Food Friday: Grow your own

It’s the most glorious day here in Austin. Our garden has been gradually progressing over the last of winter as I’ve hauled out acres of weeds and started mulching with grass clippings, but I feel confident that it’s now warm enough to start actually planting and I’m really, really excited.

We tried to grow some vegetables last summer when we first arrived. I took such good care of the tomatoes, peppers and basil for a handful of atrocious, 100-plus degree days before the plants suddenly started disappearing. One day there was a thriving tomato plant, the next day there was a thriving half of a tomato plant and the day after, there was no evidence that there had ever been a tomato plant at all. It took a while, but I eventually discovered the culprit. Squirrels. I was heartbroken. I love squirrels! I didn’t want to think ill of them! But the evidence pointed fairly and squarely at squirrels, and as a dumb Australian, I wasn’t quite sure what to do.

This is what we’ve done:

You can barely see the netting - it's really fine, which means it's not the eyesore we'd anticipated.

You can barely see the netting – it’s really fine, which means it’s not the eyesore we’d anticipated.

We’re still not 100% sure how well it will work, but it feels relatively squirrel-proof. Basically, we went down to Home Depot last weekend and bought a bunch of tall stakes and deer-proof netting. We’ve wrapped three sides in the netting, with the fourth attached to an additional stake, which we can lift out as needed, kind of like a gate. We’ve also covered over the top of the garden, because if you’re going to do a job, you may as well do it properly. Now we just need to create some tent-peg-style things to hold down the netting at the bottom – and once that’s done, we can get everything into the ground.

So, what’s everything? Well, this season we’ve got two different types of heirloom tomatoes, one hot and one mild red pepper, the tiniest wee snow pea (a gift from Ronin Cooking at Foodways), lots of sweet basil and an Italian parsley (already planted, since it’s less appealing to squirrels). We’ve still got crazy thickets of oregano and mint left from last season too – somehow they survived the intense heat of August and September, and then the severe frosts of December and January (I’m pretty sure they could handle the apocalypse at this stage). We should hopefully have everything in the garden and thriving by the end of the weekend.

Please excuse our insanely lush grass - we only mowed two weeks ago! It's crazy!

Please excuse our insanely lush grass – we only mowed two weeks ago! It’s crazy!

I really can’t wait until harvest time. Leaving behind our garden in Sydney was one of the tough parts of moving overseas. Making basil pesto is one of my favourite things, and there’s a certain special pleasure that comes from growing, harvesting, prepping and cooking things from your own garden. Not only does it usually taste a thousand-fold better, I love that sense of connection to the earth, and that sense of achievement when you’ve done something yourself, right from the start.

What are you planning to grow this spring? Those of you in the southern hemisphere, what did you grow over summer?


2014: Year of Family Farming

Last week, I recapped 2013, noting that in general, it wasn’t a great year for issues around food and the environment. I also mentioned a few hopeful things for the year ahead, but what I decided to leave for a post of its own was the United Nation’s declaration of 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming.

The stated aims of the IYFF are:

‘to raise the profile of family farming and smallholder farming by focusing world attention on its significant role in eradicating hunger and poverty, providing food security and nutrition, improving livelihoods, managing natural resources, protecting the environment, and achieving sustainable development, in particular in rural areas.’

This is so significant, especially in the context of increasingly globalised and monoculturised (let’s just pretend that’s a word for a moment) agriculture. Increasingly Big Ag is buying up land in developing countries, damaging local ecosystems, reducing food security and eliminating traditional food cultures. I wrote extensively about this last year in a couple of posts, and if you’re really interested, I’d recommend reading Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved. 

Shifting the focus of food from our industrialised system to the more traditional smallholder model is important for all parts of the world though, not just for developing nations. The reasons are different, but the significance is not. So, how is this relevant to us in the ‘global north’?

1) Nutrition

I know I bang on about this a lot. But I really do think that if we devoted a bit more space to family farms that grew a variety of crops, and perhaps even bred some animals, we’d have a whole lot less HFCS and other processed rubbish, and a whole lot more real, fresh food. Maybe that’s really naive of me, but it couldn’t hurt to try.

2) Connection to food and place

It’s so easy these days to lose sight of the fact that food isn’t just conjured up by the magic supermarket fairy. I once read an article about kids who thought that yoghurt grew on trees ( no, really). This alone seems like as good a reason as any to start engaging communities with the process of growing and producing food. I honestly believe that every single child should have the opportunity to spend some time in a vegetable garden, getting their fingers grubby and watching plants grow. Whether that be in their backyard, at their school, in a community garden doesn’t matter. But it’s something that I think is absolutely essential.

3) Land management 

I’ve linked to this report before and I’ll link to it again. Monoculture cropping is destroying valuable fertile farmland. It’s also destroying much of the Gulf of Mexico, literally suffocating the ecosystem. Greater variety in planting means less need for fertiliser, and less erosion. Even diversifying just a portion of each of the huge monoculture farms in the USA could make a difference.

