Monday, July 26, 2010

Sorting vegie seeds

Today I had my favourite visit from the postman. It was this year's order from Phoenix Seeds. The joy of mail order, little presents arriving in the post! And then another truck rumbled up the driveway with two ENORMOUS hessian sacks of seed potatoes. Unpacking these two deliveries was like entering a wonderland. The seeds, oh my, did I get carried away? 68 packets, when I already have a seed cupboard (a dead fridge, a great, insulated seed storage unit, just add mouse proof ventilation) full of saved seed. But I always need more, there are many little treasures that I haven't tried yet, and some seeds it takes skill to save like my Cucurbits. I grow them in shared beds and they are a free loving bunch and if you don't use techniques to prevent cross pollination you end up with a mish-mash of progeny that may be nothing like their parents. So I cheat, and buy fresh seed each year so I know that my squash, cucumbers, pumpkins, zucchinis and melons will all behave as they should. One day I'll pick some favourites, do the hard yards to ensure purity of pollination and save some seed.

Sapphire, Cranberry Red and Purple Congo potatoes 
Then the potatoes! I found a supplier of certified seed from the North of the state who grows a big range of new and heritage varieties. I ordered two purple fleshed varieties, Purple Congo and Sapphire, and a tasty, red skinned, pink fleshed variety called Cranberry Red, Kipflers, Pink Fir Apple (my favourite even if it is odd roasting something that looks so much like a little baby!), and a variety I'd never heard of that is supposed to taste fabulous, Banana. Keep an eye out for these on my stall at the Farm Gate market from late December onwards. I'll be planting these using low carbon emission equipment, ie my own hands, so supply will be limited but exciting!

A wonderful thing about seeds is learning of the plant's origins and uses. A new one for me this year is Camas Camassia quamash. It will be a couple of years at least before I can harvest any, and even then I've read that the traditional cooking method takes two days! It is a North American plant, and its story echoes that of  a South Eastern Australian plant, Murnong, Microceris scapigera. The Murnong was once a staple food for the indigenous population of Victoria, and perhaps to a lesser extent, Tasmania. The roasted tubers were sweet and were a valuable source of carbohydrate and, according to one report, a woman could gather enough to feed her family for a whole day in under an hour. But with the introduction of grazing animals, especially sheep and rabbits, the once abundant food source was disastrously reduced. The story of Camas is disturbingly similar with indigenous Americans also losing a once valuable food with the introduction of European agriculture. The seeds of Camas need to be chilled for a period to trick them  into thinking they have been through a hard Winter, so right now I have a little piece of North America in my fridge. But I am yet to find  source of seed for its southern equivalent the Murnong (from a Tassie provenance collection of course). But I day....

As for the other 67 new packets of seed, and the 60 odd other varieties I already had (not to mention my unwieldy collection of Tasmanian plants), the question arose as to how I would organise such a cornucopia! Alphabetically? And if so, do I use common or Latin names, both of which can be confusing? Pumpkin and squash are really the same thing, shiso is also called beefsteak plant or perilla, and Latin names are notorious for being constantly revised. Or should I organise them with the part of the plant that is used? But with beetroot the leaves are as important in the kitchen as the root, and there are others, like coriander, where the entire plant is used, foliage, root and seeds. In the end I have chosen the major plant families to organise the packets. This should work for me, because many plants from the same family groups have similar propagation and cultivation requirements.

Singing children and 'George' tomato seeds.
Solonaceae, is the potato, tomato and nightshade family. It also includes cape gooseberries, tomatillos and another of their kin the cossack pineapple along with the Capsicum group, capsicums and chillies. The ones I grow for food are all frost tender so need to be started off in a warm place and planted outside when frosts are mostly finished for the year. As the fruit is the desirable part of the plant a lower nitrogen level is important for these. You don't want huge, leafy plants at the expense of good fruit. This picture is of my saved seed. I let my finest tomato ripen until it's almost rotten, then rinse the pulp in a sieve and let it dry on newspaper that I fold up, label and store as is.

'Freckles' cos lettuce.

The daisy family, Asteraceae, includes chicory, globe and Jerusalem artichokes, lettuce, salsify, radicchio, Calendula and sunflowers. Many species in this family have winged seeds that are designed to disperse in the wind and germinate where they fall. To germinate them successfully they are best only covered thinly after sowing as they seem to germinate better when exposed to light.

Scarlet runner, Borlotti, Roi de Caraboi snow pea,
and Aquadulche broad bean
Fabaceae is the bean and pea family. Members of this family are wonderful to have in the garden as they have a relationship with a bacteria that grows on their roots that can fix nitrogen, which is bread and butter for plants, from the air and make it available to your plants. I often pioneer a no dig bed with broad beans and cut the finished crop off at ground level leaving the roots covered in little white nodules of nitrogen in the soil to feed my next crop, usually some leafy greens that love the extra tucker.


