Plums, Preserved Three Ways…

Plums are wonderfully diverse and versatile stone fruit. European plums (Prunus domestica) and Japanese plums (P. salicina) are the most common varieties grown, but there are also Damson Plums (P. insititia) and Cherry plums (P. cerasifera). They grow beautifully in cool, temperate and mediterranean climates, however you need to choose your variety carefully as they can require significant chill hours. Japanese plum varieties tend to have lower chill requirements (275-550 chill hours). My Satsuma and Santa Rosa varieties require 500-550 chill hours in comparison to my D’Agen Prune, Green Gage and President (European plum varieties) that require upwards of 800-900 chill hours.


They are a small to medium sized tree, 3-5m tall and can crop in as few as 3 years. They are very easy to manage and well worth planting. I have pruned and trained my trees in a vase shape with 4-5 main ‘arms’. I keep the trees trimmed to about 2m tall. This makes it easier for me to pick the fruit and also to put a net over if the birds are starting to take more than their fair share.

I have my trees growing in the chicken yard. They get irrigated a couple of times a week in the summer months and receive very little additional fertiliser. The chickens do a great job of keeping any pest or fruit fly populations down and fertilise the trees as they wander around. To stop the chickens from scratching or ‘excavating’ around the base of my fruit trees, I have place a ‘fan’ of old house bricks radiating out from each trunk.

Once I have picked off the last of the fruit, I prune any excess grown off my trees, to keep the shape and height I want. I find maintenance pruning in summer is best, as I don’t get the excessive regrowth like you do after a winter prune.

I love plums – of the seven varieties I grow, Satsumas are my favourite. They are a fabulous old fashioned variety that produce well in our area. As with most plum varieties, they need a suitable pollinator. I have two 8 year old Satuma trees and one Santa Rosa tree the same age. While the Santa Rosa is partially self-fertile, it does crop better with cross pollination. The Satsuma needs to be pollinated by either a Santa Rosa or Mariposa plum.

If you have enough room, planting multiple varieties is of great benefit as it extends your fruiting season. The Santa Rosa gives me lovely juicy, amber fleshed, sweet eating plums in late January. The Satsuma gives me slightly more tart, dark red fleshed, blood plums in late February.

Satsumas are a reliable cropping plum. This year I picked over 36kg of tree ripened fruit, off my two trees. This gave me plenty to eat and preserve, also some to give to friends and neighbours. You don’t find the fruit in the shops. Probably because they aren’t shiny and red. The best tasting fruit is rarely shiny and red… The Satsuma plum skin can be a little mottled dark red/green with a characteristic ‘bloom’ or whiteish powder on the skin. Beneath this plain exterior lies a gorgeous dark red, juicy flesh. Perfect for eating and can be made into fabulous jam, sauces, pickles and preserves. I look forward each year to making plum jam, Savoury plum sauce and to preserving plum halves in Vacola Jars.

I tend to make a lot of jam (11kg this year), as we eat plenty of it and a jar of this makes a wonderful gift. When making jam, I like to only use just enough sugar so that the jam will set. Depending on the fruit I will use a 50-75% ratio of sugar to fruit. With plums, I use 60%. It sets well and you get more of a ‘true’ plum flavour rather than a sickeningly sweet spread. I don’t like to add lemon juice to any of my jams, as I find it changes the texture and mouthfeel of the jam. Once the jam is ready, I put the hot jam mixture into hot sterilised jars, so I find it keeps well without extra sugar or lemon juice.

I use my paternal grandmothers recipe for making Spicy/Savoury Plum Sauce. This is great served with quiche, cold meats, sausages or chops. I trialled marinading some of our homegrown lamb ribs this year – they were delicious! So now, I put the marinade in with the ribs before they get vacumn packed. This makes it much easier (and less messy) while also halving my cooking prep time. I have only made 5kg of this sauce… I hope it is enough! This year I was also able to use homegrown onions, ginger and garlic in my recipe, so very proud. I bottle the sauce in 375ml beer bottles. I have a bottle capping tool, so find this a quick and easy way to seal my bottles of sauce.

I try to bottle as much fruit (Plums, Pears, Peaches and Figs) in the summer as we can use for the rest of the year. I’m hoping 8kg of plums is enough… I like to bottle the plums in halves, slicing off each cheek. I stack them neatly in the vacola jar with the cut side down. This time, I have used a light syrup (1 cup of sugar in 3 cups of water) so that I can use the plums for both savoury and sweet dishes. The majority of my vacola jars are either #27 or #31, both work well for fruit. I have 10 small jars (#20s) which I have used to bottle smaller batches of the plums this year. I have about 20 muscovy drake ducklings that will soon be put in the freezer. Slow roasted duck with blood plum sauce is very yummy! The plums will also be delicious made into fruit crumble (topped with icecream or custard) on a cold winters night or as a special desert treat in a plum clafoutis.

There are so many recipes to try! I have just found a recipe for pickled plums. Maybe with my last three kilo I might give that a go… So really, three ways is a good start but you can preserve them in an infinite number of ways!

Renovating the Vegetable Patch

I have been reading a book – always a dangerous thing… it leads to ideas!

The book is called “grow a sustainable diet: planning and growing to feed ourselves and the earth” by Cindy Conner.  Firstly I borrowed the book from a friend, then I bought my own copy. I love its detail, information, ideas, references and instructions. Please note – I am not getting any reimbursement for recommending it, I just think its a great resource for someone who is serious about growing their own food.

My current focus is on growing food for my family. Healthy, nutritious, perennial, as well as annual vegetables and several varieties of fruit. If possible 90% of it. Growing that volume of annual vegetables takes a lot of time and effort. They require a considerable amount of space, especially if you wish to feed a family and have enough extra to give to friends/neighbors or preserve. As we are not strictly seasonal eaters (we like to have tomato sauce and bottled fruit all year round) I am keen to grow enough to freeze, pickle, bottle and preserve. Tomatoes are a big staple for us and I have been buying a few boxes, late in the season, from a local Italian farmer to make tomato passatta. I’d like to grow enough of my own.

One of the first things that struck me about Cindy’s journey, was how many times she has re-planned and re-designed her garden – and why not? It makes sense really. If your space isn’t working, change it. It got me thinking about how the focus for our property and needs have changed over the last few years.

