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Melissa Dede, Chris Hunter and Brett King, 10 October 2013

GEORGE MAIN: Thanks a lot for coming along tonight to learn from some of Canberra’s best vegetable gardeners about their skills. My name is George Main. I am a curator here in the People and the Environment program at the National Museum of Australia. I thought I might just start by speaking very briefly about how the Museum came to know Brett, Melissa and Chris.

We started a project the year before last with a few researchers from the University of Canberra. They were interested in working with us to explore this phenomenon of urban farming, urban agriculture that has taken off in Canberra and around the world. They wanted to work on a project with us where we looked at our collection, and in particular at items that relate to agricultural shows around Australia, to think about the way that food and farming were represented on those objects - objects like prize cups, photographs of prize cattle, ribbons, prize certificates and so on - to try to understand what is going on with this new movement around the world and how it relates to some of the more traditional ways we have thought about food and agriculture in Australia. What we did was we made contact with the National Capital Show Society and asked them who their regular contributors to the garden produce section were. They gave us a list of names, and three of those names were Brett King, Melissa Dede and Chris Hunter.

I thought I would very quickly show you what the website looks like. Here you will see Brett up in the banner and one of the objects there that we explore. We visited their gardens and took some great photos, and all those photos are online. I encourage you to go and have a look at the terrific photos of their gardens and the other gardeners who we got to know as well. We also went to the judging of the show in February this year and took photos there, and the show last year as well. There are great images and stories that our gardeners tell. We have audio recordings of them talking about their gardening. Then there is the exhibition component with the many objects from our collection. I encourage you to have a look at that.

I might hand over now to the main attractions and I will start with Melissa first. Melissa is very much involved in the Kaleen community garden. Her kids, some of whom are here tonight, are also involved. She is also running the kitchen garden program at the Brindabella Christian College. She is one of the most talented and passionate gardeners and produce maker I have ever met so I am sure you will enjoy learning from her tonight. Thank you.

MELISSA DEDE: Thank you, George. As George said, I am part of Canberra organic growers who run all of the community gardens here in Canberra. I think we have about 12 gardens. We became members about four years ago maybe going on five. The first year we were part of them when they said that a community garden is opening up in Kaleen, Mum and I put our names on the list and straight away we were in there.

Now four years on, and we might see some pictures later, we have a fantastic garden there from a paddock that was just goats and next to the high school that was being unused so we have taken that over. From there we have made a lot of friends. At the community garden we have a morning tea every week where we invite people who are around to come during the day and they come and join in. We share a lot of books, seeds and produce sometimes, extra plants and that sort of thing. It comes from where I was working in my back yard, fences around you all day and not seeing anyone else to having made a lot more friends now and being able to share knowledge that I had.

I have been gardening - Mum and Dad had a bit of a veggie garden, and I took on a corner in their garden and grew raspberries. The first thing I ever made was raspberry jam. I probably only got one jar, not very many. From there it has grown. I got my own place when I was about 19 and from there I had a veggie garden and that was it. I have always gardened since, so quite a while now.

I enjoy a lot of the heirloom plants. I have moved on from the standard things you can just buy in the supermarkets. I found that from reading more magazines and books I got more interested in open pollinated type varieties of heirlooms where you can grow your own seeds. I moved on then to growing quite a lot of things and fell in love with tomatoes. They are the easiest thing to do. They are my love. I have about 30 different varieties that I grow every year. Every year I grow at least one of each or several of them.

At the community garden I have about 100 square metres. We have erected Rio mesh that they use under the concrete things. My husband has a business in landscape things so he picked those up. We get them for free and made arches. What I found with those is that I can grow more vegetables that way. I will grow pumpkins up one side and beans, cucumbers and things on the other side. I sewed up a piece of shade cloth and used two pieces of Rio mesh end to end so it is quite a nice large one. There are some photographs that I can show you later. I put a netting over that and grew the tomatoes under it because I had a lot of trouble with the budderim moth which is a bit of a problem. Because we have so many people in our community garden, it attracts more of them and they will get into things like corn. They come in as a moth at night and attack a green fruit. They also attack the ripe fruit. We have even had them burrowing in stems as well and plant dying. Seventy 70 per cent of our crop used to get destroyed so by putting a shade cloth over, it’s just a piece overlap so you can walk in and out, that has helped. I am using white shade cloth which allows more light through than the green one. It does raise the temperature a bit as well, which will help your tomatoes ripen, so it’s a great way to protect them. If you have a small area you can do a couple of stakes and put a piece of shade cloth over. You don’t have to have a walk. Not many people grow as many tomatoes as I would.

