Sunday, April 24, 2011

The time-lapse bush

I mentioned in my previous posting that my Grevillea 'Peaches and Cream' is flowering its head off at the moment, and the way it bursts into bloom all over is almost like time-lapse photography. Wherever you look there's a bloom in one of the stages of opening, and so that's what I thought I would record here. All these photos were taken this weekend.

Fully open and two-toned, the only thing Peaches and Cream lacks is subtlety.

I can't imagine a garden full of two-toned blooms – one bush is enough, but my Pammy fell in love with a Peaches and Cream in a house nearby and she wanted one. It has taken me a while to also really, truly love this plant the way she does, but it's growing on me. Certainly it's a hit with the honeyeater birds who visit it every day. As you can see from this photo there are blooms in every stage of opening up, so let's take a closer look.

Stage one – the flower pokes its head out from the foliage.

Stage two, the unfurling begins, from the base of the flower head.

Stage three – more unfurl, all a pleasing, pale limey-green colour.

Stage four – the flower grows from the base, more stamens (is that their name?) unfurl.

Stage five – the first blush of pinky orange appears.

Stage six – all the buds are opening now.

Stage seven – red-tipped antennae send out signals (sorry, I'm not a botanist, not sure what these thingies are really called).

Stage eight – almost there now, pink blush growing, not quite fully open though.

Stage nine – birds start feasting on these now, a lolly shop for honeyeaters.

Stage ten – a fully mature flower, pinky peaches and yellowy cream.

The bush itself is about 2m high and wide, but it would grow bigger (maybe 3m) if I left it to grow to full size. But sorry, Peaches and Cream, that isn't going to happen in my tiny backyard. Besides, my brutal trimming seems to suit this bush beautifully. It thrives on being pruned, and that's how things are hopefully going to be for many years to come.

Friday, April 22, 2011

A minor milestone

This minor milestone of mine – my 300th posting - will be an easy one to remember, because I did it on Good Friday, 2011. Now, for some people such as Helen at Patient Gardener, or Allison at Life in a Pink Fibro, both of whom keep up a steady beat of one very good posting per day, a mere 300 postings will be notched up each and every year. For me it has taken almost three years to get here, but I'm sure because I am so long-winded for any regular readers you've probably read as many words here as you would have at someone else's blog with 3000 posts to their name.

Anyway, to celebrate my 300th posting, I thought I'd just do a completely ordinary posting about what I did in the garden this morning. It's a fine, autumnal warm and sunny Good Friday here in Sydney, and I'm afraid folks I didn't go to church today, but as usual I did get closer to nature, my own personal place of worship. Let's start off with the first job – filling a gap.

Sadly, this is the gap before it was a gap. You'll see the gap a few photos down. The problem with this lovely lemon-scented pelargonium is that it was a shocking bully of a plant, and a wimp at the same time (isn't that always the way with bullies?). This plant would monster everything near it, then blow over in any strong wind and look like muck for weeks on end while it regrew itself after the storm damage was trimmed off. Pam has never liked this plant all that much, and so we decided to get rid of it and replace it with something better behaved, a steadier chap.

Time will tell if this is the 'steady chap' we're wanting to recruit. This is a Plectranthus 'Mona Lavender' a small-growing form of plectranthus which reaches 80cm high and 60cm wide, says the label. The label also reassures us that it doesn't spread and self-seed like other plectranthi do. It's a shade-lover, or a semi-shade lover, and the spot we have in mind for it is classic dappled semi-shade. It will also have to survive the competition from our old olive tree's roots, so all I can do with this plant is wish it luck, and plant it.

These are the Plectranthus's blooms, which start in summer and continue into autumn. They get the seal of approval from Pammy, and I am sure a painting of them will be in our house one of these years, if the plant proves to be a success.

