Sunday, January 31, 2010

Close encounters of the waspish kind

Putting off gardening jobs that need to be done usually delivers a sweaty comeuppance to the slacker responsible (me), especially on hot summer's days, when the lazy gardener finally gets around to doing them.

Here's a classic case of a job that should have been done a month ago. Relying on various limp excuses (pre-Christmas magazine deadlines, then holidays away, and hot & humid summer days ever since my return from holidays) I put off trimming this creeping fig (Ficus pumila) which I planted to cover the ugly, sloppy brickwork on my neighbour Michael's big garage. However, as Michael expressed some fears that the plant might actually entrap and devour his gorgeous grand-daughter Michaela if I left it untrimmed, I promised him that I'd cut it back this weekend.

As well as using hedge shears on the lower parts of the wall of green, I brought out my wonderful extendo pole-pruner, which keeps middle-aged male gardeners on the ground, where they belong. It seemed like a good idea, but it's slow going snipping off individual stems one by one, and with the weather warming up to around 28°C (82°F) plus humidity at typical muggy Sydney summer levels, I decided to get out the step ladder and wield the hedge shears to get the job done much faster.

Here's how things looked an hour later. Now, before you scream "you missed a bit" please proceed to the following photo.

Excuse my poor Photoshop skills, but check out the section inside the white circle. Can't quite make out what's there? Next photo please, Projectionist!

That's better. A wasp's nest. With lots of wasps. Cranky wasps. Surprised wasps. Disturbed wasps. Scared, threatened wasps. Me, I'm the disturbing (accidental) scarer of cranky wasps. It's great fun being up on a step ladder, sharp hedge shears in hand, cutting away merrily at a creeping fig, only to find a black and ginger humming crowd of wasps erupting from the greenery. Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt might have the World Record of 9.6 seconds for the 100 metre dash, but I would like to claim 0.25 seconds as the new record for the six step ladder descent. But wait, there's more!

What did stupid do next? He climbed up on the shed roof, didn't he? Well, that's the only way to access the section of creeper-covered garage wall on the far left. And what did stupid uncover with his hedge shears? Yes – you're probably all ahead of me by now – yes, a second wasp nest, more populous, more scared/angry/disturbed etc than the first one. And what's the new world record time for the five steps back across the tin roof and six steps down the ladder, hotly pursued by wasps? Not sure, didn't bother to count, as by that stage I had developed a really timely case of asthma attack. Brilliant, just what I needed. I hate my weak lungs. Cowards, both of you.

Back down on the ground, I headed for the house and my puffer, then waited half an hour for everyone to calm down, especially me. And this is why I have deliberately 'missed a bit' on that wall. I'm not sure what to do, in fact. But here's what I'm thinking....
1. As there are two wasp nests up there, it's obviously a great spot for a nest. They'll keep on building them there even if I knock them down.
2. I have no right to knock the nests down. I've been sharing this backyard with the wasps for 19 years and I haven't been stung once. They're pretty good backyard citizens, if you leave them alone. And now I know where they live, I should be able to avoid them.
3. Wasps are a beneficial insect in the garden, keeping down the numbers of pest insects (which they put in their nests as food for the next generation of larvae).
4. However, trimming that rotten big wall of greenery is a job that needs constant attention, and now I have to decide whether to get rid of it or not. Still can't decide. And as for today I'm not going out there. I'll declare this Sunday a day of rest, give my lungs a chance to settle down, give the wasps a day of peace. They deserve it. They probably had a hell of a day yesterday, too.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Pineapple lilies

I've never been mulch of a bulb-grower, simply because I can't stand the sight of the plants after they have flowered. Slowly dying down, they seem such miserable things, yet of course it is essential that you let them go through this stage if you want to see any blooms in the following year. One exception I have made to my distaste for the ugly side of flowering bulbs is in flower now. It's my pineapple lily, Eucomis to the botanists.

Quite a lovely little spire of vaguely greenish-tinged white with purple centres and yellow feelers sniffing the air.

The plant itself is just a moderately handsome tangle of strappy green leaves, and the reason I have managed to tolerate the "dying down" period with this plant is simply that it's at the back of the garden, almost out of sight unless you wander down to look at it. And it is only one plant.

