Archive for the ‘growing food’ Category


Big hopes for small spaces

November 23, 2011

As I’m away at Varuna, the Writers’  House this week I thought I’d invite a guest post for this blog, something I’ve not done before. So a warm welcome and my huge thanks to Naomi Parry, aka @drnaomi, one of my lovely Twitter friends, for her review of  The Little Vegie Patch Co: How to Grow Food in Small Spaces.  I’ve had my eye on this one, along with Indira Naidoo’s The Edible Balcony, because I have always sighed at gardening books which promise much but assume everyone has an acre or two in which to work, as opposed to the reality most of us face. If you’re like me, you have a small city courtyard (or balcony) but are still keen to grow food. Our tiny courtyard is presently growing around 40 tomatoes in a pot, and around a dozen baby zucchinis in another, along with lettuces, silverbeet, herbs and eggplants scattered around the garden beds, and another couple of pots with an olive and a small fig tree. It is very possible to grow good food in tiny spots, but there is so little information around – so I for one am very pleased publishers are starting to recognise this gap.

Take it away Miz Naomi…

Guest post: Book review by Naomi Parry

The Little Vegie Patch Co: How to grow food in small spaces

I find this book irresistible. To start with, there are two cute young guys on the cover … but seriously, this is a practical book that shows us how to grow food in urban environments. It’s informed by the passion and experience of the authors, men of Italian descent who were inspired by their grandparents’ productive backyards to make a business creating raised garden beds for horticultural newbies. One of them has a background in advertising and it shows – this book is one snazzy package. But it is built on a sound understanding of the way growing at least a little of our own food connects us to the earth and improves our lives. Capomolla and Pember’s stories of childhood gardens, food and family members would keep anyone reading, from the planting chart in the front to the vegetable pictures in the back, and along the way they slip in a range of thoughtful observations about food production and the way supermarket culture erodes our understanding of the land that would please the most earnest advocate for slow food and urban gardening.

The Little Vegie Patch is generously illustrated and so gorgeously designed that it looks like a luxe cookbook, which only serves to make the serious message it carries all the more palatable. Yet it’s not solemn; there’s more than a touch of Andy Griffiths in the sections on manure and compost, and it’s quite clear that, for these guys, gardens are a place to drink beer and cider. I love its self-deprecating tone. Capomolla and Pember acknowledge silverbeet is easy to grow, yet you may still feel it is crap; they ask why the first people to eat chillies ever decided to eat them again and warn “the carrots you grow will look nothing like the long, fat, waxed things you buy from the supermarket. They will be bent, hooked, curved and stumpy.” And Pember, a naughty uncle, advises that children are most easily engaged in activities that waste water, so teach the kids to shoot pests off plants with water pistols.

Although it looks good and is a compelling read, The Little Vegie Patch is far from lightweight. It has useful and clear information on climate zones, sunshine needs, planting guides and soil structure, with growing guides for a decent – though not comprehensive – range of vegetables (missing are the lovely bitter greens so beloved of Italians, or much about herbs, and I would question why you’d bother growing a big hungry plant like sweetcorn or a sprawling bastard like pumpkin if you only had a tiny yard). But you can find information on veges in a host of other books.

This book comes into its own with its explanations of making raised beds, along with the mechanism for installing irrigation and the best timbers to use. Exact measurements and numbers of tricky things like hose elbows are provided, taking the stress out of trips to the hardware store. If you are interested in the finer points of no dig gardens, composting, worm farms, growing from seed (in ingenious loo roll planters!) and seed saving, Capomolla and Pember offer plenty of information, all with the sensible suggestion to start off growing the things you most want to eat.

There’s only one disappointing element, which is that although the blurb on the back of the book suggests it will help you grow food in pots on the balcony, it turns out that the “small spaces” mentioned in the sub-title are really just raised beds and a few accoutrements for the larger garden, such as potato stacks. I wonder why on earth publishers don’t think it’s important to go for truth in subtitling, but that’s not a reason to dislike this book. If you have enough space in your courtyard or backyard for a raised bed, or an apple crate, you’ll be very happy with this. It will never edge out St Peter Cundall, but I am sure he won’t mind sharing a shelf with these blokes.

Rating: 4.5 stars.

