Friday, March 29, 2013

Meet the B Team

Some people ask "when is it a good time to repot succulents?' and, if today is anything to go by, the answer might be "when you feel guilty".

Folks, it's time to meet the much neglected, but freshly repotted, B-team of my succulent collection. As you can see from the glamorous photo below, the first time our gas meter has made it into this blog, this gaggle of potted succulents looks like they are well kept and much cared for. Nothing could be further from the truth!

When I planted out my backyard succulent patch, transferring
my potted collection to their new home in the ground, there were
many potted leftovers. Some went to good homes as gifts, a few
were left out in the street with a "Free Plants" sign nearby (and
they all went in an hour or so). But a selection of them stayed
on for duty as the "B Team". Their job was to provide backup
plants in case any plants in the ground failed. Well, that didn't
happen, and so the B Team has hung around down the side of
the house, where the garbage bins and gas meter reside. And
so I mostly forgot about them, except to wince slightly every
week when putting out the garbage. "Must repot those succulents,
or get rid of them, or something else" I have said to myself
many times, and so today, Good Friday, I felt guilty.
These haworthias were in a miserable clump of slumped potting
mix that rose no higher than halfway up its pot, and they didn't
seem to mind at all. But I did, so today I broke up the whole clump
and have turned this into three pots of these guys, which look
like they were designed by Gaudi, the Barcelona Cathedral guy.

This graptoveria (?) was thriving on neglect, sprawling out of
its pot and monstering its neighbours. I snipped off the wanderers
and there's still plenty of colour and action going on here.

Same deal with this... graptopetalum (??), loving the side
passageway, a diet of natural rainfall and no other assistance.

Finally, this utter weirdo has also grown.
Half an hour of Googling seems to indicate that
this might be Euphorbia tirucalli, a stick-like
thing without leaves. A neighbour who was
moving house gave it to me, but neither Pam
nor I particularly liked it. I just kept on
growing it for curiosity's sake – to see what it
actually "did". Answer... not much, although
it too has grown well in the alleyway of shame.
To compound all my crimes, it being Good Friday none of the gardening centres were open, so all I had for potting mix was ordinary potting mix, a bag two-thirds full. Still left over from the succulent garden revamp were two full bags of washed, coarse sand, so I mixed some of that into the potting mix (50:50) to create enough mix for all the repotting. I'm working on the theory that as the backyard in-ground succulent garden, which is about 50% coarse sand now, is belting along nicely, then that sand is the magic ingredient which makes my succulents grow. Plus crossing your fingers, that helps too.

I also have a couple of bags of white pebble mulch left over from the makeover, and it really helps to make the repotted succulents look snazzier, doesn't it?

And so that's the B Team's moment of glory. Repotted, photographed and blogged about. Autumn has barely begun here in Sydney, as summer is hanging around like it doesn't want to end. It has been very warm and humid for the last few weeks, with overnight temperatures still up in the 20s (°C) and days in the high 20s and low 30s. Today is cooler, good repotting weather, and hopefully there'll be a couple more months of autumn for the B Team to get growing. I'll check on their progress every garbage night!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Country revival

I might be a city boy born and raised, and a long-term denizen of the inner-city if the truth be told, but the occasional weekend of country-style fresh air, sunshine and wide open spaces is as important to my continued sanity as being with my darling girl, Pammy, almost all the time. 

Almost? Yep, left her behind in the Big Smoke (she was off to the Sydney Opera House for a big Sing-Sing anyway) and I headed down south, and up into the hills, to visit my old mate Fraser at his lovely property close to the charming, historic and steadily reviving town of Taralga, on NSW's Southern Tablelands, pop. 312.

If you're in Australia and you're talking authentic
country style you'll be needing everything pictured
here: a beautiful gum tree, corrugated steel, rust,
weathered timbers, a slight dip in a roofline if you
can manage that, and a covering of lush green grass.
No, wait, I made up that bit about lush green grass.
Sometimes things get a bit dusty here in Australia,
but it has been raining this summer in Taralga,
the dam's full, the grass is growing, and the sheep,
the cattle and the horses are all fat. A good year.

