Wild mushrooms are nothing short of awesome!

There are so many different things you can forage for a meal or part of one. Dandelions and chickweed are our favourite salad substitutes around here, but nothing is more exciting than mushrooms!

There are a number of mushrooms that are easily considered ‘beginner’ level mushrooms. One of the most easily recognised ones is the Slippery Jack.

These golden fungus grow directly from the roots of pine trees, and are especially prolific in pine plantations after a very good soaking rain followed by warm temperatures. They pop up following a shallow pine tree root where the mycelium (kind of like mushroom roots) has grown in the bark of the root waiting for the perfect conditions to fruit (aka grow mushrooms).

We have around 60 mature radiata pine trees on our property which have been producing Slippery Jacks for more seasons than I remember. We used to stomp out in our gumboots as kids and excitedly decimate them in all sorts of childish madness, not realising how delicious they were.

Wild Slippery Jack mushrooms

This morning, we harvested an unexpected boon courtesy of mother natures’ excellent rainfall and warm Autumn weather. After finishing our morning chores, we collected about 2kg of these glorious mushrooms in our jackets (we had warmed up enough not to need them).

Slippery Jacks are easily identified by several key features…
– they are golden in colour
– they have a slimy top surface (unless it is very hot and has dried out, then sprinkle water on it to check)
– they have a spongy surface underneath (no gills)
– when you cut the stem, it is yellow throughout
– when gently crushed, they bruise very easily
– they only grown under pine trees

Here is a pic of one we split in half. You can see the bruise in the centre caused by us pushing roughly on the cap. Also, you can see how fleshy it is and the sponginess.

Slippery Jack mushrooms split through showing fleshy insides, sponge and bruising

To prepare these guys for eating, you need to peel the top slimy layer off (this part tastes bitter in purpose so other animals don’t eat this tasty morsel). Then remove the stem completely and rinse the sponge as it usually has dirt and or pine needles attached. Set aside to dry off a bit or pat dry with a cloth or paper towel (use an old cloth as the mushroom spores can stain fabric) and then slice up and cook however you desire! Delicious fried with onions and garlic in butter, added into soups or as part of a stroganoff. Yummy.

This basket is off to be shared with our local Seedsavers group.

Basket of prepared Slippery Jack mushrooms

What seeds work best?

Growing something from a seed always gives us a sense of achievement. It’s amazing how something so tiny can hold enough information in it to grow something unique. Related plant species all have seeds that look identical. Ever looked at a cauliflower seed, cabbage seed and kohl rabi seed next to each other? They look identical!

When planting anything from seed, there are several factors involved to ensure you get the best results. Here is a short rundown of what we look at in our seeds to get the best results…

1) Fresh is best

Seeds have a shelf life. As they age, they dry out. Some seeds have a harder outer coating and can survive for years or even decades before successfully germinating, while others can only survive until the next growing season.

Because each plant is different, to ensure you have the best germination rate, have the freshest seeds possible. There is nothing wrong with older seed, as long as you realise that you may need to plant more seeds than normal to ensure that enough plants germinate.

2) Open pollinated

When plants flower, they pollinate each other. There are different ways that plants can be pollinated; by wind, insects (not just bees either), self-pollinated or manually.

Open-pollinated essentially means that pollination has occurred naturally and not been interveened with by us well-meaning humans. There are some risks with open-pollination though, namely the fact that related plants may actually contribute pollen to other plants and thus produce a cross breed. Anyone who normally saves seed, needs to ensure that there are no similar plants in the vicinity that will proceed a cross breed.

Some large seed companies purposefully produce cross breeds in their seeds. Corn is the easiest example to find in any seed catalogue. Any seed packet with an “F1” or “F2” label on it means that the seed was produced from a cross breeding of two varieties. If the resulting plant is then left to seed, the seed produced will NOT grow to be exactly like its parent. This means that the seed is not “True to Type”

3) True to Type

This essentially means that the seed will grow to be like its parent. Having cross-pollinated seed is a fun way of having surprises. But if you want to grow something specific, it is a nightmare.

If you are purchasing open-pollinated seeds that are marketed as true to type, the producers have probably gone to extreme lengths to ensure that this is true. Looking at corn again, it is a wind pollinated plant. This means that to have open pollinated corn, you must be confident that there is no corn growing within 1-2km radius. We are lucky enough to be able to do this, which is a bonus!

4) Locally Sourced

A plant that has successfully produced seed in your local area is more likely to produce very hardy offspring that are well suited to your conditions. It may not seem like a significant concern, but it can make a load of difference.