Title: The Little Vegie Patch Co
Author: Fabian Capomolla and Mat Pember
Category: Non-Fiction
Publisher: Pan McMillan
ISBN: 9781742610184
Publication Date: 1 September 2011

About the reviewer: Naomi Parry is a historian who specialised in child welfare and Aboriginal history for her PhD thesis. She has reviewed books for a range of journals and works as an academic. She lives in the Blue Mountains with her young son, an old cat and some middle-aged chooks and is a veteran grower of herbs and vegetables in urban and suburban environments. She also blogs about food and gardens (sometimes, as Dr Sister Outlaw) at


Seeing red: my tomato crop

January 22, 2010

Just because I’m feeling proud, here is a picture of some of our home-grown Roma tomatoes.

Since this photo was taken last week, our harvest has zoomed along, and there are bowls of Romas everywhere. Gotta love a glut – it makes a girl feel sooo agricultural.


Leaves of class

December 1, 2009

This will be a short post. I just wanted to show off the salad leaves grown in our garden. If I could only grow one thing, salad leaves would be it. These days it’s not hard to find beautiful tomatoes (in season), good herbs and so on; but there is absolutely nothing like the texture of salad leaves eaten within half an hour of picking – they are satiny, springy, silky and full of fresh flavour. Truly. Do it.

We have the little lettuces and clumps of sorrel and leafy whatnots sprinkled about the garden (and when I say ‘garden’ I mean 4m x 5m paved courtyard!)  in among the other plants, and around the base of some small trees in pots. All they need is a good bit of sun and decent watering and a feed of seaweed stuff & worm juice now and then and they go ballistic. (Jamie, any other growing hints?)

To harvest, we use the cut-and-come-again method, just snipping off the outside leaves as needed, and gathering a mixture of different types of lettuce, some Asian salad greens, a bit of cress, some tiny beetroot leaves and a few herb leaves (basil, mint) each time. There are weeks when there’s nothing to take, of course, and then there is the time of plenty – best to stagger the plantings and plant new seedlings every three or four weeks.

As soon as the lettuces start to go to seed – when they grow tall and gangly – the leaves begin to turn bitter, and I think that inadequate watering makes them bolt faster, so keep the water up and keep nibbling away at the outer leaves to get the best crop.

Once I pick them as close to eating as possible, I stick them in this mini-sinkful of cold water for a good 10 minutes or so (ice cubes in the water if it’s a really hot day) and then spin them in the salad spinner (another girl’s best friend in the kitchen) to dry as much as possible, before either eating or tossing into a zip-seal plastic bag with plenty of air in it in the fridge.

To me, the perfect salad dressing is 3 parts best olive oil to 1 part best balsamic vinegar, plenty of salt and pepper. But other friends make gorgeous dressings, especially my friend E, whose dressings I think always include raspberry vinegar. E, if you’re out there, can you provide your secret? And the Empress is a fan of a little walnut oil in her dressing, I believe? And what about the rest of you; what makes your green salad spin?


A purple patch

November 15, 2009

garliccatenov09Remember my quest for Australian garlic, which then resulted in the talented Cate Kennedy sending me some of her garlic shoots?

Well, that garlic is coming along nicely in my garden as we speak, this one pictured here next to the tomatoes and some purple basil and salad greens – tricky in my small garden to do the right companion planting, as Stephanie Alexander tells me it won’t grow well with peas and beans, both of which I’ve got a little further away. But, while Cate’s garlic will hopefully tootle along, it takes six to eight months for it to grow, and a girl’s gotta find a substitute in the meantime, right?

So, praise be to the lovely purple cardboard box that arrived by post this week.

garlicboxSome time ago I had heard of Patrice Newell’s organic biodynamic garlic available online. I registered monthsago, way back before her harvest time, and then forgot about it until receiving an email a couple of weeks ago, telling me Patrice’s “purple glamour garlic” was ready to go, and did I want some?

Yes I did, despite expecting it to be horrifically expensive. I thought ‘bugger it’, and got online. And to my surprise found that a kilo of garlic, which turns out to be 16 gorgeous heads of the stuff, was $38 plus about $5 postage. So we’re talking $2.70 per head of garlic.

