Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Accosting passers-by

Out the front of our house, a mugger lurks. Like a yappy little dog it's not really a danger to anyone, but some people in our street occasionally get accosted by it, if they're not looking where they're going. The mugger is our 'groundcover' plant, a prostrate form of the Cootamundra wattle, Acacia baileyana. At is has once more begun its sporadic little midwinter flower show, it's the right time to point my camera at it and celebrate one of the real personalities in our garden.

Here's the mugger at work, spilling over the front fence. I'm constantly cutting it back, as it very rapidly makes its way through the fence and down to the footpath. It's advertised as a 'prostrate form' groundcover, but confined by hedges on all sides it rears up a metre high in all directions and fills the front garden with its lovely, feathery, blue-green foliage.

The first yellow puff-ball flowers appeared only two days ago, and they're always a delight to discover, but as our front garden faces south-west and is almost completely shadowed by the house for the three months of winter, its flowering is never spectacular. At best it's sporadic but it still attracts all the regular passers-by, many of whom stop and touch the blooms as if they were a little pet to pat.

As mentioned earlier, the foliage of this plant is sublimely beautiful, delicate and of a very Australian colour. If I saw this blue-green anywhere in the world I would think of home.

While I'm out the front of the house for a rare blog visit streetside, I might as well introduce you to our chubby little hedge, a lilly pilly by the name of 'Tiny Trev'.

Most of the year, Trev is a rich, deep green colour, but every winter it always puts on a delicious flush of new growth blushing a much redder colour than at other times of year.

It's a shame the red foliage doesn't last all year – wouldn't it be lovely to have a red hedge! But a few weeks from now the party will finish and the sensible greens will take over duty as Mr T. Trev, the little hedge man. It's only then we'll give the hedge its next trim. For the meantime I'm happy for it to be a red-faced and chubby-cheeked member of the pack of native plants which accost passers-by in this ordinary suburban street.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Timely trims

I hate to start off a blog posting with a yucky image, so for starters I'll whisk us back to happier times.

This was when the tarragon was lush, the zinnias were singing and March was really the fourth month of summer and not the first of autumn. But that's not how things are with the tarragon now, in July, in midwinter.

... yuck factor 110%. But fear not, this is just the normal seasonal cycle with this tasty herb. Every year my pot of tarragon looks like it's dying off in midwinter, so it's time to get out the secateurs for a timely trim.

I cut very stem down to pot rim level with my trusty Felcos. If you look at the photo carefully you can see the next generation of tarragon babies already poking through.

Here they are. Late July is the time I always trim back the tarragon, as August is a time when things start to warm up just enough to get the willing growers growing. And tarragon is a willing grower. To give you some idea of what's likely to happen next, here are some pix of tarragon's rapid progress last year.

This is September tarragon, loving the sunshine.

October tarragon, in its beautiful, leafy adolescence.

"Pick me, pick me" says December tarragon, so leafy and lush that soon after I took this photo I trimmed it back all over and took the trimmings inside for cooking.

What does tarragon go best with? Well, it has a mildly aniseedy flavour that is heaven with chicken, and it's very lovely in egg dishes, too.

The main things to know about tarragon are these: there are three types – French, Mexican and Russian, and the French variety has the finest flavour. By comparison the Russian and Mexican types are bland. Also, the French type rarely sets seed and almost exclusively grows from runners. The other two types do set seed. Yet sometimes you might see a packet of French tarragon 'seed' but that's not likely to be right - it's most likely the seed of one of the other two types. So, it's best to buy French tarragon as a small plant, or to take some runners from a friend's plant and grow it on from there.

Like most herbs it likes sunshine and regular water, and a monthly liquid feed. I find that in a pot the runners grow so densely that soil drainage suffers after two years, so every two years I repot it into fresh mix, breaking up the dense clump of runners and replanting them. This operation usually results in lots of leftover runners, so I pot them up into other pots to give away. Tarragon is both a lovely herb and a nice gift.

While I'm rabbiting on about trimming herbs, two more to mention before I sign off. These are the chives I cut back to pot rim level – to stumps just 5mm high – about four weeks ago. Fortnightly liquid feeds and they're bouncing back nicely. I must have freshly snipped chives with our scrambled eggs on Sunday mornings, otherwise they just wouldn't taste right!

And the sage isn't ready to hack back yet. I'll wait until the very end of winter and the beginning of spring to do that job. In the meantime, the sage will just get crappier and crappier over the next four weeks. Then I'll cut the whole thing back by about half. It will look very ordinary indeed for a couple of weeks, and then it will bounce back beautifully for the rest of spring, summer and most of autumn, needing no feeding or extra watering from me. Sydney's abundant natural rainfall is more than enough for sage's needs.