However, there is another reason for growing it in my garden. Many of the classic spring-flowering bulbs such as tulips, daffodils, etc need a much colder climate than Sydney's to come back reliably each year.

Eucomis is a summer-flowerer which originally comes from South Africa, and so it really likes it here in Sydney and seems to be flowering better and better with each year. It does its ugly dying down thing in late autumn and early winter, which is a much better time to look a bit decrepit (compared with the spring-flowering bulbs, which look like crap in early summer here, when everything else is just surging along with joy – they ruin the party with their miserable carrying on).

But enough talk of ugliness and decay, right now my pretty pineapple lily is a joy to behold, and enjoying its beauty at this time of year is my real reason for growing it.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Minimalist parsley borders

In early January I pulled up my tomato plants after the crop of Beaver Lodge Slicers had come to a glorious end, then I mulched the area in preparation for whatever it is I'm going to plant there next, once the summer heat fades away. Looking at them this morning, I realised my curly parsley borders have never looked better. No other big, showy, fruit-laden, leafy plants to get in the way. Just the pure minimalism of parsley and mulch.

I have blogged before about curly parsley borders here, last August, when I was just establishing this current lot. I just love the look of them, and they're not quite as easy as they would outwardly seem, as parsley is a plant which grows best from seed.

Seen from any angle, it's a pleasing pillow of green.

Parsley's green is to me 'classic' green, rich and delicious.

Up close the plants are more spiky than curly, and I find I use the curly type of parsley in cooking almost as often as I use the more robust flavoured, and more praised, flat-leaf type.

As I mentioned in my previous posting last August, I had tried to plant both seedlings of parsley and seeds, but that experiment didn't work that well. All the plants you see here are grown from seed. All the seedling-grown plants bolted to seed in the first heat of summer and were pulled out. The seed-grown plants have sailed on unperturbed through shocking heatwaves, downpours, humidity and, worst of all, the indignity of having to be a mere, unnoticed green border around a flashy tomato patch. Right now, surrounding a modest swathe of sugar cane mulch, they're in their pomp.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A touch of jade

After yet another lovely Sunday lunch spent enjoying yum cha at our favourite Chinese restaurant in the city, Pammy and I went shopping in Chinatown. We came across a little shop, a traditional old-style one, and I bought two cups of polished jade chips, for $8. 'Cups' is what they called them in the shops, but their cups were just a bit bigger than a sewing thimble. It was only a little bit of jade, but it was enough to use as a mulch for the potted Louisiana iris in our water garden.

I've always liked pebble mulches in pots. I use pebbles quite a bit with my potted succulents, and the colour of the jade just goes so well here with both the foliage, the pot itself and the watery world nearby. At $4 a 'cup' it's an expensive mulch, so I won't go crazy and use it everywhere. But it has added a touch of class to proceedings, hasn't it?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Morning light

Of all the times of day I love being in my garden, mornings are the best. It's the morning light, low and clear and, compared to the shadows, as bright as the sun itself. As the garden awakes from sleep, dull colours shimmer brightly, dark greens become pale and young again, and honeyeaters come to enjoy their breakfast of nectar as I enjoy my coffee. (As always, click on the photos to make them bigger).

Here's the scene this morning. My garden faces north-east, so the morning light comes in from the right. There are a few bare garden beds here now, as I've just pulled out my tomatoes and zucchinis. And the birds are happy. Covered with mulch, these 'bare' beds have suddenly become a wormy, insecty feeding ground for blue wrens, magpies and wagtails.

Perched atop a grevillea, this perky little New Holland honeyeater checks to see what's going on before enjoying another lick of nectar.

A young wattlebird ponders its favourite grevillea before darting there for breakfast.

As well as the red one providing food to the New Holland honeyeater pictured earlier, this 'Peaches & Cream' grevillea, a young plant just two years old, has come into its own this summer and, flowering well, is now the delicacy of choice for several different native bird species. Maybe it's multi-flavoured, as well as multi-coloured?