Tomatoes - I like to grow a variety of different sorts from small ones right through to the large ones so that you are getting different types being available throughout the year. They will keep cropping from early on until late although they are not going to ripen until it’s warm enough. In Canberra it might be possible just before Christmas but mostly after Christmas when you get a glutton of them, unfortunately, and that’s where preserving comes into it. I find the best way to grow the tomatoes here in Canberra is to start them early in about July - I do it probably about the end of July.

From my seeds that I save I will choose what seeds are really good shape, the largest ones. If I have a sheet of seeds that I save, I will show you a simple method, no mess - squeeze out the seeds, spread them over with a teaspoon on a piece of paper, write the name and the date. I have purple Cherokee that were done in March 2010. That’s the sort of time of year these ones would be available. They are a very large one. This variety has won a prize in the show.

It is very difficult to win prizes in the show, getting the particular types of heirlooms. We might touch on that when we talk more about judges are looking for in the tomatoes. It’s pretty tricky to get a variety which is what the judges are looking for. You can have beautiful tomatoes but with the insides of certain types, what they are looking for is a bit tricky. This one is a winner. That’s a simple way of storing those seeds. It’s easy to fold up. I have hundreds of sheets in a shoe box. They don’t take up as much space.

That just dries in the full sun. I have a sunny room and I put them in the full sun. When that’s dry, fold it up and put it away for the following year. You can cut pieces out, as you can see I have. If you wanted to plant the whole lot, if they were all fairly good seeds, I can just tear a sheet, put it in, cover it with only a fine layer of soil and a heated mat is the best thing. You can buy heated trays these days with thermostat control with covered lids. I am lucky in that I have a glasshouse, just a small one - great idea but no good when you have hail, unfortunately. You have to keep repairing them. But there are poly-type ones. There are plenty of cheap plastic ones you can buy around. The boxes you can get without heating and you can even put them on top of a hot water system.

As long as they have good full sun and you water them regularly when they are small - they have to stay moist. The best thing about that is they will be up in about four days on a very nice warm bed. You don’t have to wait weeks to see they are going to be up. If you are planting them in the ground, I tend to find you will lose them. You get self-seeded ones come up and you are not sure what you have planted - being compost you can’t always tell whether the seeds have died off in the compost and a lot of the time they don’t, they re-sprout. Tomatoes are notorious for it.

When planting them, using a good compost is important. I water with Seasol, which is a great plant strengthener. It’s not a food so it’s important to understand that you need to feed them as well regularly but not too high in nitrogen because you will get too much leaf growth. Sulphated potash is really important. That also is a plant strengthener and also sweetens the flavour of the tomatoes.

I leave mine in pots so they will go from seedling into maybe a small pot and then maybe to a larger plant and leave them in that until they flower. What happens if they are root bound in. It doesn’t do any damage to the plant but it shocks it into flowering earlier so you will produce a flower much sooner and then you can plonk it in the ground. Once it has set those little buds, you can put it in the ground. If it’s earlier than say October, cover them of course. You can buy shade cloth. You can put sheets on - as long as it doesn’t touch the plant - and take it off every day if you have something like a sheet.

You can plant them out probably best around Melbourne Cup day because it’s probably safe that there is no frost. But it doesn’t hurt, because we can get the odd frost. That’s a great time to put them out. The bigger they are at that time, the more you are going to get, the earlier you get them in the ground. Two weeks difference on Tigerella tomatoes can be a difference of about seven kilos of tomatoes. So it’s quite a lot. They produce about 20 kilos on that plant. The earlier you plant them, the better because our days are short.

Going into gluttons of tomatoes, if you have too many and you can’t process quickly, they are great to freeze. If you have no bugs and things like that, wash them, de-stork them and put them in bags straight in the freezer. You can then take them out and process them in this. Basically this removes the skin and seeds, which tend to make it bitter. I find putting them in raw is a lot of work. It’s easier to pop them into a preserving pan and cook them until they soften a lot more and also reducing that water content too. When you then run them through here, you can also add other things like sometimes I have too many zucchinis. You can bulk up the mix and add in a few zucchinis when you are cooking it - and onion.