Proof of the pudding is this lush beauty photographed in March this year. Sometimes I just want to put my head into that forest of fragrant leaves, they're so soft, inviting and furry, like a cuddly pet.

And so this old herb grower says keep your secateurs both sharp, clean and handy, and every year a bit of the old 'chop-chop' on your perennial herbs will provide rewards to those who are prepared to make some timely trims.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Everything must go!

Well, that was fun. Pam's mum has sold her house (after 48 years there), is moving out next Friday to a snazzy new townhouse, and the property has to be bare, inside and out, by then. So the only solution was a classic 'Everything must go' garage sale, including lots and lots and lots of potted plants, as Pam's mum, Val, is quite a green thumb, who I have blogged about before, here. Here's a few snaps from the big day.

We advertised in the local paper and online, put up signs nearby on telegraph poles, but nothing beats Nanna's hand-made sign which we nailed to the lovely old paperbark tree (a Melaleuca) outside her house. The bark itself is about two inches thick in places, and so the nails never touched real wood, but the sign has held onto the dense bark nevertheless.

I was in charge of the plant sale, and so I organised the pots into lines of $1 pots, $2 pots and $5 pots. So everything there was a very good bargain. Anything we can't sell goes into a skip – a terrible fate – so our aim was less to make money and more to see the pots off to new homes.

Just $5 - that's craaaaaazzzzy!

Dracaenas for just $1 – that's craaaaaazzzzy!

Told you Nanna has green thumbs.

Succulents a specialty.

These went fast.

Happy customer Liza even brought her own trolley.

At $10 for the pair, these pots (not the weeds in them) didn't even last till the official opening time of 9am.

And how can you have a proper garage sale without a garage? Val's collection of bric-a-brac is extensive, to put it mildly, and the action was brisk early on, as everything was priced to sell. The gnomes were gone before 9.30. No-one wanted the Wedgwood plate, though, and the Royal Worcester egg coddler, at $10, is still there. Books gone, magazine stacks dwindled rapidly at 10c a pop. And retail mathematics was the order of the day, so if people bought six items at $2 a pop, it's 6 x 2 = 10. Works for me.

Val has lots of great friends and they all showed up to help out during the day. Some brought cakes, another a barbecued chicken and bread rolls which, with some avocado and a tomato or two, turned into a very nice lunch. It was tea and coffee all morning but by late lunch the champagne came out with a loud Pop! and the garage sale slowly turned into a verandah party by late afternoon. The good news is that we sold a big proportion of what we started with, and lots of potted plants are going to loving homes somewhere in the local area. I can sleep easy tonight!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Shameless self-promotion

Don't you love those blog comments which go something along the line of "you have a nice blog, and make sure to visit my blog" and then they post a link to their blog? I can just see these people spending countless hours copy-and-pasting the same generic self-promotion into countless other blogs. I hope it works for them. It probably works, much in the same way that I hear Viagra spam emails earn their peddlers large sums of money. (Wonder if that's just a myth? Surely not...) Anyway, I digress before I even started. What follows is just shameless self-promotion of me and my blog, but in the process maybe I might be able to provide you with quite a few new gardening websites that you may not have heard of, courtesy of links to just three other websites.

This is our little patch (a panorama taken late last summer) as I always like to include some kind of photo in every posting. And I guess it is vaguely relevant to shameless self-promotion.

First up, have you ever visited Your Garden Show? Neither had I, but Stacie from Your Garden Show emailed me last week to ask if I wanted to include my garden on her site. While the website offers lots of things, it allows you to upload as many photos of your own garden as you like, just to show others. There are lots of gardens to check out there. Here's a link to our garden, Jamie and Pam's garden, but if you're like me and you love stickybeaking at others' gardens, Your Garden Show is worth a visit.

Second on the list is the result of another email which lobbed in a while ago from Ashley, whose blog title of "construction management degree" didn't exactly remind me of gardening. Yet within his blog Ashley has compiled a list of what he considers are the top 100 gardening blogs in the universe and, aw shucks, I'm in there. Even if you don't agree with Ashley's picks, or that I deserve to be in the top million, there are some interesting new sites to visit there.

Finally, this will be no news whatsoever to any keen gardening bloggers, but if you're a newbie to garden blogging, do drop in on Blotanical. It's a great place to make yourself known, find a zillion other gardening blogs, and get started in garden blogging generally. It's run by a hard-working Australian named Stuart, and it provides a very popular service to gardeners and garden bloggers that's well worth a bit of promotion here.

