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August

Winter is a challenge for the vegetable gardener in the colder states. I find it a challenge to keep up the salad supply. Radicchio seems to thrive in the cold, as do the frilly-edged oak leaf salad varieties. I still have brave cos lettuce plants growing, but slowly. Together with a few small spinach leaves and some rocket pickings, though, my salad bowl is still a treat each evening. I just have to remember to encourage all the green things by giving them a tonic drink of diluted seaweed solution.

And while mentioning plant tonics, this is the time to spray all deciduous fruit trees with Bordeaux mixture, ensuring that the spray is directed at the bark as well as the branches. The spraying of this fungicide should be repeated two weeks later and it must all be completed before the first leaf buds burst. And a spray of white oil on the citrus will help prevent attacks by sap suckers such as aphids.

Here in Melbourne we are enjoying a respectable amount of rain, thank goodness, often during the night. Don't forget to lay non-toxic snail baits and do have a bit of a hunt for snails in the morning.

I am keeping up the beetroot planting, both red and golden and the striped Chioggia variety. The first small beetroot were delicious steamed and made into a salad with the superb burrata cheese from La Latteria in Elgin Street, Carlton. It's made daily along with equally outstanding mozzarella, the freshest ever ricotta, and cream that's a trip down memory lane for me, so closely does it resemble the cream that came from the milk of our Jersey cow when I was a child.

As long as you leave the central leaves intact it's possible to pick a few of the beetroot leaves while the bulbs are still growing. I sauté them with olive oil and mix them into the salad. I don't enjoy uncooked beetroot leaves in a salad, finding them too tough to mix well with my tender salad plants. Other gardeners disagree. The leaf spinach is a delight - soft and silky - and takes less than a minute to cook in a covered pan with no more than the water clinging to the leaves.

I have hilled up the young leeks with a mulch of pea straw, hoping to encourage a maximum of white shank. The broad beans are flowering and the dwarf climbing snow peas and sugarsnaps are yielding several handfuls every couple of days. And I will plant out some more carrots this weekend, mixing the super-fine carrot seed with some fine sand so that the seedlings are not too close together. Thinning will still be essential but you can let the seedlings grow a bit before needing to separate them. The thinnings are always the gardener's treat.

There is an early promise of spring as the freesias push through the front lawn and the narcissus are already in bloom. Every year I mean to relocate my freesia bulbs so that mowing the small patch of grass will not be such an obstacle course, and every year I forget. Maybe I forget intentionally as the front garden looks dreamy once they flower, scattered higgledy-piggledy across the grassy patch. The freesias are all the old-fashioned variety: the colour of cream with here and there a deep butter-yellow throat. Hyacinth bulbs have appeared in the back window box where the tarragon has disappeared for the winter. The basil bushes have shrivelled and blackened while I have been travelling around the country visiting some of the schools in the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden program.

Often I visit nearby schools but the program is now national and it was a timely reminder of the different growing conditions around the country when I visited the demonstration school in the Northern Territory, Alawa Primary. What a contrast to chilly Melbourne. Under a clear blue sky with the temperature in the high twenties, the garden at the school was exotic and luxuriant to a visitor from the south. I admired hanging bunches of bananas and dangling pawpaw and jackfruit, examined patches of sweet potato and noticed the flashes of scarlet from the prolific birdseye chilli bushes. I was introduced to the rabbits, Chocolate Chip, Licorice and Pepper. In the kitchen the students were preparing a feast for the invited guests.

On the menu were honey-seared crocodile with a red pawpaw and avocado salad; green pawpaw salad; banana flower salad with grated cucumber; rice paper rolls with sliced omelette made from the school's gathered eggs; and roast pumpkin and basil salad with sunflower seeds. It was all incredibly delicious and a perfect example of what we always hope to see: organically grown seasonal food accurately reflecting its environment. These cooks were aged between eight and 10 years old.

It was a shock to return home to a freezing evening. I had to dig out my bedsocks.

Until next time.

For information on Stephanie Alexander's Kitchen Garden Foundation and schools program, visit www.kitchengardenfoundation.org.au.

PHOTOGRAPHY JULIE CRESPEL STYLING CLAIRE DELMAR

This article is from the August 2010 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.

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