I tend to keep away from garlic. There are some problems – I haven’t confirmed it but a lot of people say there are problems with botulism with garlic putting it in to certain things. I have used it but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, just in the fact there is a problem with that. But you can make a Passata sauce very easily adding lots of different vegetables. I find that with the zucchini you don’t taste too much in it. It will give a slightly different colour so it might be a bit darker, but with heirloom tomatoes I have so many different colours you don’t always particularly get red. You will get a dark brown colour through to red to a purple colour, depending on what variety is the most at the time. I have to run it through this one a couple of times just to get a really nice, dry waste mix so that you are not losing all the liquid. The more you cook it, the denser and concentrated the sauce will be.

When you actually go to bottle it, sterilise the bottles first. The dishwasher is pretty good at sterilising and clean and label free is important for the method I use because the Italian method was to pop them in water and boil them for so many hours. I did it once before. We had trouble because water would leak in. The easiest method is, once bottled, you leave a head space. For anything you are bottling for shows, jams and sauce, it’s about a centimetre. That head space allows for expansion when it’s heating. Put the sauce in hot, so I would run it through that mill and then re-boil it again to make sure it’s super hot. Bottles are hot as well so the best place is to wash them, rinse them and put them in the oven at 100 degrees for ten minutes. Leave the oven on at that 100 degrees. If you then fill the bottles with the hot sauce, cap it, put them on a tray is the easiest thing and stand them upright and put them in the oven again for one hour at that 100 degrees. That then is the second preserving. You have to with tomatoes because it’s a low acid and you will get botulism or they will explode. I can imagine - I haven’t done it yet but I have some very funny stories of exploding rotten tomatoes all through patches, if you can imagine what a mess that will be. Thank you very much for listening. I hope you have some tips. There will be some tasting food. I have a few things to buy if you are interested tonight, some home cooking that I have done. Thank you. [applause]

GEORGE MAIN: Thanks, Melissa. I should have said at the start there will be lots of time to ask questions after our three presenters have spoken so keep the questions in mind and we will return a bit later.

Now I will introduce Chris, who has been a steward at the Canberra Show for about 15 years in the garden produce section. He is an avid gardener in Fraser. He is going to talk a bit about his gardening and the ideas behind what he does, and then he will share a skill, as Melissa just shared many skills.

CHRIS HUNTER: Good evening. I was born in south-east London during the post-war years when growing one’s own vegetables and fruit became a very necessary need due to the lack of supply and money. Community allotments were around all sorts of places using all available land, for example, along railway tracks and recreational areas, and indeed were similar to the community programs around now. My father grew edibles to feed the family and there was as little as possible wasted, something which has stayed with me throughout my life.

Upon migrating to Australia, I continued my father’s tradition of home growing and enjoy the satisfaction which it brings. My 1200-metre block is on the northern slopes of Mount Rogers. Besides the house it consists of a water feature, shrubs, annuals, eucalyptus, pistachio and native frangipani at the front. We are lucky on the northern slopes that we are pretty well frost free, apart from the really severe ones. Both sides of the block have passionfruit, one on the eastern side of the house on the western side of the fence and vice versa on the other side.

On the rear wall of the house, which is facing due north, we have some spelorated lemon and grapefruit. Then there is a large grassed area bordered by a conifer hedge screen leading down to the vegetable growing areas where there are apple trees grafted with several varieties, plum, pomegranate and another lemon are also growing in this area. There is a chook yard further west so there are eggs for all of us and company and a plentiful supply of manure to enrich the soil for vegetable production. Most of this enrichment happens over the winter months.

We have supported the Royal Canberra Show for many years with my wife, daughters and now son-in-law entering cookery, garden and other exhibits into the show. My entry into show competition stemmed from making a comment as an observer wandering around on the Sunday afternoon - the pavilion at that stage had no air conditioning or refinements like that so on a Sunday afternoon things are getting pretty tired. I commented in a normal sort of voice, ‘Geez, our tomatoes are better looking than those.’ I got a tap on the shoulder by a steward who heard my remark and asked me why I didn’t enter. Well the following year I did - and I won. I have the ribbon to prove it.

