Sunday, November 30, 2008

Hooray, wet day!

Rain on the tin roof, a beautiful sound. We're almost getting average amounts of rainfall this year, but such has been the effect of the drought that the sound of rain still sends a thrill through me every time I hear it, as if the drought is breaking anew each time. So this amateur photographer and gardener heads outside as soon as the rain eases off...

Canna lilies after a dip in the above-ground ocean.

Pig Pen, otherwise known as Gardenia radicans, on its one day of good clean fun...

But in no time the crispy white gardenia blooms turn to sludge. I like the blending here of the shining pure optimism of youth, and the seedy decay of partied-out old age.

Here's the finishing touch we've been waiting for with our successful two-year program of striking a frangipani from a large cutting and transplanting it this spring. The first flush of sweetly fragrant white blooms with the lemony centre is a happy occasion.

The sole survivor of last year's successful Coleus Corner operation has really got going in the last couple of weeks, piling on a lot of growth and an almost impossibly complex leaf pattern. Quiet achiever, this one.

And the last couple of days of rain has prompted a pot full of chervil seeds to do their thing.

The climbing 'Blue Lake' beans have begun to flower, and the first beanette has made an appearance. Vegies have such lovely, complex flowers, I'm very fond of them all.

Silver beet looks handsome at all times, and after a shower of rain I just feel like peeling off a leaf and munching on it there and then.

The Eureka lemon is flowering away now, setting fruit too. But I think I'll remove most of the fruit so it can get on with the business of growing a bit more as a tree.

I could swear this ladybird was going from one little patch of powdery mildew to another on this zucchini leaf. I watched it for a minute or two and it went from one whitish spot to the next. Either there's an extremely tiny bug in the fungus that I cannot see, or the fungus itself is delicious. After all, we eat mushrooms and truffles! My organic milk spray is preventing the powdery mildew taking over the other zucchini plants (and the rest of this plant, too) but it works mostly as an effective suppressor of mildew's spread, rather than eliminating it altogether when it occurs.

Already the sunshine has returned, but it was lovely watching the rain fall down, the sky crackle with lightning and low clouds boiling with their dark grey, ferocious energy. It's hard to begrudge the sun and the clear blue sky the next couple of days to themselves, either, as everything grows with such verve right now. But it will be a thrill once more to hear the hiss of rain on the old tin roof.

Stinky and his pals

The things that pop up in your garden sometimes! Out of the sugar cane mulch this afternoon arose this little temporary red tower, a stinkhorn fungus. As far as the flies are concerned, Stinky the Stinkhorn is Mr (or Ms) Irresistible. That alluring stench of rotting flesh does it for them every time.

When you look at them close up, flies do have the most remarkable colourings. Sure, if you've really got that inbuilt biological hatred for flies and refuse to see any good in them, you could say the colours look like an oil slick in the sunshine, but if you just see them as an indispensible part of the ecology of managing waste in the environment, flies do look quite pretty.

So too does Stinky. Has a slight pagoda/temple look to its little turret of temptations, and the two-tones of pink are very newborn-fresh, perfectly suited to its short but colourful stay here on Earth.

Whole crowds of flies can't believe their luck. A big dead pink thing – wow! Little do they realise they're helping the fungus to reproduce, carrying its spores to new sites after they've climbed all over it. Try as I might I couldn't actually smell anything that resembled rotting flesh, but the experts assure me that's what a stinkhorn does, so I'll just have to take their word for it.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Evolution of a garden 1991-2008

While looking for a photo of something else, I came across an old photo of how our garden looked a long time ago, and that set me off on a pleasant little search through drawers and boxes of photos to chart how our garden has changed down through the years. And as I did so I kept on humming that lyric from the Paul Kelly song "I've Done all the Dumb Things".

Let's start with the present, a photo of the garden taken a week or two ago, in November 2008.

And here it was in "the beginning" in the middle of 1991, when we had just bought the house from a lovely Greek couple, Jim and Angela. The white-painted olive and citrus trees are a very Greek thing. Some say the white paint keeps the trunks cool during hot, dry summers (but Sydney has hot, fairly wet summers). Others say the white limewash repels ants (but Jim had used white acrylic paint). Oh well, I'm sure the look reminded him of home, and that's a good reason to do it, anyway. The compost bin was my first purchase. I still have it as a back-up bin, but it soon proved to be a poor performer. The shed, painted olive-green, housed a motorbike back then. Now it's part of Pam's art studio. No greater love hath a man for a woman than to give her his shed! And note where the shed door used to be, and is now. Makes quite a change to the look for such a little change.

