Monday, November 29, 2010

Credit where it's due

As regular blog readers here might know, to earn a living I work on a gardening magazine. I mostly edit the text written by everyone else, including our real experts in gardening – and it's thanks to them that I have learned what little I know about gardening. Sometimes they even let me write the odd story.

However, the best part of my job each month is to look at photos – readers' photos – I love it. All photos sent into the magazine eventually come to me. We have a very popular "Readers' Photos" section in the mag each month, and I am the first port of call for entrants to that part of the mag. Right now we're also running a "My great vegie patch" competition, and I get all those photos first, too.

My job is simple. I sort through all the entries and pick the "finalists", from which our judging team then picks the winners (to keep everything fair and impartial, I don't get to pick any winners). In a way it's great not to have to choose a winner, as the standard of photos sent in by readers is always so astonishingly good.

I guess it's time for digital cameras to be given credit where it's due. These things have enabled so many average backyard gardeners and wildlife lovers to take some stunning photos in recent years. The amazing macro shots and brilliant 'capture the moment' pix that land in my email in-box each day often just make my day. I'm always calling out to Pam to "come and check this out" as another stunner arrives.

Anyway, as I've just had an inspiring day with a particularly colourful and lovely bunch of new photo competition entries coming in, I thought I'd grab a quick selection of my own digital photos and post them in a meaningless bunch, to give credit where it's due – to the people who invented digital cameras. Thank you! (As ever, click on the photos and they should pop up much bigger).

Bromeliad flower in Darwin, looking like a space alien.

Scadoxus bloom in September, catching the afternoon light.

Louisiana iris bloom in October, a brief but glorious reign.

Frangipani flower that lasts all summer long, intoxicating in its sweet scent.

'Fire, fire, that plant is on fire!' No it's not, it's just Crassula 'Campfire'.

Sometimes humble green foliage does the trick, such as this Ajuga.

And let's finish off with the humblest and tastiest of them all – vegies. Freshly harvested 'King Edward' spuds. Glam spuds, who would've thunk it?

I know from my own sloppy methods of photography, that if I take enough shots, a couple will be good enough to use in my blog. If only you saw my lousy shots – there are thousands of them! And so that's my only photographic tip I have to share. Just take lots of pix and some will end up good enough to use. Works for me!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Innocent bystander

"I wasn't doing nuthin' officer. I was just growing here, minding my own business, when these pelargoniums muscled their way in. If there's anyone trying to take over this garden it's them, not me."

Poor old society garlic, it's the innocent bystander in my garden. Other plants cause trouble, while it either becomes their victim at worst, or just ignores all the kerfuffle and keeps on growing, at best. Right now it's in bloom, so it's time for this shy little person to take centre-stage in Amateur Land for a moment.

Formally, it's known as Tulbaghia violacea, and the violacea part of its name refers to the violet-coloured flowers. It's a native of Southern Africa, and I've seen photos of mass plantings of it in bloom over there, and they do look spectacular. Here in my garden there are just a handful of plants and they hardly stand out, even when in bloom.

My plants must be at least 10 years old now. They've been dug up, divided and moved several times as planting plans change. They tend to come last in my plans. "Well, where will I put the society garlic now?" is one of the last decisions during a revamp. No matter where I put it, it grows.

I didn't buy the plant for its flowers. I knew nothing about it. I thought it was a foliage plant, and I just liked the variegated grassy foliage. When the first flowers appeared, I just considered them a very pleasant, unexpected bonus.

Very probably I am not growing them correctly. They're in a semi-shaded spot that gets direct overhead sun in the middle of the day, but is shaded both in the morning and afternoon. This probably explains why its flowering is fitful, just a couple of spikes per plant.

However, my abiding view of this plant is that it's always being beaten up by other plants. Weeds infest it easily. That lime-leafed pelargonium is always reaching over to cover it up. There always seems to be something muscling in on my society garlic's patch of ground. And yet it has been here 10 years at least, is never attacked by pests and survives almost exclusively on natural rainfall and the scant flow of nutrients that rolls downhill from nearby vegies in sunnier spots.

Last year I dug up the society garlic clump (it grows from small bulbs) and separated it into 10 smaller, distinct clumps of bulbs, which I have planted in a circle around my frangipani tree. Call me a slow learner, but I am starting to think I am onto a good thing with my tough little society garlic. (And no, it's not related to garlic. Its leaves and bulbs just pong in a garlic-like way, hence the common name).

