Pruning, Orange Gluts & Spiders

Spring is bearing down on us much earlier than it should be – it is almost 30 degrees today and it is mid August. I’m rushing around trying to do all the winter jobs I thought I still had time to do before it starts warming up – after a winter that didn’t really get cold in the first place.

Firstly my little orange tree has been looking a bit deprived of late. After harvesting the remaining fruit I gave it a prune, pulled out all the nasturtiums underneath, gave it a top dressing of manure and a good deep water.

Glut of oranges? After juice and giveaways, there are still too many to use straight away. One of my favourite cakes is orange and almond cake – easy to make and bloody delicious. The recipe calls for two large oranges boiled whole for two hours, then whizzed up in the food processor. It is a bit of a palava if you get a sudden urge to make a cake, so I just boil them up six or eight at a time and put around two oranges worth of pulp into each container and freeze them. Next time I feel like making a cake on the spur of the moment I already have the pulp in the freezer ready to go.

Next on the list was pruning the grapes. After pruning I was left with a pile of long dried out vines, so I thought maybe mulch them and use them as a cheaper (free!) alternative to woodchip. They are a bit of a fiddle to put through the mulcher, but having walked on them since they make pretty good path material!

Pile of sticks
‘Woodchip’ path

It was high time I had a clear out round the side of the house. It is gravelled down that side with a narrow bed against the fence – not that you could see that as the whole area was overgrown with grass, weeds, agapanthus, nasturtiums and a variety of other things I didn’t want. But the upside of an overgrown and messy garden is the things you find in there that you weren’t expecting 🙂

And some other unexpected treasures…

OK, so maybe this little one was taken last summer! The Andrews Cross Spider was totally chilled out and just sat there while I stuck my camera at her, but the little white Crab Spider kept scuttling around the other side of the branch so she was really difficult to snap. I was contorting myself underneath the tree to capture this!

(Apologies to any spider experts who are slapping their foreheads at my ignorance of spider sex and species)

Paying The Rent

I watch many people walking past my house as I sit on my verandah. And every time I see a First Nations person passing my house I am acutely aware of the fact that I have benefited from the theft of their land.

I live in a big old house that amply accommodates me and three cats, with room to spare. I am lucky to have a large garden where I can grow all the food I want to – and growing food gives me some independence and self-determination.

But the only reason I am able to do this is because that land was violently stolen in the first place, and the owners locked out of accessing it to continue their cultural practices, food production – and just living their lives.

So today, I started paying the rent. I discovered ‘Pay the Rent’, an organisation run by Indigenous Victorians where people who are landowners, or otherwise have the funds to, can pay rent which will go to providing goods and services to the First Nations people of Australia. Those of us who can afford to pay, can only afford it because we have gained from the dispossession of those people from their land, denying them access to traditional sources of food, water, places of cultural and sacred importance, and even their families.

Paying the rent in no way compensates for more than two hundred years of trauma caused by colonisation, but it is a tiny step towards justice for First Nations people.

Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes have been alternately the bane of my existence and a wonderful windfall. I bought a sweet potato plant and, paying no heed to the saleswoman in the nursery who said, ‘they take over everything’, I put it in the ground. Two years later I had a garden covered in sweet potato, coming up everywhere I didn’t want it and smothering everything I did want. I seemed to spend my life pulling out masses of runners. The worst part of it was that when I actually tried to harvest them, I got either enormous woody tubers or barely thickened roots – nothing sweet potato sized or tender and delicious. 

Until this year. I dumped a mountain of pulled out runners into one of the water-tank beds, knowing they’d take it over but figuring I’d deal with it later. Several months on, after the lush leafy growth had started to die back, I decided to see what was in the bed. I ripped out all the runners and put them in the green bin (lesson finally learned), and with what a delight I was met – perfect sized sweet potatoes and quite an abundance of them.

In the self sufficient garden, sweet potatoes are a bit of a wonder veg, as country people and farmers have known for decades. For virtually no work involved in growing them, you can harvest a large amount of calorie dense and delicious food in a matter of months. (To demonstrate the ‘no work’ claim, the children next door spent a couple of happy hours digging a bucket full of sweet potatoes out of their lawn, from the runners that had escaped through the fence).

