Saturday, August 29, 2009

Backyard CSI

I love the chance to be the amateur detective and do a bit of backyard CSI when a perfectly good plant suddenly gets crook. It happened recently with these cheery people, pink pelargoniums in a hanging basket. The problem is that this is how they looked last spring. They were a happy family back then. This spring they were on the slab. Something was doing them in, and it wasn't pretty.

Let's start with the victim, back in the days when it was a healthy hanging basket of pelargoniums. The problem was, where it hung out, it was a sitting duck.

It was a mugging, a gang mugging. 17 culprits – count them – 17 curl grubs munching on the roots of my pelargoniums. These plant muggers can be found everywhere – under lawns, in pots or in garden beds – they're not fussy. They're the larvae of the common black garden beetle and they're very widespread here in Australia.

This is the classic curl grub mugging scenario. Hanging basket with an outside light nearby. You'd think a light would provide some safety, but not from curl grub muggings. In fact, the beetle mum is attracted to the light at night, finds a patch of soil conveniently nearby, and she lays a clutch of eggs. The eggs hatch in the soil and immediately start eating the roots of any plants they find. They're not fussy; they'll eat just about anything. They love lawn grasses, but pelargonium roots will do just fine if that's all that's on offer.

After I removed all the poor little emaciated pelargoniums from the basket they were all virtually bereft of feeder roots. Just the more stout tap roots and nothing much else.

Here's a close-up of the curl grubs. They're usually white and curled up like this. They look like sleeping babies but that's just a front when they feel threatened by bright sunlight. It's OK to handle them with your bare hands, as the hairs aren't nasty, as they can be with some caterpillars.

I dispose of the grubs by tossing them onto the roof of my shed, where the local magpies quickly swoop down for the free feed. In fact, if Aussie readers/gardeners ever see our native magpies standing on a lawn looking a bit odd as they turn their head sideways as if listening to something under the soil, that's exactly what they are doing. They're listening for grubs such as curl grubs munching and moving just beneath the soil.

My pelargoniums were so sad that I bought a punnet of three identical seedlings and planted them into new potting mix, but I trimmed up the best of last-year's plants and planted them in between the seedlings. Hopefully they'll recover and belt along like they did last year.

And so a more optimistic photo seems the right one to finish with!

As a general tip for gardeners here in Oz, if you have a potted plant which used to be doing fine but is now struggling, despite all your best efforts at watering and feeding, think 'curl grubs' first and foremost. There's only one way to check for them: unpot the plant completely. Go through the soil with your hands very thoroughly, as the grubs will probably be numerous and everywhere, from the top of the soil down to the bottom, along the sides and in the middle.

If your 'problem' pot is somewhere near an outside light of any sort, that's the curl grub's classic MO (love the detective talk). Book em, Danno!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Lemons & limes

Greed is not good. Well, that's what some people say, but if you're a lemon, a lime or some other citrus tree you know that's bunkum. Greed is good as far as they are concerned. Well, if it's greed for fertiliser, sunshine and water you're talking about, then greed is good. August is citrus-feeding time here in Oz, and I fed mine early in the month, and aren't they happy little gluttons now!

The pinky hue says this is a lemon flower, so too does the light scent if you get up close (although a bee might have an opinion on whether your head is welcome or not in that particular branch). Baby lemons forming everywhere, too.

Clusters of blooms are covering my baby two-year old 'Eureka' lemon at the moment. Far too many in fact, but I'll let them go for another week or two – the flowering is such a delightful sight.

At the edges of every branch, new shoots are reaching out for the sun, and these guys are my priority at the moment. The plan is not to let fruits form, to encourage more plant growth. That's easier said than done, though. It's a fruit tree, for goodness sake, and it just doesn't seem right or look right to be bereft of fruit. And so I'll compromise and cut off most of the fruits, but I'll leave a token half dozen or so to grow on just to cheer myself up. Last year, in its first year, I let two lemon fruits develop, and they were superb, their juice squeezed over some Sydney rock oysters.

