Sunday, March 28, 2010

The three-year itch

You've all heard of the seven-year itch? Somehow Pammy and I have racked up 20 years of happy marriage with my rapidly receding hairline as the only visible sign of irreversible damage, but as for my relationship with my potted citrus tree, we've got a bad case of the three-year itch. Not happy, it's not, and it reckons it's all my fault. Everything had been going swimmingly between us, until about four weeks ago. And then the symptoms began. Falling leaves. Curled-up leaves. Falling fruit. No smiles, no warm greetings in the morning. There was trouble between us.

Here's the miserable grouch yesterday morning. I had tried lightly feeding it, as well as watering it in my usual way, until water flowed freely out the drain holes at the bottom. And that only seemed to make things worse. I inspected Grouchy for pests and found nothing.

The change from happy to sad was rather sudden, too. Look at those inwardly curled leaves, and their sullen, droopy demeanour. I suspected the problem had to be out of sight, in the potting mix. My prime suspect was the dreaded curl grub, which I have blogged about before, here. So, instead of just watering and hoping things might come good, I decided that the only solution for our relationship was a visit to the therapist. Step one, remove plant from the pot.

The big surprise was... no curl grubs, but the problem was embarrassingly obvious, too, and it was all my fault. The potting mix was bone dry and ants were busy turning the plant's root-ball into a bustling, ant-filled metropolis. No wonder Grouchy wasn't happy! Would you like ants in your pants all day long?

Here's the plant and its root ball. The plant was a tight mass of roots competing for the inadequate water available. I couldn't believe this was the problem. I'm very conscientious about watering all my potted plants, and feeding them too. And this is when it dawned on me that the poor plant had simply outgrown its pot, and needed more room in which to grow. So, the solution was obvious. Buy a bigger pot, and repot it, Jamie. However, a bit of rehab prior to repotting was in order.

Step one, re-wet the root ball. This looks like a radical thing to do, but it's essential. I put the plant into a plastic trug and filled the trug slowly with water. It kept on bubbling away for a few minutes as water soaked back into the parched soil. I left it there to soak for five minutes.
EDIT: I've since learned that soaking it for one whole hour is a much better idea, and soaking it in a solution of water and wetting agent mixed according to packet directions also improves your chances of successfully re-wetting the ultra-dry potting mix.

How do you like my sophisticated anti-lean technology? The plant kept on flopping over in the loose fit of the trug, so I kept it upright with my nifty baked clay stabiliser units.

Step three, buy a new pot. Now, this isn't quite what I had in mind, but in a quick expedition-cum-mercy-dash, this was the best I could find. It's terracotta, 10cm wider at the top and 10cm taller than the existing pot, plenty of room to grow into, and very importantly, it's straight-sided, so repotting will be easy enough in a few years' time.

If you think soaking the whole root ball in water is radical treatment, you'll hate this next step. I used a little sharp knife to cut a few vertical slits in the root ball, to encourage new roots to grow out into the new potting mix. Then I just potted it up, as per normal.

As this terracotta pot has just one, very large, drain hole, I placed a square of mesh in the bottom to prevent potting mix flushing out too easily during watering.

Here it is in situ. The next step is to place the existing root ball into the pot, measure how many inches it sits down from the top of the rim (in this case it was about five inches) then place a bit less than that amount of new, fresh potting mix in the bottom (in this case about four inches of potting mix). That worked nicely, then I filled in the sides around the root ball with new potting mix, making sure that there were no air pockets left over.

A light watering-in usually exposes any air pockets in the new potting mix, and so I then top up those spots with more mix. The important thing is to not cover the top of the existing root ball with new potting mix at all. There is a system of fine feeder roots very close to the soil surface, and covering these over with new potting mix would be harmful to the plant's health. Two more things remain to be done, though.

One is to use a seaweed extract product to encourage the roots to grow. I used Seasol. One 9-litre can of this mixed in water now, and probably another one next weekend, too, and another one a month later should get things growing well again.

Finally, some slow-release fertiliser, to trickle down some goodies every time I water the pot over the next few months. This one is formulated for citrus, and it's a good way to provide the steady stream of food these greedy plants need.

