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.