The all-white, almost scentless blooms of my lime tree are pretty things, too, and there are plenty of them on my happy and healthy, eight-year-old, well-established espaliered lime tree.

Just managed to spot this lime flower bud bursting open this morning. Looks like a dessert already!

All my lime tree requires from me is feeding in August and February each year, plus a constant supply of water. Given plenty of sunshine and clear blue skies, plus our merciful lack of frosts to bother it in winter, it supplies the best little green limes for making everything from margaritas to guacamoles and an assortment of tangy tarts and puddings.

All the Aussies reading this blog probably are all keen gardeners and already know that it's citrus feeding time, but just in case a stranger wanders past and puts his or her nose up against the window of my blog, here's your reminder. Go feed your lemons, limes or whatever citrus you have growing this weekend. August is citrus feeding time, so is February.

I mostly use chicken manure pellets to feed my citrus trees but any of the commercially available citrus foods are fine, and apparently rose food is almost identical to citrus food, and so if you have some of that lying around, give some to your greedy citrus trees this weekend. And don't forget to water the tree well before fertilising, then water well again after fertilising as well. Do this feeding routine again in February and many of the problems experienced by notoriously temperamental citrus trees will hopefully be a thing of the past, or at the very least not as bad as they once were.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Momentarily distracted

It's amazing what can happen while you are momentarily distracted. You think you're noticing what's going on, suddenly your attention is drawn elsewhere, then when you focus back on the job at hand everything has changed. Well, in my case my little moment of distraction actually lasted a fortnight, and in that brief interlude I barely had time to do anything out in my garden other than sprinkle water around to keep things going. And while I wasn't playing close attention (or blogging, for that matter) all sorts of delightful, and not so delightful, things happened out in Amateur Land.

Crassula 'Campfire' decided to blush red and green at the same time. Lovely succulent, this.

The first of the calendulas, employed as casual colour for just the next few months, until I can get my hands on some new, tiny Tibouchinas which will eventually fill the same space with purple power every autumn.

Standing back for a moment and looking down the left side of Amateur Land, it looks as if it's spring has well and truly begun. It has been unseasonably warm here lately, and virtually no-one in Sydney has complained!

The right side is much the same. Down in the foreground, lined up behind Ingrid, my pie, flan and quiche specialist, the little parsley border is doing well, with not a single casualty so far. A flat-leafed miracle!

The poppies keep on popping and Pam brings in a new bunch every second day. What value!

The second wave of orchids, the pinky-white ones, just opened up today, in the afternoon rain.

And no doubt all the others will follow the leader very soon.

In the vegie patch, a second miracle. Peas. Not many, and it's all my fault anyway. I misjudged how much sun its spot would get after a tree was pruned, and the poor plants spent most of their July days in shade. Now that Sol is smiling on the little blighters, they're playing catch-up, no thanks to me, and are dutifully cropping, grumbling all the way about how many more they could have produced if only muggins knew his sky a bit better.

No grumbles from the spinach patch, though. Getting underway nicely now.

In the interest of documentary truth I now present a total and utter disaster brought on by my little fortnight of momentary distraction. Compared to the other vegetables, which are either grumbling or humming away, there's just the quiet sound of munching here. Womboks – Chinese cabbage – munched to death by slugs and grasshoppers. Far gone, inedible, a disaster. And it's all my fault. I haven't been paying attention lately. Not doing much gardening, no blogging at all...

And J'accuse! I blame it all on Andre Citroen!

Take last Saturday for instance. Week two of new car ownership. Sunny day forecast, again! Two options. One is to go outside and pull up the womboks, sow seeds, tackle weeds. The other is to run in the new Turbo-Diesel C4. And so I headed south, visited the family farm at Kiama on the South Coast (been with us since 1840, it has), and eventually made it home after a 300km loop. What an indulgent waste of fuel I hear the eco-friendly chorus cry! Guilty as charged. 300km, 16 litres. I've got myself a fuel miser! And a clean-air one, too. With its nifty particle filter, it produces a minuscule 0.004g of particles per kilometer, better than virtually every other petrol-engined car. Vive le France!