As the sun rises all the lower-growing colours get a glow on. In the foreground are my zinnias, and that's blue salvia behind. The spiky grass on the left is my new pot of lemongrass enjoying its sunny spot. Far right, the basil and baby curry leaf trees catch the sun.

Against the dark background of our murraya hedge, the frangipani's leaves are X-rayed by the sun.

So too the hollow shallot leaves. Sometimes I think they'll just spontaneously burst into flames, so aglow they are with light.

I had originally chosen about 20 'morning light' photos for this blog, as everything here looks wonderful at this time of day. But mornings aren't a time for excess. It's a gentle, beautiful time of day and I never miss the chance to be there if I can possibly manage it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Garden webmasters

This is Andrew, and he has his own little spot in the garden where I don't get in his way, and he doesn't get in mine, either. We get on fine. I'd never dare call him Andy, as his formal name is the Saint Andrew's Cross Spider, so calling him Andrew seems to be the right level of familiarity. (But of course this could actually be Andrea, for all I know about spider sexing.)

The Saint Andrew's Cross Spider has a clever method of scaring off potential predators by weaving extra 'legs' of spider web material and standing on the web in a way that makes it look like a spider twice its size. Andrew/Andrea measures about 3cm on the diagonal, from leg-tip to leg-tip and makes his living helping to keep garden insect numbers down.

I don't know the species of spider which created this tiny little web in part of my murraya hedge, but I was amazed by its tiny size and basket-like construction. The whole web is about 1cm across (ie, half an inch). (Update below, I've solved the mystery!)

UPDATE! After doing this blog post in the morning, the tiny web mystery was solved later in the evening. The net belongs to the Net Casting Spider. This amazing spider holds its net in its 'hands' and as soon as a customer comes along, it wraps it up in its net. The net and the spider were gone this morning, so I presume its strategy worked well, yet again.

Stupidly, in the morning I poked a biro tip into the photo to give some sense of the net casting spider web's tinyness and managed to bump it out of shape. I am sure that all spiders see us humans as dopey, blundering clods. Of course we don't always have the best opinion of them, either, but that's mostly due to those unpleasant entanglements at night or on early mornings. Pam and I have developed a handy little way of coping with our various garden webmasters.

Here's the main alleyway for spiders at my place: the three and a bit metres from the front gate to the front door, edged on both sides by hedges. The St Andrew's Cross Spider builds its web along the line of the hedges on the left, and present no problems for us, and we don't bother it (although there is an outside chance that our tossed-in morning newspaper delivery could ruin Andrew's day, but that hasn't happened yet this year.) However, there are some other spiders who simply cannot learn that spinning a web across the path, between the hedges, is simply NOT ON! And so they're repeat offenders, always at night of course, building webs across the pathway.

The solution is simple: a good supply of sticks, at both ends of the path (fortunately our street tree, a eucalyptus, provides a constant source of sticks). Waving the stick before you as you proceed up the path does make you look like a weirdo, but it works, and as it's night time you rarely (but not never!) get caught waving the magic wand. I wish the other spiders were more like Andrew, but I have at least learned that, like human society, the society of spidery garden webmasters has its fair share of dummies who'll just never learn.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Unpredictable results

What's wrong with this photo? Well, whatever its aesthetic faults I don't expect any of you to come up with the answer I have in mind. What's wrong with this photo is that there are no white flowers here. I wanted at least some white ones, and more yellowy yellow ones for that matter. And definitely no pink ones. That's what I get for growing plants from saved seeds. Oh, well, it looks quite nice and the whole thing has been fun to do, and it does serve as a reminder that there really isn't anything to match the unpredictability of growing plants from seeds. There's always the chance of a big surprise!

Here's the scene this morning. Zinnias. Mostly orange, some sort-of yellow, and just a few in musk-stick pink.

This is what I was hoping for, and didn't get. Last year's white zinnias were so pretty. Look closely at the centre of each bloom and it looks like a gaggle of micro frangipanis. So last year I decided to save some seed heads from my white, yellow and orange Zinnia angustifolias and raise them from seed for another summer show. Compared to the other, more common, types of zinnias which are almost 1m tall and usually in lurid pinks that would be very at home in Las Vegas, these smaller, lower, wide-spreading zinnias only get to about 40cm tall, spread 60cm wide and come in white, yellow, orange and a not-so-outrageous pink. They're harder to find in garden centres so that's partly why I decided to save the seeds. The other reason was simple gardener's curiosity.

