Thursday, February 21, 2013

You lookin' at me?

There I was trying to take a photo of a herb taking over the vegie patch when a very loud buzzing demanded my attention. He or she, the blue-banded bee, was about 12 inches away, checking me out very closely.

"You lookin' at me?" s/he seemed to be saying, not at all scared of a bit of close-up action, in fact I think a bit cheesed off that I had come too close to the eggplant pollen it was busily harvesting. Into the flower it dipped for another moment, then straight back to me, in my face, again just 12 inches away. "You lookin' at me, kid?" s/he seemed to say again, just like Robert de Niro/Travis Bickle in the movie 'Taxi Driver'.

The moment I picked up my camera to snap the amazing close up, of course it buzzed off noisily (much noisier than a common honeybee). So I waited patiently at the eggplant flower, and this is what I snapped next. 

Typical of bees, it held this pose for 0.2 nanoseconds.

This felt like 'holy grail' practice. See, my latest holy grail photo
is to get a blue-banded bee feeding on the most spectacular
flower in the garden, a passionfruit flower. As the passionfruit
vine is young and has borne no flowers yet, this is the next best
thing, a native blue-banded bee docking with an eggplant bloom. 

Wow, this feels like 'bee cam'! I've seen (and heard) this noisy,
industrious little person several times in recent weeks, so I
presume its place of residence is the large, gappy brick wall
where I am training my passionfruit vine. 
Now, I'm no wildlife expert (but I am a devoted stickybeak) so all I know about this native Aussie bee is that its formal name is Amegilla cingulata, and its preferred housing is in nests made in either mud banks or crumbly sandstone rock faces. Here at Amateur Land they are making do with a second-best housing option, that badly built brick wall that is my neighbour's garage.

Blue banded bees are important in local crop production, pollinating up to 30% or our commercial crops (and so they help out around our vegie patch, too). The males have five stripes on their body, the females four, and the males are brighter blue and the females much paler in colour, so maybe I had an encounter with Mavis Bickle, not Travis Bickle?

Unlike honeybees they don't create hives and instead are rather solitary creatures. (Hey, I'm starting to like them even more now!) Now that I've had a practice run at snapping Ms Bickle in action, when the passionfruit flowers appear I am in for a long day camped out near the vine, just waiting for Ms Bickle to visit and come lookin' at me once more.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

One era ends, another begins

It's only once in your life that the best job you've ever had comes to an end, so I thought I'd reflect a bit on the closure of 'Burke's Backyard' magazine, have a bit of gnomey fun for starters, and then blab on forever about working from home and what an enjoyable time I have had working on this great magazine.

Pictured below is the rather startling, but definitely memorable, last cover of 'Burke's Backyard' magazine. It's the March 2013 issue – we're calling it a 'collector's edition' (well it is, sort of) – and it's on sale now.  

When we were tossing around cover ideas for
the last issue, the fact that we'd been axed came
up as a possible coverline, and then the idea
of Don's 'murdered' gnome came up and, to
cut a long story short, here it is. As a gnome lover
who also owns a murdered gnome I must admit
to having a hand in pushing the idea forward.

When I say 'gnome lover' I do mean it. This
photo of me was taken in our backyard back
in 2004, when our garden looked very different
from how it appears now. The mag needed a
backyard nutter for the next issue, the one we
had planned dropped out, and so as a stopgap
I was roped into this little family portrait of
Jamie with just a selection of our gnomes.

Inside the final March issue there's a story on gnome
collections, and pictured above right is mine, and above left
are some of the magazine owner, Don Burke's, very nice
collection, which includes a few celebrity gnomes, as well
as the full set of Terry Sedgwick 'murdered' gnomes.

Like the rest of the team at Burke's Backyard, we're all terribly disappointed to see the magazine close. Unfortunately, magazines are an expensive business to run, with lots of staff and bills to printers, etc to pay. Unfortunately in recent times as a business it hasn't been making enough money, so it had to close (reluctantly!). That's the sad fact of what's happening to publishing in general, and we're just another magazine closure story to add to the long list that's accumulating.

I can very happily say this is the best job I've ever had, and unless an absolute ripper of a new offer comes along, I think these times just ended might stand as the best days of my working life. For more than 14 years I worked on the magazine from my home office. Sure, I'd be over at the magazine's office to help see the magazine through the organised mayhem of deadline week, but most of the time I worked peacefully in my study at home. I came and went as I pleased to the main office, but I worked my own hours at home. As a routine I spent lots of time each morning in the garden before walking the 20 metres back to my office to get stuck into work at whatever hour I got there (usually that was around 7 or 7.30 each morning, as I am an early-riser).

