When the Going Gets Tough – Make Soup!

With only a few days left until winter officially starts, it’s been a super busy week for me. I had the home stretch to traverse with a particularly difficult university assignment, lots of jobs building up around the house and loads to do in the garden. Okay, I’ll admit like any gardener, there’s ALWAYS loads to do in the garden and housework has never been my strongest suit. Cue the moment I come down with the latest virus that’s doing the rounds *sigh*

So I did all the right things, went straight for the Elderberry Syrup, did my best to do a little each day on my essay, slept as much as I was able, ignored a lot of things (mostly housework), kept my germs to myself for the first part of the week – and made soup.

Soup is my go-to comfort food almost year round, closely followed by any sort of salad from my garden. This time I went for the big guns and made a batch of rich and warming Slow Onion Soup. As the name implies, this is a long, slow cooking process and makes a very intensely flavoured, savoury soup. Be aware that I break it down with water and I recommend playing around with what suits you and your family. Any kind of stock is fine for the base (including vegetable for vegetarian friends), but I had pork stock on hand. Please note this takes two days to make so start this the day before you want to serve it. Here’s the recipe.

Slow Onion Soup (serves 4 as a starter or 2 as a main course)

3 or 4 brown onions

1 head of garlic

Dried celery leaves (or 1 stick of fresh celery)

1 carrot

A sprig each of lemon thyme, sage and rosemary

2 bay leaves

2-3 cups stock

Approximately 1 cup white wine

Approximately 2 cups water

2 tabs Marsala or Dry Sherry (optional)

To serve:

Cream or plain yogurt (optional)

Parsley and croutons for garnish (optional)

Method:

Top and tail the onions and put them whole in a slow cooker with the carrot, sprigs of fresh herbs, bay leaves and celery stick. (I dry celery leaves when I have it growing and use a few instead in soups and stews). Break the head of garlic into cloves (I don’t bother peeling them) and put them in too. Pour over about half a cup of stock and half a cup of white wine – just enough to ensure it doesn’t burn – and cook on low for as long as possible. I did this batch for about 8 hours and switched the cooker off.

The next day when everything’s cold, use a slotted spoon and put the onions in a food processor or blender jar with the carrot and celery. The garlic will pop out of its skins very easily now and have a beautiful, nutty flavour. Take out the bay leaves and sprigs of herbs (I put mine in the compost). Strain the liquid in the bottom of the slow cooker and put that in the processor/blender too. Wash out the slow cooker – we’ll be needing it again!

Pulse the onions to start with and then blend until the mix is smooth. Feel free to add some more water if it’s too thick at this stage. Pour the mix back into the slow cooker and add the rest of the stock, white wine, Marsala and 1 cup of the water. Cook on low for at least 2 hours and check the flavour. I opted to add another cup of water to bring it to the consistency and calm down the intensity of flavour.

Serve with croutons, a tablespoon of cream or plain yogurt and a sprig of parsley. Some fresh crusty bread and a green salad are also great accompaniments to this comforting bowl of goodness.

I think just making this made me feel better – the whole house smelt like roasting onions for a couple of days – and I’m happy to say I managed to get my uni essay finished and submitted on time, (only five units left now!) and made a start on the many jobs in the garden this glorious weekend. The housework? I’m sure it’ll still be there next week 🙂

 

Fresh Lime & Lemon Yogurt Cheesecake

It’s been a wild time in more ways than one!

Just over a week ago, Hobart suffered a once in a century storm that saw major power blackouts, even cars being washed away and widespread flood damage, including heartbreaking scenes at the University of Tasmania Law Library, a few steps from my front door. We were incredibly lucky, with minimal damage to the yard and no perceivable harm to the menagerie apart from everyone – including me – being very damp!

I was particularly worried about some of the citrus trees that are something of an experiment in southern Tasmania’s cool climate. In particular, I’ve been nurturing a Dwarf Tahitian Lime for the past two years and let it set fruit this last summer. They were just getting to a reasonable size and I was hoping to pick them later this month, before the hard frosts hit. My worst fear was the torrential rain would cause them to all drop, though they all seemed firm and the tree still healthy. But a few days later, we had our first decent frost of the year and I hadn’t thought to put a bag over the little tree to protect it from freezing. Still, all the fruit were hanging in there (literally), and this morning, I picked the two biggest limes and a couple of lemons for a weekend treat.

