Basil

July 21st, 2011

Basil can be grown all through the year in the Wet Tropics. Unlike other Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary, sage and thyme, basil is a tropical plant. Basil, Ocimum basilicum was taken from Asia, its natural home to Europe in the era of the spice trade. How fortunate for Italians that this herb had come to them from Asia when they found it to be the perfect mate for the tomato that later came to Italy from America. Today, because of popular culinary uses, we wrongly think of tomatoes and basil as Italian plants.

Genovese Basil

Genovese Basil

Ocinnum basilicum varieties can be found all over Asia and northern Australia but India is regarded as the home of basil. Basil is sacred to the Hindu gods Krishna and Vishnu. Basil leaves are spread around homes in India as insect repellents and to sweeten the air.

The aromatic flavours of basil are an essential ingredient in Indian curries.

Across Australia, northern Aboriginal people used basil as a medicinal plant. Basil leaves were gathered to make an infusion for fevers, persistent sores were bound with a poultice of leaves and a tea made by infusing leaves was taken as a blood tonic. The explorer Ludwig Leichhardt took basil infusions as a blood tonic. He was also known to add basil to his tea, soups and stews.

Basil has many uses in the garden as a beneficial plant: it repels flies and mosquitoes and deters nematodes. It can be planted as a rotation crop during summer in the vegetable garden.

There are many varieties of basil and some have distinct flavours.

Basil bush has small pointed aromatic leaves and is suitable for growing in pots.

Basil dark opal has dark purple foliage and a fine sweet anise flavour. It is excellent for seasoning and for basil vinegar, turning it an attractive red colour.

Basil dwarf creek has small edible and ornamental leaves and is exceptionally fragrant.

Basil East Indian clove can be used as a clove substitute and it is particularly good in curries.

Basil Genovese is a large leafed variety with dark green leaves. It is spicy and fragrant and has some resistant to leaf rots.

Basil holy or sacred basil has slender green leaves with hairy purplish stems. It is often grown in houses, gardens and near temples in India. Use in salads and curries. Holy basil will repel black hibiscus beetle.

Basil lemon is intensely fragrant and can be added to tea and sauces. It is only a small bush and needs to be replanted every year as it is an annual plant.

Basil lettuce leaf has large wide light green aromatic leaves that are slightly crinkled. The leaves are ornamental and look good in salads or as a garnish on plates.

Basil sweet is the Italian large-leaf variety popular as a culinary herb. However, it is prone to leaf rot and can only be grown on the wet coast during periods of low humidity.

There are many good reasons to grow some basil plants in your backyard.

Chinese cabbage

July 21st, 2011

Chinese cabbages are referred to in the Ming Dynasty pharmacology. They are possibly the most ancient of today’s vegetables as they have been cultivated as a leaf vegetable in Asia for over 4000 years. Today the Chinese cabbage can be found in markets all over the world. Chinese cabbage, although related to the western cabbage, do not form heads. Chinese cabbage can be distinguished – with the exception of wong bok – by their green leaf blades that form a lose cluster in the centre.

Interplant tatsoi with spring onions

Interplant tatsoi with spring onions

During hot, humid weather in the Wet Tropics, some Chinese cabbage can prematurely form seed heads. In this event the yellow flower of the Chinese cabbage can be used in salads or as a plate garnish. All cabbages contain glucosinolates, a compound that has been reported to prevent cancer. However people suffering from hypothyroidism should avoid eating excessive amounts of raw cabbage. In these people over-consumption of raw cabbage can cause thyroid dysfunction.

In traditional Chinese medicine cabbage is regarded as yin (cool) and therefore should always be cooked with a yang (hot) counterbalance: ginger and chillies are yang foods and are ideal accompaniments for Chinese cabbage. Grow Chinese cabbage in a full sun position in rich well-drained soil with a pH above 6. Puddle holes before planting and water early in the day. Except for the very hot summer months, most Chinese cabbages will grow in the Wet Tropics. Varieties like Tatsoi and Pok-choi are heat tolerant and can be grown both early andlate in the season.

