Thursday, January 29, 2009

Local warming

Gardeners know that one should never complain too earnestly about the weather, as there's bound to be someone worse off than you. And that lesson came home to me this week. A few days ago, we had a really hot day, 41°C, as pictured below. Appalling, inescapable, energy-sapping heat. And then this week, my friends in Adelaide and Melbourne experienced much worse than that. The temperature in Melbourne got up to 42 and 43 these last few days. But in Adelaide it has been even worse. Somehow, just barely, I can imagine Adelaide's recent daily max of 45°C, but what I cannot get my mind around is an overnight minimum of 34°C, which is what the unlucky folk of Adelaide had to endure last night. Sleepless in Adelaide. So, while I'm posting about the heat here in Sydney, I really do owe it to my southern friends to say that they truly are doing it tough this summer. May a cool southerly wind blow your way soon, friends.

Here's my little digital thermometer the other day. 41 outside, 30.6 inside. You can escape this heat inside, but walk outside a few feet and you hit a clammy, energy-sapping wall of heat that makes you want to retreat inside at once.

One of my main concerns on days like this is my birdbaths. The water heats up in the sun, and so I replace the water in the afternoons with fresh, cooler water.

Moments after the change of water, the bulbuls moved in. These chirpy fruit-eaters have red bums and red chests, and a pointy head crest, and they love cool water.

Good old house sparrows are disappearing from our suburbs, but every time I stock up the bird-feeder with seed they're my best customers. I just cannot discriminate against living creatures on the basis of their being native or indigenous, and so I'm just as happy to see non-native sparrows enjoying a feed as I am seeing bulbuls and willy wagtails playing in the water.

Out in the garden some plants are loving the heat, thriving as if they're back home in their tropical homeland. My potted curry tree just loves summer here in Sydney, producing berries and spicy-scented leaves galore.

Down in the cooler reaches of the garden, away from the harshest overhead sun, the variegated society garlic caught my camera's attention the other day. This South African doesn't mind the heat.

My crops of rocket come and go so fast they almost seem like green trams on a busy street, and I am merely their conductor. I harvest them young, and harvest them often, but even the summer heat gets to this tough, fast crop. However, they do keep on producing, as long as I keep them away from the midday sun. And if you want to read a great post about rocket (or arugula), check out Michelle's blog (From Seed to Table) here:

Elsewhere in the heat I have broken a sworn "no more succulents" oath and brought home this person, unnamed of course with the useless label of "succulent". I suspect it's a Crassula of some sort, as I already have something vaguely like it that turned out to be a crassula, so that's my amateur suspicion at the moment.

Also enjoying the heat is my native Grevillea, which was near death one month ago and is now belting along, thanks to a spray or two of magic elixir.

While northern hemisphere gardeners seem to experience the peak of growth and productivity in their northern summer, here in gardens Down Under, summer is a quiet time. There's little new growth here now, as it's just too hot. You'd be mad to plant much now, as it would die in the heat in a couple of days. Spring is a time of outrageously good growth, so too is autumn, but in the middle of summer we don't do a lot of gardening and not much grows here. I just concentrate on keeping plants alive with tapwater and prayers for rain, while giving the birds a drink and an occasional feed, and staying away from the heat.

My backyard is a lovely place to enjoy a cool beer as the sun goes down and the sea breeze blows in, but as a gardener there's not a lot to do right now.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Desert island plants

After dropping in to visit Patient Gardener's Blog I came across a lovely little activity started by Shirl at Shirl's Garden Watch, picking three 'desert island plants' to take with you. Rules are: no food plants, don't worry about climate, it's perfect. So here are my choices, with just a tiny bit of rule-bending in the middle there – as well as the shameful use of images sourced at Google images to illustrate the selections.

Desert island? I'll need shade, so I'll make it a poinciana, Delonix regia, please. These are all over tropical Australia, but they struggle along in temperate Sydney and never look so nice as they do in up north in Brisbane, Broome and Darwin. I want one!

In addition to the stunning flowers, the feathery foliage casts gorgeous shade, and the tree itself spreads very wide. You could easily fit a feasting table underneath one of these.

Here's the "rule-bending" bit. Can I nominate poppies in general? For starters, on the hilltops of my desert island I'd love to see fields of Californian poppies. I love the dense, clear orange colour of these poppies, one of my favourite oranges.

And in a freakishly cool part of the island I'd finally be able to enjoy the blue of the Himalayan poppy.

