Thursday, January 30, 2014

On the road again

It's been quite a while since Pam and I hit the road on holidays, but last week we managed to squeeze in a very enjoyable 2000-km ramble from Sydney down to see old friends in Kyneton, Victoria (hi Amanda and Mike!), then back home the long way through inland New South Wales. It's high summer here at the moment, and the whole of south-eastern Australia is a pale straw colour, thanks to drought and heatwaves. And yet we managed to find a beautiful cool, green oasis in the midst of this sunburnt summer, at the Japanese Gardens in Cowra. 

Designed by Japanese master gardener Ken Nakajima (whose
ashes are now buried here) this Japanese garden design follows
traditional principles which are best summed up by saying they
seek to symbolise a whole country, with hills and mountains, rivers
cascading down the slopes to the foothills, then onto the sea.
This view from the township side of the garden looks over to the
lofty, rocky hills in the distance.
And here's the view from those hills, looking across the lake
to where I stood to take the previous photo. Many existing native
gum trees are part of this garden, and they also form a boundary
screen that smooths the transition from this stylised mini Japan to
the wide expanses of Australia beyond.
Stepping back a few feet from that hilltop view and you can
see that Mr Nakajima has once again placed his garden seats
perfectly, for visitors to enjoy the views as long as you like. All
around the gardens, the seat placements are many and perfect.
Some of the seats are simple plank benches, others more deluxe
affairs, but they all provide a view that invites you to rest a while.
It's true the gardens are at their best in autumn
and spring, but part of its design is to have
something in flower at all times, and the loftier
summer colour comes from the red, white or pink
flowers of the crepe myrtle trees in bloom.
And the ground-level colour department is handled capably
all through the hottest summer by white or mauve agapanthus.
At this time of year, pleasant as the little patches
of flower colour can be, the real colour heroes
are the many different shades of green foliage.
There are conifers of so many varieties that I
was out of my depth recognising them, and so
I am sorry to say I liked this one the best and
haven't got a clue what it's called.
Discreetly half hidden from view, this bonsai house is like a
very large matchstick model. It's all frame, no roof.
It was hard to photograph any of the many
bonsais here, due to the sharp black shadow
lines cast by the 'roof' frame, but both Pam
and I loved this 'forest' of half a dozen
bonsai trees in the one wide, shallow pot.

So, if you're from Sydney and are ever driving west, or coming from interstate, or travelling our fair land while visiting from overseas, see if you can work Cowra and its Japanese Gardens into your plans. 

Here's a link to the gardens website:

The good news is that Cowra offers several lovely places to stay, some great restaurants (try Niela) and several vineyards to visit. While out there you could try ballooning at Canowindra (we didn't!), and also head to Orange, another great foodie destination. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Salads in pots

Everyone I greeted on my usual Saturday morning walk up to Marrickville Road and back seemed to be of the opinion that today's weather is just about perfect. A beautiful day, a Goldilocks summer's day. Just right. Not too hot, such a gentle breeze you hardly notice it, and the shade of buildings and trees feels as cool and refreshing as a drink of lemonade. Shame it isn't like this every day of summer, so all you can do on a day like this is enjoy it while you can.

The problem with summer here in Sydney is that these lovely days are outnumbered by the hotter days, the searing days when the moment you step outside you can feel your bare skin slowly burning. 

Sadly, this hot season isn't a great time to grow salad greens. That's ironic, as it's the ideal time to enjoy light meals of a grill with a salad on the side. My usual sunny vegie beds are just too hot for salad greens to last long in summer. Forget to water them just one day, or believe the morning weather forecasts of 'showers' and not bother to water the garden on a day that turned out to be dry and sunny yet again, and salad greens soon wilt and die. If they survive, they get through their life-cycle in what seems like a fortnight, shooting to seed in no time.

And so, the solution I use is to grow small crops of salad greens in pots, and put the pots in spots which get nice morning sun, then little or no sizzling afternoon sun. It works, but the trick with salads in pots is to water them every day, and don't trust the weather people. 

This is the basic set-up for two, a pot of rocket in
front, and some mixed greens at the back.
Apart from watering daily, the other trick is light
liquid feeds, especially after you've harvested
a big swathe of leaves.
This is a pot of radish seedlings, a new addition to the mix.
I love the way radish seed sprout in 4 or 5 days.
These are red and brown mignonette lettuce seedlings, which
also came up from seed in just four days. They need mollycoddling
in this heat, so I'm keeping them in a cooler spot to let them
grow up to about 7-10cm tall, then I'll cram the healthiest
healthiest half-dozen seedlings into a wide, shallow pot,
mixing up the two leaf colours for a nice looking effect.

Finally, a little experiment. Hopefully you can see the little
ruby coloured seedlings in the photo. These are a new idea
from Yates seeds, sent to us by the lovely Judy Horton of
Yates to try out. It's a new range called Microgreens, quick-
growing salad greens which you harvest when they're baby sized.
So far so good, they've come up quickly, in five days.
Judy sent us four packets to try. Our little red
babies are the 'Cabbage Rubies'. The idea is
that you sow about half a whole packet of the
seeds in a small (10cm) pot. You can grow
them indoors, on a windowsill, but I'm
growing ours outside. As the seed packet
says "pick in 2-3 weeks". That's what we'll do.
Some seed packets give you too little growing
info, but Yates can't be accused of that. There
are enough instructions here to give even the
most basic beginner some confidence.
 So, if your salad greens in the garden bed are having a tough time of it here in Australia right now, you're not alone with that problem. My tip is to go potty until autumn. I prefer a mixture of leaves, so those 'mesclun' mixes are perfect for pots. The one great thing about pots is that you can move them to the 'perfect' spot that gets the right mix of sun and shade in summer. The problem with pots is that they're a bit more work, but all that really means is daily watering, before you head off for work.

Monday, January 6, 2014

One glorious summer

Call me a sensitive petal if you like, but I'm always aware that when I grow and harvest vegies I am cutting these plants down in their prime, depriving them of their full lifespan. It doesn't really bother me, but it's always in the back of my mind, and so when I saw both of our chicory plants sending up spectacular flowering stems, I decided to let them grow on, flower and set seed, not only to see what happens, but also to collect the seed. And this morning we got the most delightful surprise.

This beautiful flower is a good, impressive size,
more than an inch across, and it's very pretty.
It's from the chicory plant with the superb cultivar
name of Cicoria Catalogna Puntarelle Brindisina.
It's a type with noticeably serrated, emerald leaves. 
This chicory has sent up multiple flower stems,
some curled weirdly, others fairly straight. Its next
door neighbour in the vegie bed, Cicoria Spadona,
has long paddle-shaped leaves, and its flower
spike has reached six feet in length, but no
flowers yet. Stay tuned for that event, folks.
These are the respective seed packets, bought here in
Australia from The Italian Gardener

The heat of summer is not a great time to be growing leafy greens in Sydney gardens, and planting new crops really should be delayed for another eight weeks or so, until things cool down a fraction. So, I'm getting my kicks right now just letting the existing spring plantings live out life to the full, spending one glorious summer flowering then setting seed, just like they did a zillion generations ago when they were the wild ancestors of these delicious kitchen garden cultivars. Somehow this thought appeals to me more than it rationally should.