From then on I have been an avid supporter of the show. This means I need to pay extra special attention to my own backyard garden, timing the planting to coincide harvest for the show is vital. We rotate and enrich the vegetable patches every season, paying particular attention to sunlight and those westerly winds. Flowers and flowering shrubs are a vital component close to the vegetable growing areas encouraging the bees to do what they do best.

On the afternoon prior to the show I gather in the harvest, everything we have available to enter in so many different classes. It is of outmost importance to read the schedules very carefully, screening for those tomatoes which are of the same size, colour and weight; the eggs which are the same shape and colour and are shown with the point down; the cucumbers which are uniform in length and colour; the rhubarb, again uniform in length and colour; and so it goes on for lemons, apples, pomegranates and one of our judges’ favourites - eggplant. We take spares to the show just in case there is a damaged piece which needs replacing for staging. Those summer storms always occur one or two days at the wrong time, and the tomatoes are the fruit which suffer in the most severe manner. The cold rain on the warm fruit quickly causes it to split.

The show schedule includes all the information which is necessary and must be read carefully to ensure no disqualification. For example, stems should be removed from the tomatoes to ensure there are no cracks on the top. None of that should be evident. Some tips which I am happy to share: after harvesting beans I roll them in newspaper tightly. We have to stage more often than not 12 beans for the entry so put 14 or 15 in there all the same sort of length, roll them up tightly in newspaper, pop them in a crisper overnight and they stay like that ready for judging. We clean the eggs with a damp cloth to free them of all soil and inspection for defects - tips of the trade.

The common coat hanger is wonderful - you can use dozens of these in the garden. Indeed, just by pulling them apart like so, you can put them down beside or inside the dwarf beans because they generally speaking grow to about a foot high. That gives them that bit of support from those windy days which we cop in Fraser. They are also very handy to put amongst your flowers et cetera because it stops the birds landing on them. Once they get their heads knocking on the wire, they exit fairly quickly.

Finally, nothing beats that prize card or ribbon for bragging rights - and we all have them. It can also be the encouragement to get back into the competition for the following year or to challenge that person who made a comment at the show about them having better produce at home. Thank you. [applause]

GEORGE MAIN: Thanks, Chris. I loved your description of your garden that you started with. If you want to see that garden, go to the website and there are some great photos there.

Our last speaker tonight is Brett King, who is an avid back yard gardener in the Gungahlin area. Brett is currently chief steward of the garden produce section at the Canberra Show and he’s been a steward there for ten years. You will see the photo up here where he is talking to the judge at the show - I think that was last year. He has accompanied judges as part of his work as a steward and learnt from them. He is going to share some of those insights tonight. Thanks.

BRETT KING: Good evening everybody. As George said, myself, my wife and family live in Gungahlin out at Amaroo. When we moved into our place 13 years ago it was rock. Since then, some areas still haven’t improved but the vegetable garden was the first thing that went in. Like Chris mentioned earlier, I got into the show exactly the same way as he did, by walking past saying, ‘My stuff is better than this,’ and someone saying to me, ‘Well have a go.’ So I did, but unlike Chris I didn’t win the next year. It took me a few years to be able to succeed but it’s the challenge. I really enjoy the comradeship with the other people, learning from them, et cetera.

We have always had a garden in our family, like Chris although we are not from England. I come from central New South Wales. My father always had a vegetable garden, again to feed us. Not being well off, nothing went to waste and from then it has always been in my blood to feed us. You can’t beat the taste. To me, the highlight of my week is a Saturday and Sunday morning when I get up at daylight. There is nobody else around and I just go to the garden. It is probably going to extreme saying it’s what I live for but it is so relaxing to try new methods and to experiment.

I am always learning - I either read or from people at the show. There is so much knowledge. If anyone is interested in joining us at the show to be a steward or anything else. Some of the things I have learnt there - Chris mentioned the bean trick. I was going to mention that in my talk, but he stole my thunder. He gave that to me a couple of years ago. Another thing I learnt just the other day is when you are pruning laterals out of tomatoes - I wasn’t aware; I haven’t tried it yet - when you prune your tomato, if you stick them into the ground apparently they will grow. I haven’t tried it yet, but that was reported to me from my sister who is not a great gardener but she’s also trying to learn. There is always some learning and some different things to pick up on.

