Susan Parsons: Why Sally Stephens of O'Connor loves sustainability in gardens

Susan Parsons
Sally Stephens with her fig tree in her O'Connor garden.
Sally Stephens with her fig tree in her O'Connor garden.  Photo: Jamila Toderas

A white genoa fig tree was in the large garden, high in O'Connor, when Sally Stephens bought the house in 2001. She moved there five years ago, having lived in Canberra since 1991.

Sustainability is a keen interest and Sally says growing vegetables seems a good use of land that comes with a suburban block. She is concerned about chemicals used in commercial food production and the threat they pose to our soils, our native fauna and human health.

Sally comes from a rural background including seven childhood years on large sheep and cattle stations in South Australia. Since 1964 her family has lived on the land south of Jerangle, east of Bredbo.

Sally studied Zoology at the ANU and has always worked in the biological sciences at the Australian Museum in Sydney, the Commonwealth Endangered Species Program and the Australian Network for Plant Conservation.

Sally Stephens' three black Australorp chooks called Rise, Ann and Shine.

Sally Stephens' three black Australorp chooks called Rise, Ann and Shine. Photo: Jamila Todras

Three black Australorp chooks called Rise, Ann, Shine, acquired in October at 16 weeks' old, were reared free range by a young man in Yerrinbool and found on Gumtree. Their extended 'house' is made from recycled materials from recent renovations on site including an old interior panel and wardrobe doors filled with cardboard insulation.

The chooks' verandah is made from old deck timbers and their 'yard' is fox-proofed with wire mesh and enclosed by recycled swimming pool fencing from the neighbours. Currently the chooks are excavating an old broad bean bed and Sally appreciates the garden work they do as well as two eggs a day.

A neglected area of weedy grasses attracts rosellas, crested pigeons and fairy-wrens. Spotted pardalotes have bred in a mound of earth for two years. Sally has no evidence that they were ever successful in breeding but they carried food into the mound for weeks, during two periods each year.

Willamette raspberries.

Willamette raspberries. Photo: Jamila Toderas

Willamette raspberries have been cropping fantastically. Sally prices them at the markets then goes home, picks about $30-worth and eats the lot. They freeze well too. Her Valencia oranges, grown on a large tree beside a protected corner of the house, are picked and juiced daily. They take up to 15 months to ripen. She has a dwarf ruby grapefruit, a blood orange tree, a young Tahitian lime and a Kaffir lime in pots.

Two cumquats, a Calamondin​ and a Nagami​, are planted in the ground. Cumquat marmalade is an addiction, made to her Mum's old recipe from the Calamondin as the Nagami is not tart enough. Sally cannot understand why commercial marmalades use pectin which is unnecessary with citrus. The cumquats share a bed with rampant strawberry plants, both mulched with pine needles. Strawberry jam has just been made.

In a self-sown jungle of potatoes, lettuces, and tomatoes, a pumpkin that is currently flowering. There is a bed of onions, two plantings of sweet corn and cucumbers. Basil grows among vigorous tomato plants.

Sally Stephens' flowering artichokes.

Sally Stephens' flowering artichokes. Photo: Jamila Toderas

Artichokes have been eaten but some artichoke plants have been left to produce blue-purple thistle heads. Eggplants and capsicums are underway but Sally propagated hers from seed that was sown later than optimal. Five leafy greens make daily salads with rocket that is growing wild.

Sally walks the dog of neighbourhood friends daily and it is given zucchini from her heavy crop mixed with chicken and rice for its dinner.

There are seasonal woes. Something ate all the carrots, the beetroot seedlings were spindly, and the fourth planting of bush beans is producing minimal results due to heat and dry weather. The fruit on a large four-year-old apricot tree has had caterpillars and 'crocodile' skin but is good for conserve. Pesticides are avoided and diatomaceous earth from Green Harvest is used elsewhere in the garden to dehydrate insects. Comfrey plants are added to the compost. There are two 10,000 litre water tanks but the fig tree is watered from an old bin that collects water from the chook house roof.

Figs have two crops each year and the first (breva) is a triumph with large fruit now. A friend's son, chef Toby Boutland​, manages the Box Diner in Fyshwick and he picks figs from Sally's tree on Sundays, his day off, to use in a pizza. His recipe is reinvented from one used by Sally, which follows. It was published in Food & Wine April 2012 from "At Home: Food for family & friends" by Jenny Ferguson.

Tart of caramelised shallots, figs, blue cheese

Serves 4-6.

2 x 24cm sheets puff pastry
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
600g shallots, roughly chopped (French shallots or onions)
2 tsp sugar
large pinch of salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
150g blue cheese, roughly chopped
4 ripe figs, sliced

Preheat the oven to 225C. Use the pastry to line a 29cm x 21cm rectangular tart tin and trim to fit. Transfer to refrigerator and chill for ten minutes. Heat the butter and oil in a large frying pan. Add the shallots, sprinkle on the sugar, salt and pepper and cook gently for ten minutes, until very soft and golden. Stir in the balsamic vinegar and cook for a minute. Spread the shallots over the base of the chilled tart shell. Scatter on the blue cheese and arrange sliced figs on top. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the pastry is crisp and the filling is well browned. Serve with dressed salad leaves.

Susan Parsons is a Canberra writer.