Saturday, January 26, 2013

Seedy habits

The therapists say that the first thing to do with any addiction is to admit you have one. Good advice, but I'm not sure if they know what they're doing after that point is reached. Anyway, here goes: I am tragically addicted to growing plants from seed, and my success rate is OK, not brilliant, but getting better. There, I've said it. I'm feeling better already.

And so at the latter end of this hot, windy and rather unpleasant Sydney Saturday afternoon in January, I've brought out my seed tins, taking stock of the lovely little packets of tragic temptation lurking demurely inside, and I'm planning my autumn seed-raising campaign now. Oh what fun, must put on the kettle to make a calming slug of green tea while I plan out my gardening future.

Here's the hot candidates, all vying for attention. With some,
I'm just waiting for this rolling series of heatwaves to be over
before I get any plants growing again (rocket, lettuce and chervil
all hate the heat and wouldn't be worth bothering with right now).

But there's another category of seeds which is demanding
my attention now: those plants which really only are happy
when sown as seed in the spot where they are going to spend
the rest of their little lives. These are the fuss-pots which don't
like being transplanted as seedlings. Here, there's Florence
fennel, Shirley poppies, carrots, parsley, rocket, beetroot, chervil
and parsnips. I'm already starting to play favourites, though.

While I do of course like to eat parsnips, there
is something extra about them that I like. Being
slow and a bit haphazard in the way they come
up from seed has its 'challenge and reward' buzz
when you see them finally come up, but I just like
watching them grow, and of course harvest
time is lucky dip at the carnival time: you never
know what shapes you'll get (but my second
crop was much better than the first, and my
secret of success is deep, maniacal soil prep).

Call me sick, but I just like parsnip foliage.

If you think having a crush on parsnips is worthy
of referral to a therapist, wait till you hear my
Shirley poppy problem! Total failure last time,
complete duds. I rescued the situation by buying
and planting some Iceland poppies in their place
(and Icelands are easy-peasy, lovely from seedlings).
But here I am planning to have another go. Of
course I don't have a clue where I went wrong.
Tragic fools rarely do. But I'm going to try again.

Florence fennel also needs to be sown direct
into the soil. No transplanting seedlings, please.
As I mentioned a couple of postings ago, I
currently have a little 'test batch' sown and
growing well. Pam and I love to blend sliced 

fennel and potatoes together (more spud than
fennel of course), sprinkle with olive oil, grinds
of salt and pepper then toss, into a covered dish
then bake slowly for as long as you like. The
fennel caramelises and becomes a bit sweet
and the result is utterly delicious.

Oops! A seed spill in the bottom of the tin.
Whose are they? Not the fennel! Yep, the
fennel, recognise those seeds anywhere.
Thank goodness for stocktakes and stickytape
fennel seed packet back in good order now.

Two last little asides. Seed packets give old tins a meaning and
purpose in life. Most of my seeds are in the cricket-crazy-kids'
Weet-Bix tin, but the retro-themed Yates commemorative
125th anniversary tin is doing fine service, too.

Last but never least, I amazed myself by actually checking the
'sow by' dates on the back of all the seed packets before I did
anything else. It is a bit depressing to carefully till the soil,
prepare the seed beds, sow the seeds and water them for days,
then weeks, on end, only to have nothing happen. At that point
 you wonder where could you have possibly gone wrong.
Then you finally, belatedly glance at the seed packet only to
discover it says: "You should have sown them three years ago,
you fool". So take it from a tragic fool, read the packet first!

Saturday, January 19, 2013


Like Icarus of legend, Sydney flew too close to the Sun yesterday, then crashed and burned. 45.8°C, our hottest day ever, and this morning I went out, camera in hand, to inspect the damage. There was more than I thought last night, although any inspection done while the temperature is still around 37°C is bound to be a quick one.

As this fascinating burn wasn't on the frangipani
foliage yesterday morning, it must be due to the
heat. And that's what I noticed this morning: some
of the heat damage is a great photography subject!

