Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Mulch, let me count the reasons why ...


Yesterday, compost. Today, mulch. We're getting back to basics here this week, but these two topics are the heart and soul of healthy soils, and that's where happy gardens thrive.

To get started on my mulching post, I trotted out to the backyard, confident as could be with a trusty trowel in one hand, mini camera in my pocket. I peeled back a layer of mulch, dug down a few inches, and this is what I saw ...


One of the reasons I am a keen mulcher is this person, and his/her million brothers and sisters. (Hang on Jamie, I think worms are hermaphrodites, so I'll change that to the much safer and more accurate "siblings".) 

I just knew if I lifted up some mulch and dug down that I'd find worms. They love a cool blanket covering their soil. In fact, I've noticed (completely unscientifically mind you) that in the places in the garden where the mulch has thinned out, there aren't so many worms when I dig there. In the heavily mulched spots, worms are plentiful. I do like the idea that they move around, and they have opinions.

If your soil has lots of worms, you're in a good place. Almost anything and everything you plant into soil thriving with worms should grow there. So that's the first reason I love to mulch my garden. It makes worms happy!

Another reason I love mulching my garden is that it just looks good. Sure, it's bit of a superficial thing to say, but I just love the way mulched beds look, especially when I use my favourite straw-look mulch, which here in Australia is sugar-cane mulch.

Speaking of sugar cane mulch, this is the stuff I bought on Saturday. I think it's a new brand, or different packaging, but I have no brand loyalty whatsoever to any one brand of sugar cane mulch.

However I am fiercely loyal to a price point of no more than about $16 per bale. Any more than that and I won't buy it, any cheaper and I am your man. I love it when I can get a bale for $12 or even less. In our small garden, one compressed bale like this covers pretty much all the beds I mulch with hay. 

I don't spread it too thick, either — just two or three inches — as there's plenty of evidence that a too-thick layer of mulch can prevent the water from lighter showers of rain ever reaching the soil below — and you don't want that to happen.


Our fruit trees, like this Tahitian lime, are mulched year-round, and it definitely helps to suppress weeds and retain soil moisture. This is the reason the advertisers always trot out, and they do over-claim its benefits in the hope of attracting lazy gardeners. Take it from me, weeds will still appear, and you will still have to water your garden regularly. And the mulch will eventually break down, and you will have to top it up regularly. I kid you not, mulching is just another gardening chore. It isn't a magic work preventer.

What's that big thing on the right? That's my lemongrass plant, and in about a week from now it will be getting its annual cut-down-to-the-ground trim, and it will be back to its beautiful, fragrant, willowy best by midsummer. It doesn't mind a bit of mulch around its root zone, either.

Finally, this is my other favourite use for mulch: to keep weeds down in all my bigger potted plants. This is my Thai lime tree, and ever since I started mulching it with sugar cane the weed problems have been halved. Oxalis still spreads itself around, but it is fooled into thinking the layer of mulch is "soil", and so I find it's now much, much easier to pick out long strands of oxalis now.

As for the mulch retaining moisture in the potted plants, I guess it does that, but I find potted plants need a power of watering to stay happy in Sydney, so no layer of mulch is ever going to stop my watering program. However, the mulch does provide some peace of mind if I go away for weekends.

Sure, there are other mulches, such as lucerne mulch, which the expert gardeners recommend. But have you seen how much that stuff costs? I am too much of a cheapskate to ever use lucerne mulch. 

And pebble mulches, they look really cool. My whole succulent garden is covered in pebbles, and they are a truly hopeless mulch if you're hoping to suppress weeds. Onion weed just brushes pebbles aside. 

At least the pebbles don't stay wet, like normal mulches do, and so the succulents don't get hopelessly soggy and die during one of Sydney's horrible wet weeks of constant downpours, which happen a few times every year.

And I do use coarse bark mulches in other spots where it's not so visible. It has the advantage of lasting much, much longer than sugar cane so it's a good investment if your budget is tight, but I find it a bit depressing to look at if there is too much of it. 

But everywhere else, give me sugar cane mulch every time. I love the farmyard look when it's freshly spread, and my little mates the worms love it, too, which is good enough for me.












Monday, August 14, 2017

It was a dirty job, and I did it ...


