Saturday, October 6, 2018

Visit the Witches Garden in early November

It's not often that I start a blog posting with a photo downloaded off the internet, but this time it's all in a good cause: this is the Witches Garden wisteria-covered bridge in full flower, and I pinched it from the Witches Garden website. You don't need to travel to France to get that Monet experience: just head to Mitta Mitta!

Regular readers will know from my last posting of holiday snaps that we recently stayed in a beautiful country cottage operated by the owners of the Witches Garden, Felicity and Lew McDonald. 

Felicity and Lew live just across the road in a big, lovely house, which is surrounded by their gorgeous two-hectare garden ... and this year their amazing garden is open to visitors as part of the Open Gardens Victoria scheme. So if you're in the area — which is south-east of Albury/Wodonga, in the same general region as Bright and Beechworth — put a note in your diary to include a visit to the Witches Garden on the weekend of November 3,4 and 5 (Saturday, Sunday and Monday).

Felicity and Lew are a wonderful team. He's a handy guy (who runs an earth-moving business) who welded up that curved Monet-style bridge across a lake, and when Felicity had the idea of including a cute "Witch's Cottage" in her grand garden plan, Lew knew what to do. It's hard to believe they started off with a bare paddock on the banks of the Mitta River 30 years ago, but what they have achieved is remarkable.

Felicity is a very talented artist in her own right, and she was one of the people attending Pam's watercolour course when we stayed at Mitta Mitta. Every aspect of the Witches Garden design reveals that this is an artist's garden. She is also a plant collector and is an expert on medicinal herbs, of which she grows many at Mitta Mitta. I liked the way this pretty garden seat was not only decorative but obviously a spot where she takes a rest for a while, with her shovel and secateurs getting time off, too.

We stayed at Mitta Mitta in mid September, when the garden was several weeks away from being in full bloom (which is why I pinched that wisteria-bridge photo) but nevertheless there were all sorts of pretty things in flower, such as this gorgeous pink pieris.

And speaking of gorgeous things, here's Pammy getting to know one of the many local king parrots that have become very well-mannered if you hold out a cup full of their favourite seed.

As well as enjoying wandering through the gardens, Felicity is including an art show in her new art gallery, as part of the fun at the Witches Garden open garden weekend. Pammy has submitted some of her work at the show, and they have also lined up musicians to add to the atmosphere. The musicians play every afternoon, and there is a Monday evening concert as well (details on the Open Gardens website). Oh, and there are pop-up craft stalls, plus coffee and cake.

So if you can make it down to Mitta Mitta in early November, I am sure you'll have a wonderful time.

And if you can't make it down there in November, but would love to visit the area at another time (Felicity says autumn is absolutely stunning at Mitta Mitta), remember that Lew and Felicity have a range of accommodation on offer. As well as the charming cottage across the road from the Witches Garden (where we stayed) their own large house also provides a warm welcome in B&B style accommodation.

Here's all the links again:

Witches Garden, Mitta Mitta

Witches Garden Open Garden Weekend, November 3-5

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Pam and Jamie's holiday snaps

Everyone comfy on their bean bags? Good. Settle back and relax as we bring you the latest holiday snaps from Garden Amateur's two little garden/art/nature lovers as we tour southern Australia in very early spring. First slide please, projectionist!

What a colourful way to announce to the world that we have left the city and are out in the country. All through our trip we saw huge, far-as-the-eye-can-see fields of canola crops in flower. This is where we first saw them, in Cowra, about 4.5 hours west of Sydney, where our real objective was to see the Japanese gardens there.

We stayed at the Vineyard Motel, which is far enough out of town to make us feel like we were among the paddocks. As well as enjoying its cool misty mornings, Pam and I almost froze to death at night, standing outside looking up at the dazzling Milky Way on a perfectly cloudless, starry sparkly night. It's good for the soul to stare at the Milky Way.

Next morning, straight off to the Cowra Japanese Gardens, which were a couple of weeks short of being in full bloom, but still beautiful to behold with their clipped balls of greenery and tumbling streams.

They don't just plonk seats here and there at Cowra. Each is perfectly placed to take in a wonderful view of the garden, and this one high on the hill has its own little bamboo-posted walkway that feels almost ceremonial.