You simply cannot build a heritage-listed
clothesline like this. It takes years for it to
happen, for the timbers to go grey, the lines
to sag wonkily, and the posts to lean over a bit.

Somewhere on the front of the old stone house there's a sign
saying 'Rose Cottage' and they have some very old established
rose bushes and climbers to prove it.

Right now you could rename the joint 'Anemone
Madness' and no-one would disagree, but of
course that's not as nice as Rose Cottage, is it?

Fraser's neighbour, Ken, is living the retiree's dream. He has a
few acres to play with and has lots of fruit trees and a very well
tended vegie patch too (and some of the crops make their way
over the fence to Fraser, more on that in a moment). One thing
I liked about Ken's orchard was the simple way he built his
bird-exclusion nets. Taralga is home to zillions of rosellas and
magpies, plus all sorts of itinerant cockatoos, galahs and other
airborne eating machines, so if you want to keep your crops
of fruit intact, you'll need netting. Ken creates a simple frame
for the nets by bending two very long pieces of flexible black
plastic irrigation piping (poly pipes) over the top of the
tree in a big U shape. Only two pipes are needed to make
a frame, and the net goes over. Works a treat, too.

Now, sorry to all the vegoes out there for the bacon, but it is
locally cured stuff from the butcher at the nearby big town
of Crookwell, and it tasted just like bacon should: really bacony!
Fraser's a dab hand in the kitchen, so I just bludged all weekend
(and every country town has its resident bludger, of course)
and he cooked up dinner, breakfast and more dinner. His tomato
and cheese omelette was made from eggs supplied by Ken's
chooks (thank you ladies) and the flavour boost from Ken's

super-flavoursome home-grown tomatoes and some freshly
snipped chives. The toast on the side was from the local bakery.
I tried to earn my keep this weekend by helping out in the garden then drinking his beer later on, but the real hero of the weekend, apart from my great host himself, was Huey the weather God. Taralga can be chilly (stop laughing all you Taralga-ites). Oh, all right then, Taralga is often very cold indeed. If Huey had decided to send us cold southerly winds, a bit of rain and lots of cloud, the slow-combustion fire would have been raging all weekend. Instead, it was T-shirt weather all the way. Superb.

And so I'm back with my lovely girl Pammy now in our pretty little inner-city cubby house, which is the natural order of things. But after a weekend in the country I feel like I've blown a whole ceiling full of cobwebs out of my head. Taralga, you've done it again!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Learning to love radishes

And the winner, ladies and gentlemen, of the seed-sowing race, planted on Sunday morn and announced this Wednesday morning, is... the radish seeds of course!

Hardly a shock winner, but three days is good going. That's why
they say radish are great for kids to sow, because they come up
so fast. It's a shame when it gets to the time for the kids to taste
their first radish, though! In fact I've been a bit that way about
radishes for many years, but this summer I've learned to love them.

Now I can't believe that I haven't taken a photo
of the radishes we've been pulling up, but I just
did a search of my iPhoto files and all I came
up with was this. Mine don't look quite as uniform
as these, but seed packets are like that.

Now, the thing I've learned to love about radishes is how a bit of moderation can go a long way. I've always made the mistake of cutting radishes into too-big slices then finding that I dislike their pepperiness. This year I've been chopping them up much smaller then tossing them into salads, and they've lost that peppery flavour and have now taken on just a warm glow. On the weekend I added some, finely chopped, to a lentil salad and I think they were the magic ingredient that made it go 'zing'.

This shot of the Baker's Creek seed catalogue page on radishes
shows that these rather neglected, almost maligned, little salad
zingers can actually be quite pretty, too.
I don't think I'm going to turn into a radish enthusiast any time soon, but it is good to get to know a vegie you haven't especially liked all that much and find a use for it in the kitchen that's actually valuable.

In the garden these really are a pleasing little thing to grow. So fast and so easy. From now on there's always going to be a little place set aside for just a small row of radishes to add their mouth-warming magic where it's needed.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Getting my act together

Sowing seeds is so much more fun than just banging in a seedling (but I do admit to being a seedling planter fairly regularly, when I commit one of the three "F"s: forget, fail or fudge). However, this autumn I haven't forgotten or fudged, and only time will tell whether I have failed or not. It pays to be an optimist with seed-sowing, so I'm hoping most of them will do their duty and turn into delicious little herbs and vegies.