If I had to pick a favourite family, it might be Apiaceae. This family is distinguished by its fabulous umbelliferous flowers, yes I know, a big botanical word but it's a big, intricate, beautiful flower. This family includes carrots, dill, coriander, fennel, parsnip, angelica, sweet cicely, cumin, caraway, chervil, mitsuba, celery, celeriac and Mexican coriander.

Osaka giant purple-leaf mustard.

Brassicaceae is a really diverse and important family. Delicious, nutritious and ever so varied. The sweet, crisp swollen stems of kohl rabi, the meaty, satisfying greens of the kales. Piquant rocket, and its punchy cousin wild rocket, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and wasabi. Broccoli in all its colourful manifestations, birthday-balloon-bright radishes, and the textural divinity of Asian greens.

Pineapple sage

It's almost impossible to imagine cooking without the aromatic gifts of Lamiaceae. This family is rich in aromatic oils that provide us with so many distinctive flavours. Mints, thyme, rosemary, sage, shiso, oregano, marjoram, basil in all its forms, savoury, and many, many others. Some species such as shiso and chia have large amounts of omega 3 fatty acids in their seeds, others like thyme have great antibacterial properties and make a wonderful tea to help heal a sore throat.

Purple orach

Chenopodiaceae is a family of plants that we should see more of. I have a self sustaining patch of purple orach in my garden. Like others of its kin, my orach is a drought tolerant, nutritious green (or purple!). Many plants in this family have the ability to store water in their leaves and the young tips of my first harvest of orach each year sparkle with cells full of water. This group of plants provides leaves and stems for salad and cooking, protein rich grains, and roots for food and a source of sugar. Quinoa, amaranth, beetroot, chard, huazontle, epazote and spinach. What a feast!

I've already touched on Cucurbitaceae.  Melons, squash, pumpkins, cucumbers. Little squash for eating in one bite, mammoth pumpkins that get sweeter as they're stored through the winter, another diverse and delicious group. This year I steamed the tips of pumpkin runners complete with tiny, baby pumpkins and curly tendrils. A pretty and tasty use for garden trimmings! I also saw, on a cooking show, people growing pumpkins with the aim of using the foliage as a vegetable. Another experiment coming up in our kitchen this Summer!

Sugar baby watermelon, Thelma Sanders sweet potato Winter squash, Parisian pickling cucumber and Kakai pumpkin, a variety grown for its hull-less seeds.

There are a lot more seeds in my collection that have been piled in a random box as there are only one or two representatives of their family in my collection, like sweetcorn, miners lettuce, borage and purslane. This Spring and Summer many of these seed grown delights  will be available for you at the Tas Farm Gate market, either as plants for you to grow your own treats, or as produce to have fun with in your kitchen.  I'll also have many others, plants that are produced from cuttings or division and some locally collected Hobart native plants to bring the bush into your garden, but that's a story for another day!

I'll be at Tas Farm Gate this Sunday the 1st of August and the 15th of August from 9am till 1pm. Please come and have a chat about your kitchen or garden!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


The Eddystone Point LighthouseBaby MarcIn 1952 a pregnant, cosmopolitan, young woman from Amsterdam sailed with her husband and 3 children to Australia to live as a lighthouse keeper's wife at Cape Schanck on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula. There she and her family were introduced to a new life of isolation, wood stoves, copper baths, self sufficiency and correspondence schooling. They stayed there for a few months, and then moved with their new baby, my father Marc, to Eddystone Point on Tasmania's North East Coast. My Oma told us a tale of the fright she felt watching a blue tongue marching through the hallway of her cottage. Imagine being a sophisticated young woman from a very modern city, and finding yourself with your family in the midst of gales, snakes, chooks and firewood splitting. She grew to love the life, but couldn't bear sending her children to boarding school, and so moved from that place of kelp and granite. l doubt that a father spending his first 3 years of life somewhere can make it seep into the blood of the next generation, but the East coast of Tasmania has a special pull for me. I am most content when floating, surrounded by waving, slippery bull kelp, gazing on the world below, or wandering for hours looking in rock pools, losing entire afternoons marvelling at the multitude of textures and colours in the Granite sands, examining flotsam and jetsam. And then there's the botanising......

Much of the East Coast is home to Granite in Tasmania. Granite derived soils host a variety of plants not seen in the rest of Tasmania. Many of the plants here reflect those of the Granite lands in Victoria, a wonderful reminder of our State's past union. Then there are rare gems found only in small, isolated populations here, and nowhere else in the world. In my meanders there I have also seen strange forms of otherwise common plants. Blackwoods with giant 'leaves'. Trigger Plants and Pratias with white flowers. Wonderful, unique things that are worthy of conservation in their own right.

