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Harvesting The Edible and the Compostable

by Matt Morris
Heart of the Matter
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The end of summer — if this is the end ( I am writing this on a sticky, hot, Christchurch morning at the end of March and as we are in the midst of a rather dire drought, one can hardly think of autumn) — is a good time of year for the garden.

Number 4, in spite of the time restrictions we have had, has yielded a goodly amount of fruit and veges. It has also yielded a goodly amount of weeds, which have stocked up the compost heap or else are lying around the property drying out until safe enough to do something with. Harvest time, one of the lushest and messiest, times of the year.

Abundant, tolerant and tasty
Last month I raved on about a couple of our tomato varieties — Black Krim and the tomato-like tomatillo. The Black Krims have started to turn — going as expected, a pink, chocolate sort of colour. They have been a great crop - abundant, tolerant of dry conditions (they have hardly ever been watered) and tasty without all the wateriness of money-makers. They are also pest-free, remarkable given the terrible infestation sustained by the money-makers.

The tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa, Brot) have produced a huge harvest as well. The fruit has swelled to about 5 or 6cms in diameter in some cases, though is mostly smaller and the papery husks have peeled back revealing pale yellow, almost insipid sticky berries.

Great in stir fries and soon to be turned into salsa and chutneys.

Of the other varieties of tomatoes we have grown this year — yellow pear, cherry, an unknown self-sown heirloom, Mechanical Harvester VF 145-21-4P and Money-Maker, the most exciting to watch develop has definitely been the last of these.

Money Maker
The Money Makers sprung up about September last year in the office garden of the Organic Garden City Trust. They were the children of the previous season’s bumper harvest — amazing what you can do in a north-facing office over summer. All of these seedlings, bar three, were removed to No 4 as soon as was possible, and six of the healthiest (and there were about 20) were planted into a shingley patch by our back door, sheltered from the easterly and in a real suntrap. They loved it. They loved it a lot more when that patch of rather heavy soil was built up into a proper bed, with concrete slabs, compost and all. The plants were buried past their first true leaves, well and truly into the compost, put on loads of root growth and shot away. The first tomatoes set were actually off the remaining plants in the office — at the very start of December. The transplanted ones didn’t even flower until 20 December. They were setting a week later.

Money Makers have to be one of my favourite plants, as they seem impossible to kill, no matter what you do to them. I remember last year chopping up the plants in the office and "composting" them there — much later I discovered that they had actually sprouted and were as healthy as. A little disturbing, but interesting nonetheless.

This year they have been less happy, but prolific. All of the plants produced a huge amount of fruit, large, a good shape. Towards the middle or end of February their growth accelerated and their demise became more evident. Flowers were coming out left right and centre and then we noticed caterpillars everywhere. Closer inspection revealed major leaf carnage (no real problem there as we were going to cut off the lower leaves to allow the fruit to ripen). There were also attacks on the newest fruit (again this was no problem, because it was obvious that the younger fruit would never come to anything much as the season was too far advanced).

Caterpillar attack
My thinking on this was that the stressed plant — ripening lots of large fruit, putting out flowers and growing rampantly — was being attacked at its most vulnerable places. I felt that nipping off the flowers, cutting back the leaf and removing the attacked fruit, would also allow the plants some breathing space and end the attack. This would probably have worked if it had been done before the caterpillars had arrived.

After making major clearances, the caterpillars, now deprived of the useless parts of the plants they had been preoccupied with, simply moved on to the good bits and started munching into our gorgeous fruit. On Monday 26th March I harvested all the good Money Makers I could (and there were a lot) and chopped up the plants into little bits to replenish the soil. The caterpillars, as expected, started clambering out of the sweating heap, and promptly moved on to the nasturtiums. Although very pretty, the caterpillars can’t really do too much damage there as nasturtiums are frivolous decoration and are pretty hard to get rid of anyway. So ended the second generation Money Makers — a dramatic finale. It will be interesting to see if a third generation pops up next season.

Some of these tomatoes have been turned into relish. They produced a lot of water and didn’t have the best flavour. Bob Crowder told me I needed some of his VFs (we do have a few plants) as these are much better for preserving. The VFs have a high solid content and are very flavoursome. A bush tomato with an odd shape (they have nipples!), ours are colouring up nicely and will soon be ready for harvest.

