Saturday, September 26, 2015

Garden homemakers

Eagle-eyed Pam did it again this morning – spotted a wasp's nest being started on our succulent Kalanchoe 'Copper Spoons'. I already knew about another wasp nest underway outside our kitchen window, so I thought it'd be nice to share some images of both nests with you in yet another "ain't nature wonderful" posting. But what really amazed me was how my eagle-eyed camera managed to get inside one of the wasp nests to show what's happening there at the moment. They're making babies!

Look closely inside each little perfect "cell" of this paper wasp's nest and you can see one little golden egg in each. In fact, look closely at the bottom-most cell on the right, and you can see the fine, papery fibres with which the wasp constructs the nest. The scientific name of this paper wasp is Polistes, and yes, I think this is the native species (although there are Asian paper wasps and European paper wasps in Australia as well).

EDIT/UPDATE: see the bottom of this posting for a bit more info on this wasp. It IS a native paper wasp, and thanks to the Australian Museum for their help in identifying it for me.

Here's what Pammy spotted earlier on: another little wasp nest being started on the Kalanchoe 'Copper Spoons' in our succulent patch.

This is an ideal spot for a nest, as far as we are concerned, as I never get that close to the Copper Spoons plant and so I am very unlikely indeed to ever disturb the wasps, and they in turn will remain, as they usually are, peaceful yet busy beneficial insects in our garden.

The other wasp nest outside our kitchen window is also in an ideal spot, high up on the window frame, on the side of the house where it's hard for people to blunder into them. Our kitchen window is also a sliding type, which slides from the other side, so the chance of a wasp ever making into the house, past the curtains, is virtually nil.

So this time they've chosen the sites for their new nests quite well. 

Over the years we have accidentally destroyed too many paper wasp nests, because they made them in spots where blundering human gardeners (ie, me) sometimes stick their stupid arms and hands. In 24 years here in our garden, I have been stung twice by our wasps, and both times were on the same day, in the same place. I hadn't realised our wasps had built a nest in our Grevillea, and so while pruning said Grevillea it took not one sting to alert me to the presence of a nest, but two. Talk about a slow learner!

By now regular readers would have guessed we do like a "live and let live" approach to all creatures great and small who we share our garden with. Poor old insects and spiders get a rough time from some otherwise nature-loving folk, who get creeped out by them. Pammy and I like our insects and spiders as much as our worms, lizards and birds.

Sure, the wasps are a higher risk factor but that doesn't mean peace is not possible.

Paper wasps are not aggressive if you don't disturb them. They are very like bees in many ways. Bees can sting if badly annoyed or if they feel threatened. So can paper wasps. 

(Admittedly, disturbing a whole, large nest of paper wasps, as I did once while trimming a murraya hedge with a powered hedge trimmer, does make them rather upset, with a cloud of black and yellow defenders buzzily filling the air, and so a rapid retreat, then staying out of their way for the next hour or so is a really, really good idea. Abandoning the hedge trimming altogether, or at least for a while, is also a good idea...) 

Besides, paper wasps are beneficial garden insects. Ours will be filling up their nests with insects they have caught in the garden, to provide a food supply when their babies hatch out. Many of the insects paper wasps catch are garden pests who eat our crops, such as caterpillars.

So, over 24 years with a policy of tolerating paper wasp nests as far as practicable, I have been stung twice, and both times it was my fault. I'm prepared to live with that kind of track record.

EDIT/UPDATE: a big THANKYOU to the Australian Museum (and Yvette Simpson, the Interpretive Officer there) for their help in making a positive ID of this wasp. I sent the Museum two of my photos, and Yvette says yes, it's a native paper wasp. She also supplied this excellent other link, if you want to read more on paper wasps.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Salad season

Tonight's mixed home-grown garden salad, but before we
get to that bit ...

I can't begin to tell you how much I enjoy Saturday mornings, especially ones as lovely as today's, where Sydney is working its way into a perfect, sunny spring day.

The shopping is great, for one thing. It's a 15-minute walk along bustling Illawarra Road to Banana Joes, the fruit, vegie and grocery hub to thousands of locals. Today I lashed out and paid 10 bucks for a kilo of fresh broad beans.

I love cooking something special for Saturday nights, for me it's the perfect way to finish off a day pottering in the garden. Pam sometimes laughs and says I'm a glutton for punishment, with the trouble I go to for some meals just for two, but it's my favourite dish – dinner for two, with Pammy.

And those broad beans will take some preparation, too. One friendly young Vietnamese girl manning the checkouts in Banana Joes sometimes asks me how do I cook certain vegies which aren't part of her mum's repertoire at home. In the past we've had some lovely chats about quinces and celeriac, for example, and this morning she wanted to know about broad beans.

So I explained how I open the big, long pods to extract the beans (gave her a demo on one pod!). Then how I blanch the beans in boiling water and peel them again, to expose the gleaming, shiny inner broad beans (didn't do a demo on that ...). It seemed to her like so much work that she couldn't help laughing a bit, but the old Greek mumma behind me in the queue, who was patiently enjoying the conversation, backed me up and said that's the way she prepares them, too.

That's one of the things I like about Banana Joes and Saturday mornings ... the conversations with the people you meet.

My bought broad beans (didn't grow any this year) will be going into the pot at the last moment, where lamb pieces will have been cooking for a few hours in a Moroccan spice mix, along with some zucchinis, tomatoes, eggplant and potatoes.

On the side I thought I'd offer up a light little salad of home-grown fresh mixed salad greens. With the tomatoey, spicy sauce surrounding the main dish, the salad doesn't need much dressing at all. 

