Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Cooking bibles & coriander

It was only recently, on June 29 in fact, that I was writing something about growing coriander. At the time I was berating myself for not having much faith in my ability to save coriander seeds and then raise new plants from them. Well, as it turns out, I was happily wrong once again, and all the coriander plants are doing well. 

Too well in fact. So now I have a bit too much coriander. Here's the pix to show my very minor predicament.

The larger pot of shop-bought coriander seedlings has been harvested a few times, and with follow-up liquid feeds, plentiful water and a very sunny Sydney winter, it has grown even more lushly. I don't really need much more ... but ... 

... the pots of baby seeds are rapidly turning into two more gluts of leafy coriander. It's not really a problem, but with too much coriander there is but one course of action ... turn to my beloved cooking Bible for a favourite recipe to use up large amounts of coriander in one delicious hit.

Here's my Asian cooking Bible. It's "The Complete Asian Cookbook" by Charmaine Solomon. Mine is an early paperback edition from 1978 (the original came out in 1976). Battered looking, but still in use all the time.

A HUGE thrill for me was back in 1996, when I was deputy editor of House & Garden magazine, and I went out to Charmaine Solomon's Sydney house to do a cooking and gardening story. Of course as a fan-boy I took my copy of her book with me, and she signed it for me. Wow, this kitcheny, gardeny boy was star-struck. 

Then Charmaine had some fun flicking through the book to see which recipes I had used the most. There are lots of turmeric-stained pages, but she found this one, all splattered with spice dust, with two of my favourite chicken dishes. Tandoori chicken (the dish I cooked for Pam on our first date back in early 1989 when she came around to my place for dinner) and Chicken and Yoghurt curry, easily my favourite mild chicken curry.

And so, to use up some of my excess quantity of fresh coriander leaves, Charmaine's books offers countless different delicious ways to do it — including that chicken and yoghurt curry, which uses up 1/2 cup fresh coriander leaves — but I have chosen instead her fresh coriander chutney (from spice-spattered page 88), a simple, dollop-on condiment that goes beautifully with so many dishes from the sub-continent. 

Fresh coriander chutney (Dhania Chatni)

1 cup firmly packed coriander leaves
6 spring onions (scallions or green onions) cut into smaller pieces
2 fresh green chillies
1 clove garlic
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon garam masala
1/3 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons water

Make this in an electric blender. Put everything in a blender (you can cut down the chilli heat either by removing the seeds or limiting it to just one chilli). Blend it all to a smooth, green paste. Once made, put into a small bowl, cover and chill in the fridge until needed.

PS: you can make a “fresh mint chutney” by substituting mint for the coriander, or you could even use 50:50 coriander and mint for another variation.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Position, position, position

If there's one thing I have learned in a few decades of gardening, it's this: put a plant in a spot that it prefers and half your worries are over. 

Now, some plants are so versatile and tough that they make a mockery of this rule and proceed to grow beautifully in a dozen different spots.

But there are many other plants for which the real estate agents' mantra of "position, position, position" remains the golden rule to gardening happiness, and pictured below is one such happy camper: Pieris japonica.

Our Pieris started flowering last week and is still building to its late winter crescendo, but already it is showing off sprays of its delightfully dainty bell-shaped blooms. It looks like this will be its best year, but that isn't saying much, because the plant is about four years old and this is the first time it has appeared to be truly happy.

In the three previous years, I had the pot in other spots in the garden, and none of them truly suited the Pieris. This year's spot is now its official happy home, and here it will remain for as long as it lives. 

Here is the pot in its current, preferred spot. In the first year I had it in too much shade, and it produced very few flowers. In the second year I let it get scorched by the sun, parts of the plant actually died and it looked awful after I pruned off the dead bits. In the third year it went back to shade but didn't get quite enough morning sun, and didn't put on much of a show, but it did seem happier. This fourth spot, however, seems to have everything it needs. 

First of all, there's lots of gentle morning sunshine. Second, it gets midday filtered light (from the canopy of the lime tree overhead) and third, there's no afternoon sun at all (blocked by the western fence, and the big bird's nest ferns nearby).

The rest is up to me, and it isn't much work. Watering is the main job, but adding some slow-release fertiliser is essential, but I also find that if I am watering nearby vegies and I have some leftover liquid food in the bottom of the watering can, the Pieris gets a little extra feed occasionally.

Is that all? No, actually. The other special trick is that I bought a huge amount of 50% strength shade cloth, and during summer, when a nasty Sydney scorcher is forecast, I cover the whole pot with shade cloth until the hot, dry weather ends. 

