Sunday, 30 June 2013


When we first moved here there were a lot of antechinus in the area.  They are a small, native, carnivorous marsupial.  They look similar to a large mouse or a small rat, but they are ferocious and they eat meat!  I wanted to show the kids what they looked like up close so I caught this one and put in in a bug catcher.  The kids had a look and then I let it go, it climbed up a tree and disappeared into the roof.

antechinus and permaculture
my Antechinus friend
Then a mouse plague struck the area, the largest plague since the 1980's.  It probably took 3 or 4 weeks of everyone in the area complaining about mice before we even saw our first mouse.  I am pretty sure the local antechinus population was large enough that they were eating out all the mice before they could get to my house, which was great.  Then the mice numbers eventually got too large for too long that they were everywhere.  People were having mice eat the wiring in their cars.  It was disgusting.

Eventually the mice started to get in the house and chew through electrical wiring in the roof.  After we could not take it any longer I started to put out traps and eventually started to bait them.  I was killing heaps of mice each night.  Unfortunately I was also occasionally trapping antechinus, they are tougher than a mouse so I was able to set them free and hope that they were not too injured.  Judging by the way they ran off I am guess that they mostly were not too hurt by the experience.

When the mice eventually subsided there were no more antechinus.  Normally we would see them hopping around eating moths and beetles, but all was quiet.  I had a bad feeling that they had died from eating too many sick poisoned mice.  It is a horrible feeling to think that perhaps you have killed off all of them...

Then the other day Tracey came home and found a dying antechinus under the car port.  This is great news!  Male antechinus die after the breeding season around this time of year, so finding a dying male is a sign that they are still around.  Hopefully they can return to their previous numbers and get back to protecting the place from mice.

permaculture and antechinus
while the picture is far from convincing, this is a male antechinus

Monday, 10 June 2013

Yacon - the world's most civilised vegetable

Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius formerly known as Polymnia sonchifolia) is a perennial root vegetable from South America.  

If you have never eaten yacon then you are missing out on something truly special. 

When Tracey asked our five year old to describe yacon he said: "They taste like apple. They look like a tube and grow underground like a potato. The leaves feel like a soft blanket."  To be honest I think that is as good a description as any.

How I first grew yacon

I read about yacon years ago on the Lost crops site and eventually tracked down a small rhizome to buy over the internet.  I spent a bit of money to get yacon and had no idea if it would grow for me or even if I would like it.  You plant yacon in spring, then you wait as it grows happily, if you have frosts it is best to let it die down over winter before harvest.  After planting it I waited patiently as it grew, still never having tasted it, all the while tempted to dig up a small root to try but trying to be patient so the plant could do its thing properly.  The yacon grew about waist high and looked nice, towards the end of the growing season it dropped a few leaves and looked a bit shabby.  The yacon then grows a small yellow sunflower like flower some years, unfortunately they require more than one clone in order to set viable seed and as far as I am aware there is only one yacon clone in Australia.
Yacon flowers

Then winter came, I was very excited, but the frosts did not kill off the tops so I waited until we had a hard frost as frost apparently makes the roots sweeter.  We then had a hard frost, and the yacon looked a little burned but overall was not too bothered, even though it does not look like it yacon is a pretty hardy plant.  After a few hard frosts the tops eventually succumbed to the cold.  I carefully dug up the large and brittle tubers and tried one, I liked it but it was nothing special.  The yield was amazing, from the one tiny rhizome that I initially planted I ended up with a dozen much larger rhizomes and a bucket full of large tubers, but if the taste was not great I did not want to use the space on them regardless of the yield.  Everything I had read said that if you leave yacon for a few weeks after digging it up it gets sweeter, so I waited for a few weeks for the tubers to sweeten, I then tried another one, I loved it!  

I wish that yacon was more readily available in Australia, even if the plants were more available for people to grow at home it would be great, this is why I started to sell plants.  I am rather fond of perennial vegetables, once you plant them you pretty much will have them forever.

Permaculture Yacon tubers for sale Australia
Yacon, note the light brown edible tuber and the purple propagative rhizome

How to grow yacon

I have included some growing notes here that describes things a bit more clearly.  Yacon are interesting plants to grow, they pretty much look after themselves, they are hugely productive, and they are perennial.  From what I have read it can grow and be harvested all year in frost free places, apparently without frost you just wait an extra couple of days after harvest to let it sweeten before eating it.

I have never heard of anyone who has grown yacon complain of any pest or disease that affects the plants.  Yacon seems not overly picky about soil conditions, planted in rich moist soil it gives the highest yields, but it still gives a decent yield on poor soil with minimal water.  Yacon prefers full sun but will also provide a decent yield in part shade, it is well suited to growing under trees to utilise an otherwise wasted space.  One thing that yacon does not like is rocks and stones in the soil, the tubers will still grow and give a large and delicious yield but they will be misshapen due the pressure exerted upon them from the stones etc in the soil.

Unlike jerusalem artichokes to which yacon is related, yacon poses no weed threat, it grows well yet it remains civilised by not taking over the vegetable garden, in fact other plants seem to grow better when yacon is grown near them.  Yacon exudes inulin and other sugars from its roots which attracts and feeds earth worms as well as a host of other beneficial soil life.  I am told that yacon is readily colonised by mycorrhizae which promote plant growth in a number of ways.

Perennial Yacon - plant once harvest forever
Purple Yacon rhizomes ready to be divided and planted

Yacon is edible, delicious and healthy
Another civilised thing about yacon is that every part is edible as well as being good for you.  Some other vegetables have some parts you can eat and others you can not, or some things which must be eaten cooked as they are toxic if raw, or irritating hairs or spines that must be dealt with, all parts of yacon can be eaten either raw or cooked.  The large sweet crunchy tubers are the part that we like the best, we do not tend to eat any other parts.  Mostly we eat the tubers raw, some people just dig them up and eat them as is but I peel them as the skin can taste a little like resin.  I find that if I slice them thin they taste the best.