And so, while the IYFF is most relevant to developing nations, where people often rely on family farming for their most basic nutritional needs, it also needs to be taken seriously in other wealthier countries. Unfortunately, I just don’t think it’s going to mesh too well with the Big Ag bottom line.

Update on the veggie patch

You guys may remember our veggie patch back in late October from this post. I thought I’d just share with you how the garden is going…

PicMonkey Collage

Our tomato plants are trying to take over the entire garden. We have hundreds more tiny green ones still on the bush – the top right hand corner is part of the first harvest (we ate some before I took this photo). Everything apart from the capsicums is thriving like crazy and I get excited every time I walk out the back door. Even better, I’ll hopefully be able to keep the edible garden going all year round – David gave me the Little Veggie Patch Co’s Guide to Backyard Farming for Christmas, which recommends fruits and vegetables for planting and harvesting all year round.
For now though, I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that everything will bounce back okay after today’s heat – it’s been 43 degrees Celsius in Sydney…

Exciting news and a garden sneak peek!

I mentioned the other day that we have been on a bit of a plant collecting rampage lately, so I thought it was about time I shared some photos of our tiny, crowded and very well loved garden.

As I mentioned yesterday, it’s pretty hard to opt out of the industrial food system and one of the only ways to do so is to grow-your-own.  Not always easy when you’re living on a square poofteenth of an acre.  That said, in the bottom left photo, you can see our wee vegie patch, where we are growing three types of tomato, capsicums, oregano, rosemary and two titchy kale plants.  On the other side of the garden we also have a struggling parsley plant, basil and mint.

We’re also growing some trees – in pots at this stage.  Check out my gingko!  And my maple!

The pots you can see around the back of the garden bed (and the garden bed itself) mainly contain Australian natives – Grevilleas, Kangaroo Paws, Pink and Black Tea Trees, Emu Paw and Banksia.  There are a gazillion more pots on the roof of the house, where Dave’s stage one bonsai farm is growing merrily – you can’t waste space when you barely have any!  I’ll try to get some shots soon.

And finally for the day (and totally unrelated to our garden), I have exciting news.  I have officially been offered a place in the Masters of Science in Environmental Health!  I had previously been enrolled in the Postgrad Diploma in Environmental Studies – the slightly shorter program and the breadth of subjects offered suited me better when I first went back to uni.  Now that I know the direction I want to go in, I’m thrilled that I can actually move forward in it!

I am so excited!


5 totally not rocket science tips for reducing your footprint

Maybe it’s just the blogs and news articles I read, but it’s becoming harder and harder not to just get caught up in a cycle-of-DOOM mentality: in which the human race is exterminated through its own folly, after decades of warfare over food and water, dying en masse from heatwaves and hurricanes and unseasonable cold snaps.

Doom= feeling defeated.

There are little, totally simple things we can do though.  This is just the tiniest handful of ideas, many of which have been shared a thousand times before, but please feel free to share it around…

Grow things.  Plant trees to offset carbon emissions.  Place pot plants around your home to help purify the air.  Grow your own herbs and vegetables, using as little pesticide and commercial fertiliser as possible. Use native plants to help prevent erosion and restore the soil.


Not just at home and not just the lights.  Turn off the computer when you leave the office.  If you’re the last one out, turn off the lights.  Office blocks should look like it’s Earth Hour every night.  At home, switch to energy efficient bulbs – they actually produce bright enough light these days and will save you money in the long run.  Turn off the TV if no one is watching.  Spend time away from the TV and the computer – read a book, spend time with friends, go for a run.

It’s really easy.  I’m not suggesting you go vegan or vegetarian or flexitarian or whatever.  Just eat a little less – make at least one (preferably two) meals a day meat free.  There are so many fantastic non-meat options for protein available that you shouldn’t feel deprived.  Remember, cheese is still on the menu!

Walk where you can. Ride where you can.  Walk to the train or the bus.  Just drive less.  Sometimes, it’s hard to avoid, sure.  But if you’re driving 3 blocks to the store, you’re doing it wrong.

Share your food – it’ll be all the tastier.  Cook more and avoid processed junk that is produced from crops that have caused deforestation in factories that are run on fossil fuels.  Enjoy good food – that alone challenges the industrial food system.


We are moving house again!  As of this coming weekend, we will finally have a backyard, after 9 months of apartment living.  Spring is here now, so this is very, very exciting.

Recently though, we have had some new adventures in apartment gardening, in the form of a mushroom box.  The hot water system cupboard under our kitchen sink has become the dark, warm home to some enthusiastically growing mushrooms.