And while I'd have no interest in harvesting an opium poppy for its toxic nectar, at least I could have the satisfaction of growing something both illegal and pretty.

However, down closer to the beach shack, I'd have lots and lots and lots of Iceland poppies to pop into vases to bring inside. All colours please, and did I mention I wanted lots? And PS: if the judges say "sorry, no rule-bending" I'll just go for lots and lots of Icelands, thanks.

Finally, I'd like something to remind me of home here in Australia, so I've chosen our most unusual yet beautiful gum tree, the gungurru, formally known as Eucalyptus caesia but most well known these days by the name it's sold under, 'Silver Princess'. It's a weeping gum tree, a slender thing that looks undernourished when there's only one of them to behold. I'd need a good stand of them somewhere to do the fantasy justice. The 'Silver Princess' name comes from the white coating on its branches and gumnuts.

Its flowers are very big, not the biggest of all the gum flowers, but much larger than average.

Its bark is sometimes underrated, as is the bark of many gums, but I'll be looking forward to that show on my island, too.

After the flower show ends the gumnuts have their turn at stardom.

However, the best way to fall in love with this tree is to see it in bloom, with its weeping habit and the ghostly white pallor to its trunk. There are a few of these trees scattered here and there in Sydney, but none are healthy. This tree belongs in a much less humid climate than Sydney's. It's a native of Western Australia, which has cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers. I guess if I can dial up the climate to keep a Himalayan poppy happy, it should be easy enough to set the dial for one section of the island to 'Perth, Western Australia' too.

(Again, I have left any identifying tags in place on photos to credit a few, but all pix have been downloaded off Google images, hence the patchy quality).

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A long wait is over

I had posted something earlier this month here
about the troubles I had last year with little rotters munching on every last one of my ginger lily flowers. Adopting the "try, try, try again" motto of the determined fool, today I have much better news – blooms!

This morning's happy scene, with the ginger lily, Hedychium gardnerianum, in full bloom atop its 1.5m long stem.

The reference books say that these flowers are fragrant, and they are, but merely slightly and only when you deliberately set your nose the assignment of finding some scent. It's not a scent that seeks you out (unlike my strongly sweet frangipani and murraya perfumes). However, the red and yellow flower colours are just a bit richer and lovelier than my camera can capture, and definitely the highlight of beholding this beauty in bloom.

Being tall, the ginger lily's flower spikes rise above the dense murraya hedge which screens off my untidy potting/composting zone, so we can enjoy the sight of the ginger lily in bloom from the kitchen and Pam's office/studio.

The development of the flower spikes is all part of the plant's drama, taking three or four weeks to develop then flower. There are seven stems to the plant this year and only one is in bloom so far. Five others have flower spikes in some stage of development, and the last one so far hasn't produced anything, despite looking perfectly healthy otherwise.

Once the flower spike gets to size, it then takes about a week or more to slowly open out to this shape. I am sure its opening would be a marvel to watch in a time-lapse sequence. The flower's unfurling process has a decidedly mechanical quality to it, with the arms folding out and down into position and, once they're at the right angle and locked into place, then growing a bit more in length, prior to sending out a few thin red tongues of stamen first, followed by the yellow petals and the rest of the stamens.

Standing back a few feet, here's the cramped jungle in which the ginger lily thrives. To the left the glossy green leaves of the murraya hedge, to the right the crinkled broad fronds of a native bird's nest fern. As I mentioned earlier, the ginger lily's stems are about 1.5m tall, and red patches mark the spot where each leaf joins the stem. All in all a handsome thing perfectly suited to the dappled light under the olive tree.

I had to laugh when I looked up one of my reference books to find out more about this plant. Apparently it's regarded as a weed in the North Island of New Zealand, so that superb temperate climate tells you something about its ideal growing conditions. Many, many garden plants are capable of becoming a weed somewhere on this planet. All they need is ideal growing conditions and a lack of the various predators/competitors that keep them under control in their home range. This ginger lily apparently comes from the Indian Himalayas, so it's a long way from home, but it seems happy enough here in Sydney and looks set to become a highlight here every summer.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Watering the garden, way back when

As a minor family history project I've dug out all of my ancient black and white family photos, with the aim of scanning them, burning them to a disc and sending this off to the small band of family members here and there who might be interested. While doing this I came across a few snaps of the house where I grew up in the 1950s and 60s, and had a few thoughts about the garden there, and the contribution it made to my love of gardening now. It wasn't much of a contribution, mind you, as it wasn't much of a garden, but the seeds of my passion for plants and gardening were sown then.

