Category Archive: Vegies & herbs

Stevia adds life to a soft drink.

By James Wall.

We all try to live life in a healthy manner, but I’m the first to admit partaking in the consumption of a few so called ‘treats’.

One of them is the very occasional small bottle of coke – only 330ml of it – only 8 and a half teaspoons of sugar !!! Ironically, I was proud that I always drank tea without any sugar but didn’t blink when having my 8 teaspoons in one serve of soft drink. Children don’t mind either when they can wangle one at the movies or drive through takeaways. No wonder its like they’re ‘sugar drunk’ once consumed.

I refuse to drink diet coke because it contains aspartame which you may remember was once slickly marketed as NutraSweet. Sweet it is, but nutritious it is not, being linked to headaches, digestive distress and mood changes in susceptible individuals. Besides, its got extra caffeine which being a diuretic will eventually leave you dehydrated, not refreshed.

The Coca-Cola company does cop a bit of flack for all the reasons above, but it must take some credit for its latest new product called Coke Life. This is because it contains a plant called stevia, a plant that nurseries have been selling for a long time. The Japanese have also been using this natural sweetener in their drinks for a long time. The leaves of this plant are naturally sweet – over 200 times sweeter than sugar. What’s really interesting, is that the stevia has little or no calories.

Stevia rebaudiana is native to South America, where people in Brazil and Paraguay have used it for 1500 years. Boy did we take a while to catch on. It is related to the sunflower and chrysanthemum, being part of the aster family. It is easy to grow, although you won’t get good germination rates from the seed, and you will need to protect the plants from the cold of winter.

Coke Life has 35% less sugar and when you’ve got as much sugar in you as regular coca-cola, then removing over a third of it is a big chunk. My 330 ml of coke life therefore has only about five and a half teaspoons of sugar. The most important question though, how did it taste? Pretty much like coke, with a slight astringent after-taste. A couple of bottle later and you wouldn’t remember the difference.

Chefs are also recommending the use of stevia in cooking and suggest it does have its own characteristic flavours which include liquorice, citrus, and that touch of astringency. It is a different beast to sugar and will not for example caramelise like sugar when it is heated. The most important thing is to know your conversion rate from sugar to stevia. Cooking with this plant means cooking with zero calories.

According to Coca-Cola, once stevia leaves reach their peak sweetness, they are harvested and dried. The dried stevia leaves are soaked in water to unlock the best-tasting, sweet substance found in the leaf. This extract is then filtered, purified, dried and crystallised. The finished ingredient is a sweetener that can be used in combination with sweeteners like sugar and fruit juice to deliver great-tasting reduced, low, and no kilojoule beverages.

Apparently sales of this new soft drink have been slow, but maybe this is because retailers are the ones not supporting it as none of them I have asked knew very much about it at all, let alone what stevia was. As we have known in the plants game for a while, it is the sugar plant. The one you can throw a  fresh leaf into a cup of tea tea sweeten it.

So next time you are thinking of ‘rewarding’ the kids with a sweet treat like a coke, why not make it a sweet one, but with 35% less sugar. Why not make it, a coke life.

Bumper harvest from the summer that was.

By James Wall

As summer concludes, there is an element of fondness for the good things in life that the season has brought before us. There are lots of memories.

Spaghetti sauce with home grown tomatoes – not out of a can. Jars of chutney. A little bit of chilli added to the dish once the kids are served. Capsicums of all shapes and sizes. The peppery flavours of wild rocket, thrown on a pizza just before serving. All this and not one visit to the shops. Oh what a pleasure it has been.

Tomato San MarzanoIf you got your tomatoes in by cup day, then bar any disasters, you should have got a good yield. Yes January was cooler, but the temperatures were still high enough to set fruit and without the extremes of really hot nights, pollination and fruit formation was excellent. Pictured is San Marzano Roma from Oasis seedlings.

