Tales of a Backyard Farmer: Chapter 13

Easter in the veggie patch

Circa 2005: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer

It’s dawn on Easter Monday, and another young rooster has just marked himself for the cooking pot – he’s crowed his first crow! clip_image002This tells me that his adolescent hormones are kicking in, and he’ll soon be too tough for anything but a curry or soup. From where I sit at the kitchen table I can see the young fellow poking his head above the foliage of the grapefruit tree where he’s roosted over-night. Now he’s wondering just how he’ll get down to the ground today. This is good – I’ve been hoping to catch these chooks at it for weeks, because each morning one or more of the half-dozen young birds in this yard can be found outside the 2.5m high fence, scratching around in my salad garden and pecking holes in my rainbow chards. Today three of them take the high route over the top, beating their wings like crazy, and chook-bombing my broccoli with their heavy landings. I have to get up and entice them back into the yard with a scoop of grain – wheat, corn, milo and sunflower seeds. I’ll have to raise the fence yet again…

clip_image004Ten thousand years ago the agricultural revolution began somewhere in the fertile crescent in the Middle East – the land between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers in present day Iraq – with the cultivation of wild wheat and barley. George W. Bush and his ‘coalition of the willing’ have been fighting a desert war here for the last month over a new energy resource – oil. Australians were there – God knows why! Had they asked me for my view (which they didn’t) I’d have told them to read their Daniel Quinn, and to stay at home and grow veggies.

clip_image006And that the handful of grain I’ve just fed my chooks represents a form of energy that’s been in use much longer than oil, yet which began a journey for Homo Sapiens that sees us today on the verge of extinction as a species. If nothing else, the sand storm that blew up in the first days of the campaign and held up the coalition’s advance should have told them something – that the fertility of the region has gone the way of the Roman Civilization’s ‘bread-basket’ in north Africa, which has disappeared today under the shifting sands of the Sahara Desert. The Aussies could have told the Yanks this – the Iraqis living today in the ‘cradle of civilization’ are now importers of wheat from Australia, on the other side of the world. And our Australian farmlands are disappearing too at the rate of hectares per minute, due to soil erosion, drought and salinization, as we play our part in trying to turn the planet’s biomass into humanity.

clip_image008I wish at times I were one of those folk who are blissfully unaware of the size of their ‘ecological footprint’ on the planet, and that the nature I am consuming could be found just in this small backyard, rather than the standard Aussie eight hectares per person. I’ve a long way to go to climb down from the six hectares I’m currently consuming (according to the self-test I ran on the web-site www.earthday.net/footprint/index.asp) But yesterday was a small triumph on that long road – Easter Sunday lunch came mostly from the garden.

clip_image010Those feathered bombers were born under my lemon tree just over four months ago – four cocks and two hens in the brood – and have been fed with imported grains but plenty of silver-beet and kitchen scraps from the veggie patch. I’ll keep the two brown hens as layers, but the cocks are destined to be Sunday roasts, as I can’t allow them to mate with their sisters. Over under the lemon tree I’ve installed a new pure-bred Wellsummer rooster and nine hen chicks – by next Spring they will be old enough to form the nucleus of a new flock, along with the other three older hens on the property. My old rooster and his two old wives will become curries or whatever the cook decides upon.

clip_image012On Good Friday I dug up a barrow load of red and white potatoes and collected about forty Butternut pumpkins, to be stored down the back shed for winter soups. All this activity kept me off the road at Easter, toiling away but enjoying the sunshine as I cleared ground for the winter crops of broccoli, cauliflower, garlic, broad-beans and onions, Asian vegetables, snap peas and snow peas, potatoes, spinach, leeks and cos lettuces.

clip_image014The asparagus ferns have been cut back and old pea-straw mulch and other compost piled on the beds. This will feed my first full asparagus crop next Spring; I’ve waited three years while the root systems developed strength enough to allow harvesting of the spears. The chestnuts are falling and spilling their nuts onto the driveway, where one of my sons collects them for roasting. The last of the firewood has still to be cut and stored. The melons have all been taken in, and we’ve temporarily run out of lettuces, so we’re eating salads of Japanese greens, rocket, cucumber and basil. The eggplants, tomatoes, capsicums and climbing beans will continue to bear for some months yet, but frost will have the last say there. The carrot patch will supply our table for months to come.