Hopefully, this repotting will do the trick and save the relationship. But it did get me to thinking about not only the three-year itch with pots, but also where I went wrong, as it really was all my fault, and the citrus tree had every right to be grouchy.

As for the three-year itch, for fussy citrus, about three years is as long as they'll be happy in a pot before some kind of trouble sets in. Yes, I do have some other potted plants which are still healthy and happy and haven't been repotted in many years. One good example is my cast iron plant, the aspidistra on my front porch, which has been in the same pot for at least nine years and is still doing fine. But it's a low-performance tough guy foliage plant. However, high performance fruiting plants like citrus need everything to be hunky dory pretty much all the time. When it strikes they get the three-year itch big time, baby!

I've probably made things worse by spoiling my potted citrus with the best of everything: food, water, and sunshine. This good care has seen it grow rapidly, and as a result it has outgrown its pot rapidly. I realise that in two to three years from now, this same citrus plant will need repotting again, when it gets that three-year itch once more.

I got myself into this high-maintenance trap of a relationship and so I can't complain (well, not much). Now I know the ground rules, I'll be on the lookout for more trouble in about, say, three years from now.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Showtime in Melbourne

It's on this weekend, and if you're a gardener in Melbourne you probably don't need to be told about it. Australia's biggest flower and garden show, the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show (MIFGS) is on again. It's our modest Aussie version of Chelsea, if you like, but the only thing international I could notice here was the crowd – wonderful, diverse, multicultural, gardening-loving Australians from every known ethnic group you could think of, in their thousands. I was there on Thursday on very light Burke's Backyard magazine duties, but there was plenty of time for me to wander around, so let's get on with the show report.

For starters, some unobtainium for Sydney gardeners like me. Beautiful clematis loves cool root runs and so never really thrives in Sydney. But in Victoria there are plenty of clematis-friendly spots, and aren't they just stunning in bloom? That was one of the little thrills for me. Just as I loved seeing what I couldn't grow when I visited Darwin recently, this visit down south had lots of the same delightful sights, only cooler.

Sunglasses on, please readers, we're walking past the bougainvillea stand. These I can grow in Sydney, and in fact all the way up to Darwin in the far north and beyond. What a plant!

All known bougainvillea colours were represented, and it was fun to be there when a visiting couple from Scotland were wandering around. He says "These are called bougainvilleas, Margaret." She says: "My, my Robbie... my eyes are aching!"

MIFGS is always held in the Carlton Gardens, which are next to the beautiful old Royal Exhibition Building. Inside the building you'll find the floral displays, art shows and various other more indoorsey stuff, but for me it was the building itself which was the highlight.

It really is a fabulous exhibition space, and it's also very important in our history, as it's where the ceremony of the Federation of our country was held in 1901.

One more shot of the interior, as the decoration is so impressive. The upstairs galleries are very wide, generous spaces and the perfect spots from which to take it all in.

As I mentioned earlier, the Exhibition Building is where you find the floral displays, which are not really my cup of tea, but this one caught my eye.

Being an incurable boy I could relate to this chunky one a bit more easily. A Ford eco-friendliness promotion I believe, but that's enough indoor fun, let's go outside and see the real show.

It took me five minutes to get a shot of this lovely old fountain without people dagging by in the foreground, so I just had to include this one, a monument to patience!

I just don't get modern garden designers and their competition garden designs. I wouldn't want to live in any of them, really. I couldn't be bothered finding out who designed what, but this one is what I call 'Millionaire Mews'. Instead of giving excess money to the poor, squillionaires pay yuppie garden designers countless thousands to come up with something like this. Will it date quickly and, in a few years' time, look very 2010. Betcha! Simple answer – time to spend some more. I guess it creates a few jobs...

Don't I sound grumpy! Well, a few little bits and pieces of the competition garden design area caught my eye, such as this cute pencil fence for a kids' play area.

And I liked this custom-made dragonfly gate in another competition garden.

But this is what the competition gardens lacked. Realism. If you wanted to shock the judges, you could include a water tank...