Look at this burnt Thai lime foliage – it's black.
Actually burnt black. Must have been baby foliage
innocently popping out on the worst day of the year.

Even in a normal summer these helleborus
leaves will end up looking like this. Yesterday
morning they didn't look like this, so they
experienced 'fast forward' yesterday, a
whole summer of damage in eight hours.

Eggplants are meant to like the heat, but I
guess that's probably just up to a point.
Curled and crinkled, shaped like a serving dish.

Cardamom leaves not only burn, they split
when exposed to too much heat and sun.
Shade-lovers, they hate summer sunshine.

Most of the strawberry patch survived well, but this plant
next to the heat of the paving cooked to a crisp.

The main victim in the garden was the
cherry tomato patch, which basically carked it.

My first thought was "oh you poor things, you
must have suffered", and then I felt a real touch
of guilt that I could have protected them better.
All I could do was harvest a final, bumper crop
colander-full of delicious red pretties and then
I pulled out all the plants. Couldn't bear to
look at the damage any more. Rats, sniff.

Life goes on of course, I'll plant something where the tomatoes grew, later on today. Showers are forecast, just 24°C the max, a lovely day most likely. Usually it turns out much more sunny than showery with such forecasts. 

I suspect that many other Sydney gardeners are thinking the same things as me right now, with climate change predictions at the back of their minds. Are events like yesterday's scorchers likely to become more common from now on? You read about predictions of 'more extreme weather events more often'. The climate science says so, and I'm much more persuaded by science than any other argument. Alas, all I can conclude that yesterday was a taste of more of the same for many summers to come.

Friday, January 18, 2013

For the record

As this blog is a weather-loving gardener's journal of record, and it being the official, history-of-the-universe hottest day ever recorded in Sydney of 45.8°C, which is 114.44°F on the other scale, I just have to tell the world how hot it was today. It was hot, hot, hot. Blast furnace hot. Weak at the knees after 10 steps hot. I've never felt anything like it before, hope I won't again, but suspect I will if I make it to next summer.

And, please let me also take this chance to record the much less newsworthy fact that here in Marrickville, our humble little thermometer made it all the way to 45.0, which is easily the hottest day since we moved in here back in 1991.

Here's the proof. That's as high as
the temperatures rose here. My biggest
worry was Pammy who was 'out there'
in the city, seeing a client, then doing
some shopping. When she arrived home
after her bus trip and short trudge up the
hill she looked utterly spent. "Just sitting
 in the bus, which had air-con on (and
it wasn't making any difference) the sweat
was dripping off me. I have never been
so hot," she said.
How's the garden? Scorched here and there, a few leaves will have to be snipped off. But I did water everything really thoroughly early in the day, and while the leaves everywhere sagged and wilted, a splash of late afternoon rain helped, and we won't really know until tomorrow morning, when the forecast is much cooler, how everything went.

I hope all my Sydney gardening friends end up with a similar 'slightly scorched here and there but most things survived' story to tell.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Good cheer

Of all the silly things a usually sensible person could do, I updated our accounts on Saturday, and delving into inconvenient financial facts always has a slightly depressing effect, doesn't it? And so yesterday, Sunday, was a low point for me, a cheerless day in the garden where all I did was pull out weeds and cut back a rampant ground cover in the front garden that likes to accost pedestrians in the street.

Not the greatest weekend, but it did end well with the first good downpour of rain in ages, and then this morning, Monday, wandering out into the garden had an amazingly uplifting effect on me. Everywhere I looked I saw positive signs, pretty colours, sweet scents – it was full of good cheer. 

And so, dear readers, I present a simple posting designed partly to cheer myself up but also to celebrate the benefits of slowing down and taking stock not only of the pennies in the jar but also the beautiful, natural riches around you.

This is what started it all off this morning. While gathering yet
another colander full of cherry tomatoes, the air was wafting along
on sweet tropical frangipani scents. I stood up, looked at their
lovely simplicity, inhaled another breath and my mood changed.
For the record, this is my favourite typo, cheery tomatoes.