The other bonus with sowing seeds is that warm sensation of feeling that you're getting your act together. Oooh gosh, I'm all organised for once!

I do actually know which pot is which, despite the lack of tags.
In with the fresh potting mix, scatter on a layer of seed-raising
mix, then the seeds, then a bit more seed-raising mix to get the
correct sowing depth. Pat down, gentle spray of water. Wait.

One pot is filled with coriander, another with flat-leaf parsley,
another with chervil and the last with a 'micro salad mix' that
worked so nicely last spring that's it's worth another go this
autumn. Both chervil and coriander don't like summer here,
going from leafy to flowery then seedy in no time. Winter's slower
pace suits them both fine, and they'll last for months once they
get going. The old parsley plants had gone to seed, and so
I'm sowing seed again (this time soaking the seed in hot water
for a few hours, to speed up its super-slow germination).

Out in the vegie beds it's the same story. The mulch is mostly
there to slow down the onrush of weeds, which are relentless,
but the dark brown bits are where the seeds went in.

In this vegie bed and the one next door I've sown seed of English
spinach, radish, spring onions, lettuce and Florence fennel. The
Florence fennel in particular detests being transplanted so must
be grown from seed, but the same is basically true of the spinach
and radishes, too. Seeds are best. Both the lettuce and spring onions
aren't fussy about being transplanted, but as everything else is
starting from seed, they have to do it that way, too.
The interesting thing now will be 'seed racing': seeing which seeds will come up first. I can tell you who'll run last – it'll probably be the parsley. 

In this cooling weather the lettuce can come up within a week, often less, so too some of the salad greens in the potted micro-salad mix (which includes corn salad, beet, spinach and amaranthus), the spinach and of course the irrepressible radishes. 

The rest present a packed field that are all likely to come up anywhere between 7 and 20 days. The excitement is bearable, but I'm still interested in keeping track of how they all go, and of course once they do start to come up and thrive in the autumn sunshine, it will all be worth it, because if they all come up, then I've well and truly got my act together this time round!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Saturday rounds

I love a good Saturday, and today has scrubbed up pretty well for fun. In fact, if I was allowed to choose a favourite day of the week, Saturdays would just sneak it in over Sundays, because for me I always seem to make my new discoveries when the weekends are young. On Sundays my brain switches off somewhat. Cooking eggs on Sunday mornings is all I'm good for...

Take this morning as an example. I was out there doing my 'Saturday rounds' of the garden, saying hello to all the inmates, including the ones I tend to neglect, or just presume are doing fine without me, for the other six days of the week. One classic case of such a neglected inmate is the ancient looking hanging basket down one end of the pergola, where a succulent planted there last spring is simply belting along now. But what's this I see on the side of the basket? From a distance it looked like lichen, so I just had to investigate...

Just a patch of green, still looked like lichen from a few feet
away, and then when I got up nice and close...

It's a moth, disguised as lichen. Haven't got a clue what kind of
moth it is (can anyone help out here with an ID?) but it looked
serenely asleep, and so that's how I left it.

There have been a variety of residents in this old twiggy basket
and the latest is this succulent, Senecio jacobensii. It has grown
like mad over spring and summer, as it started out in the basket
from a bit which broke off the parent plant which is in the ground
(broke off when I trod on it, that is). It was just a little piece that
went into the basket, but it has gone forth and multiplied very nicely.

This is the in-ground parent plant, which is also enjoying life
in the new succulent patch. These senecios should start to change
colour in winter, showing red blushes when the chills arrive.

Speaking of changing colours, this Crassula
'Campfire' which puts on an astonishingly
vivid show of pinks and reds in the cooler
months, is starting to turn already. 

We're also entering a purple phase here now
that autumn has arrived. This potted little
Tibouchina 'Groovy Baby' is a sickly little plant
which need constant attention, but then it
flowers its head off in spring and autumn.
Its bigger brother, Tibouchina 'Jules' is close by
and covered in flower buds, but it'll be another
week yet before it become delirious with colour.