I probably learn a lot of my gardening from talking to other people. I am also a member of the Horticultural Society of Canberra where there is so much knowledge in there. It’s from talking basically gaining people’s tips and ideas. One thing I have learnt of late - I have always believed that bees are the most important things in the garden and I read somewhere years ago that if we didn’t have any bees left in earth, the world would end. One thing I have just learnt lately is that one of these well-known chemicals Confidor - nearly every gardener at some time would have used it to control some pests - does not kill the bees, it makes them disorientated. It has been banned by the Royal Horticultural Society in England for some years, and they are looking at doing it in Canberra. What led me on to this point is that I am sort of going - I don’t know about greenie or anything else - I am really going organic because I see so many more benefits from organic gardening.

Like Chris has a chook pen, I have a chook pen. They do all my work in the gardens. Like he says, your soil preparation starts in winter. Mine does too. I will pull everything out, except that I will have some beds saved for my winter crops, my boracics. The rest of them will get covered with leaf mulch, grass clippings, anything scraped out of the chook pen, and I will let them sit for a month or so. Then with each individual bed I will then put the chooks into for two weeks. They will dig and turn all that soil in and I will move them onto the other beds until coming up to now they are all shut out of it again just to run around the lawn, and basically that’s the only fertiliser I will use from now on. I may give them a boost with, as Melissa said, Seasol, a plant tonic and I may use a bit of blood and bone, but that is basically all I use now. I don’t go for anything chemical except, I tell a lie, just before showtime when you are trying to get your produce good, I will go for one of these quick liquid feeds and give that to them two weeks beforehand - they look better. They are not going to taste any better or anything else, it’s just the appearance of them looking better. That’s the only time I will use a chemical fertiliser.

I have learnt just of late about all the hoverflies, the ladybirds and everything else. I learnt a bad lesson two years ago when I had all these ladybirds in my garden. I thought they were the good ones. Someone said you count the spots on the back - I can’t remember the numbers now - but they were the bad ones and they just about decimated my crop until I was told. I was thinking I was doing the right thing – I had read somewhere ladybirds were good - but it was just through talking to somebody I found out they were not.

That’s one of the things with the show - just talking in general and the learning. There is nothing better, as Chris says, than the ribbon. We were even talking before about how he has a ribbon there that I have never been able to achieve and I am going to go for it this year. Whether I get it or not, I have been trying for the last five years but it’s just the fun or trying to get something like that, and the talking point.

When we are at the show up there with the judge, a judge will look at the produce for commercial - the first thing how is this going to look commercially. Is it a uniform shape? Chris mentioned before 12 beans. Nearly all categories will have a certain number: three zucchinis, three cucumbers, 10 cocktail tomatoes - all various things. You look for uniformity and commercial. You look at the exhibit and think that looks good, they are all the same size, they are all unmarked, they are fresh, they are crisp - that’s the first thing the judge will look at.

Then the next thing he may do in different categories if he has X exhibits that are pretty well even, he will cut them. Some judges, and again I was talking to Chris before about how it depends on the day what a judge is looking for, will look for uniformity in a cut tomato and each side will mirror each other. Another judge will like seeds, another judge won’t like seeds. We really don’t know until the day what the judge is looking for.

For the last couple of years at the Royal Canberra Show we have used judges that have been used at the Sydney Royal Easter Show where it is top notch competition up there so we have some pretty knowledgeable judges coming through Canberra. The reason we have gone to that stage is because the number of entries we are getting each year is just growing. I should have brought one particular photo of our pavilion last year. Even after the hot heat wave which decimated a lot of gardens, some areas of mine included, our benches were still packed and the hall was still full and we still had lots of comments.

Chris also mentioned when entering into the show you need to read the schedule down to the last point - number of items per exhibit, the size. You may have a zucchini under 20 centimetres. With the number of entries we are getting at the Canberra Show now, last year we had to measure some entries. It’s getting so close in the judging, these two are 20 and this one is 21, we had to say, ‘I am sorry it is not as per schedule so we can’t judge that.’ That is how things are going. So you do need to read your schedule for size, quantity and then your collections. If it’s a collection it will say six different varieties. That will mean not just six individual fruit or vegetables, you need a set of tomatoes of three, a set of cucumbers, a set of zucchinis, 12 beans - read your schedule.

