Thursday, June 26, 2008

Vegie patch

A few photos from around the vegie patch

Chinese cabbage, turnips and shallots growing rapidly in autumn. Coriander in the pot in the foreground; fast-growing mustard spinach bottom right.

Baby beetroot seedlings (right) and carrots (left).
The baby beetroot leaves look nice in salads.

Quite a few vegies produce nice flowers, such as these broad bean flowers.

My first go at growing brussels sprouts has gone well. Every seed sown sprouted, and I'll have to thin out seedlings soon, to make space for the adult plants.

Here's a charming photo taken by my wife, of Mr and Mrs Orchard Butterfly making babies. Here, they're in our potted curry leaf tree. As an experiment I planted some of the berries from the tree in a pot. Every one of them sprouted, so it's likely that a curry leaf tree could be an environmental weed. But the orchard butterflies don't care about that!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Succulent city

Just re-organised my succulents again, and this is them, pictured here. Repotted lots of them, cut down on the number of pots and improved soil drainage for all the pots.
I grow the succulents in pots as the soil is a bit heavy for them here. Last year I did a little experiment and created a low, raised metal mesh 'bed' that was just 100mm off the ground, and sat lots of pots on that mesh. Every succulent sitting on that mesh took off like crazy, including a couple of my 'stugglers' that up till that point had never really grown all that brilliantly. So, last weekend I created an even bigger metal mesh bed and every pot is now well off the ground, with perfect drainage.
Hopefully, that will do the trick. My current mesh beds are made up from offcuts of timber and cheap wire mesh. Probably life expectancy for the timber on the ground is a couple of years at best, if I never touch it. Maybe by then I'll have saved up for a metal fabricator to weld up something suitable, for a permanent solution, or I might bite the bullet and create a special raised garden bed for them, but I have to confess that I prefer the higgledy-piggledy look of the jumble of pots!

Why all the succulents? Well, apart from being interesting, drought-hardy, unusual and colourful, they travel really well. Every time we go on holidays somewhere in Australia, the easiest plants to bring home are succulents. And the easiest cuttings to swap with friends are succulents. And the easiest cuttings to propagate are succulents. So, once you start with them, by a matter of degrees, even if you never intended to have a succulent collection, you'll probably end up with lots of them. That's partly the reason for the pots: you collect them in ones and twos, and so you add a pot to a little gap here, another pot on the pavers there...

Succulent growing tips: apart from providing good drainage and using a specialist succulent potting mix (or a home-made mix based on coarse sand), succulents just need sunshine. They actually colour up and look much better in really cold climates, but they do fine here in Sydney. I do use a specialised low-nitrogen succulent fertiliser, but only during the growing season, and only in very light doses. If you fail to water them at all, and the weather is really dry for a long, the soil can become water-repellent, so it's a good idea to add a wetting agent to the soil (or the watering can) to help the water absorb into the potting mix (or soil). Even though these plants are drought-hardy, they do grow better with an occasional good drink.

What's in the pic? The usual suspects: echeverias, aeoniums, graptopetalums, sedums, agaves, senecios, cotyledons, crassulas, euphorbias, graptoverias, kalanchoes, stapelias plus, of course, some weirdos whose names I don't know. We just liked the look of them at some far-off nursery, then brought them home. That's how it is with succulents.

Accidental side passage success

One of the harder places to find a plant for is the side passageway between a house and a fence. By pure luck, about two years ago, I came across an ideal choice for my temperate climate zone: the angel wing begonia, also called a cane begonia.
It has always been grown in a pot, but for the first few years I had it in too much sun, without realising it. The plant didn't grow or flower a lot, but it never looked particularly sick, either. It was just hanging in there.
I was on the point of getting rid of it, when, purely to make room for a potted frangipani that needed lots of sunshine, I moved the begonia out of the sun and down to the side passage along my eastern boundary.
It immediately thrived there, growing and flowering profusely over the next couple of months. It flowers mostly in spring and summer, but it usually has one or two blooms even in winter.
It was growing so well that I decided to re-pot it last spring, to keep it going happily. I accidentally broke off a few canes (they are a bit brittle to handle repotting) in the process. Instead of tossing away the broken canes, I just stuck them into a spare pot, put them beside the parent plant in the same side passage, and they took no time at all to sprout new leaves. This second begonia is now well over 50cm tall after just nine months' growth.
I mostly feed the plants with a slow-release fertiliser, which seem to be ideally suited to potted plants' need of a steady trickle of nutrients. They get regular water, but never seem to wilt if they're neglected for a few days. They're just tough plants.


Now it's midwinter here in Sydney, and a fair bit has changed. It never gets very wintry here. The maximum today should be around 18-20°C, overnight minimum around 9-10°C, so there's plenty of warmth for growing things.

Pictured here, the old black recycling bin which contained the kang kong is now a green bin, it's on the left, and it has new plantings of eschallot bulbs. One bulb sprouted almost immediately after planting in May, but all the rest have dawdled almost to the point that I thought they weren't going to ever appear. But just a day or two ago, in late June, little green shoots appeared here and there, and so they're underway.

Front left is a sea of Iceland poppy plants almost ready to bloom. Right now, a single yellow poppy flower has appeared, but I'm hoping for a completely different scene in a week or two from now. When they're up an in full bloom, I have a few notes to add about growing poppies. This whole patch cost me just $5 to grow.