Taking advantage of a perfect seat placement, en plein air watercolour artist Pammy spent some very productive time capturing the scene. Wherever we travel, she takes a small painting kit with her.

Late September and early October is the peak blossom-filled time to visit the Cowra Japanese Garden, but we've been there at other times of year and it's always a wonderful place to wander for a few hours.

Next stop, Mitta Mitta in Victoria. In the same mountain zone as better-known Beechworth, Mitta Mitta is in a lush valley, from which you can see snow-covered Mount Bogong looming large.

Lucky us! We stayed at this cottage that is part of the Witches Garden (about which I will be doing a separate posting in a few days, as it has a large, gorgeous garden which will be open to visitors in early November). 

This cottage was a city couple's 'escape to the country fantasy' come true: beautiful stream flowing behind it, superb garden, log fires, big country kitchen, total privacy, native birds galore. We could've stayed for weeks.

As well as these rosellas, there were kookaburras cacking their heads off and dazzling king parrots hanging around, knowing that we had been given a big jar of birdseed to keep them happy.

However, we weren't just in Mitta Mitta for fun. Pam was there to teach a watercolour art class organised by her great mate, Marg (left), and the snazzy new Mitta Mitta Community Hall was a perfect venue.

Mitta Mitta has some very dedicated artists, but they weren't so familiar with watercolours, and that's where Pammy showed them the ropes. Here's one of her 5-minute quick landscape demos that she did for them.

That cane chair on the verandah proved to be the perfect spot for Pam to whip out the painting kit one day and enjoy some quality time painting that birch tree and those camellias.

She's only half-way finished at this stage, and I might be biased but I even love what she does with her watercolour palette — she ought to frame that as an abstract work, too.

After Mitta Mitta we headed through Bendigo and Castlemaine to see our dear friends Amanda and Mike in Kyneton, but on the way we stopped off in Bendigo to see the Chinese gardens there. We were the only ones there ... so serene.

If I was ever going to remodel a garden and its outdoor spaces, I think I'd ask a Chinese architect to come and lend a hand. Pammy could do the frescoes.

We stayed in Melbourne a few days, saw more old friends, and on our way out we stopped off at Ballarat. Why is it that houses by the water (actually rowing sheds on Lake Wendouree) seem so perfectly tranquil?

Lots of Aussies would know that Ballarat in not the most direct way home from Melbourne, and that's because we headed way out to western Victoria, where these elegant, gently weeping yellow-flowered gum trees proliferated.

We were venturing out west to ride the "Silo Art Trail" which features a set of six very large silos painted with portraits of local people by street artists. This one above is my favourite, and it's in Brim. 

This one, in Rupanyup, features a local netballer and a footballer. The whole trail of six silos is about a 200km drive, but out there the roads are straight and empty, so each leg of the journey doesn't take long.

It gets so amazingly flat out here, real "big sky country" that at one stage Pammy said "I think I can see the curvature of the Earth on the horizon." For really big skies, you need clouds, of course, so thanks Huey.

This area is so flat and outbacky that it even has several salt lakes. This is Lake Tyrrell, which was still carrying some water from winter rains when we visited, but the summer's heat bakes it white and shimmery. 

From the Wimmera Region and its painted silos, we had many more miles to cover before we made it back to Sydney, but on the way as we crossed the Murray River at Barham, we spotted some river boats sitting on the slowly moving river and fantasised about maybe floating down the Murray some time in the future. Who knows?

As I mentioned earlier in this posting, I'm planning on doing something about the wonderful Witches Garden at Mitta Mitta soon. It's open under the Open Garden Scheme in early November, so if you can somehow manage to be there, do not miss out on the chance to visit Mitta Mitta, see the garden, and maybe even stay a while in the gorgeous country cottage there.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Blink and you might miss it

As we travelled the last few miles at the end of our recent 3500km driving holiday in southern Australia, Pammy said "I wonder what has changed in the two weeks since we left?" She was referring to anything and everything in our local area. "Look, that shop has closed down" ... "and finally they've taken down all the ugly hoarding around that construction site — that new apartment building is almost finished."

