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September

With the almond tree in flower and nectarine in bud, Stephanie Alexander cuts back the capsicum bushes and cooks the cumquats down to jam.

We're nearly finished with winter and what a cold one Melbourne has had, but there are welcome signs that spring is on the way. The almond tree is in flower and the quince is in bud, as are the doughnut peaches, regular peach and nectarine.

For the first time in the 25 years I've lived in this house, my lemon tree went through a few months without any fruit.

It needed a big cutback and took quite a while to recover - happily the boughs are once again laden. Another near-casualty was my old wisteria vine. Over the years it had twined its way along the lacework of the verandah and coiled like a serpent around the iron verandah posts. It took hours to uncoil it so all the old iron could be replaced and repainted. What could be recovered has been restrung on a new wire, and while it's a shadow of its former self I'm delighted to say there are a few buds appearing. It will flourish again, and this time I'll train it away from spouts and verandah posts.

Outside my pantry window deep-blue hyacinths fill a window box. They're beautiful to look at, though I find their scent overpowering. From another window I can enjoy a very large orchid. It has long elegant sprays of primrose-yellow flowers that are a delight for at least a month. My gardener has hoisted the large pot onto my outside table so I can catch a glimpse of it every few minutes as I pass to and fro.

I made a successful batch of cumquat marmalade from my small tree. It amazes me how much fruit one small tree in a tub can produce - quite enough for me to pip, squeeze and cook a batch in my copper jam pan twice a year. I went to visit Maggie Beer for the weekend, and even though she's the queen of preserves, she doesn't make cumquat jam and she loves it, so it was the obvious choice for a gift.

Maggie and Colin have a new sunroom. Through the panes of glass the Meyer lemon trees were heavy with fruit, and a glorious potted hydrangea still had its leaves of gold and pink. Every now and then the glass panes were splashed with sudden rain, a reminder of the chilly world outside as we sat inside in the warm winter sunshine and caught up. How wonderful is longstanding friendship when one can talk about anything at all - worries, plans, holidays, children - and, of course, eat and drink some lovely things together: a venison pie, a new ice-cream flavour.

We spoke about the legacy of Peter Lehmann, the Barossa winemaker who was a legend in his lifetime, which has sadly just ended. He remains an inspiration to all in the wine industry and has passed his enthusiasm to his sons.

Back home I opened a 2005 Stonewell Shiraz in memory of Peter. And inspired by Maggie's Meyer lemons, I picked a few tangelos from my tree. The fruit juice was tart and delicious, but the smallness of the tree has proved once and for all that citrus don't thrive in the shade. The tree was moved and has flourished in its new location.

In the vegetable garden, leafy greens, brassicas, turnips and frilly salad leaves have survived winter. The capsicums have finally been cut back, but they held and ripened fruit well into July. The artichokes are bold and magnificent but yet to show fruit.

I'm often asked whether the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden program offers support to schools with a vegetable garden but no kitchen. Growing vegetables and herbs is a valuable activity, but it doesn't show a child how to create simple delicious dishes that they can prepare for the rest of their life. Harvesting pupil-grown silverbeet will build pride and self-esteem, and increase the student's understanding of the environment, but it doesn't achieve the same result as showing a child how to roll and slice it, how to sauté it with olive oil and garlic, mix it with ricotta and use it to fill homemade pasta. The pride and delight that accompanies these activities is what will change behaviour for the longer term.

I demonstrated making one of the students' favourite dishes on a recent episode of MasterChef, a silverbeet, potato and ricotta torte. I've had many responses from parents and students telling me that they immediately had a go at making it. The filling is encased in a featherlight olive-oil pastry that's literally child's play to make.

Too much travelling leaves not enough time for gardening, though I think my energies will also be revived by spring's milder weather.

Until next time.

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