Sunday, October 28, 2012

Little suckers

Amid all the lovely surprises which keep me constantly fascinated here, the other side of the coin is that gardening is full of its annual and seasonal rituals, both good and bad. This morning we staged the Festival of the Stink Bugs, only slightly less dangerous than running with the bulls in Pamplona, and probably just as smelly.

Here's one of them now (well, if I had a camera with wide
angle lens hovering over the top of my lime tree, I could
have taken a shot with the caption "here's 12 of them now",
because that's what I discovered this morning, a lot of them.)
Sydney gardeners know this person well, the bronze orange
bug, also called the stink bug. 
This bug sucks sap from plants, and it loves citrus in particular.
It goes through three stages of life, each marked by a different
colouring. When young it's green and hard to see, then now, in
its middle stage, it's bright orange and easy to spot. If it makes it
to adulthood it's hard to see once more, as it's black.
Now, light infestations of this pest aren't so bad and you can ignore them if you like, but also at your peril, as heavy infestations can develop rapidly, which is why I get onto them as soon as I see them.

Wherever possible, I try to do everything the organic way in my garden, especially with food plants, but if that's not possible I then go for the least bad option. Most of the time I never reach into the 'least bad' bin of ideas, but for bronze orange bugs I do. Here's why...

One organic control for these pests is to physically knock them off the tree and drop them into a bucket of very hot water. That, my friends, is easier said than done! My lime tree is spiny, so it's not a great venue for bug whacking with a stick. And a precision bug whacker is needed to get them all. In many cases they just fall further down the tree and understandably try to hide. Getting up close to these bugs is also hazardous: they squirt an evil smelling spray when attacked (hence the name 'stink bug') and doing combat with them requires goggles and protective clothing, so the citrus spines don't make you look like an overly keen Easter crucifixion re-enactor. I have tried this 'knock them off' method but sorry, never again. 

Another commonly mentioned organic control is even more impractical than precision whacking. It's suggested you use a vacuum cleaner to suck the little suckers off the tree. Oh great! Even if it works (and I have my doubts... have they thought through the practicalities of outdoor vacuuming of spiny trees, really??) your vacuum cleaner ends up smelling like a high school chemistry lab disaster. Sorry, not my Dyson!

And so, alas, it's off to the 'least bad' bin for a solution. And it's not so bad, either. Pyrethrum spray does the trick. This is the spray made from chemicals which naturally occur in certain daisy-family flowers. I just zap the individual bugs with it, not the whole tree. Even if you sprayed the whole tree (which would be a seriously dumb thing for a backyard gardener with one tree to do) the 'withholding period' with pyrethrum is just one day. In zapping a dozen or so bugs I reckon I sprayed about 2% of the tree, max.

And pyrethrum works. Some stink bugs succumb quickly to it, others take a few minutes to drop off the peg.

And so the moral of this story is this: if you have a backyard citrus tree in Australia, go outside and check it for bronze orange bugs now. October-November is the peak season for them. I'll leave the business of what you do next up to you. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Playing favourites

Do you have any favourite gardening tools? I do. Ones that I don't just merely find useful, but actually enjoy using them because they work so well. Though I did very little gardening this day, I did manage to squeeze in four or five jobs this afternoon, each of which featured one of my favourite tools. Somewhere in the middle of it all, that proverbial lightbulb lit up over my head, and this blog posting was born.

Not a big collection of favourites, given the
number of garden tools here, but I used all
four items in one hour of work today.
On the left, a Digadoo skinny trowel given
to me by my friends Colin and Barb either
for my birthday or Christmas (you know
how the history of gifts get blurred).
On the right, a Japanese Niwashi multi-
purpose digging, weeding, hoeing tool.
In the centre, Felco secateurs and a Swiss
Istor sharpener to keep all cutting edges
painfully honest and efficient.

These are Felco 2s; there's all sorts of numbers
for different models which I don't pretend to
understand. Years ago an expert gardener
said "just get Felco 2s, one pair will last a lifetime"
and she was right! They're expensive (about $100,
paid for by me, no freebies for this Amateur) but
in the scheme of things, 100 bucks for 30 years
service works out to be pretty good value.

