Harvesting horseradish

Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana, syn. Cochlearia armoracia) is a perennial plant that grows each year from the roots left in the soil after the previous harvest; our crop has reproduced itself year after year from a small piece of root given to us by friendly gardeners in the Hills and Plains Seed Savers group.

Once the tall spreading foliage of the horseradish dies back a bit in autumn

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we simply dig it up with a mattock, chopping the roots about midway down, and leaving the remainder to start next year’s crop. The tops are chopped off with secateurs and the roots scrubbed with a vegetable brush and presented to the cook in a bucket.

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Luckily for we Aussie gardeners, the cooks on this blog are both German, and our first published recipe for horseradish appears here.

In our house, horseradish is peeled then finely grated – this later process releases the potent chemicals that give horseradish its distinctive smell and taste. This should be done outside, wearing gloves, safety glasses and full-body armour... The grated horseradish is then just mixed with thick raw cream and served as a condiment.

One of the most memorable German dishes for me is slow boiled beef served with cranberry sauce and a b├ęchamel sauce made of horseradish, melted butter, flour, milk, salt and a little sugar.

Using nettles from the garden

One of the best signs of a rich and fertile soil is the appearance each of autumn of self-sown ‘stinging nettles’ (Urtica dioica); this has become an annual event for us here on the Adelaide Plains. After years of adding (literally) truck-loads of compost to our red-clay soils, they are now a deep crumbly black, alive with worms, and just right for nettles.

Stinging nettles are painful if brushed with the back of the hand while weeding or undertaking other chores in the autumn garden; I’ve found that rubbing the affected skin with a handful of soil quickly relieves the pain. Cooking the nettles removes the stinging chemicals, and thank goodness for that! Bad chemicals aside, nettles are rich in all sorts of minerals (iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium) and vitamins (A, C, D). If I recall correctly, these vary according to the age of the nettle…

Butterflies and other useful insects like nettles for food and egg-laying, and so we try to leave patches of nettles for them at different points in the vegetable garden.

Like comfrey, nettles are a good addition to the compost heap, and can also be added to a tank of water to make a ‘nettle tea’ for use as a liquid fertiliser. This takes strong nerves and sympathetic neighbours – the stink is horrendous!

Dried nettles can be stored after harvesting the whole plant by washing the soil off the roots, then hanging the bunches out of the rain and direct sun for later use in healthy nettle teas. Note that the cook is wearing gloves for this little harvest from last year’s potato patch.

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Growing pumpkins

One of the easiest and most productive ways to use a patch of soil the size of the usual Adelaide lawn is to grow pumpkins on it. I’d normally plant about $6 of pumpkin seed in spring, and collect around 100 pumpkins in late autumn for use in soups and roasts over the next six months.

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Pumpkins are best grown along drop-lines, because once they get going, they spread all over the place and watering becomes impossible if you need to wade in there with a hose or sprinkler. Pumpkins can also climb, and will grow through fences and and up trellises and trees if given a chance.

Our favourites are Butternut Pumpkins (below) – a small sweet pumpkin having deep orange flesh that is equally good in roasts, soups or dips.

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Pick pumpkins when the stems dry off and they break easily away from the dead vine. The hard shells on these pumpkins means they can be stored on the shed roof out in the weather; however, we have an old chest freezer inside that’s ideal – it keeps the rats out, and the lid can be left open to allow air to circulate around the pumpkins to prevent them going mouldy. Bundling your dry fruit tree nets into cushions helps relieve pressure on those at the bottom of the pile while simultaneously allowing ventilation.

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Pumpkins make great gifts – they are dry and rugged and easily carried home, to be turned into a pot of delicious pumpkin soup that can last for many meals.

Horseradish

Horseradish is incredibly easy to grow. Tough, low maintenance, very rewarding. Leave just a piece of root in the ground after harvesting, and it grows back with a vengeance.

When it dies back in autumn/winter, dig up a root (or however many you are brave enough to tackle in one go). Wash it.

Scrape the skin off with a knife or the edge of a spoon.

