The world watched as astronaut Neil Armstrong scooped up the first sample of lunar soil 50 years ago this week. Soil is symbolic but, for kitchen gardeners, its nutrient levels are important, affecting the quality of edible crops. In May, American artist Asad Raza's Absorption was held at Sydney's historic Carriageworks Clothing Store for the 34th Kaldor Public Art Project. The floor was covered with a thick layer of soil.
The 300 tonnes of organic and inorganic materials, including sand, silt, clay, phosphates, lime, spent grain, cuttlefish bone, legumes, coffee and green waste, combined into a new soil mixture or neosoil. Developed in collaboration with scientists at the University of Sydney Institute of Agriculture, led by Professor Alex McBratney, Absorption transformed the site where Raza drew together art and science.
A group of cultivators enacted the process of mixing, creating a composite material that visitors were free to take home in paper bags, allowing Absorption to continue to grow. I longed to be one of them, so contacted Professor McBratney. He directed my request to Bettina Kaldor who gave me details of the project.
On the final weekend, families and friends arrived with barrows, buckets and bags to fill. Community groups from pocket city farms, edible garden trails, winter vegetable patches and verge gardens were invited to take larger amounts and many ute-loads were taken for residential communities, restaurants and schools. The soil was distributed to more than 70 suburbs in Sydney, with the remainder taken to the University of Sydney's agricultural farm in Bringelly, NSW.
A friend and former neighbour, now a Sydney resident, answered my plea and visited Carriageworks. He collected three heavy bags of soil and carried them through the alleyways of Eveleigh to his apartment. After lunch on a Monet visit to Canberra, the soil was transferred from his boot to mine. Now an experiment is under way with the scientist's soil in one pot and my homemade compost in a matching pot.
Last weekend they were planted with rainbow chard from Paul de Jong's Canberra Colour plant stall at Southside Farmers' Market so comparative growth can be observed.
For the reader who gives the best idea of what edibles they would plant in the remaining soil, there is a copy of Root Nurture Grow: The Essential Guide to Propagating and Sharing Houseplants (Hardie Grant Books, 2018, $29.99) by Caro Langton and Rose Ray. Email: email@example.com
Who grows horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) in Canberra? The last person to dig out a root for me was Professor Tom Calma in Chapman (Kitchen Garden, February 7, 2017). Calma said last week he hasn't harvested any recently but once in the soil it is always there.
On ABC Rural in July, Isabella Pittaway interviewed Brian Meakins whose family bought Newman's Horseradish from Fred Newman in 1947. There were only a few horseradish plants in the ground when Meakins' father and family bought the property and they started as general market gardeners. In 1985 they moved the business from Tea Tree Gully in South Australia to the rich black alluvial loam of Langhorne Creek where the horseradish took off.
Meakins told me they harvest all year by putting in enough plants to keep up the supply for two years. They plant close to the first week in October (the ground is too cold in September) and collect the horseradish using a modified spud harvester, then wash and trim the root by hand. The plant takes nine months to grow to maturity and 50 tonnes are produced Australia-wide each year.
Meakins says he likes their horseradish mayonnaise on fish but for hamburgers the horseradish/beetroot combo is his favourite. He was shocked to hear a fine food and wine merchant in Melbourne was selling scrawny horseradish roots for $69.99kg. Newmans sell it for $10 for a half kilo cryovac bag. See: newmanshorseradish.com.au
Anne Meakins says they have a lot of Canberra visitors who always ask if they can get the product in the ACT. Local suppliers include IGA in Chifley and Lyneham, Super Grocer, and Poachers Pantry in Hall.
A pesticide-free grower of vegetables in Hall, working on the Pentony stall at Southside Markets, told me his horseradish is not currently showing above ground but he harvests from autumn onwards. When he last had the roots for sale, people did not know what to do with them, so he grated the fresh horseradish as a demonstration. He said it adds kick to Irish stew but also goes well on a steak.
There is a good recipe online from Melissa Roberts at Epicurious in which green Swiss chard is cooked "with bottled" horseradish - my friends steep theirs in white vinegar. It will make your mouth water. Brian Meakins says wearing glasses when grating horseradish makes the fumes even worse.