By 1992-3 I had begun a steady encroachment into the lawn, hacking away grass and replacing it with all sorts of successes and failures as I learned a bit about gardening along the way. Look closely and on the left side you can see a set of screwdrivers poked into the lawn, marking out the next encroachment.

1993 and the land grab gains pace, steppers are laid straight onto the soil to provide wobbly access to the experimental range of herbs, flowers and salad greens I was learning to grow. A truly crummy little fence of logettes utterly fails to keep the rampant lawn away from the garden beds.

A few weeks later and the plantings get going. Tomato stakes mark my first moderately disastrous attempt at tomato growing. I learnt through that experience that Sydney summers are full of a whole ecosystem of plant and fruit munching insect pests which love tomatoes more than any other plant.

Not sure of the exact vintage of this shot, but let's say it's 1994-5. I've begun to whittle back the lawn from both sides. It's not a great look, but I just wanted more space to grow things, and chipping away at the lawn had an historical inevitability about it! The next few years settled down into a steady state, with plantings changing constantly as I had a go at growing this, tried growing that, and generally got a feel for how to grow things and keep them happy. The problem was, everything grew too well, and we ended up with a bit of a jungle.

These photos are dated January 1999, and by then I was in trouble. We'd trained a passionfruit vine over the pergola attached to the house, and it was dense and productive, but it was a light-blocker and made the back of the house very dark.

While I've tried to keep all the blog photos taken from the same viewpoint, I thought I'd switch the view for a moment to show the passionfruit bossing us around. The paving here is, like the white-painted tree trunks, a very Greek thing that you find in countless backyards in my district.

By 2000, shrubs such as the Grevillea on the far right had made a mockery of the plant labels which said they'd reach 1.5-2m, and had reached 3m all round. We'd got to the point where we wanted to start all over again...

And then Pam came in with this photo (above) in her hand and said "I want this. Paving up the centre leading to the shed, little side paths off that to improve access." And so that's what we did. (The photo is from an article in the 'Good Weekend' magazine, the Saturday colour mag of the Sydney Morning Herald, written by gardening writer Cheryl Maddocks. I'm not sure who took the photo, but as Cheryl is also a very good photographer, I presume it's hers.)

Please forgive yet another dodgy Photoshop cut-and-splice job on two photos, to create the panorama above, but here's the garden soon after Pam's inspired suggestion, after we got the paving boys in to change everything for the better. A lot of plants went out into the mini skip along with the turf, as we decided to just keep the trees and a few favourite plants, and start again from scratch. All I can say is this: if your garden feels like a sea of troubles and you don't know where to start the process of 'reform', be ruthless and start from scratch. My overwhelming sense at this time was a mixture of excitement and relief. Best thing we've ever done out here.

This close-up shows the handy little footpaths that still make it easy to get to all sorts of crops and plantings. On the left, our beloved curry tree in its former pot, which it cracked a few years later as its roots flexed their muscles. (And looking at the shed, I've just realised that I've got the photos slightly out of order, if you check the previous shot. At around the same time we did the paving, we built the new Tardis shed for me, repainted both sheds, and moved the door on the original shed to its new position, lining up with the paving.)

Our taste for ruthlessness whetted, we then decided to get rid of a perfectly healthy cherry guava, the tree in the centre of this shot. It produced vast numbers of very sour, cherry-sized red fruits full of seeds that invaded every pot and plant near it. And it was on the eastern boundary and robbed the garden of a surprising amount of sunshine. Trees are a bit like the whales of gardens, and removing a tree feels like you've just fired off a harpoon at a beautiful, defenceless, gentle creature. But once the guilt passed, that part of our garden started to thrive again.

The removal of the cherry guava revealed one disaster over which we had little control. Our neighbour erected a large and ugly double garage, in the process demolishing a wobbly old timber fence whose time was up. The stark ugliness of the new metal fence and the awful brickwork posed quite a challenge, but we're working on it. The brick garage is almost covered now by a creeping fig (Ficus pumila) and the addition of a grevillea and a rosemary bush where the guava once stood has covered a fair bit of the fence. The other victim of the new garage was our old lemon tree, which was struggling along despite the rot in its trunk. Being robbed of so much morning sun seemed to be the last straw for it. However, a new lemon tree is rapidly rising in its place.

One aesthetic problem was that the compost bins etc at the back weren't a great look, so we planted a couple of murrayas to form a hedge-screen.

The murrayas grew quickly and continue to do their screening job well.