Over the past few years, I have considered adding extra beds in the paddock adjoining the orchard (now the food forest) to be able to increase the volume of some staple vegies (such as garlic, potatoes and onions). Weeding, watering and time management have meant these attempts haven’t been terrible successful. I find that each time I create a mono-cultured crop it leads to issues with weeds, pests and frustration.

Photos: Diagram of the old vegetable patch layout and a couple of growing beds

My vegetable patch is a good size – roughly 26m long and 18m wide. It is closely situated to the house for ease of picking and already has irrigation to it. It makes sense to focus my efforts there and re-invent our space. So I started by drawing out an outline of my space, without the constraints of the current infrastructure. Then started to think about what were the positives and negatives of my area and current layout. What were my needs, wants and what did I want to grow, that I have previously been unable to.

Some of the positives
* I have two large Jacaranda trees that provide shade from Summer to Winter for half of the area. They also provide a great micro-climate beneath their canopy. This has become an area where I can grow a few less frost/cold tolerant species during the winter.
* My mature Buddleia windbreak hedge not only stops the cold winter winds from effecting my vegies, but it also provides nectar for birds, butterflies and bees (and gorgeous floral honey).
* We have a good 1 1/2 inch irrigation pipe to provide water on demand. Also a sink area to wash down vegetables before they are taken into the house.
* The site is conveniently close to the house, giving us easy access to produce all year and it has an existing rabbit proof fence.
* I have a small shade house set up to help grow on cuttings and start off seeds.

Some of the Negatives:
* We are starting to have an intrusion of kikuyu from the neighboring paddock, under the buddleia hedge.
* The other half of the area (not shaded by the Jacarandas) bakes in the summer sun. It cooks the plants and dries out the soil.
* The original 4m x 2m beds are too wide and awkward to weed and pick produce with ease.

With a bit of thinking outside the box, the negatives can be easily solved.
If we install a gateway into the neighboring chicken pen and a temporary fence, we can get the chickens to dig up the kikuyu under the shade of the hedge. This will limit/halt its spread into the rest of the vegie patch. However, It must be a very good, sturdy fence as chickens have a habit of being very destructive when let loose in the vegetable patch. Great if you have ordered in a demolition crew but not so good if you have just planted seedlings… I speak from experience…

Photos: My little flock of chickens helping to remove the Kikuyu grass

After mulling over the idea of planting trees to shade the vegetable beds and looking for suitable trees, I’ve come back to the idea of using shade cloth. I won’t have to compete with tree roots and I can made the beds whatever shape and size, then design shade to suit.

Needing more usable growing space, I started playing with the ideas from the book. If I made the beds narrower, changed the orientation, made my paths narrower between beds but allow for a larger access aisle…  The outcome was very interesting. In the same space, I can fit 12 beds 1.5m wide x 5.5m long, which will give me 108m2 growing space – an additional 44m2 growing space.


Photo: 12 beds in the same space as the original 8 – narrower paths and better use of my space.

My initial wood chip paths looked great but broke down over a few years and the weeds began to become an issue. I have already been mowing and whipper snipping to keep it looking tidy. This also helps to reduce the wet feet issue in winter and allow good visuals of any snakes in summer. Instead of re-doing the wood chip paths, as I have done in the past, I am considering a more longterm solution. I like the idea of growing a nitrogen fixing ground cover, possibly white clover as it is a perennial but not quite sure yet. The idea being that the clover will grow on the paths and I can push the mower down the path, collecting the clippings in the catcher, add it to the compost heap then eventually the garden. Sounds good in theory …. so we will wait and see what happens.

With a new plan comes the challenge of reconstructing the area without loosing my existing crops, but also having beds ready for spring planting… ahhh the joys of gardening.

We decided to renovate in 2 stages. The initial stage was done last August. With the old bed layout, we could remove 4 beds on one side of the central path and leave the others. One side had one bed of perennial onions (potato and tree onions), one bed of garlic and a bed of brassicas that I didn’t really want to disturb. The other side only had the one bed of onions and the rest could be sacrificed – we chose that side. I didn’t really want to loose my crop of onions, so decided to try and transplant them, along with a few silverbeet, calendulas and various herb plants. I took a large sod of dirt with each plant and set them aside, wrapped in wet shade cloth, until the new beds were ready.

Photos: Using the rotary hoe, defining the new beds then beginning to plant.

We removed the old sleepers and any leftover plant material, then set about leveling the area with the help of our rotary hoe. Dave worked it at a shallow depth to begin with until we managed a good minimum friable 30cm depth. Once we were happy with the area, we gave it a light raking to fill in any dips and set about marking out the beds. We marked out the corners of each bed with jarrah survey pegs and hand raked the soil from the paths onto the garden beds to make them more defined.

I had worked out a new planting plan and started planting out straight away. I wanted to get a head start with the plants that were more cold tolerant so I didn’t have too much of a hungry gap. I planted lots of broad beans, hoping to eat a few and turn the rest in as green manure. The transplanted onions, silverbeet, calendula and herbs grew well and didn’t seem to worried about the move. I did have a few issues with the newly planted seedlings… my temporary fence had a small hole and the chickens used it to venture into the garden and help themselves… After a bit of swearing and chook chasing, they were banned from the garden and I replanted…

As soon as we harvested the garlic, in November, we set about ripped out the remaining 4 beds. We repeated the process of rotary hoeing the area and then marked out beds and planted. I was careful to make sure I could push the mower down each path, so the path is about 60cm wide to accommodate the mower, rather than my initial planned 50cm.

We have trialled a new way of irrigating the area. In the past I have had very little success with drip-lines, soaker hoses and small individual sprays. Sprinklers on risers within each bed seem to work the best but are difficult when you plant tall crops such as corn. We have gone to 25mm poly and 4 risers 1.2m tall with a Wobble-T head on each riser, equally spaced. These sprinkler heads throw large droplets, 4m in either direction. The sprinkler heads have the benefit of working on low pressure so are great for rural areas. The large droplets limits the amount of water loss by wind, covers the whole area and penetrates the foliage well. Very happy so far.

Photos: The veg beds are progressing nicely. Shadecloth is a must if you want to grow climbing beans in our climate.

We have had a strange season – a mixed bag. A very cool start in Spring, a series of very hot days followed by very cool days and an unseasonal 80mm of rain in February. The garden is not as abundant or fertile as I would like, but that is because I have started again from scratch. I need to be patient, as I have to build the soil, again. I am trying out new ideas and they always take a season to show you if it was worth changing.

