Monday, December 6, 2010

Spring and early Summer in Sophia's Food Garden Sanctuary

Sophia's Food Garden Sanctuary will be open next February 5 and 6 through the Australian Open Garden Scheme (see page 105 and 107 of the guide - "Australia's Open Gardens"). Soph and I have planned many of our growing season's plantings around these dates with the aim of having many of the food plants still looking relatively fresh well into summer - that's what we hope at any rate. As it turns out, the wet cold start to spring has slowed things down anyway.

November's potato crop
broad beans
We harvested potatoes and broad beans in the middle of November. I like planting potatoes in the middle of winter because in frost free areas like Armadale potatoes shoot quickly through pea straw mulch and become healthy plants despite low winter temperatures. In Sophia's garden I grew them under under a bare, wintry looking fig tree and by the time the fig burst back into life we had well-established plants and delicious 'new' and mostly mature potatoes (see picture.) The broad beans were also great and I've dug the plants into the ground or used them as mulch for tomatoes and corn.


The garden December 5

The rain has been so consistent and intense that low lying parts of the garden were turning into a mini-wetland and I have had to resort to raising beds in these areas and bringing in plenty of surecrop compost. This has been such a turn-around from the last two years of drought where these 'wet' sections of the garden grew fantastic zucchinis and eggplants without irrigation. I've also had to harvest garlic early to stop it rotting. Leeks, as you would expect, have thrived but this has been and will continue to be an unusual La Nina year.

Taro in Melbourne

As described in my previous post, I went to Vanuatu this year and it inspired me to grow Taro in Melbourne. Strictly speaking, I should say that it inspired me to grow it again as I had tried half-heartedly in 2009 without ever having eaten the final starchy product. I had bought a few corms at a green grocer's in Sydney Road and plonked them straight into a pot. They grew really well during last year's hot and humid summer and then promptly melted into greeny-brown sludge once a few cold nights arrived in autumn. Once back from Vanuatu I looked into this original pot and found that quite a few side-cormels had been produced. The original corm or bulb was about the size of a cricket ball, while the new cormels were golf-ball sized. I boiled a few up and they were fine. But it would be great to grow big sized taro in Melbourne too. And that is this growing season's quest.

We've had such a slow start to the growing season, but now after in one week of summer we've had warm, humid nights and hot and rainy days - perfect Taro weather. I've bitten the bullet and planted several Taro plants in the ground, in the expectation that we're going to have a wet summer.I hope so. Taro is such an attractive plant that I am happy for it to be in the garden no matter what it produces food-wise.

Oops...I don't have any recent shots of this year's Taro plants...coming up soon

Friday, November 12, 2010

How Vanuatu inspired me to grow Taro

In July this year I travelled to Vanuatu, to the big island in the north, Espiritu Santo. I stayed with friends who are living in Luganville, Santo's capital of 10,000 people, working on community development projects across various islands. I was there for a holiday, to swim, ride and relax which I did in spades, but what fascinated me most about Santo were the food gardens, especially of Taro. A Melanesian food garden is not an isolated planter box in the backyard growing a bit of rocket (for example) but a luxuriant mass of taro, banana, yams, chokos, paw-paws and other easy-to-grow food plants.

The Taro really stands out and the harvested corms are laid out in the markets and purchased in large quantities. Locals explained to me that there are two Taros, "wet" taro and "dry" Taro, the latter also known as Fiji Taro. The Fiji Taro is a much bigger plant and can be grown with less moisture. We were buying wet Taro and cooking it up as our main source of carbohydrates most nights. As a source of basic carbs I preferred it to potatoes. I also made dumplings one night (see picture) which were delicious.

The difference between the two types of Taro confused me, so when I got back to Melbourne I looked into it. In brief, wet Taro is the ancient staple of Asia and the Pacific, Colocasia esculenta while dry Taro is Xanthosoma sagittifolium, equally ancient but from South America and so recently new to the Melanesia. The big question was and is, can they be grown in non-tropical Melbourne? Yes! That story next post.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Jicama or Mexican Yam Bean

I was amazed last week to discover that two Jicama plants I plonked in the ground late last year had actually produced tubers. Jicama or Mexican Yam Bean is a tropical, climbing bean from Mexico grown for its big, turnip-like roots rather than its bean pods. Although it looks like a normal climbing bean, the flowers and pods are poisonous and contain rotenone. I grew my two specimens in late spring so they were still quite young plants by mid Summer and for some reason I discounted the idea that they would produce the big "yams" by late autumn. I had scratched around a bit in the soil and had felt nothing and so hoped that the plants would re-sprout and produce good sized roots for 2011.