This is around 2005-6, and the garden has taken on the look which it retains today, give or take the endless changes in what we're growing here. In the left foreground is the rosemary bush, the most wonderfully fragrant rosemary plant I've ever met. Just brushing past it gently sent up the loveliest scent. The only problem was that Pam hated the way it blocked her view of the garden from her office window. So we moved the bush very slowly, taking several cuttings and planting them straight into their new spot. About a year later, when the cuttings had taken and were growing strongly, I reluctantly removed the original plant, and Pam got a better view.

Every now and then I like to completely clear a garden bed and start from scratch. After removing the rosemary bush in the bed in the left foreground, I also pulled out all the roses ('Just Joey' a gorgeously scented apricot-coloured rose that was also a display centre for every known rose pest and disease imaginable) and a row of lavender bushes. This bed would become the home to my winter poppy patch, and in summer a potager garden of flowers and salad greens.

A Santa gnome in the foreground says it must be Christmas 2007. His name is Ravi, named after a good friend of ours. Returning home from Ravi's birthday lunch, we spotted some gnomes in a garden centre in northern Sydney. We didn't have a Santa gnome, and naming him was easy that day. In the background, for the last few summers I've grown blue-flowered salvia, and it's the most wonderful plant. Very hardy, it starts flowering in early December and it's still in bloom in April.

And so we return to the here and now in 2008, and think back 17 years to this beginning...

1991 and a big swathe of lawn. An inexperienced gardener just wanting so much to get started, without a clue in the world as to where to begin. It's still just as much fun, learning all the time, still making mistakes galore, still thinking about what I'm going to do next. Happily, joyfully, addicted to gardening.

If there are any lessons worth passing on from our 17 years here in amateur-land, they are quite simple.

For one thing, being ruthless is a great way to stop your garden becoming a hospital ward for sick plants. Sometimes you need to clear the decks and start again.

Secondly, sometimes a tree or large shrub which robs nearby plants of light, space and moisture has to go. This backyard was overplanted with trees when we bought the property in 1991, and cutting back the number of trees was very important to maintaining the garden's overall sunniness, health and vigour. In this small space, it originally had 2 olive trees, 1 orange, 1 mandarin, 1 lemon, 1 fig, 1 tamarillo, 1 bay tree, 1 strawberry guava and 1 ornamental cherry, all around the perimeter fences. If they had remained there would have been shade on all sides and just a puddle of sunshine in the middle. Only the two olive trees survive, and we do get our arborist to prune them for us to control their size. And we have replaced the old lemon tree with a new one, and replaced the orange tree with the espaliered lime tree. And of course we now have a handsome curry tree contained in a pot, plus the potted cumquats.

Finally, growing plants the organic way, feeding the soil by using manure and mulches, has huge benefits for soil quality in the long run. Each year the soil gets softer, richer, more full of worms and other goodies, as the gentle feeding, composting and mulching routine slowly takes effect. When we started, the soil was fairly heavy clay, and now it's a much more pliable loam in which most plants seem to be happy to grow. It takes time for the benefits of organic soil-feeding to be felt, but it probably has been the most important thing we've done here to create a healthy garden.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Happy accidents at the potato patch

I can't take any credit for the excellent confusion I have caused in my potato patch, but I am delighted at the prospect of how the next month or two of spud harvesting might pan out. It all began the other day with the sudden decline of just one plant in the potato patch. It had been obviously damaged by something, as it had almost snapped off where it poked out of 'The Hill' and was rapidly going yellow and shrivelling up. A recent windy day is the likely culprit, but the constant backyard midnight cat fights cannot be entirely ruled out. There was no alternative – an early one-plant harvest was called for.

And this is some of what came out of the hill. King Edward potatoes, now washed and in the pink of good health, even if a few of them are still just babies. Total weight of the premature harvest was about 900g, not too bad for a lot of tiddlers plus a few teens and not many adults.

I love that pink skin of the King Edwards. Soon after pulling them out of the hill I washed a couple, boiled one and par-boiled the other then pan-fried it. Yummy all round, both ways!

Here's The Hill where the King Edward clan lived. It's roughly a 50:50 blend of home-made compost and sugar cane mulch, and as I bandicooted around inside the hill looking for Kings in Hiding the soil felt cool, soft and just lightly moist. Lovely earth.

The other potato plants are either still flowering, or have just finished flowering, so from everything I've read they're still a long way from being ready to harvest. I had read that you can start bandicooting around for baby spuds after the plants stop flowering, but if you want a maximum-size, full-flavoured crop, wait until the plants start to fade away. So my premature crop of King Edwards confirms all that, as most of them were still babies. Here's one of the other plants, and it's still green and lovely and lush.