I love my Niwashi. Its long handle and light
head makes it a lot less tiring to use than the
similar but curved-bladed traditional Korean
digging tools which are a bit better known.
I also have the Korean digger, but it stays on
its hook in the shed most of the time.
Once I prepare a bed with the heavy-duty
mattock, then the fork and spade, out comes
the Niwashi to really work over a bed till its
a truly fine-tilled soil. It's also a fab weeder.
It comes in left-handed or right-handed styles
and there's a longer handled version, too.
I bought mine from NZ a few years back;
here's their website:

I didn't use this Digadoo tool for a couple of months after Col
and Barb gave it to me, as it looked so shiny and new that
it seemed a pity to ruin it. Then I had to fill up a stack of little
pots with potting mix, and like Rudolph the Red Nosed
Reindeer saving the day for Santa with his shiny hooter,
the equally shiny new slim-hipped Digadoo turned out to
be a precision pot-filler. Now, every time I need to fill a pot,
big or small, it's Digadoo time. I used to be a messy
potter-upperer, but you should see me now! Here's a link
to the Digadoo website:
Finally, the Swiss Istor sharpener, the most mysterious tool in
the shed, because your first thought is 'how do you use it?"

The black little blade of the Swiss Istor is mega-hard steel,
and all you do is wipe it along a cutting edge a couple of times
and presto! It's sharpened. Once you get the hang of it, it
works a treat. Never wears out, no moving parts, nice design.
Here's a link to the Swiss Istor page, which also explains how
to use them and how to buy them, etc:

Now, just for the record, in case you're wondering, in this cynical, suspicious, duplicitous commercially-powered online world in which we live, this is not a paid commercial! I bought all these tools with my own hard-earned cash (except for the gift from Barb and Col – thanks guys!). 

As my blog chugs along with a fairly reasonable level of traffic these days, I do actually get approached regularly by product manufacturers offering me freebies to either use, road test, endorse, mention, give away or do whatever I like with them on this blog, but I politely knock them all back. Some of them are nice products too. But I like to keep my blog commercial-free and ad-free, hence the name 'Garden Amateur'. I like to think of myself as a bit like an old Victorian-era gentleman amateur scientist just pottering about enjoyably in his field, making observations, which was the original inspiration for this blog's name.

Though I do work for a leading gardening magazine as a professional journalist, I'm a writer and sub-editor, not any kind of professional gardener. When I started at Burke's Backyard 14 years ago I didn't know much about gardening, but I have learned a bit since then, thanks to working with all those real gardening pros. But I still make lots of bone-headed mistakes, so I never kid myself that I'm anything but an amateur gardener.

I have nothing against anyone trying to make a buck out of blogging, by the way. I think that's very, very hard work indeed, and good luck to all who try, and best wishes.

However, as far as I am concerned, at this blog I am an amateur gardener, a punter having a go and just enjoying my wonderful hobby for the sheer, no-strings-attached fun of it all.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Brain surgery made easy, for Halloween

If you are wondering "what on Earth is Jamie on about now?" then you haven't read my previous blog posting, Halloween Conversion, which tells the story of why Pammy and I are now celebrating Halloween in our own little way. It has a lot to do with happy memories of an incredible journey together for us of course, but we now 'get' Halloween, having seen it done so wonderfully well in the US last year.

Nevertheless, the story picks up at Woolies supermarket, where they're selling genuine Jack-o-Lantern easy-carve pumpkins this year, and this candidate for brain surgery cost me just $8.

The perfect carving pumpkin, thinnish skinned,
semi-hollow inside, shaped like a head,
the famous Jack-O-Lantern pumpkin.
Thanks to You Tube, I discovered that a fine saw is better than
a sharp knife for carving and I had one such saw. This in fact
is a tragic story on its own. I saw this saw on a bargain table
at a hardware store and thought "that might come in handy
one day" and it has – 10 years later! From now on, every time
I see something that "might come in handy one day" I am
going to remember my pumpkin-carving saw which really did
make the whole thing very easy. The boning knife was good
at marking a starting cut in the pumpkin, so it's needed.

Like brain surgery, pumpkin carving can get messy, so I
laid out the Saturday Business Section of the Herald – finally
I have found a use for the Business pages!

After the boning knife makes a small cut, in goes the saw,
to make a big enough lid for my hand to fit into the pumpkin,
for scooping out all the seeds, innards and brains.

Here's a handy tip: cut the lid with the saw blade at an angle, not
straight up and down, so there's no risk of the lid falling into
the middle of the pumpkin itself.

Inside the Jack-O-Lantern is a pitiful sight, mostly seeds and
stringy fibres and nothing much else. A bit icky, in fact.

This is what I call the 'batterie de scoop', for scooping out
the seeds and fibres. As it turned out I used my hands a lot
but the big spoon and the teaspoon did help to get the job done.