Then I got to try Jicama for the first time when I bought them at the Asian produce section of the Preston market. They are delicious, crisp and sweet, and really moreish. So I had one last ferret around my own two plants and sure enough quite deep down I discovered great big swollen roots. I dug one up and was pleased to see that it was as big as the ones I had found at the market. Unfortunately, the root was cracked and had begun to decay, brought on by our cold, winter winter. But I'm sure if I had dug this one in autumn before winter has set in, it would have been fine. So there you have it, another tropical plant that can be ground well outside its range in cold, old Melbourne.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Sophia's Food Garden Sanctuary in the Australian Open Garden Scheme

This year's National Garden Guide for Australia's Open Gardens is out now. The launch of the 2010-2011 program of open gardens will be at Burnley College in Melbourne in a couple of weeks. As part of this year's scheme, the productive garden I designed and created with my friend Sophia will feature on the weekend of February 5-6 2011 as part of a special focus on culinary gardening. Sophia's garden is mentioned on page 105 and 107 of the guide which is available on-line at Soph and I are excited to be able to open her garden to the public, especially at the height of summer when we hope the garden will be lush and bountiful, unlike now where it is wintry and pretty bare, with only the Broad Beans really powering away.

I'm going to keep up my weekly photos of the garden from now until to February to document how the garden evolves over the next few months. As described in the Open Garden Guide, Sophia's garden will have all the unusual plants discussed in this blog, as well of plenty Asian vegies and for the first time this year, edible water plants. The aim of the garden is to make it both productive and attractive; we're keen to show that with judicious planting of perennial edible plants in amongst standard crops such as tomatoes and corn you can have your designed ornamental garden and eat it too!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Yacon or Peruvian Ground Apple

Here's another ancient food plant from the Andes: Yacon or Peruvian Ground Apple. The press is that this plant produces large Sweet Potato-like tubers that when washed, skinned and sliced and eaten raw taste something like a cross between watermelon and pear. This sounded intriguing enough to give them a spot or two in the garden. Like many of my exotic vegies last year, I bought propagation material via mail order from Green Harvest in Maleny in Queensland and promptly potted the reddish rhizomes up in late July 2009 when they arrived.

The Yacon didn't emerge until late October but soon developed into attractive plants. I placed five of these in three different gardens in various spots, close to trees or next to other mainstream vegies. They grew well without fuss to between four and six feet, although a specimen growing over concrete was fried (but recovered) after the one and only 40 degree day in Melbourne last summer. I really loved the plants as they grew into a kind of alternative multi-stemmed sunflower. Yacon are, in fact, closely related to Sunflowers and to Jerusalem Artichokes.

Once they had flowered I waited until late May before digging the tubers up. A couple of plants produced huge tubers which hung off the reddish rhizomes like stuck-on appendages. On first taste (five minutes after harvest) they had a great texture, kind of refreshing and crisp, but no flavour whatsoever! I then gave the tubers the recommended treatment of sticking them on a sunny window sill for a few days until they go wrinkly and this did the trick - a mildly sweet, Nashi pear taste and similar texture was the result. Since then I have cooked them too and in one mixed bake with other tubers the Yacon was delicious, absorbing flavours from other ingredients but staying quite crisp.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Mexican Tree Dahlia

Here's another ornamental plant that has a secret life as an edible plant - the Mexican Tree Dahlia. When Melbourne's weather goes cold and grey, usually sometime in May each year, buds at the end of 3-4 metre tall bamboo-like canes open, revealing large pink, daisy flowers. The flowers float or dangle off the stalks and look beautiful against a soft, grey sky. The strange thing is that the Tree Dahlia's tubers are edible and apparently quite a well-known crop in Central America. The tubers are used like Jerusalem Artichokes, to which  they are related. Both Tree Dahlia and Jerusalem Artichoke tubers are rich in inulin, the fructose sugar not digestible by humans, which has made Jerusalem Artichokes a fashionable 'nutriceutical' diet food. As far as I know, Tree Dahlia has no cultivars; it's certainly very easy to grow. Just cut one of the canes off at the ground during winter, cut it into segments of about 30cm and plonk these straight into the ground. I grew Tree Dahlias years ago and from memory one cutting produced three canes and lots of flowers in one growing season. I have access to several big clumps, so I am going to give the tubers a go in a couple of weeks. If you're very keen to try obscure vegetables, all dahlia tubers are edible, even the most gaudy, over-the-top cultivars and varieties.

(Since writing this post I have changed my mind on edibility/palability of dahlias drastically - see

In search of the Abyssinian or Ethiopian Banana

The Abyssinian or Ethiopian Banana Ensete ventricosum is a spectacular ornamental plant native to East Africa. It belongs to the banana family but its fruits are variously described as "inedible" or "tasteless" or "dry and unpalatable". However, its gigantic underground corms form an important starch crop in Ethiopia.

