In season

December 16

In now: the nectarines and peaches are fabulous. To ripen off the tree they need to be picked when the skin is starting to glow gold at the stem end, so don’t choose those that are still completely green around the stem.

At its best: The pharaohs of ancient Egypt snacked on watermelon to beat the heat. Make like an Egyptian on modern seedless varieties, or the cheaper, seedy old-fashioned versions. I’m planning on cubing watermelon, and skewering the cubes on a toothpick with a chunk of fetta and a mint leaf for a Christmas canape. Also hard to beat over summer holidays is watermelon granita.  Juice watermelon, add lime juice and sugar syrup to taste (remember that food doesn’t taste as sweet when it’s frozen),  then freeze, scraping the crystals every few hours. Especially good atop chilled peeled lychees.

Best buy: Roma tomatoes are good value. Halve them and roast on the barbecue as the heat goes out of the fire.

In the vegie patch: Harvest zucchini every second day so the fruit doesn’t get any longer than a pen.

What else:

  • red cabbage is cheap. Thinly slice or mandolin some onto a green leaf salad for added colour and crunch.
  • snow peas are at their best, and are delicious  hot, room temperature, or chilled. Drain well before dressing.
  • lychee season peaks in January, but they are good right now. See watermelon above.
  • red currants have the shortest season of any berry grown in the country. Be quick.

This is my last In Season post for this year.  I’ll be back mid-January. See you on the beach!

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Gardens

Last minute garden-lover’s Christmas

Organised types will have their Christmas gifts growing somewhere sunny in preparation for styling with a final misting and a showy red ribbon. A herb bowl perhaps, or a handsome pot of salad leaves and tumbling nasturtiums. But those of us for whom December always comes as a shock still have time to get handy. A shallow ceramic dish and a morning’s work could see a succulent garden come together from clippings and trimmings around the garden. Complete with black pebbles or coarse gravel.

Far more hip than succulents in pots is succulents, or anything else really, in a hanging moss ball. Kokedamas are inspired by Japanese moss balls, which are a variant of bonsai. When a Dutch designer suspended them from the ceiling and called them string gardens an internet craze was born. Here’s one way to make them.

For plants to grow, rather than plants you grew, consider the constraints imposed by your loved one’s space, conditions and taste before buying. Best are rare oddities that don’t take up much room. Stone plants, perhaps, or a set of rhipsalis cuttings that could fall from a hanging basket (even a macramé hanger!) either indoors or out (both available from Tesselaar). For rose lovers the heartbreak of ‘Julia’s Rose’, which is the colour of milky tea seen through rose-tinted spectacles and which, in Sydney’s climate, is as sickly as a consumptive heroine, can be remedied by two new rose selections from Swanes, ‘Soul Sister’ and ‘Hot Cocoa’. Both have that alluring pinky-brown tone but a much sturdier constitution and a tea rose fragrance.

Always appreciated by the working gardener are good gloves, quality string, tubes of hand cream and slate plant tags. Diggers has a set of slates packaged in a hessian bag, which appeals. So does its native bee house that is also hotel accommodation for other beneficials such as native wasps and ladybirds.

If your green-thumbed loved ones prefer inspiration to perspiration, browse Australia’s online bookshop dedicated to the garden, Florilegium. Taking my fancy is Dutch artist Jacqueline Hassink’s photo essay on the zen temple gardens of Kyoto, called ‘View, Kyoto’, in which she captures the way the gardens are seen framed by the temple architecture. There is a particularly good harvest of Australian garden books this year too – ‘Wychwood’ by Karen Hall and Peter Cooper; ‘Connected: the Sustainable Landscapes of Philip Johnson’; ‘Garden Life’ by Sydney’s master of the small space, Richard Unsworth; ‘Stuart Rattle’s Musk Farm’ and Clive Blazey’s typically straightforward ‘There’s No Excuse for Ugliness: Falling in love with our best plants and gardens’. Not written by an Australian, but featuring 10 of our best private and public gardens on its tour of the world’s horti highlights is the doorstop of Phaidon’s ‘The Gardner’s Garden’. Happy shopping.

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In season

December 9

In now: Blackberries, boysenberries, karakaberries and their relatives aren’t keepers so buy to eat.

Scarce: Lemons are pricey and imported, limes are just plain pricey. Wily cooks will have frozen juice when the fruit was plentiful. For other sources of lemon flavour look to lemon myrtle, lemon verbena and lemon balm.

Best buy: Cucumbers are great value. Try Lebanese and telegraph, as well as the little snacking cukes and pale, seedy apple cucumbers. Eat fresh, or stir fry with ginger and garlic.

