The grim weather this summer - drought, heat, wind, smoke - has seen many edibles struggling, so it was a pleasure to hear from Ron Maginness that his Blackjack zucchini are cropping in abundance, sweet corn is ready to harvest and the rhubarb is "fabulous".
Last week, the green and white garden in Griffith was an oasis with hundreds of honey bees supping on racemes of sweetly scented white flowers of a soaring Robinia pseudoacacia tree.
Ron and Elena Maginness and their family moved there in 1992 and inherited good structure in the garden although the 70-year-old apple, pear and walnut trees "unfortunately passed on" when the back garden was landscaped three years ago. They have been replaced by two varieties of fig trees, Genoa White and Turkish Brown, planted in an arrangement inspired by Australian landscape designer Paul Bangay. Though young, the fig trees are fruiting.
Eight handsome corten steel raised beds, erected by FormBoss from Melbourne, are filled with vegetables and have a built in watering system. A central pergola, covered by an ornamental grape, shades table and chairs for al fresco meals. The setting is very alluring.
Padron peppers are going well as they originated in Spain and love the heat. These capsicums are picked when green and small, an occasional fruit is ultra hot and, if allowed to turn red, they become hotter. Strawberry Amsterdam Roze plants are decked in hot pink flowers while eggplants are flowering and fruiting. Sugarcane is used as a mulch. Among the strugglers this season are silver beet, lettuce which is the third planting, basil and parsley, which are not as good as last year. The winter crop of Tasmanian Purple garlic (which originated in New Zealand) has been harvested and moved to its role in the kitchen.
Every year Ron grows tomatoes from seed and starts them in takeaway containers on a heated slab in front of a window. They stay inside until early October then go out into the big world in small 100mm pots until Melbourne Cup Day and are then planted into garden beds. Some years ago he purchased Burnley Sure Crop seeds online from The Little Vegie Patch Co., an heirloom variety developed in Melbourne, and other tomato varieties from Diggers. He also collects tomato seed.
This year the Maginnesses were overseas until the end of October so the tomatoes were a bit late out of the blocks. Fortunately Ron sourced seedlings of Brandy Wine and Burnley Sure Crop from the Southside Farmers Market and they are growing well. The orange-coloured variety, Jaune Flamme, rich in carotene and less acidic, has self seeded from last year - these are Ron's favourite variety as they are heavy croppers, go on forever and are disease resistant. Ron usually grows marigolds as companion plants but they all died this year from the heat.
Just before Christmas, Ron planted pomegranate Gulosha Rosavaya and Kalamata olive trees in a garden hot spot. A tall Tahitian lime beside the house is covered in flowers while Lisbon lemon, Valencia and Blood orange trees are growing in pots.
Elena is the chef in the household. She is of Italian descent and grew up in a home that was self sufficient. Here is her very successful passata recipe.
Easy homemade passata
tomatoes, very ripe, cut into large chunks, enough to cover your baking tray in one layer
generous teaspoon dried oregano
salt and pepper
3 garlic cloves, skin on
Place cut tomatoes in a large, high sided baking tray. Dress tomatoes with the olive oil, sprinkle over the dry oregano, add salt and pepper and the garlic. Bake for about one and a half to two hours at 150C until tomato pieces have collapsed and are starting to caramelise. Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly. Squeeze garlic out of their skins. Process all in a food processor until smooth or put through a mouli/food mill. Can be frozen.