Grate. Now that is the 'fun' part. You hear about the fumes of the horseradish when grating. Well, it's true. It is STRONG stuff! It starts harmlessly enough, but suddenly you get hit by the fumes and your sinuses clear, your tear ducts get incredibly busy. So, do proceed with caution. You have been warned. Oh, I am talking about grating by hand - if you have a food processor, it might be easier. But do open the lid very slowly, carefully and away from your face.

Now the basic recipe:
1/2 cup of grated horseradish
3 tbsp (white wine) vinegar
1/2 tsp salt

Mix together.
Put in a clean (sterilised) jar, keep in fridge. Should keep for about 4-6 weeks. I have read somewhere that you can freeze it, too.
Be very careful when tasting this batch. Start with a tiny amount, just to taste how potent it is. Enjoy!

Planting garlic, leek, shallots and onions

Right up at the top of our list of important winter-grown vegetables are the alliums; garlic (A. sativum), garlic chives (A. tuberosum), onions (A. cepa), shallots (also called eshallots, bulb shallots or potato onions in Australia: A. cepa var. aggregatum) and leek (A. ampeloprasum var. porrum). These hardy slow-growing vegetables take almost six months to mature, and in the case of onions and garlic, can be stored as bulbs for a further six months or more thereafter until the next crop is planted. Onions ‘grow in the cold, and mature in the heat’…

Garlic and shallots are reproduced vegetatively – these plants only very rarely produce viable seeds, so they are grown on each year from ‘cloves’ broken off the side of the original bulb from the previous year. The quickest way to grow garlic chives is to divide the roots with their tiny bulbs (rhizomes) and replant them. Being perennials, garlic chives grow year after year, with the leaves (rather than the bulbs) being harvested for salads and stir-fries.

Garlic cloves are planted out when the bulbs start to ‘shoot’ in autumn, and are planted in trenches with the sharp end sticking up – after all, that end is going to be the leafy crown, while the blunt end will generate roots! Space your cloves and rows just far enough apart to allow the fully-mature bulbs to be separated by a few finger widths.

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Onions and leeks, by comparison, are readily grown from seed, and can be started by spreading (then thinly covering) the seed in small ‘seed bays’ scraped by hand in good friable organic soil or potting mix. Such ‘crumbly’ soil is important so that the onions seedlings may be separated easily later when dug up with a shovel then transplanted into rows; the roots will have intertwined, and can easily be separated by gently pulling them apart, provided the soil falls readily away from the root system.

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Onions are very easy to plant, provided you handle the seedlings gently. Simply hoe triangular furrows through your clean garden beds, such that the slopes of the furrows are at a 45 degree angle to the surface.The seedlings are laid against one wall, while the other wall, with its small hillock of soil taken out of the furrow, is pushed back into the furrow to cover the roots once planted. Some gardening writers recommend trimming the tops of the onion seedlings and the bottom of the seedling roots; I’ve never bothered with this, preferring the quicker ‘bung ‘em in and let ‘em get on with it’ approach… Just make sure the green leaves are above the soil, and the white roots are below. It doesn’t matter that the seedlings initially stick out of the ground at an odd angle; they soon respond to gravity and straighten up vertically.

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Saving eggplant seed

Ever wonder how to get those seeds out of the soft rubbery flesh of an eggplant without going crazy? I found the answer to this in the Seed Savers Handbook by Michel and Jude Fanton – the bible for Australian seed savers.

First, dice the bottom half of each eggplant you have selected for seed into 1cm cubes (seeds are to be found mostly in the ‘fat end’ of eggplants).

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Pour these into a slow blender with a cup or two of water, then whizz slowly until it turns to slush. The seeds settle to the bottom, while the slush floats and can be poured off. It’s that easy!

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DSCN0009Pour the seed out onto brown paper to dry in the shade, then store in tins or jars for planting out in the seed beds next spring.

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Saving cucumber seeds

Very few folk realise that cucumbers, left to fully ripen on the vine to produce seed, grow to enormous size and may well turn a magnificent deep orange in colour…

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Of course, seed saving gives one the excuse to be outside in the autumn sunlight, surrounded by all sorts of fruiting plants, knives, sieves, spoons brown paper bags and tins for seed storage.

Slice open the cucumbers, scoop out the seed and the soft flesh that surrounds them; the latter can be washed away through a sieve with a high-pressure hose. Spread on brown paper to dry (in the shade), then scrape off into tins a few days later.

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