So there you go, shameless self-promotion dressed up as talking about others. I think I should have had a career in politics. Too late! Oh well, might as well keep on gardening and blogging then.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Light reading

Like our resident Librarian gnome, Mitchell, I like to read. Too much probably (just like Mitch - every time I look at him he always has his head buried in a book). And to make things worse, I also like to read online as well. But worst of all, definitely the worstest of the worstest, I also like bookshops. They're a major danger zone for me. It's rare that I don't leave a bookshop without some kind of book under my arm. Bookaholism, I think it's called. (Fellow Sydney garden blogger Chookie sometimes struggles with it, too). I'm a sufferer but I don't want to be helped (see, I haven't hit rock bottom yet). As a consequence, my 'to read' pile continues to grow. I might have to retire, just to catch up on reading. Let me explain in a few photos, plus a couple more words and links (which might seem like an ad for Amazon, except they're not).

This is Mitchell, doing all day what I would like to do all day – reading (well, that's when I'm not gardening, cooking, going to movies, eating, socialising, riding motorcycles, blogging and reading online, that is).

And this, approximately, is my 'to read' pile. You see the problem? Exactly. It's not too many books, it's not enough time. Work will just have to step aside for a year or two and make room for the finer things in life.

It's an eclectic collection of fiction and non-fiction.

In the fiction section there's always some kind of detective uncovering the unpleasant details of life. Over the last few years Italian skulduggery has roped me in. Next on the list it's Andrea Camilleri, someone I haven't read yet but who has been recommended to me. As I have read all of Donna Leon's books about Venice-based Commissario Guido Brunetti and most of Michael Dibdin's books about Aurelio Zen, who uncovers evil all over Italy, I am looking forward to making the acquaintance of Inspector Montalbano, who no doubt has his hands full in Sicily.

But not all the fiction there is disreputably criminal: Margaret Attwood, Carol Shields and Tim Winton are waiting patiently for me to get back to them once more. And one of these days I am going to enjoy "The Bridge on the Drina" by Ivo Andric, a novel loaned to me by my workmate and good friend Zora. Andric is a Nobel Prize winner, and this novel is a voyage into the heart and soul of the Balkans.

In the non-fiction section it gets weird. Right now I'm two-thirds the way through a wonderful book by Fred Kaplan called "1959" and you guessed it, it's all about 1959. So much happened back then, including the invention of the microchip which makes blogging and everything else computery happen. And the founding of Motown (the record label), the launch of the contraceptive pill, Sputnik, the first US soldiers killed in Vietnam, and lots more (eg, the treatment of African-Americans back then was just appalling - and they didn't call them African-Americans, either).

There are no less than three books there by the wonderful Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf ('Origins', a Maalouf family history that spends a lot of time in Cuba, 'The Crusades Through Arab Eyes', and 'Leo the African', about a 16th-century traveller). I first came across Amin Maalouf via his poetic, imagined life of Omar Kayyam, called 'Samarkand'. I can't recommend that book highly enough (of course I don't have a copy, having repeatedly given it to friends to read). It is a beautiful piece of writing.

But there are also books to read on Aborigines living on riverbanks while Sydney grew around them, Russian home life during Stalin's rule (no fun, apparently), the Arab contribution to the Western intellectual tradition (much bigger than you might think), what happened during and after Cyclone Katrina (yikes), Christopher Hitchens trying to explain himself (oh, yes?), and a couple more.

And then, not in the pile, there are motorcycle magazines, daily newspapers and, of course, gardening magazines (not to mention websites as well). My poor eyes. I really need to win Lotto straight away, so I can retire and just devote myself to hanging out with Mitchell in the backyard, gardening and reading.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Sunlight, camera... action!

It seems like only yesterday I was craving a bit more action in the garden. And after a cloudy start to the day Huey puffed away the gloom and replaced it with clear morning sun. And the poppies said "that's good enough for me". Sunlight, camera... action! The poppies have popped.

Hello there, I'm from Iceland and I'm not a volcano.

This is the scene which caught my eye from the back door. Action at last!

What the hell, let's celebrate, another close-up of the season's first. But wait on, what's that I see flat on the ground in the poppy patch? A bright orange smudge.

I wasn't there to see who popped out first, but this outrageously orange bloom was at the end of a ludicrously long stem which just didn't have the strength to go on. The least I could do was make this one the first cut flower of the poppy season, so inside it came and very welcome it is too.