Despite the shorter days and the distress of storms, my elderly chickens are still laying and I had a pot of homemade yogurt cheese I made earlier this week, so I thought I’d make a baked cheesecake for dessert.

Here are the recipes:

Lime and Lemon Yogurt Cheesecake

2 limes

2 lemons

6 eggs

400g yogurt cream cheese (recipe below)

¾ to 1 cup sugar

Pastry or biscuit base

Method:

Prepare base (I used pastry but a traditional biscuit and butter base would be lovely with this too) in a spring form pan and set aside.

Grate and juice the fruit, and put it in a blender or food processor jar with the sugar, eggs and cream cheese. Pulse to blend until everything is well combined and smooth.

 

Pour carefully into the prepared base and bake at 150 C (about 300 F) for 45 minutes. After cooking, leave the cheesecake in the oven for at least an hour.

This is incredibly delicious and really very easy to make – I think the hardest part is cleaning the food processor!

Yogurt Cream Cheese

1 litre (about 2 pints) plain yogurt

2 tablespoons salt

Cheesecloth and kitchen string

I make my own yogurt but any good quality store bought yogurt should be fine for this.

Tip the yogurt into a very clean non-metallic bowl and mix in the salt, stirring thoroughly. In another clean non-metallic bowl, lay the cheesecloth so the edges are hanging over the sides. Carefully pour the yogurt and salt mixture into the second bowl, taking care not to drag the cheesecloth into the mix. Gently draw the edges of the cheesecloth together and tie with kitchen string, leaving enough tail to make a loop. Hang the yogurt with the bowl underneath to catch the whey, taking care not to squeeze it. I usually make this in the evening, hang it on my laundry tap and leave it undisturbed until morning.

The next day, carefully remove the string and turn it onto a plate, making sure to get as much as you can off the cheesecloth. It should be very similar to cream cheese but with a beautiful sharp yogurt tang. Keep it in a closed container in the refrigerator. I use this in many dishes, from dips and desserts to ravioli fillings – anywhere you need cream cheese.

I’m seriously thrilled to be growing Tahitian Limes in cool temperate Hobart – it’s something of a gardening coup this far south! So my next question is, what’s your favourite recipe where limes shine? Let me know in the comments.

Take care 🙂

Summer in a Bottle – Fermented Chilli Sauce

 

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I’ve had a fabulous crop of chillies so far and this season I really wanted to experiment with fermenting for flavour.

The Habanero chillies in particular have been really prolific this year and while not as hot as past seasons, incredibly flavourful, with a citrus tang that I thought would make a great sauce.

So, here’s the recipe I developed for the ferment and the subsequent sauce. I’ve tried to include as much detail as possible about my process, but as always, please ask if there’s something I’ve missed that needs clarification!

Fermented Hot Sauce 

 

Ingredients:

Fresh chillies (I used ripe Habaneros from my garden)

Salt (cooking or kosher salt without additives is best)

Water (filtered or rain water boiled and allowed to cool to room temperature)

(For the sauce) Lemons, vinegar or citric acid (available in most supermarkets as a powder in the baking needs section).

You’ll also need gloves (if the chillies are Habaneros or hotter this is necessary!), some reasonably accurate kitchen scales and measuring spoons, a scrupulously clean jar, a weight to hold the chillies down and a lid that can accommodate an airlock or similar. Even with small ferments, I prefer to exclude any organisms other than what’s on my fruit or vegetables. I’d also recommend a book of litmus paper (available from most chemists) to check pH levels of the final product, especially if you’re not planning to put the sauce through a water bath.

Ferment Method:

Before starting, clean everything – otherwise your ferment can pick up organisms you might not want! Sterilise jars, lids, weights, measuring spoons and anything metal in boiling water, thoroughly clean chopping boards, knives, bowls and gloves in hot soapy water and rinse thoroughly.

Wash the chillies and dry them carefully. With gloves on (if you’re using hot chillies) remove the stalk and chop the chillies. I like the heat, so I left the seeds and membrane in, but if you’re looking for a more mellow and somewhat smoother sauce, cut the chillies in quarters and scrape out the seeds and inner membrane with a paring knife.

