Sunday, 24 February 2013

Sunday, Plum (jam) day!

Last night I decided that it was time to use up the remaining plums from my bumper crop.  Over the last few weeks, I had been putting any excess ripe plums (ie the ones we couldn't eat, cook or pass on to friends) in a freezer bag inside the freezer.

I had about 3 kilograms of plums in there, taking up a fair bit of space.  So, Sunday was slated as Jam Day, and the plums came out of the freezer to thaw overnight.

I chose this jam recipe - which calls for 2kg of plums.  As I had 3kg of plums, I decided to 'one and a half' the recipe.  (It turned out not to be such a great idea to cook the full 3kg in one go.  If you decide to use this or any other jam recipe, scroll down to the end of the post for some useful preparation tips, which I learned through trial and error.)

As the fruit had been frozen, it was a bit mushy, and therefore a cinch to de-seed and quarter.  Other recipes I have seen sometimes advise you to peel the fruit, but I consciously decided to leave the skins on as I figured they would give the jam a good colour.  This turned out to be the right decision!

In the photo below, I have just added the warmed sugar to the gently cooked fruit (I warmed the sugar by putting it into a pyrex lasagne dish and placing in the oven, where the jars were already sterilising, for about 10 mins).

When the jam started to boil,

I removed the scum on top as it formed.

Finally, the jam reached 'setting point' (mine took about 15 mins longer than the recipe indicated - I tested it three times).

Once it was good to go, I carefully put the hot jars on a tea towel (straight from the oven) and used a pyrex jug to pour hot jam in each jar (it got a bit messy!).  Luckily, I had more than enough jars for the quantity of jam made.

The jam ended up being a rather lovely, glossy, burgundy colour!

Next, I had to cover the jars to form a seal.  I used these nifty preserve covers (below), as the jam jars' own lids looked a bit daggy and I was not confident that they would form the necessary airtight seal.

My verdict on the Kleerview seals is that they work a treat, albeit a bit fiddly.

The instructions say that you have to wet one side of the clear sheet, and put the seal on the jar dry side down.  The heat of the jar creates the seal.

Accordingly, I dipped the seals one at a time onto a shallow plate with a little water, then put them on the jars.  This method worked sort of alright, but as the seals were sticky once wet, I messed a couple up (it reminded me of trying to put those self-adhesive covers on school books!).

I reckon placing the cover on the jar dry, then squirting it with a spray bottle, would work much better!  I will do that next time.

Here is the sealed jam cooling down -

and labelled!  The rubber bands and labels came in the packet with the seals.

I think I could have put the rubber bands on a bit more evenly, in hindsight, but they all seem to have a good seal regardless.

And now for the test drive  . . . and what better than some hot buttered toast with home made plum jam? (and yes, I like my toast 'slightly burnt', as it is crunchier).

Result: Jammy and delicious!


1.  Don't waste your produce - freeze it 'as you go' before it goes past its 'use by date'.
2.  Make sure you have ALL the equipment you need before starting, ie, a big enough saucepan, a wooden spoon, enough jars (six or seven standard jam jars for 2kg fruit), lids or equivalent seals such as Kleerview, heat proof jug or scoop for getting the jam out of the saucepan and into the jars, an oven proof container big enough for warming the amount of sugar you need, and a clean water spray bottle if using that for sealing (see item 7, below).
3.  Only plan to cook enough jam for the size of your largest pan.  I found 3kg of fruit was pushing it with my tureen.  I got splashed with boiling jam more than once, and I also got a lot of sticky jammy bits all over the kitchen while it boiled!  This was my own fault - the saucepan was almost full whilst it was boiling.  Next time, I will aim to fill the saucepan no more than half-full with fruit.
4.  Before you start, put your jars in the oven for sterilising.  They need to stay in there for a minimum of 20 mins (over 20 mins is fine - you want to be pouring hot jam into hot jars).  I had the oven at 150C.  Over 190C will crack the glass, so don't do that!
5.  I warmed the sugar for about 10 minutes, whilst the jars were sterilising in the oven.
6.  Make sure you have more jars than you think you will need, including a few smaller jars in case you have a smaller amount at the end.
7.  If using transparent preserve covers, try the spray bottle trick - place cover over jam jar and spray outside of cover with water to create seal.

All in all, it's been a happy Jam Day!


Friday, 22 February 2013

Herbs - my first (gardening) love (Part 2)

Remember the hauntingly beautiful Simon and Garfunkel hit, 'Scarborough Fair', with its recurring line, 'parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme'?