On the other side of the patch some potato plants are still flowering, so they won't be feeding me for a couple of months, I expect. The fact that some are flowering and some finished a week or three back makes me suspect that they are different varieties. At the end of the blog I'll explain how I managed to not have a clue what variety is growing where...

While I was taking a snap this afternoon of the flowers and the hill, a ladybird wandered into the frame.

And while it's not the clearest action shot you'll ever see, the ladybird then decided I was mere garden paparazzi and didn't want to be on the cover of Ladybirds 4 Lads.

The wonderful stuff-up of this potato patch is all a result of my impatience and impetuosity. Simply, I'm not sure what potatoes I'll get until I pull them out of the hill. I was expecting a Kennebec today, and I got a King Edward!

Let me explain. I wanted to grow Kennebec potatoes, because I have very fond memories (from living in Tassie in the late 1970s) of Kennebecs baked in their jackets at a Steakhouse in Ulverstone, run by a mate of mine. When I ordered my spuds earlier this year I ordered far too many, going for Kennebecs, King Edwards and Dutch Creams. Just one bag of seed potatoes would have been enough. I ended up with three bags and realised my mistake when I read up on potato growing after ordering the spuds. Oh dear!

Then the Kennebecs wouldn't sprout for me in my little 'chitting' spot. The King Edwards and Dutch Creams did sprout fairly readily, so I planted them. Very, very belatedly, the Kennebecs did sprout a few weeks later, and as none of the other spuds already planted had yet appeared above soil level, I thought "what the hell, Kennebecs in too". So I dug around a bit, yanked out a couple of the others to make way for some Kennebecs, and planted some of the sprouted Kennebecs.

What I've ended up with is a mixture of all three types in a tiny little potato patch that's just 1.5m x 1.5m. I'm not sure which plant is which. I've downloaded some excellent potato mug shots from my supplier, Tasmanian Gourmet Potatoes – – so I'll find out what I'm having for dinner that night when they finally come out of the Hill, and no earlier. Kind of makes it more fun, actually, but that doesn't make hopeless confusion a great plan or anything...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Succulent city - part 2

To start part two of my little succulent stocktake, I think a photo of the haphazard jumble of pots that is Succulent City is in order. Like any self-respecting city, it has grown like topsy without much town planning. It has suffered storms, has had whole streets knocked down by developers (ie, me) to make way for grander structures, but it still survives and thrives. Here it is, this afternoon...

Most of the pots here are not sitting on the ground. They're about three inches off the ground, sitting on a crude but effective little platform built from timber and wire mesh, to improve soil drainage all-round. With the improved drainage, most of the plants have thrived (makes me feel like I've been a responsible mayor by sewering Succulent City!) This is about the sunniest spot in my garden, all-year-round.

The photo of Crassula 'Campfire' which I showed in the previous succulent post was of that plant in midwinter, when it was at its reddest. This is how it looks this afternoon. Mostly green, but growing quite well. Maybe I was a bit harsh in my judgement about it. It has grown a fair bit since then.

I think this is Gasteria bicolor, but I could be wrong. It's definitely a Gasteria, and it is bicoloured, too, but that doesn't mean anything in the long run. For me, the most important thing is that it's happily growing and multiplying in its wide, shallow former bonsai pot.

The best I can do in naming this sunny personality is to call it Faucaria. Still working on the species name. I like the way it looks like a Venus fly trap, with its little rows of teeth.

These succulents have me completely bamboozled as to their correct name. I think it's an Echeveria, but it could be a hybrid with a graptopetalum – ie, a Graptoveria. Or it could just be a graptopetalum.

Ditto this one. Echeveria, Graptopetalum or Graptoveria hybrid? Nice colour, though. The rear pot is a bunch of cuttings getting up a head of steam.

Haworthia attenuata, a plant which has probably thrived the most since I created my elevated plinth of timber and wire. Really loves/needs good soil drainage.

I'm pretty sure this is a Graptoveria (the hybrid of Graptopetalum and Echeveria), but I just had to include this rainy morning shot again, as the gathered raindrops look more like some kind of clear jelly.

The same plant viewed from a more respectable distance.

I'm sure this is a Gasteria, and it's probably G. bicolor.

This is the attractive late winter/early spring flower spike of Gasteria bicolor.

Lurking in a less than ideal spot towards the back of Succulent City is this Kalanchoe 'Flapjacks', a plant which seems to suffer a lot from mildews, yet refuses to die. I just don't have a good spot left for it, yet it soldiers on.

Within the gaggle of plants here, I do have some favourites, and this Kalanchoe tomentosa is definitely one of them. A willing grower that's easy to strike from cuttings, it has wonderful, furry leaves.