No matter how little time you spend away from your home base, in a fortnight something always changes.

And that proved to be true for our little garden. During our two weeks away, one of our garden's best flower shows reached its peak and then quietly faded (just like they do in the forest). New things burst into full bloom, and seeds sprouted. And we weren't here to see any of it. We blinked and missed it all.

Still, it's an interesting thing to do ... leave your garden to its own devices for a while. And so here's what we missed out on over the last couple of weeks.

In the foreground, our usually fabulous scadoxus looked like the stragglers on the morning after a very memorable party. Frazzled, tousled and tired, but they did have fun for a while. In the background, the yellow clivias were in a similar tatty condition.

Poor yellow clivias, they'll be back same time next year, and hopefully there'll be more of them next time (and there'll be an old blogger there to photograph them in all their glory and lavish them with praise).

The one very good thing about the scadoxus section of the garden is that all the baby plants are thriving. In recent years I have been painstakingly raising them from collected seed, and this spring they are growing stronger than ever. There's more than a dozen newbies here and there. I'm just hoping these are not plants that need 10-15 years in the ground before they do their first flowering. I'm not sure if I'll live that long to see all my work come into glorious bloom!

In other pleasing baby news, all the flat-leaf parsley seed which I scattered in a few spots a few weeks before we left have sprouted up through the sugar cane mulch and seem to be powering along. This year all I did was open the seed packet and shake it here and there in the mulched vegie area, then say "you're on your own, kids; good luck". I think this has been my most successful seed-sowing method yet for parsley.

Upon our return we were greeted by some new blooms, including these little mint bush beauties ...

... and all our hanging baskets of pelargoniums perked up in the spring sunshine. 

But the flower show which impressed us the most was this (next) unexpected one ...

Our broccoli patch was in its full glory as adult plants, and the loud humming of the bees all around the broccoli's yellow blooms was a clear signal from the bees to me to "leave our broccoli flowers alone". 

They're perfectly correct, of course. While we grow broccoli with the mindset of "food/vegetable" and tend to look upon these flowers as a signal to replace the crop, the bees adore this plant's flowers, and so until all the flowers fade our broccoli plants are staying right where they are, as a bee temple.

So that's my little report on how our little garden looks after a few weeks of slight neglect (although our wonderful neighbours Nick and Katerina did their usual great job watering the garden for us).

Oh, so how was the holiday? Great! 

I'm still sorting through the thousand or so photos that we took along the way, and once that's done I'll show you some of the highlights, especially the lovely gardens we visited and the new people we met (hi Kerryn in Kyneton!). 

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Easy orchids

Orchids are difficult to grow ... right? Wrong! Some orchids are so easy to grow they barely need any help from me to do their thing. Just a bit of water, an occasional feed of liquid orchid food, and a sheltered spot that gets a bit of sun, but not too much. Mine are nestled up against a side fence, so they get no afternoon sun at all.

And they're flowering now. In preparing to write this little blog posting about my native orchids, I discovered a couple of things I didn't know previously. The first is that they are both closely related, even though one is a tiny little guy with flowers less than one inch wide and the other one is big, bold with "can't miss it" sprays of many yellow blooms. They're both dendrobiums.

This one pictured above is the little person, formal name of Dendrobium kingianum, common name of native rock orchid. Small but perfectly formed ...

And this big yellow personality is Dendrobium speciosum, with a few common names, including rock lily and Sydney rock orchid. But I think of it as the Sydney Mardi Gras orchid.

This is the first time the big yellow orchid has flowered, even though it's been in our garden for the last three years. Now, if I had done my research more thoroughly back then, I would have learned that if you buy a young plant then you are going to have to wait a few years for it to flower. For a while I wondered if I was doing anything wrong, as each year the little rock orchids flowered their heads off and the much bigger plant did nothing. It looked healthy enough, but it just didn't produce flowers. This year was its big debut, and what a spectacular entrance it has made.

I have several pots of the smaller rock orchids, including this white one, and they flower very reliably every year. Two years ago I repotted them all, as they were multiplying quite prolifically and getting overcrowded, and all the transplants have survived the experience.