In previous years I didn't use the shade cloth and the plant suffered on hot days. As mentioned earlier, whole branches have carked it in summer, so the poor plant has had a bumpy ride!

It has been worth it, not just because these flowers are such lovely little baubles, but also because this is one of "Pammy's plants". She bought it as a baby at a local florist's shop and brought it home, handed it over to me, fixed me with an "it's your responsibility" gaze, and ever since then I have been trying my best to look after her beautiful little Pieris japonica.

This has mostly been a story about finding the best position for a tender, slightly fussy plant by trial and error. But you can't blame the poor Pieris for that. It's not an Australian native, and Sydney isn't really its ideal climate, either. 

It's native to eastern China, Taiwan and Japan, and is found there in cool climate forests, where it gets the filtered light and moisture that it loves. My north-east facing Sydney garden is too hot and open for it, but we've found a way to keep it alive and a spot that it seems to like.

If you have a more shaded garden, and especially if you are also in a cooler climate zone, this is a lovely plant to grow. There are lots of named cultivars with flowers in other colours, too. And out of a pot and planted in the ground, it can grow 1-2 metres. I prefer to keep it in a pot, simply because a pot allows me to move the plant around the garden until I find a spot it likes.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Good mornings

All the gardening gurus in the Southern Hemisphere will tell you what a lovely thing it is to have a "north-facing" garden. And they're right. Yes, you get more sunshine if your garden faces the sun, and for lots of plants, especially flowering plants and quick-growing vegies, a sunny garden is a little patch of heaven.

Our garden doesn't quite manage heavenly, pure-north-facing perfection, but it does face north-east. It leans towards the morning sun and tends to shy away from the afternoon sun. I'm just the same, myself. Love the mornings, hate the afternoon heat, too. It's nice to be simpatico with your own patch of ground ...

And so as I looked out the back door this morning, the first thing to catch my eye was the way the morning sun was lighting up the first of this year's Iceland poppies.

It really is the prettiest time of day to be here, and as the early mornings are almost always a time when it's just Pammy and me here in our garden, we are constantly delighted and dazzled by sparkly little details backlit by morning sun.

Everything here looks good in the morning sun. Even the washing drying on the clothesline – well, if it's a few tea towels and some of Pammy's colourful cotton blouses – looks like a painting.

Every year I plant poppies for Pammy, and when there are several up in bloom all at the same time, she brings them inside and pops them in a vase. Nice tradition, bringing the morning sunshine inside ...

Friday, July 27, 2018

Looking for something to read?

I know that some people like their blog-reading world organised into tidy categories, and so when you visit this blog you get lots of gardening content (although I do often veer off course and end up in the kitchen, cooking, or other times travelling with Pammy). Well, for this posting I really want to get away from my mainstream interests and tell you about a little thread of reading that all came about as a spin-off from another of my part-time hobbies, doing family history research.

My interest in my relatives and descendants started off as a common garden variety interest of collecting names, dates, long lost uncles and aunties, discovering where my grandparents and great grandparents came from. It has all been wonderful fun, and what has really kept my interest in the topic bubbling along have been the stories, the social history, the completely different times in which all my forebears lived.

In my case that interest in people's stories took me deep into colonial Australia. I've spent countless hours at a wonderful website called Trove, which is part of the National Library of Australia. At Trove, you can read every page of what seems like every newspaper ever published in Australia, since European settlement began. I don't think that's strictly true, as they are constantly adding new newspapers, magazines and other source materials, but it's already breathtakingly comprehensive in its range.

And so I've been reading newspapers from the 1820s, the 1850s, the 1920s etc and finding stories aplenty about my relatives and forebears. 

And so as a spin-off I have been recently reading stories of 19th-century Australia, and I thought I'd mention a few books that I've really enjoyed, just in case you're looking for something to read, or perhaps spot the cover in a secondhand bookshop somewhere and decide to give it a go. And at the end of this posting is a brand new book, published just yesterday, that I want to read next.

First up, 'The Convict's Daughter", by historian Kiera Lindsey. It's a true story, and I must admit that many of my favourite historians are women (my all-time favourite is Barbara Tuchman). I think it's their eye for the telling human detail that makes them a cut above a lot of men writing history. Set in the 1840s, this is a mildly "racy" story involving elopements, an angry dad with a gun, a wayward son with a powerful family, a court case that was THE court case of its day: an abduction trial, as the eloping girl, madly-in-love Mary Ann Gill, was just 15 years old. It was published by Allen & Unwin in 2016, so I'd look for it in a secondhand store or online.