We tend to be a little brutal on the plants that we want to get seeds from. Generally, we grow a crop (usually vegetable, flower or grain crop), and subject it to ideal growth conditions. If a plant is not performing well, it gets culled and the chooks get a feed. Once the seed is starting to set, we then slowly withdraw regular watering from the plant and start to stress the plant a bit. We have found that this technique, while producing fewer seeds than a well tended plant (around 40% of normal) … these seeds will pack a serious punch. Here is a visual example below…

Seedlings - beets Seedlings - brassica

In the seedling trays above, there are two types of seedlings. The first are all beetroot and the second are all broccoli. In the first image, the second row of seedling is far out performing the rest, whereas in the second image, the third and fifth row are outperforming the rest. These rows were grown from seeds that we have produced ourselves and purposefully stressed to local conditions. Need we say more!

What is corn really?

Summer is synonymous with fresh corn. There are literally hundreds of different corn varieties out there, but most green grocers only stock one variety. Nothing new there.

We have been experimenting with a huge variety of different corns over the last few years and have discovered some amazing facts that we would like to share with you. Our favourite corn so far is the Sweet Anasazi Corn. It is beautiful to look at and very tasty too. Here is a pic of some our our last harvest.

Here are some corn facts for you…

Corn is a grass!?!?

Yep, corn is a grass, much like Sugar Cane. It only germinates when the soil is warm enough but does not need a lot of water to grow like most veggies. It does best when there is sufficient moisture to keep the soil friable (easily broken up).

Growing Corn

Corn seeds germinate very quickly under the right conditions. Usually within 7 days there are two little leaves emerging from the soil.

When you plant corn into the garden, don’t plant it in rows but rather as a close set group. This is because corn is wind pollinated and the closer together the plants are, the better the pollination is.

When the tassels first emerge from the top of the corn stalks, this is the time to ensure that the corn plants get extra water, right up to harvest time. The tassels at the top of the plant are the pollen … essentially the male reproductive part of the corn. Along the stem of the corn plant is where the silk will emerge, these are the female parts of the corn. The pollen needs to reach each of the silk strands. Each strand is essentially connected to a single corn kernel.

Different types of corn

Most people only know of sweet corn and popcorn, but there are many other different kinds of corn; Maize, Super Sweet Corn, Sweet Corn, Popcorn, Dent and Flint Corn.

Maize is the parent name of all edible corn types. It’s like saying “Citrus” if we were talking about lemons and oranges.

Super sweet corn is a hybrid corn produced specifically for the fresh food market. This is the corn you find in stores today. They are an F1 hybrid, meaning that the seeds produced from these varieties will not grow to be like the parent. Large seeds corporations do this on purpose so that farmers cannot save seed from their crop each year and are forced to buy seed every year to regrown their crops.

Sweet corn is not as sweet as super sweet corn but has much more flavour and is more filling to boot. These are the corns that your grandparents would have been used to and there are hundreds of types. Our favourites are the Sweet Anasazi Corn (multicoloured) and the Balinese Bantam (yellow)

Popcorn is exactly what it sounds like … popcorn grows on a cob like normal corn but it can come in blue, black, pink red, yellow and white kernels. When popped though, it still results in a white fluffy cloud of goodness though.

Dent and Flint corn are types of corn used to make flour. Dent corn has a hard outer coating where as Dent has an indentation at the top of the kernel.

Pests and Diseases

Like most grasses, they thrive in warm and humid environments and luckily don’t have too many pests and diseases. A few caterpillars here and there are the most annoying. So a regular sprinkling of Derris Dust or similar is necessary to ensure you get plenty of corn to eat at harvest … I personally don’t like sharing much of my hard work with insects.

🙂

 

If you want to try to grow some Sweet Anasazi corn, we have plenty of seeds left over from last season. Here is a link to them… https://littlefieldmice.com.au/products/sweet-anasazi-corn-seeds

 

Growing tomatoes in Sydney … why is it so hard at home?

Tomatoes are one of those plants that is part of pretty much every culture. As a byproduct of this, there are literally hundreds of varieties of tomatoes.

What?!?! I hear you say. Hundreds?!?!

Yep. But your probably only familiar with what you find in your local store … red cherry tomatoes, yellow pear tomato, oval tomatoes, large smooth red tomatoes and nice round truss tomatoes. But that’s not all…. there are yellow stripped tomatoes, green tomatoes, purple ones, pulpy ones, pink ones, tomatoes with few seeds and juicy tomatoes with lots of seeds. Not to mention that most have a preferred climate too.

The tomatoes you see in store are generally of only a few varieties. You might see some labelled “heirloom”, which simply means they are not commercially grown in the region.

This year, we experimented with some very old fashioned bush tomatoes. These little guys essentially only grow to about 50cm … but don’t let their stature fool you! They produced a huge number of fruit very quickly. Infact, we normally don’t expect to have tomatoes at Christmas … and these little ones have almost finished their fruiting cycle in mid December.