Going back to the heat, one thing I am looking for myself is to really grow the student section at the Canberra Show and it might come from people like you or anyone else we can get out there. As you will be aware, January is school holidays and the show is the third week in February. So if the school gardens haven’t been kept alive over January, it is very hard for the schools to enter. We are looking to encourage educational things. We plan to contact the schools but we still don’t know how to do it because of the different regimes. What we have found difficult - I am just off on a tangent – is that there is no central contact; we have to go to each school individually. I think that’s all. I have been given time. Thank you. [applause]

GEORGE MAIN: That’s great. Thanks, Brett. If anyone is thinking of entering in the show next year, I imagine it’s a good idea to have a look at the website for details.

BRETT KING: The schedule will be on the website. It is just getting finalised at the moment.

GEORGE MAIN: We are going to open up for questions soon, but I thought I might ask our panel if they would like to speak very briefly, maybe 30 seconds each, to the collections you have brought in in front of you. Brett had a wonderful photo in an album there which I thought he might like to share with people.

BRETT KING: You may need to come up later and have a look. This is our first house. We did have two houses in Amaroo and we outgrew this house. If you can see that watermelon there, that was my first ever first prize. That was my son who is now 20. That watermelon started off being self-sown in a compost bin and I nurtured it - and that was the result. I love that photo because you can see the yard. There is a bit of lawn up the back, no paving done but around the side of the house the veggie garden was there and fully productive.

These are some of the prize ribbons. These are the champion ones that we all strive for. As I mentioned before, I have some here before for horticultural produce collection. That’s a collection where you put out some vegetables, some jams and a sauce. We need six different across the hall. The hall has preserves, cookery, vegetables, flowers and different things. You need six with no more than three from the one section. I have been lucky enough to win that.

I have also won the best single exhibit for my corn. I have won it a couple of times actually. I like my corn. It’s probably my favourite. It gets special attention. But the one I want is the one Chris has up there, which I believe is the best one - it’s the best collection. That’s where you have to get a set of six vegetables all of of prime condition so you have to cover all aspects. That’s the one I am after.

MELISSA DEDE: I have only brought a few of the prizes here. My children also enter things so I have a few of theirs there. I only have one ribbon to display. That was a bit of a fluke - that was champion condiments. It won jams, spreads and preserves. From all the entries that went in, it was the best entry overall of those entries so it was amazing. It was the first year I had gone back after doing vegetables for a few years. I thought I am always making these things, I will just take a box full of jars and things. So I sat up until 3 o’clock and made the mustard pickles, which I had never made before. I put it on the shelf and I was looking at all the other ones and thinking mine just looks terrible, the colour was so pale and everything. But when they went through and tasted it, I happened to be sitting there watching the judges and I saw it go through - and it won the first prize. I had wandered off - they were taking photography on the day for this project so I kept getting taken off here, there and everywhere. I walked outside and when I came back in later in the afternoon and they told me I had won the ribbon, it blew me away. This is the first time I had gone back in and done it.

There is a lot of photos here which you can all come up and have a look at. I am still striving to win a few more prizes in that area. Hopefully I would like to win the collection one. I have plenty of seconds, two years running now I have been doing it. That’s making all the different preserves and having a different range of different things. So you might have jams, jellies, pickles, maybe olives - a whole heap of different things. I have done that two years in a row. The first time I did it I got second and last year second. I keep getting beaten. The lady who wins it is absolutely fabulous. She does fantastic beautiful labels and decorates the bottles. It’s a real treat to do. They don’t open and taste these ones, it is all on presentation and particular shapes of bottles and things that you use as well. I have been told to keep trying. The lovely cooking teacher when I was at school who got me into it, there is a photograph of her here somewhere. That’s what started me off when I was in the teen years.

CHRIS HUNTER: Bragging rights - I have three ribbons here: one for best fruit entry, one for the best collection and one for the best single exhibit. Well I am not the best single exhibit, because without my wife there is no way known I could have got these. It really is a lot more help and knowledge of gardening that we both have been able to put together.