Capsicum Long Green is always a favourite of mine and this year the yields were excellent. After stripping the fruit bare around christmas time, it flushed with a second bounty which we have been picking ever since. They were not all long either. There was a circular one too !

Zucchini didn’t go as well for me this year, but there were enough to keep us happy. We probably planted them in slightly shaded area, which combined with a cooler January wasn’t perfect for formation.

My thai chillis and long hot cayenne (pictured above) were quite hot. Jalapeno though is still quite mild even though it is red. Chillis get hotter as they get more sun so a cooler January has probably lowered overall heat levels. Don’t worry if your Jalapeno turn black – this is a normal progression from green, then they go black before finishing red.

I visited a vegie patch in Merricks which included this giant Tomato Sweet Bite plant. It was covered in fruit, but what really impressed me was this very solid staking system that included “reo” – you know the thick wire mesh they use in concrete. This won’t blow over ! And what about these climbing beans below.

The Merricks garden also had sunflowers which I just couldn’t resist.

Sunflowersw st MerricksTomato Grape from Oasis came on strong in February when trusses like these coloured up beautifully. These grape shaped tomaotes are even sweeter than the cherry types. Quality seedlings of a high performing variety like this make it all worth it.

Tomato Mr UglyTomato Mr Ugly is actually quite a beautiful fruit. For cooking it just can’t be beaten.

Tomato Green ZebraFor heirloom tomatoes, I loved growing these Green Zebra. They fruited over such a long period and with such a nice fleshy inside, I eat them with just about everything.

This tomato was meant to be a Father Tom variety, but we laughed when we saw it because it looked so like a strawberry. Not sure who ate it, but somebody did. Pictured below is a gnarly old beetroot – usually you pick them tennis ball sized or less. Beautiful though.

Gnarly old beetroot.

 After months that included preparation, digging, liquid feeding and mulching, thew harvest was my favourite part. It made me smile ! Bye summer.

Growing Successful Tomato Plants

By James Wall
Growing tomatoes is a bit of a phenomenon in spring and summer. Growers are busy staking, tying, feeding, watering and pruning their plants. 

Staking is best done early on so as not to damage established root systems. Plastic or wire cages can be bought, or you can use trusty old wooden tomato stakes – although keep in mind wood can harbor disease, so don’t use the old ones if you had problems last year. Tie the plants to the stakes with a soft or flexible tie. This helps you take control of the plant. Once a seedling bends over, you can never get that bend out of the stem, so early training makes a big difference later on.

Although some people never prune tomato plants, trends have seen people pruning plants more. The side shoots between the shade leaf and the stem are removed so as to produce just one or two leaders. The second leader is usually the one below the first flower truss. Pinch the side shoots out if only young, or snip them out if they are bigger. Once there are signs of fruit, many people are also reducing some of the leaf canopy, with the theory that there is more energy to concentrate on the fruit.

Chicken manure is high in nitrogen and is great to dig in initially as it promotes leaf growth. Used too much later on, you will get soft leafy branches, with few tomatoes. Once the plants are above knee high and starting to flower, you are better off using a fertilizer high in potassium (K) and calcium. Debco Tomato Food is good for this. Put two teaspoons in a nine litre watering can and water in every two weeks or as required. Lush plants will be nice and green whereas hungry plants will be a lighter green, yellow, or even purple in colour if they are lacking in particular nutrients.