The cabbage moth is the main pest of Chinese cabbage however, interplanting with spring onions will confuse this pest and will go a long way in protecting the cabbages from predation. In addition, you have a tasty crop of spring onions to harvest. Plant small numbers of Chinese cabbage every few weeks to maintain a regular supply in the kitchen and for the best flavour, harvest before it is fully mature. A few of the more common Chinese cabbage varieties are listed below:

Pak Choi ( kwang moon) has white stems rich in vitamin A, B and C.

Pok Choi has dark green leaves with white stem and veins. It is suited to warmer areas and is early maturing.

Wong bok is a barrel shaped cabbage with a delicate mild mustard taste. It can be used in salads, steamed, boiled or pickled. Grow during the cool months in the Wet Tropics.

has small glossy, dark green spoon-shaped leaves. It forms a thick rosette and has a mild taste. Tatsoi is slow to bolt and is suited to warm areas.

Spectacled Monarch

July 21st, 2011

The grating, repeated, gzzhhh chatter of the spectacled monarch is unmistakeable. This small, beautifully-patterned bird makes its home in the Licuala ramsayii forests of north Queensland over winter. The deep rufous chest feathers outline a black bib that extends upwards to surround the large, dark brown eyes looking like dark spectacles. The strong grey bill is built to crush snails and spiders and is a reminder that this bird is a capable hunter. The spectacled monarch spends most of its day in the rainforest canopy hunting for food. But a puddle on the ground will always attract him to bathe and play.

The spectacled monarch has a bath

The spectacled monarch has a bath

The antics of this generally solitery bird are a delight to watch. Every afternoon a spectacled monarch arrives at the nursery to play. He sits on a strut under a bench, measures up the nearby puddle, then with a flutter of his wings he runs at the puddle and in doing so lifts his feet to skate on the water to the end of the puddle. He repeats this game over and over until his feathers are totally wet and then either exhausted or just wet, he perches on a branch in the warm sunlight until dry.

The skating antics of the spectacled monarch are a strategy also used in hunting. In the deep shadows of the fan palm rainforests of the Wet Tropics, the spectacled monarch chases his food on the broad, round pleated leaves of the fan palm. These birds can sometimes be seen tumbling and skating over the palm fronds, in search of their prey. It is thought that this method of hunting disturbs insects like flies and moths that rest on and under the fronds. The spectacled monarch flies south in summer where it breeds.

My Story by Santina Lizzio

July 21st, 2011

My garden happily grows on my property, situated along side a dusty road in Mena Creek. It was actually started by my grandmother, Santa Lizzio around 1947. As a child, I can vividly remember the sprawling jasmine that grew along the front fence. The garden was dotted with lilies, granny caps, ferns and a vast selection of bachelor buttons. They were all common flowers but they put on a wonderful and colourful show. Fruit trees dotted the yard and passionfruit and granadilla vines latched onto any fence in their path. Every time I visited my grandmother I would always go home with a giant bunch of flowers wrapped in newspaper. Unfortunately my grandfather Alfio, didn’t share her passion for gardening.

Santino Lizzio

Santino Lizzio

On several occasions when he took her into town, my grandfather would arrange with his farm hand, Bert Lister, to poison any particular tree that he took a dislike to. Within a week or so, when the tree started to show signs of stress Alfio would console my grandmother and tell her he couldn’t understand what had happened.

I live in a cottage built by my father, Joe Lizzio, for his parents, over 60 years ago. This actually, is the first house my father built. He would have been around 23 years of age. I have called my home, “Santaliz Cottage” in memory of my grandmother. I know she would approve of the work I have put into getting my garden to its present stage. I can’t imagine what my grandfather would be thinking. He would most probably be sharpening his axe and planning a way to get back.

