Sunday, October 18, 2015

Horticulture at Burnley turns 125 years in 2016!

 All great cities have colleges or campuses that teach horticulture! Melbourne is no exception. I teach and research at the Burnley Campus of the University of Melbourne where 2016 marks 125 years of horticultural education, engagement and research at the laboratories, nursery, historic gardens and field station of the campus' eight hectares. There is much to celebrate for this anniversary in the design, management and maintenance of gardens, vegetation and landscapes by generations of Burnley graduates. Click on the link below for more information and register to get updates for the 2016 events. I will write more about Burnley's history throughout 2016

In 2016 we invite you to help us celebrate Burnley’s historical achievements in education and discover more about the school’s plans for the future.
Students in the gardens 1920s-30s
Events will be held at the Burnley campus throughout 2016.
The following timeline is your guide in lieu of the full program. Stay tuned for details.
To receive further updates on the 125 year celebrations program please register your contact details here.
We look forward to celebrating with you in 2016.
Burnley Garden Party Launch
Melbourne International Flower & Garden Show Installation
Burnley Alumni Event and Open Day
May to November
Seminar Series
Greening Cities Conference

Monday, July 20, 2015

Coles selling two varieties of sweet potato as "White Sweet Potato"

In Australia supermarkets sell about two to three varieties of Sweet Potato - the orange Beauregard, the purple Northern Star (with the white flesh) and the white Hawaiian Sunshine (white flesh with purple streaks). In Melbourne the biggest grocery retailers, Coles and Woolworths, usually only sell Northern Star and Beauregard. Last week I noticed that my local Coles were selling Hawaiian Sunshine - or so I thought! In fact they were selling Hawaiian Sunshine along with some other off-white Sweet Potato as a generic "White Sweet Potato". Apart from their different colour and texture these two "white potatoes" had different internal colours. How do I know this? I broke the tops off a couple to make sure. I saw this at the Coles in Northcote Plaza (the Coles that used to be Bi-Lo). And then I had to go to Ivanhoe Coles in the afternoon and I saw the same set-up. You can see my photos below. And what's the big deal you might say? Well, I think this is really odd and a bit insulting to consumers. It would be like selling Butternut and Queensland Blue pumpkins in the same bin as "pumpkins" or Valencia and Navel oranges as generic "oranges". Not cool I say!

Coles Northcote

Coles Northcote

Coles Ivanhoe

Anyway, if Coles are helping Sweet Potato growers introduce new varieties then that's great but let us know what's going on! It is remarkable when you consider that there are around 6000 Sweet Potato varieties grown across the planet. Papua New Guinea, our nearest neighbour, is a hot spot for Sweet Potato diversity and yet we stay stuck mostly with boring old Beauregard which is the biggest seller in Australia by a long shot. Of course Beauregard has its virtues including high yield, ease of harvest (the tubers are close to the main stem) and disease resistance etc. Its the variety that has brought Sweet Potato back into Western diets as a mainstream food after its development in Louisiana in the 1980s.

I'm going to look into this practice of "lumping" varieties together and see what's going on...

Friday, July 10, 2015

Yams in the Burnley Demonstration Garden 2014-2015 growing season

We're well into the depths of winter here in Melbourne - in fact there's a one-in-60-years Antarctic Vortex on the way - but we've just finished harvesting last summer's yams from the demonstration garden in the Field Station. In this post I'll just show some photos of the garden as it grew over summer and autumn and some of the yams we patiently dug up. Unlike other roots crops that emerge from the ground without a fight, yams grow straight down and deep, so if you don't want to break them you have dig carefully around them to as much as 40cm, probably deeper in more optimal climates. I'll get into some more of these growing issues in later posts. 

early November 2014 - freshly planted

My office turned into a curing shed for yams...a diversity of shapes and sizes...look weird but taste great

Friday, February 27, 2015

Melbourne Food and Wine Festival - Eat Think Talk Grow and Food Production for Urban Landscapes (new subject)

Next week I commence teaching a new subject in the Master of Urban Horticulture called Food Production for Urban Landscapes (FPUL). Apart from the excitement of generating new lecture content and therefore going back into study-mode myself there is the added excitement of creating a hands-on vegetable growing program for the students. As far as I can tell (and I'm happy to be corrected!) this will be the only full semester allotment style food growing prac at the Masters level in Australia and possibly at the Bachelor level too. At any rate months of work have gone into developing plant material for the program not to mention purchasing tools and equipment, re-doing water pipes in the historic Burnley Field Station etc etc.