Yacon is crunchy and sweet, after cooking it retains its crunch but tends to take on the flavour of whatever it is cooked with.  It can be used in the place of water chestnuts in recipes.  Even though yacon is very sweet the sugars are not digested by people which makes it fine to be eaten by diabetics.  Yacon is high in inulin (which is different to insulin), inulin is a natural prebiotic which feeds the good bacteria in your body and helps to exclude the bad bacteria.  This means that as well as tasting great yacon is good for you.

Once harvested yacon tubers seem to last anywhere from a few months to a year depending on climate in which they are stored.  One year we had far too many yacon tubers so decided to freeze some of them.  Once frozen they last seemingly forever.  To eat them it is important not to thaw them as they go black and slimy looking.  I remove the tubers from the freezer, peel them with a vegetable peeler, slice them and eat them.  When frozen yacon tubers are easy to peel and easy to slice.  When frozen yacon tastes different to when it is raw, it is difficult to describe but it kind of tastes like frozen banana custard.  My kids seem to like frozen yacon even more than they like raw yacon.

Another remarkably civilised thing about yacon is that the part that you eat is different to the part that you plant to grow a crop for next season.  Unlike other vegetable crops where you have to decide how much to eat and how much to save to replant or you have to decide how many plants to let go to seed, you eat all of the yacon tubers and plant all of the propagative rhizomes.  As yacon is propagated by division and does not produce seed you do not have to worry about caging or separating to keep seed pure or growing enough plants to avoid inbreeding depression.  Growing yacon by divisions means you never have to worry about the neighbours growing GM crops that will cross pollinate and ruin your plants, the yacon that we grow and eat today is genetically the same as the yacon plants that the Incas domesticated and grew.

Yacon tubers, Yacon rhizomes, Perennial Yacon Australia, Permaculture Yacon
Small yacon plant almost ready to be harvested after frost

Harvesting Yacon

The different parts of yacon are easy to tell apart as the tubers are large and brown and look like sweet potato, the propogative rhizome is purplish and small and has growing points, you will see these when you harvest yacon.

I look forward to yacon harvest each year, not only because it means that in a few weeks I will be eating sweet yacon, but also because of the unmistakable yacon smell.  It is a smell that can't be described, a smell that says that winter is here, a smell that helps keep me connected to the land and the seasons, a smell I miss over the rest of the year.  When we harvest yacon I carefully dig/pull up a plant and shake it gently.  The edible tubers fall off in a civilized pile and what is left in my hand is for dividing and replanting.
perennial vegetables, plant once harvest forever - yacon
Yacon leaf,  it "feels like a soft blanket"

The leaves are large and fuzzy, as Igloo says they "feel like a soft blanket".  I have heard that in Peru the leaves are used to wrap food before it is cooked, kind of like a banana leaf or a grape leaf, but I am yet to try this myself.  A herbal 'tea' can be made from the leaves which helps to even out blood sugar.  The leaves can be picked and used straight away, or they can be left somewhere out of the sun to dry and then used to make the herbal tea later.  Unlike many herbal claims this claim that yacon leaves lower blood sugar levels seems to have been tested and proven to be true.  I have only made tea from the leaves once and found the taste to be a little odd, kind of like peppermint mixed with something.  I didn't really like it, but I didn't hate it, I am glad to say that the taste was not very strong.  It would probably taste nice if you mixed it with something that tastes better or something that has a strong taste that would overpower the yacon.

Where to buy yacon plants in Australia

As I already mentioned, if you have not eaten yacon you are missing out on something really special.  The chances are that you will never see yacon in the supermarket, so if you plan to try some or if you want your children to try some you must grow your own.  I do sell yacon rhizomes (a bit larger than the ones in the pictures above) here.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-2  There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens; a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,

Rainbow Jelly Cake

I took on the stupid idea of making Mr 4 a rainbow jelly cake for his birthday. With some sound advise from a friend I embarked on using agar agar as it sets much quicker. This sure was a help. The cake looks great besides some colouring issues. But it is nasty to eat. It sort of crumbles in your mouth, the texture makes me gag. Flavour is fine though.

I found very few recipes online for Jelly cakes using Agar Agar is was just a bit of luck of the draw if it would turn out. I think I will only use half the agar next time, will run some tests first to find out just how little agar agar can be used so the cake still stands up but is actually edible. The recipe I used is this

Blue top layer with lollies (I would do a clear top layer to show the lollies better next time)
250ml liquid (I used part blueberry juice from stewing some blueberries and part water)
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp agar agar

Milk Layer (I would colour this blue next time or whatever colour I wanted on top)
125ml water
125ml milk
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp agar agar

Red Layer
250ml liquid (about half a punnet stewed and mushed strawberries, rest water)
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp agar agar
(I also chopped the remainder of the punnet to put in this layer)

Orange Layer
250ml liquid
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp agar agar

Green Layer
250ml liquid (I used pineapple juice, really should have used this for an orange or yellow layer)
just under 1/4 sugar
1 tsp agar agar

I made each layer as I went
1. place each layers ingredients in a saucepan, brought to the boil for a few seconds to make sure all had boiled. Pulled off heat and added the colour till desired colour.
2. pour into mould
3. Start boiling next layer.
4. pour into mould once the previous layer was JUST set, I have read if you let it set too much the layers wont stick together and slide apart, you can gently scrap the previous layer with a fork if this happens. Each layer took longer then the last to set. The first set before I had the second layer ready. I had to wait and reheat the green layer as the orange wasn't ready.

Keep going till you have all layers done. Then I set in the fridge over night.

Good luck with your making :)