28 March 2014

My anti-cancer garden

I wrote last month about the anti-cancer approach I'm taking to eating. But am I having to buy all those vegetables and fruit? No. A heap of them come from the back garden, especially since it's early autumn and we are laden with grapes, zucchini, tomatoes, lettuce, silverbeet and beans. The feijoas are starting now too, and the few capsicums I grew are turning red.

Thank goodness. I would hate to have to buy all that! But since all this stuff grows mainly from seed, there's a whole lot of prep work that needs doing to ensure a continuing supply for the coming winter.

This post is about growing a consistent supply of vegetables that are nutrient-dense - a great anti-cancer way of eating. It includes a few tricks you might be able to use, both to get the veges growing and to increase the amount of nutrients in them.

Here's part of our garden now. Wierd, eh?

The old mosquito net in the top photo is to keep white butterflies off kale and broccoli seedlings. It has been a huge battle to grow any seedlings at all, because the white butterfly eggs hatch into hungry green caterpillars that have decimated a third of my seedlings. The seedlings I've been growing are broccoli, kale, cabbage, red multiplying onions (to be used similarly to spring onions) and leeks. I've also been direct-sowing green and red mizuna and rocket. These salad greens thrive in frost, unlike lettuce. I'm trying out mustard leaves for the first time. Plus carrot and beetroot are already poking their heads out, and there is always always self-seeded silverbeet, parsnips and parsley.

Here are some uses for those stylish old net curtains. This one is also keeping off white butterflies.It's propped up by wire hoops, and I want more. (Here is a link to buy some lovely looking bamboo ones - I haven't tried them yet but will order some when they're back in stock.)

I know it's not beautiful, but what it creates is. With a peek underneath, you can see that the broccoli plants underneath seem extremely pleased with their cloak. These plants have only been in about a month, and they're huge. As you can see from the little holes in the leaves, the odd white butterfly has made it under the curtain. I find them and feed them to the chooks.

This one is keeping the soil moist during our current hot days so that carrot, rocket and beetroot seeds spring to life. They're starting. I water them every evening while the mozzies get a good feed from me.

This is sheet mulching. It's a permaculture concept which is basically building a sandwich-like compost heap in situ on a garden bed. There are layers of animal manure, blood and bone, cardboard, straw, leaves and green waste (old plants, weeds etc). Kitchen scraps could go in there too. You can imagine what great vege-growing stuff it will decompose into.(I built it on a very windy day, that's why there are mesh and branches on top. We've had barely a puff of wind since.)

Why the heck am I building such a strange sandwich?

Because in spite of full plates of veges, there could still be something lacking. Something invisible.

Vegetables need three minerals to grow: nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Their symbols are N, P and K, which is why you get NPK fertilisers to add to the soil. The many other nutrients we and other mammals need - for example selenium, zinc, copper etc etc - are optional when it comes to plant growth.

They are not, however, optional for full human health, especially when it comes to critical things like blitzing potential cancer tumours, which we all have to do frequently, without knowing it. If those nutrient are not in the soil, they're not in the food, and they're not in you.

The way plants grow in nature generally keeps all these minerals in the soil. They circulate - the leaves and old fruit drop, the animals poo, wee and die, and the goodness goes back into the soil. In commercial growing systems, of course, this never happens - the horticulturalists take plants from the soil, and give back only NPK so that more plants will grow. They generally don't add back the other 'optional' nutrients.

So the sheet mulching above is:
1) my way of adding those other nutrients.

2) getting scores of soil microorganisms going, as well as the bigger creepy crawlies so beloved by chickens. Those creepy crawlies are why my chickens do this to mulch - that path was tidy this morning!

The little soil creatures do great things for soil. So many things I can't begin to describe them, but the wikipedia page on soil microorganisms is here. Notably, one group of them produce antibiotics widely used in medicine - to treat tuberculosis and bladder infections, for starters. Spend one minute reading that page and you will be doing all you can to get these guys in your soil, too. That means MULCH.

Oh, and mulch holds water in the soil, as does the organic matter that the sheet mulching will produce when it decomposes. Anyone living in these parts right now knows how this REALLY matters in a drought.We are so, so dry here.

