Fruit fly fail

Despite considering myself well on top of the fruit fly threat, this season they got one over me!

It's frustrating as I'm well aware of both the damage fruit fly can cause and how to avoid it. Some years ago, when fruit fly was new to our area, there were many of us in tears over the destruction these insects can cause. They are particularly fond of tomatoes, but lots of other soft fruits can be targets, including capsicum, eggplant, pome and stone fruits, citrus, berries, figs and more.

We use exclusion nets and bags to put a barrier between our fruit and the fruit flies at our place. In theory the nets and bags go on as soon as pollination has occurred and they stay there until we've finished harvesting. This gives us a 'set and forget' method to exclude fruit flies without needing to use a chemical, or to remember to reapply or refresh a bait/poison frequently. We've had a 100% success rate for fruit fly free fruit (say that three times fast!) over several years where we've used exclusion nets and bags.

What went wrong?

Unfortunately the weak link in this approach is the human element. I didn't have my eye on the ball early enough in the season. While most of our fruit trees were taken care of (see below), the early apples had well-formed fruit before I got around to bagging them. I couldn't see any sign of damage then, but when I harvested the ones pictured below in the week before Christmas, it was clear I had left my run too late seeking to protect them. By the way, this variety is Vista Bella; a fantastic sweet early apple sourced from Woodbridge Fruit Trees in Tassie. It's on dwarf rootstock and espaliered, so it takes up very little space - a great way to create room for (more) fruit trees in an urban garden.

I knew as I picked them that we were in trouble - but I can't resist a harvest photo, regardless!

The damage the fruit flies cause ...

 ... and a particularly damaged fruit, with the maggots (larvae) living it up inside.

From this little crop, I salvaged about 20% that were free of fruit fly. The rest were solarised in plastic bags to kill all the maggots - if you bury them alive they'll continue their lifecycle in the ground. Sigh!

Exclusion netting

We've netted our mini-orchard (15 fruit trees on dwarf rootstock, espaliered along four wires to about two metres high, in an area of about 5 metres wide by 15 metres long) so that they are within a tent of netting that we can walk into for harvesting and maintenance, and even let the chickens into to graze. The nets are supported by overhead wires, and joined by rolling the edges together, secured with wooden clothes pegs.

Believe it or not, it takes only about 15 minutes to get the nets on in spring even less to take them off again later. The first year we netted individual trees and tried to secure every little gap. However, the tightly wrapped trees were then hard to access to check or harvest and the wires of our espalier frame were tricky to integrate. We've since realised that fruit fly aren't overly determined to find a way through nets. Draping the net over a structure or tree and letting some excess have contact with the ground on all sides is sufficient to keep them out. Sometimes we use bricks or stones to hold the net down (particularly if the chooks are digging around and trying to get under there themselves) but it's by no means crucial. This spot is relatively protected, so even the wind in a storm doesn't usually cause problems for the netting.

For the wicking beds containing susceptible fruit, we also use nets to enclose the whole bed. 

Exclusion bags

We have other fruit trees dotted in the backyard, and for these I use exclusion bags. These fabric bags, or in some cases mesh sleeves, are placed over the developing fruit, instead of netting a whole tree. I find the bags more fiddly to manage than netting a whole tree (or mini orchard!), but they too can deliver a harvest safe from the dreaded fruit flies. They also allow you leave part of the plant uncovered, which is useful if you want to let the pollinators continue to have access to new flowers, while you protect the developing fruit.

Photos: Mesh sleeve (above) and fabric bags (below)

And yes, I will also sometimes take a gamble and hope I can get away without protecting some things - but with my netted beds/trees as the fall-back; I won't risk a whole crop. Cherry and yellow mini pear tomatoes tend to be less attractive to fruit fly. So if they volunteer (self-sow) in a non-netted bed I might let them go and just be vigilant to ensure I remove them if there's any sign of fruit fly strike. (Yes, I know, some people get away with everything, every year, but I'm afraid that's not the case at our place ... and yes, even the cherry tomatoes have taken a hit previously!).

If you're after more information about excluding fruit fly from your home grown produce, you might like to check out the Seed Savers Albury-Wodonga fact sheet on fruit fly, which you can grab here. It includes where to source exclusion products online and locally. Or visit preventfruitfly.com.au, with information for gardeners across Australia. If you're reading this in a fruit fly free area, well lucky you! I hope they don't ever make it to your place!

I'm very disappointed to concede defeat even on this relatively small front in the 'war on fruit fly'. However, both the mini orchard netting and wicking bed nets were on in good time. We're looking to harvest some wonderful apples, pears, quinces and plums (blood plums already; another tree to go) from the mini orchard, and have tomatoes, eggplant, capsicums and more currently being harvested from the (netted!) wicking beds.

As for me, this latest little brush with the pesky critters has provided plenty of motivation to ensure I get ALL my exclusion done early in coming seasons!

Solar cooking on ABC local radio

Our local ABC radio picked up on my solar cooking adventures. Their cross-media reporter, Allison Jess, dropped by to see it in action. Her interview with me and some accompanying photos are on the Goulburn Murray ABC local website (here or click the image below). 

I also created a little time-lapse video of a late-afternoon "bake" of spicy carrot and walnut slice in the solar cooker. It cooked from about 3pm and fortunately it was ready by about 5pm, or the shadows would have meant I needed to move it elsewhere. Not that that's terribly difficult with the box cooker!

Video: Solar cooking time-lapse (41 seconds).

