FAMILY: Various

Most people in north Queensland eagerly await the arrival of the summer monsoon rains that give relief from the hot, humid and dusty conditions of the dry season. It is a time of rebirth and renewal as the parched bush spurts into life. With the rain comes a change of colours from greys and browns to lush greens of many shades. So as John describes, with some design and method and working with the natural system, the wet season is a time of much promise.

Once the monsoon rains begin in north Queensland, the grasses and plants and herbs grow seemingly overnight. Many come into flower very quickly to complete their annual cycle while the moisture abounds. The native trees are stimulated to flower. The tea-trees (Melaleuca viridiflora) are most attractive, with their large bottlebrush flowers of red, pink, green and cream that provide bulk nectar for the bees and whose scent enriches the fresh air.

The rains fill dams and water tanks to overflowing. When you live in the bush and have no other source of water, the rainwater tanks full of pure and precious water give you a great feeling of security. As the dams quickly fill, we also are filled with hope, knowing we'll be able to grow our vegetables and water our fruit trees in the coming dry months. The water in the dams becomes symbolic of the juice in our future fruit.

One of the most pleasing aspects of the wet is that the creeks start flowing again after lying dry for several months. It is a joy to see the water rise in the creeks and to hear again the sounds of children enjoying themselves in the refreshed waterholes.

The wet season eliminates the need for artificial irrigation (a chore we face in the drier months), because rain is virtually guaranteed for a period of three to five months, although the pattern and volume vary from year to year.

We can get 100 mm to 200 mm of rain in a couple of days or even 100 mm in a couple of hours, so we plant in raised beds. Under this system, our vegetables grow successfully even when the surrounding countryside is under water for several days.

It is important to follow certain procedures. Firstly, plant all seeds directly into raised and enriched beds early in the wet season. Secondly, when the plants are up and a week or two old, mulch all the ground around them with a thick layer of old hay, straw, grass clippings, leaves or whatever is available. This is an important step towards success. It means that the tropical downpours will be filtered gently through the mulch so that the soil does not pack down hard, or worse still, wash away from around the young plants' roots. Neither does the soil splash up the stems and over the leaves of young plants where it can build up to bring the plant down or encourage rot. However, keep the mulch away from immediate contact with the stems of the plants.

Mulch along the sides and between the vegetable beds. We often tear up cardboard boxes for this. Cardboard prevents any weeds growing between the beds, and as this is where you will walk, it also helps to keep the ground underfoot from becoming too muddy.

It is important that the mulch layer be thick enough to stop weeds germinating (you can imagine the prolific weed growth we have in the wet season), but you can hand-pull any weeds that do find their way through.

First of all, we plant a good bed of maize which thrives on any amount of water and, except for the problem of 'lodging' (falling over in wet and windy weather), can grow well in the wet. Varieties like Flat Red, Yellow Dent and even popcorn are fine. We plant several patches successively over a period of two to three months.

Next, we plant a bed of climbing snake beans. They have never failed us through disease or insect attack and are a hardy, prolific variety which thrives on plenty of water. We build them a strong trellis using skinny tea-tree poles that are readily available here. Sometimes the beans are ready to eat within six weeks of planting, and if the season is generous, we will have enough to last four months. Mind you, they have to be hand-picked every two to three days without fail. This is the secret to long-period cropping.

Finally we plant the cucumber patches. We have grown many different varieties well, including Marketmore, Green Gem, Crystal Apple, Burpless and African Horned. The Crystal Apple bears a bit later than the others and the African Horned provides some novelty value. The raised beds help to prevent rot, as the cucumbers can run across the clear hay mulch, resting their fruits on the surface. The plants bear prolifically and produce crisp cucumbers. You haven't tasted a real cucumber until you eat one fresh from the garden where it was grown organically with plenty of water.

We also plant a bed of okra which flourishes in the wet conditions. It is not favoured by all members of our family, as the pods exude a sap which some people find hard to get used to. However okra has an excellent flavour and the pods can be added to many meals such as lentils, beans, fried rice and stews. They are even delicious when lightly steamed and eaten with a touch of pepper and salt. Okra grows for many months, so can provide a welcome addition to meals over a long period. The bushy plants can be cut back at the end of the wet season, and with composting and fresh mulch, will grow and bear again into the spring.

Eggplants will grow quickly with the rains. We plant a few around the place and sometimes a couple will grow on as a perennial, dying out after a few years. Not all eggplants will do this, so any that do survive a couple of years are prized and treated with special care. They need to be composted, staked and pruned.

We plant trombone pumpkins in a spot where there is plenty of room. They have excellent flavour, and with care, can be stored until November. They are harvested carefully when completely ripe, then cured before being stored.

We also like to grow New Guinea beans. They're planted where they can spread out and climb through the native trees. In a good season we eat them for months, but some years get little return from the vines. They must be picked regularly when just past the 'zucchini size', and can be cooked and used in the same way as zucchini. The unpicked ones will grow into giant fruits and, if harvested when fully mature, can be dried and cured into gourds of interesting shape and size.

Good, early rain in December means we can plant a bed of rock melons. This season they failed, but excellent fruit can be grown, even though it is a bit watery in flavour. The fruit has to be lifted off the mulch, and a piece of plastic or wood placed under them to prevent rot.

Sometimes we are lucky and Ceylon spinach grows where it self-seeded the previous year. This is an excellent tropical green vegetable and can be cultivated on a trellis, as it is a climber, or allowed to wander over the bed. There are two types - the red is the most hardy while the green offers a bigger leaf size. It can be lightly steamed and used like normal spinach or cut fine and added to raw salads. It is prolific, and also makes good green feed for chickens.

Sweet basil loves the wet and plants emerge where last year's grew. They can be transplanted to selected positions and within a few months grow into large aromatic bushes.

Chilli bushes can grow up to two metres tall here and are covered with plump and red, hot, fruits. Birds seem to relish them. I once watched a spotted bowerbird swallow a dozen whole before flying off in a fiery dash. The birds spread the seeds, and bushes can be found growing in waste areas and along creek banks.

The sword bean and the dolichos lablab bean do well in the wet season. The sword bean will grow into the trees while the lablab requires a trellis. Both are better cooked and eaten when immature. It is also the time of the year to plant pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan). Many self-seed and provide peas in winter, if the red-winged parrots don't get them first.

We grow all of these vegetables organically, enriching the beds with liberal quantities of chicken manure, compost and wood ashes from our stove and hot water system. And the vegetables are grown without artificial irrigation, because, at this time, Nature provides.

John Selman, Cooktown, Queensland
Earth Garden No.77 Sept/Nov 1991

DATE: November 1991

* * * * * * * * * * * * *