So all my grumbling paid off. You see, being a boy with a low pain threshold, I firmly subscribe to the view that if you are unwell for any reason, each time you complain about it you get a little bit better. Fortunately for Pam, I rarely ever get sick, otherwise I'd drive her mad putting my theory into practice. But at least I can take the same idea for a spin out in the garden, and see whether grumbling really does make poppies flower. On today's evidence, there just might be something in that theory.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Looking on the bright side

As a gardener, I don't think I could make it through one of your North American or European winters. Too long, too cold and too quiet for me. I like action! Even these last few weeks of chilly weather (by Sydney standards that is – we almost had a frost last week – unheard-of cold!) had got me wishing the lull would all be over soon. What nonsense, Jamie! So I thought it was time I slapped myself in the face and said "snap out of it, kiddo, there's plenty happening out there, and there's lots to look forward to as well." I needed that good talking to! Really did, and so here's what's happening out there in Amateur Land this morning.

For starters, there are things in flower, if I had only bothered to look. My snazzy new 'Groovy Baby' tibouchina is loving its new home, and this morning it gave me another cheery purple smack on the cheek. Thanks, Groovy Baby, I needed that, too!

And the plant the Chinese people call the money tree (a succulent Crassula) is in bloom. It's said that the Chinese plant these to bring prosperity to their homes, and I guess Pam and I are prosperous after all.

Mrs Lithops' countless fans will be pleased to know that she is back where she belongs, at the head of Succulent City, where her recent fame has elevated her to election as Mayoress of that small, quirky metropolis.

On the other side of the pathway, and elsewhere, crops are cropping. This is my patch of coriander, sown from seeds saved last spring. To keep the plants bushy, snip off as many leaves as you need that night in the kitchen, and feed every few weeks with an organic liquid plant food. That's the trick with herbs – use 'em or lose 'em.

The lemons are wonderfully juicy, if not plentiful. I severely reduced the number of lemons on the tree, so it could put most of its energy into just becoming a tree, but the few fruit which have been allowed to mature are very fine specimens of the humble lemon, if I say so myself. These very squeezable, juicy lemons provide the perfect excuse for everything from buying another dozen oysters through to crumbing and frying another chicken schnitzel.

Elsewhere, there's the promise of things to come, and pleasure of seeing familiar friends returning. Pictured above, a small, delicate and seemingly indestructible cyclamen is poking through the mulch once more.

Close to the lemon tree, the hellebores are growing new leaves, and around the end of winter and the start of spring, they'll start flowering. It was back in May that I cut off all the daggy old-season leaves, to make room for the next season's foliage, which was starting to poke through the centre of the clump. A good feed with chicken poo back then, some winter rain and now they're back in business.

In various other parts of the garden, bulbs are living out their life-cycles in different ways, but the nice thing about bulb stories is the very great likelihood of a happy ending. These are the brodiaeas, blue-flowered things busily growing their foliage prior to the appearance of the blooms in mid spring, October I suspect.

And these are the scadoxus bulbs showing all the signs of being willing to do it all again.

This is a photo from last spring, of what the scadoxus do best. So that's something to look forward to as well. I think I've got over those midwinter blues now. There's plenty to look forward to, and in a sense it's already happening, only slowly.

Even this seemingly sad sight of yellowing leaves cheers me up. Well, it cheered me up when I found out that this is exactly what this Louisiana iris should be doing right now. Like any self-respecting bulb it needs to die back, build up its stores of energy, then burst into blue-flowered bloom later on in the year. I'm glad I cleared that one up. It had me worried for a while.

And finally, those who regularly read my blog might recall that Pammy recently gave me a microscope as a wedding anniversary present. Well, I took about 20 completely crappy, blurry, useless photos of things as viewed through my microscope, but this one, the 21st photo, came out OK. Unfortunately, I am not sure what I did right, so I am not really any closer to nailing microscope photography, but this photo should be entitled 'Hope' because that's what it gave me. Its more prosaic name would be 'Mouth Smear', which just doesn't some up its significance very well at all, does it?

So, there you go. Midwinter chills, I thumb my nose at you! I can hear the chatter and activity of Spring calling me already. Won't be long now before the party starts again.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

About to pop

It's a bearable wait, but a wait nevertheless. Amateur Land seems to be in slow motion at the moment. Everyone here in Sydney would agree that this has been quite a cold winter, and certainly my poppy plants will agree. They're about to pop, but they're behind schedule. Last year they popped in late June, and here we are this year, July 10, and still a few days away from the traaaa-daaaaa of poppy popping.

Mind you, they still look rather special just as a bunch of dewy, stubbbled, nodding skulls.

And in the early morning sunshine they look like a bunch of villagers standing around having a chat, nodding at each other's wisdom.

I'm not grumbling, or impatient even, just waiting for the show to start.

(And that's one of the nice little things this post has reminded me about. It's why I started blogging in the first place. My memory is only average, and so keeping this record of what's happening comes in handy sometimes. I was sure the poppies were 'late' this year, and checking on what I posted about them last year confirmed my hunch.)