And now, for my most irrelevant and deceptive opening photo to a gardening blog ...


Isn't this helleborus flower nice? It's a bit floppy eared and misshapen, but it is a new addition to our garden, springing into showbiz mode from a helleborus plant which just self-seeded into life in a new spot a year or so ago. Hellebores like to do this "traaa-daaa" stuff, and they are well-known for producing new, sometimes-wonderful and sometimes-weird, flowers from random seedlings.

Why is this irrelevant and deceptive? Well, it has nothing to do with compost, and that's what this blog post is actually all about. 

Last Saturday I spent more than an hour shovelling compost — lots of compost — from one bin to another. It was a dirty job, I was the only one prepared to do it, and it was all very worthwhile. Its main drawback as a blog topic is extremely ugly and dull photographs ... hence the helleborus to start ...

Pictured below is my ancient black "Dalek" compost bin now filled to the brim with beautiful, ready-to-use compost, which I made in my much more efficient tumbler compost bin.
Because you can spin it to aerate the compost, the tumbler bin breaks down the organic matter fairly quickly, but it's a devil of a job getting to the made compost inside the tumbler. So, once every 18 months or so, I do the "Big Transfer" job using a shovel and trug — and garden gloves — and all the made compost is moved over from the tumbler to the Dalek, where it is easy-peasy to scoop into a bucket and add to my vegie beds.

And now for an even more boring photo!

Here's the almost-empty tumbler bin, ready for me to add loads and loads and loads of clippings from the garden and vegie and fruit peelings from the kitchen. I always leave a small amount of made compost in the bottom of the tumbler as a "starter culture", as it has worms and all kinds of helpful bacteria down there that will multiply like crazy and get the composting process roaring along again.

And so that's what I did on Saturday. Nobody noticed, not even Pam, and when I pointed out to her what a useful job it was, she still wasn't especially impressed. Just another one of my peculiar enthusiasms.

I don't blame her. Compost is pretty boring, even if it is one of the most essential jobs you can do to improve your soil in the long run (not to mention earning brownie points for recycling, which I hope are eventually redeemable at Heaven's Pearly Gates).

Maybe I should see if there is a special society of unheralded compost makers that I could join? No, I'm sure they'd be really boring and would only want to talk about compost, which is too much for even me. I'm happy to talk compost once every 18 months. That's enough.

Next posting, I promise will have nicer photos and be about vegies and flowers, probably ... although I do have some thoughts on mulch I could share ...




Monday, August 7, 2017

Choice cuts


I love the way recycling operates in our streets. Our local council does a great job. There are yellow-lidded bins (paper/glass), green-lid bins (garden clippings) and red-lid bins (everything else) for every household. 

But our street has been developing its own system: if you have something you no longer need, but you think other locals might like, just leave it out on your nature strip, preferably on a Saturday, and by Sunday night it'll probably be gone. Works most of the time, too.
So that's what I did with about a dozen big frangipani cuttings. I stuck them in a plastic bucket, created the beautiful sign you see here and stuck it to our street tree, and let recycling take its course. Which it did. All of them were taken by Sunday evening ...


Now, as for the frangipani cuttings themselves, they came about because our frangipani tree is growing too well. Last summer it invaded our pathway to Pammy's shed, and a few branches reached far enough that washing on the clothesline occasionally snagged on a branch. So, once the tree had lost all its leaves for winter, we cut it back here and there. And there, and over there, and up there. We ended up with quite a few cuttings ...


Standing back a few feet to take this shot, you can easily see how the pathway is now clear. The job itself is a bit messy, as frangipani immediately ooze out lots of sticky white sap, so wearing gloves saves on cleaning up. 

I collected up the cuttings then put them in a dry spot and then let them dry for a few weeks, with the aim of drying off the base of each cutting (the bit you stick in the potting mix). If you don't let the cuttings dry off, you run the risk of rot developing around the oozy cut after you plant the cutting into potting mix. And that's basically all I know about striking frangipani cuttings. Our tree is grown from a cutting taken 11 years ago, so it's a good way to get started.

Quick peek down memory lane. Here's the oldest photo I have of our frangipani, taken soon after I started blogging in 2008, and in that photo caption I said the cutting-grown plant was two years old then. My how it's grown!