Before Cyclone Larry crossed our coast in 2006 my garden boasted a large selection of tall rainforest trees. Even though many of these trees sustained a battering they still soldier on providing protection and a home for many varieties of wildlife. Every morning I am greeted by the usual chorus of song. My favourite visitor to my garden is the humble helmeted friar bird. His song just melts my heart. During summer, wallabies shelter under the mottled shade of the bottle brush trees that are randomly planted around my yard, I love the visiting kookaburras when they perch high in the trees and call to each other in boisterous tones. In Larry’s aftermath, wandering cassowaries often found their way into my garden, eating what they could find and then leaving. It didn’t take long for mother nature to repair the damage and soon all was back to normal.

This year Cyclone Yasi put the final stamp on many of the big trees that withheld the ferocious winds five years previous. Only the trees that are native to this area survived. Even though they took a severe battering they have healed and are growing happily once more. I have learned a valuable lesson from both these storms. Only plant what is native to your area. Slowly, but surely, the garden is starting to look happy again. The scars left by the cyclone in February are being covered by vegetation. I grow an abundant variety of gingers, crotons, cordylines mixed with native trees and other bric-a-brac that all help to bring my garden together. I love my garden. It is always a source of inspiration when I am writing. Whether over a glass of wine or a pot of tea, the creatures of the day or night help inspire me, as words spill onto paper.

Landscape a tree stump

June 6th, 2011

This month’s cover photo

Landscape an old tree stump

Landscape an old tree stump

Most of us have been left with an old tree stump or two in our backyards following cyclone Yasi. Removal of a stump by stump-grinding is very expensive and because of position, may not always be practical.  However whenever there is a problem, there is often an opportunity.

An old stump holds the memory of the lost tree: it is the gravestone reminding us of what was once there. The poet Hugh Sykes-Davies wrote:

‘In the stump of the old tree’

In the stump of the old tree, where the heart has rotted out, there is a hole the
Length of a man’s arm, and a dank pool at the bottom of it where the rain gathers,
And the old leaves turn into lacy skeletons. But do not put your hand down to see……….

With a little creativity an old stump can continue to hold its mystery and become a garden feature. To preserve the stump paint the cut with a wood preservative and cap the top with a tin plate.

Epiphytes like orchids and bromeliads are ideal to plant on the stump and the choice of varieties will depend on the amount of sun in the area.  There are species of orchids and bromeliads that will grow in full sun and they can be fixed to the side of the stump and alternated with spectacular climbing foliage like philodendron or the little monstera.  Alternatively, any of the tropical creepers like Pandorea, Pyrostegia, Mandevilla or bougainvillea can be trained to climb over the stump and create a flowering tower.

If the stump is in shade, then ferns are the obvious choice. In the rainforest old stumps are quickly colonized by fern species such as Selaginella, birds nest, maidenhair and Pteris can all be nestled into and around the old tree stump. A little peat moss around the roots of the ferns will help them retain moisture in dry weather.

Regular watering and foliar fertilising should be all that is necessary to keep the plants on the stump thriving.

The compost bin – Mourilyan Harbour, a brief history

June 6th, 2011

flyCook passed the wet tropical coast under cover of the night and never saw the entrance to Mourilyan Harbour.  Neither Commander King on the survey vessel ‘Mermaid’ nor Owen Stanley on the larger survey vessel ‘Rattlesnake’ had any idea that there was a magnificent harbour concealed within the narrow ‘rock grit’ entrance they had observed in passing the rainforest draped shoreline.

Captain Moresby in search of survivors of the brig ‘Maria’ happened on Mourilyan Harbour. “Moresby and Lieutenant Mourilyan passing in the galley between two headlands but 120 yards apart were hardly able to believe their eyes when they saw a landlocked sheet of water spread before them apparently capable of holding hundreds of vessels, with a river falling into it.”(Dorothy Jones, Hurricane Lamps and Blue Umbrellas).

Later, the explorer Dalrymple was so impressed by the potential of the harbour he recommended that public land be set aside for a town.

In 1882 Christie Palmerston, with four Aboriginal bushman, walked a track of 100 km from Mourilyan Harbour to the tin-mining town of Herberton, completing the trek in 12 days. Herberton was closer to the coast at Mourilyan Harbour than to Cairns or any other coastal town.  ‘Mourilyan was the township designed at the Harbour in June 1884 by surveyor C. Twisden-Bedford.” By 1883, Mourilyan Harbour had one hotel and another under construction. In the same year 1280 acres of land was cleared at the Harbour for trials of various tropical crops including rubber, coffee, pineapples and bananas.’ (D. Jones.)