Exhibit A:

Arty mushroom shot thanks to David

Exhibit B:

Yes, the mushroom is nearly as big as my head. Yes, I’m wearing a super daggy, oversized hoodie :]


the first hints of spring

I’ve just about finished a ghastly essay on stakeholder analysis in environmental decision making.  It has utterly fried my brain all weekend – somehow, it’s a thousand times more complex than it sounds- so I thought I’d share a few photos of the first signs of spring that are showing in our garden (and of a few of my favourite succulents).  Apologies, my camera is on the blink once again, so you’re stuck with the iPhone and instagram edits (the weather is bleak and washed out a lot of the colour)


And my favourite indoor succulent that is growing like crazy and didn’t need editing:

plant rescue weekends

Surprise, surprise…we’ve bought more plants.  I know, I know…we are nothing if not predictable.  But these plants are a little more special than usual. These are rescue plants. These are the plants that may change my gardening habits a lot.

Firstly. last weekend we were out at Bunnings Warehouse again.  In the spirit of restraint, I only bought two new succulents (!) and two plants from the ‘Discount Table’ which is more of a ‘We-Have-Totally-Given-Up-On-These-Plants-But-Don’t-Want-To-Lose-Profit’ table.  It’s a sad little corner – I want to save everything, even the roses.  And I freakin’ hate roses.

One was a ridiculously sickly lavender marked down to $2.  I’ve since transplanted it into a window box which gets lots of sun and light and loaded it up with fresh compost.  I’m not holding out much hope though.

The other was this incredible, shaggy mess of a geranium, marked down to $3.50.  It was practically exploding from its pot, just one quite lovely flower in bloom.  I couldn’t leave it behind.

I got to transplanting it this weekend – it was obviously far too big for its pot.  I was pretty horrified to see just how much too big it was though:

It was completely pot-bound.  The roots had actually started growing up, back into the leaves and branches of the plant.  I was borderline furious.  I know Bunnings is a hardware.  I know it’s all about the bottom line in terms of price.  But plants completely outgrowing their pots is such an easy problem to prevent.  Combined with the number of bugs and flying things I’ve seen at Bunnings at Alexandria, I think I’ll be going elsewhere for plants in future.  Denial eh?  Hell of a thing.

Luckily, we found this brilliant garden centre, also in Alexandria.  Pre-Loved Roots (insert 14-year-old-boy giggle here) is basically like the Salvo’s for plants.  People who move to apartments, people who can no longer look after their plants and people who just lack the time and inclination can call PLR, who will come and pick them up and tend them until they are sold on.  As such, there was a huge and really interesting range of established plants for super cheap prices.  We came home with some enormous buxus trees for Dave to bonsai, a jade plant, an crazy little cactus and a pretty wee succulent for about $30.


Yes, Dave is trying to give the Jade bunny-ears


Sorry, this is appallingly blurry!

It’s good to know that some places actually care about the plants that they sell.  PLR was an incredible place – I would really recommend it, particularly for cacti, succulents and bromeliads – the selection of those plants was really huge.


the broccopalypse (& how to stop it)

You may recall my post about a month ago after we’d gone a little crazy at Bunnings and Flower Power.  I’d planted all sorts of vegies and I was looking forward to a relatively home-grown-food spring.

Well, it’s rained this week.  A lot.  And the snails freakin’ loved it.  They loved my broccoli even more.

I’m not impressed.  I’ve currently filled a small, half-lidded container with snail bait (half-lidded because Gogol is the kind of cat that I caught chomping on incense sticks this morning…), but to be honest, I’m not really thrilled to use chemical pest-control.  This is just an emergency measure until I can try a few other things.

Most of these tips are from Organic Gardening magazine and Mother Earth News (via Treehugger).

1. Beer.  I’ve tried this one before – basically it means filling some small cups or low dishes with beer (usually something kind of gross like VB or XXXX will do the trick) and setting them so that the top is just above the level of the soil.  Apparently snails love beer almost as much as they’ve loved my basil in the past, because I’ve caught quite a few using this method.  It doesn’t work quite so well if the plants being attacked are in a smallish trough.

2. Coffee grounds.  Apparently snails don’t like getting too gritty so they won’t usually crawl across the grounds to get to the plant.  Given that I drink at least 2 plunger coffees a day, this should be a pretty easy one to try.  Eggshells would work similarly, except that being allergic to eggs means that we’re unlikely to have many eggshells on hand.

3. Garlic and/or chilli spray.  I’ve heard mixed reports about the efficacy of this, given that it washes off as soon as it rains – which is usually when the snails party most hearty.

4. Ducks and/or chickens.  Nice thought in the country, or even in the ‘burbs.  But in an inner-city share-house, I suspect that the neighbours and the landlord might have a little somethin’-somethin’ to say about a chook farm.  Still, it’s apparently one of the most effective methods, so if you can do it, go nuts.

5. The most obvious -collect them.  That’s fine in summer and it’s something that I do quite frequently (one legendary evening I collected 75 snails), but snails don’t only come out on weekends and it’s usually dark out by the time I get home during winter.

Any other pro-tips? Let me know!

In the meantime, at least my snow peas (out of reach of snails) and my leeks (obviously less snail-licious) are growing beautifully: