The Oil of White

I love my citrus trees but around this time of year they always look a little worse for wear. Scale, leaf minor and mineral deficiencies take a hold and if I don’t find the time to attend to them they get pretty sad looking. I know from working and walking around different neighbourhoods that I’m not alone so if you’re citrus aren’t looking as happy as they could here’s the ever useful White Oil remedy:

  • White oil. You can buy it but it’s easy and kind of fun to make. White oil will take care of any sap sucking insects including aphids, scale and leaf minor and now is the perfect time to use it. Because it’s an oil based spray you don’t want to use it when temperatures get high (no worries there in Sydney at the moment) but you will have to reapply if it rains (again, no worries in Sydney at the moment). To make white oil:

2 cups vegetable oil (some organic gardeners only use sunflower oil because there is no chance it could be genetically modified)

½ cup washing up liquid

Put both in a jar and shake it up. (This is the fun bit where you learn why it’s called white oil)

Store in cool, dry place and dilute two dessert spoons per litre of warm water. I dilute mine in a spray bottle and try to use it first thing in the morning Try to spray both sides of the leaves.

If white oil isn’t your thing or your citrus need a little more love, here are some other ideas:

  • The toothbrush. Never underestimate the power of an old toothbrush and giving your plants a good going over if the problem and tree are small.
  •  Feed them.

o   For mineral deficiencies you’ll need to feed them iron in the form of iron shelates. You’ll know your tree needs iron if the new leaves are yellow.

o   If the older leaves are yellow with green veins then you have a magnesium deficiency. The usual remedy for this is Epsom salts (buy it from the supermarket). I did read somewhere that this may increase the salt content in the soil but I’ve never been able to verify it so for now I still use Epsom salts.

o   If they just need a general feed try compost or cow manure around the base of the tree (but not right up against the trunk) or a liquid seaweed solution, rock dust or urine. Yes, fresh, diluted urine is a great fertiliser for citrus.

Don’t be scared to give your citrus a trim (particularly if you have citrus gall wasp – see photo at the top). Citrus can be pruned for shape and health though this is usually done after fruiting. Ok, I think that’s all for now. I’ve got to go spray my trees again.

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Honey – buy it from a beekeeper

Honey has been hitting the headlines lately. Cheap imports are being questioned as to their authenticity. It seems a pretty simple step for us to change our buying habits on this one product. I mean, how often do you buy honey? We all have it in the cupboard but it’s not a product we buy weekly (do we?) Well I don’t. And everyone’s keeping bees these days. You can buy honey from Centennial Park or from Cornersmith’s own hives. It isn’t too hard to find a beekeeper at a market and get the real thing straight from the source.

And buying honey from beekeepers is about more than just knowing you’re getting a high value product. It’s about supporting an Australian industry that supports so much more. We’ve all heard of colony collapse. We know how important it is to protect bees. Buying honey from a beekeeper is one of the best ways we can do this.

So take a step away from the big two and seek out your local beekeeper. Maybe consider buying a couple of jars to give as gifts and share the joy. If you want to help bees in other ways here’s a few more ideas:

  • make sure to have flowering plants in your gardens all year round – you can do this by leaving herbs and vegetables to flower and set seed or by specifically planting plants that flower at different times of the year;
  • don’t use any pesticides that are harmful to bees or any other beneficial insects;
  • spread the word.
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All hail the choko

As the choko season draws to a close I’d like to take a moment to thank the choko for its generosity.

I find people fall into three categories over the choko. Love them, hate them, never heard of them. I’m in the first and if you’re curious here’s some tips.

Choko must be grown from choko. You can’t extract the seed. So buy a choko or get one from someone already growing, leave it in the back of your cupboard for a few weeks and then pull it out when it’s sprouting and stick it in the ground (choko’s prefer ground over pot but if you have a really large pot and no ground I’d still encourage you to give it a go). Choko’s aren’t keen on really hot spots but do need some sun. They also need to climb and if you let them will keep going and take over trees, sheds, houses… So you need to think carefully about where you plant your choko and how you are going to control it. Any unpicked fruit, no matter how small or deformed looking, will sprout and grow another choko vine.

Once you’ve got your chokos (and if you’ve planted it right you’ll have a lot of chokos) pick and eat them as soon as you can. I find they store better out of the fridge in a cool dark spot but left too long they will sprout so you need to have some choko eating strategies.

Chokos are slimy. If you peel them with bare hands you’ll get a slime over your hands that dries like glue so I’ve taken to wearing gloves. Another way to prepare them is to cut them in half and bake them, then scoop out the flesh (no slime when they are cooked.)

Best choko uses I’ve found are: choko pickle or chutney, choko chocolate cake (grate a couple of chokos into any cake recipe for added moisture and fibre) and choko added to curry or dhal. The choko is able to take its place in desserts or savoury dishes because it has no actually flavour of its own but will absorb the flavour of whatever it’s cooked with. Choko can even be used to fluff out an apple pie but I don’t think this is where it shines.

The choko is a low kilo joule vegetable and a source of fibre and vitamin C. I’ve included the choko chocolate cake recipe below in case you’re feeling adventurous.

1 ½ cups sugar

2 ½ cups plain flour

½ cup milk

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla essence

125g butter

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon cocoa

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

2 cups grated choko


Cream butter and half the sugar. Beat in the eggs and vanilla. Gradually add dry ingredients including balance of sugar. Add choko and mix gently. Bake at 160C in 23cm spring-form tin for 50-60 minutes. Cool in the tin for five minutes. To glaze melt 60g butter plus 125g dark chocolate in a double boiler. Add 1 tablespoon milk and 1 tablespoon golden syrup when the chocolate mixture is smooth. Spoon onto cooled cake.

Recipe is from (when I made it I made them cupcake size and skipped the glaze, kids didn’t notice)

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Getting your kids working in the garden and eating in the kitchen

I spend half of my working week helping children to grow food in school gardens and the most of my non (paid) working life trying to think of healthy meals my children will eat. Most of my work with school children is via the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation. This is a fantastic program with flexible models to suit all schools. Teachers are given training and curriculum support and kids are exposed to the joys of gardening and cooking while trying new foods they’ve had a hand in growing. I joined the program for environmental reasons not convinced it would really change eating habits. After a few years of being involved I have become convinced that getting your kids involved in the growing and cooking of food is a great way to ensure they remain interested and engaged with their nutritional health not to mention that ever increasing importance of knowing where your food comes from.

But what about at home? And what if you have fussy eaters in the house who aren’t old enough for school or not at a school with a kitchen garden program? I, like lots of others, have one (or two) of those children who aren’t particularly interested in eating vegetables or trying new things. I did the growing thing. We grew peas. He planted the peas, watched them grow, then watched me eat them. Legumes aren’t his thing I discovered.

But we persisted and found other things to grow that he will eat (he still grows legumes just doesn’t eat them). But the growing alone wasn’t enough to change his eating habits. What really made a difference was group eating. And by that I don’t mean eating with the family. I mean sitting down with a big group of children and watching everyone else enjoying food. This, I find, to be the best place to introduce new foods to my children. Around a camp fire with a few other families or at friend’s houses seem to be the places my difficult eater finds trying new things easier.

So for your fussy eater at home, what can you do?

  • Grow – start small, a few herbs and a strawberry plant
  • Cook – get your kids involved in planning, shopping and preparing
  • Share – make eating a social event

On a side note, taking the pictures for this blog post and checking on our seedlings at the same time my 4 year old saw me taste a new radish leaf and asked for a try. He then asked for another while proclaiming how much he liked it! (He’s not my fussy eater but still, it was a radish leaf?!)

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The Perfect Pet

So the other night I was reading a book titled ‘the perfect pet’ to my four year old where the little boy wants a dog but ends up with a duck and finds that the duck is the perfect pet after all.

We talk a lot about pets at the moment.  My children are keen for dogs, cats, horses, parrots… you name it, they want it.  They carry the quails around like kittens and the quails cope and try to look dignified in the process (not an easy job).  I grew up with cats, and I love them still, but owning a cat just doesn’t seem like the right move anymore.  So what is the perfect pet?

If you have the space then I think the answer is a chicken.  Natural born composters and protein producers, chickens can be friendly and highly amusing.  We don’t have the space for chickens who need about a metre square of space per chicken plus a bit of room to run.  We don’t even have space for bantams.  We do have space for quails who only require 30cm2 per bird but they aren’t the composters chickens are.  They are excellent pest eaters and like nothing more than a cockroach but they are also fragile and need protection from cats, dogs and larger birds.

The quails aren’t enough though for my pet loving children so we are moving on to guinea pigs.  My hope is that these creatures may look a little more comfortable when being cuddled than the quails do.  The guinea pigs will not be ours.  They will be borrowed from time to time from our friends who live nearby to help keep the grass under control in their specially built seat come guinea pig tractor.

My hope is that this will hold off the cries for a puppy for a few months at least but if nothing else it will at least keep the grass neat.

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Building community in the garden

Today, a couple of my children and I spent a very pleasant 3 hours in their school garden with two other families and their children.  The kids gathered caterpillars and seeds and ate tomatoes before moving on to running through sprinklers and climbing trees.  The adults dug and picked, sorted and trellised and everyone had a lovely time.

2014, for me, is the year of building community.  When Thea and I started we wanted to put edible gardens into homes (we still do).  But as the years go on we move more and more into education and community gardening and I’m finding this a good place to be.  When I’m at Razor&JOY, tending to their office garden, and staff come to sit amongst the plants while they eat their lunch; when I put a call out to the OzHarvest volunteers and people come from all walks of life to work in the garden with me; and when I make a connection with a parent from a non English speaking background who in turn brings others to our school garden and everyone feels happy and connected, I know, like Thea and I always thought, that gardening brings so much more than just good food.