And so that's my home-grown content in tonight's dinner: the salad. What follows is just a few photos of how I am going about making my salads a bit more interesting. 

The pot of 'mesclun' mixed salad leaves is coming along nicely. I just bought a packet of Yates Mesclun French Salad Mix seeds, sowed some, covered them lightly with seed-raising mix and watered the pot with a fine spray (for non-Australian readers, seed-raising mix is a light, fine potting mix that's very like a propagating mix). 

The trick is to keep it steadily moist for the first few weeks. The seeds take about 7-10 days to sprout, then a few more weeks to get to this size. If you're slack about watering pots, your potted salad will probably cark it, but if you can remember to water it most days, it's easy to grow. A liquid feed or two helps a lot. There's all sorts of different leaves in the mesclun seed mix (Yates says it has endive, corn salad, rocket, chicory and lettuce) so if you only have one salad pot growing, make it mesclun and you're in business. 

But we're watching a glutton for punishment in action here folks. Here's a pot of cultivated rocket. This stuff is fabulous as a salad on its own, provided you harvest it very young, like it is now. Later on the leaves will be too peppery when they get bigger. 

Our wild rocket, which is a perennial plant, has awoken from its midwinter slumber. I ended up cutting it almost to the ground in mid July, but with feeding and watering once the weather warmed, it's becoming prolific again. Just a few leaves of this peppery zinger in a salad adds real flavour and character to your bowl of rabbit food.

Adding colour to a salad always helps, and so this red-stemmed baby spinach does the trick. This is a type of spinach called 'perpetual spinach' and it truly lasts for months. In its early days the baby leaves are fine in salads, but once they get bigger treat them like normal spinach and cook with them. 

The old standby of mixed lettuce leaves helps when you're making bigger salads for bigger groups, and I've been a loyal buyer of the 'Combo' lettuce punnets from garden centres for many years. Every now and then I grow more interesting lettuce from seed, but when feeling a bit slack and lazy I just grab another Combo punnet and whack them in the ground. Never fails. 

A few herby leaves never go astray in a mixed salad, adding a lot of flavour – but of course the trick with herbs is not to be heavy-handed. Just a little. My potted chives usually look disgustingly sad in midwinter, so in late July I routinely take them out of their pots, divide the crowded clump into individual chive plants, then I repot them into new, fresh potting mix. Six weeks later, with plenty of water and some liquid organic food applied, they're back in business. We roadtested our chives in last Sunday morning's scrambled eggs for breakfast, and Pammy gave them the tick of approval. 

A little bit of chervil adds an aniseedy tang. Our little chervil border, grown from chervil sprouts bought from the supermarket, is looking truly luscious at the moment.

Slower to get going but now making steady, promising progress, our flat-leaf parsley border (also grown from supermarket sprouts) will also eventually make a contribution to some of our salads.

And it being early spring, there's no better time to grow some salad greens. Summer is a tougher task as it gets too hot, but right now we're truly enjoying our salad days.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Native beauty

As a gardener I do find it mildly hilarious that our florist shops, when they send out a bunch of "native" flowers, often don't include a single Australian native bloom in their beautifully arranged displays. Poor things, their lovely bunches of proteas, leptospermums and other South African belles do resemble their Australian native cousins, but their idea of what constitutes a "native" flower isn't one of floristry's strong points. You do occasionally see the odd Aussie kangaroo paw in there, maybe a banksia or two, but usually the "native" flower bunches created by our florists are not especially Australian.

If you think that's bad, imagine if someone asked for "natives" and they sent orchids! Well, ironically enough there's a chance, if the orchids were tiny little things, that they might be Aussie native flowers. But our florists just aren't going to go there anytime soon, nor are their customers.

All this, of course, is just my way of introducing you to the fact that our Australian native orchids are blooming right on schedule once more, in early spring. These little gems are as native to Australia as kangaroos, grevilleas, emus and waratahs, although they're not what people think of when you talk about "native flowers", of course.  

Like most amateur backyard orchid dabblers, I don't have a clue
as to what this orchid's name or variety is. I just bought it at
a garden show several years ago, and it has been flowering
and multiplying with a minimum of care since then.
Same deal with this person. Seven years of excellence! To
give you an idea of their size, this one is about an inch wide.
I'm afraid that the plants are starting to get too big
for their pots. The flower show this year isn't
quite as prolific as in previous years. Usually that
 is the signal that it's time to divide and repot
the plants after flowering finishes. I'll do that
later on in spring.

Meanwhile, there's more than just flowers to
admire. There's flower bud towers, too.
And each cultivar has its own flower bud colourings, and some
toss spotty patterns into the mix as well.
The trick with native orchids is that you shouldn't be shy with them. You need to get up close and personal with these tiny blooms. Stop whatever you are doing and spend a few minutes utterly devoted to the simple pleasure of admiring them. They are definitely worth it.

As for growing them, they're just like our cymbidium orchids: tough and easy-care. They get a bit of sunshine each day, but spend most of their day enjoying either some dappled light or bouts of full shade. I feed them with liquid orchid food once a month (or when I remember to...), and give them a drink of water if it has been dry for a week or so. Mostly, Sydney's natural rainfall waters them well for me, as these are all outdoor plants.

If you are an admirer of Australian plants in general but don't have enough sunshine to grow the bigger sun-loving natives, a few pots of these beautiful little native orchids will fit into that semi-shaded spot very nicely indeed and give you something little yet lovely to admire every spring.