This is the total contents of the inside of
Jack's head. Mostly seeds (which I later washed,
dried then sprayed with olive oil and sprinkled

with garlic salt, and roasted at 140°C for 25 
minutes as a pre-dinner snack. OK, not great).

Total time to complete the cleaning of the innards was about
20 minutes to half an hour.

Wiping out with paper towels probably helps.

Put the lid back on and brain surgery part 1 is complete,
just like real brain surgery.

We then left the pumpkin and lid to dry until the carving,
which we did with our friends Paul and Jolanda and their
gorgeous little five-year-old daughter, Elina, who came
around to have dinner at our place last night.

I am especially thrilled with the lid, it actually fits!

To carve the face, first Pammy used a biro
to draw the eyes, nose and gap-toothed smile.

Then it was back to the "might come in handy one day" saw
to carefully cut out the shapes. After cutting we pushed each
shape from the inside, so it popped out.

The saw made this job very easy, but at the end
there were still lots of stringy dags left over.

It took as long to finally tidy up the dags as it took to carve
the eyes, nose and smile. Pammy did a superb job, such neat work!

And then, as it grew dark, we popped a tealight candle into
Jack's head and he began to glow beautifully. Little Elina
loved seeing it all happen, and I can imagine that as she
grows up Halloween will be something she has celebrated
every year of her life, and for me that's a happy thought.

Halloween conversion

Last week's shopping list had an unusual item on it: "a few whole pumpkins, in different colours". Wasn't me, but I could figure what Pammy was up to. She's been bitten by the Halloween bug, following our driving holiday across America this time last year.

Before that we were two happy little Halloween grinches. In previous years, when kids came to our door trick or treating, we'd just say "sorry kids, we're not into Halloween, that's an American thing." Poor little things, they probably got more rejections than lollies, but that's the thing about Halloween here. It's not an Australian tradition... but it is catching on with the current generation of kids, including these two big old kids here at Amateur Land.

And so this is what Pammy did by our front
door. A few pumpkins laid on a bed of sugar
cane mulch, nasturtiums in a tin vase filled
with water – instant Halloween harvest scene! 
Now, the problem is of course that it is anything but harvest time here in Australia. We're Down Under, so it's spring and planting time. But if we as a nation can make a Christmas tradition of fake pine trees, fake snow etc I don't think a few pumpkins by the door is too outrageous a stretch of the imagination. The thing is, we two former Halloween grinches were utterly charmed by the way the good citizens of the USA turned Halloween into a month-long festival of home decorating, pumpkin carving, ghoul exhumations, ghost stories and general good-natured fun. Here's what I mean...

Typical harvest scene on the front steps of a
nice old house in Galveston, Texas.

In New York City, the ghouls get married,
the pumpkins are carved, all ready to party.

A town square in sleepy Greensboro, Georgia had one of these
pumpkin and haybale settings on all four corners of the square. 

A creepy old witch greets visitors to this house
in Charleston, South Carolina.

And in New Orleans, Louisiana the pumpkin
carvers were outnumbered by the ghosts and
ghouls, but these guys are still laughing.
Now, all of Pammy's pumpkin arranging by our front door would have been a perfectly good little 'We like Halloween now' gesture from us, but two days ago, at our local Woolworths supermarket, I spied a bin full of genuine Jack O Lantern pumpkins for sale, and this set Pammy and I on a whole new adventure, which will be detailed in my usual detailed detailing in the next blog posting to follow.

This was one of the smaller ones there, and
it cost about $8. To find out what happened
next, I'll be back real soon!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Bird talk

Most mornings I'm an early riser, up well before sunrise, reading a book in our quiet little kitchen until the sun comes up. But there's one resident of our street who beats me to it every morning. This person.

The koel. Everyone in Sydney knows this bird
not so much by sight as by sound. This black
bird, the male koel, calls for his mate from early
in the morning, like 3am or 4am early, and goes
on with his call all day, at this time of year.
This one creature causes more lost sleep than
any other living thing in Sydney.
He's doing it right now, calling plaintively, repeatedly, as I sit here at my computer this morning. Hopefully this link to an mp3 recording of the koel's call works for you.

Epic post ahead warning! Keep on reading this longish blog posting from here only if you are interested in finding out probably everything I know about birds in my backyard.  

Now, for starters, credit where credit is due, and my theft confessed to with humble apologies. I have pinched virtually all photos used in this posting, and all the sound recordings, from the excellent Birds of Canberra website, found here

I have long wanted to do a posting on the birds which regularly visit our garden, and have proved to be such an inept photographer of them that when I visited the excellent Birds of Canberra website I discovered that they happened to have most of the birds which visit my backyard, here on the NSW coast. Canberra might be well inland and south of Sydney, but it's still only 288km away from here, not that far away as the birds fly.