Weigh the chillies and pack them tightly into the clean jar. You can either sprinkle the salt over the chillies (which I did) and pour the cooled water over them or mix the salt until it’s fairly well dissolved in a small amount of water. I went for a roughly 8% solution and had 200 g (7 oz) of chopped chillies. This meant needed 16 g salt, which is a scant tablespoon. (My old spring loaded kitchen scales aren’t designed for very small amounts but digital scales are perfect for this job).

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Once you’ve added the brine, it’s important to twist the jar a few times or push the chilli pieces around with a clean skewer to remove as many air bubbles as possible and weigh the chillies down so they are entirely submerged. I use wide mouth Mason jars with easy to clean glass weights and a silicone Pickle Pipe – a waterless airlock that allow ferments to release carbon dioxide, without allowing air (and unwanted organisms) in. Then cover, label and leave in a dark, cool place for about a week.

I keep my ferments in pantry shelves that I walk past all the time, so I tend to check them once a day. It never ceases to delight me, seeing bubbles, smelling the wonderful aromas and particularly with this ferment, seeing the colour really develop. It’s also a good habit to check your ferments to make sure nothing has risen above the level of the brine and no unwanted moulds have developed.

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Fermenting Habanero Chillies, weighed down with a glass insert and covered with a Pickle Pipe.

After a week to ten days, check your chillies (I left mine for a week). They should still be submerged and reasonably crisp, and the brine should smell good and taste spicy and salty. It’s quite normal for a thin film to form across the top of the brine and I recommend removing this carefully with a spoon. If any chillies aren’t submerged and showing signs of mould, I would recommend removing the uncovered ones carefully from the brine (toothpicks are good) and composting them. The rest of the ferment should be fine. Of course, if you’re assailed with funky smells and your chillies are slimy, don’t take any risks – throw the whole lot in the compost bin – food poisoning is not to be trifled with!

If you’re happy with the ferment, here’s the rest of the recipe:

Sauce Method: 

Once again, assemble all your tools first and make sure they’re ridiculously clean – preferably hot water or heat sterilised. You’ll need a non-reactive sieve and bowl, a food processor or blender, a small funnel, bottles and caps and (if you opt for lemons) a grater and hand juicer or citrus press.

Remove the weight from your ferment and sieve the brine off the chillies into a bowl. If like me, you’re chilli-obsessed, reserve the brine (it’s deliciously spicy!) put it in a clean bottle, cover and refrigerate. It will keep for a few weeks in the fridge and I use it in curries, stir fries, soups or stews for an extra kicking salt replacement 🙂

Put the chillies into a blender jar or food processor with either vinegar, fresh lemon juice or citric acid powder and pulse to the desired consistency. I also added a tablespoon or two of the brine. The target here is to bring the sauce to around 4.5 pH – quite sharp. I used the juice of 3 lemons and, for extra citrus notes, the grated zest.

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Next, carefully put this into the sterilised jars and seal immediately. It’s possible now to put the jars in the refrigerator where they’ll last for months and be full of probiotic goodness, but I’m here for flavour – so I opted to do a water-bath sterilisation for 10 minutes This stabilises the sauce, guaranteeing longer pantry shelf life.

This sauce is sensational with – well, pretty much everything! My original 200 g of chillies made two 125 g bottles plus a few tablespoons that I’ve put in a sterilised jar and refrigerated. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s any significant flavour difference between the water-bath processed sauce and the refrigerated version.

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The finished product after water-bath processing – that beautiful colour!!!

I think this basic fermentation would work with any chilli and I’m going to start one with Cayenne chillies and garlic later this week that I plan to finish with my home made Apple Cider Vinegar.

Let me know if you try this recipe, what flavour combinations you use and how it works out – I always love to hear from you 😀

Meanwhile, take care wherever you are on this beautiful planet ❤

 

 

 

An Ode To The Humble Plum

Well, it’s been another incredibly busy week! The weather – always a mixed blessing in Tasmania – has gone from the height of summer to feeling like an early autumn in a few short days. Mind you, I’m not complaining too much about the rain. Although I’m on the usual suburban mains system in the house, I only water the garden area from tanks and a small pump, with an extra line I put in to gravity feed down to the greenhouse. With a lot of mulch, it’s a pretty efficient system, but usually by mid-February, the levels are getting very low. This year, tanks are full again!