Despite the chickens going rouge on two occasions (excavating newly planted seeds and seedlings) the garden is doing well. We had a very slow start but are managing to now eat almost exclusively from our garden or produce swapped with family and neighbours. Overall I am really happy, the garden is starting to look less bare and I have been able to put some excess beans into the freezer. Some crops have been pretty dismal failures, but I have had a lovely small crop of potatoes, lots of cucumbers, silverbeet, lettuce, herbs and now tomatoes, chilli and capsicums… A respectable start.

I am making a greater effort with my record keeping – weighing produce, noting the weather and any rainfall. As the summer rolls on, it is now time to get planning and planting my Autumn/Winter crops.

Lots of time and effort – Yes, but the sense of satisfaction when I make a meal from produce entirely grown on our patch – It is definitely worth it.

2016 – looking back…

We’ve reached our first milestone – Our food forest project is One year old!

As we reached the beginning of December, I started looking back over photos, plans and notes of the food forest. It has been satisfying to see how far we have come and I am feeling very grateful that we have taken so many photos! At times I have felt a bit overzealous, taking copious photos of every new part or planting, from different angles. However, I find it is easy to get lost in the enormity of the jobs yet to be done, and not think about or celebrate what has already been achieved. Our photo diary/history helps me see our accomplishments.

The first photo I took was of my new ‘orchard’ on 20/10/2015. I had planted 15 trees and designed a lovely traditional grid pattern orchard. I had plans for a total of 70 trees, as that was what my traditional orchard spacings would allow. It was after standing in the bare paddock in the sun, taking that photo that I started asking myself more questions. I wanted the orchard to be productive and to build the soil fertility. Covering the ground with mulch seemed like the solution, but how to do it economically? Mulching roughly half an acre with mulch at 5cm deep, would mean that I needed just over 68 cubic meters of mulch. At current prices that would mean at least $3400 in mulch alone! So I started to think about alternatives… Could I underplant the trees and create a living mulch? and What species would be suitable?

After finding very little useful information in the traditional places, I heard about polycultures. I didn’t know where to start looking for information regarding these and thankfully I connected with Chris and Lin. They lent me a few books and away I went… Enlightenment is a bit of an understatement. It was like the lid of the box was taken off and a world of information was suddenly made available…  Since then, I’ve been madly reading, planning, digging, planting and re-reading. I cant believe it has already been a year!

What have we achieved so far?

Planning started in late November and the ‘plan’ went through a few incarnations until I settled on the current one. With Chris and Lins help we assessed the site and worked out the contour lines, including the directions of the rise and fall across the area. From there I worked out the amount of potential rainfall runoff and was stunned at the potential volume! On an average year we have the potential to get 1 million litres of rainfall runoff – we wanted to keep it within the food forest and help reduce our irrigation needs, so set about designing our multifunctional paths/swales.

I set about, with help and huge amounts of sweat and hard work from my awesome husband, to put in the bones of the food forest. The structural parts, or hardscaping as it is sometimes termed, was the first priority. For us this meant paving and building the gazebo, marking out and hand digging the paths & swales.

Hand digging swales is hard work! We have dug 225.9m of swales. Fortunately they also form the paths so we were in essence finishing two jobs at once. We had an unseasonal downpour of 117mm over 2 days in February 2016. So I madly finished digging the swales around the top two guilds in time and was excited when they worked well (armed with my umbrella and camera). It spurred me on to keep digging. As to be expected some of the dirt, that was piled into the middle of the paths, has washed back into the swales. I had anticipated this, so dug them deeper than needed, and they worked well all winter. We haven’t really had anymore heavy downpours so it will be interesting to see what happens during the summer months, if we have some storm events. As the winter and spring progressed, more and more vegetation grew on the paths. I am using my ride-on mower to keep it trimmed for now and eventually my family of muscovy ducks will be given the task of keeping the grass paths eaten down.

With the plan as a guide, I have started to fill in a few of the intentional blank spaces with additional trees. Some trees chosen are ones I hadn’t originally thought of and some tree species I rationalised the number really needed – so I have planted 3 not 4 apricots and 2 quinces not 3. Some changes are because I couldn’t source the particular variety that I wanted (In the case of the Perry Pears, I will continue to look within WA but quarantine makes it impossible at the moment to get them in from interstate.) It doesn’t hurt to write a wish list of everything you want to grow, would like to grow, possibly might grow… then reassess.

We have created 9 guilds of varying shapes and size. 8 of which have most of the key trees planted. When I started December, I had already planted 15 trees. Now we have 44 trees, 30 large shrubs and quite a few small plants and ground covers.

After a bit of encouragement from Dave and a couple of fabulous writer friends, I bravely started this blog in Feb 2015. The idea of the blog is to act as a visual diary for us, to look back on as we progress, to vent a few frustrations and boast about a few triumphs. As I read more blogs and chat to like minded people, I find there are more people out there yearning for information and sharing their journeys. Thank you to all those people who share. I am constantly learning!

What have I learned thus far?

Protecting plants from the frost – A must!
After our mild winter of 2015, I was caught off guard with the first frost at the beginning of June 2016. We had thirteen frosts over 3 months and four at minus 4 degrees C. I don’t know what the number of chill hours were, but there were enough to set fruit on my new Morello Cherry and Almond tree, so at least 500hrs. I lost one tree, my Acerola Cherry (Malpighia glabra) and the top was burnt off my Rose Apple (Syzygium jambos). They both have proved more frost tender than I had expected, but with more protection and some fussing, the Rose apple will recover well. My Avocado made it through the winter in its shade cloth enclosure, so I think I will make a few more for the more sensitive trees. All in all I am pretty happy, I made a conscious effort not to plant too many sensitive trees, but as some trees are hard to come by, when you see them – you buy them or are given them, then you plant them… lesson learnt. 

Rabbits – I got excited and planted out the understorey plants in several guilds in Autumn. The rabbits really enjoyed the onions, garlic, lavender, daylilies, asparagus… pretty much everything I planted! Thank fully I had put wire mesh guards around the base of the trees and in hindsight should have protected more of the smaller species. I’m thinking a few rolls of rabbit netting around the bottom of the fence will be a good investment. I will also keep a few plants potted up to replace the eaten ones!