And so I can at last do my (epic) posting on birds which visit our garden. The list is longish yet that doesn't mean these birds are here every day, though all the following birds are seen here throughout the year, some very regularly. And thanks again to the excellent ornithologists of Canberra for their wonderful work.

The magpie. Often heard and seen here, one of the
most beautiful calls of all, and my favourite.
Magpie's sublime call

The black faced cuckoo shrike, named by early colonists.
It's neither a cuckoo nor a shrike, though. Nice looking bird,
often seen on the clothesline or TV aerial looking for food.
Black-faced cuckoo shrike call

My favourite personality in the garden is this little bird. It's the
New Holland Honeyeater and it's a small thing but it's fast,
smart and fearless. I've seen dopey big wattlebirds try to
chase New Hollands out of 'their' grevillea, but the New
Holland just darts here, there, up down and the selfish big
wattlebird never wins even a point in their scraps. 
New Holland Honeyeater static-on-the-line call

Here's the aforementioned greedy dope, the Red Wattlebird.
I actually like this flighty creature. That red 'flap' on its cheek
is called a 'wattle', and so it doesn't get its name from wattle
trees. This is an early riser too, often feeding on the flowering
gum tree which is our street tree. It's the only native bird we
have a nickname for, and I call him or her 'Cluck', as that's
what its call sounds like, which goes like this... 
Red Wattlebird call

Lots of people call this a Blue Wren, for obvious
reasons, but only the males are blue, and as Mrs
Wren is brown, the 'correct' name of Superb Fairy
Wren is a better description. These little insect eaters
 are tiny and get about the garden in a pretty little
hoppity hoppity way. One little thing I like about these
wrens is that the male juveniles are brown, like
their mums. When they grow up and start to colour up as
blue, Dad drives them off. "Clear off son, you're blue."
Superb fairy wren call

Kookaburras aren't plentiful here but I do see them from time
to time. The impressive thing about these birds is their size,
they're hefty birds, strong with a big beak that's perfectly capable
of picking up an unsuspecting snake. As a child I can recall
hearing kookaburra calls being used in Tarzan movies!
Kookaburra call

I hate seeing these squawky, destructive hoons sitting on the
fence. These Sulphur Crested Cockatoos are big birds too,
so they just do as they please. A while ago, after I had planted
out a whole bed full of vegie and flower seedlings, one of these
birds came down, walked around the bed ripping seedlings out
of the ground, looking for worms wriggling underneath. The

only thing I like about these birds is their waddling walk, and
seeing them fly off into the distance, of course.
Sulphur-crested cockatoo's appalling, loud call

With its impressively fearsome big, black beak
the Pied Currawong visits only occasionally,
but it's always a wonderful big thing to behold.

Shame it eats bird babies so much, but it has
to make a living and that's its job.
Pied Currawong call

This tiny and extremely pretty little bird, the Spotted Pardalote,
is a rare visitor to our garden, and when Pam saw the first one
we were genuinely excited. We do see them a few times each year,
but each visit is a special occasion. We suspect they nest down 
at the local golf course, which is nearby and sited on a river,
the kind of habitat our bird book says Spotted Pardalotes prefer.
Spotted pardalote call

Alas, so very plentiful when we first arrived here
21 years ago, these Silvereyes are now a rarity
here, but I do occasionally see one still. A small
bird with a striking white ring around its eye
it's a busy, chatty little personality.
Silvereye call

Another lovely personality is the Willie Wagtail, a smallish fantail
bird who waggles that tail as it looks for insects and grubs.
While a common bird in general, its visits here are just occasional.
Willie Wagtail call

With an appalling screech of a call that's like fingernails on a 
blackboard to me, the Peewee or Magpie Lark has won back
my sympathy, as I have learned that it is a common dupe for
the cuckoo-style tricks of that annoying koel which wakes up so

many people. Koels lay their eggs in Peewee nests, and when
the baby koel hatches it pushes all the Peewee babies out of the nest
(to their doom) and then the Peewee parents exhaust themselves 
trying to keep up food supplies to the huge, ever-hungry koel baby. 
Ain't nature cruel sometimes! 
Peewee (Magpie Lark) loud car-alarm screech