And what garlic it is. We had our first taste the other night, and I cannot tell you how fresh and moist and delicious it is. The kind of fresh you see sometimes in very new ginger, just glistening with juice as you slice it. The instructions that come with the box (elegant, recycled and recyclable packaging) tell me the garlic will last for five months before sprouting if kept in a dry, well ventilated spot, and your kitchen bench is recommended as good a place as any. I was staggered at that keepability, which makes me wonder just how old is the garlic we’ve been buying at the grocer, which often begins to sprout after a week.

garliccloseBut this is a bit of a moot point, because at our usual rate of consumption we will get through it long before five months. And I’ve begun taking a bulb of this garlic with me every time we visit a friend, because it’s so good I reckon it’s a cracker gift to take along to dinner with a bottle of wine. So actually I expect I’ll be on to my next order very soon.

If you check out Patrice Newell’s website there’s lots of interesting facts about garlic – including the advice to never keep garlic in the fridge, as dryness is crucial.

And anyway – as you can see, it’s so beautiful, who wouldn’t want it on display?


Small potatoes: having a crack at spud farming

October 5, 2009

SAgardenWell, I cracked.

I have been lusting after it for some time, and was going to try to wait till December to see what Father Christmas brought, but last weekend I fell off the restraint wagon (I know: me, giving in to instant gratification – who’d have thought?) and bought it – Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Companion.

I love this book. It’s a beautifully produced companion to the other big fat orange/stripey that we all have, but each ingredient section begins with a good two or three pages on how to grow it. Same great alphabetical structure for the book, plus ‘basics’ sections on how to build a no-dig garden, recipes for compost, fertiliser, natural pest control and so on, and then three or four pages of recipes for each ingredient. It’s a damn fine idea. And, because of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation and its work in all those school gardens, you know she knows what she’s talking about.

As with the other cookery books, she writes in the same friendly, inclusive voice, encouraging beginners, urging you to experiment and make your own way. I have a few other garden books with bits on cooking, but if the garden advice is good, the food looks awful; and if the food advice is good, the gardening advice is patchy to say the least. Hence my joy at this purchase.

So, emboldened by Stephanie’s give-it-a-shot-even-if-you-have-no-idea-what-you’re-doing encouragement, and some solid advice from our Jamie over at Garden Amateur, I am going to have a crack at growing potatoes in sacks. No sunny space left in the garden beds, and not enough height anyway, so the potato-in-a-bag experiment begins.

Of course once I made the decision, do you think I could find the damn seed potatoes & their funky bags? No. Sold out, blah blah. But today I saw some pontiac spuds on special at the excellent Booth St garden centre in Annandale and threw caution to the wind. Bought the overgrown sprouty seed spuds (is this bad, Jamie??) and then as the nursery had no real potato bags, we skipped down to the best hardware shop in Sydney, Booth & Taylor Hardware, a Thrifty Link hardware shop on the corner, surprise, of Booth & Taylor.*

potatofarmGot home, lined the hessian sacks with garbage bags, poked a heap of holes through them with a skewer, and bunged my potentially dud pontiacs in with some composty/strawish mix. We shall see how I fare, but I must say I quite like the weirdo aesthetics of my new mini potato farm … the idea, I understand, is that as the plants sprout you chuck in more straw & stuff and unroll a bit of bag, heaping the soil/straw etc up as the tubers grow, so you end up with a little high-rise apartment building for spuds. Okay, I’ve never done it before and it could all end in tears, and the sacks are rather slender, but thanks to Stephanie & Jamie, I’m having a burl, Shirl. If you want to join me, best read Jamie on the topic first.

Oh and for those of you desperately wondering (ha) about my ailing herbs , they have survived! I got sick of waiting though, so bunged some much larger seedlings in the herb bed along with them, and now they’re all getting along happily, the ones grown from seed much smaller, but now quite healthy, while the biggies are already serving their purpose in the kitchen..

*A hardware shop digression you should feel free to skip:  I love this place and want to give it a plug. The shop is the size of a postage stamp, but is a total Tardis inside, with stairs up and down and roundabout. The guys who work there are incredibly friendly and helpful. They are specially perfect hardware guys for women to consult: not ever once, in many many years of custom, have I ever detected the faintest vibe of condescension, boredom, peevishness at my dumb questions, chauvinism or perviness from any of their staff, which is more than I can say for any other hardware shop in Sydney, including the one across the road from it and all the gigantic hideous bunningses. And I have never ever walked out without the thing I needed. Today it was hessian sacks, which one of the charming blokes fetched while Senor consulted another who gave him some sage advice about some specialist outfitting of the Art Van Go vehicle. Okay. End of ad break. You are free to go.


