Finding the link between gardening and gobbling is hobby of mine at the moment. I’ve really enjoyed reading the Best of Jackie French because it exemplifies the connection. It gives you the A-Z of vegetables, fruits and herbs, including how to grow and eat each one. Feeling inspired I booked myself in for an Open Garden workshop at Jackie’s garden. It’s in the Araluen valley near Braidwood. I had a marvellous weekend away, admiring gardens and eating well. My travelling companions came home with a car full of peaches, hopefully a good reward for driving me around.
Our first stop was to visit friends just outside Canberra. We did a tour of their veggie garden to get some tips. I saw grown-up asparagus for the first time, looking like a wispy little Christmas tree. Another plant they were growing was an elder tree.
We collected a big basket of elderflowers for making elderflower syrup. Unfortunately we didn’t stay long enough to taste the finished product! Another thing I missed tasting the traditional zopf (plaited bread) our hostess made for breakfast. It was great to see it being made though. I took home some lovely eggs. Apparently their seven chooks produce around 5 eggs each day. The rooster isn’t productive himself, but maybe he encourages the hens.
The next day we were off to Braidwood, then down the windy Araluen road to meet our fellow gardeners. We got in a minibus for the final dirt road into the property. There was a pretty creek crossing full of granite boulders. The Araluen valley is very moist, a real contrast to the dryness of Canberra. The garden was a wilderness of edible plants, huge avocado trees, lemons, apples, pears and climbing perennial melons.
Jackie explained that the melon is tasteless, but its texture makes it a good addition to either fruit salads or stir fries. The garden was full of fragrant herbs, most of them I couldn’t identify. Wondering how to cook from such a riot my recipe hunting companion asked Jackie whether she uses recipes, or just picks things that smell nice. Jackie said that her garden taught her to cook. It definitely smelt like a good way to learn.
Jackie explained a lot of ideas she has about how to grow things in cool climates. She manages to grow some tropical plants in a frosty area by working in groves. Groups of trees provide protection from frost and sun for delicate plants in the understorey. Shelter can also increase humidity which is useful in drought conditions. Jackie even has a vanilla orchid growing under trees on a sheltered slope. It’s an incredible feat considering the climate she’s working with.
I was very interested in Jackie’s natural remedies for pest control, there are lots of recipes and ideas in her book. She avoids poisons because they kill predators. If you can achieve a reasonable balance between pests and predators you don’t lose too much of your crop. Jackie described it as a tithe, a 10 % tax to support nature. If you have enough diversity there should be enough for you and the wildlife.
Given this attitude, Jackie had some cunning methods for stopping the wildlife from getting more than their fair share. Next to her apples and pears she planted rambling roses. Possums don’t like climbing the springy, thorny bushes, so it keeps them off the trees. She uses tree guards around small trees to protect them from nibbling roos and wallabies. She positions the wire guards slightly off the ground to let wombats graze below, and moves them up as the tree grows, trimming the sidebranches to possum height.
She also has a good system of decoy fruit. For the possums there are kiwifruit vines. Birds have different tastes, they like sour fruit. That explains why they always eat our fruit from the trees before we get to it. They also like things small enough to carry away. Jackie grows calamondins (like cumquats) and native solanums for them. That way they should be less tempted by the things we want to eat.
Her love of wildlife means that Jackie has to wage a war on certain feral animals, particularly goats (which cause terrible erosion) and foxes. She is humane about this though. She only invites people to hunt them if they can shoot a lemon off a tree at 100m. A good shot should cause instant death without suffering. When she was explaining this, Jackie expanded on the topic of animal welfare. She was saying that apart from direct deaths, we are all responsible for many deaths by omission. These occur by denying animals food and habitat. Even a vegan, she said, is responsible for deaths by omission. Her example was supporting a celery farm, a monoculture that requires more than its fair share of water. The argument about denying food and habitat to animals would apply to a lot of agriculture. Feeding both humanity and wildlife is a very difficult balance to strike, especially on a commercial scale. If only the answer to these problems was easier!
The environmentally responsible approach on the property extended to running the house with solar panels. They produce and store enough power to run computers, television, lights, fridge and so on. They didn’t mention cooking, it may have been gas. They aren’t connected to the electricity grid. Jackie said this requires serious attention to the energy efficiency of your appliances. In addition to the solar panels they had a home made water wheel which generates electricity. The problem is it only works when it rains.
Jackie French designed her garden to be a garden of Eden, where food grows in abundance. Amazingly that doesn’t mean it is a lot of work. The garden is a real mess and the tough things that self-seed are the ones that survive. She said she has hardly touched the garden for a year and she still has vegetables growing. I’d love to develop a system like this. It was a very inspiring and informative workshop. I’ll certainly be looking back at the book to guide my next steps.
At the end of the day we visited a more conventional farm, to buy peaches. Jackie had recommended one, but it was closed. Luckily the Braidwood busdriver recommended asking at the Araluen pub. The staff there phoned Harrison’s Peaches for us, and we headed up the road. The packing shed smelt divine. Peaches were being washed, then waxed, before moving along a conveyer belt to be classed. We bought a tray of premium peaches for $13. We also got two boxes of “ripes”, small ripe nectarines and peaches for only $5. They were ready to eat, and weren’t really suitable for the length of storage needed to get to customers through a supply chain. For the immediate eating though, they’re perfect. Ours will be cooked and frozen for putting on our breakfast cereal.
In all it was a great weekend of gardening and eating. Hopefully the inspiration will help me develop a more self-sufficient garden. All I need is a backyard of my own…
If you’d like to read more about Jackie French take a look at her website. It’s a great source of recipes and gardening ideas as well as information about her books.