Starting to see a pattern here? Female historian again, this time Carol Baxter. True story of the biggest bank heist of its time (1828). Fourteen Thousand Pounds, which you can imagine was a squillion back then. And it was stolen by ex-convicts from the bank of the well-heeled toffs, the Bank of Australia, not the people's bank (the Bank of NSW). So everyone who wasn't a toff was delighted by the news and the police had a hard time finding out who did it, or what happened to the money. That's the cover blurb version of what's good about this book, but it's the way Carol Baxter paints a portrait of several of these deeply incorrigibly dishonest convicts that stays with you. This one is an older book which I found in a secondhand bookstore, published in 2008, and that's where you might find it too.

Just to balance out my sexist bias a bit, two more books from the era, both by men. On the left, from 2007, Love and the Platypus, a novel about a naturalist in the Australian bush in the 1880s, trying to find out how platypus reproduce, and in the process discovering a lot about the local Aboriginal people, and meeting a young blind woman with some secrets of her own.

Mr Darwin's Shooter is a novel based on the real life of Charles Darwin's assistant/manservant, Syms Covington, who ended up in Australia as the postmaster in Pambula, on the NSW South Coast. This is a different view of both Darwin, how Darwin worked, and what the times were like.
Both books aren't recent publications, so secondhand stores and online shops are your only options.

Finally, and what has partly prompted this diversion away from broccoli, frangipanis and all things gardening, is a book I haven't had the chance to read yet, but which I plan to order, as it was only published yesterday. Another female Australian historian, this time Sarah Luke (a relative of mine, not sure how you describe a cousin's daughter? is that a second or third cousin?).

Here in Sydney the battle to save Callan Park, an extensive hospital facility on the shores of an arm of Sydney Harbour, has been a heritage campaign that has been waged for many years. The grounds are extensive, beautiful and the buildings historic. And for real estate developers who don't care a fig about such things, the whole complex at Callan Park is a goldmine that will finance their tacky yachts and mansions. 

Setting that important heritage issue aside for a moment, Sarah Luke's book, whose full title is "Callan Park, Hospital for the Insane" goes back to the original files to explore the extraordinary lives of not only the troubled patients, but also the staff whose job it was to help them. The original facility built in the late 19th century was a remarkably progressive place, too, as it included cricket pitches, a farm, an orchard and even a zoo. I want to find out more about it, now I know there is a well-researched new book on the topic.

This is a brand new book, released this week, so visit the website to find out more about it and, if you like, place an order. Go to

Monday, July 23, 2018

While I was harvesting the broccoli

Broccoli is one of those vegetables that I have to admit I cannot ever get all that excited about. I don't mind eating it; in fact we eat broccoli at least once every week, it's a routine part of our diet. As for growing it, it's similarly honest and reliable, not hard to grow, but while I was harvesting another head to take back to the kitchen, I finally found something to admire about broccoli: it's good value for money.

Now, this time I am only growing my own broccoli because I had bought a punnet of six seedlings for my mother-in-law Val's garden, but she had room only for three ... and so I had three left over. So "waste-not, want-not" came into operation and I planted the three remaining seedlings here in our garden a few months ago, and over the last week or two have begun harvesting some.

Exhibit A: a completely ordinary head of broccoli, not quite at full harvestable size, but no doubt ready to go by the next weekend.

Exhibit B: sprouting from the lower levels of an already-harvested broccoli plant, side shoots forming smaller broccoli heads. That's my excitement, folks. It ain't all over when you cut off the mega-head of broccoli at the top of the plant. Give your broccoli a week or two more, another liquid feed, and production resumes, albeit on a smaller scale. Still delicious.

The one thing about this variety of broccoli that I planted is that it was labelled "mini broccoli". Now that it's producing heads it looks like a completely normal broccoli plant to me, there's nothing mini about it. 

But that happened a few years ago when I planted supposed "mini" cauliflower, and it produced completely normal cauliflowers for me on gorgeous but large plants. So, provided you're not fooled by the misleading plant label, these minis are still a very good backyard vegie to grow, but they do need a fair bit of space. 

Broccoli loves sunshine, the cooler months, liquid feeds, and a soil rich in compost and organic manure. Just remember to leave the plants alone after the initial harvest, and it will give you more in due course.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

If raindrops were diamonds ...

If raindrops were diamonds ... I'd be a millionaire. Well, until the sun gets higher in the sky, that is, and then my diamonds would disappear.