A spana and the works

September 21, 2009

tassievegApologies for the lack of posts lately – I’ve been preoccupied with various things, not least some family-visiting travel up and down the land, from the tropics to the tundra. Okay, Launceston is not quite that cold, but our weekend there just gone did involve a significant temperature dive, quite a shock for your warmth-loving correspondent. Anyhoo, I’m back on deck now so prepare for possibly more posts than you ever wanted…

Back to Tassie. Luckily the company and the cookery (and the walks – it is beautiful there) were so much fun in compensation for the crap weather. At my brother’s place I had a bad case of vegetable plot envy, as S&J have a rather beautifully tiered, walk-through affair in their backyard, compared with our jam-the-veg-between-the-ornamentals-in-the-inner-city-courtyard approach. Pictured above is our haul from said garden on Saturday – an armful of silverbeet, a couple of perfectly white leeks, lots of herbs and other goodies.

An armful of silverbeet says spanakopita to me, no matter how much I know the real thing is made with English spinach, not silverbeet (or Swiss chard, as I believe they call it in northern climes). I just love those sauteed stems, so Jacq and I set about making a giant tray of Spana for dinner on Saturday. We pretty much followed the usual format, guided by the recipe in Stephanie Alexander’s orange book (or stripey now, I suppose) with a couple of alterations. I have replicated it at home today with a couple of other alterations, which in my book means this is a beautifully forgiving dish that allows lots of flexibility depending on what’s in the fridge.

spinachpieHere is what we used for the Tassie Spana on the weekend.

  • an armful of silverbeet (about two shop-bunches), stems separated from leaves, both chopped roughly
  • heaps o garlic – about five to eight cloves
  • two leeks, finely chopped
  • 200g feta cheese, crumbled
  • about 500g ricotta (or less, and some other cheese grated)
  • a giant handful of pine nuts (Jacq’s idea, inspired)
  • big handful currants
  • half a cup of chopped pancetta
  • half cup finely chopped mint (from Stephanie, and it’s a must – gives the whole thing some extra zip)
  • filo pastry – 10 sheets on the bottom, 10 on the top, brushed with butter every one or two…
  • 1 lightly beaten egg (I discovered this is quite optional after forgetting it – and now I think I won’t bother, but if you would like a little extra protein and bindability, go for it.)
  1. Saute the leeks, garlic & silverbeet stems over high heat till translucent and liquid has evaporated.
  2. Add the chopped leaves and cook till liquid is gone.
  3. In another pan, saute the pancetta till crispy, then sling the pine nuts into the pancetta’s oil for a few minutes. Add both to the silverbeet mix, and finish by adding the mint and currants.
  4. In a roasting pan, lay out the bottom layer of filo as directed, chuck the mix on top, then add top layer of filo, tucking the edges in and brushing well with butter at the end. Stephanie recommends slicing a cross in the top but not cutting through to the bottom – I forgot this both times but I bet it makes for crispier pastry. Totally fine without, though … Bake for 40 minutes in a moderate oven.
  5. Tuck in, accompanied by a green salad or whatever else takes your fancy.

One other advantage of this recipe is its adaptability for vegetarians in the household – for the ethically conscious Ms R we left one end free of pancetta (and toasted the pine nuts separately), while the rest of us hoed into the bit with the piggsy boost. Delicious all round, and a big hit even with kids, the youngest of whom, a discerning three-year-old, generously proclaimed that I was “a good cooker”.   What more can an aunty ask, I say.

Thanks for the lovely weekend, kids all.

Oh, and speaking of family:- happy birthday Al, and to Gracie for tomorrow …


Fine but frugal food – is it possible?

August 26, 2009

frugalfoodI’ve come to the realisation, rather late in the piece, that the dough has run out. Renovation sure takes it out of a gal, and the latest bit of it – our backyard spritz, even done with volunteer labour, secondhand and bargain basement materials – most particularly took it out of a girl’s wallet.