clip_image018On Easter Saturday our Chinese neighbours bought over some large home-grown pears and curried chickpeas to eat as we shared coffee and shelled the last of my heirloom beans for seed storage. My Indian neighbour down the back yard gave me some chili plants – perhaps in exchange for the pumpkins I gave her. Over the last fortnight, they’ve borrowed my shredder to dispose of a huge Bougainvillea vine that’s now mulch around their roses. My old Italian neighbour over the road has grown broccoli seedlings for me to plant out – age and ill-health mean that his own once-productive back-yard garden is falling into disuse. But his wife came over last week with some homemade tomato sauce and I’ve sent back pumpkins and basil from the garden. Together the women have pickled and refrigerated a good part of my eggplant crop for winter eating.

clip_image020On Easter Sunday morning we plucked and dressed the first of the young roosters. The skin was a beautiful deep yellow – the same colour as their legs. I made stuffing out of bread with butter and olive oil from the shops, but red onions, all sorts of basils, thyme, mint, garlic and eggs from the garden.

Sweet corn as an entrée was followed by our roast chicken with Japanese salad greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and onions, plus a stir fry picked fresh from the garden, and including Pak Choy and Wong Bok.

clip_image022Friends had given me a bottle of red wine for my birthday back in March, and this added the finishing touches to a meal shared with two of my teenage sons and stray friends of theirs who had come over for the meal.

It would be a lot easier if we just ate out, and let others grow and prepare our food. Yet the backyard veggie patch yields its own pleasures – exquisite tastes, fresh and nutritious food, and a sense of purpose and accomplishment and neighbourly sharing. clip_image024I was able to sit back after a perfect meal and feel that somehow I’d made progress towards a gentler world, even though that burst water pipe still needed mending and my job list is creating a paper shortage. But hey – the boys had to do the dishes, not me – I cooked!

Tales of a Backyard Farmer: Chapter 12

Pigeon power over the veggie patch

Circa 2005: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer

Autumn is here at last, and the light over the veggie patch is kinder and more golden, and the air somehow gentler as the harsh heat of summer fades in memory. All that heat is stored up in the melons and pumpkins as they start to ripen.clip_image002Each week we check the tendrils on the stems opposite the watermelons, and look for a drying-off – the sign that at last these monsters can be pulled off the vines and bought up to the house for slicing and eating.

The sunflowers too are glowing in among the lettuces and beans, and their seed heads will soon be cut off and stored for winter food for the chooks. As usual, the zucchinis have succumbed to mildew on their broad leaves after recent rain, and will soon be seen off to the compost heap.

clip_image004Just last week, work took me up to Whyalla at the top of Spencer Gulf, between the desert and the sea, to the WERIC demonstration house. The Whyalla Eco-Renovation Information Centre was set up to allow walk-through visitors to see low-power lighting and sky-lights in action, for school children to understand how to recycle plastics and cans, and for home handymen to see how to optimise sunshine and air flows in buildings and how to utilise the benefits of insulation.


Water saving measures like double-flush cisterns and recycled rainwater could be seen, as could the solar panels on the roof and the stormwater catchment tanks around the house. I should have gotten straight down to work, but spotted the veggie patch down the back yard and another old fossil working in it. Five minutes later I was getting the Cook’s Tour of the raised beds and composting systems, the fruit trees and the irrigation system – all under development.