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sweet scents

It will be a major innovation when they finally figure out how to do it, but wouldn't it be nice if someone invented a 'scratch and sniff' widget which you could add to gardening blogs? I have the perfect use for such a nifty little device – my Gardenia radicans is blooming, and as I opened our back door this morning the sweet scent of its blooms was lingering at the door to bid me 'good morning'.

The first, crisp white blooms are out and you can see from all the buds here that over the next couple of days the glossy green foliage will almost disappear under the snowy eruptions.
Gardenias have such a sweet scent that they're probably not everyone's favourite scent. I don't like them when brought indoors. They quickly cloy up a hallway when left in a vase. But diluted with fresh morning air, they're just delightful.

I must admit to being a bit of a 'green and white' fan, which is why I planted gardenias. They're growing in three identical sandstone planter boxes at the edge of our tile-floored pergola area, and are largely trouble-free plants, provided you pander to their greed for food. They'll let you know they need feeding when their leaves turn yellow, which looks alarming, but the dreadful pallor soon passes after a feed.

The gardenias are close to my little water garden, and the whole thing looked very picturesque this morning.

I presume fish can't smell. If they did my goldfish probably would be overwhelmed by being so close to all those sweet-scented blooms. At least the goldfish have something in common with the gardenias – both are shockingly greedy!

And while I'm dreaming of cool widgets to add to gardening blogs, it would be nice to have 'click and listen' as well. While I was outside taking these snaps this morning, the spring-song of birds competed with the gardenia scents in filling the air. The most glorious songsters of all, the magpies, were carolling away from the top of my neighbour's chimney. A red wattlebird sat on the clothesline calling (well, it's more like clucking) for its mate. The red-chested Bulbul has just raised some chicks and cheeped incessantly with indignation at the presence of the big wattlebird. The Blue Wrens, also recent parents, just hoppity-hopped about the place cheeping chirpily as they snapped up their insect breakfasts. And the cheeky New Holland Honeyeaters, with their snazzy black, yellow and white colour scheme that would look good on a sports car, chirruped loudly to his mate (presumably about the abundant grevillea nectar on offer).

Ahhh, spring!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Razzle & tatty dazzle

One of my most fabulously lurid flowers is at it again. Blooming, I mean. It's my 'Bengal Tiger' canna lily. In polite gardening circles the colour orange is regarded as being a bit, well... Mardi Gras, I guess. Fortunately I don't stand a chance of ever mingling in polite circles, and so I can indulge in a bit of over-the-top tropical colour. And that's where I have come unstuck this time round. My razzle has turned into tatty dazzle. Let me explain...

Taken a couple of mornings ago when rain was about, this is the canna lily in bloom, with these big, soft flowers sitting atop a spike that's about at human head height.

The 'Bengal Tiger' part of its name comes from the striped foliage, which is even more tropical looking than the flowers.

This is that tall flower spike I mentioned earlier. As each dazzling bloom ends, another one lower down the stalk pops out and blooms for a week. This thing sends up lots of spikes and blooms for most of the summer, and it doesn't need much help from me. In fact I've done the opposite.

I've pulled most of it out. It spreads like crazy. From one plant in a 6-inch pot five or six years ago it grew into a monster clump that spread more than a metre in every direction. And when its flower spikes came up amongst Pam's beloved frangipani and actually dared to rub against the frangi's tender bark, well that was it! So I dug up the clumps, replanted just a few, and replaced them with another tropical flowering beauty that I hoped would be better behaved. And that's where my cunning plan came somewhat unstuck.

This close-up of my ornamental Red Tower flowering ginger doesn't look like a plan coming unstuck.

I planted a few of them, and this is another one. Again, not so bad close up.

However, take a few steps back and check out the hideous, tatty foliage! Not sure what I've done wrong here. I've fed it, watered it and patrolled for pests – and the foliage looks dreadful. Maybe I need to cut it back in spring, but as I could see the flower buds forming at that time that is the last thing I wanted to do. So I obviously need to do some research to find out where I went so horribly wrong.

Why did I get rid of good old razzle and replace it with tatty dazzle? Just file it away in that bulging folder labelled "regrets, I have a few", I guess. Next year I promise to do better.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Crunchy munchies

My girl Pam likes her healthy snacks: carrot sticks, celery sticks and cucumber sticks. (I think all this health food puts the cosmic balance of our house out of whack, so I balance things out with Peanut Butter on toast.) Simply because I have never grown cucumbers before, I decided that I would have a go at providing Pam with some home-grown healthy crunchy munchies in the form of some Lebanese cucumbers.