When I say we're entering a purple patch I really do mean it.
Next door to the Tibouchinas, the Plectranthus 'Mona Lavender'
is in its pomp right now. It had always been hard to keep plants
under the canopy of our olive tree happy, due to the semi-shade
and the olive's big root system, but this Plectranthus just settled in
 from the start; a great plant for semi-shaded spots. It'll be
getting a major trim back in a couple of months from now
once the flower show has finally subsided.
Well, that's it for my lovely Saturday morning in the garden. I pulled out all the chilli bushes and eggplant plants, clearing the decks for planting some winter crops, but photographically that's all pretty dull stuff. 

Instead, to finish, what I would like to show you is my latest discovery in the kitchen. Now, I am sure most of you have heard of that South American grain called quinoa, which is very trendy right now. Well, there's a new 'next' trendy grain that's similar but different, called 'Freekeh'. Quinoa is an ancient South American grain, and Freekeh is an ancient Middle-Eastern grain. It's actually a type of wheat – young green wheat which has been roasted. Here's a link to the website of an Australian freekeh grower which includes info, recipes etc. The woman doing the video is a worry, announcing that's she's "your personal trainer in healthy eating", but if you're prepared to forgive her for that, it's a fairly handy website.

Our excellent local Middle-Eastern food
specialist shop, with the demure title of
Crazy Coffee and Nuts, stocks this Jordanian
brand of Freekeh, and I'm trying it out
tonight. Love the packaging!

Here's what it looks like uncooked. Just like wheat. It takes a bit
more time to cook than rice, is loaded with protein and other
stuff that's good for you (forget what exactly!), and I am planning
on making a salad as a side dish to accompany barbecued lamb
shoulder, combining cooked Freekeh, Puy lentils, currants, pine nuts,
coriander, parsley, chopped eschalots, olive oil and lemon juice.
Hope it all works, but I just love experimenting with new flavours! 
That's the other thing I love about Saturdays. It always seems to be the day that I end up having lots of fun in the kitchen in the afternoon. The quinces are almost ready (they've been slow-baking for five hours now – here's how I did them last year) and if all goes well with the Freekeh salad I'll update you on that little bit of Saturday living later on.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Autumn joy

I'm never sure whether its plants' in-built thermometers which tell them autumn's cooler days are arriving, or whether it's their in-built light meters which tell them that the daylight hours are getting shorter. Probably it's both, but whatever the mechanism some of the plants in our succulent patch are getting rather joyous and colourful now that autumn is upon us. Without a doubt, the star is the well named Sedum 'Autumn Joy', the wearer of the pink pompoms pictured below.

Its formal name is Sedum spectabile 'Autumn Joy', and this is
definitely the best it has ever looked. Formerly confined to a pot,
it's loving setting up home in the patch's light, sandy ground.

And the extra-nice thing about this pink person
is that it was a gift from a wonderful friend of
ours, Amanda, who lives in Kyneton, Vic, where
this plant really thrives, due to the cooler inland
climate down there. Amanda gave it to us when
we visited her several years ago, and in the years
since then it has proven its toughness by surviving
well enough, but it wasn't until it went into the
ground that it has shown what it can really do.

The whole plant is abuzz with activity now, as there are bees,
ants and flies crawling over every flower.
This plant is so glam that even the flies are pretty; these shiny
metallic bronze buzzers are zipping nervously everywhere now.
 It's not just the one plant flowering now in the succulent patch. A few others are in flower, including the Echeveria 'Topsy Turvey' which I blogged about recently, and in the last few days another echeveria has burst into bloom.

These are the flowers of Echeveria 'Black Prince'
a beautiful dark-leaved form of echeveria.

Here's one of them sending up what will
become another flush of flowers. For most
of the time it's a low-growing rosette in
the usual echeveria format (but not the
usual colour), yet when flowering time
comes around it sends up a hi-rise
column of leaves, topped by flower heads.