For $1.50 I was able to buy a delicious honey-melon for my morning tea, straight from the garden. For such a sophisticated house, it lacked a bread-knife for use by wayward melon-slicers like me, but this problem was soon solved after some digging around in my toolbox…

clip_image012As a small boy, my toolbox was the key to all the exciting things that could be created out of odd bits of wood and metal. As I got older, and my hand-skills improved, I took to building model cars and boats that were beyond our frugal means to buy, but could with ingenuity be built. What I really lacked was some motive power – specifically a steam engine. I had no way of building one - let alone owning one - unless one magically appeared in my Christmas stocking. I hawked this idea around the family to whoever would listen. When Christmas morning finally dawned, no steam engine! In its place – a bloody tennis racket! I was inconsolable. By now I had some inkling that Father Christmas was in fact my mother, and this was confirmed as she sought to point out to me the social value of a tennis racquet in a huge extended family whose gatherings always seemed to precipitate inter-cousin tennis matches. In between, I was to get good use out of that darn racquet by belting a tennis ball backwards and forwards on the dirt road out the front of the house, with one or another of my many brothers and sisters.


In many ways my mother was right about the social value of that tennis racquet, but I wasn’t prepared to admit that. She needed to understand the tension that I’d always felt between wanting to be left alone to create things, and being drawn into gatherings to make social contact with fellows of my species. Did she not know that the arrival of the industrial age kicked off with the invention of the steam engine? No matter that we in our current society feel oppressed by the shear weight of the technology we have created in the past few hundred years; we have witnessed the greatest outpouring of creativity in five and a half million years of human evolution. Nobody enacted Acts of Parliament to say “you shall create more gadgets!” Instead, there existed a spontaneous rush to continually improve on the work of others, and to use our species’ skills and intellect in an outpouring of innovation that many felt would contribute to the betterment of our lot.


I witnessed a strange sight on one of my early morning walks around the Whyalla Wetlands - a single young domestic pigeon sitting on a power line, and a flock of nearly sixty of its fellow pigeons swinging in circles over it, trying to entice him off that wire and into the flock. Why did the group expend so much energy on a single individual? (I counted about twenty laps before I had to leave them to it!) The answer has to be that flocks work for pigeons, in the way that herds work for elephants, pods work for whales and packs work for wolves. This is an evolutionary stable unit for a pigeon. Flocks are what have ensured the pigeons’ survival, as can be attested to by the fact that they are still around today. One has only to witness a hawk or falcon attacking a flock of pigeons to realise that for the flock pigeon there is safety in numbers. Despite numerous passes through the flock, the raptors seem to become confused by the sheer numbers of their prey, and come away with empty talons. A solitary bird would undoubtedly be taken.


Finally my job in Whyalla was completed, with help and support from my own small tribe back in Adelaide. Tribes are the organisational unit what have worked for humans throughout our evolutionary history. My tribe don’t live together or inter-marry, but we do make our living together, and each of us supports the others so that as an entity we can continue to survive.

clip_image024After lunch on Friday, I set off for home via the least direct route – through Horrocks Pass to Wilmington – birthplace of my maternal grandmother. Back in her era, pasture land composed of native grasses was cut up to make way for farmland, with disastrous consequences in terms of erosion, flooding, soil loss and loss of bio-diversity. With the consolidation of family farms in recent times into huge corporate operations, these small towns in our mid-north regions are dying as the population has aged or moved to the cities. In the Wilmington deli, I ordered a cup of tea and bought a packet of nuts. While I waited for the kettle to boil out the back, I examined the miserable array of old fruit and vegetables on the shelves, and wondered at the poor levels of nutrition some of these folk in country towns must endure for lack of access to fresh and healthy food.

clip_image006Perhaps they too could seek solace in the company of a small tribe of their fellows, and set about growing their own fresh fruit and veggies locally? There was little enough evidence of this in my tour of the back streets of some of the small towns that I passed through, but I did come across a plantation of native peaches (Quandongs) and a large crop of native saltbush being grown for fodder.

Perhaps the next great outpouring of human innovation will see us finding ways of living sustainably and in harmony with the land we walk. There are too many of us to return to a hunter-gatherer existence, even if we wanted to. clip_image026The forests and woodlands that harboured those who walked away from earlier civilisations when the going got tough are no longer there. Perhaps we humans will form open tribes within our large cities, with more veggie patches distributed throughout the suburbs as community gardens where folk living in energy-efficient shelters can meet to grow things together. I reckon all that land we’ve reserved for golf courses, footy ovals and tennis courts would be ideal for just such an application. But perhaps this is just my way of expressing an on-going resentment towards that tennis racquet received all those decades ago…

