Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Midsummer jungle

It's January 26 today, which makes it Australia Day as well as India's national day (hello India!), and as far as this little gardener is concerned, it's the middle of summer as well, and what a lush, wet, hot, tropical-style summer it has proved to be so far.

So I thought a general "backyard panorama" was in order to mark the occasion. This was taken on my iPhone, and the original image is actually 2 metres across, but I have reduced it to 40cm here, so if you click on the photo itself, on most computers the photo will come up a lot larger (I hope).

Everything is growing very well in these generous conditions of plentiful rain and sunshine. All I have to do is sprinkle a bit of fertiliser on the greediest plants and leave the rest alone.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Crop dusting

Anyone who grows their own vegetables soon learns that you can get a "glut" of produce from just one or two plants. In our case, that's especially true, as there are only two of us to feed and the plants are happy and well-fed. Like most vegie gardeners with a glut of goodies, we do the usual thing and give away our excess produce to family and friends.

Now, all that makes sense, so what I am doing trying to produce even bigger gluts by hand-pollinating the flowers on my eggplant and cucumber plants? Madness is the simple explanation, although gluttony might be more fitting — however "glutton for punishment" is bang on the mark.

We only have one eggplant plant and one cucumber plant here, and so I want each to be productive. But as far as the many bees in my garden are concerned, I am a deeply annoying, interfering busybody. My organic-gardening, bee-friendly heart might be in the right place, but my presence is simply not needed. My plants probably do not need to be hand-pollinated, the bees are doing that job well, and yet still I can't help myself.

This photo is a slight fudge, in that it was taken last year, but it shows what is happening right now in our garden. This native blue-banded bee is about one second away from landing on one of last year's eggplant flowers. I tried to get a shot of him in action this morning, but he moved too fast. As well as the native bees, we also have quite a few ordinary honeybees buzzing about.

So, why am I hand-pollinating my eggplant flowers? Well, last year I didn't think the conversion rate from flowers to fruit was all that crash hot. I know our garden has lots of other bee-attracting flowers, and maybe the short-lived eggplant blooms are low on the list of highly bee-attracting flowers? The bees just adore the salvias and frangipanis, and citrus and grevillea flowers always pull a crowd too ... but my totally unscientific observation is that our humble purple eggplant flowers don't seem so alluring. Last year's crop was not a glut!

And so I wandered into my garden shed, found a small hobby paintbrush, and wiggled it into each and every eggplant flower, hoping to pollinate every single one of them by transferring pollen from one flower to another. Time will tell if my gratuitous interference produces a better crop.

Of course the stupid thing is how can I tell if any eggplant baby is my handiwork or due to natural forces, such as the blue-banded bee? I can't!

The eggplant plant itself is happy and healthy, and so I just hope it has a good life here.

Most mornings we harvest a little bit of this and that. Here's our morning bowl-full of cucumber (1) Lebanese zucchini (4) and eggplant (1). Not exactly a glut, but you can't eat zucchini and eggplant every meal, and so they do build up, you eat out once or twice instead of cooking at home ... and before you know it you have three cucumbers, three eggplants, and a dozen or more zucchinis ...

Filled with enthusiasm, I got out another hobby brush and went all over our little cucumber plant. I am sure the ladybird cleaning up a spot of powdery mildew was wondering what I was up to. Interfering humans! Now, our cucumber bush is more than productive at the moment, so this "help" from me is utterly unnecessary. But did that stop me? Sadly, no. Just can't help interfering, especially when there is only one plant here.

Same deal here. Which of these baby cucumbers is my handiwork? I'll never know, and it doesn't matter, of course, as long as we get a good steady glut of too much produce!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Show business

Half the trick with being a show-biz star is timing your entrance on stage. You want your audience seated before you appear. That's show-biz 101, obvious stuff. Timing is everything after that. Make them wait awhile, but not so long that they start getting too restless, before you open the curtains and appear on stage. And so this week our show-biz star pulled off a grand entrance to amaze its small audience of two — Pammy and me.

In the weeks leading up to its appearance, Pammy and I had wondered quietly to ourselves whether it was ever going to flower this year at all. I had transplanted our Aechmea fasciata into a much bigger pot last year, and full of doubts about my competence (as always), I started to wonder if I had done something wrong. 

(This comes with the territory of being a keen amateur at anything. You keep on trying all sorts of "don't try this at home" adventures, you have some disasters but a goodly basketful of successes as well. All along the way you suspect disaster lies around the corner.)

And last week the first pink stars started to form at the base of each Aechmea cup. It was only then that Pammy and I said to each other, almost in unison, "I was beginning to wonder if was going to flower this year." This week has been a pleasure, watching the pink crowns rise and rise like slow-motion fireworks. 

For me, as the gardener responsible for all transplants, my delight at the dazzling flower show easily outshone the relief that the plant was happy, but I was quietly glad that all had gone well. Even when they're not in flower these bromeliads are handsome things, with their greeny white (or it is whitey green?) striped foliage totally owning the space it occupies. It's an attention-getter at any time of year.

For the next few years at least, the large pot where they grow will see their numbers multiply and the shows become even more spectacular, until they eventually overcrowd the pot and another episode of dividing and replanting is needed.

If you have bromeliads overcrowding their pots, here's a couple of things I have learned.
1. Wait until they finish flowering before doing any repotting.
2. I'm not sure if bromeliad experts will agree with this, but I mix up a 50:50 mix of orchid potting mix and ordinary potting mix, and plant the bromeliads into that. It seems to work OK.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Crop Watching

Gardeners often talk about how they notice climate change's subtle effects on plants in the patch under their care. I do, or at least sometimes I do. When flowers appear at weird times of year, crops appear much earlier or later than usual, you can't help but wonder if a change in the Earth's climate might have something to do with it ...

.... And then my whole theory is ruined by other plants operating like clockwork. This morning, the figs are ripening, bang on schedule. Last year I posted about them ripening on January 11, and this morning, January 11, there's several of them ripening up nicely, swelling to double normal size almost overnight, then turning reddy brown once fully ripe. That's almost far too clockworky for me — I think I might be growing climate denialist figs!

My figs, apparently, don't read the papers or listen to the evening news. As far as they are concerned, it's business as usual here in their latest Sydney summer. I love the way they tend to ripen one at a time from each branch cluster. Once we pick this one, another of those other little green ones on each brand will take its turn to ripen. Very orderly.

Pam is the fig aficionado around here, and it's her job to harvest them when she thinks they're at their peak. Of course she might bring the harvest ahead a day or two if our local birds start to show a perfectly healthy interest in a bit of beaky crop-theft.

Elsewhere, our crop watching is in full swing. This lumpy looking cucumber is a bit like a fig in that it suddenly swells up in size in just a few days. Two days ago it was a scrawny little spiky green, unpleasant looking thing half the size of this whopper. I suspect that by tomorrow morning it will be even larger and on our kitchen benchtop, ready to eat. All those yellow flowers around it are cucumber flowers, so I think we're going to have a cucumber glut on our hands by the end of the month.

Progress is more mauve coloured and genteel on the eggplant bush. It's sent out a dozen or so of its simple potato/tomato/eggplant family flowers, and hopefully our local busy bees will pay them a visit. (This is where the "no pesticides" part of organic gardening reaps its rewards — good numbers of bees, who pay their way in the scheme of things by providing a stack of crop-pollinating services.)

Here's a baby eggplant in its creche, starting to grow. These are the common variety 'Bonica', the familiar largish eggplants you see most commonly in the shops around here. 

I've got a whole posting to come about making ratatouille, but I'll save that up for a few weeks from now, when we harvest a few eggplants.