That song was an inspiration when I was contemplating having a variety of culinary herbs in my home garden.  I have to say that it is so handy to be able to just pop outside and pick a few stalks of thyme and rosemary for a soup or stock, or grab some oregano and basil for topping a pizza.  Herbs are such rewarding plants - the more you pick 'em, the more they produce!  This, and the fact that they seem to mainly look after themselves, it why they make a good first step into the world of gardening.

I tend to dot culinary herbs throughout the garden, as most are attractive in their own right.

So, back to Simon and Garfunkel . . . .

Parsley.  The picture below is of my flat leaf (continental or Italian) parsley, re-growing after going to seed in mid-summer.  In my garden, it seems to grow best in part shade, probably because it stays moister there (our summers are very hot and dry - and this year it was particularly so).

I have never had to buy more than the one original plant (which totally suits me, as I am a bit of a frugal Dougal by nature).  When it goes to seed and gets woody (every couple of years or so), you just shake the seed heads for more to grow up in the same place, or anywhere you want them to grow.  (FYI, the plant at the back with the pinky purple flowers is a crowea - an Australian native.  And as you can see, I tend to leave twigs, leaves and things in the garden to compost down naturally and provide protection for the skinks etc.)

Sage.  Here's mine, growing near the quince and plum trees.  My previous sage got a fungus after a few years, and carked it.  This one was planted (in a new spot) last spring.  (The plant immediately behind the is a feijoa or pineapple guava.  The debris around the sage is from a died down swathe of heartsease, which  I anticipate will return in abundance come spring.)

Rosemary.  I have planted three of the prostrate rosemary, 'Irene', in a row, to make a curved edge on my back grass (it's a bit scrappy to call it a 'lawn'!).  Each plant easily covers a square metre.  I cut it back from time to time to keep it neat and bushy.

As far as I'm concerned, rosemary is an essential ingredient in pumpkin soup!  (Can you see my baby black mulberry tree in the background? I am hoping it gets lots of fruit next year.)

The bees adore rosemary - it was literally buzzing when I took the photo!  See Mr Bee getting the goodness out of the pretty blue flowers?

and Thyme . . . here is the standard 'vulgaris', which is more upright and has a tendency to go woody (I keep it trimmed - kinda! - in the vegie patch)

and Edna Walling's favourite, 'Westmoreland' . . . softer and more prostate.  Seen here with other useful ground covers, alyssum and wild strawberry, and the strappy liriope.

But wait, there's more!  Depending on the season, I tend to have a few other useful herbs on the go, such as mint:

I keep my mint in a pot near the back tap so it doesn't take over the entire garden.  It also makes me remember to water it (mint loves to be damp and shady).  I do cut mint back from time to time when it gets a bit leggy - which is also a great excuse for making a nice minty lemon- or lime-ade!

In Canberra, mint goes dormant over our cold winter.   It sometimes reappears in spring, but this cannot be relied on.  I had to buy a new one this past spring.

Oregano, also in a pot.  Oregano seems to 'sulk but survive' through our frosty winter if kept under the eaves.  It cheers up again in spring.

Dill - only an umbrel at the moment, as it's all gone to seed - but it'll be back next spring!  (The plant at the back is an osmanthus 'heaven scent').

and, of course, delicious sweet basil.  Basil doesn't survive our heavy winter frosts, so I will hopefully get around to saving some seed for next year.

And now, for the encore . . . I just can't resist adding the next two, whose pretty salad flowers cheer the soul:

Heartsease (aka viola, johnny jump up - and yes, it does 'jump up', ie self-sow, several times a year, to my perpetual delight)

and borage.  This is a new one - only got the seeds this year, again from Diggers.  Aren't borage flowers such a pretty blue?

I feel so lucky that I can share my love of herbs with you!  I hope you have caught something of my enthusiasm for these delightful 'gifts that keep on giving', and are now persuaded to go down to your local nursery and get some seedlings or seeds to plant up.


Thursday, 21 February 2013

Herbs - my first (gardening) love (Part 1)

I have been exploring the wonders of herbs for a long time.

Even before I had my large garden to love, I was fascinated by herbs and their power to enhance flavours and heal a wide range of ailments.

And since my kids were little, I have frequently consulted Penelope Ody's Complete Medicinal Herbal to treat ailments simply and naturally.  As you can see, the book is beautifully illustrated with a full page on each herb, and useful sections on how to use them for particular ailments.

Having learned the characteristics of certain herbs from this book, it was not difficult to put that knowledge into practice.  For example, I learned that putting chamomile tea into a teapot with a piece of cinnamon stick and a clove, plus honey to taste, made a soothing remedy for tummy troubles (such as when a child overdoes it at a kids' party).   Similarly, strong black tea was helpful for 'the runs'; and calendula flowers made into a tea helped with period pain if drunk, and could also be dabbed on sunburn.