... and why not a chook shed? And some vegies, and a place for the kids to play in? I won't rattle on any more about those silly garden designers, as just like the flower arrangers, they're not my cup of tea, either.

So, what's left are the fun bits, the hundreds and hundreds of stands out in Carlton Gardens, flogging an incredible variety of products and plants. Gardeners' heaven it was, and I did three laps just to make sure I didn't miss anything. Just a few personal highlights follow, as there's just no room to properly document how superb was the range of stuff on display.

I've included this little stand of colourful gumboots to represent all the amazing, different accessories for gardeners that you can find here at MIFGS. Can't see myself in these, though. My garden is where my very oldest, most favourite, well-worn shoes go to spend their last few years of life in genteel, occasionally muddy, semi-retirement.

This was by far my favourite plant stand in the whole show, so I've included several shots from Collectors Corner to represent the superb array of plants for sale. A cornucopia!

At the lower levels, bromeliads galore, with weirdo carnivorous pitcher plants hanging overhead.

Did I mention there were bromeliads galore?

In all colours, too.

And succulent lovers weren't forgotten at Collectors Corner. I think the deal was six cuttings for $10. I hope Evelyn from Sensational Succulents in Melbourne got along to the show. This was such a good succulent bargain bin. But if you loved hoyas, orchids, tillandsias, cacti and all sorts of other collectable and slightly oddball plants, this stand was heaven.

Strolling around Carlton Gardens, which is very close to the central business district of Melbourne, was a pleasure in itself. This delicate looking island of papyrus in one of the lakes caught my eye.

And the other lovely thing about being here was the sense of comfort you enjoyed by being in a large, old established garden. There were plenty of shady spots to have a spot of lunch. This wide avenue shaded by London Plane trees was generously provided with benches and tables for lunch, with plenty of grassy spots in the shade for those not lucky enough to snare a prized bench spot. And the food was better than expected. I enjoyed a perfectly respectable Spanish Paella for lunch, followed later on by some ice-creams, as it was a warm, sunny day that reached 29°C, which is warm for Melbourne in late March.

I'll have to count myself as a lucky boy. Perfect weather, and getting to see it all on a Thursday. I'm told by the regulars that the weekends are always more crowded, and that when the wind blows from the south it can get chilly very quickly. Pammy was with me for the trip, of course, and loved the whole thing too. If you're a garden lover and have heard about MIFGS and wondered whether it'd be worth it to go along one year, take it from me that it's a gardener's delight well worth visiting.

Next time I visit, I'm driving down, not flying. Then I could do some serious shopping!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Turning pro

What a thrill! There it was in my Garden Amateur email inbox yesterday afternoon. An offer of freebies from a gardening products manufacturer's PR company. I could get all sorts of free 'goodies' to road test, and even more free 'goodies' to give away to readers of my blog, if I wanted them. Unfortunately, people, accepting this kind offer would ruin my cherished amateur blogger status, and so I have turned down the offer, but it's still really nice to be offered a bribe – I've been noticed!

Speaking of being noticed, I have definitely noticed freebies and giveaways being offered more often on blogs, particularly on popular Aussie food blogs most recently, and I was wondering when some of the moolah was going to come the gardening bloggers' way.

I have no problem with this at all. Some bloggers have dreams of turning pro, and attracting readers with competitions and prizes, plus making money out of advertising, is the accepted way to become a professional blogger. I want to retain my amateur blogger status, so "no thanks" is all I'm saying here. If you want to turn pro, good luck and best wishes.

I'm not going to name the company who made the kind offer, as I like their products very much and have a couple of them in my shed already, which I bought with my own money some time ago. What they're doing is just modern marketing, and while it does no major harm I am sure the supply of freebies would dry up if I tested their product and said it was crap. So I'm just not going there. Life as an amateur blogger is poorer but simpler.