If anyone is contemplating working from home, I say 'give it a go'. It's not for everyone, of course. It's a free-range existence, and some people need order around them (imposed on them?) so they can concentrate on the job at hand. I'm the opposite: I thrive in free-range freedom – I feel more creative and productive with the shackles off.

Pammy works from home too, but we spend the whole working day well apart from each other. We have breakfast at different times, lunch at different times, and she's down the back of the house (overlooking the garden, with music playing, typical art department), and I'm well away, at the front (in silence, like a monk's cell, typical editor's library). But it works for both of us. We get together at dinner time, where we love cooking for each other.

The idea of a 'working week' became fuzzier as time went by, so I often found myself either writing or editing stories on Saturdays or Sundays, or at 6am or 6pm on any day. I just worked when I felt like it, but I often ended up doing a bit of work for all seven days of the week in succession – and that didn't bother me at all.

Of course the other wonderful part of this job was the subject itself. Gardening! Well, the mag also had cookery, nutrition, pets, wildlife, decorating and design, but its heart and soul was gardening. I learned so much in these 14 years at Burke's, and writing this blog is, in part, my attempt to pass on a little bit of what I have learned to other souls who I really do feel are just like me. We just like gardening, even if we aren't experts.

I also want to tell you a bit about our team. They're simply the best bunch of people I've ever worked with. The keynote sound of our office was laughter. We had a good time together, and there were lots of laughs every day. Sure they'd all get stuck into the task at hand on deadline week, but even then they'd find something stupid or funny to amuse themselves despite being flat out busy.

One good sign of a happy workplace is that people stay there, and our small team included our photographer Brent, photo researcher Julie, and me, and all three of us were there when the magazine started 14 years ago. Zora, our Creative Director, came on board in 1999, just one year into the new magazine's run. That's a lot of long-termers in a tiny team, and I am sure if the magazine had continued on a lot of our relative newcomers (with mere four or five year histories) would have hung around to become honoured old lags.

I also want to say how much I have enjoyed working with Don Burke. He's an inspiring guy to work with, with a remarkably wide range of interests and specialist knowledge in everything from horticulture through to animals, pets, wildlife, the environment and anything the world of science manages to dig up next. Don's a believer in giving praise where it's due to all his staff, and that's something I have found lacking in many other people whose job title is 'boss'. Don's wife Marea is a big part of Don's success, but she is a force behind the scenes and Don's greatest supporter, along with their daughter Chris, who is the most dynamic dynamo I have ever worked with. She's tireless, and when the pressure's on, I always think she's enjoying it all just a bit more. (And let me tell you, when the pressure's on, I hate it!).

Anyway, so that's it for our fab, beloved magazine. That's not it for Don Burke or Burke's Backyard, though. For many years they've had a very active website (and it's still belting along), and now with Facebook, YouTube and Twitter versions of Burke's Backyard active online, they're moving into a new era.

I'll be keeping up my happy and productive association with Burke's in all sorts of new and interesting ways, including new books, but as far as the magazine goes, unless there's a miracle, that's it.

Finally, here's a linky to a segment on the Channel Nine show 'A Current Affair' about the closure of our great magazine, and Don's plans for the future. Our lovely horticultural editor Elizabeth Swane makes a brief appearance, so does Julie, and around the 1.00 minute mark so do I, with a five-word speaking part (I'm the one in the blue Hawaiian shirt – I told you it was a relaxed workplace!)   

And as for Garden Amateur, we ain't going nowhere! Stay tuned for the next installment, as my lovely old mag may have passed on, but my garden (and Pammy's garden) is every bit as bright and fascinating as ever.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Busy in Brizzie

As tourists, we love it when the soggy weather forecasts don't come true. They said 'cloud and showers' and all we got was cloud, with hardly a drop on our heads all day. Pammy and I were keen to re-visit the Botanic Gardens in the city, on the banks of the Brisbane RIver, as we knew the gardens had been slammed by the awful 2011 floods and we wanted to see how everything was going. The short version is 'very well, considering' but there are still many signs of damage and recovery but it's remarkable how plants can survive and bounce back from such a devastating event as those major floods. 