Not entirely sure of the vintage of this one, but it looks like it might have been taken before my first-ever cricket match for the Lane Cove Under 12s, when I was about 10. They put the youngsters into the third under 12 team, named us the Lane Cove Colts, and it took the older lads about one minute to rename us the Lane Cove Clots. While cricket remains a great love of mine, I've chosen this photo because I'm standing in front of the hydrangea, about the only truly lovely plant in our very bare garden of mostly lawn and concrete footpaths. I loved watering the hydrangea and loved its big, generous blue flowers.

Classic Sydney suburbia of the early 1960s. We had a row of oleanders planted by the front fence. Dad's efforts at gardening amounted to grumpily agreeing to hack back the oleanders every year or so, immediately after the official notice from the local council arrived in the letterbox informing him that other residents had complained about how the oleanders had so overgrown the footpath that they found it difficult to get by. I also loved watering the oleanders and watching them grow so rapidly. I think Dad had a secret plan to kill the oleanders by over-pruning them, but that only seemed to make them grow and flower even more. I like to think that my watering helped them to bounce back each time.

Here's Dad and our family car, the Mark Five Jaguar. All the kids from the opposing cricket teams thought we were posh and had a Rolls Royce. We could and occasionally did fit all 12 members of the Lane Cove Colts team into the Jag, too. But this photo is here not only because the hydrangea is in bloom in the far right corner, but also because the Jag is parked near the cricket pitch. I know, having a slightly downhill sloping cricket pitch isn't ideal, but it didn't prevent countless memorable Test Matches between my brother, who is four years older than me and always got to be the Australians, and me, who being the junior chap always ended up being England, the West Indies or Pakistan etc. Each time I ever amazed us both and came close to a win, he'd just start bowling faster. I didn't have that option, I was already bowling flat out.

And so with the reminiscences dusted off, the thing that I remember so clearly from these photos was my love of watering the garden. We didn't actually DO any gardening so to speak. The hydrangeas and oleanders had been planted before I arrived, or when I was so young that I can't remember them being planted. So all the gardening there was to do was simply keeping it all alive with water.

Apparently my love of watering the garden started at an early age, so my older sisters tell me. Even by the time I was four years old I was outside watering the garden. A leading socialite of the time (well, she was both head of the Mothers' Club at the local primary school and had a hyphenated surname) used to walk past our house each day. Apparently, one day while watering the garden I called out a cheery "hello lady" and she ignored me. So I hosed her.

Her shrieks alerted my mother and sister, so I hosed them, too. Apparently it got totally out of hand and as my sisters retreated into the house, I followed them in, hosing away. At that point someone got brave and disarmed me, and presumably I got into trouble (but I don't remember a skerrick of this episode and am prepared to deny it ever happened, except here on this blog, which is on the internet and you know what they say about the internet).

And so that bare old patch of ground with a lot of lawn and concrete and just some tough old shrubs laid the seeds of my love of gardening. I really only got into gardening in recent decades, when I started sub-editing a homemaker magazine. That led to me moving to this house, with its modest patch of ground, about 17 years ago.

But still, to this day, one of my favourite things is watering the garden. With our current drought-induced water restrictions I can only unfurl the hose on Wednesdays and Sundays now, but it's always great fun to do, a childish pleasure of which I am sure I will never grow tired.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Minty trims

Mint is one of those herbs that's lovely just to be around, rather like basil and rosemary. Brush past any of these three fragrant herbs and their delicious scents fill the air with thoughts of chopping boards, bubbling pots and happy handfuls of flavour. However, mint is a special case – it's a potential garden monster, a takeover merchant to rival the most rampant weeds. And so, like a wild beast, it's kept as a prisoner in a pot to tame its wandering urges and uncivilised bullying. Inevitably, being pot-bound, it becomes unkempt and needs an occasional haircut and a shave, a change of clothes and a scrub down. I do this to my pots of mint about three or four times a year. Here's how the most recent makeover turned out...

Here's the pot this morning, January 16, green and lovely and lush after its recent renovation, which started on December 21. This is common mint, my favourite, although with so many mint flavours to choose from I sometimes think I should try all the others. But those wild and crazy thoughts soon dissipate, and I mostly stick with my mate, the commoner.