Meanwhile FPUL demonstrators Jenny Pearce, Lia De Gruchy, Engagement Officer Jenny McCoy, nursery crew Sascha and Nick and me have been putting together a display of veggie planter boxes over the last few months as part of the launch of the University of Melbourne's farmers' market -

We'll have interesting stuff for people to look at, touch and taste such as Kang Kong (water spinach), sweet potatoes, yams etc. Our stuff will still be growing while you can buy produce ready to go from various farmers and producers. It's going to be under or near the Raymond Priestly Building from 10.00am-3.00pm next Wednesday March 4 from 10.00am-3.00pm so please come by and say hello if you're on the Parkville campus of the University of Melbourne. I was quoted briefly in the Age about this morning. I'm looking forward to running the workshops and activities with local primary school students

We'll be spreading the good news on how you too can grow "feral" quantities of delicious Taro under your Hills Hoist!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Eating Monstera deliciosa

I've been watching the fruit on my Swiss Cheese Plants for the last week because I could see that they were ripening. Sure enough this morning two of them looked like they were falling apart so I decided to pick them. You can see from the photos that they don't look that appetising but I've had them before and they were really tasty. My two plants are neglected and only receive extra summer watering irregularly so it's no surprise that the ripe portions I pulled off this morning were only in small amounts. I'm hoping that the unripe bits will soften up over the next couple of days. In the meantime the bits of gloop I pulled off and consumed were yummy, a cross between pineapple and banana (as you will often see it described). So keep an eye on your humble Monstera, forgotten in some obscure part of your garden - usually "down the side". By the way, Monstera is in the same family as Taro, the Araceae and the fruit, as with a taro tuber, contains calcium oxalate. This means that if you eat it when not fully ripe it may sting or irritate your lips or throat - you have been warned!

Surinam spinach - Talinum triangulare

I've wanted to write about this plant for a long time. As with so many perennial edibles in Australia I found it on the Green Harvest website. It's another useful food plant from South America along with Cassava, Sweet Potato, Potato, Chillies, Achira, Yacon etc etc. It is very heat tolerant and this is one reason it has become a popular vegetable in West Africa. It is quite ornamental too with pretty pink flowers and succulent green leaves. It is indeed heat tolerant and last year when temperatures in Melbourne climbed into the 40s for a week my Surinam Spinach plants didn't miss a beat. Although it is meant to contain fair amounts of oxalic acid I don't find it has any of that slightly floury aftertaste that you get from say Silverbeet, also high in oxalic acid. The edible portions of the plant are the stems and leaves and because of their succulence, with a touch of sourness, they help bulk up a stew or soup and are really quite delicious.  Surinam Spinach is easy to strike from cuttings and to my delight has started to self-sow in my garden - a handy way to get new plants each year. They will also overwinter in Melbourne although only just, and it's easier to strike a few cuttings and keep these new plants in a sheltered position or polytunnel/hoop house during the colder months until they race off again in mid to late spring. Definitely worth it.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Yams in Melbourne - Japanese or Chinese Yams are the easiest to grow

White Yams Dioscorea alata are very beautiful plants and I've been working out the best way to grow them down here at Lat 38 south. All this time though I've also been growing, but kind of neglecting, another Yam that is in fact a lot easier to grow than White Yam, Chinese or Japanese Yam, Dioscorea opposita or polystachya (depending on the source). These are the long, white yams sold in various markets and which I embarrassingly once mistook for Cassava and used for a student prac.
Chinese Yams have smaller more delicate leaves than White Yams and in that way their beauty is more subtle. The actual yams are very long and skinny and probably best grown in deeply dug, raised beds if you are serious about production. See this man taking them out of a purpose-built planter box:

Their main virtue in terms of ease of cultivation is their cold tolerance, more specifically their ability to overwinter in cold, shaded, moist soil. I have pretty much proved now that White Yams can't do this in Melbourne and will rot if not lifted and stored. They will will only re-shoot in spring in a free-draining, open sunny site (more on that in another post).

But Chinese Yams ride through it all with no problems and do not rot at all. Their foliage also persists long into winter and still looks good too even after a few cold nights. This is a plant that deserves to be grown more commonly as a deciduous herbaceous climber with the added bonus of edible tubers.At present they are not sold in nurseries and you can't buy them from such pioneers of alternative edibles as Greenharvest or Isabella Shipard. I'll work with my students at Burnley this year to see if we can change that in some way.