One of the most wonderful of gardening's simple pleasures is enjoying the sight of raindrops adding their rounded, watery bling to everything on a damp morning. And the foliage of broccoli and its brassica cousins brussels sprouts and cauliflowers is especially good at holding raindrops in suspended animation. Just sitting there like jewels.

I am sure our own homegrown broccoli is going to taste superb when we enjoy it later this week. It'll almost feel like a shame to cut it down in its prime, but it's not good for your wellbeing to get sentimental about vegetables. Just harvest, cook, eat and enjoy. Keep it simple.

And speaking of simple things, I just have to make one last visit to the jewellery store to admire the shiny object before it's gone.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Oh Me of little faith

After all these years pottering around our garden, you'd think I could trust myself to grow some coriander without it turning into a drawn-out saga. But the magic ingredient in this story is faith, or a complete lack of faith in myself, I'm sad to admit.

It all began with my being late to get any coriander going at all this year. In April or May, I usually sow some of the seeds I've saved from the previous year's crop, and pictured above, here's a nice close-up of them. The problem was that April and May in Sydney were unseasonably hot, and heat is not a good thing to have too much of when growing coriander in Sydney. It's a much better autumn/winter/spring crop. And so it wasn't until mid-June that I finally scolded myself with "Coriander, Jamie, what are you doing with coriander this year?".

This is where my complete lack of faith in myself kicked into overdrive. Sure, I sowed some seeds, in fact lots of seeds, but I knew that a very chilly June isn't anything like the right time to sow seeds. They should have come up in 10 to 12 days, but it was only after 18 days, this morning, that I spotted the first little coriander sprout rising up to greet the day (pictured above). Better late than never ...

However, by last week I had convinced myself that my saved seed was perhaps never going to come up. It was not so much panic as anxiety spiced with urgency that made me do it, so I went to the garden centre and bought a packet of Yates coriander seed and sowed them, too. They're in the pot in the foreground, and so far nothing has happened, but it's a bit early for them to show. 

I'm trying to mollycoddle them as much as possible, sitting them up in a sheltered spot under our covered pergola, on our outdoor table, in their own mini greenhouse. Nasty cold winter winds aren't going to hurt my babies.

The back of the Yates seed packet says the ideal time to sow coriander in Sydney is definitely not now. Spring (September) through to autumn (May) is recommended. But since when have I allowed a mere seed packet to run my life? I'm in charge here!

My coriander seed-saving and sowing routine has been humming along nicely for several years, and it's only because they were slow to come up in the colder weather that I foolishly didn't trust my own saved seeds this time round. When you consider how much coriander seed in a packet costs (you get hardly any seeds) this brown paper bag full of my saved seeds is probably a hundred bucks' worth. Untold riches ...

Worst of all, and I am saving the worst till last, I spotted a punnet of coriander in the garden centre where I bought the seeds, and though as a general rule transplanted seedlings of coriander don't last as long as plants left undisturbed in the pot where they first sprouted, I decided to get these as well. If you're a generous soul you might consider this to be sensible insurance, but I'm not feeling generous today I know it is pure faithlessness and nothing else.

The main reason I grow coriander is to have little handfuls of it on hand when cooking. When I am cooking a curry that requires a cup or two of chopped coriander leaves to go into the blender with all the onion, garlic and chillies etc, then I can buy a bunch of coriander from one of our many local Asian shops.

But when I don't really need a whole big bunch of coriander, and all I need is to snip off a handful to toss into a stir-fry or to use as a garnish, it's nice to be able to wander out into the garden to get some, rather than trudge up to the shops once more.

Should my lack of faith in myself prove to be a shameful episode, and all my sown seeds sprout and I have coriander pots galore  (well, three of them to be precise) then it all should last through winter and spring. Then, in the early summer when the weather warms up, they will all turn into spindly-leaved flowery plants that eventually produce masses of seeds that I harvest and dry.  

And so the cycle of the seasons and life goes on, but next year I plan to trust myself a little more ...

Monday, June 25, 2018

Back to normal (whatever that is)

If you've been afraid to open your web browser or email for fear that there would be another of my "Rewind" pieces sitting there like an overly persistent pet wanting a pat, rest easy folks, the "Rewind" is over. 

And thanks to the kind people who have contacted me by email to say nice things about the Rewind in general. It has been fun doing it over these last few weeks.

From now on, this little Garden Amateur blog will return to "normal" (whatever that is), which I suspect will be just a few postings every month, whenever something crops up that I think is worth blogging about.

But before I leave you in peace, I just wanted to round off the whole Rewind season by telling you how the blog itself got started ...

