Rare seeds from an old gardener

The old blokes in my neighbourhood have been quietly passing on one by one this past decade, leaving me with the sinking feeling that I’ll soon be the last gardener left standing in the district. ‘Urban in-fill’ is the current euphemism for turning once-productive kitchen gardens into houses packed cheek-by-jowl onto the old quarter-acre blocks that once represented the Australian Dream; one’s own home with fruit trees, chooks, vegetables, compost heap, rain water tank and wood-heap in the backyard, with a patch of lawn at the front for the kids to play on.

The gate the kids built... Nowadays, modern folk drive all sorts of distances to ‘work-out’ in gymnasiums or ‘tan-up’ in solariums – all under cover – where once the simple pleasures of bending and lifting, twisting, kneeling, pulling, reaching, climbing and carrying stuff around our gardens fulfilled all those needs out in the fresh air and sunshine. No gym fees back then. Instead, our kitchen gardens returned nutritious food and a healthy lifestyle, neighbourly connections and a place to show the grandchildren at first hand how nature works her daily miracles.DSCN0014

Kitchen gardeners have traditionally been the custodians of our old heritage open-pollinated non-hybrid vegetable seeds – seeds that have been passed along from generation to generation. And so I’ve been quietly adding the last seed collections of these older chaps to my own, growing them on year after year to keep these locally-adapted and tasty varieties alive.

DSCN2649 From a rather vociferous Sicilian chap down the corner has come my collection of broad beans, which produce huge pods over 25 cms long on short plants – I suspect this variety are what the heritage seed companies call ‘Aqua Dulce’, which dates back to about 1844.

The widow of the old Italian man over the road let me fossick around in the ancient rusty shed down the back of his garden, and I took over his seed collection and grow on his zucchinis and ‘Rapa’ – a bitter broccoli that tastes just fine when stirred into pasta.

Some of the old Aussies in the district fought in the Second World War, and came home as young men to start gardens and raise families. Two of these old Diggers probably fought my German wife’s uncle, who was part of Rommel’s Afrika Korps in North Africa.

Watermelon flower with bee Basle – just a few doors down – was a sergeant in the Australian Transport Division, and his seed collection consisted of packets of Yates Seeds that are still available down the local hardware store. Nothing too exciting there.

But then there’s Bert – the subject of this small yarn – who died in March this year aged 101. Bert was one of the famous Rats of Tobruk – the beleaguered Australian forces who defended the Allied toe-hold in North Africa at Tobruk in Libya for nine long months during the darkest days of WWII, preventing the German panzers from gaining access to vital re-supply routes by sea across the Mediterranean.

Bert lived in a 1910-era cottage surrounded by an industrial estate that I walk through on my way to work each day. 16112010Bert was as fit as a Mallee bull right up past his one hundredth birthday, and could often be seen walking down to the local shops or trimming the fruit trees around his house. Bert’s son – himself in his sixties – knew of my interest in heritage vegetables, and turned up at my office last week with Bert’s remnant seed collection, stashed away in old tins and jars of the sort beloved of seed-savers.

Bert was the last of his kind around here; one can only imagine what view he might have formed of the modern folk around him, especially the ‘boom-boom’ coming from the converted warehouse opposite his front yard where all the young Mum’s leap out of their cars to leap up and down inside to the window-rattling exhortations of some young chap whose main mode of communication seems to whooping and yelling. (I should know – I walk past twice a day, every working day!)

Bert’s gone now, but his seeds remain. Most intriguing of all are those in an old jar that once held Jalapeno stuffed olives, and bearing a pencilled scrap of paper cryptically marked “Johns Bush Pump 86”.


There’s only one way to find out what those seeds are – I’m off to plant them!


This is one of my favourite trees. Our variegated elder tree.
One of our sheep seems to like it, too.
The flowers are beautiful, abundant and very fragrant. We made elderflower wine last year for the first time and it was an absolute hit.
We have already started a new batch, but will probably do several. I will also dry some flowers for teas - as it is supposed to be very good for when you have a cold or flu. Also good to fight hay fever.