An aerial view of Mourilyan Harbour

An aerial view of Mourilyan Harbour

In 1884, dispute about the suitability of Mourilyan Harbour was called into question by Cairns businessmen, who wished to promote the Cairns inlet as the “finest harbour in Queensland.” O’Shannessy who was from Mourilyan, countered the argument by claiming that in Mourilyan Harbour there was ‘inside room for all the Australian fleet’ (Cairns Post 5th June 1884). Cairns’ interests were fighting to maintain the export of all the north’s bagged sugar through their harbour. (Delia Birchley, God’s Own Country).

In 1900 a push by vested interests, in ‘Geraldton’ (Innisfail) urged the development of the Johnstone River as the port for Innisfail. They were concerned that land values would be lowed in town if Mourilyan became the main port.

The dredge ‘Tridacna’ was commissioned and continually employed in the Johnstone River. This expensive exercise proved unsuccessful as the sand returned after every flood. A report from Mr Cullen, an engineer of the Harbours and Rivers Department, said that “further dredging of the Johnstone River was useless unless it was continually carried out.”

Severe river bank erosion was occurring in the Johnstone River and this was attributed to the dredging,  “records in the harbours and Marine Department will show what is the root cause of this river bank erosion.” (Mena Fallon ‘Radiant Green’).

The Johnstone Shire Council then looked to Mourilyan Harbour and in 1902 requested the Department of Harbours and Rivers to remove the rocks in the entrance to provide a channel entrance of 180 feet.

Vested interests in Geraldton (Innisfail) continued to interfere with the development of Mourilyan Port and in 1907, the Johnstone River Advocate’s owner and Shire Chairman, C.E Jodrell, committed the paper to furthering the development of Mourilyan Harbour.

In 1910 a 3’6” gauge tramway was built from the harbour to Geraldton (Innisfail). Then in 1915, the first passenger train ran to Mourilyan Harbour. In 1921 the wharf was extended to 413 feet and widened to 18 feet to meet the requirements of an expanding sugar trade. Two sheds were erected to store 1300 tons of sugar.

 Mourilyan Harbour

Mourilyan Harbour

The old discontents surfaced again and in 1934 the Innisfail Chamber of Commerce supported a proposal to remove Banana Island in the Johnstone River and construct a canal past Ninds’ Creek mouth and through the mountain near Thompson Point. Two breakwaters, up to one mile in length, were to be built out to sea. Further fantastic schemes were proposed to dam the Johnstone River and divert it to Mourilyan Harbour. Innisfail business interests continued to push Innisfail as a port and vigorously opposed improvements at Mourilyan Harbour.

Cairns interests continued to lobby to have raw sugar barged to Cairns and loaded there onto overseas ships. Shipping companies entering Cairns with general cargo found it easier to back-load sugar out of Cairns.

“From the earliest times, Mourilyan Harbour was a favourite recreational destination for the people of the surrounding district. Every weekend large family fishing parties would take position along the wharf and spend whole evenings fishing and spotlighting for squid. They talked, sang and ate the fish they caught all in celebration of this unique ‘harbour in the rainforest’.  Family fishing parties continued until the harbour was taken over by Far North Queensland Ports Corporation Limited and new workplace safety laws forced the authority to close Mourilyan Harbour to the general public.” (Santina Lizzio).

In the event, modern methods of shipping overtook the handling of sugar. In 1960 the Bulk Loading Terminal was opened and raw sugar and molasses from Innisfail, Tully and the Atherton Tablelands was then and still is today exported through Mourilyan Harbour.

June in the Vegetable Garden

June 6th, 2011

Winter started early this year and it has given us the best opportunity in years to grow Mediterranean vegetables like celery, carrots, beetroot and large headed lettuce.