Tales of a Backyard Farmer: Chapter 11

The Guv’s veggie patch

Circa 2005: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer

Just up the road from our house lies the old Magill cemetery. I guess, by definition then, those old folks lying around up there must be in the dead centre of Magill, and my veggie patch and me must be somewhat on the periphery. But the veggie patch in the real dead centre of town is to be found at the very heart of Adelaide, at Government House. And I’ve been there twice now…


Even closer than the local cemetery is the local high school, whose oval and buildings I can see while hoeing potatoes. During weekdays, one can tell the time aurally down the garden merely by listening out for the hooter that spells the changes of period for the Year 11 and 12 students. Saturdays in the garden however are something else again – primal roars of intense ferocity can be heard from two strange all-male tribes who battle each other up there in bloodless combatPointing up. I can only surmise that they remain bloodless because of their white clothing, on which their mates permit green stains but not red. No physical injury seems to occur in these matches unless the red leather projectile they hurl at selected victims cannot be adequately fended off with the wooden stake provided. This projectile must be valuable, because one whole tribe at a time dedicates itself to returning it to the hurler at maximum speed so he can have another bash at the current victim. Fortunately the poor bloke they are attacking has a mate, and if things get too tough, he runs off up the crop and lets the other bloke run down and spell him. It would appear that failure to injure the stake guy by the concerted effort of the whole tribe can be compensated for if they manage to smash up his spare three stakes. This gives rise to the primal “I have killed!” scream, to the intense humiliation of the victim, who skulks off, to be replaced by a lesser member of his tribe.


While I cannot claim to understand what all those able-bodied fellows are doing out of their gardens on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I am convinced that the weekday activities that take place in those buildings behind the killing fields are worthwhile. I know this at first hand, because the elder two of my three sons laboured long and hard therein, in order to obtain that ‘invite’ for me to the Guv’s veggie patch. Son number three has yet to distinguish himself in the halls of learning, in which he must obtain a perfect score in some subject or another in his final year to secure this prize. But this can only be to the Guv’s benefit, as he or she now has three more years up their sleeve to get that veggie patch sorted out before I return for my third and final inspection!


On a glorious summer day this year, I presented myself, my wife and my second scholar at the Guv’s gate, and in we went. This time I sincerely meant to stay out of the veggie patch and listen to the speeches, and so it was that we strode resolutely across the verdant green grass to the refreshment tents, amidst the throngs of other Adelaide scholars and their proud parents. My wife had me firmly by the arm, and a magnificent Morton Bay Fig and armed security guards blocked the way to the back reaches of the grounds, where the real action lay. Then out strode the Guv, surrounded by her small entourage; I was still there to see them pass by.

It was fortunate that I managed this glance at my competitor in the veggie stakes, because she soon disappeared up the front there somewhere with a whole bunch of other dignitaries. Pretty soon someone had got hold of the microphone and was singing her praises. Well, this is the nature of hierarchical systems; there’s one big chief, lots of nobles and priests, and somewhere down the back the unwashed masses like me.


Whoever this noble was who’d grabbed the mike, I can only suggest that they hadn’t studied the Guv’s sweet-corn adequately, because they began to sing the alphabet song to the Guv without fair comparison between her veggie patch and mine, or anybody else’s for that matter. After the third repetition of the Guv’s full name plus ABC, DFE, OBE I knew this wasn’t going to be an honest contest. To be fair, I’m entitled to hang a fair bit of the alphabet off my name too, but I’d be dead embarrassed if someone mentioned it in public in that sycophantic fashion, or at all. About now, my wife was giving me sharply hissed warnings and sharp jabs to my ribs to try to hush my audible groans. Deciding that I’d be safer down the back of the property than mixing with the gentry, she gave me my head, and we headed for the veggie patch.


Now Guv House is a great place, built somewhere around the mid-1800s. It’s an imposing old stone building surrounded by magnificent lawns and flower gardens in the front, and an orchard and veggie patch down the back. There’s also the Guv’s private swimming pool, a quaint old house where the gardener must hole up at night time, and the portable dunnies for the unwashed masses.