Next to the poppies, near the path, garlic bulbs have sprouted nicely, and next to them some lettuce and curly parsley are nearing the end of their careers.

All the 'winter' crops of Chinese cabbage, baby beetroot, mustard spinach, turnips and spinach have been harvested and enjoyed already. Everything grew like crazy in our warm autumn this year. That bed, in the centre left, is currently prepared and waiting for seed potatoes, which came in by mail-order last week, to sprout shoots prior to planting.

On the rear left, the snow peas on the bamboo trellis are still bearing sporadic crops, which we harvest by the handful. The broad beans have grown and flowered well, but so far no pods have formed. Elsewhere, newly planted carrots, parsnips, broccoli (on the left) and Brussels sprouts (rear right) are all doing really well, although midwinter is the least sunny time of year for my generally quite sunny backyard, and I expect that now the winter solstice has passed, the rate of growth will increase with the improving hours of sunshine.

And so that's a four-post introductory summary of where this garden is at right now. From now on I think I'll be posting about individual plants and other smaller-scale topics, as they come to light.


So, here's a photo of the backyard taken around April 2008, on a warm and sunny autumn day. There's plenty of food plants growing, plus succulents galore, hedges, flowers and other things, but it's constantly changing.
Front right is an old black recycling bin planted out with water spinach (kang kong). It's no longer there, as it was a summer crop grown from seed I came across in an Asian supermarket. Behind the kang kong there's mint in pots, a parsley patch, sage bush and rosemary on the far right, plus, just barely visible on the right, a potted curry tree (Murraya koenigii), whose leaves are used to flavour curries.
To the front of the rosemary, near the path, is an ever-growing succulent collection in pots. Beyond the succulents is an oregano patch, a thyme patch, and beyond that a zucchini patch. A new Eureka lemon tree, planted last spring, is rapidly make progress in the far right background.
On the left side of the photo, in the foreground is Gardenia radicans; beyond that a parsley and lettuce patch, with calendulas to one side. Very far left is an espaliered Tahitian lime, with a potted cumquat in front (and a pot of basil nearby, next to the Agave attenuata). The bare plots of earth are the winter vegie patches, which contain seedlings of womboks (Chinese cabbage), snow peas, broad beans. Unsprouted rows of seed sown include mustard spinach, English spinach, turnips, green onions and baby beetroot. The snow peas and broad beans will climb up the bamboo trellis.
Behind the bamboo trellis is a lime-leafed pelargonium, a 'Bengal Tiger' canna lily, cardamom, ginger and, at the very back, a Murraya paniculata hedge (which hides the compost bins, etc).
In the very back left corner is an olive tree, a companion to the olive tree just out of the photo in the right front. Just barely visible in the left front is a new Grevillea 'Peaches and Cream' that was showing signs of an iron deficiency at the time of the photo (it's recovered nicely since then). And at the back right corner is a red-flowering Grevillea 'Superb', which is a never-ending source of nectar for local native honeyeater birds. It's in flower virtually all-year-round, and when the Peaches and Cream recovers its health, it should perform the same bird-feeding duty for many months, too.
Much has changed since this photo was taken, so I guess another midwinter photo is in order, just to ring the constant changes here.

Why 'Amateur'?

How amateurish! A dodgy Photoshop joining of two pix of my garden as it was around Christmas 2007. But here it is, all 9m x 7.5m of it.

So, first things first. Why 'garden amateur'? The garden bit is obvious, and the amateur tag is how I like to see myself. The word 'amateur' has come to be seen as the opposite of 'professional' by many people. To them, amateur somehow implies something a bit sub-standard these days. But as far as I'm concerned, I think amateur status in many things is way overdue for rehabilitation. Amateur is OK!

As a proud amateur, I prefer to see an amateur as someone who does something for the love of it, out of sheer enthusiasm, and from that seed an amateur shapes and grows a garden with real soul and personality. By contrast, a professional does things for money, and I do find far too many professionally designed gardens, when you're actually standing in them, to be soulless little spots lacking in personality, even if the design looks nice in the magazine photos. 

I do work in the gardening industry, but not as a gardener, a horticulturist or any sort of gardening expert. I'm a full-time sub-editor and occasionally a writer on topics where it's judged I probably won't cause too much havoc. Though I am a media professional, I'm very much the amateur in the garden. 

I only started gardening in my backyard after working on a couple of gardening publications for a few years. All the articles about gardening finally got me interested in doing a bit of it myself. I started off about 17 years ago as a complete novice and, as songwriter Paul Kelly sings it so well, "I've done all the dumb things"! Compared with the experts who write the articles that I sub-edit, I still feel like the bumbling (yet happy) amateur.

So, I do garden for the love of it, but my amateur tag runs a tiny bit deeper than that. I also love the old notion of the 19th-century amateur scientist. These folk were keen observers of the natural world, made their own semi-scientific attempts at research, and occasionally discovered something remarkable. They did it for love, for knowledge and perhaps with the dream of making a famous discovery, but largely they did it out of sheer enthusiasm without any thought of reward. So, very much in their spirit, I'm an amateur garden scientist, too. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

First post

Introductions are in order.

I live in the inner-west of Sydney, Australia, and gardening is the reason I'm starting this blog. I find it hard to keep track of everything I do here, and have proved to be a very poor hand-written diarist, so I thought I'd give an online diary a whirl and see what happens.

I guess over time I can spill some beans, when appropriate, about the rest of my days, but I'll stick to gardening for starters.