Thursday, May 26, 2011

Back Yard Bonus

In the last post I talked a lot about stuff going unexpectedly wrong. Sometime things go unexpectedly right too. When I first noticed the little plant spouting out of the compost heap, I assumed it was the reincarnation of last Summer's MONSTER ZUCCHINI PLANT, which invaded through the back fence, encircled our shed and made it as far as the house before being beaten back. All the while it produced enough zucchinis to make us, well, pretty sick of zucchini actually.. Anyway, so this thing sprang up in early Spring and didn't do much until the weather warmed up and it started to grow.. But when some fruit first appeared it was rounder than any zucchini had a right to be. I first thought it must be a watermelon because that's the only other kind of seed we'd thrown in the compost in the recent past. But no, soon enough the fruit developed the distinctived ribbed pattern of a pumpkin. Oh, and the plant became rather large.
Pumpkin vine encircles unhappy potted bougainvillea and curry leaf plant
We usually buy butternut pumpkin, and this was not one of those. The only time we bought another type was when we bought one at a market in the Blue Mountains, quite some time ago. I don't really remember what it looked like, but I suspect it was something like this:
Sort of Japanese pumpkin, only more spherical
I think it's a Japanese or Kent pumpkin (or something similar) but it's not as flat as the ones I've seen in the shops, rather more spherical and soccer ball sized. The plant obviously enjoyed feeding on the fresh, tasty compost as it became large and threatened to take over the entire yard. It was kept in check by pruning the new growth, which also has the effect of stimulating new flowers. The growing tips are edible and used in stir fries, but I'm ashamed to say we didn't get around to trying them this year. Anyway, like other Cucurbita species, pumpkins depend on insect pollinators to produce fruit. And because there didn't seem to be many of them around our place this year apart from a few pretty Blue Banded Bees, I had to play insect pollinator myself buy taking pollen from the male flower to the female flower. The difference between the two types of flowers is easy to spot thusly:
Male pumpkin flower
The male flowers have a single stamen in the centre and lots of pollen visible...
Female pumpkin flower from which the fruit develops
...while the female has multiple carpels and, more tellingly, a little proto-fruit attached. So after a little pollen redistribution (no bumblebee costume required thank goodness) and just a few days' wait, you get this:
Pumpkins grow quickly. Notice the dried up flower petals still attached.
They are best harvested once the plant dies back, but we harvested a few beforehand and they was all good. If you're not eating them straight away you should cut the stem as long as possible and let it dry out in the sun to form a good plug in the top. All told we got 10 pumpkins, of between 2 and 3 kg each. The vine even grew through a small gap in the fence and deposited a pumpkin onto next door's driveway (they offered to give it back but I insited they keep it; they were most pleased and made soup). We've now eaten three and given two away.
Orange flesh and lots of plump seeds
We usually dice them, then toss them with oil, salt, pepper, and moroccan tagine spices before roasting. Then they go into a salad with arugula (rocket) from the garden, pine nuts, ricotta and a few other things. I find they're tastiest if cooked until they get a few dark, almost burnt bits, on the outside. The last time I even scooped out the seeds and roasted them, as they make for some pretty good eating too. 
And in case anyone is keen to grow some, here's one more tip: Pumpkins, like other Cucurbits, are susceptible to mildew. Mine got some downy mildew as the leaves got older, which can be treated using a dilute milk solution rather than anything toxic. I didn't need to though, because I had some little helpers..
Ladybird grazing on downy mildew
Yes, a group of ladybirds moved in and began systematically chom-chomming their way through the stuff. See why it pays not to spray pesticides in the garden? 
So, all in all the accidental pumpkins have been a raging success. If I had more space I'd definitely grow them again next year, maybe some of the more bizarre varieties. However, being a bit limited in that respect I may try for some watermelons instead. If only I could train them to grow up onto the roof of the shed it would free up some space perhaps...

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Summery Summary

Time flies. The Summer's long finished and so, nearly, is the Autumn. Before having a look at what's going on at the moment I'm going to do a bit of a review of the Spring/Summer season and talk about the spectacular successes and the... er... other things.

The Good
Well you've probably already seen all the good stuff here. The corn was spectacular, the potatoes were tasty buried treasure and the sweet golden beetroot like jewels in our Summertime salads.