Those toilets are a godsend, because they’re within spitting distance of the veggies, and if a guard catches me poking the cabbages, I just jerk my thumb resignedly over my shoulder in the direction of the Ladies. That worked all right last year, when I was judge, jury and prize winner. But this year my wife and son were determined to be on the Guv’s side and to make it a fair contest - after all, she was supplying the canapés! This scrutiny played havoc with my determination to win by any means.

I needn’t have worried – the Guv must have been eating out a lot lately, as she hadn’t had that much success in the veggie patch this year, and would otherwise have gone hungry. The sweet-corn hadn’t been harvested, and had dried off with the whole plant. The basil had run to seed, to the benefit of the bees. The zucchini had a bad dose of powdery mildew, which its prone to – perhaps the Guv hadn’t realized that 10% milk in a spray of water would knock that out. Perhaps she hasn’t got a cow for fear of frightening the visiting masses - I didn’t see one, at any rate. The tomatoes hadn’t been staked – perhaps she was also experimenting with low input gardening as I had been. The fruit trees weren’t producing much, and the sunflowers were a bit scrappy. And so on and so forth – I was the clear winner in what seemed to have been a no-contest.

clip_image014Back up on the lawn, the Guv was finishing off her speech, presumably urging all those young scholars to lead a broad and sustainable life to avoid winding up without fresh veggies on the table each night, as had happened to her. But I wouldn’t know – I’d discovered her herb garden, and was fossicking around in there among some rather nice garlic chives and salsify – she had the runs on me there!

Pointing upFor those International readers who don’t recognize this sport, it’s called ‘cricket’ and was inherited by Australians from our English settlers.

Australia’s wonderfully warm dry climate allows us to play cricket during the summer for months on end.

Cricket has delighted many an antipodean heart in the century since it was transplanted down here – half the population stays up far too late watching Australia whip the ‘Poms’ at their own game, causing massive shortfalls in our economic productivity.

Mind-numbingly boring to watch, cricket is – in the words of Bill Bryson – the only sport where they stop in the middle for lunch.

Tales of a Backyard Farmer: Chapter 10

Life and death in the veggie patch

Circa 2005: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer

[Note: a ‘chook’ in Australian English is a hen or female chicken]


The figs are falling, and it’s chook Christmas. A chook will kill for a ripe squashy purple fig, with their speckled red seedy centres. I pick them up off the driveway each morning and throw them into the chook yard, where they charge in and scream off with whatever they can grab before another chook wrests it from them. The rains have begun falling too – early this year – as the first day of autumn arrives, and it’s time to review the summer harvest.

One of the great things about being a gardener is that one gets to follow the rhythm of the seasons, and these come and go at least forty times in the life of a gardener. So one has the chance to reflect on ones successes and failures – none of them life threatening – and to plan new and better ways of doing things next year. Of course, if you’re a cabbage, then birth to death is measured in months, not decades, and therein lie the lessons for the ancient Homo Sapiens who tends them.


This year I feel a certain sadness in the garden, because of the almost total failure of the tomato crop, and because I don’t understand why this has been so. Yet the watermelons have thrived, pumpkins for our winter soups have been prolific, and eggplants and capsicums have been strong and healthy. The sweet corn has yielded up big cobs steadily over some months, and there are more to come. Cucumbers have been slow, but are picking up now.


I’ve had some rare delight from a melon-like Italian cucumber that came up by itself from seed, and which I left to run its course. Somehow this single seed found its way from the collapse of our neighbour’s garden to our place, and the plant has produced prolifically, and given us a new taste in our salads – something I can carry forward into future years by saving seeds from one fruit which I will let run to seed.

Over in the bean patch, the heirloom beans have produced our first-ever purple beans, and from these too I will save seed, and will gradually work out what tastes and grows best in our veggie patch. Some of them turned out to be climbing beans, so I’ll have to treat these differently next year, and grow them on tall fences of wire mesh, which they are sharing this year with the cucumbers and grapes. The birds had the grapes, but we’ve had our share of the apricots, plums and peaches. The asparagus have flourished, and next spring we will pick our first full harvest after a three-year wait.