Late last autumn I snipped off the faded flower heads and popped them into paper bags, which then spent the winter hanging up in my shed.

I labelled each bag white, yellow or orange, and then in spring it was time to harvest the seeds. There were hundreds of them, dark, flattened spearhead shapes.

I didn't really need to label the bags. A dried orange flower.

And a dried white flower.

You can see the seeds quite clearly here.

In they went into punnets of seed-raising mix in late September, where my nifty, cheap mini greenhouses protected them from any spring chills overnight.

The seed germination rates weren't that great, about 50% at best, but I did get babies in all colours after about two weeks.

Then, another five or so weeks later, the seedlings went in, spaced about 35cm apart.

As each plant came into bud and then into bloom, I initially was delighted that the whole 'growing from seed' thing seemed to have worked so well. But soon after that it was becoming obvious that I could have any colour I liked, as long as it was a tone of orange.

No white ones! And then when I saw this pink interloper come up to wink at me, that was it. I want a recount Mother Nature! Where's my white ones? Ain't seeds unfair?

Well, not really. The truth is that seeds are magnificent. Thank goodness it was only a few months ago that I had read Michael Pollan's wonderful book, 'The Botany of Desire' and in particular his chapter on apples and Johnny Appleseed (whose real name was John Chapman). I always wondered if I would get what I hoped for with my zinnias, but deep down I knew it was no certainty.

Ever since I read that chapter on Johnny Appleseed I knew that seeds are genetically programmed to be both predictable and unpredictable at the same time. It's how plants survive in nature – by not being totally predictable. Sometimes it might just be the oddballs which are the ones to do best and make it through hard times. So, from my little experience I suppose that oranges and yellows are the dominant colours with my zinnias, and the whites and pinks are the chance occurrences that I can't rely on, but shouldn't be surprised to see at any time.

PS: if you can, please find time to read Michael Pollan's book, or at least that chapter on apples. The essence of the story is that Johnny Appleseed grew his many thousands of apple trees from European apple tree seeds, and it was these seeds' ability to occasionally mutate and surprise, to throw out completely new varieties of apples, which then led to the development of several new and wonderful North American apple varieties perfectly suited – or at least compared with the old European varieties, much better suited – to the climate and soil of the New World.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Potted water gardens, an update

Late last year I somehow managed to talk myself into starting up a little potted water garden, and the good news is that it's all progressing pretty well, but I've learned a few lessons along the way, of course, as all newbies do. And that's what this little blog posting is all about.

The peaceful scene this morning. Of the four original goldfish – John, Paul, George and Ringo – three have survived (Ringo, alas, didn't survive a scorching 40°C day fairly early on in the piece). The plants have grown like crazy, and I have learned that potted water gardens are a lot of work. I don't mind the work at all, but that's the main lesson learned. To keep the water clean, you have to both top it up and replace it very regularly.

At first I thought the Louisiana iris wouldn't make it, as the leaves flopped over and showed some signs of yellowing, but to my surprise the main stem has popped up a sturdy, dark green new bunch of erect leaves, and for good measure a second healthy stem has emerged. So I presume it suffered a bit of transplant shock when I repotted it, but now likes the manure-rich soil in which it's growing.

The other planting, a native floating fern called nardoo, is thriving to the point that I have to cut it back weekly to stop it taking over the whole pond. I love this delicate looking monster. This one plant in a six-inch pot could easily cover a water surface three or four times as big as my puny pond.

If you look closely at this shot you can see the underwater roots of the nardoo looking to spread out and take over the world. The goldfish also love the nardoo, as it gives them a great hiding spot to dart to the moment they sense any movement above the water.

The main issue with the pond is maintaining water quality, and as I don't have a pump with a filter (no space to fit one in) I have adopted a simple program of replacing about one-third of all the water roughly every 10 days.