It is fun to be able cook in the garden, especially when many of the ingredients were grown there too. Take that food miles and fuel miles!

Solar cooking resources and photos

Ready to give solar cooking a go? Here are some additional resources that might come in handy for finding out more about buying, constructing and/or cooking with solar cookers.

Online resources

Among the many articles, blogs and sites, I suggest checking out solarcookers.org to find out about different types of solar cookers, plans for making them and the use of solar cookers that is literally saving lives in other countries.

Books

Our solar box cooker was built based primarily on the instructions from the book "The Carbon-Free Home" by Stephen and Rebekah Hren, which is available for loan from Wodonga library.

You can even get solar cookbooks. I have two in my collection - they also have designs for making solar cookers, explanations of the different types of cookers, tips for cooking techniques and yes, recipes!

Photos of our box cooker

I've briefly described our solar cooker's construction and use here and here. Below are some photos to try to help illustrate how it was done and how we use it. 

To create an insulated oven (so that the heat is trapped and cooks your food), this design uses two cardboard boxes, one inside the other, with scrunched up newspaper in the 'walls' and 'floor'.

The inside of the boxes and the cardboard reflector are covered with aluminium foil, to help concentrate the sun into the box and assist with even cooking.

The top 'window' is an oven bag, which allows the sun in, but does a surprisingly good job of keeping the heat inside the box.

Some coathanger wire and cardboard stays allow the reflector to be adjusted to the height of the sun. And when not in use, the reflector folds down on the top and helps to protect the oven bag.

Below, the oven and cooking dish are 'pre-heating' - note the oven thermometer in the dish, so we know when it's ready to cook. As you have to take the lid off to access the oven, it's good to move quickly so as to lose as little heat as possible when adding or checking your cooking.

 And the vegetables are roasting!

Tell me you're not tempted to give this a go! It's not hard and great fun ... I'd love to hear from you if you give it a try.

'Tis the season for solar cooking

Sick of salads in summer, but unwilling to heat up your kitchen by cooking? Maybe you should try a solar cooker. I cook savoury slices, roast vegetables, cakes and even rice in mine, and the kitchen stays cool.

What is a solar cooker? There are many types; all use the sun’s energy for heat instead of gas, electricity or wood. The heat is concentrated around or onto a cooking vessel. You can buy commercially made models or you can make your own.

I started solar cooking with just a reflector (like a car windscreen protector) and an oven bag. I was astounded when it worked! My current ‘solar cooker’ is more than five years old. It’s made from a couple of cardboard boxes, one inside the other, with newspaper between them to provide insulation. The inside and an adjustable cardboard reflector are covered with foil, to help ‘collect’ the sunlight. At the top, an oven bag provides a window where the sun shines in but the heat is trapped. Fancier versions have glass or Perspex. A black cooking pot or tin can help absorb the heat, but isn’t mandatory.

To cook, I place the oven in the sun to ‘pre-heat’. An oven thermometer placed inside helps me track the temperature. Typically my box cooker will operate at around 110 degrees in summer. This makes it like using a slow cooker. However, dishes that are usually cooked at higher temperatures can also be made; they just take longer. For example, zucchini slice that could cook in 40 mins in a conventional oven might cook for 2-3 hours in the solar box cooker. I adjust the orientation of the oven during cooking to track the sun. It’s no big deal if you forget that you’re cooking either – it’s virtually impossible to burn anything in this type of solar cooker.  

As for other solar cooking accessories, don’t forget you’ll still need your oven mitts (the dish will be over 100 degrees!). Sunglasses also come in handy or else you’ll need to stand between the sun and your oven to avoid the glare.

For more about solar cooking and photos from me see here.

Solar cookers are fun to make, portable, use a free and plentiful ‘fuel’, can be used during total fire bans, and can cook food in hot weather without heating up the kitchen … no wonder I’m hooked! 

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This article appears in the Living Lightly column of the Border Mail today.

The archive of all Living Lightly articles can be accessed online at ecoportal.net.au/living-lightly.

Join our Wild Pollinator Count

Looking for an excuse to spend ten minutes observing the pollinators in your garden or nearby? Of course you are!

I'm sure you know that as well as European honeybees, there are loads of other pollinators. Not just my personal favorites (native bees!) but also all sorts of beetles, flies, butterflies and more. And relatively little is known about them.

Dr Manu Saunders, an ecologist at Charles Sturt Uni, and I have teamed up to create a pollinator observation project. We hope to gather some data about local pollinators as well as trial this approach. We'd love you to get involved.

The concept is simple - on a sunny day, sometime in the week of November 9th to 15th, spend ten minutes watching some flowers. Then share your observations of the pollinators you see on our project website - www.wildpollinatorcount.wordpress.com.

You can do just one ten-minute count, or do a few. You might observe in the same or different spots, or on different flowers, during the week. We've even made a printable tally sheet, to help you keep track. Or you can flex your own record-keeping skills to gather your data (c'mon, I'm not the only one who loves a challenge that involves recording details, surely!?).

There are lots of resources and photos on the website to help you identify the insects you see - and even if you're not sure of the identification, you can record the details you did notice. You can also upload photos, if you wish.

We are focussing the count on Albury/Wodonga, but would love to have contributions from North East Victoria and Southern NSW too, so please pass this on to anyone you think may be interested in participating.

As this is the first time we are running it, we also welcome any positive or negative feedback about the project and/or ideas as to how we might improve on it in future!

For more information please visit the Wild Pollinator Countwebsite. Go on - give it a crack!