In the chook yard, life too proceeds apace. Of the half-dozen hens I inherited for my neighbour’s garden, two survive. These old battery hens had been de-beaked in their previous life as units of production in the egg factory, and so don’t peck up grains and grasses easily. The top beak is shorter than the bottom one, to prevent them pecking each other out of boredom or natural aggression in the close proximity of battery birds.


This business of a “pecking order” is very real in chook society, and so it was almost cruel of me to introduce two new young hens (fully beaked!) into the company of these old boilers back in spring last year. The old girls gave them hell. So I moved those two young virgins – along with our magnificent rooster – into a new pen under the lemon tree, where they very soon found out what he was about!

Speaking of newly married ladies, I have to confess that the lemon tree – and now the rooster – are a goodly distance from the old chook yard beneath the window of the newly-weds in the house down the back. Something about his crowing causing “coitus interruptus” and poor nights of sleep in her new home…


I don’t think any of the chooks enjoyed the new arrangements either. The old girls were always breaking out of the bottom yard to come up to visit the old boy, who’d prowl up and down the fence line (with them prowling on the other side) emitting low grumblings that must amount to foreplay in the rooster world. The young virgins were wishing there were more hens about to spread the load – roosters in the wild like a harem of at least a dozen. As for the old fellow, he was frankly bored, getting on a bit, and becoming somewhat solitary and above it all, preferring a quiet dust bath in the sunshine to all the fuss kicked up by the females around him.


Yet nature took its course, and we stopped taking eggs. Each day we’d number the newly laid eggs, and after two weeks, started to throw away the oldest eggs. One of the young hens found the strain all too much, went into convulsions before my very eyes, was attacked simultaneously by the other hen and the rooster, and died of (I can only imagine!) a heart attack. Only one young hen was left to be wife and mother. On day twenty-two, nature and hen hormones kicked in at last, and the small brown hen turned broody, took to her nest and sat tight on the dozen eggs, coming out briefly in the heat of the morning to look for food and water.


Twenty-one days later, just like the textbook says, there were little fluffy chickens peeking out from under her wings and body. Within days they were walking and scratching, and mum would lead them in a dive to any beetle crazy enough to try and cross the chook yard. The little ones would race in and she’d let them take the spoils. They grew rapidly.


But the drama of adolescence unfolds also in the chook world. The half-dozen chickens were half-size when those old girls down the back escaped once again with conjugal bliss on their minds. By now I was fed up with chook-feeding all over the landscape, so pushed the two old girls in with the rooster, the young mum and the six chicks. Chaos! Mum was coming down with nerves from being harassed by the older hens that were now higher up in the pecking order. But when she spotted the old boy doing the deed on one of the old girls, she fiercely rushed in, bumped him off the job and pecked her rival clean out of bed! Suddenly, from being a mother with only her brood in mind, she was available once again to the attentions of our chook-yard Lothario. This brought about a strange change in her attitude towards the six chicks – suddenly they were competitors for the food that she would need to grow the next generation of chickens as she came back into lay. Kitchen scraps or grain would come flying over the fence, they’d rush in as usual, and she’d drive them off with sharp pecks at full run. Their only advantage lay in their unclipped wings – they took to roosting nightly – not with mum, dad and the old aunts in the chicken coop – but in the lower branches of the lemon tree, just like jungle chickens.


And so the rains have come, and life moves on. Rains came also back there on New Years Day, and against the grey rain clouds overhead suddenly came the slash of sharp wings and a pair of the fastest raptors in Australia – Little Falcons. At that moment I was glad that my small family of chickens lived under the lemon tree out of sight from the skies above, and that those beautiful falcons would find plenty of prey further down the avian pecking order among the starlings and blackbirds who’d fed so well from the garden and its produce. clip_image022As the rains of autumn begin, the teenagers have a huge new chook yard to themselves and perch nightly in the grapefruit tree that we built their enclosure around. Under the lemon tree, the pressure of ten chooks in a small space has been relieved, and the young brown hen is once again laying fertilized eggs that will carry-forward the rooster’s genes, though he himself is entering his twilight years.