According to Buried Treasures: Tasty Tubers of the World, Ethiopian Banana is rich in starch, protein, sugar and minerals, as well as calcium. One of the best specimens in Melbourne is in the garden of Hendrik Van Leeuwen, Managing Director of Van Leeuwen Green Pty Ltd (a company I do freelance work for). Over five years Hendrik's plant has grown into triffid-like proportions, especially as it now sending out a huge flower spike. Flowering signals the gradual decline of Ethiopian Banana so that in Hendrik's plant's case, the life span will end up around 6 years from planting. As you can see in the pics, Ethiopian Banana is intensely "tropical" looking. I think it deserves wider use in public open space, if only for its transporting qualities. As for its corms and recipes to use them, I have no idea at this stage but with or without climate change, perhaps Ethiopian Banana has a future as a backyard food plant in the suburbs. I'm going to look into it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Choko or Chayote

Despite growing monstrously during Melbourne's extended warm season (now come to an abrupt end), my choko vine has only produced one decent-sized fruit so far. It will produce more in its second season but for now here it is: perhaps the only choko in Armadale....

Canna roots are a winner - final verdict

My second go at baking Canna Lily roots has convinced me that these starchy rhizomes really deserve a place in a home grown food diet. This time around they were cooked for about 45 minutes, with garlic, olive oil and pepper and they emerged golden and appetising, looking pretty much like roast potatoes. If anything, these ones were more delicious than the first lot I tried several days ago, with no flouriness and plenty of sweetness. The photos show the simple stages of preparation and the final result. Next time, I'll try them in a stew or soup or steamed.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Taste-testing 'obscure' vegies - Canna Lily

We often hear about the great reduction in the diversity of foodstuffs available to modern consumers. There are hundreds of varieties of apples (for example), but only four or five apple types that make it into supermarkets. Equally, there are hundreds of edible plant species in the world, many of which are both ancient and popular staples in other countries that we never get to taste, let alone grow.

Well, in fact sometimes we grow these plants as horticultural specimens, having no idea that elsewhere people have been harvesting and eating our garden variety standbys for millennia. One of these is Canna Lily! The Canna Lilies of suburbia, in gardens and parks, are gaudy clumps of bronze-purple, lush looking leaves with huge spikes of over the top orange flowers that glow on a hot Summer's day. They look spectacular, if not a little overwhelming. These types have been bred for their flowers but in South America people have been eating the roots as a starch staple, along with potatoes for thousands of years.

The thought of eating Canna roots so intrigued me I bought 20 rhizomes of Canna edulis/indica from Green Harvest last year and placed them in several food gardens. This Canna species, called Achira in the Andes, has been bred for its edible roots rather than flowers although it still produces lush foliage and small red flowers. My Cannas grew prolifically and looked fantastic growing in amongst traditional vegies but I still couldn't bring myself to enthusiastically munch on Canna roots, especially as they don't look too appetising (see photo).

Last week, however, I got over conservatism and dug up some big roots. I peeled them, cut them into bite-sized chunks for baking and shoved them in the oven. The verdict - they were great! They were road tested on friends who also found them quite more-ish for their strangely sweet, almost cake like qualities (crossed with a potato, perhaps). I'm going to dwell on this description and provide more details on Canna Root Cooking and Canna Lilies in my next post.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Chokos or Chayote

This summer I grew Chokos (or Chayote) for the first time in years. Melbourne gardeners were once advised to used cold tolerant chokos that had more spines than the commercial ones and I had grown this spiky variety in Melbourne in the past. But this time I simply sprouted some smooth skinned Chokos that appeared in the supermarket briefly in late May/early June 2009. The Choko vines grew quickly on a window sill and were ready for planting in early spring. In the end only one went in the ground. It had to compete with a crazed Queensland Blue Pumpkin vine for several months but once the pumpkin burnt out the Choko became the dominant creeper on the fence. Tiny Chokos are only now just appearing but meanwhile I have been eating the young shoots raw and in stir-frys. And they are a revelation! They are nutty and mild and really delicious. The Choko fruits I remember as being a useful filler but not too exciting, so although I'm looking forward to having them, I will grow Chokos from now on for the shoots alone. The next step will be to try the roots which are also meant to be tasty.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Autumn harvest of unusual edible plants

Two years ago an old friend moved from Sydney to Melbourne and asked me to design her a serious vegetable and herb garden. We converted a kikuyu lawn into a vegie patch through heavy mulching with newspaper, cardboard and pea straw, along with some old fashioned digging. The garden has been very productive and well used. But in Winter 2009 I became obsessed with researching "perennial vegetables", in the hope that I could find plants that look after themselves (more or less) and give a stronger aesthetic element to the garden.

I discovered Eric Toensmeir's great book "Perennial Vegetables" and decided that there were plenty of "Lost Crops of the Incas" that would suit the Armadale garden. These were Jicama (pronounced Hikama), a bean grown for its edible roots, Yacon (a bizarre looking sunflower-esque plant that produces sweet tubers), Oca or New Zealand Yam and Achira or Edible Canna. I grew the Jicama from seed but the rest came via the mail through Green Harvest ( as tubers for planting.

They're all thriving but except for a tentative nibble at a Canna root I'm waiting for late Autumn before digging them up for eating. In the meantime, here are some photos of the these plants and the garden generally.