Finally, one little footnote to our street's informal recycling system ... 

This Monday morning I went outside to collect the plastic bucket in which I had placed all the cuttings, and even the bucket had gone! Fortunately, it wasn't my best bucket ...





Thursday, August 3, 2017

A gong for the Gong



We finally did it. Visited the Wollongong Botanic Garden. I'm not proud to say that it has only taken us 20 years to get here, even though it's only a bit over an hour south of Sydney. Until recently, this wonderful garden was something we must have driven past a hundred times on the highway south, always saying to each other "we must visit that place one of these days".

It was worth the wait, too. Pammy and I visited Wollongong recently to attend an art show, and having stayed there one night we weren't in a hurry to get home. A nice long garden visit, followed by an easy drive home. The perfect Sunday for garden lovers. And Huey, the weather god, turned on the record warmest-ever midwinter July day for the Sydney/Gong region that Sunday, with the thermometer climbing over 26°C. Thank you Huey!
The first pleasant surprise was that the garden was much bigger than we imagined ...


... you'd need half a day just to do one complete lap.


I suspect Australia gets the better end of the bargain with our many "sister city" relationships with Japanese cities, and in the Gong's garden the Kawasaki bridge is a magical thing to behold, even if walking over it isn't such a sure-footed experience. 


It's not only everywhere you go in these gardens that Mount Keira looks down on you, it's pretty much the same feeling everywhere you go in the Gong. Mount Keira is watching ...


On with the show ...

Well, for starters, the orchids in the Sir Joseph Banks greenhouse thought it was nice here in Darwin (we didn't break the news to them that they were a long way from the tropics).


And though this young Queensland bottle tree (Brachychiton rupestris) was also a long way from home, it was showing all the signs of turning into a perfect specimen over the next hundred years or so.


However, on our midwinter visit, the undoubted stars of the show were the collected weirdos and misfits of ... you guessed it ... the succulent and cacti collection. They even have a sign there saying June and July are the best times to visit this section. Lucky us!


A bunch of aloes in bloom. Not exactly pretty but definitely striking.


This one is Aloe marlothii

Nearby a ponytail palm couldn't keep its heavy corsage upright


And spikies wouldn't be spikies without cute masses of little guys to frighten the nervous, such as these 'Tiger Tooth' Aloe juvenna ...

 ... or this incredible sea of tightly clustered Euphorbia pulvinata, the pin cushion euphorbia


Just as you think you've escaped spiky world, there's the other end of the Sir Joseph Banks greenhouse, the ultra-dry but very warm desert end, where the Mexican, Madagascan and other wonderfully weird spiky collection spends its days. (This is one of my special iPhone panoramas, so if you click on the photo, it should pop up nice and widescreen bigly.)


Meanwhile, under the dappled, restful shade of an ancient melaleuca (paperbark) tree, en plein air artist Pammy spent an enjoyably long time capturing the scene in succulent land.


This allowed me to go for a very long wander all around the gardens while Pammy used her paintbrush to mix work, pleasure and watercolours.

So, if you're like Pam and me and have passed by the turnoff to the gardens many times as you've whizzed by on the Princes Highway, these gardens are the perfect spot to plan a picnic lunch. Set aside a couple of hours for a really good look at the gardens, and I am sure you'll come away with many good memories and, hopefully, some nice photos too.









Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Going potty in midwinter


"You've been prolific lately on your blog," said our friend and dinner companion, Belinda, last night. She's right, there's a fair bit of gardening going on here, right in the middle of winter. 

Midwinter, while the plants are growing very slowly or even having a snooze, is an ideal time for major projects such as moving plants to another spot in the garden, or minor projects such as repotting them.

Fortunately for my aching back, there were no plants to transplant, but there were some pots in need of attention, and repotting. And happily for this blog, each presented its own different little problem to solve. 

Soil level sinking in the pot: this is the most common potted plant problem. Over time, the potting mix seems to "shrink" in the pot, as the gap between the rim of the pot and the top of the potting mix grows. For my potted Turkish fig, this gap had grown to about 4 inches (10cm), but the potting mix itself was just a year old.



 So the big trick with topping up the potting mix is to add the new mix to the bottom of the pot. Don't add it to the top. 