I’ve been thinking for some time about how to reduce the costs of cookery, for ethical reasons as much as anything – it seems quite obscene to spend ridiculous amounts on food when so many people have none. I justify my spending on food by contributing to overseas aid organisations and so on, but still, I know our spending would make many folks gasp … however, now we’re down to the wire in this household budget the idea of frugal food is becoming less a matter of choice than necessity!

The main issue I have is how to cook a generous spread for lots of friends & family without getting that sense of dread when you check the bank balance at the ATM. I know lots of folks have discussed this before – Jules Clancy at Stonesoup, for example, has addressed it here with her 10 tips for frugal entertaining, which are fantastic.

But the very word ‘frugal’ bothers me enormously – conjures up images of cranky, skinny old women in cardigans who won’t turn the heater on in midwinter, or Dickensian bowls of grey gruel. Something in my nature just cannot stand the idea of skimping on the plate, espescially where catering for friends is concerned. Fun = generosity, both spiritual and material, as far as I’m concerned. But if it ain’t there to be shared, it ain’t there. So my challenge for the foreseeable future is how to get the goods on the plate without breaking the bank, and still make it feel bounteous.

I’m thinking that the way to do it for folks like me who work at home is to spend time, not money – on planning, shopping, cooking and growing. So here are my beginner suggestions for generous dinners that don’t cost the earth. But as you can see, even my frugal ideas are skimpy, which is where you come in. Tips, please!!

1. Cut down on meat, or lose it altogether.

I have to say our recent vegetarian dinner for 11, where the Empress’s pumpkin risotto was the highlight, cost almost nothing, apart from splurging on a couple of fancy cheeses. So … why not do it much more often? Unless you have total vegetarians at the table, it’s very easy to get good rich flavours from good oils, stocks, and meaty taste-bombs like chopped pancetta.

2. Make your own dips

Since I’ve discovered how relatively simple it is to make baba ganoush or – even easier – to chuck a can of chickpeas into the food processor with lemon juice, garlic & oil to get a whopper serving of good hummous, I don’t think I will buy those two in the pre-made versions ever again (and don’t forget beans, like the broad bean puree dippy thing here.) And the homemade versions are better than the bought ones, so it doesn’t feel like skimping. Needless to say, add stocks to the make-your-own and keep-in-the-freezer list.

3. Grow your own herbs & salad leaves

The worst culprits in the rotting-veg compartment in my fridge are always bunches of herbs and leftover handfuls of salad leaves. Once past their prime you really can’t throw them in a soup the way you can with a slightly limp carrot or stick of celery. So grow your own to prevent all this waste (as we’ve discussed before, food waste is not just costly but a horrib le environmental problem), and you’ll never need to buy more than you need (watercress, for example – what is it with those massive bunches in the shops?? I have just stuck a potful of watercress in the new fish pond, and can’t wait for the next salad if the  fish don’t get it all first).

Now, my current crop of herbs grown from seed is still giving me gyp – damn things are stalled, not dying but not growing a speck either, so I’m giving them two more weeks before giving the whole thing up as a bad experiment and getting the bought seedlings in. But that said, once they’re growing properly, I find herbs and particularly salad greens so satisfying to pick and eat fresh from the plot (or pot, if you’re space constrained – a bit of good sun is all that’s required for both). And apart from the incredible taste and fine, springy texture of freshly picked leaves, I find that because of the effort of growing them, I don’t waste a single leaf.

4. Splurge on a few essentials

There are some things you can’t skimp on without just being stingy. Like bread. One good sourdough loaf goes a long way in the satisfaction stakes. Olive oil and vinegar for salad dressings is another – but only for dressings, used judiciously.

5. Don’t serve too much

Being the greedy guts that I am, I usually overcater for fear of looking like a stinge. The leftovers are almost always later devoured, so it’s not such a food waste issue, but it does bear some examination. On the weekend, with eight people at the table and roast chook on the menu, I usually would have cooked two chickens – but given two of the eight were kids with finicky eating habits, I decided to go for one. We still had plenty of chicken left over.

6. Buy seasonal

Everybody goes on about this, all the time, but it’s true. Fruits and veg in season are cheaper and better quality.