Just as I stepped away from cheery frangipani
land I smiled at a conversation I had with an
expert gardener about how impossible it is to
grow Acacia cognata in Sydney. 

The rain brings out the scents and the colours;
this pot of mint was spicy with its tangy scent.

The mint is in flower now, a happy plant in semi-shade provided
it's given outrageous amounts of water and fertiliser.

Next door to the mint, the French tarragon is a contented low
forest of foliage. Medium water, slow-release fertiliser is all
it needs, plus one hell of a cutback in early spring.

My first go at growing Florence fennel is doing
OK. I have a whole packet of seeds here, but
only planted a few in late spring, as I had
missed the boat for the earlier spring sowing
it prefers. This autumn, I'm sowing lots more.

The strawberries just keep on coming. We started
harvesting breakfast bowls full of these back in
early October and they aren't close to finishing
yet. And to think I didn't even plant anything
there! They came up out of the compost, just
like monsters come up out of black lagoons.

And while I'm counting my blessings and
spreading the good cheer, let me recommend
radishes to you. These are French Breakfast
long cylindrical radishes, and I sowed the
seeds for these on Thursday. I'll probably
be eating some of these by early February.
And I've learned to like their flavour, too.
Super-finely sliced, not too much either, added
to a green garden salad, they are pure zing.

The Thai makrut lime fruit is ready for grating
into dressings, salads and sauces, but the only
hard thing is removing them from the tree,
simply because they look so good there, all
knobbly, deep green and just a bit weird.

There's a party going on in the succulent patch.

The Tiger Grass which is meant to become a
tropical look screen to hide the boring metal
fence is finally growing fast, now that the
heat of summer is here. That's what it loves,
apparently, heat and water, just as if it was
growing in the jungles of Thailand. One of
these days a tiger will jump out of that foliage!

If you're still with me after this marathon 'cheer up' to myself, thanks. There really is nothing quite like a spin around the garden on a cool morning after overnight rain. Quite magical, its effect.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


Sydney seems to get one or two of these outrageously hot days every summer. It all depends on the wind direction. When the winds come from the north-west, where the deserts of the inland are, then Sydney cooks. And today we cooked while also getting an unpleasant taste of what is likely to happen a lot more often in the future.

Today, at our place, it reached 41.1°C, but in
the official weather station at nearby Sydney
Airport it reached, ugh, 42.2°C. That high of
41.1 at our place is 106°F on the other scale.

First thing this morning I gave everything a very
good drink indeed, then I dusted off my collection
of shadecloth sheets and picked out the plants
needing special care. Around lunchtime, when the
temps were racing up from 37 to 38 then 39 in the
space of just 5 minutes, I first draped the very
healthy and productive strawberry patch with a
protective layer of cool, pale green shade.
Though, for the record, I have never actually stepped into a sauna,
(being one who hates the heat), I feel obliged to pull out my
extreme heat cliche generator and testify that stepping outside
was, indeed, just like stepping into a sauna. My actual sense was
that it vividly reminded me of the time I left the cool comfort of a
Qantas plane and stepped out into the muggy delirium of Bangkok
Airport one hot day many years ago. Felt faint for a moment, I did.
Anyway, braving the heat, I then covered up the ripening crops
of cherry tomatoes and vulnerable adolescent eggplant plants.

Right now we're bringing a whole kitchen
strainer full of ripe cherry tomatoes in every
morning, and with me foolishly planting
all five plants I raised from seed (couldn't bear
to cast any tomato babies adrift) I now have
far too many plants, and way too many tomatoes!
No worries though, Pam loves them as much as
I do. I think good cherry tomatoes have the
best tomato flavour of all. I love the zingy explosion
of pure tomato 'hit' you get when the firm skin
gives way and bursts inside your mouth. Yum.
Well worth saving on a scorcher, that's for sure.