Weeds – Generally my definition of weeds is  ‘plants growing in the wrong place’. However there are a few exceptions to this rule – African love grass (Eragrostis curvula) and Doublegees (Emex australis). Lovegrass is a perennial roadside weed that invades bushland, grows as a large clump and needs a sturdy spade, fork or matik to remove. It produces copious amounts of seed and spreads really easily if mown. The dreaded doublegee was introduced as a salad vegetable! It is an annual weed, however it produces multi-spined seeds that readily pierce your thong, bike tyre or foot and the seeds survive in the soil for years, so essentially are at least a 7 year issue…. Thankfully both of these weeds are only found on a small portion of our block, unfortunately this is where the food forest is… so controlling them will be an ongoing project for a few years.

The Joys

I love to wander, ponder and to sit quietly in the food forest. It has come to life. I can now walk around in a 3D version of my paper sketch…

One of the lessons you learn as a gardener, is to tune in and appreciate the ‘little’ things, for it is these that are really the ‘big things’.   Many of my new plants have blossomed and fruited over this last year.  My journey so far has made me more aware of how important it is to notice the bees and butterflies as they pollinate the blossoms, to watch as the fruit and nuts develop and then to relish the harvest.

My ultimate joy came in december.  I picked 250g of fruit off my 3 Redcurrant bushes, which gave me just enough to make one jar of redcurrant jam. We always have Roast Turkey on Christmas eve and this year, I bought the homegrown, homemade redcurrant jam.

The Unexpected benefits

The gazebo was intended to be an inviting place, so that we spent time in the food forest. It has done just that. It provides us with a new place to relax as a family, which is essential – not often admitted (and never out loud it), but essentially I am a work-a-holic. I seem to find a constant stream of jobs to be done and don’t take enough time to relax and enjoy our hard work (or so I’m told…). We have loved sitting as a family around the fire-pit in winter, having a few drinks and nibbles with friends, toasting marshmallows, chatting and contemplating. It appears that sub-conciously I have designed a way to slow down and be more productive at the same time, an interesting concept…

Charlotte loves riding her bicycle and the paths have made a fantastic track. The food forest has become a cool place to ride her bmx and have fun with her best friends – our dogs Panda & Giro.

This project has also given me a lot more confidence in my abilities to design and implement my knowledge. Sometimes, I am so in awe of the amount of information that I am still to learn (about growing vegetables, trees and natural systems) that I under-estimate and under-value how much I already know.

Our food forest is becoming so much more than “an underplanted orchard” and I am keen to see what the next year ahead will teach me…

Growing hops

When we sat down to plan our food forest, one of the first discussions was about what we wanted to grow. What fruits and nuts do we liked to eat?

We knew what plants would grow in our area and also created a wish list of plants that we would like to grow. The list was filled with the usual suspects (pears, plums, apricots..), a few less common (Acerola cherry, hazelnuts, walnuts) and a few very obscure varieties (Japanese raisin tree, Witchhazel, Rowan..). It was a matter of finding them and then possibly having to create the right growing conditions for them to thrive.

One of the less common ones, that we thought would grow here, was Hops. Dave already makes Perry (Pear cider) and Mead (Honey wine) so why not make his own beer.

Hops – Image:

Hops (Humulus lupulus) are a perennial vining plant that grow from a rhizome. It is dormant over the winter and grows rapidly during the summer months, reputedly reaching 5-6m tall. They are said to like the same climate as grapes, so luckily for us our climate is perfect – we have some of the best wineries in the SouthWest within 20km of us. They like rich, moist soil and full sun. Curiously the vine grows clockwise and only the female plants produce the hop cones used in brewing. There are divided into 3 categories – aroma, bittering and dual purpose hops.

They are a vining plant, so we set aside the planned entrance arbour (4m long and 2m wide) to grow them over. We thought that it would give us room for a couple of plants either side. Now all I had to do was track them down…

A couple of week ago, I found a place just outside of Albany (3.5 hours away) that had some rhizomes for sale. Dave was very excited and started asking me all sorts of questions… I couldn’t answer them… so we rang the owner. After a brief chat it was decided that he would take a road trip. That way, he could check out how they grow, ask her as many questions as he could think of and buy a couple of rhizomes to grow.
The roles were now reversed – Dave was being let loose……… now I have a better understanding of how he feels when I say “I’m off to the nursery for a look”…

He had a wonderful day trip and came home totally enthused. The carboot was filled with seven potted up rhizomes (all different varieties) and a few bags of dried hops to experiment with.

We had planned on maybe four plants… All seven of these plants were not going to fit on the arbour and as they have a tendancy to want to grow straight up, we would be fighting with their natural tendencies by trying to run them horizontally along the trellis. So we had to change plans…

We decided to erect a hop trellis along the northern edge of the food forest, mirroring the chook yard fence. It gives us a good 15m stretch to plant the varieties and have plenty of room if they want to spread. Allowing them to grow straight up means they are happier and take up less room, however they can pose a challenge when it comes to harvesting the hops at 5m tall…

The new Hop Trellis

We devised a strategy – Our end poles (treated pine) are 4.2m long and have 3.5m out of the ground (0.7m in the ground). They are supported/stabilised by a box strut. We attached a pulley to the top of each pole and ran a length of thick baleing (Binda) Twine between the poles. The plan being that this allows us to let down the twine and harvest the hops without having to climb up ladders. Each plant has a single twine running vertically up to the top twine.

The ‘Nugget’ variety growing skywards. Protected by a tree guard so that the ducks don’t eat the new shoots.

We chose ‘binda’ twine as it doesn’t break easily and is very strong, so should hold the weight of the mature plants. It doesn’t break down readily in the sun and can withstand being chewed on by cows, so the ducks shouldn’t pose any issue. It also comes in a long roll (1200m) from our local farm supply store, so we figured it would be a good long lasting and economical choice. Unfortunately it only comes in a very attractive blue colour… Once it is covered in lovely green hops we wont know its there, hopefully

As we are new to home-brewing beer and growing hops, Dave came home with a few different types. Our varieties cover the 3 categories:

Aroma hops – Gold, Flinders, Karacanup (a Cascade/Chinnook blend) & Hernsbucker
Bittering hops – Super Alpha & Nugget
Dual purpose – Target

We prefer Pilsner style beers, so the aroma hops should give us a crisp beer with passionfruit & citrus flavours. The other varieties will give Dave something to experiment with. Now all we have to do is wait until they grow and then get brewing…

A glass of Daves first home brewed beer.