I'm caught between admiration and dislike of this bird, the Noisy
Miner, which is plentiful on the street side of our house, and
mercifully not so often seen in our backyard. I admire them for
their unlimited reserves of bravery as they fight birds two, three
or more times their size (in packs). But they are bully birds
who just live to dominate their territory and constantly try to
shoo away 'intruders'. Their natural habitat is 'forest margins',
ie, trees on the edge of a forest, with light scrub or grasslands
beyond, and that's a hell of a lot like parkland and suburbia,
so they are in huge numbers here in Sydney. They don't really
like our backyard as it's too densely planted for their liking. Phew!
Noisy Miner's noisy call

Almost finished, but not quite. All photos and bird calls featured above are from the Canberra Birds website, but they didn't have every bird which visits our garden, so here's a few more. Continuing my ignoble tradition of thieving both bird photos and recordings of their calls, I have proceeded to the wonderful 'Birds in Backyards' website for these next items. It can be found at

This Red-Whiskered Bulbul isn't a native bird
but one family lives here. Every year Mr and Mrs
Bulbul make a nest in our Murraya hedge and
raise babies. I am proud to say that my keen
mulching of our garden with sugar cane mulch
provides some very suitable nesting materials.
Interestingly, I spotted Mr Bulbul the other day
having an all-in fight with himself. He was perched
on the end of our barbecue, flapping his wings
and pecking madly at our garden mirror, in which
he could see his reflection. Hope he didn't hurt himself,

but I do think the reflection came off second-best.
Red-whiskered bulbul call and fact sheet, which includes a little thingy containing its call

And finally, the last and most colourful backyard visitor of all of all is this person, the rainbow lorikeet, in a photo taken by me (the only one in this posting, I am sorry to say).
The rainbow lorikeet, pictured in his favourite spot, our
Eucalyptus leucoxylon 'Rosea' street tree. This tree flowers
from early autumn to late spring, and the rainbow lorikeets,
red wattlebirds and New Holland Honeyeaters are in
constant competition for the abundant nectar on offer.
If you're a complete glutton for bird-loving blog punishment, here's a link to an earlier posting about an injured lorikeet named Bung who recuperated in our backyard for several days following an argument with a car, prior to (hopefully) returning to his flock. It's called 'Bung's Bingle'.

And again, courtesy of Birds in Backyards, a fact sheet on these birds which includes their not especially pleasing call

Anyone still here? Working from home allows Pammy and me to keep a good, close eye on who visits here, and we never ever tire of our little fun with birdwatching. The one lesson that keeps on popping up from all this bird visiting and watching is that though it may be small, my little backyard is a part of an urban chain of bird-friendly habitat that helps to sustain many hundreds of wonderful lives.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Colourful neighbours

It's such a blessing to have good neighbours (and such a curse to have bad ones) but in our case we not only have great neighbours on both sides but have also had them for the 21 years we've been here. Our neighbours to our west are Nick and Katerina, a fabulous Greek family originally from Sparta (Spartans are so tough their dolmades have meat in them!). Nick's the keen gardener with excellent green thumbs, but Katerina is the one who has kept our garden going very nicely through the course of many holidays. No-one waters a garden like Katerina does.

Right now, their front garden is beyond being a blaze or any other cliche of colour. It's alive, alight, dazzling, foaming, bristling, zinging with flowers, and so for a change I thought I'd show you a couple of photos of their garden, instead of ours.

Botanists can be finks sometimes. Who thought up the name
Mesembryanthemum, for goodness' sake? As an act of very
sane rebellion someone called this the ice plant, and that's a
much nicer name than its other common name, pig face.

I'm not sure whether this is one plant or a hundred, but I think
it did start off as a circle of a dozen or more separate seedlings
which have joined together, as dancers do in the big musical finales.
Now it's a solid mass about ten feet in 
diameter, of icy cool
white and Mardi Gras intensity gay pink. It's a succulent, and
all the various pig faces/ice plants are over-the-top dazzlers.
To view the orange one you need sunglasses. Interestingly,
the flowers only open wide on sunny days; when it gets cloudy
or the sun goes down, they all close up.

In the narrow little bed leading up to their front
door they've repeated the pink/white theme
with some more pretty annuals.
One funny little thing about this garden is that I think it's Katerina's idea. When I saw her the other day and remarked on how colourful it all looked she beamed and said "yes, it's beautiful". Two days later I found Nick out the front and again complimented him on how well it has all grown, but he was much more circumspect, "It's OK, a bit bright".

It has certainly got the neighbours talking. As I was taking the photos this morning a friend from 10 doors up stopped and asked "What's the name of that thing?" pointing at the ice plant. "Sure is bright." 

Yep, sure is!