Autumn has a lot going for it. The weather is mellow. Deciduous trees are glorious to behold. It’s prime planting time in the vegetable garden. And it’s the perfect time to plant a tree.
I did a major renovation of my house about six years ago. It was a great success, but every autumn I have a moment of quiet remembrance. Where I now have a splendid kitchen extension, I once had an amazing persimmon tree. I used to admire its golden autumn colouring through my kitchen window, marvelling at how long the ripe fruit remained on the branches, conveniently ignoring the fact that many of the fruits were hollowed out by possums. Now, my autumn glories are two enormous ornamental pear trees, a Japanese maple, a glory vine and my five John Downie crab-apples.
Throughout late summer and early autumn, I watched in disbelief as the vines from my one heirloom potimarron pumpkin slowly scrambled over everything in its path. I had hoped the plant would be content with the trellis of my carport, but it swarmed over that, then sprawled across the paving, invaded one of the crab-apple trees and was only halted by the onset of some really cold nights. It has produced many beautiful, deep-gold, globe-shaped pumpkins, each weighing close to two kilos. I made sure to harvest them with the stem still attached and now they are lolling around on my sheltered wooden outdoor table – a perfect still life. (And it just so happens that a slatted wooden base is an ideal surface on which to store pumpkin.)
I have harvested the last of my eggplants and peppers – the zucchini finished a month earlier. My preferred variety is zucchini Romanesco. The stems and leaves are prickly and hairy, but the fruit has an incomparable flavour. It is pale-green and ridged. Returning from summer holidays, I found the inevitable runaway and it was actually quite edible halved lengthwise, seeds removed and filled with tomato, cheese and minced meat. I drizzled over extra-virgin olive oil, tucked a couple of garlic cloves and a sprig of rosemary beside it in the baking dish, covered it with foil and gave it three-quarters of an hour in a moderate oven. Not gourmet fare, perhaps, but I don’t like waste!
One afternoon I pulled up the bean plants and chopped them into the compost. At this time of year, the compost bin fills quickly with raked fallen leaves and the debris of the spent plants. My gardener decided to clear a circle right to the drip line around my very old lemon tree, so that it could benefit from deeper watering. She laid newspaper to suppress the buffalo grass, then some excellent soil, compost and mulch, and now this protected magic circle is my best salad bed. It has filtered sunlight year-round,and during the hottest summer days the lemon tree gives shade to the plants. The tree has benefited too, with fine new growth.
This month I will plant seeds of the first broad beans (which need strong stakes), and plant out seedlings of English spinach, spring onions, shelling peas and leeks. Leeks do not elicit the enthusiasm they deserve. They are so easy to manage, and so sweet and delicious to eat. Just dig a hole about 15cm deep and drop in a seedling. Plant deep, to maximise the amount of blanched white shank they will have when ready. Leave about 12cm between the plants and water in well. In about 12 weeks, the first slender leeks can be pulled. Those left behind will just grow fatter and be just as sweet. It is a good idea to pull each alternate leek to allow room for the next one to grow.
I have shaken the seedheads of my favourite frilly-leaved oak leaf lettuce over my salad bed and I hope I will soon see tiny green dots appearing, telling me the seeds have started to grow. My other favourite crop for the cooler months is beetroot. I pull them small, but while waiting for them to grow I will often snip a few outer leaves to braise with a bit of garlic and olive oil. I have found that golden beetroot leaves are the most delicious of all, rivalling English spinach for tenderness.
Few of us have a lot of space in our backyards with which to grow edible crops, so be sure to grow what you love to eat and be realistic about the number of seeds or seedlings you are planning to plant. Beginner’s glut is a very real phenomenon. Fields of garlic may sound like a good idea (and if you pursue it, you should plant by mid-June), but garlic ties up the bed for five to six months. I buy my garlic from one of the nearby farmers’ markets in midsummer. Until next time.
PHOTOGRAPHY CHRIS CHEN
This article is from the May 2010 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.