Now, before you start hitting the comment button with "you're doing it wrong, Bozo" comments, yes I know I should be growing them up a trellis of some sort. The problem is that I've run out of space for trellises, and my vegie growing books say you can grow them along the ground, if you plant them into a raised mound. So that's what I'm doing. After a slowish start in October, rainy November has been just what the cucumber plants wanted.

The first of them is almost ready to harvest already. Naturally enough I've sown the cucumbers into soil enriched with a stack of home-made compost and generous handfuls of pelletised chicken manure. Cucumbers love their 'good going' so I hear.

While not spectacular the cucumber flowers are plentiful, cheerful and a pleasing sunny yellow for the brief time they appear.

Behind most of the flowers you can see the baby cucumbers already forming. No doubt we will end up with a glut, and so anyone coming over to our place will probably find some Greek-style Tzatziki dip on the table (for the recipe, see below).

"Where's my trellis, man?" asks the seeking tendril. Sorry bud, hit the low road, you're a groundcover plant this time round. While growing cucumbers on the ground definitely isn't recommended, I think I should be able to keep the fruit looking good by being attentive to keeping fresh straw mulch beneath the developing fruits. We'll just find out whether this works or not over the next few weeks, I guess.

While the wet weather is a blessing at the moment, it also threatens the usual curse of powdery mildew fungal attack which affects all the cucurbits such as cucumbers, zucchinis, marrows, squash, melons and pumpkins. This time round I'm using a new organic product called Eco-Fungicide. As far as I understand it, it's basically glorified bi-carb soda, but I've been told it works. You need to mix up a batch and use it all that day (it doesn't store), and that means adding a spoonful of the powder to water, along with a thimble full of vegetable oil or horticultural oil. So far so good - no powdery mildew on the plants, so it seems to work well. Last year I used the home-made organic solution of watered-down milk sprays, and these worked fairly well but you had to respray constantly, and it was a bit of a hassle to stay on top of the problem.

Finally, a recipe. Tzatziki for cucumber gluts.

1. Peel, deseed and grate 1 cucumber. Leave the grated cucumber to drain in a colander for 15 minutes, then squeeze out any remaining juice in your hands.

2. Mix the drained cucumber into 250g thick Greek plain yoghurt, then add 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint, crushed garlic to taste*, salt and pepper to taste.

Tzatziki is nice as a dip with bread or crackers, but it's also great dolloped on the side when serving barbecued meats, seafood, chicken etc.

* As for 'garlic to taste', real Greeks would add at least 4 cloves of crushed garlic to their Tzatziki, while lots of non-Greeks would think 1 clove of crushed garlic is probably a bit too much. So I'll leave the exact amount of crushed garlic up to you. I'm a 1 clove wimpy Anglo boy myself. I find too much garlic ruins the refreshing zing of this dish, with its tangy mint, vinegar and yoghurt flavours. But try to tell a Greek that too much garlic ruins it!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Country style

Change of place, change of pace, I paid a visit to rural New South Wales for a very short break, and took a little pocket camera with me as I suspected the town of Taralga, and my friend's garden, would be looking pretty in spring.

The perfect spot to have breakfast and lunch, under the filtered shade of this silvery tree. I don't know what the tree is yet (I'll be asking a horticulturist friend to identify it for me. Edit: it's the Silver Pear, Pyrus salicifolia – thank you Elizabeth!). It provides shade from morning to mid afternoon, when the sun finally sneaks in. At that point there are still half a dozen suitable other shade trees to move to, if you're feeling energetic about being lazy.

Excuse the slight 'blurry cam' shot, but this was the view from the bedroom window. These sheep belong to a local sheep farmer, and their duty is to eat my friend's paddock. The growth is so lush the sheep can't keep up with the task at hand, and they are slowly disappearing into the sea of green.

The house I stayed in is called 'Rose Cottage' and the old rose bushes in the front garden were laden with buds that looked about a week off blooming.

Taralga is lovely old historic town with many gorgeous stone cottages and lots of charming churches (its heyday was the 1890s through to the 1920s, but it's making a comeback now). This is the old 'Cobb & Co' station house, thankfully being restored by the person who bought the ruin earlier this year. Cobb & Co were the horse-drawn Stagecoach company of the colony of New South Wales back in the mid 19th-century which played such an important role in providing transport to the growing colony. It's great to see one of their old buildings being given a spruce up and a chance of surviving long into the future.

In the front garden at Rose Cottage, everything is in a fair bit of shade, so its flowering is lagging behind all the sunny spots in other parts of the garden, and only a couple of things, such as these columbines, were out in bloom.

Native plants such as these newly planted eriostemons were in full bloom in the back garden.