What follows is lots of photos. Pammy and I each took roughly half the photos shown here. We love hitting a botanic garden, each with a little digital camera in hand, and it's amazing to see how very differently we view the same things! We were busy in Brizzie, so let's go for a wander around a beautiful, big, subtropical garden.

Pam's photo of this mussaenda captures the beauty of its
colourful bracts and those tiny little yellow flowers very nicely.

These are the mussaendas in their bed very close to the river;
there's a pinky one right, and a white one, left.
This Eastern Water Dragon stayed as still as a statue as we
snuck around it snapping as quietly as excited kids can.
The water dragons are no rarity in the gardens; we saw several
here and there, all very still and quiet as we passed by.

Beside the Central Path which effectively splits
the gardens in two is this new flood level marker
which shows that much more than half the gardens
must have gone underwater in the 2011 floods.

As a grower of the deciduous frangipanis which do so well
in Sydney, it's always great to come across the evergreen
tropical frangis, which are in leaf and flower year-round.
The flowers aren't as sweetly scented as the deciduous ones,
and they're a different shape, too, but they're still lovely.

Wouldn't you know it, this is one of the few trees in the gardens
which didn't have a helpful little name plaque on it! It took me
a while to track it down online, but I am fairly sure this is the
'Pride of Bolivia' Tipuana tipu, a truly glorious tree with a
perfect domed crown and a broad spread that must be at
least 30 metres across. Our weed control experts say it's a
weed in Australia, but this is surely our most magnificent weed!
While I'm admiring big trees that I cannot grow
at home I might as well show you the African
sausage tree (Kigelia pinnata), a huge tree
dangling dozens of these big seed pods.
The flower stalks of the sausage tree hang
down like this on long stalks, and presumably one
of these multi-flowered candelabras produces
just one marrow-sized sausage each.
And the Banyan fig is even bigger than Tipuana
or the sausage tree. I paced out its canopy
from one side to the others, and it's 50 metres
wide. These mature enormous trees are one of
the reasons I love to come back to these old
gardens, the first established in Brisbane.

It's great fun to meet a fruit which you have only
seen in supermarket shelves actually growing
on the tree it comes from. This is the custard
apple fruit, introduced into Australia via these
Brisbane Botanic Gardens many years ago.
And for the record this is the custard apple
tree itself, a handsome fruit tree.
In the same vein as meeting a custard apple
on its tree, we also came across an enormous
jackfruit on its tree. These huge fruits are bigger
than a basketball, and you wouldn't want to
be under the tree when it decides to fall off.
While these crotons were inside the gardens,
you see them everywhere as roadside infill
plantings here in Brisbane. They're such a
perfect embodiment of tropical foliage colour.
Speaking of tropical colour, the hibiscus were all in bloom,
and of course I don't have a clue which variety is which, so
for the next few photos here's a good sampling of the vivid
range of colours you can find in these classic subtropical blooms.

Nice variegated foliage!

If crotons are everywhere in Brisbane, so too are these blooms
of Ixora, which are often seen around office buildings, in the
forecourts of public buildings and as park hedges.
Still with me? I showed you a superb crepe
myrtle in our previous 'Country Comfort' post
and yes, the crepe myrtles looked great here
too. This one was loud with bees.
Every time I looked back as we wandered
around I could see Pammy taking shots of
details that I suspect will one day become the
subject of a painting, like these buttress roots...
... or this wrinkled, thick, corky bark...
... or this sculpture of a Banyan fig's aerial roots.

Pammy's not a fan of having her photo taken, and especially
of having her photo posted in my blog (although there are a
couple in our USA trip blogs back in 2011) so to finish off
this mega-long posting here's half of our photographic team
in his favourite 'Peace, love, Gumbo' T-shirt posing by the
hectic little waterfall that flows into the lotus and waterlily pond.
We really are having a lovely, busy time in Brisbane right now. An enjoyable evening eating home-cooked Mexican (thank you Karl!) out on the deck under the canopy of a big, broad-spreading poinciana tree last night, and today we're off to the Queensland Art Gallery to see the Triennial Asia Pacific Art Exhibition at the Qld Art Gallery. We love this art show, held every three years. We've been to the last two shows and so this pilgrimage up to beautiful Brisbane is hopefully something that we'll keep on doing for many years to come. As Pammy said, it's nothing like Sydney, more like a big Darwin, with a feeling and tempo all its own. We love it here.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Country comforts

"I love a road trip," said Pammy, as we glided in our car through northern New South Wales on our way to Brisbane. And she's right, we both do like a good road journey together. As regular readers might remember, we staged an epic eight-week holiday in September, October and November 2011, logging up 6000km as we crossed the USA from west to east. 