On the other hand, the accompanying wind has played havoc with some of the fruit trees, with lots one of my dwarf apples toppled in its tub Thursday. I’ve anchored it firmly back and staked it, so hopefully it will survive.

This week has also been full of plums, with most of the tree picked, dried and (for the first time) even sold and traded on. When I first came here eight years ago, there were some extremely neglected fruit trees that were mostly in a pretty woeful state. There was a lot of brush cutter damage to trunks, effectively ring barking some, brown rot in many and everything literally overrun with weeds. Some I couldn’t save but right down in the back corner, furthest from the house, was a very old plum tree, strangled by blackberries, English ivy and yet, in spite of everything, covered in small unripe fruit. The main trunk was split, it had been very poorly pruned, allowing some rot to set in but I realised it was a very old European prune plum and therefore, most definitely worth saving!

What it was – the jungle plum!

After several years of regular weeding, careful hand removal of blackberry suckers and some judicious pruning (initially with a chain saw) this tree has come back into its own. A couple of years ago we laid lots of cardboard, sand and finally pine bark to suppress weeds and it’s been a very successful makeover.

What it became – well cared for!

So much so, that I always have way too many plums for my household. They’re not the most wonderful plum to eat fresh, but I love making things with them. Some years I make a few jars of jam or sauce and one year I made a quite delicious perry from the yellow fleshed fruit – but always there’s lots of dried fruit – prunes to chop up for muesli, add to apple cobbler or even savoury dishes like Moroccan lamb stews. Best of all, as I walk past my pantry shelf on the way to the laundry and the back door, I pop a few in my pocket to have as a sweet snack on those cold winter mornings, a little memory of summer that was, and the promise of summer to come ❤

 

Summer in the City – Home Made Tempeh

It’s been hot and steamy the last few weeks in Hobart – well, hot by the standards of the most southerly capital city in Australia. Many mainland Australians think Tasmania is just cold all the time but (as a South Australian who has lived and worked in desert conditions) I rather think we have proper seasons (sometimes all in one day) and because this is an island, when the temperature rises as it did here today to 31 C (88 F) it’s the equivalent of 36 C (97 F) anywhere else on the mainland.

As I type (early on a sticky Saturday evening), the rain has finally come after days of teasing, topping up the water tanks and bringing much needed relief to my vegetables and fruit. In my tiny kitchen the dehydrator’s been running all week and I’ve dried nearly all of the nectarine crop and made a start on the prune plums.

Dried, home grown nectarines

Consequently, it’s been very warm in there and I took the opportunity to try out something I can only do this time of year – make my own tempeh. Although I’m not a vegetarian or vegan, I love tempeh sliced, marinated and fried. I then use it in stir fry or just on its own with a fresh garden salad. My friend Heather says it’s fabulous fried and used in veggie burgers, so I’m going to be trying that very soon!

There’s heaps of YouTube tutorials available but when I was researching this I really liked this from Veganlovlie and took her advice to buy a reliable starter from her source, Top Cultures in Belgium – oh the joy of online shopping!

Two important things to note before we start (so I’ll put them in bold)

  1. Like any food preparation, cleanliness is paramount. In the case of working with a specific ferment, this becomes critical. Make sure everything that comes in contact with your precious beans/tempeh is scrupulously clean.
  2. I haven’t pasteurised my tempeh, so for all intents and purposes it is a raw product and must be cooked before eating.

Anyway, this is what I did.

Home Made Tempeh (makes 4 blocks)

2 cups soy beans (washed and soaked)

5 tabs apple cider vinegar

1 teas dried rhizopus starter culture

Bags or moulds with drainage holes for the tempeh

Method:

Wash the beans thoroughly, rinse and repeat. Soak them in clean water for at least 8 hours (or even overnight).

At this stage, while the beans are soaking, I suggest prepping the bags or containers you intend to use for processing the tempeh. I opted for zip-lock plastic sandwich bags because I had some on hand and I can reuse them but I’ve been making vegetable bags out of baby muslin and I’d like to try something like that as a more sustainable option. Bags are easy to clean and afford a great view of the process but the problem with plastic (apart from the waste issue) is potential sweating, turning your lovely soy beans into a smelly mess, so I used a skewer and poked holes every couple of centimetres (about 1 inch) all over four bags.

