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December

It's changeover time in my vegetable patch. In the back garden, my main growing space is three fruit crates, two wine barrels, and a shady spot under the magnolia tree which suits the thyme and sage plants and the pepino bushes. And there is one sunny north-facing bed for my laden miniature stone fruit trees.

I thinned much of the setting fruit to give the remainder room to swell.

One wine barrel has been given over to a button squash plant that's already spreading and is about to spill over the sides. The other has a miniature pear tree. Now it is a matter of watch, pick off the caterpillars, squash the snails, keep up the water, especially to the plants in tubs and barrels, and wait for the full bounty in a few weeks.

Finally the magnificent broad beans have ended, and the stalks have been chopped into the compost. I've planted this bed with three capsicum bushes, red, gold, and a lime-yellow heirloom variety that is long and pointed. In between I have seedlings of red spring onion.

In the second bed the first crop of bush beans was attacked as soon as they poked out of the ground, and I lost two weeks of growth. The second planting is looking good. I've erected a sort of crazy support scaffolding around them made from the prunings of last year's grapevine. There are also two rows of carrots, and the rainbow chard continues to be generous, and very handsome too.

The third raised bed has salad greens and a small "patio" tomato that's supposed to trail and crop heavily. It's covered with flowers and small fruit so I'm hopeful.

In the front garden the peas have gone, replaced by a new variety of climbing bean, and the tomatoes, basil and eggplant are in. Wherever there's space I'll be popping in lettuce seeds and maybe one or two chilli plants. I'm experimenting with some strawberries as edging plants to see if they do better than in the hanging baskets. Easier to water although also easier for snail attack.

A Greek neighbour stopped by and was concerned that I had planted soft spinach so close to the garlic. You'll have to stop watering the garlic for the last month, she said, so I ate all the spinach last month but will give the garlic a few more weeks before I harvest it.

A month ago I spent a perfect weekend visiting friends on a farm near the Victorian-South Australian border. In the late morning I installed myself in a cushioned cane chair on the wide verandah and drank it all in. Sunshine glittered on the dam; the willows dipping into the water had the first flush of spring-green. The magpies warbled in the gums near the house, and a prunus in flower was abuzz with bees. A nearby garden bed was fragrant with a thick carpet of deep-blue parma violets. I felt my shoulders relax and I breathed more deeply. (Back home I was inspired to plant a few clumps of parma violets alongside my rosemary bushes.)

There is usually a work-related reason for such rare mo­ments of pure relaxation. I had launched the kitchen garden at MacDonald Park Primary School, near Mount Gambier. It was such a happy place. The students provided snacks for more than 50 guests. They were so proud and so competent. Among other things I enjoyed empanadas stuffed with indigenous warrigal greens, caramelised olive tartlets and broccoli fritters.

The Queensland government has joined the federal Department of Health and Ageing in supporting the kitchen garden movement.

I was in Brisbane to attend the announcement of grants to a further 17 schools by the Queensland Minister for Education, Cameron Dick. While in Queensland I also visited several federally funded schools. At Burleigh Heads State School we met an Aboriginal elder, introduced as Uncle Graham, who has charmed and intrigued the students with his stories, and acts as an advisor for what to plant in their bush-food garden. The main garden bed was in the shape of a dolphin that features in one of Uncle Graham's stories.

On to Currumbin Community Special School, where the dynamic kitchen and garden specialist Janelle Staggard is also a beekeeper. The school has its hives in a neighbouring paddock but some of the children don protective suits when it is the time for Janelle to collect the honey. (That delicious honey is used in the school's kitchen and also sold to raise funds to assist the kitchen garden program.) Every child in this special school gets to experience the garden. There's a sensory bed designed to be accessible easily from a wheelchair. The students had prepared lunch for us and we enjoyed a herb quiche, three dips (kale, cucumber, and spinach), and a lemon and ricotta cheesecake with lemon syrup. The pride with which these children showed us their garden and their chickens and later served up the cake was wonderful to see.

PHOTOGRAPHY ARMELLE HABIB

This article is from the December 2011 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.

MORE INFO

For more information on Stephanie Alexander's Kitchen Garden Foundation and schools, check out her website.
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