To do this, I first fill a bucket with tap water and sit that out in the sun all day, to 'burn off' any chlorine present in the water (goldfish are said to be susceptible to chlorine, say all the experts). Then in the late afternoon or early evening, I let the water in the bucket cool fully, and use it to replace the pond water. I use a small 500ml plastic measuring jug to remove the water bit by bit, and once the water level is down by about a third, I wipe any green slime off the side of the iris's pot, as well as the pond pot itself. Then I replace the water using the bucket water. This has all become an easy routine, but it is essential maintenance.

During the hot weather of summer, however, the pond's water level sinks an inch or so each day, and so I just top that up with ordinary tap water without worrying about burning off the chlorine in the sun, etc. Adding one litre of tapwater at a time doesn't seem to bother the goldfish at all.

When I was in the supermarket buying the small plastic measuring jug that I use to gently add or remove water from the pond, I also picked up a cheap tea strainer, and this has proved a useful little 'scoop' to clean any bits of flotsam and jetsam from the water.

The reason for all this fiddly maintenance is sunshine. To stay healthy, goldfish need about half of the water surface to be bathed in sunshine, and the other half covered in something cool, protective and green (like the nardoo). When the sunshine hits the water, algae forms. If the whole of the water surface was covered in plant life, there'd be little or no algae, as algae needs sunshine to grow. But as I wanted goldfish (to eat any mosquito larvae) I had to accept algae as part of the deal.

Another serious promoter of algae is me. Well, to be more specific, the problem is me overfeeding the fish. These 'Comet' goldfish are really cute when you sprinkle the goldfish food over the water, going into a very greedy and entertaining feeding frenzy. And so early on I overfed them. Cheap thrills. Then I discovered the 'food block'. This is the white thing you can see in the pond. It's shaped like a seashell, and it's like a slow-release goldfish food. It's a much better way to feed them (great if you go away on holidays of course), and it also contains a few slow-release elements which help to clear up the water quality. Since I've started to use the food block, the water quality has improved and it doesn't need quite as much maintenance as early on.

And finally, the pond has given Pammy a whole new class of ornamental creatures to shop for. This is her latest purchase from our Darwin holiday, a cute little turtle that sits at the base of our pond.

And so the main thing I have learned is that if you take on a potted water garden you've taken on a fair bit of extra work – they're not low-maintenance by any means. I'm loving the whole experience so I'd encourage anyone interested to give it a go. I'm thinking of swapping over to a much bigger pot at some stage in the future, just to give the nardoo a more natural looking wide, shallowish pond of water to float on, but that's about the only change I have in mind at this stage. I guess when I get around to doing that, another update might be in order.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Gone troppo

January's almost half done and not a single blog posting! Well, this marathon bunch of holiday snapz will make up for that. Pammy and I have just got back from a week of foolish fun spent paddling about in the middle of the wet season in Darwin, in tropical far northern Australia. To cut a long story short, we want to go back! But as this is a long photographic story, it's on with the pix (as always, click on the photos to make them bigger)...

Typical southern tourist me, wearing the new Panama hat Pammy gave me for Christmas, posing under a variegated pandanus tree. And that was one of the themes of this holiday. "You can't grow these in Sydney, Jamie, so if you like them you'll just have to come back for another visit, won't you?" Yes, mam.

More forbidden delights – the Bismarckia palm. These stately grey-leaved palms are everywhere in Darwin.

It's a good thing these cannonball trees aren't everywhere, as they're dangerous to stand under. This one is in the Botanic gardens and it's the only one we saw. It's a big thing, at least 25m tall.
The cannonball fruit are like small coconuts and they are said to fall from the tree at any time, clonking passers-by on the head in the process. It's not an Aussie tree – it's a native of Guyana in South America, but it thrives in Darwin's tropical climate. Fascinating weirdo.

These tall, thin Indian Mast Trees are another import which are everywhere in Darwin. Growing to about 10m tall, they're just a metre or so in width, with elegant droopy green foliage. First time you see one you tap your partner on the shoulder and say "oh look at those".

