Friday, September 23, 2011

Tasting Tassie

I'm a little bit obsessed by the idea of food with a sense of place. Not just local, organic and seasonal, but tastes that may be unique to where you are when you eat them. Tassie talks itself up on loads of fantastic produce that it'd be hard to live without. Olives, truffles, cheese, wine, saffron.....but, with the exception of seafood, perhaps mountain pepper and the odd bit of wallaby, I doubt that many native foods have made it past the lips of most Tasmanians.

There are quite a few wild food plants that are easy to use in any conventional kitchen. Flavours that are unique, but not challenging to the inexperienced palate. These are some of my favourites.

Sea Celery, Apium prostratum. This one is my very favourite at the moment! It's closely related to celery from a botanical perspective, but in the kitchen, and to the eye, it is more reminiscent of parsley. It has a strong parsley-like flavour, but is a little more earthy. I've had it growing, both in the outside garden here at Neika, where it's been waterlogged, frozen and rabbit nibbled, but still grows enough to gather, and in the polytunnel where it is more protected and grew well all winter. I've got lovely plants in tubes that are coming to market this Sunday.

Kunzea, Kunzea ambigua. This is an East Coast native from the Myrtaceae family, along with eucalypts, guavas, lemon myrtle and clove. Its probably the first Tasmanian plant that has come into regular use in my kitchen. It has a sweet, floral, mentholy aroma when fresh, when dried the menthol notes disapate. I first used it for cups of tea when bushwalking, and during tea breaks at Plants of Tasmania Nursery. I use it along with thyme, lemon zest and garlic to season roast chicken and spuds (or maybe one of Richard's Bruny bunnies..), or on its own with fish. It also adds a nice floral kick to cheese crackers. I'll have this available as a cut herb ready for use in your kitchen.

Round leafed mint, Prostanthera rotundifolia. This one is as pretty as it is tasty, although I use it in tiny quantities. A small teaspoon of leaves blitzed with the sugar used to make chocolate chip cookies, gives a clean, minty sweetness. In the garden the plant gets to about 1.5m tall and is covered in gorgeous purple flowers through Spring. It can be short lived in the garden, but regular pruning will stay it at its best for longer. It is listed as vulnerable in the wild in Tasmania. I have some lovely plants in flower that I'll bring down to market.

I'll also have the usual array of plants, some mixed bundles of herbs ready for you to throw in the pot, eggs, purple sprouting broccoli for the early birds, and whatever lovely Spring greens look best tomorrow when I'm gathering!

So rock on down to the Farm Gate on Sunday from 9am!! And watch this space for a list of our 19 awesome varieties of tomato seedlings that will start appearing at the market soon.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Heidi, the Mountain and me.

This post is about nothing to do with gardening, food or soil. Just a great afternoon with a special person, a reminder of what we're here for.

Summit girl

Planocarpa sp
Planocarpa sulcata 
Rock face

Astelia alpina, Pineapple grass. Has sweet, red, edible berries in Summer.

Ozothamnus ledifolius, Fragrant plant with culinary potential???

Rubus gunnianus. Native mountain raspberry.
Said to be delicious, but I'm yet to see a ripe berry.
Exocarpos humifusus, Alpine native cherry.

Making a witches brew.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Maybe it's the easy way...

I'm buzzing. Our soil biology expert Letetia has just left and my mind is awash with the possibilities, planning how to harness the potential of what I've heard. When I wrote this morning's post I was expecting some new ideas, but it was far more than that. It was a lesson in holistic thinking, in taking care of the soil by doing less. Introduce the innoculants, change cultural practices to enable them to thrive, and watch your garden grow over time as soil structure improves and a healthy balance between pests, predators and beneficials is restored.

There's no way I can explain it here, (and please don't take my inexpert summary of what I've learned too seriously!) but it all made sense. Nutrients are tiny right? Plant roots that absorb them are tiny too. So it makes sense that to enable plants to take up the nutrients they need for optimum growth that these nutrients need to be in a tiny form, and what could be tinier than nematode or amoeba poo?