So here’s to 2014, my year of growing good food and building community.  If you’re in Sydney and need a little help doing either, let me know.

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Never too old

This is the story of one of our first clients who I’d like to name (they have great names) but won’t because I’m not sure what the rules are on that.  This couple live in a small but well appointed apartment with a surrounding courtyard garden.  They are on the main road but when you’re inside you hardly notice.

We first came to their garden after it was newly built and planted.  There wasn’t a lot of thought put into the garden and as we dug and restructured it we found the soil was mostly made up of builder’s rubbish.  We put a lot of time and they put a fair bit of money, into that initial work but it’s paid off in a beautifully giving and changing garden.

While mostly planted with flowering natives we also included a number of edible plants and these have slowly increased over the years.  They pick from the garden every day and this is the reason for my story.  The gentleman of the couple, in all his years, had never picked and eaten from his own garden until we reshaped and planted this new garden for him.  For him (and for me), this was a great experience and one they, and I, continue to enjoy.

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Things to think about: when buying plants


The thing I like to think about most is the space I have and how I want the plant to fill it.  This means thinking about how large the plant will grow, when it flowers, what it’s sunlight and water needs are but also what shape the plant currently is and how I may need or like to shape it as it grows.  If you have a particular shape in mind you need to look at a few different plants to make sure the one your buying is heading towards the shape you’re after.  You then need to start shaping it as soon as you plant it.


You need to make sure you’re buying a healthy plant.  Check the foliage.  Make sure there’s no discolouring or mis-shaping of the leaves.  Check the base.  You don’t want to be able to see any roots and a lot of weeds in the potting mix is never taken as a good sign.


If you’re buying a flowering plant and there’s a question of the colour of the flower then you need to know what your buying will have the flower you want.  However, you don’t want to buy a plant in full bloom if you can help it.  Better to buy a plant getting ready to bloom.


Another thing I think about when buying plants is how many plants can I get out of the one pot?  Often plants can be split so if you want a lot of plants is worth looking to see which ones you can break up.

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Feeding the 5000 – the milk crate garden

So when Louise Tran from Oz Harvest rang me and asked for a pop up garden to go along with their Feeding the 5000 event it seemed only right that the garden should be built from what would otherwise have been thrown away just as the lunch is.

We decided on milk crates which are not exactly throw away items (though they do seem to be thrown onto a lot of street corners) but they are easy to transport and will return to their intended use once we’ve finished with them.  I then contacted a number of seed companies to see if they had any seed that was no longer saleable.  Yates and Green Patch came through with a lot of seeds, still viable but not saleable.

The kids at Randwick Public and Stanmore Public spent a lot of time sifting compost and planting seeds that were placed into their green houses and watered with harvested rainwater.  Once the seedlings were of a reasonable size they were transferred to larger containers and then to their current home in the milk crates.  The milk crates are lined with newspaper and old green bags and filled with compost from Randwick Public School who have a fantastic compost system mainly to compost the huge amount of leaves they sweep up daily from the playground.

If you’re in Martin Place on Monday come along and have a look at the garden.  What you’ll see is a garden grown from harvested plants, scraps and sourced seeds.  This garden’s life is short lived in Martin Place but will continue after the event.  The crates will return to be cared for in the two public schools and will hopefully find a permanent home in an Oz Harvest garden some time soon.

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Strawberry Shoes

It wasn’t my idea.  Jackie French talks about growing watermelons in boots (haven’t tried that yet), she may also talk about growing strawberries in shoes.  I can’t remember.  But that’s where the idea came from and ever since I first designed the Stanmore school garden I’ve been keen to put strawberry shoes on the fence.

Fortunately I have a child whose feet grow pretty quick and who manages to destroy his school shoes pretty easily so I’ve got a never ending supply of shoes.

Strawberries propagate by producing runners.  Once these mini plants have a root system they can be removed from the ‘mother’ plant and planted elsewhere.  In this case, in shoes.  I put in the new plants along with a good amount of compost and let them settle in, in the school green house for a few weeks until I felt they were strong enough to be screwed to the fence.

Strawberries can tolerate shade but you may not get the best out of the fruit wise.  They also like rich soil and don’t mind a bit of acid in it.  Strawberries are prone to virus attack.  To avoid this they need to be regularly replanted.  Linda Woodrow in her excellent book ‘The Permaculture Home Garden’ outlines her strategy to avoid the virus.  She keeps one plant as a stock plant.  This plant is not allowed to produce fruit (any flowers are removed) and is used to produce the runners.  This then provides her with a constant virus free source of strawberry plants.

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