Our Vegie Patch

Why do I grow vegetables? Apart from being a self confessed ‘plant geek’… I love being able to walk out into the vegie patch (basket in hand) and gather herbs for a breakfast omlette, or pick leaves for a salad lunch or harvest a pot full of vegies for dinner. Satisfying – Yes! I find growing our own is rewarding, but at times it can also be extremely frustrating and hard work. Thankfully, I love to garden, we love to cook and we love to eat…


Photos: A substantial ‘haul’ of Jerusalem Artichokes (40 turned into 4000!), the first of the baby carrots and what was going to be a tasty cabbage (the rabbits beat us to it!)

In our previous house, the vegie patch consisted of 4 small beds, 2m long x 1m wide, that supplied a few herbs, leafy greens, tomatoes, rhubarb etc.

When we moved to our current home, we had plenty of space (15acres) and I was keen to grow more, a lot more. We chose an area close to the house (for ease of picking), that was fairly flat and had the least amount of kikuyu grass growing in it. Kikuyu is a wonderful vigorous grass in the paddock, but a serious problem if you have to fight against it in the vegie patch – tiny seedlings don’t stand a chance. There are also two large Jacaranda trees, on the north side, that provide some welcome shade in the hot summer months.

The vegie patch design is straight out of a textbook – a grid pattern running East-West with wide access paths. The beds are 4m long x 2m wide, which was more from ease of construction (1 railway sleeper wide and 2 sleepers long) than by design. I had drawn out a 6 bed rotation system, however as we had room for 8 beds, my husband suggested we make the extra ones. The 8 beds give me a total of 64m2 growing space. I remember measuring them out and having an animated discussion with him on “How could I possibly use all those beds!…


Our Vegetable Garden design

I transplanted some Boysenberry plants onto a trellis under the Jacaranda trees and in time added 2 more trellises, one with more Boysenberries and the other with Raspberries. On the Western side, I planted a Buddleia hedge to screen us from the neighbours and act as a windbreak in winter. On the eastern side, a passionfruit was planted to ramble over the fence and we also made a long perennial border bed (8m x 1m) to grow asparagus, rhubarb, jeruselum artichokes, mint & blueberries.

I initially struggled with rotating the beds. I found it was difficult to get the right flow without having beds empty/waiting or having ‘hungry’ gaps between seasons. Obviously the plants haven’t read the same vegetable growing textbooks as I have…

After a few disasters and some success, I have moved away from the traditional block plantings in favour of a more camouflaged approach. I loosely follow the ‘leggy, leafy, rooty, fruity’ rotation:

• Bed 1: Legumes (Peas, Climbing & Dwarf Beans, Broad beans etc.)

• Bed 2: Leafy greens (Lettuce, Herbs, Kale, Silverbeet etc.)

• Bed 3: Root crops (Carrots, Beetroot, Parsnip, Radish etc.)

• Bed 4: Fruits (Curcubits & Solanums in summer or Brassicas in winter).

Having 8 beds means that I can plant 4 beds initially (Early) then another 4 for (late) successional plantings.

Within each of these categories, I worked out what crops I want to grow, then found out who the beneficial companion plants are and separated them into summer and winter plantings. It sounds more complicated than it is… By mixing my plantings (the camouflage effect), the hope is that I won’t loose whole crops and will have less pest issues. This also better utilises my growing space by filling in the gaps.

My rough planting guide – Main crops with their companions

In gardening circles, there is plenty of discussion as to whether companion planting ‘works’. In my mind, there is merit in planting pest deterring species, however I believe it has more to do with making sure your plants do not compete against each other for soil space and nutrients. For example, I plant carrots, radishes and spring onions together. The radishes mature quickly and loosen the soil for the carrots. The spring onions have shallower roots than the carrots, so use a different part of the soil profile, and they help to break up block plantings or mini-monocultures. They can also be used to separate carrots and parsnips (who don’t like to grow next to each other – same family, same root system, same nutrient needs). I plant my parsnips between rows of perennial leeks. Parsnips are slow to germinate and are ready to harvest after I have pulled the leeks. Leeks like all members of the onion family do not like weed competition and neither do parsnips – a win win situation.


Photo: Two Curcubit beds – Succession planting of corn & zucchinis.

Finally, after a few years, I feel like it is working and that I have a better ‘handle on it’. That is, despite midnight vermin raids and poor seed germination, I generally manage to grow enough for us to eat and preserve a bit too. The rabbits have been particularly frequent visitors to the garden this year – Grrrrr….


Photo: Early planting of the Solanum bed – Capsicums, Basil, Eggplant, Cherry Tomato

With a few successful seasons under my belt, I have become more adventurous with my plantings. Each season, I try to grow an additional 2-3 varieties of vegetables and have now stretched this to include a few subtropicals species. Last summer, I grew Arrowroot (Canna edulis), Sweet potato, Lemon grass, Sugarcane and Ginger. All grew really well under the shade of the large Jacaranda trees and I was amazed the amount of shelter these trees provided over winter. Even on my coldest mornings of minus 4 degrees C, only a small amount of frost touched the tips of the Arrowroot and sweet potato leaves doing very little damage.

Photos: My Ginger harvest & the Sweet potatoes from one plant.

One of the the sweet potato slips grew well and did give me a few tubers. However, my most exciting harvest was the Ginger. I divided a 100g knob of organic ginger into 6 pieces and planted them in shallow pots. After 5 months, I dug up 875g. This didn’t include a few pieces I had cut off along the way! I am not ashamed to say that I did a bit of a happy dance and can’t wait to replant  (when the weather warms up) and try for an even bigger harvest next year.

When we first started the vegie patch, my 8 beds seemed like the most amazing amount of space. Now, if I am honest about the extra varieties and quantity of food that I am keen to grow, I will definitely need more space. What to do? My time is already stretched thin between the school runs, ballet, music lessons, life in general, the food forest and the vegie patch.

I’ve been doing a bit of researching… Maybe the answer lies in rethinking how I use the space I already have…

The Quince Guild

At times this ideal, of our food forest, seems a long way off. Interestingly, I have found lately, that when I walk around and explain my vision to visitors (with great detail and the necessary enthusiastic arm waving) I am often met with bewildered looks. I wonder if it is how I explain the concept or maybe just when something looks like stick city and will take a few years to mature, they cannot see what I can see…  Whatever the case may be, my vision remains firmly set on implementing the plan and creating our edible forest garden. As my husband so aptly described it – I am a gardener, we are artists with a living canvas.