It all started back in 2008 because a pair of good friends, Michelle and Evan, were leaving Sydney to live in the centre of Australia, in Birdsville, a tiny but legendary town in a very arid, hot spot in inland Queensland. Evan is a writer, and his mission was to live there for a year and write a book about Birdsville, which he did (and did very well). Many of the tourists passing through Birdsville — and there are lots of them — buy a copy of Evan's book, and it's a wonderful read. Here's the cover.

Michelle told me she planned to start up a blog on life in Birdsville, and that it was going to include their attempts at gardening there, as they are both good gardeners. So, I decided to start up a Sydney gardening blog, partly to amuse Michelle and Evan while they coped with searing heat and the odd dust storm, and also to bring some cool greenery into their sandy-coloured lives.

And so that's how the whole thing started. A bit over 700 postings later, it's still going, if at a much reduced pace compared to the Golden Years from 2008-2011, when I was blogging like a man possessed. 

As the Rewind attempted to show, this blog is mostly about gardening, sometimes in a practical way, but more often in a tone of amused fascination with nature and life itself. Here and there I like to toss in some travel, cookery, Pammy's artworks, a few book reviews and whatever else takes my fancy. And that's what it is going to keep on doing.

Finally, a very big THANK YOU to everyone who bothers to read my ramblings, and an even bigger thank you to all you wonderful commenters as well. Every word you write is encouragement, even if you are merely pointing out another of my lapses into folly.


Sunday, June 24, 2018

The 10-Year Rewind – Part 23 – What to do in a Blackout

Every day this month I am looking back on the 10 years since I started this blog in June, 2008. Part 23 is this one — What to do in a Blackout — from October 2012, and it's the last in this 10-Year Rewind series, as today, June 24, is the 10th anniversary of our gardening blog. Oddly enough, June 24 is also our wedding anniversary (we're up to #29, next year is going to be #30 and a big one for sure).

So it's only appropriate that I finish up with something about Pammy and me. It includes a recipe at the end for one of our favourite meals, Teriyaki Salmon, but before then it tells the story of two little lovebirds caught in an electricity blackout around dinner time ...

Talk about good timing. The teriyaki salmon was ready to serve, the baked small potatoes were crisp in the oven, the steamed buck choy had wilted nicely. And then the power went out. Not just in our house, but in 25,000 houses in inner-western Sydney. And the house was pitch black. For the next few hours.

The good thing about living in the same house for 21 years is that you know your way around in the dark. I just went to the cupboard where we keep one of our torches, turned it on, went to the cupboard where the candles and the matches have lain undisturbed for years, and two minutes later we were back in business, glowing dimly but happily enough. Dinner served. Yum. Then what to do?

Scrabble by candlelight, of course! Pam and I love our
new swivelling Scrabble board. We saw one in a movie
a few years ago, and then at the end of that year, Santa
(and Pam) gave me one. The board sits on a little
swivelly plinthy thingy, so you can spin it around so 
each  player sees all the letters right-way-up when it's
their turn to get a triple word score with a 'Q' and a 'Z'.
As we were so blessed with good timing for the blackout, the least I can do for the unfortunates who were halfway through cooking dinner is share the teriyaki recipe that never fails, because it's quick! Works brilliantly with Atlantic salmon.

100ml soy sauce
30ml mirin (or sake)
1 teaspoon finely minced garlic
1 teaspoon finely minced ginger
1 dessertspoon sugar

Combine ingredients to make a marinade, then marinate the salmon (1 piece/cutlet/steak per person) in this for 1-2 hours. When the time comes to cook the salmon, cook it how you like it. I cook mine on a griddle plate, about 3 minutes either side, so it's still rather pink and underdone in the middle. Others prefer it more well done.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

The 10-Year Rewind – Part 22 – I See Small People

Every day this month I am looking back on the 10 years since I started this blog in June, 2008. Part 22 is this one — I See Small People — from August 2008, in which I reveal our little gnome collection. Oh, OK then, our big gnome collection ...

As well as collecting eminently transportable, and collectable, succulents while out on the road on holidays, my wife, Pam, and I have acquired another garden collection that's altogether more disreputable. Gnomes. Little people.

We're music lovers, so originally our idea was to put together a band: guitar, bass, drums, fiddle, accordion and maybe flute, sax or whatever else musical and gnomey that came our way. Well, those parameters merely provided a basis to start shopping, and we soon got off the rails on the very first trip. The guiding factors for us were "no boring gnomes" and, with only a few exceptions, "only solid concrete gnomes, please". This is not all of them by any means, but for starters, here's a selection of the little people in our backyard.

