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! This 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…
Ten 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.
And 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.
I 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.
Those 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.
On 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.
The 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.
On 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.
On 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.
Friends 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. I 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!