Watering at even intervals will make a huge difference to tomato yields. Every 2 to 3 days during cooler weather and every day during hot weather. Water earlier in the day, and keep the leaves dry to prevent bacterial problems. These bacterial specs can actually result from dirt splashing up and onto the plants, so maybe water with the pressure turned down a little. Some of the weaker varieties like Yellow Pear may even need a copper spray to get over a bacterial problem. Pinch the branches off where the bacterial spots are, and then wash your hands before handling the plants further. This year we have also seen a few plants where the plant tie halfway down the plant has rubbed off the main stem’s skin and exposed this area of the plant to a black or brown bacterial disease. This can happen to the young seedlings in particularly windy conditions. In bad cases, we should destroy these plants. It gets back to watering – do not over water young seedlings early on in the growing season.


a sideshoot between stem and shade leaf

Tomatoes can also be grown successfully in pots. Choose a pot at least 30cm in diameter and fill with potting mix. Put a saucer under the pot so as to have an extra reservoir of water for those weekends when you are away. There are also varieties more suited to pot growing including Pot Prize, Super Prize, Tumbler, dwarf roma and the new Cherry Fountain from Oasis.

Some of my favourites include Truss Plum, Mighty Red, Sweet Grape, Mr Ugly and the heirlooms Tigerella and Green Zebra.

The final thing we need on our side is some nice warm 25 degree days in January and February. This will really get them fruiting, and means a big difference between a poor crop and a bumper crop. Like all horticultural pursuits, this is out of our control and in the lap of the gods. Is it all worth it ? What have we urban farmers got to lose – not much. What we have to gain, is the joy of picking a fresh tomato, taking it inside and putting it on top of a salada biscuit with a little pepper, and eating it with a lot of satisfaction. Good luck to us all !

Worldwide shortage of kale seed.

Just read a story on the ABC website about kale. It has been so popular, that the seed suppliers are running out of seed.

Since kale was declared a ‘superfood’, its sales have been phenomenal.

Read the story on the ABC website here.


Now is the time to plant this awesome garlic.

By James Wall

Rocambole garlic is a variety I truly love. It is a purplish variety that keeps well, and the flavour it brings to my cooking makes the food taste great. Tonight I did a french style chicken casserole cooked in white wine and butter. There was no fixed recipe. Just a bit of this and a bit of that. Simple clean and fresh with plenty of carrots, mushrooms and of course a clove of my favourite garlic.

Rocambole like its name has a rock like shape. It is a hardneck variety which means it contains a central hard stalk which if left growing can send up a flower head (which is sterile). Softnecks don’t usually form a stalk and grow in a wider range of climactic conditions, have more cloves and can last up to 9 months, which on average is 3 months longer than a hardneck variety. So why am I growing a hardneck variety you ask. Well, hardnecks like this Rocambole are very well suited to Victorian conditions – cool winters, damp springs and warm dry summers. Perfect, but the other reason is of course is the flavour.

In Autumn last year, I planted a good sum of these cloves in a bit of dad’s vegetable patch (thanks Dad). We incorporated some blood and bone and some chicken manure. They were well watered when required, and we got good germination and growth before the cold of winter set in where they really didn’t do much. I did give them a liquid feed running into spring, but wish I had done that a couple of times. Of course during this whole time, hand weeding needed to be done. From what I can gather, quite often this process is where organic garlic differs greatly from other commercial garlic, where sprays are used similar to those used in onion crops, where the seletive herbicide kills the weeds, but not the onions. we wanted none of that. Whats wrong with weeding anyway. It’s all part of the process required.

Running up towards christmas, we didn’t water them quite as often, and finally, after some 9 months, it was time to harvest these little babies. As you can see, some of the foliage has yellowed. Harvest too early and the bulbs are small and may not store as well. Bulbs left too long can start to split apart.

It was a really nice day. We threw on our Bogs Boots, and set about digging carefully. I say carefully, because after all this effort, now is no time to damage the bulbs with careless lifting. The bulb size was reasonable but the crop was by no means perfect. The soil is good for growing, but maybe if is was slightly sandier, perhaps the going would be easier for this crop, but who really knows.

Once harvested we get them straight out of the sun as they can get sunburn. We are also careful not too be too rough with them as garlic bulbs can actually bruise. Our heavier soil is quite hard to get of the bulbs, so I did rinse a lot of the dirt off with water as it is much easier to get it off now rather than later. Some people say you shouldn’t do this, but it has yet to be a problem. We then hang the garlic in shed for a month or so and then remove the roots and stems. You might even like to grade your bulbs like the pros, and work out which ones you are going to use for next years plantings. I have kept some of the really good ones for that purpose, because of course that is how a good grower improves the breed.