The main staples in my first aid kit are Calendula and Arnica creams - calendula being the 'go to' remedy for all manner of skin problems, including bites and stings, dry skin, rashes, fungal problems, cuts, burns, blisters and abrasions; and arnica bringing quick relief for bruises, sprains, aches and pains.

Calendula is my favourite herb.  I am so keen on calendula that I am now growing my own calendula flowers.  I first planted them a couple of years ago, from Diggers Club seeds.  It grows readily from seed, and self sows prolifically!

In my garden at the moment, the older calendula plants are finishing and I have just cut them back, but new ones are coming up already - see the buds?

In addition to the budding seedlings, there are calendulas in each of the following stages in my garden at the moment (ie, all at the same time!):

one of the last flowers of the season . . .

a flower head going to seed, and

a seed head just about ready to be sown (see the little crescent-shaped seeds?)

I intend to make my own calendula balm from the recipe below, which was featured in the September 2012 edition of the ABC's Gardening Australia magazine:

I hope to have enough calendula petals to harvest for this purpose in early winter.  If I do, you guys will be the first to know!  Do you have a favourite herb?

PS I will be posting a Part 2 on culinary herbs soon!


Sunday, 17 February 2013

Pesto pronto

I noticed today that my basil plants are starting to flower.

This is my cue to make pesto!  I will be freezing the finished product in a lightly oiled ice cube tray, so I can use it later.

I am using a slightly modified recipe from this book.  The only thing I am changing is the nuts - I am using Australian macadamias instead of pine nuts, because I happen to have some in the pantry.  Plus, I know they work a treat.

You only need five ingredients, plus salt:

As I don't have a blender, my pesto tends to end up slightly more 'bitsy' than if I had blended it, but it smells and tastes just as divine (so I don't care)!

My favourite way of serving it is to defrost several cubes of pesto, add a beaten egg yolk and a bit more olive oil, then dollop a spoonful of the mixture into a soup bowl and pour on hot vegetable soup, a la Ian Parmenter's provencal pistou soup.  It is particularly wonderful to be able to have this 'basiled up' soup during winter, when basil is not available.

So, after mortar-and-pestling the garlic, nuts and basil, I add grated parmesan cheese and oil . . .

 . . .then spoon the mixture into the oiled ice cube tray . . .

 . . . and pop the tray into the freezer.  I have lidded ice cube trays, which is a boon for something like this.

Yum!  Now I have home made pesto whenever I need it.

If you are lucky enough to have homegrown basil, why not try making pesto?  If not, consider growing some next summer.  There's nothing like it!


Friday, 15 February 2013

Cute curtains

In the 12 years I have lived in this house, I never thought about putting curtains in the bathroom or the loo till recently.

It suddenly dawned on me that we all spend a fair bit of time in these rooms, so why neglect them?  Why not make them a pleasant space?

So, I searched for a pattern and settled on a lovely valance pattern on Ravelry.   I liked the idea of a valance, as I would still be able to have my plants, bits and bobs on the window sill.

Here is my first attempt.

I put it up in the bathroom.  However, I found that the 'quite solid' motif made the bathroom a bit dark, and I decided it would work better in the loo (once my son gets around to putting up the hooks for me).

But after taking it down, I realised that I missed having a curtain in the bathroom.  The window looked undressed!

I had a think about how I could adjust the pattern to make it work in my bathroom.  I decided to use a more airy motif from the one in the pattern and have three rows of motifs instead of two (I think odd numbers look more symmetrical).  My aim was to have more light come through, and give it a slightly more 'vertical' feel.  I also made it wider than my first, so it would be slightly wavy when it was hung.

I chose the lazy daisy from this book as the centre of each motif, and stitched dc stitches around (with a tr and chains for the corners) to make the daisy into a square.

I then followed the pattern, joining the motif squares (accommodating my changes) and doing the edges and hanging loops.

And today, I finished my new bathroom curtain!

Can you see the way it hangs a little wavy?  (The colour in this photo is somewhat inaccurate, because of the flash - the curtain is actually an antique cream colour in 'real life', like the previous photo)

Even though the new curtain is slightly longer, the daisy motif does seem to let in more light . . .

And I am especially proud of the picot stitch in the edging!  Just for fun, and to continue the more vertical feel, I made a slight variation in the bottom edging by adding a picot into the centre of each shell.  (Instead of the middle treble stitch, I chained three and slip stitched into the first chain, making a picot).  Here's a close-up:

I used 'parchment' cotton from Bendigo Woollen Mills for both valances.

My son reckons I am turning my house into a hippie paradise.  Maybe so, but maybe that's how I like it.

I am now considering bedroom curtains . . . but that's another story!


Wednesday, 13 February 2013

A little bit of weather . . .

Mother Nature has been a little more light on with the rain than usual of late.