Celery planted close together will naturally blanch. Because of the high humidity experienced in far north Queensland, which can be the cause of rot, it is not advisable to cover celery stalks with paper to blanch, another blanching method commonly undertaken in southern districts.  In these areas the cooler weather helps to develop crisp white stalks: however in the tropics the pale green stalks we commonly produce still have good flavour. Do not let the plants dry out as the shallow roots don’t have a water reserve. Mulching with tea tree or lemon grass mulch will help and these also have the added benefit of repelling insects. Celery benefits from regular applications of fish and kelp foliar fertiliser.

Pearl checks if her corn is ready to harvest

Pearl checks if her corn is ready to harvest

Carrots seed should be sown directly into the garden. Carrots need well-drained friable soil and fertilised with well-decomposed manure. Mix the seed with an equal part of clean sand and sprinkle into shallow drills.  The seed should germinate within ten days. Thin the seedlings out to 20 mm apart around week four. Regular applications of compost tea watered into the soil every five days will improve the growth of plants and the flavour and size of carrots.

Beetroot is best planted from seed direct into the garden. Enrich the soil with compost and dust with lime as beetroot likes a pH of about 6. The large seeds are easy to handle and should be spaced about 30 cm apart in rows. Beetroot leaves can be used as a substitute for spinach and like spinach, grasshoppers and caterpillars enjoy eating the young leaves. Fish and seaweed foliar fertiliser will deter grasshoppers but sometimes you need to use pyrethrum or derris dust on a weekly basis to protect the leaves from high numbers of this pest.

Lettuce varieties vary considerably between the butterhead types, cos , loose-leaf and crisp-head types. They are all comparatively (comparatively to what?) pest resistant but most will only grow during the cooler, drier months of the year in the Wet Tropics. The larger crisp-head types should be sown during the winter months when they will develop large firm hearts. Great lakes will resist early bolting (elongation and seeding??) and matures in about 12 weeks. Iceberg has medium-sized heads and has some heat tolerance so can be grown outside of the winter months.

Other vegetables to plant this month are endive, radicchio, silver beet, radish, zucchini, cucumber, beans, peas, tomatoes, Asian cabbages, sugarloaf and ball-head cabbage, eggplant, capsicum, corn, leeks, and pumpkin.

Winter herbs

June 6th, 2011

Winter is the time to add some new flavours to the family menu. Herbs like chervil, chamomile, watercress, thyme, dill and fennel can be grown now in far north Queensland.

Chervil

Chervil

Chervil is a member of the carrot family and its origin is south-eastern Europe. The dainty ferny foliage has a flavour similar to that of parsley but with a hint of aniseed. Chervil can be used as a substitute for parsley, but it is more commonly used to add a unique flavour to fish. Chervil should be grown in a protected area in rich composted soil. With its fern-like  leaves, a pot of chervil can take pride of place on the patio as an ornamental plant.  Chervil is pest free so keep the plant in a growth phase by mulching with enriched compost every few weeks. When harvesting, snip the stems close to the base of the plant.

Chamomile

Chamomile

Chamomile has many uses: culinary, medicinal and in horticulture. Chamomile flowers can be dried to use in a tea infusion to be drunk to help with restful sleeping. Chamomile oil is said to be a remedy for irritability and general muscular pain. Cooled chamomile tea can be watered over seedling trays to prevent ‘damping off’. Plant chamomile in the vegetable garden as living mulch around cabbages and it is generally  useful in the garden as it repels a wide range of garden pests.

Watercress does not necessarily need to grow in water as its name suggests: we can grow watercress under damp conditions in an old tub filled with enriched compost. The watercress will need to be watered twice a day and regularly fertilised. A handful of watercress is a refreshing addition to a salad and it is said to help the bronchioles and a remedy for asthma.

Thyme

Thyme

Thyme is another herb that is said to be beneficial in the treatment of colds, sore throats and bronchial problems. The creeping thyme can be grown as a fragrant hanging basket or allowed to spill over the sides of pots. Thyme needs an open well drained mix with at least three hours sunshine every day. Water thyme in the early part of the day and shelter from excess rain. Thyme can be used fresh to enhance the flavour of most meats. Preserve sprigs of clean thyme in olive oil.