If I ever mention that I've used some product here on my blog, it's simply because I've bought it myself and found it useful. Sure, working on a gardening magazine I do occasionally bring home some of the endless supply of 'samples' that come flowing into our office from PR companies (like bottles of fertiliser, etc), but that's just a normal part of working on a magazine. I don't write product reviews for the magazine, but I will tell our gardening experts Don and Geoffrey if I liked a product or not. And that's as far as it goes. To them, my opinion is just a bit more feeback from a keen amateur gardener whose opinion they find useful.

Understandably, cynics imagine there's endless corruption in the media surrounding product tests, and I've seen plenty of it in my many years in the field. I'd have to say the worst examples I've come across are in travel writing. Writers get a free holiday to some destination and then they rave about it in return, making everything sound wonderful. If they criticise, no more freebies. This is a sad state of affairs, as a couple of friends of mine are travel writers with real integrity who tell it like it is (and their stories are much better reads). The corrupt freebie-takers annoy them as much as they annoy me, but nothing is going to change very soon in that industry. I adopt this simple rule with reading a travel story. If it sounds too wonderful, too good without a "but" or "however" anywhere, I don't trust it at all, and try to remember to never bother with reading that travel writer's guff any more.

I can confidently say that my gardening magazine does have high standards of integrity, and I'm pretty sure most of our competitors are straight shooters too. However, it's the sacred duty of all PR people out there to get their products into the magazines and TV shows, and they never stop trying with every trick in the book. And getting bloggers to plug their product is a smart move. Good luck to them.

Gosh, this has turned into a rant, hasn't it? Oh well, it's my blog and I'll rant if I want to. But I do want to draw a line somewhere and it's here, on my blog. I want to keep my blog as my own little simple, home-grown patch devoted mostly to my love of gardening. I can say what I like when I like. I don't earn a cent from it and never will. I'm strictly an amateur – I do it for the love of it. *Rant mode off*

Monday, March 22, 2010

Welcome to country

There was a bit of silly blather from politicians recently in our media about what Australians have come to know as 'welcome to country' ceremonies. For non-Australian readers, these are ceremonies where the traditional Australian Aboriginal owners of land sometimes perform a short, formal ceremony to 'welcome' people at a community gathering of some sort to their traditional land. At other times the 'welcome to country' is as plain and basic as the speaker just acknowledging that they are on traditional Aboriginal land belonging to whichever tribe is appropriate to mention in the circumstances.

A few politicians recently piped up to express their disquiet at this idea, others fired back to disagree, and blogs, columns, letters and opinions aplenty flowed freely, as happens every day in our modern media.

But this set me to thinking. I have never done a 'welcome to country' in my blog, for the land I cherish and belong to, and so I thought I'd show my support for the tradition with my own little 'welcome to country', as far as I understand it. Welcome to Cadigal land.

As far as our State Library knows, this is what one traditional owner of country looked like in my area. The original tribe's name is not known for certain. The name 'Eora' is most often given, but some say 'Eora' is just the word for 'the people' in their language.

This image above is taken from a superb exhibition staged a few years ago at our New South Wales State Library, where I learned that Aboriginal groups such as the Cadigal, Cameragal, Wallumudegal, Wangal and Burramattagal all occupied parts of Sydney, naturally enough spread around the shores of beautiful Sydney Harbour. My local area, south of Sydney Harbour, just west of Botany Bay, is in Cadigal country.

We also know know that the Cadigal inhabitants of my part of Sydney were the the Kameygal clan (Spear Clan). However, nearby were other clans including the Bidjigal (Flat River Clan) and Gweagal (Fire Clan) and I am sure they all, at some stage, probably walked through the same Kameygal ground where I now have a garden. My mob belongs to a Scottish clan from the Isle of Skye, and they came here of their own free will (if economic immigrants are ever truly said to travel of their own free will), in 1840, which is a fair while ago, but when you compare that to 40,000 years of Aboriginal ownership of this land, we're blow-ins.