For indigenous Tasmanians this is a land of plenty, and for those of us who have come later it has proved to be the same. Every Summer my mother would miraculously squeeze 2 weeks worth of food, clothes and entertainment into our Kingswood, and off we would go. Cosy Corner in the Bay of Fires was our prime destination. Snorkelling for abalone, armed with a screwdriver and wearing a woolly jumper in the absence of a wetsuit, or walking the shores of the lagoons seeking additions for my macabre skull collection while my parents fished. I remember my first encounter with a Kangaroo Apple, Solanum laciniatum, there, being enticed by its tomato-like features, but discouraged by wary adults who didn't know how to deal with such a fruit safely. I have since learned the fruits can be buried in the sand and allowed to ripen until softened and a deep orange colour, well away from ravenous wildlife and then safely eaten, but are toxic until fully ripe.
Hibbertia riparia, Guinnea flower and Solanum laciniatum Kangaroo Apple.

I had the pleasure of a road trip with my little sister Belinda and her friend Trish, to Waterhouse on the North East corner of Tasmania, where we lay on a carpet of Pigface, Carpobrotus rossii, as Trish showed us how to pick the best fruits to eat and how to suck the inside pulp from the fruit. While we were enjoying the salty, sweet snacks she spoke of her great great grand father, Manalargenna sending smoke signals from Cape Barren to his family on the mainland of Tasmania. To hear such stories while in such a magical place brings a feeling of connection to the land, its bounty, history and language, that I think many of us are starving for. Next to our pigface picnic was another coastal edible, Coast Beard Heath, Leucopogon parviflorus. Here it was a full sized, well proportioned shrub, but was laying flat on the ground. The strong, salty winds had burnt off every shoot that attempted to grow upright, leaving this specimen and its neighbours looking very Dali-esque.
This species produces copious amounts of white acid/sweet fruits, with relatively large stones, through late Summer and early Autumn, but you have to be up before the seagulls to sample the best. For the horticulturally minded admirer to germinate these seeds we have to replicate the processes that they have evolved to undergo. Such a tasty fruit was designed to be eaten, and distributed by our feathered and furred friends, and to imitate the digestive tract we must ferment the fruits, then wash away the remaining flesh and soak in an alkaline solution, then sow the seed and await the following Spring to see it germinate. To have such a lovely plant in your garden is well worth the patience and effort involved. 

Further South, I recently had the good fortune to be asked to explore the flora of this area with some guides from a new East Coast resort. I couldn't believe my luck! To share the beauty of these plants with interested people within view of the majestic Hazards, all in the name of work! The garden and grounds of this development have been landscaped with native plants grown from seed and cuttings collected from natural vegetation on or near the site, by Tasmanian nurseries specialising in growing Tasmanian plants, like my training ground, Plants of Tasmania Nursery. These plants will have a great chance of thriving in the low nutrient, often dry soils there and tolerating desiccating, salt laden winds. Many of the plants in the resorts grounds are common throughout Tasmania. They include Tussock Grasses, Sagg, Kangaroo Apple, Native Cranberry, Pigface, Running Postman and a multitude of others. But these same species can also be found in the Central Highlands, on the West Coast and in the South. Would the same species collected elsewhere in the State have the same adaptations to climate, geology and other localised influences that prevail here? The benefits of choosing local genetics for gardening and revegetating areas of this site are many. The unique geology and climate of this part of Tasmania would favour plants that can make the most of the low nutrient, mostly well drained soils of the area, that will tolerate the salt laden winds blowing in from Oyster Bay and have evolved to have relationships with the other organisms in the area such as soil life, birds and insects.

The resort building is an intense piece of architecture and looks at though it is waiting to lift from the Earth and fly off into Oyster Bay. What better way to tether, or ground such a building, and allow it to nestle into the environment, than to wrap it with a blanket of Nature. The use of locally sourced native plants will soften the contrast of the man-made buildings, roads and paved surfaces with the surrounding environment. They will frame the stunning ocean and mountain views without jarring the gaze, and support the wildlife they have evolved with and existed alongside forever.

Calytrix tetragona, Fringe myrtle. Coles Bay.

The dominant tree on the site, the Black Peppermint, Eucalyptus amygdalina, grows naturally all over the State, but in a myriad of different sites that face differing climatic conditions, soils, herbivorous animals and insects. In the North West it can hybridise with nearby Eucalyptus nitida the Smithton Peppermint. In the Central Highlands it breeds with E. pauciflora, and on the Eastern shore it makes babies with the rare E. risdonii, the Risdon peppermint. On the site at Coles Bay it can hybridise with E. pulchella, the White peppermint. Would it be wise to mix up the genes from these differing populations? I would prefer to err on the side of caution and protect the unique characteristics of trees in healthy forests. After all, why are you deciding to plant local native plants in the first place? To support local ecologies and enhance natural values? To help your building settle into the landscape? I have recently heard whispers of someone doing a study on the effect of provenance on the germination rates of Eucalypts. Apparently some species will germinate faster or slower, depending on where the seed was collected. I can only guess at the reasons for this, but it's just another demonstration of the uniqueness of each part of our beautiful island.
If you would like some help to preserve the unique character of your land, while gardening or revegetating, please contact us, either on the email at the top of the page, or come and have a chat at the Tasmanian Farm Gate market on Sunday the 18th of July, and Sunday the1st of August, 9am - 1pm.