If the rules say "only solid concrete gnomes" then it's only right to start off with a plastic one. A plastic shampoo bottle, to be exact, with the shampers still intact. I saw him in a local discount store and all I could see was a great little gnome. He's aged well after six years outside (I keep him out of the sun, of course).

This is how most of the backyard gnomes are placed, hiding amongst greenery somewhere. This guy is the bass player in the band. When young kids come to visit the backyard we just tell them to go find the gnomes, and count them. They like the hidden ones, and of course they all want to take Bart Simpson home.

Hand-painting plain concrete gnomes is a pleasant rainy-day job if there's football on the radio. This guy, who is billed as an anti-terrorist commando gnome, handles security in the backyard. I think he was meant to be a postman gnome, with his cute little satchel, but with some army camouflage gear his postie's bag is now his demo charge unit. When painting them, I do the easy stuff like the clothes, but Pam does the faces.

Almost all the gnomes here are male, as they are in most gardens, but this is Ingrid, one of our more recent acquisitions, who we found, already beautifully painted, in the NSW Blue Mountains last summer. She likes to bake pies, apparently.

Not far from where Ingrid hangs out (under the mint pots), her boyfriend Mitchell, the local librarian, spends all his days reading gardening books in his little garden seat set amidst a field of native Australian violets. 

Unfortunately, even in the most peaceful gardens in the most beautiful cities in the sunniest Antipodean countries, crime continues to claim the innocent. I read once in the English 'Gardens Illustrated' magazine that these corpse gnomes are a specialty of the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, but I bought mine in Melbourne. The kids counting the gnomes usually reel in horror when they find this guy. "Hey mum, there's a dead one over here" or something like that usually announces their macabre little find. 

A very Australian tradition is the footy gnome. Up until recently we didn't have one, but then we came across an unpainted plain concrete fellow and so I gave him the colours of my local Rugby League team, the Balmain Tigers. Following the Tigers used to be a case of long suffering loyalty including back-to-back lost Grand Finals, but then the Tiges went out and surprised everyone by winning the 2005 Premiership, so that should do me for the remainder of my lifetime. I have the DVD.

Earlier on I think I mentioned something about painting gnomes, rainy days and footy. That is a bit of an exaggeration, to be truthful. Here's the gnome painting workshop. It's looked exactly like this for at least the last 12 months. I don't rush gnome painting. Do it in bursts. One day here, and then another day next year. There's hardly any more hiding spots out in the garden for them anyway. And when I finish the clothes, etc, Pam will move in to do the faces (and the rest of the flowers on wheelbarrow boy).

And so with this post completed, I feel like I know what it's like to have 'come out'! I collect gnomes, not a lot of them, but quite a few. Think what you will, I don't care.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The 10-Year Rewind – Part 21 – Tiny Tots

Every day this month I am looking back on the 10 years since I started this blog in June, 2008. Part 21 is this one — Tiny Tots — from October 2014, which features some gorgeous artwork by my talented partner in gardening and life, Pammy.

All sorts of spring flowers in our garden are coming out right on schedule, and the tiny ones Pammy and I have been looking closely to spot have finally made their appearance. They're so small that if you stand back a few feet you can't see them. You have to get up close … very close.

Spanish moss, or Tillandsia usneoides.

This enormous log photobombing my Spanish moss pic is
the tip of a toothpick. It illustrates nicely how small these
Spanish moss flowers are.
The flowers form at foliage junctions.

Though small, they're perfectly formed, complete with a
little yellow centre of pollen. Haven't exactly seen the
bees making a beeline for the Spanish Moss yet, though.
Just in case you're not familiar with Spanish
moss, it's that bromeliad which is also known
as old man's beard, for an obvious reason.
It's an 'air plant' that is not a parasite on its
host plant. Instead, it gets all its nutrients
from the air and rain. Here's it's thriving, hanging
off the branches of our Grevillea 'Peaches & Cream'.

Pammy loves this plant, and has done several paintings of both the plant and the flower. And so, to finish off our little celebration of this little cutie, here are two of Pammy's Spanish moss flower paintings, one a lovely little portrait of the flower itself, and the second (one of my favourites) an imagined microscope-eye's view of the foliage, where yet again Pam has created something which seems abstract at first glance yet is also realistic – it's one of the themes in her painting which I enjoy the most.