If you're from southern Australia have a look at the following video of a Chinese gentleman growing a commercial yam crop in the (relatively) cold Otway Ranges south-east of Melbourne. Quite extraordinary, I'd love to meet this guy.

Finally, a shot of Chinese Yam foliage from my garden this year:

Chinese Yam growing up a trellis with Brazilian Spinach and Mushroom Plant growing underneath  

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Growing Cassava or Manioc in Melbourne

Cassava is one of the world's most important staple foods, at number five after corn, wheat, rice and potatoes. It tolerates drought, heat and infertile soils and produces starchy roots and edible leaves. It's also easy to propagate by cuttings. As a member of the Euphorbiaceae it's no surprise that Cassava contains cyanide and therefore it must be thoroughly cooked to remove the hydrocyanic acid. It's also a beautiful plant and there are ornamental varieties available apparently in the United States, which I'm fairly confident don't exist in Australia although I will double check this in the near future. I've been having a go at growing Cassava in Melbourne for the last two years and unlike some other tropical plants that are surprisingly productive at this latitude, Cassava seems relatively marginal. 

Cassava it seems needs more heat than Melbourne's growing season can provide. However, with access to the glasshouses and polytunnels of the Burnley Campus of the University of Melbourne, I have been able to grow established plants ready for summer planting. Last year these grew well in the Burnley Field Station and looked very attractive growing amidst yams, taro and cranberry hibiscus. I didn't try the leaves but will do so this summer. I dug up the roots in late autumn and production wasn't great but they were delicious nonetheless. As various sources promise, Cassava roots freeze well and a small bag of pre-cut frozen roots plunged straight into boiling water worked perfectly during winter.

Cassava in the middle with the palmate leaves
On a final note, I've been working on a great project on the Richmond Housing public estate with my student Lia De Gruchy, Kath Orsanic-Clark the Urban Agriculture Facilitator from the City of Yarra and with Bernadette Jennings and Andrew Williams from the Department of Human Services at the estate. The project is a story for another time but in short we recently planted some Cassava there and one local resident was astonished to see four Cassava plants freshly plonked in the ground. She was originally from Indonesia and told us that many members of the Indonesian community really miss Cassava leaves which she said taste like silverbeet. Many plants such as Cassava could be grown in nurseries for sale to
communities whose gardening interests are usually ignored. Just like tomatoes, egg plants and cucumbers there is nothing inherently difficult in growing heat loving plants in greenhouses in winter ready for the spring, summer, autumn growing season.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Eating Sweet Potato leaves - excellent summer spinach

Sweet Potato plants are excellent ground cover plants once established because they sprawl prolifically and tend to close any gaps in the 'canopy' of their foliage. This stops weeds pushing through their leaves. This mass of foliage look great too and for this reason there are many types of ornamental sweet potato varieties with different leaf shapes and colours. I've planted crop and ornamental types this year and they all look beautiful.

Perhaps more interesting and exciting is that Sweet Potato leaves (and the young stems) are edible and nutritious. They have a relatively high protein content and therefore complement the low protein content of the tubers. I have bought Sweet Potato leaves from the Asian section of the Preston Market, sold alongside Kang Kong, Rau Om and other Asian greens. The link below takes you to a paper called
Nutritional and Medicinal Qualities of Sweetpotato Tops and Leaves from the extension service of the University of Arkansas. It rates the leaves very highly indeed.

But do they taste any good? The answer is yes. The can be cooked as a simple boiled/steamed spinach to become a green blob of at the side of your plate, or try the more adventurous recipe below from page 156 of the book Cooking with Asian Leaves by Devagi Sanmugam and Christopher Tan:

Sweet Potato Leaves in Coconut Gravy

Sweet Potato leaves
Lemon Grass
Red Chillies
Turmeric powder
Coconut Cream

Pour boiling water over the sweet potato leaves and let it stand for about 1-2 minutes. This is to get rid of any sap that is sticking to the leaves.
Strain water and rinse the leaves with cold water to prevent it from overcooking. Heat oi. Saute the shallots, garlic, ginger, lemon grass and red chillies until aromatic and soft. Add in the turmeric powder, coconut cream, water and salt. Bring to the boil for 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add in the blanched leaves and mix well. Serve with rice.

Here are some photos of various sweet potato leaves from my garden including some ornamental types which I've planted in the front yard.