I have to admit that beneath the veneer of a dedicated garden blogger there lurks an old rev-head from way back. I road-tested motorcycles for bike magazines for many years in the 70s and 80s (that's how I got started in journalism, in fact) and so, for me, the lure of driving a lovely, interesting car is every bit as irresistibly fascinating as the lure of raising crops from seed or watching a flower unfold. Besides, there's room for both, and much much more, in my life. I often feel a bit frustrated with blogging as a single topic exercise sometimes. There are just so many other things that fascinate me as much as gardening does – history, movies, cars, bikes, cooking, novels, art, politics, current affairs, science, music, sport, socialising with friends and discussing all or any of the above, etc etc – and sometimes gardening takes second place for a while. But usually not for long. It is a major joy in my life, second only (but a distant second!) to Pam.

But back to the garden! I must go out there this weekend. Seeds need sowing. The weeds are having parties. I need to attend a wombok funeral. Bromeliad pups are whimpering. Life goes on, even when the head gardener is off with the pixies for a few weeks.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A little sweetie

When a plant is so reliable and hassle-free that you take it for granted in your garden, it's worthwhile pausing a moment to think what you'd do without it. Well, with my little tubs of sweet alyssum (aka sweet Alice) I know I'd be in for a lot more work growing something else there and I'd enjoy a lot less garden colour. So let me sing its praises for a while.

Lobularia maritima to the botanists, a native of the Mediterranean to the geographers, and a wonderful friend to many gardeners. This is the white form of alyssum in bloom last summer. You need to get up close to see all its dainty complexity, though, as the whole plant grows to just 10-15cm high.

Right now my alyssum tubs are wearing the purple and mauve flowered form, as Pam suggested this would be a better match for the succulent foliage behind them.

And she's right. This current batch of alyssum is nearing the end of its stint here, and is becoming a little leggy and less dense in its colour. But that's not a complaint, as it has been blooming well since April, and five months of continuous colour is a wonderful effort. It would keep on blooming for months more if I let it, but I prefer a more dense layer of colour, so I replace it (with more alyssum) well before it truly needs replacing.

The alyssum's job in the garden is to help hide the relatively ugly little timber and wire framework which keeps all the succulent pots about three inches clear of the soil below. This arrangement gives the succulents perfect drainage and thwarts all attempts by ants to colonise the succulent pots. But it does look a bit ordinary. And so two long terracotta tubs provide the cover-up, and it's the alyssum's job to prettify the whole arrangement. This photo was taken last spring, as I was getting a batch of white alyssum underway.

Last spring I actually over-planted the tubs with seed and I ended up with this rich, frothy foam of white blooms. It looked great for several weeks but the competition finally took its toll on the plants and the flowering suddenly tapered off. Next time round I planted it less thickly and the flower show has gone on for months longer, with each plant happy in its space. But the flowery froth did look nice while it lasted!

As mentioned earlier, I'm growing the purple and mauve 'Cameo Mix' of seeds at the moment, and the subtle mix of flower colours from the one packet of seeds is very appealing. There is also a yummy cream-coloured alyssum available, and it would be my pick, except that the creamy ones don't like our blazing Aussie sunshine and do better in part shade. And with the alyssum tub out there on the pathway, in the blazing heat of Succulent City, the cream-flowered experiment was very pretty for a while, but short-lived and not a success.

The other characteristic of alyssum which is quite charming is that it's weedy. Not weedy in a 'strangle the neighbours' kind of way, more like weedy in the polite 'is this seat taken?' kind of way. All alyssum needs is a crack in the paving to self-seed and thrive. The self-seeders all come up crisp white. This one is at the end of the path, about five metres from the 'mother' tub. As the path slopes slightly down to this spot, the seeds just floated along one rainy day and found a new home.

Snuggled in behind a pot of spinach and a potted wattle, in semi-shade for much of the day, this is another little self-sown blob of sweet Alice.