Aren't gaps unfortunate looking things? All bare leaves and ugly bits. Nothing can be done about a gap, apart from waiting for time to put on growth and fill the space with foliage and flowers. To help the plectranthus settle in, I raised the soil level a few inches by adding stacks of home-made compost and digging it through the soil, then planting into that. Behind the plectranthus is my sole bonsai plant, a Port Jackson fig which must be more than 10 years old. Finally, after many years, its trunk is thickening up nicely. This poor plant was a bullying victim at the hands of the pelargonium, and if bonsai could speak I am sure it would muttering a few 'good riddances' this morning.

Over the other side of the pathway, I'm plugging some more gaps. These are the two rows of Shirley poppies which came up from seed and seem to be getting on with life. The trouble is that there were three other rows where I sowed seed but which are still bereft of success, and so I decided to call in the rescue squad.

Iceland poppy seedlings, two punnets, enough to fill the three bare rows. Shirley poppies are notorious for being hard to transplant, so you have to grow them from seed sown directly where the plants are to grow. There's no such fussiness with Iceland poppies, which grow well from seed or seedlings. The Icelands are slightly smaller plants than the Shirleys, but that won't matter. By late June Pammy should have poppies galore, which is becoming a colourful winter tradition for us.

Elsewhere, flowers are appearing. The three wall pots under my covered pergola haven't been a huge success so far. I tried impatiens there but they were wilty and high-maintenance, and so when it came time several months ago to divide some 'pups' from one of my potted bromeliads, I decided to give them a go in the wall pots. And they're starting to send out flowers. They've been easy-care there, and so they might be the answer.

About two months ago I trimmed the living daylights out of my 'Peaches and Cream' grevillea, and it's starting to flower its head off. Grevilleas are a bit 'beat me, whip me' in personality, real masochists which love the discipline of a good, hard pruning. It's covered in blooms and flower buds, and should be at its peak in a few weeks, by late autumn.

While photographing the Grevillea, I noticed behind it another of my neighbour Nick's plants popping its head over the fence to say hello to my plants. Not sure what this is, but it's a wonderfully colourful effusion of hot pink that's a very welcome visitor here. Thank you Nick!

And so that's it for posting number 300. According to my Sitemeter people-counter thingy at the very bottom of this page, I have a bit over 77,000 people to thank for dropping by to read my ramblings and peek at my photos. So thank you very much for your interest and your comments, they're much appreciated. I guess my next blogging ambition is to make it to 500 postings, something which at the current rate will occur in 2013. See you then!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Just watching

Yesterday was a day of a good number of noble intentions, and a lot more rain to wash those plans away. And so I went shopping first of all. New shirts, socks, shoes. My turn to cook, and this roast chicken weather made the menu an easy one to plan. Then home. More rain. Instead of gardening all I could do was watch the rain, and read. And there was lots of rain, but slowly it dawned on me that I wasn't the only one watching the rain. I had company.

Swinging happily from the eaves outside Pam's office/shed, this little fellow didn't seem to mind the grey day. (And this photo is one of Pammy's, not mine.)

Our security guard gnome, Wyatt, is ever-vigilant, but he secretly loves wet weather, and the way raindrops gather in glittery blobs on nasturtium leaves.

Tran just likes to watch. He's seen a lot of things out here in Amateur Land, but he's not telling. He just likes to watch.

And so my good intentions of clipping back the climbing fig which covers our neighbour's garage came to nothing. The succulents will have to wait another day before I repot the old-timers. But in the meantime reading and just watching the rain fall on a quiet Saturday afternoon was a lovely way to spend an autumn day.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Regular readers will know that I like to report both my successes and failures here in my little garden, but sensitive readers might like to look away, right now. Read no further, for I am about to record one of my disgraces. Thank goodness there aren't jail penalties for pot-bound plants, because they might well say 'lock him up and throw away the key' with the evidence I am about to present.

Here's one of those gruesome-but-hard-to-not-look-at crime scene photos of the evidence. This is the tangled mass of roots of my outrageously pot-bound bay tree. Makes a nice wallpaper, doesn't it?

It was never meant to get this bad, your honour. You see, I was going to get rid of my potted bay tree last year, and use the pot in which it grew to grow a fig tree. Somehow I never got around to ditching the bay tree (my garden is tiny and there is only so much space, so adding the fig and keeping the bay was not an option). The bay had to go and that was that, and its pot is the perfect size and shape for the fig.