After soaking, drain the beans, wash and cover them with clean water. Cook in a large pot over medium heat until they’re nearly done. (This took about 30 minutes) Add the vinegar and stir it through. Continue cooking and when the beans are cooked to your taste, (about another 10 minutes for me) drain most of the water off. Return the pan and beans to a low heat to cook off the rest of the water. Stir continually at this step to stop any sticking. Your beans should be moist but with no residual water in the bottom of the pan.

Allow to cool to about 35 C (95 F) and add the teaspoon of starter. I suggest take your time and mix this through very carefully. I’ve made quite a bit of cheese over the years and found out the hard way that ensuring the starter is evenly distributed is a really critical step.

Next, evenly distribute the beans into the bags (mine made just under 500g cooked beans per bag) and working as fast as possible, carefully shape them into small rectangular cakes, expel excess air and zip-lock them. Finally, put the cakes on a clean board or non-metallic tray and weigh them down with another board, keeping them somewhere warm and draught free for at least the first 12 hours. After that, the fermentation will generate enough heat to keep it going.

I put a scrupulously clean wooden board on top of my monster dehydrator (to take advantage of the escaping heat) and placed the bags on the board, weighing them down with my old and very heavy ceramic lasagne dish.

Within 12 hours, it was clear there was fermentation and the bags were quite warm, a great sign!

By 24 hours the fungus was clearly visible and looked very clean, white and with no discolouration – more great signs!

 

By 36 hours I called it as a successful experiment and carefully removed the first cake from the plastic bag and sliced it up.

It worked out incredibly well and it was a very easy way to make one of my favourite foods. I’ll certainly be making more of this while the weather stays warm and freezing it for use in the cooler months. Next, I want to try making chickpea tempeh.

But tomorrow night, Tempeh Stir Fry for dinner!

Hooray for Cider! – A Book Review

This is an extended version of a review I posted on Goodreads this morning. 

I bought my copy online and if you’ve read this book, please let me know what you think – I always like to hear your opinions!

Cider: Making, using & enjoying sweet & hard cider, 2003 (1980) 3rd Edition, by Annie Proulx and Lew Nichols, Storey Publishing, MA. 

Cider

Cider by Annie Proulx
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is possibly the most informative and inspiring book on cidermaking I’ve ever come across. Admittedly, it’s aimed at North American readers, but I still found plenty of fascinating and relevant information that I can adapt and use on the other side of the world in Tasmania AU.

I picked this up online and secondhand, but why anyone with even a passing interest in all things cider would part with it is beyond me! My intention was to use it as a reference book, something to dip into as I needed to look particular things up, but it’s incredibly well written and readable – I found myself engrossed in the text and really couldn’t put it down.

Yes, there’s probably a good deal about things I’ll likely never need to use, aimed at orchards on an acreage. At the moment on my little urban farm, I have four dwarf sweet multipurpose apples, a baby Huon Crabapple (all in tubs because of space limitations) and at most, I’ll probably expand it out to ten dwarf trees with cider varieties. So it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever have the need or inclination to learn how to set up and care for large wooden barrels. After reading this book though, I can see the benefit of a small cider press for future crops.

The bottom line is, I was fascinated with the information and how it was delivered. Annie Proulx is one of my favourite fiction writers and I think her influence and love of the subject makes the text flow. Lew Nichols is a professional cider maker and his understanding of the science shines through. And it should be noted there is a quite a lot of science in this book, but it’s written in a way that’s accessible and easily understood by anyone with even the merest grounding in high school chemistry – notably me! The diagrams and charts are relevant, practical and well connected to the text, and many of the old photographs and illustrations are really lovely to look at. Reading the acknowledgements shows they sourced information from many specialists across a wide range of disciplines.

Despite there being a number of reviews on Goodreads about how irrelevant this book is to backyard cider makers, I beg to differ. As an occasional maker of perry, cider, apple cider vinegar and fruit wine, I found a tremendous amount of information here that is very relevant to me, and it’s given me ideas of how to improve my brewing and horticultural practices.