7. Set the table beautifully

You might be serving low-cost food, but it doesn’t have to look like it. A table set with shiny glassware and cutlery and ironed napkins is a beautiful thing – and a small candle or two is perfectly lovely, I reckon. I do not mean one should cram the dining table with ornaments and flowers in the hilariously over-the-top Martha Stewart style (I believe I’ve shared this monstrosity with you before!), but a well-set table immediately creates a generous, inviting air about the place.

Okay, over to you. Your comments on these, and advice on new tips, please!


Herbal remedies?

August 5, 2009

parsley seedlingOkay, so contrary to all sensible advice I have planted my herb seedlings too early, and now they’re in the garden – surviving, but still looking decidedly peaky.

I separated all the weeny dicotyledons (love saying that) and planted them in the new herb bed a few centimetres apart. But at this time of the year, until the sun gets a little higher and reaches over the studio roof all day instead of for only three or so hours, the bed just ain’t getting quite enough sun I guess.

The thyme, planted in a long row right along the cement edge of the bed (as advised by Jamie here), is looking just fine, nice and deep green. But the parsley, basil and coriander all seem to be wearing this rather wan shade of green that doesn’t quite convince.

I’ve been watering every couple of days, very gently with a watering can (from our new rainwater tank – so satisfying), and have given them one slurp of seaweed food and one of diluted worm juice. Is this too much, or not enough, do you think?

The basil in particular (the fat-leafed baby at the back of this pic) seems to have completely stalled, though looks quite upstanding still, so I’m thinking from Jamie’s earlier advice that despite our current average daily maximums of 19 and 20 degrees C,  it’s perhaps still just too cold for this summer herb?

I’m hoping the main issue is warmth and sunshine, which will gradually improve as we move towards spring.

But bring on the advice! Do let me know if I’m doing anything else wrong, specially with the food and beverages?


Cate Kennedy’s new shoots

July 21, 2009

garliccateAs I’ve said before, Cate Kennedy has a new book coming out soon. It’s a novel, and I keep hearing from advance readers (those folks who get to snaffle up the advance copies of books that are sent out to bookshops, media and so on before they are actually in the shops) that it is a right cracker. Cate is well known as a short story writer of particular note, and her collection Dark Roots was widely acclaimed a couple of years back.

So I can’t wait to read this novel of hers, called The World Beneath, but I, like you, will  have to wait till September to do so.

(Incidentally, Cate’s publisher is one of the great Oz independents – Scribe, which is doing excellent things with Australian fiction and particularly short fiction. Another of Scribe’s books to get your mitts on very soon is newcomer Patrick Cullen’s short story collection, What Came Between, out in August. He has been well published in anthologies for years, but this is Patrick’s first solo collection, and it’s bound to be good.)

But back to Cate. Apart from her writing (did I mention her amazing story for our Brothers & Sisters story collection, out in November?) she is a primary producer of another sort – garlic. A few weeks ago I got the lovely surprise of a heap of baby garlic in the post, sent by Cate after reading of my garlic-growing anxiety here ( I killed the other one, by the way).

Since then I’ve potted the bub bulbs into these peat pots, and as soon as the painters finish the frame of the bathroom window, directly above my new herb bed, these will go into the bed too. It’s the only spot in the garden that gets year-round sun, although only for a few hours a day in winter. Come summer though, that spot will be hot hot hot and perfect for herbs and, I hope, the garlic. So here’s to Cate, her Dark Roots and her New Shoots.


Emerging herbs….

July 4, 2009
Basil, thyme, parsley day 21

Basil, thyme, parsley day 21

Why is growing things from seed so very satisfying?

Here are my newborn herbs, powering along on day 21. As Jamie predicted, the parsley has now sprouted and seems to be doing just fine.

As long as I can keep the baby basil alive, all looks good for starting my actual new herb garden in a few weeks when all the painting’s done… or maybe I should actually wait till August for the sun to come a little higher and warm the soil a bit more before I stick ’em in the ground?

Stay tuned for Cate Kennedy‘s garlic …

Parsley, in front; thyme at back - day 21

Parsley (front) & thyme, day 21

Basil, day 21

Basil, day 21

Coriander & mint, day 1

Coriander & mint, day 1