Why? Just under the surface of the soil, each potted plant has a layer of fine roots which soak up food and water, and smothering this layer with a few inches of new potting mix will not be good for the plant's health at all, as it will cut off a vital food supply. So, measure how much you need to raise the soil level, pull the plant out of the pot, add that same depth of mix to the bottom of the pot, and replace the plant.

(That's easier said than done, of course. Removing plants from pots can be very hard if the plant has been there for years, or if the pot doesn't have straight-ish sides. One tip is to water the pot very very well, leave it for half an hour, then try again. Good luck!).



An extra thing I do for all my repotted bigger plants is to soak them while they are out of their pot. Plastic trugs are fab for this (for Australian readers, you can get them at Bunnings in the section which sells laundry baskets and other plastic storage items). I add the pot to the trug, fill with water then add in a few capfuls of Seasol Super Soil Wetter, which is a mixture of wetting agent and Seasol. If your potting mix looks very dry, this stuff is very good at making it not only wet again, but also able to absorb moisture when you next have to water it. Think of it as a gentle, healthy tonic. Leave your plant to soak in it for at least 15 minutes, up to half an hour if you like.


Generally grumpy plant not responding to kindness: this is what was happening with our potted Thai lime. I was really nice to it (I thought) but its leaves looked crappy and its fruit crop was wimpy. When you have a pot plant that is generally unwell, it's time to remove the plant from the pot and have a look at what's happening out of sight. Whether it's white curl grubs eating the roots (a very common problem) or ants (another common problem), or super dry potting mix super soggy mix, you'll soon spot the trouble.

And this what I found: an ant civilisation. Not just a nest but a whole city of the little things. I could swear I could see ant apartments, ant bars and hear ant jazz music playing. It was all my fault. 

Super dry soil was the cause of it all, the ideal conditions for ants to go to work. Despite what I thought was pretty diligent watering, the soil had gone dry at its lower levels, and water I applied via the hose just rushed by without wetting a thing.



This is beginning to sound like an ad, but I added the whole rootball to the trug filled with Seasol Super Soil Wetter and left it to soak for half an hour. Don't worry, it won't drown, but the ants will! Meanwhile, I put on my Vlad the Destroyer hat and cleaned the lime tree's pot with a scrubbing brush so it was ant-free, and cleaned under the pot, too, which was thriving with ants and a layer of finely crumbly, sandy potting mix detritus.

AND ... as the fine roots around the edge look a bit pot-bound, I also use a fine knife to cut several vertical slits all the way round, to tease out the roots a bit and encourage them to grow a bit more.

Upgrading to a bigger pot: this was the easiest assignment of the three jobs. The NSW Christmas Bush was perfectly happy and had put on its best, longest lasting display ever last year. We just felt it was getting a bit too big for its current pot, so we had another pot spare which was one size larger (just a few inches bigger in height, and width).


There's just a few important little things to remember with a job like this:

1. Upsize gradually. Don't repot into a giant pot, just move to the next size larger.
2. Use a specialised native potting mix for natives. Normal potting mixes for other plants contain too much fertiliser and the wrong type of fertiliser and can actually harm a native plant. Native potting mix isn't hard to find (mine was made by Omsocote, sold at Bunnings).
3. After repotting, top up potted plants with some mulch. I just use the same ordinary sugar cane mulch that I use in the rest of the garden, and it's very effective at suppressing weeds in the pot. Those weeds which do appear are easier to pull out and control, too.

There's a fair bit more that I could say about keeping potted plants happy, but I'll save that for a later posting, probably in spring.


Saturday, July 8, 2017

How to spot a weed



Spotted a weed this morning, so as a public service, here's how to spot a weed ...


Q: Did you plant it there?

A: No.

Answer: It's a weed!



Supplementary question for hopeless romantics

Q: What are the odds it is not a weed and in fact a rare and special plant which has chosen your garden to grow in, because you, too, are rare and special?

A: One in about, roughly ... oh, let me see ... a billion, or thereabouts.


Sorry to be a weekend party pooper, but if you're looking for something to do in your garden this weekend, pull out all (or at least lots) of the weeds you find.