This time we're much less ambitious, just heading north a mere thousand kilometres or so to see friends, a fabulous art exhibition or two and all the while enjoying a well-earned break after a truly hectic time leading up to the closure of my beloved old magazine, 'Burke's Backyard', whose very last issue hits the newsstands next week.

The one garden-worthy thing we wanted to post about this time, though, is how wonderfully pretty, green and healthy the New South Wales countryside is looking right now. As is our normal policy we steer clear of the main highways wherever we can and take the longer route through smaller towns and quieter backroads, and the small towns of New South Wales are looking so flower-filled, lushly green and delightful right now. Here's a couple of photos – plus one of my trademark 'pan shot with commentary' videos – to show you where we've been.

Lush green pastures everwhere. As every Australian knows,
it doesn't always look this pretty, especially in late summer,
when so often it can be straw coloured and sunburned.

Everywhere the crepe myrtles were in bloom in their usual
array of light, mid and dark pinks, reds and whites. Some
are handsome trees, more often they're smaller shrubs with
distinct trunks. These two were spotted in Gloucester.

Our route north took us up Buckett's Way, then Thunderbolt's
Way, through Stroud, Gloucester, Walcha, Uralla then onto
our overnight stay in Armidale. At the top of Thunderbolt's Way
there's a roadside lookout where we stopped to take this
and other photos and – you've been warned – my pan shot.
So without further ado, 20 seconds of live action, folks.

(By the way, I've been told my pan shot links don't work in the emailed version of my blog, so here's a link to the cinematic masterpiece, if you really want to see it).

Pam's a volcano fan but it's a tragedy that such an avid
volcano watcher has no active volcanoes to enjoy here in
Australia. Our continent is such a very ancient land that
almost all our volcanoes are well and truly extinct, and all
that's left are granite 'plugs' such as you see here. These are
the solidified cores which lurked deep within what must
have been awesomely angry, big mountains. All that anger,
rock and soil has weathered away over millions of years and
we're left with these thumbs of rock poking up out of the trees.

Our lovely destination last night was Annie's B&B, just on the
outskirts of Armidale. It's set on a property of several acres,
where gum trees, lawns, magpies and cockatoos create a
soothing bushland atmosphere. Had a good night's sleep
here we did, then in the morning the magpies sang...

Our little self-contained cabin had all the mod
cons inside, a nice ornamental Prunus by the
front door, barbecue (which we didn't use)
tables and chairs outside. Though we only
stayed one night it felt like a place we could
have easily spent a lazy week or so.

When Aussies do rustic arbours they head
straight for the railway sleeper section of the
timber yard. Nevertheless a vigorous
climber needs a sturdy frame and it has one
here, and the effect is bound to last for years.
We're in Brisbane now just for a few days. The view outside our serviced apartment is of a giant crane towering above a construction site, with more serviced apartment skyscrapers beyond. I'd rather be in Armidale at Annie's, surrounded by gum trees and magpies if I had the choice, but at least this skyscraper we're in is just one block from the Botanic Gardens, 10 minutes from Southbank and the art galleries we plan to visit, so we're planning to have a lovely few days here, and if we spot anything in the botanic gardens worth sharing with you, rest assured we'll show it to you soon.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Training days

If watching grass grow is just a bit too slow-paced for your frisky, modern tastes, try watching passionfruit in action – they're way faster. I've blogged about my little project of covering an ugly brick wall with a passionfruit vine here, back in late November, when I planted the seedling. I called that post 'Love Me Tendril' and would you believe I was again humming that silky soft Elvis Presley tune, 'Love Me Tender', when I was taking the snaps for this blog posting this morning? I think the modern term for such a tune is an 'ear worm', a horrible name for something quite benign. I love me tendrils.

And so a tendril photo it is, to begin proceedings. I love the
way climber tendrils work. They have an intelligence to them,
too. They move around like a blind person feeling with their hands
for objects to cling to, then coil tightly round their 'gotcha' find.