Hey, this is not a biology class, but the bolded words above remind me of one! I thought they might help untangle my words, though.

So if you are keen on this approach to food, get out there! In the evenings, you could watch telly. Or - for the week or two more that it's still light after dinner - you could garden up your future dinners.

18 March 2014

Inspired by a garden visit

Late last year Ian's colleague came to visit us, and as a keen gardener herself duly went outside for an appreciation session. My clear impression - perhaps due to her open mouth and unusually quiet demeanor - was that there was horror rather than appreciation humming through her veins upon the sight of our rampant jungle.

Why? She is a row person, and I knew that. Rows of broccoli, cabbages, etc. We are not row gardeners.

Then a few weeks ago we visited her garden, and I had occasion to realise, yet again, that we really have no idea what others think of us (or our gardens). Enter Robbie Burns:
"And would some Power the small gift give us
To see ourselves as others see us!" 

Because, you see, she mentioned to her mother, who was also there, that our garden is more of a permaculture garden, and that she'd love to garden more like that, but she can't bring herself to! Control is important to her.

Regardless of the difference between our gardens, I loved visiting hers. I learnt a few things.

1. She gets carrot seeds to sprout reliably by covering them with a piece of wood and checking daily to see when they have sprouted, then removing it. The wood keeps the seeds moist, and it is drying out that leads to the notorious bad luck gardeners have with carrot seeds. To shade the new seedlings, she then covers the seedlings with an onion bag suspended on sticks.

2. Chickens jumping over the fence? String a couple of lines of pantyhose or rags above the fence. It fools them into thinking the fence is higher than it is.

3. Mulch the soil. How did I forget this one? The soil under her tomatoes was damp, rich and friable although it was the hottest, driest time of the year. Ours, in contrast, showed evidence of desertification. I'd been put off mulching by the information that purchased peastraw is killed by Roundup (that's how they make it brown) and by the slug and snail damage that mulch brings with it. I'm working on a solution to those things.

4. Plant supply. She has this down pat. She sows small amounts of seed regularly so her family is constantly supplied with vegetables, rather than having a glut. She sprouts them indoors under fluorescent tubes fitted with daylight bulbs. The heat from the lights sprouts seeds astoundingly fast, then the light gets the seedlings growing fast.

(Here I must mention that this woman works full-time outside the home and has two young children. Yes, she is supremely organised.)

As my family will attest, I was so inspired by the visit that I've become consumed by growing vegetables and fruit. The truth is that over summer I had just lost interest in the garden. Ian, however, compensated by gardening almost every day. Now that I'm out the back a lot, he's inside resting. Why does that happen? I've noticed it over the years: the minute I get into lazy mode, he whips into action, and when I get going he retreats. He doesn't even notice he's doing it.

For now, I'm chief gardener. The carrots have sprouted, the chickens have a low fence with pantyhose and old leggings strung above it, and the most recently planted garden is mulched and thriving accordingly.

I've abandoned any thought of rows, fueled my reading of a permaculture book, Gaia's Garden. It may be hippy stuff, but there is so much sense to it! I did a one-day permaculture course about 20 years ago and had forgotten much of it.

Now I realise that the comment about our garden being like permaculture was a compliment to our garden and an insult to permaculture. (Sorry garden, I still love you dearly, but we can do so much more!) However, I'm working on changing that, starting with the soil, which permaculture puts a lot of emphasis on improving. Hello, anti-cancer vegetables. More next post....

11 March 2014

End of summer backyard

It's the time of year here when the cicadas change the soul of their song. Instead of the raucous, celebratory screech of high summer, they sing in a minor chord, sad to be saying goodbye to the scorching heat. (Not that the days are much cooler now, but the nights certainly are.)

Sometimes we make the most of them by picking their old skins off trees - sometimes there are hundreds, if not thousands of discarded exoskeletons clinging to a single tree! Our chickens love them as a crunchy treat, you see.

I promised in springtime (and here) that I'd give a run down on successful and not so successful vegetable seeds I was trying. So I'll do that today, saving the lowdown on my anti-cancer winter vegetable plans for later in the week. Oh, and before then, a word on inspiration and rows vs random in the garden.