So, what's the second thing I discovered about these orchids? Well, it seems that these are regarded as two of the easiest native orchids you can grow. Perfect beginner's orchids. And that explains a lot!

I think both forms look wonderful, and the fact they are hardy and do well even in the care of an absolute beginner makes them even more marvellous in my eyes.

Now, I should give credit where credit is due, and mention two Australian websites which are a good source of information on native orchids. One is this page on Angus Stewart's website, and this page at the Australian Orchid Nursery website, which is all about Dendrobium speciosum.

If you are looking for something to grow in a line along a fairly boring fenceline on the western side of your garden, then give orchids a try. Contrary to popular belief, many orchids are not difficult to grow at all. In fact they are remarkably tough, easy-care potted plants. As well as these native dendrobiums, look out for the cymbidium orchids, another excellent choice for beginners.

Buy your orchids already potted up and they should do well in that original pot for the first few years at least. Your local garden centre or major hardware chain will stock special orchid foods. I use a liquid feed that I mix up with water and apply from a can, but there are dry granules which you mix up with water, and slow-release pellets which you scatter around every few months. I find the liquid feed easiest, and I feed my plants whenever I remember to do it. I guess that's about once a month.

All the other stuff about them special potting mixes, etc is true, but it mostly has the effect of making people think orchid growing is difficult. It's not. Just buy a plant already potted up, plonk it in a good spot and you're nine-tenths on your way to success.

Good luck!

Friday, August 31, 2018

Doing our bit to help the bees

While pottering around our inner-city garden, there's always some kind of background noise, whether it's merely traffic, neighbours talking, or local birds calling to one another. But the sound I enjoy the most is the hum of bees. 

A native blue-banded bee closes in on an eggplant flower.
Not only is it a happy sound but it's also a vital signal that our backyard garden is a safe place for bees and other insects to go about their work, and make a living. Doing the right thing by bees isn't rocket science. There's just two steps.
1. Plant bee-friendly flowering plants (and there are lots of them)
2. Stop using harmful insect sprays that kill bees and other beneficial insects.
Bees go mad when our lemon tree flowers, which it will do soon.
As spring is upon us here in Australia, and gardeners everywhere are thinking "what can I plant now", it's the perfect time to put in a plug for becoming a bit more bee-friendly, whether you're a balcony gardener, own a rambling country estate or, like Pam and me, have an ordinary suburban backyard.

Our poppies are blooming now, and bees almost bathe in the plentiful pollen.
Now, I've done numerous postings about bees over the years, and this latest one has been prompted by an email I received from Taronga Zoo (for out-of-towners, Taronga Zoo is Sydney's largest and oldest zoo, situated on the edge of Sydney Harbour — visiting Taronga is a part of most Sydney childhoods. It was certainly part of mine, with countless visits there). 

It might come as a surprise to some to know this, but Taronga Zoo cares for its bees in the same way it does for all its other creatures — with loving devotion. This Sydney winter has been very dry indeed — there's a drought on — and so flowers are fewer and life is tougher for Taronga's bee population (and all other bees in Sydney). One simple reason for looking after bees is that Taronga has its own vegie patch, to provide food for its animals, and as every vegie gardener knows, bees play a vital role in pollinating all sorts of crops.

Taronga's beekeeper inspects one of their hives.
What Taronga would like everyone in Sydney to do is simple: make your garden friendlier for bees. So here's some very basic tips on how to get started, but before I do that, I have to include this next photo, just to show you how popular beekeeping has become in Sydney. 

About 200m from my house, the roof of this corner shop in Marrickville is
very probably what my busy backyard bees called "Headquarters". And so
in doing my bit in the inner-city, I'm helping gourmets to be happy. 
Apart from following guideline number 2: "don't use harmful sprays", following guideline number 1: "plant bee-friendly plants" is very easy to do, because there are so many great plants to choose from. The basic rule is this: if it produces a flower, the bees will find it.

Flowering shrubs: lavender probably tops the list, but all daisies are fabulous, too. Shrubs such as abelia and buddleia are famous bee-attractors, but on a small scale little alyssum (sweet Alice) and nasturtiums do a great job, and so do my poppies. But all annual flowers are great for bees, and probably the perfect choice for smaller gardens and balconies. 