Late Autumn was spent furiously researching, sourcing and planting the majority of the main trees within each guild. It is now looking very much like stick city, however creating shade and a canopy layer is an essential first step in the longterm goal of the food forest.

I have also turned my focus on starting to infill (guild by guild) with the initial hardier shrubs, herbs and ground covers. Most of the planting will now have to wait until spring, but it is really starting to take shape and I want it all done now!

With the gazebo built, my focus was directed at planting out the guilds directly next to it.

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The Quince Guild

The Quince guild wraps around 2 sides of the gazebo, to the South and the East. On the southern side we have the main road, and access to our driveway. While there is a small amount of remnant Eucalytus bush, along the roadside that continues on into a small section of road reserve, most of the trees are very large (20m).  From the road you can see through the tree trunks to the gazebo (and us enjoying lunch) so planting mid-storey trees, shrubs and herbs in the guild will give us some privacy.

In the summer months from November to March, we get a hot wind from the East and there is a 2 week period where it blows non-stop. I don’t like the wind – I know it has a purpose (seed dispersal, pollination, cooling/warming etc…) but when it blows non-stop it feels like someone is shouting at me constantly and I get cranky. I have been known to walk around with earmuffs or earplugs in while I do the gardening or feed the animals… So planning and planting a windbreak on the eastern side of the food forest is essential.


The main tree species in this guild are a ‘Smyrna’ Quince, Macadamia, ‘Frantoio’ Olive, ‘Independence’ Nectarine, ‘Moorpark’ Apricot and ‘Eleyi’ Crabapple. The two evergreen trees are the Macadamia and the Olive. The Macadamia will eventually be a large tree (8-10m) and will help shade the gazebo from the mid morning sun in summer. It is a seed grown tree so I expect it will take at least 7 years to bear nuts. The Frantoio Olive is a dual purpose olive (table and oil olives) that is also known as a universal pollinator. This means that it should boost the harvest quantity of my other olive trees by cross pollinating. We are keen to increase the yield from our 18 ‘Mission’ Olive trees, that we have planted down the driveway, as we are hoping to be able to press our own olive oil in a few years.

In between the trees I have planted several smaller trees and large shrubs – Tagasaste, Buddleia, Strawberry Guava and Brazilian Cherry. I included Tagasaste as it is fast growing, nitrogen fixing pioneer plant. It self seeds so I can get plants for free and by using the chop and drop method or mulching it, I can help increase the soil fertility. The Buddleias are a great fast growing shrub for a wind break that the bees adore. I have a hedge in my vegie patch so take copious cuttings (more free plants). Both of these species can be cut down and removed once the large trees are more established, if necessary. The Strawberry Guava and Brazilian cherry are evergreen and fruit in summer. They are dense shrubs with glossy green leaves and will be a lovely contrasting edible screen that will infill the trees.

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Newly planted Strawberry Guava plant

In the shrub layer, I have planted Globe artichoke, Manuka Tea-tree, Rosemary, Scented Geranium, Lavender, and Daisies. Strongly scented plants are usually great for pest deterring and their flowers attract beneficial insects. Globe artichokes are a large striking plant that rise up from dormancy in the late Autumn. Their silvery leaves are quite architectural and the flower buds are a gorgeous treat in spring. I love to make Artichoke risotto, Arancini and pickle/preserve some for topping pizza or putting in summer salads. I leave a few of the buds to mature in late spring and they become an enormous iridescent purple thistle flower. An amazing beacon for bees.

Images of Globe Artichokes from

Planted in the herb layer is Sage, Borage, Chives, Daylilies, Comfrey, Chicory and Yarrow. These will attract beneficial insects, supply us with herbs for cooking and also nutrient rich additions for the compost heap. As edible ground covers there are strawberries, sweet violets and Warrigal greens.

Lastly, I have also tried to incorporate an underground layer in this guild. Alliums are good companions with Apricots and Quinces, so I have planted 2 types of perennial onions (Egyptian Walking Onions and Potato onions) along with a few left over garlic bulbs. The garlic is reputed to increase the flavour of the Quince fruit and protect it from pests. I had good success with the onions in the vegie patch last winter. Both of the perennial onions are multiplyer onions. The Egyptian Walking onions (tree onions) look amazing, provide you with small brown onions similar in flavour to a shallot and a topset of bulbils to replant next season. Potato onions multiply (like potatoes), so that one bulb can give you between 4 and 15 new onions. Both types are smaller than the large brown onion you buy in the shops, however I find this is a good thing. I rarely use a whole large onion and I find homegrown ones have so much more flavour.

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Egyptian Walking Onions

Time to take stock…

We are now well and truly settled into what is traditionally our coldest and wettest season (The Noongar season of Makuru). The rain has been very welcome. There have been a few days of showers and the occasional heavy downpour. We are still below our average for the month but the river is running and the frogs are still calling, so more rain is on the way.

Many of our mornings are cold and frosty, however this is offset as a frost also means a glorious day. We have had a few weeks of below zero and one morning managed a fresh minus 3.7 degrees C, which is not unusual for this time of year. Instead of staying rugged up warm in the house, I was out trying to put the sprinklers on to lessen the frost damage. Frozen hoses and taps had other ideas… It was a great opportunity to look at the frost pockets and where the more heavily frosted areas are within the food forest and the ‘farm’ as a whole. This is the first winter for the food forest and I am hoping the trees will survive and flourish – time will tell…

For the last two months I have been head down, tail up working in the vegie patch and food forest. Now, with the majority of the trees dormant and the ground too cold for planting, its time to take stock and catch up on the inside chores. Reading more, planning for spring & summer and brushing up on my computer skills (so that I can update the blog) – essentially reinvigorating the dream and resting the muscles…


Over the last few months we have been focussed on getting much of the infrastructure and hardscaping in place. The paving is finished and gazebo erected. The paving for Charlottes guild has been started and I am halfway through the long task of hand digging swales.