I think 'vigorous' would be a good word to describe a bay tree's attitude to growth and life. Look at the roots making their way out of the drainage holes. Poor things, all they struck once they escaped the pot was hard, lifeless, nutrient-poor pergola-floor tiles.

And so last Saturday the terrible deed was done. The bay tree was mercilessly cut down in its prime and replaced with a young, optimistic fig tree who knows nothing of the former occupant of its cell. I always think of potted plants as 'prisoners in a pot'. There are no pots in nature, just soil. And so it's a hard life in those confined spaces, where their roots can't roam free. No wonder some plants go stir-crazy in their pot and give up on life.

That bay tree was never going to give up, though. I suspect that despite the appalling treatment I dished out to it in its last years, that hardened inmate would have probably outlasted me in the long run. I can only throw myself on the court's mercy and beg to be let off with a warning never to do such a dreadful thing again. Everyone makes mistakes, and every time I look at a bay leaf I will feel a little pang of guilt.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Compost harvest time

One of the really handy things about some blog postings is that they are a diary entry that I can refer back to months or years from now. So let it be noted that on this beautiful, warm and sunny Saturday, April 9, 2011, I 'harvested' my latest batch of compost. Whoopee! Well, I don't think it's going to make the 6 o'clock news, but if I say so myself it might just be my finest batch yet, and I have scientific evidence to back up this claim. I had better start explaining, though...

This is only some of the latest batch, but as this is the nicest photo in this set (and let me tell you, compost is not photogenic) I will start with this one. This is compost as I like it: dark, crumbly, gently earthy in smell without any really noticeable smell, and certainly without any kind of unpleasant 'pong'. And while I'm lingering on this shot, aren't trugs wonderful things? I have several, because my garden is too small for wheelbarrows. Anyway, back to the compost, please projectionist!

Told you it's not photogenic. But here's the compost being extracted from my large 'tumbler' bin which does all the composting work around here.

And this is where the latest batch of compost goes: into my original old 'Dalek' bin, which is a pretty hopeless compost bin, but a perfectly good place to store lots of ready-to-use compost. The tumbler bin is a much better bin because it's easy to spin it around to aerate the compost. Air is one of the most important ingredients in compost and Dalek bins are fairly hopeless because it's not easy to use a garden fork to get in there and 'stir' the contents, to introduce air into the heap.

At the end of the half-hour operation to transfer all my made compost into the Dalek bin, the tumbler is ready to do it all again. I always leave a couple of shovels-full of made compost in the tumbler, to help get the breaking down process going again on the new stuff. And here's the first lot of ingredients ready to go in: vegie scraps from the kitchen (these are fresh 'wet' ingredients) and to balance them out some 'dry ingredients', fallen leaves from around the garden. When there aren't fallen leaves available I use a couple of handfuls of straw garden mulch from the mulch bag, or if I'm really desperate, shredded newspaper (but the newspaper always seems to take ages to break down, so it isn't my favourite). However the main thing is always to balance out the 'wet' with the 'dry'. Maintaining this wet-dry balance and aerating the heap are the two main basics of composting to pay attention to.

However there is another magic ingredient which has turned this compost batch (I only make one a year, on average, by the way) and that is lime. And here's the 'proof' I was talking about earlier.

Go on, call me 'a bit keen' but I pH test my compost! It's a bit hard to see the colour of the compost sample in the photo, but in natural light it's speckled with darkish green dots, and you match the colour of the sample to the chart provided to establish the pH reading. Here, the acidity of my compost is somewhere between 6.5 (very mildly acid) and 7 (neutral).
This pH testing idea occurred to me a few years ago. I thought that with so many kitchen scraps in our compost, there was a chance it might be too acid. And pH tests confirmed the hunch. It's just silly to dig in stacks of overly acidic compost when what you're really trying to do is improve your soil, not ruin it. And since then I have been adjusting the acidity of my compost as I go, by adding in some dolomite lime from time to time.

