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February

At the first farmers' market of the year at Melbourne's Collingwood Children's Farm, I noticed that the walnut tree at the entrance was laden with nuts. The woman who sits almost underneath the tree selling charming posies had also noticed it, but we agreed that it was far too late to gather the crop to make pickled walnuts - late October or November was when a needle would have slipped easily through the shells while the nuts were still green.

At home, my almond tree is full of nuts, but I'm wondering if I'll be able to save them. Last summer, the lorikeets demolished my crabapple crop from four trees in a matter of days, but, for whatever reason, didn't discover the almond tree out the front.

Meanwhile, the possums made short work of the quinces. Sometimes it's hard trying to live in harmony with the natural world and all its creatures.

A new generation of cabbage moths has appeared, fluttering around the vegetable boxes. I find those rather unattractive brightly coloured silverfoil whirly things suspended from polypipe hoops seem to dissuade birds, so maybe they'll work for cabbage moths, too.

My cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini and basil are all growing well, but something is munching the leaves of a new crop of bush beans. Intense heat seems to have stopped the salad greens thriving, no matter how much water they get, although the cos varieties cope better than the very soft-leaved salads.

I've also planted seeds of the miniature watermelons that produced a single glorious fruit last year. This year, I'll do a bit more hand-pollination, in case that was the reason for the single fruit. The leaves are so attractive and, as the crop romps happily around the lemon tree, I'm reminded of old-fashioned watermelon rind pickle. I made some a month or so ago (with fruit I'd bought) and it looks so pretty in the jar and is delicious with any charcuterie or smoked meat. I served it alongside the Christmas ham. Recipes abound; mine is in The Cook's Companion. And the pickle keeps for at least six months.

I'm about to take my late-summer holiday at the beach. The children who have featured in this column over the years have grown into pre-teenagers and, as with their stature, so with their appetite. Where once tiny amounts of food kept them content at lunchtime, now, after a morning in the surf, they seem difficult to fill up. So I've done a bit of pre-planning to ensure that I don't panic. Fortunately, there's fabulous local sourdough bread in Irrewarra - and a lot of it gets eaten.

I'll cook a kilo of chickpeas before leaving home, cool them in the cooking liquid, drain and divide them in half and freeze the parcels. I'll do the same with a kilo of cannellini beans. Both make popular lunchtime salads and can be extended with caramelised onion, harissa or a milder chutney, pesto, crumbled goat's cheese and plenty of mint and parsley - or sliced garlic sausage or leftovers from a roast leg of lamb for the non-vegetarians.The frozen bags of chickpeas and cannellini beans will make convenient iceblocks in the esky on the way to the holiday house.

I'll also stock up on tomatoes and fruit, some tomatoes from my own crop but more will come from one of the many roadside stalls crammed with locally grown produce.

Panzanella salad is another lunchtime favourite. The moistened chunks of sourdough are a very easy way of stretching this tomato salad and making it more substantial.

I expect to find wonderfully fresh, just-picked sweetcorn, peaches and strawberries, and every lunch will finish with a large platter of roughly chunked or whole fruit. Last year, the holiday coincided with the harvest moment for local sour cherries. A group of us picked and picked and I made a really lovely sour cherry yeast pastry following the recipe for rhubarb yeast cake in The Cook's Companion. Sour cherries keep wonderfully well in the refrigerator for up to a week, probably longer.

The Kitchen Garden Foundation will be back in full swing this month, once schools have returned for the new school year. Public workshops start again in February in the wonderful Learning Centre at Collingwood College - the first will be on how to make your own tomato passata. Interested food lovers can book on the website (see left), where you'll also find all the details of the new, more flexible and more accessible kitchen garden model.

Applications are also invited from all schools with a primary enrolment. Our aim is to be represented in 10 per cent of Australian schools by the end of 2015.

Until next time.

More info

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

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