During our initial site discussion with Chris and Lin, we commented on the potential amount of run off from our driveway and the proposed orchard area (now know as the food forest). We made a rough calculation of the driveway – approximately 55m long and 10m wide. With our average yearly rainfall (~ 800 mm) it would yield about 440.00 cubic meters or 440,000 litres per year – most of which currently runs like a river down the driveway, past the house and into the paddock. Unfortunately, on closer inspection the rainfall runoff from the driveway, can’t without serious earthworks be diverted to the food forest. We really need to figure out how to harness that resource, to benefit the avenue of Olive and Pistachio trees we have planted down the driveway, however that project will have to wait a little longer…

Fortunately for us, Chris has a lazer level and offered to come out and use it to work out the levels in the food forest area. To the naked eye, you can see that the north facing site slopes from the road down towards the house. After working out the levels (and checking several times) we calculated that the ‘gentle slope‘ is actually a 1.7m drop over 55m.

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Lazer level increments outlined in pink paint marker – December 2015

The total area of the food forest is 1,375m squared so our potential water runoff could be over 1 million litres per year! The challenge – How do we keep this rainfall where it lands to benefit the soil & our plants and reduce our dependence on irrigation? This required reading, thinking and plenty of discussion. There are a lot of online resources and a fabulous 2 volume set of books written by Brad Lancaster Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond.

In Permaculture, they use ‘swales’ (a ditch) to capture water runoff and direct it to the root zone of nearby plants and trees. Swales are defined as a level ditch that follows the contour of the land. They are used to capture surface water during rainfall events and hold the water so that it can slowly infiltrate into the soil. The depth and length of the swale will vary depending on the slope of your land and the potential run-off amount.

Gaias Garden
Swale diagram from the fabulous book – Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway

As I want to free range my ducks and walk in the food forest area often, a series of parrallel contour ditches seemed a bit impractical. They would require bridges across the swale on the pathways and anything wooden here gets eaten by termites. It all seemed a bit hard, surely there was an easier and less invasive option.

We looked at the historical rainfall data for our area and the highest recorded levels for one day were 90mm in June and 108mm in January. We worked out how big our swales would need to be over our area to cope with this deluge – 10cm deep and 30cm wide should suffice. As we have a network of 2m wide paths meandering through the food forest, most of which make use of the contours, we decided to use the edge of the path as our ‘swales’.

Having decided that the swale depth isn’t too deep, basically the depth of a spade straight down, we didn’t see the need to hire a machine to do the digging.  We decided we could save money (to spend on trees) by digging them by hand. Luckily we weren’t in a big rush… After digging a portion of one of the swales/paths in summer, I began to wish we had got in a digger! The dry soil was quite compact and it was hard digging.  I have persisted (because I am stubborn and wont admit defeat…) and was rewarded with 120mm of summer rain, which made it much easier.  Thank you nature

swale construction
Using the spade to hand dig my swales.

I have been hand digging at the edge of the path, where it meets the garden bed, then piling the removed dirt in a mound at the centre of the path. The idea being that the rainfall should fall and be directed into the swale instead of channelling down the path. It is a similar concept to the way roads are constructed and thankfully won’t require any little bridges. Brad Lancaster calls it ‘berm n basin’. If you are at all interested in ways to harvest and store Rainwater within your landscape – Brad is the expert and his books are an incredible resource.

The mounded path with swale edges.

The meandering paths will eventually be covered in a variety of perennial grasses and plants. These paths have been designed so that they perform multiple functions – providing aesthetically pleasing access within the food forest, protection for the soil (by reducing erosion) and fodder for the ducks.

I hate wearing shoes, so it would be a dream to be able to walk around bare foot – however at the moment I will be dodging duck poo and the odd double gee, so maybe I’ll wear thongs for a bit longer…

The Gazebo – Part 3

The original timeline was for us to complete the gazebo in time for my birthday, in late March. Our goal was to utilise materials that we have on hand, source recycled materials where possible and only purchase when necessary (nuts, bolts etc..) With the paving finished our attention turned to the gazebo framework.

When we drew a rectangle shape on the food forest plan, I had not visualised it insitu or thought about what it was going to be made out of (maybe a few bush poles). Daves comment was “The paving isn’t ordinary, so why should the structure be ordinary”.

Dave had aquired a rather large chainsaw, a Stihl 076 Super. All I understand is that it is great for cutting firewood, the engine is larger than a ‘postie bike’ (110cc) and I struggle to lift it. So what to do with this giant machine…

I remember a conversation in the early hours one morning, and watching a YouTube video… There was a man cutting a log with a rather large chainsaw, sideways… Dave was just a little bit excited “It’s an Alaskan Chainsaw Mill” he said with a rather large grin… The set up allows you to convert your chainsaw into a portable mill. You can cut timber to your own specifications and it is much cheaper than hiring a traditional Lucas Mill.

Now, I am sure it may be easier to purchase one ready made online, but where is the fun in that. Dave was inspired, so he set about building one…

With the help of a few friends and a newly met mentor (via an online forum for arborists) Dave welded together some reclaimed steel tubing, nuts & bolts, threaded rod etc.. and built himself an Alaskan Chainsaw mill. Now the very large chainsaw, with mill attached, weighs 30kg.

With mill in hand (in the back of the ute to be precise) and after a considerable amount of deliberation, we chose a suitable tree on our place. We have quite a few large senescing Flooded gums (Eucalyptus rudis) and thought one of these would suit – they make great firewood and are a lovely medium strength timber. I don’t feel guilty for utilising this resource. Each year we continue with our own revegetation project, focussing on replanting a variety of more durable species that grow in our area, including the Blackbutt tree (Eucalyptus patens) which is known for its high quality timber. To date we have planted over 2500 trees, shrubs, sedges and rushes.

Daves Chainsaw Mill ready to go…

Once we found our tree, we cut it into manageable lengths. With help from ‘Boris’ (the neighbours Russian-made tractor) we manouvered the log into position and chocked it ready for milling. It was positioned intentionally on an angle to assist the mill as it cut through the timber. That way Dave guided, rather than pushed the mill and the weight of the mill did most of the work.

First cut done

Dave then squared off 3 sides of two of the logs (using the tractor to rotate the log) and then we slabbed them into 6”x2” boards, 4m long.

Milling timber

Another log was squared up and then milled into 4”x4” posts, 3m long. Milling is very dirty, sweaty, noisy and at times a slow process. Getting the log to this point took us a week. It may have been much quicker if it wasn’t punctuated by a ballet lesson, music lesson, surf club and various other appointments, but as they say “life goes on” regardless.

Milling the 4″x4″ posts

We knew our deadline was tight, but in the end, my very frustrated husband had to admit defeat – we were not going to be able to finish it in time for my birthday, even if we did continue on milling after dark using the car headlights – the thought had crossed our minds. It didn’t matter – what mattered was that we enjoyed the journey and working together on a goal. If it took a few more weeks, so be it.