One tip if you have excess beans, we use the triple six method: 600 millilitres of water, 600 grams of beans, six minutes in a microwave, run them under cold water, dry them and freeze them. Then just like your normal supermarket frozen produce they can come back out again. Otherwise our methods of glutton is passing on to neighbours, friends, family and so on. Thank you.

QUESTION: We have terrible problems with possums and peacocks just coming in and digging and eating everything that pops up, except garlic. I was just wondering if those coat hangers might be a way of constructing a cage or if you have any other suggestions or tips for protecting our produce.

CHRIS HUNTER: I can take this one on board slightly. There is an old wives tale about mothballs, scatter around naphthalene flakes. That is one method, but I am not sure about that. As far as the coat hangers go, we have a tub with some birds of paradise which are only now two years old. We haven’t had a flower yet but this year hopefully. But they were destroyed totally by the parrots. What I finished up doing was putting a circle of hangers right around the pot and that has cured it. We don’t get birds landing in there because they won’t land on top of the coat hanger and they just move away. As far as the possums go, you have to use those other methods. There are professional people that deal with those for you. You have to be very careful because they are protected species.

QUESTION: I have two dogs. That seems to do the trick.

MELISSA DEDE: Perhaps enclosing it all is the better method. I have seen a few on TV who had the same problems with wild animals, kangaroos and things like that - just a metal frame and using a shade cloth or wire stretched nicely and that allows the light to get through well. That’s probably the only way unless you want to get the possums removed. But generally there is more than one. We have a few living in our roof unfortunately, but at least my garden is down the road so I don’t generally have a problem with that.

QUESTION: I didn’t realise this was about showing at agricultural shows so different requirements on how you grow or what you select, but to me it’s a bit disturbing that the shows are encouraging or requiring everything to be uniform. Coles and Woolies do that. They sell you bananas that have to be a foot long. I want small bananas, small apples. I don’t want everything to be like it came out of a plastic box. I am a bit disturbed that the show perpetuates that, that everything is to be uniform and therefore it encourages waste and discarding anything that might have a slight thing. It does disturb me that that is being promoted by the show.

GEORGE MAIN: With these alternative ideas arising about what good produce is, I was wondering whether some of the judges are starting to respond to some of those concerns and interests in how they then judge at the shows.

BRETT KING: What we look for at the show is the best produce. The best produce we are learning every day is not by looks, it’s what they taste like. We know things taste a lot better than they look, especially out of a vegetable garden. I don’t know - I will take it on board - whether we can get judges to taste everything else. I suppose if you want to win these ribbons and say I am the best gardener, you pick out your best stuff and take it to the show.

QUESTION: I wanted to pick up on the previous question when you touched on the use of heirloom seeds, et cetera. What role do you play in promoting the use of those goods as such? We talked about the judges responsibilities but what more can we do? Do you think there is a shift now more towards the use of heirloom products and organic farming, which you also talked about?

BRETT KING: I am glad you mentioned that. One thing with the Canberra Show is that we have had a particular heirloom seed company from Queensland who is providing us with some small sponsorship. That will be offered as prizes, some seeds from them, to encourage more heirloom growing. We are supporting them. It is only our second year. Last year they came on board with the centenary show. This is our first year really with them. We are trying to build a relationship with them to grow their heirloom and, as I believe, my personal view the better sort of vegetable. We are giving out some of their stock as prizes to encourage them and have their catalogues free. That is one small step we are taking.

QUESTION: I have just started a vegetable garden and you mentioned you had an interesting corn. I wondered if you had any hot tips for growing corn and in general any other hot tips for growing vegetables.

BRETT KING: For corn, probably the most important thing for me is to grow it in a block and not in a straight line. Corn self-pollinates. When you look at a corn plant, the top will drop pollen down onto the silks and, if it’s in a block, you have more chance of the pollen falling down amongst the plants. If it’s in a straight line and the wind is blowing this way, it is going to blow all the pollen away and not fall on the silk. A second thing is don’t plant them too close together to allow that pollen to drop onto each individual silk, and a lot of water and lots of mulch. That’s all it is. That’s how I seem to go.

CHRIS HUNTER: I have a very simple answer: buy a copy of The Canberra Gardener written by the Canberra Horticultural Society, numerous editions now. When I first came to Canberra in 1974 we got our 40 shrubs, ten trees and a copy of The Canberra Gardener which contains very valuable information pertaining to Canberra.