Gardenworld is very pleased to be able to offer Rocambole garlic for sale again this March and April (until stocks last). It has been produced organically by one of Victoria’s best artisan garlic growers. You can grow it or eat it, and they are available right now for just $4.40 for a pack of two bulbs – a veritable bargain after all the work you can see.

How gardening made these people seven kilos lighter.

Those who spend their free time pruning the roses or pottering in the vegie patch are considerably trimmer than their non-gardening neighbours, a study by University of Utah researchers showed.

Read the full story here, written by Fiona Macrae from the Daily Mail and published on


Ewood Raised Garden Beds

By James Wall

We have now set a few of these EWOOD garden beds up and I am becoming more impressed with the product every day.

Comes in many different sizes.


What is Ewood ?

The first tier.

Ewood is not actually wood. They are planks of extruded plastic that are made from recycled plastic that would normally go into landfill. This includes ink cartridge toners from printers and scraps from the manufacture of car parts. The outer plastic casings of old TV’s are also used.

As well as reducing landfill, ewood can be used instead of wood, which means we need to harvest less trees. It also does not rot, nor does it need to be painted and it is termite proof.

When making a raised garden bed out of Ewood, I could not believe how easy it is to set up. The first one I built was 2.4m x 1.2m and 400mm high –  and it took 45 minutes to build. That’s right 45 minutes, and all I needed was a cordless drill. That is because the raised garden beds come with bolts, and with pre-drilled holes that have a sort of steel thread in them. Gotta love that. Each level you build, stacks on top of each other with the corner lugs locking the system together with no bolts required. It is an ingenious design.

You make them a level at a time, and then stack them on top of each other.

The unique design also means you can fit the pieces in the boot of you car. Pieces are sold in sets of two, and being modular, you can have them in many different sizes.

Our 3 most popular sizes are:

2.4m x 1.2m x 400mm high

2m x 1m x 400mm high

1m x 1m x 400mm high

Ready to be filled with dirt.

Garden beds have a 20 year warranty, come in black only, but can be painted. They are a simple way to grow vegetables in a raised garden beds.

A square one.

Mmmm, now that I have built one, just need to fill it with the dirt. Going to use 50% sandy loam and 50% composted garden mix with some big chunky bits in it. That should work. Just gotta work out the most efficient way to put it in. Maybe its best to fill it with one tier, as you can still ramp the barrow in, but then add the other half may have to be done by shovel. Now where’s a couple of mates to help me ?

The corner stacking lug.

A lovely couple of parsnip.

We just saw this funny picture in today’s Herald Sun and thought you may enjoy it. All we know is the gardener’s name is Pearl.

Parsnips and carrots grow well in open friable soils and we are suggesting these may have been grown in a heavier, denser soil, thus causing the vegies to fork as they look for the softer soil to grow through.


They certainly make a nice couple  and I guess would get on well with a few tomatoes I have grown.

Parsnip seed is best sown in Melbourne between September and February, so I guess you could almost squeeze in one last sowing today. Dig in some blood and bone or manure. Run a line in the soil with your finger and sow rather thinly. Once germinated, thin out weaker seedlings so as to allow remaining seedlings room to grow.

Some of the best varieties are Yates, “Yatesnip” and Goodman’s Hollow Crown.


And now for the giant zucchini !

By Bonnie-Marie Hibbs.


Behold the giant Zucchini!
This incredible Zucchini Tromboncino, Cucurbita moschata, has grown to a length of 70.5cm!

It is defiantly not the largest Tromboncino but no doubt it is still impressive.