However, my gardening discoveries weren't all of the "you can't grow these at home in Sydney" variety. We visited Jenny's orchid garden in Howard Springs where countless numbers of both bromeliads and orchids were on display, and some of these bromeliads could probably be grown in my garden (hopefully, fingers crossed, maybe).

Bromeliad flowers are nothing if not varied, and at times outrageous.

By comparison to the spotty space alien before, this yellow fellow is almost plain.

Ornamental gingers were in bloom everywhere. While I have seen many photos of beehive gingers before, none of them prepared me for the fact that the blooms poke up just a couple of inches above ground level. I had always envisaged these as being atop stately stalks.

This is another ornamental ginger, not sure what sort, but it's useful to include just because it shows how varied ginger blooms can be in both colour and form.

The heliconias were in bloom too, and like the gingers there are many colours and forms on show. This is the popular and striking crab claw heliconia.

Many other heliconias look more like this, in an assortment of colours, often red, orange or yellow, or a combo of any of these colours.

Foliage plants are the backbone of tropical gardens, and these crotons seem to do a lot of the technicolor heavy lifting in many tropical gardens.

Not sure what these spotty people are called, but they're pretty typical of many foliage plants here, which wouldn't dare limit themselves to just plain green.

One vivid exception to this 'not just green' rule is the ornamental sweet potato, a fast-growing groundcover that is so tough that it's used to fill in traffic islands on highways. Just looking at it is like enjoying a cool drink.

Of course palms are everywhere, and gardeners in Darwin seem smitten with these red-stalked beauties known as lipstick palms, for obvious reasons. And no, you can't grow them in Sydney, Jamie.

Speaking of Sydney gardeners on holidays, here is me in my Panama hat about to smile, but not quite managing to, while visiting Jenny's orchid garden. As well as the bromeliads pictured above, this remarkable spot is, of course, filled with orchids in bloom.

In many sections organised simply into a series of tennis-court-sized enclosures, Jenny's orchids are hung in long rows of wire baskets, not planted into soil of any sort.

Everywhere you wander the orchids are festooned with air plants, tillandsias, better known as Old Man's Beards or Spanish Moss. Makes a nice, spooky forest, it does.

The variety of orchids here is amazing, but they don't all bloom at once. Many plants were about to come into bloom, or had obviously finished blooming a few weeks ago. They just bloom when they want to bloom, and with the sheer number of plants grown here there was no shortage of pretty things to see, such as this one.

Or this one...

Or this one...

Or this one.

Some orchids were growing in pots, but the pots were just of gravel. Drainage, excellent!

If I lived in the tropics, I think I'd grow a lot of orchids.

But if I lived in the tropics I'd also spend a lot of time enjoying the weather there, too. We arrived at the same time as a monsoonal low pressure system did, and for the first three days there it rained and rained and rained, and the wind blew the rain into sheets that fell sideways – no escape for pedestrians! The constant rain dropped the daily max down to 29°C (84°F) – nice and cool – and we settled in well. To get around, all you had to do was wait for a squall of rain to pass, then walk about on the rapidly drying footpaths in the 20 or so minutes between the next squall. I found wandering home from restaurants late at night in balmy 25°C (77°C) air the really addictive thing about tropical living. Loved it.

Towards the end of our stay the weather returned to the more normal wet season pattern of a hot, humid day (max 32°C or 90°F) with a spectacular thunderstorm around sunset to cool things off. Those tropical cloud formations are a nice thing to behold with a cool drink in your hand.

And of course the big thing about the wet season is water. Lots of water. This is the Florence Falls in Litchfield National Park, about 2 hours drive from Darwin. The sound of the falls greets you from far off, but nothing quite prepares you for the sheer force of water roaring over the edge. It's such a shame that the word awesome has been hijacked to now mean anything fairly impressive to a bored teenager, as these falls really did produce a sense of awe in all who stood on the viewing platform, feeling thoroughly insignificant in the presence of Mother Nature running her bath.

And so that's our holiday snaps. Or should I say "Pam's holiday snaps". Most of these photos were taken by Pammy, and she did a great job capturing our holiday in the steamy tropical north. And we're going back for more, too!