I’m sure this is a book I’ll treasure and keep going back to year after year. Now excuse me please while I go and gather some timber – I want to make a cider press 🙂

View all my reviews

My secondhand copy from the UK

Apples and Anticipation

If I could, I think I’d be a fruitarian. My incredibly tolerant GP and my always dodgy iron levels would have a fit, but (with an occasional green salad) I’d be perfectly happy – especially this time of year! At the moment, besides all the vegetables, I’ve just finished eating fresh apricots and berries and I’m waiting on big crops of plums and nectarines.

In anticipation, I picked about 2 kg of unripe plums yesterday to thin the tree out a little and a big handful of Green Shiso leaves from the greenhouse. Though these are a European prune plum, I’m going to try and make Umeboshi with them, using this recipe I found on Makiko Itoh’s site. I love the salty, sour taste and I think the sake will add a really interesting note to this ferment.

2 kg unripe plums and aromatic green Shiso leaves – aka Beefsteak Plant

After washing, removing stems and soaking the plums most of the day, I packed them in sterilised glass jars, layered with washed leaves and a fairly high percentage of cooking salt (about 12%). I covered them all with a half bottle of good sake that was never finished (shameful, I know!), weighed them down firmly and capped the jars with pickle pipes that allow gases to escape. The three jars are now on my pantry shelf and this morning I increased the pressure on the fruit, the liquid has risen and they’re starting to look and smell like a good ferment. I have no idea if my makeshift adaption of this simple Umeboshi recipe is going to work – but it’s going to be fun finding out 🙂

Over the last few years I’ve been seeking out interesting fruit trees on dwarfing rootstock that I can grow in wicking barrels. I’ve been experimenting with citrus trees, but living in Tasmania (traditionally called “The Apple Isle”), the obvious choice was a few bare-rooted apple trees that I bought from Woodbridge Nursery and put into wicking barrels. After seeing some very healthy growth and knocking all the embryonic fruit off last year, I thought I’d let them go this spring and see what happened. These strong little trees have all flowered and set fruit – and despite my thinning and some wind damage – the results have been outstanding. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to dealing with codling moth in early spring and will need to put it on my monthly garden schedule from now on.

The flavour of any apple you’ve grown yourself is a lovely experience and something I recommend everyone try if you have the opportunity. I’ve been fussing around the trees like a mother hen, gathering a few Royal Gala windfalls the past couple of weeks and found for the most part, they’ve been quite ripe and incredibly sweet. (Brown seeds are a great indicator of ripeness).

I’ve mainly concentrated on dessert apples such as Royal Gala and Pomme de Neige with a couple of crossover later varieties like Sturmer Pippin and McIntosh to extend the season and for cider. So, when I discovered a McIntosh windfall this morning, I wasn’t expecting it to edible let alone ripe!

The McIntosh is a very old Canadian late variety that’s popular as a dessert apple in the US but never really took off here in Australia. I recall having one as a kid and remembering the name and the flavour, as I have McIntosh forebears from Edinburgh. It’s also listed as a great blending apple for cider, providing copious amounts of sweet juice. Well, I can certainly attest to that! This beastie was a wonderful thing to eat, full of rich flavour and beautifully crisp.

Fresh McIntosh apple slices for morning tea

I also have a Medlar, Fig, Oranges, Pears, even a Lime and a gorgeous Huonville Crabapple all in tubs and growing well. Today’s experience has convinced me to get a few dedicated cider apples to join my mini orchard next year. I’m also currently reading Annie Proulx and Lew Nichols excellent book and being a cider lover from way back, I’m pretty sold on the idea 🙂

Sadly, the last few days have brought quite awful news from the north of the state with respect to all fruit and vegetable growers here. Larvae of the destructive Queensland Fruit Fly (Bactrocera tryoni) has been discovered at Spreyton (a major commercial fruit and vegetable growing area) on a backyard apricot tree. To give you some idea of what devastation they can cause, my friend Rob in Queensland (one of the best gardeners I know) can show you better than I can describe it! (As an aside, Rob’s YouTube channel is an absolute must for any urban farmer and where I initially learned about making self-watering wicking containers!)

I’ve searched over my ripening chillies, nectarines and plums as best I can but will be setting out syrup traps in the next couple of days to see exactly what’s coming in to my yard and greenhouse. I just hope that as a fruit loving community, we here in Tasmania can rally together to keep a vigilant eye out. This is an insect we can well live without!

My first home-grown McIntosh apple!

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