You can use horticultural lime to raise the pH reading if you like, but I prefer this stuff, dolomite lime, which is essentially just rock crushed down to almost a powder. It is slower and gentler in its action than lime, but it gets the pH adjusting job done. As the packet says, it's also a good source of magnesium and calcium.

I don't add in the dolomite lime every time I add some vegies and dry stuff to the compost bin, but I do probably end up doing it once a month, roughly, just whenever I remember. A good handful each time.

What do I use compost for? I dig it into vegie beds as part of soil preparation. I mix some in with potting mix to beef up the mix with some home-made goodness. When planting seedlings I like to dig a hole, fill it with compost, then plant the seedling into that. Vegie seedlings always seem to belt along when planted into compost. You can use compost as a mulch, too. It's great stuff, just not photogenic!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Thai lime time

Pammy came home yesterday with a lovely present from her old friend Antonio – these amazing looking Thai 'kaffir lime' fruits. Antonio and his wife Louise live just around the corner from us and they've become keen, and very good, gardeners in recent years. Antonio has always been a brilliant cook long before he became a qualified chef in recent years, and so they love to grow their food plants: citrus and herbs in particular. And haven't they done a wonderful job with their Thai limes!

These limes are not so hot for squeezing. Juiciness is not their thing. Instead, it's the fragrant skin which you grate or zest which is what's valued with this wrinkled fruit. It's also really the foliage of the plant which is what most cooks use from this tree most of the time. The leaves are finely shredded and added to salads, soups, stir-fries and dressings, and they really are one of the signature flavours of Thai cuisine, right up there with fish sauce, chillies and smelly old shrimp paste.

I had always intended to buy a Thai lime tree to grow in a pot, as a few years back I nursed back to health my sister-in-law Laura's potted Thai lime tree, which had endured a bad winter on a shady apartment balcony and had been turned into bare (but thorny) sticks. In my sunny backyard, with some TLC it bounced back beautifully and returned to live with Laura once more. Antonio's gift of these fruit spurred us into action, and so this morning Pammy and I went to a big, flash garden centre in northern Sydney and picked one out from the good selection there.

Here it is, just a tiddler now, but that's how I like to start with potted fruit trees: not too big, so they haven't become pot-bound and unhappy at the garden centre. This one was $35, but you could buy advanced Thai lime trees there, with fruit on, for $200, if you were silly enough. Thai limes (Cistrus hystrix) are probably one of the best potted citrus, as the tree is naturally small, only 1-1.5m tall at best. Its only drawback is that it's a thorny thing, but if you harvest either fruit or foliage with both care and respect you should survive unscathed.

And for readers not familiar with Thai limes, here are their wonderfully distinctive leaves. They are called 'waisted' leaves, as they look like two leaves but in fact are one, with a 'waist' in the middle. I always have Thai lime leaves on hand in my kitchen, but that's only because they freeze brilliantly well, and thaw out in less than a minute. So, I buy them fresh at the local Asian stores, and put the unused ones in a Tupperware container and freeze them. Maybe that 'frozen' discovery is what has made me a bit slow to get my own supply of fresh leaves. But when I saw Antonio and Louise's glorious fruit, that was it. No more procrastination, boy. Buy a Thai lime tree this Saturday, you slacker!

Speaking of slackers, this is what I fully intended to buy and plant this time last year: an edible fig tree, destined for a large pot. So, today we also bought a 'Brown Turkey' fig.
Tomorrow is planting day, and then we wait. The figs have finished fruiting in Sydney (or are winding down over autumn) and they'll be bare over the winter. That first shoot of spring will be a thrill, and it's almost odds-on that eagle-eyed Pammy, who doesn't miss a thing out in our backyard, will be the one to come bounding in with that "guess what I spotted" gleam in her eyes.

As for the Thai limes, we fully expect our latest addition to get growing straight away and never look back. However, we'll have to wait till this time next year for the first of those wrinkly wonders to be ready for zesting.