While I have read a few books on understanding what happened when 18th century Europe, with the best of intentions at least at the outset, met a 40,000 year old hunter-gatherer culture, none compares with Inga Clendinnen's book, 'Dancing with Strangers'. It gives a wonderful insight into how Aboriginal culture read (and misunderstood) English culture, and how our culture read (and misunderstood) Aboriginal culture. The tragedy of course is that the English misunderstanding wasn't fatal for them, but for the Aborigines the consequences were far more devastating. In quick time, they disappeared as clans and tribes, and only a few remained, not sure who they really were. But in Inga Clendinnen's book it is wonderful to read an account which doesn't descend into a simplistic 'goodies and baddies' recounting of what happened during those first meetings. It's a more subtle story than that, well worth reading if you can find it.

And so, let me conclude with my little 'welcome to country'.

I am gardening here on Cadigal land, and I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land. However I do suspect they're probably hovering around somewhere out there in the spirit world completely bamboozled by me and what I'm doing. I must seem like a strange man, but I hope they can see into my heart, and find some kinship.

I fully suspect that they don't read blogs, but maybe if someone with better connections gets the chance to talk to them, please reassure them that I, like them, belong to this land, and I am part of this land, just as they are, and I cherish it. I was born here and I will die here, just like they did.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The show must go on!

My ginger lilies definitely haven't had a glorious summer and autumn this year, yet I do not abandon hope! Having grumbled about blinking and missing the show only a few weeks ago, it's time to correct the record and say the show ain't over yet folks. However I do confess that I have done my best to sabotage things, but it was an accident, your honour. Let me explain...

Oops! I'm always adding stuff to my tumbler compost bin, and the ginger lily stems form part of the jungle I have to get past in order to get to the lid. A few weeks back I heard the nasty cracking sound of a ginger lily stem snapping as I 'moved' it to one side. "Another one lost" I thought at the time. Sure enough the stem was bent at right angles, a goner. And yet when I ventured out into Compost Land recently, what did I see but a ginger lily flower determined to put on an entertaining show. What a trooper!

This flower knows that the right way up is skywards, no matter where your stupid stem is pointing. And so in a few days from now it'll be show time, starring one very determined little ginger lily flower.

In fact that isn't the last of them, either. Another stem which was growing a bit on the sideways side has tossed up a high-kicking showgirl, who'll no doubt follow in the fine tradition set by the others. I'm proud of them, even if they're probably not all that keen on me.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Still selling well

This is almost as exciting as seeing seeds come up. Sales charts! Working in publishing, in the end you live or die (or at least get paid or don't) according to whether your stuff sells or not. And last Sunday I opened the newspaper and in the book reviews section they had a sales chart for Australia's Top 10 gardening books, and our book is number one! That's such a thrill.

In fact, to be more accurate, we're still number one. A similar gardening books sales chart came out last November, just a few months after our book, 'Organic', was released, and while we were absolutely delighted to be the top seller then, we knew it was a great book and our high hopes for it were confirmed by that first result. Now, a few more months down the track and we're still number one. That's an even bigger thrill somehow.

Now, working in publishing for many years, this isn't the first book I've worked on, but this is the most important one for me, personally. For one thing there's a chapter on our little inner-city garden in it, and for another thing I worked very hard on every single page – I must have read it at least a dozen times now, and there are a few of my photos in it too, plus a few words here and there, and my name's in it, too, so is Pam's (she did the planting plan illustrations, and they're lovely).
Mind you, it's Don's book from cover to cover, and especially it was his vision for how it would look, how it would be based on real people's vegie gardens, with an emphasis on kids and parents growing healthy food together. But everyone who works on a book or magazine feels like they own a part of it, and I'm sure everyone on the team who helped to put this book together feels that way, and that's a good, natural outcome of so much work.

So, please forgive me for blabbing on about a simple sales chart and a book. But in publishing a sales chart can be cause for either celebration or drowned sorrows (either way we hit the bottle, but that's just a journalist thing).

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Leafy homes

Believe it or not, this is an apartment block. For spiders.
(Have all the squeamish readers clicked away in fright? Yes? Only three of you left? Okay, let's proceed.)

You'd be forgiven for thinking this is an angel's wing begonia, and it is to us gardeners, but to some very docile little spiders it's the apartment block where they live and cause no problems at all, apart from swatting flies.

Here's the occupant of apartment 32B, spotted this morning while I was watering the garden below his apartment block.