'The Reality', © Pamela Horsnell 2013

'Living and Breathing', © Pamela Horsnell 2013

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The 10-Year Rewind – Part 20 – The Evolution of a Garden 1991–2008

Every day this month I am looking back on the 10 years since I started this blog in June, 2008. Part 20 is this one — Evolution of a Garden 1991–2008 — from November 2008. It's a long posting, with lots of photos, about how our garden has changed and evolved over the years. I'm glad we have taken so many photos of our garden at various stages, and every now and then it's nice to look back on how much things have changed.

While looking for a photo of something else, I came across an old photo of how our garden looked a long time ago, and that set me off on a pleasant little search through drawers and boxes of photos to chart how our garden has changed down through the years. And as I did so I kept on humming that lyric from the Paul Kelly song "I've Done all the Dumb Things".

Let's start with the present, a photo of the garden taken a week or two ago, in November 2008.

And here it was in "the beginning" in the middle of 1991, when we had just bought the house from a lovely Greek couple, Jim and Angela. The white-painted olive and citrus trees are a very Greek thing. Some say the white paint keeps the trunks cool during hot, dry summers (but Sydney has hot, fairly wet summers). Others say the white limewash repels ants (but Jim had used white acrylic paint). Oh well, I'm sure the look reminded him of home, and that's a good reason to do it, anyway. The compost bin was my first purchase. I still have it as a back-up bin, but it soon proved to be a poor performer. The shed, painted olive-green, housed a motorbike back then. Now it's part of Pam's art studio. No greater love hath a man for a woman than to give her his shed! And note where the shed door used to be, and is now. Makes quite a change to the look for such a little change.

By 1992-3 I had begun a steady encroachment into the lawn, hacking away grass and replacing it with all sorts of successes and failures as I learned a bit about gardening along the way. Look closely and on the left side you can see a set of screwdrivers poked into the lawn, marking out the next encroachment.

1993 and the land grab gains pace, steppers are laid straight onto the soil to provide wobbly access to the experimental range of herbs, flowers and salad greens I was learning to grow. A truly crummy little fence of logettes utterly fails to keep the rampant lawn away from the garden beds.

A few weeks later and the plantings get going. Tomato stakes mark my first moderately disastrous attempt at tomato growing. I learnt through that experience that Sydney summers are full of a whole ecosystem of plant and fruit munching insect pests which love tomatoes more than any other plant.

Not sure of the exact vintage of this shot, but let's say it's 1994-5. I've begun to whittle back the lawn from both sides. It's not a great look, but I just wanted more space to grow things, and chipping away at the lawn had an historical inevitability about it! The next few years settled down into a steady state, with plantings changing constantly as I had a go at growing this, tried growing that, and generally got a feel for how to grow things and keep them happy. The problem was, everything grew too well, and we ended up with a bit of a jungle.

These photos are dated January 1999, and by then I was in trouble. We'd trained a passionfruit vine over the pergola attached to the house, and it was dense and productive, but it was a light-blocker and made the back of the house very dark.

While I've tried to keep all the blog photos taken from the same viewpoint, I thought I'd switch the view for a moment to show the passionfruit bossing us around. The paving here is, like the white-painted tree trunks, a very Greek thing that you find in countless backyards in my district.

By 2000, shrubs such as the Grevillea on the far right had made a mockery of the plant labels which said they'd reach 1.5-2m, and had reached 3m all round. We'd got to the point where we wanted to start all over again...

And then Pam came in with this photo (above) in her hand and said "I want this. Paving up the centre leading to the shed, little side paths off that to improve access." And so that's what we did. (The photo is from an article in the 'Good Weekend' magazine, the Saturday colour mag of the Sydney Morning Herald, written by gardening writer Cheryl Maddocks. I'm not sure who took the photo, but as Cheryl is also a very good photographer, I presume it's hers.)

Please forgive yet another dodgy Photoshop cut-and-splice job on two photos, to create the panorama above, but here's the garden soon after Pam's inspired suggestion, after we got the paving boys in to change everything for the better. A lot of plants went out into the mini skip along with the turf, as we decided to just keep the trees and a few favourite plants, and start again from scratch. All I can say is this: if your garden feels like a sea of troubles and you don't know where to start the process of 'reform', be ruthless and start from scratch. My overwhelming sense at this time was a mixture of excitement and relief. Best thing we've ever done out here.

This close-up shows the handy little footpaths that still make it easy to get to all sorts of crops and plantings. On the left, our beloved curry tree in its former pot, which it cracked a few years later as its roots flexed their muscles. (And looking at the shed, I've just realised that I've got the photos slightly out of order, if you check the previous shot. At around the same time we did the paving, we built the new Tardis shed for me, repainted both sheds, and moved the door on the original shed to its new position, lining up with the paving.)