This really is a wonderful little flower. It does have a sweet scent that's probably best described as honey-like, but it's delicate and probably more noticeable on a hot day in summer than a cool day in winter.

As for growing it, here in Sydney the seed packets say you can sow seed all year round, which is as good as it gets. The plants take only eight weeks to flower from sowing seed, and sowing couldn't be easier. Just scatter the seed on the soil and water in, and this should give the seeds the very light 2mm covering of soil they need. Ideally, plants should be spaced 10cm apart, and if all goes well they'll be about 10-15cm high when full-sized.

The more sunshine you give them the better, generally, but they still will grow and flower quite well in semi-shade. I rarely feed the plants and only water the pots occasionally, if it hasn't rained for a while. They don't mind heat and dryness and really, despite their sweet name, sweet scent and sweet manners, they are as tough as old boots.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Spring has sprung

That nice, cheery weather expert on the morning radio keeps on chatting up the weather and the coming of spring, and that's been easy for him to do with the fair skies and steadily growing warmth in the air to back his optimism. But what we gardeners really need to see is some evidence on the ground, and today the first really convincing sign of spring appeared here in Amateur Land.

Madames et Monsieurs, presenting Geranium 'Philippe Vapelle', elegant and stylish as ever. Spring has sprung.

If these little geraniums are the first glimmers of spring, these must be the glimmer twins, gleaming in the sunshine.

Winter is drawing to a close and spring is sprouting some new faces to freshen up the place. Of course that's obvious to anyone with eyes or a nose right now. The deciduous magnolias are at their flowering peak right now – stunningly lovely, too – but they're in other people's gardens. I don't have room for one here, but I am so glad so many other gardeners with great big front yards have planted so many of them over the years. Thank you one and all! But magnolias are really a late winter bloomer here in Sydney. And so it's up to the next wave of pretties to usher in the spring. Pretties like little Geranium 'Philippe Vapelle', for instance. Magnifique, Philippe!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Compost recipe

Last night we had some friends around for dinner and I cooked a Moroccan-style tagine recipe called 'Lamb Tagine with Seven Vegetables', served with couscous. So this morning my vegie scraps bin was almost looking photogenic, which is not the word you'd usually use to describe it! And the thought soon popped into my head that this would be as good a time as any to do a little blog on the recipe I use for cooking up compost here in Amateur Land.

There's all sorts of things in here: carrots, beans, onions, garlic, zucchini (courgette), pumpkin (no seeds though), turnips, chick pea husks, strawberries, scraps of mint, coriander and parsley, plus apple and pear cores, a banana skin, tea leaves, coffee grounds, etc.

And this is where it goes: into the tumbler bin. The problem with all these lovely scraps is that they are a bit wet, and also a bit acid, too. Hence the need for a compost 'recipe', as the vegie scraps are the things most commonly added to this bin.

Next ingredient: dry stuff, in this case two handfuls of sugar cane mulch, the cheapest and most plentiful mulch available here in Sydney. Sometimes, if I could be bothered, I use shredded office paper, but mostly I go for mulch, as it's in a big bag in the shed, about 10 feet away, and it's easy. Shredding paper is very boring, and I don't think it's as good as mulch at soaking up moisture, anyway. Dry leaves are another option, if and when you have them. So, virtually every time I add a bin of vegie scraps, I add a few handfuls of mulch, as well.

Next ingredient is a good heaped handful of dolomite lime. This 'sweetens' the mix, keeping its pH closer to neutral. Before I got onto using dolomite, my composts had alarmingly low pH levels, which acidified the soil here, which is inherently acid anyway. I don't add the lime every time I add a bin of scraps. About once a month seems to be enough.

The next (and last) ingredient is air, and it's probably the most important one, in fact. I give the bin three or five spins, making sure that the end that was facing up prior to the tumbling faces down at the end of tumbling. (Not sure whether this hopelessly disorientates all the poor worms inside the bin! And there are quite a few in there, as I also add in a bit of worm-laden ordinary garden soil to help the whole composting process to get going.)

