Susan Parsons: Latham kitchen gardener Peter Harris is an avid seed banker

Susan Parsons
Peter Harris in his vegetable garden in Latham.
Peter Harris in his vegetable garden in Latham. Photo: Melissa Adams

Kitchen gardeners who grow their edibles from seed usually have a container of partly used seed packets but the best I've seen belongs to Peter Harris of Latham. As a target shooter, he has an old ammunitions box known as the Harris Seed Bank. When sealed hermetically it is air and moisture proof, perfect for seed saving.

As a Food & Wine reader, Peter Harris responded to our November 2013 offer of Opa's brandywine tomato seeds from Adrian van Leest​ of Campbell. By seed saving, Harris continues to grow that variety of tomato and this season the seeds were sown in the second week of August in his glasshouse.

Peter and his wife, Lorraine Harris, have lived in Latham for 44 years and, in 1971, theirs was the first house in the street. They both came to Canberra in the early 1960s as part of Defence department families. Peter's grandfather had a huge vegetable garden in the Melbourne suburb of Preston and the passion for growing edibles was in his blood. One of the oldest plants in the garden is a 35-year-old Hales early white peach tree growing by the kitchen door.

The glasshouse at Peter Harris garden in Latham.
The glasshouse at Peter Harris garden in Latham. Photo: Melissa Adams

He had always wanted a glasshouse and, five years ago, he saw one listed in The Canberra Times' freebie ads. The Eden glasshouse, worth $2500, had never been used and the Mawson owners were asking "$90, pull apart yourself". With an aluminium frame and springs to hold the glass panels with neoprene beading, it took a day to pull apart and Peter had to borrow a ute to get the heavy glass back to Latham. It took a week to rebuild. Now it is his secret weapon, defeating our frosts.

In the glasshouse with its irrigation system, there are pots of lemongrass that grow all year, spearmint, thyme, oregano, jalapeno chillies, basil, rose cuttings taken last August, a soft tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica) that Peter is trying to establish and Johnsons World Kitchen radicchio rossa di treviso precoce. Lebanese cucumbers were ready for harvesting on December 9 as were blue lake beans grown from D.T. Brown seeds. Plants like capsicums and eggplant that are slow to get going in our spring are raised to seedling stage in the glasshouse.

The back-garden vegetable beds are kept in immaculate condition. Red Russian and thousand head kale grow beside two rows of ball- and heart-shaped heirloom cabbages including red Verona from New Gippsland seed, heirloom self-blanching cauliflowers, Amsterdam forcing carrots from The Lost Seed company, mustard spinach. Peter's favourite garden tool is a long-handled old fork he found on a trip to a property at Bairnsdale.

Peter Harris' seed bank is a former ammunition box.
Peter Harris' seed bank is a former ammunition box. Photo: Melissa Adams

He grows three types of radishes, silverbeet, parsnips, beetroot, parsley, a large fennel plant, Glaskins perpetual rhubarb from New Gippsland company, and as well as Opa's brandywine tomatoes there are red cherry tomatoes from D.T. Brown seed, roma and grosse lisse varieties.

As well as growing, Peter also loves to cook. He skins the Roma tomatoes and the Opa's which he also chops because they are odd-shaped and, in late February, he uses Fowlers vacola bottling system to preserve the produce. Apart from the tomatoes, he bottles cylindrical forono beetroot and makes Italian pickled vegetables, pasta sauces and moussaka with home-grown ingredients.

During our visit there was a fresh rainbow trout, caught that morning in Lake Eucumbene by a family member, ready for it to be smoked in an outdoor smoker constructed by Peter. He and Lorraine serve the trout with a fresh tomato sauce or coleslaw, both made with home-grown vegetables.

Smoked trout with coleslaw

The brine:

1 cup sea salt, not iodised
1 cup heavy brown sugar
half cup lemon juice
5 litres water

The cleaned whole trout is soaked for 24 hours in the brine solution in the fridge. The trout is removed, lightly rinsed and left to dry for one hour on a rack.

Smoking:

Put trout in smoker, using hickory chips, for approximately four hours. Allow to cool and store in fridge.

Fresh tomato sauce

1 kg fresh tomatoes
2 red onions
2 cloves garlic, chopped
fresh herbs, preferably basil and oregano
olive oil
cracked black pepper

Gently cook onion in olive oil until translucent, add garlic and cook until just coloured. Add chopped fresh tomatoes (or bottled), the tomatoes can be skinned by immersing in boiling water until the skins split, then cool and peel. Add herbs. Simmer gently until the sauce thickens. Take off the heat and add flaked smoked trout. Serve over your favourite pasta, sprinkled with finely chopped parsley and a grinding of black pepper.

Coleslaw

2 cups shredded green cabbage
2 cups shredded red cabbage
1 cup grated carrot
1 cup thinly sliced capsicum (red and/or green)
quarter cup each of chopped parsley and mint leaves

Toss with your favourite dressing and flake the smoked trout on top.

Susan Parsons is a Canberra writer.