Yellow Pear, Blue "Maori" Potatoes & Orach
The yellow pear tomatoes though very cute were a bit hopeless. Nice to look at but quite floury. We didn’t water them nearly enough, probably, but in these drought-ridden and water shortaged times it seems a bit silly to pander to varieties that need endless molly-coddling. Other recently harvested crops included blue "Maori" potatoes — a brilliant purple from the skin all the way through. Very nice taste, fast cooking, dry out if steamed too long — best in stir fries. Also, the orach (Atriplex hortensis) once our staple, is over and seeding. This beautiful plant, also called tree spinach, originated in the mountains of the Middle East. We had green and purple varieties. They sent up very tall stalks (taller than me!) which are covered in seeds, browning off and protected in little paper-like "envelopes."

I collected a few of these dry, brown stalks and realised they looked quite decorative. I am saving the seed in a vase beside the TV in the sun-room. Permaculture: it is useful and looks good!

The quince tree is laden with ripening fruit now dropping to the ground. Some of it evolved up in an apple-quince and uglifruit crumble served up on Saturday to about 50 people that came along as part of the Soil & Health community gardens tour. Very nice it was too. The orchard has yielded loads of fruit. The two varieties of pear have been harvested, the William bon Cretien first, now mostly pear and ginger jam courtesy of my mother, or else lining the walls of our garage. The braeburn apples are delicious and keeping us and others in apple crumbles galore.

Seven Years’ Weeding
Amidst all of this plenty and harvesting activity, the annual weeds have got away almost scott free and this will be to our detriment. As they say, ‘one year’s seeding is seven years’ weeding’ — and our nightshades and fathen in particular have put seed EVERYWHERE.

You could be philosophical about this, as both ‘weeds’ are edible crops.


Solanum nigrum, black nightshade and not Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade, is edible though the green berries are poisonous. The leaves were eaten as spinach by the Maori and a jam can be made from the ripe, black berries. Andrew Crowe, the expert on edible natives, suggests that caution be exercised in eating either Solanum nigrum (exotic) or its native counterpart Solanum americanum. I am still puzzled as to why the native one is called americanum. Either way, when you are inundated with silverbeet, you don’t really think of cooking up nightshade leaves. Meanwhile, the plants have set millions of berries, which are scattered far and wide throughout the section, either by us dragging them around or by the birds. Whereas the nightshade is still lush and rampant, the fathen is all over, just dried out husks shedding seed everywhere. Again, fathen (Chenopodium album) is edible - we used fathen as a staple to bulk out our meals. The young leaves are very palatable and highly nutritious. It will be everywhere come spring.

Lovely Weeds
We do have one very nice weed. Called shoe-fly it is a beautiful solanaceous plant I have never seen before. It has large purple flowers, which form capsules much the same as cape gooseberries, tomatillos and the gorgeous Chinese Lantern. It just pops out here and there around the place and grows outrageously fast if it likes where it is.

Speaking of cape gooseberries, (Physalis peruviana) and Chinese Lantern (Physalis alkekengi), not the same plant, but the first is often called the latter, both of these are recent discoveries in the garden. Although we knew we had cape gooseberries (named after the Cape of Good Hope, from where it was introduced to Australia), another couple of plants have just been found in various places. The Chinese Lantern, growing in a crevice along a bed by the espaliered apples and the Great Apricot tree, was a complete surprise. Absolutely poisonous, but very beautiful, its calyx is a brilliant hot orange capsule. Ours had only one such ‘lantern’ on it, but older plants can be covered in them.

All of those weeds we have managed to pull out have ended up on the compost heap, ready to be returned to the soil. Already some of the older compost is being applied to our winter crops.

More on that next time.

Reader feedback:

I see you recommend fathen as being highly palatable and nutritious.. I wonder how you prepared it?? We have ten acres of it! The Weeds of NZ book (Taylor) says it can cause scour and illthrift in livestock.

You mention in the same article a solanum you are not sure about — I guess you have found the answer by now, to me it sounds very like poroporo the NZ native. (S aviculare and S laciniatum). My Weeds book says it is grown commercially in Taranaki for an extract called Solasodine.

Christine & Colin McKenzie
Invercargill, NZ

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