Dolomite lime is readily available at any local garden centre here in Sydney. It's just crushed rock, and looks and feels like a soft yet grainy powder. As well as using it in the compost bin, I also use it in the vegie garden regularly, when preparing beds for planting (about a handful dolomite lime per square metre, mixed in with lots of compost and a handful per square metre of chicken manure). Dolomite lime also adds good amounts of magnesium and calcium to the soil, which is generally beneficial for plant growth and health. And, best of all, its action is gentle, so it's the stuff to use. It works slower than ordinary garden lime and it's unlikely to get you into too much bother if you're a beginner by either using too much or using it near the wrong plants. The only exception to that little comment is, of course, if your soil is already alkaline. You'd be mad to add dolomite lime, or garden lime, to already-alkaline soils. In Australia, acid soils are the rule in most areas, including mine, but alkaline soils are common in some areas around Adelaide and Perth, for example, where the underlying rocks are limestone.

This is the alternative to dolomite lime: garden lime. It's faster-acting and stronger than dolomite lime, so you need to be more careful in applying it. It doesn't contain the magnesium that dolomite lime has, but it's loaded with calcium. I never add it to my compost bin, and I rarely use it in the garden, as it's a bit too heavy duty for my needs.

So that's my el-basic compost recipe.
kitchen scraps + mulch + dolomite lime + air
Mix, and repeat endlessly!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Parsley border patrol

I am such a sucker for a curly parsley border. Those billowy little green clouds of foliage hugging the ground look like a jolly, fat caterpillar sunning itself in the garden. Last year’s borders were my best so far, but they were slow to get going, so this year I have a cunning plan for a faster start and an equally good finish!

This is how the curly parsley border looked around midsummer last year, surrounding my first attempt at a potager garden bed. I still think the best thing about that little potager patch was the pretty green border!

Later on in early autumn, after I pulled out all the summer flowers and vegies from the potager, the parsley border was still humming along well. Into the re-prepared potager bed went vegies, herbs and salad greens. Just a few weeks later the whole thing looked a lot better just as a vegie/herb bed – with a lush, green parsley border.

This view up the path from earlier this year shows some of the curly border on the left and, on the right, the short border of flat-leaf parsley. It’s nowhere as pretty as the curly parsley border, but as I use a lot of the flat-leaf stuff in cooking, I thought I might as well plant a row of it.

This shows what’s so nice about a good, dense curly parsley border. Every bit as handsome as it is edible (and I do use it cooking, too – it’s not just for show!).

By comparison the flat leaf parsley border just doesn’t have all that much charisma in the garden, but it’s mighty useful in the kitchen.

Each year some of my parsley plants either go to seed or just yellow and die off in midwinter, so I pull them all out, even if a few plants are soldiering on scrappily. Today I replanted the whole thing, but this time I have a cunning plan – I’m using both seeds and seedlings. Pictured here is the curly parsley I planted earlier today. Already looks nice!

And pictured here is the flat leaf parsley, also planted earlier today. OK, it’s cute as a kid.

Last year’s borders were my best ever, and they were entirely grown from seed. The problem was they were very slow to get going. Parsley seeds take three to four weeks to germinate, and the first month or two after that it’s still slow progress. But if you wanted to create a nice border just by sprinkling seed, you'll get one in the end.

I’ve tried growing borders purely from seedlings in the past, but a few plants always seem to die and you end up with a few goofy looking ‘gaps’ in the little green hedge. Parsley seedlings are notoriously finicky and very subject to transplant shock. They need a lot of care to get them settled in. (Parsley is related to both carrots and parsnips, and both of these also do better planted as seeds rather than as transplanted seedlings.)

So this time round I’m trying to get the best of both worlds: the fast start from the seedlings, plus bringing up the rear, the lush reliability of the seed-raised plants. Only time will tell if it works as well as, or hopefully better than, last year’s border, but I have my fingers crossed that this is going to work well. We’ll see!