BRETT KING: One other tip I meant to say before: when you have seeds like these are beetroot or silverbeet that is actually a cork - they are a seed but you could call it a cork - soak your seeds overnight. It just assists in germination. You wanted a another tip for something else. I meant to mention it before.

MELISSA DEDE: I agree, silver beet and beetroot have similar looking seeds and best germination ever. Going to seeds as well, a lot of people have a lot of trouble growing carrots. Seed packets bought can often be very old, and carrot seeds need to be extremely fresh. The best thing to do, as we found with the community garden - I never had any luck at home growing them. In the community garden we are all trying different varieties. We could then see quickly in a short amount of time the result of testing things, because we were all doing different things, to see what was the best thing. We found that letting it to go to seed, harvesting that seed and planting it straight away is the greatest way to get it. There are various varieties. It depends on what you want to produce. I think chadonnay is probably quite a good one. I don’t show carrots very often. I am not very good at getting them to germinate sometimes. It is also watering them too. Some people will follow moon planting. That has been proven sometimes in the way we have planted some things, the same with the corn.

Moon planting, I did a bit of a practice with the first year we had the garden and planted a tonne of corn right at the right time - I can’t remember now which it is - but you have to know when the moon is up as to when to plant particular crops. Some will be flowering above the ground, some will be root crops, and the same with the carrots. I got an astounding amount of corn to germinate, whereas I did one a week or two later as a second crop and I barely got good germination – it was the same seed pack et. Nothing was different. We did the same method, same soil, everything was much the same. We tried a bit of charcoal which was something we had read about. We had excellent germination, a fantastic crop. I think I entered them in and won a prize doing six collection vegetables, which is extremely hard to do. You guys would agree. It’s hard to get good quality produce and getting six different varieties. That was the first time I had ever done it. Corn was one of the extra things I had that was quality enough that I could enter for that one.

QUESTION: Is it necessary to pinch out the tips of growing tomatoes?

MELISSA DEDE: Pinch out the tips? For me, I don’t bother. If you want to reduce the crop and you want to allow say more light in to the plant, you want to get say slightly bigger fruit and less to run through a machine and freeze or bottle or whatever, I don’t do it because I want as many as I can for a long period of time. You do reduce your crop if you do that. If you don’t want a lot of tomatoes, that’s best. My Mum, who is here today, does prune because there is only the two of them so they don’t want to make too much sauces and things like that. That’s where it comes in handy if you want to train it a bit more. It’s a bit harder to tie them up. The heirloom varieties tend to be quite tall. You need to stake them well and tie them up.

The method I use - you can come down and have a look a bit closer – is that underneath the shade cloth I have the Rio. I don’t tie them much any more unless I have them in the centre of that area and I plant them along the Rio on the outside and I can just weave them in the Rio and they grow up. Eventually with the shade cloth, I would go between the wire and the shade cloth and they were growing right up over my head. So they are too tall for stakes. Unless you have some other method to do them you would need to cut them down in some varieties. You can buy a lot of shorter varieties. There is one that doesn’t need staking, produces all at once and you can use them for sun-dried tomatoes –a principe borghese tomato is fairly small. There are certain ones you can get that you don’t need to trim down as well so varieties are another thing.

QUESTION: Purely to reduce the crop.

MELISSA DEDE: It’s to reduce the crop, yes, and also so you don’t have to do as much tying up and you can manage the plant a little easier. For me, I don’t bother and I have done that for 20-odd years so I am not fussed about that sort of thing.

GEORGE MAIN: I have a question for the audience. Does anyone here have any hot tips they would like to share with anyone else? I know there is a lot of knowledge and expertise in the room. Is anyone game to volunteer something?

QUESTION: I was interested in the lady who spoke about the possums. I have had similar problems and tried everything - wasabi spray, the lot. The only thing I found that works is a product called Strayban that comes off the electricity. It emits a very high pitched sound, which they don’t like. They used to eat my roses and mess up my deck. They don’t come there any more. I just keep this on all the time. I haven’t got shares in it or anything but it is the only thing that has stopped the possums from coming too close and messing things up. I like the possums apart from that.

GEORGE MAIN: Thank you very much everyone for coming and thank you to our panellists for sharing so much of their knowledge. [applause]

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Date published: 01 January 2018

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