Plants have evolved in the presence of bacteria, fungi and the nematodes and protozoa that eat them, then expel the waste in a form that is available to the plants. Different types of plants are adapted to living in the presence of different balances of soil organisms.

My unloved soil, waiting to have its potential unleashed!

We looked at my soil, temperature, pH, profile etc, then took samples inside to look at under a microscope. Compared to a healthy soil mine is a bit barren, perhaps to be expected from a former cow paddock that has had very little love.

But Letetia makes brews, careful cultures of organisms that should be present in a healthy soil. She analyses soil samples and prescribes the correct inoculations to restore balanced soil life to suit specific crops. Together with organic matter, preferably grown, collected and composted on site, these inoculants will colonise my soil and make nutrient available to plants. When plants have the full spectrum of nutrients available to them, they are more resistant to pests and diseases, they produce higher yields, are more nutrient dense and taste better. This method works with plants and soils, so rather than digging endlessly to make soil friable, fighting pests, buying and applying fertilisers and weeding, you foster the right soil biology balance to favour the desired crop, and in doing so you achieve all of those things without the effort and expense. We also discussed the questionable impacts of many inputs in common use. Many conventional fertilisers, all herbicides and pesticides can have a negative impact on soil biology. Many manures and mulches produced through conventional agricultural techniques will have some form of chemical residue present. And many come in plastic packaging and are moved around the countryside to get to your garden.

This is a bit like a toddler teaching tightrope walking, so I won't say much more. I am a naturally cynical person, but Letetia's scientific approach and demonstration, together with the fact that everything she said ran in parallel with my theories about soil fertility and ethical land use, has made me want to master this method and create a truly wholesome patch.

Letetia does soil analysis and offers great advice and also runs workshops through NRM South (sign up to their newsletter to hear about great learning opportunities, I'm going to their 'Farm Insects, Pests or Guests? workshop on Bruny in November).

I'm truly excited to begin this journey, innoculate my soils and take another peek through that microscope in 6 months and see who's living down there! But most of all I can't wait to taste what comes out of our healthy garden this Summer.

Doing things the hard way

This 'organic' thing ain't easy. Slugs are presently ruining my life. During this unseasonably warm weather we sowed madly. But where young artichokes and radishes should be flourishing only tiny stumps remain.

I've tried beer traps, iron chelates (which I'm not that comfortable using), 6 year old slug hunters paid at the rate of 1c per slug, sheets of plastic laid overnight and slugs wiped from underneath each morning, but none of it seems to help. Imagine my dismay at potting up 200 tiny lovage plants, only to find the lot eaten to nothing the next morning.

Fertility is also an issue. In my tiny plot I seem to have several different soils. One spot is double depth topsoil where soil salvaged from the nursery area is mounded up, another is the old chook run where there is a thin layer of fertile black stuff on top of our native clay. The rest is mostly our 5 inches of soil, atop rocky, mudstone clay. Soil that looks great when it is damp and has something growing in it, but dries out and grows twitch and yellow dock like thatch if you look away for a moment.

We also make our own potting mix. I figure if I only want to use organic methods in my plot, why should my pots be any different. I use Tassie composted pine bark, sand, blood and bone, kelp meal, rock dust and dolomite, as well as a couple of certified organic fertiliser blends to provide other nutrients. This isn't working as well as a mix containing artificial fertilisers does, but if I'm growing food plants, this is the way I want to do it.

So, today, we have a compost tea expert coming to look at our soil biology, and hopefully help us find a holistic, low input way to deal with our challenges and put tasty, healthy food on our tables, and produce healthy plants with out the need for artificial fertilisers in the potting mix. From the little I understand, compost teas, tailored to the soil type you have, can increase biological activity in the soil, making the nutrients, that are already there, more available to plants. It also makes a broader range of nutrients available, increasing the nutritional value of foods and letting plants develop a full spectrum of flavour.

So I'll be off now to fill the bikkie tin, make room for her microscope on the table, and cross my fingers that this will be part of the answer to a more successful plot.