The K. tomentosa's furry leaves are soft to touch and so animal-like. The original plant, which we bought on some long-ago driving holiday, has spawned a few dozen offspring which have gone to homes all around the country, as visiting friends took pieces home.

I've no idea what this purple spreader is called, but it's not doing as well as it should, and so it will soon get the universal cure-all for underperforming succulents: repotting. That does the trick more often than it should, too. Each of these little rosettes is no more 2cm across.

Pictured above and below is the same flower of a Pachyphytum, with different backgrounds courtesy of two larger pots in the background, sitting side by side. First up: luminescent blues!

With the background of the dusky pinky-brown pot next to it, the mood changes.

And here's the proud parent of the flower pictured above, this Pachyphytum is growing very rapidly indeed since this photo was taken about three months ago.

Another "I'm not sure" plant of the "could be Echeveria or some Echeveria hybrid" type.

Lurking in the background, in the ground, not a pot, is this Sansevieria, or mother-in-law's tongue. It gets no encouragement or help from me, and slowly gets bigger. Got to admire that. It seems to like the dappled shade where it lives.

Pictured above, the two different forms of Sedum spectabile 'Autumn Joy' growing here today - the green-leafed form and the purple.

This is how it looked in its first autumn here, earlier this year. I think this plant does a lot better in cooler climates than here. I brought it back from a friend, Amanda's, garden in Kyneton, Victoria, where it thrives. It did pretty well here in its first year, died back in winter, and is now bouncing back well in its second spring. Cool climate gardeners often rave about its performance, so I'm keen to see it do well here.

Cheery little Sedum 'Jelly Beans' occupies the lower apartments in the Crassula 'Coral' hi-rise block. They're very fragile and drop little beans if bumped in the slightest way, and these then sprout to form new plants very readily, just where they fall to the ground.

Sempervivums are another of my favourites. They grow well, don't complain, look great, multiply readily and have an interesting history as 'houseleeks', planted onto roofs of European houses in earlier times. I think this is Sempervivum tectorum.

Coming back well in rehab, this is Senecio jacobensii, a trailing succulent that belongs in hanging baskets or tumbling over walls and banks. A fierce autumn storm knocked this delicate plant into tatters, and I'm starting again from the scraps which I picked up off the ground. In the middle of winter, it produces superb purple foliage.

Finally, here's Stinky the Stapelia, a new addition to Succulent City, given to me as a cutting by Pam's good friend Audrey, who lives in Yass, a country town near Canberra, our national capital. Audrey's Stapelia is a big, healthy clump of stems, so they must like the extremely chilly winters that Yass gets, and the hot, dry summers there too. Why Stinky? Well, Stapelias are a carrion-flowered succulent, sending out star-shaped flowers which smell of dead flesh. The crook smell attracts flies which then help in the pollination process (instead of bees).

Before I sign off on all this succulent mania, I should give a plug for the great blog called "A Succulent Obsession" by a Canberra resident. He has some wonderful succulent photos and his blog is well worth visiting. There's a link to his website on the right here in my blog links.

As for my succulent growing tips, there are a couple. Sunshine and good potting mix drainage are super important. 

However, equally important is watering them. In their native habitats, many succulents experience wet, cool winters and hot, dry summers, so I simply never water them in summer here in Sydney (as Sydney really is too wet for them already) but I do water them a bit in winter if things have been dry. I tend to also replace the potting mix fairly regularly, as it tends to become over-dry and water-repellent by the end of summer, and when you start watering the plants in winter the potting mix won't absorb any moisture and the plants don't get any benefit from the water. I don't find that wetting agents are all that helpful for rewetting dry potting mixes, and I prefer to replace the mix if the plant is struggling in any way. The discarded potting mix goes into the compost heap, so it isn't wasted.

I do also use a specialised Cactus and Succulent liquid fertiliser in early spring, then again in late spring. Not too much, but just a little booster in the growing season. They don't seem to grow much in summer, so I don't fertilise them then, but I do give them another light liquid feed in early autumn, when they tend to do a bit more growing once the summer is over. I'm not sure whether that's the right thing to do or not. In fact I've never read much about fertilising succulents anywhere. It's just what I've noticed and have decided to do. The fertiliser pack encourages you to feed them all through spring and summer, but somehow I suspect they just want you to use lots of their product, then buy some more. Succulents live in poor soils in the wild so they don't get much fertiliser apart from a trickle down from rain falling on animal poo and decayed plants and leaves. But potting mixes really are barren places after several waterings have washed any nutrients away, so I think the occasional feed is a good idea during the plants' growing periods.