the time I had available, and since so much of what I do is time-critical I spent most of my time feeling like I was chasing my tail. So I put my hand up to do more hours.

This has meant that while work is less stressful because I actually have time to get everything done on time, I have less time at home and I have to go to bed earlier so that I can get up earlier. The rest of the family have had to learn to do more around the house and since I no longer have time to do everything I am also no longer the default person to look after everyone else. We look after each other, we all pitch in, and we all benefit from mum bringing home a bit more money each month.

I took a break from soapmaking and writing just to let everything settle down. Like anything else, it comes down to priorities. You make time for the things that make the most noise. But you also need to make time for the things that you get the most value from, and value can definitely include enjoyment.

When I found myself home alone on Sunday with the sun shining and the birds singing I was almost overwhelmed with excitement and an urge to get as much done as possible while I could. I popped out at 9am to do the milking and ended up having ‘breakfast’ at about 2pm.

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Hanging out with my farmyard friends

I sent Maia and her kids out into the world for the first time. Those babies got to feel the sun on their backs and the dirt under their feet, as well as meeting the rest of their family. This was especially sweet since little Gaia had been treated for sepsis two days earlier, and the vet had warned me that he did not expect her to live.

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Maia and her kids, Gaia and Reuben

Moving in and out of the house and between the shed and the garden, I got the milking done, cleaned the goat pens and delivered some straw to the garden beds. I did some weeding, thinned the silverbeet, cleared the dead tomato plants from the small greenhouse, baked the sourdough, did four loads of washing, replanted some strawberries, pruned the apple trees and cleaned out the cat litter. It was glorious.

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Yay! Sourdough. My lunch for the next fortnight.

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The food garden, with the berry nets up to allow for weeding, pruning and planting the strawberries.

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None of my winter vegetables sprouted last year, so I cheated this year and used the greenhouse. So far so good, cauliflower, beetroot, cabbage, broccoli and lettuce.

I sat down for a bit around 3pm and ventured out again an hour later when Leo the Italian Greyhound started complaining that it was getting cold and he wanted his coat back on. This seemed like a good time to go around closing up the windows and the big greenhouse door, and put the blanket back on Stella the old Thoroughbred who also got to get her kit off for the day. I was wondering what feat of culinary genius to make for dinner when I found that old Rianna, my boss doe, was about to have her kids.

I popped her in the kidding pen I had prepared earlier and set off to get the furthest away tasks done, which meant wandering down the paddock carrying a Weatherbeeta horse rug trying to find two full-size Thoroughbreds who seemed to have disappeared into the 10 acre paddock. I found them in the back corner behind the dam wall, re-clothed old Stella, took some pictures of the impressively full dams, and headed casually back up to the shed.

Where I found this…

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First kid out, nothing to do but keep on with my to-do list and check on Rianna occasionally. I got the goatlings and bucks in the small paddocks fed, put the poultry away, fed the cat and put out the call to Matt to pick up some dinner on his way home from work.

We ended up with a small but nice set of twins from Rianna. They were a little slow to get going, the buck was frustratingly resistant to feeding from his mother, but they are doing well now and feeding themselves.

After such a long dry Autumn, the recent rain has been very welcome, but it is much wetter here than we have seen it previously. The main dam is at its highest level since we moved in after almost drying up completely a few months ago. The interesting bit of earthworks described by the real estate agent as a second dam actually looks like how I imagine the previous owner had intended the water trap on his golf course to look.

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The main dam

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The back dam, aka hole 3

Days like this give me the enthusiasm to press on through the cold and wet, to make plans for the spring and start thinking about what to plant where. I’m hoping to do a lot more seed propagation this year, rather than buying seedlings, so I’ve got some equipment to use the small greenhouse to start seeds. I’ve started mulching and weeding the vegetable garden and ordered some seeds for the spring and summer crops. I hope to get some peas and beans planted next weekend, and I’m thinking about where I might be able to plant some hazelnut trees.

The daffodils and wattle trees are blooming, the geese are getting aggressive, the ducks are laying and the pregnant does are expanding alarmingly. Spring is on its slow march toward us and will be here before we know it.

Any Colour – As Long As It’s Orange

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I grew a wheelbarrow load of butternut pumpkins this year.

I was not expecting such a haul, after the rabbits ate most of my seedlings, but one intrepid plant put out many vines and blessed me with about half a dozen nice big fruit.

In another garden bed I actually managed to grow pumpkins from seed for the first time ever. These were also butternuts, and grew unmolested among the last of the lettuce and beetroot plants from last spring. These gave me dozens of smaller fruit.

Butternuts don’t keep as well as the thicker-skinned varieties, but they are a lot easier to cut and peel. I often serve up steamed or roasted butternut pumpkin with the skin left on because it is so thin and soft there is little need to remove it.

So we’ve been having steamed pumpkin with pretty much every meal, but the real beauty of home-grown pumpkin lies in the flavour it gives to soup. I have a fear that my soups will be too bland or too thin, so I like to really jazz my vegie soups up. And with weeks of pumpkin soup ahead of us, I knew that I would have to make a bit of an effort and think outside the box to keep us going back to the fridge and freezer for pumpkin soup lunch day after day.

When I make soup, the first thing I think about is the stock. I hate using bought stock, so I need an alternative base. Some people like their vegetable soups to be all-vegetable, but I think a meat stock base to a pumpkin soup can really give the end result a bit of substance.

I made the first soup not long after I roasted our first home-grown duck. I boiled the frame with some herbs, onion and garlic for a few hours. The next day I strained the stock, added a large cut pumpkin and a couple of big carrots. Soup number one was just a little bit different, thanks to the duck stock.

I had kept the frame from the Christmas turkey in the freezer, pretty much forgotten about, until I went to make the second pumpkin soup and had an ‘aha!’ moment. Second soup became turkey stock and pumpkin, with some fresh coriander and a couple of chili from my cousin Jess’s garden. It had a bit of bite to set it apart from the regular pumpkin soup.

For the next batch I found some lamb necks left over from the sheep we had butchered last year. They got the royal stock treatment as well, boiled for several hours with onion, garlic and herbs. I added a couple of sweet potato to the pumpkin and finished it off with a good bit of home-grown garlic.

Being soup season, there are plenty of ham hocks and bacon bones available at the moment. Most years I would do a pea and ham soup, but this year with our pumpkin haul the logical step seemed to be bacon flavoured pumpkin soup. I made what was effectively bacon stock with some smoked pork bones and used this to cook the pumpkin in. I added a couple of turnips to give a fluffy, silky texture, confident that the bacon stock would provide plenty of flavour, which it did. This was the one the kids liked best.

Last night we had a roast chicken, and since the oven was on I took the opportunity to roast up a whole lot of pumpkin, liberally sprinkled with slices of garlic. The chicken frame became the stock base, and now I have roasted pumpkin and garlic soup for this week.

So where to next..? Someone suggested curry, and I would love to do a fragrant, spicy all-vegetable soup and let the spices and the sweetness of the pumpkin do the talking.

Trying to keep pumpkin soup new and exciting has been a great challenge so far, and a great way to learn about combining flavours and creating themes. I think the lamb and sweet potato has been my favourite so far. I’m down to about 8 fairly small pumpkins so my run will end soon, but it has been fun and I’ve had the whole family taking soup to work and school for lunch in the past few weeks. Making the stock and then making the soup does take a couple of days, but it’s not terribly labour-intensive because most of the time it’s all just on the stove simmering away and smelling amazing.

So this soup season consider trying something a little different and showcase the humble pumpkin with a new theme to create a new taste.