We took the timber back to the house. Dave sanded each piece, cut them to length and routed the edges to make sure they looked great & no one will get splinters. They were liberally applied with a linseed oil mix to help protect and preserve the boards, which also bought out the grain of the timber – each piece has its own character. Daves favourite piece looks like it has ‘flames’ on it.

The timber prepped and now the Gazebo is ready to be assembled.

Once all the timber had be prepped, we took it up to the paved area and layed it out ready for assembly. Erecting it took only a day and a half. Dave was well organised so it fitted together very neatly. Thanks goes to my mum for an extra pair of hands to hold the end frames steady (and for the extra drill bits).

The Gazebo ready for a few battons and grape vines.

In the end, we were two weeks short – the process took a lot longer than we had anticipated. We now have an acute understanding and respect for the amount of time it takes to mill timber. (However, now every tree Daves sees, is a potential ‘project) Despite the time and hardwork, it was well worth it… The Gazebo looks awesome!

I am so proud of Dave. I am truly blessed to have a creative and very capable husband. What a great role model for our daughter and my niece & nephews. He had and idea, sought help from those who had more experience, learnt a new skill and created a piece of art. It was a pleasure to spend time with him and help him to create a place where can relax & enjoy for years to come.

When it was all done, we toasted our achievement with dinner under the stars, and a firepit with the obligatory toasted marshmallows – just perfect.

Relaxing and toasting marshmallows.


Autumn heralds a change in the garden. The mornings are crisper and the days shorter. The summer bounty of tomatoes, zucchini, basil and beans are coming to an end. A few special treats await – Chestnuts, Pomegranates and Quinces. Of these, Quinces are my favourite.

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My ‘Champion’ Quince tree

Quince (Cydonia obloga) is a gorgeous, old fashioned fruit of my grandmothers era. It is a hardy, small deciduous tree that fruits between late March and late April. The fruit is hard and quite unpalatable when raw, but gorgeous when stewed, baked or dried as fruit leather. It is likened to a very large, aromatic pear.

Of the eight or so varieties available in Australia, there are two main ones found in home gardens – Smyrna and Champion. Each variety has a slightly different shape, coloured and tasting fruit. Smyrna quinces (ready in March) are a large pear shaped fruit that has a distinctive pointy neck. They are lighter pink/coral in colour when cooked and make a very smooth paste. I love the more floral aroma of the Champion quinces which are ready in April. They have larger greeny/yellow fruit, that is darker pink when cooked, and the flesh has a more grainy texture.

I love to cook with them, regardless of the variety. They are so versatile and can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes. Quinces partner nicely with Lamb in a Moroccan Tagine, poaches to a gorgeous rosey pink in spiced syrup topped with a bit of custard or cream (or icecream) and it is equally wonderful in a cake. Thank you Cynthia for a new cake recipe – Quince & Pistachio – I cant wait to try it!

I also like to preserve them in two different ways, so that we can enjoy them long into the winter months. Firstly, poached in a light syrup spiced with a little cinnamon and star anise, then packed into Vacola jars. Secondly, as Quince Paste. Making paste is quite a process but definitely worth the effort.

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A couple of my ripe ‘Champion’ quinces.

There are a myriad of different recipes to be found. This is the way I make my Quince paste…

Firstly, pick your quinces. Once you have them in the kitchen sink, lightly scrub them with a vegie brush and water, to removes the down (fur). Then roughly chop them, put them in a large pan with a little water and poach slowly until they are soft. (A slow cooker works well for smaller batches). Quinces do not have a high amount of pectin, so by stewing them with the cores and seeds you increase the ability of the paste to set without adding any extra pectin. You could also add the juice of half a lemon to the stewing fruit, which will help it to set.

Once the fruit is soft, I push/squash a small amount at a time, through a sieve over a large bowl. The sieve removes any skin, seeds and large fibres so that you have a better textured paste. If you have a ‘food mouli’ it may make this a much easier process. After the slow cook, the fruit pulp will have changed from a golden colour to a rosey pink/coral colour.

The pulp and sugar mix, ready to start cooking.
The sieved Quince pulp and sugar mix – ready to start cooking.

I then weigh out the sieved pulp and add it along with an equal amount of sugar to a large clean saucepan. I use my jam pan and a long handled wooden spoon. While this may seem like a bit of an overkill for 2kg of pulp plus sugar, I do suggest regardless of the amount you are cooking, use an oversized pan. Once the mixture comes to the boil and then a simmer, it has a tendency to ‘spit’ and the molten fruit mixture will burn if it gets on your skin.

Before I start to heat the mixture, I prepare the tray that I will put the finished paste into, lining it with baking paper (I use my lasagne tray). If you are making a small batch you can put it into greased moulds such as ramekins or a silicon muffin tray. This will give a lovely final shape to your paste.

When you are organised, heat the mixture over medium heat to dissolve the sugar, then bring to the boil briefly. Now, turn the heat down so the mixture simmers. You will need to stir until it starts to thicken and change colour to a dark pink/amber. This may take 45 mins or more, depending on the amount of paste you are making. The paste is ready when you see it start to ‘pull off’ the sides of the pan as you stir, and you will also see and hear the molten ‘plops’ (similar to porridge noises). Please note that once you turn the heat up and bring the mixture to the boil there is no turning back. No answering the phone and no looking away, even for a second… You do not want it to burn.

Once your paste has thickened you need to move quickly. Pour your mixture into the prepared tin and smooth out the surface, using a spatula (it will set quickly). Place a piece of baking paper over the top of the paste to stop the surface from drying out and forming a hard skin. Set the tray aside to cool.

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The cooked quince paste, cooling before putting into the fridge.

Once the tray has cooled, place it in the fridge to set for a couple of days. I cut the paste into serve size rectangles or squares then wrap them individually in baking paper. In theory, if you store them in the fridge in an airtight container, they will keep for 12 months – ours generally last that long, but only because I make so much!

Quince paste is a sweet treat. I use it on an antipasto platter, to partner with a good mature cheddar. It is great as a side for cold meats or in a sandwich. You can also soften it with a bit of hot water to make a gorgeous marinate for chops or a roast.

Once you have tasted a delicious homemade paste, whether it is Plum, Fig or Quince, you won’t mind the time it takes to make it.