The herb trough in the former laundry tub was looking great. Corrugated iron and old hardwood posts are at the heart of ye olde Australian rustic country style, and the rough hewn sheds behind the cottage are simply gorgeous in this way. A bit of sensitive renovation by replacing worn beams and holey roofing iron with suitably old-looking substitutes has preserved the look, feel and usefulness of these sheds.

In sunny spots along the side of the cottage the sage is in bloom, and the acanthus next to it is about to do so. Both plants look wonderfully lush and healthy.

I have never seen a thyme plant so thoroughly smothered in pink blooms.

And the viburnum concealing the fence is a fresh drink of green and white.

No country property would be complete without a couple of dogs, and these two, Rex on the left and Walter on the right, just love a visitor – because that's a new sucker to play their 'fetch the ball' game. However, there's an interesting twist on this, as each dog plays a completely different game. Walter is obsessed with the ball. Rex is obsessed with Walter. Rex in fact has no interest in the ball at all, and never chases it. He just chases Walter. But here's the interesting twist. The only time Rex shows any interest in the ball is when he picks it up and brings it to me, laying the ball at my feet, seemingly saying "I want to play the 'Chase Walter' game". So I toss the ball, Walter goes for the ball, Rex chases Walter, and they live happily ever after.

As well as enjoying my friend Fraser's great garden, his neighbour has a magnificent country garden as well, complete with a small vineyard, a chook house that feeds half a dozen neighbours, huge, productive vegie patch and charming flower garden.

Again, not sure what this great tree in the neighbour's garden is, but it was stunning!

Edits galore here: thank you Robyn Elliott for suggesting that it might be Cassia fistula. And thank you very much also to Sue O for pointing out that laburnums are small trees, so it might be a laburnum after all. Serves me right for guessing without researching about a cold climate plant that doesn't grow in my part of Australia. I had thought laburnums were climbers as I have always come across them in 'laburnum walks' where they are trained much like wisterias are – over a series of metal arches. So thanks to my knowledgeable readers for setting me straight. It could well be a laburnum, it might be a Cassia, and whatever it is, it's lovely. When I know what it is for sure, I will re-edit my re-edit.

And finally, here's how I got down there and back. This was the first really good country run for my new Moto Guzzi motorcycle, and I'm not sure who loved the trip more, me or the bike. It hummed along, saying to me "I'm really a highway bike, you know, I can zoom along like this for hours on end without missing a beat." And I just adored rolling down the highway, soaking up our lush green countryside looking the best it has looked for at least the last 20 years. All the winter rains here in Australia have transformed what was only recently a brown and drought-depressed land into a marvel of green good health.

These country visits are a tonic for city folk. You invariably look in the real estate windows and think "I could buy that old cottage, do it up, and move here and turn that neglected backyard into something." Risky business, visiting country towns – gives you fantasies of a different life.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Playing catch-up – again

Rain falling, dodgy back playing up, the poppies haven't quite finished blooming. I had stacks of excuses for doing nothing out in the garden. And then the little garden genie who whispers in my ear said "your garden will look like crap around Christmas time if you don't plant something this weekend, you know". Genie was right, time to play catch-up, time to cut some corners, too.

Step one, pull out all poppies, all brodiaeas and all weeds. That's the first muddy three hours taken care of. Next, dig in one large bag of aged cow manure, plus some dolomite lime, plus blood and bone. Till soil to fine, crumbly tilth. That's the next hour or two taken care of. Very unwelcome back twinge in the mid-afternoon, time to stop gardening and go shopping.

Here's the 'cutting corners' bit of the plan. Instead of growing everything from seed, I just bought a stack of seedlings. Pam thinks vegies are a bit boring to look at, so she lobbied for flowers. I like vegies, so we compromised on a potager. On the vegie front I'm growing leeks, Lebanese eggplant, capsicums, Jalapeno chillies, plus some red-stemmed scallions that I sowed into punnets as seed a few weeks ago. Pam's flowers are all simple little annuals: maroon gomphrenas, yellow and gold marigolds, white salvias and orange rudbeckias – all colours which work well in our dazzling Aussie summer sunshine.

By Sunday lunchtime everything was in, then I spread around the lucerne mulch. Each little bed has a mix of flowers and vegies. Not pictured is a third bed with the eggplant and leeks, in case you're wondering where they are. It's next to where I'm standing to take this photo, and it joins the basil patch which is loving the wet weather.

Finally, everything is watered in with a seaweed solution. This stuff, Seasol, is one the most misunderstood products in gardening, but I guess that's because it's a bit technical to explain.