Natives: all the flowering native shrubs are brilliant bee magnets, but top choices would include hardenbergia, grevilleas (which come in all shapes and sizes), bottlebrush, westringia (coast rosemary, a very good hedging plant), and native daisies (Brachyscome). 

Herbs: most people think "foliage/leaves" when you say "herbs", but all herbs flower well and bees love them. Basil is terrific (and now is the time to plant some), but oregano, marjoram, sage, rosemary, mint, coriander and lemon balm all do a great job attracting bees. Borage is probably the star of the bee-friendly herb garden, as bees adore its plentiful blue flowers.

Flowering vegetable crops also attract (and need!) bees, especially tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, zucchini, cucumber, pumpkins, watermelons and squash. So my tip is to plant some low-growing flowers next to your vegie patch, such as alyssum, petunias, low-growing daisies, etc. It's what "potager" gardens are all about: mixing flowers, herbs and vegies together so they attract bees. And besides, potagers just look better.

My citrus trees (lemon, Tahitian lime, Thai lime) all attract stacks of bees, and spring is a great time to plant one, and it's also the perfect time to fertilise them. All other fruit trees are magnets for bees when they are in flower, so if your garden design needs a small tree, think about a fruit tree next time round.

While the name of this thing is a "birdbath" nobody told the bees they can't
visit, so I always make sure there is a gently sloping rock in my birdbath so
bees and other flying little guys can take a drink, especially on a hot day.
So there you go, head off to the garden centre on a "bee-friendly" mission, and help maintain your local honey supply. 

Finally, you can also test out my favourite bee theory: no matter where you put a flowering plant, bees will find it. Go on, plant something in an out-of-the-way spot and keep an eye on it. Once it starts flowering, our little busy, buzzing hard-workers will soon be all over it. That's what I love about bees ... they are so good at their jobs!

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Lots of flowers? Must be spring!

"Hey, come and have a look at this," said Pammy, ever the eagle-eyed spotter of all things newsworthy in our garden. We had to get down on our hands and knees, and be up very close, but there it was — the complex, gorgeous mini bloom of our potted succulent. I think it's a graptoveria, but as a succulent amateur I am at all times willing to be corrected on these things. Doesn't matter really, it's the wonderful mini other-worldliness of tiny blooms that had us both captivated.

It's a bit orchidy, this succulent flower, with its red-wine flecks on pearlescent petals.

Even I could spot the next of our spring awakenings — a huge spray of not-quite-yet-open yellow dendrobium orchids.

This spring show has been a few years in the making, as this plant has never flowered before. Over the last few years I have tried my hardest to be nice to it, but without any success. It has always lived with all the other orchids, which manage to flower their heads off like clockwork. But the dendrobium? Nah, sorry. Once all the flowers open fully, I will no doubt do another posting.

This next pink one, a climbing pelargonium, is one of the success stories of my "recovery ward". I bought three plants, put them in a hanging basket in a sunny spot, where they then proceeded to do very little, then started to die off. While I can accept that the fault is all mine, what bugs me is that I didn't have a clue what I was doing wrong.

So I rescued the final, barely surviving plant, repotted it into a smaller, normal pot and it has been keeping my orchids company in a more sheltered spot for the last year or so. And now it's looking happy again. Should I attempt to move it back to the hanging basket? Well, that is why I bought it ... but I am beginning to see that as the "hanging basket of doom" and I can't quite work up the bravery to try it yet.

Next in the spring slideshow is good old, never-fail, grow-them-every-year poppies. Pam loves them. Pam cuts them for vases in our house. And this year we have yellow, white and orange poppies. Lovely.

It's nice to be appreciated. The deal is, if I am nice to my lemon tree and scatter lots of chicken poo under the tree and water it well, the lemon tree produces lots of flowers, and a few months later, lots of fruit. So far it's all going according to plan. 

Even though evergreen Sydney springs aren't quite as spectacular as they are in colder climates, they're still a delightful time to be a gardener. As well as the flowers I have posted here, yellow clivias and vivid orange scadoxus aren't far off blooming, and the native orchid flower buds are all jostling for a good spot ... but I'll call a temporary halt at this stage. Lots to look forward to!