Friday, July 7, 2017

Thyme management


Wandering into the kitchen yesterday afternoon, I was greeted by the very pleasant sight and smell of a lot of thyme drying on some paper towels. What was Pam cooking? I wasn't sure, but at least I knew it was going to have lots of thyme in it.


Even if Pammy didn't use all this thyme, I was still pleased to see how much she harvested, because that's what I like to do — harvest a lot more thyme than I need each time I plan to cook with thyme. We have no shortage of thyme growing here, as you can see below, and a key trick to keeping it so lush and bushy is that we cut it back all the time, and never worry about cutting off too much each time we get some for the kitchen.



This is just one pot of thyme, sitting on the path under the clothesline, in the sunniest part of the garden. It's spilling over the edges of the pot and trying to send roots down in the nearby garden beds and even into cracks in the paving. It's a weed at heart. 



Like our thyme, the rosemary and sage are also doing well here, and part of the trick of keeping them growing abundantly is to harvest often, or cut them back often even if you don't need that much in the kitchen. I feed these potted plants just once a year, but I do water them often and cut them back often as well.

I have a particular affection for thyme, it's the herb I use most often (along with parsley). It smells so nice as you wash and prepare it, and it's such a versatile flavour, too.

Well, what did Pammy do with her many branches of thyme? She dropped them into a baking dish with an inch-deep puddle of olive oil in the bottom, then added lots of cherry tomatoes, and baked them in a preheated 180°C oven for about half an hour. Then she boiled some farfalle (bow-tie) pasta, drained the tomatoes of their olive-oily, herby bath, then tossed the cooked cherry tomatoes through the pasta. It was a side dish, but at the same time the star of last night's meal. Thankyou Pammy, thankyou thyme.






Monday, July 3, 2017

Slow progress, chapter 982



I'm only kidding, this isn't really chapter 982, but it is slow progress. I'm just trying to scare off those online gardening browsers whose attention span can only deal with 20 words at a time. You see, what I'm doing right now is using my blog as a diary, just updating the record on how things are going in a very long-term project to raise some flowering beauties from seed. 

Regular readers will be almost sick of this photo by now, but if you're new here, welcome to the wonderful world of Scadoxus, a spring-flowering bulb from South Africa which is the star attraction in our garden when it puts on its show each September.


Right now, our Scadoxus are almost dormant here in midwinter Sydney. No flowers at all, no leaves in fact, just some encouraging signs of growth from the bare older bulbs, which poke out above the ground.

Pictured above, this is what I mean. That red-topped point on this mature bulb will start to shoot up in August to become an 18-inch long, thick green stem, topped by a fist-sized flower head that then takes its own good time to open, usually a few weeks.


Once the fabulous razzle-dazzle of that orange bloom ends, the rest of summer is all green foliage down below, topped with a straggly, messy tangle of fading filaments covering the developing green seeds, only some of which have been fertilised by the bees.


By midsummer some of the once-green berries turn red, to show they're ripe, and that's when I have been picking them and potting them up for the last two years. Around the same time last year I posted about the progress up to that point, and today it's time for the potted up babies, who have grown handsomely, to be transplanted into the ground.


This is one of the babies, from a pot that is just one year old. A small but perfectly formed little Scadoxus bulb.


The two-year old pot was decidedly root-bound, and at first I thought I had blundered. However, with some very gentle wriggling and coaxing I managed to break them all up into half a dozen separate bulbs, each with its own tangle of thick roots firmly attached.


There's seven new bulbs from the two-year-old pot, and five from the one-year-old pot. I think leaving them in the pot two years was a bit of a boo boo, especially as the pot was small, and the one-year-old bulbs seem quite viable. The sooner they get into their natural home in the garden soil the better, I suspect.



Prior to planting I dug over the soil and spaced them out so they have room to grow in coming years, although I have noticed that each adult bulb sends up "pups" which hug close to their parents, so I expect that overcrowding may be the Scadoxus way of life.

Each bulb should be planted with about half the bulb (and all the roots of course) beneath the soil. 

As it's a bulb it carries with it its own storehouse of food, so all I did was water them all in with some seaweed solution, which encourages the roots to grow.