He's vewy vewy small but he's not alone. Lots of Begonia Mews' leaves have similar eight-legged occupants who set up webs within the gentle curves of the leaves and make a living trapping inattentive flies, aphids and other passers-by. It's a living.

While most of the residents at Begonia Mews favour an open-plan layout with panoramic views for their leafy pads, there are some who prefer more privacy, and a muted palette of rusty browns. To each their own taste, I guess.

Further up the side path, at Tillandsia Towers, a couple of leaves have been turned into a floating condo for a very shy person who just wants to be alone.

"Go away!" said the recluse when the paparazzi came knocking, and so I slunk away, having got my exclusive shot of JD Spider for Garden Amateur News magazine.

Meanwhile, out at the front of the house they're in a delirium of leafy homemaking. I trimmed the hedges last week and so there are countless leaves still lying around, just waiting for a decorator to do something with them.

Though we don't have much of an autumn here in Sydney, it seems to me that this autumn we have far more of the leaf-wrapping spiders setting up home. It makes sense that they'd do their thing in the leaf-falling season, and while these spiders are around at other times of year, they are suddenly everywhere in my garden.

Colllectively, they perform a handy little service keeping insect numbers down, and they're such small and timid little spiders that they're no bother to me as I potter around. I'm a far more dangerous, scarier thing than they could ever hope to be. My main mission, apart from leaving them alone once I've taken their photo, is not to use any chemical sprays which might kill them (plus the bees and all the other good insect friends in the garden). I wouldn't dream of doing that anyway.

While I can't honestly say that I love spiders (I don't quite, I'm still a bit freaked out by them, or by accidentally walking into webs) I am very happy to say that I do rather like and admire them for their intelligence and natural artistry. As for what they think of me, I'm sure that I'm always just plain scary. Ironic, that.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Hello, what's this I see?

Pottering around the garden this morning ticking off a list of 'feed this', 'repot that' type jobs, I came across this interesting person in my lime tree. Somewhere between 5cm-7.5cm long (two to three inches) he/she was doing the 'master of disguise' thing and not moving a bit. The perfect subject for a photo!

Handsome devil (click on the photo to make it bigger, if you like). With those spines on its back, I am sure all sorts of creatures, including me, would think "leave this person alone". Which is what I did, of course. Live and let live as much as you possibly can, then a bit more, I say. There is a very pretty, big black, white and orange butterfly known as a citrus or orchard butterfly which is quite common around here (seen here every day in fact). Perhaps this is Junior?
Update! Yes, this is a citrus butterfly caterpillar. Always welcome in my backyard!

Another pleasant "hello, what's this I see" moment this morning was the first tinge of yellow on my Eureka lemons. "About time, too", says the Impatient Gardener (me)! Isn't it nice when a crop shows signs of ripening?

Finally, a very pleasant discovery not in my backyard, but down at my local fruit shop, Banana Joe's in Illawarra Road, Marrickville. Quinces are back in season – hooray! I love quinces, and if you want to see what I do with them in the kitchen, I rattled on about them at length here, last year. Yummy as part of breakfast, stewed quinces, but quince jelly is also lovely, too.

Quinces have an old-fashioned charm (which is why I popped them into one of my Grandma's old bowls for this photo). Unlike so many fruits which seem to be available year-round to consumers, quinces (and figs, for that matter) still have their seasons, then their absences from the shops. I like that about them.

The other thing I like about quinces (apart from the eating) is that they're the stuff that dreams are made of. If in the extremely unlikely event that I manage to win Lotto or some similar lottery, I am immediately retiring from work and heading for the country, to do some serious gardening on a decent patch of ground, not just this little green handkerchief of earth I have here in the inner-city.

I'd like to grow things I can't grow in Sydney. I'd need a country property in our coolest zones, up in the mountains somewhere, so I could grow quinces, pears, apples, raspberries and all sorts of cool climate things that don't really work that well in Sydney. That's what I mean about quinces being what dreams are made of. The 10-minute walk home from Banana Joe's was consumed with planning out that orchard!