'Give us bread and roses' said the placards of the striking women factory workers. Their words inspired a poem and then a song, and the song inspired countless rallies ever since. This column, on the other hand, was inspired by an article in another publication, complaining that serving ten helpings of fruit and veg per day to a family is impossible on an average household budget. (They didn't mention that roses - or some flowers- are essential too.)
Excuse me? Fruit and veg more expensive than prepackaged food and meat? Every peasant cuisine I can think of is based on vegetables and fruit, whatever is in season. The examples used in the article, however, were packets of frozen peas plus Iceberg lettuce, now at 75p each in England due to a frost in Spain, with an illustration of 'frozen baked' potatoes, which may be a physical impossibility.
Frozen peas, Iceberg lettuce after an unseasonal Spanish frost and frozen baked potatoes may well be a luxury in monetary terms, but they are a long way from gourmet tucker.
So here are a list of budget beaters, the essentials that anyone can grow. Buy potatoes, too, if you don't have room to grow them – loose and dirt covered, not more the more expensive options of packed and washed, plus whatever fruit and veg is in season and at its cheapest (and best) which, at the moment, includes sweet potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers and anything the supermarket cut in half three days ago and hasn't sold yet. Add a whole hard cabbage - think coleslaw, colcannon, stir fried with varied sauces, or buttered cabbage.
Growing the veg below will still be possible even if you only have a sunny kitchen windowsill to turn into a garden. Hang ten giant hanging baskets up at different heights and you will have enough ground and sun to grow enough fruit, veg and roses to feed your family.
Because the song is right. Give us bread and roses. And a heck of a lot of veg.
Silverbeet: You will need twelve plants for a family of four to feed you all every night over winter, and the family plus six chooks over much of summer. Plant now, feed and water well, and keep feeding with soluble, seaweed-based, foliar fertiliser as the weather cools, as otherwise the nutrients won't be absorbed well by the soil.
Broadleaf or curled parsley: Twelve plants, as above. Finely chopped parsley can be added inconspicuously to many, many dishes from soup to pizza. Try it added to lemon-flavoured ice cream. Seriously. Do not tell anyone that it's parsley. Let them think you've resorted to artificial green colouring. But do make sure it's very, very finely chopped and then cooked to tenderness when you cook up the custard base for the ice cream.
Rhubarb: six Wandin Winter plants, which will grow through winter better than other varieties if kept reasonably warm – indoors by a sunny window is perfect. This variety also has decorative red stems, but don't try it for 'green and red' in a vase - the leaves will be limp in five minutes.
Blueberries: LOTS of sun, feeding and water. A small crop means you've been stingy with one of the three.
Strawberries: Let them dangle a metre down or more. If they are very well fed even the 'runners' will fruit. And fruit. Choose an 'ever-bearing' variety, rather than one that crops mostly in spring and/or autumn.
Sweet potatoes: Only in coastal or warm areas or if you are growing them in a giant basket/pot in a sunny and heated room. If you heat the house for yourself in winter why not use the heat for a crop of sweet potatoes too? Lots of food, lots of water, lots of heat = a heck of a lot of sweet potatoes. I love the purple ones, but the yellow give a bigger crop, especially in cooler climates.
Bush pumpkins: They will give you a dozen or so per bush and keep surprisingly well through much of winter, though not as long as a well-cured, well-named Ironbark or Queensland Blue. They are also fast maturing, so if you plant now you'll have a crop for winter.
Bok choi, wom bok, Savoy or any of the various 'Chinese cabbages': these are fast growing – you'll be eating them in six to eight weeks. Grow them thickly in a basket, then thin out the biggest and let the others mature in their space.
English spinach – This is a luxury. Planted now it will be sweet, tender and not like the stringy stuff in frozen packets or the stuff that tops a generic café version of an English muffin topped with a lightly poached egg, spinach, hollandaise, and a possible dose of salmonella. Keep chooks, grow spinach and make your own, served immediately and salmonella free.
Cherry tomatoes: If you buy a largish bush now it will pay for itself fifty times over.
Ground cover roses: These specially bred roses don't just bloom gloriously in the barren ground of public plantings by the freeway but flourish in hanging baskets and they will bloom for at least eight months of a year, or even all year long if given, you guessed it, sun, water and tucker.
If you are really broke, snap off a bit of the next geranium/pelargonium you meet and plant it. The poorest slums I ever visited, endless shanties of corrugated iron, ragged plastic or cardboard, all seemed to have at least one geranium growing in an old tin can, bright amongst the poverty.
Now head to the library for some recipes. (1001 Fascinating Things to do with Cabbage, Silverbeet and Rhubarb will be a start).
This week I am:
- watching the first saffron crocuses emerge and hoping that just maybe, this year, there will be saffron stamens to harvest – ours are in too much shade for good stamen production. As I haven't moved the pot since last year I doubt there'll be a change in its cropping status. But I can hope.
- thinking about mowing the grass – but only thinking. The wallaby and four wombats are watching me suspiciously through the living room window as I write this. They do not approve of lawn mowing, especially not now that it is temporarily long and lush.
- guzzling more tomatoes. Still. With more black pepper and a pale and delicious goat's milk cheddar.
- apologising to the hydrangeas. I will get around to watering you before winter, I promise, so you can put out another crop of flowers to dry to fill the vases through winter.
- watching the white naked ladies (belladonna) take over from the pink. I didn't actually deliberately plant white ones – I don't know if these have a strange bleaching virus, mutated or there were some small bulbs of a white strain among the pink. But they flower just as the pinks are fading, a wonderful extension to the season.
- possibly, maybe, planting carrots, bok choi, Savoy cabbage, broccoli and other winter crops. The spring carrots either failed to germinate or were carried off in triumph by the snails. Hopefully by now the blue-tongued lizards have eaten most of the snails and the carrots will flourish. Step one … remember to plant the seeds …