Several days from blooming yet, this is the infant flower spike
of a little Crassula perforata. This is the first positive sign with
this plant since I planted it last year. It has gone nowhere and
done nothing much since being removed from its pot and plonked
into the ground. I think it's been sulking, but maybe it's just a
slow starter after being transplanted. I've always been very fond
of the little pagoda-like format of its leaves rising on the stem,
so I hope it will forgive me my sins and settle in happily now. 
The change in the succulent patch since we renovated it last September has been wonderfully rewarding – our plan has worked! Well, it has mostly worked. We had to guess what sizes plants would get to when mature. We've guessed correctly in most cases but the one where we've got things most spectacularly wrong is our star turn, the Sedum 'Autumn Joy'. It's overshadowing some of its neighbours at the moment (but they're hanging in there), and it should die down in winter, so we might move it to the back of the bed then, when it's snoozing. In the meantime we're just enjoying the show.

If you're new to this blog and want to see what we did to renovate the soil and the patch itself last year, check out this September posting, and this follow-up in December

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Tangy weather

One of the good things about gardening in backyards is that the rest of the street can't witness the strange things you sometimes get up to: like gardening in the rain.

Now, all my Sydney gardening friends don't need a weather report – we all know it has been raining for the last few days, and that it's likely to keep on raining for a while longer yet. So most sensible folk might think "oh well, it's raining, might as well read a book/watch a video/bake a cake/clean the house, etc etc".

But no, not this little gardener. "It's raining, yippee, time to feed some plants!" And so that's what I did today: I fed my three citrus trees. As a matter of fact, rainy days are the ideal times to pile on the fertiliser. That's because the theory is that you should water the ground well before applying plant foods. Rainy days take care of that little job for me. And then you should water the ground well after applying plant foods, to get the nutrients down into the soil. Thank you once more, rainy day!

Here in our temperate climate at least, it's best
to feed citrus grown in-ground twice a year,
at the end of summer (late Feb) and early spring
(late August). This is my Eureka lemon tree,
healthy and happy, always willing to scoff a bit
more food and produce some more juicy fruit.
It's not the prettiest lemon tree, having had a
rough childhood, bullied by the roots of a nearby
 climber which is no longer there. But it has bounced
back since the bully left, although it does lean to the
left slightly, like that famous tower in Italy.

Also getting a feed today was this person, the Tahiti lime, which
is grown espalier-style on a frame of solid wires suspended
between two swimming pool fence posts. This loyal trooper is about
10 years old now and is soldiering on nicely. It needs regular
clipping back (about two or three times a year) to maintain
its thinnish, wideish shape, but it's too lush with foliage to ever
take on the classic leafy 'arms' look of the fancy pear and apple
espaliers that you see in the designer gardening books.
There's only one problem with Tahiti limes and
that is they bear their fruit in a big bunch in
late summer and early autumn, then for the
rest of the year there's very few to enjoy.
Even though I religiously thin out fruits where
I can to cut down the gluts, I always miss a few
clusters and I end up with these bunches. 
The exception to the 'late summer/early spring'
feeding regime is potted citrus, such as this
potted Thai makrut lime. It gets fed lightly
but more often, around once a month is ideal.
As for what to feed citrus and how much, there's a stack of different options, each with its own instructions on the pack that are well worth following to the letter. 

For the potted makrut lime I prefer to use a slow-release product such as Osmocote for Citrus, but every now and then I give the pot a small half-handful of chicken poo, sometimes a bit of cow poo, if I am fertilising other plants nearby in the warmer growing season, when I am watering the pot a lot and it's probably growing faster than ever and can cope with a bit of a treat. The main thing is not to apply too much food to potted citrus trees at any one time, but to keep on giving it little feeds throughout the year.

As for the in-ground plants, I prefer an organic-based product such as Dynamic Lifter for Fruit and Citrus (for no special reason other than habit and good results). Notice I say it's "organic based" and not "organic". That's because so many good, useful modern plant foods now fall into this "organic based' category. They don't qualify as a purist organic product but that doesn't bother me greatly. The Dynamic Lifter, for example, is basically chicken poo, but these days the manufacturer (Yates) has added in trace elements to boost its effectiveness. 

My commitment to organic gardening is more to do with avoiding sprays which kill beneficial insects; to use methods which slowly but surely 'feed' the soil over the years with compost, manures and mulch; and to encourage a little backyard eco-system where birds, beetles, lizards, spiders, worms and all sorts of creatures find a home to share with us, and each other.