Maybe after all that wine making and drying for teas, we still have some flowers left on the tree and they can mature to berries? I have never tasted anything made from elderberries, so would be keen to experiment. Jam? Wine? Drying for medicinal purposes?

Birds, bed-bases and bulbs

Springtime for the kitchen gardener is the most hectic time of the year, and particularly so here in southern Australia where Spring and the approach of Christmas coincide to muddle social pressures into the life of the harried gardener. ‘Spring-cleaning’ makes sense in the cook’s particularly European tradition, where sunshine and warmer weather bring on a frenzy of activity in the house, and things that have lain dormant inside get kicked outside into a warmer clime to make way for the new.


My one relief from all this activity is to rise early before the cook is astir, and to sit outside overlooking the garden each morning to watch the dawn chorus. Dawn is the busiest time of the day for all those small birds foraging through the kitchen garden in front of me, and the changing patterns of the clouds in the sky over the garden never fail to bring me some peace.

DSCN0021 Except for that bloody bed-base down there on the left, leaning up against the chook-yard fence!

It sticks in my eye with all the irritation of a burr under  a horse’s saddle, and I’ve finally been forced to dispose of it.

DSCN0025So I’ve turned it into a growing frame for my wife’s favourite cucumbers, located as near to the kitchen door as I can get it!  True, it looks a bit junk-yardish at the moment, but in a few months time it will be covered in a a wall of cucumbers, and our summer salads will be blessed by the cook’s smile…

DSCN0027Other useful things salvaged from this bed-base include the felt underlay – perfect for starting carrot seeds – and swatches of cotton waste from the corners; I leave these lying around for the birds to find as they hunt for nest-building material.DSCN0030 DSCN0031Only the synthetic covering goes out in the rubbish.







While vegetable gardens lack the floral elegance of more formal cottage gardens, vegetables flower also – especially in a seed-saver’s garden - and many of these small flowers are irresistible to birds and bees, such as those of the broccoli and lettuces to be seen in bloom below.


And all those wonderful garlic plants in the foreground? It was only six months ago that they were bulbs, planted out into the cooling soil of mid-autumn, and now finishing up to add flavour to the cook’s welcome meals for months to come…























Clockwise from top-left: Flowers of Italian parsley, purple-sprouting broccoli, bitter lettuce and chives.

Saving Manzana chilli seed

Chillies and capsicums (‘peppers’ in the USA) belong to the Solanaceae family, along with tomatoes, eggplants and potatoes.

While the most common types of chillies belong to the Capsicum frutescens genera, ‘Manzana’ chillies (Capsicum pubescens) are an altogether different beast, having purple (not white) flowers and black (not cream) wrinkled seeds. Manzana chilli leaves are covered with a light fuzz, as its Latin name indicates (Reference: Seed Savers Handbook).


Of all the chillies one can grow on the Adelaide Plains – and I’ve grown over a dozen different varieties – Manzana chillies have become my favourite. As a perennial, one bush is all one generally needs if you’re an Aussie, and this one bush will provide chillies pretty much all year round, especially in spring when other annual chillies are still just seedlings. Manzana chillies are hot but not deadly (3 out of 5), and the bushes survive the heat and poor watering with ease. This single bush (below) has been under-watered to the point of neglect, but keeps on hanging in there year after year. It needs staking and regular pruning to keep it looking respectable.


Saving chilli seed is a dangerous business best carried out in a ventilated fire-proof bunker in full protective clothing, face mask and breathing apparatus! Don’t touch your face and eyes while saving chilli seed, as the burning sensation that follows is right up there with the pain more often associated with knee capping and having your finger-nails pulled out with pliers. Wear rubber gloves, at least. I should.

To save the seed, chop up the chillies and place them with water in a blender, where they are minced up at the slowest speed, allowing the seed to settle to the bottom (with a bit of help). Sieve the debris if necessary, then pour the seeds out onto an absorbent paper towel and let dry in the shade before storing.

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