I harvested a few and thought I’d better make something of them quick. As there were many, I decided to make soup that I could freeze and opted for Thai sweet potato soup. I looked up a recipe but didn’t have all the ingredients for it so just used what I had to hand at the time, including some home-grown chilies, lemongrass and limes (more harvesting joy!)

Not Quite Thai Sweet Potato Soup

  • Sweet potatoes – about four or five medium/large
  • 2 x Onions
  • 4 x fresh Jalapeno – seeds removed and chopped
  • 4 x dried Purple Maui – sliced
  • 2 x Lemongrass stalks cleaned and chopped fine
  • 1 x Massel Chicken Style stock cube and a very generous covering of water (I could have put more water in, it turned out very thick)
  • Juice of 2 x Limes, or to taste
  • 1 heaped tbsp ground Coriander
  • 2 x 330ml cans Coconut cream
  • Very large stock pan
  1. Peel and chop sweet potato into large dice
  2. Chop and fry 1 and ½ onions until translucent or just browning
  3. Add sweet potatoes and lemongrass, saute
  4. Add chillies, saute
  5. Add ground coriander and the rest of the onion and stir
  6. Add stock, and leave to simmer on medium-high heat for about 10-15 minutes
  7. When potatoes are cooked (just soft), cool, blend and return to pan (you will need a spare pan for this as it is a large quantity  – I blended 4 batches)
  8. Once back in the pan, add the coconut cream and lime juice
  9. Check for salt and add if needed
  10. Serve with pepper and fresh coriander

Surprisingly yummy!

Paola’s Faerie Garden

I love seeing what other people have done in their gardens and one I admire in particular is that of a friend, Paola. Like me, she is a champion tip-shop forager; unlike me, she actually gives those trinkets a new life decorating her beautiful garden, instead of letting them pile up in a back room waiting to be used! She has created a backyard somewhere between boho and magical faerie garden, using recycled and found objects; but not only that, it is also productive with beans, sweet potatoes and nasturtiums growing up the fence, a variety of greens and herbs and spices, and small wicking beds of veg made from whatever she can find.

Paola started gardening while in a share-house in her twenties, beginning simply with potted succulents and mosses in her room, before venturing out into the garden. Five years ago she moved into a rental with a mango, bottlebrush, banana, and not much else. The soil was like rock and impossible to dig; but today she has a cool, green sanctuary, and a garden full of worms.

The soil was the biggest challenge to begin with: she added an enormous amount of compost, manure and coffee grounds. She believes the coffee grounds are the secret to the lush, healthy growth of her plants. Although some recent research has cast doubt on the usefulness of coffee grounds, many people have had great success with them – and looking at Paola’s garden the proof seems to be in the pudding!

The large mango tree, though providing the most wonderful shady spot to sit and enjoy the garden, has prevented her from using a large area due to the shade it casts and the roots under the surface. She found that other limitations were having very few areas with enough sun to grow veggies, and her dog – the adorable Astro – who loves to jump up along the fences, preventing her from making full use of them.

Paola next to an array of tip shop finds decorating the homemade pergola

Despite these challenges Paola has managed to grow an enormous variety of plants, including many edibles. As a full time worker and mum she tends to favour plants and vegetables that don’t need much attention; she has many succulents and is ever on the lookout for cuttings and bargains in op-shops.

But not only is she a great gardener, she is amazingly handy; with the help of her mum, she constructed her lovely pergola using old drums, used timbers and other recycled materials. (The construction was such a success that we used the same idea in our community food forest to build our eight sided pergola.)

For Paola, her garden is one of her greatest joys, ‘It’s a place just to come out and escape’.  

So what advice would she have given herself as a beginner? ‘Compost first!! Then start gardening.’

And to anyone thinking of starting? ‘Just do it. Put something in a pot or in the soil and take it from there.’

Frog pond
Turmeric, Pineapple sage, parsley
New life for old shoes
Homemade pergola using drums from the tip shop. And the gorgeous Astro with his mum 🙂