Our taste for ruthlessness whetted, we then decided to get rid of a perfectly healthy cherry guava, the tree in the centre of this shot. It produced vast numbers of very sour, cherry-sized red fruits full of seeds that invaded every pot and plant near it. And it was on the eastern boundary and robbed the garden of a surprising amount of sunshine. Trees are a bit like the whales of gardens, and removing a tree feels like you've just fired off a harpoon at a beautiful, defenceless, gentle creature. But once the guilt passed, that part of our garden started to thrive again.

The removal of the cherry guava revealed one disaster over which we had little control. Our neighbour erected a large and ugly double garage, in the process demolishing a wobbly old timber fence whose time was up. The stark ugliness of the new metal fence and the awful brickwork posed quite a challenge, but we're working on it. The brick garage is almost covered now by a creeping fig (Ficus pumila) and the addition of a grevillea and a rosemary bush where the guava once stood has covered a fair bit of the fence. The other victim of the new garage was our old lemon tree, which was struggling along despite the rot in its trunk. Being robbed of so much morning sun seemed to be the last straw for it. However, a new lemon tree is rapidly rising in its place.

One aesthetic problem was that the compost bins etc at the back weren't a great look, so we planted a couple of murrayas to form a hedge-screen.

The murrayas grew quickly and continue to do their screening job well.

This is around 2005-6, and the garden has taken on the look which it retains today, give or take the endless changes in what we're growing here. In the left foreground is the rosemary bush, the most wonderfully fragrant rosemary plant I've ever met. Just brushing past it gently sent up the loveliest scent. The only problem was that Pam hated the way it blocked her view of the garden from her office window. So we moved the bush very slowly, taking several cuttings and planting them straight into their new spot. About a year later, when the cuttings had taken and were growing strongly, I reluctantly removed the original plant, and Pam got a better view.

Every now and then I like to completely clear a garden bed and start from scratch. After removing the rosemary bush in the bed in the left foreground, I also pulled out all the roses ('Just Joey' a gorgeously scented apricot-coloured rose that was also a display centre for every known rose pest and disease imaginable) and a row of lavender bushes. This bed would become the home to my winter poppy patch, and in summer a potager garden of flowers and salad greens.

A Santa gnome in the foreground says it must be Christmas 2007. His name is Ravi, named after a good friend of ours. Returning home from Ravi's birthday lunch, we spotted some gnomes in a garden centre in northern Sydney. We didn't have a Santa gnome, and naming him was easy that day. In the background, for the last few summers I've grown blue-flowered salvia, and it's the most wonderful plant. Very hardy, it starts flowering in early December and it's still in bloom in April. 

And so we return to the here and now in 2008, and think back 17 years to this beginning...

1991 and a big swathe of lawn. An inexperienced gardener just wanting so much to get started, without a clue in the world as to where to begin. It's still just as much fun, learning all the time, still making mistakes galore, still thinking about what I'm going to do next. Happily, joyfully, addicted to gardening.

If there are any lessons worth passing on from our 17 years here in amateur-land, they are quite simple. 

For one thing, being ruthless is a great way to stop your garden becoming a hospital ward for sick plants. Sometimes you need to clear the decks and start again. 

Secondly, sometimes a tree or large shrub which robs nearby plants of light, space and moisture has to go. This backyard was overplanted with trees when we bought the property in 1991, and cutting back the number of trees was very important to maintaining the garden's overall sunniness, health and vigour. In this small space, it originally had 2 olive trees, 1 orange, 1 mandarin, 1 lemon, 1 fig, 1 tamarillo, 1 bay tree, 1 strawberry guava and 1 ornamental cherry, all around the perimeter fences. If they had remained there would have been shade on all sides and just a puddle of sunshine in the middle. Only the two olive trees survive, and we do get our arborist to prune them for us to control their size. And we have replaced the old lemon tree with a new one, and replaced the orange tree with the espaliered lime tree. And of course we now have a handsome curry tree contained in a pot, plus the potted cumquats.

Finally, growing plants the organic way, feeding the soil by using manure and mulches, has huge benefits for soil quality in the long run. Each year the soil gets softer, richer, more full of worms and other goodies, as the gentle feeding, composting and mulching routine slowly takes effect. When we started, the soil was fairly heavy clay, and now it's a much more pliable loam in which most plants seem to be happy to grow. It takes time for the benefits of organic soil-feeding to be felt, but it probably has been the most important thing we've done here to create a healthy garden.