Mainly what I want to say about the garden is how magnificent, as always, it has been this summer to go out the back and pick huge amounts of super healthy food! What fun it's been, too, to create it. I love the creating part, the way it alters the landscape so profoundly, and how tiny seeds can turn into so much.

Beans. I professed a love for scarlet runner beans, not only for their taste while young, but their productivity. Ha! It's been a disappointing season. Usually we give a lot away, but we didn't even have enough for ourselves, really. A bean grower at our Farmer's Market told me that bumblebees damage scarlet runner flowers, and we have a lot of those big furry pollinators. It could also be due to growing them in the same place for several years in a row. Time for a change of location next year, and possibly of bean type!

Cucumbers. There have been some failed plants. But one of the seedlings I got from a church fair, possibly labelled burpless, gave us a real surprise. It was rampant, probably because it's growing in a spot that housed a compost bin for a couple of years and has been gorging on the resulting nutrients. But the many fruit are yellow with stumpy black spikes. They don't taste quite as good as the green version, sadly.

Slow-bolt coriander. Forget it. What a disaster - sure, it didn't bolt, but it barely grew, either.

Florence-ribbed zucchini. I loved it! Well, as much as you can love zucchini. But my husband and someone else I gave a plant to said they prefer plain old zucchini. We've had a wild plant of that, too.

Artichokes. Dead. Yes - death by aphid attack and a gardener who never got around to spraying them. I'm hoping the plants will emerge again in spring.

Tomatoes. We have gorged. The cherry tomatoes have been abundant and sweet, and it's been wonderful to have these big, tasty brandywine tomatoes, so different in flavour and texture, but so full of character. I'll definitely grow them again next year. (Does anyone know if the photo below is tomato blight? Because now the plants are much browner, and green tomatoes still hang, but don't ripen. The cherry tomatoes are less brown, and still ripening.)

Capsicum. We've eaten a few because the branches are so heavy that some of them snapped off! Mainly we are waiting for these huge beauties to turn red. These are Dulce espana, and are not long and pointed as I'd expected!

Peaches. Our own peaches, for the first time. Tastewise I can't rave about them, but they are ours! The 'dwarf' tree, however, looks bigger than it should. I bought some golden queen peaches at a market last week, and was reminded of how sublime they are. Nothing beats a perfectly ripe golden queen peach - they have such intense flavour. They're big trees, though, and we don't have the space.

Grapes. The green 'Niagara' grape vine I bought from the Warehouse a few years ago is giving us its finest crop ever. Divine.

I could go on - we have a lot of stuff packed into our little section! But I'll end with flowers. We've had sweet peas, cosmos, marigolds, poppies, lavender, sunflowers and borage scattered around the garden. They're gorgeous and I hope help attract pollinators and beneficial insects. 

I'll miss my summer evenings in the garden, weeding, watering and harvesting. The dark is coming earlier now, faster and faster, and soon we'll make soup and light the fire. But not quite yet.

3 March 2014

Loving knitted vegetables

Welcome to a garden with a difference. The vegetables are made of real WOOL!

In the weekend Anna and I went to our local museum (the Waikato Museum), and this is one of the displays. A staff member's mother knitted these vegetables three or four years ago. It's testament to the power of wool that they are still going strong despite very frequent handling. They are Anna's favourite thing there, and she ran straight to them when we got through the doors.

She grabs one of the harvest baskets they have in the garden shed, and starts filling it like mad. The shed is also home to garden tools (safely but frustratingly permanently strapped to the walls), and dress-up style butterfly wings in case a little one wants to do a little bit of pollinating.

It's more fun than the real garden at home, I suspect, because everything can be harvested immediately and no one gets told off for pulling inch-long carrots out of the ground! Anna does, however, love being outside with me in the garden. Not long ago she asked for it to be just her and me in the garden one evening. Plus our cat, of course, who like all cats loves his owner's company out in his territory. She didn't help much, and watered the concrete path instead of the plants, but lay around and enjoyed the atmosphere.

The leaf to the right is from our zucchini plant, which continues to be prolific. Indeed, I'm about to eat leftover zucchini fritters for lunch. 

Stay tuned for a 'real' garden post!
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