Dill

Dill

Dill and fennel are hardy annuals that will do well planted anywhere in the garden. Plant dill and fennel close to the kitchen as you will want to use these herbs every day. Add a cup of chopped dill to mashed potatoes or to salad dressings. Fennel can be used as a garnish to fish and other white meats and the aniseed flavour adds another dimension to pasta dishes.

Take advantage of the cooler weather and grow  different herbs to use  in your cooking.

The Major Skink

June 6th, 2011

Living as I do between the mangroves and the rainforest, I share my home with many amazing creatures and the major skink, Egernia frerei, is a particular favourite.

The stone walls that were built on my property in the 1930’s have created an ideal safe-habitat for this large, (native?) shy skink. Within the walls, the skink’s extended family finds food as well as shelter in an extensive burrow system. Within the burrows the skinks give birth to live young.

Skink major

Skink major

E. frerei grows to 39 cm in length and has glossy gold-brown skin with lighter markings on the underside. The four short legs enable the skink to move quickly when startled. On a cool day you can find the skink sunbathing sleepily but always with one eye open for a feed.  This gardener’s friend can quickly stick out its blue tongue to gobble up grasshoppers, snails and beetles and for a little variation will eat fruit and even a biscuit on the odd occasion.  There is never any shortage of insect-food and these large skinks can become quite thick set.

One day I rescued a skink from a bucket of water: in response she grabbed hold on my finger in a firm painful grip. The fine sharp teeth left very small incisions in my finger however the wound healed in a few days without any problems.

Several skinks have become quite tame in the nursery and will often show up for morning tea on the chance of getting a sweet biscuit.

Perhaps you could mention what preys on them??  Reads well though..

Endive and Chicory

June 6th, 2011

Endive and radicchio form the basis of the famous Mediterranean salad.  These salad greens are so loved by Italian immigrants that in backyards all over Australia, you will find plants still growing from the original seed that was carried to Australia by migrants one hundred years before.

Green vegetables are a good source of many vitamins and minerals including vitamins A, C and K, folate, iron and calcium. These vitamins are essential to develop and maintain a healthy body, especially as we age.  For example, a diet of greens significantly reduces the risk of kidney stones in later life, because fruits and vegetables provide an alkaline residue which reduces the risk of uric acid crystallization in the urine. Of course the best green vegetables are fresh from the garden and in Innisfail, the ‘Green Capital’ of Australia, we can grow fresh greens all year around.

Endive Salad King

Endive Salad King

ENDIVE   For thousands of years the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians have grown and eaten endive.  There are two forms of endive, broad or flat-leaf and the curly leaf variety. Endive is relatively free of peasts and diseases and is not generally eaten by grasshoppers.

Endive seeds germinate readily in about five days and can be easily raised in trays for transplanting into a rich composted bed in full sun. Endive has shallow roots and requires regular watering, particularly in warm weather. An endive plant will grow for many months before going to seed so to keep the plant growing vigorously, side-dress with a complete organic plant food every two weeks.

The most popular variety of Endive is Salad King which has large, dark green curled leaves.  It is vigorous and hardy and can be grown most of the year in the Wet Tropics. Pick young leaves from the centre of the endive plant, as these leaves are not bitter and will quickly regrow for a continuous harvest.

The broad leaved variety of endive will grow large, over 40 cm across. Pick young leaves also from the centre of the plant however the older leaves can be blanched for better flavour.

Chicory

Chicory

CHICORY is a biennial plant with some varieties grown for their roots.  These are dried and added to flavour coffee.  Other varieties are grown for use in salads or as a cooked vegetable. The deep red-coloured varieties, Red Verona and Palla Rossa, form firm heads in cool weather. The heads can be cut and new leaves will quickly develop from the roots and provide a continuous harvest for many months. However during summer, the red colour does not develop.

Chicory is easy to grow from seed and will germinate in about seven days.  Sow chicory seed directly into the garden bed and when large enough, about three weeks, thin the seedlings to 30 cm apart.