Back on the morning on December 21, the pot of common mint was rapidly becoming scrappy. Leaves were tatty, probably munched by a fellow mint-loving creature. Grown in a semi-shaded spot, it always becomes a bit leggy, too. Once it starts to look like this it's all downhill, so instead of letting it get worse, it's haircut time.

I don't bother with delicate niceties such as using secateurs for the basic cutback. Hedge shears do the job swiftly, cutting all the stems back to the pot rim.

After the cutback and a final going over with my secateurs, there's nothing much left. Just a mass of bare stems an inch or so high. At this stage all it needs is a good liquid feed of something with loads of nitrogen in it. I use a popular Aussie product called Nitrosol, which is marketed as 'liquid blood & bone' and it makes anything leafy grow beautifully.

Ten days later – New Year's Day – and the first encouraging signs of new growth appear.

A second liquid feed keeps things bubbling along, too.

One week later, January 8, and we've had a green eruption. Lush growth everywhere. It always happens in a rush like this, and after all these years it's still exciting to see such vigour!

When a plant grows this well, it's easy to appreciate why it needs taming in a pot.

This is the pot this morning, January 16. It won't look like this in a short while, as I plan to harvest some of the mint to make a fresh mint chutney to go with some curries I plan to cook.

This regular cutting of herbs for cooking is one of the best ways to keep plants compact and lush. Sometimes I just cut back my herbs not because I plan to use them that night, but simply to keep them compact and healthy. This 'simulated harvest' is a great tip for herb gardens. Whether you plan to use herbs or not in the kitchen, treat all plants as if you use them constantly and your herb garden will be better for it.

Fresh Mint Chutney (Podina Chatni)
To finish off this posting I might as well include this recipe, which is from the wonderful 'Complete Asian Cookbook' by Charmaine Solomon.

1 cup firmly packed mint leaves
6 spring onions, cut into short lengths
2 fresh green chillies, deseeded and stalks removed
1 clove garlic, roughly chopped (optional)
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon garam masala
1/3 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons water

Put everything in an electric blender and blend to a smooth paste.

If you don't have a blender, finely chop the onions, chillies, mint and garlic then pound them together in a mortar and pestle in batches, then combine the pounded ingredients with the salt, sugar, spices, juice and water.

Once made, cover and chill until serving time. Serve as a side dish with curries and rice.

Substitutes: you can substitute fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves for the mint, to make fresh coriander chutney, which is also lovely. For the coriander chutney, Charmaine Solomon suggests adding a teaspoon of chopped fresh ginger as well.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Summer Sunday

One of the basic rules of summer here in Sydney, if you're sensible, is to get the gardening jobs done in the early morning or the late evening and avoid the humid heat of midday. But I'm nowhere near as sensible as I should be. I started late, around 9.30, thanks to a long but very enjoyable Saturday night being the sober 'designated driver' while all around me got merrily, pleasantly plastered at a Japanese restaurant. Got them all home safely, which is the main thing, then slept in. Had a good-sized checklist of jobs to do, then amazed myself by getting them all done. So I thought I should finish up with a cool drink inside, blogging up a lap of the summer garden here in Amateur Land.

It's summer, the perfect excuse for a fragrant frangipani shot. The wonderful thing about the classic Sydney frangipani – the one with the white flower with the yellow centre – is there's never anything you need to do to them, apart from enjoy them. The rule here is 'neglect them' and they thrive on local rainfall and nothing else. Try to water or feed them and they won't do as well. Just talk to them and tell them they're beautiful, and that's it.

Here's my star hospital ward patient showing great signs of recovery after a near-death experience. This is Grevillea 'Superb', and it came very close to carking it lately. Had a mystery disease, which sent the leaves brown and stopped its usual constant flowering in its tracks. Pruning didn't help. And then I read about fungal diseases and a treatment of 'phosphorous acid', sold here as 'Anti-Rot', which you apply as a spray. Four weeks after the Anti-Rot all the leaves are green and lovely, the flowers rich with nectar and life is good again for our patient. Phew!

No problems for the other backyard Grevillea, named 'Peaches & Cream' for its two-toned flowers. It's just starting to get underway with its flowering, but it's looking in rude good health. Again, no special care needed here at all.

Everything is just sparkling for this pineapple lily, which has taken two whole years to flower. I've discovered that I haven't been giving it enough sun (always the problem with small gardens, where lots of plants nearer the fences or too close to bigger plants get only part sun). The flowering should be more dense, apparently, but I don't mind at all. Looks nice as is.

