Food News


Stephanie Alexander prepares for the “straggly months” in her late-autumn garden, and there’s still plenty of work to be done in the hothouse.

I have finally decided on a persimmon tree to replace the felled Manchurian pear. An indelible memory is of late autumn one year in Bright in Victoria's High Country. I took an early morning walk and was stopped in mid-step by the beauty of a persimmon orchard - golden orbs and golden leaves, all lit by pale morning sunshine. There are no high fences near the planned site, so hopefully possums will leave the tree alone.

I had occasion to visit Canberra in the last few weeks and was absolutely delighted by the colours of the leaves on the trees growing around the lake. The gold and red contrasting with the grey gums was a beautiful sight. Another autumnal treat has been to tuck into the first chestnuts. When I go to the trouble of peeling them myself (as opposed to buying ready-peeled ones) I like to sauté them slowly in a covered pan with a little olive oil. Once just tender they make a fabulous addition to a warm salad of crisp streaky bacon, witlof and some quickly blanched leaves of Brussels sprouts, all dressed with the bacon fat sizzled with a splash of red wine vinegar.

Most of the autumn colour is now over. Both the quince and the crab-apples put on a lovely golden show, and the largest apples hung on right to the end, like scarlet Christmas baubles. There are a few piles of red and gold leaves raked together from my ornamental vine. I will let them break down over my three-week holiday before adding them to the compost bin.

I am packing to travel to England and Ireland to experience a northern spring. Highlights will be a visit to the Chelsea Flower Show, and a whole day exploring Sissinghurst and another great garden at Great Dixter in East Sussex. Planted and cared for by the late Christopher Lloyd, who wrote one of my favourite gardening books (Gardener Cook, published in 1997, a wonderfully opinionated work), the garden continues to be an inspiration to those who visit. I'm also going to spend a few days in the Lake District and then on to Ballymaloe in County Cork, Ireland. I enjoyed meeting Rachel Allen at this year's Melbourne Food and Wine Festival - she has promised to show me a rural Irish pub where I can hear some music and some singing.

In the meantime, we are in what I refer to as the straggly months - certainly in my vegetable garden. By the time I return it will be deep winter. I have transplanted the lime verbena to the front garden, and although it will be a thing of beauty in a few months it is now a bundle of sticks. I'll plant a crown of rhubarb in a week or so - another perennial that will add structure to the front beds, now that the height of the tomato and climbing bean plants has disappeared. I have purchased new Tuscan kale plants, well known by their Italian name, cavolo nero. They also add structure to the garden as well as providing delicious leaves for the kitchen. With two healthy Tuscan kale plants, a family of two or three will be able to feast on luscious leaves all winter. Compared with the amount of space needed to grow a comparable quantity of loose-headed cabbage, kale is a great choice for small spaces. I'm leaving the capsicums where they are. My gardener claims to have had a great crop from two-year-old plants, as does my sister.

In the hothouse are seedlings of golden podded pea and purple podded pea. They were such showy plants last spring, and this year I'm growing them out a bit before transplanting, hoping that advanced seedlings will be better able to fight off the biting and sucking insects that attacked the newly emerging plants last year when I planted direct. I was so enchanted by the butterfly-like mauve flowers that I have also planted ornamental sweet peas in my barrels interspersed with some pansies and a few early frilly lettuces. The hothouse has seeds of sprouting broccoli, some red spring onions, and some dwarf snow peas; hopefully all will be ready for planting out on my return.

And an important garden task before I leave will be to plant the garlic. This year I am planting pink garlic cloves, an heirloom organic variety sold by Digger's as "oriental purple". I am promised "fist-sized heads with a flavour that will give you a real kick!"

One of the companies that supports the work of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation is Neutrog from South Australia. This company proposed creating a special organic fertiliser expressly suited to the growing of fruits and vegetables, and offering a percentage of the profit from every bag to help our work. We ran a naming competition through our participating schools and the winner was Rocket Fuel. Look for it at your garden supplier. Every bag you buy helps make effective and pleasurable food education in schools a tiny bit more sustainable.

The vegetable boxes have had a refresh with a layer of Rocket Fuel. The direct sowings of golden beetroot and carrot continue to grow well, as do the leeks, and in another box the broad beans are nearly high enough to tie up. Wherever I see a space I tuck in a lettuce plant - they grow so much more slowly in the colder weather and I love my green salads.

Until next time.

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