Lots of people think it's a fertiliser, but it's not. It doesn't contain plant food. Instead, it's a natural soup full of goodies for the soil, which plants love (and worms love too). It's better described as a 'soil conditioner', and that means it has lots of beneficial soil micro-organisms which, most important of all, help to promote the growth of plant roots. And so, I add Seasol when planting littlies, to get their roots growing and to help them settle into their new home. Another example of a soil conditioner is worm juice from worm farms. Great for plants, but not really a fertiliser.

When it comes time to feed them in a week or two, when they look like they're starting to grow well, then I'll give them a liquid feed of something else, such as a fish-based plant food, or Nitrosol (which describes itself as 'liquid blood and bone') or something else that's essentially an organic liquid food.

And so hopefully, Huey the rain god will help my cause. Now, your instructions are as follows, Huey old chap. Gentle soaking rain every third night would be lovely. Lots of sunshine during the day. And none of those heavy downpours which trample all the little ones. Gentle rain, please, and in steady doses. If you let me down I'll have to water the garden myself, I suppose.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Mustn't grumble

Mustn't grumble. We were in drought not long ago, but it's the 5th of November and already we have exceeded our average monthly rainfall. Yesterday we got 52mm (two inches), two days earlier 33mm. That's 85mm, and the average is 83. And here's the forecast for the next seven days.

At least I won't have to water the garden. And I still can do some gardening. In fact it should be easy. The poppies and brodieas are finishing and so they're coming out, and in will go a potager mix of flowers and vegies, which I always think looks pretty.

Every time I go out to my rain gauge I think of Michael Palin and his Eric Olthwaite character in the Ripping Yarns series. Eric's main hobbies were precipitation and shovels, and he was so boring that his parents ran away from home. Unfortunately for Eric, he lived in a part of England with very steady rain. He should have moved to Sydney! (At least the Eric story did have some excitement. He did become a famous armed bank robber, even if that did happen by accident.) Where was I? Oh yes, rain. Two inches yesterday. I have a rain gauge, and I keep records. I do have shovels but I wouldn't describe them as a major interest, though.

The good news is that some residents of Amateur Land are loving the rain. I had to bail out the goldfish's water garden, as the water was lapping at the brim, and for frisky goldfish one excited leap could mean a sudden change of environment. I actually lost one goldfish that way earlier this year.

And to finish on a positive note, the love-in-a-mist is popping up all sorts of colours in the rainy weather, including this lone pink person.

So, there's absolutely no good reason to grumble, just because it's raining a lot. The deeply dry soil is getting the soaking it needs, the water table deep below Sydney is being topped up. The ground is so soft that old plants will be a snack to pull out of the ground, and anything newly planted will just cruise along with moist soil below and rising temperatures flowing overhead.

But I do like a good weather grumble, especially when Huey from above looks down and thinks "you ungrateful sod!"

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

In the beginning...

I am sure this has happened to you, too. Last night, Pam got the photo albums out, looking for one particular photo. In no time we almost forgot our mission and then started saying "Hey, look at this one, that must have been taken late at night" and "look how much hair you had back then" (that's her talking to me), etc etc. Well, she also unearthed two photos of our garden that were definitely taken within weeks of us moving in here, back in 1991. I have already done a much longer posting on the evolution of this garden back in 2008, but these two photos really capture the original garden perfectly.

We bought the property from a Greek couple, Angela and Jim, who we got to know before they packed up and moved back to Greece. Jim was your average Greek bloke, and average Greek blokes paint the lower part of all tree trunks white. It's compulsory, apparently. Jim used white acrylic paint, which is not quite right. He should have used a limewash, to deter the ants, but the white paint is also meant to keep the trunks cool in a hot, dry summer. Shame that Sydney has a hot, wet summer, but both Jim and all other Greek blokes know that it's a great look that reminds them of home, and that's really why they do it.

The second photo from Pam's treasure trove is taken from the other end of the garden, and look, I've already bought a little black Dalek-style compost bin, virtually as my first move as a gardener. I still have that little bin out the back, serving as the bin in which I keep the 'ready-to-go' compost which I make in my bigger tumbler bin. And look at all that lawn. It's all gone, not a blade of grass out here anymore.

For comparison, here's a panorama photo of the garden taken in January this year. If you click on the photo it should pop up a lot bigger. See what I mean? No lawn. One or two more plants than in the 1991 photos above (hee hee hee). Same old shed and house, but both have been renovated. And I guess in a sense the garden has been renovated, hasn't it?