Here is a pic of one of the bush cherry tomatoes that we grew this year. There is a small spinach (rainbow chard) plant on the right for reference.

As you can see, we were a little optimistic with the garden stake. It didn’t need one! We’ve collected a huge number of seeds from these guys as they have been brilliant and would suit planting in the following places…

  • pots
  • patios
  • low light situations
  • as a companion plant
  • a veggie hedge
  • accessible veggie patch

These bush cherry tomatoes were planted under one of our older mandarin trees and have grown wonderfully. With such an early harvest, it also means that our longer to harvest varieties (such as Apollo pear and Grosse Lisse) are almost ready to pick as we pull these guys out.

Here is a pic of our almost mature Grosse Lisse patch. You can see some nice sized fruit at the bottom. These should be ready in about 2 weeks time. Just in time for Christmas!

One of the biggest problems with growing tomatoes in Sydney is that they need LOTS of water, LOTS of manure, need to be protected from fruit fly (netting or spray), need protection from birds and possums, take at least 4 months to produce fruit (for the large varieties) and cannot be grown outdoors until September at the earliest (due to it being too cold). Not to mention the numerous fungus that are waiting to take advantage of a sick plant too! A fussy plant really.

Unlike some veggies, tomatoes need some work on your part to grow well. You can’t just stick them in the ground and give them water. Here is a short list of what we do with our plants to get the best out of them….

August

  • Dig the soil nice and deep, mixing in  some awesome rotted manure
  • Mulch the surface of the soil to ensure it doesn’t dry out
  • Water the soil weekly if it doesn’t rain
  • Plant the seeds in seedling trays and put them in a nice area to germinate (on top of the hot water system is perfect

September

  • Dig a little hole for each tomato plant in the prepared soil about 40cm apart. We make sure that we plant ours in rows two wide.
  • Plant one or two plants in each hole
  • Make sure that the plant has a shoot growing out the top. Some won’t and will not perform as well.
  • Water each hole regularly (a little bit of water every day for the first week, then move to every second day in the second week)
  • Source stakes for your tomatoes to be tied to along with twine (biodegradable stuff is best)

October

  • Remove any plants that are not performing well. This is an indication that they will be prone to diseases and won’t produce good quality fruit. Compost them.
  • For every 4 plants, dig a well between them that they can share. Fill this with straw or similar to reduce evaporation and start using this for watering (check out the pick below of our capsicums in the foreground and the tomatoes behind them. Most have 4 plants per hole except the last one which has six))
  • Put your stakes in next to each plant (again, see the pic below)
  • Once fruit is starting to show, you will need to net them or apply a pesticide for fruit fly. If you don’t, all your fruit will be inedible and full of squiggling larvae. Blech!
  • Dusting with “Tomato Dust” or “Derris Dust” will help control caterpillars and white fly too. Healthy plants need a helping hand to stay healthy.

November

As your tomato plants grow, they will start throwing off side shoots. When planting your tomatoes in rows like we do, you need to prune off these shoots to ensure that the plant grows nice and straight and produced fruit from the bottom up. This will allow you to have a controlled harvest as the plant will put its strength into fewer fruit, thus creating a better flavoured product. November is all about controlling the growth of the plant, tying them gently to the stakes and watering …. always watering.

From mid November, we start applying more manures into the holes that have the straw in them. As you water into the holes, the manure breaks down slowly and feeds the plants.

If you have cherry tomatoes planted, you will be able to start picking these little guys for your salads by mid November.

December

More watering. More pruning. Rotted compost is applied in mid December … tomatoes are very hungry plants!!!

Harvest starts mid to late December. If you have nice ripe tomatoes for Christmas, you have having an excellent year!

January, February, March, April

Once you start harvesting, you need to keep watering and feeding your tomatoes. Remember to regularly apply the fruit fly pesticide and dust your tomatoes to stop most caterpillar attacks.

As the plants grow up the stakes you have put in, and you have harvested the bottom tomatoes, you can start sliding the tomato plant down the stakes … yes, they will happily keep growing upwards given enough food and water but you want to be able to reach the fruit right? As the stalks from the tomato come in contact with the ground, you’ll notice that they start to grow roots. This is excellent because … you guessed it … nice strong root growth means more awesome tomatoes!!!

Once the weather starts to cool off in April, your tomato plants will start to look “tired” and straggly. After you have harvested the last of your crop, pull them up and compost them, roots and all.

 

Remember not to plant tomatoes in the same place next year as pests and diseases in the soil from this crop will still be there after Winter. Wait at least one year, two is best, before planting tomatoes there again. This is true for ANY vegetable or plant.