Inland Australia is not renowned for rain anyway - the spectacular floods usually happen on the coast.  Inland is more at the 'drought' end of the vivid descriptions in Dorothea McKellar's wonderful poem, My Country.

But this arvo, the clouds gathered and approached, with that wonderful portent, the Smell of Rain.

And all at once, it was raining!

I always feel that my garden emits a kind of yearning when rain is on its way; and sighs in bliss when it comes.  Perhaps I'm bonkers.  But then again, maybe we are closer to nature than we know.

Enough rain fell to gather on the edge of the petunia's petals . . . (aren't these flowers a clever design, like a funnel!)

and to drip down the leaves on the corn in my vegie patch, and on the ornamental pear . . .

It was really only a rain shower - it only lasted for about 10 minutes before speeding on before the wind.

Nonetheless, I am grateful for any rain at the moment . . . and it does make me inexplicably happy!  


Monday, 11 February 2013

A homage to Edna Walling

When I moved back to Canberra in 1999,  I didn't know much at all about gardening (other than mowing, and trying to keep the odd pot plant alive).

I felt particularly daunted when I moved into my present house.  The large yard was distinctly unprepossessing.  There was the concrete remnants of a home-job water feature; a few random, very scraggly bottlebrush-y shrubs; a few woody lavender bushes; and a huge banksia looming above some enormous rocks.  And a Lot of 'dust 'n' weeds' to mow.
The whole block was very exposed, and So Hot in summer.

Looking out the kitchen window every day (whilst washing up) was very depressing, as the view was abysmal.

What on earth could I do? 

By a stroke of sheer good fortune, I heard about Edna Walling, the prominent garden designer in Australia during the 1920s to 1960s, on ABC radio.  I also heard a new word: 'microclimate'.

Edna Walling's ideas sounded EXACTLY like what could, and should, be done in my garden.  So, off I went to my local Library and found this book, in which her hand-drawn, colourful designs are pictured.

Edna Walling's much-admired designs include curved garden beds and plantings, winding paths leading to copses of trees and garden rooms, stone walls (often also curved) and pools.  She liked to allow plants to self-sow and naturalise, and advised against over-manicuring.

Her designs also featured her favourite plants, including birches, hellebores, Westmoreland thyme, erigeron, cotoneasters and crataegeus, viburnums, camellias, periwinkle, bulbs, and crab apples combined with natives.

Encountering Edna Walling's landscaping ideas were truly a Eureka moment for me: I suddenly realised that my 'problem garden' was in fact an incredible gift.

Over the last 10 years, I have made a start on my very own Edna Walling homage garden.  Here are some of my Walling-esque efforts:

Copses of silver birch.  This one is underplanted with hellebores.  (Chinese fringe flower inn foreground).

A baby camellia japonica 'Tiptoe', surrounded by a froth of Erigeron daisies.

A 'mini-avenue' (three trees!) of crab apples (Malus 'Sugar Tyme') - still little, but looking good.  Here is one specimen from afar . . .

and close up, below - see the little crab apples??  This is the first year the trees have fruited.  The crab apples are supposed to turn red and hold onto the tree well into winter.  I am looking forward to that!

A thriving hedge of Viburnum Tinus - an admirable shrub - both tough and pretty; nothing fazes it!

And a true Walling favourite - the lovely Westmoreland thyme (under my plum tree).  I am really pleased with this thyme - it is more of a ground cover than the standard thymus vulgaris and does not seem to go as woody, yet it still smells divine and thyme-like!  Apparently, Edna Walling regularly planted it as a lawn and loved to roll about on it!  I had trouble finding this thyme in Canberra, so I ended up buying it from Lambley Nursery (find it under Thymus 'Westmoreland').  This whole patch under the plum tree started as three little plants.

I have also made my back lawn area long and 'curvy'.  It does seem to magically add intrigue to what is really a pretty normal backyard!   I was secretly very chuffed when my daughter told me that her friend had described my backyard as the 'secret garden'!  Here it is - this pic taken from edge of vegie patch (you can just see the corner).  The second pic shows the beginnings of another path I am still thinking about (I have just plonked the stepping stones down, but it does seem to lead somewhere mysterious).

Over the years, I have fallen in love with gardening via my Edna Walling adventures.  While I have not been able to undertake any of the more costly Walling features (such as her signature stone walls),  I can confidently state that Edna Walling's landscaping ideas WORK in Canberra.  There is no doubt that my garden is significantly cooler in summer, and significantly less exposed to chill winds in winter, due to the microclimate created by using Edna Walling's simple, effective and aesthetically pleasing techniques.

I feel indebted to Edna Walling for her wonderful legacy.  May she live on, in her gardens, and in mine.