Sunday, November 27, 2016

Volunteering for duty

This is the dream scenario for vegie gardeners: crops that plant themselves. Pictured below is my first-ever self-seeded lettuce baby, doing well this morning. 

And it's not on its own, either. There are four more almost identical siblings popping up in what is now my shallot patch, but I am sure those skinny people don't mind interlopers.

I do like the term for these self-planting vegies: "Volunteers". Prior to this I've had volunteer potatoes aplenty, tomatoes and strawberries too, but never any salad greens.

Now, how this all came about is due to my "lettuce tower" which I blogged about in October. I like letting some vegies live out a full life cycle, and it seems my purple lettuce tower not only flowered, but it also set seed which has now germinated. Woo hoo!

The cheapness of my thrills is appalling sometimes ...

But those yellow lettuce flowers did look nice against that purple backdrop.

Onto the next minor thrill ...

No, this is not a self-seeded story, this is just a story about a new plant developing crops very early in its life. Yes, another thrill, I'm afraid.

The problem for us with cucumbers is that the plants take up too much space, so I am always on the lookout for smaller growing versions. I spotted this "CuteCumber" at Bunnings a few weeks ago, and the "cute mini size" label had me sold the moment I saw it.

So I've set up a teepee over the seedling and it is powering along, a bit too much in fact for my liking. The label says its size is "90-150cm" and so I am really hoping for 90 but have a very nervous 150 feeling deep in my bones. Pam absolutely loves cucumbers, and so I am hoping to be able to provide some of this summer's supply for her.

Finally, another small beginning that is working out well. A while back I realised that when I didn't have any fresh chillies at home, I mostly bought the red, 10cm (4 inch) long chillies for cooking. And so a while back I opened up one of my supermarket 10cm chillies, saved eight seeds, sowed them in a punnet, and all eight seeds came up and turned into healthy plants. Chillies are like that. They really like life.

While all the familiar uses of chillies (chopped and tossed into everything from sambals to curries and stir-fries) are not worth mentioning yet again, one other way that I like to use those bigger, more gently heated chillies is in cooking tomato-based pasta sauces. For "a touch of chilli" I just toss one whole, uncut, unopened chilli into the sauce and let it slowly infuse a very gentle heat into the sauce, whether it's a vego tomato sauce or a meat-rich tomato sauce. Just before serving, lift out the soggy cooked chilli and discard. Lovely effect it gives to a tomato sauce, without making it "hot". 

Friday, November 25, 2016

The early morning gardener

Of course it is impolite to eavesdrop on others' conversations, and I'm far too well brought up in the old-fashioned way to do it intentionally, but boy do I love a good accidental eavesdrop when you have no option but to listen to two people talking, close-by. 

In situations such as when you are seated behind people chatting loudly on the bus, or when the people at the table next to you in the cafe are doing the same, you do run the risk of being bored to tears by their inane chatter if they're talking about last night's reality TV show eliminations, but every now and then you strike a little bit of overheard "gold". 

Now, it wasn't anything gossipy or earth-shattering that I listened to, but it was funny to hear two people discussing "routines" as if they were discussing a terrible disease. In fact the whole conversation was hilariously devoted to these two people trying to outdo each other in how committed they were to having no routines whatsoever ... apart from their regular get-togethers at the cafe, of course.

In my advanced years I have come to a somewhat different conclusion about routines. At their worst, yes, strict routines can be debilitating in the same manner as a terrible disease, but at their best enjoyable routines can be as pleasurable as a nice cup of tea when you're thirsty.

And so, after no less than four paragraphs by way of introduction, I am very happy to tell you that I love my little early morning gardening routines. They're nothing special, it's mostly just watering the garden, actually, but there's an enormous amount of "noticing things" that goes on in its own infinite variety that makes this routine so special. On with the slide show of the pleasures of early morning gardening, plus a few things I noticed this morning.

So many plants and fruits look nicer with water droplets on them, and our little crop of baby figs shows that off very nicely.  