In the vegie patch: Don’t compost the dandelions before pulling off the young leaves to add to salads. Naturally only eat herbicide-free leaves!

What else:

  • lychees have arrived but are pricey this early in the season; as are the figs
  • those big bunches of big fat asparagus won’t last – enjoy one last time
  • there are some great tomatoes around – the mini-Romas are especially good
  • look for bargains in snowpeas
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Plants I love

Yes, I have no bananas

The fruit of the pink banana, Musa velutina, are about the size of banana lollies and are hot pink and furry. Sadly they are even less edible than the lolly bananas. Why grow bananas you can’t eat? For me, the big pink bud and mad fruit are reason enough. Add the lime green leaves and the oddness of the whole Musa family in general, and they are irresistible. Continue reading

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In season

December 2

In now: Apricots are in season until January. If the texture disappoints when eaten fresh, grill, roast or stew them.

At its best: Only a few weeks left to enjoy asparagus at great prices. The plants need to build energy over the summer so the spears are left to grow into ferns and photosynthesise like crazy before they die down in winter.  Because of the lower supply, some growers keep some plants producing spears to take advantage of the higher prices. These pricer spears are available until March. Expect imports to take up the slack.

Best buy: Loose beetroot is a thrifty buy. Bunches of the gold and orange varieties are more expensive.

In the vegie patch: It’s hard to believe but if you want Brussels sprouts next winter, you need to sow them before Christmas.

What else:

  • flat beans, usually called Roman beans, are around. They want a bit more time in the pot than regular green beans
  • pink-speckled borlotti beans are also available. So pretty raw, they sadly lose that pink splotch when cooked
  • there are bargains on kale if you feel you haven’t overdone it this year
  • the slim season of white asparagus is in early December. Keep your eyes out if you like this European treat.
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Other people's gardens

I want a billabong

Philip Johnson’s name may be familiar. He’s the garden designer who generated rare garden-related headlines when his ‘Australian Garden’ won Best in Show at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2013. One of the surprising and inspiring elements of that garden was its billabong. Here is it in case you’ve forgotten:

Philip Johnson Chelsea 2013

Bush-inspired swimming holes of naturally cleaned water, where tadpoles cavort and dragonflies skim while we swim, are a Johnson speciality. And having drooled over his new book, Connected (Murdoch $60), a billabong is now on my list of highly desired.

A natural swimming pool is something of a revolutionary idea in Australia. We love our pools, but even those that defy the shiny-tiled turquoise traditions use non-natural systems for cleaning the water – chlorine, salt and ozone in various combinations. Yet the technology of naturally-cleaned pools is decades old and constantly evolving. There are some 20,000 private and public natural pools in Europe. Germany has built more than 100 public swimming ponds in the last few decades, each designed to cater for thousands of swimmers a day. These swimmers aren’t waking up with ear infections or worse, so how does a naturally cleaned pond work?

“There’s a filtration zone within the body of the pool, or in a little alcove built into the pool,” explains Johnson. “This zone mimics the natural system. In an alpine stream for instance, the water runs over pebbles and the enormous surface area of those little pebbles allows for large populations of microorganisms to live. They remove the nutrients from the water, keeping it clean. The same thing happens in the filtration zone of a built billabong. Microorganisms clean the water, which is constantly moving through the filtration zone.”

The constant movement of the water means there are no mosquitoes. But there is maintenance. Like a bush garden, a bush pool is not a set-and-forget option. “How much maintenance you do depends on how you want your water to look,” says Johnson. “I skim the leaves, and brush the biofilm that grows on the rocks.” The biofilm is growing medium for more cleansing microorganisms and isn’t a problem, though it can feel a bit slimy.

Philip Johnson Olinda

This is Johnson’s swimming hole on his steep bush property in Olinda, in the Dandenongs outside Melbourne. It  incorporates a shallow beachy area, with flat rocks overhung by tree ferns “perfect for sitting under with a gin and tonic”, as well as a deeper area for jumping off a rock ledge into, and a waterfall for standing under. He’s designed swimming holes for many of his clients too, the stories of which are outlined in Connected . As these designs make clear, the billabongs are part of an integrated water management system, whose complexity depends on the size of the property and the requirements of its water resources. While the water engineering impresses, the real allure is the notion of an idyllic bush waterhole, in our own backyard.

Photo of Olinda is by Claire Takacs from the book ‘Connected: the sustainable landscapes of Philip Johnson’, published by Murdoch, $60, and the photo of the Chelsea winning garden is from the Ross Garden Tours blog.

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