The general position in which the Scadoxus thrive is full, but fairly well lit shade (not the dim, dark stuff). The soil itself is good rich stuff, too, which I am sure helps them thrive. 
Sydney gets plenty of rain every year, so I never water them. 

Even the potted babies (which are in the same, shady spot) only get the occasional watering and no other help from me.

From what I've read about the seeds, the main thing is to harvest and plant them as soon as they turn red, as they don't stay viable for long. So I guess the main tip is to be "Jenny on the spot" and plant them early on.

I am sure that I have worn down even the most loyal readers by now, but if by some miracle you are still with me at this stage of my diary update, the whole thing is "slow progress" because I honestly don't have a clue how many years it will take these babies to turn into flowering adults. I do know that some of the smaller Scadoxus bulbs, which have been here for several years, still haven't flowered, so I truly don't know if I will even be alive to see my babies bloom! Maybe they're like Agaves and only bloom after half a century? Who knows.

I am just thankful to have some lovely mature bulbs here that put on stunning shows every spring. As for the little ones, I'm already deriving quite a bit of pleasure just raising them. And besides: babies are gorgeous, so enjoy raising them to the best of your ability ... but who really knows how one's children will really turn out in the long run? It's up to them.










Saturday, July 1, 2017

Oh what a lovely little holiday



Well, this has been a very quiet little gardening blog of late. Nothing since May 6, nothing at all in June, and here we are in July already. Pammy and I are now back from our little holiday up north and we have some photos to show you of the lovely day we spent with our friend Judi at the Mount Coot-tha Botanic Gardens in Brisbane. 

If you're a garden lover and find yourself in Brisbane for a few days, set aside at least half a day to take in this really fascinating subtropical garden. It's quite close to the city itself, lots of buses go there if you are relying on public transport, and of course it's free to visit.


This posting is mostly going to be photos and captions, and so I thought I'd start off with a "pretty" one of Aloes in bloom. There's a very substantial section devoted to cacti and succulents here, but as I know lots of readers aren't big fans of them, I will leave the spiky ones till last. 

One thing I wasn't expecting at Mount Coot-tha was superb bonsais, but they have a whole open-air "house" devoted to them, and they are stunning.



This one is a cluster of Port Jackson figs (Ficus rubiginosa). It's given me the idea to turn my curry tree bonsai (it's still alive!) into a little stand of trees, rather than just a single one.



And this shapely one is a black pine (Pinus thunbergii).


But my favourite was this gnarled ancient forest giant, a Swamp Cypress (Taxodium distichum). So much skill over so many years to create something like this.




Wandering around the gardens, one of the highlights was not just the look of the many stands of golden bamboo, but also their sound. There was a slight breeze that day, and as the bamboo stands waved slowly the hollow stems clunked together in a strangely musical song, a bit like 50-foot-high wind chimes.



This Queensland bottle tree (Brachychiton rupestris) is a baby, but already it's taking on that bulbous shape in its trunk. Seeing how these develop over the years is reason enough to bring me back for more visits in coming years.



This screw pine (Pandanus) will just keep on growing and developing its astonishing multiple lower trunks as well.

And now folks, we come to the spiky guys ...



This Euphorbia ingens stands several metres tall and dominated the succulent and cacti garden.



A large grey-leaved Agave americana rules its patch.



I think I have a small potted version of this outrageously painful Agave parrasana in my garden, and no matter how careful I am when I am working near it in the succulent patch, it usually manages to get me.



Last of the painful spikies for this posting is this forbidding sight, Euphorbia lactea 'Cristata'. Apparently hedges of spiky euphorbias are quite effective at keeping lions and leopards away from your house/hut/campsite in Africa, so they have their uses after all.



Rather than finishing off on a note filled with lions, leopards and screams of agony as you tumble into the euphorbia patch, this pond represents a much fairer picture of our lovely little holiday. Though you can barely see her, at the other side of the pond there sits a tiny little figure on a park bench, and that's Pammy all set up with her watercolour painting kit, doing some travel sketching with her friend Judi.



And across the other side of the lake was me, happy as a garden lover at a beautiful botanic garden, photographing some ducks' bums.

Now we're back home there's a bit of gardening catch-up to be done. Lots of little midwinter jobs, plus some babies I've been raising have finally grown up enough and are ready to be transplanted to their new home ...