As far as mint is concerned, there's no such thing as too much water, but this healthy crop is mostly a case of job satisfaction for the savage pruning it performed on its straggly former self about a month ago. To stay looking lush and healthy, mint needs to be cut back down to pot-rim level several times a year.

One of my favourite vegies, this is "perpetual spinach". Yesterday morning I knew I was going to need some baby spinach leaves for a salad, so I picked the leaves early in the day, while they were still full of moisture. If I picked the leaves in the hot afternoon, the leaves would have far less moisture. Unlike ordinary spinach, this variety lasts much longer in the ground. It's "cut-and-come-again" spinach, and the only mistake you can make with it is to not harvest it often. Fortunately we use spinach a lot in cooking and in salads. These bigger leaves will be very nice as a cooked accompaniment to some salmon on the weekend. 

All this photo is about is that it's nice to check on the progress of new plants early in the morning and see that they're happy. These are New Guinea impatiens.

The gentle morning glow shows some plants in their "best light". A classic example is our potted NSW Christmas Bush, whose delicate "flower" colour is at its loveliest in the softer morning light. In the harsh light of the afternoon, it's a far less appealing, drowned out by the glare.

Impatiently waiting for the first fragrant frangipani of the season is one of my current pleasures of the morning. I love how frangipanis send up flower stalks and fresh new leaves in November. There's something "alien" about them.

Serves me right! I'm always telling people here at this blog that coriander doesn't like the heat, and will go from leafy to seedy in no time, once the weather warms up. And so what did I do? I planted some coriander sprouts in September, then watched all my predictions come true after a bout of very warm October weather. Even though I've lost my leafy herb, I have now settled on harvesting all the seed in a few weeks' time and drying it, saving it to sow over autumn and winter next year.

The early morning is a great time for crime-fighting too. Here's a bronze orange bug mugging an innocent baby lemon. Not any more it isn't.

Finally, the early morning is also the time when I get most of my bigger gardening jobs done. Yesterday I trimmed a hedge before the heat grew too oppressive. Tomorrow I am pulling down all six hanging baskets and renovating them in the morning. Weeds have colonised a few baskets where geraniums are meant to be the only occupants, and so after renovations are complete I am hoping for a much better flower show from them.

And so, if you have somehow managed to make it all the way to the bottom of this blog posting, take it from me that I love some of life's routines, especially my morning expeditions out into the garden. It's practical, in that I can get some little jobs done while the temperatures are still cool. I do wilt in the heat, I'm afraid, and so my mornings are when I get most of my gardening jobs done these days. 

It's a happy routine I am willing to advocate — if your mornings aren't taken up with getting the kids off to school, or yourself off to work. However if you are in a position to be in the garden for at least half an hour most mornings, give it a try, even if it means getting up out of bed half an hour earlier than usual.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

This Lime Tree Bower my Prison

What a dramatic title for a simple little gardening blog posting. It's actually the name of a  poem written in 1797 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of my favourite poets (he of the 'Rime of The Ancient Mariner' and 'Kubla Khan' fame).

What brought me to think of poor old Sam, after all these years, is the sad, simple fact that I, too, am a bit of prisoner at the moment (and I have a lime tree too in my prison, admittedly a Tahitian lime, while Sam's northern English lime is a linden tree, but we're soul bothers across the centuries and continents all the same). 

Back in 1797 Samuel was a temporary invalid. Apparently, his wife had accidentally spilt a saucepan full of hot milk onto his foot (must have hurt like hell!) and so he was not able to join his other literary friends (several in the party, but notably William Wordsworth and Charles Lamb) on a lovely long walk through the Lakes District of England. Here's a link to the poem's text, if you're a poetry person. 

My comparison to the spilt-milk story is more bleary eyed, and at times mildly painful, but  it's nothing like a scalded foot. I have been afflicted with conjunctivitis, that bacterial infection of the eyes which immediately made me look like an extra from a zombie movie. For me that means not much computer, nor books, nor magazines, nor reading. The only thing left for me to do was complete all those gardening jobs which didn't require great eyesight but did need a gardener to get the job done. Time for a photo, a panorama no less, here in November 2016.