This is how it all looks this morning, which is
fairly good growth without being spectacular.
Once the vine made it to about one metre high
(and that took a while) the sunshine on that upper
part of the wall lasts all day long and so it has really
grown quickly in recent weeks. In my previous post
on passionfruit I showed the rectangle of stout wires
attached to the wall to train the vine along. The idea
is, as with many flowering climbers, including roses,
to train the arms of the climber horizontally. This
should promote better flowering (or that's the theory). 

The wires are stout and mostly set out horizontally. Masonry
wall bolts with eyelet rings hold everything firmly in place.

There are diagonal wires crossing through the middle of the
framework to provide a good infill of lush green wall-cover.

The top corners of the framework are a jostle
of wires passing through the wall bolts' rings. 

Here and there I've used wire ties to tell the
vine "I want you to grow in this direction" and
the amazing thing with tendrils and vines is that
they seem to sense what I want. Though they
are heading vertically for the sky, once I tie
them down horizontally they seem to say "I can
take a hint" and off they zoom horizontally.

Finally, the plant itself is lush, lovely and tropically green,
loving its first summer in Sydney. I'm hoping that big ugly brick
wall will be a heat sink in winter, as it gets full winter sun and
should keep the vine sufficiently warm, even in July and August.

Don't think that's the last of the passionfruit postings here, either folks. I'll be out of control once I get a macro lens on those amazing passionfruit flowers, and I am fairly convinced that I have native bees, including blue banded bees, living in the many gaps in that huge brick wall, as I see them in my garden regularly now. So that's my holy grail photo: blue banded bee on a passionfruit flower. 

In the meantime my job is to keep on training the arms of this admirable plant, trimming off the wayward explorers trying to head next door, and keep an eye out for the first flower buds. Can't wait!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Snow in summer

When I glanced outside early this morning it looked like we'd had a dusting of snow overnight. The paving was white and all the nearby plants were flecked with 'snowflakes'. Then, when I opened the back door and stepped outside the powerfully sweet (some would say sickly sweet) subtropical scent of murraya in bloom seized me by the nose.

It's not an alluring, classy gentle scent like a frangipani's – murraya has a cheap scent, too abundant and too strong. Yet it is one of the scents of summer here in Sydney, and this year's murraya flowering has been the best in many years. Everywhere I go around town right now these big, glossy green shrubs are covered with fragrant white blooms, and they're at their peak here at our place today. 

I know many of my friends in the USA and UK
are having a terrible time with bitter winter
winds and snow drifts piling up against their
doors, so sorry if my mention of 'snow' is as
welcome as yet another snowstorm, but that
was my first thought on seeing this scene today.

The bush has been building up to this little
avalanche of white petals for several days.
This is a weekend cluster of buds straining
to be set free – one of many.

And this morning they've been allowed out. It'll all
be over in a few days, which is a good thing,
as the scent is very strong, but as I know it's here
for just a couple of days I do enjoy it.

Standing back a few feet, this is the shrub in its awful spot.
I really do need to point out that this murraya is planted at
the foot of a large olive tree, gets nowhere near enough sun,
its roots are cramped and competed with by the olive. It's
a pretty horrible spot for any shrub yet that's the beauty of the
murrayas in Sydney. They'll grow almost anywhere. The level
of flowering on mine in well down on the ones in full sun,
which are evenly coated in white blooms. 

This part of the murraya, above the pergola roof,
gets more sun and so flowering is a bit better.

You don't see a lot of bromeliads dusted in snow, do you?
While I was taking this photo I was being steadily showered
with fragrant, falling white petals. The coating of the pergola
area's paving will eventually be so thick that I'll be scooping
up many whole dustpans full of them in a few days' time.

Out the front of our house, the murraya hedge is as blandly
evergreen as ever. Murrayas are a very popular hedging
plant in Sydney because they grow so well here, but the price you
pay with murraya hedges is that they hardly flower. When I looked
closely there were about a dozen flowers on this whole 3-metre
long hedge right now. The regular clipping hedges need cuts
off the flower buds, and with the rate of growth of murrayas
in summer, they do need clipping back quite often.
I've blogged about these plants before, and I've mentioned previously that murrayas are one of those plants that are so successful and so popular that they are frowned upon by many a 'serious' Sydney gardener. As if being too easy to grow is a bad thing anywhere. Maybe it's that tacky cheap scent that's the turn-off? Fortunately for me I'm not all that serious about gardening, I just love it, and so there's a spot both in my garden and in my heart for these evergreen performers that can even produce a bit of snowy magic in summer.