In November 2014 we first met Linda (Ling) Chen in her O'Connor garden and discovered new edible Chinese plants. Our host cooked a small feast of dishes so we could taste asparagus lettuce or celtuce (known as wosun in southern China) and edible Chinese garland chrysanthemums, the tips of which are used in soups or salads as choy suy greens (shungiku).
Last week we were invited back to see the vegetable garden at its autumn peak. By happy chance, the same Canberra Times photographer, Jamila Toderas, joined us. Her favourite dish on the previous occasion had been hard tofu cubes tossed with the asparagus lettuce.
A highlight on the autumn afternoon was a Nightingale persimmon with large fruit that glowed deep orange in the sunshine. The astringent fruit has to be fully ripe and squishy soft before eating. All the trees in the garden have a deep blanket of manure, coffee grounds and sugar cane mulch.
The jujube (Ziziphus jujuba) had finished fruiting but Chen saved a bowl full for us to see the dark red Chinese dates that are used as a health tea. It has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years.
Dangling from a vine along the back fence were large oblong winter or wax melons (Benincasa hispida). Known for their health benefits, the white flesh is cooked with pork ribs or eaten in a soup.
Chen's neighbours, Dr Mark and Jan O'Connor, joined us. He had already told me there was a Chinese plant in the garden he had never seen with slightly pungent leaves and an edible stem. On this visit he found a plant label. It was Artemisia selengensis which comes from the mugwort family. Chen said you remove the woody bits of the stem, wash it, drain and stir fry with shredded meat and a pinch of salt or bean curd and it should be a little bit crunchy.
The plant has the synonym A. verlotiorum which I googled at home. There was a Chinese man with a very hot wok which was spitting oil and in went the stripped stems of the plant which was stir fried exactly as Chen had said.
One large corner of the back garden has been turned into a carefully netted enclosure with wooden walls like a large room. It is filled with neat beds of edibles. The netting successfully keeps out the cabbage white butterflies which decimate foliage of brassicas. Among them were garlic chives, purple baby bok choy, asparagus lettuce, English spinach, rocket, chillies and peppers. Chen was harvesting knobbly purple potatoes which she boils and says they taste creamy like sweet potato.
After soaking seeds of sugar snap and snow peas in warm water overnight, they had germinated in two days and climb up the netting. Seeds are saved every year
Under a bare fruit tree are four small pots of saffron crocus, their foliage poking above the soil. The corms came from a friend on a country property just outside Canberra. Among fruit trees in the garden are nashi pear, prune plum, peach tree, pomegranate, pomelo as well as berries. A lotus pond flashes with goldfish.
Our generous host served afternoon tea on the back deck and we had to shoo off birds which were visiting the persimmon fruit until Chen and O'Connor replaced the netting to cover the tree.
Mark O'Connor is Canberra's feijoa man with about 50 small shrubs, propagated from readers of this column, planted at the Lindsay Pryor National Arboretum (40 cultivars) and Canberra City Farm (26 cultivars). At home, the O'Connors have groves of feijoas from which he has huge harvests and Chen juices the surplus.
A remarkable feijoa tree in Yass had produced 101kg by May 4 with more of the crop to ripen. Last year the yield was 285kg.
There is also a prolific, though younger, tree in a private garden in Belconnen. Two trees with the largest fruit in Canberra produce feijoas which weigh about 170g each year, including this season and despite the summer heat and drought.
Last week O'Connor gave me tiny feijoas from a cultivar called "Corella". The fruit can be eaten whole (I cut off the wavy top knot) and they are tart but moreish.