The last piece of shadecloth was reserved for the water pond,
and its beautiful little occupant, Paul the goldfish. Last year
when it sizzled like this in January, I was a bit slow to add the
shadecloth on a similarly hot day, and Paul's big pot was
frighteningly warm to the touch and the water was disturbingly
on the wrong side of lukewarm. Despite this my little golden mate
was doing fine, seemingly unbothered by slow braising. This time
his bowl is in a cooler, shadier spot, with shadecloth on top.
Paul probably thinks there's an extended eclipse going on, looking
up into the gloom above from his cool, dark and shady little pond.
So here's hoping all my fellow Aussie gardening friends are surviving this unpleasant day when survival is all that's on the agenda. Here's to cooler days ahead.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Hopping into 2013

It being my first post of 2013, here's wishing all my wonderful little handful of Garden Amateur blog readers the happiest of New Years. And so, true to form, for this first post of 2013, let's not talk gardening at all! 

Well, there's a good reason for that, as Pam and I haven't been home, haven't been gardening but have ushered in the New Year in an Aussie version of the garden of Eden. We drove several hours south of Sydney to visit two great old friends, D & L, at their stunningly beautiful new country property – and as well as catching up with D & L we also spent many hours watching their regular visitors, a mob of 20 or so kangaroos.

The view from D & L's bedroom window, to cleared fields
beyond in the distance, across their sloping property which
runs down to the unspoiled river below.

In the late afternoons, just before sunset, the little
mob of kangaroos hops over to D&L's property
to nibble at the grass and play out their dramas.
They stay there overnight and next morning until the
sun is well risen, and then suddenly they are gone,
evaporating silently back into the nearby bushland.

There are several mum & joey pairings in the mob. This joey is
almost ready to become independent of its mum, but not quite yet.
There's an invisible leash between them, about 20 metres long,
and as soon as mum hops out to the outer reaches of this invisible
leash, the little one scurries rapidly over to mum, for security. 

Please forgive the 'graininess' of this photo, as it was taken
from inside the house, through the flyscreen, just outside our
bedroom window. It's fantastic to open a curtain and see this!

Ditto this grainy one, too, taken through the window just
outside the living room. The roos will go to wherever there is
fresh grass to nibble, and the house holds no fears for them.

For city slickers like Pammy and me, seeing the kangaroos in
such numbers, so close, was exciting at first, yet by the second
morning the sight of a mob of roos was as normal as seeing
magpies and cockatoos flying by. They belong here.
For the kangaroos it's their daily routine to graze here, because it's their land, has been for countless centuries. D&L are the blow-ins but they all manage to share it amicably.

Living with the roos requires patience from D&L, and I don't mean just putting up with roo poo everywhere (D&L are using it as fertiliser to establish the property's thriving border of native plants, and it's working a treat).

You also need to put up with the occasional noise, as kangaroos aren't quiet. They bark, and they like to bark at night. Their 'bark' is nothing like a dog's bark, not as sharp or clear or loud. Instead it's a hoarse, muffled bark, but in the dead of night it's the only noise out there.

You also need to resist the urge to intervene in the male roos' endless, persistent pursuits of the poor females. They're at it all the time. And when the males aren't at the females, chasing and pestering them all over the property, the males are fighting each other for the right to service the females. Two males will 'box' each other with their front paws, and lean back occasionally on their huge tails and thump their opponent in the belly with their powerful legs and claws. Bouts go on for ages, with lots of pauses in between while, incredibly enough, they stop to graze amicably side-by-side.

One night the last thing I could see in the distant gloom was two males fighting each other, and then the next morning, up at sunrise, the first thing I saw was the same two males, still engaged in the bout that never seems to end.

And from all the hours spent watching the rhythms of life of these beautiful creatures, their daily visits each evening, and the way they seem to evaporate into the bush when the sun rises too high in the morning, the endless boy bouts and girl chases, the teamwork of mums and joeys, I could see that life goes on, and from that simple lesson I realised that that's what I should also do.

Get on with it. Get on with life, with gardening, with whatever work I can manage to scrounge. And that's what I plan to do, just like the roos do every day, without fail. Get on with it.