Now, this might look to you like a fairly well organised Sydney garden in early spring mode, with lots of baby vegies barely making an impression yet and the rest enjoying the weather. 

I can tell you right now that this is a terrible scene of neglect, lethargy, procrastination and dithering. A disgrace! But not any more it isn't. "Conjunctivitis Boy" to the rescue. All our tame zombie can do right now is prune, trim, repot, fertilise and water. And that's what I've been doing. The garden is in much better nick at the end of this week than it was when my eyesight was good last weekend.

However, at the end of each day, I have soothed myself with a nice evening glass of wine and a good sit down outdoors to contemplate "this lime tree bower my prison". What a nice way to end each day!

Now, poor old Sam Coleridge had a sore foot, I had sore eyes, but both of us were grounded, imprisoned.

My reading of his poem, based on my humble university BA course in Romantic Poetry which I did in 1973, is vastly different from the contemporary stuff I looked up online to refresh my 40-year-old memory. Today's reading of his poem seems mostly psychiatric, rather than poetic, and I think they miss the point entirely ...

In my understanding of this poem, Sam at first imagined the glories of nature in the vast wide world through which his friends were wandering without him, but he soon came to realise that in his own, imprisoned microcosm of world, this lime tree bower which was his temporary mini universe, all the glories of nature were around him. All he had to do was look.

And so it is with me. Though our garden is small, if you bother to look really closely, you can see enough of nature to keep you fascinated and amazed, forever. This is a theme I do return to again and again here at Garden Amateur, but right now I feel it so very strongly. I really could spend all of my life here and never cease to be fascinated.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Getting misty over Spanish moss

Here's a good example of how hard it is to see the tiny flowers of our Spanish moss. Every year, around early November, our Spanish moss bursts into bloom. We know that, and so at this time of year I go looking for them. But the first time I looked over our Spanish moss this year, I didn't see any. I wasn't looking hard enough.

It turns out that this season's flowering hasn't been a great one, but I was wrong — the tiny flowers were there, but they weren't as numerous, that's all.

Standing back a few feet from the plant, they are so hard to spot. You need to look for little flecks of green. The flowers themselves are about a quarter of an inch (4-6mm) long and wide, perfectly formed, green petalled with a maroon base, and a very very tiny little fleck of yellow pollen in the centre, just like all the big flowers in our garden.

Now, I do have a theory about why the Spanish moss's flowering is so meagre this year, and I think it's because of disturbance. For the last few years, we've draped our Spanish moss all over our Grevillea 'Peaches & Cream' (and yes, it does look a bit spooky). 

Sadly, this year the Grevillea started to die off, due to a fungal rot within its trunk and branches. And in a big storm, big parts of it fell over. 

So, instead of removing the grevillea, we have trimmed off all the dead and dying bits, propped it up with metal stakes and a bit of strategic binding here and there, and it's now a bare-branched framework for our Spanish moss. 

It won't last forever. It might not even last a year or more, but Pammy and I love our Spanish moss and so we're happy with this temporary fix, and long may it last! Of course it's the first thing friends comment on when they step out into our backyard.

This year, instead of enjoying yet another blissful 12 months draped over the same, familiar branches, every last part of the Spanish moss has been disturbed and rearranged. And that's my theory to explain why its flowering has been so modest.  

Our clumps of the stuff thrive here, and there is one useful tip I have for anyone wondering how to grow it. Water it often. Yes, water it often with a fine mist.

Spanish moss thrives in humid zones of the warm, wet parts of southern USA, Central America and South America, and so I try to replicate those steamy conditions with regular misty sprays of water. I have one of those hose attachments which have a dial, so you can easily change from a shower, to a mist, to a jet of water, and so on. And our Spanish moss loves its misty showers.

A friend the other day said "we've always called that an air plant" and they're right, but that leads people to think they don't need to do anything whatsoever to these plants. In a sense they're right, as Spanish moss will soldier on fairly well in a mild, well-rained-on climate like Sydney, but with regular misting the stuff multiplies like crazy.