When I compare it to myself, it’s almost half my height. I am 159cm tall which is only 5.2 feet, so to help convey just how big this zucchini actually is I had my photo taken with this guy.

giant zucchiniWhilst I was amazed with the first zucchini I discovered, I happened to come across another. But what caught my attention, well made me laugh, was the odd shape it had presented itself in.

Tromboncino is a fast growing variety of zucchini, growing easily to a height and width of 1.5 and possibly more depending on where it is situated in the garden. Also the zucchini itself varies in length depending on the growing conditions.

The other great thing about these types of crops is that they use more vertical space compared to ground space, therefore allowing you to maximise your variety of food you can grow in the one area. I personally have other varieties of pumpkin, squash, spring onions etc, growing underneath the Tromboncino zucchini vines in one vegetable box. Whilst I have stuffed this veggie patch to its maximum I still get great crop numbers from all the plants planted within this veggie box.

Tromboncino has a great flavour but because of the traditional size of the fruit it can be sometimes hard to find good uses for it. But Tromboncino can make some great soups or stews. They can also be used fresh in salads, roasted, steamed or you could even be a little more daring and make some interesting scones, or any other desserts that may catch your fancy.

You just have to love making new discoveries in the garden.

Hallam Primary School’s vegetable garden.

By James Wall

Today I had the pleasure of attending the official opening of Hallam Primary School’s vegetable garden and kitchen. It is of course another primary school participating in the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation.

Official opening of Hallam Primary School vegetable garden.

Official opening of Hallam Primary School vegetable garden.

According to one of the speakers there are now over 35,000 students from 267 schools participating in the program. Students learn how to grow and cook their own produce. Because they have played a part in the growing of the fruit an vegetables, they are much more positive to eating it. The presentation included pictures of  before and after the project. Basically a patch of muddy grass was converted into a very inviting meeting place of gardens.

A very healthy broad bean crop.

A very healthy broad bean crop.

Carrots soon to be thinned out.

Carrots soon to be thinned out.

After the presentations the sun was out and we were shown the beautiful new food garden. I was very impressed in how clean the broad bean crop was and how well the sweetcorn seeds had germinated.  But it is not just the plants, but the passion of the people, from Shirley the headmaster through to Ross the gardener that really shone through. With a bit of stimulation, communities like this can do anything – especially with help from people like Rotary, Inner Wheel and local businesses. Together they shall grow.

A photo of the garden being constructed.

A photo of the garden being constructed.

A Weeping mulberry takes pride of place in the centre.

A Weeping mulberry takes pride of place in the centre.

The design of the garden beds was done by a student. Much to the disdain of the construction crew a trapezoidal design was chosen. A trapezoid is a quadrilateral with two sides parallel – basically a cross between a triangle and a rectangle. These things were a lot harder to make than rectangles ! However a landscape architect would have been most impressed by this design

A trapezium shgaped garden bed.

A trapezoid shaped garden bed

There were some artistic scarecrows.

There were some great sweetcorn seedlings not long germinated.

We then ventured inside to see a classroom that had been converted into a kitchen. It had a superb freezer and restaurant grade dishwasher through to a number of ovens and workbenches, all tastefully decked out in natural but modern colours. Congratulations to whoever designed and built this wonderful kitchen.

Tasty treats were a plenty !

Tasty treats were a plenty !

There were some other tasteful things including sausage rolls, vegetable tarts and a delicious  finely chopped salad. What impressed me was the flavour of various herbs coming through which made this food very tasty. I finished off with a scone covered in lemon curd, berry jam and freshly whipped cream. Lemons came from the lemon tree, and the berries were picked last summer and frozen and then used to make this wonderful jam once school had resumed. This resourceful school had filled me up and there would be no need for lunch.

We never had a program like this when I went to school. It’s like learning without even realising you are being taught to. I am sure that every guest that left that school had a glow like mine. The world has so many good things going for it, and this day was one of them.

Happy gardening Hallam !

Happy gardening Hallam !


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