The low, spreading Zinnia angustifolia is nothing if not multicoloured. I have six plants – two orange, one yellow, one white, this one which is light pink, and another dark pink, with white edges. Like the frangipanis, these guys need hardly any help from me, apart from a bit of water to help them settle in while they were babies.

Also in flower and setting fruit, our potted cumquats received their six-weekly feed this morning. In fact this morning was feeding time at the plant zoo, with everything that needed a feed getting its favourite tucker. And this year I'm getting more organised! There's a calendar up on the wall in the shed, and I've started writing down which plants are fed what, on which date. Last year I found feeding potted cumquats every six weeks a real test of my memory. Somehow six-week intervals are so much harder to keep track of than monthly or six-monthly feeds. So the calendar should help me stay on the program a bit better.

My beloved potted curry tree needed a bit of attention this morning. A liquid feed, plus trimming off the numerous little suckers – mini curry trees a few inches high – which try to make a break for it from the congested roots near the soil surface. The berries are forming again. As an experiment, last year I planted several ripe berries in potting mix – and they all came up! That makes me suspect this could become an environmental weed if planted close to bushland, but where I am in the inner-city that's probably not an issue.

My turn to cook dinner tonight, and sage will be one of the main flavours to accompany the veal cutlets I'll be cooking. On the side there'll be carrots harvested from the potager patch, plus my favourite way of cooking fresh garden peas, with prosciutto.

Another greedy feeder, my mint pot happily accepted a liquid feed this morning. I'm planning on doing a little post on mint soon, as I routinely cut back mint all the way to the pot rim, then watch it bounce back within a couple of weeks. I've photographed it step by step, so it's a really good thing to do to potted mint when it looks a bit scrappy.

I did a fair bit of work in the potager patch this morning, pulling out the ornamental kale which had gone berserk in the heat, harvesting all of the carrots and some of the silver beet, and planting new seedlings of silver beet and lettuce, plus a couple of rows of spring onion (shallot) seed as well.

The gaps on the left side of the potager patch are where the silver beet came out, and the big, dark gap at the back is where the kale came out. As the vegies grow fast it should all fill out and look a lot better about four weeks from now. The extra bit of curly parsley border down the right side of the patch is coming along nicely now, thanks to a fair bit of water and some regular light liquid feeds. (The shrub at the back is the Grevillea Peaches & Cream, now about 18 months old).

I've learned my lesson and will only try growing the kale in winter from now on, but it's a beautiful plant with wondrous leaf colours. Serves me right for buying seedlings when I saw them.

Another summer job which began today was the annual "repelling of the barbarian invaders" ie, my neighbour, Nick's, fabulously vigorous grapevine. Every year Nick's vine makes a grab for hanging baskets and other bits and pieces on my side of the fence, and every few weeks I just hack it back. Pictured here, the very first invading tendril of grapevine has seized hold of the pelargonium's hanging basket chain.

I've been a bit slack about keeping the bird feeder clean and stocked up. I don't believe in putting out seed regularly, as it's bad for the birds to become dependent on an artificial food source, especially if I then go away for a while. However, I see no harm in a few random feeds every now and then. I found this lovely ceramic feeder in a little town called Tilba Tilba, on the NSW South Coast.

At the other end of the backyard the main birdbath got its routine, daily, clean-up and change of water. I keep a couple of different stones to provide a landing spot for smaller birds. I need a few stones, as each will become a bit slimy after a day or two in the water. Sitting the spare stones in the sun kills any slime, and the system seems to work OK.

Today, instead of a bird, a bee was my first customer to the new, cool water. Thirsty work, collecting pollen!

I haven't photographed all the jobs I did, but I did plenty, such as trimming the murraya hedge which screens the compost bins; tidying my bonsai fig tree; repotting some succulents and bromeliads after I discovered ants trying to set up colonies inside the potting mix; cutting back my Christmas bush now that its flowering has ended; feeding the orchids; potting up some more fast-growing rocket, sowing seed for the next crop of carrots, and even more spring onions, which I'll plant as seedlings wherever I find a spare bare spot. And, of course, the gardener's perennial task – weeding! How could I forget the weeding? Did lots of that, too!

For the life of me I could never join a gymnasium (to be honest, the music they play there on its own would keep me out of there), because the best exercise in the world is working in the garden. It's certainly the most interesting exercise I know!