The world's cutest corn cob
 The carrots continued to provide orange, yellow and purple crunchiness and the early Summer lettuce crop was also wonderful, with the Australian Yellow Leaf variety in particular outyielding everything else in sight. The sunflowers were enormous, with only one mysteriously beheaded and the others slightly munched on by cockatoos, but not before the neighbourhood had a good chance to stop and admire them. The yellow-stemmed chard powered through its second summer, providing more than we could eat. I also planted a small trellised bed with frost beans (more on that when I finally get around to writing "Beans Pt 2") which was very productive.

Pretty frost beans dried for storage.
The mysterious goings-on in the as yet unseen back yard have also been very fruitful but I'll keep you in suspense on that one too for now..

The Bad
The tomatoes were a disappointment this year. Had I pulled out the volunteer "Tommy Toe" plant that sprung up in the wrong bed we would have had very few on our plates. The ones I actually planted were very slow to get going then started to wilt and look miserable just as the fruit was coming on. I have a few ideas about why, one of which is that the weather basically sucked. I shouldn't feel too bad though, because I'm not alone. From what I've heard and read just about everyone in Eastern Australia had tomato problems this year. Fortunately that one volunteer plant did very well, and kept us in tasty tomatoes for a few months. This year I tried growing some "Crystal Apple" cucumbers and they were pretty nice, but unfortunately we got maybe 6 or 7 before the plants dropped dead. The basil just didn't seem to get going at all, and the tiny plants sat there sulking until early Autumn before finally deciding to grow. Likewise the first round of rocket produced some unhappy, spindly plants as they bolted to seed in the hot weather.

The Ugly
The much anticipated fig bonanza failed to eventuate. The fruit was a little slow to appear, probably due to the big prune I gave the tree last year. The scale that was left after the prune was sprayed with white oil twice, so all was looking good for a bumper season. I even bought some netting to stop, or at least reduce, the losses from the nightly visits by a couple of hungry bats. But it was all to no avail as the tree was practically skeletonised one leaf at a time by wave upon wave of leaf beetles and their larvae. It went something like this:

1. Leaf beetle appears, it's this innocuous looking brown beetle.
2. Many leaf beetles appear, then go on feeding frenzy, feasting upon the new leaves as they shoot.
3. Leaf beetles lay leaf beetle eggs.
4. Leaf beetle eggs hatch into vast numbers of icky leaf beetle larvae. Sort of like green and black caterpillars.
5. Leaf beetle larvae reduce leaves to leaf skeletons in short order.
6 Did I mention that there vast numbers of them?
7. Leaf beetle larvae turn into leaf beetles. Goto 1.

Damge from leaf beetle larvae. That black blob in the centre is a fig covered in them.
Spraying white oil, "mechanical" removal and general harassment of the blighters had little impact. As a consequence, there wasn't a whole lot of fruit. I think we actually ate maybe half a dozen and left the rest to the bats. So it looks like a rethink is required for next season. There will be further pruning to try and get the tree to a more manageable size. Possible severe pruning. Also further research is needed into the best way to rain merciless death upon deal with the leaf beetles. I also tried to get in a late crop of "Parisian Pickling" cucumbers as well, but they dropped dead before producing anything but flowers and aphids.

The Verdict
The source of most of my problems this year was the weather. December was nice, but January and February were very hot and dry. We had 7 consecutive days with tops over 33 degrees. One night I went outside at midnight and it was still over 30 degrees. Nuts! The heat no doubt caused a few things to bolt to seed early and generally knock everything around a bit. Then March and April were wet. Stupidly so. March had about 50% more rain than the long term average, April more than double. With all this moisture it was party time for bugs, mildew and other damp-loving nasties. The mildew killed off the cucumbers, the beetles got the figs and I suspect it was some sort of fungal wilt or nematodes that bothered the tomatoes. So for next Summer I'm preparing a new bed for the tomatoes, in which I'm currently growing mustard as a biofumigant to kill off the nematodes and other soil-bourne baddies. This will be dug in and left to decompose for a while before the tomatoes go in next spring. The cucumbers will go in much earlier so they're fruiting well before the serious humidity arrives. Apart from that it's just a matter of accepting that when trying out new varieties, or trying to sqeeze in a filler crop a bit later or earlier than normal, some things are going to fail. It's all part of the fun and a good lesson in why diversification is a good thing.